The sea didn’t smell like home.
It had all the qualities of the ocean: The water, the brine, the salt, the seaweed and decaying fish; it just didn’t have…
Some unnameable thing that Adelaide strongly suspected was life, which was the sort of thing Hella would heckle her about, seeing as Nacre was the city of Tristero and therefore home of the undying dead.
Also, the seagulls sounded wrong.
Adelaide sighed and leaned back against the rail of Hella’s boat. Clouds puffed gently overhead, little wisps curling off and dissipating into the sky. The boat had a name. Adelaide only used the name because Hella had named it in approximately five seconds after she had asked what the boat was called. Waverider was a childish name for a boat, but Hella flushed every time Adelaide used the name so she kept doing it, needling her—
There used to be a fitting word for what Hella was to her. Before, she had been her herald, Adelaide supposed. But in Aubade, that was both irrelevant in the sense she had meant it and untrue in the sense it was more typically meant; the former because Death was not her realm here, and the latter because Hella was impossibly argumentative and incredibly contrary in all things related to her.
Still, Hella let her come on her boat.
Adelaide snickered at the thought and tossed an apple in the air, thoughtlessly calibrating for the gentle rock of the sea and the knock of Waverider against the pier. Hella would be by soon. As much as she would complain and disagree on principle if Adelaide mentioned it, Hella operated on a schedule as regular as clockwork. Today was Tesday, when Hella remembered how uncomfortable she was around people and ran away to the peace of the waves. Not the only day or time she did it, but the most regular time, and thus the one Adelaide most often chose to be present for.
The exact timing of when she showed up was, of course, variable, but Adelaide had plenty of practice waiting by now. Sometimes, when she was Tristero, she had had nothing to do but wait. Here in Aubade, she was... it was complicated. The archives and libraries held a fascinating variety of information, but frustratingly little of what she wanted to know:
How to leave this island, and return to her realm.
Every journal and anecdote collected in the archives stated that one could sail away from the island and see nothing but the endless ocean. Someday, Adelaide was going to convince Hella to test that with her, because Hella had mentioned—a few months and a dozen boat trips ago—meeting someone called Red Jack who had come and gone from this world. Samothes, when pressed, had told her a little more about Red Jack, and absolutely nothing more about how he had either entered or exited Aubade itself.
A gentle sea breeze blew against Adelaide, fluttering her skirt and the wispy edges of her braids. Adelaide turned to look out at the sea and the storm that hid the horizon. Hella would show up when she did. It wasn’t worth watching for the one person on this cursed island who seemed to actually care about her. Even Lem, for whom she had once had such high hopes, and who she still saw in the archives fairly often, ignored her except to say things like, “Adelaide, did you know?” or “Adelaide, I just discovered the most amazing thing.” or “Adelaide, look! I’ve seen these, but I never knew what they did before!”
The other reason not to be too impatient was that Hella was incapable of moving quietly without an active and pressing threat requiring it. Adelaide continued looking at the waves as the distinctive heavy beat of Hella’s feet came closer, thumping against the wood. It wasn’t quite steady; there was a sway to it, a lilt of the sea even when she was on land, and a swing that felt like a reminder that she had carried a sword for most of her life, and only left it behind when it had broken to bring her here.
“Freeloading again?” Hella dropped the tie lines into the boat. “I should start charging you.”
“I bring you food.” Without turning, Adelaide tossed an apple towards the loud thud Hella had just made jumping on board.
Whatever sound there might have been when Hella caught it was covered by her snort. “I’m not that easily bought.”
Adelaide turned and let her dress pull tight across her curves, raising her eyebrows as she met Hella’s gaze. “Really?”
Hella’s eyes flickered down for a heartbeat and then snapped up to Adelaide’s face long enough for a scowl before she turned away to busy herself raising the mainsail. Adelaide smiled to herself, satisfied; she’d caught the dark blush spreading across Hella’s freckled cheeks. Someday, Hella would snap and say something, or at least realise that Adelaide was baiting her on purpose. But since Hella seemed oblivious to interpersonal subtleties half the time, and either blunt or self-serving the other half, for now Adelaide was content to wait and see.
“Make yourself useful,” Hella said. She didn’t look up from the lines she was tying tight. “Keep the rudder straight, and watch the mainsail.”
Adelaide mock-saluted Hella’s back. “As you wish, captain,” she said, just to see the momentary pause in Hella’s motion, and the tensing of her (bare) shoulders before she returned to work on the foresail and jib. Then Adelaide moved to the stern and took hold of the tiller, and pushed the rudder slightly starboard, so that as the foresail and jib rose and filled with wind they’d turn port, away from the pier and out to the open sea.
The wind strengthened as Waverider moved away from Aubade. Adelaide closed her eyes and breathed it in: Too clean, too pure, somehow, but still the sea and still her home. The rudder shivered under her hand, wanting to move along with the surface currents instead of cutting across them to angle out to sea. Adelaide kept it steady without thinking, bracing the smooth wood against her body to keep it pointed straight away from the island.
The lines creaked and the boat swayed, the boom swinging past with a deep rush. Adelaide opened her eyes to find Hella’s own, golden and bright, already meeting hers. Hella’s expression was soft, even as her muscles were taut against the lines in her hands, and Adelaide smiled back at her, for a moment free of both their expectations.
Then Hella’s face closed to her, just as it had in every dream they had shared and every trip they’d taken. Adelaide sighed as Hella turned away again, hair a flame in the wind.
“Must you?” Adelaide let the wind carry her voice to Hella’s ears.
Hella shrugged, which was probably the more honest response than her voice gave. “What?”
“Am I truly so terrible to gaze upon?”
Lines creaked. The sea broke around them. Hella stood, motionless but for her seafarer’s sway, for a full minute before she finally said, “You are one of the most beautiful and terrifying people I have ever looked at.”
Adelaide caught her breath. Before she did anything rash, she locked the rudder in place. Hella didn’t move a muscle as Adelaide stood, keeping her eyes fixed on the lightning-sparked horizon. As Adelaide placed a hand upon the small of Hella’s back, she felt the muscles there tense. “And here I thought you weren’t afraid of anything.”
“I already killed you. You can’t die again.” Hella shook herself and turned, candle-gold eyes burning in the sun. “I don’t know why you like being around me.”
Hella hadn’t moved any further away. Adelaide tilted her head up slightly to meet Hella’s eyes; she was a tall woman, but Hella was bulwark: big, solid, and impossible to move without the right leverage. “You killed me, and yet you still speak to me.” Adelaide opened her hands and smiled. “You’re a lovely conundrum. So simple at first glance, and yet so difficult to understand.”
“I am not a puzzle for you to solve.” Hella’s hands closed into fists, and she stepped back a single pace.
“I’m not trying to solve you.”
“Then what are you trying to do?”
Adelaide looked away, to the sail rippling in the wind. She could still hear Hella’s breathing, heavy and fraught. The easy answer and the truest answer were difficult to parse out, especially without knowing the answer Hella wanted to hear.
Before Hella could demand an explanation once more, Adelaide faced her again and said, “I want to know if, in this time and place where death cannot come between us, we could, perhaps, become friends.” She paused, took a breath, and spoke over Hella’s opening mouth. “If you could, perhaps, become the steadfast partner I wanted you to be when we first met.”
Hella closed her mouth again. Her hands loosened, and she returned to working the boat, silently guiding it into a gentle arc. “I thought you were here because we were friends,” she said.
“You aren’t just tolerating me?”
“I wouldn’t talk to you if I was.”
Adelaide blinked, parsing Hella’s statement. She sat down, leaning against the mast and watching Hella work. “That... didn’t occur to me.”
Hella smiled at her, smug and infuriating.
Adelaide stared at her for a moment, and then began to laugh. This, she should have expected. Lovely, insufferable, enigmatic Hella. And yet, when it mattered most, always kinder than Adelaide expected her to be.
Hella’s smile softened again, and this time she didn’t look away when Adelaide met her eyes with a smile of her own. Adelaide felt a bright blooming in her chest, an opening of warmth where she hadn’t expected any to come.
Adelaide didn’t look away, even as the wind rose and Hella broke eye contact with a curse to keep Waverider running with the wind instead of being flipped by it. Hella moved with economy and grace and a powerful sureness of being.
Yes, Adelaide thought to herself, keeping the new-kindled feeling close and safe, I think this could go somewhere, in time.
And here, we have an abundance.
She smiled, and watched as Hella brought them safely back to shore.