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'You're holding back.'

There’s no way—and no point—to lie to Dairon, but damn if Beau isn’t gonna try.

‘No I’m not.’ Nailed it.

Dairon cocks their head to the side, eyes narrowing in a manner that is horribly familiar, what with Beau having had the stuffing beaten out of her a dozen dozen times over after getting that exact look from her mentor.

‘Care to revise that statement?’

‘No.’

‘Hmm.’

Dairon moves in a blur of speed, and it’s all Beau can do to keep up; dodging and weaving, slapping attacks to the side and using Dairon’s height against her, ducking down and into her space to come up and—Dairon’s hands settle on either side of Beau’s neck, light, sweet, fingers barely grazing over the thundering pulse.

‘Too slow,’ she tells Beau, who has only a moment to get out a choked,

‘Oh fuck,’

Before Dairon’s hands slip up a fraction, place her thumbs just so beneath Beau’s jaw and where the fleshy triangle of muscle bridges neck and collar. Beau’s body seizes and, in the moment before Dairon’s stun wears off, she wanders behind Beau and simply taps at those points they both know will force the truth out of her.

The stun washes out of her.

Beau sags, spins to face Dairon, fists raised. Spots blink across her vision momentarily and her thoughts slide sideways. Her attack goes wide—inexcusably so—and Dairon looks furious at what she must see as evidence of Beau's sloppiness. She plants a hand on Beau’s chest and shoves, sending her falling to the floor.

‘Stay. There,’ Dairon commands. ‘You and I are going to have a little chat.’

Super, just what I wanted, Beau tries to say, and finds the words choked before they can get out, those points of ki flaring and juddering painfully when she tries to lie. ‘You know this shit messes with my sarcasm?’ Beau does manage to say.

‘Good. At least some earthly force manages to do so. I had begun to despair.’

Dairon settles beside her, snags Beau by the collar and slams her down—not painfully, just forcefully—when she tries to make a break for it.

‘Come now, Beauregard, is an honest discussion so dreadful to you?’

‘Yes.’

Dairon blinks, a sign of true shock from them. ‘Mm.’ They nod, fold their arms over their chest.

Beau waits. Feels the concentrated ki grip her system, destabilise the focus, the steadiness of her own. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Waiting.’

‘What for?’

‘For it to wear off,’ Dairon says, as though that should be obvious. ‘If it is….so distressing to you, I will not ask you questions now.’

‘…Really?’

‘I am your teacher, Beauregard, not your master, not your imprisoner. I can be harsh. I try not to be cruel.’

Something tightly knotted inside Beau’s chest eases a little. ‘Okay.’ Eventually, the effect ends and Beau cracks the stiffness out of her neck and jaw. ‘Let’s get this over with.’

‘Impatient.’

‘Surprising?’

Dairon’s lips quirk upwards. ‘No.’ They take a moment to consider Beau, with the same intensity they use in a fight but instead of that lightning intuition for where Beau’s body will be, where she’ll move, Dairon is looking at her.

‘See something you like?’

Dairon ignores that. As always. ‘I will say this as gently as possible,’ they say, voice deadpan. ‘You fought like shit today.’

‘Ow?’ Beau jokes, but Dairon doesn’t smile or relent.

‘You telegraphed your movement far ahead of striking, you were distracted, you pulled your punches. I am disappointed.’

‘Oh.’

It’s a strange sinking feeling, like falling out of the sky. Beau hardly feels the hard-packed sand beneath her as she falls, pulse rushing in her ears, her entire body going hot. She wonders distantly if this is some new kind of technique of the Cobalt Soul—advanced soul destroying, or something—as she tries to remember how to breathe, how to settle herself. Her eyelids flutter.

Nicodranas, the wide open ocean. Blue as far as the eye can see.

‘I do not say this to be cruel, Beauregard,’

‘I dunno, you managed it pretty well.’

‘I say it because I am concerned. You are better than this—you nearly beat me in that fight in the City of Beasts,’

‘I did beat you,’ Beau is quick to deny. ‘I just pulled my punches so you didn't lose your disguise.’

Dairon blinks. Stares blankly at Beau for a moment. ‘Anyway,’ they say, tone crisp and staggeringly full of disbelief, ‘there is something troubling you. What is it?’

It’s potent, the want to talk to Dairon. Beau is sure a little of it has to do with minor internal bleeding and also the crushing, awful sense of disappointing her mentor. But that could be purposeful. Dairon has shown clearly so many times they’re good at reading people, at manipulating them, and Beau hasn’t exactly proved hard to manipulate in the past if one knows the buttons to push. And Dairon has slammed the shit out of a half dozen of them in the last minute so…

An old, half-forgotten tendril of spite holds Beau’s tongue still. Dairon doesn’t seem to notice or mind, just sits and waits for Beau to answer.

The minutes stretch on.

‘Would tea help?’

‘Who are you, Caduceus? No.’

Dairon shrugs. ‘Very well. Are you silent because you do not wish to tell me, or because you cannot find the words?’

‘I dunno.’ Dairon lifts a brow. ‘Both, I guess.’

Oddly enough, admitting that makes Dairon smile. ‘You are never easy, are you?’

‘I mean, depends on the context,’ Beau tells her, waggles her brows until Dairon puts their face in the palm of their hand. Elegantly, gracefully, but inarguably face in palm. ‘But ah, no.’ She thinks about her mother and father telling her as much, those few people she had tried to befriend. Her own team mates reminding her of her harsher, less tolerated qualities. ‘No,’ she admits, quietly. ‘I’m not.’

A warm touch on Beau’s wrapped hands makes her start, but it is just Dairon laying their hand on hers. They seem to find it as awkward as Beau does because they pull back a moment later.

‘What is bothering you, Beauregard?’

‘Everything?’

‘Tell me one thing,’ Dairon instructs. ‘We shall work from there.’

‘What for? This isn’t - this isn’t necessary,’ she tells Dairon, scratching at her neck, her undercut. ‘I’ll just do better next time.’

‘Unless there is a change, you will not. That is not an insult, that is a fact. One improves from mistakes by assessing, learning, and changing accordingly. So. We assess.’ Dairon nods, as if saying, Go ahead.

Beau feels that tightness in her throat again, the overwhelming pressure that seems to trip something in her, tells her the moment she says anything she can’t get that shit back. It’ll be out there, it’ll be real to more than just herself.

‘Beauregard,’ Dairon says quietly, dark eyes seemingly reading deep into Beau’s stiff shoulders, the way her fingers catch together and twist hard, almost punishingly. ‘Trust me. to be able to hear what you tell me and not use it against you.’

Is that what she’s scared of? Fuck. Maybe it is.

‘I’m scared.’ Beau has to force the words out. Can’t quite look at Dairon as she does. ‘All the time.’

‘Of what?’

‘Not...being fast enough. Strong enough.’

‘No,’ Dairon shakes her head. ‘That isn’t it.’

‘Oh, so you know what’s in my head now?’

‘I know fear. What happens if you aren’t strong or fast enough, Beauregard?’

Images flash through Beau’s mind. Caleb, with a legion of men behind him, their heads aflame. Fjord, pressing an orb into his chest, his eyes turning the same colour, his body contorting and cracking and lengthening, scales hardening across green skin. Nott, drowning. Cad, wasting away. Jester, taken. Jester, hurt. Jester, dying. Jester,

‘I need to protect them,’ she says. ‘All of them. And I—‘ Her eyes are burning, all of a sudden. It takes a moment to realise she is crying and her breath catches in horror, hands flinging up to hide the evidence, wipe the tears away. ‘I can’t,’ she tells Dairon.

‘No, you can’t.’ Dairon sets their hand on Beau’s again. This time, she doesn’t move away. ‘You got attached,’ they add, tone without reproach.

Beau snorts, a gross wet snort. ‘Yeah. Fuck.’

‘You got very attached.’ Beau shrugs a shoulder, doesn’t deny it. ‘Your Jester is strong, Beauregard. Your group is strong. You must find a way to trust in that, to not let your fears over take you. It is much easier said than done,’ Dairon confesses. ‘But you, you are capable. Beyond capable. I have faith,’ she says simply. ‘And another half day to train you. Up on your feet.’