Ka’harja’s Journey (DLH #1) – Chapter 6


Glif 28th, Firthda

Year 10,053 AE

(Somewhere Unremarkable; Okatako)

It was the first time since the fire that Ka’harja felt like things were actually getting better. His mother was recovering; the herbs they’d collected the fortnight before had done wonders to help her. Her voice hadn’t sounded this clear in years. It was amazing, Ka’harja thought, that she sounded better now than before the fire.

Coff really knew what he was doing. Though the healer was nervous, he took his job seriously. He was just strict enough to keep Distro in line, without being too harsh and making her defy his orders out of spite. Several times Distro had tried to steal drinks or refused to take her medicine, and Ka’harja had walked in on Coff scolding her in a tone that almost put Koko to shame. Almost. Koko still beat Coff’s stern voice whenever she was caught in her confusing relationship with Baku.

Ka’harja’s thoughts jumped to the time he’d found the couple kissing by the river on their break; he’d bolted as soon as Koko had seen him, and her angry scream had made him feel like he’d aged five years—

His wandering mind was interrupted by a cold splash of water hitting him in the face. He shook himself for a moment, blinking the water out of his eyes and glaring at his mother.

‘Oops,’ she said in a tone so flat it made Ka’harja roll his eyes. ‘Sorry, Ka, you were so spaced out… I mistook you for a log!’

Ka’harja wanted to splash her back, and wrestle, and push her head under the surface while she tugged on his ears and tried kicked him in the knees. But he fought against the urge. She was recovering, yes, but she wasn’t better yet and the last thing she needed was to accidentally inhale the river.

Though, it was tempting. Especially when she splashed him again and called him a coward.

‘Ka’harja!’ Stars’ voice called over his mother’s splashing, and he turned to see Stars running towards the river.

The exhaustion of her time in Heck’ne seemed to have disappeared since she’d joined the caravan; leaving an excited wonder as she explored the world around her with a zest Ka’harja could barely understand. Whenever Ka’harja saw her, she was learning something new. Reading from Baku, cooking from Coborn— Sken was teaching her math, and she was even learning how to tend to the caravan’s dragons with their grumpy old caretaker, Krarf…. She was a slow learner, but with the amount of new things for her to try it was a wonder she was able to take any of it in at all.

Dena, on the other hand, was another story. She trailed behind Stars slowly, carrying her grandson like he was the only thing keeping her from keeling over and dying where she stood. The bags under her eyes were dark, visible even from the distance between her and the river. She looked like she could collapse at any given moment and never get up again.

Stars began to strip when her mother finally caught up with her, then she leapt thoughtlessly into the river beside Ka’harja. Dena shielded Little Demon from the splash before carefully putting him down and undressing herself. She lowered herself into the cold river and let out a sigh of relief, like the water had eased some sort of pain, and after a moment of quiet breathing she swam over to her daughter. Dena grabbed Stars’ wrists to stop her playful splashing and tried to wash the patches of flour off her face.

Stars writhed in her mother’s grasp before giving up and surrendering to the bath. ‘I want to swim!’ she protested.

‘You can swim when you’re clean,’ Dena told her. ‘Look at you! How did you get yourself so dirty?’

Stars quickly looked down at herself and sighed. ‘I was just helping Coborn cook lunch.’

‘How— Broja’kar na bakti, Stars! Sit still.’ Dena gave a huff as she continued to wash her disobedient daughter, who didn’t stop fidgeting until she was finally let go.

As soon as Dena had let her go Stars swam to the river’s opposite bank and dropped down into the water, so only half her face was visible as she blew frustrated bubbles.

Dena just shook her head and gave a tired smile as Distro paddled over.

‘Someone’s in a mood,’ she chuckled. ‘Do you need a hand washing yourself?’

‘Na. I’m alright,’ Dena sighed, her smile fading. ‘I’m not as dirty as I am hungry. I might get out and get something to eat.’

‘I’ll join you,’ offered Distro, swimming to the riverbank. ‘Ka’harja can watch Stars, can’t you?’

‘Sure,’ Ka’harja nodded. ‘I’ll make sure she doesn’t roll in the mud. Or, if she does, I’ll make sure she washes it off afterwards!’

Dena tried to glare at him, but she was too tired to hold it and let out a breath as Distro helped her out of the water. ‘Just make sure she doesn’t get miita.’

‘She’ll be fine,’ said Distro. She began to stretch as Dena dried and dressed herself.

‘You gonna get dressed?’ Ka’harja scoffed. ‘Or at least dry off?’

‘Nah, I’m alright!’ Distro grinned, starting back towards the camp. ‘I’ll just drip-dry. If anyone has a problem with it they can throw a towel over me themselves.’

Ka’harja watched the two mothers leave with Little Demon. They talked happily between themselves, like old friends who’d known each other for years, and Ka’harja felt almost jealous that Dena and his mother had bonded so quickly in the past few weeks. Especially when he considered the cold looks Dena gave him.

He shook his head. It wasn’t Dena’s fault; she’d lived with Kay’oten for… who knows how long? He could only imagine what she saw when she looked at him. He thought it must be for her like it was for him when he was young, and first saw himself in a mirror…. That horrible, familiar face that wasn’t quite his parents’ but close enough to make him sick.

He sighed. He just had to be patient with Dena until she saw him as himself, and not a reminder of the Heck’ne.

‘That’s not fair,’ Stars mumbled, swimming up next to Ka’harja. ‘Everyone gets to be naked except for me. He’hen.’

‘You’re naked now,’ he pointed out.

Stars looked herself over, seeming to realise for the first time since getting in the river that she was completely nude. ‘Oh. I am…. Gighi! So are you! It’s like when we met!’

Ka’harja tried to smother his giggle, but failed. ‘I’m going to keep washing; you should go for that swim you wanted.’

‘Yi! I will!’ Stars beamed. ‘But, I have a question I want to ask you, first.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Am I speaking better?’

Ka’harja cocked his head. ‘What do you mean?’

‘International,’ she clarified. ‘Am I speaking International better? I’m trying to stop speaking Har’py so much, because it makes me think of mup times. Baku has been helping me learn but it’s very hard. Am I getting better?’

‘Yeah, I’d say so,’ Ka’harja gave a nod. ‘You’ve improved a lot!’

A wide grin spread over Stars’ face before she turned and began to splash through the river. Ka’harja watched as she chased a lone leaf downstream— And laughed when she turned around to search for a fish that surfaced and disappeared in an instant.

She wasn’t a very good swimmer. She was too thin to be buoyant, and she didn’t know what to do with all her arms; but Ka’harja couldn’t help being impressed by her effort as she paddled around, following anything that caught her attention.

His heart nearly stopped when she submerged— But she resurfaced close to him with a cheeky grin and he rolled his eyes at her.

‘Don’t scare me like that,’ he told her. ‘Warn me if you’re going to dive—’

He cut off as Stars squirted her mouthful of water into his face. She dove out of view before Ka’harja had time to react, and resurfaced behind him, spraying him again when he turned to complain.

‘That’s it!’ Ka’harja laughed, chasing her through the water. ‘When I catch you, you’re going to get it!’

Stars finally found a use for her extra limbs; she was able to splash and swim at the same time, much to Ka’harja’s amusement. She threw water at him as he followed her from bank to bank, only stopping when Ka’harja took a deep breath and disappeared below the surface.

‘Ka’harja?’ Stars mumbled. ‘Where’d you go— OOOOH NOOO! NO!

Ka’harja came up underneath her, lifting her on his shoulders and falling backwards into the water as she shrieked joyfully.

They surfaced again and Stars began to pummel Ka’harja with splashes. He covered his face and tried to swim around her, but she was relentless.

GET IT AWAY FROM ME!

Ka’harja paused when he heard the shout, and motioned for Stars to stop. She didn’t realise, at first, but stopped when Ka’harja waved his hand again and pricked up his ears to listen to the ruckus back at camp.

‘Scara in the High-World! Kill it! KILL IT!’

Ka’harja leapt out of the river and tugged on his shorts, not bothering to dry himself off. Stars didn’t get dressed at all as she followed him back to the caravans.

‘I’m trying to get it!’ Trat exclaimed over the other anxious voices. There was a metallic clang and a scream before Trat shouted again. ‘IT WON’T— STOP MOVING! STAY! STILL!’

Ka’harja turned the corner just as Naranako let out another one of his kettle-screams and jumped onto Felelor’s back. Felelor tried to shake him off, but the terrified man clung to him like his life depended on it, and Felelor ended up nearly falling over. He bumped into Trat, who righted him and retreated a few steps away from the centre of the action until he was standing next to a frustrated Sken, who hid a terrified Annanyn behind her and tugged on Tucker’s collar to stop him sprinting forward.

‘Just kill it!’ Sken exclaimed, struggling with her incarah. ‘Squash it! For the love of Scara don’t try to catch it! KILL IT!’

Ka’harja couldn’t quite see what she was telling them to squash— OH GREAT EIGHT STAR! A SLIME!

Ka’harja backed up so far he collided with Stars and nearly tumbled down the hill. He must have let out a shout because Distro looked at him from the other side of camp and shook her head; she looked utterly disgusted by the green sludge-beast that was jumping frantically around the campfire.

‘Be careful, Ka’harja! You nearly made me fall over!’ Stars shoved Ka’harja forward just as Baku and Coff rushed past. Both of the boys were almost in tears with fear.

Coff grabbed ahold of Ka’harja and hid behind him while Baku shot up the side of one of the caravans; screaming like he was fleeing a horde of rampaging orcs.

‘It’s really flakha,’ Stars commented. ‘It’s almost as big as Tucker.’

Ka’harja nearly threw up as he watched the large, gelatinous blob leap around camp, trailed by Lif and Coborn. The pair wielded a large cooking pot between them, which they tried to throw over the slime several times— Never even getting close to actually catching it.

‘Get out of the way!’ Koko shrieked, drawing an arrow into her bow. ‘I’m going to shoot this fucker in the face!’

‘That won’t work!’ a new voice called. Ka’harja was almost amazed to hear it; he’d never heard the animal caretaker speak before, let alone shout. He wasn’t even fully sure Krarf was able to speak until now. He’d forgotten about the old man, actually. ‘Slimes don’t have faces! Or organs! Or anything that can be hurt by arrows— Just leave it alone! ALL OF YOU! It’ll leave if you stop making it panic!’

‘KILL IT!’ Naranako shrieked from on top of Felelor. ‘KILL IT BEFORE IT BITES SOMEONE!’

‘IT’S GOT NO TEETH!’ Krarf screeched back. ‘JUST LEAVE IT ALONE!’

Ka’harja felt his stomach heave as the slime jumped towards Coborn, who shrieked and smacked it away with the oversized pot. It bounced along the ground heavily before colliding with a caravan and falling still.

‘What is it?’ Stars asked. ‘Is it zi’kaf?’

‘It’s a slime,’ Ka’harja managed to look away from the quivering form of the slime long enough to look Stars in the eye. ‘They’re gross and— And some are venomous and— OH GREAT STAR NO! STOP! NO!’

If it hadn’t been for Coff fleeing, Ka’harja wouldn’t have thought to look back at the slime— When he did, he saw it coming directly for him at a speed he’d never guessed something without legs would be able to go.

He stumbled backwards and bumped into a chair. Without thinking, he grabbed it and swung it at the slime. Then he swung it again, for good measure. And again. And again. And again. He screamed and swung the chair again. Then he screamed some more, and swung the chair a few times over, until all that remained was a puddle and half a wooden leg.

‘KA’HARJA! I’M PRETTY SURE IT’S DEAD NOW!’ Sken exclaimed, putting her face in her hands. ‘You can stop destroying my furniture!’

Ka’harja smacked the chair leg into the green puddle again, just to make sure, before jumping back. He didn’t dare put the leg down, and brandished his makeshift club above his head, terrified the slime would leap back up at him.

‘It was a common grass slime,’ Krarf sobbed over the puddle. ‘They’re not dangerous at all…. They’re good for the ecosystem….’

Ka’harja felt something touch his thigh and jumped back; nearly swinging his club at his mother.

‘That was bit excessive, don’t you think?’ Distro pursed her lips and shook her head.

‘IT WAS COMING RIGHT AT ME!’ Ka’harja didn’t mean to shout, but he couldn’t stop his heart from trying to escape through his mouth. ‘DID YOU SEE IT? IT WAS GOING TO KILL ME!’

‘Put the…. Put the piece of wood down Ka’harja, before you hurt someone,’ Distro held out her hand, and Ka’harja anxiously passed the splintered leg to her.

Just as he did, Naranako collided with him, grabbing him in a hug and kissing him firmly on the cheek. Tucker began leaping around them, barking and yipping as excitedly as the man clinging to Ka’harja.

‘Ka’harja! You saved us!’ Naranako sobbed, kissing him again. ‘You’re a hero, Ka’harja! You saved us all from that monster!’

‘Some guard you are,’ Felelor grumbled, peeling his nephew off Ka’harja’s side. ‘You’re such a coward, Naranako. Get a hold of yourself, would you? You’re embarrassing to be related to.’

‘I hope you’re going to clean this up?’ Sken cut in, shooing Tucker away. ‘There’s slime everywhere— For Scara’s sake, you put out the campfire!’

Ka’harja glanced around. She was right; there was slime everywhere. The caravans and the caravaners alike were coated in thick, lumpy goo. He took a deep breath. ‘Well… seeing as I was the one who killed it, I don’t think I should have to clean it up?’

‘I’m not doing it!’ Naranako exclaimed, fleeing towards the river. ‘NO! YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!’

Felelor gave an angry shout and made after him. ‘NARANAKO YOU TURD!’

The other caravaners backed away anxiously, leaving Ka’harja, Stars, and Distro standing together by the puddle of slime; which Krarf was weeping over.

‘I’ll help,’ Stars said gently. ‘I already have it all on me.’

‘So will I,’ Distro grinned. ‘I’m not scared of a little slime—’

‘—No,’ Coff cut in. ‘Y-You should go back to bed and, uh, get s-some rest… and… you should prob-probably put on some… clothes.’

‘I don’t need rest!’ she pouted. ‘And I certainly don’t need clothes!’

‘You kn-know I won’t l-leave you alone until you l-listen to me,’ Coff pressed, fumbling over his words as he stared Distro down. ‘So d-do as I s-say or-or I’ll— Uh—’

Ka’harja was going to say something, but his attention was drawn from the argument as Sken pulled off her jacket and threw it over Stars’ shoulders.

‘But won’t it get slimy? I’m all slimed,’ Stars asked as Sken tugged it around her tightly, doing up the first few buttons.

‘It needs a clean anyway,’ she replied. ‘It’s more important that you stay warm.’

‘But it’ll get slime on it,’ repeated Stars.

‘It’s already gooey enough from me,’ Sken comforted. ‘A little bit more won’t hurt it.’

Stars looked reluctant, but let Sken put the jacket around her anyway. It was a size too big, and didn’t have enough arm holes for the poor girl, but it was thick and would keep her from getting sick in the cold weather.

Coff nudged Ka’harja gently, and Ka’harja turned to see him alone and anxious— His short hair messed up like Distro had tried to put him in a headlock.

‘You alright?’ Ka’harja asked.

‘Y-Your m-mother is, um, s-something alr-right,’ sighed Coff, rubbing his arm, which was starting to bruise; Ka’harja made a mental note to scold his mother later. Coff caught his gaze and shrugged. ‘Sh-She was being playful. I think…. She’s p-promised to go to bed for a wh-while, at least.’

‘Thank the Ninth god,’ chuckled Ka’harja. ‘You not going to watch her?’

‘Dena’s gone with her an-and I, uh, w-want to help c-clean up,’ Coff said. ‘And m-maybe get a s-sample of the— The slime. If we can, uh, find an uncontaminated patch. Th-They can be good for pre-preserving things.’

‘Sure,’ Ka’harja nodded, then glanced around.

There weren’t many people still here. It was just Stars, Coff, Koko, Krarf (though he wasn’t sure Krarf would be willing to help clean, as he was still crying over the puddle of goop), and himself. Well, there was Baku, but he was hiding on the roof and pretending he wasn’t there. Ka’harja wasn’t sure whether to call him down or not—

‘BAKU!’ Koko shouted, making the decision for him. ‘Get down here and help or I’ll boot you up the arse!’

He’d p-probably enjoy that,’ Coff muttered, rubbing his hands together anxiously.

Ka’harja had to hold back a laugh; he was right. Baku seemed to enjoy brawling with Koko more than anyone should enjoy a fight, but he’d always figured it was just how they bonded. Like he and his mother did when they armed themselves with logs and hit rocks at each other…. He hadn’t realised it was unusual by the rest of the caravan’s standards until someone had mentioned it.

‘Baku! Don’t make me climb up there and get you!’ Koko continued. ‘I’ll tug you down by your tail and hang you with the wet clothes if you don’t clean up!’

‘It’s slippery!’ Baku complained. ‘If I try and get down I’ll fall!’

‘What if I throw a cloth up for you?’ Koko suggested. And, though she rolled her eyes, her voice softened. ‘Then you can clean the top of the caravans! Needs to be done anyway.’

Baku looked reluctant, but slowly nodded. He wouldn’t dare disagree with Koko— Though, who would?

Ka’harja shifted from foot to foot as Felelor dragged Naranako back into the camp and Koko began shouting orders at them.

He didn’t know what to do.

Sure, he’d made the mess, but nobody else had done anything about the slime— Well, except Coborn and Lif. They’d actually tried to capture it. He should have left them to it, then he wouldn’t be here…. Where were they, anyway? He’d seen Trat helping Sken with Tucker, but he hadn’t seen where Lif went. And he was almost always by Trat’s side. And Coborn! She wasn’t the sort to run off like this; from what he’d seen of her she was more than happy to help clean up. Even the grossest things, like changing Little Demon. She always jumped at the chance to help with that.

Ka’harja sighed and shook his head. She was probably shaken up and needed to sit down.

‘You alright there?’

Ka’harja jumped as Koko turned to him, and gave a short, anxious nod. ‘F-Fine. Sorry about the mess.’

‘Nah, at least you actually did something,’ Koko grinned, tipping her head slightly and flicking her ears playfully. ‘You were braver than the people we pay to be brave. How’s that for irony?’

He couldn’t help but laugh. It was ironic, especially considering he’d been terrified the whole time. He’d never been brave in his life. Honestly; the bravest thing he could ever recall doing was sneaking into the kitchen when he was fourteen and switching all the alcohol out for bottles filled with skunk’s blood. And he only remembered that because his mother had made him drink a cup when she’d found out what he’d done.

It hadn’t tasted as bad as he’d thought it would.

‘You’re right, I don’t think he’s with us anymore,’ Koko snickered, jabbing Ka’harja in the leg and bringing him out of his daydream. ‘There we go! Back on Demrefor with us now? Or are you still in the clouds with your brain? Tall enough for it.’

Ka’harja gave his head a shake and glanced around the caravaners. ‘Sorry, what were we talking about?’

‘I was saying you can help Coff,’ said Koko. ‘And once you two are done you can have a break. You look like you need it.’

Nodding, Ka’harja rubbed his arm and followed Coff obediently. He wasn’t ready to argue with Koko. The adrenaline had worn off and he just wanted to curl up and sleep. But instead, he and the healer made their way around the camp, poking at the puddles of slime that were splattered around until Coff found a pool of clean green liquid and started scooping it into a jar.

Unsure how to help, Ka’harja just watched as Coff filled the jar halfway before moving to another pile of goo.

The silence felt… awkward, so Ka’harja tried to make conversation. ‘What’s with you and Baku?’

‘Ho— What do you m-mean?’ stammered Coff. ‘No-Nothing’s with us?’

‘He’s always teasing you,’ Ka’harja clarified. ‘He seems to know how to push your buttons— And he seems to like doing it.’

‘Oh, th-that,’ Coff relaxed, though he blushed deeply as he spoke. ‘Our pa-pa-pa— Our parents sent us to th-the same tutors to save money. He’s a b-bit like a br-br-brother to me.’

‘That explains all the inside jokes.’

‘Y-Yeah,’ Coff chuckled. ‘He knows all o-of my s-secrets… and I, um, I know a-all of his. I tr-trust him with them, though. I mean, uh, he p-punched my ex-girl-girl-gir— My ex-girlfriend so hard he br-broke her j-jaw, so I know he’ll stick up for me when I— When I need it.’

‘Ouch, impressive,’ Ka’harja bit his lip. He wondered why Coff’s ex needed that sort of treatment, but figured it wasn’t his business. Besides, if Baku hit her that hard she probably deserved it. Baku didn’t even hit Koko that hard, and she seemed to like it.

‘V-Very impr-impressive,’ Coff managed. ‘I mentioned it to Sk-Sken when she was hiring me —j-just an offhand comment— and, uh, that’s why she thought he’d m-make a g-good guard. I didn’t argue. Baku needed the j-job and… he’s my best friend. It’s b-been nice to have him around.’

‘And he got to meet Koko,’ Ka’harja joked. ‘I’m sure he gives you credit for losing his virginity, too.’

Coff laughed loudly, then covered his mouth and blushed so red he looked like he couldn’t breathe.

‘Oh jeez, you alright?’

Coff nodded. ‘F-Fine. I don’t— I don’t— I don’t— I h-have idea wh-what that was.’

‘It was a laugh,’ replied Ka’harja. ‘You never laughed like that before?’

‘No— Not since I was a—a kid,’ he admitted. Then he glanced around, twitching his ears anxiously and listening for something before leaning in close to Ka’harja and whispering, ‘He’s st-still a virgin.

Ka’harja nearly threw up he laughed so hard.

‘D-Don’t tell him I t-told you!’ Coff stammered. ‘Pl-Please. He’d never for-forgive me— Well, uh, he probably w-would— Actually he p-probably wou-wouldn’t care that you know. Koko— Koko would care. Don’t tell K-Koko.’

Ka’harja nodded, biting his lip. ‘What about you? Are you a virgin?’

Coff flushed bright red and looked away, not answering and instead asking, ‘Are y-you?’

‘Nope,’ Ka’harja chuckled. ‘I’ve fucked at least seven guys. Maybe eight? I can’t remember. I had a notebook with their names but I… guess that’s gone now.’

Coff nodded. ‘I… sl-slept with my ex a few times. Wasn’t ex-exactly… the n-nicest. She was, uh, a b-bit forceful.’

‘Oh,’ Ka’harja’s heart dropped and he scratched his arm nervously. ‘That sucks. I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘I— Uh, it’s f-fine,’ Coff rubbed the back of his head before screwing the now-full jar of slime shut. ‘Baku— He helped.’

It was awkward. Ka’harja hadn’t expected the conversation to take this turn and he wasn’t sure how to respond— Luckily he didn’t have to. He heard Baku let out a shriek and turned to see Stars fling a second handful of slime at him, laughing as she did. Then Koko threw a bucket of water over Stars and immediately fell over as Felelor flung his wet cloth at her with such force that Ka’harja heard the sthwupt sound from where he kneeled with Coff.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen Koko play around like that before,’ Ka’harja joked, pushing himself to his feet. ‘Let’s get out of here before they throw shit at us, too.’

Coff nodded and the two boys made their way to the river to bathe.

They passed Coborn and Lif as they went; Coborn looked like she’d been crying, and Ka’harja suddenly felt very sorry for her as Lif quietly led her back to the caravans.

When he got to the water Ka’harja leapt in, not bothering to take his already-soaked shorts off, and watched as Coff put his things down and slowly stripped. He… wasn’t what Ka’harja expected him to look like. Ka’harja blinked; he couldn’t take his eyes off Coff as he got undressed. He was almost disappointed when Coff didn’t take off his underwear before climbing into the water. Then he caught himself and turned away.

Trying to clear his mind, Ka’harja dunked his head under the surface and shook it. He was not attracted to Coff.

Was he?

NO!

He shook his head again and resurfaced. He was fine. Absolutely fine and not attracted to someone he barely knew but seemed to have everything in common with—

‘A-Are you okay?’ Coff asked, raising his brow. ‘The water’s not th-that cold, i-is it?’

I wish it was, thought Ka’harja. ‘No, no, it’s fine. I’m just— Uh, washing my hair?’

For a moment, there was silence as Coff stared at Ka’harja in disbelief. ‘R…. Okay? That was…. Yes. Of course.’

‘So you have a lot of body hair!’ Ka’harja blurted. ‘How’d that happen? Puberty punch you in the face or what?’

‘Ac-Actually, my pa’ was wolv-wolven,’ said Coff. ‘I think I, uh, may— I may have mentioned it before? M-Maybe not.’

‘No, I think I remember you saying something about it,’ Ka’harja felt himself blush. He was stupid. ‘Yes. You definitely said something about it before. Sorry, I didn’t mean to be so insensitive.’

‘It’s fine,’ replied Coff, rubbing his fluffy chest roughly. ‘Uh, could you— Help? I can’t g-get this out on my own.’

A confused mix of emotions shot through Ka’harja. He wanted to help wash it off —oh Great Star did he ever want an excuse to touch Coff right now— but he also didn’t… want to let on to Coff that he was attracted to him. Not when he wasn’t sure how attracted to him he was. And especially now he knew about Coff’s ex-girlfriend.

Why are all the cute ones straight? Ka’harja held back his sigh and swum around Coff so he could rub his back; gentle up and down motions to loosen what was left of the slime.

‘Wh-What was your father l-like?’ Coff asked.

‘My father?’ for a moment, Ka’harja hesitated. ‘He… was Kay’oten’s brother. I think I may have said before that they were twins or something? Either way, he used to beat me a lot. Sometimes pick me up by my tail and throw me around…. Wasn’t a good guy.’

‘Oh— Oh,’ Coff rubbed his cheek and looked away. ‘So-Sorry I as-asked.’

‘It’s fine,’ sighed Ka’harja. ‘It’s barely a memory now.’

‘St-Still,’ Coff sighed. ‘That… doesn’t sound like a— Like a f-fun childhood.’

‘It wasn’t,’ Ka’harja admitted. ‘But, hey, meeting Mum made it worth it.’

Coff gave Ka’harja a weak smile and turned around. ‘Thanks f-for g-getting my back.’

‘No problem.’

‘I’ll do you, n-now?’

What? Ka’harja froze. ‘Do me?

‘Your back?’ Coff clarified. ‘Wh-What did you think I m-meant?’

‘Nothing— I just don’t need help washing myself,’ he lied. ‘You can go now.’

‘Oh— Uh, okay,’ dejected, Coff swum to the riverbank and pulled himself out. ‘I’ll, uh, see you l-later?’

‘Yes, okay. Buh-bye!’ Ka’harja blurted in a ruder tone than he intended. He tried to wave goodbye as Coff made his way back to the caravans, but it just looked like he was mocking the healer.

After he lost sight of Coff, Ka’harja slapped himself in the face.

‘IDIOT!’

~~~~

It had rained almost all night so far, so everyone had bunked down in the storage caravans instead of under the stars like they preferred to do.

Ka’harja could understand why they always slept outside now; it was crowded in the overfilled wagon and he was lucky not to get a foot in the face whenever Lif rolled over. And someone had farted, which was not pleasant. He’d much prefer the crisp, outside air to this.

Plus, he couldn’t concentrate with the boys’ snoring next to him. He needed to clear his head after what had happened that morning; he couldn’t stop thinking about Coff. He felt like an idiot. Coff had avoided him all day after his rude goodbye.

Not that it mattered if Coff was straight but— He still would have been a good friend. They’d gotten along so well… and Ka’harja had ruined it in one stupid moment.

One. Stupid. Moment.

And he’d lost his best chance at making a friend.

It’s fine, Ka’harja told himself. You’ve had a hard month. That’s all. It’s going to be alright— He probably won’t even remember what happened in a day or two.

‘Coff?’ Stars’ voice rung out clearly in the quiet of the night, louder than the boys’ snoring but not too loud. It was followed by a short, rapid knock on the caravan next to the one Ka’harja was in. ‘Coff are you awake?’

‘We both are now!’ Distro’s voice responded playfully.

‘Coff!’ Stars exclaimed anxiously as Coff’s door clicked open. ‘I’m really worried. Ever since I had Little Demon I’ve been having trouble peeing— Koko said I should talk to you about it. And— She said I should wait until morning but I can’t sleep because my head is being hakalika and making me have worried basaka, and I just want advice. I don’t mean to be dreankot.’

There was a loud grumble from Coff and a snort, like he was trying to wake himself up.

‘I’m sorry,’ Stars muttered.

‘It’s fine,’ Coff said with a yawn. ‘Do you m-mean that you’re we-wetting yourself or that— Or that you’re struggling t-to go a-at all?’

Stars sighed. ‘I sneezed and had to change my pants.’

‘That’s p-pretty normal after giv-giving birth,’ Coff said, relief in his voice. ‘But c-come inside and I-I’ll show you some exer-exercises to help strengthen y-your pelvic floor.’

Ka’harja sighed as Coff’s door closed and flopped back down. He hadn’t even realised he’d sat up to listen. His head hit hard against his pillow and he groaned.

He missed his bed. And he missed his house. And he missed sleeping next to his mother— And shoving her out of bed in the morning. And he missed sticking his head in the empty porridge pot while she banged against it with a spoon to see how long he could handle the noise before throwing up. And moving the table slightly further from the wall so that she would lean back and fall over.

He missed being home.

He didn’t mean to sniff, but his chest was tight and he felt sick. He heard Trat roll over and held his breath, trying not to be heard, but he saw a shadow sit up and knew he had been heard.

‘Mate, you alright?’ Trat asked. ‘You’re not crying… are you?’

Ka’harja shook his head, scared that if he spoke he’d say the wrong thing— It didn’t matter, though, because he had to breathe and the moment he did a loud, ugly sob escaped him and the rest of his body decided to give in to his head.

‘Aw man, nah!’ Trat exclaimed, tripping over Lif in his attempt to crawl next to Ka’harja. ‘It’s alright. Hey, hey. Relax man. It’s okay! It’s okay.’

Lif snorted awake and looked around. He pushed himself up when he saw Ka’harja and shuffled over. ‘Fuck, you alright?’

‘What’s wrong?’ Trat asked, putting an arm on Ka’harja’s back. ‘Why are you crying?’

‘I’m not— Crying!’ Ka’harja snapped, crying into his pillow. ‘I’m fine! It—th okay— Nothing’th wrong!’

The words barely came out. His chest tightened and his eyes were streaming tears down his face and his tongue felt too big for his mouth again. He bit it, trying to stop his lisp from coming back. Always when he was upset. It always came back. Just like every other bad memory always came back.

The two boys looked at each other for a moment, then shuffled to the other side of the caravan and sat, whispering among themselves for a moment.

Ka’harja tried to stop himself from sobbing, but he couldn’t get his body to behave. His tears soaked into his pillow and he cursed at himself for being such an embarrassing wreck.

‘Hey,’ Trat’s voice was closer than before, and Ka’harja looked up, jumping when he found the man was next to him. ‘I know that they say drinking doesn’t help, but… well, it always helped me.’

A long moment passed before Ka’harja realised that the boys were holding a bottle of Melberry out to him. He took it gratefully, though he didn’t say anything in fear it would come out as an incoherent mess, and took a long drink.

‘Lif, open the door,’ Trat said gently. ‘Some air’ll do us all some good.’

‘No, it’th fine,’ Ka’harja managed, biting his tongue to stop his lisp. ‘I… I think I’ll go out for a walk.’

Lif nodded, and held the fabric sheet to the side so Ka’harja could pass easily. ‘If you need to talk….’

‘I know,’ Ka’harja muttered, sliding out of the caravan and nodding to the boys. ‘Not now. Thank…. Thank you.’

‘Hey,’ Trat muttered, sticking his head out of the caravan. ‘Ka, man? It’ll be alright. I know it doesn’t feel like it… but it does get better. Trust me.’

Ka’harja gave a curt nod and bit his lip. He wasn’t sure how true that was, but instead of arguing he just turned away and made his way around the dark caravan.

He wasn’t sure how long he walked for. Whether it was five minutes or five hours— He couldn’t tell. He couldn’t think straight, and so he just let his legs carry him wherever they thought was best…. He headed down to the river, which he followed downstream for a while before turning back and slowly trudging back to the caravans. He passed them, and went upriver a little further. He stopped when he saw a pair of silhouettes in the distance; covered in faint glowing dots that blurred into a beautiful swirl as one picked up the other and spun them through the air.

A weak smile found the corners of Ka’harja’s mouth as Annanyn let out a happy squeal and the couple disappeared into the river.

At least some things in the world were still good. There was still love. And family.

And his mother.

Ka’harja turned on his heels and headed back to the caravan.

He hoped his mother was still awake. Maybe he could talk to her? He wasn’t sure what about, but she could help. Just being in the same room as her made things feel better most of the time. And even if she was asleep, maybe Coff would let him sit on the floor for a while and read. Or drink.

Or both.

It wasn’t long before Ka’harja managed to find his way to Coff’s caravan. He knocked lightly on the door and waited patiently. After a few moments he took in a deep breath…. He wasn’t sure he’d knocked loud enough. But he also didn’t want to wake anyone if they were still asleep. Should he knock again?

He flicked his tail anxiously and pricked up his ears to listen. He could definitely hear voices inside the caravan. But that might just be his mother sleep talking… no! It was two people, at least.

He let out his breath and knocked again. Harder this time.

Within moments Coff was at the door and Ka’harja felt himself blush with embarrassment as he remembered the events earlier that day. For a moment he and Coff just stared at each other. Then Coff motioned for him to come in.

At first he hesitated, then Coff motioned again and mumbled something, and Ka’harja quickly pulled himself up the steps into the healer’s home.

Sitting on Coff’s bed was Stars. She grinned widely as Distro lay about on the other bed, pulling faces.

‘—I didn’t have a weak bladder when Ka’harja was born!’

Ka’harja caught the end of their conversation and laughed loudly.

His mother jumped, then grinned when she realised who it was. ‘Oh, Ka! We were just talking about you!’

‘So I heard,’ Ka’harja snickered.

‘I don’t think Stars understood the joke,’ chuckled Distro, turning back to the girl. ‘He’s adopted, hon. I didn’t give birth to him.’

For a long moment, Stars stared at Distro curiously. Then her grin returned and she clapped her hands. ‘OH! I get it! I get it! Mip mip, Kekik Distro!’

‘Your mother’s s-something,’ Coff shook his head and laughed as he picked up some books from his desk and began to reshelve them. ‘She’s got s-some gr-great jokes. She’s been good company. I’m almost s-sorry that she’s getting better— I mean— B-Because she won’t be keeping me company any-anymore, n-not because I want her to be s-sick!’

‘No, no, I know,’ Ka’harja reassured the healer as he dropped the books in his panic. He bent down to help Coff collect them and they bumped foreheads. ‘Fuck! Sorry.’

‘It wa-was m-m-my f-fault,’ Coff muttered, collecting his books into a pile and sliding them next to the bookshelf. ‘I-I’ll just do it later. It’s not a pr-problem….’

There was a moment of quiet as the two shuffled awkwardly in place.

‘So, you get along with my mum?’ Ka’harja asked, forcing himself to grin. ‘I’m glad about that. She’s not always the most agreeable person. She kicks in her sleep, and there’s never enough butter in the mashed potato.’

Coff laughed. ‘Oh, y-yeah, she’s been pretty critical of Coborn’s c-cooking, actually.’

‘She adds too much salt!’ Distro exclaimed defensively. ‘If she would just ease up with the seasoning her food would be great! But apparently a “drop of citrus” means “chuck a whole grapefruit in and hope for the best” in her mind!’

Ka’harja rolled his eyes. ‘She doesn’t add enough flavour, if you ask me—’

‘—I think she cooks really well,’ Stars interrupted loudly. ‘She’s cooking for a lot of people, and all of them like different things. It’s really hard for her to get it right and I don’t think you should make fun of her when she’s just doing what Sken tells her to do. That’s mup bwab.’

A surge of guilt made Ka’harja’s face fall, and he wrung his hands. ‘You’re right. Sorry.’

‘I’m not the one you need to be sorry to. You’re not making fun of me behind my back,’ replied Stars. Then she frowned and wiggled uncomfortably. ‘Coff, how long do I have to do these for? Can I stop now?’

‘J-Just a few every d-day until your pelvic floor strengthens,’ Coff told her, and Ka’harja remembered why she’d been to see the healer. ‘Just do what— Do whatever you feel like you can h-handle.’

‘My back hurts, too,’ Stars sighed. ‘And my legs.’

‘That’s not un-unusual e-either, but l-let me see,’ Coff muttered, walking around Stars so examine her back. He moved to touch her too fast and she jumped off the bed with a fearful cry— Which scared Coff, causing him to slip and fall on the floor.

‘I thought— I thought you were going to hit me!’ Stars exclaimed, dropping to her knees and helping Coff off the ground. ‘I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to get scared and shout! I’m really really sorry!’

‘It— It’s okay,’ struggling to his feet, Coff flicked his tail against Stars and folded back his ears. ‘It w-was my f-fault entirely. I sh-should have let you know what I was— Wh-Wh-What I was d-d-doing.’

Stars shook her head, and took a deep breath. ‘You’re looking after me. I should know that you’re not going to miita me.’

‘It’s not always that easy,’ Distro remarked. ‘It’s been nine years and Ka still flinches when people raise their voice. Shit happens, you don’t have to feel bad about it.’

Stars stared at Distro for a long moment before nodding and sitting back on the bed. ‘I’m still sorry.’

‘I know,’ Coff muttered, sitting behind her and examining her back carefully. ‘L-Let’s talk about something to get our minds off everything, al-alright?’

‘Okay. What about?’

‘Well, C-Coborn said you didn’t eat your second lunch yesterday,’ he commented. ‘Wh-Why didn’t you get y-your food?’

Ka’harja felt a twinge of jealousy at that; he’d love to have eight meals a day like Stars and Dena… even if it was just a cup of weird soup with vegetables and calcium powder.

Idiot! He thought as he shook his head. They’re sick. They need it.

‘I can get my own food,’ Stars said simply. ‘I’m a kekik, not a berr, and not to be bahi but I am getting very mip at looking after myself. I caught a bird yesterday instead of getting something from Coborn.’

‘You shouldn’t eat…’ trailing off, Coff sighed again and pressed his hands against Stars’ lower back, trying to ease out the tension in her muscles. ‘Co-Coborn’s cooking you sp-special food, remember? With lots of nutrients t-to help you gain weight and— And make milk? Even if you get other f-food I still want you eating what sh-she makes you.’

‘Okay, I’ll eat it. But it doesn’t taste as good as her normal food-’ Stars cut off with a yelp. ‘Miita! Mup miita! That hurt!’

‘Sorry, I’m not good at this,’ Coff admitted. ‘But I’m really needing to get the tension out of your back.’

‘Let Ka’harja do it!’ Distro’s suggestion was so loud and sudden it made everyone jump. ‘He gives me massages all the time. He knows what he’s doing.’

Coff glanced to Ka’harja, who felt a shiver go up his spine. ‘Sure. I’ll do it.’

‘Thanks,’ Coff muttered as Ka’harja slipped into place behind Stars. ‘I appreciate the help.’

‘Lie down on your stomach and relax,’ Ka’harja told Stars. ‘It’ll hurt a bit at first so try not to tense up again, okay?’

Stars nodded before lying down obediently.

Ka’harja pulled her shirt up to her shoulders, then said gently,’ I’m going to have to pull your pants down a bit so they don’t get in the way. Are you alright with that?’

Shuffling nervously, Stars glanced awkwardly up at her friend. ‘Okay, but don’t try to have sex with me. I don’t want mup’kata.’

‘Hey, I’m gay, remember?’ Ka’harja pet Stars’ calf before giving her pants a gentle tug. ‘Guys only.’

‘You— You’re gay?’ Coff asked, his voice laced with shock and… was that excitement?

No, just wishful thinking, Ka’harja thought with a sigh. He’s already said he had a girlfriend before.

‘That’s right!’ Stars exclaimed, the anxiety in her voice completely gone. ‘He’s gay! He doesn’t like girls at all! I’d forgotten that!’

‘What— What k-kind of guys are you i-into?’ Coff asked.

Ka’harja opened his mouth to respond, but was cut off by Stars.

‘He likes small men!’ she told him. Then she gasped excitedly. ‘You’re small, aren’t you Coff? Ka’harja! Is Coff the sort of man you like? Do you want to have sex with Coff?’

Ka’harja just laughed and didn’t dare look to see Coff’s expression as he ignored the question completely and began massaging Stars. ‘Does that hurt?’

He’d hope it was a no, but Stars let out a squeak and so he relaxed his grip. He’d found the source of the tension, at least. Now he just had to ease it out without hurting her.

‘Five minutes and you’ll forget you were ever sore,’ Ka’harja promised. ‘Let’s pass the time with jokes?’

‘Yi, I have one,’ Stars muttered, obviously trying to hold back a pained whimper. ‘What goes thump, screech, crash?’

‘I don’t know,’ Ka’harja saw Coff out of the corner of his eye and felt guilty as the man sorted anxiously through his books. He waited for Stars’ answer for a while, and when she didn’t give it he cleared his throat. ‘Stars?’

I forgot the answer,’ she whispered.

Distro laughed loudly, snorting as she did. ‘A rock thrown at a harpy!’

Ka’harja felt Stars shift underneath him. ‘That’s it! That’s the answer! Mip mip, Kekik Distro!’

He didn’t think it was very funny, himself, but he chuckled as Stars and Distro began to share more jokes together. He was glad his mother knew how to distract Stars; he felt her relax and was finally able to work out her muscle tension.

‘Okay, I have one,’ he grinned. ‘If two heirs are fighting to the death for the Heck’ne throne, is it called Gra’ga-who da Prophet?

For a moment the room was silent. Then Stars began to tremble underneath Ka’harja. Slowly, her giggles rose out of her until she laughed so hard tears streamed down her cheeks and she went red in her struggle to breathe.

‘Who da Prophet!’ she panted, burying her face into Coff’s pillow and snorting loudly. ‘Gra— Gra— Ga— Who—’

‘You’ve fucking killed her,’ joked Distro.

‘When you’re done I’ll tell you a knock-knock joke,’ Ka’harja said, patting Stars on the shoulder.

Stars took a deep breath in through her nose and managed to bring her laughter down to a muffled giggle. ‘What’s a knock-knock joke? How do they work?’

‘Well, first I’ll say, “knock-knock” and then you ask me, “who’s there?”’ Ka’harja explained. ‘Did you get that?’

‘Yep!’ Stars wiggled happily under Ka’harja and he had to pin her down to stop her flinging him off her back. Her ears twitched excitedly as she asked him what happened next.

‘Then you repeat what I say, but add “who” at the end, you got that?’ Ka’harja told her, carefully sliding off her back to sit beside her. He felt his tail give a wag and shifted so it was under his leg; he didn’t want to embarrass himself with such a childish expression.

‘I think I understand!’ Stars giggled, rolling over. ‘Then you give me the answer, and we laugh?’

‘About right,’ Ka’harja gave a cough to clear his throat. ‘You think you’re ready for the joke?’

Stars nodded happily. ‘Yes! Please tell me the joke!’

‘Okay, well…. Knock-knock—’

‘—Come in!’ Stars blurted. ‘Oh— Na, wait— I ruined it, didn’t I?’

Ka’harja was too busy laughing to answer.

‘Don’t laugh at me!’ Stars snapped, sitting bolt upright and pressing down her ears. ‘I’m not a joke! Stop it! Stop laughing! Broja’kar!’

‘You’re right, I’m sorry,’ taking a deep breath to calm himself down, Ka’harja put a hand on Stars’ knee. ‘You’re not a joke. You’re my friend. And you made a mistake which was really funny and cute and completely okay to make— But I shouldn’t have laughed about it.’

‘It makes me feel bad,’ Stars muttered, looking away. ‘My mistakes aren’t funny.’

‘I’m sorry,’ repeated Ka’harja, guilt turning his tone serious. ‘I’m not trying to make you feel bad.’

Stars just sighed, and let the room fall quiet. The only sound was Coff’s anxious shuffling.

After a moment, Coff looked up from his books. ‘Stars? H-How’s your back feeling?’

‘Mip better,’ Stars smiled, her ears flicking up happily. ‘Thank you, Ka’harja. I really appreciate it a whole lot. Sorry that I ruined it.’

‘Hey, no. I’m glad you told me I hurt your feelings. Means I can avoid doing it again,’ Ka’harja told her as she leapt off the bed and sprinted to the caravan’s door. He flinched when she ran straight into it with a loud bang, and he swore he could feel the force of her collision shake the bed. ‘You alright?’

She stumbled for a minute, rubbing her face with all four of her hands. ‘I think so.’

‘Try turning the handle,’ Distro suggested flatly.

‘I did try, but I went too fast,’ explained Stars, her cheeks flushing red (with a blush or a bruise, Ka’harja wasn’t sure). ‘Goodnight Distro. Goodnight Ka’harja. Goodnight Coff.’

‘Night!’ Distro called after Stars as she slipped quietly out the door.

After Stars had left, the room quieted down. Coff went back to sorting his shelves and Ka’harja sat down next to his mother, who fiddled with anything and everything she could reach from her spot on the bed— Including the falcon statue they’d gotten from the goblins a few weeks before.

‘This is really well made,’ Distro commented, running her hands along the smooth surface. ‘It’s almost hard to believe they carved it themselves. I would have guessed they’d just frozen an actual falcon— Except the for the face. I don’t think there’s a bird alive that looks like this.’

‘Well, they were goblins,’ Ka’harja joked as his mother passed him the statue and reached for the pile of books Coff had dropped. ‘Pretty good considering the only birds they’d have gotten close to would have been long dead.’

Distro laughed and pulled a diary-sized book from the pile. She played with its lock absentmindedly. ‘I like to call her Winona, after that famous human that trained those birds to carry messages. She’s been keeping me company whenever Coff goes out.’

‘She t-talks to that thing all n-night,’ Coff muttered, holding out a hand. It took Ka’harja a moment to realise he wanted the statue. ‘I-I’ve thought about th-throwing it out or smashing it. B-But it just feels wrong to do— I-I t-traded my ponytail for it, so….’

‘She makes a good nightlight,’ Distro commented, still playing with the book’s lock. ‘I honestly love her. If you don’t want her I’ll take her. She’ll be like a weird friend who I can tell all my secrets to.’

Coff chuckled and turned around to talk to Distro, but the moment he saw the book she was holding he let out a choked gasp and lunged at her. ‘NO! D-Don’t pl-play with that! That’s my pr-private— No! Nobody’s allowed to r-read that!’

‘What, did you write it?’ Distro joked. ‘Or is it an erotic novel with a super-embarrassing kink?’

Coff’s expression as he hugged the book made it clear that it was both, and Distro laughed so hard she fell out of bed.

Ka’harja found it hard not to chuckle at first, too, but when Coff turned he saw the hurt in his eyes and forced himself to stop, wiping his nose with the back of his hand and sniffing. ‘What’s the kink?’

Coff fumbled with the words as much as he fumbled putting the book away. After an agonising minute he turned back to Ka’harja and shook his head. ‘It’s— Nothing. D-Don’t w-worry about it.’

‘Come on, Stars told you mine!’ Ka’harja said playfully. ‘And whatever it is, it can’t be as embarrassing as Baku’s love of getting beaten up.’

‘Well, uh, when you p-put it l-like that…’ a smile turned the corners of Coff’s mouth, and he blushed.  ‘I l-like… t-tall people. R-Really t-tall people.’

‘Opposite for me,’ Ka’harja laughed. ‘Love small guys. I mean, what’s the point of having a boyfriend if you can’t pick him up?’

‘So Stars said,’ Coff’s blush grew, and he wouldn’t meet Ka’harja’s eye. ‘Small guys…. Small guys like me. Me… a small guy… who likes tall people.’

There was a tense moment between the two. Ka’harja wondered if… maybe Coff was implying…. No, he couldn’t be.

He’d had a girlfriend before he was—

‘KA’HARJA!’ Distro’s ear-piercing scream cut through the tense quiet and both boys let out their own shouts.

Ka’harja covered his ears and Coff slipped over in his shock, landing on the floor with a crash and knocking down another pile of yet-to-be-sorted things.

‘Great Star, Mum!’ Ka’harja gasped, pulling his hands away from his ears and trying to make his tail fur lie down again. ‘What was that for?’

‘I want a drink,’ she replied. ‘Tell the kinky doctor I’m well enough to drink again.’

‘I think that’s up to him to decide,’ Ka’harja sighed, helping the healer to his feet. ‘Coff?’

‘NO!’ Coff snapped. ‘Not until y-you’re better!’

‘Fine,’ Distro grumbled and rolled over in bed. ‘Get me a book, then.’

Ka’harja gave her the first one he grabbed:

A Complete Guide to Chino Flowers and their Medicinal Benefits: By Colour.

Rolling her eyes, Distro opened it and settled down, leaving Ka’harja and Coff standing awkwardly together.

Ka’harja’s thoughts jumped around in his head as he tried to recall what they’d been talking about before. But he couldn’t remember; instead all he could think of was how cute Coff was.

I bet I could pick you up, he thought to himself. You’re so small I could throw you like a ball. You’re only up to my hip. You’d barely even need to kneel to— Ka’harja forced himself to stop thinking before he’d completed the thought and turned away.

‘Uh, so…’ Coff swallowed, and rubbed his arm anxiously. ‘Is the s-scar on your nose from the same in-injury that bent the bridge?’

Ka’harja gave a start and turned back. ‘What? Oh, no. The scar is from a scratch I got while trying to break a branch in half as a kid, and the crooked bridge has… always been like that, I think. I mean, I got punched in the face a few times by my dad but he never broke it or anything. At least, I don’t think so? I probably wouldn’t have known either way.’

‘Oh, s-sorry. I didn’t mean t-to—’

‘—It’s fine,’ Ka’harja gave a weak grin and shrugged. ‘I’m going to head back to bed.’

Distro flung the book at her son. ‘Don’t you dare leave me here another night!’

‘That bed’s way too small to share! I nearly crushed you last time I slept in it!’ Ka’harja groaned. ‘What am I meant to do? Sleep in Coff’s bed?’

‘You can if you w-want, it w-wouldn’t bother me,’ said Coff. Then he blushed and began to stutter as he realised what he’d said. ‘I-I mean because I’m not sleeping tonight! I have too much s-study to do! M-My bed’s going to be empty anyway and I— I mean, y-you’re free to u-use it.’

Dammit, Ka’harja just wanted to get out of the healer’s room and get away from the awkward situation, but there was no way he could get out now without looking like an arse. So instead of arguing he just climbed into Coff’s bed and watched as the healer settled at his desk nearby.

Ka’harja had two choices: roll over and stare at the wall, or continue looking at Coff’s hips, which were only about a meter away from his face. Ka’harja’s exhaustion was finally catching up to him, however, so he didn’t bother moving and stared with half-open, tired eyes as Coff began to study.

‘Goodnight, Ka,’ Distro mumbled. ‘You have your big boy’s bed at last. No more sleeping next to mummy.’

Ka’harja snickered, and let out a yawn. ‘Shut up, Mum.’

Distro’s laughter soon turned into a snore, and Ka’harja felt himself begin to drift off as well. He was almost asleep when Coff let out a loud sigh and turned in his seat, leaning over Ka’harja to grab something off the head of the bed. He got distracted and froze, turning the pages of a book and muttering quietly to himself

Ka’harja had to bite his lip to keep himself from grinning, and jokingly thanked the non-existent gods for the fact that Coff’s chair was the same height as his bed.

Then he remembered what he’d seen of Coff the day before and rolled over, trying not to imagine what the rest looked like.

‘Sorry,’ Coff mumbled, grabbing the book and quickly stepping back to his desk. ‘I— Th-Thought you were asleep.’

I nearly was, until you shoved your dick in my face, Ka’harja thought, giving a grunt to acknowledge Coff. Not that I’m complaining.

Soon, Ka’harja felt himself drifting off again. The gentle turning of pages and quiet clanking of glass and metal was soothing; it reminded him of when he was young and went to bed in the early evenings, falling asleep to the sounds of his mother’s potion making.

‘That’s not right— Dammit—’ Coff swore, and then a smell somewhere between a rat’s fart and stagnant water wafted into the air.

Ka’harja closed his eyes and imagined his first attempt at cooking. Distro had interrupted him halfway through and snapped at him for sneaking into the kitchen when she’d told him not to. Ka’harja had argued with her, and she’d decided to let him finish… provided he ate the soup he made. No matter how bad it tasted.

This smelt like his soup had tasted.


Support the Author:

One-Time
Monthly
Yearly

Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount

A$5.00
A$15.00
A$100.00
A$5.00
A$15.00
A$100.00
A$5.00
A$15.00
A$100.00

Or enter a custom amount

A$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly