Ka’harja’s Journey (DLH #1) – Chapter 7


Glif 29th, Minda

Year 10,053 AE

(A Wedding Venue; An Unfamiliar City?)

It was his wedding day? How did that happen?

Never-mind! Who cared! Ka’harja couldn’t believe the day had finally come! He was so excited to be getting married to the love of his life!

He smiled, pulling the carefully painted wedding-egg out of his tail fur, and cracked it with the side of his spoon.

‘Hello, my love,’ he greeted as he pulled apart the shell and carefully tipped the tiny man on top of the wedding cake. ‘Today’s the day.’

Coff sat down, putting his hands in his lap as he shook his head. ‘Wrong. Tomorrow.’

‘Tomorrow?’ Ka’harja echoed. ‘But tomorrow never comes.’

‘Exactly,’ Coff said calmly as he slowly sunk into the cake’s thick icing. ‘Goodbye.’

Ka’harja snorted awake with a start and groaned, rubbing his eyes and rolling over in bed. ‘What the fuck.

‘Morning, sleepyhead!’ Distro called cheerily. ‘You slept in longer than I did. It’s a miracle! I say we have a party with lots of alcohol that I’m totally allowed to drink because Coff told me it was fine last night while you were asleep.’

‘As long as there’s no cake,’ Ka’harja groaned, pushing himself up and yawning. He moved Coff’s tail off his own as he sat up and glanced at the sleeping healer. ‘I’ve had enough cake.’

‘What?’ Distro asked with a chuckle. ‘Sweetheart? Are you alright?’

‘Oh, nothing, just a dream,’ Ka’harja stretched and felt his spine click into place. ‘Did you dream last night?’

‘Yeah, about my mum— First one, not my stepmother,’ Distro told him. ‘Why, did you dream it too?’

He shook his head. ‘No. I had a different dream.’

‘That’s weird,’ Distro chuckled. ‘Maybe this dragon thing’s messed up more than just my face.’

‘No, I think it was me,’ Ka’harja laughed. ‘I had a dream about Coff.’

‘Ooh, someone has a crush!’ Distro snickered. ‘Don’t say it too loud though, you might wake him.’

Ka’harja glanced to his side and looked to Coff, asleep at his workbench; his face pressed against a scroll and his hand gripping a pen. Ingredients were scattered in an unorganised mess across the table and floor, and a heavy looking book lay open at his feet. Curious, Ka’harja glanced at the page and saw the smallest text he’d ever seen, and lots of math. He opted to ignore its existence and slid out of bed, wiped his face with his sleeve, and stared at the exhausted healer. He felt bad for Coff; he’d worked himself to the point of exhaustion and didn’t look very comfortable.

‘Do you think he’s alright?’ Ka’harja sniffed, stifling his yawn.

‘He always sleeps like that,’ Distro told her son. ‘He might as well only have one bed in here; it’s not like he ever uses his.’

Ka’harja sighed and picked up the smaller man. He was surprisingly light —lighter than Distro— and Ka’harja had no problem tucking him into the still-warm bed. The healer groaned when Ka’harja pulled the blanket over him and buried his face into his pillow. ‘Tomorrow…. I’ll tell him….

‘He’s dreaming about something good,’ chuckled Ka’harja, dropping Coff’s pen back onto the table and heading for the door. ‘I’ll bring you back some breakfast once I’ve eaten.’

‘You better!’ Distro teased. ‘Or I’ll chop you up and eat you!

‘You’ll have to catch me first, little legs!’ Ka’harja replied as he slipped out of the room. He shook his head as his mother began shouting responses through the door and couldn’t help grinning. He loved his mother, warts and all— No, scales and all!

‘You’re in a good mood, friend!’ Baku asked as he passed. ‘What’s got you laughing like that?’

Ka’harja nodded to the caravan door and watched as Baku listened carefully.

I’ll start with the brain!’ Distro exclaimed. ‘Boil it and turn it into stock to flavour the rest of you! Then I’ll roast your arms and mince your legs and—’

‘—By the Goddess,’ chuckled Baku. ‘Is she yelling at you or Coff?’

‘Oh, just me,’ Ka’harja replied. ‘If she was yelling at Coff it would be more along the lines of “if you don’t give me a drink I’ll drink your blood instead!” You know, fun stuff.’

‘Sounds like a party,’ Baku said with a grin. ‘Well, I just got off night shift with Koko so I’m going to go get some sleep.’

‘I’ll leave you to it,’ Ka’harja gave a nod to dismiss Baku, who waved happily and headed into the caravan Ka’harja had tried to sleep in the night before. And thank you for letting me know how bad a mood Koko’s going to be in today.

With that thought, Ka’harja turned on his heels and headed toward the burnt-out fire where Coborn was gathering the dirty dishes. He glanced around at everyone to get his bearings.

He saw Stars and Dena by the fire together, feeding Little Demon, and sitting only a little bit away from them Felelor was trying to eat. He was having trouble because Naranako was clinging to his arm chattering like a child as Trat and Lif encouraged him. The two men were giving impish glances to Felelor, whose own look was like an omen of death to come.

Ka’harja tried to remember how Felelor and Naranako were related…. Brothers? Cousins? Oh— Right! Felelor had said something about his sister being Naranako’s mother.

Or was it the other way around and Naranako’s sister was Felelor’s mother?

‘Naranako I’m going to slap you so hard you’ll end up an inch taller!’ Felelor growled as Naranako gave him an excited shake and he spilt his soup. ‘I swear to the Goddess, Naranako! Spill my soup one more time! I dare you! I’ll make you regret being born!’

No, he was right the first time. Felelor was definitely the uncle.

Distracted by the boys, Ka’harja nearly tripped on Koko. He saw her at the last minute and froze at her side; his foot dangerously close to her tail as she slept on the damp ground, wrapped up in her sleeping bag with Tucker flopped over her legs.

She must be exhausted, Ka’harja thought to himself, stepping over her and Tucker.

The incarah gave a heavy sigh, squealing through his gills and licking his slimy lips as Ka’harja passed.

‘Yeah, me too boy,’ Ka’harja mumbled to the fish-dog before heading towards Coborn. He wasn’t sure what to say, but remembered his conversation with Stars the night before and so gave her the brightest smile he could manage. ‘Morning, Coborn! Smells really nice today!’

He wasn’t lying, either. It smelt amazing. Maybe he was just hungry, but something about her cooking seemed more appealing than it ever had before.

‘Thanks,’ half-smiling, and pushing her hair out of her eyes, Coborn glanced to Coff’s caravan and bit her lip. ‘You… spent the night with Coff?’

Ka’harja shrugged, trying not to blush at the thought of the healer. ‘It was more that I spent the night with my mum.’

‘Oh,’ she sounded almost disappointed. ‘You know I used to share a room with him? Before he got me a job with Sken, that is.’

‘Did you two… date?’ Ka’harja didn’t mean to sound so shocked, but he couldn’t imagine either of them getting up the courage to make the first move and get into a relationship…. Was Coborn the ex Baku had punched in the face? But why would Baku hit Coborn?

‘No! Oh, Goddess no!’ a look of disgust passed over Coborn’s face, as if Ka’harja had implied she’d dated a family member; then she realised the tone she’d used and blushed deeply, anxiously starting to work her hand over her collarbone the way Ka’harja had seen her do many times before. He still never got a good look at her tattoo. ‘I met his ex, though. She was… uh…. Well, if you need to know what she was like she threw a vase at me once.’

‘Great Star, really?’ Ka’harja gasped.

‘Knocked me out,’ Coborn said, putting her hand on the side of her head as if remembering the collision. ‘But— Uh, that’s not the point. We were talking about how I used to live with Coff?’

Ka’harja got the hint, and let her change the topic. ‘How’d that happen?’

‘I was dismissed from my apprenticeship in the La’Can royal kitchens. A lot of people lost their jobs, including Coff’s mother. She’d been training me and, well, I couldn’t afford to move back to Tyali so she let me stay with her. I spent a while on their couch before Coff let me use his bed —you know how he always falls asleep at his desk— and I stayed with the family for a few… uh….’

‘A few weeks?’ Ka’harja offered.

‘Years,’ Coborn corrected, her cheeks flushing in a dark blush. ‘About two years.’

‘How… old were you?’ Ka’harja asked.

‘Twelve,’ Coborn looked away, and rubbed her collar even more vigorously. ‘I was fourteen when I started working for Sken.’

‘Wow,’ Ka’harja breathed. ‘That’s pretty young.’

‘Yeah,’ Coborn gave a weak smile and scooped a bowl of soup for Ka’harja. ‘I think I’ve done most of my learning here with her. Seces dishes are… interesting, to say the least. Nothing like wolven food, that’s for sure. And certainly not like anything foxen! You can’t deep fry salmon eggs. At least not easily.’

Ka’harja felt himself laugh as he took the chunky vegetable mix from Coborn and gave it a quick stir. ‘Thanks for this.’

Coborn gave him a thankful smile. ‘No— Thanks for talking with me. I get so busy sometimes I forget to be social. Sorry it was a bit awkward.’

‘I know the feeling,’ he chuckled, giving her a nod. ‘See you later.’

Ka’harja was glad he’d had the conversation. He hadn’t even realised he’d been stressed until after he’d relaxed. Now he could just sit and eat.

Though… there wasn’t much space to sit; most of the ground was too damp, and the few spots that weren’t too wet were already taken.

Ka’harja glanced around dumbly before catching sight of Sken, who gave him a wave and patted the log she sat on. Not wanting to be rude, Ka’harja walked over and sat with her.

‘Morning,’ Sken gave Ka’harja a friendly slap on the back, nearly making him spill his food. ‘You’re up pretty late in the day— And listening to your mother, she’s gotten up early! For her, at least. It’s still pretty late for a normal person to be getting up.’

‘True,’ Ka’harja chuckled, his voice quieter than he meant it to be.

Sken paused for a moment and looked at him expectantly, as if she realised he had something to say.

He hadn’t meant to sound that way, but it was true. He wanted to talk to someone about his feelings for Coff. Someone who wasn’t a childhood friend— Who wouldn’t tell Coff about it…. He hadn’t intended to talk to Sken but… she’d understand. Maybe.

‘Well, uh—’

Before he could get the words out of his mouth, Annanyn plopped herself between the pair and offered them both fish from her complicated-looking platter. As she turned to Ka’harja her face pulled in a grimace. ‘What’s that smell?’

‘What smell?’ Sken asked.

‘Smells like mouldy cloth,’ Annanyn muttered, sniffing at the air. ‘I think someone’s cast magic here recently.’

‘What?’ Ka’harja laughed. ‘What are you talking about?’

Annanyn was too busy sniffing to respond, so Sken answered for her. ‘She’s an aura sensor. She can smell magic.’

Smell magic?’ Ka’harja echoed. ‘I though aura sensors… sensed magic.’

‘Smell is a sense,’ Sken scoffed, rolling her eyes and grinning playfully. ‘Every aura sensor is different. Annanyn smells it…. What sort of magic is it, puddle-hopper?’

Annanyn shrugged. ‘I think it’s some sort of dream magic, but it’s too weak to tell. Probably just wafted over from somewhere else.’

‘You sure?’ Sken asked.

Annanyn nodded, and began to scoff food from her platter. ‘Oh Goddess, Coborn’s so good at cooking!’

Ka’harja didn’t agree; she was mediocre at best…. But then, he wasn’t the one who hired her. Sken had hired her— And even though Sken obviously wasn’t a fan of her food, it was clear to see why. Just looking at Annanyn’s satisfied face every mealtime almost made his own heart melt. And he was gay. Very very gay.

Great Star, Coff was beautiful.

‘Ka’harja?’ Sken’s voice wafted gently over her wife’s head. ‘You had something to say?’

‘Oh, no, it’s fine,’ giving an anxious chuckle, Ka’harja shrugged. ‘It’s nothing.’

‘If you’re sure…’ slowly, Sken trailed off. She put an arm around Annanyn and the three sat in tense silence for a moment before Annanyn grabbed a slice of banana off her plate and stuck it on her forehead.

‘I’m Banananyn,’ she stated. ‘No— Bunana.’

Ka’harja stared as Sken let out her usual ear-piercing laugh and wiped her nose.

‘My last name used to be Bunan,’ Annanyn told Ka’harja as she peeled the banana off her face. ‘But I liked the name Lyzik better, so I had to marry Sken to get it.’

‘Right,’ Ka’harja laughed as the girls shared a slimy, giggle-filled kiss that lasted just a second too long to be considered socially acceptable.

Annanyn’s freckles lit up so brightly they blurred into large spots, and she pulled away from her wife with a giggle.

Bunananyn,’ she whispered.

Sken’s gills let out another scree as she buried her face into Annanyn’s neck.

Then there was a loud bang, and everyone turned to see Stars kick over her chair and shout.

‘BROJA’KAR MIA!’ she screeched at her mother, yanking her baby away and turning and running. ‘MIA AND LEAVE ME ALONE!’

‘NEG’AN!’ Dena called after her daughter. ‘NEG— STARS! COME BACK!’

Stars passed Ka’harja as she ran and he realised she was crying. Before he could do anything, though, Annanyn jumped up and followed her.

Sken put her hand on Ka’harja’s shoulder to stop him following, and shook her head slowly. ‘Give Annanyn a minute to calm her down.’

‘But she’s upset,’ said Ka’harja.

‘And I can tell you are too,’ Sken sighed. ‘You’re not going to be any help if you’re stressed out. She’ll just feel it and it’ll make her worse. What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing,’ Ka’harja lied. ‘Just homesickness.’

With that, he downed the chunky soup he’d gotten from Coborn in a few gulps, and took the fruit platter Annanyn had abandoned.

‘You want this?’ he asked Sken. She shook her head and he ate the whole thing, fish and all.

‘Ka’harja—’

‘—It’s fine,’ Ka’harja interrupted, jumping to his feet and returning to the abandoned cooking pot as Sken let out a defeated sigh. ‘I’m fine.

Hands trembling, Ka’harja served himself another bowl of food. Then he scooped another serving into his bowl, which he basically inhaled. And another, which was gone in a few seconds.

He caught Coborn’s eye as he finished his sixth bowl. She looked both honoured and horrified as he poured another, which he took to his mother instead of eating himself. He wanted to eat it, but he was too embarrassed to admit he was still hungry.

At least Coborn hadn’t seen him eat Annanyn’s leftovers.

He made his way back to the healer’s caravan and pushed open the door— And immediately wished he hadn’t.

Stars and Annanyn were sitting with Distro, and Dena was on Coff’s bed. Nobody looked happy. Especially not poor Coff, who was avoiding gazes like they were poisoned arrows— Though he met Ka’harja’s for a brief moment as the alchemist came in and gave his mother the bowl.

‘What’s going on?’ Ka’harja asked.

‘Kekik won’t leave me alone! I know what I’m doing!’ Stars snapped. ‘I don’t need to be told what to do all the time! I’m not a berr anymore! I’m not! I’m tired of everyone treating me like a hakalika berr!’

‘It’s okay,’ Annanyn put an arm around her and gave her a squeeze. ‘Nobody thinks you’re a child.’

‘I just—’ Dena put her head in her hands. ‘I’ve raised berr before. I can help.’

‘I can do it!’ said Stars, tears welling up in her eyes. ‘I can! I can! I can!’

‘So… why are you all in here?’ Ka’harja dared to ask it. ‘Is Little Demon sick?’

‘Na!’ exclaimed Dena.

‘Yi!’ exclaimed Stars.

Ka’harja reeled back at the two as they began to bicker.

‘He’s just being fussy!’ Dena growled. ‘It happens!’

‘He’s not eating!’ Stars retorted. She sounded close to tears as she continued, ‘He’s had throat problems before! What if he can’t eat? What if it’s something really bad and he zi’kaf?! I don’t want to lose him!’

Ka’harja glanced at Coff, and the two shared a knowing look.

‘You’re not going to lose him,’ Ka’harja promised. ‘Coff’ll figure out what’s wrong; and if he’s just being fussy than that’s a good thing! I don’t think it’s too big a deal to make sure though. But maybe… stop yelling at everyone? Listen to Demon, he’s getting upset because of all the noise.’

Stars hesitated as Demon let out an unhappy blubber. Then she looked to the floor and pouted; not saying anything as Coff crept over and took the baby from her.

He looked terrified as he examined the child. He seemed to know that whatever the answer was he’d end up with one of the two nurlak unhappy with him.

‘There’s nothing wrong with him that I can see,’ Coff said anxiously. ‘But maybe…. Stars, can I just…. I, um… n-need a sample of your milk. Please, uh, don’t be mad that I’m asking… i-it’s for a good reason.’

Stars blinked at him. ‘Why do you want it?’

‘Th-There might be some— Something wrong with the taste or the, uh— The texture, that’s making him fussy,’ Coff picked up a squat cup. ‘Um…. Th-This should work. Just… fill it? Or- Or half f-fill it. I-I don’t need— T-Too much.’

‘Fill it?’ Stars’ ears twitched curiously as she took the cup from the healer. ‘With my milk? From my breast?’

‘Yes,’ Coff said gently.

No! Ka’harja almost gagged as Stars pulled up her shirt. No, turn away. Look away— By the Eight why aren’t you turning away?

‘Is this enough?’ Stars asked, holding the cup out to Coff. She flicked an ear when she saw Ka’harja. ‘Are you okay, Ka’harja? You look lenta.’

‘Yeah, no, I’m fine,’ Ka’harja coughed. ‘I didn’t know it was… that easy to get the milk out.’

‘Of course it’s easy!’ Stars giggled, covering her face with all four of her hands. ‘Berr can’t do things that aren’t easy!’

Ka’harja flicked his tail, and then an ear, as his mother let out a loud bark of a laugh and fell out of bed.

‘O-O-Oh Scara,’ Coff gagged from Ka’harja’s side. ‘That’s why he w-wouldn’t feed— Oh, uh— Th-That’s horrible.’

Everyone turned to Coff as he put the cup of milk on his desk and let out a half-wheeze to clear his nose.

‘Does it smell bad?’ Stars asked, taking the cup and giving it a sniff. ‘Ew! That’s mup gross! It didn’t smell like that yesterday! Why does it smell like that now, Coff?’

‘Y-You might be ge-getting s-sick,’ Coff mumbled, motioning for Stars to put the cup back down. ‘W-We need to ch-change your diet. Uh, at least for now. L-Let me l-look you over and make sure you don’t have an inf— Infe— Infected c-cu—cut.’

‘Can’t be that bad,’ Distro scoffed, leaping from her place on the floor and scooping up the cup.

‘No Distro d-don—’ Coff cut short as Ka’harja’s mother took a sip of Stars’ milk.

‘Oh, that’s nasty,’ Distro grumbled, wrinkling her snout and pressing back her ears in disgust. ‘Even Ka’harja wouldn’t drink this, and he likes bitter shit!’

‘No, Mum, I wouldn’t drink it because it’s disgusting!’ Ka’harja exclaimed, horrified at the thought. ‘That came out of Stars! I’m not— I’m not drinking something that came out of my best friend!’

‘What about Ganka?’ Distro teased. ‘If I recall—’

‘—He was my boyfriend!’ Ka’harja snapped. ‘And oh— Oh Great Star don’t you even dare make that joke—’

‘—I don’t see what the fuss is about,’ Dena snorted. ‘You drank an entire jug of goat’s milk yesterday. Why is Stars’ milk any different from a goat’s? It’s just food.’

‘Oh, honey, no,’ Distro held out the cup for Dena and mock-gagged. ‘I wouldn’t call this food. Taste it.’

Ka’harja felt faint as Dena reached out to take the sample. He didn’t realise what he was doing until he’d slammed into the door in his rush to escape. When he did realise, he went faster; rushing out the door and sprinting across camp towards the river. He smacked into Sken, and immediately puked on her.

‘Fuck that burns!’ Sken exclaimed, yanking a flask off her belt and emptying its contents over her skin to wash away the sick. ‘Oh Goddess. Ow. Ow. Oh. Oh Goddess, Ka’harja. What in the names of the moons is going on?’

‘Ka’harja?’ Stars’ voice called curiously from camp. ‘You didn’t try the milk!’

‘I WOULD RATHER DIE!

‘Milk?’ Sken asked. ‘What milk?’

Her milk,’ Ka’harja gagged.

Sken flicked back her fins, hissing in disgust. ‘Eyugh. Let’s get out of here before she sees me, too.’

~~~~

Things had calmed down since that morning. Ka’harja had enjoyed hiding out by the river with Sken until Stars had finally found them; luckily, she’d forgotten about the milk and had instead started asking questions about Tucker.

A therapy animal, Sken had said. To help her deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ka’harja wasn’t sure what that was, but by the name he could guess that it was something stressful and traumatic. He hadn’t asked her to elaborate. And neither had Stars…. Sken hadn’t given them the chance before she’d hurried off and started the caravan moving again.

As dumb as it seemed, Ka’harja hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it all day. Something about seeing Sken anxiously rush off had unnerved him; he’d thought she was a bad-arse. Well— She still was bad-arse. She commanded the entire caravan just by raising her voice a little. And she’d stood up against the Har’pies when they’d hunted down Stars and Dena. And she could beat Lif, Trat, Felelor and Baku in an arm wrestle— At the same time! She barely even broke a sweat with the four boys clinging to her!

That’s why it was so odd to see her look so upset.

Ka’harja sighed and looked out of the caravan. They were moving at a walking pace. He could see that by how leisurely Felelor strolled into view.

‘Lazy arse,’ Felelor laughed, playfully giving Ka’harja the finger.

‘I don’t see why you all don’t do it,’ he retorted. ‘It’d make travelling easier!’

‘Walking’s healthy,’ said Felelor. ‘Maybe if you did it some more, you’d find it easier to keep up!’

‘Yeah!’ Naranako chimed in. ‘And— And if bandits see us all walking around they’ll think: “oh no! Guards!” And won’t attack us. So why not get up and give us a hand preventing an attack?’

‘Nah, I’m good with this,’ laughed Ka’harja. ‘If they attack you guys can just pull out those nice chunky weapons of yours and fight them all sexy-like.’

‘Blood and gore isn’t sexy,’ Naranako shivered.

‘I beg to differ,’ snickered Felelor. ‘Remember when I almost got cut in half? Every foxen and their mum was lining up to have a go with me!’

‘You almost got cut in half?’ Ka’harja asked.

‘Yep,’ Felelor nodded and pulled up his shirt to reveal a huge scar, running across his chest from his shoulder to his hip. ‘Right before I met Sken! Actually, it was from jumping in front of Annanyn when our boat was attacked by valenor.’

Ka’harja flicked an ear. ‘You knew Annanyn before Sken?’

‘We used to work at the docks in Canis La’Can’s royal city,’ Naranako explained. ‘Protecting boats and stuff. We got hired for a trip to Dr’oy and back. Annanyn was one of the passengers on the return trip.’

‘Annanyn’s from Dr’oy?’

Felelor shook his head. ‘Esle. She lived in Dr’oy for a few years, though!’

‘What about the rest of you?’ Ka’harja asked. ‘You all know I’m from Heck’ne, but I don’t know anything about you guys. Except that Coborn’s from… I think it was Tyali?’

‘Right on the gold,’ said Felelor. ‘But nah, most of us are from La’Can. Naranako and me come from the royal city. Same with Coff and Baku, though we didn’t know each other. Lif and Trat come from some small town out near the Khya border, but moved to the city when they aged out of the system.’

‘The system?’

‘Foster system,’ Felelor clarified. ‘They grew up in an orphanage. When Trat turned eighteen he took Lif and came to Ryala. They worked with us for a while before Sken picked us up.’

‘Sounds like they had it rough,’ Ka’harja sighed.

‘Yeah! I heard Trat’s family died in a fire!’ Naranako blurted. ‘He was freaking out after your house burnt down. Would never admit it though. He’s too much of a big strong tough guy for that. But he was really worried about you.’

Ka’harja gave an awkward smile as Felelor slapped Naranako around the head.

‘What about Lif’s family?’

‘Single mother,’ Felelor muttered. ‘Overdosed on antidepressants.’

‘Ah,’ Ka’harja looked away. ‘That sucks…. Where’s Koko from?’

‘Oktoka,’ said Felelor.

‘And Krarf’s from Bonark,’ Naranako continued. ‘Technically.’

‘Technically?’

‘His family owned a farm that was smack-bang in the middle of a three-way border,’ Naranako grinned. ‘So they owned land in three kingdoms. Apparently they kept their cattle in Konde, their crops in Canis, and their house was in Bonark! He’s a citizen of all three kingdoms, but his birth certificate’s officially registered by the Bonark government.’

‘Fuck that’s complicated!’ Ka’harja shook his head and laughed. ‘I don’t think I’m going to remember any of this by tonight!’

‘It’s fine,’ Naranako laughed. ‘You can ask again if you need! You’re fun to chat with! Oh— And Sken! Almost forgot to say where she’s from! Sapious. That human country past I’reka.’

Felelor’s smile disappeared, and was replaced by a concerned frown. ‘But she hates talking about it. So don’t bring it up.’

‘Yeah, she hates to cross the border!’ Naranako exclaimed. ‘We had to do a delivery there once and she stayed behind in Canis, that’s how much it freaked her out!’

‘Great Star, that sounds bad,’ Ka’harja sucked in air through his teeth. He’d finally been distracted from Sken, and now the conversation was coming full-circle again. And he wasn’t sure how to lead the topic away from it. Maybe he could just change it completely? ‘Uh— So— Dumb question— But uh…. Why do we always follow rivers? Like, there’s always water a short walk away from where we are! It’s weird!’

‘Are you…’ Felelor sighed so heavily he stopped walking for a moment. ‘Are you— Seriously asking why a caravan owned by seces stays close to water?’

Oh?

Oh.

‘Right!’ Ka’harja felt his cheeks flush hot. ‘Seces. Fish ladies. River women. Lake… lesbians.’

Lake lesbians?’ Naranako bit his lip, trying to hide his grin. ‘Oh, man, Sken would love that one.’

‘Speaking of,’ Felelor gave a wave, and Ka’harja felt the caravan give a jolt as it slowed to a stop. ‘Sken! Break time already?’

‘Yeah, it’s a nice day and I thought everyone might enjoy the sun more if we weren’t on the move,’ Sken’s voice floated through the wall beside Ka’harja, so he climbed out of the caravan and peeked around the side to see Sken, with a shockingly calm and well-behaved Tucker at her side.

She gave him a smile, but Ka’harja’s stomach twisted when he saw the painful-looking welts that had appeared on her skin where he’d thrown up on her earlier.

‘Anyway, I was wondering if any of you knew where Mum was?’

The boys stared at her in silence.

Her… mum? Ka’harja blinked dumbly.

‘Um… say that again?’ Felelor closed his eyes and flicked up his ears. ‘I didn’t catch that.’

‘Koko?’ Sken twitched her fins and pushed Tucker away as he snuffled at her side. ‘Do any of you know where she’s ended up? I think she went to sleep in one of the caravans, but I can’t for the life of me remember which one!’

Koko,’ Naranako said slowly. ‘Uh, yeah. I think she’s in Coff’s bed. I can go get her if you like?’

‘No, no, it’s fine,’ Sken let out a relieved sigh and stroked Tucker. ‘I was just a little worried. I haven’t seen her all day, and a part of me thought— That we might have left her behind.’

Naranako let out a laugh. ‘Nah! Baku would never let that happen!’

‘And even if we did she knows where we’re heading,’ Felelor grinned. ‘But we’ll go let her know we’ve stopped; she’s been wanting to get some training in with Baku and this’ll be a good opportunity for that.’

‘Thanks,’ Sken nodded as the boys started towards the middle of the caravans. ‘Oh— Actually— I think we all need some time off! Let’s call it a day and set up camp!’

Ka’harja twitched an ear.

Wanting to stop early? That wasn’t like Sken at all….

‘You alright?’ Ka’harja asked.

‘Mm?’ Sken took in a too-short breath and didn’t turn to face Ka’harja. Instead she focused on patting her incarah. It was as if she was trying to distract herself. ‘I’m fine. Why do you ask?’

‘You called Koko “mum,”’ he blurted.

What?’ Sken exclaimed, her voice breaking as she turned to face Ka’harja. ‘I did not— Did I? Seriously? N-No she’s— She’s not my damn mother! I wouldn’t call her that!’

‘You totally did,’ Ka’harja gave a grin. ‘Felelor and Naranako heard you do it too. Ask them.’

‘Shut up!’ Sken ordered with a laugh. She cuffed Ka’harja around the ears and then wiped her brow. ‘Scara, I must be more exhausted than I thought….’

‘Want to sit by the river?’ Ka’harja offered. He wasn’t sure how good an idea it was, but Sken had offered to listen to his problems… he figured could give her that same respect in return. ‘We can get drunk and cry about being gay.’

Sken’s gills squeaked a laugh and she shook her head. ‘Alright. Grab me the Saviour?’

Ka’harja turned to open the wooden box in the caravan, but Sken flicked him with the blunt side of her tail.

‘No— The whole crate,’ Sken muttered, leaning around Ka’harja and lifting it onto her shoulder. ‘It takes a lot for me to get tipsy.’

‘Jeez, you sound like you might be part foxen!’ Ka’harja joked. ‘You sure Koko’s not your mother?’

Sken let out one of her loud, screechy laughs, and flicked her tail a few times. ‘Goddess you’re hilarious! Come on. I’ve been around these parts before; there’s a nice place to sit just up a ways by the river.’

Ka’harja stared at the sharp barb for a second before he realised she was beckoning Tucker with it. He grabbed his own drinks from the back of the caravan and quickly hurried after the seces and her pet.

They made their way down to the river, where Sken dumped the heavy box on the ground and (after pulling out a couple of bottles) sat on top of it. Tucker rested his head in her lap, and she gave him a gentle tap on the nose.

‘Cheers,’ Sken held out her drink as Ka’harja flopped on the ground beside her.

They clinked their bottles together, then drank.

In one big, long scull, they both emptied their bottles.

‘GREAT STAR!’ Ka’harja coughed his way through the last mouthful of his drink. ‘I didn’t think you’d beat me in that!’

Sken laughed and dropped her bottle in exchange for another. ‘I refuse to be second best at anything!

It was obviously supposed to be a joke… but Ka’harja couldn’t help but feel there was some truth to it.

‘So, what do you want to talk about?’ Sken asked, finishing her second bottle the same way she’d drunk the first.

Ka’harja shrugged. He wasn’t sure. There was a lot he was curious about right now. But nothing he was prepared to hear the answers for…. Maybe now was the time to ask…. ‘What’s Coff like?’

‘Coff?’ Sken’s gills twitched curiously. ‘He’s alright. Koko reckons he works too hard. Which is saying something, considering she pushes people more than I do! But I think….’

‘You think?’

‘It’s to distract him from something,’ she finished. Then she cracked open another bottle of drink. She drank this one slowly. ‘He’s always looking for something to do; when he runs out of work he’ll tear down his shelves and rearrange them just to keep himself busy…. I keep telling him it’s fine. But he doesn’t know how to stop. Complete opposite of you. You don’t seem to start anything.’

Complete opposites, Ka’harja sighed. Maybe his anxieties were right. He shouldn’t try with Coff.

‘You know he has twelve younger brothers?’ Sken muttered. ‘Twelve! I can’t even imagine what kind of pressure that puts on him.’

‘Pressure?’ Ka’harja’s tail twitched. ‘How could he feel pressured? He’s not living with them.’

‘He gets me to send almost all his pay to them,’ Sken took another long drink. ‘So does Coborn, actually. Sends all her pay to Coff’s mum…. I think she likes her more than her own mother. And Baku. He sends his money home, too.’

There was a moment of quiet, only broken by Tucker snuffling at Sken’s leg. Neither Ka’harja or Sken seemed to want to say anything, though. So they sat in silence and kept drinking.

As they did, Koko and Baku raced across the field on the other side of the river. They both had swords, and swung them vigorously at each other as if putting on a show— And Ka’harja realised they were; Stars danced around them, clapping her hands and cheering as the two showed off their fighting skills with an exaggerated flourish.

A laugh came from beside Ka’harja, and he glanced at Sken. She gave a wave to Stars before leaning back and downing the rest of her new bottle.

‘So… why’d you hire Coff?’ Ka’harja asked. ‘Why not someone else?’

‘Coff’s mentor,’ Sken sighed, and looked at her scarred arm. ‘He trained the healer who saved my life. I wanted someone with similar practices. His mentor didn’t want the job, but Coff was interested. I was offering double what he was getting in his traineeship. And he was almost done with his studies so it’s not like he was a complete novice.’

‘I’m sorry,’ muttered Ka’harja.

‘For what?’

‘I…. I’m not sure,’ Ka’harja took a swig from his drink so he didn’t have to look Sken in the eye. ‘That you’ve been through so much, I guess. It’s hard.’

‘It was a long time ago,’ Sken replied.

‘I can’t wait for this to be a long time ago,’ Ka’harja admitted. ‘It’s weird. I was… finally starting to forget about Kay’oten and everything that happened in Heck’ne. And then… it just… comes back to bite me. And burn down my house.’

‘You’ll be alright,’ she said. ‘Trust me, no matter how bad things get there’s always a way out again.’

‘So far, my ways “out” have been a broken leg and murder,’ Ka’harja stared out across the river. He wasn’t really interested in watching Baku and Koko spar, but it was distracting enough. ‘What… was your way out?’

Sken sucked down her gills with a loud popping noise and took a drink. She looked away from Ka’harja and after a few moments let out a long sigh. ‘Dragged along a gravel road and left to bleed to death,’ she said bitterly. Then she let out a hiss. ‘I should have gone with my gut and kept my mouth shut.’

Ka’harja glanced at Sken from the corner of his eye, too nervous to turn his head to face her, and saw her staring viciously at the shredded webbing between her scarred fingers.

Um, Raoul, I think I like girls,’ her voice rose, as if she was mimicking her younger self. ‘I know you said that I was supposed to like you, but I don’t think I do.

‘Sken—’

‘—Bastard!’ Sken hissed and threw her half-empty bottle into the river. It collided with a loud splash and sunk under the surface immediately, a stream of brown bubbles appearing as it disappeared. ‘I’ll kill him if I ever see him again!’

As harsh as her words were, her voice broke, and Ka’harja could see the hurt on her face before she buried her head against Tucker’s back.

‘My best friends tried to kill me,’ her voice came out as a sob. ‘But I guess that’s just what humans are like.’

Her gills let out a mournful squeal, and Ka’harja felt his own chest tighten. He wasn’t sure what to say or do to make her feel better…. He shouldn’t have asked— Or even offered to drink with her. He should have just left it.

Gods, he was an idiot!

Why did he always have to make things worse?

Even after all these years away from Heck’ne, everything was still going wrong!

Nothing ever was the way it was supposed to be! And it would never be the same again!

He’d been threatened and hurt and humiliated. He’d lost his home and nearly lost his mother— And he still might if her cough came back.

He couldn’t bear that thought.

‘Ka’harja?’ suddenly Stars’ voice was in his ear. ‘What’s wrong? Why are you crying?’

‘Everything’th wrong,’ he sobbed, not looking up at his friend. ‘Nothing’th right. I want to go home! I ju— I ju— I want to go home! Plea-th— Th-ay that I’m going home again!’

‘You are going home,’ Stars said softly. She pulled his hands away from his face and held them gently against her own as she wiped his tears away with her free hand. ‘Please don’t cry.’

Ka’harja heard a squeak and turned to see Sken sobbing into Koko’s chest— But only for a moment before Stars gently turned him back to look at her.

She blinked, her beautiful blue eyes sparkling with tears, and Ka’harja felt himself calming down.

He felt… strange, looking at her like this. It was familiar. Like it had happened before.

Slowly, not completely sure what he was doing, he reached out and put his hand on her forehead to feel along the bumps where her second set of eyes should have been.

A shiver ran up his spine. ‘Ith it th-tarting to rain?’

Baku glanced up and shook his head. ‘Nothing.’

‘I remember, too,’ Stars leant forward and kissed Ka’harja’s cheek. ‘And I promise it will be mip. At least for the next nine years…. Because that’s how long my last promise lasted.’

Ka’harja stared at her.

Her last….

A sad chuckle rose in his throat. ‘You were right. It wa-th okay, wasn’t it?’

‘And it will be this time, too,’ Stars told him. ‘And this time we’re both going to be mip, so it’s even better.’

Ka’harja sniffed. ‘Yeah. Yeah. That’s right. Thanks. I—’

‘—Anyone else need to cry?’ Koko interrupted, dropping between Ka’harja and Sken’s crate of Seaweed Saviour. She took one of Ka’harja’s drinks and took a sip. ‘Or is it just you two?’

Baku nudged her with his foot. ‘Be nice.’

‘I am,’ Koko rolled her eyes. ‘Stars? What about you?’

Stars sighed and flopped onto her back; rolling over and disappearing into the long grass with a sniff.

‘Guess that answers that,’ Koko muttered. ‘She’s so sensitive…. Remember when I was like that, Sken?’

‘No?’ Sken blinked, and gave her gills a rub.

‘Oh, right,’ Koko grinned. ‘That was you!’

Sken let out a snort through her gills. ‘Those were the days!’

‘Remember how you used to make bracelets out of seaweed?’ Koko teased.

‘Don’t remind me,’ Sken wiped her nose and rolled her eyes, then turned to Ka’harja. ‘I didn’t know you had a lisp.’

‘Please don’t tell anyone,’ he swallowed. ‘I don’t want them making fun of me.’

‘Why would they do that?’ she asked. ‘It’s a lisp! Did people really make fun of you for it?’

Stars rolled into view, flattening the grass as she flopped towards the trio. ‘His yalfit used to beat him up and say his voice was tarnart.’

‘Stars!’ Ka’harja exclaimed. ‘Don’t— Don’t talk about him! Please. I don’t want to talk about it….’

‘Sorry,’ Stars said quietly. ‘Do you want to go to sleep? That always helps me feel better after I’ve been sad.’

Ka’harja wasn’t sure what he wanted.

‘I think you should,’ said Koko. ‘You too, Sken. Go find Annanyn and take a nap with her. You need a break.’

Sken looked at the ground. ‘I’m fine.’

‘I don’t care,’ Koko grunted. ‘You’re going to go give your wife a hug, or I’m going to kick your shins in. Pick one.’

Grunting, Sken pushed herself to her feet. ‘Fine.

‘Ka’harja, go see your mother,’ Koko demanded. ‘No more drink. Just you, your mother, and a hairbrush. Go. Or you’ll have to face Basher and Bruiser.’

Ka’harja gave a laugh as Koko kissed her fists.

‘Bruiser’s the more forgiving one,’ Baku commented playfully. ‘But Basher knows how to party!’

Koko scoffed and lowered her hands. ‘Go on, Ka. Sleep it off.’

Ka’harja nodded. ‘That sounds like a good idea.’

~~~~

‘Tell him.’

Ka’harja didn’t want to open his eyes. He barely had the energy to twitch his ear as his mother cackled loudly.

He wished she wouldn’t. Not now. He wanted to go back to sleep.

‘Great Sca-Sca— Scara! I-I’m not telling him!’ Coff’s voice squeaked. ‘Do you know how em-emba-emba-emba—’

‘—Breath in,’ Distro chuckled. ‘I know it’s embarrassing. That’s why you should tell him!’

Ka’harja wasn’t sure he wanted to interrupt whatever this conversation was about. He’d already had so many awkward moments with Coff… interrupting a private moment wasn’t about to help.

‘I— I c-couldn’t,’ Coff managed. ‘It— It was— So much—’

‘—It was just a dream,’ Distro laughed. ‘Besides, he dreamt about you last night, too.’

Ka’harja’s hazy brain tried to put the information together.

Great Star were they… talking about him?

Maybe. He was too tired to tell.

‘W-We were get-et-et— Getting m-ma-married,’ Coff’s voice came out as a wheeze. ‘I s-sunk into the ca-cake and drow-drowned. He d-doesn’t n— Need to kn-know about it!’

Sunk into the cake? Ka’harja turned the thought over. It sounded familiar. Coff had the same dream he had? But… how? How had Coff had the same dream? Was Coff a dream walker?

‘Suit yourself,’ Distro’s mutter was followed by crunching as she ate something that sounded vaguely like— SHE WAS EATING AN APPLE!

He didn’t mean to sit up. But suddenly Ka’harja was upright and staring at his mother.

She’d stopped mid-chew and was staring back with a huge grin on her face.

‘Eighth child of the Ninth, Sweetheart,’ Distro laughed. ‘Did you have a good sleep?’

‘Apple,’ was all he managed.

‘D-Did you ju-just wake up?’ Coff asked.

Ka’harja turned, and saw the crimson blush spreading over the man.

No, I heard everything.

Was that a good idea to say, though? Should he tell Coff he’d walked in his dream? It was already so embarrassing that Coff had seen the dream…. At least Coff didn’t realise what had happened! If he knew he was a dream walker he’d know that the dream had been Ka’harja’s and not his own.

‘K-Ka’harja?’ Coff asked.

Okay. No.

He’d say something.

He’d tell Coff that he loved him and maybe he would understand. Even if he wasn’t interested, he’d understand why Ka’harja had been so awkward and would be nice about it.

How to start, though? What should he say?

Crunch.

‘Apple?’ Ka’harja instinctively turned back to his mother, who stared at him with a smug grin as she chewed.

‘I think this is what woke him up,’ she laughed through her mouthful. ‘You want the apple, Sweetheart?’

‘Yes!’

What kind of stupid question was that? Of course he wanted the apple!

‘Too bad!’ she replied, taking another bite. ‘This one’s mine. Coborn’s making soup, though, so you might be able to grab one if she’s got any left over— Calm down, you don’t need to stand up so fast!’

Ka’harja hadn’t realised he’d gotten up. He stared at his legs for a minute before taking a deep breath. He needed to relax and wake himself properly before he thought about doing anything else.

‘Nap really took it out of you, didn’t it?’ Distro laughed. ‘You feeling any better than before?’

Ka’harja nodded. He felt a lot better. It was a good idea to sleep it off. Stars had been pretty smart suggesting it.

‘Catch!’ Distro gave a laugh and —before Ka’harja had time to think— threw her apple to her son.

It was lucky he was able to catch it before it hit him in the face. But he was grateful to have it and devoured what was left faster than he meant to.

‘C-Core and uh— All?’ Coff managed. Then shook his head. ‘Not sur-surprised. It’s y-you.’

‘Should I be offended?’ asked Ka’harja. ‘Because it sounds like I should be offended.’

Coff blushed and looked away. ’N-No. I— Uh…. N-Need to— T—Talk to y-you ou-outside. P-Please.’

‘Oh, uh, okay,’ Ka’harja felt his cheeks grow hot as he followed the healer out of the caravan. What did Coff want to say? Was Coff going to bring up the dream? Was he going to say he liked Ka’harja back? No. He wouldn’t…. Would he? What if he did? What if—

‘I th-think Distro’s depressed,’ Coff blurted as soon as the door clicked shut. ‘I’m— W-Worried she might need medi-medication that I d-don’t have.’

‘Depressed?’ Ka’harja was taken aback. He hadn’t expected…. It took him a moment to take in what Coff had said. ‘You think my mum’s depressed?’

‘Yes,’ Coff replied gently. ‘I-I’m worried about her. I… tr-tried to-to— To— Talk to her a-a-about it b-but….’

‘But what?’

‘Sh-She diagn-nosed me with “stupid” and th-threw a— A b-book at me,’ Coff muttered. ‘I— I’m sc-scared to br-bring it up again. I was th-thinking m-maybe— You could?’

Ka’harja shrugged. ‘Maybe. I’m not surprised she’s depressed. She’s been through a lot.’

‘You— You b-both have,’ Coff managed. ‘I think you sh-should b-both l-look into getting thera-therapy when we get to K-Ko-Ko-ka-k—’

‘—Kokako?’ Ka’harja offered, though he didn’t meet Coff’s eye. ‘Yeah. That sounds like an idea.’

Coff nodded.

Then they both went quiet.

Ka’harja felt awkward. Should he say something? It seemed like there was more to say. But what? What could he say? Maybe something about potions? Maybe he could bring up how nice he thought Coff’s shelving methods were. They were good. Really good. He might even have to steal some of his sorting methods for himself.

‘D-D-Do y-you wan-want to-to-to-to-to—’ for a moment Coff got stuck on the word. Then he stopped talking and took a deep, slow breath. ‘Ball with Baku?’

‘What?’ Ka’harja blinked. ‘Do I want to ball with Baku— Oh, play ball with Baku?’

Coff nodded. And swallowed. And blushed. He looked as awkward as Ka’harja felt.

‘Yeah— Sure. If you want to I don’t see why not,’ Ka’harja gave a shrug. ‘What sort of ball?’

‘Jus-Just… ball,’ Coff managed. ‘Catch? A-As l-long as— As it’s not k-keep away.’

‘Aw, no keep away? But I’m great at that game!’ Ka’harja joked. ‘Mum and I used to play it all the time. Then I got too tall.’

‘H— With two people?’ Coff’s voice rose in confusion.

‘It’s not too hard. The rule is you can’t hold the ball for more than five seconds at a time. Lot’s of throwing it up in the air. And also lots of elbows.’

Coff gave a weak laugh.

‘Hey, so…’ Ka’harja hesitated for a moment. Then he took a deep breath. ‘Do you think I’m depressed?’

Coff took a sharp breath in through his teeth. A sharp, very telling breath. ‘You…. You’re a l-lot of th-things.’

‘So yes?’

‘Y-Yes,’ he admitted. ‘I think you’re de-depressed. An-And you have an-anxiety. And— I think— You m-may have… AD— AD— Uh, ADHD.’

‘So I’m just a grab-bag of symptoms, huh?’ Ka’harja sighed. ‘What’s ADHD?’

‘You— Don’t know?’ Coff shrugged when Ka’harja shook his head. ‘A-Attention defi-deficit h-h-hy-hyperactive d-disorder. It’s— A learning disability. Do you e-ever have t-trouble paying attention to things? Or— Or find y-yourself drawn t-to sounds or m-movements? Eas-Easily distracted?’

‘Shit, that’s my life,’ letting out a laugh Ka’harja shrugged. ‘The only thing I’ve ever been able to focus on was alchemy. And then it’s sort of like… I focus too much and lose track of time?’

‘Hyperfocus,’ Coff muttered. ‘It-It’s a symptom.’

‘Ah, cool,’ Ka’harja gave a nod. Then he spotted Baku by the river and gave a wave. ‘HEY! BAKU! WANT TO HANG OUT?’

Baku lifted a hand back. ‘Sure! Can Stars come? We’re in the middle of hide-and-seek! Help me find her?’

‘Sure,’ Ka’harja replied. ‘Where do we start?’

‘Anywhere,’ Baku shrugged. ‘I’ve been looking for her for at least half an hour now and I have no idea where she could have gone.’

‘Hmm,’ Ka’harja took a deep breath and scanned the field. Where could she— ‘She’s in that bush.’

‘What— How!’ Baku exclaimed, following Ka’harja’s finger to the river and poking at the bushes.

Stars sprung out of it with a laugh and grabbed Baku in a tight hug— She spun him around for a moment before stumbling, and the two of them ended up on the ground.

‘You got me!’ Stars giggled. ‘I was mip mip at it though! It took you forever to find me!’

‘And it wasn’t even me!’ Baku replied playfully. ‘Ka’harja’s the one who saw you!’

‘Was he?’ Stars beamed. ‘That means he gets to pick the next game!’

‘Ah, perfect!’ Ka’harja laughed. ‘Coff and I wanted to play catch.’

‘Oh! Oh!’ Stars clapped her hands together happily. ‘I’ll be so good at that game! I have four hands so I can catch things really well! What are we catching? Birds? Lizards?’

‘A ball, if we can find one,’ replied Ka’harja.

‘I have one in my stuff,’ Baku leapt off the ground and headed back towards the caravans. ‘Come on, we can see if Koko wants to play too!’

‘Wh-What abou-about Coborn?’ Coff asked.

‘Oh, yeah! It’ll be just like old times!’ Baku laughed, shouldering Coff as they fell into place beside each other. ‘We’ll put you in the middle and play keep away!’

‘Pl— Please no,’ Coff sighed, though the corners of his mouth turned into a smile. ‘Anything b-but that.’

‘What’s keep away?’ Stars asked curiously, her ears twitching.

‘You pick someone to make fun of, and keep the ball away from them,’ Baku explained. ‘It’s fun to put Coff in the middle. He can’t jump very high and is terrible at catching things. So it’s pretty easy to win against him.’

‘That sounds mean,’ Stars’ ears flicked back and her eyes widened. ‘Can we not play keep away? I don’t want to be mean to Coff.’

‘Aw, but he loves it!’ Baku teased, grabbing Coff and ruffling his hair. They both stumbled a few steps before Coff managed to shake Baku off. Baku let out a loud laugh and wagged his tail with joy. ‘He knows I’m just teasing, don’t you Coff?’

‘Y-Yeah,’ Coff sighed.

For a moment Baku faltered. His smile froze on his face— Or did it shrink just the smallest bit? Ka’harja couldn’t tell which it was. But something changed. His tail dropped and his ears twitched and something in his eyes looked different…. Then he slapped Coff on the back and let out a laugh that didn’t sound quite natural. ‘You okay?’

‘Y-Yeah,’ Coff shifted awkwardly. ‘I— I’m fine.’

Baku didn’t look like he believed him…. And Ka’harja hardly believed him, either.

‘Are you lying?’ Stars asked. ‘You don’t sound like you’re mip. You sound really mup.’

‘I think he’s just stressed,’ Baku answered, cutting off Coff’s own reply. ‘He’s alright. And if he’s not me and him will talk later and figure it out.’

‘Thanks, Baku,’ Coff replied, his shoulders relaxing. ‘I see Coborn. Sh-Should we go get her?’

‘I’ll go grab her and the ball and see if I can find Koko,’ said Baku. ‘You guys get ready to play. I think we should set up some goals and play boys against girls, but I’ll see what the others think first.’

‘Okay!’ Stars exclaimed, waving happily as Baku hurried into camp. ‘This sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun! What are goals?’

‘Goals are… things, like a basket or a net, that you try and get the ball into,’ Ka’harja explained. ‘Every time you score you get a point, and at the end of the game the team with the most points win.’

‘Oh, that sounds like flakha fun!’ Stars clapped her hands and jumped in place. ‘Do we kick the ball or do we throw it?’

‘D—Depends on the game,’ said Coff. ‘I-I l-like throwing b-better. I— Find it har-hard to— To kick with my l-leg.’

Ka’harja frowned.

His leg?

Ka’harja had noticed something weird about it before. But was it really a problem? Coff’s limp didn’t seem half as bad as his own.

‘Oh, right,’ Stars nodded. ‘That would make it bakti. You’d just stumble and fall over!’

For a moment, Stars lifted up a leg and teetered in an exaggerated way— As if she was showing Coff what would happen. Then she actually slipped and fell, and landed in the grass with a heavy grunt.

‘Like that!’ she exclaimed, throwing all four of her arms up but making no attempt to stand. ‘You’d fall over just like that!’

‘You okay?’ Ka’harja chuckled and offered her his hand. ‘Need help?’

‘Yes, please. I hurt my butt,’ replied Stars. She let Ka’harja pull her up and then turned to Coff. ‘Coff, I have a question. I keep forgetting to ask it when we’re alone. And I have to ask when we’re alone because my kekik said it’s very dreankot to ask. But I want to know. Can I ask you a dreankot question? Ah— I mean. Dreankot is rude and I want to ask a rude question. I don’t think Ka’harja will mind if I’m rude in front of him because Kekik says he’s really rude himself. And if I’m being rude and he’s always rude I think it’s okay to be rude in front of him.’

‘I— Uh—’ Coff fumbled with his hands for a moment before giving a weak shrug. ‘I s-suppose it’s o-okay….’

‘What’s wrong with Annanyn?’ Stars blurted. She waited a moment, continuing when she didn’t get a response. ‘The dots on her skin. Like what Distro used to have before she turned into a dragon. I think Ka’harja called them freckles? What’s wrong with her freckles? Sken’s ones are all bright and glowy but Annanyn’s freckles are always really dull unless she’s happy. Why are they like that? Are they broken? Is Annanyn broken?’

‘Uh— I— Uh—’ an awkward blush found its way across Coff’s face, and he shook his head. ‘Anna— Annanyn isn’t— Sh-She’s not broken! Sh-She’s a— A no-glow.’

‘A no-glow?’

‘Her freckles d-don’t wo-work properly.’

‘So she is broken?’

‘N-No,’ Coff sighed. ‘It’s— Like your e-eyes. Y-You only ha-have one s-set. That d-doesn’t mean you’re br-broken.’

‘Really?’ Stars twitched her ears curiously. Then her face lit up. ‘Ka’harja! Did you hear that? I’m like Annanyn! Isn’t that mip? Annanyn is mip! So being like her must be mip too! Does that make me mip?’

‘You’ve always been mip,’ Ka’harja laughed. ‘In your own way.’

‘Really?’

Ka’harja nodded.

‘BAKU! BAKU!’ Stars exclaimed, leaping into the air with excitement and waving as Baku came into view. ‘KA’HARJA SAYS I’M MIP! I’M MIP BAKU! BAKU! I’M MIP!’

‘Oh, we’ll see about that!’ he replied playfully. ‘I might believe it if you can get past my goal-keeping!’


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