Ka’harja’s Journey (DLH #1) – Chapter 9


Mrerf 6th, Grada

Year 10,053 AE

(Somewhere Else; Okatako)

Ka’harja felt like he was going to collapse.

He’d been running for… he wasn’t sure how long. But the sky was turning orange in the distance and he could hear night-bugs starting their songs, and knew it had been a while.

Maybe it hadn’t been the best idea, sprinting away from camp. But it was much better than having to face Coff and explain his feelings.

Why had Stars told him? Oh Great Star, now he could never go back!

Ka’harja let out a loud sigh as he looked around.

Not that he’d know how to get back. He was in the middle of nowhere, and could barely tell what direction he’d come from.

He wanted to lie down, but the grass was damp and muddy, and he was already sweaty enough….

But there was a large, flat rock nearby. Maybe he could sit on that for a bit?

Was worth checking.

He made his way over to the rock and was relieved to see it was dry. After a quick moment to catch his breath he hoisted himself onto it’s flat top and had another look around.

There was a gravel road not far off. Didn’t look familiar, though. Definitely not the same path Sken’s caravan had been following….

‘Ugh.’

Whatever.

He’d deal with that later.

For now, he was going to sleep.

He would just close his eyes… and rest… and deal with life afterwards.

He felt himself dozing, and let himself… doze off….

‘AY!’

The voice pulled him from his sleepy haze, and Ka’harja found he barely had the energy to open his eyes.

But why bother? Whoever it was probably wasn’t talking to him, anyway….

‘Ay! Ka’harja?’

That got his attention, and he sat up and glanced around the dark field.

He saw a single caravan on the road, now, pulled by plain brown horses and steered by a familiar felinic woman who’s name he couldn’t seem to place. But he recognised the bright orange curls shadowed in the light of the old lantern behind her and, even from a distance, he knew her dark skin was dotted with freckles. He knew her. He knew he knew her…. But from where, he couldn’t place.

‘Ka’harja, that chu?’

He nodded slowly.

‘Gods above! Y’alive!’ she turned and slammed a hand against the caravan’s wall. ‘Oi! Lads! Distro’s boy’s alive!’

Another familiar-but-nameless felinic face poked out one of the caravan windows.

‘Ah, shit!’ they exclaimed. ‘Thought ya’d burnt with ya house! What ya doing on a rock all th’way out ‘ere?’

‘I got lost,’ Ka’harja admitted.

‘I’ll say!’ the woman retorted. ‘Y’mum ‘right?’

‘Yeah, she’s fine,’ he shrugged.

‘We got ya mail!’ the second felinic called.

‘Our mail?’ Ka’harja echoed…. Then, it hit him, and he couldn’t believe he’d had trouble recognising them. ‘Auntie Denni! Uncle Tayal!’

‘Ahah! Y’do ‘member me!’ Denni let out a hearty laugh and motioned for Ka’harja to come closer. ‘Thought ya’d f’gotten me for a moment there!’

‘I think I did. Just for a moment, though,’ Ka’harja couldn’t hide his smile as he clambered up the side of the cart to join Denni at the reins. ‘Is Werani here?’

‘Yep, sleepin’ in the back like a babe in a cradle!’ Denni replied. ‘S’prised I didn’t wake ‘im with m’banging on th’wall!’

‘Or y’drivin!’ Tayal cackled. ‘I swear, y’get worse every day!’

‘Oh-hoo! Y’ain’t one t’talk, Tayal!’ Denni retorted. Then she turned to Ka’harja and shrugged. ‘Where’s y’mum, hon? Gotta give ’er some stuff.’

‘Uh, I’m not actually sure,’ Ka’harja admitted. ‘I wasn’t joking before. I’m… lost.’

‘Aw, hon—’

‘—I know where she should be, if they haven’t left me behind,’ Ka’harja pointed in a random direction. ‘By the river.’

‘River ain’t that way, Sweetheart,’ Denni corrected Ka’harja by pushing his fingers until he was pointed in the right direction. ‘But nah, y’mum’ll be waiting for ya. Sh’ain’t th’sort to leave ‘er boy b’hind!’

‘Yeah,’ Tayal scoffed. ‘Do’ya ’member when ‘e was sleepin’ an’ we tried t’get Distro t’leave ‘im for th’night an’ come driving with us?’

‘HAH! I ‘member ‘er biting Dola over it!’

‘Dola?’ Ka’harja didn’t remember that name.

‘’E was m’old life partner,’ Tayal leant out of another window, resting his arms on the driver’s seat above Denni and shrugging. ‘Y’was only ten when ‘e passed. Y’met ‘im… three times? Not s’prised ‘e ain’t in y’memories, y’forgetful li’l thing!’

‘Oh.’

‘Y’want a lift t’th’river?’ Denni asked.

‘That’d be helpful, yeah.’

‘Ah, that’s m’sis!’ Tayal ruffled Denni’s hair. Lookin’ out for ‘er ex’s kid like ‘e’s y’own or somethin’!’

‘You— Wait, you dated my mum?’ Ka’harja felt like a rug had just been pulled out from under him. ‘I thought you were just friends!’

‘No? We told y’b’fore ‘bout it. But…. Mm,’ Denni shrugged. ‘Guess y’memory’s even worse than I thought…. Y’mum took m’last name, if that’s a way t’put it for ya.’

Forget the rug. He’d just been catapulted across the field….

‘Though back then sh’was going by Talti,’ Denni chuckled. ‘Sh’was having a hard time with ‘er identity. Sure y’member that, at least?’

‘Y-Yeah.’

‘Yeah. Sh’changed it t’Saima when we split,’ Denni continued. ‘An’ Distro when sh’moved in here! Really, I think th’reason sh’stopped changing an’ figured ‘erself out was ‘cuz’a you!’

‘Sh’always wanted a babe,’ Tayal cut in. ‘But sh’was too proud t’say so. I ‘member us showin’ up one day t’find y’wrapped up in bandages like a newborn in a swaddle! Y’was terrified of us then! I ‘member you cryin’ an’ hiding in y’sleepin’ bag thinkin’ we was gonna eat ya!’

‘Y’was a stressed little’un, that’s f’sure!’ Denni laughed.

‘I’m braver now,’ Ka’harja bragged.

‘Hah! Crock!’ Denni jabbed him in the side. ‘Y’never in y’life got lost without it bein’ in a panic! Y’ran away from somethin’ and I wanna know what it was!’

‘Uh…’ Ka’harja felt himself blush. ‘It… was a he.

‘Ooh, a sexy he?’ Tayal asked.

Ka’harja nodded.

‘W’happened?’

‘A friend told him I liked him and… I panicked. Bolted. Kept running. Felt stupid that I ran, then felt like I couldn’t go back so I ran some more.’

‘HAH!’ Denni laughed so hard she nearly fell from her seat. ‘Now that’s th’Ka’harja I know!’

‘What ‘chu gonna do when y’get back?’ Tayal asked. ‘’E into ya?’

‘No,’ Ka’harja sighed. ‘He had a girlfriend.’

Had a girlfriend?’ Denni asked.

‘Yeah. He left her.’

‘S’what’s th’problem?’

‘He’s straight!’

‘Did ‘e say that?’ Tayal scoffed. ‘With words? Or are y’just bein’ stupid again?’

‘Well, no he didn’t say it—’

‘—Then how y’know ‘e’s straight? If ‘e left ‘is girl ‘e mustn’t’ve liked ‘er much!’

‘He…’ Ka’harja couldn’t argue with that. ‘Uh….’

‘Plus, what’s t’say ‘e ain’t bi?’ Denni cackled. ‘Just ‘cos I fucked’cha ma don’t mean I wouldn’t have fucked y’da, too! Did y’consider ‘e might dip in both bottles?’

Ka’harja was so disgusted he almost missed her point. Almost.

Bi?’ he managed.

‘Yeah.’

‘Bisexual?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Oh, Great Star. Bi.’

‘Y’forgot ‘bout bi boys, eh?’ Tayal slapped Ka’harja in the back of the head. ‘Even after y’own uncle is one? Y’stupid little shit fer’brains!’

‘I’m not smart,’ Ka’harja admitted.

‘Understatement of th’eclipse!’ Denni laughed. ‘Oh, Sweetheart, y’dumb as m’wooden leg!’

‘You have a wooden leg?’ Ka’harja asked.

‘Oh moons,’ Denni’s face disappeared into her hands. ‘I love ya. I do. But y’stupid, hon. Y’real fuckin’ dumb.’

‘Yeah,’ Ka’harja barely heard himself over Tayal’s laughter. ‘Again, not smart.’

‘Ah, I love ya, Sweetheart,’ Denni wrapped an arm around Ka’harja and pulled him close. She gave him a kiss on the cheek before turning and smacking her brother. ‘Ay, didn’t ’e get a package from Distro’s da?’

‘Ah yeah, old granpa grumpy,’ Tayal muttered, retreating back into the caravan. ‘Right ’ere!’

Ka’harja stared at the package that had suddenly appeared in his hands for a moment before breaking the heavily-glued seal and pulling out… socks.

Shimmering silken socks with serpentine dragons running along rose-thorn vine patterning, sewn in the ugliest pastel colours Ka’harja could have possibly imagined.

It was too much.

‘S’okay if y’wanna cry,’ Denni muttered. ‘S’nothing t’be ‘shamed of.’

‘I don’t know if there’s any tears left in me,’ his voice quivered. ‘I’ve cried so much lately….’

A hand met his shoulder, and a tail entwined with his own, and he looked to his uncle and sniffed before sliding off his shoes and slipping the socks on.

‘Lookin’ good, hon,’ Denni commented.

Ka’harja snickered and wiped his nose. ‘You can be honest. They’re ugly, aren’t they?’

‘Nah, they’re pretty,’ Tayal laughed. ‘Wolven shit’s cute.’

‘Speakin’ o’ pretty,’ Denni grinned. ‘Show ‘im th’star!’

‘The star?’ Ka’harja asked.

‘TH’STAR!’ Tayal gasped, retreating into the caravan again with several loud crashes before emerging with a large yellow rock.

‘It’s a r—’ Ka’harja cut short. ‘Is that… yellow soulstone? Yellow!

‘Y’got it!’ Tayal exclaimed. ‘T’was in a big crater near y’house! ‘Reckon it was one of them two stars that fell!’

‘Couldn’t find th’other one,’ Denni snorted. ‘Reckon it landed a bit away, an’ got picked up by ‘nother traveller.’

‘Keepin’ an eye out for it though!’ Tayal grinned, holding the star out for Ka’harja to take. ‘Pretty cool, eh?’

‘Yeah…’ Ka’harja felt mesmerised by the glowing yellow rock. It was… big. And heavy. And beautiful. ‘You know, I saw it land.’

‘Aw, lucky!’ Tayal laughed. ‘Hah! Well, t’was near t’ya place, so m’not s’prised y’saw it.’

‘Not lucky, it was like being hit by a stampeding herd of dragons,’ he explained. ‘I could barely get up, and when I finally did the second one hit and threw me down again. I honestly thought I was going to die or something. And I could barely hear afterwards…. Wasn’t lucky at all.’

‘But was it pretty?’ Denni asked.

Ka’harja thought back. ‘Yes and no. It looked like….’

‘Like what?’

‘You know those murals you find in churches?’ he asked. ‘Of Higrunchi leaping into the sky and turning into the sun?’

‘Shit.’

‘Nah way!’

‘Yeah way,’ Ka’harja passed the glowing stone back to Tayal. ‘I’d just stolen shit from a bunch of religious folk, too, and for a moment I actually thought—’ he cut off in a giggle. ‘—I thought for a moment that the gods were coming to beat me up!’

‘Oh, hon, sounds like y’got up t’a lot!’ Denni wiped her eye. ‘Anythin’ else happen t’ya lately?’

‘A goblin tried to kiss me.’

‘A GOBLIN!’ Tayal screeched out a cackle. ‘TRIED T’KISS YA! HAH! BOY! Y’GOT ME! Y’GONNA KILL ME!’

‘Yeah, I know, it was gross,’ Ka’harja mock-gagged. ‘She was nice and all, but I didn’t want her anywhere near my face.’

Tayal kept laughing. So hard he slid down from the open caravan window and back into the caravan with a crash— And finally, Werani snorted awake and rolled out of bed.

‘Ka’harja?’ he asked, poking his head out the window and kissing Denni’s cheek. ‘What’s ’e doin’ ‘ere?’

‘Got lost,’ Denni explained. ‘On our way t’drop ‘im off t’is mum.’

‘Distro’s alive?’ Werani’s face broke into a grin. ‘Gods! S’great news! Thought th’poor thing’d burnt up!’

‘Nah, sh’good!’ Tayal chimed in. ‘Ka’harja got ‘nother boyfriend.’

‘I didn’t—’ Ka’harja felt himself blush as the felinics laughed. ‘I wish.

‘Y’never know,’ Werani gave his shoulder a friendly punch and sniffed. ‘E might like y’back!’

‘Well, he knows I like him, so I guess I can only hope….’

‘Y’know what’ll calm y’nerves?’ Tayal asked— And didn’t wait for a response before passing Ka’harja a half-empty bottle. ‘Alco-holic-ohol!’

‘Hah! Sounds like y’ve had t’much, y’self!’ Denni retorted.

Ka’harja wasn’t sure he should drink…. After what Coff had said about his mother, and his depression, it seemed like a bad idea….

Though, he hadn’t exactly made the best choices today. What was one more bad decision?

‘Cheers,’ he muttered, holding up the bottle before throwing his head back and downing it in one go. ‘GODS! What was that?’

‘New stuff,’ Tayal replied. ‘Made by foxens in Quel’tua— Gots th’party of a foxen, an’ th’self-control of an avio!’

‘Flavour of th’Rendi,’ Denni tapped the label with a beautifully painted nail. ‘Th’name, ah’mean.’

Ka’harja turned the bottle over and checked it. She was right. Flavour of the Rendi was written in cursive that looked as drunk as a bottle of the stuff would probably make you.

‘Want s’more?’ Wenari asked.

‘I—’

‘—Course ‘e does!’ Tayal interrupted. ‘’E’s Distro’s boy!’

~~~~

A sky of rainbow stars silhouetted the lone caravan as its horses trudged over the uneven field. Each bump sent the boy on top of the cart stumbling from one end to the other; his voice faltering, but his song not stopping, as he lost and found his balance over and over.

Ka’harja wasn’t a bad singer —not really— and perhaps if he practised he could become decent, but backed by the screaming felinics below him it was impossible to make out his voice as anything besides a drunken shout.

The group had all but forgotten that they were supposed to be heading for the river. And it was by pure luck alone that the band of idiots happened to be going in the right direction.

‘—Oh lover!’ Ka’harja sung. ‘Dear lover—’

‘—DEAR LOVAH—’

‘—Dear lover! What are you now! My lover—

‘—M’LOVAH—’

‘—My lover! A beast of green and black!’

‘—GREEN AN’BLACK—’

‘—A beast of green and black!’

‘—GREEN AN’BLACK—’

‘—And the Maiden said—’

‘—AN’TH’MAIDEN SAID—’

‘—SPARE ME!’ Ka’harja cried, raising his hands above his head and addressing the sky. ‘Oh dear lover! Spare me!’

‘—SPARE ME—’

‘—SPARE MY LIFE!’

‘—SPARE ME—’

‘—OH DEAR LOVER—’ Ka’harja cut off as he lurched sideways and fell off the caravan. ‘FUCK!

‘THOSE AIN’T TH’LYRICS!’ an indignant cry called.

‘I FELL!’ Ka’harja exclaimed. ‘STOP THE CARAVAN! I BROKE MY EVERYTHING!’

‘Y’fine!’ Denni called back, tugging the horses to a stop. ‘Get back in y’place on th’roof so we can keep moving!’

‘But Auntie!’ Ka’harja whined. ‘I broke my everything!’

‘Y’broke y’nothin’!’

‘I did too break my—’

‘—BY THE MOONS!’ a new voice joined the group, and Baku appeared over a hill. ‘Ka’harja! Oh, moons! I thought we’d lost you!’

‘Hey party boy!’ Ka’harja called, rolling in a circle and flattening the grass around him. ‘Did you miss me?’

‘This y’boyfriend?’ Denni cackled. ‘What a twunk!

‘No, no!’ Ka’harja pushed himself to his feet, stumbling a few steps before catching himself. ‘This isn’t my boyfriend! This is Baku! Baku is Koko’s boyfriend! And Koko’s a bitch! I wouldn’t steal her boyfriend, she’d beat me up!

‘You’re drunk,’ Baku sighed, wiping the sweat from his brow and pushing back his messy hair. ‘At least you found people.’

‘Not people!’ Ka’harja snapped. ‘Family!

‘FAMILY!’ the felinics all cried.

‘FAMILY!’ Ka’harja repeated, collapsing at Baku’s feet and staring up at the man as tears came to his eyes. ‘They’re my… my family, Baku.’

‘They’re felinic,’ Baku retorted.

‘SHE FUCKED MY MUM!’ Ka’harja exclaimed. ‘I didn’t know that! I thought she was my aunt! But she fucked my mum, Baku!’

‘Okay,’ Baku let out a heavy breath and looked around. ‘You sound like you need to lie down.’

‘I need— I need—’ he threw up instead of finishing his sentence.

‘SKEN!’ Baku shouted over the felinics’ laughter. ‘SKEN! I FOUND KA’HARJA!’

‘Sken?’ Wenari laughed. ‘Lyzik?’

Baku twitched an ear. ‘Yeah?’

‘Hah! By th’moons!’ Tayal called. ‘HEY SKEN! S’US!’

‘YOU KNOW SKEN?’ Ka’harja exclaimed.

‘Yeah!’ Denni cackled. ‘W’ran in th’same circles! Sh’was a little brat last w’saw her!’

‘Been years!’ exclaimed Wenari. ‘Sh’was what? Fifteen when w’knew’er?’

‘Yeah, yeah, sh’was hanging with th’human caravan!’ Tayal chuckled. ‘Weren’t that guy Raoul lookin’ after’er for’er mum?’

‘Raoul!’ Ka’harja exclaimed. ‘She does not like him!’

‘Why, wha’did’e do?’ Denni snorted. Then she fell silent as her eyes met something ahead and her smile fell from her face. ‘Aw, no. Hon. No.

Ka’harja turned and saw Sken coming up the hill, her tail twitching when she locked eyes with the felinics.

A hush fell over the felinics as she made her way down the incline and pulled Ka’harja to his feet, and the man felt the awkward silence stretching over the grassy fields like a heavy blanket.

‘Sken?’ he said slowly.

What?’ her voice was barely a whisper as she refused to look away from the distant horizon.

‘This is my aunt, Denni,’ he motioned to the cart. ‘And my uncles. Tayal and Wenari.’

Sken eyed him for a second before turning away again. ‘I know their names.’

‘Sken, love?’ Denni’s voice floated down from the caravan, as sweet as the time Ka’harja had come home with skinned knees and teary eyes. ‘What happened t’ya?’

Sken scoffed. ‘Remember Raoul?’

‘Yeah?’

‘I was dating him.’

‘Aw, no, ‘e was t’old for ya, hon,’ Denni sighed.

‘I know that now,’ Sken muttered.

‘We would’a helped’cha if—’

‘—I know. Obviously. That’s why he told me not to tell you we were together.’

‘Hon—’

‘—I have a wife,’ Sken’s tone shifted, and a smile found its way to her lips. It was weak, but it was genuine, and she stood a little straighter as she continued. ‘And I’m over Raoul. And I am also not surprised the first time I see you ratty little scammers in— What? Ten years? Is because you’ve picked up this good-for-nothing dumb-shit.’

Ka’harja looked to the ground and coughed as Sken slapped him on the back.

‘I’m glad you’re safe, you moron,’ Sken sighed. She flicked her tail before looking up at the felinics. ‘You’re Ka’harja’s aunt? Really? I’m guessing Distro is on that ex-wife’s side of the family, then?’

Denni let out a laugh. ‘Ah, right! Right. Y’never actually met Saima, did ya? Sh’left our group right b’fore we met, didn’t she?’

Sken gave shrug. Then a nod. Then another shrug.

‘Saima is Distro,’ Denni explained. ‘Sh’changed her name.’

‘You’re fucking joking!’ Sken snapped. ‘Oh, fuck you! Fuck all of you!’

The felinics let out a chorus of cackles as Sken stomped a foot.

‘You’re telling me Distro is your fucking ex-wife?!’ Sken’s gills let out a frustrated squeal. ‘You’re telling me— You’re telling me that I’ve been dragging around one of you garbage-eating sticky-fingered little scammers for a whole month?!

‘Yeah!’ Denni beamed. ‘Ah shit, though. Can’t believe y’met up on y’own like this! Small world, huh? W’were hopin’ t’see her, actually. If y’wouldn’t mind it.’

‘Of course you were,’ Sken gave an exaggerated shrug. ‘Well, if you’re here you might as well stay the night. We have a fire-pit already set up and your horses look like they could use a good brush. Our caretaker would probably love to see them.’

‘Well, I ain’t gonna argue w’my horses being spoilt!’ Denni cackled. ‘Joinin’ y’would be an honour, hon! An’ I’ll keep m’hands in m’pockets, huh? Nothing’ll go missing. Promise!’

Sken just rolled her eyes.

‘I’ll go let Krarf know about the horses,’ Baku mumbled, hurrying away.

‘Who’s Krarf?’ Ka’harja sniffed.

‘You know Krarf,’ Sken sighed.

‘Krarf…. That name is very familiar.’

‘By The Goddess, Ka’harja,’ Sken put her face in her hands. ‘The animal caretaker, Krarf? Short? Bearded? Quiet?’

‘He feeds the dragons!’ the memory of Krarf shot back to Ka’harja and he nearly fell over again. ‘I think… he doesn’t like me much.’

‘No, he does not,’ Sken confirmed, shoving Ka’harja in the direction of camp. ‘To be fair, though, he doesn’t like many people. But he does his job…. Now, get moving. Everyone is worried sick about you.’

‘Sick…’ Ka’harja muttered. ‘If they’re sick they should see a doctor. Coff is a doctor. Coff…. Coff…. OH NO, COFF!’

He turned to sprint away, but met Sken’s outstretched arm instead and crumpled to the ground.

‘We’re not wasting any more time chasing you down,’ she muttered, gripping him by the shirt and yanking him to his feet. ‘You’re going to face Coff like a foxen and deal with this shit.’

‘But— But foxen men are cowards!’ Ka’harja exclaimed, trying to wiggle out of his shirt but wincing as his ear was given a warning tug. ‘We’re known for it!’

‘Not in my caravan, you’re not,’ Sken scolded. ‘Besides, your mother’s been worried. You don’t want to make your mother worried, do you?’

No,’ Ka’harja admitted, letting himself be defeated. ‘I love my mother.’

‘I love y’mother too,’ Denni mumbled from somewhere behind the pair.

‘We’re just over the hill,’ Sken’s voice softened, and she let Ka’harja’s shirt go— Though her arm remained firmly around his shoulders. ‘Come on, you dumb-arse.’

Ka’harja pouted as he was lead back to camp. Almost everyone had gathered to greet him, obviously alerted by Baku…. He felt guilty when he saw his mother pacing anxiously with Dena at her side, and gave a half-wave as she paused to look at him.

‘You little shit!’ she exclaimed, marching over to throw her arms around his waist and bury her face into his stomach. ‘I can’t believe you! I thought I’d lost you! Don’t you ever run away like that again!’

‘Sorry,’ Ka’harja managed. He shuffled in place for a moment before giving a cough and motioning behind himself. ‘I found Auntie Denni.’

‘You wha— DENNI!’ Distro gasped, her face lighting up in a wide, draconic grin.

‘WHOA! DISTRO! Y’GOT UGLY!’ Tayal’s laugh was immediately followed by shouting as Denni yanked him out of the caravan and threw him to the ground.

‘Y’beautiful,’ Denni corrected. ‘Y’look cute w’horns!’

‘They’re more like stubs,’ Distro snorted, poking one of the four little white bumps on her head. ‘But yeah, you could say they’re growing on me!’

‘Ah’m gonna fuckin’ kill ya,’ Denni replied. ‘Ay! I got’cha mail!’

‘Oh!’ Distro clapped her hands together and rushed past her son so she could clamber to her ex’s side. ‘From my father?’

‘Yeah! From y’da!’ Wenari stuck his head out of the caravan and handed Distro a handful of letters. ‘Think ‘e still hates us. But’s nothin’ new there.’

‘Nah, he loves you,’ Distro cooed, pinching the felinic’s cheek and sticking out her tongue. ‘He’s just too cultured to know it.’

The felinics laughed, and Ka’harja heard a sigh from his side.

Dena looked lonely and uncomfortable as Distro chatted with her old friends, and Ka’harja couldn’t help feeling bad for her. He wondered if he should introduce them— But was beaten to it as his mother practically leapt from her seat and grabbed Dena by the arm.

‘This is Dena!’ she exclaimed. ‘We need to make her a Caves and Creatures character, right now.

‘YES!’ Tayal shrieked, yanking open the caravan’s door and ushering the two women inside. ‘W’GOT OUR THIEF BACK! W’CAN GO T’STORM MOUNTAIN AND BEAT TH’OGRE!’

‘Gods they’re loud,’ Sken muttered. Then she turned to Ka’harja with a grin. ‘I can see where you get it from.’

Ka’harja gave a nervous shrug. ‘Well, I mean…. Yeah.’

‘Coff’s waiting for you,’ said Sken, motioning to the healer’s caravan. ‘You should talk to him.’

‘Do I have to?’

‘Yes,’ Sken replied. ‘For his sake. Please, just talk to him before he stresses himself into a coma.’

Ka’harja let out a heavy sigh and trudged past the crowded group of caravaners to Coff’s door. He stood for a second before glancing back to Sken, who gave a firm nod. When she did he sighed and knocked on the door.

He heard a crash and a panicked exclamation in response, and almost bolted again. But he swallowed his anxiety as the door slowly opened.

‘Ka’harja?’

‘Yeah,’ Ka’harja cleared his throat as he avoided the healer’s eye. ‘We should probably… talk.’

Coff simply stood aside and motioned for Ka’harja to join him in the caravan.

Reluctantly, Ka’harja did, and sat on his mother’s bed as Coff sat in his chair at his desk. He stared at Ka’harja, who slowly gave a nod.

‘So….’

‘S-So,’ Coff echoed. ‘Ka’harja, I-I….’

Ka’harja waited patiently for Coff to finish, but when the man didn’t, he simply sighed and looked to the floor. ‘I know you like Stars.’

‘Wh-What? Why would I…. W-We h-have nothing in-in c-common!’ Coff gasped. ‘I don’t— I d-don’t l-like her!’

‘Wait, you don’t like Stars?’ Ka’harja asked. ‘Then who’s the crush you were talking about?’

Coff stared at him for a long, long moment. The look on his face told Ka’harja that he should have known, but in the state he was in he… couldn’t quite figure it out.

After a minute that felt like an hour, he decided to guess. ‘You like… Sken?

NO!’ Coff exclaimed, burying his face in his hands. ‘Y-Y-You’re so— So st-st-stup-stup-stupid— H— How— How are you— Even— Even—’

Ka’harja wasn’t sure what to do as Coff doubled over with a frustrated cry, so he awkwardly leant over and pet the healer on the back. ‘I’m sorry. Does it really matter that I know? I mean— I’d probably end up telling them by accident….’

Coff took a deep breath and sat up straight. He stared at Ka’harja again, his eyes wide. And, after a minute, he spoke.

Slowly.

Ka’harja?

‘Yeah?’

‘I like… you.

‘As a friend?’

The healer struck him across the cheek so hard he slipped off the bed and onto the floor. His head was spinning as he scrambled to sit back up.

What— What other kind of like was there besides—

‘Oh Great Star you like like me!’ Ka’harja exclaimed.

Coff closed his eyes and let out a heavy breath, as if a weight had been lifted off him. He nodded as he took another deep breath in. ‘Yes.’

‘You like like me,’ Ka’harja repeated.

‘Yes.’

‘Like, like like me?’

Yes.

‘Like— You— You like, like like me.’

Coff buried his face in his hands. ‘G-Goddess knows why.’

Ka’harja couldn’t comprehend it.

Coff liked him?

Coff… like liked him.

‘D-Do you l-like me back?’ Coff asked. ‘Or was St-Stars….’

Ka’harja wasn’t sure what to say. But he knew he should say something— But what? What should he say?

‘Uh…. I’m going to give you a foot rub!’ Ka’harja decided, leaping to his feet and lifting Coff into the air.

‘Wh-What!’ Coff exclaimed as he was dropped onto his bed.

‘We’re boyfriends now,’ Ka’harja managed. ‘So I’m going to give you a foot rub.’

‘Um…’ Coff’s eyes darted around the room. ‘A-Are you… d-drunk?’

‘I’m not drunk, I’m your boyfriend!’ Ka’harja replied, flopping heavily next to Coff and pulling his feet onto his lap. ‘And I want to be a good boyfriend so I’m going to— Great Star, it’s gone!

‘Wh-What’s g-gone?’

‘Your foot! Your foot is gone!’ Ka’harja stared down at Coff’s footless ankle with wide eyes. ‘Where did it go?!’

‘I-I was— I was b-born l-like th-this. You— You d-didn’t no-noti…’ Coff trailed off with a sigh. ‘Of-Of c-course you d-didn’t n-notice….’

Ka’harja felt tears coming to his eyes. ‘But… but how can I…. How can I give you a feet rub if you don’t have feet?

‘Pl-Please don’t c-cry,’ Coff muttered, shifting around awkwardly until he was sitting with his head on Ka’harja’s shoulder and his arm around his back. He lifted his other leg and showed off his bare foot. ‘I st-still h-have o-one f-foot. J-Just do— Just do th-that one tw-twice? And— And d-don’t st-start crying. Pl-please don’t….’

It was too late. Tears streamed down Ka’harja’s cheeks as he wrapped his arms around the healer and squeezed him tightly. ‘I’m so sorry I didn’t notice! I’m a bad boyfriend!’

‘N-No?’

‘I am!

‘Y-You’re not— W-We’re not? A-Are we?’

I love you,’ Ka’harja sobbed. ‘I love you and I’m sorry.’

‘You— Um…’ Coff looked around the room anxiously, his eyes settling on the door with a desperate look in them. ‘Sh-Should we— Distro? Y-Your mother. Do you w-want me to g-get h-her or….’

‘I want to sleep,’ Ka’harja sniffed.

‘O-Okay,’ Coff nodded. ‘G-Good idea. Sl-Sleep. And we— We will talk abou-about this in th-the morning.’

~~~~

Eighth child of the Ninth, he was hung over.

Ka’harja took a deep breath, and tried to open his eyes. Everything was far too bright for his liking and he struggled to focus his vision.

What had he done last night? He couldn’t remember a thing.

The taste of an unfamiliar alcohol hung on his breath and he groaned. Had his mother had friends over?

No. No. This wasn’t his house…. This was Coff’s caravan.

He groaned again.

He had to get up.

Gods, he didn’t want to. But he had to. He was starving, and he couldn’t see his mother anywhere. She still wasn’t supposed to be out of bed for too long, and she was probably running around camp, kicking more logs and wearing herself out.

He took a deep breath, and could smell breakfast cooking. It smelt so good.

Great Star, he felt like he hadn’t eaten in days! Had he missed dinner?

It felt like he’d missed dinner.

And breakfast was out there, waiting for him….

That was enough to motivate him into ignoring his pounding headache. He slid to his feet and stumbled into the caravan door, where he stayed for a moment before finally opening it and, legs trembling, made his way through camp to the fire pit.

He swore everyone was staring at him as they sat with their meals. He must have looked as hung over as he felt as he stood, swaying, in front of Coborn.

He wasn’t sure why she was snickering.

Nor was he sure why Coff was looking at him the way he was from her side.

Hi,’ Ka’harja managed, his voice as raspy as his mother’s used to be.

‘H-Hi,’ Coff responded. ‘Abou-About l-last night….’

Last night? Ka’harja could feel himself squinting as he tried to remember what happened last night.

Oh!

‘Oh— What Stars said!’ Ka’harja blurted. ‘Uh— She was— She was wrong. Mistaken. I think she misheard me or something.’

Coff just stared as Coborn’s snicker turned into a cackle and she spilt the bowl of half-served oats on the ground.

‘Or is that not what you’re talking about?’

‘N…. No,’ Coff muttered. ‘I— I mean…. A-After th-that.’

After that?

‘What happened after that?’

‘Y-You don’t remem-remember?’

‘Uh…’ was he supposed to? Had something important happened or— He let out a shriek and leapt backwards, tripping over his own feet and ending up on the ground as the entire night came flooding back to him. ‘YOU LIKE ME BACK!’

There we go,’ Coborn swallowed her laugh as Coff shook his head.

‘You- You r-really forg-forgot?’

‘Apparently?’

‘G-Goddess,’ Coff put his face in his hands and let out a long, deep sigh.

‘Are we dating now?’ Ka’harja blurted.

Coff didn’t look up, and instead let out another sigh.

‘So, uh…. Is that a no?’

‘N-Not a n-no,’ Coff managed, running his hands through his short, messy hair and sitting up straight, finally looking over to Ka’harja. ‘But— Not a y-yes. N-Not y-yet.’

‘Why not yet?’ cocking his head, Ka’harja tried to piece together what the problem was. If they liked each other, why not be together?

‘Because you’re as dumb as a brick,’ Felelor’s hand made contact with Ka’harja’s back, and Ka’harja almost shrieked again in surprise. ‘And you wouldn’t know a boundary if you ran face-first into a sign that said “no entry.”’

‘Right,’ Ka’harja glanced to Coff, who gave a slow nod. ‘I’m too dumb for you.’

‘N-No,’ Coff shook his head. ‘I-It’s ch-char-charming. You are. M-Most of the t-time. B-But…. I…. We…. Need to t-talk about it.’

‘Privately,’ Coborn added.

Ka’harja nodded, and got to his feet. ‘Okay…. Now?’

‘E-Eat first,’ Coff took the bowl of food from Coborn and offered it to Ka’harja— It was devoured in moments. ‘I…. That was f-fast.’

‘I was hungry,’ Ka’harja said dumbly. ‘And… if you want to talk….’

‘Uh…’ Coff rubbed the back of his neck. ‘M-Maybe a-after….’

‘After what?’

Coff glanced to the out-of-place caravan at the edge of camp and sighed. ‘Distro.’

‘Shit, right,’ Felelor put a hand to his mouth, his grin disappearing into a solemn look. ‘Yeah. You might want to go talk to her.’

Ka’harja didn’t even think to ask why as he leapt to his feet and ran to Denni’s caravan. The way Felelor had looked at him, he knew something was wrong. He burst into the caravan, ignoring Tayal’s terrified shout, and glanced around for his mother.

She stared at him from her place in Dena’s arms; her eyes red and sore but her expression otherwise calm as she wiped her nose.

‘Dramatic,’ she snorted, the sides of her snout twitching as if she was trying to smile.

‘Are you okay?’ Ka’harja blurted. ‘Have you been crying? What— What happened?’

Distro gave a loud sniff and sat up. She pet the bed beside her, and when Ka’harja sat down she put her head on his arm and sighed, ‘My mother’s sick.’

‘Grandma?’ Ka’harja managed. ‘With what?’

‘She was drugged,’ Distro muttered. ‘With chino flore.’

‘The pain poison?’ Ka’harja let out a gasp. ‘What— Is she okay?’

‘She’ll live,’ Distro sighed, fiddling with the wrinkled letter in her hands and picking at the already-frayed corner with worry. ‘But she’s not well…. She…. She was in so much pain that she….’

Wenari’s hand met Ka’harja’s shoulder. ‘Sh’ripped out ‘er own stomach.’

‘Great Star,’ Ka’harja felt like he was shrinking —like hands of horrible feelings were crushing him like a ball of paper— and it took too much effort just to swallow. ‘When?’

‘Only a couple of days after we lost our house,’ Distro took a deep breath and composed herself. ‘And that’s not the only bad news— My brother was almost hit by a speeding cart, and your cousin fell off a balcony. Nobody’s died but… I guess it’s just been a string of bad luck for the family.’

‘Y’all still ‘live though,’ Denni sighed. ‘Ain’t much comfort, but y’all are still ‘live.’

Distro nodded, and let out the rest of her breath in a long sigh. ‘Did you talk to Coff?’

‘I don’t think that’s important right now—’

‘—Nonsense,’ interrupting her son, Distro waved a hand. ‘I want to hear something good for once.’

‘Well… he says he likes me. But that he wants to talk about it,’ Ka’harja sighed. ‘Privately. Later.’

‘Ah,’ Tayal eased out of his chair so he could join Werani in patting Ka’harja’s back. ‘Better then a no. Prob’bly just wants t’tell y’somethin’ ‘portant. Like ‘e don’t like being t’cuddly or somethin’.’

‘Hah, yeah,’ Ka’harja brushed the felinic’s hand off his back and turned so he could lean against the wall. ‘You guys have fun with your game last night?’

‘Yeah, Dena’s a surprisingly good ranger,’ Distro gave a grunt and flopped against the nurlak, who scoffed but didn’t push her away. ‘Finally managed to get past that damn ogre and beat the campaign. It’s only taken three years to kill that damn thing!’

‘To be fair, that’s only six sessions.’

To be fair, they’re eight hour sessions!’ Distro retorted, kicking out her foot into her son’s face. ‘Play with us.’

‘You know I can’t focus that long,’ he replied. ‘Maybe if you did… I don’t know, ten minute sessions, I’d be able to get through them.’

‘Ten minute sessions? What, you want to meet one person and then stop playing?’

‘I mean, yeah. I hate meeting people. Even fake people.’

‘Well, I think—’

‘—C’mon, Distro, y’ain’t much better!’ Tayal interrupted, earning a laugh from his sister.

‘Yeah, yeah!’ Denni cackled. ‘I ‘member when y’used t’hide in th’back of th’cart whenever there was a knock on th’door!’

‘What do you mean “used to?”’ Distro snorted. ‘You think I ever started answering my door? I moved to Okatako for a fucking reason, didn’t I!’

‘Ooh, self-burn,’ Wenari teased. Then he nudged Ka’harja. ‘Y’really gonna let someone talk ‘bout y’mum like that, boy?’

‘Yeah!’ Tayal chimed. ‘If someone said that ‘bout m’own mother I’d give ‘em a good deckin’!’

‘I mean, she said it about herself—’

‘—No ‘scuses! D’fend y’mum!’ Denni exclaimed, poking Ka’harja in the shoulder. ‘Give th’mean old lady a good slap!’

‘Old!’ Distro scoffed. ‘I’m not old!’

‘And I’m not slapping her!’ said Ka’harja.

‘Aw, what? You’re too much of a sook?’ Distro grinned. ‘I knew it. I raised a wimp.’

‘What, you want me to hit you?’ Ka’harja looked from his mother to the cheering felinics. ‘I’m not— Why— What’s wrong with you all?!’

‘Ah, I knew it, e’s a wimp!’

‘WIMP!’

‘Big baby.’

‘Hey— No, no!’ Ka’harja leapt to his feet and raised his hands defensively. ‘You guys can’t bully me!’

‘Crock!’ Distro gave a wicked grin and made to stand up. ‘We can absolutely bully you!’

NO!’ Ka’harja didn’t mean for it to come out as a shriek, but the entire room had taken cue from his mother and suddenly advanced on him— And he was only half out the door before he felt his mother leap onto his back and whoop like she was taming a wild horse. He nearly slipped down the last step as her weight slammed into him and stumbled along the damp grass for a minute before Distro’s arms wrapped around his face and he couldn’t see where he was going.

‘Git ‘im, Distro!’

‘No! Stop getting me!’ Ka’harja exclaimed. Then he tripped and fell, the weight on his back pulling him down sideways.

‘Aw, FUCK!’ Distro exclaimed as Ka’harja landed on her. ‘Elbow— ELBOW!’

Ka’harja rolled off her and she let out a gasp, gripping her stomach and rolling over to catch her breath.

‘Y’kay, Distro?’ Denni called.

‘Yeah, fine,’ Distro replied.

‘Serves you right,’ Ka’harja joked, rolling to his feet and offering his mother a hand. ‘I’m a sensitive boy, you know!’

Right as he said it he met eyes with Coff, and felt like an idiot. But then Coff smiled and he felt a little less like an idiot…. And then his mother yanked him onto the ground again and started sticking her fingers in his ears, and the shriek he let out made him feel stupider than ever.

‘Let me go!’ he cried. ‘I’m fragile! I’M FRAGILE!’

‘Crock!’ Distro retorted before making a throaty snort— And Ka’harja screamed as spit made its way down the back of his neck.

DISGUSTING!’ his voice rose so high it hurt his ears. ‘YOU’RE DISGUSTING!

‘You’re the one with spit on you.’

‘Get off me!’ wiggling as much as he could, Ka’harja managed to escape his mother’s grip and fled through the caravans towards the river.

He couldn’t hear anyone following him as he made it to the incline and dared to slow down. Then he glanced back and was relieved to see nobody behind him.

‘Oh, thank the Eighth child of the Ninth,’ he breathed, stumbling down the hill. Then he slipped and tumbled the whole way down before splashing into the water with another loud cry.

He flailed for a moment before something heavy knocked the wind out of him. In the second it took him to compose himself, something grabbed him and flipped him upright, pushing him up and out of the river again.

‘Scara, Ka’harja, are you trying to drown yourself!’ Sken’s voice snapped. ‘Stop struggling!’

‘Sk— Sken?’ Ka’harja managed as he was hefted out of the water and dropped heavily on the muddy bank by— By an almost completely naked Sken! ‘I— I’m gay!’

‘Yes, I know that,’ Sken grunted, dropping on the bank next to Ka’harja and rubbing her cheek. ‘You also have a real good kick in you.’

‘I kicked you?’ cogs turning in his head, it took Ka’harja a moment to realise exactly what had just happened. ‘Oh, oh Great Star I’m so sorry I didn’t mean to—’

‘—Yeah, yeah, I know,’ Sken cut Ka’harja off with a humoured snort. ‘You never mean to freak out. What happened this time?’

‘Mum spat on me,’ Ka’harja explained, making the mistake of glancing over himself and the seces. ‘Uh. Your underwear.’

‘What about my underwear?’

‘I can see it?’

‘Well, yeah,’ Sken snorted. ‘Can’t exactly swim properly in jeans.’

‘Ah. I see,’ he gave a short nod. ‘They’re, uh, pink?’

‘Yes.’

‘I didn’t think you’d like pink much,’ Ka’harja admitted. ‘I thought you’d be more of a… a purple girl.’

‘Ugh, purple,’ Sken rolled her eyes. ‘My school uniform was purple. It was a horrible, ugly shade of the colour, too.’

‘You went to school?’

‘Had to get smarter than you somehow, didn’t I?’ Sken grinned before leaning back and letting out a long, heavy sigh. ‘I used to hate pink. It’s what I was assigned at birth, you know.’

‘You were assigned a colour?’

‘Yeah, all seces are. Makes up for not being given a gender, I guess,’ Sken’s gills gave a pop and she grinned widely. ‘Though, a seces’ colour is meant to be a private thing and we’re only meant to tell people we’re close to. I never really bought into that. Not really…. Anyway, you all done drowning?’

‘Pretty sure I’m done,’ Ka’harja felt himself chuckling as Sken punched him in the shoulder and pushed herself up. He watched as she disappeared back into the river and… wasn’t entirely sure what to do next. He didn’t want to go back to his mother. Not if she was going to spit on him again. And he wasn’t sure Coff was ready to talk to him yet.

Though it was all he wanted to do.

But Coff had seemed determined to avoid talking about it. And after Felelor’s comment about “boundaries” it was probably best not to push.

He lay back in the grass, letting himself sun a little in hopes of drying off, and sighed loudly.

What was he doing wrong?

It always seemed to be him. Was he really that bad a person to know?

Gods, why was he like this?

Why why why couldn’t he just be a normal person and not act like an idiot constantly?

‘Ka’harja?’

He didn’t mean to scream, but he leapt forward and let out a cry so loud that Sken resurfaced just as he went under.

‘Scara’s sake,’ she huffed, lifting him back onto land. ‘I thought you said you were done with drowning! Look at— You scared Coff!’

Ka’harja flinched as Sken smacked him over the head, then turned to see the healer collapsed on the bank.

‘Is he— Coff? Are you okay!’ Ka’harja scrambled over to the unconscious man and lifted his head just as his eyes began to flutter back open. ‘I’m so sorry!

Coff just groaned and furrowed his brow.

‘Coff, you alright?’ Sken asked as she crouched next to the boys. She put a hand on his forehead and gently pet his hair back. ‘You need help getting back to your caravan?’

‘I— No,’ he managed to sit up, with a little help. ‘I j-just…. Wanted… to talk.’

‘To Ka’harja?’

‘Y-Y-Y—’ he cut off, and nodded instead.

‘Ah,’ Sken glanced awkwardly between the boys. ‘Did you two figure yourselves out yet, or should I leave?’

‘Priv— I— Privately,’ Coff managed.

‘Okay,’ Sken pet him again, almost as awkwardly as when Ka’harja had pet Annanyn the day before, then turned and slid back into the river. ‘If you need me… just throw Ka’harja back in.’

‘Hey!’ he wasn’t sure Sken heard his complaint as she disappeared back under the water. A quiet moment passed as the ripples slowly faded, before he felt Coff put a hand on his. ‘Coff? You okay?’

‘I— I’m o-o-okay,’ Coff managed. ‘I w-want t-to…. To talk.’

‘About… us?’

‘Y-Yeah,’ a deep blush spread over Coff’s cheeks, and he looked away. ‘I… I like you.’

‘As a friend?’ Ka’harja joked. Nudging Coff when he rolled his eyes, and finally getting a smile out of the man. ‘So.’

‘S-So….’

‘Is it something I did?’ Ka’harja blurted. ‘I mean— Why you don’t want to date me.’

‘I w-w-w-want t-to d-date you,’ Coff managed, finally meeting Ka’harja’s gaze. ‘It’s— It’s j-just h-hard. And— And i-it’s not— It’s n-not y-you.’

‘That’s not something I hear often,’ Ka’harja was the one who looked away this time. ‘Usually it’s me.’

‘No,’ Coff said, his tone surprisingly firm. ‘You. You are— You’re w-wonderful. It’s— It’s T-Tisimi.’

‘Who?’

‘My e-ex g-g-girlf-friend,’ Coff clarified. He shook his head and swallowed before pulling his knees against his chest and speaking quietly, ‘I’m j-just. So— So s-scared.’

Ka’harja understood what that felt like.

He really, truly understood.

How could he tell that to Coff, though? About all those years that he’d spent terrified of Kay’oten coming to find him…. It didn’t seem comparable. But then, even after seeing her again and knowing that she was gone for good— The fear still hadn’t gone away. Not really. And it was the same sort of fear, wasn’t it?

Deep breath, Ka’harja thought. He just needed to put it into words. It was simple. I understand.

That was all he needed to say.

I understand.

Okay….

‘Yeah, that sounds like absolute shit. I hope she falls out a window or something.’

He wanted to kill himself.

At least Coff seemed to think it was funny. He laughed for a moment, choking a little on his own giggles as he managed to add, ‘M-Me t-too!’

‘I didn’t mean to say that,’ Ka’harja admitted. ‘Words are just. Hard. I meant to say…. I’m scared too.’

‘Y-You a-are?’ Coff’s smile shrunk, and he edged closer. ‘Of— Of what?’

‘My mother,’ a sigh escaped him, but he was relieved to feel Coff’s head rest against his shoulder. ‘Not Distro. Kay’oten. I know she’s dead and can never come back or hurt me again but— But I’m still terrified of her. Just the idea of her makes me feel sick.’

‘I-I under-understand,’ Coff comforted.

‘Yeah,’ Ka’harja could feel the blood pumping in his ears as Coff’s hand rested on his knee. ‘I… hate knowing that you’re scared. And I want to make you feel safe. Like my mum made me feel safe— Only— Only not like that. Like, different to that. I don’t want to be your dad.’

Coff could hardly speak through his snickers as he sniffed and shook his head. ‘I-I-I knew wh-what y-y-you m-meant! D-Don’t m-make it-it weird!’

‘No— I’m trying to make it the opposite of weird!’ Ka’harja defended. ‘Like, I don’t want you calling me “daddy” or anything— Hey no, c’mon! Don’t laugh at that! Coff— Coff!

The healer couldn’t seem to stop. He laughed, and laughed, and then tears fell down his cheeks and he didn’t bother to wipe them away as he tried to catch his breath, only to laugh more.

‘Come on, Coff!’ Ka’harja whined, trying to bite away his grin. ‘You’re the one who wanted to talk boundaries!’

Coff nodded and took a deep breath, finally managing to calm himself down. ‘Y-Yes. I— I was. Sorry. It’s j-just— Y-You dig h-holes. Sometimes— Sometimes you sh-should ju-just s-stop talking inst-instead of— Of—’

‘Rambling?’ Ka’harja felt himself grin. ‘Yeah, no. I know. I can’t really help it. I get nervous and it just comes out.’

Coff bit his lip, his cheeks a darkening red as he held back another laughing fit.

‘What?’

Of the closet,’ it sounded more like a squeak then actual words. And it took a moment to sink in…. But when it did, Ka’harja almost launched himself into the river again.

He wasn’t sure why it was funny. It barely made sense. But it made him giggle. ‘This is not how I thought this conversation was going to go,’ he admitted. ‘I thought it was going to be a lot more serious!’

‘I m-meant it t-to b-be,’ Coff replied. ‘I d-don’t know wh-what happened. I just— I just feel b-better when you’re around.’

‘That’s nice to hear,’ he knew he was blushing as Coff moved closer, pressing into his side and squeezing his hand. ‘You make me feel better, too. Like I’m not just an annoying burden with no friends.’

‘You’re— You’re not a-a bur-burden,’ Coff’s hand squeezed tighter, and Ka’harja squeezed back. ‘And…. You…. You h-have fr-friends.’

‘You think?’

‘Y-Yeah,’ Coff looked up at Ka’harja, and offered him a nervous —but very genuine— smile. ‘Y-You have m-m-me. A-And Stars. An-And Baku. C-Coborn r-really li-likes you, t-too.’

‘Really? I got the feeling she found me frustrating.’

‘Sh-She does.’

‘Ah,’ a half-laugh escaped Ka’harja as he dared to grin back. ‘I see…. What’re your thoughts on Koko? You think she likes me?’

Coff bit his lip and looked away, raising a brow. ‘Mmm…. I-I don-don’t know. I can— I can never tell w-with h-her. She— She likes you mor-more than she l-likes Co-Coborn, at l-least.’

‘Ah, yeah, I didn’t think those two got along much,’ Ka’harja replied. ‘Did something happen between them?’

Coff shook his head. ‘N-No. They just— They just— Just—‘

‘Just don’t?’ Ka’harja offered.

Coff bit his lip and nodded. ‘Y-Yea—’

‘—HAH!’ Distro’s laugh cut in from above, and the boys turned to see her, Denni, and Dena staring down at them from the top of the hill. ‘GAAAAY!

‘THAT’S THE POINT!’ Ka’harja shouted back as his mother began her way down towards him. ‘Aw, no, what does she want— THIS IS A PRIVATE CONVERSATION! GO AWAY!’

‘YOU SKIPPED BREAKFAST!’ Distro stated incorrectly as she pointed to Denni, who brandished a loaf of bread high above her head. ‘BUT IF YOU’RE GOING TO BE UNGRATEFUL, THEN FINE! DENNI?’

The loaf of bread sailed in a perfect arc through the air and Ka’harja didn’t have time to realise what was happening before it hit him full in the face.

Ow!’ Ka’harja exclaimed, dramatically motioning from his face to the bread. ‘Seriously? SERIOUSLY?!

‘LOVE YOU!’ his mother called back. Then she headed back up the hill and put an arm around each of her friends, leading them both back towards camp.

‘Gods! I swear! Sometimes she’s just— UGH!’ Ka’harja flopped onto his back and gave a groan. ‘Sorry about her.’

‘N-No, i-it’s alright,’ Coff picked up the bread from the ground and brushed it off. ‘I-It was n-nice of h-her to— To—’

Ka’harja sighed again. Yeah, he supposed it was nice of her. But she didn’t have to interrupt!

‘Y—You sh-should eat,’ Coff held out the bread. ‘Y-You only had o-one bowl of break-breakfast. A-And you— You sk-skipped d-dinner last n-night, t-too.’

‘Yeah, I guess I’m still kinda hungry,’ he pushed himself up and took the bread from Coff. ‘Want some?’

‘N-No, I should— I should go, a-actually. I-I ha-have to— I have to organise m-my desk.’

‘Oh— Uh, okay,’ Ka’harja bit his lip and looked away. He didn’t feel like the conversation was over. He felt like there was a lot more that needed to be said…  that he needed to ask. But he had no idea what it was, or how he could even begin to talk about any of it. He just knew he wasn’t sure about anything. …

‘K-Ka’harja?’

He looked up to Coff, who carefully lent forward until their lips touched. It was short. Only a second, at most, before Coff pulled back and got up to walk away. He didn’t say goodbye. Neither of them did. But that was alright. They didn’t need to say anything else.

That had been enough to answer all of his questions.


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