Cuddle

~

“Regretting your life decisions, Owen?”

 

“Yes… no! Wait, no one asked Truth or Dare yet! Can I, uh, not play the game?”

 

“Oh, I think it’s far too late for that.”

 

Owen retreated farther into the human-shaped nest he’d constructed out of a puffy sleeping bag, grateful for his dark skin hiding the blush tinting his cheeks, and wondered how he’d let himself get talked into this one.

 

“Okay, Bodie, leave the poor thing alone,” Jaime chided the masked Weldback as Kobo squirmed and wedged herself deeper into her mother’s lap, her eyes trained on the bearded man in the sleeping bag. “Now, who wants to take the first shot?”

 

Leelah raised a gauntleted hand from where she laid slumped against her oath-brother. Tightening her shawl around her shoulders, she shifted to her side in order to better see the assorted individuals surrounding her. After a moment of scanning the apprehensive faces, her eyes and grin locked onto the purple haired woman. “Jaime, Truth or Dare?”

 

The steelskin chewed her lip. “…I’m lazy right now. Truth.”

 

Leelah wracked her brain for a good question. “Have you… hmm… have you ever seen a living beast-plane?”

 

Seemingly taken by surprise by Leelah’s opening Truth, Jaime went quiet for a few seconds. “Leelah…” she began, a warning tone now present in her voice.

 

“Look, you don’t have to say where or when, I know you’re not allowed to give specifics like that,” Leelah said with a nonchalant wave of the hand. “Just… have you seen a live one?” To be honest, the blonde expected an answer reinforcing the common belief that the flying metal behemoths were extinct, with nothing left of their legacy but vast graveyards and the occasional outbreak of flesh-twisting nanotech sickness.

 

“…yes, I once saw a live one,” Jaime finally replied, smirking at the looks of surprise on the faces of her friends. “Although technically speaking I wasn’t working for the Mojave Conservancy at the time, so I should be free to talk about it as much as I’d like,” she chuckled.

 

“How about you not risk your job and freedom by running your mouth about extremely endangered species? Please?” Owen suggested, voice muffled by the sleeping bag.

 

“Spoilsport,” Leelah snorted. She tried to reach across Kobo’s legs to poke the cocooned man, only to have the nine-year-old kick at her reflexively when her heavy gauntlets scraped against the child’s ankles. Whispering an apology to the girl, Leelah retracted her arm and settled for rolling her eyes in Owen’s general direction.

 

Hoping to save Owen from further harassment, Jaime cleared her throat. “My turn, then.” Leaning down, she bumped her chin against the top of her daughter’s head, causing the girl to jolt. “Kobo, sweetheart… Truth or Dare?”

 

“Dare!”

 

“Oh no,” Bodie muttered.

 

Jaime’s grin widened. “I dare you to… go into the kitchen, grab the pickled mangoes from the fridge, bring them back here, and eat one. And you have to do it right here so we all know you actually went through with it.”

 

Kobo balked, face scrunching up in disgust. “Mom, really??”

 

The tattooed woman shrugged. “You were the one who asked for a Dare. You suffer the consequences. Now go get the mangoes!”

 

Kobo had to be gently kicked in the rear by her mother in order to stop scowling and get up to leave the circle. Hunched over and mumbling unhappy nonsense, she trudged away from the small group, blanket dragging behind her as she left the stove-room for the kitchen that sat only twenty feet away.

 

Bodie shook his head at Jaime. “You’re cruel.”

 

In the background, the refrigerator door creaked open and then slammed shut. Jaime rolled her eyes at her daughter’s melodramatic passive-aggression. “It’ll be good for her to eat something healthier than freeze-dried beef cubes and hazelnut butter.”

 

“Granted, but those mangoes are disgusting.”

 

“I like them,” Owen said, slightly miffed.

 

Bodie paled and counted himself lucky that no one could see it. “I, uh, I mean…”

 

Owen waved his sole exposed hand dismissively. “It’s fine. They’re an acquired taste.”

 

A second later Kobo reappeared, expression still sour with a jar of pickled mangoes held in a distastefully outstretched arm. Snuggling back into the center of the circle, she made a large display of trying to open the lid of the jar. After a solid minute of trying to wrench the two apart, she threw her hands in the air. Everyone could see a smile trying to fight its way onto her lips. “Well, I guess I can’t do it! The lid won’t come off!”

 

Scoffing, Jaime reached around her daughter’s back and unscrewed the lid in a single fluid motion. “There. Mango. Eat.”

 

Kobo leaned in to sniff the invisible fumes wafting from the jar and retched. “They smell so bad!” she whined.

 

“Now you’re just making stuff up,” Jaime countered. “Taste notwithstanding, they smell just fine.”

 

The nine-year-old wrinkled her nose, but finally caved with a slackening of her shoulders. Digging a medium-sized chunk of pickled mango from the jar, Kobo squeezed her eyes shut, dragged in a deep breath, and popped the orange fruit into her mouth. She stiffened instantly, eyes remaining tightly clamped shut.

 

There was a valiant effort on Kobo’s part put into swallowing the mango. In the end, she looked none the worse for wear, if a little bit greener in her skin tone. “…ew,” she whimpered, resealing the jar and shoving it into her mother’s hands. Jaime ruffled the girl’s hair lovingly.

 

“You don’t have to do any more Dares tonight, okay, sweetie?”

 

Kobo nodded furiously, tongue hanging past her lips as she tried to air out the taste from her mouth. While no one doubted that she genuinely hated the taste of pickled mango, they also knew that she was exaggerating her unhappy mood just for the sake of retaliating against her mother. Given a few minutes she’d be back to normal.

 

Jaime’s eyes settled on Owen. “I think it should be the burnt marshmallow’s turn.”

 

Scratching the side of his beard thoughtfully, Owen hummed to himself as he picked a victim. “Leelah, Truth or Dare?”

 

“Hm… Truth.”

 

Owen pouted. “Crap, I wished you said Dare, I had a good one…”

 

Leelah snickered. “Too bad. Ask me a good question instead. Nothing explicit, though, there are children present.”

 

“Children… plural?” Jaime asked, eyebrow raised and lip twisted into a half-grin.

 

“Yeah, Owen counts.”

 

The man’s eyes narrowed in annoyance. “Oh, just for that, Leelah… uh… what’s the silliest thing you have an emotional attachment to?”

 

Her answer was instantaneous. “Bodie.”

 

“Excuse me??” Bodie griped, a mocked-up tone of betrayal bleeding into his voice.

 

“Brother, ‘silly’ is only one of many words I can use to describe you. Learn to live with it,” Leelah retorted, elbowing the large man in the side playfully.

 

As Bodie and Leelah devolved into a poking battle, the youngest member of the group seemed to get her wind back, and was ready to rejoin the game. Kobo’s eyes narrowed at the lumpy sleeping bag sitting on her right. Nudging it with a sock-covered foot, she squealed, “Owen!! Truth or Dare!”

 

The man’s abnormally bright eyes peered out from the opening of the sleeping bag. “…Truth?” he said meekly.

 

Far too excited for her own good, Kobo rocked forward onto her knees and reached both hands up to pull the edges of the sleeping bag down from around Owen’s head, exposing him to their five-person circle. Devilish smile on her face, Kobo probed, “Ever kissed someone?”

 

Owen’s face went white. His jaw hung open without any sound coming out and he cast a helpless glance to the impertinent child’s mother. Jaime just raised her eyebrows innocently, giving a shake of her head to indicate that no rescue would be coming from her.

 

How, Owen wondered, had his life choices led to him being interrogated by a child about his romantic past, or rather, lack thereof?

 

“N-no,” he finally stammered. “Never.”

 

“Aww…” Kobo pouted. “That’s no fun.” Suddenly her eyes lit up gleefully with a new idea. The little girl was on a roll and no one felt too inclined to stop her. Whipping her head around, she smiled toothily at Leelah. “Leelee, Truth or Dare!”

 

Leelah exchanged an amused glance with Bodie and answered with no shortage of cheerful resignation, “Dare.”

 

“Kiss Owen!”

 

A wheeze of distress sounded from Owen and he promptly vanished into the sleeping bag. Jaime buried her face in her hand, half tempted to give her daughter a smack on the head for being so invasive. She glanced at Leelah to find the other woman sending a sympathetic look her way. Shaking her head in defeat, Leelah crawled over to Owen and peeled the layers of sleeping bag away from his face.

 

Mortified, Owen tried to squirm away, but Leelah closed the distance and gave the man a swift peck on the cheek. Owen tensed as if expecting something else, and then deflated, mouthing a thank you to Leelah. Meanwhile, Kobo folded her arms indignantly. “Hey, that doesn’t count!”

 

“Yes, it does,” Jaime scolded.

 

The novelty of teasing Owen was starting to fade. Giving her daughter a look, Jaime directed attention away from the easily embarrassed were-shifter by clearing her throat loudly. “Anyways,” she said, voice quieter in order to try and relax herself, “Bodie, you haven’t gone yet…”

 

“Dammit,” Bodie sighed with a smile, “you noticed.”

 

Jaime pursed her lips and managed to flick the man in between his eyes before he could move away. “Of course I did, you’re not getting out of this. Truth or Dare?”

 

Leelah poked her brother in the side. “Pick Truth,” she advised, “that woman’s Dares are clearly dastardly.”

 

Bodie cringed away from Jaime ever so slightly. “Okay then, Truth it is.”

 

A disturbingly triumphant smile appearing on her face, Jaime lowered her head to consult her daughter. “Okay, Kobo, help me think of a good one,” she murmured.

 

It took Kobo a few good minutes of thinking to come to a conclusion. Stretching her small frame out, she twisted around and cupped her hands around her mouth as she whispered something into her mother’s ear. Jaime nodded slowly and gave her daughter a quick kiss on the forehead. “Genius, sweetheart.”

 

“Yep! That’s me!”

 

Returning her attention to Bodie, Jaime asked, “Bodie, have you ever shown your face to anyone aside from your family and mentors?”

 

From where her head was laid on Bodie’s thigh, Leelah snorted loudly, mumbling “That’s an easy one,” mostly under her breath.

 

Bodie, on the other hand, seemed to differ in his opinion of the ease of answered Jaime’s question. Hunching over, he averted his gaze from the woman eagerly awaiting his response. A nervous laugh slipping from behind his mask, Bodie rubbed a hand on the back of his neck and said softly, “One time. There was… one time.”

 

It took a second for his words to register with Leelah. Then she bolted straight upright, expression disbelieving. “What?!” she squawked. “I’ve never heard about this! When did this happen??”

 

“Well it just-” Bodie nearly panicked, suddenly anxious in the face of the scrutiny he was now being subjected to, “-it never came up, Leelah!”

 

“Well, you should’ve made it come up!” she retorted, folding her arms across her chest. “Who was this person??”

 

If possible, Bodie seemed to shrink, and even with the mask in place it was easy to tell how insecure he felt at the moment. “I don’t…” His voice was faint to the point of being nearly inaudible. “…I don’t know.”

 

“You… you showed your face to someone and you don’t even know who they were??” Leelah looked ready to explode from sheer shock. A steady hand on her shoulder from Jaime saved the group from any further outbursts.

 

“Leelah, please,” Jaime urged, “let him talk.”

 

Biting down hard on her bottom lip, Leelah nodded with considerable effort and settled back down on the floor, fingers gripping her shawl tightly. Jaime sent a supportive look to Bodie, and the man pulled in a heavy sigh. Running his fingers through his hair to keep himself composed, Bodie started slowly, “It was during your aphelion trial, when I wasn’t allowed to know where you were… I, I couldn’t think straight at home, you weren’t there, I wasn’t contributing anything or doing anything useful, so I left. Had to find some way to distract myself, so I went to Titakalek.”

 

Unseen by the others thanks to his down-and-plastic shield, Owen tensed.

 

Letting out a shaky breath, Bodie paused to collect his thoughts. By now Leelah’s glower had softened, and she listened to his story with rapt attentiveness. Eye twitching slightly, Bodie continued, “By the time I got there, the uh… the Mojave Quake-storm had just hit the region. I got caught up helping get people to the shelter-walkers, then I just… stuck around. Clearing rubble, searching for stragglers, that kind of thing.”

 

“This person…” Leelah interrupted gently, “the one you showed your face to, they were from Titakalek?”

 

Bodie winced. “Not… exactly? I’m not sure.” Noticing Leelah starting to tense up again, Bodie raised his hands defensively. “Look, Leelah, it was complicated!”

 

“So un-complicate it. Please,” she said through grated teeth.

 

Under his mask, Bodie bit into his gums. “One time when I was looking for stragglers… I found someone, out on the edge of one of the towns, near the cage-plains.”

 

Now it was Jaime who stiffened. Kobo looked perplexed, only a trace of recognition fluttering in her eyes at the sound of Bodie’s words. A look shared between Jaime and Leelah confirmed to each of them that the other knew exactly what Bodie was talking about. Half-forgotten imagery of broken concrete structures and twisted ribs of steel rearing out of the desert flickered through their heads.

 

Owen tried to bury himself deeper in the sleeping bag, tried not to listen. His ears betrayed him and heard every word.

 

“I don’t know what he was doing out there…” Bodie sighed. “He had to have been a few years younger than I was, thirteen or fourteen maybe?” One of Bodie’s hands went to the opposite wrist, wringing the skin nervously as he relived the memory. “I tried to get him to come with me to the shelter-walkers, but he just… wouldn’t stop screaming.”

 

“…screaming?” Leelah parroted.

 

“At me,” Bodie finished.

 

The circle was silent for a moment before Bodie spoke again. “I had no idea what was wrong, at first. I thought maybe he was hallucinating or something, seeing things that weren’t there… maybe he was still panicking from the quakes. So I kept trying to get him to come with me, and after a little while I figured out he wasn’t scared of the quakes, he was scared of me. Leelah, he was terrified of me!” Bodie’s wide eyes locked on his sister. “I still don’t know why, but my mask… something about my mask scared him so much that he felt safer out in the cage-plains with aftershocks and who the hell knows what else.”

 

Understanding started to dawn on Leelah’s face. “So you…?”

 

Bodie nodded. “I didn’t know what else to do… so I took off my mask. It took a couple minutes to coax him out of the hole he’d hid himself in, but he came out, and once he saw my face, he started to calm down.” The masked man shrugged sadly, glancing at the floor. “He let me take him back to the shelters. And I honestly don’t know if he was from Titakalek, because no one seemed to know who he was, and he didn’t even really look like anyone there. He had some kind of collar around his neck, and scar tissue all along his back and chest and arms. I don’t know his name, don’t know anything about him. But he’s the only person who I’ve let see my face. Now you know.”

 

He trailed off and the circle went quiet again. The only sound was the snap-crack of the flames in the stove.

 

“…oh,” was Leelah’s only reaction. Rather than speak, she opted for the tactile approach of slumping against her brother, one arm roping around his shoulder as he hunched over, eyes staring lost into space. Leelah pressed her head into his neck and rubbed circled into his bare shoulder with her thumb.

 

Kobo yawned.

 

Chuckling softly to herself, Jaime swept her eyes over their little cluster – Owen submerged in a sleeping bag, Bodie and Leelah congealing into one lump beneath the duvet, silent in the wake of Bodie’s story. And her daughter, energy waning despite her best efforts to stay awake.

 

It was late. Jaime wouldn’t mine going to sleep.

 

“So… do we want to stay here, or drag ourselves back to some nice hammocks?”

 

Owen was the first to get up, shuffling his way partly out of the sleeping bag in order to walk with it still draped around him. “I… I’m going to bed. See you in the morning.”

 

Jaime reached up and squeezed the man’s waiting hand. “Good night, Owen.”

 

He nodded quickly and scuffed off into the darkness down the hall. Jaime glanced over to Bodie in time to see him slowly rise as well, gathering his arms around the nearly catatonic Leelah. “She doesn’t sleep well around other people yet, so I’ll take her back to our room,” he whispered.

 

“Okay. It’s past Kobo’s bedtime, too,” Jaime said as she picked her daughter up around the waist and pressed her to her chest.

 

“Not tired yet,” Kobo yawned again.

 

Jaime shook her head, tapping her daughter’s nose. “Shh. Go to sleep.”

 

Kobo buried her head in her mother’s clavicle, and Jaime felt soft puffs of breath on her skin as Kobo went limp in her arms. Dragging the blanket behind her, she followed Bodie down the opposite hall towards their close-together rooms. Tucking Kobo in by the time they got there was easy, seeing as the girl was dead asleep and slack as a rag-doll when her mother placed in her pillow-filled hammock.

 

Kissing her daughter on the cheek, Jaime made sure to leave a single small light on in the room before she left, closing the door behind her to prevent any sound from getting in. She waited at the door for Bodie to reemerge from his and his sister’s room. He startled slightly when he saw Jaime waiting for him.

 

“You’re not going to bed?”

 

“Well, neither are you,” Jaime observed.

 

Bodie shrugged. “I was going to clean up the living room…” His eyebrows furrowed. “Is something wrong, Jaime?”

 

With a shake of her head, Jaime soothed Bodie’s developing nerves. “No, I just… I wanted to talk to you for a minute, about your story.”

 

The masked man braced one hand on his hip, cocking his head to the side curiously. “…okay.”

 

Jaime pursed her lips. “I know you said that the other boy was scared of you, but… did any of the other people in Titakalek seem, ah, unnerved by you? Even a little bit?”

 

Bodie was taken by surprise by the woman’s question. Wetting his lips, he averted his gaze to try and think. After a minute or two, he answered slowly, “Some of them… most of them, now that I think about it. I thought they were just jumpy, you know, from the quakes? But I guess… they could’ve been a little scared of me. I never really cared to notice back then, they were all pretty happy to have me helping out.” His eyes turned slightly concerned. “Why do you ask?”

 

“Well…” Jaime searched for the right words. “I lived for Titakalek for a few years, back before I found Kobo. In my experience…” She sighed heavily. “People there tend to have a fear of faceless things.”

 

Bodie wasn’t quite sure what to make of Jaime’s comment. Before he could ask for any elaboration on her part, she offered a lopsided shrug. “I’m not trying to say you did anything wrong back then, Bodie. It just… strikes me as a little odd, that one person would be so afraid of your mask, when everyone else was able to adjust to seeing you.”

 

“Like I said,” Bodie murmured. “I don’t think he was from Titakalek, at least not from the towns. Hell, maybe he was of the feral nomads. Might explain why I scared him so bad.”

 

Jaime nodded in agreement. “You’re probably right…” Her gaze softened. “That boy obviously left an impression on you. Have you ever thought about looking for him?”

 

Bodie started to shake his head, but only made it halfway through the gesture before faltering. “Sometimes I wonder who he was. I didn’t get a chance to learn more. A few days after I found him I came back to the shelters and someone told me he was gone – ran off during the night to who knows where.” Jaime heard a choppy laugh from behind Bodie’s mask. “So yeah, I guess I’ve thought about it. I mean, I showed him my face. I wonder sometimes if he remembers me… if he’s alive. It crosses my mind every now and again.”

 

They stood in silence for a heartbeat longer. Then Jaime took a step forward, balancing on the tips of the curved strips of metal that served as her legs, and pulled Bodie into a tight hug. He wrapped his arms around her in return, his smile well hidden behind crimson fabric.

 

“If you ever want to talk about Titakalek, you just have to ask,” Jaime whispered to him. “Now don’t worry about cleaning up the living room, I’ll take care of it. Go get some sleep.”

 

Brushing a few stray knots of coarse hair out of his face, Bodie leaned back against the wall, hand fumbling for the doorknob to his and his sister’s room. “Will do, ‘mom’.”

 

“Ha. Good boy.”

 

Jaime left Bodie standing alone in the hallway as she headed back to the living room. The man lingered for a moment, a sigh coursing through his body as he dragged his fingers through his hair. Decades-old memories flowed through his head of panicked eyes that coruscated with the colors of blood and fire and the sun. There was something… off about those eyes. Something that stuck in Bodie’s brain and refused to leave.

 

Titakalek may only cross his mind every so often, but those eyes were always there, haunting him.

 

Bodie rubbed the back of his hand over his eyes tiredly and pried the door open, dipping out of the faintly lit hallway and into the darkness of his room. The door swung shut behind him, and as it had been throughout his entire conversation with Jaime, he still hadn’t noticed the figure hunched over at the end of the hall, watching him with bright white eyes.

 

Owen’s breaths came weak and shaky through the hand clamped over his mouth to keep him quiet. He had since discarded his sleeping bag back in his room, but he wished he hadn’t. He wanted to curl back up inside it and never come out again, never talk to his found-family again.

 

It felt like his whole body was burning up. Usually he only felt like that when he was on the verge of a were-shift… or when he was scared out of his mind.

 

When he was in Titakalek, when he finally found his way out of the cage-plains, when the Quake-storm struck. He’d tried so hard to find his way up from the submerged concrete labyrinth overrun with fungal swarms and wheezing creatures with their bones sticking through their skin. And then he’d finally made it out. For a few days, at least, he felt free and safe.

 

Then the quakes started and he tried to find somewhere safe to hide, only to find himself cornered by another featureless monster with vivid eyes that bored into his skull. And just like back then, Owen could barely breathe.

 

He knew. He knew what Bodie’s face looked like.

 

Bodie had a scar on his lips. On the right side, a faint diagonal line trailing down to his chin.

 

Tattoos on his head, his cheeks. Red like his mask, but paler. Almost enough to match his skin tone, but not quite.

 

Owen remembered Bodie’s smile with perfect clarity.

 

Biting on his knuckles, Owen stayed huddled at the hallway corner for half a second longer, before the sound of Jaime’s returning footsteps sent him fleeing back to the safety of his room. He stumbled on weak legs, shoulder pressed heavily against the wall, lungs on the verge of hyperventilating.

 

Dizziness nearly overwhelmed him before he managed to stagger back into his dark room. Fumbling for the light as a matter of habit, he recoiled as soon as it went on and hurriedly sent the room back into darkness. Every damn time an anxiety attack hit him, light made it ten times worse.

 

He made it halfway to his hammock when the back of his neck prickled. Someone had followed him into his room.

 

Owen snapped around, tense and poised to do… something. Fight or flight, he wasn’t sure, but at the moment all his brain could register was that someone was in his room and he didn’t know who and a large part of him demanded that he treat them as a threat.

 

His eyes landed on a shape that came up only a little higher than his waist, and he nearly collapsed. “Kobo…” he breathed weakly, each syllable shaking on his tongue.

 

The little girl’s face was half visible due to the light from the hall. “I’m sorry about making Leelah kiss you,” Kobo whispered.

 

So that was why she was there? Owen sank backwards into his hammock, hands trembling. “It… it’s okay, Kobo,” he said, voice vaguely hysterical. “No harm done.”

 

“Then how come you’re all… shaky?” There was a tremor in Kobo’s voice, too. “You’re not okay, are you??” she asked quietly.

 

For a second, Owen seriously considered insisting that he was fine, that Kobo should go back to her room and sleep. But he couldn’t find the energy in him to uphold that kind of lie. Crumbling inwards, Owen braced his elbows on his knees and dropped his head into his hands.

 

Kobo was at his side in a heartbeat, clambering into the hammock with him. She squeezed her way into his lap, sat on her rump facing him, and slowly moved his hands away from his face. “Owen?” she murmured. “How come people in Titakalek are scared of things don’t have faces?”

 

Through bleary eyes he looked at her. “Why is that your question??”

 

“I heard Mom talking to Bodie. I saw you listening, too. You know why they were scared of Bodie, don’t you?”

 

Owen sniffed. “…yeah. Yeah, I know why.”

 

Kobo pursed her lips the same way her mother did. “You were there, too, weren’t you?”

 

“Heh… how can you tell?”

 

“You were quiet when Bodie told his story. And you were scared, I could smell it.”

 

That managed to coax a bit of a laugh from the shuddering man. “Damn those senses of yours. Can’t you just be a normal chimera and wait until puberty to start being freaky?”

 

Kobo bared a grin of gap-toothed and unusually sharp teeth. “Nope! Always gonna be freaky.” Her grin faded slightly and her voice went back to being soft. “So… do you wanna talk about Titakalek? Mom says talking helps more than keeping everything to yourself.”

 

Owen sighed. “I know she does, and she’s right, but…” He shook his head, wrapping his arms around the little girl and resting his forehead on the top of her significantly smaller head. “Not right now, Kobo, okay?”

 

To his surprise and gratitude, Kobo didn’t argue. She just pinched his side gently. “Okay. Want me to stay?”

 

“Yes,” Owen breathed. “Please. Stay and…” He cut himself short, having forgotten the word.

 

Kobo saved him yet again. “Snuggle?”

 

He nodded, hating himself for forgetting the word and chuckling weakly. “Yeah. Stay and snuggle. I’ll tell you more about Titakalek later, I promise.”

 

“You should tell Mom, too,” Kobo said as she wiggled into place on Owen’s chest, pulling one of many blankets up from the floor to lay over the hammock. “Night, Owen.”

 

“Night, kiddo.”

 

It didn’t take long for Kobo’s breathing to level out and confirm to Owen that the little girl was sound asleep in his arms. Owen, on the other hand, was no closer to sleep even after an hour had passed. He kept himself calm by listening to Kobo breathing, and tried not to think about Titakalek.

 

There was no avoiding it, really. He was resigned to the fact that this would keep him up for the whole night. He might snag an hour or two of sleep if he was lucky, but he usually wasn’t. Blinking nearly invisible tears from his now blotchy eyes, he focused on keeping himself from remembering the bad things about Titakalek, and tried to think about the one good thing that happened to him there.

 

“Look, look! I’m like you, see? See my face? I’m not going to hurt you, I promise. I’ll take you somewhere safer than here. Please, just come with me.”

 

Owen suppressed a delirious, half-happy sob by biting down hard on his hand. This had driven him crazy for years. The quakes and the cage-plains and the faceless thing that created him and sowed fear into the people of Titakalek… that was all background noise compared to the real ghost of the past that kept him awake at night.

 

He was never lucky, his life was pretty much the exact opposite of lucky. But for some reason, tonight was different – in a horrifying, panicky, never-tell-a-soul kind of way. He’d been given closure, and at the same time, he now had to deal with a whole new slew of problems, starting with why his heart was racing and why his stomach felt like it was trying to squirm through his sides.

 

But Owen could only think about one thing, one person, right now.

 

Why you?? Of all the people Jaime could dig up, why was it you?

 

Bodie had no way of knowing it… but twenty-two years ago, he’d saved Owen’s life.

 

Funny how some of my more inhuman characters are the ones I keep imagining in the most domestic of situations. I’ve also imagined them going to what is essentially Walmart. Go figure.

This charming batch of characters belongs to the Children of Oblivion world – specifically, the sequel.

I love writing friend-families.

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