There Be Mature Content Here
Please be advised that the following is intended for mature readers only.
(Finished – 10/25/2021)
Luna the Baby Bunny
I’ve been awake for about an hour, yet Pyx—my ‘he’s-better-have-some-answers-for-me’ mate—has been missing for the better part of the night. Supposedly Kin and Ryorin are still out, combing all of Briarwood, looking for him.
So while I’m sitting here inside the cabin that Pyx’d built for me, all comfy and cozy on this amazing bed that’s in an even more amazing bedroom…
Well. Things are kinda weird.
“Huh,” I say. “Go me. I fixed it.”
But then I think about it.
“Sorta,” I add on.
I look across the bedroom—which is on the first floor, next to the kitchen—to where Rez and Jo are gaping at me. Meanwhile Jarvys—who’s apparently Ryorin’s righthand guy as well as a medic—frowns in confusion at the medical scanner in his hands.
No one says anything.
Which is also kinda weird.
“Fixed it?” Rez looks from me to Joia. “How does this fix anything?”
Is Rez kidding? Ha! ‘Kidding.’ It’s kinda amazing that I can be punny at a time like this. Because this is the freaking breakthrough that Rez and Kin—heck, even all of the Akupara—have been waiting for me to deliver.
“Yeah,” Jo huffs. “You’ll sure be delivering in nine months.”
Yeah. That’s probably a better way to say it.
“Jo?” Rez shakes her head while using her ‘what the fuck?’ tone.
Which I get. It’s freaking weird watching Jo do her thing when she’s picking around in someone else’s head. Kinda like a third wheel.
Jo, though, just rolls her eyes and waves Rez off. “I ain’t being that cryptic. You know what I’m talking about.”
“I do? Know what. Never mind. Doesn’t matter.” Rez turns her back to Jo and faces me. “You, Luna. It really fucking matters that you know what that med-scanner reading means. Because based on how you’re acting? I don’t think you do.”
“I do.” The reading on Jarvys’s scanner means I’m not sick.
Which I already knew.
“You do?” Rez narrows her eyes at me.
“We all do,” Joia says with an impatient huff. “Well, except Jarvey over there. But he just thinks he doesn’t know.” She snaps her fingers at him. “Jarvey, Baby Bunny’s pregnant. Congrats. You’re past the willful denial stage.”
Jarvys startles—probably because of the very un-Akupara nickname Jo just called him.
Not because I’m gonna have Pyx’s baby.
“But…” Jarvys trails off as he looks from the scanner to me to the scanner. “But who’s the sire?”
I jolt upright, my spine snapping straight. “What the hell does—”
“Easy, Baby Bunny,” Joia says as she points at Jarvys. “You’ve got one sentence to explain what that shit means before I let Luna here off the leash.”
“And I’m next off the leash,” Rez growls. “Cuz no one says shit like that to Luna.”
And you know what? My seething anger—at Jarvys calling me a heartless cheater—cools for a second.
My girls. I adore my girls.
You know, when they’ve got my back—and we’re facing stuff together; rather then when they’re sneaking around behind my back.
Jarvys shakes his head. “But we need to test.”
I start to stand, my hands heating. Rez cracks her knuckles.
Jo raises her hand, holding us back.
Rez points at Jo. “You said one sentence.”
“He’s gotta add a subordinating conjunction to that,” Jo says.
Jarvys tilts his head. “I do?”
“You better.” Jo glares at him. “I’ll start you off. ‘We need to test because…'”
Jarvys nods, as if he gets it. “Because Pyxis the Restrained is not the sire.”
I lunge and Jo smacks her palm to my chest. “Hang on. I’m feeling a compound sentence coming on.”
He goes to speak.
“Last chance.” Jo lowers her hand, setting me free. “Cuz I ain’t giving you no compound-complex sentence extension. Now add a semicolon and finish your thought, Jarvey.”
Jarvys goes still. “He’s sterile.”
No one speaks.
I exchange looks with Rez and Jo. And it really is good being on the same wavelength with them again. We’re all calling bullshit.
Jo fires first. “Your scanner says he’s not.”
I’m next. “My uterus agrees.”
Followed by Rez. “Can I throat punch him now?”
“All the Bales know this.” Jarvys gestures to the window. Out there, somewhere, is Pyx and the rest of his people. Because they sure aren’t in here with me. “He underwent the procedure as—”
But Jarvys stops.
Jo snarls. “As what?”
“As ordered.” The Akupara’s shoulders droop. “And I think that order never should have been issued.”
I stumble backward. My legs knock into side of the bed and I drop my butt to the mattress.
Pyxis’s own people ordered him to be sterilized?
My chest squeezes as my heartbreaks.
I look up at Jarvys. “Why would they fix—”
But the rest lodges in my throat.
Those assholes. They’d neutered Pyx like he’s a dog.
“I told ya, Luna,” Jo snaps at me. “There’s nothing about Pyx that needs fixin’!”
I ignore her. My gut says Joia already knows. Which means someone else has gotta tell me.
I keep my gaze locked on Jarvys. “Tell me.”
“I don’t know. I’ve never examined him personally.”
“You’ve got an opinion, though, don’t you?” I’m not asking. I’m telling Jarvys what I know to be true: people all over the galaxy gossip. It’s a hallmark of civilization.
And if it’s not, well… I’ll be sure to write an academic paper or something about it all later.
Jarvys nods, looking resigned and determined all at once. “He’s hyper-temporal. He’s aware of time. Always.”
Rez crossed her arms. “So what?”
Jo sighs. “Go on, Jarvey.”
“Beings like us, who move as quickly as we can,” Jarvys says and I get the sense that he’s including Jo, Rez, and me in his ‘like us’ grouping, “rely on homeostatic mechanisms—”
“Smaller words,” Jo snaps.
Jarvys shakes his head. “You mean shorter? Because I don’t know—”
“Simpler words,” Rez says as she bristles.
“Simpler?” Jarvys says. “As if I’m instructing hatchlings?”
“Sure.” Rez shrugs. “Go for it.”
“Well, we explain to our hatchlings that our minds have a buffer that insulates us—our thoughts—when we use our speed. It follows the same mechanics as our lungs. We breathe without thinking about it, unless we wish to hold our breath or exhale.”
Rez shakes her head. “I don’t get it. We use the same kinda unconscious thought when we’re walking. Hell, blinking and swallowing, too. What’s this gotta do with Pyx being aware of what time it is?”
Jo huffs. “Cuz Fanboy isn’t just aware of the time of day. He’s aware of every moment. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yes,” Jarvys says gravely. “Pyxis the Restrained is constantly aware and remembers it all.”
“Again, so what?” Rez shrugs, and I can see that she’s trying hard to brush this off. To make it seem less than it is. “He’s got a super memory. We’ve seen this. He’s fucking awesome.”
Then she scowls at me, probably because I’m not defending Pyx’s awesomeness.
But I’m not saying anything because I’m pretty sure I’m starting to understand what Jarvys is saying.
And I don’t like it.
In fact, it kinda scares me.
“It’s because it’s too much to process. Isn’t it?” I look at Jarvys. “We getta decide when to go, where to go, and when to stop. But otherwise, we’re moving too fast for our minds to keep up. So our brains don’t even let us try.”
“That’s not true,” Rez says. “I know what’s happening when I’m moving fast.”
“Nah, we don’t. ” Jo shakes her head. “We’re not in those microseconds unless we chose to be. It really is just like breathing. Even though we can choose to inhale and exhale whenever we want, we can’t spend all our time sitting around doing nothing but that.”
I agree with Jo’s breakdown. This buffer that Jarvys is talking about? It’s like our brains have created a self-defense mechanism against our own idiocy. If we had to consciously control our breathing, we’d never be able to do the other things needed to keep us alive. You know, like sleeping.
So, yeah. We can choose moments of awareness while using H.A.R.E speed. But if we had full-time control? If we were the ones piloting our bodies, monitoring all those systems, and making, like, a billion decisions per second…?
It’d be impossible.
“It’s too much,” Jarvys says, his tone grim. “Hyper-temporalism typically drives an Akupara mad.”
So that’s what Pyx’s people think of him. That he’s gone mad because he doesn’t always act the way that they do. Well, then his people are a bunch of blind idiots for not seeing Pyx the way that I do.
He’s generous, curious, and tenacious. He wants to know the world around him and will try new things. His enthusiasm is infectious. His heart is huge. And he’s one of the most loyal people that I’ve encountered in this shitty universe.
Pyxis the Restrained is the best.
“Pyx’s just fine the way he is.” I square my shoulders, widen my stance, and somehow stand taller than my actual shortness. “He’s mine.”
And look at me! My voice is all low and growly while I’m calling out all the bullshit that the universe has ever…um, bullshitted.
Jo and Rez come to stand next to me, flanking me with their support. Jo places a boney, yet solid hand on my shoulder. Rez cracks both her neck and her knuckles.
“I…” Jarvys clears his throat. “I don’t understand—”
“It’s a fucking moment, Jarvey,” Jo says. “Just go with it.”
“But, I agree with Luna the Baby Bunny.” Jarvys sounds utterly confused. “It is astonishing that Pyxis the Restrained’s mind hasn’t cracked.”
“Cracked?” Jo scoffs and rolls her eyes. “Fanboy? He’s fucking insane.”
Rez and I just nod along.
All three of us have seen Pyx when he’s not restrained.
And you know what? I don’t care. He’s still mine.
Rez nudges me. “Now you just gotta tell him.”
Yeah. Right. Tell him.
I look up at Jo. “Where is he?”
Pyxis The Restrained
I’m currently tearing my prey into bloody pieces.
Only, instead of pulpy chucks of flesh turning the snow red, the ground is gray. Black, sticky innards are coating my hands and plastered onto my plastron. And even though the corpse is at my feet, I am still pulling limbs from torsos…
Still snapping necks…
Still crushing bones…
The original bipedal War-wolf that had attacked Luna had simply been bait. In my feral need to destroy that beast, I’d hunted it to the other side of Warren’s continent and charged headlong into an ambush.
My bale would be mortified.
I’ve ignored, at least, nine of the Top Thirteen Ways to Ambush Your Ambusher. But fuck that weekend training seminar. Here and now, a blunt, unrelenting strategy is best.
Tear everything to shreds.
Stomp the pieces under my heel.
Destroying every-last-fucking-thing that threatens Luna.
Claws and teeth rip into my arm bracer, puncturing and pulling until the scutites of my armor fail. A mutated War-wolf clamps its jaws directly onto my skin. Even though it can’t sink its teeth into my naturally invulnerable flesh, the beast refuses to let go.
So I twist its head from its body.
More black, sticky innards spray my chest.
“As long as it takes.”
I know those voices. Ryorin the Bastion wishes for me to go faster; whereas my sibling, Kinixys the First Runner Up, is letting me spend my fury.
Why would Kinixys do this?
Because my sibling knows me well. I can’t go back because I’m not ready. I’m wild and vicious right now. I’m totally unrestrained. If I saw my mate…
I don’t know what I’d do.
Well, I know what I’d do. I’d snatch her to me and hope for the rest to sort itself out. But what I don’t know is if that’s what Luna wants to do. I don’t fucking know how to tell her wants from her needs.
Because she’d said that she’d wanted to fix the drill together. Which I took to mean working at her pace. I completely missed that what she needed was help with fixing it.
But she never asked for help.
It’s all so fucking confusing.
“Pyxis,” Kin calls out to me. “Another.”
I don’t even look as I reach back and snatch the mutated beast as it hurls toward me. With one motion, I tear it in two.
“Where are the bones?” Ryorin is standing close, peering over my shoulder.
He has a point. There are no bones. Each beast I dismantle is nothing but fur and black, sticky tar-like innards.
“Jo knows,” my sibling says, sounding disinterested.
“Well, of course Joia the Ruthlessly Cunning would know,” Ryorin says. “I just wanted to know if you knew. Because these creatures….They’re not natural, and neither is this place. It’s too cold.”
“It’s called snow,” Kinixys says. “Most planets have glacier regions.”
And some planets are nothing but ice rocks with no air.
Ryorin makes a disgusted, grumbling sound. “We’re Akupara. Open seas. Endless sands. Primordial forests. Those are the places we thrive. Not snow.”
Of course we don’t thrive in the cold. Yet my mother had felt the need to test that fact. So honestly, I don’t mind the packed snow, freezing wind, or rock-solid ice. As long as there’s breathable air where ever I am, I can make do.
“And those mindless beasts just keep coming,” Ryorin sighs, sounding bored.
“Throw them in with the rest,” my sibling says.
“Throw them? Why, by Aku, would I—”
Another snarling, mutated War-wolf is tossed before me. It’s like Kinixys is feeding a fire, adding more fuel for the flames.
I pounce on my newest prey.
Ryorin huffs in irritation. “He’s not a hatchling, you know. You can’t keep chucking things at him in the hopes of keeping him distracted.”
“You throw toys at hatchings?” Kinixys says slowly.
And I know my sibling well. That’s his ‘you’re an ass, Ryorin’ tone.
“That’s not…” Ryorin sputters. “You know what I mean. Eventually, this coddling does have to end. He has to go back.”
Kin says nothing, which is fabulous. I wouldn’t’ve answered either. Or rather, now I wouldn’t’ve answered Ryorin. But before, when I did nothing but spout answers that were full of shit? Well, yes. I would have told Ryorin anything, just not the thing.
Because arguing with idiots is useless.
Ryorin huffs. “Don’t you want to go back, Kinixys the First Runner Up? I thought all mated males desired to be with their mates. Yours is back at the cabin with Joia the Ruthlessly Cunning.”
Kin grunts. “My mate desires me to be here.”
Ah, I see. My sibling doesn’t like what Rez wishes of him, but he’s complying. Because this is what mated Akupara do.
Because there are times when Kinixys does the opposite of what Rez orders him to do.
With a frustrated snarl, I shake my head—clearing the conflicting moments that I’ve observed of Rez and Kin. Then I keep on tearing and shredding, focusing on the one thing that makes sense to me. Not a fucking thing that comes after Luna walks away.
Not a single, fucking thing.
Well… unless Luna wants that thing to walk away. Like the way she let’s Benny live. And that…
“Makes no fucking sense!” I roar.
By Aku, I’d shred something—anything—but there’s no more prey.
I round on Kinixys. “How do you know?”
“Pyxis?” Kin cocks his head, but then shifts.
I know the stance he’s taken. He’s readying to grapple with me.
But I could give a shit. “How do you know what she needs? What she wants?”
Steam—my body heat—is rising from my torn open arm bracers. Hell, from dozens of punctures in my armor. This is the worst fake armor I’ve ever seen.
“That is shoddy work,” Ryorin says. “Have the Umara no tactical engineers amongst you any longer? Your skills have gone to shit ever since your fath—”
With a feral snarl, I tackle Ryorin and clamp my hands around the bastard’s throat.
Ryorin punches the side of my head.
I squeeze harder.
Why the fuck won’t his neck snap?
Ryorin punches me again. My head rocks back, but that’s it. I still have him by the throat while Kinixys has me in a head lock.
“Every.” Ryorin growls as he punches me. “Damn.” Punch. “Time.” Punch. “With you fucking.” Punch. “Crazy.” Punch. “Umara!”
Punch. Punch. Punch.
Fine. If I can’t snap his neck, I’ll crush his windpipe and then wait him out. An active Akupara—one thrashing like Ryorin—needs to breathe regularly. About every eight minutes.
The things a highly motivated Akupara could do with eight whole minutes.
Within that amount of time, a lone Akupara could raze all of Warren’s ten times over. Then just stand back for the remaining seven minutes and forty-five seconds and watch the world burn.
Or he could conserve his energy. Exhale slow and steady to make his last breath of air last and last and last…
Two hours slowly exhaling versus eight minutes of thrashing.
Guess which choice my father made?
“Your father saved your life,” Kinixys says.
My sibling’s voice is harsh, strained with effort because he’s still trying to pry me off of Ryorin.
But what Kinixys said is bullshit. My father didn’t save my life. He’d simply crushed his respirator before running out of our damaged shelter and onto the ice plain of some frozen planet…
…because the High Umara, my mother, had wanted to know if an Akupara could survive such conditions…
…and because our oxygen stores had been damaged.
So while I’d moved as fast as I could—dismantling my own respirator and all of our equipment trying to find an interchangeable part—I couldn’t move fast enough.
Eight minutes passed.
My father died.
I’d found the spare, interchangeable parts clutched in his lifeless hands.
“Your father knew you well, Pyxis,” Kinixys says.
My arms are shaking. “He knew I needed those parts!”
My father. He knew.
Kinixys roars as he rips me off of Ryorin. We land in the black, sticky snow. Our breathing is harsh. Even Ryorin is heaving and coughing. The innards from the mutated beasts are steaming and glistening in the moonlight against our dull, matte armor.
I stare up at the moon. Somewhere, a non-mutated War-wolf howls.
“I needed those parts,” I say. “I wanted them.”
Because with those parts, I could’ve fixed my father’s respirator—which he never should’ve damaged in the first place.
“So he took them,” Kinixys says with finality.
My father did take those parts. He knew how I can pull things apart and put them back together, even improvise replacement components.
“Because you’re a fucking genius,” Kinixys says.
“So he took them,” I say.
Kin nods. “So he took them.”
Up until that horrific moment, I thought I knew my father well. And even though I understand his rationale—that the oxygen reserves would’ve lasted longer for one rather than two—I don’t know why his logic failed. Why his solution was to crush his own respirator.
“He should’ve crushed mine,” I grate out. “Why didn’t he crush mine?”
Movement to my left draws my gaze.
I’d meant to turn to Kinixys. We may not have the same father, but he is still my sibling. He also knew the male who’d sired and then had raised me because the High Umara had wanted nothing to do with me.
But instead of looking toward my sibling for answers, I’m staring at Ryorin the Bastion of the Alast.
His helmet is off, and he’s still wheezing as he tugs at the crushed armored gorget around his neck. So, the Alast’s fake armor is shit as well.
“I’ve never had the honor of meeting Agremys the Stall, The Last of the Bale Emeritus,” Ryorin says, his voice raw and hoarse.
Am I shocked that Ryorin has heard of my father? No. The male was a brilliant tactical engineer and had created the most amazing faux-armor because he’d wanted to help keep our natural resilience a secret. He was truly one of the reasons that the Umara had once held such an esteemed ranking amongst all the bales. A ranking that had plummeted soon after his death.
Ryorin stands. “But even I can tell you this. It did not matter what you needed or what you wanted.”
I gaze up at him. “Why not?”
“Because he loved you,” he says as he flicks black, sticky slush from his armor. “How could you not know that, you tantrumming idiot?”
He stomps off, heading back the way we came.
Kinixys offers me a hand up.
“I want to strangle that male all over again,” I snarl.
“As do I,” my sibling nods, “but it’s time to go. Rez has comm’d me. Your mate wants you to return to the cabin.”
But does Luna need me—
Kinixys smacks the back of my head.
Fucking hard, too.
“Fine!” I shove him. “Fucking fine. I’ll go back to the cabin. Will that make Rez happy?”
“Well, did she sound excited to be seeing you soon?”
Kin looks off into the distance. “I don’t know.”
I give my mated sibling—who should already have this mating stuff all sorted out—a pleading look. “Is it always like this?”
Kinixys looks me, warrior-to-warrior, right in the eyes. “Yes.”
He looks confused and astonished. There’s even a tinge of fear diluting his usual confidence.
Yet, in a blink, he’s racing back to his mate as fast his legs will carry him.
And I, the mate mad idiot, am right on his heels.
Luna the Baby Bunny
Rez gives me a confused look over her shoulder as she walks into an empty bedroom in the cabin. “Really, Luna. Jarvys said that Gary’s gonna be fine.”
I follow her into the room and close the door. “Yeah, but—”
“Seriously, you did good.” Rez snatches my hands and gives them a comforting squeeze.
And dangit. That wasn’t the plan. I need my hands.
It’s been about an hour since Rez had comm’d Kin and told him to pack it in and bring Pyx back to the cabin. Supposedly Kin and Ryorin had tracked Pyx to someplace on Warren’s where there’s actual snow. I can only guess that they’re at the northern reaches of the main continent.
So, I’m thinking, I have an hour—tops—to get all of these nagging little problems ‘fixed.’
Plenty of time.
“Luna,” Rez says in a scolding tone. “I know that look on your face.”
She does? Crap! Do I need to abort my plan?
“Stop worrying about Gary,” Rez says with a kind smile on her face. And that makes me feel like crap. Because Rez, like Jo, rarely coddles me. “Jarvys already told you. The scarring would’ve happened regardless.”
Yes. Jarvys did say that. He’d also assured me that, medically, I’d done right by Gary. That my hands hadn’t caused more damage by mending him too quickly.
So, go me.
But my conscience is still not clear. “Think Gary’ll forgive me for scarring his chest like that?”
“Totally.” Even though Rez’s nodding a lot, I hear the forced confidence that she’s trying to inject into her voice. “You literally pushed the elixir of life into his body. I think he’ll overlook…um, you know…handprint-shaped scars on… his nipples.”
Yeah. That. I really, really feel horrible about that.
“Because those scars…” Rez keeps on going, trying to power through with more positivity. Which I totally appreciate. But sustained optimism has never really been one of her strengths. “Gary’ll have, like, a kinda cool ‘Heya, Grim Reaper, Luna says to keep your death hands off Gary!’ tattoo.”
Right. Rez is at her limit. She looks uncomfortable and pretty desperate to discuss something else.
“Yeah, okay.” I tug my hands from hers. “You’re right. I feel so much better.”
Her shoulders droop as she exhales. “Oh, good. Wait—”
I’m rising up onto my toes, reaching for her.
“Um?” She goes stiff.
“I wanna thank you.” I brush the back of my hand along her cheek.
“Sure. Hugs are—” Her eyes roll to the back of her head.
As she crumples to the floor, I give her purely well-intended shove so that she lands on the bed.
I turn and—
“Joia!” I grab my chest. Seriously, my heart’s trying to crack my ribs. “What the heck are you doing?”
“Me?” Jo, who’s leaning against the door jamb with her arms crossed, arches a single brow. “What the hell’re you doing?”
Oh. That’s all she wants? That’s easy. “Kinda done tackling problems using a slow and steady approach.”
Jo gapes at me, so I brush right past her and out the door.
While I’m hustling down the hallway, thoughts of ‘a thing I gotta tackle’ has me rolling my shoulders—as if trying to shake off a creepy feeling.
Jo’s right on my heels. “What—”
“Just tackling my problems.”
“Rez is a problem?”
“Kinda.” Then I think about it. “A small one.”
“What?” Jo snags my arm and turns me to face her. “What are you talking about?”
“I handled a small problem.” I give Jo a reassuring smile that is real and not full of bullcrap.
Truly. I mean my big ol’ ‘I got this’ grin. This is what I do.
Jo glares. “How’s Rez a problem?”
“Because I gotta touch Kin.”
I guess my answer has taken Jo by surprise, because her hold on my arm goes slack as her gaze drifts to the left. That’s her ‘Lost in Deep Thought’ look. And I’m kinda jealous that she can think about this deeply. When ever I think about touching Kin, I get this icky feeling.
But still, I gotta get a move on. Jo’s distracted, which is fantastic.
I twist my arm free and keep hustling toward the front doors. “If I leave Rez conscious, then when the guys—er, warriors get back, she’ll be a big problem.”
Well, Rez would’ve been a big problem, and I don’t do big problems any more.
“A big problem because…” Jo is behind me, practically tripping over her own feet. “Because you gotta touch Kin?”
“For a good reason.” Again, I repress my heebie-jeebies shivering just thinking about it. “I don’t want to touch Kin, and I can guarantee you that Rez doesn’t want me touching him, either.”
For me, the thought of touching Kin isn’t so much gross as it is really discomforting. Whereas, for Rez, she’d be furious and would try to stop me…
…you know, by punching my throat or breaking my hands.
So, yeah. It’s best that she’s kinda outta the picture now.
One small problem solved.
I get to the foyer where two sets of sweeping staircases lead up to second level mezzanine.
“Howie!” I call out.
It takes a few seconds—wherein Jo catches up to me and watches me with a weary, suspicious stink eye—before Howie comes from the left wing.
He tosses up his arms and snaps at me. “What?”
“Go get your mum. Bianca’s too.” Satisfaction, as well as some self-congratulatory pomp, adds some oomph to my voice. Finally, I’m able to help people without hurting them. “You’re all gonna live here at the cabin.”
I mean, Pyx did build more of a five-star lodge than single dwelling home. There’s room for a ton more people.
“Are you serious, Lunatic?” Howie scowls at me. “They’re already here.”
Ah. “They are?”
“Yeah.” Howie gives me his ‘are you an idiot’ look.
“Because…” I look around and—
There are more ‘subtle sounds of a bustling household’ going on all around me. “Well, because I was coming to tell you to go and get them.”
Howie huffs as he rolls his eyes. “Like I was gonna wait any longer for you to tell me that.”
Yeah. Howie’s nailed it.
I start up the stairs. “Listen, Howie.”
The smug look on the poor kid’s face turns fearful. Within a flash, his usual sneer is back. But for that whole second, I saw him. And I kinda hate myself for not seeing him sooner.
All this time, Howie’s been the one keeping the settlement kids together while their parents worked the mine or struggling with the day-to-day tasks of a surviving on a pre-tech world. You know, he did supervisory stuff like making sure some crazy lady wasn’t giving the kids suspicious ‘candy.’
Meanwhile, Howie has also been keeping a watchful eye on Bianca; She’s older than Howie—quickly leaving girlhood behind—yet he guards her fiercely because men out number women in the settlement.
And I’m worse than an idiot for never really taking the time to see Howie—and all of his problems—before this moment.
I soften my voice. “I should have had you and Bianca and your mums staying with me in my modular months ago. I’m sorry that I didn’t fix this sooner.”
Howie eyes me suspiciously. “You always were a slow one, Lunatic.”
“Yeah. Well.” I can’t argue. “I’m working on that because I finally got some helpful advice.”
Howie and Jo both look at me, expectantly.
“Bianca,” I blurt out. “She told me I take too long to do things.”
“‘You take too long’?” Jo’s glaring at me. “That’s the message that finally got through to you?”
“Yeah, that and… I dunno.” I’m looking at the floor and scratching at my head.
Ah, delay tactics. I see they’re still with me.
“I guess it was the whole life-or-death stuff happening.” Which sounds lame. “And she hit Benny with a rock. Which shut him up. Cuz I usually let him ramble…”
And I’m rambling.
Like an idiot.
But I’m now an idiot who’s no longer trying to ‘fix’ things. No more of that. I’m gonna freaking tackle problems by bulldozing the obstacles.
Quick. Efficient. Permanent.
Howie’s looking at me and his mouth twists, like he’s tasting something off-putting and can’t pinpoint the ickyness. “You listenin’ to other folks’ ideas?”
I nod. “Yeah. Didn’t I always…”
I look from Jo to Howie. They both are glaring at me.
“Fine.” I huff. “I’ve grown as a person and I’m listening now. Whaddya got for me, Howie?”
“That candy of yours’s too sweet.”
“Too sweet?” I echo back like an idiot.
Because I never, ever, ever thought Howie could be a nice kid and—
“Kinda gross sweet,” he says as he makes a gagging noise. “You know, it tastes like that crap the mess cooks use to cover up whatever rank food we still gotta eat.”
“Ah. Noted. Less sweet. Thank you for telling me what you want.”
“Yah never bothered asking.” Howie shrugs and walks off. “More people from the settlement are coming tomorrow.”
“Got it.” I say, feeling relieved.
First, because that kinda solves—at least—three other problems that I’ve got on my “Tackle, Don’t Fix It” list.
And second, I’m relieved because—despite everything with the candy, modular lottery, and War-wolves—Howie is still Howie. A sneaky, rotten, fabulously awesome kid.
I go back down the stairs. My entire descent, Jo is looking at me. Really hard, too. I don’t know what to make of it.
So I point my thumb over my shoulder. “That’s Howie saying ‘you’re welcome.'”
“By inviting more people to live at your cabin?” Jo narrows her eyes at me. “Right. He’s just spewing gratitude and shit.”
“He’s a good kid.”
But not a nice kid. Definitely not nice.
And I kinda adore him.
“Good kid.” Jo chuckles dryly. “Remind me to never deal with Howie. Ever.”
“He just doesn’t know how to ask for help.” I clear my throat because that summary of Howie can also be applied to me. “Ask for help directly.” I clear my throat again. “He doesn’t ask directly.”
“Yeah, I get that.” Jo nods, like she agrees.
But you know what? I know she doesn’t.
“However, before people ask for help,” Jo says. “They gotta first admit that they need the help. And second, they gotta know what they want. Cuz if they don’t know what they want, then they can’t get all shitty when someone gives them exactly what they need.”
And we’re back to this.
“Okay. That first part is true,” I say. “I’m working on admitting that I don’t ask for help. And when I do, I expect someone else to just fix it for me. That’s not how I can…learn and stuff.”
“And you’ve made amazing strides.”
“Whatever.” I wave off her sarcasm. “I’m aware, all right? But you? You’re still saying that you don’t care about what needs I even want.”
Jo purses her lips as she stares me down.
I hold her gaze. This is important. Because once Pyx gets here, I need to focus on him—on us—without Jo meddling.
“Fine.” Jo crosses her arms. “What needs do you really want, Luna? Tell me.”
That’s easy. “I want you to be happy, Joia.”
Jo blinks as her arms fall limply to her sides.
Look at that! I’ve stunned her speechless. Twice in a row.
“Wha—” She sputters then shakes her head. Her sharp, pinning gaze is back. “Happy? Like you?”
“No. No, no, no.” I laugh because… Really? Who would want to go through what Pyx and I’ve gone through? “There’ve been some really awful, and pathetic, and kinda unnecessary…moments?” Yeah, I’m going with that, “between Pyx and I.”
And between Rez and I.
And Jo and I.
None of these people deliberately set out to hurt me. I’d been the one to hurt me. I’d let my own insecurities bruise my pride, and then I’d lashed out at the ones who’ve always done their best to be there for me—who genuinely believe in me.
Why did I do all that to myself?
Because I am a frightened idiot.
“I’m not looking forward to this whole ‘convincing Pyx that we belong together forever and ever’ pitch.” I laugh again, only there’s a hysterical edge to my voice. I’m still frightened, but I’m gonna try really hard to not be an idiot any longer.
Maybe I’ll start being a non-idiot tomorrow, because… “Kinda just wanna skip to the end.”
“That’s called cheating,” Jo says.
“Yeah, well it’s not a competition. Pyx isn’t my rival or some prize for me to win.”
I know that now.
“He’s the one waiting for me to cross the finish line,” I say. “And he’s cheering me on, not because I got there first, but because I finished on my own, without quitting.”
I know exactly who Pyxis the Restrained is.
“You sure do,” Jo says as she nods. “He’s your Fanboy.”
This chapter is complete! I’ve enabled commenting and have added my own thoughts as well.
As always, thank you so much for reading!
From Slow & Steady: The Velveteen Tortoise
Copyright © 2020, 2021 by Bex McLynn
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