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  1.  




Living in the Owl House— it’s different than Hunter imagined. Of course, he knew it wouldn’t be completely similar to his Uncle, that would be silly. But he did think that they’d have similar rules. 

 

Apparently not. The inhabitants of the house are loud and rude and brash. They’re nothing like Belos. 

 

Or maybe they are, and he just hasn’t figured them out yet. Like they’re waiting for him to slip up and make a mistake. Waiting to strike. 

 

He needs to be careful. Patient. Hunter is smart, he’ll figure out the rules eventually. 

 

Luz is too forgiving, too naive. She doesn’t understand. But she’s kind and bright and brilliant, so Hunter is going to protect her. It seems, though, that Luz doesn’t know the rules either.

 

“What are your tasks?” Hunter finds himself asking her one night, fiddling with the rug thrown over his mattress. He’s curled atop it, with Luz above him on her own bed, frame and all. Hunter looks on enviously, but he won’t complain– he just wonders how good she had to be to receive that reward.

 

Luz stops tapping away on that small, round little device of hers. She looks at him quizzically, furrowing her brow. “Tasks?”

 

Hunter shifts. “Like, the stuff you have to do.” To allow you to stay. To allow them to be nice. He wants to say, but his tongue is fabric and his cheeks are sandpaper. 

 

“Oh,” Luz says with a small quirking smile. “Chores?”

 

Hunter has never heard that word before. It’s probably a human thing. “Yes,” he agrees, “Chores.”

 

Luz ponders this for a second. “Not much, I guess.” She shrugs. “Sometimes I help dust and I clear up after Eda’s rampages. She likes it when I help clean the kitchen after mealtimes.” She’s trying to be casual about it. Hunter can appreciate that.

 

“Okay.” Hunter nods. “I can do that too.”

 

Luz frowns, her round, wide face creasing, “You don’t have to.” She says amicably, leaning back onto her hands. “I’m sure Eda won’t mind if you take some time for yourself for a little while. You deserve the rest.”

 

Does he? Something cold and horrid curdles like sour milk in Hunter's gut, and he shakes his head. “I want to help.” He insists, heart pounding in his ears. “I need to.”

 

“I mean–...” Luz sighs. “If you really want to, I won’t stop you. I could use the help.”

 

He nods enthusiastically, palms sweaty with relief. His heartbeat throbs like a drum in his throat.

 

He’s good, he’s good, he’s good. 

 

That’s where Hunter will start. He’ll begin by helping Luz, and then he’ll branch out. He’ll find his own chores, because he can’t start doing Luz’s for her. He’s gotta do this slowly. They’re different from Belos, they don’t have missions; though it seems as though this is the equivalent. 

 

He mustn’t overstep, though. That’ll just make it look like he’s noisy, obtrusive, or worse, like he’s trying to replace her. 

 

Eda would see it as a challenge– the question of which of them was more competent. Hunter could handle being cast out, but what if she turned on Luz? 

 

Of course, from all he’s seen, he knows Eda’s been rather nice to Luz, but everything changes so fast when it comes to those in power. They change their minds dangerously quickly.

 

What if she threw Luz out? 

 

Not happening.

 

Hunter will find what he should do. He’ll ask around, even if Hooty is the weirdest creature he’s ever seen, and he’s seventy-percent sure King is in the same boat as he and Luz, and Lilith seems scarier than Eda herself.

 

He’ll figure it out. 

 

Luz smiles at him. 

 

It’s worth it.



..



Hunter wakes up to quiet. He fell asleep a while ago, but the sky's still devoid of light outside. The stars shine back at him, blinking around the shadowed night. He peers up through the rounded window with a frown. 

 

What woke him up? He’s not used to being woken so… gently. He’s usually always alert, on edge, waiting for something bad to happen (because it always inevitably does).

 

His question is quickly answered when Luz opens the door with a little click. She looks, well, awful, with these dark bags under her eyes that mirror Hunter’s own, and a staticky mess for hair upon her head.

 

He props himself up on one arm, reaching to turn the light on. He blearily looks across the room at her in the half-light. “Luz?” He clears his croaky throat. “What’s happening?”

 

She waves away the question with a sweep of her hand and limps toward the bed. “Nothin’. ’M fine, Hunter.” She stifles a yawn with her hand. “Sorry for wakin’ you, go back ta’ bed.”

 

A cold pit of dread makes its home at the bottom of Hunter’s gut. “Are you hurt?” He hisses, casting a wary glance towards the door.

 

“What? No.” Luz snorts, running a hand down her face as though trying to physically scrape the exhaustion off of it. She topples down onto her bed. “I jus’ had to help f’tch Eda from the woods af’er one of her, ah, episodes.”

 

The thought of Luz’s chores immediately springs into his mind, and he sits properly upright as Luz rolls over and presses her face into the blanket. “Did you remember to clean up the house afterwards?” He murmurs, trying to keep the tension from his voice. It lays thick and unpleasant in his throat.

 

Luz is silent for a moment, then whines a high-pitched, reluctant, “No…?”

 

Hunter gets up. “You didn’t?” He demands. That pit in his stomach squeezes painfully.

 

Luz peaks up at him from beyond her pillow. “Wha’’s your pro’lem?”

 

Hunter stares back. “You’ll get in trouble.” He implores.

 

Luz snorts. “It’s just Eda. I c’n handle her.”

 

Can you? Hunter wants to ask, but holds himself back. It isn’t his place. 

 

“I’m tired.” She says again. Hunter swallows, reaches across to lay a gentle hand on top of her head.

 

“Sleep, then. I’ll handle it.”

 

And he does. He spends the rest of the night downstairs in Eda’s workshop room, tentatively sweeping up the glass shards strewn across the stone floor and wiping away sticky pools of apple-blood and cleaning and dusting and perfecting everything. 

 

It takes a while, because he has to be quiet. If someone catches him doing something that’s obviously Luz’s job, they’ll both be in so much trouble.

 

By the time he’s finished, the space looks untouched, and he can hear birds chirping beyond the window as a sign of dawn’s massing.

 

He’s just glad even Hooty needs sleep.

 

His bones ache and his mouth is parched, but seeing Eda stumble down the stairs and gasp at the cleanliness and begin to ramble Luz’s praises, Hunter decides it’s worth it. He’ll cushion any blow that Eda might have, redirect any anger she’ll possess away from Luz. 




ii.





Hunter still isn’t really comfortable with hanging around the others in the house. He keeps to himself, up in Luz’s room, where it’s safe. Eda seems to respect privacy, which he can learn to appreciate after so long with Belos, so she doesn’t ever come into Luz’s room. 

 

Sometimes, though, when he’s sitting even in his own self-confinement, the walls are thin; he can hear the voices of the other occupants of the house. 

 

One of the things he’s noticed about this house is that one of the rules is that they’re allowed to make noise. There’s no asking permission to speak or fear of doing so out of turn. Luz can shout and scream and laugh, and they won’t bother her. That’s something that’s taken… a little more getting used to. Moreover, now it seems as though Hunter is the weird one for being so quiet. 

 

It’s hard to adapt. 

 

They’re a loud bunch, so whenever the voices are raised, Hunter immediately springs onto edge. He listens for the sharp aggression, that grating warning in the voice which tells Hunter that whoever is yelling isn’t messing around anymore.

 

He listens until his ears are strained and his hands are shaking. 

 

Nothing has ever properly come of it.

 

That is, until today.

 

“Luz!” He can hear Eda’s shriek from through the house. It’s so loud he can feel the vibrations in his teeth. “You’re so awful at this!” 

 

Hunter swallows hard, drawing his knees up to his chin. His limbs have started filling with the sharp pin pricks of adrenaline. Eda is sharper than Lilith. More likely to raise her voice. She’s in charge, and Hunter knows that means she’ll be the fastest to turn against them. 

 

“I’m sorry!” Luz’s breath hitches. Hunter pauses. “I didn’t mean to!” 

 

“This is useless! We can’t use it now!”

 

His breath comes out all ragged and shallow. Hunter grips the blanket so hard beneath him. 

 

Useless. Useless. Useless.

 

His mind zeroes in on that word. For a second, everything else fades away, the world fumbles out from under him. Darkness blinks around him. 

 

“I said I was sorry!” Luz says again, properly shouting agitatedly this time, and Hunter wants to cry because no– what is she thinking? Hunter curses under his breath. Does she want to get herself in even more trouble?

 

“Not sorry enough!” Eda yells.

 

Her sharp tone of voice is enough to get Hunter onto his feet, quietly but determinedly opening the door and slipping down the corridor to the landing. He ignores the way his heart pounds. 

 

In the past, even Kikimora’s presence had been enough to offset Belos’ rage. And although Eda and Belos aren’t the slightest bit alike, Hunter knows that below all of their differences, all adults are the same. 

 

He slides halfway down the stairs when he finally works up the courage to call, “Is everything okay?”

 

He cranes his head around the banister to see Eda and Luz at odds in the kitchen. Luz has her back pressed against the counter and Eda’s over the tabletop. There’s a bowl spilt between them, seeping a murky orange liquid out onto the table. 

 

Both Eda and Luz freeze at his question, and then turn in sync to stare at him. 

 

Eda bursts out laughing. “‘Course we are, kid!” She exclaims. Hunter’s eyes narrow as she swirls around the table and pats Luz on the back. “Sorry. We didn’t mean to be so loud.”

 

Luz laughs in an agreeable sort of awkwardness. Her cheeks are red. Hunter hates this. Would she punish Luz even more now that Hunter has interrupted them? Will she finally drop the act of faux-trust?

 

“It’s sort of embarrassing, really,” she admits. “I wanted to see if apple-blood was a good base for a cereal. Then I spilt it.”

 

“Makes sense.” Hunter has no idea what a cereal is, but it appears to be the right thing to say, as Eda laughs boisterously again:

 

“All in good fun. I wasn’t actually mad.” Eda says and pats Luz on the back, before letting go. 

 

“I know.” Luz hums, looking back to shoot Eda a grin. She reaches up on her tiptoes to sling an arm around Eda and hang off her like a clingy bear. Hunter’s throat is tight with fear. The Owl Lady smiles back. 

 

As soon as she lets go, the coils wrapped around Hunter’s heart unfurl a little. Eda even then begins to pull out a cloth and soak up the spillage. 

 

If Hunter ever spilled anything, Belos would usually make him clean it up with his very own cloak.

 

Eda’s mad. Even though her face is light and crinkled with amusement, she must be a really good actress for anger to simmer under the content surface. 

 

Without thinking, Hunter throws himself over the banister and races towards the pair. Horror shines in the whites of his eyes. 

 

“Let me do that for you!” He exclaims. Eda lets out a little ‘oh’ of surprise, giving him the opportunity to lean over and snatch the towel out of Eda’s hands and begin to lap tentatively at the edge of the sticky spill.

 

He doesn’t dare look at Luz. 

 

Run. He silently commands her. Run, whilst she’s not looking. Get away.

 

Luz’s feet don’t move, much to Hunter’s chagrin. 

 

“How gracious.” Eda says pleasantly. Hunter ducks his head. His body refuses to move. Every nerve end is alight with tension, compelling him to run. To get away from the threat. “Thanks, kid. You seem experienced when it comes to cleaning up.”

 

Luz snorts. “I bet Belos used to piss his pants a lot. Seems like the type that would make you clean that up”

 

Hunter laughs quietly, but his eyes are glued to the spill as he carefully sweeps it up. His palms are still sweaty. He can feel Eda’s eyes on the back of his head, and he swallows. Hunter hopes she can’t hear the pounding of the heart from between his ribs.

 

Before Eda can say anything else, King’s needy voice rings out from one of the other rooms, calling for the Owl Lady again and again. 

 

Instead of being angry or downright ignoring the calls, all Eda does is sigh, “Duty calls.” When she reaches out, she lightly pats Hunter’s shoulder. He braces, tries not to flinch away. He doesn't know how King gets away with it; being so loud, so noisy.

 

Luz’s doe brown eyes stare him down when Hunter lets out a shuddering breath as soon as Eda leaves the room. The quiet is stifling, as though his ears are stuffed with cotton.

 

“You’re not useless.” Hunter tells her quietly as he wrings out the washcloth. 

 

Her eyes widen. “What?”

 

“What Eda said. You’re not useless.”

 

“Oh, that?” Luz harrumphs, and sweeps her hand through the air as though trying to swipe away his concern. Hunter just watches her, his pink eyes shining with worry and empathy. “She was talking about the apple blood. She couldn't use it in her elixirs after I covered it in cornflakes.”

 

“Right.” Hunter replies edgily. “Of course.”

 

“Eda wouldn't say that,” Luz says softly, as though to try and console him. When Hunter should be the one consoling her. “She’s nice.”

 

Hunter can’t find it within himself to believe her. 





iii. 




Another problem that Hunter finds himself facing is that of his palisman. Of course, Eda herself is a witch, and she has a palisman. So does Lilith– though Hunter has never even seen hers – and Luz has declared she’s going to get one eventually: when she finds one that’s actually willing to bond with her.

 

No, the problem is that Flapjack is really loud sometimes.

 

He watches Eda as she performs magic, and she hardly ever seems to let Owlbert off of the staff. He’s encased in wood at the end of the staff like he’s nothing more than a prop.

 

“Owlbert’s shy,” Luz explains when Hunter asks her about it. “He gets social anxiety and his shaking makes it difficult to fly. He comes out when there are less people, but being in the staff makes him feel safer.”

 

Safer from who? 

 

Even when Owlbert is flesh and bone, he’s usually very quiet. He doesn’t ever stray far from Eda’s side, and when he does, it’s usually just to dive straight into Luz’s pocket. He shies away from Hunter, Lilith and even Hooty. It’s a strange combination– he and Eda together. 

 

Owlbert’s probably been really well trained. He knows when to speak, when to keep his head down and be useful. The only problem is that Hunter doesn’t want Flapjack to be like that, and the bird itself is pretty adamant about not obeying any rules.

 

Flapjack is– noisy. It’s like he only recently discovered the fact that he has a voice box and is now dead-set on using it at every given opportunity. He flies around and shits on Hunter’s head and on his bed and across the floor.

 

Owlbert doesn’t do that. 

 

The differences between them are glaringly obvious. Owlbert is everything a Palisman should be– calm and quiet and docile. Flapjack is half-crazed and loud and pecks at Hunter’s hair at every given opportunity. He’s young, he doesn’t understand; but Hunter doesn’t want to be the one to teach him the rules. 

 

Hunter doesn’t want to know what would happen if Eda or Lilith caught Flapjack shitting on the couch, or raiding the cupboards for food. He thought that his palisman was supposed to be super adaptive or something, but that’s not the case, because obviously Flapjack doesn’t notice the danger they’re in all of the time .

 

Hunter does what he always does best: he hides. He lets Flapjack fly into the woods surrounding the house during the day, despite the way the distance tugs at their bond, and when Flapjack wears himself out, Hunter bundles him up in his cloak or his duvet and hides him down the side of the bed or in between the pillows. 

 

There, he sits with the bird, tries to soothe him and ease his peeping to a minimum, but Flapjack is just a chick. He doesn't know any better. Hunter just hopes that, if (when) the time comes, Eda won’t hurt him. 

 

Wild magic thrums in the very walls of this house, it’s in the roots and the floors and the ceiling. She shouldn’t be too angry about Flapjack. After all, she hasn’t done anything to them just yet.

 

One of those days, Hunter lurks in his room, Flapjack swathed in a blanket, curled into his lap. Hunter pets the bird gently, marveling at the blossoming alizarin feathers criss crossed over his back. 

 

Someone knocks on the door, light and pattering. Luz.

 

“Come in,” Hunter says politely, relaxing a little from where he had automatically hunched at the sound of an intruder. Luz sticks her head around the side of the door and grins. 

 

Then, her eyes dart down to Flapjack and she gasps, “Oh my goodness.”

 

Hunter offers her a shaky smile, “He’s cute, right?”

 

Luz nods enthusiastically and throws herself down onto the mattress beside him. Her eyes are brimming with awe-filled stars.

 

Hunter huffs a breath through his nose. “Would you like to hold him?” 

 

Luz’s neck snaps up. “Can I?” She whispers excitedly.

 

“As long as you’re gentle,” Hunter advises as he gently cups the bird in his hands. “Hold out your hands.” He instructs, and then tentatively places down the palisman in Luz’s palms. Her jaw drops.

 

“Aww!” 

 

Hunter leans back with a smug sort of feeling, warm and bright, burrowing into his chest. “He likes it when you scratch his neck.” And watches, his grin softening, as Luz nods again and her hand comes up to delicately scratch underneath the bird’s thick coat of down fluff. Flapjack coos appreciate and nestles into her. Luz draws the bird close to her chest.

 

He’s snapped out of that soft feeling when he hears another pair of footsteps making their way along the wooden corridor. Long strides, clacking boots. Eda.

 

Hunter rises to his feet. “I’ll be right back.” He tells Luz. “I think there’s a pack of seeds somewhere in my cloak if you wanted to feed him.”

 

If possible, Luz’s eyes grow even wider into shining, brilliant moons, and Hunter seizes the moment to slip out of the room and into the corridor. 

 

“Hunter!” Eda calls as she makes her way towards him. Hunter freezes. His face remains stony, but his grip on the handle door is bone-tight. “There you are!” Her thick head of pale hair swings as she walks.

 

“Were you looking for me?” Hunter asks nervously as he ducks his head.

 

Eda shakes hers. “No, actually. I was looking for Luz.”

 

Hunter swallowed hard. “She’s– ah, busy right now.”

 

He sneaks a glance at her through his blond eyelashes, and he can almost envision the way anger would flood her face if she realized Luz was looking after Hunter’s palisman. Hunter, who the Palisman belonged to, and Luz, who didn’t even have one.

 

“Busy?” Eda arches an eyebrow. “With what?”

 

Hunter’s mind races. He’s still pressed against the doorway, arms lodged between the frame. “She’s getting changed.” He says finally. Hurried. Strangled. “Wanted to try on one of my cloaks.”

 

But instead of getting mad at his blatant lie Eda just— rolls her eyes good-naturedly. “That’s Luz, for you. She’ll steal all your clothes if given the chance.” Eda leans down until they’re face-to-face. Her eyes spark with mischief. Hunter doesn’t dare breathe. All he can do is stare. “Between you and me,” she whispers, “She steals my socks. Never in pairs, though. So they’re all odd.” 

 

“Oh.” Hunter chokes out. His grip on the handle burns. 

 

Eda snorts and leans back. “That cheeky little kid.” She shrugs, hand on her hip. “Can’t fault her for it, though. I do have great taste in socks.”

 

He nods in agreement – despite not really having a clue what she’s on about – and looks down. “Do you need me to get them back for you?”

 

She gives him a strange look, then shakes her head. “Nah. It’s fine. Odd socks are always the better combination. Make me look more stylish.” She even flicks her voluminous hair over one shoulder. With that, her presence relents and she continues to walk down the corridor. “Let me know when she’s done.” She says over her shoulder.

 

“Will do.” Hunter calls after her, but it comes out all croaky and quiet. 

 

He releases a breath and slumps his head against the door, tries to swallow back the bile that had crawled up his throat and now inched at the back of his mouth. He re-enters the room after a moment to collect himself.

 

Luz is still sitting cross-legged on the ground. Flapjack is still in her lap, cooing and chirping quietly, muffled by her jacket. She looks up, grins. It’s blinding. “Everything okay?”

 

Hunter joins her by his mattress. “Eda wants to talk to you in a minute. I don’t know what for. Sorry.” He winces.

 

Luz doesn’t seem perturbed, or even mildly upset at that. “Alright. I’ll go see what the old lady wants.” She heaves herself to her feet. “And Hunter?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Let Flapjack come out more. I’m sure Hooty would love him.”

 

Hunter says, “Yeah. ‘Course.” And it feels hollow.





  1.  




Luz has nightmares. Hunter isn’t surprised – he’s heard countless tales regaled from Hooty or Luz or even Amity on the battles and escapes and near-death escapades she’s outmaneuvered. He finds it sort of admirable, the way she keeps her composure, keeps up that smile and that overly-cheerful attitude as the world crumbles around her. 

 

When she sleeps, though, her guards are down. She tosses and turns fitfully and lets out these awful whimpers. When Hunter isn’t awoken by his own ghoulish, haunting dreams, it’s her cries and shouts of fear that draw him back into consciousness. 

 

He never tells her. He lies facing the wall and slows his breathing so she can never know how disruptive she is. Luz needs all the sleep she can get; it’s obvious she hasn’t learnt how to cry silently and wake without a start even during the most unpleasant of lapses.

 

He doesn’t want to be the one to tell her, but equally, he doesn’t want Eda to find out. It’s a wonder she hasn’t yet. 

 

The nightmares don’t get better. In fact, they get worse. 

 

Hunter lays in the bed on the floor, facing the wall. He shakes apart as Luz’s distress grows and grows until she shocks herself awake, usually with a wet sort of gasp. Her panic then, without fail, dissolves quickly into tears. Muffled sobs. 

 

Sometimes, she hisses to him through the dark, a darkened whisper of “Hunter?” and he feigns sleep. He keeps his breathing deep and even despite the way his heart feels like it wants to burst out of his chest. He never lets on that he’s awake, that he hears anything, that he hears everything. He brushes off her questions in the morning with laughs and jokes about heavy sleeping. 

 

(Hunter has always been a light sleeper. He had to be. To listen to Belos’ steps down the corridor, coming to rip him out of bed and force him onto another mission.)

 

He stays quiet. Until he can’t anymore.

 

It starts the same as ever, Hunter lays awake, staring up at the speckled ceiling, blinking harshly to rid his mind of wisps and echoes of long-distant memories – feelings he can’t remember having and places he can't remember being. 

 

Luz whimpers into her pillow, chased even into unconsciousness by her fears, and her tossing and turning increases in severity. She thrashes, whimpers growing to fearful noises and shrieks, cries of, “No!” and, “Mom!” that makes Hunter’s heart ache, hot, in his ribs. 

 

Then she jerks awake. Upright in bed, her wide eyes take in her surroundings. All of the tension blows from her body as she curls inwards, hand across her mouth as her shoulders wrack with silent cries. 

 

Hunter can’t take it anymore. He doesn’t want this vicious cycle to continue any longer. 

 

“Luz?” He murmurs in the dark, and makes a point of acting out the farce of disgruntled awakening, rubbing sleep from his eyes and turning towards her.

 

Luz stares back, horrified, as tears like minnows chase down her cheeks, eyes raw and red-rimmed. 

 

His gaze softens. “What happened?” He asks gently. 

 

She scrubs the tears out from beneath her eyes and sniffs. “Nothing,” she says, “Just a nightmare. Sorry I woke you.”

 

“It’s okay.” Hunter draws back the sheet and places his feet on the ground. He cards a hand through his hair, pushing the blond locks out of his face from where they flop down like a fringe, acting as a blind to his eyes. “Can I do anything?”

 

She looks torn, in a way that’s painfully familiar. Her eyes dart across the room, fists balling the fabric of the blanket that has pooled around her. Then, finally, she ducks down her head and asks, “Can you come up here?”

 

Hunter gets to his feet. The world spins for a moment, as he stumbles towards Luz’s bed. She shuffles to one side and allows him to sit down. The mattress sags beneath his weight as he perches on the edge. 

 

She huffs; her eyes wet, but lips twitching into a small smile. “Not like that.” She reaches out a hand, wraps it around his torso, and pulls him onto the bed properly so he’s on his back. She busies herself with shoving some blanket over towards him. It’s the itchy, knitted kind made from some awful fabric, but he takes it nonetheless. 

 

Hunter doesn’t move for a second. His heart flutters anxiously like a bird. They’re being dangerous. If Eda came in, saw him like this– on a bed that he hadn’t earned, the consequences would be severe. He’d be in trouble, he’d get Luz into trouble–

 

He looks over at her. She’s watching him carefully.

 

Screw it.

 

He reaches out an arm and she holds onto it gratefully, tucking herself against him, pressing her freezing toes into his shins. 

 

“This okay?” He says, maroon eyes darting over. 

 

A smile is pressed into his shirt. “Great. You’re really warm.”

 

“Thank you. Use me as a hot-water-bottle anytime. Flapjack certainly does.”

 

“I will.” 

 

They settle for a long time like that, in which Hunter revels in human contact that he’s allowed to have, from one subordinate to the other, whilst Luz slowly stitches herself back together. They breathe in a soothing tandem. 

 

“It was about my mom.” Luz says finally. Her voice cuts through the quiet, and Hunter can feel her shiver. “I get nightmares about her a lot. About never getting back to her, about being unable to save her.”

 

“Oh.” Is all Hunter says. Because he’s never had a mom. He’s never been separated or ripped from his family, because Belos is the only family he has. And he demanded perfect obedience. And Hunter had followed after him like a dog. “Is she dead?”

 

“No.” Luz’s voice is muffled. “I’m just stuck. I can’t get to her.”

 

“You’re not here out of free will?” Hunter replies, breathless with terror. Even after all he has been through, he has stayed with Belos, in a twisted way. He was family, he was an anchor in the sea of Hunter’s thoughts, in his mess. He stayed. Even when it got harder, when Belos was less forgiving of his mistakes, and crueler in body and tongue. He had wanted to stay.

 

(Had he?)

 

Luz peaks up at him, her dark eyes sleepy and bemused. “I mean, not in his realm. I choose to stay with Eda.”

 

Not like she has any other choice. Hunter thinks bitterly, and for one stagnant second, his brain pushes thoughts upon him– thoughts of Luz trained under Belos’ palm, raised side-by-side next to Hunter, becoming the Silver Guard or something equally officious. 

 

It scares him. That idea. He doesn’t know why, but just the thought of it makes him feel so violently ill from the tips of his toes all the way to the top of his head. 

 

He stays awake, stays holding her, even as Luz drifts off again, a content, smooth expression across her features as she snuggles closer.





  • i





Eda looks up at the clock and frowns. Her mismatched gaze drifts over to the sink, where a mountain of dirty plates and cutlery has begun to gather beneath the window, the sun casting its early morning rays upon it in all of its wretched glory. 

 

She frowns. “Hey, Luz?” She calls into the living room. She gets a chirpy hmm? In response.Eda has to ask herself again where this kid gets all of her boundless energy. Luz swings around the doorframe, her hair still askew from her bed, like she’s been shocked with static. “Have you seen Hunter this morning? He usually does the dishes, and he hasn’t today.” 

 

Not that Eda is complaining; sometimes that boy works far too hard. He wrestles with an impossible workload, constantly fighting with Eda’s slobby habits and hermit-levels of hygiene. AKA, very little. It’s admirable, if a little concerning, that he rises too early and cleans the house every morning, but Eda has never brought it up.

 

She wants the kid to feel comfortable, and how is she supposed to do that when she’s breathing down his neck every second of the day?

 

No, Eda prefers a much more laid-back style of child-minding. (Parenting.)

 

She knows not much about Hunter. That he’s shy, that he has a palisman called Flapjack that he’s very protective of, that he really likes her soup, and that he sticks to a tight regiment.

 

Unlike Luz, he’s not the type to lie in and snooze. As far as she can tell, of course.

 

Eda harrumphs and wipes her hands down her trousers. Luz watches her, still drowsy from sleep and a little mystified at the questions. 

 

“I’ll go see if he’s okay. It’s not like him to sleep in.”

 

At that, Luz’s eyes grow round and watery with guilt. Eda raises an eyebrow, a silent question of: what have you done?

 

“I may have kept him awake for a little while last night. I woke him up.”

 

Eda’s heart softens. Luz has stopped clinging to the doorway now, her hands coming around herself to hold on tightly in a self-hug. Eda holds her close, arms lithe and firm as Luz presses to her chest. Eda presses a kiss to the crown of her head.

 

“Nightmares again?” Eda murmurs. She can feel Luz nod against her. “I’ll chase Lil’ up on that sleeping draught. Rest is important.”

 

She can tell Luz wants to complain, but her exhaustion must overcome her embarrassment, as she doesn’t say anything.

 

This kid. 

 

“How about we go out on my broomstick later?” Eda asks, and Luz’s expression immediately brightens. They pull away and Eda brushes her hand down Luz’s arm, feeling the kid sink into the touch. “I’ll let you loop-de-loop.”

 

“Yes!” Luz cheers, and skids away. Her socks smatter and skid across the wooden floors, probably to go and tell Hooty about the new accomplishment.

 

Eda sighs affectionately, a soft smile creeping across her face. She would curse anyone on sight who claimed she loved that kid, but even so, a dead man could be a truthful man.

 

If Luz isn’t the death of her, Hunter certainly would be.

 

Turning to face her newest conundrum, she climbs the stairs – two at a time because she’s not a coward, even in high-heeled boots – and reaches his and Luz’s room. Her rings click against the door as she raps against the wood, once, twice.

 

Nothing.

 

“Hunter?” She calls, “You okay?”

 

More silence, then–

 

A bang, and a muffled groan of pain. 

 

Eda’s eyebrows crease downwards. “Hunter?” She implores. “Can I come in?” All she gets in reply is another groan. Did he fall out of bed? King has done that enough times for her to recognise the sound of a body colliding with the floor. “I’m coming in.” She tells him, twisting the knob of the door and swinging the door open. 

 

For a split second she takes in the situation: Hunter, on the floor on his back, his legs a tangled mess of bedsheets. Then in an instant, his misty eyes snap up to meet hers and he’s scrambling over to his own bed, still encompassed by Luz’s stripy blanket.

 

“Hi, Eda. Hi, yes. I— I was just—“

 

Eda frowns even more, leans against the doorway to feign casualness. “Did you fall off the bed?” She asks, a light lilt to her voice. She won’t laugh until she gets the go ahead. “Did it hurt?”

 

His eyes grow huge. “What? Did I— no, no, of course not. I was right here. In my own bed. Where I should be.” He says feverishly. His irises dart fervently around like tiny fish in a bowl, and when Eda looks closer, she can see a glimmering sheen of sweat across his brow. 

 

“Woah, kid. You look a bit peaky. Are you sick?” She asks. 

 

Eda is not expecting the level of horror that dawns on his face at her words. He gets out of bed, shooting up like an elastic pulled taught and snapped. He stands before her, a soldier in all respects, his shoulders back and his spine straight. 

 

“No. I’m fine. Perfectly good. Great, even.”

 

He manages to stand like that for maybe a handful of moments before dizziness sweeps over him and he stumbles forward. 

 

On impulse, Eda reaches out to catch him in case he falls, but—

 

Hunter snaps away from her so fast, wrenching himself across the room like she’s something poisonous. His arms curl across his stomach as he hunches over. Still, he watches her carefully. Warily. 

 

She stands, stupefied, something worried and cold stirring in her gut like molten metal, casting her insides with hard stone. “Are you alright?” 

 

His eyes are pinkish, irritated. Watery in a way that comes with illness. His pupils are hardly more than thin pinpricks across ruby coloring. “Fine. Sorry.” He stumbles again.

 

“Easy there.” Eda risks a step forward. Her brow hurts with how much she’s knitting it downwards. “Do you want to sit down? It looked like you were going to fall over.”

 

He searches her face, then, with a terse nod, perches at the edge of Luz’s bed. The mattress squeaks beneath him and Hunter flinches ever-so-slightly. He wets his lip nervously.

 

At the same time, they both speak;

 

“Do you need me to–”

 

“Kid, I think we should–”

 

Then fall silent in tandem. 

 

Eda gestures, “You go first.” And rocks back on her heels like a seesaw. She wants to get closer, to check if the kid is alright– because he looks half dead– but there’s a fear twisted tightly across his expression and she hates it. Hates it, because it makes her ask the question of is Hunter scared of her?

 

His fist balls in the blanket. “I’m sorry I haven’t completed my chores yet today.” He says quickly and ducks his head. “I’ll get to it right away.” His breath is all choppy and shallow, he’s trembling and Eda has never felt more lost in her life.

 

“Hey, hey.” She says softly, “That’s alright. Who gives a crap about some dirty plates? If you’re feeling under the weather, I can get an ointment for your throat, or an elixir for your fever.”

 

He swallows thickly. Eda risks another step forward. She perches on the corner of the bed, a sizable distance away from the boy. He doesn’t move, only tenses slightly. 

 

“Right.” He says, tone stagnant. “You can, uh, heal me. Then I’ll get to the tasks right away. Thank you, ma’am.”

 

Woah. There was way too much to unpack in that one small sentence. Eda stares at him for a moment, tries to piece him apart and fix him back together, tries to figure out what the fuck was going on, tries to make it better. She doesn’t know, and that’s the scariest part.

 

So Eda does what she always does when she’s not sure what to do. She takes things, one at a time.

 

“Ma’am?” She echoes with a laugh that doesn't sound quite right. “Jeez, kid. You’re makin’ me feel ancient. Just Eda is fine. Or Eda the Mighty, Eda the Great, Eda the All Powerful.” 

 

Hunter turns and squints at her suspiciously. 

 

“And– just forget about the chores, okay? They’re not important. I’m worried about you, y’know. Your health is way more important than some unwashed cutlery.” Eda takes a risk and reaches out to press a warm palm to his shoulder. Hunter’s arm is like stone beneath the fabric of her shirt. Molten stone, burning to the touch. 

 

“Hey, uh, you’re burning up a bit there. You might want to lay down?”

 

His gaze is sort of cloudy, but he nods in compliance anyway, settling down onto the bed and sinking into the pillows with a sigh. Eda presses her knuckles to his forehead. Feverish to the touch, his bangs soaked with sweat. 

 

“I’ll go get those elixirs.” Eda tells him. She turns to leave.

 

A hot hand wraps around her wrist.

 

“Wait–” Hunter says, then breaks off into a wracking cough, wet and horrid, like he’s trying to eject his lungs from his ribs. “Wait.”

 

Eda gives him a weary smile. “I’m waiting.”

 

His eyes shine. “Please don’t kick me out.” He whispers. “I’ll do the chores. I promise, I’ll do them. Just don’t make me leave.”

 

Right then. Another obstacle.

 

Eda heaves in a breath, lets it out gently through her nose. One thing at a time. 

 

“Hunter.” She says, not unkindly. “Who told you that your residence here was conditional?”

 

He shakes his head, and then winces at the motion. “No one.” He doesn’t make eye contact, just picks at the skin around his nails with both hands. “I just thought– you know. It’s expected. Luz does chores, so she gets a proper bed and meals and clothes. I thought–”

 

“What the fuck.” Eda blurts out before she can think better of it. It frightens Hunter into quiet. “Hunter. You don’t have to do any of that, alright? Luz cleans up after me because she wants to, because she enjoys it. It helps get her mind off— other things. You don’t have to do any chores, not out of compulsion. I’m not going to make you do anything, and I’m certainly not going to kick you out if you decide to lay on your butt all day like King does.”

 

“How– How else am I supposed to–” He shouts, then shrinks back, trying to bury his face into the blanket as he pulls it up over his face. Eda waits, and the next time he speaks, it’s much quieter. “Earn stuff?”

 

“Earn stuff?” Eda asks, feeling queasy. 

 

“... Like, food. Sleeping. Having my palisman out more. Practicing magic.”

 

“Hunter,” Eda has to breathe. Just breathe, and everything will make more sense. Breathe, before she crumbles. “Those are basic necessities. You will never ever have to work for them, okay? Or anything, for that matter. You deserve those things, kid. You deserve love. What the Emperor– how Belos treated you– it wasn't right. He was cruel, and you didn’t deserve that. Nothing you could ever do wrong would ever justify his punishments, and his viciousness.”

 

Hunter is quiet.

 

“I know you don’t believe me,” Eda says gently, “And that’s okay, because your trust has been abused. I’m not going to hurt you. No one in this house will ever hurt you. You deserve to be a kid, and enjoy life, yeah?”

 

A shaky nod through the blanket.

 

“Rest now. I’ll go get those elixirs.”

 

A hand shoots out to grab her own. Hunter’s palm is callused and scarred. So is Eda’s, creased with age and worn with a thousand stories of futility and resilience. 

 

He peaks his head over the sheet. “Thank you.” He replies softly, his voice scratchy. 

 

“No problem,” she cards a hand through his hair affectionately. He leans into it, like a man in the desert to water, trying to soak up all of the hydration he can manage. 

 

Eda thinks maybe one day they’ll be okay.