Many hours later, there is a soft knock at the door, and a soft voice. “Owen?” Adam says. “Are you awake yet?”
Owen was not awake. He was curled up under all the blankets, cuddling the pillow.
The door opens, almost soundlessly, and Adam comes over to the bed. He watches Owen for a second, frowns worriedly, and reaches out to touch the one hand he can see.
Owen lets out a soft sound of acknowledgement as he wakes up, peeking out of the blanket.
Adam lays his hand on Owen's, gently, and it feels warmer than it should ... but then normal again. Adam frowns more deeply, then notices Owen looking at him, and takes his hand away. “Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you if you were still asleep. Are you hungry?” The answer is, of course, yes, but ... oddly, Owen isn't particularly tempted to take a bite out of Adam.
“Uh, no, I'm okay,” Owen says softly, sitting up. He'd probably had the best sleep of his life.
Adam keeps frowning. “You should definitely be hungry by now, Owen, you've slept for over twelve hours.”
“I'm fine,” Owen insists. “Really.”
Adam sighs. “Alright, if you say so. C'mon downstairs. D'you wanna change first? Steven said any of the clothes he sent up last night are cool for you to keep.”
“... Should I?” Owen asks. “I don't know how often I'm supposed to.”
“Um,” Adam says, “well, I mean, usually you wear fresh clothes for the daytime, and pajamas at night. You stay cleaner that way.”
“Okay.” Owen nods. “I guess I'll change, then.” He gets up out of bed.
Adam steps out of the room, one foot still in the door, to give him some privacy again.
Owen changes his clothes quickly, putting the old ones on the bed, not sure what to do with them. When he's done, he heads towards the door.
Adam brings Owen down to the main level, and through a door into the inner workings of the M&D café. Andrew is slicing a large ham and keeping an eye on a batch of buns proofing in the oven; there is a man of a similar age to Andrew chopping carrots off to the side; and there is a young woman with straight black hair who looks roughly Owen's age standing at the service counter, pulling an espresso for a girl with shockingly pink hair. Owen has never seen hair like that before.
Xiaolian struggles for a second to look away from Sara to greet Adam. “Ada—” She visibly freezes when she sees the newcomer that’s come down with Adam.
Owen tries to stay as hidden behind Adam as possible, not ready for this much human interaction.
Adam reaches behind him, offering Owen his hand.
Owen looks at Adam’s hand, confused about what to do with it.
Xiaolian watches the interaction very carefully. After she finishes helping Sara, she wipes her hands off on her apron before walking slowly over. She tries to put on her most gentle and encouraging smile she can possibly manage. “Hi there, I’m Xiaolian.”
Adam turns around, a little confused himself that Owen didn't take his hand – though his expression shifts to worry as he sees the confusion on Owen's face. As Xiaolian walks over, he positions himself just beside Owen, and he brushes the back of his hand against Owen's, giving him a smile.
Xiaolian holds out her hand in offering, trying her best to tone down her usual energy level.
Owen glances over at Adam, before looking at Xiaolian. “Hi,” he says, finally taking Adam's hand, moving closer to him. “I'm Owen.”
Adam squeezes Owen's hand, very gently.
Xiaolian keeps her hand out, hoping that she won’t look stupid.
Adam catches Xiaolian's eye, glances at her hand, and minutely shakes his head. He doubts Owen will go for it. The kid might surprise him, but he seems pretty overwhelmed...
Owen, of course, has never shaken a hand. He doesn't know what Xiaolian is doing, but it's vaguely threatening, so he moves closer to Adam.
Xiaolian drops her hand immediately and tries to keep the hurt off of her face. She doesn’t succeed. “I, uh, sorry. I’ll just leave you alone I guess. Have a good day.” She gives Adam’s other hand a quick squeeze before heading over to James, pulling out her notepad.
Adam squeezes Xiaolian's hand in return, then breathes a little sigh. “C'mon, Owen, let's grab a quick snack – even if you're not hungry, I am – and then we'll get Andrew, and we'll go meet our friend. Okay?”
“Who's your friend?” Owen asks softly, sounding a little worried. “...Is anyone here going to hurt me?”
“That's Xiaolian,” Adam replies. “I've known her since she was very little. And no, no one here is going to hurt you.” He leads Owen further into the kitchen – not past the counter into the main cafe – and begins putting together a lunch basket.
The bell on the door chimes as it opens and James walks in, looking around the new place he has entered. He quickly finds a comfortable seat by a table and sets down two leather-bound books, one marked اللحم الأكل and the other marked رحلة مستمرة.
Roan walks into the cafe, wincing slightly at the overly cheery door chime. When they haven’t had coffee, every noise is too cheery. Making their way to what was quickly becoming their favourite table in the place, they noted with interest that there were several new people about. Pulling out their latest book on cryptids from the bookstore, Roan makes themself comfortable while they wait on the waitress.
James looks up as Xiaolian approaches and quickly closes his two books before smiling up to her. “Morning Xiaolian.”
Xiaolian gives a James a small smile. “Hey James.”
“So, is this the place that makes those amazing donuts from yesterday?”
Xiaolian is still a little distracted from being turned down so all she can really offer is a “yeah.”
James tilts his head and frowns a little. “You doing okay, Xiaolian?”
“Huh? Oh yeah, I’m fine. What can I get you?”
“Just some coffee, milk and two sugars.”
Xiaolian nods and writes it down. “Any pastry to go with that today? We have our apple fritters that just came out of the oven.”
“I'll take one of those.” He smiles at Xiaolian. He likes talking to her but he wants to continue doing his research.
Xiaolian smiles softly before she heads over to the other person who came in and sat down. “Hi, I’m Xiaolian. Can I get you something to drink today?”
Roan looks up from their book, giving a quick smile to Xiaolian. “I’m Roan. And I’ll have a black coffee and... what cookies do you have?”
“We have our plain fairy-shaped sugar cookies, our ‘Hell or Heaven’ black and white cookies, silver obolos macaroons, and gold dragon coin peanut butter cookies.”
Roan’s eyes light up at the sheer amount of choice. “Oh damn. I’ll try a peanut butter one first, thanks.” They smile softly at the waitress, trying to figure out if they’re supposed to ask her what’s wrong, before dismissing the idea. If they ask, they might have to have a conversation and they just weren’t ready for that today.
“The dragon coins come in an order of a dozen, is that okay?” asks Xiaolian.
“Definitely,” Roan replies, “you can never have too many cookies.”
Xiaolian can't help but give small laugh at that. “I’ll bring that right out for you.” Xiaolian hears Andrew from the kitchen, calling her, so she heads to the kitchen and steps into the back. “Andrew?”
Andrew is there with Adam and the new kid, Owen; Adam has a basket over one arm. “We're heading out, very briefly, like I mentioned when you got here. Taking Owen to see Banjo. You and Bolin have the store – we shouldn't be gone more than half an hour.” He taps his pocket. “And we have our phones if anything goes wrong.”
Xiaolian makes a very conscious effort to not look at Owen. “Yeah, okay.” Xiaolian is very ready to let them leave at that but with the mention of Banjo, she’s reminded of the previous day’s news and can’t help the fear that rises in her. She grabs Andrew’s sleeve, feeling very much like her nine-year-old self. “B-be safe alright?”
A rare occurrence: Andrew smiles, and puts his hand on her shoulder. “We'll be fine.”
Xiaolian gives a quick nod, not trusting herself to do much more. Andrew’s smile calmed the fear but only so much. She makes a shooing motion. “Now get out, I can’t have hooligans running around in my kitchen.”
Andrew snorts. “Yes ma'am.”
He and Adam lead Owen out through the café side. Adam's proximity seems to be doing a good job of keeping Owen's hunger in check (he's still not quite sure how that works, but he's not complaining), but the presence and scent of so many people in close quarters, when he's scared and not in his element... It's not a fun few seconds. As he walks through the cafe, one of the patrons crosses directly in front of him: the turquoise-haired person, heading up to the counter to get their cookies. They smell incredible, and they're just close enough... Owen's eyes glaze over, he stumbles, he stares at the person and starts to move toward them, his arms coming up to reach for them.
Adam clears his throat. Andrew's head snaps around in response. He takes in what Owen is doing and in an instant, almost before Roan (or anyone else in the cafe) realizes what is happening, Andrew has swept Owen up into his arms and then over his shoulders, like he weighs nothing at all. (Which is close to true, but not entirely.) In seconds, the three of them are out the door and headed down the street – and while Owen's closer to another person than he's ever been in his life, Andrew does not smell particularly appetizing.
Owen just lets Andrew carry him, and actually clings onto him, looking like he's going to cry. Of course he doesn't want to eat anyone. “I'm sorry,” he whispers.
“It's okay,” comes Adam's voice, just beside him, as soothing as ever. “We'll figure this out.”
They cross the street and come to an old two-storey building with dusty windows and a Canada Post sign. Andrew, holding Owen on his shoulders with one arm, opens the door with his other hand, and they step inside.
Owen burrows his face against Andrew, both upset with himself and embarrassed. The contact feels really nice, though: he feels safe.
The building smells dusty, but clean, and it feels extra safe, somehow. Owen feels Andrew walking again, further into the building, and hears Adam close the door behind them. A few seconds later, he hears an unfamiliar voice – male, deep, rough. “What have you got for me this time, boys?”
Owen just whimpers softly. The sense of security was gone. “Please don't hurt me,” he says softly.
Andrew gently shifts Owen off his shoulders, setting him on his feet. Adam sets the lunch basket down on a table – Owen can see they're in a small kitchen – and takes Owen's hand. “No one's gonna hurt you, Owen,” Adam says, and squeezes his hand.
Leaning on the counter across from them is an older man – probably in his fifties – a little taller than average, short-cropped salt and pepper hair and beard, tanned skin with dozens of wrinkles from the sun. He's slim and chiseled, very much in shape: he has the look of an ultramarathon runner. He looks friendly enough, but very serious. He's wearing worn blue jeans and a blue plaid flannel open over a black shirt, and the hint of a gold chain peeks out below the collar. His eyes are bright blue.
“Banjo, this is Owen,” Andrew says. “Ryan and Cecilia found him in the woods last night.”
Owen immediately wraps himself around Adam's arm. Sure, Andrew made him feel safe, but Adam definitely made him feel safer. He looks at the man, Banjo, not saying anything.
Banjo looks him up and down. “Hello Owen,” he says, not unkindly. “What brings you to our neck of the woods?”
“I'm sorry,” Owen says in lieu of a response. “I didn't hurt anyone, I promise.”
Banjo's eyebrows shoot up. “Who said you hurt anyone?”
“I didn't,” he repeats, insistently. “And I don't want to and I promise I'm not going to.”
“He hasn't eaten the entire time he's been here,” Andrew says, “and he says he's been homeless as long as he can remember.”
“I couldn't do anything. I tried. And...” Adam starts, then stops and sighs. “I'm sorry, Owen,” he says, looking at Owen apologetically, then back at Banjo. “He looked real weird at one of the customers just before we brought him over.”
Owen buries his face in Adam's arm, still not trusting that he was safe.
“Hmmm,” Banjo murmurs, stepping forward off the counter and closer to them. “You are a mighty unhappy boy, aren't you, young Owen.”
Owen doesn't answer him, keeping his face hidden in Adam's arm.
There's a long quiet moment. Then Banjo moves away, opens a kitchen cupboard – which is, incidentally, chock full of books – and pulls a book out, flipping through it casually. He closes the book, puts it on the counter, then goes and opens the fridge. (The fridge is not full of books.) He grabs a fork from the counter, opens a jar, pulls something out of the jar, and comes back over to the trio. He holds the fork out to Owen. It smells damn good. Better than anything he's ever smelled, almost. Except maybe the turquoise person. “Kid,” Banjo says, “have some breakfast.”
Owen looks up at Banjo, surprised, and then down at the fork. He takes it, and eats quickly.
“That's what I thought,” Banjo says, unhappily.
Andrew raises an eyebrow. “Oh?”
Banjo nods. “Boys, we've found ourselves a ghoul. Half-ghoul, I'd wager.”
Owen looks up at Banjo, just as surprised as the others. “...A what?”
The weathered man smiles sadly. “A half-ghoul. You're not all the way human, kid. Let me guess: there was at least one parent that you never met, right? And you ran away – or maybe got thrown out – when you started showing ... unnatural dietary habits.”
Owen just nods, looking uncomfortable. He didn't want to think too much about his childhood. “...Yeah.”
“Been on the run ever since?”
Owen just nods.
Banjo exhales softly. “Alright, kid, now here's the question that's no fun, and I'm sorry.” He steps forward, right in front of Owen, and squats. He looks up at Owen, his rugged face earnest and open. “I promise on my old grimoire that no matter what the answer is, I will do my part to help you and keep you safe, and I will not hurt you. But I have to ask: did you attack the woman I found yesterday morning?”
Adam puts his hands on Owen's shoulders, radiating warmth.
Owen shakes his head. “No. I don't do that,” he says honestly, leaning against Adam.
“Okay. I believe you. So you scavenge, huh? Admirable. That's a rough life. You're a tough kid.” He scratches his beard. “Do you happen to know what did attack her?”
“...No?” Owen thinks back. “I did... see something else in the woods. He had a leg,” he admits.
Banjo frowns. “Another ghoul?”
Owen nods. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Half-ghoul like you? Or did it seem ... further gone? Less human?”
“Not like me,” Owen says. “He couldn't talk or anything.”
Banjo nods slowly. “Okay. Full ghoul.” He pauses. “Wait. Couldn't talk? Did you try to talk to it? What happened? Are you okay?”
“Oh. He, uh. Fed me.” Owen says softly.
“Oh, Owen,” sighs Banjo, “I'm so sorry.”
Adam's hands tighten on Owen’s shoulders.
“Okay,” Banjo says, standing up. “Here's what we're gonna do. Stay wherever you like in town. We'll take care of you. How often do you need to eat?”
“I don't know... not that much.” Owen shrugs. “You don't have to take care of me, I can leave,” he insists.
“Not happening,” Banjo says, firmly. “You look like you're, what, late teens? If I'm being generous? You've been hiding in the woods and fending for yourself for God knows how long. We have the resources here to help you out, and we want to.” He goes over to the fridge and pulls out the jar. “At least give us a trial run. Stay the month. Let us find the poor bastard out in the woods and let him rest. If you like it here, stay. If you don't, we'll help you move on to somewhere else. But this existence ... “ He waves his free hand at Owen. “You're allowed to have a better life than this, Owen. What you are, what you need ... they're not your fault. We can help you live with it and live with people. You don't have to give up...” He looks at Adam, and Adam wraps Owen up into a hug. “You don't have to give that up.”
Owen almost starts to cry, melting against Adam. “Okay,” he says softly, almost a whisper. “I'll stay here... I promise I won't hurt anyone.”
Adam holds him close for a few seconds, then gently pulls away, still keeping his hands on his shoulders. He smiles.
“We know, buddy,” Banjo says. “We got you.”
Andrew, who's been quiet this whole time, finally speaks up. “Banjo, I respect the hell out of you, but I have to ask: why do you have human flesh in your fridge?”
Banjo snorts. “Because I've lived my whole life in Willow River, and strange things happen here. Don't you try to tell me there aren't strange things in your life, Mr Ilnyckyj.” He jabs a finger at Andrew, who just raises an eyebrow in response.