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A night has so many hours, but eventually it ends.

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The kid in front of him doesn't even look sad any more. The typical horror in the eyes of the victims of war isn't there, no hint of any sort of feeling can be detected in the child at all. A chill travels down Race's spine as the lifeless eyes travel in his direction. They never truly settle on him, making it appear as though he's staring past Race instead of at him.

 

In vain, Race hops off his horse and calls out to the kid. "Are you alright?" he asks, more for the sake of getting a vocal reply instead of wondering about the content of said reply. Looking at the wasteland that must have been a town, it's not difficult to find the answer to it. Race's gaze travels over ruined buildings and quickly flits away from bodies to settle on the kid once more.

He extends his hand, beckons the child to come closer. "It's not safe here. Before you know it, the nasty scum of this world will come to scavenge this place. You don't want to be there when they take whatever their grubby hands can take from the dead." There's still no reaction, so Race walks up to the kid and grabs him by the arm. "We don't have the time to stay-"

A flash of movement is the only thing that alarms Race and he quickly shoves the little guy away, saving himself from the boy's knife. "What the-" He doesn't have the time to finish his sentence before the boy takes another swing at him. His knife handling is shoddy at best and he's having trouble staying upright. But unlike before, his eyes are blazing. There's desperation and fear, somewhere this kid still wants to live.

With a swift movement, Race disarms the boy and without the meagre protection of his rusty knife the kid drawls back. Quickly, he throws the object out of both of their reaches, holds up his hands and kneels down. "I'm not gonna hurt ya, I promise, but we really gotta go." He can see in the kid's eyes that he still doesn't trust him, but exhaustion seems to slam into him and he collapses into a heap on the ground.

 

Without thinking, Race picks him up and whistles at his horse, who trots in his direction. With some difficulty, Race manages to drag the kid unto Winnie's back and they leave the ghost town.

A good hour later, when they're deep within some woods, Race decides that they could probably hide out here for a while. He's spotted some abandoned goblin holes along the way and debates whether they should stay the night or not. Well, the first thing he's gotta do is find water. He'll worry about housing situations later.

 

Luckily enough, he finds a little stream about an half hour later and lo and behold! At the foot of a nearby tree, he also detects another goblin hole. He lets Winnie drink and carries the smaller boy inside the goblin hole.

Once inside, it's even clearer that the king's army has passed through these woods. Once upon a time, the little cabin must've been cosy. Now, an eerie silence hangs in the air and all the furniture looks like it has been thrown around the room. There's no gold to be found anywhere, another sign that there are no goblins left here. Turning a bed back on its legs and laying the boy on it, Race makes up his mind to check whether there is anyone, alive or not, left in this house.

Nobody. Nobody at all. After leaving the hole and scouting the surrounding environment, he still can't find a soul. The king's really thorough with his sweeping huh?

On the way back to the cabin, he fills a bucket he found in another house at the stream. When he gets back inside, he notices that the younger boy is still asleep. He looks around for a blanket and when he moves to drape it over him, he notices the bloodied state of his shirt and the fact that some it seems to be awfully fresh.

"Shit", he mutters and contemplates whether he should wake the kid up or not. In the end he decides to not do it, the boy probably needed his rest more than Race could imagine. With careful, slow movements he removes the boy's shirt and bandages the abundance of cuts he finds there. One of them's deeper than the others and is probably responsible for most of the blood. After his little medical intervention, Race wraps the little guy up in the blanket and curls up on the floor. He'll deal with the situation in the morning.

 

The situation deals with him, apparently. In the morning, Race wakes up with a kid on his chest and two thin hands shakily wrapped around his throat. "Good morning", he manages to bring out rather sarcastically before the kid gives him a solid punch to his jaw.

 

While Race is busy seeing stars, the kid asks him a question. "Who are you?" he asks, face scrunched up in an expression that's probably meant to look threatening and his voice purposely lowered. It doesn't help the prepubescent squeaking, but hey, Race has to give him a thumbs up for trying.

"My name is Racetrack Higgins and I'm a traveller." The kid cocks his head and looks at him in a scrutinizing way. "Where are you travelling to?" he finally asks and ain't that a good question? "I'm searching for safety", he answers, neither lying nor telling the truth entirely. The reaction he gets from the kid surprises him though. It's a laugh, but there's nothing in there that hints at the innocence of a child.

 

"You're silly", he giggles, "safety doesn't exist for people like us any more. Even if you pass as much as a human as you do, they will know. They will come for you." It's a fucked up statement that Race hadn't been willing to hear yet, but here it is. The confirmation that death will come for him in the same way it has come for other goblins, orcs, trolls,... Every sort of creature that was undeserving of living in the world that their human king deemed perfect. Fae and elves were fine, because nasty as they could be, they were never actually associated with the disaster they caused.

The unpleasant laughter suddenly cuts off as the boy slumps forward, falling smack on top of Race. He rolls them over and as he holds the kid in his arms, he feels the heat radiating off him. The kid blinks slowly, trying to stay awake as he breathes unevenly.

 

Race had already used his bucket of water the night before and hauled the kid back unto the bed, planning to go out to get some more. Before he can leave, he feels something holding him back. Looking down, he lays eyes upon the kid's fingers clamped around his sleeve. The boy tries to form words, but exhausted as he is, not even one makes it past his lips.

 

"Calm down, I'll be back in a minute", Race hushes and wipes a few strands from the kid's sweaty forehead. "I'm just gonna get some water, alright uh...kid?" The boy bites his lip in contemplation, then nods sluggishly. "M Romeo", he mumbles before slumping back with closed eyes.

 

It seems as though he'll have to take this kid with him for a while, Race thinks as he hastily gathers some water. While he nearly trips over himself in his hurry to get back. Food is gonna be a problem too, since it's been a while since Race last passed a city that wasn't burned to the ground. In the cities that were spared from the king's wrath, he wasn't welcome. Not because his Sommel blood was that easy to detect (the last full-blood Sommel in his family had been his grandfather), but because Race was a bit of a known rebel.

By the time Race is back with his bucket, Romeo has tossed away his blanket and is now laying on the floor, shivering madly. He did not sign up for this when he picked up this kid. With a deep, annoyed sigh, he pulls the mattress unto the floor, rolls Romeo unto the mattress. The next step he takes is rolling the child into the blanket and then fastening the blanket to the mattress. Lastly, he slaps a wet rag on the kid's forehead and decides that that's enough.

 

Since there's not a lot he can do but wait, he checks his provisions and winces when he sees what's left of them. A chunky piece of bread and some ham...probably. Although it was nearly unidentifiable and definitely not safe for consumption, Race debated whether it would be alright to grill or not.

 

Taking a glance at Romeo, he's not really sure if leaving him alone right now is the smartest move. But when he eventually wakes up, he'll have to eat something and a single loaf of bread is not gonna be enough to feed the both of them. Suddenly, an idea hits him and he whistles between his teeth, calling for Winnie. She's smarter than a lot of horses, so he knows that she'll be able to get him in case of emergency.

 

The royal amount of berries he's able to find, combined with the rabbit that he managed to catch, turns Race's mood around for the better. Even nicer, are the two loaves of bread, three smoked fishes and the strips of pickled bacon he's found in another house. Humming happily, he enters another house and nearly does a victory dance when he lays eyes upon a bottle of brandy and some tobacco.

 

His victory however, is very short-lived. In the distance, he hears voices and laughing and knows that the less restrained part of the army has arrived. There's nothing left to find in the houses any more, but that doesn't mean that they won't try. Also, Romeo is still in one of them, confined to a mattress Race had bound him on. Shit.

Slipping down hills and skipping between, Race tries to stay ahead of the army. His thoughts are a constant cycle of 'shit shit shit' and it becomes the biggest 'oh no', when he sees that the goblin hole where he left Romeo is surrounded. There is no way that he can get in there without the men noticing him. Carefully he evaluates the scene, only to notice that he can't see Winnie anywhere.

 

"Hey", someone whispers drowsily behind him and Race screeches, alarming the men of his presence. When he spins around, he sees Romeo still wrapped in the blanket on Winnie's back. Without wasting any more time, he hops onto her back and urges her to go as fast as she can. Romeo falls back asleep and Race looks at the kid in disbelief. Well then.

 

Because of the lack of a pursuit, Race assumes that he'd been standing too far away to be recognised. Winnie is getting tired, he can tell, but he doesn't want to let a sick kid sleep in the muddy swamp they're in. He can feel himself getting tired too. Surely...surely closing his eyes for a minute wouldn't hurt, right?

This error was graver than Race could've foreseen. The worst part was watching it all play out. The first thing that alerted him, was the spot of red surfacing in the water and the bright green, humanlike eyes tell him that he should really wake up. While Race rubs the sleep out of his eyes, the red spot leaps out of the water, lunging at them.

 

Moving completely on instinct, Race drags Romeo from the horse and watches in horror as Winnie gets dragged into the swamp. There's a brief struggle and then both horse and creature disappear under water. Fuck, what's he gonna do now? Angry, he stomps to the edge of the water and screams at it. "Give me my horse back you fucker!" he yells at it and falls to his knees, sobbing.

"Racetrack?" he hears Romeo call out and a minute later, he can feel Romeo settling down next to him and arranging the blanket around both of their shoulders. "Why are you yelling at water?" Frustrated, he wipes some tears from his face. "Some jackass monster dragged Winnie down", he mumbles and Romeo frowns. "That's not nice", he says and peers into the water. "Hello?" Too late Race realises that the boy is way too close to the edge and barely a second later, two arms wrap themselves around his neck and drag the screaming boy down.

Shock numbs his brain and Race stares at the now still water in disbelief. "Dammit! I tried keeping that one alone you piece of shit swamp monster!" he yells as he takes a dive into the pond.

 

Once under water, he tries to orientate himself, but the water is too murky to see anything. When something grabs him by the leg, the only thing he can make out is a wreath of red seaweed and tries to aim a kick at it, forgetting that his speed isn't quite the same underwater. His foot does connect though, Race notices and he smirks smugly.

Instead of getting disoriented, the creature shoots up and for a moment, Race and the other one stare at each other. The red he thought was seaweed turns out to be the other one's hair and as Race stares at him, a feeling of tranquillity falls over him. He's running out of air and his vision is fading, but he really, really couldn't care less.

He wakes up with the red-headed guy floating above him. "Finally", the guy notes as Race looks around in panic. "Where's Romeo?" he asks and the guy points at a nearby bed. "The little one's there. I gave him some medicine as he was quite sick."

Race gives the guy a distrusting look and the other one throws his hands up. "He's fine, I swear! I'm not at the point where I'm eating humanoids yet, jeez." Then the ginger quickly turns his head around and looks at a crevice in the rock behind him. "I didn't say nothing about your horse though."

"You ate Winnifred?" Race shouts incredulously and the guy shrugs. "Not entirely yet. We've all gotta survive man. Be happy that you got a horse with you, because otherwise I just might've turned towards another diet", he grins, revealing his angler fish-like teeth. "Whatever dickhead, what can I call you?"

"Lord of the-"

"Dickhead it is then", Race interrupts and the guy gives him an annoyed look. "Albert." Race sticks out his hand. "Race", he introduces himself and Albert shakes his hand. Race notices the fins between his fingers and the gills on his neck. Strangely enough, Albert has legs. When he notices him staring, Albert laughs it off. "Sometimes hybrids turn out a bit inconvenient, but it's alright since I stay close enough to the shore. It's not that hard to drag prey down from there. Fish are a whole other story though."

"Speaking of fish", Romeo suddenly pipes up, making Race scream once more. Romeo rolls his eyes at that and continues. "Where are they?" Albert's toothie grin disappears and he frowns. "Poisoned. They're killing the swamp merfolk by both starving and poisoning us. I was planning to leave this pond, but was too hungry and exhausted to do so. But you guys and your horse", he throws an apologetic glance at Race, "came along. I'll be leaving tomorrow."

"Do you know a safe space then?" Race asks and Romeo snorts in the background. "Yeah", Albert says, expression hopeful. "As safe as this world gets for us at least. There's this town in the north, rumoured to protect people like us." Intrigued but disbelief evident on his face, Romeo scoots a little bit closer. "Where?" he whispers as though speaking any louder would make the place magically disappear.

"I dunno", Albert admits. "They say the town finds you, you don't find it." After that revelation, Romeo scoffs and every trace of emotion disappears from his face, even the little glimmer of hope that Race had wanted to protect. "Bullshit", the boy says, tone detached. "Goodnight you two, have fun dreaming on", he says and rolls around, burying himself into some blankets. Albert shrugs at that and wishes Race a good night as well.

It's deep in the night, or so he thinks at least because it's hard to tell underwater, when Race hears someone getting out of their bed. It isn't Albert moving to kill him, but Romeo who settles down on the floor, head buried in his hands.

 

"Can't sleep?"

 

Romeo takes a long look at him, eyes distant. Some time passes before he slowly shakes his head. "What's on your mind?" Instead of answering, Romeo shakes his head again and Race gets the hint. He shoves the covers off his body and opens his arms. "Want to share the bed?" After a moment of hesitation, Romeo lays down next to him, curling up into a small ball.

Race rearranges them a little bit so he has his arms properly around the younger boy and strokes his hair. "We're gonna be fine kiddo. We're gonna get to safety like uh...like the children of Heiwan!"

The notion of the urban legend of the three kids that had managed to escape the army when it first attacked doesn't lift Romeo's spirits at all. Quietly, he whispers in Race's chest. "The children of Heiwan know more than anyone know more than anyone that safety doesn't exist. Our city fell first. Three days later, Smalls' body gave up under the strain of various injuries. Sniper lasted longer, but got ironically sniped in the head."

A bitter smile plays along Romeo's lips. "I was the oldest you know. I failed em. People cling to our image for hope, unknowing that we've either died without achieving it or have given up."

Race falters for a moment before tightening his grip on the kid. "Mark my words, Tiny, I will make sure you live a happy life even if I have to die to achieve it." Romeo laughs humourlessly. "And dying you will. Only fools trust someone after a day."

"Yet here you are", Race counters smugly, but the lifeless grin on Romeo's face only widens. "I don't trust you", he says. "I'm hoping and waiting for something to happen. I'm small and still sort of sick. Wouldn't I be easy to get rid off?"

There's nothing Race can say to make the younger one's will to die or distrust of him disappear. The only thing he can do, is be the best goddamn friend this kid has ever had. He sighs dramatically before pressing a sloppy kiss to the kid's forehead, in the same way his mom used to do to him. "Your tiredness and sickness are making you say stupid shit, young one. I'm not known for child murder, but for treason and I'd like to keep it that way." Romeo doesn't answer and Race stays awake until the moment the kid's breath evens out. Only then he feels like it's a responsible move to fall asleep.

Never once has Race been as glad to have woken up the exact moment he did. Eyes wide with disbelief, he looks at Albert's unhinged jaw with his frightening teeth almost clamped around Race's wrist. He can feel the humidity of his mouth and immediately he pulls his arm back. "What the fuck were you doing?"

Albert ignores Race's various voice cracks and yawns. "You guys should really be heading out. It's best to leave before sunrise. Do you want to take some horse meat along on your journey?"

"Absolutely not. I liked Winnie ya know. I stole her from an army officer and she was lovely."

"And I haven't eaten the last three weeks, I'm beyond guilt. Is the tiny one waking up yet?"

Romeo's grumpy and disheveled head appears from somewhere in the heap of blankets. "Am not tiny." Albert snorts. "You're like, nine at most."

"I'm thirteen."

Albert rolls his eyes. "Whatever floats your boat, tiny. Anyway, here's where we part ways. I won't travel over land, as I stand out way too much. I'll be yeeting you guys unto the shore and then I'll meet you both again in that northern village."

The boy does exactly that and after being yeeted to the shore, Race can see Albert in broad daylight. Turns out that the guy's skin is a mix of dark brown and white. "Yeah, another thing that went wrong with the creation of Albert DaSilva. Usually it's light on the stomach, dark on the back but yeah." The boy awkwardly laughs and Race gives him a clap on the back.

"Thanks for your hospitality, weird ass Albert, I like you." Albert scrunches his nose. "I don't even know whether I'd like to be liked by you or not. Well, it doesn't matter anyway, I'll see you and tiny later!" Romeo waves at Albert. "Bye! I hope you'll gain the brains to remember my name on your journey!"

"What do we do now?" Romeo asks and Race doesn't really know either. "Hiking northwards", he answers more confidently than he feels.

Three weeks later, they still haven't found the village and Race is starting to lose hope. He tries to mask it, because god only knows what it'll do to Romeo. How does he have to tell the younger one that he himself doesn't believe in that magical place any more? Shaking his head, he continues struggling through the vast woods, Romeo in tow. He had promised him safety and he'd give it to him.

"Race? I'm getting tired", Romeo says and Race nods as a sign of having heard him. "Another half an hour and then we'll stop for the night. Is that alright for you?" With a slightly pale face, Romeo nods and he grabs Race by the hand. "Okay", he says quietly and Race gives his hand an encouraging squeeze. "You're doing great Romeo."

A wonder happens. Twenty-five minutes later they stumble upon someone who's clearly an orc. When he lays eyes upon them, the stranger laughs joyously. "You guys are unwelcome in the king's land aren't you? Don't look so surprised, it's written all over your faces. Forget your worries, you've found the northern city!"

"He's lying", Romeo whispers, hiding behind Race. But it's evident on his face that it's nothing more than a guess that Romeo himself wishes to be untrue. "I am not, youngin, although I understand your fears. This world is unforgiving, isn't it?"

"Hey uncle, who are you talking to?" a voice asks and a minute later, two other orcs appear. Once they detect Race and Romeo, one of them scowls. "The town is getting full, we can't keep taking people in."

"Stop your whining", the other one grumbles as their uncle grabs Race by the hand. "Let's get the both of you all warmed up, the woods ain't no place for exhausted kids." Race has the choice between declining the offer or going along with the older orc. If the man wasn't a member of the hunted folk, Race probably would have tried to fight his way out. But the man is one of them, he's been travelling for three weeks already and Romeo is swaying where he stands. "Lead the way sir."

The man, Wiesel he learns, leads them to the town, where they get greeted heartily by almost everyone. The amount of orcs, goblins, spirits, witches and other creatures that are usually considered nasty nearly makes Race cry. There's so many of them and being part goblin, it really does something to his soul.

Halfway through the meal they get at an inn (for free!), Romeo falls asleep on Race's shoulder. "Aw look at him", the innkeeper gushes, placing a hand over her heart. "Do you want me to bring him upstairs?" she asks and a strange feeling of protectiveness befalls Race. "No thanks ma'am, I'll do it myself. Good night." She waves him goodbye with a "Good night darling!"

The muffled sound of people arguing wakes Race up and immediately, he's up on his feet. Romeo is still asleep in the bed and the noise seems to be coming from the street. Carefully he peers outside and in the light of a street lamp, he can see Wiesel and his nephews. The latter two are restraining a tiny, bulky man, although just barely so. "You better let me go", the teenager spits and Wiesel answers by putting a gun to the teenager's head. "Werewolf right? I restocked on silver bullets last month, so I should be good."

This town is a trap, Race realises and before he can think it over, he feels the magic sparking in his veins. He can't do any fancy spells, but he's damn good at being annoying. He outstretches his grubby goblin hands and within seconds, Wiesel's silver bullets appear in front of them. One should never let a goblin know the contents of their pockets. Especially not if it's valuable.

 

A second too late, he drawls away from the window. But Wiesel had seen him, that's for sure. As the commotion outside grows louder, Race quickly crosses the room, back to the bed and shakes Romeo awake. Groaning, the kid slaps his hand away. "Stop it Racer. I'll throw you out of the window."

"If you'd do that, you'd be throwing me for the wolves my little dude. The place is a hoax and we've gotta go." Romeo throws the blanket on the floor and rolls from the bed, right on top of the previously thrown blanket. "I'm tired", he says with eyes that are awake but soulless. "I don't want to run any more. It's stupid anyway, there's no end."

 

"Hey", he says, crouching down next to the kid and hugging him tight. "You'll get your happy end, even if I've got to die for it, okay?" He can see on Romeo's face that the boy doesn't believe a word he says, but Race is being the most truthful he's been in a while. Somewhere in those three weeks, he must've gotten attached to him. Huh.

 

Downstairs a door flies open and Race cusses. "Fuck, I thought he'd be dealing with the guy outside for a longer time. We'll have to make a break for it through the window." Something akin to Romeo's survival instincts kick in and within seconds, he's grabbed is stuff and joined Race at the window. "There are bars in front of the window", the younger one remarks and Race rolls his eye. "Didn't notice that one yet, detective obvious."

Footsteps can be heard stomping down the hall and Romeo grabs Race's arm. Although the child has a thing for dying, he always gets scared when death is around the corner. Race thinks he's more of an escapist than someone who actually wants to die. Anyway, none of his psychoanalysing really matters because the door bursts open and Wiesel, joined by his two nephews, enters the room.

The closest nephew, the one somewhat resembling a beanstalk, makes a grab for Romeo but Race jumps in between them. As he frantically tries to keep the three away from them with a coat hanger, the bars on the window break and a teenager's face appears.

A very specific teenager's face appears. A face belonging to a very specific teenager called Spot Conlon, in fact. "You?" Race asks incredulously as Spots groans: "Not him again."

"Excuse you, I'm a delight", Race sniffs right before Wiesel yanks the coat hanger out of his arms and Race falls to the floor. "Get the kid outta here!" He yells at Spot, who immediately takes hold of a struggling Romeo. "Let me go, you piece of shit bastard! Asshole!" The boy trashes against Spot's hold and as they disappear out of the window, Race can hear him let out a very loud "Cazzo!" He's not ashamed to admit that he's very proud to have thought the boy his native language.

A very good asswhooping later, Race finds himself in a filthy cel. There's a window, through which he can see the moon. Big yay for that! A lot less fun is the sheer amount of iron present. His inherited allergy has never really bothered him before, but the amount of iron bars surrounding him is making his head spin and he hasn't gotten up from the floor on which they had thrown him yet. Or maybe it's his injuries. Who knows.

An insistent tapping breaks through his reveries, as does one particularly gruff voice whisper-shouting: "Get the fuck up, dumbass!"

"Spot?" In total confusion, Race manages to sit upright. "Where's Romeo?" He asks, alarmed and Spot buffs in return. "Behind me. The little bitch- don't fucking kick me", he says as he whirls around. Then he continues his conversation with Race. "Romeo is behind me and currently holding a gun with silver bullets to my head. He's also telling me to hurry up and get you out of there."

After patting himself down, Race notices that he doesn't have the silver bullets anymore. Stealing from a thief, little Romeo has got some class.

"Here I go", Spot announces before bending the iron bars on the window. Race blinks a few times, starstruck. "You sure are strong."

"And you sure are slow. Get out of there before they notice you're gone." Without wasting another minute, Race climbs out of the window. As soon as he's outside again, Romeo barrels into him and gives him what could either be a stranglehold or a hug. Race guesses that it's the latter.

As soon as the gun isn't aimed at him any more, Spot declares that he's leaving. "I'm travelling towards the northern city, I've got some business there to take care off."

 

"Wait...so it actually exists?" Race asks cautiously and Spot rolls his eyes. "No, I made it all up. Let's get out of this shithole first, then I'll tell you all about the alliance of six." Race gives him a quick nod and the three of them try to get out of the town unnoticed.

Keyword, try to. Within five minutes, Race has accidentally kicked a barrel, which rolled over with a loud clanking sound. Spot takes it upon himself to cuss Race out and the sound of that (of course not of the barrel, how dare you assume that?) alerts the guards.

 

"Well done, Conlon", he spits and before they run off, Spot gives him a punch to the shoulder. Race manages to suppress a wince and shoots the other teenager a taunting smirk. It's Romeo who's responsible enough to tell them to knock it off and book it.

There's a little moment where things get a little tight and Race actually fears that they might get caught. Once again, Romeo surprises him. As they pass another child, Romeo asks the young boy to tell them the way out. The question makes the child's head snap up and his eyes become glazed over. "Go straight ahead until you see the big wall. You can swim underneath it through the sewers at the utmost left of it."

 

"Thanks, let's go!" When they leave, a short silence follows before the boy starts screaming. "They're here! They're here!" Race doesn't really want to swim through a sewer, but he's got no choice. Spot doesn't even give him time to think it over before he throws Race into the sewer.

 

"I hate you", is the first thing Race says after they've found a tree to sleep in. They're a bit higher than comfortable, but alas, it is what it is. "Gee, hadn't noticed yet", Spot retorts and Romeo groans from a few branches above them. "I hate you both, I want to sleep." The older two shut up after that, glaring at each other.

 

"Okay, I lied, I don't want to sleep", Romeo admits and Race raises an eyebrow at him. "Go to sleep."

"Don't wanna."

"Do it"

"No"

"You're insufferable", Race groans and Romeo giggles. "Tell me a story. Where did you two meet?"

"King's academy, educational branch of the Royal Guard", Spot answers and Romeo scowls at the both of them. "You guys trained to be guards?" he asks, distrust evident in his voice. "Of course we did", Spot answers. " Ain't no better way to escape the king's men than knowing what they're looking for. They caught on though and our whole squad had to flee. I dunno what happened to Sarah or JoJo", he adds and looks at Race. The craving for a cigarette creeps up on him, but Race ignores it in favour of turning to Romeo.

"Yeah, we were essentially just a couple of people trying to stay alive. By the way, are you able to hypnotise people? Or what was that?"

Romeo hums. "My people are kind of known for kidnapping children. It's a gift."

Spot guffaws at that and Race elbows him in the ribs to shut him up. "But I swear that I don't kidnap kids!" Romeo continues. "I'd just be very good at it, should the need arrive." The boy climbs a bit further down so they can properly see him. He rolls up the sleeve of his ratty t-shirt, revealing a black mark, vaguely resembling a tree.

 

"See, it's a birthmark that tells other dwendes whether your a youngin or an old geezer. Black marks are for the young people and it gets lighter the older you are. It's a common misconception of humans to think that they tell you whether a dwende's good or not." The boy shoots both of them a nervous look and crawls a bit back again. "I'm sorry, it's not that important..."

Race scoffs and he can hear Spot growl beside him. Romeo shrinks into himself even more and Race mentally facepalms. "Spottie, stow the aggression somewhere else, we've gotta be a bit more gentle." He climbs over to Romeo and slings an arm around the boy's shoulders.

"Never, ever feel ashamed to talk about your heritage. Remember who you are and where you came from and talk about it as loudly as you can. Keep the memory of your kind and your ancestors as alive as you can, because every notion of them could disappear as soon, as you stop talking. It's what they want, a total extinction. Don't let em take away your pride. Shout your story from the rooftops if you must."

"Oh", Romeo breathes and his mouth hangs open. "Okay", he says with a little smile. "I guess your take on it is a bit different if you have a safe space to scream it from the rooftops."

"That reminds me", Spot cuts in. "There are six towns in the north that harbour fugitives. Hat'n, Lynn, Mænd, Wuudensait, Bûrx and Shahing. The populations of those towns are very different, but they all have one thing in common: no one else wants them. The six town don't really get along, but we have to for the sake of all of us. I'm Lynn's leader and will be returning there, but you guys will have to travel a bit further to Hat'n. Believe me, Lynn ain't the place for you guys."

"Is it hard to find?" Romeo asks and Spot smiles. "You don't find Hat'n. Those crazy bastards will find you. Now go to sleep kid." Romeo grumbles in return, but sort of sprawls out over Race. "What are you doing?"
"The tree ain't exactly comfy, so I've got to make do with your bony ass", Romeo retorts grinning and Race gasps in offence.

Travelling with Spot is a tiring experience. Mainly because he's Spot and Race finds him to be incredibly annoying, but also because the guy is a lot more fit and better fed than both him and Romeo combined. He shoots the little guy a look and Romeo stares right back. "I'm used to travelling", he says plainly and Race knows it's true. But he isn't blind and he sees that Romeo is struggling to keep up with Race's long legs and short Spot with his inhumanly strong legs.

Sighing, Race kneels down on the ground. "Climb on kid, we ain't got all day." Romeo pouts and shakes his head. "No. I don't want to be even more of a bother, I can walk." Spot, standing out of earshot, is glaring at the both of them but Race pays him no mind. He's got other things to do. "Romeo, you're not a bother. You've never been and never will be. But you're tired and I want to keep moving. Look at these long limbs", he says and points at his legs. "Now look back at yours", he says and Romeo gives his own legs a questioning look.

"Spot is small too", Romeo argues and Race is happy that the guy in question is standing out of earshot. "Yup he is, but look at the man. Look at the width of his legs, those fucking muscles. You think you can compete with that little man?"

Romeo squints at Spot for a bit before sighing. "I guess not." Resigned, he climbs on Race's back and they continue their journey.

One day, Spot suddenly leaves them. Like the douchebag he is, he's gone before dawn. Race vaguely remembers him saying that he'd leave for his town in the morning and wishing him luck with finding Hat'n. He thought it'd been a joke, but apparently Spot had been deadly serious.

"Racer, what do we do now?" He bites his lip, trying to formulate an answer. "I uh... We should..." He looks around, hoping for an answer to magically appear. "We should fill out water bags at that lake over there! With the pretty waterfall!"

It should buy him some time to come up with a plan, he thinks as he kneels on the shore. He hears Romeo scream and as he redirects his gaze towards the lake, something shoots up out of it.

After letting out an ungodly shriek, Race recognises the toothy grin and red hair. "Couldn't you have warned me before pulling me into your lake?" He grumbles as Albert shoots him a smile. "You stunk, I was doing the world a favour", he teases and Race rolls his eyes. "Har har, very funny."

"He's right you know", Romeo comments as though he hasn't been travelling with Race the whole time. Choosing to ignore that, Race turns to Albert. "Anyway, is this your new place to stay?"

"Only during the weekends , when I'm on duty", Albert responds. "The rest of the week I've got my own swamp. I'm not really made for water this clear, but I do have sharp teeth so I'm pretty good at my job."

"Your job?" Romeo echoes and Albert nods. "Yep. Got promoted to guard. Anyway, I'm not allowed to do the introduction process, it ain't my shtick. Get in here."

Romeo shoots him a doubtful look before carefully slipping into the water. "I'm not very good at swimming", he admits and Albert waves it off. "That's not important when you're with me."

A transportation occurs, although Race has no idea how exactly they travelled. Something tells him that there's magic involved, because he thinks he saw things that could not happen underwater. Or maybe the water pressure got to his head.

After throwing both of them, completely dry, unto the shore, Albert waves them goodbye. "I've got a couple more hours to go. You both have fun!" He yells and disappears again.

The town is....unsettling. Barren. Empty. "Race, I don't really like this", Romeo speaks up and Race is rather inclined to agree. "I get that little man, but I don't think Albert would purposefully endanger us. And if he did, he will be catching these fists later on, I'll tell ya that."

"Mkay." is all Romeo answers, but he slips his hand in Race's. It's becoming a little bit of a habit to do that every time he's nervous and Race wouldn't hesitate to admit that he thinks it's cute. "Let's go."

They skirt around the town for a little bit, looking for living souls but they find none. From the corner of his eyes, Race can see movement. Ever so often, Romeo tenses and relaxes again, signalling to Race that he sees the moving shadows too. After taking a few turns, they end up in what seems to be the central plaza.

They wait there for a few minutes and then the irregular ticking sound of something on the floor shows up. A little bit later, a person comes into view. His face is just as rigid as the stick he's walking with and something tells Race that this person is not to be messed with.

"Hello", the blond stranger says in a not unfriendly manner. For such a little greeting, it feels like Race might get shot for saying the wrong thing in return. "Hi!" Romeo grins instead and waves in a carefree manner. The act of complete innocence is one Romeo ha mastered to the point that Race has vowed to protect it, even though there's not a shred of it left.

"Please come take a hike with me", the stranger says and gestures with his head in the direction of another road.

Not knowing what the consequences will be should they choose to not obey, Race and Romeo follow suit. At first, no words is spoken. It's the stranger who starts a conversation with a light topic, but a heavy air. "Who might the two of you be?" He asks and after exchanging glances with Romeo, Race decides that it's probably better to tell the truth.

"My name is Racetrack Higgins", he says, "My grandfather was a goblin. A friend of mine told me this city was supposed to be a safe haven." Pursing his lips, the teenager decides to leave Race's assumption in the middle. "Who's the younger one?"

"My name is Romeo, you needn't know more. Anything else I might've been fell  when Heiwan did."

A look of understanding passes on the stranger's face, one of deep rooted pain. "My name is Crutchie. I'll write you two some documents that'll allow you to stay here and I will be guiding you through the settling in process. Should you turn out to be traitors, then I will not hesitate to let the masses have a go at you."

"Okay", Race says because there's nothing more to it. "Anyway", Crutchie continues as he gives Race a sound slap on the back. "We'll search for some place for ya both to stay! You stink like unwashed dogs." His stern expression makes place for a friendly grin, one that makes both Romeo and Race feel at peace immediately.

They walk around town for a while as people come out slowly. There's distrust clear on their faces, but Crutchie dispels any tensions with friendly chatter. "You're amazing at leading your town", Romeo exclaims in excitement and Crutchie gives him a smile that seems to break at the edges. But as quickly as the hint at something other than happiness appears, it's gone again and Crutchie messes up Romeo's hair with a grin. "Sure am kiddo!"

Once they arrive at a building that can only be described as a cosy cottage, Crutchie fishes an old looking key out of his pocket. After opening the door, he beckons them inside. "Welcome in casa di Crutchie."

"Excuse me", a dark haired boy says as he looks at them from above the broad staircase. "This is my house too ya know. Oh and David's too I guess." The kid runs down the stairs and enthusiastically shakes their hands. "Hello my name is Les! I live here with my older brother but he's asleep right now. Who're you guys?"

Placing a hand on Les' shoulder, Crutchie steers the boy away from them. "We've gotta go through some administrative work first kiddo, you can meet them later." Pouting, Les walks towards the door. "Boo, you bore. I'll be hanging with the cool kids!"

"Have fun!" Crutchie calls out and when Les is out of sight, he shakes his head. With a fond smile on his lips, he gives Race a wink. "Look at him go, my pain and joy. Lovely little brat that one. If Romeo wants to join him, he can run along. I just need you here", Crutchie says to Race who gives Romeo a questioning glance.

"I'll go with him", Romeo decides and waves Race goodbye. "See ya later." Race watches him go and hopes that he will have fun.

"So Race", Crutchie says casually and gestures at the heavy wooden table with accompanying chairs. "Please do sit down." While Race tries to make himself comfortable, Crutchie closes the shutters and curtains.

"Uhm", Race speaks up uncertainly. "Is there some freaky shit gonna follow here?" Crutchie gives him a confused glance and Race looks pointedly at the few closed windows. A laugh appears on Crutchie's face and he shakes his head. "No, we've just got a resident who isn't all that good with sunlight. He gets more and more sensitive to it as the hours go by. I'm just being mindful of my housemate."

After darkening the room completely, Crutchie takes place at the table too, offers Race some cookies and under the dim light of a few candles, he asks him about his story. Sometimes he picks up a pen and scribbles down a few lines, before giving Race a nod and continuing to listen to him.

A few hours pass before the door sweeps open again and Les and Romeo come inside. "I'm tired, give me food", Les asks, well announces to be precise. "I can hear you roll your eyes", the kid continues smugly, because he sure as hell can't see it. "Yeah, yeah, give me a minute. Do we have any unoccupied buildings?"

Les thinks it over for a minute before nodding. "The Davenport house is empty after they were forced to move."

"That's true. What would I do without you?" The fondness in Crutchie's voice is more than evident. "Probably die", Les deadpans. Before leading Romeo and Race out of the door, Crutchie points Les towards the kitchen cabinets and tells him to look for whatever is left of yesterday's food.

It's somewhere in the afternoon and the weather isn't unpleasant at all. Now, Race can properly see just how many people house here. The air of hostility has been replaced with friendliness, at least from most people. From the corners of his eyes, Race can still see some people glaring in animosity.

"Hey Romeo!" Someone shouts and a dark haired boy runs up to him. "Hi", Romeo returns and Crutchie greets the freckles boy with a: "Good evening Elmer."

Elmer makes a face. "Don't call it evening, it's late afternoon. If you call it evening, my mother will soon call me in and make me go eat and sleep. I'm too old to sleep when the sun goes down."

"Ah yes, that statement does indeed show your maturity", Crutchie remarks dryly and Elmer nods enthusiastically. It seems that sarcasm gets lost on this boy. "Oh sir!" He says and turns towards a surprised Race. "Would you mind if Romeo ate over at mine's tonight? My mother wouldn't mind, in fact, she'd probably adopt him as her eleventh child."

"Uhm", Race brings out intelligently and Romeo looks at him with droopy eyes. "I'm sure Romeo wouldn't mind doing that some other time. I think it'd be best to give him a bed as soon as possible."

Although Romeo protests weakly, Elmer nods in understanding. "I can see that, sir", he says with a very serious look on his face. "Then I will leave you alone for tonight, goodnight." As he runs off, Crutchie makes a little comment. "He's good kid, that one. A tad bit naive, but filled to the brim with good intentions."

Crutchie leads them towards a building a little bit out of the town center. "This used to be haberdashery", he informs them, "but the oldest son got wounded in one of our defensive battles and had to be brought over to Wuudensait. He's been doing better, but he's still bedridden."

Pushing the door open, he shoots them another smile. "Never mind the backstory, this house is yours now! Tomorrow we'll see if we can put you to work somewhere. I'm sorry boys, but this town doesn't run itself. Oh another thing I should mention, after sundown it's free game for the night dwellers. Should you not want to run into them, you should stay inside after then." After wishing them a good night, Crutchie goes away again.

"Racer, we've got go exploring", Romeo demands and Race picks the kid up from the floor. "How about you go to sleep? It's been quite the day."

"No"
"Yes"
"Noooooo"
"Yes. I'm the eldest, so you have to listen to me."

Romeo shoots him a dirty look and pouts. "This is the first time that argument hasn't been made by me. I don't like it anymore." Snorting Race moves towards the kitchen area. "How about we make some dinner first and then go to sleep?" Romeo makes a show of thinking it over, before nodding dramatically and joining Race at the kitchen table. "Tell me what to do captain."

After inspecting the cabinets, Race comes to the pleasant conclusion that they've been filled with a good amount of food. He doesn't know how it got there, but he isn't gonna look a gift horse in the mouth. "Okay chef number 2, wash me some potatoes, onions and maize."

Scrunching his nose, Romeo gives Race a questioning look. "The fuck is maize?"

"Language", Race gasps with the necessary theatrics as Romeo gives him a little push. "You know, the long cylindrical vegetable with little yellow chips on it." The confusion holds on for a while, until suddenly Romeo's face clears up. "You mean corn."

"If that's what you call it. Where I'm from, it's maize and also correct." Romeo huffs and crosses his arms. "No it's not." Recognising a lot of unnecessary banter before it even started, Race decides to move on. "Wash em and chop em up please, that's all."

"Okay." With a face that's probably way too serious for what he's doing, Romeo very carefully sets to complete his tasks. Race himself tries to figure out how to make a fire. It turns out that the people here put a stone place above a hearth to warm shit up. Nice.

"Race, how do I chop up the corn?" The obvious emphasis is an open invitation to a friendly fight, but Race ignores that in favour of staring at the mess of maize. "You were supposed to scrape the strips of the cob with your knife, like this." Race demonstrates it and Romeo oohs silently. "That kinda makes more sense I guess. What do I do with these?"

"Just give em here." Romeo hands him all his preparations and Race goes to work. He's found actual, real butter in this house and once the onions start getting roasted, Romeo looks at him with wide eyes. "Racer, I ain't leaving this place. That smells really good."

After the first bite, Romeo declares Race 'the best cook ever' and vows to let Race cook every meal. "Like we've been doing up till now?" Race asks with a raised brow. "Also, is that an excuse to get out of cooking?" Romeo shakes his head too hard to not be lying. "No, of course not!" He attempts to lie and Race sees right through him.

"I'll pretend to believe that." Faking the utmost disbelief and hurt is Romeo's immediate response to that. After cleaning the table, Race makes himself a cup of tea and puts a cup with hot milk with the little bit of molten chocolate he found in front of Romeo. "Careful, that might still be hot", he mentions a minute too late.

As Romeo waves his hand in front of him with tears in his eyes, Race quickly hands him a glass of water. For a moment, he debates whether he should tell Romeo 'I told you so' or not. In the end, he decides against it. After a minute or five, he informs Romeo that the drink is probably safe to drink now. With distrust still evident on his face, Romeo takes the tiniest sip. Immediately his face brightens and he gulps it down.

The sun is going down as Race washes their cups. When he turns around, he lays eyes upon Romeo. The boy has passed out, head on the table. Softly, Race tries to shake him awake. When that turns out to be useless, he carries the boy up the stairs himself. "Goodnight, Tiny", he says after kissing the boy on the forehead and tucking him in. "I'm right here if you need me", he says even though he knows that Romeo won't hear him. After casting another glance at the boy, he quietly closes the bedroom door behind him.

Romeo, Race decides, is a little shit. Somewhere late at night Race woke up because he needed to pee and had found the boy at the feet of his bed, staring at nothing. "What the fuck are you doing?"

"I wanna go out. The moon is shining brightly and I'm more of a night crawler than day dweller to be honest. It didn't really matter when we were travelling because our schedule was so erratic. Now I'm starting to feel it though."

"Really?"

"Nah, I was joking, my kind just kinda lives whenever and wherever they like. I just wanna go exploring." When met Romeo's hopeful face, there's no way Race can say no. "Let me put on some clothes and we'll go out." Cheering, Romeo exits Race's room.

The night air is very chilly and reminds Race of the fact that neither of them has good clothes. Romeo doesn't seem to mind though, as he joyfully skips through the streets. Suddenly, he runs into a man and instead of apologising, he screeches. Without thinking, Race stands in front of him and glares at the fellow Romeo ran into.

He's would be hard to see in the darkness if the utter paleness of his skin didn't make him stand out like it did. A creature of the night, that even the night seems to reject as he pulls attention to himself in a way night crawlers usually don't. Rejected by day and night, life and death. Before them stands a vampire.

"Good evening", the gangly man starts and moves a little bit more into the moonlight. The buttons of his best gleam in the moonlight and Race notices that he's pretty well dressed. "My name is David, you have probably met my younger brother Les and my..." David bites his lip before continuing. "...friend", he settles upon that word. "Crutchie."

"We have", Race retorts sharper than he'd meant it to come out. Logically, he knows that David hasn't even lifted a finger against them, but his instincts tell him to run from something that's not supposed to be. As though he can read Race's thoughts, David shrugs. "I didn't choose this either", he points out and Race can agree with that statement.

"Shall I give you a night tour of our lovely city? Hat'n has a few charming spots, if I say so myself." The words 'night tour' peak Romeo's interest and the boy sneaks Race a glance. "We'll follow", Race says and David spares him a little smile.

They follow him through the swirling streets and stop at fountains, a few little shrines and even a little bakery. "It's the best in town", David informs them and Race wonders how he knows.

They meet villagers too and Race can't help but feel a little uncomfortable. It's something he'll need to work on, because it's just how the city rolls. When David asks a gargoyle to keep it down and the creature answers with: "Sure, stick in the mud Jacobs", with a friendly smirk, Race notices that David is the leader over this town in the same way Crutchie is the leader during the day. The people of the night are somewhat rougher, but the interactions are clearly recognisable as friendly.

Out of nowhere, Elmer pops up. "David you horrifically old man, you can't let the young only see what you deem interesting. Let's go Romeo, Race, I'll show you the true cool spaces."

"Sure, but keep them out of the wildest parts please. On another note, how are the wings? Not in too much pain I hope?" Elmer throws back his head and when it snaps back, his eyes seems to have been replaced by black holes, as is his mouth. On his back there are wings, although they clearly aren't fully grown. "It's alright", Elmer concedes before undoing the changes in appearances. Then he hooks his arms into Romeo and Race's. "I'll bring them back to you later Davey!"

The cool places Elmer so desperately wanted to show, were just inn's with the cheapest drinks and also one dance hall. "I didn't actually want to show you places", he admits and leads them to a grand gate. It has been overgrown by plants and clearly hasn't been used in a while. "I wanted to show you guys something else, but I think Davey would've gotten a bit upset. This is something that you guys should be aware of though."

He doesn't lead towards to the gate, but towards a fountain in the midst of the road leading up to it. "Do you guys which hour it is?" He asks quietly and neither Race nor Romeo can answer. "Listen", Elmer whispers, "Midnight is approaching. You can hear the wheels of Midnight Jack's carriage."

In the distance wheels can indeed be heard, but also the distinct sound of footsteps. "Shit", Elmer cusses, "Who the fuck still comes here around midnight? We've gotta hide you guys."

After the three of them have taken cover behind a couple of barrels, David appears and Elmer lets out a quiet: "Oh Davey, don't do this yourself." They watch as David takes their place at the fountain.

A carriage comes into view and the transparency of it reveals that it's a ghost carriage. It halts right before David and a young man jumps down from it. "David!" He calls out, his smile beaming and his whole attitude screams liveliness. Yet, his body is transparent and sometimes parts of it flicker out, contrasting his demeanour with his actual state of being.

"I'm sure Fae's Garden will be just the place for us! I'll go look and when it turns out I'm absolutely right and you're wrong", he says with a smug smile, "I'll come for my two best guys. And your brother of course", he adds hastily and David manages a wet chuckle. "Hey, what's the face for? I can't have one of my boys being sad. I bet the sun of Fae's Garden will do you some good."

"I doubt that Jackie", David answers, "You know I can't handle the sun." Jack scratches his head and David reaches out towards a cross etched into the fountain. Immediately, his skin turns an angry red and Jack reaches for his arm, only to go straight through it.

"What-?"

"You're dead", David says simply. "I can't be", Jack counters, "I'm right here."

"I wish you weren't", David says and it clearly hurts Jack. "I wish you wouldn't haunt me like this. I wish neither me nor Crutchie would have to live in your shadows, would have to fill in your shoes. We can't do this Jackie, we're not enough."

"Bullshit", Jack spits and looks David in the eyes. "You guys are a great team, you and him can do anything together." David gives him a sad smile and runs his hands through his hair in a frustrated manner. "Jackie, we can't do anything together. I haven't seen Crutchie in months. My sensitivity to the sun has only been getting bigger and I can't even come out my casket. They have to nail it shut and put it in the ground underneath the basement before it stops hurting."

Jack isn't listening to David anymore. Like some sort of robot, he walks to his carriage and hops on. He waves at an imaginary crowd and there's no recognition in his eyes. "Goodbye everyone!" He shouts as the carriage moves in the direction of the gate. Before it passes through, a gunshot sounds through the night and Jack falls from the carriage, body limp and eyes glassy.

"It's midnight", Elmer whispers and as the sound of a lonely trumpet can be heard twelve times, Jack and his carriage disappears. They walk back to Crutchie and David's house in silence and find David sitting on the porch. "How was the tour?" He asks and Race somehow manages to bring up a smile. "I'm gonna have to work real hard to keep Romeo away from alcohol, thanks to Elmer", he jokes.

David invites the two of them in and now that the living room is properly lit, they can see that the walls are scattered with letters and drawings. Race can spot Elmer, Les and pretty frequently both Crutchie and David. "Woah, those drawings are pretty", Romeo exhales and David regards them as though they harbour more pain than imaginable. "Yeah, the artist was an incredibly talented man."

The use of a past tense isn't lost on either of them, so they decide to shut up about it. "The six towns have the reputations of being safe spaces, but I do think it's necessary to inform you that that isn't completely correct. In fact, we do experience attacks quite often. Luckily we have our own little army, but it's made of mostly inexperienced volunteers. When you hear the alarm bell ringing, you get your asses inside as soon as possible. Don't be on the battlefield when you're not called upon."

Romeo's face falls a little bit and Race places a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Let's not dwell too long on rather unfortunate topics. I believe it'd be best for you two to go to sleep. Well, return to sleep probably." A little bit distracted, Race gives him a nod. "Yeah, you're right. See ya later, Dave."

 

That night, Romeo crawls in bed with him and both of them stay up a bit longer than planned, thinking about concepts like relative safety and Midnight Jack.

"Good morning guys! Let's go get breakfast together!" Crutchie's voice can be heard outside their home and Romeo crawls deeper under the blankets. "He's an evil little man", Romeo grumbles and Race lets out a laugh. "Maybe so,  but I'm guessing that it's his treat, so he's a beneficial little man."

"Good thinking", Romeo says and snaps his fingers. "Let's go find breakfast." The joint they eat at, is the bakery David pointed out the last night. "Henry over there", Crutchie says as he waves at the guy behind the counter, "is the best baker and cook in town."

 

As they enjoy various pastries, they decide that it's best to let Romeo help out in the fields, seeing as he isn't able to read. "David is a pretty good teacher", Crutchie tells them, before seemingly backtracking on this. "But he probably has no time for this, because he's got the nightly guard shifts and-"

"We met yesterday night", Romeo interrupts, "I think he's a swell guy. The night is long enough to spare me some of his time." Tilting his head, Crutchie gives the young boy a look Race can't really identify. It's somewhere between disbelief and curiosity. "You think he'd do that?" Shrugging, Romeo answers. "The night has many hours,  why not fill them with conversation?" Race thinks Romeo is alluding to something else, but he's missed too many pieces of the puzzle to get what the boy is trying to do.

 

"If you say so", Crutchie says, expression neutral. "Anyway", he continues, smile present once more, "Is there anything you're good at Racer?" Race thinks it over, but doesn't really come up with anything. "I'm okayish at math?" he offers and Crutchie gasps in excitement. "Excellent! Elmer could use some help with the construction of various projects."

And so they settle into the town. Race comes to know that "Various projects" actually refers to both houses for new inhabitants and weaponry to protect them. Their house gets filled with little knick-knacks Romeo finds when he's out with Elmer, who he has a great friendship with. More than once, Race has to go out to pull both of them out of trouble they got themselves into.

 

Romeo comes to himself more than ever, but still gets plagued by horrible nightmares and doubts. One day, after getting a pair of shoes from the shoemaker's wife because he had helped them out, Romeo's expression drops. "Racer, I'm so fake." When asked to elaborate on that, the boy shrugs. "People are so easy to figure out. I know how to make them do what I want and I'm not above using that talent. I'm a faker."

"As long as there's no ill intent, I don't see why you shouldn't just use your little talent. What have you roped me into doing, ya little shit?" he asks, keeping his tone light and airy without taking Romeo's words in vain. "I'd say I manipulated you into taking me along, but I'd be lying", Romeo says with a half-smile. "You're just that stupid."

"I have been insulted, but it doesn't feel like it", Race deadpans and Romeo laughs a little bit. Draping his arm over Romeo's shoulders, Race gives him a noogie. "There he is, my wonderful little brother." With his mouth wide open, Romeo stares at Race before stammering: I uhm- Am I really wonderful?"

 

"Not wonderful, the absolutely wonderfullest. Remember what I said? Confidence", Race says and snaps his fingers. "Confidence", Romeo echoes and snaps his fingers too. After that he shoots Race a doubtful look, but he just winks and messes up Romeo's hair even further. "Just like that."

Another thing that happens is Les being over at their house a lot. Like, a whole lot. Race has asked him about it, but the kid had said that Race just cooked better than Crutchie. "That's not it", Romeo huffs when Les is out of sight. "He's lying and not helping himself. He should start staying up past his bedtime."

"Romeo, please tell me you didn't tell the kid that." Romeo rolls his eyes. "I was going for the subtle approach, but it seems like I'll have to bust out the bricks to make them see that life isn't really that hard." Curious, Race stops his dinner preparations and sits down next to Romeo on their couch. "What are you talking about?"

"Les, Crutchie and Davy, duh." When Romeo sees that Race has got no idea what he's talking about, he sighs and bumps his forehead against Race's shoulder. "Race you big dumb dumb, be more attentive! You've been in their living room a few times already, have you never read the letters? They're all 'dearest Crutchie' or 'my darling Davey' or 'Jackie you fucking jackass' and now they're just 'to Crutchie' and 'to David'. Les keeps hanging around us, connect the pieces!"

"I'm gonna guess that Jackie is Midnight Jack? And that he is very much missed?" Humming, Romeo nods his head. "Yep. The language of the letters changed too. Crutchie and David are both stupid and trying to be someone they're not. They're both trying to be this Jack, who is totes dead! Also, Les misses his brother so he's trying to steal mine, the filthy gremlin." Race coughs and Romeo re-evaluates his word choice. "That filthy bastard."

 

"Better. I see what you're saying but not the solution. Also, how come you can read those letters that well?"

"I've always been able to read", Romeo admits rather bluntly. "But people are easy to see through. We've gotta help them fix them their whole...thing. Les and Crutchie could wake up somewhere in the night and have a talk with Dave. It really isn't that hard." 

Together with Henry and Elmer, they hatch a plan. A few minutes after midnight, Romeo wakes Crutchie up and tells him that he's lost Race somewhere around Baker's square and Race does the same with David. Elmer climbs Les' window and lures him outside with the promise of cool lizards.

The three of them meet right outside Henry's bakery, that is magically still open at the late hour. "Oh no I've got like a whole extra batch of cupcakes, it would be a shame to let them go to waste" Henry says in a bored tone, not even pretending to be pretending. "What a coincidence, Dave, Crutchie, Les help me with these", he says in the very same manner, throws the plate on a table and leaves again. The very dark circles underneath Les' eyes the day after, tell them all that he stayed up very late that night. "It was worth it", he declares as Crutchie ruffles his hair. "Yeah it was", he agrees.

About a half year after that, they hear the alarm bell for the first time. Before they hear it, they can see Albert sprinting through the town, looking as though he could drop dead at any moment. "They poisoned the water gate!" he calls out, "and they're forcing themselves through the northern one!" After delivering his message, he falls down and Race picks him up as chaos breaks out around them.

 

The first house they stumble upon is Crutchie's. The teenager himself is going through a cabinet of weapons and swearing loudly. "Fuck fuck fuck, they learned! It's the midst of the day!" After making sure Romeo and Albert are alright, Race asks if he can help. "I wish you wouldn't have to, but we need it", Crutchie admits. "Our biggest defence is the night and we don't have that. We have to stall until then."

The battlefield isn't alien to him, but once Race throws himself into it, he truly realises how young the people of Hat'n really are. The oldest seems to be around twenty, but he isn't granted the time to reflect on it. Time is important and he races towards the heavily guarded towers. It's time to put his and Elmer's creations to the test.

As the evening comes, the fights slow down. Crutchie stops by the tower to give them an update. "We've driven them out, but I do think they're gonna come back. The night watch will take over in an hour and at that time, the cleaning will also start. We've suffered a few losses, mainly from the flight crews. They went up in flames." After running his hand through his hair, Crutchie climbs back on his reptile. "I'm gonna take our dead of the field, so the 'cleaning service' won't eat them. I suggest you guys hit the hay, tomorrow is gonna be heavy too."

 

Before Crutchie can leave, Elmer quickly grabs him by the sleeve. "I live near the northern gate. How is my family doing?" There's a pause, not a long one by any means but telling enough and Elmer's arm falls back down. "Who's gone?" he simply asks and Crutchie answers: "Zofia and Zuzanna were found dead on the central square. Lena is in critical condition." White as a sheet, Elmer nods. "Please bring Sof and Susie home, don't leave them there."

 

"Wasn't going to Elmer. Stay here, it isn't safe to go out yet." After the boy nods in confirmation, Crutchie leaves and Race reaches out for Elmer. "Hey kiddo", he starts, but Elmer shakes him off. "I'm going out", he tells Race with conviction, "Stay here, you know how to operate the machinery."

Another few hours of restless sleep go by before the alarm bell starts ringing again. This time, he hears several people shout that it's Jack's gate they're trying to break through. The tower he's currently in can't reach Jack's gate, so Race has to move.

 

As soon as he steps out of the door, he regrets doing so. There are no dead bodies in sight, but knowing what happened to those of the enemy makes him want to puke. Well, every kind of creature needs to eat, he supposes. Stalking through the mostly empty streets, he startles when someone puts a hand on his shoulder. "It's just me", David says and cocks his head. "What're you doing out here Racer?"

 

"I've gotta get to the tower at Jack's gate, they're trying to enter there." David lets out a string of very eloquent sounding curses before picking Race up by the collar. Apparently, the guy is way stronger than he looks and faster too, because they are at Jack's gate within seconds. Crutchie is there too and he waves the two of them hello.

“They’re gonna break through!” A guy in the crowd shouts as all eyes settle upon the frail gate. The iron bends, the army at the other side starts howling triumphantly and David and Crutchie give each other a quick glance that says ‘it’s over’.

And then, midnight strikes. The gate shudders and vines crawl upon it in bright colours, strengthening the gate. “We’ve got an hour before it breaks”, Jack says as he materialises next to David and Crutchie. “After that, it’s game over for me. Jack midnight won’t exist anymore”, he announces quickly and although both Crutchie and Davey would love to be free of the phantom of a loved one, they look pained to see him go.

“J.T.”, he says and looks at Crutchie who gives him a surprised look. “Haven’t heard that name in a while Jackie.” A fond smile follows. “I know, but you told me it’s important to remind you often enough or so you told me. My boys, tonight is going to be long. There’s a good fifty thousand soldiers outside the walls.”

“Hat’n has a population of three thousand people max”, Crutchie whispers. “Seventy percent of which are actual children. There’s no way Hat’n will still exist tomorrow.”

“It will”, David says and takes a deep breath. “Put a barrier behind the central square, so I’ve got half the town as a moving space. Be ready to face five thousand men.” Crutchie’s shoulders sag as he cups David’s cheek in his hand. “There ain’t no return for you either after that. If death hasn’t gotten you by then, there won’t even be a shred of humanity left in you.”

“I know”, David simply answers and presses a kiss to the back of Crutchie’s hand. “Remember me like you remember your red headed friend, J.T., don’t let your memory of me become a sad one, alright?”

“I don’t know when...”, Crutchie starts and gets choked up. “Or how time will pass till then”, Jack continues and gives David a little nudge. “But I’ll see you again”, David ends. It’s intimate, a little joke or maybe a poem they made together. A ghost, a vampire and a baby faced immortal hug before going their own way.

David had apparently outdone himself. “I don’t think that’s even four thousand man”, one of their own soldiers whispers. “And they’re scared!” Another one adds excitedly. “They’ve got reason to be”, Crutchie says, face grim. “Let’s go guys.”

It’s deep into the night when the sound of victory is heard in the form of a blaring trumpet. Race’s first thought is getting to Romeo, so that’s what he does. As he runs through the streets, he skids to a halt when he sees a mop of black hair peaking out from underneath a former building. After frantically moving some stone blocks out of the way, he comes to the conclusion that it isn’t Romeo.

With Elmer’s unmoving body in his arms, he’s stuck between being glad that Romeo’s probably alive and sad because Elmer isn’t. The least he can do is bring the boy back to his family. After carefully wrapping him in Race’s own jacket, he carries him over to the Kasprzak household. His mother opens and for a moment, he can see the happiness in her face.

Elmer looks like he’s sleeping, but it’s too peaceful. The kid is, was rowdy, even in his sleep. When his mother takes him from Race’s arms, she falls to her knees and breaks down. It seems like she has noticed that her son isn’t with her anymore.

With his head full of Elmer, Race arrives at Crutchie’s house, where he had left Romeo. Instead, he finds Les first. “You’ve got to help me, Crutchie can’t do it do it because of his foot.” The child doesn’t give any further information, but the look on his face makes Race fear the worst.

He follows Les to the central square where he also stumbles into Romeo. Following the younger one’s gaze, he lays eyes upon the flagpole and he manages to get out a: “What the f-“ before Les monotonously asks him to get David down.

Using the stone wall for leverage, Race climbs up until he can saw through the wooden pole and pull the rest of the makeshift stake out of the other teenager. Unlike Elmer, David has his eyes still wide open and Race can’t bear to look at them. Before he climbs down, and hands him back to his family, he closes them gently.

Neither Romeo nor Race talk a lot that night. Race has Romeo wrapped in his arms, reassuring himself that the child is still there. He doesn’t dare close his eyes, in fear of seeing a peacefully sleeping Elmer or David, hung up like some sort of war medal.

“Racer”, Romeo whispers, “The next time he alarm bell rings, stay inside. I don’t want to end up like Les.” When Race doesn’t answer, Romeo quietly whispers: “I love you, please don’t die” and breaks down in sobs. As Race tries to keep his own tears at bay, he hugs the boy closer. “I love you too.”

The town heals, sort of. Buildings get replaced, bodies get buried and Crutchie appoints someone else as captain of the night. But Les walks around with too much cheer and Crutchie buries himself in work. Albert gets buried weeks after the other victims, because the poison needed that much time to get to him. “I’m a stubborn bitch”, he had laughed at Race, mere hours before his heart would fail. The Kasprzaks stop inviting Romeo over for dinner. Midnight is eerily silent.

But it isn’t enough for Fate, as barely three months later, the alarm bell sounds once more. “We’ve got no vampire to take out most of them”, Crutchie announces sombrely, “So get ready for a long, long fight. We’ve send messengers to the other towns, but all of them are waiting on Lynn. Since we’ve gotten no word from them, it’s safe to assume that we’re on our own.”

The battle is gruesome and Race sees more kids than he’d like, but they manage to push the enemy back. A two hour ceasefire is agreed upon and Race immediately runs down the stairs of his tower. As he throws open the door, he gets greeted by the sight of a crossbow being aimed at his head.

“Ceasefire”, is the first word that travels past his lips and the man in front of him sneers. “Who’s gonna know about that? All dead men look the same”, he growls and Race takes a step back. The man trusts his bow forward and the sharp point of the arrow stings his forehead. The thought of Romeo being alone pops up in his head before his own fears, but there’s no evading his death now.

It doesn’t come. What comes instead, is an almost fourteen year old kid barrelling into the man’s side, throwing him completely off balance. The first thing Romeo does is breaking the bow underneath his feet. He follows it up by nailing an arrow through the guys neck and throwing the quiver behind Race. “Are you alright the boy exclaims and Race nods, relived.

“Great!” Romeo continues. “I thought I’d be too late considering the distance, but-“ His voice dies out as one hand weakly grasps his shirt before his knees give out beneath him. As Race grips the kid to stabilise him, he feels the blood on his hands before he sees it.

“Race”, Romeo squeaks and he sounds way too small as he breathes unevenly. “Race, it’s gonna be fine right? I just need to be bandaged, you’ve gotta bring me to the infirmary”, he says between panicked breaths and Race wishes it was true. Not only is the knife embedded in Romeo’s body terrifyingly big, it also has a typical sheen on it that alerts Race of the fact that it was coated with poison.

“Racer”, Romeo calls out as he clings to his older brother, “I don’t want to die. I really really, don’t want to. Make it stop”, he cries. “Please, please, please”, he begs as though Race has the power to change fate. “I’m sorry”, he whispers back as Romeo starts blinking at a very slow pace. When the arms that had previously been clamped around Race’s body loosen up and fall down, he bows his head and cries once more. “I’m so sorry”, he hiccups even though Romeo can’t hear him anymore.

 

Reinforcements from Lynn arrive shortly after and Race has to deal with Spot Conlon himself and Sarah Jacobs. Sarah...Jacobs. Like lightning, it hits him. Sarah has always talked about her younger brothers but only now he has connected the dots. “You won’t have to fight for long anymore”, she announces. “The king has been overthrown by his very own daughter. Change is happening and the future is looking brighter”, she explains in a calm manner and Race wonders how long she’ll stay that calm. He reckons it’ll be up to the moment someone tells her that one of her brothers died a mere few weeks before she showed up and her other brother is a regular on the battlefield.

“Isn’t that nice?” He says with eyes void of any emotion. Standing in the barely concealed ruins of a city, it is too hard to feel anything right now.