“We should be nearing a town by tomorrow morning. We need to restock before we move on,” Oberon said, squinting at the map in the firelight. They’d been riding hard for a week now. Hollis, twisting and snapping little twigs, nodded, her mind distracted. Oberon frowned at her, unsure how to stem the nightmares that plagued her every evening. Dark circles had formed under her eyes, set into her ashen skin, her nose covered in coppery freckles in thanks to the constant sun.
She’d lost weight, eating enough to feed a mouse when he offered her food, before drifting off like a phantom through the trees to be alone. He would wait until she fell asleep, wait until her nightmares began, before he wrapped her in his arms and listened to them. Most centered on her sister and mother, some around the woman she’d killed, and some around Oberon himself. By morning, he’d awake and slip away, lest she be even more angered at him for his unwarranted touch.
Sighing, he refolded the map, tucking it back into her pack, stomach growling. As much as he tried to coax any bit of protein into her, she’d refused. He felt guilty, now, eating when she wouldn’t. Her eyes snapped up, glaring across the fire and into the darkness beyond.
“Why do you need to kill the person who created you?” she asked, turning her tortured eyes to his. Stunned, his spine went rigid, and he glared.
“That is none—”
“That is none of my concern, yeah, I know,” she grumbled, defeated as she threw her twigs into the fire, sending sparks glittering into the night sky. He sighed, wiping a hand along his stubbly, grimy face.
“You may…ask questions of me, Hollis. Some I will answer, others I will not. Do not be disheartened if I choose not to share some things with you,” he said, gauging her reaction. She peeked at him, eyes reflecting the glimmer of the fire. He hated talking of himself, finding most memories too painful or too boring. He would rather know more about the woman he’d become so possessive of.
“I am sure, if I asked you deep, personal questions, there would be some you would not like to answer,” he said, leaning back against the rough boulder. She chewed her cheek, nodding slow in thought. It was quiet for some time, and Oberon took that to mean she was done speaking with him. He tuned into the horses, keeping a watchful eye on their camp, but no threats lurked in the black.
“Are you from the past?”
Came her small, timid voice. His eyes snapped back to hers, a thrill running through him at her curious face, her head quirked to the side. With a twist of a frown, he nodded. She perked up, then, back straightening and real fire igniting in her gaze.
“So you…died?” she whispered, and he could hear the painful edge to her voice; she felt pity for him. He didn’t like it, but he’d given her his word to answer what he was comfortable with, and this question wasn’t so bad.
“I am not sure if I ever really died.”
His eyes watched her, his gaze intense and piercing. It was the truth; Oberon was a being not meant to die, ever. Only one entity could kill him, and it had done a gruesome job to ensure him and all like him perished.
“How?” she whispered, leaning in, her intensity off-putting.
“I will make you a deal, Hollis,” he offered, and she straightened once more, lips parted as she nodded.
“The rules stand about your questions of me, but if I answer them each night, you will eat, and then we will retire to sleep together,” he said. She blinked a few times, his offer tempting her. After a moment, she nodded. He reached into his pack, pulling out an apple and bag of jerky, tossing them to her.
“Eat,” he commanded, chest light as she obeyed. He thought now of how to phrase his answer to her, glaring into the fire.
“When I knew I was to die, I was filled with…rage, so pure and potent. I think I held onto that so tightly that I…” he shook his head, glancing at her. Her mouth was full, but she’d ceased her chewing. With an audible swallow, she pressed on the matter.
“How did you die? Where did this happen? Where were you born? What—”
He chuckled, holding up his hand to stave her incessant questioning. He supposed fair was fair; they’d been companions on the road through rather tumultuous times, and she deserved to know him as well as he knew her. She took another bite of her apple, raising her brows for him to continue.
“I drowned,” he said, watching her. “I dream of it often, those final moments.”
His eyes skirted back to the flames, a melancholy bird singing its song nearby.
“Is that…what you were dreaming of, that night?” she said, voice hushed. He nodded without glancing at her.
“How…why did that make you…” she struggled for words, but he knew what she sought. It was his turn to throw twigs into the flames, his teeth grinding together. He did not want to tell her, for she would not believe him. His kind had perished, and with that, only myths had seeped into this new world, whispers of beings so godlike it was impossible but alluring to the imaginative mind. No, she would not understand nor believe what Oberon truly was.
“I have a dark side to me, tiny Hollis. If I sense the need, I unleash it, to save myself. I apologize. My dream felt very real, that night, and when I awoke, I had already made the mistake of letting that side of myself free,” he explained, hoping it was enough. His eyes met hers, her mouth open, half-eaten apple abandoned in her grasp.
“So…so that side of you…kills and…and…”
He sighed, frustrated. It would be easier to explain this if she would have the capacity to understand, but he knew it wouldn’t be that simple.
“No. I can kill when I am balanced, and—”
He caught her deep blush, and he chose his words carefully.
“—make love. It is only when I am in peril, that I need that side. Or if I am not controlling myself well enough.”
She sat up, seeming to inch closer.
“What was it like, to die? Did you see anything?”
He knew why she was asking, and it disheartened him to have to disappoint her. He scowled, shaking his head.
“It was cold, the most cold I’ve ever been, and I suppose I just fell asleep. I never…saw anything,” he said as her face fell. He wanted to sneer. A being like Oberon would never see the pearly gates of heaven.
“But as I’ve said, I am not sure I died. There is hope, for an afterlife, tiny Hollis,” he said. She twisted her hands together, the core of the apple now sizzling in the fire, emitting a fragrant scent.
“I am sure that your family made it there,” he said with conviction. Her mournful blue eyes found his.
“Did you ever love someone?” she asked, the question sending his heart thumping hard in his chest as he stared at the one thing he desired above all else.
“No,” he said, this truth easy for him. He had some memory of a love for his mother, but that was it. His father needed no love, deserved none, in his mind.
“Come, tiny Hollis, we can rest and talk more tomorrow,” he said. She stood on wobbly legs, slightly thinner than a week ago, and plopped herself next to him. With a growl, he wrapped his arm about her hip, pulling her into his lap so they both faced the fire. He felt her hammering heart, waiting for it to calm, just as his did as soon as she was in his arms.
“Why do you always hold me?” she asked to the flames as his own fire coursed through his veins. It was another fair question, he supposed.
“Because, you keep me balanced, and…” he trailed off. She squirmed in his embrace, and he loosened his hold as she turned around, dainty hand pressed above his heart, their faces inches apart. His eyes widened at her fierceness, though he should have expected it, in her of all people.
“And what?” she prompted. With a frown, he reached up, tucking a strand of loose blond hair behind her sunburnt ear.
“And I never want to go to sleep alone again, because I am afraid of awaking somewhere far from here and now,” he said, voice low. This, he never intended to share with anyone, but somehow Hollis felt safe, like she wouldn’t mock him for this one weakness. Her eyes were somber as they gazed back.
“You went to sleep and woke up in…in a lab…” she stated, brows tilting up in the middle to show her concern. He nodded, frowning once more. She sighed, the sound heavy, but tucked her head under his chin, wrapping her arms about his torso. Stunned, Oberon couldn’t even move an inch if he had to. He would not disturb Hollis in any way, right now, for her returning his embrace seemed to hold all the broken pieces of him together.
“That would have really sucked,” she said against him, and though he wasn’t quite sure what she meant by sucked, he gathered it was an empathetic statement. He chuckled, stroking her hair.
“It did suck,” he repeated, both of them now laughing quietly. He stared at the tops of the trees, still against the starry sky. They seemed to smile down at them, drinking in a happy instance to commit to their memory.
Hollis, flat on her stomach, squinted into the town below, watching men and women bustle about, horses and cars (a contraption she’d never seen in person) pushing to and fro down the main street. Her eyes were locked on the grocery store, a wide space nestled in between a small cafe and dentist office. Her heart hammered in her chest, having never thought she would set her eyes on a town before.
“Make sure you buy protein,” Oberon grumbled next to her, quite angry that he would stay behind with the horses. After arguing all morning, she’d won, saying he had too recognizable a face, and it would put them in much danger, should he be spotted. Besides, someone had to watch their things.
She rolled her eyes, the money in her pocket enough to last them two trips to the store, but with his appetite, she wasn’t sure they would make it all the way to Seattle on such a strict budget.
“What, like bacon?”
“What is bacon?”
She shot him a look, somewhat between annoyance and a glare.
“You eat pork?” he hissed, eyes livid, face contorted in disgust.
“Seriously? Where are you from?” she said, returning her eyes to the store.
“No pork. Goat would do,” he said.
“I doubt they have goat, Oberon, this isn’t the dark age.”
He growled, pushing himself up, tugging her with him to stare her down.
“I do not like this,” he said.
“I will be fine, you can watch me the whole time,” she said, obstinate.
“Last time I trusted you—”
Her glare cut him off, and he pressed his lips thin. She eyed his arms, the muscles twitching as they bulged. They both needed a new set of clothes, food, soap, more utensils and clean water. He reached up to cup her face, forcing her eyes to his. Her heart seemed to skip and stop before it restarted. His looks were so devastating it hurt, and she felt disgusting, unworthy to stand next to such a godlike creature.
“Hurry back,” he said, worry etched into the lines on his forehead. She gave him a half smile, nodding, before setting off down the game trail.
Steeling herself before her foot slid onto pavement for the first time, she allowed herself to relish this moment, a genuine smile gracing her lips. She felt a woman now, not a girl hiding in the woods, afraid of her own shadow. True, Oberon had done most of the work in protecting her, but now was her chance to do something in return.
Her steps light, she traipsed to the store, flashing a grin to passerby, who tilted their heads in acknowledgement or even grinned back. Her heart raced as adrenaline coursed through her, but she was more excited than anything. Fingers grasping the cold metal of the door handle, she caught a glimpse of her disheveled appearance in the reflection of the glass, and she frowned, attempting to flatten her wild braid and smudge some of the dirt from her cheeks.
With a deep breath, she pushed inside, greeted by a blast of cool air and a smile from the old shopkeep. She nodded, grinning before she became mesmerized by a roll of duct tape and the scent of baked goods.
She ventured down every aisle, filling her arms before a worker, a young girl of about twelve, offered to get her a basket. Hollis grinned, wanting to befriend her, but knowing this was only the first of many more human interactions to come. Perhaps Oberon would have been better suited for this task, she thought. He would have stayed on budget and not alarmed anyone with the eagerness Hollis was displaying. She tried in vain to tone it down, but she was dizzy with excitement.
Basket full of food and other necessities, she wound her way to the racks of clothing, choosing items for herself before attempting to find anything that would fit Oberon’s dominating frame. Stumped, she glanced around for help, eyeing a young man near her own age hanging a shirt back up.
“Excuse me,” she asked, and his deep brown eyes fell to her, a startled look overcoming his features as he pushed his round glasses back up his nose.
“Do you have anything like, really big, for someone really tall?” she asked, voice tinged with hope.
“Erm,” the young man said, black, slightly curled hair shining in the fluorescent lights.
“I apologize, miss, I do not work here,” he said, and she felt herself flush hotly. The man was handsome, much shorter than Oberon, but with a fair complexion, heavy brown brows and scruffy, short facial hair. And his voice, it was deep and raspy and sounded foreign to her.
“I am so sorry,” she quipped, turning to flee the situation. After ten minutes, she found things she hoped would fit her companion, and went to stand in line, heart flittering as she stood behind the man she’d mistaken for a worker. He glanced back, offering her a gentle grin, and she felt herself redden even more.
He nodded to her full basket.
“On holiday?” he asked, and she wracked her brain, trying to think if any upcoming holidays were near. Her confused face gave her away, and he chuckled.
“I’m sorry, British habit,” he said. Her eyes widened. He was a long ways from home.
“Camping?” he corrected, and she nodded, relaxing.
“Someone has quite the appetite and propensity to ruin his clothes,” she said, rolling her eyes, a sense of serenity pooling in her gut as she thought of Oberon, a small, dreamy smile plastered to her face. As much as she didn’t want to admit it, she felt butterflies and fire every time she laid eyes on him, and she often found her mind wandering to the cloudy moments in the shower, the threats he’d made to bring her back to reality, the way he felt pressed hard to her…
She shook her head, scattering her thoughts, flushing hot as she realized she’d not heard this polite man’s question.
“I’m sorry, I missed that.”
He flashed her a gentle smirk.
“I asked were you were heading? To camp, around here, I meant.”
“Oh, umm, we’ve never quite been this way, so I’m not sure of the exact names,” she said, voice going a bit cold in her fear. His face became confused, calculating as he studied her before the shopkeep called him forward.
She sighed in relief as he finished up, turning back around to give her a smile.
“Nice to meet you,” he said, dipping his head before he left. She stared after him in confusion, but sensed Oberon’s worry, her own mounting, wishing to be back in the safety of his presence once more.