"I'll shower first," I say as I maneuver around Lutz, into the hall, wanting to escape the tearing feeling stretching through my middle.

🐆

Lutz falls asleep on the heap of cushions and pillows, so when Ben wanders into the living room while teasing a towel in his wet hair, I walk up to him to whisper, "Maybe you ought sleep in his room tonight

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Lutz falls asleep on the heap of cushions and pillows, so when Ben wanders into the living room while teasing a towel in his wet hair, I walk up to him to whisper, "Maybe you ought sleep in his room tonight..."

While Ben was showering, I changed into the maroon dress I found at the red market, thinking the new outfit would feel refreshing, but now I'm thinking I should wash up, too; clean clothes aren't enough to spare myself from the smoggy grime still clinging to my skin.

Ben takes my hand to lead me down the hall, into the tiny five-by-eight room with a low ceiling, a darkwood wardrobe, and a tiny oak desk. He lights the desktop candle with matches.

I look to the palm of my hand, where he briefly touched me, enamored by how his warmth lingers there.

"Sorry," he says, "I just didn't want to wake him. I thought we could talk a little louder in here."

I glance up from my palm, see him observing me—catch him watching how I stare at where he held my hand—and embarrassment flows through me like a brush fire.

"Lilli's asleep, too," I mumble. "In, uh, the other room..."

"Did you have any healing potions yet?" he asks.

I shake my head as I reply, "Should I?"

"It helps with the nausea," he says, "after being exposed to the air."

He leans one of his hips as he bends to a pouch at his side, unraveling the leather thong. The knives tucked in his bracers, belt, and boots glitter in the candlelight, twinkling with his subtle movements. The iridescent blue sheen of his skin also catches glints of light—the only other evidence he's a cyborg, beyond the gears hidden in his chest.

He frees a small, bright green vial from the pouch, then offers it to me.

I take it hesitantly. This is the same potion he pours into his clockwork. When I pop the cork, it definitely smells like the healing brew I learned to make in lives past; but if it's the same, how does it power his machinery as if it were oil?

I start sipping it, slowly and thoughtfully, pleased by its candy-sweet flavor, until he says, "Save the other half for Lutz." As I lower the vial from my lips, he adds, "You can offer it to him in the morning."

"Mine never tasted this good," I say.

"I think my father adds sugars," Ben replies, smirking. "Helps the kids drink it without complaints."

"I'm still baffled that man is your father," I say. "Why are you a watchtower guard, if he's the lord of a castle?"

Ben shrugs. "He and my mom adopted me and Zinnia. Without them, we'd have nothing; so neither of us ask for more."

"Zinnia's your sister?" I ask.

He nods, the candlelight playing grand shadows along his face. His nose is just the right size, roundness. His ears, also balanced, pleasant. Only his eyes seem too large for him, chestnut irises set with pupils wide and dark, like night sky.

"How does Mel figure into it?" I ask. "Is he your cousin?"

Ben chuckles. "Actually, that's not far off. His parents are family friends with our parents. So he's always been around, during holidays, schooling, festivities; he's as close to a cousin as I could ask for."

I like thinking of Ben as a family man. Beneath the weapons he carries on him, the soft leather tunic and soldier obedience, I imagine this more wholesome person, the son and brother, and I think of the warmth of his hand in my palm, the gearworks in his chest, the tired smile reflecting candlelight along slightly crooked and baby-white teeth, when I realize my heart might be in trouble.

As if sensing my surmounting panic, he asks, "Lilli's asleep in the other chamber?"

"Yes," I sputter. "I'll sleep in there with her."

I turn to head out when he says, "Good night then, Eleanora."

I don't look at him. "Good night, Benito." I want to look at him, of course—to wish him well, sincerely—but I can't let him see my eyes when they glow with unbridled fey-magic, tendrils of blue revealing too many emotions, too much energy, suddenly fast, all at once.

🐆

Author's Note

When I first designed Benito, he was a human, not a cyborg—although he always had a codependent relationship with his parents. In his original story, they kept him alive with magic, rather than ancient technology. I've always had a soft spot for him; he was created as an opposing force to an abusive relationship I weathered through my twenties, like a fictional safe man, away from the real-life thicket-and-thorns that I felt I couldn't escape.

First & second drafts: November 18
Third draft: May 19
Word count: 1979 (46034 total)

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