Chapter 68

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After leaving the Hive early, Nix journeyed all the way back to the clan's compound alone.

Though he was tired, he didn't feel like sleeping. So along with a few others, he restarted the fire and sat around it. They smoked joint after voss joint, discussing the meaning of some legends and stories, and other philosophical ponderings that seemed to make sense at the time.

No moon tonight, Nix noticed as he glanced up at the star-flecked sky, devoid of clouds in the late hour. Her cycle would soon begin anew.

As the others drifted off to bed, Nix stayed alone by the fire, adding timber and branches, stoking it absently. He smoked until thoughts of Leithan and their break up fragmented and decomposed. Until reality was fractals, growing and shrinking in turn. Nix even had moments where he felt content and warm, when everything seemed right again because it was all the same, all part of the same, expanding life.

But even in the midst of smoke and night, loneliness and guilt found him again and bit into his thoughts, dragging him back to the reality that he'd just lost the one person who'd accepted him exactly for who he was.

Koral and Steba came home first.

They looked tired, and after exchanging wishes of good nights, Steba darted over to his hut. Koral, however, stopped by the fire and sat on a log beside Nix.

She stared into the fire for some time. Her pale tunic had these blue-dyed strips wound tastefully around it, her long brown hair was messy and wind-ruffled, her lips were dark and pink like rich flower petals, and her eyes were big and green as they reflected firelight.

It would be so much easier if I could just be in love with Koral.

Nix thought, as he had many other times, that maybe he should just fake it. Pretend to be into her. Become her yaklizi. And once he became clan leader, she would rule by his side. Everyone would be thrilled.

But Koral was too smart. She would see it for the lie it was. She deserved better, and she knew that.

"Are you okay?" she asked him after what seemed a long silence. But with the voss, he couldn't be sure.

Nix just kept staring into the dancing flames.

After one more pause, she asked, "Do you wanna talk about it?"

Nix hesitated, frowned, then he shook his head.

And Koral nodded, like she understood. After poking the fire one more time, she tossed her branch in. Then, she clasped Nix's shoulder briefly.

"If you change your mind, you know where to find me," she said.

He gave her a small smile before watching her walk away, toward her parents' hut. Most people their age, past their fortieth season, had their own hut or shared one with their yaklizi. But Koral claimed she got along with her parents and preferred to stay with them.

Nix stayed by the fire.

Later, many, many heartbeats later, a door creaked opened to the south side of the compound. From the gloom, Kresh emerged and approached. He wore simple, mismatched clothes, like he'd thrown on the first ones he'd found in the dark. He dropped next to Nix, taking Koral's spot.

His short, dark brown hair was in disarray from sleep. Kresh ran a hand through it, rubbed his eyes, and yawned.

"Couldn't sleep?" Nix asked him.

"Not really. Couldn't stop thinking about our imposter," Kresh said, pursing his lips as he glanced into the flames.

The fire was weakening. It was only two feet high, by now. Kresh's eyes looked pitch black, even as firelight flickered across them. Offset by a skin tone paler than most Yoxai, the dark of his eyes was all the more noticeable. His imposing shoulders and arm muscles flexed as he leaned forward, resting elbows on knees.

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