Haphway There

rating: +15+x

"So this is life as a scavenger?" Mio asked. The sun was high in the sky, beating down upon the group of travelers as they slowly made their way across the land. Desert emptiness had made way to the subtlest bits of plant life hours ago, and they had been crossing fields for the past hour or so, but even so the heat was exhausting.

"Not what you expected?" Nitro said. He strode ahead of the group with a confidence that Mio would say felt unearned. Then again, she'd only known the zombie - Promethean, she quickly corrected herself - for about a day. "Let me guess, too much walking."

"No, that's not it," Mio countered, defensive. Not entirely, she thought to herself. "I guess I just didn't expect life out here to be so…"

"Boring!" Gabriella interrupted, exasperated. "We've been walking all day, and the only thing I've gotten shots of is the scenery. And I love scenic shots as much as the next person, but B-roll does not a documentary make!" Though Mio would likely have found some better way to phrase it, she found Gabriella's take to be completely accurate. "Where's the action? The fighting? The tense rendezvous where neither party trusts the other but need the other's help to survive?"

Nitro snorted at this. "What do you think 'scavenger' means? We're not fighters, we're literally just looking for something, anything that will help us survive to the next day."

"He's right," Sebastian confirmed. Though Gabriella had clearly warmed up to em, Mio was not quite used to the humanoid-crab creature they were now traveling with. She supposed it would just take some time. "Fights like the one you witnessed yesterday are the exception rather than the norm."

"Fights aren't rare," Nitro quickly clarified, "but they're not that common. It isn't a daily occurrence."

"I just want some… excitement!" Gabriella said. They truly hadn't gotten that much footage for the day.

Nitro and Sebastian looked at each other, amused but knowing.

"Make sure your camera's recording as we go over this hill," Sebastian told Gabriella. The girls looked at each other, but Gabriella started up the camera.

As they got further uphill, the trek became steeper and each step became harder. But with the last few steps, they reached the top, and a large metropolis became visible on the downslope of the hill. Mio recognized some of the architecture as being rather old, but some of the buildings looked odd. New, almost. The city was framed by a green landscape: green on the downslope, green in the valley beyond it, and she could even see plant life winith in the city. Though she wasn't close enough to tell anything for certain, there seemed to be an energy coming from the city. A quiet buzzing began to make its way into her ear.

Nitro gave a condescending look. "Is that shot exciting enough for you?"

"That was incredible!" Gabriella said, looking at the city.

"Nitro, you should probably…" Sebastian said, tapping eir ear.

Nitro nodded. "Right." Nitro raised his own hand to his ear. "Candela, if you're hearing this message, this is Nitro. We're on the eastern end of the city, accompanied by two girls, civ-passing. Might wanna make Haphway home." With that, he lowered his hand and took a few steps forward. "Come on," he said to the others, "we're losing daylight."

"Uh, what was that?" Mio asked.

"And who's Candela?" Gabriella added.

"Candela," Nitro said, answering the second question first, "is the town's custodian. Basically the mayor, the head honcho, whatever. And by 'that' I assume you mean short-range messaging. It's a way to communicate, built into most translators. The spell I use usually adds that feature automatically, so you should be able to do it too."

"Cool!" Gabriella said. "How does it work?"

"You just push the button, think really hard of the person you want to reach, and speak. Theoretically, the range is limitless, but it's better within shorter distances."

"Okay, I got it," Gabriella said. She raised her hand to the button on her translator. "Sebastian, Gabriella to Sebastian: this is awesome!"

"Message received!" Sebastian said with a smile.

"Dude!" Gabriella excitedly said as the four made their way down the hill and toward the edge of town.

"What even is this place?" Mio asked skeptically. "You never told us."

"Yes I did," Nitro protested. "I said I'd take you to Haphway." As he said this, he pointed at a nearby sign:

Welcome to

Haphway

If you're halfway home, Haphway is home.

"Haph…way," Mio read, exasperated. She squinted at Nitro. "You know, you could have just clarified earlier."

"I know," he replied. His face broke out into a mischievous grin. "But it was fun watching your head spin."

"Wait, was that an actual smile on your face?" Mio asked.

Nitro quickly turned away from her. "No, you must have something in your eye."

"This town makes you smile! It was still mean but you smiled. So what's there to smile at in this town?" Mio pressed, curious.

"Nitro has always liked Haphway," Sebastian explained. "And I imagine he's excited to see the woman you're about to meet."

"She your girlfriend or something?" Mio asked. Sebastian looked away. Although she couldn't see Nitro's face, she was almost positive he was rolling his eyes.

"Decidedly not. Candela is just an old friend," Nitro explained. "Well, really I was closer with her mother." Nitro paused. "She passed on a while ago." Mio and Gabriella shared a look, unsure how to respond. Death was a tragedy with which they weren't acquainted. Nitro didn't seem to notice.

As the four walked into the city, they began to see signs of life. They heard the hum of distant talking, felt subtle vibrations beneath their feet, smelled familiar and appetizing odors waft gently toward them.

Then they started seeing the residents. Metal robots walking around, animals (some bipedal) making their way through the streets, and very close approximations of humans. As they wandered through the town, these creatures gave the group funny looks, most directed at Mio and Gabriella, but Nitro got a fair few and even Sebastian got some.

It was a bizarre and alien experience, being watched like this, at least to the girls. But despite their self-consciousness, they got the sense it was not unkind, just a stare of novelty. Nitro had mentioned they looked more human than most, and being outside Nightflower, for the first time, they could really see it.

Nitro led the four into a building in the center of the city. It looked like it had been partially destroyed and then rebuilt by a different architect entirely. Mio looked up at the ceiling, which seemed incredibly high (Sebastian had walked in, no problem), and marveled over how half of it seemed to sparkly, white and gold above her, but the other half was more practical, not any less grand, but just different; gilded ornamentation made way to utilitarian patchwork that made the very shape and material of the building seem like art. Mio puzzled over this for a few moments, but before she could ask a woman walked out to meet them, approaching Nitro first.

"Nitro," the woman said fondly. "It's good to see you." Mio noticed a slight shift in Gabriella's expression as the woman spoke. She couldn't understand why, though.

"And you as well, Candela," he said, accepting a friendly handshake.

"What's it been? Ten years?"

"Twelve, I think."

"Right, right. Lot has changed. Most things are still the same," Candela explained. She turned to Sebastian. "I'm glad to see you two are still sticking together."

Sebastian gave the woman a friendly smile. "I'm going by Sebastian now!"

"So Nitro finally gave you a name," Candela joked.

"Actually, that would be these two," Sebastian said, gesturing to Gabriella and Mio.

"The two you mentioned," Candela said to Nitro. "Welcome to Haphway. My name is Candela, I'm the town's custodian."

"I'm Mio," Mio introduced herself, "and this is Gabriella."

"Wait," Gabriella said in realization, "are you speaking Spanish?"

Candela smiled. "Good ear! Do you speak Spanish too?"

"Yes! Not quite as well as English, but my parents made sure I knew it." The effect of hearing Gabriella switch languages but still being able to comprehend it was somewhat disorienting to Mio. This translator was still gonna take some getting used to. "Apparently, before the calamity, my family came from Mexico. Well, mostly, my Dad's mom was from America but she had dark skin too, so…"

"My family is from Mexico too!" Candela said excitedly. "I've always wanted to go, see what it was like. But Haphway is my home, as well as my charge, and it keeps me busy." Candela examined Gabriella closely. "Say, what's all that equipment you're holding?"

"They're filming a documentary," Sebastian informed Candela.

"Wow, a documentary! I haven't seen one of those in a long time," Candela said. "What's it about?"

"Basically the world we live in and our adventures outside our home. We don't really have a set narrative yet."

"Figured Haphway would be a good place for them to film," Nitro explained. "Haphway has such a presence in the world and such a fascinating history. And I figured you'd be the perfect one to relate the story of the city."

"Of course. It would make my mother proud," Candela said with a soft smile. At this Nitro looked away slightly, hiding his face from the woman.

"I'm," Nitro began, faltering, "I'm sorry I wasn't there after… I didn't even hear María was gone until a year later and…"

"It's fine. She was ready to move on. And that's not what we should be talking about with this reunion. But that reminds me, she wanted me to give you something. Come with me, she kept it in her office with all her valuables and 'unfinished business.' I'm sure we'll find it there," she said, beckoning them to follow her through the building. "And Mio, Gabriella, if you have any questions about Haphway, feel free to ask me. If I don't know, nobody does."

"Can I ask about the building we're standing in?" Mio asked as they walked, pointing to the ceiling.

"Well, it was built on the foundations of a pre-calamity building. A lot of Haphway is like that, paying tribute to the past but look toward our present. I'd be happy to explain further when we have a moment," she explained as they reached the office.

"So, what exactly is this thing she left?" Nitro asked, trying to hide his eager curiosity.

"Well," Candela said, looking through filing cabinets, "I don't exactly remember," she admitted. She opened the desk drawers.

"…You don't remember?" Nitro asked, bemused. "Then surely it wasn't that important."

"No, no, I'm sure it was!" Candela insisted, opening more drawers. "I'm sure I'll remember what it was when I see it. Some of it must've just gotten caught in residual memory, you know?"

"You said she kept it with her valuables," Gabriella said. "Would your mother have had, like, a safe?"

Candela's face brightened. "Of course!" She opened the closet, pushing aside clutter to reach the safe in the back. It took her a few seconds but eventually the group heard a beep. "I remembered the combination." She opened the door of the safe to reveal– "nothing?"

"It's okay, Candela. It clearly wasn't that big a deal," Nitro said, an air of nonchalance. Mio wondered if he was actually nonchalant about this situation or if he was putting on an act.

"No, but it was! And now that I'm seeing the safe, I'm positive this is where it was."

"So it was stolen?" Sebastian asked, frowning.

Nitro snorted, amused. "Nobody would steal from María. They respect her too much."

"But she's gone," Mio said, not unkindly but pragmatically. As the others stared at her, she wondered if her intent translated. "I just mean, would anyone steal from Candela?"

Candela frowned. "I guess we can't rule it out, but I doubt it. There's not that much theft in Haphway, at least not by longtime residents. And visitors don't know there's anything of value here." Candela had a point; the room seemed much more filled with clutter than 'valuables.' "Plus, I'm not even sure it even had a value."

Mio blinked. "Then why would she want to give it to Nitro?"

"I just mean it was probably sentimental in nature," Candela said. "Important to Nitro but not necessarily anybody else. My mom was really good at sentiment."

"She was," Nitro said quietly.

"Okay, then let's think this through," Gabriella said. "It's unlikely anybody stole it, and Candela, you're positive that it was here at one point. Would you have moved it or misplaced it?"

"No. If I thought it would be important to someone, I would've left it here."

"Is it something that could've left on it's own?" Sebastian asked.

"Slowly…" Candela said, lost in thought. When Mio raised an eyebrow at this, she shook her head. "I mean… no. No, I don't think so." Candela sighed before looking at Nitro. "You know what I think?"

He nodded. "I think I do. So what do we do?"

"Split up. Search the town. You should at least know what it was," Candela said.

"Uh, wanna fill us in?" Mio asked.

"While my mother was great with sentiment, her generosity was both a strength and a weakness."

"It's possible she gave away whatever she saved for me to someone else before I got here," Nitro finished.

"And if I forgot what it was, I'm not likely to remember the event. So we're going to search the town and ask all the residents who have been here long enough if they remember receiving anything from my mom."

"That sounds… really vague," Mio admitted.

"Hey, you'll be getting a proper tour of Haphway from the woman who knows it best. I'm sure it'll be great content." He turned to Candela. "You three take the west, we'll take the east?"

"Sounds like a plan. Come on," she said to Mio and Gabriella. "You can get more info for your documentary."

Mio and Gabriella looked at each other before following after Candela.


"You can just put your stuff anywhere," Candela said, leading Mio and Gabriella into the house. "Take some time, relax a bit. My home is your home." Mio knew that Candela had actually said mi casa es su casa, a phrase she had heard many times from Gabriella's family back home, but hearing it through the translator was unsettling, to say the least.

"Thanks, Candela!" Gabriella said, gently setting down some of the equipment. "I'm sorry we didn't find Nitro's gift. But the bright side is we got a lot of excellent footage for our documentary! And everybody here was so kind and welcoming."

"That's all my mother's doing," Candela said, somewhat proud. "Ever since Haphway was founded my mother made sure it would be a safe haven for all. She stayed right here, managing every problem, dispute, and crisis, and I stayed right by her side. I've been continuing her work since she chose to pass on."

Mio frowned. "So… you never left home either?"

Candela paused, caught off-guard. "Well… I left once. But uh…" she paused, clearly thinking through some things. When she looked back at the two girls, She had a smile that was clearly covering up some painful memories. "Let's just say it's safer for me in Haphway."

"Is that what you want, though?" Mio asked. "To live here forever, carrying on the work of your mother?"

"It's an honor to carry on her legacy," Candela stated matter-of-factly.

"But is that what you want?" Mio asked again.

Before Candela can answer, the front door opened, giving way to a familiar groan.

"We went all over," Nitro said, "but we couldn't find any hint of whatever María left for me." Behind him, Sebastian crouched down, making eirself surprisingly small to fit through the doorway.

"But everybody was super helpful!" Sebastian quickly added. Once inside the room, ey could stand up, but just barely. Ey looked like they were trying to avoid moving too much.

"No they weren't," Nitro said, frustrated, "mostly because they had no idea what we were looking for because we don't know what we're looking for."

Candela shrugged. "I'm sorry, it's been a while. And honestly, I try not to think about that time."

Nitro sighed, trying to collect his thoughts. "I'm not– I'm not blaming you. I just– It's hard. You know? I wish… I wish she was here to give it to me herself."

Candela nodded. "Latest tissue rejuv?"

"Last night." Nitro responded.

"Shifter?"

"Lich."

"Shit." Mio and Gabriella looked between Candela and Nitro, completely lost. Sebastian stood by, keeping careful watch over the whole situation. "Come on," Candela said, crossing over to Nitro, "I have an idea. Come on."

"Candela," Nitro said, "you know I won't–"

"Nitro. I'm not arguing with you. Come on. The others can wait here in the meantime." Nitro didn't respond, but followed Candela as she led him out of the room. Sebastian looked concerned as they left.

"So… what was that about?" Gabriella asked em.

"I don't think that's for me to say," Sebastian said hesitantly.

Mio frowned. "Something about tissue, but why would he need tissues?"

"Not tissues. Tissue," Sebastian clarified.

"Tissue?" Mio frowned. "Like as in biological tissue?" The crab monster frowned, clearly not wanting to say more. "Why would he need that?"

"It sounded like some kind of rejuvenation," Gabriella said.

"Look," Sebastian interrupted, nir voice unusually authoritative, "there are lots of terrible rumors about Prometheans. I don't indulge them out of respect for Nitro."

"But we don't know anything about Prometheans," Mio pointed out. "We're not trying to spread rumors, we're trying to understand Nitro."

"Wouldn't it be better for us to hear the truth from someone who knows rather than any nasty rumor from a stranger?" Gabriella asked gently.

Sebastian paused, clearly weighing it over in eir mind.

"Prometheans," ne started, haltingly, "well… they're not like liches. Their body isn't sustained or repaired by magic, because magic isn't what brought them back. So they have to sustain and repair themselves through magical transformation of tissue."

"Human tissue," Mio said, beginning to understand.

"Humanoid tissue is an imperfect solution, but it can help. The closer to human it is, the more he can do with it, the stronger it is."

"So… what's to stop him taking tissue from us?" Gabriella asked.

Sebastian paused. "He wouldn't do that."

"That doesn't answer the question," Mio said flatly. Before Sebastian could continue, Nitro and Candela entered again. It was hard to notice, but Candela had put a bandage around her arm, and Nitro, in his own way, seemed to have a healthier glow. Refreshed.

Rejuvenated, even.

"We should get moving," Nitro said quickly.

Mio and Gabriella looked at each other, confused. "But we still need footage," Gabriella said.

"Good, you two stay here and me and Seb–" he stopped himself, "nem and I can leave, get going."

"We need a guide through a wasteland," Mio protested.

"Well that's not my job. I never volunteered for it. The two of us are going and that's final." Nitro turned to Sebastian. "Come on, let's head out."

"No," Sebastian said plainly.

"What?" Nitro asked, confused.

"I believe we have not done all we need to in Haphway," Sebastian said by way of explanation.

"We still haven't found what María left for you," Candela supplied.

"Precisely," Sebastian said, "and Mio and Gabriella still have much of the town to see."

"We need to get going," Nitro said, insistent. Mio was confused by this, because while saying this, he sounded anxious. Almost afraid.

"For goodness sake, Nitro, you never rest!" Sebastian said, eir voice louder than Mio and Gabriella had ever said. Ey looked momentarily sheepish, but composed emself. "One night," ey said, lowering their voice again. "One night in Haphway. And then, if you insist, we can still leave."

Nitro nodded slowly. "One night," he agreed.

"You can stay here," Candela said, uneasy. "Let me get some bedding."

"Thank you," Sebastian said, back to nir cordial self. Nitro excused himself from the room ostensibly to help Candela, but the others noticed he had turned down a long hall in the opposite direction Candela was going. "So, what else do you two want to do in Haphway?" ne asked the girls, quickly changing the subject.

Mio hesitated before answering. "Well, I wanted to go on a walk around town again, get some night footage. And then tomorrow would just be more generic footage and interviews."

"That sounds wonderful," Sebastian said. "You know, I've always loved Haphway. Haven't been here often, but I've always thought about settling down here."

"What's stopped you?" Gabriella asked. Sebastian opened eir mouth to answer but stopped, looking down the long hall before turning back to Gabriella and shrugging an almost apologetic look in eir eyes.


"Is it just me or is every second we spend with those two getting creepier?" Mio asked Gabriella on their walk that evening.

"It's not just you but…" Gabriella struggled to form thoughts as she captured shots of the city at night. "I don't know. We're missing something. I mean, Sebastian seems super nice."

"Then what the hell happened back there? And that whole thing with Nitro needing tissue! Why the hell didn't we know that?"

"Because we don't know anything about him really, I guess."

"Still, that's kind of a big thing to just casually not tell somebody. 'Here's my name, pronouns, and oh, by the way, I need human tissue so I don't bleed out.' And you realize what this means for us."

"Yes, I know, closest things to civs–"

"'The closest things to civs I've seen in years'!" Mio exclaimed, repeating Nitro's words from the previous night. "What's to stop him from stealing our tissue?"

"I don't know, Mio," Gabriella said, exasperated. "I don't have the answers. But I do know Sebastian was pretty damn certain he wouldn't. And ne doesn't lie to us."

Mio took a breath. "You're right. Sorry, I'm just, like, stressed!"

"I'm stressed, too," Gabriella said. "It's a stressful situation. But unloading all of your stress on me is just going to make me more stressed."

Mio looked down. "I'm sorry, Gabriella."

Gabriella smiled at her friend. "It's okay. Just breathe. Whatever crazy shit happens, I'm going to be right beside you every step of the way." They had reached the edge of town, where buildings petered out and became fewer and far between. In the twilight, it looked tranquil, almost idyllic.

And then Mio saw the silhouette on the horizon.

"Gabi, do you see that?" Mio said, pointing in the distance.

"The woman? Yeah, what about her?" she asked.

"That's the lady. The vampire lady."

Gabriella looked sideways at Mio. "You mean the one you told me about last night?"

"Yeah. I'm sure of it."

"Is she following you?"

"I'm not sure, she–" Mio turned to look back at the horizon, but the mysterious woman had disappeared again.

"She was just there," Gabriella said, confused. "Where did she go?"

"Welcome to my world," Mio said wryly.


"I'm sorry I've just been dragging you all around town," Candela apologized to the girls.

"It's really fine," Gabriella said.

"Yeah, it's been amazing! The residents here have all had such valuable things to say and unique stories to tell," Mio elaborated.

"Well, I think you'll get some great conversation out of our next resident." As Candela said this, she waved to a young woman who seemed to be tending a garden in front of a house. The woman looked, smiling and waving back. It was hard to tell from this far, but the texture of the woman's skin was odd, almost like it was scaled. The closer they got to this woman, the clearer it became that this was indeed the case.

"Candela!" the woman said. "To what do I owe the pleasure?" She eyed Gabriella curiously. "Is that a camera?"

"That is, indeed, a camera, Lily," Candela said. "These two are making a documentary. I'm showing them around the city, introducing them to some of our residents."

"Oh, that's awesome!" Lily said, excited. "If you need any more interviewees, I can tell you anything you want to know about Haphway."

"We'll definitely take you up on that," Mio said.

"You'll get more prankster stories out of her than anything," Candela said, rolling her eyes.

"You're only making me sound cooler, Candela."

"Lily is our youngest resident," Candela explained. "She was actually born in Haphway, around the time I was twenty."

Lily laughed. "Yep. Grew up right here," she said, putting a hand on her neck, stroking her scales shyly. "I think Haphway liked having a kid. Especially María. She used to dote on me." She chuckled slightly at this. "María was a good woman. A special woman."

Mio looked at Gabriella. In an instant, she knew they were thinking the same thing.

"Lily, did María ever give you anything?" Mio asked.

"Plenty of things," Lily said. "Why do you ask?"

"Anything sentimental?" Gabriella clarified. "Maybe something that seems like it wouldn't mean much at first. Something meant for someone else?"

Lily thought for a moment. "Now that you mention it, there is one gift that comes to mind."

"Would you be willing to grab it?" Candela asked. "I just want to see if it was something that my mother left me to guard."

Lily smirked. "Memory failing you already?"

"I'm barely older than you Lily!" Candela jokingly scolded.

"I'm just messing around! I know it can be hard to remember María's tasks. Let me go grab it." With that, Lily disappeared into her house while the others waited outside.

"Hello comrades!" A jovial voice said. The women turned to see Sebastian and Nitro walk towards them. "How are things going?"

"Please tell me you have good news," Nitro said, "'cause we haven't found anything, and I don't think we can stay in Haphway much longer."

"The girls think Lily might have it," Candela.

"Lily?" Nitro said, confused. "Why would she have it?" Nitro puzzled over this as Lily exited the house. Lily smiled when she saw Nitro.

"Nitro! Oh my god, you haven't changed a bit."

Nitro chuckled a bit uncomfortably. "You have, though! I remember when you were barely up to my knee. Before your scales settled on your skin."

"Such is the life of a pangolin. Well, pangolin-shifter." She paused. "I think I have something of yours."

"Good grief, these three didn't trouble you too much for it, did they?" Nitro said as Lily showed him the object. "'Cause it's really not that–" Nitro looked at what she was holding and his jaw dropped.

"…A turtle?" Sebastian asked, confused.

"A stuffed one," Gabriella explained, though what the explanation meant was completely lost on both her and Sebastian, and Mio for that matter.

"Of course," Candela whispered.

"When María gave this to me," Lily explained, "she told me to take good care of him, as he was the oldest companion of a good friend of hers, but she suspected I needed him more." Nitro was unsure what to say. "I think the two of you should be reunited."

"Lily, I can't–"

"I think you need him more than I do." Hesitantly, Nitro took the turtle from her offering hands, looking it over as if looking for a discrepancy in memory. "If you're staying another night, would you like to come over for dinner?" Dumbfounded, Nitro nodded, something that surprised almost everybody there. "Well then, I'll see you tonight," Lily said excited. "It's good to see you, Nitro," she added. Nitro nodded again, unsure how to respond and Lily turned back to her garden as Nitro, dazed, slowly walked away followed by the others.

It was several blocks before Nitro broke the odd silence.

"I guess–" he paused to look at the turtle in his hands– "I guess we're staying another night."


The dinner had been unlike what Mio and Gabriella were used to in Nightflower, but it had been fun nonetheless. And they had gotten even more footage to use in their documentary. Nitro had seemed completely at a loss for words the entire evening, even as Lily tried to engage in conversation with him. Despite only knowing him for a few days, it was odd to see Nitro so… vexed.

They'd returned to Candela's place many minutes ago, and all Nitro had been doing was looking at the stuffed turtle he had received hours earlier.

"So…" Mio said,breaking the uncomfortable silence, "María left you a stuffed turtle?"

"A link to my past," he explained vaguely.

"…Is that the whole story?" Gabriella asked.

Nitro looked over to Candela, who shrugged. "You wanna tell them, or should I?" she asked. Nitro sighed, unable to find the words, before handing the turtle over to Mio. Mio took it, curious, before turning it over looking for some clue. Finally, she opened the tag to reveal the name.

"Nitro?" she said, pronouncing the word correctly for the first time in what seemed like ages. The way it fell off her tongue felt strange.

"Nihtro," the Promethean corrected. "He was my first…" Nitro stopped, trying to figure it out. "Prometheans, more than any other creature, were created. But I had to learn… everything from scratch. It was grueling, learning from the researchers. But there was one kind one…" He paused, seemingly overwhelmed with emotions. "She could tell I was hurting. And she gave me… him." He sighed. "When I came to Haphway the first time and realized how I'd been mistreated, I… practically threw him away. But María… she must have… thought I'd want him again."

Mio nodded. For the first time since meeting him, she felt like she was beginning to understand him. She gave the turtle back to him, and though he tried to seem casual, he clutched it tightly.

"So, where are we heading next?" Gabriella asked.

"We," Nitro said, gesturing to himself and Sebastian, "are leaving tomorrow morning. You two are staying here, where Candela will help you get set up."

"We're not accepting applications for citizenship at this time," Candela said nonchalantly. The girls stifled a giggle.

"Since fucking when? You're always trying to get people to settle here."

"But these girls have a documentary to finish, and there's much more to the world than Haphway. Don't worry, I've found them the perfect guides," Candela continued with a smirk. Sebastian lit up at this.

"Wonderful!" ey said, giving the girls the closest ey could approximate a thumbs up. Mio gave a hesitant, confused thumbs up back.

"You've got to be kidding me," Nitro said, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"I'm not," Candela replied.

"And what if I say no?" he asked.

"Take the girls or I take the turtle," Candela replied.

Nitro paused. "Go ahead. It's just a turtle. I don't care."

"Yep. It's just the last thing my mother left you."

Nitro sighed. "I hate it when you use your María's kindness to win arguments."

Candela shrugged. "It's what she would've wanted."

Nitro paused for a second. "Yeah," he said with a chuckle, "it is."

"So," Gabriella spoke up, "I ask again. Where are we heading next?"

Sebastian looked at Nitro expectantly, who could only shrug. "We're not really… planners," Sebastian said apologetically.

"I have an idea," Candela interjected. "If you're up for it."

"Please," Nitro said, gesturing to her.

"The Yeren migration passes by in two evenings' time."

"The Yeren?" Nitro said, uncertain.

"I know," Candela said, "but they're really peaceful and you know better than anyone it's safer to travel in numbers. Especially with… inexperienced companions."

Mio was about to be offended by the word "inexperienced," but before she could butt in, Gabriella asked a question Mio hadn't yet thought of.

"What are the Yeren?"

"The Yeren are…" Nitro struggled to express it. "How would you describe the Yeren?" he asked the other two.

"The Yeren are a species of primates," Sebastian explained, "that look rather like large apes. Some describe their appearance as looking like something between a gorilla and a human. They were something of an urban legend for a while precalamity, but post calamity their numbers have grown to the point where their existence is undeniable."

Mio paused taking it all in. "So… bigfoot?"

"Well, that's a rather disrespectful name," Sebastian continued, "but more or less?"

"How do you even know what bigfoot is?" Candela asked, curious.

"Knowing them," Nitro responded, "they probably saw it in a film." Gabriella shrugged, confirming it. "And if that's the case, the bigfoot you're familiar with is very different from the Yeren. For starters, they're nocturnal, which means for the next few days at least travelling at night. They're also crazy smart, arguably smarter than humans ever were. They don't seem to speak much, but they do seem capable of it."

"But they're not horrifying monsters like their movie counterparts?" Gabriella clarified.

"Well, they're not monsters, but their relationship with humanity seems… strained from what little I've learned," Nitro said.

"They'll pass by the northwest part of town, if they stick to their previous migration routes," Candela said.

"They're getting closer?" Nitro said. "Huh. I know that was María's biggest unfulfilled goal, trying to convince the Yeren Haphway was safe."

Candela looked bemused. "That wasn't her biggest unfulfilled goal." Nitro raised an eyebrow. "Her biggest unfulfilled goal was getting you to stay in Haphway." Nitro looked down at the turtle again, looking into it's black plastic eyes.

"Anything else we should know about the Yeren?" Gabriella asked.

Nitro looked back up, reorienting himself after being so lost in thought.

"Um. Not really. I mean, they're pretty peaceful most of the time. But they can be really scary so… just try not to piss them off."

"I think I can do that," Mio said. Nitro nodded, looking at her for a few moments.

"Okay," he said quietly. "We're all gonna die."

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