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You're Not Alone

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i. Kendra

Chocolate, Seth liked to say, was his favorite food group. Then Kendra would tell him it wasn't a food group, and he'd argue that it was because there were so many things that could be made out of it. Chocolate chips, cookies, cookies with chocolate chips, brownies, cake, etc, etc. And so many more things could be made with chocolate chips in them, which even further proved his point.

Right now Seth was in the kitchen eating chocolate chips straight from the bag. Kendra was baking cookies with them from a recipe she'd found recently that everyone had agreed made the best cookies they'd ever had. Seth was "helping," which consisted of him stirring the dough after Kendra added the ingredients and her thinly concealing the fact that she was actually highly irritated with his help.

"Stop eating it," Kendra said as Seth tried to snatch a piece of cookie dough out of the bowl. He just avoided her swat, but he got the cookie dough.

"But it's good." Seth changed his mind on the matter a lot, but sometimes he preferred eating the dough over eating the actual cookies.

"Yeah, but if you eat all the cookie dough, there won't be any left to make cookies." Kendra folded her arms, which resulted in her whacking one arm with the spatula she was holding. She held both arms up then, trying not to get cookie dough on her dark red knitted sweater, before setting the spatula down.

"I won't eat it all," Seth said, grabbing the bag of chocolate chips right before Kendra could. She stared with a carefully black expression while he dumped some out into his hand and ate them. Kendra held out her hand for the bag, and Seth tilted it, offering to give her some. She nodded and ate the ones from her hand, and Seth could see that her eyebrows weren't drawn so tight anymore.

Kendra dumped at least half of the bag into the bowl of otherwise-finished cookie dough, then added some more. She proceeded to mix in the chocolate chips, which Seth knew from watching could be difficult.

Standing here being quiet made Seth a little antsy, but he knew Kendra appreciated it. She liked to spend time with people even without talking, and it seemed to be a complete way of communicating for her. He leaned his back on the counter, tapping his toes, watching her stir.

Kendra sighed, letting go of the spatula. Seth reached over and snatched some cookie dough, this time with chocolate chips. Kendra looked for a moment like she was about to say something, but she didn't. She ate a bite of cookie dough too.

"This is really good," Seth told her again. Kendra was the best baker he knew.

"Thank you," Kendra said, smiling a little. "It is pretty good." She ate another piece of dough. Seth took that as an invitation to get more himself.

They both ate plenty more cookie dough before it made it into the oven.

While the cookies baked, Seth and Kendra sat on the edge of the counter, talking and eating more chocolate chips.

"Today is a good day," Kendra commented.

Seth nodded. "Yeah, I think it is."

It only took ten minutes for the cookies to bake- a shorter time than Seth could remember, but he wasn't complaining.

Kendra carefully set the tray on top of the oven, then removed her oven mitts. "They smell so good!"

"They're gonna be so warm," Seth said, reaching for a cookie.

"Don't touch that!" Kendra said. "It's hot."

"Obviously," Seth scoffed. His hand brushed the tray, and he shot back like a rocket. "Ouch!"

"When I said they were hot, I meant they were hot," Kendra said. "Don't touch it." This time she grabbed Seth's hand to prevent him from touching it.

"But it's been a minute. They're more cooler now."

"Not cooler enough to eat yet."

"How long?"

"Maybe five minutes."

An eternity and five minutes later, Kendra finally gave the okay. Seth nearly sprinted to the cookies.

He was already starting his second cookie when Kendra handed him a glass of milk. She said nothing, holding her own glass and picking up a cookie.

"Thank you," Seth said, drinking some milk.

"Welcome," Kendra answered, just starting her first cookie.

Seth started his third cookie, ignoring Kendra telling him to slow down. It really did pay off to have a sister who loved baking and sharing her food.


ii. Warren

Warren yelled something from downstairs. Seth couldn't tell what he was saying but assumed it had something to do with the production of dinner, since that's what Warren was supposed to be helping Kendra with right now. Hoping it was more like "dinner's ready" than "somebody set the table for me," Seth ran downstairs.

When he got there, Kendra was finishing setting some drinks on the table and sitting down. She must've gotten roped into setting the table too. Vanessa already sat next to her. Seth sat down across from Kendra. She waved at him, and he waved back. "What are we eating?" He asked. No one answered.

"Can somebody-" Warren started, carrying a pot into the room. Kendra understood and scooted one of those mat things- what were those even called, anyway?- into an open spot on the table to set the pot down on. "Thanks," Warren said, sitting down too.

The four of them were the only ones at the house at the moment, an uncommon occurrence. Everyone else was gone on either missions, outside work, or personal business somewhere else.

Seth looked for himself to see what was for dinner since everybody ignored when he asked. Tortellini. That was cool with him. He grabbed the spoon that was in the pot and set to work putting some in his bowl.

"Can we pray?" Kendra asked, not having gotten any food yet.

"Oh- yeah," Warren said, setting the spoon down. He always forgot. Everybody paused while Kendra prayed, then resumed getting food and starting to eat.

Seth was in a pretty good mood. He wasn't entirely sure why he was smiling, but he figured he didn't need a reason. He was glad to be here.

"Why are you doing that?" Warren asked him.

"Huh?"

"You look like this," he said. He turned his head to the side and put on a fake smile. He did a little fake laugh. "You're just over here laughing at nothing. Why are you laughing?"

"I'm not," said Seth. He didn't think he was laughing. Now, however, he was about to.

"You did," Warren insisted, smiling.

"No, I wasn't," Seth argued, but now he was laughing.

"Hee hee," Warren said, pronouncing it as actual words. He tried to mimic the way Seth was laughing. He wasn't very good at it, but it made Seth laugh harder.

Kendra and Vanessa were having a normal conversation across the table. That made Seth laugh again, and Warren mimicked it again, and Seth laughed more. This was a vicious cycle.

Seth was trying to eat his food, but it was hard when he kept laughing. The fake laughter made Warren real-laugh some, which made both of them laugh more.

"Why are you mocking me?" Seth managed to ask.

"Why are you mocking me?" Warren asked, trying to make his tone sound mocking even though he was still laughing.

They were both laughing too hard to talk now. Kendra watched them with a vaguely amused expression. “You gonna eat your food? I worked hard on that.” Seth knew for a fact that she had not. This was frozen tortellini out of the freezer in canned spaghetti sauce.

“I’m done,” Warren gasped, showing her his bowl, which was empty.

“You sure are,” Kendra observed. “Seth? Or do I need to smack you?”

“I’m eating, I’m eating,” Seth laughed, shoving tortellini into his mouth. “He's just done because he barely got any.”

Warren pretended to put food in his mouth and made a fake laughing noise again.

Seth choked and almost spit out the food in his mouth. It was extremely difficult to swallow food and laugh at the same time, but he managed. “Can’t breathe.” By this point he was laughing hard enough that it was silent and almost hurt his chest. He was pretty sure his face was probably red.

Warren took his bowl to the kitchen, laughing. Kendra and Vanessa were both laughing a little bit now too.

“Why is he always mocking me whenever I laugh?” Seth asked once he’d calmed down to only a reasonable amount of laughing.

“Well, he’s not doing it to be mean,” Kendra said.

She was right. Though he’d asked, Seth already knew why Warren did that- it made him laugh. It was one of his ways of taking care of his cousins.


iii. Bracken

"A regular day in your life, huh?"

Bracken, chained to a wall next to Seth, laughed. "I suppose so."

"Too bad you never had a shadow charmer to help you out before," Seth said. The locks on his handcuffs clicked, and they fell off. He quickly removed the ones on his ankles too.

"You would have come in handy," Bracken agreed as Seth unlocked his chains. He rubbed his wrists. "All right, then. Ready to escape?"

"Obviously," said Seth. "You didn't even need to ask."

It was no problem for Seth to unlock the cell and slip out. It was a little more work for him to try to sneak Bracken around with him, especially since the unicorn normally let off a noticeable glow. But they made it out eventually, as they'd known they would.

"How long you think it'll take them to notice we're gone?" Seth asked with a laugh once they'd gotten to safety. The laugh caused a twinge of sharp pain in his ribs, and he tried not to cringe.

"Oh, who knows? What matters is that there's nothing they can do about it at this point."

"True." They were home free now, and neither intended to be captured and stuck in a dungeon again anytime soon.

"Are you all right?" Bracken scrunched up his eyebrows.

"What? I'm fine," Seth said. There was some sort of pain somewhere on his rib cage, and he was pretty sure at least one of them might have been broken. He'd hoped Bracken wouldn't notice.

"Sure you are." Bracken stopped walking, forcing Seth to stop so he wouldn't lose him. "What's up?"

Stubborn unicorn. He wouldn't quit now that he'd figured out something was wrong. "My rib," Seth grumbled. "It's really not that bad though. We don't need to stop." He tried to keep going again, but Bracken didn't move.

"If it's not that bad, I should be able to help," Bracken argued.

"Okay, fine," Seth said. "Just be quick." He wanted to get back home. But his ribs did kinda hurt a lot.

Bracken asked where the pain was, then set a hand on the offending rib. "Just stay still for a second for it to take effect. Whether I can heal it completely or just make it a little better depends on what's wrong. Hopefully it's not bad." A moment later, warmth radiated from Bracken's hand, and he removed it. "Any better?"

Seth carefully touched the spot. Nothing happened, so he pushed harder. Still fine. He took a deep breath, and it didn't hurt. "I think you fixed it," he said. It still surprised him every time Bracken did something like this.

"Good," Bracken said with a warm smile. "Isn't that a lot better than leaving it alone?"

Seth smiled. Maybe letting Bracken help was a good idea.


iv. Eve

Seth sat huddled against the inner wall of a cave, knees up to his chest. He and Eve had just narrowly escaped from something he hadn't gotten a direct look at- all he could tell was that it was big. He was still trying to catch his breath. That was the one thing he missed about going to real school- running cross country.

A glance at Eve, sitting on the opposite side of Seth from the cave entrance to his left, revealed that her eyes were wide and she was having just as much trouble catching her breath. She looked at him with an expression that seemed to ask a question, and Seth could guess what it was. Do you think we'll be safe here?

He raised his eyebrows, hoping to convey that he didn't know. He glanced back at the cave entrance, then put a hand on her knee to hopefully reassure her. She leaned back against the wall, looking slightly more relaxed, and Seth thought her breathing had slowed a little. Good.

He wouldn't say it out loud, but he'd made sure he was closer to the entrance on purpose. He didn't expect the monster to try to come in- at least, he certainly hoped it wouldn't- but if it did, this would make it more likely to harm him than Eve.

Seth had a brief thought of his dad. Whenever Seth's family had gone on walks together (admittedly not often), his dad would make sure that he or Kendra, whoever was walking next to him, was on the opposite side of the sidewalk from the road. It was a passing memory, but it struck him, and a phrase his dad used to always say came to mind: take care of your people.

Seth didn't know much, but he did know that he wouldn't let anything happen to her. Not if he could help it.

They waited in silence, neither willing to take the chance that whatever was out there might hear even a whisper.

Seth wondered after a while whether it had been long enough. He didn't want to get eaten, but he didn't think he could stand sitting still here for any longer. Maybe-

Eve had leaned her head on his shoulder. Seth stopped breathing for a moment, and he felt like his brain may have short-circuited. What was he supposed to do? He sat frozen, staring at the top of her head for a moment.

Slowly, carefully, he tried to relax. He hesitantly reached his arm around her shoulder. Maybe he could tolerate sitting still for a little while longer.