Juno brought Milo to his apartment and helped him to a rundown yellow sofa. She pulled his beanie off, revealing his ears. Then she pulled off his shirt, revealing several cuts and a few much deeper wounds, including the one where the knife had entered him. He slumped backwards, laying his head on the couch’s armrest, as he grasped his stomach in pain.
“I’m telling you, it’s fine,” said Milo. “My body is finally healing itself again, but it takes time. Just throw a bandage on it like usual, and I’ll be good to go.”
“Well thanks to Charlie showing up, I think we can do a bit better than a bandage this time,” said Juno, making room for and setting her instrument case on a cluttered dining table before opening it to pull out the ukeytar.
The apartment was a complete mess. It was full of stacked cardboard boxes, filled with random knick knacks, books, newspaper clippings, assorted linens, as well as many which were completely empty. The trash cans were full, which had led Milo to throw crumpled papers and plastic bags onto the floor instead. Crusts, cores and crumbs of finished meals lay forgotten on plates and napkins across the table. The walls were covered with various maps of the city which Milo had hung and then drawn on with red markers in order to track his clients and marks.
Juno made a mental note to help Milo clean up some of the mess once she was done easing his pain. She knew full well that he hadn’t processed Arthur’s passing with much grace. Whether he said so or not, he was still very much grieving. Add to that the fact that his mother hadn’t been around to teach him how to live like a proper human after he’d become one, and anyone would understand why he had such a hard time creating a livable living space.
She walked over to him, ukeytar in hand, moved a stack of books off a footstool, and sat down on it. She then began to play a soft, relaxing song with a light beat. Words lit up on the ukeytar’s wood:
Now Playing Lo-Fi Hip Hop Playlist.
As she played, glowing butterflies fluttered to life around her and flew onto Milo’s stomach. They spread their wings, overlapping one another to completely cover the wound with their light. The effect was nearly instant as Milo’s whole body relaxed into the cushions, and a long soft groan escaped his lips.
“Better, right?” she asked as her fingers continued to pluck away at the strings and dance along the white and black keys.
Milo side-eyed her and resumed his grouchy expression. “It’s fine, I guess.” But she wasn’t fooled.
She laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ll tell everyone your wounds healed on their own. That way you can keep up your tough appearance.”
“I appreciate that,” he said, softening his scowl.
“Speaking of tough, you went pretty hard on Charlie considering you just met him.”
Milo scoffed. “This whole time, I kept thinking that the reason none of us could get the backpack to open was because Arthur’s heir was the only one truly deserving of it. Like he was some Godlike figure that none of us could match up to. But that guy? That guy’s just another flimsy city kid. I could flick him and he’d fall over crying.” He mimed a flicking motion with his fingers. “And if that guy is our only hope of getting our powers back and keeping them? Might as well not get too used to using them again. Mark my words, he’ll be gone before the week is over. This will all be a cute story he tells people. In fact, he might even say it’s all made up. That we’re all made up. Our relics will turn off again, and we’ll be back to square one. You’ll see.”
“And what if he does stay?” asked Juno. “What if he sees everything this place is and all the people who live here and decides not to leave? What if he actually decides this is where he’s supposed to be?”
“That’s even worse!” growled Milo.
“Because if he stays, he’ll be doing so because he thinks we need him. He’ll be staying because he sees us all scrambling to survive, afraid to lose our powers and he’ll stay just so he can be the hero.”
“Honestly Milo, I don’t think saving us has even crossed his mind. Arthur was the kind of guy who saw people going through a rough time and gave them the tools to save themselves, but this guy is really only thinking about himself right now.”
Milo’s eyes darted to her. “And that makes it better?”
“No,” said Juno. “What I mean is, if anyone needs saving right now, it’s him.”
“Ugh, you’re such a sap,” said Milo, rolling his eyes.
“I’m serious! He’s not okay, Milo. When I’m near him, I can feel this ocean’s worth of pain inside him. It’s so different from what I’m used to.” She pointed at the butterflies still basking on Milo’s stomach. “With you, for example, I knew what needed fixing. I knew exactly where to send the butterflies to ease the pain and heal the wound. But Charlie, he is hurting everywhere. It’s practically radiating off him. When I got home this morning, I knew he was in the building, and I knew exactly where he was, because I could feel him from on the street.”
“So he’s a little depressed,” said Milo nonchalantly. “This is New York. Who isn’t?”
“He’s more than a little depressed. He’s given up completely.” A soft smile came to her face. “But when we started playing with Arty’s backpack; when he started figuring out how it worked, I could feel this tiny little spark come to life inside him.”
Milo glared at her. “Or maybe he just saw you and got turned on. Are you sure that little spark wasn’t just him picturing you naked?”
“Oh my god!” groaned Juno, slapping Milo’s arm.
Milo hissed in reply, grabbing at his arm where there was another deep cut from the earlier fight.
“Sorry,” she said, as one of the butterflies flitted over to Milo’s arm and sat atop the cut with its wings outstretched. “Anyway, he’s definitely gay,” she said as a matter of fact.
“You can’t possibly know that,” hissed Milo.
“I knew you were gay back when you were still a cat,” she said slyly. “Trust me.”
“Whatever,” he said, staring up at the ceiling.
“My point is, he needs our help.”
“Gross,” growled Milo.
“Easy tiger,” she said. She ended the song and the butterflies flitted off of Milo’s stomach before disappearing altogether. “How’s that? Feeling better?”
“Not at all,” said Milo, crossing his arms.
Juno stared at him with a knowing smile.
“Yes Tía Juno, I’m feeling much better,” he said, affecting a childlike tone.
“Good,” she said, standing up and patting his head between his ears. She went to the table to start cleaning up and organizing some of the clutter.
“You don’t have to do that,” said Milo, but he didn’t try to stop her. Instead, he rolled over and nuzzled his face into the cushions, hugging one of the couch’s many pillows to his chest.
As she cleaned, she uncovered a framed photo of an older black woman with a small black and gray striped tabby sitting on her lap. Around its neck was a collar affixed with a star-shaped pendant. She sat the frame on the small table next to the couch. Then she went back to organizing mail, disposing of trash, and collecting the plates and glasses that were strewn across the apartment. Apparently, Milo was not one for doing dishes. Hopefully when he woke up, the clean apartment would help soften his bad attitude.
* * *
After tidying the apartment, Juno snuck quietly out, trying not to wake him.
“There you are,” said Charlie. She turned to see him rushing towards her from down the hallway.
“Hey, how’s it going up in the garden?”
“Good, I guess. I leveled up the backpack to level two, so that’s … something.” He wasn’t sure if it was worth getting excited over, but at least it felt like a step in the right direction.
“That’s great!” exclaimed Juno, then remembering that Milo was sleeping, moved away from the door and lowered her voice. “Did you get any new creations?”
“Actually, I did,” said Charlie. “However they seem to have a strong focus on farming, or possibly gardening? Are those two things the same?” He shook off the question. “Either way, I don’t really know how to do … any of that. The backpack also mentioned that I could level up again by farming, so that seems to be important.” He paused, contemplating the backpack’s last messages. “Though it also mentioned monsters. So that’s concerning. Oh, and I think there might be a wild animal on the roof!”
“A wild animal?” asked Juno.
“Yes, I saw … something in the bushes.” He gulped down his rising anxiety. “And I don’t want to be dramatic, but I’m pretty sure it was hunting me.”
“Well, it is a little overgrown up there. Maybe it’s just like a wolf or a bear that lives in the garden?” She asked this as if it were perfectly normal.
Charlie’s eyes narrowed as he tried to decide if she was messing with him or not. “Should we be concerned that a terrifying wild beast is living on the roof of this building and might, I don’t know, attack someone up there?”
“Well you’re the only one with any reason to go up there at the moment,” she said, as though that made it less of a concern.
“So, we aren’t worried?” he asked, shakily.
“Nah, I’m sure it’s more scared of you than you are of it.”
“That is a bold claim.”
“Tell me more about this gardening thing,” she said, changing the subject. He stared at her, still imagining a roof grizzly eating him in the night, but finally rolled his eyes and pulled the backpack off his shoulders. He showed her the new creations he’d been given.
“Interesting,” she said. “These aren’t just good for planting things, but for gathering resources too. You’ve got a scythe for cutting grass faster, and an axe for clearing some of the trees. Oh and a pickaxe too! That should help you get rid of the rocks!”
“Hold on,” said Charlie, halting her thought process. “I’m not some construction worker or a lumberjack. I don’t know the first thing about cutting down trees or … pickaxing rocks. How am I supposed to do all these things? And for what? So I can pioneer a cleanup project on your roof? I didn’t sign up for this!”
“And what did you sign up for, exactly? What were you hoping to find when you came here this morning?” She crossed her arms and stared at him.
This gave him pause. Mostly because he didn’t actually have an answer. He wasn’t really sure what he’d hoped to find coming here, but it certainly hadn’t been a magical backpack capable of creating magical items, constructing buildings, and magically landscaping a whole forest.
He cleared his throat. “I … uh … guess I wanted to get to know more about my grandpa.”
“Well this, all of this, was incredibly important to him. We were incredibly important to him, and he was important to us. Maybe discovering the secrets of this backpack is your way of getting to know him, even if that might not feel super clear right now.”
Charlie sucked in a breath and then gave a conceding nod.
“Besides,” said Juno, leaning closer to him. “Milo thinks you’re gonna give up by the end of the week. It would be awesome if you could prove his grouchy butt wrong. I would literally pay to see him eat his words.”
Charlie let out a short laugh. “He really hates me, doesn’t he?”
“He’s a cat. He hates everybody. At least at first.” She grabbed his hand and made to move down the hallway. “But enough of that, let’s go see Harriet.”
Charlie followed her but not without asking the obvious question. “Who’s Harriet?”
“The plant lady,” said Juno.
“Right,” said Charlie. “And we’re going to see a plant lady because…”
She quirked her head at him as if it were the most preposterous question she’d ever heard. “Because you can’t plant a garden without seeds.”
“And Harriet has seeds?”
Juno grinned mischievously. “Harriet has seeds.”
This chapter very much feels like a transition to our next part of the story but I just love that we get a little moment of calm to explore Juno and Milo as friends. Juno is the bestie we all need in our life and I think that really shines through here. Milo is a booger butt but I love him to death and hope that you all will too, if not now, eventually! Can’t wait to start introducing you all to the other residents of Darkmoon Drive soon!