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The Fateful Heart



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Mon Jan 25, 2021 4:03 am
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Carina says...



Evaline only briefly looked up when James quickly got up on his feet to kneel next to her, and she had almost no time to react as he reached over and gently pulled her shoulders towards him into a hug.

For a second, she was shocked that he did this. She fully expected him to let the topic go, and then she'd call it a night and sleep everything off. But he decided to either ignore her words and gave her a pity hug anyways, or he actually truly wanted to give her a hug because he wanted to. She wasn't sure which one was true, but she didn't have time to dwell on it.

Slowly, Evaline reached her arms around James's back to gently complete the embrace. With her arms wrapped around the back of his shoulders, she let herself bury her head in his chest, facing away from him so that he couldn't see her face.

Similar to the last hug from the night under the stars after she confessed she had seen him die, she felt an explosion of emotions swirl in her chest.

Because this time, it was different. She didn't allow herself to feel it.

Instead, the sadness still crept in the hollow space of her heart, but it was numbed. Numbed by his touch.

And that was good enough.
chaotic lazy
—Vincian

the queen of memes
—Yoshikrab

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—Tuckster

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5/5
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Mon Jan 25, 2021 4:12 am
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soundofmind says...



James hugged Evaline a little tighter.

"I'm sorry this has all been so hard," he said softly by her ear. "And confusing. But just know: I want to be friends. And I want this hug."

He lowered his chin so his nose was resting on the top of Evaline's head.

"That's why I'm here."





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Mon Jan 25, 2021 4:20 am
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Carina says...



James was making it very difficult to compose herself. Each word felt like a stab to her chest, like it was battling the walls she kept up for so long. It was getting hard to silently repress.

Evaline took a loud shaky breath in, and then slowly breathed it out, hoping that this would calm the invisible battle she held inside, and hoping that James would ignore it and stop talking so it would subside on its own.

She should have pulled away.

But she didn't want to. Instead, she hugged him a little tighter herself, but only pressing down in the areas she knew he wasn't hurt.

Why couldn't she decide what she wanted?
chaotic lazy
—Vincian

the queen of memes
—Yoshikrab

secret supreme overlord of yws
—Tuckster

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5/5
—Anonymous Yelp Review





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Mon Jan 25, 2021 4:29 am
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soundofmind says...



James took in a deep breath and decided that was it. That was all he wanted to say, and he knew words wouldn't mean as much for her. So instead, he simply stayed, waiting for her to pull away.





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Mon Jan 25, 2021 4:38 am
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Carina says...



Evaline was grateful that James was patient and silent. She stayed in the hug for what felt like too long to be comfortable, but she wasn't ready to face him until she knew there wasn't any possibility of letting her emotions control her.

When she felt the noise in her chest quiet down and the dulled anxiety return at the back of her head, she sighed and finally pulled away, deciding to face James while he was in front of her.

"Thank you," she said softly with a small wistful smile and cheerless eyes. "For that, and... for everything."
chaotic lazy
—Vincian

the queen of memes
—Yoshikrab

secret supreme overlord of yws
—Tuckster

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5/5
—Anonymous Yelp Review





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Mon Jan 25, 2021 5:29 am
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soundofmind says...



James offered Eve a small smile.

"You're welcome," he said simply, keeping the sweet-sounding platitudes for later.





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Mon Jan 25, 2021 9:17 am
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Carina says...



Evaline's gaze lingered on James for a few seconds, and she wanted to say something else. Some more words of appreciation, maybe. She wanted to tell him how much he meant to her, and how she also was glad she ended up in Nye so that they could meet each other. She wanted to tell him how it truly was fate that brought them together, because she couldn't name another person who had the same level of patience and kindness that he kept pushing on to her. But more importantly, it was fate who put them together, but not fate who kept them together. The note seemed long forgotten about now. She didn't care to return to Earth right away, or secretly, maybe not at all. What was important right now was that she had someone who seemed to consistently see past her flaws, and she didn't want to leave that. She didn't want to leave him.

But she also knew James didn't know everything about her. She was scared that if he did, he would leave her, just like everyone else. That wasn't here or now, but it was always at the back of her mind.

They could take this slow. Like James told her from the very beginning, they didn't have to rush into this. He was first talking about the demands of the note, but the message had shifted. They didn't have to rush into their friendship.

She decided to keep the conversation simple.

"You mean a lot to me," she said, nervously looking off to the side as she started to wring her hands together. "You know that?"

James laughed a little, like he was releasing tension. "Likewise."
chaotic lazy
—Vincian

the queen of memes
—Yoshikrab

secret supreme overlord of yws
—Tuckster

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5/5
—Anonymous Yelp Review





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Tue Jan 26, 2021 2:07 am
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Carina says...



They both exchanged some awkward smiles to one another, and Evaline was grateful when James suggested they both turn turn in for the night. She was happy to volunteer to take the first sleep shift as she was mentally exhausted from a day of conversations and emotions. There was so much to think about, but first, she wanted a blank, empty, dreamless, slumber.

Night came and went, and eventually James woke her up to take the second shift. In the morning, James stirred awake, and he likely noticed that she had her book and journal in front of her. Evaline finished the sentence she was writing, then closed the journal and stacked it on top of the book before getting up to put it away in the saddle bag.

"Good morning," she said to James with a false chipper smile in an attempt to start off the day easy and light-hearted. It wasn't particularly a tense night, but a lot certainly happened, and she wasn't sure how he felt about it. Maybe nothing at all, considering that he seemed unfazed from the night she blurted out that she knew her time was short-lived.

"Good morning," he said simply with a small smile. And that was that.

They went through their morning routine, and he sat down in front of her with a comb, wordlessly patting down the spot in front of him so that she could sit. "What type of braid would you like?" he asked.

Evaline sat down in front of him, getting comfortable as she thought through their options. It seemed like after every night of uncomfortable talks, she asked for something new. Because every time, James would somehow figure out how to diffuse the conversation and steer it somewhere so that she couldn't stay mad at him. In fact, he'd always somehow steer the conversation so that she appreciated him more.

"Keep it a surprise," she said. "Something you haven't braided on me before."

James seemed to hum over his options, but then started to work away.

"Done," he said when finished, and he tapped her shoulder and looked proud.

Of course, Evaline couldn't see it, but she brushed her fingers along her hair to feel it. Unlike the other braids, this one was completely up without hair draping along her shoulder. "What is this one called?" she asked.

"A crown."

Evaline smiled, letting her fingertips brush along one side of the braid to the other. She wished she had a mirror to see his work, but she had a feeling it was elegant and regal-looking, just like a crown.

"I like it," she said, even though she couldn't see it. "I wouldn't want you to spend our money on a real crown, anyways."

"You know I'm too broke for that," he deadpanned.

Evaline laughed. "We still have thirty gold pieces left that I earned. Would that be enough?"

They go about their day like usual, and Evaline was glad to go back into their usual familiar and comfortable friendship bubble. They continued to hike northwards towards the dessert, and Evaline walked by his side as they chatted about anything and everything. They did talk about their hike and nature, as usual, but she found that they began to talk about the little things about themselves, too.

She'd talk about how it amazed her that she hadn't complained about how uncomfortable it was to sleep on the forest dirt, and she didn't even notice how uncomfortable it was until she slept on the desert sand. James agreed and said that rocks were more comfortable to sleep on, which led to an interesting conversation by itself since it meant he regularly slept on rocks. And then they'd talk about their dreams, and how strange and random some of them could be. James mentioned that he recently dreamed that a squirrel was talking to him and stole his shoes, but he couldn't remember what the squirrel said; just that it was very rude. That made Evaline laugh, and it was conversations like this that seemed to fill the day.

Eventually they stopped to rest for the night, and Evaline helped get the fire started as James took out the cooking tools. They both had been eating a little less each day to stretch out their food supply, but she had no complaints... except for the fact that he continued to only season with salt and pepper despite her getting extra ingredients to flavor their food.

She watched as he started to chop the vegetables to put in the pan, and she could no longer stand by and say nothing anymore.

"Have you used the spices and herbs I bought from Woodhearst?" she blurted out before he could put the vegetables in the pan. She already knew the answer, but she didn't exactly want to suddenly call him out on this.

"Um..." he paused, suddenly looking very unsure. "No..."

"Well..." she started awkwardly. "I got them for a reason." She paused as the thought flicked to her mind that maybe James wasn't experienced with using anything else. "Do you, uh... know how to use them? In cooking?"

"No," James said quietly, like he was embarrassed.

That answered that. Evaline gave him an appreciative smile. At least he was trying his best.

"That's okay," she said. "Well, we already have them. Do you want me to show you?"

James moved over and motioned for her to come beside him.

"One second," she said quickly as she walked over to the saddle bag and fished for the ingredients she had in mind. They were probably here somewhere, maybe towards the bottom since he hadn't used it yet... Ah. Here it was. A small bottle of oil, a head of garlic, various spices, and a package of fresh basil that she was glad they were about to use now since it didn't look like it was going to last much longer. She scooped all the ingredients up and walked back over to James, setting it down in front of him and sitting beside him.

She wasn't sure if he really knew what any of this was, but she was going to assume he didn't.

"It's not a lot, but this is a bottle of olive oil that you can use to sauté the vegetables," she said, showing it to him. "It has natural fats in it, so it will make everything taste better. Less bland."

She set it down and picked up the head of garlic, peeling off two cloves. "This is garlic. I'm not sure if you like it..." She looked over for him to get an answer.

"I do," he said with a nod.

She smiled, nodding back. "I do too. Some people think the flavor is too strong, but I think it brings extra flavor to the vegetables." She set it down and gestured to the spices. "Those are spices I picked up. Oregano, thyme, rosemary. I also have dry bay leaves that we can use for soups later. Anyways, you just sprinkle the spices on to the pan, and you can also put your usual salt and pepper too."

She moved on to the basil. "This is basil, which, I know I'm biased because I used to eat so much of it when I was younger, but it's the best herb, and I think you'll grow to like it as much as me."

Evaline then stopped and looked towards him, not sure if she was overexplaining, or if this was going over his head, or if he didn't want to hear any of this at all. He looked like he was listening attentively.

"So how would you use those?" he asked.

Evaline nodded. "Right. First, let's unpeel these garlic cloves." She handed him one of the two cloves and started to peel off the dry layers. He followed suit.

"And then we chop it down into tiny pieces, let it sauté in oil, and then put the chopped vegetables and spices in. It's fairly easy."

After they chopped the garlic, Evaline poured a little bit of oil on to the pan. As much as she loved olive oil, she was careful not to overdo it; they didn't have that much, and she would rather he actually start using the oil on a consistent basis until she was able to get some more. She instructed for him to wait until the oil heated, and hovered her hand on top of the pan.

"You can feel when it's hot," she said, feeling the heat from the oil and fire radiate her palm. "Here. You try too, so you know what it feels like." He did this and she nodded, deciding to move on to the next step. "You don't have to feel when it's hot. You can always wait until a certain amount of time has passed. Either way, it's hot enough now, so you can put the garlic on the pan now."

He did this, and immediately it sizzled and released a garlic aroma scent around them.

"The noise and smell is normal," Evaline said quickly, not knowing if he thought that was an abnormal response. "Stir it for a minute or two until it turns a golden brown color, and then we can add the vegetables, and then the spices, the salt, and then the basil at the end. It's important to add it in the end so that it's not too wilted."

James continued following her instructions.

A few minutes passed, and the vegetables were softened with the oil, garlic, and spices. It was ready to eat.

"It's done," Evaline said, and then moved the pan away from the fire. She scooted a little bit away to give James some space and then crossed her legs. "I hope it turned out okay," she said quietly, hoping that her lesson didn't end in a disastrous meal that James didn't like. He'd probably not trust her with food again.

James took out a bowl and two forks. He scooped half the food into the bowl and gave it to Evaline, but she didn't eat it until he did first, watching for his reaction as he ate straight from the pan.

Mid-chew he started to hum, and grinned. After he swallowed, he smiled at her.

"I don't know why you didn't tell me sooner," he said. "This is much better."

Evaline laughed, relieved that he thought it tasted decent. "I don't know why either," she said with a smile, deciding to take a bite herself. It had been so long since she had fresh basil, and James had no idea how excited she was when she realized the herb stand sold it.

Later that night, they put all the food items away and had their usual chat around the fire. This time, Evaline took her journal out in front of him, and she turned to a blank page, pencil ready.

"So about your harmonica," she said, peering up at him. "Do you think you can play a scale?"

"This is going to be a stupidly simple question, but that's just when you go up and down, ascending and descending with notes, right?" he said back.

She nodded. "That's a fair question. Sorry. I'll avoid the music jargon. But that's correct."

"No, I want to learn it," he said. "I just want to make sure I'm clear on the definition. I can do that."

"Alright," she said softly with a small smile. "Well, that is what a scale is, then. Each key signature has a twelve-note scale that ascends from one note to another. They are lettered from A through G. So, a C major scale would go up the alphabet until it hits another C. Two of the same letters twelve notes apart would be called an octave. Is this making sense?"

"You might need to slow it down just a little," he said, pulling his harmonica out of his pocket. "Maybe you can show me what those notes are on here, so I have a frame of reference."

Evaline thought this over. She was going fast, but maybe teaching him notes right away was still not the right approach. It was likely going to confuse James more, especially since he didn't have a frame of reference on what those notes meant.

"Before we do that, can you play the scale on your harmonica first?" she asked, and he gladly obliged. He played each note slowly, and Evaline listened. She tried to think of her do-re-mi's as reference, but she didn't have perfect pitch, so it didn't come to her right away. It sounded like it was in the key of C, though. She could work with that.

She quickly jotted down her notes, instructing James to play one note at a time, and which hole was which. It led to some frustrating back-and-forths as he was confused on what she meant by 'which hole,' and after some time, all she really figured out was that the harmonica was in C, and that she had an arbitrary numbering system for the holes of his harmonica.

"We can continue this another night," she decided to say before it became too frustrating. It had been a long time since she had gotten involved in music, and it was going to take some time to relearn some things, nevertheless teach someone else.

The next few days seemed to blur together in routine.

Things mostly stayed the same: wake, braid, eat, walk, talk, and rest. Outside of their daily horse riding lesson, the most eventful parts of the day often occurred at night during their deeper conversations, and equally as important, her time alone.

Evaline was glad to have James around. But now that she had things to fill her time with at night, she was also glad to have her own time to relax and breathe. What was eating up a lot of her time was, surprisingly, her journal.

Or rather, a sketchbook. Mostly one, anyways.

She didn't particularly like drawing, but she was beginning to realize that that was because she didn't draw for fun. Almost all of the time, she drew for other people. Now that she was able to find peace in a strange part of the universe away from anything and anyone she knew, she was able to drown out the part of her that disliked drawing, and she started to appreciate it again in her own ways.

Especially if she could draw whatever and whoever she wanted with no limits whatsoever.

It surprisingly became a fun exercise to think back on all the people she met and drew them with an expression of who they were. Jeremy, looking grumpy. Brooks, looking smug. Thessa and Olivia, grinning. And then all the mages at the camp, too. Raya, Odeta, Maisy, Elrick, Jared... all of them, all with their own personalities mixed into their faces. It took hours to finish with shading, but even so, the finished product didn't please her. They deserved to have color, but unfortunately, all she had was a pencil. She sighed, and instead penciled in descriptions of every person, even adding a few humorous notes herself.

But they only spanned across a few pages. Spanned across an embarrassing amount of pages was of someone else: James.

Evaline may have only known James for two months, but with the exception of their time keeping watch at night, she spent every waking minute with him. She was used to quickly memorizing and observing someone sometimes with only seconds as the time limit. At this point, she felt like she memorized everything about him. She wasn't sure she could ever forget what he looked like, even if she wanted to. The only question mark she had about his body were, well, parts under his clothes, but for both their sakes, it was best to keep it that way.

Across the week, pages and pages of sketched James started to fill her journal, and she was getting worried that she was going to run out of pages if she kept up the rate she was going. There was just... so much to explore. It felt almost freeing to let it out by pencil. She didn't ever think she'd enjoy drawing in this way. There was just something nostalgic and endearing about capturing her favorite moments on paper, and then seeing the final product face back at her. There was also something amusing and fun about drawing him with poses and faces she knew she wouldn't ever see him do.

There was one sketch in particular that made her sigh and long for colored pencils, even though she wasn't as experienced with coloring. It was the picture she burned in her head of the morning after he had gotten the book she gave him. He was totally enthralled by the book, not even noticing how she looked back at him as he continued to read, even though it looked like his body was stiff.

But what she really wished she could capture was how the sunlight lazily stretched across his tan skin and gleamed across his deep ocean eyes, and how it seemed to dance across his messy wispy hair and leave behind little golden trails. He looked relaxed, and so at peace. A black and white sketch didn't do that moment justice.

It shouldn't have left her feeling frustrated more than it did. Evaline sighed, and lingered her gaze at her sketch of reading-James just a little longer, and almost closed her journal to move on to another chapter of the book. Almost.

She looked up and noticed that it was beginning to be the same morning hours as what was in the sketch. She knew it was still too early for that, but now that they were away from most trees and getting closer to the summer solstice, the sun seemed to creep up on them faster.

She peered over at James and noticed how he happened to be sleeping in a position where the sun reached his face. He was facing towards her, too. His hands were propped against his head like a pillow, and the blanket seemed to fall off his chest when he shifted position in the middle of the night. His face happened to be tilted towards her, and he looked so peaceful. So serene, like he was a simple man with no problems in the world.

He was practically begging to be drawn. And of course, Evaline took the bait.

She quietly moved a little closer, just a few feet away. She didn't know how much time she had, but it was likely not a lot since he always seemed to get up when the sun started to peek through the sky. She would have to be fast.

Which wasn't a problem. She could easily do a quick sketch in a few minutes, but she did want to spend a little extra time on this. He deserved to have a peaceful moment like this captured on paper, even though he will never see it... He still deserved it, though.

With her journal on her lap, her pencil flew across the paper as she continued to steal glances up at his face and body, trying to make soft strokes so that the quiet sound of the pencil scrawling against paper wouldn't wake him. Maybe about ten minutes passed, and she was almost done with the baseline sketch. She just had to carefully study his face to see how the shadows rested by his ears and bed head hair, and examine how much longer his beard had grown the last time she stared at him this close, and—

Evaline froze. James's eyes slowly flitted open in wakefulness, and she was right in front of him, staring back.

For a split second, she froze and stared back, terrified like a child being caught doing something they shouldn't have been doing. Immediately she closed her journal with her pencil bookmarked on the page, and she slid it behind her as she panicked, trying to think of something to say as James was already starting to stir awake.

"O-Oh, hey!" she said a bit too enthusiastically, casually looking around them as she slowly scooted backwards to increase the space between them and minimize the suspicion... even though she was screaming of suspicion already.

"I was just—I was, uh..." She could think of zero excuses, and she did not want to leave any silences between them. "Good morning," she said under her breath stupidly, staring at the ground and already feeling a hot wave of embarrassment filling her head.

James stared at her with half-opened eyes, but seemed like he wasn't awake just yet. He blinked, slowly, and started sitting up.

"Good morning," he said with groggy hesitance. "Um. How long were you... watching me sleep?" His eyes flicked to peer at the journal behind her back.

Evaline glanced up in time to see him eyeing her journal, and she slid it away from his view, acting like if he didn't see it, then it didn't exist, and therefore, there was no way she could have been drawing him.

"I wasn't watching you sleep," she said way too quickly and defensively. "I was only... You just happened to... hah."

She nervously laughed with no idea how to fill the awkward silence that ensued. What was she supposed to say? That she watched him sleep for minutes on end so she could capture how peaceful he looked on paper? She couldn't just admit that without everything being so awkward.

"I mean, if you were just bored or—"

"Nooope, not bored," she interjected quickly so that she wouldn't hear the rest of his thought process. She tried to play this off casually, but she couldn't hide the embarrassment no matter how hard she tried. "I just, ah, happened to be looking in your direction."

James blinked slowly. "Okay," he said slowly, though it looked like he was still trying to get a look at the sketchbook hidden behind her. "So you weren't drawing me, then."

Evaline peered up at him and tried to scoff, but it came out more of a nervous laugh. "Why would... why would you think that?" she asked, clutching her journal behind her back as she slowly began to stand up.

James finally got to his feet and tucked his blanket under his arm. "Deductive reasoning," he said, looking at her with curious eyes.

She wasn't sure if she was able to weasel her way out of this one. She could continue to think of nonsense excuses, but James was smart enough to see right through them. "That would be a smart guess," she said quietly, and suddenly her journal felt so much heavier in her hands, like a literal burden.

"Ah." James nodded and averted his gaze to the ground. She thought she could see his cheeks flush. He cleared his throat. "Well, whatever the reason, I'm sorry for scaring you."

Of course he would apologize. Of course he would. Evaline gritted her teeth and tightly pursed her lips from the giant blanket of awkwardness she had accidentally created, and she knew this memory was probably going to keep her up at night. She honestly had no idea what to say, especially in response to an apology of all things.

"No, don't... I mean, it's really my..." She groaned in frustration. "I'm just... I'm going to get the comb," she mumbled quickly and walked over to Elliot backwards, still trying to hide the journal. At least this way, she could quickly stuff it away in the corner of the bag and pretend for just a few seconds, maybe days, maybe forever, that it didn't exist and this moment never happened.

She did exactly that and rummaged through the bag, finally finding the comb. She was about to turn around and to sit in front of him for their usual braiding routine, but then she realized that the last thing she wanted was to face him up close right after an incident like this. Evaline wanted to melt into a puddle and disappear, and maybe burn the journal. Could she will herself to go back in time so this never happened? Could she somehow control embarrassment?

She could not, but she did spend a few seconds hesitating in front of the saddlebag, trying.

Biting her lip, she averted eye contact and sat in front of him, handing him the comb and practically praying that he would never bring this up again.

As James started working through her hair, he broke the silence.

"How about a fish tail braid today?"

Evaline simply nodded despite his hands in her hair, and for the rest of the day, neither of them brought up the events of that morning again.

Still, she wanted to die a little inside that she was caught in the act of drawing James, so for the next few days, she focused more on The Isle's End instead. She wanted to draw it out for as long as possible, but to recover from that embarrassment, she needed a different distraction at night that was anything but drawing.

And it was a nice distraction, too.

She read more about the sailors who journeyed far into the sea to find an uncharted island, and each page kept her at on edge. James was right: the main character, Jarrah, was funny and relatable. She was the captain of the ship who had a love and admiration for every single one of the ship's crew, and they went through so many sea monster adventures together. With every hilarious quip Jarrah said, Evaline found herself giggling while turning the pages, doing her best to not be so loud so that James wouldn't hear. But she was too engrossed to read to care if he stirred awake. There were moments when it seemed like all was lost and the ship and the crew was going to go under unless Jarrah sacrificed herself to save the others, and Evaline couldn't help but silently bawl at that. It was a selfless act and she grew to love Jarrah. Sniffling with each passing page, she then found out that Jarrah was quick on her feet and figured out a way to save herself and everyone else, and Evaline was relieved, almost saying out loud that she was glad nothing bad happened.

From merry wins, to loss, to devastation, to hope, to love; it was an adventurous epic that filled her heart.

She reached the last page and read the last paragraph over and over again, suddenly feeling sad that the tale was over and she had to be brought back to reality. Sighing, she closed the book and weakly pushed it out in front of her, hugging her knees to her chest as she looked off at the space in front of her with a wistful look, replaying the events of the book in her mind again. She just needed a moment to let the story go. This part was always the hardest.

Eventually, James stirred awake and seemed to notice her looking upset.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

Evaline nodded. "Yeah. I'm okay." She let out a slow sigh then turned to face him. "Well, not really, but don't worry about me. I just finished The Isle's End. You didn't tell me that it had a sad ending."

"I don't recall it having a sad ending."

"It doesn't," she quickly said, but it was hard to tell if she was correcting herself or James. "I mean. Not on text. But between the lines?" She dropped her knees and began to get up, walking towards the saddlebag. "Sad. Did you not feel the same way?"

"It's hard to say because its been so long, but I think I was satisfied with the ending. They found the island, right?"

"Exactly!" she said, turning back to glance at him. "They found the island. But at what cost? Talise died so they could get to the island and escape the Night Beast's grasp. Alvin went crazy when they came across the sirens. Even Jarrah almost died when they came across the Laokin, but luckily she was smart and figured out a way out of it."

Evaline picked up the comb in the bag and walked towards James, plopping herself in front of him and barely giving him time to respond. He seemed to pick up on this signal and began to untangle her hair for a braid.

"Others passed away to get to that island. In the first chapter, it was agreed that they would all split the riches of the island. They should have been happier that two less people in the crew meant more riches for them, but of course, they weren't. They were all traumatized together. They didn't reach the island with the intention of being rich anymore. They reached the island with the intention of being alive. They literally celebrated being alive together on the island. There was a lot of time spent on the details of Jarrah's friendship with the crew after that, but what then? Were they going to stay on the island? They couldn't survive there too long. They'd have to turn back around. But how would they do that without more death? And after Jarrah started to view her crew as family, too? The ending of the book didn't explore that. I think the author wanted you think it was a happy ending, but really, it's a thinly-veiled tragedy. Don't get me wrong, I loved the book, and I'd gladly read it again. But it just made me sad."

James hummed as he worked through her hair with his fingers. She did pause during some parts in case he wanted to say something, but either he had nothing to add, or it was not enough time to collect his thoughts and think of a proper response, because he didn't say anything while she rambled on and on about the characters and story. Eventually, she finished with her thoughts, and she realized that by now, the braid was probably done. When she looked back, she saw that his hands was still on her hair, but he appeared to be done.

"I just like hearing you talk," he said with a small smile.

Turned out, reading a book they both have read led to many interesting and long discussions that lasted for days. Of course, they also had their daily horse lessons, rests by the river, and random nature topics that came up, especially as they began to enter the beginnings of the Outlands. But during the hike, they both seemed to fill the time with discussions relating to The Isle's End. At first, it was simply an analysis of the characters and story, but it evolved into something deeper, like philosophical viewpoints and takeaway messages that could be applied to everyday life.

And at night, they continued to have natural fulfilling conversations that deepened their friendship, and Evaline would also spend a few minutes of her time trying to teach him music theory. It would take weeks to develop, but she wanted to eventually surprise him with a simple song that he could play on the harmonica, maybe even complete with lyrics. She didn't have any other song to give him as she tried her best to wrap her head around the concept of transposing the tabbed harmonica holes to music she knew how to read, so James did end up asking her for the birthday song melody. It was very easy to teach a straightforward melody like that, so she obliged. It was a dumb and cliché melody, but he seemed happy, so she was happy.

Evaline was grateful for the comfortable silences that did come up, though. She tended to fill that time with thoughts of how lucky she was to have James as her friend.
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soundofmind says...



The days were passing by with an ease James took care to appreciate after the chaos that preceded them at the mages' camp. Things were falling back into a "normal," and he was beginning to feel that him and Evaline were comfortably finding a rhythm without the pressures of the mystical note weighing on their minds.

Their travels had finally brought them into the desert, and when they looked at the horizon, sometimes it looked like it could go on for miles. They began to see large formations of red rocks in the distance, and a plateau that stretched into the sky. Leafy bushes turned a little more prickly, and though the plants were different, James found it equally beautiful, just a different kind.

Though he hadn't been to the deserts much himself, he knew enough about some of the plants and critters they passed to point them out to Evaline. He always wondered if she was truly interested, but if she was ever bored of him talking about nature, she never let it show.

They continued to follow the flow of the river, which attributed to the consistency of life bubbling around its edges. It was about midday when they stopped to eat, freshen up, and get water. Elliot was lapping at the river's edge while they rested in comfortable silence.

James had sat down on a rock jutting out over the water, and he watched Evaline in the corner of his eye, looking around. He wondered if things were still so different from Earth, or if Evaline just always carried a certain amount of childlike wonder in her heart.

He saw her squat down beside something, like she was observing it closely.

"This looks pretty," she said. "What is it? It looks fuzzy."

James felt that instinctual alarm ring off in his head that he was sure parents felt when their children wandered too close to the fire.

"Fuzzy?" he asked, already to his feet, walking over.

"Yeah--"

He saw her flinch and draw her finger back. She grimaced as she brought her finger close to her face. "I can confirm: it is not fuzzy," she mumbled blankly.

"Oh gods," James said with laughter in his voice. He hurried to her side, looking down at her finger as she already began to pick at it with her other hand. As he'd suspected. "That's a cactus. They're covered in needles."

She'd only gotten a few of the barbed needles caught in the tip of her finger. Four, it looked like.

Her face scrunched up to an angry pout, which he had noticed by now was her natural reaction to things when she was frustrated. "It didn't even look prickly," she said stubbornly, already trying to defend her actions. "How can a cactus look so soft? I thought they were all supposed to look prickly."

"Hey, not all things are as they seem," James said, soothingly. "Now you know not to touch them again. But let's get the needles out, okay?"

That seemed to calm her down, but she did look up at him with narrowed eyes, like she was suspicious of his words. He didn't mean to be condescending, but she probably thought he was treating her like a child. Maybe he was.

"Okay," she said after a sigh, focusing her attention back to her finger with furrowed brows. "But how do I..." She tried to grab the small needles with her fingers, but it kept slipping. "It's not wanting to come off."

"The needles are barbed so that they hook into your skin," James explained, scanning the area around them. He wondered if he could improvise making a pair of tweezers. He hummed for a second before an idea ran through his head. "Just a second, don't play with them too much," he said, darting over to Elliot to dig through one of their saddle bags.

He found Evaline's pouch of coins and took three gold pieces out. They were small and thin enough that he could layer three of them against each other and poke the middle one out so the outer coins had a small gap between. He tested it, pinching them together with the tension of his fingers.

That should suffice.

He came back to Evaline and knelt beside her.

"Show me your finger," he said. "And don't worry about the gold. It'll go right back once I'm done."

Evaline hesitated as she saw the three coins in his hands, but she did reach her finger out as he had asked. "How will the coins help?" she asked out of curiosity.

"Makeshift tweezers," he said, taking her hand in his to hold it steady. With his right hand he pinched the coins together to show her how it worked before he grabbed one of the needles. He made sure he had a good grip on it before he gingerly tugged, pulling it out as carefully as possible. When it came out, a little bulb of blood bubbled up where the needle once was.

"We'll wrap it in a second," he said quietly, more to himself. If he had more hands, he would've dabbed the blood, but instead he just focused on pulling the rest of the needles out one by one.

Evaline grimaced when he pulled out the needles, but otherwise, she had no reaction. "Is it really necessary to wrap it up?" she asked before he pulled out the last needle. "I think you should save the bandages for yourself."

"You use your hands all day, and we're outdoors. It's best to have it covered, at least until it closes over. Infection can happen to little wounds too," he said, flicking the last needle to the side.

Evaline paused, like she was trying to think of a counterargument. "Okay," she finally said, pulling her hand away when he finished to examine it.

He nodded and went back to Elliot, tucking the coins away and grabbing a canteen, the roll of bandages, and a little jar of ointment. He walked back over and sat back down in front of her.

She seemed to immediately notice the items. "Are those new bandages?" she asked, and then her eyes flicked over to the jar of ointment. She didn't need to ask the question out loud for him to know that she wasn't familiar with that, either.

"They were a gift," James said simply. "From Nathan."

"A gift?" she echoed. She paused as she seemed to connect the dots, but she didn't say whatever she was thinking out loud, so James let the question hang in the air.

"I'm sure his intentions of the gift were for me poking cactuses," she finally said after a long pause.

"Yes," James said with a straight face. "I'm thankful for his foresight."

She didn't look amused of her own joke, so she changed the subject. "What's in the jar?" she asked.

"It's a healing salve," he said, cleaning her finger and running water over it. "Not quite what Marsha gave you, but it helps ward off infection, seals the wound, stuff like that. It's made from natural herbs or something. Maybe it has basil in it."

Evaline didn't even react. "I wish Earth had magic basil cream," she said, staring as he was applying the salve. "We'd call this antibiotics, and they're made from a fungus."

James laughed, screwing the lid back on the jar and grabbing the roll of bandages.

"How ironic," he said as he started wrapping.

Evaline smiled. "Thanks for all of this. I know that wasn't my... brightest moment. You won't see me doing that again."

James smiled in return, ripping off the bandage. Her finger was small, so it didn't use much.

"Don't worry about it," he said, patting her hand with a small grin before grabbing everything to return to the saddlebags.

The rest of the day went on without issue. They ended the day with another meal that Evaline thankfully helped with. He appreciated her input, and tried to catch on as quickly as possible what portions of what herbs and spices would serve best with their food. It seemed like such a small thing - something he should've learned more by this point in his life - but food had been more of a chore than anything else in his recent years. He knew how to cook functionally, but none of it was ever very good. Frankly, he was surprised Evaline put up with it as long as she did without saying anything, but he had a feeling it was likely out of guilt and not wanting to complain. They were always rationing out their food, and they lived a very simple, humble life off the land. He could see why she wouldn't think it was that important. They had bigger worries.

Thankfully, they hadn't run into anything too worrisome yet.

Their current dilemma, actually, was over them both finishing their books.

He'd long since finished his and read it ten times over, and after a day or two, Evaline seemed to have recovered from the grief readers felt after finishing a story they were greatly invested in.

As they walked in the late hours of the day, James proposed an idea.

"Would you want to trade books?" he said. "I read yours, you read mine."

It should have been a simple question, but Evaline greatly hesitated and looked nervous. "Didn't you already read this book?" she asked, avoiding his question.

James quirked a brow. "When I was a teenager," James said. "It's been at least five years."

"We had so many long discussions about the book, though," she said back, still avoiding his question. "It wouldn't be the same to read it again."

"That's not really an issue for me," James said. "Do you just really not want me to read it?"

Evaline hesitated again, looking like she was arguing with herself in her head, and then she sighed. "It's not that I don't want you to read the book," she said with a grimace, like she was about to regret her next words. "I just don't want you to read my... Well, you see, it didn't occur to me that you'd want to read the book again. So I... well, I might have..." She sighed again. "There are a bunch of random penciled-in notes on the margins of the pages. I'm sure you wouldn't want to read that."

James suppressed a grin. It sounded like she didn't want him to read them, though she wasn't saying it outright.

"Well, that's fine, then," he said. "I don't have to read it. It was just a suggestion."

Evaline peered up at him, looking like she was once again having an argument with herself. "Are you really that bored at night now?"

James laughed. "I just like reading is all."

She let out a loud groan. "Okay, fine," she said, even though he wasn't at all forcing this upon her. "You can read the book. But don't read my notes."

James couldn't help but smile. "You sound so thrilled about sharing."

Evaline gave him the side-eye. "And you sound so thrilled about not reading my notes."

"Me?" James said innocently. "I can assure you I won't. See?" He lifted up his hands, miming like he was holding a book, though Elliot's lead was in one hand. "I will simply cover the sides with my thumbs. I won't even see them."

She let out a muffled laugh and rolled her eyes. "If I catch you laughing in a spot of the book where you shouldn't be laughing..."

"How would you know though?" he said with a smirk, leaning in towards her just a little. "You can't read my mind."

She stared at him for a second before giving him a nod, letting out a small smirk herself. "You're absolutely right. I don't know what you know, and you don't know what I know. So let's keep it that way." She paused then quickly added, "For the book, I mean," like it needed clarifying.

James laughed again and shook his head. "Will you be wanting to read my book, then, or not?"

She hummed this over. "Sure. It would be a nice change. Although, I'm not sure how much of it I'll understand."

"If you want to understand more, you can always ask me questions," he offered.

"Okay," she said, nodding. "No take backs, though. There might be a lot of questions."

"I'll do my best," he said.

James was glad that they came to an agreement, and that night they made the trade. Of course, their books were stored in the same place, so it was more for show than anything else, but still. It was nice to have another book in his hands, even if it wasn't his own, and he was eager to read the story for himself again.

He found that as he started reading, a lot of the characters and the plot started coming back to him. Obviously, he knew who was going to die, and he saw many of the twists and turns coming, but it still made him happy to read it again. And he did, admittedly, catch glimpses of some of Evaline's notes.

It was hard to ignore some of them.

She underlined most of Jarrah's jokes, for one, and wrote commentary beside the ones that made her laugh. She even marked what parts of the story made her cry, and it was impossible to ignore the very long: "NOOOOOOOOOOOO!" that was written beside the scene where Alvin died. It seemed like Alvin was her favorite.

It was kind of nice, seeing how plainly she wrote her reactions, but he understood why she would've been reluctant for him to see. She was rarely so open or expressive with her words when they spoke together, so he did try his best to skim over and ignore her commentary as much as possible. Sometimes it was easy to, especially when her scrawling cursive script became near-illegible.

There were two things that stood out to him though. She kept comparing a side character named Aria to someone named Mel. He assumed Mel was a friend back home, either from the near-present or her past. It sounded more like the former. That, and she seemed to be comparing many of the sea monsters to ones from earthen myths. She also didn't seem to know if they were real in Nye or not. He remembered her asking him about them when they talked about the book.

All in all, he finished the book rather quickly. He'd always been a fast reader, and since he'd read the story before, he found it easier to breeze through. And he wanted to honor his word by not lingering on all of Evaline's notes, especially her long essay in the back pages.

The next few days came and went uneventfully for the two of them, but James was beginning to scheme in the back of his mind.

Evaline was none-the-wiser as he led them in a swirling path, in and out, away and towards the river. She didn't even seem to notice that was what he was doing, so he found it easy to accomplish his goal: he was scouting out the area for flowers. At the same time, though, he was also looking for food.

Their supply wasn't quite worryingly low, but they did need to supplement more from the land if they were going to make it last.

James had them stop a few times to scavange and dig in search of some edible plants, but their first few attempts had them coming up empty. James could tell Evaline was growing frustrated with the repeated failures, but they kept trying. Victory didn't seem to come until the very end of the day - almost poetically - when they found cactuses with bulbous pink fruits growing at their crowns.

Evaline seemed wary of them, but James cut them off with his dagger and sliced one open for her to try. The smile on her face was a worthy reward after a day's worth of struggle.

And to top it off, he spotted a spattering of wild desert flowers a small distance away. He was intentional not to point them out because he knew he had no reason to. Evaline only knew they were looking for food, so he kept it to himself.

That night, James slept first. He woke up a few times to Evaline's usual page-flipping and hearing the scratching of her pencil against the paper, or the shuffling of her hands through their bags. And, as usual, he eventually gave up on his fitful sleep and let Evaline go to sleep while he stayed up the rest of the night keeping watch.

Except, that night, he didn't just keep watch. He kept himself very busy once he knew Evaline was fast asleep.

By the time the sun rose, James found himself buzzing with a nervous excitement, waiting for Evaline to wake up. He wanted to let her wake by herself this time, partially to buy himself more time, and also because he wanted her to be well rested.

Today, he was going to make it up to her.

When he saw Evaline finally began to stir, he got to his feet, and held his harmonica in his hands.

Over the last few days, Evaline had been brushing up on her music theory, but she had been able to teach him the traditional birthday song that people sang back on earth. It was rather simple, actually. After a few times of Evaline humming it, he'd started picking it up.

Eventually her drowsy eyes opened and she slowly sat up, brushing away the sleep on her face. "Morning," she said blankly as she rubbed her eyes and noticed that he was standing in front of her. Her eyes eventually gravitated down to the harmonica in his hands, but she didn't react to it. Probably because she was just waking up.

"Did you sleep alright?" James asked.

She nodded and took a deep breath in, stretching for a second before she got up on her feet. "I did, especially since you let me sleep in," she observed, folding the blanket. She didn't outright say it, but he could tell that she was asking why.

"Yes," James said. "About that."

Finally her mind seemed to catch up on her observation of him holding the harmonica. "Why are you holding your harmonica?" she asked before he could go on. She looked up at him with the folded blanket in her hands.

James couldn't help but grin. This time he decided to answer without words. He lifted the harmonica to his lips and started playing the notes to the song, with the lyrics implied.

Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday dear Evaline, happy birthday to you!

Before she could say anything, he paused and ran over to Elliot, pulling out two items from behind a rock. He swiveled around and ran back over to her, holding them out.

In one hand, he held a bouquet of pink and yellow desert flowers, and in the other hand, he held a carefully crafted flower crown.

"I know I'm two weeks late," he said with a nervous smile. "But please accept this very belated birthday gift."

He finally got to see her full reaction. Somehow along the way, the blanket became unfolded, and she tightly clutched on to it against her chest with one hand as her other hand was over her mouth. She looked up at him with an expression he had never seen on her before: brows arched downward, eyes wide, almost glossy like she was about to cry.

She seemed to be at a loss of words, which wasn't unusual, but he felt his stomach spinning as he held his tongue in anticipation.

"James, this is..." she began softly, but seemed to choke on her own words. Her eyes finally softened and her cheeks turned to a rosy color as she rubbed her eyes. "I'm sorry, I didn't expect - I mean, this is so nice. I..." She looked up at him with a warm genuine smile that met her eyes.

"Thank you," she said, as she finally reached out and gingerly accepted the bouquet, her fingertips meeting his as she grabbed it.

James felt like everything in him melted, and he smiled back in earnest.

"I know it's not your favorite," he said. "But hopefully you still like it."

She let out an airy laugh. "Do I like it?" she said, shaking her head. "No. I love it. More, I think. Because it came from..." She pasued. "It's new, and I haven't seen it before," she said quietly as she shyly looked down at the bouquet and put it up to her face to smell.

James couldn't stop smiling, but he couldn't shake the nerves in his gut. He held up the flower crown in his hands.

"I don't know what they do on earth," he said. "But in Nye we have this tradition during the summer solstice where you make crowns of flowers to gift to your loved ones, and the tradition often carries over into birthdays, or other special occasions. It's like... a marker that it's a special day for the person wearing it. So I hope you don't mind that I made one for you."

She didn't look away from him the entire time, brows still arched downwards with gleaming dreamy eyes. "That's so thoughtful of you," she said softly, but it sounded like she was saying it more for herself.

"I can put it on you after I braid your hair," he said. "Or now, if you want."

She paused, looking down at the bouquet and touching the petals. "Which one would you prefer?" she asked quietly.

"Well... if I do it after the braid, it's a little easier. And - you'll have to tell me what you want, of course. For the braid."

James took in a subtle deep breath in an attempt to calm his nerves. There really was no reason to be so nervous. She was happy, and that was all that he'd wanted.

She nodded, but then hesitated, her face slowly fading in thought. "Can I..." she began, and suddenly she looked up with a nervous smile. "You don't have to say yes, I don't want you to feel pressured, but can I..." She took a deep breath and tried to meet his eyes. "Can I hug you?"

With all of that build up, James thought she was going to say something else. He had no idea what, but hearing that all she wanted was a hug made him laugh.

"Of course," he said, spreading open his arms.

She didn't even hesitate to walk forward and start the embrace. She happily grinned as her arms went over his shoulders when she came in to hug him, and her head perfectly rested on top of his shoulder. She wrapped one hand on his back, and another to the back of his head.

"Thank you," she whispered near his ear. "This means more to me than you can ever understand."

James crossed his hands over her back.

"You're welcome," he whispered back.

She lingered there for a second, but then pulled away, still with the soft smile she had since this all started, meeting his eyes for a second. But then she came in again for another quick hug, gently squeezed him, and pulled away once again, grinning.

"Okay," she said with the biggest grin he had ever seen on her. "You said braiding would be best first?"

James nodded. "Yes, let's do that."

She sat down in front of him and he undid yesterday's braid as usual, and she asked for a waterfall braid. He tied it off with her ribbon in a bow, and then gently placed the flower crown over her head. The two of them stood up at the same time, and she swiveled around to face him, ginglerly feeling the flowers around her head.

"How does it look?" she asked.

"You wear it beautifully."

She smiled, looking pleased despite not being able to see it herself. "I'm glad."

"Me too," he said, before glancing back at Elliot. "Also, that's not the last surprise. Follow me."

He smiled as he turned and hurried to Elliot, untying his lead and taking it to lead the two of them down the river.

Evaline followed, and so did the questions. "A last surprise," she echoed, then laughed. "How did you plan all of this without me knowing? Where are we even going?"

"You'll just have to find out," James sing-songed.

It wasn't a long trip, but it was just far away enough that it had been out of sight from where they'd camped. When they got closer, it was easy to see.

There was a large tree with spindly, winding branches that grew right at the edge of the river - and on one of its larger branches that hung over the riverbank, James had hung a swing.

Had Evaline noticed, the rope that normally hung on his saddle was missing.

She immediately seemed to notice the swing. "You made this?" she asked softly, like she needed confirmation that it wasn't always there.

"I work fast when I'm excited," James said quickly. "And you saw me climb trees. It wasn't hard."

She giggled. "You are so full of surprises," she said in a faraway voice, then looked back between him and the swing, a playful smile tugging her lips. "First one to get to it first gets to try it first," she said, but she was already running towards it.

James looked back at Elliot, whom he was leading, as if to say "I guess we lost this race, buddy," but only with his eyes.

He sped up his pace, but Elliot didn't seem eager to run, so James didn't push it. They made it to the tree belatedly, just in time to see Evaline already sitting down on the swing. She got up as soon as he approached, though. He tied Elliot on the other side of the tree.

"So I was thinking," she began before he could even respond. "You did all of this. You should use the swing first." She put her hands behind her back and stepped to the side. "Or at least, let me push you first. Gently, of course. That was also how you would swing when you were a kid, right?"

James scoffed and patted Elliot on the side. "Evaline, I made the swing for you."

She clapped her hands together into a begging fist. "Please?" she asked, eyes wide again.

James stared at her for a moment, surprised at how much she seemed to want him to go first. The simplicity of birthday logic ruled out. Evaline was the one they were celebrating, so how could he say no?

He sighed, smiling. "Okay, okay. No need to beg," he said, walking over to the swing and sitting down. "I'll just pretend I'm five again. For you."

Evaline laughed and smiled in victory, rushing behind him and peering her face over his shoulder. "Perfect. Ready for your first swing ride, kiddo?"

"I am not calling you mom," James said, fighting to keep a straight face.

He could tell she was trying to repress a laugh, but failed. "Please don't," she said, finally giving in to a giggle. "Okay, I'm going to push you on the count of three. One... two..."

She jumped the gun and gave him a giant push before even hitting three. For a woman of her weight and strength, it was a surprising amount of force, but it wasn't enough to lose his balance.

James swung out his legs a little as he caught the air.

Evaline kept pushing him for a little while, but eventually he was too high and had too much momentum, and she backed off, letting him lean forward and back, pushing and pulling himself forward. He looked back to see her leaning on the tree, smiling as she watched him slowly lose momentum.

"I know I'm not the one on the swing, but you sometimes make me feel like a kid again," she said. "Not that it's a bad thing. It's nice, sometimes, not having any worries." She paused. "You make me forget my troubles."

James tucked his legs under the swing, reaching for the ground. He let his feet catch and skid to a stop, just a few feet from Eve.

He met her eyes with understanding.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," he said softly, before he stood up, and gestured to the swing.

"Your turn?"

Evaline smiled and rushed into the seat, and James started to push her. They took turns back and forth for a little while before mutually deciding that they shouldn't waste away the morning swinging when they still needed to cover ground. Eventually, James ended climbing back up into the tree, untying the rope, and the swing came down. The rope returned to the saddle, wound up where it used to be, and they ate a late breakfast, packed up their things, and started walking.

Evaline rode Elliot again that day, and both her and James were overjoyed when she successfully advanced Elliot into a trot and was able to ride him in a circle all by herself.

Later in the day when they settled down for camp, James did his best attempt at cooking and making pesto for Evaline, but was eager to have her step in to advise him where needed. Even though she was still putting in the work, she looked happy that he even suggested to make it. Though they didn't have any pasta, they did have a squash that Maisy had given them, and Evaline told him that they could slow roast it and scrape away the insides for a texture similar to noodles. They spread the pesto on top of this, and James could see why she liked it so much.

When the day finally came to an end, they were both tired and spent, but it wasn't the kind of exhaustion that came from stress and worry.

For the first time in a long time, James felt inconceivably happy, and it was all just to celebrate another person's birthday. Well, not just any person. Evaline.

But despite their mutual exhaustion, James let Evaline go to sleep first, and took the first watch.





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soundofmind says...



The past week had been uneventful in the night hours, aside from the crickets chirping, the occasional gust of wind, and Elliot's soft snorts. That filled the first hour, but after about two hours passed, the cry of a coyote cut through the night.

And it wasn't as distant as James might've hoped.

He noticed how Elliot started to twitch his tail, looking nervous. How the crickets started to chirp off and on like something was coming too close.

That was enough of a sign.

James got to his feet and knelt beside Evaline.

"Evaline," he said urgently.

She turned, but she didn't look awake. He shook her shoulder.

"We need to move," he said. "I'm sorry. But you need to get up."

That seemed to work. She finally woke and slowly sat up. "James? What's wrong?" she said, lazily looking around as she detected the urgency in his voice.

"Coyotes," he said. "They sound hungry."

She understood, nodding but blearily standing up. "Okay," she said, still sounding like she was in a daze. "Let's go."

They killed the fire quickly and hopped on top of Elliot, riding down the river in the darkness of the night. They couldn't travel too quickly, but the moonlight provided a decent amount of light once James's eyes adjusted.

He felt Evaline leaning on his back a little more heavily than she normally did.

"You still awake?" he asked.

He felt her lean off of him a little. "Yeah," she said after a pause, like he actually did wake her up. "I'm awake. Just tired."

James hummed.

"I'm sorry it happened in the middle of your sleep," he said.

"It's okay. Not your fault."

"We've been pretty lucky so far, actually," James pondered. "As far as predators go. Aside from that pack of wolves that chased you in my direction, it's been pretty minimal and easy to avoid."

He thought back to the few snakes they had to shimmy around, or spiders that were venomous and dangerous in their own right, but easy to kill.

Evaline seemed to slowly digest his words. "I'm glad the wolves chased me," she finally said. "They led me to you."

James hummed, like a little laugh, deep in his chest. He glanced over his shoulder, but he couldn't see her.

"I guess I'll just have to agree then," James said with a smile in his voice. "As cheesy as that sounds."

"Good," she simply said, and he felt her head lean on his back. She sounded too tired to think of a witty comeback.

"Hopefully I didn't interrupt any interesting dreams," James commented.

Part of him wanted to keep conversation going a little bit so she didn't fall asleep. He knew he'd likely be able to grab her arms and keep her on, but he wanted to avoid any accidents.

"Hmmmm," she said, drawing the word out until it faded away. "No. Don't think so."

"Good. Would hate to leave you on a cliffhanger," James said.

"But what if I dream of a cliffhanger?"

"Like a clothes hanger on a cliff? Or like a cliff-shaped hanger?"

She paused like she was really trying to figure this out. "The second one."

"Oh. Yes. Of course. That would be thrilling," he said with a smirk. "Wouldn't want to wake up from that."

"The coyotes do. Apparently." She sighed.

"True. It's quite rude of them to stay up so late, partying, waking you up at odd hours of the night."

He heard her huff out a little air. An attempt of a laugh, maybe. "Party animals," she said in response, and he could hear the smirk in her voice.

James snorted. "Indeed."

James paused, letting a small bout of silence pass between them before speaking up again.

"Your crown slid off a little in your sleep," he said. "You might want to fix it so it doesn't fall off. It's more at the back of your head now."

After a hesitation, he felt her head lift up off his back as she let one arm go. "Oh. I got it. Thanks." She paused. "Wouldn't want to lose that."

"I assumed not," James said with a small smile.

Evaline returned her arm around his waist. "Of course. You spent so much time on it."

James paused. He didn't really tell Evaline how long it took to make, but she was right.

"It does take some time to weave it all together," he said. "But I think that's part of what makes it special."

"It is special. I'm happy you made it." She shifted a little on the seat. "It's really pretty."

"I wouldn't have had it any other way," he said.

"You keep saying that. I thought you were going to say something more original."

James paused.

"If I came up with something more original, would you want to hear it?"

"Of course. You can tell me anything. As long as it's not too cliche," she said, sounding a bit more awake than she did a bit ago.

James hummed in thought.

"Is it--" he started, laughing a little, more out of nerves and embarrassment. "Would it be strange to say that I picked out the pink and the yellow flowers because I thought it would complement your skin tone?"

He wished he could have seen her reaction. There was a pause that felt too long.

"No," she finally said. "It wouldn't be."

"I also like how it highlights your eyes," he said, choosing to lean into it. "And your dark hair frames your face very well, creating a contrast that I find very enchanting."

"Enchanting," she repeated quietly. "All of this, for pink and yellow flowers?"

"Not for the flowers," he said. "They just... frame what's already there."

Although Evaline's mind seemed to be more awake, it was like she had to pause to be able to fully understand his words. "Are you saying..." but she didn't finish her question.

"I think you're smart enough to figure it out," James said softly.

She slowly rested her head against his back again. "Red and yellow flowers," she said in response with no other explanation. "Maybe orange."

"That would also be lovely," James said slowly, wondering where her mind was wandering.

"I agree. It would look good on you."

James blinked. Oh.

"You don't think it'd make me look too orange?" he asked.

She avoided the question, now seemingly lost in thoughts that she was beginning to say out loud. "The morning sunlight looks good on your face. I think those colors suit you well."

James felt his cheeks start to burn as he thought back a few days when he'd woken up to her staring at him sleep as the sun rose.

"I'll take your word for it," he said quietly.

"You won't need to. I'll figure out how to make you one in five months."

Now, James was very confused.

"Five..." he repeated.

"Your birthday," she answered for him.

Oh. Now that was what she was thinking about. He almost felt relieved. He huffed through his nose with a weak laugh.

"Right," he said.

She didn't pick up on his confusion. "You forgot your own birthday?"

"It's kind of been a low priority on the list of things I think about," he answered casually.

"I'll move it higher on my list then."

James smiled a sad smile, but a grateful one all the same.

"It'll be a long wait," he said.

Naturally, the thought that crossed his mind was one that came circling back all the time. He didn't know how long she'd be here. For all he knew, she would be back home by then.

"I can be patient. Sometimes," Evaline said back. He wondered if she was still feeling sleepy.

James wasn't sure what to say, and a few seconds passed. Uncertainty mixed with the warmth of her sentiment and he felt his mind starting to drift.

"I know that you've been holding back," she said out of the blue, breaking the silence. "With words, I mean. You don't need to. I can handle it."

He glanced over his shoulder again, instinctively, though he couldn't make out her face pressed against his back.

"What... do you mean?" he swallowed.

She paused again, letting an uncomfortable silence filled the very little space between them. "I think you're smart enough to figure it out," she finally said.

James wasn't sure if he thought it was funny that she quoted his own words back to him or if he was annoyed. It ended up being a mixture of both.

"So--" he started, but wasn't sure if he was confident enough to finish. In his two-second delay, he decided to take Evaline at her word and hope he was right about what she meant.

"I can handle it now," she interjected, like she was still thinking about her words and deciding to correct herself. "At least... I think I can."

"So if I were to tell you that I think that you are beautiful again, that would be okay?"

Her arms seemed to tighten around his waist, just a little.

"I..." was all she was able to get out. She tried again, this time with more strength in her voice. "What if I told you that?"

James's eyelids fluttered.

"That I'm beautiful?" he asked, his voice raising a tad in pitch.

He may not have been able to see her face, but he could tell she was getting nervous by her body language. Her hands fidgeted around his waist and she overall felt tense.

"....Yes," she said slowly, but it almost sounded like a question.

James cleared his throat a little.

"Well, I wouldn't mind that, I guess," he said probably a little too quickly.

The awkward silence seemed to fill the space again. Evaline now seemed fully awake.

This time, Evaline was the one who quickly tried to fill the silence. "That's funny, I don't -- I don't think I told you the story. With Brooks. At Woodhearst. About your poster. Have I?"

James wasn't sure what Evaline was talking about, but he decided to risk it.

"I don't believe you have," he said. "What happened?"

The words came out of her mouth fast. "I finished drawing a random wanted person and then he slapped the poster of you in front of me. And of course -- of course I was shocked. And I had no idea what to say to explain my behavior. I just said the first thing in my mind."

James waited. "Yes?"

"Well, I said... Wow, hah, he really didn't respond well to what I said. Apparently it wasn't uncommon, though? I'm not sure if you knew that."

"Evaline, I still don't know what it was you said."

The next sentence was said so fast, she practically slurred her words. "I said you were handsome."

James stared out ahead of them into the dark desert, and he didn't know why he felt the urge to laugh. He practically got a headache trying to push it down. He didn't even know how to respond to that. Not Evaline thinking he was handsome - even though that gave him a complicated mix of emotions he didn't want to unpack, overall, it was positive. But... strangers thinking that by looking at his poster? He didn't want to imagine what that looked like. People... discussing him without him there.

"Sorry," he said, apologizing for the pause. "As I said, I don't mind it."

"--Not from you," he clarified.

It was hard to gauge her reaction, but she tightened her arms around him again. "That's good to know," she said quietly.

"It's weird coming from people I've never even met before though," he said quickly.

"I -- really?" she said, seeming to stop whatever initial thought she started with. "I think the opposite. It's weirder coming from people I know well."

There was a short delay. "Can I ask why?"

She returned the delay. "It doesn't mean anything if it comes from strangers," she said softly.

James hummed in thought. He could understand that. But that was one of the reasons he didn't like hearing it from strangers. They didn't even know him. He didn't want people "longing" after him. That was just infatuation, and awkward.

"I think for me, I just don't want that kind of attention from people I don't know," he said.

He didn't follow up with the clarification that most of the time he didn't even want that attention from people he did know either.

"It's nice sometimes," she said. "It's nice because it doesn't mean anything." She didn't elaborate any more.

James almost felt inclined to agree, but he felt that, if he ever had the liberty to choose, he would just choose to never hear comments on his appearance from anybody anymore.

The only reason he didn't mind it so much from Evaline was because he knew it was difficult for her to say, and he appreciated the courage it took for her to vocalize it. Even if it was a simple compliment. He just hoped she didn't take that as liberty to shower him with them, but he didn't see that happening anyway.

"I can understand that," he said quietly.

"And that's why it's hard getting attention from people you do know well," she continued. "Because it does mean something."

James was trying to interpret what she meant, and what she wasn't saying.

Sometimes when you knew people cared, that made it scarier. Getting attached came with dangers. Other people getting attached came with dangers. It was intimidating. Especially if she had been hurt in frienships and relationships before.

He hummed in agreement but decided to wait and listen.

Unfortunately, she didn't say anything more.

James comfortably let their conversation lull to silence, and they continued to travel for another two or so hours before they stopped again. They did talk a little bit more, here and there - mostly telling dumb jokes in an attempt to keep each other from falling asleep - but by the time they finally stopped, they both were exhausted. Elliot was too.

They hopped off and James spent as little effort possible starting another small fire - just enough to hopefully ward off anything else that might be interested in them in the night.

"Wake me up in an hour," Evaline said, not really giving him a choice as she took out the blanket and immediately curled up to sleep next to the fire.

James spent the next hour staying awake by imagining images in the fire while he paced on the other side. His eyes were too tired to read, to write, to do much of anything besides stay open, though they stung.

When the hour was over, James felt guilty as he woke Evaline back up.





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Carina says...



It only felt like she was asleep for a few minutes. She wanted to sleep longer, but she knew that James needed sleep too.

Evaline groaned as she rubbed away the sleep, and of course James offered for her to sleep longer, but she brushed him off. She could stay awake. He needed sleep as much as she did.

She watched as James curled up by the fire to sleep, but she wondered if he kept replaying their earlier conversations on Elliot as much as she did. She was caught so off guard by drowsiness, urgency to leave, and what was essentially an endless backwards hug she gave to James, she said some things she didn't mean to say.

Well... She did mean them.

But she didn't mean to say it out loud.

Evaline had to suppress the embarrassment and a frustrated groan as she dwelled on these thoughts. It certainly didn't help that those thoughts were fresh in her mind after today's events. It was one of her better happier days ever since she left home -- and arguably, the happiest day since she had left home -- and it felt like the magic ended because her brain was sleepy and didn't filter her thoughts.

Many minutes passed, and she could already feel the weight of sleep crawl back under her eyelids. She wanted to sleep the thoughts and emotions away, but she had to stay awake.

She needed a distraction.

Not reading, especially not A Record of Wrongs. It wasn't as exciting as an epic tale of sailors, and she feared that she'd end up having to reread the same paragraph over and over, then end up sleeping with her face on the book before getting attacked by those same coyotes -- all because she couldn't stay awake.

Maybe journal writing. Yeah. Or drawing. Something to distract her mind. Something mindless, but still distracting.

Evaline clumsily got on her feet and walked over to Elliot, trying not to make any noise, but also too tired to care. She looked back and saw that James didn't stir, so perhaps his exhaustion got the best of him too.

Elliot was a little ways away from the fire so it was hard to see, but she dug around the saddlebag and reached for her usual spot that she tucked her journal in. Ever since James caught her drawing him, she had avoided touching her journal. It ad been, what... Two days, maybe? It seemed to get lost in the saddlebag, but eventually, she found it.

She pulled it out and sauntered back to the fire with bleary eyes, plopping on the ground and opening to a random page on the book, not even caring if she went out of order in her journal anymore. At the back of her mind, she wondered where her pencil was, but she didn't have any more time to dwell on that as she stared at the image in front of her.

This wasn't her journal.

And she should have closed it. She probably would have ordinarily if her brain didn't lag from sleep, and if she did't turn to a page that was obviously about her.

Because on the corner of the two pages, was a drawing of her. And there were poems.

She knew she should have immediately closed the journal and respected his privacy, but her eyes read faster than she could think, and by the time it registered to her that this wasn't anything she had done, it was too late.

Image
Image

Her eyes widened as every single shred of sleepiness disappeared from her body, and after her eyes gazed upon some of the words of the stanzas, she found herself immediately closing the book, her heart thumping loudly across her chest.

But she kept her finger still tabbed on the page.

This wasn't right. She shouldn't...

Panicking, she looked over at James, but he was still asleep, none the wiser.

She could put it away and he would never know.

She could also read these two entries, and he would never know. Would he?

Evaline was inclined to be ignorant and pretend that this never happened, but she knew it was too late. She already saw the drawing. She already saw some of the words. She couldn't keep this a secret.

And she did wonder... what did he truly think of her?

It terrified her to think that he had read anything she had written or drawn, and so she took a deep breath and decided.

She'll tell him that this happened. She wanted to be honest.

But because she already saw the contents, it didn't hurt to take a deeper dive into it. She wanted to have this honest conversation with him if it was something she did that hurt him. She had accidentally told him today that she could handle any words, and, well... maybe it was time for her to give him the same treatment. She had a feeling that he may have used these pages to unleash pent-up frustration he had about her, and she wanted to improve. She wanted to be better.

That thought process sure didn't help prevent the guilt from coming up as she turned away from sleeping James and slowly opened the journal again. She took the time to carefully read each word.

They were poems.

Spoiler! :
braided hair tells a story
every strand, a memory
wound together in one mind
overlapping with the times that came before

to say them is not mandatory
every strand, tells tales
of its own - in its own time
woven patiently with each one cared for

~

the stories most worth
telling and most worth hearing
are those earned with time,
(even) were it to take years
and years
I'd also tell you mine

I don't mind waiting for
a person worth
you are
a person worth waiting for


Evaline sunk many minutes into this poem, trying to decipher what it meant. She had never been good at metaphorical things like this, and so this wasn't easy. She had to read it over, and over, and over again before she finally came up with a conclusion.

First of all, James was a very good poet. Somehow, this did not surprise her.

Second, this poem -- although it didn't mention her -- seemed to be about her, especially since the very next page was a drawing of her. The braid, the memories, the stories... time. Years and years. He was referencing when she would return to Earth and leave Nye. Right? That was on his mind? It was, too?

Was she a person worth waiting for? What did that... What could that...

Her head was starting to hurt, and she decided to shelf the thought and move on to the next page.

Spoiler! :
    the lily of the valley is a hidden rose
    that blooms where few may find it
    but those who stumble upon it- often without looking-
    find a gem and priceless treasure


~

I keep wondering if I've done something wrong. And knowing me I probably have. I just wish I knew what it was. I thought honestly might bridge a gap between us, but it seems to have done the reverse...


Naturally, her eyes gazed upon his drawing first. It was good. And poetic, of course. It didn't take very long for her to connect the dots that she was the lily of the valley. Her favorite flower.

She couldn't believe he remembered that. But at the same time... this shouldn't have surprised her.

Her heart raced as she quickly read the bottom portion. It didn't read like a poem, but more of a small note. It made her heart sink.

She was expecting the text to be about how frustrating she had been, but she found the opposite. He was frustrated at himself for not knowing what he was doing wrong. And although she wanted to keep this discussion quiet until she had formed the right words in her head, it took everything in her to not march up to James and explain that he was wrong. She was the one who had done something wrong, not him.

The guilt should have increased, but what overwhelmed the guilt more was determination to make things right.

After everything he had done for her... especially today.

James deserved that.

Evaline was about to close the journal and begin her thought process on what she could do to set things right for him, but then it occured to her: did this entry end? Was there a third page to this poem or small paragraph? Was there more detail on what she did wrong so she could improve?

She fought the idea of turning the page back and forth for too much time, but she decided to bite her tongue and just turn the page before she had any regrets.

It appeared to be a journal entry. Maybe it was a continuation. She read to find out.

Image

Spoiler! :
It's hard to know what lies behind those crystal eyes (what secrets and what lies - but I know I'm no less different) and as much as looking at her is like looking into a mirror sometimes. As stupid as the note may be - on principle - I can't help but notice that some days it feels like we're two sides of the same coin. There's an uncanny similarity in the small (and sometimes larger) details of our lives, but I can't help but wonder if the similarities are only surface-deep. Not that it changes anything if we were to be more or less alike, I guess I'm just... pleasantly surprised thus far with how much I've enjoyed having her around. I didn't think I'd let anyone this close ever again, but I'm realizing how much I miss having friends. And... [s[I don't[/s] I'm beginning to realize that I may have never had true friends in the first place.


With each passing word, Evaline was realizing this was not a contination of the previous entry, but it was still about her, and her eyes quickly darted across the page, barely soaking up the meaning of the words.

This moment didn't even feel real. She almost thought this was a dream. It was only a few hours ago that they exchanged friendly and somewhat deep banter, and it was earlier in the day that they were pushing each other off the swing. She was even still wearing the flower crown he gave her.

She didn't know what she expected, but she didn't think she would feel sad reading all of this.

And the best -- and worst -- part of this note?

She completely agreed.

She had played with these same thoughts before. Despite coming from different worlds, they had uncanny similiaries in background and problems, but at the same time, had polar opposite traits. Yes, they were both traitors to the government and wanted because of that, but James ran away, and she led a resistance and refused to run. And although James never said it out loud, it seemed that the both expected death on the horizon. It was painfully poetic, like no matter if you run or not, you will still die.

But it seemed that fate threw a wrench on things and decided to let them both meet. And from there, they both shared the similaries of lying and deflecting and pretending to be someone they were not. And somehow a long the way, they eased off of that and decided to become friends. They had some polar opposite differences, like him using words to show affection while she used touch, or him being a natural romantic while any thought of romance tended to make her skin crawl, or him always staying calm and patient while she was full of anxiety and always one short fuse away from blowing up... but somehow, they still became friends. They made it work.

She knew that she also enjoyed having him around, mostly for the same reason he mentioned. He felt like a true friend.

They were bad communicators if it had to take two months for them to have this conversation, and even so, this wasn't a conversation. She only found this out by accident.

Add terrible communication to the list of similiarities.

Her head buzzed again and she shelved this thought aside and looked over to the next page. It was another journal entry. A continuation, maybe.

Image
Spoiler! :

See, it's different. Back [illegible] in the kingdom there was a comraderie amongst us as soldiers, but all of our loyalties to each other were bound together with our loyalty to the kingdom. And at the end of the day we all knew which one would win over if the loyalty was tested - it wasn't friendship. The king always took precedence. What might be the worst part of it all was that almost all of my friendships from the military were so shallow that I don't even miss them. How could I? I barely even knew them, and they barely even knew me. Maybe if I'd tried harder - or, I don't know - formed more meaningful friendships outside of [illegible] things would've turned out differently. But I can't change the past... I can only change the future.
----------------
I'm afraid I'm overthinking things - hell - I'm always overthinking things, but sometimes I feel like I have...


So she should have stopped reading, but she assumed that this was a continuation about her. Unfortuantely, she only realized it wasn't until after she finished reading.

Unlike the other entries, she didn't read it again. She closed the journal and set it on her lap, trying to soak in the words she just read and let it fit into the puzzle pieces of what she already knew about him.

Evaline let her mind wander for a bit as she quickly tried to think of key points from that last entry so that the words wouldn't fade into the background. But there was only one main takeaway: James didn't feel like he ever had a meaningful friendship.

She knew the implication was deeper than that. But she didn't let her mind dwell on this for too long.

She knew what she had to do.

Evaline looked back at James and saw that he was still asleep. Okay. Good. She will do this tonight, and she'd volunteer to stay up first tomorrow, and he would see what she had done when she slept for the second half of the night. That way, if he wanted to talk about it, they could talk about it in the morning.

This probably wasn't the best way to approach it. It was probably best if she just... talked to him directly.

But she wanted to get all the words out, and she wasn't sure that she could do that by word of mouth. If he wanted to ask her questions and talk after that, she would be willing to. But only after he understood everything she wanted to say.

She looked up at the sky. Maybe an hour had passed since James went to sleep. She'd have, maybe, three more hours before he'd wake up. That was plenty of time.

Evaline pulled the pencil out of journal and turned to the most recent page of his journal, barely giving it a glance to see what kind of contents it held, and then turned to the next blank page.

And then she began to write.
chaotic lazy
—Vincian

the queen of memes
—Yoshikrab

secret supreme overlord of yws
—Tuckster

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5/5
—Anonymous Yelp Review





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soundofmind says...



James woke up, and though the two of them were tired and groggy, they made it through the night safely, and that was all that mattered. By now, they had likely crossed into the edges of the Outlands - it was hard to say, as unlike the kingdoms, there were no hard borders. No walls, no fences, no guards. Everyone just knew that the center of the continent was a chaotic free-for-all, and you only entered if you had business there, and you came prepared.

As for James and Evaline, well, they didn't have business there besides surviving, and getting through it. If they could do that, that was their success.

Evaline seemed a little strange in the morning in a way he couldn't pinpoint, but he figured it likely had to do with their conversation through the middle of the night. They'd both said some things in their sleep-deprived honesty, and while it might've been more than he would've wanted to say too, he didn't regret it.

He thought, overall, it was actually kind of nice. A very strange way to end their day of birthday celebrations, but not a bad end.

The rest of the day passed slowly. The three of them were weary, and they didn't push themselves to move too fast. James didn't want to wear Elliot or Evaline out, so they took a little longer rests and made sure they stayed hydrated as the desert sun started beating down brighter and warmer with each passing hour.

When the sun finally began to set, he felt a sense of collective relief. It would be good to rest again.

When their humble nighttime fire was built once again, Evaline offered to take the first watch. He had learned a while ago that it was easiest to defer to her when she offered, as it didn't make sense to argue over something so mundane that they did every day.

With a nod, he went to sleep - or as much sleep as his body would allow him. He was out for about three hours and spent another tossing and turning before he got up and let Evaline go to bed.

He sat in silence with his thoughts for a while, staring up at the sky, listening to the crickets and cicadas sing. For just a little while, he was able to clear his head and just be.

He took in a deep breath, and it wasn't long before restlessness started to set in, and he got up to grab his journal out of the saddlebag, sat down by the fire, and flipped open to the latest page.

It should have been blank but it wasn't.

See the bookmarked page in my journal. -E


That wasn't his handwriting. That was Evaline's handwriting.

In a panic, his head darted from his journal to Evaline. Back and forth, as if looking at her one more time would wake her up, and she would tell him it was all a joke or something. But she was sound asleep, and James's heart kept racing like it was going to burst out of his chest.

No, no, no, no. This couldn't be happening. She hadn't seen anything, had she? He couldn't know. He wouldn't know, not until she woke up. Or until--

She said to check her journal?

He turned back to the saddle, and the bags hanging off the side. With one more glance back at Evaline, he hesitated, and got up on light feet, drifting back to Elliot.

He found her journal tucked behind some of her clothes and pulled it out gingerly.

This felt wrong.

He swallowed nervously before returning to the fire. He looked at the top of the journal, finding the bookmark sticking out. He quickly realized it as the note she had woken up with when she found herself on Nye.

She was using it as a bookmark, huh. Well.

He took in a deep breath and flipped open to where the note had saved a place, and he found what looked like a journal entry. Or rather, a letter.

James,

I know this should be a conversation I should have in person with you, but as you have gathered by now, I am not very good at saying what I mean, or how to say what I mean, or being expressive in general. Maybe that's why I like to draw, or dance, or play the piano, or use touch as affection. None of these things involve words.

But there are things I want you to know. Sometimes it is easier to have a conversation on paper where I can carefully write down my thoughts without another person listening nearby, calculating every word I am saying. It is easier to tell you what I want you to know this way, and for that, I apologize. I am sorry for doing this in a way that may be brash, hurtful, or disrespectful. I hope you can forgive me. For many things, really...

One of them being that I opened your journal—but it is not what you think. I found myself drifting back into slumber the night we escaped the coyotes, and I pulled my journal out to distract myself. Unfortunately, I pulled yours out by accident, and I did not realize until I already opened it. My eyes processed faster than my mind that night, and I read the poems you wrote about me. First about the braid, and then the lily of the valley, and then the two journal entries after that. I promise you I did not read anything else, and I won't again. I am sorry. Please forgive me. It was a breach of your privacy.

But I am not sorry for these messages. Reading those four pages reminded me once again that I have been a terrible friend to you. Words cannot express how much I regret the mean words I may have said to you in the past. You deserve better than this.

I want to be better for you. I want to be more honest, and I will do my best to communicate better to you. I'm sure it won't be easy, but... I will try.

Evaline

PS. Keep reading until you reach a blank page. When finished, turn one page back from here


So she had read his journal. Some of it. He had to stop reading her letter halfway through just to let that sink in before he read on. The more he read, the more he wanted to respond, but he would keep looking over at Evaline, asleep, knowing that she'd probably planned for it to be this way. She'd written her apology with great sincerity and clarity, but he knew her well enough - and she'd said so herself - that saying it to his face would've proven far more difficult for her.

He knew she wasn't as good with words, and he was thankful she'd taken the time to thoughtfully write out an apology and explanation, but still... he wished he could've heard her say these things out loud. So he could respond in real-time. So she could know he forgave her.

Yes, he was embarrassed. Yes, he was disappointed. Yes, he was afraid this might happen again. But not because of Evaline. Just because... well, it'd happened before.

Moments like this made him wonder if he should give up on writing entirely, so no one could ever read it or find it, but he knew he could never do that.

His eyes lingered on the end of the letter. Keep reading, she said.

He would try. He looked to the next paragraph on the next page.

Image

Spoiler! :
Oh, to be like the lily of the valley...

The lily of the valley appears to be a delightful flower when in bloom, but looks can be deceiving. This flower is extremely poisonous upon ingestion and can cause death.

You are right. I can be compared to a lily of the valley. I fear that you will get bored of looking and smelling and admiring this flower, and you will want more, and more, and more, until the only thing I can give you is a piece of myself, of which you would take and swallow to let it be a part of yourself too, and there would be nothing I could do but stand by and watch you die.


Oh. She was writing responses to the things she'd read. James wanted to sink into the ground and fade away, except more peacefully than when Elrick almost buried him in the dirt alive.

She took the poem so literally. All he'd meant by it was that he was glad he'd found her. But he realized it had more to do with her own fears. She was afraid of hurting him.

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Spoiler! :
We are two halves of a whole.

Have you ever heard of the concept of yin and yang? It is an ancient earthen philosophy of dualism. It describes how seemingly opposite forces can be complementary and strengthen one another, and they share some similarities as they interrelate to one another. They are two halves of a single piece. One cannot function without the other.

You say that looking at me is like looking into a mirror. Despite coming from different worlds, we are both wanted traitors to the government, and we both keep our secrets to ourselves. We are both adaptable, quick on our feet, and clever.

At the same time, we share many polar opposite differences. You are on the run, and I am not. You have a way with words, and I have a way of not saying words. You are patient, and I am anything but that.

You once told me that we make a good team. I agree. We are yin and yang, two halves of one whole. We appear to be the same at first glance, yet we constantly clash, and we somehow complement each other with our differences.

But this is just the surface. There are so many things you don't know about me, and I fear that you would leave me if you find out.

You say that you wished you formed meaningful friendships in the past. Truth be told, I am envious of you. I wished I had instead formed hollow friendships. If this had happened, I wouldn't be so afraid of you [leaving/loving?] me.


James re-read this portion a few times. It sounded like she agreed with him. She was just putting it in her own words. Elaborating. At least, until the end.

She wasn't just afraid of hurting him, she was afraid of being known again. He knew she'd been hurt in the past... so not only was she afraid of hurting others, she was afraid of getting hurt herself. It went both ways.

He felt the same.

Granted, he didn't know why she would envy him for having so many hollow friendships. There were drawbacks to everything. Having close friends made you vulnerable to getting hurt by them. Not having any made for a miserably isolated, lonely existence.

He squinted at the last sentence, and a work he couldn't quite make out. Either she was afraid of him leaving (which was fair, because he couldn't deny he'd thought of it early on when they'd just met), or afraid of him... loving her? In what way?

James felt his stomach forming knots. He wasn't going to think about that. He was going to keep reading.

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Spoiler! :
Who am I?

But honestly, I don't know what that would mean for me. I am a completely different person than I was a year ago, two years ago, five years ago. I don't even know who I am anymore. I feel caught between who I was and who I can be. My past experiences have made me who I am now, but I often wonder what that means.

Who am I? And if I refuse the path laid out in front of me and cannot make one of my own, then what is my purpose? I have implicated that you should be honest to yourself and live your truest life, but I don't even know what that means.

I am a hypocrite.


James was trying to connect the dots. The thought pattern from the previous section to this one. There was a lot to digest. He hadn't realized Evaline was so hard on herself all of the time.

Not that he was any better.

He sighed and paused from reading to look over at Evaline, and out into the forest.

Neither of them really had any idea what they were doing, did they? They pretended to, but really, they were both lost.

He took a moment to let it all sink in before he kept reading again.

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Spoiler! :
I am not what you think.

I'm just not sure if I am someone you—or anyone—should have as a friend. Or maybe it's the opposite. Maybe I am not sure I want you—or anyone—to be my friend.

How can you accept me if I can't even accept myself? I have so many issues that I can't even begin to explain in this letter.

I am so broken, and it is not your job to fix me. I'm not sure you can, even if you wanted to.

I think I am beyond repairing.


James spent a long time looking at that last sentence with great sadness, and he let his thumb brush over the words on the page. He tried to imagine Evaline saying them out loud.

Evaline seemed to put him on this pedestal like she was the one who was irrecoverably broken, and he was the better friend. But she was wrong. It sounded like they were both just two very, very broken people.

He didn't expect to be able to "fix" her any more than he expected her to "fix" him. They were just doing their best to get by. That was all they could do.

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Spoiler! :
Maybe time can fix me.

The two months I have been in Nye has given me time to think, and it has given me time to heal. I hate not knowing what will happen, but I know that with you, I can live in the present. With you, I forget all of my troubles and can be truer to myself. I know I need much more time to heal and much more time to figure out what it means to be me, but until then, I will continue to be by your side.

You say that you can wait years and years.

I hope you meant it.


It looked like he had finally reached the end of it. The letter that had evolved into something else - mostly, just a compilation of what seemed to be all of the thoughts swirling in Evaline's mind.

He tried to think back to the poem Evaline was referring to.

He didn't know the context Evaline came from, or how exactly she'd been able to heal in the last two months, but he was glad that something good seemed to come out of all of this for her. He had meant it when he said he didn't mind waiting - waiting to get to know her, waiting to grow, learn, and heal.

But as his eyes lingered on her last thought, he pondered on the implications of it.

Years and years.

That... didn't sound like the words of a woman who wanted to go back home.

It almost sounded like she wanted to stay.

Did she?

He scanned the two pages again, making sure he didn't miss anything, and his eyes caught on the little note at the end of the initial apology. When he finished reading he was supposed to flip one page back. Even though she'd told him to, he couldn't help but feel nervous again. It still felt so wrong looking in someone else's journal.

Gingerly, he lifted the page and flipped it backward.

This time, instead of finding notes, he found drawings. Of him.

On the left page, there was a sketch of him sleeping. It looked like a quick one with minimal shading, and though he obviously couldn't recognize the moment from her point of view, he had a pretty strong feeling that it was from the moment he'd woken up to her watching him sleep with her sketchbook in hand.

It was so strange, staring at a drawing of himself. Especially one that wasn't a wanted poster. She'd drawn him lying down from the chest up, about where the blanket came up, and he had his hands tucked under his head, with his eyes closed. And his hair was messy as it fell to the side.

He almost felt like Evaline made him look... more peaceful and put-together than he probably did in real life. While asleep, of all things.

Beside the sketch there looked to be notes.


  • Similar sunlight pattern, but different. Desert?
  • Note the shadows versus direct rays of light on his skin.
  • Hands cupped around his face. Almost childlike... adorable.
  • So peaceful, like he is a simple man with simple problems.
  • Beard looks to be

That was probably where she stopped because he woke up.

His face started to burn.

Her descriptions were surprisingly... affectionate.

He found his attention quickly drawn to the drawing on the next page though, that seemed to be more complete like she'd spent much more time on it.

It was a drawing of him reading.

He sat crisscrossed on the ground, stiffly crouched over the book in his hands. He held it close to his face, and she even drew his fingers under the next page, ready to flip. If only Evaline knew he held it that close because he had to to be able to read it.

It looked like she'd spent a lot of time carefully drawing his expression with deliberate strokes. He had bed hair and looked deeply focused - and James could vaguely remember that moment himself. He'd been lost in the book.

Arrows pointed at different parts of his body with different notes describing color and shading (i.e. "ray of light here, warmer skin tones" and "sun accentuates cheekbone shadows"), as if they were notes for later when she'd be able to do it in color.

Just like the last drawing, there was another list of bullet points on the side.


  • The morning after Woodhearst. He likely immediately opened his book at the first sign of sunlight.
  • Brow slightly arched, lips slightly pursed, like this position helped him absorb every sentence. I wonder if he usually reads like this?
  • The sun looks really nice on his skin. The golden rays of the sun make his hair look redder than usual.
  • Someday: shades of red, brown, orange, yellow. Dark blue for eyes.
  • A black and white drawing doesn't do this memory justice. At least I captured how focused and peaceful he looked.
  • Thankfully, he didn't notice me staring. I should have kept observing so I could have seen how the light shined through his hair and reading eyes.
  • This is one of my favorite poses of his, but I feel like I'm missing something. Redo in future?

And at that point, James closed the journal and set it to the side. He buried his burning face in his hands, trying desperately to figure out the mess of thoughts and emotions spinning in his head and in his stomach.

They couldn't really deny it anymore, could they? He couldn't keep playing dumb. At least, not with himself.

They were undoubtedly friends, but this-- Evaline had read his sappy poems about her. She'd written sappy notes about him. They didn't have to do anything rash or even say anything about it, but they couldn't ignore it forever.

There was a lot they'd been ignoring - that he'd been ignoring - that he now couldn't because of all of this. Evaline knew, now, and shared her thoughts too.

His head was starting to hurt.

He didn't like it, but he knew he'd have to find some clarity before Evaline woke up, because by then, they'd need to talk.





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Carina says...



Evaline was used to stress and anxiety and perpetual nervousness, but this was different. The journal pieces she left for James evolved past an apology letter and into something else. Something more... vulnerable. She felt weaker even knowing that her caged thoughts were written down on words, nevertheless written down for someone to read.

She had two nights to plan for this. Initially it was only going to be the apology letter and sketches, and maybe it would have been if this were to occur a few days ago. But it happened right after her birthday surprise—which, by the way, felt more of a reason for him to celebrate her rather than her birthday considering it happened so late—and after their somewhat intimate sleepy conversation when running away from the coyotes. It was a perfect storm, really, for her to accidentally pull out his journal and then feel the need to make it up to him.

She didn't deserve to have a friend, nevertheless a friend as precious as James. Maybe he would also realize that if he started to understand her flaws. In the end, it would be easier if he understood this now rather than later when she'll irreversibly become attached.

Evaline was not looking forward to his reaction, and it gnawed on her nonstop until she went to sleep that night. Normally the anxiety would keep her tossing and turning, but this was a different anxiety. It held on to her with weighted fingers, pulling her down with her. She was exhausted. Drained. Fatigued.

And so she had the deepest and longest sleep she had yet.

She woke up not because the sun was rising, and not because James called out for her to wake up, but instead because her body was well-rested and didn't need any more sleep.

As she slowly sat up and rubbed her eyes, the anxiety bubbled back in when she realized the sun was fully round and beaming down at them in the light blue sky, which signified morning—not early morning or dawn. She had slept in late.

She didn't need to know the reason why James didn't wake her up.

A sudden lightning bolt of panic shocked her insides as she sat up straight and looked over at James, who was by the dead fire and writing in his journal. He glanced over at her with a casual and neutral expression, then seemed to mark his spot before closing the journal.

Evaline couldn't help but let the onslaught of anxiety she had been repressing bubble to the surface. She continued to stare at James with worry splashed across her face, and she clutched the blanket a little too hard.

There was no denying it; with his journal out, he definitely read everything.

There were a lot of things she could have said. A way to explain herself, maybe. Or point out that she slept in and they should get moving. Or even a good morning.

But words failed her at this point, and she felt like a rabbit trapped by a wolf.
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Wed Jan 27, 2021 2:35 pm
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soundofmind says...



James hadn't expected Evaline to sleep in so late, but he was grateful for it. It gave him time to think. To process.

When she sat up and froze, staring at him in fear, his eyes softened.

"Before I say anything else," James started.

He'd already practiced this so many different times in his head, but it felt new saying it out loud. He gripped the leatherbound journal in his hands tightly for comfort.

"You need to know that I forgive you. For everything. I was hurt when I saw that you had read things in my journal, but I had time to think about it, and I'm not mad. I'm glad that you were able to tell me in your letter, and I appreciate your thoughtful and heartfelt apology."

"This doesn't change what I've said before. I want to be friends. I want to keep being friends. And I trust that you won't do something like this again. I know you're very sorry, but I don't want you to feel like you have to keep apologizing, or like you have to do something to make it up to me. I've forgiven you, and I want to move forward. If anything, I hope this will strengthen our friendship."

He paused, swallowing, and for a moment, running around his head in a panic, hoping he'd said all he wanted and needed to say. There was more, of course, but he had to make sure he got the most important things - the assurances, the forgiveness - communicated clearly at first.

"I know you just woke up," he added. "And I know words don't come as easily for you. So if you need a moment to respond, that's okay. I've spent all morning thinking about it, so it's only fair I offer you the same courtesy you showed me."





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Carina says...



Forgiveness...

That was all James wanted to say to her. He forgave her.

James finished speaking, and Evaline paused for a long time, her mind trying to fully process his words but lagging due to just waking up and the stress of it all.

Ordinarily, she might have poked holes in his speech. He was hurt, and he wasn't mad, and he forgave her—but was he still hurt? How often did he forgive? Did he truly forgive everything she had done that hurt him?

But she didn't want to push this subject any more than needed. And frankly, she was still emotionally drained.

"Okay," was what she quietly ended up saying as an abysmal response. "Thank you," she added.

Evaline released some of the tension in her body and slowly got up on her feet, clutching the blanket and looking down at it. She cleared her throat.

"I didn't mean to sleep in so late," she said. "We should get moving."
chaotic lazy
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the queen of memes
—Yoshikrab

secret supreme overlord of yws
—Tuckster

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5/5
—Anonymous Yelp Review








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