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Far From Home



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Tue May 04, 2021 5:49 am
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soundofmind says...



There was about 40 minutes left of the ride, and they both continued to chat. Mel shared some stories of her own, but they were not nearly as detailed as James's, or nearly as eventful since she couldn't think of any fictional stories and instead said tidbits of her life. The conversation continued to evolve until, somehow, they landed on Jack again. It was mostly her ranting, though.

As she drove, he could see that she was entering the mountains. The safe zone seemed to be full of rolling hills and small mountains, but it looked like she was driving up an actual mountain. He didn't get a chance to say anything about it since she kept talking.

After winding around the road up the mountain, she finally stopped near a giant, 3-story cabin with a big porch and and stone pathway that led to a lower level door. Mel wrapped up the conversation and then parked the car a short distance away, where there were other cars and -- he finally learned -- motorcycles. There were some riding animals tied up at a farther distance, too. Judging from all the number of transportation options, it looked like the party drew quite a crowd.

"Come on, we're a little late," Mel said as she left the car and then beckoned for him to follow.

James hopped out and quickly followed behind her. Finally, the nerves started to hit, and he could feel the familiar feeling of his mind shifting out of one mode into the next. As quickly as the anxiety bubbled up, it faded.

He was going to function at this party whether he liked it or not.

Mel walked up to the door where there was a greeter, and she took the initiative to introduce both their names so they were allowed in. As they passed through the door and entered a short hall, she started to go on about its history.

"Apparently, this used to be pretty informal," she said. "But then the war ended, people from the sectors escaped, yadda yadda, yadda, and then Oliver was all, 'Ew, you people party like this? Can't have that.' And now this party is so extra. So yeah. Welcome to the Banquet Cabin."

As soon as Mel said that, they reached the end of the hall, and a bright light filled his eyesight as they came across a giant banquet hall. Windows lined the hall, letting in the natural light and the view of the mountains. There was a big chandelier hanging from the ceiling, all powered by electricity, and some other smaller lights decorating the rest of the room. White streamers were dangled on the ceiling, artfully looped and put together. There was a flight of stairs that spiraled up, and a door that led to an outside sitting area. Lined around the room were tables of food, and there was a bassist, pianist, and singer dressed up in the corner. It appeared that they were taking a break, though.

"Well? What do you think?" Mel asked as she gestured around. "A little much, huh?"

James looked around, taking it all in.

It had been a long time since he'd been anywhere that reminded him of the palace. Though the palace was far more ornate, the high ceilings, big windows, and crowded room of people dressed up brought back a very strange, almost familiar feeling. It wasn't so familiar anymore.

"A little," he said, already feeling small in the large room.

"Let's go!" Mel said excitedly, taking his hand and leading him past some people towards the tables of food in the back. She waved at others when they greeted her, but she didn't stop.

"Are you hungry?" she asked as she took a plate and handed it to him. "Why do I even ask. You're probably hungry."

The table was decorated with a white tablecloth and embroidery, and it was packed with plates of various dishes. It was overwhelming by the amount of options available, but they were all vegetarian, and the tables were separated by cold and hot food. There was also a table full of pitchers of various drinks, and wine glasses already filled with reds and champagne.

Mel already started to put some food items in her plate, choosing light dishes like salad and fruit slices. James wasn't quite sure what to pick from the dozens of options, so he just started putting a little bit of everything. When they finished, they stood off near a tall table where Mel set her plate and champagne glass down.

"Did you want to grab a drink?" she asked when she noticed that James didn't take one.

"I'll pass," James said, holding his rather full plate of food. Looking down at it, it seemed less enticing in this environment than it might've at home.

"Oh look!" she suddenly said, waving at two woman nearby. "It's Tula and Katya! Heeeey!"

They both approached, the taller woman extending an arm out at Mel as a half-hug hello. She looked to be in her late wenties and wore a long-sleeved lacy dark green dress that went down to her feet, and she wore her curly hair down. She wore the pin and corsage, made out of tulips. Something about her face seemed uncannily familiar, but he couldn't quite place it.

"Hi Mel," she said, and then looked over at James with a small smile. "Oh, hello. I remember you from last month's meeting. My name's Tula."

Tula. Why was that name familiar? James was searching his memory. Tula. Tula. Tula. Evaline mentioned a Tula...

The other woman, who looked to be in her thirties, was shorter, had darker skin, and short brown hair. She looked bored despite wearing a flattering floor-length dress. She wasn't wearing any flowers.

"Katya," she said as an introduction.

"This is James," Mel said, taking the liberty of introducing him. "He's a really funny guy. James, tell them a joke."

Tula. Evaline had drawn her in her journal. She said something about her being someone she worked with. It took a half-second for James to catch what Mel had said.

A joke. On the spot. No pressure.

"I have a joke about corn," he said. "But it's probably too corny for your taste."

Mel burst out laughing, and Tula only smiled. Katya, however, was not amused.

"That one always gets mixed responses. Personally, I expect people to groan," James said.

"I don't think it's too bad," Tula said, then looked over at Katya who looked to be on the verge of groaning. "But I think this is a perfect example of mixed responses."

Katya studied James. "You got put into Terra, didn't you?" she said. "Did you learn that while growing corn?"

"One doesn't have to grow corn to joke about it," James said, giving her a small smile.

"Hmmph. I rate it two out of ten," Katya said. Tula simply sighed.

"Okay, good talk," Mel interrupted, looking past them. "I think I see Luis over there." She gestured to a stocky, short man wearing a white suit who just entered, and then looked back at James. "I'm going to say hi. Did you want to follow me, or are you good?"

James glanced at Tula and Katya. They had started talking to each other in the brief moment Mel pulled away, and they seemed more interested in each other, but they seemed to be pretty relaxed. He didn't need them to be interested in his existence. He preferred them not to be.

"I'm good," James said with a smile. "Go say hi to your friends."

Mel nodded and flashed him a smile, and then said her goodbyes to everyone, emphasizing to the women that James was new and getting to know everyone. When she left, the two women looked back at him.

"So..." Tula began. "Happy Day of Peace. Do you usually celebrate it like this?"

"Happy Day of Peace to you too," James said. "And, well, no. I've never been to something quite like this before," he said, glancing up at the streamers on the ceiling.

"It is a little much," she murmured, following his glance. "We'd rather not be here, actually, but I think it's mandatory now." She sighed, focusing her attention back to him, her green eyes meeting his like she was studying him. "Does this mean you are part of the committee now?"

James wasn't sure if him being on the committee was public knowledge, and technically, he wasn't on it yet, since he wasn't doing anything besides farming.

"According to my current understanding, the answer is no," James said. "I was invited here by Mel, so, that's why I'm here."

Tula hummed. "You're her plus one?" She glanced down at his corsage for a brief moment.

James's eyes briefly followed hers with a flick.

"As a friend," James said. He was starting to think that the corsages weren't just a gift you would give to someone you cared about. They had romantic connotations.

Tula crossed her arms. "Didn't know you guys were friends," she murmured.

Katya was staring at him the entire time. "Do you really not remember how you got here? To the present. Our present," she questioned.

Tula looked like she wanted to interject, but then didn't, looking up at James expectedly.

"Trust me," he said. "If I could unlock that memory from my brain, I would. But no, I don't remember details."

Tula chuckled. "Maybe you could ask Evaline to help you. She's been checking on you the most, hasn't she?"

James looked up in thought and started counting on his fingers. He didn't have to, really, it was more for show.

"Yes, she has," he said. "Unless you count the head farmer, Josiah, who comes by practically every day."

Katya started to smile. "I know Josiah. He's a great engineer and helped with the factory when we needed it. I can't believe he farms, though."

"It is hard to imagine," Tula added.

"Maybe if you see him in his little straw hat and overalls you'll be convinced," James said with a small smile. "He really sells the look."

"Hah. No thanks," Katya said curtly.

Tula looked up at him with an apologetic smile. "Maybe I'd have to visit him in Terra sometime," she mused. "Maybe on a week when no one volunteers to check up on you."

"It'd certainly be a pleasure to see you again, and I'm sure Josiah would love to say hello," James said.

Tula smiled warmly at him for a moment and then glanced behind her. "It certainly would," she said as she fidgeted with her tulip corsage. "I'm going to say hi to others. But..."

She faced towards him and took off her corsage, extending it out to him.

"Here. In case you don't find anyone to go home with," she said with a smile as she met his eyes.

James met her eyes with a small, surprised smile, but internally, he couldn't help but wonder at the meaning of her words.

Anyone to go home with?

He didn't intend on "going home" with anyone if that meant what he thought it meant.

But he didn't know if it was even socially acceptable to refuse a corsage, or if you just had to take them. Mel made it sound like you could get more than one? He was starting to regret not admitting to needing an explanation for this tradition. He hadn't expected to come up like this.

He took the corsage, because he didn't know what else to do. He bowed his gracefully head in thanks, not sure what the hell to say.

Thankfully - or perhaps not thankfully because of the context - Katya spoke in the silence that followed. She burst out laughing, shaking her head and putting her hand on her face.

"Of course you give your corsage to the one man who could actually reproduce," she said with a wheeze. "Wow. Of course this happened."

Tula rolled her eyes and shoved her, but then looked back at James. "Feel free to talk to me at any time in the party," she said, then gestured behind her. "I'll be over there."

James nodded and flashed her a polite smile. "I'll see you around, then," he said, leaving it open ended until he knew what the hell the corsages actually meant.

Tula flashed him another smile, but then took Katya by the arm to whisk her away because she was still laughing hysterically. They both walked across the room, leaving James by himself. James glanced around, scanning for any familiar faces. When the only ones he saw were Tula, Katya, and Mel, he looked for an exit. Instead, he briefly and unintentionally made eye contact with Malkiel.

It was too quick for Malkiel to do much in reaction, but James rapidly flashed a smile before he found the door that went out back. He didn't look back at Malkiel as he turned the knob and headed out, still with his plate full of food in one hand.

There was outdoor seating, and some tables similar to the ones inside, but with floraly arrangements in the center. He needed his hands free for a moment, so he placed his plate on the nearest table really quickly, and then looked down at Tula's corsage in his hand.

Unsure, he decided to put it in his pocket for the moment. He didn't want one wrist to be overloaded with flowers.

When he looked back up, scanning the outdoor crowd, he wasn't surprised that he didn't really know anyone outside either. But then he spotted Evaline. She was standing on the opposite side of the porch, and they locked eyes for a moment.

Spoiler! :
Image


She was wearing the same exact dress he'd told Mel he liked best, and her hair was up in a bun. For some reason, he wasn't surprised about the dress at all, but he did notice that in comparison to all of the other showy outfits he'd seen, Evaline's was comparably very simple.

He couldn't help but notice that Evaline looked... shocked.

Was that a good thing or a bad thing? Knowing Mel, she probably didn't even tell Evaline he was coming, did she?

He glanced around quickly, grabbed his plate back up, and plopped a grape off of it into his mouth as he walked over to Evaline. It was then that he noticed she was talking to Hendrik.

For a split second, it reminded him of one of the dreams he had, where they'd been sitting around a fire. It was only a few seconds of an undone memory, and he didn't see enough of it to really know why it was undone. But it told him enough to know that Evaline and Hendrik were probably friends.

He hoped Hendrik wasn't still holding a grudge.

As he walked over, Evaline stood up straighter as she flicked her eyes between him and Hendrik, who put his hands in his pockets and smirked. He was wearing a suit without the jacket with sharper features James didn't recognize, but he still wore a tie and the floral arrangement. His chosen flowers were pansies.

He noticed that Evaline didn't have any flowers.

Why the hell hadn't Mel told him the tradition was optional.

He stopped in front of the two of them with a smile.

"Happy Day of Peace to you two. Hendrik. Evaline," he said, bowing his head for each name.

"Happy Day of Peace, baby man," Hendrik said gruffly with a smirk.

Evaline cleared her throat and still looked confused and almost panicked. "James. I -- I didn't know you'd be here," she said. "I'd have invited you if I'd have known..."

She looked past him as her eyes scanned the direction he came from, like she was trying to figure out who he came with.

"Mel invited me," he said. "I'm sorry she didn't tell you. Didn't mean to catch you by surprise."

"Are you her plus one?" Hendrik asked as Evaline looked to be processing this information.

"We're just friends, if that's what you mean," James said.

Evaline crossed her arms as she furrowed her brows. "No, I think her plus one is the new man she's seeing," she said.

"Alvin?" Hendrik offered.

"I want to say it's Luis," she murmured.

"She did run off to go say hello to a Luis a few minutes back," James commented.

Hendrik chuckled. "Typical Mel to bring two men to a party," he said.

Evaline didn't comment on that, still looking in thought and bothered. She shook her head and sighed, looking back at James, like she was clearing her head and seeing him for the first time. She looked him up and down quickly.

"You got a haircut," she said.

"Also Mel," James said.

Hendrik punted his shoulder in a playful manner, a bit too hard. "Lookin' sharp."

James had braced himself for it, but it still hurt a little, not that he let it show.

"Same to you," James said.

He smirked, putting his hands in his pockets. "Careful. I just might steal you away from all the ladies who want to get in your pants."

To say the least, James was not expecting that comment in the slightest. He stared back at Hendrik and threw another grape in his mouth.

"I'm not so easily stolen," James said. "And I don't know what everyone else has assumed, but I'm not exactly enjoying the attention."

Evaline quickly set her still-full wine glass down on the table. "Hendrik, can you just... give us a minute?" she asked briskly.

Hendrik looked between the two of them, still with the smirk on his face, and then shrugged. "Sure. I'll be over there in case you want my corsage," he said, slipping away to give them space.

Again, with the corsages. Apparently they could be asked for too. James watched as Hendrik walked away, waiting until he was assuredly out of earshot before he looked back at Evaline.

Evaline badly repressed a groan as she watched him walk away in dismay. She sighed and then also faced James, offering a strained apologetic smile.

"Sorry. I really had no idea you were coming. I'd have better prepared you for... all of that." She looked down at his suit and seemed to note the boutonniere and corsage, but didn't say anything about it.

"It's okay. I'm managing, I think, but Mel didn't exactly explain much to me," he said. He paused, lifting up his wrist with the corsage. "Like what these things actually mean."
  





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Wed May 05, 2021 3:00 am
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Carina says...



Now that James was bringing attention to it, Evaline couldn't help but stare down at his corsage and boutonniere. He made it sound like Mel had forced all of this upon him -- which may have been true, since it sounded like something she'd bestow upon him -- but surely he knew that it indicated interest in a relationship... right?

She had a feeling he did not, and she suddenly felt awkward being the one who had to explain all of this to him. She made a mental note to scold Mel about this later, but for now...

Evaline glanced around the outside patio area, noting the arched exit towards the flower garden. At least, what was left of it. She knew all the flowers would be covered to prepare for winter, but it was still open to walk through.

"Let's go somewhere quieter," she said, gesturing toward the exit. "It sounds like Mel didn't tell you anything, but I can answer all your questions away from everyone else."

James nodded, plopping another piece of fruit from his plate in his mouth.

Wordlessly, Evaline led the way to the garden, only glancing back once to make sure he was following. She forced a smile and nodded when a few people acknowledged her passing through, but she managed to exit without a problem. She started down the brick path of the big garden that only had bushes of various shapes and sizes right now, and then stopped to make sure James was following.

"Better?" she said when she noticed no one else was around.

"Yes," James said.

Evaline nodded and slowly walked forward, and he joined her at her side. She wasn't really sure where to begin, really. But she knew she first had to address the knot of guilt forming in her gut.

"I'm sorry if you've been expecting me," she said after a brief pause. "I know it's been two weeks. But I was actually planning to visit tomorrow." She let out a short, weak one-syllable laugh. "Not much of a surprise now, though."

James looked over at her with a gentle smile. "It's okay, Evaline. I did miss seeing you, but I understand. Don't worry about it."

I did miss seeing you.

So he did want to see her, then? More? Still? She wasn't sure.

Evaline slightly tilted her head up to look at the sky, squinting when the sun entered her vision.

"Would you like me to visit more?" she asked. "I can try to do that. I just wasn't sure."

"Yes, I'd like to see you more," he said, looking at her with a small smile. "Is that clear enough?"

Evaline met his eyes for a moment, not really sure what she should be feeling right now. Relieved that she got a straight answer? Doubt? Happy, sad? Mixed results, especially since she didn't expect to get a clear yes from him.

"Well..." she began, choosing her words carefully while offering the same small smile back. "I'm here now. And I can still come tomorrow, if you'd like."

James smiled. "I'd like that."

She nodded, looking over at her side where the bushes were untrimmed. "I like your suit," she said. "It's a good look on you."

"You look nice too," he said. "I like the dress."

Evaline hesitated then glanced down at the dress she was wearing. She wanted to take credit for the look, but Mel usually picked her dresses for this event. She was pleasantly surprised that she picked a simple look this time, though.

"Thanks," she said, not really sure what else to say.

There was a small silence that passed as they continued to walk, but Evaline didn't feel comfortable sitting on it this time.

"I used to go to--" she began.

"So do you like--" James said at the same time. He stopped and laughed a little.

Evaline looked up at him and mimicked the small laugh. "Sorry, go ahead."

"I was just going to ask if you like coming to parties like this," he said. "What were you going to say?"

She let out a small smile and faced forward again, careful with her steps since she was wearing heels.

"I was going to say that I actually used to come to parties like this every year, even when I was young," she said. "This was how I celebrated Day of Peace. It'd be hosted in a different sector every year, and each one more extravagant than this." She paused for a moment. "I wouldn't say I like it, though. I just always attended it."

James nodded and hummed for a moment as he chewed on a piece of fruit.

"If you didn't have to go, would you still want to come?" he asked.

She let out an amused breath of air through her nose and glanced up at him. "What do you think?" she asked back.

"If you're making me guess, I'm guessing you'd rather not come," James said.

"You'd guess right," she said. "And I assume you wouldn't be here if... Mel didn't drag you here."

"To be fair," James said. "I did say yes to the invitation. I just... had no idea it would be quite like this until I was in over my head."

It was at the back of her mind to wonder how James was on the list if Mel already had a plus one. Did she actually manage to somehow sneak him in? Or somehow bribe the greeter? Maybe flirt with him? She wouldn't put it past her to do that.

But if James didn't know, there was no point in wondering that all out loud.

"It's pretty typical of her to get others involved without saying the whole story until it's too late," she said. "What did she tell you so far? I can help fill any holes."

"Evaline, I'm going to be honest with you. All I know about this party is that there's a tradition that involves corsages, Oliver apparently made it a more extravagant celebration as of the last few years or something, and you're supposed to dress up, apparently," he said.

Evaline sighed through her nose, again making the mental note to scold Mel some more. There was a lot to unpack here, but... they had time. She preferred this over small talk with the others, anyways.

"That's not a lot," she commented, trying to think of which point to address first. "I'm not sure how you managed to get this far without knowing anything you were getting into."

"I told you," James said. "I got in over my head. I clearly overestimated my ability to bullshit my way through this one."

"I see that," she said as she focused back on the path. "Although, you don't need to make things up just to attend a party."

She paused, wondering what he meant by "bullshitting" his way through this. Why not ask questions? It made her wonder if this had anything to do with his instinct to use aliases.

"Did Mel make you uncomfortable at any point?" she asked instead. "So you didn't feel comfortable asking questions?"

James was quiet for a moment, and when she looked over, she saw that he was chewing again. About half his plate was cleared at this point. After he swallowed he answered.

"She... did make it sound like a lot of the things she was talking about were things I was supposed to already know," he said. "Or at least, that's what I heard to be implied. So I was hesitant to ask at risk of sounding less knowledgeable than I should be."

Evaline paused to think for a moment, then sighed. "It's okay," she said. "You can ask her in the future. I doubt she'd pick up on it. She'd probably be happy to answer whatever questions you may have -- you just have to ask it."

James sighed softly.

"I'll remember that in the future," he said.

Evaline nodded as another brief silence passed, and she figured she'd begin to address the pointers he fed her earlier.

"It's true that Oliver had influence in the setup of the party," she began. "When I said this was how I used to celebrate Day of Peace, I really meant it as a government-wide event. Which, I'm sure you've figured out by now..." She glanced at him. "Everyone with time powers had places in the government. And they'd bring their entire family to the day-long party."

She paused again for another moment, almost mentioning that this was how she met Oliver for the first time, but then decided against it since she didn't feel like delving into that story in case he asked.

"I guess he's just trying to bring his version of tradition here," she said instead. "But I can't say I miss it."

James nodded slowly, chewing again.

"What were the parties like before he changed things?" James asked after clearing his throat.

Evaline almost laughed. "I have no clue. I wasn't involved at that time. There are some people here who'd know, but I've never asked."

As far as she knew, this was how people celebrated Day of Peace. She didn't exactly have a reliable reference, though.

"Maybe I'll find out later today. I got invited to another Day of Peace party at Josiah's house this evening. So... busy day ahead, I suppose," he said.

Evaline hummed. "Another party, right after this one?" she asked. "Hopefully you wouldn't be too tired by then."

James shrugged. "It's only one day. I'll have plenty of quiet days after to recover," he said with a little laugh.

Evaline lightly smiled in response. "Let me know how it goes," she said. "I'm sure farmers don't celebrate it like this."

"I have a very strong feeling if I walked in there like this, I would be painfully overdressed," James said with a smile. "But yes, I'll give you my full post-party review tomorrow."

Evaline smiled back. "I'd like that." She paused for a moment. "And I'm glad you're making friends in Terra."

"It's a slow process, but I'm making progress," James said. "Which -- well, that's a weird way to put it. You get what I mean."

"No, of course, I do," she said as she sat down on a nearby bench, motioning for him to sit down too. James followed, sitting down next to her about a foot away. He set his plate in his lap. It was now almost empty.

"You also don't have to stay here that long if you don't want to," she said, but then it dawned on her that he probably didn't come here on Elliot, and he was dependent on someone else taking him back.

"...But I assume you feel trapped here," she added. "Because you are, in a way."

"I mean, I did come with Mel," James said, throwing more food into his mouth. "So, she's my only way back at this point."

Evaline sighed. She had a feeling Mel was not going to head home alone, and James would have to endure that whole scene. Add on to the fact that she had another strong feeling she'd bring him back late. Did she even know he had another event planned after this? Did he even tell her?

"I can always take you back if she's proving to be undependable," she said. "It's no big deal. Just let me know."

James nodded. "Thanks, I might take you up on that. I guess we'll just have to wait and see how the rest of the party goes."

He paused for a second, but kept talking.

"You know, on the way here she asked me to tell her a story, and I told her an old Nye folktale - obviously leaving that part out," he said. "I think she was expecting me to tell a short boring story or something. But I guess with an hour long car ride you have to figure out ways to kill time."

Evaline had clasped her hands together, her eyes habitually scanning the area in front of them. It was nice that their backs were facing empty land, and she could easily see if anyone were to approach. A small unexplainable spark of paranoia was creeping up on her since she didn't know why or how James was approved to come to the party.

"I'm surprised you'd remember a long story," she said. "Considering you don't write any of it down."

James looked over at her, narrowing his eyes at her, but smiling.

"Ha. Ha. Believe it or not I do sometimes have a functioning memory. Besides, the story was memorable. It was a scary story I heard several times as a kid, told around campfires. That kind of thing," he said. "And with folktales you're always at liberty to add details in the gaps you've forgotten. It's more about keeping the spirit of the story going."

Evaline glanced at him, interest piqued. "I don't suppose a formal party would be the perfect setting to retell the story as opposed to a campfire at night, then?" she asked.

"Considering I told the story in a car," James said. "I think this will do just fine, if you want to hear it all over again. Well -- again for me. Not for you."

Evaline offered an appreciative smile, leaning back on the bench. "I'd like that," she said. "Whenever you're ready."

"Okay," James said. "I need you to try to picture it for full effect."

He paused and cleared his throat.

Spoiler! :
A mother was in the deep of the forest, trudging through twenty feet of snow. A baby on her back, wrapped in furs all around. A blizzard had just blown through the day before, leaving the mountainside like a buried wasteland. Clouds were forming above her, threatening, and looming. Taunting her with another storm.

She was lost. Fleeing her village because of a plague sweeping through it, claiming the lives of her friends and family one by one. The sickness took over the body slowly, seeping in unnotticed at first, and then all at once. First, fatigue, and then a slight itch in the back of your throat. You think it's just allergies, or a small cold, and then one night, your temperature drops, and you're freezing cold. Dead, and frozen like and icicle.

Her name was Laura, and she'd nursed too many people to death than she could count.

But the winter had been blinding, and merciless. The village was the only haven for miles upon miles. She would either wait to die there, isolated from all others, or she would take a chance, gambling an escape.

When she found herself drowning in snow, with her one year old son shivering on her back, she was beginning to think she shouldn't have taken the gamble.

But she pressed on. Forward through the snow, uphill, racing away from the death that seemed to be clinging to her coattail.

And as she climbed, the storm rolled in. First, as a flurry, and then all she could see was white. Cold seeping through her clothes, digging into her skin. She brought her baby close into her arms, desperately trying to surround him with her fading warmth. She could barely feel his breath. She pinched her eyes shut, waiting for the howling winds to bury her alive.

And then, the storm cleared. Or so she thought. She saw the storm was still raging on, but there was a circle all around here where the air was clear, and the snow and the winds didn't reach her. Even the air started to feel... warmer.

And then she saw it. Standing off to the side watching her was a giant bear, made of ice. It seemed to stand at the center of the stormless ring, like it alone was the eye of the storm. Though there was no light seen through the stormclouds, the bear seemed to emanate a soft, pulsating light from within. Like a heartbeat.

She stood frozen as the bear approached her with slow, crunching steps. Its fur - like little icicles - could be heard clinkig faintly against one another.

And then the bear stopped, and they were face to face. The bear seemed to look from her, down to the baby.

Full of fear, awe, and bewilderment, she slowly turned the baby's face into the bear's view. The bear looked at the baby, staring for some time. And then the bear opened it's mouth, and breathed.

Its breath was like a thick fog, billowing around them like smoke. It swirled around them until the woman couldn't see any more.

And then it dissipated, and she found herself standing in a deep cave. A fire crackling beside her. The storm raging on near the distant entrance, but far from her. She looked down at her son and saw his face was full of life, and then he opened his eyes, and they were blue like ice crystals. But he was healthy, and alive.

She survived that night there, in the cave, until the storm blew over. When she made it to the next village over, no one believed her story of the bear made of ice who saved her and her sons life, but the story itself lived on.


Evaline waited for James to finish the story, letting a few moments pass in silence to ensure he was finished.

"It was magic that saved them, wasn't it?" she said. "Ice... bear... magic."

James chuckled in the back of his throat.

"The bear is called, very creatively, 'The Bear of Winter,'" he said. "It's said to have magic, yes."

Evaline hummed. "You don't suppose the bear somehow transferred magic to the son, do you?"

"That's what a lot of people end up taking away from it," James said. "So it's possible, but it's just a story."

She nodded. "It's a pretty macabre one at that, especially to tell children. But it certainly gives the message that winters could be dangerous." She paused. "Unless it does the opposite, since some children may think that the Bear of Winter may save them if they venture too far on a winter day?"

"See, that's the part that I changed. In the original story, the Bear of Winter actually kills the mother and child. It's very dark. Which is why there's so many alternative endings out there to lighten the blow," James said. "But it's meant as a warning, since Nye winters can be very brutal."

"I see," Evaline said, thinking and sifting through her thoughts. "Is it common in Nye to tell young children stories about bears mauling mothers and babies?"

James shrugged, tossing the last bit of food off his plate into his mouth. He pursed his lips for a moment as he chewed.

"We've got a lot of messed up stories," he said. "For all ages. I don't know why. I think people just like telling scary stories."

She nodded as she leaned back again, realizing that she had slowly leaned forward and applied pressure on her back as James recanted the story.

"It's one thing to say stories for fun," she said slowly. "But I think there's a time and place for what stories are appropriate to retell. Sad, scary, happy - I think it's important to diversify it, especially at a young age." She glanced back at James. "And for what it's worth, I think it's thoughtful you told Mel the happy version."

James shrugged a little again.

"I would never tell the original story myself, honestly. It terrified me when I was a kid, and I'd hate to put that image in other people's minds," he said. "Especially children."

"That does sound traumatic," she said. "I hope you didn't suffer any nightmares from it."

"I can't really remember if I did at this point," James said. "But it's possible."

Evaline paused for a moment, quickly retelling the condensed version of the story in her head. Storing it away, keeping it in file in her head to use as a reference one day. It almost sounded like James wished he could forget the story since it scared him as a kid, but to her, it sounded like a dark fairytale. And maybe it was, in a way. The only proof Nye existed was from James.

"Thank you for sharing it with me anyways," she said. "Maybe you can share some more Nye stories later. Ones that you remember, and maybe are not as scary for you."

"I mean, they're not scary for me now," James said with a joking little smile. "But sure."

Evaline copied the smile, but it faded as she looked out at the garden in front of them.

"I've never liked scary stories," she said. "They scared me too much as a kid. I guess I was a little sensitive."

"I think I was too," James said. "I think I kind of just got to a point where I realized they weren't real and I stopped thinking too hard about it."

"It can be hard to do that," she countered. "Especially at a younger age when you're still figuring out the world."

"Which is why I wasn't able to do that until I was older," James said, looking over at her with a slight smile and his eyebrows raised. "But I understand why people don't like them."

She wondered how many smiles today were real for him, if any.

"Fair enough," she said, dropping the subject. Something felt a little off, but she didn't want to push it.

"So," James said. "You told me some of the history and whatnot. What about the corsages?" he asked, holding up his wrist and tilting his hand from side to side for a moment.

Evaline knew this question was coming, and even though she mentally prepared for it, she still wasn't looking forward to just casually explaining the mechanics of how this all worked. It felt even more awkward that he had a pair, and she didn't.

"I see you've picked daisies," she said as she looked down at his corsage, easing into the subject. "Is that your favorite flower?"

"Yes," he said. "Mel asked before she gave me these." He looked down at the corsage tilting his hand again as he inspected the corsage. "Didn't think it would result in this."

"Of course she did that," Evaline said flatly, still staring at the corsage. She sighed, now deciding to just rip the bandage out and dive right into it.

"I'm not really sure how it started," she said. "For as long as I could remember, it's been a tradition. An optional tradition, open to everyone. Kids, adults, the elderly. It's supposed to be lighthearted and fun, and the boutonniere just means you're participating. The corsage, though, is one you give away to someone you want to spend more time with. It typically means you would like to leave the party with them. But nowadays it gets spun into a different, more mature context."

Evaline shrugged, still focused on the field in front of her.

"People take it too seriously here. But when I was young, I usually gave it away to a friend. I used it as an out to escape these parties, honestly."

James was still during her explanation, still looking down at the corsage. He was quiet for a few long seconds after before he let out a long sigh and slowly unpinned the boutonniere off of his lapel.

"You're right. I should ask more questions," he said. "Would it be socially acceptable to walk into a party with a boutonniere and lose it a few minutes in?"

Evaline stared at the boutonniere in his hands, offering a faint consoling smile. "You might get a few questions since it appeared some people already noticed. But you don't have to do that. Like I said, it's just for fun."

He then took off the corsage on his wrist, setting it down in his lap along with the pin.

She paused for a moment, knowing that her words didn't sound fully correct, especially given the context of where they were at.

"People just take it too seriously here," she murmured.

James turned to look at her, meeting her eyes with a look that was hard to read. He closed his eyes for a moment and sighed, pulling something out of his pant pocket. It was a corsage made of tulips. Evaline immediately recognized it to be Tula's signature look.

"I'm in too deep, aren't I?"

Evaline froze, and then a nervous, back-of-the-throat laugh escaped her throat as she stared at the corsage, mouth slightly open. She cleared her throat and closed her eyes for a second, shaking her head.

"I am so sorry," she said with another small, nervous laugh. "You've met Tula. She gave that to you, didn't she?"

"After like, five minutes of talking, yes," he said.

Evaline rubbed her face in frustration, and also stress. It made her feel uneasy that he met her, even if the interaction sounded fairly harmless.

"I don't know what she was thinking," she muttered, shaking the wariness away. "Trying to woo you with flowers so she can get a baby, probably. As if that's how it works."

"She had a friend with her who said about the same thing," James said. "After I'd already taken it, anyway. I didn't know what I was doing at the time."

Evaline rubbed the bridge of her nose, but then a small, mirthless yet giddy laugh escaped her lips as she shook her head.

"I'm sorry," she said with a loose smile as she dropped her hand. "I'm sorry that happened to you. But you have to admit, it's a bit comical that this happened."

"After all of the fertile jokes I made like, a month ago, I don't think I have the right to say it's not funny," he said with a little laugh.

"Right," she said softly and then took a deep breath, trying to release the tension she felt in her chest. "Well, if you want to be the most popular man of the night and walk home with many corsages, you are welcome to keep it. But it might be wise to remove the boutonniere and not participate if you want to blend into the background."

James tossed his boutonniere and corsage into a bush behind them.

"What boutonniere?" he asked.

"Now we're matching," she said with a small smile.

James returned the smile and then looked down at Tula's corsage in his lap.

"Now I just need to figure out whether it would be best to just conveniently lose hers, or try to explain to her I'm not interested," he said. "I feel like both options are equally awkward for different reasons."

Evaline looked down at the corsage, noting how the red tulips opened up towards her like it was teasing her.

"I can take it off your hands if it's easier," she said. "And return it to her for you."

"Is she the type to take it to heart, or do you think she'll be fine? I assume she was only doing it for... you know," James said. "The prospect of children anyway."

Evaline paused for a moment to think, but then shook her head.

"She'll be fine," she said. "Like you said, you've only known her for all of five minutes."

"Fair enough," James said, offering her Tula's corsage.

Evaline took the corsage, inspecting it for a moment before slowly slipping it on her wrist since she didn't exactly have pockets. She briefly played the conversation in her head on how the conversation would go down.

"Hey, Tula. James didn't want this. You can take it back. Here you go. See you later."

Well... it was still probably less awkward than if James did it himself. Although, she could just toss it, like he said...

"On second thought," Evaline said as she slipped it back out of her wrist and then tossed it behind her on the same bush James tossed his. "Oops. I've lost it."

James looked over to her with a smirk.

"How convenient," he said. "It seems we've lost all the flowers. Simply flower-less. Just how I'd like to be."

With a small smile, Evaline sighed and then glanced back at the bush one more time. It was pretty much out of sight this far from the cabin, and it was hidden behind the bench anyways.

"Yeah. Sorry you got roped into this mess," she said. "In case anyone asked, a burglary happened. And it was quite unfortunate."

"It all happened so fast I didn't even see who did it," James said with a shrug. "A tragedy."

Evaline laughed through her nose and then stood up. "C'mon. Let's get out of here before anyone finds the evidence."

"Good idea," James said, getting to his feet.

Evaline started back down the path they came down with James following besides her, taking her time to get back. She glanced up at James, almost asking if he had any more questions, but decided against it since she was tired of talking about the party.

"So. Did Josiah get you some strawberries?" she asked.

James glanced at her with a slight smile and nodded.

"Yeah," he said. "He took me to the greenhouse."

Evaline hummed. The greenhouse. It was probably easier to just take him there to get it rather than pick it for him.

"I assume you picked some yourself?" she asked.

"Yeah," James said with a nod. "They're all gone now. I may have eaten most of them in one sitting."

"I don't blame you," she said and then softly smiled. "They're your favorite fruit."

"I did try to use restraint," James said. "For a minute."

Evaline nodded and paused for a moment. "And... Mel. Did she actually give you anything other than a suit, haircut, and flowers? I asked her to give you books, everyday clothes, and music. No idea if she followed through with it, though."

"She did," James said. "I now have a full wardrobe. And..." He paused, looking down at himself. "No idea if I will ever have any reason to wear this again, but I also have a suit."

"I see that," she said as she also eyed the suit. Something told her that the answer was no, unless he wanted to wear it again next year. If he was even going to be here next year. "She has a better sense of style than me, so I figured she'd provide better options. Hopefully it's still practical, though."

"It is," James said. "I think I'm pretty well prepared for farming life, now. And it is nice to not have to wash clothes as often."

Evaline squinted up at the sky for a moment, noting how there wasn't a single cloud in the sky. "All of this probably feels like a drastic change," she said. "From being a wanted man on the run living in the wilderness, to being a simple farmer with a full wardrobe. I know it's been four weeks now... Is it still overwhelming?"

James looked out at the path around them.

"Sometimes," he said. "But not as much anymore."

"I understand," she said softly. "And if there's anything I can do to make this feel even a little less overwhelming, just let me know."

"It helps when you explain things," he said softly. "So, thanks for that."

"Of course," she said eagerly. "Does anything else confuse you right now?"

James hummed and looked up towards the cabin, which could be seen partially through the trees up ahead.

"Tula asked me if I was on the council," he said. "I wasn't sure what to say, so I said no, since I don't think I am yet, right? Was that alright?"

Evaline froze for a moment, but then her mind raced to think of an answer despite the implications.

"No, you're right," she said quickly. "That's correct. I wouldn't worry about it."

James seemed relieved and he nodded his head.

"Okay," he said. "I just wanted to make sure I didn't cause more confusion or something."

Another reason Evaline didn't like going to these parties was because she often ended up talking about trivial everyday things in small talk, or about work. The routes, any future plan, incoming arrivals and the like. And this didn't really feel much different, even though James was not yet involved and didn't completely understand what was going on.

"Valid concern, but you're not, so don't worry about it," she said. "But I was wondering -- and I should have asked this earlier -- but how have you been doing the past two weeks? Anything eventful happen since I've last visited?"

James pursed his lips and blew out a small puff of air as he looked up into the trees in thought.

"I... redecorated? Well, decorated. Since it wasn't really decorated in the first place. The inside of my home looks more like a home now," he said. "So that's new."

Evaline hummed in thought as she imagined James's cottage being decorated more than two tables and a bench. "I look forward to seeing it," she said.

"Mel helped a lot with it," James said. "But I did try to make it my own."

"Let me guess," Evaline said as they rounded a corner. "She showed you her vision."

"Correct," James said with a slight laugh. "It did surprise me at first, but it was quite impressive."

"She is pretty good at that," she murmured, and then let out a quick breath of air through her nose in amusement. "It's funny. She's designed the interior of your house, and she also styled our clothes. Her influence is growing."

"It sounds like she's been busy," James said.

"I do trust her," Evaline said a littler quieter now that they were nearing the arched entrance. "But I know she can be a little... much. So she doesn't have to visit often -- or at all, really -- if you prefer."

"She can be a little much sometimes," James said. "But I still enjoy her company, so I don't mind it."

"I'm glad you think so," she said, and then stepped out of the way in front of the entrance so James could enter first, gesturing for him to go ahead. "I do too."
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James stepped under the metal and vine archway, out of the garden and back into the outdoor seating area, where there were still people walking around and grouped together, talking. James quickly scanned the crowd for where Hendrik (and possibly Tula) was, just so he could try to avoid them.

"How often do you see Mel, normally?" James asked out of genuine curiosity, but he was framing it as idle conversation. "She seems to mention you a bit."

It would also help to confirm what he felt he already knew. They might not have been the closest of friends, but they'd been through a lot together. It was hard to say.

Evaline walked over to the back of the area where there were less people. "Maybe once every few weeks," she said after she settled on a shaded spot under a tree. "We've known each other for quite some time, though."

James nodded.

"She seems like a good friend," he commented. "Maybe a bit of a handful sometimes, but good."

Evaline was quiet for a moment, but then sighed and slightly smiled. "That's a good way to put it. You pick up fast."

"I have spent a bit of time with her," James said with a slight smile. "Clothes, haircut, makeover, you know. The whole deal."

Evaline drew her brows together and looked back at him. "Did you see her for more than one day?" she asked.

"Well, the first day she came, she didn't bring the books. Because the first day I'd met her, I told her I didn't know how to read. So she had to come again the next day," James said.

Evaline let out a noise that sounded like a mix of a groan and a laugh. "That sounds about right, even though I was the one who told her to get you books. Why'd you tell her you couldn't read?"

James sighed and shook his head.

"It was supposed to be a joke," he said. "I think I might've been a little too committed to the sarcasm and she took it literally."

"Well, you better rethink anything else you might have told her in the past," she said. "It might come back to haunt you."

"She's made quite a few illiteracy jokes," James said. "So I think it's already haunting me."

Before Evaline could reply, someone interrupted.

"There you are," a voice called ahead of them. "I've finally found you."

A man approached them, and James immediately recognized it to be Oliver. His hair was neatly slicked back into a small bun, and he was wearing a black-fitted suit with buttons draped across and the collared vest instead of a tie. He was also not wearing any floral arrangement.

Evaline glanced between the two of them, suddenly looking a bit anxious as Oliver approached. He was holding a champagne glass and smiled warmly at the two of them.

"I'm glad you received my invitation, Matt. Or should I say, James? I heard of the new change up. Fitting, for a new change of lifestyle. I quite like it."

James returned the smile, but the overdone politeness pained him in his soul. He did not miss the passive, placid interactions back at the palace, and he had a feeling that with people like Oliver, who were essentially "royalty" in one way or another, that was going to be something he'd have to endure.

"I'm glad you do," James said. "Happy Day of Peace to you, Oliver."

"And you too," he said with a small bow. "Are you enjoying the party so far?"

"Oliver," Evaline interrupted. "You were the one who invited James?"

He looked back at her, holding back the surprise. "Why, yes. Is that a problem?"

"No," she said as she crossed her arms and looked past them. "I just wanted to make sure."

Oliver shrugged and turned his attention back to James. "Sorry, you were saying?"

"I hadn't said anything yet," James said. "But - the party. Yes, I'm enjoying it so far. You've done a great job with it. It looks great." He glanced around at the decor.

"I'm happy to hear that," he said with a pleased smile. "It's always a pleasure to host. How do you normally celebrate Day of Peace?"

"He doesn't," Evaline cut in. "It didn't exist back then."

"Oh, right, my mistake," Oliver said as he put his hand to his chest. "Apologies. This is your first time celebrating, then. I'm pleased that I get to share the experience with you."

"The pleasure is mine," James said with a small dip of his head. "Thank you for the invitation."

"You're very welcome," Oliver said, then glanced at Evaline. "I assume you've gotten to know Evaline while she escorted you to Terra?"

James glanced at Evaline, briefly making eye contact to guage her reaction. She looked like she disliked this whole interaction as much as he did, but she was just expressing it more outwardly.

"Yeah," James said. "She's come by to check on me during my stay."

Oliver nodded, still smiling but looking in thought. "How thoughtful of you," he said to her.

"Yes," Evaline said, sounding tired. "I am so thoughtful."

James could tell Evaline was already over the niceties. He patted her on the shoulder.

"The thoughtfulest," he said as seriously as possible, but he hoped Evaline could tell he was trying not to laugh.

Oliver watched as he patter her shoulder, but then the now-faded smile returned warmly as he set his drink down on the table.

"Excuse my rude behavior," he said. "But I haven't introduced you to everyone yet. Come. What kind of host would I be to not introduce the new guest to the others? You'll have a much more pleasant stay after the introductions."

James glanced back at Evaline. Though he made no change in his overall placid expression, he hoped the briefest glimpse would be enough to say "help me," but apparently, it wasn't. She instead looked away from the two of them, staying silent.

"It would be nice to get more familiar with everyone," he said with a small nod, taking a small step forward towards Oliver.

"Lovely," Oliver said, and then nodded at Evaline. "Evaline."

"Oliver," she echoed, teetering on a mocking voice.

"I'll be seeing you, then." He turned around and started to walk forward, beckoning for James to follow. "Come on, then. I'll show you around."

James nodded, following after Oliver, but he did pause to look back at Evaline. She was looking at the ground.

"I'll see you later," he said softly, then turned back around and joined Oliver.
  





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Oliver started to walk towards the entrance back in the building, but then stopped when he saw Mel who looked like she was approaching Evaline.

"Ah, Melakae," he said, stopping in front of her with James in tow. "Just the person I want to see. Have you met James?"

Mel looked peeved that she got stopped, but upon his question, a giddy smile tugged on her lips. "No," she said innocently. "Who's he?"

James mouthed "wow" at Mel, though Oliver didn't see.

Oliver chuckled. "Brilliant memory as always, my dear," he said.

"She was the one who brought me here," James said.

"Huh," Mel said as she crossed her arms and put a hand on her chin. "Did I? I thought that guy had different hair."

James looked over to Oliver.

"You shave once and people think you're a different person," he said like he was looking for understanding. He shook his head.

Oliver smiled in amusement and nodded. "You do look quite different from last time we saw you," he said. "Down to the name. Literally."

"Ohhhhhh," Mel drew out. "He's Matt." She playfully bonked her own head. "How could I forget the fertile guy who had a panic attack in the cabin? Silly me."

James rolled his eyes.

"Guess I'll never live that down," James said.

Mel gave him a quick lookdown, the smirk not having left her face. "I think I'd recognize you more if you wore flowers. 'Cause, ya know. Real flowery man."

James smirked in return. "All of the flowers are in here," he said, putting a hand on his chest. "On the inside."

Mel stared at him. "Uh huh," she said, unamused.

"Oh-kay," Oliver cut in. "I am glad that you both are already acquainted with each other."

"Oh, yeah, me too," Mel said eagerly. "Can I go now?"

Oliver paused for a moment as he stared at her, but then smiled. "Yes, Melakae, you can go now."

"Alrighty, see ya later, flower man," Mel chirped as she walked past them.

Oliver chuckled as he watched her walk away. "I wish I had half the energy she does," he said as he started back towards the entrance. "She has wonderful vision. Literally and figuratively, as I'm sure you've seen what she can do."

"That I have," James said. "She's very skilled."

"Indeed she is," he agreed, and then opened the door and gestured him inside. James walked in, and then he followed in after.

They were back in the banquet hall, and there were even more people than last time, chatting and eating. The bassist, pianist, and singer were softly playing music in the corner.

"The party isn't just limited to the council," Oliver said as he led him through the crowd. "Many who helped with our efforts were invited. And there are all the plus ones as well. Ah - and there's Zameer."

He waved at Zameer who was talking to a woman, but Oliver seemed to scare her away since she looked between the two of them then dipped out.

The last time James saw Zameer, he was dressed in worn attire and looked to be tired. Now, he was dressed in black slacks and a navy blue collared shirt with a bowtie, and his hair was neatly combed back.

"Yes, Oliver?" he said, flicking his eyes between him and James.

"I thought I'd introduce you to James," he said, gesturing to him. "I don't recall seeing you in last month's meeting, so I assume you have not met him yet."

Zameer stifled a laugh. "I wasn't there because Melakae ditched me with eight people to transport just so she can transport him and another person." He looked back at James. "Nice meeting you again, though."

"Same to you, Zameer," James said with a polite smile.

Oliver nodded in understanding. "I see. Sorry about that, I was not aware of that." He turned back to James. "Did you meet anyone else on your way to the cabin that day?"

"Elise," he answered. "She was the other person Melakae brought to that meeting."

"Elise, yes, of course," Oliver said. "Unfortuantely, she is not attending the party today, but she is safe and sound in one of the villages."

Zameer looked past them, towards the woman he was with before they approached. "Is that all?" he said distractedly.

"Well, I suppose if you two have met, then--"

"Alright, great, I'll talk to you later," Zameer said and walked away.

Oliver watched him leave for a moment and then looked back at James with an apologetic smile. "Sorry about that. It seems that he and Melakae were eager to return to the party."

"It's fine," James said with an assuring smile. "Don't worry about it."

Oliver nodded and led him around the room again. "Zameer helps around with many different projects," he said. "Electricity is hard to come by sometimes. And he's not only able to power the routes and villages, but he's also a great hands-on man. He's very valuable. Perhaps he can help electrify or fix anything around your farm."

James nodded. "Good to know. I'll keep that in mind if I need it."

He discussed a few more pleasantries but then stopped when he saw a man and woman standing near the wall, beginning to approach them. The man seemed familiar in the same way that Tula had, and it didn't take him long to piece together the faint images of Evaline's drawings in his head with the face. Though, the man he was looknig at now was much older.

"Alistair," he said, nodding to the man, then looked towards the woman. "Arima."

Alistair was around his height and age but looked fairly muscular. He wore all black, not quite a suit but it could pass as one from afar. His dark hair was combed back, and his hands were in his pockets. The woman, Arima, was also around the same age, and she was tall and slender, with long brown hair that draped across her shoulder and blue eyes that matched her lacy dress. Some freckles dotted her face as she smiled warmly at them. James noticed that they both had exchanged corsages with one another.

"Hi Oliver," Alistair said, flicking his eyes back to James. "Everything okay?"

"Certainly," he said, then gestured at James. "I thought I'd introduce James to you two. He came in last month."

James offered them a smile and a small bow of his head.

"It's nice to meet you, James," Arima said. "Did you come from the sectors as well?"

"Ah," Oliver cut in. "Alistair, I've briefly mentioned him to you. But all you both need to know is that he's a high-priority case, so you may be seeing more of him."

Alistair seemed to be studying Oliver like he was trying to figure out what it was he wasn't telling him. "I don't remember," he murmured, then gestured to the side. "Do you mind if we...?"

"Sure, yes," Oliver said, then glanced at Arima. "Do you mind entertaining our guest for a moment, Arima?"

"Oh, sure, sure," she said quickly with a smile. "I don't mind."

"Thank you," he said, and the two of them dipped away, catching up in what James assumed was about him.

"James is a lovely name," she said after a small pause. "I know it used to be a common name years ago, but it's not so much anymore. A shame, really."

"You think it's too old fashioned?" James asked.

She chuckled. "Maybe that's not the right phrase," she said. "It's simply just nice."

James nodded and flashed Arima a small smile. "I'm inclined to agree," he said with a smirk.

Arima smiled back, but then exhaled loudly. "Sorry," she said. "I'm used to talking about trivial things with Oliver. Let's not talk about the topic of your name for the next few minutes."

James chuckled. "Fair enough. Okay, so, -- where are you from?"

"I grew up in Sector 2," she said. "Alistair and I did. He's the one who helped me escape." She smiled wistfully for a moment then turned back to James. "I'd ask you the same question, but it sounds like this is something I'm not supposed to know."

Sector two. That was where Evaline was from, and apparently Mel... and probably Elise too. It seemed like a significant portion of the council was from there.

"It's a bit of a gray area," James said, with a small smile and pursing of his lips. "Maybe best not to get into it now."

Arima lifted her hands up innocently. "I certainly heard nothing," she said with a smile. "Where are you at now? Or is that a secret too?"

James chuckled. "I'm currently living in Terra. Farming, if you can believe it."

Arima nodded, interest piqued. "Terra," she echoed. "It's a very quaint and quiet place. It fits the farming lifestyle. I hope it has everything you're looking for in there."

Everything you're looking for. Yeah. Whatever that meant.

"I enjoy it," he said. "I don't mind the quiet and the simplicity of the lifestyle."

"I don't either," she said. "It's easy to get swallowed up in everyday life. A setting like Terra brings a quiet peace of mind."

"It really does," James said.

Suddenly Oliver and Alistair returned back within their earshot, and Arima offered him another warm smile before shifting her attention back to Alistair, setting her arm behind his back.

"Sorry about the wait," Oliver said, returning back to James's side. "Alistair's been briefed now about your story."

Alistair just shrugged like it wasn't that big of a deal. "Glad to meet you," he simply said to James.

"You too," James echoed.

A small bout of silence passed like Oliver was expecting Alistair to open a conversation, but he didn't, so Oliver cleared his throat and glanced around again.

"Well, I'll leave you two to it," he murmured.

"Thanks again, Oliver," Alistair finally said. "Are you leaving tomorrow?"

"Not tomorrow. But we'll talk later."

"Sure," Alistair said, then looked between him and James. "I'll see you around."

Oliver started to lead James away, looking for the next person to introduce him to. Before they made it very far, James glanced back at Alistair and then looked back at Oliver.

"Going on a trip?" he asked. He didn't know if this was small-talk worthy or if it was none of his business, but he knew Oliver of all people would be able to give him an answer that told him if it was without being rude.

Oliver chuckled. "Not a trip. A commute, if you will."

"Business or pleasure?" James asked.

"Not pleasure. I certainly don't have time to take trips for fun, unfortunately." He paused for a moment. "Alistair and I still live in the sectors. We help smuggle people out, if you will. It can be strenuous at times -- certainly not always pleasant."

James raised his eyebrows a bit and nodded.

"I can imagine," he said. "I'm sure the ones you rescue are grateful for the risk you're taking to get them out."

"I certainly hope so," Oliver said with an appreciative smile. "I am surprised that you did not know that, though. Did Evaline tell you her role?"

"She actually hasn't, really," James said, hoping that wouldn't come back to bite him or Evaline.

"That doesn't surprise me," he said as he continued to walk, continually scanning for the next person. "I've known for for quite some time and she's still an incredibly private person. Perhaps it is her humble side showing through if she failed to mention that she was the one who created the committe to begin with. In essence, the mission she proposed to help others involved me bringing people in, and her helping them get settled. She's... a driven woman, to say the least."

"I'm sure there are many people grateful for that," James said. "It sounds like she's done a lot of good here."

"I certainly think so," Oliver said warmly but then gestured ahead again. "Ah, looks like Katya is approaching now. She works with Zameer."

James was about to say that they'd already met, but by that point Katya had already marched ahead, smirking and eyeing James up and down.

"Katya," Oliver said brightly. "It's nice to see you again. Have you--"

"I see you've tossed the flowers," Katya said at James, still smirking. "What happened? Changed your mind? Hahaha, this is too good."

"Glad you're enjoying the drama," James said casually, but with sarcasm.

"What happened?" Katya teased. "Got scared of commitment already? You don't want to be a dad with a woman you just met? No way."

"I know," James said, laying on the sarcasm thicker. "What was I even thinking?"

"What were you thinking?" she echoed, then howled with laughter. "Has she seen you yet? I can't wait til she sees."

James looked over to Oliver, meeting his eyes with a subtle gaze of longsuffering.

Oliver cleared his throat. "I see you've also been acquainted with Katya," he said with an apologetic tone. "We should move on. Plenty of others to see."

"Hah! And plenty of corsages to take!" Katya said with the biggest smirk, but Oliver had already begun to lead James away.

He waited until they were out of earshot before he said anything. "I take it you came in with the tradional corsage and boutonniere?" he asked.

"In all fairness, I was not told the meaning behind the flowers, so, unfortunately, I ended up created an awkward situation for myself," James said.

"Ah, I see," Oliver replied as he continued to lead him around the banquet hall again. "It's a different culture here. When I took part in the tradition in my younger years, it more closely symbolized companionship. Most of the time, it was platonic - it simply meant you'd like to spend more time with the person you give it to. It doesn't quite hold the same meaning here, though, as I'm sure you've figured out."

His explanation sounded very similar to Evaline's.

"A little too late," he said. "But yes."

Oliver talked more about the history of the tradition and comparing it to what he was more familiar with instead, but then he stopped to gesture at Hendrik ahead of them.

"Would you be interested in meeting Hendrik?" he asked him. "I'm aware that tensions may be high considering your last interaction with him."

James was trying to think of how to artfully word some way of saying "yeah, I'd rather not."

"I don't think it's necessary," James said with a slightly strained smile. He hoped Oliver would understand.

"Of course," Oliver said, and started to weave away from them.

At this time, however, the small group of people shielding them from Hendrik's view had walked away, and a deep voice boomed out to grab their attention. Hendrik.

"Oliver!" he called as he briskly walked over. "Just the man I wanted to see."

James wished he was invisible. Why couldn't he magically get invisible powers? Why did it have to be erased memory dreams?

"Ah, Hendrik," Oliver said with a forced smile as he looked between the two of them. "What can I do for you?"

"I've heard you were showing the new guy around," Hendrik answered, not taking his eyes off James. "May I get an introduction?"

So Hendrik was playing dumb too. Great. He was going to be a joke, now, wasn't he? This was fine. Everything was fine.

"Of course, of course," he murmured, then gestured at James. "This is James. You may know him as Matt from a month ago."

"Hmmm. That one doesn't ring a bell." He looked away for a moment then snapped his fingers. "Oh, right. The man who lost his cool and punched me."

Oliver laughed nervously. "That's right."

"I was having an interesting day," James said, not quite looking directly at Hendrik.

"Oh, that's alright," Hendrik said with a smirk. "I forgive you."

"Wonderful," Oliver said.

"For now."

"How magnanimous of you," James said too-sweetly.

Oliver sighed. "No need to be rude, Hendrik. James has already apologized for his behavior."

"Hmmm. Has he?" Hendrik said. "Don't remember."

"Unfortunately, I'm not going to grovel," James said dryly.

"I'll keep that in mind."

Oliver patted James's back. "Well, we should get going now," he said. "Always great to see you, Hendrik."

Hendrik gave him a sloppy salute. "You too, boss."

Oliver quickly whisked James away, looking over his shoulder to make sure he was out of earshot.

"Sorry about that," he said. "He tries to act as a tough fellow."

"I don't think he has to try too hard," James commented.

Oliver chuckled. "He's only acts tough around people. When he's with the animals, he becomes much softer and open."

James nodded slowly, glancing back at Hendrik.

"I can see it," he said.

Not long after that, Oliver pointed ahead again. "Tula is up ahead," he said even though she already made eye contact with the two of them. "It seems you have met... almost everyone so far, really. Have you met her yet?"

"Yes, actually," James said neutrally, even though he could feel his anxiety spinning in his stomach.

"It appears she would like to meet you again," he mused, and they watched as Tula started to walk towards them, smiling like nothing was bothering her.

"Hi, Oliver. Hi, James," she said, nodding between the two of them. Her gaze lingered on James though, her eyes flicking down on his empty wrists. James was starting to regret coming to the party. He was just burning every single bridge possible, wasn't he?

"Pleasure seeing you again, Tula," Oliver said. "How is the factory?"

"The factory has been doing well, as always," she said, still staring at James. "We're making the items you've requested." She paused. "Maybe James could visit some day."

"Oh?" Oliver sounded, glancing at James. "Perhaps. It's not too far away from Terra, but I'd prefer if he stayed there for now. I don't think he'd be able to help as much as you and the others can, though."

"Just thought I'd ask," she said, offering Oliver a smile. "He can always say no if he doesn't want it."

Oliver flicked his eyes between the two of them. "Very true," he said after a long pause.

James cleared his throat.

"Oliver, would you give us a moment please?" he asked.

He didn't feel like talking in code.

Oliver looked a bit confused, but then strained a smile and nodded, stepping back. "Sure. I'll be over there when you're ready," he said as he walked away from earshot.

James turned back to Tula, who had crossed her arms and was looking at him expectedly.

"I owe you an explanation," he said, speaking gently and calmly. "When I was given the boutonniere and the corsage, I wasn't given a full explanation of the tradition and what they stood for. I didn't know it was optional, and I didn't know I would be communicating something I didn't mean to. But after you gave me your corsage, someone explained it to me, and I realized that I should've asked questions to recieve more clarity before I put them on. I'm sorry for the miscommunication. I did not intend to offend you, and I hope you can forgive me for my mistake and this misunderstanding."

Tula was watching him the whole time with unamused eyes, and she sighed when he finished his apology.

"It's fine," she said. "I was just surprised that you're not wearing any flowers now. Was it Katya that told you?"

"She was too busy... laughing, unfortunately," James said. "Oliver explained it to me."

Which was true, technically. He didn't feel like bringing Evaline into it. He didn't know her relation to Tula.

Tula seemed to slightly narrow her eyes at him. "So, Oliver has the corsage now," she said blankly.

"Mine? Or yours?" James asked.

"Both."

James closed his eyes and sighed.

"I... can get yours back to you, if you'd want," he said.

Gods, this was embarassing.

"No, no, it's whatever," she said with a sigh. "I just want to make sure Oliver doesn't have it. Does he?"

"No," James assured her. "He doesn't. He actually doesn't know you gave it to me. I figured it would be better to leave that part out."

Tula paused, studying him for a few moments. "Well, thanks, I guess." She sighed again. "Let's start over?"

James looked at Tula with a small smile.

"Sure," he said. "Nice to meet you for the first time."

She mimicked the small smile and curtsied with her dress. "Nice to meet you too. If you'd like to visit the factory one day, or if I could visit your farm sometime..." She paused, smile widening a little. "I promise I won't bring any flowers."

James chuckled. "I'd like that."

There was a small second of passing silence as James looked through the crowd, spotting Oliver again. They met each other's eyes.

"I'm sorry to part so quickly, but I don't want to keep Oliver waiting. He seemed pretty... insistent about introducing me to everyone," James said apologetically. "But we can talk more later."

"Sure, sure, not a problem," Tula said, waving her hand to shoo him off. "Go ahead. I'll see you around."

James smiled and nodded, returning back to Oliver. He flashed Oliver a grateful smile.

"Thank you for waiting," he said.

"Not a problem," Oliver said, then gestured ahead of him with a nod of his head. "Just in time. The music is picking up, and some people go dancing."
  





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Carina says...



Evaline watched with uncertainty as Oliver began to introduce James to Mel, likely not knowing at all that they had already met. And, knowing Mel, she'd probably tap into that just to mess with Oliver. Evaline hadn't realized she was staring until the men began to peel away, and she saw Mel started to walk towards her, making a funny face while emphasizing rolling her eyes as she glanced back at Oliver.

"I dunno how you almost married that guy," Mel said as she stood next to Evaline, leaning against the table. "Man's dull as rocks."

"Hey Mel," Evaline said, ignoring her comment. "Nice to see you again."

Still. She couldn't help but feel like she had to scold her.

Evaline turned towards Mel, eyes suddenly stern and unamused. Mel picked up in the look immediately, smiling and half-rolling her eyes.

"What?" Mel said innocently. "I know that look. I didn't do anything wrong."

"No," Evaline agreed. "But you could have told me you invited James."

She shrugged. "Did you not want him to come?"

"No, I--" Evaline faltered, then sighed as she noticed that they were already in the banquet hall. "It just caught me off guard. It certainly didn't help that you left off the convenient detail about what the flowers meant here."

Mel giggled. "It sounds like you wished he gave his corsage to you instead. You know, instead of throwing it away."

Evaline decided to not comment on that, letting a long pause sit between them.

"I know you know," she finally said in a low voice so people nearby wouldn't be able to hear.

"I know," Mel said back, still with the nonchalant innocent voice, waiting for her to elaborate.

Evaline sighed again. "Please tell me that you're not going to say anything or interfere," she said flatly.

Mel looked back at her with a 'who, me?' kind of look as she pointed at herself. "I'd never steal your man, Evaline," she teased.

Evaline groaned, crossing her arms and rubbing her face. She wanted to tell her that this was more serious than she let on, but she didn't want her to pry.

Mel giggled and then set her two hands on her shoulders behind her back. "Hey, loosen up! Everything will be just fine," she said as she gently messaged her back. "I'm just testing him. I've been--"

"What does that mean?" Evaline interrupted, but she stood still and let Mel gently massage her back as she kept her eyes forward, squinting as she tried to pick apart her words.

"It means," Mel said calmly and slowly, "I'm trying to figure out his true intentions."

Evaline still had no clue what that meant, but Mel practically lived in her own mind, and she wasn't sure she wanted to figure out what that all entailed.

"Like, it's all kind of suspicious, don't you think?" she continued on, her thumbs forming circles as she massaged under her shoulder blades. "First he was all, 'Blah blah you people are the worst,' and then he had the random aggressive and panic attack at the meeting. But I think you're right that Terra is a good fit for him, because he's really come out of his shell. Still a little sassy, but he's made some playful jokes and even danced with me. Oh yeah, to that one song we both like. Well, that I mostly like, but anyways. He's evolved and I'm still trying to figure him out and all. Figure out why he's back and stuff."

This was a lot to process for Evaline. She felt her mind lagging behind as the noise of people blurred around her, and she tightly closed her eyes to concentrate.

"You don't need to 'figure him out.' I have this under control. But also..." Evaline looked over her shoulder at her. "You danced with him?"

Mel narrowed her eyes at her and laughed, pulling her hands away as she stood by her side again. "Sounds like he needs more figuring out, huh?"

Evaline was trying to put the pieces together, but it was this piece that surprised her the most. In fact, she couldn't even imagine it. James, dancing with Mel. He barely even knew her. And unless something had changed, she knew he didn't like...

... to be touched? She wanted to say he didn't like to be touched.

She felt a small headache coming, and Evaline repressed a groan. There were so many things she could ask Mel right now, but only one question stood out among the many --

"Did he smile or laugh a lot?" she asked.

Mel looked taken back by this question. "Huh? I mean... not really. I tried to, you know, but it's a tough crowd. He does sometimes though, I guess. Why?"

James was faking it with Mel. Evaline was sure of it. She didn't blame him, though. It seemed to be a coping mechanism, and Mel could be overwhelming.

"No reason," she said softly.

Mel hummed, eyeing her closely. "You are so mysterious sometimes, you know that?"

Evaline didn't comment. She had the sudden urge to spill to James and ask him about this, but she didn't want to interrupt whatever discussion he may be having with Oliver, which also sent another knot in her stomach.

Mel was still peering up at her like she was trying to read her mind and her expression, but she knew she couldn't do either.

"I just wish you'd tell me more," Mel said, breaking the short silence that followed.

That brought Evaline's attention.

"You wish I would tell you more?" she reiterated.

"Yeah," Mel said firmly. "You haven't told me how you felt about all this. I'm just guessing... and trying to help you out, as best as I can, because I know you won't dig deeper."

Evaline sighed. She didn't need help, and now that James was here, she wished she hadn't told her anything to begin with. Knowing how cunning Mel was sometimes, she probably dropped subtle hints to James that she knew his backstory was made up.

She wished she never told her anything to begin with.

"Please don't discuss my past with him," Evaline said, voice steady. "Forget what I told you years ago. It's different that he's here now. It doesn't matter anymore. I have this under control."

Mel was quiet for a moment as she fidgeted with her hands, and then she turned towards her with a small apologetic smile.

"Sure. Okay. I trust you know what you're doing," she said softly as she played with the corsage on her wrist. "I just don't want you to get hurt again."

"Trust me," Evaline said quietly with a neutral voice. "Neither do I."

Another moment of silence passed between them, and then suddenly Mel slid her sunflower corsage out of her wrist and extended it out to her.

"Here," she said with a warm smile. "Take it. Just like old times."

Evaline stared down at the small sunflowers beaming up at her as a quick memory from when they were young kids flashed across her eyes, their laughter echoing in her mind like a haunting melody.

"...Thanks," she said after a hesitation, but then gently pushed it away. "But you know I'm not participating. Besides, wouldn't you rather give it to..." She couldn't remember his name. "...your plus one?"

Mel smiled and half-rolled her eyes, taking her hand anyways and smacking the corsage on top of her palm.

"Take it," she insisted. "Luis and I were going to hang out afterwards, regardless of some flowers. Besides..." She beamed up at her, but the smile was shy and wistful. "I do want to spend more time with you. I know we've grown apart over the years, but you're still my friend."

Evaline stared down at the corsage sitting on her palm, noticing how the small sunflowers were still big enough to almost cover her entire hand. A small part of her wanted to deny the gift again, but both the desire for rekindling what they once had and a quiet acceptance to prevent an argument won over instead. She slowly slid it over her wrist, lightly touching the petals.

"Okay," she said softly, returning a small smile of her own. "Thank you."

Evaline kept glancing at the door, and Mel seemed to pick up on it. She turned her head between Evaline and the door, back and forth, and then she laughed.

"C'mon," Mel said, as she took her hand and started to lead her towards the door. "Let's go snoop on some boys."

--<>--


So maybe Evaline did feel a bit ridiculous that she was standing in a corner, spying on James as Oliver introduced him to others. James appeared to be comfortable and relaxed, and for some reason that made Evaline even more anxious. Was that fake too? It had to be. Or maybe she was just projecting her own anxiety every time Oliver introduced him to someone new.

For some reason him knowing the people who worked with her made her feel exposed. Maybe it was because James was one of the few -- if only -- person who knew her on a personal level without really knowing her. She didn't know how long that would last at this rate, though.

Mel seemed to detect the rising anxiety and paranoia, and she started to keep talking hoping it would help calm her down. It did a little, which she appreciated.

Evaline was staring at the (what she can presume to be) incredibly awkward interaction between James and Tula when the band behind her started to play a louder upbeat song. More instruments were involved, and she knew that this usually signified a time when people started dancing.

At least... it was dancing for most people. For what she was typically used to in the old Day of Peace parties she'd gone to, the dancing was more technique and partner work. Here, it was more so for fun. She didn't think the majority of people here knew how to dance since they mostly bounced and swayed, but she didn't blame them since they probably didn't get some of the same stringent lessons she had gone though.

Still, Mel's eyes lit up, and she touched her shoulder.

"Hey, you know what we could do right now?" Mel asked.

"What?" Evaline said, but she had a gut feeling she already knew.

"Let's go dance!"

Before she could protest, Mel took her hand and led her to the middle of the cleared-off banquet hall where there were already people dancing to the beat, and she held her hands unexpectedly.

"Well?" she said. "Are you going to lead me?"

Evaline let out a small laugh, closing her eyes and shaking her head. She smiled, squeezing her hands.

"Okay," she said. "Just follow my lead."
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soundofmind says...



James nodded, looking from Oliver to the band as they started playing something more high-energy. The people who started migrating to the dancefloor weren't exactly dancing very formally.

Though he did catch a glimpse of Mel and Evaline jumping into the growing crowd. Unlike the rest of the people arond them, it looked like Evaline and Mel were starting to dance together, and Mel was following while Evaline led.

"Oh, perfect," Oliver suddenly said, turning towards his side where a man was standing next to them. James turned his head away from the dancing. It was Malkiel, the guy with the air pressure powers.

Why? Why did it have to be this way?

"Malkiel," Oliver called. "Nice to see you again."

Malkiel was standing near a line of people nearby as he was watching everyone dance, and he looked back at Oliver in a half-distracted state. When his eyes landed on James, though, he looked to be fully attentive.

"Yeah, you too, Oliver," he said, staring at James. "And him, too."

His words lacked any sincerity. It was good to know it was mutual.

Oliver seemed to detect the rising tension between the two of them. "He goes by James," he said. "In case you didn't know."

Malkiel shrugged. "Like I care," he muttered.

James looked over at Oliver with an expression that simply said: "I figured he'd say that."

Oliver took a long, deep sigh. Perhaps he was tired of the introductions not going as well as he thought. James wasn't sure what Oliver expected, but he hadn't exactly left the best impression the last time he saw most of the people in the council.

He turned towards James, stepping away from Malkiel. "It will get more crowded in here, so I suppose that's all the introductions from now. I hope this has been a helpful experience for you."

"Thank you for taking the time to bring me around to everyone," James said with a small smile. He patted Oliver on the back. "Go have some fun."

"It's my pleasure," he said with a head nod. "As your host, I should be telling you to have fun." He returned the pat on the back. "Is there anything else I can do for you before I leave to talk to the other guests?"

"No, you go on ahead," James said giving Oliver a little wave of his hand to shoo him away and a small smile.

Oliver nodded and stepped back. "Alright. Until next time, James," he said as he lifted his hand for a goodbye, and then disappeared in the crowd.

James had to keep from letting out a long sigh. He was glad that was over - or so he thought. He didn't have that much time to think or react since Malkiel's voice called out to him again.

"Hey, you," he said, hands in his pocket as he looked at him with steely eyes.

James turned to him, keeping his face neutral.

"Malkiel," he said. "What is it?"

"You're up to something," he said cooly. "I'm on to you."

James looked out at the crowd, then back at Malkiel.

"I don't know what you think I'm up to," James said. "But all I've been doing is farming, really."

"Breathing patterns are different when you lie," he said, keeping his eyes fixed on him. "You're a liar. I just don't know why you're lying. But I'll figure it out sooner than later."

Breathing patterns. How nice. More things to worry about. He could add that to the list.

"Maybe I just have anxiety," he said straight-facedly. It wasn't really a lie.

Malkiel didn't look like he bought it. Someone passed them, and he only glanced at them with a strained smile before focusing back on James.

"No," he said with a low voice, keeping his appearance casual. "You've been lying."

"Are you just going to keep saying that... or...?"

"So you're not denying it," he continued on.

"You haven't even said what I'm lying about," James countered.

Malkiel narrowed his eyes at him. "I think you're a spy," he said in an accusatory tone.

James suppressed a laugh, but a small surprised smile made it to his face and he shook his head.

"A spy," he said. "Malkiel, I'm not a spy."

And he wasn't lying about that. If Malkiel's powers were so keen to pick up breathing patterns, hopefully he'd know James was telling the truth.

Malkiel smiled tensely when another person passed. The beat of the song was picking up as well.

"If you're not from the past," he said lowly, "then where are you really from?"

Okay. So Malkiel was paying attention. James didn't want this to escalate, but he didn't know how to control his breathing patterns enough so someone with air powers couldn't tell if he was lying.

If Malkiel could sense breathing patterns, would he be able to sense James's heartrate increasing ever so slightly?

"That's a great question," he said quickly. "But I think I feel the dancefloor calling me."

Malkiel grabbed his wrist before he could move. Not very hard -- he could escape it if he desired -- but it was enough force to show that he was serious and wanted his full attention. James wondered if Malkiel was taking his pulse.

"Why is Evaline protecting you?" he asked in a hushed tone.

James didn't think he could trust Malkiel. He didn't know if Malkiel was the kind to be empathetic, or have pity, or if all he knew was control, and order. It was too soon to tell. People were complex - they were always complex - and it was impossible to know with full certainty what exactly they needed to be pushed in a certain direction.

He turned to face Malkiel head-on and grabbed the hand that was over his wrist.

"I know this doesn't answer your question," he said. "But if you know when I'm lying or not, then please know that I'm not going to hurt you, or anyone here, or anyone else. What happened with Hendrik was a moment of panic, and I thought I was in danger. But I understand now that I'm not."

He pulled his hand away from Malkiel and turned towards the dancefloor. He glanced back at Malkiel and shot him a small smile.

"See you around," he said, before he hurried into the dancing crowd. When he briefly looked over his shoulder to glance at him, Malkiel was staring straight back with a stoic face, unmoved with his hands in his pockets. He wasn't sure how he took his words.

Right in time, the music came to a dramatic end. Some people left the dance floor, but even more entered as a new song began, and the crowd fully engulfed him. As he weaved through the crowd he went with the flow of the dancers, he paused when he saw Mel and Evaline standing amidst the crowd, standing and holding hands.

They were talking to each other until he made eye contact wtih Mel first. She gestured at him, and Evaline then looked over, scanning the crowd until she met his eyes. She let go of Mel's hands and then lifted a hand up as a small wave, offering a small smile. James took that as his cue to hurry over. He was not about to get swept away by the crowd.

He came up next to them, flashing a smile.

"Well, I think I've met everyone on the council now," he said breathily with what was meant to be obvious fake enthusiasm.

"Oh, yeah, it was very nice to meet you," Mel said with thick sarcasm and a dramatic voice.

"You could've told me about the flowers," James said, shooting her a look.

"Don't worry," Evaline said, shooting her the same look. "I already said that to her."

Mel shrugged innocently, then pointed at a random direction in the crowd. "Hey, I think I see my date over there. I'm going to go now," she said as she then quickly weaved her way through the crowd without saying goodbye.

Evaline sighed and watched her leave before looking back at James with a small smile. "I hope the introductions weren't as awful as it looked," she said.

"It was..." James said, his pitch rising a bit. "Yyyyyyyeah," he said with a sigh.

A dancer stepped dangerously close to them, but they backed away before they could get any closer.

"I don't envy you," Evaline murmured as she shuffled to her side.

"I'm just glad it's ove--" James stopped when someone hit his hip with their butt on accident, and he scooted to the side.

Evaline let out a short laugh and then looked down, shaking her head with a smile. She then extended a hand out as an invitation to dance.

"Come on," she said. "We're already here."

James paused for a second, looking down at her hand. He looked up at her with a small, relieved smile.

Probably his first real smile of the afternoon.

He took her hand, and she began to lead him to a more spacious part of the floor before she turned to face him and took his other hand.

"How much partner dancing do you know?" she asked as she stood in front of him with both his hands in hers.

"Far more than I do any other kind of dancing," James said, still with a small smile. "I'll follow your lead."

"So, you want me to lead, and you'll follow," she said to clarify.

"I can lead, it just sounded like you had something in mind," he said with a little laugh.

Evaline lightly smiled and then gently squeezed his fingers. "It's fine," she said. "I'll do whatever makes you the most comfortable."

James glanced around them for a moment. It would be easier if he could do something familiar. Easier on his mind, anyway.

"I'll lead, then," he said softly. "Okay?"

Evaline nodded. "I'm sure I can follow you just fine," she said. "Whenever you're ready."

James nodded, and then gave the first cue.
  





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Thu May 06, 2021 3:05 am
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Carina says...



Evaline was pleasantly surprised that James could dance -- but not just dance; he could dance well. The last time she could remember having a formal dance was when she was still living in the sectors during the Day of Peace. It was tradition to dance during that day, and she had always thought of it as a fun activity to both follow and lead, especially since there were other people who were at her level or even better.

It actually felt nostalgic to have another competitive formal dance again. It was a nice change of pace, even though she felt rusty.

The song started slow at first, and James seemed to ease into it, starting with the basic footwork, right hand turns, and cross body leads. As the song picked up and the singer started to sing the lyrics, James started on more complex moves. Some were tricky -- like a subtle signal to spin before coming back into closed position -- but Evaline picked up on it.

It almost... felt like a challenge. And in a way, maybe it was. Even Oliver, who had gone through the same dance lessons she had when they were kids, was still a lousy dancer. It really had been a while since she danced with someone who challenged her.

Evaline kept up, even deciding to test out a few styling moves herself with her arms and legs, but James seemed to one-up her every time. It was like he was waiting for her to reach her potential first before he reached his, but Evaline was beginning to suspect that her potential was not as high as his.

She grinned when he led her into a triple turn, and her hair became a bit more loose. But he still continued to lead quickly with the rhythm of the beat. Evaline realized she missed a few of his signals, but he seemed to play it off smoothly, gently easing back so that he wouldn't overwhelm her.

She stumbled a little with her leg, but he caught her, their hands holding on to each other tightly for increased connection. Evaline looked up at him with an appreciative smile.

It was always at the back of her head to wonder what James was thinking. And ever since Mel told her that he had danced with her, the voice was only getting louder. And it was louder, now, that he had met the people she worked with. It was loud, and it was asking: how much of this are you faking?

She wished she knew.

And as if her mind had detected that wish, a memory flashed across her eyes, fully engulfing her in the moment as a different person.

Like she was James. Because this was James. She was seeing through his eyes.

This was his memory that seemed to be accidentally triggered.

James and Evaline were dancing in the moonlight. There was a fire nearby, crackling, and a waterfall behind them creating a calming blanket of white noise under the open sky of stars. It was calm, and the mood was light, like they'd been joking around only moments before.

James was struggling to move with his leg. The pain was constant, stabbing, and throbbing, and yet he seemed to push through it with comparable ease as they slowly danced over the field of grass in the dark.

There was no music. It was just the two of them, dancing to the rhythm of the waterfall, and James seemed content. Happy to be dancing, even though he was in physical pain. A little concerned, it seemed, that he'd done or said something wrong, or made things awkward. But he was sincere, and sincerely enjoying it, like it'd been a while since he'd danced.


Evaline had no idea if James realized that he had unintentionally shared that with her, but she let out an awkward "ahahah" as he continued the dance. And now she was sloppy.

How could she not be when she had unintentionally seen a memory?

Maybe it wasn't so bad. Despite her racing thoughts, she actually felt content enjoying the moment. Although, there was a phantom sharp pain on her leg, and it only made the dance even sloppier. She tried to hold back the pained expression.

Still, besides the pain, this really wasn't too different than what she felt before. So it wasn't bad.

It had been a long time since she used her memory power. It had been a long time since it happened even on purpose. But it was okay. She was okay.

Evaline held on to the remnants of the memory before it faded away, wanting to reflect on it after the dance so she could fully focus on it. It was hard to decide what she wanted to do with it at that moment, but she'd figure it out later. After the song.

She knew she was getting sloppy, missing his signals and having weak balance. James seemed to figure out that the connection was suddenly off, but like any good lead, he dropped down to her level and started back at the top so that he wouldn't overwhelm her.

"Sorry," she said when he started with just the basic footwork again.

"It's okay," he said with a smile.

He eased into the song some more even though it was coming to an end soon. Evaline picked up on this and started to loosen up, accepting his challenge again and deciding to give it her all. James started to lead more with a heavy hand, and although it was easier, this only made her feel more competitive since she knew that heavy leading was for beginner followers, and she felt like she had to prove herself.

The song started to speed to a dramatic end. Evaline laughed as she followed into more dramatic spins and turns, and they finished with a twirl at the closed position, one hand in his while another was on his back, and his on her waist. Pleased with how it ended, she smiled and made eye contact with him.

She couldn't help that the voice at the back of her head echoed again, wondering if any of this was real, and if not, what was going through his head.

And it was in that brief moment that another accidental memory was triggered.

They were dancing again, but this time there was the sound of a beating drum and a flute, and a powerful sweet voice singing a melody. James's heart seemed to be racing, like he was nervous, and there were butterflies in his stomach as he led Evaline into a dip. For a fraction of a fraction of a second, they stopped, their faces mere inches from each other, with their eyes meeting.

He liked her, but he was scared too. Afraid to feel it. Afraid she didn't feel the same way.


James averted his eyes away for a moment as he was catching his breath. When he looked back up at her he smiled softly.

Evaline had no idea how many seconds had passed. She stood there frozen, still staring at James wide-eyed, feeling her face turn hot red. It registered to her that the music in the background had changed and people were walking past them, but it all felt like a blur. Like white noise. Like she was separated from reality, looking inwards.

"You okay?" he asked gently. His eyes softened in concern.

James's voice cut through like a knife splitting her attention, and it yanked her back to reality. Evaline blinked furiously and abruptly let go, placing her hands on her cheeks. Warm, just like how it felt.

A loud, nervous laugh escaped her throat as she closed her eyes and looked off to her side, trying to find a distraction.

Did James know he just did that? Surely he felt the same thing she did.

A wistful longing. A repressed desire.

He had to have felt that, right?

"I -- um --" she began, but then nervously laughed again. "Okay."

James tilted his head slightly to the side, then looked out at the crowd around them. Another song was starting up slowly, and people were starting to dance again.

"Why don't we take a break?" he suggested. "Maybe get some water."

Evaline was already walking. Quickly now, without looking back at James, but he briskly followed behind.

Water. Yes. Maybe water to throw at her face too, but she didn't want to attract more attention than necessary. She just needed to get out of the dance floor, and she needed to calm her racing heart beat. And most of all, she needed to wring herself away of what she was feeling right now. She couldn't look him in the eye without her stomach doing little flips.

She could wonder the implications later. This took priority.

When she reached the table full of drink options, Evaline grabbed a glass and filled it with water from the pitcher, then quickly drank all of it. She almost decided to grab a wine glass and down that too, but then thought better of it.

The cool water helped. It traveled down smoothly, and the feelings started to fade. The memory, however, was imprinted in her brain whether she liked it or not.

She sighed, setting the glass down, glancing at James who stood next to her.

"...You're sure you're okay?" he asked softly, almost whispering.

"I'm okay!" Evaline said way too loudly for his tone, but then cleared her throat and dialed it back a bit. "I mean. Yes. I just -- are you okay?"

James still looked like he was watching her with concern.

"As okay as I can be," he said, still keeping his voice low so only she could hear. "Did... I do something? Did something happen?"

James didn't know. Of course he didn't. The person who shared the memory often wasn't aware when the memory was unknowingly and unintentionally shared, because they were thinking through it anyways.

He was thinking through the memory while they danced, and she knew that the same emotions surfaced for him. Did he not notice? Surely he felt it too. Surely he had to have noticed.

Evaline didn't want to have this conversation. Not now -- and frankly, not ever. But she couldn't just ignore this between the two of them, especially since he knew something was wrong. She almost suggested they go somewhere quieter first, but the next sentence escaped her lips before she could stop it.

"I saw the memories," she said quickly, the last word said softer so that no one would overhear their conversation.

She kept her eyes ahead while fidgeting with Mel's corsage, trying to blend in, but probably failing since she looked like a nervous wreck. Her face still felt warm, she felt sweat build up on her back and her chest, and her hair hung loose and needed to be redone.

"I saw the memories," she said again in a hushed tone, hesitating before looking over to gauge his reaction. "...The ones of us. Dancing, in the past."

James's eyes widened slightly, but it was clear that he was holding back. He was still for a moment, and then the look faded into something calm and collected. He had to be faking.

"I'm so sorry," he said, hushed, but earnest. "I didn't know. We should talk about this later, but not here. Do you need space for a moment?"

Evaline wasn't sure. She had already mentioned it, and part of her just wanted to get this over with now, even when they were in an inconvenient place and time. But the rational side of her knew that she needed time to think before saying or doing anything rash. Although, the longer she waited, the more this was going to weigh on her mind. And she didn't want that, either.

"I think so. Maybe. I... I'm not sure." She bit her lip for a moment, forcing herself to just pick something. "Yes. We can talk later," she finally said.

"If you want to give me a ride home, we can talk on the ride back," James suggested.

"Sure, yes. We can do that," Evaline said quickly, tightly holding on to the sunflower around her wrist as she looked around, feeling exposed now that she was more wary of her surroundings.

James looked like he was attempting a comforting smile, but it seemed a little strained. His eyes had flicked behind her, like someone was approaching.

Feeling on edge, Evaline whirled around, expecting... well, she didn't know who she expected. But somehow it didn't surprise her that it was Oliver extending a hand for her to take.

He opened his mouth to ask for a dance, but she didn't even wait for him to begin asking, because she took his hand and quickly marched towards the dance floor without glancing back.

Oliver asked her to dance every year -- it was their tradition, or so he says -- but Evaline normally wasn't looking forward to it, and would sometimes hide just to avoid it.

But a bad dance was just the distraction she needed.
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Thu May 06, 2021 5:36 am
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soundofmind says...



James watched as Oliver pulled Evaline back onto the dancefloor. He could tell Evaline's mind was spinning - with what thoughts, he didn't know, but if she'd seen and experienced the memories that had flashed through his mind during their dance, he only wished he could take them back. He hadn't meant to burden her with his own mix of emotions, attatched to memories she'd probably suppressed and forgotten.

He was just making a mess of things. Everything. This whole party was a disaster. He couldn't manage to say one thing right, could he? The only thing that seemed to have gone smoothly was probably his interactions with Oliver, but that was only because Oliver was probably just as fake as him.

He took a glass of water off the table and took a drink slowly. While Evaline had practically chugged down a whole glass, James felt that if he did that, he'd probably throw up on the spot. He was starting to feel queasy as his nerves made their way to his stomach and started building up pressure. Except, it felt like it was building up back towards his throat.

He took another sip of water, swallowing hard. He could push it down for a little while, but he knew he wouldn't be able to hold it back forever.

He watched the next dance go on from the side, only half-paying attention to Evaline and Oliver's heads bobbing throughout the crowd. It looked like Oliver was trying to prove himself or something. James didn't care. He was more concerned for Evaline, but maybe she needed the distraction. Or maybe she just needed to be away from him to clear her head.

But those were all assumptions.

When he finished his drink he set the glass down on the nearest table and started walking around the edges of the room to avoid the crowd and make it back outside. He didn't make it very far before he saw a now-familiar face staring back at him.

It was Malkiel again.

James only gave him a nod of acknoledgement, and planned on walking by, but Malkiel had other plans. He stood in his way and started to talk.

"I saw you dancing with Evaline," he said as a greeting. "You two dance a lot?"

"Not together," James said. "This was more of a spur of the moment sort of thing."

He realized he implied that he danced a lot by himself but he didn't care enough to correct himself. If Malkiel thought he danced all the time, so be it.

Malkiel was studying him. "So this was the first time you've danced with her," he said.

James chose to pretend that Malkiel had only been asking about his time on Earth. Because then, the answer was:

"Yes," he said.

He seemed to buy it, but that didn't stop the interrogation.

"What a shame," Malkiel continued on, still watching him closely. "You two are very good dancers."

James started to weave around him. "Thanks," he said. "Comes with practice."

Malkiel, of course, stood in his way again. "We both used to dance," he said as he shuffled in front of him. "Quite often. But now it looks like she's found a new partner."

James looked at him blankly. "It's just one dance," he said. "I'm sure you could ask her to dance too if you wanted."

Malkiel mirthlessly laughed. "It always just starts with one dance. But then you'll want another, and another, and another. Those days are over now, though." He flicked his eyes over to the dance floor. "Just thought I'd pass a friendly warning. You clearly don't know what you're getting into."

"What well-intentioned, ominous, unsolicited advice," James said with a fake smile.

Malkiel huffed through his nose and gazed out on the dance floor again. Evaline and Oliver just happened to be at clear view in front of them for a few seconds.

"She does have a bangin' body though, doesn't she?" he said.

James's smile faded into unamusement and he slow-blinked at Malkiel.

"I never took you for one to be so respectful with your words," James said.

"Like I said," Malkiel continued on, ignoring his comment. "You've been warned. She may be attractice, but she's not one to dance with."

James continued to stare at Malkiel, unimpressed.

"You guys are really weird about dancing in the future," he muttered, and again attempted to brush past him.

Malkiel let him pass this time, but their shoulders did bump into each other. He didn't seem to hear his comment.

"I don't trust you, but man-to-man, I'm just trying to pass the wisdom," he said as James started to walk away.

Malkiel still kept talking, louder this time despite James's increasing distance. He was beginning to suspect that he may be intoxicated.

"You know what they say," Malkiel said, still far away. "Bros before --"

James didn't get to hear him finish as he left the banquet hall and made it outside again. The outdoor seating area wasn't as crowded as it was inside, and the air felt clearer. Less people watching him, and less air-powered people measuring his breaths. Less interrogation.

He could feel his stomach bubble again, and he had to fight to not look as green as he felt. The problem was, he knew if he ran, it would all come up at once, but walking slowly felt like a gamble. But it was the only reasonable choice.

He started wandering towards the garden, not looking at anyone directly at the risk of inviting unwanted attention. He noticed Alistair eating at a bench near the garden's archway, but didn't acknoledge him.

Of course, James didn't have the luck of being ignored.

"You alright?" he asked as James walked past. "You look like you might throw up."

How observant.

"I just need some air," James said, flashing a smile. His stomach gurgled again, and he started walking through the archway. "Enjoy your food."

Alistair didn't move, watching him walk past him instead. "Well, alright," he said, and then looked past the garden. "There's a trash can over there if you do end up puking," he added, gesturing to a tall bin between two trees, not quite away from the view of everyone, but away from the vicinity of others.

"Noted," was all James said before he hurried out of earshot. It was then that he started to hasten his pace, winding down the path, past the bench him and Evaline sat at, and further in, to a corner of bushes and trees. Had he had time to pick the perfect spot, he would've, but at that point, it was coming up whether he wanted it to or not.

To avoid getting any vomit on his suit, he bent over, and aimed away from himself as much as he could.

He felt pathetic. All of the food from the beginning of the party was coming back up, and it burned his throat. It all came out at once, and when he was done, he found a stick and buried it. As he tossed the stick away, he heard his name.

Or rather, a nickname.

"Hey, baby man!" Hendrik's voice boomed behind him. He yelled since he wasn't close enough to be within earshot, and that seemed to grab the attention of others nearby as well.

James wanted to pass away. Right now would be nice. He turned to look at Hendrik. Now there were several eyes on him. Great. At least he hadn't gotten any vomit on himself.

Just to be safe, though, he gave himself a once-over. He was clear. He sighed and rolled his eyes, walking towards the exit of the garden where he'd come in. And of course Hendrik was on the way, with Zameer and his plus one, who he didn't remember the name of if he'd even gotten it.

James accepted at this point that Hendrik probably wouldn't let him pass by without a fuss either. Before he got too close, he swallowed hard and brought his hand up to his nose to scratch it, but at the same time, breathed into his palm to check his breath.

Okay. It wasn't terrible. But if anyone got close to his face, they would smell it. Hopefully not one did. There was no reason to.

"What were you burying out there?" Hendrik asked with a too-loud voice as he was still approaching. "Babies?"

Hendrik laughed loudly at his own joke. Zameer shook his head and turned to his plus one, lightly chatting over him.

James decided to ignore Hendrik and kept walking. And of course, Hendrik being much taller and bigger than he was, stood in front of the archway. James slowed as he approached.

"What's the rush, man baby?" he said with his arms crossed. "It's a party. Loosen up and have fun a little."

"Can't have fun if I'm too busy burying babies," James said dryly.

"Hah!" Hendrik laughed, and turned to Zameer, who was still ignoring him. "This guy's got jokes."

James only sighed quietly.

Hendrik suddenly put an arm around his shoulder, pulling him closer to him. James had been pretty desensitized to touch, and having his boundaries bulldozed over a million times, but still, he never did feel safe being held by someone bigger and stronger than him.

"I'll have to visit you in Terra and hear more of your jokes," he said way too loudly in his ear with a failed attempt of a whisper. James could smell the booze in his breath.

"I'll try to think of more, then," James said far more quietly, trying to keep the smell of his own breath from traveling too far.

Hendrik's sense of smell must have been very keen, because he loudly sniffed a few times and then pushed him away, making a sour face.

"You smell awful," he said. "What did you eat?"

"I saw him puke!" Zameer's plus one said with a mischevious grin and a giggle.

Zameer stared at her and sighed, slapping down her hand as she gestured to where he buried his puke. James heard him mutter something along the lines of "mind your own damn business" before he pulled her in and changed the subject.

James stared blankly at an indeterminate point among them. He had been lying when he said he could endure a day of parties. Yes, he could endure it, maybe. But not if it kept going like this. Zameer was talking to the girl, and Hendrik was still looking at James, expecting some kind of explanation.

"The grilled vegetables didn't--" he made a quick gesture from his mouth to his stomach, up and down. "You know. It's fine. Sorry I smell."

Even though Hendrik knew he had just vomitted, he still casually slapped his hand on his lower back, but then it conveniently slipped down to his butt when he came in for another pat-slap.

"That's all right," Hendrik said, not even acknowledging the butt slap. "Vegetables aren't very yummy, are they?"

James could feel his soul depart from his body.

"Disgusting," James said blankly. Zameer and the girl had left, leaving the archway partially open. He tried to move past Hendrik.

"Say," Hendrik said as he suddenly transferred his weight to his other foot, now conveniently leaning toward the side that was open. "What happened to your flowers?"

"Vomit," he said as a one-word explanation.

"You vomitted flowers and vegetables?"

Hendrik must've been very drunk. That, or it wasn't as obvious of an answer as he thought. James still felt nauseous.

"I didn't realize what they were for," James said, as a second attempt at an explanation. "We didn't have... Day of Peace, back then. I took it off."

It was like Hendrik only heard part of his explanation. He suddenly brought him close again, wrapping his arm around his shoulder and pulling him in.

"Poor guy, you didn't get the explanation," Hendrik said. "But it's simple. You simply give your corsage away to someone you want to sleep with tonight. So? Who'd you give it to?"

"...No one," James said.

Hendrik let out a dramatic "whaaaat?" as he shook his head and then patted his upper arm. "Who would you give it to, then?" he asked. "Need help asking? I'm great at being a wingman."

James had a feeling that drunken Hendrik would fail to pick up on any subtleties. Which, unfortunately, meant saying his answer plainly.

"I don't want to sleep with anyone," he said. "That's why I took it off."

Hendrik waited for him to elaborate, but when he didn't, he looked like he was thinking really hard about his answer.

"I see," he said. "No one here is good enough for you, huh? Sly dog."

James was beginning to feel a little trapped under Hendrik's arm, and after his incident with punching Hendrik, he was wary of repeating anything that hinted at physical violence.

"It has nothing to do with that," James said. "I just don't want to. Simple as that."

"Ahhhh, a personal choice then," Hendrik said, finally arriving at the correct conclusion. "Well, good luck with that." He still did not let him go.

James looked at Hendrik's hand on his shoulder, then back up at Hendrik's face.

"Are you going to let me go?" he asked.

"Maybe if you ask nicely," Hendrik replied.

James really hoped Hendrik wasn't thinking back to his "I will not grovel" comment. He did not need more embarassment for today.

"Please let me go?" James asked with what little dignity he had left.

Hendrik looked pleased, and finally pulled away his arm, but not before patting his shoulder down harder than the other times he had down it.

"Go," he said, gesturing him away with a little wave. "Go forth and not make babies, baby man."

"Will do," James said stiffly, before he walked away. He glanced over at Alistair, who was still sitting at the bench where he'd last seen him. They both made eye contact, but neither of them said anything, and James was almost relieved, but Arima was also sitting beside Alistair, and had to open her mouth.

"James," she called with a small smile. "Everything okay?"

They probably overheard all of that. They might've even seen it if they tried. Why did she need to ask? Couldn't she do the math? Why couldn't people just leave him alone now?

She scooted down, which prompted Alistair to scoot down too.

"Sit," she said as she patted the open spot next to her. "If you want. I thought you could use a breather."

It was at that moment that James realized that there was no escaping this party, or social interactions. He was going to see these people again whether he liked it or not, and he was going to have to learn how to get along with them.

He was going to have to learn to do better under pressure. It wasn't just his life on the line now. Evaline was involved, and if he got discovered, so would she. He had to do better. He had to be better.

He met Arima's eyes and put on a look of relief and let out a sigh, like he was happy for the offer. He walked over to the bench and sat down at the other end, wearily leaning back into it and propping one arm up on the side.

"Thanks," he said quietly.

Now he probably did look like he had anxiety. First, with the panic attack, and now with the vomiting. At least it was an easier and less complicated explanation than the truth, which had way too many layers to unpack.

"It's no problem," she said with a smile. She studied him for a moment. "We don't need to talk. I just thought you'd need a place to sit and look like you're busy so you wouldn't get bothered."

"I appreciate it," James said with a slight grateful grin.

She nodded and then glanced back at Alistair, who was silent and staying out of it despite predicting that he would puke and then overhearing the conversation from Hendrik.

"Stay here as long as you'd like. Let me know if you need anything," Arima said, lingering her gaze on him for another moment before returning her conversation with Alistair.

James made it look like he was passively listening to their conversation so that people didn't feel like they could pull him away from it, but in reality, he wasn't listening at all. Their words traveled in one ear and out the other, and all James could do was replay the mess of every single conversation that had happened in the past two hours.

He couldn't help but think about what would happen after.

Mel had promised to answer his questions, but he was going back with Evaline, who also wanted to talk. His conversation with Mel would have to come later, and he hoped it would, since she said she never broke her promises. But everyone said that.

And he still had to go to Josiah's party. Maybe, since that was close to his home, he didn't have to go the whole time? Would Isabel be heartbroken if he went home early? She would understand if he was tired after two parties in a row, right?

No, she probably wouldn't. She was a lot of things, but not necessarily the most empathetic person around. James would just have to... power through.

But if Evaline was taking him home, and visiting him the next day anyway...

She'd probably want to stay the night. It was only practical.

But that also meant he wouldn't have an escape until... 48 or so hours from now.

Two days was nothing. He'd done months before, right? With only temporary respites? He'd been stuck on a ship, living in close quarters with a bunch of other people for months. Working togther, living together, breathing the same air. But he'd never had as complex of a relationship with them as he did with Evaline.

She was probably able to see through all of the masks he was putting up. Or, at worst, he was just confusing her. She didn't seem to know what was really "him" anymore.

Neither did he.

The rest of the night went on much less eventfully. Over the course of the next ninety minutes or so, Arima and Alistair had switched turns getting up. James's silence seemed to indicate that he appreciated the offer to sit and breathe, and they seemed to want to hold on to that deal for as long as possible. The few times that he was left alone with Alistair, he only gave him glances but didn't say anything else as he read a small notepad while waiting for Arima to return.

Finally, however, they both decided to leave the bench.

"We're leaving the party," Arima said as they both got up. She smiled at him before she could get too far. "It was nice to meet you, James."

"You too, Arima," James said. "And Alistair."

Alistair lifted a hand as a wave. "Take care of yourself," he said. He then took Arima's hand and they both left the room, leaving James by himself.

James gave them one last wave.

"Will do."

Finally, James stood up and began to search the ever-decreasing crowd for Mel or Evaline. Neither were outside, so he headed towards the banquet hall doors, hoping no one else would spring up on him.

James quickly looked around the hall, noticing that some of the food was getting packed away, and the now-small band was playing background music. It seemed that the party was going to wrap up soon, especially since there were less people than at its peak.

His eyes scanned the room to find Mel or Evaline, and to his dismay, he accidentally landed on Tula who was chatting with Katya and staring him down. She looked like she was going to approach, and James really hoped she wasn't thinking of asking him to go home with her after their conversation.

"James," Evaline's voice said from behind. "There you are. Are you ready to leave?"

James turned around.

"Oh, Evaline," he said. "Yes, I'm ready." He scanned the crowd again, giving it a once-over. "Did Mel leave already? I just want to make sure she's not waiting for me..."

Evaline already began to motion for him to follow her out.

"She hasn't, but I already told her that I'd take you back," she said, then paused for a moment. "Do you want to say bye to her before we leave?"

"Sure," James said before he could really think it through.

She stopped walking, then quickly glanced around. "Okay. I think she's upstairs," she murmured as she headed for the spiral staircase. "Follow me."

Jamed noded and did just that. They wordlessly went up the stairs, passing a few people who were coming down. When they reached the top, James could see that it was lined with doors -- bedrooms, he assumed -- and the hallway leading up to them were lined with benches and various paintings.

Mel could be seen sitting on a bench with Luis, but when they walked towards her, she noticed them and smiled, standing back up.

"Hey guys," she called. "What's up?"

"We're about to leave," Evaline said, then gestured back at James. "Thought we'd say bye."

"Ohhhh, right, right," Mel mused. "You're taking him back. Unless, James, you'd rather I take you back...?"

"No, it's fine," James said with a small smile. "I'll go with Evaline, but I wanted to thank you for bringing me."

Mel obnoxiously curtsied and said in her best Oliver expression: "It's my pleasure."

James rolled his eyes with a smile.

"Wow. Okay. I'll see you later, then, Mel," he said.

Mel nodded. "Yeah. Later. Who knows how long that could be... Could be a month... Maybe two... It's really hard to know sometimes. But we'll probs talk again sometime, right?"

"Yes," James said, briefly meeting her eyes. "We should."

"Mmmhmm. Should."

Evaline glanced between the two of them, knowing that she was missing some kind of context here. "Everything's... okay?" she asked, mostly to Mel.

"Dandy," Mel said with a smile. "I'll see you later, then?"

Evaline nodded, but Mel then came in for a brief hug, pulling away after a few seconds.

"Or at least use your radio?" Mel said after she pulled away, still smiling.

Evaline returned the faint smile. "I will," she said. "Thanks for helping out last week. I'll see you around."

"Have a good rest of the night~" Mel said to the both of them as she sat back down next to Luis and waved them off.

Evaline waved back and then led James back down the staircase. "Did you want to say goodbye to anyone else before we leave?" she asked.

"Nope," James said with an emphasized "p."

Evaline picked up the implication that he hadn't met anyone worth saying goodbye to, and she shot him a curious look, but then continued forward.

"Alright. Let's get going, then."
  





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Carina says...



James and Evaline both went down the stairs and then looped their way towards the exit until, finally, they left the cabin and were headed towards the parking lot. It felt like a breath of fresh air to be walking away from the party. But maybe it only felt that way because they were outside without people standing nearby.

Evaline sighed a breath of relief when it was just the two of them, and she began to lead him towards her bike.

And then it hit her that James probably had never ridden a motorized bike.

"So, you've probably read about cars," Evaline said as she gestured to the parking lot that was unorganized with different methods of transportation with no particular order. "And motorcycles. And bikes. But I assume you haven't ridden in any of them before."

"This would be a first for me, yes," he said, putting his hands in his pockets as he looked at the bike that they stood in front of.

Spoiler! :
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Evaline chuckled, but she realized a second after that it was out of nerves.

"Well," she said as she knocked the kickstand up and held the bike up by the handles as she sat down. "If I'd have known I'd be taking you back, I'd have came in through a different mode of transportation. But... it's easier than riding a horse."

"I'll take your word for it," he said as he hopped onto the seat behind her. "Anything I should know?"

Evaline thought for a moment as she turned on the engine. She looked back where his feet were then gestured to where it should be.

"Place your feet over here and hold on to my waist. Lean towards me, especially when I turn. That's all, really." She paused. "And also, if you get uncomfortable at all during the ride, I'll stop, or ride slower. Don't hesitate to let me know since this is all new to you."

"Will do," he said, leaning forward a little and putting his arms around her waist.

Evaline knew this was all for practical reasons, and others had ridden with her countless of times before. Still, she couldn't help but feel a little awkward, especially since they hadn't addressed what happened during the dance.

"It's about an hour and a half drive to Terra," she said. "Do you want to take a break in the middle? Or multiple breaks?"

"What time is it now?" James asked.

Evaline had stopped wearing a watch years ago, but she did glance at the clock in the banquet hall before they left. "It's about 4pm," she said.

"Ah," James said. "We can take a break in the middle, but let's feel it out. I just have to be back before 7. We've got time."

Evaline nodded. "Sure. I know a good stopping point. Ready?"

"Ready."

"Okay. Hold on tight."

She accelerated forward and placed her feet on the bed of the bike, starting slow but increasing speed as they got away from the cabin. James followed her instructions and held to her, also leaning on her when she turned.

They were on the road for some time, and they didn't pass anyone else. It was rare to pass someone in general, but she figured that the Day of Peace would bring in a bigger crowd. Maybe other people took the older roads instead.

They rode in silence for quite some time, going as fast as the bike allowed. The wind brushed passed her face sharply, but she was used to it at this point. Her hair had basically fallen out of her bun from the ride, but she'd redo it later.

About 45 minutes passed, and as promised, Evaline slowed down so that James could get a break. Or maybe the break was for the two of them to talk. She had a feeling that was coming, and she felt nervous as she passed a small valley that had a cliffside scenic lookout-point on the side of the road. She came to a complete stop and then set her foot down, turning off the engine.

"You okay?" she asked James, looking over her shoulder.

James didn't respond right away. He almost looked like he was in pain, but it wasn't overt. Before Evaline could say anything, he got off the side of the vespa. She followed after him, setting the kickstands back up. It looked like he was fine for a moment, but but then a brief look crossed across his face. He looked a little green.

This was his first time on anything like this. James must have felt sick from the ride. Likely motion sickness. She opened her mouth to apologize, but then he lifted up a finger to Evaline, as if to say: "a moment please."

He then walked over to the nearest tree, stuck out one arm to lean on it, and leaned over to throw up. At first, it looked like something came up, but then nothing. He was just dry heaving for a few seconds before he painfully cleared his throat and stayed there for a moment, breathing heavy.

"...Do you need water?" Evaline said by the bike, wanting to help, but figuring he needed to get this out of his system first.

"Maybe," James said hoarsely. "Just... a minute."

She pulled out a small metal bottle from the small compartment that she had filled up with water before coming to the party. "Take your time," she said gently. "There's no rush."

He stayed there for another minute, possibly waiting to see if there was more that would come up, but there wasn't. Eventually, he slowly stood up straight and turned back around to her, patting his jacket and adjusting it while he cleared his throat. Thankfully, it looked like he hadn't gotten any on himself.

He walked back over to Evaline.

"Sorry about that," he said, still hoarse.

"I should be the one apologizing," she said as she handed him the bottle with the lid already open for him. "I should have warned you that this may happen. I can slow down take a less winding path for the remainder of the trip."

James took the bottle and took three solid gulps before swallowing and pulling it away. He let out a sigh.

"If that helps," he said. "That would be nice."

"And let me know if you need more breaks," Evaline added. "It's really no bother."

James nodded and took another drink. He seemed to still be trying to hide the nausea.

Evaline looked out at the view of the cliffs, noting how the ocean could be seen in the distance. She felt bad that James couldn't enjoy the view as much since he was nauseuous.

She wondered if that meant he wasn't in the right frame of mind to talk.

"The party was... overwhelming for you," she said. "And now you have motion sickness. We can just sit and enjoy the view until you feel better, if you prefer."

James looked at her for a moment, took another long drink of water, then offered the bottle back to her. She took it and then placed it back in the compartment.

"We can sit and talk," he said, his voice sounding like it was still recovering. "It's okay."

"Okay," Evaline murmured as she glanced ahead of them towards a bench. "But let's just sit for a minute. It was a long ride. You need some time to recover."

Remarkably, James didn't argue. He only nodded and looked between her and the bench before starting towards it, sitting down on the end with his elbow up on the arm of the bench, and his chin in his hand. Evaline followed him and sat on the other end, legs together with her hands neatly perched on top. It was hard to sit in any casual position with a formal dress on.

Evaline wanted to say something to let him know he could take his time before saying anything, but she was afraid he'd take that as a sign to spark conversation, so instead she quietly gazed at the view in front of them, patiently waiting for him to recover.

About two minutes passed before he spoke.

"I'm sorry about the memories," he said quietly. "I didn't mean to show you, and I know you didn't ask for it either."

Evaline expected this to come up, but for whatever reason, it still caught her off guard. Maybe she was still used to everyone at the party still skirting around what they really want to say, and she was expecting James to begin with some kind of transition. Even though she inwardly winced at the topic, she still felt a bit glad that he was at least being transparent.

"It's... fine," she said after too-long of a pause, her hands starting to bunch up the extra fabric of her dress. "Like you said, it was an accident. I don't blame you. It wasn't your fault."

"Still," James said. "I know it sucked. For you."

Evaline kept her gaze at a cliff in the distance, closer to the ocean. "It... did catch me off guard," she said, then paused, the question coming to the surface that she asked herself at the time. "You really didn't notice it?"

James was still staring blankly off into the distance, just like her.

"Without meaning to sound edgy," he said. "It kind of just blended in with everything else. There was a lot going on. It's not that I didn't think anything of it. I just... to me it felt more just like, well... I was thinking about it. That's all."

Even though neither of them were analyzing each other's appearance, Evaline still felt her heart rate slowly increasing, feeling like she was being watched. Like she was being exposed, somehow. And she was partly to blame, because she kept wanting to know the answers.

"I know," she said softly. "That's partly why it happened. Because you were thinking of it, and it's -- it's a memory by association. You don't have a lot of control over it, sometimes. I guess, though, I was more wondering..." She bunched her hands up even more. "If you didn't notice how you felt, then I was just wondering -- more confused really -- how." She paused, realizing she didn't make any sense. "Or why. Why you didn't feel any different? Or, how...? I don't know. I'm just... not trying to assume anything."

James was quiet for a few seconds, and the pause felt like an eternity. She broke her gaze and stole a glance at him, trying to gauge his reaction. He was still in the same position with his chin in hands, blankly looking out over the landscape. He looked tired, or maybe sick. It was hard to know for sure.

"I did feel it," he started. "The emotions associating with the memories. I just... well, I wasn't aware you felt them too, and I just kind of..."

He paused, sighing. He lifted his chin out of his hand and slowly leaned back into the bench, setting one hand in his lap while the other was still propped on the arm of the bench.

"I just swept them under the rug, so to speak," he said. "Until I realized it affected you, it didn't make sense to bring it up."

Evaline didn't know what to say, and a too-long uncomfortable silence passed as she slowly turned back towards the view in front of them.

"I remember," she said softly. "I don't know why you didn't tell me we've already played two truths and a lie before."

"I thought you forgot," James said, matching her tone. "And you seemed like you wanted to play it, so I thought I'd just let it happen."

Evaline was quiet for another moment. "I did forget," she said. "But the dance near the waterfall, under the moon. That was during the game when you didn't believe I could dance... Wasn't it?"

"It was," he said quietly.

Evaline let another small silence pass again. She didn't want to mess anything up with her anxiety, so she played through her words in her head before saying them out loud.

"You reminded me of it," she said gently. "And I wanted to know the context, so I spent some time thinking it through. And I think I remember."

She paused.

"It was a good memory."

James hummed lowly.

"It was," he echoed. Before she could say anything in response, he spoke two seconds later.

"You didn't feel my pain in that memory, did you?" he asked, his tone sounding a tad more earnest. Worried.

Evaline didn't want to lie, but she also didn't want him to feel sorry again.

"I did," she said, settling on the truth. "But it was temporary, like everything else. It's no big deal."

"That's... part of why you stumbled," he said. "Isn't it."

"Maybe I'm just not that great of a dancer as I used to be," she said back, trying to bring the mood more lighthearted, but it came out sounding monotone and insincere.

"You're still good," he said, sounding more like he meant it.

Evaline glanced at him, but he was still hard to read. She noted that he was looking more towards the ground than the view.

"And you've gotten better," she said. "If I remember correctly."

"Well... I'm glad you think so," he said. "It helps to have two working legs."

Evaline paused for a moment, sifting through a hazy memory in her head.

"You're welcome for that, by the way," she said, remembering that a goblin had given her a salve to give to his infected leg.

"It definitely would have been a much slower recovery were it not for you," James said. "So yes. Thanks for that."

Evaline felt the urge to smile, but it strained her face too much to even slightly turn her lips. The party had drained her too much already.

"Of course. You are welcome," she said softly. "Five years later."

"Better late than never," he said.

She knew that they both knew there was another memory she had seen. The first dance -- that didn't have any of the latter's connotations and feelings previously discussed. The second memory he had accidentally showed her at the end did.

Another short silence passed, and this time, Evaline decided to initiate the topic without a transition.

"I also remember mage camp," she said quietly.

James was quiet another moment.

"All of it?" he asked. "Or just the moment you saw?"

"I... I don't know, exactly," she admitted. "The moment I saw, plus some others. I don't know if it's all of it."

James seemed to nod just a little. Slowly, like he was thinking.

"That's okay," he said.

Evaline thought she'd be overwhelmed by this conversation, but it actually felt... underwhelming.

"That's it?" she blurted out before thinking about it. "That's all you have to say?"

"You sound... disappointed," he said.

"No," she said quickly. "Not disappointed. Just, I guess... I don't know. Surprised. I just thought you'd maybe... I don't know, really. I'm just surprised."

James was quiet again for anothe passing moment. He now had his hands held together in his lap, and he leaned forward, with his elbows on his thighs.

"Did you want to talk about it?" he asked.

The way he said that made it sound like he was asking her if she was sure. If she actually wanted to. But that didn't stop the next question from coming out.

"Do you?" she shot back.

James finally turned his head to look at her for the first time since the conversation had started, and he met her eyes, but only for a moment before they quickly flitted away, though his face was still turned towards her.

"I have been waiting for you," he said, like each word was said carefully, and like it was hard to get out.

It was almost instinct for Evaline to turn the victim card back towards him: "So, you do want to talk about it." "Why didn't you tell me sooner?" "What do you mean by that?" "How long have you been waiting? The entire month? Or just today?"

But she heard the sincerity and sting of pain behind his words, and she didn't want to ruin it.

She pushed down her walls, biting her tongue.

"We can talk about it," she said, trying to sound neutral, but she wasn't sure how good she was able to hide the incoming anxiety.

James's eyes dropped to the ground, and he took in a deep breath, but he didn't talk right away. In fact, he waited another few agonizing seconds before he did, and the look on his face in those passing seconds seemed to be getting increasingly harder to read.

"I keep trying to find the courage to," he said quietly. "But I'm not sure I have it."

Evaline wasn't sure what to say, feel, or do. He said he was waiting for her, and she thought she was ready, but turned out, he wasn't ready either.

But to be fair, neither was she.

And she didn't blame him. He remembered everything, while she had the luxury of picking and choosing what parts she could remember again if she so desired. And even then, she didn't have the entire context and story.

It felt like they were going in circles. At first, he was the one who wanted to talk about their last day together. Then when she brought it up two weeks later, he didn't think it was worth discussing anymore. And now, after he said he was waiting patiently for her to address the memories, he said he didn't have the courage to talk about it.

Evaline knew she didn't know what she wanted. And it sounded like James was just as confused as she was, even if their stories were different.

"I know you've been faking," she said, suddenly changing the subject despite the build-up. "And I understand it's a coping mechanism. I just..."

She tightly closed her eyes for a moment, trying to concentrate on her words.

"I wouldn't want you to fake the courage."

James gave her an odd look. His eyebrows pinched together slightly, and he looked up at her face.

"Courage isn't the absence of fear," he said. "It's choosing to do what needs to be done in spite of the fear." He paused, before adding. "I don't mean to sound pithy, but, I would not be faking. Not for this."

Evaline was almost taken back by his sincerity. This almost felt... familiar. Like this was the real James she had known. And she knew people changed -- she certainly did. But now she began to wonder how much was change and how much was him faking. She wondered where the line was drawn, and if she'd be able to tell. If he'd be able to tell.

"I know you weren't faking from that explanation alone," she said gently. She paused for a moment. "Thank you."

James's eyes flicked away again, almost like he wasn't sure what to do with her response. He nodded a bit awkwardly.

"You're... welcome, I suppose," he said.

She wasn't ready to move on from this conversation quite yet.

"You've said you've been trying to not fake smiles as much around me," she continued on, still trying to sound gentle so this wouldn't feel like a demand. "If you can, could you also prevent more than that around me? Maybe smiles, at first. Then... greetings. And vocabulary. And so on, until expressions." She paused again. "If you can, I would like that."

"So what I'm hearing is, you want me to speak to you in a way that is more well-read," James said. It was hard to tell if he was joking or serious.

"No," she said. "Not well-read."

"But I am well-read," he countered.

"I want you to speak to me as you," she said instead. "Not as Yoen, or Matt, or whatever other alias you want to fall into. Just... James."

James was quiet for a moment, and brought his arm over the back of the bench with a sigh.

"Just James," he mused quietly. There was another pause. "You know it's kind of impossible to remove myself completely from whatever character I put on, right? I have to base some things off myself. And it's not like there still aren't sincere candid moments. Not everything's fake. Sometimes it's just controlled, or filtered to be better recieved, but the sentiments are the same. I don't think that makes it not me. I think a lot of people do that... just to a lesser degree. I know that. I'm self aware enough to admit that."

"Trust me, I know," Evaline said after she patiently waited for him to finish. "But I know enough that I'm talking to the real James now -- or maybe that's not the right phrase. Maybe it's not about being 'just' or 'real' or 'pure', but instead, being natural. The one you fall back to the most, because it's comfortable, and you don't have to think about it. And I'm happy if you can find that."

James nodded slightly, and was quiet for another few seconds. He looked over her, like he was observing her.

"Have you been able to find that?" he asked. "For yourself?"

Maybe James knew that, even back then, she gave advice she didn't follow. She had always been a hypocrite, and she still was.

She looked away, feeling a sting of guilt and shame.

"I think it's a journey we could both go through," she said.

"If I wasn't the only one rising to the challenge," he said. "I would be far more motivated and inclined to try this 'be yourself' thing you keep talking so much about."

"It's different for me," Evaline said quickly. "I know it's not just an off and on switch. I know that. It's a long process that's built on time and memories." She stifled a laugh. "And I'm just a perfect example of that."

James watched her, and his response was delayed.

"I would never imply that we are the same," he said gently. "I know it's different, and I know it's hard. We both have different reasons, different histories, and different hurts. You don't have to justify yourself to me. It's okay. I just wanted you to know that I want the same for you. You being you. Whatever that looks like. Even if it takes a very long time for you to find that out."

For once, Evaline was able to maintain the eye contact as James was (somehow, like always) the one consoling her even though this was supposed to be about him. But he was right. She knew he was right. He said the words better than she could.

"It's good to know," she said softly after a brief pause. "That you're not only still patient, but still good with words."

James's expression seemed to soften a tad, and he looked away.

"And we both still keep trying to shift the focus onto the other person," he said, almost wistfully. "Just like before."

Evaline softly smiled as she lightly laughed through her nose, following his gaze back to the view.

"Five years later, and we're still masters of deflection," she said. "I'm not sure if this is impressive or sad."

"I think it can be both," he said softly. "It's natural for people to improve at the things they do the most over time. I guess we both use deflection to protect ourselves, even though we've never said it outright."

Evaline was quiet for a moment, letting his words sink in.

"You're right," she said. "I haven't thought about it like that." She paused again. "I thought, maybe, time could help heal me. Us. But I know I've always been this way. Maybe time is just a passive ingredient, then."

She looked over to gauge his reaction.

"You can have all the time in the world," he said softly. "But healing takes work. Determination. Perseverence. You have to tell yourself that one day you'll get better without passively waiting for it to come."

There was a half second's pause.

"But most of all, you have to want it."

"Do you want it?" she asked. "Do you want to heal?"

James stared out at the view, his face once again unreadable.

"I don't know," he said quietly. "I'm not sure I know how to." Then he looked at her. "Do you?"

She met his eyes so that he'd know she was sincere too.

"I think that's also a journey we could both go through," she repeated.

James hummed in the back of his throat, then looked back at the view, looking like he was in deep thought.

Too many seconds passed for it to be comfortable, and Evaline found herself quickly filling in the empty silence before it pooled between them.

"But I'd be happy to go through the journey together," she said. "If you want to rise to the challenge."

James smiled, just barely.

"You seem to have the gift of regurgitation," he said.

"Thank you," Evaline said in a monotone voice. "It's my third power."

"Evaline raised to the third power," he said, before adding after a second's pause. "That's... a math joke. I haven't done real math in years."

Evaline gave him a funny look and did a short, breathy laugh in amusement.

"You know," she said after a short pause. "There's no denying it. We had a long history together, and we both have been ignoring it. But maybe we don't need to let the past define our future. I'm not asking to start over, per se, but instead, just..." She let a small, nervous laugh. "I don't know. I think I'm just trying to say that I miss this."

James's eyes flicked to the ground, and then up to her, but only for a second.

"I miss it too," he said, but his words seemed to carry the weight of things still left unsaid.

"You're omitting your thoughts," Evaline pointed out. "What is it?"

"Am I not allowed to think privately?" James said with a small, almost sad little smile.

Evaline took a gamble, and with how serious yet sincere the conversation was going, she decided to risk it and set aside her personal feelings. It was about time they even called it what it was.

"You miss our relationship," she said. "Don't you?"

James's smile faded slowly, and he met her eyes.

"Evaline," he said. "I've missed you."

For some reason, Evaline didn't expect this.

She broke her gaze and stiffly looked ahead, not able to stop the unfamiliar heat rise to her cheeks.

"Oh," she said softly.
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soundofmind says...



James wasn't sure how he'd expected this conversation to go, but for the first time since he'd seen Evaline on earth, things actually felt familiar. Still different, because it wasn't like the two of them hadn't changed, but it felt like, maybe, at their core, they were still the same person. Five years did change a person, but... maybe it wasn't all for the worse.

He'd missed feeling like they were actually friends. Without the pressure of other people watching, or evaluating, or wondering how they knew each other.

He saw how Evaline's cheeks flushed ever so slightly.

There she is.

But he averted his gaze. He didn't want her to feel like he was staring.

"You know," he said. "I've met a lot of people in my travels, and a few of them I knew for a while, but none has ever replaced you."

"That's good," Evaline said quickly, then seemed to hastily add more when she realized what she said. "Meeting other people, I mean. As friends. Traveling with friends - if that's what you mean. It's good that you travelled with friends."

James glanced over at her again, and it looked like she was practically sinking into her seat out of embarassment. One sincere compliment, and suddenly she was so flustered. He almost felt bad, but it was kind of nice to see her being more emotive again.

"Sometimes," he qualified, not feeling like expounding upon the nuances of the sometimes-fake friendships and all of the other little details. "Sometimes it was. But all I meant to say is that it was never the same as it was with you."

Evaline was quiet for a moment and then slouched forward, resting her elbows on her knees as she held her head on her palms. Her hands seemed to be covering her cheeks as she focused on the view in front of her.

"Each person brings in a new experience," she said. "In risk of sounding cliche, everyone is unique. I'd be surprised if you found someone who was like me enough to replace me."

"I know that, Evaline," James said, not in annoyance, but a sort of amused earnest. "I'm just trying to tell you I enjoy your company."

"...Thanks," Evaline said after a pause, finally accepting the compliment. "I do too." She paused again, sighing. "Enjoy your company, I mean."

"I'm glad it's mutual," James said with a slight grin and a nod, looking back out at the view. It felt like he reached a natural pause in his thoughts, so he didn't feel pressure to speak again right away. It was kind of nice to just sit with Evaline for a moment after everything that happened at the party.

"I guess, I could also say the same," Evaline softly said after a small silence passed. "I haven't traveled with anyone who was as good of a conversationalist as you."

James glanced over at her, a little surprised.

"Is that sarcasm?"

"No," she said flatly, still unmoved from her previous position. Even then it was hard to tell if she was serious.

James hummed, looking at the ground.

"I've probably gotten... rusty," he admitted.

"You could practice," she suggested. "With me, if you want."

James laughed with one single "ha."

"I'm not that bad," James said.

Evaline seemed to relax a bit, finally stealing a glance at him as she dropped her hands and sat up straighter.

"No," she agreed. "But it would be nice if you stopped talking to me like I'm a stranger forcing small talk conversation. Don't you know how exhausting it is to talk about nothing?"

"All the time," James said. "I'm sorry. It's a... default pattern. And at the party I just got stuck in it."

"That's okay," she said gently. "I understand. I guess what I'm trying to say is..." She paused, peering over the view again as she leaned back on the bench. "No one's here right now except me, and there'll be more times like this. And you don't need to default to filtering your words around me."

James wanted to agree, but sometimes, having a filter was a gift. Not everything needed to be said, and not everything needed to be heard. Sometimes it wasn't the right time, and sometimes there never was a right time. Sometimes you had to take a risks and say things anyway, but he always counted the cost. Or, he tried to.

"I think we're both guilty of that," he said. "In different ways, maybe. But still."

Evaline huffed out air through her nose in response. "Add that to our ever-growing list of differences and similarities," she said.

"Wait, so am I right or am I wrong?" James asked, looking over at he with his eyebrows raised.

She pursed her lips in thought. "If I don't answer, then that would answer your question, wouldn't it?" she said.

James narrowed his eyes at her, staring at her for a moment. Then he looked away.

"We really need to stop comparing ourselves to one another," he said with a sigh.

"Why do you say that?"

"You're more than a list of differences and similarities," he said in reply.

"Ah. Right," Evaline said with a small nod. "People are complex."

James only nodded in agreement.

A longer silence passed between them, but it felt comfortable. It was a mutual silence that sat in place of conversation so they could sit and breathe for a moment, still recovering from the party while viewing a scenic lookout point.

"Are you feeling better now?" Evaline asked after a while, breaking the silence.

"Yes," James said. "The feeling has passed now. Do you want to get going again?"

"If you are up for it," she said. "I wouldn't want you to be late to your upcoming outing."

"I think I'll make it," he said, looking over at her, trying to guage her reaction. "Maybe we could go just a little slower, though?"

"Of course," she said as she met his eyes with a faint smile. "I wouldn't want you to be sick again."

James smiled back, just a little.

"Thank you, Evaline."

He had to catch himself. He almost said Eve.

"Quoting the most overused phrase I heard today: it's my pleasure," she said as she stood up and looked back at the bike. "C'mon. Let's get going."

He got to his feet and followed her back over to the bike, and the two of them got back on, turning back onto the road.

As promised, Evaline went noticeably slower, and she took a different less-winding road that was longer, but it was noticeably more scenic. At one point, she had wordlessly tapped his hand around her waist with her elbow to signal him to look off to the side, where they overlooked a cliff that had many resting seals laying under the sun on some rocks.

Combined with the longer route and lower speed, the ride back took almost twice as long, about 1.5 hours. By the time Evaline made it through Terra and finally arrived at his farm, it was about 6:30PM, 30 minutes before the party. Isabel would probably be swinging by soon to pick him up and take him to wherever Josiah's house was.

Evaline hopped off the bike and turned it off, setting the kickstands back up as she glanced up at the sky.

"Not a lot of time before the party, but at least it's enough to change into something less formal," she mused, then shifted her focus back at him. "Are you feeling okay? It was a long ride."

James got off the bike feeling woozy again, but not quite as much as before. He thankfully had no inclination to vomit because he knew he had nothing left to throw up. It would just be bile, if anything.

"I'm okay," he said not entirely convincingly as he steadied himself on his feet. "I should... probably go change, now. Are you fine with waiting on the porch?"

Evaline nodded. "I can wait. Go ahead."

James nodded back and headed inside. Despite the fact that his body felt off-kilter, he hurried to change as quickly as possible. Thankfully, he'd already put together the outfit for the evening party, so he didn't have to think about it. He just had to change into the clothes he'd already set on the bed.

It took him under five minutes to take off the suit and change into one of the nicer button-up shirts Mel had given him along with a pair of slacks and the suede shoes. By the time he left the cottage, he saw Evaline sitting on the porch steps with her heels taken off next to her. She looked back when she heard him come out.

"You look nice," she said. "Probably more fitting for this event."

"That's what I'm hoping," James said. "Do you want to come inside?"

She offered a small smile and then stood up, scooping up the heels by the straps.

"I'd like that," she said. "Thanks."

James backed away from the door, holding it open for her.

"You'll get to see the makeover a day early," he said.

When Evaline passed through the door, she immediately looked impressed as she settling on standing in the middle of the cottage, slowly turning to full take in everything.

"Wow," she said. "You weren't kidding when you said you redecorated."

"I got too many insults on it not being 'homey' enough," James said. "So I figured I'd have to prove everyone wrong."

Evaline breathed out a quick laugh as she took in the surroundings, and then her gaze settled on the new bed and couch. "I take it that those comments came from Mel," she said.

"Mostly Mel, yes," James answered.

"I gave her a simple task of giving you books, and instead she gave you furniture," she said with an amused smile, then noticed the bookshelf. "But I see she gave you the books anyways, so I suppose it all worked out."

"I'd say so," he said, also giving the place a look-over.

Maybe about five minutes passed as they continued to talk about the room and the gifts. They were just about to settle into natural conversation, but then a string of loud knocks were heard on the door.

"Hey James, it's me!" a voice said eagerly. It was Isabel. "Ready for Josiah's party? Can we ride on your bike?"

James glanced to Evaline, widening his eyes for a second as they made eye contact before he turned around to answer the door.

"The bike's not mine!" he said through the door, and then he opened it.

Isabel was smiling up at him when he answered. Her brown hair was neatly braided and draped along her shoulder, and she wore a plaid dress that went up to her shins and elbows. She wore strappy brown sandals, and there was a white orchid that was weaved into her hair. Her hands were behind her back as she stepped up on her tippie toes to greet him.

"But if you'd like, we can ride Elliot," he said, smiling back at her.

"Oooh!" she said with bright eyes as she clapped her hands together. "Really?"

"As long as you tell me the directions," James said. "Really."

"Okay!" Isabel said excitedly as she bounced down the steps. "Ready?"

"Just give me one more moment and I'll be right out," James said, looking back at Evaline. He closed the door a little.

"Go," Evaline said softly with a small smile. "I'll wait until you come back. I don't mind."

"Are you sure?" he asked, keeping his voice down. "You won't be too bored while I'm gone?"

Evaline glanced at the bookshelf and shook her head. "I can entertain myself, don't worry." She looked back at him, softly smiling. "All I ask is that you don't rush yourself out of the party just for me. You still need to gather enough stories for me to listen to afterwards."
  





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James smiled back, just a little.

"I'll see you later, then," he said softly, before heading out the door and closing it behind him. In the spirit of Isabel's energy, he took a long stride towards the steps and hopped down onto them next to her.

"Ready to ride a horse for the first time?" he asked.

"Let's go!" Isabel said, already bolting towards Elliot tied out in the field.

"Hold on!" James said, darting after her. "I need to get his saddle first, unless you want to ride bareback. Which is --" She was moving too fast. "Don't spook Elliot!"

"What'd you say?" she yelled across the field, already near Elliot, but luckily she hadn't touched him yet. "Don't poke Elliot?"

James sped up until he was beside her, and he skidded to a halt.

"Yes," he said, taking a moment to catch his breath. "No poking. And no getting on until I put on his saddle."

At that, he grabbed the rope attatched to Elliot's halter and used it as a lead, bringing Elliot back over to the shed at a walking pace. He gestured for Isabel to follow.

"It will only take a minute to get it on," he said. "And we can make up lost time if needed by running over there if needed."

Isabel skipped next to him, watching Elliot with curious eyes for a moment before she looked back at the bike parked in front of his cottage.

"Whose bike is that if it's not yours?" she asked, prodding again.

"Evaline's," James said simply as he brought Elliot into the shed. He let go of the rope as he pulled the saddle off the side of the stall wall and brought it over Elliot's back.

Isabel stood next to him, staring at the bike through the window with her face all scrunched up.

"Like, it was hers and then she gave it to you?" she asked. "Is she trying to replace Elliot?"

"Oh," James said with a small laugh. "No one could do that if they tried."

He bent down under Elliot's belly, bringing the strap around and belting it so it was secure.

"It wasn't a gift. The bike belongs to Evaline. That's all," he said.

And, true to his word, he was able to adjust the saddle quickly. He patted Elliot no the side.

"So, you're saying she's here right now?" Isabel continued to ask.

"Yes," James answered simply. He untied the rope from Elliot's halter and gently lifted the halter off, replacing it with reins. He secured them comfortably and gave Elliot another pat on the head.

Isabel looked like she had comments she wanted to make, but restrained herself as she tore her gaze away from the window and shifted her attention back to Elliot.

"She's not invited to the party because it's only for people who live in Terra," she said as if she needed to justify Evaline's lack of invitation.

"I know she wasn't invited, and so does she," James said. "It's okay. She's going to hang back while we go ahead."

He then turned to Isabel, flashed a little smile, and then dragged a small crate over to Elliot's side, in front of the saddle.

"You can use this as a stepstool to get up," he said. "But I'll get on first, and you'll hop on behind me."

As he said that, he stepped up on the crate to demonstrate, grabbing the horn of the saddle and pulling himself up, swinging his other leg around.

Isabel's eyes lit up as she waited for him to jump on, and then eagerly followed his actions, standing up on the crate and then precariously swinging her legs around to hop on Elliot. She used his shoulders to hold on.

"You can hold around my waist," he said. "I don't want you to fall off."

"This is so fun!" she said even though they hadn't moved yet. She wrapped her arms around his waist and swung her legs in anticipation.

"Well, if you think this is fun--" James said, and then clicked his tongue, giving Elliot the cue to back out of the shed slowly. Obediently, Elliot took a few slow steps out of the door until he was able to turn around, and James rode Elliot forward onto the road at a relaxed pace.

"Ahhhhhh hahhahaah ah!" Isabel screamed in excitement as she held on to him tight, her face lit up into a big grin. "We're riding a HORSE!"

James smiled in amusement and glanced over his shoulder to see her face before he looked away and shook his head with a little laugh.

"Okay," he said. "Hold on. I'm going to pick up the pace a bit. Which way is Josiah's house?"

"So BUMPY!" Isabel said instead, not paying attention.

"Isabel, I need directions," James said again.

"Oh! That-a way!" she said , quickly pointing in the direction at the fork of the road ahead, and then tightly wrapping her arms back around his waist before she could lose her balance.

"Okay," James said. "You can just say left, or right, or straight ahead instead of letting go."

They rode for a few minutes while she continued to make random comments here and there while James had to keep reminding her to hold on whenever he changed the pace.

"RIGHT! GO RIGHT!" she suddenly yelled at the last second at another fork of the road.

"Woah!" James said to Elliot as he leaned back in the saddle and pulled back on the reins, bringing Elliot to a slowed stop before he took the sudden sharp turn. Elliot huffed and shook his head, but was otherwise fine.

James decided that they'd keep at a slower pace in case Isabel had any more last-minute directions.

She decided to use more random signals to for directions, though.

"You take a left at the giant mushroom," she told him.

And when they kept riding forward, James could see that she actually meant a big mushroom-shaped bush.

"You're almost there when you pass the bird," she said as another direction.

And James could see she was referencing a big bird house that was carved into the shape of a bird.

"There! That's the house!" Isabel said, leaning on James's back to support her weight as she pointed ahead with both her arms.

Although there was a large crop field surrounding them, the path they were taking winded towards a big house with people mingling nearby. There was a fence in front of the house that had a muscular fluffy dog that wouldn't stop barking, and near the house was a shed, a small barn, and a bigger barn that had its doors opened. James could see that there were cattle grazing the fields, but they looked to be different than what he was used to -- they were smaller, wider, and muscular, although with bigger stomaches. Big chickens also roamed the fenced area near the coop, but they were running around and strangely had front legs as well. There was also plenty of machinery around the area that James didn't recognize.

It wasn't dark yet, but the sun was setting enough for it to warrant a string of lights that lit the pathway they were on. James slowed down Elliot as they rode forward, and then came to a complete stop when he neared a table with flowers and a booklet. Josiah and a woman was sitting on the table, waving at them.

"James, Isabel, you came," Josiah said, and then gestured to the small nearby barn. "You can tie off your horse over there and then come back."

James nodded with a smile.

"Thank you," he said, leading Elliot around to the small barn. When they rode up to it he saw that it held pens and troughs for the cattle outside. James looked over his shoulder to Isabel.

"Okay, now's the part where we get off. I think it'd be easiest if you held onto me for support while you swing both your legs to one side and just hop down. Alright?"

Isabel instead swung her legs over his and then wrapped her arms around his neck instead.

"Or, you can jump and carry me down," she said, already in position.

James had to grab the horn of the saddle as Isabel's weight pulled him backward. He loudly cleared his throat and gently, but awkwardly patted Isabel's arm with his free hand.

"That's a lot harder than it sounds, Isabel," he said. "And frankly, unecessary."

"Okay, fine," she said defeatedly. "Ready?"

She didn't give him that much time to get ready or respond as she let go of him, swung her foot around the other side, and jumped off with one hand holding his shoulder. Isabel landed with her feet on the ground with a thud, and she stumbled a bit afterwards, but then turned around with her arms in the air.

"Done!" she announced.

"Wonderful," James said, and immediately after, gracefully swung his legs over the side (just like he'd done a million times) and landed beside her. He gave her a quick nod before he took Elliot's lead and started bringing him in, finding a stall and locking him inside. He gave Elliot a quick peck on the nose for a second when Isabel was turned away, and then the two of them hurried back to the entrance where Josiah was waiting for them with a woman who he presumed to be his wife, Daisy.

When they arrived at the table, it was the woman who greeted them first.

"Isabel," she said with a smile and her arms extended.

Isabel ran forward to give the woman a hug. "Daisy!" she said. "Hi!"

"James, meet my wife, Daisy," Josiah said as an introduction.

Daisy pulled away from the hug, and James got a good look at her. She was short and stout, but had a warm smile and kind, welcoming eyes framed by dark (but greying) curly hair. She wore a dress patterned with small flowers, as well as an apron.

"Josiah's told me all about you," she said with a warm smile. "I am very glad to finally meet you."

James smiled back.

"It's good to meet you as well," he said. "Josiah speaks very highly of you."

"Is that right?" she said with a teasing smile as she looked back at Josiah, who held up his hands like he was saying "guilty".

"James!" Isabel barked in front of the table, handing him a pencil. "Sign the guestbook."

James held the pencil for a moment, blinking rapidly as he looked down at the guestbook. It looked like it was already filled with names and notes, and Isabel had already signed her name with a smiley face, a flower, and some bean pods. Her note read: "Always a day of peace with my fave people!"

He glanced up at Isabel with a small smile before he scooted past her and bent over the book, signing his name below hers in a neat cursive. He then added a note that said: "Happy Day of Peace!" He figured it would be fine enough to keep it generic.

Josiah gestured to the big barn with open doors. There was at least a dozen people already here, chatting and eating.

"Feel free to help yourself with food and drinks," he said. "Everyone here is from Terra. Don't be a stranger, now."

Daisy also motioned in front of the big vase of fresh-cut flowers in front of her. "You can take one before the end of the night, too," she said. "Enjoy and have fun."

"I've already got one," Isabel said with a proud smile as she gestured to the orchid in her hair. "Let's go!"

And again, she didn't wait for James to respond since she took his hand and started to drag him to the big barn full of food, weaving her way through everyone. Eventually, James matched her pace so he wasn't stumbling after her.

"Are you hungry?" she asked, still moving.

"Not at the moment," he said.

"Great! Let's talk to my friends!"

She started to drag him over to two women their age. One of them was a tall, lean woman with dark brown skin and a sleek bun. She had a flower around her ear and a flowy green skirt. The other was shorter - closer to Isabel's height - and wearing a bright yellow blouse with a flower in the front pocket. She had bright red hair in a fishtail braid with wisps around her face.

It was at that moment that James realized that, though he wasn't exactly overdressed, he was probably wearing the nicest clothes that he'd seen out of anyone there. He hoped it didn't make him stand out too much.

They both seemed to see Isabel approaching, and they giggled to each other before shushing each other when they arrived.

"Hey guys!" Isabel said with a smile. "Have you met James?"

"No," the tall one said, crossing her arms while holding a glass of what James assumed to be wine. She looked him up and down. "I have not," she reiterated.

"James, this is Freya," Isabel said as she pointed at the tall woman. "And this is Mina." She pointed at the other woman with red hair.

"A pleasure to meet you two," James said, giving a small bow of his head to both of them.

"Is he your friend?" Mina asked Isabel.

Freya and Mina whispered something to each other and laughed.

"Hey, you're kind of cute," Freya said to James. "I haven't seen you around before. Where've you been?"

James ignored the compliment and pretended they were having a normal conversation.

"I'm Isabel's neighbor," he said. "I've been spending most of my time working on my farm, but I thought this would be a good opportunity to meet people, since I'm still pretty new here."

Mine snapped her fingers and transitioned to pointing at him with her index finger. "Oh, yeah. Isabel told me about you."

Isabel looked proud. "You remember?"

"Yeah. He's the one with the donkey."

James looked over to Isabel, raising an eyebrow.

"You're still calling Elliot a donkey?" he asked.

"But now that I've seen you," Mina continued. "I think you're the donkey."

Freya elbowed her. "Hey, don't be so rude," she said. "James, don't you think she's being rude?"

"I think she's being rude," Isabel parroted.

James let out a little laugh.

"It's neither the most creative nor the most brutal insult I've ever recieved," James said, looking to Mina with an amused smile. "So I think I'll let it slide."

The girls seemed to giggle, and perhaps Isabel just wanted to be involved, so she forced a laugh herself.

"I like how you talk, James," Freya said. "You said you're Isabel's neighbor?"

"Wait, that means you live in old man Hank's place," Mina said with a smirk. "Is that why you talk like an old man?"

"James!" Isabel said, flicking her eyes between Mina and him. "Did you see his ghost? Did Hank possess you?"

"I guess you'll have to find that out for yourself," James said with a smirk.

"He's not that old," Freya murmured to Mina, then turned back to James. "How old are you, anyways?"

"26," James answered. "Not quite old enough to be considered an old man, I don't think. I think we would be offending the real old men if we said that."

Freya hummed, ignoring his joke. "I'm 24," she said, as if it meant anything significant.

"I'm 22," Isabel said after a brief pause.

They both turned to Mina, who gave in after a pause.

"21," Mina said.

"So, when did you all meet?" James asked, deciding to take control of the conversation since the ages had all been listed and there was nowhere interesting to go from there.

"Mina and I are sisters," Freya said. "We've lived in Terra for the past ten years or so. If you ever want to visit me -- us -- we live at the west end, towards the ocean." She shrugged as she played with the flower in her hair. "Purifying the water from the ocean for your crops and all. Helping out farmers like you."

"Well, it sounds like a very important job," James said.

"Very important," she continued. "Plants need pleeeenty of water."

"I met these two during the first Day of Peace party I went to here," Isabel said. "Right guys?"

"What can you do?" Mina said to James. "Do you also sing to plants like Isabel?"

James was beginning to notice that neither Mina nor Freya were very good friends - if they were real friends at all. He couldn't help but feel bad for Isabel. She seemed to earnest and eager to make friends, but these two women were just ignoring her. He wondered if she recieved similar treatment from everyone else.

That seemed to make sense of a few things. Isabel might've been a little odd, but it was likely because she hadn't been given many chances from others to grow. Socially, or in other ways.

He decided to try and include her in the conversation.

"I haven't really sung to my plants," he admitted. "But I did help you come up with one bean song that one time," he said, patting Isabel on the back as he glanced at her. "It was decent, right?"

"Yeah!" Isabel said with a smile, looking pleased that the conversation finally turned towards her. "More than decent. James is a really, really good singer and thought of it on the spot."

"Oooh, you can sing?" Freya said.

"What's this bean song sound like?" Mina said as she stifled a laugh.

James glanced over to Isabel, and then at Mina.

"Are you asking me to sing it?" he asked with his eyebrows raised in expectation.

"Yeah," Mina said like it was obvious. "She said you're a good singer. So. Sing."

Well, he'd walked into that one. Oh well. This was a million times better than the flower confusion of the last party. He'd take spontaneous singing over that any day.

He looked back at Isabel.

"Fortunately, I actually went back home and wrote this one down, so I do remember it," he said. Then he cleared his throat and sang.

"In the midday sun, under clear blue skies
Tender roots are growing, unseen to the eyes
Reaching deeper, farther still into the ground
While far above the surface a small bean is found

One after another you can watch them grow
It may not happen quickly because growth is slow
But one day you will wake up and beneath the green
You will find a bushel's worth of healthy beans."


When he finished, he did a little flair of his hands and a sarcastic sort of smile.

"V'wallah," he said. "Song over."

Freya clapped her hands with an impressed smile. "You are good," she said. "Very impressive."

"See? The beans like it too," Isabel said, still looking pleased.

"So, wait," Mina said, more skeptical. "You do sing about beans to beans on the daily too."

"It was one time," James corrected.

"You can sing about beans to me any day," Freya said with a wink.

James briefly caught Freya's eyes but then looked back to Mina.

"So, you both purify water, then?" he asked.

"That's what we said," Mina said, sounding bored. "What do you do?"

"Besides farm?" James asked.

"Yeeeaaaaah," Mina said slowly. "What's type of power do you have?"

James knew that was what she'd really been asking. He'd just been hoping they could avoid it, but it was clear that he wasn't going to be able to avoid it forever. He hoped that it wouldn't change the tides of however the rest of the party would go for him. But with his luck so far, it was probably only going to get worse.

"Oh," James said with a little laugh. "Sorry. I actually have very minor time powers. It's... really not that useful for farming, but--"

"Wait, what?" Isabel interrupted. "I didn't know that. I thought you had dirt powers or something. Why didn't you tell me that?"

"I-- well, you never asked," James said with a shrug.

"Ohohoho," Mina said with a smirk. "I sense trouble."

Freya was in thought for a moment. "Time powers," she said slowly. "Like, from the government people?"

"No," James said. "I'm a bit of an outlier, there."

"What do you mean?" Isabel asked.

"I've never been in the government," he said. "Nor am I related to anyone in government."

Isabel's desire for validation from the women seemed to melt away as she was fully focused on James, looking confused and troubled.

"I don't understand," she said. "Is that why you've been with Evaline? What's going on?"

Freya and Mina exchanged a look, but luckily stayed out of it.

James put his hand on Isabel's shoulder, and he looked her in the eyes.

"Isabel, if you can bear to wait for answers, I would gladly tell you on the way home from the party, but I do not think now is the right time to discuss all of this," he said. "Why don't we just try to enjoy the party?"

Isabel tightly pressed her lips together as she hesitated for a moment, and Mina lowly whistled as a silence hung in the air.

"Didn't think that question would hit a nerve," Mina murmured.

"Can we go over there and talk then?" Isabel said, gesturing to an open spot on the field.

James glanced over, and then sighed, giving Isabel a gentle smile.

"Sure," he said. Then he looked to Freya and Mina.

"Excuse us, ladies," he said with a little bow of his head.

"Come back when you're finished?" Freya said with a little wave.

"Sure," James said. He then looked to Isabel, and they made brief eye contact before they both started towards the field. Isabel seemed to set the pace, which resulted in a very hasty walk over.
  





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By the time they made it out of earshot of everyone, Isabel walked up to a large hay bale and plopped down on the end. She gave James a pointed look and patted the spot beside her, and he sat down next to her.

"Well?" she said impatiently.

James wasn't sure how much information he should divulge to someone outside of the council's inner circle. Especially after Oliver seemed to make it sound like the information was supposed to be kept on the down-low. He knew his fertility didn't need to be mentioned at all, but Evaline seemed to give him the impression that he didn't have to keep his "past" (or rather, made-up backstory) a secret, so he hoped that it wouldn't come back to bite him if he told her he was "from the past."

It was a risk he'd have to take. At least Evaline was back at his house, and if things blew up, he would at least have someone to help him figure out how to clean it up.

Not that he wanted to put that stress on her, but... it was comforting to know that in the event he did accidentally ruin everything somehow, that he wouldn't be alone?

Right?

He hoped so.

He looked to Isabel with a small smile.

"Sorry for all of the build-up," he said. "I just prefer to be more of a private person, and you would be one of the first friends I've really told this to, so I'm really trusting you with this. Okay? Can you keep it just between us, at least, for now?"

Isabel was watching him closely with suspicion, but with each passing word, her face softened and the look washed away.

"You'd trust me with a big secret?" she asked.

James smiled softly. "Yeah. I think you're trustworthy."

Did he really? Well, he did. For the most part. But there was always underlying doubt with everyone, without exception.

"...Okay," she said after a hesitation. "I won't tell anyone."

"Alright," James said, speaking quietly. "Well, you're going to have to bear with me, because I know this is going to sound far-fetched. But I feel like if anyone would believe me, it'd be you."

He took in a deep breath.

"The truth is, I'm actually from the past. The way my time power works is I see visions of things that have happened in different places in time in dreams, but it's all very hard to navigate and it's very muddled. I don't really know how to make sense of it most of the time, but there was one day where I-- I don't know, it's like, I thought about trying to reach into one of the visons, in a way," he said, trying to explain it in a way he thought a man from the past with little understanding of his own power would.

He had no idea what he was saying. He was making all of this up, and borrowing as much from Evaline's words as he could. He decided not to specify when he came from. Just in case Isabel could do the math.

"I had this random thought that maybe I could somehow, like, make it there. But I never expected time travel to be something that was even possible, nevermind something I would accomplish. But the thing is, it didn't go how I thought it would - not that I even knew how it might go in the first place. I somehow ended up in the future. And things are very different now..."

He paused, looking over at her.

"I don't even know how I did it, and I don't know how to do it again. I actually can't even really remember exactly how it happened. It's... a blur, really. But, Evaline was the one who found me, and helped me out when I was lost and confused. So that's how we became friends, and then I came here. So that's it. That's the story."

Isabel was quiet the whole time, and she looked like she was confused, but she seemed to be following along.

"So..." she said quietly after thinking too long. "You're from... the past... Are you going to go back?"

"If I knew how to do that, I would've already," James said with a small, defeated shrug.

"But you somehow came here," she said. "Couldn't you do it again?"

"Hypothetically, I suppose," James said. "I honestly have no idea. I wish I understood my powers more, but I really don't."

Isabel took a deep breath out of relief, weakly swinging her legs again. "Okay... I think I understand... Is that why you came to Terra?"

James didn't think Isabel needed the full answer to that. He decided to reinforce what she already assumed.

"That, and I actually know how to farm," he said with a smirk.

Isabel didn't return the smirk, instead softly smiling.

"This is, uh, a lot," she said. "But, um..." She looked out towards the party, staying still for a moment. "Thanks for telling me."

"Thank you for listening," he said. "And keeping it between us."

She beamed up at him for a moment then paused before asking another question.

"So does that mean you can still see stuff from the past?" she asked. "Is your farm actually haunted?"

"I don't see stuff very often, actually," he said as a little white lie. It was technically true. At least, it was, before he'd seen the note.

James laughed a little.

"And no," he said. "It's not haunted."

"Phew, that's a relief," she said as she swung her legs against the hay bale again. "People say I have a niche power too. I didn't like it when I was little but now I don't mind it." She turned to James to offer a smile. "And I guess I don't mind yours either. Even though you say you have a time power and you can't go back in time again."

"Would you want me to leave?" James asked, raising an eyebrow.

"No!" she said quickly and loudly, then stuck out her tongue. "You can't leave anyways."

James laughed and patted her on the back, starting to get to his feet.

"Yep," he said. "Looks like I'm stuck here. But you all in Terra aren't all that bad."

Isabel followed his lead and hopped off the hay bale too. "It's pretty nice here, yeah," she said as she gazed back towards the party. "Does that mean you're going to stay here forever?"

"Well, I'm not sure, really," James mused. "I guess we'll just have to see. But for now, I'm here, and I'm choosing to enjoy that."

He looked over to Isabel with a warm smile and decided to offer her his hand to hold as they headed over, before she could drag him by it.

"Back to Freya and Mina, then?" he asked.

Isabel looked down at his hand for a moment but then erupted into a big, warm smile.

"Back to Freya and Mina," she said as she took his hand and walked forward, gently this time.

When they made it over, the crowd seemed to be thinning as people started to gather at the edge of the field. He saw that there were people lining up at a starting line drawn in the dirt, and they were all holding empty potato sacks. It looked like a race of some sort, as there was someone at the other end of the field where there was presumably a finish line.

"Oh! Oh!" Isabel squeaked as she started to drag him again, hurriedly walking towards an open row with an unoccupied sack. "Let's join the race!"

"I'm not sure how this race works," James said with a little laugh. "How about I watch you do it and I cheer you on from the sidelines?"

Isabel looked like she wanted to protest, but there was only one free sack nearby, and others had already lined up next to her.

"Okay," she said as she picked up the empty sack. "I'm pretty good at this, you know. I'll be over there."

She waved at him and then stood at the line while she hopped into the sack. Daisy seemed to step out of the crowd and in a booming voice that carried over the chatter, started explaining the rules in brief. James backed away from the race, and glanced over at Mina and Freya, who seemed to be wandering over. He smiled and waved at them, and that seemed to be enough to welcome them over as the race began with the blow of a whistle.

James watched as the contestants stuck their feet in the sacks and started hopping.

"Hey!" Freya said as she returned the wave and approached. She didn't seem to really care about the competition, and Mina watched half-distractedly.

"Everything go okay from earlier?" Freya asked.

"Yeah, it went alright. We talked it out," James said. "What about you two? Things are going okay?"

"I'm better now that I'm in your company again," Freya said in a sultry voice as she stood a little closer to him.

Freya was coming on very strong. James gave a quick glance to Mina in an attempt to make eye contact and ask her wordlessly if this was how Freya always was, but Mina seemed more interested in the race.

"She is such a dork," Mina said, but she wasn't talking about Freya. She was referencing Isabel, watching her quickly hop down the field and overtake an older gentleman.

"The only reason I'm sitting out is because I don't really want to ruin my shoes," James said. Maybe sounding petty would be a turn off for Freya. But it wasn't.

"Oh?" Freya said, interest piqued as she stood close enough that their arms touched. "Farmer with style. I like it."

"I try," James said quietly with a little shrug. He leaned ever-so-slightly away from Freya so that their arms weren't touching, pretending like he was leaning in to the race to get a better look.

"How long are you planning on staying?" she asked him.

He glanced back at her. "At the party?" he asked. "Eh, I'm not sure. Not too long, I don't think."

Freya nodded. "I don't think I'll stay too long, either."

Freya knew he didn't have a flower, right? Maybe they did it different in Terra. James wasn't sure how to let Freya down easy. She seemed to be very persistent, and he wasn't stupid. He was picking up on the subliminial messages she was sending.

"So - the western side of Terra, by the coast," he said. "I've never been. What's it like? Is the seaside nice this time of year?"

Freya hummed and then smiled, tilting her head and watching him. "Why don't you visit me and find out?"

James should've seen that one coming, but he felt like he was off his game. The previous party was still lingering in his mind with all of the awkward and tense interactions. It was like he couldn't escape it. Trouble, even minor trouble, just kept being drawn to him. But at this point in his life, he wasn't surprised. That was his lifelong curse, apparently.

This was why he'd kept to himself on the farm. It was like today was just proving all of his anxieties to be true.

He laughed politely, but he really wished the race was over already. The final contestants were stumbling towards the finish line. He saw Isabel, speeding ahead.

"We'll see," he said to Freya, before turning to the race and shouting. "Go Isabel!"

That seemed to give her the final spark of motivation to win the race, and she started to speed up. His attention was stolen again when Mina spoke up, though.

"Ugh, don't encourage her," she said to him. "Last time she won, she wouldn't stop talking about the stupid race for three straight days."

"Sounds like a small price to pay for the reward of seeing your friend happy to succeed," James replied. "I prefer to be supportive."

"Ehh, it's your choice," Mina said with a shrug. "She's clingy as hell."

"And weird," Freya murmured.

"Yeah, but that's nothing new."

James watched as Isabel dove across the finish line, claiming first. He started clapping along with others who were watching.

"I think people who are different are still just as deserving of good friendships," James said to the two of them, before he shouted again. "Great job, Isabel!"

"You know what you deserve?" Freya said. "A good time with a proper woman."

Mina snickered, and they high fived.

James watched the interaction with visible confusion, though he was by no means confused. He could play dumb as he waited (and hoped) that Isabel would come running over soon.

"I think all of the women I've met here are proper," he said with an innocent smile.

"But can all of them give you a properly good time?" Freya said with a wink.

James laughed nervously.

"That's..."

"Kind of hot, I know," Freya said as she bumped his hip with hers.

Mina groaned. "Get a room," she said, and Freya laughed at that. Probably because she did want a room.

"Did you see that?!" Isabel said as she came running over just in time, her braid a mess from all the hopping. She was grinning wide as she wore an ribbon pinned to her chest for winning first place.

James turned to Isabel, relieved at the distruption she brought.

"Yes, I did," he said with a big smile. "Congratulations on your victory, Isabel."

"Thanks!" Isabel said brightly, then glanced over at the other two women.

"Yeah, congrats," Mina said flatly. "Big competition you won there."

"Winner of the sacks," Freya added.

"Uh, thanks!" Isabel said then straightened the ribbon on her chest. She looked up at James, still beaming. "And thanks for cheering. It helped a lot."

James smiled. "Of course," he said. Then he quickly looked between the three of them, eager to move on and avoid more harassment from either Mina or Freya.

"Are you all hungry?" he asked. "I'm thinking it's time to get some food."

"Starving now!" Isabel said. "Let's go get food."

"Wait," Freya said, then pulled out the water lily that was on her ear. She slipped it on James's front pocket and then winked again before she started to back away.

"If you follow the pipes heading west, you'll reach my house. Just so you know," she said.

"Our house," Mina murmured, rolling her eyes as she followed her sister.

"See you around, James."

Isabel looked like she was trying to keep up with the conversation. "Oh! Bye, Freya! Bye, Mina!" she said as she waved at them, but they were already leaving.

James looked down at the flower.

If this was anything like the Tula situation, he had a strong feeling he couldn't just... throw it away. He didn't want it, but Freya hadn't exactly given him a choice. In the second he took to think over the social implications of being seen with her flower, he missed the chance to say goodbye. Though he wasn't exactly remiss about that.

He looked back up at Isabel.

"So," he said. "Food?"

"Food," she echoed, and then gestured for him to follow her this time.

She led him to the open barn that was lined with food and drinks. Several people stood around chatting with plates, but they paid them no mind as she beelined towards the food.

There wasn't as much of a selection as the food from the first party, but there were still plenty of options. James did notice that there were selections of meat and other animal products, though. He also noticed that there was a big bowl of pesto Daisy had prepared for him by request on the table, along with a small bowl of grated cheese. On the other side of the room was a table with big dispensers of drinks with a spout on the end. It appeared that there were options of water, juice, beer, and wine.

Isabel grabbed a plate and started to pack it with food. He noticed that she had also took some of the meat dishes too. So, turned out vegetarianism was not something everyone on earth did. At least, not for people in Terra.

"Hopping and horse riding takes so much energy," she said while scooping the food. "I am starving."

James smiled a little and started to put some food on his plate. Despite saying he was hungry for the sake of a distraction, his stomach felt rather fragile at the moment after all of the stress, motion sickness, and throwing up twice. He decided to take a moderate portion of the pesto pasta, adding on the grated cheese.

He hadn't had cheese in a while. It always felt like a treat.

Not wanting to overdo it, he decided to stick with the pasta for the moment to see how it would settle, and he took a glass of water, waiting for Isabel as she finished maximizing her plate's holding capacity.

When she finally finished cramming as much food as possible in one plate (he wasn't sure if she knew she could come back for seconds), Isabel walked over to a small table where they could eat and talk. Isabel wasn't one for manners and continually talked even while eating with her mouth full, but James didn't really mind.

When she was almost done with her plate, Daisy was walking by and then stopped when she saw them.

"James, there you are," she said with a smile, then looked down at his plate and noticed the leftover green sauce from the pesto. "Josiah told me you liked pesto, so I made sure to prepare some for you. I hope you enjoyed it - it's been a while since I've made it."

James smiled up at her warmly. "Well you did a great job," he said. "It was delicious. Thank you so much for making it."

"Daisy is a really good cook," Isabel said with the last bit of food in her mouth, words coming out muffled. She quickly finished chewing and tried again. "Everything she makes is delicious."

"Thanks you, my dear," Daisy said as she patted her back, then turned her attention back to James. "I was wondering: since this is your first time here, would you like a tour of the property?"

James looked over to Isabel, then back at Daisy.

"Sure, I'd like that," he said with a small smile. "Isabel, I'll come back to meet you, then, when I'm done. Is that alright?"

"Josiah said he was looking for you," Daisy offered to Isabel. "He's by the other barn, if you wanted to see him."

While they were talking, Isabel was downing her cup of water. When finished, she set it down then gave a quick nod.

"Sure! That's okay. I'll go talk to Josiah," she said.

"Good, good," Daisy said with a smile then turned back to James. "Ready?"

James nodded and got up, joining Daisy at her side after giving Isabel a quick wave goodbye.
  





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soundofmind says...



James followed Daisy out of the barn and towards the house. She gestured across the pasture to point out the animals, shed, small barn, and pathway that inevitably lead to the gate if you kept going straight. She was talking the entire time, verbally giving a tour until she stopped in front of the house where the dog sat patiently in front of the gate, panting instead of barking.

Daisy turned towards James, smiling apologetically.

"I know I said I would give you a tour, but I was hoping I could show you something inside first. Would you like to come in?" she asked.

"That's fine with me," James said with a little nod of his head. He smiled at the dog, but didn't interact with it.

"Great. Follow me," Daisy said as she unlatched the gate and motioned for him to follow. The dog followed too, swinging its fluffy tail as Daisy led James toward the door of the house.

"I know we just met, but my husband's told me all about you," she said as she walked beside him.

James didn't know how much Josiah actually knew about him, but hearing that Daisy "knew all about him" made him a little wary.

"Only good things, I hope," James said with a little laugh.

"Of course, of course," she said with a smile. "We have much more in common than you know. Frankly, I'm appalled that it took this long for you to see us. Josiah sure does like to keep to himself, doesn't he?"

She held the door open for him, motioning for him to enter first. James stepped into the house and looked around, glancing back at the big dog that Daisy left at the doorstep.

The house was as spacious as it looked outside, and although it was made out of wood and familiar items, it was still much more developed than James could understand. Hyper-realistic pictures lined the wall, and more lights and gadgets were strewn across the room. He didn't have that much time to stop and take it all in since Daisy started to walk towards the kitchen.

"Would you like some water? Or perhaps juice? Wine?" she asked as she started to get out a glass.

"Water's fine, thank you," James said, still trying to catch all of the details of the home.

Daisy filled two glasses of water from the sink, but it didn't come from a wall of water, but instead, a faucet that she turned on. She thought nothing of it when she handed the glass to him and leaned against the counter. There was a table with chairs, but Daisy didn't make the move to sit yet.

"How has life in Terra been treating you so far?" she asked.

"Pretty well, I'd say," James said before taking a small sip of water. "It's quiet, peaceful, and the sunsets are beautiful."

"I'm glad to hear that," she said. "Terra is wonderful for those reasons. It's a life away from life. You are protected from the outside world, but you can have a life of your own here. It's a community, and we look after one other."

James nodded slowly.

"It's a privilege to be here," he commented.

"And it's my privilege to meet you," Daisy said with a smile. "There's not too many people with our situation."

James took another sip of water as Daisy spoke, trying to decipher if she was implying anything more with her words. Our situation seemed to communicate that they were in the same boat somehow.

"So it seems," James said, leaving it vague in hopes that Daisy would elaborate.

Luckily, she seemed to pick up on the signal.

"Pardon me," she said apologetically. "How much did Josiah tell you? I assumed you must already know, but he's not one to converse very long."

"Considering that I'm admittedly a little lost as to what you're referring to, I'm assuming he hasn't told me much," James said.

Daisy laughed and shook her head. "That sounds like Josiah," she said. "Why don't I show you instead?"

She moved to peek out the door leading back into the living area and loudly shouted: "Roselle! Josie! Come downstairs!"

A few seconds passed before a shuffling of feet were heard, and then James heard someone quickly go down the stairs, practically running.

A small girl then ran up to Daisy, hugging her and smiling, but then noticing James and then shyly backing away. She couldn't have been more than ten years old.

"It's okay, dearie, he's a friend," Daisy said as she gave the girl a pat on the head, and then turned back to James.

"James, this is my granddaughter, Josie."

Grandaughter. That meant Josiah and Daisy had kids who were full grown with children of their own. More importantly, it meant that Josiah was in the same boat as him, and Josiah knew. Did Josiah think that was the reason he was in Terra? Should he have even told Isabel the whole time power story?

James was beginning to have new doubts and new worries, but he hid it all easily behind a warm smile as he gave Josie a small wave.

"Hello, Josie," James said. "It's nice to meet you."

"...Hi," Josie said, still hiding behind Daisy.

Daisy laughed. "She's a little shy. It's not often that new people get to say hi to her," she said.

"That's alright," James said.

Suddenly more footsteps were heard, and then a voice.

"Sorry mom. You called?" the woman, Roselle, said as she entered the kitchen carrying a sleeping baby.

"This is my daughter, Roselle," Daisy said to James. "Roselle, this is James. He's new in Terra. We can trust him."

Roselle looked a bit frazzled and sleepless, and although she hesitated to greet James, she eventually smiled and nodded at him.

"Hi, James," she said. "It's nice to meet you."

James returned the smile. "Likewise," he said softly, not wanting to disturb the baby.

"I hope this helps clear things up," Daisy said to James, then turned back to Roselle. "Get some sleep, darling. Especially while Dennis is sleeping now. I can get to him if he wakes up and gets too fussy."

Roselle nodded and looked down at sleepy baby Dennis adoringly before wordlessly heading back out of the room.

"She's a bit tired right now, but I'm sure she'd be happy to talk more in the future," Daisy said, then kneeled down to look at Josie in the eye. "Sweetie, why don't you fetch some of the flower finger paintings you made today?" she said to her.

Josie nodded. "Okay," she said and then ran out of the room.

Daisy smiled and then headed for the table with chairs, pulling one out to sit down.

"Sit," she said to James. "I'm sure you have many questions. I'd be happy to answer them."

James followed Daisy's cue and sat down at the table as well, pulling out a chair on the side across from her.

"I don't know if I have that many questions," he said quietly with a little laugh as looked to where Josie had run off. "But I'm assuming you and Josiah were able to have children, then?"

"Oh, no," Daisy said as she brushed off some crumbs on the table. "Unfortunately no. I have a son, but he's not biologically Josiah's, but he does see him as a father." She sighed. "I was pregnant with my son Forrest when I escaped the sectors, and that's how I met Josiah. Forrest is the one who's able to bear children, but unfortuntaely he's not here right now. I do hope one day you will be able to meet him, though."

"Where is he, if I may ask?" James asked.

"He left about six months ago to help build another Terra, called Gaea," she said. "He's following in Josiah's shoes. I am really proud of him."

James smiled a small, warm smile.

"Rightfully so, it sounds like," he said. "So, Roselle, then. She's his wife?"

Daisy nodded. "He met her here, actually. She's a farmer, just like you and me. But now she's more of a mother."

"Both are equally honorable roles, I think," James commented. He wanted to ask more about Forrest's whereabouts, since half a year of being gone was a long time, but he didn't think it was his business to pry.

"They sure are," Daisy said with a smile. "It's a shame, though. Poor Roselle is cooped up in the house with the children so that we don't garner extra attention. Terra is safe compared to the rest of the ungoverned lands, but nowhere is completely safe."

James nodded with understanding.

"When Forrest gets Gaea settled, will they move to be with him?" James asked. "Or is it more... complicated than that?"

Daisy gave him a sad but appreciative look. "Complicated is the right word, yes. It's... difficult, to travel with children. Especially when they are so young."

"I can imagine so," James said softly.

"Enough about my family, though," she said as she leaned in and placed her hands on the table. "Tell me about you. We all have unique stories to share. I'd love to listen, if you don't mind sharing."

James had already told one person his fake-true backstory today, and he didn't plan on sharing it again, but he hadn't exactly been prepared for something like this. He didn't know how thorough he had to be for it to be believable. The problem was, he knew enough about how things functioned in theory, but to know how to come up with a believable backstory that could apply to the present, he had to not only understand the current state of the world but the nuances of life from different backgrounds. He needed to know the little things that made people feel human. That made experiences relatable.

He'd already told Josiah he used to farm with his father (which he wasn't even sure about), and Daisy said he'd told her everything. But what was everything, really?

She knew that he could also bear children, and she had admitted that Josiah couldn't bear children. It was Forrest, her son, who was able to have kids because she was pregnant with him when she escaped. That must have been how Forrest escaped the infertility shots. So, it wouldn't make sense if James said he escaped the sectors too. What was a good, believable explanation to how he got here and how he was fertile?

Maybe he could use a similar explanation. Maybe his "parents" had escaped some time ago and could bear children. It seemed like the easiest, more straightforward explanation: he never came from the sectors, and he had always lived in the ungoverned lands.

Why he was in Terra now though, just by himself...

"Well, it seems that my parents had a similar story to yours," James said quietly, looking down at the table and wearing a more sober expression. "They escaped from the sectors before I was born, and we lived in the ungoverned lands for some time. Hidden away, as much as possible. It was... a difficult upbringing, with the constant dangers the ungoverned lands bring. My father, unfortunately, passed when I was still young very suddenly..."

He trailed off for a moment before clearing his throat.

"And at the same time I was discovered, my mother was captured. So, I'm hoping that here, I will at least be safer. Like you said, no place is truly without danger, but I do think my chances are better here than out there."

Daisy listened patiently and attentively, gently making eye contact the entire time. "I am so sorry to hear about your father, and your mother too," she said. "It sounds like you had to endure many hardships to get here. But I am very glad, and very happy, that you are here now, safe and sound. I hope that you will be able to reach your mother someday, though."

James offered her a small, sad smile. This one he didn't have to fake.

"Me too," he said. Though he knew it would never happen.

Just in time, Josie came running back with thick paper that was full of vibrant colors. She was grinning, but still seemed to be shy around James, avoiding making eye contact.

"What have you got there, sweetie?" Daisy asked as she picked up Josie and set her on her lap.

Josie placed the finger painting papers in front of her, shuffling so that they could all see. They were all colorful pictures of various flowers.

"Why don't you show James the one you made today?" Daisy said gently, and then Josie slowly took out a painting of a daisy and then slid it over for James to take.

James took the drawing gently, and smiled as he looked down at the flower.

"This is really good, Josie," James said with a smile. "Did you choose a daisy because of your grandma?"

Josie smiled as she held on to Daisy, but then looked away and nodded, giving Daisy a hug.

"That's very thoughtful of you," James said, offering the drawing back to Josie. "I'm sure she loves it."

"I absolutely do," Daisy said with a warm smile.

Josie beamed and reached back over to take the drawing, examining it for a moment.

"What's your favorite flower?" she asked James.

"Well, as it turns out, you've already made the lucky guess," James said, leaning forward a little on the table as he gave her another big smile. "Daisies are my favorite."

Josie was curiously watching him as she flicked her eyes between James and the painting. "Daisies are your favorite?" she asked.

"That they are," James answered. "What's yours?"

"I like all of them," Josie said. She hesitated for a moment, but then extended the painting back out to James. "You can have it."

James took the painting back with a wide, surprised smile.

"For me?" he asked, looking back down at the painting. "Well, I'll just have to hang it up on my wall. You haven't seen my house, but there's flowers painted aaaaaall over the outside of it. This will fit right in."

Josie let out a small giggle, looking pleased as she held on to Daisy. But then she jumped out of her grasp, running out of the room again. "Wait!" she yelled out as she left.

Daisy laughed. "You have a natural gift with children," she said to James. "It takes some time for Josie to warm up to strangers, but she seems to like you already."

James just smiled and shrugged, looking back down at the painting.

"We'd like Josie to one day take over Josiah's job here in Terra," Daisy continued on. "She's shy now, but we are hoping one day she'd be a good leader, if she's interested."

"I'm sure she has it in her," James said with a grin. "After all, Josiah's not the most talkative either, but he seems to be doing a great job here in Terra."

Daisy smiled. "Very true. Still, we'd like to help with her socialization, but the options are limited right now since there are only so many people we can trust." She paused for a moment. "Would you be interested in babysitting some time, per chance? We'd compensate you for your time, of course."

James's eyebrows raised, and he nodded as he looked to the side in thought.

"You don't have to compensate for my time," James said. "I'd love to help out if you need. I wouldn't mind."

"Oh, I insist," Daisy said with a dismissing wave. "At least with rarer produce, or maybe more pesto. It would be my pleasure."

James laughed.

"I suppose I would enjoy eating more of your cooking," he said. "The pesto was perfect. I imagine anything else you make would be just as good."

"Well, you are about to find out, then," she said with a laugh. "I don't know how busy you are these days, but I can have Josiah swing by your farm whenever Roselle needs some time off from the kids. She insists on doing everything herself, poor thing, but I know she's exhausted. A break and a babysitter would do wonders for her."

"Just let me know when I'm needed," James said. "I'm not too busy most days, so I'd be happy to help out."

"I'm happy to hear that," Daisy said with a smile. "And any time you need extra work around your farm, give me a holler. I might know a thing or two you don't."

"I'm sure you do," James said. "You've been doing this a lot longer than I."

"It helps to come from an extensive lineage of farmers," Daisy said with a laugh. "But it's wonderful to hear that you are farming despite..." She paused for a moment. "I assume you also come from a similar lineage?"

Right on time, Josie slammed the door from outside and started to run back in the room, flowers in her hand.

Not just any flower, though. Daisies.

"I picked these for you," Josie said as she shyly gave them to James. "It's your favorite."

James suppressed a pleasantly surprised little laugh and instead smiled, gingerly taking the daisies from her hand.

"Thank you so much, Josie," James said. "They're lovely."

Josie smiled and then ran back up to Daisy, hugging her again. Daisy laughed as she patted her.

"That's very thoughtful of you, dear," Daisy said to her. "Perfect Day of Peace gift."

Daisy turned back to James, warmly smiling as she continued to pat Josie. "That's the first time she's given a flower to someone on this holiday. I think this is her way of saying she'd also like you to visit more often."

"If I'm going to be babysitting, then she--" he paused, looking to Josie with a small smile. "I definitely will."

"Really?" Josie said to him, still holding on to Daisy.

"Yep!" he said, sticking the daisies in his pocket beside Freya's flower. At this point he didn't care anymore. Josie's flowers were the only ones he really cared about recieving all day.

Josie smiled wide but then hid her face again.

"Josie, why don't you prepare some flowers for your mother as well?" Daisy asked her gently. "You can cut them fresh from the garden for her."

"Okay," Josie said after a hesitation, letting go and bounding for the door again. She stopped before she could fully disappear, looking back over at James.

"Bye, James!" she said, and then ran off.

James watched Josie disappear with a small smile that naturally faded as he looked back over to Daisy.

"Thank you," he said softly. "For letting me know. It helps... with feeling less alone, in all of this."

Daisy warmly smiled again and then gently placed her hand over his to express her sincerity.

"We may not be related, but we are still a community. I understand some of the hardships you may be going through, and I wanted to let you know that you are indeed not alone. If ever you want to talk, or feel that you are in danger, remember that you have us. And you can trust us. We want to help you, too."

James smiled softly and met Daisy's eyes with a mix of real and conjured sincerity. He was sincerely grateful for her kindness, but she sincerely did not understand. That was okay. He appreciated it nonetheless.

"Thank you," he said. "That means a lot."

Daisy nodded and pulled her hand away. "Of course, dear. We're farmers, after all. We look out for one another."

She then gazed toward the front window where it faced the party in the distance.

"I'm sure you don't want to stay cooped up in this quiet house all day," she said, then waved her hand out in front of her. "Go. Have fun in the party. I just wanted to bring you here for a bit of privacy, but please, enjoy the rest of the day."

James gave her another small smile as he got to his feet.

"I appreciated the privacy, by the way," he said. "But yes. I'll go..."

He took a few steps towards the front door, but then paused, turning back to her.

"Completely unrelated question," he said. "But... is your dog... friendly?"

Daisy laughed. "Sophie's a sweet girl who helps herd the cattle every morning," she said. "She's always competing for everyone's attention. You are welcome to play with her if you'd like. She's very friendly and social."

James smiled. "Good to know," he said, starting for the door again. "Thank you again, Daisy."

"Of course. Thank you for listening and taking up the option to babysit. Have a happy Day of Peace."

"And you as well!" James said as he opened the door and stepped out onto the front porch, closing the door behind him. He saw that Sophie had curled up on the porch, but the moment he stepped out, she jumped to her feet, wagging her tail, panting.

James didn't know what exactly came over him, but for some reason, he found himself dearly missing being around farm animals, and the dog's friendly face was a comfort. He knelt down and waved Sophie over, and she rushed to him, practically ramming her big head into his chest. He laughed as she knocked him onto his butt, and he started aggressively petting her and ruffling up her fur.

Sophie seemed to only be further encouraged to smother him, and she started slobbering all over his face with her big tongue. He laughed and pushed her head away.

"Eew," he said with a little laugh. "Come on, that's not necessary."

Sophie, of course, didn't understand, but that was what he liked about animals sometimes. They didn't need to understand everything, and it was okay.

He pushed Sophie out of the way so he could get back up on his feet, and he patted Sophie's head as she stood up right next to him, leaning against his legs. He looked up and noticed one of the front windows was open, and he could see Roselle watching him, still holding baby Dennis up against her chest.

She was watching him, smiling.

He smiled back at her, bashfully waving. She waved back, and he gave her a sharp nod of his head before he walked out into the front yard, scanning it for sticks. He spotted one that looked like it already belonged to Sophie - a big, twigless branch that had chew-marks - and he picked it up. Sophie immediately understood and backed away with her tail wagging wildly, waiting for him to throw it.

He tossed it up into the air, watching as Sophie leaped, catching a surprising amount of air as she snapped the branch out of the air.

"Good girl!" he congratulated her as she came running back to him, dropping it as his feet.

He ended up playing fetch with her for a few minutes. In the middle of the game, another partygoer walked by and struck up conversation with him. They ended up idly chatting about farm animals - but James actually quite enjoyed it. Apparently, the man had seen James ride in on Elliot, and he had a million questions about horses that James was happy to answer. Fortunately, or rather miraculously, how James got Elliot didn't come up, and instead they both just talked about their pets and animals they enjoyed.

Eventually, James broke away from Sophie with one last pet and departed back to the main party. He wasn't sure where to find Isabel, but he decided to check the barn first, since that was where she would've been last.

The man he'd met - Peter, who was excited about his horse - followed James to the barn to see Elliot as well. Though he didn't find Isabel, Peter did seem pretty excited to meet Elliot, and it went well.

When they left the barn, Isabel seemed to find him first. She came running up to him and swept him off to go introduce him to more people at the party. He saw many faces, and heard many names. Each one was work to remember and file away, but thankfully it was a well-practiced muscle that he was able to lean on.

He got to meet Isabel's neighbor (who was also his neighbor) - a woman named Olivia and a man named Derrick - they both were in their 40's. Olivia had braided hair that went to her waist and Derrick was ridiculously tall. They had sheep and grew both cotton and grain. They were polite and friendly and offered for him to come and visit if he wanted.

He learned after a few conversations that people were wary of him at first because of the circumstances surrounding his arrival. He'd come out of the blue, placed hastily into his home, and escorted, which were all reasons for suspicioun and confusion. No one seemed to mention Evaline, though, which meant either they didn't know she was his escort, or they were just too polite to mention her because of the controversy around her name.

Isabel seemed to enjoy parading James around the party, and she didn't leave his side. She continued to eat a lot as the party went on, and James stuck to small portions, as he was trying to pace himself.

Normally he was hungry, but he didn't trust his body to keep it all down.

They ended up playing a few party games. One was something Isabel called "corn hole" which consisted of throwing rice-filled sacks into holes in wooden slats. The rules were pretty simple, and it wasn't too challenging. They played against each other and Isabel won the first two times while he wont the last two, and they decided to call it a tie.

Night began to fall, and people were slowly starting to clear out of the party. There was a clock in the barn that read 10pm, and at that point, James suggested they both head home.

It had been a long day. For him.

They got back on Elliot and James dropped Isabel back off at her farm first. He slowed up to the front of her house, following the well-traveled path going through her property, and when he came to a stop, he glanced over his shoulder at her.

"Aaaand here you are," he said. "Back home, safe and sound."

"Awwwww," she said, not moving to jump off yet. "But I'm not tired yet."

"You know, I think old man Hank really might've possessed me," James said, beginning to put on a funny accent reminiscent of the "country singers" in the music Mel had played him in the car. "Because I, unfortunately, am terrible wore out."

Isabel giggled and finally let go of his waist. "Can old man James help me down?" she asked.

James nodded, though it wasn't entirely visible to her.

"That I can," he said. He held onto the horn of the saddle with one hand, twisted around, and offered her his other hand.

"If you stick your foot in the stirrup, you'll be able to step down much easier," he said.

Isabel took his hand and swung her legs around, feeling for the stirrup with her foot until she found it. When she did, she was able to climb down with ease, now with both feet on the ground.

She glanced back at the house, then at James.

"Can you, um..." she said slowly. "Can you get down for a sec?"

James wasn't sure what to expect, but a number of various possibilities ran through his head in that moment, the good, the bad, the awkward, and the in-between.

"Sure," he said with a smile as he hopped down, quickly reaching over for Elliot's lead just so he'd be rooted. "What is it?"

Without prompt, Isabel came in for a hug, wrapping her arms around him as she buried her head in his chest.

"Thank you for today," she said, voice muffled by his shirt.

James hugged her back, patting her.

"You're most welcome," he said.

A few seconds passed, and then she pulled away, smiling up at him. She averted her eyes.

"Can I tell you a secret too?" she asked. "But I want to whisper it, if that's okay. I don't want the beans to hear."

James was wary, but it was far too late to be wary at this point after what he'd already told her. He raised his eyebrows and slowly turned his head so that his ear was facing her, and he leaned his head down just a bit.

Isabel leaned forward ready to whisper, but in one quick swoop, she pecked his cheek with a small kiss and then took the orchid out of her hair and placed it in his hands. Without waiting for his reaction, she turned around and bolted towards her house.

"Okay, bye!" she said, back facing him.

James was, admittedly, too stunned to reply before the door slammed behind her and she was gone.

Okay, so maybe he had made a mistake. But it wasn't sharing the secret. It was... being too nice? Leading her on?

Why did this always seem to happen?

James felt his face burn as he glanced at her house and then got back up on Elliot. He took in a deep breath and gave Isabel's house one last look before he rode off towards his farm.

It didn't take long for him to get back, set Elliot up in his stable with some water and hay, and walk back to the cottage. He didn't see a light on inside, so he decided to knock first. Upon not hearing a reply, he hesitantly opened the door. It was hard for him to see in the dark, so he fumbled to the bookshelf and struck a match, finding a nearby candle and lighting it.

When he the room finally came into a dim view, he saw Evaline was asleep on the couch, wearing his clothes. She must've dug through them, because she was wearing one of his white long sleeve shirts and a red pair of linen overalls. He was glad that she helped herself, since he wouldn't want to stay dressed up either, but he couldn't help but feel a twinge of anxiety.

He'd kept the journal under the bed too. Granted, it was tucked in the far back, hidden. But he didn't know if she'd seen it.

He saw that Evaline was half-sitting up and she had a book in her lap. His heart skipped a beat until he realized it wasn't the journal. It was one of the survival books, it looked like.

Before she woke up, he took off his shoes, and quickly peeked under his bed to see if the journal was unmoved.

He let out a sigh of relief and quickly pulled away, hiding it again and getting to his feet. When he looked back, Evaline was still asleep, but it looked like she was starting to stir. He sat down on his bed and stretched out his arms, letting out a yawn. He let the yawn stretch out before he spoke.

"Evaline?" he whispered.
  





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Carina says...



It was a little strange to be left all alone in someone else's unfamiliar home.

When James had left to go to the party, Evaline spent some time sitting by the windowsill, watching him go off with Isabel on Elliot, but making sure to not be too visible in case she happened to look up.

It had been an exhausting day, and although she said that she'd wait for James to come back, she didn't know when that would be. Still, if she planned to come back tomorrow anyways, staying the night would be the most practical option, if James was okay with it. She let it sit at the back of her mind as she had to fill the next hours herself, though.

One of the first things she did was change out of her dress. She didn't anticipate James arriving at the party nevertheless taking him home, so she didn't bring an extra change of clothes. Evaline hoped that James didn't mind that she went through some of his furniture to figure out where exactly he even put his clothes. They were on the shelf and table the last time she was here, but he seemed to have moved them somewhere else.

It took some searching, but eventually she found out that James stored his clothes under his bed. It looked like the bed was where he stored quite a bit of boxes, and the first box she pulled out was full of clothes. She didn't take that much time to sort through it - she just needed something comfortable, and something that would fit. But also, something James wouldn't miss too much for a day or two. She ended up settling on a plain long sleeve white shirt and red overalls.

After that, she ate some of the food laying around his cottage, and did some light reading. She had already read all of the books he picked out - they were hers at some point, after all - so it wasn't anything new. She did note, however, that he had picked up the entire set of French to learn. She wondered what prompted Mel to pick that, of all things, instead of sticking to the list she gave her. It felt like a strange coincidence since she had told James that she learned a new language, although she hadn't dropped the name of the language to him. She wondered if he'd some day figure it out.

The sun was setting, and she could feel her eyes getting increasingly heavy. It was so quiet, and she was so tired after the events of today...

--<>--


"Evaline?" she heard James quietly call out, and at first she thought it was a dream.

But hearing that was like the final straw to everything else: the knock at the door, the shuffling of steps, the creaks of the floorboard. It wasn't a dream.

"James...?" she said blearily as she opened her eyes.

Evaline slowly sat up straight and squinted in the dark, remembering that she was in his cottage, and that he had come back from the Terra Day of Peace party. She blinked back the tiredness and rubbed her eyes.

"Sorry," she said hoarsely, then lightly cleared her throat. "I must have fallen asleep."

"Don't apologize," James said softly. "I'm sorry I woke you. Do you want to go back to sleep?"

"No," she said, voice more confident. "I'll stay up."

She had a feeling James wasn't tired yet, but he did go to two parties that lasted all day.

"Unless... you're tired?" she asked.

James leaned forward and rested his arms on his knees with a sigh.

"I am," he admitted. "But not in the way that I'd be able to sleep soon."

"Maybe it would help if you made the root tea," Evaline suggested. "Since your body needs more convincing, even if your mind is tired."

She almost thought she heard James snort, but it was faint. When she finally focused enough and rubbed away the sleep, she could see that he was holding a paper and looking down at it. Evaline also had to do a double-take when she saw three different types of flowers in his shirt pocket.

"I could," he said.

"And then you could sleep afterwards," she said, stating the obvious. She was too tired to care how she sounded right now.

James slowly got to his feet, and he went over to the shelves, pulling out a small basket that he started digging around as he tucked the piece of paper under his arm. It looked like he pulled out a pin. Without explanation, he went to an empty spot on the wall near the front door and placed the paper at eye level, then pinned it in place.

After all the quiet build-up, Evaline could see that it was a painting of a flower, but it looked like it could have been done by a child with its exaggerated features and simple lines.

"It's a good painting," she said as she stared at it, wondering its context.

"I'll have to tell that to Josie," James said. There was a pause before he added: "She's seven. I think."

That woke her up some more.

"A kid," she thought out loud. "In the party?"

"Not in the party," James said. "She's Josiah and Daisy's granddaughter. Daisy introduced me to her in private."

He walked back over to his bed, and plopped back down.

Evaline sat up straighter, placing her feet back on the floor as she pushed her hair over her shoulder, trying to buy some time to think. It felt like her head was a slow-moving sludge, trying to keep up and piece everything together.

"I've heard of Terra housing some other fertile men, but no one knows who they are exactly," she said. "I didn't know there were kids here, but... I suppose it makes sense."

"I hope it's alright that I told you, then," James mused.

"It doesn't affect me, so it's alright," she said, then paused for a moment. "But... why did they tell you?"

"They knew about me," he said. "Being able to have kids." He paused, looking up at her. "You were the one who told them. Right?"

All traces of sleep vanished and Evaline felt a shiver run down her spine. She felt empty for a moment as she closed her eyes, burying her face in her hands so she could think with a clearer head.

"No," she said hoarsely. "I didn't."

James was quiet for a stretch of time.

"I didn't tell anyone," James finally said. "So it had to be someone on the council, then."

Evaline knew she didn't say anything, and of course, James wouldn't either. It made sense that Josiah and Daisy received this information from someone else - someone who was in the room the day she announced it. She rubbed her face in frustration.

"I don't know who it could be," she said quietly. "And I don't know what the motive is, either. Why would they tell Josiah and Daisy?"

James was quiet again for a few long seconds.

"Well, Josiah and Daisy have grandchildren. Maybe they knew about them, too. In the best situation I can come up with, their intentions would be pure, and only meant to help me bond with people in the same situation. Of course, I'm not inclined to believe that, but... that's the best case scenario," he said.

"Maybe," Evaline said half-distractedly as she thought of her own scenarios. None of them were as optimistic as James's. "Maybe you could just... ask how they knew," she added.

"I should have opportunities to do so," James said. "So I'll make note of it. I didn't think to ask at the time because I assumed they must have heard it from you."

Evaline stifled a mirthless laugh. "The only things I told Josiah were your preferences and that you needed high security. He shouldn't know anything, and he's known for his ability to keep to himself, so I have no clue how or why he's gotten this information, and dragging you down with it."

"Now's... probably not a good time that I mentioned I had time powers, then," James said lowly.

Evaline sharply turned towards him, but the anxiety didn't show in her face. "...What?" she said, making sure she heard him right.

James looked like he was intentionally trying to keep a calm exterior. His posture was relaxed, but he didn't meet her eyes.

"I made a mistake," he said. "Didn't I."

Evaline realized that she made a mistake by causing him unnecessary panic and anxiety. She bit down her own thoughts, opting for calm and gentleness instead.

"It's okay," she said. "I should have been more clear with you to begin with, so this is partly my fault. But it happened, and we can fix it. Who did you tell?"

"Isabel, and her two friends. Freya and Mina," he said. "Look. I can already tell that this is going to be a disaster for you and me, so I want you to be straight with me. How bad is it that they know? What are the implications? You never told me outright not to share with the people here about my "powers" or the story you made up for me, and I realize now that... I should've been keen enough to pick up on it earlier. I'm sorry."

If James was already settling on not fixing the mess, it meant that there was no hope it could ever be fixed and put back together in the first place. Isabel, Freya, and Mina would probably tell someone else. Or at least, one of them would, and that was all it would take to start a chain reaction. Maybe there really was no escaping it.

Still, Evaline felt like this could have been prevented. She should have told James a made-up backstory that would fill in the holes. It was easier to think of one to people who didn't know anything. It was harder when she had to fabricate the story to the committee because he had already admitted some facts that she had to support. But now they no longer had that luxury.

Before Evaline could respond, James kept going.

"And, I might as well tell you now - to make matters worse - I did tell Isabel about me being from the past. I told her to keep it a secret and she said she would. And..."

James let out a long sigh.

"This is why I've been avoiding people," he muttered as he buried his face in his hands.

"James," Evaline said gently as she got up from the couch and stood next to him. "Everything will be okay. We'll figure it out. There's no undoing it now, so we'll think of a new plan together and figure out what will work best."

She reached her hand out about to put it on his shoulder, but then faltered midway through, deciding against it last second and instead let it fall to her side. She sighed and then sat next to him, leaning forward to try to see his face through his hands.

"It's not your fault," she continued. "Honestly, I don't know what I was thinking. I should have been more clear and told you a backstory you could fall back on. But we could sit and lament about what happened and how we could have prevented it - or we could plan ahead and accept that it happened. You don't need to feel sorry about telling anyone. We'll figure it out, James. Okay?"

James kept his face hidden in his hands and he leaned further forward for a moment, and then pulled his face away with a sigh. When he met her eyes, he looked tired.

"Why can't they know?" he asked.

Evaline let out a small sigh, tearing her gaze to look across the room.

"It's not so much protecting them as it is protecting you," she said. "It's just... as you've probably figured out, people with time powers aren't exactly..." She paused for a moment to think of the right word. "Well-liked."

"There's a stigma," James concluded.

"Yes," she said. "And it would raise too many questions. Like why you're even here to begin with. Oliver and I are the only ones who aren't living in the sectors. But really, it's mostly just... me."

James stared out emptily somewhere past her with an unfocused gaze.

"Okay," he said quietly.

"But not everyone would be familiar with the inner workings of the government," Evaline quickly added when she realized she had caused more unnecessary anxiety. "Some people might think it's strange, but wouldn't dive too deep into it. And considering that you didn't know any of this, I assume the people you told weren't familiar with these facts."

"Isabel was the only one who seemed surprised," James said. "I told her about the... being from the past thing as an attempt to pacify her. The other two..."

He trailed off, but she noticed for a split second his eyes almost flicked to his shirt pocket. James slumped forward and stuck his face in his hand, squishing his cheek against it as he looked in Evaline's general direction but didn't meet her eyes.

"I don't know, Evaline," he said, though it was unclear what it was he was talking about. "What I did to get this much... attention."

Evaline wasn't sure what exactly he was talking about, but he sounded pretty upset. He could be referencing all the nosy questions, or maybe it was all the people interested in getting to know him, or maybe it was the fact that he had three types of flowers. Maybe it was a mix of everything. Evaline didn't know for sure, and frankly, she wasn't sure what she should be saying right now. She was at a loss for words and didn't know how exactly to cheer him up without sounding like a broken record.

She glanced down at her hand, then back at James who was still slumped over.

"Would you be okay if I... put my hand on your back?" she asked. "For your comfort. If it helps."

James looked up at her, and he met her eyes, holding eye contact for what felt like a very long time, but might've only amounted to two seconds.

"You don't have to say anything," he said softly. "I... I'm used to being touched, now. But I still don't prefer it."

"There's nothing wrong with that," Evaline said, keeping her full attention on him to show that she was listening. "That's why I ask. In case you are okay with it, even if it's just one case."

James's eyes dropped to the floor, and though his face was hard to read as always, it seemed like there was a hint of sadness, but also gratitude.

"Thank you," he said quietly.

"Of course," she said, assuming that the answer to her previous questions was a no. She didn't want to push it. "What are your plans tomorrow?"

"At this point," James said. "Probably figuring out how to clean up the mess I made, now, I think."

"Mess we made," she corrected. "And good. Because I was going to ask you to clear your day tomorrow so we can figure it out together. But for now, don't stress over it."

She paused for a moment, then decided to keep talking to keep his mind off things.

"You've had a long day, with two parties and all. I'm exhausted after one party, and I can't imagine how exhausting it must be for you to meet everyone and see everything. All the new technology, and the new people, and then getting questioned nonstop... It's really not that fun. I don't really see the appeal to do this often, or really, at all."

James nodded slowly, like he was in agreement.

"I did meet a dog," he said quietly. "That was nice."

"A dog?" Evaline said with a small amused smile. "Fom the party you just came from?"

"Yes. It was a big white dog. Her name is Sophie," he said.

Evaline pursed her lips in thought. "Is she fluffy?" she asked.

James glanced down at himself. "I might've gotten some of her hair on me..." he mused. "She was very fluffy."

"It's a good thing I didn't bring Ellie," Evaline said with a small smile. "She might've smelled dog on you and hissed."

"That is definitely for the best, then," James said. "I wouldn't want to get on Ellie's bad side."

"Although, if you think about it, Ellie is basically a big, lazy dog." She paused for a second then added, "One who sleeps all day and only plays with you if she feels like it."

"That is a good description of her," James agreed. He sat up a little straighter, lifting his face from his hand and dropping his hand into his lap.

Evaline nodded, watching him attentively and glad that she seemed to be slowly bringing him out of the slump, at least for the time being.

"So, you met a dog," she said. "That can't be the only difference between a lavish Day of Peace party and a farmer one."

"They had games," James said. "Which I think makes the farmer party objectively better. Throwing beanbags is surprisingly entertaining."

"Ah, see, there were plenty of games from the party I went to," Evaline said with the beginnings of a smirk.

"Mind games," James said.

"Exactly. It's really fun."

"You know, I can't tell which part was worse. Having a competition of politeness with Oliver, the embarrassment of the whole corsage situation and having to apologize to Tula, getting interrogated by Malkiel, or getting slapped on the ass by Hendrik," James said.
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Carina says...



Evaline blinked and then let out breathy laugh, shaking her head.

"Oh-kay, there's a lot to unpack there," she said.

"You're telling me," James said, shaking his head.

"Let's start with, um, Hendrik slapping you."

James leaned forward again and let out a groan mixed with a weary laugh. He rubbed his face with his hands.

"Hendrik was drunk, first of all," he said, his voice muffled through his fingers.

"Understandably so," Evaline said as she waited for him to elaborate. She decided to not tell him that this was in-character for him to do even when sober.

"I honestly can't tell if he was threatening me or flirting with me half the time," James said. "I want to say both. I think it was both. I don't know. I think I left my body at that time and I didn't return."

Evaline couldn't help but laugh again, but she quickly tried to repress it, tightly pressing her lips together and shaking her head.

"I'm sorry that happened to you," she said. "He can be... like that, sometimes."

"Handsy?" James asked, looking over at her.

"Yeah, but not with me. Just to... you know. People he wants to mess with." She paused. "Not in that way. He's just messing with you. Probably doesn't help that you punched him and he feels like he needs to make you squirm now."

"Uh huh," James said lowly. "Great."

"I'll tell him to stop?" she offered. "He seems to listen to me most of the time."

"Just don't... if you can tell him in a way without -- you know -- explaining everything," he said quickly.

"Don't worry, I'll just give him a lesson on consent," Evaline teased. "And that he's making me look bad by roughing up my singular high-priority case."

James sighed deeply and rubbed his temples.

"I don't know if I'd describe it as roughing up, but, whatever works to get him to stop grabbing me for no reason," he said.

"I'll probably make up some random reason he wouldn't question, like how any time someone grabs you, you see a memory of theirs," she said half-sarcastically. "That should keep him away."

James glanced at her, and it looked like he was going to say something, but he didn't.

"...What?" she asked, trying to pry it out of him. At this point, she was tired of filtering thoughts she didn't think needed to be filtered.

"I just... wondered if that's part of why he doesn't bother you as much," James said. "That's all."

"Oh," Evaline said as she thought of that possibility for a moment. It was an amusing thought. "No, although that would be an interesting possibility. He just seems to respect me more than others. That's all."

"I'm glad he does," James commented quietly.

Evaline glanced between him and the space in front of her as a small silence passed.

"I mean, I used to be his superior," she said for further justification. "And I guess, in a way, I still am. So it's a different dynamic."

"That makes sense."

She wasn't sure what else to add to that, if anything, so she decided to change the subject.

"So," she started after another short pause. "I see you came in with three different types of flowers. I take it the flower tradition is different here, too?"

James laughed through his nose.

"I have no idea," he said. "I think it's a mixture of what you said it used to be and what it is now. I was honestly too tired to bother asking."

Evaline paused to think for a moment. "You know, it's a Day of Peace tradition because it used to be that you give a flower to someone you wanted to make peace with. Whether it be reconciling with an old friend, or giving it to an enemy, it symbolized unity and harmony. It seemed to evolve over the century to mean something different to every person now, though."

"That sounds about right," James said as he picked the flowers out of his pocket and held them all in his hands, looking down at them.

"It also seems that, in Terra, it's a one-piece flower set instead of a two-piece one," she thought out loud.

"Here I was, thinking I was choosing to sit out of the tradition by going with no flowers," James said, almost wistfully. "And look at me now."

Evaline looked down at the flowers. He held an orchid, a water lily, and a few daisies.

"I see you're quite popular," she said. "Is that from three different people, or did a few people give you daisies, so each flower came from someone new?"

"The daisies are from Josie," James said, looking up at the painting on the wall. "She gave me the painting because I told her daisies were my favorite, and then she gave me the flowers as well. Additionally, I'm going to be her babysitter now on occasion. So that'll be happening."

"Did you want to do that, or was it bestowed upon you with no choice?" Evaline asked.

James looked up at her, his eyes widening a little bit.

"Oh, no, I-- I actually want to," he said. "I was asked, but... I don't know. I thought it would be nice."

"You don't have to justify your reasoning with me," she said with a small smile. "Besides, it does sound nice for you. You're pretty good with kids. I can see why Josie gave you the flowers."

James let out another puff of air through his nose, and looked down at the other two flowers in his hand, and he cleared his throat.

"The water lily... was from Freya," James said. "She stuck it in my pocket, and, in not so many words - well, actually, in quite a few words, dropped many not-so-subtle hints that she was interested. Which is putting it very mildly."

"I know that it must have been uncomfortable," Evaline said, repressing a smile. "But part of me wished I witnessed it to see just how much of a disaster it was."

"Evaline, I have been nothing but a disaster all day," James retorted.

"I think it's a fair conclusion to say that you're not an avid party-goer," she said with a small smile. "Don't worry. You've got plenty of time before the next holiday."

James sighed again, still staring at the flowers in his hands.

"I'm not normally this bad," he said. "At parties. It felt like I was doomed from the start, and the moment I got there the rug was just ripped out from under my feet. It's much harder to fly by the seat of your pants when you don't know where to land."

Evaline hummed in thought. "If you were thoroughly prepared, do you think you might have enjoyed the experience more?" she asked.

"Maybe," James said. "It's hard to say."

"I'll keep it in mind for next time, then." She paused. "Assuming there's a next time."

"Right."

The silence that followed felt awkward, so she quickly changed the topic.

"So, the orchid," she pointed out. "Who was that from?"

"Isabel," he said.

For some reason, Evaline didn't expect this.

"Oh," she said. A long paused passed, and then she talked again. "Is the, uh..." She decided to abandon that sentence and start again. "How was that?"

"I think..." James started, but trailed off, not picking up his sentence again until two seconds had passed. "I think she likes me. But I didn't mean to make that happen."

Evaline paused for a moment, glancing between him and the wall. "So, the feeling isn't mutual...?" she asked with a higher inflection point at the end.

"No," James said softly. "I just thought..."

He paused, letting out a long sigh.

"It would be too simple to just make a new friend," he said quietly.

"I'm not sure I understand," Evaline said. "Did you say something to her?"

"I don't know if it was something I said or if it was a combination of little things," he said. "I thought telling her about my time powers would make her like me less, if anything. I don't know."

"To be fair, I think Isabel just has a grudge against me, not time powers in general," she said. "I don't think that tactic would be the most effective." She paused. "I assume... you're trying to be... less likeable?"

James was still staring down at the flowers, but then he got to his feet, and set the flowers on one of his bookshelves. He paused, with his hand lingering on the shelf.

"I honestly don't know what I was trying to be at this point," James said, slowly coming back to the edge of the bed and plopping down beside her.

"Maybe not at this point," Evaline said gently. "But what about the future? How do you want to present yourself, if at all?"

"You make it sound like seeing her in the future is optional, but she's quite literally my neighbor," he said.

"I meant it in a way of acting. But... I don't know. I think it's just better to tell her the truth."

James was quiet, and he stared down into his lap looking like he was in thought, but wasn't talking just yet.

"It's not easy," Evaline continued in the silence that followed. "But it'd be better than pretending. And I'm sure she's expecting a response too, and like you said, you can't exactly ignore her."

James was still quiet for a moment, but he broke the silence before Evaline could fill it again.

"I was trying... to be myself," he said in almost a whisper. "Or as much of myself as I could be. Given the circumstances."

"Around Isabel?" Evaline asked to clarify.

James still seemed focused in thought.

"Mostly myself," he clarified. "A part of myself. A version of it."

Evaline paused for a moment to think. "I'm not suggesting you change," she said. "Instead, I'm glad you're projecting at least some part of who you are to others. And I think, even in this delicate situation, you should still aim to be true to who you are, or at least part of it. If... that makes sense."

James let out a long sigh.

"I'll talk to her. Okay?"

"Sure," Evaline said softly, glancing at the flowers he set down. "Don't know if that helped, but, erm... good luck."

"Thanks," he said, but seemed to fall back to silence.

"Sorry that you keep getting bombarded with flowers," she said, breaking the silence again. "At the end of the day, it's just that. A flower."

"I noticed you got Mel's corsage," James commented. "Was that just as friends, or...?"

Evaline stifled an amused laugh. "Yes," she said. "Just friends. I think she was feeling nostalgic."

James hummed. "I see. Was it good, then? Getting it from her, I mean."

Evaline wasn't exactly sure what other implications it may imply, but she nodded.

"Yeah, I suppose so. It was good." She paused. "We used to give it to each other more often when we were kids. It's been a while since we traded, though."

"Was the party alright for you? At least, apart from when I was making it stressful with memories, I mean," he asked.

"James, it's okay," Evaline said gently. "It wasn't stressful, and you didn't ruin anything. If anything, I should be asking if the party was alright for you. I hope it wasn't one big regret and you at least got something out of it."

James shrugged slightly.

"I think things ended alright with Tula. We agreed to start over, at least," James said. "I think she was understanding."

"Right," she murmured, remembering witnessing their tense interaction. She had no idea what exactly her plan was with that whole ordeal, and what she expected to get out of it. She wasn't sure she wanted to fully know, either.

"She'll get over it," she said, then paused. "I'm not sure what starting over entails, exactly, but... hopefully nothing uncomfortable."

"I think she just meant to start over with a clean slate, and putting the misunderstanding behind us," James said. "At least, that's what I'm hoping she meant."
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