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Fate's Hand

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Wed Feb 22, 2023 3:22 am
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Carina says...

The 10th of Sil, Third Month of Summer

Another day of travel.

The days were blending together, but there have been some notable events recently. Bo and Elias announced that Finn would be escorted to a safer area due to the dangers of the mission. He would be escorted by Dinny, Raya, and Rudy.

There were a few surprises to that statement. Mel wondered if Elias wanted to join too, but he seemed to be hesitant talking about it with her. Rudy leaving so soon also surprised Mel, but maybe it wasn't too surprising after all he went through. She didn't blame him for wanting to seek safety. Malkiel, however, seemed weirdly defensive about it. He wasn't angry or hostile, but he spent a great deal of time trying to convince Rudy's mind. Nothing he said seemed to work. Hendrik eventually told Malkiel to cut it off, and he stormed off and left it along after that.

Other than that dramatic day, things have been more or less the same.

Mel had already found her natural rhythm traveling with her friends in Nye, but traveling with friends and strangers were a new frontier.

Well, they weren't really strangers anymore. Mel could hold a conversation with any of the mages and feel comfortable chatting and sitting with them, but she did notice that she tended to gravitate more towards Alistair, Elias, and Elise. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, she wanted to get to know the others more, so she found herself spending more time with the newer folks.

Hendrik always seemed to enjoy her company, although he seemed stiffer than usual lately. Mel figured it was because he was still getting used to Nye and the new way of life here. That, and things were... well, more serious in general. It sometimes didn't feel like it, but they were actively in danger every day. Hendrik seemed to be aware of that and was always on the alert, especially since he was keeping away any monsters that could attack them.

With Rudy now gone, it was like Malkiel needed to fill the empty companionship void he left behind. He seemed eager to take care of Hendrik's animals while he was busy keeping the monsters at bay, but Hendrik insisted that he stop asking and get some rest instead. Everyone understood that Hendrik didn't say this out of malicious intent; this was his way of telling Mal that he needed to rest. Well, everyone except Mal understood it that way, anyways.

That left the other newer mages.

Clanny seemed fun. She frequently made Mel giggle. Something about her clumsy yet bubbly personality made her fun. Jordan was also a funny guy that often made Mel laugh. He was witty and hilarious, and sometimes he and Elias would hold a seemingly dull conversation that still comes out to be humorous to an audience. Raj seemed a bit shy, but Alistair seemed to take a liking to him since she noticed they were often near each other. Not talking, but still near each other. Doctor Aradis - the other Mel - was also a nice, warm presence. She and Elise seemed to click fast. Predictable, since they were both doctors with a warm presence.

That left Bo and Robin.

Ahhh... Bo...

"Robin, what do you think about Bo?" Mel asked with a dreamy sigh, watching the others ahead.

Hendrik usually led the group with Bo while they hiked, and Robin would walk towards the back of the pack to sniff out anyone that could sneak behind them. Sometimes it switched, but today, they were walking from behind. And for once, Mel decided to trail back and follow Robin. He was in his wolf form, but that didn't really bother her anymore. It was a little weird to ask love advice from a wolf, but stranger things have happened.

Robin huffed through his nose at the question. If wolves could shrug, he did the equivalent of that with a bob of his head.

"I don't know. He's a good friend, I guess," Robin said.

"What about more than a friend? Do you think he's available?" Mel asked bluntly. She liked that she could ask straightforward questions to Robin.

"I'm not interested in being in a relationship with Bo," Robin said plainly.

Mel giggled. "Not you, silly. I was talking about me. Or, well, you know." She twirled a strand of her hair with her finger. "Any other woman, man, or whoever. I'm just speaking in theoreticals, obviously."

"So. You," Robin said.

"Could be me." She grinned, glancing over at him. "Yeah. I'm talking about me."

"Mel," Robin said. "Bo's married to his job. Rescuing people is a huge responsibility."

"Okay, but you can't work forever, you know?" Mel huffed. "I'm sure he wants some free time from that, wouldn't you think? He's such a funny guy. Surely he wants to do other fun stuff, too."

"Mel, if you want to know his hopes and dreams, you should just ask him," Robin said. "But I'm positive he doesn't see you that way. You're another person he's rescuing. I don't think romance is even on his mind."

Mel scrunched up her nose, blowing air through her lips. Boooo. Robin could be such a downer sometimes.

But there was some truth to what he was saying. She thought back to when she tried to flirt with Bo many times before. The general conversations replayed in her head.

    It was their second night at the camp.

    "Hiya, Bo!" Mel said cheerily as he was making dinner, sitting on the log next to him.

    "Hey, Mel," Bo said with a small smile, stirring the pot.

    She scooted over to him closer so she could smell the pot of soup. "Oooh, smells good. Whatcha making?"

    "Just chicken stew," he said. "And don't worry. Sleepy was kept in the dark about this. No pet chickens were harmed in the making of this stew."

    Mel giggled, deciding to not mention that she and the others didn't really eat any meat, but he would hear about it from someone else other than her.

    "Funny!" she said with a smile. "Also, I was wondering... do you usually cook by yourself?"

    "Not always," Bo said. "Sometimes Dr. Mel helps out or takes over the cooking. Raj will help sometimes too. The three of us take turns, but I like cooking, so I do it often."

    Mel nodded, still sitting close to him, listening attentively. "Oh, okay. Well, if you want another helping hand, just let me know! I'd like to think I'm better with a helper, anyways. If you know what I mean."

    "It's nice to have someone to help," Bo agreed. "Especially if you're making a really big meal. But stew's pretty simple. Throw everything in a pot and let it... stew."

    Mel laughed. Again. "Hilarious," she said with a grin. "But really, if you need any help here, or with any chores. Well, you know where to find me. I think it'd be nice to hang out more, don't ya think?"

    She patted his muscular shoulder.

    Bo shrugged slightly and offered a small smile.

    "I appreciate you wanting to help out," Bo said. "But we all help share the load here."

    That was on the first night she truly sat down to truly get to talk and get to know him. Mel even upped her flirting for every day that passed, but Bo still didn't seem to understand her intentions.

    "So, Bo," she said to him another day when it was just the two of them again. "Tell me about your tattoos! They are so cool!"

    "Oh, they're just two dragons," Bo said. "Inspired by the lightning dragon and the fire dragon."

    "Aw, that's kind of romantic. You know, since people say that love can feel like fire and ice?" Mel said with a casual voice, wondering if she had been too obvious.

    "Well, it's more to do with their magic..."

    Guess not.

    Still, Mel didn't give up.

    "Bo, I'm curious," Mel said to him another day. "You are so strong. And tall, and handsome! How did you get so strong?"

    She was starting to feel a little desperate at this point. Clearly, he'd understand her intentions now, right?


    Bo laughed.

    "Lots of exercise and lucky genes I guess," Bo said.

    Mel faltered. Did he really just brush off her excessive compliments? Surely he'd have an ounce of doubt in all this.

    "Do you mind if I touch your biceps?" she asked, internally cringing at herself but still forcing a smile.

    "Uh, I'd rather you not," Bo said with a small laugh.

    Well. Mel wasn't going to push that.

Mel sighed in frustration, shaking her head to yank her mind back to the present with Robin.

"You know, you're probably right. I mean, Bo's so oblivious! Do you know how often I've dropped hints?" She continued on before he could answer her rhetorical question. "I've asked him to let me know if he'd like a helping hand in cooking. Or any chores, really. Like, I told him I'd like to help him specifically. I also complimented his tattoos. I told him it was romantic. He said it wasn't romance - it was magic!" She scoffed. "And I literally told him he looked handsome. He has big muscles. He's tall. How did he get those muscles, I ask? Oh, he said it was genes. Genes. I mean, I could have told him flat out, 'Hey, I have a crush on you. Whuddya think?' but I stupidly asked if I can touch his muscles instead. Okay, I know, that was stupid, but I didn't want to be so obvious, you know! It's not fun and it's kind of lame. I'm sure you can understand."

"...Yeah," Robin said flatly, clearly unable to relate.

"So, what do you think? Should I still play my cards?"

"He's not interested, obviously. I'd just drop it," Robin said.

Mel groaned. Loudly. "Ugh. So much time has passed, Robin. I'm going crazy. Why's it so hard to find a nice, funny guy? Bo's not interested, I guess. And Elias? I prefer him as a friend. I feel like Bo just checks all the boxes, you know?"

"Why don't you try talking to Jordan?" Robin suggested. "He seems interested."

That grabbed Mel's attention. She took a few brisk steps ahead so she can look back at him with a wide smile. "Wait, Jordan? He's interested? Really?"

Jordan... well, he was pretty funny. Mel enjoyed being around him. Now that she was thinking about it, he was a pretty great guy. Honestly, now it did seem obvious. Why had she given him little thought before? She had been so preoccupied trying to win Bo over, she hadn't tried really getting to know Jordan.

Robin rolled his eyes.

"For someone who professes to be socially aware, I'm surprised you haven't noticed," Robin said.

Mel scoffed and rolled her eyes, giggling. "Yeah, okay, Mister I'm-the-expert-of-social-awareness."

"I'm aware," Robin said. "I just don't care. Most of what isn't said I can smell."

"Ew," Mel said as she crinkled her nose, but then paused to reflect, looking back at him with a grin.

"Yeah. That's how I feel," Robin muttered.

"So. What does Jordan smell like?" she asked with piqued interest.

"Go sniff him yourself," Robin said.

Mel hummed. "What do I smell like?"

"Horny as hell," Robin answered.

Mel burst out laughing, playfully bending down to shove him. "Please. Never say that again. For all of our sanities."

"Sure," Robin said with a flick of his tail.

Mel's laugh subsided, but she continued on, still with a smile on her face. "You know, I think I will sniff out Jordan. Not literally. Just, ya know. Talking. Feeling him out, per your advice. Thanks, Robin. Everybody probably says you have that crazy canine sixth sense in detecting romance, am I right?"

Robin didn't respond. He merely looked at her with the most displeased wolven expression she ever saw.

"So does that mean you've got a good radar on yourself? Or is the werewolf population not too strong these days?" Mel prodded.

"There aren't many of us left," Robin answered, more solemn. "Most of my kind were murdered along with the mages."

Well. That was certainly a way to kill a conversation topic, but this was Robin, so Mel was determined to continue anyways. She was just about to suggest that he didn't have to be partnered with a werewolf, but it appeared that Robin beat her to it.

"Werewolves have romanced humans in the past," Robin said. "It's not as common, but it's entirely possible. It's just not often you find humans that don't have reservations about people who are equal parts human and wolf these days."

"Hmm, yeah, I can see that. But it seems that pretty much everyone in this group is accepting, so maybe you've just been meeting some mean people," Mel suggested.

"I'd have to meet someone I'm interested in first," Robin said. "Besides. Everyone here is far too young for me."

Mel shot him another grin. "Oh yeah? What's your type? Old and wrinkly?"

"I'm 43," Robin said flatly.

"What's that in werewolf years?" Mel said with a smirk.

"Same as your years," Robin said wearily.

Mel hummed, her smile widening again. "Hendrik's around the same age. I'm sure he'd definitely be interested. He thinks werewolves are so cool."

For the first time since Mel had met Robin, he laughed. A very wolven laugh. More of a howl, really.

"Hendrik and I find one another mutually obnoxious," Robin said. "And we merely tolerate each other. But you focus on your interests. I'll focus on mine."

Mel was pleased as is getting Robin to open up and laugh. Plus, she was able to drudge through his wisdom to gain new perspective on Jordan. This was a win.

"Fine with me," she chirped. "I'll talk to Jordan tonight."
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Carina says...

Mel and Robin continued to chat, but eventually Mel caught back up to the rest of the group, chatting with the others. Robin didn't seem to mind; he seemed to like his solidarity, but also seemed to enjoy Mel's company time to time.

When it was evening, the group settled down again while Bo, Elise, and Dr. Aradis made dinner. Mel would have offered to help too since she had been methodically trying to squirm her way into Bo's radar, but after her conversation with Robin, she decided to change trajectories and instead focus on Jordan.

She sat with Alistair and Elias as usual before dinner, but after she grabbed her food, she decided to look around for Jordan to sit with him instead. He was almost done eating and mostly talking to Clandestine on a log. She wasn't particularly close to the either of them yet, but dinners were certainly a way to bond and get to know one another.

Mel invited herself over, waving at them to let them know she was coming.

"Hey Jordan, hey Clanny," she said with a smile. "Mind if I join?"

"Hey Mel!" Clandestine greeted.

"Yeah, sit with us!" Jordan echoed, scooting over for her to fit next to him on the log.

Mel was happy to plop down next to him, carefully holding her bowl so none of it spilled. "Long day, huh?" she said, starting off with small talk.

"Long, sure, but we're used to travel like this," Jordan said. "We do this all the time."

"You get strong feet," Clandestine said, tapping her heels together. "Or just really sore feet."

Mel giggled. "I don't want to know how many shoes you burn through every year. Must be a lot."

"I probably hang onto mine longer than I should," Clandestine mumbled.

"Shoes don't grow on trees," Jordan said.

"Sadly not," Mel said with a lingering smile, her gaze mostly resting on Jordan. "So, you said you're used to traveling like this? How long have you been in Bo's group?"

Jordan looked up at the sky in thought.

"Me? Well, I've been with them for maybe... three years, now," he said.

"Ooh, that's a good bit. What were you up to before that?"

"Before that I was with a group of mages hiding out in the desert," he said. "We helped out a few mages on our own before we joined forces with the bigger rescue network."

"Wow, that's amazing. You've probably helped sooo many people," Mel complimented.

Jordan smiled wide but shrugged.

"Oh, it's-- well, I guess so," he said, rubbing the back of his neck.

Mel playfully elbowed him. "Soon you're going to be the next Bo," she teased.

"You think so?" Jordan asked, his eyes traveling across the camp to land on Bo.

Mel hummed. "I'll definitely have to get to know you better to say for sure, but from what I know so far?" She smiled wide. "Definitely."

"Well," Jordan said. "Bo's pretty amazing. So, I sure hope to be like him one day. He's a really good leader. We all really trust him."

"I can see that. He sounds like an admirable role model," Mel said, still with a warm smile. "I'm glad we all ran into you guys."

"I'm glad we ran into you," Clandestine chimed in. "If anything, for Hendrik's sake. I know he's been really focused and serious, but it's clear he really cares about you guys. And I think it really shook him to have lost all of you."

Mel nodded, scooting forward a little so she could peer past Jordan to better see Clandestine.

"I can believe it. Hendrik has his moments, but he's a really good friend and fiercely loyal. Believe it or not, he used to know how to relax! He seems so serious lately, like you said, but when things calm down, I'm sure he'll be more chipper."

"I hope so," Clandestine said softly. "But I understand. It takes a while for people to adjust... and to heal. It sounds like you guys have been through a lot together."

"Yeah," Jordan agreed empathically.

"Nothing that we haven't grown stronger from," Mel said with a thankful smile. She wished she could expand upon this more, but she didn't really want to venture down that path since it was inevitably by filled with white lies. "I think that's why we all make a strong group, yeah? We've all had some tough times. It's nice to be surrounded with more friends and allies."

"Yeah," Jordan said, meeting her eyes with a smile.

And it was in that moment that Mel could see what Robin was talking about. He seemed to see her. Like, really see her. Maybe even a step up.

...Admire her?

"So..." Jordan started. "How does your light magic work?"

"Oh!" she said with a little laugh. "Well, I hardly think about it too much now, but making an illusion does require concentration." She looked straight ahead and squinted. "I basically stare at a point in space and imagine what it is I'm trying to demonstrate. I imagine that it's actually here, and poof!"

With her magic, she conjured an image of yellow stars and then playfully swished it his way, disappearing when it hit its chest. She grinned.

"And it appears. It disappears if I stop paying attention, though. And it only works if I'm in a well-lit area," she said.

"That's amazing," Jordan said, clearly in awe. "I've never seen a light mage bend the light so well. To be able to create such convincing illusions... that's really impressive. You must've been honing your magic for years."

"Aw, thanks," Mel said with a smile. "I'm not, like, a professional... not that there are professional mages. Like, I'd probably struggle trying to walk and do magic at the same time. But at least I can do a lot of silly pranks?"

Mel weakly laughed, starting to feel a little embarrassed. She wished she kept that dumb line of thought to herself.

Jordan and Clandestine laughed.

"What kind of pranks have you pulled?" Clandestine asked.

"And can you pull any on--" Jordan looked around quickly, and then lowered his voice. He leaned in and whispered into her ear. "Hendrik?"

Mel giggled, grinning. "On ol' Henny?" she said softly, darting her eyes between Jordan, Clandestine, and Hendrik. Hendrik was sitting next to Bo, fiercely focused on whatever he had to say. He was too far away to hear anything from her, but she kept her voice down anyways. "You got it. I used to do more pranks on him, but nowadays, he gets one hint that something seems off, and he knows right away that it's me. He used to be more gullible, like the time he thought Bongo was pregnant and therefore a girl. But now for him to believe it, it would have to be more subtle. Hm..."

"We can be in on it," Jordan said.

"To add credibility," Clandestine agreed.

"Oh yeah? Then he'll definitely fall for it," Mel said. "Let's see... Things Hendrik obsesses over: law and order, Bo, animals, and his beard. So here's what I'm thinking: in the morning, I give Hendrik a clean-shaven face, and we all awe in his new baby face. Maybe even give him a mirror to really sell it. Which will also have his hairless face."

Mel laughed, already imagining the scenario play out.

"Man. Hendrik would be furious," she said with a smile, shaking her head.

Jordan chuckled.

"Maybe it'll finally make him ease up a bit," Jordan whispered.

"I am curious to see what his face actually looks like now that you mention it," Clandestine hummed.

"I'm scared to see that," Mel said with another laugh. "I think he once boasted that he's never fully shaved off his face before."

"Will you be able to make his face look like his face if you don't know what it looks like without hair?" Clandestine asked.

"That'll be tough. And it'll be harder if he talks too. Like, I'd have to consider his lip movements or try to exclude his lips." Mel hummed, focusing her gaze on the two of them. "Maybe I can practice on you, Jordan? Give you a beard and see if that works? Or you, too, Clanny!"

"Oh!" Clandestine bounced with a smile. "Give me a beard!"

"Me too!" Jordan said. "I've always wished I could grow one."

Mel laughed then stood up. "Okay, okay. Let's dip behind those trees over there so no one can see us growing these beards."
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Carina says...

The 11th of Sil, Third Month of Summer

The morning was like no other. Everyone was still waking up, but Elise was already awake since she had stayed up to keep watch. She was helping Bo and Dr. Aradis pack up when she overheard a hushed conversation between Mel, Jordan, and Clandestine. They were all huddled together, clearly up to something.

"When he wakes up, we all act shocked, okay?" Mel whispered. "Clanny, you can hand him the mirror to really sell it. And we'll take it from there."

Elise found herself smiling as she passed them, intrigued as she wondered what they were up to. She focused on her tasks, but also watched the situation play out in front of her.

Hendrik stirred, then slowly stood up. Mel, Jordan, and Clandestine watched him with wide eyes, (presumably) feigning shock and awe. And Elise could see why. Hendrik's face was completely clean-shaven.

If Elise hadn't overheard Mel scheming, she would have been shocked herself. Hendrik looked like he regressed ten or fifteen years. Although she knew it was just an illusion, it was jarring but amusing to see him with a surprsingly round and soft face.

"What? Why are you looking at me like that?" Hendrik said suspiciously as he stood up and brushed himself off.

"Hendrik, what happened to your face?" Mel asked, still in shock.

"I think it looks great, Hendrik," Clandestine said.

"I guess you do have a face under there," Jordan echoed in awe.

Hendrik stared at them with wide eyes. "What?"

Clandestine dug into her pockets and pulled out a mirror before he could reach up to touch his face.

"Your face, Hendrik!" she said, turning the mirror to him.

Hendrik stared at the mirror with an intense glare, and he took a lunge forward, snatched the mirror from her hands, and stared at himself with horror.

"No. No, no, no. What the hell -- WHO DID THIS?" he roared. "I'M GOING TO--"

He reached up to touch his chin, pausing as his mind went through mental gymnastics, trying to piece together the logic. He slowly and calmly lowered the mirror, staring at Mel and the others with a dead face.

"Mel. Clanny. Jordan," he said in a serious manner as he stroked his invisible beard. "Tell me you didn't actually commit the crime of shaving my face while I was asleep."

Mel burst out laughing, patting Hendrik on the back and then dropping her illusion, bringing Hendrik's beard back for all to see.

"You should have seen your face! Pretty neat trick, huh? You should have seen your face!" Mel's smile widened. "Oh, wait. You did!"

Hendrik rolled his eyes. "Very funny. Why did you make me look like that?"

"Oh, come on," Clanny said, elbowing Hendrik in the side. "Was it close? Is that what your face actually looks like?"

Hendrik's expression turned gravely serious as he made sure to give the three of them equal bouts of attention. "You will never know."

Elise found herself watching from afar, now clearly distracted from her work. The three of them laughed it off and continued about their morning, every now and then lightly teasing Hendrik. Although Hendrik insisted that he disliked every second of that prank, he secretly seemed to think it was funny, smirking every once in a while. It was nice to see him relax a little. He had been so focused with the mission that he had grown rather serious.

"It's nice to see Hendrik smiling," Dr. Aradis said beside Elise. "Or smirking, at least."

Elise glanced at Dr. Aradis. She watched the whole event play out, too. Although, it was a bit hard to miss since Hendrik's thunderous yelling seemed to wake up the whole camp.

"I agree. It seems silly, but I think he needed that. Knowing them, this may have been all planned to put a smile on his face," Elise said.

"I can certainly see them doing it for that reason," Dr. Aradis said with a smile. "I'm glad Mel seems to be making more friends, too."

"Oh, that was never a worry of mine. I think Mel can befriend a brick wall," Elise said with a smile. "It looks like Jordan and Clandestine are up her ally, though."

"Seems so," Dr. Aradis said, nodding her head for Elise to follow. They were packing things up again for the morning. Aradis had two bedrolls in her arms.

Elise instinctively followed. They had only been together for one Nye week, but she had already developed some habitual routines. Along with Aradis, Elise got up a little earlier to wake anyone who was still sleeping, and to also put away any leftover bedrolls and blankets.

"Looks like Alistair is still sleeping," Elise said, gesturing ahead with her head. "Do you want to wake him up this time?"

She woke him up last time, and he had a tendency to wake up late, so they have been switching off waking him up every day.

Aradis grinned.

"Sure," she said.

Elise watched as Aradis walked up to Alistair and knelt down beside him. Gently, she put her hand on his shoulder.

"Alistair," Mel said at a moderate volume. "It's time to get up."

Alistair was slow to respond, but his eyes did slowly open, and he sighed. He grunted in response.

Mel got up and left him to wake up at his own pace.

"I'm surprised that he didn't wake up from Hendrik yelling," Elise said as they continued to make their way around the camp.

"He seems to be a sound sleeper," Mel said, standing next to her. "Which can be a hidden blessing in circumstances such as these."

Elise nodded. "I'd like to think that he also feels safe since he's sleeping deeply. He's had many restless nights in the past."

Up ahead, Elise noticed that Malkiel, who usually tried to sleep the furthest from the group, was rolled into a ball in fetal position near the animals. A blanket covered his whole body, only revealing the tip of his head.

"Malkiel may also be asleep," Elise noted. He was usually pretty good about getting up on time, so this would be the first time they would help wake him up. "Should we try to wake him up?"

"I think he trusts you more," Aradis said softly. "Why don't you go check on him?"

Elise nodded, stepping closer to Malkiel by herself. Before she got to close, however, Malkiel spoke.

"I'm already awake," he mumbled under the sheets.

Elise stopped where she was, understanding. "Okay. Just checking in." She paused. "Do you need anything?"

"No." He sighed. "I'll get up soon."

Elise wondered if she should prod, particularly because she found it odd that he was this secluded and folded tightly between his blankets, but given his personal circumstances, she decided to give him space.

"Alright. Let me know if you need anything," she said as she returned back to Aradis to give an update. "He's already awake. He didn't elaborate much more, but it seems that he wanted some space," Elise said.

"Understandable," Mel said with a nod. And though she didn't say anything more, Elise could see the compassionate look of concern in her eyes as she watched Malkiel for a moment, and then turned away.

Elise followed after her, now putting away and picking up other bedrolls since it looked like everyone was waking up.

"I do wonder, though," she said after a brief moment of thinking to herself. "At what point is too much space? I worry that if no one has a proper discussion with him, he will be too wrapped up in his own grievances to be able to move forward. What do you think?"

"I agree that someone should talk with him, but it should be someone he trusts," Mel said. "I know he and Rudy were close before Rudy left. Do you know of anyone else who he might be comfortable opening up to?"

Elise gave it some thought. She wasn't especially close to Malkiel, but he wasn't particularly close to many people. He was usually closed-off and hard to open up to, and it only worsened after they all came to Nye.

If she had to guess, it would be Hendrik. Malkiel seemed to tolerate Hendrik more than the others, and Hendrik seemed to enjoy his company. This was all from observation when she was around to watch, but they could be closer in person alone.

"I think Hendrik may be the closest person here to him. I don't know how close of friends they are to each other, but if anyone could prompt him to open up, I think it would be Hendrik," Elise said.

"Maybe you could talk to him," Mel said. "Hendrik, that is. Ask him to check on Malkiel."

"That's a good idea. I'll suggest that to him."

The morning went by quickly. After helping Mel put away the bed rolls, Elise took Hendrik aside to have a frank conversation with Makiel.

It was a short conversation, really.

"You want me to talk to him?" Hendrik asked incredulously. "I'm surprised you docs aren't doing it. But if that's the doctor's orders, I'll do it. Gladly."

Hendrik didn't seem to relay how he planned to approach this with Malkiel, but Elise didn't need to know. She just was glad that he was open to the idea of having this conversation with him. It wasn't an easy conversation to have.

With the rest of the camp now awake and ready to go, they continued their path south, wrapping Ruddlan to get closer to the Moonlight Kingdom.

Elise chatted some more with Aradis, but as Elias said his good mornings to her, she found herself traveling together with him for the majority of the morning, talking about nothing substantial. But that was how she liked it with Elias. It was nice to talk about nothing and everything with him after their heavier conversation the other day.

Throughout the morning, they both wrapped their way towards the front, passing by each person and making conversation with them - until, finally, they reached the very front with Bo leading the way.

"Wow, the front feels so powerful. Do you always feel this way up here?" Elias asked as soon as they made it up there.

Bo chuckled. "I actually prefer the back. But if we run into anything, I'm the first to see it. And that's what I want."

"What would you do if you see anything or anyone suspicious?" Elias asked.

"Well," Bo said. "If I'm at the front and I stop, everyone stops behind me. Usually. There's always a few bumps but it's better than shouting, which, in the event we want to stay hidden, is much preffered. It's always easier to avoid danger than to confront it if possible, especialy in a group this large."

"So you wouldn't immediately fry someone with your magic," Elias deduced.

"It's less about frying and more about leaving as little a trace as possible," Bo said. "If there's signs of a fight, people might find it, and we'd rather not leave any evidence we exist if we can help it."

Elias nodded. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense. But - it's still a possibility, right?"

"That we have to have a physical confrontation?" Bo asked. "Always. But rest assured if it ever comes to that, you're in very safe hands. We're all very experienced mages and we haven't lost anyone yet that's come into our care."

Elias hummed. "Maybe you need a healer mage traveling up here with you. You know, in case you get hurt."

"Don't I already?" Bo asked, shooting Elias a small smile.

Elias grinned. "That's right, two. Well, one and a half maybe, since Elise would probably have to do most of the work. Right now I can maybe heal a papercut. That's a real dangerous out here in these woods."

"Or splinters," Bo said meaningfully. "Those can get real nasty if not cared for."

"That's right. Call me the splinter guy."

"That's a little longer than Elias," Bo said. "But if you insist, splinter guy it is."

Elias snorted. "That would make a really lame superhe... name," Elias said with a weak laugh, clearly about to reference a superhero, but catching himself too late since that reference wouldn't make sense in Nye. "Really lame, but super name. Hah. Rhymes."

There as a hint of curiosity in Bo's eyes, but it faded almost immediately.

"Perhaps we'll just keep it between us then," Bo said, not missing a beat.

Elias eagerly nodded. "Right. Just imagine the nicknames Hendrik would give. Also, by the way, did you see the prank that Mel, Jordan, and Clanny pulled on him today? There was murder in that man's eyes."

Elise had to keep herself from giving Elias a long look. The new conversation topic was an obvious redirect from what just happened, and that would only make Bo more suspicious.

Bo smirked.

"Understandably so," Bo said. "You don't mess with a man's beard. These things take time and care to grow, you know."

"You saw most of it play out in front of you, didn't you, sis?" Elias asked as he elbowed Elise. "I didn't get the chance to see his baby face. That's what Mel calls it anyways, even though it was her illusion. Still, what did it look like?"

"I think Mel would be a fair assessor of her own illusions," Elise said with an amused smile. "But I think it made Hendrik look at least ten years younger. It could be a good look for him when he does get older."

Elias hummed. "It's too bad that James isn't here. Then he could call Hendrik baby man instead."

Elise was quick to response before Bo could get a word in.

"James without facial hair did give him a baby face too," she explained before Bo could ask questions. It wasn't really true, especially since there was likely posters of him without facial hair, but it was the closest fake explanation she could think of on the spot.

"...Right," Elias agreed, thankfully understanding. He didn't say much more, maybe because he knew he may dig himself a bigger hole.

"Baby man," Bo echoed with a small laugh. "That's quite the nickname. Hendrik came up with it?"

"Speaking of Hendrik, I think I hear him calling my name," Elias said with a weak laugh as he turned to unashamedly flee the scene.

"No, I didn't," Hendrik's voice said behind them.

Elias froze, staring at Hendrik with disbelief. "Oh... hah. Heeeey, Hendrik. I must be hearing things. How are... things?"

Hendrik gave him an odd look but ignored him to walk on the other side of Bo.

"Boss. Just wanted to let you know that the boars detected a large creature up ahead. May not be hostile, but best to veer away," Hendrik said.

"Good to know," Bo said. He looked behind him and made a very clear waving motion of his arm, pointing left before he started to lead in that direction. "We were just talking about the harmless prank Mel pulled on you this morning. Happy to see your beard is still intact."

Hendrik groaned, still frowning. "If anyone truly cuts my beard, there will be blood," he dead-panned.

"So dramatic," Elias mumbled.

Hendrik leaned forward. "What was that?"

"Nothing," Elias said quickly.

"Yeah, thought so."

"So," Bo said, looking over to Hendrik with a smirk. "How did the 'baby man' nickname originate? Apparently it started with you and James?"

Hendrik leaned forward again to give an annoyed look at Elias... but maybe Elise was thinking too lightly of it. He gave him the same look he gave Mel when he thought his beard was shaven.

"Who said that? Elias?" he said tiredly.

"Hey, it's clearly because James has a baby face without facial hair, too. Right?" Elias said, trying too hard to convince him.

"What do you mean, too?" Hendrik barked.

"I'm just saying, Hen. I think if you shaved your face, you would look like a baby man too. Riiiiight?" Elias went on.

Hendrik scoffed. "No. No. Not a baby man. One, that will never, ever happen. Two, I'm not making babies. So your argument has no merit."

"I'm not here to argue. Just saying facts. You know, for the record to hear," Elias said, still trying to get Hendrik on the same page, but at this point, it was too late.

"Listen, military boy. No more jokes. Time to buck up and be serious," Hendrik scolded.

Elias contorted his face in confusion. "But... I'm not joking..."

"Boss, are we good on the trajectory?" Hendrik asked Bo, changing the subject and ignoring Elias.

"I think we're getting closer," Bo said cryptically.

"To the creature?" Hendrik asked.

"To you answering my original question," Bo said.

Hendrik faltered.

"What's, uh. What's your question, again?" Elias asked for him.

"Where the nickname 'baby man' came from," Bo said. "Originally. I thought it would be a simple answer, but it seems to have stirred up something else."

Hendrik stood up straighter, looking ahead. "Like the boy said. Came from James's clean-shaven face. A similar prank that Mel's done on the past."

"I don't know how you all define a 'baby face' among yourselves," Bo said. "But I've seen James's posters. If anything, he has the opposite. That man looks like he's seen too much and lived too much."

"Like I said. Mel gave him a baby face. A literal baby face," Hendrik said with a too-serious voice.

Elise had to stop herself from facepalming herself. These lies were getting insanely out of hand.

"Alright," Bo said with a sigh.

Abruptly, he stopped in his tracks and turned around to the others.

"We'll break here for the afternoon!" Bo announced to everyone behind them. "We'll leave again in an hour."

No one seemed to think much of it, and they simply came to a stop with him, some already beginning to dismount or sit down to rest.

But Bo turned around and looked at Elias, Hendrik, and Elise.

"You three," Bo said with a sternness Elise had yet to see from him. "Come with me. We're going to talk."
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Carina says...

Well, this was not how Elias expected the morning to go.

It started off with an innocent morning of hanging out with his sister, talking to the other mages one by one. Then when they made it up to Bo, all disaster broke loose.

Well, he was to blame, really. He may have inadvertently made Bo suspicious a couple of times, but after Hendrik came in and didn't understand the memo at all, Bo really got suspicious.

After Bo told the three of them to join them for a talk, Elias looked at Elise with apologetic eyes and mouthed, "I'm sorry."

Elise, of course, brushed off his worries with a reassuring pat. "It'll be fine. Let's go," she said softly, beckoning for Elias to join.

As they dipped away from the group, Hendrik gave Elias the stink eye the whole time. Yeah, okay. As if it was just him that made them suspicious. Hendrik didn't even really try to cover his tracks.

"So, what's up, Bo?" Elias asked when they stopped walking, hoping that maybe, just maybe, Bo took them all aside to talk about something coincidental and relevant to just them.

Bo turned to face all of them.

"Why are you three trying so hard to cover up a story about a silly nickname?" Bo asked. "If it was simple, you would've given me a simple answer the first time."

There was a brief pause, but then Elias and Hendrik started talking at the same time.

"It's because--" Hendrik started.

"I wasn't--" Elias began, then stopped. "Go ahead, Hendrik."

Hendrik narrowed his eyes at him. "No, you go ahead. Explain this away."

"Uh. Okay," Elias said awkwardly, then had to pause to think. He actually didn't have a real answer.

"I don't want another answer if it's going to be a lie," Bo said. And he, one by one, met each of their eyes with severity until his gaze landed on Hendrik.

"I want you to understand this. I knew from the start that you were hiding something, Hendrik," Bo said. "And knowing this, still chose to help you. In the weeks we've been together I've learned you are a deeply loyal and trustworthy person, and you have honorable core morals. I don't believe you would hide something from us unless you truly felt it was necessary. And I understand that I don't need to know everything about you all. But I do want us to trust each other."

"I am leading some of my closest friends to the heart of the kingdom that hunts all of us down to help you, and to help rescue your friend James because I believe it's the right thing to do," Bo said. "But if we can't be honest with each other, that makes me question my judgement. Do you understand? If there's something about you, or about your situation as a group that would help me understand what's going on or help our mission, I think I have a right to know."

"Understood," Hendrik said with a brisk nod. "With all due respect, Boss, there are aspects of my life I would prefer to keep private, and I'm sure the same holds true for Elias and Elise. The joke is an inside joke from our past. The past does not and will not affect the outcome of our mission."

Bo nodded in assent to Hendrik, but quickly turned his attention to Elias.

Instead of saying anything, he merely met Elias's eyes expectantly. Elias couldn't help but squirm under his stare. The silence made him so uncomfortable.

"Uh, yes. Right. I understand. I agree with Hendrik," Elias said with a feigned, nervous laugh.

"What country's military did you serve under?" Bo asked, looking to Elias, and then squarely at Hendrik.

And, again, they both spoke at the same time. Presumably, they would say the same answer, since it could be inferred that they knew each other that way.

Of course, Elias didn't really plan this with Hendrik, so it was a roll of a dice.

"Lettera," Hendrik said confidently.

"Goblin," Elias said just as confidently.

There was a short pause as Hendrik gave him a another dead-eyed stare. It took a few moments for Elias to figure out why.

"You mean Goulon?" he asked tiredly.

Elias nervously laughed again. "Hah, yeah. Sorry. Just. Mixed it up with goblins, you know? Many goblins in Goulon."
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Carina says...

Elise knew that there was no way to dig themselves out of the hold at this point. Even if they tried to keep the lie going, Bo would ask Elias and Hendrik about their time in Lettera and Goulon, and they wouldn't be able to answer accurately.

It would only make them more suspicious.

Less trustworthy.

Bo's eyes turned to Elise.

Though his expression was stern and searching, he didn't seem angry or upset. If anything, he seemed worried. She didn't blame him. It was so obvious he was getting fed lies for no reason.

Elise took a deep breath.

"We are hiding something, Bo," she began, deciding to be the one to tell the truth. "We were hesitant to tell you because it is incredibly unbelievable. But if you want to hear it, then I promise to tell you the truth. No more lies."

She put her hand up when it looked like Hendrik was about to vocally disagree.

"I think it's time we tell Bo the truth, Hendrik. He has no reason or method to trace back our pasts, and given our current circumstances, I think Bo has a right to know. It can give him context and clues to help us on our own journey, especially since so many of us are on this dangerous trek to the Moonlight Kingdom. Him knowing would only help us," she said.

Hendrik shook his head, still stubborn. "Some secrets should remain a secret, Elise. It's not your right to spoil everyone's secret without letting everyone know beforehand. And I mean everyone. Not everyone is here."

Elise gave Hendrik a long look. She was far too tired to fight Hendrik on this, especially since she knew that Hendrik was very stubborn and likely would not change his mind unless there was a unanimous decision, which was impossible since Eve wasn't here.

She shifted her gaze to Bo instead.

"We're not from Nye," she said, revealing the truth with those four words. She ignored Hendrik clicking his tongue and fiercely shaking his head. "I know that sounds insane. It sounds crazy. We know. That's why we didn't tell you. All of us are from a completely different planet. Somehow, James ended up in our world. That was a year ago. About a month ago, we all found ourselves on Nye. We've been acclimating fine, but our histories don't truly make sense here, which is why we've been skirting around details and telling lies. I hope this makes sense."

Bo stood still for a moment with his expression entirely blank.

Then it seemed to melt into relief.

Bo smiled, shook his head, and ran his hand over his face as he let out a low laugh.

"Well," he said. "That explains it, actually. That explains it really well."

Elise hesitated. "So you believe me?" she said slowly.

"You'd be surprised what I'm willing to believe," Bo said with a small smile. "But yes. I do. I can only assume that some kind of magic was at work in the process to make that kind of inter-planatary travel possible."

"I wish we knew, but that's what we assume. We came across a fair bit of trouble in our world, but it appears that we have a new set of problems now. We've just about fully adjusted now, but if we're unable to answer basic questions, that is why."

"So... now you know," Elias said, curiously eyeing Bo. "Should the others know, too?"

Bo took in a deep breath and placed his hands on his hips, looking out into the forest where the rest of their group gathered beyond the trees.

"I understand why you would want to keep something like this quiet. You're right in assuming not everyone might be as understanding. I'm sure if I vouched for you it'd help greatly, but I understand this kind of conversation would require a lot from all of us. And I assume the story behind it is longer than the story I assume Mel came up with to cater to this world," Bo said. "Though admittedly, I could tell there were a lot of things left out."

There was a pause as Bo looked down at the ground, still appearing deep in thought.

"Was your only reason for keeping it a secret the fear that no one would believe you?" Bo asked.

"It's less of the fear that we wouldn't be believed and more of the image of not appearing sane," Elise said. "But I had a feeling that we would have to spill the truth sooner or later. Now that we have been traveling with you for quite some time, we can trust each other with this knowledge."

"Well, you've all definitely proven yourselves to be sane," Bo said. "And, honestly, the likelihood of a large group of people believing they're all from a different world as opposed to one crazy person believing they're from a different world is far less likely. What are the odds that you all had the same hallucination or complex, intertwined past on a different planet? I'm sure if I spoke with all of you and you were able to be honest, all of your stories would check out and would verify one another."

"And we can certainty do that, if you'd like. I'm sure most of us could tell you basic information about ourselves and each other, and the facts could be cross-verified." Elise paused. "Other than us, Mel, Alistair, Malkiel, Eve, and James being involved in this, it's worth mentioning that the mages we mentioned that are with James are from our world as well. Tula and Deidra. They have been after us before we came to Nye. I can fill you in on more details later, but I hope this gives better context on the current situation."

"We should let Mel, Alistair, and Malkiel know about this," Hendrik cut in. "They have the right to know before anyone else knows about this."

"Go ahead and get them, please," Bo said with a nod.

Hendrik grunted as an affirmative "yes" then briskly walked back towards the group, disappearing behind the thicket of trees.

"Well, now that the secret is out, I guess I don't need to make stuff up on the spot anymore," Elias said after Hendrik disappeared. "I'm sorry about lying. I wished we didn't need to."

"It's forgiven, Elias," Bo said, patting his arm. "Don't worry about it."

Elias offered a small smile. "I'm glad you understand."

"So what's the world you come from called?" Bo asked.

"Earth," Elise answered. "Not very original, I know, but there are some striking similarities to Nye. But obviously it's still different enough that we sorely stick out."

"But you all have magic on Earth as well?" Bo asked.

"Everyone has magic," Elise said.

"Yeah, coming here and automatically being on the run because of our magic really stinks," Elias said. "I mean, we've only been here for a month, but I can't imagine what it must be like for you guys."

Bo hummed.

"Well," he said. "I'm sorry you've come into a world more hostile towards you than the last."

"Well... that's debatable," Elias said as a weak joke, but didn't have time to elaborate since Hendrik make a reappearance, this time with Mel, Alistair, and Malkiel bounding closely behind him. They seemed nervous but curious.

"Got them," Hendrik said matter-of-factly, gesturing to them to get closer.

"What's this, now? Hendrik said Elise told you everything, Bo?" Mel asked warily, darting her eyes between Bo and Elise.

"Well, not everything," Bo said. "But they've told me you're from the planet Earth, and not Nye. They said you came here about a month ago, but the means by which you came is still fuzzy. Though, I understand how you got here is a bit mysterious to all of you."

Alistair stifled a laugh, perhaps from the absurdity and shock from it all. Mel spoke again before he could get a word in.

"Wow, okay, yeah." She hesitated, at a loss for words at once, but then nodded. "Yeah. That's right. That about sums it up. I can't believe you know now. Don't you think it sounds crazy?"

Bo nodded slightly and shrugged with a smile.

"Sure," he said. "But, here on Nye, I know of some pretty crazy things that have happened that make it a bit easier for me to believe. So, it's advantageous I'm the first one who found out."

"So you believe it? Just like that?" Alistair asked, skeptical.

"I mean, I'd definitely like to talk more about it," Bo said. "To understand more. But honestly, you all being from a different world makes so much more sense than the really, really vague story you guys came up with from the start."

With each passing word, Alistair seemed to relax his posture, and he stared at Mel, clearly tired.

"See, that's what I said, Mel. We were going to get caught in our lies sooner or later," he grumbled.

"Well how were we supposed to know!" Mel huffed. "It doesn't matter anyways. At least someone knows now, and we don't have to lie anymore. Especially since we're all teaming together to track down James."

"I agree that this accident could help us in the long run," Elise said. "We can fill Bo in on other important details later, but now I think it would be appropriate to discuss whether only Bo should know, or if we should divulge this information to everyone else."

"I think it could be helpful for the others to know," Bo said. "But if you wanted to wait to discuss it, that's fine. I think it will come up inevitably - it's just a matter of when."

"I agree and think it would be better if everyone knows so we don't have to lie anymore," Elias said.

"I agree," Elise said.

"Well... I guess there isn't a real reason for us to keep it a secret anymore, is there? I think if Bo says we're not lying, it'd feel more credible." A short pause. "Plus, it's not like anyone here would use our background for their own nefarious reasons, you know? I think it's safe."

"Yeah... I don't think there's harm in telling the others as long as they'd believe us," Alistair agreed.

There was a brief silence, so Mel nudged Hendrik.

"Hendrik?" she called.

He sighed, looking over at Malkiel. "I'm fine with it as long as Mal's fine with it."

All eyes went to Malkiel, who had stayed silent the whole time, hardly even reacting.

"Yeah. Sure. That's fine," he finally said.

"Great! That settles it, then," Mel said with a chipper clap of her hands. "Now everyone will know the truth. When do you think we should tell them?" she asked Bo. "I'm sure you and the others will have a zillion questions."

"That we probably will," Bo agreed with a laugh. "Let's talk tonight when the day's travel is over. I'll help facilitate the discussion to make sure everyone has a chance to speak."
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Carina says...

The day went by so very slowly.

The days were blurring together for Alistair, but after their group conversation with Bo, Alistair grew more and more weary. They were to continue traveling as normal for the rest of the day. The plan was for Bo to announce in the evening that they had special news to make, and Mel would take lead on the reveal. Bo told them that he would vouch for them, but warned that there will likely be a lot of skepticism and questions.

So, it was going to be a long day and a long night. That was fine. Alistair began bracing for this the second Hendrik said that their secret was revealed.

It didn't matter much, anyways. Like Mel said, they had no real reason to protect their real identities other than not wanting to appear crazy. It wasn't like there was an Oliver, Ovrell, or Alina in this world who would - through some unknown means - bridge the gap between the worlds and figure out the source of magic. Whatever that even meant. He wondered if that would even come up today.

It felt odd to go about their normal day, pretending that they didn't have their earlier conversation. Hendrik went back to being the diligent animal watcher, Mel continued to be bubbly around Jordan, Elias continued his normal idle conversations with Bo, Elise listened pretending not to judge, and Malkiel was off sulking near Hendrik's animals again. As for Alistair, he wasn't too far ahead of Malkiel, and they mostly walked in silence. Raj did slow down for Alistair, and they had idle conversations together too, mostly about logistics. He had always been harboring his real identity to Raj, but now it felt like he was lying by not telling him anything yet. But it would all come together in due time.

Evening came around, and Alistair watched the events unfold.

It was just like what Bo said. While everyone was eating around their camp, Bo grabbed everyone's attention and said that there was an important announcement. Mel happily took the stand and used her charm to lead into the conversation, namedropping everyone involved. Alistair tried not to draw too much attention to himself when she said his name out loud.

And then she announced the reveal. They weren't from Nye, they had been lying about their past, they were all sorry, yadda yadda yadda. There were many questions. So many questions. First about the validity of their story, and then about the world they came from. There were some light bulb moments when things seemed to make sense, namely about Hendrik and Elias accidentally saying things that didn't make sense, but they were all guilty of this. After all, they couldn't all know everything in Nye. Even something innocuous like an uncommon-looking flower could be common knowledge to them, and expressing curiosity was a red flag. Apparently most people admitted that they had been suspicious at one point or another, but didn't think too much about it.

It took a long time to go over everything. They had to go - in detail - about James's involvement in Nye and Earth, and how Eve played a part, and then how everyone else got involved. There were still many things left unsaid, but Mel did a good job summarizing.

Eventually, Bo announced that they should resume questions another day on their own time, especially since the questions delved into more minute, less important details - like their world histories and the differences of magic between each world. Alistair was happy that the day was coming to an end, and glad that no questions were directed specifically towards him - although he hadn't done anything to warrant that kind of attention, thankfully.

Bo listed the watch order, and Alistair was up first, along with Clandestine. For once, Alistair wished he could have slept first since he was growing tired from the long day, but he didn't complain and agreed to stay up. He noticed that he had been put on first watch more than anybody else so far this week, but he didn't think much about it.

Everyone said their goodnights, and slowly, a silence drifted over the camp. Alistair laid down and used his bag as a pillow, even though he could have pulled out a real pillow to use. He placed his palms behind his head, silently watching the campfire that softly illuminated their camp.

At least it was a peaceful night.

Clandestine walked up to him and looked down at him with a small smile. From his view, she was upside-down.

"Hey sleepyhead," she said. "Mind if I sit with you?"

"I'm not sleeping. That'd defeat the purpose of keeping watch," Alistair said, then hesitated. "Yeah, that's fine," he said as he sat up and scooted his bag away so there would be more room for her.

Clandestine sat down, crossing her legs. She patted her knees for a moment, looking out at the fire.

"Two fire mages keeping watch," she said. "I wonder if that was on purpose."

"I doubt it," Alistair simply said.

"Well I thought it was funny," Clandestine said, looking over to him.

Alistair stared ahead at the fire, sighing through his nose. "Har. Har," he said with the most unenthusiastic, monotone fake laughing voice.

But that seemed to make Clandestine genuinely laugh.

"Okay," she said. "Well, I've got some fire jokes in me. Want to hear one?"

Alistair hesitated, then broke his gaze to stare at her with a brow raised. She was smiling, maybe eager to share.

"I guarantee I've heard it before, but sure. Go ahead," he said.

"So the other day, someone asked me why I'm always so full of energy," Clandestine said. "I told them I was burn this way."

Alistair still stared at her, pursing his lips together. "That was so bad," he said with a shake of his head.

"Tell me a better one, then," Clandestine challenged. "Since you say you've heard them all."

Alistair had to really rack his brain for this one. He hadn't really made many jokes about his magic before, but he had been around other people who had in the past. It took him a moment to remember one.

"I used to be a firefighter," he said casually, staring back at the fire. "Once, I tried to save a bakery. But by the time I got there, it was already toast."

Clandestine snorted and covered her mouth with her hand, clearly trying to quiet her laughter to not disturb the others.

"Nice," she said. "But were you really a firefighter?"

"Yeah, but I made the bakery part up. I heard that joke from someone else," he said.

"Hm," Clandestine said. "So... what's a firefighter do on Earth, then?"

"Put out fires, namely," Alistair said. "Do they exist on Nye?"

"I mean, not by that name," Clandestine said. "It's kind of just something townspeople volunteer to do. It's not an official job. Thankfully, we don't have that many fires."

She paused.

"Most of the time, anyway," she said.

"Well, that's good to hear," Alistair said. He wondered if he should have said more, but really, his mind was drawing a blank, and nothing came to mind.

"Are there many fires where you're from?" Clandestine asked.

"Not particularly, but accidents happen. I didn't really help other people as much though - my magic isn't that good. I mostly worked in forests for controlled burns, or make sure they don't grow too much. That type of stuff."

"Your magic's not that good, you say," Clandestine said. "How so?"

"Like..." Alistair paused, briefly looking up to think as he sat up a little straighter. "I don't know. The good firefighters could control the burn. I suppose I didn't have a good grasp on the control, and I couldn't make giant flames anyways."

"Was this just back on earth, or do you still feel that way now? Since you're uh, speaking past tense," Clandestine asked.

"I don't really feel anything about my magic. I just have it and can do it," Alistair said with a shrug. "But magic here seems to work differently, as you heard."

"I guess what I meant to ask is: do you still suck at it?" Clandestine asked more directly.

Alistair stared at her, unamused.

"I suck more at controlling it now that I'm on Nye, sure," he said with a sigh.

"You sound a bit defeated about that," Clandestine observed.

"What are you, my therapist?" Alistair said, getting a little annoyed with the questions. "Why does it matter?"

"I don't know," Clandestine said with a shrug. "Want to talk about something else instead?"

"Well, what about your fire magic, then?" he asked.

"I'm alright at it," Clandestine said. "Used to suck, though. I had to practice so much it was annoying. But now I'm not scared of it anymore. I used to be. A lot, actually. I think I like my magic, now, though. Feels like a part of me instead of something out of my control."

Alistair stared ahead at the fire again as he listened. "Why were you scared?" he asked.

"Um, because fire's really scary?" Clandestine said like it was obvious. "And dangerous? Why does it scare anyone?"

"Fair point. I guess my magic hadn't been strong enough to get to that point," he said, but decided to not mention that it all sort of changed when they got to Nye.

But he wasn't really scared of his new magic. Maybe... more annoyed that it grew to this point.

"Not even when you came here? I thought everyone said their powers got stronger?" Clandestine asked.

Alistair had to suppress a joke. "No offense, but I'm tired of talking about my magic. That's all anyone ever wants to talk to me about. I'm getting tired of hearing about it."

"Oh," Clandestine said. "Huh. Sorry."

But before Alistair could even think of saying anything else, she turned to him more directly, rested her chin in her hands, and looked up at him.

"Okay. Tell me something about yourself then. What's your favorite food? Is it something from earth?" she asked.

"I'm flattered you think my life is interesting, but honestly, you're better off asking anyone else. I'm just an ordinary guy in comparison," Alistair said.

"Well that's not a food," Clandestine said.

"I don't really have a favorite food, but I guess I ate a lot of grains. If that counts," Alistair said in defeat.

"Grain is totally a food," Clandestine said. "All different forms of it too. What do you like to eat with your grains?"

"If it's bread, I just eat it plain."

"Simple. Easy to please. Nice," Clandestine said. "Okay, okay. What about this: what's one of the nicest things anyone's ever said to you? Go!"

Alistair had to suppress another groan. This felt childish, but he'd play along. He had a feeling that Clandestine was not going to allow him to overthink it, so he went with the first thing that came to mind.

"Someone once told me that I make good coffee," he dead-panned.

"Was it true?" Clandestine asked.

"I don't know. I trust her word on it," he said.

"Fair enough," Clandestine said. "I've never had coffee before, but I don't think I need it. I've always been told I'm wound a little, uh... tight."

"I agree that you don't need it."

"What's it taste like?" she asked.

"Bean water, but with a kick."

"Ew. Sounds gross," she said with a grimace.

Alistair let out an amused puff of air. It had been a while since he had a coffee. He did kind of miss it, but he missed a lot of things.

There was a small lull of silence while Clandestine stared off into the fire.

"Earth sounds really different," she said quietly.

"Yeah. It is." Alistair paused. "I guess not everything's different, though."

"Does anything here remind you of home?" Clandestine asked.

"For one, we're able to speak to one another. So, language. And magic seems to work similarly. So that's at least two things."

"Imagine if we spoke different languages," Clandestine said. "Things would play out much differently."

"We probably wouldn't even be in the group. And be having this riveting conversation," Alistair said.

"Woooooooow," Clandestine drew out with a smile. "Tell me how you really feel."

"Well, if you want to know, I'm impressed. Impressed that you're not currently caffeinated since you bounce around from one conversation to another so fast," Alistair said with a swirl of his hand.

Clandestine smirked and nudged his shoulder lightly.

"Okay, why don't you try to keep the conversation going, Mr. Earth guy," she said.

"Why do we even have to speak? Can't we just watch the camp in silence?"

"How else am I supposed to get to know you?" Clandestine asked. "Should I try to read your mind?"

Alistair hesitated, maybe for longer than what felt comfortable. He was still processing that Clandestine was trying comically hard to know more about his life, because he was convinced there wasn't much to share.

Clandestine squinted at him hard, like she was trying to "read his mind."

Well, Alistair didn't like that. Her staring intensely at him made him uncomfortable.

"Fine. What did you do before joining Bo's group?" he asked, deciding to ask a generic question.

"Oh," she said. "Well clearly I can't read minds, then. I thought you were thinking about bread."

Alistair stared at her, unamused.

"But yeah. Anyway. I was a monster hunter before all this. Risky business, monster hunting. Basically, if a big scary creature was terrorizing a town or something, I'd be the person they'd send out to take care of it," she answered.

"What's the difference between a monster and an animal?" he asked.

"Well," Clandestine said. "The line is a bit blurred. But the way we classify creatures, or monsters, is in different classes based on the danger they pose to humans. Horses and sheep obviously don't really make the cut. So they have to meet a certain threat level. Like, are they aggressive? Invasive? Will they harm or otherwise endanger people's lives? Is it intentional and predatory or are they just doing their thing? It's really different with each animal. But ever since the calamity, there have been a lot more actively hostile creatures that are irregularly powerful and hungry. Which, I guess, is good for job security."

"I take it you don't do that anymore, though?" he asked.

"Not anymore," she said. "But huntin' skills and creature knowledge still come in handy."

There was a short pause.

"Do you miss it?" Alistair asked.

She paused, looking up at the sky.

"There's a lot that I miss," she said, but it felt like there were many layers to that statement. "But I don't miss how lonely it was. The last few years of hunting I didn't really have any friends because I did freelance work, going from town to town."

That did surprise Alistair a little, but he didn't let it show.

"You didn't have any monster hunter friends you could travel with?" he asked.

"Well, I didn't have a lot of connections at all, really," she said quietly. "I was kind of... abandoned, so to speak. Or... forgotten."

A pause.

"Yeah," she said, softer. "Forgotten."

"Oh," Alistair said just as soft, and there was a long awkward pause. He wasn't sure if he should ask any more questions about this. This seemed sensitive.

"It's been hard to make friends," Clandestine said. "Even when I'm surrounded by so many people."

She looked over to meet his eyes.

"I don't know if that makes sense," she said. "To still feel lonely even though you're not alone."

"I know how you feel," Alistair said with the utmost sincerity, because he did mean it. "I guess I'm just surprised that someone like you has trouble making friends."

Clandestine laughed lightly, looking down.

"I don't know," she said. "I guess everyone assumes just because I talk a lot that I'm close with people. But you can say a whole lot without actually connecting."

"So everyone here.." Alistair said as he gestured to the camp in front of them. "You're not close to anyone here? Not even Jordan? Bo? Mel?"

"Well, Bo and Mel are kind of... more like mentors, than friends," she said softly. "Like, they know me and all but-- it's... it's different, you know? It doesn't go... it's not the same. As like, being peers."

"Well, what about the others, then?" he prodded.

Clandestine shrugged. She rubbed her leg up and down in what seemed to be a self-soothing gesture.

"It's fine," she said. "We get along, and all. But it kind of just feels like everyone else has friends they're close with already. And there's no room for me. I'm kind of just the bubbly clown in the background."

Alistair knew the feeling. Maybe a little too well, minus the bubbly clown bit.

"Sorry if it sounds like I'm casting doubt," he said, deciding to reign it in. "Its just, you're so--"

Alistair found himself hung up on that sentence, really not wanting to just say his unfiltered thoughts. Embarrassed, he quickly finished his sentence.

"I don't know. Interesting. I'm not, really. I didn't think you'd want to get to know me and be friends. I assumed you already had many."

"Well maybe you should stop assuming things," Clandestine said. "Because you don't really know until you talk to somebody."

"Yeah... I guess you're right." Another pause. "Sorry."

"It's alright," she said with a small smile, seeming to relax a little. "And for the record, even though you think you're boring, I don't. You're from another world for gods sakes. I have a million questions."

"Well... thanks, I guess. But I disagree that that makes me interesting. Maybe on the surface, sure. But I didn't really control that. I didn't choose that path or identity. So does that really make me interesting?" Alistair said.

Clandestine hummed, tilting her head.

"Yeah," she said. "I think it does."

"That's not very sustainable," he said. "Sooner or later, you're going to run out of questions."

"Can you just stop trying to convince me you're boring and let me decide for myself what I think?" Clandestine asked.

Alistair stared at her, but something about the way she said that amused him. He had to repress a smile as he looked away.

"Fine. Yes. You win. I'll stop trying to convince you that I'm boring," he said.

"Good," she said. "That was getting exhausting. I'd rather hear you tell me about firefighting or earth bread."

"Wooooow," Alistair drew out. "And I'd rather you tell me more terrible jokes."

As soon as he said that, he regretted it.

"No. Please don't," he added.

Clandestine grinned mischievously.

"I'll get you when you least expect it," she said menacingly.

"If I wake up to you over my face telling me a fire joke, I swear I'm going to accidentally burn you."

"I'd like to see you try," Clandestine smirked.

Alistair smiled in amusement, watching for a moment, then reflecting back on their conversation.

"Listen. Clandestine. Thanks for, uh, telling me all that. That's good to know."

"Thanks for listening," she said.

"Funny. I almost said that when you asked me about the best compliment I ever received," he said with a smile. "I've been told I'm a good listener."
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Carina says...

The 12th of Sil, Third Month of Summer

Hendrik still wasn't happy that their identities were revealed to everyone, but what happened, happened. The day went on a bit more unusual than normal, mostly because everyone was still buzzing with questions. Hendrik especially didn't hear the end from it from Robin. If only he could wipe that smug look off his face.

For the most people, everyone seemed to think that their story checked out. He especially got a lot of comments regarding Bongo. It seemed that Bongo was one-of-a-kind in Nye. That only made Hendrik concerned that it would bring him unwarranted extra attention. At least now he could sympathize with James being wary about everyone ogling Elliot.

After a while, Hendrik got annoyed with the random questions and insisted that he went back to work. Scouting, of course. Staying at the front, or the back, or the sides. Letting Bo know if there was trouble up ahead. It was a real important job.

Night came again. Hendrik did his usual due diligence of taking care of the animals before returning back to Bo to help out in whatever task was needed to set up camp. He did note that Malkiel seemed to gravitate towards the animals after he left. Was he waiting for him to leave? Elise's suggestion yesterday morning replayed in his mind.

Another hour or so passed. They ate, shared stories, and had a few good laughs. Mel brought up the beard thing again, which was Hendrik's cue to groan and excuse himself. He normally left by himself to take care of a few miscellaneous things that Bo had asked him to do in the past.

But first, he wanted to talk to Mal. He told Elise that he would, after all.

As he got up, his eyes landed on Elise, who only noticed him when he continued to stare at her and walk away. He gave her a salute to silently tell her, "I'm off to fight this battle now."

With a smirk, he beelined towards Bongo and the others, hardly paying attention to Malkiel nearby. But he glanced at him long enough to see that he was sitting next to the animals again. He seemed to really take a liking to them. Sleepy was sleeping on his lap, the pigs seemed to comfortably lounge next to him, and even Birdbrain the griffin was comfortable enough to lay behind him. Malkiel looked up as Hendrik approached, but Malkiel played it off by pretending to go through the satchel that was wrapped around Birdbrain.

"Well, you look comfy," Hendrik said as he eyed him.

Malkiel didn't say anything, hardly even acknowledging him.

"The animals seem to take a liking to you. What'd you do, bribe them with apples?" Hendrik joked.

"Is it a problem?" Malkiel asked instead, eyes down on Sleepy as he pet her.

"No. I'm just making conversation, especially since these are my animals," Hendrik said.

"Great," Malkiel said as a reply, ending the conversation as quick as it began.

Hendrik sighed, standing up straight as he soberly stared at Malkiel. Clearly he was not a man of small talk.

So he was just going to dive right into it.

"I know you've been having a hard time, Malkiel," Hendrik said, but continued on even as he stiffened and stopped with his pets. "I want to give you space. We all do. But there's always a helpful pair of ears over here who will gladly listen to whatever you want to say. I understand it's difficult, but I'm here for you. We all are."

Malkiel fiercely stared at the ground, furrowing his brows. Hendrik thought he may blow up on him, but there was still a hidden sadness behind his eyes. This was a man who was too afraid to face the fears he kept inside himself.

"You say you understand, but do you really?" Malkiel said lowly with increased hostility.

Hendrik cut him off before he could continue. "Of course not. Not if you don't talk about it. I'm making a lot of assumptions here. But one thing's for sure: you'll feel better if you have someone to talk to. I don't want you to hold it in."

"Who told you to talk to me? Was it Elise?" Malkiel said tiredly.

Well, agreeing to that would go against his entire argument, so Hendrik sure as hell wasn't going to admit that.

"I'm talking to you because I care, you grouch. Why's that so hard to believe? You think I don't care about you? We've been friends for years," Hendrik said instead with his own annoyance in his voice.

"Friends," Malkiel sarcastically mocked, shaking his head as he finally looked up to glare at him. "Sure. Because we share everything with each other.

Hendrik let out a long sigh. This man was fully grown, but he was acting like a teenager. He told himself to have patience considering what he went through.

He was hurting. And when one hurts, they hurt others. Like a wounded animal.

"Friends don't need to tell each other everything, you know," Hendrik said as he sat by Malkiel on the other side of Birdbrain. Not close enough that he could reach over and touch him, but close enough that it felt more personal. "Hell. I consider you my friend, but you probably don't know a single thing about my background, do you? Hardly any of you do."

Malkiel stared down deep in thought, like he was scouring his brain for any facts about Hendrik. Hendrik bellowed out an amused chuckle, leaning back against Birdbrain to get comfortable.

"Hmph. Yeah. Thought so," he said smugly when Malkiel didn't say anything.

"So you have a private life," Malkiel said slowly, then paused. "So I'd like to keep my life personal too. I'm sure you of all people could understand."

"Oh, I understand, alright. I understand that there's a difference between being tortured to hell and being asked about where you grew up. Not the same thing," Hendrik said stubbornly, purposefully ending it there to carefully watch Malkiel for his reaction.

Malkiel stiffened up some more, clearly uncomfortable that Hendrik brought up the topic he dearly didn't want to talk about. Hendrik didn't want to force him to talk about anything, especially since the trauma happened relatively recently. But for once, he wanted to make Malkiel think and self-reflect, even if it was difficult. He wanted him to squirm in discomfort, at least for a little bit - because growth required to get out of one's comfort zone.

"Let me guess. You're mostly an open book, but you haven't shared your background to anyone, because no one had really asked you before. Is that right?" Malkiel said instead, clearly trying to redirect the conversation away from himself.

This was fine. Hendrik was just glad that he was talking and not sulking.

"Yeah, something like that. If anyone wants to know the history of ol' Hendrik, all they'd have to do is ask," Hendrik said with a smirk, still watching Malkiel.

There was an uncomfortably long pause. Malkiel groaned, still squirming in discomfort.

"Okay," he said in defeat.

"What?" Hendrik said, playing dumb.

"Fine. Give me your background," Malkiel grumbled.

"Is that a demand or an ask?"

Malkiel groaned again, this time out of annoyance. "Hendrik. Are you going to tell me your background or not?"

Hendrik smiled smugly, giving him one brisk nod. "Gladly." He paused to gather his thoughts, dusting off some old memories lying around his head. "I'll give you the short synopsis. I had a large family. Got six siblings total. Ma and Pa weren't the smartest bunch and resorted to crime. We all did. We were the petty thieves of the area. I was tired of fighting them and tired of the lowlife life, so I ran away when I was a teenager. I ran into some wise folks along the way, and friends came and went, but I mostly learned things my own way. I knew I wanted to make a real change, so I tried to be a vigilante of sorts, looking after the underdogs. Eventually joined Eve's rebellion, and now I'm here."

Hendrik paused, wondering if that about summed it up. Yeah. Yeah, it did. Nearly four decades of his life summed up in a couple sentences right there. There was a lot he didn't say, but he got the message across.

"I used to be a firecracker around your age," Hendrik continued. "You are all still children in my eyes, because back then, I had a lot of maturing and learning to do. I think I learned slower because I was frequently alone with my animals and didn't have anyone to teach me wisdom."

"And that's what you're here to do? To make me wise?" Malkiel said wearily.

"No. I'm here to tell you that I used to also sulk around angry all the time, but now I'm old and tired of being angry," Hendrik said plainly.

There was another long pause as they both stared at the camp ahead of them.

"Ironic, considering you were recently furious when you woke up without a beard," Malkiel dead-panned.

Hendrik found himself smiling, just a little. The hostility in Malkiel's voice was waning. This was progress.

"There are exceptions, of course," Hendrik said jokingly, but also seriously.

"Maybe you're not always angry, but you are always serious, especially now that we're in Nye," Malkiel said.

"Perhaps. But there's nothing wrong with being serious. There's also nothing wrong with joking around all the time, but that's simply not me. Personalities aren't set in order. They change over time."

Malkiel was quiet for a moment as he returned to petting Sleepy, clearly in thought.

Finally. The man was self-reflecting. About goddamn time.

Hendrik decided to embrace the silence filling the air between them. If Mal was thinking, he didn't want to interrupt his thoughts.

This wasn't exactly the conversation that Elise likely wanted him to have with him, but clearly he wasn't ready to talk. But as long as he talked to someone about something, that was good enough for Hendrik. For now. Progress is gradual and slow, but it was painfully slow for someone as grouchy as Malkiel.

Just as Hendrik was about to get up and start to say his goodbyes, Malkiel unexpectedly spoke again.

"I haven't always been this... firecracker, or whatever you meant by that," he said slowly, still staring and focused on Sleepy. "I used to be a lot more docile. I grew up on a sheep and cotton farm, so it matched the docile life I had. Things were simpler back then."

Hendrik hummed. "Is that how you picked up knitting?" Hendrik asked, intrigued.

"Yeah. My grandmother taught me," he said, voice growing softer.

Hendrik nodded. "You miss your folks?"

"Of course. Not that I have much of a choice now. But I know they'll be okay." Malkiel paused, briefly glancing up at Hendrik. "Do you?"

"Nah. My folks were asswipes."

"Have you reached out to them at all since you left?" Malkiel asked.

"Once, a long while ago. But they were only trying to trick me. Some people never change," Hendrik said with a sigh.

Malkiel didn't comment any more, so Hendrik continued on.

"You miss being out on the farm?" he asked.

"Sometimes. Like I said, things were simpler back then," Malkiel said.

"How so?"

"Well... I used to herd sheep. But now?" Malkiel let out a deep sigh, gazing ahead, unfocused. "Now I am the sheep."

Hendrik knew he was talking in metaphors, but he still scoffed and shook his head. "You'd make a godawful sheep. You're too strong-willed. And you're not very soft."

"Thanks," he said flatly, sarcasm thick in his voice.

Malkiel redirected his focus on Sleepy, and Hendrik flicked his eyes between Mal and the animals. Suddenly it made more sense.

"Is that why you're always near the animals? You find them comforting, don't you?" he asked.

Malkiel shrugged. "I guess."

"Which one's your favorite?"

Malkiel stared at Hendrik like he was about to accuse him of something, but the his gaze fell over to the griffin.

"I like the griffin," he said, surprising Hendrik since he was expecting to say a farm animal like the chicken or pigs.

"Birdbrain?" he asked incredulously, then grinned. He gave Birdbrain a pat on the back. She lifted her head from the ground to stare at Hendrik, unamused. "Yeah. She's a good one."

"I would name her something less stupid, but yes," Malkiel said.

Hendrik decided to gloss over the insult. "Well, what would you name her, then?"

Malkiel kept his focus on Birdbrain, thinking. He hesitated, but then finally answered. "Silvie," he said.

If it was other name, Hendrik would have challenged his name to say that it was no better than Birdbrain. But he understood the hidden nuances behind his thought process, and he decided not to push it. Malkiel had been through enough.

And if anyone knew how much joy animals could bring into people's lives, it was Hendrik.

"Tell you what. If you want her, she's yours," he said proudly.

That took Malkiel by surprise.

"Uh... really?" he spat out.

"Really. Do you want her or not?"

"I mean..." Malkiel scrunched his face. "I like to accompany her, but I don't know how to take care of a griffin."

Hendrik gave Silvie a pat. "Neither did I, kid. But that didn't stop me from keeping her around."

"Hendrik, you can literally talk to animals," Malkiel said like it was obvious. "I can't."

"Birdbrain," Hendrik bellowed, grabbing the griffin's attention. "Malkiel here wants to adopt you instead. What do you think?"

Silvie tilted her head in curiosity as she looked at Malkiel, seemingly interested.

"Also, he wants to rename you to Silvie. What do you think about that?" Hendrik asked.

At that, Silvie wagged her lion tail and ruffled her wing. Hendrik laughed.

"See that? You're already off to a great start."

At a loss for words, Malkiel reached out to pet Silvie's head. She leaned into his hand.

And for the first time ever, Malkiel smiled softly, tenderly looked up at Silvie with love in his eyes, clearly already having bonded with her.

"Thanks, Hendrik. I'll take care of her," he said quietly.

Hendrik smiled back, pleased.

"I know you will, kid. I know you will."
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Carina says...

The 13th of Sil, Third Month of Summer

Eve admitted that it was nice to travel with another person again. She missed her friends, yes, but spending time with Adina felt different. It felt like Adina almost even thought highly of her, so she had the benefit of having a clean slate.

If she had to put it into words... it almost felt like Adina strangely molded herself into the little sister she never had. It sure felt like that when she continually asked for advice, wow'ed at her past experiences, and asked if they could braid each other's hair - to which Eve admitted she had very limited experience in braiding hair, but that only made Adina more excited since she could practice more than usual on her.

Still, the highlights of their days was when they would send messages to James. It took a bit of practice and communication, and it was clumsy at first, but they fell into a natural unspoken rhythm of things.

They sent James many messages. At first, it was cordial, like updating him on where they were and what they were up to. But then it became a bit of a game. They could both be in on the message, but because only one of them had to go back in time to send it, the person not going back would inevitably forget what the message was about - but would still feel the deja vu. And so it became a cycle of sending, forgetting, then explaining.

When messages were deliberate and planned, explanation wasn't as necessary. But Eve and Adina did sent spontaneous, random moments at times. The two of them were capturing highlights of their days, sending it off to James, then explain that they undid time without changing anything because it was a memory worth sharing.

Eve did wonder if there were ever instances of Adina using this to her benefit, going back to undo something but then cover it up by saying that she wanted to send a moment in time to James. But the two of them said they wouldn't do that, and Eve trusted her on it. She told herself that she wouldn't break that agreement, either. Not unless it became absolutely necessary for whatever reason.

They were moving slower than expected and would be delayed by one day. Eve was ansty to get there faster, but Adina had a pony and a wagon, so she knew that she had to be patient. Eve did ask many questions, though. She wanted to be prepared ahead of time.

She learned about the different mages, memorizing their names and magic. She even asked Adina to describe them in detail, which she happily did, in one too many paragraphs. But Eve was glad for it, because she didn't want to be taken for surprise.

Adina admitted that she didn't know everyone in the growing mage group, but she listed the few she did know. She told Eve about Bo, the leader of the group with electric magic. Then there was Mel, the healing mage who frequently helped Bo lead. There was Raj, the earth mage. Then Robin, the werewolf healing mage whom she seemed closer to than the others. It sounded like a diverse group with different types of personalities, magic, and backgrounds.

They were one day away. After they sent James messages for the night, a gnawing question kept Eve up, even when she was supposed to be asleep. It was a question that stayed in her head since the very beginning and only grew with each passing day.

That morning while they traveled, she decided to ask.

"Adina, I'm curious about something and wanted to know your thoughts about it," Eve began when they began travelling side-by-side. "You tell me that I can control my magic well, but I can't help but wonder how much truth that holds." She paused, squinting ahead as she carefully framed the question in her head. "I'm wondering: how did you learn your magic? You mentioned that you don't know other time mages. So, how did you learn?"

"Well," Adina said slowly. "I did have to do a lot of learning on my own in a practical sense. But, I do have a journal that my mother left behind for me. She died when I was young, but I never knew why. It wasn't until I found her journal that I learned she was a time mage too, which made sense of things - how I inherited the magic anyway."

She paused, smiling sadly as she looked out at the road.

"She wrote down everything she could think of to teach me," she said softly. "She was a little cryptic about it, of course. Most of it was coded or in invisible ink, but I found it eventually."

"That is cryptic," Eve said. "It seems to be a well-guarded secret she only wanted you to hear, then."

"Yeah," Adina said. "I... I always thought she left us, growing up. That was the story my dad told me and my brother. But I found out later that she'd been discovered. And, you know..."

"I'm sorry to hear. She sounded like an admirable woman," Eve said gently.

"I'd like to think so," she said. "I don't really remember much about her. I can't even remember her face or what she sounded like... but I can remember her presence. She always seemed gentle but strong. At least, that's how I viewed her as a kid. I don't really know what she was like when she was her true full self, you know. Not hiding anything."

Eve made a mental note to ask her another question later that night. It sounded like Adina wanted to better remember her mother. Maybe she could help with that.

She shelfed the thought for now, vowing to return to it later.

"What about your father and brother?" she asked. "I take it they're not time mages?"

"No," she said. "But sometimes I wish they were. I really do miss them. And I think, if we lived in a world where no one enforced anti-magic laws, they would want me back home. They... they weren't the ones who turned me in. But they did help me get away and covered up my escape for me."

She paused, sniffing a little.

"I haven't really thought about it in a while," she said. "But I wish they could've just come with me."

"And I'm sure they think the same thing every day. They let you go not because they were afraid, but because they wanted you to have a free life. One without fear and burden," Eve said. "You are all very brave."

"I guess so," she said with a small, wistful smile. "It's all worked out."

"That's right," Eve said, returning a small smile of her own.

Adina did answer her question of who taught her time magic and how did she learn, but Eve really wanted to know what her fundamentals are. She wasn't entirely sure if she would be willing to share considering that her mother held these secrets only for her to read, but she thought she'd lead into it and ask.

"If you don't mind sharing..." she started out after a brief silence. "What were some of the concepts and fundamentals that your mother wrote down for you?" She paused. "I'm just curious. You don't have to share if you don't want to."

Adina smiled slightly.

"I don't mind," she said. "Should I just... start wherever?"

"You can start whenever," Eve corrected as a light joke.

Adina chuckled lightly, but her smile faded as she seemed to focus on recollection.

"I think the first thing that really stuck with me was this: 'If you don't control your magic, your magic will control you.' It was a warning, and at the time I remember it was kind of scary to read, but then my mother went on to explain it more. It's a concept that carries over into many things. The same thing applies to your emotions, and even your body. At the end of it all she highlighted the importance of taking control of your will. And sometimes the will is weak, but it all starts somewhere. She said even a weak will is still something, and if you can set your heart to discipline your magic, you can set your heart to discipline your mind and your body, too. Basically, it's about more than just magic."

"She compared it to other kinds of training, too. It's never just about learning a skill. All of life bleeds over and blends together."

Eve was taking mental notes, highlighting the core takeaways in her head. "Can you elaborate on 'taking control of your will'?" she asked.

"I guess the way I understood it, is like, even if my emotions are feeling one way, I acknowledge them and feel them but I don't have to be at the mercy of them. Just because I'm angry doesn't mean I have to lash out at others. Just because I'm sad doesn't mean I have to isolate myself. I can still feel angry and sad but I also have the freedom to make a better choice with my will even if my emotions are messy or whatever. And so like, with magic, I'm sure you know emotions can affect it," she said. "So that concept has helped me a lot to still feel but not let it affect my magic as much. I still have to take moments to like, ground myself and breathe and I'm not perfect at it. But it gets easier if you keep working at it."

It sounded like Adina was reiterating the concept of not letting her emotions take control of her. Eve could understand that and went through that lesson herself. Still, she wondered if there were other major fundamentals that she learned differently. Maybe it would help if she gave her perspective first and asked her how it was different from hers.

"I can understand that. It sounds like there are similarities to how I do magic as well." Eve paused but continued before Adina could. "Still, it may be possible that we learned different methods and tricks. Would it be helpful if I shared my fundamentals so you can tell me how that differs from yours?" she asked.

"I'd love to learn from you," Adina said with a small smile.

Eve wasn't sure if her methodologies were completley healthy and wanted Adina to learn from her, but she appreciated the sentiments nonetheless.

"I learned how to best control time magic two different ways, and I can't say I'm an expert at either, but I can't promise I'd be the best teacher. But I'm happy to share."

Eve focused on the path ahead of her, tightly holding on to Elliot's reins as she gathered her thoughts.

"I can summarize both ways," she started. "I first learned from my parents, who were time mages as well. Emotions and time magic are intertwined, like you said. And they taught me that the best way to control time would be to have complete control of your emotions. This may sound counter-intuitive, but they taught me that I could best control my emotions if I completely let go of them. They were very disciplined in their teachings, and I think it was effective, but I didn't like who I became, so I no longer do this. So I eventually learned to live with my time magic in a whole new light, finding an inner peace, so to speak. I still come across troubles, like being unable to control certain outcomes if it involves people I deeply care about, but learning to live in the moment and embracing that I am unable to control everything has helped. I've also found that specific positive emotions tends to lead to different outcomes, but that is something I'm still discovering."

Eve took a deep breath, wondering if she left out anything important. She looked over to Adina for confirmation.

"I hope that makes sense," she finished.

"I think so," Adina said. "I guess... I never felt like I was powerful enough to change big outcomes, so that hasn't really been a struggle for me. I've kind of just felt like... well, if I can change even a little thing for the better, then my power's not a waste."

"I do think that can be a slippery slope to a darkness," Eve said. "It starts off feeling like you can make one small difference. But that will grow more and more, until suddenly it feels like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. No one should have to feel like that."

Adina hummed.

"That's very wise," Adina said. "It's funny, in a way. I think even people without magic tend to feel responsible for everything sometimes. It might just be more of a struggle for us since we feel like with this kind of power, we should be responsible for doing something about it. But I guess I never thought of it like that. It's really no different for us, in that sense. No one should have to carry the weight of the world... no one person can be responsible for all of that. That's just too much."

"It's easy to think that now, and I hope you won't ever get to that point," Eve said. "But with great magic, comes great responsibility."

Spoiler! :

"If you keep it up, you may raise up the ranks of leadership within the mage group. And you may come across certain situations that are outside of your control, but because of your time magic, you feel like you have control."

Eve paused, realizing this sounded terribly ominous and scary. Because it was.

"I'm not trying to scare you, Adina," Eve continued. "I'm sorry if that's how it comes across. This was something I struggled with in the past, so I wanted to give you a heads up in case you encounter a similar problem in the future. Some things are outside of our control."

"I'd rather be shaken up now than shaken up later," Adina said. "At least, now with a heads' up, I have a lot of time to mentally prepare for it and start catching myself early on if I start thinking that way. It's helpful. Really."

"Yeah... of course. Happy to help," Eve said with a little smile. "You know, I don't think I've ever shared that with anyone before. It's not a concept anyone could understand."

"Well, I feel honored to be the first, then," Adina said softly.

They shared a few more tips and tricks after that. It was really refreshing for Eve to openly and candidly talk about her magic with someone who could truly understand. They shared more stories and Eve passed on more wisdom that she learned along the way, but she hadn't delved into anything terribly personal.

Eventually, their conversations steered away from magic and into other subjects, and the day continued on as normal. That was, until nightfall came around. Adina had finished braiding her hair, and Eve attempted to braid Adina's again. She didn't think it was that great, but Adina seemed happy. They sent more messages to James, and they were about to transition into their sleep schedule, but Eve spoke up before they could.

"Hey Adina, I've been thinking about something you said earlier today," she said as Adina poked around the fire to keep it going.

"Oh?" Adina said, looking up at her.

Eve nodded. "You mentioned you don't remember your mother very well... Right?"

"Yeah," Adina answered, looking at Eve curiously, like she was wondering where Eve was going with that train of thought.

Eve hadn't even told her that she had some minor memory magic, but she thought now was as good of a time to bring it up than any.

"I can help you remember, if you'd like." She scooted closer to her so she could sit directly in front of her squarely. "Do you trust me?"

Adina looked at her with a raised brow, but she didn't seem afraid.

"I do," she said. "But how can you help me remember?"

"You'll see," Eve said with a smile. "Close your eyes and try to remember your fondest memory of her. It could be an image or a moment in time. Her presence. Anything that can place yourself at that moment. Can you do that for me?"

"Sure," Adina said, closing her eyes.

"Alright. I'm going to put my finger on your forehead," Eve said, and when she did, she concentrated herself, trying to put herself in whatever memory Adina wanted her to relive.

    Adina was sitting on a couch in a sitting room. It was small, but comfortable. There was a feeling of contentness and comfort as Adina leaned on someone's arm and looked into their lap where a book was held open.

    It was a woman, presumably Adina's mother, reading to her. She caught a glimpse of Adina's feet. They were small. Adina couldn't have been older than three years old.

    Then Adina looked up at her mother, and there, Eve could see the resemblance.

    Her mother's hair was long and wildly curly. Darker than Adina's, but just as springy. She had rosy cheeks and a rounder face than Adina's, but the same, sweet smile.

    "Do you want to keep going?" she asked, pausing in reading.

    Adina responded in a high-pitched voice.

    "More," she said.

    "Alright, then, sweetie," her mother replied. "Now where were we..."

The memory faded to black. That was all Adina appeared to remember of that moment.

A feeling of comfort and warmth washed over Eve and - presumably - Adina. Even though Eve drew her hand back, she still had her eyes closed since Eve didn't tell her to open them yet.

Eve slowly stood up. "It's over. You can open your eyes now," she said as she briskly walked over to Elliot, quickly going through her belongings to find her journal and pencil.

"What was all that about?" Adina asked.

"It's not very strong, but I have a weak form of memory magic," Eve explained as she continued to ruffle through her bag. "As long as it's an important memory, I can see it and relay it back to you."

She found her journal and quickly flipped to an empty page, walking back at the fire so she could see better. She sat down across from Adina, readying the journal in her hands and already beginnings to sketch.

"And I can draw. So, I'm going to draw what I remember of your mother. This may take a couple of minutes," she said as she began drawing, focusing on each stroke.

"Wow," Adina said quietly with a faint laugh. "And you were just waiting to tell me all this now."

Eve briefly looked up with a smirk, but then returned back to drawing, not commenting so she could finish her work with focus.

Adina seemed to sense that she worked better in silence, so she didn't comment any further, but she did scoot closer to peer over her shoulder, watching her work. It did felt a little unnerving having someone watch her work, but she decided to pretend Adina wasn't there, instead trying to remember her mother's features.

It was an image she kept still in her head, just as she practiced countless of times before. The candlelight cast a shadow on her face, which actually helped Eve see her facial contours better, which was reflected in the drawing. A picture was as good as its details, so she didn't ignore the curls on her head or the rosiness of her cheeks. Most of all, Eve did her best to reflect the warmth displayed in her smile and her eyes. She was tired, but still looking back at Adina with the utmost love.

Minutes passed as Eve continued to get absorbed into her work. Then, finally, she finished and placed her pencil down. She carefully tore the page out of her journal then offered it to Adina with a smile.

"I hope this helps you remember," she said.

Adina took the page gingerly, and stared at the picture in her hands. She watched as a surprised smile slowly grew on her face and tears welled up in her eyes before she looked up at Eve.

Before Eve could react, Adina abruptly reached out and embraced her tightly.

"Thank you for this!" Adina said tearfully, sniffling.

"Careful, you don't want to crinkle the page," Eve said with a laugh, taken by surprise.

Adina pulled away, shaking the paper out as she looked at it again.

"Agh," she muttered, straightening it out. "Right. Right."

Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, she smiled back at Eve again.

"I'll treasure this," she said. "Forever."

Eve smiled, glad she was able to help. It was moments like these that she longed for when helping people with her magic.

"I wanted to surprise you with this one, but I can always make more if you ever miss her. I'd be happy to do so," she said with sincerity.

"I don't think I have that many strong memories of her," Adina said, still sniffling. "But again. Thank you for this... she's so beautiful."

"Of course, Adina. I'm so glad you like it," Eve said.

Adina continued to ogle the sketch with wonder and tears, and they went back and forth a few more times, but eventually Eve suggested that they go to sleep since they had a long day ahead of them. They were projected to meet the group by midday tomorrow, and Eve wanted them both to get a good night's rest.

Eve suggested that she stayed up first, and Adina agreed, although she laid down staring at the sketch for many minutes, still lost in her thoughts. Eventually she did fall asleep, and Eve tucked the sketch to a safer location so Adina wouldn't accidentally roll over it. She also pulled the blanket closer to her neck so she would be more comfortable.

Eve sat by the fire, still with her journal in front of her. She contemplated everything that happened today and everything that will happen. She was nervous about meeting the group, but she trusted Adina, so the anxiety was related more to how the others would perceive her.

After some time, Eve decided to open up her journal to write down her thoughts. She could hear James at the back of her mind telling her that it could be therapeutic to do so, but she did struggle to fill the whole page. It was mostly related to her discussion about magic they had earlier today so she wouldn't forget anything important. Adina didn't really tell her anything new, but it did confirm some suspicious she had before about controlling her emotions.

Eve laid down, looking up at the stars as she self-reflected for the next hour. Her mind rapidly went from one thought to another, first about magic, then her emotions, then what could happen, what will happen, and what might happen. A familiar bubble of panic rose up from her stomach, clawing its way into her mind.

What if she did find James, but it was just like the last time she was at Nye? What if she tried to save him again, but she couldn't? But that wouldn't happen, right? They could freeze time now. But that only worked if they were both in on it and fully conscious, right?

Eve decided to shut down this thought before she could spiral into the million other poisonous thoughts that followed. She sat back up, stirred the fire to gain some light, then opened her journal again.

She hadn't drawn since... well. Since before the coma. She felt rusty while drawing Adina's mother, and it would be nice if she could give her more drawings someday. Maybe not of her mother in the memory, but projections. Her best guess of specific stories Adina was bound to tell her, but a drawing of the two of them, playing out the story. Yeah. That would be nice.

Eve spent the remainder of her watch sketching, accidentally getting too absorbed into her work and waking Adina late. When it was her turn to sleep, Eve forcibly shut off her brain, falling into a deep slumber.

They had a lot to do that morning.

Eve was in a hurry, but Adina said they were still on time, so she slowed down a bit. She matched her pace as they traveled, and Eve wasn't as chatty, but not on purpose. It was hard to keep a conversation going when she was nervous.

The hours passed by. It was mid-day. Adina said they should be running into each other any minute now, and Eve was on high alert.

She didn't know what she expected, but she didn't think she'd see a wolf first.

A small brown wolf was walking but itself on the road, waiting for them to approach. It took a moment for Eve to realize that this must be Robin, the werewolf that Adina mentioned. He stood on the road patiently, slowly wagging his tail.

Adina squinted as she looked ahead, and she leaned forward. Her eyes widened in recognition and a big smile lit up her face.

"Oh! That's Robin!" she said to Eve, and then started waving.

Robin dipped his head and then began running up to meet them while Adina started to pull the wagon to a stop. She hopped down and closed the last few feet of distance, kneeling down to give Robin a hug.

When she pulled away, Robin seemed to instantaneously change form faster than Eve's eyes could process. One moment, he was a wolf. The next, there was a man. She had to blink several times to make sure she was seeing correctly.

"It's good to see you, Adina," Robin said with a warm smile. He then turned to look at Eve. "Who might you be?"

"Oh! This is Eve! She's a time mage, and she's James's partner! We found each other in Ruddlan," Adina jumped to explain.

Well, it seemed that was her identity now. It sounded comical when comparing it to her other past identities in her life, but she preferred this more. She give Robin a nod instead of a handshake.

"Nice to meet you, Robin," she simply said.

He nodded in return, his expression falling into something more serious as he looked behind him. As expected, he was not alone.

The first two people who appeared out of the thick forest alongside the road she had to assume were Bo and Mel based on Adina's descriptions. The tall, one-eyed man was easy to identify.

But behind them was a different kind of familiar face. He was just as hard to miss, standing tall and marching forward with his giant rhino-bear animal behind him.


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Mon Feb 27, 2023 4:14 am
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Carina says...

Eve was staring wide-eyed, gaping and nearly falling off Elliot from the unexpectedness. Hendrik was in Nye. Hendrik was in Nye?

There was loud mumbling coming from Hendrik as they locked eyes and he looked at her with shock as well. But the shock didn't last as long for him since he smiled wide and started to sprint fast ahead.

It was unnerving to see him run so fast towards her, and Eve panicked, wondering if she should be getting off Elliot.

"Oi! Boss! Is that you?" Hendrik's voice boomed, as he ran.

Before Eve could even react much less say something, Hendrik was already there, coming in full speed with a hug, nearly knocking her off Elliot. She admitted it kind of hurt with the amount of force he came in with, but he was surprisingly gentle as he embraced her like a grizzly bear, teetering her back on Elliot so she didn't fall.

"Hendrik," Eve said faintly, not sure if she should laugh from the absurdity of the situation. The gentle hug turned to a too-tight squeeze, but he let go before she could complain.

Still grinning, Hendrik then patted Elliot, cooing in a baby voice that he was a good boy that he missed so much.

There were a million different questions she had for him, but she was still recovering from the shock and was at a loss for words. Thankfully, he turned his attention back to her, standing up straight and giving her a salute as if she was his commander.

"Been here the whole time. I knew we'd run into you sooner or later. Glad you're safe. The others are here too. Seems the whole gang is here, except for your man. But we're working on that," he said proudly.

"The others... as in..." Eve said slowly, starting to feel overwhelmed as her eyes drifted to the others behind him.

Bo and Mel were approaching, also looking pleasantly surprised by Hendrik's recognition. But Eve was looking past them and at the other curious faces peeking out from the woods and coming into view.

"That's right," Hendrik continued. "Whole gang's here. Me, other Mel, Doc, Alistair, Elias, and Mal. That backstabber bitch Tula isn't here. But you know about that, don't you?"

Eve started to zone Hendrik out as he continued to fill her in, but frankly, she was far too distracted from watching everyone come closer. He was right. Everyone was here.

There were three people she didn't recognize, but in the crowd, she could see Mel - the Mel she knew well - squinting and chattering between the others. She was pointing and glancing back at Eve as if she was asking, "Wait, is that really here?" She and Alistair went back and forth, but Elias seemed to be having a very similar conversation with Elise, even displaying the same gestures. Malkiel was even there. His hair was shaved to a stubble, and he was towards the back walking Bongo (that Hendrik conveninently left behind) and Higgins. There were also many other random animals that were trailing behind. A griffin and three flying boars.

Hendrik was right. This really was everyone, with the exception of Rudy and Finnley. She knew Rudy was on Nye, so she briefly wondered what happened to him, but didn't have much time to delve into that thought.

Eve could see her friends running up ahead. She braced herself for the conversations to follow, wishing she had prepared for this moment. She had no idea what to say or how to explain herself. Right now, she wished she could disappear and melt away.

Bo and the "other Mel" that Hendrik mentioned were approaching first.

"You must be Eve," Bo said with a small smile. "I'm glad you found us. My name's Bo."

"Dr. Aradis," the other Mel introduced. "But just Aradis is fine."

Eve took a deep breath and slowly mounted off of Elliot, bracing for the chaos to ensue any minute now.

"I see you've met my friends," Eve said as she stared past them. Mel was running up first, looking like she was also going to pounce her with a hug.

"Eve!" she called in joy, arms extended as she crashed into her with a warm, tight hug.

Eve had to take a step back to keep her balance in check, but let out a weak laugh, hugging her back. "Hey--"

"I'm so glad you're okay!" Mel said before she could finish her sentence, squeezing her again.

For some reason, Eve was bracing for her to scold her. And, well, she was sure that would come eventually. But for now, she hugged her bag, grateful for her friend's forgiveness.

"Me too," she said, but their moment was hampered when Elias came up next, grinning.

"Hey, wow, I can't believe you're here. That's crazy. What are the chances?" he said with a laugh.

"Clearly not zero," Eve said weakly.

"Elias, come here! Group hug!" Mel said, pulling Elias in, to which he happily obliged with a laugh.

Eve hugged them back, but she was growing increasingly tired. She watched as Alistair and Elise came up next.

"Is this a group hug, I hear?" Elise said with a smile.

"Hey. Welcome back," Alistair said.

Without words, Mel forcibly pulled Alistair in, and Elise laughed and joined in.

Hendrik cleared his throat. "Not to ruin this precious moment, but looks like we've got a lot of questioning to do," he said.

Everyone finally pulled away from the hug, and Eve's vision started to blur together as many voices and faces came into view. Malkiel eventually approached, and he gave her a nod of recognition but gave her space. Her friends were around her asking many questions, but Eve found herself distracted, instead gazing at the people she didn't know, observing them instead.

"Everyone," Bo said, speaking over the chatter. "We're going to keep moving. We have a whole half of a day ahead of us, and we don't want to waste daylight. When we camp for the night we'll make sure we're all on the same page. But for now, we continue to move south."

He looked to Adina, by the wagon.

"Raj can take over driving the wagon for now," Bo said. "We'll be travelling off-road. He'll keep the wheels steady."

Adina nodded and hopped up on the passenger side instead.

"Y'hear that, everyone? Business as usual. Chop chop!" Hendrik yelled as if it needed to be reiterated.

Chatter drifted across the group as they seemed to go back to some predefined formation. Eve felt awkward not really knowing how she suddenly fit in this group with hardly any introduction, but Mel looped her elbow around her arm, leading her along with a big smile.

"Okay, we have a loooot of catching up to do," she said. "We'll walk and talk."

Eve nodded, still holding Elliot's reins with her free hand as she was led by Mel. Her friends gathered around her, clearly waiting to her story. Eve was tired of holding it all in now.

"I'm really sorry for leaving," she blurted out unprompted, her eyes darting across to everyone. "I panicked and--"

"Shhshshshshsh," Mel hushed, pressing a finger up to her lips to forcibly shush her. "We know. And blah blah blah, we got angry and upset, but you know what? Who cares? We're all here now, right? And we're going to the Moonlight Kingdom to save James. We're in a way better spot than we've ever been."

"It would have been at least nice to get a warning," Alistair grumbled.

"Whatever, we're fine now. That's all that matters!" Mel chirped.

"And it would have been nice if you left us more supplies," Alistair continued. Mel glared at him. "What? I'm just saying," he said.

"How did you even find us? Did you know we were here?" Elias asked.

Eve gestured over towards Adina who was catching up with Robin now. "I was in Ruddlan, replenishing my supplies and hoping to find leads on James. I felt another time mage nearby, and that was when I ran into Adina. She's apparently a part of this group too."

"Wow, what a story," Elias said, already lost in whatever daydream that he could come up with from that vague story she said.

"So did Adina tell you everything then? Our plans and mission here?" Mel asked.

Eve nodded. "She told me the gist of it. I'm sure I'll be looped in tonight."

"Robin sniffed us out two days after you left, so we haven't been with them too long either. But everyone here is so nice! You'll have to meet everyone..." Mel continued, then went on to give the whole rundown of the other mages.

She went into extensive detail about Bo, then awed about how cool Aradis was, then mentioned how fun Clandestine was, then talked about how funny (and cute) Jordan was. She then went on to discuss Raj and Robin, but Eve was hung up on her description of Jordan.

She didn't get a long look at him, but she couldn't help but feel like she met him before. And based on her description of him, along with his magic and name, she was sure she did meet him many years ago. On Nye. At the mage camp.

But she decided to not mention that, and frankly, it was so long ago, she almost felt embarrassed. She was a different person back then. Still, she wondered if he would remember her too. She decided to to mention it to him unless he did, though.

After Mel gave her spiel, Eve decided to ask a question of her own.

"I noticed that Rudy and Finnley aren't here," she said, deciding to end it there as a statement instead.

"Oh, they were not too long ago. But it was decided that Finn would be safer somewhere else, so he's being escorted by Rudy, Dinny, and Raya. I don't think you've met them yet, but they're..."

Mel then went on in more extensive detail about Dinny and Raya. Dinny was a goblin fire mage and Raya was... well, frankly, Eve almost wanted to laugh, because now she was sure she had met Jordan before. She most certainly remembered Raya from the mage camp.

Her attention was diverted to Elias, though. She observed how he didn't comment that his own son was escorted away without him. She wondered if there were many nuances that went unsaid, but she shelved that thought away for now.

The rest of the day went by surprisingly fast. The five of them caught up extensively. Eve felt like she was boring in comparison since she didn't have much to share outside of Adina, her long days, and her communication with James. She decided to keep Tula's visions to herself for now, not wanting to worry her friends.

It was nice to hear how everyone else fared. Mel seemed to thrive under this new environment. She was clearly itching to meet new people and have new experiences, especially after being cooped up in the mines for six months. Elias seemed... well, like Elias, but Eve noted he didn't seem as talkative as before, but that could have been because Mel was steering most of the conversation. Alistair was, as always, snarky and pessimistic, but he didn't give her any more heat on her leaving them behind, which she was glad for. Plus, it was refreshing to see him not be so anxious like he had been when they first came to Nye. Elise seemed happy that they were all together, but eventually caught up to Aradis and Bo ahead. From a distance, Eve saw her smiling and laughing with them. It was nice to see her making friends without her feeling like she had to parent them.

The biggest update, however, was when Mel revealed that the entire group knew about where they truly came from. Like the others, Eve was surprised that the group took it so well, but she agreed it was for the best. If they were going to save James, it would be to everyone's advantage if they were all on the same page.

That meant only Adina didn't know. She made a mental note to tell her later if it didn't come up again tonight.

Eventually, they made camp again, and Eve was happy to have her space again. She knew it wouldn't last long since it seemed that Bo would like to hold a conversation with everyone. As food went around, Eve went along with the crowd, trying her best to blend in. Although, that wasn't very easy since Mel was still stuck to her side.

Mel was about to offer that they all sit around eating like old times sake, but Eve thanked her and turned her down, saying she had to catch Adina up on their past first. Mel seemed disappointed, so Eve told her she wasn't going anywhere now and would still be around, which seemed to make her happy.

As her friends dispersed, Eve scanned the group, finding Adina at the front of the line to get her food. As she walked away, Eve stepped in front of her to grab her attention.

"Hey, Adina. I was thinking we could sit together and catch up on a few things. What do you think?" she asked.

Adina looked up with a smile.

"Oh! Sure!" she said.

They sat together on the ground away from the others, and Eve didn't hesitate to break the news to her, saying she was from another world. Everyone already knew, so she wanted her to hear it from her first. Adina was shocked of course, so Eve made sure to cover her bases. She apologized for not mentioning this sooner (although there were still many things she hadn't explicitly said yet) and also mentioned that this was how she met James. That, of course, led to the floodgates of other questions Adina had, which Eve was happy to answer. She only had time to go over the basics, but she hoped this could establish their trust and strengthen their friendship.

When everyone settled down, Bo came to Eve in private, first, asking her if there was anything she knew about James's whereabouts that could be helpful for everyone to know in planning their next steps.

"Unfortunately, I only know that he left Ruddlan less than a week ago. I do know who he's traveling with, but I believe you already know that as well," she said.

"Were there any other new developments you're aware of? I know the others mentioned Tula can communicate from afar," Bo said. "Has anything changed?"

Eve nodded. It felt odd to disclose this type of information so willingly to someone she hardly knew, but she knew that Bo and the others could be trusted. They were stronger together. Their best chances of finding and savings James were from working together and freely sharing information.

There was a lot to update. So Eve decided now was a good time to update him on all of it.

"Yes. She still sends me messages to taunt me, but it has been several days. Tula is deliberate with her actions and is careful enough to not reveal details of her location. But you should know that James and I are also communicating. Adina too, now. He can see the memories that time mages undo. We use this to our advantage of updating him on where we are, but unfortunately, it is one-way communication. It's also possible that is kept drugged by lumshade, so I'm not sure how effective these messages her. Still, we try to send him a message everyday. You should also know about Deidra, Tula's friend. Her magic is strength, which she could easily hide. When Adina and I left Ruddlan, we passed Deidra. She tried to lie about her intentions, so we--"

Robin came up beside them, looking up at Bo.

"Someone's approaching the camp," Robin informed. "Smells human."

Bo's eyes flicked to Eve, eyebrow raised.

"Could this be your Deidra?" he asked.

Eve sat up straighter, more alert. "No... it can't be. We left her in Ruddlan. That was days ago."

And no one followed them. Right? They would know. They were careful.

But Deidra was a spy. Perhaps she underestimated her.

Bo hummed.

"Why don't you come with us to check it out," Bo said, waving her to follow as he got up and followed Robin's lead. Robin slipped into his wolf-form mid-step.

Eve nodded, briskly getting up and following after them, nimble with her steps so she could approach as quietly as possible.

Despite his size, Bo seemed to seamless dissapear silently into the night behind Robin, who she lost sight of in the shadows. Eve felt her heart beat fast against her chest, growing louder and louder that she was sure the others could hear. It couldn't be Deidra. But if it wasn't, who could it be? A random passerby? A mage? Tula? The Blue Suns?

The possibilities were scaring her, and paranoia was clouding her vision.

They were approaching a shadowy figure. She heard a low growl, presumably from Robin.

Suddenly the figure stepped out from behind a tree.

Deidra. She really was here.

She was looking ready to fight the small wolf that was Robin, but then Bo stepped into the moonlight. Deidra stared at him, wide-eyed and confused, more stunned than Eve had ever seen her.

"Deidra?" Bo asked.

The confusion on Deidra's face only deepened.

First, Eve felt relief. Relief that it wasn't someone worse. But then she felt anger. With a rage, she marched out in clear sight, frowning and glaring at her accusingly.

"Why are you here? Did you follow us?" she spat out.

Deidra, almost mouse-like in her expression, bowed her head.

"I don't have anywhere else to go," she said quietly.

"You followed us here," Eve repeated, her voice growing more and more hostile. Realization then seeped in along with dread. She turned to Bo. "Bo. If she's here, then others must have followed. Bounty hunters or the Blue Suns."

"I don't smell anyone else," Robin said, still in his wolf form. Him speaking made Deidra jump, and she stared at Robin, dumbfounded.

Eve faltered as her mind filled in the blanks. "Maybe they're not near, but they must be close."

"If anyone else did come, they're at least a few miles away," Robin said.

"Who did you bring?" Eve hissed at Deidra.

"Nobody!" Deidra pleaded, putting her hands palms-up in front of her. She even went so far as to close her eyes, presumably to prove a point. "Nobody knows I'm here. Not even Tula."

Eve glared at her, not believing her. She was still wrapping her head around the fact that Deidra followed them for so long without them even knowing.

"Well, you're sneaky," Robin said. "I'll give you that. Too bad there's nothing you did about your scent."

"You need to leave," Eve went on, eyes still locked onto Deidra. "I've seen what you've done. We don't trust you. You need to leave, now."

Bo, ever so gently, rested his hand on Eve's shoulder.

"What are the dangers of her staying if she truly is alone?" he asked.

"Bo," Eve began, trying to be calm herself, but the hostility wouldn't leave her voice. "She has tortured James. She has locked us up. She had broken our limbs and tried multiple times to kill us. She has betrayed us before and will do it again. We shouldn't trust her."

"I'm not saying I trust her," Bo said. "But if she is alone, and she truly is from another world as you say--"

That made Deidra's eyes snap open in panic.

"--then it may be safer to have her under our supervision than off wandering Nye alone."

"...What?" Eve breathed out in disbelief, trying to hold in everything she wanted to say so she didn't explode on Bo. She wanted to believe that he was rational. "You'd rather we keep her so that Tula could spy on us any minute of the day and we would never know?"

Bo turned to Deidra and gave her a long look, saying nothing as he met her eyes.

"I do not want to hold you prisoner, Deidra," Bo said. "But we do not want our mission compromised. Your presence here puts us all at risk, and I'm sure you understand that. It would be foolish of us to take you at your word when you've done nothing to merit that trust."

Deidra nodded slightly, like she was taking it in.

"What could I do to prove it to you?" she asked.

Bo glanced over at Eve. She had a feeling she knew where this was going.

"You're able to peer into others' memories, right?" Bo asked. "I only know because Adina mentioned it."

"Yes, but consider it only as a side effect of my time magic," Eve said cooly. "The process requires trust, not only so I can see clearly, but because memories can be fabricated too. How would I know that what she is showing me is the truth?"

"Are the emotions that come with the memories as easy to fake?" Bo asked.

Eve had to bite her tongue from turning down his idea.

"No. That part cannot be faked," she forced herself to say.

"I think it would be worth it," Bo said. "If you think you could bring yourself to trust Deidra enough to peer back at the memory..."

He paused and looked at Deidra.

"Eve said you lied about your intentions when you confronted her in Ruddlan. What exactly are your intentions, Deidra?" he asked.

Deidra straightened a bit.

"I tried to help James escape back in Ruddlan," she said. "But I failed. I want to try to help him again."

"Then perhaps we should start there. The memory of your failed attempt at rescue," Bo said.

Deidra nodded quickly, looking almost desparate in her attempt to appear eager and accomodating. It was pitiful.

"I can do that," Deidra said.

Frankly, Eve didn't care about Deidra's story. But she did care about James, and Deidra mentioned that she tried to help him escape. She didn't know how much truth that held, but being able to see how that went down - if it did at all - could give her the precious context she was missing.

No, she didn't trust Deidra. Eve doubted that she would be able to see a clear image of whatever it was she wanted to show, and even if she did, she wouldn't believe it. But if she told her to focus on the parts with James in it... Eve would know if she was falsifying the memory.

Eve was still glaring at Deidra, even when it became clear that Bo was waiting for Eve to say that she would do this.

Fine. She would do this. But not for Deidra and not for Bo.

She would do this. For James.

Eve could almost hear his voice saying in her ear, "I give others second chances because that's what I hope they'll do for me."

She took a deep breath, swatting away the annoying message James would likely try to tell her, because she still didn't trust Deidra. But she did want to know the truth.

Still glaring at her, Eve stepped forward and extended her arm.

"Close your eyes and think about your interactions with James that day. Show me the full context. Show me the truth. Concentrate. Touch my hand when you're ready," she said cooly.

Deidra looked like she was in a deep focus for a moment. Then, she reached out.

    The first image came into view. It was a big blur with some parts of the image not even populating, so Eve wasn't sure where this was happening. But then another image came into view, this one crystal clear.

    James. He was standing upright, looking relatively more healthy compared to when Tula sent her messages. There were deep bags under his eyes, but Eve could see genuine sincerity washed over his expression. He was talking to Deidra, trying to connect with her.

    "Did you... like? Working for Oliver?" James's voice came in gently, like it blew in with the wind.

    Deidra was standing stiffly beside him, caught off guard by the question. She watched James out of the corner of her eye as they watched the sunrise.

    Eve could feel the hiccup that happened in Deidra's mind at the question. The hesitation. The surprise. The fear that she'd never even thought to question what her life looked like.

    "I don't know," she said distantly as fear and uncertainty pooled in her gut. "I just... did."

    "You know," James said softly. "I'm surprised you feel the need to listen to anyone. With your power, you could do anything you wanted. And I don't think anyone would be able to stop you."

    Deidra's nerves swirled even more as James spoke. The anxiety was almost overwhelming.

    "Of course, you get to decide what you do with your life. You don't have to listen to me. I know... it's different. But maybe it can be the start of something new. Something you create for yourself, out from under anyone's thumb."

    She looked to see his face. He looked so tired. So drained. And yet, for Deidra, he offered a smile.

    "Just a thought."

    It alleviated some of the anxiety.

    And then the picture took a turn. Or at least, it tried to. Eve couldn't see anything but static. Figures eventually came into view, but it was hard to see. She was still able to hear some parts of the conversation, and like always, Eve could feel the emotions from the memory.

    Based on context, Deidra was speaking with a woman.

    "I can't go with you," the woman said. "But I will make sure the way is clear. You'll have to carry him. He's not strong enough to walk."

    Deidra seemed scattered. Anxious. But determined.

    "Not a problem," Deidra said firmly.

    "You'll have to be quick. She has guards everywhere," the woman said.

    "I will," Deidra said again, her determination growing even stronger.

    The conversation continued, presumably about logistics since Eve was only able to grab half of what they were saying. But then the image took another turn Deidra went on to the next memory.

    Deidra's heart was pounding. Eve could feel the rush of adrenaline. The focus. Every part of her was pushing as she stealthily went down the hall as fast as possible.

    Eve could see James in her arms. He looked even weaker than when she last saw him. His eyes were barely open, and he was practically limp in Deidra's arms.

    Then the image got blurred. They were outside. Dogs were barking, and Deidra was beginning to panic.

    "Run," James said urgently. "Go. Leave me."

    "But they--" Deidra started, feeling desperate, guilt already flooding in.

    "You won't make it with me. But you can get out. Maybe you can find the others. You can come back for me," James said, his words running together as he tried to push himself out of her arms.

    Deidra was looking around, like she was still looking for a way to get them both out.

    "Put me down! You need to leave! Now!"

    Finally, Deidra obeyed.

    She set him down. The last glimpse Eve saw of James was him lying on the ground, unmoving. Deidra was running.

    James was gone.

    Deidra tried to show her other memories, but it must not have involved James, because Eve wasn't able to hear or see any of it. But she did feel a certain heartbreak, guilt, and anguish.
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Carina says...

When it was clear that this was becoming unproductive, Eve decided to pull her hand away so she no longer saw her memories. She stood still, glaring at Deidra as she sheepishly opened her eyes to gauge her reaction.

Eve wanted to lie to Bo. She wanted to say that Deidra was a traitor and would continue to stab them in the back.

But James's persistent message kept echoing in her head. Everything she showed him about James had to be true. She had seen him show exceedingly compassionate forgiveness before, even if the receiving person didn't deserve it. It would be hard for Deidra to make this up.

Eve wanted to be angry. For James, to Deidra. But if James wasn't angry at her, how could she?

Eve took another deep breath. She hated what she was going to say next.

"She's telling the truth," she said lowly to other others, watching Deidra carefully.

Deidra's expression melted into relief. It looked like she could almost cry.

"Looks like you passed," Robin said dryly.

"Deidra," Bo said, reaching out between her and Eve to firmly plant his hand on her shoulder. "If helping James get free is truly your intention, then it looks like we have something in common."

At that, Eve couldn't take it anymore. She abruptly stormed off to leave the group, not wanting to disrupt the moment with her irrational thoughts.

She wanted to be angry. She wanted to cast Deidra away. But how could she if she was telling the truth? She couldn't argue against that. She wouldn't know what to say to Bo or Robin.

So Eve turned away and left before she could cause a scene, quickly weaving between some trees and distancing herself from the others. She found her pace growing faster, quicker. It didn't matter how far away she was. She just needed some space to breath. She knew Bo would understand that.

After a minute or so, Eve came to a stop, not because she wanted to - but because she had tripped over branches since she was practically running at this point. She caught herself on her hands, her breaths deep and jagged. Her heart was beating fast and loud against her chest like a never ending drum. Her head spun, and she felt the panic return.

Her breaths turned short and heavy. Eve gave up under the weight of her own pressure and sat still on the ground, peering up at the sky.

"Why? Why do you keep doing this?" she cried up to the stars, tears prickling her eyes.

She has been so calm up to this point. She managed to get a lot done by herself. Traveling by herself, enduring Tula's taunts, finding Adina, finding her friends... Of all things, why did seeing James so needlessly compassionate with Deidra make her lose control?

Eve held back a cry, feeling her emotions get to the best of her again. She wanted to be the stronger one, but she couldn't help but feel like she was still weak.

"I don't understand. I'm trying so, so hard..." she started to say, but then the cry that she tried so hard to push away came out of her throat, wrestling her voice so she could no longer speak.

Eve bawled, bringing her legs together so she could bury her head and arms over them. She cried deeply again, feeling pitiful and pathetic, but she couldn't help it. She needed this moment to pass. She needed some space to allow herself to let it out and reset.

A minute or two passed as Eve continued to quietly cry. Eventually, her cried subsided into sniffles, and she pulled her head up to wipe away her snot and tears.

She stared emptily at the space in front of her, wishing for an answer to appear.

She wished James was here to tell her his thoughts. Tell her that she wasn't bad for thinking this. Tell her why he was so compassionate, so forgiving. Tell her that they could be better in thinking that, together.

That line of thought only sent more tears to her eyes, and she couldn't stop it. She hardly ever could.

Eve was weaker than she thought if this was enough to set her over the edge. She didn't even know why she was crying. Was this about Deidra? Or about James? Why was she so upset?

Eve felt like she was spiraling out of control. It was a familiar feeling. A feeling that almost never ended well for her.

She had to pull herself together. She had to be stronger than this.

Eve sniffed again, wiping away the last of her tears. "I really miss you, James. It hurts," she whimpered, trying to gain control of her breaths again. "Does that make me weak? To feel so dependent on you?"

Eve stared off into the distance, trying to imagine what James would say if he were actually here. He'd give her a speech on why she was wrong. Her emotions made her a stronger person. He loved her for that, but at the same time, he'd want her happiness to be isolated from his own, because his problems weren't hers to bear.

"It's not that I feel that I need to solve all your problems," she went on quietly, then paused. "Deidra is here. I am with the others. They're all here. She found us. I didn't and still don't trust her, but... I saw her memories of you, James. You were so kind, so compassionate... so forgiving. And I'm.... I'm not."

Eve buried her head back in her arms, wanting to hide from it all.

"Are you disappointed in me? Would you judge me if I won't forgive her?" she continued quietly. "I don't know how I can ever meet your expectations."

Eve shook away the thoughts she had of James. With that, only silence followed.

And silence was deafening.

"I wish I can be like you," she continued on, sitting upright again so her voice wouldn't be muffled. "I wish I can forgive as easily as you. I wish I can be strong like you. To be patient. To be kind. To be considerate, loving, and brave. But I'm not. And I'm so tired of pretending that I am."

She was speaking to James, but James wasn't actually here. Yet, she found herself unwinding, growing more frantic with her words, letting each word through her mouth without going through a filter.

"I can never be like you. I want to be, but I don't think I can. I try to be a better person everyday, but how much of that is true? I can't accept the facts and simply forgive Deidra. I don't think I've even fully forgiven my friends. How am I supposed to ever get to your level of compassion? You can't hold my hand forever."

Her voice shook, growing louder and louder.

"Even when this is all over... what if we're too late? What if I won't ever see you again? How do you expect me to forgive myself? I won't and never will. How would I ever live the life you wanted me to live? How am I supposed to keep living without you? How am I supposed to move on? I wouldn't. I'd be bitter and resentful for the rest of my life."

Eve had to hold back another cry, feeling herself get absorbed into her true thoughts. The thoughts she locked away in her head up until now.

"Is that sad? Am I pathetic? Are you disappointed? Did you expect something else? You can't change me, James. I don't know why I try. You say I make progress, but I always regress. What are you going to do? Are you going to leave me? Punish me? Hurt me? It doesn't matter, I'll still be by your side. I'll still fight for you. Does that make me pathetic? I don't care. I don't care. I don't care!"

Eve was yelling at this point, but she didn't care if that could alert the others. She had control over this situation. She would go back in time and start over. She always did.

"I wasn't going to go back in time and send this, but you should see this. You should see this ugly side of me. I don't know whether I should be ashamed or disgusted. I'll let you decide," Eve said thinly, closing her eyes and letting the familiar slip of time wade through her.

Eve was looking down at the ground, barely catching herself with her hands as she tripped. A numbness washed over her. The same unidentified burst of emotions she felt before came rushing out, but this time, she had better control.

Eve took deep, heavy breaths. Letting her emotions remember that it already went through an outlet. She had to wait. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Her heartbeat was slowing down, and finally Eve could safely and quietly breathe through her nose again.

With a sigh, Eve relaxed her position, longingly staring back up at the stars.

It felt cathartic to release those thoughts. But if James truly sees these memories, she didn't want him to think she was upset at him.

She had said some mean things. Words she didn't truly mean.

She was always doing this.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I'm sorry," she whimpered softly, and she shivered as she imagined what James would say if he were here.

I forgive you.

There was another long pause as she steadied her breath, taking another shaky breath.

"I'm not upset at you. I have no reason to be upset at you. I just... I miss you," Eve whispered.

She tried to think of something else to say. Something meaningful and more impactful that could truly undo what she said. But nothing came to mind, and the silence passed quickly.

Her window of going back in time was passing, so without saying another word, she went back again to send the apology to James.

Eve returned to facing the group with her palms on the dirt again, having just tripped. Slowly, she got up onto her feet and brushed herself off.

She was fine. She just needed a moment to collect herself. Deidra was going to be a part of their group now. She would have to accept that. Eve was still going to be wary of her, but she wasn't going to throw a fit. Not if the consensus was that she was trustworthy.

Maybe there was a way to use Deidra to their advantage. They could be strategic. They could possibly use her to get to James, somehow. Or Tula. It would require some thinking, and maybe it wouldn't work at all, but it helped justify the decision to accept her in Eve's mind.

Only a few minutes had actually passed since Eve left Bo, Deidra, and Robin. She decided not to wait any longer, turning around to head back to camp.

It didn't take long to return. Eve hadn't drawn extra attention to herself, so no one paid any mind when she returned. No one except Adina, that was.

As Eve scanned the camp, she noticed that Bo and Robin weren't back with Deidra yet. She hardly had time to think of the implications when she locked eyes with Adina, who was staring at her with worry. She must have sensed her go back in time.

Eve approached her, taking a seat next to her.

"Seems like rain today," she commented dully as she peered up at the sky.

Adina nodded, easing up.

"Guess we'll see," Adina said softly.

Eve didn't comment any further. She was far too tired to sustain a conversation. Luckily, Adina seemed to sense this and didn't say anything else either.

More minutes passed as Eve observed the camp in silence.

Until finally, Bo and Robin returned back from the shadows.

Deidra came up behind them, and Bo held his arm out in front of her ever so slightly. He was watching everyone in anticipation as they stopped at the edge of the camp.

He cleared his throat. His voice commanded the attention of the whole group, and when they all looked--

"What is she doing here?!" Hendrik said accusingly.

Now the whole camp had Bo's attention. Surprise and shock fell across everyone's faces.

"Deidra desires to change loyalties," Bo announced.

"Change loyalties?" Hendrik stood up. "Change loyalties?!" He laughed, but it didn't sound sincere. "Boss, you've got to be kidding."

"I'm not," Bo said.

"What do you mean? You mean to say she's suddenly on our side now?" Mel asked, sounding skeptical.

"She tried to help James escape," Bo said. "Something Eve was able to verify with her magic. So that much we know is true."

"No way! She really tried to help James?" Mel asked, presumably to Eve, but she didn't have time to respond.

"Why would she do that?" Makiel asked, voice cool and steady. It was clear he was skeptical as well.

Instead of answering, Bo looked back at Deidra, gesturing for her to step forward at his side so she could speak for herself.

Deidra's head hung low as she came out from behind him. She held her hands together tightly in front of her, and she drew her shoulders inward, like she was doing everything in her power to seem smaller.

"I wanted to make my own choice for a change," Deidra said, barely audible over the crackling of the fire. "I... I wanted to do something right."

"What a load of--" Hendrik started to say, but was cut off by Makiel.

"How do you know she isn't going to betray the group?" he asked.

Again, Bo looked to Deidra.

"I..." she started, but swallowed nervously before continuing. "When I-- when I left, Tula was very upset with me. She reached out once and told me she was never going to talk to me again. I have no way of contacting her or the others. And I know none of you trust me but I don't want to go back to -- to Rita. I don't want to be controlled by anyone anymore. I just want to help James. He helped me. So I want to help him."

It dawned on Eve that perhaps Deidra was trying to show her the memory of Tula reaching out to her, saying she wasn't going to talk to her again. If that was true, anyways. It would explain the feeling of heartbreak and anguish of losing a friend that was associated with the memory.

"Tula lies, and so do you," Makiel said, glaring at her the whole time. "It wasn't that long ago that she took me and Rudy in and blindly followed orders. It wasn't that long ago that she was our friend, traveling with us for months until she and Tula backstabbed us, nearly killing us until we came to Nye. She has betrayed her friends and will do it again. If you don't trust Tula, we shouldn't trust Deidra."

There was a short silence after his spiel, and it was Alistair who spoke up next, but he was hesitant with his words.

"Makiel," he said. "Can't you use your magic to see if she's telling a lie?"

Makiel faltered. "That doesn't work well with liars," he said stubbornly, avoiding the question.

"So she's telling the truth?" Mel asked.

"She's more nervous about speaking her words than her words itself, but that doesn't matter. Like I said, liars can conceal their breathing patterns well," he said.

Mel hummed. "Well... yeah, Deidra used to be our friend. But Tula did like 99% of the talking for her. We've never really seen her take initiative like this and speak in front of a whole group before, have we? It seems out of character, but so is changing sides. And if Eve says her intentions are the truth, then maybe she is changing after all."

"What? You believe this bitch?" Hendrik spat out with a puffed chest.

"Not that I believe her. Just that I'm willing to hear her out. That's all," Mel said with a swirl of her hand.

"I've been a soldier all my life," Deidra blurted, louder and more assertive than Eve had ever heard her voice before.

There was a split second pause, as if Deidra was shocked by the sound of her own voice.

"Ever since I was a child I've been conditioned to follow orders and to never ask questions or think for myself," she continued. "I've been a tool in the hands of powerful leaders as long as I've been alive, but when James told me I could choose who I wanted to be it was the first time anyone ever encouraged me to think for myself. It was the first time I even considered the fact that I had the power to change. And it was terrifying. Because I'd never thought once about what I wanted. But as the days went by it all began to hit me. I saw how Rita was using Tula. Using me. Using everyone around her just to get revenge. She didn't care about us. She just cared about having power. And that's when I realized I didn't want to follow orders from someone like that. I didn't want to be around anyone like that at all. And that's when I decided to help James. I only wish I could've succeeded."

There was another pause, but gauging from their reactions, it seemed that the others were still unconvinced. That was, until Elias spoke up.

"I believe you," he said to Deidra with a little smile. "I think it's nice that you're trying to make a change in your life. And that, out of all the paths you could have chosen, you chose this one. To help us, and to help James."

Hendrik scoffed. "Of course the naive military boy thinks that. I don't buy it a bit. Once a backstabber, always a--"

"Don't you believe in second chances, Hendrik?" Elise cut in with a harsh voice that Eve hadn't heard in a long time. "Don't you think that people can change? Especially with her background - which has merit and verifiable - don't you think that she's truly trying to make a change? She has committed mistakes that have hurt all of us. But that doesn't define who she is as a person. If her intention is to do good in the world and discover herself, I don't think it's a crime for us to let her experience that."

Hendrik was caught off guard, clearly not expecting to be scolded by Elise. He was at a loss for words and fumbled with his own thoughts.

"I have to say that I agree with Elise," Mel said in the silence that ensued. "I don't entirely trust her yet but I think we should at least give her a chance to prove herself."

"Are we all going to ignore the fact that Tula could spy on her at any time and we would never know?" Makiel said tiredly.

"I know there's nothing I can do right now to prove it," Deidra said. "But if she reaches out again... I'll make it known. And I won't let her see any of this."

"Of course. Because we trust you to do that," Makiel grumbled lowly.

"I don't trust her. I don't trust Tula. They're all dead to me," Hendrik said, finally gathering all his thoughts. "But if the bosses say that we should give her a chance of redemption, I'm not going to argue with it."

"Maybe we can open the floor to everyone and give everyone a chance to speak. That way we can at least go over everyone's concerns, if we haven't already," Mel suggested.

Bo nodded in assent.

"Would you like to start?" Bo asked.

"Sure!" Mel said with a smile, glancing around the camp. "I think we should be wary and warm up to her first, but yes... I think we should give her a second chance. If Tula does try to spy on her, maybe we could try to throw her off? I don't know, feels like it could be beneficial to keep a former enemy close, don't you think? Especially if Deidra actually wants to help us out."

Bo looked to Hendrik.

"Is there anything more you'd like to say?" he asked.

Hendrik cleared his throat and crossed his arms. "I'd like to hear your opinion and Eve's," he said.

"Fair," Bo agreed. He looked to Eve first.

Eve sighed, knowing sooner or later that she was going to be called upon. She had braced for this.

"I don't trust her, but she wasn't lying about her intentions. That doesn't prohibit her from joining our group," she said, keeping it vague.

With a nod, Bo let her leave it at that.

"Our trust is something Deidra will have to earn," Bo said. "Which is something I made clear to her from the start. Knowing that her story holds water tells me that she's capable of change, and while showing up here was bold, it was also very risky. Robin has confirmed that no one else is around, which means Deidra has come alone, telling me that even though she was outnumbered she considered it worth it for the sake of helping James, and having a shot at redemption. Personally, I feel safer having her under our supervision than out in the world under anyone else's sway. It appears James has been a positive influence even while under great distress. In the same spirit, I would like for us to continue to be positive influences for Deidra as she finds her way in this new world."

"Practically," Bo continued. "We will keep her under watch at all times, which is something Deidra is both aware of and has consented to. It's mutually undestood that it's a resonable safety precaution. And as far as setting expectations goes, Deidra is only here to offer help in what ways she can, but I do not expect - and she does not expect - for everyone to approve of her presence here. That will be worked out in time as you all choose for yourselves how you want to be involved with her, if at all."

Hendrik nodded, taking in every word. "That settles it for me, then. Seems that she may make a trustworthy comrade someday - after she proves herself, of course. If you want me to keep watch of her, I'll gladly help out." He paused, eyes locking on Deidra now. "Sorry I called you a bitch, mousy."

Deidra offered Hendrik a shy and rather awkward smile.

"It's fine," she said quietly. "I... was expecting worse."

"Oh, it would be a lot worse if the kids weren't here," Hendrik said in a too serious voice, almost like a veiled threat

Deidra only nodded in response.

"Mel, Raj, Robin and I will carry the majority of the responsibility for watching Deidra," Bo said. "We have no former personal affiliations with her, and I'd prefer those over her to be with as little bias as possible. But you are all free to interact with Deidra as you will, just not in any official capacity."

Hendrik briskly nodded. "Understood," he said.

"Are there any other questions or concerns before we settle in for the night?" Bo asked.

There was a tense silence. If anyone did have opinions, they weren't being said. It was hard to openly and publicly break the ongoing consensus.

Plus, there wasn't real evidence to cast her away. Only speculation and doubt, which Eve thought was still valid, but she knew it wouldn't be enough to change Bo's mind.

"Then we'll end this conversation here, for now," Bo said. "Raj, you'll take point with Deidra for the night. Mel, makes sure she gets some leftovers. If anyone wants to speak with me privately, you're more than welcome to grab me at any time."
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soundofmind says...

[Ends on] The 14th of Sil, Third Month of Summer

His ears were ringing. Perhaps, they'd always been ringing, and he only noticed now. The faint high-pitched hum in his ears persisted, drowning out the words coming out of Rita's moving lips.

He couldn't remember what happened that day. Or rather, he could, but he couldn't decipher what portions were real and what portions were the lumshade. Maybe only a day had passed, but it felt like a year. Even when he slept, if he could even call it sleep, he felt awake.

Rita snapped her fingers in front of his eyes, and the sound was deafening.

He blinked, jolting as the snap cut through and echoed in his ears and the ringing began to die down.

"Gods," Rita muttered. It was only then that his body finally began to process the other senses.

He wasn't, in fact, holding his eyes open on his own. Rita had one eye pried open and was moving her finger in front of his face. When he finally tracked with her finger, she let go and he fluttered his eyes open slowly, hardly having the strength to move more than that.

Rita was kneeling beside him. He was laid out somewhere on the ground with the open sky above him. He could hear the crackle of a fire, and the heat in the air clung to his skin. For a moment he could hear his own rattling heartbeat in his head along with each breath.

"You must've had one hell of a trip," Rita muttered. "It's been two days."

Two days. Two days since what?

He turned his head, finding himself looking directly into the fire, just a few feet from him.

"Hey, look at me," Rita said, grabbing his chin to turn it towards her. "I don't need you drifting off again."

He let his head settle in the pillow underneath him and he stared up at Rita, still feeling lost.

He knew he'd been captured and he'd failed to escape. Deidra got away. But everything after that felt like a blur...

"It's a miracle you're still alive," Rita said, patting his shoulder. "Gods, you must have veins of steel. But it should be out of your system by now. Most of it, anyway."

James felt his eyes start to slide shut, and Rita snapped in front of his face again.

"Hey. Hey," she chided. "Come on. Keep 'em open."

All he wanted to do was go back to sleep. He looked up at her with half-open eyes.

"What now?" he asked, hearing the low rumble of his tired voice scrape past his vocal cords.

"What now?" Rita repeated. "Now we're going to get some fluids in you before you croak on us. There's only so much we could do for you outside the city. Now, come on. Sit up."

Except she didn't wait for him to move himself. She took his shoulders and pulled him upright, and Pitch seemed to materialize beside him out of nowhere. He didn't know if she'd been there the whole time, but she'd been deathly silent.

With as much cooperation as he could muster, he let Rita hold him up while Pitch made him drink water little by little. He still couldn't remember what led up to this, but he had a feeling that it was an accident. Rita was normally careful. She wasn't wasteful with her resources, so if he'd been out for two days... that was a lot of lumshade.

Eventually Pitch pulled away and brought him a bowl of soup. Rita and Pitch exchanged words, but James found himself staring into the bowl once he was left to sit up for himself.

He felt dizzy.

A hand touched his shoulder, and he looked over to Pitch, realizing that Rita had left. He didn't know how long he'd stared into the bowl, but it appeared to have been longer than the few seconds he thought it was.

Pitch met his eyes, and he could sense that there were many things she wanted to say but couldn't without giving away her involvement in his failed escape.

He understood.

"Tula lost her temper," Pitch said lowly. "She was watching you and gave you too much lumshade. It knocked you out for over 48 hours."

James blinked.

Okay. Well. At least that made sense of things.

"She was mad about Deidra," Pitch added, barely audible.

Deidra. Right.

"Anyways," Pitch said, moving on almost immediately. "You need to eat."

She pressed a spoon into his hand, insistent. James withdrew from the touch, but when she pulled away he dipped the spoon into the bowl, listening to the tap against the wood.

"Not just look at it," Pitch reiterated.

James shot her a look out of the corner of his eyes before he leaned over the bowl and took a sip.

She watched him until he finished, but it took quite some time. Not only did he not have much of an appetite, but moving his arms was a chore, seeing as they still ached from the previous torture that Tula had forced Eve to watch. Of course, James wasn't about to ask Pitch to help. So he stubbornly persisted, even if it took longer.

By the time he laid back down to sleep for the night, he was left alone. Even Rita let him sleep by himself - no longer in a tent, but under the stars. They left him by the fire where he stared up at the sky emptily for a long time.

He wondered if this would be the last night he'd get to sleep naturally.

It was hard to still have hope. Maybe it was just how tired he was, but he couldn't seem to imagine a way out that didn't end poorly. He decided it was better not to imagine at all.

When he closed his eyes, he fell asleep almost instantly.

    A boy's voice cut in with crystal clarity.

    "That'll be four copper, miss," the boy said.

    It was Eve. He was looking through her eyes, and she was tired. Hesitant. A bit nervous. The boy looked around impatiently.

    "Or you can find another stable," the boy said. "How long are you wanting to keep him here for? Four copper is our standard charge for a day's worth. Six if it's overnight."

    "...Right," Eve agreed and finally went to fish through Elliot's bag, digging for the money James had left in his absence. He knew what she would find before she found it: there was only two copper coins.

    "It will be fast," she promised as she held out the coins.

    The boy seemed peeved and gave her a distasteful look as the coins fell onto his palm.

    "I can get you the rest when I come back," she said.

    "Sure," the boy said. "Just be back in a few hours."

    Eve nodded and made her way out of the stable. It looked like she was somewhere in Ruddlan. She must've been stabling Elliot while she went about the city - probably to look for him.

    But then he saw her approach the sheriff's office. Confusion hit him as he watched her walk up to the wall of wanted posters posted outside. She was in a deep focus, like she was looking for something.

    She found his poster with ease, but then she started to look around at the others. And then her eyes landed one one that was... of her.

    Wanted: Time Mage
    Known to go by Eve, or Evaline
    Use Extreme Caution: violent and highly dangerous
    Last seen in the company of the traitor and criminal Tiberius James

    He could feel the spike of panic and fear that hit Eve as realization seeped in. It only increased when one of the guards by the door spoke.

    "Need any help, miss?" the standing guard asked nearby.

    Evaline flinched, and with a nervous laugh, stepped back from the bulletin board, letting the other papers fall into place so it would cover her face again. But because she had been trifling with the old paper so much, the weight of James's papers caused the pile-up of other papers to fall down, instead revealing her poster for all to see.

    The guard looked at the poster. Then at her.

    "Huh," he said. "Interesting."

    Eve opened her mouth to speak, but her eyes flicked from the guards to the papers. A pained laugh bubbled out of her throat as she shook her head and facepalmed.

    "Hey, James. Don't laugh. This is more stressful than comedic," she mumbled.

    Admittedly, were James in less dire circumstances, he would've laughed. But the scene started to shift again. There was a familiar tug and pull, and while normally James tried to push the dreams of undone moments away, he knew that these were from Eve.

    This was his only way to hear from her.

    He let the next one come.

    It was short.

    Eve stood in a sea of people. She was in the streets of Ruddlan, and James recognized the market.

    "I think there's another time mage here," she said softly to herself. And to him. "I may regret this. But I'm undoing this so I can find them."

    Then the next moment came, and Eve was in what looked to be a bedroom. She seemed to be on her side, probably lying down in a bed.

    "You won't believe where I am," Eve said softly. "I'm in Ruddlan now, but I'm at Adina's place. Yes, that Adina. What are the chances?"

    Adina. She'd found Adina, of all people. James almost didn't believe it, but she was right. Adina was probably the only other time mage in all of Nye. Somehow, they'd found each other.

    At least Eve was no longer alone.

    Eve laughed through her nose. There was a sense of relief.

    "We met because she felt me use my time magic after the sheriff station incident. I also felt her use hers. It was like a game of hide and seek, but we didn't know who we were looking for. It was a little bizarre, and for a moment I was paranoid that I was going to find Oliver, but... I'm glad things ended the way they did."

    She paused.

    "I'm going to travel with her. We'll be traveling south of Ruddlan tomorrow. Going off the main trail so we can meet with another group. A mage group that Adina's a part of. You're not going to believe it, but Adina and the mage group know about you. They're trying to help you. We're all trying to help you, James. I couldn't believe it. You have allies. We're going to get you."

    Eve paused again, clutching the blankets tighter as her eyes wandered to the sole window of the room. Sheer curtains were blocking the glass, but the moonlight still peered through.

    "I know I'll see you soon. We both have to be patient. But you've always been better at that than I have, haven't you?"

    Eve stared at the moon.

    "I miss you," she whispered. "I hope you are doing well."

    And he found himself grasping desperately onto those last few words, wishing that the memory lasted longer. But it was over, and the sound of her voice was gone.

James found himself trying to replay the memories over in his mind, reaching for them over and over. He just wanted to hear Eve's voice again. He understood what she was saying. She'd found help. She wasn't alone. She was going to do everything she could to find him.

But he already knew that. He knew that if she couldn't find him she'd tear the world apart until she did - it pained him, knowing that it was in her nature to never let go - but it was also a comfort. He knew she would never give up on him again, even if he wanted her to.

And despite having gone to save Makiel and Rudy from further torment, he didn't want this.

All he desperately wanted was to be back with Eve and his friends again, knowing that they all were safe.

When he woke up, though, the reality of his circumstances were back to greet him. Rita was there, needle already in hand, with a sickly grin on her face.

"Don't worry, James," she said, rolling up his sleeve. "We're not giving you the sedative this time, so you'll be awake. We just can't have you using your magic, you understand?"

She made it sound like that was all lumshade did.

"No more sedatives from now on," Rita reiterated. "Just the feel-good stuff."

That did not comfort him at all.

"Do you say that to make yourself feel better about it?" James asked as she swabbed his arm.

"See, this is what I didn't miss while you were out for two days," Rita said as she made him form a fist with his hand. "The moment you're remotely sober you're just itching to insult me."

"I wonder why," James said, watching as she found a vein and inserted the needle.

"I think I'll enjoy you far more in a few minutes," she said as she pushed the lumshade into his veins.

It was hot, at first. Almost like the drug was burning under his skin. But the sensation faded quickly into a warmth that permeated through his whole body.

He hated hugs on a regular day, but the only way he knew how to describe it was like he was surrounded by a big, warm, hug. If he liked hugs, that was.

It was as if all of the tension and pain left his body. For the first time since he could remember, he didn't even just feel normal. He felt better than normal. He felt good.

Rita had pulled away, maybe just now, maybe earlier. He was too caught up in the rush of euphoria that washed over him and not feeling any physical pain in his body for the first time in years.

"Well?" Rita asked.

James sat up slowly, flexing his hands as he looked down at them, turning them over and stretching out his arms.

No pain.

He hadn't registered that he was smiling until he noticed Rita was staring. He stared back at her, smile fading.

"I'll take that as a sign you feel better," she said, offering a hand to help him up.

He took it, but as she helped him to his feet, he ended up pulling himself up.

"Don't push yourself too hard, now," Rita chided. "You did nearly die back there."

He pushed her hand away once he was on his feet, ignoring her.

"If you want breakfast I have some food in my wagon," Rita offered.

James hesitated.

He knew this high wouldn't last that long, but something inside him told him now was the time to run. He glanced to the side, at the forest around them.

How far could he get before the dogs and the horses would catch up? How far would he get before the adrenaline faded and everything came crashing back, sending him to the ground?

Was it worth it? Would it be worth it if he only got caught and was sent back into another two-day hell?

Rita reached for his hand, grabbing it firmly.

"This way," she said and pulled him forward.

And as the day went on, she'd give him another dose just when the last hit started to fade. All of the pain, anxiety, and worry of the previous days felt like a distant memory as he simply traveled alongside the others, fully aware of where they were going but unable to feel anything about but fine.

Rita kept him in her wagon, where Pitch was kept around to monitor him. Apparently, she was still worried after Tula's outburst. James didn't know if Pitch was there to protect him or just to make sure nothing went wrong, but he did feel a sense of security with her around. Even if she didn't seem to be making any efforts to get him out of this anymore, she at least was making sure he didn't die. Somehow, despite that being the bare minimum for any person, it was more than anyone else was doing.

Well, mostly Tula. He didn't want to think about Butch, whoever remained a giant, looming shadow in the background. But even so, the lumshade made even that threat seem smaller.

When he fell asleep the next night, he didn't have a care in the world. For once, his emotions seemed at peace, and he didn't have the energy to fight it - so he embraced it - and fell into a dreamless sleep.

Well, it was dreamless at first.

Undone memories weren't normal dreams.

    He saw Eve. She was smiling, and her smile lit up everything around her. Just at seeing her, he felt like he could cry tears of joy. It felt like he hadn't seen her face in ages, and he found himself gripping to take in every detail.

    Her hair was getting longer. It was braided to the side and cascaded over her shoulder as small wisps framed her face. Her pale blue eyes caught the morning daylight like the sky holding the sun, and there were dapples of shadow over her skin. She sat under the partial shade of a tree.

    "Hello, James," he heard Adina's voice say. "I hope this gets to you. We wanted to say hi."

    So he was looking through Adina's eyes. She kept her gaze on Eve, who seemed a little shy, as if she could feel him watching. It felt like she was truly seeing him, even if it was through a medium. It was like she was searching his eyes, trying to read his silent thoughts and gauge her reaction.

    "Anything you want to say to him?" Adina asked with a smile in her voice.

    Eve seemed to be deliberate in choosing her words, perhaps because she had prepared herself for this. Still, she seemed nervous, even through her smile.

    "There's a lot I could say... but I think, this time, maybe instead of talking, we could go on a walk together. What do you think?" she asked Adina, but it felt like she was truly asking James.

    "A walk sounds lovely," Adina answered, but James could hear his own voice overlap with hers.

    Eve beamed, slowly getting up. She offered her hand for him to take. "Lead the way?" she asked.

    When he reached out, he felt his hand meet hers. His heart skipped a beat as the sensation registered, too real to deny, but too surreal to believe.

    It felt like he was there. He was there.

    As they walked, Eve gave his hand a squeeze. "Everything okay?" she asked, peering at him with a hint of worry.

    "I've never been better," he said, squeezing her hand in return. He pulled her in a little closer, leaning his head on her shoulder for a moment as they walked. She smelled like lemon and basil.

    They walked peacefully in silence for a bit, but then Eve spoke again.

    "I'm a little nervous about meeting the mage group," she said after some hesitation. "We're only a few days away now. I don't think they even know we're coming with Adina. What if they don't accept us?"

    "Why wouldn't they?" he asked.

    "Oh, I don't know. An alien being with the world's most wanted man seems like an odd pairing to be with," she said with a smirk.

    "It feels normal to me," Adina said, skipping up alongside them. "Alien or not, you're a person too."

    "If they have an issue with us for whatever reason," James said. "I'm sure we'll figure it out. We always have."

    There was a small pause in which Eve hesitated, and she glanced at him, then looked off into the forest. The resting smile on her face started to fade as a deep sadness swam in her eyes.

    "Right," she said, barely audible. "You always do."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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soundofmind says...

Pitch sat beside him in the wagon. Half a day was over, and they were getting on the move again. James found himself becoming used to the constant high, but he was aware that it was changing things for him.

Yes, the pain in his body and even in his mind was duller - but that was only because everything else was so bright in comparison.

He didn't feel like himself.

He felt... giddy. Over nothing. And he wasn't bothered by it at all.

The wagon rocked as it moved from its stationary state, and while Pitch swayed with its movement, James slid. Formerly sitting upright, he slid down so he was slouching against the cushion behind him at the back of the wagon.

This was Rita's wagon. Instead of being filled with supplies, it was filled to the brim with comforts.

A small laugh escaped him as he caught himself from sliding further, and he straightened a bit once the wagon began to rock at a steady pace.

Pitch seemed distracted.

"What's on your mind?" James asked.

Pitch shot him a look. He couldn't tell if it was pity or annoyance.

"Why? Are you feeling chatty?" she asked, saying 'chatty' like it was a bad word.

"We don't have to talk," James offered.

"I have a feeling you're going to talk anyway," she said with a sigh. Perhaps they'd been through this before. His memory wasn't reliable these days.

"Maybe I will," James said. "Maybe I won't."

Pitch didn't seem to think that was funny. Then again, he'd never seen her laugh, nevermind smile, so it shouldn't have been a surprise.

"You're not right, James," Pitch said. "And you don't even know it."

James lifted his hand and waggled a finger.

"On the contrary," he said. "I feel right as rain. Even righter than rain. I've never felt this right in my life!"

Pitch turned to look at him, her face painted with concern.

"That's exactly what's wrong," she said.

"I don't understand what you have against happiness," James said, "But someday I do hope you feel right yourself."

Pitch seemed to bristle at that, and she pursed her lips, looking back off into the wagon, still distant. Still distracted.

Maybe she wanted to say sorry, but knew she'd never get the chance to.

"I understand," James said, unprompted, after a long pause. Pitch looked at him out of the side of her eyes, unimpressed.

"Uh-huh," she muttered.

"So," James said. "What do you do when you're not bounty hunting, hm? Do you just... hunt other things? Got friends? Family?"

"I'd really rather not talk about such things with you," Pitch answered flatly.

"What? It's not like... I'm gonna tell anybody," James said, swinging his head from side to side, seeing no one around. "Who am I going to tell? I'm going to die anyways."

"That really doesn't help," Pitch said, her brows pinching together again.

"Oh, come on," James said. "There's got to be something. People don't just hunt bounties for fun."

He paused.

"Except Butch. He definitely gets some kind of sick thrill out of it. But you are far saner than he is," James said, gesticulating clumsily. "At least you treat me like a person. Well, as much as a person can be treated like a person while also being treated like a prize with a big price tag on their head that says: Money, money, money! But alas, at least you haven't peeled my skin away like a banana and tried to stick me like a pig. It's the little things, you know."

Pitch didn't respond.

"You know," James went on. "Of all the bounty hunters that have come for me, you were arguably the scariest. Not in a way that you haunt me in my dreams - that, well, that's reserved for other things - but you were so damn persistent. Like, I just couldn't get rid of you! And the mask--"

James laughed.

"--Did you make that yourself? It's godsdamned terrifying to spot that pale owl face in the middle of the night. Like, first of all, I became suspicous of all owls for far longer than I'd like to admit, but secondly, it's actually quite ingenious. And a bit showy, if I'm being honest. You could've just as easily decided to blend in by other means, but it does give you a certain..."

He circled his hand in front of him, trying to find the words.

"Je ne sais quoi," he said.

Pitch flicked her eyes over to him, he expression of concern deepening into something more akin to confusion. He forgot that Pitch probably didn't speak French.

"Why didn't you follow me into the jungle, by the way?" James asked, looking up at her, leaning his head back.

"What, do you think I have a death wish like you do?" Pitch asked. "The jungle's overflowing with monsters. I wasn't going to risk my life to pull you out of it. It's not my fault you were reckless and insane."

"Hey," James said, putting a hand on his chest. "I'm not insane."

Pitch only stared at him.

"You were insane enough to survive," Pitch retorted.

"Well that's only because I killed the Grangor that I got out," James said. "Well, it-- it wasn't just me, but--"

"The what?" Pitch cut in.

"Oh, you know the stories--" James tried to answer.

"Yeah," Pitch cut in. "The grangor is a folk tale. It's just a story people made up because the calamity drove people crazy and they started seeing things and wanted to scare people out of the jungle for good reason. The grangor isn't real."

James blinked.

"All folk tales are based in some truth," James said.

Pitch stared at him again.

"It was a really big panther," he added.

She didn't even blink.

"Like, really big," he went on. "Gargantuan. Huuuuuuuuuge."

He stretched his arms out over his head. "Taller than a two story building. I almost died."

"Okay," Pitch said, but he wasn't sure if she actually believed him.

"It was purple, too," he said. That seemed to make her believe him less. "In certain light, I mean. The-- well, if you get deep enough into the jungle everything is bioluminescent. There are many glowing purple plants. You know, now that I think about it maybe it wasn't purple. Maybe it was just the glow of the plants reflecting off of its fur..."

He looked down in deep thought.

"How long do you think it'd take a creature of that size to decay?" he asked, more quiet. "It's probably still there..."

He shivered at the thought.

"So... what," Pitch said after a considerable pause. "You just... killed a giant, two-story tall panther with your bare hands?"

"No," James said. "That would be absurd."

Pitch sighed in what appeared to be mild annoyance.

"Right. That would be absurd," she said.

"Besides, it doesn't matter how we killed it," he said. "It was an awful experience, anyway. Giant, mammoth-sized guts everywhere, the smell of blood was putrid and suffocating, and I was quite ready to quit running right there. I only left that place to honor Amy's wishes to live in her stead. Of course I almost broke that promise several times, but I suppose it doesn't really matter now, seeing as I'm going to die anyway. Just by someone else's hands this time."

He could tangibly feel Pitch's silence.

"Maybe we should stop talking now," she said after a few seconds dragged on.

James realized too late that he'd probably said too much.

"...Sorry," he mumbled, staring up at the covered wagon's ceiling.

There was a worrisome feeling that came next - one that he'd been afraid would come, but knew would, on this trajectory.

He found himself wanting another hit of lumshade. The reality of everything he'd said was starting to seep in past the blanket of euphoria the lumshade had provided, and he didn't know if he could bear to feel that level of dread again.

He was still holding on to hope that Eve would find him, but with each passing day that hope seemed smaller.

He looked away from Pitch, staring at the blank space beside him.

"Why don't you just leave?" he asked quietly.

No response.

"You obviously despise it here," James went on. "You have a different way of doing things."

"Rita and I have an agreement," Pitch answered coldly.

James looked down into his lap.

Right. An agreement.

He closed his eyes, rubbing at the crook of his arm. He could start to feel the ache returning.

"Gods," he muttered under his breath. "Sometime I wish I was just wanted dead. Things would be so simple."

"But you said you're going to 'die anyway,'" Pitch said.

James sighed.

"Yeah, well... if Tula doesn't kill me first," James said quietly. "Carter will. And he'll have fun with it, too."

There was a beat of silence.

"Carter... Haddon?" Pitch asked.

James faltered.

"It doesn't matter," he muttered, feeling the high start to fade. Gods, everything hurt. He was exhausted, and he couldn't even feel the fullness of that exhaustion yet.

"Seems like it does matter if he's going to kill you," Pitch said.

"Yeah, well," James cut in sharply. "I can't imagine it being worse than almost being forced to kill my partner, so. I'm sure I'll be just peachy."

Another long silence followed, this one more tense than the last.

James wished he could just go to sleep. He wished they'd just sedate him again so he didn't have to think or feel anything at all, be it good or bad, almost forgetting the horrific dreams that came with it. But he'd grown accustomed to horrific dreams.

"Tula," Pitch said, and James's eyes shot open.

The curtain that divided the wagon in half was stirred as Tula drew them just enough to see and respond to Pitch. "Yes?" she said.

Oh gods. James stared down into his lap, avoiding eye contact as the terrible realization dawned on him that Tula had overheard everything.

He wanted to crawl into a hole.

"Was that you?" she asked.

"Don't know what you're talking about," Tula said, sounding bored, disappearing behind the curtains again.

Pitch hummed but left it at that.
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soundofmind says...

It wasn't long after that that Pitch pulled out another syringe of lumshade when she noticed James was beginning to sober up. Sometimes, when the days were long, she'd allow him a few minutes of sobriety. But it seemed that, perhaps, Tula was there as an added outer pressure. Maybe Rita knew that Pitch was growing soft, and even though Tula wasn't allowed to be with James alone anymore, Rita was using her to keep Pitch in line, too.

It was a sick and twisted game, and James was too tired to think of a way to play it. Pitch seemed resigned to the role of caretaker, and Tula didn't seem like she was going to change.

If Eve saw him losing hope, he knew she'd grow discouraged too. But Tula wasn't sending messages anymore, and James felt more and more like the only times he'd ever get to see Eve again was in his dreams.

But even his dreams were getting more and more contorted the longer lumshade remained in his system. All of the undone memories started to gel together and overlap. With each passing night the messages got more and more muddled, and James woke up hardly able to remember anything at all but a feeling. And the feeling was always heartache.

But throughout the day, it would all be forgotten, and he'd ride the high until he had to sleep again.

More than once, he considered trying to run. But Butch was always silently lingering in the background. Always watching.

He'd grown eerily quiet ever since Rita started drugging James, and that didn't put James at peace.

He knew the man was just waiting for an excuse to tear him apart.

One night, James could feel a memory of Eve's knocking at the door of his mind. But when he opened to let it in, it was like a flood of overlapping pictures, all at once. He thought he saw Deidra, maybe. He could hear Eve's voice, but she was saying sentences upon sentences at the same time, and the only recurring word he could make out was "sorry."

Sorry. The word she'd always told him to stop using. Somehow, that made his heart ache even more.

When he woke up, he felt worse than he had in days. Ironically, his physical frame was starting to feel a little better: finally, he was really starting to heal, and movement didn't feel as strained. But the weight he carried in his chest felt almost unbearable.

Desperately, he wanted to cry. But nothing inside of him would let him.

Not here. Not like this.

For whatever reason, this morning, Rita wasn't beside him when he woke up. He didn't know how late or how early it was, but it never really mattered when nothing in his life was really in his control.

At the least, the sun was out. The sunlight seeped through the light tarp over the wagon, well enough to see. When he turned his head to look around, he saw that he was alone. At least, that's how it seemed.

A hand pulled back the curtain ahead of him, peering through. Pitch.

At first, she didn't say anything. She merely stared at him, and he stared back.

Normally, this would be when she'd pull out the lumshade again. But this morning, instead of coming in to repeat the pattern unceremoniously, she let the curtain fall back in its place, and he could hear her footfalls leave the wagon.

He realized, once she was gone, that this wasn't a window of escape.

She was giving him privacy.

He wondered how transparent his emotions were on his face.

Rolling onto his stomach, he buried his face in his pillow, holding it over his ears, tight against his face. He could feel the sting of tears in his eyes, but even as he tried to let it out, it wouldn't come. Instead, the tension built up in his head, his hands, and his shoulders. The deep, aching pain in his chest only hurt more, and he tucked up his legs underneath him, curling up with his face in the bed as he tried to will the building emotions to leave.

But he didn't get a release.

Instead, he heard another pair of footsteps, and like a flipped switch, everything was pushed down again. He moved to sit up, ready for Pitch to return.

But it wasn't Pitch who poked their head through the curtains.

It was Tula.

She darted her eyes around the room, like she was looking for something. Or someone other than James. Satisfied, she stepped in, now focusing her attention on him.

"Did Pitch leave?" she asked, even if the answer was obvious. She was testing him.

James didn't know what this was about.

Was this about her "cover story?" Did something come up?

Was this about Deidra? Did she want to berate him again?

Was she here to put him out of his misery for good?

"She's not here," he said quietly, eyeing her hands. They were empty.

Tula let herself in, walking towards the cushioned seats at the sides of the wagon. She took a moment to get comfortable, finally letting her gaze fall intensely on him.

"I can't speak long. Pitch has been 'supervising' me like a child. She might notice I'm gone," she said with a frown, but didn't say much more.

She was watching James closely. Studying him, wondering what he'd say first before she said anymore. She had always been so calculating.

"What is it?" James asked simply.

Tula kept her eyes on him, face remaining neutral as she observed him. "I got in touch with Deidra. She told me the truth."

James... wasn't sure how to feel about this. He felt nervous. Would Deidra have had the courage to tell Tula the whole truth?

"I see," he said quietly, resting his hands together in his lap.

Still staring at him, Tula was patiently waiting for him to say more. When a long, uncomfortable silence passed, she spoke again.

"I spoke to her, too," she continued. "And I told her that I won't be contacting her anymore, since she doesn't want to be associated with Rita." Tula stood up, presumably because she was ready to leave already. "That's it."

But still, she stayed, still watching him. Wondering what he had to say and how he would react.

"Are you..." James hesitated. "Okay?"

Tula kept her neutral expression, but a hint of annoyance tugged her lips.

"That's all I wanted to say," she said simply. "I'll be going now."

James didn't know if this was an open door or not. But he found himself getting up too.

"I know what it's like to lose a friend," James said softly. "In more ways than one."

A beat.

"I'm sorry you lost Deidra."

He didn't owe her an apology. But he did understand her pain.

Tula stared back, unfazed. But there was another pause, and there was no taunting. Perhaps, this time, she truly was self-reflecting - but she kept it to herself.

Breaking her gaze, Tula headed towards the curtain. "Pitch will be back soon with the lumshade," she said, although James already knew that.

James couldn't help but feeling like Tula didn't really know what she wanted.

It felt like, for the first time, he was seeing what might've been the real Tula all along: the Tula that wasn't just focused on pleasing her superiors for a sense of worth. But the Tula that just wanted to be known and understood. The Tula that perhaps, felt unseen and overlooked all along, and now with her only true friend gone, on a completely foreign world felt truly alone.

"Alright," James said softly.

If she wanted to go, he would let her.

And with that, she left without another word or glance back.

He stood there for a moment, at a loss for words. In the back of his mind, he felt like he could hear Eve asking: why? Why reach out to Tula? Why give her a second chance?

But it wasn't just about seeing the potential in Tula for change. It wasn't mostly about her redemption. He'd argue it was hardly about that at all.

Yes, Tula was a person. Yes, for the first time since he'd known her, she seemed like she was at a tipping point - she was primed to make a choice, and she was open to reflection. But if he was able to seize this opportunity... if he was able to win her over...

Tula might just be the one to get them out of this. Because she, of all people, had the ability to reach out for backup. She'd be able to communicate with the others. They wouldn't even have to get out of this alone.

Pitch had basic-level compassion, but it was clear she wasn't willing to stick her neck out for him in any way that mattered.

But Tula was crazy enough that if she switched loyalties, she'd do anything.

And if James was being honest with himself... he did want her to change for the better. Not just for his own benefit, but because he felt like, even though they were very different, he could see a little of his own story in hers.

He'd been shaped by the military at a young age, too. He'd broken free from it with grave consequences, and it took a long time for him to think for himself, too.

Everyone's journey was different. Hers was just... well, he couldn't even compare it to his. They were both a mess - just in radically different ways.

He sat down on the bed with a sigh and buried his face in his hands.

This was probably his only remaining chance at escaping. He just hoped he could win Tula over before it was over.

Footfalls fell behind the curtain, and James knew his time alone was over. He looked up and saw Pitch, syringe in hand.

Wordlessly, she gestured for him to extend his arm.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Carina says...

The 15th of Sil, Third Month of Summer

A night had passed since Eve met up with the others, but it didn't feel any less overwhelming. It especially didn't help that Deidra's presence loomed behind her like an overcast shadow as they continued to hike forward. Eve told herself that she begrudgingly made peace with Bo's decision, but that didn't mean she wanted anything to do with her.

Eve did her best to stick close to her friends, but even they were off busy talking to the others. Mel seemed to enjoy Jordan's company, Alistair and Clandestine seemed to chat more, Elise gravitated towards Aradis and Bo, and Elias zipped around to everyone. This gave Eve time to walk with Elliot in solidarity, or even catch up with Adina if she was free.

The next morning, however, Eve noticed that there were two natural groups occurring: those from Nye and those outside of Nye. Eve wondered if this always happened or if there was a natural divide because her friends didn't feel comfortable with Deidra, who kept her head low near the other mages.

Out of the corner of her eye, Eve watched as Bo more formally introduced Deidra to the others. She even demonstrated her strength magic, presumably because she was asked about her magic. They looked impressed, but still wary of her. After all, Deidra had a proven track record of being a traitor.

For the most part, her friends seemed tired of talking about Deidra. The conversation went on and on, and it grew stale - especially as a decision had already been made. But for the most part, the only strong opinionated ones were Makiel and herself. And Eve sure wasn't going to strongly express her opinions if there was no point anymore.

Eve was brushing Elliot's mane when she noticed Bo approaching her with a friendly smile. She quickly put away the brush, bracing for whatever conversation he was going to spring on her.

"Good morning, Eve," Bo greeted. "I was hoping I could more formally introduce you to the other mages, outside of your friends you already know. We'll be travelling together for some time and working together, so I'd like you all to know each other. I know a lot happened yesterday, but do you think you'd be up for that?"

Eve hesitated, mostly because she didn't want to eagerly say yes. In the brief silence that followed, Hendrik - who was behind her and Elliot and was clearly eavesdropping - firmly patted Elliot back.

"Don't worry, boss. I'll look over Elliot. You go with the boss man," he said, which seemed odd, because this felt like an order, and Hendrik never gave her demands.

Maybe the entire concept of multiple bosses was missing with his head, but frankly, Eve didn't care. She wasn't even his boss anymore.

"Sure. Yes, that's fine," she said to Hendrik and Bo. "Thanks."

Bo nodded for Eve to follow, leading her over to the wagon where most of his group was gathered. She noticed that Deidra wasn't with them.

"I know you've already met Adina," Bo said, gesturing to Adina who sat in the driver's spot. She smiled.

"But here, we have Mel Aradis," he said, reaching over to the woman closest to him. She was tall, but it didn't seem so next to Bo, who made everyone around him look short. She had a headwrap on and notable piercings dotting over her eyebrows. Mel smiled warmly.

"Because there are now two Mels," she said. "I've been taking my last name on to avoid confusion. But I'll respond to either."

"Do you have a preference?" Eve asked.

"If it doesn't hurt your brain to do so," she said. "I do prefer Mel so long as it's clear you're talking to me. But maybe don't shout it in a group. You'll get two people responding."

Eve nodded. "Names should be respected. I don't think it's fair for you to take on a different name because it's more convenient. But I understand the premise. I'm sure we'll adjust."

Mel smiled.

"I appreciate that," she said.

From there, Bo waved in someone else. It was a man a tad taller than Mel, but they bore a familial resemblance, sharing a similar nose and smile.

"And this is Raj," Bo introduced.

"My brother," Mel said brightly, pulling Raj in for a side-hug. He smiled, though he seemed more reserved than his sister.

"These two are some of the finest Nye-born mages you'll ever meet," Bo said. "Excellent in everything they put their hands to, and some of my dearest friends."

"It's a pleasure to meet you," Eve said with a simple nod of her head.

"Healing mage," Bo said, patting Mel's shoulder. "Earth mage," he said, patting Raj's shoulder. "For future reference. Alright, moving on."

He brought her around to the back of the wagon where Jordan was loading up a crate, heaving it into the back.

"This here is Jordan," Bo introduced with a smile, and Jordan looked from Bo to Eve with a slow-growing , semi-nervous smile.

She could see the flicker of recognition in his eyes. He remembered Eve too. But she wasn't going to be the one to admit to it first.

"Nice to meet you," Eve said, deciding to play dumb since she had no idea how to address their past history together. Not that it really mattered, anyways.

Jordan faltered.

"Ah... hey, yeah," he said. "Good to meet you, uh--"

"Eve," she quickly said.

"Right," he said. "Um. I don't know if you remember this, but--"

Right. Here they go.

"--I think we actually met a few years back. Briefly," he said. "You were with James actually, if I remember right. You guys stayed with the group of mages I was in for a few days."

Eve had to pretend that it was coming back to her, but admittedly, she didn't think she did a great job. She nodded eagerly.

"...Right. Yes, I think I remember now," she said, not knowing what else to say. "It was at the mage camp. Right, I remember."

This was starting to feel embarrassing.

Jordan laughed lightly, and it looked like he shared in the embarrassment. He rubbed behind his neck.

"Small world, I guess," he said. "But it's good to see you're hanging in there."

"More like two worlds," Eve said as a joke.

"Oh, right," Jordan said with another laugh. "Yeah. Still wrapping my head around that one."

"I am too," she said, feeling the conversation hit a dead-end, especially since Bo was still beside them.

Well, she supposed she could circle back to Jordan another time, maybe. Although she didn't know if there was too much to catch up on. Still, Eve was curious on how the others were doing. And maybe a little nostalgic part of her wanted to get some burning questions answered since it was at the mage camp when she and James started to see each other as more than friends.

"Well, uh," Jordan started.

"There's a few more people to meet," Bo finished with a small smile. "You guys can talk more later, though!"

"Right," Eve said with another eager nod. She glanced back at Jordan. "I'll... talk to you later," she said, trying not to sound awkward, but that only made it come out more awkward.

Jordan just nodded as Bo led her around the other side of the wagon.

A woman turned around, her long black ponytail swinging around her head as her vibrant, green eyes brightened upon seeing Eve.

"Oh, hi!" she said, extending a hand to shake. "My name's Clandestine, but people call me Clanny for short."

"Nice to meet you. You can call me Eve," she said as she took her hand and gave it a firm shake.

"That's a really pretty name," she said, pulling away after one shake.

"Thank you. So is Clandestine," Eve said.

"Oh, you think so?" she asked, tilting her head to the side. "I always get funny comments on my name. It's not your usual name kind of name."

Eve offered a small smile. "Maybe I'm a little biased against names that are also words."

Clandestine hummed a small laugh.

"It can make them more memorable, for sure," she said.

"Yeah," a voice piped up behind Clandestine. "Every time someone meets you they learn a new word."

Clandestine turned to look at the brown wolf sitting behind her, hands on her hips.

"Okay, Robin," she said snarkily. "Mr.Know-it-all. Go say hi to Eve yourself, then."

Robin looked up at her, peering out as Clanny stepped to the side, out of his way.

"Hello," he said. "Ever seen a werewolf before?"

"I have not," Eve admitted.

"Well, if I freak you out," he said. "Just know you'll get used to it."

"I don't think I'll be 'freaked out' by your body or its functions, but I appreciate the sentiments," Eve said.

Robin hummed.

"How diplomatic of you," Robin commented.

Eve stared at him, somehow feeling a little prickled by that statement. "Thanks," she said dryly.

"Robin tends to say everything he's thinking," Bo said beside her. "But don't be afraid to challenge him if he steps out of line."

Bo shot Robin a look, one that seemed to have roots in mutual understanding between friends. Robin only huffed through his nose.

"Yeah, yeah," Robin said. "If you get offended don't sit on it. Just tell me. I'm trying to not be a total ass. I'm just still getting used to humans is all."

"Sure. I can do that," Eve said. She was usually one to call someone out in behavior she didn't tolerate, anyways.

"Good. Don't know how else I'm supposed to learn anyways," Robin said, and at that, turned (literal) tail and walked off into the forest.

"Scouting," Bo offered by way of explanation.

"Certainly a role that plays to his strengths," Eve said in return.

"Yeah, he's still learning the whole... reading social cues and being gentle thing," Bo said.

"I think it's admirable that he's honest and open to saying his thoughts. It's easy to filter words and be less sincere," Eve said.

"I like it too," Bo said with a genuine fondness. "I want him to stay that way. There's just a balance, sometimes. Especially when we run into a lot of folk who are hurting. Comes with the nature of rescuing people out of really intense situations."

"Perhaps he may not be suited for those who need comfort rather than the truth, but he possess a skill to comfort those who only want to hear the truth."

"And that's why I need him," Bo said with a small smile.

Eve nodded, taking one final glance at the full group he introduced her to. "It's a well-rounded group," she commented.

"I'd like to think so," he said, patting the side of the wagon as if it were a horse. "Mel, Raj, Robin and I have been working together for years, now. Jordan's a newer recruit, but he's helpful to have around. He's great with the kids and knows how to have fun, and he's grown into a really solid water mage. Clandestine's been with us a little longer, but only hopped into the missions more recently. She's like a little sun-beam. Makes people feel welcome."

Bo waved his hand, like he was dismissing himself.

"Bah," he said. "I could brag about them all day, but I'll let you get to know them more on your own so you can discover what gems they are for yourself. But now you've met and have a place to start."

"Thank you, Bo," Eve said with a grateful nod, but then hesitated.

It was clear that Bo loved his group and had a long history with the others. A question was was gnawing in her head.

"I appreciate your taking the time to introduce me to everyone. It's clear that you have a deep bond with everyone," she said. "But since my group has doubled the size of your travelling group - I want to make sure that there's nothing on our end that could slow the group down. Is there anything that bothers you, or anything that you'd like us to do - even if it doesn't relate to the mission at hand?"

Bo's expression softened, and he glanced back at the others.

"Why don't we go for a walk?" he asked.

This took Eve by surprise since the implication was that there were many things to talk about that it warranted more privacy, but Eve nodded in agreement. "Sure. Lead the way."

Bo waited until they were a few yards out of earshot before speaking.

"I'll be clear about this up front," he said. "We deal with people from all different kinds of backgrounds all the time, every year. We're used to accommodating all sorts of personalities, and having to walk people through different levels of trauma and hurt until we're able to connect them with more resources and get them somewhere more stable and safe. So when I took your group in I understood there were going to be many different dynamics going on, and I understood that some of it we would not fully understand because we don't have the depth of history, trust, and relational equity that you all do with each other. That's also why I leave many things unaddressed and tend to put out the most important fires - the ones that are the most urgent and pressing - while doing the best I can with the rest."

He paused, turning to Eve with a small smile.

"It's a burden we're happy to carry. It would be dishonest to say it isn't one, but we all know what we signed up for, and we chose this for a reason. We like to help people, and we have the capacity for it," he said. "This is not the first time we've had to usher a group of this size - we've often had groups even larger - and we've always made it work and done the best we can. As far as travel speed goes, we're going about as fast as is realistic for a group or size. So I'm not worried about that."

This time, Bo paused just long enough to gauge her reaction. He had been talking for quite some time and likely wanted to make sure she was following.

And Eve was thankful for it, because she had been contemplating interrupting him to ask --

"What are you getting at, Bo?" she asked. "I know this was said to preface your thoughts with context and intentions, but you can tell me what you're really thinking. In this case, I prefer the comfort of honesty."

"I was going to get to that," he said with a small nod. "Like I said, your group isn't slowing us down any more than makes sense, and I don't think we could travel any faster. But as for things that 'bother me'-- though I don't know that I'd use that language -- I've noticed a few things that have concerned me among your friends. But I doubt they'll be worked out with one conversation."

Eve pursed her lips, wondering what these concerns were. She had never had an opportunity to have an outsider looking in to psychoanalyze her friends in a healthy manner. She certaintly had her own thoughts, but Eve was aware that she had her own biases.

"One of the people I'm concerned about is Elias. I can tell he's having a hard time, and even though he's great at keeping it light, there's clearly a lot stewing under the surface. I know he talks with his sister sometimes, but if you or someone else have deeper friendship with him, I think it would benefit him greatly for someone he trusts more to reach out. There's only so much I can do as a very new person in his life," he said.

Eve nodded, and she did her best to listen without letting her own soiled thoughts into the mix. Bo was right, and she knew it too. But this was the first time she heard it so plainly and openly.

"I agree," she said simply. "I'll see what I can do."

"Malkiel's also clearly struggling. I've noticed no one's very close with him, but it seems Hendrik's reached out a little, so that's a start. Hendrik has a tendency to be overbearing in everything he does, so I think it would benefit for someone else to come alongside and help balance that, though I don't know who would be best suited for it," Bo said. "I would volunteer Raj, as he's always been a calming presence and a very good listener, but I don't know enough about Malkiel to know if he'd be open to letting in a stranger. Though, again, I don't know if he's very close with anyone in your group, either. But he's been through hell and back, and anyone who's endured what he has needs support."

"Your intuition would be right that Makiel wouldn't be as friendly to strangers," Eve said. "I can start with someone within my group first. If there's no progress by next week, we can open it up to others. I can let you know."

"That sounds like a good way forward," Bo said with a soft smile. "You don't have to tell me everything, just keep me in the loop with how things are going in general."

"Of course," Eve said. "You also mentioned that Hendrik has a tendency to being overbearing. Is he too much for you and the others? I think the rest of us has grown quite used to it, but let me know if he crosses any lines."

"I know with my group they're all pretty good at setting boundaries," he said. "The only one I'd be concerned about is maybe Jordan or Clandestine, but Hendrik doesn't seem to have taken much interest in them anyways. But if it comes to that, I'll help them when it comes to it. I do wonder if it would be helpful for someone to talk to Hendrik about it, though. I don't think it has to be an immediate conversation, but it would be good to keep in mind especially if it escalates or something comes up. I think Hendrik would be open to hearing that kind of feedback from me, as he seems to respect me as a leader, but if you think it'd be better to hear it from someone else I'd appreciate your perspective."

"Hendrik can be painfully ignorant sometimes, but if someone kindly tells him that what he said was hurtful, he'll come around - especially if it comes from someone he respects. It can be from you or me. I don't think it matters. I think it's safe to say that you can call him out on questionable behavior whenever, and he wouldn't take offense," Eve said.

"Alright," Bo said with a nod. "Noted. I'll bring it up at some point when it feels natural. I want to let the water settle some first with Deidra being around."

"Of course," Eve said, deciding to end it there to see if he would bring up other thoughts about anyone else.

"Alistair's been really withdrawn," Bo said. "He seems to isolate and keep to himself, so I don't know all what's going on with him, but the fact that he's pulling away so much concerns me. It does seem like Clandestine's been connecting with him, some, though. So it's just something I'm keeping my eye on."

"Alistair usually tries to blend into the background, especially with larger groups. I suppose I can keep my eye on him too," Eve said.

"Sounds good," Bo said.

There was a short pause.

"Do you have any other thoughts you wanted to share?" Eve asked, knowing that he hadn't mentioned Mel and Elise yet.

"Mel's taken an interest in Jordan," Bo said. "Not a big concern so much as it's an observation, but she did seem to jump on that pretty quickly. We all haven't known each other for that long, so I was just wondering if that was typical behavior from her or not."


Well, that explained Mel gushing about how handsome Jordan was to her when she gave her a rundown of everyone. Eve squinted out in the distance in front of her, thinking.

"Mel does have a tendency to jump to relationship to relationship," Eve continued. "Most of the time, it seems to be casual and not serious, but I usually don't get myself involved in her affairs. As long as both parties are consenting, I don't see the problem with it. Although, if they don't pan out before we reach King's Peak, that may cause unnecessary tension. I wouldn't want that to interfere the mission in any way."

"I'm not sure there's much we can do about that," Bo said. "But if it comes to that, we'll just have to weather it out. But as a friend, I'd encourage you to be involved in the process and give good advice where you see fit. Jordan doesn't tend to think very far ahead, so I'll keep an eye on him too."

Eve didn't think she'd reach a point in her life where she would be the one to give Mel relationship advice, but she bit that thought back for now.

"Certainly. Thanks for letting me know," Eve said instead.

"Thanks for asking," Bo said. "And let me know if anything comes up that you think I should be aware of or address as well. I'd appreciate it."

"Of course," Eve said, glancing back in the direction of the others. "Thanks for telling me all this. It's not easy to look after so many people, but it's important that everyone stays healthy, physically and mentally."

"Speaking of," Bo said, looking over to her. "Are you hanging in there? I know you've come into a big group of people and you've had to take a lot in the last two days, on top of everything going on with your friends and yourself."

Eve was certaintly not expecting that, but it wasn't surprising since Bo seemed thorough and observant of everyone.

"I'm doing alright," she said, then paused. "...Are you?"

"I'm alright," he said with a small smile. "You probably understand that it can be a lot, sometimes, when you're in a position of leadership. But I don't despise it."

"Yeah. I'm used to it," Eve said, but then furrowed her brows in thought. "Although, to be clear, I'm not really a leader in this group. You are. I just happen to know the others well, and they listen to me. But I'm not in pursuit of any leadership role. As long as we find James, the details don't matter to me."

Bo let out a small laugh through his nose.

"Understood," he said. "Operation 'rescue James' is underway."

"Glad we can work together," Eve said with a small smile, but there was a hidden sincerity behind her words, because she really did mean it.

"Me too," Bo said.

And Eve realized that somehow Bo had timed their walk so at this point, they were walking right back into the midst of the others.

"We'll get moving soon. I'll let you take care of what you need to take care of," Bo said, dismissing her with a small nod as he stepped away.

Eve nodded, walking back to her friends to help them get moving again.

There was a lot to unpack - emotionally, anyways.
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Carina says...

As they walked, Eve had a lot to reflect upon. Bo had given her reasonable assessments of mostly everyone, and she agreed with them, even if she didn't particularly want to get herself involved. She made it abundantly clear that she had no interest in a leadership role, but she still offered to help calm things down in her friend group anyways. That didn't mean she had to be the one to volunteer herself to chat with them, though.

Elias was likely harboring trauma from the military, especially since he hardly talked about it. Makiel was still suffering from the trauma that Tula and the others inflicted upon him - and Eve was sure Deidra's presence didn't help. Alistair was being more withdrawn than usual. Hendrik sometimes crossed boundaries. Mel was... well, apparently pursuing a relationship. Good for her.

Eve formed different maps in her head of possible plans. She could send Mel as a friend to Elias. She could send herself. Or Alistair, or...

This almost felt trivial in comparison to the other troublesome worries that kept swirling in her head. Deidra, who could still be a spy. James, who may not even be getting any of her messages if he were drugged on lumshade, and who may be getting tortured everyday. Tula, not sending her any more messages - which Eve wasn't sure was a good or bad thing. Their dangerous path to King's Peak. Their ever-changing plan.

It was stressful, yes. But Eve could only tackle one problem at a time.

And today, she didn't want to tackle any more problems. She just wanted to eat by herself in peace without any noise.

Evening fell, and the others were eating around the campfire like usual, separated by little groups. This time, Eve decided to dip out so she could eat by herself, although she let know Bo ahead in advance so he didn't have to worry about her. She would be back before dark.

She just... wanted some time to think. By herself. In her own space, to breath, think, and reflect.

Eve even left Elliot behind with the other horses so she could truly be by herself, eating in peace as she watched the set set over the lazy creek in front of her. Just for one evening, she wanted to be absorbed by nature and not be so worried about the constant buzz of stress that circled her head. Just for one evening, she--

Bushes and leaves rustled. A twig was snapped as footsteps crossed over them, drawing closer. Eve whipped her head around to see Elias approaching, peeking out over the trees, scanning around, and then smiling wide when he saw her.

Well. She didn't expect him to join her in what she thought was going to be a peaceful and quiet evening, but...

Bo did say someone had to reach out to Elias, didn't he? It seemed that he was reaching out before Eve could even formulate a plan in her head of who it could be.

"Hey, there you are. Mind if I join?" he asked.

Eve turned back around, picking at her food. "No. Feel free."

Elias happily did, plopping down into the ground and leaning back, getting comfortable. He stared out across the creek, clearly mesmerized.

Eve glanced at him. "Did you already eat?" she asked.

"Yeah," he said. "I eat fast."


"And I thought you'd like some company," he said with a little smile.

Well, he actually thought wrong - but it was nothing against Elias in particular. Eve just liked her space. Still, she appreciated the sentiments.

Eve decided she'd let Elias steer the conversation, as he frequently did. She wordlessly ate, also watching over the creek as Elias threw a pebble in there.

"Hey," he said after a lingering pause, watching the ripples caused be the pebble. "Do you ever think about your parents?"

Eve nearly choked on her food, totally caught off-guard by that random question. She half-expected him to talk about Deidra, Nye, their friends, the mages, or anything random that happened that day. Not their parents, who they hardly even talked about even as children.

Eve shot him an odd look from the random question, but surprisingly, Elias seemed genuinely curious and invested to hear what she had to say.

"You mean my parents who gave the orders to have me killed?" Eve dead-panned, but Elias didn't react or say anything, still waiting to hear the actual answer. She sighed, prying her stare away. "...Yeah. Sometimes," she decided to admit when there was another lingering silence.

Satisfied, Elias threw another rock in the creek, watching it cause ripples across the water again. "Someone once told me that we're a reflection of our parents. Do you think that's true?"

Eve stared blankly at him again. "Elias, I think I told you that."

"Oh... hah. Really? Huh," he said with his hand on his chin as he looked out in thought, stroking the stubble of facial hair he had growing.

Eve nodded. "Yeah. A long time ago. I'm surprised you even remember that."

Elias seemed to be deep in thought, trying really hard to remember when this happened. He then smiled as he again threw another rock in the water.

"Oh, yeah," he said eagerly. "I remember now. I don't even think we were old enough to have magic yet. We met up and you were crying because your mother beat you as punishment for being late, I think."

Eve found herself staring at Elias, not really sure what to think of this conversation. She thought she would feel defensive, but she didn't, really. Not in front of Elias. This just felt... odd. And a little surreal, because she did not expect the conversation to take this turn.

"...Yeah," she said as she threw a rock in the water as well. "That sounds right."

"So you think it's true, then?" he asked.

Eve flicked her eyes over at him. "What is?"

"That we're a reflection of our parents?"

Eve sighed, setting her plate aside. She only ate half of it, but she wasn't hungry anymore.

"It doesn't matter what I think," she said. "Studies say it's likely to be true. We're a product of our environment, after all."

Elias nodded. "So do you think it's true for you, then? That you're like your parents?"

It seemed that Elias was persistent to get a response, although Eve couldn't fathom why. She wasn't sure how to even respond. She didn't want to be like her parents, of course. But maybe she was. Maybe she still looked up to them. How was she supposed to say that to him?

"Well, I don't think it's true," Elias continued on anyways. "Your mom was kind of, uh..." He scrunched his nose. "... scary."

Eve let out an amused puff of air through her nose. "What, I'm not scary enough for you?" she said jokingly, wondering if the lighthearted jab would be enough to steer the conversation to something else, but it didn't seem to work.

"Nah. I feel like you think you are, though. But you're not. You know? It's kind of hard to explain," he said.

Eve continued to stare at him, her brain lagging in trying to piece together what he was saying since she didn't really understand what he meant by that. Elias moved on before she could dwell on that thought for too long.

"And your father is..." he began, trailing off and looking up to the sky as if the final word was up there somewhere.

"Careless?" Eve said to to finish his sentence for him.

Elias nods. "Yeah, that's one way to put it. I was thinking more like... absent."

Eve shrugged. "Sure. You can say that."

"But you're not either of those things, are you? You're not scary or hateful. And you're not absent or uncaring."

...But she was at one point, wasn't she? Many people on Earth thought that. She had strangers she never met before completely despise her for who she was, where she came from, and what she had done. She was villified to be scary and hateful - someone to avoid and to fear. She even recently left her friends not too long ago, abandoning them to be roaming Nye by themselves. Didn't that qualify as absent and uncaring?

Eve almost wanted to laugh from the absurdity and sincerity of his words, but of course, she tried to will herself to take this more seriously, since Elias - for whatever reason - seemed adament to hold this conversation with her.

So she had to ask.

"Elias, what is this about? Why are you asking me this?" Eve asked.

Elias's smile turned sad and wistful, and Eve couldn't help but compare it to Elise any time she smiled with worry. For a moment there, their resemblance was more uncanny than usual.

"Sorry. I was just thinking out loud," Elias said. "I asked because I was thinking about being a better parent, and then I started to think about what that means. So I started to think about other people's parents." He paused. "But. Uh. I'm not going to use your parents for inspiration. No offense."

So that was what this was about. The tension wafted out of her body as Eve allowed herself to relax.

"That's fine. I'd be more offended if you did," she said with a sigh.

Elias offered another smile, but then a silence fell over them again.

A looming curiosity fell over Eve as she continued to steal glances at Elias, wondering what prompted him to be so introspective on this subject. He must be thinking about Finnley and how to better care for him.

Eve decided to prod, albeit slowly.

"You mentioned other people's parents. Who comes to mind?" she asked.

Elias hummed, squinting up at the sky in thought. "Well, considering I haven't really gotten to know any parents for basically a decade now, not many come to mind, really. But... Alistair's mom was very nice. And Mel's dads too."

Eve nodded. "Yeah. I agree," she said, but continued on when another silence fell between them, mostly because Elias seemed lost in his own thoughts now. She cleared her throat. "In some way, I think Natalie was more of a mother than my mother ever was. She really did care for me like I was her own daughter. I've always envied Alistair for that."

"That's funny, because I felt the same way about Mel's dads," Elias said with an amused smile. "I've always been a little jealous of Mel for having two dads when I didn't even have one. And they were so cool, too. Dr. Bennett was nice and all, but wouldn't it have been neat if they adopted me and Elise, too?"

It was a little strange to be having this conversation. Throughout their younger years, neither of them really talked about family. It was a bit of an unspoken rule, but it seemed silly now to view it that way.

"So I take it that Bennett wasn't much of a fatherly role model to you, then," she said.

"Nah. Not really. He gave us a place to stay, but he always seemed so stiff, you know? And I always felt bad that I kept pulling him out of his work since I was always getting in trouble." Elias paused. "I wonder if he has kids now, though? If so, they'd probably have the biggest eyebrows, just like him."

"But you had Elise," Eve continued, reeling back him back in. "You still do. She did a great job looking after you."

"Yeah... I don't know how she did it. I'd be frustrated taking care of a younger me."

"Well, if it's parental inspiration you are looking for, then Elise is a well of knowledge. I'm sure she'd be happy to pass on her wisdom considering Finnley will probably be just as terrorizing as you," Eve said.

Elias smirked, but it quickly faded as he threw another rock in the creek, watching as the weight made a loud plop in the water. He huffed in triumph, leaning back as if he could now relax after this achievement.

"Yeah... Yeah, you're right," he said, not saying much more.

So Eve decided to prod some more.

"What about your biological parents, then? Do you remember them?" she asked.

"Oh, yeah. They were the first to come to mind. Whole reflection thing and all, right? They didn't really raise me, but maybe they passed on a little of themselves to me."

Eve was about to ask him what they were like, but Elias continued on before she could.

"I actually don't really remember much, but Elise says they're warm, loving, and protective," he said. "Sounds familiar, huh?"

It was clear now that Elias viewed Elise as being warm, loving, and protective - the traits he considered to be a good parent - but Elias doesn't view the same about himself.

There was another lingering pause.

"So? What do you think? Are you a reflection of your parents? Or at least, Elise?" Eve asked.

Elias began to gave it some thought, but Eve continued on to answer for him.

"I think yes, but also no," she said. "Yes, because you're just as loyal and caring as your sister. But also no because she's not as boneheaded as you are."

Elias grinned, staring at her before chuckling and shaking his head. "Very true. You know how many concussions I healed myself from? My skull is practically made out of steel."

That felt like a segue into a whole other conversation, but remembering Bo's suggestion, she decided to tread more carefully this time.

"...Right," she said. "How many did you get?"

"Oh, I don't know." He squinted ahead, thinking. "Really... I can't even remember most of them. Must be a side effect of concussions, huh?"

"That doesn't sound very pleasant," Eve commented.

Elias shrugged. "Eh. It was fine. I've endured worse."

Eve watched him for a moment. "Just because you've endured worse doesn't make your current troubles any less painful. They are still valid with any degree of anguish."

"Right, yeah," Elias said, but Eve continued on before he could say much more or fully process her words.

"And with anguish comes a building pressure. It can swell inside of you unless there's an outlet. If there isn't one, the pressure would build and build until you allow it to take control of who you are. But... I'm sure you know this already."

Elias stared at her, confused. "Are... uh. Are we still talking about concussions?" he asked.

Eve pulled back her lips as she felt the embarrassment pool in her cheeks, although she didn't really know why.

"No. I mean, yes. I mean..." She sighed. "Never mind."

"Well, I totally agree with you," Elias said with a nod. "Concussion pains could definitely take over your head and make you act all different, especially when you get all grumpy from the headaches."

Eve stared at him with a dead expression, wondering if he was going to admit that he was joking the whole time, but it appeared that her comments truly went over his head. Or maybe he just didn't want to think about serious topics. Either option was on par with Elias.

Eve decided to let it go, about to resume to eating her food and letting Elias steer the conversation to whatever his heart wanted.

And he did. But not in a direction that she expected.

"If this was your way of getting me to talk about my own troubles... you can always ask me, you know," Elias said with a surprising gentleness. "You don't have to talk in code or skirt around conversations. I try to be an open book."

Eve turned back to face him, studying him. "If you are truly an open book, wouldn't you have already talked about this with the others?"

Elias smiled sadly again. "A book has to be read, doesn't it? It can't speak for the reader." A pause. "Whoa, that was so insightful. I feel like a poet."

"I think you might be giving yourself too much credit," Eve said, then realized too late that Elias might have thought she was referencing the poet part. "About -- about the open book thing," she quickly corrected. "You say you'd talk about anything, but you mask the heaviness of a conversation with humor and apathy. Is that truly having an open, honest conversation?"

Elias blinked as he tried to process her words. "Uhhh..." he drew out, at a loss for words.

Clearly, he had never thought about this before. Eve decided to let him try to squirm his way out of this one, patiently waiting for his response.

"Well when you put it that way..." he continued with a nervous laugh, flitting his eyes between her and the water. He was squirming under her stare and the ensuing silence.

"Okay, what else is on your mind? This silence is killing me," he finished with a smile, trying to pass the subject.

He was doing it again. Masking and redirecting a heavy conversation with humor and apathy.

"Nothing, really," Eve said, which was a bit of a lie, but she wanted to use the situation to her advantage. "Just reading a book."

"Well. Maybe you can skip ahead, then. You know, get to a chapter that isn't so boring and long," Elias said with a wider smile.

And again. He was doing it again. Claiming to be an open book, yet making jokes and comments away from himself when she wasn't explicitly calling himself out.

Maybe that was what he needed, then. Honesty and truth instead of comfort. Everyone had been giving him comfort.

There were many questions Eve could ask him. Obvious ones. But she also heard some of his thoughts when she was in a coma and he was speaking to James. And clearly, Elias walked into this conversation already with a topic in mind. This topic was one he was genuinely wanting answers for, yet was still sensitive enough to openly talk about it.

She decided to just ask.

"Elias. Do you have doubts about being a father?" Eve asked, watching him carefully.

Elias faltered, his grin immediately fading. "Uh, wow, okay. Not what I was expecting."

"You did say you were an open book," Eve murmured.

"I don't know how you always manage to throw my own words back in my face," he grumbled.

Eve stared at him, still patiently waiting for his response.

"Okay, okay," Elias finally said with a little laugh, giving in as he playfully shoved her. "Sheesh. For being so stubborn, you can be so pushy sometimes."

There was another silence, but Eve continued to wait.

"Yeah," he said with a big sigh. "Yeah, I have doubts. I didn't really ask for any of this, so... I guess I'm feeling a little..."

"Trapped?" Eve guessed when he trailed off.

"Overwhelmed," Elias said instead. "I don't think I'm a good father at all. How could I be, after all I've done?" He ran his hand through his hair, sounding more and more panicked. "I thought this could maybe be a new beginning. But now I'm beginning to realize the full weight of being a parent. I know it's a commitment, but I didn't know how big of a commitment it was until it's too late. I really don't think I'm cut out for this."

Eve paused, reflecting to consider the circumstances. There was an unspoken assumption about Finnley and Elias, namely on who the mother was. Eve already had a feeling she knew the answer, but she knew that productive conversation with Elias needed to be more explicit.

"Elias, did you want to be a father? Or did you...?"

Eve trailed off, watching Elias.

"I mean, he wasn't an accident, if that's what you're asking," Elias said with an amused smile.

"Or did you not have a choice in the matter?" Eve quickly finished, still watching him.

Elias faltered again, his smile turning sad as he met her eyes. It wasn't a smile Elise wore, because this seemed to be out of pain.

"What do you think?" he said instead.

Eve looked away, furrowing her brows as she let the heaviness of the conversation settle not just for Elias, but for herself as well.

"I think that is a big commitment. I'm overwhelmed just thinking about it with you," she said.

"Yeah," he said with a defeated sigh. "Can't really back out now, though." He paused. "In a way, it almost feels like... a punishment. He's alive and doing well, but because of that, I now have to take care of him. Is that bad to say? I don't know if I'm the best father for him."

"Why don't you think you're the best father for him?" she asked.

"I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but... when we first came to Nye, I was sad that Finn wasn't here, of course. But a part of me was almost... relieved. Because now it was out of my control. I was devastated less because I couldn't see him anymore, and more because I was worried he may not have a constant parental figure in his life. And when I saw him again here, on Nye... I was happy. I really was. But then I saw how the others treated him. Jordan, Dinny, Bo, and all the other mages. And, well..."

He weakly laughed, scratching the back of his head.

"They're doing a really good job at taking care of him. Like really, really good. It was Bo's idea in the first place to send him somewhere safer. And it wasn't even my first instinct to go along and follow too."

Elias sighed, his voice growing quieter.

"I don't know. How am I supposed to compare against them? I know this isn't a competition, but I still want Finn to have the best childhood. He deserves that. That's why my parents sent me and Elise away. They thought the same thing, and I'm grateful for that, but..." He paused. "I just don't think he'd have the best childhood with me. I don't even know what's happening half the time."

Eve listened intently, taking it every word. She took a deep breath after he finished.

"You said you envied Mel for having two fathers, right?" she said.

"Well, yeah. They were so fun. And warm," he said.

"Who's to say that Finnley can't have two fatherly figures as well? Or many fatherly and motherly figures?" Eve said, offering a smile as she tried to meet his eyes, even though he was pondering his eyes over the creek. "You're not alone, Elias. It's okay to let others guide him as well."

"Yeah, but wouldn't it be better if I did most of the guiding? You were glad that Natalie was there for you, but weren't you a little jealous because you wished she was your mother? I wouldn't want Finn to feel the same about me... especially since I'm actually trying."

"Let me ask you this. Are you trying to be a better father?" Eve asked.

"Of course," Elias said with a nod. "I'm trying to be, anyways."

"Then that already makes you a good father. You're present, and you care. To be an even better father is simply a growth in knowledge. It's right in front of you - you just have to ask Elise and any other person you think would be a good guide, like Bo and Jordan. You lack the confidence to ask, but I want you to know that it's all in your head. You're a way better father and person than you think you are."

Elias finally tore his gaze away from the creek to meet her eyes, hopefully sensing the sincerity in her voice. He softly smiled in return.

"You didn't include yourself in that list... so... I take it you don't any wise parental advice to give me?" he asked, his smile growing.

"Yeah, no," Eve said flatly. "Sorry to disappoint."

Elias hummed. "Maybe I'll ask James someday."

Eve could sense that the conversation would turn to her and James, but frankly, she didn't want to have that conversation with him. Not yet. Not when she was trying to talk about him and his own life, which was much more pressing anyways.

"I know this wasn't easy to talk about," she replied before his mind could wander off too far. "Thank you for telling me this. It's good that you're not keeping this all to yourself."

"Yeah... of course," he said quietly.

There was another pause as he turned back to Eve with the soft smile again.

"You're really easy to talk to, you know that?" he said.

Eve was, frankly, dumbfounded by the statement. No one had ever told her that. If anything, it was always the opposite.

"Uh..." she stammered. She had no idea what to say.

"I'm glad I can talk to you again," Elias said with a growing smile.

There was some mixed feelings, but Eve had already made peace with Elias. At least that was what she told herself. Regardless, her next words didn't feel like a lie.

"Yeah," she said quietly. "Me too."
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