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Fate's Hand

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Fri Mar 10, 2023 5:58 am
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Carina says...

16th of Sil

Although Elias had been making a conscious effort to reconnect with Eve, he had been trying to get to know everyone. He noticed that everyone else from Earth tended to stick to little friend groups, but he wasn't really confined to any person or group. He didn't think that was a bad thing, though. Honestly, Elias didn't mind getting to know everyone better.

The exception was with Deidra, of course. For the past two days, Elias noticed that she had been zipping around busy with random tasks that he had no clue were so urgent, because she was always fetching water, gathering firewood, repairing things as needed, and tending to the horses.

Deidra had this weird expression where it was like she was at a life-or-death situation. She had to fetch the water, or else. It was kind of weird, but Elias decided to not bother her during the day since she was so preoccupied.

During breaks and nights, Elias noticed that Deidra mostly socialized with Robin and Raj. Or maybe it was the other way around. He figured that Bo told them to keep an eye on her since everyone was still wary of her, but they also seemed interested in talking to her.

Although Mel, Alistair, and Hendrik hesitantly agreed to give her a second chance, there was still some hesitation. Elias could tell from the way they looked at her and talked about her. They probably felt like it was an obligation to take her in.

Elise was more welcoming, although she hadn't tried to speak with Deidra yet - maybe because she didn't want to stir anything up with the others and would prefer that they make contact first. Still, Elias knew that Elise actually spent time with Deidra and Tula. He wondered why she was so fast to come around, but he had a feeling she had a soft spot for people of her background since Elias wasn't much different.

Eve and Makiel seemed more neutral about Deidra, but maybe that was putting it lightly. If they had it their way, Elias knew that Deidra wouldn't even be here. But he was glad that they didn't try to fight this one, because - like Elise - Elias genuinely believed that Deidra deserved a second chance.

Besides, if anyone here were to understand how she grew up, it was Elias. He didn't even know her, but he felt a sort of pride when she admitted that she began to think for herself.

It was night again, and everyone got their food and went off into their little groups again. Elias noticed that Eve slipped out by herself to be away from the others again, and a part of him wanted to accompany her once more, but a last second moment of clarity washed over him when he realized that maybe she just needed some space alone since she was probably overwhelmed by the whole week.

Elias glanced over at Deidra again. Robin and Raj were accompanying both of her sides, making light conversation.

Elias had been meaning to talk to Deidra... and well, he could talk to Robin and Raj as well. He hadn't heard from them for a while.

Without giving it another thought, Elias walked over with a smile and a weak wave.

"Hey," he said as he nudged his head over to the open seat next to Raj. "Mind if I join you guys?"

Raj waved for him to come sit. Elias happily obliged.

"Hey, Elias," Robin started. "If I started calling Hendrik baby man, how long do you think it'd take for him to escalate to a murder attempt?"

"Robin has a very strong desire to test the limits of people's patience," Raj added with a small sigh.

Elias snickered. "I think that'd be a great way to get him to snap in two seconds, yeah."

"Hmm," Robin nodded. "I'll keep that in mind."

Elias peered over Raj and Deidra to curiosily eye Robin. "Why do you want to test his limits, anyways?"

"Why do you make jokes?" Robin asked.

"Uh... 'cause they're funny?" Elias said.

"Exactly," Robin said.

Elias hummed, stroking his chin. "I don't think Hendrik finds that funny, though."

"You don't think so?" Robin asked.

"Yeah, but he definitely finds jokes Mel's pranks funny. You should work together with her next time," Elias said with a growing grin.

"I'll consider it," Robin said.

Elias's eyes naturally fell to Deidra, who seemed stiff between Robin and Raj.

"What do you think, Deidra?" Elias asks. "What's your favorite type of humor?"

Deidra blinked, and then looked at him almost as if she were shocked he'd spoken to her in the first place.

"Oh," she said quietly. "I, uh. I don't know, really. I haven't really thought about it."

"Whaaaaat?" Elias drew out quietly, surprised.

It sounded like she didn't even know what made her laugh. That couldn't be true, could it? No way that could be true.

"What makes you smile or laugh, then?" he asked instead.

Deidra hesitated.

"Uh..." Deidra started, but didn't finish as she stared down into her lap, looking conflicted.

Elias tried to wait for her to finish, but the silence was killing him inside. This wasn't supposed to be a hard question.

"What about, you know... the last time you smiled or laughed? Surely you remember that... right?" Elias asked, forcing a little laugh himself.

The embarassed look on Deidra's face seemed to speak for itself.

"It's been a long time," she said, scratching the back of her neck.

Elias didn't want to pick on her for something so trivial, so he turned his attention back to Robin and Raj.

"What about you guys? When's the last time you laughed, and what happened?" Elias asked.

Maybe stories could help Deidra loosen up a bit... or remember.

"I laughed at the whole beard shaving prank," Robin said, looking to Deidra. "Basically Mel used her magic to trick Hendrik into thinking that she'd shaved his face in his sleep, and he was so upset for like, a minute, until he touched his face and realized his beard was still intact. But his reaction was priceless."

"I don't really laugh at others' distress," Robin said with a little smirk. "I tend to laugh more at the quick-witted comments, so long as they're not cutting in a cruel way. Bo makes a lot of puns now and again. I enjoy those too, but I can't say I laugh at them so much."

"Bo's puns are hilarious," Elias said with a wide smile. "How does he think of so many on the spot?"

"I think he just does it so often that it comes naturally," Raj said. "Anything that's practiced comes easier."

"So... what you're saying is that his puns are a muscle. And he works out often," Elias deduced.

Raj huffed a small laugh and smiled.

"Sure," he said. "Yeah."

"He does that too," Robin said dryly.

"I know what we should do," Elias said confidently, turning his attention back to Deidra. "We could help you work out, too." He paused. "Uh. Humor-wise, not actual muscles. I don't think you need help with that."

Deidra looked at him blankly for a moment before she smiled ever so slightly.

"What, you want me to try to make... jokes?" she asked. "I don't think I'm very funny."

"We'll build confidence, not jokes. That's the first step," Elias said. "Maybe you could hang out with funny people, like Bo. I'm sure you'll be smiling in no time."

Deidra looked down shyly, nodding.

"Okay," she said. "Sounds... good."

Elias found his smile waning. Something about the tone of her voice felt strangely familiar. Like she had more to say, but it was easier to follow orders and comply.

"So, um," he went on, changing the subject. "How's your new life so far?"

She blinked again.

"Uh... it's fine," she said. "I'm adjusting."

There was a split second pause.

"You?" she blurted awkwardly.

"Adjusting, yeah, that's a good word," Elias said with a nod. "I think life's here pretty good so far. I know we're not exactly living normal lives, but it feels like I'm flying under the radar in comparison to life on Earth. It's kinda nice. And also nice to not have to worry about bad guys coming after me or my friends."

He paused and realized that maybe that was kind of offensive.

"No offense, sorry. That was a blanket statement, not aimed at you or anyone in particular here," he added on.

Deidra nodded and was quiet for a moment.

"It's... fine. I think I'm still getting used to not being under orders anymore," she said faintly. "Oliver's... orders."

Elias nodded. "I can't believe you got orders from the big guy. Or... small guy, since he's not like, the supreme ruler or whatever. Is he as socially awkward as people say he is?"

Deidra smiled faintly, but it seemed like she was quick to suppress it.

"Yeah," she said. "Though it's hard to tell if its an act, sometimes. It works well for him, though. People... underestimate him a lot."

"Yeah... clearly," Elias said. "Did you go to military school?"

Deidra nodded.

"You did too, right?" Deidra asked.

Elias shook his head. "No, I was a late straggler. I went straight to a base at eighteen. Which one were you at?"

"Palatine," Deidra answered.

"Oh, no way. I was there too," Elias said. "We went to the same base? Huh. Makes sense though... there's a lot of people with your magic there."

"How did you get out?" Deidra asked. "It's..."

She looked to Robin and Raj, who were both quietly listening.

"It's hard to get out," she said by way of explanation. "You can't just quit."

"Yeah... yeah, that's right," Elias said with a nod, starting to piece together the story that Elise told him. Frankly, he was so out of it, he still didn't really understand. "It was mostly my sister. Elise. It's been her plan for years to get me out. She had this whole network of doctors. There's a doctor on the base she was close friends with, and he helped smuggle me out, along with others. I feel bad for the guy now. I hope he's okay."

Deidra nodded slowly.

"Me too," she said. "For his sake."

Elias nodded as well, already forming another question to ask her. They apparently shared more history in common that he thought.

"So. What's military school like?" he asked.

"Well, it's uh, very strict," Deidra said. "You don't get a lot of freedom or free time, and all your time is scheduled out. You learn the same things you would in a normal school but there's a heavier focus on refining your powers--er, magic. You train day in, day out, every day until you're 18. It's hard work but you come out of it an expert at using your magic."

"That sounds terrible and insanely intense. Did anyone have a normal childhood?" Elias asked with a faint laugh.

"I don't think so," Deidra said. "Though I'm not sure what's considered normal."

"Like, you know. Not have to listen to orders every second of the day. Having freedom, friends, and many laughs. I think it's normal to run around as a kid because it's fun, not because some sergeant is telling you to run some laps. You know?" Elias said.

"Hm," Deidra said. "I guess I didn't have that, then."

It was kind of a depressing thought, but Elias knew Deidra didn't need to hear that.

"I think it's nice that you're self-aware of your background now though," he said. "I gave up talking to anyone on the base. Everyone seemed so cruel. You're not, though. It's too bad that we didn't connect earlier."

"I guess we just have the present, then," Deidra said.

"Wise," Elias said with a smile. He glanced at the others and noticed that Robin must have left sometime during their conversation, but Raj seemed to be comfortable listening along.

"Thanks for, uh," Deidra started. "Talking... to me. After everything."

Elias knew what she meant. The last time he saw her, she was following orders from Tula to break Eve's limbs to taunt James. Although, he couldn't say he remembered much of that since he was surrounded with soldiers, bleeding out from a bullet wound.

Huh. That happened, didn't it.

"Yeah, of course," he said with a growing smile. "I believe in second chances. I can also understand what you've been through, which helps, I think. But even if we didn't share a similar background, I think everyone deserves forgiveness if they're being sincere, don't you think?"

"I'd like to think so," she said.

"Was it hard? To come around and be sincere, after everything you've been through?" Elias asked.

A small, somber silence.

"Yes," Deidra said, looking down into her lap.

"How did you get the courage to change?" Elias asked, curious.

"It was... James, mostly," she said. "I don't know how he-- being captured and all, still... tried to see some good in me. I don't understand it."

"Ah... you've never had anyone believe in you before?"

"Not like that," Deidra said. "Everyone's always wanted to use me. But he... I mean, he didn't even ask me to help him escape. Another woman did because she couldn't do it herself but... he told me to go anyway. Even when he couldn't make it himself."

Elias tried to follow along, but he was a bit hung up on who this other woman was. Not Tula, right? Maybe a bounty hunter.

It didn't matter. Point was, Deidra was inspired by selfless acts. It was a nice feel-good story.

"Well... you're going to help us save James, right? I think he'd be proud to see how you turned around," he said.

Deidra looked down, seeming somber.

"I don't know about proud," she said quietly. "After everything I did to him... but I guess we'll see."

"You already seem to be a whole new person and it didn't take long for you to come around. I think that's something to be proud of, at least," Elias said.

Deidra nodded, but there was an awkward pause that followed after.

"Was it hard for you... after you left?" Deidra asked quietly.

Elias was about to ask her what she meant by that, but then he realized that the two of them were alone. Raj must've dipped out while they were talking. He didn't mean to take over their conversation, but at the same time, it was nice to openly talk to Deidra about this since she could better understand the context.

"Hmmmm. Well... hard, yeah. But not really in the way that you'd think," he said after thinking about it for a second. "I didn't need to adjust to a new life like you are now, because I don't think I ever really fit the military stereotype. But it was hard in the sense that it was kind of... overwhelming. Like it didn't feel real. I think I bawled for days because I was so worried that all of this would be taken away so quick. Wouldn't that be cruel? Thankfully nothing like that happened. So yeah. Life has been pretty good to me so far now, I think."

Deidra hummed.

"I keep worrying that it'll be taken away," she said quietly. "Or that somehow Oliver or his parents will find us here."

"Are you scared of them?" Elias asked.

A beat of silence.

"Of course I am," Deidra said. "Aren't you?"

Elias leaned forward so that his elbows were resting on his knees. He squinted ahead, trying to rack his brain for any possible reason to be scared of them. He should be, but he'd be lying if he said he was.

"Not really. Is that weird?" he said.

"...A little," Deidra said. "I would think you should be scared. Realistically."

Elias hummed, slowly sitting up straight again. "I think I was, at one point. Probably. But I guess I..." He weakly laughed. "Stopped caring."

"Ah..." was all Deidra said as she looked out into the forest, lips pressed into a thin line.

"I think it's totally fair to be scared of them, though. They held a lot of power over you and others. That's pretty scary."

"And they could undo time," Deidra said.

"So could Eve. Are you scared of her?" Elias countered.

Deidra swallowed and looked down.

"...Yes," she said.

"Hmmm," Elias drew out, stroking his chin again. "I guess that's not an uncommon thing to think if you don't know her. But I'm not scared of her either. Maybe time travelers just don't scare me?"

"I think that's just you, Elias," Deidra said.

Elias smiled. "Yeah. Maybe. I don't think I'm scared of many people anymore. Is that weird?"

"...maybe you should be a little more afraid of some people," Deidra said. "Some fear is good. It keeps you from being too reckless."

"Well, who told you that? The military?" Elias asked with a raised brow.

Deidra went quiet again.

"...Yyyyes," she said slowly.

It was a little funny to have this moment now. Elias had always dreamed of telling someone else in the military that their fundamentals were flawed, but he never did get the chance to have an open conversation. Until now.

"Don't you think they tell you that so you listen and obey orders?" he asked gently. "I'm not saying that we should have no fear. I have some fear, but personally I'm not afraid of people giving orders anymore. I think I've wasted too much of my time listening without question. I don't know, I guess all I'm saying is that you don't need to fear and blindly follow people with authority. At the end of the day, they're human too - just like you and I. And they're likely scared too."

Deidra's brows were pinched together like she was in deep thought, letting his words sink in.

"You know..." she said. "Oliver did seem really scared after James and Eve escaped the first time. So did his parents."

"Oh, you have to tell me how it all went down after they escaped," Elias said with a little laugh. "I heard it from James's perspective, but time got unpaused after he escaped, so he never knew their reactions outside of, you know, Tula going crazy when you found us six months later."

"Well... everyone was really freaked out," Deidra said. "I know now that what they did was they froze time, but it seemed, at the moment, that even those with time powers in the room didn't know what was going on. Ovrell practically threw a fit in rage, Oliver seemed stunned in silence, and Alina seemed so angry she just left and told Ovrell and Oliver to fix it. I had been... celebrating with Katya and Tula, but what it felt like for us was that we were toasting drinks, then something felt off, and before we knew it, we were being yelled at and were told to find them immediately."

"That's crazy. Did they ever figure out how they escaped, you think?" he asked.

Deidra frowned.

"I don't think so," she said. "I think that was part of what they wanted us to find out... before... you know. They didn't say that, but they didn't say they understood what happened either."

"What would they even do with all of this information, anyways? I didn't really understand why they were so interested in James," Elias said.

Deidra looked up at Elias.

"Really?" she asked.

Elias shifted his eyes between Deidra and the camp. "What, am I missing something?"

"I just... I don't know, I thought... it was kind of obvious," she said faintly. "He's a time mage, sure, but he's from a different world. A world where the magic is far more powerful than it is on Earth. Ovrell and Alina wanted to find a way to use James to get a hold of that."

"Well that's an ominous thought. Imagine that they really did come here with us. What would they even do? Magically find a dragon?" Elias said.

"I don't know," she said. "They seemed interested in dragons because of their power. But I think they were counting on James being some kind of guide or... liaison. The connection between the two worlds, I guess. I don't know how that would work out. It wasn't my job to know."

Elias hummed. "Do you think there's a way to travel back and forth between worlds? If so, would you ever go back?"

"I don't even know how I got here," Deidra said. "But if there was a way to go back, I don't think I would. The only thing waiting for me there would be Ovrell and Alina and Oliver, and I wouldn't want to return to them without James... and Tula."

Elias nodded. "So you're still friends with Tula?"

Deidra looked down into her lap again.

"I don't know. She hasn't talked to me since I left. She reached out once and then never spoke to me again," Deidra said. "She hasn't even tried looking through my eyes."

"Is she upset that you left?" Elias asked.

"Yes," Deidra said. "She's... I've never heard her sound so hurt before. And I know when she's acting or not."

Elias was quiet for a moment.

"Maybe she misses you," he said.

"I know she does," Deidra said quietly. "I miss her too."

"If she does look through your eyes again..." Elias began as he faced her with curiosity. "What would you say?"

Deidra sighed and looked out into the forest, quiet for a few seconds as she appeared to be thinking through her answer.

"I'd tell her I miss her," she said. "And I'd ask her to... to try to find a way out, I think. I don't think she's caught on, yet, but I think Rita is using her, and I don't think she can be trusted. She reminds me of the kind of person you'd run into in the Gaea. They have silver tongues but the moment they're done with you they throw you out. I just don't want to see that happen to Tula. I don't think she'd know what to do with herself. Especially without me there."

Elias nodded slowly, trying to take in every word. She sounded sincere and confident in her answer.

"You're a good friend, Deidra. I think you can help Tula come around," he said.

"I... I hope so," Deidra said. "I just know... she's probably blaming James for everything. I don't know. Ever since we got here, I think she's been... blaming him for everything that's gone wrong, even the stuff that has nothing to do with him."

"Has she always had that behavior when things go wrong?" Elias asked.

"Yeah... she has a tendency to pick a scapegoat and then everything becomes their fault," she said. "She did that all the way back in school when we were kids, too."

"Have you ever talked about this with her? Or, you know, about any other stuff that's bad that she doesn't know about?"

Deidra swallowed.

"I... never really thought to bring it up," she said. "She'd always kind of been... my superior."

A pause.

"Well, she acted like my superior, even if we were partners," she said. "Tula was the one who got the job to work directly under Ovrell and Oliver. She gets to pick who she wants as her partner on the job to be more of the... brawn, as needed. And she always picked me."

"But she always picked you because you're her friend too, right? So she must value your opinion. She seems to also respect your decision to leave, so... I think that counts for something," Elias said.

"I guess it does," Deidra agreed.

"You were inspired to change by selfless acts from James and others. So maybe Tula could use the same treatment. And if that comes from a friend... well, friends are the best people to bring change for others," Elias said with a smile. "I'm sure we'll run into her again. You'll have another opportunity to see her again. You'll see."

Deidra looked encouraged, but the brightness in her eyes only lasted a moment.

"It's likely we'll only see her again in the context of confrontation," she said seriously.

"Right. But by then, you'd be a master of funny jokes. And you'll not only reason with her, but make her laugh. Crisis avoided," Elias said, still with the lingering smile.

"Ha," Deidra said without a smile. "If only life worked that way."

"I think it's better to imagine positive outcomes rather than anything that could go wrong. It's something to shoot for, you know? I don't think it's unrealistic to think that Tula could be convinced to change her way of thinking, especially if you can guide her."

"I... I suppose I can try," Deidra said. "Yeah. I can try."

"To guide her or say a funny joke?" Elias said with a growing grin.

"...Both," Deidra said stiffly.

Elias beamed. "I look forward to it."
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Carina says...

17th of Sil

Elise was helping out as needed during their travel breaks, as usual. The tasks could be fairly monotonous at times, especially since they repeated most days - but she didn't mind. She knew what she signed up for and was more than happy to help any way possible.

It was also nice that everyone was self-sufficient, for the most part. For the past several years, she didn't often have a lot of free time for leisure - but when traveling with friends, even for a specific mission and goal in mind - it did feel a bit like leisure, especially when she was with others she could easily connect with. Mel was also a doctor, and initially that was what connected them, but Elise enjoyed her company as she sensed a new friendship blossoming between them.

Bo had stepped out during the break, so Mel stepped in to fill the natural leadership role. Elise happily followed any suggestions she made, including fetching Bo since he wandered off to get some fresh air by himself. She figured alone time was a rarity for him, so she thought nothing of it when he excused himself.

They did need to get moving again though, so Elise walked towards his direction, trying to find him.

"Bo?" she called as she slipped between some trees. "Are you here?"

Elise stepped into an open clearing, and it wasn't hard to find him after that. He was sitting under a big willow tree, peacefully leaning back against the tree trunk with his eye closed. He looked to be asleep.

Elise walked closer, purposely trying to make as much noise as possible with every step she took, hoping the sounds would waken him so she didn't need to further bother him.

"I see you've found me," Bo said without moving or opening his eye.

Intrigued, Elise stood a few feet away, now silent. She wondered if she knew it was she who approached, or if he thought she was someone else.

"You can sit with me, if you want, Elise," Bo said. It wasn't until after he said her name that he looked up at her.

With a smile, she nodded and gingerly sat next to him. "How did you know it was me?" she asked.

"Your gait," he said. "The pattern of your footfalls before you started stomping to wake me."

"I'd ask how your nap went, but I see you've instead used this time to enhance your observation skills," Elise said with a playful smile.

"Naps can do that for you," Bo said with a smirk. "They enhance a lot of things."

"Well... I hope you had enough time to nap, then - because I have orders to bring you back to the camp so we can get moving again."

Bo nodded slowly, but didn't move to leave. Instead, he only looked out from beneath the willow's softly swinging branches.

"Ah, yes," he said. "That is important."

Elise waited to see if he would stand so they could begin to go back, but Bo seemed content to sit and watch the leaves sway in the breeze.

"Breaks are also important. I suppose letting you have a few extra minutes of peace wouldn't hurt anyone," she said.

"I suppose not," Bo said in calm agreement.

Wordlessly, they both watched the peace brought by the willow tree, letting the sounds of the leaves and wind fill the air between them.

"Do you like critters?" Bo asked after a short time passed.

That stole Elise's attention. "As in, squirrels, rabbits, and other small common animals?" she asked, intrigued by the random question.

"They don't have to be common, but I suppose critters are defined as small," Bo said.

"I don't have much of an opinion of them. I think some are more cute than others, I suppose. Why do you ask?"

"No real reason. I saw a birds' nest on the walk here and a small rabbit. It was just on my mind. You learn to appreciate the little things in nature the more you have to travel in it," Bo said. "Of course, I miss having running water, but that's not a necessity."

"What do you consider to be necessities?" Elias asked.

"Food, water, and safety first," he said. "Depending on the weather, shelter and/or warmth. Also family, friends, or at least a friendly acquaintance."

Elise hummed. "Even though it checks all the boxes, do you think the way we're living now is sustainable?"

"Oh, not long-term by any means," Bo said. "I realize I haven't told any of you explicitly, but after this is all over - if everything goes well - I'll be taking all of you back to somewhere a lot more stable. We won't be on the road forever. Or at least, you guys won't be."

"But you always will, won't you? There's always mages to save," Elise said.

"Yeah," Bo said with a small sigh. "At least, until something changes. Until then, we'll keep rescuing."

"And do you think that is sustainable?" Elise asked. "I'm not downplaying any of your intentions or acts. I just want you to know that everyone needs a break too. It seems you always think of other people more than yourself."

"You're much the same in that way," Bo said, looking to her with a grin.

Smiling, Elise laughed through her nose. "I think it's more nuanced than that," she said. "I do worry about other people too... but for the most part, my circle of concern tends to fall to people I know. I admit a lot of it is centered around Elias. But if I widen the circle like you have... if I worry about people all around the world - many of whom I've never even met - I think I would be overwhelmed by the pressure."

"It can be a lot, sometimes, sure," Bo said softly. "But I don't carry it alone. I have a whole team, and many other friends out there who are helping carry the weight of it as well. And I know that I can't save everyone. It's just how it is. I can't change the world, but I can change the world for one person at a time, and that's enough for me."

Elise nodded. "I think that's admirable. You know, that's not too different from how doctors think as well. There are many people we can save, and we can make a difference for each life. But there are also many instances of not being able to help someone. It took me a while to accept that lesson." She offered another smile to Bo. "Regardless, I'm glad that you have the support you need."

"Me too," Bo said with a small grin.

There was a natural lull in the conversation and a short pause ensued. Elise reflected back on what Bo said before.

"You mentioned that you'd take as somewhere more stable after this all blows over," she said. "What do you have in mind?"

"Well... there's a place deep in the wilds, up North," Bo said. "It's hidden in the ruins and the thick of the forest. It's like our home base, for everyone we rescue. Think of it like a secret city."

"So it's a secret city for mages?" Elise asked.

"In short, yes," he said.

He turned to look at her.

"When was the last time you had a stable home to stay?" he asked. "One that you could be sure was safe?"

Elise was pleasantly surprised by the question, but it was a good one to think about. She had to take a moment to reflect.

"I think 'stable' and 'safe' are not entirely related," she said. "I've always lived in a safe home, up until a year ago when I left to find my brother. But stable?... I'm not sure. I think my life was fairly stable up until I was twelve, but others could argue that it was still fairly chaotic. So it's a mixed bag."

"What would've made it chaotic?" Bo asked.

"I had a really big family," Elise said with a longing smile. "I was the third oldest. So naturally, I was always taking care of someone. I also grew up in a military infirmary base." She paused, trying to think of a concise explanation for this since Bo wouldn't understand the context. "It's not violent by any means. It's basically a giant, busy hospital that never sleeps. I was assisting my parents as soon as I could walk and talk."

"Sounds like an intense environment to grow up in," Bo said.

"Maybe," Elise said. "But it had everything I needed - including warmth, family, and friends. I can't say that it was a bad childhood."

She turned to look at Bo as well, now curious of his own background.

"What about you? Did you grow up in a stable, safe, or chaotic household?" she asked.

"Well, I suppose it's a little complicated. I uh, didn't have a lot of stability or safety as a kid until I was taken in by a guy named Mickey. I was a young teenager at the time he found me - I'd been on my own for a little while. He's been like a father to me ever since, and things got better after he took me in," Bo said.

"Where is he now?" Elise asked.

"Well, I can't really keep tabs on his whereabouts all the time," Bo said. "But he's usually at said super secret city running things."

"Ah. So he now runs the city, and you run the organization that sends people to the city," Elise said with a smile.

"It kind of worked out that way, yeah," he said.

"I think that's rather nice. It seems that the two of you are always keeping busy, then," she said. "Did he create this mage group?"

"Yeah," Bo said. "Many years ago. He's been helping mages for a long time. It's been his life's work, pretty much."

"Like father, like son," Elise said.

"Yeah," Bo said with a smile.

There was a beat of silence but Bo seized it before Elise could.

"You know," Bo said. "If - or, when - we make it to the city of mages. Do you think you'd want to go back to being a doctor, or do you have any other passions?"

That was funny. Elias asked her a similar question not too long ago. She wondered if perhaps she displayed herself to have her magic and upbringing be her identity.

"I don't mind being a doctor. I like to help people. There are still other avenues I haven't explored in the field - medicine for preventable sickness and disease being one of them. My magic wouldn't help, but it's still something to learn and discover. Outside of that, though..." She paused. "I think it'd be a good time to learn new passions. I used to bake a lot. I could rediscover that or find other passions. I'd certainly have a lot more leisure time to build my sense of self by then."

Bo's face seemed to light up at that.

"Baking!" he said. "That would be wonderful. I could show you around the kitchens when we get there. Maybe you could teach me how to bake some Earth recipes, and I'll share some from Nye."

Elise found herself grinning from the sudden brightness of his voice, and she let out an airy laugh.

"A fellow baker," she said with a smile. "I can't say I'm amazing at it, but I would love to exchange recipes."

"Hey, we're all still learning," Bo said. "I'm sure you could teach me a thing or two."

"Likewise," she said. "What are your favorite bakes?"

"Well, I love making all types of bread," Bo said. "I've refined my sourdough technique over the years in particular, but I also enjoy dessert breads, you know, sweeter fruity types. Banana's always a good one, but it's hard to get bananas out in the wilds. What about you?"

"I imagine it's hard to bake in general while traveling, yeah," Elise said. "I admit I probably make more unconventional bakes. I also like to make breads, but not so much the sweeter ones. I gravitate more towards savory, usually with herbs and garlic. Maybe vegetables or beans. It kind of depends on what I have, and it ends up being more of a meal. I do make dessert bakes too, but they vary between cakes, pastries, and biscuits. Let's see... I've made sweet carrot cakes, ginger biscuits, and red bean pastries. I think decorating them could be fun too, but I usually don't do that unless I'm asked to make bakes for an event."

"Alright," Bo said. "It's official. We are baking once this is all over."

Elise laughed. "I'm okay with that. That'd be a fun way to celebrate."

"We can make a big cake that says 'Welcome to Nye' with a little 'back' in parentheses underneath between 'Welcome' and 'to' for James and Eve," Bo said.

"That would be so sweet. Maybe it could be a three-tier cake. We both make our individual sponges, but we collaborate together on the third one," Elise said with a big smile.

"That sounds perfect," Bo said, beaming as well.

Elise let her smile linger at the thought, and a natural silence fell over them. It was peaceful and nice, talking to Bo about the future without the doom and gloom that came with their travels. But she knew that they had to return back to the present and continue on their day.

"I'd love to continue brainstorming our future bakes, but we really ought to make it back to the others. I wouldn't want them to worry if we take too long," she said.

Bo nodded, his smile starting to naturally fade.

"Neither would I," he said, finally getting to his feet. "Thanks for sitting with me for a bit."

"Of course," Elise said as she followed suit. "That's what friends are for."
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Mon Mar 20, 2023 4:13 am
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soundofmind says...

17th of Sil

There was a lot going on. Life still moved forward, people ate, people slept, and they traveled, but the relational dynamics developing around him were messy. That was most of life - messy - but this was something very different.

These people were from a different world, and Bo saw it even more now that it was out in the open.

"You know what I miss? Indoor plumbing," Elias said beside Bo. He paused for a second, thinking. "Unless... I mean, does Nye have that? Or have we only been exposed to the rugged side of Nye?"

"Nye has been through a long recovery process after the war and several natural disasters 100 years ago. There are cities with indoor plumbing, but that kind of technology hasn't really reached the places you've seen," Bo said. "Granted, if you wanted to experience Nye's indoor plumbing you'd have to go to some of the biggest cities in Nye. Which would be more dangerous for you all than anything."

They were sitting on a boulder. There were a few boulders in this area. This one was tall, mossy, and climbable. It made a good rest stop for the morning, and gave them a small view downhill, not that there was much more to see than trees.

Elias hummed, rubbing his fingers along the nearby moss. "Might be worth it, though. It'd be nice to have a real shower. Jumping in the river is cool and all, but it's kind of nippy in there."

"If it's a shower you want," Bo said. "Just ask Jordan to do some water magic. He can make it into a spray if it's the water pressure you miss. Can't do much about the temperature, though - at least, not as easily."

Elias hummed again, thinking it over. "Would it be weird if I asked him to spray soapy water too?"

"Can't that be accomplished yourself by lathering soap into your hair and skin as he sprays the water?" Bo asked.

"Yeah, but he'd be a human showerhead. I'm sure he could do it too, and it'd be way cooler," Elias said.

"I mean," Bo said. "You could push your luck with him. But if you ask him for a weird favor, I have a feeling he'll ask you for one in return."

"Oh, like what? I can do weird favors," Elias said, maybe a little too eagerly.

"I don't know," Bo said. "But I've known him long enough that I know he'll think of something."

Elias leaned forward, stroking his chin. He often did so whenever he was contemplating something.

"Hm. Yeah, okay. Noted. Ask Jordan for weird favors," he said with a nod.

Bo laughed lightly through his nose.

He liked Elias. He was well-humored and didn't take things too seriously, which made him a fun conversationalist. He still worried about him, but Bo was still building trust, and he was fine with that.

"I've noticed you like doing things people might consider 'weird,'" Bo said, making air quotes with his fingers. "Of course, what everyone considers weird depends on the person."

"Oh yeah? Huh," Elias said with a little smile. He seemed to not really notice until Bo pointed it out. "Well, what do you think is 'weird' then?"

"Well, personally, I like when things are weird," Bo said. "I find that when people are being weird, that's often when they're finally being their truest selves. Everyone's weird in different ways. Weird is just what's different or unconventional, I suppose. Anything that strays from the norm in a way that could be considered odd. Or unsettling, sometimes, I suppose."

"Yeah, yeah. That's a good definition," Elias said with a nod. "You're like a walking dictionary."

Bo guffawed.

"And talking too," Bo said.

Elias grinned. "Ooh, and you rhyme too. So clever."

"Clever as ever," he said.

Still grinning, Elias slightly narrowed his eyes at him. "Like an orange?"

Bo narrowed his eyes back at Elias.

"More like porridge," Bo said.

Elias snickered. "Marvelous. That was poetry. Excellent work."

"Thank you, thank you," Bo said with a small smile as he let the conversation lull for a moment. Bo was about to speak again, but it appeared that Elias spoke before he could. This was expected.

"I guess you're right though. I do think it's fun to do weird things. I never really thought about it that way though. I just think it's funny," Elias said with a smile and a shrug.

"Ever the comedian," Bo said. "I know what that can feel like."

"Do you source your humor from weirdness too?" Elias asked.

"My own weirdness, of course," Bo said. "But sometime I like to cater to the crowd I'm in. Figure out what kind of things make them laugh, you know."

"So your humor changes person-to-person?" he asked.

"The kinds of jokes I tell do, sometimes," Bo said. "But truthfully, the things I find most funny are usually the stupidest things. Or the things that make toddlers laugh, really."

"Right, yeah," Elias said as he squinted out in front of him, leaning forward once again in thought. "Huh. I think I have toddler humor," he concluded.

Bo grinned and looked over to Elias.

"That's why I find you so funny," Bo said.

Elias grinned as well, then twirled his hand in front of him and slightly bowed. "Thank you, thank you. Someday, I'll be a true comedian and say a fart joke in your honor."

Bo rested a hand on his chest.

"I'm honored," he said. "But I hope you know I enjoy your company even when you're not being funny. I appreciate your perspective on things in the moments I've gotten to see you in what we might consider more serious situations. Like how you handled things with Deidra."

Elias's grin slowly faded into a shy smile as he chuckled and he scratched the back of his neck. "Wow... well, uh, thanks. I appreciate you too," he said, clearly not expecting the slew of compliments. "I don't think I really 'handled' Deidra though. That's kind of a rough way to describe that, isn't it? I just talked to her, like I'm talking to you."

"I was thinking more in reference to our initial confrontation, when things were a bit more tense," Bo said. "I think you were influential in helping diffuse some of the tension, whether you meant to or not. I think you have a gift in that way, to calm people down, so to speak. Maybe it's just something in your manner, or maybe it's because you're normally a bit more silly, so when you say something in a serious moment people tend to listen more. But I appreciate you doing the simple things too. Like just talking to her. I don't think the importance of simple human connection can be understated. And that, I'll add, is another thing you're quite good at. You're a safe person, and I've enjoyed watching your friends - and new ones you're making, like Deidra - discover that about you."

Elias was watching Bo attentively as he talked, but when he finished, Elias quickly darted his eyes away, possibly feeling a little awkward due to the compliments. He nervously laughed.

"I hope you know I'm saying that out of obligation," Bo said. "I just like to put these things to words. It doesn't make sense to me to think well of someone and never express it."

"No, no, you're fine," Elias said with a smile. "Thank you. That's really nice of you to say. Sorry, you took me a bit of a surprise back there. But I appreciate it. I do."

Bo smiled softly in return.

"I'll give you a heads' up next time," he said with a light nudge of Elias's shoulder.

Elias laughed through his nose, throwing him some moss that he had been playing with. "That's okay. I'm usually pretty good with surprises. I'll brace myself next time."

"Hopefully it's not the sort of thing you have to brace too much for," Bo said, catching the moss in one hand.

Elias narrowed his eyes at him, somewhat out of suspicion, somewhat out of playfulness. "You know, you're really good at reading people," he commented.

Bo shrugged. "What does that mean?" he asked. "Reading people."

Elias hummed, squinting some more and leaning closer towards him. "Are you psychoanalyzing me?" he asked.

Bo snorted through his nose.

"I notice things, sometimes," Bo said. "Doesn't mean I'm always right about the conclusions I make. Sometimes you just have to hold things loosely and be content with letting other people set the pace of discovery."

Elias leaned away, but kept his eyes on Bo, still suspicious. But something about his expression made Bo think that his intent was less on being playful, and more about wanting to know his intentions.

"You're friends with my sister... right? I noticed you both talk a good bit too. It's nice to see her traveling with a friend," Elias said.

"Elise didn't set me on a mission to befriend you," Bo said. "If that's what you're worried about. I just happen to enjoy you both. But I'm aware that Elise has a very elder sister tendency to worry about you."

"And? Did she ever tell you why?" Elias pried.

"She's only alluded to it," Bo said. "And I haven't pressed for details."

"To what?" Elias pressed.

"A generally difficult past," Bo said. "But it wasn't my place to ask for details from a third party, so that's where the information stopped. I don't like hearing about other people's stories if it's from anyone but themselves."

Elias slowly nodded, turning his attention away from Bo and back to the moss that he was picking on the boulder. A short silence followed.

"I'm not trying to hide anything. I was just curious," he said with a sigh. "But... if you are worried about me, I am doing fine. Really good actually." He glanced at Bo to offer a small smile. "I appreciate all your sentiments. I do. It's kind of weird to hear it, though. Just saying."

"Is that just because it's from me?" Bo asked. "Someone who hasn't known you for very long?"

"No... I don't think so. I enjoy talking to you. Really, it's nothing against you," Elias said.

"Do I remind you of your sister?" Bo asked.

"Bo... I can't help but feel like I'm being interrogated right now," Elias admitted, offering a weak smile, but his voice was serious and sincere.

Bo let out a small sigh.

"Sorry," he said. "Forgive me for overstepping."

There was another short silence as Elias still focused on the moss.

"I don't mind telling you. I know you've got this whole psychiatrist observation brain thing going on. Must be why you're a great leader. But..." Elias began, pausing for a moment to gather his thoughts. "A rough past is accurate, sure. I've been through hell and back. I've been beaten. I've been an addict. I've been suicidal. All I wanted was someone I could talk to and connect with, among other things. I have that now, and really, this feels so long ago, I feel like a different person now. Elise worries about me because she has always worried about me for basically my whole life. I promise, I'm doing fine. Life's pretty good. You don't have to worry about me."

Bo took in a quiet, deep breath as Elias spoke.

He wasn't really sure how it happened, but he had ended up reminding Elias of his overbearing sister. He knew he had a tendency to be overbearing himself at times, and he understood how that put Elias on guard. He just felt bad that it happened.

Regardless, this was a closed door - and it often was. And he wasn't going to force anything.

"I'm sorry that I was overbearing," Bo said. "And you don't owe me any kind of explanation if you don't want to give it. I really wasn't hunting for information. I just wanted to point out some things I thought were really great about you."

"No, no, I know," Elias said quickly with his hand out in front of him as he he were shaking away the thought of Bo hunting him for information. "I know your intents were good. Like I said, I've always looked for people to talk to. So I'm not trying to hide anything. But... well... if you want to know something, you can ask me. But otherwise, I'd be glad to move on and get a fresh start. Talking about toddler humor. Or something."

Bo hummed with a nod.

And instead of saying something, he made his best wet fart noise as loud as he could.

Elias raised his brows, impressed. "Now that's a conversation starter I can get behind," he said with a grin.

Bo smirked and leaned in slightly.

"As a quick aside before we move on to farts - just know the same goes for me as well," he said. "If you want to know something, you can ask me."

He leaned away, but was content to let the silence sit again. Elias got squirmy any time a conversation got more serious, but now the attention was pinned on Bo, and not Elias. Bo hoped that made Elias more comfortable in return.

"You seem to always worry about other people and how they're doing, I assume because you're a leader and all. But..." Elias kicked a small pebble, sending it skirting across the ground. "Do you have people to worry about you?"

Bo smiled softly, looking out over the forest.

"I didn't always," he said. "But I do now. I'd say Mel in particular - my Mel, not yours - is the biggest worrier in my life. Next would be a guy named Mickey. You haven't met him, but he's my mentor, and my adoptive father."

"Oh... Do you miss him?" Elias asked.

"I do," Bo said. "But if this whole plan goes well, I'll get to see him again soon. Soon being a few months, but. You know. What is 'soon' anyway?"

Elias nodded. "What about Mel? How long have you known her?"

Bo hummed, looking up in thought.

"I think it's been..." he said while doing the math in his head. "At least fifteen years, I think."

"Oh, wow. That's a long time," Elias said.

"Well, I've lived a bit of life so far, so," Bo said with a shrug.

"How old are you, anyways?" Elias asked.

"A lot older than I look," Bo said with a small smirk.

"Eighty years old. Got it," Elias said with a nod and a smirk himself.

"A lot closer than most people guess, actually," Bo said with a laugh.

Elias raised a brow, not following. "Wait, you're eighty years old? No you're not."

Here we go.

Bo held up his hands in front of him.

"Hear me out," he said. "But I'm actually 93."

Elias stared at him for a moment, but then smiled and laughed through his nose. "Good one. But how old are you actually?" he asked.

Bo knew Elias wasn't going to believe him right away. That was expected. No one did.

"I'm really not lying about how old I am," Bo said. "I know it doesn't make sense."

Elias squinted at him, more confused than anything. "If you're 93 years old, why aren't you more wrinkly?"

"Because dragons age differently than humans do," Bo said.

"But aren't you..." Elias began, but trailed away when he fully processed Bo's words. He slowly turned to face him, eyes wide. "Wait, are you saying that you're a dragon?"

Bo slowly got to his feet, standing atop the boulder. He extended his hand down to Elias with a small, gleeful smile.

"Come on," Bo said. "I'll show you."

Elias happily took Bo's hand to briskly get to his feet, but not before rapidly blinking as he stared in awe at Bo.

"A dragon," he said, but there was some confusion in his voice. Maybe he didn't know the full weight of what that entailed. He probably didn't. "That's the type of blood that James stole that got him in this mess, isn't it?"

Bo led Elias off the boulder, walking him away from the group, a bit further out. Where they'd have more space.

"Seems so," Bo said. "That would be Svida's blood the kingdom had, I think. But that's a story for another time."

"So you're not human," Elias deduced. "But, uh. You look human."

"Fun fact about dragons," Bo said, still walking. "We can change forms. Kind of like werewolves have a wolf and human form. Dragons have different forms too."

"What? No way. Can I see?" Elias asked with a big smile.

"Just a little further," Bo said. "I don't want the others to see."

"How am I just now finding this out?" Elias asked with a laugh. It quickly subsided as he again processed his words too late. "Wait, what do you mean? Why can't the others see?"

"I'm not really ready for everyone to know, yet," Bo said. "It's a whole can of worms, you know? It'd be like saying -- I don't know. Like, that I'm secretly your father or something. Except that's not a good example."

"I wish you were my father. Then I'd be a dragon too," Elias said.

Bo chuckled, finally pulling them to a stop.

"That's also not quite how things work," he said. "But let's start with this."

Still holding Elias's hand, Bo finally allowed himself to slip into his other skin.

There was a flash of blue light as Bo hastily lifted Elias up and put him on his shoulders. For the first time in a long time, Bo felt like he could let out a full breath. He looked down at his dragon legs and claws, remembering again what he looked like with the silver-blue scales that shimmered in the sunlight. His long, lizard-like body swirled in the forest, curled just beneath the tops of the trees so as not to be seen. He turned his long neck around to look at Elias, who sat atop his shoulders.

He couldn't quite smile the same way humans did in his dragon form, but he did part his teeth and let out a small laugh, letting his breath pass over Elias's face.

Mouth agape in awe, Elias slapped his hand over his mouth to stop the giddy laugh that escaped. Eyes shining with wonder, he kept darting his head around to get a full view of Bo, still laughing.

"No way. You're a giant lizard!" he said with a grin between the laughs, attempting to stand but then falling back over when he lost his balance.

"Careful, there," Bo said, reaching in to nudge Elias with his snout. "It's a bit of a long fall."

This time, Elias stood still, mesmerized by Bo's face as he tilted his body from one side to another, trying to get a better angle to see him.

"You sound so normal. I thought you'd have more of a dragon voice," he said.

"What would be more of a dragon voice?" Bo asked, but before Elias answered, shifted his voice as low as he could make it. "Does this feel more fitting?"

"I was thinking it'd be more like GRRRRRAAAAWWRR and, you know, not understandable. And breathe fire while you're at it," Elias said with a grin.

"I can't breathe fire," Bo said. "But I can breathe lightning."

"Ooh, ooh. Demonstration?" Elias asked excitedly, almost in a child-like manner.

Bo huffed through his nose. "I would, but I think it'd cause a scene," he said apologetically. "And I think we have enough trouble as it is without drawing people out into the forest because there was lightning on a stormless day."

"Right... right," Elias said with a nod as he shifted his attention to his scales, running his fingers along it. "Does it... hurt? To be like this?"

"It doesn't hurt, no," Bo said. "But sometimes I do feel a little trapped in my human form. Feels like I don't fit."

"So it feels more natural for you to be in this form?" Elias asked.

"I don't know," Bo said, more quiet. "I think it's just because I don't get a chance to be like this as often."

"So? Why don't you? I think you're amazing like this. I mean, you're pretty amazing as a human too, but this is way cooler."

"I don't know if you've noticed, but dragons aren't exactly small," Bo said. "Waltzing around like this... would get me a lot of unwanted attention."

Elias furrowed his brows, finally leaving his scales alone as he slouched back, getting more comfortable on his shoulders. "And dragons... Being a dragon is more dangerous than being a mage, isn't it?" he said.

Bo was quiet for a moment, and he turned his head to the side, pulling away from Elias bit.

Even like this, he couldn't really stretch and sprawl out. Not if he was trying to stay hidden.

"It can be," he said quietly. "Even though I'm large and powerful, I'm still mortal. I'm not invincible."

Elias let a short silence pass as he pondered his words. "Is that why you're keeping this a secret from the others?" he finally asked.

"There are a few reasons," Bo said. "But that's the main one."

"Well... I'm sure I don't understand the many nuances that come from the other reasons," Elias said slowly. "But I think it can be difficult to hide a part of yourself from others, you know? Especially from close friends. And... okay, I'm just realizing that I'm now part of that group," he said with a weak laugh. "And I'm touched. Kind of feeling like I'm in an exclusive club now."

Bo grinned.

"That's because you are," he said.

Elias patted the side of his neck. "I'd say that this will be our little secret, but I'm awful at keeping secrets." His smile widened. "Just kidding. I can keep a secret. Pretty sure. Totally safe with me. Won't tell a soul."

"Mm hmm," Bo hummed with a faint laugh.

If it leaked out, Bo knew he'd have to deal with it then. But he had a feeling Elias wasn't lying about keeping someone else's secret.

"I appreciate it," Bo said.

"So I have like a hundred other questions," Elias said. "But I have a feeling we don't have time for a hundred answers right now."

"We have a few more weeks ahead of us," Bo said. "I think that gives us time. But right now, we have time for just a few."

"Okay, first question: why does your breath smell like apples? Is that normal dragon breath or is that your last snack?" Elias asked.

"It's probably because I ate apples recently," Bo said.

"So if you eat a dragon diet, like bugs or worms or - I have no clue actually - then human's Bo's breath will smell like bugs and worms?" Elias deduced.

"I don't really eat worms. I mean, I'll eat bugs about as much as any human who's fine with eating bugs I guess," Bo said.

Elias hummed. "What's a dragon diet, anyways? Can I become a dragon if I eat the same diet?"

"I eat a lot of the same things you do," Bo said. "Save for the fact that I kind of have to eat meat. But eating like me won't make you a dragon."

"So what does? You said it wasn't hereditary, right?"

"Right," Bo answered. "It's a little more mystical than that. Being a dragon comes with a much more powerful magic than a normal mage would carry. When a dragon passes - which can be after hundreds of years - that magic is passed to another. That person we call an inheritor."

"What's that process like? How did you find out that you're an inheritor?" Elias asked.

"Well," Bo said. "It's uh... ideally, a dragon finds their inheritor before they die. That's how it normally happens. It's a bit of a... magical phenomenon, a dragon being drawn to their inheritor. The former lightning dragon was named Ivar. He found me a bit earlier than normal and I got to learn under him before he passed."

"Oh wow. Do you know all of the dragons and their inheritors then?"

"Not all of them personally, no," Bo said. "But a few of them."

"How many dragons are there, anyways?"

"Eight," Bo said.

"So you're the lightning dragon... but what are the others?" Elias asked.

Bo shifted slowly, lowering so he was lying curled up tightly on the ground in the small clearing. He rested his head in front of Elias.

"Well, technically, my magic isn't just lightning. It's energy. Or electricity," Bo said. "And electrical currents. But lightning is the easiest for most people to comprehend."

Bo paused, but continued before Elias could ask another question.

"As for the other dragons," he said. "There's an air, fire, water, earth, light, life, and time dragon."

"Wow. There's a dragon for every mage out there, huh?" Elias commented.

"They were the first mages," Bo said. "So, yeah."

"How long ago was that? A bajillion years ago?"

"Something like that," Bo said with a grin. "More like a few thousand."

"Close enough," Elias said with a smile. "It's too bad that you haven't met all of them, though. You know, since you live a long time and all. It's a nice thought to have seven other friends who grow to be a couple hundred years old with you."

"Yeah," Bo said softly. "It is."

Elias patted his neck again, this time with vigorous energy and a growing grin. "Hey, you're not that old yet though. Still a ripe age of 93. I hope your bones are as young as you look."

"Hah," Bo laughed through his nose. "I guess we'll see."

And at that, there was another bright flash of blue light. One moment, Elias was sitting on Bo's back. The next, he was sitting in Bo's arms. His human arms, of course.

Bo set Elias on his feet.

"Well. Are you ready to go back now?" Bo asked. "No talk of dragons, though."

"Dragon? What dragon?" Elias said with a smile.

"Exactly," Bo said with a laugh.

"Wait, Bo," Elias said before they could get too far. "Just wanted to say - thank you. And also, sorry if I was being, uh... what's the word. Aggresive. But that word's aggresive. But you know what I mean. I appreciate you letting me in your exclusive club and showing me your true form, though. But I'm still waiting for you to demonstrate your ultra powerful electric zap breath."

Bo paused in his steps and turned to look at Elias with a small smile.

"That, my friend," Bo said, meeting Elias's eyes as he briefly set his hand on his shoulder. "Will come at the right time. But that time is not today."

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Elias said, mirroring his smile. "But don't worry. We've got a couple weeks for me to ask my remaining ninety questions."

"Right, right," Bo said, walking again. "I suppose I have many conversations to look forward to, then."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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soundofmind says...

The 19th of Sil

The firelight flickered outside the canvas tarp of the covered wagon, and it pulsed like a heartbeat. The hazy glow seeped faintly past the canvas walls, warm, and blistering. It was a sickeningly hot night - one of the last before the chill of fall came - and the humidity was so thick it felt like James was sitting in, swimming in, and breathing in hot water.

Nothing felt real. The days had begun to blur together. He'd been so high for so long he wasn't sure he could remember what sobriety felt like. If he could remember it, he might've missed it. But he felt like he couldn't remember anything. Everything was melting away.

He sat on the edge of the bed in the near-darkness, listening to the muffled, distant noises of conversations between people around the fire. Nothing was pronounced enough to understand. It felt like he was underwater.

The wagon was rocking like a boat when he got to his feet. He didn't know what drew him to move. Something just felt wrong.

He was swaying, catching himself on the sides of the wagon every few feet.

The distant conversations were growing louder. And louder.

It wasn't just conversations.

It was shouting.


Sweat was pouring down his back. It felt like he was crawling out of a murky pond. The air clung to his skin like a heavy weight, and he felt like he could hardly breathe.

He slipped out of the back of the wagon, stumbling onto the ground on all fours as the noise around the fire suddenly cut through with full clarity. The air around him was thick and hazy, but he could see the crowd of people huddled around the fire, hands raised in fists, cheering. Shouting.

A pit of dread formed in his stomach, and he pushed himself to his feet. He felt like he was drunk with how he couldn't stop swaying, staggering like the world was rocking beneath him, barely holding him up. But when he made it to the crowd he found himself pushing through, squeezing past the others until he could get a view of what was happening around the fire.

And when the sea of bodies cleared away, he found himself staring at Butch, holding Eve.

On a skewer.

James's eyes ripped open, and he woke up trembling uncontrollably. He was breathing quickly, but shakily tried to slow his breaths before it got out of control.

The wagon around him was dark, and he couldn't see anything beyond the faintest shadows of undefined shapes around him.

His breathing felt so loud.

Still trembling, he rolled from his back to his side, remembering again where he was.

Rita was beside him. It was night. He was a hostage. A captive.

He wouldn't get very far.

He looked at Rita's sleeping shadow, unable to make out her face to see if she was awake. He knew this wasn't the first time he'd awoken suddenly in the middle of the night from nightmares, so it was possible she'd been conditioned to sleep through it, or just wasn't bothered enough to move.

For a minute, he waited to see if she'd do or say anything. But she didn't.

He rolled over, facing away from her.

It took him a moment to bring his breathing down to a normal rate. The image of Eve haunted him, and he had to keep actively pushing it out of his mind - trying desparately to think about something, anything else - but his thoughts kept circling back to it.

Clearly, the stress of it all finally won out against the dose of lumshade normally used to keep him asleep.

And judging from how drenched in sweat he was, he probably sweat it out too.

Gods, he couldn't do this. He couldn't fall back asleep. He wasn't going to fall back asleep after that, and it was going to drive him insane to stay still. He could already feel himself on the verge of a panic attack if he let himself continue to sit in it.

Hoping Rita was as asleep as she seemed, he carefully got to his feet. He'd almost forgotten how much he was shaking, because normally, sneaking away came naturally. But at the moment, every movement felt clumsy and fragile. His body felt like a bruise, and it had for weeks, now. But he'd almost forgotten that when the consistent doses of lumshade kept the pain at bay.

It was all hitting him again, now.

He forced himself to walk with light steps to the end of the wagon. His bare feet were slick and hot against the wood flooring, and it felt like he was seconds away from reliving his dream. But instead of stepping out of the wagon, he sat down, and slid off the side, slipping under the tarp.

When his feet hit the grass and dirt, he felt more grounded. Even if everything was still shaking in his chest.

But once he was standing outside of the wagon, he realized... he didn't know what he was doing.

He'd just needed some air. But it was stupid to think stepping out wouldn't look like escaping.

Gods, the lumshade was ruining his brain functions.

James ducked into the shadows beside the wagon, quickly scanning the area. There was a shot of relief when he saw it was Pitch who was on watch. The fire had long since been put out, but he could just catch her silhouette in the moonlight.

Maybe if it was Pitch... he could actually try something.

He was in terrible pain, disoriented from the dream, and by all means thoroughly unprepared and physically incapable of pulling off any sort of escape attempts without the hunting dogs quickly noticing and tracking him down.

He knew he wouldn't get far. Not with how much pain he was in.

But perhaps he could try something else.

There was still an open door with Tula. But Rita wasn't letting Tula see him after the near-death-overdose accident that wasn't an accident but--

Regardless. As crazy as it was, James was desparate. That was the only reason any of this made sense.

What other options did he have?

Run. Get caught. Suffer again. Get turned in.

Accept it. Get turned in. Suffer again.

Both ended in death. He knew both paths ended there.

Eve wasn't giving up on him. He couldn't give up either. He couldn't. He couldn't afford to. Because if he did... he was already a dead man.

James's eyes landed on Tula's tent.

Hers was easy to find. It was smaller than the others. She always slept by herself, ever since Deidra left. That was good, though. It meant she'd be alone. They would be alone.

Not that James had any idea what he was doing. Gods, he wished he knew what he was doing. He still wasn't sure how to gain Tula's loyalty, but he was damned if he didn't try.

James began to slink away into the darkness, staying in the shadows as he crept past the other tents, out of Pitch's view, and finally came up behind Tula's. Fortunately, the entrance faced away from Pitch's post - and part of him wondered if that was in any way intentional, because he knew Tula and Pitch didn't exactly get along.

But it didn't really matter.

If Pitch saw him, she didn't blow the whistle. Either way, he made it this far.

He carefully opened the flap to the tent and entered seamlessly, amazed at himself for how he hardly made a sound with how his chest still trembled deep inside him.

If only he could see a damn thing in the dark.

He stood there for a moment, waiting for his eyes to adjust. It felt like it took ages, but in reality, knew it was only a minute or two.
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soundofmind says...

It was just enough for Tula to notice him. There was a light rustle, and then a small flame cast light across the room. Tula was sitting upright, holding a match she lit as she stared intensely at James.

Her messy curly hair was down and clung to her face. She squinted at him, seemingly unamused and still half-asleep. She held her stare for a few seconds then turned to her side to light the lantern next to her.

"Did you break into my tent to see me? I'm touched. It's too bad I don't want to share the same bed with you again," she said dully as the lantern lit up the small enclosed space around them.

James's eyes had to adjust again. He squinted as the light filled the inside of the small tent, revealing a minimal but neat living space.

He noted the weapons on the side of the tent - within arms' reach - a few guns and knives on top of some papers. They looked like they might be flyers or articles, probably from her time before she joined Rita.

"There aren't many opportunities to talk without someone else overhearing," James said lowly, sitting down a mere foot and a half from her. There wasn't much space to go anywhere else.

Tula kept her glare on him, highly suspicious. She stayed perfectly still as she watched him move. "What do you want?" she growled.

"To talk," James said simply. "If you'll let me."

"Do you know how much trouble I'd be in if Rita knows you're in here? I'd never hear the end of it," she said lowly.

"You know I'll be in far more trouble than you," James said.

"Doesn't matter. You're marching to your death anyways."

"As if you're not doing the same," James said quietly.

Tula tilted her head. "What does that supposed to mean?"

"I just think you should start thinking ahead," James said softly.

Tula rolled her eyes and scoffed, clearly annoyed. "Please. This again. Acting like you're so high and mighty. Makes me want to give you another overdose so I can shut you up again."

"I'm not trying to act high and mighty. I'm just concerned for you," James said. Then added, softer. "Despite everything."

Tula stared at him with half-lidded eyes, looking more bored than anything. "I can see how Deidra could fall for this act. You know, you'd be a great spy too. It's too bad we can't work together."

"I don't see why we couldn't," James said.

Tula's expression kept getting more and more impatient. She looked at him as if he were stupid. "I'd rather not work with someone who looks like literal shit right now, thanks. Now can you leave before Rita notices? Or do I have to make this look like your fault again?"

With a sigh, James forced himself to his feet.

"It is my fault," he said lowly. "But before I go, I just wanted to warn you. I spent four months with Rita in the past, and over and over I've seen her pick up people looking for a place to belong only to discard them the moment they're not useful to her anymore."

He looked to meet Tula's eyes.

"Just be careful. You can't trust her," he said. "As much as you might think you're a part of something, she only reserves that level of loyalty to the ones who get the mark."

Tula scoffed. "And I should trust you instead? You've disliked me from the start. And now, when you're so desperate to leave and have the happy little life you've always wanted, you come to me hoping I can turn around like Deidra did? Sowing seeds of distrust so I can trust you? Please. You are so predictable. That's never going to work."

"I'm aware my motivations are transparent," James said. "But that doesn't change the fact that what I'm saying is true. If I really didn't care about you at all, I wouldn't bother giving a warning. I would happily watch Rita stab you in the back just to spite you. But unfortunately for me, and fortunately for you, I've never been that petty. Take what I say as you will, but I do feel a sense of responsiblity for all of this. You ending up here was a mistake. If things had gone seamlessly, you would still be back on Earth and I would be here on Nye."

"Obviously, because you hate me so much," Tula said, voice heavy with sarcasm, but James knew those were her true thoughts as well.

"Well, I thought I did," James said. "But the magic that brought us here came with a condition. I know you're aware of my history with Eve, and how she found herself on earth, and I on Nye. Though how we travelled between worlds was always a mystery, there was always something left behind. There was something I never told you. I didn't even tell Ovrell. Not because he didn't demand it, but because I knew he wouldn't understand because it was too hard to believe."

He paused, but Tula didn't interrupt. At least, not yet. He continued.

"Every time we found ourselves on a different world, we found a note. At first, it was Eve who found a note on her person when she arrived in Nye. Then when I arrived on Earth, I found a note. Each note had different segments that would reveal themselves on the page like invisible ink under heat, but only after certain events would unfold.

"When Eve and I stopped time after you almost had me kill her, a new message revealed itself on the note I found when on Earth. In short, it said to think of people I care about, and they would be taken with me to Nye."

James locked eyes with her.

"I don't care if you believe in magic and things that can't be explained."

A deep breath.

"But you ended up here, didn't you?"

Tula was a quiet for a moment, her eyes still piercing through his skull. For a second, she seemed to really consider his words. But James backpedaled on that thought when a smirked tugged her lips before evolving to a snort and a laugh.

"Seriously? You're trying to tell me that I'm your friend? Oh, that is rich," she said with sideways smirk. "Do all your friends make you kill your lover and play mind games with you? My, my. Your friends sound fun. Perhaps I should join them instead."

She didn't belive him. Of course she wouldn't. Even he didn't want to believe himself, but he wasn't lying.

With a deep sigh, he looked away.

Obviously, Tula wasn't his friend. He wasn't saying that in the slightest, but Tula didn't seem to care about nuance. She was convinced he was trying to play her - and she wasn't wrong. He was desparate to win her over, but he wasn't insincere in his warnings.

He really meant it when he said he was worried about her and her future with Rita.

But maybe this door wasn't open like he'd thought. His heart sunk into his chest.


"I don't expect you to help me," he said, barely audible. "But if you can find a window of escape for yourself... you should take it."

He turned to the tent's flap door, hand resting on it.

"Or just forget I was ever here," he said. "Since you care about Rita's approval so much."

Tula rolled her eyes. "Escape from what? I choose to be here, unlike you."

James, just about to leave, hesitated, and tilted his head to the side to look back at her.

"I didn't have to come," he said in a firm whisper. "But I can't just leave. You can."

And without waiting for a reply, he stepped back out of the tent.

He hadn't been gone for long, but he knew his absence was at risk of being noticed.

The only light provided for him was the faint glow of candlelight inside Tula's tent and the blue light of the moon overhead. But there were still many shadows to hide in as he made his way back to the wagon.

At some point - and he really couldn't pinpoint to when - he'd stopped shaking. Maybe it was the moment he stepped into Tula's tent and had to focus on some kind of strategy to get through to her. Regardless, it meant he felt more steady as he found his way back at the rear of the wagon, and his head felt more clear.

He crouched behind the wagon for a moment, breathing in the humid night air.

It was hot, and muggy, but it was rare he had moments like this where he felt like he truly had space alone to think.

Trying to appeal to Tula's empathy didn't see to be working - be it him expressing concern for her or him trying to gain her concern. But Tula had seemed to settle into what felt like a more real version of herself. Formerly, she was a lot more reserved and less expressive, but he'd been noticing more genuine emotions leak through. Most of it was irritation and annoyance, but for once, it at least seemed real.

In the past, before his and Eve's first escape, and before she seemed to crack and become unhinged, she was more careful. She used to be more careful with her words, and said very little, sticking to quiet observation. She'd been intentional and explicit in her language, and on occasion spoke in metaphors, but she'd never really been... sarcastic.

Which was all he was getting from her now.

He tried to think back to the small circle of people she had in her trust back on Earth.

Deidra and Tula had a long history that presumably went back into their childhood. But Deidra was also quiet and softspoken, and quick to agree and obey any commands. James didn't know enough about Deidra to know much more, but Deidra wasn't exactly sociable, normal, or well adjusted in anything outside of a military context.

Katya was the only other person Tula had kept close, and Katya was... interesting. It never felt like she and Tula were the best of friends, but clearly, Tula tolerated her, and often seemed to find her amusing. Of course, the things that made her "amusing" were her mean-spirited comments and her more odd and eccentric nature.

Whenever Tula was around people who were well-adjusted, kind, or to put it simply average, she didn't seem to pay them any mind, or otherwise, was bored and annoyed with them. He'd witnessed as much in their interactions in group contexts.

Even though she'd been assigned to get information out of him at the time, she seemed far more interested in James when he was brooding and secretive than when he was actually trying to show her kindness.

James suppressed a sigh.

So... she just found him boring, now, then. That was it? And she'd been vocal about how annoying and self-righteous she thought he was.

Gods, was this even worth it?

He rubbed his hands down his face. He didn't know if he had it in him to be the exact type of person Tula "needed" to get through to her. What Tula needed was a wake-up call. A reality check. What Tula needed was some serious psychiatric help, and he could bring none of those things.

And still, there was a very real part of him that wanted to help her.

Maybe something was wrong with him instead.

But he was running out of time. No, he'd already run out of time. It was wrong to think he'd really had any time at all.

There was no way he was going to get back in unnoticed. He knew that. He was stupid to think he'd ever be able to sneak out without anyone noticing.

Holding his breath, he climbed back into the wagon.

It was dark.

His bare feet felt like they were stuck to the floor. He couldn't make out anything past the shadows of the drapes curtaining the wagon into two halves. For all he knew, Rita wasn't even behind them anymore.

He took in a shallow breath, trying to be as quiet as possible as he walked up to the curtains, gently pushing them apart.

His heart was racing. If Rita didn't hear his footsteps, it felt like she'd wake up to his erratic heartbeat instead.

He stepped in and the curtains closed behind him. Unable to see what was in front of him, he stood tiny steps, inching towards the bed he knew was there, but was unsure of exactly how far it was.

Then an arm wrapped around him.

Every muscle in his body tensed as he jumped back, but was pulled back in.

Everything spun as he was whipped around and fell back onto the bed, with Rita's arm over his throat, and her knee in his ribs.

"Have a good trip?" Rita hissed. He could hear the anger seething in her words. Her breath was hot against his ear.

"I just needed some air," he rasped under the pressure of her arm against his trachea.

"And where'd you go to get your air, hm?" Rita asked, pressing her knee into his ribs even harder. James involuntarily sputtered a gasp.

"Outside," James wheezed, barely able to take a breath enough to speak.

"Bastard," Rita said as she ripped him to his feet and gripped the back of his shirt in her fists.

He stumbled as she dragged him forward, across the floor of wagon, through the curtain, until she threw him out onto the ground.

He barely managed to catch himself on his hands and knees.

"Everybody get up!" Rita shouted.

Okay. Okay.

This was happening.

Great. Fine. This was fine. Gods, this wasn't fine. Tula, I hope you were worth it.

Lights flickered to life inside of each tent, and one by one, everyone started pouring out with lanterns in hand. Rita stood over him and stepped on his back, pushing him back down to the ground. Something inside of his physical frame felt like it snapped, and when his face hit the dirt, sharp, stabbing pain seemed to radiate down to every possible nerve ending.

It's only going to get worse.

"Does anyone want to tell me how a man who's high on lumshade, severely wounded, and has a history of pitiful, failed escape attempts somehow slipped out of my wagon unnoticed?" she asked as the crowd gathered around her.

No one responded.

"Pitch, you were on guard," Rita accused.

James couldn't look up to see her, as his face was in the dirt, and Rita's heel in his spine, but he dreaded where this could lead.

"I was," Pitch answered in a cool calm. "I didn't see him."

"Bullshit," Rita spat.

"Clearly he didn't get very far," Pitch said. "He must not have even come near--"

"You're useless," Rita cut in. "Useless as a bounty hunter and useless as a watchman. Grab your things and get out of my sight."

There was a second of tense silence.

"I said," Rita repeated. "Get. Out. Get out of my camp. Leave."

Pitch said nothing, but James could faintly hear her footsteps retreating.

Rita lifted her foot off James's back and instead stuck it in his side, kicking him with her foot to roll him over onto his back instead of his stomach.

James, finally able to see again, found himself staring up into the eyes of Butch, who stood above all of the other men with a menacing grin growing on his face.

Rita had just fired the main medic. Maybe Rita had another medic among her men, but none of them would be the ally that Pitch was to James. And everyone knew that.

James thought about trying to get up, but he thought better of it.

Rita was silent for a moment, and everyone tiredly stood around him, their lanterns casting shadows behind them and leaving him in the spotlight by Rita's feet. He didn't have to see Rita's expression to know that she was still seething with rage, but it had to be clear to everyone else, too.

They all waited for her to speak.

"Tula," Rita said. "You're staying with me. Butch, you too. Alexander, take Pitch's watch. The rest of you go to bed."

As quickly as everyone came out of their tents, everyone began to retreat back to them. The lanterns stayed outside their tents, lighting the camp dimly, and Alexander walked over to the dead fire, starting to re-light it.

"Pick him up," Rita barked to Butch. And Butch didn't hesitate.

With one hand, he grabbed the back of James's shirt collar and hoisted him up into the air. James's collar caught under his chin, making it difficult to breathe again, but as Rita moved, Butch followed.

Alexander had breathed life into the campfire. It was starting to crackle and grow. Rita motioned for Butch to put James down, and he did set James on his feet, but he held James's shoulders with a death grip.

Needless to say, it hurt.

James watched as Rita walked over to Tula and whispered something into her ear. Unflinching, Tula kept her focused, stoic stare on James, only nodding in reply.

But James knew what that meant.

Eve. I'm so sorry.

As Rita walked over to him, she met his eyes with a grin that made him feel sick.

"Say hello," she said.
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Carina says...

For a disorienting moment, Eve thought she had woken up at a different place. But she knew something wasn't right. She wasn't here. She wasn't supposed to be here.

Because she was standing in front of James and the other bounty hunters.

Tula was broadcasting another vision to her.

Butch was standing behind James, holding him in place. His hands swallowed James's shoulders, and she could see Butch's knuckles were turning white in the firelight. His fingers digging in.

James looked a little stronger than when she last saw him. He was on his feet, at least. But she could see the lines of pain on his face and the dark circles under his eyes somehow looked ever darker than before. His eyes looked so full of exhaustion and desparation. Eve's felt a pressure building around her chest as her heart sank from the weight of shared dread, knowing that he had endured so much hurt and pain, and it was only going to get worse.

But she could see bandages peeking out from under his sleeves where she once saw him being slashed to pieces.

At least he was being kept alive. But at what cost? Guilt sat heavy with her, knowing she was trying to instill hope in him. Now that she could see him again, she wondered if it ever even worked. And if it did, would it be considered cruel?

Tula only ever shared her vision when she had something to show. Eve knew that they were going to hurt him again. She felt her body physically roll over as she tried to scratch the vision away from her face, but she knew it was useless.

Rita was inching closer to James, like a wildcat stalking its prey. She reached out to touch his face - far too gentle for the pain Eve knew had to be coming.

"I was hoping I could trust you," Rita said. "But it looks like you haven't learned your lesson. I thought lumshade might be enough to subdue you... but you've taken even that for granted."

Rita's touch turned forceful as she clenched her hand around James's jaw, forcing his mouth open.

"Hold him still," she said to Butch, whose grip around James tightened.

James, however, started to squirm. He tried to pull his face away from her grasp.

"Down on the ground," Rita said, annoyed. "It'll be easier."

Butch eagerly pushed James to the ground and pinned him underneath his body, holding James's face between his hands so that he couldn't even move it. Tula followed to hover closer, getting a clear view of James's face as Rita closed in again. This time, with a knife in hand.

"What are you--" James started to say, but Rita reached in and ripped his mouth open with both hands.

"I'm tired of hearing your voice," she said. She nodded to Butch, who took over in holding James's mouth agape.

"This way, I won't have to anymore," Rita said cooly.

And, faster than Eve could process, Rita reached into James's mouth, yanked out his tongue, and sliced it.

James cried out.

Immediately, it started to bleed all over Rita's hand and over James's mouth.

Rita leaned in, and Tula drew in closer. Rita rested her hand on Butch's arm and whispered his dismissal. After a second's hesitation, Butch released James from his grasp and withdrew, leaving James on the ground, curling up his legs as he reached up to his mouth.

Eve could see the tears shine in James's eyes as they caught the firelight.

Rita knelt down beside him and set one hand on his shoulder while she ran her fingers through his hair.

Blood was spilling out of his mouth.

"There, there," Rita said too-sweetly. "It's only until you learn your lesson."

James coughed, spitting up blood. Rita looked up into Tula's eyes.

And then she smiled.

"And if you don't," Rita said. "We'll break your legs."

Eve didn't realize that tears were stinging her vision until she realized that Tula had stopped sharing her sight. Her head was spinning and her breaths were heaving with panic. Disoriented and numb, she realized she had put herself in fetal position, covering her face with her hands. Her nails dug deep into the skin on her face, but the pain didn't register until several seconds in.

With a jagged breath, Eve forced herself to relax as she pried her hands away from her wet, tear-stricken face, trying to stop her hands from shaking. No, her body from shaking.

She had no control over this. She couldn't predict that this would happen.

Still, immense guilt and shared pain washed over her. She was seeing through her own eyes now, but she couldn't stop seeing the image of James spewing out the blood gushing from his mouth, even when he tried to cover it.

How much more did he have to suffer? She was sure that she didn't know the full extent of it, either.

Eve wished she could be there to absorb some of the damage or at least help in someway. But until real progress was made in finding him, there was nothing she could do. She was useless. Useless.

Eve took in another deep, shaky breath, but it came out jagged and hollow. She couldn't be bothered to sit up and clean herself up. She needed some time to adjust and process, but knowing that others were nearby made that feel impossible - although she couldn't explain why.

Sharply closing her eyes, Eve covered her face again and focused on her breathing, trying not to dwell on the things she couldn't control. Trying not to dwell on James's pained expression, the sadistic expression of pleasure from Rita, and the potential hurt that was to come.

Eve wanted to send him another message - but not like this. Not when he was hurting. And not when she was hurting because he was hurting.

She had to compose herself, which felt pathetic in comparison since she wasn't the one living through the experiences, yet was telling him to remain strong anyways.

Deep breath in, deep breath out.

Eve didn't know how much time had passed. It was a blur, especially when she tuned out everything except her breathing. Eventually, her breathing patterns became more relaxed, and her eyes were dry from tears. Her heart wasn't pounding against her ears anymore, but she would be lying if she said she was in a complete state of calm.

She couldn't. Not when someone she deeply loved was in so much peril. But she could at least mask the intensity of her emotions for now and do her best to keep herself relaxed.

Slowly, Eve sat up, feeling numb and empty. She always did after Tula sent her message. She was glad that Tula would never know how much this deeply affected her, but she knew that she knew anyways.

Groggily, Eve stiffly pulled her legs together and rested her elbows on her knees. She rubbed the side of her head with her hands, trying to distract herself from intrusive thoughts.

She couldn't go back to sleep like this. If she had it her way, she'd get an early head start of her day and start moving again. But she wasn't going to abandon her friends. Not again.

She heard footsteps quietly approaching. She opened her eyes again to see that it was Bo, who was taking watch. He seemed worried and concerned. He must have seen her trashing in her sleep.

"Bad dream?" Bo asked softly.

Eve didn't speak right away, instead closing her eyes again and rubbing her temples. She didn't want to talk about this now with someone she didn't know too well, but she did plan on telling him and the others eventually. It was a macabre story to tell, but they all needed to know the truth of what was happening.

"No," she answered lowly, opening her eyes again, but staring ahead, unfocused. "It's worse than a dream."

Bo knew what Tula was capable of. He was smart. He could connect the dots.

There was a long pause.

"I'm sorry," Bo said quietly.

Another two seconds pass.

"May I sit with you?" Bo asked.

Eve was far too tired to fight this. She felt fully drained and was exhausted.

"You may," she simply said.

And Bo simply nodded before he took a seat next to her, though he left her a little space.

"I've heard a lot from the others," Bo said. "But... how long have you and James been together?"

Eve knew he was trying to help alleviate her stress, but talking about the things that were not pressing felt even more stressful.

"I just witnessed a horrific scene of James having his cut tongue. I'd really rather not talk about trivialities," she said cooly, not caring how blunt that sounded.

A beat of silence.

"Fair enough," Bo said.

Eve didn't know what he was hoping to gain from this, but she closed her eyes and rubbed her face again, trying to regain her composure again. Yes, she was going to talk to Bo eventually. But after seeing something like this... Eve needed time. A lot of time. She didn't think she could be fully calm until the morning.

The minutes ticked on in silence. Eve didn't hear anything beside her, and for a moment, she questioned that Bo was even there. She glanced his way and didn't know if she was disappointed or relieved to see that he still was.

"I can keep watch if you'd like to go to sleep," she finally said. "I don't think I'll be going back to sleep."

"It's alright," Bo said. "I'm awake too."

Well, at least she offered.

Eve didn't have any more to say. And neither did Bo apparently, because they both sat by each other in silence for at least an hour, although Eve wasn't entirely sure. She was preoccupied with continually calming herself, reverting back to subtle meditation practices.

She wanted to avoid becoming an emotional mess again, especially since she knew her best chances of finding James involved cooperating with the others. She wanted to be her best self during the day, but it proved to be difficult when she continually thought back to what James had been through.

The pain. The suffering. Not only that, but Rita's words cut in as well.

They were trying to undermine her, making her feel weaker. It always did work, at least for a little bit. But Eve knew that her desire to be with James again was stronger, and she held on to the glimmer of hope she had.

She thought of what she could tell James. He was so patient to her when she was in a coma, and although he was so far away now, she wanted to give him the same patience and love he gave her. Why did it become increasingly difficult to do everyday? She disliked how this wasn't easy to her. She disliked that part of her.

Her mind was wandering again. Eve reeled it back to just the sounds of her calm breaths.

Finally, she looked up at the sky. It wasn't dawn just yet, but it will be soon. She'd deliver another message to James around the time that Adina wakes up so she wouldn't scare her awake. That would be another hour or so.

She glanced to her side again, noticing Bo still keeping watch, alert. He wasn't even giving her any mind, even when she was staring at him.

Eve stared ahead again, taking a silent deep breath. She was ready to talk now.

"One and a half years," she finally answered, referring to the question he asked nearly an hour ago now. "We've been together for one and a half years, but it's not consecutive. Rather, it's disjointed across an even longer period of time. Perhaps that is fitting for two time mages."

There was a beat of silence.

"Hm," he hummed. "And in the most recent block of time it's been...?"

"Three months," Eve said. "That includes the time on Nye."

She was going to say that it also included the time she woke up from the coma, but that would require too much explaining, so she decided to omit that part.

"I see," was all Bo said softly.

Bo didn't ask for it, but Eve thought this would be a good time to get him on the same page now. She wanted to get this over with. She let a short silence pass before speaking again.

"Like I said before, I didn't have a bad dream," she began, her gaze falling over the camp. "As you have already guessed, Tula was letting me see what she sees. Their camp was in the forest as well. James was being punished for something - I assume because he was talking out of turn. Butch held him down. Rita grabbed his tongue and sliced it with a knife. It's as bad as you can imagine, and at the end of it, Rita looked into Tula's eyes - knowing she was talking to me - and threatening that his legs would be next if he didn't learn his lesson."

Eve sighed.

"It's a scare tactic. I know. This isn't the first time she's done this. I don't even know what to do with this information, but I thought I'd share this in case it helps you in any way," Eve finished.

She didn't think there was anything he could do with this information either - other than knowing that they were not in any particular city, and that James's condition was getting worse.

"Thanks for telling me," Bo said quietly. "I'm sorry you had to see that."

"...Yeah," Eve said, not really sure there was much more to be said. "Are you sure you don't want to sleep, even for a little bit? We still have some time."

"Eh," Bo shrugged. "If I try to sleep now, I'll fall asleep by the time I have to wake up. I'll just push through for today."

"Alright. Thought I'd ask anyways," Eve said, leaving it at that. She was fine with sitting in silence until the others got up.

"I appreciate it," Bo said with a small nod, and fell into silence again as well.

At least, for a minute or so. Then he spoke up again.

"We're going to find him," Bo said quietly.

Eve hesitated, casting a sideways glance his way. "I know," she said after a brief silence, just as quiet.

Bo nodded slightly, and he slowly got to his feet.

"We'll get moving in an hour," he said. "Try to rest until then."
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Carina says...

20th of Sil

It was a long night.

Pitch packed up her items and left. Tula only gave her a sideways glance, but she didn't dare try to talk to her further. They had never gotten along, but Tula was relieved that Pitch wasn't petty enough to tell the truth.

Pitch wasn't stupid. If she didn't see James sneaking around, then she likely saw the fire lighting up her tent. If she wasn't leaving so soon, Tula might have tolerated her afterwards. But without another word, she left and that was that.

It was just her, Butch, and Alexander now. But everyone else was loyal, unlike Pitch. Rita wouldn't cast anyone else away like that.


After Tula retreated to her tent, she silently laid down on her bedroll, staring up at the top of the tent, listening. Rita was talking lowly, but Tula heard enough to know that she had woken up one of her henchmen. A medic, she assumed. Rita was giving commands to stop James's bleeding and patch him up.

There was a lot of blood for a small nick like that. It was almost as much as the time she sliced his arms so she could broadcast his displeasure to his lover. Unlike last time, however, he was whimpering and gagging, clearly in pain.

Tula wondered if Rita was going to drug him again. She certainly wouldn't, since he ought to feel more pain.

Still... this was sort of her fault, wasn't it?

No. No it wasn't. James was an idiot and came to her tent knowing the consequences. And for what? To talk to her? Lecture her?

Please. He deserved this. Telling her to think of her future and consider that Rita would betray her... like she did with Pitch.

But Tula was loyal.

She reminded herself of that as she finally tuned out James's whimpering and fell asleep.

It only felt like minutes had passed before morning came. Without deviating from her normal routine, Tula started her day. It took longer to perform the daily chores without Pitch there to help. Apparently she did more of the monotonous day-to-day things that she thought. It didn't matter in the end, since Rita came with a literal gang who was here to help.

James was sitting on the ground, leaning against Rita's wagon with a bloodied bandage in his mouth. His eyes were glazed over and bloodshot. He didn't sleep at all last night.

Gods. Tula thought he couldn't look any shittier, but every day she proved herself wrong.

He was just going to get worse, too. Tula wondered what other stupid acts he was going to put himself through to get in trouble again. It was self-inflicted torture at this point. She didn't take him for a masochist.

Rita was hellbent on making sure that he learned his lesson. Instead of letting him ride in her wagon like she usually did, she tied him up at the back of the wagon to force him to walk and keep up. Butch was ahead of the wagon, and Tula and Alexander were trailing behind the wagon on their horses, along with the dogs.

It was a bit overkill to ensure that a wounded man wouldn't escape, but Tula could understand the logic behind it. After all, Rita must have thought that James tried to escape two times now.

Tula admitted that she relished in seeing James struggle to keep up. She also smiled every time Alexander whipped his back when he was too slow. Between these events, she and Alexander would also engage in random chit-chat.

He talked about how the whip might be his next new choice of weapon after the dagger. Weapons, violence, frustrations, and James was a freqent conversation topic that the two of them frequently circled back to.

It wasn't that Tula was lonely. Even when Deidra was around, she hardly talked. But Tula admitted that it was nice to be in the presence of another like-minded person who could understand her.

Although... she didn't really know Alexander. Tula had been avoiding all personal topics since she didn't want to seem avoidant in answering personal details about herself if the conversation ever turned around on her. And frankly, she also didn't really care too much about anyone's personal life. History didn't matter much to her.

Questions relating to background weren't the only way to understand someone, though.

"Shut up, I've heard you say this a million times already," she said after he went on another spiel about turning James in to the Moonlight Kingdom. "What are you going to do afterwards? Retire? This cannot be your peak."

Alexander blinked, stopping mid-sentence.

"Oh. Well I'll go back to being the king's hunter, of course," Alexander said. "There are plenty of other people to track down and things to be scouted out besides this guy."

"You could retire as a filthy rich man after this is over," she reminded him. "But that's boring, isn't it?"

"I'm not really concerned with being rich," Alexander shrugged. "It'll keep my life cushy, sure, but being in a mansion surrounded by things is boring. I like the thrill of the chase."

"You would certaintly rise up the ranks and gain recognition within the kingdom," Tula said.

"So long as it means I get to keep hunting," Alexander said. "That's really all I care about."

He paused for a second, but looked over to her.

"What about you?" he asked. "Any plans after this?"

"Seems that hunting is in our blood, but I'm loyal to Rita. The thrill of the chase will be present within the gang as well," Tula said effortlessly.

She didn't actually care about hunting. She didn't really care what she did, as long as it had purpose and as long as she was following a guide she trusts. Rita was that guide, and she gave her purpose in a world that wouldn't accept her.

She did wonder, though. What would Alexander think of this plan? What were his biases against the Blue Suns?

"So, you really like Rita, then, huh?" Alexander asked.

"She's a good leader," Tula said. "A little crazy. But so am I."

"Right," Alexander said.

"What's it like to work with the kingdom?" Tula asked.

"Well, mostly I work with Carter, actually," Alexander said. "And it's great. He's an awesome leader and friend and he's the best person to work under."


Alexander talked about Carter a lot, but in the context of his leadership. It seemed that he was eager to please him, even when he claimed that they were friends.

"How long have you worked for him?" she asked.

"About four years," Alexander said.

"Were you friends before working for him?"

"Yeah," Alexander answered. "He helped me out of a tight spot, actually. Gave me a chance, and all. Not unlike what Rita did with you, I guess."

After that comment, he rode up a little closer to James and whipped his back again. James stumbled for a moment, but pushed himself back to his feet.

"We'll have a break soon," Alexander said dismissively. "He'll be fine."

"Don't you think he needs another beating? He's been walking faster lately," Tula said with a growing smile.

Alexander smirked.

"He could probably use just a little more encouragement," Alexander said before he spun the whip over his head and cracked it forward, catching on James's back again.

This time, it dug deeper, and slashed the back of his shirt open.

James looked like he was trying to hold himself up, but couldn't anymore.

His arms gave out, and so did his legs, and he fell forward. His arms were stretched upwards, still tied up to the wagon, but now he was being dragged behind the wagon, upper body only partially aloft just enough to keep his head from dragging in the dirt.

It didn't look like he'd have the strength to pull himself back to his feet anytime soon.

"I think that's enough for now," Alexander said, sounding satisfied. "Wouldn't want to overdo it and get Rita's feathers ruffled."

They both watched James pitifully get dragged along the ground, and the conversation turned to random comments here and there, like how it seemed that he had soiled himself, and how his open cuts were mixing in with the mud.

Other than that, the rest of the morning went by uneventfully.

They stopped to rest and reconvene, like they usually did at this time every day. The medic seemed stressed in shaping James up again, but neither Tula or Alexander were scolded. They were only doing their jobs, after all.

Unexpectedly, Rita approached Tula to deliver news.

"Keep watch over James," Rita said with a light pat on Tula's back. "Just watch. And make sure he doesn't run off."

Tula nodded, trying to hide her smile. It seemed that she had regained Rita's trust after nearly overdosing James from lumshade. Good.

"Of course," she said, already off to work.
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Carina says...

It didn't take long to find him. He was still behind the wagon, although no longer tied up. The medic was nowhere to be found, but it seemed that the job was finished. James had a clean bandage in his mouth and now wore a new shirt. The shirt was unbuttoned, perhaps to help his new whip wounds breathe. Bandages were wrapped around his back and across his chest.

James didn't seem to be paying attention to anyone around him, and the look on his face was vacant, and his eyes looked glazed over.

Seemingly unaware of her presence, he stumbled to his feet. Tula could see his limbs visibly trembling with tremors in his hands and feet as he turned and began to walk out into the trees.

He wasn't exactly moving fast, and it didn't look like he was trying to run away, but he was departing from the group.

He was moving slow, so Tula knew she could easily overtake him. Carefully keeping her eye on him, she silently moved behind him, keeping a respectable distance away so he wouldn't notice her right away. She wondered how far he could get.

Turns out, it wasn't too far.

He's only just gotten out of view of the camp when he fell on his hands and knees, practically collapsing. He was facing away from her, but she could hear his ragged breaths as he started to rasp and then convulse.

He was vomiting.

Disgusted, Tula had to stop herself from making an audible noise.

There wasn't a lot of food that came up. Most of it looked like water and blood, but he heaved for a while until he finally sat back on his knees, looking up as he pushed stray hairs out of his face. Fortunately, his hair was tied back. Otherwise that would've gotten gross really fast.

Not that this wasn't already gross.

"Throwing up all the lumshade out of your system, are you? Aw, would you like another dose to ease the pain? It's too bad that I can't give you another dose," Tula mocked.

James turned to look at her over his shoulder. She could see the beads of sweat on his forehead, making him look even more haggard and sickly than normal. Despite the exhaustion on his face, the daggers in his eyes were still present.

But he didn't say anything, of course.

Still, Tula kept her stare. She wondered if he was really this useless to talk or do anything in response. How boring.

But then he turned and lifted up his hand, flipping up his middle finger.

And there it was.

Tula kept staring at him, unamused. She crossed her arms.

"Get up and clean yourself up. You are filthy," she ordered.

James sat up straight and indignantly gestured to his chest. It appeared that, by nature of hunching over during his hurl fest, he'd avoided vomiting on himself.

"Wow, congratulations. Do you want a medal for not vomiting on yourself?" Tula said dully.

James rolled his eyes, and she could hear a faint, guttural groan in the back of his throat. He took a moment to slowly get to his feet with the speed of an old man.

"Move any slower and I'll ask Alexander to pass me the whip instead," Tula threatened with a smirk.

James glared at her and huffed, turning around to walk behind a tree.

"You want to escape for a third time? I'm sure Rita will love that," Tula said as she moved to follow since he was still moving at the speed of an old man.

His hand shot out from behind the tree, showing her the middle finger again. Then Tula heard the faint splash of water against the dirt.

He was urinating.

She couldn't hide the face of disgust as she stayed put, feeling aggravated. She decided to not feed him any more fodder and instead waited for him to finish, standing still with her arms crossed, waiting to glare at him.

Finally, he came out from behind the tree, shirt buttoned up.

"Are you done?" Tula said impatiently.

James huffed through his nose. Visibly drained, he leaned against the tree and looked away with another slight eyeroll.

What was up with him? He was acting so strange.

"You are so fucking weird," she muttered, shaking her head then gesturing for him to to go back to camp. "Well? Do you need me to herd you like a cow?"

James gave her a look like she was absurd for even suggesting that, and then tapped his wrist as if tapping a watch.

"Yes. I know. It's time for you to get a move on already," Tula said, annoyed.

James lifted his hand to his face, holding the bridge of his nose. He then looked at her and made a pointed gesture back towards camp and moved his pointer fingers like someone walking. Then shook his head at the walking.

So he didn't want to walk back.

"I don't care what you want. It's Rita's orders. She will punish you again if she notices you're gone, you know," Tula said.

James gave Tula a look like he wanted to laugh, but of course he couldn't - at least not fully. And then motioned a slicing motion across his neck and shook his head.

Tula had to stop herself from smirking. "Wow," she mocked. "I didn't take you for a masochist. Have you been enjoying all my torture, then?"

James slow-blinked at her. He nodded, but rolled his eyes while doing so.

"Well, spit it out then. Don't you want to lecture me again? Maybe this time, your whole tongue will be cut off," Tula said, her smirk growing. "Oh, wait. Such a shame that you're mute."

James looked off in the middle-distance, somewhere past her. He sighed, and then spat at the ground.

"Mmhm," he hummed lowly.

Tula watched the blood dribble down his chin, amused. "Rita should have done this earlier. You're much more tolerable when you can't say a word."

James pointed at her, then made a motion like he was slicing his tongue.

"Don't give her any ideas. She just might let me finish the job," Tula said, assuming that he was making some weird off-joke about how he wanted her to cut his tongue.

James shook his head. Then mimed like he was writing on a piece of paper, giving her an insistent, questioning look.

"You want me to give you a voice? Through paper? You really think I'd let you write and communicate again?" she said condescendingly, tilting her head down with a raised brow.

James pointed at her, made a motion with his hand like a mouth opening and shutting - talking - and rolled his eyes as he tilted his head back and forth. Then he pointed to himself, gesturing at his mouth with annoyed, wide eyes.

He looked ridiculous. But at the same time, this was entertaining. It was like all of his stupid grand words were condensed into miming. She wished he would never heal now.

"I have no idea what you are saying, but please. Continue," Tula said as she took a step back to lean against a tree, her arms still crossed.

James shot her a look of annoyance, but then pointed at her, then turned that finger towards the side of his head, circling it.

"Mmmhmm," Tula said, still watching him in amusement. She wondered what this was really all about, but frankly, she didn't care too much at the moment. Watching him move around idiotically was far more entertaining.

James let out a sigh and stood for a moment with his hands on his hips, like he was deliberating, or just resigned to this form of communication.

"I do have a paper and pencil on me," Tula said, still observing him. "And if I'm feeling gracious, I may let you use it. Sadly for you, I am not in a gracious mood. But I very well would be if you get down on your knees and beg me." She paused. "Then danced like a chicken."

James's mouth opened slightly as he squinted at her and drew his brows together, looking like he was offended.

"Offer expires in three... two..." Tula said, beginning to count down.

James grunted as he got down on his hands and knees, still moving with the speed of an old man, but doing it nonetheless.

There was a split second where he crouched with his head low, but then he looked up, and his expression almost made him look like a different person.

He looked up wide-eyed and pleading, and there were even tears in his eyes as he clasped his hands together and groveled at her feet.

Tula took great pleasure in watching him excessively beg all for a scrap of paper to write on. It was so pathetic to see how low he would stoop.

Pathetic but fun.

"Please. I'm flattered," she said with a smile, ruffling his hair like he was a dog. "You've been so good. Now won't the good boy do a chicken dance?"

James's pleading expression disappeared in an instant, and, shaking his head away from her hand, he got to his feet.

Tucking his arms in like they were wings, he began to flap them, and bopped his head out and in.

Tula found herself grinning, watching him bounce around like an idiotic chicken. This was a sight she never thought she'd see. It was a shame no one else was here to see.

"Cluck like a chicken," she ordered.

James glared at her out of the side of his eye for a split second before attempting the most disgusting cluck she'd ever heard in her life. It sounded more like he was choking than anything.

But she was impressed nonetheless.

"Bravo," Tula said as she slow-clapped. "Excellent work, but it's not perfect. You'll have to work on your chicken noises some more. It sounded disgusting."

The ridiculous dance came to an abrupt end, and James's arms dropped to his sides as he sighed, noncommittally spinning his hand on his wrist with a shrug of his brows.

True to her word, Tula reached into her back pocket and threw him a wad of crumpled-up paper and a small pencil that was hardly big enough to write with.

"Your reward," she said smugly.

James took the paper and flattened it out between his palms. She noticed there was still a slight tremor in his hands, and she wasn't sure if that was from the lumshade withdrawal or the pain he was in.

When the paper was flat he looked down at the side she'd already written on, and she could see his eyes skim it rapidly, but if he had any thoughts about the contents, it didn't show. It was only a list of animals she had maimed with Alexander, though. That and instances when she tortured James.

His expression was neutrally exhausted as he flipped the paper over and carefully wrote in tiny letters, as if to save space.

He hid his writing from view until he finished and then turned the paper towards her, revealing a very tiny, but short note written in shaky cursive. Tula had to squint to read it.

Yes or no questions will help.

Then he moved his thumb away to reveal: Rita doesn't trust/like mages. You should get away while you can.

Really? Really? Tula regret giving him the paper.

Irritated, she leaned forward and quickly snatched the paper from his hands, ripping it into pieces in front of him. The scraps of paper floated down by his feet.

"When will you ever learn? You will never learn your lesson. Soon Rita will ask me to cut off your limbs. And I will be happy to do so while your pretty little girlfriend gets front row seats," she growled.

James didn't even seem to be paying attention. He was scouring the scraps or paper and picked up one, writing on it again. Tula was about to wrestle the pencil away from him, but he finished writing before she could.

He tossed the pencil to the side, got to his feet, and turned the paper towards her, practically shoving it in her face.

The writing was small, but just legible enough to read.

Can't wait.

He tossed the paper to the side with a flick and turned as if he was finally going to head back to camp.

Tula loudly groaned, restricting herself from strangling him. Instead, she quickly and angrily snatched the pencil and scraps of paper nearby, including the one he tossed. She stuffed them back in her pocket, not caring if she also picked up dirt and grass.

It was best to not leave behind any evidence.

"You are insufferable," she said lowly with hate in her voice as she motioned for him to get a move on.

But James didn't reply.

Instead, just a few feet ahead of her, he stumbled. One of his legs crumbled beneath him, and he barely caught himself on the way down.

Tula snickered, and she pushed him even further with her foot so he would fall again. "Serves you right," she said.

James groaned, but something about it didn't sound right. Cautiously, Tula took her foot off him and took one step to the side. It sounded more sick than pained, like he was about to vomit again. And she sure didn't want to get his filth on herself.

James turned his head away from her as he heaved, spitting up blood before he threw up more water and bile.

Tula scrunched her face in disgust. "Disgusting. Don't you know how to clean up after yourself?"

At that, she threw him a dirtied rag, but it landed at the edge of the puddle of bile.

James picked it up and turned it over to the cleanest side, using it to dab around his mouth. Then he shakily got back to his feet.

He still looked a little green, but started walking again. Tula followed suit, but he still moved so, so slow.

"Can't you move any faster?" she said with irritation.

James shook his head.

"Let me get this straight. You are delaying to go back because you would rather have an engaging conversation in which I only ask yes or no questions. Is that right?" Tula asked.

James hesitated in his steps. But it seemed more because of a twinge in his ankle than because of her question. Still, he nodded.

"You must be so in love with me to risk your life like this," Tula said with a smirk.

He shook his head before she even finished. She rolled her eyes.

"The feeling's mutual, lover boy. I hate you," she said dully, keeping his pace, even when he was barely even moving.

He offered her an "okay" sign, but didn't look at her.

"You've seen what happened with Pitch. I know she talks to you. But rest assured, James, that your tricks won't work on me. Talk to me all you want. I will still take great pleasure in hurting you and everyone you love."

Still not looking at her, all he did was sign another "okay."

At that, she kicked his bum so he would move faster, but she didn't kick him hard. She didn't want to risk him throwing up again.

"Move faster," she ordered.

James stumbled forward, but didn't fall this time. He did stop, though, like he had to get his bearings. Tula stood next to him, arms crossed as she tapped her forefinger against her arm impatiently.

He let out pained sigh, almost like a wheeze, and began to trudge forward again.

At the rate they were going, Rita might begin to get suspicious. This time, Tula walked in front of him, forcing him to walk faster else she would give him another kick.

A short silence hung in the air as she watched him crawl towards her, a tiny bit faster this time.

As she waited, Tula wondered if she could use this time to her advantage. She didn't trust James at all and doubted all his information. She could easily gather needed information from Alexander, Rita, and Butch.

But she couldn't ask them about mages. Still, even if she didn't trust James's words, she could piece together a story from him.

"You say Rita hates mages, but you're a mage yourself, and she is in love with you," Tula commented.

James let out a pained noise that was probably meant to be a laugh.

"Well?" Tula pressed, even though she knew he couldn't say much. "Don't you have anything to say? You are so useless."

James sighed, but then he moved faster than he'd been moving the whole day. Swiftly, he sprung up on her and pushed her against the nearest tree. He pushed his elbow into her neck and pressed his fingers right underneath her eyes, enough to feel the pressure.

The actions surprised Tula, but she was quick to adapt. Before fully James pressed her against the tree and left her incapacitated, she instinctively pulled out her knife from her belt and held it against his back, pressing the blade against his skin, but not enough that he could feel it. She remembered that his nerve endings were shot in his back and used it to her advantage.

His elbow was on her neck, so she couldn't quite say all that she wanted to say, but she used her energy to spit out a sentence.

"I thought you weren't in love with me," she rasped with a devious smile before letting out a choke.

He pressed a little harder under her eyes, dangerously close to actually puncturing them.

It hurt. A lot. And for a moment there, Tula was worried that he would damage her eyesight. And without her eyesight... well, how else would she let his lover know that he was being tortured?

Without wasting another second, Tula bit back the pain and stared back up at him with a partial squint, focusing on Rita and her connection.

She wanted Rita to see what she saw. James, hurting her valuable asset and ally. She would not only help her, but James would face grave consequences as well.

They weren't far from the camp, so it didn't take long for Rita to react. She heard people running.

It took James a second longer before he seemed to register the sound of pounding footsteps. For a moment, it looked like he was going to gouge out her eyes at the last second.

But then he pulled away, bowing his head in defeat.

Tula reached for her neck as she rasped for air. She rubbed her eyes and let out a muffled laugh as Rita's men came into view.

"Like I said. Useless," she said with a grin.

James turned away from her, instead facing the men as they came and grabbed him, one person under each arm.

"Are you alright?" one of the men asked Tula as James was dragged away.

This could be fun.

Tula coughed and rasped for air, turning her head away to mask her face from view as she widened her eyes to try to dry them out as much as possible so she could appear more in pain that she seemed. She then turned back around, angry with blurred vision as she gritted her teeth.

"He choked me and almost gouged my eyes out. Do I look okay?" she said between breaths.

The man's expression turned empathetic, but there was a flash of anger on her behalf.

"Let's get you to the medic," he said.

Although James did leave a painful imprint on her, Tula didn't think that a check-up was necessary. Still, she obliged and exaggerated everything that happened, repeatedly telling the medic that he needed to check her eyes because she was seeing spots. At the end of it, they wrote some notes and told her she could go, but that they would have to have a discussion with Rita as well.


While Tula was being checked up, she heard James screaming nearby but out of view.

That was good too.

She thanked the medic and left, wandering around the camp for a short bit until she found James. There he was, sitting in the open wagon again, seemingly asleep. Drool and a little bit of blood was dribbling from his lips, which were partly open.

There was a shuffling sound before Rita came into view from the side of the wagon.

"So he got the jump on you," Rita said neutrally.

"He's deceptive," Tula said cooly, glaring at James. "He said he needed another moment to vomit, but he only wanted to appear vulnerable."

"Why do you think I've been such a hard ass?" Rita asked. "You can't let your guard down, Tula. Don't underestimate him again. Understand?"

"Understood," Tula said with a nod.

"I need you," Rita said, giving her a meaningful look. "Don't let him make you soft like he did with Deidra."

At first, Tula felt Rita's validation to be meaningful and worth it. If she had ended her sentence after she said "soft," then every tiny shred of doubt she ever had about Rita would have been washed away.

But she didn't. She kept going, because she just had to bring in Deidra.

Not Pitch. Not anyone else. Deidra.

Tula was careful to not reveal this anger, instead lightly bowing to Rita as her next words came out effortlessly.

"I won't, Rita," she said, but there was a sliver of hate behind her words.

Rita didn't even know Deidra. James didn't even know Deidra. Why were people using her to try to persuade Tula's mind? Was she not human to them? It infuriated Tula.

But Tula was good at keeping secrets, thoughts, and observations to herself. And so was Rita. Perhaps, the less she knew about Deidra, the better. That included Tula's own reservations.

"Do you need my assistance on anything else before we get a move on?" she asked so the ensuing silence didn't feel long.

"Just keep watch as always," Rita said.

"That, I am good at," Tula said with a slight smirk.

And at that, she turned around and walked away, her smirk immediately turning to frown.

She wandered around the camp and kept her eyes on everyone for a little while, mentally keeping tabs on everyone's whereabouts. After several minutes, she ducked away to ruffle through her saddlebag on her still-unnamed horse. The horse, silent and obedient like always, only huffed through its nose as Tula emptied her pockets into the bag. With the bag concealing the public's view, she pieced together the scraps of paper she had shredded in front of James not so long ago.

Rita doesn't trust/like mages, were what two pieces together said. You should get away while you can, were what the remaining pieces said.

Tula stared down at the scraps, internally groaning before she pushed them deep in her bag so she could lose sight of it.

She hated James, yes. But...

Maybe Rita was not someone she wanted to work for after all.
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Carina says...

21st of Sil

It was early morning now. A full day had passed since Eve had seen Tula's vision. Normally she would compose herself and deliver a message of her own to James, but this time, she didn't.

This felt different. Different, because she wasn't alone anymore. Different, because Adina would know she went back in time. Different, because she didn't know what to say anymore.

Eve thought that, with enough time, she could think through her jumbled mess of thoughts and give a clearer message to James. But she was still as drained and empty as the night she last saw him.

She just needed to be alone to think.

So that was where Eve was, meditating a good distance away from the others before they would move again. She gave Bo a heads up, so he was aware of where she was at in case anyone started to worry.

There was a rustle behind her. Someone was walking through bushes.

Eve peeped behind her, seeing Elias's golden hair behind all the greenery as he tried to trudge through the thicket.

Interrupted again. Did he ask Bo where she was?

Eve sighed, relaxing her posture as she tried to hide any annoyance in her face and voice. "Did you follow me here?" she asked bluntly.

"Uh, no," Elias said with a laugh as he shook off the leaves clinging to his clothes. He invited himself over, sitting nearby. "I saw Elliot and figured you were around here."

Right. Eve did take Elliot with her, although she tied him to a tree closer to the camp, so if Elias was wandering around, he may have spotted him.

"Whatcha doing? What are you doing all the way out here?" Elias asked with a silly smile.

"Thinking," Eve said plainly.

"Why do you need to be over here to think?" he asked.

"Big thoughts require big space," she said dully.


Elias seemed to stew on that one. Maybe he was thinking that he didn't often need a lot of space to think, which could imply that he had small thoughts. Which also wasn't false.

Eve knew he'd eventually ask her what she was thinking, so she decided to cut right to the chase.

"Tula sent me another message two days ago," she said. "She wanted to show me James being punished, even when he was already at his limits."

"Oh," Elias said softly as he paused to more carefully think through his next words. "That is a big thought. That's awful."

"I watched as Rita sliced his tongue," Eve added.


"And this isn't even the worse I've seen. But I always send him a message afterwards," Eve finished.

"Mess--?" Elias started in the short silence that ensued.

"That's how I've been communicating with him," Eve cut in. "James dreams of the memories I've undone when going back in time. I've been using that to my advantage."

"So..." Elias began again, but Eve continued before he could begin his thought.

"I've been trying to send him a message every day. But... I haven't yet today." She sighed. "I don't know. I don't know what to say now."

This time, Elias seemed to pause for an excessively long time, which drew Eve's attention. She turned to look at him, half-expecting him to not even be paying attention to her, but he seemed to be invested. Maybe too invested, like he was waiting to see if she was finished.

"That's what I've been thinking about," she said to finish her thought and make it more clear that she was done. "That's it."

"Hm." Elias rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger. "It sounds like you're overthinking this one. Does it even matter what you say? I feel like he'd be happy hearing you talk about something boring and pointless... like math."

Well, she certainty wasn't going to do that. But maybe he had a point.

"That's what James did to you when you were in a coma, right?" Elias went on. "Didn't you like it when he talked to you about random unimportant stuff?"

"Yes... but this is different, Elias," Eve said. "I wasn't being tested to my limits everyday like he is now. I wasn't experiencing pain and hurt."

"No, but he also never gave up on you, right? There was no guarantee you'd even wake up. But he was still there for you every day anyways."

"So you're saying I should still instill hope, even when the situation is dire and feels hopeless," Eve said.

"Well... yeah. What's the alternative? We have an early funeral for him?" Elias said as a lighthearted dark joke, but Eve didn't find it funny, so he quickly moved on. "Sorry. Bad joke. We'll find him, you know. We'll see him again."

Eve took a deep breath, adjusting her position so she hugged her legs, bringing them closer to her chest so she could perch her chin on top.

She remembered what Bo had told her some days ago. Elias was having a hard time and needed someone to talk to. Clearly, he seemed to gravitate towards her again. So if it were a person he needed to talk to about heavy things with, Eve would gladly do it - if it meant wasting no time.

"You talk about holding on to hope like it's so easy," she said. "Didn't you give up?"

Elias faltered, not expecting the question. He seemed uncomfortable, but it was an uncomfortable question. She wondered if she should have said that less bluntly, but he spoke before she could think more upon that.

"Mentally, yes. Physically, no. Not too different from James now, I think. Maybe that's why we're pals," he said with a little smile.

It was another light joke, but Eve was tired of jokes.

"What if your life didn't change? What if Elise couldn't save you? Would you still think the same?" she asked, pressing on.

Elias was quiet again. His smile seemed to waft in and out, like he was deciding if he should truly be serious or say another off-handed joke.

"But I'm here, aren't I?" he said with a weak laugh. "What's the point of imagining that?"

"Sometimes, you have to think of difficult thoughts to grow," Eve said.

That seemed to sting Elias a little. He pressed his lips together, which Eve recognized to be a sign that he was actually going to be serious.

"That's funny, coming from you," he grumbled.

She narrowed her eyes at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Evaline... You blindsided everyone by going through some complicated surgery procedure without telling anyone, fell into a coma for six months, woke up, changed your name, then never talked about it again," Elias said gently.

Something about him saying that so plainly and using her old name didn't sit right with her.

"I mean, I get it. It's a difficult thought. But you can't tell people to think difficult thoughts when you don't do it yourself. That's hypocritical, don't you think?" Elias went on.

"Okay, I get where you're coming from," Eve said, feeling more annoyed than defensive. She turned to more squarely face Elias. "But this isn't about me being hypocritical. If you're making this into a competition about who doesn't talk about difficult subjects the most, you take the cake, Elias. You've been this way for as long as I've known you. I mean, Elise didn't even know about your magic until way too late. Your own sister. It's ironic that you're telling me to not be hypocritical about this subject of all things."

Elias slow-blinked before letting out a laugh, putting his hands up in defeat. "Okay. Fine. You got me. What are you going to do?"

"Nothing. Because whatever I say or ask, you're just going to twist it into a joke," Eve said tiredly.

"Okay, fine. I feel like we've really derailed from what we were talking about anyways. So why don't we talk about you? Why is this bothering you so much? Are you taking your frustrations about James out on me?"

"No," Eve said stubbornly.

"I mean, I made a joke that James and I are pals because we are kind of sort of similar in that way, but--"

"It's not that similar," Eve interrupted. "You had no say about your life back then. You weren't given a choice."

Elias was caught off guard again, pausing once more and speaking more softly now. "We are always given a choice."

"And James chose to leave," Eve spat out.

It was a reoccurring thought she had, but she kept it to herself because it felt selfish to say.

"But so did you," Elias said gently. "You didn't have to leave us."

"That's... that's different," Eve said, finding herself speaking quicker. More panicked. "I was being reactionary."

"Yeah... but wasn't he too?" Elias asked. "I think we are always given a ch--"

"I know you must be thinking that I'm selfish and hypocritical," Eve blurted out. "I'm casting blame on James for leaving when he only did so because he didn't want his friends to suffer. But doesn't he know that the suffering doesn't end there? It only transitions to others. To him, to me, and everyone else here. And for what? What happens to him if we don't make it in time? Didn't he think what would happen to me? If it were me that our enemies were after - if I was the one they all wanted to hunt down instead, and was given the choice to leave so I can prevent my friends from suffering - I would stay. Does that make me a bad person? To consider James over anybody else? I would pick him, every time. Is that cruel? Is that love? Who is the selfish one here?"

By the end of her spiel, Eve found herself out of breath, knowing that she had talked fast. She was sure that she appeared a little crazy, but she didn't care. Still, she tried to take in deep breaths to control her breathing, staring at Elias as she waited to see if he had anything to say to that.

"Why does anyone have to be selfish?" he asked as soon as she finished. "To love someone with all your heart like that... and for James to weigh the suffering of others... aren't both acts selfless in their own ways?"

Eve didn't know what to say to that. She still felt a little delusional from saying this thought that she had thought she guarded well, and frankly, now she was tired. She didn't know what she expected from Elias. She thought maybe he could understand.

It wasn't the first time they talked about something like this, after all.

"Maybe. I don't know," she said in defeat.

There was a long silence, but it didn't feel uncomfortable to her. If anything, she was glad that Elias didn't interrupt it, because she was far too tired and busy dissecting her own thoughts.

Until he spoke again.

"Hey... you said you are having trouble figuring out what to say to James, right?" he asked. "Even when you can probably say anything?"

A little suspicious, Eve cast a glance his way. "...Yes?"

Elias smiled. "Can I talk to him?"

Eve almost wanted to laugh from the absurdity of it all. "Sure," she said. "If I find it appropriate."

Elias hummed. "Alright. Okay, so it has to be something profound enough for you to want to send it. Got it."

Eve narrowed her eyes at him. "I'm not that pretentious," she said, but immediately regretted it because she sensed that he was going to challenge her words.

"Really?" Elias grinned. "So you would send him a message of me making armpit fart noises?"

Eve stared at him blankly, not amused.

Elias shrugged. "Hey, Bo says toddler humor is hilarious. You never know, maybe James will laugh so hard that he gets cured from all wounds."

"What do you want to say, Elias?" Eve asked impatiently.

"Okay. Wait. I have to think." He focused his intensity on Eve, tilting his head and squinting at her. "Hmm. Kind of hard to imagine what I'd say to him if he's not even here though... Maybe you can pretend to be James and we can have a conversation?"

"James can't even talk right now. Tongue got cut, remember?" Eve said. "Why do you even need to imagine that he's here, anyways? This doesn't need to be a conversation."

"So... you want me to monologue?" Elias asked.


"I never monologue..." he murmured.

At this point, Eve was losing patience. "Do you want to tell him something or not?"

"Okay, okay. I got this." He took a deep breath in, serious and focused as he rested his gaze on her. "James. I want you to know... Your woman is crazy in love with you."

There was an awkwardly long silence as he relaxed his posture.

"That's it," he said with a satisfied smile.

Eve couldn't stop the absurd laugh from coming out. "That's it?" she said between the laughs. "That's all you have to say?"

"Yeah, but can you please send it? I need him to know that. Very essential information," he said with a nod.

"This doesn't even... don't you want to say anything else?" she said as she squinted at him.

Elias shrugged. "I dunno, you said it didn't need to be a conversation. What else was I supposed to say? You wouldn't let me make armpit noises."

"I don't know, I thought you'd say that you miss him and care about him, and will continue to instill hope for him. I thought you'd say that you'll continually fight for your friend and look forward to seeing him again. Maybe say a joke. Or something random and unimportant. I don't know, anything that could make the situation feel less severe than it really feels. You have a way of doing that."

Eve was going to keep listing examples, but then it dawned on her --

By revealing what she expected Elias to say, she realized that that was what she wanted to say to James too. Just in her own way.

"Oh. Welp. Should I, uh... should I try again?" Elias asked.

Eve felt a love swell in her again. Elias didn't realize it, but this was what she needed to hear. She knew exactly what to send James now.

"No," she said with a smile. "No. That was perfect."

And then Eve used her magic, undoing the whole interaction so that James could not only witness Elias's amazingly few words - but the whole interaction instead.

"Hey... you said you are having trouble figuring out what to say to James, right?" he asked again as she replayed the moment. "Even when you can probably say anything?"

Eve knew that he asked this to break the tense silence that rested between them, but after going through this already, she had to compose herself and fake her suspicion as she repeated what she said last time. "Yes?"

This time, they both smiled and spoke at the same time.

"Can I talk to him?" they both asked. Elias first, but Eve copying him because she knew what he would say.

Eve had to hold in her laughter as Elias's eyes grew big from surprise. He grinned.

"Whoa, how'd you know what I would say?" he asked, amazed.

Eve pressed her lips together, keeping her laugh in as she stood up. "It's funny that you fall for this every single time. Why is it your first reaction to think that I'm clairvoyant?"

It took Elias a second to process as he got up with her. Finally, recognition washed across his face.

"Ohhh," he drew out. "You went back in time? Why?"

"Because I sent your message," Eve said like it was obvious.

Elias hesitated. "What'd I say?"

Eve gave him an odd look. "What do you mean, what did you say? You said it. Don't you know what you'd say?"

"Uh... well." Elias shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "I mean, I was thinking I'd tell him that Sleepy hasn't laid an egg since he's been gone. But I was also thinking that that'd be pretty unimportant. So I was thinking I'd say--"

"I thought you said that unimportant stuff matters too," Eve interrupted.

Elias smiled wide. "Yeah. True. So I didn't say that?"

Eve shook her head. "No. But you can tell him another time. Come on, let's go back to camp." She took a step forward but hesitated. "...Thank you, by the way, Elias."

"For what?" he asked, sounding legitimately curious.

Eve smiled shyly. It was an innocent question, but she didn't know how to piece the words together to form an answer.

"Whoa, look at that," Elias said as he pointed at a squirrel on a tree, already distracted. Eve was grateful for that. "That's the fattest squirrel I have ever seen."

Eve covered her face and laughed. This was starting to feel more and more absurd.

"You're a good friend," she said, deciding to just say the thought out loud without addressing all the nuances that attacked her head.

Surprised, Elias, shifted his attention from the squirrel back to her. He beamed, and his smile reached his eyes.

"You are too," he said.
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Carina says...

22nd of Sil

Two days had passed since the incident. James was still tied up and locked away, drugged out of his mind. Even if Tula wanted to see him, she couldn't. He was kept in Rita's wagon, out of sight and out of mind. Rita took care of him now instead of assigning people to watch him, but it appeared that she cared for him by locking him away.

Didn't matter, though. Tula didn't want to see his ugly smug face, anyways. Without words, he had threatened to blind her, taking away her most coveted prized possession: her sight.

That was just ironic, wasn't it? They had settled on fake Nye version of Nyah on being the reason she had even met James anyways. And in that story, James had blinded her.

Tula had started to sow seeds of distrust against Rita, but that didn't mean she began to trust James. At this point, she was wondering if everyone here was an enemy.

Who could Tula consider to be an ally? She used the last few days to formulate a list in her head.

She could choose between James, Rita, Pitch, Alexander, and Butch. Pitch had already left. Rita was someone she didn't think she could trust now. James was far down on her list of potential allies, he wasn't a real option. That left Alexander and Butch.

Alexander was the most obvious choice, so she sprinkled in more time with him than usual lately, trying to win even more of his trust and mining information from him. He seemed comfortable enough to be take her hunting with him, and Tula would even go as far to say that he even seemed to enjoy her presence.

Alexander was a sharp shooter, but Tula had a more observant eye. Together, they made a good team.

Especially when they both came in for the kill.

Tula helped him as he maimed a doe, putting it out of its misery. She cradled its head on her knees before helping him hoist it on his shoulders so they can take it back to skin and gut for meals.

"How many have you killed in your life, you think?" she asked as she flicked her bloodied hand away.

"People?" Alexander asked. "Or deer?"

"Both," Tula said with a smirk.

"42 people," Alexander said. "167 deer."

"How precise," Tula mused. "Is that also the number of people who wronged you?"

"Oh," Alexander laughed. "No. None of them really wronged me personally."

"That many exes?" Tula said with a chuckle.

"A lot of it was for money," Alexander said with a shrug. "Some of it was for fun. Some of them were mages."

"I see. Hunting for sport," Tula said as filler words.

She didn't want to pause for too long and let him suspect anything. She also didn't dare to question why he targeted mages, because that would only make her seem suspicious too.

Tula got the sense that Alexander was someone who thought in the black and white. All mages were bad. They must be executed. No exceptions.

Since he worked for the Moonlight Kingdom, it seemed that they operated in this way as well. It made sense, considering that King Blackfield was one who started the anti-mage rulings.

Alexander was fun, but he was someone she couldn't fully trust. Therefore, he wasn't a true ally.

24th of Sil

If Tula couldn't trust Alexander, then she was better off spending her efforts on gaining intel from Butch, who seemed more of a neutral party from what little she knew of him.

Two days had passed since she hunted with Alexander. She used her time to observe Butch more carefully this time.

For a guy who was big and seemed naturally assertive, he seemed more withdrawn among Rita and her men. He was never quick to speak and seemed to isolate himself from the others. He was only eager to step in if torturing James was involved and otherwise went about fulfilling the menial needs throughout the day with little to no comment or complaint. She noticed he always seemed to be on guard, especially with Rita around. Though he never said anything, she could sense there was a deep-seated distrust there.

But despite socially isolating himself by never speaking up, he was rarely alone.

Besides sight, Tula's other strength was patience. She silently observed from a distance, not drawing attention to herself or give any indication that she was essentially stalking Butch. She wanted to talk to him more since listening and asking questions were the best ways to gain information, but she waited it to be an appropriate time.

So she waited. For two days, she waited.

Then, finally, her window of opportunity opened around dinner time. Alexander was busy cooking his meats, Rita was tending to James, and her men were all gathered around the campfire while entertaining small talk. Most notably, however, was Butch - alone, sitting at the edges of the camp with his dogs. He had scarfed down his food and excused himself early to sharpen his axe.

That was his excuse, anyways. But perhaps there was more than what he was saying. Perhaps he had excused himself because he did not enjoy their presence.

This was the opportunity she had been waiting for.

Tula pretended to be invested in a conversation with Alexander about the best way to gut deer, but during a natural lull of silence, Tula excused herself as well, claiming that Rita assigned her to tend to the horses.

That wasn't particularly true, but Alexander seemed to buy it, and the horses were near Butch anyways.

At that, she slinked away, distancing herself from the warmth and light of the campfire to "tend" to the horses. She first gave her horse some pats, pretended to get some items out of the bag, but then looked up at Butch as he continued to slave away at sharpening his axe, making a high-pitched sound for each sharpen.

"Sharpen that axe any more and it will cut anyone that even looks at it," Tula said with a slight smirk as she watched from a short distance away, inviting herself over. "Is something troubling you?"

"What do you want, Tula?" Butch asked, cutting to the chase.

Rita slightly turned her head towards the camp so she could have eyes on them. No one followed her.

"I know you have reservations about Rita," she said with a low voice. "I want to know why."

Butch glanced at her, then back down at his axe, like he was intentionally avoiding looking up at Rita.

"The Blue Suns don't have a good reputation," Butch said quietly. "Not with everyday folk. You can't trust a sun to look out for anyone but their own, and I'm not one of them."

"Has she ever wronged you before?" Tula asked, keeping her voice just as quiet.

"Not personally," Butch said.

"Then how do you know this?" Tula pressed.

"My wife's brother used to be a sun," Butch said, barely audible. "He died of a lumshade overdose. And her sister's still out there, somewhere, in the outlands. Once you're in, you can't leave. She hasn't seen her sister in years."

"Why was he given lumshade?" Tula dared to ask.

"He was addicted," Butch said plainly.

"That doesn't sound like a sun problem," Tula said.

"Yeah, well they allowed it," Butch said. "They're the main suppliers in Nye. They allow a lot."

This wasn't entirely relevant to what she wanted to know, so she decided to steer the conversation closer to the topic that concerned her.

"Rita asked me to consider joining the suns," she lied, but she knew Butch wouldn't confirm this. "Of course, she paints it to be the greatest opportunity I'll ever have. But I'd like to really know what I'm getting into."

"Well..." Butch said quietly. "I don't know what you're asking me for. If you want to throw your life away that's your business."

Tula watched him carefully, tilting her head. "You seem to have strong opinions."

Butch only glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes, then finished sharpening his axe and moved on to polishing.

"I'd like to know them," Tula went on when he didn't say anything else. "In more details, if you wouldn't mind sharing."

"You want to know if you're making a good decision or not," Butch said. "And you're asking me?" He looked out at the others around the fire. "Why not ask one of the people who's already pledged their loyalty what its like?"

"I have," Tula said. Another lie, but again, it didn't matter. "But their answers are biased. Your answers will be too, but at least I can make a more informed decision understanding both sides. It's plain logic."

Butch narrowed his eyes at her.

"Sure," he said.

He paused, frozen still for a moment.

"On one condition," he added.

"Yes?" Tula said, waiting for him to go on.

"Tell Rita you need me to help you when you're on watch for James," he said. "After what almost happened last time."

Tula smirked. It was a perfect win-win situation. She was on Rita's good side and now and had a recorded event of James overpowering her. Butch wanted to get his revenge on James while also being the strongest person in the group.

It was a good trade, especially for information. Information was power, after all.

"Deal," she said. "I will make that happen."

"Good. Then what is it you want to know?" Butch asked.

"I'd like to know how Rita truly treats her people - namely those who she finds to be the most valuable," Tula said. "Stories, rumors, facts - any information helps."

"Well, I know the ones closest to her get the most perks, but also the least amount of freedom," Butch said. "She keeps everyone on a pretty tight leash. She's good at playing to people's strengths but at the end of the day it's all just to keep her criminal empire afloat. And she'll be as cutthroat as she has to be to make sure that happens."

He paused, then added. "Everyone who joins and gets the tattoo is really loyal to her, but so far as I'm aware, most people are afraid of her too."

"Why are they afraid of her?" Tula asked. "Can you provide specific examples of what she has done to cause fear?"

"Bad things happen to people who break her trust," Butch said. "I don't know... people die mysteriously. It'll look like an accident. Or they'll just fall off the face of the earth and no one sees them again."

"What kinds of people does she bring in? Criminals, misfits, outcasts, and mages, for examples?" Tula asked.

Butch glanced at her, brows drawn together.

"She doesn't shelter mages," Butch said like it was common knowledge. "The Blue Suns... they do a lot of questionable things, but they've always been allied with the guilds. It's one of main the reasons they have credibility and influence."


James's chicken scratch note replayed in her head: Rita doesn't trust/like mages. If what Butch said was true, James's comment held some merit. If Rita truly didn't like mages because she was also strict upon the mage guild's rules, then why would Tula be an exception?

Tula wanted to know more, but it was impossible without drawing more suspicion upon herself. She didn't want Butch to think it was odd that she seemed so interested about mages yet didn't grasp the common knowledge that the Blue Suns and the guilds were working together.

"Have you worked for the guilds?" she asked as an innocent question to now gauge how Butch perceived mages.

"Sometimes," Butch said. "It comes with the territory. Bounty hunter and all."

It seemed that Butch was similar to Alexander in that way, but instead of being loyal to the Kingdom, Butch was loyal to money.

Tula was no exception to him.

"Back to Rita. Who does she normally recruit, then? I assume there isn't a waiting list of people wanting to join," Tula said instead.

"Just... criminals, outcasts, and the like," he said. "But lots of decent folk have been pulled into it too."

But not mages, apparently.

Tula got all the information she needed to know, but she asked more obvious questions to round-out her inquiries. She asked about the structure of the gang, other specific people she should know about, and even the lumshade trade, which sent him talking.

After that, Tula thanked him for his time and reassured him again that she will ask for him the next time Rita asks her to keep watch. Butch simply nodded and resumed to sharpening his weapons.

Tula crawled in her tent for the night and began to think through what she knew so she could evaluate her options.

The information didn't seem mixed, but her sources were. According to Butch and James, Rita did not like mages. They both also said that she had a history of letting people in only to leave them in the dust when it was convenient for her. Alexander seemed to be more of a neutral party, respecting Rita but not holding many opinions since he was loyal to the Kingdom. Since he hunted mages as well, he may have even worked with past sun members.

Tula wanted to let out a loud groan.

If she wanted to get anywhere, she had to do it, didn't she?

She had to talk openly with James.

Annoyed, Tula flipped to her be laying on her stomach so her face would be covered by the pillow.

Gods. This was what her life had come to. No one to trust, forcing her to talk to the person she hated the most.

"Deidra. Why did you have to leave?" she mumbled, her voice muffled by the pillow.

Fine. Fine.

She would do this, but only because information was power.
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Carina says...

Eve had a steady routine going. She knew herself to know that following a strict routine in times of madness often helped ease her nerves. It had been a while since she moved in a big group like this, but regardless, she mostly spent her time either by herself, with Elliot, with Elias, or with Adina. It seemed that Mel, Alistair, and Elise enjoyed the presence of the others, which was nice to see.

And it was also nice to reconnect with Elias, although perhaps "reconnect" was a strong word. Eve still considered him a good friend.

Adina, too. It was a breath of fresh air to befriend another time mage who wasn't trying to hurt or manipulate her.

Eve also once again fell into an accidental habit of getting her hair braided. Instead of James doing it, it was Adina. Although Eve hadn't voiced it to her, she appreciated the act far more than she could ever realize. It felt familiar and safe.

It was the second-to-last day of Summer. The air was still hot and muggy, but Bo warned that the weather will start to cool down starting next week. Eve cared less about the weather and more about the fact that autumn meant that they were closer to reaching James.

Just one month left to go.

"Your hair's getting longer!" Adina commented as she brushed her hair in the morning. "I could try more styles soon."

"As long as it's practical," Eve said.

"Right," Adina said. "Practical. Maybe, later... after all of this. I'll try the less practical ones."

She ended up settling on her normal braiding pattern. The next day, however, Adina braided her hair again and brought up the subject once more.

"You know," Adina said. "Maybe you can stick to the practical styles. But I could teach you how to braid some fancier ones on me. I think it'd be fun."

"I can try my best, especially since you braid my hair so often. It's only fair," Eve said.

Adina nodded, and Eve caught an oddly bashful look in her eyes.

"But wouldn't it make more sense for you to teach me the more basic styles first?" Eve asked.

"Oh," Adina said, her timid smile faltering. "Yes. Yes that would make more sense..."

Eve pursed her lips, watching her out of the corner of her eye. Adina seemed to be hiding something from her.

"Unless... you prefer the prettier styles?" she offered.

"I--I do, yeah," Adina said quickly, her face brightening. "I just think I uh-I look better in them. With my hair type."

"You think you look better in them? Or does someone else think that?" Eve challenged.

Adina's cheeks flushed.

"What?" she asked. "Who else would I be talking about?"

Eve tried to hold back a growing smile. Now it was apparent that she was trying to show off. But unless she was ready to share, Eve wasn't going to pry. It was cute to see her like this, though.

"Oh, I don't know. I'm just messing with you," she said with a smile, dropping the conversation.

Adina laughed it off nervously, but seemed relieved.

She settled on a more robust braiding pattern that day, so she redid her braid two days later. And with that, the conversation returned once more. Adina was thinking out loud, talking through various braiding patterns that she'd like to try out. She voiced the instructions out loud first, but Eve found it hard to follow, especially when she couldn't try it out with her hands.

Finally, she finished braiding her hair and they switched places. Eve didn't often braid hair, but she was careful and diligent in listening to her instructions. It seemed that Adina wanted a hairstyle that was partly braided, which definitely seemed more cosmetic than practical, but Eve entertained it anyways, especially since they had the time.

By the time she finished, however, Eve wasn't impressed with her work. She passed Adina a mirror so she could see.

"I'm sorry it's not as good as how you described it," she said. "But I think I'll get better with more practice."

Adina turned her head in the mirror, trying to get a good view.

"It's not bad at all actually," Adina said with a small smile. "You've got a good eye for artsy things."

Eve laughed through her nose. "I've been told I draw special attention to detail. I suppose in this case, the details are strands of hair. I'm glad you like it."

"Thank you, Eve," Adina said, beaming. "I think E-eeeeeveryone will like it."

Eve slow-blinked. That... well, that was a terrible save. What was she trying to say?

Or, better question: who was she trying to say?

Adina coughed.

"I think I heard someone call my name," Adina said abruptly. "I should probably go, uh. See about that."

Eve considered everyone whose name started with E. Besides herself, there were only two other people.

Eve considered asking outright, but she decided to wait until she had more information. For now.

"Good hearing," she said. "Let's go back to camp."

She walked back together with her, and predictably, the E-named person noticed Adina and commented on her hair.

"Ooh, fancy hairdo," Elias said, holding and petting Sleepy as Adina casually walked nearby. "I like it."

Adina's eyes went wide and her cheeks went red.

"Oh! Thanks!" she said brightly, but went out of her way to avoid eye contact with both Eve and Elias.

If this were anyone else, Eve wouldn't have commented further and simply took in the observation. But considering these were her two closest friends right now, she felt like she had to lean into it a little.

"She asked if I could help her braid her hair today," Eve said casually to Elias. "She wanted to impress someone."

"Oh really? Who?" Elias asked, but to Adina.

Adina looked to Eve with wide, pleading eyes.

"Elise," Eve said with a shrug, holding off her smile. "She's a good role model, as you know. Any advice to get her attention?"

"Hmmmmm," Elias drew out, squinting into the distance as he continued to pet Sleepy, who looked happy and content sleeping in his arms. "You know, I feel like my mind shouldn't be blanking right now. But I feel like... if you just talk to her and tell her that you admire her, that would really make her day."

His eyes then brightened as he plopped the chicken into Eve's arms.

"Hey, that's a great idea. I'm going to do that right now," he said then walked away to talk to his sister.

Eve turned to Adina, now awkwardly holding the waking chicken. "That's pretty sound advice," she said.

Adina's face reddened even more.

With a smile, Eve placed a hand on Adina's shoulder. "I'm sorry for teasing you. But if it's Elias you like, I don't think it'll be braids that catch his attention. You can go up to him and talk. It's alright."

Adina averted her eyes to the ground, looking down at her feet.

"But Elias talks with everybody," she said quietly. "Why would me doing that be any different?"

"Because he'll remember and appreciate when someone talks to him first," Eve said.

Eve realized she was being a bit hypocritical since Elias often initiated conversations with her first. She made a mental note to return the favor later.

Adina nodded, looking up more thoughtful in Elias's direction.

"Okay," she said shyly. "I'll try to do that. Thanks for the advice."

"Of course," Eve said with a smile.

She thought about offering that she could help push her in the right direction considering that she had been friends with Elias for years, but then thought better of it. She would rather work on developing her friendship with him first. Also, it would be good for Adina to take initiative, assuming this was something she really wanted to do.

It was also kind of odd to be in the middle between her two friends, so she'd rather take a step back and let them figure it out.

Besides, Eve had other things to worry about. James was always on her mind. She was always anxious about the situation, and seeing new relationships start was the least of her concerns.

Later that day, Mel decided to spend her "quality time" with Eve - this time bringing Jordan with her.

The two of them were always together now. After they made camp, the two of them would always volunteer to bring in firewood, and they would always take an excessively long time to come back. It was nice to see Mel happy, but she also had a long history of going from relationship to relationship over men she found attractive and gave her attention.

That was her business, but Eve did find it unnerving that this was happening during the mission. She was worried that the two of them would get distracted and fail to see the severity of the mission, but Eve knew she wasn't ready to hear that yet.

Still, she seemed happy to use this time to introduce Jordan to Eve, as if they hadn't met yet. This was always part of her cycle. Fall into a relationship fast then immerse them in her life and act like her friends were his friends.

"I know you guys don't know each other tooooo well, but I thought it'd be nice if we all hung out for once!" Mel said as she walked beside Eve, holding Jordan's hand. "Well, kind of hang out. We walk like a hundred miles a day. So this is the next best thing."

"Twenty miles," Eve corrected.

"Close enough," Mel said, then turned to Jordan with a smile. "Hey, sweetie. What do you think about doing a double date sometime? You know, after all this is over? You, me, James, and Eve. I think that'd be fun!"

"We should definitely do that," Jordan said. "You know, when things calm down and all."

Mel eagerly nodded. "You'd probably have to convince him though. Well, he'd probably be okay with it considering we're saving his ass, but still. He's a funny guy but also thinks he's sooo tough! But maybe you two could be good friends, who knows."

"I guess we'll find out," Jordan said with a small smile, but there was something in his manner that told Eve he was uncomfortable, but trying not to show it.

It then dawned on Eve that Mel must not have known that Jordan has already met Eve and James before. To be fair, this wasn't a topic that would have easily came up in conversation, but it was clear that he was dodging the topic now.

"He didn't seem to like you too much last time, but I'm sure he'll warm up to you," Eve said casually to Jordan, not bothering filtering her words.

Mel raised a brow, looking up to Jordan in confusion. "Huh? You've met James before?"

"Oh, yes. About six years ago," Eve answered for him.

"Well it was a long time ago, yeah," Jordan interjected quickly. "It was-- hah, well. It was a really different time in my life, you know. It was before I got picked up by these guys and had more stability. It was just me in a catch-all group of some other mages on the run. I'd kind of only just met some of them, and we were all strangers at first, still getting to know each other, you know. And then one day our group ran into James and uh, Eve."

He paused with a nervous laugh and scratched the back of his neck.

"They only stayed with us for a few days I think before they went their own way," Jordan said. "It was so random."

Eve was somewhat hoping that Mel would be irked that he didn't disclose this information sooner, but instead, her eyes sparkled in wonder.

"Wow! Really? I had no idea," she said. "So... that's the mage camp, right?" She playfully elbowed Eve's side. "That's the place you and James danced? Jordan was there too? Ahhh, that's so crazy!"

Eve internally groaned, but luckily Mel continued on.

"Hey, Eve. What was Jordan like back then?" she said with a giggle. "I'd ask Jordan, but he'd probably say he was way cooler than he really was."

"Uh... well," Eve said with hesitation, not even really knowing what to say. She hadn't even really talked to Jordan about this, so it felt weird to openly have this discussion with Mel. "Like he said, we were only there for a few days. I don't really remember him too much."

Mel pouted. "I don't believe that. Surely you've interacted with him back then, right? You've got a great memory. I'm sure you remember."

"I don't remember," Eve repeated again. "My memory is still foggy all those years ago. I only remember the highlights."

"Oh... right," Mel said quietly, finally remembering that Eve had her memories dulled back then. She turned to Jordan instead, beaming. "Well, okay. Maybe you can jog her memory. What was Eve like all those years ago, then?"


Jordan smiled but didn't seem enthusiastic about answering.

"Oh, uh. I don't know, I don't remember a whole lot," he said. "She was pretty serious, I guess and didn't really talk to most of us a whole lot. It was mostly uh, her and James spending time together I guess."

"Hmmm, seems like not too much has changed, then," Mel concluded, thinking out loud.

Eve did remember one mage who stuck in her mind. She glanced at Jordan.

"How is Raya doing?" she asked.

"Raya? Who's Raya?" Mel asked threateningly.

"His sister," Eve added before she could get even more defensive.

"You have a sister?" Mel asked, appalled. "Jeez, what else are you hiding from me?"

"Well she's not my biological sister," Jordan said. "But we've-- like, we're like siblings, you know. Grown up together and all that. Raya was with us earlier but she got sent off with, you know... Dinny and Rudy and Finn."

"... Ohhhh, that was her? Ah, I'm sorry, I didn't get the chance to talk to her before she left," Mel said.

"I mean, it's alright," Jordan said with a smile. "There was a lot going on, and all."

Eve considered admitting that she would be interested in reconnected with Raya, but she felt like this would add no value to the conversation. If Raya were here before she arrived, then maybe she could see her again someday.

Thankfully, Mel turned the conversation away from mage camp, but Eve found herself still mostly listening to them talk.
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Carina says...

Another day passed uneventfully. At night, Eve was assigned to keep the mid-shift watch along with Bo. She didn't mind keeping watch at night, really. It was generally very peaceful and quiet, which was getting to be increasingly rare when traveling with a big group. She often had to duck out of group settings to get her alone time, but at night, she could get her alone time without even being alone.

Eve was busy combing the knots out of Elliot's mane when suddenly there was a rustle near the campfire. She and Bo immediately looked up to see the source of the noise, but it was just someone thrashing around. It wasn't until the person sat up with jagged breaths that Eve realized it was Elias.

In a daze, he crawled out of his sleeping bag, being careful to step around Elise, but otherwise sloppily ran into the woods, not giving them a second glance.

This didn't seem good.

Eve made eye contact with Bo across the camp, who seemed to share the same look of concern. Eve got up quietly started to move towards his direction, gesturing to him that she was going to go after him.

Bo waved his arms as a green flag to go.

With a nod, Eve hurried in his direction, holding a dimly lit lantern so she could have some sort of light as she navigated in the dark. Considering Elias was clumsily running around, he couldn't have gotten far before he ran into something to stop him.

It didn't take long to find him. His deep breaths were loud, unlike the quiet of the night.

"Elias," Eve whispered when she finally found him, sitting in the middle of an open clearing.

His knees were brought towards his chest as he hunched over, burying his head behind his legs. His hands were tightly holding on to the roots of his shaggy hair, shaking and looking like he was trying to pull his hairs out. Or perhaps, his thoughts out.

He didn't respond to her calling his name.

Eve bit back her lip. This seemed severe.

Quietly, she invited herself over, sitting next to him but giving him some space. She set the lantern in front of them between them, waiting until he was ready to talk - if he wanted to talk.

She had a feeling he didn't want to talk.

Eve waited for another minute, watching as he continued to steady his breathing, but he didn't move. Her eyes had adjusted to the dim light, so she noticed the streaks of dirt on his skin. Maybe he fell a few times before he settled on the spot he was in. Eve also noticed that his shirt was drenched with sweat. It clung to his skin, damp and sticky.

She remembered what she said to Adina several days ago. Elias was often the one approaching other people, not the other way around.

Eve wanted to change that.

"You picked an open clearing," she said quietly after a while. "Big thoughts require big spaces, after all."

Elias still didn't move or react.

"I hope there's enough space for someone else with big thoughts, though," she added, still watching him.

"I really... really don't want to talk about it," Elias said, voice muffled since he was still hiding his face.

Any other time, and Eve would have challenged this, once again reminding him that thinking and talking about difficult thoughts often led to growth. But she knew that Elias wasn't in the right state of mind to hear this.

"What do you want to talk about, then?" she asked instead.

Again, Elias didn't respond.

Eve slowly dropped her stare, looking down at the ground. It had been a while since she saw him like this. It still pained her, even when their friendship was more strained.

"Your shirt is soaked," she said instead. "I think you've been sleeping too close to the fire."

Elias didn't respond again.

At least, not for a while.

"Autumn is here," he said after a long pause, voice still muffled. "It's getting cold."

"What was that? I can't hear you. You're mumbling," Eve said.

"I said, it's getting--"

"What are you saying?"

At that, Elias snapped his head up, turning to glare at her with squinted eyes and a frown. "I said it's getting cold," he huffed.

"Ah. So that's what you said," Eve said. "Sorry I didn't bring a blanket."

Elias softened his expression as he looked ahead and perched his head over his knees. "Yeah, well. My sweaty shirt will keep me warm."

Eve didn't really know how that logic worked, but she decided to not question it. Another silence fell between them.

"It's kind of spooky being all the way out here, away from the others," she commented, breaking the silence again.

"I thought you liked being by yourself," Elias said.

"Sometimes. Sometimes I like to be by myself. Not always, and definitely not at random hours of the night like this," Eve said.

Another silence.

"Honestly, I don't really like to be by myself," he said.

"I know," she said.

"How do you do it?"

"How do I... be by myself?"

Elias nodded. "Yeah."

Eve knew he was asking more of the why rather than the how. "I think whenever I start to feel overwhelmed, I step out and have a moment by myself. I think, in a way, it's like I regain a sense of control over myself. I can control myself if I'm alone, so uncertainty in minimized, which makes me feel less overwhelmed."

Now Elias was playing with the grass around him, pulling up blades of grass one-by-one. "What do you mean by sense of control over yourself? What does that mean to you?" he asked.

"I don't think it needs to be over-complicated," Eve said. "It simply means that I can choose what happens. I'm in control over what happens. No one else can influence the events around me. Only me."

Elias abruptly stopped pulling the grass, hugging his legs again. He seemed to concentrate on the space in front of him, or perhaps the words she was saying.

Eve knew that, unless she coaxed it out of him, Elias was not going to freely talk about what was bothering him. Luckily, she had a good guess.

"You're worried that you don't have that same sense of control," she said quietly, watching him for his reaction. "Is that right?"

Elias was quiet again for a while, conflicted with his thoughts. But Eve gave him time to think.

"Maybe," was all he said back.

For someone claiming to be an open book, Elias sure was protective of some details about himself.

"Why do feel that way? Is this about your magic?" Eve asked, hoping more guided questions would eventually lead him to open up more.

Elias didn't respond again. It took all of Eve's willpower to not talk over the silence to ask more prodding questions. She knew she needed to be patient.

And it paid off, but not in the way she hoped it would.

"Do you know why I was so focused on being your friend back then?" Elias asked out of the blue.

This caught Eve off guard. She didn't even know how to answer that. She didn't think there was an answer, really.

"I wanted to make you laugh," he answered when she didn't say anything.


She didn't know why this made her feel embarrassed.

"You did laugh, eventually. And by then, we were friends," Elias continued quietly.

Eve bit back her lip as she stared at him, feeling her face warm from his words. For a moment there, this second of vulnerability between the two of them reminded her of the many quiet moments they shared as kids.

Elias annoyed her, yet he made her laugh. He was goofy and lighthearted, yet had serious introspective moments that he wanted to share with her. He always knew how to cheer her up when she cried, but she never did figure out how to cheer him up when he cried. He claimed that talking to her helped, but she wondered how true that was.

They grew apart, even before the incident. And after that, she spent many years being angry at him.

"Elias..." Eve said quietly, not knowing what to say.

"I'm telling you this because I know that things have changed," he went on. There was a sadness in his voice that felt heavy. "We're older now. We've both made mistakes. At least... I know I have. And maybe I still want to be the funny guy."

He paused again.

"I know what some of you think about me," he said thinly. "I know what Bo thinks of me, what Elise thinks of me... what you think of me. You want to cheer me up. But Evaline, please... if this is the reason why we're friends again... I'd rather we not."

Eve felt her chest tighten and her heart sink at his words. She bit her trembling lip, looking down at the ground.

She didn't expect to get so emotional.

"That's not very fair," she whispered, clenching her knees. "Why do you get to cheer me up, but I can't do the same to you?"

"I'm sorry," Elias said quietly.

"Friendship isn't a one-way street, Elias. I don't like to be vulnerable either. But with you, I find it easier. It makes me sad that you don't feel the same," Eve said lowly.

"I'm sorry," Elias repeated, still sullen. "But there are some things I just can't tell you."

"Can't... or won't?" she asked.

Elias hesitated. "Is there a difference?" he said back, his voice slightly breaking.

Eve let the silence pass, but it felt tense and uneasy. She felt her jaw clench and tighten, trying to hold back the slew of words she wanted to rain upon him. But she couldn't hold back anymore.

"I don't accept this," she said quietly at first, then paused to try again - more confident this time. "I don't accept this. Do you know how many years I spent being angry at you? Do you know how much my life changed for the worse because of you? Even worse, do you know how much I despised myself that I couldn't let you go? I still cared for you even when I hated you. And now? Now, when we finally make amends and I attempt to reconnect despite all the strain between us - now you have the nerve to tell me that you'd rather not be friends? Seriously?"

Eve was glaring at him now, a childlike stubbornness gripping her chest. He stared back, slow-blinked in confusion, and pressed his lips together, clearly repressing an amused grin.

"Well when you put it that way..." he started to say, but Eve continued on.

"I don't care what you think," she cut in. "We're friends. And yes, you're still 'the funny guy,' but that also means that you laugh and run away from your problems. And yes, I'm still someone who finds you annoying but also someone who occasionally laughs at your stupid jokes. And fine. Push me away all you want. I started a literal war because of you, and I still think we are friends, but I guess that doesn't mean anything to you."

Elias seemed to finally relax his posture, his legs finally pried away from his chest as he laid his hands on his lap.

"Wow... you started the rebellion because of me?" he wondered out loud with a small smile. "Wow. I'm touched."

Eve felt her cheeks go hot again from embarrassment as she backpedaled on her words.

"No, not because of you. But it involved you... and others, and... well... it's not just because of you," she spat out.

"Just saying, you really set the bar high for my future relationships now," Elias said, smile growing. "Now I gotta find someone who will start a war for me."

Eve stared at him with dead eyes, not amused.

Her expression showed her disdain, but she really she was glad that Elias was smiling again, even when they didn't really address the true subject of what was bothering him.

One step at a time.

"I know that was some heavy stuff," Elias said after he cleared his throat. "And you totally insulted me a couple times there. But... thank you. For really caring for me and being there for me."

"Of course, Elias. That's what friends are for," Eve said.

She knew what he would say next. This part was predictable. He would say some lighthearted comments and downplay the topics that were deeply troubling him so that she wouldn't worry.

"I know it probably freaked you out when I ran away like that, but I just had a bad dream that a giant chicken was chasing me. It's a good thing my instinct kicked in, huh? Wouldn't want to get squashed in case Sleepy turned giant overnight," he said.

And, predictably, Eve played along.

"Absolutely. I heard giant chickens find liars especially delicious. But you're very honest, so I wonder why she was chasing you," she said with a shrug.

Eve narrowed his eyes at her with a smug smile. "Yeah. I wonder."

"Must be your hair. It probably looks like hay."

Elias ran his fingers through his hair, stretching a stringy strand of it down his forehead so he can better see it.

"You think Elliot might try eating my hair someday?" he wondered out loud.

Eve laughed through her nose, picking up the lantern and getting up on her feet. She extended a hand out to Elias.

"Let's ask Elliot and find out," she said with a smile. "Ready to head back?"

Elias's smile waned as he stared at her hand, his hair slipping out of his fingers.

"Um..." he stammered.

"Unless you don't want to go back?" Eve quickly offered, rescinding her hand.


"We don't have to go back," she said as she quickly sat back down. "We can stay here and talk. Or... whatever you want."

Elias snickered. "Are you sure you're not clairvoyant? I feel like sometimes you can read my mind."

"That's only because you're so readable sometimes," Eve said back.

Sometimes. Readable sometimes. He was only readable when he was like this.

Eve stayed with Elias at least for another thirty minutes. They continued to chat and catch up, although the conversation was light. She spoke her mind, and he would comment and spin a joke around it. Rinse and repeat.

By the time they went back to camp, Elias offered for her to sleep in his place. Eve was hesitant, but Elias persisted. She also had a feeling that he wanted to save face to Bo, and her suspicions were confirmed when she saw them chatting before she dozed off.
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Carina says...

More days passed.

They had all been traveling through the woods for a while now, avoiding all conflicts with the help of Robin and Hendrik. That morning, however, Bo announced a change of plans. They were passing an ally mage base and needed to replenish their supplies. They would only be passing through, but he said that it would be good for everyone to unwind after a month of nonstop traveling.

It would be nice, yes. But Eve hoped that everyone wouldn't get too comfortable since they were all leaving the next day to resume their travels. Thankfully, everyone was committed in the mission and understood what they signed up for.

Early that morning, they arrived at the mage base.

At least, that was what Bo said. But it didn't look like anything was there - at least, not at first.

Raj went ahead of everyone, stopping at the foot of a large boulder. The landscape they'd been passing through had been littered with various rock formations, so there wasn't anything about this large rock that looked significant. At least, not until Raj began to push it away with his magic.

The boulder slid to the side, revealing an opening in the earth. It was a stairwell, leading underground.

Bo waved for everyone to follow.

The stairs leading down were a sturdy wood and looked well-worn. It looked like people were in and out of this location all of the time with the natural discolored footpath down the middle of each step.

The flight of stairs took them at least two stories deep into the earth before it opened up into a spacious room.

It was clearly built for practicality over anything else. The walls and floors were flat, rocky earth, and there was a wide hall that seemed to feed into a few other halls with doors lining them.

The room was lit by braziers in each corner of the room and a series of lamps mounted to the walls. Clandestine was quick to go ahead of the others and light some of the lamps that were out so the entrance room was filled with light. Eve noticed she proactively recruited Alistair to help with the task as well. He didn't seem that eager to help, but he didn't complain.

The entrance room was lined with several tables with benches that had seen better days, but were functional. It looked like this was a common room and eating area, but the tables were parted to make a clear, wide path to the hall.

Aside from the bare minimum furniture, there was no decor, making the room feel a little dreary, but it did feel secure. Eve noted the tops of the ceilings there were vents open, probably connected to a whole system to let the smoke rise out along with giving some air circulation.

"There are a few bedrooms down the hall," Bo said. "They'll be marked with numbers on the door. There's four beds to a room and five rooms. You're all free to work out room arrangements for yourselves, but Dr. Aradis, Elise, and Raj and I will be in room one. There should be a trunk in each room with extra blankets and bedsheets, but everything should be clean. We'll all be cleaning up after ourselves before we leave so the next group that passes through gets clean rooms too."

It felt childish and silly, but suddenly it became a race to see who would be in each room. Mel and Jordan practically ran to the next available room, and everyone seemed to silently understand that they likely wanted privacy. That, and no one wanted to deal with them considering how public they had been with affection lately.

Eve went in the next available room, and she naturally drew in Adina. Elias hovered around, asking if it'd be alright if he joined, which Eve didn't mind. Adina seemed to mind though since her face went red.

While they had that conversation, Robin turned to a werewolf and ran ahead of the others, entering the last room down the hallway and slamming the door. There was another shuffle as it sounded like he was trying to lock the room up.

Aggravated, Hendrik knocked on the door.

"Hey, puppy. You can't just steal a whole room to yourself," he barked.

Robin growled behind the door.

Hendrik grumbled some annoyed profanities under his breath then gave up on trying to infiltrate his room, instead sauntering over to the same room that Makiel, Alistair, and Clandestine claimed. He passed by Deidra who was awkwardly hovering around, now the last one to not pick a room.

Eve turned away. They had an open bed, but she was not going to invite her in.

"Hey, annoying puppy," Hendrik shouted from the other room, loudly knocking on the shared wall between them. "Are you going to let muscles sleep on the floor? Or are you going to let her sleep with the lovebirds?"

The door flew open.

"Deidra, sorry," Robin said, his voice suddenly soft as he stood in human form in the doorway. "I miscounted. Of course you can sleep here."

Bo came back out into the hallway while everyone's doors were still open.

"And before you all hit the sack," Bo said. "We have two bathrooms. With - and here's the kicker - actual running water. It'll be cold because it comes from the nearby creek, but it'll be clean. So just take turns and be quick so everyone can get clean."

A pause.

"Raj and I will take care of the animals. There's a small cave nearby," Bo said. But Hendrik came out immediately at the mention of animals.

"And Hendrik," Bo added. "We'll be back in a bit. If you need anything, Dr. Aradis or Robin can help you around. They'll know where things are."

Eve nodded and began to unpack her things, opting for the lower bunk. Elias was already filling the small room with conversation as he hefted himself up to the bunk without using the ladder.

"Ahhhh," he said as he got comfortable, making excessive noise as he tried to find a comfortable spot. "This is nice. It kind of feels like we're at some school field trip, though."

"It does feel like that, yeah," Eve said as she removed the shirts she was planning on cleaning.

"And it's like room 1 are our teachers," Elias continued.

"Well, best for you to be on your best behavior, then," Eve said.

Elias shuffled around the bed again, now leaning his head over the bunk as he grinned down at Adina.

"Are you sleeping on the top or bottom bunk?" he asked.

"I'm not very good at climbing," Adina said sheepishly. "So I'll take the bottom."

She set her things by the bunk below Elias.

Elias hummed. "There's a ladder... I think." He shuffled around again to find it. "Oh yeah, there it is."

"Well, it's more that I'm afraid I'll fall out in my sleep," Adina said. "I know that sounds kind of silly, but it's a bit of an irrational fear."

"Elias, do not test that," Eve said before he could get any ideas.

Elias laughed. "Wow. You think so lowly of me."

Eve stood up, setting her clean clothes on the other bottom bunk. She held her dirty clothes in her arms, along with the clean clothes she was going to change into.

"I'm going to use the wash room before it fills up," she announced, darting her eyes between her and Adina. "Do you need anything before I go?"

"Nah, I'm good," Elias said.

"Go on ahead," Adina encouraged.

"Alright. See you soon," Eve said softly as she made her way out, leaving the door partly open.

Well, at least now they would talk.

She sighed, listening to the other conversations down the hall. The ceilings were short and the hallway wasn't very long, so noise carried loudly here.

The loudest noise, however, came from Jordan and Mel's room. Their door was closed, but she heard Mel loudly giggling and flirting.

It was getting a bit too much, but Eve simply took a deep breath and ignored it, entering the wash room.
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Carina says...

Elias laid back down, setting his head behind his palms as he stared up at the dirt ceiling. The bed was a lot more comfortable than the bedrolls they had been sleeping in for practically a year now, but he wasn't tired yet to sleep, and he couldn't quite sit still.

He moved again, deciding to peek his head down at Adina's bunk, but his view was still obscured.

"So have you ever been in a place like this?" he asked, but then decided to move again since he felt like he was talking to a bed.

Elias grabbed on to the edge of the bed and then pushed himself off, hanging on for a second and then letting go. He peeked back down to smile at her but then opted to find a place to properly lean on, settling on the ladder nearby.

"Hey, didn't fall off," he said as he tried to find another comfortable spot. It was hard to find a comfy spot against the ladder.

Adina grinned, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. She laughed lightly.

"I've been to bases like this a lot over the years," she said. "At least, before I was stationed in Ruddlan."

"Ruddlan... what's Ruddlan like?" he asked.

"It's a city northeast of here," she said. "It's huge. Always busy, always bustling. Easy to get lost in if you don't know where you're going, but also easy to blend in if you do. The only time the city's quiet is in the dead of night, but even then, you go to the right part of town and all the taverns are still open. Depends on the day, of course, but... yeah. It's big. And busy. Loud."

Elias hummed as he finally found a comfortable spot, which was the floor. He looped his arm behind him, resting it along one the ladder's tier.

"That seems kind of spooky," he said. "Lots of people during the day, but no one at night."

"I mean, it's not like there's no one at night," Adina laughed lightly. "It's just most of them are asleep. But like I said, the business district is still pretty lively at night."

"What's your favorite spot in Ruddlan?" Elias asked.

Adina looked to the side, humming.

"Well, I guess I like the market," she said. "I've gotten to know the street vendors pretty well and sometimes they give me free things because I'm nice."

"Oh, really?" Elias said with a smile. "What kind of stuff?"

"I like little trinkets," Adina said. "I don't know, like..."

"Rocks?" Elias said when she trailed off.

"Rocks are nice," she said. "I still have a rock one of my dear friends gave me a few years back. His name is Ardeshir. He liked to collect rocks. It was kind of his thing, I guess. Little rocks from every memorable place he went."

"Oh, that's cool. Do you have it with you?" Elias asked curiously.

Adina grinned.

"Yeah," she said, and pulled a necklace out from under the collar of her shirt.

Elias squinted and leaned in to see a small, smooth stone framed in wire that hooked on the chain around her neck. It had slivers of white and golden-brown swirling inside.

"It's not exceptionally valuable in terms of money," she said. "But it carries lots of memories, you know?"

"Whoa," Elias sounded out, admiring the shiny stone.

"Do you like to carry any keepsakes?" Adina asked.

"Oh... me?" Elias tore his gaze away from the rock and squinted up at the ceiling, thinking. He shook his head. "No. I guess I'm not really a nostalgic person. I think if I did, it'd be shiny rocks too. Maybe flowers, but they kind of die pretty fast."

"You can always press flowers," Adina said. "If you'd like to keep them longer. But it's okay if you're not the sentimental type... everyone's different."

She tucked her necklace away, back under her shirt.

Elias was still hung up on her first sentence. "Press flowers... as in, between the pages of a book?" he asked, then laughed and shook his head. "I have never thought of that. Huh."

"You usally press them before they dry out, so that they're still soft enough to be pressed," Adina said. "And then when they dry they'll take that flattened shape."

Elias hummed. He ought to try this someday. He usually just picked whatever neat flower he found then discarded it after it wilted. He didn't think he'd keep a bouquet of dried flowers anyways, but it would still be fun to try.

"Say, what's your favorite flower?" he asked with a smile.

"Oh," Adina said with a bit of a stutter. "Uh. I like baby blues. I don't know if they have those on earth where you're from, but uh. They're small, pale blue flowers. They also have some medicinal purposes, but I just think they're pretty."

Elias actually didn't really know the names of most flowers nevertheless Nye ones, but he nodded and took a mental note of it.

"Do you like any flowers?" Adina asked.

"Oh yeah, I like most of them," he said with a nod. "I don't really know many names of them though... I just kind of see them as I walk by. I don't know if I've seen baby blues though. You'll have to point them out to me next time."

"I'll do that," Adina said with a smile.

"Baby blues," Elias murmured again, now lying on the floor with his arms propping his head. "That's a funny name."

"Oh, yeah?" Adina asked, leaning over her bed to look down at him. "Tell me the names of some plants back on earth. Maybe they'll be funny to me."

"Uhhh," Elias drew out for far too long as he squinted his eyes, trying to think. "I feel like my mind should not be blanking right now," he said with a laugh. "I only know the names of the really basic ones, like roses and sunflowers. Oh yeah, and lilies. It's easier to remember when people are named after flowers."

"Hmm," Adina said. "Funny how we have those here too."

"Yeah, isn't it weird that there are a lot of similarities?" Elias said with smile as he looked up at her.

"I guess so," she said. "Like. What are the odds that you and I are both human? That both worlds would have people that look, at least as far as I can tell, the same."

Elias hummed. "What if I had a third eyeball? Would you still be my friend?"

Adina smirked.

"Of course I would," she said.

"Two heads?" Elias asked instead.

"Would that make you two people?" she asked. "Since you'd have two brains?"

"Oh man, you're totally right," he said with a chuckle.

"I'd be friends with both of you, then," Adina said.

"But what if the fake Elias was super lame and not at all funny?" Elias asked, grinning.

"I think either way the full Elias has a lot of very nice traits even if the funniness is taken away," Adina said.

Elias blinked up at her, not sure why he was feeling kind of awkward now. He appreciated her sentiments but now he was trying to think of any times he was not very funny around Adina. It all kind of blended together.

"So what about me?" Adina asked. "Would you be my friend if I had four arms?"

"If you had four arms, you definitely wouldn't need to worry about falling off the bunk bed," Elias said with a growing grin.

Adina laughed.

"What if I was a bug?" Adina asked. "But a sentient bug. So I could talk and still had thoughts and feelings. But I was a tiny little bug."

She held her fingers together just to show how small she'd be.

Elias had to hold back his laugh. "What kind of bug are we talking about?"

"I think I would be a butterfly," she said with a little tilt of her head to the side, and her curls bounced.

"Oh! You'd be a really pretty butterfly," Elias said with a smile. "I'll keep you in a little jar so you wouldn't fly away. Unless you wanted to, of course."

"Maybe give the jar a little door that my tiny butterfly hands could open," Adina said.

Elias snickered. Now he was imagining a tiny butterfly opening a tiny door with its tiny little arms, going off to do some pollination work.

"And then I could live in the jar and come out and flutter around your head when I felt like it," Adina added.

"I'd have to put some flowers in my hair. Maybe some blue babies?" Elias said.

Adina burst out into laughter, and her laugh filled the whole room as she fell over onto her side on the bed. Her laugh was contagious and Elias joined along.

"Yes!" she said in a fit of giggles. "Blue babies!"

"Right, yeah," Elias said with a weaker laugh, feeling like he missed his own joke. Hearing her laugh made him smile though.

"Sorry, sorry," she said between laughs. "It's baby blues, but blue babies is even funnier!"

"Oh. Oops," Elias said with a laugh. "Close enough?"

"But you're right," Adina said, now lying on the bed and looking down off the side at him as he laughter died down. "You should put flowers in your hair. Blue would be a nice color."

"Definitely," he said with a smile. "You have a nice laugh, by the way. Feels very... butterfly-y."

Adina smiled.

"Yours is nice too. Feels kind of like if a mouse was laughing with a deeper voice," she said.

Elias grinned wide as he narrowed his eyes up at her. "Did you just call me a mouse?"

"I mean, you don't look like a mouse," she said. "But sometimes you can be a little mousy. Do you like cheese?"

"Okay, don't judge me. But I don't think I've ever eaten cheese before," Elias said.

"Oh, that's right! You came from a place where you didn't really eat animal products!" Adina said.

Eh, well. He didn't really live like that, but he didn't really want to explain to her that his diet had mostly consisted of mysterious tasteless slop.

"Pretty much. But that's only because we all came from a pretentious society," he said with a shrug.

"That's funny, because you don't seem that pretentious to me," she said.

"What about Eve?" Elias asked curiously.

Adina hummed.

"I mean, pretentious is just someone who pretends to be smarter or know more than they actually do, right?" she asked. "I don't feel like Eve's pretending... she's just more reserved, is all."

"Totally. She'd probably be proud to hear that from you since her family are the most stuck-up people ever. But that's a story for another day," he said, making a mental note that he should probably tell Eve that he totally dissed her family in front of Adina.

"You know," Adina said. "My family was pretty stuck-up too. At least, my dad was. But I guess I wouldn't know what he's like now..."

Elias glanced up at her. "Do you miss him?" he asked.

Adina looked up at the bunk above her.

"...I do," she said. "Do you miss your family? Did you have anyone left back on Earth?"

Elias hesitated. That was a loaded question. At least, kind of. Because Adina really had no clue about his own personal background. He used the few seconds to think and reposition himself, now sitting up straight as he leaned against the wall closest to her head.

"It's kind of a long story," he said with a little smile. "But I was mostly raised by Elise. I do miss my full family, but even if I still lived on Earth, I don't think I would've been able to see them again. There are some people I care about but had to leave behind, yeah... but for the most part, I'm pretty happy here with my friends."

"I get that," Adina said softly. "Even if I wanted to... I can't see my family again, either."

She rolled over so she was on her stomach and propped her chin under her hands as she looked down at Elias over the side of the bed.

"I'm glad I'm getting to know you, though," she said.

Elias sheepishly smiled, watching Adina.

If he didn't know any better... well, it almost felt like she was flirting with him, but he didn't know if she was really friendly or if this was all in his head.

"Yeah... me too," he said. "Everyone here has been so good to us. And you're also fun to talk to. Who else laughs when I mention blue babies?"

"I don't know, but in any other context, it probably wouldn't get people laughing," Adina said. "Now that I think about it."

"Yeah. Our first inside joke, and it's about blue babies. I can't tell if I'm proud or disappointed."

"It will have to stay very inside," Adina said. "Just between us. Can't have people thinking we're too weird."

"Can't have that," Elias said with a smile. "Speaking of which... do you want to see what the others are up to?"

"You mean the showering?" Adina asked. "Or just poke our heads in the other rooms?"

Elias laughed and heaved at the thought. "The rooms!" he said as he facepalmed himself, laughing. "Sheesh. If I poked my head in the shower room, I think Eve would never talk to me again."

"Then it's best we don't do that," Adina grinned. She hopped off the side of the bed. "Let's go see what Robin's up to."

"I think he's lone wolf'ing it up," Elias said as he got up to his feet to join her.
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Carina says...

They wandered down the hall to Robin's door, and Adina knocked with a rhythm... or a secret code.

The door opened shockingly fast.

"Adina," Robin said with a small smile, which was very odd for Elias to see, because Robin almost never smiled. But then Robin's eyes landed on Elias.

"Elias," he said more flatly.

"Hey, Robin. Happy to see you too," Elias said anyways with a smile.

"Mm, yes," Robin said, gesturing for them to come in.

Inside, Deidra was seated on one of the bottom bunks, quietly reading a book. But she looked up when they entered the room.

"Hey, Deidra," Elias said as he leaned againt the bunk across from her. "What are you reading?"

"Uh, Robin gave me this book," Deidra said. "It's about... medicine."

"Light reading," Robin said.

"Because he's a doctor," Deidra said.

"Mmm right, yeah. Exciting stuff," Elias said.

"I'm reading about... traumatic injuries," Deidra said.

"Thrilling," Robin echoed.

"Yes. I concur," Elias said, nodding along.

"You know, Deidra," Adina piped in. "If you like reading, I brought a few books with me that might be more your speed if you're not as into the uh, academic studies."

Deidra's expression softened, but she looked interested.

"Oh, if you're uh, willing to let me borrow them," Deidra said quietly.

"Yeah!" Adina chimed in happily. "I've read them all a few times myself, so I don't mind."

"Robin, don't you have some non-academic books yourself? Or do you only read about traumatic injuries?" Elias asked.

"I don't like getting caught up in fantasy worlds," Robin said. "I prefer to stay grounded in real life."

"Yeah, same here. Fantasy worlds like Nye doesn't feel realistic," Elias said with a growing smirk.

"Hey, this isn't fantasy," Adina said, elbowing his arm lightly with a smirk. "This is real life."

"Or is it?" Elias said dramatically, leaning in with his hands out. "What's if we're all dreaming right now?"

"Like a shared dream?" Deidra asked.

"How would that even work?" Adina pondered.

"Who knows. But can we all agree that in this shared dream, Robin's book collection is very dull?" Elias said.

Robin sighed. It was a very dog-like sigh.

"Yes, yes, tease the doctor who might save your life one day," Robin said.

"Robin," Adina chided.

"No, he's totally right," Elias said. "Thanks in advance for saving me though?"

"You're welcome," Robin said.

Then he leaned in, and gave Elias a sniff. It would be endearing if he was in his canine form, but it was kind of weird since he was still human.

"You should get a bath," Robin said. "Next it opens."

"Oh, thanks. I've been working on my body odor. It's called... smelly," Elias said.

"How accurate," Robin said.

"As if you're not just as smelly," Adina said with her hands on her hips.

"Yes, but I smell on purpose," Robin said. "Humans don't seem to understand that."

"What do you think you smell like?" Elias asked.

"Are you questioning my sense of smell?" Robin asked.

"Uh..." Elias stammered, wondering how he jumped to that conclusion. Maybe he should have rephrased.

"Just answer the question, Robin," Adina said.

Robin sighed again.

"I like the smell of the outdoors. So I aim to smell like it. Doesn't make sense to hunt while smelling like soapy flowers," he said. "The prey will smell you coming."

"Why not smell like outdoor flowers?" Elias asked.

"Because they're not that strong of a scent," Robin said.

"Oh. So you want to have a strong smell?"

"A strong smell that blends in. Now can we stop talking about smells? I think someone just came out of the shower. You should--"

"What does Adina smell like?" Elias asked anyways, ignoring his request.

"Sweat, just like you," Robin said. "Just like everyone else from weeks of travel in the wilderness."

"Jeez. That's not a very nice thing to say your pal. You could at least say she smells like blue babies," Elias said.

Adina snorted, and hid her mouth behind her hand.

"...What?" Robin asked, looking entirely confused.

"I heard someone say that the shower is free now. Maybe you can use it to wash away the outdoors smell, Robin?" Elias said with a grin.

"You know what," Adina said. "I think I should pop in the shower, actually. Let's uh, go?"

She didn't wait for Elias to reply thoough, and instead looped her arm in his and yanked him out of the room. He waved goodbye with his free hand, but that only lasted a second before they were out of view.

"That went well," he said with a little laugh. "Let's see what the other room is up to." He paused. "Unless you're actually going to the shower?"

"I was just trying to get you away before Robin tried to bite your head off," Adina mumbled, but there was a hint of laughter in her voice.

Elias smiled wide. "My savior. Thank you for saving my life. I'm forever in your debt."

"You can pay me back later," Adina said with a chuckle as she brought them over to the door down and across the hall. Door 4. She started to knock, but the door was partly opened already and creaked open. The little bit of force from the knock made the door creak open a little bit, revealing Hendrik with wet hair and skin, only wearing a skimpy towel.

"Does everyone in this goddamn camp want to see me naked?" he grumbled under his breath as he ruffled through his clothes, his towel looks like it's dangerously close from falling off.

Adina jumped and immediately hid behind Elias.

"Ah! I'm sorry!" she squeaked.

"Don't be. We are all cursed with this sight," Alistair grumbled from the bottom corner, pillow over his face.

"Just get dressed, Hendrik," Clandestine said from a top bunk, out of view.

"Fine," Hendrik said, then ripped out his towel.

Elias closed the door so fast, knowing Adina was behind him and would probably not want to see that sight.

"So anyways. That went... also well," Elias said with a thin laugh.

"Maybe I should actually just, uh, try to grab the shower before someone else does," Adina said nervously. "Sorry. I didn't think that through."

"No, no, you're fine," Elias said with a reassuring smile. "That's just Hendrik for you. But probably smart to get a shower in while you can. I'll probably talk to my sister for a bit."

He paused for a moment.

"Did you ever end up talking to her, by the way?" he asked.

Adina looked up at Elias with big, wide eyes for a moment.

"Yes!" Adina said loudly, like she surprised herself with her own volume. She laughed a little and started walking towards their room. "Yeah. I did. She was. Um. Oh, look, someone's coming back from the shower I should hurry up."

Elias glanced behind him. There was no one there.

Adina started to run to their room.

"Okay, well, uh--"

Aaaand she was gone. That was kind of... weird. Elias glanced again between the shower and the room. He walked towards the end of the hall towards their room, debating whether he should check in on her or just go straight to Elise's room. He decided it'd be better to at least ask if she was alright.

He knocked on their door. "Everything okay?" he asked.

Adina opened the door with clothes in her hands, bunched up like she'd grabbed them in a hurry.

"Oh. Yeah. I'm okay," she said. "Thanks for asking!"

Elias leaned back a little since she was suddenly speaking in a loud voice, but he smiled nonetheless. "Oh okay, good. I'll see you later?" he said as he stepped out of the way.

Adina nodded furiously, her head bouncing up and down as she hurried down the hall in a little run.

It was kind of funny watching her, but Elias was a little concerned. He wondered if he said something wrong. At the same time, he wondered if he missed something obvious. She did say that she looked up to Elise... right? But wait. That was Eve. Were Eve and Adina in on something?

This hurt his head. He'd ask Eve later.

For now, he wanted to see what his sis was up to. He knocked on the door.

"Hey, hey. It's me. Mind if I come in?" he asked. "Please tell me there are no naked people in here."

Elise answered the door, giving him an odd look.

"Let's just say that I opened the door to Hendrik's room and I'll never unsee what his clean butt looks like," Elias said as he walked in.

This room felt a bit more homey than the others, but maybe that was because it was full and warm. Bo was on the bottom bunk, fast asleep and lightly snoring. He seemed to already be in a deep slumber. Meanwhile, Mel and Raj were sitting on the floor, playing a card game.

"That sounds like Hendrik," Elise said with a smile, shaking her head. "We're playing rummy, if you want to join us."

Elias assumed that was a card game. "I don't, but... I can watch," he said, then glanced at Bo. "Should I be quiet?"

"Just don't be loud," Mel said. "But he'll sleep through normal talking."

"Right, yeah. I can do normal talking."

Elise ushered for him to join them, but Elias still insisted he'd watch. He didn't want to slow them down, especially since he knew it took a while for him to learn and grasp the rules to a card game. Plus, it seemed that Raj and Mel were really competitive. Elise seemed to put each card down on the sidelines as the sibling rivalry grew.

"Hurry up," Mel said to Raj, who had spent a total of two seconds thinking.

"I am considering my options," Raj said slowly.

"You don't have many options," Mel said.

"You can't see my cards," Raj said.

"Yes, but I know your face," Mel said. "And you're not going to win anyway. Look. Elise has two cards left."

"Maybe," Raj said, laying down a run of four cards. He was now left with two in his hand.

The turn went to Elise next, and both Raj and Mel looked to see her next play.

Elise nervously laughed. "It's only a card game. It's all in good fun," she said as she laid one card and discarded the other, apparently marking her the winner.

"Agh," Mel groaned in defeat, but was quick to pat Elise on the back in congratulations.

"That was a good round," Raj said. "I got a terrible hand."

"That leaves us 1-2-1," Mel said, pointing to Elise, herself, then Raj. "Want to go another round?"

"Maybe later," Elise said as she glanced at Elias.

"We'll pick it up tomorrow," Mel said.

"You just want to keep your winning streak going," Raj teased, picking up and shuffling the cards.

While the two of them continued to battle it out, Elias leaned in close to Elise to whisper, "Are they always this competitive?"

"Yeah, pretty much," Elise whispered back with a smile.

Eventually, Mel and Raj seemed to forget about the card game as they naturally fell into light conversation. They asked how he was doing and what exactly happened with Hendrik. They shared some laughs, and eventually Raj and Mel were chatting with each other again, so Elias took this opportunity to talk to Elise.

"Hey, so weird thing happened today," Elias said. "Has Adina talked to you at all lately?"

"No... why do you ask?" she asked.

"Well, apparently she looks up to you. At least, that's what Eve said. Now I'm wondering if that's even true. Anyways, I asked her a little bit ago if she talked to you yet, but she basically freaked out and ran away afterwards. So now I'm wondering I said something wrong, or..." Elias squinted at her, noticing that she was smiling wide. "What?" he said suspiciously. "Why are you smiling like that?"

"Nothing," she said innocently.

"Elise," Elias pressed.

"It's none of my business, but... oh, what am I saying. It is my business," she said with a laugh. "I think Adina likes you."

Elias slowly processed this, connecting the dots from when he had that thought earlier today as well.

"I'm pretty sure Eve knows as well, but she used my name to throw her - well, both of you - off," Elise continued. "Was this the day her hair was braided?"

Elias nodded. "Yyyyyeah," he said slowly, slowly coming to the same understanding.

Oh, he was so going to scold Eve for this. He could have heard of this way sooner if she didn't talk in dumb code.

Elise gave him a longing look, understanding that he was coming to the same realization as well.

"Well?" she asked.

"Well what?" he said.

"Well, has she said anything else?"

Elias shifted uncomfortably on the floor. This was a weird conversation to have with his sister.

"Uh... no, I don't think so," he said.

Elise still smiled at him, but she seemed to drop the subject since she went back to organizing her items.

"I'll probably talk to her again. Maybe," Elias said with a nod, getting up to his feet.

"I'm glad to hear," Elise said.

"Anyways, I should probably get back now." He fumbled for the door, looking back at everyone. "See you all later?"

They all said goodbye, and Elias left the room, taking a deep breath as he shut the door behind him.

Well. Now he felt awkward.

But at the same time... this was nice, wasn't it?
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