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The Fateful Heart 2

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Thu Feb 18, 2021 5:54 pm
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soundofmind says...

James wasn’t sure he’d made complete sense, but he was glad Evaline seemed to understand and wasn’t going to hold it against him.

He flicked a grateful glance her way, but he still found it hard to look at her. He couldn’t help but feel ashamed.

“Thank you,” he said softly. “For being honest and patient with me.”
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Carina says...

"Of course," Evaline said gently, looking up to meet his eyes again but not getting anything more than a quick glance. She took her skirt out of the barrel and wrung it over the water.

"It's the least I could do," she said as the water dripped into the barrel. "Since you've been nothing but kind and patient to me."

She tried looking up and shyly smiling at him again, but it felt strangely vulnerable to do so after saying that. Most of the water had been wrung out of the skirt, so she got up on her feet and walked over to the clothesline to hang it up.
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Fri Feb 19, 2021 4:26 am
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soundofmind says...

A bout of silence followed as they continued washing their clothes, and fortunately the conversation that followed was casual. Talking about laundry, about how nice it was to be clean and have clean clothes, and how grateful they were to not feel the layers of sandy grime on their skin.

Just as they hung up the last of their clothes, James saw Mateo and Ava coming their way out of the corner of his eyes. They looked like they'd been in the linen closet too, as the two of them were dressed in clean clothes, and had their old ones in their arms.

James took in their appearances more closely, now that hunger and exhaustion weren't weighing so heavily on his mind.

Mateo stood about an inch taller than Ava, and the two of them had dark, wavy hair and deeply tanned brown skin. They were both lean and a little on the skinny side, which told him they'd probably been on their own and struggling for food for a while. Mateo looked like he was about 20, and Ava in her mid-teens. But she had a look on her face that made her feel older. If he knew anything about people who struggled, traveling on their own with only the clothes on their backs, their life hadn't been easy and they'd likely been through a lot up until this point.

James turned around as they approached, assuming they were there to wash their clothes.

"We just finished up," he said. "Do you want help refilling the barrel with clean water?"

Mateo and Ava looked at each other, and Mateo shook his head. Ava was the one to verbally respond.

"No, we're good. Thanks, though," she said curtly.

"Alright," James said with a dip of his head. He glanced back at Evaline and started to walk away. She finished pinning up the corner of her pants before turning to join him.

They walked in silence for a small amount of time, with no apparent direction, though Evaline seemed to be following James's lead as he drifted to the water's edge, following where it flowed. Kurt was nowhere to be seen, and though there were other people occasionally seen walking in and out of huts or going about their own business, Evaline and James were left alone for some time, and it was nice to have some room to breathe. To just walk without having to worry about all of the things that had plagued them the last week, or even that last two months. Food. Shelter. Water. Making enough distance each day in hopes of staying out of Butch's grasp, with the uncertainty of whether or not he was still following them into the harsh deserts of the Outlands.

They started walking under a canopy of trees when Evaline spoke up.

"It's a shame we'll have to change out of these clothes later," she said, glancing over at him.

"I'm just going to enjoy it while it lasts," James replied with a small shrug.

"It's nice," she continued on. "To have nicer clothes, for once." She gave him another glance, and it was almost like she was trying to tell him something without telling him.

James grinned, slightly. "Listen, I know when you first met me you thought I looked like a peasant farmer. And you know that wasn't by choice."

He looked over to her with his eyebrows slightly raised and a teasing look in his eyes.

Evaline let out a short laugh. "Thanks for reminding me. I almost forgot about that. And I almost forgot that you insulted my style when you told me you liked fasion." She shot him a playful smile of her own.

"To be fair, if I remember correctly, you asked for it," he teased back.

"Well, we're even now," she said after crinkling her nose at him. "Especially now that you can show me instead of tell me."

"I knew you'd be skeptical," James said, still with a small grin.

Evaline lingered her gaze at him with a soft smile and then they continued down the sandy path with a short peaceful silence.

"Do you usually wear the same style and size?" she asked, breaking the silence.

James looked down at himself for a moment and hummed. "I do like this style," he said. "Though the fit is a little looser than I prefer. The belt is what's keeping me from looking like I'm swallowed by it."

She stared at his shirt for far too long, like she was trying to analyze it along with his words. "It doesn't look that big," she commented. "Does that mean you wear smaller sizes?"

James paused for a moment. "...I'm a bit smaller than I used to be, so I'm honestly not fully confident what size I'd be now. And it's really not that big. It's mostly for practical reasons that I don't like clothing to be too loose or have too much excess fabric. It's fine if you're not being active while wearing it, but if you need to do anything useful it gets in the way, or gets caught on something."

"I see," she said, finally tearing her gaze away. "So you prefer fitted clothes that are more tight than loose?"

"Fitted would be the right word. Tight sounds restricting. And uncomfortable," James answered.

Evaline hummed this over for a little bit. He had no idea what she would do with this information, but she seemed interested by it. Maybe she was trying to prove, still, if he actually did 'like fashion.'

"And I assume natural colors would be better, too, right? To blend in? Or would lighter colors be better because of the desert?"

At that, James shrugged. "In a perfect world, I could dress for both."

"An in an imperfect world?"

Another shrug. "I like green."

She smiled and glanced at him again. "Favorite color or favorite color to wear?"

He hummed and pursed his lips in thought. "Probably both," he said. "If I had to choose a favorite."

He paused, just for a second.

"What about you? Do you have a favorite color?"

"My favorite color?" she repeated in thought. "I've always liked lighter blues. But if I'm feeling bold, then it's more of a crimson red. So, hard to say, really. It's hard to pick a favorite."

"Fair enough," James said with a nod, scanning the stream, and the village around them for the dozenth time.

Another small silence passed before Evaline spoked up again. "Funny how we've known each other for almost three months, and I'm just now learning your favorite color."

"Is that something people on earth often discuss when they first meet or something?" James asked, turning to her curiously.

She chuckled. "No, not exactly. I guess it's just something you learn about friends along the way. And for us, it only took three months of constantly being together to reach that point."

James nodded slowly, laughing but only in the way that you huff through your nose a little.

"It's a milestone."

Eventually, the winding stream of the oasis led them back the start, where they entered, and the camels were tied up to posts near Elliot. Elliot himself looked comfortable. Clean, refresed, and snacking on the lush green plants around him. Without a saddle weighing on his back James could tell he already looked more refreshed, and he was glad. Elliot had been under a lot of stress too.

James walked up to Elliot, and Elliot greeted him with a nicker, which confirmed that was really happy, and it make James smile. He reached up to pet behind Elliot's ear.

"Good to see you're feeling well, buddy," he whispered only for Elliot to hear, but he knew Evaline wasn't far behind him. She slowly approached Elliot on the other side and patted his back.

As he started stroking Elliot's neck, he saw the two siblings coming their way again. He had no idea what for this time.

Mateo and Ava stopped a few feet in front of them, standing there awkwardly for a second as the two of them looked to each other like they were having a silent conversation with thier eyes.

Mateo barely opened his mouth before Ava blurted.

"Can we meet your horse?" She sounded exasperated. Clearly, she wasn't the one who wanted to meet Elliot.

"Sure," James said with a small smile. "Have you worked with horses before?"

Neither Mateo or Ava moved to approach for a moment, and then Ava smacked Mateo on the back and Mateo briefly glared at her before walking up.

"A little," Mateo said quietly. He approached slowly, coming around from the side, where Elliot could see him. "When we were younger, our family had a stable, and we had a few horses. But it's been a long time..."

He let that sentence hang in the air as he came closer. James shifted out of the way, but kept his hand on Elliot's snout so Elliot knew he was still there, that things were okay, and Mateo was a friend. Well -- not a foe.

Mateo reached out to pet Elliot's face, and though Mateo seemed nervous, Elliot only seemed glad to be receiving more affection.

"What's his name?" Mateo asked.

"Elliot," James answered.

"He's a beautiful horse," Mateo said, still stroking Elliot's mane.

"That he is," James agreed.

"He likes to be scratched here," Evaline said, pointing under his chin.

James backed away so Mateo could come around. Mateo came up to Elliot's head and started scratching where Evaline pointed, and Elliot leaned his head into Mateo's shoulder, happy, and asking for more. Mateo laughed a little, and James watched Ava's hardened expression soften a little as she watched her brother.

"He seems to like you," Evaline said softly with a smile, watching him. "I wasn't used to horses, either, until a little bit ago. But Elliot is a nice one."

"He's very friendly," Mateo said with a little giggle, and Elliot huffed happily.

Evaline nodded. "If we had snacks, I'd give it to you to feed. He likes to eat apples, although we mostly feed him the cores nowadays."

"It looks like he's stayed pretty healthy though," Mateo commented. "He looks strong."

"Yeah," Evaline agreed, petting his neck. "It's hard to come across human food out here, but not so much horse food."

Mateo nodded, but Ava - who was still standing a little farther off - scoffed.

"You bet that's right," Ava muttered.

Evaline glanced at Ava, Mateo, James, then back at Ava. "Do you... also want to pet Elliot?" she asked.

Ava folded her arms and almost looked offended that Evaline had asked, but James felt like he could see through the act she was trying to put up. Petting a horse wasn't childish, but she appeared to think it was.

"No..." Ava spat out a little too forcefully, but the way the word hung in the air with little conviction told him that it was a yes.

Evaline looked at her with a raised brow and looked like she tried to suppress a smirk, but she wasn't doing a great job at it. "Are you sure? Who knows when you'll get to meet another soft, friendly horse..."

Mateo looked back at Ava, still scratching Elliot under his chin. He seemed to have a rather innocent personality, but James could see the teasing glint in his eyes that siblings had with one another. Silently, Mateo was gloating.

That seemed to be enough to make Ava march up towards him, stiffly reaching out a hand to touch Elliot. Once she started petting him though, she seemed to relax.

"He seems... nice," Ava said awkwardly.

"He's not so bad, is he?" Evaline said as she stepped off to the side of Elliot so they could both pet his snout. She looked back and beamed at James.

James couldn't help but feel an odd sense of pride, watching Evaline be so comfortable and confident around the horse that terrified her only three months ago. And now she was helping other people interact with Elliot, who had been so foreign to her before. He smiled back at her.

In the back of his mind, he couldn't help but compare this moment to one back at the mage's camp. Here, Mateo and Ava didn't know who they were, and they were friendly, and things were peaceful. Back at the camp, James had always been aware in the back of his mind that no one wanted him there.

It was nice, for once, to be a nobody. Just a man, "married" to Evaline and travelling to Ruddlan for work. A normal life. It was all just a made-up fantasy, but at least it hadn't fallen apart yet.

He really hoped it didn't, at least, as long as they were here.
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Sat Feb 20, 2021 3:58 am
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Carina says...

If Evaline were to pick one moment she regretted the most so far in her time in Nye, it would be this moment.

"Why do you look like that?" seven-year old Lenora said with a scrunched up face, pointing at James.

"Yeah, your face is funny!" six-year old Tabitha echoed.

"You've got big eyebrows!" Lenora continued.

"The biggest!"

And it wasn't like they even had time to respond to that, either. James was holding two-year old Archie who was crying about not being able to eat sticks, and three-year old Ferdinand was simultaneously screaming at James because he wouldn't get up and race him across the oasis.

And it wasn't like Evaline could answer the girls' snooty comments or help James out, either. Five-year old Nellie had crawled up on her lap and burrowed her face on to her chest too tightly to be peeled away, even though she was drooling. Meanwhile, four-year old Leo was standing on top of the bench she was sitting on, pulling on her arm and braid despite her telling him to stop.

"My folks were pretty strict with me, so I let my kids roam free," Mikel, the dad, said with his back towards them all, humming and stirring the big pot of soup he was cooking in the campfire. Somehow, he didn't notice that eight-year old twins Benji and Zach had taken torches and lit it up in the campfire before running around and dangerously swinging it towards James, Evaline, and the other kids.

"I think it's a good thing to give the kids ultimate freedom," Mikel went on, somehow oblivious to the chaos surrounding them. "Makes 'em tough and gives 'em independence, ya know? Both qualities we need in this oasis."

Evaline pushed Leo away so he would stop yanking her hair, and then glared at the back of Mikel's head.

She wondered how he was oblivious to being such an awful parent. But most of all, she wondered how on earth this chaotic situation even developed. It was supposed to be a simple request to babysit.

Hours ago, James and Evaline broke away from Ava and Mateo to help out with various chores around the oasis. It was mostly mundane things involving cleaning or food prepping since they were limited by the confines of the oasis, but then they were stopped by Mikel.

"Hi Yoen, Evelyn," he said to them when he first met them sitting around the center of the oasis, chatting. He was a pretty tall, big guy, and it looked like he his robes hid a slightly protruding gut. Short, dark brown hair stuck out in every direction and he had the beginnings of a beard shadowing his light brown skin.

"I'm about to get dinner started. Mind if you help me with a few things?"

And again, it was supposed to be a simple request to prepare thing, at first. Chopping up carrots, celery. Washing and soaking rice, beans. Cleaning up some bowls. But each request began to escalate and escalate, and Evaline was beginning to think this man was just lazy.

"I'm going to grab a few things. Mind watching Benji and Zach?" he asked, peeking his head out of a nearby hut. Two eight-year old boys who were identical twins looked up at them with the sweetest smile. They both had big, dark eyes and curly black hair that bounced around their ears.

"They're angels," Mikel kept going. "You'll hardly know they're there."

Of course, it was hard to deny a request like that, especially since they were guests to their camp. And Benji and Zach were easy to take care of... at first.

"Mind if you also look after Lenora and Tabitha?" Mikel asked later after he returned. "I have to run to get a few supplies. The boys usually do a good job taking care of them, but since you're here, I would appreciate the extra help."

And of course they couldn't say no to that, either. But Evaline was starting to realize how much extra work this was becoming.

"Why do you look so angry?" Lenora asked after Mikel walked away, folding her arms and shifting weight to one hip.

"Yeah, both of you look like you're mad all the time," Tabitha echoed. Zach and Benji started giggling.

Babysitting was so draining.

"Gee, I wonder why," Evaline said blankly mostly to herself, not giving it much thought.

Lenora lifted her fingers up to her brows and pointed them downward, making an angry face.

"This is what you look like," she said with her lips contorted into an exaggerated pout.

Evaline only stared at her and realized she was looking at her with the same face she was trying to copy.

"At least your eyebrows don't take up half your face like Yoen," Tabitha said with a shrug.

"Keeps my face warm," James said.

That made Benji and Zach giggle louder.

"How do you grow big eyebrows?" Zach asked. "I want to keep my face warm too."

"Yeah, is it like a mustache, but for your eyes?" Benji added on.

"More like a beard," James said, deadpanning.

"So my eyebrows will grow when I get big and grow a beard too?" Zach continued.

"If you're lucky like me, then yes," James replied, still with a straight face.

"No, Benji, I don't want you to be that hairy," Lenora said disapprovingly.

"Yeah, it's dis-gus-ting!" Tabitha said dramatically.

"Yoen is one hair away from looking like a hairy caterpillar," Lenora said, looking at James like she was challenging him.

"Maybe you'll find me chewing on a leaf someday after my complete transformation," James shot back.

"I bet you would," Lenora said. "And your breath would smell like tree."

"I guess you'll just have to find out," James said.

"You should eat a leaf right now!" Zach said, zipping to a nearby plant and ripping off a long leaf, presenting it before James.

"Oh, yeah?" James said, taking the leaf and inspecting it. He glanced at Evaline with a glint in his eyes, and it was no doubt in her mind that he was going to actually eat it because a bunch of kids told him to.

"Eat it! Eat it!" Benji and Zach started to chant in unison.

"Ewwwww, gross! Don't!" Lenora whined.

"Yuck!" Tabitha stuck out her tongue.

Then James shoved the whole thing in his mouth and chewed. At this point, Evaline wasn't surprised, just amused.

"EWWWWWW!" Lenora and Tabitha exclaimed in unison. Benji and Zach, though, were laughing loudly.

James swallowed, and stuck out his tongue out for only a second before smiling.

"Is there any in my teeth?" he asked.

"Yeah! Right there!" Lenora came up close and pointed at one spot of his mouth.

James stuck his tongue up there and then flashed his teeth again. "Good?"

"It's still there," Lenora said.

James lifted his hand to his mouth, and the moment it got close to his face, Lenora slapped it up into his cheek. Now all the kids were laughing.

And, almost predictably, Mikel came running back with all the supplies, and looked at them again with an apologetic smile. "Thank you both for looking after my kids," he said as the four kids then sat very still, peering up at him with innocent smiles. Two smaller kids were peeking out behind his legs.

"My wife Gabby is getting a little overwhelmed taking care of our infant and these two." He gestured for the kids to go on towards Evaline and James. "This is Nellie and Leo. Can you look after them while I help out Gabby really fast? It shouldn't take that long. I'll be right back."

And of course Evaline and James agreed to do this too, but at this point, a verbal response was no longer needed since Mikel assumed it was a yes and then scurried away.

Right on cue, all the kids seemed to move at once. Nellie and Leo started to run around, tugging and poking everything, including Evaline and James. Luckily, Benji, Zach, Lenora, and Tabitha were mostly talking to each other, but it was more like snide comments about the two of them.

Nellie then walked up to James with wide eyes. "Hold me?" she said sleepily up at him.

James looked around, as if he was searching for someone to pass Nellie off to. His eyes landed on Evaline, and as he met her eyes, he seemed to be asking: "Do you mind?"

She did mind, but she also knew how uncomfortable it would make him, so she sighed in defeat. "Okay, Nellie, come here," she said in a voice that could have been much smoother, but she didn't care. She didn't ask to babysit kids today.

Before Nellie groggily looked over at Evaline, Leo ran past her. "ME TOO!" he yelled, jumping into James's arms without warning.

James's eyes went wide, and Evaline could see him stiffen and attempt to brace himself too late. Leo went smashing right into James's abdomen, and she could see James's eyebrows twitch and his jaw clench, like he was using every muscle in his body not to react.

Leo proceeded to wrap his arms around James's waist and squeeze. James grabbed the boy's shoulders and attempted to pry him away, but it looked like he was restraining himself. Well, restraining a lot of things.

"You're not very squishy," Leo commented with a stubborn grip still around his waist.

"Neither are you," James said, his voice thin.

This seemed to ease the tension in Leo's arms. "Yes I am!" he said with a pout. "Right here, poke me right here!" He let go of one hand and pointed at his cheek.

James smiled weakly and poked Leo's cheek, barely.

"Nooooo, like this!" Leo grabbed James's hand and poked his own cheek with James's finger.

Meanwhile, Nellie had stumbled over to Evaline's arms, and she lifted her up to the seat next to her. She was glad that she seemed content with that, even though she stole her arm and used it like a pillow.

"Leo, why don't you come here with your sister?" she asked, trying to deescalate the situation and let James recover from the trauma caused by the five-year old.

Luckily, Leo wasn't as stubborn as she thought, but she didn't like that he stared at her hair too long.

"Okay!" he chimed, and then jumped away from James to run over towards Evaline. She braced herself as he jumped into her arms, and it took everything in her to not give James a snarky 'I did this for you' look considering he probably did end up hurting him.

Leo sat on her lap facing away from her, and she was glad that he seemed to babble things back and forth with Nellie. It kept them distracted as their siblings seemed to stop their whispering in the corner and started to approach them again.

Tabitha and Lenora came over and sat down between James and Evaline, and Benji and Zach sat on the other side of James.

"Daddy said they found you in a cave all sandy and gross," Lenora stated.

"He said it looked like you've never seen a sandstorm before," Benji added.

Tabitha looked up at Evaline. "Mommy says people in the desert can be scary, but we've only met the not-so scary ones."

Evaline wasn't sure who was talking to who, but she decided to answer Tabitha instead since she seemed to be expecting an answer. "That's probably a good thing."

"Well, there was Perona Blease," Zach said.

Benji and Lenora groaned.

"I don't remember who that is," Tabitha said defensively.

"She was wanted!" Zach said. "And she stole things."

"And she smelled bad," Leo mumbled as Nellie looked like she was dozing off now.

"So did Yoen and Evaline," Lenora said with a roll of her eyes. "I'm so glad you guys took baths."

Leo got awfully close to Evaline's face as he started to sniff her. "Yeah, not anymore! She smells like basil now. And Yoen..." Evaline made sure to keep her grip on Leo as his eyes started to travel over to him, but luckily his siblings continued to talk before he could wonder too much what James smelled like.

Before things could get too out of hand, Mikel was sauntering over again... with two more kids. How many children did this man have? Evaline dreaded what he was going to say next.

"Gabby needed some time to rest alone in the hut, so I brought Ferdinand and little Archie here," he said, letting the two boys walk. Ferdinand immediately began to zoom in circles around the campfire, and Archie fumbled to his feet to walk towards Evaline.

"I also have all the supplies ready to start dinner too," he exclaimed, gesturing to the bag he was holding on his other hand. "I'll be cooking away making a delicious soup for everyone. It shouldn't take too long. The kids will be roaming around, but they're very behaved, isn't that right, kids?"

"Yes, daddy!" they all cooed at once, except for Archie, who said gibberish.

Mikel beamed and then sat on the stool in front of the big pot, facing away from everyone. "I'm in charge of the soup, but the others are making some side dishes. There will be a big dinner tonight I think you both will enjoy. Really, I've been told I make the best soups, so I hope I don't disappoint. The key is in the spices..."

Mikel rambled on and on while his spawn-of-the-devil children silently began to cause a ruckus. It was like the knew they if they started out quietly and ended in a bang, their father wouldn't notice.

And that was how Evaline and James ended up in the situation they were in.

"I usually have my kids help out to make my soups," Mikel commented as Benji and Zach began to snicker and fish through a big chest nearby. Archie, Leo, and Nellie were making their way towards them while Ferdinand began to run in circles around the bench they were sitting at. Tabitha and Lenora were whispering who-knows-what to each other.

"It's nice to have kids," Mikel kept going despite the brewing trouble. "Really livens up the spirit, you know? It's nice to be a family man. Isn't that right, Yoen?"

"I imagine so," James said. At this point, Archie crawled up and put a hand on his knee with a stick in his hands. He was on the verge of tears. Ferdinand was also eyeing James up and down with a grin.

"Nine kids," Mikel mused out loud. "Nine kids, and it still doesn't feel like it's enough. I love each and everyone one of them. Children are really such a blessing, don't you think so, Evelyn?"

"Such. A. Blessing," Evaline tried to say with bright voice, but it came out sounding annoyed and sarcastic, which she had a feeling Mikel wouldn't pick up. Nellie had crawled up to her lap and randomly hugged her despite being covered in snot and other gross children-liquids, and she only recoiled with her face scrunched into a grimace. Leo jumped to sit next to her and wouldn't stop staring at her.

"I'm glad to hear that. See, Gabby and I met when we were teenagers and we knew we wanted to have lots of kids because we thought we'd live on a farm. We would need the helping hands, you know? Of course, the oasis isn't a farm, but I daresay it's even better." He laughed. "We still had lots of kids anyways because they're such a gift. Each and every single one of them. I love them all."

"I'm sure they love you too," James said, pulling Archie away from his face and taking the sticks out of his hands, which Archie was shoving into his mouth and trying to chew.

"Oh hey now, let me hear you kids say it. Kids?"

For a second, all the kids stopped with their grabbing motions and looked at Mikel with a smile. "We love you, daddy!" they all said at the same time again, but were off at different time intervals, so it sounded a bit garbled, especially with Archie once again screaming gibberish.

"Aww. Isn't that nice," Mikel said with a nod, turning back to his soup.

And right on cue, they all went back to their childish scheming. Benji and Zach pulled out torches from a chest while whispering with one another. Tabitha and Lenora were still whispering with each other too, stealing glances at James and pointing at him. Archie then started to cry when he realized his stick was gone, muffled at first, but slowly evolving into a full-out sob. Ferdinand seemed to also focus on James, suddenly pulling on his arm.

"Race with me!" he said with a hushed breath.

"Not right now, Ferdinand. Archie is upset," James replied calmly.

Meanwhile, Evaline was glad she wasn't being as targeted as him. She tried to pry Nellie away from her, but the more she pried, the tighter she grabbed on to her. She yelped, "No!" a few times and each time getting more and more serious with her grip, and Evaline gave up trying. Plus, Leo started to pull her arm and braid anyways.

"Stop that," she scolded, prying her hair out of his hands, but it only seemed to encourage him.

All the while, Mikel had been talking, as if he didn't hear anything happening behind him.

"...and after Lenora was born, we thought we might have twins again, but I'm glad that, for Gabby's sake, we didn't. Twins are rough on the body. But Gabby's been such a trooper, and she's a wonderful mother and wife." He paused, only for a moment, and his head popped up, like a thought occured to him. "What about you two? You ever think of having children?"

Evaline was not answering this question, especially when his own children were like little devils running around. It was hard to supress her annoyance through the look she gave James for him to answer this, but it came out more of a glare.

"Life is still a little uncertain for us right now," James said. "So we're not in any rush."

"You know, we were about your age when we had our first borns," Mikel commented. "You wouldn't want to wait too long."

"I appreciate the concern," James said, his voice still calm and carefully managed. "But it's between us what we decide to do."

Evaline was still swatting a giggly Leo away, but she tried to also pay attention to what was going on with James.

"Race with me!" Ferninand said to James again, pulling on his arm tighter. Archie began to cry loudly in his arms.

"Ferdinand, you're going to have to wait," James said, bounching Archie on his leg and patting the boy's back.

Mikel seemed deep in thought like he was coming up with a realization, and he somehow didn't seem to notice Benji and Zach using the fire he lit under the pot to light up the two torches in their hands.

"Well, when you do decide to have kids, I'm sure they'll turn out pretty. With your sharp features and Evelyn's eyes, they'll be some great lookin' kids. Although I do wonder if they'll inherit your hair color or hers, or maybe you'll have different kids that have both."

If Evaline wasn't so preoccupied with dealing with drooling and grabbing children, she might have accidentally gave away their entire backstory away. She did not think she would ever have the thought of what her 'future kids' would look like, nevertheless them being with James.

She hoped this wasn't going to be a thought that would haunt her at night.

"Like I said, we haven't really thought about that," James said as he kept patting the sobbing Archie's back. He was crying louder and louder despite his efforts to calm him.

"I'm just saying," Mikel replied. "If you two ever need parenting advice--"

"We're good--"

"--Gabby and I have been doing this for a while, so feel free to ask questions."

At this point, Benji and Zach were wildly running around with the torches, dangerously close to setting anything and anyone on fire. Lenora and Tabitha then started to point at James and continue their onslaught of insults, which prompted Archie to start screaming in his arms. Ferdinand was also screaming at James, asking him to please, please, please race with him. Meanwhile, Nellie seemed to fall asleep with a death grip around Evaline, and she looked away for one second, which gave Leo the window of opportunity to yank her hair. She bit back a pained groan and grabbed his arm, wrestling it away from him.

There was a few seconds of delay as James's eyes locked onto the twins.

"Thanks," was his curt reply to Mikel.

"You know, my folks were pretty strict with me, so I let my kids roam free. I think it's a good thing to give the kids ultimate freedom," Mikel continued on, being the most oblivious father in the entire world.
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Evaline looked just in time at James to see him tuck a still-crying Archie under one arm, get up, and grab Zach's collar, yanking him to a stop. Ferdinand followed, but his persistent whining seemed to come to a stop as he observed what James and his other brothers were doing.

"Hey!" Zach said, tugging against James's grip.

"Hand the torches over," James said sternly, meeting both Zach and Benji's eyes. The boys looked at each other with deep frowns.

"No!" Benji said, swiping his trapped brother's torch away.

"No," was James's calm but stern respose as he swiftly wrapped his one free arm around Benji's waist just before he could run away and yanked him back.

"You don't get to play with fire if you can't be responsible with it around your siblings," James explained as he confiscated the torches and blew them out with two harsh puffs.

Ferdinand was gripped onto James's leg, watching as Benji and Zach both pouted before begrudgingly stomping away.

"Hey--" James said, and both Benji and Zach, surprisingly, listened and turned around. "Let Ferdinand play with you too."

Benji didn't look happy about it, but it was Zach who relented with a sigh and walked over to Ferdinand, prying him off James's leg.

"Fiiiiiine," Zach whined. "Come on, Ferdinand."

By that point, Archie had stopped crying, and had his arms wrapped around James's neck. James attempted to crane his neck down to look at him, but he just decided to pat the little boy's head instead.

"It's okay, Archie," James whispered softly. "Not all of us can be like caterpillars and eat sticks and grass."

Archie nodded and sniffled into James's shoulder loudly, and James could hear the snot going back up the kid's nose.

"Caberpiwar," was Archie's one-word response.

"It's a hard word to say," James whispered back. "Four whole syllables."

"Cabilar," was Archie's second try, and James decided to let him mull over the pronunciation of the word since he seemed to find it soothing to say.

"Yeah. Caterpillar," James repeated, turning around.

With two torches under one arm, and still holding Archie in the other, he turned to join Evaline again, still keeping an eye on the twins and Ferdinand, who looked like they were now digging up mounds of dirt, which was a far better toy than fire.

James sat back down on the bench and set the torches beside him, leaving one hand resting on them, making sure the kids didn't grab them when he wasn't looking. He looked over at Evaline and saw that she somehow managed to convince Leo to go play with his brothers, although her braid was now undone. She stared ahead, looking stiff and not at all happy that Nellie dozed off nested on her lap and chest with her arms wrapped around her sides.

James couldn't help but grin at how frazzled she looked. Eight kids was bound to be chaos, but it was guaranteed when it became apparent that Mikel didn't discipline them at all. They were a handful, but James was glad they finally seemed to be winding down to a manageable level of chaos.

"Nellie looks comfortable," James commented quietly. "Are you alright?"

Evaline broke off her daggering stare at the back of Mikel's head to look over at him, although she seemed to notice Archie in his arms first.

"I did not sign up for this," she said in a monotone voice.

"Neither did I," James said in a far gentler tone.

She sighed, glancing back at Mikel while he continued to babble away about his kids. "You're far better at this than I am," she said after a hesitation and with a softer voice.

At this point, Mateo and Ava had come to join them around the fire, and some other familiar faces started drawing near. Liana and Sasha, and a woman holding an infant wrapped to her chest. He had to assume that was Mikel's wife, Gabby. The baby was probably asleep, or resting.

"I probably have just a little more experience..." his sentence trailed off when he saw the elderly woman named Edna - one of the ones who'd been in the group that had picked them up from the cave - approach. As if on cue, Tabitha, Lenora, Benji, Zach, Fernindand, and Leo's heads shot up and they stood at attention. The woman hadn't even looked at them or said a word, and already they were gravitating to the fire, joining the adults. They all started sitting down, still and at attention. Benji looked like he was helping Ferdiand wipe the dirt off his hands before the older woman saw.

James figured out, by that point, that Edna was probably their grandma. He could see the resemblance between her and Gabby, and Edna was looking to Mikel with disapproval.

"Aww," Mikel cooed. "Aren't they just the most behaved kids?"

"Oh please, Mikel," Edna said, kneeling in front of Lenora and Tabitha and giving them pats on the head. "I've seen what they can be like with your supervision, and it's not like this." She cackled and turned towards James and Evaline.

"Isn't that right?" she asked them.

James watched as Mikel slowly turned his head to look back at them. His expression was pretty easy to read. He didn't want them agreeing with his mother-in-law.

"They have a lot of energy," James said neutrally.

"That's certaintly one way to put it," Edna said gently before baby-talking Leo and Fernindand. Mikel also seemed satisfied with his answer.

It was then that Kurt approached the fire pit, looking a little winded, like he'd hurried to get there. His eyes locked onto James and Evaline almost instantly, and James couldn't help but feel his heart sink a little. Kurt wasn't bad by any means, but he knew Evaline had just endured a bunch of wild children, and the last thing either of them wanted was to be pestered with small-talk (or invasive questions).

There was a small space between James and Evaline - which was only enough room for a small child to sit on if either Nellie or Archie decided to sit - but of course Kurt decided to come in and squeeze between them. James and Evaline both had to uncomfortably shuffle away to make room for him.

"I'm so glad I found you both before everyone else came," he said as a greeting.

Kurt's movement in their direction seemed to draw Edna's attention, and she saw Nellie asleep in Evaline's arms.

"Oh, poor little Nellie, she's exhausted isn't she," she cooed. She walked up to Evaline and outstretched her arms, offering to take the little girl from her. "I'll hold her. You'll need your hands free to eat."

Nellie seemed to perk up at Edna's voice before Evaline could even move. "Gramma...?" she said sleepily, letting go of Evaline and turning towards Edna with sleepy eyes.

Evaline wasted no time to pry her off herself and extend her towards Edna.

"Thanks," she said simply.

Edna heaved Nellie up onto her hip and carried her over to Gabby, where the two of them sat, with Nellie curling up in Edna's lap.

"Alright, the soup should be ready!" Mikel sing-songed.

Kurt leaned in close to James's shoulder, and James had to not think about how he felt just a little trapped with a boy in his lap and Kurt practically breathing on his ear.

"I see Archie really likes you," he commented, seemingly ignoring Mikel's announcement that the soup was ready.

Some of the adults started getting up and scooping soup into their bowls, which were stacked on a closed barrel beside the fire. James leaned forward to look at Evaline, making eye contact.

"Go get something to eat," he said.

This was his way of telling her he would take a bullet (Kurt) for a minute so she could breathe. He didn't mind suffocating a little longer. Besides, if he had to get up, he'd have to take Archie, or otherwise figure out a way to pry him off. The latter seemed unlikely at the moment.

Evaline glanced between the two of them and nodded. "Okay. I'll get us both something." She then got up and joined the line. James turned back to Kurt.

"He's a sweet kid," James commented, patting Archie on the back. Archie seemed to be somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, and he wrapped his arms around James's waist, leaning his head onto James's chest.

Kurt crinkled his nose at him. "Not to everyone. He seems to only cry whenever I hold him. Same with Liana. I think he just really likes you."

James looked down at Archie.

"Is that true?" James asked.

Archie nodded his head.

This only made Kurt even more suspicious. "What'd you do?" he asked James.

James shrugged. "He tried eating a stick, and I didn't let him."

"Caberillar," was Archie's addition to the story.

"It's pronounced caterpillar," Kurt said with a sigh in his voice.

"It's okay, you'll get it eventually," James said to Archie. He looked up at Kurt. "He's what, only two? The fact that he's even trying to say it is impressive."

A beginning of a smile started to tug on Kurt's lips. "So you probably did more than not letting him eat a stick, huh?"

James shrugged. "He hopped up into my lap and hasn't let go. I don't know what I did."

Kurt hummed this over. "Kids are weird," he commented.

"I think we're all a little weird as children," James said. "We're still growing and learning how things work."

This bit of advice seemed to slowly dawn on Kurt. "Ya know, you're pretty good at this," he said with a nod and a smile. "Parenting, I mean. Do you and Evelyn have kids?"

Kurt glanced around them like he was looking for running children that resembled them that he somehow managed to miss.

James wanted to be anywhere else but besides Kurt. Why? Why was it the moment they were around children everyone wanted to ask them about kids? Did no one respect privacy anymore? He knew the logical reasons why people brought up these questions. They assumed a certain level of familiarity and comfort that wasn't there. Kurt and James were still strangers. But he was too tired to draw a hard boundary line, especially when Kurt seemed so sensitive and prone to suspicion.

"No, we don't," he answered simply. "It's been hard enough with just the two of us in our travels. And dangerous. We wouldn't want to bring a child into that."

Kurt nodded like he understood. For once.

"Well, if you do decide to have kids someday, I think you'd make a great dad." He paused. "I dunno about Evelyn though. She doesn't seem very good at this like you are."

James's eyes flicked to Evaline. She was standing in line around the big pot of soup. Mateo and Ava were just in front of her. They seemed to be making casual conversation.

"People can learn and grow," he said. "That doesn't stop just because you hit adulthood."

"Wow," Kurt breathed out. "You're full of wisdom. I can tell your parents taught you well." He sighed again. "I wish my parents could have told me some words of wisdom."

James's gaze drifted to Edna.

"It seems like you have a good group around you. I'm sure if you just asked for some advice, you'd be surprised what you can learn from them and their life experiences."

"You're right," Kurt said in confidence then leaned forward so he could see James's full face. "Soooo, what's some advice you can tell me?"

James blinked slowly as it registered in his mind that Kurt had taken his advice literally, and also taken immediate action. James took a mental note of this to remember to stray away from sarcasm or anything Kurt might take the wrong way. He seemed likely to be a whistleblower with his pre-existing concerns about criminals and outlaws. James figured it was better to play it safe and stay on Kurt's good side, even if that meant entertaining sometimes annoying and wearisome behaviors.

"In general?" James asked to clarify. "Or is there something specific you're looking for advice for."

"I dunno, what's your top three best advice?"

James had to hold back a laugh.

"Well," he said, clearing his throat. "One of the things my father taught me when I was young was to always be kind, because you never know what someone else might be going through. Everyone has their own story, and sometimes you only see a small portion of the bigger picture."

"I already do that," Kurt said with a shrug. "What else you got?"

"This might seem contradictory, but it applies to a different context. I was also taught not to believe everything I hear, but to think critically about the things I'm taught and see around me."

Kurt mulled this over. "So, don't trust anyone..?"

"Not exactly. Just think critically," James said. "Especially if you're not hearing it from the original source."

"So if you're hearing the information from the original source, it's more believable? How do you know whether you should trust it or not?"

"I'd say it depends on the situation," James answered.

"Hmmmmm," Kurt said, drawing out the word until he ran out of air. "And you say you do this all the time?"

James blinked. "...What?"

"Think critically and not believe everything you hear," Kurt said as if it was obvious. He appeared to be jumping from thought-to-thought without coherence.

"I mean, I try to," James said, not sure where this was leading. He couldn't help but feel a little nervous.

"So you've done it here, then?" Kurt concluded, giving him a suspicious glance. "In the oasis, I mean."

James took in a slow breath. So that's what he meant.

"I think it's the resposible thing to do," he said. "Evelyn and I only have each other, and we look out for each other. I know you know better than anyone here that not everyone in this desert can be trusted."

"Hm. Fair enough," he said with a shrug, and then started to kick his legs against the log. "What's the third piece of advice?"

"Don't talk for too long on an empty stomach."

He looked from Kurt to the line for food.

Kurt snorted. "Guilty."

James watched as Evaline made her way towards the front of the line, finally scooping soup into the two bowls. It looked like Ava and Mateo held her back in side conversation, though.

"Okay, I do have a specific question for advice now," Kurt piped up again.

James let his gaze linger on Evaline before finally pulling away to look at Kurt.

"What is it?"

Kurt happened to be gazing at Evaline too.

"How do you know she's the one?" he asked. "Or, you know, how do you know?"

In that moment, James could feel himself drifting, and it was the first time he could remember he'd ever been fully aware it was happening, now that Evaline had drawn attention to it.

He wasn't sure how to fight it.

Honesty? No. Not with Kurt. Maybe just a little bit of honesty. It didn't have to be about Evaline. Just his honest thoughts on the subject in general.

"...I don't think there is such things as 'the one,'" he said. "I think the one is the one you choose."

This seemed to confuse Kurt. "So, you're saying, Evelyn isn't the one..?"

"No--" Well now he'd walked himself into this one. He didn't know how to talk his way out of it without making it more awkward but for entirely different reasons. He hoped if he said it, that Kurt would let it drop before Evaline came back.

Please. He was practically begging. Who was he begging? He didn't know.

"I'm saying that I chose her," he said. "And because of that, she's the one."

"Yeah, I get that, but what made you choose her?" Kurt asked like it was supposed to be obvious.

James wanted this conversation to be over. He knew that was too much to ask for. This was all his fault from the start, anyway. He only had himself to blame.

He looked over to Evaline, letting himself drift just enough that he couldn't feel anything as he searched for words to answer Kurt's question.

All good lies were rooted in a truth. And sometimes the best lies were just truths in disguise.

"She's the only one who ever saw me," he said, hoping Kurt would fill in the blanks that the poetic sentiment lacked. "And when I'm with her, it's like... I'm home."

"Awwww," Kurt cooed.

James could feel himself slipping. Slipping into a character, slipping into something that he still didn't have words for, but he knew it was happening, and it scared him that he couldn't seem to pull back from it this time.

He could feel something wet on his shirt. He looked down to see Archie, asleep, drooling on him.

"That's cute," Kurt said. "Do you know if Evelyn's answer is the same?"

He heard footsteps just ahead of them, and James snapped his head up too quickly. Evaline was walking up with a bowl in each hand.

"Some things in life are better left a mystery," James said quickly, barely intelligible.

Luckily, Kurt didn't blurt the same question out loud when Evaline approached. She held two bowls and sat down next to him on his free side, away from Kurt.

"You might need to put Archie down," she said with an appreciative smile to him.

James nodded, trying to shake off the numbing buzz in his brain. He patted Archie's back, and Archie started to stir.

"Hey, Archie, why don't you go find your dad? Or grammy?"

Archie clutched onto James's sides tighter and shook his head.


"Archie, I need to be able to eat dinner," James tried to reason with him, but as the words left his mouth, he realized he was trying to reason with a two year old. It wasn't going to work.

"No, no, no! No!" Archie babbled again.

Kurt peered over. "See, he's not a perfect angel. He's about to cry." He sighed then got up. "Well, if he's about to cry, I might as well pick him up and take him for you."

Right on cue, Archie started to whine, and Kurt rolled his eyes and extended his arms out for James to hand him over, which he did, gently.

"Shhh, shhhhh, don't be so loud," Kurt grumbled over to Archie as he started to furiously cry. It didn't seem to work.

"Okay, I'll uh... be right back!"

And then he quickly zipped off towards Edna as Archie's crying began to fade, finally leaving the two of them alone. James let out a long, deep sigh.
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Carina says...

Evaline was grateful that James had given her a break away from any kids and from Kurt, but now that they were sitting on the bench alone, she felt like something was off about him. They took a few silent spoonfuls of soup before she decided to break the silence.

"Drained?" she asked him.

"I'm..." he started the sentence but took a few seconds to finish it. "Um. Time's... down?"

Almost out of instinct, a shiver went down her spine and she looked up at him with wide eyes. They had just talked about this earlier today, and he would only bring it up if he was badly hurt. She set her bowl beside her and turned towards him.

"Do you need to rest?" she asked gently.

James's eyes scanned the group around the fire. "Soon, if we can," he said. "But I can finish the meal."

Evaline also glanced around. They were in a pretty big communal sitting area, and it seemed like everyone in the oasis was gathering around. No one was near them now, but it would get crowded. It was also likely to be crowded with people they hadn't met.

"We can take our bowls somewhere else," she said. "We don't have to eat here."

James swallowed, like he was thinking, and then nodded. "You don't think they'll be suspicious, do you?"

She tried to give him an empathetic smile. "If anyone asks, just tell them I get overwhelmed with too many people."

It wasn't really a lie, anyways.

"As long as you don't mind being a scapegoat," James said as he got to his feet, carefully balancing the soup bowl in his hand so it didn't spill. His movements looked stiff, though it seemed like he was trying to move naturally. But Evaline knew well enough what was off about it.

"I'll take this one for you," she said as she followed his movement to move, and then offered her other hand out to take his bowl. "And that, too. I can carry both our bowls."

"Oh--" he hesitated, but handed the bowl to her. "Thank you."

James seemed frazzled. She was too with the kids. It was the least she could do now to carry the conversation and take care of him in any way she could.

"I have surprising good balance," she commented as she balanced both bowls with her hands. She started to lead him towards the river where it led away from the docks and closer towards a small cultivated garden.

"I hope Kurt didn't bother you too much," she said after a few brief moments of silence when she was deciding on what to talk about. She also tried to figure out what may have hurt him, and she couldn't think of anything besides when Leo rammed up to his chest.

"Not too much," James said. She could notice he was walking slowly, but she slowed down to his pace. "He ended up asking for life advice, but it didn't seem like he actually wanted it."

Evaline tried to imagine Kurt asking James for advice. What would he even ask him? She had a feeling it involved their fake love life, and she sighed. She didn't envy James for sitting through that.

She was curious, though.

"What was the advice?" she asked.

James sighed. "Be kind to people because you don't know their whole story. Think critically about things that you hear -- he didn't really get what I was getting at with that one. I meant more in the context of like, things you hear in school, or things that 'society' says as a whole. He thought I was telling him not to trust anyone."

Evaline nodded, listening as she carefully leading them down the winding path to get to the place she had in mind. It was odd to listen to James say his own advice that mirrored his character, and it was even more odd to imagine him saying these things in front of Kurt, who only knew a false version of him.

"He does seem to easily trust everyone," she said. "Maybe he took it personally."

James put his hands in his pockets. "I hope not," he said quietly.

"He didn't seem upset," she added. "So I'm sure he's not offended or suspicious of you, if that's what you're worried about."

"...A little," James said, still keeping his voice low. "I did think about it."

Evaline mirrored his hushed tone. "Was there anything else said that may have implied who you are?" she asked quietly in case others were nearby.

James stared ahead of him, squinting.

"It's hard to tell, sometimes," he said. "But I don't think so."

She let out a relieved sigh. "That's good. Well, other than that, I don't think it's possible to offend Kurt, so I think you're in the clear."

James only nodded in reply, though he did flash Evaline a ghost of a smile.

In the distance, she could see the benches lining up along the edge of the river. Some sparse dry trees and cacti were dotted along the bank. Desert flowers bloomed in the available spaces, especially close to the water. The sky was turning dark; it was late evening, about to be dusk. They probably could finish up eating, clean their bowls, then go towards the tent area that Sasha had shown them at the beginning of the day as the place they will stay the night, if they chose to stay.

"Thanks for giving me a break back there," she said after being in her own head too long. She gave him a long look. "The kids seem to like you."

James laughed weakly in the back of his throat. "I can't say I wasn't trying."

"You said you had a lot of experience?"

"More or less," he said. "I helped a lot with Larrel, growing up. And I -" It looked like there was a brief hitch in his steps. "Kind of ended up... I don't know how to put it."

Evaline slowed down to his pacing and decided to throw a guess out there. "Taking care of others?"

"Yes," James said slowly.

She quietly nodded, understanding. Now knowing some of his backstory, him taking care of others besides his family didn't surprise her.

But he was hurt. She figured he didn't want to talk about it.

"I honestly haven't had a lot of experience with kids," she said, but at this point, it was probably already obvious. "Or... really, none at all. I haven't done much else besides pass them, really."

"It takes some time to get used to being around children," he said. "I don't think it comes naturally. But I just try to put myself in their shoes. They're small, things are confusing, and I'm big, and they think I have it all together."

Evaline smiled, still looking ahead. It was oddly endearing hearing James try to empathize with a small baby.

"I just don't know what to say to them," she admitted. "At what age is it appropriate to talk to them like I would talk to anyone else who can carry a conversation?"

"I... well, you're talking to some who doesn't believe in baby-talking kids," he said. "I think you should always talk to them like you normally talk, just don't expect a two year old to carry a conversation the same way an eight year old will, and an eight year old won't in the same way a teenager will. But at the end of the day, they're just little people and their minds are still developing. Sometimes they can surprise you with what they pick up on. Just because kids are young doesn't mean they don't pay attention."

James surprisingly had a lot of good advice. She had no idea he was this experienced.

"I'll keep that in mind," she said, although at this rate, she was fairly certain that James was going to handle all the kid interactions from here on out. "Did you say the same advice to Kurt?"

"In less words," he said.

"That's probably why he didn't understand it."

James's mouth twitched into a smile, but it was becoming more evident that he was still trying to mask his discomfort.

"Next time I'll lecture him," James joked.

Evaline snickered. "I'm sure he'll start taking notes. Make sure to say a lecture on boundaries."

"He's more likely to interrupt me mid-sentence than take notes," James said, looking over and meeting her eyes.

"Sounds like a frustrating student," she said, looking up to him in time.

It was a short walk over to a nearby bench overlooking the river and garden, and Evaline sat down first, waiting for James to sit before handing him his bowl of soup. It was a shame they missed the sunset since the sun was almost finished setting, but it was hard to tell since the canyon walls blocked their view. The moon looked like it should be out, but it was also concealed. Stars started to dot the sky and come into view.

"Here," she said when James got comfortable, handing him the bowl.

James took the soup and spun the spoon around in it.

It wasn't as warm as before, but Evaline would much rather have lukewarm soup away from prying eyes and ears with James feeling comfortable, rather than hot soup with strangers around them and James not feeling like himself.
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soundofmind says...

James stared into the bowl for a minute. It was cooling down, but the air around them was still warm, and steaming hot soup wasn't a necessity.

He couldn't help but feel like he'd ruined the mood and worried Evaline by telling her he wasn't feeling well. But it was the honest truth. All the kids poking at him and ramming into him made him ache, and though it was something he would normally just push through, he felt his head starting to feel... fuzzy. He wondered if some of it was because of how he was trying to actively keep himself in the present. The fight to not shut down - especially internally - was much harder than he'd thought it'd be.

He took a sip of soup and started slouching. His side still hurt and putting the weight of even a small (and occasionally wriggling) child on it had caused strain.

More than anything he just wanted to lie down, but he knew the night wasn't over yet.

James continued to sip his soup in silence, staring out into the garden as the moonlight stars lit up the night sky. If he wasn't in so much discomfort, he might've been able to enjoy it.
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Carina says...

Evaline forced herself to keep eating the soup despite not having much of an appetite. She knew she should eat and she should be hungry, but it was like her body was still in starvation mode and lowered the amount of calories it needed to maintain weight. But she knew she had to fight pass that, especially since she didn't want her body to be weak while conserving energy.

She stirred her spoon in her bowl, taking small and slow bites and looking up at the sky in between them. It was nice to enjoy the night sky in a peaceful and safe setting like this. It felt like a long time since they had an opportunity like this.

Even so, James didn't seem like he felt safe. Evaline could tell he was concealing pain and discomfort. She didn't want to pry too much in case the subject was sensitive, but she was here to help, and she wanted to help. She only hoped James wanted her to help, too.

"I'm sorry the kids hurt you," she said, breaking the peaceful silence. "Especially Leo. It happened so fast. He really has no idea..."
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soundofmind says...

“It’s okay,” James said quietly. “He didn’t know, and it’s not like I was going to tell him...”

He sighed as he stared down into his bowl.

“I’m just tired of feeling so fragile all the time.”
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Carina says...

Evaline gazed over at James, trying to read his expression. He was a sensitive ex-military man with many regrets, and of course feeling fragile didn't help. Especially if a hug by a five year-old was enough to cause great physical pain.

She wished she could think of the words to say that will make James feel better, but she wasn't sure she could think of any, or if they really existed. There was no use in telling him being fragile was okay, or that he was fine, or that his feelings were valid.

She sighed. "You're not alone now," she settled on instead. "I'll have to do a better job at absorbing whatever comes your way... even if it means getting tackled by a five-year old."
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soundofmind says...

James looked over at her, trying to smile with his eyes, but he didn't know how much of that was communicated through the pain.

"Evaline, you don't have to be my shield," he said. "But... I do appreciate it. I hope you know that I'd do anything to look out for you too."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Sun Feb 21, 2021 5:49 am
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Carina says...

That last sentence seemed to hang in the air. She knew he meant it in a context that was far deeper than shielding her from kids. There were mixed feelings about this.

"Not a shield," she corrected, deciding to not hang up on his last sentence too much. "Just a friend looking out for another friend."
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Sun Feb 21, 2021 5:58 am
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soundofmind says...

James nodded slowly. He felt like he understood what she meant.

“Thank you,” he said quietly. “I am grateful for your friendship. I hope you know that too.”
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Sun Feb 21, 2021 6:08 am
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Carina says...

Evaline glanced back at him and smiled, just a little. "I know," she said. "The feeling is mutual."

A small bout of silence passed after she turned away and looked back at the darkening sky. They probably couldn't stay out here too long before someone would be looking for them, but she'd rather enjoy the moment as long as she could. It was nice to be next to James without being wary of their surroundings or being around people asking invasive question.

"It's peaceful here," she commented after swallowing another spoonful. "The people are nosy, but it's nice to not worry about survival for once."
chaotic lazy

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secret supreme overlord of yws

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5/5
—Anonymous Yelp Review

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Sun Feb 21, 2021 7:10 am
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soundofmind says...

"It's one less thing to worry about," James agreed, falling back to silence as he took a few sips of his soup. He could feel his appetite creeping back again, even though his body was weary.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

I like to create sympathy for my characters, then set the monsters loose.
— Stephen King