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Far From Home



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Carina says...



Evaline forced the memories out of the lock box she had chained in her head, dusting it off and trying to remember. Not of what happened, because it was all gone, but of what Mel and Alistair told her. The final timeline, and the events leading up to it. James didn't know any of the context.

"It was about a month before graduation," she began. "At this point of school, we rarely saw each other in class, because our lessons focused on our powers. But we all returned for our professor to teach us our final academic lesson: living in the sectors post-graduation. You said we were looking at a paper. That was a letter of recommendation to various job postings we could go into. Some of us had options. Some of us only had one option. That was one of the reasons why we were gloomy... among other reasons."

James looked like he was thinking for a moment before he replied.

"Did Elias only have one option?" he asked quietly.

Evaline bit her lip for a few seconds before responding. "He did," she said quietly. "As did I, and as did Alan."

"I don't know if anyone ever told me what Alan's power was," James said softly. "What was it?"

"You already know that Alan was related to Alistair, and his power is fire-related," she said. "But Alistair's formal power category is energy conversion. Alan's was too, but in a much different way. Instead of thermal energy, it was chemical. I've never found out what the informal name of it is, but basically, contact through skin could lead to him absorbing your chemical energy. It makes you feel hungry. Weak, if it goes on too long. Unconscious, if it goes on even longer."

James had his brows furrowed, like he was trying to understand it.

"So, basically... he could take away your energy?" James asked. "And he was hungry and tired if he didn't?"

"That's oversimplifying it, but yes," Evaline said. "He didn't need to, but he did have a fast metabolism and would eat nearly double the amount others eat just to keep his weight. He didn't need to depend on his power to live, nor did he use it because he needed to. It really was just an inconvenience because it tended to happen... on accident."

"He'd take people's energy on accident, you mean?" James asked. "Whenever he touched them?"

"Technically it was touch-to-touch contact if it involved fluids," she said. "So, clammy hands, for example. Or sweat on a hot day. Most of the time nothing happened, and if there was a touch that triggered it, it would only make the receiving person hungry and tired. So yes. That I know of, he had only taken other's energy on accident."

"So what were all of your job assignments, then?" James asked. "I assume yours was... a leadership role."

Evaline nodded. "After I graduated, I was supposed to move to Sector 1 to start my teachings with Oliver's parents. The lessons were to span the next ten to fifteen years, until we could marry and then take over his parents' roles. It didn't happen... obviously."

"What about Arima?" James asked. "She was the first to walk out."

"I believe she had a few options to choose from, but her parents had tunneled her into being a therapist like them," she said, then paused. "Arima was friends with the others when we were a little younger, but she grew more distant over time. I only found out later it was because her family didn't want her to meddle with my family, which involved me. So she found other friends."

"That's really sad," James said quietly. "What about Mel?"

Evaline took another deep breath, shoving her thoughts about Arima aside for now to remember Mel. She had always been the sunny one of the group. Even her future in the sectors was sunny and bright.

"She had the most options between the rest of us," she said. "But she settled on being a teacher. It obviously didn't work out since she escaped, but I think she'd have been good working with kids."

"And... Alistair?" James asked.

"He picked firefighter," she said. "I think he didn't want a job that involved academics. He must have changed his mind after a few years, though."

James hummed.

"And Alan... he had only one option as well?"

Evaline nodded. "The title was called recruiter," she said slowly. "It was vague, but they work under a low branch of government. If someone's power had mutated to the point where it was too niche to find a trainer, then recruiters are assigned to them."

"What does recruiting entail?" James asked.

Evaline was quiet for a moment, trying to wade through the old memories she didn't think she'd ever have to return to, especially since she was no longer living in the sectors.

"Elias had a recruiter," she said softly. "His own personal trainer, even though they didn't share the same power. I don't know the details, but from what I've gathered from Elise, his recruiter was trying to figure out what he could and couldn't do, and trying to recklessly strengthen him. I don't know if all of them are like that."

"So... Elias," James said. "His fate was to be with his... reckless recruiter?"

"His recruiter was trying to figure out where he should go after graduation. That was what recruiters did. Recruit by figuring out where people should go with niche or unconventional powers. And in the end..."

Evaline deeply sighed. Even though she and Elias were far from friends, she still couldn't help but pity him.

"Elias's job was to serve in the military. I think he had always known. He just decided to push it off as long as he could so that he'd leave until he graduated," she said.

"So that would explain why he was so downcast," James said quietly.

"Maybe," she said softly. "Mel was very close to him back then. They dated, at one point. And then one day he decided to distance himself from her, Elise, the rest of us, and school."

"So... in a way, he was preparing himself for what he knew was inevitable," James said. "Like Arima had done in her own way. Preparing themselves for the roles they would take after they graduated."

"That sounds right," Evaline said with a silent sigh. "I'm sure there were more complexities I didn't know about. Elias and I hardly talked the last few months before he left. But considering the situation, that seemed to be what happened."

James was quiet again for a moment.

"So... that was the tension in the room," James said. "You knew you were all going to be parting ways, and things would never be the same again."

"It... yeah," she said with a weak laugh at the back of her throat. It was again oversimplifying things, but it was the truth. "That was the essence of it."

"So... when Alan went over to Elias, and the rest of you were gone," James said slowly. "Do you think he accidentally took some energy from Elias? Or..."

"I think..." Evaline began, but then trailed off. She took a deep breath and tried again, calming her nerves. "I think Elias was at a weak point, and was especially sensitive. Alan wouldn't purposefully make skin-to-skin contact, but I think even the small gesture was enough to trigger a reaction. And when Elias grabbed him... well, I think - I think even a small amount of energy stolen was enough for his powers to activate, given his state."

Evaline felt her chest tighten as she wrung her hands, and she let out a faint mirthless laugh that escaped as a rough hum.

"It's funny, isn't it," she said lowly. "That Elias had been trained by a recruiter, and he ended a soon-to-be recruiter."

James was quiet again, but this time a little longer.

"So it was an accident?" he asked quietly.

"What did you see?" Evaline asked, trying to soften her voice, but it still came out a little harsh. "What happened after the 'little nudge' by Alan?"

James swallowed.

"Elias... grabbed Alan's wrist," he said slowly. "Alan told him to let go, but... Elias pushed him against the wall. After that I-- it got-- unclear."

"That doesn't sound like an accident," she said lowly.

"If their powers triggered each other's," James said. "I -- I mean, I know I don't understand their powers that well, but it sounds like it... could have been..."

"I might not have memory of it, but I watched that interaction happen possibly hundreds of times, James," Evaline said with her chest tightening up some more. "You can't call that violence an accident."

James was quiet again, and he stared down into his lap with his eyebrows furrowed together tightly. He didn't respond right away.

"Elias knew what he was capable of," Evaline said in a distant low voice to fill the silence. "He knew. But he was selfishly drawing it out. This was the outcome of that. You can't call this an accident."

James was still quiet for a few drawn-out seconds as he stared into his lap.

"He ruined all of our lives," Evaline continued hoarsely, the silence starting to sound deafening. "All because he selfishly wanted to stay in a place he knew he couldn't belong."

"I'm not sure I'm following," James said quietly. "Do you mean that he should've left your school sooner, because he was a danger to everyone else? As opposed to waiting until graduation?"

"Yes," she said thinly. "People are drafted to the military as soon as that's an option for them. But he didn't."

"Do you know if it was his choice?" James asked.

"He kept it a secret from everyone. Not even Elise knew. But his trainer must have known."

"Do you think it's possible he wasn't allowed to tell anyone?" James asked.

"I think he didn't want to tell anyone," she said.

"But you don't know that for sure," James said.

Evaline glanced up at James, a prick of hurt prickling her heart. Not of anything James said, but because he was unassuming of how close she was to Elias. James was telling her possibilities like he knew Elias, but that was hardly the case.

"Elias and I were close," she said, voice hollow. "He was like a brother to me. I know him. I know how the military works, because I was supposed to lead the military someday. I know how the military drafts. And because I know Elias, I can say for certain that this was something he wanted to keep a secret. He didn't want anyone to know. He would do anything for no one to find out."

James was quiet again, but only for a small moment.

"Was he ashamed of his power?" James asked softly.

"I don't know," Evaline said with a knot in her throat. "He never talked about it with me."

"I know I never knew him the way you did," James said. "And I can't make any assumptions. And I know I don't know the full story."

He paused, taking a deep breath.

"I just wonder... with a power like that. He may not have wanted it in the first place. Elise's... she can heal other people. But I can imagine it may feel shameful to have a power that only benefits yourself," James said quietly.

"Maybe he didn't want it, but that didn't mean he had to be selfish and affect other people with his indecision over something he couldn't control," Evaline said, trying her best to stop the rising hostility in her voice. She was trying so hard. "Not all of us can have powers we're proud to have. That's just life."

James tucked his legs up and hugged his knees, looking out over the dark desert landscape.

"Kind of like you," he said. "Your power... has also been a burden to you."

"But I dealt with it," Evaline countered. "I've lived with it. I've coped with it. Burden or not."

"But the ways you were taught to cope with it hurt you," James said. "Maybe Elias was hurting too."

"Well, we're seeing him, aren't we?" she spat out. "Why don't you ask him yourself instead of wondering through me?"

"I would," James said. "But... I don't know him at all. I don't think it would be my place to ask."

"He's an open book," Evaline said as she squinted out to the darkness as well, forcing herself to relax her body.

"Is he still an open book?" James asked.

"I don't know. I haven't talked to him since that day."

"I know," James said quietly. "That was my point."

Evaline glanced at him, wishing he would side with her, just this once. Of all the things she wanted, she wanted him to side on her on this. She wished he would just listen to her and just take her side on this.

"I know seeing him is going to be hard," James said. "And I don't expect you to talk to him. And I know there are a hundred nuances to everything that happened that I'll likely never fully understand. I'm not trying to sound like an expert, or like I know what happened better than you do. I just... I don't know. I can't help but try to see it through everyone's eyes. Maybe that's why I keep dreaming it from different perspectives. I don't know. I just think it might be helpful to hear his side of the story. Not for me to hear it... but for you. It may be beneficial for him to also hear your side."

Before Evaline could say anything, he continued.

"I'm not saying you have to. And if you don't, I won't be disappointed. I know it's complicated. I know it's painful. And I know it's hard. I just can't help but wonder if this is an opportunity for some semblance of closure. That's all."

Evaline had been staring at her hands in front of her, leaning forward and deeply focused with her brows drawn together. If James had given this spiel to her before their relationship, or even early on, she was sure she would have shut down and bitterly pushed him away. But after everything they had been through... she trusted his word, and his wisdom.

Evaline didn't even know what she wanted. Did she want closure? She didn't know. James kept recommending it to her, though. She didn't know what to do with it. Where to even begin. What to even say. What to think, to feel.

He was right. It was hard.

Especially since she knew, deep down, that she missed Elias. Her first true friend. The only one she felt who had truly seen her. It just...

Why didn't he let her see him, too? Why did she have to find out this way?

"Elias had ruined my life at the time," she said quietly, forcing the uneasiness away. "I had gone back so many times because of his actions. I was so confused. I didn't know why he did that, or why nothing could change. But I kept trying. Over, and over, and over. And at the end of it, I gave up, because I began to feel helpless. I was stuck in my own personal hell of infinite time loops. So at the end of it, I decided to accept it. I accepted that Elias had killed Alan, and there wasn't anything I could do about it."

"Do you still wonder why?" James asked softly.

"Why I... accepted it?" she asked.

"Why he did it," James said.

Evaline was quiet for a moment, forcing herself to relive in past.

"I used to. I used to wonder why, but I don't anymore," she said lowly. "I've simply accepted that he's a monster."

"You used to say that about yourself, too," James said quietly.

"Maybe that hasn't changed. Do you ever wonder why I keep doubting your love? Who could love a monster?"

"Someone who's met a real one," James said soberly. "And I can say with certainty, that you are not it."

Evaline slowly looked up at him, noting his the severity of his expression. He seemed sincere, as he always was with his words. It was why she couldn't forever keep doubting his love, or keep doubting James.

"Well... thanks, I guess," she said quietly. She didn't really know what to do with that, especially since he already knew of her past evil transgressions.

James nodded slightly, and there was another brief paused.

"You may not want closure," James said. "And if you don't... we can talk about why. But maybe just... think about it. We've still got time until we reach the destination. If you think you can work up the courage to face Elias, I will do everything in my power to support you."

Supportive as usual. She could never be upset at him.

"If it wasn't for his actions, I probably would have continued the path paved out for me," Evaline said, forcing the words out. "I would have gone on to take the official trainings that would have further brainwashed me."

"And I would have met a very different Evaline five years ago," James said.

"So I guess..." She swallowed. "I guess Elias has that going for me. For us. I thought my life was ruined, but I guess, now... life isn't too bad."

"You've got a horse, a chicken, and me," James said, glancing at her with the hint of a smile. "Could be a lot worse."

It was so ridiculous, she couldn't help but let out a weak laugh.

"Yeah," Evaline said as she met his eyes with a little smile sad of her own. "I'm happy with our little family."

"Does that make Elliot our..." James trailed off, looking over in Elliot's direction. Elliot was sleeping peacefully - he'd gotten used to their occasional conversations in the middle of the night, apparently. As if on cue, Sleepy poked her head out of the blanket, near James's feet.

"Nevermind," James said. "We don't need to extend that metaphor."

"Uncle who invites himself to family gatherings?" Evaline said with a forced laugh at the back of her throat, finishing the metaphor anyways.

"And Sleepy's the clumsy niece who always tries to steal your food," James said.

"Technically, we steal her food," she teased. "Since we eat her eggs."

"I'm not going to overthink it," James said, closing his eyes and smiling a small, silly smile.

Evaline pressed her lips together, stifling a laugh. "I knew you were going to say that," she murmured.

James looked at her with the a glint of laughter in his eyes.

"I guess I'm getting too predictable," James said. "I'll have to come up with more original jokes."
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Carina says...



There were a few more days left before they would meet up with Tula and Katya. Luckily the nights were not as cold, even without a fire, so Evaline and James had plenty of time to talk. In the days that followed, they went through the rest of the journal entries.

From where they left off, the following page was a letter she wrote to James that explained how he first said "I love you" to her. It was nice being able to read it, although it was even nicer being able to see it since he had showed this memory to her already. For James, though, it was like he was able to relive it again, which lit up his eyes.

Spoiler! :
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When they moved on to the next pages, she saw that the entry were her own reflections on the previous pages.

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"I'm glad you're not as scared anymore," James said softly. "To be with me."

Evaline looked up to meet his eyes, softly smiling as it melted across her face. "I'm not," she agreed. "It's hard to believe that I was. This feels normal, and comfortable."

"I'm glad," James said, smiling back in return.

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"When you say putting my needs over yours," James said. "Was there a different implication back then? As in you holding back your emotions, so you didn't get too attached?"

Evaline felt her chest tighten a bit thinking back on what she could be feeling. It was familiar, even if it was five years ago.

"I wouldn't have agreed to be partners if I was going to hold back my emotions," she said softly. "We became partners because I was already attached, and I was ready to feel again. But I was worried it would get in the way of protecting you... I was worried that my feelings would get in the way of protecting you."

James nodded.

"I understand that," he said softly. "At least, much more now than I did before."

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James's eyes lingered on the first page at first, and he pointed at the last segment.

"I remember that," he said with a soft, wistful smile. "It was another good memory."

Evaline smiled rereading the section. "It sounds like it was," she agreed as her eyes drifted towards the top of the page where she asked herself if she was good enough for her. Her finger traced over it. "I assume I don't need to ask this to know the answer?" she asked with a teasing but genuine smile at him.

"I think you already know the answer," James said softly, smiling back. His smile faded a little though as he looked back down at the next page, which was more scrawled.

"Those must've been your nightmares and hallucinations," he said. "From the week you were recovering, after you'd gone back too many times."

Evaline sat still for a moment, rereading the page which she knew she must have quickly scrawled down.

"It was common to get bad nightmares during recovery," she said, thinking back upon James's own nightmares in Terra. "I've mentioned this to you before, but... after a nightmare that blurred reality, I'd often get up to write it down. It was easier to figure out what was real, and what wasn't."

"I remember," he said quietly. "I'm glad you wrote it down, so you could figure it out."

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James scooted a little closer to her, so that their shoulders touched.

"It's a little sad, reading this now, knowing what happened only a week after," he said. "But... the last page. It still applies. We still have time time. We'll always be learning more about each other, and making new memories... and getting old. I like the sound of that."

He paused.

"Not that getting old feels great physically, but you know what I mean," he said.

Evaline's heart simultaneously fluttered while also feeling denser, and she knew she was looking at him with a sappy look of adoration. How could she not? James always knew what to say, even if he wasn't trying. He was just being himself, and she wouldn't change a thing.

"I like the sound of that too," she said with a smile that reached her eyes. "Someone has to take care of you while your old bones ache."

James looked over at her and met her eyes, and his face melted into a tender smile, and his smile met his eyes too, with his dimples poking in and everything.

"And someone has to take care of you too," he said, leaning over and giving her a kiss on her cheek. "And that someone is me."

"I'm glad to hear that," Evaline said with a bright smile, trying not to look overly giddy. "Because I don't think Elliot would be a very good caretaker."

James looked over to Elliot, his smile fading only a little bit.

"He's done a surprisingly good job of taking care of me, though," James said softly. "For being a horse."

She reached over and placed her had over his, understanding what he wasn't saying.

"I think it's about time Elliot retires, then," she said with a gentle smile. "We can take care of him together."

"I like that idea," James said, placing his hand over hers as his gaze dropped down to the journal. They'd reached the last page.

"What do you think I should do with the journal?" she asked after a drawn-out pause as she turned it over and placed it on her lap. "Keep it? Toss it...?"

"I like your drawings in it," James said. "And it's like a little time-capsule of our memories. Unless you're worried about holding onto it for some reason, I don't see why keeping it would be a bad idea."

"Oh, no, that's fine," Evaline quickly assured, then weakly laughed as she peered down at the faded cover. "For some reason my main concern is... it's not economical. Because it's dead weight."

"But it's sentimental weight," James countered.

Evaline hummed then grinned and gently poked his side. "You're sentimental weight," she teased.

James grinned and laughed lightly, leaning away, but not in the same way he usually flinched from other's touch. He seemed comfortable, and happy.

"I'll take that," he said.

--<>--


The next several days blurred by, and now that they no longer had the journal to discuss, they filled their days with casual chatter and comfortable silences. Every conversation brought Evaline closer to him, even if the conversation was mundane, or ugly. She was starting to learn and appreciate that every moment was precious, even if it seemed nothing of value. She held on to it, living in the moment.

It was the day before the rendezvous, and it was a strangely warm day. So warm, that they only had to travel with one set of clothes. Evaline knew that they had always been traveling at the edges of the desert, and they were alreay getting close to the mountains since she could see it in the far distance. Still, the desert must have played a part in the heat, but they were both grateful.

Fortunately, they had to cross a river, so they had to get wet anyways. It was a perfect day for bathing, especially since they both hadn't jumped into a body of water since the hot springs. Rivers and lakes were too cold for the winter, as they had come to find out.

The water was cold, but not freezing. Evaline first made sure to ask James what he was comfortable with doing, and they both ended up dipping in the water with their backs to one another. Evaline was glad to respect his privacy, although there was something intimate about having a conversation during this moment.

She was just glad to be clean and lay in the sun for a moment. When she dried up, she got changed and waited for James to finish too. When he was ready, they both washed their old clothes and splashed some water to one another, but ultimately laid back down and relaxed.

It was a nice, relaxing day. Perfectly timed, too, because they were slightly ahead of schedule and had hours to spare.

They ended up camping out a few miles away from the rendezvous point, and Evaline took the first sleep shift because she wanted to be up for the first part of the morning so she could do all she could to prepare James before they met up with Tula and Katya. Just anything she could do to keep him relaxed.

Do some of the chores so he didn't have to worry about it. Cook a more extravagant breakfast. Freshen up his clothes. Things like that.
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soundofmind says...



    James was actively trying to wade through the white noise of his overactive mind, even when he was asleep. It was always strange. He was asleep, and yet, there was a part of him that still felt consciously awake and aware of what he was sensing in his dreams, or in the area.

    He could feel Evaline's memories pressing up against the wall that was his mind, but he continued to push them aside, over and over. There was what felt like Evaline's father, or mother - their signals blended together sometimes - and some others that were too distant to grab a hold of if he wanted to.

    And then there was... something else. This one felt different. He'd never really sensed this person before.

    He hesitated, between pushing back and letting it in. But the hesitation in and of itself was enough. It rushed past his defenses, and he was swallowed up in it before he could decided if he wanted to stop it or not.

    The dream started out with him entering a small room that looked to be an office or classroom of sorts, but inside a home. Immediately he could see Oliver sitting on a chair, arms folded across the desk like he had been waiting there for a while.

    He looked to be much younger. Seventeen, maybe eighteen. His softer features were more exaggerated, his hair was short and neatly combed, and there was a type of childlike wonder in his eyes that he had never seen before on him. Like he was eager to learn.

    Oliver was watching the person whose eyes he was looking through march angrily into the room, kicking furniture and throwing papers and small pieces of furniture around. James wasn't sure who it could be, but looking through their eyes, he could detect that this person was not entirely present.

    If James had to compare the sensation he shared, it felt almost like a numbing pain one would feel with too many alcoholic drinks. It was also distant enough to feel like the drug the Gaea gave him. The person's movements were erratic and twitchy, and there was an intense rage that fueled the stomach.

    "Your bitch wife is the leader of the rebellion," the person said venomously as he whirled towards Oliver after kicking a chair down.

    It was a man's voice, but not a voice James recognized. But he did recognize that whomever it was, they were talking about Evaline.

    "I knew Alina was going to raise a little shit. We should never have trusted her with that cuckold Everett. Did you know? Did you know about this? Did you see into her future?" the man said, stomping towards Oliver, who was sitting still and obedient at his desk.

    "Who?" Oliver asked calmly, although he was clearly apprehensive towards the man's behavior.

    "Evaline, you fucking idiot," the man yelled as he then pushed the desk away, facing Oliver head-on.

    Oliver stood up, taking a step back, but still calm. "No," he said. "I didn't know."

    Rage flowed through the man's veins, and he lunged after Oliver, pulling him in by the collar and picking him up, shaking him in the air.

    "You should have known," he spat at him. "You should have kept a better eye on her. You know better. You're responsibile for this. You're to blame."

    The man then threw Oliver on the ground and kicked him repeatedly with his boot, over and over, until bruises turned to blood.

    A minute passed, and Oliver was curled on the floor, coughing as he turned over with a pained whimper.

    "This is good practice anyways," the man said as he stumbled from the dizziness of whatever drug he was on as he started back towards the door. "Go back in time, son. Don't disappoint me again."

James woke up with his skin crawling. His chest felt tight with anxiety and apprehension just from being in the man's skin. He didn't know Oliver's parents, but he had a pretty good feeling that the man was likely Oliver's father.

Apparently all time-powered people had... bad family relationships. And that was putting it too lightly.

James couldn't shake the icky remnants of the man's anger and whatever high he was on. It still clung to him, and he felt wrong as he opened his eyes. The sun was up, and the sky was a bright blue. Everything looked normal, but he felt like he'd been dragged through the mud.

Again, he'd seem something he wasn't supposed to see. He knew he should've felt more guilty than he did for seeing one of Oliver's memories. He still did feel guilty, but there was a small part of him that almost felt like he deserved it. Like Oliver deserved to have his privacy invaded upon because he'd been eavesdropping on James for over a month.

But that was wrong, and James knew it. He scrunched his face up in frustration and let out a long sigh.

At least, now he knew what Oliver's signal felt like, so he could block it out along with everything else.

He slowly sat up, looking around with groggy eyes.

Evaline was sitting by a small fire, making breakfast. It looked like Sleepy had laid another egg, because Evaline was cooking one. Elliot was tied only a few feet away, watching him with interest and attentiveness. Elliot's ears were pointed towards him, and James had learned long ago that it was Elliot's own way of asking if he was okay. Elliot seemed to have a sixth sense for when James didn't feel quite right.

James offered Elliot a small smile and then started rolling up his blanket as he got to his feet.

"Good morning, Eve," he said with a still-tired sounding voice.

"Good morning," Evaline said with a chipper smile as she looked over at him. "Sleep okay?"

James hesitated as he walked over to Elliot, bringing the blanket up to the back of the saddle.

"I..." he said, then sighed. He stared tying the blanket down.

"Not entirely," he admitted, pulling the knot tight. "I... I had a dream about Oliver."

All traces of the chipper mood Evaline was suddenly seemed to fade away as she looked up at him with wide eyes, frozen as she was placing the food on to a bowl.

"About... Oliver?" she asked in disbelief.

"It was... I don't know if I'm comfortable sharing it," James said. "It seems like it was personal. Even if Oliver's not exactly an ally... I don't think it's my place to say. I feel guilty for even seeing it. It was an accident. Or -- well, maybe I was just being careless. I didn't recognize the signal, so I hesitated. And by then, it was too late."

"You weren't being careless," Evaline said more gently. "It takes time to get used to it. I mean, it's taken me years to get used to mine. You don't have to share what you saw with me, too. I think it's awfully considerate that you would say that, even after everything he's done. And even if you know that, if he were in your place, he wouldn't hesitate to use the information against someone."

"Well, it's a good thing I'm not him, then," James said as he pulled the second knot tight and started walking over to Evaline, sitting with her by the fire. "Because I don't care about digging up people's pasts and using it as blackmail."

"And that's what makes you the better person, among a million other reasons," she said with a little smile as she finised scooping up the food to put in the bowl. She paused for a moment before handing the bowl over to him. "But I will say I am curious. What setting was the dream in, and how long ago was it, if you don't think it's bad to share?"

James hesitated as he took the bowl of food Evaline then offered him.

"It seemed like it was after your graduation. He seemed younger, but no younger than eighteen. It's hard to say where it was. Maybe an office, or a classroom," James said. "I don't really know what things look like in the sectors."

Evaline hummed as she started to divide the rest of the food for heself. "He's two years younger than me, and he was homeschooled. Most kids with time powers are. I wasn't since both my parents were actively leading, so they didn't have time."

James nodded slightly, and he took a bite of his food. He was really happy to have an egg. It was a small thing, but it made the morning a little better. He gave Sleepy a small, grateful glance for being the source. But then gave the same look to Evaline, for cooking it.

"Did she only lay one egg?" James asked, changing the subject with food in his mouth.

Evaline nodded. "Yeah. Can chickens lay two in one night?"

"They can lay a few if they're in one spot long enough. It probably doesn't help that we move so much," James said. "But... did you get any egg for yourself?"

Evaline offered a smile of reassurance to him. "You like it more than I do, and it's not a lot, so I figured you can just have it."

James looked at Evaline with wide, thankful eyes.

"Thanks," he said softly, before taking another bite of food.

Evaline's smile turned shy as she peered down at her food, breathing out a small sigh.

"Are you okay, though?" she asked. "The dream wasn't too bad?"

James poked at his food with his fork while chewing, and his eyes flicked up to her as he swallowed.

"I don't know about not too bad," he said faintly. "It wasn't a good memory. But I think I'll shake it off. Especially after I fill my stomach."

Evaline nodded slowly, quiet for a moment. Perhaps she was filling in the blanks herself.

"Sure," she said softly as she poked around her own food. "Well... if it bothers you, you're welcome to talk to me about it. I just don't want you to feel like you have to carry this burden yourself."

"I think this is one small secret I'm okay with keeping," James said with a small, reassuring smile as he reached over and patted Evaline's shoulder. "I'll be okay."

Evaline nodded, flicking her eyes at him with another small smile.

"Okay," she said. "Eat up."

James nodded and eagerly obeyed, eating the rest of his meal quickly because he was, in fact, very hungry.
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James and Evaline finished eating and cleaned up, taking their time. They were close to the rendezvous point already, so there was no rush.

They made sure everything was packed tightly and neatly on Elliot's saddle, and James plopped Sleepy up in the saddle, where she'd learned how to sit comfortably while Elliot walked.

James slung his sword at his side out of habit, and he let Evaline take Elliot's reins while they walked side-by-side, making their way through the desert. Evaline had checked the map, and it looked like they were only three miles out.

The air was cool again, and it seemed like the warm day was a one-off experience. A random spike in the temperature, and then it was back to the cool of the desert morning.

James and Evaline walked in comfortable silence, with the faint crunch of their shoes and Elliot's hooves against the sand and dirt as the only resounding sound filling their space.

At least, until there was a sudden rumbling. The ground beneath them was starting to shake with tremors, like an small isolated earthquake, and they hardly had time to get their bearings before an arrow whizzed past them. James ducked, narrowly missing another one, and Evaline hurried ahead to take Elliot behind a large boulder as a shield. James was quick to follow, but as he ducked beside Elliot, he saw what looked like stampede, but the creatures looked foreign. Their heads resembled rats, and their humanoid bodies were covered in hair.

It didn't look like just a stampeded. The creatures - or rat people, he didn't have time to ask - were weilding weapons that he recognized from his own world - though, even on Nye, some of them were a little dated. Daggers, clubs, shivs, and bows and arrows.

Just as James drew his sword, a group of the rat-people came leaping down, out of a hovering tree, and before James could even get a swipe in, they were surrounded.

It was chaos. It was an ambush. Everything was happening so fast.

James rushed to Evaline's side, but just as he backed up to her, a rat-person rushed between them, brandishing a dagger, which he blocked with his sword. As metal clanged against metal, James desperately pulled back and swiped at them, but as he got a hit in at one's side, three took its place.

He couldn't fight off this many people. He couldn't fight off this many... whatever they were. Was this what neanders looked like?

He panicked, slashing violently at the rat thing that stood in his way between him and Evaline, but one of them rammed into him from behind, and then another, and then another.

They were dogpiling on top of him, and he could see Evaline being pulled away, carried over one of their shoulders like a sack of potatoes.

Evaline looked desperate to the point of near-tears, and he grunted as he fought to crawl out from under the creatures' weight.

"I can't do it," Evaline said, her voice wavering in panic as they marched off with her. "I can't go back. I'll find you. I'll find you!"

"I'm going to find you--" James started to shout in return, but he didn't get to finish. Another rat creature threw itself at his head, and he could feel the air leave his lungs as he started seeing stars. Someone ripped his sword away.

James heard someone speak in a language he didn't recognize. It sounded heavy, full of consonants. Someone was standing near him, guarding him. At that moment, the creatures all pulled off of him, and he grunted as he forced himself to get up quickly.

When he was on his feet, the first thing he noticed was the Elliot was gone, but Sleepy fluttered out of the air - from where, he didn't know - straight into his arms. The man in front of him looked more like an ape than a human, but he was holding a torch and waving it. The rat-creatures seemed to be intimidated by the movement.

Then, the ape-like man screamed again in a language James still couldn't understand. Warily, James scanned the desert floor, and he saw one of the nearby rats had his sword.

James took a risk.

He tucked Sleepy under one arm and moved fast. He kicked behind the creature's leg hard, sending it stumbling to the ground, and then he grabbed its arm, twisting it behind it until it naturally let go of the sword as it let out a strange, strangulated sound of pain. He let go and quickly picked up the sword, watching as the rat-person scrambled off to follow its horde.

He was keenly aware of the ape-man just behind him, but he couldn't help but linger his eyes on the rat-things for just a moment.

Evaline.

The ape-man's voice cut through the brief aching, and James whirled around. A sword in one hand, and a chicken under his other arm.

"Quick," the ape-man said to him in a thicky, heavy accent. "Come with."

James knew he didn't have time to ask questions, but the moment he did, he was going to find out who those rat things were and he was going to find Evaline. He gave the ape-man a nod, and followed him, running.

They were at the edges of the desert, and the further the ape-man led him, the less sandy the terrain became. There were more trees scattered across the landscape as the beginnings of thin coverage, but it wasn't quite enough to be called a forest. The undergrowth was getting thicker though, and as many of the plants were still of the desert, many of them were prickly and dry. James stubbornly pushed through them, occasionally chopping away at a thorned branch overreaching.

The rat-people weren't entirely gone. A large group of them had fled, leaving with Evaline and Elliot, but there were several that seemed to be lingering, hovering behind rocks and brambles, like they were still waiting to ambush the next unsuspecting traveler.

James held Sleepy close to his chest in one arm while he held his sword in the other, sending furtive glances around him, not sure if the ape-man's fire alone would drive them off.

As they ran, another rat-person scuttled out of the thicket and dove for James's legs, and James stumbled. James was ready to strike, but the ape man whirled around, waving his torch over the rat-person's armor and fur, catching it on fire. The ape-man then kicked them, and the rat-person promptly let go with a ear-splitting screech.

James was quick to get back to his feet, and they kept running. Running, and running, and James couldn't help but feel his heart sink with every step. He felt like they were only getting further and further away from Evaline and Elliot, and he didn't know if this ape-man was trying to help him or just lead him somewhere else. For what purpose? He didn't know.

They ran for almost 20 minutes through the thicket and trees, winding through different rock formations until they slowed a few yards ahead of an open tunnel. It was dug out into the side of a wall of earth, up against a plateau. He could see several figures standing in the entrance of the tunnel, all of them bearing a resemblance to the ape-man in their general features.

They were more hairy, more ape-like, but all distinctly humanoid, to the point where he was pretty positive he could tell that there were men and women among them. He could count about ten people in total as they drew nearer, and the ape-man carrying the torch led the way ahead of him. He started speaking the same guttural language he'd heard before, and James couldn't understand a word of it as the ape-man spoke with the others, back and forth for a few moments.

Then, the ape-man turned to James. He pointed at Sleepy.

"Chicken," he said, then pointed at James. "Human."

James knew he was working with broken English. Or at least, limited English.

"Yes," James said. "That is correct."

He then stood up a little straighter, sheathing his sword and then gesturing to the ape-man with his open hand.

"Neander?" he asked.

The ape-man glanced at his companions and grunted a few more phrases before turning back to James with hand on his chest.

"Tuktu," he said. "Neander. Human."

James placed his hand on his own chest.

"James," he said with a small bow of his head. "Thank you for helping me."

The ape-people seemed to mildly murmur "James" on repeat, although with their accent, they seemed to not be able to pronounce the J, so it sounded more like "Aims."

Tuktu spoke to the others with his main language and started to walk down the tunnel with the torch in hand, gesturing for James to follow.

"Follow," he said. "Take to Mokki."

James was apprehensive, to say the least, but he knew he was far out of his element. Hesitantly, he followed with a nod of his head, glancing at the others before looking to Tuktu.

"Who is Mokki?" James asked.

While walking, one smaller ape-girl suddenly leaned in and picked a twig off his head, which was burrowed in his hair. She then flicked it away and seemed to giddy laugh and chant some things James couldn't understand, although it didn't seem to be directed at him.

"Mokki speak," Tuktu said, unfazed as he led the way down the dark tunnel, only lit by the torches they were carrying.

James hoped that meant that Mokki - whomever they were - could speak more English than Tuktu so that they could hopefully communicate. Because at this rate, he was going to remain confused as he blindly followed Tuktu's brief instructions.

"My friend," James said, trying to use simple and direct words. "The woman, with the horse. She was taken."

The ape-girl was still walking by his side, and she seemed to be the youngest of the group, since she was the smallest. She breifly went down on all fours, then suddenly jumped to stand up tall to bellow, "Fren!"

She was scolded by another ape-person next to her, who pushed her to follow and keep up.

"Taken," Tuktu repeated, only giving James a quick glance over his shoulder. "Rattus."

So that's what they were called.

"Will the Rattus hurt her?" James asked.

"Rattus war Thal," Tuktu spat harshly.

James didn't know how to make sense of that. It almost didn't sound like a sentence. He didn't know what Thal meant, but it was probably a name for something. Maybe the Rattus were at war with the Neanders... or whomever the Thals were. James had no idea. He only nodded at Tuktu briefly as he fell to silence, and they all continued to walk without another word to him. Some of them seemed to still be interested in him since they wouldn't stop staring, and although they spoke to Tuktu and Tuktu spoke back, he did not translate for James.

The tunnel started turning and winding, and eventually they seemed to make it to the end of it. Or at least, the end of this portion of it. The tunnel went from winding and mostly flat to a sharp, sudden incline. What was once a tunnel became a steep hill, and the neanders seemed unfazed by it. Most of them got on all fours as they started the climb.

James paused at the bottom of the hill and looked down at Sleepy. He locked the zipper at the bottom of his jacket and stuck Sleepy inside of it before zipping it up around her so he didn't have to carry her. Only her head stuck out.

James followed suit and got up on all fours to climb up the increasingly steep incline, following after Tuktu until they finally saw a light at the end of the tunnel.

When they emerged on the other side, finally in the open air again, it seemed they were at the top of the plateau, but there was a guarded gate, with stone walls and a pulley system in place to open the gate.

Tuktu walked up to the guards and spoke to them, gesturing to James. The conversation went on for a minute or so before the guards seemed to back away and open the gate, letting James and the other neanders in along with Tuktu, who still led the way.

When they walked through the gates, James saw that the inside was a village. The buildings were made out of clay and brick, and the pathways were paved. Goats were lugging around some wooden carts and there were food stands, small stores, and signs marked in characters from a language that James didn't recognize.

James could vaguely remember Evaline talking about Neanders like they were less intelligent than humans... but it seemed that they were far more advanced than she knew.

They were people too. They just looked different, and had a different language.
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James couldn't help but noticed that as he walked through the streets and followed Tuktu that he got a lot of stares. James knew it was likely because he was a human, but he couldn't help but feel silly with Sleepy sitting in his jacket. He unzipped his jacket and held her in his arms instead, trying not to stare back too long at all the eyes pinned on him. Some neanders started to draw near out of what looked like curiosity, but Tuktu shouted at them and seemed to aggressively push them away, like he was telling them to stay back.

There was one neander in particular who was dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and a long sleeved shirt. She pointed at James, and said: "Human." But it sounded more like "hoo-man."

James wasn't sure how to respond to any of it, so he only nodded, kept his head down, and followed closely behind Tuktu.

Tuktu followed a paved path until they came up to a larger building that had a shiny, pointed golden roof, and the doors were painted with an intricate, regal design. Tuktu opened the front door for James, and inside there was a red carpet that led up to a circular table surrounded by big chairs.

Apart from that, the room was empty.

James hesitated at the doorway, looking back at the group of neanders that followed them, and Tuktu said more words to them, like he was shooing them off. All of them turned away to leave except the small girl who'd stayed by James's side the whole time. She looked like she wanted to stay, and she and Tuktu spoke with one another before the girl seemed to laugh and darted into the house, running up a winding staircase on the side of the room.

James looked to Tuktu expectantly as he gingerly stepped through the doorway.

"Mokki," Tuktu simply explained as he shut the door behind him.

He started to take off his iron armor, hanging them up on a nearby rack with some others, and then took a white sheet with a red stripe across, slipping it over his head. He glanced at James and the other spare cloths, then took another one off the rack.

"Clothe," he said, offering it to James.

James slowly reached out to take the large, poncho-like garment.

"Uh," he said. "I have clothes on."

He pulled at his sleeve to indicate that his jacket was clothing.

"Wear. Good," Tuktu said as he started towards the table. It wasn't clear whether he understood what James was saying or not.

James looked down at the big white cloth in his hands.

He didn't know anything about Neanders, and he didn't want to offend if somehow they thought he wasn't clothed - which didn't make sense, but it didn't matter. He quickly slipped the poncho over his head and pulled Sleepy out from under it.

"Sit," Tuktu said as he towered over a chair and slid it out for him.

James nodded and sat down in the chair obediently.

Tuktu grunted as he then slid out the chair next to him for him to sit on, and he slowly did so, joints popping. He placed an elbow on the table as he stared intensely at James, angling towards him.

"Human," he said. "Human man."

James stared at him. He'd been expecting him to say more, but when Tuktu left it at that, James spoke.

"That is what I am, yes," James said.

"Not woman," Tuktu continued. "Human man."

"Yes. I am a human man," James said, feeling like he was repeating himself, because he was. "If you saw my friend that was taken. She is a human woman."

"Where?" Tuktu continued to pronounce slowly. "Where she?"

"Taken by Rattus," James answered, not sure if taken was the right word. "Captured."

"You," Tuktu said as he pointed at James, but his forefinger was dangerously close enough to be a poke by his long nail. "Not. Why?"

"I don't know," James said.

"Where from? Who?"

"I'm from human city," James said, not sure if he was oversimplifying. He didn't know how much Neanders knew. "Traveling to meet friend. Has been long journey."

"Friend," Tuktu repeated, drawing his finger back. "Woman?"

"The woman is my friend. She and I," he said, pausing to point to himself. "Going to meet other friend. Group of friends."

Suddenly there was a clamor up in the stairs, and the girl was rushing back down with a wide grin, wearing a similar poncho, but gold with a white line. Tuktu watched as she practically jumped down the stairs with all fours and then sprinted towards the table, haphazardly slamming into the other chair next to James, causing it to slide next to him. She seemed unfazed as she then propped herself up on the chair by lifting herself up on it with her arms, and then sitting daintily with her legs crossed as she sat close to James, knees touching.

Tuktu seemed to disapprove, and he scolded her across from James in their native language until two other Neanders walked down the stairs.

One was dressed in a golden robe with the same white cross, and he appeared to be older since his fur was graying and he was climbing down with a walking stick. Next to him was a poised woman dressed in a purple poncho with a white stripe, and she had slightly longer fur on her head than the others, tied back with a clip.

They both walked down, and the older Neander sat across the table from James, while the woman followed, sitting next to him. They exchanged banter with Tuktu until finally, the woman seemed to smile warmly with teeth, arms placed across the table in front of her with her fingers interlaced.

"My name is Mokki," she said in the same thick accent, but wasn't speaking in broken sentences. She then pointed at the older gentleman next to her, and then at Tuktu, and then at the girl. "This is Otak, Tuktu, and Oka. It is nice to meet you, James."

"It is an honor to meet you all," James said with a small bow of his head. "Tuktu saved me from a group of Rattus. I am in his debt."

"It is our pleasure to serve the humans," she said with a little bow of her head. "You owe us nothing."

"Thank you for your kindness," James said, glancing down at Sleepy, who was curling up in his lap. "I hope I am not being too forward, but I assume I was brought here for a reason."

"It is not everyday that we run into a human," Mokki said slowly but gently, carefully enunciating every word for him.

She then turned towards Otak and Tuktu, and the three of them spoke for about half a minute before she turned back to James. It seemed that she was translating for them, but it was hard to tell.

"Tuktu informed me that you had a run-in with the Rattus clan," she said. "We are at an ongoing war with them. I apologize that you were caught in the middle of it."

James nodded slowly, piecing things together. He wasn't the only one caught in the middle of it.

"I had a friend who was with me," he said. "The Rattus took her, along with my other animal companion."

"Oh dear," Mokki said, face furrowed in concern. "Is your friend human?"

"Yes, she is a human," James said. "A woman."

He didn't know if the distinction was technically necessary, but Tuktu seemed to think it important enough to clarify three different times.

Mokki exchanged more conversation between Otak and Tuktu, and this went on for about a minute since Otak seemed to weigh in for her to translate. Mokki nodded along, as did Tuktu.

"The Rattus clan is greedy," she said. "They will not treat her well. Since we are at war with them, and your friend is human, we are obligated to help."

"I would be immensely grateful for any help you can give," James said. "I do intend to find her and get her out of there, and my animal companion as well. Wherever it is they're keeping them."

"Understood," Mokko said. "Tuktu is our general and will lead you and other warriors towards their den. We will need time to plan. We can leave tomorrow, in the afternoon. The Rattus will be asleep."

"Do they sleep in the day?" James asked.

"They are nocturnal, except for a small army. It seems you faced them."

A small army. It was a good thing they didn't travel through the night, then. Not that any of this was good at all.

"Alright," James said with a nod. He didn't expect to get caught up in the throes a war, but he knew that is mission was clear. He was going to get Evaline and Elliot and get out of there as quickly as possible. If the Neanders wanted anything else from him after that, he would help in whatever capacity he could. But it felt like he was just going to have to trust them to help him get Evaline back.

He hoped he wasn't making a mistake, but he knew that he didn't know anything about the Rattus, or where their den was, and he would be sorely outnumbered if he went in alone.

The fact that he was going to have other warriors with him was a comfort, but it didn't change the fact that everything was still very, very wrong.

Mokki said that the Rattus were not kind. He could only worry about what they might try to do to Evaline and Elliot.

"What can I do to help?" James asked.

Mokki talked again with Otak, and they went back and forth before settling into some kind of agreement.

"Look after Oka," she said as she pointed at the Neander girl next to him, who was eagerly leaning on the table with her head propped on her hands, squishing her cheeks as she grinned. "She is Otak's granddaughter. Otak is our leader."

James turned to Oka, meeting her eyes for a moment before looking back up to Mokki.

"Does she speak any... human language?" he asked.

Oka then poked his side. "You're squishy," she said, indirectly answering his question.

"I have been teaching Oka," Mokki said with a smile. "She can practice talking to you, too."

James nodded slowly.

"I can do that," James said, looking back down to Oka.

"We will finalize plans today and update you tomorrow," Mokki said with a nod, standing up. "Oka, please show where he will stay."

Oka stared at her for a moment, tilting her head. Mokki sighed and then spoke in the native language, presumably to translate. Oka then grinned and took James's hand, tugging him towards the exit.

"You can meet back in a few hours for food. We will prepare a big meal for you," Mokki explained as Oka started to lead James away.

James nodded, scooping Sleepy up under one arm and following after Oka. He glanced back at Mokki as they made it to the door.

"Thank you again, for everything, Mokki. Tuktu. And Otak," James said with one last bow of his head in gratitude. Oka yanked on his arm again.

Mokki bowed back as Otak then started conversation again, but Oka then led him away, out the doors and back outside.

"You're a fren!" she exclaimed as she let go and then happily threw her arms up in the air before they even made it past the steps.

James smiled weakly, and he couldn't help but laugh as a release of nerves.

"Yes," he said. "I'm a friend. What would you like to do, Oka?"

"Ikki's fren too," Oka said as she skipped down the steps. "Have you met?"

"I have not," James answered. "Is Ikki your age too?"

Oka nodded, then drew in a big breath and cupped her hands around her mouth. "IKKI!" she shouted, and a few birds flew out of nearby trees. Some nearby neanders gave her funny looks, but otherwise didn't seem fazed.

The window panel of the sizeable house across from them then opened up, and out popped another head of a neander girl. She seemed annoyed as she talked to Oka in their native language, but when Oka wildly gestured at James, Ikki's eyes lit up and she disappeared and reappeared ten seconds later, running towards them. Ikki was wearing a similar purple poncho as Mokki, and she looked especially eager.

"Hi!" she exclaimed with a similar accent to Mokki's. "I'm Ikki. Oka says you are Ames?"

James offered Ikki a smile. "Yeah, you can call me Ames," he said. "It's normally pronounced James, but I understand it both ways."

Ikki clicked her tongue at Oka and started to heavily pronounce the "J" sound, emphasizing it over and over while Oka tried to copy her, but it came out sounding more like "uh."

"James," Ikki emphasized.

"Ames," Oka repeated, trying her best.

Ikki sighed and turned back to him. "She's learning. My mom needs to teach her more."

"That's okay, Oka," James said, patting her on the shoulder. "Learning takes time. I think it's great that you can speak this language, especially considering I can't speak your language. Maybe you could teach me some of your words too."

"Maybe," Ikki answered for her. "Why are you here, anyways?"

"I was caught up in a Rattus attack," James said. "They ambushed me and my friend. Tuktu helped save me and led me out, but my friend wasn't so lucky."

"He has fren!" Oka exclaimed at Ikki, pointing at James.

"Did your friend die?" Ikki asked bluntly.

"No," James said. "She was captured. We're hoping to save her tomorrow."

Ikki then whispered to Oka, but then seemed to remember that James wouldn't understand what she was saying anyways, so they transitioned to a normal talking voice, complete with giggles.

"Do you have plans?" Ikki asked.

"Plans to save my friend?" James asked, raising a brow.

"Plans today," Oka answered with a toothy grin.

"Mokki said that there would be a meal later," James said. "But besides that, no. I'm just waiting until we leave to get my friend back."

"That's not until later," Ikki explained, and suddenly both she and Oka took his hand and started to led him down the path together. Sleepy, who was still in one arm, fluttered her wings a little before settling back into his grasp.

"Come with us!" Oka said, swinging his arm.

"Okay, okay," James said with a weak smile. "I'm coming. You don't have to pull me."

"Why do you have chicken?" Oka asked, still pulling him, but then fell back when Ikki didn't match her pace.

"She's my pet," James said. "Her name is Sleepy."

"Mmmm," Oka drew out, watching Sleepy. "Looks yummy."

"Chickens are a weird pet," Ikki said.

"I know," James said with a small smile. "But I've had her since she was just a chick, and she's been a good pet to me."

"Humans are so weird," Ikki said. "Do all humans have pet chickens?"

"No," James answered. "I'm weird among humans too."

"Weird-o, weird-o!" Oka sing-songed.

"Do you have magic too?" Ikki asked. "What can you do?"

Finally, people who used words he used.

"I have a lot of weird dreams where I can see people's memories," James said, deciding to explain it in an oversimplified way.

Ikki glanced back at him, scrunching her nose. "That sounds useless."

"I know," James said with a little laugh. "That's what I said too."

"If I've magic, I'd've fire!" Oka shouted louder than necessary. "Rattus will die."

"I'm sure that would be useful in fighting the Rattus, yes," James said as he continued to follow them. "It's a shame we do not get to choose our magic. I would've rather not had any at all."

"Huh?" Oka said with raised brows as she stopped swinging his arm for a second. "Why?"

"I just feel like life is simpler that way," James said with a small smile.

"I wish I had magic," she said again. "Can I have yours?"

"I don't think you'd like having my magic that much," James said. "It gives me a lot of bad dreams."

"You don't want his magic anyways, Oka," Ikka said. "It sounds useless."

"Oooo. What kind of dreams?" Oka asked anyways.

"A lot of scary things," James said. "Monsters, and people getting hurt. Ikki's right, you don't want a power that just makes you have bad dreams."

"I had a bad dream once," Oka said, then paused. "What is it... Ikki." She then turned to her and spoke a couple sentences to Ikki, using her free hand to gesture up and down wildly.

"Oka is saying she once dreamed that her father came back from the dead as a ten-foot human," Ikki said. "He stomped on all the little humans."

James raised his brows and looked down to Oka.

"Well, that sounds like either a scary dream or just a very interesting one, depending on how you look at it," he said.

"He crushed them like ants," Oka said, maybe a little too proudly.

"Then I guess I'm glad it was only a dream, because then I'd be crushed too, hm?" James asked with a slight smile.

Oka then let go of his hand for a moment, running ahead of them to jump high in the air and then land on a patch of dirt, causing some dust to fly up. "Splat!" she said as she landed.

"Ouch," James said with a pretend wince. "I'm terrified."

Oka giggled and then returned by his side to take his hand. "Someday I'm going to be queen!" she said. "And I'll be a warrior too."

"You can't be both," Ikki said.

"Yes, I can," Oka retorted.

"No, you can't."

"Yes. I. Can."

"No. You. Can't."

Oka decided to give up and stick out her tongue at Ikki.

"I've known leaders who could fight too," James said. "But I know every place is different."

"Are you a leader?" Oka asked.

"No, not really," James said. "I'm just some guy who knows how to fight a little."

"How can you fight with dreams?" Ikki asked.

"I don't fight with my powers," James said, patting his sword that was sheathed at his side. "That's what this is for."

"Oooo! I want to see!" Oka said.

James set one hand on the hilt, but raised the other up in front of him.

"Hold on," James said. "If I show you, you have to promise not to touch it. It's very dangerous. Okay?"

"Will it kill us?" Oka asked, letting go and already backing off.

"No, it's just pointy," Ikki said, then translated it to the native language. "This is why you can't be queen and warrior."

Oka stuck her tongue out at her again, but stood a few strides away anyways, arms crossed.

"Like Ikki said," James said. "It's just very sharp. If you were to touch the sharp side, it would hurt. I wouldn't want you to get hurt."

Slowly, he partially unsheathed the blade, looking to Oka and Ikki for their reaction.

"Shiny!" Oka said with bright eyes. "Looks like the..." She struggled with a word again, speaking to Ikki for her to translate.

Ikki snorted. "She just doesn't know the word for sword. There are some hung on her father's wall."

"Sor-d," Oka said slowly, still gazing at the sword.

"Sword," James echoed, pulling it out of the sheath all the way, and tilting the blunt side of the blade towards Oka so she could see it in full view. "It's a dated technology with other humans, but I still like it. It's just another thing that makes me a 'weirdo' to them, apparently."

Oka giggled, but Ikki didn't look too impressed. "Where's your gun?" she asked.

"I don't have one," James said as he sheathed the sword again. "Sorry to disappoint."

"If I had a sword, I'd kill some Rattus!" Oka said as she swung an air-sword around. "Have you killed any?"

"I didn't have much of a chance to fight," James said. "My friend and I were ambushed, and greatly outnumbered."

"Does your friend have a sword too?" Oka asked, back to holding his hand again as they continued down the path.

"No," James said. "But she has a gun. Or... at least, she did. I don't know if the Rattus took it when they took her."

"Rattus are dumb!" Oka said. "They don't know how to use."

"Well, that's good to know," James said.

"Do you miss your friend?" Ikki asked.

James paused for a moment, looking out down the path that Oka and Ikki were leading him down. They were walking back towards the village, where the shops were. While he'd expected to recieve more stares of curiosity, he couldn't help but feel like there was someone watching him. With a few glances behind them, he could spot a neander or two that seemed to be following from a distance, watching him.

They were probably keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn't do anything harmful or suspicious. Especially since he was with the king's granddaughter.

"Yes," James said a little more quietly. "I miss her very much."

"Do you think she's dead?" Oka asked, still swinging his arm.

James faltered, but quickly picked up his steps.

"I don't know," James said. "But for both our sakes, I really hope she's not."

"Does she have useless magic too?" Ikki asked.

"No," James said softly. "She can be quite powerful sometimes. And besides, 'useless' only depends on your perspective. What may not be helpful in a war could be very useful in other situations."

"Does she have fire magic? Rattus hate fire. That's why I wish I've fire magic," Oka said.

"No, she doesn't have fire magic," James said, pausing, but only for a moment. He intended to change the subject, and he looked towards the village, where he saw some neanders gathering and whispering to each other, watching him approach.

"So where are you taking me?" James asked.

"You need clothes!" Oka exclaimed. "Must be cold. Not enough hair on your body."

"That's just what humans look like," Ikki said as she gave James a disapproving glance. "Weird and hairless."

This would be one of the first times James had ever been referred to as hairless. He didn't know how he felt about it. He didn't feel like defending his ostensible hairiness, especially with two neander kids.

"It's just how I was born, I guess," James decided to say. "I do wear a lot of layers of clothing, though. To keep warm."

"Do you also shed in the summers?" Ikki asked.

"I don't really shed very much," James said. "It's probably very minimal compared to what you may be used to."

"Weird-o!" Oka said. "Does your friend shed? Do humans shed?"

"Humans don't shed a lot," James said. "Though, the longer the hair on our heads gets, sometimes we do shed more."

"Your head hair is like a hat," Oka thought out loud.

"Yeah, it kind of is," James mused with a hum.

On their right was a flower booth, and while passing by, a neander with an apron stopped Oka to give her a bright red flower. They exchanged conversation, and Oka twirled and then bowed before taking the flower. She turned back to Ikki and James, beaming.

"Let's get flowers!" she said. "I get all it for free."

James glanced at Ikki with a small smile and a shrug.

"Sure," he said.

"Do you like flowers?" Ikki asked him as they browsed through some of the different cut options together.

"Yeah, I like flowers," James said. "When I was a kid, my family would pick them and we would make flower crowns."

"Flower crowns...?" she repeated with uncertainty.

"It's when you weave the flowers together in the shape of a crown, and you put it on your head," James explained.

"I want one!" Oka said from the end of the row. "I want a crown!"

James laughed a little, still feeling the unease lingering in the back of his mind and swimming in his stomach. This whole situation would be fine if Evaline and Elliot were here. But knowing they were captured by violent Rattus was something he still couldn't make peace with. He was still itching to get out of the village and go find them.

But he knew he had to wait, especially if he wanted to stay at peace with the Neanders who were helping him.

"I can make you one," he said. "You'll just need a small bouquet's worth of flowers, and I can use that."

"Ikki!" Oka barked, like she was ordering her to get it.

"Okay, okay, your majesty," Ikki said with a roll of her eyes as she talked to the gardener to grab them. It was a small thing, but it was impressive that she would know how to convey sarcasm.

The flowers Ikki chose were the same bright red kind that she'd been given by the gardener. James explained that it would take him a few minutes to make, so they stopped at a bench by the shop and James sat down. While he started weaving the flowers together, the girls asked him more questions, and the questions ranged from his favorite flower to how humans took care of their children.

James found himself as an innacurate representation of the whole human race, but he did his best to answer all of their questions while dodging ones that got too personal.

When James finished the crown, he placed it on her head and she wore it proudly. She took his hand once more and started dragging him back through the paved streets, bossing around some young neanders they passed by.
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"Say hello to the human!" Oka ordered.

"His name is James," Ikki added.

They'd stopped in front of two young neander boys who were staring at James with eyes as big as saucers. One of them poked his stomach several times and mumbled something under his breath.

"He says you're ugly," Ikki said. "Hairless and skinny."

"How nice of them," James said sarcastically.

The boy peered up at him before rifling through his clothes, trying to look under it.

"Hey, hey, hey," James said taking a step back and lifting up his hands. "No touchy."

"He wants to know what you look like without clothes," Ikki said.

"That's probably better left a mystery," James said with a nervous laugh. "I think your parents would agree."

Ikki translated this for them, and the group of boys then howled into laughter and took off their own clothes, swinging them in the air like a lasso and then running down the path while making actual monkey noises.

"Stupid boys. Clothes are better," Oka huffed. "Humans wear clothes."

"There's multiple reasons for it," James said. "Practical reasons, really. But also cultural."

Oka nodded. "It's pretty!"

"You think clothes are pretty?" James asked, looking down at Oka with his head slightly tilted to the side.

"Only I get to wear gold," she said proudly as she brushed down her golden poncho.

"I think your clothes make you pretty too," Ikki said to James. "You'd be an ugly hairless man without them."

James stared out blankly into the street for a moment.

"Yeah, I guess so," he said unenthisiastically.

"Are all humans ugly and hairless without clothes?"

Of all of the conversations James had ever had, this was one of the most bizarre.

"I think ugly is a subjective thing," James said slowly. "But we prefer to wear clothes because we don't have a lot of fur to protect our skin from the heat or the cold."

Ikki seemed to mull this over as they walked forward and Okta continued to harass young neanders to show off her flower crown and give orders.

"Do you think you're ugly?" Ikki asked.

James let out a faint wheeze of a laugh.

"I... I don't know," James said weakly. "I guess I feel like I'm average, for a human."

"Is your friend ugly?" she asked.

"No," James said. "She's the prettiest human I've ever known."

Ikki clicked her tongue. "Does she have more hair?"

James squinted.

"Technically, yes. Her head hair is longer," James said.

"So that's why she's pretty," Ikki concluded.

James laughed again, unenthusiastically. "Yes. That's why."

"We have more hair than you," Ikki said slowly, then grinned. "So we're prettier than you."

"I guess so," James said with a shrug. "Must be nice."

"I want to meet a pretty human," she said, then turned to James. "Can we see her?"

"Well, you won't be able to meet her until I save her with the help of Tuktu and some others," James said.

"It would be sad if she's dead," Ikki commented. "What was her name?"

"Her name is Evaline," James said.

"Efaline," Ikki said, then tried to pronounce it right again. "Evaline."

"Yes, that's correct," James said.

Ikki and Oka continued to lead James through the streets, and Oka seemed content with stopping at almost every shop. Every store owner would give James strange looks, but they seemed resigned to giving the king's grandaughter whatever she asked for. Thankfully, Oka didn't ask for anything too unreasonable.

They ended up passing through a small shop run by a seamstress, or as Oka put it, a clothes-maker. There were a few different garments on display, but most of the clothes were folded up on different shelves, or hung up on hooks on the wall. There was a back table where it looked like the seamstress was hand-sewing some clothes (or at least, she'd been in the process of it until Oka interrrupted).

Oka was still convinced that James was freezing because he wasn't as hairy as the neanders, and so she asked the seamstress for a fur coat. Oka seemed amused that they had to get a smaller one for him, since most of the neander men were a good foot taller than he was.

"You're so small!" Oka said with a giggle as they exited, and James wore the fur coat like a poncho, but the hole for the neck was still too large.

"Unfortunately, this is as big as I'm ever going to be," James said with a shrug.

"You would make a bad warrior," Okta said with a shake of her head.

"Maybe," James said. "Maybe not. I guess it all depends on how you look at it."

They also stopped by a small shack that was painted red and green and yellow. The sign read something in their neander language, but he couldn't comprehend it. It looked like the woman neander inside was crushing and blending together different foods, but James couldn't get a clear look from where they stood, since half of the workspace in the shack was walled off.

Oka ended up asking the woman running the shack for something, and she came out with three large cups that were filled with a thick, red, frothing liquid that James presumed to be a drink.

Oka took two drinks and handed one to Ikki before handing the other to James, and then she took her own.

James looked down into the cup.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Drink it. Will be good luck," Oka said before she glugged it down.

"It's not alcoholic, is it?" James asked.

The girls looked at each other, confused.

"I don't know that word," Ikki said. "What's that?"

"There's a drink that humans have that makes you feel weird things," James said. "It makes me feel sick. I just want to make sure it's not that."

"Drink makes me feel weird things sometimes," Oka said as she pretended to throw her glass down, but instead gingerly placed it back on the counter. "Blood of my enemies makes me feel powerful!"

James blinked, looking down at the drink.

"There's blood in this?" he asked.

"It's just Rattus blood," Ikki said as she drank hers.

"Drink it to save your friend!" Okta cheered.

James couldn't help but feel a little woozy.

"I have a bad stomach," James said, setting the drink on the stand's counter. "I don't want a stomach ache."

"Humans are weak," Okta grumbled as she took his drink and glugged it down as well.

James only pursed his lips and nodded slightly, waiting until the girls were done with their drinks of blood.

Eventually, the sun began to set, and evening came around. Oka and Ikki were done parading James around the village and showing him everything, and they led him back to the 'palace,' as Oka called it, where James first met Mokki and Okta.

When they entered back in, the table was filled with food and surrounded by neanders in almost every seat. They were all chatting, but the chatter died down a little when Oka and Ikki came bounding in with James following behind. Mokki greeted him and motioned to the empty seat between King Okta and Oka. James nodded and walked around the table, taking his seat, feeling a little swallowed up by the big chair.

As James scanned the table, the first thing he noticed was an abundance of meat. Almost instinctively, he held Sleepy a little more closely in his lap. He didn't think any of the neanders would eat her, but knowing they probably expected he was keeping Sleepy as a food source and not a pet made him a little nervous.

Sitting around the table were the the king, Mokki, Tuktu, and Oka and Ikki. He felt out of place as he hesitantly followed the others' lead and started piling food onto his plate. Most of the options were meat, but in the middle of the table was a veggie tray and salad bowl James made sure to take part of as well.

He couldn't help but have the unsettling passing thought, wondering if any of the meat was Rattu meat. Considering they literally drank the blood of their enemies, James didn't think he'd put it past them.

He just didn't know if they'd serve that to a human. He really hoped not.

Thankfully, though, the drinks were just coconut water. That, at least, he could stomach.

King Okta seemed to talk to Mokki to talk to James, giving him stern sideways glances.

"Okta is wondering if you are enjoying your stay so far," Mokki said to him.

"Oh," James said, pausing to quickly chew and swallow a bite of food as he nodded. "Yes I am."

He decided not to elaborate as he took another bite of food.

"Has Oka and Ikki been treating you well?" Mokki said, continuing to translate for Okta.

"They've been very entertaining hosts," James said. "They showed me around."

Oka then leaned forward, and with a mouthful of partially-chewed meat from the rack of ribs she was eating, she grinned and pointed at her flower crown, telling Okta something in their native language. Okta nodded, seemingly pleased before returning to talk to Mokki.

"We have been planning our next Rattus attack," Mokki said. "They could be taking your friend to a few different places. Can you describe what she looks like?"

James nodded, swallowing his food again before answering.

"She's about my height," James said. "And she has dark brown hair on her head that goes past her shoulders. She has bright blue eyes, fair skin, and is lean. Her clothes are similar to mine."

Mokki nodded, delivering the news to the king as they went back and forth again.

"We have an idea of where she may be," Mokki said. "We will save her."

James nodded.

"Thank you," he said quietly.

"Is she family?" Mokki asked.

"She's my partner," James said, hoping that the meaning translated.

"Partner," Mokki repeated, chewing on that word for a moment before continuing. "Ah, right. Your wife."

James blinked.

"Not... quite," he said a little too awkwardly. "But we are in a relationship, yes."

Mokki and the others seemed giddy as she translated this for him, and then she turned back to James, still smiling with teeth.

"Human culture over relationships is unfamiliar to us," she said. "What is your relationship like?"

James did not plan on having this conversation with strangers, and he didn't even know how to begin to explain it to another race of people who had no basis of understanding of human interactions. Stiffly, he sat up a little straighter, hoping that Mokki wouldn't ask invasive questions, but not betting on it.

"We're committed to one another in the sense that we are not involved with anyone else in a romantic way," James said. "Just each other."

"Do you have children?" she asked.

"No," James answered, leaving it at that.

"If not for children, why only commit to each other?"

"Well... sometimes, at least, among humans, when we find that we like one person and don't want to be with anyone else. It doesn't mean we don't have any other friends, just that you're not romantically involved with anyone else," James said, hoping that the questions would come to an end soon. He did not want to have to explain much more about human dating relationships.

"I see," Mokki mused, then gestured to Tuktu. "Tuktu's mother and father were big and strong, and now he is bigger and stronger. Is that why you have chosen her?"

"Yeah," James said. "We're stronger together. And also, I like her."

"Weak! She must be weak!" Oka suddenly said, little driplets of food flying across the table as she spoke. "Because you're weak!"

James looked over to Oka with a wearied glance.

"I think we measure strength differently," James said simply.

Mokki seemed intrigued by the question as the king shot Oka a sternful look. "How do you measure strength?" she asked.

"I can only speak for myself," James said. "But I think strength goes beyond the physical. I also look at the strength of someone's character and will."

"You say that you both are stronger together," Mokki said. "Does that mean you are weaker without her? And she is weaker without you?"

James looked down at the table. He wasn't sure how to answer that question. If they were measuring strength by their powers, Evaline had only grown weaker since being with him. But they were better people - and becoming better people together.

"I guess so," he said quietly as he stared down at the table.

Mokki seemed to catch up translating for the king, who seemed pleased and he reached over and gruffly patted James's shoulder twice with his big hand before returning to his feast. James tensed a little at first, but took in a deep breath and relaxed again.

"The king would like to make sure that neither of you are weak," Mokki said.

"I appreciate it," James said with a small smile.

There was a small pause as the others started to talk amongst one another in their own language, and James focused for a minute on eating, his head swirling with thoughts. The neanders were being very helpful, but he couldn't help but wonder why.

"Mokki," James said after what sounded like a natural pause in their conversation, and that grabbed her attention.

"Yes?" she said.

"You mentioned that it's rare for humans to come around here," he said. "But have any other humans come here before?"

"We have visitors sometimes," she said. "We have already pledged our allegience with the humans. If any look lost or are in danger, we are obligated to help. Just like you."

"Well... that's very kind of you," James said with a nod. "To pledge to help any human. I don't know what we ever did to deserve it, but... again, I'm very grateful."

He paused, but only for a moment.

"Who was your last human visitor before me?" he asked.

Mokki translated again, and Tuktu let out a noise that sounded like it could be a laugh, but it sounded ape-like and shrill.

"There's another!" Oka answered for Mokki. "She's not as ugly as you."

James stared at Oka. "She..." he trailed off. Had one of the others on the mission gotten caught? Tula? Katya? Were they alright?

If they hadn't gotten caught up in the Rattus and Neander war, it was likely that they were either still waiting for them, or had decided that something happened to them - which would be correct.

James realized they never did discuss what they'd do if people didn't make it to their rendezvous points, especially since he and Evaline lacked a radio for communicating.

"Oka, please," Mokki said with a sigh and then stopped to exchange conversation again. It looked like Oka was shooed away, and she left with a groan with Ikki, who seemed pleased that she was called to action.

"Bye, James," Ikki said with a wave as Oka stomped off.

"The Thals takes pride in being the role-model neander clan for the humans," Mokki continued. "We welcome humans and treat them as our own."

"Who is the other human?" James asked. "Does she have a name?"

"She calls herself Arima," Mokki said. "Your description somewhat fits her. Is that your partner's name?"

James stared out into the room, not quite meeting anyone's eyes as he tried to make sense of everything.

Arima? What was Arima doing out here? She wasn't on the mission. Could it be another Arima? But how many Arimas were there? What were the odds? Especially if she bore a resemblance to...

"No," James said. "My partner's name is Evaline. But Arima -- I know her. So does Evaline. We're--"

He paused for half a second, almost rethinking his next words, and then deciding not to overcomplicate it.

"Friends. We know each other," James said. "If Arima is the person I think you're talking about."

"It is not everyday that I can use the word coincidence in your language," Mokki said after translating again. "Your partner, Evaline. Is Arima her friend too?"

"Yes," James answered, feeling more earnest. "Arima is part of Evaline's extended family. I haven't seen Arima in some time. Is she alright?"

"She is alright. She prefers to not eat meals with us," Mokki said. "We can take you to her afterward if you would like. We only have one sleeping quarters for humans."

"Yes," James said eagerly. "That's fine. I would like to see her.
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As the dinner went on, James found himself mostly conversing with Mokki and the others about neander and humans' culture. Again, he still felt like an inaccurate representation, since he wasn't even from their world, but he was able to keep up without giving too many explicit details and by asking more questions than anything else. Mokki continued to make comparisons, talking about how humans and neanders both wore clothes, and neanders even got haircuts as humans did. She even mentioned that their village was hoping to have a functional sewage system in the next ten or so years.

By the time they were all done eating, though, James found himself spent. After all of the talking and all of the anxiety over Evaline and Elliot building up in his chest as the day went on, he just wanted a moment to himself. Though, he didn't know if he would get one.

Tuktu was the one who led him out of the palace to his sleeping quarters. They walked a little further out of the village to a small hut, and it looked like the hut had been built with humans in mind since the doorway looked a little less wide and tall. The hut itself had a hay roof, and brick and mud walls. It looked like it might've had a clay oven inside as a heater, since there was a small chimney sticking out of the roof with a wisp of smoke coming out of it. Tuktu explained that neanders didn't often need extra heating, but that this was for humans, since they were hairless and got cold more easily.

Tuktu opened the door, and the doorhandle looked almost comically small in his large hands. Naturally, Tuktu didn't look like he would be able to comfortably fit inside, so he simply held the door open for James. James bowed his head in thanks before he stepped inside, and Tuktu stayed with his head crouched down by the doorway to look in.

At the back wall, there was a clay oven that looked like it already had a fire going, and there was a stack of chopped wood by it for extra fuel when it ran out. The hut's walls were a little rounded, and there was a large rounded fur rug on the ground that looked like it hadn't been walked on too often. Likely because human visitors were rare.

On one side of the oven, there was a simple bed with a thin mattress and a thick, winter blanket on top. On the other side, there was a long oval-shaped table that had some fruits and vegetables on it. It appeared that someone might've eaten some of them since one of the bowls was lacking in comparison to the other. Underneath the table were some crates, and there were two chairs set around it.

All in all, there wasn't much to look at, but it was warm, his stomach was full, and there was a roof over his head, which was more than he could think to ask for. And Sleepy had eaten too. James had slipped some of the fruits and vegetables under the table.

Tuktu - in his own way, with limited words - told him goodnight and that they would see him in the morning, and until then, he should rest. James returned the well-wishes, and when the door closed behind him, the first thing he did was let Sleepy down onto the floor. She seemed eager to walk on the rug since the fur was so long. While James took off his shoes, he watched as Sleepy walked in a few circles before finally finding a spot on the rug where she nestled down, closer to the oven. She seemed to be soaking up the heat.

Once James set his shoes by the door, he too stepped onto the rug and sat beside Sleepy, stretching out his legs as he warmed up by the oven. He ended up unbelting his sword from his waist and laid it down near him on the carpet.

He was tired, but far from able to sleep. He was content to just stay still, but he couldn't help but feel nervous at the thought that Arima was somehow in the neander village as well. That meant he'd possibly need to bring her with him to get Evaline, unless she already had a plan to return to... wherever it was she stayed. James couldn't remember at this point.

Eventually, James ended up lying on the rug with Sleepy curled up by his head. He lost track of how much time had passed as he tried to busy his mind with other things (apart from worrying), but the opening of the front door caught the attention of his wandering mind. He sat up quickly, but Sleepy remained unperturbed.

As expected, it was Arima who had opened the door. She took a step in but then froze when she saw James, looking to be pleasantly surprised.

"...James?" she said after they stared at each other for a second.

"Arima," James said. "How did you end up here?"

"I could ask you the same thing," she said with a mild chuckle as she walked in and closed the door behind her. "Did you get here today?"

"Just this morning," James said. "I've..."

He faltered, not sure if Arima was aware of the mission they were on.

"I've been traveling with Evaline," he decided to say. "We were caught in the middle of the war between the Rattus and the Neanders. Evaline was captured, but Tuktu -- I mean -- their general. I don't know if you met him. He helped me get out. You?"

Arima drew her brows together in deep concern and started to rifle through a crate, pulling out a pan that she then filled with water from a pitcher.

"That sounds deeply concerning," she said while pouring. "It appears we have a lot to catch up on. Sit. I'll make some tea. Let's talk this out, slowly."

James appreciated the offer for tea, but he, frankly, did not feel like mincing words and talking things through slowly. But he also didn't want to seem as anxious as he likely already did, so he begrudgingly decided to agree.

"...Sure," he said slowly as he got to his feet.

Arima set the pot over the clay oven and spent a few moments hovering over it before she headed towards the table, pulling out a chair to sit down and motioning for James to sit across from her.

"Please," she said with a small but kind smile as she gestured to the chair. "Sit. We have time to discuss this. You should know that I am safe. I share your concern over what happened with Evaline, and I'd like to listen and hear you out if you would like to go over the details."

James stiffened for a moment, having to consciously measure Arima's words. He had to remind himself of what Evaline had told him about Arima. She was well-meaning, and Evaline seemed to trust her.

James knew he just felt uncomfortable because Arima was being... kind. It would be fine if she was just being reasonable, but her choice of words seemed intentional to try to calm him down.

"Sure," he said again as he walked over to the table and pulled out the other chair, sitting down as he attempted to make the movement look as fluid and relaxed as possible despite the fact that his mind was setting off alarm bells for no reason.

"So. You were traveling with Evaline," Arima said after a brief silence. "Were you with her when she was captured?"

James thought the answer was obvious.

"Yes," James said carefully. "We were ambushed."

"That must have been very frightening," she said.

"...I'm more concerned about Evaline," James said. "Tuktu is putting together a plan to go into one of the Rattus camps to save her, and we should be leaving tomorrow. I'm just focusing on that. They took Elliot, too."

He paused, before quickly adding.

"My horse," he clarified. "I don't know if you... remember."

"I remember," Arima said with a gentle smile. "Is there anything you can do now to help before leaving tomorrow?"

"I don't think so," James said. "The neanders know far more about the Rattus than I do, and they seem pretty focused on putting together the plans by themselves. They haven't asked me to do anything else."

She nodded. "It must be difficult to feel like you are not able to help. I would understand if you are feeling anxious or restless."

James stared at Arima blankly for a moment.

"It's fine," he said dismissively. "It'll pass. I just have to wait until we leave. But anyway -- what about you? How long have you been here?"

"I have been here for about a week now," Arima said. "Not against my will. The opposite, actually - I'm here to gather some data and observations for Alistair while he's gone. I've learned more about the Rattus along the way. Would it help put you at ease?"

"I'd like to hear about them, yes," James said.

Not to put him at ease, but because he wanted to know more about what he was going up against.

"First, a little context may help," Arima began as she slightly leaned back against the chair, relaxing her near-perfect back posture. "Neanders are an umbrella term for animals mixed with human DNA. The Rattus are neanders, as are the Thals, which is the clan taking care of us. Do you know much about the history of neanders?"

James looked off to the side, trying to recall the mess of histories he had read in different books. There wasn't anything in the books he'd read. The only thing he knew about neanders was what Evaline had told him, which admittedly wasn't much.

"No," he admitted. "I feel like Evaline explained that they were people who had gone underground and over time they evolved into what they are now, but I might be misremembering."

"Not quite," Arima said still with the faint smile, speaking gently while giving James her full attention. "This happened many years ago, but humans haven't always had powers. It grew slowly over time. A small number of people with powers then committed strings of heinous crimes, and the world became off-balanced with war and violence. The war between humans with powers and humans without powers only ended because - despite the humans without powers over-numbering those with powers - they didn't have access to technological advancements."

She paused.

"DNA advancements, I mean," she clarified. "The rivalry between powered and non-powered ended because those with power were able to go underground as they dropped biological bombs that effectively changed the world as we knew it. Beasts and neanders alike. So in essence, neanders are our distant cousins. We share at least half our DNA with them. Does this make sense so far?"

James had his brows furrowed as he tried to keep up.

"So... powered people waged war with bombs that changed people's DNA?" he asked.

"That is the history, yes," Arima said with a sad sigh. "This happened years before our time, but is still very sad how much suffering existed back then."

"There's still suffering today," James said plainly. "But go on."

"I agree," Arima said with a nod. "Suffering can never truly disappear. But I do empathize with neanders, who shared an ancestry line with humans who only wanted to live in the world without fear. But I also believe that our past doesn't necessarily define us now. I may share ancestry with those who decided to destroy humans without powers in a horrific way, but it doesn't mean I live in their shadow. Would you agree?"

James couldn't help but notice that Arima conveniently left him out of the people who shared that ancestry.

"I... suppose so," he said hesitantly.

He couldn't help but remember Evaline and Arima's most recent history, and how Arima had dulled Evaline's memories of him - which in turn, meant she'd seen them all. The thought had already been in the back of his mind as he and Arima were speaking, but he was becoming more and more aware of it, and for the first time, he felt like he understood at least a small semblance of what Evaline must've experienced when people like Oliver (or himself) saw her memories without her consent.

He didn't know how much Arima knew, or how much she was assuming - if she'd drawn any conclusions at all. She was a therapist, but that didn't mean Arima was beyond using the information to at least her own benefit when dealing with others.

"So, you've been doing more research then?" he asked, bringing the subject back to her.

"Oh, I'm not the biologist," Arima said with a small wave of her hand and a chuckle. "I'm just here to fill in a missed opportunity. What about you? What brings you this far from the safe zone?"

"Oh," James said, forcing a small smile.

He didn't know how much Arima knew. She seemed to know Alistair was gone, but she didn't mention the why, and as far as James knew, the mission was supposed to be kept under wraps.

"We're on a mission that involves traveling into the ungoverned lands," James said, keeping it vague. "I'm not at liberty to disclose the details."

"I understand that," she said with a nod. "I hope it hasn't been too dangerous. I am so sorry about what happened to Evaline. But she is strong-willed and tough, and I'd like to believe that she is doing okay."

James nodded slowly.

"Me too," he agreed.

"Since there is not much else you can do until tomorrow, would it help to talk more about her, or what happened, or anything else that comes to mind?" Arima asked. "I'd like you to know that you're not alone in this, James."

James found his eyes flicking across the room to Sleepy, as if the chicken would somehow offer a distraction from this conversation. But Sleepy was, predictably, asleep, and no help.

"I..." he paused, clearing his throat. "I should probably just try to sleep."

It was a terrible suggestion. He wasn't going to sleep. He didn't know if he'd be able to sleep at all.

"It is always difficult to sleep after a traumatic event," Arima said as she stood up and walked over to the pot of now-boiling water to pour into mugs. "But maybe this tea will help."

Because tea was going to solve all of his problems.

James turned to watch Arima as she was preparing the tea.

"What kind is it?" he asked.

"It's herbal," she said as she steeped the tea leaves in. "Specifically chamomile. Have you had it before?"

"I have," James answered, remembering the teas Evaline had given him in the past to aid with sleep.

Arima sat back down across from him, mugs in hand. "It does help relax you and promote sleep. Is that okay?"

"Yes, that's fine," James said, reaching for the other mug she set down on the table, dragging it over to himself.

He was grateful when Arima let the conversation drop, and the two of them sat in silence as they quietly drank their tea. James was a little overeager to busy himself with something, so he ended up mildly burning his tongue by sipping a little too much too soon, but he didn't show it. He just let the tea sit for another few seconds before sipping again.

But, predictably, Arima didn't let the silence last forever. When James was about halfway through his drink, Arima spoke up again.

"Maybe this is a little random," she said with a little laugh. "But can you tell me about your horse?"

"Elliot?" James asked, holding his mug in one hand a few inches from his face, letting the steam wisp up towards his nose. "What about him?"

"You've probably figured out that there are not many horses around," Arima said, holding the mug with her elbows propped on the table.

"It was my understanding that Elliot is the last of his kind," James said, pausing to take another sip. "But if it means anything to you, he's a palomino. That mostly describes his build, but mostly the coloring of his coat. Palomino's are known for their white manes and their coats that range from a warm burnt umber to a pale gold color. Elliot is of the variance with a more vibrant golden coat."

"Elliot sounds beautiful," Arima said attentively with a smile, like she was absorbing every detail. "What other horse breeds are there?"

"There are a lot," James said. "There are various breeds of draft horses, which are the largest purebred horses known to man. Or at least, that I know of. I don't know what it's like now. There are also thoroughbreds, which come in a different range of colors, and are known to be one of the faster breeds. Arabians are known for their unique head and neck shape, which is usually more elongated, and people tend to think they look more regal, or elegant. Breeds aren't equated with some words people use to describe a horse's coat, though. Like, paints, or pintos, which both have spots. The difference is the size and shape and the base color. Or there are appaloosas, who have speckles, or polka-dots, and they also come in different patterns. Sometimes the dots are contained on the horse's rear, and other times they cover their whole body. So I guess... what I mean to say, it there's a lot."

James felt that he was rambling. Or at the very least, getting away with himself on a subject Arima probably didn't care that much about, even though she asked.

"I'll leave it at that, for now," he said after a brief pause.

"You know an astounding amount about horses," Arima said, only now pausing to take a sip of the tea. "It's very impressive. Can you tell me more about their nature? Are they typically more relaxed, more wild? Does it depend on the breed?"

"That all depends on the horse's upbringing," James said. "There are plenty of wild horses that are left untamed, but horses that are brought into captivity are tamed. Some people refer to it as 'breaking' a horse, in training them. And in some senses, it is. You have to learn the horse's language so that you can teach them that you are both someone who can be trusted but also commanding respect. Like any beast of burden, respect should go both ways. Horses are still individuals, and they often have their own little quirks in their personality if you know what to look for. Some breeds are known for being more relaxed or more fiery, but a good trainer should be able to work with all types. Ideally."

"That's interesting," Arima mused, in thought. "Now I have a lot of questions. How do you learn a horse's language? What nature is Elliot's breed? And what type of quirks does Elliot have?"

James wasn't expecting so many questions about horses, but he was surprised that Arima seemed to actually be paying attention enough to ask more thoughtful, specific questions.

"Well... I learned how horses speak from my father, first," he said slowly. "But you also learn by observing. You could also learn the hard way, but I suppose whomever had the idea to attempt to tame horses first had to do that, and from there, it was trial and error. But horses communicate very differently than we do. You can tell a lot just by looking at the way their ears are pointed or angled, or by how they angle their body towards you. For example, if a horse were to turn their rear towards you, it's likely that they don't like you, and could be preparing to kick you. It's also important to note that horse's eyes are on the sides of their head, so they have a blind spot right in the front. If you want them to be aware of your presence, it's best to come along their side, so they see you, and won't be caught off guard or spooked."

He paused for a second, trying to remember Arima's other questions. There was a lot that he could cover, but he didn't really know exactly where to go with it.

"As for Elliot, I would say he had a bit more... sass," James said. "When I first got him, he really liked to try to push boundaries. He wanted to see how much I would put up with and let him get away with, so I had to draw a hard line. Nowadays, he knows what he can and can't get away with, but I still have to draw the line and be consistent. Animals are quick to pick up new bad habits if you don't enforce good ones."

Despite the onslaught of information and Arima having no way to apply anything he said, she seemed interested and invested in what he had to say. She patiently listened and silently drank her tea while he talked.

"I don't think I've ever had anyone tell me that their pet is sassy," she said with a breathy laugh. "Would you say Elliot has outgrown his sass?"

James looked up in thought, tapping his fingers against his mug.

"He's in the process of growing out of it," he said decisively. "It still comes out from time to time. Normally when it's just me and him. I think he just gets bored, honestly."

"What do you do to entertain him?"

"Well, he's a great conversationalist," James deadpanned. "So we talk a lot."

"I see," Arima said with a small smirk. "What do you talk about?"

"Oh, you know," James said. "Life. The things around us. How our food's digesting. Anything, really."

"They sound like insightful conversations," she said with a gentle casualness, then paused to take another sip. "It must have been a change of pace when you started to travel with others."

James could hear the hidden meaning behind her words. He knew his admission of talking to his pet made him sound like a loner. It was only natural.

"It was, a bit," James said, lifting his mug to his lips and taking a quick sip. He decided not to say anything that would lead to prodding questions. "But I didn't mind it."

"The conversations with Elliot or people?"

"Yes," James said, pointing his finger at her.

Arima laughed and lifted one hand up. "You got me. I'm not a horse."

"Good," James said. "You always have to check, these days."

He took another long sip, watching her.

"Oh yes, I know what you mean," she said with a lingering smile that slowly started to fade as she held the mug with both hands again. "Sometimes you can't tell horses apart from people. It can be hard to trust judgment sometimes."

James continued to sip from his mug as he studied Arima for a moment, and slowly lowered the mug from his lips, not breaking his gaze on her face.

"Yeah," he said slowly. "It can be hard sometimes."

He let a very short pause pass, but spoke before Arima could say anything more. He set his mug on the table and rested one elbow on the edge as he looked down at the almost-empty mug, then at her. He was going to rip off the bandage.

"So, Evaline mentioned that you saw her memories of us," James said, watching her for a reaction.

Arima had a great poker face.

She didn't say or do anything for a second or two as she watched him, but then she lightly smiled as she slowly set down the mug on the table.

"Is that so?" she mused but didn't any anything else.

"Yes," James said, also keeping a straight face. "The ones from five years ago. I'd rather not pretend that you don't know."

"I see a lot of memories," Arima said slowly and carefully. "And I always choose to respect privacy, whether the recipient asked for it or not."

"And I respect that," Jame said in a measured tone. "But many of those memories are ones Evaline and I share, so you know things about me that I haven't told you myself."

"I'm sorry if that makes you uncomfortable," she said sincerely. "I've been doing this for a while. I would never use someone else's memories against you or anyone else."

James stared at Arima for a moment, trying to get a feel for how much she meant her words. He felt like his deception meter was broken. Nowadays, he was always suspecting the wrong people. It was why he'd tried to suspect everyone equally. But it was hard to be careful with what you said when you had no idea what their motive could be.

"I really do mean it," she continued with a small apologetic smile. "I don't mix other people's memories with how I view people. It's uncommon for situations like yours where the memories aren't yours but you know I've seen it, but I would not speak of it unless you want me to."

"I just want to know how much you know about me," James said flatly. "We don't have to talk about Evaline."

"I understand," Arima continued gently. "Still, since these are her memories, it's hard to dance around her. She let me have access to about four months worth of memories with you."

So, the entirety of it.

"So you would remember the beginning of it, then," he said, tapping his fingers against his mug in a slow, rhythmic pattern. "When we first met."

"That's right," she said after a pause.

"And also when we parted ways," James added.

"That's also right," she said after another pause, then sighed. "I'm sorry if I'm not being direct. I'm not trying to trick you. I'm just hesitant to say much because Evaline hadn't told me she wanted anyone else to know. I know the memories greatly involve you, but she asked me to delete them for a reason."

She paused again.

"But I didn't... which I think you've figured out. Not fully."

"Yes," James said, setting his mug on the table. He propped up his elbow on the table and rested his chin in his hand as he looked at her. "I'm aware. And I don't want you to share the details from her perspective. They're her memories."

He paused, trying to carefully think through his next words.

"Perhaps you can tell me what you remember of the setting," James said neutrally.

Arima looked down at the table with a faint breathy laugh and a smile.

"Sorry," she said through the laugh. "I understand your apprehension. I can understand how uncomfortable it may feel knowing that I know." She looked up to meet his eyes, not with a serious look, but an inviting one. "Would if help if I told you what I know about you and the setting?"

That was what he was trying to ask in the first place.

"By all means," he said. "Please do."

"I admit the memories were more different than others I've experienced," Arima began. "It was almost dream-like, but it was very much real. The world of Nye is diverse with scenery, culture, magic, and races. The forests were lush, and the deserts were barren. It was home to you, although home can be hard to define when you're not staying in one place for very long. In short, I saw four months' worth of memories that included traveling, friendship, and hardship - and you were there nearly every day. Would you like me to go into more specific detail?"

James stared at her blankly for a moment.

"No," he said, pulling his arm off the table and sitting up straighter again, angling himself a little more away from Arima in his chair. "That's all I wanted to hear."

But in honesty, he didn't know if he really had wanted to hear it. It made him nervous that Arima knew he was from Nye too. At least, with Mel, it felt more controlled, because he was the only one giving her the information. But with Arima, it felt like it was out of his hands. She already knew - almost experientially, having 'lived' it in some sort of manner by seeing all of Evaline's memories. And there wasn't anything he could do about it.

Arima probably knew just as much as Evaline did, if not more, since Evaline still had gaps in her memory from that time.

James tried to think of something to say to change the subject to, but his mind felt like it was experiencing a small cave-in. He felt trapped.

"Does it make you uncomfortable that I know?" Arima asked gently. "It's okay if it does."

"Would you tell anyone?" James asked abruptly. "That I'm not from earth?"

"No," she said firmly without hesitation. "You're the first person I've told, actually. But you already know that."

James pressed his lips together, already making a mental list in his head.

Evaline knew. Mel knew. Oliver knew. Arima knew.

"So even when we first met, you knew," James said. "And you were just going to pretend like you didn't... forever."

"James," Arima said with a gentle smile. "You are more than a person 'not from Earth.' That may be your background, but you are so much more than that. I recognized you from the start but didn't act upon it to not only respect Evaline's privacy, but also because I wanted to start a clean slate with you. I naturally wondered how you got here, but to me, that didn't matter. I wanted to treat you as I would treat anyone else. I'm sorry you had to find out this way, and if you would have preferred a different treatment."

James could feel his heart starting to race. He wished for an interruption. A knock on the door, or for Sleepy to bawk and flutter over to them. Anything to pull the conversation away from this.

James was not comfortable with being known by a stranger.

What made matters worse was that Arima's intentions were objectively pure, and her reasons made sense. He could see himself acting similarly if he were in her shoes. But that didn't change the fact that it felt invasive and violating. It wasn't fair that Arima had gotten a shortcut to know him at the same pace that Evaline had, over the course of four months five years ago.

He stiffly stared at the wall of the hut, with his head turned to the side.

"I don't know how I got here," he said flatly. "Aside from the fact I had no say in it."

"I wish I had more information to help," Arima said, eyes still on him. "It's frustrating and not fair that you get placed into unfamiliar lands with no say whatsoever."

James desperately wanted to escape this conversation.

"I know," he said stiffly. "It's fine, though. I'm adjusting."

"I'm glad that you have Evaline and others to trust while you're adjusting," she said. "If I were on the council too, I would help as well. Or, I guess - I can help now since I'm here. Anything you need. I'm an open book, except when it comes to other's books. Er, memories."

James was nervously tapping his fingers on his knee, and the moment he became aware of it, he closed his hand into a fist.

"I appreciate the offer, Arima," James said. "But I think I'll pass on this one. I'm thankful for you being willing to help, but I think I'm alright."

"Alright," Arima said as she glanced at the fire burning in the oven. "Well... enough of that, then."

She then set her elbows on the table and clasped her hands together, setting her chin on top as she looked at him with a smile on her face.

"What's new with James from Earth, then?" she said. "Anything eventful happen between the Day of Peace and now?"

James was surprised at how easily Arima gave up on trying to offer help (whatever that even meant at this point), but he was thankful for it. That was, until she asked about the present.

It really wasn't a difficult question, but James didn't feel like he had a lot of things to share that were neutral to talk about, and at this point, there was still an elephant in the room, even if it was only one he could see.

"Well," James said slowly. "I harvested my crops on Terra before I left on this trip. And Sleepy's fully grown."

He gestured to the sleeping chicken on the rug. Maybe he could just... slip it into a list of things. Saying it casually.

"Then I joined Evaline on this mission, and we've been traveling for some time," James said. "We uh, saw a giant lizard a while back that slurped up a snake-like it was a noodle. It stared at us for a moment with lazy eyes, and then walked off, almost like it didn't mean for us to see that."

Arima laughed, shaking her head. "That actually sounds terrifying, but at the same time, it's a funny story. I wonder if it'd eat a plate of snakes like a plate of noodles?"

"But if all the snakes were alive, that would be a very active, wriggling plate of noodles," James noted.

"Dry noodles at that," she added. "That doesn't sound very appetizing."

"That's only because you're not a lizard," James said with a small smirk.

"That's right," Arima said with another chuckle. "Thank goodness, too. I'd be very scaly."

James pursed his lips, and his eyes drifted towards the door. Scales, wings, feathers, fur... he'd seen humanoid people with them all.

"I wouldn't be bothered if you were," he said.

Arima raised a brow at him, interest piqued. "Oh?" she said. "You wouldn't mind if I was a lizard who ate snakes like noodles?"

"If you were still a person and not just a lizard, yeah," James said.

"So if I looked like a lizard, but I still had my own thoughts and could speak and act upon them," Arima said to clarify.

"Yes," James replied.

She hummed. "Well, thank you. I wouldn't mind if you looked like a lizard, either. I think what's important is that we treat everyone with decency and respect. If neanders can do it, so can we."

James would hope that she'd be open to it even if neanders didn't exist, but he knew it was harder to be open-minded if you thought 'lizard' people didn't exist. On Nye, technically they did, at least, if you considered dragons to be a type of lizard.

"Agreed," James said with a small nod.
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soundofmind says...



    A gut instinct in him told him to run. The details didn't seem to matter. In his heart he could sense the palpable hatred in the air, hovering over him like a murderous cloud. But with every prod of the gun's barrel in his back, he knew that running would only end in one way. But maybe it was better that way, right? At least then, death would be on his own terms.

    His hands were cuffed behind him, and the metal pinched his skin, digging in and scraping and tugging with any shift of his arms. Hoss held the chain between his hands with an iron grip, and he kept pointing his gun between James's shoulderblades, tapping against his spine.

    The night sky was dark and the air still smelled like yesterday's rain. The earth was still wet, and Hoss didn't care that he led them through patches of sloshing mud. When they came to a sudden stop, Hoss yanked James backward, and then threw him forward, pushing him down into a puddle.

    All of the fight in him was gone.

    "Please," James whispered. "Just kill me now. Finish it already."

    Hoss towered over him as a dark shadow against the deep blue night sky.

    "You wish," Hoss said cooly.

    There was a split second of silence, and then Hoss rammed his fists over James's head.

    Everything went black. James didn't know how much time had passed until he heard a voice and felt the pain creep throughout his body.

    "Do you think he's okay?" a boy's voice said. It sounded familiar.

    "I don't know," a girl said quietly, and although it took a second, he could recognize that this was Evaline. It took another moment for James to realize that the boy must be Elias.

    "Heeeey, mister," Elias said. "Wakey wakey." He felt him poking his chest.

    James groaned as he opened his eyes in little slits, and two faces leaning over him came into focus. He was looking up at Elias and Evaline when they were kids, and Elias was grinning. Evaline, however, looked a little nervous.

    This reminded him of the memory he'd seen. By the swingset.

    "Hey, he's awake!" Elias said, then glanced at Evaline. "Uh, now what? Can you carry him?"

    Evaline shot him a pointed look. "I can't carry random big men, Elias," she mumbled.

    Elias hummed, looking back at James and offering a hand. "Need a hand?"

    James stared up at the bright blue sky, past the faces of the children hovering over him. This didn't feel right. It felt surreal.

    James ignored the hand extended towards him and pushed himself up with his arms, even though it pained him. It felt like it was impossible to pinpoint the source of the pain. It just hurt all over.

    When he was sitting up, his head was aching and spinning.

    "What's your name, mister?" Elias asked, hands on his knees as he bent down to be at his eye level. "How'd you get here, anyways?"

    James stared at Elias. He'd never interacted with him like this before. Not as himself.

    "I don't know," he said distantly, unsure if he should even entertain the conversation as anxiety swirled in his stomach.

    Was this a memory? Was this a dream? Had something happened? What was going on?

    "You know, I have a bad memory too," Elias said with a chuckle as he stood up straight, hands on his back to straighten it. "Evaline tells me that that's the reason why I keep failing tests. I don't think I ever forgot my name, though. That sounds like a mega fail."

    "Do you need help?" Evaline asked him quietly, concerned while she ignored Elias.

    "No," James said faintly, squinting and looking around. Why did this feel so real? He didn't even remember feeling a sense of a memory. He'd had no chance to block anything out.

    "Ooh, you know who would help?" Elias said with a snap of his fingers and a grin over at Evaline. "Elise. She'd make sure he's not bleeding."

    "I... I don't think he's bleeding," Evaline said with her arms crossed as she gave James a quick look up-and-down.

    "Sis says that you can bleed without bleeding," Elias retorted matter-of-factly.

    "That doesn't even make any sense..."

    Elias hummed. "Can invisible bleeding lead to memory loss? Hey, mister, did you forget your whole life, too?"

    James didn't know how he'd inserted himself into this memory. Surely it was just a dream. It was just a dream. Maybe if he just ignored it, it would go away.

    James closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.

    "It's all in your head. You're just imagining it," a stern woman's voice said.

    James looked up, and he found himself looking up at a woman who resembled Evaline, but was older, and had a worn, severe expression. James could remember that this was her mother, Alina.

    This seemed more like an undone memory, but it seemed to skip over after a few seconds, playing only snippets of sentences Alina was saying at different days, wearing different clothes and being in different rooms, but still with the same serious face.

    She was looking down at him, saying only one sentence with each passing memory: "You're a useless disappointment." "Do you think you'll ever amount to anything?" "You are pathetic." "You are useless." "I wish I never had you."

    The memories seemed to converge to one, and James watched as a bystander as Alina then threw Evaline in a small, dark room. Evaline appeared to be older than she seemed before, but she couldn't have been more than fifteen.

    "Think about what you have done. I'll let you out when you have proven yourself," Alina said as she closed the door behind her and the door clicked.

    Evaline had stumbled on the floor when she had forcefully entered, but she frantically got up on her seat and ran towards the door in a panic, only reaching it too late.

    "No!" she said as as she pounded her fists against the door. There was no reply, and in the dark room, she began to cry, slowly falling onto her knees with her fists sliding down. "No," she cried again. "Mom, please. I'm sorry. I'll be better."

    There wasn't a reply, and the memory didn't end as Evaline still sat there in the darkness of the small room, sobbing against the door.

    James felt his heartache as Evaline's cries filled the room, and hesitantly, he took a step forward. He felt like he could move within this memory, somehow. He wasn't just watching through someone else's eyes, but this time he was there, as himself.

    "Evaline?" he whispered softly, surprised as he heard his own voice. A wave of anxiety surged through him.

    Evaline's cries suddenly came to a halt as she stiffened and turned around, pressing her back against the door in fear. "Who's there?" she whispered back, sounding scared.

    James took a small step back, his mind reeling from the fact that he was able to interact with the memory and that Evaline - in the past - was responding. He could feel his heartbeat pounding in his ears.

    "It's okay," he said calmly, trying not to startle her. "I'm sorry I scared you. I won't come closer if you don't want. My name..."

    James wasn't sure if he was going crazy, but he had the terrifying thought that somehow he was interfering with a memory, or a history that he wasn't a part of. He wasn't supposed to be a part of.

    "It doesn't matter," he said.

    This had to be a dream. The memory was breaking, tearing, morphing. This was all in his head. Right?

    Evaline didn't respond as she sniffed and hiccuped a few times, turning away from him as she leaned against the door. She seemed to relax, or maybe she had given up fighting.

    James bit his lip. He needed to wake up.

    He looked down at his hands, remembering his promise to Evaline. He wouldn't hurt himself to try to get out a dream. But none of his dreams had ever been like this.

    He tried something harmless, and he pinched himself, picking at the skin on his arm.

    "You're my weakness, James," young Evaline said softly.

    But when he looked up, the scene had morphed around him, and he felt locked in place again, looking through someone else's eyes and having no power over what he could see, or do, or say.

    He knew he was in a new room, but he had hardly any time to take in his surroundings because Evaline was standing in front of him: limp, unconscious, and tied up. The person James was seeing through was holding a knife, slowly slicing her on the stomach despite her state. Blood rushed down and soaked through her clothes as the knife dragged across her clothes and skin.

    "You can do it too," he heard the person say, and James recognized the voice to be Oliver's father. He then pulled the knife out and then looked over where - sure enough - Oliver was standing nearby.

    This wasn't a memory when Evaline was a child. She was an adult, and so was Oliver. This had to have happened sometime in the past several years, at most.

    "You can do anything to her at this state," his father said again as he handed the bloodied knife over to Oliver. "Here. You try."

    Oliver hesitantly reached out and took the knife, although he seemed unsure as he looked down at it with both hands.

    "Try it, son," his father insisted, then angled Evaline's chin up. "Right here. On her neck."

    Oliver took a deep breath, understanding what his father was saying. He pushed her head back to keep it steady, and Evaline let out a faint moan, but otherwise didn't react.

    "Okay," Oliver said. "I will." Slowly and perhaps a bit nervously, he carefully sliced across her neck.

    But it seemed that he had cut too deep, because blood suddenly gushed out like a steady stream, and Oliver looked up at his father, horrified.

    His father only laughed in amusement. "Looks like you found an artery," he said. "If you cut deeper, she would die faster. It's better that way, sometimes. Less suffering."

    "We're supposed to kill her?" Oliver spat out, sounding shocked.

    "Oh, no," his father mused as he angled her head down so gravity would aid in the rush of blood falling. "But she'll be dead in a minute or two. Tick, tock, Oliver. You better go back in time, or else her death is on you, and our plans are ruined."

The last thing James remembered was falling asleep on the floor next to Sleepy after hours of tossing and turning on the rug, while Arima was curled up in the bed a few feet from him.

His head felt heavy, and his mind was clouded by a thick fog. He could hear himself breathing, and it felt loud, like the sound was echoing off his ears.

His reflexes were slow to catch up. In fact, he hardly caught up at all. It felt like he was still half asleep, and his body was stiff and weighed down. It almost felt familiar, but he couldn't place it. He had a passing thought that maybe Arima had put something stronger than just chamomile in the tea, but that didn't seem to make sense. Wouldn't he have felt it sooner?

How much time had passed anyway?

He was tied up. It finally registered that he was tied against what felt like a chair. As he half-opened his eyes it confirmed to him that he was upright, but the room around him was dim, and it took a minute for his eyes to adjust before he realized he was back in the neander's palace, tied up against one of their large chairs. About ten feet away, he could make out another chair, with a figure slouched forward, seemingly unconscious.

It looked like Arima.

Okay. So this wasn't her doing, then. It was the neanders.

Right?

James tried to sit up straighter, and he willed his eyes to focus more on Arima.

"Hey," he whispered. "Arima."

She didn't move or respond. Whatever they were under, it seemed that it affected her more.

"Arima," he said again in a harsh whisper. "Are you okay?"

Still, no response.

He sighed, glancing around the dim room. He felt like someone, somewhere was watching them but he couldn't make anyone out from where he was at.

"Arima," he said again, but much louder, a little above his normal volume.

He could hear a faint moan, but she didn't move or say anything else. Maybe it registered to her that she could hear him, but couldn't directly react.

James sighed, and he wriggled his shoulders underneath the layers of rope around his upper body, trying to see if he could slip out of the bonds, but they'd tied him down on all sides. His ankles were tied to the legs of the chair, and his wrists to the arms. There was no way to move without throwing himself against the chair and trying to scoot himself closer to Arima, but he didn't think that would be the wisest decision yet, considering he didn't know what he was working with.

Clearly, the neanders had different motives than they let on.

James just hoped that didn't involve violence.

He also had no idea where Sleepy was - and even though there were a million things to be concerned about besides a chicken, he couldn't help but worry that her fate was inevitable if they took her.

A few long and dreadful minutes pass, and Arima didn't utter a single word or show any signs of waking up any time soon. There was no other movement in the room, but James knew someone had to be watching. He could feel it.

Suddenly the doors burst open, and in came a small army of neanders with bloodied armor and archaic weapons, pushing someone who was tied up and had a cloth bag over their head. It was hard to see in the dark, but with the outside light coming in, James could recognize the clothes. It was Evaline.

The neanders marched in and pushed her in tow, barely acknowledging James or Arima. Tuktu and several other big warriors stood around the two of them, while Mokki strode in with King Okta. Evaline was pushed to the center of the room, and she was forced on her knees by a warrior. James heard muffled protests, but she wasn't able to communicate.

The warrior then lifted the bag from her head, and although James knew it had to be Evaline, this only confirmed his suspicions. They had muzzled her like an animal, and although she seemed to be angry and wanting to fight, her face softened in shock when she saw James, and then Arima next to her. She cried out more muffled protests and tried to move, but was limited by the chains, as well as the warrior next to her who continued to push her down.

Okta began to speak in a commandeering voice, speaking slowly and steadily in his harsh native language. Mokki stood faithfully by his side, translating in real-time.

"We want to formally apologize for lying that we would save your partner in tomorrow afternoon, but it was imperative that we do it as soon as possible," she said calmly. "Rest assured, it was not difficult to do ourselves since we had already killed the rat king, and bringing a human would only slow us down."

That didn't explain why they were all tied up. James stared at Mokki and Okta with a piercing gaze, waiting for them to continue.

"The king once had a son named Uko," Mokki said, continuing to translate Okta's words. "He was a young ruler that everyone loved. He was brilliant, charming, and loving. He had always had a fascination with humans and cared for them dearly. They were his role model, but he failed to see how mistreated humans have treated us. We have pleaded our allegiance to humans many moons ago, but we are still not treated as equals."

"Uko understood that, but he still held on to the hope that humans can be good. One day, he found a human who he trusted and befriended. The human wanted to help Uko eliminate those who have only cast evil to our clan. They were to work together, as equals. But Uko was betrayed, and he died trusting this human. The Thal mourned the loss of their young king, and we have since vowed our revenge."

The king paused, nearly yelling his words as he venomously stared at Evaline while Mokki stood straighter, eyes on James as she translated.

"Seven years later, we now have our revenge," she finished.

The neanders chanted something James didn't understand, patting their fist to their chest and slightly bowing to the king.

James felt his heart drop into his chest as the truth sunk in like claws into his chest. He grit his teeth and desperately tried to throw himself forward, but the heavy chair barely rocked, and fell back in place.

The warrior beside Evaline rifled through a chest and took out a big gun that James hadn't seen before, but it was undoubtedly a gun. Evaline watched with wide eyes as the warrior practiced pointing it at her, and then at James, and then at Arima.

"We thought we would never come across our young ruler's killer, but the skies have blessed us with a miracle," Mokki said triumphantly with her hands in the air. "Here lies the killer and betrayer in the mercy of the clan, and here lies her family member, and her romantic partner. Today is the day that the Thal will avenge Uko!"

The neanders cheered again, and Evaline was trying desperately to catch James's eyes, but it was impossible to tell what she was thinking or feeling behind the steely look. The only thing James knew for sure was that she was sorry. Sorry that it'd come to this.

The king continued to talk for another minute, but Mokki didn't bother translating. It seemed that they had reached the end of the spiel that they cared about sharing with them. When the king finished, the warrior suddenly cocked the gun and pointed it at James.

"The king wants you to beg for their innocent lives," Mokki said to Evaline. "The crime they have committed is being associated with you. He wants you to beg for their forgiveness."

Another warrior then undid the muzzle on Evaline, and she wasted no time to talk.

"James, I'm so sorry. I had no idea that--"

Tuktu had lifted his leg high in the air and kicked James on the groin with all his might. James would've doubled over if his shoulders weren't pinned against the back of the chair. He clenched his teeth together tightly as he tried to suppress a groan, but it still came out lowly.

"Beg for his life, imp," Mokki hissed.

"Stop!" Evaline cried with desperation in her voice. Her eyes were begging and pleading with them, but her words said otherwise. "He had nothing to do with this. He had nothing to do with what happened. Let him go."

Mokki nodded over at Tuktu again, and Tuktu had no qualms punching Arima square across her face with his large, bony hand. Arima wasn't conscious, to begin with, and although blood dripped down as her head hung loosely again, she did not react.

"Beg for both their lives," Mokki repeated again, sounding like a warning this time.

This was partially his fault. If he'd never told them about himself, or Evaline, or Arima, they wouldn't have made the connection so quickly. It might've bought him some time.

He never should've accepted the neander's help.

Evaline watched with wide eyes, her mouth agape as she seemed to be at a loss for words. She shook and then keeled over, already giving up fighting this. She was on her knees with her head heavily leaned forward, almost in a begging position.

"Please," she said more quietly in a shaky voice. "Please do not hurt them for my past actions. Please show them mercy. Please let them free. I will do what you ask. Please take me instead. Please don't hurt them."

Mokki translated this to the king, and the king snarled before he roared a hollow laugh. His next words were barely understandable with his accent, but it was like he had practiced it over and over, waiting for this day to come.

"You only put us above you when we show mercy," he said. "When will you understand? WE ARE HUMAN TOO!"

The warrior then steadied the gun at Arima and shot her, and then did the same for James. He could feel the bullet rip through his thigh.

Despite the pain and cloudy vision, James could see Evaline's intense desperation as she tried to move to get to them, but was kicked away. He could hear her intense cries of no's and his name and Arima's name before all sounds started to melt together.

Time felt to swim around him as James drifted in and out of shock, and when he looked up, he saw King Okta, Mokki, and Evaline no longer in the room. Instead, in the shadows in front of him, stood Tula with her arms crossed as she smirked.

Tula.

So this was all a set-up from the start.

"Sorry, lover boy," she said before James started to fully lose grip on consciousness. "We could have had fun before you died."
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Consciousness returned to him slowly.

James could feel the cold hard ground underneath him, and his body ached, feeling stiff. As he started to shift and open his eyes, he felt the weight of cuffs around his wrists and one of his ankles, and he heard the faint rattling of chains brushing against the floor.

So he was captured again. But this time, it wasn't Gaea. It was Tula, and neanders, and he didn't know the reasons why aside from the speech the neander king had given about Evaline's betrayal.

He still didn't know what was going on.

He pushed himself up, but felt a pain shoot throughout his leg, and up his hip, and he squinted his eyes as he looked down at a bandage that had been wrapped around where the bullet once entered. If they were taking care of his wounds, they wanted him alive for something, and at this rate, he didn't know if it was so he could reproduce or something entirely different.

He squinted at the walls. They looked rough and rocky, like the cell had been carved out underground. Possibly in the side of a mountain. There was a thick, heavy, metal door, and to the side, there was what looked like a window, made of a dimmed glass. Through it, he could see Evaline in a large metal cage. She was huddled in the corner, with her knees to her chest, and her head buried in her arms.

Dragging himself across the floor with his elbows, James tried to crawl to the window, but he felt the chain attatched to his ankle pull taut before he got very far. He was chained to a tall, metal pole that went up into the ceiling.

He watched Evaline for a moment, but it didn't look like Evaline knew he was there. She would've heard his stirring... right?

"Eve," he said, but there was no response. He scraped his hands along the ground, finding a small pebble. He chucked it at the window, and it bounced off with a faint tak. But still, no reply.

In his gut, he knew even if he yelled, she probably wouldn't hear him. He could see her, but they were separated. It didn't seem like sound could travel through, and he didn't know if she was able to see him like he could see her.

James took in a deep breath as he looked back around the room he was being held in. The only source of light was a singular lightbulb in the middle of the room on the ceiling.

If there were lightbulbs, either the neanders were more advanced than they let on, or he wasn't in their village anymore. Maybe the sectors had an agreement with the neanders - or maybe just Tula did. He wouldn't put it past them to make an alliance if they knew he and Evaline were on the run in the ungoverned lands. It would make sense, especially if capturing Evaline was already in the neander's interest for the sake of revenge.

James knew he didn't have the full story.

In silence, he laid on the floor, staring up at the lone light above him, letting the minutes pass by. Not many did before his silence was interrupted.

The door then groaned, the metal heavily screeching against the rock floor as it swung open. It was Tula. James didn't move to get up as he turned his head to look over at her, watching her approach.

The same victorious smirk tugged her lips as she entered and she stepped aside, and in came Katya as well, who then closed the door behind her. Katya was holding a tray of what appeared to be a bowl of porridge and a glass of murky water.

"Eat up, loser," Katya said as she slid the tray over to him on the ground, and the edge of the tray just barely made it outside his traveling diameter. The water splashed around, with half its contents landing on the tray and in the porridge. "We're not killing you yet."

James didn't respond, and instead stared up at them expectantly. They knew he couldn't reach the food, and he wasn't going to give them the pleasure of watching him try.

"...I suppose that's it, Katya," Tula said when he didn't respond. "Let's go."

Katya groaned and seemed annoyed that their visit was short-lived, but obediently reached to open the door again as it heavily swung open. She went back down the hall, and Tula held the door open, looking over her shoulder at James still with the silent smirk, as if testing him to see if he'd ask questions or let this opportunity slide.

"I had a feeling something like this would happen," he said, staring her down with a look of indifference.

"Is that so?" she mused, gently closing the door and deciding to stay in the room to entertain him. She slowly turned around and leaned against the wall with her arms crossed. "It's a shame you didn't act upon your feelings, romance boy."

"I think the real shame is that you turned out to be everything I thought you were," James said.

"I don't think that's a shame," Tula said with a teasing innocence. "It would have been a shame if I turned out to be more similar to your lover. Weak, ignorant, and a fool. You share the same traits."

"Thank you," James said blankly. "I take pride in that."

Tula didn't respond, only watching him like she had always done in the past. Quietly observing, letting him lead the conversation while she raked in the information. James stared back at her, letting the long, extended silence hang in the air with no issue. He didn't feel like playing her game.

"Unlike you, I don't care to hold pride," Tula said as she uncrossed her arms and turned towards the door again. "I will be leaving unless you care to talk."

"I don't," James said. "Especially if you can't pick up on subtlety."

"Can't," she echoed in amusement, angling her head towards him. "Or won't?"

"You tell me," he said.

"James, James, James," Tula drew out slowly with the faint smirk never having left her face, now leaning against the door. "It's too bad no one else will tell you how this happened, and it's too bad you won't beg me to find out. I suppose you'll just never know."

"For someone who doesn't seem interested in giving me the final draft of their villainous monologue, I'm surprised you even bothered to see me in the first place," James said flatly. "If you have something to say, you have me here, chained to the floor. You don't need me to beg when you already have the opportunity."

"Would you like me to leave?" Tula said instead, tilting her head with a sly smile.

"Only one of us can," James replied.

"Would you like me to leave?" she repeated when he didn't answer the question.

James didn't think he could trust a word that Tula said even if she did explain to him what had happened, and he didn't think she would give him any useful information that would help him to know how to get out of this. She was too careful and calculating to let something slip like that, and it was clear she was only here just to mess with him and rub her victory in his face.

"Yes," James said. "The lightbulb is better company."

"I will gladly leave your room," Tula said as she opened the door. "Goodbye, lover boy."

She left the room and closed the door behind her, locking it even though he couldn't reach it.

James stared at the door for several long seconds before he slowly started to crawl towards the tray of food. As he'd thought, he couldn't reach it.

Suddenly there was movement on the other side of the glass. The door was opening in Evaline's room, and James could see that Tula saying she would "leave his room" meant she would enter Evaline's.

"Hello, Evaline," Tula said, and Evaline just barely peeked out from her arms before returning back to her position. "I am sorry to say that you are under a strict diet of no food or water. Not until they come."

Tula paused for Evaline's response, but she didn't move or say anything.

"I am sorry about James and Arima," Tula continued. "Rest assured that their bodies are buried. It is courtesy to respect the dead and let them rest."

And still, Evaline didn't respond or move. He wondered if she believed Tula that he was dead, and he couldn't help but wonder if Arima truly was. Unlike him, he didn't know if she had any powers or information that people like Oliver would find valuable enough to keep her alive.

He wished he could tell Evaline he was alive.

"I'll be back tomorrow. Goodbye, Evaline," Tula finished, then left the room without another word.

After Tula left, the hours dragged on in deafening silence. James never managed to get to the tray of food, and he gave up trying. Sleep evaded him, and the pain in his throbbing leg helped him to stay awake as the silence of his cell surrounded him like a blanket.

Being held in a cell, chained up, and hungry was not a new experience for him. But being able to see Evaline, who still had yet to move from the corner of her cage, knowing she could be lapsing back into her former self -- unfeeling, uncaring, and cold -- tore him apart. He wished he'd said something. Anything before he'd been shot and they were separated, and he was apparently presumed to be dead.

He wondered how he wasn't dead already. They'd been lucky that they hadn't shot an artery in his leg, and it didn't look like they'd gone through the trouble to perform any sort of extensive surgery to repair anything. The most they probably did was take out the bullet and suture the entrance wound.

To keep from getting too stiff, James would roll and stretch his arms and legs as much as he could manage. He decided to ignore the pain most of the time, but occasionally it would get to the point where he knew if he pushed himself, it would be needless, so he'd relax and lie back down.

Though he had no way to measure time, James had enough experience that he knew, intuitively, about a day had passed since he'd been in the cell.

And like Tula had said to Evaline, the door opened and she came in again, wearing fresh linen clothes with her hair down while James and Evaline could only walk around in their own filth.

Katya came in after her as well, holding another tray of the same porridge and murky water in a glass. She clicked her tongue when she saw the tray from yesterday untouched, and then threw the new tray over to him. The bowl and glass flung out of the tray as it clattered to the ground. The glass didn't break, but the water spilled out into a small puddle on the rocky floor. The bowl of porridge was turned upside down as well. At least this time, it was reachable.

"Eat up, monkey!" Katya said with a vicious laugh.

"If you're looking to make me die of dehydration," James said dryly. "You're on the right course."

"Nah," Katya said dismissively. "You can always drink your own piss."

"Actually, your pee doesn't hydrate you," James said. "It's equivalent to sea water. It does nothing for you."

"AcTuaLLy yOuR pEe dOesN't hYdrAte yOu," Katya heavily mocked.

"Thank you, Katya," Tula said calmly. "That's it for now."

"Aye, aye," Katya said with a smirk, turning to leave without another glance at James, leaving him alone with Tula.

Tula was silent again as she watched James, observing him and waiting for him to speak first. James waited, choosing to let her break the silence.

"Would you like me to leave?" she asked when he didn't speak.

"I never wanted you to show up in the first place," James retorted.

"Would you like me to leave?" Tula asked again patiently, seemingly fishing for a simple yes or no.

"Are you going to do this every day?" James asked. "Because then I can save you the trouble and just tell you that my answer will always be yes."

"You've likely heard the phrase 'knowledge is power,'" Tula said as she shifted her weight on her other foot and leaned against the wall again. "I would gladly hand knowledge that may interest you. But you have to want it. So I'll ask again: would you like me to leave?"

James stared at her for a moment, and then slowly sat up, facing her.

"If you have something to say," James said. "Just say it. Stop fishing for questions from me."

"Is that a yes?" she asked with feigned innocence. "You would like me to leave again without saying anything?"

James was done with this. He laid back down and rolled over on his side, facing away from her, not saying another word.

"I'll take that silence as a yes. It's important to be clear with your words and communicate clearly," Tula said, and he heard her reach for the door again. "Goodbye, James."

James curled up, glaring at the wall. If he believed she actually cared about anything he wanted to communicate, maybe he would tell her.

And just like last time, she took in his nonverbal "yes, I would like you to leave" response to mean that she would enter Evaline's room instead. He heard the door open on the other side as she walked in, and he turned to see.

"Hello, Evaline," Tula said as she shut the door behind her, and she lingered by the door. "I'm here as I promised yesterday. How are you feeling?"

Evaline, however, was inconsolable. She had hardly moved out of her corner, but she was facing the wall this time. She hardly even flinched when Tula had come in and spoke.

"It must be difficult to mourn the loss of your loved ones," Tula continued anyways. "Rest assured that Arima likely felt no pain. And even in his death, James's last words were about you. Would you like to know what he said?"

Evaline tensed up slightly, pulling her knees closer to her chest. Her hair covered her face, so it was impossible to tell what she may be thinking.

"...What?" she whispered hoarsely. "What did he..."

"He said, 'No, I don't want you to leave,'" Tula said with a silent smirk, and then looked past the wall separating him from her, her eyes drifting to where he was curled up before she left. Evaline didn't respond, so after a few seconds of staring at him through the wall, Tula left the room.

James was unimpressed by how petty she was, but a flame of anger ignited in his heart that she was dragging Evaline into this manipulation game. He had a feeling that this was the result of him telling her to leave. She would go and harass Evaline if he didn't want her to stay.

Hardening a determination in his chest, he waited out the next uneventful day. He managed to reach the flipped bowl of porridge and flipped it over, scraping off the top layer that had been soiled by the ground. He tilted the bowl like a cup so he could avoid getting more porridge on his fingers, and the food settled into his hollow stomach like a single rock thrown to the bottom of an empty well.

When he heard the lock on the door unlatch, he sat up to see Tula and Katya come in.

Tula stepped aside for Katya to come in with another tray of food and water, and she opened her mouth likely to insult him while announcing she brought food, but Tula interrupted before she could say anything.

"James has been working on his communication skills with me," Tula said to her as she watched James carefully. "James, why don't you ask Katya for the tray instead? That way you can strengthen your communication skills and Katya will not throw it on the ground."

James slowly blinked at Tula before turning his gaze to Katya, who seemed annoyed that she couldn't have it her way, but seemed to hear him out.

"Please set it on the ground within my reach," he said in monotone.

"Awww, he's begging," Katya cooed with a grin. "Kiss the floor for me and I'll consider it."

James slowly narrowed his eyes at Katya, and then lifted his cuffed hands, flipping his middle finger up at her.

This seemed to anger Katya who was on the verge of throwing the tray towards him, but Tula took the tray off her hands before she could do so.

"We'll work on that tomorrow. Thanks, Katya. You can go now," she said as she held the tray steadily.

Katya angrily stared at James for a few moments, but then huffed and stomped away, slamming the door behind her, and leaving Tula alone with James again.

Tula took a few steps forward and bent down to place the tray just at the edge of where he could reach it. She also pushed the tray from the first day forward, even though the food had gone cold and the water stale. When she finished, she walked back again towards the wall, leaning on it with her arms crossed as she watched for his response.

"Stay," James said, watching her closely. "I want to hear your spiel today."
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If Tula was pleased, she didn't show it. She tilted her head at him, already invested in the conversation. "I prefer a more interactive conversation than a dramatic monologue," she said. "What would you like to know?"

James tilted his head to the opposite side, mirroring her nonverbal language as he narrowed his eyes at her.

"I want to know what you want," he said. "And what your purpose is in keeping me here."

"You don't have what I want, but taking you here for someone else will give me what I want," she said with a steady voice. "Think of it as mercenary work. It's nothing personal, lover boy."

"Didn't think it was," James said, speaking just as calmly. "So what is it you want, then?"

"Oh, lots of things," Tula said with her usual smirk. "Maybe all I've ever wanted was your corsage. Or maybe all I've ever wanted was a hearty meal."

"Are you going to keep giving me hypothetical non-answers, or do you actually want to have a real conversation?" James asked.

Tula brought her hands up in false innocence. "I said it was nothing personal, didn't I? No need to make this personal in asking about my desires, James."

"Why am I here, Tula?" James asked flatly.

"Unfortunately, I don't know that answer," she said as she crossed her arms again. "I only do as I'm told."

"And whose orders are you following?" James asked, even though he felt he already knew the answer.

It seemed that Tula was onto him that he knew, too. She tilted her head and her smirk deepened. "I think you know," she said.

"I'd rather hear it confirmed aloud," James said cooly.

"Wouldn't it make more sense for me to confirm your own suspicions aloud instead of the other way around?"

"No. It wouldn't," James said plainly. "Because you know the answer."

"That's too bad you don't trust me," Tula said with a click of her tongue. "I'm only willing to confirm what you know. The person is my employer, after all."

"So you're not here to give me any 'new information that might interest me' after all," James said. "You're just baiting me. Good to know."

Tula laughed through her nose, shaking her head. "I have forgotten how fun you are, lover boy," she said as she reached in her pocket, pulling out a few photographs to toss over to him. "Perhaps this may interest you."

James looked down as the photographs slid across the floor over to him. One of them had flipped over, but one of them he recognized as one of the photos she'd taken of him at the factory.

"Bold of you to assume I have any interest in photos of either of us," James said, looking back up at Tula, unimpressed.

"Did you really fall for that act?" Tula mused. "I thought you were smarter than that. No, I took these photographs for a reason. Care to guess what purpose it served?"

James looked at her, then down at the photos. He reached out and dragged one of them over to him.

"Something to do with your powers...?" he said, unenthused.

"That's cute," Tula said with a wider smile of amusement. "No, not for you. But I would have loved to have seen through your eyes, or you through mine. It can be a fairly intimate process."

"Are you going to tell me what the photos are for, then?" James asked. He was tired of how she was always talking around things. Tired of having to pretend he understood how the hell this world worked.

Tula sighed. "Shame that you are no longer fun, but I suppose that is the price to pay after an elaborate act." She paused, standing up straighter. "The photos were distributed to the Gaea clan. Only an idiot like you would choose to publicize himself further with the tournament, so they caught you quickly. Even if I didn't pass the photos and information along, it was only a matter of time before you were caught."

"So," James said, changing the subject. "Why were you working with the neanders?"

"I'm not," she said. "They work with us."

"Same difference," James muttered. "So do you also work with the Gaea?"

"Work is a strong word for both cases," Tula said.

"What word would you use?" James asked, looking up at her again.

"Consider it..." She paused, pursing her lips for just a second. "A mutually beneficial agreement for both sides."

"What does your employer want with me?" James asked, trying to ask again.

"Beats me. You should ask them yourself. They'll be here in tomorrow."

"Oh joy," James said dryly. "I look forward to that."

"You're lucky they didn't want you dead," Tula said. "I admit it would have been sad to let you die."

"And why's that?" James asked with a tilt of his head, staring at her with narrowed eyes.

Tula smirked again, this time being the one to mirror his tilt. "You have an impeccable jawline."

James continued to stare at her for just a moment before he moved on, not breaking his settled gaze. He didn't want to get a rise out of her, but just because he could, he wanted to insult her - but not in a language that she could understand. In a language from Nye. The one of the isles.

"There's a word for people like you," he said in the foreign tongue. "In my homeland, we call them snakes."

Tula, of course, didn't understand a word he was saying. She watched him for a few long moments, waiting for him to elaborate, but he didn't.

"That's nice," she said with boredom. "Good to know that you know another language."

"Is it, though?" James asked.

"No," she said without hesitation. "Because it seems that you have no one to practice it with except to get away with saying things you want to tell me without telling me. Really, James, you need should review a few communication lessons again."

"Why should I care about communicating clearly with my captor?" James asked, near-incredulous. "It's not like we're friends. If you expect me to be open and honest with you, your expectations are ridiculous."

Tula faintly smirked again, like she had wanted him to bring this subject up. "Perhaps my expectations are not clear, then," she said. "I wouldn't exchange your clear communication for my friendship. No, I would exchange your clear communication for clear communication to Evaline. If you don't want to give it to me, I would be happy to continue to let her spiral to her demise. It's what she deserves."

"So," James said. "You want me to communicate better and then you'll what -- tell her the truth? Or do you just mean that you'll simply stop taunting her by letting her continue to believe I'm dead?"

"Neither," Tula answered. "I don't need to tell the truth, but I also wouldn't need to spew lies."

"So if I talk to you, you'll stop talking to her?" James asked. "Is that what you're trying to say?"

Tula hummed for a moment. "I was thinking I could tell her that we spoke more before you died. You told me that you wished she'd have told you about her past history with the neanders, because then this could have been avoided. I wonder if she'd continue to blame herself."

"You're not answering my question," James said firmly. "I want to know what you'll do in exchange for my cooperation, not what you're planning on doing if I continue to not cooperate."

"You misunderstand," Tula said with a small twirl of her hand. "I will say that to her if you do not cooperate. I will not say that to her if you cooperate."

That was literally all she had to say. If anyone needed communication lessons, it was Tula. She was constantly saying things indirectly instead of just saying what she meant. She was a hypocrite, and knowing her, she was probably self-aware of it, and didn't care. She said she didn't hold any pride, but clearly, she took no pride in following her own bullshit advice.

"Fine, then," James said, veiling the venom in his voice with a sickly-sweet tone. "What is it you want me to communicate 'clearly' so badly?"

Tula smirked victoriously, leaning against the wall as she reveled in her small victory for a moment. "First, I must say, I'm shocked that no one could have guessed the reconnaissance team that infiltrated the group for so long," she sneered. "I'm the eyes, and Katya's the ears. You say you suspected, but didn't act upon it. Do you cast blame on yourself for Evaline's downfall?"

Tula only asked for James to communicate clearly. Not honestly.

"No," he said clearly, without hesitation. "Next question."

Tula paused for a moment, watching him intently. It wasn't clear whether she caught his bluff or not, but she moved on anyways without comment. "Who do you think is my employer?" she asked.

"Oliver," James said.

"Why do you think that?" she asked next without hesitation.

"Because he reeks of insincerity, just like you," James said.

"And why do you think that is?"

"Because you're spies," he answered.

Tula smiled insincerely, tilting her head again. "So is Evaline," she said.

"Tell me something I don't know," James said steadily.

"So she told you. Interesting."

He never said that. That was her own conclusion. But he kept that comment to himself. He stayed silent, waiting for her to ask something else she was dying to know.

"What were your motives with Evaline?" Tula asked.

"You're going to need to be more specific," James said. "Motives for what?"

"You've only been here for a few short months, and then the both of you announced your romantic interest for one another," she said calmly. "You must see how suspicious that looks."

"To you, maybe," James said.

"Where are you really from?" Tula asked instead.

James's mouth curled up into a wry smile.

"Oh, what, your employer didn't tell you?" he asked, his smile growing.

"So you admit that my employer knows," Tula mused. "And that may be why you are captured in the first place."

"Maybe," James said with a teasing smile. "Maybe not. I don't know. Ask him."

"Oh, but I so value your thoughts on this matter," Tula teased. "Why do you think you were captured?"

James's smile faded slowly, and he stared at Tula again, intently.

"I think Oliver's scared," he said. "Scared out of his mind."

"Scared of you?" she asked.

"No," James said, pursing his lips and shaking his head slightly.

"Scared of what, then?"

James felt like taking a page from Tula's book. Answering questions indirectly sounded fun.

"Tell me Tula," James said. "Do you too, fear the unknown like most people, or do you just do what you're told until you get what you want all of the time?"

"I can't say I do," Tula said, still ignoring parts of his question. "Why don't you tell me about it?"

James blinked.

"Sorry, tell you about what?"

"You fear the unknown," she said.

"Oh, no, no, no," James said quickly with a laugh. "I was talking about Oliver."

Before Tula could respond, he continued.

"I'm sure you've used that to your advantage, though, haven't you," he mused. "Being as observant as you are."

Tula smirked again, tapping her finger along her arm, perhaps toying with a thought in her head. "How observant of you," she simply commented.

"Oh, that's a big compliment, coming from you," James said with mock gratitude.

"You think Oliver is scared," she reiterated. "And you know he is scared of the unknown. But what does that have to do with you?"

"I would've thought you'd have figured that out by now," James said. "I know you weren't there when I first showed up, but I'm practically a walking question mark."

"Then I ask again, one last time," Tula said cooly. "Where are you from?"

"I don't know," James said. "I don't think you'd actually want to know. Pretty sure that's why Arima ended up dead. She was the only other person who knew."

It was a bit of a bluff, and a dark one at that. It made his stomach twist, but he kept a straight face.

Tula continued to tap her finger on her arm, but then stopped after a few passing moments. "I see," she said as she dropped her arms and stood up straight again. "I'll be back tomorrow. Eat up. You need your energy."

James crawled towards the tray of food, just within his reach, and he slid it towards him.

"That's true," he said casually as he grabbed the glass of water. "It's exhausting talking to someone who doesn't know how to communicate."

"Likewise," she said with a sly smile as she headed for the door to leave.

And just like that, she was gone again. And, true to her word, she didn't visit Evaline.

Over the next hour, James slowly ate his food after poking around in it to make sure there wasn't anything slipped in - at least, that he could identify. It if was cooked into it, there was nothing he could do about it. He weighed his options.

Be drugged or poisoned, or continue to starve?

At least he'd have a full day for anything to wear off, and at least he knew Oliver wanted him alive, now. So they wouldn't do anything that would kill him. At least, not without undoing it, or doing something to prevent death afterward - like how they'd bandaged the bullet wound.

As expected, another day went on without any new occurrence, and James still went without sleep. There were moments where he'd drift off, only for a few seconds, and then he'd come to again.

Fortunately, he was no stranger to sleepless nights. It was just draining.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.






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As expected, Tula showed up again with Katya in tow. The heavy metal door creaked as they pushed it open and stepping inside, and James noticed that Tula was holding folded clothes in her arms.

"Rise and shine, dumbass!" Katya yelled with a grin, sliding the tray on the ground with such force that it ended in his reach. She then took the clothes off Tula's hands and chucked it towards his face. "Change into this so you don't smell like shit."

James sat up and caught the clothes before they hit him, but his hands were still linked together by the cuffs.

"That would be brilliant if I could move my hands further than two inches from one another," he said with a fabricated smile.

"Hey, Tula, why don't you help him?" she teased with a laugh. "Since you want to get it on with him anyways."

"James can put it on himself," Tula said as she watched him. "He's capable of putting on clothes."

"I don't think you understand," James said. "I'm not that flexible. Do you expect me to magically pull a sleeve over this?"

He lifted up his cuffed hands, raising his brows and looking at them like they were stupid. Because it was a stupid request.

"You're right," Tula hummed. "We will send someone to put it on for you."

"What a useless man," Katya said with a snort.

"I would literally end up tearing the shirt, thereby rendering it useless as a garment," James said flatly.

"This is the last we'll be seeing each other, James," Tula said, changing the subject. "This has been fun. For your sake, I hope we never see each other again."

"For your sake, I hope so too," James said cooly.

Katya whistled lowly as the two of them glared at each other. "I hope I never see your ugly face too. I had to put up with you for so long. It was terrible."

"The feeling is mutual," James said with a smile that didn't meet his eyes.

Katya grinned. "'Kay. See ya never, ugly," she said as she left the room.

Tula lingered in the room, eyes not having left James. "You are an enigma, you know," she mused. "It's a shame I'll never see the world through your point of view. What does it look like?"

"I have a feeling that even if you were to see through my literal eyes, you would never understand my perspective," James said, his voice level. "Nor would you understand if I were to explain it to you."

"Perhaps," she said with a little shrug. "But do entertain me anyways."

Oh. Entertain?

"I'll need my harmonica for that," he said.

"That's in the bag with your horse, right?" Tula said, doing that head tilt again whenever the conversation was going to get interesting.

"Depends," James said, not taking the bait. "If you took it out or not."

"I wouldn't take it," she said. "I have no interest in a horse, nor a harmonica."

"I'm surprised you have any interest in me then," James said with slightly raised brows.

"That's because you're a bigger enigma," she mused. "Perhaps that's why you are kept alive."

"Why, because your hyper-observant brain found someone you can't seem to comprehend?" James asked with thinly-veiled condescension.

"Thank you," Tula said with a smirk. "But you know I don't take pride in that, or of anything at all."

"I know," James said. "I could tell long before you told me."

"It was nice meeting you, James," Tula said as she took a step towards the door. "A man I've pictured, a man I've kissed, a man I've betrayed. I won't easily forget you."

"Great synopsis," James said dryly. "Let me know when the book comes out."

Tula looked over her shoulder, devilishly smiling. "Goodbye, James," she simply said as she opened the door.

James didn't give her a goodbye in return as the door closed behind her, and he was left alone again. He looked down at the clothes in his hands and sighed, rolling his eyes as he set them to the side and then brought the tray of food over, eating the same flavorless porridge again. By the time he finished all of his food and water, he heard the door creak open again.

It was Deidra.

He wasn't surprised, at this point. Not at all.

"Deidra," he said in monotone. "I assume you're here to dress me."

Deidra looked down at him, and though he was used to her being quiet from the brief time he'd seen her, he saw a sickly smile grow on her face.

"Something like that," she said. "They said you couldn't do it yourself. I thought it would take more than a few days in a cell to weaken someone like you."

James looked up at her, unimpressed. He took in a deep breath and squarely set his feet on the ground before he pushed himself up to his feet. His thigh was throbbing, but he ignored it. As Deidra walked over, towering over him, he held his cuffed hands out towards her.

"I'd like to see you try to put on a shirt with cuffs on," James said.

Deidra chuckled as she reached into her pocket, pulling out a key ring, flipping to a small key. It looked like she had keys in and out of the place - likely keys to almost every cuff, and every door.

"Don't try anything," she warned as she firmly grabbed his wrist, twisting the key into the lock, loosing the cuffs.

"Wouldn't dream of it," James said lowly.

He stood still as Deidra picked up the clean shirt off the ground and started to undress him. With his hands free, he was perfectly capable of dressing himself, but as if to prove a point, Deidra seemed to forcibly insist she did it. At this point, James was bothered, but beyond the point of reacting to it. He just let it happen, reluctantly. Deidra didn't say anything, and instead just gestured for when he was supposed to lift his arms, or feet.

She left with his dirty clothes in hand, and she took all of the scattered trays and bowls as well, clearing the room so that it was just him left. Clothed, and chained to the pole.

Feeling the weariness of his wounded leg from holding him up, he sat back down, this time, leaning back against the pole and staring through the window into Evaline's cell.

She was spiraling, and he knew it. Now, she was lying down, unmoving on the floor of her cage.

James stayed still, only occasionally shifting so that his limbs didn't fall asleep. About an hour or two passed until he heard movement behind the door.
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Finally, the door opened, and James saw Oliver enter first, and then behind him, a man who had to be Oliver's father. He bore resemblance to him, with the same look to his face, but he looked aged into his 50's. He had the same kind of long ponytail, as if they were meant to be matching. Like Oliver was shaped to be his duplicate in more ways than one.

"Hi, James," Oliver said as he stepped aside for his father to step through. "Long time, no see."

"What a casual greeting for a prisoner," James said, not moving from his spot, leaning against the pole.

"Sorry," Oliver said with a little laugh, as if their dynamic had never changed since the Day of Peace. "Thought you wouldn't want the formalities."

His father had stepped to the side, first watching Evaline through the glass, then slowly diverted his attention to James, like he was trying to take in all the detail before saying anything. His face was unreadable.

"Bold assumption," James said. "Do you treat all of your prisoners like old friends?"

"This is my father, Ovrell," Oliver said instead, ignoring his question as he gestured towards him. "He's been wanting to meet you for a while. I'm glad we could all finally meet in one room."

"Wow," James said with no enthusiasm whatsoever. "I'm honored. It's like we're at a big 'ol family reunion."

"State your power," Ovrell said neutrally with a deep voice.

"Oh, I thought we weren't doing formalities?" James said with a raised brow. "Besides, didn't Oliver already tell you everything. You don't need to hear it from me."

"Would you like me to go into the other room, dad?" Oliver asked. Ovrell kept his steely gaze on James and only nodded once.

"Time power," James said before Oliver could take a step.

"Elaborate," Ovrell said.

"I dream of undone memories from other time travelers," James said flatly.

"All time travelers?" he continued.

"Yes," James said. "All time travelers."

"Do you have control?"

James paused, staring at Ovrell.

"Minimally," he said.

"Is that all you can do?" Ovrell asked, his expression or tone not having changed the entire conversation.

"That I know of," James said, keeping his own face neutral as the interrogation went on.

Going forward in time was a loophole. He didn't actually have concrete evidence that it actually happened, and even Evaline still seemed confused and skeptical. It had only happened once, and James still wasn't fully convinced that he couldn't have just blocked out the memories for that short amount of time as a coping mechanism.

Ovrell kept his stare, and there was a long silence before Oliver interrupted it. "Do you dream of the future, James?" he asked. "Of possible futures?"

"It's unclear," James said. "I dream a lot of things. Not all of them are memories, and not all of them are real. So the answer is a hard maybe."

There was another long pause as Oliver looked over at his father for approval, but Ovrell seemed to be studying and calculating James.

"We will return," he said simply, and then without another word, exited the room. Oliver lingered in the room for a few extra seconds before deciding to also silently exit, following in his father's footsteps.

James watched blankly as they left the room, and sighed once they were gone.

They hadn't asked him anything that Oliver probably didn't already know. And there was no way James was going to bring up the jumping forward thing - especially since it was only conjecture.

He found his eyes landing on Evaline again, and he wondered, if she were to know he was alive, if she would tell him not to tell them anything. If she would tell him not to say a word. She probably would... she wouldn't want him to risk his safety for her own temporary relief.

Because that was the thing. He knew he didn't really have any control over the situation. There was only the illusion of it. What he had were consequences for his actions, and the consequences would fall on her, not him.

He had the uncomfortable feeling that they weren't interested in torturing him and that they had something else in mind.

He closed his eyes, and the minutes passed by. He imagined the faint ticking of the clock that he had on Terra, in the little cottage. The rows of crops. The open fields. Isabel, walking up to the fence, none the wiser.

He wondered if she too was facing consequences for his actions. Was she dead too, like Arima?

It was unclear how much time had passed when the door opened again, and Oliver returned, with Deidra following in behind him.

"Hello again," Oliver said with the same level of casualness as they both stepped in the room. He remained by the door, while Deidra took the initiative to stand by James's side. "I thought it'd be easier to chat without my father around. I know he can be a domineering presence."

"I'm familiar with the strategy," James said, sounding bored. "One person is there to intimidate, and the other is there to be the healing balm. I'm not surprised you take up the role of the latter."

Oliver raised a brow, then laughed lightly. "I'm just here to chat," he said. "But I admit that is an interesting analysis."

James glanced up at Deidra, who towered over him as he sat on the ground.

"So she's here to what, keep me from crawling over to you?" he asked. "Or is this the new intimidation?"

"Deidra is incredibly judicious and loyal," Oliver said with a faint smile and nod towards her. "Think of her like... a blanket of security. Or as a mere companion standing beside you if you obey simply."

"And if I don't...?" James asked, raising his brows.

"Well, let's just hope that doesn't happen," Oliver said with a lingering small smile as his gaze fixed on James.

James didn't respond, and when the silence started to drag, Oliver took the chance to continue the conversation.

"So, how have you been since we've met, James?" he asked. "Did the sleeping pills put you at ease? I never did get to come by and find out."

"Yeah," James said. "A real downer that was."

"You and Evaline were on quite the rush to leave the safety of Terra," he mused.

"Safety is an illusion," James said. "When you're being monitored all of the time, how safe can you really be?"

"Did you ever ask Evaline that?" Oliver asked. "I assume you've dreamed about the times she's traveled back in time."

"I've had lots of different dreams, Oliver," James said.

"I'm sure you have."

James stared at Oliver, waiting for him to elaborate, or say something else. James didn't have more to say, and he wasn't eager to speed up the process.

"So, you did dream about her?" Oliver asked. "Starting with the two from the farm she undid that I told you about?"

"Mmhmm," James said.

"I'm proud of you," Oliver said with a smile. "I knew you could do it."

"Doesn't it get tiring?" James said. "Being fake all of the time? Or are you just so used to it that it's all you know?"

"I could ask you the same thing," Oliver answered with the fake smile still on his face.

"Takes one to know one," James said simply in return.

"I do feel for you, James," he continued. "It must not be easy to be thrown into an unfamiliar environment and forced to adapt so quickly. You have been doing an impressive job with the people you've seen and places you've been, though. How does it feel? Do you feel as though you have found a new home?"

James scoffed, and laughed mirthlessly.

"Is this my new home now?" he asked, looking up and around the cell. "Hell of a place. Literally."

Oliver laughed, but it sounded hollow. "No," he said with a shake of his head. "Not here. Your new home will be in the sectors. I think you'll like it. Sector 1 was the first one built, and it holds a rich history and expansive infrastructure. I'm sure you can get a small patch of land if you'd like to continue farming, though."

James huffed a laugh through his nose. Of course, Oliver would want to bring him to Sector one where he could use him and control him. Of course.

"Wouldn't that be cute," he said. "Me, with my little farm, in the middle of all of your expansive infrastructure. Maybe you could come over some time and throw on a pair of overalls and we could work the fields together, like a pair of old friends. Wouldn't that be nice?"

"Have you been able to stop Evaline from going back in time, perchance?" Oliver said instead, ignoring him.

James scoffed.

"Wasn't it you who said Evaline couldn't be controlled? Yeah, right," James said.

"Oh, she's controllable in that way," Oliver said with another little laugh. "That statement was referring to her outbursts and tantrums. I'm sure you're well familiar with that, though."

"Thanks for the clarification," James said plainly.

"So you haven't been able to stop her from going back in time," Oliver reiterated. "Is that right?"

James stared at Oliver squarely, blinking slowly.

"Why don't you try it sometime," Oliver continued when he took too long to respond. "If you sharply focus on her, you may feel the sensation of dreaming of an undone memory. You'll be able to see her attempt to divert the timeline, but all you have to do is focus on the current one, and that is enough to prevent her from going back. It's that simple. Try it out, sometime."

It felt like Oliver was simply explaining his own powers and trying to translate them to James's.

"Unlike you, I'm not interested in maximizing my powers," James said neutrally.

"I'm only trying to help you out," Oliver said innocently. "I'm trying to save your life. My father needs to see your worth, but I'm unsure that just dreaming of memories is enough."

James was aware that all of this was meant to prove his worth, but he could also feel the fragility of his situation. If he kept pushing it, he could actually end up dead like Evaline thought he was, and then there would be no hope for either of them.

He took a few seconds to gather his thoughts.

He knew what he was about to subject himself to. He'd seen what Ovrell did to Oliver. What Alina did to Evaline. What Oliver did to Evaline.

"If I understood my capabilities," James said slowly. "Maybe I could give you a clearer answer. But as it stands, I'm still discovering my limits and what I can do, and how everything works. I haven't always had active powers. I feel like you're smart enough to notice that this is all unexplored territory for me."

"I've always known that you had great potential, and all you needed was a push into the right direction, as well as some guidance," Oliver said with a pleased smile. "It takes many, many years of training to perfect powers related to time. Perhaps you will eventually find out that you can travel in time as well."

James was careful to keep his face neutral.

"I'm not sure I look forward to that day," James said gravely.

"Oh, but you should. Being able to choose your own second chances is a blessing. You are allowed to make mistakes, because you can simply go back and start again. Do you look forward to having that capability?"

"I've always preferred to move forward in life and face the consequences of my actions head-on," James said, knowingly veiling the truth in a metaphor.

"I'm sure that will change in time," Oliver said, and the conversation came to an end since the door creaked open again.

Ovrell returned, and Oliver stepped off to the side, letting him take the spotlight again. After Ovrell came to another person that James didn't think he'd see in person. Alina, Evaline's mom. She bounded in the room with a young girl clinging to her robe. She didn't look to be any older than four or five, and she was quiet as she stayed in the shadow of Alina. She resembled Alina, having the same gray-blue eyes.

Alina stood by Ovrell, but like Ovrell when he first walked in, she was preoccupied with watching Evaline through the glass. Her face was steely, unreadable. But it was not an expression a mother should be wearing when seeing her daughter.

"James, this is Alina," Oliver said as another introduction, conveniently leaving out the part about her relationship with Evaline. "Ovrell is the leader of Sector 1. Alina is the leader of Sector 2. They decided to go out of their way to see you. Consider yourself lucky and honored."

"I have," James said plainly, letting his response be as simple and concise as possible.

"What is your relationship with Evaline?" Alina asked cooly as she fixed her gaze on him, getting right to business.

At least they didn't mince words like Tula.

"Before she thought I was dead," James said. "Romantic partners."

It was already public knowledge. Katya and Tula would've told Oliver, at least. There was no point in lying about that much.

It seemed that Alina was not aware of this, or at least, doubted it since she had bothered asking. She silently shook her head and looked back at Evaline through the window, not further commenting.

"Tell us about Nye magic," Ovrell said, changing the subject.

James blinked.

"You..." he said slowly. "Want to know about... Nye?"

"Go on," Ovrell said, already sounding impatient. "Tell us what you know."

James blinked again, not sure how to identify what he was feeling.

They knew he couldn't get back to Nye, right? The note was incomplete, and as far as he knew, and it wasn't like he could bring someone back with him. Information about Nye was practically useless. To them, it would just be like telling them about a fictional world. And they didn't have actual world-hopping powers or technology.

Right?

"It's..." he started, still trying to wrap his mind around why they'd want this information. "Comparable to some of the powers people have here," he started to say. "Most magic is elementally based, so it's not as diverse as some of the powers I've seen here, but it's also less limited in scope. We don't have niche powers like befriending animals or sharing sight. The most common types are air, water, fire, and earth. Healing magic is similar to what some of your healers have, as an exchange of energy and life. There are some types that are very rare, like lightning, or time, but the latter is different from the kind of time power you see expressed in this world. The only way I've seen it expressed with my own eyes is that time can be undone in a very limited space, without affecting the overall timeline. But my own understanding of that is very minimal."

While James talked, it seemed that Oliver was assigned the duty to take notes, because he started to quickly jot down the things James was saying in a pocket-sized notepad. Ovrell and Alina watched him intently, while Deidra faithfully and silently stayed by his side.

"Does everyone possess magic in Nye?" Ovrell asked.

"No," James answered. "Mages, as we call them, are a minority."

"Where did the magic come from?" he asked instead.

James had a feeling Ovrell wasn't going to like his answer.

"Legend says... that the magic comes from the planet itself," James said. "Since magic was what created it. It's... a 'magic is in everything' type of thing. It just doesn't always express itself in the form of what you all know as a 'power.'"

"The magic is in the planet," Alina repeated. "Does that mean it is stored in the air, the atmosphere, the core, and so on? How can it be obtained, if at all?"

"Magic can't be obtained," James said, feeling strange that he was having this conversation at all. He never expected to be explaining Nye's lore (as Evaline put it) to her mother. "It's just... like a life force. Hypothetically, if you were to strip the world of its magic, it would cease to be a world anymore. At least, that's my understanding. It's not like an energy you can harness. It's just in you. There are ways to use magical things to make magical medicines, or items, but it's a lost art among the humans of Nye."

"What stops the magic users from being the majority, then?" Alina asked.

James was silent for just a moment as he looked out into the room, past the faces of the time travelers and the sole guard watching him.

"Lumshade," he said. "It's a drug used to negate powers and immobilize people. It's been developed over time so that it can be weaponized. Be it lacing weapons with it, or even making bullets out of it, it's proven effective over time."

He almost wanted to laugh. There was no way for them to confirm or deny any of the information he was spoon-feeding them. He could start making things up and they would never know. He could lie. Why was he telling them the truth? Did it even matter?

"Your powers," Ovrell said as he flicked his eyes up and down his body. "How do they translate in Nye?"

James stared at Ovrell.

"Frankly, they don't," James said.

"Elaborate," Ovrell simply said.

"I've only experienced these powers around people from earth," he said.

"You have no magic in Nye, then."

That wasn't exactly true. But it was for all intents and purposes, the most straightforward answer, and technically true.

"Yes," he answered.

"How do you travel between Nye and Earth?" Alina asked.

"That's a question that I also wish I knew the answer to," James said. "I woke up here one day with no idea how I got here. But I didn't come here by my own will or volition."

"Surely you must have an idea," Alina said. "Of all people and places, why here, why you, and why Evaline?"

Another great question.

Why Nye? Why him? They never figured out the answers to the first experience where Evaline found herself on Nye. He didn't have answers for why.

"All of the answers I have are storybook-level conjecture," James said. "Like fate. Chance. Or magic. Trust me, if I knew how this worked, I'd be thrilled to snap my fingers and go home now."

With his horse. And Evaline. And Sleepy, who was probably dead too.

Alina didn't seem pleased with his answer, but she didn't press it. Instead, Ovrell spoke up again.

"Let's move on to your background," he said. "Why were you wanted by the government?"

At this point, James felt like he'd answered this question too many times. He wasn't going to give them the twenty-minute version, and they wouldn't want to hear it anyways.

"I sabotaged the king's plan to create an army of child mages before it could come to fruition," he said.

"Elaborate," Ovrell said again.

"The king had found ancient records about magical experiments performed on children to enhance their magical capabilities and powers," James explained. "He was planning on recreating the experiments. I stole and destroyed the records and the supplies required to do so. I stopped it before it could start. That's what happened."

"What did the records state?" Ovrell asked.

"That all but one subject survived," James said. "And that sole subject seemed to have fallen off the face of the planet, because the records stopped there."

"Did the record state how the subject's 'magical capabilities were enhanced?"

James internally groaned.

They were going to make him explain dragons, weren't they.

"The goal of the experiments was to give the children the magical capabilities of a dragon," he said, watching them, knowing he was unlikely to get a reaction, but still.

He was expecting eyerolls. The only real reaction he received was a head scratch by Oliver as he looked up from his notepad, seemingly hesitating that he had to write down 'dragon' in his notes.

Alina and Ovrell did glance at each other, but otherwise didn't alter their unreadable, stony expressions.

"I ask you to understand the severity of your situation, James," Ovrell said. "Do not bluff. Do not joke. This is your only warning."

They didn't believe him. They thought he was lying. Making stuff up to get a reaction. James wanted to laugh, but he didn't.

"I threw away my career, my livelihood, and my security for this," James said. "I'm not joking. Dragons are real on Nye. As are many other races of people, and different creatures that I've learned you all only know from fairytales. But for me, it's real."

"I'll entertain this fairy tale," Alina said as she crossed her arms. James could see the little girl peek out from behind her, but she hid behind her again when he briefly noticed her. "Tell us about your career and livelihood before you threw it away for these 'dragons.'"

James wanted to correct her phrasing, but he didn't. He wasn't going to bother.

"I served as a soldier in my kingdom," James said. "I worked as a palace guard, and I was in the king's favor. I had promising prospects."

"Why did you do it?" she asked sternly. "Why did you throw your future away?"

"Because I believed and still believe that what the king wanted to do was wrong," James said with full conviction and no regret.

"Which was to cultivate children with powerful magic to use as an army. Correct?"

"Yes," James answered.

Cultivate wasn't the word he'd use though. Not when 99% of the children in the former experiment died.

"State examples of what the children would be able to do if the king had proceeded with the plan," she said.

"If the plan was successful, which I believed to be unlikely due to the records of the previous experiments, the king would've had an army of children who could essentially shape the world around them to their will," James said.

"Please," Alina said with a small twirl of her hand. "Entertain us. Tell us what that means, exactly."

"Dragons in Nye are revered as gods," James said. "Ancient myth says that they were the ones who shaped the world into what it is now. They made the oceans, the continents, and the boundaries of the skies. The plants, the rivers. They were the first beings birthed by the magic of Nye and they will likely be the last. For every element, there is a dragon who reigns over it. The great divide between mages and dragons is that mages can only manipulate that which is already in front of them, but dragons have the divine power to create. With one breath, they could conceivably resurrect a mountain where there is a plain, or fill a gorge in the earth where there is a canyon. Their power is unmatched by any other on Nye. The only thing dragons are incapable of is creating living creatures like them, or ourselves. If the king somehow managed to impart that power to children who pledged their allegiance to him, the scales would tip uncontrollably in his favor."

And that didn't even scrape the surface of the current culture among humans where magic was outlawed.

"Tell me, James," Alina said. "How would these children obtain the dragon's power?"

"Through the injection of dragon's blood," James said.

"Do you know where the dragons are in Nye?"

James swallowed, fearing he was proving his lack of usefulness.

"No," he said.

"Do you know where one could obtain dragon's blood in Nye?" Alina pressed.

"It would have to be obtained from a dragon themselves," James said. "But no one has seen the dragons in decades."

Alina exchanged a glance with Ovrell, and Ovrell spoke next, changing the subject.

"Did you know of the existence of other worlds before Evaline?" he asked.

James shook his head.

"I did not," he said.

"Do you think it is possible that others in Nye would know of the existence of other worlds?"

James hesitated, looking off to the side.

"I... cannot speak for the entirety of the planet's population," he said slowly. "I don't believe that any of the human civilizations I'm familiar with have a worldview that includes other worlds. But if anyone were to know, it would be the dragons."

"You say that dragons have the ability to shape worlds," Ovrell said without missing a beat. "Would you say, then, that perhaps it is the dragons that created the other worlds?"

James felt like he was being asked questions far above his paygrade. And he wasn't getting paid.

"I suppose, hypothetically, that could be possible," James said. "But I can't answer that question with certainty, because I just don't know."

"Would you say, then, that it is perhaps dragons that created Earth?" Ovrell asked anyways.

James wasn't sure what they were getting at.

"...Maybe?" he said. "I don't know your world's history in regards to... dragons, and its conception."

Ovrell and Alina stared at James for a moment, like they were studying and calculating their next move. Oliver simply smirked in the silence.

"Magic exists on Earth," Ovrell explained, being the first to break the silence. "Tribalists like the Gaea clan have powers that are out of control - and that is the magic you know of. Everyone on Earth has limited magic now, but the real origins of our powers is not yet clear. That is, until you came along."

James stared at them, trying to piece things together.

"You have the potential to fill in the missing pieces of our knowledge and bridge the gap between the two worlds," Ovrell continued with the hint of a sinister smile. "We know that magic exists outside our universe. But we have not been able to seek answers until you woke up and disrupted the timelines."

"The... timelines," James said slowly, still trying to let it sink in.

Did they know of other worlds? Did they know about magic? How many people knew? Was it just Ovrell and Alina?

"Who else knows of your origins?" Alina asked curtly, ignoring his confusion.

James swallowed. Oliver would've already known that Mel knew, but now James felt guilty for ever uttering a word to her.

Would they kill her too?

"Arima knew," James said. "And so does Evaline. And... Melakae."

"Explain in detail their relationship to you and what you have told them," Alina said sternly and seriously.

"I hardly knew Arima," James said, realizing he was finally going to have to talk about Evaline coming to Nye first. It was unavoidable.

"Explain how she knew, then," Alina said simply.

James took in a deep breath.

"Before I came to earth - by whatever mysterious means unknown to me - Evaline found herself in a similar situation on Nye," he said. "Five years ago, she woke up on Nye with no idea how she'd gotten there. That was how we first met. She was only on Nye for four months before she magically disappeared and woke up on Earth, as if no time had passed here. From my understanding, she'd gone to Arima with hopes to dull the memories of her time on Nye. And due to the nature of Arima's powers, she saw all of the memories. So... she saw me and knew who I was before she even met me."

Alina and Ovrell didn't outwardly react. It was difficult to tell whether it was because they were experts at maintaining their steely composure, or if the information James said didn't come as a surprise, because they already knew. He didn't know what Oliver had told them, and because they asked this question and Arima was likely dead, it seemed that they must have already known, somehow.

"And Melakae," Alina continued.

"She suspected something was off about me from the start," James said. "And Evaline had told her a little about me -- except she hadn't mentioned that I was from another world, for what I assume to be obvious reasons. I ended up telling her just enough to dissuade her suspicions, but I kept it very brief. She doesn't know any details of the world of Nye. The only things I really told her were about my wanted status, how I'd become a wanted man in Nye, and a brief overview of how Evaline and I met by chance."

"Melakae knows of Nye, magic, and the magic child soldier experiments," Oliver said to Ovrell and Alina, as if they needed a reminder. The both of them simply kept their stare on James, like they were waiting for him to confirm that.

"...Yes," he said slowly. "Though not as in-depth as you all."

"That is all," Alina said, turning her heels and walking back towards the door. "Ovrell, let's discuss."

Ovrell nodded, lingering his piercing gaze on James for just a moment before wordlessly following Alina and the young girl out the door. The girl did curiously look at James before she left but continued to silently stay by Alina's shadow. When the three of them left, the only ones left in the room with James was Oliver and Deidra.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.






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soundofmind says...



Oliver closed the notepad and pushed it back in his front shirt pocket, smiling. "Good job," he said. "You answered their questions truthfully, and well."

"Thanks," James said blankly.

"I'm sure you have questions of your own. Do you care to indulge me with them?"

"I don't think I have much of a choice," James said. He was watching Oliver now, and by this point, James's face was set in a similarly stony neutral expression, just like everyone else in the room.

"Do you believe in free will, James?" Oliver asked instead, leaning his arm against a railing on the wall.

"Yes," James said. "I also know when my life is hanging in the balance based on my cooperation."

"I'm sorry to say that free will doesn't exist," Oliver with a sad sigh. "Just like how Evaline found herself in Nye five years ago, and how you found yourself on Earth similarly, no choice was given on the matter. Sometimes, fate deals your future."

"How profound," James said with no indication of either sarcasm or interest in what Oliver had to say about the matter.

"Fate has put you with Evaline so that you can be here, in this moment, with us, now," Oliver continued with a small twirl of his hand. "Is this realization profound to you as well?"

"Enlightening," James said, waiting for Oliver to just get to the point.

"The pieces of the puzzle that is you have fallen into place perfectly," Oliver said with a smile. "From Elise finding you, to Evaline taking you to Terra, to your spiral that led to her pity, to the mission you were going on... It only took a few nudges of initiative to make sure the ideal timeline is followed. That included contacting Howard and Vance to heavily advertise the Tournament of Arms, and Tula to secretly deliver the photographs and information of you to Mathias from the Gaea tribe. Since then, the timelines have converged to this very moment. I do apologize that we are in a dingy and uncomfortable location, but it was the closest available cell between the sectors and the neanders. Of course, I had to tip off Okta from the Thal clan that Evaline was passing through, and I also sent Arima in this direction to best optimize the timeline. Unfortunately the Rattus were a smidge unpredictable, but Tula and Katya took care of them very well. I'd say fate has a fine way of setting events into place. Wouldn't you agree?"

James didn't really agree, but for the sake of the conversation, he would.

"It really does," he said with false agreement.

"I am glad you agree," Oliver said with another fake smile. "Although, I must say, I'm unable to read more into your future past this day. You are an enigma, James. A walking enigma."

James really, really tried to fight the laugh that worked it's way up his throat, but he only managed to suppress it to the level of a faint snort as he turned his head away, looking down.

The laugh was wrong, and James knew he should've felt more fear or something as Oliver practically implied that the reason the timelines all ended here was because Evaline didn't live past today. It was just how he seemed to react to extreme life or death situations: with a scary sense of calm that didn't lift until it was all over.

And by all over, it really had to all be over.

And it didn't help that he was by himself. Though, were he with Evaline, he'd probably have an even greater sense of focused calmness.

"Thanks," he said, composing himself and looking back up at Oliver again with his blank expression.

"You have a future here," Oliver said. "With us. That's your fate. That's why you were brought to Earth. Isn't it nice to finally get some answers?"

"It's like a weight's been lifted off my shoulders," James said with feigned sincerity.

"If you are to work with us, then perhaps we could use this moment as friends getting to know one another," Oliver continued, even though they were anything but friends. "To start off: how did you get all the scars on your body?"

James stared at Oliver for a moment, as if to ask him if he was serious.

"Bounty hunters," James said flatly. "Mostly."

"You'll have to elaborate more than that," Oliver said as he glanced at Deidra like a wordless threat.

"I don't know if you've noticed," James said stiffly. "But I have a lot. Some are from torture, some are from fights, some are from beasts I encountered in Nye's own wilderness. If I had to tell the story behind every single one, we'd be here for a while."

"It seems that your crime must have been heinous if it warranted torture," he mused.

"I was wanted alive," James said. "And some sick-minded bounty hunters get bored."

"Lucky for you, there are no bounty hunters who are here to torture you and turn you in. Isn't it a great that you can be free from that?"

James blinked slowly.

"Sure," he said.

"You've mentioned that you were in favor with the king," Oliver continued. "But it seemed that you had greatly fallen out of his favor after commiting your act of treason. Tell me about how you got in the king's favor."

James sighed.

"I was... at the top of my class," James said. "When I graduated. And I think that's the main reason he took any interest in me. I never sought him out. He came to me, and took me under his wing."

Like a father figure. James didn't feel the need to say it. Oliver was smart enough to figure it out.

"And the demise afterwards? How was that?" Oliver asked.

"I never spoke to the king after I stole the information and destroyed anything he could use for the experiments," James said. "I knew I had to leave, so I hurried to do so. Another soldier alerted him of my actions and was sent to stop me, but I escaped. My betrayal of the king was personal to him, so I can only assume that it was painful on his end."

"Do you think that plays into the reason of why the bounty for your capture is so high?"

"Yes," James said simply.

"You mentioned that the king took interest of you because you were top of your class," Oliver said, moving on to the next subject. "Did you go to a special school?"

"The kingdom had a military school," James said. "I don't know if it could be considered 'special' apart from the fact that it focused on funneling children into the military."

"Is that why you stopped the experiment?" Oliver asked. "Because you understood what it was like to be a child military soldier?"

James paused, looking to the side with a sigh. Oliver seemed to enjoy summarizing his entire life into nice little un-nuanced factoids.

"That," he said. "And experimenting on children is morally condemnable."

"You have always striked me as a man with virtue," Oliver mused. "Did the military teach you that?"

"No," James said. "My father did. He's dead now."

"How did he pass?"

"Goblin raid," James said, not bothering to look at Oliver anymore. This was tiring. "Torn to pieces. You know. Typical childhood trauma."

"I can see how that would lead to virtue," Oliver said with false empathy, although it was hard to tell if that sentence was supposed to be an off-putting joke. "Explain the raid, and goblins."

"Goblins are just people who look different than humans," he said, already removing himself far from any of the information he was sharing. "They have green skin and long ears. They can see in the dark. Humans and goblins on Nye have been fighting off and on for generations. Usually over land, but it goes deeper than that. Both sides have greatly wronged each other with continual violence over the years. The raid was just a part of the goblins pushing back into the kingdom's territory. They came with maybe a group of thirty men and women, ripping through the land and killing any human in their path."

"I see," Oliver said. "Did you lose anyone else that day?"

"No," James said. "My father stayed back to hold them off. My mother and I escaped."

He intentionally left out his sister.

"It is unfortunate that you can't see your mother again," Oliver said with a small sigh. "Is there anyone else you have left behind in Nye? Family, friends, relationships?"

James stared emptily out into the cell.

"No one who doesn't already consider me either dead or an enemy," he said lowly.

"Then, you can say that - even with you being here - there isn't anyone in Nye who may be missing you?"

"So I can start over with you in Sector one," James said soberly. "I know. I get it."

"I'm only making friendly conversation with you, James," Oliver said with another small smile. "But - let's move on to the next subject. Evaline. As you can see, she's unfortunately inconsolable right now. Would you like me to pass along a message from you to her?"

"Is this going to be a message from the dead?" James asked, still staring blankly at the cell's wall.

"No," Oliver said as he kept his emotionless stare at James. "It will be a message to the dead."

So... that was what Oliver meant. They didn't need Evaline, anymore, did they? Because now they had James. James's eyes drifted to the window that separated their two cells.

"How can I trust that you wouldn't just say something else, saying it's from me?" he asked.

"I suppose you can't, but you don't have to take this opportunity if you don't want to. I don't have to pass anything along."

James thought, just for a moment.

Evaline already thought he was dead. Would it be more cruel to give her hope, only to have her life cut short? Would it be more cruel to leave her in the dark, having never known? Would her knowing he was alive give her anything to live for again? A reason to fight?

"If you plan to tell her anything from my mouth," James said. "Then let this be the message you pass on to her: I am alive, and I love you. Forgive me that our time's up."

Oliver bowed his head, just a little. "I shall deliver it," he said as he raised his head up again and looked at James with a little smirk. "A bit cruel, though. I am surprised you would want that to be the last thought she has."

"Like you said," James said. "I'm an enigma."

Oliver let out a weak "hah" and then the door of the room opened, revealing Ovrell again. He silently closed the door behind him, fixing his unreadable expression back at James as Oliver let him have the floor this time.

"We have come to an agreement," Ovrell said steadily. "You will work closely with Oliver under a special division in Sector 1. Using our current resources and knowledge, you will be tasked to finding how to reach Nye. You are to bridge the gap between both worlds, and will be given every resource to do so. At the same time, you will be specially trained to discover the full extent of your powers, while also tested to determine if its source is of magical origin. You are to also assist us in time travel control. Do you have any questions?"

"No, sir," James said.

"Good," Ovrell said, then nodded at Oliver, who wordlessly left the room. "Deidra, please begin the transportation process."

Deidra turned to James, taking out the ring of keys again.

Transportation, apparently, meant loosing his bonds.

She started to flip through the keys, finding the small one for the cuffs around his wrists, and she gestured for him to get to his feet.

James watched as the door of Evaline's room suddenly opened, and in came Alina and the young girl. The two of them walked towards Evaline's cage, Alina's heels clacking against the pavement. She stood in front of Evaline, but Evaline did not move from her position on the ground, back towards them. Oliver then entered the room, silent as he stood off to the side, giving Alina some space with her daughter.

The silence dragged on, and the girl pulled on Alina's robe, peeking out behind her as she stared at Evaline with wide eyes.

"Mommy, who's that?" she squeaked.

Slowly, James got to his feet, his eyes flicking between Deidra and the window into Evaline's cell. Ovrell seemed to watch as well.

Alina didn't answer right away, and the girl's words were enough to warrant Evaline's attention. She slowly lifted her head and looked back, but then flinched and sat up straighter when she saw who it was.

"Mom...?" Evaline rasped, the knots of her hair sliding off her face, revealing her eyes to be wide in shock. It looked like she hadn't slept for days.

Alina placed her hand on the girl's head. "That, my dear Evalina, is what you never want to be." She paused, staring intently at Evaline. "A failure."

Deidra twisted the key into the keyhole, and one of the cuffs popped open. A flame ignited inside of him as Alina's words traveled through the window. She had another daughter to replace Evaline, and after nine years, only came to see Evaline just to tell her that she was a failure.

Alina turned back to Oliver, already walking away from Evaline who was frozen in shock. "She has no use for me," Alina said with her back turned towards Evaline. "Do what you will with her."

The other cuff clicked open, and Deidra took the cuffs, closing them and strapping them to her belt.

"W... wait," Evaline said shakily, weakly reaching out her hand past the prison bars, towards her mother. Although she hadn't blinked or shown any other emotion besides the frozen fear and shock, tears were uncontrollably flowing down her face. "Wait. Mom... mom."

Alina ignored Evaline, already leaving the room with her daughter, and Oliver took her place in front of the cell instead, kneeling on the ground with a small briefcase in hand as Evaline continued to cry and beg for her mother.

"I'm sorry it had to end this way, Evaline," Oliver said as he unbuckled the briefcase and took out a syringe. "It will be painless, I promise. We both know you're overly sensitive with pain."

"What -- what are--" Evaline said between panicked sobs, starting to shake as she stared at the needle.

"I wish you'd have stuck to our original plan. I've never wanted you to die like this." Oliver sighed, reaching through the cell to grab her arm, and Evaline resisted only a little, but seemed to have lost her will to fight, silently weeping instead.

James's eyes were flicking between Deidra's hands and the window. Deidra was flipping through the key ring again, looking through a few keys that looked near-identical.

"I pity you, you know," he continued as he readied the syringe on her arm. "That was why I asked James what would be his final message to you. That's right. He's alive. Would you like to know?"

Evaline stopped sobbing for a moment, her glossy eyes set on Oliver, like she was unsure what to do with this information.

At the same time, Deidra found the key she had in mind, and she leaned down to James's ankle.

Oliver laughed through his nose. "I can already see you trying to slip back in time. You know that won't work. There's no escaping this, Evaline. But I pity you, so before you die, I will tell you the message: 'I am alive, and I love you. Forgive me that our time's up.'"

James's heart skipped a beat as he heard the heavy cuff around his ankle loosen, and Deidra pried it off. His eyes were fixed on Evaline, and he desperately hoped that she heard what he was trying to say. That she picked up on the message that only they knew. They'd only ever joked about it, but she had to know.

She was "time's down." He was "time's up."

Evaline stared at Oliver in disbelief for a moment, and Oliver steadied the syringe over her skin, but she suddenly pulled away, crawling to the back of the cage while shaking her head over and over.

Oliver sighed, pulling out a necklace under his shirt that was a key on a chain. "Really, Evaline, you can't go back in time with me around. You know that. Don't make this harder than it needs to be."

Oliver unlocked the cage and stepped in while Evaline was cowered in the corner, trying to kick him away, but she was too weak from the atrophy and starvation. Oliver pinned her down as she whimpered.

James felt Deidra put her hand on his back, lightly pushing him towards Ovrell, and the door. His eyes were locked on Evaline and Oliver.

"Goodbye, Evaline," Oliver said as the tip of the needle dug in her skin.

No.

Desperation surged through him like a sweeping wave of anger and panic, and James pushed back against Deidra's hand, forcing himself to stay in place. But as he planted his feet in the ground, there was a sudden, eerie silence and stillness that washed over the room like a flood.

He didn't feel Deidra's push anymore. In fact, it was like everyone in the room had stopped moving. Everyone in Evaline's cell had stopped moving. Oliver sat on top of her, still poised with the syringe in hand, yet to press the deadly venom into her skin.

James felt his breathing quicken as he looked around, waiting for someone to do something, but nothing happened. Nothing at all. Even everyone's breaths seemed to have been put on pause.

Hesitantly, James took a step forward, whipping around to look at Deidra.

It was like she was frozen.

He waved his hand in front of her eyes, and there was no response. Her eyes didn't move. She didn't even flinch.

Realization slowly dawned on him.

Somehow, time had stopped. It had stopped for everyone but... him.

He whipped his eyes back over to Oliver and Evaline, then to Deidra, and to the keyring still in her hand.

Time had stopped. This was his only opportunity.

At that moment, a surge of energy and adrenaline started to kick in, like an old habit, and his heart started racing even faster.

With no more hesitation, he ripped the keys out of Deidra's hand. He dashed for the door, ignoring the throbbing of his wounded thigh. He tore the door open, and entered the empty hall, turning down to the nearest door. The door was left open, and he didn't stop to take in the details as he darted for the cage, pushing through the already open cage door. He shoved the keys in his pocket and grabbed Oliver, ripping him off of Evaline. It was disturbing how Oliver flew to the side like a stiff statue, hanging suspended in the air, yet to feel the impact, but James ignored it.

He wasted no time scooping Evaline up into his arms, and as he picked her up, he noticed that, unlike Oliver, her body responded to his touch, and she was able to move. When he looked down at her, though, it was clear that she was far from responsive. She only looked back up at him, shocked and distant.

He lifted her up, with one arm under her knees and one under her arms. He pulled her close and leaned her into his chest so her head rested on his shoulder.

If his leg wasn't wounded, and he wasn't underfed and stiff from being in shackles for a few days, this would've been a lot easier. But he didn't care. He rode the wave of adrenaline and carried Evaline out the door as fast as he could manage - which ended up being a steady fast-walk with heavy steps.

When he was back out in the hall, he saw that one end was a quick dead-end, so he turned the other way, walking as fast as he could. The same eerie silence hung in the air, like even the air itself was frozen still.

There were a few more doors lining the halls, and James knew he wasn't done yet. He had to find Elliot and Sleepy if they were still alive.

He kicked down one door, and saw it looked something like a living quarters. Tula and Katya were in there, clinking two glasses of sparkling wine together with frozen smiles. Like they were celebrating.

James quickly moved on. Another door led to an empty cell. Another door let to another bedroom situation. And then finally, a room without a door, and inside, was Elliot and Sleepy.

Elliot was chained to a pole, and Sleepy was kept in a small cage.

Chaining a horse seemed overkill, but he wasn't going to critique their over-the-top security measures at the moment.

Gently, he set Evaline down into the room as he took out the keyring and leaned down next to the chicken's cage. He was able to narrow the keys down easily based on the size and shape of the lock, and after trying two, he found the right one, and he opened the cage door. He took Sleepy out, and she was frozen in a sleeping position, but that was fine.

Sleepy would be easy to transport. It was Elliot he was concerned about.

James set the frozen chicken in Evaline's lap.

"Hold her for a moment," he said, quickly turning to Elliot.

Apparently, they'd chained him around his neck with a heavy metal necklace of sorts. The lock on it was hefty, so he narrowed it down to one of the four giant keys on the ring. The second one he tried was the right one, and he lifted the metal noose off of Elliot's head.

They'd left Elliot's bridle on, and it looked like they didn't really know what to do with Elliot, because they left the saddle on, along with all of their belongings.

The only problem was James had to figure out how to move a horse that was frozen in time.

James glanced back at Evaline, who was holding Sleepy gingerly like she was made out of frail glass, staring at her blankly.

James hurried over to her, and he brought his arm under hers, lifting her to her feet and hovering his other hand under Sleepy, in case she dropped her.

"We're going to get on Elliot," he said calmly and gently, but still with a sense of urgency. "I need you to get on first. Come on."

He walked Evaline over to Elliot, and he noticed how Evaline's legs almost dragged behind her. He knew she was weak, so he paused and scooped up her legs again.

"It's okay," James said. "You'll get back your strength. I'll just need you to sit up for me. That's all. I know you can do it."

He found a crate on the floor and started pushing it up to Elliot's side with his bad leg, gritting his teeth as he pushed it. He didn't know what it was full of, but it was heavy.

He stepped up onto it and then lifted Evaline up onto the saddle, carefully pushing one leg over the side of the saddle, and then set her down carefully, leaning her forward onto Elliot's neck for support in case she couldn't hold herself up for the moment. He then scooped Sleepy out of her hands.

"I've got her," he said. "Thank you for holding her."

He then made sure Evaline was balanced on the saddle before he pulled his hands away and quickly opened the flap of one of their saddlebags. He ripped out a blanket, wrapped Sleepy up - all but her head - and then snugly fit her back into the bag, closing it securely. He kept glancing back up at Evaline, watching her. She seemed to be able to sit up on the saddle okay, but she hadn't said anything to him or visibly reacted much to anything.

Elliot still hadn't moved an inch.

"This is just in case," he said as he took the rope off the horn of the saddle and stepped back up onto the crate. He reached over to Evaline and brought the rope around her waist, tying it firmly but gently, and then he tied it to the horn of the saddle with a short leash and a tight knot.

When he hopped back down from the crate, he hurried over to Elliot's head, meeting him at his side. He placed his hand on the lead, and tugged on it.

Elliot didn't budge.

James furrowed his brows as he looked at Elliot. Oliver had said he could focus on Evaline to keep her from going back. But maybe all it took was focus for him to will something to move forward with him instead. He stood there for a minute, deeply focused on Elliot, thinking about Elliot being free to move, and he watched as Elliot slowly started to lift his head - at first, as if in slow-motion, and then it was like Elliot caught up to speed.

Quite literally.

Elliot surged forward with excitement, but James placed his hand on Elliot's nose, and Elliot knew to stop.

"Not yet," he said, and Elliot seemed to understand, with years of history, that this moment was one of urgency.

James looped the lead back up to the saddle and then used the crate again to help himself up into the saddle. He slipped in behind Evaline, bringing his arms under hers as he took the reins.

With a click of his tongue, Elliot hurried forward. Out the hall, and the hall turned into a tunnel, and the tunnel let out the side of a mountain. He didn't have time to check where they were, but he looked around enough in an attempt to get his bearings. He needed to go downhill. And he needed to take advantage of however long this time freeze would last.

Because that was just it. He had no idea what was causing it. He felt focused, and something about all of it felt intentional, but it didn't feel like it was all him.

Was Evaline playing a part in it? Would that explain why he didn't have to intentionally unfreeze her? Was that why he didn't have to will her to move?

The thoughts came and went quickly as he rode Elliot down the mountain. He could tell that Elliot was more tired than usual, and it was likely that they'd neglected him just as much as the rest of them, but James could feel Elliot reserving his strength for this.

James didn't want to push it, but he knew they had to make as much distance as possible.

He rode Elliot at a moderately fast pace as they weaved their way down the mountain, over rocks and through trees. It looked like they'd made it back into a more forested area, and from what he recalled from what Oliver had said, this was an in-between from where the neanders were and the sectors.

The map. He'd memorized the map. He remembered all the times he'd stared at it, and studied the weaving of the rivers and the roads. He looked at the sky, and the placement of the sun. It was midafternoon. As he continued riding, he oriented himself.

North, south, east, west.

They had to get away, but to where? Would it be safe to meet with the others? To finish the mission they meant to go on at first?

He didn't know the answers, but he decided that it would be better to at least head in that direction, and he and Evaline could discuss it later. The first order of business was getting away. The second was getting Evaline and himself back to full health. The third was deciding their next course of action.

But for the time being, he'd keep them on course for the final meetup. He doubted that Tula and Katya would dare to show their face there. Not after this.

Elliot kept moving forward, and James could feel Evaline's strength waning as she leaned back on him for support. He wrapped one arm around her waist to keep her upright and held on tight to the saddle with his legs, steering with one hand holding the reins.

Even outside, it was like everything was frozen. The birds were silent, unmoving. The trees didn't even rustle. The grass and the earth beneath them didn't respond to their movement with much sound or distruption. The air felt thin, and yet thick, like they were a knife cutting through it.

It might've been eight? Ten? Fifteen minutes already? And still, nothing.

Until, suddenly, in a moment, it was like all of the life of the earth rushed back. The comparative dead silence was flooded with the rustling of tree branches in the breeze, the dust kicking up behind Elliot's hooves, and the distant sounds of the forest.

It was like a curtain was pulled away, and the light of life shone back in, abruptly, flooding in fast.

There was a lingering feeling, like a tingling at the tips of his fingertips. It was almost like he'd walked through an invisible barrier. Out of one place, frozen in time, and back into the present.

Had any real time passed at all?

For the first time, he felt like he could recognize some of what he was feeling. He knew he'd been using his power to go forward, but at the same time, it was like something was pulling him back. Like two forces in a tug-of war, and the rope between them snapped, ripping them back to the state they began.

It had to have been Evaline. She was trying to go back, and he was trying to go forward. And somehow, their powers collided, and they... froze. Everything around them froze, except them.

The aftermath of what was happening deep in the mountain played in the back of his mind, but he knew he couldn't worry about it. They weren't there, and he wasn't going to let any of them catch up to them.

They were going to make it out of this alive.
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Carina says...



Alina stepped out of the prison room, taking a deep breath of relief through her nose because she had finally said all she needed to say. It had been such a bother to travel to this filthy, disgusting prison - but she finished what she came here to do.

She was irritated that she was missing a trade meeting and review, and she had no faith that Everett would lead it justly. The man was incompetent and useless. A failure, just like their first daughter. But unlike their first daughter, Everett was charming and persuasive - so much so that it was just enough to prove his worth, which ultimately resulted in their marriage. It made Alina's skin crawl that he would frequently use that against her.

It was too bad that Everett was not here to say goodbye to their first daughter. He would have said sick words that provided false hope, and then go on to blame the pain on Alina. He always did that. Blamed it on the mother. As if his actions had hardly contributed to their daughter's downfall and collapse.

Alina knew that, if she had gone on to marry Ovrell as originally planned, they would have bore an ideal child who was perfect and superb in every way. Instead, she bore a disobedient time-traveling disappointment with her loser husband, while Ovrell and Alicia bore a sub-par shabby son who had a history of being weak and unreliable.

Alina could only hope that, as Evalina grew in a more rigorous and strict environment without the empathic memory-sharing mutation, Oliver would be ready to marry when she came to age. It took decades, but they could finally move on from the mess that her first daughter created, and the sectors could once again have peace and leadership.

She took several strides towards the other prison door, walking just past the door so she could kneel down and face Evalina head-on. Her daughter looked up at her with big, deep blue eyes, and Alina was reminded again that she wished Evalina looked less like Everett and more like their first daughter.

"You will go on to do great things," Alina said as she cupped her daughter's face in her hand. "As long as you always listen to me and always obey, you will be loved. Do you understand?"

Evalina nodded, sniffing. "I love you too, mommy. Can we go home?"

"Yes," Alina said as she brushed down the wispy strands of brown hair flying around her face. "We can go back home."

As if the universe had other intentions, suddenly there was chaos. The door next to her and down the hall slammed open, and she heard a body fall to the ground, as well as Ovrell cursing. Loudly.

"Fuck!" Ovrell yelled, anger bubbling in voice. "Where the fuck are they, Deidra? Oliver! Where the fuck is she?"

Alina craned her neck and glared into the room, seeing Ovrell stomp over to Deidra who looked lost and confused while patting herself down, frantically looking for something. It only took a second for Alina to see that the chains were free of the prisoner. Through the one-way glass mirror, she could see Oliver collapsed on the floor of the side of the open cage, groaning and in pain as he held his head.

James was gone, and so was Evaline. They were both gone.

Venom flowed through Alina's veins as she stood up and walked in the room, her focus settling on the situation. Their prisoners were gone. Somehow, their prisoners were gone. How did this happen? Couldn't Oliver predict this would happen?

"Useless! Fucking useless!" Ovrell raged at Deidra, looking like he wanted to punch her impenetrable body, but then thought better of it and punched the glass wall instead, which shattered into thin shards, but didn't quite break through. He yelled more curses, ignoring the blood on his knuckles as he turned towards Alina, his eyes lit with a burning flame. "Go back," he ordered. "Go back in time and undo this."

That was the thing. Alina already tried, but it was like she was blocked. It was like she had run into a wall, and she couldn't go back. This was abnormal. Surely Ovrell and Oliver could sense this too.

"You feel it too, don't you?" Alina said lowly, fixing her eyes on Ovrell and keeping her calm exterior. "We can't go back. Something has happened to the timelines."

Ovrell seethed through several angry breaths and then slowly turned to look at Oliver through the glass, who was slowly starting starting to stand up in a daze. They were both aware that Oliver had said that all of Evaline's recent undone timelines converged to this very moment, and ended right before he distributed the poison. It was assumed that the timelines ended because she had died.

But it appeared they had escaped, and somehow managed to evade Oliver's eye. As well as Ovrell's, as well as Alina's. There seemed to not be any explanation to this... except, perhaps, magic. They were dealing with someone who contained knowledge on magic, after all.

"Tula! Katya! Get in here right now!" Ovrell yelled at the top of his lungs, angrily balling his fists so much that they started to shake.

Alina walked towards him, setting a hand on his shoulder to calm him down.

"Don't worry, dear," she said calmly. "We will catch them. No matter what, we will catch them."
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soundofmind says...



James felt Elliot's strength waning after about an hour, and his own strength was waning too. Evaline hadn't said a word since they'd started running, and he knew she was likely still in shock, and she needed food and water desperately.

James led them into a shaded area of trees that had full cover, and he carefully leaned Evaline forward onto Elliot's neck, holding her still as he brought his leg over the back of the saddle and slipped off the side as gently as he could. The moment he landed on the ground he shot his arms back up to steady Evaline, and then untied the rope from around her waist.

She seemed tired, weak, and stunned as he gently slid her off the saddle, taking her in his arms again. But his body felt shaky and stiff now that the adrenaline was gone, and all he was left with was his tension.

As slowly as he could, he laid Evaline down on the ground. He then dug through their saddlebags, finding a half-full canteen. Hurriedly, he spun back around and knelt down beside her.

"Water," he said, screwing open the canteen's lid and then wearily slipping his arm behind her head and shoulders to tilt them up.

He put the rim to her lips.

"Drink for me, okay?" he said softly, tilting the canteen slightly.

But Evaline wasn't drinking. The water dribbled down her chin as she stared up at him with tired, empty eyes. Perhaps she was still paralyzed with shock, or perhaps it was something else.

James pulled the canteen away and carefully set it to the side.

"Eve," he said gently, still holding her up. "I know this is a lot to take in, but it's real. You're safe, now. We've escaped. I'm going to take care of you."

He took her hand and held if firmly, even though hers was limp and unresponsive.

"I'm sorry it took so long for me to get to you," James said with his eyes focused on her.

"You don't have to speak," he said. "I just need you to drink water. Do you think you can do that for me?"

Evaline didn't verbally respond. Instead, her unfocused gaze settled on to his hand holding hers, and just for a brief moment, James could feel a faint amount of pressure of her hand pressing against his palm.

"That's right," James said, squeezing back gently. "I'm here. We need to stay on the move, but in order to do that, you need your strength."

Despite his words and attention, Evaline still did not respond or move. James knew he didn't have time to wait for her to break from the shock. As much as he wanted to wait, he was highly aware of the fact that they were being tailed, and they couldn't stop for very long without risking their safety. But Evaline was close to death's door, and she needed food and water. The latter, more urgently.

James carefully lifted Evaline up again with one arm, and he grabbed the canteen again. Putting the rim back to her lips, he started to force the water down. She sputtered at first, but eventually stopped resisting and gave in enough to swallow it down with slow, weak gulps. He sat with her, pausing briefly to let her breathe in between gulps before forcing more down. He did this off and on over the course of a few minutes until the canteen was empty. About halfway through the process, he started to hear confused clucking coming from the saddlebag. Sleepy must've woken up.

"You did good," James said softly, pulling Evaline in towards him in a hug, not expecting her to return it. He gave a small kiss on her head before he laid her limp body back down.

"I'm proud of you," he said. "Just rest here, for now."

James turned back to Elliot, who had already begun to hungrily help himself to the grass on the forest floor. They stayed for another fifteen minutes, and James took care of business. He checked their bags and found that things were left untouched - as if they weren't interested in their belongings. They'd even left his sword on the saddle. James found a packet of freeze-dried food and ate most of it in under a minute, saving the rest for Evaline. Before he went through the effort of feeding her, though, he took out Sleepy and gave her some chicken feed, letting her walk around a little as he poured himself over the maps, comparing them to one another and using the compass as reference. He felt like he knew the general direction to go to at least get to water. They could follow a small stream for a little bit, at least to have a consistent water source, and then they could break off to the final destination.

James and Evaline had discussed their travel plans several times before. Though Evaline was usually the one taking the lead, James was always paying attention to all of the judgement calls she made. They'd talked about how their final meeting place was actually a collection of different locations.

It was a preventative measure, and one that only the inner circle of friends were aware of. That included Elise, Alistair, Mel, and Evaline. And himself, by association. Even Hendrik, Rudy, and Malkiel were kept in the dark, along with Tula, Katya, and Deidra, and that was James's only comfort.

They would be following him, but as long as he stayed ahead of them, they wouldn't know where he was meeting. There was still hope.

As they traveled through the mountains, James had to play caretaker for Evaline, who remained mute throughout their travels. In some moments, when they were sitting in the dark of night, James would get up to get something, and Evaline would silently tug on his sleeve, like she was asking him not to leave. He would stay with her until she fell asleep, and then take care of the things he needed to get done.

Elliot was quick to gain back his strength, and it seemed that while he might've been a little underfed during his stay in the mountain prison, he wasn't left to wither away like Evaline. It was a blessing, because it meant Elliot didn't tire too quickly and they were still able to cover ground.

James had to walk for large portions of the day, though, and he was feeling it wear on him. His leg wasn't infected, and the wound was healing, but it was slow. The pain became a constant presence he grew used to, but he was aware that he was pushing it. He didn't expect it to give him a limp, but he knew it was going to take longer to heal.

Over the next few days, Evaline was slowly working up the strength to eat and drink again. She was still slow and weak, but he managed to get her to walk around a little bit, for short amounts of time. He let her use him as a crutch as he helped her around until she worked up the strength and will again to walk on her own. It seemed like she at least had the strength to sit up on Elliot, though, which made travel easier.

He was concerned, though. Even when she did eat, Evaline wasn't eating much. She was quickly losing weight, and there was only so much he could force down her throat.

Since they were no longer following in the footsteps of Hendrik, they did run into a few more dangers. James warded off some wolfcoons, and killed a giant snake-eating lizard. The worst was a small group of cat-like creatures, comparable to a bobcat, or a mountain lion. They had thick hide, and he had to herd them away from Evaline, Elliot and Sleepy. He managed to kill three of them before sending another flying into a lake, and then the rest ran away. He walked away from it, but he did get wounded again. Nothing fatal, but a pretty nasty set of claw marks on his side and his lower leg.

He was just glad that he was the only one to get hit, and the others were spared the pain. He knew he could endure it.

Finally, two weeks had passed.

James was weary, but he'd finally found the cave they were supposed to meet at. They had to trek up the side of another small mountain, and though it wasn't that steep, the terrain was rocky, and it took time to maneuver around with a horse. The cave's entrance was hidden behind a wall of rocks, and James was wary of walking into another trap - finding that the cave was occupied by either enemies, or other wild animals. So he led the way with his sword drawn, letting Elliot and Evaline (with Sleepy tucked away into the saddlebag again) trail a few feet behind him.

Suddenly, the wall of rocks disappeared into thin air, like it was never there. Behind what used to be the pile of rocks was the entrance to the cave with a dim light held by Mel.

Mel. She was standing at the mouth of the cave, her hand over her mouth and her eyes wide in surprise and relief. Her hair was messier than usual, and her clothes were a bit dirty, like she had stayed there for some time.

Without wasting a beat, Mel dropped the light and dashed forward towards him for a hug, not caring that James had his sword pointed out.

James quickly sheathed his sword before Mel came within range, and he stood a little taller, holding onto his relief until he knew Mel wasn't being used, and it really was just her.

"You're okay. I'm so glad you're okay. I was so worried. I've been waiting days. I knew you'd make it. I knew you would!" she said with her arms around him, pulling him close and not appearing to care if he wanted this hug or not.

James let out a faint pained grunt as Mel squeezed him a little tighter.

"Mel," he said, his voice serious. "Is it just you out here?"

Mel suddenly pulled away, hearing the urgency in his voice as she looked up at him, her eyes equally serious. "Yes. It's just me," she said as her eyes drifted to Evaline on Elliot, who didn't even acknowledge her.

"Tula and Katya turned on us," James said. "We were captured, and narrowly escaped. There are many things I need to catch you up on, but if it's safe here, first, we need to rest."

He met her eyes with a wearied severity.

"Evaline especially," he said quietly.

Mel's relief was suddenly washed away with worry and alarm, and her gaze drifted back towards Evaline, her brows drawn together with serious concern. Knowing Mel, she likely had a million questions swirling in her head, but she seemed to pick up on James's weariness and severity of the situation, and she bit all of them back.

"...Okay," she said. "It's not fully safe here. I can take you to the real destination. But is Evaline -- how is she?"

"Not good," James said. "She's barely eating, and is still very weak. She's regained some strength, but she's unresponsive. Be gentle with her. A lot has happened, and I'll have to let you know in time, but I would prefer we discuss details at a secure location. How far is it from here?"

Mel pointed at the tall nearby mountain that was visible in the skyline. The mountain seemed to tower high in the sky with a snowy summit and lush green lands beneath it.

"It's in an abandoned mine in that mountain," she said. "It's going to be harder travel because the way there is thick with beasts, but between my illusions and your swordfighting, we can ward them off. If we leave now, we'll get to the mine cave by dark. It should be safe there, but it'll take several hours to go through the maze. Would you rather rest for a night or finish this in one long trip? I don't know how much energy you have left, and the way up is steep."

"I haven't seen anyone following us," James said. "But I have every reason to believe that we are being tracked and that they're trying to find us. If you think we can make it to this maze by sundown and you don't think we'll lead them there, we should go. I can make it. Elliot is strong."

James reached back and patted Elliot's shoulder firmly.

"Aren't you, buddy?"

Elliot nodded his head slightly, even though James knew he didn't really understand what he said.

"Evaline should be alright riding," James said. "We'll endure a little longer to make sure we're all safe, and I can still fight."

Mel nodded. "Okay. I believe in you. In us. You're so close to safety. I'll ask Hendrik to mask the animal scents tomorrow and maybe attract beasts instead of repel them, especially since you're the last ones to arrive. When we get there, we'll have Elise check up on you both, and Alistair and I will cook you something, and you can rest. Okay?"

James nodded, and faltered slightly.

"The others... are you sure none of them are siding with Tula and...?"

Mel seemed to hide back a look of pain, likely because she still was trying to process that Tula and Katya had betrayed them, but knew there was no time to ask the specifics of it or to voice her disbelief.

"No, of course not," she said sadly, but then turned away towards the cave to grab her items she left behind. "But if anyone else is also a traitor, they're doing a bad job of it."

James nodded again.

"Okay," he said quietly. He was too tired to push it, and he trusted Mel's intuition. "Then grab your things. Let's go."
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