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Far From Home

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Mon Jun 28, 2021 2:23 pm
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soundofmind says...

The trek through the forest was dangerous, like Mel had warned. The foliage was thick, and reminiscent of the jungles of Nye, minus the magically altered plants and animals. Taking Elliot through it proved to be a little difficult, but they were able to do so silently, as the two of them stayed alert, and never stopped for too long to rest.

They ran into several different beasts. Some were avoidable by keeping their distance, but others took interest in them and Elliot. There was a small herd of wild boars that Mel distracted with the illusory image of a fat rabbit, and it gave them enough time to run away. Then there was a large, screeching falcon that continued to swoop down at them, and James swung at it with his sword, eventually clipping its wings. After that, it left them alone.

As they came to the foot of the next mountain, a giant blind molerat came crawling out of the ground, disturbing the earth in front of them. It looked ready to fight, and Mel couldn't distract it with any illusions, since it couldn't see them. Wordlessly, James rushed forward to get in a swing before it could sense him coming. It dodged a few swings, but James was able to avoid getting hit and finally got a slice in at its nose, which seemed to be the sense it relied on the most. It let out a loud, unpleasant screech, but quickly retreated in a panic.

The sun was just about to set, and James and Mel looked at each other, silently nodding in agreement to keep pushing forward. Now, they were going uphill.

Near the base of the mountain there were a collection of big boulders, along with several abandoned looking tunnels. Some of the boulders partially blocked off the entrances, making them small enough for a human to pass through, but too small for a horse. Unfortunately, the boulders were not illusions, so he and Mel had to push and shove one out of the way just enough so Elliot could fit through.

Elliot seemed a little wary to be going underground, but James was able to calm him enough as they made their way inside. They both pushed the boulder back in place as a precaution, just in case, and then Mel led the way down the tunnel, lighting an oil lamp for light.

At that point, the sun was almost down outside, and any outside light that slipped into the tunnel quickly disappeared, leaving only the dim lamplight to guide them.

Mel seemed to have memorized the way through the tunnels. There were several splits, and she knew which turns to take, winding in and out and further up and into the mountain. It was dark, and musty, and Mel admitted that she didn't like the dark after some time, as if to explain the nervous expression that seemed frozen on her face.

Aside from a few rats skittering across the tunnel floors, the walk through the tunnels was uneventful, but they eventually hit a point where the tunnel grew increasingly steep, and their collective pace slowed down by a lot. James could tell that Elliot was growing tired, and he could feel his own legs getting weary and sore. The bullet wound in his leg started throbbing a few minutes into the climb, and it only got worse as the minutes dragged on.

Maybe an hour passed, but it felt longer.

When the tunnels leveled out again, Mel continued to weave them through the passageways until they reached a heavy metal door. It looked like it was locked, but from the inside.

Mel knocked on the door, and announced that she was there with James and Evaline. There was some faint shuffling on the other side of the door before he heard a creak, and the heavy shifting of metal as the door was unlocked, and it opened inward.

Malkiel answered the door. He only opened the door a tiny bit, peeking out to confirm that it was them. He likely was going to let them in anyways, but Mel seemed impatient as she shoved the door fully open anyways and stepped in.

"There's not time," she barked as she shoved him aside. "Let them in. Can you wake up Elise?"

James walked through, leading Elliot. He felt at this point, that if he stopped walking, he would lose all sense of momentum, and his wounded leg in particular would give out. He glanced back at Evaline, who was tied to the saddle to keep her upright. Her eyes were half-open and vacant, and she was leaning forward onto Elliot's neck. Elliot looked ready to sleep too.

Malkiel furrowed his brows and nodded slowly, staring at James as he walked in, and then at Evaline on Elliot, who was still not reacting to anything.

"...Fine," he said as he closed the door.

"Never mind, I'm getting her. Elise!" Mel said as she bounded down the hallway, leaving Malkiel alone with James, Evaline, and Elliot.

Malkiel cleared his throat. "You're late," he simply said.

"We ran into trouble," James said wearily.

Neither he nor Evaline had eaten much in the last two weeks, and James had hardly slept. He could feel himself withering, like a plant under too much light. He knew he needed to rest soon.

"Yeah, you look like shit," Malkiel commented, then pointed at his leg he was putting all of his weight into. "Your leg okay?"

"I got shot," he said blankly. "It's a long story. I really don't want to get into it right now, but I can tell you later."

"Shot," Malkiel repeated slowly. "With... a gun?"

"Yes," James said with a tired sigh. "With a gun."

Malkiel was quiet for a moment, and for once, he seemed to not be nosy and dropped the subject. Perhaps James showing up hurt without proof of infiltrating the mission was finally enough for Malkiel to begin trusting him and not treat him coldly.

He gestured at Evaline with his head. "Is she okay?"

"No," James said, inching towards the wall, leaning on it with one shoulder. "That's why Mel's getting Elise."

"Did she get shot too?" Malkiel asked, sounding more shocked than anything that they had managed to run into this much trouble.

"No," James said. "Look... I really... can I just tell you later?"

He paused, taking in a deep breath and looking at Malkiel with a tired, pleading sense of desperation. He didn't have the energy for this right now.

"Please?" he asked quietly.

Malkiel paused, not sure what to do with James begging. He glanced between him and Evaline, then looked down the hall, hands in his pockets. "Sure," he said. "I'm on watch. So, I guess I'll just watch."

James nodded, too tired to give a verbal reply.

A half minute passed, and Mel's loud footsteps were heard again as she bounded down the hall with Elise behind her, rubbing her tired eyes. "We're here!" she announced, even though it wasn't needed.

Elise quickly caught up until she was standing in front of James, as well as Mel and Malkiel. "Hi James. Evaline," she said with a tired smile as she looked up at Evaline on Elliot. Her smile quickly waned when it became increasingly evident that neither of them were at ideal conditions. "Tell me the situation," she said with urgency, brows furrowed in worry.

"Evaline hasn't been eating," James said, describing only their physical needs first, knowing he could explain the why behind the what later.

"She's severly malnourished and low on strength," James said. "I have a bullet wound, and several scrapes from different beasts, but all of them I've already cared for. I'm stable. Evaline needs your immediate attention. I just need to sit down."

At the midst of the noise and the conversation, Rudy seemed to groggily wake up and walk down the hall. It was like he knew a doctor was needed, and he was right there, ready to go.

He straightened up and shook his head, like he was shaking off the remaining drowsiness and looked at Evaline and James with quick, alert glances, taking it all in.

"I heard bullet wounds and scrapes. That's you, James, right? Elise, I'll take him," Rudy said in a tone like he was taking charge.

"Rudy, help me bring Evaline down from the horse," Elise said instead, ignoring his comment as she made her way to Elliot's side.

"Oh, of course," Rudy said with a nod as he walked up beside Elliot. "You tied her down. I assume she needed it so she wouldn't fall off. Is she that weak?"

His question seemed like it was directed at James, but it was unclear.

"Yes," James said, keeping it brief. He watched as Rudy reached up and undid the knots, and then he and Elise carefully caught Evaline as she practically slid off the side of the saddle. Mel hurried over quickly too, catching Evaline's legs.

Together, they set her on the ground, and Elise leaned over her with heavy concern in her eyes, brushing the hair out of her face as Evaline looked up at her with vacant eyes. Still, Evaline seemed to have enough awareness to know what was going on, because she slightly turned her head the other direction and curled up on the floor, just a little.

James stepped forward, pushing past Rudy to kneel beside Evaline. He could feel his legs trembling as he did so.

"Evaline?" Elise said gently. "Can you speak for me?"

Evaline didn't respond.

"She hasn't spoken for two weeks," James said quietly as he reached out and took Evaline's hand, holding it firmly, looking down at her.

"You say she hasn't been eating," Elise said slowly, piecing things together. "Is there anything else we should immediately know? Is she hurt?"

James felt the weight on his chest. He knew he needed to tell them.

"Not physically," James said lowly. "She was deprived of food and water for some time. Close to a week. She's been losing weight very quickly. I can't-- I can't explain it all in a moment. She just needs help. She needs water, and she needs to eat."

Elise continued to watch Evaline with deep concern, and then she sharply turned towards Rudy. "Put her in the spare room with the bigger bed, and put her on IV fluids and a catheter. I'll take care of James."

Rudy seemed to understand the gravity of the situation, and it looked like he was past the point of arguing. He nodded sharply.

"Mel, since you're up, come with me. I'll need help carrying her," Rudy said as he reached his arms behind Evaline's shoulders.

"No," Evaline said weakly, looking down at the floor. It was the first time she had spoken since the incident. "No. I want to be alone."

"Evaline, you need help," James said gently.

"Just Rudy," Evaline said even weaker.

James looked over to Elise, then back down at Evaline.

"Do you want me to come with you?" he asked in a whisper.

There was a long hesitation. "No," Evaline whispered back.

James took in a deep breath. He wanted to disagree, but his own exhaustion was catching up to him quickly. He didn't know if he could stand to wait much longer, or if he could stand at all.

"Okay," he said softly.

"Now that you're done talking," Rudy said as he then scooped Evaline up with a heave. "I have a patient to take care of. Mel, I at least need you to get the door. She won't stay, Evaline."

He turned down the hall, with Evaline in his arms.

"Will she be okay?" Mel asked as she briskly followed after.

"Too soon to tell," Rudy said. "But if she's held on this long, she should pull through."

With the both of them taking care of Evaline, Elise now had her full attention on James.

"James," she said firmly and seriously. "I know you don't like to accept help. But for everyone's sake, I beg you to let me look at your leg so I can heal you. If not for yourself, then please do it for Evaline, who needs your full strength."

James slouched forward as he knelt on the floor where Evaline no longer lied. He reached out a hand onto the floor to support himself, and nodded, though he didn't look up at her.

"I know," he said. "Heal me. I just... I need help getting up."

Malkiel wordlessly took initiative, sliding his arm under his and heaving him up. "Where do you want him?" he asked Elise.

James was on his feet, but his legs were trembling uncontrollably.

Elise looked down the hall. Rudy and Evaline had disappeared in a room, and at the end of the dim hall he could make out the blurry figures of Mel, Alistair, and a man he didn't recognize.

"Mel, Alistair, Elias!" Elise called. "Please come here." She then turned towards Malkiel, face still serious. "When they come over, please hand James off to Elias and Alistair. They'll take him to our room."

"You need to keep watch," James said quietly, feeling like he was losing his strength.

Elise nodded. "Yes. When Mel gets here, please tell her to tie up Elliot with the other animals. Wake up Hendrik if you need to."

"Slee--" James started to say. "The chicken. She's in the bag. Just... let her out."

"Okay," Malkiel said with a brisk nod, having to heave James up again with another swoop to keep him upright. "I'll do that."

At that moment, Mel, Alistair, and the other man - Elias - had approached them. Elias kept a small distance away, but the two of them seemed to understand the gravity of the situation without asking for the details.

"Here," Malkiel called to them. "Alistair, take my side. Elias, you take the other."

The men quickly followed his suggestions, with Malkiel slipping away from his grip on James as Alistair took over instead. James felt unsteady in this transfer of strength, but Elias quickly stepped to his other side, his arm wrapping across his back as well as he held him steady.

"Can you stand okay now?" Elias asked softly.

"I don't know if I can walk," James said faintly. He was trying. He really was, but everything hurt, and he was so, so spent.

"I can probably carry his torso if you grab his legs, Ali," Elias said.

Alistair seemed to mull this over. "Are you sure you can carry him?"

"I'm not... that heavy," James said quietly.

"Let's do it," Elias said, and with no warning, wrapped his arms around James's waist and held him up. Alistair scrambled to get to his legs, looping his arms around his knees and lifting him up.

James would've winced at all the jostling, but his face felt like it was too tired to even emote. He only closed his eyes a little.

"Be careful," Elise said with worry as they already started to march in unison towards the room. "His leg is wounded."

James stared up at the hall's ceiling as they carried him past two doors - one on either side, and turned into a door on the right. The room was simply furnished with temporary items, and lit with two different oil lamps on either side. There were three bedrolls already laid out, and they lowered him down onto one. James didn't know whose it was, but he knew it wasn't his. But he supposed it didn't really matter.

"Easy now," Elias said as he and Alistair slowly dropped him on the bedroll. His head loomed over his, and like his sister, they shared the same creased look of worry. "Is this better?"

James felt a wave of exhaustion hit him like a wall. He looked up at Elias with heavy eyelids, pushing himself to speak.

"Yeah," he said faintly. "Thank you."

Elias nodded, watching as Elise seemed to rifle through a bag for supplies. "You said your... leg? Your leg is hurt?"

"Right leg," James said. "And another wound on my side. Below the ribs."

"Do you need help removing your clothes?" he asked, slowly drifting his worried gaze back on him.

James felt like his body was giving up.

He didn't like it, but he knew he needed help.

"Yes," he said quietly.

"Okay. I'm going to peel your shirt off," Elias announced as he reached over to do so.

"Shirts," James said, emphasizing the plural, because he was wearing layers.

"Oh, yeah. Shirts," Elias said idly, rifling through the edges of the layers. "Real cold out there. It's like more layers of skin. Can you lift your arms up, by the way?"

James wordlessly lifted his arms, focusing on keeping them aloft. Elias started at the bottom edge of his shirt and lifted it up, taking it off one-by-one.

"One down, more to go," he muttered under his breath. "Ali, can you take off his pants? Or... pants-s? If he's wearing more than one? Is that okay, mister..." Elias looked down at him again. "I actually don't know your name..."

"It's James," Alistair answered for him, but seemed to wait for James's response before taking anything off.

"You can," James said distantly. "It's fine."

Alistair wordlessly began to do so, and Elias took off another shirt.

"Sorry for not knowing your name," Elias said idly and unfocused. "Now I feel like an idiot for not piecing it together. I heard a lot about you. It's too bad that we met like this, me stripping you down... but you'll get better, and we'll start over. And hopefully, you can walk." He paused to offer a small smile, but then grimaced. "Sorry, bad joke. You'll walk. You'll be okay. Elise is the best healer around."

"It's good to finally meet you too, Elias," James said quietly, forcing himself to stay present as Elias talked. This wasn't how he imagined meeting Elias either, but he was lucky to be meeting him at all. He was lucky to have survived.

He hoped Evaline was going to survive. He could only imagine what was going through her mind, but he knew it was probably a black hole of guilt and despair. Both of which he knew all too well.

"Yeah. You too," Elias said as he continued to peel the shirts off, then continued to exchange conversation to Alistair and Elise, making sure that James was keeping up with some of it.

"Thank you both," Elise said as she kneeled down beside James, who was already exposed and nearly naked, but their attention seemed to be more fixed on the bullet wound. "James, would you like the men to leave the room?" Elise asked soberly before she could begin.

James felt his mind drifting. Flicking back to moments in the City of Angels. The sunrooms. The Gaea. And even further back to dozens of moments on Nye. Too many to count.

His response was delayed. Perhaps too delayed.

"Just... do it," he said wearily, not answering the question.

"I'll go check on the kids," Elias said softly, already getting up to head towards the door. "Alistair?"

Wordlessly, Alistair got up the follow. He glanced back over his shoulder before he slipped out with Elias.

"We'll knock and come by later with food and water," he said, then closed the door behind him.

Elise, meanwhile, was unwrapping the bandage around his thigh. She propped his leg up so that his knee was bent and she would have better access to the backside of his thigh. Elise was careful but quick, her hands rhythmically pacing back and forth around as she unfurled the bandage. She set the used bandages to the side and slowly peeled away the gauze, inspecting the wound.

"I'm going to start with your leg. If left untreated, it may eventually become infected. I'll have to touch the area. This may sting. Are you ready?" she said.

James took in a deep breath.

"Yes," he said.

Elise nodded. He could feel her fingers brush against the tender wound, and the familiar sensation of healing began. It was an accelerated ache at first, but then grew to a sharp, stinging pain as he felt his skin and muscles forcefully reform. The pain lasted for about a minute before it began to subside. James only closed his eyes for a moment, gritting his teeth.

Elise took a deep, shaky breath, pulling away as she reached to a nearby disinfectant and splashed on her hands.

"It's done," she said through another relived sigh. "I can't fully heal it to the scar phase without expending all my energy, but Rudy can take the rest tomorrow after his recharge. How does it feel?"

James nodded ever so slightly.

"Better," he said quietly.

"I'll heal the deep scratches on your chest and leg too. Just enough so that it won't cause as much pain. But we will make sure you're fully healed tomorrow. Okay?"

"Okay," James said, feeling like his voice was only growing more far away. Sleep was starting to pull at his eyes, and he was struggling to fight it. His whole head felt like it was being wrapped in a blanket, like it was smothering.

"I'm going to start now," Elise said, and she brushed his fingers over the open-wounds.

The pain was sharp but short-lived, and after less than a minute, Elise was done with both scratches. The brief pain was enough to keep him awake.

"I'm done," she announced as she disinfected her hands and then took a deep breath, but didn't quite take a break. She peered over him with the usual concern in her eyes. "How are you feeling?" she asked.

"I've barely slept," he said weakly. "I'm so tired."

"Have you been eating well and drinking water?" Elise asked gently.

"We ran out of the food we had stocked up three days ago. I've only been stopping to get enough for Eve. I've been trying. We had to keep moving. We were being tailed," he said, trying to wake himself up more with each passing word.

"I know. You've been doing so well. I'm proud of you for taking care of yourself and Evaline," Elise said with a sad smile. "But you're both safe now, and you need to rest - but only after you eat. I'll bring food in, and I know you're tired, but you have to eat to regain your strength. Can you do this for me? Or if not for me, then for Evaline?"

"You don't have to bribe me," he said, closing his eyes for a moment.

He didn't know why his eyes were starting to sting. It felt like he was too dehydrated to cry.

Elise weakly laughed. "Okay. I'll be right back."

She was about to stand up, but James reached out and grabbed her wrist. He tried to come up with something to say, but his hand had acted faster than his mind was able to. He'd spent so long on so little sleep and it felt like his mind was finally crumbling around him under the weight of exhaustion.

He looked up at Elise with glossy eyes, and his vision of her got blurry.

"I don't want to be alone," he croaked, barely audible.

Elise seemed to understand, and instead of standing up, she reached over him to knock on the stony wall.

"Elias, Alistair," she said loudly. "Please come in."

She then turned her attention back on James, undoing his weak grip on her wrist. Elise sat firmly on her knees in front of him, holding his hand with both of hers as she looked down at him with sincerity shining in her eyes.

"You're not alone, James," she said. "You won't be alone from here on out. You will always at least have one of us on your side."

There was a knock on the door, and it promptly opened, revealing Elias holding a cup with a thick, brown liquid in it.

"I know it's not really food," he said as he let himself in, kneeling beside Elise. "But I have so many of these nutrient smoothie packs. It's not delicious, but... it's healthy, and makes you full. And it should help bring you back to health, I think."

"Thank you, Elias," Elise said with a small smile and nod, taking the cup and handing it to James.

"Oh, uh..." Elias murmured and then pulled something long and thin out of his pocket. "Here's a straw. So he can drink while laying down."

Elise gave him another appreciative nod and placed the straw in the cup, stirring it a few times and then placing it in front of James.

"It would be easier to drink it sitting up," James said, lifting his head and shoulders and propping himself up at his elbows. "I can just lean..."

His eyes drifted across the room, and for a moment he couldn't seem to percieve how far the wall was from where he was lying down. His head was starting to hurt, and he felt a little lightheaded now that he was getting back up.

Elise had hurriedly gotten to her feet, and James didn't realize until too late that she had gotten up to grab the pillows around the room and placed them under his head for extra support.

"Ahh, there you go," Elias said as he watched his sister work. "Now you can lay-sit and drink out of the straw."

James felt his arms tremble for a moment under his weight, and he leaned back into the pillows, feeling heavy. He weakly offered his hands to take the cup, and Elias handed it to him. James lifted the cup up to his chest, resting it there where the straw could just meet his lips. He took a long sip, and paused.

It tasted gritty, and earthy. Like dirt. But compared to the freeze-dried food, it might've been a step up. He couldn't tell anymore.

He sat there for a moment, sipping silently as Elise and Elias sat by him, watching him weakly sip away. He felt like he had to justify how weakened he'd become.

About halfway through the drink, his stomach started to feel like it was filling up, and he paused.

"It's been a long two weeks," he said slowly.

"I hear ya," Elias said, idly watching him drink. He had one knee up with his elbow propped on it as he leaned his head against his hand. "I put extra vitamins in there to compensate for lost days."

Elise glanced at him with a slightly raised brow. "How much extra?" she asked suspiciously, and then slowly pried the cup out of James's hands to wordlessly tell him to stop drinking it.

Elias faltered, scratching the side of his head. "Uh... an extra pack?"

"The nutrition drinks are only rated to be consumed for one a day," Elise said as she set the half-full glass aside, talking gently but sternly. "But James already drank half of it, so he will be fine."

"Oh. Sorry," Elias said with a small apologetic smile.

"I do feel full," James said, looking to Elias. He attempted a smile, but his face still felt too exhausted to respond, and he only ended up narrowing his eyes.

Elias nodded. "It always makes me full too. It feels like a pile of dirt in your stomach, though."

"Aptly described," James said quietly.

Suddenly the door opened again, and a head peeked out from behind the door. It was hard to see who it could be with the dim light and his blurry vision, but James didn't recognize the person.

"Everything is fine, Sami," Elias said towards the door. "Get some rest."

"Who's the naked man?" Sami asked bluntly.

James looked to Elise.

"Can I get a blanket?" he asked, just as blunt.

Elise heeded his request, reaching over to grab a nearby blanket and draping it over his body. Even though this was enough, she walked to the other bedrolls and picked those blankets up to give to James too.

Despite Elias's words, Sami walked in the room anyways. As she came closer, James saw that she was a young teenager, probably no older than fourteen or fifteen. She was lean and had dark brown skin and sleek dark hair down to her shoulders, and she was watching him with big, curious eyes.

"Who's he?" she asked again as she plopped by Elias.

"My name is James," James introduced, slipping his arms out of the four or five blankets Elise had piled on top of him. He wasn't upset about it though. He much preferred this to the alternative.

"I'm Samiya," she said as she instead lowly high-fived his hand.

"Also known as Sami," Elias said with a teasing voice.

"Only you call me Sami," she sneered af him with a scrunched nose.

"Nice to meet you, Samiya," James said with a weak nod of his head towards her.

"Nice to meet you too, naked man," Samiya said with the beginnings of a grin.

"Hey!" Elias scolded as he flicked her shoulder. "Be nice."

"But he randomly showed up naked," she said like that was supposed to explain everything.

"Elise was just healing me," James explained. "That's the only reason why I'm unclothed. I didn't walk in here like this."

"Oh yeah?" Samiya mused. "I wasn't here to see it, so."

"That's right," Elias said as he stroked his chin in thought.

"It's probably for the best," James muttered, not intending to be understood.

"Yeah, that's because he showed up with gross bug blood everywhere!" Elias said with a smile as he then leaned towards Samiya with his arms outstretched, causing her to flinch and giggle. "Very gross. Very smelly. Was green and yellow. Good thing you were asleep."

"Ooooh, I see now. Makes sense," Samiya said with a nod. "That's why you're naked. Because your clothes smell bad and the bugs scratched you or whatever."

James sunk a little deeper into his pillow. He didn't have any problems with Elias's fake story, as it was easier to digest than the truth - which Elias didn't even know. But the weight of the blankets on top of him paired with his now very full stomach was making it hard to stay awake again, on top of the fact that he was already exhausted. He could feel his eyelids slowly closing.

In his head, he thought he replied out loud. But apparently, he didn't.

"Elias, Samiya," he heard Elise say. "Let's all get some rest. We could all use it."

"Shoo, shoo," Elias said as Samiya stumbled to her feet. "I'll take an extra bedroll and sleep in your room tonight. Go back to bed."

"Fine," Samiya grumbled, leaving the room.

There was a brief silence as Elias exchanged glances with Elise.

"Like I said, James can take my bed. I'll sleep with the kids," he said. "But, before I go..."

James wanted to protest, but his eyes were already closed, and he could feel himself fading.

"James, I know you're tired, so you can you can shake or nod your head at me, if you can do that," Elias continued, then paused. "Is Evaline ready to see me? Do you know?"

That woke James up.

He opened his eyes, and he looked up at Elias. Despite his earlier casualness, Elias was meeting his eyes seriously with his lips pressed together tightly. James felt his heart sink as a knot formed in his chest.

"I don't know," he said, almost in a whisper. "I'm afraid that she might not want to see anybody right now. I... I wish I knew. I'm sorry."

"That's okay," Elias said with gentle understanding. "We'll give her space, and so will I. We'll figure it out tomorrow. Get some rest."

James's throat felt tight as he closed his eyes again.

"Okay," he said, too tired to fight it. Too tired to think anymore.

Elias was already shuffling to his feet. "Mel and Ali are in the kitchen, and I'll talk to them and also update the guys. You should rest too, sis. That was a lot to heal."

"Thank you, Elias," Elise said, already sitting on her bed, energy spent. "Rudy should be taking care of Evaline. We're all safe and healthier, and that's all that matters."

"Safe, healthier, and well-rested," Elias added, and James could hear the door open. "Good night. Sleep tight. See you in the morning."

The last few words sounded like they were fading in the distance as James fell into a dead sleep.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Tue Jun 29, 2021 2:06 am
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soundofmind says...

He woke up slowly, like a morning fog lifting off when the sun came out to drive it away. James could feel light coming into the room from somewhere above him, and his head felt heavy as he lazily opened his eyes into little slits.

Gradually, the previous night was coming back to him.

They'd made it to their destination. They were safe, and in hiding in the depths of a mountain, amidst winding tunnels in an abandoned mine. They'd taken Evaline to a separate room to take care of her, and that was the last he'd seen of her before he was healed, given food, and went to sleep. He'd hardly gotten a chance to tell the others what had happened, but he'd told them small things, in pieces. Mel knew the who, and the others knew the what of the fallout... but there was so much more they had to talk about.

He knew it was necessary, but the thought exhausted him already. He tried to mentally prepare himself for the inevitable, taking in a deep breath before he sat up and looked around the room.

No one else was in there but him. The other bedrolls each had a singular blanket on top of them, and he still laid in the middle under the mound of blankets Elise had thrown onto him. They felt heavy, and despite daylight coming in through small, circular windows on the wall behind him - telling him it was day - he felt like he could fall back asleep if he lied down again.

With a groan, he heaved all of the blankets off, and forced himself to crawl out.

It was only then that he remembered he was only in his underwear.

He scanned the room, and he couldn't seem to find his previous set of clothes, but he did see a small pile of new, clean clothes folded beside him, along with a glass of water that he almost managed to hit with all of the blankets.

The moment he saw the water, he suddenly felt like he was dying of thirst, so he grabbed it quickly and started chugging until the whole thing was gone. He sighed, sitting still for a moment before he picked up the clothes and started to change.

He wasn't sure whose clothes he was wearing, but they were a little loose on him. He didn't quite feel like he was drowning in them, but he did feel small.

As he looked down at himself, he couldn't help but wonder if he'd lost weight too. He had hardly been paying attention to himself as he'd been worrying about Evaline all this time.

He paused, staring down at himself. Through the door, he could hear faint, hushed voices, but James was more focused on his own frame. Hesitantly, he lifted his shirt, looking at the slashing claw marks on his side. Elise had healed them mostly, but not quite to the point of scarring. He stood there, studying it for a moment before he lowered his shirt and then slid his pants down to peer at his thigh.

The bullet had entered just a little off center, and while he couldn't remember the bullet being dug out, he knew it had gone deep, getting lodged somewhere between muscle and bone. He'd been lucky. Way too lucky.

He was always too lucky.

Feeling lethargic, he pulled his pants back up and moved towards the door at a sloth's pace, on bare feet. His eyes were still half-open as he opened the door and looked out.

Outside, he could see Elias with his back turned towards him, holding a small boy under his arm, being carried like a log. Elias was standing next to Samiya, Malkiel, and Hendrik as they were talking in hushed voices. Hendrink seemed to notice James peeking out first, and he waved and hollered, causing the others to turn around and look at him. No one looked particularly happy, like they were disturbed by something.

"Hey, James," Hendrik said across the hall. "How was your beauty sleep?"

James stepped out, approaching them.

"Fine," he said, scanning the group as he drew close. The boy under Elias's arms caught his attention, because he knew kids were rare. The boy looked around 5 or 6 with short, wavy, wispy blond hair. He was looking at him curiously.

"This is James," Elias introduced when he noticed the kid staring at him, heaving him up. "And this is Elijah. Say hi to the nice man, kiddo."

"Hi," Elijah said meekly with a soft smile, continuing to curiously stare at him with big eyes.

James offered the kid a small, tired smile as he turned his attention to Elias, Hendrik, and Malkiel.

"How's Evaline?" he asked softly. "Is she holding up?"

The three men exchanged a long, apprehensive look with each other. No one immediately spoke.

"We'll talk in the kitchen," Hendrik said first. "Alistair prepared breakfast, but you slept right through it. You hungry?"

James knew that their hesitation could only mean bad news. His stomach twisted, feeling hungry, but it was also full of dread. His eyes flicked to the children in Elias's arms.

"Sure," he said. "I'll eat."

Elias put down Elijah. "Sami, can you keep them busy for a bit?" he said as he plopped him down.

"That's not fair. I'm almost an adult too. Why do I always have to be with him?" Samiya groaned, but herded him anyways to their room and giving Elias a pointed look over her shoulder.

"Heh. Teenagers, right?" Elias said with a weak laugh, and followed Hendrik and Malkiel as they went to the kitchen.

James walked behind them, trying to prepare himself for the worst. Several worst-case-scenarios ran through his head, one after another. The list went on, but it wasn't a very long walk to the kitchen as they rounded a corner in the hall and Hendrik opened the door for everyone to walk in.

The kitchen was small, and it looked like there was a bedroll rolled up in the corner, like the room might've been used as a sleeping space at some point. On one wall there was an old stove, and worn-down countertops with wooden cabinets. He spotted a bowl of oats, and a sealed container of chopped fruit beside it, like it'd been left out for him.

"Go on. Help yourself," Hendrik said, gesturing to the bowl as the others circled around the room.

He took the bowl, hesitantly grabbing a spoon out a small box on the counter. There was a short table on the other side of the room with four wooden chairs. He watched as Malkiel and Elias both sat down, but Hendrik stayed standing, leaning against the counter with his hip.

James carried the bowl and fruit container over to the table and sat down beside Malkiel. After a small bite of oats, he looked up at them with severity.

"I can tell something's wrong," he said quietly. "What is it?"

"You've been asleep for -- what was it, Mal? Ten hours?"

"Twelve," Malkiel corrected. "You've been asleep for twelve."

"That's a long time," Hendrik said with a nod. "But it was good that you slept that long. You needed rest."

James was disturbed by the fact he'd managed to sleep that long. He never slept that long. He furrowed his eyebrows and glanced down into his bowl.

"That didn't answer my question," he said quietly.

Hendrik brought a hand up innocently. "I say that to just tell you that there wasn't anything you could do, or anything we could do."

Malkiel sighed, looking at James straight-faced, possibly annoyed that Hendrik was skirting around what really needed to be said.

"Evaline's in a coma," he said matter-of-factly. "She asked Rudy to go through the procedure to remove her power, but Rudy didn't know that the procedure wasn't compatible with her power type. Elise says it better than I can, but that's the essence of it."

James didn't visibly respond. He stared at Malkiel, and it felt like the walls were closing in around him. He sat there, frozen, only blinking back in reply as the truth started to sink in, feeling surreal.

Malkiel seemed to turn to Hendrik to say something to break the silence, but even Hendrik seemed uncomfortable that they had to be the ones to break the news to James.

"...Do you want to see her?" Elias asked instead, his brows creased in worry as he looked at him squarely, leaning forward.

James abruptly, but deliberately pushed his bowl away from him, and he stood up to his feet, pushing his chair out behind him.

"Take me to her," he said lowly.

"I'll take him," Elias offered, already getting up. He gave the other men two quick nods and then moved towards the exit, motioning for James to follow. James quickly abandoned his food and followed Elias down the hall. They stopped at a door and Elias pushed it open, motioning for James to go in first.

Inside, Mel, Alistair, and Elise were all surrounding Evaline's bed. Unlike the other rooms, this bed had a frame, and was a little larger. Beside the bed there was a bag of fluids suspended on a metal hanger, and there was a small tube that looped around the side of the bed, connecting in an IV in Evaline's arm. Evaline looked pale - almost as pale as the white bedsheets pulled up to her chest, while her arms laid out on either side of her above them. Her eyes were closed, and her dark brown hair only served as a stark contrast to her ghostly skin.

The bed was in the middle of the room. Mel and Alistair sat on one side, and Elise sat on the other. They'd pulled up chairs from somewhere, and quieted down when they realized James had come in.

Emptily, James took slow steps to the side of the bed, walking up beside Elise as he looked down at Evaline.

She was still breathing. He could see her chest weakly rising and falling under the sheets. But he didn't know if she would ever wake up.

Everyone in the room seemed to disappear as he stared at Evaline, and he knelt down beside the bed, reaching out to gingerly take her hand, holding it gently.

There was so much he wanted to say.

A knot formed in his throat as he stared at Evaline, not wanting to move.

"I'm sorry, James," Elise said, voice full of sorrow as it slowly brought him back to reality. "If I'd have known... I'd have stopped Rudy. She's not in pain. We have a few months of supplies to keep her comfortable. We're all here for her. You included. We all feel at fault for letting this happen."

James didn't have words. He should've gone with her. He should've stayed with her. He could've pushed through the exhaustion a little longer. He shouldn't have let her go in this alone.

Tears started to well up in his eyes, and he leaned over the side of the bed, still gently holding her hand. He closed his eyes, trying to push down the tears and stay strong.

All of this, and he still couldn't save her.

"We can give you some time," Alistair said softly. "We've been here for a few hours. We should give James some space."

"James, do you want that?" Mel asked with soft gentless. "Do you need..."

"Come on, Mel," Alistair cut in, and James heard them shuffling towards the door.

"We'll be in the hall," Elise said with her hand gingerly touching his shoulder. "Please. Take your time. She's conscious. She just can't respond. We'll wait for you outside the door. Okay?"

James nodded, swallowing hard to get rid of the knot in his throat, but he didn't say anything as the three of them walked out of the room. He didn't let go of Evaline's hand as he grabbed the chair Elise had been sitting in, pulling it over so he could sit down beside Evaline.

The first things that were about to fly out of his mouth were an apology, but it was like he almost heard Evaline telling him not to. What was there to apologize for? If anything, he knew she probably felt immense shame and guilt because they'd gotten caught.

He gingerly lifted her hand, holding it between both of his.

"Eve," he said softly, forcing his voice to remain steady, though it felt like he was walking a fine line. "It's not your fault."

He watched her face, knowing he wouldn't get a reaction, but he tried to imagine one anyway.

"I can't assume what's going on in your head right now," he said quietly. "But it wasn't your fault. I don't blame you, and I know I can't force you to not blame yourself, but..."

He swallowed again, whispering in earnest.

"It wasn't your fault," he said again. "I love you. No matter what happens, I'm still going to stay with you. I love you, and I know this is scary, and I know I can't even begin to scratch the surface of the pain that Oliver, Alina, Ovrell, and the others have caused you - not just in the last weeks, but over the years. But I will stay with you through it. I'm not going to leave you, even if all else seems lost. We're still in this together, and don't worry about protecting me. It's my turn to protect you. You just need to focus on getting better, and we're all here to help you. However long it takes."

He lightly squeezed her hand, still watching her, swallowing back the tightness in his throat again.

"You don't need to be strong," James said softly. "It's okay. I'm here, and I'll be strong for you. We all will. You're not in this alone."

He took in a deep breath and slowly leaned over the bed, gently kissing her forehead.

"You're going to get through this. We both will. You may not believe it for yourself, but until then, I will believe it for you. I have hope for you, Evaline. And one day, I know you'll find hope for yourself. But I'm in no rush for you to get there. Just you being you today is enough," he whispered. "And even though you haven't done anything wrong, if it helps to hear it, I forgive you."

He pulled away, looking down at her with tears in his eyes.

"But I guess you probably already knew that," he whispered. "Since I'm always quick to forgive you. But you know I mean it."

He sat there for a moment in silence, holding her hand, and looking down at her. He let a few minutes pass before he spoke again.

"Elliot's okay," he said softly. "And so is Sleepy. They made it here safely too. And I'm doing alright. Elise healed me up, and I got to sleep."

He paused, looking down at Evaline with a sad smile.

"You know, I think I acheived a personal record," he said. "I slept for 12 hours. I can't remember the last time I slept that long without interruption. I might've been a teenager... it's been a long time. I think it was the upward climb up the mountain that did me in. Who knew that few days of inactivity would be enough to get me out of shape?"

He laughed faintly through his nose, rubbing Evaline's hand with his thumb.

"But I'm doing better," he said. "I haven't checked in on Elliot and Sleepy yet, actually, since I only just woke up. But I trust Hendrik to have made sure they're okay. You know how he's good with animals."

He paused again, trying to think of something else to say, but considering he'd slept through half of the day already, and he'd only been up for less than an hour, there wasn't much to tell that she wasn't present for.

"I also met some new people here," James said. "I'm assuming they came with Elias. There's a teen girl named Samiya, and a little boy named Elijah. I haven't really talked to Elijah yet, but Samiya seems a little nosy. She kind of reminds me of the girls we met at the mage camps. Just a little. She walked in at an awkward time, though. I'd had to strip down so Elise could heal my wounds. It's kind of funny, thinking about it now... if you just imagine me, sitting on the floor in my underwear, with my head propped up by a dozen pillows, and a thick dirt-like smoothie in my hands while I sipped it out of a straw. Elise and Elias were with me when Samiya came in with little warning, and the first thing she asked was: Who's that naked man?"

James laughed again, weakly through his nose.

"Never thought I'd get that as a nickname. I can't decide if it's better or worse than hairy man. Or monkey man. Or baby man. Apparently I'm just a magnet for embarassing nicknames. Hopefully, though, Samiya won't make that one stick," James said. "Though, I guess it wouldn't be the end of the world. Just a little awkward for anyone else to hear out of context is all."

He continued to rub her hand gently and rhytmically with his thumb.

"Everyone's been very kind, though," he said softly. "I... still haven't told them everything that happened. I still haven't told you everything that happened... at least, on my end. I'm not even sure where to start."

He was quiet for a moment, taking in measured breaths as he thought back.

"When we were separated by the Rattus," he said slowly. "A neander from the Thals saved me and led me to their village. I should've been more wary, but I trusted them and let them welcome me in. I ended up telling them about you, hoping that they could help me save you. They told me that they would, but not until the next day. I spent a very weird day with the king's granddaughter and her friend, had a meal with what I assume was essentially the royal family and the equivalent of the king's court, and then I was brought to small hut that was apparently made just for humans. That was where I met Arima. She'd apparently been with the Thals for about a week. Doing research... I never really asked her much more about it."

His heart twisted at the mention of Arima, but he kept going.

"I learned later that Oliver was the one who sent Arima to the neanders, and he was also the one who tipped off the Thals about you and I passing through. The Rattus must've heard about it and intervened, but the Thals were working together with Oliver, Katya, Tula, and even Deidra. Tula and Katya make sure that you were brought back from the Rattus and returned to the Thals. And then there was the... moment with the king and the general, that I'm sure you remember."

He paused again, swallowing.

"Apparently Oliver sent Arima because it was an easy way to kill her off... because of how much she knew," he said softly. "And I know he did it to hurt you too."

He paused again, trying to blink back the tears that came to his eyes as he glanced at the door.

"I still haven't told them yet," he said with a shaky voice. "I know I have to. I just..."

He swallowed again, forcing the urge to cry back down. He took a second to take a deep breath before continuing.

"I guess I just can't help but feel like a fool," he said in a whisper. "I know... I know it's -- I couldn't have known about the Thals. I never really trusted Oliver or Tula from the start, but I don't think either of us could've anticipated something like this."

He took in another deep breath, returning his gaze to Evaline, blinking the tears away.

"Oliver said something... in the midst of one of the interrogations," he said. "He said that in all of the timelines he saw, peering into your future, and mine by association, everything converged upon that one moment, just before he tried to kill you. He insinuated that it was because you would die. But he was wrong."

James pressed his lips together for a moment, feeling a fresh wave of tears come to his eyes.

"I know this might sound crazy," James said. "But I think... I think we froze time. When I tried jumping forward, and you tried jumping back. It was like -- it was like together we put the whole world on pause. And only you and I were able to move in that space. That's how I was able to get you out. That's how we were able to escape."

He blinked hard, letting the tears fall down his face.

"I know we talk a lot about fate and choice and whatever else," he said. "But I really don't feel like it was a mistake. That I have these powers, and you had yours. It allowed us to get out of that alive, and I'm forever grateful. I don't think I would've been able to bear--"

His voice hitched in his throat, and he pressed his lips together again, taking in a shaky breath.

"I'm just so happy you're alive," he said through tears, his voice wavering. "I love you so much, Eve. I love you so much."

As he croaked out the last words, he wasn't able to keep back the tears any longer. He leaned his arms over the side of the bed and started to weep softly, still holding Evaline's hand between his. He didn't feel ashamed to cry like this. He knew, if she were able to respond, that they would likely both be crying, and holding each other. But for now, he would hold her hand, and that would be enough.

After about a minute, with a few loud sniffs, he was able to collect himself again. He pulled one hand away from Eve's so he could wipe his face.

"I'm going to need to invest in a handkerchief again," he said hoarsely. "I don't know what happened to my last one. All these Earth clothes, and you somehow evolved past handkerchiefs. I don't understand it."

He took in one last deep breath and then let out a long sigh, returning both of his hands to Eve's.

"I'll stay with you," he said softly. "You know, except for when I have to go to the bathroom, or things like that. I don't think you'd want me to stay for that, anyway. But I'll move my things in here with you. Besides, I don't think Elias wants me sleeping in his bed forever."

He breathed a faint laugh through his nose.

"Elise threw so many blankets on me," he said. "I hope no one else slept through the rest of the night freezing because I was buried under them all."

He reached out to Evaline's face, brushing the hair on her head, tracing his fingers behind her ear.

"But we'll work it out," he said. "You don't have to worry about blankets. We'll figure things out. We've got you."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Tue Jun 29, 2021 3:25 am
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Carina says...

Elias stood at the sidelines, watching Elise, Mel, Alistair, Elise, Malkiel, and Hendrik debate and discuss over what to do. It seemed that the entire betrayal with the Tula and Katya people had caused a rift of plans. Although he was ecstatic to finally reunite with Mel, Alistair, and Elise after so long, he felt like they hadn't really got to connect again since Evaline and James were late and they had no way to communicate with them.

But that was okay. He waited nine years, and he would gladly wait another nine knowing that he would be with them.

Still, he did feel a little useless... They came all this way for him and the kids, and he used to be on the combative zone, but now he was on the side-lines - even if it was as small as this. But he didn't mind it too much... it wasn't like he had much to say, or much to offer. He didn't know what to do, or how to help, or who these people were, except for Oliver. But he hardly knew of the context or anyone's relationship with him.

He was just glad to be included, really.

Elias was slowly munching on an apple as he half-zoned out from Mel furiously running her finger over a map as she discussed how to best hide the area. It was nice seeing her be so passionate about this. Alistair, too. He seemed more... what was the word... scholarly?

Elias slowly and silently slinked out of the hallway and into the kitchen. It had been at least an hour since James walked in to see Evaline, and he was worried that the man didn't have enough food. He didn't really know what happened, exactly. There were so many names and nuances he didn't understand, and no one bothered to explain it in detail to him. But at same time, Elias was sure that no one really understood everything in detail either.

He reached out to grab James's bowl of oats left on the counter, stirring it around with the spoon a few times. Maybe he could heat it up and then go in the room to give it to him. Yeah. He could do that since the others were busy. It'd also be weird if he sent Samiya in there instead.

It was fine, right? It wasn't like Evaline could see him. But she might be able to hear him... but maybe she'd be so shocked that she would wake up...? Maybe that wasn't so bad.

Elias felt a bit apprehensive about this plan, but he scooped the bowl on a small pot above the furnace to heat up anyways, leaning against the counter and waiting for the oats to warm up. His mind wandered about what the implications of the future would be.

They'd have to stay here until Evaline woke up. Elias was fine with that. He didn't really have anywhere to go. As long as the others accepted him and the kids, he was more than happy to stick with the others. He was having a nice time getting to know Hendrik and Malkiel, anyways. He didn't really know them too well, but Hendrik had an amusing sense of humor, and Malkiel seemed... serious.

It was good to have at least one serious person in the group. If it wasn't Malkiel, it probably would have been Evaline. Or maybe James. It was still hard to tell since Elias barely had a conversation with him that wasn't full of grief or pain.

As he zoned out, he realized a few minutes passed, and then he transferred the contents from the pot to the bowl, stirring it and verifying that it was warm. He dug through the cabinet and pulled out a small jar of maple syrup that was tapped from a tree, pouring just enough to give the oats a tangy taste. When done, he made sure to hide the jar well and keep it out of reach so that Elijah and even Samiya wouldn't get their grubby hands on it and then crash from the sugar.

The container of fruit was left untouched, but Elias sprinkled half of them on top of the oats, and then brought the other half separately, walking out the door. The others didn't seem to notice or care as he slipped away. Before he knew it, he was back at the double doors leading into the room Evaline was comatosed in.

Elias took a deep breath and then knocked a few times before slowly opening the door. He didn't want to blindside James, so he hoped that the warning of his arrival was enough for him to wrap up whatever he may be saying, doing, or feeling. But really, he didn't want to interrupt him either.

He peeked his head out and saw that James was still sitting beside Evaline, holding her hand. James didn't even look up at the door, his eyes still on Evaline with a serious expression. He seemed tired, but he was looking down at her lovingly.

"Knock knock," Elias said out loud instead, opening the door wider, but not yet stepping in.

James slowly turned his head to the door.

"Oh," he said softly. "Elias. Is something wrong?"

Elias shook his head and lifted the bowl for emphasis. "No. I just figured you were hungry. I heated up your oats for you."

"Oh..." James said, glancing back at Evaline. He seemed distracted, or like he'd completely forgotten about the food altogether.

"Do you want me to bring it over to you?" Elias asked.

"Sure," James said.

Elias stepped in the room, letting the door close naturally behind him. Taking careful steps, he walked towards James and extended the bowl of oats and container of fruit out to him.

James gingerly pulled his hands away from Evaline's, and he turned to Elias, lifting up his hands and taking the bowl, and the container, the latter of which he set down in his lap. He held the bowl of oats in both hands, looking down into it.

"I see you added... fruit," James noted.

"And syrup," he added. "I assume you like syrup. Everyone likes syrup."

James looked up at Elias with one brow slightly raised, and then looked back down into the bowl with what looked like the ghost of a smile.

"I don't mind it," he said as he took a big scoop of the oats and shoveled it into his mouth.

Elias's gaze drifted on Evaline. If he didn't know any better, he'd have thought she was sleeping soundly. And that was what they thought when they first checked up on her...

"Yeah. Comes from a tree," he idly said as his brows slowly creased in worry the more he stared at her. "Do you think she could taste the IV water?"

James looked from Elias to Evaline with his mouth full. He swallowed before answering.

"That's a question you should probably ask your sister," James said. "I'm not a doctor, but my assumption is no. The IV goes into her blood, not through her mouth."

Elias nodded slowly, loosely crossing his arms as remained standing by James. "That's probably a good thing. I can't imagine it would taste very good, and it's the only thing she's eating or drinking. If you can even really consider it food. It's too bad the nutrient smoothies can't be injected through blood."

"That's probably for the best," James said. "I don't think Evaline would enjoy the taste of dirt flowing through her veins."

"There are other flavors, you know," Elias said as he glanced at James. "The dirt flavor is the flavorless one because it's so dense with vitamins and things."

"I see," James said. "I'll have to try all of the flavors eventually."

"I've saved them as rations before I came here," Elias continued. "I'm sick of them, really. But... sure. I have, uh... banana, strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate. I think Evaline would like the chocolate one. Maybe you could try that first."

James's eyes drifted to Evaline.

"I've never liked chocolate very much," he said softly. "But I know she does. Maybe I'll try the banana one instead."

"Oh, you'll have to fight Sami for that," Elias said with a small chuckle. "She took all of my banana rations."

"Are there any wars over the strawberry one?" James asked.

"There might be if I tell Mel about it. But maybe we'll keep it a secret between you and I."

"Or perhaps, we could convince Mel to share," James said, glancing at Elias with a faint smirk that disappeared as quickly as it came. "But if not, I guess I can settle for the dirt one again."

Elias hummed for a moment, his hand stroking the small stubble of a beard that was growing on his chin. Now that he was no longer in the military, it was nice to not be expected to shave everyday. Although, he didn't think a beard would be a good look on him. His hairs were too patchy.

"I wonder if it would taste less like dirt if we added maple syrup in it," he thought out loud.

"Maybe," James mused. "It might be a waste of syrup, though."

At that, James took another big bite of his food.

"That's okay," Elias said with a small smile. "We could always get some more. Fresh syrup from the trees of the mountain. Life here isn't so bad if we have access to syrup."

James was quiet for a moment, and Elias realized after a second it was because he was chewing.

"It does taste good," James said, a little muffled through his mouthful of food.

"I'm glad you think so," Elias said with a slightly wider smile. "But all I did was put toppings on it and transported it to you, so I guess I can't really take credit for the food."

James shrugged a little, swallowing his food and preparing the next scoop.

"I still appreciate it," James said. "I forgot how hungry I was."

Elias hummed again. "Does that mean you want another dirt smoothie?"

"I'll finish this first," James said. "If I'm still hungry after I'm done, I'll let you know."

Elias nodded, his eyes drifting back to Evaline. He just realized that she hadn't moved an inch since he last saw her, but then again, that was basically the definition of being in a coma. After a brief hesitation, he reached to scoot back the nearby chair before gingerly sitting down on it.

"It's nice that Evaline has someone she cares about," he said as she leaned forward, setting his elbows on his knees while he kept his gaze on her face. "And it's nice that you care about her too. I just thought I'd mention it."

James seemed to watch Elias for a second while he chewed.

"Thanks," James said quietly, almost like he wasn't sure what to say to that.

"Do you think she can hear us right now?" he asked.

James looked over at Evaline.

"Yeah," he said quietly. "Elise said she's conscious. So she should be able to hear everything. She just can't respond."

Elias tilted his head like he was studying her at a different angle, contemplating this. "I wonder if she's consciously aware of what's going on, or if she's having a crazy dream right now," he mused.

"I don't think she's dreaming," James said. "Unless she were sleeping."

"So... she's not sleeping," Elias concluded. "She's awake with her eyes closed, and can't move."

"That's what it means to be in a coma, yes," James said.

Elias let out a weak laugh. "I don't know why I thought it's basically an extended dream. I guess it's better this way, though. Right, Evaline?"

He smiled softly down at her, but he knew she wouldn't respond. Still, a little part of his heart hoped she would. He knew they were both pretending to be okay, but she didn't really have a choice in the matter since she couldn't move.

"It is weird, though," he continued to think out loud. "It's weird to see the others after so many years. But I think it's feels weirdest to see Evaline again. I've known her so long, I think my mental picture of her is when she was a kid. Know what I mean?"

James was quiet for a moment, and Elias ripped his gaze away from Evaline to look at James since he directed the question towards him. He caught James looking at him with a strange expression. It was surprisingly soft, but also serious. James looked away quickly, though, when they made eye contact. Elias didn't know what he said to warrant this look.

"I think I do," James said quietly, scooping more food oats of his bowl.

"Yeah," Elias agreed, slowly nodding. He paused for a moment. "It's weird, right? Feels surreal. Like it's not real."

"Yeah," James echoed. "I can imagine."

Elias paused again, gazing back at Evaline as he leaned closer, almost to the bed. "Evaline," he said slowly, carefully pronouncing her name. "I hope one day you'll wake up, and we can be friends again."

He wistfully smiled as he watched her breathe, the innocent memories of their childhood coursing through his head again like a broken record. He was no longer ashamed that he had romanticized his childhood for so many years. It was the only shred of hope that kept him going for a while... and it did work out, in the end.

Elias took a deep breath, turning to look back at James again.

"Well... I guess I'll leave you with her again, then," he said as he started to stand up. "I just wanted to drop by the food."

James's eyes seemed to follow him as Elias got to his feet.

"Thank you, Elias," James said softly. "For the food. And stopping by."

"No worries," Elias said with a little smile. "We understand you need some time. So whenever you're ready... we'll wait for you."

James was quiet again for a few seconds as his gaze drifted to Evaline, his eyes full of sadness.

"Thank you," he said again, his voice still quiet. "But... I do think I should speak with you all soon. There are some things you all should know."

He paused, flicking his eyes back to Elias, but only for a second.

"A lot of things," James said. "I'll come out in a bit, if you're all still around."

"Oh... yes. Yeah, of course," Elias said with a nod, deciding he didn't really need to clarify that he knew, well, practically nothing about the situation. "Take your time. Step out whenever you're ready. I'm sure the others would like to hear whatever you feel like you need to say."

"You should hear it too," James said, and Elias could sense the seriousness of his words.

Elias nodded slowly in understanding. He made the mental note to not let Samiya and Elijah listen in.

"Okay," he said. "I will."
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soundofmind says...

James needed the next hour. He found himself silently sitting at Evaline's bedside, trying to wade through the waves of emotions tumbling over him. He kept trying to think of where to begin - where to start. There was so much that nobody knew that only Evaline knew, and it was like he'd sprinkle bits and pieces of the truth here and there, but no one had a full picture.

He would have to admit to lying.

He realized that even though there were other pressing matters, so much of it centered around the hard-to-believe truth that he was from a different world.

It was why he'd been captured. It was why he was clueless. It was why he had a horse. It explained so much about him, and the circumstances around his stay on earth, and if they couldn't get over that hurdle, then they wouldn't believe that Ovrell and Alina had any interest in him for that reason.

So he would start there, and he would let the rest follow, because he knew there would undoubtedly be dozens of questions on all sides. It just felt so overwhelming, to finally tell everyone, after all of this. Five years of history, culminating into this one moment, where someone besides Evaline would be let into the full truth, not just a piece of it.

He looked to Evaline, and he squeezed her hand one last time.

"I'm going to go talk to them now," he said softly. "But I'll be back when it's all over. Just hang on, for me, okay? I love you."

He gave her a kiss on the forehead, and though he pulled away, his face lingered by hers, studying her face for a moment as his heart ached to see her eyes open again. What he would give for her to open her eyes, even if it was only the vacant stare she'd worn in their dangerous trek through the wilderness to get here.

"I'll tell you how it went when I get back," he said again as he got to his feet and slowly pulled his hand away from her.

With a deep breath, he stood by the door, taking just a second to prepare himself, working up the courage. After he let the breath out heavily, he stepped out into the hall. The hall was empty, but James could hear voices carrying down it, and it led him back to the kitchen, where everyone but the kids was gathered around the table. It sounded like they were past the point of arguing plans, and were instead talking logistics. Mel and Hendrik were standing at the end of the table, pointing down at a map that was spread out for everyone to see. Malkiel, Elise, Rudy, and Alistair were all sitting down, and Elias was half-sitting, half-leaning on the kitchen counter with a spoon in his hands. He was spinning it idly around his fingers.

Elias was closest to the door, and seemed to notice James come in first. He stopped spinning the spoon in his fingers as he made eye contact with James, standing up straighter.

"James is here," he announced, like that was his sole duty while everyone else was talking logistics. It was effective, because the voices faltered and all eyes looked up at him.

James suddenly felt very small as he stepped into the room, closing the door behind him.

"I'm sorry to interrupt," James said, forcing himself to project and speak clearly, despite the rising, fluttering nerves in his stomach. "If you're not busy... I'd like to talk."

"We were just talking about future supply runs and security," Mel said as she started to organize the maps and papers together into one pile. She looked around for the others to agree with her. "But yes. Talk. We'd like to hear what you have to say."

James bowed his head briefly in agreement, and he wandered closer to the table, scanning the room. There were two aged stools lining the wall, but they looked sturdy enough. He grabbed one and pulled it up to the edge of the table, sitting down.

"Hey," Rudy said, clearing his throat. "Just so you know, uh... I'm sorry about Evaline and... everything. I didn't know--"

"I know," James said, not forcefully, but firmly, with understanding. "I know, Rudy. Thank you for your apology."

Rudy flicked his eyes among the rest of the group crowded around the table, and then nodded, falling silent. James sighed and sat up straighter on the stool, not making direct eye contact with everyone as he scanned everyone's faces. For the most part, they all seemed eager to listen, like they had been waiting some time for him to come out and explain everything.

"I want to tell you all what happened," James said. "But in order for you all to understand the full context, there is quite a lot I need to share on the front end. I hope you will be patient and bear with me. I promise I'm not trying to delay. I only want to give you all the full picture."

He paused, just for a second to take a deep breath, and also give anyone a chance to speak if they wanted.

"We'll listen," Hendrik said with a nod, and then twirled a finger upwards. "Start from the top."

"That was my plan," James said with a small nod. He paused once more, only to gather his thoughts.

"I'm sure that many of you have had your own suspicions about me," he said. "Be it in regards to my background, or the truth of how I got here, and managed to meet you all in the first place. I regretfully must admit that I have lied to you all, but I also fear that the truth may be more difficult to believe than the already far-fetched lie most of you've been told. The truth is, I am not from earth. I am from another world entirely, and in my homeland, we call our planet Nye. I do not know where Nye is in the charts of the planets and stars in relation to your world, which you all know as Earth, but it is where I grew up, and spent most of my life."

The group was silent while James spoke, and it was Hendrik who spoke up first. Or rather, laughed.

"Hilarious," he said mirthlessly, sounding just a little peeved. "Not the explanation I expected, but a nice joke to start us off."

"He's not joking, Hendrik," Mel said softly.

"Yeah," Malkiel with his eyes kept on James in concentration and his arms crossed. "He's not joking. He's telling the truth. That would be hard to do for a fact this bizarre."

"I know it's hard to believe," James said. "And I don't expect you to believe me right away. There's a reason I didn't tell any of you this from the start. I knew well enough that it would likely label me as a crazed lunatic, or delusional at best."

"...You said you came from... Nye?" Elias asked, sounding surprised.

"Yes," James answered. "Nye."

Elias didn't respond anymore, but it was clear he was mulling something over as he drew his brows together in thought.

"Rudy? Elise? Alistair?" Hendrik said as he looked at the three who hadn't yet said anything. "What are your thoughts? Hm?"

"I don't think James is the type to come into a room during a sensitive situation and carelessly say these things unless they were true," Alistair simply said.

"I'd like to hear James talk more," Elise said as she glanced between Hendrik and James.

James hadn't expected to recieve any form of support, so the fact that any of them were willing to hear him out at all - frankly - took him by surprise. He didn't expect to get this far.

He was quiet for a moment, still trying to gather his thoughts.

"There's a lot I could tell you about my homeworld," he said slowly. "But at the present, I am going to be brief for the sake of getting through the information, though if you have any questions, you are free to ask them, and I'll answer."

"Six years ago, I served as a soldier in a kingdom known as the Moonlight Kingdom," he said. "On the world of Nye, there are powered people, not unlike yourselves, but on Nye, we call it magic instead of powers. Among all human civilization, magic is outlawed, and that law is enforced through the use of a weaponized drug that nullifies powers and incapacitates mages, which is what we call powered people. The longer that I served under the king, however, I realized that his rule was corrupt, and he had no issues compromising morals and choosing unethical paths to gain more power. One day, I discovered that he had secret plans to execute a series of experiments on young children with the intent of giving them enhaced, powerful magic, and creating, essentially, a super-powered army - or secret assasins - that would do his bidding. Before his plans could be enacted, I sabotaged them, destroying all of the resources he needed to follow through with it. That made me a wanted man, and a traitor. From that point forward, I was on the run."

He paused, glancing at Mel, knowing she already knew most of what he was saying. It was a comfort to know that at least she already knew and believed him.

"So let me get this straight," Hendrik began, taking the role of the skeptic of the group. "You're from another planet called Nye. Everyone there has powers. But instead of powers, you call it magic--"

"Not everyone had powers," James interrupted. "Mages, or powered people, are a minority because of the ongoing efforts to eliminate them. The price for using magic on Nye is death. There are many humans without magic."

"Okay, fine," Hendrik said. "Not everyone has powers, but it's still outlawed in your planet, world, whatever you want to call it. You're a what -- a solider? Working for a magic man king? And he tried to create an army of kids who have powers, but you stopped him?"

"Was a soldier," James said. "But... sure. You could summarize it that way."

Though the summary felt like a crude parody of the truth.

Hendrik let out a gruff laugh. "Sure. You can continue. It seems like a fictional alternate reality, but I agree with Alistair that you don't seem like the type to spit out absurd facts unless they were true. So, continue."

James nodded stiffly.

"Five years ago, when I was on the run in the forests of Nye, I ran into Evaline," he said, pausing there to read everyone's reactions.

Hendrik looked like he was holding back an amused laugh, and Malkiel seemed deeply concentrated to see if he was lying. But for the most part, everyone else seemed invested in what he had to say, and was waiting for him to get the whole story out.

"Oh, so Evaline is in this too," Hendrik mused.

Mel slapped his upper arm. "Hendrik, let the man talk," she scolded, and that shut him up. James looked away from Hendrik, and instead focused on the map on the table as he kept going.

"At the time, I was on the run from a bounty hunter. I'd barely gotten away," he said. "He was a sadistic man, and I ran deep into the uncharted forests to get away from him. I didn't expect to run into anyone out there, so I was alarmed when I ran into Evaline, who was just as confused and scared as I was. She was reluctant to accept help at first, but since she didn't seem to be a threat, I decided to help her. At the time, I had assumed she was probably a mage on the run. That seemed the only plausible explanation for how she ended up so far out in the forest with nothing but the clothes on her back. But after a few days of travel together, she told me she was from Earth. I was skeptical at first too, just like all of you, but there were enough odd things she'd done and said that I was willing to hear her out. The final proof for me was when she used her memory power on me to help me remember something, because we don't have powers or magic like that on Nye. Originally, I'd been planning to lead her to a city and make sure she got help there, since I didn't want to keep dragging her along with me with a bounty hunter still tracking me down. But when I realized she wasn't from Nye, I knew it was highly unlikely that anyone else would believe her story. So I came clean about my own background as a wanted man, and we agreed to travel together until we figured out how to get her back to Earth... if there even was a way. There were many unknowns at the time."

"This is a lot to process," Hendrik said, practically muttering as he crossed his arms and looked at James squarely.

"I did say it would be a lot," James said quietly.

"And it's the truth," Mel said to Hendrik, like she was daring him to say otherwise.

Malkiel slowly leaned back and relaxed the tension in his body. "How long did Evaline stay in Nye?" he asked.

"She was there for about four months," James said. "But -- and I can explain more how -- when she came back to earth, she woke up here like no time had passed."

"And you said this was five years ago?" Malkiel asked.

"Yes," James said. "Roughly. It's probably closer to five and a half now."

Malkiel glanced at Hendrik. "That's about the same time the war ended."

"I don't know how that would be relevant," Hendrik said.

"I don't know - I'm just... thinking," Malkiel said as he leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms again as he looked up at the ceiling. "I've always thought it was out of character for her to run away. And it seems that James is telling the truth. I'm just piecing things together, is all."

"After the four months we spent together on Nye, she did say that it encouraged her to run away," James said slowly, not looking at anyone in the room. "Because... she was positive that otherwise, she wouldn't have survived much longer. On earth."

"How did she get to Nye?" Elias asked, suddenly changing the subject.

"That..." James started, but paused to take in a deep sigh. He closed his eyes.

"Hendrik," he said. "Where's Elliot?"

"Tied up with Bongo and Higgins," Hendrik answered. "I think they're becoming pals. They don't see him as food."

"That's great," James said flatly. "I assume you took off the saddle and the tack to give him a break. Where did you put the saddlebags?"

"It's near the entrance with the other extra bags," he said. "Off to the side. Why?"

"I want to show you all something," he said, sliding off his stool and getting to his feet. "If you'll excuse me for just a moment."

"Sure. Guess we'll be here and, uh..." Hendrik looked around. "Discuss."

"You can update me on your off-the-wall theories when I get back," James said in monotone, briefly meeting Hendrik's eyes as he made his way for the door. "But I won't be gone long. Be right back."

James stepped out into the hallway, and he hastily walked to the end, rounding the corner, and spotting the bags left by the entrance. He knew which back the journal was in, and he dug around, finding himself grateful that they decided to keep it. Tucked in its pages, he found both notes folded up, and he tucked the journal back in the bag. He wasn't going to show them Evaline's journal. Just the notes.

As he walked back, he unfolded the first one, looking it over. The paper was still perfect, like it hadn't aged a day. The same could be said for the second note, which he unfolded and looked over.

Just as he made it outside the kitchen door, he stopped abruptly.

There was another verse.

i'm here to say the fight's no more
the secrets that you keep
are safely caught
in this one spot
here in the hands of eve

He stared at it, eyes stuck on the last line.

Okay. Okay. So maybe he'd save the second note for later. He needed time to process whatever the hell that meant. He didn't want to pause and take the time to. He already had enough going on.

With a nervous smile to himself he folded up the second note and shoved in in his pocket, and walked back into the kitchen with the first note in hand. Before anyone could say anything, he started speaking, interrupting the current conversation.

"When Evaline arrived on Nye, she woke up with a note on her person," he said, holding it up, and showing it in view of the others, though he didn't stay still enough for them to really read it as he made his way to his stool and sat down.

"Alistair," James said. "Do you think you could make a small flame? I want you to attempt to burn it. Don't worry, I know what I'm doing. I'm just trying to make a point."

"You want me to burn the evidence?" Alistair asked, surprised.

"Attempt to burn it," James said. "Just trust me."

He held the note out across the table for Alistair to take.

Alistair hesitantly reached out to take it, holding it in his hands. He seemed to give it a two-second skim before he looked across the room at Malkiel.

"Malkiel," he called. "Can you--"

"On it," Malkiel said before he could finish, and the paper flew through the air with a sudden gust of wind.

Alistair still seemed apprehensive, but suddenly the paper fluttered to the ground, lit aflame. Or at least, was lit aflame. It seemed to immediately sputter out, and no ashes or marks were left on the paper as it landed on the floor.

The paper laid there, unaffected, and the flame was gone.

"You can pick it back up," James said. "Now I want you to try to tear it. Rip it in half."

"Let me see it," Hendrik said as he loudly screeched his chair back to walk over to where the paper landed. He bent down to pick it up, his brows drawn together in confusion. "Where the hell are the scorch marks?" he asked, pulling the paper close to his face. "What is this? Poetry?"

"I'll get to that in a second," James said. "Just try to rip it for me, Hendrik."

Hendrik scoffed, shaking his head and then placing his large hands on the edges, effortlessly trying to rip it. When the paper didn't give, he tried again with more force. And again and again, until he was bent down and groaning as he tried to rip it with all his strength.

"What's wrong, Henny?" Malkiel teased with a smirk, his voice thick with sarcasm. "Too weak to rip it?"

"What the hell is wrong with this!" Hendrik yelled, his muscles popping a vein.

"You are welcome to try as well, Malkiel," James said with masked sarcasm.

"Yeah, you try!" Hendrik said stubbornly, balling it up and throwing it at him. Or at least, he tried to ball it up since it came loose and flattened after a few seconds.

Malkiel seemed to not want to take it either, because he swished his hand, and he sent a small gust of wind back so that the paper floated back towards Hendrik until it landed on his face. Mel giggled, and it seemed a few others were holding back laughter as well.

Hendrik was enraged, angrily snatching the paper and and holding it with ball-up fists. "What's wrong with this?" he seethed. "Why won't it tear or burn?"

"It's also waterproof," James offered, though it wasn't an answer to his question.

For a moment, Hendrik looked like he was highly considering dunking it in water.

"I think that's enough evidence," Elise said before Hendrik could pop a vein and hurt himself. "No need to tear it some more, or put it under water or more fire."

James held out his hand towards Hendrik, silently asking for the note back. He seemed more than happy to slap it on his hand.

"The note's virtually indestructable. It's five years old, and it still looks the same, so it seems time doesn't age it either," he said. "I presume it's of magical origin, though neither I or Evaline have been able to determine anything more specific than that. The very fact that it exists, though, is a testament to the mystery that is how Evaline got to Nye."

"As for how it got here," James went on. "It followed her to Earth. I can't tell you why, except for that the fact that it might've served as proof to her, at least, that what happened on Nye actually happened, especially since she spent four months there and then woke up here like no time had passed, as if it might've been a dream."

He turned the note around in his hands, straightening it out, even though it seemed like it never permanently held a crease.

"As for the note's contents," he said. "Like Hendrik said, it's a poem. A cryptic poem that Evaline and I were left to decipher."

Though admittedly, he was the one who did most of the deciphering.

"I could read it to you... if you wanted," he said. "Or I could just tell you what happened."

"Read the poem, James," Hendrik ordered, arms crossed. "I'd like to hear it."

James stared at Hendrik blankly for half a second, and then looked down at the note.

"Alright," he said, looking it over briefly, and then reciting it.

"if from this world you wish to part
then first you must open your heart
but if you don't and so refuse
then you have two options to choose
find your way back now on your own
or part ways and stay lost, alone

when in the light you find the key
you'll open up your eyes to see
indeed there is a second part
not one but two must tear apart
the walls built up to hide away
and into fate's hand dealt, must play

two souls forever bound
what once was lost has now been found
linked together as a sign
that transcends space, and worlds, and time
you did have a choice from the start
on how and when and where to part
but this fate rests in both your hands
as one you must share the desire
for two hearts joined, this spell requires"
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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soundofmind says...

James tried not to feel embarassed at any of the note's implications and simply set the note down in his lap and looked at the others, though namely Hendrik, since he'd insisted on hearing it.

"Okay," Hendrik said slowly. "That's a poem. She went to Nye because of... a poem."

"Not because of a poem," James said, like it was obvious. "The poem is just more a token of direction than anything. In simple terms, it told us that for her to get back to earth, we both had to wish her back. That's the gist of it. The rest is... well, filler. I don't know."

He did not feel like explaining the rest. There was some meaning to the rest of it, but it wasn't worth getting into.

"Oh, James, I think you forgot to mention that you and Evaline were together back then, too," Mel said.

James kept a straight face as he slowly turned to look at Mel.

"Yes," he said steadily. "We were. But not for the whole time. Not in a relationship, anyway."

"So she didn't rush into a relationship or whatever you all thought when they told us at New Year's," she said as she narrowed her eyes one-by-one at the others. "I know you were all thinking it."

"We officially started dating during the fourth month," James said. "If anybody cares to know."

"But then you 'wished her away,'" Hendrik said slowly, eyeing him closely.

"There's more to it than that," James said, still keeping his tone steady and neutral. "If you remember, I mentioned that before I met Evaline, there was a ruthless bounty hunter who was tracking me down after I escaped from his capture. He caught up to us again."

He paused, not thinking it important that he mentioned how it happened more than twice. They didn't need to know all of the details. Just enough for them to understand the overall story.

"And then you 'wished her away,'" Hendrik said again, still trying to make sense of the ending.

James didn't think it was his place to tell them the details of how it happened. Even though him and Evaline had talked through it, it was still a sensitive memory.

"We both wished her back... to keep her safe," he said, his eyes flicking to Mel, only for a moment. "I looked down for a moment, and when I looked up, she was gone, like she had vanished."

"So it wasn't because he wanted her gone," Mel said to Hendrik. "It was done out of necessity."

"And then, after that, she woke up on Earth like no time has passed," Malkiel said. "Is that right?"

"Correct," James answered.

Malkiel and Hendrik both seemed to mull this over. They glanced at each other again, but didn't say anything else.

"That was brave of you, James," Elise said. "Putting her before your own desires just to keep her safe. And I'm glad that's not the end of the story."

James looked to Elise, but he found that he couldn't meet her eyes.

"...Yes," he said. "I suppose I should get to that."

He cleared his throat.

"Five years passed, and during that time, I managed to evade capture," James said. "About six months ago, I was traveling northward by myself. I was near the coast, so when I woke up on Earth, looking out at the water, I was confused, but I figured I must've... I don't know. Forgotten where I'd camped or something. And Elliot was still with me, so I didn't think I could've been somewhere else."

He didn't feel like explaining how he'd written off his confusion because he'd had a concussion. Maybe they'd piece that together themselves.

"Elise found me," he said, gesturing to her with a brief wave of his hand. "And... some of you already know that story."

His eyes drifted over to Mel.

"Oh, yeah, I told most of you already," Mel said with a nod, but then met eyes with Elias, who likely didn't hear the story yet, so she said it anyways. "Elise said she met some crazy guy with a horse who had no memory of anything. That was James, by the way. No idea why he just pretended to be part of this world since he was making up his background when asked questions."

"For the record," James said, lifting up his hand. "I lied about my background because I was freaked out. Thanks."

"Mmm. I know you were," Mel said with a smile. "I was on tranportation duty and Zameer radioed me to tell me that two Sector 2 people were here. Elise and James, who lied about it. I actually recognized..." She faltered for a moment, almost giving away that she recognized James. "...horses and its different breeds, so that was how James and I bonded. I took him in to the meeting where he met all of you. And as you all know, he went to Terra afterwards."

James nodded, feeling another wave of anxiety at the thought of everything that happened at Terra.


His powers. The second note. Oliver bugging the house.

"Yeah, I remember that meeting," Hendrik said with a chuckle. "Got punched."

James stared down at the table. Terra was not a good time for him. Mentally. He was trying to weed out the details, trying to figure out how little he could say while still getting the point across.

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but you're telling the truth right now, and you really were lying at the meeting," Malkiel said. "I was right... but also wrong."

James looked up at Malkiel, meeting his eyes. He let out a small, weak laugh through his nose.

"You were," he said. "I just... well, no offense, but I didn't think I could trust you with all of this at the time. I can't imagine how that might've played out if I told you the truth back then, nor do I really want to."

"We understand," Alistair said, not having reacted much to anything thus far, but he seemed to slowly be taking everything in. "It's a lot to take in. I think it was better you told us after we got to know you more, anyways."

A small, grateful smile flickered across James's face, and he nodded in thanks.

"Well... there's still quite a lot more to share," James said. "But as I move forward, this will have less to do with just me and Evaline, and more with all of you as well."

Hendrik sat back down on his chair, interest piqued. "Go on, then."

James swallowed, feeling nervous as he tried to organize everything in his head.

"This..." James started, before changing his mind. "So, in Terra. I got there, things seemed... fine, I guess. Everything about Earth was foreign, but -- farms, I know, because before I became a solider, I grew up on a farm. So -- that's what that was all about. Evaline was the only one who knew where I was really from and she was just trying to protect me, as I'm sure you can all understand more now. Terra was the plan to keep me in a secure location until we could figure out how to get me back to Nye--"

"Are you even fertile?" Hendrik asked with narrowed eyes. "Did she just randomly make that up?"

James stuttered to a stop at Hendrik's interruption, and he stared at him with slightly wide eyes.

"Hen, he's from another world," Mel said with look of distaste.

"Infertility shots don't exist on Nye," James said awkwardly. "So... yes. I... am. But that's not really-- it's not that important. I mean, it--"

James sighed, lifting his hand and facepalming, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"Okay, what about the whole..." Hendrik swirled his finger around at him. "Time power thing. Do you even have 'magic'?"

James pulled his hand away from his face and let it flop back down into his lap as he let out another sigh.

"So... okay. Five years ago, on Nye, I didn't have any magic, or powers, or anything. I was a magic-less human," James said. "But when Evaline was on Nye, she went back a few times, using her power to help us avoid life or death siutations. After she would go back in time, I started dreaming of those undone moments, or memories. Since Evaline was the only time-powered person I'd ever met, I thought it was some weird side-effect of our worlds colliding. I didn't have a logical explanation for it, but we discovered that for every time she went back, I would dream of it, in full detail. Every minute of it."

"So you did have magic," Hendrik said matter-of-factly. "You just couldn't use it until a time traveler came by."

"I mean--" James stuttered. "I guess. I don't know. Yeah. Sure. It's -- I don't think it matters if I've always had it or not. But when I came here, to a world with more time-travelers, and more history, with time travelers... I discovered that it wasn't just Evaline's undone memories I could see. As it turns out, I can see any time traveler's undone memories in my dreams. At first, I didn't know how to navigate it, but I've learned that in some cases, I can intentionally block the memories out if I don't want to see them. As far as for what memories I see, it doesn't seem to be limited to the present time. I've seen memories that Evaline has confirmed to have happened some years ago, and it also seems that the memories I see depends on my location - or rather, how close I am to the place the memory occured."

"Kind of like Oliver," Hendrik said. "Evaline really wasn't lying when she said you had time memory powers and that you were fertile."

"It's just that instead of having waking dreams, it's only when I sleep," James said. "But... yes. And... that's --"

He cleared his throat again, shaking his head more to himself than anything.

"That doesn't seem to be -- well, there's more. To my powers, apparently," he said slowly, feeling his stomach starting to bubble with anxiety again. "That I didn't discover until I came here."

That seemed to pique everyone's attention.

"You can tell us," Mel said, seemingly detecting his rising anxiety. "We're all friends with Evaline. It's not like we hate people with different types of time powers."

James nervously fixed his eyes on his lap.

"It appears that I can travel forward in time," he said clearly.

"So you're telling me Evaline wasn't lying when she said you're--" he brought a finger up for each item he was about to list, "-- fertile, able to look at undone timelines, and can jump forward in time?"

"When Evaline said I jumped decades - or, hundreds of years into the future," he said. "That was a bluff. At least, initially. Though I've only traveled forward in time once... to my knowledge. Or, twice. Well-- it's complicated."

He winced, not wanting to get ahead of himself. He needed to tell this story chronologically for his own sanity.

"I'll get to that later," he said. "There's more that happened at Terra. Are you done asking about my powers?"

"I mean, next I was about to ask you to demonstrate, but I guess we can save that for later," Hendrik said.

"If I were to demonstrate... I'd have to go to sleep," James said, squinting at Hendrik. "As for going forward in time, I don't have full control over that yet. I can't do it on command."

Hendrik sighed. "Go on, then."

James sighed too, almost in unison.

"So. Terra," he said again. "I started farming, and I mostly kept to myself at first. I had a neighbor at the time by the name of Isabel. She was a bean farmer and her power was that she breathed... I can't remember. Her breath helped plants grow. Something like that. Anyways, she was one of the few people who talked to me, aside from the head farmer Josiah, who I later learned is Zameer's uncle."

"The first few weeks went by rather uneventfully," James said. "But as it got closer to the Day of Peace, there were a few things that happened. Because there as a lot I still didn't understand about Earth and there was a lot I didn't know about just -- how to blend in, really -- I ended up sharing to Isabel the orginial time traveler from the past backstory that Evaline came up with to originally explain how I got here. People were asking about my powers, and I didn't know there was a stigma attatched to time powered people. At least, I didn't expect it to be so strong. Isabel in particular had a pretty vitriolic response to Evaline coming to visit me, and the only reason she seemed to tolerate me was because we'd already become friends. But others in Terra seemed to intentionally avoid me after it got around that I had time related powers."

"That's because people in the safe zone hate the government," Hendrik said matter-of-factly. "We ran away to escape the government. And -- oh, you probably don't know, huh. Government equals time travelers."

"Well, I know that now," James said. "But I didn't fully understand that then."

"Yeah. And Evaline came from that. But she ain't so bad, right, solider boy?" Hendrik asked, looking up at Elias.

Elias just seemed more surprised that he was being drafted into the conversation, and he stood up straighter, no longer spinning the spoon he was idly turning with his fingers.

"Oh. Yeah. She's not like the others," he said. "But you all already know that."

"You know, it's interesting that James practically knew nothing of Evaline, hm?" Hendrik mused, stroking his goatee as he stared back at James.

"Hendrik, can we leave speculations about Evaline and I's relationship for the end?" James asked.

"I'm just saying that it's nice someone could get a nice clean slate of her," he said with an innocent shrug. "You know, since we all came in with biases. But -- no matter. We all ended at the same spot anyways. Go on."

James sighed. Hendrik was going to keep interrupting frequently, wasn't he?

"The news that I had time powers started spreading around at the Terra's day of peace party," James said. "It was at Josiah's house - the head farmer. But before it spread around too much, I was brought into Josiah's household, where I learned he had a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren staying with him. As coincidence would have it, his wife escaped the sectors while with child, and had a son. His name was Forrest, but he wasn't at Terra at the time. The reason I bring this up is because they revealed this secret to me because someone had told them that I was fertile, which was why they trusted me with it. I never did find out who told them, though. Because it wasn't Evaline."

"...You said that Zameer is Josiah's nephew, right?" Alistair said.

James was already putting the pieces together as Alistair asked the question.

"Yes," he said slowly.

Alistair sighed. "Zameer and I talked at the Day of Peace party. We both missed the meeting where you first showed up. Oliver told me to make sure I kept him in the loop too, so I did. He seemed distracted, but it was a party, so I didn't blame him. It's possible he told Josiah about you, but I doubt it was done out of malicious intent. Just ignorance."

James felt his heart sink, but he nodded.

"That woud make sense," he said quietly.

There was a pause as he looked down at the table, with his hands in his lap. He took a deep breath.

"After the Day of Peace... things started to go downhill," he said. "Oliver came the day after the party and he gave me a radio, and asked me about my powers. He seemed curious, but I didn't really feel comfortable divulging too much information just because for one, I didn't really understand my powers in full. I told him that I hadn't had any dreams since I'd come to earth, but that wasn't entirely true. It took a few weeks for me to start dreaming of undone memories, but they were few and far between. Most of them were fuzzy, or distant. I didn't really tell Oliver that, but I did tell him that I had trouble sleeping, and since my power was only active if and when I slept, Oliver said he would give me some sleeping pills to help me sleep, but also in hopes that it would help jumpstart my power."

James's eyes fell to his lap again.

"Mel brought the pills the week after, and..."

He paused, tapping his thumb on his leg.

"Well, the pills worked," he said. "If you can call painfully vivid, life-like nightmares and memories melding together 'working.'"

Hendrik hummed. "I do remember you saying you had bad dreams. I thought the pills were for the bad dreams, though? And to help you sleep, obviously."

"I'm not entirely convinced that the pills were meant to accomplish that," James said. "Sometimes they helped me sleep, but I frequently woke up from memories and nightmares, unable to fall back asleep afterward. I counted how many dreams I had while I was on the medication, and it was almost a month's worth. I was dreaming almost every day... at least, for the nights I did manage to sleep."

"That sounds terrible," Mel said.

"And concerning," Elise added. "Did you get an official name for the sleeping pills? I've ditributed some of these pills before, and those side effects don't sound right."

"No," James said lowly. "They were put in a pill case. There was no label. But -- I was also given motion sickness medicine. Because I uh, discovered that I guess I don't really do well on your motorcycles. That had a label. But not the sleeping pills."

"I swear I thought it was normal sleeping pills," Mel said innocently.

"It's not your fault, Mel," Elise said. "And it's not your fault either, James. You just wanted to sleep. But as a doctor, it concerns me that you took a prescribed medication without knowing what it was. Were the nightmares the only symptoms?"

James stared down into his lap in shame.

"I... I mean, mostly, yes," he said. "The nightmares often felt very real. It... well, now I've figured out what parts of it were real, but at the time..."

He trailed off, not wanting to finish his sentence.

"It got worse," Hendrik said slowly. "Why'd you keep taking it? Now I feel bad for watching you take it. It's supposed to help you sleep better at night, not do the opposite."

"I don't know," James said quietly. "I think I just kept thinking maybe it would help. I was exhausted. I just wanted to sleep."

"Well, nightmares are shitty. But at least it's just nightmares, nothing more."

James nodded slightly.

"There were a few other things that happened during that time," he said slowly. "For one of the visits, Zameer came and took me to the warehouse where he, Tula, and Katya worked."

"Yes," Hendrik seethed, already angry. "Tell us about the traitorous bitches."

James flicked his eyes up at Hendrik, his eyebrows drawn together.

"At the time, they didn't do anything besides... well," he paused, pursing his lips together. "Katya's just a bully, and Tula was constantly trying to flirt with me, which I learned later was her attempt at trying to get information out of me. I never did tell her anything of substance, though. But when I visited her, she took a few pictures of me. I don't know. She had a whole wall of them, full of you guys. She said it was just to capture memories, and my head wasn't -- wasn't really all there, because I was having trouble sleeping and all of the nightmares -- so I didn't really think anything of it. But apparently, Oliver had her take the photos to be distributed to different groups so they knew what I looked like. I... I'll get to that more later."

Hendrik - predictably - reacted. He lifted his hands and angrily pounded the table, glaring across the room at no one in particular.

"That bitch!" he said through gritted teeth. "We all know she's obsessed with the camera because of her power, but to go turn you in? Why? I don't get it. I've known her for a long time. Why would she do that to you?"

"I'm getting to that," James said slowly. "I just... there's more. Okay?"

He sighed. "Okay. Fine. Hurry up with it, then."

"When Oliver issued me the sleeping pills, he told me he wanted to come back afterward and talk to me about 'how it went,'" he said. "If you'll recall, I think it was him who'd scheduled all of your visits, but Evaline came to visit a day before Oliver was scheduled to come. That night, I told her that Oliver had given me a radio. We discovered that it was bugged."

His eyes drifted to Mel in particular as he said the last sentence.

"And this was a week after I met with Elise, Mel, and Alistair about this mission. To come get Elias."

Mel's eyes widened at the realization, but again Hendrik spoke before anyone else could.

"Bugged?" Hendrik sputtered out in disbelief.

"Yes," James said. "Oliver had bugged the radio so he could overhear any and all conversations that occured in my home. Admittedly, I wasn't familiar enough with earth technology to know a radio could even be turned off. I feel very foolish in hindsight. But... it means Oliver overheard a lot."

"Why would Oliver even care?" Malkiel asked.

"So that means..." Mel said, but then trailed off without finishing her setence.

"I believe he was suspicious of me from the start," James said. "But he is also able to see into future timelines. So it's possible he somehow already... I don't know. I can't pretend to understand him. But the radio was bugged."

Before anyone else could butt in, he continued.

"The most significant conversation that he overheard would've been one with Mel," James said. "I shared with her that I was from another world in confidence, and she believed me. So that's how Oliver knew as well."

"Oh, so you tell Mel but not anyone else, huh," Hendrik muttered.

Mel ignored his comment. "That explains why you and Evaline suddenly disappeared for two weeks," she said as she pieced the story together.

"And why we destroyed our radios," James said. "I don't know if any of your radios have been compromised either, but it's worth checking."

"That's it," Hendrik said as he stood up. "We're destroying all of them right now. I'll be right back."

Hendrik didn't even wait for anyone to follow (no one did) because he was already out the door, fuming with anger as he went on to fetch the radios to destroy.

"I... well, okay," Mel said with a small laugh. "I was going to say that the radios can't be bugged because they're specially encrypted ones, but he should destroy it anyways since I wouldn't want anyone tapping it to Katya's powers."

James's eyes lingered on the door where Hendrik disappeared.

"Should I... wait until he gets back?" he asked softly.

"Nah," Mel said with pursed lips. "I say we go on."

"I'm just trying to catch up to things here," Alistair said. "Are you saying Oliver had something to do with Tula and Katya turning on us, then? Since you and Evaline ran away afterwards?"

"Oliver is their boss," James said, his voice low and sober.

"But why? What purpose do they have by doing all this?" Alistair asked, exasperated.

"That..." James sighed. "I don't know how to lead into this, so I'm just going to say it. The council and the refugee program is a fraud. Oliver was a spy from the start, and he'd been blackmailing Evaline into being a spy as well. I can't say if Tula and Katya were in on it from the start, or if he let them in at a later time. But Evaline had been planning to flee into the ungoverned lands in an attempt to escape Oliver and her ties with him before this whole mission. It was just an opportunity for her to do so. Us finding the bug in my radio was just a catalyst for what she'd already been planning, which was to go off grid and never return as a last ditch effort for some semblance of freedom."

Malkiel deeply sighed and facepalmed himself, rubbing his face. He seemed disappointed, but he didn't say anything.

"I remember when Evaline wanted to make the council," Mel said softly, slowly sitting back to clouch on her chair. "I did think it was a random idea, but I was glad she was finding something to look forward to, so I didn't question it. But it's all been a fraud?"

"Yes," James said, looking down at the table with remorse, even though he wasn't responsible for any of it. "I think only a small percentage of the refugees you've tried to help were actually set free. As for the rest..."

Alistair laughed lowly and weakly, running his fingers through his hair, evident that he was stressed. "After the war ended, we were able to have more of a selection for our jobs," he said. "And you know who came up to me to tell me of an opportunity to do research in Sector 1? Oliver. I thought he -- well, I'm having a hard time understanding this. Not because of you, James. I'm just having a hard time understanding why I was dragged into the council in the first place. To help smuggle people out for his bidding? Why me?"

"I... believe Oliver may have picked many of you because of your connections to Evaline," James said quietly. "To keep the threat close to home."

Alistair snapped his hand back down, clenching his jaw. "So the past five years have been an elaborate lie, and we all fell for it," he said thinly.

James didn't think it was his place to say anything. Alistair had already come to the conclusion. He didn't need James to confirm it.

It was Elias who decided to speak up next, clearing his throat.

"I haven't personally met Oliver, but I did know of him," he said. "And... I really do mean it when I said that Evaline isn't like the others. I've met Alicia and occasionally Ovrell -- Oliver's parents -- and they always play the long-term strategy. It's cruel. I'm not surprised that Oliver would do the same. It's awful he did that to Evaline though... and to all of you."

Suddenly the door opened again, and in came Hendrik, brushing his hands togeter. "Okay. Smashed 'em all. I threw them against the wall by the door but didn't have time to clean it up, so watch your step when you leave."

James looked to Hendrik, but the mood in the room was heavy, and sober, and nobody looked at him, nor spoke.

Hendrik was already headed to his chair anyways, and he plopped down with a relieved smile that quickly waned as he looked around. "What'd I miss?" he asked.
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soundofmind says...

"Evaline's a spy," Malkiel said thinly. "That about sums it up."

"The refugee program is a fraud," James said. "Oliver blackmailed Evaline into creating it so that she could serve as his spy. You are all victims of a very long con."

Hendrik stared at James blankly. "...What?" he said lowly.

"We all fell for it, Hendrik," Mel said. "Oliver convinced Alistair to move to Sector 1 for research and disguised smuggling. I unknowingly helped Evaline with making up the fake program. And Malkiel, we all knew you only joined to put Evaline in her place, but you really had no idea it should have been Oliver being put in place. We were all naive. It didn't help that Evaline told us all to trust her, but if she was being blackmailed with the people she was close with... well... I don't blame her."

"I know she's not here to speak for herself," James said soberly. "But she is genuinely remorseful for how it all happened. I've spoken with her about it, and I don't think she expects your forgiveness, but I know she's deeply sorry."

"I don't think any of us have the heart to be angry at her," Elise said softly. "Especially knowing what state she is in now. It sounds like she was being controlled. That's hardly a reason to cast blame."

Hendrik knocked his fists against the table again. "I've known Evaline for a while too. Why is everyone..." He sharply turned towards Malkiel. "Are you a spy?" he hissed.

Malkiel sensed Hendrik's rise in hostility and slowly put his hands up, sitting up straighter since he was slouching.

"I've been trying to find the spy," he hissed back. "You heard me at New Year's, if you can even remember since you were drunk. I thought it was James. I also knew it was Evaline. That doesn't surprise me. We have history and -- never mind. It doesn't matter now. I didn't know that Oliver was involved, though. He fooled all of us. I was so blinded with my own suspicions on Evaline that I didn't consider he'd have played a part. He played us all, Hendrik."

Hendrik sighed deeply, tearing his angry gaze away as he looked back at James. "Fine. No one's the spy. We're all fools. Tell me something I don't know."

"If you'd like me to continue, I will," James said quietly, but he left it open. He knew this was a lot to process. "But if you need a moment, I understand."

Hendrik slammed his fists on the table again, and Malkiel visibly inched away from him.

"Go on!" he barked. "We'll continue. No one needs any moments."

James looked around the rest of the table, looking for the others' input before moving on. Malkiel seemed to be lost in his own head, Alistair still seemed frustrated by himself, and Elise looked worried, like usual. Elias was looking down and spinning the spoon again, still somewhat distancing himself from the conversation, but paying attention. James noticed Rudy at the end of the table. He'd been quiet the whole time, and he looked like he didn't really want to say anything, as he was intentionally avoding eye contact with everyone.

"Go ahead," Mel confirmed. "We want to hear everything."

James nodded slightly.

"Well," he said. "After we destroyed the radio, we left Terra with Elliot, and Sleepy, with no plans of going back. We left in a hurry in the middle of the night, since Oliver was supposed to meet me that morning, and we had to stop by the City of Angels to get supplies because us leaving early for the trip left us unprepared for such a long journey. We were able to get the supplies we needed - like maps, and food - in exchange for work. But..."

His eyes flicked to Hendrik for a moment.

"There was a photographer we ran into by the name of Vance. Oliver had apparently contacted him long before our arrival and distributed the photos of me thorughout the city, alerting the Gaea gang - or tribal group - of me being both fertile and having time powers. He also bribed a weapon's dealer to heavily advertise the Tournament of Arms, which I entered to get my sword as a prize. When my face was televised, the Gaea immediately recognized me from the photographs that Tula took and Oliver circulated amongst them, and after the tournament... I was separated from Evaline and they captured me."

He swallowed, looking down at the table again.

"The Gaea have several people kept as prisoners for the explicit intention of... breeding," James said, cringing at his own use of words. "They wanted me as a prisoner to add time powers to their genepool."

He didn't look up, nor did he wait for the others to interject.

"I was tortured," James said. "Which is why I looked as rough as I did when I met up with Alistair, Elise, and Mel, after Evaline eventually was able to break in and help me -- us -- escape. But I was there for some time. At least half a day, I think. It's hard to say, because--"

He nervously tapped his fingers against his leg.

"--I jumped forward for the first time," he said. "In time. I was under a lot of stress and I think that was what triggered it. For the first time in my life, I later dreamed of my own memories. But it was about six hours' worth of lost time that only returned to me after two or three weeks of dreaming about it after the fact. I still don't know how exactly moving forward in time works. That's the only time I've done it like that."

Hendrik looked at him squarely, his previously angry expression washing into serious concern.

"I don't care about your time jumping powers now," he said. "You were tortured?"

James looked up at Hendrik, responding quickly before anyone else could hop on the pity train.

"Oh," he said hurriedly. "I'm okay now. Besides, it's-- I mean, I've been through worse. It's-- really, you don't have to make a big deal out of it."

"It is a big deal," Mel said, voice laced with worry. "Gosh, James. You always do this. It's okay to feel upset or traumatized. I feel traumatized that you aren't traumatized!"

James could feel the anxiety in his gut stirring again.

"Look," he said. "I'm just trying to get through all of this. We can talk about this later, if you want. I just -- I don't want to talk about this now. I haven't even gotten to the part with Tula and Katya yet."

Hendrik looked like he was about to rage with the mentions of their names, but Elise spoke up before he could.

"I would like to discuss it later too," she said. "But we have plenty of time. We just care about you, James."

James pressed his lips together into a forced, strained smile and he nodded.

"I'm just going to move on," he said quickly. "The only thing of significance that happened before Tula and Katya's betrayal was that at the New Year's party, they both insinuated that they would tell Oliver they suspected I was a spy, which only cruel in hindsight now. But anyway. A month after New Years, just before we were supposed to meet up with Tula and Katya, we ran into an army of neanders called Rattus. The Rattus took Evaline, and a neander who comes from a group called the Thals helped me escape. He took me to their village, telling me that he would help me rescue Evaline from the Rattus, and I stayed the night."

He paused, feeling the weight in his chest.

While he talked, he could see Mel's eyes light up in excitement, which was the exact opposite of what he was feeling.

"You met neanders!" she exclaimed. "And the Thal clan! I'm so jealous!"

James looked to Mel with a sad, distressed expression, wordlessly trying to tell her that it didn't end well.

"Or... well, I don't know much about them. Only stories," Mel said, backpedaling.

"When I got there," James continued. "I found that Arima was staying there."

He paused again, expecting questions.

"Wait, what," Mel said with a small laugh. "Arima? That's so random."

James's grave expression remained.

"She was sent there by Oliver," he said seriously. "She said it was for research. To study the neanders."

Alistair sat up straighter, giving James his undivided attention.

"I woke up that morning tied to a chair," James continued. "Arima was tied in the chair next to me. The neanders dragged Evaline in, gagged and bound. As it turns out, they had a grudge against her, and Tula and Katya were working with them to capture us both. But the neanders wanted revenge. That was when I got shot. And... so did Arima."

The room fell dead silent. Hendrik seemed to look to the others, and it was possible that he didn't even know who Arima was, but he understoof now wasn't a time to interject. Mel, Alistair, Elias, and Elise were all looking at James with wide-eyed shock.

"Evaline and I were taken to a holding cell," James said. "But Arima... wasn't brought back alive."

He closed his eyes.

"I'm so sorry," he said quietly.

"Wh... what?" Mel said quietly. "No, that can't be right. That doesn't even make any sense. Why would she even...?"

"When Evaline woke up here on Earth," James said quietly. "She was going through a hard time. She had Arima dull her memories of her time in Nye to cope, which meant Arima knew about me, and Nye. Oliver her sent her there... because she knew too much. It was a set up."

"No," Mel said, shaking her head with glossy eyes. "That can't be right. She didn't do anything wrong."

James stared down into his lap.

"I know," he whispered.

"You've met Arima," Alistair said with a strained steady voice. "Are you sure? Are you sure it was her?"

James looked up and met Alistair's eyes with great sadness, and he nodded with full seriousness.

There was a short silence, and Alistair slowly stood up, his chair dragging against the floor.

"I'll be right back," he said as he kept his head low and briskly walked out of the room.

"Alistair, wait," Mel called with tears in her eyes, but he didn't wait for her or anyone, ripping the door open and quickly darting away.

"...I'll be with him," Elias said softly as he silently followed after him, leaving the room.

Mel stood up but didn't move, watching the door with an exasperated expression as tears welles up in her eyes before too much built up and it started to flow down.

"Mel," Elise said as she also got up, walking over to her so she could place a hand on her shoulder. "I'm so sorry."

"I just -- I --" Mel stammered. "I think I should... follow." She then slipped out of Elise's grip and stumbled out of the room in a daze.

Elise slowly sat back on her chair, visibly defeated and pained as she watched the door swing to its closed position.

"Elise," James said softly. "You don't have to stay. You can go to them."

"I did know Arima," she said softly. "But not very well. Only through Elias, and Evaline, and Mel. And I know I don't understand all their relationships with her as an adult. And I know that Elias hadn't seen her in almost a decade. I... want to let them grieve together."

James nodded slowly, looking at those that remained in the room. That included Elise, Hendrik, Malkiel, and Rudy.

"Okay," he said quietly. "I'll... wrap this up quickly."

He took in a deep breath.

"Evaline and I were taken to a location hidden in a mountain. We were kept in cells next to each other. I had a one-way window into her cell, so I could see her, but she couldn't see me. She was told that I was dead, and was deprived of food and water for days. I can't be sure exactly how long we were there for because I was unconscious for part of it, but for two days, only Tula and Katya came to taunt me. But on the third day, Oliver arrived in my cell... along with Alina and Ovrell."

He looked down into his lap again with a deep, exhausted sigh.

"They interrogated me about Nye, mostly, and then they came to the agreement that they wanted to bring me to sector 1, where I would be watched closely as I worked under Oliver to refine my skills with my powers and work to find a way to get them to Nye," he said quietly. "Just before they released me to take me with them, Alina went into Evaline's cell to tell her one thing: that she was a failure. And then Oliver followed in after to kill her. He told me that he'd peered into all of her timelines, and all of them stopped up to that moment, just before he would kill her. He was convinced it was because she would die."

"But Oliver had asked me, before he went into her cell to end her life, if I had anything I wanted to tell her," James continued. "I gave him a message with a secret message intertwined, one that only Evaline would understand, in hopes that it would give her the will to fight back. It seemed to have worked, but she was weak, and Oliver was keeping her from going back in time, and he was easily able to overpower her when he entered her cell."

James took in a deep breath.

"Just before Oliver was able to end her life, both Evaline and I used our powers at the same time. I tried to jump forward, and she tried to jump back. But instead of either of us doing so, the opposing forces froze time completely."

They watched James with eerily silent surprise, and it was hard to tell what they may have been feeling, or what they were still trying to process since James said it all at once without much of a stop.

James was surprised when Rudy suddenly reached out with both hands raised, shaking his head in what looked like exasperation.

"Hold on a damn minute," Rudy muttered. "You did what?"

"It wasn't just me," James said. "It was both of us. Though... I figured out first that I was the only one able to move in the midst of the frozen moment. Evaline was... inconsolable, but I was able to get her out."

"Becside of Oliver," Hendrik said through gritted teeth, balling up his fists and holding back his anger. "He tried to kill her. He tried to kill Evaline."

James tensed a little, finding himself dramatically distancing himself from the moment so he didn't feel any of the pain or anger he knew was lingering somewhere beneath the surface. He just needed to finish this. He was almost done.

"When everyone was frozen still," James said. "I was able to grab the keys to the cells and cuffs from Deidra. I... can't remember at this point if I mentioned that she was working for Oliver as well. But I made it to Evaline just before Oliver could succeed. It looked like we had stopped time right up to the last second, and I had to throw Oliver off to get to Evaline. It was... I'm not sure how to describe it. Oliver didn't quite fall, or even react. He was like a frozen statue, and when I moved him, he remained suspended in the air. I... can only assume he fell later. Eventually."

"How the hell does time stopping work?" Hendrik spat out like he was just now processing this. "I never heard of this. Time travelers go back in time. But you go forward and stop time too?"

"Like I said," James said. "I don't think it was just me. I could..."

He sighed.

"If I had to describe it, it was like there was this... invisible tug of war going on. I was trying to pull time forward. Evaline was trying to pull it back. And the pressure we applied was equal, so time came to a stalemate, and it stopped. Everything stopped except for us... I presume, because we were the ones holding the rope," James said wearily. He leaned forward on the table, resting his forehead on the tips of his fingertips. "To use a metaphor."

"Okay, so then what happened to the damn rope afterwards?" Hendrik said, sloppily playing off his metaphor.

"After about ten minutes," James said. "It snapped, and time resumed moving as it normally does. I assume it stopped after ten minutes because that was Evaline's limitations. I don't know what mine are yet."

"Well, we know it ain't torture," Hendrik muttered with a small scoff.

Elise shot him a pointed look, but Malkiel spoke before she could scold him.

"Did you both escape before then?" he asked.

James avoided looking at Hendrik and instead focused on Malkiel. He tried not to squirm under Hendrik's gaze after his comment.

"Yes," he said. "I... I don't really know how I did it. But I was able to free Elliot from the pause in time so he was able to move after a prolonged moment of deep focus. I guess... I don't know. A weird way to extend the metaphor would be to say I was inviting Elliot into the game of tug-of-war, in a way. Just don't overthink it, because--"

"How the hell does a horse play tug-of-war?" Hendrik interrupted.

James facepalmed as he continued to lean one arm on the table, and he sighed deeply.

"So you got the horse to move, and you rode out on it," Rudy said, like he was trying to help James hurry to the end. James was honestly grateful for it.

"Yes," James said wearily. "After maybe five plus minutes of riding through a frozen scene in the mountains, it was like the world woke up again and resumed as normal. From there, I did my best to take care of Evaline, Elliot, and Sleepy for the next two weeks until we finally made it here. And that brings us to the present."

"Does Evaline know she helped 'freeze time' or whatever the hell you're calling it?" Hendrik asked. "Don't know why she'd want to remove a power like that. Seems like it could have a lot of utility if you two work together."

James still sat with his hand hslf covering his face and stared down at the table.

"I didn't tell her until just before this whole conversation with all of you," he said distantly. "I didn't fully understand it. There was a lot in my mind. I was just trying to keep both of us alive and trying not to get caught. But..."

He swallowed, his mouth feeling dry.

"I wish I had," he said quietly. "But I don't know if it would've made a difference. Maybe it would've. Maybe..."

He stopped himself there, letting the though hang in the air as he closed his eyes for a moment and sat up straight again and let out one last sigh.

"I think that's everything you all need to know for now," he said, feeling spent.

"It's not your fault, James," Elise said gently. "You did all you could. You both were in a difficult situation and made it out alive. Don't fret over what could have gone better. It happened, and we'll get through this together. You're strong and so resilient for making it this far."

James looked to Elise with tired eyes.

"Thank you, Elise," he said, but the words felt hollow.

There was a small pause, and then Rudy cleared his throat.

"When I was alone with Evaline," Rudy said. "After I'd finished hooking her up with the IV and everything, she stopped me and asked about the procedure. I was very hesitant at first, but she practically insisted."

James looked over to Rudy, but he didn't say anything. He didn't know what to say to that.

Elise sighed deeply, filling in his silence and also looking at Rudy with tired, weary eyes.

"Sometimes patients will ask for things they think will help, but will often be detrimental to them," she said. "It could be anything. Something as small as a drug, or as big as a surgical procedure. Evaline asked for the latter - but not just any procedure. A procedure to remove her powers. Rudy, I know you helped me with Elias and Samiya's procedure, but I wished you'd have told me. There are so many hidden caveats to this experimental procedure, like how it doesn't fully remove a power, and its success rate isnt always 100%, and that it only works with some power types. It works well on a cellular level, which is why it's perfect for Elias and Samiya. But Evaline - time powers... That's based on the nervous system. The procedure has never been done on powers that are neurally-based before because there are a lot of risks. And..."

Elise sighed again, looking at James with sad, apologetic eyes.

"It's hard to tell if her powers truly were removed or dulled," she said. "But we'll do everything we can to keep her comfortable until she does wake up. We have a few months supply of IV fluids, but we can make another supply run. None of us are giving up or planning on leaving her, James."

James let his eyes drift across the table. Rudy was staring down in shame, and Hendrik looked like he was conflicted whether he should be pitying James or reverting his anger to Rudy. Malkiel was also quiet, watching James for a reaction.

"I appreciate the support," James said, even though he didn't feel quite present as he said them. "And the explanation."

He then turned to Rudy, and though he didn't really want to, he gingerly reached out and touched Rudy's shoulder to grab his attention, since Rudy didn't seem like he was going to look up otherwise. Rudy glanced up at James with shame blanketing his face.

James held his eyes for a moment, trying to hold on, and stay present for this. So he could say it from his heart, like he meant it.

"Rudy," he said steadily. "I know you didn't mean to be careless, and you don't need to walk on eggshells around me. I know you are beyond sorry."

He paused, reciting the words first in his heart, and then out loud.

"I forgive you," he said quietly, and then he pulled his hand away.

Rudy didn't look like he knew what to do with that, as he only went back to staring down at the table.

"How insistent was she?" Hendrik asked. He seemed to be past the point to care whether his words were insensitive or not. "Just seems careless and reckless unless she practicslly begged for it. And even then, that doesn't sound right for the boss."

Rudy flicked his eyes up at Hendrik.

"I wanted to run it by Elise first," Rudy said quietly. "But Evaline said Elise would be busy with James, and likely very spent afterward. She..."

Rudy sighed deeply.

"She did beg," he said, his voice filled with regret. "With tears in her eyes."

James was silent. He felt like he already knew why she was so desperate to be rid of her powers. Especially after...

"Because of what happened with Ovrell and Alina," Hendrik said flatly. "She wanted to cut ties with them. After everything they'd done to her and James. Is that it?"

James only managed to weakly nod as he leaned forward with his arms crossed on the table.

"God dammit!" Hendrik roared while pounding his fists on the table again. "Evaline has always been anti-government despite growing up with them. But turns out she had been manipulated this entire time to the point that she felt like she had to remove herself. I swear I can kill Oliver and all the fucking time travelers."

James raised both of his hands to his face and dragged his fingers up to his hairline.

Technically, he fell into that category of time travelers, but he was beyond tired, and pointing out the inconsistency wasn't worth the effort.

"We need to focus on staying safe before anything else," James said quietly. "Make sure they can't find us."

"You bet your ass we're doing that," Hendrik said sternly, still biting back anger. "We've already started early this morning. I masked animal scents and Malkiel blew new scents in different directions. Mel will help in disguising the place some more. We're going to be in here for a while. We can't go back to the safe zone now. Fuck. I've left behind all the animals in the sanctuary. Fuck!"

"Something needs to be done about Oliver," Malkiel said cooly while Hendrik continued to mutter about his regrets over his animals. "No one knows about the true purpose of the refugee program except us."

Rudy got to his feet abruptly.

"I'm going to check on the kids," he said distantly, before turning to leave. No one stopped him as he disappeared, closing the door behind him.

"Hendrik, we should go back," Malkiel continued, his eyes fixed on his to show that he was serious. "We need to undo the damage created. It's the right thing to do."

"I don't think any of us should be making hasty decisions," James said wearily, not looking up at any of them. "Sometimes the things that are right are also impossible. Not every battle can be won. Oliver, Alina, and Ovrell... they far outnumber us in manpower and foresight. I cannot dictate your decisions, but I think we've all experienced enough grief for one day. I would rather the two of you not run off on a suicide mission. Please."

At that, James slowly stood up, sliding off the side of his stool.

"I'm going to go to Evaline, now," he said quietly. "Unless anyone had any further pressing questions."

The three of them kept their stare on James for a moment, but then Hendrik turned to Malkiel.

"Yeah, are you insane?" he spat out. "We can't go against time travelers and people who can see into futures."

"Thank you, James," Elise answered for him as Malkiel took Hendrik's bait and they bickered. "It took so much courage to say everything. Thank you. Please go see Evaline. I'll make sure the others are doing okay."

James nodded, unable to hide anymore the look of deep sadness on his face.

"Okay," he said quietly as he turned to leave.

When he entered the hall, it was empty.
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Carina says...

Alistair felt his heart beating loudly against his head while his vision blurred. He heard someone call his name, but he didn't care. He needed to get away.

Alistair rushed down the hall, frantically reaching out to open the door in front of him. It wasn't his room. It was Evaline's.

This was partly her fault, wasn't it? Even if she didn't purposefully plan this, her drama and lashing out had caused this. Even if inadvertently, she had caused Arima to...

Alistair ripped open the door, marching in and briskly walking towards Evaline. He knew she wasn't going to respond, but he didn't care. For once, she was forced to listen. For once, she couldn't run away. She was forced to pay attention and face the consequences of her actions, even though she couldn't speak or do anything in response.

"Did you know?" he asked with shaky desperation in his voice as he stomped to her side. "Did you know about Arima? Did you know she died? That's why you're like this, isn't it?"

He felt his voice get heavier and heavier, the knot forming at the back of his throat. He couldn't push back the emotions projected out of his mouth, but he also couldn't cry or do much else but yell.

"You're always like this," he continued lowly, intensely staring at her peaceful face, silently begging for her to at least twitch to indicate that she was listening. "You haven't changed at all. You're always so dramatic and over-the-top. You cause destruction wherever you go. Why don't you ever listen to me? You can't always try to change things, Evaline. Why can't you just move on?"

Alistair found himself yelling angrily over Evaline's face, and while he paused to heavily take deep breaths, he heard the door open and close behind him. Without wasting a beat, he snapped his head around to see Elias slowly approach, hands out in front of him like he was trying to coax an animal.

"Alistair..." Elias said sadly as he approached.

Alistair didn't care. He whirled around and glared at her again, clenching his jaw.

This was just like last time, wasn't it? Except this time, he was older and wiser. This time, he wasn't afraid to directly say what he wanted to say. He had run this haunting scene in his mind over and over in the past. He didn't want to repeat it.

"You've been gone for so long, Elias," Alistair said lowly. "You expect us to be the same as when we were kids. We're not. This is real life. We've moved on. But you know what? Evaline hasn't moved on. She's still so angry over you. She didn't even want to come to this trip at first, but then she changed her mind." He mirthlessly laughed. "Probably because she just wanted to remove her power. All this work, all this destruction, only for it to end this way."

Elias quietly slipped to the other side of the bed, sitting on the stool as he solemnly set his gaze on Evaline.

"She can hear you, you know," he said quietly. "Evaline's not dreaming. She's unconscious, but aware. She can hear what you're saying."

Alistair couldn't stop the mirthless giddy laugh escape his throat as he shook his head. He didn't know what was coming over him. This was unlike him, and he knew it. But it was like all pent-up anger and frustration he had of Evaline over the past decade came to the surface. All because of Arima.

Arima. Arima was dead. Alan was dead. The two people he grew up with, that consistently kept him company. At least, up until the months preceding the end.

Evaline was involved with both of them and their demise. And now, he was alone. He was going to be alone again while the others moved on in their own ways without him, wasn't he?

"That's just perfect, isn't it," Alistair said with a hollow voice as he continued to fiercely stare at Evaline. "Evaline. Now you're forced to hear what I have to say."

He heard the door open again as someone who was sniffing walked in, and Alistair didn't need to look back to know that it was Mel. But he didn't care to stop. She should hear this too. All three of them should. They were the only ones left out of the naive childhood friend group, after all. It was time they had a real discussion.

"You can't run away from this," Alistair continued. "You can't run away from your actions. Arima -- she's dead. And you spiraled. And now you're in a coma. And now you're causing so much pain and suffering again. How long are you going to keep us here, Evaline? You can't run away like you did last time. Arima and her dad can't take away your memories anymore. You have to face this. You have to wake up. When are you going to stop despairing and move on? When are you going to forgive and forget? Have you ever even--"

He was suddenly interrupted by a forceful slap across his face, and for a moment, shock took over. Alistair raised his hand to hold his aching cheek as he slowly turned his head to see Mel standing beside him.

For the first time ever within the inside group of friends, Mel was angry. There were dried tears on her face, but her angry eyes were lit aflame, piercing through his own eyes. Her lips were tightly pressed together, her brows were drawn low and wrinkled towards each other.

"Don't you dare talk to Evaline like that," Mel snarled. "Don't dump your baggage on to her. Look at her. She's been fighting this battle for so long, Alistair."

Alistair didn't even know what to say. He could only stare at her in response with a dumbfounded expression, pathetically holding his face.

"She has never brought her troubles to you or me. Why are you bringing it to her?" Mel said, still seething.

"She -- she's been like this since Alan," Alistair said weakly, grasping for words.

"Where have you been in the aftermath of that?" Mel quickly countered, her hands flying in the air. "She invited us to go with her, but we let her go, Alistair. And guess who was the only one who eventually went after her? Me. You wanted to stay behind. Don't you dare criticize her when you didn't even try to help!"

"You all left me!" Alistair yelled back, not knowing if this was a cry of desperation, grief, or anger. "Classes stopped. You were always with Elias, and Evaline was always with Alan. Arima was only -- she pitied me. But what happened afterwards had nothing to do with me or her. It was always about you three. It was always about you three. Don't bring me into this."

He didn't want to argue with Mel. Not really. But they never did address the faults and the nuances of what happened that day, because they had never had an opportunity for the four of them to come together to discuss it. Or, at least, the five of them. Arima was supposed to be here. She played a part too.

"I can't believe you," Mel said quietly, the anger dissipating and replaced with sorrow. Tears welled up in her eyes again. "This is how you grieve Arima? By blaming Evaline? You've criticized her for so long that she blamed Elias for what happened. How are you any different?"

Alistair was at a loss of words again, but Mel didn't care. She shook her head and closed her eyes, the tears rolling down her face. She didn't wait for a response as she shoved past him and headed towards the door again to leave the room.

That was just it, wasn't it. Even though he always called Evaline the dramatic one, he knew deep down that he wasn't much different. Maybe that was why they hadn't fully clicked or got along as well. They shared the same ugly similarities in traits.

Alistair just didn't want to admit it.

"Alistair..." Elias said softly as Mel slammed the door behind them. He looked up at him with heavy sympathy in his eyes despite him being the catalyst that started everything that went wrong in their lives. "I'm so sorry you felt like you were alone back then. I should have spent more time with you before we graduated."

"You had your own troubles to worry about," Alistair said sharply, keeping his eyes sternly on Evaline, hoping the steely gaze was enough to push back the tears he finally felt behind his eyes.

Elias slowly stood up and walked to the other side of the bed to stand beside him, gently placing his hand on his shoulder.

"And I'm... I never got to say this," he said quietly. "And I know this doesn't mean anything to you now, but I'm so sorry about Alan. I... I think about him a lot. What I should have done. Could have done. How I could have prevented all of this..."

Alistair felt the tension in his body stiffen, and he felt more and more distant as a tear fell down his eye despite him not blinking.

"And I don't think it's fair that no one asked, 'How's the brother doing?' I can understand why you felt like Evaline -- and even me -- how we took away the spotlight from the support you needed, especially from Mel and Arima. I'm so sorry, Alistair," Elias said. "I'm so sorry you're experiencing more grief and loss with Arima. And I -- we're here now. You're right that things won't be the same, but... I'm willing to be here for you now if you'd let me."

Alistair tightly closed his eyes, feeling the hot tears effortlessly stream down his face. He didn't know what to say. He hardly ever did.

He missed Alan. He'd know what to say to this. He'd tell him what to do. He always gave good advice.

Elias's hand slowly slipped off of his shoulder. "I'm going to comfort Mel," he said softly and gently. "I'll give you some space. When you're ready, let's talk again. Okay?"

Alistair didn't respond. He felt weak, and he felt like Evaline right now. He just wanted to deny, or hide, or run away rather than face his own problems.

"Okay," Elias said after a long pause, and Alistair could hear him shuffle away. "I'll wait for you whenever you're ready."

Alistair didn't move as he heard him walk away and quietly close the door behind him. Time felt still for a moment. How fitting, since Evaline was a time traveler, and here he was, standing over her, able to speak his mind with all the time in the world.

He took a shaky, deep breath, willing the tears to subside as he stared emptily at the wall at the other side of the room.

"It's not just your fault, you know," he said with a weak voice, his chest feeling hollow and caved in. "It's my fault too. I've always been wary of Oliver, but I told Arima that she could trust him while I was gone. It was Oliver who told me that there was a scheduled Neander visit, and I - I was selfish. I wanted to be the one to take the round of data, but couldn't because of this trip. So I... I told her that... I told Oliver that she could..."

He couldn't even finish the sentences. He couldn't. It pained him too much.

Guilty tears streamed down his face again, and he quickly wiped his face with his sleeve, sniffing.

"I know," Alistair croaked. "I was being dramatic too, wasn't I? I guess we have that in common. Neither of us know how to properly grieve. We process it so different..."

He sniffed again, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.

"I'm sorry, Evaline. Just wake up. I'll stop being dramatic if you stop too. Just wake up. Please," he whispered, looking down at her for a reaction.

A twitch. A subtle movement. A low noise. Anything.

But she gave nothing. She didn't move. She didn't react. She was truly in a coma.

Alistair hoarsely laughed at himself, not knowing why that was the natural reaction. He sniffed and blinked away the tears as he reached for the hidden inner pocket of his jacket, pulling out a pack of cigarettes he had rolled himself when the nights became long.

"Did you know I smoked?" he said with another weak, soulless laugh. "All the firefighters did. I picked up on the habit when everyone left after graduation. I've since stopped being dependent on it, but..."

He rolled one of the cigarettes between his fingers, wearily eyeing the balcony door.

"Old habits die hard."
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soundofmind says...

James wasn't sure where he'd been expecting everyone to be, but when he opened the door to Evaline's room, he felt like he was intruding, even though the room was empty.

Evaline's room, while it had a large bed, also had a door that looked like it led outside. The door hung open, and James could see Alistair leaning on what looked like a balcony railing, smoking.

James didn't know Alistair smoked, but there were many things he didn't know about everyone.

Quietly, he pulled up a scattered chair again to Evaline's bedside, scooting so he was close.

"Eve," he said softly. "It's me. James."

He reached out to hold her hand, squeezing it weakly.

"It looks like... you already know that they know," he said, whispering just for her to hear. "I told them everything that happened."

He glanced out the open door. Alistair wasn't paying attention, nor did he seem to notice James at all.

"I know I told you I'd tell you how it went after," he said, feeling another wave of sadness start to hit him again. Tears came quickly this time, and they started flowing down before he could even blink.

"I'm okay," he whispered hoarsely. "Just tired is all. I hope it's alright that I just stay here with you again for a while. If I drift off, just... I'll still be here."

He slowly curled over his and Evaline's hands, letting the tears drip down onto the bedsheet.

"I'll stay," he repeated softly.

His head felt heavy with tiredness again, and James didn't have the will to fight the tug of sleep. He rested his head behind his arm as he bent over on the side of the bed, still holding Evaline's hand.

His head hurt, and he drifted slowly, at first, and then he fell asleep.

The faint creaking of a door jolted hkm awake. James didn't know how much time had passed, but his internal clock told him it couldn't have been long. He sat up straight, blinking his bleary eyes.

Alistair had come back in from the balcony, and was walking towards the door to the hall to leave.

"Sorry for intruding," Alistair said distantly, barely giving James more than a glance as he started to shuffle towards the exit.

James stared at him for a moment, his mind still half asleep.

"Don't worry about it," he said quietly. "You weren't."

Alistair didn't look back, and he slipped out without another word, quietly closing the door behind him.

James blinked at the door, still trying to shake off the headache forming at the front of his skull and the weariness that still clung to him.

He looked over to Evaline, lingering his gaze on her for a moment before he found himself nodding off.

He leaned back over, not caring how the position would ruin his neck. He refused to leave Evaline's side, even if he was sleeping.
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soundofmind says...

James wasn't sure how long he slept, but he found himself groggily waking to the sound of footsteps going down the hall. He slowly sat up, feeling the stiffness in his neck and shoulders from sleeping in a weird, bent-over position. With a wince, he turned his head from side to side, trying to stretch it out and release some tension.

He let took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, then turning his attention to Evaline. Her hand was still in his, and he slipped his fingers between hers, even though she couldn't return the squeeze. He brought his other hand around theirs to help curl her fingers for her, gently holding their hands together.

"I'm not usually this sleepy," he said with a faint, tired laugh. "I hope I won't be to boring of company. Maybe I'll just have to write more stories or something, then I could tell them to you. Just something as entertainment to pass the time. I think I still have the harmonica you gave me too... I have to check. I honestly didn't even think of it until now."

He looked down at their hands, huffing out some air through his nose.

"It doesn't look like Tula and Katya really rifled through our things. If I had to guess, they probably didn't know anything about horses and were eager to leave Elliot alone," James said with a weak smile. "I kind of wish I'd seen it. Elliot giving them a hard time."

He squeezed her hand a little bit.

"I don't know," he said softly. "It might've been funny. Tula and Katya don't really seem like the kinds of people to like animals, and I feel like animals wouldn't like them either. Animals are pretty good at seeing to the heart of a person. At least, most are. There's a few dogs I've met who love anyone willing to give them attention, but... besides dogs."

He fell to silence for a moment, finding his mind drifting back to his conversation with the others. He hadn't expected it to go smoothly, especially with the news that he had to deliver, but it felt like there had been so many strong emotions all in a span of an hour, and he didn't know what to do with all of it.

He almost felt guilty for not telling them some things sooner. But he didn't know that it would've saved them from any of the pain they were experiencing now.

"I told them about us," he said. "Not the personal things. But how you came to Nye first, and then I came here. They were skeptical about me being from another world at first, but I think it helped that Mel believed me, and they were willing to hear me out. I showed them the first note as proof. You probably would've laughed looking at Hendrik's face as he tried so hard to rip it in half. He was practically popping a vein."

James looked down at their hands with a small smile, laughing quietly.

"I think they believe me now," James said, but his smile faded quickly. "At least, most of them. I'm not sure if they believe everything. But..."

He sighed, turning to Evaline to watch her face, even though he'd long since stopped expecting any sort of reply.

"I guess it was kind of nice to finally say it," James said. "So I don't have to keep pretending anymore. It's nice to--"

James stopped abruptly, hearing a knock at the door. He glanced at Evaline, then at the door.

"Yes?" James asked.

"Am I interrupting?" Rudy asked through the door.

James was a little confused that Rudy was stopping by, but maybe he was there to check on Evaline's vitals. He didn't know.

"You can come in," James said.

There was a brief pause before James saw the handle turn, and Rudy stepped into the room. He had a small medkit in his hands.

"I hope I'm not intruding," Rudy said, still sounding apologetic. James had a feeling he'd be like this for a while, and he knew he couldn't alleviate the guilt Rudy felt.

"Elise mentioned that she was only able to partially heal your wounds last night," Rudy said. "I don't have to do it now, but I figure if they're still causing you pain or discomfort I can make it quick. I got plenty of sun this morning, so it shouldn't be too draining."

James hesitated to reply, and just as he opened his mouth to speak, Rudy spoke again.

"If you want," he said quickly, like he was emphasizing that he wasn't forcing it. He lifted up one of his hands. "I can leave if you want."

James glanced at Evaline, and then slowly pulled his hands away.

"We can get it over with," he said. "Where should I...?"

"Oh, you can just sit there," Rudy said, slowly walking over and pulling up a chair beside James. "Elise mentioned some claw-mark slashes. Would you mind showing me where those are?"

James nodded slowly. Now that he wasn't wearing his own clothes, he only had one layer, so he just lifted up his shirt, showing his side. Elise had stuck a patch of gauze over it with some tape since it was still partially open.

"Do you mind if I remove the bandage?" Rudy asked.

"Go ahead," James said as he lifted his arm and leaned it on the back of the chair.

Rudy gingerly peeled off the edges of the tape and pulled the bandage off with gentle tugs to his skin. Quickly, he pulled out a small bag out of his medkit and disposed the bandage into it, shaking it away as he set it on the floor.

Rudy leaned over, looking in closer.

"Okay, okay," Rudy hummed. "Where are the other claw-marks?"

"One's on my lower leg," James said.

"And then there's the bullet wound," Rudy said.

"Yes," James replied.

"Okay," Rudy said, and there was a short, awkward pause as Rudy reached out, but then hesitated, almost like he was remembering something. Perhaps something Elise had said to him.

"Are you okay if I touch it to heal it?" Rudy asked.

James blinked for a moment, and then nodded slowly.

"Yeah," he said. "Go for it."

With a too-quick nod, Rudy gently reached out his hand and placed it over the wound. As he slowly dragged his hand over it, James could feel a faint, penetrating warmth, felt like the sun. Rudy was quick about it, though, and when he pulled his hand away, what remained was a trio of scars running across his side, just under his ribs.

James dropped his shirt, and glanced up at Rudy as Rudy started rifling though his med kit and disinfected his hands.

"The leg, now?" Rudy asked.

James nodded and lifted up his pant leg. He knew he'd had to partially remove his pants eventually, but he didn't really feel like doing that just yet. As James rolled his pants up to his knee, Rudy knelt down on the floor to inspect the wound, and they ran through a similar series of questions before Rudy healed it up, leaving another similar scar that matched the one on his side.

As Rudy turned around to sanitize his hands again, James got to his feet with a sigh and pulled his pants down to his knees and sat back down, looking at the bandage that sat over the bullet wound.

While the wound didn't hurt with the same stabbing intensity as it did formerly, his leg still ached, and the pain was still present. When Rudy turned back, he looked a little surprised that James had already taken the initiative, but he was quick to hide it, nodding to himself as he pulled his chair a little closer to the side of the injured leg.

James had already taken off the bandage, and he held it out towards Rudy. Rudy lifted up the trash bag and let James drop it in before Rudy tossed the bag back onto the floor and looked down at the partially-healed bullet wound.

"How much does it hurt right now?" Rudy asked quietly.

James wasn't sure how to measure that.

"It's... bearable," James said.

Rudy stared at James for a moment, and then his eyes drifted to the side and he slowly nodded. James felt like he could read the thoughts passing through his mind for a moment, and he had a feeling they were similar to Hendrik's previous remarks. James's definition of bearable was different from the average person.

"Okay, well, let's get this fixed up then," Rudy said. He lifted up his hand, and this time only asked with a look of his eyes if he could touch him, and James nodded.

Rudy laid his first three fingers over the bullet wound, and James felt the same penetrating warmth, but it went deeper this time, pulling together the remaining severed tissue and muscles. He watched Rudy's face, noting how Rudy was staring down at his hand, serious, and deeply focused.

It took a little longer, but no more than a minute. Rudy pulled his hand away, and James could feel a small, euphoric rush of relief run through his body now that the pain was gone.

"Well, that's it, then," Rudy said as he cleaned his hands one last time. "All done."

James was quick to pull his pants back up while Rudy packed up his med kit and grabbed the trash bag off the floor. Both of them were on their feet when Rudy turned around and looked at James, albeit a little awkwardly, and then his eyes flicked to the door.

"I'll be going now," Rudy said with a small bow of his head. "If you need anything else, feel free to let me know."

James bowed his head in return.

"Sure," he said. "Thank you."

With that, Rudy turned and hurried out of the room. He seemed eager to get it over with, or just eager to avoid the two people who were the most present sources of his guilt. James sighed, staring at the door for a moment as he turned to look back at Evaline, and sat down on a chair beside her again.

"I guess you'll be overhearing a lot these days," he said with a weak, sad smile as he once again took her hand. "I hope it won't feel like I'm talking your ear off."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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soundofmind says...

James had moved all of his things into Evaline's room. That inlcuded the contents from their saddlebags, and Sleepy, who, while perfectly happy to be with Elliot, was cowering away from Bongo in the stable room where the other beasts were being kept. James checked in on Elliot after everyone had gathered for dinner, and Elliot seemed relieved to see him.

When he returned to Evaline, it was with Sleepy in his hands, and a good report. Hendrik was truthful that Elliot seemed comfortable with Bongo and Higgins, and James was content with that.

James slept on the floor that night next to Evaline's bed, and Sleepy curled up next to him. When he woke up, he spent the whole morning with her, and Elise had slipped in to give him breakfast. She seemed to understand that he didn't want to leave Evaline's side unless it was needed.

To pass the time, James played a small concert on the harmonica just for Evaline. He couldn't really call it a concert, since there was an audience of one, but that was what he told Evaline, because he wanted her to feel special. Because she was.

James left the door to the balcony open when the sun was at its peak to let some light and air in, and he was sitting beside Evaline's bed, writing in his journal as he felt the faint breeze come in. It was nice.

He paused in his writing when he heard a knock at the door, and he prompty closed his journal with the pencil inside, setting it on the small side-table behind him.

"Hey, can we come in?" Mel said, and he could see her partly peeking her head out of the slightly open door.

"Yeah," James said. "Come on in."

Mel opened the door wider and walked in. Right behind her was Alistair and Elias, who wordlessly followed behind as she pulled up a stool to sit next to James.

"We didn't hear the rest of the story yesterday," Mel said. "But we're ready to hear the rest of it now."

James sat up a little straighter and nodded, his eyes flicking to the scattered few chairs around the room. There were just enough for everyone to sit if they wanted. His eyes caught on Sleepy though, who had gotten up from the little nest of cloths she had in the corner. She was wandering over to Elias's feet and pecked at his shoe.

"Sure," James said. "You can come in and sit if you want."

Alistair nodded, wordlessly walking to the other side of the bed, sitting down. Elias bent down to pick up Sleepy and held her in his arms for a moment, amused as he gave her a few pets. After this quick distraction, he followed Alistair to the other side of the bed, slowly sitting down and setting Sleepy on his lap.

"Your pet chicken is nice," Elias said as he looked down at her and gave her another pat.

James offered Elias a small smile. "Thanks. She was a gift from Hendrik. Her name is Sleepy."

Elias lightly laughed through his nose. "Patsy would be another good name."

"So, James," Mel cut in. "The others said we should hear the next part of the story from you. Hopefully it's fine to say it here." She glanced at Evaline.

"Evaline is already aware of all of it," James said. "There are some gaps in my understanding that she might be able to fill, but... for now I will do my best to tell you what I know."

He looked over at Evaline, and he gave her a brief look of sadness, but he quickly washed it away.

"I'm not sure where to start," he said, glancing at the others. "Do you want me to start back at the neanders?"

"What happened after the neanders?" Alistair asked, avoiding eye contact.

James nodded slightly, more to himself than anything.

"Evaline and I were taken to an underground location, hidden within a mountain, not unlike where we are now. Though the tunnel that dug into the mountain was considerably much less deep, and shallow in comparison. Evaline and I were put in separate cells, but I had a one-way window to look into hers. She'd been locked up in a large cage, and I was chained up and bound. I don't know exactly how long I'd been there before I came to, but Tula and Katya were the first ones to see me. They taunted me, mostly, but I learned that they'd told Evaline that I was dead."

He paused, his eyes flicking to Evaline. He didn't feel like he had to say it out loud. They knew that Evaline had spiralled, and James didn't feel like it would be helpful for him to say it in front of her. Not like this.

"That's so cruel," Mel said with hurt in her voice, drawing her brows together in sympathy as she also kept her gaze on Evaline. "I didn't know they were so cruel."

"...For the first two days they came by, I refused to talk to Tula," James said. "Whenever I turned her away, she would go into Evaline's cell, and say something just as cruel - like she was just trying to pour salt into an open wound. So the next time she came by I caved and decided to entertain her. She seemed... almost eager to tell me things. I'd already pieced together that she was working for Oliver, but she confirmed it for me. She said that she served as the eyes, and Katya was the ears. Deidra was the muscle. I don't know what interest Tula has in this because she never told me, but I gathered that Oliver's offering her something she wants in return."

"I know I don't know them, but..." Elias said as he slowly glanced at everyone to see if he had their attention. "That sounds like a typical military reconnaissance team. We'd even call it 'eyes' and 'ears' and 'muscle.' Oliver was going to inherit the military eventually. Maybe that's related?"

"That's... possible," James thought out loud.

"I don't know," Mel said as she slumped back in her chair, arms crossed. "It makes sense that Katya would be siding with Tula since Katya was brought on because of her. But Evaline has known Tula for a while. They were part of the rebellion."

Elias glanced between Mel and James. "Well, er..." he stammared for a bit as he then diverted his attention back to Sleepy. "Is it common knowledge that there were spies in the rebellion? Because there were spies in the rebellion."

Mel stared at him, dumbfounded.

"I don't know who it could have been, though," Elias continued. "I just know that it was infiltrated, and that was how we - yeah. I don't know if Evaline knew, either."

"That would make sense of Tula's behavior," James said slowly. "She didn't seem like she was acting against her will. If she's been on Oliver's side from the start, then she may have just been part of the long con. I don't know if Evaline knew about Tula during the war, though."

Alistair leaned forward, rubbing his face with his hand and running it down his hair, visibly frustrated. "The refugee program was a long con," he said thinly. "I wouldn't be surprised if this con ran longer than we thought, especially with Oliver being eerily clairvoyant."

"I can't believe none of us saw it," Mel said softly.

James looked down at the bed, his eyes drifting back to Evaline.

"Oliver has been trained to manipulate, control, and decieve for all of his life," James said. "We were all tricked by him. I don't think we can blame ourselves."

"Yeah. Yeah, we were tricked. You're right," Alistair said with a sigh. "Let's move on. I want to hear what happened next."

James looked to Alistair with a faint look of empathy and understanding, but he nodded quickly.

"After I spoke with Tula, I quickly realized that she was unaware of Oliver's motivations," James explained. "It seemed that she was kept in the dark about me, and why Oliver thought I was important enough to keep me alive. She kept trying to pry answers out of me, but it didn't work. Eventually, she left, but she told me that the next day I would have company."

"Oliver was the one who came first," he said. "He explained some of the things I'd already told you, about how he'd lined everything up to entrap us. He spoke to me in a manner as if nothing had happened. I think he's always kept up that polite, unreadable persona so people can't see his true motivations."

"For five years, he kept up the act of the bumbling awkward leader," Alistair said slowly. "I don't think any of us really fully bought it, but at the same time, the act worked so well, it didn't raise any of our red flags when it should have."

"He did a really good job," Mel said. "From the bad gifts he gives us on our birthdays, to playing mediator during petty disagreements, to throwing parties to forcefully get us to bond as a team... I don't know if it was an act, or if we were gullible. Especially since we were all very wary of him from the start."

"I think Oliver is just very good at what he does," James said. "Though... I do think the awkwardness is, at least in some way, genuine."

He paused, clearing his throat.

"From what little I observed."

"No, you're right," Elias said, then paused petting Sleepy to think. "About the awkward part. He's pretty awkward and clumsy in comparison to his parents. It's mildly amusing that he's supposed to be the next big leader." He paused again. "Not that it's funny, or good at all. Just also an observation, I guess."

James nodded slowly, and though he appreciated Elias's genuine contributions to the conversation, he couldn't help but feel like he had to keep yanking the tone of the conversation back to...serious. Or more serious.

"After Oliver stepped in," he said. "His father Ovrell followed."

"Ovrell was there?" Elias said as he snapped his head up at James. "Ovrell and Oliver?"

"Yes," James said.

Elias didn't say much more, looking lost in thought as he then resumed petting Sleepy at a different spot of her back this time. James took the small silence as a sign to continue.

"Their meeting with me was brief. Ovrell interrogated me mostly on the nature of my powers, and I knew it was because he was trying to prove my worth," he said. "And why I should still be alive. Because of that, I cooperated. After a few sharp questions, he and Oliver left. Later, Oliver returned with Deidra. She... stood by me as a silent threat if I wasn't cooperative while Oliver continued to talk to me. He tried to appeal to me that I should be cooperative and asked me more specific questions about how my powers worked. He went on a spiel about how free will doesn't exist and how I should care more about my powers, like he was trying to convince me that he and I were the exception to that rule."

He paused again for a second, but when it looked like no one had anything they were burning to say, he kept going.

"He left again, and when he returned, it was with Ovrell again. But also Alina," he said.

"Alina was there too?" Elias asked, shocked. "Evaline's mom?"

"Yes," James answered.

"For Ovrell and Alina and even Oliver to leave the sectors and be in the same room... That's a really big deal," Elias said. "And what for?"

Mel and Alistair exchanged glances at each other, like they could anticipate the answer, but they didn't say their speculations out loud.

James swallowed.

"They wanted to know about Nye," he said.

"Like the tribal community?" Elias asked.

James blinked.


Elias stopped to stare back at him, confused for a moment before realization washed over his face. "Oh. Sorry. I forgot you meant -- right. Go on."

"There's a tribal community called Nye...?" James asked quietly, still staring at Elias in confusion.

"...There was one," Elias said as he looked down at Sleepy again. "I don't remember what the sectors called them. But they did speak to me... before. And I didn't really understand what they were saying. But I thought it was weird they kept mentioning the word Nye. I don't know. It might not be related. I don't know if this is at all helpful."

James nodded slowly.

"Okay," he said. "We'll... talk about that later. The Nye that Ovrell and Alina interrogated me about was my homeworld. They asked a few questions about my background, but they mostly seemed interested in the magic and resources Nye might have to offer."

"Why would they be interested in that?" Alistair asked. "Why would they even care about Nye?"

James's eyes fell back down into his lap.

"After the interrogation, they left," he said, continuing with the purpose of answering Alistair's question, but also to fill in the gaps. "Oliver stayed back to ask more personal questions about me, and then he left too. Eventually, he returned again with Ovrell and told me that they would be taking me to Sector 1. They said I would be tasked with finding a way to reach Nye and bridge the gap between the two worlds. They said that I would be working closely under Oliver to discover the full extent of my powers and I would be rested to determine if my powers are of magical origin, and that I would assist them in time travel control."

"How are you supposed to 'bridge the gap'?" Mel asked with air quotes for the last phrase.

"And I don't understand why this would be useful to them," Alistair added. "Why would they care about magic? Isn't it essentially the same as our powers?"

"That's... not entirely true," James said. "Mages on Nye are far more powerful than most of you. Their powers have less limitations, but a good mage learns restraint, and control. We also don't have more specific, niche powers. They're largely elementally based - so, think of manipulating fire, air, water, or earth. I've only ever met one time mage in my day, and they were very inexperienced. And far as bridging the gap goes, I truthfully told them I have no idea. While that's still technically true, I have wondered if the conditions for sending Evaline back to Earth are the same for me. Though, I believe if the two of us wished me back, it would be a one-way trip, and I don't plan on doing so."

"That's good," Elias said, but was nearly spoken over by Alistair.

"That doesn't really answer why they want to know, though," he said. "Why is this important to them? I'd have thought they'd think it's all fantasy."

"There's... more that I told them," he said slowly. "On Nye, we've developed this drug called Lumshade. The drug is known to nullify people's powers, as well as incapacitate them with delusions and hallucinations. On Nye, magic among humans is outlawed, and that drug has been weaponized to enforce that law. It's been used for years to help track down mages, incapacitate them, and send them to their deaths. If Ovrell and Alina have any desire to further control the population, or people with powers that scare them, the drug would be of interest to them."

"There are some drugs available that blocks your powers for a few hours," Alistair said. "Nothing as drastic as... Lumshade, though."

James paused for a moment, remembering that the drug was distributed at the Tournament of Arms.

"Ah," he said faintly. "Then... if they have no need for Lumshade, they..."

He faltered, grimacing at himself.

"It's possible they--" he cut himself off with a bitter laugh. He couldn't help it as it sputtered out of him, and he shook his head, leaning forward.

"Gods, all world leaders are the fucking same," he muttered under his breath. "They probably wanted to do the same experiments I stopped from happening on Nye. Essentially, creating unstoppable soldiers with powers no one could hope to match."

Alistair weakly laughed, shaking his head. "That... well, that kind of already exists here," he said. "I'm sure in Nye they're stronger, but the military is still powerful than most of the population."

"Can your soldiers create mountains with one swipe of their hands? Decimate them just as fast, with one breath of their mouth?" James asked, looking up and meeting his eyes. "Create devestating forest fires with the flick of a finger?"

Alistair kept his stare at James for a moment, dropping his hand that was running through his hair. "No, because that would be impossible here."

"Then you would understand why--" he laughed again, shaking his head. "Sorry. I'm -- I just think it's -- well it's ridiculous, first of all. In order to do the experiments I would have to obtain dragon's blood, which doesn't even exist here. And historically, the experiments have a 90% chance of failure, so even if I did, it would be--"

James abruptly closed his eyes and pressed his lips together as he took in a deep breath.

"It doesn't really matter," James said. "I never would've let them figure out a way to do it anyway, but I'm not in that situation. I'm here."

"You're right," Mel said with a nod. "No need to play out what could have happened. We don't ever have to wonder what James could have been doing if he didn't escape. We're here now, and that's all that matters. And James isn't going to recreate the dumb experiment while he's here."

"Yeah," Elias said, mirroring her nod. "Although... it would be something else if dragons did exist on Earth."

James slowly lifted his eyes to look at Elias who was still idly petting Sleepy.

"...Yeah," he said faintly. "It would be something."

Mel gave Elias a funny look, but then returned her attention back to James. "Okay. So what happened next?"

James looked to Mel, and then dropped his eyes back down to the bed.

It felt... harder to remove himself from it this time.

"Yeah," he said quietly. "Well... after that, Ovrell told me it was time for me to go. Deidra came over with keys to unlock my chains. At the same time, Oliver headed out to go to Evaline's cell..."

James swallowed.

"To kill her," he said. "But her mother went in first."

"...What?" Mel whispered in disbelief. Alistair and Elias were equally shocked.

"When Evaline broke off her connections and went on this mission, she abandoned her position where she'd formerly served as Oliver's spy," James explained quietly. "In doing so, the one thing they found her useful for was gone. I think they only kept her alive that long just so that they could kill her in front of me."

Obviously, she didn't die. But that didn't stop tears from springing in Mel's eyes as she looked at Evaline with deep sadness.

"That's so messed up," she whispered. "Why do they make her suffer so much? Why do they make you suffer so much?"

James turned his gaze to Evaline, his eyes resting on her with a look of tenderness, but also a sadness he didn't quite have the words for.

They were both well acquainted with suffering, each in their own way.

James was still holding her hand, and he squeezed it just a little. Instead of answering Mel's impossible question, he continued.

"Her mother didn't stay for long," James said quietly, still watching Evaline. "She only walked in to show her young five-year-old daughter -- Evalina -- the fate of her eldest daughter as a cruel warning. When she left, Oliver stepped in."

He paused, not so that anyone else could speak, but because he could feel his throat getting tight, and there was something inside of him that felt fragile. He needed the pause to compose himself.

"Before Oliver left," James said. "He asked me if there was anything I wanted to say to Evaline. He said he took pity on me, and wanted to give me the chance to send her a message."

He paused again, just for a second, to take in a steady breath.

"I wanted to tell her something that would give her a reason to fight again," he said softly, his voice falling to a whisper. "I disgused the message, slipping in something I knew only she would understand. A phrase, shared just between us."

He held her hand just a little tighter.

"It worked," James whispered. "Enough for her to pull away from Oliver. But she was weak, and Oliver was keeping her from going back in time. He went into her cell, and he was easily able to overpower her."

And all James was able to do at the time was watch. In agony.

"But just before he could do it," James said, his voice growing distant. "Somehow, Evaline broke free from Oliver's powers, and she was able to jump back. But at the same time, my own power was triggered, and I tried to jump forward. The colliding forces of both of our powers being used in unison to stop the same event... stopped time altogether. Time froze."

He briefly flicked his eyes up to the others. They were watching him attentively, and it didn't look like they were going to interrupt. At least, not if he kept going. Something in his heart ached.

He was grateful. It was easier if he just finished, and they asked questions later.

"It took me a moment to understand what was happening," he said. "But as soon as I realized that I was the only one able to move in that moment, adrenaline kicked in. At that point, Deidra had just finished freeing me from my shackles, so I ripped the keys out of her rigidly still hands and ran into Evaline's cell. I had to pry Oliver off of Evaline, but he was frozen stiff, like a statue. When I ripped him off, he even hung suspended in the air, yet to fall with the force of gravity. But Evaline wasn't frozen like the others, which is how I eventually pieced together that it had to be our powers acting at the same time that allowed the two of us alone to be the ones capable of moving."

"I carried Evaline out and found Elliot and Sleepy," James continued. "They were both frozen along with everything else, but in a desperate attempt, I tried to deeply focus on Elliot... like, to invite him into the frozen moment in time. It's hard to say how it worked, because I have yet to fully understand it myself, but after a moment of deep focus, I managed to free Elliot so that he could move. It was like I was pulling him forward with me in the tug of war between Evaline and I's powers."

"With Elliot able to move, I took Evaline and Sleepy, and we rode out onto the side of the mountain. Even outside, time was frozen, and the phenomenon lasted about ten minutes before it pulled away, like someone pressed start again, and time resumed like it always had, like it had never stopped. At least, for the rest of... I don't know. That area. Or timeline. I don't know its scope. But my assumption is that the pause ended after ten minutes because that's Evaline's average limit for how far she can jump back. As for my limits... I don't yet know them."

James finally paused again, sighing.

"After that, I traveled with Evaline for two weeks, doing the best I could to keep us alive and on the move, since I knew that Ovrell and Alina would send the others after us. And... then I found you, Mel, and we came here. And that brings us to the present."

Mel drifted her eyes down to the white sheet that was used as Evaline's blanket. She wore a far-away expression, and eyes were still glossy.

"I had no idea you both went through all of that," she said softly. "You saved her life... James."

James couldn't look up to meet anyone's eyes.

He'd saved Evaline's life, but he'd failed to save Arima's. He didn't even have a chance to.

"This is a lot," Alistair said as he sat up straighter. "But it's even more for you. I don't even know where to begin for questions... I don't know if it's even worth asking any. What's done is done."

James nodded slightly, looking down at his and Evaline's hands.

"If you have questions," he said quietly. "You can ask."

There was a long pause as Mel and Alistair solemnly looked towards Evaline. Elias filled the silence when the pause started to feel too long to be comfortable.

"So... you can freeze time," Elias said slowly.

"It's not just me," James whispered, looking to Evaline. "It's a group effort."

"Do you think you two could do it again someday?" Elias asked. "Or was it a one-time thing?"

"I don't know," James said faintly. "If it requires circumstances like that to occur again, I hope it never does."

Elias nodded, mirroring his hushed tone. "Yeah. I hope it doesn't either."

"These past five years... the con she played," Alistair said slowly. "She tried to break free from it silently, but she still got caught. And then they punished her for it." He paused for a moment, clenching his jaw. "It's hard to even look at this optimistically. Was there even another way? Was she just buying time?"

James didn't have answers to those questions.

"One of the things Oliver said to me," James said quietly. "Was that he'd peered into all of Evaline's future timelines... and they all led up to that moment, just before he would've ended her life. He seemed convinced that it was because she was destined to die. But it seems that fate has determined otherwise."

"Do you believe that, James?" Mel asked with a heavy voice. "Do you believe that it's fate that she went to Nye, and then you came here, and you both were in that situation? Are you the reason why the timelines all ended?"

James didn't know why, but he could feel a knot forming in his throat. He clenched his jaw, trying to keep his eyes from watering as he stared down at Evaline.

"I don't know what would've happened if we'd never met," James said in a whisper, but he clenched his jaw again, clamping his teeth together.

That wasn't true.

He did know what would've happened.

"I don't think either of us would be here today if we hadn't," he said, barely audible as he dipped his head down and looked to the side to rapidly blink back tears.

He felt Mel rest her hand on his shoulder. "Then I'm glad fate put you two together," she said softly, giving his shoulder a gentle squeeze. "We're glad you're here. And we're so happy you saved her."

James was trying so hard to keep back the wave pushing back against the wall in his mind, but the moment Mel put her hand on his shoulder, he could feel the wall starting to shatter.

His lips started to tremble, and he kept his head and shoulders down.

What was he supposed to say to that?

His vision got blurry as tears filled his eyes, and he couldn't fight it anymore. He curled over in his chair, hiding his face in his hands.

Suddenly Mel's hand slid from his shoulder to his back until her arm was wrapped around him, and she leaned him closer to her, wrapping her free arm against his chest into a hug.

"You're really stingy about hugs, but I think you need one," she said as she pulled him closer, but not so much that he would lose balance off his chair. She leaned in closer to say her next words more quietly so that the others couldn't hear it as easily. "Thank you for saving her, and yourself."

James fought back against a sob, and it came out muffled in his hands. He still hid his face from view, too afraid to pull away and see the others, or let them see him.

His heart just hurt, and it was like it was all finally crashing down on him. The ache spread deep throughout his chest, and he curled into himself under Mel's arms.

"We knew that Evaline has always been under a lot of pressure, growing up," Alistair said steadily. "And I can't imagine how difficult her last five years have been... I've kept a small bit of resentment of her for being cold, but knowing her, I think she's been counting down the days until she could escape. And if Oliver is right that the timelines converged to this moment -- I don't know. I don't know what the future will hold. But... this means she's free now, doesn't it? She'll be free when she wakes up?"

James was desperately trying to pull himself together, but he could feel the mess of thoughts bombarding his mind.

He'd dragged them all into this. He couldn't save Arima. None of their lives would be the same. None of them could ever go back home. None of them could ever return to the lives they knew before. And he didn't know if Evaline would ever wake up from this.

He knew it wasn't his fault, but why did it feel like it was?

He tried to soften the noise of his cries with shaky breaths, trembling as he tried to push it all back down.

Mel loyally stayed by him, holding him close with her head perched on the back side of his shoulder. She sniffed a few times.

"You were right, by the way, James," Alistair continued, his voice breaking like he was fighting back his own tears. "Arima and I were more than friends. It didn't last long, and with her -- it really -- now it's over. But you know I don't -- I don't blame you, right? And I don't blame Evaline, either."

At that, James felt the floodgates open, and he let out a loud, ugly sob as he curled up tighter.

"I think - sometimes - shit happens, you know?" Alistair continued with a weak laugh that hitched in his throat as it became evident that he was losing his composure as well. "It wasn't either of your faults. Not for Arima. Not for Alan. Life is cruel sometimes, but I can't blame that on anyone."

James wished he had the strength to stop crying and say something, but he didn't anymore. He couldn't stop sobbing, and he could feel one of Mel's own tears drip down to the back of his neck.

Mel was silently sobbing with him, and so was Alistair. James could feel the tension in Mel's arms increase with each passing crying breath, and Alistair seemed to heave with pent-up sobs, like he was trying to control it, but failed.

"Hey," Elias suddenly said, breaking the sniffling silence. "I have this working theory that Sleepy is the unsung hero of the story. Do you want to hear it?"

James's cries were starting to subside, but at Elias's question, he was finally able to push back down the knot in his throat, though his throat was still tight. Hesitantly, he lifted his head, peering at Elias through his hands with bleary eyes.

"I told you that reconnaissance teams from the military infiltrate groups. But did you know there was also a chicken spy?" Elias said with a too-casual voice. "Yeah. Sleepy the chicken was sent here from Nye to cast well-rested spells and protection to our very own James and Evaline. And it worked. You're both protected, and Evaline will wake up from the longest sleep of her life, super well-rested. Sleepy can now retire as a happy chicken who doesn't need to report back to her chicken spy kingdom in Nye."

James stared at Elias for a moment before he let out a weak laugh through his nose and pulled away from Mel's hug. He rubbed his face quickly with his sleeves to clear away the tears, and he sniffed loudly to keep the snot from dripping down.

"Did she tell you all of this just now?" James asked hoarsely.

Elias nodded, still petting Sleepy. "Yeah. I speak chicken," he said.

Mel was also rubbing her eyes and sniffing, and she let out a weak laugh, shaking her head as she pulled away from James.

"Elias, you've never stopped being weird," she said through the end of the little laugh.

"Thanks," Elias said with a small smile, then lifted Sleepy off his lap and suddenly placed her on Alistair's lap. "Here. She requires your attention now."

Alistair had been distant the whole time, but then stared at Sleepy on his lap, then stared at Elias, more dumbfounded than anything.

"...Huh?" was all he managed to get out in response.

James watched Alistair with a small smile, laughing quietly in the back of his throat, the laugh catching in his chest.

"If you pet her, she'll love you forever," he said.

And with that, Elias snatched Sleepy off Alistair's lap and placed her back on his own lap, now almost aggressively petting her.

"Good to know," Elias said with his attention on the chicken as Alistair shook his head with a mildly amused smile.

James watched Elias with a small smile, but his eyes drifted over to Evaline. He wanted to include her in this moment, since she couldn't see.

He leaned down closer to her ear and whispered.

"Elias took Sleepy back the moment I said that. Now he's petting her more than before."

"Nope, no take backs," Elias suddenly said as he leaned away from Alistair who had his hand out to pet Sleepy. "You had your chance. Now you have to get your own chicken spy."

"You gave him like, two seconds," James said.

"Yeah. Two seconds," Alistair repeated back with a faint laugh. This entire conversation seemed ridiculous compared to what they were discussing just before they all sobbed.

"Well, you'll have to wait again. It's Evaline's turn next," Elias said as he then placed Sleepy on her stomach.

James glanced at Elias, and then looked down at Evaline's hand in his. Hesitantly, he lifted Evaline's hand for her, and with his hand over hers, guided her hand to Sleepy, petting the chicken in gentle strokes. Sleepy seemed happy, and she tapped her feet on Evaline's stomach before she puffed out her feathers and sat down, squishing down in response to the touch.

"Maybe she'll lay an egg," Elias thought out loud.

"On Evaline's stomach?" James asked.

"There have been weirder nests," Elias said with a shrug. "Probably."

James shook his head with a faint smile as he focused on helping Evaline pet Sleepy.

"You are so silly," Mel said with a soft giggle. "Even after all these years, you still know what to say to make people laugh."

"I think he plays on the shock and bizarre factor," Alistair said with a weak smile.

"You've definitely fine-tuned your comedic timing, Elias," James added, still keeping his attention on Evaline and Sleepy.

"Oh. Hah. Thanks, I guess," Elias said with a small smile as he scratched his cheek. "I kind of just... say the first thing that comes to my mind."

"Then you're a natural," James said.

"Or an airhead," Alistair said with the beginnings of a smirk.

"You know, I kind of miss your bullying," Elias said with his own smirk as he playfully punched him.

"Great. I'll bully you more to compensate for Evaline's," Alistair said back, shaking his head with the lingering smile.

"Don't expect any bullying from me," James said quietly. "I'll leave that to you."

"None from me, either," Mel said. "I like your airheaded comments. They're funny."

"I'm glad you still appreciate it," Elias said with a smile in his voice.

"I appreciate the heart behind it," James said with a faint smile, still in a hushed tone.

"Yeah. Okay. Fine," Alistair said with fake defeat. "You have a big heart. You got that going for you."

Elias slapped his hand over his heart. "Aww, Ali, I'm touched," he teased, prompting Alistair to groan and roll his eyes, and Mel to giggle.

James just watched the interaction with a growing smile, and he rested Evaline's hand over Sleepy's head. Sleepy nuzzled her palm, and James hoped that Evaline could feel it, even if she couldn't respond to Sleepy's affection.
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soundofmind says...

While it was good to cry for a moment, James had been grateful for Elias's distraction. After a bit more joking around. James was eventually left to himself, and James felt his mind go numb for a little bit as he sat with Evaline. Eventually he laid her hand back down at her side and he moved Sleepy to curl up at her side. He knew Evaline was weak, and he didn't want to cause her any discomfort from plonged pressure on her stomach.

When James finally started having conscious thoughts again, his mind suddenly jumped back to the note.

His eyes widened, and he quickly got up, grabbing his journal. He'd stuck the second note in its pages, and he ripped it out, looking at the final verse again.

He stood on his feet, reading it over and over.

i'm here to say the fight's no more
the secrets that you keep
are safely caught
in this one spot
here in the hands of eve

Slowly, he sat back down in the chair beside Evaline's bed.

"Another verse appeared on the note," he said in a hushed voice. "My note, not yours. It's nothing bad. It doesn't say anything about me going home or leaving."

He added those caveats first so that she wouldn't worry too much on the front end.

"I'll just... read it to you," he said, before reciting the poem in full, with the last verse at the end.

"It's... the first time it's mentioned any of our names in the poem," he commented quietly. "And it sounds like it's talking mostly to me. I guess it's just saying... I can trust you. With everything. But I already knew that. I wonder when this verse showed up..."

He sighed, reading it over again, inspecting the note in his hands.

"All of this... just to tell me that my secrets are safe with you," he muttered. "I mean, don't get me wrong. It's not like I disagree with what it's saying, I guess it just... after everything else that's happened, it almost feels anti-climatic. But I guess I can't be upset about that. I'm much happier with this version than whatever worst-case scenario version I had in my head."

He looked over to Evaline, and he set the note down beside her, taking her hand again firmly. He thought about the poem. Here in the hands of Eve. That was where he was, in a way. Just not how he would've imagined it. He was holding her hand, not the other way around.

But he wasn't bitter about it. He would hold her as long as she needed. Until she could hold his hand in return.

He squeezed her hand again as a silent means of support.

"I guess we don't have to worry about the note, anymore, then," he said softly. "It sounds like we've already fulfilled it without knowing it."

He then leaned over and kissed her softly on her forehead, and then pulled away again, looking down at her with a sad smile.

"I guess we were ahead of the note the whole time."
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Over the next week, while James stayed mostly at Evaline's side, most of the others were busy tightening security around their base. The team that was out the most consisted of Malkiel, Hendrik, and Mel, but occasionally they'd take Rudy or Alistair. But Elias and Elise usually stayed back with the kids, and they all seemed to be giving James space to stay with Evaline.

James got into a small routine of leaving Evaline's room after breakfast to go see Elliot. When he'd come back, he'd give Evaline a little update if there was anything notable, and then he'd either play her some music or come up with a story. Then he would write for a little while, occasionally bouncing ideas off of Evaline -- not that she could reply -- just to keep her included. Sometimes James would step out for shared meals with the others, usually with some coercion from Elise, Hendrik, or Mel, but for the most part, he stayed in.

The others would stop by on occasion, but Elias was the one who stopped by the most. He would come in and sometimes he'd just sit with him, but usually they'd talk a little bit. Elias was good company, and he also seemed to be quickly growing attatched to Sleepy. Sometimes James wondered if the chicken was the main reason he came by, but it was never a serious thought. He knew Elias was being genuine, and supportive, and he appreciated it far more than Elias knew.

So he wasn't surprised when Elias knocked in his door again.

Elias peeked his head in like he always did after he knocked. "Can we come in?" he asked.

"Of course, Elias," James said as he set his journal to side, putting a pause on writing.

At that, the door creaked open all the way, and in came Elias. He was leaned over, holding little Elijah's hand as he made his way towards the usual spot he claimed for himself when he visited.

"I thought Elijah would want to see a real life chicken for the first time," Elias said as he sat on the stool next to James, picking up Elijah and plopping him on his lap.

James smiled down at Elijah warmly. Sleepy was sitting James's lap, and he gave her a gentle pat to wake her.

"Do you want to pet her, Elijah?" James asked. "If you are gentle, she won't hurt you. She's very friendly, and likes to cuddle."

"Yeah," Elias said. "She doesn't peck. Chickens don't have teeth, either."

Elijah was holding on to Elias's chest, looking over his shoulder at Sleepy with wonder. "Is it soft?" he asked.

"Well, chickens aren't soft in the same way that animals with fur are," James said. "But her feathers are pretty soft, I'd say. Especially the ones on her neck."

Elijah glanced up at Elias who was nudging his head over towards Sleepy. Elijah hesitated again, and Elias picked him up, gently placing him on the ground so he was standing on his feet.

"Go on," Elias said. "Pet the chicken."

Elijah looked up at James shyly, but then took a few small steps forward, his hand extended out in front of him to touch Sleepy on his lap. When his fingers brushed upon her feathers, he let out a small giggle.

"Chickens feel weird," he said as he relaxed his posture, standing next to James's lap and lightly petting Sleepy.

"It's a good thing Sleepy isn't too sensitive," James joked lightly. "But it helps that she can't understand you."

Elijah's big eyes flicked up to James as he continued to pat her head. "The chicken's name is Sleepy?" he asked.

"Yep," James said with a small smile.

"But it's not sleeping," Elijah retorted.

"You don't have to be sleeping to feel sleepy," James said simply.

Elijah's eyes drifted to Evaline on the bed, his hand still resting on Sleepy's back. "Is she sleepy?" he asked.

James's eyes flicked to Evaline as well.

"No," James said, deciding not to explain a coma to a six year old at thw moment. "She's sleeping."

"That's right, buddy," Elias said. "Sleeping, not sleepy. If she was sleepy, she'd be a chicken too."

Elijah giggled at that, letting go of Sleepy and peering over the bed with curious eyes. "Who is she?" he asked.

"Her name is Evaline," James answered. "She's my closest friend."

"I told you about her, bub," Elias said. "That's Auntie Evaline."

Elijah's hands were on the edge of the bed, having to slightly stand on the tip of his toes to completely see Evaline from the other side.

"Auntie," Elijah repeated. "Like Auntie Mel?"

"Yeah. Like Auntie Mel," Elias said, then glanced at James with a small smile. "This is Uncle James."

Elijah glanced back at James, but seemed more preoccupied with peering over Evaline's body.

"How many different kinds of animals have you seen?" James asked Elijah. "Now you've seen a chicken, so you can add that to the list."

"Daddy doesn't let me see any animals," Elijah said, voice muffled as his mouth was against the side of the bed.

It was at that moment that James found himself questioning if Elijah was Elias's biological son, or if he was adopted. Or if Elias was just acting as a father figure out of necessity. He didn't know the situation Elias had come from, but he didn't think it was the time or place to ask.

Elias laughed. "Hey, I let you see a chicken. That's something."

"And you can come see her again if you want," James offered. "Provided y-- Elias come with you."

He almost said 'your father,' but he didn't know if that was a presumptuous statement.

"Do you have anything else?" Elijah asked. "Like... a bear?"

"Not a bear," James said. "But I do have a horse. He's the only one of his kind out here."

"I want to see a bear," Elijah muttered instead.

Elias glanced at James. "I, uh, hope it's cool that I stopped by the stables and gave your horse some snacks. I've never seen one before," he said. "Pretty neat animal."

James stared at Elias blankly for a moment.

"Oh. Well, sure. That -- that should be fine. I don't mind if you see him, but--" he paused, glancing at Elijah.

"What did you feed him?"

"Oh, you know," Elias said with a small shrug. "I don't know. The same stuff Hendrik gives Bongo. Some kitchen scraps too. But the horse seems to like carrots. I think Mal got angry I took his carrot stash, though. But he doesn't know I stole it."

"Horses are herbivores," James said slowly. "Elliot will eat most fruits or vegetables you offer him, but he won't eat meat, nor should he. Carrots are fine to give him, but he can't have all vegetables, so the next time you want to feed him, I'd appreciate it if you ran if by me first, just to make sure Elliot doesn't get an upset stomach. That, and... well, I don't want you stealing other people's food to give to Elliot. He'll survive just fine on food pellets and hay. Vegetables are just like special treats."

"Oh. Yeah, for sure," Elias said with a nod. "Sorry. I'll lay off on the carrots and will let you know next time."

James offered Elias a small smile.

"Thanks," he said quietly. "I'm glad you got to see him, though. Elliot loves the attention."

Elijah was about to poke Evaline's leg, but Elias bent over to pick him up in one quick swoop, setting him on his lap again.

"Your horse's name is Elliot, huh?" Elias mused as he ignored Elijah's pouting face and patted down the loose wispy blond hairs around his head.

"Yes," James said, not sure if Elias had anything else to say.

Elias hummed, still stroking the boy's hair. "It's got the same prefix as Elias, Elijah, and Elise," he said. "Are you sure Elliot isn't related to us?"

James laughed through his nose and smiled.

"He was Elliot long before I met any of you," he said. "But maybe you could be distant cousins."

"Hear that, bub?" Elias said with too much false excitement to Elijah, his brows arched up. "You're related to a horse!"

"Ewwww," Elijah said with a giggle.

"It could be worse," James proposed. "You could be related to a skunk instead."

"What's a skunk?" Elijah asked.

"It's like a mix between a bug squirrel and a rat, and it's very stinky," James explained.

Did squirrels exist on Earth? He didn't know if he was using the right animals for reference.

"Very stinky," Elias said with a grin. "They spray out smelly farts to keep other animals away. Like Hendrik."

"Hendrik's a skunk?" Elijah asked.

"Yeah," Elias said with a grin.

"No," James said at the same time.

James looked up at Elias, meeting his eyes a little awkwardly.

"Maybe you should listen to Uncle James for this one," Elias said with a small laugh. "He's an animal expert."

"I don't know about that," James said. "Hendrik's more of an expert than me. But I do know about skunks and horses."

Elias smirked, then lightly laughed again and shook his head. "I mean... skunks have evolved, I think. But it's funny hearing you be an expert of animals that aren't really around anymore."

James found himself looking down at the ground, not sure why he felt embarassed over something so trivial.

"Oh," he said. "Well. I guess, if you care to hear about extinct animals... you know who to ask."

Elias started to shake his knee up and down, causing Elijah to bob on his lap. "Hey, Elijah," he said. "Do you want to hear stories about dragons? James has some. Do you remember dragons?"

"Flying... lizards?" Elijah asked, looking over his shoulder at him.

"Yeah. Giant flying lizards," Elias said with a smile, glancing at James for confirmation.

James felt conflicted. He never really had told anyone apart from Evaline that, on Nye, dragons were more than just giant beasts. They were people, and it felt wrong to indirectly file them under the category of an animal, and to limit them to their "giant flying lizard" form.

"That's partially true," he said, turning to Elijah, and leaning forward a little in his chair with a smile. "Would you like me to tell you more about them?"

"Yeah," Elijah said, looking up at James curiously.

"Well, dragons are interesting creatures. They come from a far off land, and while it's true that sometimes they look like a giant, flying lizard... sometimes, they look like people, just like you and me," James said, still smiling a little. "You could be looking at a dragon and not even know it!"

Elijah continued to stare at him in wonder. "Are you a dragon?" he asked.

James smiled wider, laughing a little.

"Not quite. But I've met one before," he said.

Elijah glanced at Elias, but Elias only smiled in return, nudging him towards James like he was encouraging conversation.

"Did it breathe fire?" Elijah asked.

"The dragon I met didn't breathe fire," James said. "But he had a powerful magic. He was able to make plants appear with a snap of his fingers."

He snapped his fingers for effect, and then wiggled them.

"I saw it with my own eyes," he said. "I was only a boy. Just a few years older than you. He could look at the ground, and just by barely moving his foot, he'd made a tunnel, like the ones we took to get in this mountain. It was effortless, for him."

"Woooow," Elijah breathed out in wonder, then glanced at Elias again with a grin. "I want to see a dragon!"

"Maybe after you see a bear," Elias said with a little laugh, scruffing his hair.

"Dragons are hard to find, though," James said as he returned his hand to Sleepy, starting to pet her gently. "It's more likely that they'd find you than the other way around."

Elijah pouted. "How'd you get one to find you?" he asked.

"Well, I was in a very dangerous situation," James said. "I was in a forest, in the dead of winter, all alone. He came to help me. I wouldn't want you to run into danger just in hopes of seeing a dragon."

"The dragon sounds nice," Elijah said. "I thought they were big and mean."

"Some are," Elias said, glancing at James. "...Probably."

"I've only met one," James said with a small smile. "So I don't know what the others are like. They might be nice too, though. They're really just people like us, except they're very strong and powerful, and can turn into a big flying lizard when they want."

Elijah grinned again. "I want to be a dragon when I grow up," he said proudly.

James laughed.

"Good luck with that," he said. "I don't think it's something you can attain to, though. But you're just as cool by being the person you are."

"Then I want to be a lizard!" Elijah said anyways. "Or a chicken."

With that, he jumped off of Elias's lap and reached over to pat Sleepy again, this time with too much confidence since the pats weren't gentle.

Sleepy ruffled her feathers and rapidly shook her head, turning around in James's lap to face away from Elijah.

"Remember to be gentle," James said. "You don't want to scare her."

"I thought chickens are always scared," Elijah said as he focused on his pets, now overly gentle and barely touching her.

Elias laughed. "A person who's a chicken is scared. An animal chicken is just a chicken," he said.

"So... chickens are people too?" Elijah asked.

"No," James said quickly. "Chickens are just animals. But because chickens tend to get scared often, it's become a saying to call people who are scared chickens, but it's not literal. It's just a saying."

"Are you a chicken?" Elijah asked James.

"No," James said, only to realize after that Elijah was actually asking if James was scared. Or at least, that's what he thought. Now he was confused. But at least, for the moment, both were true.

"If James was a chicken, he'd have feathers," Elias said with a twirl of his hand.

James sighed.

Elijah smiled, pleased with the response. "I wish I had feathers," he said.

James thought for a moment about bringing up harpies, who were people with wings and feathers, but Elijah was already being confused enough. He didn't need to add actual bird-people into the mix.

"Sometimes you just have to learn to appreciate what you've got," James said, watching as Elijah continued to pet Sleepy, still being careful.

A few moments passed, and while Elijah's eyes were on Sleepy, he said, "Daddy, I'm hungry."

"Chicken's not food, so let's get you something else," Elias said with a little laugh, getting up out of his seat and then swooping Elijah up with one arm, holding him on one side like a log. "I'll be back," he said as he turned to James. "Want any snacks?"

"Maybe one of those smoothies," James suggested. "As long as it's not a dirt flavored one."

"Mmm," Elias hummed with a nod, heaving up Elijah and twirling him a little, making him giggle in response. "Okay. Be right back."

Elias and Elijah left the room, and James looked back to Evaline. He watched her for a moment in silence, before beginning to speak, idly thinking out loud.

"I think I told you that story before," he said. "I can't remember how much I told you, but that was when I met Mickey, the earth dragon. It's kind of weird to think of it now. It feels like a distant memory. It almost doesn't even feel like it was me."

He paused, sighing as he leaned back into his chair.

"I don't know," he said. "It's not that I've forgotten Nye or anything. It just... it feels far away. Not just in a literal sense. And anything from before me meeting you, and before I was wanted. It kind of feels like that was all a different person."

He glanced at the door.

"I don't really know what I'm saying," he said quietly. "I guess I'm still reeling from the fact that there are people here on Earth who know about Nye, and might've known about it long before I got here. It's weird to think about. I'd always assumed it was just us who knew. Like it was our little secret. And now..."

He sighed again, looking down at Sleepy.

"I know there's no possible way for Ovrell and Alina to get to Nye," he said. "But I guess I just can't seem to stop thinking about it. Wondering if even without me, they'd still be trying to find a way, or if they'd give up. It's not like they have magic here to use for traveling to other worlds. They don't have magic notes that act like spells. They just have a sick hunger for power... but I guess, I'm glad that they won't be able to get to Nye. At least, I'm really hoping they don't. Nye has enough problems. It doesn't need a bunch of time travelers hunting down a dragon."

He paused, imagining that for a moment.

"Though... I doubt they'd get very far," he said. "It might be interesting to see them meet a dragon. As if they'd be able to do anything..."

James sat in silence, toying with the hypothetical idea for a moment in his head, imagining them meeting Mickey. He'd only met Mickey once, so he didn't feel like he could give an accurate estimation of how Mickey would react. But he did feel like Mickey would be able to easily put them in their place in one way or another.

James got lost in thought, and after a few minutes, he heard Elias knock on the door again, even verbally saying "knock knock" out loud.
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soundofmind says...

"I brought you a smoothie," he said as he partly opened the door, waiting for his invitation to come in.

"Yeah, come in," James said with a small smile. "Thanks, Elias."

"Yeah. No worries," Elias said as he stepped in and closed the door behind him before walking back to his usual spot. "I had Sami take care of Elijah, and while she was in the kitchen, I infiltrated her banana smoothie supply that she stole from me. So - here you go."

With a smile, he handed James a cup of the smoothie that was a pale yellow color.

James took the smoothie and played with the straw for a moment before pulling it to his lips, taking a sip.

"Mm!" he hummed in pleasant surprise. "That's not bad! Much better than the dirt."

"Yeah?" Elias said with a little laugh. "Glad you think so. But I think the dirt smoothie you had was extra potent since I doubled the powder. It's not actually dirt-flavored, you know."

James stared at Elias for a moment, with the straw in his mouth.

"Oh," he said quietly. "That makes more sense."

"Or maybe I'm just used to it," Elias mused as he stroked the stubble on his chin. "Would be interesting to see if anyone could taste the difference between dirt smoothie and dirt in water."

"I'd rather not be the person to find out," James said with a small laugh as he took another sip of the smoothie.

"Heh. Yeah. Same," Elias said with a snort, then paused. "By the way, Hendrik told me you were a good storyteller. I can see it. I think Elijah is going to keep chanting 'dragon' around me now."

James smiled, glancing over at the doorway, imagining Elijah telling the others he wanted to be a dragon when he grew up.

"Well, it's easy when I don't have to make anything up," he said.

Elias nodded, his gaze resting on Evaline. "Yeah. Nye is..." He paused, looking over at James. "Wait, you didn't make that up?"

James met Elias's eyes.

"No, I didn't," he said. "That... I mean, I left out a lot of details, but yeah. It actually happened."

"Huh," Elias said in thought as he leaned back on his chair, thinking. "So that wasn't like, a lesson to teach him that animals and other living creatures are as precious as humans?"

"Uh... no," James said slowly. "I mean, I guess you could spin it that way, if you wanted. But on Nye, dragons really are people. They have a both a human form and a dragon form."

Elias hummed, stroking his chin again. "That sounds confusing," he said slowly. "People wouldn't even know they're a dragon if they stick to looking like a human."

"I mean... I guess that's kind of the point," James said. "Though, I can't really speak for them personally, having only met one when I was a child. I never talked to him about those kinds of things."

"What did you talk about then? Hopefully nothing too embarrassing, since you were just a kid, and a dragon's like a god."

James laughed weakly.

"Well, I--" he shook his head. "I was a very quiet child, and I was scared at the time. He did most of the talking, but he was very kind. He talked to me about dragons and different people on Nye and... basically, encouraged me to be open minded without saying so directly. I warmed up to him a little by the end of it, but... yeah. I didn't say much to him."

Elias nodded again. Even though Evaline was still, he was watching her distractedly, and he idly patted his palms against his knees with an inconsistent rhythm.

"Is that why you stopped the dragon's blood experiment?" he asked.

"It played a part in it, yes," James answered.

"They'd have to kill a dragon, then? To take their blood and infuse it to kids? That's pretty messed up," Elias said.

"I don't think they'd have to kill a dragon," James said. "There are ways to take blood without ending someone's life, but I doubt any dragon would give their blood away willingly. So it would likely result in death. I never did learn how the king had obtained his own collection of..."

James cringed at his own words.

"Blood," he finished. "I only know that he obtained it somehow in the war against mages decades ago. I assumed he must've gotten it from the mage guilds -- those used to exist before there was a war against people with magic, and magic became outlawed. That was over 100 years ago."

"Why was magic outlawed?" Elias asked.

"Well, it's a little -- I guess it's not complicated, it's just really well-known," James said. "Just before the war against the mages, there were some strange, destructive magical occurences that were happening world wide. Natural disasters, wild, magical creatures popping up out of nowhere that no one had seen before. Strange, magical sicknesses. Humanity was getting hit hard by a seemingly unseen, magical force, and those without powers essentially blamed it on mages, using them as a scapegoat. It's more nuanced than that... but that's the gist."

Elias was still rubbing his chin, deep in thought. "Huh. Maybe it was the dragon's fault," he thought out loud. "'Cause someone stole its blood."

James was quiet for a moment, staring at Elias as his mind started piecing together Elias's off-handed theorizing as an actual possibility.

That... could actually make sense.

"Huh," he said softly. "I guess... I mean, there's no way to really know, but, that may have been a catalyst. Mickey told me that dragons were the ones who formed the world, and shaped it, in its early stages. If they played a large part in that, it's possible that someone trying to interfere with one of the dragon's well-beings could be a catalyst for... something going wrong, I suppose. I wonder how much of it was really in their control, though... or if it was just like, a natural consequence."

"Hmm... yeah," Elias said with a sigh. "It's too bad we can't ask one."

James hummed softly.

"I guess we'll never really know," he said softly, taking another sip of his smoothie as he looked down into his lap at Sleepy.

"Yeah. So..." Elias glanced at him, dropping his hand. "Does that mean you don't plan on ever returning to Nye?"

James looked back up at Elias, and his eyes drifted over to Evaline.

"I don't know," he said softly. "I wouldn't want to go anywhere without Evaline."

Elias hummed again, thinking. "Well... you probably know her more than me now. Do you think she'd want to go to Nye?"

James was quiet for a moment, watching Evaline, as if doing so would help him to read her mind.

"I know... when she first came to Nye," he said quietly. "She was ready to make Nye her home. I don't know if she still feels the same. I don't think we've ever felt like we had much of a choice in the matter. At least, not now, since I don't know how we'd ever get back. I don't even know if it will ever be possible. I've just come to accept that I'm stuck here, but..."

He sighed.

"I'm grateful," he said. "For getting to have met you all. And most off all, getting to be reunited with Evaline. So I suppose, now I'm in her shoes. I don't think there's much in Nye for me to return to. I can't say that it would be any safer than the situation we've found ourselves in right now, but at least, here, we have all of you with us as well. On Nye, I was by myself when I was on the run. I think it would be safer and wiser for us to stay here not only with the security of community, but because it's just... nice. To be surrounded by friends."

Elias nodded, softly smiling. "Yeah, you're right," he said. "It is nice to be surrounded by friends. I wouldn't have it any other way."

James looked over to Elias, not quite meeting his eyes, but he gave Elias a small smile.

"And also, I'm glad we're friends too," Elias added. "I know I don't really know you that well, but a friend of Evaline or Mel is a friend of mine. The others told me a lot about you, so I'm glad we finally met."

James nodded slightly, looking down into his lap, petting Sleepy.

"Me too," he said.

"I... I guess I'm kind of surprised the others talked about me, though," he continued with a weak laugh. "I don't really know what they told you. Aside from the fact that I showed up as the weird guy with a horse."

Elias smiled and let out a breathy laugh, drumming his knees again with the palm of his hands. "Eh... I guess that was kind of implied, but that wasn't really my takeaway," he said.

James slowly looked up at Elias, expecting him to continue, but then he didn't.

"What... was your takeaway?" James asked quietly.

Elias glanced at him distractedly, like James had pulled him away from a train of thought. "Oh. Mostly two things: that you were Evaline's partner, and that you came here to help me out, even though you didn't really know me." He paused for a moment. "Well, the plan to get escorted back flopped anyways, but I don't really mind either way. Like you said, I'm just happy to be with friends. Community and all."

James nodded.

"Yeah," he echoed. "I think it's growing on me."

"Being with friends?" Elias asked.

"Uh, yeah," James said with a weak laugh.

"So..." Elias looked up at the ceiling, in thought again. "You considered me a friend before we met?"

"Uh-- well, I mean," James stuttered, suddenly feeling awkward. "I don't know. I just-- I wanted to meet you."

Elias laughed, the smile reaching his eyes. "Aw. I'm honored."

James smiled, looking away shyly.

"Me too," he said.

"I'd say the same, but I only really heard about you a couple days before you got here when I met my sister and the others again," Elias said. "I can't say I'm upset, though. I feel like it's been a while since I had adult friends, so I'll take being late over not having the chance at all."

James fell quiet for a moment, looking at Elias with a quiet look of understanding.

"I'm glad you all had a chance to see each other again," he said softly. "Even though the circumstances didn't play out like any of us expected. I know Elise is probably really happy to see you again. I know I missed out on that initial reunion, but I know she was determined to come out here for you, whether any of us helped her or not. I can tell she really loves you, you know."

Elias sofly smiled, and he stopped fidgeting as he looked over at James with an expression of appreciation before dropping his gaze to his lap.

"I'm lucky to have her," he said, his expression witful and almost sad. "I'm lucky to have people who care, even after so many years of no contact, you know? But especially Elise. She's always been my role-model growing up, but I think she still is now."

"I think she's a worthy role model," James said softly, but in the back of his mind, he couldn't help but think of his own family. They still lived in his heart, even if he hadn't seen them in over ten years.

"Yeah. I'd like her to help raise Elijah, too." He let out a little laugh, shaking his head. "Is it weird to raise a son with your sister?"

"I don't think it's too weird," James said with a small smile. "She's your sister, and you care about her, and families can look all sorts of ways. I think it's great to have her included in yours."

Elias nodded, shooting James another appreciative smile. "We'll be the family of Eli's," he said with an amused voice. "And Elliot could be our pet."

"I'm gonna have to stop you there," James said with a teasing smile. "Elliot and I are inseparable."

"Do you think Evaline will get jealous?" Elias teased back.

"What?" James said playfully, waving his hand dismissively. "No. Elliot loves Evaline too. We're a little family, ourselves."

"You know, if we change your name to Emes, then we could merge families and become the family of E's," Elias said, thinking out loud again.

"I'm a little too attatched to my name to want to do that," James said with a smirk. "But thanks for the suggestion."

"I could sell this idea to Elijah and have him call you Uncle Emes instead," Elias said anyways.

James gave Elias a weary look and sighed.

"I guess you can add that to the pile of nicknames I've already aquired," he said tiredly.

"Oh?" Elias said, interest piqued. "And what's the list so far?"

James rolled his eyes, smiling slightly.

"I walked into that one," he muttered.

"That's not a very good nickname," Elias said with a small smirk.

James's smile grew as he laughed through his nose.

"Nowadays, the only one that's still stuck is Jamie, but only Hendrik calls me that," James said.

Elias hummed, squinting his eyes in thought at the other side of the room. "That nickname sucks," he said flatly. "Why turn your name into two syllables? That's double the work."

"The only shorter version I can think of is just... J," James said. "And that doesn't feel right."

Elias hummed again, even deeper. "It does seem efficient to shorten your name from letters to a letter," he thought out loud.

"Would you like it if I called you E?" James proposed.

Elias looked over and grinned, his eyes shining. "Actually, that's kinda good," he said. "I can't believe I didn't think of it myself."

"Well, I guess we can both just call each other by letters, then," James said with a small shrug. "I guess it works."

"Okay, J," Elias said with a pleased grin. "This is efficient. I like it."

James grinned.

"Well, good," James said. "I think I do too."

Elias grin eventually faded into a normal smile, and then his eyes fell down to Sleepy on his lap. "Can I hold her?" he asked.

James looked down at Sleepy, and then up at Elias.

"Oh, sure," he said with a smile. Gently, he picked Sleepy up and reached over, placing her in Elias's lap. Sleepy fluttered her wings for a moment before calming down and finding a space between Elias's legs to nestle into.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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soundofmind says...

"So," Elias began as he occupied his hands by petting Sleepy. "Elise told me you had a brother? Sorry that, uh... you know. That he's still in Nye. Along with your family and others... yeah. Seems difficult."

James stared at Elias blankly.

"Oh," he said, and for a second, he didn't say anything after that.

"Uh. I actually don't have a brother," he said, his eyes flicking to the side in embarassment. "I made that up. I uh, well. I forgot I told that to Elise. I feel bad about it now, looking back, but I didn't know how much of my true story I could tell back then, so I tended to... well, tell half truths."

He cleared his throat.

"I don't have a brother, but I do have a younger sister," he said. "And a mother. But I haven't seen them in over ten years, and my father passed long ago."

"Oh... sorry to hear about your dad," Elias said, glancing over at James and pausing the pets for a few seconds. "And no worries about the half-truths. I think it's nice you have a sister too. How old is she?"

"She would've turned 23 in March," James said, looking down at Evaline as a minor distraction. "Her name's Larrel."

"That's a pretty name," Elias commented.

"I think so too," James said quietly, feeling a knot of guilt forming in his stomach.

"I do have a step-brother," James added. "But I hardly ever knew him. His name is Petrus. I think he'd be 25 now."

"Your family sounds nice," Elias commented again, then paused. "When was the last time you got to see them?"

James hadn't exactly expected to have this conversation with Elias. It felt like it was taking him by surprise, but for the first time in a very long time, James didn't feel like he had to guard this secret as closely. It didn't mean that it wasn't still painful to talk about, but he didn't mind it as much as he thought he would. At least, not with Elias.

"The last time I saw them, I was eleven years old," James said.

Elias paused again, looking up at him with surprise. "Wow," he said. "That's, uh... a long time. Like... fifteen... years...?"

"Sixteen," James said.

"That's even longer," Elias said with a short nod. "Do you miss them?"

James let out a faint, weak laugh through his nose. Not because anything was funny. It was just easier to laugh than to cry.

"Yeah," he said with a sad smile. "I still do. But I accepted that I'll never see them again long before I ever found myself caught in this dance between two worlds."

Elias lingered his gaze on him, his lips forming into a sad frown as his brows arched downwards. "That's so sad," he said quietly. "Did you get to say goodbye?"

James's smile faded slowly, only lingering a little as he looked down at the floor with a sad wistfullness.

"No," he said. "But nowadays, I just hope that they're doing well without me."

"Do you really believe that?" Elias asked.

James's smile disappered completely at that, and he stared at the floor with a sober sadness.

"If I saw them and anyone in the kingdom were to find out," he said quietly. "I don't think they would be very well off at all. So I kind of have to hope that they're doing well... since I'll never know for sure."

Elias was quiet for a moment, petting Sleepy with his his fingers as he kept his hand on her back. "What does everyone in your family do in their free time?" he randomly asked.

"Um," James hesitated. "I'm... I'm not sure. I can only make educated guesses, at this point. Larrel was six years old when I last saw her. I doubt she's the same person she was as a child."

"True. It'd be silly if you still had the same interests as you were at six years old," Elias said with a faint laugh. "But... what do you think she'd do in her free time, anyways? At 23 years old?"

It felt strange to theorize about what Larrel would've been up to, but he guessed, he would try.

"Well... my mother remarried to a wealthy man who's known as a prominent weapons provider in the kingdom," James said. "Petrus was always interested in his father's line of work, making weapons, so maybe she followed that path, or maybe she forged her own. When we were kids, all she ever wanted to do was be an adventurer and go out into the unknown, fighting off monsters and discovering new things. I don't know how that would translate to her present, but... I hope she didn't follow in my footsteps, in going into the military."

"Did you want to go to the military?" Elias asked.

"I did at the time," James said. "But I'd been convinced the experience would be far different from what it ended up being."

"Hmmm," Elias hummed, drawing out the syllable. "What's the Nye military like?"

"In terms of what you'd be expected to see, at least, visually... imagine a lot of men and women in heavy metal armor with various ancient weapons. At least, that's what I think you'd call them. We did have guns when I served in the army, but due to limited resources, they weren't super common yet, as the technology was still developing. I was trained to use one, but it was far less advanced than what you have here on earth," James explained. "As far as numbers, goes... the military has a school to train children at an early age to equip them to fight, as well as basic foundational knowledge and basic education. That's the main source of their numbers, as almost everyone who graduates from it moves on to serve in higher ranks."

Elias let a small pause sit between them as he continued to look down at Sleepy, still petting her, likely as a distraction.

"That's not too different than what it is here, too," he said. "At least... I mean, not really the weapons part. People don't fight with sticks, or whatever you used."

"Swords," James interjected.

"Right, swords," Elias said with a nod. "Basically metal sticks. But besides that, the school part was fairly similar. Like you said, basic foundation knowledge and things like that, plus lessons on how to fight. I guess it's easier to indoctrinate kids when they're young."

"Yeah," James agreed, pausing to glanced at Sleepy, and then looking back up at Elias.

"How young were you when you were brought into the military?" James asked.

Elias glanced at him, letting out a breathy laugh through his nose. "Oh. Well, it's a little complicated, but the short answer is I basically came in at the start of adulthood. I never went to the military school. Sami and Elijah were enrolled in it, though. So I was mostly speaking for them."

"Ah," James said quietly. "How did you -- if you don't mind me asking -- get them both out of that?"

"The real short answer is that I picked 'em out and escaped at a timed opportunity," Elias said with a small smile. "But it was a plan in the making for a year. I'm glad we made it, though."

James nodded.

"Me too," he said with sincerity. "So, Elijah... is he yours? Or did you just save him and take him in?"

"He's mine," Elias said. "Sami isn't, obviously, since she's too old and looks nothing like me. It's a little weird since we're not at a father-daughter relationship at all but we're also not a brother-sister dynamic. So I guess... I'm the fun uncle?"

"I can see that," James said. "It seems like you're a fun dad, too. To Elijah."

Elias was quiet for a moment, glancing at James with a small smile, and then looking back down at Sleepy. "Yeah. To Elijah. Thanks," he said.

James could sense there was something Elias wasn't saying, but he didn't know if it was something Elias wanted to share, or if it was his place to ask.

He hesitated, finding himself glancing at Evaline, aware she was also present for this conversation.

"Did... you have other children?" he asked quietly.

Elias continued to stroke Sleepy distractedly, his small smile already faded. "I did," he said. "Do... you?"

"No," James said.

At least... he was pretty sure he didn't. There was a still a hint of uncertainty about what happened in the City of Angels.

"Well, you'd probably be a fun dad too," Elias said. "If you decide to have a kid, anyways."

James nodded slightly.

"I'm sorry if I asked about a sensitive subject," he said gently.

Elias glanced up at him, brows slightly raised as he shook his head. "Oh. No, you're fine. It's just..." He let out a faint laugh. "I guess no one has ever wanted to talk about the personal details of my life before, so it's weird to talk it out."

James's expression softened.

"Well, if you want to talk it out, I'd be more than happy to," James said gently. "Even if it's weird, or hard. I'll listen."

Elias finally tore his hands away from Sleepy, instead wrapping his arms around her like a nest. "I don't know... I also think a lot of it is heavy stuff. I guess I don't really know how hardcore Nye military is, so I can't really make the comparison, but it's pretty hardcore here."

"You don't have to compare," James said. "And I'm no stranger to heavy topics. Whatever you want to share about your experience, I'm here, and you won't scare me away."

Elias looked over at James, his face softening as he smiled. "Where were you when I was twenty?" he asked with a breathy laugh.
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soundofmind says...

"Unfortunately, on another planet," James said with a small smile.

"We probably could have been pals," Elias said. "Same age, in the military, and wanting to talk things through. That was all I wanted, really."

"I'm sorry you didn't have any friends like that years ago when you really needed it," James said softly. "But if you don't mind playing catch-up with a guy from another world, we can talk it out now."

"Yeah... I'd like that," Elias said with the same soft smile, his attention fully on James. He paused to take a deep breath. "Almost everyone in the military was indoctrinated by the military school. But I wasn't, so... that was why it was difficult to find someone with the same mindset, you know?"

"I get that," James said. "I know you said it's complicated... but why were you the exception? What made you join so late?"

"Well... it's really more complicated because I was born in the military," he said. "But for the medic ward. Still, technically, I started at birth. But when Elise came to age and her powers weren't as strong as they thought, we were sent back. I guess I was overlooked in the process. But... yeah. It's a little complicated. Sometimes I wonder how different life would've been if we never moved."

"How old were you when you moved?" James asked.

"I was six, Elise was twelve," Elias said. "I think she mothers everyone because she kind of was my mother, in a way."

"Were you sent away without your parents?" James asked, for clarification.

"Yeah. I can remember them a little bit," Elias said. "But Elise said they didn't want us to move. She told me we could have stayed with them, but I think they just wanted us to have a better life, so doctors in Sector 2 took us in. I think they're who Elise got all her doctor smarts from."

James nodded slightly, offering a small smile.

"That probably helped a lot," James said softly. "So, you moved in with some doctors at a young age with Elise. How long did you stay there?"

"Only a few years," Elias answered, then paused to think. "Oh wait, never mind. It's when Elise turned eighteen. So... six years. Yeah. So I was twelve by the time we got our own place."

"You two lived on your own?"

Elias nodded. "Yeah. It wasn't so bad, though." His gaze landed on Evaline. "I'd invite my friends over a lot. Well - I guess you know some of them. Evaline mostly, at first. Mel more later. Alistair sometimes. I never really got that close to Arima. But yeah. Those four you know. It wasn't too bad. I think as kids, it was nice to get away from adults."

"That makes sense," James said. "They told me you all went to school together when you were young."

"Did they tell you how we met, though?" Elias asked with a small laugh.

"They said something about two friend groups colliding, and Arima was the one who bridged between the two, because she was Evaline's cousin," James said.

It felt a little strange to talk about Arima so soon after her death when he hardly knew her at all, but he shook it off.

"Oh yeah, that's true," Elias said with a nod. "So, before we all got our powers, it was just me and Evaline. And Arima was with Alistair, and Alistair's brother, Alan." He laughed again, shaking his head. "It was alphabetical. That's basically how our friendship started. By our names."

"I like that," James said with a soft smile. "When did you all start meeting each other more?"

"Pretty much when Mel came along, actually," Elias said, mirroring his smile. "I was pretty good friends with Evaline and knew of the others, but it wasn't until Mel came in and was assigned in our group that she brought everyone together. I think she wanted to make a thousand friends. It was nice, though. I admired that about her. But after the foundation classes were getting replaced by training classes for our powers, we saw each other less and less. We were still all friends, but we all had our own lives. Part of growing up, I guess."

"I know a little bit about some of the other's lives, and the paths they took when they started parting ways," James said. "What was it like for you?"

Elias paused to think for a moment. "Well... the trainings were weird, at first. I didn't know why I couldn't heal like my sister. I also thought that healing was an easy and quick process, since I -- well, I guess you don't know. My power is to heal myself only, rather than healing others. Like reverse what Elise does. Does that make sense?"

James nodded.

"Yeah, that makes sense," he said quietly, keeping his answer brief so Elias could keep going.

"Yeah. And I was a bit of a daredevil back in the day. I figured if I couldn't get hurt, why take safety precautions? It was dumb, but I was a kid. I'd climb up to high places without gear since it gave me a thrill. And I'm only saying all this now because I fell from a roof once, and then I woke up on a hospital bed. And I was told for the first time the nature of my powers. And from there it's only gone downhill..."

James was listening attentively, and he'd leaned forward in his chair, facing Elias with his hands held together in his lap while he rested his elbows on his knees. He watched Elias with a look of sympathy and support.

"What happened after that?" he asked softly.

"Well, I woke up to meet my recruiter," Elias said, then paused. "They're, uh... basically people trying to figure out niche and uncommon powers. Figure out the scope and all. Try to figure out where to place me, since, you know, I'd make a lousy doctor."

"How old were you when this happened?" James asked, deciding to gloss over Elias's self deprication joke for the moment.

"I was fifteen," Elias answered. "To be honest, I'm kind of amazed how I was able to skim by for a year without anyone questioning why I couldn't heal others. I think people thought I was a late bloomer or something. Who knows."

James could read between the lines, but James didn't think Elias was that dull. Elias had his moments, but James found that there was a depth to him that the others hadn't seemed to have explored. He felt like he was beginning to appreciate Elias as more than just the 'comedic relief.'

"So, your powers were finally discovered, and you were assigned a recruiter," James said. "And you were seeing your friends less, because they were all busy with their own specialized classes that focused on their powers. What was your experience with your recruiter?"

"It sucked," Elias said with a sigh. "My recruiter's name was Sohiro. He was an awful guy. Gives me the creeps. I think he enjoys seeing others in pain. And he was so thorough."

He paused, glancing at James again.

"Oh. I think I should also tell you that I have a second minor power. Elise has it too, but it's dormant for her. It's called the beserk gene. It basically means survival mode takes over your mind when you're in distress. Like, it keeps you alive, and would do anything to keep you alive. So... paired with a self-healing power... well... it sucked."

James watched Elias as he went on, and his heart sunk as he filled in the blanks of what Elias wasn't saying.

Sohiro had hurt him, and would have done so repeatedly, over however many years he worked with him, to the point of great distress. His heart ached with empathy.

"I'm so sorry, Elias," James said. "That you were forced to endure that."

Torture. Torture was what it was, and they just weren't saying it.

"Did that go on for the rest of the time you were in school?" he asked softly, knowing that it was hard to respond to expressions of empathy, and wanting to give Elias the freedom to move on.

"Yeah... at least, until I got to the military," Elias answered, forcing a small smile. "That's the part that gets more complicated. I was supposed to leave earlier, but I didn't want to leave my sister or friends, and Sohiro had his own reasons for staying in Sector 2 longer. That's where we were from. But - we came to an agreement that I wouldn't leave until I graduated. I ended up leaving about a month before graduation anyways, but... at least I got to stretch out my time."

James nodded slightly, letting a small pause pass.

"I'm assuming... you left early because of what happened with Alan," he said quietly.

Elias stared at James for a few seconds, quiet for a moment. "So someone told you, huh?" he said softly.

"Actually," he said quietly. "Before Evaline told me, I dreamed of it. My power allows me to see undone memories. I didn't know I could see memories that went that far back, but... it seems I can. I know that must feel invasive, for me to have seen it before even knowing you, and I just want you to know that I'm working on controlling my power, to limit what I see so that I don't invade people's privacy anymore. But... yes. I've known for a while."

Elias kept his gaze on James. His brows were creased together in a mix of confusion and concern. He hardly looked upset that James had known about what happened before he told him.

"So... undone memories by... Evaline...?" he asked.

"Yes," James said quietly.

He had a sinking feeling that Elias didn't know anything about how the event had affected Evaline, and possibly didn't even know that she's gone back in time. He looked to Evaline with an apologetic look, even though she couldn't see it.

He would have to apologize after.

Elias drew his brows together even more, deep in thought. "So... she went back in time that day?" he asked.

Solemnly, James nodded.

"I doesn't feel right to speak for her," James said, still looking at Evaline. "I would tell you more details if I knew she was okay with it, but it was a very painful memory, and I want to respect her and let her speak for herself... whenever she wakes up. But I will tell you that yes, she did go back in time that day, in an attempt to undo Alan's death. But as I'm sure you know... it didn't work."

"No I - yeah. I get it," Elias said with a quick shake of his head. "It's fine. I haven't really..." He swallowed, following James's lead by fixing his gaze on Evaline as well. "I haven't even seen Evaline since that day. Or... anyone from Sector 2. I didn't even know what happened to everyone afterwards, besides... well..."

He solemnly looked down at Sleepy on his lap, clenching his fists.

"You were in the military too," he said steadily. "Did you ever get desensitized to death?"

James looked to Elias with a serious look of understanding.

"Yes," he said, just as sober.

"It's... sad, isn't it?" Elias said softly. "Are you still desensitized?"

"I find it comes and goes," he said quietly. "Sometimes I feel everything, and sometimes nothing at all. It's hard to know why."

Elias nodded. "Yeah. I understand that. Sometimes you want to feel nothing, but then you feel everything. And other times you want to feel everything, but feel nothing. It really messes with you."

"That it does," James said quietly.

"How did you feel with the first death?" he asked.

James took in a deep breath.

"Nothing," he said.

"Were they a stranger to you?" Elias asked gently.

"Yes," James answered. "They were a mage."

"It feels different with strangers, I think," Elias said slowly. "What about people you knew personally? Have you ever... you know?"

James found himself turning his eyes to the floor as well.

"There was a boy... who I'd befriended when I was young. We would see each other whenever my parents went in to town. He was my only friend outside of my family in my early years, but after my father's death, we moved and I never saw him again. Not until years later, when he was captured and brought in. He had been a mage in hiding. My commanding officer noticed that our connection was personal, and wanted..."

James swallowed.

"His name was Rory."

"That's awful," Elias said quietly with sad eyes. "It was an order, right? You were following orders?"

"Yes," he said.

"And you said he was a mage, which was illegal, right?"

James nodded, glancing up at Elias.

"Well..." Elias sighed. "You were indoctrinated as a kid to believe mages were bad... And I can't imagine the shock of it all when you found out it was Rory, someone you knew... but I think, as awful as it sounds, it's the personal regrets like these that give us humanity... you know? Because you regret it, which goes against what you were taught."

James was silent for a few passing seconds - not because he disagreed, but because he was letting Elias's words sink in.

"Yeah," he said quietly, pausing again as he looked up at Elias solemnly looking down at Sleepy, his hands limp around her.

"Is that what it was for you?" James asked quietly. "With..."

"No," Elias said without hesitating. "That was an accident. I didn't mean for that to happen."

James nodded.

"I had a feeling it was," he said softly.

"In a way..." Elias said slowly, speaking just as soft. "For me... almost all of them were accidents. But at what point do you stop calling it accidents?"

"Did the accidents occur when your berserker gene would kick in?" James asked, staying at a low volume.

Elias nodded slowly. "Yeah," he said, then sighed. "And I was so, so depressed, which made it worse. The less I wanted to live, the more my body lived for me instead. But that only made things worse. What was the point of it all?"

James watched Elias for a moment, feeling a depth of understanding that he didn't even know how to express. His heart ached, and even though it seemed like Elias wasn't struggling as much with depression, James knew those things weren't always visible, and he wanted Elias to know that while he didn't have all the answers, he supported him.

James quietly scooted his chair a little closer and brought it beside Elias's. He gently rested his hand on Elias's shoulder.

"I don't know if anyone can truly answer the question for why horrible things happen," James said softly. "But I can only imagine how difficult it was, to be suffering silently, with no friends to support you. I'm so sorry that you had to go through all of that so isolated and alone. Pain feels so much more overwhelming when you don't have someone with you to help share the burden, and it can be like an echo chamber in your mind when you have no one to share it with. I know we haven't known each other very long, and I still don't know the full story, but I just want you to know that you don't have to keep it all to yourself any longer. I won't always have all the right answers, or say the right things, but I want to support you. Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I know it's not easy."

And he knew that from experience.

Elias's eyes softened as he finished, offering a faint, sad smile as he met his eyes. "Hey... you're pretty good at speeches," he commented.

James smiled a small, sad smile in return.

"I hope you don't feel like I'm talking your ear off," he said. "But I mean every word."

"Oh, no, you weren't," Elias said with a laugh at the back of his throat. "I just... man. Seriously, I wish we met earlier. What I would have given to have someone who cared... It's easy to get swept up in your own head."

"Trust me," James said softly, slowly pulling his hand away from Elias's shoulder. "I understand."

"And it goes both ways, you know," he said, watching his hand get pulled away. "I like listening too."

James flicked his eyes to the ground, still smiling slightly.

"I'm glad to know it's mutual," he said, but then looked back up at Elias. "Was there anything more you wanted to talk about, while we're -- you know -- talking about it?"

Elias looked away, his smile slowly fading as he slipped back into the memories of his history.

"There is... one more thing that comes to mind," he said softly. "It was the only time I ended a life on purpose."

James felt the seriousness of the statement, and mentally tried to prepare himself.

"When was that?" James asked lowly.

"About five years ago," he said quietly. "I was at a low point. I made a lot of reckless and rash decisions. Part of me wonders if I did it because it was truly the right thing to do, or if I was trying to get attention. I still don't know. It haunts me, sometimes."

"Do you want to talk about what happened?" James asked gently.

Elias bowed his head a little towards his chest, possibly out of shame. "I'm afraid you and others would judge me for it," he said. "And think of me differently."

James reached out and set his hand on Elias's shoulder again.

"Whatever it is," James said, knowing the kind of promise he was making. "I still want to be your friend, and I want to hear about it because I care about you. If it haunts you to this day, I think it deserves to be heard and understood."

Elias didn't move, staying stiff as he took a deep breath.

"Elijah had two other siblings," he said lowly. "Ellis and Elsie. I didn't spend much time with them, but they were all mine. I didn't know the mother. I don't even know if they came from the same mother. They were going to be part of this cycle too, and with my blood. So I suffocated them with a pillow in their sleep. I decided it was better if they didn't live a life of pain. But when Elijah woke up, I -- I couldn't do it."

Elias paused, staring emptily at Sleepy, his arms loose and limp around her.

"You said I was a good dad, but I murdered my own children," he finished with a low voice, hardly audible.

James didn't think this was something he should be hasty to respond to. There were layers of nuance and pain to this situation that he would never know personally. He slid his hand across Elias's shoulders, partially putting his arm around him firmly, but not quite in a hug.

"I'm sorry that my comment only exasterbated the guilt you've been carrying with you all this time," he said softly. "That took a lot of courage to share, and I'm glad that you told me."

He knew he didn't have to ask Elias if he felt remorse. He could see it in his face, his body language. He could hear it in his words.

"I'm glad Elijah woke up when he did," Elias said softly. "I am. And I do love him now. But it's painful, sometimes, when with him. I can see the ghosts of his siblings in my mind and their final moments. Of all the things... this is what stuck the most. And it wasn't a military order."

James sat with him quietly for another moment, still holding his arm around the back of Elias's shoulders. Without really noticing, he'd started to move his thumb up and down on the back of Elias's shoulder.

"Have you allowed yourself to grieve the loss of your children?" James asked gently, but his voice firm.

"I know it happened five years ago," Elias said, voice still hushed with his eyes down on his lap in defeat. "But I only got out of the military a week ago. I couldn't grieve during that time span. And after that much time has passed... you just kind of... move on."

"I know it's not as simple as being able to turn the emotions back on like turning a faucet," James said gently. "And I know it was a complex situation, and I refuse to take the place of a judge. But as a friend, I know it's important to let yourself grieve, even if it's messy, and even if it was a loss that happened long ago. You lost two kids, Elias, and that's a very big thing. You don't have to just move on from this like nothing happened. You're allowed to feel sad, and you're allowed to grieve this. And I'll be with you through it. Okay?"

"The thing was, I didn't really see them as my kids," Elias said thinly. "Not at the time. I never cared to have kids, especially if I was going to pass on my curse. So it's hard to grieve that when I was so detached from it at the start... I don't know. I think it's less to do with them being related to me, and more to do with them being kids. They didn't ask to be brought to the world. They were guilty in my eyes for just existing, but they were innocent."

"Do you still feel that way now?" James asked.

"No," Elias said quickly. "I mean... not with Elijah. I see him as my son."

"Do you still feel that way towards Ellis and Elsie today?" James asked gently, narrowing down the question.

"It's hard to say..." Elias continued. "I think it's easier if I don't."

"And why do you want to take the easier route?" James asked.

Elias was quiet for a moment, angling his head a little to glance at James. "I guess... because I'm a coward," he said with a steady voice.

"I don't think you're a coward for being afraid of pain," James said just as steady. "Nobody likes to feel the pain of loss, or guilt, or regret. It's not an easy thing to face, and it can be scary. You're scared, but that doesn't make you a coward. You can be scared and still choose to face it. But now you don't have to face it alone."

"I was definitely a coward when I was alone," Elias replied, eyes glued on Evaline. "It was easier to mentally escape. But after Samiya latched on to me, and there was hope to truly escape, I feel less of a coward, and less scared. It's like starting a new chapter of my life. Like shedding out of new skin." He sighed. "I don't know. I'm rambling at this point, but I do appreciate it."

"It's a fresh start," James said. "You don't have to remain stuck in the cycle of harmful decisions you've made in the past. And now you have a whole group of people around you who care about you, and friends who will support you. I know Elise, for sure, will back you in your journey towards healing. And you know I will too."

Elias paused, turning his head at him again, offering a faint sad smile. "Yeah... healing," he said. "Thanks, James. I don't really know what your whole situation is like, but... I wish the same for you. That's what friends are for, right?"

James met Elias's eyes with a small smile and soft eyes.

"Yeah," he said. "That's what friends are for."

At that, he gave Elias a gentle pat on the shoulder before pulling his arm away.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

I think the best thing about making it into the quote generator is when nobody tells you, so one day you're just scrolling and voila, some phenomenally inane thing that crawled out of your dying synapses and immediately regretted being born the second it made contact with the air has been archived for all time. Or worse, a remark of only average inanity. Never tell me when you've put me in the generator. Pride-tinged regret just doesn't taste the same without the spice of surprise.
— SirenCymbaline