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Far From Home

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Sat Jul 03, 2021 2:14 am
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soundofmind says...

It was morning, and James opened the door to the outdoor balcony to let the early morning light in. The sky was a little overcast and gloomy, so it wasn't very bright, but it was nice to get some fresh air flowing. Thankfully, it wasn't too cold, and James didn't plan on keeping the door open for too long, since he didn't want Evaline to get uncomfortable.

James had changed his clothes, and combed his hair, and just as he went to sit by Evaline, there was a knock on the door. James could recognize the three quick knocks and timing to be Elise coming in with breakfast.

"Come in," he said as he took a seat next to Evaline.

The door opened, and Elise came in holding a cup of the banana smoothie Elias had given him yesterday. She quietly closed the door behind her and walked towards him, offering a smile.

"Good morning, James and Evaline," she said. "Here's your breakfast. It's more of a liquid food, but Elias insisted I give you this instead."

James took the cup with a small smile, starting to stir the smoothie a little with the straw.

"I had some yesterday and told him I liked it," James said. "I guess he was taking notes."

Elise let out a breathy laugh, still smiling as she sat on the chair next to him. "Elias doesn't normally take notes. You must be special."

James shrugged a little with a shy smile, and then took a sip of the smoothie.

"I guess I'm honored," he said.

"I'm glad you two are becoming friends," Elise said. "I told him that you wanted to go on this trip to help him despite not really knowing him, so I think you were off to a good first impression. We're both very glad you are here."

"I'm glad to be here too," James said. "I'm glad I finally got to meet him."

Elise offered another smile, lingering her gaze before turning to look at Evaline. "You've been very devoted," she said after a longer pause. "Evaline is also lucky to have you. You've been taking good care of her, but remember to stretch and get daily exercise day-to-day too."

James nodded.

"I've been doing some exercising on my own," James said. "Just... in here."

"However you do it is fine. I just want to make sure you're moving. Speaking of..." Elise sat forward on her chair, reaching out to take Evaline's arm and outstretching it forward. "Evaline would also need to move, too. It's difficult in her state, but if you can stretch her everyday, it would lessen the state of atrophy for when she wakes up."

James raised his brows and looked over to Evaline.

"Yeah, I can do that," he said. "If you could show me how, so I don't hurt her or anything, I can do that every day."

"Of course," Elise said with a little smile, then proceeded to spend the next couple of minutes showing James various stretches on Evaline.

She explained how the joints of the neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, knee, and foot were crucial to stretch, and would demonstrate the movements. It started with circling her fingers at first, then her hand from her wrist to her fingers, then elbow to fingers, then shoulder to symbols?, moving back and forth in little circles. She did the same to her leg, explaining how it was important that James bend her knee or position her to her side to move her hips.

"The stretches are important to do everyday, but it's even more important to move her position whenever you can," Elise said when she finished, demonstrating by carefully sliding Evaline on her side so she was facing them, pushing her hip out and her knees bent towards them. "Can you do this everyday? She'd be most comfortable if you can do this every few hours during the day, if you can do that."

"I can do that for sure," James said with a nod, following Elise's example and adjusting Evaline's arm and shoulders so that she was more comfortably turned on her side. He pulled away and gently pulled the covers back over Evaline, up and over her shoulders. "I'll schedule it in so that it's consistent."

"Good, good," Elise said with a nod, then paused. "She'll need to be cleaned, too. I've known doctors who have a weekly cleaning schedule, but the more often she's cleaned, the more comfortable she'll be. I can also do it if you're not comfortable."

"I wouldn't mind doing it," James said, standing beside Evaline's bed, looking down at her. "I might ask for your help the first few times, though."

"Of course. I'd be happy to help as much as needed. I can come by later with all of the supplies to teach you everything." She then gestured to the IV bag. "And also teach how what to do if the bag runs low, or if the wires get loose. I'll always be here if there's an emergency, but I figure you'd like to be independent since you spend the most time with her."

"I appreciate it," James said, his eyes still on Evaline. "I'd want to know what to do in case of an emergency. Thank you. I'd like to be trained to take care of her well."

Elise glanced at James, offering another smile before she went ahead and slightly repositioned Evaline's arms to be at a more comfortable position. "You're a good man, James. And an even better friend, and an even better partner. Evaline can't say it, but she must be so grateful to have you."

James flicked his eyes away with a faint, weak smile.

"Thanks, Elise," he said softly, before turning his attention back to Evaline. Gently, he leaned over and reached out to set his hands over hers. "I'm grateful to have you too, Evaline."

There was a small pause before Elise spoke up again. "It's very selfless, what you do," she said. "You are making a big impact. It's not easy to take care of someone in this state, but you do it without question or complaint. It's very admirable."

James looked up at Elise, but he only held her eyes for a moment.

"I'm just doing what I know she'd do for me," he said softly.

Elise smiled again. "I can tell you really love her."

James looked back down at Evaline.

"I do," he said, looking at her with tenderness in his eyes.

There was another short pause as he lingered his gaze on Eve, and then he glanced at Elise, pulling up the chair behind him to sit beside the bed again for the moment. He still had his unfinished smoothie, so he took it off the side-table he'd set it on, taking a sip again.

He noticed that Elise lingered in the room, and he looked over to her expectantly as he sipped on the drink, not sure if she had something else to bring up.

"I was thinking of what you just said," Elise said after brushing some of Evaline's hair out of her face, then pulling up another nearby chair to sit next to him. "About how you're being selfless for her because she'd do the same to you. And you were selfless to Elias too by helping him even though you had no obligation. I haven't asked him myself, but I'm fairly sure he would also do the same to you if the roles were reversed."

James paused on drinking to respond.

"I guess we have that in common," he said, then returned the straw to his mouth.

"Helping strangers out of the goodness of your heart?" Elise said, glancing over with another small smile.

"I... I mean, I haven't known Elias that long, but, yes?" James said.

"I think it's more than just Elias," she continued. "I think you're overall a generously selfless person. You said you became a wanted man because you stopped a plan that would prevent deaths of children, right? That was a significant sacrifice."

James stopped sipping on his smoothie again, looking to the side a little awkwardly.

"It was the right thing to do," James said simply. "And I would do it again if necessary. I still believe it was worth it."

"That's incredibly brave of you, James," she said with a gentle softness. "I'm glad you told us your true history. It has made me appreciate who you are so much more."

James nodded slightly, feeling a little more awkward as she continued to compliment and reassure him. He wasn't sure how to respond to it, aside from a simple: "Thanks," that came out quietly. "It was nice to finally tell everyone. It's nice to feel more... understood, even though the circumstances around how I met you all and got to where we are now are quite dramatic and bizarre."

"It is dramatic and bizarre, isn't it?" Elise said with a breathy laugh. "But I don't believe it's an accident. I think you were meant to meet Evaline, then meet us, which leads to us all understanding each other. The journey to it was a little strange, but I'd say it's worth it."

James couldn't help but turn his eyes to Evaline with a small hint of sadness, though he tried to disguise it.

Was this meant to be too? Her, being comatose... possibly forever? That wasn't to say that he regretted ever meeting her. It was quite the opposite. But he couldn't help but wonder if this was what life was going to be like for them for the rest of their days. There were too many unknowns to tell, but he felt like he had to at least consider it and prepare his heart for it.

Elise seemed to detect a vein of similar thought since she spoke again. "The journey was also full of hardship, but hardship can make you stronger. And wherever there's hardship, there's also hope, too."

James didn't have much to say to that in reply, but he nodded slightly.

"I do have hope," he said quietly. "Even if sometimes it wanes."

"I think it's important to hold on to at least a small speck of hope when you can," Elise said. "Even in the hard days, you can fall back on the hope that there will be better days in the future."

"Yeah," James said, though his answer felt weak. He had hope for Evaline, but what he struggled with was having hope for himself. He didn't want to say that out loud though. Not at the moment.

He sipped on his smoothie again and then cleared his throat.

"So," he said. "Elias was telling me a little bit about you guys. It sounds like you've been pretty close, especially in your childhood. He really admires you."

"Oh, yes," Elise said with a brighter smile, leaning back on her chair. "Elias told me he told you. We are six years apart, and since our parents gave us freedom in exchange for their absence, I filled the role for him. I tried to make his life as easy as possible, but it could be a bit stressful. Once when we were younger, he accidentally called me mom. I've never let him forget it."

James laughed lightly in the back of his throat.

"I imagine it must've been a lot of pressure to have to step into the parent role when you were still just a teenager, but I greatly respect you for sticking with it all those years," James said, having to push back his own guilt. He wasn't trying to project -- he really did mean it -- but he had to fight to not make it about him.

"Like you said, it was the right thing to do," Elise said, nodding her head once in appreciation.

James smiled weakly.

"Yeah," he said, trying to think of a way to steer the conversation in a different direction.

"Elias mentioned that you also have a sister who is six years apart, but younger instead," Elise said instead. "I know it was different circumstances and settings, but how was your dynamic?"

"Oh, well... in short, I was the responsible one, and she was always causing trouble and I would get blamed for it," he said with a faint laugh. "She was always the most confident person in any room."

Elise smiled warmly, seemingly invested in what he had to say. "That sounds familiar," she said with a little laugh. "I guess the dynamics of a brother-sister with an age gap isn't too different across worlds."

"I guess not," James said, meeting her eyes with a small smile.

"Do you miss her?" she asked.

He let out a huff of air through his mouth. Elias had asked the same thing.

"Yes," he said, his smile waning. "I do. But I made peace with the fact that I'll never see her again long ago. When I became wanted, I knew seeing her again would only put her in danger. I guess, even when worlds apart, the distance feels the same somehow."

"Even if you'd made peace with it, I am so sorry you can't see her again," Elise said softly with gentle understanding. "I know the circumstances are different, but it did break my heart when I found out Elias was going to be drafted and be unreachable. It's difficult being worlds apart, but... maybe there's hope there, too. To see her again someday."

James looked down into his smoothie, which was almost gone. He could feel the sadness swirling slowly in his stomach. It was a familiar feeling. Grief. Loss. Shame.

"I think at this point, when it comes to my family, it hurts more to hope that I might see them again," he said quietly. "I guess... when your heart is broken for long enough, you just learn to live with it and move on, even if its never quite the same again. I think that's how it is with any significant loss. At some point, you learn to live on, even if the hurt's still there."

Elise nodded slowly, her smile turning sad. "That's a very mature way of thinking," she said. "It's not easy or ideal, but it is realistic. I'm sorry that your heart has felt broken long enough that you had to think that way."

James was quiet for a moment, still staring down into his cup.

"Well," he said, looking back up at her with a slightly forced, small smile. "It doesn't mean that there still can't be joy in the midst of it."

"Now, with Evaline and with us, has your heart started to mend, and you have felt more joy than you have in the past?" Elise asked.

"I think I'm starting to," James said with a slightly bigger smile.

"I really do think it wasn't a coincidence that I was the first person to meet you when you arrived," Elise said after a pause. "I had inadvertent ties to Evaline that ultimately brought us back together, and even our backstories have some paralells. If you were from Earth and grew up with the others, I'd have treated you like a younger brother too."

"You think so?" James asked with a faint smile.

Elise nodded eagerly. "A friend of Elias's is practically a family member to me," she said with a smile.

"It's nice to be in the family, then," James said softly.

"I know it doesn't - and shouldn't - replace your real family," Elise said gently. "But you do have a home here. We'll figure out the permanent location later, but what's important is that we have each other."

James nodded.

"Agreed," he said, before taking one last sip to try and finish off his smoothie.

"And, you know..." Elise said after another longer pause. "It helps knowing who you are, and understanding your full background. Elias and I were supposed to be medics for the military, and although I ended up not being strong enough, Elias was a different story. He wasn't a child soldier, but he was forced into the military with powers he had to use for nefarious orders. I know it doesn't mean much here, but it gives me peace of mind that you prevented a similar future in Nye."

James hummed softly as he set his empty cup on the side table.

"I can imagine it was a difficult time for both of you," James said. "When Elias was taken away."

"Yes... it was," Elise said softly. "I didn't really get a chance to talk to him before he was taken away. I still had a network of medics in the military that could pass my words to him, but... it's certainly not the same to seeing and speaking in person."

"I can imagine," James said gently. "I know the pain of not getting a chance to say goodbye. I'm assuming you never saw him during his service in the military?"

Elise shook her head. "No. Only those with access could go in and out. I was grateful that I had a network to fall back on, at the very least. But it pained me to know that Elias could only get to the medic ward by getting hurt, just so we can exchange words."

James looked to Elise with his brows drawn together. Knowing the nature of Elias's powers, he could imagine that getting hurt to the degree he'd need to see a medic might've proven difficult as well.

"How often were you able to send him messages?" he asked.

"Not often. A fast message would take a month. It was difficult when it gets passed to various people, but I'm glad that's all in the past now."

James nodded slightly again. "I am too."

There was another small pause that passed, and James found his mind drifting to Larrel, and even Petrus. He often wondered if they'd ever expected to hear back from it. If they ever waited, and hoped that he would return one day, or if they too, gave up hope long ago because it hurt too much. Hope deferred for so long made the heart grow sick, and at some point, you had to let it go.

Still, he wondered how often they thought about him, or if he was just a distant memory now. Was he always living in the back of their mind whenever they had family gatherings, or were they embittered? Happy he was gone?

He'd never know.

He was just the ghost of a brother and the ghost of a son, and now that he was worlds away... he really was as good as dead. He couldn't even imagine seeing them again. He didn't even know what that could look like.

He let out a quiet sigh as he looked into his lap.

"How has it been, seeing Elias again after all of these years?" James asked. "Was it everything you thought it'd be?"

Elise smiled wistfully as she lingered her gaze on him, setting her hands comfortably on her lap. "After being away that long, and knowing the experiences he went through, it wasn't a perfect, shining moment. It felt surreal, but felt more real the longer we were together. I think because we were apart for so long, I was naturally trying to connect to the brother I once knew. And although his face is familiar, we've both changed - him more than I. I may have watched him grow up, but I missed the part of him stepping into adulthood and changing. We stayed up all night catching up, but I know the years missed can't ever be recovered."

James nodded slowly, watching Elise with compassion, but also a sadness.

"Do you think that you'll ever get back to the closeness you once had before?" James asked softly.

"If anything, I think we will now be closer," Elise said with a sad smile. "I think past hardship and time apart makes you appreciate the moment with each other more."

James mirrored Elise's smile.

"Well... I'm happy for you two," James said. "Really. I'm glad this much of the mission was successful."

"The mission isn't over yet," Elise said, her gaze falling on Evaline. "I don't consider it over until we're all safe and healthy, including Evaline."

James's eyes followed to Evaline as well. He reached out and took Evaline's hand.

"And we'll stay by you until that happens, Eve," James said softly.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Mon Jul 05, 2021 9:29 am
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soundofmind says...

James spent the majority of his time taking care of Evaline. Over the next week, Elise came in every other day to help train him in more of the things he needed to do to make sure that Evaline was comfortable, clean, and healthy. James continued to spend downtime talking to her, playing music, and telling stories, and Elias would still stop by every now and again to talk for a little bit here and there. The others would stop by too, but it was usually very brief, and to give him updates on what was going on.

Mel and Hendrik had successfully disguised the area and drawn in more beasts to deter anyone coming by, but the effort still required a semi-frequent upkeep, especially on Hendrik and Malkiel's part, since they were the main ones influencing the creatures in the area.

But it was good to know that there had been no signs of anyone drawing near and that their efforts to keep their hiding spot secure were successful so far.

As James continued to take care of Evaline, he tried to steal a few small moments to himself. In the mornings, he'd go off to be with Elliot for some time, and in the afternoons, he was making a habit of going out on the balcony to exercise and get some direct sunlight at the same time.

While most things were going well, though, it seemed that after about a week of catching up on sleep from the exhaustion of the trip to safety, his body was falling back into its old habits.

Sleep was evading him again, and he often found himself tossing and turning on the floor beside Evaline's bed. His head was clear enough to block out the buzzing of old, distant memories that seemed to try to call out to him, but he was still feeling drained. It was a normal feeling, for him, but as they came up to the end of the second week since they'd all come together, he could feel a tension crawling up his back, shoulders, and neck.

He tried to stretch and relieve the tension, but it only ever seemed to make it worse. At the end of the week, he ended up waking up with so much tension in his neck and head that his whole skull was throbbing with a headache, but he pushed through to take care of Evaline.

He took her through her morning exercises, adjusted her position, and made sure her fluids were full. He also made sure Sleepy was fed, and let the chicken roam free around the room like he normally did.

The problem he ran into was when he finally stopped to take care of himself, and tried to change into a new shirt, he couldn't lift his arms over his head with an agonizing pain shooting down his neck and shoulders. He bit back a groan and hissed through his teeth instead as he stood frozen, feeling like his shoulder was only tensing up more as he tried to bear with the pain.

There was a knock on the door, and from the repetitive quick three knocks, James figure it was Elias. James couldn't even turn his head towards the door. He didn't have much time to turn back or answer though, since the door swung opened wide anyways.

"Hey, Jamie!" Hendrik's voice boomed. "Was hanging out with soldier boy and thought I'd come along. How have you been?"

Hendrik seemed to invite himself in, taking heavy strides to stand by his side. Elias followed behind quietly, offering James a smile out of amusement and an apology. He seemed to head towards Sleepy first, swooping her off the floor to hold her.

James stood stiffly, and he barely managed to hold a semi-normal position, but he knew he looked far from relaxed.

"Hey, guys," he said tensely. "I'm, uh... just my neck is bothering me is all."

Hendrik sat on the chair James usually sat on, his eyes not having left James as he looked him up and down. "What's wrong with your neck?" he asked.

"Just... it's just tense," James said, trying not to make it too obvious that he couldn't really turn his head as he rotated his body with his feet to sit down on the chair beside him.

"Need a massage?" Hendrik asked. "I give good massages."

James took in a slow breath, trying to think a coherent thought through the pounding headache that was wrapping around his skull.

"I guess," he said.

It wasn't like he could just keep living like this. Well, he could, but... he needed to be able to function.

"Great," Hendrik said with a slap of his thigh, and then stood up to walk to James, standing beside him. He cracked his knuckles and his own neck as if it would mentally prepare himself. "Ready?"

James glanced across the room at Elias, who was standing and holding Sleepy in his arms, rocking her back and forth like a baby.

"Uh... ready as I'll ever be," he said as he took in a deep breath, trying to relax so it wouldn't hurt as much. But he knew it would still hurt. A lot.

And with that, Hendrik wrapped his big hands behind his neck, applying pressure in small, circulat motions. He started soft at first but then gradually applied more pressure. "Let me know if it starts to hurt," he said.

It started to hurt pretty quickly. But was already hurting, and it wasn't quite to the point of not being bearable. He tried to bear with it, at least for the moment.

"I've massaged a lot of men," Hendrik said slowly as he continued to massage his neck. "And you have the stiffest neck I've ever seen."

"I imagine that's not something I should be proud of," James said tensely, squinting his eyes.

"No," Hendrik said, applying even more pressure. "It's not."

Elias, meanwhile, was now standing nearby, still cradling Sleepy in his arms. "Did you hurt your neck?" he asked.

"That's a layered answer," James said as he winced when Hendrik found a very hard knot and started digging into it.

"That's Jamie's way of saying yes," Hendrik said to Elias.

"Oh..." Elias said, then paused. "Are you okay?"

James's whole face was scrunched up in a pained grimace, and he squinted over at Elias.

"Mmhmm," he hummed faintly.

"It kind of looks like you're hurting him more," Elias said in a hushed voice as he leaned towards Hendrik for only him to hear it, but did a bad job of covering his voice.

"Trust me. This'll make him feel better," Hendrik said anyways, applying even more pressure to his hands.

James took in a sharp breath, pinching his eyes shut. He could feel the knot Hendrik was working finally starting to loosen, but it was gradual. After a moment, he finally felt some of the tension starting to release, but that was only one knot.

"You've always been this tense?" Hendrik asked.

"It comes and goes," James said. "I don't know. My back's been messed up for years."

"Need a back massage, too?"

"I honestly probably need more than that," James muttered.

Hendrik hummed. "So you need a full-body massage?"

James laughed, but quickly stopped when it seemed to add more tension.

"I'm pretty sure some of the disks in my back are out of place, but I'm not a doctor," James said.

"Well, I'm no doctor either," Hendrik said. "But maybe I can at least crack your back and get rid of some of the knots."

"I'm not sure I want you doing that if you don't know what you're doing," James said a little nervously.

At that, Hendrik unknowingly hit a sore spot of his neck.

"Suit yourself," he simply said, none-the-wiser.

James stared wide-eyed out into the room for a moment as the pain shot through his head, and he let out a pained: "Aah."

"Okay," he said, his voice strained. "Stop. Stop."

Hendrik eased off, slowly pulling away. "You good?"

James closed his eyes, barely able to focus.

"Can you get Elise or something?" he asked thinly.

"Elise is out today," Elias said. "Do you want Rudy?"

"Get Rudy instead," James answered.

"I'll get him," Hendrik said, already walking out the door. "You're a little slow, soldier boy."

Elias glanced between James and Hendrik who was moving fast. "Is James okay?" he asked.

"Oh, he's fine," Hendrik said as he slipped out the door, leaving James alone with Elias.

"Are you?" Elias asked.

"I have a headache," James said quietly, still with his eyes shut. A headache, though, was an understatement.

"I don't know what Rudy could do about that," Elias said. "Maybe get you a glass of water?"

James took in a deep breath, and let it out slowly.

"Maybe," he said, hearing faint steps come down the hall.

"I could do that," Elias said as he looked around the room. "Do you have a pitcher anywhere, or...?"

"On the nightstand," James said.

"Ah. Right," he said. James could hear him shuffle over there, starting to pour water into a cup. And then he started to talk to Evaline with the same badly-disguised hushed voice. "Hey, Ev, did you know James was stiff? Did you give him massages too? To the point that it gave him a headache?"

Evaline, of course, didn't answer, but James had never had his tension catch up to him in this way, at least, not at any point in their travels. He got tension headaches on occasion, sure, but nothing like this.

"She hasn't," James answered for her, and then he heard the door open. He couldn't bring himself to turn his head to look.

"I heard someone's in need of a doctor," Rudy said.

James squinted and saw Rudy enter into his line of sight, approaching him with a look of concern.

"Or a chiropractor, it sounds like," Rudy said.

"All I did was massage his neck, doc," Hendrik said, following behind Rudy.

"If his neck is out of alignment, it's possible that you aggravated it," Rudy said. "Which, it sounds like that's what happened."

"He also gave James a headache," Elias said, like it mattered. He was already standing next to James, offering him the cup of water.

"I've had the headache all morning," James said. "It just got worse."

"Okay, so something's definitely out of alignment," Rudy said as he came up around the back of James's chair. "I'm going to feel around your neck, if that's okay. I'll be gentle. I'm just trying to feel for what's wrong."

James would've nodded, but he couldn't.

"Okay," he said quietly as Rudy ran his fingers down James's neck, feeling around his spine, up near the nape of his neck, and at the base of his skull.

"Alright," Rudy hummed. "I know you're tense, but I'm just going to have you take a few deep breaths for me real quick. In and out, relax as much as you can."

"Can you do that?" Hendrik asked flatly. "Can you relax?"

"Ha, ha very funny," James responded sarcastically before he took in one long deep breath, and then let it out slowly. He did this a few times, following Rudy's instructions.

"Good," Rudy said. "Just keep doing that. Relax."

That was what he was trying to do.

"Uh, do you still need water?" Elias asked, still standing next to him with the cup in his hands.

He felt Rudy's hands go on the sides of his head.

"Wait a moment, Elias," Rudy said. "Deep breath."

James followed his instructions. Just as he breathed in, Rudy quickly twisted James's head to the side, and James heard a very loud pop as something shifted right at the base of his skull. He barely had time to process the sudden rush of relief and the shock of the sudden movement before Rudy righted his head again.

"And let it out," Rudy said.

James shakily let it out as Rudy twisted his head to the other side, and he heard two pops in succession, ringing even louder. It felt like blood was rushing back to his head.

"I can hear the tension," Hendrik muttered.

James sat still as the headache wrapping around his skull started to dull in intensity. There was still tension, but it his head felt a lot more clear.

"Now he could use the water," Rudy said to Elias. "It's good to drink water after a massage, because your muscles release toxins. It'll help flush them out."

"Ah. Okay. Makes sense," Elias said absently, nudging the cup towards James. "Here."

James took it and took a sip of water, feeling Rudy gently pat his shoulder from behind him.

"I can only imagine that the rest of your back needs to be adjusted too," Rudy said. "If you're experiencing this much pain."

"He does," Hendrik answered for him while James drank the water. "He said something about dislocated discs."

"Ah," Rudy hummed. "Well, I can adjust you, but you'll need to be lying down on your stomach for that, and if your back is as tense as your neck was before Hendrik loosened you up, you'll need a massage before I can fully crack anything. If your muscles are that tense, nothing's going to move. Not in a good way, anyway."

James occupied himself with quickly drinking more water. His headache was starting to fade, but it was still present, just dull.

"That is, if Hendrik's up for that," Rudy said. "I'm not exactly a masseuse."

Hendrik extended his arms out to stretch, interlacing his fingers and cracking them, as if doing so again would prepare for a massage. "I'm up for that," he said, glancing around the room and then gesturing towards his bedroll on the ground. "Just lay down on your bed there."

James quickly chugged down the rest of the water and got up, setting down the glass and walking over to his bedroll.

"I can... keep my clothes on, right?" he asked.

"Yes," Rudy answered before Hendrik could.

"It's better off, but suit yourself," Hendrik said with a shrug as he followed after.

James sighed and laid down on his bedroll, with his head on the pillow, to the side so he could breathe. He bent his arms up at his sides, seeing Hendrik kneel down beside him in the corner of his eyes.

"It's going to be a lot more comfortable if you take off your shirt," he said as he started to roll up his sleeves. "It's not like we haven't already seen you shirtless."

James rolled onto his side, looking up at Hendrik with a dead-eyed stare and a slow blink.

"He does have a point," Rudy admitted quietly. "We're just trying to help, James. Not make you uncomfortable."

James pursed his lips and sat up.

"Fine," he said in the same tone that one might say 'whatever.' He quickly reached over to his side, grabbed one end of his shirt, and pulled it over his head in one quick motion, and tossed it to the side. Promptly, he lied back down on his stomach.

"Great. Let's see how much tension you have here," Hendrik said, setting his hands on his back, but the sensation was faint. James could feel a pressure, but the pain - if there was any - didn't register. It had been like that ever since the grangor. Apart from some spots on his upper and lower back, everything just felt like... nothing, for the most part.

"Your back's stiffer than a slab of stone," Hendrik muttered. "How's that? Too much?"

James felt a pang of anxiety.

"That's fine," he said, not feeling any difference.

"May take a while to work through all these knots. Let me know if it starts to hurt."

"Okay," James said, but he knew the answer already. It wasn't going to start to hurt, because he couldn't feel anything.

He could see Rudy drifting over, like he was hovering by, looking down at him. He seemed to be observing him closely, but less with the overeager curiosty he first saw on Rudy's face and now with a more deeply focused, studious expression. James tried not to think too much about what could be running through the doctor's mind.

"I know this may be a personal question," Rudy said. "But do you have any nerve damage on your back?"

James hesitated. So did Hendrik, since he pulled his hands away. At least, James was sure he did, since the faint feeling of pressure was no longer on his back.

"That's... explain what that means," James said slowly, trying to play dumb. To delay the inevitable.

"If some of your wounds were severe and went very deep, they might've severed some nerve endings, causing permanent numbness or lack of sensation," Rudy explained simply, inching a little closer and standing just behind Hendrik.

"Would it make a difference?" James asked slowly.

"I think it's important for us to know," Rudy said. "Since that means you likely don't feel as much of the tension and pain that your body is actually experiencing."

"Did you feel the massage on your back at all?" Hendrik asked.

James was quiet for a moment.

"Not... really," he said. "I felt some pressure, but that was about it."

"That's not normal, doc," Hendrik said over to Rudy, as if the observation was necessary.

"How's your neck feel at the moment?" Rudy asked.

"Fine, I guess," James said. "I mean... better than before."

Rudy sighed, and James watched Rudy come over and pat Hendrik on the shoulder.

"Is he still really tense?" Rudy asked Hendrik.

"That's an underrated question," Hendrik said with a scoff. "He needs massage therapy, but it'd be hard to do without knowing if it hurts or not. Wouldn't want to accidentally hurt him and have neither of us know it."

"If I don't feel it though--" James started to say, but Rudy cut him off.

"I could at least try to adjust you," Rudy said. "I can try to feel for what's wrong. If you don't--"

James cut him off in return.

"It's not like I'll feel it," James said.

There was an awkward pause as Rudy met Hendrik's eyes.

"Okay," Rudy said as he knelt down beside James. "I just thought I'd ask. Hendrik, don't go too far, I'm just going to see if I can feel anything out of alignment in his spine."

"He's all yours, doc," Hendrik said, shuffling out the way for Rudy to be over James instead.

James saw Rudy reach out, but he didn't feel anything as Rudy moved his hands. Or at least, that's what James assumed Rudy was doing. He couldn't exactly feel it or look over his shoulder without craning his neck, and considering how his neck felt minutes ago, he didn't think that was a good idea.

"Well, you weren't lying about disks being out of place," Rudy said, almost like he was impressed, but James had a feeling that was a bad thing. Rudy said it as if there was a lot out of place.

"I know you can't feel much, but just take deep breaths for me. And I'm going to need you to turn our face down for this, just while I adjust. I'll tell you when I'm done," Rudy said.

James turned his head so he was face-down in the pillow he could feel Rudy's hands go up to his shoulders, and he applied pressure to both sides. James could hear two loud pops, and though he stopped being able to feel much as Rudy assumedly went down his back, James could hear more pops.

A lot. There was one in particular that was really loud, and it surprised James when he could feel it.

"Pinched nerve," Rudy said, and James felt a faint heat for a moment. He didn't know what Rudy was healing, but the brief burst of pain was alleviated within a few seconds.

James could feel more again as Rudy got to his lower back, and did one last push, bringing one last faint pop out of James's back.

"Elias, can you get him more water?" Rudy asked.

"Oh, yeah, I can do that," Elias said, and James could hear a soft thud and skittering across the floor that he recognized to be Sleepy. "Toxins being released from muscles and all, right?"

"Mmhm," Rudy hummed. He patted James lightly on the shoulder. "Okay, I want you sit up and tell me if you feel any difference in your head and shoulders."

James grunted as he pushed himself back up and sat up straight. He tried slowly tilting his head from side to side, and rolling it around. He moved his shoulders forward and back and twisted them around.

"It feels a lot better," he said, not sure how to quantify it. There was an odd feeling he couldn't quite describe. Like his head was clear, and the near-constant fog was lifted. "My headache's gone. And it doesn't hurt to move my neck anymore."

While James moved, Elias returned over with a glass of water, kneeling down and gingerly hand it to him. "Do you need a straw?" he asked.

"I'm good," James said as he took the glass and started drinking it.

"I don't think it's a one-time fix," Rudy said. "It feels like you carry a lot of tension in your back, and you probably have for a long time. I'd like to adjust you once a week if you'd let me."

"You think I'll mess it up again?" James asked.

"I think having a massage once a week sounds nice," Elias commented.

James glanced at Elias.

"It'd... probably be nicer if I could feel it," he said stiffly. "But... if you think it would help, I guess... that's fine. It wasn't so bad."

Rudy nodded, and got to his feet, looking over to Hendrik.

"I'll massage you once a week if you want," Hendrik said to Elias before Rudy could say anything.

"Oh... you would?" Elias asked, sounding more surprised that he was offering.

"Sure. Why not," Hendrik said with a smirk. "So, Jamie, you getting one every week from Rudes, then?"

James glanced from Hendrik to Rudy.

"Sure," he said. If he could keep it to one person, he preferred it to be the trained doctor.

"Good lad," Hendrik said as he leaned down and slapped his back. "Now I could do that without you feeling anything."

James didn't feel the sting of the slap since it was in the center of his back, where he felt the least, but he still looked up at Hendrik with narrowed eyes.

"Just because I can't feel it doesn't mean I want you to do it," James said.

"Noted," Hendrik said with a smirk.

"Well, I think we're done for now," Rudy said as he picked up James's shirt off the floor and tossed it to him. "I'll get out of here but if your neck starts acting up again, I'll be around."

Rudy started for the door and only glanced back at Hendrik and Elias before he disappeared back into the hall.

"So, need me to finish your massage or what?" Hendrik asked.

"It's kind of hard to say, considering I can't guage what it's doing," James said, as he flipped his shirt around and slipped his hands into the arm holes. "But I think I'm good for now. Thanks for helping."

"Suit yourself," Hendrik said with a shrug, turning around to head towards the door. "Let's go, soldier boy."

James pulled his shirt back over his head and looked at Elias.

"I think I'll stay with James a little longer," Elias said, picking up the empty glass off the floor. "Gotta make sure he, uh... drinks water."

Hendrik stopped to stare at him for a moment. "Riiight," he said. "Very important. Well, I'll be off then. See you later."
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soundofmind says...

Hendrik left the room after a few more heavy steps, and Elias walked back to the pitcher, filling the cup with water again. "Does it hurt?" he asked.

"Not really," James said. "I mean, my shoulders and neck feel a little achy, but it doesn't hurt to move anymore. So I think that's good."

Elias nodded, carefully filling the water to the top of the cup, and then walking over to James slowly, trying not to spill. He kneeled down next to his bedroll to hand the glass over to him. James took it, carefully balancing it since Elias had filled it almost right up to the brim. He sipped it quickly to lower the water level.

"Yeah, that sounds good," he said, still kneeling by him. "Maybe the water will help some more."

"If not, I'll just be very hydrated, I suppose," James said with a faint smile and a shrug.

"You know what they say," Elias said with smile of his own. "The body's like eighty percent water. So it's important to flush your system out... I think." He paused. "I actually don't know if that right. I'm just basing this off what someone told me once."

"Was that someone your sister?" James asked. "Because she'd probably be right about those sorts of things."

"Maybe... I forget," Elias said with a little laugh. "I'm glad your neck doesn't hurt as much though. Life without a working neck sounds difficult."

James didn't glance back at Evaline, but she was the first person to come to mind at the comment. He knew Elias wasn't in any ways meaning to be insensitive, but James was always aware that though Evaline couldn't respond, she was likely listening to every conversation that occured in this room, unless she was asleep, but they would never know when she chose to sleep.

"Well, normally it's worked before, so... it's good there was a doctor around who knew what to do, I suppose," James said as he took another sip of water. At this point, it was his third cup, and he wasn't really thirsty anymore, so he wasn't hurrying through it.

"Did the neck and back problems come from the nerve damage?" Elias asked, deciding to get comfortable and sit on his bed with him.

James set the water down in his lap, holding it loosely with one hand.

"It's hard to say," James said. "It could just be the result of years of stress and strain. Especially that first year I was on the run, I wore myself thin. It's probably just all catching up to me, now."

Elias nodded slowly. "How long ago was that?" he asked.

"Since I became wanted?" James asked, his eyes flicking up in thought. "Almost... seven years, now, I think."

"That's a long time," he commented. "A lot of stress and strain, and wearing yourself thin."

"That it is," James said in return with a small sigh.

"So... it's all catching up to you now, seven years later," Elias said, slowly putting together the story himself.

"Well, it's not like I haven't had other things happen that have already permanently affected me," James said. "Like..."

He paused, his eyes flicking over to Elias, and then flicking away.

"The nerve damage is permanent, and my ankles are never going to be the same, and I don't think my knees will either. My joints always hurt a little and -- well I guess, it doesn't really -- it just is."

Elias nodded slowly again. "That sounds painful," he commented again. "The pros of being able to heal yourself is that you don't get your nerves and knees and joints hurt. Think it can heal on its own?"

"Are you asking about my body?" James asked, raising a brow.

"Yeah. I mean, I know normal people do, but -- I don't know. You said the nerve damage is permanent, so what do I know?" Elias said with a faint laugh.

"Unless Elise or Rudy know something I don't know, I don't think I can get feeling back," James said. "It was-- I don't think that's something that can be restored. The fact that feeling is the only thing I physically lost from that in and of itself is a miracle."

"And some skin," Elias added.

James blinked, slowly turning his head to look over at Elias.

"Yeah," he said a little more distantly as he looked out blankly into the room. "Some skin."

"At least it's grown back now," Elias added again. "Just with a different color, but there's nothing wrong with that."

James was glad he couldn't physically ever see his back in full view, but sometimes, he couldn't help but wonder what other people saw. If it really was that bad, and no one had the guts to tell it to him honestly.

At least, except Rudy... when they first met. But Rudy was far too ashamed to do so now.

"Does it look...?" James started, but couldn't think of an adjective to finish the question that didn't feel either too crude or too childish.

"Hm?" Elias said when James didn't finish, not picking up on the silent question.

James looked down into the cup of water in his lap.

"Nothing," he said quietly. "It's nothing."

"I don't think there's anything wrong with having scars, if that's what you're asking," Elias said anyways. "With someone of your background, I'd be surprised if you didn't have any."

"It's just that I have a lot," James found himself saying quickly. It felt weird to voice it, and say it directly.

"Were they from the military? And from being on the run?" Elias asked.

James glanced over at Elias again, not quite meeting his eyes, but looking at Elias a little more closely. He seemed genuinely invested in the conversation, but sat casually with his hand leaning back to support his weight.

"...Mostly from being on the run, actually," he said quietly, flicking his eyes away.

"Ahh, right, you said there were... bounty hunters, right?" Elias asked. "People trying to find you?"

James nodded slightly.

"Yeah," he said softly. "The bounty put on my head was very high. I know no one here uses money, but on Nye, it holds a lot of value. To put it into perspective, the reward that someone would get for my capture would easily give them no more financial worries for the rest of their life if they used the money wisely. So, as you can imagine, there were a lot of people interested in capturing me for that purpose alone."
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soundofmind says...

"That's a lot," Elias said, and he was slowly glancing around the room. It took James a moment to realize he must be looking for Sleepy since he locked eyes on her walking across the room. "All because you stopped the experiment?"

"Yes," James said. "When I destroyed the information, I found it so early on before any action could be taken that I was one of the few people who actually read everything. I actually -- well, I didn't destroy the reports right away. I memorized them first, as a fallback. I figured if I was wanted alive for information only I had I'd have a better chance at survival. When you're wanted dead... well, someone could take you out from afar, before you even see them coming."

"So... you were wanted alive, then?" Elias asked slowly as his gaze landed back on him.

"I was," James said. "At least, I think I still am. I can't be sure if that's changed since I've been gone. I don't know why it would change."

Elias scratched the side of his head, pausing for a moment to let the information sink in. "I take it wanted alive doesn't mean not being hurt? Just not dead?"

"Correct," James said, feeling a small knot of tension form in his chest.

"Well..." he said as he dropped his arm back on his lap. "That's just mean."

James looked over at Elias with his eyebrows raised a little in slight surprise, and he couldn't help but laugh, just a little.

"I don't think people are interested in being nice to criminals," James said. "At least, not mercenaries and bounty hunters."

"Why would people be upset with what you did, though?"

"Oh," James said with a huff of air. "Right. The kingdom never publicized what I really did. I was just marked a traitor. So as far as everyone else knew, that's all I was. A threat to the crown and the kingdom, and it didn't really matter to most people how I attained that title."

"Now that's just mean," Elias said with a sigh.

James laughed weakly through his nose.

"Yeah, well. Vengeful, angry kings can be mean," he said.

"Sounds like the king man really had it out for you," Elias commented.

"It doesn't help that he once trusted me," James said. "Though he was my king, and the man I answered to, he was more personable with me than he was with most."

"You knew the king personally?" Elias asked with surprise.

"It wasn't like we were friends," James clarified. "But he did... I don't know. Take me under his wing. Like a mentor, in a way. Or a father figure, I guess. I don't know exactly what his motives were, but it..."

James paused, not sure how to put it into words in a way that didn't sound almost slimy coming out of his mouth.

It almost felt like the king had been grooming him to become king -- not that he would've had much power, anyway, since Eliza would've been the Queen, and his true successor.

James let out another weak laugh.

"It was, gods, seven years ago now? Clearly the king made a bad choice," he muttered. "Who knew I'd be unpredictable and throw everything he ever gave me in his face and run away? Not even I did."

Elias hummed, drumming his fingers along his bed as he glanced up at Evaline on her raised bed. "You know, Evaline did something similar, I think. You both have that in common, and I think you both turned out okay."

James glanced up at Evaline too.

He supposed both of them might've been in line to be leaders of the kingdoms or sectors they came from. Was that ironic? He didn't know at this point.

"Well, I do like the person Evaline has come to be," James said, looking up at Evaline with a small smile. She couldn't respond to his compliments. "So I'm inclined to agree."

"Yeah?" Elias said with a little smile as he caught his eyes. "What's she like now? What do you like about her?"

James looked to Elias, and unbeknownst to himself, his eyes lit up at the thought of his favorite things about her.

"I'm not sure where to start," he said, looking off to the side in thought. "I think one of the things I really enjoy about her is how we can just be. There's a level of comfort and confidence she has that's very grounding, and I think we can both be ourselves around each other. She's sincere, quiet, and kind. I love how she cares about people so deeply and with her whole heart. Her faithfulness and her loyalty are something that I really admire..."

He paused, but not long enough for Elias to say anything, because James kept going as his smile grew.

"I also love how she sees the beauty in everything -- artistically. She has such attention to detail and she gives that same level of focus and attention to the people she loves. She's very present, in that way. And I love how when she gets excited about something, her whole face lights up."

Elias was watching him intently, slouching forward more and more as he talked, and only sitting up straight again when James finished. He brightly grinned, leaning back on his hand again.

"Wow," he said while still focused on James. "That's a good speech. I can tell you really, really care about her. She's really lucky to have you."

James smiled and shook his head.

"I wasn't--I wasn't even trying to do a speech," he said with a little laugh. "I was just listing things I like about her."

Elias nodded. "She does care deeply about people, huh?" he said with the familiar lost-in-thought expression he wore whenever he was thinking about something important. "She probably cares a lot about you too, you know."

James met Elias's eyes for a second before he turned to look up at the bed.

"I know," he said more softly. Though it was in response to Elias, it was to her too.

"Does she say it and let you know?" he asked with a smile. "Or do you only find out with the things she doesn't say?"

"She's told me before," James said with a slight smile. "I know how she feels about me, even if she can't say it right now."

He didn't mean to sound presumptuous. He only meant that he knew Evaline deeply cared about him, and that went both ways.

"Ahhh. Well, she'll just have to wake up one of these days and tell you again to make up for all the days she couldn't tell you," Elias continued with a softer smile.

"I just look forward to the day she wakes up," James said a little quieter.

There was no guarantee that day would even come, but he had to act like it was going to.

Elias let his gaze fall to Evaline, letting a small pause sit between them. "Hopefully not a long wait," he said, commenting his thoughts again.

"Well... I waited five years for her already," James said quietly. "She was worth the wait then, and she's still worth the wait now."

Elias's face softened as he glanced between the two of them, still with the lingering smile. He only spoke again when it started to fade, just a little.

"So, you'd wait another five?" he asked.

"If it took that long, yes," James said quietly.

"Your whole life?"

"She's not dead, is she?" James said, turning to him. "She's still here, she just can't speak or move. I think it would be cruel to give up on her when she's trapped like this. Of course I'd wait."

Elias smile returned, and he paused, watching Evaline again. "I don't know her as much as you do now, but... I'm pretty sure she'd do the same for you," he said. "Even if there was no hope, she'd stick by your side and take care of you. It's nice that you'd do the same."

"I know she would," James said, looking back down into his lap. "Like I told Elise. I'm only doing what I know Evaline would do for me."

"I admire you for that. That's some dedication and love right there," Elias said.

James glanced at Elias, not sure what to say to that.

"Well... good," James said. "Because I do love her."

Elias hummed again as James seemed to reel him back in from that statement. "What's that like?" he asked.

James stared at Elias for a moment.

"Being... in love?" James asked slowly.

"Yeah," Elias said with a nod, sitting straight again with his hands on his lap, ready to give James his full attention again.

James had said a lot of things to Elias that he didn't even tell Evaline until he'd known her for a while, and suddenly he felt like he was about to be far more vulnerable than he'd been with... well, anyone besides Evaline in a long time. He sat up a little straighter and cleared his throat as he looked out into the room in thought.

"Well... I guess, for Evaline and I, it wasn't like it happened right away. It was like it crept up on me slowly. One day, I woke up and realized I couldn't imagine a life without her. And I didn't want to," he said. "I don't know what it's like for others, but for me, there is that initial spark, of course. The passion, the butterflies in your stomach. The soft, fluttery feelings that fade over time, but return every now and again. But I think once that goes away, well, with Evaline, I realized I really enjoyed being with her, and there's just something about being with her and getting the privelige of choosing her day after day... I wouldn't trade it for anything else."

Midway through talking, Elias started to rub his chin and drew his brows together in thought. He seemed invested in everything James said, and was slowly soaking it all in.

"That's a pretty good speech on love," he idly said, still thinking.

"Well, you're the one who keeps asking for speeches," James said with a little smirk.

"And it's a good one," he said with a small grin. "You know, you're kind of a romantic."

James raised a brow. "You think so? You're not the first to notice."

Elias let out a soft laugh, shaking his head. "So Evaline probably knows too, huh."

"She pointed it out early on, actually," James said with a grin. "I feel like I was even more of a romantic five years ago. If you can imagine that."

He paused, and then squinted.

"But don't," he said. "Don't imagine that."

"Well, now I wanna," Elias said with a smirk. "What makes you say that? What cheesy things have you said back then?"

"Gods, I don't even want to think about that," James said with an embarassed smile as he slightly cringed to himself and looked away. "Probably a lot of things. I was a lot more idealistic back then -- I can firmly say I'm not now. I just try to look at things realistically. As much as I can."

Elias nodded. "Yeah. I get that. I was kind of the same way... but was never really a romantic, so that was probably my mess up, huh?"

James looked over to Elias with with an eyebrow raised.

"Mess up?" he asked. "Elias, you still get to be you. You don't have to be a romantic if you're not."

Elias chuckled and shook his head, smiling. "Oh, I was talking about stuff from when I was a kid, but I appreciate it anyways. I don't know if I really want to be in a relationship anymore. I've already skipped straight to dadhood, so that's enough for now."

"One step at a time," James said with a fading smile. "You already have enough on your plate. I understand."

"Yeah." Elias paused, the smirk returning. "But if you and Evaline want to adopt a bratty teenage girl..."

"Evaline is in a coma," James said. He felt like that was more than enough of a reason not to adopt aside from the fact that he and Evaline were only dating.

"So when she wakes up, then," Elias said with a twirl of his hand.

"Eve, I'm trying to tell him no but he's not listening," James said, tilting head up.

"Technically you didn't say no to me yet," Elias said playfully. "Sounds like you want her."

"The no was heavily implied," James defended.

Elias laughed. "Fine. I'll keep being the fun uncle around Sami. And maybe she'll start calling you the lame uncle."

"Why, because I call her out on her sass? Because I don't let her get away with things?" James joked.

"Yes," Elias said simply. "That."

"Brilliant," James said. "Then I'll gladly be lame."

Elias chuckled again, and a short comfortable silence passed as their lingering smiles began to fade again.

"So," Elias said. "Uh. Couldn't help but notice that you call her Eve. Interesting nickname."

"Oh," James said, forgetting that people kept associating it with Alan. "It was actually what she introduced herself as when we first met. It just kind of stuck."

"Huh. Interesting," Elias mused, rubbing his chin again.

"I do know that Alan used to call her that," James added. "We talked about that a while ago but she said she was fine with it. Me calling her Eve."

"Veeeery interesting," Elias continued to comment, still clearly thinking.

"Do you want to tell me why you find it so interesting?" James pried.

Elias shrugged innocently. "I dunno. I mean, you seem like a better guy than Alan was, but you do have some similarities. Kind of funny how you call her the same nickname, too. At least you don't look anything like him."

"I assume he looked a lot like Alistair," James said, a little weary of the teasing but willing to endure it. "He pointed out the similarities too. Thought it was hilarious."

Elias smirked. "I'll have to talk to him some more about it. But..." He paused to him, squinting his eyes at his face. "What do you think about glasses?"

"Like, as a fashion statement? Or practically?" James asked.

"I dunno. Do you need glasses?" he asked.

James stared at Elias.

"I... I don't know," he said. "Maybe. I don't have great eyesight but I've made do."

"I see, I see, good to know," Elias said with a grin then changed the subject before James could question him. "Hey, did you know that your face is all sharp and pointy, while Ev's face is all soft and round?"

James's brows drew together in mild confusion.

"I... I guess?" James said. "She does have softer features...?"

"Yep," Elias said with a grin, standing up. "I'll let you overanalyze that one. I'm going to see if Elise and the others are back yet."

James wasn't sure what to do with that, but true to his word, Elias was already on his feet.

"Make sure to drink more water and flush the toxins out so you don't get more stiff necks," he said over his shoulder while walking towards the door. "I'll see ya later."

James opened his mouth to reply, but his mind was delayed, and by the time he got to his own feet, Elias had left the room.

He stood by Evaline's bed and looked down at her for a moment, taking in a deep breath.

"I... I don't know what he's up to but... it can't be anything too bad," he asked. "Right?"
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Carina says...

Alistair threw himself into work for the past two weeks. It was a mild distraction that kept him busy, and also needed. Hendrik, Malkiel, and Mel rotated to secure the area little-by-little everyday, but he volunteered to go every day. When with Hendrik, he was able to go far with the animals, and he'd leave false campsites and fire signals. With Malkiel, he was able to make even bigger fires since Malkiel could control the wind to pick it up. And with Mel... well, she insisted on physically securing the location, even though he was sure Hendrik was far better suited to do the job than either one of them.

The time and energy spent doing this reminded him of his time firefighting. It always took a few hours to leave the mines, and a few hours to go back in. Alistair was usually gone the whole day because of this, and would be wiped by the time he returned. One time, it was Elise who went with him, and she recommended he take a break.

So, that was what he was doing now. Taking a break.

But now that he was... he didn't even really know what to do with himself. He didn't really want to be stuck in the chasms of his mind, reminding himself of what happened with Arima, and the stressful situation they were in now.

And any time he watched Elias and Mel converse like old times, like everything was normal, he couldn't help but feel the familiar sense of jealousy return.

It wasn't like his life in the sectors was particularly amazing, or great, or even peaceful... but Alistair was wondering again why he had left the stability of it all behind to enter the chaos that was this life.

He sighed, leaning over the window of his room, cigarette in hand. It was the last cigarette he had on hand. He wondered if he was going to start going through minor withdrawals for nicotine. Maybe Hendrik would help him forage some, somewhere. If any even grew wild here.

The smoke wafted in the air as he took another puff, and then he heard the door open and close behind him. A quick look behind his shoulder, and he saw that it was Samiya, being nosy like usual. Probably trying to find Elias, but catching him instead.

"Ew," she said with a scrunched nose. "You're smoking."

Alistair rolled his eyes and quickly huffed through the remainder of the cigarette, throwing it over the mountain when he inhaled the rest of it.

"Yeah," he said blankly, wiping his ashen hands over the window as he turned around to leave. "I'm done, though."

He stood in front of the door, waiting for her to move, but she didn't.

"Are you going to move?" he asked, not having the energy to argue with this girl.

"You smell bad," she said instead in response.

Well, that was enough to warrant a new change of clothes. He backtracked and grabbed a sweater that was folded over his bed, quickly pulling it over his head and not caring if it looked rushed or messy.

"Happy?" he asked with a sigh.

Samiya shrugged. "Sure. I'm going to go now."


They both left the room, and Alistair closed the door behind him. He didn't quite move, though, since Samiya was still standing next to him.

"What?" he said through a heavy sigh.

"What do you even do all day?" she asked with an innocent smile. "If you're not doing anything, can you take care of Elijah?"

"I -- no," Alistair said, knowing taking care of a kid was the last thing he wanted to do right now. He quickly looked around, his eyes landing on the door to James and Evaline's room. "I'm going to check on Evaline and James. You know, the room you're not allowed in," he said, already walking towards there.

Samiya groaned. "Why am I not even allowed in there?" she complained loudly.

"I don't know. Ask your dad," Alistair said, then knocked on the door.

That seemed to work, because Samiya rolled her eyes and walked away. This meant he was going to see James now - and Evaline too, even though she was still in a coma - but he was due to visit them anyways. He barely even saw him since the first days since he always left at early morning.

"Come in," James's voice said in reply.

With that, Alistair slowly opened the door, leaning on the door frame as he peered in. The room didn't look that much different than last time he was here. Evaline was still on the raised bed with fluids wired into her, and James was tucking her in and pulling sheets over her. He met his eyes and Alistair could see the weariness in his face, but he smiled through it when he saw him.

"Hey," Alistair said, still standing by the doorway. "Thought I'd come by."

"It's good to see you, Alistair," James said, giving the bed sheets one last tug of adjustment before he sat down and gestured to the chair across from him. "I hear you were out on missions the last two weeks. Did those go well?"

Alistair hesitated, before finally stepping into the room and closing the door behind him, deciding to approach James.

"Good to see you too. And Evaline too," he said, walking over to sit at the chair he gestured at. He slowly sat down, brushing down the sweater he had put on quickly. "Yeah. Nothing terribly exciting. Mostly scoping out the area, some foraging, setting up traps... things like that. Nothing went wrong, so you can say it went well."

"That's good to hear," James said with a small nod. "There's not much news on my end."

James's eyes flicked over to Evaline.

"It's been pretty quiet," James added. "But otherwise, fine."

Alistair nodded, loosely crossing his arms as his gaze landed on Evaline. She looked no different than the last time he saw her, too.

"Did you hear anything from Elise of when she may wake up?" he asked.

James hesitated, looking to the side.

"She hasn't mentioned anything," he said quietly.

The pessimist in him believed that Evaline was never going to wake up, and if Elise didn't instill much hope or mention anything about her waking up, he was sure she thought the same thing. But he didn't have the heart to tell James that.

"Well... it's good you're taking care of her," he said instead. "It's probably more comfortable for you to do it."

"I hope so," James said, and Alistair could tell he was searching for something else to say, but struggling.

Alistair sighed. "It would be nice if she could... I don't know, twitch or move her finger or something to indicate that she's listening, though."

James looked over to Evaline, and instead of responding, it looked like James was suddenly focused, deep in thought.

"...But I'm sure you've tried," Alistair continued.

"I wonder if I could try to show her a memory," James muttered quietly, sounding more like he was thinking to himself. "I wouldn't be able to know what she was thinking, but I'd at least know if it worked..."

Alistair raised a brow, glancing between the two of them. "Right. She could do that." He paused for a moment, thinking too. "That's... not a bad idea. Would you show her a random memory, or...?"

"Nothing bad," James said quickly. "A good memory."

Alistair tapped his fingers on his arm, trying to remember the nuances of Evaline's memory power. He only really knew how it worked based on what Arima had told him, but even then, he wasn't even sure. He knew that the memory sharing also resulted in sharing emotions, though.

So, James sharing a good memory probably meant he was sharing positive emotions. How benevolent of him.

"It's worth trying," he said with a small shrug. "How does it work?"

"Well..." James trailed off as he scooted his chair a little closer to the edge of Evaline's bed, and reached over to gingerly hold her hand that poked out of the covers. "She has to want to see it. And focus. If you want to do that, Evaline, we can give it a try."

He glanced over at Alistair.

"If you don't mind...? It doesn't take long," James said.

Alistair gestured towards her. "Please. Go ahead. Don't mind me."

James nodded, and then turned his attention to Evaline. Alistair watched as he closed his eyes and the two of them sat still for a moment. A few seconds dragged on before James opened his eyes with his expression soft. Alistair caught a glance of James's eyes glistening, but James quickly rubbed his eyes and nodded to himself.

"It worked," he said with a small, sad smile. "So... she's still there."

"How did you know it worked?" Alistair asked softly, not wanting to ruin this moment for James.

"I don't get to see the memory," he said quietly. "But I do relive the emotions of it, so to speak. Not just like how you do when you normally recall something. It's like it happened all over. Emotionally, anyway."

Alistair nodded slowly. "Is this the first time you've gotten some form of communication from her, even if it's indirect?"

"Since she's been like this," James said with a slight nod. "Yes."

It was significant... but also a bit sad, because if she was never going to wake up, it would seem cruel to abandon her. But something told Alistair that this only solidified for James that he wasn't going to leave, even if she never did wake up.

"If you don't mind me asking... what kind of memory did you show her?" he asked.

James glanced at Alistair, but when James quickly averted his eyes, Alistair figured it was a personal memory.

"Never mind," he said quickly. "You don't have to say. You should keep it between you two."

James nodded a little as he gave Evaline's hand a squeeze and then pulled away, turning his attention to Alistair, but he spoke before he could.

"I was thinking, maybe, I could do it too," he said. "Do I just think of any memory I want her to see?"

James glanced at Evaline, then back at Alistair.

"Well... it has to be a somewhat significant memory," James said. "At least, to you. Enough for you to call it to mind, even if you don't remember the details. And she'll be the only one who sees it."

Alistair rubbed his lips with the side of his forefinger for a moment, trying to think of a memory he could show her. A significant memory was hard to come by, especially since he had only really coasted through life.

Two people did come to mind, though. Sometimes, memories only became significant because they were no longer living, and you cherish the moments you did share with them. Maybe Evaline could appreciate that too.

"Sure," he said, then hesitantly reached for her arm. He remembered a touch connection was needed, but figured a simple touch of her arm would suffice. "Okay, Evaline. I'm thinking of the memory if you want to see it too. It's not anything bad."

He paused for a few moments, keeping his eyes on her, waiting for something, anything to happen. He sighed, deciding to close his eyes too, and concentrate even more. He didn't really know if Evaline even wanted to see what he had to offer, but he'd understand if she was apprehensive.

But then, just like James said, a warm childlike innocence spread in his chest, and he knew the memory transfer must have worked. Alistair opened his eyes and watched Evaline carefully as the warmness spread. He wanted to see if she had any reaction, even if it as simple as a tear. But there was nothing. Nothing except an indirect line of her accepting memories.

But, oddly, it was satisfying for her to listen and communicate in this way. Cherished memories that he was willing to share with her. Alistair doubted that there would be any time in the future when she would be willing to accept random memories.

"It worked for me too," he said quietly, slowly pulling away.

"I'm glad to hear it," James said just as quiet. "You don't have to tell me the memory either. You keep it between you two."

"This one wasn't really personal," Alistair said anyways, leaning back on his chair as he glanced at James. "I shared the memory of the first time I met her. That's all."

James's eyes softened, and he smiled slightly.

"That's really sweet of you," James said.

Alistair flicked his eyes between the two of them, suddenly feeling awkward. "Uh... I guess," he said with a little laugh. "I don't know. I was thinking on the spot."

"You don't have to justify it," James said with a faint laugh. "I think that it's a nice memory to share."

"I'm -- your memory is probably nice too," Alistair said quickly, starting to feel embarrassed himself, even though the memory he shared wasn't embarrassing at all.

James smiled and glanced back behind them.

"Want to get some fresh air and step outside for a minute?" James asked.

Alistair followed his glance towards the balcony. "Sure," he said, standing up and waiting for James to lead the way.

James got to his feet and waved for Alistair to walk out first, and James paused by the door with his hand on the doorknob, looking back at Evaline.

"I'll be back in a little bit, Eve," he said. "We'll just be outside."

Alistair stepped through, walking up to the railing to lean against it. James followed behind him, closing the door. James walked ahead of him to the railing, looking down the mountain as he leaned onto it with his forearms.

"I noticed you smoke," James said. "Is that a common thing on Earth?"

Alistair glanced at him, surprised that this was the first thing he said to him outside. If it was Mel or Elise, he might have felt a bit defensive, but with James, he found himself not really caring.

"Not terribly," he said, placing his elbows against the railing to lean against. "I used to be a firefighter, and it was very common within the group. I picked up the habit there. Nowadays I only smoke when I've got a lot in my mind."

James hummed, nodding as he kept his eyes on the trees scaling the mountain cliffs.

"Kind of ironic that firefighters would smoke," James commented. "But I can see that."

"Yeah," Alistair said with an amused puff of air through his nose. "You're telling me."

"Does it help?" James asked. "When you've got a lot on your mind?"

Alistair glanced at him again, noticing his relaxed, casual posture and expression as he looked out into the wildnerness. It didn't seem like he was trying to dig for answers to give him some weird intervention.

"I'd offer you a cigarette so you can see for yourself, but I'm afraid I just ran out today," Alistair said.

James looked over to Alistair with his eyebrows raised, and he looked a little surprised.

"Oh," James said, laughing slightly. "No, don't worry about that. I should stay away from that kind of stuff anyway. Apparently I have high blood pressure. Elise did the test with the uh... I don't know what you call it. Blood pressure cuff?"

"Oh, yeah, that," Alistair said with a nod. "She hasn't gotten to me yet. She'll probably tell me to stop smoking. Not looking forward to that."

"Well, if you've run out of cigarettes..." James trailed off, looking to Alistair with a raised brow, leaving the implication hanging in the air.

"I'm sure Hendrik's animals could sniff out wild tobacco," he thought out loud.

"Tobacco," James repeated, like he was hearing the word for the first time. It was possible he was. "That's the name of it?"

Alistair raised a brow. "Don't tell me that doesn't exist in Nye," he said lightheartedly.

"It's possible it does," James said with a shrug. "Maybe we call it another name. Or there's something similar to it. What exactly does it do? I assume it must be pretty mild, right? It's not like you're... you know. Nonfunctional."

"Oh god, no," Alistair said with a weak laugh, shaking his head. "Just takes the edge off the stress. It's not like it makes you drunk."

James nodded. "So it relaxes you," he said slowly.

Alistair hummed. "Maybe relax isn't the right word. More like... makes you feel a little lightheaded. Like a weight's been lifted."

James looked over to Alistair and squinted.

"And that's a good feeling?" he asked. He didn't sound like he was trying to judge, but just genuinely confused.

Alistair shrugged. "It may also be a bit addicting, the chemical and in practice."

The confusion seemed to fade as James nodded slowly in understanding.

"Ah," he said. "Will you... be okay? Now that you're out of it?"

Alistair looked over with a small smile, appreciating that he cared. "I'll be okay," he said. "Like I said, I'll probably find more, or something close to it. I should probably wean out of it again, anyways. But I appreciate the concern."

James looked over to Alistair with his eyebrows drawn together, but he didn't quite meet his eyes, and he turned his gaze back out to the mountainside. It was hard to tell what was going on in his head.

"Yeah," James said softly. "Weaning off of it would be good. It's a lot better than just cutting it off abruptly."

Alistair nodded slowly, letting his words sink in. He wondered if James had experience with substance addiction, or if he was parroting advice he had heard from someone else.

"Yeah," Alistair agreed. "The first time I tried to quit, I was fairly addicted, and decided to stop one day with no transition. The withdrawals were pretty rough."

"I can imagine," James said. But the way he said it sounded like he didn't have to imagine.

Still, Alistair decided to entertain his imagination.

"It wasn't as bad as what it could be for other drugs, but the mood swings, fatigue, sweats, and general irritability all got to my head," he said.

"How long ago did you quit like that?" James asked.

Alistair paused, squinting in the distant afternoon sky, trying to think. "Around six years ago," he said.

James raised his eyebrows, but otherwise, didn't emote much.

"Wow," he said. "And... did you do it much since?"

"Comes and goes, really," he said with a sigh. "I've been doing a pretty good job this past year, and barely smoked, but..." He shrugged. "I carry a pack with me in case I need it. I'm not really worried about the long-term effects yet. We're still young."

James was quiet for a moment, staring down at the treetops.

"That's what I thought too," he said quietly. "But I guess I'm not as... I don't know."

He sighed, shrugging a little.
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Carina says...

Alistair paused, watching him for a moment, before following his gaze out to the view below them. They were high up, but heights didn't scare him.

"Sorry if me extending the offer of a cigarette was insensitive," he said, keeping his eyes down below. "I didn't know you were trying to stop."

James stayed still, not even turning his head over to look at him.

"I did stop," he said. "It was drinking, for me."

Alistair nodded, understanding. "I get that," he said. "Congrats for staying clean. How long ago did you stop?"

"Almost two years, now," James said. "It helps to stay clean when you're alone in the wilderness, though."

Alistair lightly laughed through his nose. "Yeah. I can understand that too well now." He paused for a moment. "Must've been tough, if you had to stop simply because you didn't have access to it."

James let out a weak hum of a laugh that stayed in the back of his throat.

"It was a rough time, sure," he said. "I'm glad it's over."

"At least it was effective," Alistair offered. "Even when you did have access to drinks, you didn't take any. I think that shows a lot of strength."

James didn't really move, but he did hear James sigh softly.

"Thanks," James said, but he didn't really sound proud of himself. He sounded tired, if anything.

"I don't really want to ask you how you're doing," James said. "Not because I don't care, but I know it's an impossible question to answer with everything going on, and I don't expect you to know what to say. But... I just want you to know I've been thinking about you while you've been gone. And I care."

Alistair didn't even really know what to say to that, either. It seemed random and unprompted compared to their earlier conversation. He blinked, slowly turning his head to watch him.

"Uh... thanks," he said, at a loss of words, feeling a little awkward again.

James turned and met his eyes just for a moment, offering a small, sad sort of smile.

"But with that said," James continued. "If you ever want someone to talk to, or just listen, or even just... I don't know. Sit in silence. I'm pretty much always going to be here. So, you know where to find me. Okay?"

For a moment, a twinge of grief returned and pulled at his heart, because his words reminded him of Arima when he was isolating himself and she was trying to help too. But of course, Arima was gone, and he was only looking for her in places he knew she played no part in.

"...Thanks," he said more quietly, swallowing the grief again as he squinted back out into the open air, clearing his throat. "And... same goes for you. If you just want to... sit, or talk, or whatever. Like we're doing now."

James smiled again, but the smile was still small, and sad.

"Yeah," he said softly. "Like now."

He looked back out at the mountain, and a small silence passed between them.

"I don't know if it means much," James said. "But you were one of the first people I really trusted here, besides Evaline, even though you didn't know it at the time. You might not have thought much of it at the time, but I really appreciated when you just sat with me, way back at the Day of Peace party. I was stressed out of my mind, and it helped that you just... let me stay with no pressure. I don't know. I just thought I'd let you know that."

"That wasn't really my idea," Alistair found himself saying. "I mean, I did sit next to you when she left a few times, but it was Arima who thought of the idea. If I were alone, I probably would have left you alone too."

James hummed and glanced over at him, but only for a moment.

"I think it's still fair to give you some credit," James said softly.

Alistair was quiet for a moment, imagining the hypothetical for if Arima didn't go to the party, and how that scene would have played out. He had to actively block the idea that she may have still been alive if she didn't go, because there was really no way of knowing, and no one could assume that.

"I guess so," he said softly back, then paused to sigh. "We didn't really talk much that day, but... I'm glad you trusted me, even if I didn't do anything or was seeking it out."

He paused again, shifting his eyes and slightly turning his head to see him.

"And I know there's still a lot I don't know or understand about you, but for what it's worth, I think you're a good guy, and I trust you too," Alistair said.

He watched as a small, wistfully sad smile appeared on James's face.

"Thanks," he said quietly. "You know, it's been a while since I've really been around decent people like all of you. I know our overall situation is complicated and far from ideal, but I guess I didn't realize just how guarded I used to be all the time because of the people I'd run into. In a strange way, it almost helps to be on another world. It's a two-sided coin. On one side, it's easier to be yourself because no one knows who you are, but on the other side, no one really understands you..."

James trailed off with a sigh as he leaned a little more heavily on the railing.

"There are still so many things I feel like I only have an elementary understanding of about your world," James said. "Sometimes I feel like I get it, and then something comes up, and it's like I'm an ignorant child all over again."

"No one's comparing you to an ignorant child," Alistair said gently, trying to put himself in James's shoes, even if it was difficult since he couldn't quite imagine himself being in a whole other foreign world. "You've only been here a couple months, while we've been here our whole lives. I think you being able to fool everyone into thinking you were from here is impressive by itself. And if you ever feel like you don't 'get it,' you can always ask someone, since we all know your background now."

Alistair paused for a moment, returning his other arm back on the railing as he looked off towards the sky again.

"At least, you could always ask me, if you're too uncomfortable asking others. I don't mind helping," he said.

James was quiet for a moment, and then finally said: "Thanks."

There was another pause before he spoke up again.

"So... with uh, doctors and technology, I guess," James said slowly. "Elias mentioned people can... fix eyes? With lasers?"

The topic change felt so random, Alistair couldn't help but chuckle, lightly shaking his head. Somehow Elias being the one to randomly mention that didn't surprise him.

"Yeah, I don't know too much about it, but it's a more upscale solution than glasses," he said. "Contact lenses are more common. It's, erm..." He made a little circle with his thumb and forefinger. "It's a small, opaque disk that goes in your eye and fixes your vision. It doesn't hurt."

James had turned to Alistair, watching him closely.

"Like... glasses... directly on your eye?" James asked as he squinted his eyes in thought.

Alistair nodded. "Yeah, pretty much. You just can't sleep with them on, but it's not like you need it while you're sleeping."

"That makes sense," James said faintly as he looked back off to the side.

"Why, did Elias offer to laser your eye?" Alistair said with a little smirk.

James let out a weak laugh and shook his head.

"No," he said. "It came up because apparently I need glasses. Elise was trying to be kind about it, but I guess my eyes are really bad."

"Really?" Alistair said with a raised brow. "Did you even know your eyesight was bad until the checkup?"

"I mean, I always knew there were some things I couldn't see as well or as clearly as others," James said. "But I thought it was normal. Like... all of this?"

James gestured to the tree-filled mountainside that was their view.

"It's all really blurry beyond a few yards," he said. "But I've gotten used to identifying shapes and colors. Or figuring things out with other context clues."

"That's pretty bad," Alistair said as he eyed the outline of the trees in their view. "Elise is going to get you glasses then, isn't she?"

"She seemed pretty... determined," James said with a sigh.

Alistair paused for a moment, squinting at the farther distance, which was also a bit blurry for him, but it was bearable.

"I don't know how long that would take since we're fairly isolated, but... I have reading glasses you can use in the meantime. It's not as strong of a prescription to what you need, but it might help. If you want it. I don't use it much anyways, but I did bring it with me."

James looked over to Alistair with raised brows.

"I... could give it a try," he said. "And see if it helps at all. It's mostly things that are far away that are hard to make out clearly."

"Ah, right," Alistair said with a nod. "Well, then I don't know how much it'll help, since I'm the opposite. But maybe you can use it to see how the glasses style suits you."

"So, just for aesthetic," James concluded.

"Hey, at least one person here will be trendy," he said with a small smile.

James offered a small smile in return.

"Wouldn't that be ironic," he said. "The alien is the trendy one."

Alistair laughed from the absurdity of that sentence, but it did ring true.

"Well, you might not have originated in this world, but it's your home now, so." He shrugged. "Might as well learn your new home's trends."

"Any other pointers?" James asked with the beginnings of a smirk.

Alistair hummed, pretending to be deep in thought. "Yeah. You might have to dress up Elliot to look less like a horse."

James scoffed, letting out a full laugh and smile as he pinched his eyes shut and shook his head.

"I'll just have to make him some faux antlers and call him a stag instead," James joked.

"Or maybe you can cover him up and give him a hat," Alistair said with a smirk.

"Oh yeah," James said sarcastically, rolling his eyes. "Because a good hat is all you need for a disguise. It's not like the horse body would give anything away."

"As a man previously on the run, I'm sure you're well-versed with all of this. It's all coming back."

James's smile slowly faded as he let out another laugh, but this one far less enthusiastic.

"Ah, yeah," James said with a sigh. "You'd think I'd be an expert by now."

Alistair released a sigh, relieving some of the stress that had stagnated around his mind since their arrival.

"Well, maybe we could all use lessons from you instead now," he said. "We're on the same team, so it'd be best if we avoid Oliver, Tula, and everyone else."

James looked over to Alistair, briefly meeting his eyes.

"I'm not sure... they things I did on Nye would translate as well here," he said. "I mean, most of what I did was just practical things. Change your hair, your clothes, or the way you carry yourself so that you're not recognizable if someone else were to try to describe you to people looking for you. That sort of thing."

"How often would you do that? And how long would you stay at a place before moving?" Alistair asked.

"Uh, well," James said with a small sigh. "Ideally, I stayed on the move at least every three or so months, but there were occasions where I'd run into groups of people that I got caught up in for a little longer."

Alistair nodded. "So you're always moving, and mostly by yourself," he said, trying to make it a question, but it came out more of a statement.

"Yes," James said. "Mostly."

"I assume Evaline was an exception to that since she traveled four months with you."

"We also traveled almost every day when she was with me," James said. "I've gone months before where I never stayed any place longer than a few days. That was mostly during the first year or two, though."

Alistair leaned over the railing some more, perching his weight against his elbows. "Do you think that may also carry over to our current situation now?" he asked.

"I'm not sure," James said. "I don't know if Ovrell and Alina will keep sending people after us until they find us, or if they'll give up at some point. Personally, I think it'd be a fool's errand to capture me again since I can't even deliver what they're asking for, but considering I kind of gave away that I can travel forward in time..."

James crossed his arms over the railing and raised one hand up to his head, running his fingers through his hair.

"I don't even know if they understand what happened," he said. "I barely do myself. But I feel like the very fact that I got away would probably fuel them wanting to find me again. But... I..."

He paused, looking over to Alistair with worry in his eyes.

"I don't know if they'd even care about the rest of you being caught alive," he said quietly.

That thought did occur to him before, but hearing it from James only solidified it. Alistair sighed deeply through his nose, looking back down into the depths below.

"Time travelers usually get what they want. I think, after you and Evaline got away, Ovrell would have been very angry. Alina too, in her subtle ways. Not knowing how to explain how you escaped would only likely fuel their anger even more. So it wouldn't surprise me if they sent extra resources to find you and Evaline. As for the rest of us..."

He paused for a moment, trying to even figure out how to put this gently.

"Well, I guess they don't know that we know. But I doubt they'd care about us if we got in their way," he finished.

James dropped eye contact, still looking down with his eyebrows drawn together.

"They know that Mel knows," James said. "But... not the rest of you."

Alistair looked over at him, pausing. "And... with Mel knowing. Would that mean...?"

James swallowed.

"I can only assume they would want to cut off any connections I have to people I care about or who know about where I'm really from," he said quietly. "But we won't let it come to that. Right?"

"Of course not," Alistair said firmly. "God, I've already lost Arima to this. I can't even imagine if Mel, and Evaline, and you..." He tore his gaze away, scrunching his brows in worry.

The hypothetical played in his mind for a few moments. James would be captured, and they'd eliminate Evaline and Mel. And if Alistair somehow made it out of this alive, which was just his luck to be conveniently in another place if so, then - maybe - he'd be with Elias. But even then, he may have been sent back to the military. And with Alan passing almost a decade ago and Arima passing recently, that would only leave Alistair left from their group of six. Obviously he didn't want any of this, but somehow, that felt poetically right.

"Yeah. We won't let it come to that," he finished.

James nodded, but was quiet as he stared down into what must have been the blurry expanse before him. It looked like James might've been considering the worst possibilities as well from the severe, focused expression on his face.

Alistair was used to being lost in his own head, so he decided to take a risk and pry.

"What's running through your head?" he asked.

James flicked his eyes over to Alistair, but quickly looked away, as if eye contact, somehow, would be enough to expose what was in his mind.

"Just where I'd be if -- if I hadn't escaped," he muttered.

"You mean... with Ovrell? And Alina?" Alistair asked.

"Yeah," James said, staring out beyond them blankly. "They were going to take me to Sector 1. I think by the time I would've gotten there... it would just be me."

Alistair was quiet for a moment, remembering his story of how Oliver was so close to poisoning Evaline while James was about to be transferred.

"Sorry," James said quickly, shaking his head with a sad, bitter smile. "I know it's not helpful to think about what could have been. Even though what we have now is still troubling in its own right, its a far better alternative."

"It's fine," Alistair said to assure him. "I actually..." He sighed. "I think about what could have happened differently a lot, and they're usually negative alternatives. I also know it's not helpful, but I think it does help with the comparison to the present. Because imagining what could have gone wrong makes you appreciate the present a whole lot more."

"There are probably less mentally agonizing paths towards appreciating the present than thinking the worst," James said. "But... yes."

"Yeah... probably," Alistair said, releasing a weak laugh. "But hey, thinking is free."

James laughed in the back of his throat, looking to Alistair with a slight smile that faded quickly.

"Free, but costly," James said, flicking the side of his head.

"How poetic of you," Alistair said with a faint smirk.

"I let it slip out from time to time," James said with a shrug.
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soundofmind says...

Alistair did end up bringing James his pair of reading glasses, just so that James could see what they looked like and try them out. He put them on and things did seem a little more clear, but they ended up giving him a headache after wearing them for a few minutes, so he gave them back. Alistair said something about James needing a more specific prescription -- it had to do with the particular thickness of the lenses.

James wasn't too worried about it, though. He really had managed to make it this long without glasses, so he didn't think he was going to have any trouble doing the things he needed to get done, and he was right.

Another week passed by, and things felt like they were settling down a little. The others continued to go out on missions for the day, making sure the area was secure and going out of their way to lead anyone looking for them astray. James would sometimes wish he could be a part of the effort, but he knew that his job taking care of Evaline was just as important. Someone needed to be with her, and he found joy in the simplicity of just being with her.

On occasion, he would share a simple happy memory with her, but he knew that he only had so many that were significant to share. He almost felt like he had to do it sparingly, so he didn't repeat memories over and over, but still, he cherished every moment with her. He knew she was still there, and that was what mattered.

The others still stopped by on occasion. Hendrik, Elise, Rudy, Alistair, and Mel... but Elias always came by the most. The others often came in to bring food or supplies, but Elias seemed to come by with no agenda other than to be with him, pet Sleepy, and chat. Occasionally he'd bring in his son as well, but James never really did see Samiya, apart from the few times he left Evaline's room to see Elliot and he'd catch her briefly in the hall.

The only other person James didn't really see much of at all was Malkiel, but James assumed it was because he was busy with all of the missions.

It was around lunchtime, and James had just finished repositioning Evaline and feeding Sleepy (who was happily pecking in her bowl of chicken feed in the corner) when he heard the expected knock at the door.

"Come on in," James said on reflex at this point, and the door opened to Elise, carrying a bowl of oatmeal with fruit in it.

"Hi James," she said with a smile as the stepped in.

Hendrik came behind her like a towering shadow, and for some reason it seemed odd seeing the two of them in particular coming in together. It didn't take two people to deliver a meal.

"Hello Elise," James said, eyeing her, Hendrik, and the bowl as she handed it to him. "Hendrik. Is everything alright?"

Hendrik pulled a chair up for Elise first, and then himself. He was usually calling out his nickname and diving right into small talk, so his silence felt a bit unnerving.

"Well, we were hoping to ask that question to you instead," Elise said as she sat down, nodding in appreciation towards Hendrik. "It's been a few weeks since you told us your whole story. How are you feeling?"

James held the bowl of oatmeal awkwardly in his hands, and though his stomach had become trained to be hungry around this hour, he found himself no longer hungry. He took a step back towards the head of the bed where his chair normally sat, and he set the bowl down on the side-table for later, but paused for a moment as he looked down at it.

It could also serve as a good distraction. Having a mouthful of food was a good excuse to not respond to things, but knowing them it would only delay the inevitable.

"James," Hendrik said when he took too long to answer. He gestured at the seat in front of them. "Sit. Let's talk."

James hesitated, but abandoned the bowl and sat down slowly, looking between Elise and Hendrik.

"Is this... some sort of intervention?" he asked quietly.

"Yes," Hendrik said.

"No," Elise said at the same time, and she stared at him, narrowing her eyes for a moment, but then continuing on. "An interven-- we're just checking in on you, that's all," she said.

"You were tortured, pal," Hendrik said bluntly, causing Elise to shoot him another wearied look.

"Oh," James said with a breathy laugh. "So that's what this is about."

"You can't just brush it off easy," Hendrik said with a shake of his head. "That shit stays with you for years. Can give you life-long trauma. It's fine if it does. Does it?"

James stared at Hendrik blankly, and it felt like every thought he'd ever had came to a sudden stop at the question. He couldn't even begin to formulate an answer, nor did they give him a chance to.

Elise sighed. "What Hendrik is saying is that we care about you, James," she said more gently with a small, worried smile. "You're taking care of Evaline very well, but we want to be there and take care of you, too."

"I'm not sure what you expect me to say," James said slowly, still looking between the two of them. "I try not to think about it."

Hendrik leaned in, his expression serious and severe. "How about you start by thinking about it?"

"By thinking through the lasting effects of it," Elise quickly added.

"But that's just it," James cut in. "There aren't. Rudy removed the only scar they would've left from it."

"Torture leaves more than a physical scar," Hendrik said as he tapped the side of his head. "The lasting effects are up here."

James could feel himself getting defensive, and it didn't feel like him. He didn't know what it was.

"It's not like it's the first time this has ever happened to me," he said quickly. "I've dealt with it before. It-- I mean, I'm still here, aren't I?"

Elise and Hendrik exchanged a glance, but Elise spoke before Hendrik could.

"Just because it has happened before doesn't make the first or second time okay," she said gently. "And knowing that this has happened to you before, I think it's more important than ever to talk through it. Have you ever done so with anyone before?"

"I just don't see what there is to talk about," James said, almost tripping over his words. "It's not like it'll reverse what happened. It's over. I don't want to think about-- it doesn't help to relive it."

"That may be true," Elise said with the same gentle tone. "But it may have altered you in ways you don't immediately recognize. It's easy to repress trauma and not relive it, but if you do that, you will never heal."

"Is that what you want?" Hendrik asked.

James didn't like feeling like a cornered animal.

"I--" he started to say, but snapped his mouth shut, gluing his eyes to the floor.

"It's not like I'm just going to talk about it and I'll magically be 'better,'" he said stiffly.

"Maybe not," Elise said. "But talking about it and letting others know what happened helps. You don't have to share this burden alone."

James hadn't even realized how much tension there was in his shoulders as he stared down at the floor until he felt it pull on his neck again, giving him a low-level headache, but he knew if he kept this up it would only get worse. He drew his hands together in his lap, giving up on attempting to maintain a relaxed or open posture.

He knew everything about his appearance was saying "no" without saying it.

An uncomfortably long silence passed as he refused to look up at the two of them, wading through the flood of thoughts swimming in his mind.

What would they even do with this information? Why did they care so much? Wouldn't it just traumatize them, too? Where was he even supposed to start? How much detail did they want? Did it matter?

"I know we caught you off guard," Elise said, breaking the silence. "And it's okay. We can sit in silence until you know what to say."

James pressed his lips together tightly. Ever since he'd had the last dream of that day... he'd pushed it far, far into the back of his mind. He wrote it down, and he tried to forget it. So far, he'd been succeeding, and trying to draw it back to the forefront of his mind felt like throwing a fishing line out into a massive, deep lake. The odds of catching it felt slim.

When the hook caught on the start of the story, in an instant, he felt numb.

"Do I start from the beginning?" he said distantly.

"Start with wherever you're most comfortable," Elise said.

"Evaline had gone ahead to go get her bike. She'd left it at one of the taverns, and I was going to wait back with Elliot. It was only supposed to be a few minutes, but when she didn't return, I went out to go find her. Of course, I didn't find her. I was ambushed instead. Four people, each with different powers. One of them I'd fought in the tournament," James said. "But the leader was the one who talked to me. I didn't realize what he meant then, but he was telling me that he recognized me from the pictures Oliver had circulated of me."

Hendrik gritted his teeth, visibly holding back his anger. Elise took this as a moment to talk before he could say anything rash.

"What happened afterwards?" she asked.

And that was the hard part.

"I was... brought to a prison cell," James said slowly. "I don't actually remember everything. I knew they choked me with a vine and I lost consciousness. Then I woke up in the cell. There was another man there. It was... Zameer's cousin, I think. The son of the head farmer of Terra. His name was Forrest. There were three children in the cell as well. After talking to Forrest I realized my fate would've been to..."

James nervously tapped his fingers over the back of his other hand.

"You know, 'baby man' might've been a foretelling nickname," he said as a soulless joke, with no hint of a smile as he continued to stare into his lap. "I guess, with my, I mean, you know. Time powers. They really wanted that... mixed in."

Hendrik was leaning in, the anger washed away and replaced with gentle concern, which was rare for him. "You know I don't call you that anymore, but I'm sorry I called you that," he said. "You're more than that, you know. So much more."

"Hendrik is right," Elise said. "The Gaea clan is sick and demented. It's awful that they caught up to you."

James's shoulders rose a little, and his head sunk down.

"It could've been a lot worse," he said quietly. "I escaped before they could force me to-- to do... that."

"And we are grateful for that," Elise said. "But the best case scenario would have been to not see them at all. Has the experience affected your thoughts and life afterwards?"

Oh. So they were skipping past the torture after all. Maybe this was better. Maybe it wasn't.

He continued to tap his fingers against his hand.

"I mean, I think I told you that I actually didn't remember any of it until after, right?" James asked. "I jumped ahead through it. And then had six hours' worth of dreams later, spaced out over about two weeks."

"Do you think about it long after you've had the dreams?" Elise asked.

"Like I said," James said quietly. "I was trying not to."

"But did you?" Hendrik asked.

James could feel his nerves buzzing under his skin, itching to tell him to escape this conversation, but he couldn't see a way out that didn't end in him inevitably panicking when they caught up to him.

They were stuck in a mine. It wasn't like he could just leave.

"I mean... yeah," James said weakly.

He didn't know how to expound on that.

"How often?" Hendrik asked.

"Maybe once... a day?" James said quietly.

Was that too much? Too little? He was trying to estimate low.

Hendrik leaned back in his chair, arms loosely crossed across his chest. "What parts do you think about?"

At this point, James could feel his underarms getting sweaty, and he couldn't help but feel childish. And yet, he still wished he could just leave. Technically, he could. No one could force him to share anything, but he knew they were just trying to do this to help him.

Or something.

"Well there was one woman who would constantly drown me," James said flatly, ripping himself away from the anxiety of it and saying it as the numbness flooded back in. "And choke me, or wind vines all up my body so I couldn't move."

"What specifically do you think about when you reflect back on the memory?" Elise asked. "Does it come back as a flashback, or bits and pieces of it? Or perhaps you are reminded of the terror?"

James held his hands together tightly.

"A little bit of all of that, really," he said blankly. "It's just like... I can't breathe again, and it doesn't matter how much I try. I don't get to choose when my airways open up again, you know? I just have to surrender to it. Wait it out."

"So let's discuss how this may affect your every day life," Elise said. "For instance, do you ever think about that traumatic memory when you're drinking a glass of water, and accidentally choke on it? What other every day moments come to mind?"

James could feel his mind pulling in two different directions. One was hurtling towards a violent, all-suppressing numbness and the other was towards some version of himself that wanted to scream, but couldn't breathe.

"I..." he said faintly, but he struggled to form a coherent thought. "It's not a common everyday experience. Choking."

"No, but drinking water is," Hendrik said. "We're just trying to help you figure out how the experience--"

"Does drinking water have to be hard too?" James asked with a weary, sad laugh.

"Is it hard?" Hendrik asked instead.

"Why is it always water?" James said, ignoring the question as he leaned forward in the chair cupping his face with his hands.

Hendrik leaned forward, as if challenging him. "Maybe because they'd know how torture by drowning could affect a man's life," he said.

"I've already drowned once," James muttered through his hands. "And that wasn't even torture. I don't need this too."

"Did you now?" Hendrik continued, patience wearing thin. "How was that?"

"Hendrik..." Elise said nervously.

"If I had to tell you how many times I've been cut open, and stabbed, and burned, and twisted, and broken..." James said wearily, still covering his face in his hands. "I don't think I could do it. I just wish the Gaea had done it to me sober."

"James," Hendrik said steadily, and James could feel him trying to meet his eyes despite him hiding his face. "You could be the world's most physically tortured man and not tell a soul, but that wouldn't stop you from also being the world's most mentally tortured man -- all because you keep it all inside. Do you want that?"

James slumped over in his chair. They'd hardly been talking for more than a few minutes, and James felt exhausted. His head was hurting, and his neck was tense again. And it was all his fault too, wasn't it? For keeping it inside? It was always his fault.

"Maybe I do," he said, his voice strained. He could feel his throat tightening. His voice tempting to break. "I'm not strong enough to talk about it, am I? I should just accept it."

"I refuse to believe a man who endured military school, treason, bounty hunters, living in another world, torture, and now taking care of his girlfriend who may never wake up -- is weak," Hendrik said sharply. "You're plenty strong. Are you going to accept that?"

James tightly pressed his lips together in an attempt to push the knot in his throat back down. He swallowed and spoke carefully.

"I think you all think a little too highly of me," he said, feeling tears prick at his eyes.

"I think you think a little too lowly of yourself," Hendrik continued, unrelenting.

James's eyes blurred over with tears and he closed his eyes, turning his face away.

"I'm not good at this sort of thing," he said, his voice wavering. "Talking through my-- my own problems. I don't even know if that's the right-- what do you even call torture?"

He let out a huff of a laugh, but it only seemed to make the crying worse.

"It's not like I've ever had anyone to really-- I mean, any friend I ever made I've lost," he said. "Who was I supposed to tell anyway? I just kept losing people, or they'd turn on me. What was the point? Who wants to hear about torture anyway? Am I supposed to tell them how helpless I felt all of the time? Does that make me stronger? Do you have any idea how it feels to be hunted down for almost half of your life? To always sleep with one eye open, because one day you wake up and find no one likes you anymore. Because you're just a number to them, now. And even here I couldn't escape that. They just wanted me for my genes."

He laughed again, but the smile waned as tears streamed down his face.

"It's just ironic, to me at this point, you know?," he said as his words hitched in his throat. "It's like I was asking for it."

"Oh, James," Elise said softly, and James felt something light being placed on his lap. A quick glance down revealed it to be a folded handkerchief.

"You're the victim here," Hendrik said, voice more gentle, but still firm. "Don't you dare try to justify any of this being okay. What they did was messed up, and you are the victim, and had no fault whatsoever."

James only weakly grabbed for the handkerchief.

"But sometimes I asked for it, you know?" James said through a shaky breath. "I knew if I fought back that it'd only make it worse. I knew if I didn't cooperate they'd kick me, and choke me, and drown me more. I just wanted to prove to them that they couldn't break me, you know? I didn't think they could. I didn't think that--that they'd--"

Instead of a sob coming up, James felt like his throat was closing in on itself. He could see the needle, hovering over his arm. His brain was desperately longing for the release that wouldn't come. His throat was reliving the pain of lost air, and tension building around his windpipe.

He'd felt it creeping up on him the whole time. The panic, the fear, the closeness of death breathing on his neck, taunting him. James knew it was coming, and he'd been trying to buffer himself and buy time, but it was like he'd stumbled into it. It was chasing him down the moment he remembered it existed.

He started to tremble, and his breaths became quick and shallow.

He was starting to hyperventilate, and Elise and Hendrik felt like they were fading into the background. Desperately, he stared out into the room with glazed eyes, trying to block everything out. Trying to come back. He didn't know.

He just needed to get out of his head. It was all in his head, and yet, he could barely think. Everything was just loud.

"Breathe for me, James," Hendrik said calmly, taking a deep breath in to demonstrate. "Big breath in through your nose... hold it... and exhale through your mouth. And again."

James took in a slow breath, but he selfishly wished Evaline was with him instead. He wished she was sitting, talking to him. Able to communicate.

Hendrik repeated the instructions, and James silently followed them, even though he felt like he could unravel at any moment.

This was why he never talked about it. It was too soon. All of the other torture was further away, but this?

It was only two months? Three months ago?

Hendrik kept exaggerating his breaths for James to follow suit, and it took too many minutes of shaky breathing for James's breathing to become steady and normal again.

Now he really felt numb and detatched.

Before anyone could say anything, he spoke, barely audible, but steadily.

"They drugged me," he said. "I was high when I was being tortured."

"You cannot control your body's reaction to the drug," Elise said gently, sitting at the edge of her seat like she wanted to reach out and console him, but then thought better of it. "Your mind and body have two reactions to attacks and violations. How your body perceived the torture when under the influence of the drug is at a different level to how you feel about the experience."

"It was like nothing was wrong," James said faintly, staring with vacant eyes past both Hendrik and Elise. "It still hurt, but it was like it was okay. I almost didn't want it to stop."

"Imagine if you weren't on the drug," Elise continued calmly. "Would you still feel that way?"

"It wasn't about the--" James started to say, but suddenly felt like he was shrinking under their gaze.

They were watching him. Obvserving him. Maybe they already knew before he even said it. He didn't know if he could say it out loud. Not to Elise. Not to Hendrik. Then they'd probably think he couldn't handle himself anymore. They'd keep an eye on him. They'd start babying him, and bullying him, and telling him everything he felt was wrong, and he didn't think he could take that. He already got it enough from himself.

He wished he was like a turtle, so he could crawl into his shell and not come out. Instead he ended up hugging himself tightly, trying to make himself small.

"I don't think I can do this," he said quietly.

"It's hard, I know," Hendrik said. "Do you need more time? Maybe it would help to sit in silence and breathe for a minute or two."

"No, I really don't think I can do this," James said more earnestly, desperation seeping into his voice. His chest was starting to hurt. His head already hurt. "I don't know how."

Hendrik and Elise exchanged another glance to one another, hesitating.

"You can walk us through the experience, if that helps," Hendrik said. "Or would it help if we asked questions?"

James wanted to curl up in a ball, but he didn't. It felt like a strange, deeply rooted, almost feral instinct to crawl into the deepest, darkest hole and hide until he felt normal again. Until he could push it all back down again.

"Maybe?" he said, feeling his throat get tight again.

"Let's take it slow," Elise said. "We don't have to unpack this all in one day. We're here to let you know we care, and we'd like to listen. We would never hurt you. This is a place of healing. Okay?"

"Yeah, let's start with that," Hendrik said, eyeing him intently. "Do you want to start healing?"

James felt his throat starting to choke up again, and it took everything within him to not cry. Still, his eyes welled up with tears again, too quickly, and too much, and tears started streaming down his face anyway.

"Of course I want to heal," he said in a hoarse whisper. "Do you have any idea what I'd give to be normal again?"

"You're on the right path of healing, then. It starts with opening up, which you're doing. You're off to a good start," Hendrik said.

"Normal is subjective," Elise added. "Striving for normal isn't a good goal, but striving for peace is."

"I haven't known peace for a very long time," James said emptily. He couldn't even make out their faces anymore. The tears kept coming.

"You've lived a long, hard life, James," Hendrik said, more gently this time. "Maybe you came to this world so you can find peace. It won't be an easy journey, but it's attainable."

James wiped his face with his sleeve, sniffing loudly.

"I'm so tired," he whispered. "And the journey is exhausting."

"Is it still exhausting? Are you still tired?" Hendrik asked.

James was ashamed to answer, and as he tried to find the courage to speak, all that came out of his mouth was a sob. He brought his hands up to hide his face again and couldn't fight anymore. He let himself cry. He didn't have words. Only weeping.
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soundofmind says...

"It's okay to cry," Elise said softly. "Take as much time as you need. It's okay."

James didn't even know that he needed permission, but the moment he got it, he stopped holding it back. He curled over in his chair, hiding his face as his tears gathered in his palms. He didn't even care that it was wet, and messy, and he was too loud, and too much. If they left him like this, he wouldn't blame them.

But even as the minutes went by, they didn't leave. He could still see the shapes of their feet on the floor, where they still sat in their chairs, staying with him. Watching him? He didn't know anymore. He wished more than anything that he could hug Evaline, because he knew it would make him feel safe. But it felt selfish to want that only for himself, as if Evaline wouldn't want to move and function too, for herself.

James didn't even know how many minutes passed, but eventually, his sobs finally subsided, and he felt exhausted.

With shaky breaths, he finally dared to look back up, aware that his face was probably still red and stained with tears. It was only when he looked up that he remembered the handkerchief Elise had set in his lap earlier, and he awkwardly picked it up with shaky hands, wiping his eyes and cheeks before blowing his nose.

Gods, there was so much snot. And they were still looking at him, too.

He pulled the snot-filled handkerchief away when he could finally breathe through his nose again. At least, partially.

"Feel better?" Hendrik said, who was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. "You've bottled up so much inside. It's good to release sometimes."

James looked up at Hendrik wearily.

"A little," he said quietly.

"Need to cry some more?"

"I don't know," James said with a sniff, looking over to Evaline, who still hadn't moved. And he didn't expect her to. He just wished he could hear her voice.

Hendrik seemed to catch his gaze. "Yeah, I know," he said. "You would rather have this conversation with her. She probably wants to talk to you too. But she's also probably glad you're talking about it and loosening up."

Loosening up. That was what people did when they were a little uptight, but this wasn't that. He didn't know what this was.

He tried to think of something to say in return, but his head felt like it was swelling up with thoughts, and all of them were too terrifying to say out loud.

"Would you like to keep talking?" Elise asked with her usual gentle voice. "You can say anything you want. It's okay."

"I'm afraid that you'd look at me differently," James said quietly.

"Lad, you're from another world," Hendrik said. "I don't think I can look at you any more differently."

"It's okay, James. We're here to listen," Elise added.

James took in a few steady breaths, trying to keep it together this time. He closed his eyes, finding it easier to say if he didn't have to see their reactions.

"I was moved to a different location," he said quietly. "A few times. The first time, it was one of their 'sun rooms,' as they called them, where they housed some of the pregnant women. The first room they put me in was where they drugged me, and then I was left there for some time. I was pretty badly hurt all over not just from the torture, but from the tournament as well. The women there tried to help me, but I wasn't entirely present in my... state of euphoria."

He paused, cracking his eyes open and looking to Elise first.

"Do you want to talk about what happened in the sun room?" Elise asked.

James dropped his eyes to the ground.

"It was just... they talked to me a lot," James said. "I... at least, in that one."

"Were you in multiple sun rooms?" Hendrik asked.

James nodded.

"I was put in another one after..."

He forced himself not to look towards Evaline.

"They--they took me somewhere else for a little bit," he said, wringing his hands together. "And tortured me again."

"With water and vines?" Hendrik asked, voice softer.

"Fire," James added, forcing the word out.

"Reflecting back on this experience, would you consider that to be the most traumatic part?" Elise asked gently.

James didn't know. He drew his brows together tightly.

"I don't know how to measure that," he said quietly.

"That's alright. I understand all of it is traumatic, so it can be hard to compare," Elise said. "But when you reflect back on your experience with the Gaea, what moments keep repeating for you?"

James was having trouble reflecting and not thinking of the specific memory. Or, memories. There were two.

"When Mathias burned me and when Darla broke me," he said emptily.

Elise nodded. "Have you ever talked about the specific details with anyone? Evaline, maybe?"

James quickly shook his head.

"Sometimes, it helps to let someone know what happened," Elise continued. "Keeping it all inside makes it feel like a shameful secret. Telling others about it at the level of detail you're comfortable sharing can feel freeing since it'll feel like you're no longer guarding a secret, and are no longer alone in keeping this information. Do you want to share these two experiences with us? We will listen to whatever you want to share, and we will offer you nothing but support."

James was wringing his hands even more, running his fingers over one another with tension.

"Are you sure?" he asked in a whisper. "Do you really want to know?"

"We don't want to know just for the sake of knowing," Hendrik said. "We want to know because we want to listen to you. That's all there is to it."

James nodded ever so slightly, but he couldn't help but feel like something was wrong. But maybe that was just because he was slowly trying to allow the memory to come back to him.

"They..." James started slowly, but he was trying to remove Evaline from the memory. He didn't want to tell them she was there. He didn't want them to think of her wrongly when they didn't know the full story, and he didn't have the energy to try to explain everything. He just didn't. He couldn't. He wasn't trying to rewrite history, but at least Evaline knew. He wasn't leaving her out because he blamed her.

James took in a deep breath.

"I couldn't get up," he said shakily. "So they -- Mathias. The leader of the Gaea clan, or gang, or whatever word you use for them. He came over to force me to my feet. He--"

He bit down, clenching his jaw for a moment as he swallowed hard, trying to push forward.

"He had a fire mag--power. Power. And he made a--a a rope of fire. Like a whip. It wrapped around my arm and pulled me up to my feet, digging in but with..."

Heat. Fire. Burning. Because it wasn't a real rope.

"It burned through my clothes."

And his skin.

"And I was bound. My feet were, anyway, with a heavy metal chain attatched to some... pole, I think. I was too drugged to really fight back. My body was too relaxed and my head was too... foggy."

James pinched his eyebrows together as he shut his eyes tightly.

"He dug his thumb between my ribs," James said. "He knew where I was already hurt, and he dug deep."

James was surprised he hadn't broken skin.

"They told me I was valuable," he said, and he couldn't bring himself to say more, because then it would run together with the things Evaline had said too. Things he knew she didn't mean, but still lived on in his head like they'd come from the mouths of his torturers instead.

Man from the past, pure and innocent. Unconditioned.

He wanted to crawl out of his skin. He didn't want anyone to see him, anymore. Why did he have to have a time power? Why couldn't he just turn invisible?

"But they realized words wouldn't convince me to cooperate," James said. "So that's when Darla took over."

He could feel the phantom pain wrapping around his neck again.

"She wouldn't let me breathe," he said thinly. "She even kept beating me while I choked. I couldn't even make a sound."

Tears sprung to his eyes again, but they felt empty.

"I really did try to... I tried not to..."

He had to pause and get a grip on his breathing again, but it felt like a losing battle.

"She told me I just had to tap out," James said, his voice more strained. "But I knew what that meant. I knew what I'd be signing up for. What I'd be saying yes to. Cooperating with what they wanted to use me for. It was like I could feel everything inside of me just die. I'd just be..."

He didn't even want to say it. There wasn't a version of the thought that didn't feel dirty.

He brought his hands back up to his head with his fingers curled and trembling.

"I'm used to being treated as less than a person. But this felt like I was being treated like cattle," he said as he ducked his head down into his arms.

There was a silence that followed, and James felt like he was drowning in it.

"Thank you for sharing, James," Elise said. "That was very brave of you to share. I'm proud of you."

"What they did was torture, point blank," Hendrik added. "It was inhumane and disgusting. I'm so sorry you went through that. People like them deserve to rot in hell."

James didn't know what to say to either of them. He didn't have the guts to tell them that if Evaline never got him out of there, that he'd either be addicted to the drug they gave him to the point of pitiful dependence, or dead. There was no in-between. He knew that much about himself.

"In the next sunroom I was taken to," James said instead, still with his head in his arms, his voice hollow. "The women stripped me down and one of them attempted to tend to my wounds, but most of it was bruising. The only thing-- it was mostly the burn. On my arm."

And they didn't need to take off his pants for that.

"It was humiliating."

"And you are right to feel that way. Anyone who convinces you otherwise is wrong. It's all cruel," Elise said.

James felt his throat get even tighter.

"I don't know what I would've done if Evaline hadn't gotten me out of there," he said, his voice on the verge of breaking. "I don't know if I could've-- they probably would've made me--"

He felt too exhausted to even cry, but he buried his face in his arms and knees, bent over. The cries that came out this time were weak and weary. He didn't have the energy to sob. Everything just ached.

"Remember, you're the victim here. Oliver and the others were the mastermind of all this," Hendrik said, sounding like he was biting back his anger. "They did this to you. It's unforgiveable. We are here to support you, and we're glad you're safe now, but don't even think about what would have happened if you were still there. That would mean Oliver has won, and he doesn't even deserve that thought."

"But I was so..." James started to say, but his voice wavered, cracking and breaking into a tearful whisper. "I was so scared. I was terrified."

"Are you still terrified?" Hendrik asked.

James let out the most pitiful whimper, and it made him want to cry again.

"Yes," he said, and it felt like his whole chest was collapsing at the confession.

"Does it impact your everyday life sometimes?" Hendrik continued.

"I don't know," James said desperately, holding his head as his tears started dripping down to the floor. "I just try to ignore it and do what I need to do. I don't know what else to do. I still have to-- I still have to function."

"Oh, James," Elise said softly with worry. "Functioning without facing what happened isn't a way to live. It takes strength and courage to share your story and face your fears, and you are doing it now. You are strong. And after this, it will get easier, and you can live without that haunting fear."

"But this is only--" James croaked, clearing his throat with a pained breath. "I haven't even scratched the surface..."

As the last three words came out of his mouth, he could feel another sob work its way up. His shoulders started to shake as he let out another loud, pained cry.

He didn't know what was happening to him anymore. He was falling apart. And he needed to not fall apart. Who was going to take care of Evaline?

"It's fine, you can cry. It's alright," Hendrik said. "We're not going anywhere."

James couldn't respond. He let out another pained cry, and he could feel himself sliding off the chair, and he didn't care. He let himself fall forward to his knees, and he finally did what he'd wanted to do this whole time.

He curled into a ball, hiding his face, and he wept. He wept, and he wept, and just when he'd think he had no more tears to cry, it would hit him all over. Again, and again, and he didn't know how he'd ever pick himself up again after this. He wanted to tell Evaline he was sorry. Sorry he'd only made it a month. Sorry he couldn't hold on longer. Sorry he wasn't strong enough, because he knew he had to be the strong one while she was like this. And here he was, unraveling. All because two people tried to get him to talk about one day. One event. One out of many.

At some point, he felt a blanket fall over his back, like it was being placed over him gently, but they were too afraid to touch him.
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soundofmind says...

"I'm sorry, James. We shouldn't have surprised you like this," Elise said softly beside him. "Would you like us to sit with you and stay? We don't mind."

James wished he could make his voice sound less like nails scratching against concrete.

"Stay," he said through a sob.

Was that too much to ask?

"Okay. We'll stay," Elise said.

James heard something placed on the floor beside him. "Here's a glass of water," Hendrik said. "Crying can dehydrate you."

"Yes, it can," Elise said with a small smile in her voice. "Okay. We'll be near Evaline. Take your time."

James couldn't even bring himself to look up from his ball of shame, and he didn't know how many more minutes passed that he wept. He didn't know if anyone was outside the door, wondering the worst. He didn't know if anyone else cared, or if anyone else would try to ask him how he was doing, and he didn't even know if he wanted that or not. He didn't have an answer anymore. Everything just hurt, and he wanted it to be over, but he knew he couldn't just escape it. Not when there were people who would actually miss him this time.

Maybe that's why he'd always left any friend he'd ever made, if they didn't leave him first.

Because then he wouldn't feel so guilty about trying to take the easy way out. When it was only him, he didn't have to feel bad, because nobody would ever know. He would disappear, and it would've been fine. It would've been fine.

Except he would've been gone, and Evaline would've never seen him again, and she'd probably be dead too, because of Oliver.

Why did it all have to be so complicated?

He didn't have any answers, and when he finally stopped crying because his throat hurt and his eyes stung to the point where they were dry, he forced himself to sit up.

He pulled the blanket around his shoulders and saw the glass of water in front of him. He didn't even look to see where Hendrik and Elise were as he started to drink all of it, chugging it down until it was gone. When he was done, he shakily got to his feet, feeling like he'd been hit by... something.

He saw Elise and Hendrik sitting by Evaline's bed, their backs slightly turned away to give him privacy.

He set the empty glass of water down and wiped his face with the blanket. He found the snotty handkerchief on the floor, and blew his nose into it again only because he didn't know what else to do. He wadded it up and held it awkwardly as he stood across from the bed with the blanket draped over his shoulders.

He didn't want to know what he looked like at the moment.

"Hungry?" Hendrik said as he gestured over to the bowl of oatmeal on the nightstand. "It's cold now, but I can reheat it for you."

James looked at the bowl of oats. He'd completely forgotten about it.

"Oh..." he said hoarsely. "That's-- you don't have to do that."

"Nah. It's fine. Don't worry about it," Hendrik said anyways, heavily sliding his chair back to stand and walk over to grab the bowl. "It'll just be a minute."

Elise watched as Hendrik started to leave the room, and only turned to meet James's eyes again when the door opened and closed.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

James looked down at the wad of snotty fabric in his hand.

"... Tired," he said.

"Do you need another handkerchief?" Elise asked, already pulling one out of her shirt pocket to hand to him. "Sorry. I brought extras, and I should have given them to you earlier."

"It's okay," James said. "I... where should I put this?"

"Oh, it's fine, you can keep it," Elise said with a little smile, placing the handkerchief back in her pocket. "How often do you wash your clothes, by the way? You're taking care of Evaline, so we can always add both of your clothes to our pile. One less thing to worry about."

"I... I normally do it once a week," James said quietly. "To wash Evaline's..."

"And yours...?" Elise finished for him when he trailed off.

"I do them together," he said.

"How about, at least for this week, you don't have to worry about that?" Elise said with the same small smile. "It's the least we can do."

James nodded slightly.


A small silence passed, but it was short-lived because the door slammed open, revealing Elias holding the bowl, slithering in past Hendrik who seemed peeved.

"Hendrik said something about reheating oats, but I had just finished making mine, so here you go," Elias said with an innocent smile, approaching them. His smile slowly began to fade the longer he stared at James. "Uh... I'm not interrupting something, am I?"

"That's what I've been trying to tell you," Hendrik muttered with a shake of his head, heavily sitting back down on his chair.

James slowly reached out towards the side-table, dropping the snotty handkerchief there for the moment, and he pulled the blanket a little more securely over his shoulders as he walked to Elias, offering out his hand to take the bowl.

Elias gladly handed it to him, watching and waiting for an explanation, then looked over at the others for words instead.

"I'm having a rough day," James said hoarsely.

"Oh..." Elias said, putting his hands in his pockets. "That sucks. Sorry."

"Thanks for the oats, Elias," Elise said with a little smile. "We're just keeping James company."

Elias glanced between James and his sister. "Is there room for one more?" he asked.

James took in a shaky breath and nodded, stepping back.

"Sure," he said quietly.

Although there were extra chairs he could have sat down in, Elias chose to stick where he was, standing near James.

"So... what were you talking about?" he asked.

"I just finished telling James that he doesn't have to worry about doing his laundry," Elise answered without hesitation.

Elias raised a brow. "You mean... adding his clothes to the rest of ours? Hah. Sami will love that."

James quietly returned to his chair, setting the bowl in his lap. While Elise and Elias started talking, he took a bite of food. Once he finally tasted it, he realized how hungry he actually was. His stomach felt empty.

While he ate quietly, Elias, Elise, and Hendrik kept talking. Elias joked about Samiya's only two jobs being laundry and taking care of Elijah, and though most of the jokes were at her expense, they got a few laughs out of Hendrik and even Elise. It was probably just to release tension.

The conversation veered off towards discussions about food, and things they were having for dinner. Things that were simple, and mundane. James was glad to have the small distraction in the background while he finished his food and set his bowl to the side with a small sigh. But it seemed, as he did so, the conversation was starting to dwindle.

"Is your day still rough?" Elias asked James when there was a lull of silence.

James looked over at Elias a little wide-eyed at first.

"Uh..." James trailed off, nervously trying to figure out how to answer. "I..."

Elias seemed to watch him curiously, but when he trailed off, he started to voice his own thoughts out loud.

"Sometimes, when I have rough days, I think about the less rough ones," he said. "Maybe that would help?"

James nodded slightly.

"Sure," he said, not meeting Elias - or anyone's eyes.

"It also helps to be with people who care and support you," Elise added.

"Yeah. Yeah, that does help," Elias murmured, in thought. "Warm food does too."

"And random people coming into the conversation," Hendrik said dryly.

"I don't know if that would help," Elias said. "Seems... random."

"Elias isn't random," James said softly, looking down into his lap. "He's my friend, too."

Elias looked down at James and flashed an appreciative smile. "Thanks. You're also my friend."
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Carina says...

Elias stood by the doorway the following morning, watching Hendrik help mount Alistair and Rudy on to his giant rhino animal. Mel was gathering the bags and supplies, counting the items and looking to be in thought.

They were always off, being productive and proactive outside the mine. Since they were all in trouble by association, Elias didn't know why he wouldn't be invited to these things too. It wasn't like he was in the military for almost a decade or anything. But, at the same time, he didn't mind the break of doing, well... nothing. He did miss them, though.

"Are you sure you're going to be okay?" he asked Mel before she could move too far.

She looked back over her shoulder, distractedly tying up her bouncy hair. "Oh, yeah, definitely. We're just going to scope out the area one last time before the guys go on the supply run. We'll be back before sundown."

"Yeah... I know," Elias said with a sigh, watching her stuff the saddlebags last minute.

"Hey Mel, hurry up," Hendrik called.

"I'd hurry if you helped!" she huffed.

"I can help," Elias offered, already standing up straight.

Mel glanced between the satchels and to Elias, offering an apologetic smile. "Really, Elias, it's okay. You should relax. Be with Sami and Elijah. We've got this! Don't worry."

Elias pursed his lips, leaning back on the doorway. "Well, alright," he mumbled, not really wanting to fight this. "See you later?"

Mel nodded, catching up to Hendrik. "See you later!"

Elias sighed again, closing the door. Malkiel and Elise left earlier in the day to scope out more of the tunnels, since apparently there was a previous supply run that was left in a different mine in the maze. Elias didn't really know, nor did they give him that much detail, but they seemed confident.

He casually walked past his room - which used to just be Samiya and Elijah's room, but he decided to sleep there too since there had been a few comments of the other room being too stuffy. That was what happened when there were four sleeping adults in a crammed room. It was nice to be sleeping close to Mel, Alistair, and his sister, though.

When he approached his room, he could see and hear Elijah crying with Samiya standing next to him, arms crossed. Elias clicked his tongue, walking over and kneeling down to see what the fuss was about.

"What'd you do this time, Sami?" he asked, patting Elijah's head as he cried.

"I didn't do anything," she said defensivly, narrowing her eyes at him. "He's crying because I won't let him eat dirt."

Elias raised a brow, getting down even lower to be at Elijah's eye level. "Why do you want to eat dirty, buddy?" he asked.

"B-Because," he said with a sniff. "It's... good. For you."

"No. It tastes bad and is not good for you," Elias said gently.

"I think it's because of those flavorless smoothies. The ones you keep calling dirt-flavored ones," Samiya said.

"Ooooh," Elias said slowly, then grinned. "Sami, why don't you make one of those for him? Since he wants to eat it so badly and all."

She stared at him. "You want me to make that gross smoothie for Elijah? He's going to take one sip and then spit it out."

"Ex-actly," Elias said victoriously, standing back up. "And then he'll never want to eat dirt again. Problem solved."

Sami sighed. "I don't wanna do that," she grumbled. "Why don't you do that?"

Elias hummed. "Did I tell you that you're going to do more laundry?"

"What? Ew! Whose laundry?"

"How about you look after Elijah for a bit, and I'll help you the next load?" Elias said with a faint laugh. "Does that sound good?"

Sami sighed. "Fine. Whatever. Elijah! Come here."

Elias watched as she (begrudgingly) trotted off to the kitchen with Elijah to teach him a lesson about eating dirt, and Elias was about to follow, but his eyes landed down the hall to Evaline and James's room.

He remembered how he was having a rough day yesterday -- more rough than he'd ever seen since his eyes were puffy, probably from crying. It felt a little awkward that he had unknowingly walked into a tense situation (even though it didn't feel tense at all), and Elias wondered if he was doing better. James could probably use some company... especially since everyone else was out for the day. Elias also hadn't seen him grab breakfast or anything.

With Sami out of the room, Elias was able to go through her stash of the banana smoothie packets (which, again, were his before she kept taking it), stuffed it in his pocket, and went into the kitchen to grab the other ingredients without Sami noticing. Standing outside James's door again, Elias quickly mixed everything together with a spoon and then knocked on the door, cracking it open a little bit.

"Hey J, it's E," he said in case he didn't recognize the knock. "Can I come in?"

Elias didn't hear a response right away, and he slowly opened the door so he could peek inside. He noticed that Evaline was positioned to lay on her other side, looking comfortable with fresh sheets. Sleepy was even curled up on the corner of the bed. The chairs around the bed were empty, and James wasn't in sight.

Confused, Elias opened the door even more and stepped inside. It took him a moment to realize that he may be on the balcony since the doors were slightly open, and he knew he wasn't in any of the other rooms. He walked towards Evaline first, peering over her.

"Hey, Ev," he said softly. "I guess this is the first time I've talked to you alone."

Elias glanced at the balcony doors, noticing that it was open just a little. James was out there, probably. And he probably couldn't hear him.

"I'd rather we talk more when you wake up, but..." He looked back down at her, noting her usual peaceful expression. "Hey. I'm glad we're both alive."

He didn't really know what else to say. It felt wrong to really hold a conversation with Evaline when she couldn't respond back. He knew from the others that she held a grudge... and he didn't want to make her more comfortable. That was the last thing he wanted.

"That's it, really," he added softly. "That's mainly what I wanted to say right now. That, and... your man's nice. I like him. Not that that matters."

He looked over at the balcony doors again.

"...I'm going to go talk to him now. There's this dumb banana smoothie that -- yeah. You probably already know. Anyways." He offered a small smile even though she couldn't see. "Yeah. Okay. Be right back."

Still holding the glass in one hand, Elias approached the balcony door and slowly opened it, revealing James standing at the edge, leaning on the railing, looking down. He had a blanket around his shoulders like he did yesterday, but Elias realized it was likely because the air outside was chilly. James didn't turn around as the door opened silently, so Elias let the door fall back naturally with a soft thud.

"Hey, thought I'd see you here," he said.

James flinched, almost jumping as he whirled his head around.

"Oh," James said, looking at Elias like he'd just broken from a daze. "Hey. Good morning."

"Morning," Elias said as he took a couple steps forward to lean his back against the railing, offering the smoothie out to him. "I got this for you."

James took a small step back from the railing as he took the smoothie.

"Thanks," he said, taking a long sip through the straw.

"You're welcome," Elias said with a little smile, then looked over his shoulder to the sleepy forest ahead of them. The sun was slowly rising high in the sky, waking nature up with it. "Peaceful view, huh?"

"I'm sure it would be more peaceful if I could see more of it," James said between his sips.

It took a moment to realize what he meant by that, but when it registered, Elias chuckled. "Oh, right, right. Don't worry, you'll get your glasses and then you'll be able to see trees and freckles."

James blinked slowly, then looked up at Elias, like he was trying to study him closely.

"You have freckles?" he asked.

Elias blinked back, then released a little laugh, scratching his cheek. "Uh, yeah, a couple, I guess. You really are blind."

James drew his eyebrows together and looked away, back out at the view that he couldn't even see well.

"It's not like I want to be blind," he muttered before sipping on his smoothie again.

"I don't think anyone wants to be blind," Elias said as he dropped his hand back down so his elbow rested on the railing. "It just happens. And it sucks."

James was quiet after that. He just kept his straw in his mouth, sipping on the smoothie. Maybe he was just hungry.

"Do you usually hang out here in the mornings?" Elias asked, filling the silence.

"Sometimes," James said. "If it's a nice day."

Elias looked up at the sky, squinting a little in thought.

...Was it a nice day? Well, he didn't really have a sensitivity to cold. It was nice-ish... even though James was wrapped in a blanket. He was a man of mystery sometimes.

He hummed, looking back at him. "Yeah. It's kind of nice, I guess," he said with a shrug. "It's not snowing, so that's nice."

"I take what I can get in the winter," James said, pulling the smoothie a little closer to himself, like he was trying to stay warm.

"Do you, uh... need another jacket?" Elias asked.

"If you're about to offer me yours, the answer is no," James said.

Elias playfully scoffed. "Such a gentleman. Thank you for letting me keep mine."

James didn't look like he was really in the mood for playful jokes, because he didn't laugh. He just returned his focus to his smoothie, which was already halfway gone.

With his back towards the scenery, Elias looked out ahead where the door was, imagining Evaline laying on the other side. James probably kept the door closed for Evaline because it was chilly, even though he said it was a nice day.

"If you ever need a break from taking care of Evaline, I can help out," Elias said. "Just let me know."

James glanced back at the door, and then at Elias. It was hard to tell what was going through his head, but he looked really tired.

"I'll let you know," James said quietly.

"Are you okay?" Elias decided to ask. "You seem out of it today."

James looked off to the side, finally pausing in his endless smoothie consumption.

"I didn't really sleep," he said lowly. "I'm just tired."

"Anything keeping you up?" Elias asked.

"Yeah," James said. "A lot of things. Everything. Ten years' worth of things."

"Ah. One of those nights," Elias said with a nod, shifting his weight to his other foot. "Those kinds of nights suck."

"It happens pretty frequently," James said. "Normally. It just hadn't for a while. I should've been expecting it, really. I think I was just caught up with the busyness of taking care of Evaline, you know?"

"Yeah. I can see that." He paused. "Do you want to talk about it?"

There was a long pause as James stared down at his smoothie.

"Which part?" he asked.

Elias shrugged. "I dunno. Ten years is a lot of stuff. Which parts bother you the most?"

James took a few steps back, leaning on the wall beside the door, and he slid down to the floor, bringing his knees up as he let out a long, deep sigh.

"I'm too tired to do this standing up," James said quietly.

Elias looked down at the base of the railing, debating sitting down right here, but then thought better of it since the railing didn't offer back support. He stood up straight and walked towards the door, sitting down beside James.

"It's comfier down here anyways," he said as he propped his knee up, placing his elbow on top as he leaned back on the door.

"Elise and Hendrik talked to me yesterday," James said slowly. "About when the Gaea clan kidnapped me and tortured me."

Elias looked over with a raised brow, caught off guard with the sudden change of topic.

"Oh," he said, trying of something to say, but nothing came up. "Huh."

"Yeah," James said flatly. "That was my response at first too when they brought it up."

"That was yesterday when I brought you the oats...?"


"Whoops," Elias found himself saying, remembering Hendrik trying to stop him from coming in for no reason. "Sorry. I thought it'd be better to give you a hot bowl of fresh oats."

"Elias," James said wearily. "It's okay. I'm glad you came by. It was a better way to end... whatever that was."
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Carina says...

Elias glanced between James and the sky ahead of them, not wanting to say the first thing that popped in his head this time. James seemed weary and serious, and he wanted to copy that for him.

"Do you wish they didn't talk to you about that?" he asked.

"I don't know," James said. "I don't know what I want."

"Nothing wrong with that," Elias said with a little shrug. "You seem pretty out of it, though. Are you upset?"

"I'm not mad at them or anything, if that's what you mean," James said.

"Was it hard?" he asked instead.

James didn't respond right away. There were a few long seconds that passed as James stared out blankly somewhere ahead of them.

"Yes," he said in a whisper. "I thought I was numb to all of this hell already, but it was like they took a crowbar to my brain and forced it open, and now I don't know how to close it again. I feel like I keep shutting down and then the moment I do, it comes all rushing back, and I hate it. I can't even think straight anymore."

"I get that," Elias said gently. "Talking about it forces you to relive the pain. And they can't ever understand what it's like, even if you talk through it. Kind of makes you feel alone in it, you know?"

"I've lived alone off and on for so much of my life now," James said in a whisper. "And yesterday I felt more alone than I ever have in my life."

"It might feel that way, but it's not true. You know that, right?" Elias asked, his brows drawn together in concern.

"I know, I know, I know," James muttered, lowering his face from view. He set the almost-gone smoothie to the side and brought his arms into the blanket, drawing it up to his face. "I know."

"I say that, but I used to feel that way too," Elias said, carefully thinking out loud as he leaned his head back, slightly angling it up to look at the sky. "Once. Before I went to the military. I had people I could tell, but it was easier not to. I think there's some shame to it. I don't know, it's been a while. But I think it's one of my bigger regrets not telling anyone." He looked back at James. "So I'm glad you told someone."

James kept his face hidden in the blanket.

"I only told them half of it," James said. "And I didn't even tell them the full truth. And I haven't even told anyone about everything else. Nobody knows the whole story. There's too much to tell."

"Well, maybe that's why your brain opened and won't shut now," Elias said like it was obvious. "Because you didn't finish telling them everything."

"But I don't want to!" James spouted out quickly, looking up only for a moment, only to bury his face again. "I don't want to say it out loud. I want to forget, Elias. I wish I could forget everything. I used to think these things made me 'stronger' but all it does is make me--"

James cut off his sentence with a frustrated huff.

"...Broken," Elias finished for him, sitting up straighter. "Is that right?"

James had his arms crossed over his knees, and his head hanging down. There was a hesitation.

"Did you ever drink?" James asked abruptly. "Or do drugs? Or anything like that?"

Elias brought his legs together, preparing himself for the heaviness of the conversation this was turning into. James had done this for him once, and he was happy to be there for him now.

"Not drink," he said. "There was a pill I liked to take, though. It helped me get through the day. Why?"

"The Gaea gave me this drug," James said. "I don't know what it's called. They had to shoot it through my veins. I don't know if there's a pill for it."

Elias lowly hummed. "What were the effects of it?"

"Euphoria," James said. "And it dulls pain. Makes your head cloudy, and your body slows down."

Elias pursed his lips. "Sounds like it could be E, which others call ecstasy or euphoria. It's terribly addicting. It's good you got out of there when you did."

James drew his arms a little tighter around his head.

"...Yeah," James said, barely audible.

"But - you said they gave you the drug," Elias continued. "And you were under it while they... hurt you?"

"Yes," James said. "It didn't hurt as much that way."

Elias rubbed his chin. "It's weird that they wanted to torture you and put you under the drug."

"The women said they gave the drug to people so they'd be more likely to..."

James trailed off again, but before Elias could ask a question, James started backtracking.

"They have a whole prison full of fertile men and women whom they force to breed like animals," James said. "I was being added to that."

"I've seen some of that happen with other tribal communities," Elias said softly, dropping his hand. "It's sad."

"Well the drug is to help motivate people to cooperate," James muttered into the blanket. "That's why."

"Did it work?" Elias asked.

"... I don't have any kids, if that's what you mean," James said, still barely audible.

Elias flicked his eyes between James and the railing. "And... is that why they... you know. Hurt you?"

"They hurt me because I refused to cooperate," James said. "At first."

"At first," he echoed. "What about the second time?"

"Evaline got to me before they-- before--" James was stuttering, and he let out a low, frustrated groan. "I get why my power forced me to jump ahead. I don't think I would've been able to handle it all at once. Instead I remembered it later, all in pieces."

Elias slowly nodded, somewhat understanding what James was saying. Elias didn't understand it completely, but he must have gone forward in time. And that meant...

"You don't remember when you jump ahead?" he asked.

"It only happened once," James said quickly. "I don't know. Maybe it was just that time. Maybe it's every time."

"Do you have any control over what happened to you, then?" he asked curiously. "Since you skip ahead, and you remember it in bits and pieces?"

"I don't know," James said. "When I dreamed, it felt like I was still making decisions, but I was also drugged for a lot of it, and I don't know how much that played in as well. If I was sober-minded for the whole experience, maybe I'd have a clearer answer."

Elias paused, nodding. "I think it was a good thing that you were able to skip ahead. It's much better than living through that in the moment."

"I don't know if better is the word for it," James said, finally lifting his head. His eyes almost looked glazed over, and he somehow looked even more tired than before. "It's just... different. Having to piece it together afterwards wasn't enjoyable either."

"Yeah... I don't think there's anything about this that's enjoyable." He paused again, tilting his head curiously. "But you said that this was only half of it?"

"...Yeah," James said. "I lied about Evaline's involvement by omission, and I didn't tell them that I liked being drugged. Not how it happened, but because it felt good. If they would've offered it to me again, I would've welcomed it."

"If it was possible, would you take it again now?" Elias asked.

James didn't respond right away.

"Yes," James said after a few long seconds of silence.

"I get that," Elias said as he brushed his knee with his hand. "E is very addicting. I think it messes with the happy chemical in your brain? Once you get a lick of it, it's hard to turn it down. It's like you're turning down happiness."

"Now that I know it's called E," James said. "I don't really want to call you that anymore."

Elias laughed through his nose with a hint of a smirk. "I don't really mind. I think it's kind of funny to call me a happy drug. Like I'm the happy drug."

"I just don't think I'll be able to separate the two in my brain," James said. "I don't... I don't want to think of a drug every time I see you."

Elias hummed. "No, yeah. That's fair. E's no good, anyways. Better to just cut it off."

"...You're still talking about the drug, right?" James asked, glancing over at him.

Elias smirked and narrowed his eyes at him. "Well, I'm not going to cut me off from me."

"Sorry," James said quickly, looking away. "I'm just... my head's not..."

"Weird headspace, I get it," Elias said with a weak dismissive hand wave. "Don't worry about it. We can drop the nickname. It's cool."

James nodded slightly, but otherwise, didn't reply.

Elias leaned his head back against the door, deep in thought again. He didn't want to carelessly say them out loud, but he didn't really feel care to hold back, either.

"I've tried E a couple times. And a handful of other related drugs, too. Not really for the same reason the Gaea gave you it, though. That's just bizarre," he said.

James was still quiet, but he did speak up after a few seconds.

"Can I... ask why you took it?" James asked softly.

"Sure," Elias said distractedly, then realized that was the prompting question. "Oh. Yeah. Well, all the drugs are called a letter, so I won't go into all of them. The first one I took was called A. I think it helps with anxiety or something. I don't remember, but it was given to me to help -- like, keep me still. The most recent one I took was more of my request, called S. I think it's S because of... serenity? That one was nice, since it gives you a sense of peace. It was regulated, though, so I only had so many at a time."

"And you got that drug through the military?" James asked.

"Yep. It's supposed to be prescribed, but I could practically go up to the counter and ask for whatever letter of the alphabet I wanted." He paused for a moment. "You know, I don't think I ever got an X or Q, though."

"That's... kind of scary," James said. "That they didn't regulate that for you."

Elias paused again, thinking.

"They mostly regulated frequency and quantity," he said slowly. "So I guess it was kind of regulated."

"Was that just so you wouldn't overdose?" James asked.

Elias huffed through his nose, watching a bird fly across a sky. It looked like a big hawk.

"Yeah, that's probably why," he mused. "I don't think it was that effective, though. I could save all my pills for a month and overdose if I wanted to. But then that'd mean I'd have to go for a month without pills. Hmmm."

"I don't think I would've made it in the military here if I could do that," James said under his breath.

Elias looked over at him. "Do what? Overdose?"

James looked away.

"Yeah," he said.

Elias stared at him for a moment, wondering if he was reading into this too much, or if James was saying he wouldn't survive if he was in his shoes too. Because, frankly, Elias didn't know how he survived either.

"I did think about doing it," he said after a long pause, looking ahead again. "But a month without the pills sounded worse than death. And there's no guarantee it'd even work."

"Because your power might've saved you from it," James said quietly.

Elias nodded. "Yeah. I'd probably wake up and find that I'd have stuck my hand down my throat to vomit them all out or something. So there goes a month of misery for nothing."

"How did you ever move past that?" James asked. "Do you still try to... or want to..."

"Kill myself?" he finished for him.


Elias pursed his lips in thought. "If I didn't meet Samiya, I might still want to," he said. "I was supposed to train her. Similar powers, and similar background. She came to the military undetected too, but was still young enough to go through the school. So, I decided to be a better role model. And same to Elijah. Maybe it was for appearances at the time. It's hard to say, but I feel better now knowing that the beserk gene has been removed."

At least, that was what Elise said. There was still the small voice at the back of his head that was too afraid to test it out, but also tempted to test it out just to see if it worked.

"Is it still for appearances?" James asked softly.

Elias looked over at him again, noting how James was hugging himself, and looking down with a sadness he hadn't ever really seen on his face before. James was asking specific relatable questions, and Elias couldn't help but wonder if he was asking out of concern, or seeking advice.

"I'd like to think that it's not," he said with a small smile, but it came out feeling forced. "This is supposed to be a new chapter. Kind of like how your new chapter is coming to this world."

"But I still feel like I'm just faking," James whispered. "It's like I'm just waiting for the day that I can't take it anymore."

"Faking," Elias echoed. "What's that like to you?"

"I just pretend I'm somebody else. A better version of myself. And deep down, everything's still on fire, and I'm just ignoring it, letting it burn," James said.

Elias scrunched his brows together in concern, deciding to just ask.

"So... are you also suicidal?" he asked.

James's mouth pursed into a pout, but then broke into a weak, almost unsettling smile as James let out a laugh. Or, it sort of sounded like a laugh, sort of like a cry. It was hard to tell, actually.

"I was thinking of jumping," he said as tears started springing to his eyes. "Is that selfish? With Evaline on the other side of the door? I can't believe -- no, I'm not even surprised by myself at this point. I'm still like this even though I know it'd crush her. And I hate it. I hate it more than anything in the world."

Elias watched him with deep empathy, his brows arched downwards as he sat up straighter, not wanting to get distracted. He reached out his hand and patted his shoulder.

"Hey, you're alright, we're alright," he said gently. "You get bad thoughts sometimes. That doesn't make you a bad person. You're still here."

"If you hadn't come out when you did, I might not be," James said with a shaky voice. "I don't even know anymore. I don't know, Elias. I'm sorry. I'm sorry if this is too much. I'm so sorry."

James leaned his head back against the wall, tears streaming down his face as he cried with his eyes closed. He seemed beyond exhausted.

"It's not too much at all. It's fine. Really. And -- I'm glad I came when I did. To talk to you before you could jump, and also to give you a smoothie," Elias said, turning more towards him.

Elias paused for a moment, watching James quietly cry some more, his eyes closed.

"Hey. Look," he said, then pulled up his left sleeve. "You're not the only one with scars."

He turned his palms facing up, revealing faded long, thin scars stretching up from his wrist to his elbow on his left arm. James hesitantly opened his eyes and looked.

"It's weird how most of my other scars fade, but the ones I inflict upon myself don't really go away," he mused. "Like my body's strange way of telling me to stop."

James stared at Elias, tears still streaming down his face.

"And there are a few more," Elias continued, tilting his head back and pointing at his jugular. "It's more faded and harder to see, but it's there. That one didn't last long before -- yeah."

James lifted up his blanket, wiping at his eyes.

"And there are some on my thigh, but uh..." He looked down at his pants. "I don't want to take off my pants."

"Don't," James said quickly, though his voice was hoarse.

"Thanks," Elias said with a breathy laugh. "My legs would be cold."
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Carina says...

"I don't have scars from myself," James said. "But that's only because I never went that route."

"What route did you take, then?" Elias asked.

"Usually, hanging," James said. "Or... abusing drugs or alcohol. I was so used to pain from -- from flesh wounds -- I don't know. I was convinced it wouldn't work, if I somehow survived everything else."

"I get that," Elias said with a nod. "I've tried hanging once. Didn't work. Drowning too. Didn't work." He paused for a moment. "I think the only thing that would've worked is a pit of lava. Or maybe burning? That sounds like a terrible way to go out, though."

"Slow, and agonizing," James said. "Though I guess at some point the fire would eat away at your nerve endings and you would either pass out or stop feeling... or..."

He stopped abruptly.

"Sorry," James said quickly. "I've... thought too much about this."

"I don't know, it still sounds very painful," Elias said, keeping his gaze on him. "I mean... I never wanted to die just to die. I only wanted to die so the pain would end. Is it the same for you?"

James was quiet for another long moment.

"I didn't feel like I had anything to live for anymore for the longest time," James said quietly. "I just thought it made more sense. If I were to be gone. I didn't know why I was around. It felt like I only existed just to suffer."

"That's still pain, you know. Not all pain and suffering is physical," Elias said.

"There was the physical pain too," James said. "It just... I don't know. I think I've always been in some physical sort of pain ever since... ever since I was wanted, really. There was always something."

"I can understand that. Depression and suicide usually go hand-in-hand, I think. Did it start when you became a wanted man?" Elias asked.

James hugged himself a little tighter, and his brows knitted tightly together.

"I think maybe I always was a little reckless and didn't care about my life," James said quietly. "Ever after my dad died. But I never really consciously thought about killing myself until the first time I was tortured."

"And it hasn't gone away since then?"

James turned his face away.

"It comes and goes in waves," he said.

"I'm not sure it'll ever really go away until the pain ends," Elias said with a sigh. "Do you have an idea to what that might look like for you?"

"No," James said lowly. "I thought I did. But even when I was safe, at least, in a physical sense, I still..."

"Still wanted to jump?" Elias asked, glancing at the railing ahead of them.

"No," James said. "I mean. Yes. But I was talking about--"

He let out a heavy sigh and brought his hands up to the sides of his head, running his fingers through his hair.

"I already tried to kill myself once already when I was here," he said with a shaky voice. "It didn't work."

He sniffed, bringing his hands to his face and wiping his eyes.

"It was my birthday."

Elias was still, watching him for a moment, quiet.

"...Happy belated birthday," he said softly.

James looked up at Elias wide-eyed, with tears in his eyes, but he broke eye contact almost immediately. He curled up and brought his knees up to his chest as he started crying.

Elias sat watching him again, feeling sad for his friend. It was always hard to watch people he cared about be in distress.

"That would have been a pretty lousy gift to yourself," he said after a long pause. "I'm glad it was rejected. We wouldn't have met if it was accepted."

"And then Evaline would've found me dead," James sobbed.

"Is she what keeps you alive now?" Elias asked after a hesitation.

"Yes," James continued to sob.

Elias reached out to pat his shoulder again, lingering his hand there before dropping it.

"There's no shame in that. I think it's nice that you have someone you can rely on," he said. "But I know it's probably hard... like in times like these when she's not able to comfort you. Does anything else keep you alive?"

"Elliot," James said after a sniff. "If it wasn't for him, I'd be gone a long time ago."

"Anything else?" Elias asked.

"You guys," James said, though his voice cracked.

Elias was beginning to detect the pattern.

"Okay, so basically anything alive who you're close to," he said. "Is that it?"

"What else is there?" James asked in a whisper.

"Oh, I don't know. Lots of things," Elias said as he looked up at the sky in thought. "Hope can be anything. I think it helps knowing that you can live a long time and not all the years will be painful. And in those years, you can truly live. What's your ideal life like?"

James slowly lifted his head, sniffing again as he looked out off the balcony with a blank face, even though his eyes were red and puffy.

"I don't know if I've ever even dared to dream of anything different," he said. "Not anymore. I'm too afraid of the disappointment. It's easier not to dream."

"See, I've always thought the opposite," Elias said as he returned his gaze on him. "I think it's easier to dream about the life you could have. It can keep you going, even if you're still a long ways away from having it all. Who would you be disappointing if it didn't happen? Yourself?"

"Yes," James said quietly.

"Well, if you're wanting to kill yourself, you're already disappointed in yourself," he said with a shrug. "Why not dream a little?"

"Why would I want to pile on more disappointment?" James asked.

"If you're disappointed because the dream didn't happen, then I think your dream's too short-term," Elias countered. "It can always be something decades from now. Something far away to look forward to one day."

"What's your dream?" James asked softly.

Elias faltered, then laughed weakly, narrowing his eyes at the railing. Well, he walked right into his own trap.

"I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours," he mumbled.

James hesitated, wiping his eyes one more time.

"Okay," he said softly. "...You first?"

Elias offered a faint smile in return. "Sure. My dream has always been fairly simple. I tried to cram a lot of it before I went to the military, and I haven't really revisited it too much, so it still seems childish, but -- here you go."

He sighed, taking a deep breath.

"I've always wanted to live near all of my friends in a big house, and have a dog, and a cat. Not really a big family man but I did want to fall in love, be with someone who cares about me, and I care about them. I always had this vision of living near a lake -- like a real lake -- and being with everyone, and everyone laughs at my jokes. And then the dog splashes in and so does everyone else and -- yeah I'm getting ahead of myself here. But that's what dreams are for."

"I think that's a really nice dream," James said softly.

"I guess it's more attainable now than before," Elias said with a little smile. "I'll have to make a few changes, but... I've got time."

"Yeah," James echoed. "You've got time."

Elias nodded, clearing his throat. "So. What's yours?"

James sat up a little straighter, taking in a deep breath of his own.

"I guess..." he said slowly. "I've always had this picture in my head of Evaline and I living on a farm. She takes care of the garden and the flowers, I work the fields, and... if she wanted, I wouldn't mind children in the picture at some point. It doesn't really matter where. As long as it's safe."

"That does sound like a nice dream," Elias said, imagining it in his head.

"And if I was being very bold," James said slowy. "I might even picture it with my family. My mother... and my sister. And her husband, and my step-brother."

"Hey, even better," Elias said with a smile. "And they'll live near my lake house, right?"

James laughed weakly through his nose.

"Yeah," James said. "Of course. I'd want to live next to my friends. And Elliot and Sleepy would be there too, of course."

"Good," Elias said with a wider smile. "See, it's this kinds of stuff that's nice to think about. It can help bring you up even in the darkest days."

"I guess so," James said softly, pausing for a small moment. "I think I like actually being with my friends more than just imagining it though."

"I do too," Elias said with a softer smile. "Nothing beats the present when you're with people you care about."

"Yeah," James said, attempting a small smile. It looked a little forced, but when they made eye contact it grew a little more genuinely.

"So, the dream. Would the vision help give you another reason to live?" Elias asked more eagerly.

"I'll try," James said. "It does help at least to think about something else. Something... better."

"I think the general hope of better days is what can really drive you. Even though pain hurts... it's still temporary. And choosing to end your life isn't," Elias said, then paused for a moment. "Plus, the pain doesn't really go away, even if you do do it. It just gets transferred to the people who care about you."

"Yeah," James said quietly.

"On the bright side..." Elias lightly fistbumped his arm. "I'm not going anywhere soon, especially because I have no idea where to go but to follow you guys. So, if you ever have one of those days, you can always talk to me."

James nodded, and it was very subtle, but Elias noticed how he shrunk back a little bit at the fist-bump.

"The same goes to you too, you know," James said softly.

"Thanks. I appreciate it," Elias said with a little smile that already began to fade. "My sister knows, but only because of the checkup. It is hard to tell people sometimes, especially if they're going to worry."

"I think it helps to know," James said. "I mean, at least... with you. Just so I can be aware of it. Not in a... you know. 'Cause I care, is all."

"I know. And that's what friends are for, right?" Elias said, the smile returning.

James met Elias's eyes with a faint, sad smile and tired eyes. "Yeah," he agreed.

There was a small pause that passed as James's smile faded, and his eyes drifted to the side again.

"If it's not... I mean, if it's okay," James started to say quietly. "I don't-- I mean, I'm not-- so I don't normally really like hugs. Or touch in general. But if you-- like, what I'm trying to say is I don't know I -- I could use one. A hug. If that's okay."

That was the longest hug request he had ever heard, and Elias found himself grinning by the end of it.

"Sure. I like hugs," he said as he outstretched his arms, deciding to let James lean in instead since he said he didn't normally like hugs or touch in general. "Bring it in."

James nodded, keeping his eyes down as he reached his arms out, bringing his blanket with him, and wrapped them around Elias's back and leaning his head into Elias's shoulder as he wrapped his arms around James's shoulders. James wasn't very tall though, even when they were sitting, so his head ended up being more in Elias's chest. Elias reached a hand up to pat his head.

"You're like... really warm," Elias commented.

"It's the blanket," James said, his voice muffled.

"No, I think all the heat is packed dense in your body," Elias said instead.

"...What does that even mean?" James asked, still talking into Elias's shoulder.

Elias thought back to the time he weighed him, and he continued to distractedly pat his head.

"You know, with your muscles, weight, and body type, you're kind of dense," he idly commented, then paused for a moment. "But like, not the dumb kind of dense. The science kind of dense."

"Are you saying I'm heavy?" James asked.

"Uhhh," Elias drew out, squinting. "I mean... I guess you're a lot heavier than you look."

James was quiet for a moment.

"Maybe the stress adds extra weight," he joked.

"You should start eating more since you'll be destressing soon, then."

"I don't understand how that connects," James said, hugging a little tighter before slowly pulling away. "But I don't think I should just start eating a ton."

"Nah. Not a ton," Elias said as he also pulled away, offering a smile. "Just a little more. Small steps, you know?"

James glanced over at the glass beside him. There was still a little bit of the smoothie left, and he picked it up gingerly, taking a sip and looking at Elias.

"Nice," Elias said as the smile turned to a grin. "Okay, now how about you get some real food that's not liquid food or oats?"

"We can do that," James said, pushing himself to his feet with a sigh. "Do you think... at some point today, you could just watch Evaline while I try to take a nap?"

"J, I've been watching kids for the past few weeks. I think watching Evaline practically sleep is easy," he said as he stood up too. "Yeah. I can definitely do that."

James looked to Elias with a small, grateful smile.

"Thank you, Elias," he said softly. "For... everything."

"All I've done is listen and talk," Elias said with a little shrug and a smile. "But I'm glad to do so, friend."

"Me too."
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Carina says...

"Rise and shine, sleepyhead!" Mel sing-songed over Alistair, suddenly pulling back the makeshift flaps of the window so that the morning sun's rays shined through to land on his face.

Alistair groaned, annoyed like he always was any time he didn't wake up himself, which was becoming more common now. She figured he was getting burnt out from working and distracting himself too much, but he was the one who told her to wake him in case he didn't. Mel felt bad, but she did want to help in even the littlest, strangest ways.

"Whuddya need?" she asked, standing over him with her hands on her hips. "Fresh clothes? Hot food? For me to take away your blanket?"

"To leave," Alistair mumbled. "I'll be up in a few minutes."

"If you say so," she said with a shrug, bouncing out the door. She stood by the doorway for a moment, hesitating and looking over her shoulder. "You sure you don't need anything?"

Alistair poked a part of head head out to look at her with bleary eyes. "Can you give me real, non-illusion cigarettes?" he said in a monotone voice.

Mel scoffed, dismissing her hand in front of her. "That stuff is bad for you anyways." She paused for a moment again, eyeing him. "But maybe ask Hendrik?"

Alistair didn't respond, only turning around so his back faced her. Mel did feel bad that he was probably especially grumpy because he was going through minor withdrawals, but luckily for him, she had lots of patience and was willing to put up with his snark.

"I'll ask him later," Mel said as she closed the door, then hummed as she made her way to the kitchen. She almost knocked on the other two bedrooms, but the doors were already opened, so she figured they were awake.

When she entered the kitchen, she saw Elias slicing up some fruit. It looked like he prepared a bowl of granola and nuts as well.

"Oh hey, Elias!" Mel said with a smile, leaning against the counter. "You're up early."

Elias smiled back, finishing up the last slice before setting the knife aside. "Yeah, it's kind of hard to sleep with you telling everyone to get up," he joked.

At least, Mel thought he joked. It was harder to read him now but it was part of the charm, sometimes.

"Mmm. What can I say," she said with a grin and a shrug. "It's my one job."

"Yeah, you move like the sun. In sync and all." He paused, holding the two bowls and squinting ahead of him. "Except... you don't really power down at night either. So that's not really right."

"Awww. I'll take the sunny compliment anyways," Mel said with a bright smile, then featured at the bowls. "Are you taking that to Samiya and Elijah?"

Elias shook his head. "No, I was going to bring it to James, actually. I figure he's tired of the same breakfast all the time."

"Aw. That's really thoughtful of you."

And that was when Mel realized that she hadn't thought of that either. She did periodically drop off food and check up on James and Evaline, but it had been a while since she was there for... well... a while.

"I can take that to him instead," she said quickly before he could head to the door. "I don't mind. I plan on stopping by anyways."

"Oh... are you sure?" Elias asked as he glanced between her and the door.

Mel nodded. "Yeah, don't worry about it! I can take it to him."

"Well... okay. Thanks," he said with a little smile as he handed the bowls, which she happily took.

"I'll tell him it's from you, though," Mel said with a warmer smile, walking backwards towards the door.

Elias sat back down on the chair tossing an apple in the air to catch. "Thanks, Mel," he said a little softly.

And with that, Mel left the kitchen and walked towards James's room, straddling the two bowls in one arm so she could use her free hand to knock.

"Hey! It's me, Mel," she said as she cracked the door open a little bit. "Can I come in?"

"Oh, sure," James's voice replied from the other side. "Come in."

Mel opened the door all the way and entered the room, closing the door with a kick of her leg. She took a moment to glance around the room, noting how it hadn't really changed at all since he moved in, really. Evaline was laying on her bed like usual, and the room was sparsely decorated with supplies and essentials, including James's bedroll on the floor beside her bed.

Speaking of James, he was hovering over a small basin of water, quickly drying his face with a washcloth before he looked over at her.

"Did I come too early?" Mel asked with a chuckle, walking forward.

"It's fine," James said, briefly meeting her gaze with tired eyes before shoving the washcloth and basin aside as he got to his feet. "Are you going out again today?"

"Nah, I'm thinking of taking a break and help out with the stuff around here. You know, like cleaning and dusting so we don't breathe in mining fumes and cough up a lung," she said as she extended out the two bowls for him to take. "Got any room in your bottomless stomach?"

James let out a weak laugh as he took both bowls.

"I can make room," he said, glancing at a chair behind him and sitting down. "Are the vents really that dusty?"

Mel happily invited herself to sit across from him, crossing her legs as she found a comfortable position.

"I don't think it's anything to worry about, but Elise says it could be dangerous, so I'm just following doctor's advice," she said with a shrug. "Why, have you been sneezy lately?"

"Not really," James said. "I air out the room a lot with the door to the balcony."

He pointed at it with his spoon, and then started scooping up some food.

"You're lucky you got the balcony room. All the nice air and sun comes through here." She paused, gesturing at his bowl with her hand. "Elias made that for you, by the way. He wanted me to let you know."

She watched as James looked down at the bowl and a small, soft smile grew on his face.

"Oh," James said. "I'll have to tell him thank you when I see him."

Mel nodded, smiling herself since it felt like it has been a while since she had seen him smile.

"Yeah. He said he wanted to change up your breakfast since he noticed that you've mostly been eating the same thing. Thoughtful, right? He's definitely gotten a lot more thoughtful over the years," she said.

"I'm glad I get to see it," James said. "Though of course, I can't compare. Since I've only known him for less than a month, really."

"Now you know how I felt when you were in Terra," she said with an airy laugh. "Like, I knew who you were from the little Evaline told me, but also, not really. Gosh. That feels so long ago, now."

"At least four... five months ago?" James said before taking a big mouthful of food.

"Feels much longer than that," Mel mused. "I feel like you've been friends with us for years. Guess that's what happens when you travel and live out of necessity now, huh?"

"It's definitely brought us closer," James said with a small nod, talking through his chewing. "Though, with everything that's happened in the last few months... you're right. It feels a lot longer. Even the last month feels like a year."

Mel giggled. "Are you using your funny time powers to make time feel weird?"

"I don't even know how to do it on command," James said with a shrug. "But if it was just me going forward... wouldn't that only make it feel faster for me? It wouldn't really affect you guys, I don't think..."

Mel hummed, drumming her fingers along her pants. "If you could, would you want to move forward? Like, right now? Maybe to the part to when we have to move, or when Evaline wakes up?"

James at first looked confused at her questions, but at her last one, his eyes dropped down. It looked like he was trying to hide it, but she could still see the sadness on his face.

"That wouldn't seem very fair to the rest of you," he said.

Mel didn't want to push it, but she could read in between the lines enough to hear the hidden "yes." She wasn't disappointed or anything; she was just curious, especially since the answer peered into his state of being. Naturally, she was worried about him, and worried about Evaline.

"It's easy to think that, but it's not like we'd know. But also, I'm not really sure how it all works. How do I know I'm talking to present-day James now?" she said.

James furrowed his brows at that, and it looked like he was either deep in thought or deeply disturbed.

"I... I mean, I would think... at some point..."

Mel laughed lightly. "Hey, don't overthink it. I think you overthinking about yourself means you're you and not weird time-jumpy James."

James let out a weak laugh, but he didn't smile.

"Yeah, I guess so," he said as he took another bite of food.

Mel leaned back in her chair, examining the room and noticing that it looked dreary. She knew James was trying his best to take care of Evaline, and making the room feel homey was probably the least of his worries, but it could at least feel less sad since the only piece of furniture in this room were beds and chairs.

"Maybe we could spruce this place up a little. You know, in case Evaline wakes up tomorrow," she mused, eyeing the room and imagining what could go where. "Wouldn't it be nice to wake up in a room that has more than just beds and chairs?"

James looked around the room, then back at Mel.

"How?" James asked simply.

Mel gestured at the window, and with a deep focus and a twirl of her hand for demonstration, she decided to show up instead of just tell him. The boards on the windows transformed to fitted sheets to let the sunshine in, and plants she had seen around the mountainside decorated the room. She even made an illusory rock garden, and a flat boulder she passed a lot in the tunnels that could be made into a low table for him to store the supplies.

"Like that," she said with a bright smile as each item popped up. "I think the greenery from the plants make the place feel more at home. Or at least, more homey. Makes you feel less like you're stuck in a random abandoned mine."

James looked around the room, taking it all in.

"That's a lot of plants," he commented quietly.

Mel pursed her lips and squinted at some of the illusory plants, finding it ironic that the farmer says this is too many houseplants. But she waved some of them away, instead replacing them with various pretty rocks.

"You seem like a rock man. What about this instead? Doesn't need as much sunshine, so perfect for a cave," she sad.

"Seems more doable," James said. "Less upkeep."

"Hmm, I don't know," Mel said as she dropped her concentration and the vision disappeared. "Rocks need some love too. Maybe you should sing to them like your farmer neighbor does to her plants. Or maybe you could just sing to Evaline?"

James had a mouthful of food as she spoke, and at first she thought he was staring at her blankly because he was still chewing, but even after he swallowed, he didn't reply right away.

"So, rocks," he said. "Where would we get them from?"

Mel grinned and set both her feet flat on the floor, leaning in when she realized he changed the subject. "Do you sing to Evaline?" she teased. "If not, you should totally sing to her. Maybe right now to give it a try?"

"I already sang to her today," James said dismissively. "Sorry you missed it."

"Maybe she was asleep," she countered. "It's pretty early, you know."

"I don't like to have an audience," James said instead, taking another big bite of food.

"But James," Mel said with a fake complaining voice, still grinning. "You're going to have so many rock and plant friends soon. How are you going to cope? You should practice. I'll let you know if it's worth the rock and plant audience."

James gave Mel a flat look and then rolled his eyes. When he finished chewing he let out a small sigh.

"If you want to hear me sing... you could've just said that instead," James muttered.

"Can I hear you sing? Pleeeaaase?" Mel said as she cupped her own face, giving him a puppy dog face just to win him over in case he changed his mind.

James begrudgingly got to his feet and set the bowls down on his chair for the moment, and she watched as he walked over to the side-table and picked up his harmonica. Instead of sitting back down in his previous chair, he just pulled up a new one and sat, giving Mel one last look of unenthusiasm.

"Don't expect anything great," he said.

Mel sat at the edge of her seat in anticipation, eager to listen. "Shhhh. The show's starting," she said with a victorious smile.

James sat up a little straighter and started playing a melody on his harmonica.

Spoiler! :
dis song except sung in a much lower key lmao and imagine he just play harmonica for moosical parts in-between

in the old days you seemed to move so slowly
the light in your eyes it showed me
where i had to go
and by the winter your heart was already bitter
your room was a whole lot bigger
so i kept pushing you


you were so cautious 'cause I must have made you exhausted
but the fire in your eyes never stopped, it
paved our way back home
i still remember it all since that november
the fire's turning into embers
glowing like the moon


By the time James finished with the last note on his harmonica, Mel clapped vigorously with a grin on her face. It was a cute song, and it was probably his humble side speaking when he told her to not expect anything great, because she thought he had a lovely singing voice.

"I loved it!" she exclaimed, pausing to clap in a circular motion before she slowed to a stop. "Did you compose that yourself?"

James tucked his harmonica away in his pocket.

"Yes," he said. "Though it would sound better with another instrument accompaniment. A guitar, or piano."

Mel's smile lingered, glancing at Evaline, who probably also enjoyed listening to the little show even though James had likely already sang it to her before. But she knew Evaline didn't care about wanting new experiences and preferred things that were familiar to her that she already liked, so she'd probably be okay with listening to the same song over and over.

"Maybe one day Evaline would find a piano and accompany your song with it. Isn't that right, Evaline?" Mel said, then turned back to James, pointing at her with her thumb. "Yeah, she's probably already composing it in her head."

James looked over to Evaline, and his gaze lingered on her.

"We did get to play together," James said quietly. "Once. I don't know if we'll ever get a chance to again, though."

"Pffft," Mel said as she waved her hand in front of her dismissively. "Of course you will. It can't be that hard to find a piano."

"I don't know how common it is to come across a piano on earth," James said carefully. "Never mind ones that are actually tuned."

"You worry too much. You'll come across another one in the future. You'll see!" Mel said enthusiastically.

James offered Mel a very weak, small smile and he nodded. He turned his attention to the bowls of fruit and nuts and picked them up, plopping a slice of fruit into his mouth.

"So," James said through a chew. "Have you been, uh, doing alright? All things considered? I hope you're not working yourself too hard."

Mel couldn't help but giggle at the attempt of a conversation starter. Still, she knew that James was reaching out as a friend, and making sure she was okay.

"Nah, you'll hardly see me overworking myself. I'm fine. We got this! But what about you? Do you, like... you know." She gestured at Evaline. "Need a change of scenery? I know it can get stuffy being in the same room all day for weeks, even with your fancy balcony over there."

James shoved more food in his mouth as he turned to look at the door to the balcony, and then glanced back at Mel.

"I take it you really want to redecorate," James said.

Mel shrugged innocently. "I'm just saying, it would be nice to switch things up for you. Or, you know, come out. I'm sure Evaline would also encourage you to not always be by her side every minute of the day."

"Who will take care of her while I'm gone?" James asked a little too quickly, sounding defensive.

"Maybe Elias could. Oh, actually..." Mel pursed her lips. "Maybe Alistair could use a day off... Or, you know what, Rudy or Elise would fit better. I'm sure if you ask Rudy, he'd say yes without hesitation."

James furrowed his brows together tightly and stared down into his bowl.

"But I... I don't know if I'd be helpful," James said. "It's not like I have powers that can deter anyone from finding us, and I'm the one they're looking for most anyways."

"You don't need relevant powers to go outside, silly," Mel said with a little smile. "We can keep it on the low. Maybe pick some flowers to spruce up the room. Find some plants and rocks for you. And, hey, you're a man of wilderness, right? And you read those thick books about plants and stuff? Maybe you could help with foraging. You're plenty useful."

James poked at the fruit in his bowl with his finger.

"Maybe... just for a day," James said quietly.

"Yes!" she said with a sunny smile, lifting her arms up victoriously. "Just for a day. That's fine. What about... tomorrow?"

James glanced back at Evaline again, as if he was looking to her for a response (though by this point everyone knew she wasn't going to give one).

"That should be fine," he said, still speaking softly.

"If Evaline could speak right now, she'd say..." Mel paused to sit at the edge of her seat, huffing up her chest and speaking at a slightly lower voice as if to mimic Evaline. "She'd say, 'James, you need to live your life too. I'm not your sole source of happiness, remember? I want you to not be stuck in a room because of me. Go outside and skip around the fields with your best pal Mel.'"

By the end of Mel's Evaline impression, James looked like he was mildly uncomfortable. Either he was cringing and trying not to, or he didn't like her impression. It was impossible to read his mind.

"What?" Mel said with narrowed eyes, knowing he wasn't going to spit out the source of the discomfort.

James looked down into his bowl again with his brows deeply furrowed.

"I don't know," he muttered. "It's nothing."

Mel narrowed her eyes even more, inching closer to the edge of her seat as she slipped back into her Evaline impersonation. "'It's not nothing. Something's on your mind, and I can tell it's bothering you. Tell me. Tell meeeeee.'"

"Can you just... be you when you're talking to me instead?" James asked.

Mel leaned back on her chair, pausing for a moment. "Sure, that's fine. Does it bother you?"

"It's just weird when she's here, in the room, and..." James trailed off as his eyes drifted over to Evaline.

"And...?" she pried when he didn't finish his sentence.

"I don't want to assume what she's thinking," James said softly. "I know she can't say anything, but it just feels wrong to... to assume. Even if it's just joking."

"Oh," Mel said softly back, thinking for a bit before slipping back to her enthusiasm. "Nothing wrong with that. I think it's very considerate of you, and I'd assume that that's another reason why she likes you, but I shouldn't make that assumption, hm?"

James weakly laughed through his nose, but he didn't quite smile.

"I guess not," he said.

"But sometimes you do need to assume," she added. "If you make no assumptions, even if small, then progress would be slow. You know?"

James was quiet for a moment.

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

"For example, we can assume that Evaline wouldn't mind if you took a break from caretaking. We can also assume that this place would look a heckuva lot homier after you bring in more than just the bare necessities," Mel said with a smile.

James nodded in agreement, but he didn't quite meet her eyes.

"So... tomorrow, then," he said. "You'll come by again in the morning?"

Mel nodded enthusiastically. "Yep! Same time?"

"Sure," James said with another small smile.

Mel was about to stand up, but then paused, eyeing his hair and noting that it was getting long. Maybe a little too long.

"Also, can we assume that your hair is getting too shaggy?" she said with a smirk.

James narrowed his eyes at her.

"I'm growing it out on purpose," he said.

"You want to look shaggy on purpose?"

"No, I'm just trying to--" James started to say, but then sighed. He leaned back on his chair and looked to the side. "I mean, maybe it could use a trim, but I don't want it short again. I'm trying to get it long. Eventually. Give it a few more months."

Mel hummed, then shrugged. "Well, okay. I've heard you're practically blind. How about I trim your hair before we leave tomorrow? That way you'll have a fresh cut, and then we can get you fresher clothes that you can put on after you bathe in the mountain springs? With nice smelling soap?"

James stared at her for a moment with empty eyes as he slowly blinked.

"Sure," he said slowly, like he was over-enunciating each word. "We can do that."

"If I had the ingredients for bread, I'd bake you some," she mused, then smiled brightly. "But I guess I'll have to surprise you with some other breakfast for your endless pit of a stomach."

"I appreciate it, Mel," James said, this time sounding a little less sarcastic and a lot more genuine. "But you don't have to fuss over what I'll eat. I'm happy just to have food."

"Aha! Now you're assuming I'm fussing," Mel said teasingly. "I'm only looking out for my ol' pal James because I think he could eat some decent food. That's all there is to it, really."

"Ha-ha," James said, the sarcasm coming back strong. "Guess I was wrong."

"Maybe. But you're right that you could definitely use a change of scenery," Mel said while standing up, grinning since she had walked in the room with an opinion that she managed to imprint on to James as well. "But okay. I'll come back tomorrow morning. Are you going to be in here for the rest of the day? I think Elias and I are the only ones in today, along with Samiya. And his kid, obviously."

"Considering I'm almost always in here," James said. "Yes."

Mel shrugged. "Alright. Want us to stop by later?"

"I'd like that," James said with a nod.

Mel started to skip towards the door, but then looked over her shoulder. "Hey, sing more songs to Evaline so you can sing them for our trip tomorrow too, okay?"
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soundofmind says...

A week passed by, and things started to fall back into a routine.

Mel and James had gone out for a day, leaving Rudy and Elise behind to switch shifts for taking care of Evaline while James was gone. Mel let James through the tunnels, and after over a month of weaving in and out of them, she seemed to know every passageway like the back of her hand. She ended up leading them out through a small opening that twisted out of the side of the mountain onto a small deer-path. They were able to collect some fresh flowers, and James was fortunately able to forage a little, even though he didn't go out of his way to do so. They found some native fruits and roots in the ground when James recognized them.

Later that day they'd rested by a large mountain lake. It was quiet, and the beasts they saw around it were all far off, and it seemed that he water was the one commonplace that both predators and prey agreed not to antagonize one another. It was peaceful, and eventually they jumped into the water for a bath. When they dried off they grabbed a few rocks from around the water that had interesting colors and patterns to bring back to the caves.

They'd spent the rest of the day redecorating around Evaline and James's room. It took a little time hauling in some of the larger stones and rocks, but eventually they'd made a stone table to put all of the chairs around, and Mel helped to more artfully place some of their things on it, along with plants. She helped make the room look less like hospital room and more like a home.

The whole day, however, ended up being rather long, and by the end of it, James was quick to fall fast asleep. He didn't sleep very long (which was normal) but he did sleep deeply.

But that day with Mel was an outlier, as the rest of the week flew by as normal. James continued to take care of Evaline, he continued spending time in the mornings with Elliot and Sleepy, and Elias continued to stop by with friends. Sometimes it would be Elijah, or Mel, or Elise. One day it was Hendrik and Rudy who'd come in for James's now-weekly massage and chiropractic adjustment. Another day it was Alistair, who actually came in alone, looking like he was eager for a distraction. James could tell he was still struggling with some withdrawl symptoms. Apparently, everyone's hopes that Hendrik or the animals would have extra tobacco or be able to sniff some out fell through. It looked like Alistair had to cut off the addiction the hard way.

James felt for him, and of course, he enjoyed spending time with him, so he was happy he came by.

But the overall predictability of James's days was broken up one morning when he heard a knock at the door. Assuming it was Elise or Elias - who were usually the ones who'd bring him meals - he was quick to tell them to come in.

But instead of seeing one of the siblings, or even Mel or Alistair -- anyone expected, really -- it was Malkiel.

He... really hadn't seen Malkiel much at all in over a month. It felt like he'd only seen him in glimpses down the hall, always in passing. Malkiel never seemed to even acknowledge his existence. Not since James spilled everything about his past and what had happened when he and Evaline had gotten captured.

After James had told him to come in, Malkiel stood by the doorway, holding a little box and glancing around the room. He didn't seem eager to come in, and he was fidgeting with the box. He stood stiffly, like he didn't know what to do with himself, and as James observed him, he noted how Malkiel's hair had grown a little longer, and he looked a little more worn down than usual. When Malkiel's gaze met his, he cleared his throat.

"Just thought I'd finally stop by," he said, still standing by the doorway.

Malkiel had caught James at a conveniently still moment. James had only just finished changing Evaline's sheets. He'd taken her through her exercises and resituated her, and was also on his feet. At Malkiel's voice, Sleepy seemed to stir from her bed and she got to her feet, waddling over to hover by James's feet.

"It's good to see you," James said slowly.

There were no longer floating chair hovering by Evaline's bed. Not since he'd aquired a table. The only chair was the one he always sat in, and it was by the side-table where he kept his journal. He glanced back at the chair, then over to the table, and he waved his hand to encourage Malkiel further into the room.

"Would you like to sit?" James offered, gesturing to the chairs around the table, and then to the door to the balcony. "Or maybe step outside?"

Malkiel glanced at Evaline for a little too long, and then nodded, gesturing to the balcony.

"Sure. I wouldn't mind outside," he said as he finally closed the door behind him and moved away from the doorway.

James nodded and offered a weak, slightly forced smile as he stepped around Evaline's bed and made it to the door just before Malkiel, opening it for him. Malkiel stepped out onto the balcony and muttered a thanks.

Just before closing the door, James poked his head through the door, looking to Evaline.

"I'll just be out on the balcony for a bit," he said. "I'll be back."

He just wanted to explain to her what was going on since he knew she couldn't see what was going on. He was sure she could likely hear the door open and close and might put two-and-two together, but he knew that assurance and clarity was just helpful.

He shut the door behind him and when he looked back he noticed that Malkiel was still stiffly standing to the side, one hand in his pocket while his other hand held on to the box. His gaze rested on the scenery in front of them, but he seemed distracted and unfocused.

"Is everything alright?" James asked as he drifted towards the railing, keeping his eyes on Malkiel.

Malkiel looked at James, then to the box. He extended it out for him to take.

"Here, I got this for you," he said instead.

James stared at Malkiel for a moment, a little surprised, and after a second's hesitation, he gingerly reached out and took the box with a grateful nod. He lifted the lid off the box and tucked it underneath in his hands, and then peeked inside.

It was an interesting mix of items. On one side of the box, there was a turnip, and beside it there was a small cloth sack that looked like it was full of (presumably) turnip seeds. On the other side of the box, there was a grey knitted winter hat and a folded up scarf that matched. The yarn was soft to the touch, and it felt warm. James lifted the hat out of the box, spinning it around in his hand. It was really well-made.

"Elias told me you were looking for a winter hat, so I made you one. And a scarf," Malkiel said with his arms crossed, watching him.

James looked up at Malkiel, his eyes widening a little bit. He could feel his expression softening, and he didn't bother fighting it as the small, surprised smile came to him genuinely.

"That's very thoughtful of you," James said. "Thank you, Malkiel. I really appreciate this."

Before Malkiel could say much, James plopped the hat on his head and adjusted it with a little grin. He didn't realized how cold his ears were until he put the hat on.

Malkiel didn't react or answer right away, instead clearing his throat again and gesturing at the box with a nudge of his head.

"And I collected turnip seeds for you. It's a root vegetable which I noticed you grew in Terra, so it's something to do out here if you're into that," he said then paused to glance around. "You'll, uh... need dirt first."

"I'm sure I can find plenty of that outside," James said, looking down into the box with the same little grin. "It would be nice to grow something out here. I don't know how long it took you to find the seeds and make these, but thank you, again. I'll make use of these."

As he said so, he pulled the scarf out, and tossed it around his neck.

"...Yeah, hopefully you're a fan of turnips," Malkiel murmured as he stared at the scarf, still standing stiffly with his arms crossed.

James looked up at Malkiel, observing him again for a moment. He still seemed stiff and uncomfortable, like there was something he'd come to say, but wasn't saying it. James couldn't help but feel like the gifts were either to butter him up, or soften the blow. Malkiel didn't seem like he'd come with any sinister intent, though. He just seemed awkward, if anything.

"I do like turnips," James said. "I heard that you have some farming in your background as well? If you have time, maybe you could help me figure out a way to put some planters out here. The balcony's probably the best place for them to get sun without crawling all the way out of the mines."

Malkiel nodded, letting the words register slowly. "Yeah, maybe. I'm sure they--"

He abruptly stopped and released a deep sigh, uncrossing his arms and moving his hands in his pant pockets.

"Look, I'm sorry about how I treated you since you came here. I was right that you were lying, but it wasn't what I thought. You've done more than enough to prove you're trustworthy, so..." He paused to look off to the side. "You're trustworthy."

James stared at Malkiel, trying to process what sounded like an apology.

So, this was an apology gift.

"I'm... glad you think so," James said quietly.

"I've had a lot of time to think about this and obviously I suspected the wrong person. It was Tula and Katya all along. And, you know..."

Malkiel sighed, sounding tired.

"But it doesn't matter now. It's too late to do anything about it, and who knows what'll happen now," he continued, then paused to hold his stare at him. "Are we, uh... are we good?"

James was quiet for a moment as he met Malkiel's eyes.

"Yeah," he said. "We're good."

"Good," Malkiel said back after a hesitation before he looked off to the side over the view in front of them. "Good."

"Was that all?" James asked after a short pause, still watching Malkiel intently.

"And... yeah, I could help out with getting you some planters," Malkiel continued, his gaze still over the railing. "If you want."

"I'd like that," James said simply.

Malkiel paused to glance back at him, but didn't hold the eye contact. "But nothing's permanent. I'm assuming you don't plan on staying here that long, right?"

James slightly narrowed his eyes at Malkiel as he leaned up against the railing, propping up one arm over the side as he too turned to look out at the mountain.

"Here as in... this specific location? In the mines?" James asked, fishing for clarification.

"Yeah... unless you thought I was talking about something else?"

James flicked his eyes to Malkiel, and though he barely gave him more than a glance as he stood casually near the railing, it seemed like Malkiel knew the conclusions he might've jumped to. James wasn't sure if Malkiel had been referring to earth.

"No," James said. "I just wanted to clarify. I don't think any of us plan on staying here in the mines long-term. Not with people out there looking for us. Or... at least, me, in particular."

Malkiel didn't immediately respond, instead stepping forward to also lean against the railing, but with his back facing the mountains. He crossed his arms as he stared intently at the door in front of him.

"So, what are you going to do then?" he asked. "Stick around and run forever?"

James watched Malkiel out of the corner of his eyes.

"Maybe. I'm open to suggestions," he said casually. "Though, as long as Evaline is in this state, I don't plan on being in any position to abandon her. So she'd have to stay in the picture."

"And if she doesn't wake up? What then?" Malkiel continued to ask bluntly.

"You really don't cut corners, do you?" James asked with a quiet sigh, tapping his fingers against the railing.

Malkiel shrugged lightly, keeping his eyes on the door. "Maybe I'm a pessimist, but I think it's important to cover all your bases." He finally turned his head to look at him. "So, what are you going to do?"

James didn't shy away from Malkiel's gaze, but he didn't turn his head or his body to face him.

"If she never wakes up," James said emptily. "Then I'll have to find a secure location where Evaline and I could stay. Like I said, I don't plan on leaving her."

Before Malkiel could respond, though, James let out a long sigh and shifted his shoulders to turn towards him, and he leaned more heavily onto the rail.

"I've hardly seen you for over a month, Malkiel," James said. "I know you've been busy, and I don't hold any bitterness against you for how you've treated me in the past. But this has been hard on everyone. I understand where you're coming from, from a practical standpoint. But you could be a little more... sensitive, you know."

Malkiel turned away again after a few moments, leaning his back on the railing as he tilted his head up to look up at the sky, thinking.

"We're hardly friends, you know," he said. "And I'm not friends with Evaline, either. But I have been scouting some 'secure locations,' as you say. I think it would be best if we don't all congregate in one area, but it would also be best if you two are the most secure. So if there's anything I can offer, it would be that. Safety. Or at least, a semblance of it."

James took in a deep breath, letting his gaze fall to the ground. He'd seen the blurry outlines of the mountain view a hundred times already, and for him, there wasn't much to see. The balcony was just a little more private than the bedroom. That was all.

James glanced at the box still in his hands. At the turnip, and the little bag of seeds.

It wasn't like he wanted to be best friends with Malkiel, but he was tired of all of the lingering hostility between them. Tired of the push and pull. Tired of the tension that felt pointless, now.

"I'm sorry that you got dragged into all of this," James said quietly. "I know it ended up uprooting all of you from your former lives."

"You're not the only one who had a life you ran away from. All of us didn't have much of a life to run away from. The main difference now is that we're avoiding danger," he said, then paused. "But that's also not unfamiliar for most of us."

James nodded slowly.

"Have you found any locations in your scouting efforts that would be better in the long-term?" he asked.

"According to Elias, there's another safe zone over the mountains, but it's less stable and more unregulated than the coastal safe zone. That could work for me, Hendrik, Rudy, and anyone else who'd want to come along. But I'm under the impression that Mel, Alistair, Elise, Elias, and the kids are thinking of sticking with you. Is that true?"

James had to pause for a moment. Though he didn't show it on his face, he was a little surprised to hear it from Malkiel -- of all people -- first. While he'd suspected that some of them would possibly want to stick around and travel with him, no one had ever said it explicitly, in words, to his face. It didn't sound like they'd said it to Malkiel either, since Malkiel was likely only assuming, but if he was under that impression too...

"I can't speak for them," James said. "But that seems a safe assumption for now."

But the implications of them wanting to stay with him meant that they'd be choosing to share the burden of Evaline as well. As long as she was comatose, things were going to be a lot more complicated.

"It could be dangerous to travel in that big of a group," Malkiel continued, unmoving. "And if Evaline doesn't wake up, it would be best if everyone goes to the new safe zone. But is that really safe? You may be able to hide better in the ungoverned lands. Just something to think about."

James hummed softly.

"I have been thinking about it," James said quietly. "But I'll take that into consideration as well."

Malkiel sighed. "Well, me, Hendrik, and Rudy will be making a supply run soon. There's a village across the mountains. It'll take a couple weeks of travel. I'll see what other information I can find for you."

James watched Malkiel for a moment. He couldn't help but feel almost ridiculous, now, wearing the hat and scarf while the tension between him and Malkiel was still painfully present. It wasn't like he was going to take the hat off. He was cold, and it was a practical gift that genuinely helped. But there was something about it all that was just awkward.

"Thanks, Malkiel," he said quietly, almost ready to give up on talking to him entirely.

If Malkiel showed even a shred of interest in holding a conversation, maybe James wouldn't feel so exhausted. But it felt like he was pulling teeth. Malkiel wasn't interested in being friends, and James didn't want to force it.

There was only one thing he could think to do to mend the tension between them, and he could already hear Evaline and everyone else scolding him for it. But no one was there to stop him.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Fri Jul 16, 2021 7:07 am
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soundofmind says...

"You know," James said after a small pause. "I wasn't very kind to you either, before all of this. Especially at the New Years' party. That whole conversation should've been private, since it was just between us, and I've been rude and crass to you for no good reason. I'm sorry, too."

Malkiel watched him again, quietly thinking as he slowly dropped his gaze to the floor.

"I've based my entire profile of you on your first impression, which was very suspicious since you seemed to come from nowhere, Evaline randomly backed you up, and you were lying. It's different, knowing what I know now." He paused for a second. "I've been slow to trust people who aren't what they appear to be. I don't think 'alien from another world' crossed my mind to be an explanation. Sorry that you had to endure that."

"Luckily for you, I've endured far worse, and I'm quick to forgive, especially when the person offers a genuine apology," James said, lifting his hand to pat the side of his hat. "It helps that it came in a gift form."

He smiled slightly, and though it was partially in a teasing manner, it was genuine.

"Yeah. Lucky me," he said under his breath as he cleared his throat and looked up again. "Uh. Glad you like it."

"It's really warm," James commented, deciding to change the subject a little. "I didn't know you knew how to knit. When did you learn how?"

"My grandma taught me when I was a kid," Malkiel said steadily with a straight face. "It kind of stuck since then."

"It's a useful skill to have," James said. "I imagine it comes in handy in the winter months."

"And it's a winter month," Malkiel said as he gestured weakly out with one hand before crossing it again. "So, yeah. Convenient... and handy."

"Did you grow up close to your grandmother?" James asked, hoping he wasn't prying too much. He was just trying to make conversation.

Malkiel hesitated as he glanced at James again, but he didn't seem annoyed or closed-off. Just pleasantly surprised with where the conversation was going.

"Yeah, she mostly raised me since my parents were busy," he said. "Did, uh... you? Grow up with a grandma?"

"I actually never met my grandparents," James said with a small, weak smile. "My mother's parents lived very far away in a place called Lettera, and my father's parents died before I was born from a magical disease. But it would've been nice to meet them. If they were anything like my father, I'm sure they were very kind. What was your grandmother like?"

"From her stories, she was an independent and strong-willed farmer, but that's not how I know her," Malkiel said with a hint of a smile. "You'd think that grandparents would be softer to their child - or my father, in this case - but she was strict and naggy with him all the time. I guess something changes once you reach a certain age and see your child's child. I don't know. It's too bad that you didn't get to have that experience."

James couldn't help but smile softly at hearing Malkiel talk fondly of his grandmother. It was nice to hear Malkiel talk about someone he seemed to truly love and admire, even if it was just a distant childhood memory.

"I'm grateful for what I had," James said. "But it is a shame. So, with your grandmother, did you grow up on her farm? Did she have a working farm when you were young?"

Malkiel released an amused huff of air through his nose. "We had a garden, sure. And a farm - but it's not what you think. My family were what you called wind farmers. Basically, uh..."

He paused for a second, squinting his eyes and then uncrossing his arms for to spin his finger around in a circle.

"We helped power the community with these spinny blades. It's hard to explain, but it helped bring electricity to the sectors, basically. There was more wind at the rural areas."

James hummed, nodding as he tried to imagine it.

"Spinning blades," he muttered to himself as he looked out at the open mountain sky in thought. "Like a pinwheel?"

"Yeah," Malkiel said with the edges of his mouth turning to a smile. "Like a pinwheel."

"And the wind generated electricity?" James asked, looking over to Malkiel with innocent curiosity.

"Yeah. You know what that is, right?"

"More or less," James said. "I know what it does, and the bare bones of how it works," James said. "It's still fascinating, but it's beginning to lose some of its novelty. I didn't know wind could help power it, though. I think -- you're able to do that with the sun, too right? I read something about solar... something."

"With solar panels, sure. You just need to have the right materials to do either, and out here, they're pretty rare." Malkiel sighed. "Guess living out here isn't too different than what you're used to, though."

James laughed lightly through his nose.

"I guess not," he said. "It's even got all the monsters, too. Just different ones."

"It's almost like you've never left," Malkiel said in a monotone voice.

"Well..." James looked back at Malkiel, his voice growing quiet. "I wouldn't say that."

"What, do you miss it?" he asked.

James looked back out over the moutains, hardening his expression even though he knew anyone mildly observant would've caught the wistful look in his eyes. Or at least, that was as transparent as he felt. He was sure he was harder to read than that. At least, that's what he was always told.

"It's hard to say," he said. "I think it's easy to miss the familiarity of an environment you know well. One you grew up in. And I guess, at first, it felt like all of the immediate dangers I once had breathing down my neck were ripped away. But now I've just exchanged one unfortunate set of circumstances for another, and I hardly see how it's any different. If anything... it's worse. Because before, it was only ever my life I was putting at risk. At least, that was what I was aiming for."

He paused, knowing he was being a little cryptic and vague. He didn't know if it even helped to say it out loud.

"It's different when your friends end up getting caught in the crossfire, and then their lives are at risk too."

He pressed his lips together, not wanting to let Malkiel interject -- though he didn't look like he was eager to interrupt or correct him. Not like Mel or Elise were keen on doing.

"I know it's not my fault that I'm 'valuable' to the sectors because I'm an alien," James continued, knowing it was bizarre. His whole situation was bizarre. At this point, he might as well just say it like it was. "But if I'd known things would've ended up like this... it's not that I regret making any connections here. It really is quite the opposite. It just makes it more complicated. There's not much for me to return to back home, but there's so much here that I still don't understand. It's not as straightforward as 'I miss Nye.'"

The truth was, what he really missed was one thing on Nye, and that was his family. But he'd missed them for far longer than the time he'd spent on Earth.

"I should have expected that it's complicated," Malkiel said with a little sigh. "I understand a little bit. Not in the worldly sense, but more of the 'not being able to return where I come from' bit, if that makes sense. Like your life is better now, but it doesn't mean you don't miss some parts of what you had, I guess."

James looked to Malkiel with a brief, weak smile.

"Yeah," James said. "That about sums it up."

"But if you not understanding this world is what's holding you back..." Malkiel said with a glance up at him. "...Well, that comes with time. I'm sure you'll get the hang of it in a couple of years, max."

James briefly met Malkiel's eyes, but looked away again, staring down the mountain with his eyebrows furrowed.

Malkiel made it sound so simple. So easy.

"I suppose," James said weakly. It was difficult to find it within himself the motivation to try to pretend these days. He felt he was already wearing himself thin. It was too exhausting to keep up an impenatrable, placid mask.

"It's not like you even have a choice, though. You can't go back." Malkiel paused to glance at him again. "Can you?"

James turned slightly so that his chest was up against the railing, and he crossed his arms over the edge, putting his full weight on it. The rails were iron, and they dug into the sides of the mountain rock. Even through his layers of clothing, he could feel the faint cold. Of course, this cold was nothing compared to the harsh winters he'd lived through on Nye.

"I don't think I can," he said quietly. "Not without..."

He paused, forcing himself not to glance back at the door.

"I don't know how," he said. "And if I did, well... I don't know if I'd even be able to send anyone back but myself. I don't know if I could ever come back here. I don't know anything, really. So, no. I can't."

"I don't think anyone on Earth can understand the whole situation of going back and forth between the two worlds and why it's happening," Malkiel said. "So, you're not alone in not understanding that."

"I don't know if I really want to full understand," James said. "But this does feel different. Different than the situation with Evaline, anyway. When she was on Nye. At least, with the little poem we had, it seemed like it gave us a way out..."

He sighed, having to stop himself there. He still hadn't told anyone else about the second note. Only he and Evaline knew, and it felt wrong to bring that up with Malkiel of all people.

"Yeah, seems a little unfair for you to wake up here without any hint why or how to get back," Malkiel said lowly. "You really had no choice."

James took in a deep breath.

"Yeah," he said faintly. "But at least... some good came of it."

"Meeting Evaline again?" Malkiel asked slowly.

James flicked his eyes over to Malkiel.

"That," James said just as slowly. "And... making friends."

"What about in Nye? Didn't you leave people behind there too?" Malkiel asked.

James laughed weakly, smiling down at the blurry mountainscape.

"Of course I did," he said sadly. "But anyone who'd care about me I left long ago, and I might as well be worlds away to them anyway. It's not like it'd make much of a difference. They all probably thought me dead long ago. Maybe some of them still hope for the best, but I hope they don't."

Because he knew what it was like to keep hoping for the impossible. At some point, you just had to learn to move on. He wanted his friends and his family to be able to move on without him.

It was better that way, even if it hurt.

"It's too bad that you can't say goodbye or get some kind of closure," Malkiel said.

"I haven't had that privelige for most of my life," James said. "You get used to it."

"At least you got closure with Evaline," Malkiel offered.

James had to bite back a bitter smile. Yes, he'd gotten closure. Yes, they'd even gotten back together. But they hadn't made it out of that cell without consequence. Evaline wasn't okay, and as each day passed, he had to come to terms with the fact more and more that she might never wake up from the prison of her mind.

"Yeah," he said weakly. He couldn't even think of what else to say to that.

A small silence followed, and James could tangibly feel both of them anxiously grasping for something to say to break it. He did so first.

"So... you farmed wind," James said. "Did you ever do any traditional farming then? You mentioned a garden?"

"Oh... yeah," Malkiel said with a side glance. "We had a family garden, sure, but it wasn't as big as some of the neighboring farms. I had friends who had family farms, though. So I guess I've learned a thing or two from various places."

"Was I being too presumptuos in asking help for the, uh...?" James paused, looking down into the box at the bag of seeds.

"Oh, no," Malkiel said with a weak laugh. Even so, that was the first time James heard anything resembling a laugh from him. "Not at all. I can help with that. You're probably the expert since you've had your own farm, though."

"Expert may be a little generous," James said. "But when it comes to growing things, I do have experience. Though, aside from my time in Terra, that was mostly limited to my childhood. I'm surprised I retained so much of it, honestly."

"So you've also learned from childhood," Malkiel said with a nod. "Seems we have that in common."

"It was rather nice," James said with a small shrug. "Growing up on a farm. It was a little isolated, but calm. Quiet."

"Yeah, it's peaceful. You know everyone around and have plenty of space and nature. You don't find that in cities," Malkiel said.

"When did you move away from the country?" James asked.

"About a decade ago now," he said with a long sigh. "The rural areas are always the most neglected despite providing a lot of the resources to the sectors. I left thinking I could help change things, but I was young and naive." He looked over at James. "What about you?"

James lifted one of his hands to his chin, resting it in his palm as he continued to lean on the rail. He too, sighed, but softly.

"Close to seventeen years, now," he said quietly.

It felt like an eternity away, and yet, some of the memories were just as vivid as if they were only a year or two ago.

"Do you regret leaving?" Malkiel asked.

James huffed lightly through his nose.

It was almost funny, knowing how little Malkiel really knew about him. It wasn't like he knew what he was really asking, and he probably didn't want to hear the full story anyway.

"Yes," he said. "Do you?"

"I do too," Malkiel said with a sigh. "A place like Terra would be nice, but it's not the same."

"Yeah," James agreed softly. "It's not the same."

Another silence fell, and although it felt more comfortable, it still felt awkward and tense.

"Nice hat, by the way," Malkiel randomly dead-panned.

James stared at Malkiel for a second.

"Thanks," James said, fighting back a small smile. "I got it from a friend."

Malkiel was quiet for a moment, staring at James for few seconds before looking away again.

"Your friend has good taste," he commented casually.

James stopped fighting the smile and let it come to his face.

"Yeah," James said. "I think he does."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

Doors are for people with no imagination.
— Skulduggery Pleasant