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The Outlands



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Wed Aug 15, 2018 1:35 am
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sherlockhson says...



Rosaleen Streinberg
cowritten with @soundofmind and @Lael


Rose stared at Kaia, her poker face not giving even a hint to the worry she felt. If Kaia spilled her guts about their previous meeting... Well everyone would probably instantly believe her after the rough time she'd been giving James. Her eyes eventually darted to James wondering what his answer would be to her request. If he were smart it'd be a no.

James looked surprised for a moment before his eyebrows lowered deep in thought. "You... want to join us?" he asked in disbelief, looking around at the others. "Did - did something change?"

Kaia looked him in the eyes with a grim face and nodded. "I've come to terms with ... the truth. I have no love for Blackfield, after what he did. Honestly."

James was silent for a moment, and Brett spoke up before he could.

"And how do we know this isn't some kind of trick just so you can run off with James again?" Brett asked.

Rose turned to glare at Brett. "Why wouldn't she wait till we're asleep if she wanted to take James?"

Brett returned the sharp look. "I don't know! I mean, forgive me for being a little suspicious after what happened last time," he shot back.

"Look, I know you don't have a reason to trust me, nor can I prove my honesty." Kaia glanced around at all of them, stopping a second longer on Rosaleen. "You're right to be suspicious. My name is Kaia Nesbitt, and I was King Blackfield's personal assassin. And I did sneak up on you all at night, once."

Rose tensed up, and slowly looked over to Kaia at the mention of that night, she could feel herself start to sweat knowing that her secret could be out at any moment. "You did, did you?" Was all she could think to say as she intensely glared at her.

"Yes, I did," replied Kaia, staring intensely at her.

There was an awkward pause as the two maintained eye contact, until Ari cleared his throat.

"But uh, now ya wanna be like, our friend or somethin'? You ain't gonna hurt us or turn us in?"

Rose let out a sigh and tried to relax again. "The big guy has a point, just why do you wanna join this band of misfits all of a sudden anyways?" She asked with a level of honest curiosity.

"Well, Rosaleen, my old friend and former colleague James here told me some very upsetting information. King Blackfield killed my parents so he could raise me up to be a good little assassin who would do his bidding." Kaia's expression grew more serious. Her fists clenched, the only sign of any internal emotional strain. "Does that satisfy you?"

Rose let out another sigh and broke eye contact with Kaia, not expecting that of all things to be her reasoning. "Sorry." She barely muttered.

"Well that's good enough reason to cut ties and loyalties with Blackfield," Brett said with his arms folded. "...Sorry though, yeah that's..." Brett's sentence hung in the air as he looked over to Ari, whose face wore genuine shock and sympathy. Adina pat Ari on the arm.

"Can she stay?" Ari asked, looking over at James with big eyes.

James looked up at Ari, then glanced at Rose. "I trust Kaia enough to let her stay if she wants. So yes."

"Are you sure?" Brett asked skeptically, only to receive a look of disbelief from Ari. "I mean, if you're okay with it-"

"I am," James interrupted.

Brett raised his brows and nodded. "Okay."

The look on Kaia's face changed to come close to relief. "Thank you," she said, and her shoulders lowered a little, as if a weight had come off them.

"You're welcome," James said, motioning with his hand for her to come closer and join them. "We were just setting up camp for the night, so, let's get settled."

Kaia nodded. "All right." She stepped forward, then stopped. "Oh, yes, a perk of having me in your group: I have medical skills. That is, if anyone gets hurt."

"Oh, awesome!" Ari replied cheerfully.

A smile tugged at Kaia's mouth. "I think you and I will get along well," she commented softly.

"Yeah, it's all fun and games till you eat something out of his sock..." Rose muttered to herself.

And with that they all went about preparing food, setting up camp and introducing themselves to Kaia. All except Rose, who kept to herself. No one seemed to care though since that was just what she did. Even Adina left her side to get to know Kaia who was being welcomed very warmly by Ari.

Her worry slowly ate at her and stopped her from sleeping, so she took the first night watch. As everyone settled into sleep, she couldn't help but wonder if Kaia would keep their secret or if she'd told someone or even hinted at it already? Did she already tell James but he'd been saving it as a trump card when he finally got sick of her comments? She sat and wondered what her future with the group would hold. The last time she made a bad choice like this, people she cared about died. Her gaze fell on Adina.

I won't let anyone else get hurt cause of my mistakes... Not again.
  





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Featherstone says...



KNOCKOUT
Ardeshir
cowritten with @soundofmind


The fire pit crackled in the darkness, the titian-gold light dancing across the bent trees and casting eerie shadows under the moonlit sky. Ardeshir's gaze wandered up towards the branches that blocked out the stars and he felt a sigh escape his lips. It seemed to be the only thing that stayed the same day after day, year after year. The stars didn't change even when everything else did. They didn't comment or judge or do anything, either, they just...watched. An infinite, unfathomable existence that was far beyond their comprehension.

Sometimes, it seemed that was all he had of home. He tried to pick out Ali's favorite constellation. He wasn't really sure if it was a real one or just one his elder brother had made up, but he'd simply named it "the sea lion."

"They're a bit like you, Ari," he remembered his brother saying. "They're a big and ungainly but they're also great pals, and they're real good at fishin'." That conversation had devolved a bit into mindless wrestling if he recalled properly - there was never a compliment shared between brothers that didn't end with some roughhousing.

"-an't get in without the documents!" Rosaleen was saying, her annoyed voice jerking him out of his reverie.

"It's possible that we could find an opening on the border, but there are checkpoints at the city gates. So Rose is right. It'd be unavoidable," James agreed, voice calm in comparison to Rose's annoyance.

"Do we have to go through the cities though?" Adina asked.

"If we want to see water, then yes," Brett answered.

"I'm sure we could figure out a way to get official papers, it's just a matter of finding someone legitimate," James replied. "And trustworthy."

Legitimate and trustworthy. Official papers. "You've never met a better thief than me, kiddo - I can be anyone, anything, anyhow, anywhere." Lynx's voice rang through his mind. Words spoken so long ago but that now, more than ever, seemed relevant. Where had he even been from....?

"In the Outlands?" Rose scoffed. "Yeah, sounds easy enough. Let me just find the latest scammer and ask 'em to rip us off and get us caught at the border! Ha! And imagine someone trying to write up papers for me!" She flipped her purple hair over her shoulders. "As if this isn't a dead giveaway!"

"You could always dye it," Kaia said cooly, only to receive a heated glare from Rose.

Ari coughed to get the attention of the others, knowing that he probably wouldn't be taken seriously and that if he didn't start talking quickly, Rosaleen would likely make another snide comment about chocolate coming out of his boot. Which, he still didn't understand...the chocolate was perfectly fine, wasn't it?

"Uh...we need papers, right? Like, official ones 'n all? That ain't real, uh...like, forged, right?" he clarified.

James looked over to Ari as the others fell silent. "Yes. That's correct."

A smile grew across his face. "That's a piece of sushi! I know a guy!"

Kaia and James exchanged glances and Rosaleen raised her eyebrows skeptically.

"You know a guy," Rose repeated.

"Yeah!" he bobbed his head in affirmation. "He's called Lynx, 'n he said that if I ever needed somethin' he'd totally help! Somethin' about debt, I think..."

"He owes you?" Adina asked helpfully.

Ardeshir nodded again. "Yeah, he's the reason that people want me dead 'n all 'cause I helped 'im but t' do it I had t' be like a traitor 'n no 'un liked me after that," he explained. "But he mostly works 'ere, in the Outlands, 'n he's actually real close!"

"Oh, that's good!" Adina said with a small smile, looking over to James for confirmation.

"How close?" James asked.

"Uh...like, ya know that city, at the port? He actually lives right outside o' there. So, if we could be gettin' t' him w' out bein' caught 'r nothin', he could make us papers."

James looked thoughtfully down in this lap, as if trying to figure out something. Brett spoke in the meanttime.

"How long do you think it'd take him to get them to us?"

"Um...I mean, he's good, 'n real quick, but I ain't knowin' nothin' 'bout forgin' so dunno how long it usually takes. But he'll work real hard!"

Brett nodded, and James looked up.

"Worse comes to worse we can camp out around where he's at until he's finished. But if we get moving tomorrow, we should get there in about a week," James said.

"If we don't run into any trouble," Kaia qualified.

"He's real good at keepin' 'is head down," Ari says. "'n we can trust 'im. If we do, 'e'll 'elp us, I'm sure."

--<>--


Exactly eight and a half days later, the group found themselves camping out in the forest near a dilapidated road filled with potholes. It'd been decided that Ardeshir should go to find Lynx, but since being alone was probably not the best idea, he'd best be sent along with James - the one most suited to not biting his head off and still keeping him from doing anything particularly stupid.

That was how the two of them found themselves wandering down an unkempt dirt road in the heat, dust, and dirt for what would likely be a few hours. If James had it his way, it would've been in silence, but someone of Ari's extroversion couldn't handle that kind of quiet for a long period of time. Thus, after about five minutes, he decided to break it - and what better way to break the ice than to pass out food?

Without warning, the man stopped in the middle of the road, knelt down, and produced a stickers bar from his boot, snapping it in half and offering James one side of it with a grin.

"Ah..." James looked at the bar with hesitation, but eventually took it. "You... really should consider using your pockets."

"I can't, there's too many rocks 'n things in 'em, 'n one has got a hole anyways," he explains. "That's how I lost my big sparkly one. But things never fall outta me boot!"

"You... you collect rocks?"

"Yeah!" Ari beamed, digging through his pockets and producing a handful of them before rummaging through his pack and finding a small bag. "I got one from every place!" He pulled out a small, smooth brown one. "This 'un is from home, 'n this 'un -" here he pulls out a bluish, glass-like stone "- Ali gave to me. 'n then I got 'un from the gryphon's nests 'n I got 'un from -"

"Yes that's very nice," James said, putting a hand over Ari's, and slowly guiding Ari's hand back to his pocket. "I'm sure it's nice to have keepsakes for all of the places you've visited."

"Most of 'em end up gettin' eaten by somethin', actually, I think I just ended up keepin' fun ones. 'n the 'un Ali gave me," he replied, plopping the small pouch back in is bag.

"Ah," James said with a nod. "Your brother."

His face fell a little and he nodded mutely, pausing for a few moments before saying anything but forcing a smile anyways. "He found it playin' w' the dolphins! They're real fun, like lil' kiddos but they ain't got legs 'r nothin'. Real cute, them. There were those black 'uns w' the white sides, 'n they always followed 'im everywhere, really liked 'im bunches!"

James grinned, but it slowly faded. "It's... it's okay you know. To miss him."

Ari glanced down with a shrug, uncharacteristically despondent. "What's the point 'o dwellin' on the past if t'e future's better?"

James looked ahead, putting his hands in his pockets. "...Because it hurts just as much to forget the people that matter than to remember how much they meant to us. Since they're a part of what made us. That, or something about honoring their memory, and how they live on in their loved ones. But that reason didn't really work for me."

He was silent for a few moments, fighting back tears for the first time in a long time. "I...I don' think he'd be happy 'bout me now, 'specially 'cause 'e made me who I am," he said softly, not meeting James' eyes.

James looked up at Ari briefly with a kindness not normally present in his eyes. But then he looked ahead, watching where they were going. "I... I know I never knew your brother, and I can't speak for him. But... from me. I think you, of all the outlaws I've met, are one of the most pure of heart, and unarguably the most selfless with your resources, your strength, and your time. I know... it may not mean much, me only having known you for a small fraction of your life, but I'd think that anyone who really knew you, and cared about you, would be proud of how far you've come. The world isn't always just to those who pursue justice, and isn't always kind to the kind. Just because you ended up on the other side of the law, doesn't mean you're any less worthy of being celebrated or... proud of." He paused, giving Ari a little pat on the back.

"And for what it's worth... I'm proud of you."

Ari sniffed and hastily wiped away the few stray tears, frustrated that he couldn't hold them back. He was an outlaw whose life was in jeapordy every day and yet he couldn't even keep himself from crying? And in front of James of all people?

And yet, his words struck home. He'd been pushed away by everyone he loved - friends and family and comrades - just for following his conscience and breaking a code that had no heart, and ever since that moment when he made up his mind at fifteen years old to help Lynx he'd forefeited everything he'd ever worked for. And that included all he had left of his brother. It was that realization that truly destroyed him. The thought of Alix's disapproval and disappointment had always hurt him, and now that he was dead, and now that Ari had no one else, it only made it that much more painful.

Or...did he? He looked up from the ground, finally meeting James' gaze. He couldn't hide the tears anymore - they ran freely down his cheeks, leaving streaks in the dust.

"I..." he stopped, unsure for a moment, then continued. "Yer a lot like 'im, ya know."

A hint of a smile crossed James's face. He rested a hand on Ari's shoulder. "The greatest compliment I'll ever recieve."

He smiled at him, taking a shaky breath. "I'm sure glad we all ended up in t' same cell 'n all, 'n that ya didn' punch me 'r nothin' when we met, 'cause now I ain't sure where I'd be w' out y'all. 'specially you."

The smile fought more at James's lips and he patted Ari's shoulder as he shook his head. "I'd certainly be worse off as well."

"HEY! HEY YOU!" a voice yelled from behind them. Ardeshir frowned and turned to see who was being addressed. "Yes, you!" the figure said, racing towards them. He was breathing hard and his face was covered by a wild black beard and bushy brows over pale, blue-green eyes. "Ardeshir Ellonhav? Is that really you?"

His eyes widened and his tear-streaked face broke into a glowing grin. "Ain't none other that got this fine build!" he laughed. "I'm glad yer still alive 'n all! How's Bel? 'n Elise 'n Leon?"

"Ah, well, last I saw alive and well, thanks to you," he replied with a smile under his bushy beard before turning his attention over to James. "Who's this?"

"James, this is Lynx, Lynx, James. He's t' one that can 'elp us, 'n he's who taught me that law ain't spellin' out what's good 'r what's bad. Lyn, James 'n me 'n some others were caught by bounty hunters 'n we all escaped together, 'n we've been travellin' since! We wanna get t' t'at port town down t' way but we ain't got the papers."

The thief laughted heartily. "Ah, consider it done, Ari, my boy! I'll have those done for you by the day after tomorrow, I promise! Have y'all got a roof for tonight?"

"We don't, but there are more of us. Six of us total," James informed him.

He considered this, doing some mental math. "Well, I've got space, 'n since I need to see y'all for the documents anyways, how 'bout we go 'n find yer friends 'n we can get y'all settled? I'm sure a roof and a warm meal will do you good. You look like you've been travellin' a darn long time."

James nodded agreeably. "I'm sure the others would enjoy that very much," he replied. "We can walk you back to them. We didn't set up too far out from the town."

"Wonderful, wonderful!" he clapped his hands together and threw an arm around Ari's shoulder - which was a bit awkward, considering the fact that Ari was nearly seven feet tall and Lyn was under six. "Now, you've got to tell me what you've been up to, lad! I thought I'd seen the last o' ya!"
"All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost."

~ J.R.R Tolkien
  





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Wolfical says...



Brett Crawford
cowritten with @sherlockhson
and with @soundofmind a little bit


Brett found himself in interesting company, which lacked the goofy kindness of Ari as well as the reassuring leadership of James. While he was watching Adina—who was getting better and better every day—practice her magic with a stone, he felt that he should be the one to strike up a conversation, since Adina was always quiet, Rose always sulky, and Kaia a newcomer, but he didn't know what to say. So, he started them off with the weather.

"I'm in the mood to go fishing, but it's so hot and dusty, I bet the lakes and rivers are all dried up."

"I saw a tortoise earlier," Adina said, tossing up the stone. "Maybe we could cook one of those."

"I've never tried tortoise," Brett said, "but I have tried turtle. Tasted like a leathery chicken wrapped up in seaweed."

"A tortoise would certainly be easy to catch," Kaia said dryly.

Rose looked up for a moment, about to join the conversation with a snarky comment, but quickly decided against it with a glance at Kaia, she let out a small sigh and continued her sulking.

"I prefer fast food myself," Brett said. "Any of you see a rabbit, just holler."

Ursuku the kitten, who was playing with an old bone, bored of it and decided that Adina's stone was much more interesting. "Hey!" Adina laughed when the kitten pounced and swatted the stone out of the air.

Here discovering a possible conversation point, Brett looked over at Kaia. "Did you ever hear about how they found this little fellow?" he asked her.

Kaia shook her head.

"Well, it just happened to be the day we were separated from James, and when you had your perfect-timing appearance. Rose and I—" He glanced at Rose, who visibly bristled. "—were gone then, having the time of our lives, so... Adina?" Brett was happy to pass over the conversation to Adina, whom he knew would be more than happy to relate the details of how they found their beloved kitten.

As Adina told the story with said kitten in her lap, Rose got to her feet. "Sorry to interrupt, but we'll need firewood soon, I'll go grab some." Biting back any sarcastic comments she wanted to make she excused herself and headed off to be away from the conversation.

Brett watched her go, cocking an eyebrow. It was still early in the afternoon, and hot and dusty as he had said. The very thought of adding a fire to the mix made him sweat. They had quite some time before darkness fell and any sort of chill was in the air, so naturally he assumed that Rose wasn't offering to do chores out of the goodness of her heart, but because she wanted to have no part of this conversation. But they were only talking about the cat, so why?

He saw Kaia glance back at where Rose disappeared, and she had a funny look on her face: somewhat amused, somewhat curious. Brett was itching to find out if there was something amiss between her and Rose and this conversation, but he didn't know how to approach it, and anyway Adina was still talking. And if someone got Adina to talk, they'd be heartless to interrupt her.

It didn't take Rose long to return, as most of her hunt for firewood was spent sulking and wasting time. When she returned to the group she tossed a single piece of firewood into the middle of camp. "There, someone else can find the rest."

"Real helpful," Kaia said sarcastically. "Thanks."

Rose stared at Kaia a while, a slightly awkward expression on her face as she held back the normal sass she would have given anyone else in the group for replying to her like that; a few moments passed before she grunted and returned to where she was sitting before, continuing to toss glances at Kaia.

Brett's eyes narrowed. Evidently, Adina was seated in such a way that she was oblivious to the gunfight of glances going on between the other two women, for she contentedly petted Ursuku and continued talking.

"And here he is today," she said, picking the kitten up. "Isn't he the cutest thing you've ever seen?"

Brett was eyeing Rose and Kaia, but he gave an affirmative grunt. "Sure is."

What was going on between those two? Brett thought back to when Rose originally decided to go hunt for her one stick of firewood. Adina had just started talking about the day they found the cat, and just before that...

Suddenly he was onto something. He remembered that when he had mentioned, indirectly, the failed mission at Diamond's mansion, Rose had looked very uncomfortable. At that moment, he had interpreted it as nothing but Rose being her usual sulky self, never excited to enter a conversation, much less one about the time she caused him to get a bunch of glass shards stuck in his palm—he was still salty about that. But now, he wondered if there was something more to that. More to her never successfully finding the "papers."

What did Kaia have to do with all this? What were all these awkward glances about? Kaia did happen to appear on the scene very conveniently that same day...

Kaia was more directly facing Brett, so he shot her a suspicious look, and held it until she finally looked over at him instead of at Rose. He glared at her, then cocked an eyebrow. She only looked at him and shrugged slightly. Then they both glared at Rose.

Rose quickly took note of the two of them now staring at her, and quickly glancing between them, she could feel the tension rising. Thinking quick she tried to take on one of her usual sarcastic expressions. "You two can glare all you want but I'm not getting more firewood!"

Adina looked up, surprised. "That's alright, Rose," she said with her small voice.

Rose gave Adina a weak smile as she relaxed slightly, glad for her response. "Thank you. See, can't y'all be more like Adina?"

Annoyed that Adina had stopped petting him, Ursuku climbed out of her lap and stretched lazily. Scanning the others, he seemed to be searching for the next best lap candidate, and at last settled on none other than Rose.

Rose flinched as the cat got comfy in her lap. She stared down awkwardly at the feline and tensed up again. "Of all the laps available..." Rose mumbled to herself as she even more awkwardly glanced at Adina, not knowing what to do with the cat.

Adina stared at Rose with bright, excitement-filled eyes as Ursuku chose Rose. She met Rose's eyes and made a gesture with her hands, petting the air. "He wants pets," she said with a little smile.

Rose frowned and looked down at the cat again, not wanting to make the moment anymore awkward so she slowly reached down and started petting Ursuku. It was very awkward and she was ready to pull her hand back the moment he swiped at her, but everything seemed fine...yay?

Meanwhile, Brett pushed aside his amusement to dwell on the mystery at hand. He didn't think Rose and Kaia had any sort of history together, but what did he know? Thinking back on the day at Diamond's mansion, where Kaia had appeared so coincidentally and Rose had acted so uncharacteristically strange, he wondered if maybe, just maybe, the two women had been working together. Here he faced a dead end, because for the life of him he couldn't think of a reason why they would do such a thing, or how the failed (and ultimately dangerous) mission helped one or the other in some way.

Brett decided he'd just ask the women outright what was going on. "Kaia. Rose." His eyes shifted back and forth between them both. "What the heck is—"

They were interrupted by the return of James, Ari, and who Brett presumed was Ari's old acquaintance, Lynx.

"Ursuku's sittin' on Rose's lap!" Ari exclaimed. "Would ya look a' that!"

Rose let out a small sigh of relief but still squinted at Ari. "Yes, everyone look! You all know how much I love attention."

There was a pause as James stepped forward, looking at Rose with a slow blink. "... Sorry to cut your bonding with the resident cat short, but Ari's friend Lynx has offered us a place to stay for the night, so..." he looked back at Lynx and Ari. "Let's get going, shall we?"
John 14:27:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.
I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled
and do not be afraid.
  





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Lael says...



Kaia Nesbitt
cowritten with @sherlockhson


After Lynx led them to their temporary shelter and the group settled in, Kaia sat down to clean her pistol. It had been a while since she'd used it (and thank goodness she hadn't used it on James or his friends), so she figured it needed a minor polishing. As she pulled out her gun and a cleaning cloth, a shadow fell over her. She glanced up. "Rosaleen."

"Just what are you playing at here?" Rosaleen's typical mean attitude finally came back into full swing with no one else in ear shot as she stared at Kaia.

Kaia met her eyes evenly. "You're scared, aren't you?" She began rubbing the cloth over the barrel of the gun. "What if they find out?"

Rose kept her glare going but couldn't hide the slight break in expression when she mentioned if the group found out about their previous meeting. "Are you just here to torture me or something then?"

"I'm here to torture you? No, you already know why I'm here. Why, having a guilty conscience now?" Kaia knew that she indeed held this fragile truth in her hands, but she wasn't sure what to do with it . . . yet.

"What about you? you were the one that agreed to it in the first place!" Rose scowled. "And can you blame me? We both know he 's a danger to the group... We'd have so many people on our tail if people found out who he was!"

"He's no more dangerous to the group than I am," replied Kaia. "But he's been very careful for these past few years. At least I see he has a sense of loyalty to the group, even if none of you could trust each other at first."

"And just how long will his loyalty last? What's stopping him from ditching us the moment his secrets out? Same to you and your loyalty, you were pretty quick to leave your old life behind." Rose glanced down at Kaia's pistol for a moment.

Kaia stood slowly, her grip tightening on the handle. Her eyes flashed. "I give my loyalty to those I believe deserve it. Turns out Blackfield didn't deserve my service, so I chose not to follow his bidding anymore. Would you be loyal to someone who killed your parents and ripped a life of happiness away from you?" She shook her head. "And James wouldn't be abandoning you all if his secrets came out. He would leave you to protect you, so people wouldn't be after this group. I know that."

Roses expression relaxed just slightly as she could relate to the feeling of having something like that taken away from you, and as much as she hated ot admit it James did seem to super goody two shoes hero type to do something like that. "So what, you're loyal to James now and you think we're just gonna storm blackfields castle or somethin'?"

Kaia gave her a look. "I'm still figuring that out, but yes, I'd like to take that tyrant down sometime soon. With or without James."

"And how do you plan on doing that one? I know you're an assassin, but I don't think you were his only assassin." Her expression changed to mild curiousity.

"No, I wasn't his only assassin," Kaia let out a long breath. "A powerful, scheming ruler like him wouldn't rely on just one agent. And as I said, I haven't figured everything out yet, but if worst comes to worst, I don't think dying's so bad if Blackfield can be brought to justice for it."

Rose chuckled, "You know dying before you can see the justice through is a pretty terrible revenge plan... And just how much do you know about these other assassins?"

"I know enough about them," replied Kaia, a hint of a smile curling at her lips. She sighed. "Anyways, what about you? You aren't going to try to sell James or anyone else out again, are you?"

"Depends, are you willing to run off with him again?" Rose let out a sarcastic laugh. "I don't exactly know many assassins you know."

Kaia ignored the statement about other assassins. "The only 'running off' with James I would do is with his consent." Her words sunk into her head, and she let out an awkward chuckle as her ears grew hot. "Uh, not like that. What I meant is that I am not going to be kidnapping him or any of the group. Not even you."

"That's too bad, I was getting tired of having to look at his mustahce." Roses expression suddenly turned serious again as she stared at Kaia, "But just know this, any revenge plans you might have, keep Adina out of it."

Kaia raised an eyebrow. "So you do care about someone here. But don't worry, this is my problem alone. I wouldn't force anyone to help me."

"Surprise surprise, the heartless one has a heart! You can go ahead and tell everyone, they won't believe you." Rose rolled her eyes.

"Tell everyone about how you . . ." Kaia smirked. "Look, Rosaleen, as much as you may not believe it, I understand your position. After all, I've done worse things in my life. I won't tell if you don't try to harm anyone here. Agreed?"

"Agreed... But if I get pranked again I make no promises." Rose scowled again at the memory.

Kaia holstered her gun and held out her hand.

Rose stared for a moment before reaching out and shaking Kaia's hand.
In God I Trust

"as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death."
Philippians 1:20
  





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soundofmind says...



Tiberius James Hemming
cowritten with @Featherstone


James held the warm bowl in his hands as he sat on a stool by the fireplace.

It had started raining again. The sound of pounding of raindrops hitting the roof of the cabin served as white noise filling the background as chatter from Ari and Lynx flowed out from the small kitchen. Kaia had retreated to the sheltered porch, and Rose seemed to disappear somewhere, while Brett and Adina made light conversation at the table.

Brett had made a few attempts at roping James into joining them, but he stayed where he was. He couldn't hear much of their conversation apart from when Brett's voice rose above the sound of the rain (which wasn't very often), so he enjoyed the relative silence of sitting alone.

He held the steamy bowl up closer to his face, letting the warmth from the soup warm his cheeks and nose. It wasn't very cold, even with the rain, but it was a small, comforting sensation, and he briefly closed his eyes to enjoy it.

And if he focused on it enough, things were quiet, and his thoughts began to settle.

As much as he tried to convince himself that they were all trying to help each other, he knew that all of them, save Ari and Adina, held their bonds loosely. They would only stay together as long as they held common interests, and at the moment, their main concern was safety, which made being a group ideal (at least, for most of them). He wasn't sure how long that would last. Their personal 'goals' weren't much of anything they could immediately help with, and James wasn't going to recruit them for his cause.

He stirred his soup around with a spoon as it cooled, thinking about what kept him with the group.

Mostly, two faces came to mind. Adina and Ari. Then Brett's a little more delayed.

He would never say it out loud, but he was surprised by how quickly he'd grown attached to them - or frustrated, rather, with himself for letting himself even have those ties. The kind that was going to be painful to break because they were with genuine, kind-hearted people who actually cared. He was dreading the inevitable. But then there was Kaia and ...

He stopped stirring his soup and looked into the fire.

Kaia was a reminder of his past.

He knew he could never really escape it, and that his days were numbered one way or another. But more than any bounty hunter, hers was a face he knew when he was Tiberius; when he was a different person, not just in name, but in almost every other way. The person he had become was not the person Kaia knew back at the palace. Tiberius might've willingly - without question, even - rushed off to the kingdom with her to assassinate Blackfield. But after years of running and years of thought, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do.

He just knew it wasn't that.

-<>-


Ardeshir was an early-rising fellow, as he had been from a young age. He, of course, had to be, just like any self-respecting fisherman. This did mean, however, that he was the first one awake and the only one outside as Lynx came jogging back before the first rooster crowed, waving the papers around and grinning jovially.

Unfortunately, Ari was also quite an excitable individual, and upon Lynx's return burst into his trademark, goofy smile, and in this moment of great celebration decided that it would be a wonderful thing to share with his friends.

His friends thought otherwise when he came bursting through the door, waving the papers above his head. His kitten came racing in between his legs, hyper due to the early hour and because of the sheer enthusiasm of his master, and thus, the entire band of outlaws was awakened to Ari's joyful cry of "WE GOT 'EM!" and his kitten bouncing between their blankets and mats and batting at James' mustache.

James immediately slapped the cat off of his face and onto the floor beside him before he even registered what Ari was saying.

"NOOOOOOOO!" the islander cried as his feline was roughly tossed to the ground, and he lunged forward to grab up the kitten and save him from the bear that was James in the early morning, the papers falling across the sleepers as he abandoned them.

James spat and rubbed his face and stache where the cat had been pawing and looked groggily up at Ari as he stood with the early morning light shining behind him. The cat was now in Ari's hands, being hugged up to his face as he coddled it like a baby. Brett and Rose began to groan as they woke up with the light shining on their faces, and Rose sent Ari a sharp glare from her spot on the floor.

"What the hell Ari?" she growled, to which his sole response was a beaming smile.

"WE GOT THEM PAPERS! WE'RE ALL CLEAR T' BE GOIN' T' THE CITY 'N ALL, ROSALEEN!" he grinned. Rose visibly flinched at his shouting and dove her face back under her blanket.

Brett picked up a piece of paper that had fluttered down beside him, squinting at it with tired eyes. A smile slowly grew on his half-awake face and he grinned up at Ari.

"Finally," he said.

Adina rubbed her eyes and yawned. "Does this mean we're leaving?"

James sat up with eyes still half-open, running a hand through his hair. "Yes," he replied simply. With mage hunters potentially on their tail, they had to keep moving anyway. As he got up he stretched, feeling something loudly crack into place in his back.

"Thank you Lynx for hosting us," he said with a lack of emotion. "And helping us."

Lynx shrugged in the doorway. "Anything for Ari."

Ardeshir let his kitten up onto his shoulder and turned towards the thief standing in the doorway, grabbing the much smaller, wiry man and nearly suffocating him with a bear hug. "Thanks ya so much, Lynx, I tell ya, I missed ya!" he exclaimed as Lynx patted him on the back.

"Yer...welcome," he choked before Ari released him. "You're always welcome here. Any of you. Any friend of Ari's is a friend of mine."

"Thank you," Adina said meekly.

As James looked around the room, finally standing and mostly awake, he saw Kaia sitting in the corner of the room, already looking ready to go. She raised her brows slightly at Lynx's comment before her face fell into its usual neutral expression.

He had a feeling her response was similar to his. That being that: Ari was wonderful, but it was a great leap to assume all of the company he kept was wholly trustworthy. Their eyes both briefly fell on Rose, whose head remained hidden under her blanket. But to be polite, James echoed Adina's thanks.

"Yes," he said simply. "Thank you."
  





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Wolfical says...



Brett Crawford
cowritten with @soundofmind, @sherlockhson, and @Featherstone


Their papers tucked securely in each person's belt, pocket, or boot, the group set out again with newfound energy, anxious to be on their way to the city. They cut slightly to the north so that they could skirt by the edge of town, for they knew it might be quite some time before they saw civilization again.

Even from afar, the sounds from town bled into the late morning air, mixing with the singing of birds and the jingling of the horses' bits. As they drew closer, Brett thought he could hear a woodwind playing a familiar song, and even though his ears only snatched a fraction of the notes, his mind was immediately transported to the Western Isles, on a salty, splintered doc, the sun beating down and flies buzzing around tossed-away fish parts on the shore. An old man had paused from his work to entertain the other fisherman with a sad little tune. The men began singing along, solemnly, and Brett began humming along to the memory.

Dancing on the waters
Far out beneath the sea
My moonlight mermaid darling
Is calling out to me

But if I were to take her
Above the silver shores
Her gills might faint with longing
And if the rains would pour

I'd take her to my lodging
Craft her a sea of glass
A home inside my home where she
No longer has to gasp

But take a deep sea fish out of
Her dark and chilling home
You'll find her soul will wither
And she will die alone

The moment you don't see her
She takes one mourning breath
She loved you with her whole heart
But to love you meant her death


It had been a long time since Brett had thought of this song, and as he reached the last stanza his heart cracked. Like the deep sea fish, he mourned for his home. For the sea, for his brother. The outlands was the glass bowl, and he was desperate to escape. He touched the letter in his pocket to reassure himself as they plunged back into the forest, towards a new beginning, towards the sea.

-<>-


Their first stop was mid-afternoon, where they found a river to water the horses. James and Ari went off to see if they could catch any prey, while the others stayed behind to keep guard.

Once James and Ari were out of earshot, Brett turned to Rose, Adina, and Kaia, a mischievous grin on his face. "I have a proposition."

"Oh?" Rose said, her arms crossed.

"All of us, well, uh—" He glanced at Kaia. "Most of us have gone through a lot together. Escaping execution, fighting off griffins, et cetera. And I know that every single one of us has had a tough past. Otherwise we wouldn't be here."

"Is there a point you're getting to here?" Rose raised an eyebrow at him.

"Yes. I—"

"And is there a reason why you waited for James and Ari to leave before telling us?" Kaia asked.

"Yes! I was hoping more of you would have left, actually. But this will have to do." Brett clasped his hands together. "What I was getting at is that we've had a serious lacking of fun in our lives. And I think we ought to do something about that, especially because now we have something to celebrate."

"If this has anything to do with more things out of Ari's sock I'm out," Rose replied flatly.

Brett opened his mouth, then closed it. "Well, uh, actually..."

Rose scowled.

"I'll assign you to James, then. You and Adina. Kaia and I will deal with Ari's sock, if need be."

"You still haven't told us what you're planning to do," Kaia said, grimacing a bit from the mention of Ari's footwear.

"My apologies—I thought it was obvious. Tonight we'll find a way to prank James and Ari. Naturally, the best way to do so would be to rob them of their passes to the city. I have a plan that'll make it seem as though all of our letters simply disappeared."

"Pranks are childish," Kaia said, with her distaste at his suggestion palpable. "As is pretending to lose the paperwork."

Brett scoffed. "If pranks are childish, then children have it right. They understand the importance of fun."

"It's not fun if you give James a heart attack," Kaia retorted.

Rose gave Kaia a glance, "I kinda like the sounds of it if you put it that way. I'm in."

Brett's eyes widened in surprise. "I didn't have that argument in my arsenal, but okay. I'll take it." Looking at each of them, he rubbed his hands together in excitement. "Alright, listen up. Here's the plan..."

-<>-


"I can't believe you roped me into this," Kaia muttered.

Brett elbowed her playfully. "You'll enjoy it. Trust me."

"Yes!" Ari said, looking over his shoulder. "Fishin' is the funnest thing ever, 'n sometimes it can be real borin' but then ya get a shark!"

"Oh," Kaia said. "That's nice."

It was early evening, and James, Rose, and Adina were back at camp setting up a fire. When Ari, Brett, and Kaia reached the riverbank, Ari was barefoot before Brett even had to say anything. Brett glanced back at Kaia, grinning, as he and Ari waded into the water. She sighed and shook her head. Ari's boots and socks were at her feet, ready to be snooped. But to play it safe, Brett needed to get him further away.

"Say, Ari," Brett said. "Doesn't that bend in the river look like a good place to trap some fish?"

He blinked, considering this, then nodded with a huge smile. "Sure does, w' the way the currents go 'n all! Won't be seein' me comin' 'til I got 'em!"

"You go on downstream then, why don't you, and Kaia and I will usher them towards you, and let you know when a good one's coming."

"Ain't ya gonna be takin' off yer shoes, Kaia? Don' wanna get 'em wet. Me mamma always said t'at shoes 'n water ain't be goin' well together!"

Reluctantly, Kaia took off her shoes and plopped them next to Brett's and Ari's boots.

He beamed and gave her a thumbs up before bounding down the river with Ursuku beside him on the bank.

Keeping an eye on Ari, Brett waded closer to shore, where he could watch as Kaia bent down to pick through Ari's socks and boots. "Watch the water, Ari!" Brett called. "I see a big fish coming!"

"YEAH!" he yelled enthusiastically.

"Ew," Kaia said, pulling a stickers bar that had seen better days from Ari's boot.

"Oooh, I'll take that," Brett said, reaching out and pocketing it. "Might come in handy."

"You just plan on stealing his things?" Kaia asked, cooly.

"I don't think Ari even knows what he's got in his boots," Brett said, shrugging. "Don't worry."

Next, Kaia pulled out something that looked like it could also be food, but neither she nor Brett could be sure. Kaia wasn't enjoying herself, but Brett admired her bravery: reaching into the dark, mysterious caverns of Ari's boot was no insignificant task.

"Any papers in there?" Brett asked.

"I haven't found any yet, but here's a... crushed flower?"

Cupping his hands around his mouth, Brett yelled out to Ari that he'd seen another big fish, then he waded back to Kaia. "How about the other shoe?"

Kaia shook her head, then stopped suddenly, her arm elbow-deep in the boot. "Aha!"

"Yes!" Brett said, pumping a fist in the air.

Kaia extracted the piece of paper, which was very wrinkled and browned. As Brett watched her unfold it, he thought in the back of his mind that it looked quite old for a paper given to them that morning—well, that was the weathering power of Ari's foot.

"Oh," Kaia said, crestfallen. She turned the paper around to show it to Brett.

It was a drawing of a cat, perhaps Ursuku. Scrawled in the corner were the words "to Ali, from Ari."

"Oh indeed," Brett said, surprised, disappointed, and confused.

"All that for nothing, huh?" Kaia said, stuffing the cat drawing and the other Ari articles back into the boots and socks. "Where do you think it is?"

"I have no idea," he told her. "I hope he didn't actually lose it. Where else would he be keeping it?"

"Pockets?"

Brett squinted at Ari, who even at that distance had visible holes in his pockets. "I hope not."

Kaia knelt at the water to wash her hands. "I had lots of fun with this prank," she said dryly. "Thanks."

"I got a big 'un!" Ari bellowed from downstream, lifting a flopping fish above his head.

-<>-


Meanwhile, back at camp, Rose and Adina watched James, trying to decide their plan of attack.

"I hate to say it but this felt a lot more doable with Brett calling the shots," Rose said, glancing at Adina, hoping she had some amazing plan up her sleeve.

"I'm sure we'll think of something! Where do you think he's keeping the letter?" Adina eagerly responded.

"I assume it's that bit of paper hanging out of his right pocket. I mean, I could probably walk up and snatch it, but he'd know for sure." Rose scratched her head, almost ready to give up.

"That's a good idea! You do that, I'll uhm, think of something!" Adina said as she headed off towards James in a hurry since he could leave or move at any moment. Rose followed her with a start.

"H-hey James!" Adina called loudly to get his attention. "Check this out!"

He looked over at her curiously. Rose stood next to him with an equally as puzzled look on her face.

Adina fumbled around a moment before finding a small rock that she quickly threw in front of herself, using her magic as it flew through the air to slowly pull it back. With James distracted, Rose took this as her cue to quickly snatch the paper from James pocket. Of course she was no world class thief, so James seemed to notice something.

He was about to look over at Rose. Seeing this, Adina panicked.

"A-and one more thing!" she shouted, drawing James' attention quickly back to her as she threw the stone at him, her original plan to pull the stone back before it hit his face, but it stayed just a plan: with perfect comedic timing, the stone bounced off his head in reverse as it floated back to Adina, who had turned slightly red in the face.

Rose backed away from James, fighting back laughter as he let out a sigh, blinking slowly as he rubbed the spot the stone had struck him twice

"Yeah... Well done Adina." He looked over a Rose a moment, who was still fighting back a laugh. He rolled his eyes and walked off, continuing to gather firewood.

Rose walked over to Adina, finally getting her laughter in check as she gave Adina a pat on the shoulder. "Good thinkin', entertaining and distracting!"

Just then, Brett, Kaia, and Ari returned, carrying with them several fish but lacking unanimously happy faces. Ari was his usual delighted self, of course, but Brett on the other hand locked eyes with Rose and shook his head sadly.

So the master thief fails! Rose thought to herself as she smugly smirked at him.

Brett had already received enough sass of the cool, quiet kind from Kaia, so he was especially annoyed, but not surprised, to receive a smirk from Rose.

Rose's smirk only grew wider as Ari moved away from Kaia and Brett, and she pulled out the letter showing her success thanks to Adina's quick thinking, only to realize the letter felt fairly... thick. Inspecting it closely, she realized it was two letters; in her haste to pickpocket James she hadn't felt the difference. Her smirk grew even wider at Brett.

Ari's letter had been with James the whole time? Brett approached her and was flooded with relief at the sight of Ari's name on the second paper. "Good work!" he whispered, taking the papers and tucking them inside his coat with the others. "I'll be back! You know what to do."

Ari was off to the side, gutting the fish. "I heard something in the bushes," Brett told him. "I'm gonna go investigate."

"Alrighty!" Ari said. "You be keepin' yerself safe!"

"Will do," Brett said, grinning.

-<>-


As they were gathered around the fire, eating the freshly cooked fish, James paced quickly over to the others after spending quite some time by the horses. "The papers are missing," he said curtly.

Kaia patted her pockets. "Oh no!" she said. "I don't know where mine is either!"

"Uh oh..." Adina said. "Mine was here a minute ago, but now..."

Rose smirked, "Great everyone but me lost their—" Her smirk quickly faded as she felt around her pockets. "Right...Gone."

"Wha' happened?" Ari asked. "Ya don't have 'em anymore, James? Not mine either?"

James's face was set in stone. "No. I don't. Where's Brett?"

"He said 'e heard somethin' in th' bushes so 'e went after it," Ari said, his face creased in worry. "I shoulda gone along with 'em but I was busy guttin' th' fish!"

James closed his eyes and sighed. "Okay. Let's just calm down. I'm sure they're somewhere."

"HELLO DOWN THERE," a deep voice boomed from above, somewhere in the trees.

Adina gave a convincing cry of alarm, and sank to her knees.

"Adina?" Ari said, rushing to her side. "You alright?"

"The magic!" she cried. "I can feel the magic!"

"THAT'S RIGHT. I AM A VERY POWERFUL MAGE. I HAVE KIDNAPPED YOUR FRIEND, AS WELL AS YOUR PAPERS."

"Oh great, something else went wrong!" Rose muttered sarcastically.

James looked around at the others with a consistently straight look of unamusement. "Oh dear, however did you manage that," he said under his breath.

"He's got Brett!" Ari cried.

"Look, Ari, don't worry it's just—"

"IF THAT'S WHAT YOU CALL THIS VERY HANDSOME FELLOW I'M HOLDING CAPTIVE, THEN YES, I'VE GOT BRETT."

From above, a single paper came fluttering down. James walked up and picked it up off the ground. It was Brett's. He looked up into the trees, looking for the source of the disembodied voice.

"And you want our papers because...?"

"BECAUSE... BECAUSE YOU MUST CHOOSE BETWEEN BRETT AND THE LETTERS! I SHALL DESTROY ONE OR THE OTHER. IT IS UP TO YOU."

"I choose Brett," James said quickly.

"FANTASTIC DECISION. I WAS NOT LOOKING FORWARD TO ENDING THIS NOBLE LIFE. I WILL SEND HIM DOWN NOW."

James slow-blinked. "Wonderful."

"HE—HE'S ON HIS WAY."

From below, they could hear the sudden snapping of branches. Brett came into view suddenly, but instead of crawling down the tree, he was crashing through the trees and hurling towards the ground. The rest of the papers were spilling out from his open coat.

"AAAAAAAAAAA!"

"I've got ya!" Ari said, leaping into action with his arms outstretched. He caught Brett just in time.

"W-What the!?" Rose jumped back in surprise. "Do you have a death wish!? That wasn't part of the plan..."

As he was gently placed on his feet again by Ari, Brett's knees were shaking but, still running on adrenaline, he shouted up into the trees. "That was darn kind of you to throw me down like that! I could've been killed if it wasn't for my friend here!"

"Is that why he sent down the papers as well?" James asked, his voice monotone as he stared at Brett with a deadpan expression.

"Heck, you're right. The devil!" Brett shook a fist at the imaginary mage. He then looked over at James, and cracked a grin. "That was totally worth it."

"Yes, you should be very pleased with yourself," James continued to say flatly.

"Did I fool you, even for just a little bit?" Brett asked, leaving a tiny space in between his thumb and forefinger.

"Fool?" Ari asked. "Wha'd'ya mean? Where'd th' mage go?"

"It was some kind of joke," James explained in brief. "Brett was the 'mage.' And no. Your voice an octave lower is still your voice."

"Ahaha." Brett brushed back the curtain of black hair that had covered his eyes. "Thanks. Next time I'll know to go down two octaves."

James bent down, picking up the scattered papers into one hand as he made his way over to Brett. He looked Brett in the eyes, smirking ever so slightly as he put a hand on Brett's shoulder.

"Nice try though."

He might have almost just died performing a stupid prank, but right then Brett felt happier than he had in a long time.

"I'm hungry," he said.

James blinked, and the smirk disappeared. "...Ooookay."

But Ari came swiftly to answer, pulling out a stickers bar from his boot. "Here ya go!" he said, handing it to Brett.

Brett accepted the stickers bar, a very confused look on his face. He looked at Kaia, then back at the stickers bar in his palm. Digging into his own pocket, Brett took out the other stickers bar.

"Oh," Ari said. "Ya already 'ave 'un. D'ya want two?"
John 14:27:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.
I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled
and do not be afraid.
  





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sherlockhson says...



Rosaleen Streinberg
cowritten with @soundofmind


Pitch slithered through the shadows on light feet. After weeks of tracking, she'd finally gotten back on their trail. Relief washed over her when she finally caught a glimpse of them in the distance through the trees, and she slowed her pace. From what she could see, they were speaking freely and had remained in a group after their escape, which meant it was a waiting game until most of them were asleep for when she could jump in to capture Tiberius again.

After their mess of a defeat, she vowed never to work with other bounty hunters again. The outlaws should have never been put in the same cells, and should never have gotten a chance to talk. If she had it her way, she would've killed the ones who weren't wanted alive before the collectors got there. But in light of their successful escape, Pitch was determined to not let her time spent tracking down all of her targets turn into an entire waste. She still wanted her payday, and Tiberius had the largest amount of gold on his head.

It was a pain that he was wanted alive, but this time, she wouldn't have to split her prize. It would be hers. Then, maybe, she could finally retire.

Her fingers brushed over her bow in anticipation as she receded back into the forest in waiting. It was several hours before night fell, and all of the group was asleep but for the girl with the purple hair.

Silently, she prepared her needle-like arrow in the tree, dipping its tip in poison as she waited for the purple-haired girl to turn her back at just the right moment...

-<>-


Rose had again decided to take the first nightwatch shift, normally because she still didn't trust the rest of them, but tonight was different. She just wanted some time alone.
The recent prank her and the gang had pulled brought up a few happy memories for her.

A friend of her father had taken her in once she had to go into hiding, and he owned a shabby little bar on the outskirts of Ruddlan where he tried to care for all manner of outcasts and people in dire straits. There she met Abigail, a mage girl who had nowhere else to go as her family was taken years ago by mage hunters. She and Rose became fast friends and to pass the time took up pranking people at the bar, even each other sometimes.

Rose let out a sigh and smiled. "You'd have been laughing like mad at that prank wouldn't you Abby?" She said to herself as she looked up to the night sky. "You'd have really loved this group too I bet, especially Ari, that big oaf." Her expression quickly turned sad as she tried to push the memories back, as she knew they would quickly turn sour if she lingered on them.

She turned her attention to everyone sleeping not far from her, hoping none of them were actually awake to hear what she was saying, but they all looked to be fast asleep. She rested her head against the tree she was sitting against when one of them woke with a start.

James shot up with his eyes wide and his hand went to the back of his neck.

"F***!" he whispered harshly as he pulled what looked like some kind of needle out of his skin.

"Woah, woah, language, James. Jeesh." She shook her head and was about to go back to relaxing when she tried to look at what was wrong with him. "What, did a bug bite ya?"

James had gotten to his feet and opened his mouth to say something, but as soon as he did, a gloved hand came from behind and covered his mouth. From behind his shoulder, a plain white mask with red-slitted eyes peeked out at Rose from beneath their hood before they pulled James back with a forceful yank, causing him to lose his balance as his limbs slowly looked to go boneless.

Rose jumped to her feet, quickly sprinting over to the rest of the group, "Everyone wake up!" She shouted, kicking Brett in the side as she fumbled around, trying to make her way to James.

The group began stirring; Kaia, Brett, and Ari were the first to rise as they were already alarmed by James. Kaia looked around in a panic as James quickly faded into the shadows. She gave Rose a scathing look before bolting into the woods after James.
  





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Lael says...



Kaia Nesbitt

Rosaleen lied.

That possibility came as a whisper in Kaia's mind as she ran almost silently through the trees. Not far ahead, Pitch was dragging James as quickly as she could, undoubtedly trying to reach a getaway horse nearby.

The bounty hunter wouldn't be so lucky this time.

Kaia drew a thin blade about the size of her index finger and held it between her first three fingers, measuring the distance and aim as she continued to advance. She wouldn't hit James. She rarely missed.

She lifted the blade and narrowed her eyes in concentration. All she needed was to--

Pitch let out a hiss of pain as the metal dug into the flesh of her dominant arm and she dropped James, who let out a soft grunt as he hit the ground limply.

Kaia knew the substance Pitch used on her arrows. The effects wouldn't last forever, thankfully, but as long as James seemed fine now, her first priority was to take down Pitch. She quickly sized her up and figured that with how speedy the bounty hunter was, it would be best to defeat her hand-to-hand instead of using her swords, when reflexes and milliseconds of movement would make all the difference.

The other woman struggled to pull out Kaia's blade from her arm. After a glance at the bloody sliver, she said, "No toxins on this one, Nesbitt?"

"No," said Kaia. "I'd prefer to fight you as an equal."

"Isn't that cute." Pitch's eyes glittered from the mask. "Looks like I'll have to fight you for Tiberius. I know you wanted to catch him, but I'd prefer to receive the reward myself."

Ah, so Pitch hadn't figured things out yet. Perfect.

Kaia lunged at her, feeling a small thrill rush through her as she and Pitch began to strike and parry each other's blows. She realized she hadn't been in a real fight for a while; to be locked into the rhythm of a potentially deadly dance she was so used to was a familiar comfort. Punch, feint, kick, block, back two steps. Find an opening and exploit it.

Pitch would obviously favor her injured arm.

As Kaia landed a hard blow onto the wound, Pitch let out a muted noise. Although they were enemies, Kaia acknowledged how well her opponent withstood the pain. Now that they had been in battle for a couple of minutes, it dawned on Kaia that the rest of the group should have followed behind her and would be catching up at any moment.

Maybe she didn't have to fight alone.

That was, if they made it in time.

Suddenly, Kaia spotted the perfect opportunity and she pushed Pitch down to the ground, a dagger appearing in her hand and pressed against Pitch's neck. A thin, red line was beginning to form.

Looks like the gang hadn't made it in time after all.

To kill or not to kill? Pitch had threatened one of Kaia's only friends. She was a real danger. As for Rosaleen, only she knew what was really going on her end. But things had to stop here.

"Kaia." James' voice sounded weak and strained. "Don't."

Kaia glanced at his slumped figure out of the corner of her eye, not wanting to turn her head away from Pitch in case the bounty hunter retaliated.

"You want to let her go?" she replied, raising an eyebrow.

"You two sound like good friends all of a sudden," Pitch said.

"Quiet." Kaia pressed the dagger a little closer, before backing off to stand in front of James. She would have to pretend still, just in case Pitch had the bright idea to find someone from the Moonlight Kingdom. "Go on. I said that no one would stand in my way of getting Tiberius, but I guess he's feeling a little generous today about people like us. I could care less whether you're alive, so if you don't run now . . ." She twirled the blade once.

Pitch's glare was cold like ice and she turned tail and ran, just as the rest of the group burst through the trees.

Kaia relaxed slightly and said to James, "You'll be fine in a couple of hours. No side effects." She turned to the group. "Let's get him back to the camp. We'll have to be more vigilant tonight."

She met Rosaleen's eyes with a warning look. Had the girl really changed her ways?
In God I Trust

"as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death."
Philippians 1:20
  





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sherlockhson says...



Rosaleen Streinberg
cowritten with @soundomind


Rose's heart was racing as she cleared the treeline and watched events unfold. She was stunned by the sudden turn of events, but even more stunned that Kaia had just let Pitch go.

"What's wrong with you!?" She shouted at Kaia while everyone went to help James. "I thought you were an assassin!? Why did you let her go!"

"Cooler heads prevailed," Kaia responded as she looked towards James for a moment. "And I didn't see you running into the forest ahead of me."

"Cooler heads!? You mean drugged out heads! Look at him he can't even stand let alone tell you not to kill someone!"

"I can speak just fine, thank you," James said weakly from his spot on the ground before Ari propped him up so he could sit. "The drugs haven't clouded my judgment."

"Clearly it has!" Rose snarled at James. "She's just going to come back again! She knows the area we're in! What we look like! Everything! Have you ever actually looked at the bounty on your head!?"

James looked up at her. He did not look amused. "It seems I haven't," he replied with bitter sarcasm. "Please remind me again, because it's not as if-"

"Look. James. She has a point," Brett interrupted. "But even if she does come back, that's what having people keep watch is for."

As Brett spoke the last few words, his head slowly turned towards Rose. It wasn't subtle when he made eye contact with her, giving her an accusatory stare.

Rose looked between Brett and Kaia, quickly getting tired of their accusations. "I woke all of you up didn't I!? Not like I could have seen someone aiming at James from who knows how far away! And you!" She turned to Kaia. "We talked about this already! So stop looking at me like that!" She didn't care if anyone questioned what she meant, although she quickly realized she should, as it sounded fairly ominous. So it was predictable when Brett asked:

"Talked about what?"

But what she wasn't prepared for was the almost knowing look of suspicion that Brett was giving her.

"Does that really matter right now!? We have an assassin or bounty hunter or something on our trail!" She quickly tried to steer the conversation back to the immediate danger.

"But didn't the bounty hunter just run away?" Ari asked innocently in the midst of the tension, still holding James up.

"Yes. She did," Brett answered quickly, before turning back to Rose. "We have a moment to hear what Rose meant."

"And we don't know if or when she'll be back," she replied, trying to keep her cool and calm down again.

Brett was still staring her down. She took a few controlled breaths as the cool night air finally began to settle all around them. The campfire crackled quietly behind them and dimly lit their patch of forest through the filter of bushes and trees. She took a half step back as all eyes were on her, the regret of what she had said was welling up. In a single moment of frustration, things were going to go bad. She could feel it. The way Brett was pushing things, he had to know more than he let on. She turned to Adina, but even she had a puzzled look on her face, maybe even a hint of worry that Rose had done something wrong.

"What's going on, Rose?" Adina asked softly, putting a hand on Rose's shoulder.

Rose flinched away from her, putting even more space between her and the group. She had been through this all before. She knew how this would turn out, and Brett showed no signs of backing down.

"There was never any evidence in Diamond's mansion." She couldn't look anyone in the eye as she spoke. She didn't need to see the shock or disappointment on anyone's face as it dawned on them what she was saying. She heard a small gasp from Adina as the truth came out.

The silence hung in the air for a moment before Brett's voice broke it.

"I knew it!" He shouted triumphantly, clearly proud of his detective work.
  





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soundofmind says...



Tiberius James Hemming
cowritten with @sherlockhson


"There was never any evidence in Diamond's mansion."

James's blood ran cold as the truth dawned on him like an enveloping darkness.

He had been betrayed. Again.

Rosaleen had manufactured some elaborate set-up so Kaia could capture him at the right time and Rose could stay with the group without the others being any the wiser. Had they not come back for him, she probably would've remained with them until the group dissolved, as it probably would have, with her not having to face any consequences for her actions.

But she did come back, and then Kaia joined them. Suddenly days of awkward glances shared between Kaia and Rosaleen started to fall into place. Rose's cold expressions and Kaia's indifference were something he'd only brushed off as marks of their character, but if Rosaleen and Kaia had arranged some kind of deal for his capture before Kaia switched loyalties, then it was no wonder Rosaleen was so uncomfortable. So quiet. So quick to forget what happened at the mansion and divert any conversation from it.

Not only had she sold him out for her own benefit - of not getting caught, or getting some share in the money - but she'd kept it a secret from all of them and decided to remain among them, knowing the likelihood of the truth eventually rising to the surface. Had he been so dull to not notice? Did something happen, or was something said in his absence that caused Brett to come to the conclusion before him? Somehow, her deception had escaped his notice, and he found himself doubting every reluctant decision he'd made to trust himself with joining the group.

Why hadn't Kaia told him? Why hadn't Brett asked Rose earlier about his suspicions, before it came to this? Did his secrecy, though necessary, invite deception upon himself?

He clenched his jaw. He could feel Ari's steady breathing on his back as he leaned into Ari's chest and Ari held his shoulders. Desperately, he wished that he could walk, so he could walk away from Rosaleen, and away from all of the looks falling on her and himself. But all he could do was move enough of his face to speak. His mouth twitched in contempt, but he fought to keep it in a straight line.

"Ari," he spoke coolly and calmly as if the others weren't looking at him and waiting for a response. "Would you bring me back to the campfire please."

Ari took a moment to respond. James could feel him hesitate as he pulled away.

"I -" Ari started to say, before silencing himself and scooping an arm under James's legs.

James resented the fact that he couldn't move. It was the worst time to be reduced to a useless weight, and he was getting sick of poisons and drugs getting shot into his system. He was starting to miss the bounty hunters that tried to chop him into manageable pieces or just knock him out. As Ari lifted him up, he could see the looks on everyone's faces better.

Brett, looking pleased with himself. Kaia, like she knew all along, but was surprised Rose admitted it. Adina, as if she herself had been betrayed as well. And Rose... guilty and ashamed.

"So... did you sell James out to that bounty hunter too, or was that a one-time thing?" Brett asked. If he'd asked it in any other tone, it might've sounded obnoxious, but it was worse that the question was genuine. Because he could tell the others were thinking the same thing.

Rose shot him a scathing look. "I had nothing to do with tonight, I don't care if you believe me or not."

Brett backed away, lifting up his hands in a surrendering gesture. There were a few passing seconds of tense silence that felt like they dragged for minutes. James was thinking long on how to respond, but his heart was twisting within him.

"I believe you," he said sharply, voice low. "About tonight."

"Whatever." She replied dismissively as she looked towards the campfire, defaulting to her regular attitude since she clearly didn't know how to handle the current situation. But her response triggered something within him, and his blood began to boil.

"Whatever?" he repeated incredulously. "You sold me out to a bounty hunter to save your own hide, and all you have to say is whatever? Rosaleen." He paused briefly, gritting his teeth. Were he able-bodied he would've looked straight into her eyes. "I chose to give you the benefit of the doubt. I thought that - just maybe - some of your coarse attitudes were a mask, and that you actually cared about -" he stopped himself abruptly, breaking the thought. "You know what? No. You do. You care about Adina at least. But clearly, I don't belong here."

Adina's face flushed with a flurried mix of emotions at the mention of her name. "Wh-James no, of course you do," she retorted, her voice tight, obviously holding back a sob.

"That's a pretty quick leap thinking you don't belong just 'cause Rose was an-"

Kaia elbowed Brett in the side hard. He didn't finish his sentence and instead glared at Kaia.

James hissed through his teeth and closed his eyes. "Sorry," he said. (He wasn't sorry.) "Poor choice of words on my part. What I meant to say was: as soon as I'm able to walk on my own two feet, I'm out."

"You think I did it for my own sake?" Rose retorted. "Again do you fail to realize how much money is on your head? The king or whoever else wanted you sent a highly trained assassin after you to capture you!" She pointed to Kaia. "You're a danger to have around with any group! Everyone here would be safer without you here!"

James mustered up all of his strength to turn his head to Rose and glare at her. Heat rose to his face in lieu of anger.

"That's why I never wanted to stay with all of you in the first place!" he shouted, pausing for a brief second before lowering his voice again. "I'm not an imbecile! The only reason I stayed was clearly under my own foolish delusion that somehow I could do more help than harm, and since it's clear we all know that's a lie, then I will be gone as soon as I can-" he stopped, and lifted a weak, trembling arm to grab Ari's. "Just... please bring me over to the fire for now."

Ari only looked down at James and gave a small nod before leading the way back to the fire. The others trailed behind. The air between them felt tense, and James could even feel the discomfort in Ari's arms.

"You can't just leave," Brett finally said. "We'd probably fall apart without you."

James looked down, trying to hide his frown. Of course, they would try some kind of guilt trip.

"Even if you left I'd go with you," Kaia added. Her tone alone told him she was ignoring where Rosaleen would stand in the picture.

"I know how this is going to go, I've been through it before." Rose suddenly spoke up. "I'm not going to stick around here to be the black sheep." She gave Adina an apologetic look before she sighed and started walking away from the group without another word.

Ari stopped and turned. Adina reached out to Rose and started to follow. She looked back at James with pleading eyes, and then looked after Rose again.

"Wait, no. No! Rose, please-" she started, but Rose kept walking, without turning back. Adina stopped for a moment before running up to catch up to her. "You can't go alone," she said.

"'Dina?" Ari asked, his voice quiet. "Guys... guys, where are you going?"

Kaia looked on with a neutral expression as the two girls walked off into the forest. Rose's pace quickened the more Adina followed. It wasn't long before they disappeared into the dark.

It was Brett who looked conflicted and looked back at James. He could tell from his expression: Brett had expected him to do something to stop it. But there was nothing James could think to say to invite Rose back into the group, or into his life. All he could think to do was keep his face a stone wall so the dying anger wouldn't turn to tears. At least, not in front of them.

When James didn't respond to Brett's silent cry for direction, Brett made a choice. With a frustrated chuff, he ran off into the forest after Rose and Adina. But the three watching knew the only reason why he was following... was for Adina.

Rose was right. She would have been the black sheep. And though he hated that he felt it so strongly, he didn't want her to come back. At least, not while he was there. If he had his way, he would've been gone first, and he would've been the one to say goodbye.

And he would be the one to never come back.
  





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sherlockhson says...



ROUND FIVE
Rosaleen Streinberg
cowritten with @Wolfical
and @soundofmind a little bit


Rose hadn't bothered to ask either of them why they followed her, hoping they would eventually turn back to the safety of the group. But they didn't, they followed her til the dim light of the old campfire could no longer be seen. Eventually she settled for a small clearing to rest at and sat down against a tree. She didn't have to look around at the other two to know they took it as a sign that this is where they'd be sleeping for the moment, if they chose to stay with her anyways. She struggled for a while, battling what she figured was her own guilt and self loathing she couldn't even think of anything to say to Brett and Adina, and wasn't prepared to listen to anything they had to say. Old painful memories flooded her mind as she forced herself to sleep, trying her best to ignore the world around her.

Her sleep was restless, filled with images of her past she wished she could forget, but thankfully it didn't last long, as the light of the rising sun quickly woke her. For a second she had hoped all the drama of last night had been nothing but a dream, but seeing only Brett and Adina brought her back to reality.
She had hoped if they did get any rest it was better than hers, but now once again she had to figure out how to get them to leave before James and the others moved on.

She had done her best to bury her feelings from the previous night, but couldn't get away from the feeling of guilt that had taken hold of her. She finally stood, ready to address Brett and Adina.

"You two... Need to go back to the group." She said bluntly, not having the energy to be mean or rude to drive the point home.

"Not much of a group anymore," Brett said quietly, eyeing her coldly. "Is it?"

"Yeah because you couldn't keep your--" She started to say, intending to blame him for what happened last ngiht, but she knew it was her fault, there was no getting around it. "Yeah I messed it up okay? For me, but not you two. You two can still go back."

"We're not going back without you," Adina said, her voice small but sure.

Rose looked at Adina with a pained expression, the moment just reflecting her past more and more by the moment. "Look, Adina I appreciate what you're saying but... I know how this goes, I can't go back, and I won't have you follow me and get hurt just like..." Her voice trailed off as she lost herself to her memories again.

"Like who?" Adina asked.

Rose let out a sad sigh, and sat back down against a tree, she had a feeling neither Brett nor Adina would let her just brush this off. Everyone's got a sad story, maybe it was about time she told hers?

"Abigail. My best friend... My only friend after my father was murdered." Rose replied, her expression filled with guilt and grief as she recalled the memories.

"When my dad was killed, his best friend took me in. His name was Mikail, he ran an old run down bar that took in helpless people like me, people framed, mages, all sorts. He helped them all. I met Abby there, and we became fast friends, it was easy since neither of us could really roam Ruddlan safely. She was a wanted mage, and I was wanted for my fathers murder. Had a pretty big price on my head too." She paused to look up at them both, wondering if they had questions before she continued.

"She was the mage you knew before me?" Adina asked.

"Yeah." Rose replied, hoping it would better explain why she was so protective of her. "And it's my fault she's..." Her voice trailed off again, before she cleared her throat and start to continue. "I wasn't allowed to leave the bar, but that didn't stop me from sneaking out. And while I was out and about I met a woman. Her name was Aaliyah. She knew me from my posters, and even though I was hiding my hair, she convinced me she was a mage too with a cheap magic trick. She made me think she wanted to help other mages in the city. I didn't trust her fully but kept her in mind."

Rose shifted around uncomfortably, not used to telling this story to anyone.

"My sneaking out caught up with me, and two bounty hunters showed up at the bar to try and take me. But Mikail stopped them. All he had was his sword against their guns... He didn't survive his wounds." She paused again, this time remembering how painful that day was, knowing that Mikail's death was her fault. "Everyone rightfully blames me for his death, but Abigail stood up for me, and they blame her just as much for siding with me. So we ran. I told Abby to go find a woman named Aaliyah, told her where she'd be this time of day, they were both mages right? They'd help each other! So I thought anyways..." Her face sunk as she reached the end of her story. "Aaliyah was a mage hunter, looking for wanted mages in Ruddlan. When I finally got to where I told Abby to go...Abby was...She was..." She couldn't continue, all she could remember was Abigail's lifeless body.

Brett stared at the ground awkwardly. Adina hugged her knees to her chest.

"I'm really sorry, Rose," she whispered. "That's terrible."

Rose fought back her tears as she tried to speak. "I know what I did to James was wrong but... He's not going to forgive me, no one will."

Brett watched as Adina went over to Rose and wrapped her arms around her. He didn't know how he was supposed to feel about the whole situation anymore: mad at Rose? Sad for Rose? Mad at himself for splitting open this can of worms to begin with?

"Look," Brett said, clasping his hands together. "That's not true. He's had enough time to steam off by now. We're going back, all three of us, and you're gonna apologize."

"You really think that's going to work? I don't think he'd believe it coming from me."

Brett sighed, rubbing his throbbing forehead. He hadn't slept well the previous night, and now he had a headache. "One word, Rose. It wouldn't hurt."

Rose thought about it for a bit, slowly regaining her composure from telling her lifes story. "I don't think-- Alright... I'll try it."

Brett sat up, blinking in surprise. "Come again?"

"I said, I'll try it your way. And when it doesn't work I'll tell you I told you so."

Brett's eyes narrowed. "For some reason, I'm sensing insincerity. What are you really going to say to him?"

"Uhhh..." Rose thought about it a moment.

"Okay, here. Pretend I'm James."

"I'm glad you finally shaved."

Brett, scowling, swiped a thin leaf from the ground and held it under his nose. "What are you going to say to me?"

"I would say... Uhm. I think you should stay, the team needs a leader...?" She sounded unsure.

"I didn't hear a 'sorry' in any of that," Brett said.

"I'm...sorry you thought what I did was wrong?" She started to get the feeling she wasn't good at this, judging by their expressions.

Brett threw down the leaf in exasperation and facepalmed. "Adina, a little help here?"

"Try: 'I'm sorry I lied to you,'" Adina suggested gently.

Brett donned the leaf mustache again and looked at Rose expectantly.

"I'm..." She paused, struggling to imagine herself actually saying this to James of all people. "I'm sorry that mustache is so dang ugly..." She could sense the frustration from Brett and quickly followed up her jab at his mustache. "And I'm sorry I lied to you!"

Adina looked between Rose and Brett with a strained smile. "Uh, well... that's a start? Maybe don't open it with an insult."

"It's not an insult! It's a fact! He needs to shave..."

"Fact or not," Brett said, "You complaining about James' facial hair is hardly a reason for us to be trekking back to camp. And I find it unbelievably..." he gestured with his hand as he searched for the right word, then clenched it in a fist. "Selfish that after what you did to him, you can't even tell him you're sorry."

"H-Hey it wasn't selfish! I had really good reason to sell you out!" she replied, fully commited to pretending Brett was James.

Brett was bewildered for a moment, thinking maybe she had a second confession to make, and that one of his own bounty hunters had been waiting outside of the Diamond mansion. "Oh, uh..." He lifted the mustache again, and put on a scowl. "You explain to me how selling me out wasn't selfish."

"Because your mustache is stupid! A-and you were a danger to Adina! And--- And..." She paused, trying to figure out to make it not sound as selfish as it was. "And I just wanted to try and make up for the past... Try and fix my mistakes... I'm sorry."

Brett grinned. Then he remembered the role he was supposed to be playing, and went back to the scowl. "I don't think selling me out was the best way to fix your mistakes, but... I appreciate your apology."

"Good... Don't get used to me saying sorry though. This is the only time any of you will hear it."

"As long as you don't backstab any of us again," Brett said, "you shouldn't be needing the word anymore."

"And if you lose the mustache and the bad cowboy act I might not consider it again..." Rose found herself quickly going back to her old self.

Brett noted the change in her tone of voice: she was reverting to the person he knew all too well, something he hoped they could prevent for a little while longer so that she could say the apology with a rare sincerity. "Before you change your mind," he said, "let's go. Shall we?"
  





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soundofmind says...



Tiberius James Hemming
cowritten with @Lael and @Featherstone


Kaia remained by the camp, keeping watch. But after hours of suffocating silence, Ari left.

James couldn't blame him. If anything, he was envious. Jealous that Ari could escape the tension while he had to sit with it. Jealous that Ari had won the favor of everyone in the group so much so that he couldn't imagine Rose turning him in - yet as soon as the thought passed through his mind, he caught it with his weakening conviction. His heart twisted. Ari didn't deserve that kind of accusation. Ari wasn't the one he was angry at. He was angry at Rose.

He was angry at himself.

His brows quivered together as he laid immobile, pretending to sleep. With Ari gone, Kaia didn't seem pressed to pressure him into speaking - at least, not since he told them he was going to sleep. He knew she of all people would be able to tell when he actually fell asleep, so he took her silence as a sign that she was giving him space - space he knew he sorely needed, though still found himself wanting. And for what, he did not know.

It was agonizing. His mind kept drawing him back to the conscious pain and discomfort of his swirling emotions. Sleep contniued to evade him.

He'd lived this moment before. The moment where a 'friend,' who he'd foolishly let himself trust threw him to the wolves. It was familiar. It felt normal. He was used to having to abandon aquired aquaintences the moment they learned his true identity, or leaving without saying goodbye so they never had to find out in the first place. He had planned on doing the same with Brett, Ari, Adina, and Rose. That was, until Kaia had caught him. And Brett had eavesdropped. And they'd asked him to stay.

They asked him to stay, despite his warnings. And despite his history, in whatever remained of his foolish naivety, he'd considered the gesture a stroke of luck, or the closest thing to it he could imagine.

James took in a slow, deliberate breath, trying to stay silent under the ever watchful eye of Kaia.

Even though she'd joined them on friendly terms, he didn't consider her a friend. Had she not made the deal with Rose in the first place, he might've thought differently. But as it stood, she was there because she had no other place to go. The consequences of her abandoning her loyalties to the Moonlight Kingdom were not lost on him, but it was different for her than it was for him.

There was no one around to actively condemn her, and no one had been alerted of her betrayal, unless Pitch decided to go be a gossip.

She could have done anything with the information he gave her about her parents and yet, she decided to find him. Which meant she wanted something from him. She expected something from him. Something he probably couldn't - and wouldn't - give, and that made him his skin crawl.

As chills ran over his body, he realized that he was finally regaining feeling and mobility in waves. The heat of the fire behind him spread up his back, and the muggy air of the night made it a sticky heat. Giving no regard for Kaia's response in the wake of his relief at being able to move, he stretched out on the ground and let out a grunt as his muscles ached.

He weakly sat up in time to see Ari emerging from the dark woods with heavy steps. The large man briefly looked up at James only to turn his face downward, and like a sulking dog with a tail between its legs, he limped up and sat himself beside the fire, a good distance from James. Kaia quietly walked over to join them, and as the tense silence hung in the air, James kept himself from speaking and stared over the fire.

He had nothing he wanted to say, and he didn't want to hear them tell him that he should get over it, and that they needed to stay together because practically, it was the safest.

He knew all that. He knew all that.

But it seemed that Kaia couldn't wait anymore. She turned to him and coughed lightly.

"Um, so, hey. I know you're not okay right now. I mean--" Kaia shook her head and sighed. As much support as James had given her before about her parents, that didn't mean that Kaia knew how to reciprocate, as much as she wanted to. She'd never really been too experienced with handling emotions. "You want to . . . talk about it?"

James didn't move. "No," he said quietly. "I really don't."

Kaia didn't know what to say. "Okay then." She went back to staring at the fire as the awkward silence built up around them again.

Ardeshir poked the fire with a stick, shifting on the edge of the log they were sitting on and moving the entire thing with his weight on accident. He was uncharacteristically subdued and had his head down like a sullen puppy with his kitten laying down on his feet. He opened and closed his mouth a few times as he tried to figure out what to say - or, rather, how to phrase what he wanted to say. Finally, he managed to get out a couple words.

"Feelin' better, James? Them...drugs wearin' off?" he mumbled.

"Yes."

After several moments he reached down and dug around in his pocket - not his boot for once - and withdrew some half-melted, somewhat squished chocolate, which he passed to James with a weak smile. "Chocolate is happy?" he tried. "It...ain't from me boot this time?"

James looked at the offering with a blank stare and made no moves to take it. "No thank you," he said, though it took more out of him to keep his answer polite. He dropped his eyes to the ground.

The giant man's shoulders slumped and he looked down towards the chocolate, then extended it to Kaia with a sad hopefulness. "Want some happy?"

Kaia glanced towards him and blinked in surprise. Then she looked at Ari's face and mustered up a smile. "Sure, thanks." She took it from his hand, then hesitated. Then she reached into a pocket and pulled out a stickers bar.

"Um, I was--well, saving this for later," began Kaia. More like hoarding it. She unwrapped part of it and broke off a piece. "Want some? Since you gave me this."

Ari smiled a little and shook his head. "Nah, I ain't hungry fer once, you keep it. 'sides, I can always get me some fish!" he said with his goofy grin, although this time it didn't reach his eyes. "'n I gotta be fixin' me toe anyways." With this, he stood and limped over to the bags to dig up some bandages.

Kaia looked at James again. The piece of the stickers was going to melt and get sticky if she didn't eat it herself--or...

Next thing she knew, the piece of stickers bar smacked James in the forehead. He flinched, catching the crumbling bar in his hands with a grimace. He shot a look at Kaia and frowned.

"Oh, sorry," she said. "That was an accident." Though it kind of wasn't. But she really hadn't meant to hit him. She thought he'd catch it first. "Why don't you eat it?"

"I'm not hungry," he grumbled, though his voice was growing hoarse. His muscles began to tense, and he fought back the lump in his throat, swallowing and clenching his jaw.

Ari plopped back down next to the fire with the bandages, looking over at James and quietly adding his input. "Eatin' is good fer ya w' all this stuff 'n all," he mumbled. "Can't be good t' not be eatin' after ya got drugged by that bounty hunter 'n all. Even just a little..."

James found himself looking at Ari with what he hoped was a glare but he knew betrayed his true feelings. As if on cue, he felt his eyes start to well up, and in frustration, he looked away again, staring at the grass beneath his feet.

"You think I'm worried about being drugged..." he muttered bitterly.

"You should be," said Kaia, picking up a stick and poking the fire. "You never know what kind of drug it could be. Eat the stickers, James."

James slammed the stickers bar on the log beside him in a too-abrupt gesture and slouched, putting his elbows on his knees.

Ardeshir looked over at him with a concerned look and glanced back at Kaia before deciding he'd best not say anything due to the rising tension. He did his best to stifle a sniffle and then pulled off his boot, focusing on fixing up his toe instead of talking, though his focus couldn't stray from the sorrowful James and somewhat awkward Kaia. He tried his best to keep himself from being sad, too, since being sad wasn't going to help anyone, least of all the sad people. Mostly James. But the more he tried to not be sad the more sad he was until he was silently splinting and wrapping his toe with tears streaking the dirt on his cheeks.

Kaia's gaze flipped between Ardeshir, James, and the now-ruined stickers bar chunk on the log. She threw the stick down violently.

"First of all, James," she said, sending the man eye daggers, "did you notice you're making Ardeshir cry? Second of all, you just wasted part of my perfectly good stickers bar. I saved that thing for so long. Third of all, you are acting like a child. You should just stop."

The moment Kaia mentioned him, Ari ducked his head and sniffed, hurriedly wiping his face to hide the fact he had indeed been crying. He proceeded to promptly get back to bandaging his broken toe with his head down, unwilling to look at James.

Meanwhile, James felt like he was collapsing inside of himself. He couldn't bring himself to look at either of them, and he couldn't muster up an answer that would satiate their desire for closure. He shrunk down, slouching more until he held his face in his hands. If they couldn't see his face, maybe they would assume he was angry. Maybe they would assume he was just frustrated, and that he hadn't started to cry. All of the tension in his body seemed to condense itself into his face and his gut, and as soon as he let the tears flow they didn't seem to stop. Hidden between his face and his hands was a small-growing puddle.

At least they couldn't see.

Ari looked up as he saw James lean over and bury his head in his arms, and it wasn't difficult, even for someone as dense as he was to deduce what was happening. He stood and half-hopped, half-limped over to James and sat down next to him before putting his arm over his shoulder. "Ya ain't have been tellin' us much," he said quietly. "'n Kaia probably knows more 'n me at this point. But...I know what it's like t' be betrayed 'n all, 'n I'm sure it's happened t' ya before too, 'n I know there ain't nothin' we can do 'cause no chocolate 'r stickers 'r fish 'r friends 'r even lil' kittens can fix it. But if there were, I'd do it. I'd wrestle 'nuther gryphon 'n I'd climb any mountain fer ya, James, no matter who's with ya 'r who ain't 'r what yer name is that day, be it Philip 'r Tiberius 'r anythin' else, 'n if there's anythin'...anythin' I can do...I'll do it. Fer ya. To the moon 'n the stars 'n the deepest ocean 'n back. 'cause I'm yer friend, 'n that be what friends do."

"How does he make it look so easy?" muttered Kaia to herself, observing the scene. She wondered what she had done so drastically wrong earlier in her comforting tactics. Anyways, crying people were nearly impossible for her to figure out (she totally wasn't bawling her eyes out a couple of weeks ago).

Wait, that's right. People gave hugs when others were sad, like Ari was doing. Kaia felt that she should also give James a hug, but when she stood up she suddenly felt self-conscious. No one had hugged her since she had exploded the potions room and Blackfield had--

Kaia gritted her teeth and kicked the log. No more lying King Blackfield. She might as well just hug James to forget about that memory. So she did--perhaps a little too hard.

James tried in vain to stop himself from crying more as Ari came beside him, but it grew harder and harder. The pressure built up inside with an unbearable persistence, and for a brief moment, he thought he could swallow it down - but then Kaia hugged him.

And the moment she did a sob escaped his lips and he melted in her embrace. For the life of him, he didn't know why. He didn't deserve a friend like Ari and he didn't expect a hug from Kaia. Frankly, he hadn't believed she really cared.

Apparently, he was wrong.

"I--I can't do this anymore," his voice quivered hoarsely, barely above a whisper. "I can't--I can't trust, I don't want--"

Unable to finish his sentence, he choked on another sob, and found himself burying his face in Kaia's shoulder.

"Oh." Kaia tried to think of something to say, but it was slow coming.

Ari patted him on the back gently. "James, even if I wanted t', which I don', but even if I did, I couldn'. Honestly. I'm incapable. I can' lie 'r keep a secret 'r 'nuffin. 'n sometimes...sometimes, even w' Rosaleen...there's...it ain't somethin' always that can' be fixed. 'n I know it's rough but...sometimes they regret it too, and sometimes, it makes 'em a better person. 'cause ain't no 'un real bad at heart, deep down, 'n if they care 'nuff, then sometimes, they realize they lost you, too. 'n I think Rosaleen did. She's mean 'n all 'n she's...well, she's her but she ain't done that later on. 'n she regrets it now. If she didn', she wouldn' have gotten all mad 'n all. 'n now I'm just ramblin', but...I know it's hard to believe but there's good people 'n you can find 'em. 'n you have some of 'em. 'n...even you get some peace 'n trust 'n them things that all o' us need t' be happy."

"You know, you were the first person to tell me the truth about something important since my parents died," she said at last. She raised a hand and awkwardly patted James on the head. "It's okay to trust someone . . . if they're trustworthy."

James did not know how to respond to the pat on his head, but it was but a blip in his emotional swirl. He pulled away a little, still desperately avoiding eye contact.

"I thought she was," he croaked. "Gods I knew she wasn't but some--somehow I missed something. I always miss something. Even when my gut told me--" he grunted, pulling away from their arms. "I'm sick of being toyed with. It doesn't matter what I do. I can't win."

"Winnin' don' matter so much. If ya...if ya do all ya can, 'n if the fates aren't w' ya, then ya lived up t' everythin' ya coulda hoped fer. Ya can't change it. All ya can do is do all you can so that when it's all over, when it's at an end, ya ain't got nothin' t' be ashamed of 'cause you done all that was in yer power. 'n if ya make mistakes, then that's that, 'cause don't we all? 'n..." he paused, pushing back his own tears. "'n if it ain't yer fault, 'r even if it is...all ya can do is forgive yerself 'n keep on goin'. 'cause that's all we've got."

"She's human too. Humans make mistakes. I actually talked to her the other day about this whole thing," Kaia let out an uncomfortable chuckle as she remembered how she had been so ready to capture James and bring him back to the Moonlight Kingdom. "Rosaleen seemed to be sorry about what she did." She paused. "Uh, I guess I never apologized either, so yeah--I'm sorry. Really."

James slowly looked over at Kaia out of the corner of his eye. He knew it wouldn't be helpful to say out loud, but if Rosaleen was really sorry, she should've said it to his face. Or at least, he wished she would. So he could actually see the sliver of goodness Ari and Kaia saw with his own eyes.

But at least Kaia apologized.

"Thank you," he struggled to say. Though it sounded like the correct response, he couldn't say he was thankful for the apology. He didn't know how he felt. Kaia was the first bounty hunter to ever apologize.

What was she supposed to say to that? 'You're welcome' didn't sound right, so Kaia merely nodded and made a quiet sound of acknowledgment.

"When some 'un betrays ya, it tears ya 'part inside," Ari softly said. "'cause ya woulda done most anythin' fer them 'n then they go 'n completely destroy everythin'. But...that don' mean there ain't no 'un who ya can trust! Yer instinct ain't always right but if ya keep tryin' you'll be sure to succeed. Ya found me, 'n Brett, 'n Kaia, 'n all the rest o' us, even if Rosaleen did backstab ya."

James looked over in Ari's direction but didn't look up at his face. "That's usually how it is," he muttered. "That's how it was with--" he stopped himself. In a habitual, knee-jerk reaction he bit back the name before it came out. His eyebrows twitched, and suddenly he had to remind himself that they could be trusted. These two could be trusted. Most of all, Ari.

"With Donovan," he finally said, confused at the relief that hit him when he did.

"Well, we ain't Donovan, 'n we ain't Rosaleen, 'n not everyone is," he said, putting his hand on his shoulder. "I ain't knowin' him but I do know that ya ain't alone. Not now 'n not ever! You're the strongest man I know, James, 'n...'n..." he hesitated. "'n if I could get past betrayal, then so can you, 'cause you're a million times braver 'n stronger than I am!"

"It'll be fine this time," added Kaia. "When we're all ready, maybe we could go find them. But for now, I think we need to sleep." She stood up and moved back towards the log she had been sitting on earlier. That had been a nice moment and all, but she still wasn't used to physical contact--at least the more affectionate kind.

James nodded wearily, letting his gaze fall to the smashed stickers bar that was still on the log.

He eagerly wanted to move on from the moment of him sobbing in his friends' arms, and finally felt that he would be able to fall asleep. Kaia's warning about not knowing the exact type of drug he'd been drugged with crept up in the back of his mind as a wave of exhaustion hit him, making him feel weaker than usual.

Maybe he should have eaten the stickers bar. He hopped off the log and found his blanket again.

"Alright," was all he said before sleep overtook him, and he was out.
  





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sherlockhson says...



Rosaleen Streingberg
cowritten with @soundofmind
and @Featherstone a little bit


Brett was more then happy to start showing off his tracking skills as he, Rose and Adina set off back the way they came. Rose lagged behind on purpose as they traveled in silence, mulling over in her head just what her apology would even sound like again, and already giving up to the fact that James wouldn't accept it no matter how heart felt it may sound.

Adina constantly looked behind her; she seemed to be thinking Rose would take the chance to run off again, and her worry wasn't far from the truth. Rose figured if she just vanished they could go back to the group without a problem... But a part of her knew that if they followed her this far they'd probably try to follow her again and just end up lost and even more seperated from the rest of the gang.

"This rock looks familiar! ...Maybe, I think we're on the right path! ...Maybe," Brett exlaimed, obviously trying to break the awkward silence. Adina humored him with a small chuckle but still couldn't stop herself glancing back. Brett squinted at Rose as he noticed Adina's worry.

Rose frowned and walked a bit faster, quickly putting herself between the two of them, letting Adina stop worrying about her and giving Brett no reason to start sassing her.

"Much better!" Brett commented, making Rose roll her eyes as he got back to surveying the area for signs of anyone else.

Rose had little time to think more about her apology as Brett suddenly exclaimed a loud "AHA!", making both her and Adina jump in surprise.

"What did you find a footpri--" Rose started responding sarcastically before seeing what Brett saw.

The horses, all four of them. Her eyes instantly snapped too Posey, James was still with them apparently, but she was so sure she put a lot more distance between her and the camp the night before, why were they suddenly so much closer?

Brett quickly ran ahead to to find the people the horses belonged too, and Adina stood with Rose, determined not to let her run off again. Together they started following Brett, and before long the others came into view.

Ari was standing there with his head low, looking much like a sulking dog. But as soon as Brett burst out of the trees, Ari rushed up to Brett and hugged him tightly. "BREEETTTT!" he beamed, squeezing the fellow islander and nearly lifting him off the ground. "YOU'RE BACK! OHMYGODSI'MSOGLADTOSEEYOUYOUWOULDN'TBELIEVEITYOUMISSEDSOMUCHIEVENBROKEMYTOE!" he informed his friend in a single runon sentence.

James was standing dejectedly off to the side while Kaia inched a little closer to Brett and Ari's reunion. Adina watched them with a small, relieved sort of grin and looked over at Rosaleen with a hopeful expectancy in her eyes. She reached out a hand for Rose to take.

Rose took her hand, frowning as Adina led her towards James. All too soon they were standing infront of him with Rose looking as awkward as she felt. James stood up straight, and put his hands in his pockets. He looked at her expectantly while she avoided his gaze, but didn't say anything.

Rose glanced at Brett while avoiding eye contact with James, hoping he would hop over to help manage things, but he was too busy catching up with Ari as if they'd been apart for weeks. She sighed and thought something she never thought she'd think. 'What would Brett say right now?'.

Finally deciding to just wing it, she took a deep breath and looked James right in the eye, trying to relax as much as she could.

"So, I mustache you a question." She could immediately feel the regret at her choice of tension breaking joke as the words left her mouth.

Predictably, the joke was not well received. She received sharp glares from both Kaia and James - though James almost looked hurt more than anything - and even Adina was giving her a look of helpless disappointment.

"Rose, I'm really not in the mood," James warned.

"Y-you're not in the mood!? Do you think I am!? Having to explain myself as if it's not obvi-" She started, before looking to her side to see Adina's pained expression. With a sigh she quickly calmed herself down. She was the one in the wrong here.

"Look James, I'm... Sorry." She tried to look sincere but found herself unable to look him in the eye again.

James stared at her. He waited a few unbearable seconds that seemed to drag on between the two of them before he responded, his voice low. She was already anticipating his refusal. This time he looked down and away as well.

"I forgive you," he said.

"I figured as mu-" She began to reply before realizing what he had said. "Wait, you what?" She asked as she finally looked at him in stunned disbelief.

He looked up at her, meeting her gaze. He didn't really look angry, like she would've expected. He looked serious, as usual, but kind of sad. "I forgive you," he said again, louder, with a sort of frustrated emphasis.

She couldn't tell if she was more confused or relieved at his reaction, but she couldn't stop herself squinting at him curiously. "Just like that? No yelling in anger? No asking me why I did it? And no crying or anything? I mean I don't have any tears left to cry so that would have been a bit awkward with just one of us crying..."

"I do want to know why," he said stiffly, looking away again, seeming just as awkward as her. "I can't imagine it's much different than what I've assumed, but if you're willing to explain yourself, I'll hear it."

"I could say it was the bounty on your heard, how much of a danger you posed to the group, or that I just didn't like your facial hair." She paused for a moment, for once looking as sincere as she possibly could. "But the truth is I was just...scared. Scared of reliving the past and seeing people I care about hurt again."

"I understand," James said quietly, briefly glanced at her. "And maybe you can understand that... I was afraid of being betrayed again."

"I can understand that, my trust was betrayed and it cost me, and cost someone I cared about even more." She shifted around uncomfortably. "So I guess we have that in common, not wanting to be betrayed again."

He looked up at her, the emotion slowly fading from his face like it was never there. "I guess so."

"See!? That wasn't so bad!" Brett had finally finished catching up with Ari and decided to join the conversation before Rose could say more. "All that practice was worth it wasn't it?" He commented and nudged Rose with his shoulder.

"Yeah it was...great." She replied, quickly returning ot her usual frowning expression. "He does a pretty spot on impersonation of you James."

James's eyebrows shot up and he gave Brett a look. "Impersonation, huh."

"Yeah Brett, tell him all about how you recreated his mustache," Rose chuckled.

"S-she needed to practice her apology! I was just doing my part!" He tried to explain.

"I'm sure it was great," James said quickly, turning back to the horses. "But let's save it for another time. We lost half a day, and we can't tell for sure if the mage hunters are close or catching onto our trail. We need to get a move on. So let's go."

"Saved by the threat of mage hunters." Rose said before she made her way over to the horses, leaving Brett and Adina to breathe a sigh of relief, seemingly glad things went as well as they did.

As they readied for travel, Rose had more time to think about things. Maybe James wasn't as bad of a person as she assumed, from all her time spent selling information about bounty targets to people she always found that the bigger the bounty the more guilty people were. It was rare that she looked into high reward bounties and found a good person behind them.

She knew she'd never truly know why the moonlight kingdom wanted him so badly, but she was starting to believe he was a good person caught in a messed up situation, just like her.
  





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Featherstone says...



Ardeshir
cowritten with @soundofmind, @fraey, and @Lael


The rise and swell of the sea was music to Ari's ears as it murmured and hummed its ancient song, the cries of goals and barks of sea lions punctuating each measure. It was different than the ocean's sound back home, on the isles, where there were the whistles and clicks of dolphins and a warmer wind, but it was the same waters nonetheless.

A smile danced across the islander's lips as he gazed upon the ocean for the first time since he'd left home three years ago. Pale, pointy-winged birds plunged into the icy depths alongside brownish pelicans and he could see the furry bodies of sea otters floating in a raft several hundred feet from shore.

They'd made it.

And they'd somehow managed it together. He glanced back at the group - James, with what seemed to be his perpetual scowl (but Ari was positive hid an interior sweeter than the honey of a stickers bar); Rosaleen, who kept her distance from James but Ari was also sure was very nice somewhere past those thorns; Brett, who seemed as overjoyed to sea the ocean again as Ari himself was; Kaia, who was somewhere on the edge of the group; and Adina, who was playing with Ursuku on the sand.

He let out a whoop of exuberance and ripped off his shirt, throwing it to the side in the same direction as the boots he was flinging off his feet before he charged full-speed into the water, disappearing under the waves before anyone could try to talk him out of it with words like "common sense" or "undertow." He could hear muffled warnings from James above the water, only to cut off abruptly in frustration when another splash interrupted him, and Brett appeared alongside Ari.

Ari bobbed up to the surface and shook the water out of his hair, his toes barely touching the sand beneath him. "GUYS THE WATER'S GREAT!" he called, bouncing on the bottom to keep himself above the waves. "COME ON! THERE'S TONS OF COOL STUFF!"

Without further elaboration, he disappeared once more underwater. He was planning on coming back up to see if anyone else had joined him, or maybe to grab Brett and yank him under in an ambush, but it was that precise moment when he saw something glistening in the murky water. He loved shiny ocean things! Sometimes they were shells, or little bits of smooth glass, or even old coins, or scales, or any number of fun things!

He tipped himself downwards and grabbed onto some waving kelp to anchor himself as he dug around in the silt and came up with a big scale. He grinned and started to move back towards the surface before he saw another one. There were more! He swam after it and seized it, hopping from one to another across the ocean floor and holding them in a little pile tightly to his chest.

It was almost a full five minutes before he resurfaced, bobbing up and down in the waves like a buoy as he waved them in his hand to the group back towards shore. "GUYS THERE'S SO MANY SHINY THINGS OUT HERE YOU SHOULD COME AND SEE I PROMISE I WON'T LET YOU DROWN AND MAYBE THERE'LL BE DOLPHINS!" he yelled over the wind, beaming like a child in a stickers shop.

James could be spotted sitting on the beach, fully clothed, with Ursuku dancing around him. "I'll pass!" he shouted, before flopping on his back in the sand.

Adina crouched on the sand, looking up at Ari. "I haven't really done much swimming..."

"DON' WORRY!" he called back. "OCEAN AIN'T EATIN' YA 'N IF IT TRIES I'LL KICK IT LIKE I DID T'AT SHARK!"

She giggled. "Maybe I can just dip my toes in, for a second." Adina moved slightly closer to shore.

Ardeshir disappeared beneath the waves once more, sliding through the water and popping up near Adina as his toes made contact with the saturated sand and he got his feet under him, scanning the beach to note where everyone had gone. Brett was still in the deeper waters and Rose was sitting on a rock with her toes in the water, watching Adina and Ari. Kaia was standing at the edge of the water looking in, as she didn't really want to get very wet, and there was Adina, no more than a couple yards in front of him.

"It's a lil' cold but there ain't nothin' mean out t'ere, least right now," he smiled. "Isn't it great? And there's tons of birds, too, see! I bet there's feathers floatin' out there, lots!"

Adina smiled at that, trying to catch a bird's wings in the light. She sent a smile towards Rose before turning back to the water.

"Jus' watch t' waves. Don' turn ya back to t' ocean, sometimes it can catch ya un'wares, but if yer careful, it ain't gonna hurt ya! If a wave gets ya, just float, don' fight it, t'at ne'er works," he said, grinning.

"Hmm, alright." With that, Adina took another step into the ocean, letting out a little shriek when a wave landed on her toes.

He clambered out onto shore, having successfully convinced Adina that the water was fun, and ran up shore to Kaia and James, the sand sticking to his feet and calves as he sprinted across it. "THE WATER'S GREAT GUYS!" he exclaimed, cradling the scales in his hands. "There's a buncha otters too, maybe we could play w' 'em, or dolphins of some show!"

Kaia's gaze traveled from Ari's eager face to the shining objects in his palms to the waves beyond him. She mustered up a small smile and replied, "I don't know. I've never really . . . played on a beach before. Besides, I wouldn't want to get my weapons wet." She shuffled a foot. "Go on. You can enjoy it for me."

He skidded to a stop in front of her, inadvertently sending sand spraying every which direction. "What else is a beach for?" he asked, wholly genuinely, his head cocked slightly to the side. Fishing, sure, but Kaia didn't fish...right? Or maybe she did but she'd been keeping it a secret this whole time!

"Getting sand in your a**," was the answer that came from behind Kaia before she could reply. Rosaleen leaned to the side to send a brief glance at Ari from her spot on the rocks.

It took Ari a moment to register this, and for a moment he was caught off-guard, unsure of how to respond. It certainly didn't sound like Rosaleen was having fun. Maybe she was just looking out for them...?

Well, either way, an unhappy Rosaleen certainly wouldn't do, and if Rose, Kaia, and James were bored, that was half the group! 50% unhappy! This was positively unacceptable.

"Well, even if ya don' usually play at t' beach, t'ere's a first time fer everythin'! It's real fun, I promise." Ari still wasn't entirely sure what else one could do at the beach but it was evident that Rosaleen didn't really like that question or was just going to take advantage of it again, so he didn't bother inquiring again, and instead decided to try to convince Kaia that it'd be fun. If she just gave it a try, maybe she could play too! It'd probably been too long since she'd played.

"Well . . ." Kaia glanced around the beach again. No apparent danger. But the sand. She looked down at the fine granules all around her. It was always such a bother in the few instances she had come to beaches for Blackfield's business. "The sand doesn't bother you?"

"Nah!" he grinned, flopping down in it on his behind. "T' water washes it off anyways, 'n once it dries it goes 'way!"

She remembered her parents had promised to bring her to the beach soon, only a few days before they had been murdered. She’d never gotten the opportunity. Maybe, just maybe this once. “I suppose the sun will dry me off pretty quickly.”

"Sure will!” he beamed. “T’ wind, too!”

One down, two to go. He glanced back towards Rosaleen, who was still sitting on the rock, and she met his eyes with a hard gaze.

Maybe not.

He turned around and hopped to his feet, sprinting over to James and scooping up Ursuku as he bolted by, skidding to a stop up the beach from James and turning around to plop down beside him. “Don’ wanna go in t’ water?” he asked, wrestling with the kitten.

James looked over to Ari, before returning his gaze to the ocean. He had something of a sad grin. “No.”

Ari frowned and passed James Ursuku. James seemed sad, and though he wasn’t sure why, he knew that if all else failed, stickers bars and kittens and chocolate were sure to cheer someone up, and he didn’t have chocolate or stickers bars. But he did have a kitten!

“Ain’t likin’ t’ ocean?” he asked as he deposited the feline on James’ lap.

James looked down at the cat as if he didn’t know what to do with it, before his hand cautiously hovered over its head. It pressed into his palm and he started petting it. “I don’t mind swimming. I just don’t like the ocean.”

Ari pondered this for a few moments. He wanted to swim, but didn’t like the ocean. There wasn’t a creek nearby, but…

His eyes widened as he made a sudden realization and he leapt to his feet, bolting off without explanation, only to return five minutes later with piles of seaweed over his shoulders. “JAMES!” he yelled as he sprinted forward, “I FOUND A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN SWIM TOO!”

James jumped back slightly as Ari slid up to him in the sand. “You… have?” he asked hesitantly. Meanwhile, Rose got up off her rock, and Brett popped his head out of the water.

“What’d you find?” Brett asked.

"TIDEPOOLS!” he beamed, bouncing up and down on his heels in excitement. “Tide’s goin’ down ‘n it left lotsa fun stuff! I got one ‘n I moved all t’ seastars ‘n lil’ fishies ‘n crabs ‘n an octopus out so we could swim there w’ out botherin’ ‘em!”

“There don’t happen to be any urchins, right?” asked Kaia. “I heard that those are harmful.”

"They ain’t done nothin’,” he said. “Real good eatin’! Bit pokey but they ain’t harmin’ if ya don’ step on ‘em. I saw one ‘r two but I can move ‘em when we get back if it’ll let ya have fun!”

Adina tip-toed back up the beach towards Ari. “It’s smaller than the ocean right? Less waves?”

"It’s just a lil’ pool like off a creek!” he explained, nodding. “Right up this way! ROSALEEN THERE’S NICE WATER UP ‘ERE!” he called down to her, then started racing up the beach towards the tidepools he’d found, expecting the rest to follow as the seaweed flew out behind him like a superhero’s cape. When he arrived, the others had eventually caught up with him, with Rosaleen and James trailing the furthest behind.

There was a chain of small pools spread between the slick rocks, inhabited by a variety of creatures from sea slugs to the dark purple urchins Kaia had mentioned. The biggest one - and the one closest to the beach - was, however, almost entirely vacant of wildlife, just as Ari promised. There were a couple urchins in the bottom alongside a fish or two that he hadn’t managed to catch, but beyond that, it was just the ragtag group of fugitives.

Ari leapt in, splashing water everywhere as he sat down smack dab in the middle of it, the water coming up to his chin. “Isn’t it great?” he beamed, quite proud he’d managed to find such a place where everyone could have fun.

Kaia supposed the first step would be to take her boots off. She sat on a rock by the side of the pool and slipped them off, putting them safely on her perch. Then she started unclasping the tiny blades strapped to her ankles. Next she removed some silver needles from the false seams on her pants and rolled the legs up to her knees slowly, strangely feeling her ears go hot as she did.

“Oh, I like the this!” Adina smiled as she rolled up her pants further and looked into the pools. Rosaleen looked at the pools with a little more skepticism, but rolled her pants up as well and threw her shoes to the side.

Ari beamed up at her, then took the seaweed off his shoulders and put the scales and seaweed down on his lap. The chatter around him faded into the background as he focused on his project: the threads of seaweed wove in and out between each other and small, shining scales were fastened to it by threads of seaweed pushed through holes formed by an urchin spine. It wasn’t the first time he’d made them by any means, and he’d already gotten started with punching holes and tearing the weed, so all it took was a bit of assembly and he soon began to pile the items next to him as he got into the rhythm of things.

“Gods, just how many needles do you have stored up your sleeves?” Rosaleen whined, jerking Ari from his moment of relaxation.

Kaia blinked as she looked up from taking off her pieces of armor. “Me?” She looked at the small, growing pile of assorted weapons that had come from her sleeves, legs, belt. “That’s not a lot at all.”

Ari felt his heart drop as the two began to bicker. He knew the two didn’t really get along, but he was sure they could be friends, if they really tried! He looked down at the small pile of bracelets he’d already completed and, before Rosaleen could continue to heckle Kaia, he jumped to his feet with them in his hands and passed one to Rose. “I made us jewelry!” he said with a childish grin, then turned to Kaia and handed one to her, too. “Much better than weapons!”

Brett hopped in the pool beside Ari, looking at the woven seaweed jewelry. “Oh wow, I haven’t made one of those since I was a kid.”

Ari turned and promptly handed one to him. “‘Ere, there’s plenty fer everyone!” he grinned, then ran over to James and Adina, giving one to each of them before scooping up Ursuku and popping one around his neck. “Ta-da! We’re like t’ fanciest group o’ wanted criminals ever!”

Adina smiled down at the bracelet on her wrist and helped Rose tie hers on. “Friendship bracelets! They’re cute.”

He smiled as he put Uri back on the ground. “Me big brother, Ali, taught me,” he said. “We used t’ make ‘em fer each other all t’ time, ‘n when one would get broke, we’d just make more! We did it w’ coral ‘n fish scales ‘n even otter fur once!” he said, smiling, though for once it wasn’t the wholly innocent, unconflicted grin he usually wore. This time, there was a hint of bittersweet sorrow to it.

James finally walked up to the Ari, with boots gone and pants rolled like the others. He gave Ari a pat on the shoulder. “They’re very nice. It was sweet of you to make them for us,” he said quietly, before quickly throwing off his shirt and hopping in beside Brett.

Kaia wanted to both argue that she was not wanted or a criminal and ask someone to help her with this strange contraption called a friendship bracelet, but she decided it wasn’t worth the others’ time. Might as well finish getting all the weapons off and get into the water.

Ardeshir sat down on the shore, looking at his ragtag group of friends. It was a strange journey - and he was sure it would continue to be - but despite their differences and hidden pasts, he couldn’t help but think of them as one, big pod. A family.

He smiled and leaned back, flopping in the sand with his legs dangling in the water. He wouldn’t trade this for anything.
"All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost."

~ J.R.R Tolkien
  





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Wolfical says...



Brett Crawford
cowritten with @sherlockhson


The border fence of the Outlands—tall sharpened logs roped together and skewered in the sand—loomed above them. After all the hardships they'd endured and all the enemies they'd faced, this fence, and its guards, were the only things separating them from freedom. What was it like on the other side, where law-abiding civilians went about their daily lives without the fear of bounty hunters and wild animals? Brett could hardly remember.

When they could see the border, they paused in the chaparral to pull themselves together and look as presentable as possible. Brett combed his hair with his fingers, dusted off his shirt, and put his sandy shoes back on. Ari emptied his boots, Kaia rubbed dirt off her armor, James rolled up his sleeves, and Rose even pulled her hair into a braid. Adina tied Ursuku up in a saddle bag, giving him a piece of fish so he'd be quiet.

When they were all ready, James took a deep breath. "Alright. We don't need to overthink this. We hand over the papers. We act normal." He glanced over them all. "Everyone good?"

They murmured in affirmation.

As the gate loomed closer, Adina couldn't help but nervously glance at Rose.

"What?" Rose asked her, unable to ignore the glances for long.

"You're hair is still...An odd color right?" Adina quietly questioned her.

"Well yeah, but lots of people dye their hair, besides my charming personality will win the guards over," Rose joked to try and ease her mood.

"No I mean—Never mind..." She didn't understand why no one noticed Rose's hair seemed brighter after their trip at sea, but it was too late to question her now bluer-looking hair as they finally approached the guards.

The two lightly-armored guards posted at the gate looked just as unhappy to be there as the gang was having to go through it. But the moment they saw Ari they stood up straighter and looked a bit more ready for trouble.

"Present identification or you lot can turn it around," one of the guards spoke as they approached, holding up a hand to stop them. He was no taller nor older-looking than James but was quite portly. The other slightly shorter guard at his side looked much older and a bit more battle-hardened.

Silently they all started pulling out their forged papers and handing them over one by one. Both guards looked them over, then looked over the papers at least twice just to be sure before handing them back.

The older guard cleared his throat and looked them over once more. "Now you lot wouldn't happen to be a band of criminals trying to escape now would ya?"

Rose could feel the tension suddenly shoot through the group, causing her to speak up before anyone said anything stupid.

"Oh yep," she stated sarcastically. "You caught us, criminals who have decided to do this ONE thing by the books instead of just taking a long criminal way around! How did you ever figure us out, detective?"

A moment of silence hung in the air. Rose could almost feel everyone was about to look back and give her a scathing look, but the old guard suddenly burst out laughing, prompting worried looks from everyone.

"See? I told you they're a circus group! The weird girl tells jokes and I bet the big guy wrestles lions!" The old guard said to the younger one, who shared a laugh. "Alright get outta here you lot!" He chuckled, wiping a tear from his eye as the guards returned ot their posts.

Rose chuckled as they continued through the gate, patting Ari on the back. "Don't worry, I'll find you a lion to wrestle, I'm sure of it."

He gave her a smile as they all seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. By some miracle, the papers had worked.

"Alright, circus crew," James said. "I think it's best if we split up into pairs. Adina can be with me."

"Then I'll take Ari," Kaia said.

With that, Brett realized he was stuck with the only other person left over.

"Oh boy, I wonder who that leaves me with!" Rose said drily.

Brett wore a pained smile as he put an arm around her shoulder and squeezed her a bit harder than a friendly hug would normally warrant. "Fantastic. My old chum and I, tearing up the town."

Rose scowled at his sudden hug before stepping away from him. "Don't forget that saying about every rose having thorns."

"I haven't forgotten," Brett replied, rubbing his arm as if it had been pricked in several places.

While the two other pairs angled towards the port town, Brett was drawn to the coast, whether Rose liked it or not. Determined to enjoy himself, he kicked off his shoes and waded through the sand, basking in the sun like a lizard.

Behind them, the town was bustling with traders and West Isle folk. Brett really hoped he wouldn't run into anyone he knew from his past, and if he did, he hoped his longer, unruly hair would be enough to disguise him. Undoing the combing he had just done, he ruffled it up.

Through a messy curtain of bangs, he glanced over at Rose, who was walking with her arms crossed. "Is there something different about you?"

"Last I checked I was still the same old hilarious me," she replied, looking over at him with a raised eyebrow.

"No, it's your hair. It looks different."

"What did you do to it?" she accused.

Brett showed his palms in defense. "For once, I didn't do anything. Look at it yourself. Is it just me, or is it lighter and bluer?"

Rose grabbed the end of her braid and pulled it in front of her face. "What the?" Her old purple seemed to have faded and was indeed replaced by a pale blue. "Alright, I'll ask again, what did you do to me while we were on that beach?"

"Nothing, I swear! It probably has something to do with this climate. The sun, the salt—it's all messing with your hair."

Rose sighed, but still squinted at him suspiciously, "I guess that makes sense... And this color makes sense as to why the gate guards didn't suspect me of anything. No purple hair, no worries of being caught for the time being."

"Hm. It looks a bit strange on you, but... I like it."

They stepped up onto the complicated web of splintered old docks, enticed by a little stickers stand that was set up amongst the sailors and fishermen. Two large ships were anchored nearby, planks connecting them with the port. Brett and Rose stood out of the way as a pair of sailors hefted a huge crate of trading goods to their ship. Brett watched them as they hurried up the long, perilously narrow wooden tongue of the ship, and disappeared into her belly.

They approached the stickers stand and each set a coin out on the counter. The woman behind the stand handed over two deluxe stickers bars wrapped in waxy paper.

"I think the last stickers bar I had was from Ari's boot," Brett mumbled through a mouthful of honey, nuts, and dried berries. "This is quite the improvement."

Rose almost gagged on her stickers bar as she remembered the one from Ari's boot.

Weaving around sailors and fishermen as they nibbled on their stickers bars, Brett and Rose stepped off the docks and headed towards the town. Brett finished off his bar and was scanning the area for a place to throw the wax paper away when—

"Eh? Something else caught your attention?" Rose asked, quickly noticing Brett stop.

Brett's mouth gaped open.

Matt.

Matt might've felt the intense gaze, for he turned his head and locked eyes with his twin brother.

Brett thrust the wax paper into Rose's hands. "I've gotta run."

"H-Hey, wait!" she stammered in surprise.

He hesitated for a moment, then grabbed her wrist and pulled her along. "Come on!"

As he started running, Brett could hear Matt calling his name behind them, or maybe he was just imagining it. Maybe he had imagined the whole thing. His desire to never face his brother again was so strong that maybe it was just him being ultra-paranoid, causing him to run from the first person he saw that remotely resembled Matt. But if that was the case, what was he doing? Why was he running faster than he ever had before, shoving people out of the way and leaping back onto the docks and ducking from tossed-back fishing poles and dashing onto the tongue of the ship and seeking a dark hiding place in her belly?

No, that was Matt. He had no doubt in his mind. Crouching behind a wall of barrels with Rose, under a loose piece of canvas, panting for breath, Brett whispered a curse.

Yes, that was Matt. In pristine white clothing with a sailor's cap and a neat beard, standing there with confidence and authority, eyes widening in surprise and horror when he saw his raggedy old murderer of a twin brother.

As his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the ship's hold, Brett wished he hadn't run straight onto a ship, only to be trapped. Hopefully he could wait it out, leaving with Rose once the coast was clear, but he wished they had found a way back into town instead, where there were many more hiding places, and more opportunities to run. He decided that he hated ships. The last time he had been on one hadn't gone so well.

"Oh that totally wasn't suspicious at all!" Rose almost shouted sarcastically in annoyance.

"Shh!" Brett jabbed her with an elbow. He was feeling a bit of deja vu from when they were hiding in the cellar together. Except this time it actually wasn't her fault.

Another tense, silent minute passed as they crouched uncomfortably in the damp darkness. Then, audible above the din of the dock activity outside, they heard footsteps on the hollow wood, calmly drawing nearer to their hiding place. Brett and Rose held their breaths.

The canvas was ripped away, and Brett knew it would be Matt, but instead they were greeted with a stern, unfamiliar face. "Now's not th' time, lad!" the man barked. The pin on his coat marked him as the ship's first mate. "Get back to work, else I'll have th' cap'n deduct half o' yer wages."

Brett scrambled to his feet. "Yessir. My apologies sir."

"I've had enough of you fools playing hide an' seek!" the first mate growled. Giving Brett one last stern glare, and tossing Rose one too, he spun on his heel and stormed out of the hold.

"Do I even wanna know what you've gotten us wrapped up in?" Rose asked, looking at Brett with the same kind of stern glare they just received.

"Probably not!" Brett said with forced cheerfulness. "Look, we might be free of it." He was again doubting that he had even seen Matt at all. "Let's just find our way back to town and hope nothing else happens."

"Yeah, I know a thing or two about lying. I'm not buying that explanation."

"Well... Run now, talk later."

They climbed up the steep stairs that took them out of the hold. Because they were momentarily blinded by the bright sunlight, Brett didn't realize Matt was standing right there until the man actually spoke to them. And when he did, Brett almost fell backwards into the hold.

"Good hiding place, Brett. You're on my ship."

Brett looked away and brushed some more hair into his face. Thinking back on James' advice, he cleared his throat and took his voice two octaves lower. "My apologies, Captain, but it appears you've mistaken me for someone else."

Matt snorted. "Oh dear, have I? To whom, then, have I the pleasure of speaking?"

"This is, uh, Robin Dabank," Rose said, "'cause he's cashing out on bad timing right now." She chuckled and nodded towards Brett.

The second it clicked, Matt clapped his hand over his mouth to stop himself from laughing too hard.

Brett stared at her in disbelief and touched his chest. "Ouch." He abandoned the lower octaves. "That hurt."

Rose could only smirk in response. "Oh come on, don't act like you wouldn't have said something just as bad! Besides, we snuck aboard his ship but he seems alright with it."

"Alright is an understatement," Matt said.

Surprised, Brett looked up sheepishly, brushing his bangs to the side. "It's... what?"

Matt smiled, and that's when Brett noticed that there were tears welling up in his eyes. "My brother is always welcome on my ship."

Brett felt the sting of tears too. "But, I... Matt..."

Matt stepped forward and embraced his brother in a hug. "You're alive!" he whispered over his shoulder. "And you're here. I can't believe it."

Rose looked at Brett, then to Matt, and back to Brett, her expression quickly reflecting how awkward she now felt. "Uh... I should probably...Go?" she said as she began to step away.

Pulling away from Brett, Matt shook his head with a grin. "I like your puns. You're welcome to stay. Maybe we should go somewhere more private? My office?"

Brett's legs felt shaky as he followed his brother and Rose up to the quarter deck and climbed down into the captain's cabin. He felt utterly confused and overwhelmingly unworthy to be treated as such by Matt. He wondered why he was allowed to walk freely on this ship, why he wasn't dragging a ball and chain from his ankles, why there wasn't a sailor with a musket poking at his back.

"You do remember," Brett said to his brother after he'd closed the door, "what I... did? Who I became?"

"Yeah, I do," Matt said. "But regardless of what you did, you didn't become anyone else besides family. And a family fights for one another." He leaned on the edge of his desk. "Brett. Look at me."

Brett reluctantly obeyed. He was too filled with shame, especially when he saw that in his brother's eyes was not anger, not contempt, but only love.

"We haven't been close for a long time," Matt said, "but I think I still know you better than anyone else. And I know that you had no control over yourself... when you..."

"Killed two innocent men," Brett finished, staring at the floor. His stomach twisted under that familiar but everlastingly awful weight of guilt. "I'm so sorry..."

"I know," Matt said.

Rose, meanwhile, shifted around uncomfortably, not wanting to speak and ruin the moment, but also really wishing she wasn't there.

"I thought you were dead," Matt said, earnestly, "and more than anything it hurt me that I had never gotten to see you before you fled, that we had never gotten to mend our relationship. The guilt was eating me away."

"You? Guilty?" Brett almost laughed.

"Which is why," Matt continued, ignoring him, "I was overjoyed when, a good while later, I was told that you had been caught in the Outlands. It meant that you were still alive after all that time. The moment I heard about it, I sent word that I would be arriving to that jail to take you home and give you a fair ruling in court."

"You said you would what?" Brett asked, incredulous.

"I wasn't really intending to take you back, of course. Even the best lawyer couldn't have saved you. I forged the judge's signature on the paper so they'd let me take you. My plan was to take you out of that jail, and then once we had gone west a while, the two of us could figure out the best way to set you up with a disguise and new papers."

"You were going to... do all that? For me?"

"I was, until I arrived at the jail and found that all the cells were empty." He shook his head, grinning. "My brother. I should've known."

"Well, it wasn't all me," Brett said. "In fact, I hardly did anything. Rose here was at the jail too, as were several other people who worked together to break each other out. We've worked together ever since then."

"Oh, wow." Matt scratched his head. "You actually managed to find trustworthy people? In the Outlands? All of them criminals?"

Glancing at Rose, Brett debated whether or not he should comment on the choice of the word "trustworthy." He decided against it. "Yeah. We're like... a family."

"A really weird family," Rose added.

"Family, huh?" Matt asked. "Well..." He placed the compass back on the desk behind him. "As I said earlier, a family fights for one another."

"Or just fights one another," Rose mumbled, barely audible. Matt didn't seem to hear her, and Brett was grateful for that.

"And," Matt continued, "your family is my family. If you say so, I trust that they're good people. I might just, uh... have the kind of resources to help them get out of some of the messes they're in. Within reason."

Rose elbowed Brett in the side. Brett ignored her, lost in his own disbelief.

"Matt, I... I don't even know what to say. I don't even know how you could help us."

"The ship'll be here until tomorrow," Matt said. "So you'll have time to talk it over with your friends. Figure out what I might be able to do to help." He glanced out a window, then faced Brett. "I should be going now, but I'll be available at sundown. Meet me here? And let me know what you all decided?"

"That's perfect," Brett said. "Thanks, Matt. Thanks a lot." He still felt utterly undeserving of his brother's kindness as they hugged one another. He couldn't believe that he and at least some of his friends might actually have a chance of a future life away from the Outlands.
John 14:27:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.
I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled
and do not be afraid.
  








A Change Once here on Young Writers Society, in chat, chickens wanted variety. They complained to Nate and after debate became funky orangutans silently.
— Mea