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Fate's Hand

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Sun May 21, 2023 5:06 am
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Carina says...

It was a tough past few days, but Elise was surviving.

She was glad she had Mel around as company. If it wasn't for her, Elise wouldn't have been able to keep it all together. She felt grossly overwhelmed to the point where she could hardly think straight, and she grew so, so tired.

But she knew that she had to persevere. They all did. They all needed each other, and she knew that there wasn't anything to do but move forward.

Elise said she would trust Bo to make it safe with Elias, and she did. And that was all she could do.

It didn't mean that she wouldn't get stressed out, though.

Elise felt she had been walking in a trance, still in a state of disbelief and shock, but she did her best to stay present, especially when she was being spoken to. She didn't mind when she was alone, though. It gave her time to think and figure out how to be less overwhelmed by everything.

She sat alone by herself towards the end of the day, waiting for Mel to return as she made her rounds to check-in on everyone. Elise spaced out, feeling like only a few minutes had passed until Mel returned.

"Oh, hey," she said softly, looking up as she watched her approach. "Back already?"

Mel offered Elise a small smile, but it looked a little strained.

"Yeah," she said quietly, taking a seat next to Elise with a heavy sigh.

Elise hesitated, noticing that Mel seemed to be frustrated. "Is everything alright?" she asked.

Mel leaned forward, rubbing her forehead and then propping her head up in her palm as she looked over to Elise.

"It's just Hendrik," she said lowly. "It's exhausting being around someone so condescending all the time. It feels like I'm talking to a wall. A wall that assumes I'm an idiot."

"Ah," Elise said quietly, nodding with understanding. "Yeah... he can be like that sometimes. It is exhausting."

Mel let out another sigh.

"Is it just because I'm a woman? Is it because I'm younger than him? He was never like this with Bo," Mel said.

Elise had to pause and think, reflecting on the times when Hendrik had been condescending towards her. She felt like he had been, but her mind was growing blank at specific instances.

Was he ever like this to her?

"I don't know if it's because of that," Elise thought out loud. "I've known him to be cordial with other younger women... Maybe he doesn't like that Bo put you in charge."

"He probably doesn't like that Bo left, either," Mel said. "But I had no control over that. I can't fly. He was going to leave anyway. There's nothing I could do to stop him."

Elise could hear Mel's frustration, but also her sadness leaking through over Bo's absence.

"Did you wish you could stop him?" Elise asked quietly.

"Yes," Mel said, frowning deeply. "I don't think he should've gone alone. I know he thinks he can handle it on his own, but I had to bring him back from death's door only moments before he flew off. He's not invincible, Elise, even though sometimes he pretends to be around the others. And I can't help but be worried for him. It's -- it's not that I don't want him to help Elias. But I'm worried about Bo too."

Elise stared down at the ground, feeling her heart ache again over the whole situation.

"I'm worried about him too," she said softly.

"It just-- it feels like Hendrik blames me for some reason," Mel said. "I don't see why I should be punished for taking on the responsibility of leadership that I was asked to take. Ordered, is more like it. I know we're only together for a little while longer, it's just... on top of everything else, it's just frustrating to feel like I constantly have to justify every decision. Like Hendrik feels some compulsion to act as Bo's proxy, and I have to run everything by him first."

"That does sound very frustrating," Elise said. "It sounds like he's taking his own frustrations out on you, even though you couldn't control what happened."

"I guess that's part of being a leader," Mel said wearily. "You just get flack for everything and have to take it. Everyone's got an opinion."

"Have you told Hendrik about how you felt?" Elise asked.

"I haven't," Mel said. "And I know I probably should at some point, but it just doesn't feel like it would be wise to do it right now, while we're all still struggling to make it day to day. We have enough sources of tension already. This really isn't that important right now."

"I think your sanity is important," Elise said with a faint smile. "But it's up to you. He might not even be aware of his behavior. Maybe you could be the one to instill change for him."

Mel sighed.

"I just... I don't know if I want to fight this battle just yet. Maybe once we get to New Haven, I'll try bringing it up before we part ways," she said. "I don't think I have the emotional energy to try just yet."

Elise nodded. "I'm sorry it's been frustrating. It can't be easy, especially with everything else going on. Hopefully he'll start lightening up soon."

"Hopefully," Mel said with a sigh.

There was a pause, and Mel briefly rubbed her face in the silence.

"Anyway," she said wearily. "How have you been holding up?"

"Oh... the usual, I think. It's been stressful, but it always has. I'm hoping we can get to New Haven without any problems," Elise said.

Mel nodded.

"Me too," Mel said softly. "I know... Elias is always on your mind."

"Is it that obvious?" Elise said sheepishly with an airy, hollow laugh.

"I would be worried if it wasn't," Mel said softly. "Knowing you."

"Yeah..." Elise said with a heavy sigh, leaning forward as she stared at the ground. "I guess this feels... different. Yet, familiar. Because there isn't really much I can do at this point. I'm just... waiting. And hoping. I think that's all any of us can do."

Mel nodded.

"I understand the feeling," Mel said. "At some point, there's not much you can do except... feel it. And you still have to figure out how to go about life."

Mel leaned forward a little, hugging her knees.

"I keep wishing this week was over so I could let myself feel it all," Mel said. "Because I feel like I already am."

"Is that bad?" Elise asked.

"No, it's not bad," Mel said with a sigh. "Except that I feel like I don't get many moments to process it all because I'm so worried about everything else."

Elise was quiet for a moment as she put herself in Mel's shoes. Bo had always taken on so much, and now that he was no longer here, Mel filled his spot - and with that, his roles and responsibilities.

"I know you already know this, but... you don't have to bear all this yourself," she said. "We can all lean on each other, especially during times of stress."

Mel flashed Elise a small, sad smile.

"I think I just keep worrying about Bo," Mel said quietly, her smile fading. "I don't know how far Elias is going to push him. And I don't know if the mage hunters will be back. If they run into Bo and Elias... it's just the two of them. Bo might feel pushed into a corner again..."

Elise felt her heart sink at the thought as guilt also crept in. Bo was only gone because Elias left. She couldn't help but ask herself what she could have done in the past to help Elias some more. Elise knew she really did try her best, but maybe it wasn't enough.

And if mage hunters really were present, and something happened to not only Elias, but Bo as well...

It was a dark thought, but not one Elise wanted to dwell upon.

"I think what I hate most is how helpless I feel about it all," Mel said. "And I can't help but feel angry. Angry about it all happening in the first place."

Elise nodded. "I feel helpless too. I wished things turned out differently," she said softly.

"I don't want to think about the potential... of having to face the worst," Mel said even quieter. "I feel like I can't even let my mind go there, or I'll lose help altogether. I don't know how Bo did it. He'd always think of the worst case scenario and still fight with everything within him for the best possible outcome."

"Bo also has had decades of experience," Elise said. "Regardless, you're not Bo. You have your own set of strengths and weaknesses. It's not a bad thing that you can't do everything he's able to do. I think that's expected."

"I feel like everyone expects me to be like Bo, though," Mel said. "Like an unspoken assumption."

Elise hesitated. "Everyone... or Hendrik?"

Mel sighed.

"Hendrik, mostly," she muttered, burying her face in her hands. "And myself."

"Well... you can control one of those options," Elise said with a slight reassuring smile.

Mel huffed through her nose, pulling her hands away to look at Elise with a small grin.

"True," she said. "I think, more than anything, I just... keep missing him. Bo, I mean. We've been working together so consistently for the past few years... we've hardly ever split up, and never with such high stakes as this."

Elise nodded again. "I can see why you'd miss him. Each night that passes without him must feel so foreign to you. But I know you'll be reunited with him again soon."

"I know," she said quietly. "I just..."

But she trailed off, letting out a sigh instead as she shook her head.

"I know it can be hard to believe. And maybe you look up to how Bo thinks through the worst case scenarios... but I'd like to believe that we're headed towards the best case scenario instead," Elise said.

"It's certainly a more hopeful future," Mel said. "I guess... it's good to hope. I want to have hope for both of them. I guess I'll keep trying."

"I'm glad. And I'll try with you, too," Elise said, briefly setting her hand on her shoulder.
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Mon May 22, 2023 12:42 am
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Carina says...

"It's been a couple days now... How are you feeling?" Alistair asked Clandestine during their night shift.

They had been talking every day since the mage hunter attack. It seemed that the two of them had been processing slowly, moreso Clandestine than Alistair. At this point, Alistair had mostly finished processing the actual events, and was making more sense of everything that followed - mostly the effects leading before and after it as he tried to make sense of it all.

But Alistair knew it took a while for everything to sink in for Clandestine, so he wanted to be there for her as well.

"Dirty," Clandestine answered finally after a long pause.

"...Physically?" he said.

"In my soul," Clandestine said, making a circular motion with her hands around her chest.

"Oh... right," Alistair said, pretending to know what that meant. "A dirty soul."

"I just feel icky inside," Clandestine said.

"Why?" he asked, even when he already knew the answer.

"Even though the hunters were trying to hurt us, they were still people, you know?" Clandestine said. "There's something that just feels... like after that many people died because of me, I just don't feel the same."

"Yeah..." Alistair said quietly, understanding exactly what she said.

"It makes me kind of scared of myself," Clandestine said quietly. "I don't mean that hunters have it right with the whole 'magic is evil' thing, but I don't know. I feel like all I did was prove them right, in a way. Showing them that yeah, I could end them quickly if I wanted..."

"There's just no winning this," he said with a sigh. "We do nothing, they attack. We do something, they still attack, and we're portrayed as the villains."

"And if we show them mercy - because, I mean, you haven't been there, but we really have tried so many times before - it's like they just go and come back again," Clandestine said, sounding both frustrated and sad. "It's like when we show mercy, they go 'hah! we duped them!' and just take advantage of it. Like, I don't even feel human to them or something. And I don't know, maybe it's all getting to my head. Maybe I'm not. I mean, I'm not. They should be afraid of me. Maybe everyone should be."

Alistair glanced at her. "You want everyone to be afraid of you?"

"No!" Clandestine said, throwing her hands up in the air. "Of course I don't!"

Alistair sighed again. "Yeah. There's no winning this. Not without even more drastic action."

"That's what I'm afraid of," Clandestine said, her voice growing quiet.

"I just... sometimes, I don't understand why people can be so cruel," Alistair said, growing quieter as well. "How can fifty people go out of their way to kill people they don't even know? I don't understand..."

"Because they think we're too big a danger to leave alone," Clandestine said quietly.

"So they do fear you, and me, and everyone here," he said.

"Yeah," Clandestine said. "That's what this whole thing is about, I think. It's about fear, and power, and who has it. And people trying to control who has it..."

"I wish there were another way. I wish there was a way to tell people that they can live a peaceful life if they back off and mind their own damn business," Alistair dead-panned.

"I mean, you can say that," Clandestine said. "I just don't think they'd listen."

"Their loss." He paused. "Literally, their loss. Because fifty people died for no good reason."

Clandestine frowned at that.

"Yeah," she said. "If they hadn't come right in with smoke bombs and stuff... I don't know. I just wonder if we would've been able to reason with them at all. Or if they would've tried to kill us anyway. I've heard too many stories of hunters pretending to be agreeable and come to an angreement only to stab mages in the back the moment they're vulnerable."

"Yeah, if it hasn't worked in the past, I don't think it'd work now," Alistair said. "I think the only thing that could have maybe changed their minds was if they knew that finding us meant they were walking towards their death."

"Too bad normal people can't see the future," Clandestine said softly.

"Yeah, too bad they're not time mages." Alistair let out another sigh. "I guess there's no use in dwelling on what could be... but I'm still trying to make sense of it too. And I keep thinking about the effects of all those people dying... but... I don't know. I don't know if there was another way."

"What, like all their families? And friends?" Clandestine asked.

"Yeah... and their anger," he said quietly. "The anger and the grief."

"It all feeds into the cycle," Clandestine said sadly. "It's been like this for decades."

"I know... it's war, and it's all some toxic cycle. But it's just... I don't know, it's all so needless and preventable. How is it that we're our own biggest threat to life? War isn't natural. It's something humans made up, and yet... we can't do anything to stop it. It's like it's in our nature to destroy each other."

"I wasn't really... around when the war started," Clandestine said. "I really only remember the very beginning. The quiet, whispered panic just before it all happened, and I was locked away to be kept safe. But... I think, at least, this one was Blackfield's invention. From what Bo and Mickey have told me... the war didn't originally start as a war against the mages, actually. It started as a war against the dragons. Wiping out the guilds was just a strategy to try to smoke them all out. And take them out, if they could be."

Clandestine hesitated.

"At least, back then, the dragons were involved in the guilds a lot. Just... secretly, a lot of the time," she said.

"I guess... they thought that dragons would live forever, back then," Clandestine said. "Even the dragons did too. But then Blackfield managed to kill the first earth dragon, before Mickey. And that's what started the calamity, and the war, and everything..."

Alistair wasn't really prepared for a sudden history lesson, but he appreciated having more context and did his best to keep up, connecting the pieces he was missing.

"I don't know," Clandestine said. "I think people tend to destroy each other, sometimes, sure. But usually, it's just the select few in positions of influence that drag everyone into it, I think. I mean, that's why there's kingdoms and countries and all that. People agree on having structured society because there's a sense of security in togetherness and agreeing on rules and stuff. But not all of those big groups agree on things."

Clandestine shrugged.

"I don't know," she said. "I'm not an expert on human nature. But I do think that this war we're in now was a long time coming. At least, from what I'm told, it sounds like Blackfield was planning a lot of it in the background, secretly, for a very long time. Years, at least. I don't know how many."

Alistair was listening. He was. But he was still focused on a sentence she said a while ago.

"Hey, Clanny..." he said when there was a natural pause. "How did Blackfield manage to kill the first earth dragon?"

Clandestine blinked, looking over to Alistair with wide eyes.

"I..." she gulped. "I don't really know the full story."

She looked down.

"It's the one story Mickey hasn't really been able to tell," she said quietly. "He was there when it happened, and he was the first one to learn that a dragon's magic is passed down, since he was the first inheritor. But he said the only reason they were able to take down Jord was because they weren't prepared for lumshade to be weaponized like it was. Blackfield was the first to discover that uh, feature of the flower. He was an alchemist and kept the discovery to himself... quietly perfecting the formula before he turned it into a weapon against mages. And since it was a secret... dragons and mages weren't prepared for it. No one ever anticipated something that could stop people from being able to use their magic like that," Clandestine said. "And no one would've thought it'd be able to affect a dragon."

It was a terrorizing thought. Alistair remembered all the times they had each other's backs, burning lumshade darts that flew towards each other. Had the fight gone differently, and had he not fought alongside Clandestine... who knew what would've happened?

"Back during the first mage attack, when we kept watch and then you got hit by a dart..." Alistair said slowly. "Was that the first time you got hit by lumshade?"

Clandestine hesitated.

"It... it wasn't the first," she said. "But... I know that I have a lower resistance to lumshade than other dragons since I'm... younger. I don't know. Me being locked away stunted things I think. We don't really know."

"Maybe it was good you were locked away... I don't know, I'm just glad you're here," Alistair said.

"I mean, I was so young, I didn't really understand what was going on in the moment," Clandestine said. "But... It was my mentor's idea. Silva. She and Svida came up with the plan, because I guess after Jord passed and Mickey inherited Jord's magic, Svida had this... I don't know, she just knew that I was her inheritor. And they knew the attacks were going to continue, and Svida didn't know if she'd survive, but she didn't want Blackfield to get his hands on me since I was still so young and impressionable or whatever. So they thought it'd be better to seal me away, hoping it'd preserve me and keep me from being found."

Alistair nodded. It was a lot of names, but he was tracking.

"Svida was the fire dragon before me," Clandestine added. "Silva was my mentor. Their names are really similar, I know."

"Clanny, you talk a lot about other dragons and powerful mages - but what about your friends and family? I don't think you've ever mentioned them to me," Alistair said.

"Oh," Clandestine said quietly. "Well. That's, uh. I mean, I think I might've already mentioned that... everyone I knew back then is dead now. Right?"

"Yeah, it's been a hundred years or so, but it's not like you experienced those a hundred years," he said.

"I don't have any living family members to my knowledge," Clandestine said. "And I've uh. I was... like, I've only been 'awake' for the last five years. And like, four of those I was kind of alone mostly, monster hunting and stuff. Well, okay, the first year I was found by this guy who I never even learned his name. And I just called him 'cowboy' because I don't know, it was weird, but we never told each other our names. I think he didn't want to get attached and I was so confused about the world that I didn't know what to do and he just helped me around a bit before he left me. And then I did some monster hunting. Ran into a little harpy girl, saved her from some freaks, helped her get back to her family. Then went back to hunting. And eventually was found by Bo and and Robin who took me in. That last bit was only like, a year ago."

Alistair wanted to get to know Clandestine better, of course, but by the end of it, he couldn't help but let out a little laugh.

"I'm glad you told me, Clanny. I guess I have been wondering what happened after you woke up. But I bring all this up because I wanted to know your life before you became a dragon. Surely you had a life before then... right?"

Clandestine blinked.

"I... I mean, yeah," she said. "But that was... a hundred years ago."

"So?" he said.

"I just... lived at the guild," she said. "With Svida. And she was training me how to monster hunt. The guild was a mage guild, so there was a lot of training going on there all the time."

"Why'd she train you to monster hunt, anyways?" Alistair asked.

"I guess it just made sense," Clandestine said. "She was a monster hunter, and she took me in when my parents didn't want me, and she just did what she knew and taught me to follow in her footsteps I guess."

Alistair was about to ask if she had family, but it seemed that Clandestine lightly glossed over the fact that her parents didn't want her. It made him sad.

"Svida was your only family," he said as a question, but it came out to be more of a statement.

"I guess so," Clandestine said. "I kind of always considered the guild members to be like my family... it was that kind of environment."

"Who else do you think about from back then?" he asked.

Clandestine hummed.

"There was this man named Marrin," she said with a small, fond smile. "Looking back, I think he and Silva kind of had a thing with each other. But I guess I kind of always saw him as a father figure. Or the closest thing I had to one at the time, anyways. He was a big guy. Super sweet. Always gave me candy when Silva wasn't looking. He was a water mage and Silva was a fire mage. So sometimes he'd sit in on my magic lessons and be there to put out any uh, getaway fires I started, hah."

Alistair hummed, imagining that. "He sounds nice," he said, then hesitated. "Do you remember anyone else?"

"There were these twins," Clandestine said. "Both super tall ladies. They were weapons' specialists and could fight with like, any weapon you could think of. I would follow them around the guild sometimes and pester them with questions and they would always laugh and let me sneak out with them sometimes, if Silva wasn't around. Then they'd teach me how to use a sword. I got in trouble for that a few times though."

Alistair hesitated. He was beginning to notice that she only brought up people who were adults, even though the guild was a place she grew up in.

"Did you talk to anyone who was, you know... your age?" he asked, not really knowing how else to ask if she had relatable friends.

Clandestine let out a weak laugh.

"Well, the guilds weren't exactly orphanages," she said. "And people with families didn't like, live there, really. The people there were usually ones who worked with the guild. And I mean, we'd have kids come in sometimes with their parents, and a lot of kids between 12 and 18 coming for classes. But... I don't know, I didn't interact with them as much in the day to day. I wasn't very good at, um... making friends," Clandestine said.

Suddenly things were beginning to make more sense. Alistair now understood why she hadn't really brought up her pre-dragon life before outside of her mentor and monster hunting - because her life was only about magic and monster hunting. And in a way, it still was.

He could understand why Clandestine tended to gravitate towards people who were alone, because she had been alone for a long time too.

She didn't have a normal childhood. And now, she still couldn't have a life outside of it centering around magic, because she was a dragon.

Alistair had his own opinions and reservations, but at least he had a loving parent and a decent childhood. At least he had the choice to not fight if he didn't want to.

Clandestine was never really given an alternative.

"I'm sorry your childhood wasn't what you wished it could be," he said softly, staring at the ground. "You really weren't given much of a choice back then... or now, even."

Clandestine looked over at him with confusion, her brows pinching together as she tilted her head.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"I don't know... it seems that you were... molded, in a way. To be a monster hunter and a powerful mage. Were you given other opportunities to explore something... different?" Alistair asked.

Clandestine looked off into the distance like she was in deep thought.

"I mean... I remember Silva asking me if I wanted to monster hunt," she said quietly.

"How old were you when she asked that?" Alistair asked.

"Maybe seven? Eight? I don't really know how old I was," she said.

"...Clanny, you didn't really know any better. You probably thought monster hunting was the best thing in the world back then, because it was all you knew," he said softly.

"I mean, I don't regret learning it," Clandestine said. "I still think it's cool. But maybe I just lucked out on that bit."

"I guess I can't help but wonder how different all of this would be if you were given other opportunities to try something different. Who knows... you could have been a whole different person with completely different interests. I hope you know that it's not too late to explore and try something new, though."

Clandestine kept her brows furrowed as she looked over at him.

"Do you feel bad for me?" she asked.

"Maybe a little," Alistair admitted. "I have my own opinions about my life, but I had friends and a supportive parent who encouraged me to explore different paths."

"I mean, I'm aware that my childhood wasn't perfect, and neither was Silva," Clandestine said. "She locked me away in a magical preservation coffin. I don't think that's perfect parenting. Not that she ever really let me call her mom."

Well, that was a development. It sounded like all of this was getting worse and worse the more Alistair listened. He couldn't even hide on his face how terrible this must have been for Clandestine, who was putting it so plainly.

"Now that I think about it, I don't really know if Svida knew about the whole coffin thing. I kind of just... overheard some stuff through the walls, and it's been so long I don't know how much I really remember, now," she hummed. "It was just Silva who was there when I was locked away."

"Gods," Alistair muttered. "That must have been so terrifying."

"Yeaaaaaah," Clandestine said weakly. "She uh, gave me something that... made me loopy. Before if all. Maybe it was lumshade for all I know. Could've been something else, though. It probably was, actually. She wouldn't have had lumshade at the time, what am I saying?"

Alistair stared at her with wide eyes. "She drugged you?" he sputtered out.

Clandestine looked over at him, like she was surprised at his reaction.

"Uh... yeah," Clandestine said. "I don't think I would've cooperated otherwise. I was a fussy kid."

"I mean, yeah, Clanny - she stuck you in a dark, tiny box!" Alistair harshly whispered, feeling angry for something that happened nearly a century again.

"It actually wasn't that small," Clandestine said. "It had a lot of space, presumably for me to grow in the interim. When I woke up, it was like I fit. Like it'd been made for adult me. But when I was put in it, I didn't fit."

Alistair blankly stared at her. "Clanny," he pleaded sternly, waiting to see if she'd realize how absurd this all sounded.

She only stared back with curious eyes.

"That was really messed up. Your childhood sucked," he said more plainly this time.

"Well... yeah," Clandestine said too casually. "Yeah, I know."

"I guess I can see why you haven't told me before... sorry," Alistair said.

"I mean, it's mostly because it didn't come up," Clandestine said. "But yeah. I tend to get pretty weird reactions. Or uh. I don't know. Mickey and Bo tell me they're normal reactions. I'm just underreacting because trauma coping mechanisms or whatever words."

"...Yeah. I see that," he said, then sighed. "I guess this makes me see you in a new light. Not that it's a bad thing. It just makes me... understand better."

"Understand what?" Clandestine asked. "That I'm all messed up in the head like everyone else?"

She tapped both sides of her temples with her forefingers.

"You're not messed up," Alistair said. "Far from it. I'm no expert in human behavior, but I guess more of your... personality, or opinions make sense to me. Like, for a long time, I was wondering why you always wanted to talk to me. What did I have to offer that interested you so much? I just didn't get it. But maybe it's because you're hard-wired to seek people who are alone, because you knew what that was like. I don't like, like I said, I'm no expert, and I'm just spitballing here. But that's an example."

Clandestine hummed, and then let out a little laugh.

"Ah," she said. "You've been psycho-analanizing me."

Alistair almost wanted to laugh from her wrong pronounciation, but he only shook his head. "Sure. Let's go with that."

"That's what uh, people accuse Bo of doing sometimes," she said. "You gotta be careful with that. Sometimes people don't like being understood that much."

She waggled a finger at him in a teasing chide, but her smile told him she wasn't at all seriously offended.

"What makes you say that?" Alistair asked nonchalantly.

"I don't know, I've just seen it where sometimes Bo will like - without meaning to, sometimes, I think - kinda hits the nail on the head for what's going on with somebody and it throws 'em off," she said. "Like they weren't expecting for someone to get it, and they didn't really want anyone to. Maybe it's because they aren't ready to get it themselves. I think that's usually it."

Maybe Alistair was reading between the lines too much, but he was pretty sure she was talking about herself.

"Well, if they aren't ready then, when will they be?" Alistair asked, watching her carefully.

Clandestine looked at Alistair with a look like his question was weird.

"I don't know," she said like it was obvious. "Depends on the person."

"So, let's go down the list of people... starting with you," Alistair said, ignoring his rough transition and hoping she would continue to talk.

Clandestine blinked.

"Wha..." she mumbled. "Wait, wait. You think I'm talking about me?"

"Who else would it be about?" Alistair barked back.

"Um, like, other people Bo's interacted with, obviously," Clandestine said. "But yeah, sure. He and I have a talked a lot about this stuff already. I'm fine with talking about it, I'm just - you know. Still not good at talking about it without being all... whatever."

"I'm pretty whatever too. So that doesn't really bother me," he said with a shrug.

"Good," Clandestine said with a little smile, squinting her eyes.

Alistair let out a deep sigh. "Sorry again if this was... difficult. But it doesn't make me see you as a lesser person. If anything, it only convinced me that we need to do stuff that doesn't include magic, since that's what your whole life's been about."

At that, Clandestine seemed to brighten, looking to him with a small smile of anticipation.

"Like what?" she asked with a sense of excitement.

Alistair faltered. His list of possibilities right now were zero since he had put no thought into this yet.

"Uh..." he stammared.

"I could take you to the stables!" Clandestine blurted. "And introduce you to all the wacky animals!"

"Isn't that, like... light monster hunting? Animal hunting? Animals?" Alistair said suspiciously.

"Noooooooo," Clandestine said. "It's more like... a petting zoo."

"I was thinking something more... creative," he said instead.

"I could paint your face!" Clandestine blurted again. "Face paint!"

"Why does it have to be my face?" he muttered.

"Because I can't see my own face," Clandestine said.

"Why can't it be on paper?"

"Oh. Hm. I guess paper is a thing," Clandestine said, rubbing her chin in thought.

"But sure, yeah. You could paint. I'm not very good at that, but I could try it with you," Alistair said.

"Neither am I," Clandestine said. "I'm not the most artsy..."

"Yeah... neither am I..."

"You know what I miss being able to do?" Clandestine asked.

"Please don't say finger painting or something weird," Alistair muttered.

"I never got to do it much growing up," she said. "But I really like dressing up and dancing. There's something about it that's just so fun. The music, the people, the fun of it."

Alistair hummed. "I'm sure there will be plenty of that in New Haven."

"I know you probably wouldn't guess it because I'm basically dressed like a man," Clandestine said. "But when I'm not all stinky and on the road all the time I like to dress all cute and nice."

She 'twirled' an imaginary skirt.

"Hm," Alistair hummed as he tried to imagine it. He couldn't. "Yeah. Can't see it at all. But I'll take your word for it."

"Guess what my favorite color is," Clandestine said like it was a dare.

"Black," Alistair in a monotone voice.

"Pink!" she laughed.

"Color me shocked," he mumbled.

"Oh, please," Clandestine said, shoving him to the side playfully. "Black's your favorite color, grumpy-face."

"Just because I wear black a lot doesn't make it my favorite color," he huffed.

"Okay then," Clandestine said challengingly. "What is your favorite color?"

Alistair hesitated. "I don't know. I don't think I have one."

"Come ooooon," Clandestine goaded. "There's got to be some color you at least prefer."

Alistair thought about saying a joke, but he took another second to think about it, and just said the first one that came to mind - even if he didn't really think it was his favorite color.

"Sure. Brown," he said.

Clandestine squinted at him.

"So like," she glanced down at herself. She was wearing mostly brown. "This outfit. This is your thing. You like this?"

Alistair couldn't help but feel embarrassed, warmth pooling in his cheeks as he tried to play it off.

"I guess I wasn't really think about outfits," he said, ignoring her question as he glanced the other way. "I just see it a lot. I guess it's a nice, earthy color."

"Oh, so you like the earth," Clandestine said. "Earthy. Yeah. I can see that. You seem like an 'earthy' guy."

Alistair glanced back with a raised brow. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"You seem... connected with the earth," Clandestine said, wiggling her fingers. "I don't know."

"Hm." Alistair paused to think about it. "I guess when I think of brown, I think of wood. So maybe there's truth to that."

"Wood is super flammable, you know," Clandestine muttered with a smirk, leaning in like she was whispering it in his ear.

"Yes, I'm aware from when I nearly started a forest fire a week ago," Alistair said as he slowly leaned away.

Clandestine snorted.

"But... you know, and maybe this is ironic..." Alistair slowly began as he stared at dark forest ahead of them, lost in thought. "I've worked with a lot of wood in the past, mostly burning it, yeah. But my father was also a carpenter, and we share our magic. So I guess not all fire mages are doomed to set wood on fire."

"Hm," Clandestine said. "I mean, a lot of fire mages make stuff in New Haven. Fire's got many uses. Some people don't really use it at all."

"Yeah. I'll probably be one of those people, but we'll see," he said.

"So what makes you want to do artsy stuff?" Clandestine asked. "Just for fun?"

"I don't want to do it," he said. "I was thinking you could do it. But I'll tag along with you if you'd like."

"Does something about me scream 'potential painter prodigy' in the making?" Clandestine asked with a smirk.

"Hilarious," Alistair said, but then he squinted into the darkness and scratched the side of his head, actually thinking about why he was quick to jump on artistic hobbies in particular. "Hmm. I guess I've just internalized my mom always telling me that humans are born to create. So since you haven't really tried out different stuff, creative hobbies come to mind first," he said.

"Does your mom paint?" Clandestine asked.

"No. She was a musician," he said.

"Was," Clandestine said softer. "Is she... still around?"

"Alive? Yeah, I'm pretty sure. But on Nye?" He hesitated. "No."

"Why did she stop playing music?" Clandestine asked.

"I'm not really sure, but I think it's because my father left and my brother died," he said. "I'm the only one who wasn't a musician. I guess she felt... alone."

Clandestine hummed.

"That's sad," she said softly. "But I can see how that'd make her not want to create anymore."

Alistair paused. "Yeah... I hope she's doing okay. I often wonder how long it would take for her to accept that I'm not coming back. I'm sure she thinks I'd be coming back any day now... maybe she still does. I don't know. But I feel so bad... because she'd truly be alone."

Clandestine looked over to Alistair with a look of deep empathy.

"I'm sorry," she said. "That's so hard... not getting to say goodbye or even explain what happened."

"That's alright," he said. "My relationship with her was getting kind of strained towards the end, so I think my last words with her involved a minor argument. If I had known that would be the last time I'd see her... I'd have been nicer."

Clandestine was quiet for a moment.

"What were you arguing about?" she asked.

Alistair was quiet for a moment. He wished he could say he didn't remember, but the regret seared the memory in his mind.

"My brother," he said quietly. "At that point, it had been eight years. I was telling her she had to move on."

"Oh," Clandestine said. "Yeah. That's heavy."

"It was pretty shitty for me to do, I'll admit that," Alistair said with a sigh. "I think I was just... I don't know. I was tired of always coming second place. Not that I have any resentment towards my brother - I don't at all. But I was getting tired of always being stuck in the past with her when I had my own set of present problems I was dealing with."

"It sounds like she never really finished grieving," Clandestine said quietly. "But I can see how that'd hurt her relationship with you. If she was just... too sad to see the son she still had."

"I guess I haven't really thought about it that way," he said quietly.

He paused.

"Well... I guess somehow we landed on talking about her anyways. But I have been thinking about my mom a lot lately. Long story short, after the mage attack, I can't help but realize that I have a hard time telling villains apart from heros sometimes. I don't always know who to trust and I sometimes don't really accept I'm being taken advantage of until I reach a tipping point. I know my mom's the same way, and for a long time, I've resented her for that... but honestly, I think I'm just like her, and I've resented myself for it."

"How was your mom like that?" Clanny asked gently.

"She can be so naive sometimes, only holding on to the positives even when the negatives are right in her face," Alistair said. "And not only that, but my father was abusive against her - physically and emotionally. And she just took it. And guess what? So did I, when I inevitably went on to get into my first serious relationship. It's like a big, stupid cycle of hurt that doesn't stop."

Clandestine frowned, looking down at the ground.

"I guess I never would've pinned you as naive," she said. "You always seem to say pretty cynical things."

"Yeah, well," he huffed. "Why do you think I'm trying to be the opposite of naive?"

"Ah," Clandestine said quietly. "I guess that makes sense."

Alistair sighed. "Yeah... guess things make sense for me now too, then."

"Sounds like you've psycho-analanized yourself, too."

Alistair let out an amused puff of air through his nose. He thought about correcting her pronunciation, but decided against it since he wanted to know how long it'd take for her to eventually notice herself.

"Yeah. I guess so."
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soundofmind says...

The chill of the evening air crept into the camp with icy fingers. Dr. Aradis assured everyone that they were less than 48 hours away, and though the hope of security within the city was a welcome refuge, James found himself feeling restless at the thought of settling down.

Not having to worry about the dangers of the wilds or mage-hunters should've given him more peace, but thinking about a possible life where he wasn't constantly on the run or on the move suddenly felt so daunting. He feared that everything that had been swimming in his mind would finally settle like a thick dust, and he'd finally have to look at it.

Travel had been like a welcome distraction. The stress of having to be constantly alert was almost a blessing, because it meant there were always bigger priorities than stopping to let himself feel the weight of the last few months. The last few years. His whole life.

It made him worry. He couldn't help but hear Mel's voice in his head, bemoaning the fact that so many men couldn't just let themselves feel.

He'd had a quiet fear in the back of his mind that he'd been too afraid to voice, but hearing Mel talk about her frustrations with Jordan caused it to surface, loud and terrifying.

James knew that Eve loved him, and he didn't think she'd ever be quick to leave him, but he couldn't help but wonder if... if things stayed the way they were, would she feel bound to him but secretly resent his presence? If he never learned to face reality, would she be quietly unhappy? Would she come to wish she'd never fall in love with him at all?

Knowing Eve, she was more likely to blame herself. And that pained James more than anything.

Everything was eating away at him - gnawing slowly. Chipping away at his fragile sense of inner stability.

For weeks he'd been telling himself to wait for New Haven to allow himself to fall apart. But now that it was so close, he didn't know what that would even look like. He was terrified that "letting himself feel everything" would mean he'd somehow lose himself. That he'd lose control, and everyone around him would get hurt in the process.

Logically, he felt like he knew that wasn't true. But when it came down to it, he kept cowering away from it all.

He hated that his first reaction was always to run. Run from his family. Run from the kingdom. Run from his emotions.

Maybe that's why New Haven scared him so much.

In a lone city, there was nowhere to run to.

It was night again. Food rations were low, and the meager meal they all shared was finished quickly. Everyone was tired, and after a full day of travel, no one felt like doing anything but sit. People dispersed as usual, and conversations were quiet. Eve went off to talk to Adina, and James found himself having to reorient his mind again on others.

It'd been a while since he'd talked to Alistair. And it'd been even longer since James had gone to him himself.

Before the attack, Alistair had been checking in on James, usually when James was too weak and tired to move. It made sense, then, that Alistair made more of an effort to come to James just because of James's physical limitations. But now that James was more mobile, he'd noticed Alistair had pulled away.

Normally, Alistair was with Clandestine most of the time. But tonight, it looked like Clandesetine and Mel were deep in conversation, and Alistair had gone further off, lying down.

James hesitated for a moment, hovering at the edge of the camp by the wagon, wondering if Alistair was asleep or just resting. Deciding it didn't do any harm to check, he slowly walked over, stopping at Alistair's side, looking down at him.

Alistair stared up at him, eyes open while he laid with his hands behind his head.

For a moment, they merely stared at each other in silence.

"Hey," James said quietly, feeling like he'd suddenly forgotten how to have a conversation.

"Hey," Alistair said back, now slowly sitting up in the wake of his presence.

"Are you trying to sleep?" James asked. "I don't want to..."

"You're fine. I was just thinking about stuff. I probably won't sleep for a little while," Alistair said, still sitting but looking up at him. "What's up?"

"I just..." James said quietly. "Missed you, is all. Mind if I sit with you?"

"Yeah... yeah, of course," Alistair said softly, motioning for him to sit. "Sorry I haven't been... visiting."

James took a seat beside him, letting out a small groan as he landed on the ground, adjusting his legs so they were stretched out. It was the position that caused the least discomfort, lately.

"No, no, it's fine," James said. "I'm... it should go both ways. I'm sorry I've been a bit, uh... lost in my own head. It's not your fault."

"That's alright... I think I have too. I guess everyone has lately." Alistair sighed, but then glanced at him with a faint smile. "But - I miss you too. Thanks for coming by."

James offered him a small smile in return, but he didn't know why he felt so guilty. He tried to push the feeling aside so he could be more present with Alistair.

"You... you said you were thinking about stuff?" James said, quoting Alistair's own words back to him. "What's been on your mind?"

Alistair sighed, propping his knee up so he could place his elbow against it and rest his cheek against his hand, staring off to the side.

"A lot of stuff. I think I processed most of it with Clanny. But she's not very... what's the word... analytical. Not to say that I am. I think I just let things happen most of the time. But I've just been thinking a lot about what happened the last few days and am trying to make sense of it all. I guess that led to me making sense of my whole life," he said.

"That's quite a lot of thinking," James commented softly.

"Yeah... I suppose so. Or maybe I'm just hungry. I need to tell my brain to stop using my energy to think," Alistair muttered.

"Perhaps," James said. "But, if you want someone else to process with..."

He leaned forward a little, tilting his head and he looked over to Alistair.

"I don't mind," he said.

"Are you sure?" Alistair asked. "I know you've got, you know... a million other problems."

"I never have too many problems to be available for a friend when they need me," James said gently. "It's alright."

Alistair was quiet for a moment, staring at James for a second before he nodded and sighed, sitting up straight again.

"Yeah... alright," he said. "I think one of the bigger thoughts I've had lately is one I've had in the past. It's been a while since I've felt this, but... I don't know, I'm just questioning my own judgement. I feel like I'm not sure who's supposed to be the good guy and who's supposed to be the bad guy. And I figured, if I can't play this game - because I can't seem to get it right most of the time - then maybe I shouldn't play at all. Does that make sense?"

"It might be helpful for me to know some context," James said. "Is there a specific person or instance you think of where you misjudged who could be trusted?"

"There are a few people that come to mind," Alistair said softly, his eyes glued to the ground again. "But Elias is the one that is most recent, and he is the reason why I'm thinking all of this again."

He sighed again, running his hand through his hair.

"I mean, he killed my brother, James. And I get it was an accident. I forgave him a long time ago. But after everything that happened - I don't know, I'm just casting doubt. Honestly, I've been thinking of this since he left and since he - you know. Since he used his magic in front of everyone. But I didn't really know who to tell. I guess you're a good person to tell, since you're a neutral party who could understand," Alistair said.

It was strange.

James knew pieces of Elias. Pieces of Eve. Little pieces of the story, here and there, but all through another person's biased lens - and he knew it was so, because everyone had their own bias.

Elias had obviously been hiding a lot, and James honestly didn't know how much he could trust Eve's own retellings of events to be objective since he knew it'd been not only so incredibly traumatic but because her memories had been interfered with.

Was James neutral? He supposed he was. But it did feel strange, being a late insert into everyone's complex, intermingled histories that stretched back to a childhood of overlapping events James wasn't there for.

"What is it specifically you're casting doubt on?" James said. "That it was an accident, or that Elias is 'a good person?'"

"I don't know," Alistair admitted. "I guess the latter. I haven't even begun to question past history. I'm just wondering if maybe Eve was right that I had forgiven him so fast. What was I thinking back then? I don't know, I always do this."

James wondered if Alistair's nature of being quick to forgive had roots that stretched further. Alistair said he always did this. So...

"Who was the first person whose character you felt you misjudged?" James asked. "Was it Elias?"

Alistair was silent for a moment, thinking it through as he furrowed his brows in thought.

"No... I didn't really think I misjudged Elias at all. Not until now, anyways," he said, then paused again. "The first person I think I misjudged was my father. I think I gave up in ever thinking he'd be a good father when I was... I don't know, young. Ten. Maybe twelve. It was a long time ago."

"Do you mind if I ask... what your father was like?" James asked more gently.

"Not at all," Alistair said with a shake of his head. "I don't really care for him. He was an alcoholic asshole who was awful towards my mom. He was verbally and physically abusive against her. It didn't extend out to us - my brother and I - but probably because he knew that that was where my mother drew the line. And he was right, because Alan accidentally got caught in the crossfire of a fight when we were ten, and then she finally told him to leave. He did, but why did it take that long for her to take action? She just took it. Even I knew something was wrong back then, and I was just a kid."

James felt like he was beginning to understand Alistair a little.

He was describing his mother, but in his description, James could see Alistair.

"Often times, people can't see abuse when it's closest to them," James said softly. "That's how they get into those situations in the first place. It begins with little compromises. Letting something slide, accepting it as normal, until it escalates and they don't know how to get out. And of course, by then, their emotions are so intermingled in the conflict that it becomes painful to face the reality that someone you love and care about is hurting you."

James let out a small sigh.

"I'm glad that she eventually came to her senses," James said. "But I can see how growing up with a father like that would jade you and make you question things. Not everyone is what they seem."

"It wasn't--" Alistair began, but then paused as he took a heavy deep breath, starting again. "It wasn't my father that made me question things. It was my mother. I've been so afraid of being like her, and I really do love her, but I resent her for a lot of different things. But now I think I'm just like her, and I'm resenting myself for it."

James hummed.

"So, just to make sure I'm understanding," James said. "You're reevaluating all of your relationships, specifically ones where people proved to be different than you initially thought, because you're afraid you're becoming like your mother."

"Wow. When you put it like that, it sounds laughable," Alistair said flatly.

"I'm not trying to condescend," James said. "I just... wanted to make sure I'm hearing you right."

"I guess that's right. But I haven't even really thought about it that far. I guess maybe I will be reevaluating all my relationships, but right now, I'm just focusing on Elias. I hope I don't live a life where I truly question people's motives, but I'm just... tired. Tired of being naive."

"I don't think naive is a very kind word for it," James said softly. "I don't think its inherently wrong to think the best of others, or to want to think the best of others. It does, undoubtedly, open you up to potential pain, but I think it can be a great strength."

He paused, looking to Alistair with a weak, sad smile.

"I understand how tiring it is, though," he said.

"Yeah... and I understand what you're saying. I do. Because I really did think like that, not even that long ago now," Alistair said staring back at the ground again. "I'm scared of being like my mother because I really did go through what she did. Like you said, it starts off small and unsuspecting. It was my first serious relationship, and I didn't think anything of it - not even when she berated me, and not even when she hit me. And I put up with it for two years. It wasn't until I felt like she crossed the line that I had enough and found the strength to leave. So at the end of the day... am I really that different from my mother?"

"It sounds like you were able to see it for what it was a lot sooner," James said softly. "And I don't know how much your mother has learned since leaving your father - but even just hearing you talk now, it sounds like you're far more aware of your worth now than you ever were back then."

He paused, looking over to Alistair again, even though Alistair hadn't looked up once.

"How old were you when you were in that relationship?" James asked.

"Yeah... I was twenty," Alistair answered. "I was a pretty different person back then."

"I think everyone was a different person at twenty compared to, what, eight years later?" James said. "You were much younger. And... if I recall, that would've still been quite close to the passing of your brother."

"Yeah... I guess so," Alistair said with a deep sigh. "Everything before 25 feels like a blur, honestly."

"I think that makes sense," James said. "It sounds like you were very shut down during that time. It makes sense that, if you were really emotionally absent or otherwise numb at the time that it would take quite a while to be present enough to really face the reality of an abusive situation. I wouldn't blame yourself for that."

Alistair rubbed his face but didn't otherwise comment. He seemed to slowly be processing James's words, letting it sink in slowly.

"I know... this is probably a lot to process," James said, more gently. "If you need time to think we can pause here for now. I know sometimes I need time to gather my thoughts if I haven't thought about something before."

"Yeah... maybe. I thought I was thinking about this deeply, but apparently not," Alistair said with a weak laugh.

"Ah," James said softly. "Well... we can talk more about this at a later time if you want. Or not. Just know I'm still open to it. But we can, uh, put a pin in it for now."

That was another saying he learned on earth. He'd read it in a book, once.

"Well... thanks," Alistair said. "I think that just about covers the bigger thoughts I had floating through my mind. I'm sure later I'll think of something else. Maybe."

"I'm sure you will if your body keeps putting all its energy towards thinking," James said with a weak smile.

"Gods. I wish it would put it into walking instead. My legs hurt," Alistair grumbled.

"Well, in a day or two, hopefully you'll get to take a nice, long nap," James said. "In a real, warm bed."

"Hopefully," Alistair said. "And then after that, I'll wonder what the hell I'm going to do for the rest of my life. But that's for later."

"Yes," James said with another small smile. "Those thoughts are better considered with a full stomach and a full night's rest, anyway. I find when I try to think of the future when I'm hungry and tired it never leads anywhere good."

"Hm. Weird. That usually happens to me even when I'm full and awake," Alistair said blankly.

"Ah," James said quietly. "Well. Can't say I'm much different. Then again, it's rare I'm ever fully rested, these days, so that probably plays a part."

Alistair was quiet for a moment, glancing at James. "Right..." he said. "Thank you for listening to me ramble. But also, I'm sorry for, uh... well, not really listening to you when you told me... you know. I think I panicked and didn't want to say the wrong thing. I should've done what you did and asked guided questions. You have a way of doing that."

"It's alright," James said, looking down into his lap. "I don't think many people are very prepared to talk about... those kinds of things, anyway. Myself included."

"Yeah... that's tough. But the invitation extends both ways, you know. I'm here if you ever want to talk about it," Alistair said.

James appreciated the offer. He really did. But he did wonder if Alistair would be able to handle a full discussion on what happened to him in the palace. If James ever was direct about any of the things that happened, he couldn't help but question Alistair's ability to stomach it.

In the past, Alistair had always been queasy around violence, and even discussion of it. The most recent attack was a jarring example of it, but James could remember several times in the past when people had been wounded where Alistair looked away, left the room, and/or appeared on the verge of puking.

"Thanks," James said softly. "I'll let you know. I'm honestly still..."

He swallowed.

"Not sure if I want to talk about it myself," he said, more quietly. "I just... I don't want to relive it."

"I understand," Alistair said. "It's fine. Really. I just wanted to let you know. I'm sure we'll have plenty of time at New Haven together."

James smiled weakly.

"Yeah," he said. "We'll... well I don't really know what we'd do. It's honestly been so long since I've lived a normal life, I think I've forgotten what people normally do."

"Yeah... I get that. It feels jarring, doesn't it?" Alistair said.

"I don't think it's sunk in yet," James said. "I don't know if it will until we actually get there."

Alistair hummed. "What's the first thing you're going to do? Besides rest, eat, and clean."

James huffed a small laugh.

"Does taking a proper bath fall under the 'clean' category?" James asked.

"Yes, especially since we all need proper baths," Alistair said with a smirk.

"I've grown used to the musk," James said, wafting air from himself up to his nose. "I hardly smell it anymore. It's that bad."

"You might need to change your preferred scent, otherwise it'll start to act as a natural people repellent."

"You know, if I was in any other context, I'd probably see that as a good thing," James said.

"It might evolve to a natural Eve repellent," Alistair said with a shrug. "Who knows."

"Hence another context," James said. "Pre-Eve, when I was a lone, single man and Nye's most wanted, it worked in my favor to smell like hell."

"Gods," Alistair said as he stifled a laugh. "That sounds like it could be the first sentence of your autobiography."

James laughed, this one more genuine.

"I hope not," he said. "That would be a very, very strange autobiography."

"Well. That's fitting, then," Alistair said nonchalantly.

"Hey," James said, narrowing his eyes at him.

"I'd still read it though," Alistair said, smirking.

James looked away, sighing with a shake of his head.

"If there was a book of my life," he said. "It'd be... a lot. I don't think many people would want to read a full, honest account of it all. There are many stretches that were boring, and a lot of it, though interesting, might be difficult to read."

"Well, you know what they say," Alistair said with a shrug. "We're our own worst critic."

"Uh-huh," James said flatly, suppressing a smirk of his own.

"I don't think your life is boring, though," he continued. "So, you have that going for you."

"Right. If anything, at least no one can accuse me of being boring," James said. "Instead, I will just embrace my true identity as the world's strangest man."

Alistair hummed. "The World's Strangest Man could be the title of the book, I guess."

"There's not going to be a book," James said more seriously, though he was still slightly smirking.

"Well... I'm sure you'll end up doing interesting or strange things in New Haven... like farm."

"I don't feel like most of the world would qualify that as strange or interesting," James said flatly.

"Yeah. That's probably just me," Alistair said with a puff of amused air. "I don't know what it is. Maybe it's because I haven't really been exposed to it, but I've always thought farming was a strange concept."
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soundofmind says...

"What did you grow up with, then?" James asked. "I assume... more of a city upbringing, then?"

"I guess so. My parents were musicians. And my father was the most pretentious one, since he was a musician and a violin maker. Honestly, I don't think either of my parents ever set foot on a farm in their life," Alistair said. "I guess when we were really young, my father chopped down a tree to gather wood and show us how it was done. But that's hardly considered nature."

"Were you a musician as well?" James asked curiously.

"No," Alistair said with a faint laugh. "But gods, did they try. It just wasn't for me."

James hummed in thought. He felt like... maybe Eve had mentioned Alan played an instrument, or maybe that was her playing an instrument. Maybe he was getting it confused.

Eve had mentioned she knew piano.

"Did Alan play anything?" James asked.

"Yeah. He played a bunch of stuff. I think he absorbed all my music genes in the womb so he could become a prodigy," Alistair dead-panned. "My mom hammered him into playing piano, but he'd rather be a violinist. He got way more serious with violin before he died, but he was pretty great at both."

Hm. James wondered if Alan was part of the reason Eve got into piano, or if the two things were unrelated. But he also wondered if Alan had been the musical prodigy... that probably meant Alistair was the less favored child, at least, James could see that being a natural dynamic that played out with his asshole of a father and even his (possibly) emotionally neglectful mother. If his parents were both musicians who highly valued musical skill, Alistair was probably the forgotten son.

It made James sad to think about, but he felt it wasn't something he should bring up at the moment. Especially when they'd already closed that conversation a few minutes prior.

"I assume if they were all professional musicians... they performed, right?" James decided to ask. "In some kind of public venue?"

"Yeah," Alistair said. "I have no idea what my father does now, but he did play in a symphony back in the day. And my mother played at a piano tavern not far from where we lived. She sung and played songs. I think Alan was trying to make them both proud. My mom got him a gig to play piano and sing too, so he got pretty popular. I guess it's endearing since he was so young in comparison. And he was also concertmaster of the youth symphony. I don't know how he did it all."

James nodded quietly, noting that Alistair seemed fond of his brother, and proud of him still. It was understandable, and sweet, but sad to hear.

"Everyone has different capacities," James said. "But I hope he enjoyed it."

"I'm pretty sure he did. Like, way too much," Alistair said with a little laugh, shaking his head. "He used to be so on top of his grades, but at the last two years, he stopped caring as much about other subjects. It was like music consumed his soul. He got to pick his solo and played the weirdest, most abstract song ever. I think he was trying to leave his mark in the world to differentiate himself from others."

James hummed. It sounded like Alan, indeed, may have been stressed under the pressure. Or at least, some kind of pressure. That usually was what resulted in people throwing themselves headlong into a creative outlet and slacking in other responsibilities.

"Abstract," James said, trying to imagine it. "What does that sound like?"

"Like... hm. I did come from a family of musicians, but I'm still the worst person to ask for descriptions," Alistair said. "It was like... I don't know, just weird. He thought it was the coolest thing though. It doesn't sound like a normal feel-good melody. It feels more intense with no discernable melody. Maybe dramatic is the word I'm going for. I enjoyed listening, but I've always found his music choices to be both funny and weird."

"So... perhaps more emotive, then," James offered.

"Yeah. Yeah, I guess so. It's funny, because he first auditioned with the sappiest, most cliche romantic-sounding piece ever. But then he went the other direction and decided to pick some obscure, dark and emotional piece," Alistair said with a small smile, half-rolling his eyes. "I guess that's Alan for you."


James didn't know what to think about that, but he decided to keep his thoughts to himself on this matter.

He was beginning to get a sneaking suspicion that... maybe Alan wasn't as perfect as Eve painted him through rose-colored glasses. Not that music was the only diagnostic for someone's emotional state, but for people who were true creatives, it really did reveal a lot about what was going on inside.

Maybe Alan was going through something that no one knew about, before he passed. Why else would he become obsessed with music - specifically dark, emotional pieces?

Did it have anything to do with... the accident?

James knew full well that Elias had his own share of dark, complex emotions he'd been harboring for years.

Did Elias and Alan know each other? Was it more than just a one-off accident?

James really couldn't piece anything together, and he didn't feel right asking Alistair these questions. Especially not now.

"I would've loved to meet him," James decided to say, though he honestly wasn't sure if he wholly meant it.

Obviously he could never meet Alan, but he also didn't know...

"Yeah... I could see you two being friends," Alistair said with a little smile. "He always knew what to say. I think if he were here, he'd try to cheer everyone up, somehow. But... I guess it doesn't matter. I'm not stuck in the past. I've already mostly grieved losing my best friend and my brother. I just think it's nice to think about him sometimes."

"Nothing wrong with that," James said with a small smile. "It's good to remember the ones we care about, even when they're gone. It's nice to hear you talk about him."

"Yeah... and I know I'm in a whole new world and all, and it's not like I have any physical evidence that my brother or whole family exists - but I try my best to remember and retain tradition. My mom has always been spiritual, but got way more into it after Alan died. She had this, like a--" Alistair squinted, trying to think of the right word. "A... shrine, I guess. It's basically just a bunch of photos of us - but mostly of Alan, really - and once a year, on our birthday, she'd go insane and cook so many dishes. I think she read about this somewhere, thinking offering food on a notable day would guide his spirit or something. I have no clue, I think it's all insane. But I rolled with it anyways. Well, that day passed a few months ago, and even though I'm in a whole new world now... I figured it would be nice if I did it too. Not that I'm spiritual at all, but it did make me feel more connected to her, which was nice."

"There's definitely something grounding about traditions," James agreed. "It helps us stay connected. I think it's sweet you kept it going in her absence."

"Yeah... thanks. Maybe I'll lean into it a bit more when I finally have my own place. That way, I won't have to sneak away or get interrupted." Alistair paused. "Hm. I probably will not have a shrine. I'll just stick with food."

"Makes sense to me," James said quietly.

It would be hard to make a shrine with photos, like his mother did, seeing as... cameras didn't exist on Nye.

"When was your birthday?" James asked quietly.

"Oh," Alistair said softly with a faint laugh. "It's the equivalent of the 7th of Aurna."

James hummed.

"That was only a few months ago," he said quietly. "I was... gone."

"It's alright," Alistair said. "I didn't really tell anyone anyways." He paused. "Well, I guess I ended up telling Elias since he stumbled into me and I didn't really know how else to explain it, but I told him to not tell anyone else."

"Stumbled into you...?" James asked. "Were you... doing the food thing?"

"Yeah. I went off to be by myself and I guess he followed. It got kind of awkward afterwards, so I ended up cutting it short. But it wasn't like we had a whole lot of food to begin with," Alistair said.

"Did he... say why he was following you?" James asked.

It seemed odd. Elias and Alistair didn't often interact directly, when James thought about it.

"I think it was coincidence. I don't know." Alistair paused. "Oh. I think I left his ball by the edge of the camp, and he went to pick it up. It was the stupid ball he kept throwing at night while keeping watch, and it would keep me up at night, so I took it. That feels trivial now in comparison, though."

"So he was returning it?" James asked.

"I don't think so. I think he was just curious," Alistair said with a shrug. "I can't tell you what goes on in that man's head."

Neither could James. But... he felt like maybe he had a little bit of an idea. Not because Elias was ever very open, but because James saw some of himself in him.

James has experienced... comparable spaces of mind. At least, he felt like he could deduce as much.

"Yeah," James said simply. "That's strange."

And at that, the conversation turned back to lighter things.

Eventually, Mel wandered over and interrupted.

"Whatcha guys talking about?" she said as their conversation trailed off. She wedged herself between them, smiling wide as she turned her head between the two of them.

"Nothing. We're done now," Alistair said, scooting away from her.

"Aww, come on. Don't be like that. My two favorite guys are talking to one another. Obviously I wanna know what they're talking about. Probably something super boring, like why the sky is blue and why I'm the best?" Mel said innocently.

Alistair only groaned in response.

"Fun fact," James said, "Everyone sees color differently. So the sky might not be blue actually. Or my version of blue might be slightly different than yours."

Mel scoffed. "Are you really giving the light mage a speech on how color works?"

"Not a speech," James said. "But I could bullshit one on the spot just for you."

"Ew, did you guys really talk about this the whole time? I thought the two of you together would talk about something weirder," Mel said, scrunching her nose.

"We didn't talk about color," Alistair said. "We actually talked about my family most of the time."

At that, Mel's playfulness seemed to wash away. "Oh... really? Like your mom?"

Alistair nodded and shrugged, weakly waving his hand in the air. "Yeah, yeah. And dad, and Alan."

Mel seemed to grow quiet for a moment, but then she smiled again, her eyes lighting up as she looked back at James.

"Oh, Alistair's mom is awesome," she said. "Not as awesome as my dads. But I'd let her adopt me. She had me try this wooden flute. It was terrible. But I thought it was so fun and she was so cool about it."

"The recorder? Yeah, I remember that. That was terrible," Alistair muttered.

Mel huffed. "Says you! Don't act like I haven't heard you attempt at music."

Alistair stared blankly at her. "Wow, thanks," he said in a monotone voice.

"Do you think she's doing alright?" Mel asked more gently this time.

Alistair shrugged. "Beats me. We don't know anything. I hope she is."

"Yeah... me too." Mel sighed. "Hey, why don't you talk to me about your family? Does James get special privileges?"

She lightly elbowed him to show that she was teasing, but James could tell that, underneath the jest, it was a serious question.

"It's not a competition," James said gently. "It just came up is all."

Alistair didn't comment further, and Mel seemed to lose interest at the teasing and questions, instead smiling sadly at Alistair, who was digging his shoe into the dirt.

"Well... I'm glad you guys talked," she said, leaving it at that.

James looked at Mel, sensing there was a sadness that had nothing to do with him, but more about her and Alistair.

He wondered what her version of the story was. She was there for everything too... dating Elias, at the time, before the accident with Alan.

And James knew she'd been there for Eve, afterwards. It was likely she showed up for Alistair was well.

He wondered... maybe he'd ask her about it later. He already had a foot in the door after she'd mentioned her past relationship with Elias...

"What were you and Clandestine talking about?" James decided to ask.

"Oh!" Mel said brightly, and James could hear the relief in her voice that he changed the subject. "We talked about a ton of stuff. I learned she loves to dress up and dance, so we made some plans together when we get to New Haven. We'll go shopping and pick out cute outfits and then go dancing together."

Mel paused, then brightly grinned.

"Hey, you guys should join too! Wouldn't that be fun?" she said.

James glanced at Alistair.

"That could be fun," James said.

"Which part are you talking about? The dressing up, or the dancing?" Alistair asked.

"Both," James said with a small smile.

"Yeah! That's the spirit!" Mel cheered.

"Oh, great. I'm so excited," Alistair said in the most unenthusiastic voice.

"Oh, come on," James said. "It'll be something new to try. We'll make it fun."

"I've dressed up and danced before. Not my thing," Alistair said.

"When was this? The Day of Peace? That doesn't count. Three years ago, I yelled at you because you showed up wearing casual clothes. And two years ago, I tried to drag you out to the dance floor, and you ran away," Mel huffed. "And last year, you just sat the whole time."

"I almost forgot about the Day of Peace..." James muttered, more to himself.

He'd been trying to block that party out of his memory. It was... painfully awkward and tense.

"Yeah, well. I guess that holiday doesn't make sense on a new planet. So sad," Alistair said.

"So what I'm hearing is that James can take you shopping and teach you how to dance. Isn't that right, James?" Mel said.

"Well, I'm not drowning in money to burn, but there are a few simple dances on Nye I could teach you guys," James said.

"Please. I don't need a lesson," Mel said with fake arrogance, her nose held high. "I just listen to the music."

"Ah, yes, you'll catch on quickly," James said with a smirk.

Alistair sighed. "When is this happening?" he asked.

"You sound like you're asking so you can avoid it," James said with a teasing grin.

"Hey, maybe I just need to mentally prepare that I'll look like an idiot," Alistair said.

"You will not!" Mel huffed. "But if you don't dance with me, you might."

"How does that work?" he muttered.

"So you agree?" she asked instead. "I'll have to tell Clanny. She'll be sooo excited."

Alistair faltered. Mel seemed to take his ensuing silence as a yes.

"Great! I'll go tell her!" she said giddily, already getting up to rush over to Clandestine before Alistair could change his mind.

They watched her run off, and Alistair sighed.

"Oh no. What have I gotten myself into," he said weakly.

"Sorry," James said with a weak laugh. "I... do think it'd be nice, though. It's really been ages since I've been dancing in an environment where there weren't a million, uh, outward stressors."

"Yeah... there certainly aren't random dances in the middle of the woods," Alistair said. "Are you going to bring Eve?"

James paused.

It wasn't that he didn't want to bring Eve. He wanted to dance with her too and enjoy time with her in New Haven. But... if Mel didn't bring Jordan along, and they kept it just the four of them, maybe it'd be nice.

James hadn't really had many opportunities to go out and have fun with friends... for... years?

Gods, that was depressing.

"I think... it'd be fun just to go with the four of us," James said with a weak smile. "Eve and I will have plenty of opportunties to do things together. And I'm sure this won't be the only time we go dancing, anyways."

Alistair hummed. "You don't think she'd be upset?"

James didn't really know how Eve would respond. He didn't think she'd object to it. Maybe she'd feel a little left out, but he didn't think she'd make it a big deal, especially since he did intend to spend time with her in plenty of other ways.

"I don't think so," James said.

"Well... I guess it would be nice," Alistair said after another hesitation. "I never thought the four of us would come together like this."

"What, all of your friends doing something together?" James asked.

"Yyyyyyeah," Alistair drew out. "It's kind of weird. I guess I'm just used to seeing everyone individually."

"I get that," James said. "But... at least we all get along well enough?"

"Yeah. This will either be a chaotic disaster or a fun mess. We'll see."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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soundofmind says...

James took in a deep breath, wanting to say more, but Mel Aradis spoke up, her voice carrying over the small camp to announce it was time to sleep, and that James and Eve would again take the first shift. It was becoming a pattern, but James didn't despise it.

He understood that Hendrik was doing a lot, all the time, trying to keep monsters at bay. And James knew full well that in the wilds, there were always monsters to keep at bay.

James left Alistair with a small wish good night, and left to find Eve.

Fortunately, the night was uneventful - though they did hear some suspicious sounds further out, they didn't investigate. Tensely, they waited to see if they would draw near, but they never did.

By the time they turned over their shift to Clandestine and Raj, they were both exhausted from staying in quiet, rigid alertness, trying to anticipate any sudden attacks so they could freeze time before anything happened. James for once found it a little easier to fall asleep once they laid down, but he woke up a few hours later, lying awake for the rest of the night.

There was too much swimming in his mind. Too much, and too little words to express it.

He was thinking about Eve. About Alan. About Alistair. Elias. Mel. About all the stories that tied together, and his own convoluted past - how it wedged into theirs like an abrupt landslide, ripping everything away. Ripping them into another reality. Another world.

And yet still, all of their pasts followed them like an inescapable ghost.

Eve was in denial about her past abuse. Alistair had hardly even thought about his. Elias was running from everything. Mel had kept everything about her recently dug-up relationship with Elias herself until a few days ago, and he didn't know how many more layers there were to unfold of that story.

And then there was James... trapped by it all.

It was always easier to think about everyone else's problems than his own, but the moment he let himself be honest with himself, it was like staring into a black hole of endless pain.

It felt like he'd finally let his father go. He could finally let him rest. Finally.

But everything else?

James's breaths felt shallow as he laid next to Eve, and by the time they got up, James felt like his mind was drifting everywhere.

He found himself thinking back to the plans Mel and Alistair made to go dancing in New Haven. The concept felt so foreign to him, he almost felt like a completely different person, thinking about himself being there, doing that sort of thing again.

The last time he'd done anything like that was with...

His friends in the army. Who... were dead now.


The last day and a half of travel passed in a blur.

All of the trees were bare. Leaves covered the ground, crunching beneath their feet and the wheels of the beaten wagon behind them. James managed to ride for most of the day, and when they stopped on the second day under the midday sun, it almost felt familiar.

Maybe to others it'd be odd to say he missed long hours of travel on horseback. But considering that it had been a constant for him for years, and often had been a portion of his most peaceful moments alone... it was comforting.

It was a shame it was going to be so short-lived.

The skies were clear, and the sun was bright. They were traveling uphill, and there was a chilling breeze that came up behind them, biting at their ankles.

"We're almost there!" Mel Aradis shouted ahead of them. She was on horseback, riding ahead of the wagon.

Hendrik, atop Bongo, was just behind her.

"I don't see anything," Hendrik said skeptically.

"That's just how it's supposed to be," Mel said with a small grin, looking over her shoulder.

Unprompted, Raj jumped off of the wagon and ran ahead. Mel's grin grew into a bright smile as she turned and drew her horse to a stop. Hendrik and the others came to a stop behind her as Raj stepped a few feet in front of them all, stretching out his arms.

For a moment, nothing happened.

Raj seemed to enter a deep focus, and James watched as Hendrik looked between Mel and Raj expectantly, like he was biting back a comment, waiting just a few seconds longer.

Then they felt a rumble.

It was low, and deep, and the ground shook with tremors that stretched out ahead of them. It felt like the earth was shifting somewhere underneath them, and then suddenly, a massive, perfectly rectangular doorway peeled away from the earth ahead of them. It pushed back the bushes, the leaves, the stones on the ground. Even the trees were pushed to the side.

In the space the opening left behind, there was a massive, structured hallway that seemed to lead down into the earth at a steady angle. It was more than large enough for a whole party to enter, horses and wagon included.

It looked like this was a hidden entrance that was used often. Otherwise, the hall Raj opened up wouldn't have been so... clean.

James had seen the rougher work Raj had done when he'd been more hasty, digging into the earth like a human badger. But this... this looked like it'd been built into the earth.

Mel looked back at everyone with a smile more chipper than he'd seen from her since they'd met. Pulling her horse forward, she rode down into the opening while Raj stood outside of it, presumably waiting to close it behind them.

As they all filed in, James noted that the hall was lined with thick, strong support pillars as well as firelit sconces, staggered on either side to keep the whole hall lit.

When they were all deep within the hall, James glanced back just in time to see Raj seal the way behind them.

He wondered... how many people it took to light all these sconces. And how many people it took to manage this hall, and this entrance. Surely, there were dozens of rescues like these going on, some simultaneously overlapping.

It was beginning to dawn on him that this whole operation was bigger than he'd initially thought.

This was just a hall. Mel, Bo, Raj... they'd all been saying they were going to a city.

Was the whole city underground?

James kept his questions to himself, but ahead of him, Hendrik began to pester Mel Aradis with a slew of questions of his own. Fortunately, Mel had been patiently putting up with him, but even James found himself irritated at Hendrik's constant skepticism and criticism as they walked. His loud voice echoed off the walls, and though James wasn't normally short on patience, he actually thought about telling Hendrik to shut up.

Fortunately, by the time he considered it, he didn't have to.

They reached the end of the hall, and instead of opening up into what James expected to be a room, or even another hall, it opened up into... a street.

James realized in that moment just how deep they'd gone, traveling down the hall at an incline.

To call the ceiling a "ceiling" felt wrong. The "room" was so massive and open, it nearly felt like open air.

James realized that everyone in their party had come to a full stop at they all stood, gawking at the underground city that stretched out in front of them.

There were massive pillars that reached up bewteen buildings, some stretching over streets in sweeping arches. As for the city below, it looked like it rolled over hills, the streets winding down, lower into the ground, and some of the buildings looked like they were built further down into the earth while some even stretched down from the surface, having been built into the pillars, or swirling around them.

Some of the pillars had what looked like staircases built alongside them, and even buildings fused with the "ceiling." Near most of said buildings, there were massive openings to the surface, letting in the daylight. Below, the streets were well-lit with lanterns, and lights even hung from the rooftops, stringing across the roads between them.

James couldn't quite comprehend how wide and how deep the city stretched out, but it was, indeed... a massive city.

It was beginning to sink in that this whole city was filled with mages, the majority of which were refugees.

It felt like he'd just entered a different world within his own.

"Well," Mel Aradis said. "The stables are this way, and I'm sure our creatures are eager to have some quality food and rest. Follow me."

Mel began to ride down the road to the left, and they all followed, but James, along with everyone else, found his eyes catching on everything they passed. So much so that he found himself visually overwhelmed by the newness of it all.

When they made it to the stables, it was almost surreal.

It felt like they were in a real city. And they were. But it was underground, and somehow its hidden nature - the fact that it was here for... how long? Decades?

James found himself wishing he'd asked more questions about New Haven before arriving. Maybe it would've prepared him more for this.

James stood back as Mel took care of boarding for the animals. All of the conversations Hendrik and Mel had about animal care blew over his head. The only thing he made a point to retain was the name of the stable and the address. He repeated it in his head several times, knowing he'd need to remember it to come back for Elliot - who he hadn't had to part with like this since... he'd left.

The wagon was taken away to be unloaded by others. Everyone grabbed their own personal belongings, shouldering them onto their backs.

James found himself standing beside Elliot, trying to convince himself to let go of the lead and hand Elliot off to a stranger.

Both he and Elliot hesitated.

"We won't be gone long," Eve said softly, hand on his wrist to let go of the reins. "We'll be back soon."

James slowly unclenched his fist, handing the reins to the stableboy, who gave him a small smile as he gently let Elliot away.

Why did such a normal interaction feel so foreign?

James watched stiffly as Elliot was brought into a stall, led to a trough of water.

Eve held his hand, gently pulling him back to be closer to Mel who was ready to lead them to their next destination. With only the slightest reluctance, James relented and turned to walk with her back to the others.

Mel led them on foot. For some reason, it almost felt like she was a tour guide as she began explaining their next steps and they all followed, their few belongings in their arms and on their backs.

Why did this all feel so foreign? And yet so familiar?

They were new implants in a massive city.

It occured to James that this feeling really wasn't entirely new. He'd been through this once before. When he, his mother, and his sister fled their farm to take refuge in the city.

They'd had a horse, then too. But they'd had to sell it, because unlike now, they had nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Mel was explaining that they would all be staying at an inn, and that it was routine for newcomers to pass through there in their first few days or week in the city before they were placed into homes and given the resources to settle in. She explained that it was just a temporary situation, seeing as it'd take some time to get them all adjusted to a new life and to get them everything they needed. James found himself struggling to pay attention to the explanations that continued, and all of her answers to the many questions everyone else had.

But their walk wasn't long, as the inn was closeby, and before he knew it, they were all being given room keys and a voucher for a free evening meal from the inn's kitchen.

Everyone was eager to get to their rooms and set their things down - and they were all quick to do so as they all scrambled down the hall, realizing all of their rooms were across from each other. But this time, those who wanted their own rooms didn't have to share.

It seemed to give everyone great relief, but what everyone looked forward to the most seemed to be the simplest pleasure they'd all been lacking.


With nothing barring them from all taking advantage of the well-stocked shower rooms, they all hurried to go there first, the only people excluded being Mel and Raj, who said their goodbyes for the evening, telling everyone they'd come back in the morning, and that everyone was free to do as they pleased for the night. Elise ended up leaving with Mel as well, evidently invited over to her place.

Clandestine and Adina decided to hole up in the inn with them, both expressing that neither of them had been to New Haven long enough to have homes of their own. And Jordan, though he hadn't felt obligated to explain it to everyone, was clearly staying for Mel.

By the time everyone was clean, clothed, and their things were locked away into their room for the time being, it was already getting dark in the city. Outside the windows, they could see the natural light dimming, and some of the massive windows overhead were starting to close as more firelit lights in the city began to spark to life.

Somehow, they all ended up wandering into the kitchen, gathering around a large table.

James couldn't help but feel a little lost.

He sat down with Eve at the end of the table, finding himself next to Mel, Jordan, and Clandestine.

The kitchen area was a little quiet. Apparently the kitchen didn't open for another hour and a half or so.

"Okay, so there's this little candy shop I'll have to show you," Clandestine was saying to Mel. "It's somewhere downtown. I've only been there twice. But they have this peppermint candy that is soooooo good."

"Ooh, I haven't had candy in so long! You'll definitely have to take us there," Mel said.

"They also have these sea-salt chocolates," Jordan added. "I've been there before. Their chocolate candies are really good."

"Do they have sour candies? There's something about the sweet and sour tanginess that's so addicting," Mel said with a little giggle.

"Oh!! They have these little lemon cubes," Clandestine said, making the shape of a cube with her fingers.

"Ooh, I love candied lemons! I'm excited!" Mel said. "How do we buy them? We have to earn money first, right? I may or may not spend most of my first payout on lemon candies."

James found himself looking over to Eve, wondering if they should've waited a little longer before joining the others. She didn't seem to be wholly engaged in the conversation either.

Yes, he was clean. And he was undeniably hungry, eager to eat soon, especially now that he knew food was near, accessible, and free.

But he was also incredibly overwhelmed and tired. Then again, he supposed everyone else was in the same boat too.

He let out a sigh, leaning back into his chair as Mel, Jordan, and Clandestine kept their own conversation going.

"Well, I should be getting paid soon," Clandestine said. "Candies can be on me!"

At that, the conversation spiralled into a discussion on money, and budgeting, and how much things were worth, and how that was all measured.

James had almost forgotten that Mel, Eve, and the others came from a world with no money. He found himself drifting off, not quite present, and not quite alert, either. Thankfully, no one bothered to break him from his daze, and it didn't break naturally until Adina came into the room, wandering over to take a seat next to Eve.

"Hey," Adina said softly, looking to Eve since Clandestine, Mel, and Jordan were still engaged in their own conversation.

"Hi, Adina," Eve said back with a small smile. "Did you have time to rest?"

"A little," Adina said, smiling in return. "Finally felt good about pulling out one of my nicer dresses."

She patted down her skirt, grinning up at Eve.

"I also took my time in the shower," she said. "It was so nice. Warm water and all."

Eve nodded. "It looks good on you. And it was nice, yes. I'm glad you had time to relax."

"Did you get to rest?" Adina asked.

"Not yet... but I'm sure we will after we eat," Eve said.

And neither Eve nor James had much energy to engage in further conversation, so Adina ended up getting swooped into the discussion about money with the rest of the table.

Eventually, when the kitchen was just opening up, Alistair and Makiel wandered in around the same time. Makiel seemed to hover near the kitchen, already getting at the start of the line to get food. Alistair noticed everyone first and hesitated, standing near the table.

Clandestine was quick to welcome him in, jumping to her feet.

"Hey, Ali!" she said. "Let's go get in line. I'm starving!"

And everyone else was quick to follow suit, filing into line. The meal was big and hearty, and despite everyone's appetites, after two weeks of meager meals, it seemed all of their stomachs were smaller than usual. Most of them managed to clear their plates, but James noticed that Eve and Adina, in particular, barely finished half their food.

It was odd, too, that much of the dinner was spent in silence, as everyone was so preoccupued with eating. By the time people started to chat, James and Eve both silently seemed to come to the same agreement: they were tired, and they wanted to sleep.

After a quick goodbye, Even and James left to return to their room, finally alone, in the quiet.

James closed and locked the door behind them, already slipping off his shoes by the door. He set the key on the side-table along the wall, and hung up his coat on the coat-hanger. Eve was already doing the same, and wordlessly, the two of them crawled into the queen-sized bed together, piling under the thick covers.

Gods, it felt like heaven, being on a real mattress, under real blankets.

James drew close to Eve, his arms wrapping around her.

"How are you feeling about everything?" Eve asked quietly, voice muffled as she drew closer to his chest.

"Exhausted," James said, just as quiet. "Overwhelmed. You?"

"Same," she said.

"I'm too tired to think," James said.

"It's alright. There's no rush," Eve said, then paused. "We don't have to think or talk about anything tonight. We can just... rest."

James closed his eyes, curling a little tighter around her.

"Okay," he whispered.

And with no more words to say, he simply held Eve close, listening to the sound of his own breaths and hers until he recognized her breathing pattern, knowing she was asleep.

There was something calming about holding her close, knowing she felt safe enough to fall asleep in his arms, and he in hers. He let himself drift off, letting the sound of her breaths lull him to sleep.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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soundofmind says...

Elias really had reverted to a child's mentality.

For five days, Bo had to force Elias along. He was quiet, and though he didn't fight back, he did resist - though passively. Bo had to push him, but very little. All it took was a little shove, and Elias would give, essentially forcing Bo to have to carry him for long periods, or dragging him along. By the third day, Elias at least began to walk on his own, but he also started to have a little fight in him. Bo was starting to have to push him more, with more force.

It still didn't take much to get him to move, but Bo wasn't surprised when things started to escalate more.

About six days in to their journey on foot, Elias started the day with the same thing he always said.

"I don't want to go," he said with his head down, even though Bo already knew.

Bo went in for his usual tug to pull Elias to his feet, but this time, Elias pulled back.

"We're leaving," Bo said calmly, giving another tug. And when still, Elias pulled back, Bo realized he was going to have to escalate with him. Slowly.

He still couldn't risk picking Elias up and flying him to New Haven. So they were going to have to tough it out on foot. And Bo had a feeling that, just as words hadn't moved Elias the first time, he wasn't going to be convinced to keep moving with words either.

Though he was reluctant to get physical with Elias, it looked like there wasn't any other option.

Bo pulled Elias up to his feet, this time, not waiting for Elias to lift up his own weight. Gripping Elias's shoulders firmly, he pushed Elias forward.

That day, it had been enough, but in the days that followed, Elias started to resist more any time he was grabbed or picked up. He tried kicking, and shoving, but Bo would stand his ground, either resorting to picking Elias up or pulling him to walk behind him. The first day, it took two tries before Elias relented. The next, three. Like some kind of methodical escalation, Elias seemed to be calculating how many times to fight Bo on moving along each morning before he'd finally give up and cooperate.

But on the 11th day of travel, after a full week of being pushed, shoved, dragged, and carried, Elias kept squirming.

Any time Bo went to grapple him, Elias fought back fiercely, clawing and kicking. And finally, he was speaking more.

"Let me go!" Elias growled as he clawed his nails into his arms, trying to pry his grip away from him.

For a week, they'd traveled almost entirely in silence aside from the occasional question when Bo made sure they stopped to rest, get water, or eat.

Now, it felt like Elias was saying more than he had in days.

Bo fought back, managing to pin Elias's arms behind him as his legs kicked wildly beside them.

"I told you," Bo said. "This isn't up for discussion. We're almost to New Haven. We're going to keep going."

"I don't want to," Elias said again, still trying to wriggle free.

"I know," Bo said, holding Elias more firmly. "But people care about you and are waiting for you. And we're going to return to them."

At that, Elias suddenly stopped resisting, going limp underneath him.

Bo knew before it even happened that this was going to be some kind of childish trick. With a sigh, Bo held his grip as he lifted Elias up, anticipating the flurry of kicks to continue.

But instead, he spoke.

"I hate you," he said lowly, glaring at Bo with the most hostility he had ever seen from him.

Bo couldn't lie that it pained him to hear it, but he also wasn't surprised.

If anything, he was surprised Elias hadn't resorted to those kinds of verbal digs sooner. It saddened Bo that he'd been anticipating it, but he knew going in that this was not going to be easy. Elias didn't want help. He didn't want Bo. He wasn't stable. He was spiraling, and Bo understood that Elias wasn't going to be 'himself,' if he'd even met the true Elias, whatever that may be.

The rest of the day, Elias cooperated, but he was seething. Though he didn't voice it, Bo could sense the festering disdain any time Elias glanced at him, and any time Bo spoke.

The next morning, Elias's anger was even more prevalent. He was glaring at Bo from the moment they woke up, and unlike the previous days, it looked like he was already anticipating Bo's next move. He was watching him less like a child ready to throw a tantrum, and more like a fighter, anticipating the first hit.

They were both on their feet.

Bo stepped forward, going to grab Elias's wrist, but wasn't surprised when Elias dodged the grab.

"I don't want to go," Elias said more firmly this time, clenching his jaw as he stared at Bo.

"We've been over this," Bo said just as firm. "You're coming with me."

And he moved in again, trying to grab Elias. He dodged again, and again, and Bo wearily pushed himself to move faster, finally getting a hold of him around his chest.

The moment Bo held him, Elias let his body go limp for a moment, trying to force Bo to the ground. Bo had to adjust his grip, and it was enough for Elias to be able to throw his body forward, pulling them to the forest floor.

Bo still had a hold of him, but Elias was violently kicking his feet, grunting as he pushed against the ground with his feet, causing them to roll. Still, Bo did not let go, even as Elias began to claw at the skin on his hands and arms.

Fed up, Bo forced him and Elias upright, thrusting his shoulders forward, and then springing up with his legs. Elias pushed back, pressing his hands against his chest, placing immense pressure against his wounds.

Bo winced, but as the pain shot through him, he let the pain fuel his hold on Elias, gripping him tighter.

"Let me go!" Elias yelled, resisting as he pushed him harder, starting to shake from the pressure.

"No," Bo said cooly. And even though Elias had yet to cooperate, Bo started walking. As expected, Bo had to carry him, but Elias kept flailing, refusing to stay still.

He put Elias down, but kept his grip firm on Elias's arms, and instead started to drag him at his side. Elias resisted again, but his efforts were quickly waning, only trying to pull himself away. He allowed himself to be dragged and whimpered at first, but then grew quiet.

It was fifteen minutes of this before Elias finally decided to cooperate. But even still, once he was on his feet and walking again, Bo could tell he was just waiting for a moment where Bo's guard was down so he could try to sneak away.

Which meant, unfortunately, for them both, neither of them really slept.

The night went by in tension, neither of them letting the other out of their sight. And though, at least, they rested, Bo could feel it in his body that he was starting to slip into some form of delirium.

He was so exhausted, and his body was in so much pain. But he'd made a promise.

The next morning, Elias was standing, waiting until Bo stood up as well, giving him his attention.

"I don't want to go. Please don't make me," he pleaded softly with undertones of despair in his voice.

Bo let out a deep sigh.

"And where would you go from here?" Bo asked.

"Does it matter? I don't want to go to New Haven," Elias said.

"It does matter," Bo said.

And he was too tired to reason with him, knowing, at this rate, it wasn't going to make a difference. It hadn't made a difference for a whole week. It wasn't going to change anything now. Elias had already made up his mind, and Bo had long since made up his.

Bo didn't enjoy feeling like the bad guy, but he didn't know what else to do.

He stepped forward.

"Friends don't hurt friends," Elias said, looking down again as he took a step back.

"I don't want to hurt you," Bo said.

"Then please. Stop," Elias said quietly.

"If I stop, you're going to run away and hurt yourself," Bo said. "And friends don't let friends hurt themselves either."

"I don't want to," Elias said, but it wasn't clear what he was referring to.

"I know," Bo said sadly, feeling the now familiar sting of what he was going to have to do.

He stepped forward again, this time faster, closing the distance. But this time, Elias resisted but didn't greatly fight it as Bo reached around to pick him up.

Bo had a sinking feeling that this was going to be the last time Elias was cooperative without much force. That night, it became clear that somewhere along the way, whatever level of trust Elias might've had in Bo was broken.

"I don't think we're friends," Elias said lowly into the darkness before he then turned to his side so his back was facing against Bo.

Bo's heart sank, but he couldn't find it in him to reply. He was so tired, he could barely think of a reply. And even though he tried to stay awake, eventually his head snapped up, and he realized he'd drifted off at some point.

It was dawn, and Elias was gone.

Instantly, Bo was on his feet, following the scent of Elias's trail left behind. It took him about thirty minutes to back-track, but when he spotted Elias ahead of him under the trees, Elias turned and spoke first.

"I don't want to fight you," he said, eyes locked on Bo on high alert, anticipating his movements.

Bo slowed his approach, but still kept moving. Elias was already backing away.

"I don't want to fight you either," Bo said.

"We don't need to fight. You don't need to do this," Elias said.

"If the alternative is to leave you alone," Bo said. "I'm not going to let you destroy yourself."

"I'm not. I'm not going to do that. I just don't want to fight anymore. Please," Elias said more firmly.

"You won't have to fight anymore in New Haven," Bo said. "It will be safe there."

"I don't want to fight you. I don't want to go."

Bo sighed, stopping a few feet from Elias. Wearily, he met Elias's eyes.

"Then it appears we've reached an impasse," he said. "Neither of us want to fight each other - but you don't want to come with me, and I don't want to leave you alone."

Elias was quiet for a moment, meeting his stare with a steely look of his own. "What are you going to do?"

Bo extended his hand slowly for Elias to take. Elias only shook his head in response.

Bo didn't want to do this. But Elias wasn't going to come with him willingly.

"If I left you alone," Bo said, knowing it wasn't going to work, but trying one more time anyway. "What would you do? Where will you go? What plans do you have for your future?"

"I'll live," Elias said. "I just want to get as far away from you as I can."

"Do you really want to live like this?" Bo asked. "Don't you want to see your sister again? Or your friends?"

"Stop it," Elias said more fiercely, shaking his head. "Stop trying to manipulate me. Just leave me alone!"

At that, he turned and ran. Bo chased after him, speeding ahead to gain as quickly as possible. When he grabbed Elias's wrist, the fighting began again.

Elias whipped around, punching Bo square in the chest. Bo grit his teeth, feeling the piercing pain through his chest once more, radiating through his back.

It felt like his mind couldn't keep up as the fight happened faster than he could process. His body was responding instinctually, trying to dodge and block hits and going for the openings he could find, trying to get a hold to subdue Elias without fighting dirty like he was.

It felt like the fight lasted forever, and yet no time had passed at all.

Eventually - finally - it ended with Elias under Bo's arm, Bo panting, several bite marks on Bo's hands and arms, and Elias still squirming, but no more punches were being thrown.

Bo had to drag Elias again by the arms, and he found himself focusing solely on keeping his grip tight and walking steadily in the right direction.

His mind was starting to slip. Sleeplessness had ruined his attention span. He didn't bother talking, and instead focused on the little things he could.

Elias was still in his grasp, despite the persistent wriggling. The sun was up. He could smell the direction of home.

Gods, he wished he was home already.

Then he felt a stabbing pain in his ankle.

Looking down, Elias hadn't touched him, but Elias was watching him like a hawk as Bo's leg twinged, stumbling in his walk.

Bo's grip on Elias loosened just enough for Elias to rip his arms away, and he immediately began to run.

It took a second for Bo to realize what had just happened.

Elias... had hurt himself. And used his magic to hurt Bo.

Bo couldn't keep doing this. This had to stop.

Clenching his jaw, Bo forced himself into a run, sprinting after Elias. He took in deep breaths, feeling the pained crackle in his chest as he let the warmth of electricity build, spreading from his heart, down his arms.

And when Elias was in his sights, he very carefully calculated a charge of electricity and let the stream shoot out of his hand, zapping Elias and knocking him out.

Elias fell to the ground with a thud, and Bo stumbled to a walking pace, heaving as he stopped beside the man and turned him over on his back.

Elias had hurt himself with something. Bo patted him down, finding it in his hands: the dagger they'd given him before they went in to the palace.

Prying it away, Bo threw it out into the forest, letting it get lost in the underbrush. Then, he picked Elias up and with a heavy sigh, started on course again.

Elias, however, was only out for a minute - which was good, because Bo wasn't trying to kill him. But unfortunately, it meant he was going to fight again.

When Elias came to, he was disoriented and out of it, and Bo noticed his squirming was considerably weakened, but it was still wearisome to deal with.

Bo held him more securely, but Elias's fighting only persisted, growing more and more aggressive until Elias was flailing, hitting, and scratching wildly like an angry cat.

Bo's ankle was killing him. His chest ached deeply. He hadn't slept in over a week.

He needed some relief, and Elias was not making this easy.

"Okay," Bo said wearily as Elias scraped at his face and head. "We're almost there. I'm going to keep carrying you, but I'm going to make this easier for myself."

With a bright flash of light, Bo shifted into his dragon form, and Elias went from being in Bo's arms to being in his front left hand. Bo could still feel the sting of the injuring in his back ankle, but in his larger form, it was more bearable.

"I know you're angry with me," Bo said, beginning to walk, carrying Elias now in his palm, large scaly fingers wrapped around him. "And I don't know how many times you've been forced to do things you don't want to do. Or how many times your wants and needs have been ignored, or other's desires have been forced upon you. I'm sorry that this has probably brought up unpleasant memories, whether consciously or subconsciously. And I'm sorry it's gone this way. I really don't want to hurt you. I also want you to be safe. And even if you don't want to kill yourself anymore, I care too much about you to let you wander aimlessly for the rest of your life until you find yourself there again. I would hate for you to isolate yourself and end up so alone that there was no one around who cared enough to stop you."

Bo sighed, small tendrils of smoke spinning out of his nostrils.

"I know you don't want help right now," Bo said. "But you need it. I don't think you're going to make it if you don't."

Elias didn't seem to process most of his words. In fact, he hardly seemed to pay attention at all, but it wasn't clear if it was because of the shock of him turning into a dragon, or if he was not in the right state of mind to listen, or both.

But he seemed to pay attention enough to respond back.

"I didn't want to drown," he said, hardly audible from being held in his hand as he kept his head low. "And I don't mind being alone."

Bo glanced down at him.

"I used to say the same thing," Bo said softly, dropping his volume. But he didn't expect Elias to reply.

And he didn't.

With a sigh, Bo let things fall to silence, and for the rest of the day, Bo simply walked, weaving through the wilds as the sun crossed over the sky, eventually dipping under the horizon.

It was sunset, and Bo didn't plan on stopping. Walking in his dragon form, he was moving faster anyway, and if he could persevere through the night, they'd get there by morning. It was going to be tiring, but it would've been more tiring to try to subdue Elias again.

At least, like this, Elias wasn't fighting. Or rather, he couldn't fight.

Not much, anyway.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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soundofmind says...

The 5th of Bruma

When night fell, it was cold. Elias would've been kept warm in Bo's hand, and in his dragon form, the cold didn't bother him as much. Regardless, Bo could feel the chill creeping in as the winter season started to settle over the earth, and looking out over the tops of the trees, Bo could see even many of the creatures of the wilds had fallen into hibernation - even the violent beasts that normally lurked around the corner.

Though, none of the beasts were daring to come near him like this. His sheer presence sent them fleeing, and he could smell and hear different creatures receding or going into hiding as he passed.

Eventually, Bo noticed Elias had fallen asleep in his hand. Elias's head rested against Bo's thumb, and under the blanket of Bo's fingers, Elias was curled up in his palm.

For a moment, Bo watched him in his hand as he kept walking.

Bo knew that Elias was experiencing some form of psychosis. He wasn't in his right mind. He was unable to engage in conversations, think critically, or do anything but be in some form of survival mode with a focus set on some vague goal.

Elias had made it clear that he didn't want to New Haven, but he'd never been able to explain why, and he'd never been able to answer any of Bo's questions without a deflection or resorting to silence or violence. For over a week, they'd been talking in circles. Elias had no answers. He wasn't thinking about the future. He was hardly thinking about tomorrow, or the next hour, or even the present.

Even if Elias wasn't aware of it and wasn't consciously dwelling on it, he was clearly stuck in his past.

It made Bo worry, and it made him sad. Sad for all of the times Elias wasn't offered the help he needed. Sad for all the times Elias might've pushed it away, or the help came too late. Sad for how long Elias had hidden his true state in shame, not wanting anyone to know. Refusing help. Refusing connection. Refusing love.

Bo wished he could talk to Elias. He wished he could tell him he wasn't alone. That people cared. But he knew in Elias's current state of mind that he wouldn't hear it. He'd just try to twist Bo's words into a knife to drive Bo away.

How many times had Elias done this? How many hands had he turned away when they were stretched out to help him?

This couldn't go on forever. And Bo meant it when he said he didn't think Elias would make it if he never got help. He knew Elias wouldn't if something didn't change.

It was going to be painful, and difficult, and Elias was going to hate it. But either he was going to be forced into helping himself, or he was going to self-destruct. If not tomorrow, maybe in a few months. Maybe in a few years.

Bo didn't want to stand by and let that happen. Not if he could help it.

Looking back up at the stars, Bo let out a long sigh, feeling the weariness sink in with another wave. When he turned his head back to the ground, he swayed out of the way of a tree to avoid stepping on it and clipped his tail on a rock. Annoyed that his sleep deprivation was causing him to lose coordination, Bo slowed to a stop for a moment, sitting with Elias in his hand while he let himself rest.

He took in a deep breath.

But instead of smelling the cold earth and the dormant trees around him, a putrid smell drifted into his nose.

His eye shot open, and he'd hardly remembered closing it. Despite his exhaustion, a sudden rush of adrenaline shot through him, and all of his senses sprung into high alert.

His pupils narrowed to slits as he got to his feet and wrapped his tail around him, feeling the spikes that lined his spine raise as his claws dug into the ground and he held Elias closer.

What he smelled was the smell of death.

But unlike Carter, and unlike Elias, this smell was overwhelming. The moment it hit him it was nearly suffocating. The smell of rotting, burning, oozing flesh hit him like a wave, and he could sense the presence of a mage not far off, running in their direction at full speed.

From what Bo could sense, this mage was alone.

But he could also sense that this mage was distorted.

Something felt wrong. So wrong that in the depths of his soul, Bo felt uneasy, like he was about to be in the presence of someone not only too far gone, but someone who wasn't supposed to be alive anymore. It wasn't just their magic that smelled like death.

They smelled like they were dead themselves.

Bo stared out into the darkness, watching as the forest behind him - only a small distance away - rapidly began to turn gray.

Death spilled over the land behind him like a wave. Instantly, a spot of trees and plants turned black, each one shriveled up, some to ash and dust, others contorted and broken. Bo could see a small spot in the midst of it - a figure, for one second, human, and the next, partially canine - running full speed ahead.

Bo could sense Elias in his hand start to stir, and in horror, he watched as the path of death seeped into the plants around him, and he felt it pull not only on himself, but on Elias.

Bo took flight.

Speeding into the air and outside of the mage's range of magic, Bo dashed over the forest. For a split second, he thought about just running right to New Haven - they were really that close.

But so was this mage. And Bo knew if he led them right to New Haven and wasn't able to stop them that it could result in far more people getting hurt. He also had no idea if this mage was truly alone or if other people were following behind them.

Why was there a deranged healing mage in the wilds? How had no one sensed them? Where had they come from? How did they find Bo and Elias?

Bo had the sinking suspicion, that just like the woman who'd tortured James, that this mage might've been on the side of the kingdom.

Or at the very least, not on the side of mages. Perhaps, not on anyone's side.

If they were as far gone as Bo sensed, he had a feeling the only thing driving them was hunger.

Bo dove to the ground, carefully dropping Elias at the base of a tree.

Elias was alert. Awake. And Bo knew he was probably going to run. But he couldn't let the other mage hurt him.

"Danger," Bo said, breathless but urgent. "Stay here. If you see everything begin to die around you: run. I'll be back."

And he'd already wasted too much time giving a warning. Before Bo could hear Elias's reply, Bo flew off again, this time flying even faster, diving right into the growing pool of death that was swallowing up all of the life around them.

Bo landed heavily onto the ground, teeth bared, eye glowing the brightest blue as he came face to face with a wolf.

A man.

A wolf.

The man's body kept shifting wildly between the two, never staying in a solid form of either for more than a few seconds. Normally, a shift was instantaneous. But this man's shifts were delayed - it was like Bo was watching the man's body distort into unnatural shapes. Ones that didn't even look wolven, or human.

But the one thing that remained intact were the man's blood-red eyes, glowing in the shadow of his dark skin and fur. His pupils within were the size of saucers.

The man's mouth spread into an unnaturally wide, sickening smile, half hidden sometimes by fur, sometimes by long, dangling dreads that reached to his knees.

"Eat," the man's voice came out in a manic, sputtering laugh. But it almost sounded like two voices overlapping. One, the low tone of a man, and the other the stilted, ragged cry of wolf.

"Finally, I get to eat," the man said, his laughter spiralling as he tilted his head to the side, unblinking as he stared at Bo, smile plastered to his face.

There was a spark of fear that tugged on Bo's heart as the man's body contorted to the side.

Long, stretching, flashes of fur, rags, and skin.

The man was withholding his magic for but a moment, but Bo could feel the air pulsing with it as he drew from everything else, his influence spreading like a plague around them, consuming all the life around him.

At one point, the man was a person. One with a conscience. One with coherent thoughts. One able to empathize, and to reason.

But as Bo stared into the man's eyes, all he saw was the feral hunger to feed.

Bo bore his teeth and growled fiercely, and just as he opened his mouth, the werewolf - the man - launched himself into the air at an inhuman speed, with an inhuman strength, and he grabbed onto the back of Bo's head.

The moment he made contact, Bo felt the piercing pain of the man's magic leeching away at his life, and the little energy he had left.

It was like knives. Needles. Stabbing pain in every functioning nerve, and he felt it most in his chest where the cavity was still healing.

Bo let out a guttural roar as he leaped up and rolled over on top of him. But still, the man did not let go, even when crushed under his weight.

The pain was blinding. Bo launched himself into the air, flying upwards as fast as his wings would carry him.

When he felt his body pierce through the clouds, he rapidly rearerd his head back and flung it forward, and finally, he felt the man's hold relent as he went flying through the air.

Fiercely, Bo rushed after him, not wanting to lose sight of him for an instant.

While the man was in free-fall, and Bo was only feet behind him, Bo opened his mouth and felt the rush of lightning burst forth from his chest, up his throat, and out of his mouth.

He did not hold back as he unleashed the full power of a lightning strike into the sky, letting it strike the man's body squarely.

As if the shock of the electricity briefly caught the man in a stasis, his body stuttered in its fall when the lightning connected, and his body flailed, lit up with frightening bright light from within.

Bo could smell the charred flesh, but just as the man fell closer to the ground, suddenly the earth beneath them began to darken. And Bo could feel it too. The pain returned without the need for touch.

The man was already reaching to the nearest sources to heal himself.

Somehow, he was still alive.

Somehow, he was still regenerating himself.

Bo dove to the ground and just as the man hit the earth with a bone-crushing thud, Bo swiped him up in his mouth.

Somehow, this man had cheated death and lost himself in the process - and now had it in his mind - or someone put it there for him - that he could kill a dragon.

But Bo didn't even need to use his magic to end this.

Bo flung the man up into the air once more, but this time as his body fell, Bo came up underneath him, maw wide open.

His jaw snapped shut, catching the man between his teeth.

The feeling was sickening. Bo could feel the man's body crush under the pressure of his jaw. He could feel the disconnect of the joints, the tearing apart of skin and bone. Chewing was a curse and a mercy, but he found that even the moment he snapped the man into his mouth, somehow, the man's magic was still fighting for him.

It felt wrong. Impossible even. He was trying to chew this man to death, and he just kept coming back - if only barely - but just enough for pain to shoot through all of Bo's head, mouth, and the rest of his body.

Bo didn't know how to end this.

Could this man even be killed? Was he even alive?

Bo writhed, thrashing his head as he crunched down harder, sending shocks up to his mouth from his throat. Every few seconds, there would be relief. And then the man would rip away at Bo's own life to resurrect himself again.

Bo growled, deciding the only way to end this... might be to swallow the pain and force the man to die slowly.

In Bo's stomach acid.

With one last sickening crunch, Bo swallowed.

In what felt like pieces, the man slid down his throat. It felt like Bo was swallowing knives, and his vision was starting to darken, getting spotty as he flew over the now half-dead landscape.



Where was Elias?

Bo caught a whiff, even as death smothered his senses.

Letting his nose lead him, he flew clumsily, his flight path teetering to the side as the man inside of him was snapping in and out of place, passing out of his esophagus into his stomach.

Bo could feel the plop inside of him, and even the sizzle it was met with.

As if in retaliation, the mage reached out with an even greater surge, and Bo found himself flying crooked.


Bo didn't know if he should stay away. He didn't know where this man had come from, or if others were with him. He didn't know how long it would take for this man to die, or if he even would. But he couldn't leave Elias alone.

Especially if there were others out there looking for a fight. Especially if they were mage hunters, or if there were more out there like this man.

The scent of Elias grew stronger.

Unable to see, and hardly able to feel anything but stabbing pain all over, Bo stumbled to the ground, landing with a heavy thud.

His wings twitched as he fell on his side, smelling Elias nearby, but his sight was darkened from the pain.

Bo didn't know if he was going to pass out. It felt like he might.

If he switched to his human form... would that be worse?

The pain was always worse in his human form. But if he stayed as a dragon, and there was anyone out there...

It was possible they'd only found him because he'd finally shifted into his dragon form in the first place.

He'd made a mistake, hadn't he?

A big one.

His head was pounding. His ears were ringing. His body shook as everything inside him writhed with the man who was so determined to eat, even in death.

Bo's body twitched, and with a flicker and a spark of light, he shifted to his human form.

The pain in his abdomen was unbearable.

Bo let out a guttural cry, tears springing to his eyes as his whole body quivered and he curled up on the ground, every muscle tensed around his stomach.

He wanted to throw up. But if he did, he didn't know how the man would even come out.

It was like everything had shrunk inside of him, but in that process, every sensation was stronger.

Heaving, panting, and convulsing, Bo found himself unable to process anything around him. The only thing he could think about in the back of his mind behind it all was if Elias was near, or if he'd left him for dead. But Bo couldn't know.

Bo began to sputter, and blood poured out of his mouth like a fountain. He could taste it. It was coming up in mouthfuls. Thick. Viscous. Pungent. Bo didn't know if it was the man's blood or his own, but his whole mouth was coated with iron.

Death. Blood. He couldn't taste it anymore. He couldn't smell it anymore. Every sense was shorting like his nerves were overloaded.

He let out one last sputtered groan.

And finally, his consciousness gave in.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Carina says...

The 5th of Bruma

Elias was by himself again.

He was by himself again.

At first, he thought this was some hazy dream. He almost couldn't believe that Bo would let him go so easily, just like that.

He had been trekking through the jungle for some time now, paranoid that Bo would come back and change his mind. If Elias ran, and if he put some more distance between them... he could have his freedom. He could finally get away from him.

The paranoia was warranted, because despite Elias racing through the jungle, Bo still managed to find him. He was flying towards him, the sending gusts of brisk, cold air in his direction.

Instinct took over. Elias had to move faster. Without glancing back, he ran as far as he could to put even more distance between him and Bo, nearly tripping from barely being able to see in the dark of the night. Or maybe it was dusk now. Elias didn't know. His vision was blurred and his senses were dulled. He only had one thought: he had to keep his freedom. He had to get away.

He heard a gutteral, hollow scream behind him, but Elias didn't stop. He kept going. He kept running.

How long had he been running now? Elias didn't know, but his lungs burned, and his body cried for him to stop.

Shaking, Elias slowed to a stop, hand on a tree trunk as he took in hollow, jagged breaths, trying to breathe properly. He tilted his head up to gauge the time.

It was morning now. The sun was hanging low in the sky.

He was so hungry and so thirsty. But Elias wasn't tired, and he wasn't ready to stop. He didn't have any supplies on him. He didn't have food, or water, or even a weapon.

He only had one direction to go: forward.

It felt strangely peaceful to be by himself again. The constant presence of a person often felt suffocating, especially when their only objective is to hold expectations and give commands. Finally, Elias felt free.

The freedom didn't last long, though.

As he wandered through the jungle, a voice caught his attention behind him.

"Elias?" a man said.

But when Elias turned around, he was looking at a small brown wolf.

Elias froze, feeling his heart rate increase. He didn't know who this animal was, but it knew him, somehow.

He only had one reaction: to run.

"Wait!" the wolf shouted, running after him. "Where are you going? What happened? Where's Bo?"

Elias ignored his questions, his heart reverberating against his ears as he sprinted across the forest, wondering if he could truly be faster than a small wolf.

As it turned out, he wasn't.

"Elias! Stop running!" the wolf shouted, running alongside him.

Elias felt panicked, not sure how he would outrun him. But he still tried anyways, swerving directions and continuing to sprint away to lose sight of the wolf. Yet the wolf persisted, showing up again and again.

Eventually, the wolf growled and bared its teeth, jumping up on Elias and snapping its jaw around the side of Elias's jacket. It pulled him to the ground, and the two of them rolled onto the forest floor.

Elias didn't know what this wolf wanted from him. He didn't know why he was being attacked. He was just trying to get away. He was just trying to be free. He didn't want to fight.

But he was pressed again. Pressed to fight. This always happened.

This wolf was a clear threat.

But... if the wolf wanted to fight...

Elias will fight.

As the rolled across the forest floor, Elias took out his pocket knife from his pant pocket. He had picked it up from the abandoned mage camp days ago, and it was his only weapon since he somehow lost his dagger. Clenching the knife in his hand, Elias stabbed the wolf across its abdomen, letting out a muffled scream as he dug the blade deep into its flesh before quickly tearing it away.

Without wasting a beat, Elias pushed the wolf off of him, got to his feet, and ran away as fast as he could again, still tightly gripping the knife.

Elias ran, and he ran, and he ran. He ran until his legs buckled and his lungs pleaded for him to stop. Collapsing on the ground, Elias felt his whole body shake as he barely caught himself from landing flat on his face, taking in short jagged breaths. He dug his fingers into the dirt, trying to blink away the light dancing across his vision.

The wolf was gone. It was no longer going to hurt him.

And he only had one direction to go: forward.

He needed a moment to collect himself. He needed a moment to tell his body that he just had to keep going for a little while longer, but he knew he had been telling himself that from the beginning.

He had to keep going. There wasn't time to rest. Not when Bo could catch up to him any moment now, and not when more wolves who knew his name could find him.

Elias didn't know how much time had passed, but eventually he found himself moving again. He was walking at a brisk pace, weaving through the trees, letting time pass him by. He was thinking nothing, feeling nothing. He just knew he had to keep going.

A rustle grabbed his attention. Glancing up at the source of the sound, Elias noticed a giant monkey staring at him from a tree. Elias stopped to stare back, but cautiously moved forward, not perceiving it to be a threat.

At least, not yet.

They giant monkey climbed from one tree to the next, following him. Then another joined him. Then another... then another.

Elias found himself quickening his pace, feeling a chill go down his spine - but not from the cold winter air. He had this primal gut feeling that he was about to be attacked, and as more monkeys joined the packed, Elias felt adrenaline kick in again, giving him another source of energy.

But he didn't run. Not yet. If he ran, the monkeys would only follow and perhaps ambush him. There were a dozen of them now, watching from the trees, waiting to attack.

Elias knew he had to conserve his energy. He didn't want to waste it all on running and watching his back again. Instead, he stood still on high alert, anticipating their first move, bracing himself for their attack.

The monkeys kept on coming, but eventually they all grew still, like they were waiting to see if Elias would attack first. And then, all at once - they bared their teeth and leapt from the trees with their claws out, green spit flying out of their mouth and barreling towards Elias.

He didn't know what he expected. They were giant monkeys, but Elias was not prepared for this.

Elias felt the green saliva burn his skin, and he knew instantly that these must be venomous monkeys.

He felt the burn sear into his skin at the same time as another monkey biting him and another clawing at him, but Elias bit back the pain and worked quickly, letting his magic take care of the work for him. He felt the burning sensation fade as he transferred the injury to the nearest monkey, doing this again and again and again. Every time they attacked, he would throw their attack back at them.

The burns barely seemed to hurt them, and they seemed to quickly learn that their time was better spent on trying to burn Elias rather than bite or claw at him since he would transfer bites and claw injuries back to them. The few monkeys that remained seemed to focus on running around to spit at him, and Elias knew he couldn't keep up with this defensively. Not if the monkeys were hardly affected by their own burns.

Everything that happened next was a blur, and it happened so fast.

Elias was panting heavily, blinking back the blood red dots that scattered his vision as he stared at the carnage he left behind.

There were a dozen or so dead monkeys around him, their glowing green blood scattered across the forest floor.

With a shaking hand, Elias gripped on to his bloodied knife harder, knowing that this was going to be his saving grace. If he saw even one monkey... he had to act offensively.

Elias kept moving. There was a rustle above him, so he sliced his throat and then used his magic before hearing a thud fall behind him. He kept walking. He heard another rustle, he used his magic.

Again and again and again. It kept happening, again and again and again.

They didn't stop coming, unrelenting as Elias left a trail of carcasses behind him.

The animals were coming faster now. Elias loudly laughed as he worked faster, slicing himself in every way he was familiar with, using his pain to end the lives of the animals around him.

Time was blurring by. How long had he been doing this? How long had he been walking? How many had he killed?

Elias felt his source of energy begininning to wane, especially since he had been using his magic nonstop. But still he kept going, and still these monkeys kept appearing.

Elias felt like he made good distance and progress, but then another swarm of these animals attacked, and he acted accordingly, again using his magic as much as possible. But then - whoosh - a monkey swung on a vine to not only spit on him, but to take away his knife.

These animals were smart.

But Elias was stubborn. He didn't have a weapon now, but he still had his magic. He didn't know how much time had passed until he found himself panting and staring at the bloodshed again, but he felt his energy really waning now. It was all a blur. He hardly retained any of it.

And still they kept coming.

Elias wasn't sure how long he could last. But maybe this was their plan all along. Maybe these smart creatures saw that he was tired to begin with, and once they picked a fight, they wouldn't stop - even if it meant dozens of their pack would die. Maybe their plan was to come in mass numbers and tire him so much that he would have no more energy to fight.

Elias had to rethink his plan. He couldn't wander aimlessly, and he couldn't go on like this, only using his magic defensively because he didn't have another weapon. He could hardly even think straight, unable to come up with a list of other ways he could hurt himself to hurt the monkeys. Nothing came to mind that would be just as fast or efficient as a blade or gun - and he didn't have either.

As Elias continued forward in a daze, fighting just enough to keep himself alive.

He thought back to where he could go to lose the animals. New Haven? No, he didn't know where that was - and that was the last place he wanted to go. A body of water? No, he didn't remember passing any.

Well... Elias did remember passing by the meteor crater earlier today. At least... that was what he called it in his mind. That was why he remembered it. The jungle was relatively flat, but he had passed a perimeter that overlooked a round dried up lake bed - although, Elias thought it was formed from a meteor. Or maybe it wasn't. Maybe he called it that because he wanted to escape high into the stars every night.

But maybe, today, he could be a meteor. Maybe he could jump into the depths of the crater with the monkeys chasing after him like a comet's tail.

Elias found himself moving in that direction, so absorbed in his loose plan that he could hardly think of anything else. His body was moving for him. He felt like sometimes he wasn't even there or even sensing what was happening. Time jumped around for him, skipping by as he grew more and more exhausted from running and constantly using his magic to just survive.

The sun was high up in the sky now, and as Elias trudged ahead, it was like everything except the view in front of him went black. The cliff for the crater was just ahead.

Elias ran, feeling like the closer he got, the farther it became. It felt like he was running in air, his eyes registering that he was getting closer, but his brain screaming for him to back away and stop.

Elias didn't want to die. He only wanted to fall.

He ran and leapt up into the air, the exhilaration and thrill sending waves of immense pleasure through his body. For a second, the world seemed to pause as Elias was in mid-air, feeling the weightlessness of his body taking away the the stress and paranoia that had wormed his way in him.

But then it all came crashing down. He came crashing down.

Panic coursed through his veins as Elias felt gravity grab a hold of him, sending him down, down, down.

Elias didn't want to die. He only wanted to fall. And he was falling. But for how long?

Elias screamed as he wildly flung in the air, trying to grab onto a rocky ledge behind him. His hands scraped along the rocky wall, but he didn't care if he hurt himself. Elias kept on grasping for something - anything - and somehow, miraculously, he found himself hanging on. With shaky arms, Elias heaved himself up onto the ledge, which happened to be just wide enough for him to sit on.

In a daze, Elias barely registered that the monkeys did indeed follow him in his thrilling fall, but he didn't stick around to see if any survived, or if they all jumped with him.

There was barely enough room on this ledge for him to lay down, but if he got into a tight fetal position, he would fit.

Finally, Elias felt safe.

And he was so, so exhausted.

Elias curled up on the ledge, all his energy spent as he closed his eyes.

He didn't want to die, but he would be okay with not waking up again if his body didn't want to.

That was Elias's last thought before he fell into a deep slumber.
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Carina says...

It felt like hardly any time passed at all when Elias began to wake again. Not because he wanted to - but because he felt his surroundings move around him.

Elias began to stir to consciousness, but it wasn't until he felt someone touch his shoulder to shake him that he fully became aware of what was happening.

He finally opened his eyes, realizing right away that he was on the normal ground level again. A man he didn't recognize was crouching beside him, staring at him and touching him. Elias froze in place.

"You must be Elias," the man said.

The man knew him somehow. Elias didn't know him, but he knew him somehow.

He glanced around, realizing that there was another man standing nearby, watching him. Elias was already rushing to get on his feet, his heart beating fast again as he looked for a way out.

"It looks like you were right," the man who'd woken him up said to the other. "They were separated."

"We should get back," the other said stiffly.

Elias didn't stick around to see what would happened or what they would say. He quickly wriggled away from the man's touch, ready to run.

"Hold on, there, bud," the man who'd woken him up said, but Elias had already bolted away.

But suddenly, the earth beneath Elias's feet turned to sludge, and he started sinking down into the ground. Before he could even fight it, it was like the earth pulled him in the opposite direction, back to the men who'd found him.

"I know you're not happy, but we're going to go somewhere safer, now," the man said. "You can't keep killing off baboons like this forever. They'd have found you eventually if we hadn't found you first."

Elias clenched his jaw as he stood stiffly, unable to move from being sunken into the ground, his mind going back to the palace when he was also trapped in place. Forcing himself to pay attention to not relive the moment, Elias stared at the man, noticing his white braided hair contrasting against his darker skin. He was older and seemed to hold an air of leadership. He must be an earth mage.

"We're going to go underground," the man said. "And it's going to be dark for a while. But it'll be faster this way. I'll take us down on the count of three, so you can anticipate it coming."

"Where are you taking me?" Elias asked, not realizing how raspy his voice sounded until he spoke.

"New Haven," the man said with a soft smile. He spoke some more, but Elias didn't process it.

He only heard New Haven, and it was like all the fight and energy he thought he didn't have returned.

"No. Please, I don't want to go," Elias pleaded as he clawed for his feet to be free, not knowing what else to do. "Please don't take me there."

But the ground beneath him suddenly pulled him down, and in seconds, he was underground, surrounded by darkness. There was a sensation that he was moving fast, and the world around him was too, but he couldn't see any of it. His feet were still trapped in stone, and all he could hear was the rumbling of earth around him.

At first, Elias tried to fight it. But how could he fight earth? He whimpered as he felt himself giving up yet again, knowing there wasn't anything he could do.

It was easier to not fight this. He had to let it happen.

Elias felt himself melt across time again, until suddenly, he found himself in the middle of the street. He was in a city, with people around, and buildings, and voices, and lights, and--

Elias felt his heart beat loudly against his chest as he felt everything barrelling into him all at once. He sat on the ground, slowly crawling backwards as he stared around with wide eyes, the blurs of people on the street staring back, but he couldn't see their faces.

The street felt unfamiliar. Foreign. It wasn't grass or round. The light around them felt unfamiliar. Foreign. There were so many browns and reds and firelight and dim light. The noise around him was unfamiliar. Foreign. Hushed, warbled voices he couldn't understand, people yelling, horses being pulled across cobblestone.

Everything was so warm. Was he dead? Was he on a different planet? Where was he? What was going on? He didn't know. He didn't know. He didn't know.

Elias felt his vision blurring as his body shook, the noises blurring together to be a loud caucophony of sound. Bodies were moving, but they only looked like shadows to him. He was being picked up, but he couldn't register who it was or where he was going or--

"Elias. It's me. Elise," his sister's voice said, rising above the deafening noise.

Elias blinked, and suddenly everything melted away. He was in a room... a living room, it looked like, with chairs and a table and colorful paintings on the wall. He was alone with Elise.


She was sitting across from him, her hand on his knee, her eyes filled deep with sadness and concern that pierced through his chest like a dagger. It always - always - filled him with immense guilt, knowing that this was a look she gave him when he did something bad.

"Elise," he said quietly, his voice wavering.

At that, Elise melted into relief, pulling him close to hug him. She immediately started to sob, sniffling as she tightened her embrace around him.

"I've been worried sick. I'm so glad you're okay... I'm so glad you're okay," she cried, tears falling onto his jacket as she continued to sob.

Weakly, Elias hugged her back, taking in a deep breath as he tightly closed his eyes, trying to control his spinning head.

"I'm alright," he said softly. "I'm okay."

Elise cried some more, but Elias squeezed her back, emptily staring over her shoulder towards the short hall that entered the kitchen. His mind wandered, wondering if she lived here.

"Do you live here?" he asked when she finally pulled away.

Elise sniffed, using a handkerchief to wipe her eyes and blow her nose. "No... but we can stay here for now," she answered. "Are you hungry?"

"A little," he admitted.

"Let's get you food."

Elise took him to the kitchen where she gave him multiple options of food, but Elias immediately went for the glass of water, drinking it so fast he almost coughed it back up. He hardly processed Elise scolding him as he picked the first plate available, not even caring what he was eating. His body was moving for him, and it begged for him to replenish himself.

Elias felt like an animal, eating fast and savagely - but he didn't care. Elise didn't seem to mind either, encouraging him to slow down, but to continue eating. She didn't prod for conversation yet, but Elias knew it was coming.

And he didn't know what to say. He didn't know how to face this. He couldn't bear to see his sister like this, knowing that he was always pulling her down with him.

"I am so exhausted," Elias said after he finished eating and before she could bring up anything. "Can I sleep?"

"Of course. Yes, please rest," Elise said with an eager nod, taking him down the hall and giving him a quick tour, showing him where the washroom was before she took him to a bedroom. "Would you like to freshen up first? I can get you a towel," she said, hovering near the door.

"I'm so tired. I'll do it tomorrow," Elias said, already ready to close the door. "I'll probably get up in the morning."

"Wait, Elias," Elise said gently, her hand on the door as she hesitated. "Except for the washroom, let's keep the doors open today. It... it will make me feel better. Is that alright?"

Elias hesitated.

Elise didn't trust him. She didn't trust him. Why would she trust him? She knew his suicidal tendencies. She knew how violent he could be. She knew how often he tries to escape. Why would she trust him?

"Yeah. That's alright," he said with a small reassuring smile, pushing the door back against the wall. "I don't want to worry you."

"Thank you," Elise said with relief, then paused again. "Do you need anything? More food, water, a new set of clothes?"

"I'm good. Thank you, sis. Really. I'm alright. I just... I'm so tired."

She nodded, swallowing. "Alright," she said softly. "I'll be here if you need me."

Finally, they separated, and Elias beelined straight for the tidy bed. It was so comfortable, and it wasn't until he laid down that maybe Elise wanted him to freshen up beforehand because he would dirty the bed.

The thought came and went, because he let exhaustion take the best of him, and Elias fell into another deep slumber.
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Carina says...

"Fuck you, I'm telling the truth," Tula said as she slid the glass of beer across the counter, leaning forward as she stared daggers at Blithe. "I did meet a dragon. What, you don't believe in urban legends?"

Blithe grunted. He was always sitting on the same bar stool at Daisies every damn day, his fat ass not knowing how to do anything else. Yet, Tula didn't mind his company. He was her biggest tipper, especially if she give him extra attention.

Old men can be so sad and pathetic sometimes. Oh well, Tula was glad to take his money.

"You didn't meet a damn dragon," Blithe said with a shake of his head, sipping his bear. "Stop lying to your customers."

"Oh, but I have. What's it going to take to convince you?" she said innocently.

"For the hundredth time, Tula. You didn't meet a damn dragon because you can't tell me anything about it," he said with a roll of his eyes, although he chuckled in amusement.

Tula huffed. So maybe he was right. She remembered Mickey's threat months ago when she first came to New Haven.

    "You will not, under any circumstances, tell anyone that Bo is a dragon," Mickey said, his normally warm and relaxed exterior fading instantly into a deadly serious threat. "If you do, I will not hesitate to throw you to the wilds where you will have to fare against the violent beasts on your own. Understood?"

    Tula scowled, but she had a feeling that Mickey was not exaggerating.

    "Why not?" she asked. "What, is it a secret?"

    "Yes," Mickey said cooly. "And if word spreads, you will personally be responsible for putting Bo in danger."

    Tula groaned. "What am I supposed to say? That I magically flew here?"

    "If you must mention a dragon, you can," Mickey said. "But you don't know who they are. You do not know their name. And you do not know what they look like outside of their dragon form."

    Tula stared at him, unamused. "No one's going to believe that a random dragon I never met flew us here."

    "Then you don't have to tell them how you got here," Mickey said with a shrug. "I'll leave that part up to you."

    "Fine. Whatever." She paused. "I don't know why Bo would keep this a secret. Don't you know how many people will respect him if they knew?"

    "He already has respect," Mickey said. "And he didn't earn it by being a big scary dragon."

    Yeah. Bo only earned it because he had powerful dragon magic, like that was really any different.

    "Mmmhmm," she hummed, not commenting further.

    "As for Carter," Mickey said. "You will make no mention of him either. He is currently a prisoner, and you are to have no contact with him. No spying. No talking to him. Nothing at all."

    Tula's scowl deepened. "Oh, but what if he gets so lonely?" she said, the sarcasm laid on thick.

    "I believe you have the ability to make new friends," Mickey said, unamused. "You will leave Carter alone. He's off limits."

    "What are you going to do to him?" Tula asked with a smirk, crossing her arms. "Torture him to oblivion as your prisoner?"

    "That," Mickey said. "Is none of your concern."

    She clicked her tongue. "You people think you're so sly, but you're not so different than the rest of us."

    "That'll be all," Mickey said, not acknowledging her comment at all. "The information about your fist therapy appointment is on the counter in the envelope placed there. If you don't show up, I will hear about it."

    He gave her another threatening look, and Tula stood straighter.

    "Whatever, old man," she said as she dismissed herself from the conversation, entering her temporary room assignment in the inn.

Tula shook her head.

Ugh. Mickey was such a pain in the ass.

"Once again, silent. Predictable," Blithe said with a laugh.

Tula whipped out her dagger, stabbing it onto the bar counter, an inch from his where his hand rested. Blithe seemed bored, not even flinching.

"Also predictable," he muttered, taking another drink.

"Shut up," she snarled, lifting up her dagger to clip it back on her belt. "You don't know anything."

"That's no way to talk to friends. Hasn't therapy taught you anything?" Blithe said with a grin, raising a brow.

Ugh. Therapy.

Mickey wasn't kidding when he said that she needed to go. She didn't want to go at first, of course, but that old man was so insistent. He was like a stupid gnat that wouldn't die, always there to annoy her. Somehow, she hadn't gone on his bad side - but she had a feeling that the two of them were holding back. Tula sure as hell wasn't going to push him enough to see his wrath. Mickey seemed like a small innocent old man, but she witnessed his powerful earth magic firsthand.

So, three times a week she went for two months.

But that was two months, ago now.

"Mmm. It must have taught me something," she said innocently again, leaning forward. "Otherwise, why would they only require me to go in once a week instead of three times a week now?"

"Because you always want to stab people," Blithe said with a howl, already laughing.

Tula rolled her eyes. "Laugh all you want, fat ass. You've never gotten stabbed."

As Blithe continued to howl, Tula walked away, returning to her duties as a bartender. Working at Daisies has been pretty nice, actually. It was the seediest bar in the city, which meant it attracted the fun types of people. She worked here every night and knew all the regulars.

Robin, the annoying foul-mouthed doggy who would not leave her alone, would come in every day as well. Gods, she hated that man. He came at the exact same time in the evening everyday to stare at her.

    "What?" Tula said with immense irritation the second week he did this. She stood across the otherwise empty bar with a broom, sweeping the floor. "Why the fuck do you keep staring at me? Gods, you are so irritating."

    "Uh huh," Robin said, taking a sip from his drink.

    But he didn't say anything else. Just kept staring.

    "If you're going to keep staring at me, I'm going to have to kick you out," Tula said cooly.

    Robin laughed, but he didn't smile, and he looked to the side while he sipped his drink.

    "Glad you're adjusting," he said. But it sounded like an insult.

    "How's it feel to be reduced to a babysitter? You're no better than a house dog now," Tula said, shaking her head as she continued to sweep the floor.

    "You really like honing in on the wolf insults, huh," Robin said. "You don't think that's a little..."

    He swirled his drink in his cup, giving Tula a look of disapproval.

    "A little what? Spit it out, little man," Tula said, annoyed again.

    "Xenophobic," Robin said.

    "Oh, cry me a river. What are you going to do about it? Stare? I'm hurt," Tula said blandly.

    Robin huffed, looking away. He finished off the last of his drink and got up.

    "See you tomorrow," he said, turning to leave.

    "I'll make sure to poison your drink next time," she said flatly.

    "It would be a mercy," Robin said without turning around.

Outside of Robin, Deidra would also visit her. Tula would always make sure (by totally not threatening) the kitchen to give her heaping portions for no additional cost. She was always glad and make time to eat with her friend, especially since Deidra was always busy smithing nowadays.

Although, they did see each other every day. And every night. They talked to each other a lot, really - because they were also roommates.

Tula appreciated Deidra, although she wouldn't tell her that to her face. She went to therapy once a week for two months, but the two month mark passed for the two of them, so now Deidra was free from this hell.

    "Congrats on not being a psychopath anymore," Tula said flatly, lighting a candle on the small red velvet cake that had the words 'I'M DONE WITH THERAPY' written on it with frosting.

    Deidra smirked.

    "Thanks," she said, blowing out the candle with one strong puff.

    "So?" Tula pressed, even though she hadn't said anything yet. She looked at Deidra expectedly.

    "So what?" Deidra asked.

    "So has it helped you?" Tula clarified.

    "Oh," Deidra said. "Yeah. I think it has."

    "Hmph." Tula leaned against the wall, crossing her arms. "I guess that's good, then."

    "Yeah," Deidra said with a small smile.

    With a pause, she looked down at the cake, then back to Deidra.

    "Want the first piece?" Deidra asked.

    Tula scrunched her nose, shaking her head. "I don't really like red velvet, but I know you do."

    Deidra's smile grew a little wider.

    "More for me, I guess," she said, but sounded pleased about it.

    Tula smirked. "Does that mean I only need to cook for one today?"

    "Sure. I'll have cake for dinner. And breakfast. And lunch too," Deidra laughed.

    Tula snorted. "Oh, I'm sure your body will love that."

    "I think I deserve a little treat," Deidra said, cutting into the cake. "Like you said. I'm not a psychopath anymore."

Tula stared at the clock. Gods, the midday hours were so slow. Was Deidra going to come in today? She was losing her mind talking to the regularly alcoholics. Why couldn't they be more interesting?

"Hey, Tules. Fill me up, will ya?" Blithe yelled across the bar, lifting up his glass with a toothy grin.

Tula rolled her eyes, sauntering over. "You're going to have to bribe me if you want me to enable your alcoholism," she said flatly.

Blithe slapped a couple gold coins on the counter. "I knew you'd say that. I came prepared."

"Mmmhmm." Tula swiped the coins to place in her tip jar, already beginning to top off his glass again.

Any time this man tried to get her attention, he was trying to have longer conversations with her. She knew that he was paying her for her time.

"So tell me how this magic of yours works again," he said, eyeing her curiously. "You spy on people?"

"Still don't believe me, asshole? Then stop asking about it," Tula said as she slid the glass towards him.

Blithe grinned. "When's the last time you used it?" he asked.

It wasn't that long ago, actually.

    It was the middle of the night, past midnight now. The bar closed and Tula had walked home from her shift, tired and ready to rest. She had hardly had time to change out of her corset when there was a knock at the door.

    "What do you want?" Tula growled as she answered the door, dressed in her night clothes with her hair pushed back into a loose ponytail.

    It was Mickey.

    "I'm here to ask of you a favor," Mickey said.

    Tula stared at him. "At midnight?"

    "It's urgent," Mickey said. "The others - the ones from Earth, as well as the team that rescued them - have finally made it back to New Haven. But Bo and Elias were split from the party because of an attack and have fallen behind. I need you to spy on Bo to see where they are, and to make sure they're alright. I believe he's capable of bringing Elias to New Haven safely, but I need to be sure they're not in need of help."

    Well, that certainly grabbed Tula's attention.

    "Hmm." She stepped back to push back her door, motioning for him to come in. "Come in, then."

    "Thank you," Mickey said, stepping inside.

    Tula closed her door then moved to the sitting area with Mickey.

    "So you want me to spy on Bo," she said. "I thought I'm never supposed to spy on him."

    "Yes," Mickey said. "This is an exception. I'm concerned for his safety, as well as Elias's. It would give me peace of mind and save me time and from having to send anyone out if they're hanging in there."

    Tula sighed. "Fine. I'll do this for you, old man. But next time, can you not come in before I'm trying to sleep?"

    "Of course," Mickey said. "Apologies for disturbing you at such a late hour. Thank you for doing this for me."

    Tula closed her eyes and concentrated. It was so odd that she had gone this long without using her magic. Using it again almost felt foreign.

    She pictured Bo's face and his stupid one eye, bracing herself to only be able to see half a picture due to his disability.

    It was dark, but surprisingly, she was able to make out a clear picture. Bo was sitting in the darkness surrounded by the thick foliage of trees, watching Elias who was curled asleep with his back away from him, his chest slowly moving up and down as he took in slow breaths.

    Tula thought something else would happen. After all, she was spying on him. Bo wasn't stupid. He'd feel this sensation.

    But his eye was droopy, and considering the time, Tula got the sense that he was far too tired to notice her.

    She waited a minute anyways before getting bored and dropping her focus.

    Tula opened her eyes, frowning.

    "That was the most boring spying I've ever done," she said flatly.

    Mickey let out a sigh of relief.

    "I assume boring is good news," Mickey said. "They're both fine?"

    "Seems so. Bo didn't notice I was watching him, but he seems to be half-asleep. He's watching Elias, who is sleeping," she said.

    Mickey nodded.

    "Ah," he said.

    Tula watched him carefully, tilting her head. "Who attacked them?" she asked.

    "Mage hunters," Mickey said lowly.

    She hummed. "And somehow, two powerful mages separated from the group."

    "Seems so," Mickey said, turning to the door.

    Tula smirked, quickly following. "Perhaps it's because I've been a spy for years, but if anything sounds like a half-truth, it's this," she said. "You need more information. Sounds like you don't have the full story."

    "I do," Mickey said.

    Tula faltered as they were at the door, but she zipped in front so she could get in the way, preventing him from leaving right away.

    "And you're not going to tell me?" she said, offended.

    "I appreciate your help," Mickey said. "But much of this is quite genuinely none of your business, and I believe it'd be best to keep some things private."

    He tilted his head, looking at the door behind her.

    Tula hesitated but sighed, moving out of the way.

    "You said the group is back, though," she said, switching topics.

    "All but Bo and Elias," Mickey said, pausing with his hand on the door handle. He looked back at Tula, and for some reason, it felt like he could read her thoughts.

    "I'm not going to spy on them," she said with a scowl, even more offended. "Where are they?"

    Mickey met her eyes with a small sigh.

    "I don't think that will be difficult for you to deduce on your own," Mickey said, opening the door. "But do consider that, from what I've heard, some of them may be quite hostile if they were to see you. So please be careful, whatever it is you plan on doing."

    Mickey was going to send her on a spy hunt to figure it out herself, wasn't he?

"Can't remember," Tula said instead to Blithe, elbow propped on the bar as she stared at him. "Next question."

Blithe took another sip, thinking.

"What were you doing pacing across the inn a couple days ago?" he asked curiously. "Hard to not see you when you kept walking around the street back and forth dressed like that." He gestured with his eyes at her leather black outfit, complete with fishnets and lace. "You stalkin' someone?"

Oh, great. Blithe asked if she was stalking someone, but maybe he was stalking her. Tula rolled her eyes, but not at Blithe.

The whole exchange of what happened was such an eye roll.

    Tula knew that Mickey was right. The people on earth would be hostile towards her, but her therapist kept saying that people could change over time. Surely after they understood that she was paramount to their safety, they wouldn't villify her so much. Maybe they just needed to see how different she was now.

    Gods, it had been two months - which was how long the trip would have taken if they had all walked the journey to New Haven on foot. These two months went by fast. Tula had almost forgotten that these people were going to be living in the same place as her.

    And now they were here. They were here, right? She couldn't tell, even though she kept passing the inn, curiously peering through the windows.

    She stayed at this inn when she first came to New Haven, so maybe they were here too. It was hard to tell without coming in to confirm and without using her magic.

    Gods, she could hear her therapist already begin to scold her for even thinking about using her magic to spy on people without their consent.

    So instead she kept wandering around the street, passing it over and over, wondering is she'd see anything or anyone.

    Finally, she saw someone familiar.

    Jogging up the road towards the inn, she saw James, his hair streaked with white, pulled back in a bun, bouncing atop his head. He looked sweaty, like he was coming back from a run.

    As he approached, it didn't look like he noticed her. She remembered his eyesight sucked, so it was possible he couldn't pick her out from afar.

    Still, she couldn't believe that he didn't even look at her as he was about to pass her. Tula stood still, crossing her arms and loudly cleared her throat as she stared at him, wondering if that was enough to get his attention.

    His head turned to the side, and glanced over his shoulder. He looked away just as quickly, but then did a double-take, faltering in his steps and coming to an abrupt stop.

    He stared at her. Tula couldn't help but smirk.

    "Nice to see you too," she said when he only gawked at her, almost looking horrified to see her.

    James blinked, shaking his head.

    "...Tula," he said stiffly. "Hello."

    Tula didn't say anything back, oddly finding enjoyment in this as she watched him stand there uncomfortably.

    James glanced over his shoulder at the inn behind him, then looked back at Tula.

    "You've... been here a while," he said. "Right?"

    "Mmhmm. Two months," she answered.

    "Ah. So you've settled in?" he asked.

    "Deidra and I live in that direction," Tula said as she vaguely pointed down the street, figuring he didn't know street names yet. She paused, saying at him again. "I forgot you existed until now."

    "...Riiiiiight," James said slowly.

    Tula narrowed her eyes at him. "You don't believe me?" she said, trying not to sound threatening.

    "How long were you waiting here?" James asked.

    She scoffed. "I wasn't waiting. I was walking. It's not a crime to walk, just like how it's not a crime for you to run."

    "Uh-huh," James said. A pause. He looked again at the inn, then back at her.

    "I didn't think you missed me that much," James said.

    "I don't," Tula said swiftly. "I know plenty of other people who are far more interesting."

    "Is that so?" James asked with a tilt of his head. "Would you ever introduce me to them?"

    Tula crossed her arms. "Sure. I work at Daisies. It's a bar. There are plenty of pretty boys there like you. I'm sure they'd all love to meet you."

    James smiled, but something about it looked empty, as it didn't meet his eyes.

    "Oh, you have no idea," James said.

    A short silence washed between them as they stared at each other. Her therapist had always told her that she should seek forgiveness, but she was far too stubborn to do this right now.

    And she certainly didn't want to ask James what was going on in his life. She still hated the man.

    "Gods. You are so weird," she said when he only stared back.

    "And you're surprisingly tolerable," James shot back.

    "Want me to not be? I can turn it off," she said just as fast.

    James smiled again, but this time, it was strained.

    "If you do, I'm leaving," he said thinly.

    "You better not get on my bad side. Remember who you're talking to. I can see into your life and make your life a living hell," Tula said cooly.

    "Oookay," James said. "I'm. I'm going to go now. Glad to see you're well."

    "Glad to see that you're still insufferable," she said.

    James's plastered smile twitched, looking more like a grimace as he turned away.

    He didn't just jog away. He bolted into a sprint.

    "Asshole!" Tula yelled, but then clicked her tongue and walked away.

Tula scoffed, shaking her mind as the memory drifted away. "Please. You wish I'd stalk you."

"Who was it?" Blithe pressed, teasing her. "Got an ole lover I don't know about?"

"Why do you want to know? You jealous?" Tula said with a grin. "If you want to meet my lover, come by in weekday when the bar opens. He's a werewolf. I'm sure he'd love to know that I told you he's my lover."

Suddenly, the bar doors swung open, and Mickey came marching through the doors with a level of intense urgency she hadn't seen before. Even when he'd come to her place at midnight, he'd veiled his urgency behind a calm and collected exterior. But this seemed... almost panicked.

Mickey's eyes immediately met hers, and then searched for her supervisor.

Tula had learned early on that Mickey seemed to have pull in any and every establishment in New Haven. If there was a mayor, it would be Mickey. Everyone seemed to know him and listen to whatever he said. And this time, he didn't even say anything. It was like her supervisor just knew.

"You're off for the rest of the night," her supervisor said. "Don't worry about it. I'll cover your shift."

"What'd you do this time? Stab another person?" Blithe teased before taking a drink.

"Shut up," Tula groaned as she emptied her tip jar, dumping the contents in her bag before she hurried away.

It wasn't like she liked Mickey, but something about his air of urgency seemed to push her to move fast, going up to him quickly.

"What?" she said, but he was also beckoning for her to follow him out of the bar.

"Come," was all Mickey said as he led her out of the building.

The bar had been built into the side of one of New Haven's massive support pillars. Mickey led her around the building before he magically opened up a doorway that wasn't there before in the wall of the pillar, and he marched inside to what looked like an impromptu room he created just for the sake of privacy. Tula gawked, not knowing he could even do that, but she held back her tongue, knowing now was not the time for side comments.

Once Tula stepped inside, Mickey closed the "door" behind her, leaving just the two of them in a wall-less, window-less room without a ceiling.

"We found Elias," Mickey said. "But we have no information on Bo. I need you to spy on him again. See if you get anything. Anything at all."

"You--" Tula began, but then shook her head. "Okay. Fine. Give me a moment."

She sighed, closing her eyes again as she ignored the dread of having to see through this one-eyed man's limited vision, but she concentrated as she pictured his face.

Nothing. Tula saw nothing. But... she knew she was using her magic. She could feel it. She could feel connection, even if she only saw darkness.

He was probably asleep.

Or maybe not. She could hear warbled, faraway voices. It was like Bo was barely able to register sound, so she wasn't able to register what he heard either. What was he hearing? Could Bo even feel her spying on him?

Tula focused, willing herself to decipher something. Anything. A sentence. A word.

"...get him..."

The rest of the sentence was too hard to make out. Minutes passed, and amidst the warbled, distant sounds of the voices and the many filler words that didn't add any more context to her understanding, she could make out a few more key words.


And: "He ate Jay."

Tula listened for other clues, but most of it was undecipherable or not helpful.

Tula dropped her concentration, not sure what to make of it, but she figured she could update Mickey before listening some more, if that was what he wanted her to do.

Mickey was watching her expectedly, his expression grave and serious, but undoubtedly worried.

"He's alive," she said, getting that out of the way.


"More like a but. I couldn't see anything. I think he's only somewhat conscious, because I only heard a few important words." Tula paused. "I heard 'get him', 'dragon,' and 'he ate Jay.'"

Mickey stared at her, clearly trying to piece things together.

Tula crossed her arms, watching him back. "It seems they know he's a dragon. Question is, who's 'they'? The mage hunters that separated the group?" She scoffed. "Did Bo eat a mage hunter?"

"...Possibly," Mickey said quietly, looking out with his brows furrowed deeply. He seemed deep in thought, and his worry was becoming more apparent in the creases of his face.

Tula gave him time to think, but he was only becoming more and more worried.

"Do you want me to keep listening?" she asked.

"If you can," Mickey said. "I will need to act on this quickly. If you're able to listen as much as you can for the night, you can reach out to me with your magic if you discover anything useful."

"I'll try my best and let you know," Tula said with a nod, but then hesitated. "Obviously, I'm all for spying on people to gain answers. But Bo is not exactly in the best state to be spied on."

"If mage hunters have him, he's likely under a very large dose of lumshade to keep him subdued," Mickey said severely. "That's not likely to change. But he's the only option we have."

Well, Tula knew a thing or two about that.

"I disagree," she said. "Why don't you talk to Elias? Doesn't he know anything? He may know more than what I can get out of Bo."

"Bo kept him away from the fight," Mickey said. "He didn't see anything."

Of course he did. Now he was paying for that, wasn't he? Gods, she didn't understand people sometimes.

"Alright," she said, uncrossing her arms. "I'll be at home all day listening in. When do you want me to give you an update?"

"Only if you get any new information we can use," Mickey said. "Or hints."

"And if I don't?" she asked.

"You'll hear back from me when this is over," Mickey said.

"When are you leaving?" Tula asked instead.

"As soon as possible," Mickey said.

And at that, the room around them suddenly sunk into the ground, and they were back to standing in the alley beside the bar. Tula would have flinched, but at this point, she was used to the earth always moving around her whenever she was with Mickey.

"Thank you for trying," Mickey said. "And good luck."

With a nod of his head, he began to hurry away, and then he dropped into the ground, disappearing.

Tula frowned at watching him burrow away like some kind of mole rat, but then she hurried away, rushing back home.

Gods, she lived for this. She missed this. Working at the bar was... work. But spying? It was life.

Tula rushed back to her place, ready to listen in so she could update Mickey with more information.
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Carina says...

Even when she was deep in Bo's senses, Tula was acutely aware of the time.

An hour passed by, and what did she hear?


Well, she did hear a ton of filler words. The voices were so warbled that she could hardly even make out the different voices, but she understood enough that if the people he were with wasn't silent, they were talking about travel. Specifically about practical manners - like food, supplies, and sleep.

Was this important? It was hard to say. It didn't feel important, but maybe if she told Mickey, it would make the situation more dire since Bo's captors were moving... even though that was already implied.

Still. Tula wanted to update him. She wanted him to know what she heard. After all, she could be so useful in their reconissance rescue mission. Surely he knew that, right?

Not wanting to miss Mickey's departure, Tula decided to switch gears and spy on Robin's eyes instead. She knew that Robin worked closely with Mickey. That was why he visited every day to berate and stare at her, after all. It was a reasonable assumption to make that Robin would be with Mickey and likely also be part of his little rescue team.

If Mickey was only loosely extending the invitation to her so that she was allowed to spy on him if and only if she hears anything important about Bo... she was going to worm her way in instead.

"Ohhhhhhhhhh fuck you!" Robin said the moment she started looking through his eyes.

He was staring right at Mickey, Hendrik, and a tall, lean, older woman. They all stared at him back, startled.

"Well, fuck you too," Hendrik snapped.

"It's fuckin' Tula," Robin growled. "Being a nosy--"

"Okay, that's enough, Robin," Mickey said harshly.

"Tula? That bitch! I thought you said--" Hendrik began, but then stared harshly at Mickey. "How does she know about this? You brought her in?" Hendrik asked, sounding more and more defensive with each passing word.

"I will use every resource I can to get my son back and I will not let my pride get in the way of asking for help," Mickey said quickly. "Tula has improved in her stay here and has been cooperative. I asked her to help."

Mickey turned to look at Robin.

"Not to be nosy," Mickey said pointedly.

"So long as her watching does not interfere with anything," the woman spoke up. "We don't have time to waste. We should get moving."

"Agreed," Mickey nodded.

Tula switched tactics, deciding to let Mickey see through her eyes. She was hesitant at first because he hadn't given her consent explicitly, but she didn't trust Robin to twist her words when all she wanted to ask was a simple question.

"I can update you with what I hear. Who do I have permission to watch?" she asked, then dropped her focus, watching through Robin's eyes again for a response.

It was partly because she wasn't sure that Mickey wanted her to spy on him, but also because she wanted to mess with Robin again.

"Over here," Robin grumbled.

Mickey looked to Robin, meeting his eyes.

"If you need to speak with us, relay the information to Robin," Mickey said. "If you, for whatever reason, need to see through our eyes, you can look through mine. If for any reason Robin is unreachable, look through my eyes first to make sure I'm not otherwise occupied before seizing control of my vision."

Tula understood her orders, and she didn't think there was anything else to say. But still she continued listening, just in case there was anything else.

But also because she was curious. She didn't even know Hendrik was trusted enough to be in their little group. She had so many questions and so little answers.

"Well," Mickey said, looking to the nameless woman. "Like you said. We should get going."

And then the four of them were plunged into darkness.

That was disorienting to watch, so Tula returned back to her own sight, laying on her bed as she tried to think through the situation.

Mickey, Robin, Hendrik, and the woman already left. That was out of Tula's control, but she was still a valuable asset to them, feeding them valuable information about Bo. She would listen in whenever possible, but she'd have to tell her supervisor that she couldn't work until Mickey returned. She was sure her supervisor would understand, though.

Tula would have to tell Deidra, obviously. Who else would she tell?

No one else came to mine. But...

Tula closed her eyes, deeply thinking this through.

She didn't have all the pieces. Mickey was hiding things from her, probably thinking that she didn't need to know everything. Tula was used to this. This happened her whole life, but she was getting tired of it - especially since she wasn't even invited to be in their group.

What did she not know? It felt like she needed more context. More clues. If she couldn't spy on others, then she could do detective work the traditional way: by asking around.

Elias probably didn't know anything if what Mickey said was true, although Tula didn't want to cross him out of interview list yet. From what little she knew about him, he seemed to hold secrets himself.

Who else would know something about the situation? Perhaps the other people he was traveling with - although Tula only knew the ones from Earth.

And they were not going to talk to her.

That was... except for James. What did he know? He seemed to be wary of her, but at least he wasn't angry at her.

Tula groaned at the thought of collaborating with him. Instead of dwelling on that thought longer, she spent the next hour spying on Bo again, wondering what else she could hear that was important.

Nothing. They travelled in silence.

Fortunately, Tula was patient. She was used to playing the long game, sometimes waiting years to act on valuable information. But still, she found herself growing impatient, especially since she knew that she didn't have the full picture.

It was nearly evening now. Rushing to her feet, Tula ran out of her home, beelining towards the inn again. She zig-zagged across town, taking the shortest possible route there.

Time was of the essence. She will use the next hour to obtain information on her own, but after that, she wanted to return to her room so she could continue to listen to what Bo was hearing.

The inn was just up ahead, and Tula mentally braced herself for the onslaught of questions and accusations. She knew that she was going to be met with lots of hostility, but what were they going to do? Torture her too? Yeah, right. Not when there was a sheriff who would whisk them away.

She might get beat up. But, well - their loss. She had information to tell them about their friend.

Mickey didn't say any of this was a secret, after all.

Tula rushed towards the back entrance, but she came to an abrupt stop as her eyes widened, registering that there were two people sitting on the back steps, drinking tea and eating sandiwches.

James was staring at her. And next to him was Evaline, staring at her as well, but with wide eyes, alert. She was quick to get on her feet, spilling the cup of tea across the steps.

"Yeah, yeah, okay. Great to--" Tula began, but was interrupted.

"What do you want from us?" Evaline said cooly, standing up straight as she stared at Tula with a threatening look.

Tula sighed. She was not in the mood for this.

"I have information. I think you'd find it valuable," she said innocently.

"Get out," Evaline growled, then pointed away. "Get out!"

Tula stared at her blankly. She was so tempted to call her out, telling her that she was far from threatening and her orders don't scare her, but she decided to get straight to the point instead.

"Fine," she said, already turning away so she could get to the front entrance instead. "It's about Bo, but if you don't want to hear it, I'll just tell your friends instead."

Tula took a few steps towards the back alley, but she glanced back and noticed that Evaline and James exchanged a hesitant look before James gave her a nod.

"Why would you know anything about Bo?" Eve suddenly asked.

Tula stopped mid-step, turning around with a smirk. "So now you want to stick around?" she teased.

They both just stared at her, not entertaining her rhetorical remark.

"You don't know," Tula said as she slowly crossed her arms, watching them closely. "Did Mickey not tell you the news?"

"Just get to it, Tula," James said wearily.

Tula quietly hummed. "Where's Elias? Can you get him?"

"No," Evaline said simply.

"Did you want to tell us what you know, or did you come here to get answers?" James asked.

"Please. I'm not an idiot," Tula said flatly. "Once I tell you what I know, you're not going to tell me anything. Why don't we do an exchange of information? A win-win situation."

Evaline whispered something to James. They both nodded.

"No," Evaline said again. "We don't want to tell you anything, but we'll listen to what you have to say."

"Hmph. And people tell me that I'm selfish," Tula said with a shake of her head. "Fine. I'll find information from someone else. Someone who'd actually know something."

Tula walked away, listening for one of them to tell her to come back - but she didn't hear anything. It annoyed her that they didn't want to participate in a free exchange of information that would have benefited both parties, but she wasn't going to push it.

Not when she could talk to someone else... right?

As Tula rounded the corner to walk up the steps of the front entrance of the inn, she thought about who she could talk to.

She was fairly confident that Makiel loathed her. Hendrik did too, but he wasn't here anyways. It was possible she could intimidate Alistair for information, but she didn't want to resort to that. Tula's only interaction with Elise was when she was trying to kill her and her friends, so she was pretty sure they weren't on good terms either.

Then again, it was the same with Elias. But if he hardly took the time to register her face, maybe they were on more neutral grounds that she thought.

Tula entered the inn, glancing around as she headed towards the innkeeper's desk. The sitting area was fairly empty except for three people: the innkeeper, Alistair, and a woman sitting next to Alistair. Alistair first glanced at Tula, but then did a double-take, nudging the woman next to him.

Tula rolled her eyes as she approached the innkeeper, elbow on the counter.

"I have a delivery for Elias," she said as she propped up her bag. "The address might be outdated, though. Is he still here?"

"Let's see." The old innkeeper ruffled through papers, pulling out the visitor's list. "Hmm. No, we don't have an Elias staying here. You must have the wrong address."

Tula pursed her lips. "Alright. Thanks anyways."

She glanced back at the sitting area, noticing that Alistair and the woman were gone. Hmph. Guess Tula scared them away.

Leaving the inn, Tula slid back down the alley, leaning against the brick wall as she weighed her options. She could go back to James and Evaline, but frankly, she valued her pride more than getting information - especially since there was no guarantee they would even tell her anything, or even the truth.

Maybe she could go back and find Alistair. He seemed rattled. Then again, she could hear her therapist already scolding her, telling her that she was falling back into violent tendencies.

Ugh. She didn't need to be violence. She could just... mess with up. Get him to spill information. That wasn't so bad, right?

It was an option, but Tula wanted to consider others. Tula had glanced down at the list briefly while the innkeeper wasn't watching her, and she noticed that Makiel was on that list as well. She didn't have confidence that talking to him would be productive, though.

A name that Tula noticed wasn't on the list was Elise. That was particularly interesting, considering that she was traveling with the rest of the group. Where did she go? Mickey didn't mention that she was separated from the group.

If she wasn't in the inn, then perhaps she was with her brother.

Tula began to walk home, formulating a plan.

She could talk to Elise. She seemed rational, and worst case, Tula would only be denied a request for information. Then again, she had no idea where she was at. Unless she...

Well, she could spy on her. But she wasn't supposed to do that, right? She wasn't supposed to spy on people without their consent. That was... unless it was an emergency. Mickey basically said that to her. Spying on Bo was an emergency, so the consent requirement was bypassed. Well, Tula considered her lack of knowledge an emergency, so maybe this wasn't so bad either.

Tula rushed home, knowing that she'd maybe have half an hour or so by herself before Deidra came back from her job. She had to act fast.

Running in her house and tearing through the hall to enter her room, Tula slammed the door shut and sat on her bed, deciding to tune into Bo first. She listened for a few minutes, once again hearing nothing important.

She sighed, taking a few deep breaths before picturing Elise's face so she could peer through her eyes.

Elise was sitting in a decorated living room, her knee bouncing up and down nervously. She was staring at a clock across the room, watching the seconds tick by. Tula half-expected her to notice that she was watching since she had targeted her once in the past, but instead of putting two and two together, Elise got up and began to pace, clearly nervous and anxious. It seemed that the feeling of being watched only put her on edge. Perhaps she was used to feeling paranoid.

Elise paced back and forth across the room for a minute, suddenly stopping as she peered down the hall. At the end of the hall was a room with its door wide open and a perfect view of a person sleeping on a bed. Although the person was curled with his back facing away, Tula knew this must be Elias. Only a part of his head peeked out, his blonde hair resting on the pillow.

Elise stayed there for several long seconds, watching her brother take in slow, deep breaths. She seemed to be nervous, because she continued to pace again, lost in her own thought. A few more minutes passed of this, and eventually, Elise sat, staring at the clock again.

While this was all happening, Tula was trying to grab hints of where this house could be located. All the curtains were drawn, so she couldn't see any street references.

But then, conveninently, a soft knock was heard at the door.

Elise flinched but then jumped on her feet, hurrying to the door, but meekly opened it, just cracking it open.

She peered through the crack, and Tula barely had time to register the street behind the people Elise was trying to see, because upon first glance, Elise tore open the door in relief, stepping back and letting them in.

A man and a woman stepped in, both tall, dark-skinned, and well-dressed. They looked like they were related. Probably siblings. The woman was holding a large covered pot and the man was holding another food dish as well.

"Mel. Raj," Elise said with even more relief in her voice, deeply sighing. "Hello."

"We brought some food," the woman - Mel, presumably - said with a smile. "To help lighten your load. I made chili and cornbread. Both without meat, of course."

"Oh... that's so sweet of you," Elise said softly, then glanced at the kitchen, which was in a state of disarray with dirtied dishes everywhere. "I'm so sorry about the mess. It's been... I've just been..."

Mel and Raj walked to the kitchen, and Elise followed behind as they set the dishes down on the space that was free on the table. Mel immediately turned to Elise when her hands were free and pulled Elise into a tight hug.

"It's okay," Mel said softly. "You're doing the best that you can. We'll help take care of the the mess, okay? You can just sit here and rest. I can talk while we clean. Or we don't have to talk at all."

She pulled away.

"But let us take care of the mess, alright? I know you've been doing so much," Mel said.

"Thank you..." Elise said, sounding stiff. Perhaps she was holding in emotions. "But no, let me help. We can do it together." She paused. "Elias is sleeping, so I'm not doing anything right now."

"Okay," Mel relented with a small, sad smile. "Let's get these dishes sorted, then. Raj, you can dry, and Elise and I will clean."

Tula had a feeling that they were going to talk afterwards, but that meant she had to watch the agonizingly boring minutes of three people cleaning. They scrubbed dishes, organized dishware, cleaned down counters, and more. It felt like it kept on going and going, until finally, they all sat on a table with a plate of the chili and cornbread.

"How was it with Elias?" Mel asked.

"Oh... it was quick," Elise said with a faint laugh. "He did finally recognize me, and he ate and drank plenty." She paused. "I didn't really get to truly talk to him... After he ate, he told me he was exhausted, so he went straight to sleep. The only question he asked me was if I lived here. I told him this was your place, and that was it."

Mel hummed.

"I'm glad he at least recognized you," she said. "But it sounds like he's still not fully there."

"Yeah... I don't know," Elise said softly as she stared down at her food, picking at it with her spoon. "And I know it would be helpful if he could answer questions about Bo... but after seeing him come in with Mickey, and the state he was in... I'm not sure. I don't know when he'll be ready."

"I don't think Mickey or anyone expects much from him at the moment," Mel said softly. "Mickey, at least, understands that. It's... they're figuring it out on their own. I know they left already with a rescue team to go find him."

"Does he know what happened or where to go?" Elise asked quietly.

"I think... it sounds like he reached out to Tula," Mel said. "Who was able to at least confirm that Bo had been caught by mage hunters, which was what Mickey already suspected."

At the mention of her name, Tula was nervous that Elise would remember the spying sensation. But instead, Elise went quiet, thinking about the implications of what happened to Bo, since her next words were ones of sympathy.

"If he's caught, and he's not able to get away... the situation must be bad," Elise said, almost whispering. "I'm so sorry. I really hope they find him."

Mel went quiet for a moment, looking down into her lap with a sad sobriety.

"Me too," she said.

Tula listened in some more, but they were silent for a while, and it sounded like they didn't know a lot of information anyways, so she dropped her concentration, leaving Elise alone.

Alone in her room, Tula considered everything she knew, understanding that not pieces of information could be wholly true.

Bo and Elias were separated from the group due to a mage hunter attack. Somewhere along the way, they got attacked again - although it was unclear if this was the same mage hunter group, a different mage hunter group, or something else entirely. The group was threatening enough that Bo turned to a dragon to fly Elias to safety, which meant that he valued Elias's safety more than his secret. Bo ate someone named Jay, although it wasn't clear who this person was, although it was inferred that Jay must be powerful enough of a threat if Bo resorted to eating. Elias was found, but Bo never returned, because despite his fighting, he still got captured. He was not in a fully conscious form of mind due to being subdued by a large dosage of lumshade, which implied that he must have gotten captured by mage hunters after all. And since his dragon identity was revealed, this must be their biggest catch yet.

And of course, Tula just learned of another interesting fact from spying on Elise: apparently, Elias was not in a stable state of mind. Was this related to Bo? Perhaps guilt or regret ate at him. However, Elise made it sound like he wasn't open to answering questions. Perhaps it was something else. Tula didn't know Elias well enough to even begin drawing assumptions or conclusions.

Tula felt like she could begin to draw a picture of what happened, but she still didn't see the full picture.

Something was not being said here, but she didn't know what. She didn't even know if Mickey knew the full story. Did he know who Jay was? Was that name significant?

Maybe she could talk to Mel or Elise sometime, but she still didn't know where they were. In the brief second that Elise opened the door, Tula only noticed that there was a brick townhouse across the street. That didn't exactly limit down their whereabouts, but it narrowed the search down enough to specific residential districts.

Tula wanted more answers, but information took time to collect. For now, she would listen to Bo, doing what she did best: spy, gather information, and tell her superiors.
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Carina says...

6th of Bruma

Elias woke up several times that day - first at night, then at early morning - but he only got up when he needed to use the wash room or to drink more water. He noticed that Elise was sleeping on the couch in the living room, so he crept quietly, not wanting to wake her up.

He didn't know what to say to her. Not yet.

So each time, he went to sleep, hoping to sleep it all off. But Elias knew he was only delaying the inevitable. He had to face her eventually.

By the time he woke up mid-morning, he smelled food being cooked. Still dreading seeing Elise, Elias crept to the washroom, quietly closing the door behind him and feeling like he could breathe again. There was bar of soap, a folded towel, and fresh clothes on the counter that Elise left for him.

Elias sat on the floor for a few minutes, trying to will himself to get up and clean himself, but he found himself stuck, unable to move. Minutes passed as he stared emptily at the folded clothes, wondering whose clothes he was borrowing from, or if Elise recently bought it.

Finally, Elias got up, but it took so much out of him, and it felt needlessly painful. He spent at least an hour in the tub, washing away his grime and soaking until he was pruny and wrinkly. He spent another half hour sitting and waiting to dry, mostly out of habit, but also because he was delaying the inevitable.

Finally, he dried the rest of his body off, but it was mostly his hair that was wet. He slipped into his new clothes, surprised by how well it fit, although it was still a little loose on him.

He opened the door and stepped out. He didn't get very far into the hall before Elise greeted him with a smile.

"Good morning, Elias," she said between the hall and kitchen, like she was waiting for him to come out. "Well... it's not morning anymore. You've sleep for almost a whole day. How do you feel?"

"A lot cleaner," he said with a half-smile.

Elise smiled back, nodding. "Are you hungry?"

"Yeah. I could eat."

Elise encouraged him to enter the kitchen again, again showing him varying meals he could eat. Elias wasn't picky; he again picked the first meal, scarfing it down.

"It's nice to see that Raj's clothes fits well on you," Elise said as he ate. "I didn't think you'd want to wear mine."

Elias continued to eat, only looking up briefly. He didn't know who she was referring to, but he was grateful nonetheless.

"Is this his house?" he asked before taking another bite.

"No, he lives next door. That's where Mel is right now. She owns this house."

Elias slowly nodded, although he had no clue Mel already had a house. "I didn't know that," he murmured.

Elise watched him for a moment. "Mel Aradis. Sorry. I should have clarified."


The name sounded familiar, but honestly, Elias didn't really know who she was referring to, although it sounded like he should know this, so he decided to not press it. He was always so bad at retaining names and faces sometimes.

There was another long silence as she continued to watch him eat, and Elias found himself slowing down between bites, not sure if she was waiting for him to finish since he could feel her anticipation.

"Do you know where Bo is, Elias?" Elise finally asked as he moved his last bite across the plate.

Elias didn't look up, still focusing on the food.

"No," he said quietly. "I'm sorry. I don't know."

"That's alright. Do you remember the last time you saw him? We have others trying to find him. If you remember anything... anything at all... it would really help in their search," she said gently.

"I saw him last yesterday. It was dark. I don't know, I don't recall what exactly happened. He dropped me somewhere and told me to run."

"Dropped you..." Elise echoed.

"Flew me," Elias corrected.

"Oh." Elise's face contorted into another severe worried expression. "He'd only fly if he encountered something dangerous. Was there... another attack?"

"I'm not sure," Elias admitted. "He didn't say."

"He flew you out to safety," Elise said as a question, but it came out to be more like a statement.

He didn't respond to that, deciding to use this time to finish eating his food.

"Is there anything else you remember? Anything that could help with their search?" Elise asked softly.

Elias shook his head. "I'm sorry. I don't know anything else."

Elise seemed to blink back her teary eyes, and he didn't know whether it was because she was sad for Bo, or because she didn't believe him, or maybe both.

"I'm sorry, Elise," Elias said after a brief pause, watching her with sympathy. "About everything."

Elise was unable to hold back her tears, crying again. She furiously wiped her eyes and shook her head.

"No, I'm sorry, Elias. I should have been there for you. I'm sorry for not being there sooner," she said between sniffs.

Elias moved to bring her close, embracing her and holding her tightly as he stared over her shoulder towards a painting on the wall. It was lined with contrasting colors interwoven together.

"It's not your fault," Elias said softly. "Don't blame yourself. I made a bad decision. It has nothing to do with you."

Elise sobbed in his arms, and Elias found himself reassuring her some more, patting her back and trying to cheer her up. It reminded him of the time of when they reunited a year ago, first meeting each other again.

"I'll be okay. I promise," he said. "Since we're here now, we can both have little houses next to each other. You can check in and feed me everyday if you want, but I'll keep telling you that I'm fine. And I'll keep hugging you too, here for you if you want to cry. But if I do that, then I hope you know that I'll have to be the one checking in on you and feeding you everyday."

"Elias--" she began, but then choked on her own sob.

"It's alright," he said reassuringly, patting her back again.

Elise held on to him a little longer, but when she pulled away, wiping her eyes again as she tried to hold in her breath to control her sniffling. She looked so sad, but something about her expression pained Elias. He couldn't explain it. It was like his words were only making her feel worse, even though he was trying to make her feel better.

"How do you feel?" he asked, still staring down at her.

"Sad, but still relieved that you're here," she admitted. "What about you? How do you feel?"

Elias stared longingly down the hall towards the bedroom. "Tired, honestly..."

"Ah..." She wiped her eyes again, following his gaze. "Would you like to sleep some more?"

"I know day just started, but... I really am tired. So if you don't mind..."

"No, not at all. Please," Elise said after a stifled sniff, ushering for him to head down the hall. "I'll be okay. I'll be here if you need anything. Okay? Don't hesitate to reach out if you need anything at all."

"Alright," Elias said, already walking.

He knew that she would prepare everything he would need anyways. He wouldn't be surprised if she'd leave glasses of water by the bed, watching it carefully and making sure it was always full. This felt oddly familiar, yet so foreign. He couldn't pinpoint what memory this feeling came from, if it even existed.

Elias drew the curtains and laid in bed, staring up the ceiling. He wondered if he was in Mel Aradis's room since this was her house. He wondered if she was really okay with him staying here, and he wondered what their past history was. It probably wasn't important since Elias could hardly remember.

He wished he could somehow convince Elise that she didn't need to drop everything to comfort him when he did something bad. She was already taking on so much... she was already doing so much. He wished he could plead with her, begging her to live the life she deserved.

Elias turned to his side, pulling the sheets over his head so it would be darker.

Why did this feel so familiar? The feeling gnawed at him, it's sharp edges piercing his heart to inject him with anxiety.

As Elias laid there, staring at the wrinkles of the sheet over his head, it suddenly dawned on him: he had felt like this before, a long, long time ago.

He tightly closed his eyes, the memories flashing across his eyes. A dreadful walk home alone, feeling detached from his body, on the verge of crying. Wondering how to tell Elise, but walking in to see her slouched across the table, asleep, books and papers scattered, the house a mess. She had been working so hard, studying late and being his guardian. The least he could do was help out around the house more and not come back so late.

Another day, his younger self thought, the empty promise seared into his mind. I'll tell her another day.

That day never came, and Elias recalled that he, too, back then also climbed into bed and pulled the sheets over his head, trying to dissect his thoughts and feelings.

He cried himself to sleep back then, but today, Elias had no tears.

He hadn't had tears to shed in a long time.

With a sigh, Elias closed his eyes, letting the memory fade back with all the other memories he didn't care for, wondering if it would take another fourteen years to resurface.

That was his last thought before he fell into another deep slumber.
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soundofmind says...

This was a bad idea.

Spoiler! :

He was at Daisies. The bar. The bar without punctuation in the name - because for some reason, it wasn't named after someone named Daisy, but instead Daisy the flower, but plural. And despite the seemingly innocent name, the bar was anything but. It was dark. Dingy. The walls were painted a dark brown, and the floors were dark and checkered, but somehow were so sticky that the sound of footsteps fell dead upon contact.

The decor what more ghastly than anything. James was used to seeing taxidermy, but the owner had clearly deeply leaned in to the theme of death, and there were many animal skeletons in the form of paintings and real skulls hanging on the walls, alongside graphic, bloody graffiti mixed with the occasional dead, wilted flower drawings. It looked like some of the drawings were done in messy paints, and some drawings were more crude, like maybe they'd been done by customers.

As for the patrons...

James already knew he didn't look like he belonged.

While Tula had stuck out like a sore thumb when he first saw her in her showy, all-black outfit, he understood now how it all made sense. She would fit in perfectly here, at her workplace, where everyone looked like they had a chip on their shoulder and dressed like it.

The bar had only just opened, and it began to fill up, mostly with older men at first, who he presumed to be regulars. They seemed to gravitate to what seemed like a habitual table where they all began to talk and mutter amongst themselves, reading the paper.

And of course, he caught all of their suspicious glances his way.

Along with some glares.

Right. People would recognize him. He expected this, and yet, somehow, it felt like he'd forgotten, for a moment, what it felt like for his face to be so publicly known and yet to still feel like a stranger.

The only thing different this time was no one here could turn him in.

But it didn't mean anyone wouldn't want to. Especially since his face was associated with the Moonlight Kingdom.

A few more people came in who looked like regulars. Alcoholics, probably.

Again, they cast looks his way - some doing double-takes as they passed - all seeming offended by his presence.

James was just waiting for Tula to show up.

Why wasn't she on time for her shift? Maybe she never was.

"Come here, pretty boy. Have a seat with us," a man said, patting the open bar stool between him and a few of the older regulars.

It didn't sound like an ask. It sounded like a threat.

James stared at him for a moment before he got up stiffly, walking over to take a seat between them.

The man who demanded he come over was tall, balding, and had a beard sprinkled with white and grey.

Despite being on the heavier side, it was clear the man was still muscular for his age - probably mid 50s - and James knew if he became hostile that it could get ugly. Especially if all of his other, equally rough-around-the-edges friends decided to gang up on him.

"Fuck me, mate. He's a mage?" one of the men from behind James said, but James didn't get a chance to look back to see who said that.

"You're Tiberius Hemming, ain't you? That face is always coming up in the papers," the taller, heavier man who motioned for him to sit said.

"Leave him alone, Blithe," the woman working the counter said as she leaned forward, elbow on the counter as she nodded at James. "What d'ya want, honey?"

James was nervous, but he didn't want to let it show.

He also knew he shouldn't be drinking, but drinks were the only thing on the menu. The kitchen wasn't open yet.

"...Some mead," he said.

"On me," the man, Blithe, said as he slid over a silver coin.

"Of course it is," the woman said flatly.

Blithe grinned. "Where's Tula? She's going to have a field day with this one," he said with a cackle.

Ah. So Tula had mentioned him. Probably only terrible things.

"Out," the woman said blandly, then slid over his glass of mead. She narrowed her eyes at him. "You new around here?"

"You'd probably have heard if I was here longer, otherwise," James said lowly, swirling his drink briefly before taking a sip.

Eve was right.

He shouldn't have come.

"What brings you to Daisies?" the woman asked.

"C'mon, Willow. You're not going to ask her how many mages he's killed?" Blithe said with a smirk as he took a sip of his beer.

That was an open wound. James had to fight not to wince at that.

The woman, Willow, seemed unfazed - only staring cooly at James as she leaned in with her elbow across the counter again.

"Not here to judge. If you want my business, I'll give you my business. But you don't mess with anyone here, you understand?" she said cooly.

James really didn't know what Tula had said about him, but clearly, it gave Tula's boss the impression that James had ill intentions. It wasn't that James wasn't used to people making that assumption, but there was something about it that still stung, even if it felt normal, and didn't surprise him.

"I don't plan to," James said simply.

"Good," Willow said, then walked away to attend to her other customers, leaving him alone with Blithe.

"Well? You didn't answer my questions," Blithe said as he turned more squarely towards him, drink in his hand.

James looked at him, taking another sip of his drink.

"Yes," James said quietly. "I'm Tiberius."

It felt so foreign to admit it. He'd almost forgotten the whole world knew him by that name after having gone by James on earth for a year.

"And you're a mage?" Blithe asked skeptically.

"I am," James said, quieter, looking down.

"Yet, you've worked for the kingdom and killed your own kind," he said cooly, now tightly grasping his cup. If he squeezed any more, it looked like it was going to shatter.

"A crime I know I will spend the rest of my life being guilty of, yes," James said, not meeting the man's eyes.

"Guilt does not provide justice. How many have you killed?" Blithe asked, unrelenting.

James swallowed.

The truth was, he didn't know the number.

It had been a long time since he'd had to think about all of the blood on his hands. The countless lives he'd ended, once thinking it was for a good cause. Convinced that he was a hero, when he was anything but.

He didn't know what to say to the man.

Sorry wasn't enough. Apologies wouldn't cut it. What the man said he wanted was justice, but it sounded like he'd already decided what that justice would look like.

Probably with James, at the end of a rope. Or worse.

For a very long time, James would've agreed. And there was a part of him that still did agree that he deserved that.

"You have nothing to say, huh? Gods, you're the scum of the earth," Blithe said with a threatening shake of his head. "You don't belong here."

James agreed on that much. He looked away, down into his cup. He took another drink, this one longer than the last.

Gods, when was Tula going to--?

The door slammed open, and then Tula walked in, heading towards the counter. She stopped in her tracks as she and James made eye contact.

Some of the men cheered her name, welcoming her in and letting her know that she was late. Another person mockingly asked what she was wearing, since she was dressed in normal clothes. Tula ignored them all, tearing her stare away from James as she marched towards the counter, getting Willow's attention.

"Mickey has me on other tasks for the next few days, so I won't be able to come in," Tula said.

"Understandable. I'll fill in for you. Come in when you're done," Willow said, already shooing her off.

"Hey, Tula, check out this pretty face," Blithe said with a grin as she motioned to James.

"Shut up, Blithe. He's dead to me," Tula said with a snarl.

Tula looked like she was ready to leave, but she stayed there for a moment, staring at James, like she was waiting. Waiting to see if he would finally take up her invitiation for them to talk.

"Let's talk," James said simply.

"Oh, yes, let's all talk," Blithe said as he got out of his seat, standing up. "You mess with our girl, you mess with us."

James felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

The bar seemed to grow quieter as the men heard Blithe's silent call of action, all of them turning their heads, some of them getting up as well. James felt the instinctual urge to run.

"Oh, boys, settle down," Tula said with a smirk. "He wants to talk through all the things he's done wrong to me. Why not let the man have his moment of redemption?"

Tula didn't wait for a response, already motioning for James to follow as she headed for the door.

James took one last quick swig of his drink, finishing it off off before he set it down.

"We're watching you!" Blithe called with a threatening voice as they left the bar.

"You and the rest of the world," James said over his shoulder, hurrying to follow Tula out the door.

They left the bar, letting the door slam with a thud.

"Ignore Blithe. He's an asshole to everyone," Tula said with a shrug. "Where do you want to go?"

"Somewhere private, preferably," James said.

Tula watched him for a moment, slightly lifting her brow. "Is this your way of asking me to visit my place?"

James let out a long sigh.

"It doesn't have to be your place," he said. "Just somewhere people won't over hear. I don't know the city as well as you do yet. Otherwise I'd suggest somewhere."

"Mmhmm. Follow me," Tula said as she led him through the streets.

James was still new to the city, but he was already trying to learn the layout and the names of streets. He'd been going on runs on different routes each time, so he was already getting a visual map of how all the roads connected in the downtown area where the inn was.

But it seemed like Tula's place was on the other side of town. Further out than he'd gone before, though he knew the street they were walking down. He just hadn't followed it this far.

They passed by a street of small shops before they entered another residential area with tall apartment buildings. Tula let him into one of the older ones - simple, mostly brick and stone.

She was taking him to her place, wasn't she?

He sighed. Maybe she didn't know the city very well. Or maybe she was just... still obsessed with him, and in denial about it.

He could start to feel the slight buzz from his drink hitting him.

This was a bad idea. And yet, he was still here.

With regret he was already thinking about how he'd have to explain all of this to Eve later, even when they'd agreed it was probably best he didn't seek Tula out at all. Especially after his first run in with her yesterday morning that had ended with him spiraling, admittedly, into a bit of a panic. But... he'd since composed himself.

At least he wasn't panicking now.


"Here it is. Somewhere private," Tula said as she opened her front door, motioning for him to enter.

The apartment led into a narrow, dark hall. The only source of light was a small window in the sitting area, which only consisted of a table and two chairs right now. The apartment overall was very bare bones and sparse, and there was only one piece of decor: a black and white painting of a gothic woman surrounded by thorns against the backdrop of a starry night sky with a big moon.

It seemed that Tula hadn't had time or money to fully make this her home, but James noticed that there were bigger pairs of shoes by the door. She lived with someone else.

"You're not going to start stalking me now, are you?" Tula asked with a smirk as she locked the door behind him then led him towards the table so they could sit.

"I don't think I'll have that much free time," James said. "Takes a lot of commitment to stalk someone. Fortunately, for you, I'm committed to other things."

"Mmmhmm. I'm sure you are."

Although Tula motioned for him to sit, she wandered to the kitchen, opening her cupboard to pull out two wine glasses. On her way back, she grabbed the half-filled bottle of red wine on the counter, setting it all on the table.

"I told you I'd pour you a glass next time, didn't I?" she said as she opened the cork and began to pour wine into the glasses.

"I, uh... I appreciate it," James said with a strained smile. "But I think I'll decline."

He'd already had too much to drink, and hadn't been planning on drinking at all. He didn't need more.

"What? You think I'm poisoning you?" Tula said with a scoff.

"No, I just... would rather keep a sober mind for this conversation," he said.

"Gods, you make no sense. We need to be tipsy for this," Tula said with a shake of her head, sitting down. "Whatever. Do what you want."

James joined her, sitting at the table, and decided to cut right to it.

"So. You wanted to talk about the situation with Elias and Bo," James said.

"I believe we can both share what we know and benefit from it, yes," Tula said, swirling the wine glass in her hand.

"And you're not going to share anything until I do," James said flatly.

"No offense," Tula said blandly, "but I'm pretty sure I have the upper hand here. I have news I'm sure you don't know, but what I need is context. You have context, I have news. Are you following?"

James sighed.

"Right," he said slowly. "And... you need context because?"

Tula sighed, taking a sip of the wine before she set the glass on the table, staring at James.

"Do you remember when Deidra and I captured you and Evaline?" she asked. "We were waiting for our superiors to join us, but in the meantime, I was tasked with keeping you two alive. Do you remember how you taunted me when I asked questions to you, all because it became clear that I didn't know your background and the importance of your capture?"

James stared at her, keeping his face neutral.

"Sure," he said. "I remember."

Tula leaned back into her hair. "That is why I need context."

"See," James said, leaning on the table. "What I don't know is how you even knew about Elias and Bo in the first place. Was it Mickey who pulled you into this? Is that why you're taking off work?"

Tula smirked, lifting her hand to tap the edge of her right eye.

"Spy magic," she said like it was obvious. "It's has a lot of uses."

"...Well," James said. "If Mickey trusts you enough to get you involved... then alright. I can provide context. But I won't be giving more than I deem necessary."

"Fine with me," Tula said. "You answer my questions, I'll answer yours. So to begin: tell me about how they separated from your group."

James sighed, leaning back in his chair.

"Well... the fight was horrific," he answered. "And they caught us by surprise. They strategically targeted the time mages first to knock us out so we couldn't interfere, so I was unconscious for all of it. But from my understanding, the fight nearly ended very badly, and everyone very narrowly got out of it. Elias, in particular, was caught in much of the fray, and he already wasn't doing very well mentally after the rescue from the palace. When everyone was regrouping, he ran away. That's why Bo left to find him."

Tula seemed to be thinking, carefully considering every word as she slowly swirled the glass of wine by its base.

"What do you mean that he wasn't doing well mentally?" she asked.

"Well, I'm not a psychologist, but if I had to guess, it's... I don't know," James said. "You know how trauma can mess with people's heads. Change their behavior. Make them act out of character, even."

"Have you talked to him yet?" Tula asked.

"Not yet," James said.

Tula stared back at James, watching him. "Do you know that he's back?"

"Yes, but it's-- it's only been a day," James said.

"Perhaps. But isn't he your friend? Wouldn't you want to see him?"

James stared at her.

"Are you asking because you really care about him or because you wished I had so that I had more information?" James asked. And then he narrowed his eyes at her.

"Or are you suggesting it so that you can spy on me when I do?"

"Now that's an idea," Tula said with a smirk. "I'd love to do that, if you'd let me."

"You're giving me a choice this time?" James asked with a small scoff.

"How about you just tell me the date and time for me to watch you?" Tula asked instead.

"...No," James said stiffly.

Tula rolled her eyes before deciding to change the subject.

"Do you know anything about the mage hunters who attacked?" she asked.

"Unfortunately... I didn't..." James hesitated, his eyebrows twitching as he tried to recall what he'd been able to make out from the carnage around him.

Had he seen anything? Anything he recognized? Anything that could be useful?

He closed his eyes, trying to remember.

"It... it looked like their uniforms were Terran," James said. "From up North. So they must've been contacted the moment I escaped. We had been attacked by another group prior - though they'd been underprepared, and the conflict was quickly ended. They looked like they'd been from the South. From the kingdom's army. Bo suspected one of them might've gotten away. It's possible they fled north to warn of the powerful mages in our group, which would explain why the second attack ended like it did, and why the more known powerful mages were targeted. Specifically the ones who showed face in the palace, because those would be the ones they knew best."

He opened his eyes, briefly eyeing the bottle of wine on the table. Tula was intentently listening, but then met his brief gaze towards the bottle.

"You sure you don't want any?" she asked. "Your cup's already poured."

"...Yes," James said, having to steel his will.

He stiffly pushed the cup further away from him. Tula almost looked offended when he did so, but then shook her head and continued the conversation.

"Do you remember a name, perhaps a leader, or another notable member in the mage hunter group?" she asked.

James shook his head with a sigh, leaning an elbow on the table while he rested his forehead against his hand.

"I was hardly involved in either battle," he said. "I sadly didn't see much aside from the aftermath."

"Hmm." Tula paused, looking up to meet his eyes again. "What do you know about Bo?"

James stared at her.

"Aside from the fact that he's a dragon?" James asked.

Tula raised a brow, tilting her head.

"Bo told me he flew you to New Haven," James said.

"So he told you that he's a dragon," Tula said matter-of-factly.

"Yes," James said.

"Would you say he's been careful with his secret?" she asked.

James hesitated.

"...In the second attack," James said. "He did shift into his dragon form to shield everyone from an onslaught of bullets from snipers posted from afar."

He felt like that was a suffice answer. Bo revealed his dragon form, and clearly, there were some mages he missed, because they'd come back with a vengeance, this time aware they were hunting down a dragon.

"Hmph." Tula swirled her glass of wine again, thinking. "That's all the questions I have."

James let a silence linger between the two of them, wondering what Tula knew that James didn't - or if she really did know anything at all.

If she had been brought in by Mickey, Mickey would have at least given her some context to describe the urgency of the situation.

James knew Elias had been found, but he really didn't know much of the details around it besides that something had happened to Bo, and everyone was scrambling to find him.

"What did Mickey tell you?" James asked.

"He told me that Elias was found without Bo, so he wanted me to spy on him in case he was in trouble," Tula said. "I didn't see anything, but I knew he was alive. I could also hear some things, although it's hard to make out most words. Nonetheless, it was clear he was captured."

"What did you hear specifically?" James asked.

"A lot of words. Mostly filler, and nothing important."

"Indulge me," James said.

"Well," Tula began as she leaned back on her chair. "Most of the time, I hear nothing. Sometimes, I hear filler words about practical manners, like food, supplies, and travel. I heard more of the key words before Mickey left, when I assume that they were starting to gain momentum."

Tula paused.

"'Dragon' was one of the words. And so was the name 'Jay.' Bo ate someone named Jay."

James squinted again, this time staring out into the dining room.

He had the innocuous, random thought - once he realized nothing in the room was coming into focus - that he still needed glasses. But he quickly shook the thought away, trying to piece things together.

Dragon. So he was right. They'd prepared to capture a dragon, but hadn't killed Bo yet, which meant they had plans for him. James couldn't deduce exactly what it would be, but he could only assume the worst. Torture, dissection, possibly using him as an endless source of blood, to use for experimentation. All of it was horrific to consider, but if they'd gone out of their way to capture him, they had to have considered all of the risks.

They would have bucketloads of lumshade to keep him subdued. But even so... it sounded like Bo had been spooked enough to completely separate Elias from the situation. What could've scared a dragon like that? Even when facing the hunters, Bo had been, from what he saw, unflinching.

And who was Jay? Why did he specifically eat someone named Jay? Maybe he'd eaten other people, and Tula wasn't able to overhear all of casualties discussed.

But... Bo didn't come off as the kind of person to... eat people. Even in dragon form.

He'd seen the bodies that were brought back that Bo had killed, and those had been slashed to pieces by his claws, but not his teeth.

"Well, if that's your only question, then I think we're done here," Tula said, cutting in when he took too long to say anything else.

Jay. Jay. Who was Jay?

"Did Mickey say anything else about how Elias and Bo got separated?" James asked.

"This is what I'm trying to figure out as well," Tula hesitantly admitted, which seemed out of character, but it was her way to let him know that she truly was trying to piece this piece of the puzzle. "All I've been told was that Bo flew Elias to safety. It seems that no one is going to Elias for information, even though he might be the only person who knows what truly happened."

"If Bo flew Elias away before they even saw the danger," James said. "It's possible he really doesn't know anything."

The question then became... would Elias have turned around to help Bo?

Or would he have left?

"Perhaps," Tula said. "Or maybe he doesn't want to say."

James couldn't imagine that Elias, given his already established compulsion to push everyone away, would've enjoyed being dragged to New Haven by Bo. James had a feeling that Elias wouldn't have been overwhelmingly cooperative, especially with how he'd strategically left when Bo was unconscious in the first place. Maybe he'd agreed to go, but...

Would Elias have left Bo for dead?

No. He... he wouldn't. Right? Maybe he'd just been scared and run away, not thinking.

He'd fought so violently to protect everyone, even at the cost of his mental stability.

Would he really...? What else would he be too ashamed to say?

Gods, James was far too tipsy for this.

He let out a long sigh, leaning onto the table and rubbing his face with both hands.

"...I should go home," he muttered.

"You mean to tell me that don't want to leisurely drink wine with your past torturer?" Tula said with a smirk.

"Ha. Hilarious," James said, getting up to his feet.

He was... steady enough.

He was not looking forward to facing Eve. What was he going to start with? The part where he went to a dirty dive bar and almost got beat up by a bunch of angry old men? The part where he bought a drink just to not get kicked out? The part where he intentionally sought out Tula and then ended up at her place, alone?

Now that he thought about it, it really sounded worse than he initially tought. Like a dog going back to his own vomit. Not that Tula was comparable to vomit, but sometimes she made him want to vomit.

James made his way to the door.

"I guess you know where I live now," she said innocently, following him out. "But just remember: if you stalk me, I'll stalk you back."

James didn't know what came over him, but he couldn't help but laugh.

He stepped out the door, looking back at her.

"I think you're one step ahead of me on that one," he said.

Tula scoffed. "Come to my bar again, and I'll have the boys beat you up."

"I am not showing up there again," James said with another laugh. "Contrary to popular belief, I actually do value my life."

"Whatever. Get out of here," Tula said with a roll of her eyes.
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soundofmind says...

By the time James arrived back at the inn, it was almost 7pm. Enough time had passed that he was finally starting to feel normal again - and he really was trying - but he couldn't help but feel dread when he made his way to their room door.

Taking in a deep breath, he opened it, spotting Eve inside, sitting at the desk under lamplight, reading. It looked like maybe it was the local paper.

Eve perked up at the sound of his arrival, already getting up to her feet to greet him.

"You're home," she said with relief. "How was your walk?"

James immediately deflated, closing the door behind him.

It was best to not dance around it. He walked over to the bed and sat on the edge of it heavily. Eve quietly followed him, daintily sitting next to him.

"Eve, I have a confession to make," he said. "Several confessions, actually. In all of which I was an idiot."

Eve watched him with her brows pinched together, worried.

"Alright," she said quietly.

"I went to the bar Tula works at," James said. "I know we agreed it'd be best for me not to see her. I don't know. I thought that maybe... and she did know things. Apparently Mickey asked her to help try to find information. But I shouldn't have lied to you about where I was going. I thought you were going to talk me out of it, but I still shouldn't have lied. I'm sorry."

Eve was quiet for a moment. Her gaze drifted to to his hand, which she gingerly took. It was hard to get a reading on her, but James knew she must have been hurt that he lied.

"Well... you're right about that. I would have tried to talk you out of it," she said softly.

"...A lot of the people at the bar recognized me," he said quietly. "I was lucky that Tula came in and waved them off. They were about to start a fight."

"You didn't get hurt, did you?" Eve asked worriedly.

"No," James said. "But... I only went there to try to find Tula. And because everyone there hated me I... I ordered a drink. Because I was afraid the owner was going to kick me out otherwise while I waited."

Eve was quiet, rubbing her thumb against his hand.

"I should've just left," he said. "And I shouldn't have... finished it off either. And I shouldn't have followed Tula to her home. Or any of it."

Eve glanced up at him again, sending him another anxious look. "You went to her home?"

"It was... to talk somewhere in private," he said, groaning at himself as he buried his face in his hands.

Eve went quiet again, pulling her hand away.

"I know, I know," he said, bringing his hands down to force himself to look at her, even though he'd rather look away in shame.

Eve was sitting with her back straight, holding back some of her thoughts and feelings. But she didn't seem angry. If anything, she was just worried. Worried and a little sad. She looked at James with her brows lightly drawn together with concern, her sad eyes meeting his.

He felt so guilty.

"It's alright, James. I'm not angry," she said in the short silence that followed.

But he wanted to make space for her anger, if she had it. He just didn't know how to. And he didn't want to accuse her of lying, either.

He clenched his jaw, trying to be present, and not shut down again.

"What are you thinking?" he asked quietly.

Eve paused for a while to think through her answer, possibly filtering her words.

"Well... what's done is done. There's no use in dwelling on the regret. I'm just glad you're okay," she said.

As it turned out, she filtered out a lot.

James sat up straighter, turning to face her.

"It... I don't want to just sweep this under the rug," he said. "What I did wasn't okay."

"I know," Eve said softly. "I do wish you'd have told me. But... it's alright. As long as it doesn't happen again, right? I really am glad you're okay. I don't want to be angry at you."

Did that mean she was? Or just that she didn't want to be?

"...Okay," James said quietly.

He hated that he'd failed her. He had to do better.

And he found himself afraid to make another promise. He'd already broken one, when he said he'd never leave her, only a few months ago. Who was to say she had any reason to take him at his word now?

He was going to have to prove himself again. He couldn't do that to her again. He wouldn't. He wouldn't.

She deserved better.

"It won't happen again," he said, and very firmly, he determined with all of his strength to mean it and to follow through.

Eve lightly smiled, seemingly appreciating his sentiments.

"I know," she said. "I believe you."

"And I'm grateful that you do, Eve," James said. "But I'm going to prove it to you, too."

Eve paused. "When you say 'it,' you mean...?"

"The drinking. The lying about where I'm going. The going into seedy bars, or bars at all, especially alone," he said.

A pause.

"As for Tula," he said. "I know it isn't a good idea to entertain her. But I... I don't think I'll be able to avoid her forever. Not if we live in the same city. And somehow I have a feeling she'll try to 'run into me again' eventually."

Eve slowly nodded. "If she becomes a problem... I'm sure there are ways to report her, and she will get punished. We really are safe here."

James nodded in return.

"I guess we'll wait and see," he said. "But I'm not going to go out of my way to visit her again. I don't think it'd be... wise."

"That's... putting it lightly, yes," Eve said.

"How would you put it?" James asked.

"Insane," she said. "I know she's supposedly getting better, but two months of progress can't wipe past history. And I have doubt that she's that much of a different person, based on our short interaction with her yesterday."

James nodded, looking down into his lap.

"I did get... a little information from her," he said. "We were able to have a conversation. Which I wasn't really expecting."

Eve was quiet for a moment. "What did you learn?" she asked.

"It's bits and pieces mostly," James said. "But... it sounds like the conflict that split Bo and Elias was bad enough that Bo might've separated Elias before it could even reach them, and then went to deal with it himself. Otherwise, I don't know if Elias would've gotten away. But some of that is speculation. It sounds like it was bad enough that Bo shifted to his dragon form, though. And... apparently ate someone named Jay."

Eve seemed to be deep in thought, furrowing her brows as her gaze landed across the room.

"The second mage hunter attack was already so horrific. I can't imagine what a third attack would have been like. And Bo was by himself..." she said softly.

"Well... I know there are mages, apparently, hidden in the army. Their questionable morals aside, maybe they would've been able to take him on? If they recruited them? I don't know how many mages the hunters even have on their side or how that works," James admitted.

Eve slowly nodded. "We really don't know," she said. "Regardless, Mickey left with Hendrik and others to look for him. Do they know anything?"

James fell quiet.

"I don't know," he finally said, looking into his lap.

He frowned, staring down at his hands as the same question nagged at him.

He didn't want to believe it was a possibiltiy, but he also didn't know Elias like Eve did.

"Did you see Elias today?" James asked.

Eve deeply sighed, setting her hands on her lap and brushing her palm with her thumb.

"I tried to," she said. "Elise answered the door. He was asleep, so I didn't get to talk to him. She said he's been sleeping for long hours at a time, probably because he was so exhausted and fatigued. She told me I could try again tomorrow, although judging from what little she implied, I don't think he would be able to say much."

Right. If Elias was separated from Bo, that meant he would've had to face the wilds alone for a while before he was found. Because if he'd been found immediately, Mickey wouldn't be on the hunt for information. Bo would've still been close.

And if he'd been in his dragon form, they probably would've seen him.

Swallowing, he looked up at Eve, meeting her eyes gravely.

"Do you think Elias would leave Bo for dead?" James asked.

Because if Elias was found alone, it meant he didn't go back. If he had gone back to help, wouldn't it have gone differently? Would they have succeeded in capturing Bo? Would Elias say more?

Eve sharply looked at him with wide eyes, almost looking offended.

"What?" she said. "Why would you say that?"

"I..." James hesitated. "I'm just trying to make sense of things. I don't want to believe it."

"No, I don't think he'd leave his friend for dead," she said with her brows pinched together, answering his question. "I know that there's a lot we don't know. And I know that Elias has been hiding a lot of information himself. But that? I don't believe that he'd do anything like that, just like I wouldn't do that, or you wouldn't do that."

James wanted to agree with her. He really did. But there was a part of him that felt like... he had to prepare himself for the worst.

Maybe it was more a reflection on himself, than anything. He kept giving people second chances, but he would often still assume the worst.

"You're right," James said quietly. "I shouldn't assume anything anyway. Like you said, we don't know much at all."

"It does feel strange to be put in this position," she said. "We're supposed to live normal lives, yet I'd also like to know what's happening - maybe because I feel like I could do something about it. But in this case, with Bo being captured..." Eve shook her head. "I don't know. I don't think there's anything we can do. We just have to wait."

James had to admit, that was the main reason why he'd gone to visit Tula in the first place.

It felt like he was at least doing something, but maybe what he should have done was check in on his friend Elias. He didn't want to resent Tula for pointing that out. On that, she was right, and he couldn't disagree.

He'd have to do that tomorrow.
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soundofmind says...

7th of Bruma

First thing in the morning, James got the address of where Elias was staying from Eve. Mickey had only really given it to her in private - which led James to believe that, prior to Bo's disappearance, that maybe Bo had spoken with Mickey about all of them. Probably when he dropped off Tula, since he had flown there in back in a matter of hours. That was the only time James could think of where Bo would've been able to tell Mickey that Eve was one of Elias's closest friends. Besides, how else would Mickey know? Sure, the man was insightful - perhaps that was a trait Bo had learned from him - but regardless.

They were the only ones who knew where Elias was, and it seemed that it was implied by the level of privacy that Elias was in a very fragile state and might not be open to seeing many people.

When James was getting ready to leave, Eve asked if she could come along, to which James had no objections to. He did, for a moment, wonder if it had anything to do with yesterday, but he decided not to go down that road of thinking.

Elias was Eve's friend too, and yesterday when she'd gone to visit, he'd been asleep. Of course she wanted to go.

So they set off together, Eve helping lead the way since she'd already navigated her way through the city the day prior. It was about a 20 minute walk, and it was nice to see the sunlight begin to pour in as the giant sunroofs to the city were opened up.

Eventually, Eve pointed out the dainty townhouse on the street, and James followed her up to the door. He was the one who knocked.

Half a minute passed before the door was unlocked, and Elise cracked it open. She tiredly smiled and opened the door further after recognizing James and Eve.

"Good morning. It's nice to see you both," she said softly with a smile.

"Good morning, Elise," James said.

"We wanted to see Elias," Eve said, cutting straight to the chase. "Is he awake?"

Elise hesitated, but then nodded. "He is. But... he hasn't met anyone here yet, outside of myself." She paused. "I can go ask if he wants to see you. Is that alright?"

"That's fine," Eve said. "We can wait here."

"Alright. Be right back."

She closed the door behind her, and James and Eve shared a look, but otherwise waited in silence.

The door opened again, but this time, Elise stepped out, letting the door close softly behind her.

"I'm sorry," she said sadly, meeting both their eyes with sincerity. "He's not ready yet."

"Oh..." Eve said, trailing off as the implications sunk in that Elias denied their request to see them. "Would it help if... maybe he saw us individually?"

Elise met her eyes with sadness. "I'm sorry. I... I don't think it will."

James slipped his hand into Eve's, giving it a gentle squeeze.

"Thanks for asking, Elise," James said softly. "Do you need anything?"

"I think I'm fine, but I appreciate it. It might help if you come by again tomorrow. These things take time, sometimes..." Elise said softly. "I'm sorry again."

"You don't have to apologize," James said gently. "We'll try again."

He looked to Eve.

"Can we at least relay a message?" Eve asked Elise.

"Um..." Elise stammered, thinking it through.

"I just want him to know that we care about him, and we're not going to judge him at all, no matter what," Eve said anyways.

Elise offered another tired smile. "I can let him know that."

Eve lingered her gaze between Elise and the door, then nodded, looking back at James. "Alright," she said softly. "Let's come back tomorrow."

James nodded, offering her a small, sad smile.

He looked back to Elise.

"We'll see you later, Elise," James said. "Farewell for now."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

Almost all absurdity of conduct rises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble.
— Samuel Johnson