• Published 29th Nov 2022
  • 630 Views, 47 Comments

Cammie - Jarvy Jared



A mother's journey to the north inevitably leads her to a journey through her own heart.

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10 - The Job

They arrived a day later at a depot far smaller than had front-ended the journey. It was either unfinished or falling apart; one wall was crumbling into dust and a batch of construction supplies sat abandoned in one of the storage crates. Beneath a gray, cloud-heavy sky, a single crane dangled its hook lazily like a fishing pole over the glass ceiling, its metal girders groaning with each swaying movement. Fewer ponies were here, too, meaning it was so quiet, Chamomile could hear the individual pipes of the train exhale steam like a chorus of sighing macaws. The few ponies she did see seemed somehow paler and less corporeal than their southern counterparts, as though being this far north had started to wean them of their connection to Equestria.

The landscape was similarly weaned of Equestria’s features. The miles of hills and grassy terrain, staples of the scenery for the past several days of their journey, faded into the south, and the wilderness, stretching out of the edge of the horizon, was so thick with foreign trees, bushes, and other festering plants, no one could see past them. To the east and west, the land grew bumpy and uneven—rising steppes and tumultuous mesas offered a view that seemed to vibrate and shimmer with each wayward movement of the eye. To the north, hills melted into purple rises and blue mountains, and though they were still far away, the unmistakable white glint of glacial-capped summits spoke to the endeavor’s destination: the Frozen North, and the ancient train tracks that awaited them.

“By the stars,” Clip murmured from next to her. They were standing outside of the depot, looking over the landscape. “It’s like we’re the only ponies left on Equestria.”

Chamomile concurred silently. All that wilderness, all those displays of geographic immensity, removed all semblance of civilization. With no homes or buildings and only a lone track vainly stretching backwards, they seemed truly cut off from the rest of the world—and each other.

“Can you feel it, too?” Clip said. “The air?”

Chamomile paused. “Yes,” she said. “It’s… colder, isn’t it? But that’s to be expected, given how far north we are.”

Clip nodded. He did not seem put at ease by the observation. “Not a fan of the cold?” Chamomile said. She tried to throw some levity into her voice, but could tell her heart wasn’t in it.

“I think I prefer the Badlands to this.”

As though summoned, a knife of cold air burst through the clearing. The crane’s steel girders groaned and in the spaces between the bars, the wind shrieked at an in-equine pitch. The hook swung to-and-fro precariously, threatening to smack into one of the sides of the building, and behind Chamomile and Clip, the train seemed to buck and bow. But then, as quickly as it had come, the wind vanished, like a ghost’s final breath before departure, and all was still. A silence that seemed so unheavenly insular as to only come from the underworld descended. The contrast caused chills to race up Chamomile’s spine.

“We should head inside,” Clip said.

Chamomile nodded, but just as she was about to head in, Clip touched her shoulder. “Hold on a moment. Where’s Gaea?”

Chamomile carefully averted her gaze. “She got off before we did. She’s probably inside with everypony else.” Then, before he could ask any further questions, she trotted into the depot.

It was thankfully warmer inside. A loading bay area, previously filled with crates, palettes, and rolling U-boat shelves, had been cleared for use, and the workers had gathered underneath the hanging office area that rose above them on metal stilts. A smoky light seemed to filter from the industrial bulbs attached to the walls, coating the workers in a pale, yellow glow. At the other end of the depot was a giant red metal container, and a couple of construction ponies loitered next to it, holding cups of cocoa and dressed for the cold weather. They seemed either miserable or bone-tired, and it was unclear if it was because of the work they’d been doing, or because of the almost violent change in climate. They watched the ponies stream in with unreadable expressions that seemed unbecoming of Equestrian natives, and Chamomile suddenly felt like she and the others were intruding upon sacred ground.

She and Clip managed to slip closer to the front, but Clip raised his head to scan the crowd. “There’s Gaea,” he said, pointing. “Why don’t we go join her?”

“Wait,” Chamomile said, stopping him with a touch on the shoulder. He looked back at her, startled. She took a breath, trying not to look in Gaea’s direction. “We shouldn’t disrupt. I have a feeling that they’re about to begin.”

“But Gaea—”

“She’ll be fine.” Chamomile was surprised by how quickly she insisted on it and knew immediately that she did not know if it was true. Hoping to avoid the topic once more, she said, “Come on, scoot over—let the others through.”

Clip did so, and he and Chamomile eventually settled into place, waiting. But Chamomile could feel his gaze on her. She tried to ignore it, and tried to ignore the fact that Gaea was only a few steps away. In time, his gaze turned away.

At the other end of the loading bay area, Zipp stood, flanked by the conductor and another worker. She wore an orange ski vest and had laid out several papers on a folding table, and, based on how her head swiveled and her hoof jabbed emphatically at the papers, she was in the midst of an intense conversation. The conductor seemed uncertain, while the worker looked more confused than anything. “But the weather,” Chamomile heard her say.

“We’ll cover that,” Zipp replied. The other pony didn’t look pleased, and said something back, quieter, which caused Zipp to furrow her brow.

Chamomile tried not to give into temptation, but, growing anxious and antsy, quickly glanced in Gaea’s direction. She didn’t acknowledge Chamomile; her attention was arrested by the scene in front of her. There seemed a deliberateness to it, an overt and obvious attempt at seeming nonchalant. It was almost painful to witness, and it was enough to wrench Chamomile’s gaze away. I shouldn’t have looked, she thought. I shouldn’t be concerned with her.

Upon thinking that, though, guilt, colder than the climate, impressed itself upon her heart.

Eventually, Zipp’s conversation ended, and she looked up from the table. “Can everypony hear me?”

Once they all murmured yes, she nodded. She took from the table a large sheet of paper and threw it on the back wall, pinning it quickly with four tacks. When she stepped away, it was revealed to be a large, blown-up map of Equestria, with the three tribes’ cities neatly labeled and a series of lines crisscrossing the space between them—railroads, Chamomile guessed.

She retrieved a long pointer-stick from the table, holding it with her wing. “Right, then. I… hang on a second.” The stick traveled to where Maretime Bay was, where, marked by glitter and colorful paint, were the words, “Zipp’s New Home!”

Zipp groaned. “Izzy…”

Some ponies chuckled, but Clip and Chamomile exchanged surprised, knowing looks.

Zipp struck the map with the stick, eliciting a tremendous crack. Instantly all laughter ceased. There was a look of intense focus on Zipp’s face as she moved the stick to the middle of the map. “This is where we are, folks. About the furthest from the rest of Equestria you can get and still call it home. And this—” The stick slid up the map to its northernmost edge, which she tapped twice. “This is where we’ll be going.”

“The end of the world?” somepony asked.

It was meant to be a point of jest, but Zipp glared at whoever had spoken. “Not quite,” she said. She brought the pointer away from the map and swept it in front of her. “No doubt when you were getting off, you could see the mountains in the distance. That, everypony, is the last obstacle—the last barrier separating us from whatever else lies beyond.”

“The Frozen North?” somepony else said.

Zipp nodded. She returned to the map, jabbing at the edge. “Now, I told you all that there is a set of ancient railroad tracks somewhere up here. The thing is, despite our best efforts, we haven’t been able to find any outside of these mountains. This leads us to think that they are actually inside them. Like an above-ground tunnel system, if you will. This means we’ve got two goals in mind.” She twirled the pointer across her wing. “First: we need to lay down tracks as we keep moving north. And second: we need to figure out where those railroads are.”

“And if we find those railroads?” That was Gaea, and Chamomile nearly started.

“Then mission accomplished,” Zipp said with a slight grin. “And then we can all go home and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.”

There were murmurings, brief and uncertain. A hush seemed to settle, and all eyes turned from the map to the train. Chamomile could guess what everypony was thinking—they’d done it. They’d come to the end of their journey. Now, all that was left was completing it—whatever, or wherever, that meant.

“And how exactly are we meant to do this?” somepony else voiced.

“I’m glad you asked,” Zipp said. “First of all, you should know that you’ll be working largely with the ponies you arrived with—the ones that were in the cars with you. Hopefully you’ve already met them, and hopefully you’re prepared to work with them. These are your partners, through and through—rely on them, and also be aware that they are relying on you, too.”

Clip and Chamomile looked at each other. No surprise there, now that they thought of it. But then Chamomile thought about Polar, and then Gaea, and she frowned.

“Now, here’s how things will run:

"Pegasi, we’ll need you in the air not only to make sure the rails are straight, but also to help keep an eye on the weather. This is uncharted territory for all of us, and we can’t be sure that everything’s gonna play nicely. You’ll also be helping with carrying some of our supplies—the lighter stuff—from up and down the depot chain when need be. We will also need you if we have to whip up a tornado—a small one, mind you—for clearing out the land. This far north, we’re sure to find some particularly stubborn trees and shrubbery.”

“I didn’t know I was signing up to be a lumberjack,” one pegasus called out. It was an obvious joke, and some quiet bouts of laughter ensued.

Surprisingly, Zipp was unbothered. “Ha, well, consider this you picking up a new hobby.” She continued without missing a beat:

“As for the unicorns, you’ll be handling laying down the tracks themselves. First, you’ll set up the crossties, and then the beams. You’ll be paired up for this, given how heavy they are. Don’t strain yourselves, though. We’ll need all hooves—and horns,” Zipp added with her signature smirk, “available at a moment’s notice.

“Finally, you earth ponies will be responsible for finishing setting up the rails. You’ll be driving in the nails and rivets once the unicorns have finished setting everything in place. Be careful with the rivets, though—they’re very sharp and liable to pierce your skin easily. We have several medics available in case of injury, but it should surprise none of you when I say make sure they aren’t.”

Then Zipp nodded to one of the workers at the depot. A crate was opened, and they began to hand out gear similar to what Zipp was wearing: scarves, hats, hoof-gloves, and coats and parkas. “You’ll be needing these sooner rather than later. Trust me.”

The parka given to Chamomile fit snugly, and she worried that she might overheat long before the true cold hit her. She kept the scarf loosely wrapped around her neck, then helped Clip with his. Gaea, she saw, took no chances—already she had bundled herself up, and a thick pair of snow goggles hung over her hat.

The last item to be handed out was far humbler: a small flashlight, which they could deposit into their pockets. This seemed unnecessary to Chamomile—Zipp wanted them to work during the day, only.

Zipp cleared her throat, getting everypony’s attention once more. “There’s one more unofficial thing I’d like to add. I don’t say this lightly. This might look like a simple railroad construction job, but Equestria is counting on us to succeed.” She paused, letting her words serve the weight they intended. It seemed she was looking intently into everyone’s eyes.

“Work together, and look out for each other,” she finished solemnly. “Understand?”

They understood.


Almost immediately, Chamomile’s group ran into a problem: they had no pegasus.

“Polar didn’t get off the train, did he?” she asked Clip while they were waiting for the supplies to be unloaded.

“Not that I saw,” he said. “Then again, I didn’t check up on him to see if he was still in the medbay. Maybe Gaea knows. Why don’t you ask her?”

Chamomile looked over to where she was. Gaea stood a little distance away from them, talking to one of the engineers who was teaching her and the earth ponies how to use the various railroad equipment they’d been provided. Her goggles and hat bobbed whenever she nodded along. She was so focused on the lecturer that she didn’t notice Chamomile staring.

“She’s busy right now,” she said to Clip, not once breaking her gaze.

He frowned, and opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it. “I’ll go talk to Zipp,” he said. “Maybe she has an idea for what we’ll do instead.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“There’s no need. No point in crowding her, anyway. Just stay here. I’ll be right back.”

He was gone before she could protest, vanishing behind a line of workers carrying a beam onto a cart. Circling in place, Chamomile saw that everyone else had re-grouped, and despite the enormity of the situation, they all appeared to be in relative states of excitement. As far as she could tell, she was the only one who was on her own, and this only furthered her agitation.

The lecturer finished talking. He left to go find another group of ponies, and the former group dispersed until all that was left was Gaea. She saw Chamomile standing on her own and froze. They stared at one another, fighting one urge to run, another urge to stay and see, between them, who would break the tension first.

Chamomile raised a hoof. She offered a hesitant wave. Gaea didn’t return it, but appeared to have understood—slowly, casting looks left and right, she trotted forward to join Chamomile.

“Hey,” Chamomile said. She tried to say it casually but knew that it was anything but.

“Hey.”

Another silence. How strange that in the raucous chatter that surrounded them, that silence could be so loud.

“Clip went to talk to Zipp about finding a pegasus for us,” Chamomile said.

Gaea blinked, then nodded. “Oh. Right… because Polar still hasn’t recovered.”

“Right.”

More silence. Gaea scuffed a hoof on the dirt and observed the train. Chamomile twisted around, rubbing the back of her head while she watched a group of pegasi carrying bundles of rope and other tools to dump into a supply cart. She felt stifled by her parka, wanted to take it off, but thought doing so would be awkward. She sighed, then faced Gaea. “Look, about last night—”

“Wait,” Gaea interrupted, pointing a hoof. “Here comes Clip and Zipp.”

Though somewhat annoyed, she turned anyway. Clip, approaching them, was fiddling with his scarf again—somehow, he’d managed to undo it, and was trying to get it around his neck. He saw them looking, then grunted. “Confound this infernal thing.”

“Here,” Gaea said before Chamomile could, “let me help you with that.” She stepped forward to intercept him. Chamomile believed she’d done so just so she could get away from Chamomile for a few seconds, and this wounded her.

Zipp reached them. “Clip told me about your situation. Shame about Polar. I guess that concussion is going to lay him out for a while.” Then she grinned. “Which is why I’ll be taking his place alongside you guys! Hope you don’t mind.”

Chamomile nodded distractedly. She watched as Gaea fumbled around with Clip’s scarf—the knot was a fierce one, vexing every attempt at straightening. Seeing the intense look on Gaea’s face filled Chamomile’s stomach with butterflies, but equally, seeing her stand that close to somepony else caused those butterflies to burn.

Zipp’s grin fell, and her ears wilted back. “Oh… so you do mind?”

“What? N-no, of course not! I mean, I’m really grateful, truly.” She turned back around and tried to smile. “Thank goodness we won’t have to wait, I mean.”

Zipp quirked an eyebrow. “Okaaaay… well, let me know if you encounter any problems. I’m going to check up on everypony. We should be starting soon.”

Meanwhile, Gaea had finally managed to fix the scarf, and Clip was smiling gratefully at her. The sight captured Chamomile’s attention once again. She did not see Zipp leave. The carts that had been brought out of the depot now jostled noisily as they were pulled forward, full of beams, nails, rivets, rope, and other supplies. The carts were moving to the end of the current length of track to expand it from there. After some of the railroad had been laid down, the train would advance a bit forward, making sure never to overtake the progress of the workers. The current track’s length from the depot was short—less than half a mile—and when the carts reached the end, the unknown north, its uncertain terrain, and its casual immensity rose like spirits of the earth before them, forming a different kind of horizon than the one that dwindled far behind them.

Zipp, returning, assessed the situation. “Is everyone ready?” she asked. They asserted in the positive, but Chamomile had the feeling that they would not have said no even if they had believed otherwise—to them, there was no choice left but this one; no further path back, only forward.

Zipp gave the signal, and the job began.

While the pegasi took to the skies and the earth ponies stood at ready, the unicorns got to work. Naturally, Chamomile and Clip were paired up, while Gaea waited nearby, her face carefully masked by her goggles and hat. Chamomile tried not to let this bother her; the task would take up her entire focus. The first cart was opened, and they brought out the crossties, planks of evenly cut wood which they laid out flat on the ground, six or eight at a time, with the same amount of space between them. Once that was done, another cart was opened, revealing the steel beams, around which the unicorns began to gather.

Clip lit his horn to lift a beam. His face took on visible strain. “Hnng. These are heavy. Chamomile, could you…”

She nodded and lit her horn, trying not to grimace. It was heavier than she expected, and the resulting feedback caused her horn to vibrate in a perturbing way. She reflected on how magic itself had been a strange thing to recover, how it made “feeling” things different. There was a certain, disconcerting disconnect, because while indeed she could grab things in her magic, she could not feel them as she would with her hooves—it was closer to the idea of feeling something than the touch itself. Certainly, she felt more “complete” with her magic, but she could not escape the irony of it all. Perhaps her son—

“Chamomile?”

“Yes, yes, right.” She squinted and concentrated on helping lift the beam.

They managed it. From above them, Zipp called out, “That’s it! Now just lay it down there flat on the ties, careful, careful…” Down the line, the other unicorns were performing the same act, with the pegasi partners assisting them.

Guided by her voice, Chamomile and Clip managed to lower the first beam into place, making sure it was flush with the ties. Once that was done, they grabbed the second beam. It was easier this time around and they did not need as much guidance as before.

“All right,” Chamomile said after taking a breath. She turned, about to let Gaea know that it was her turn, but her voice suddenly froze up. Gaea was finally looking at her, yet seemed surprised to share any sort of look.

“Come on, you two!” Zipp’s voice broke through. They both averted their eyes. Chamomile stepped aside to allow Gaea to perform her duty.

Hesitant at first, Gaea grabbed a sledgehammer in her mouth and swung it experimentally, getting a feel for its weight. She lined up the spikes with the railroad ties and drove them in with the hammer. Down the line, other earth ponies joined her, fastening the spike to the baseplate above the tie until the whole pair of beams were secured. The sound of hammers railed like hard rain against the iron spikes—ka-thunk, ka-thunk, ka-thunk—and carried upwards into the atmosphere until it was eventually eaten by the silently observing clouds.

A cheer went up, then, one that Chamomile did not share, too shaken up by the brief exchange of gazes. Technically they had accomplished little—they’d advanced only a couple of meters—but there was a certain thrill with having begun the construction process. The next squad of ponies, spurred on by the prospect of progress, eagerly set about replicating and improving the process, and the other groups did the same, until each one was working in tandem, like an assembly line of perfectly synchronized machines.

They worked diligently. One meter of track became three, then six, and continued to multiply as the carts were pulled forward, spikes and baseplates and ties set down and fastened in place. Somehow the depot shrunk to a fraction of its size in the span of what felt like minutes, but Chamomile would soon learn it was actually several hours.

At noon, a bell chimed, and everyone was instructed to take a lunch break. Evidently the train company wanted to keep everyone’s spirits high, because they brought out a veritable buffet from the food car. Vegetable dishes, steamed and seasoned, rolled out on wide carts accompanied by mountains of fresh pastries and baked goods, and hot tea, fizzy drinks, and spring water were also provided.

“If I knew we’d be getting fed all this, I’d have quit my day job ages ago,” one earth pony joked, to the amusement of several others.

“Honestly, I don’t feel I deserve this,” one pegasus remarked. “I mean, I haven’t done anything back-breaking yet.”

“Does that mean you want to trade places?” the earth pony replied.

“Nah, you look like you were enjoying it. I’d hate to take that from you.”

“Count your blessings now,” said a unicorn to that pegasus. “I’ll bet you anything that once we get closer to those mountains, you’re gonna be flapping your wings off trying to keep the weather managed.”

“Afraid of a little snow?”

“Being cold doesn’t make for speedy work, you know.”

“I’ll flap extra hard for you, then.”

It was all in good fun, and there was more laughter over the food and the shared experience than there had been for the rest of the expedition. Zipp, watching and listening from a secluded spot next to one of the carts, said nothing, and perhaps would have appeared disinterested, but Chamomile observed that a small, satisfied smile glowed across her face.

But Chamomile could not join in on the merriment. Her mind kept jumping back to that fraction of a second when she and Gaea had looked at each other. Something felt different, and it wasn’t just because of the awkwardness of the situation. Some unreadable, inscrutable, yet still palpable feeling had disturbed the space between them, weaving a through-line from one heart to another She might have tried to talk to Gaea about it, but throughout the lunch, Gaea kept her distance. She spoke with other ponies, but did not smile or laugh as they did. She, too, then, had been affected, and like Chamomile it was affecting her ability to mingle with the crowd. Sooner or later somepony would notice, and then—then questions, and answers. What would those answers be, she wondered—what must Gaea be thinking of her now? But it was just as likely that maybe there’d be no answers, that neither of them would be able to explain their behavior.

She couldn’t decide which was more upsetting.

After lunch ended, the workers returned to the job, working off the calories and ensuing food coma with only a marginal degree of disgruntlement. Somepony down the line took up singing a somewhat jaunty tune, and, like a bad game of Telephone, all the others attempted to continue it, with disparate, barely connected lyrics filling the air. Spirits were high. The day was not yet over and everyone—save for Chamomile—entertained the notion that they were on an epic, life-affirming quest—one, perhaps, that was meant to save the world.

By evening, though, energies had been depleted. The depot was such a distance away that only the pegasi, with their incredible vision, could see it as more than just a dot in the distance.

“All right, that’s enough for today,” Zipp said. “Head back inside, take a shower, get some rest. We’ll be starting again tomorrow morning. Great job, everyone!”

The workers began to climb aboard the train, and despite the general exhaustion, were animated enough to talk amongst themselves. Chamomile stuck close to Clip, but still looked out for Gaea. She spotted her lagging behind a majority of the ponies, her head held high. It seemed an attempt to mask the otherwise obvious signs of expense: her shoulders slumping, a stiffness in her walk that could come from having to overexert her leg muscles, and her lips parting to allow a sigh of relief to hiss out of her mouth.

I should help her out.

As soon as that thought came, Chamomile shook her head, feeling foolish. No. The last thing the two of them needed was a chance to make things even more awkward between them. Better to hope that time, space, and the job would allow the discomfort to evaporate on its own.

There were showers available in one of the cars, but hardly enough for all of them, due to limitations on compartment size. A line formed of ponies in varying states of tiredness and stink that stretched to two other cars. One had to shower quickly to avoid holding it up. Chamomile took hers and then went back to the sleeping car, where she found a majority of its occupants under the deep hypnosis of sleep. Clip, however, was not. Wrapped in a blanket that demonstrated his thin, angular frame, he was busy holding in his magic a mirror and comb. He was using both to fix his mane, with the dutiful expression of a craftsman in their element.

He stopped when he saw her. She gestured for him to continue and politely sat across from him, letting him finish. When he had, he swung the mirror around his head to make sure all sides were as he wanted them to be.

“Do you always take such good care of your mane?” she asked him.

“Try to, yes. Do I succeed? Doubt it.”

“It looks fine to me.”

His head was turned away, but she could see him smirk in the mirror. “They say doctors are their own worst patients, and barbers their own worst customers. Sometimes I wonder if that extends to other jobs as well.”

He put his items down, satisfied—or perhaps finished for the moment—then turned back around to face Chamomile. “You tired?” he asked.

She nodded. “And sore. In my body and in my—” She pointed to her horn. “I feel like I’ve had a few drinks too many.”

“I concur with that sentiment. And that’s just from lifting a couple beams!”

“To be fair, they were quite heavy.”

“Still, it makes me worry about what tomorrow may be like.” He frowned thoughtfully, then gave a dismissive shrug. “Though I suppose that is more of a problem for future me to handle—present me must contend with another.”

“And… what would that problem be?”

“Resting, obviously. I hope you don’t mind.”

He gestured to his blanket, then to the pillow next to him. Chamomile blinked, then realized what he meant. “Oh. No, I don’t mind. In fact, I was planning on trying to get some rest for myself, actually.”

“Good. Now, then—”

His voice was cut off when they heard the sound of the door to the car sliding open. When Chamomile turned her head to look, her breath was seized by the sight.

Gaea had trotted in. Her honeydew mane, wettened by her shower, now hung as a graceful, lengthy braid over one shoulder. Her eyes, pulled down by dark rings, were inexplicably iridescent in the manner that Chamomile was quickly associating with Gaea and Gaea alone. More than that, though, she was in the middle of quietly singing something, a song that was different from the one that had been carried by the workers throughout that afternoon’s task:

Every time I shed tears
In the last past years
When I pass through the hills

Those three lines alone were enough to cause Chamomile’s heart to ache. Yet it seemed almost therapeutic to hear such melancholic intonations. To hear Gaea’s usually light voice dip down, humming and murmuring the notes in a somewhat scratchy voice, was, itself, a phenomenon—one that Chamomile found herself not wanting to end.

But end it did, when Gaea noticed them. She froze between notes, her hoof halfway to meeting the floor. Her eyes shimmered with impossible splendor, capturing Chamomile and rendering her speechless.

Yet, as if by magic, Chamomile managed to find her voice. “Hi,” she said.

Inwardly she cursed. It was too insufficient. She should have complimented her singing.

Gaea lowered her hoof. “Hello,” she said. There was a certain aloofness to it, a dangerous kind, which annoyed and worried Chamomile.

“Um… I’m here, too, yes,” Clip said.

Gaea turned to look at him. She blushed, then managed to recover quickly. “Y-yes, you are. How are you, Clip?”

“I’m all right. Tired, mostly.”

“Yes, I’d imagine we all are.” She was careful, Chamomile noted, to only briefly glance her way, before returning her gaze back to Clip.

“You seemed surprised to see us, anyhow,” he said. There was a note of accusation in his voice.

Gaea shook her head as though denying it, then, thinking better of it, shrugged. “I guess I was. I’d have thought you’d be asleep by now…”

“We were just talking about that,” Chamomile interjected. She hesitated, then added, “There’s a free spot right over here—”

“Oh, no, no, it’s fine,” Gaea said far too quickly. “I mean… I’m not tired just yet. I’ll probably just wander around for a bit.”

“Is that really a good idea?” Chamomile said without thinking. “You probably shouldn’t stay up. Tomorrow will—”

“I’m positive, Chamomile.” Her terse reply caught both of them off-guard. Gaea cleared her throat. “I mean… Thank you, but I’ll be fine. Really.” She looked at both her and Clip, as if to ask if they would say anything more.

When they didn’t, Gaea nodded to herself. “Well, I should say good night to you two, then. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

She left without so much as uttering another word, the door sliding shut behind her.

Chamomile didn’t have a second to think before Clip turned to her and said, “Okay, what’s going on?”

“What do you mean?” she replied, not meaning to sound so defensive.

“Don’t give me that. You and Gaea have been acting strangely all throughout this journey, and now you’re acting as if you don’t know each other at all.” He gave her an exasperated look, a look that suddenly filled her with annoyance. “So? What gives? Did you two have some sort of fight?”

I wish it were that simple. “No, nothing of that sort.”

“Then… I don’t understand.”

“It’s nothing.”

“It really doesn’t seem like nothing—”

“It’s nothing.”

She stared at him, and he returned a defiant stare of his own. She tried to think of him as just a child—that was why he didn’t understand, why he couldn’t—but she could not fully regard him as such. Perhaps that was because a part of her knew he was right to ask, because for the life of her, she herself did not know what this thing between herself and Gaea was. Or what it meant, going forward.

“I’d rather not talk about it,” she said quietly.

“Look—”

“Please.”

His stare softened. “Okay. Okay, Chamomile. I won’t ask about it.”

She nodded her gratitude wordlessly. He wished her goodnight, then turned away, throwing his blanket over himself, and, seemingly, in a few minutes, was asleep.

She tried to do the same, turning away and putting on her own blanket. But sleep did not come. And, for whatever reason, she thought that, wherever she was, Gaea fared similarly.