The next day... well, I slept in. I woke up next to Ishmael after a really enjoyable night, so I guess I just passed out after all the traveling, dancing and, ah, everything else. Still, even after I woke up, I just laid there for a bit. I was sort of surprised with myself, to be honest. Not angry, regretful, or ashamed, really. Just... surprised. I really couldn't think of a better word.
I played back the night in my head. It felt like such a blur. I had seen myself in recent weeks as an anxious and timid person, but looking back in greater detail, I realized I was not entirely the passive led-by-the-nose individual I felt I was back in Adelaide when Bali-la reintroduced herself to me. Let's see...
I went on an aimless misadventure with someone who I thought was a complete stranger, who operated by entirely different rules of living from what I knew, and came from a culture that was alien from mine, to say nothing that I was taught to fear her ways. From Bali, I opened my eyes past the box I was living in. I learned to take risks.
In short order, I realized I had mistreated Siouxsie while in Adelaide. Her destruction and the entire fall out at the Longtooth's territory... it reminded me that I needed to work on myself and be better to others. Thinking back to my fight with the alligator man, I began to take baby steps on standing on my own feet, as well as defiance.
At Brand's camp, I met Rottkap. Our meeting was transactional at first, but I realized I too, could have friends. And that I had to treat them better than I did with Siouxsie and Bali-la.
When Bali and I had our last meeting, around when I first met Tulsan, I was dealt with some painful truths. I wasn't ready to accept everything outright. And I felt manipulated. But I don't have any impression now that Bali-la ever intended me harm, once we met in Adelaide. Bali-la had a wisdom and grace that I simply couldn't grasp at the time. And if even if she made missteps along the way, she always meant to do the right thing. I can only imagine what my future would have been like if she had been able to stay around. Regardless, I learned to abandon my unflinching suspicious nature and trust in the companionship others, from all walks of life. Bali, Rottkap, Siouxsie, Tulsan, and even Beltresz...
And this past night, I slept with a woman who seems unrestrained by tradition or personal fear. The past me would have never agreed to lay with her so soon. And it was a risk, to be sure. Anyone can tell a convincing story and what you want to hear. But she made me an offer, no strings attached, no real pressure beyond the age of the hour after a long day... and I took it. And I think without everything that led me to this point, all the crazy magic of last night would never have happened. I would have sat in my own presumably stone bed and just stared at the ceiling by myself until I drifted off. But now, I have more memories to call my own. Good ones, too.
I looked at Ishmael, as she lay there, still dozing quietly. Maybe my time with her, by either last night or taken as a whole, won't mean anything in the long run. I don't know. Last night was exciting. Perverse. And it reminded me to enjoy my life while I have it. Well, at the very least, Metis told me that.
But she's right. I'm not in some stagnant dead town filled with empty memories and a crushing sense of inner burden. I can't outright fix everything what my old persona did, but I can try moving forward. And that means not making the same mistakes or turning into a horrible hollow person. And this is MY life, not hers. Not the paranoia I was infused with back in Adelaide. I have to seize control of it and consider the opportunities as they present themselves. I cannot go back to how things were.
Feeling resolved, I rolled over, big spooning with Ishmael for a bit. She had been the dominant one last night, and she had the experience, as well as the ability to do so. It was nice not to feel like I needed to be the 'Alpha' or whatever. After a few minutes, I gave her a peck on the nape of her neck and hugged her.
She stirred. "Oh... hey, Kara. Did you sleep well?"
"Yeah," I replied softly. "Despite laying down on a stone platform, I slept like a rock, ha ha. How about you?"
"Still a bit groggy, but I've been woken up in worse ways," she said with smiling eyes, looking at me as I held her. "Are we hitting the road already?"
"I'm not sure, but I need to get my bearings. I want to check in with Tulsan and see if the Mimi have anything else in mind. You can still sleep for now, if you want. I just didn't want to get up and leave, you know?"
"Alright. We'll see... I might take you up on that. That was a helluva night. But let me walk you to the door, at least."
We got up and she put on some of her bra and some of those spiked accessories she wore. "I feel naked without these," she said jestfully, referring to her pointy pig tail barettes. She then draped herself with her sheet and followed me to the door.
Outside, I could see Metis and Tulsan sitting by the pool outside our rooms. The latter looked strangely forlorn, like someone kicked his dog. It was unusual to see him like that, and I knew something must have happened for him to act less stoic. He glanced up at us quizzically as I stood outside Ishmael's room. I didn't know if he was aware from Metis about what I did last night or just put it together himself.
I turned to face Ishmael again and spoke in hushed tones with her. "I should go see what's up with him. He had some kind of meeting with the Mimi last night, after all."
"I understand," she said. "I'm going to relax for a bit longer, but feel free to come see me if we're going to do something. I might look for a snack soon if that food table by the dance floor is still available."
"Okay..." We both smiled, looking at each other. Although we had been intimate last night, I realized now that I wasn't sure how things were going to proceed. I remembered what she said about how this could have simply been an activity for us this past night and nothing more.
"So..." I blushed. "Where, uh... do we go from here? Not the journey, but you and I, I mean. I've never done anything like this before."
She tilted her head a bit, her visible eye searching about me. "Mmm... that's a good question. It didn't have to mean anything. It could have just been our little fling and what not, if you're comfortable with that. Unless, you wanted it to... be something more? I'm not sure, Kara. It was all kinds of exciting and fun. Annnd... I would do it again, I'm sure." she grinned lasciviously, before sobering her expression to something softer. "A better question is, what are you thinking right now?"
I gazed at her for a long time. There were all kinds of things I could've said. Some better, some worse. But I went with honesty, because I could at least be relatively sure of that part. "I don't know either. Last night was great, but it was more than just fun for me. And I don't know if any of that makes for a good foundation for things beyond more of what we did. I don't have the experience or the answers for that. But..." I licked my lips, thinking carefully on this. "I don't think I want to go back to being a complete stranger to you or just another face in the group, even if we did just meet. I felt alive in ways I didn't know that I could last night. I don't want to give up that intimacy and stark trust we put into each other, because that's very difficult for me to do as a whole. Maybe it didn't mean much to you. But it meant something to me. And I realized that when I was laying next to you this morning. I'd like to think... maybe there at least 'could' be something more."
She looked me over for a long time. I could see her thinking about serious things beyond what her calm contented expression would otherwise suggest. Her response would not simply be reactionary. Maybe she didn't know either.
"I want to tell you 'yes' or 'no' conclusively. And if I'm reading this right, I'm not entirely any more certain than you are. So, I've not been approached with a possibility like that in a very long time. I'm not against it, necessarily. But I want to be sure this is the right decision to make. I went into last night with no particular expectations of what could've happened, anymore than I do of right now. And this is not something I have a staggering amount of experience in. It's heavy. Exciting, but I'm realistic enough to know it could be complicated for both of us. I'm going to ask... just give me a little time to think about this. And I will get you an answer as soon as I can."
It wasn't any definitive, which stung a little at first, but I understood. And it wasn't a hard no, either. I was nervous as all hell inside even contemplating the idea! But it felt like what I wanted, I was pretty sure, even if my only experience in a relationship was years ago with that nameless putz in Adelaide. But I needed to trust. To move forward. And grow. And it wasn't my place to push her on this. We both had to be sure. "Okay. Take your time," I said, taking in a deep breath. "I'll see you soon, alright? Even if you don't think we should, let's not be total strangers. I'm still glad to have met you."
She nodded. "I'm glad I met you too, Kara. I'll see you soon," she said warmly. We clasped hands for a moment. Then, she drifted back behind her door, slowly closing it, as she gazed at me through the narrowing aperture.
Taking a moment to collect myself, I turned to Tulsan, who seemed to be in his own little world. Metis, meanwhile, had hopped into the pool and began swimming around. Apparently, she could float comfortably. I watched her for a moment out of curiousity and then took a seat on the opposing side of the pool.
"So, how are things?" I wasn't he really wanted to talk, but I figured I'd try.
He sighed, looking at his reflection in the pool, as he sat along the edge. For once, he didn't seem entirely unreadable. He was bothered by something.
"Could be worse, I suppose," he said quietly, sounding a bit resigned. "How about you?"
I pursed my lips, not sure how much he knew or if he heard us whispering. "Pretty good. Complicated, but good."
We both listened to Metis swimming in the pool with slow methodical motions. It was a meaningless distraction, one of many I had come to appreciate when talking with others. I still felt a little awkward, at least.
Tulsan thumbed the bead necklace around his neck. "The Mimi... with their help, I think I went to the Dreamtime. Or something like it."
I listened quietly. I had some general notion of the concept by now.
"It was here and not here," he spoke, his voice low and somber. "I'm not even sure if it was now or before. It doesn't make clear answers about itself. I saw a person there. And unlike a dream, I was entirely lucid. A person forgets a real dream. But I remember this one very well."
"Bali-la was there," he stated after a moment of pause.
"A vision of some kind?" I asked, sitting up straighter.
He just shook his head slowly. "On my father's honor, it was her. Actually her. I have no uncertainties about it."
"Didn't... she go to... you know, the afterlife for Xibalbans?" I asked. It felt very unsettled for some reason.
He nodded. I knew the story. His first experience within the Dreamtime, when he and Bali worked to save the mosquito woman, Astrile, was punctuated by Bali leaving the mortal coil as I knew it by walking into a sunset. It was some kind of calling that beckoned them to their end in the world of the living.
"Supposedly, not even Xibalbans know what happens when one of them walks to the sunset," he said. "They're just 'gone' and that's the end of it."
"Tulsan? What happened there? When you saw Bali this time?" I felt my heart begin to pound and I felt increasingly uneasy. She was the friend who changed my life not once, but twice. It was hard for me not to feel something in all of this.
He rubbed his shoulder. "It was strange. It was her, but... she wasn't acting like herself. She seemed a little more pale and she wasn't responding like you or I would. Her eyes were vacant, too. I mean, she was there, but she was almost like a statue. She didn't speak or anything. And when she moved at all or made any kind of response, it was very slow and deliberate. Like, unnaturally so. And yet, I didn't get the impression that anything was 'wrong' with her, really. It was Bali, but like she was wearing a mask of herself. I can't easily compare it to anything else."
He continued. "I tried talking to her, but she really didn't communicate at all. She either stared into me or through me. But I saw Uluru behind her and she gestured to it. And I could feel a more direct path there. I can still feel the way with Blood Sensing. The path isn't entirely blind to me anymore. I've never heard of that even happening. And I've never been to Uluru, I just had my father's vague stories to follow."
I nodded, too anxious to speak.
"I tried several times to get her to communicate, but it was always nothing. She wouldn't even lower her arm from pointing at Uluru, like she didn't hear me. Except... there was one thing."
"I asked her if there was anything I should take back. You know, something that we should know or hear. And eventually, she smiled and moved a little. She pantomimed some movements. And I knew what it meant."
"What was it?" I asked, now oblivious to everything else in the room.
"She repeated what she told me before she went into her death trace. In the time that we've been on this hike, do you remember what I told you those words were?"
I wiped my eyes and tightened my lips. I nodded quietly. And somehow, some way, we recited her last words at the same time.
"Tell them I loved everyone. I did," we said in unison.
He shook his head. "I don't know what to think. I'm not even clear why I'm here beyond just fulfilling a promise to her. A favor for a favor done. You two were close. I barely knew her. But... I don't know, something about this just gets to me. Being involved, I mean. I can't explain it, but it feels like more than simply guiding you over there. Why did she appear to me like that? And... why does it bother me like this?"
I sniffed and wiped an errant tear from my cheek. "The only thing I could tell you about Bali is she operated on some level that wasn't obvious about her, nor was it to any of us. I've come to accept that. Knowing as I do now that Bali was very old, even for a Xibalban, I don't think she had thoughts in the way that we do. She was something beyond us, to some degree. Or maybe we only saw what we wanted to in her. If something about this is striking at you, then there is the chance that she foresaw it in her own inscrutable way. Of what I know of her and definitely from her message... she wants what's best for us. I think to some degree, we have to take Bali-la for what she was, even if we don't get it."
He stared at the water and slowly looked up at me. "I'm... sorry."
"I've been kind of a hard ass. I'm not very friendly and I know I'm utterly stand offish. My father told me this a million times. But I never listened. Never cared to. I never felt it, really, until I met Bali-la," he confided. "And that damned open hearted message of hers. I was nothing but suspicious of her when we first met."
I blinked. "Tulsan, I... well, I was, too. Like, really suspicious. I swear you just described a good part of myself back at Adelaide, just now. But I never thought anything bad about you, as far as I can remember. Standoffish, sure. I figured you liked your distance and all."
He studied me and looked back to his hands. "I'm going to try and change things a bit. Maybe stop acting like such an outsider. It's been hard for me to want to feel comfortable around anyone. I mean, I get along with the mushroom squirt. And I probably should have given you more than just professional respect. Hell, even my cousin Bindi (Beltresz) thinks you're all right. And she's a bigger pain in the ass than I am."
"Tulsan, it's fine." I assured him. "Who knows. Maybe the trip to Uluru is more important than the destination itself. Either way, I'm glad you're here. You've been incredibly reliable. And I don't think I could make this trip without you."
"Hey," he grunted.
"Thanks. I'll to behave more like I belong," he muttered. "I'm just not used to it. Well, I guess I'm going to get something to eat and look around some more. I'm not entirely sure what to think of this place, but it could be a lot worse. These Mimi have some interesting animal print carvings in their halls, so I figure I'll go have a look at them while we're here. Maybe it'll be like looking into a window to the past, you know?" He lifted himself up, his pant legs rolled up to his knees. He turned and waved. "Oh, by the way. I think Rottkap has been waiting for you to wake up. Something about the Mimi want to see you and your familiar."
"I see. Thank you. I'll go have a look around and see if I can find her," I said, side glancing at Metis, who was drying off nearby.
He nodded and made for the hallway, pausing only for a moment to look back at me. "I think you'll be a good Alpha, just work hard and cast away your doubts. It might be interesting to be part of your pack, Kara. Officially speaking, of course." He then headed down the adjacent passage and I just sat there for a moment.
Did Tulsan just acknowledge being directly part of the group, I asked myself? I was stunned. Maybe he really meant what he said then. Things were getting more eventful and dynamic by the minute, it felt like. And the day had only just begun.