After the project was cancelled, the construction company had hauled away all of their tools and materials. The mess of muddy tire tracks they had left behind was unrecognizable as the thriving forest it once had been.
It may have been the last task on their list, but at that moment, it seemed like an insurmountable one.
Hazel buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
But, as always, she could rely on Aidan to lift her up. His warm embrace and well-chosen words were all she needed to give her courage again.
It took many days of hard work, but each day there were new volunteers willing to lend a helping hand.
The ancient trees were impossible to replace, but with the help of the community, the dead stumps made way for new saplings. Now all that was left to do was to wait and see.
Or, in Hazel and Aidan's case, to skip the waiting part and go straight to finding out what the future would hold.
They made some calculations, powered up the portal and things were good to go.
Eager to find out if their hard work had paid off, Hazel opened the door to the containment chamber and was about to approach the portal when Aidan's hand closed around her wrist.
She looked at him with wide eyes. "What? It's all ready. I'll be back in just a second, you'll see."
"But what if we didn't make a difference and it's still dangerous? What if you don't find your way back? I can't let that happen."
"I know better now. It won't happen again."
"Damn right it won't," Aidan agreed, "because I'm coming with you."
She protested at first, but Aidan was adamant. And so they stepped into the portal, their hands clasped together.
It took Aidan a moment to recover from the excruciating sensation of portal travel, but he soon marveled at the view of the futuristic city around him.
"Wow," he breathed, "is this how the future is supposed to look?"
Hazel grinned. "Let's find out!"
When they entered the sleek building on top of which they'd arrived, Hazel spotted a familiar face.
Emit Relevart, unmistakable with his blue hair and glowing suit, was deep in conversation with a woman wearing a white dress adorned with pastel-colored roses.
"Emit!" No reaction. Hazel ran up to him, tapped his shoulder and beamed. "Emit Relevart! Remember me? It's Hazel!"
The blue haired man, looking confused at the interruption, eyed Hazel with no hint of recognition. "I believe you have me mistaken, Miss... Pistachio, was it? I don't know of anyone called Emit Relevart - what a ridiculous name, by the way. Do you realize that it would spell out 'time traveler' backwards?"
Hazel furrowed her brow. Of course, it made sense. More things might have gone differently in this future, now that they had changed the course of events. The man she had known as Emit Relevart might never have become the receptionist for time travelers; never adopting the peculiar alias.
"Im sorry," she smiled, "I guess I really mistook you." But just as she turned to leave, he stopped her.
"Wait a moment." The blue-haired man gazed at Hazel intently, then turned to his companion. "Doesn't she remind you of someone? Look at her! Doesn't she look just like the statue? You know, the one if front of city hall?"
The woman looked Hazel up and down. "You're right, she does! You should go see the statue, Miss. The resemblance is uncanny! Let me give you directions."
With the excited pair of time travelers gone, the lady in the floral dress turned to her blue-haired companion. "Bless them," she said with an indulgent smile. "They're so sweet and innocent."
He quirked an eyebrow. "Naive is more like it. Clueless, even. To be honest, I thought you were going a bit overboard, sending them to the Omega Badlands. Those sims from underdeveloped universes can be pretty dense. This one took over twenty-four hours to find the portal in the shed! I almost thought I'd have to interfere... but she did make it back in the end."
The woman tilted her head. "It's a risk, but it serves to deliver a message they'd never understand with words alone. Sure, we could tell them about how hard we have to work to preserve what little nature we have here, after centuries of not caring for the planet. Or we can show them the alternative. Make them live it, that's how you drive a lesson home."
The blue-haired man nodded. "They don't know how good they have it, living in a universe that is not yet beyond repair."
"We'll save the world, one universe at a time." She said the words mechanically, a mantra she had repeated many times before, but she punctuated them with a sweet smile and a kiss for her companion. "I couldn't have done it without you. You were amazing! Emit Relevart? You're so funny!"
"Same goes to you! That idea with the statue was a nice touch."
"Just another visual aid to drive home the point." She shrugged. "And they try so hard, just so we can keep visiting pretty universes. Might as well throw them a bone."
Meanwhile, Hazel and Aidan had arrived at Legacy Park, the large square in front of Oasis Landing's city hall, and were making their way up to a gleaming statue.
"It really does look like you!" Aidan broke into a run. "Come on, keep up!"
Hazel continued to walk at a normal pace. She could see it too, but this was just too weird to be true, right?
"What the heck... what is this?" Hazel wondered aloud, and in response, a mechanical voice emanated from the base of the statue.
This monument stands in commemoration of a sim who, through her persistence and tireless idealism, has laid the groundwork of the values we still follow to this day. The details of her life and work have been lost to time, but in the hearts of the people of Oasis Landing, she will live on forever as the Time Keeper.
Aidan smirked. "Congratulations, Time Keeper."
"Stop it," Hazel giggled, "this is so over-the-top. And they're neglecting to mention all the hard work that you and everyone else put into this."
"Don't be too modest. None of this would have happened without you. You deserve this!"
They spent the next few hours strolling around the city, shopping for exciting new gadgets and ostentatious fashion.
At first Aidan was dumbfounded by the advanced technology of Oasis Landing that had become so familiar to Hazel by now.
But he picked it up quickly enough.
And with a confident grin he showed Hazel something else he picked up at one of the shops.
It was the perfect end to an incredible day. As the two of them made their way back to the portal, their smiles spoke of hope and triumph.
They held the ceremony on a sunny autumn day, under a canopy of amber and gold. It was a lovely sight, though the young saplings were a sad substitute for the towering trees that were lost forever.
Soon the slender trees would go into dormancy, hiding under a thick blanket of snow until spring would come again.
The park was never going to be what it once had been, but in that moment Hazel and Aidan knew that they had all the time in the world to watch it grow together.
That was the heart of their promise to each other.
Huxley thought she might gag. Aidan's mother, who had been oohing and aahing all throughout the ceremony, had now proceeded to bawl unashamedly; and she was not the only one.
What was it with crying at weddings? People got married every day, and surely the fact that Hazel and Aidan had finally done it was no surprise to anyone. Huxley stifled a yawn and inched away from the crying lady.
That night the bride's parents went out on the town to have a few drinks in celebration of their daughter's happiness. Reminiscing about their own wedding made Grace and Adam forget about the time. They stayed out late, dancing until the early hours of the morning.
It was a good excuse to let the newlyweds have the house to themselves that night.
Huxley had slipped away from the wedding as soon as an opportunity had presented itself, ditching the park with its flower petals and twinkling fairy lights for a venue that was more her style.
Theo had been working on his pet project when she'd arrived: a classic car he'd built completely from scratch using vintage and scavenged parts. Now she sat beside him on the newly installed leather seats, letting her thoughts wander as he droned on about the chassis and cylinders other stuff that made little sense to Huxley.
"What's wrong, Hux?"
The sudden shift in tone made her look up. "Huh?"
"I've been talking about the car for almost an hour now and you've been silent all this time." He gave her a quizzical look. "Normally you'd have told me how boring you find all of this by now."
Huxley snorted. "Sorry--This car talk is fucking tedious. There."
Theo smiled, but his brows were furrowed in concern when he draped his arm over the top of the seat behind Hux and looked into her eyes. "So what's up?"
She sighed and began to tell him all about the wedding she'd been forced to attend that day.
"That's nice, I'm happy for them. They've always been great together."
Huxley scowled. "Sure, but you're missing my point. The way it's going, it's just a matter of time until Hazel starts popping out babies. And the thing is, there's just no space." Theo frowned in confusion, so Huxley elaborated, "That is, unless the loser in the attic finally gets her shit together and moves out."
"I'm sure they don't think of you that way, Hux."
"Whatever. It's still true. I don't make enough money to live on my own, but there's something else..." Huxley paused and picked at the chipped polish on her nails. She'd never admitted this to herself before, but as she finally willed herself to say it out loud, it rang undeniably true. "It's just that... for the first time since I moved here I feel at home, you know? I kind of like the house and my room. And now, all of the sudden, I feel out of place."
When Theo's eyes found hers again, he moved closer and murmured, "You'll always have a place with me."
"You're such a sap!" She wrinkled her nose, but leaned in to kiss him anyway.
And Huxley finally gained an appreciation for just how nice those new leather seats were.
The days had started getting shorter and there was a definite chill in the air.
A few resolute leaves still clung to the branches of the skeletal trees, but there was no denying that the season was nearing its end.
As the world around them grew feeble, so did Adam and Grace.
Seeing Scout as a young dog again was still nothing short of miraculous to Grace. Her son-in-law had been working on adjusting his formula for humans, but so far he'd had no success. At this point, Aidan admitted, he wasn't sure if it was ever going to work at all.
Grace didn't mind. She had decided long ago that she was going to age with, well, grace.
Adam agreed with his wife. They'd led a long and fulfilled life together and felt no regrets that would have made a chance to start over feel enticing.
But as much as he hated to admit it, the daily chores that came with running a farm were starting to take a toll on his aging body.
Luckily Hazel and Aidan were always more than willing to help out.
Most of their time, however, was spent in the basement lab, usually studying the portal. The residents of Oasis Landing had been unwilling to provide them with details of how the portal worked, but Hazel and Aidan had now finally gotten to a point where they believed they'd figured it out.
Their next goal was to try and manipulate the portal so it would take them to the past.
As hard as they worked, they always made time to have a little fun. They had been together for so long, but there was just something about being newlyweds that made them unable to keep their hands off each other.
One evening Aidan walked into the kitchen and found Hazel at the counter, ripping open a cardboard box and pouring its contents into a bowl.
“Mac and cheese,” he questioned, “from a mix? Hazel, you know that stuff is—“
“Full of chemicals and artificial preservatives,” she cut in as she stirred the contents of the bowl, “It’s vile, I know. But I just really felt like having some!” She gave him a sheepish grin and licked the spoon.
Aidan shrugged, watched her cook and eat her food with obvious relish. But when she finished the entire giant bowl by herself, realization dawned on him.
“I’m pregnant,” Hazel agreed, rubbing her belly. Her expression was one of bliss as she looked up at Aidan. “We’re having a baby.” Then, slowly, her eyes grew wide in terror. “We’re… having… a baby!”
“Plenty of people have babies," he tried to reassure her.
“And plenty of people do everything wrong!" Hazel grabbed fistful of her hair as she listed various possible disasters, but Aidan stopped her by gently taking hold of her hands.
“You won’t be one of those people! Besides,” he smirked, “you have me.”
“Yes.” She relaxed. “We can do this, together.”
As I mentioned before, I was planning to remain vague on the time travel vs parallel universe question, but I changed my mind after reading your comments. Emit was acting way too shady XD
I hope their info-dump conversation explained things, but in case it wasn't clear, let me yap some more. The people of Oasis Landing created these portals, presumably to travel to other universes for leisure, and were appalled by the way sims from other (less developed) universes were treating their worlds. Oasis Landing has a very narrow range of flora and fauna and they work hard to preserve what little they have. They've seen what can happen to worlds that don't take care of their environment (the dystopian wasteland, the "Omega Badlands") and felt the responsibility to open the eyes of people in universes that are headed down that same path. They believed that words alone would be ineffective, so they went for an aggressive, 'scared straight' kind of approach. You could call Emit and his companion interuniversal eco-terrorists, if you will XD
Hazel and Aidan probably won't find out about any of this. They did a good thing for Appaloosa Plains though, so all is well :)
Oh, and Hazel completed her LTW by getting the time keeper statue, yay!
Completely unrelated, but here's a picture of John Pay aka Becky's Junpei looking magnificent on horseback:
I took away his powers, but gave him level 10 riding skill, which in a way is its own kind of magic.