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Island Magic

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Sat Nov 11, 2023 9:51 pm
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urbanhart says...

The walk back from the studio was. Long. Made longer in the company of Mister Friedrich, who dragged out the montage show past the portal buttons' time limit for full functionality. At some point, Caspar did manage to tune him out as they walked. Before he knew it, he tuned back into a silent present, since Hendrik had disappeared at some undiscernible time. Nice.

Even nicer still, when Caspar got back to his own cabin, Dante delivered with his usual friendly smile the good news that he was officially released from his daily filming/editing duties. As a sort of thanks for stepping in to host the end of the morning show, Caspar guessed. He wasn't sure it was warranted, honestly, he felt he barely made it through.

He gave Dante a grateful hug nonetheless, and gladly took the day off. Maybe he could take Hugo on a proper walk around the island now! Let him smell the sights, have a sit in the sun, while Caspar found a quiet corner to maybe draw.

As he harnessed up a happy Hugo, he considered next the matter of a destination. There was a grassy cliff on the north side of the island. The view of the ocean from there was tempting, but he'd already done a few studies of the ocean the past couple days.

Well, he hadn't had a chance to really take in the architecture of the plaza, since every past visit there thus far was for work. And it wouldn't be a bad spot for Hugo, since there would be plenty of opportunities for him acquaint himself with the trees on the trail to it.

Now with a clear destination in mind, Caspar packed his sketchbook and pencil case, and let Hugo out ahead of him as he bid his cabin mates a farewell.

The walk to the hub was peaceful. Hugo had a lovely time running around off leash. Caspar couldn't not check on a few cameras on the way. If a few were out of battery, well... Honestly, he just left them. What would it hurt? There were so many. He'll just get back to those when he was back on the clock again, anyway.

Once there, Caspar was faced with...more decision-making. There were literally too many cafes and other small eateries with nice outdoor seating areas. They all managed to be distinct, but they offered no substantial differences. Other than. Exact coordinates.

So, to keep it easy for him, Hugo took the initiative of trotting in to the closest cafe and took a seat in the shade of a table.

Sure, fine, Caspar thought with a smile. He could use a coffee.

On his way to the door, he slowed to a stop when he took notice of none other than Miss Eve. With a cuppa and a half-eaten croissant on the table before her, she sat under the awning where bright pansies cascaded down from a hanging basket above her. Eyes fixed on the book on her lap, Miss Eve seemed entirely lost in her work.

It was overall a very beautiful scene. One he'd hate to disturb, especially since he knew how hard it could be sometimes to get into a creative flow. So he kept fairly quiet as he grabbed himself a coffee and Hugo a cold water, and settled in the far corner opposite of her.

He didn't mind using cameras, he thought as he sat down with his sketchbook. He just hated seeming so intrusive with them.

And maybe drawing Miss Eve as she sat absorbed in her work wasn't much of a change from his own day-to-day. But at least it was less obvious than, say. The camera.

He started by laying down the biggest shapes he saw; so, the window behind Eve, the table next to her, and a loose, narrow trapezoid for Eve herself. Oh, and the hanging pansies.

Caspar briefly glanced back up, then began laying down some defining features for Eve. Her head was bowed slightly, so that meant less to draw for her face. Thus he focused on how her dark hair draped and framed her face.

As usual, she wore rather loose, baggy clothing. Again, fewer lines were required, which made it easier for him to draw. Right now, she wore a boxy short-sleeved shirt with a lemon emblazoned on the front, and loose-ish shorts that looked kind of linen-y.

He leaned back a bit to assess his work thus far. Then looked up to check the spacing of everything. And shrank back further when he caught her hard glare from across the way.

Oh shit. She knew.

There was a long, drawn out pause where neither of them moved or said anything. He felt his face warm with embarrassment.

"Are you... drawing me?" she asked coolly, glare unceasing.

Caspar tried not to visibly frown as he called back, "Aren't you...drawing me, though?"

There was another long, drawn out pause. This time, however, it was Eve whose face warmed with embarrassment. Her expression visibly recoiled into panic, and she covered her arms over her sketchbook, even though he was too far to see anything on it.

"N...No," she stuttered, intensely furrowing her brows as she stared down at her work, her hair sliding out from behind her shoulder, now nearly covering her face.

Aw. He hadn't meant to embarrass her so. He thought it was fairly obvious, but. Ah well.

"I can just. Draw something else," he eventually offered, quickly turning to a new page.

"Why are you-- You can't just--" Eve blurted out, but then snapped her mouth shut, pressing her lips together as she stared at him with bewilderment, visibly flustered. "Why?"

At that, Caspar couldn't suppress a confused frown. "What...do you mean?"

"Just-- why are you--" Eve groaned and slapped her hand over her face, giving up in her sentence. "Never mind," she said softly.

He pursed his lips, more confused than ever, but didn't press for any explanation.

Hugo lifted his head, and his tail thumped happily when he caught sight of Miss Eve.

To keep busy, Caspar decided to start blocking in the shapes of his dog now instead.

He thought perhaps Miss Eve wanted to be left alone, but he didn't have time to draw even one line before she spoke up again.

"Why draw me?" she asked again, more steadily this time.

Blinking, Caspar looked back up. He shifted in his seat. "...I just thought you looked very nice," he answered, stammering a bit but completely honest. "I'm sorry, though, it was presumptuous of me."

Yet again, that seemed to embarrass Eve, her cheeks growing pink even though she dipped her head again to hide her face. "...Oh," she said quietly. There was another pause that stretched on before she snapped her head back up to anxiously blurt out, "Why are you so nice to me?"

He tilted his head, feeling his own brows furrow. "I mean," he started, then shrugged. "Why not?"

Eve's jaw tensed with her body. "Because-- I mean, I haven't exactly been very nice to you. And I apologized for it later, because you sent me the cookies, and the note was awfully nice-- and I didn't understand it then, and I still don't-- but now? What reason do you have to be so nice? Do you want something from me? What do you want?"

Caspar blinked. Something in her panicked spiel made him soften, made his heart go out to her. She seemed so fearful, it was awful.

"I..." He scratched the back of his neck. "I have nothing to gain from being unkind to you. So."

"Then what is it?" Eve pressed, voice growing louder and more irritated. "What do you have to gain by being kind when I have been anything but that?"

"Well. I mean." Caspar was momentarily at a loss for words. How else could he explain kindness to her? What was there to explain? What did she want to hear?

"I yelled at you and interrogatted you in the forest! And you shake it off like it doesn't matter, but it does matter! And you sent me the package, and now you're drawing me as if we are friends, and-- I don't understand. Why do you keep dismissing me?" Eve went on, now angrily yelling.

Clearly, this must have been weighing on her mind for a while.

Well, this was no way to have a proper discussion, he thought. Not with twenty feet of empty tables and chairs between them!

Setting aside his sketchbook, he pushed himself to his feet with a quiet grunt, and carefully and slowly picked his way through all the furniture. He paused an arm length away, and shrugged at the chair across from her, silently asking for permission to join her. Eve's anger was replaced with apprehension and panic with every step he made, and by the time he approached the table, she had shrunk back on her chair, refusing eye contact and possibly scanning for an exit.

It was in moments like this where he really wished he weren't so tall. People sometimes felt so intimidated by his height.

"It's fine. I don't know what got into me. You don't have to answer that. Just-- it's fine," Eve said with a heavy, tired sigh.

"...May I join you?" he asked gently. "Just for a sec."

Eve hesitated, pressing her lips together tightly as she flicked her eyes up at him. It was obvious she wanted to say no, but she let out a small sigh and said, "Just for a second."

Caspar offered a small, appreciative smile as he sat across from her, making sure to not make any sudden movements. He felt like he could easily scare her off if he wasn't careful.

"I don't mean to dismiss you," he said sincerely. "I just don't find any fault in your curiosity when we first met. And I thought you might appreciate Bo's cookies, so I just sent them." Caspar shrugged a shoulder as he looked down at the mosaic of the bistro table. "I can back off, though, if it makes you uncomfortable."

"No. No, you don't need--" Eve said quickly, but then stopped and stared at him, faltering. She took a deep breath and tried again. "You don't need to do that. It's..." Eve's gaze landed back on her lap, where her book lied. "That was thoughtful. Thank you."

Glancing up, he smiled hesitantly. "...So," he started, idly tapping his fingers on the table, "would you prefer I not draw you? 'Cause I can find plenty of other things to draw, it's not a problem. You just...looked really pretty by the window and the flowers."

Eve tensed again, shrinking into her chair as she stared more fiercely at her lap. "It would be hypocritical of me if I told you not to," she said with a steely voice.


"Sure," he conceded, "but. It's a matter of boundaries, though, not completely equal, uh...exchange. I don't mind it."

Eve hesitantly looked back up at him expectantly, like she was waiting for him to say anything else. The expectation soured to an almost begging look. Caspar wasn't sure what she was expecting him to say, but he didn't have to wait long for her to speak again.

"... I don't mind," she finally said, almost sheepishly. And even with traces of shame.

Caspar nodded. Okay, so he had the greenlight.

"...Do you want to see it?" he offered suddenly.

Her eyes widened with surprise. "See... your drawing? Of me?" she squeaked.

He just nodded.

Usually, Caspar wasn't so forward. In fact, he felt his heart hammering nervously in his chest a little bit. His sketchbook was rather private, because it contained a lot his thoughts, captured in various little pictures. Henry often told him he was a visual learner, so that was probably related. Caspar wasn't sure, honestly.

But he figured since Miss Eve was an artist too, it might be nice to connect over a shared art medium.

Before she could form a proper reply, and before he could talk himself out of it, he waved both hands for her to wait as he retrieved his sketchbook. When he returned, with Hugo on his heels now, he quickly flipped through until he found her page again, then held it out for her to take.

Eve quickly sat up straight, eyes flicking between him and the sketchbook until it was glued to the pencil sketch of her. She shyly took the book from him, holding the book limply in her hands as she admired his drawing, expression softening and melting into gentleness.

"It-- I just started," he said suddenly, looking between Eve and the book in a similar manner as she did. "And I, uhm. I'm not as steady as I used to be. Which...you probably noticed already, actually, since the note. I don't know what that's about. But it's legible, I think. It looks like you. Hopefully."

Eve smiled sheepishly after a long moment, eyes still locked on the sketch of herself. She gingerly grazed her thumb over the outline of her head. "I like it. It's... this is nice," she said softly.

Letting out a small breath he'd been holding in some apprehension, Caspar just smiled brightly at her.

"It does look like me," she breathed out, her thumb now grazing over the pansies that spilled over the awning over her. "Do I really look like that? With the flowers... and the window. The chairs... Table, and the light."

"I mean..." Caspar shrugged a shoulder and said simply, "That's how I saw you."

Eve hid her face again, but this time is wasn't out of shame. It was out of shyness. "This is really nice, Caspar," she said quietly, almost a whisper. "Thank you."

That made him beyond happy. Huffing a laugh through his nose, he ducked his head as he mumbled, "Yeah. Yeah, think nothing of it."

"No, no," Eve said with a meek smile, finally tearing her eyes away from the sketch to meet his averted gaze. "This means a lot. I know it's difficult to show art to others, especially when the sketch is of them. But... I appreciate it. Thank you. Really. And..." She sheepishly set the sketchbook down on the table. "I'm sorry about earlier. You're a good person. You're very kind, and I can see it in your art, too."

Well. Now he really wasn't sure what to say. So he just. Smiled self-consciously at the table, feeling very foolish for having no proper response.

"What else do you draw?" she asked curiously, her shy smile growing ever-so-slightly. "Or... people." She paused, quickly adding, "That is, if you want to share. You don't have to. You don't have to share or show me anything. I just wanted to know."

He scratched behind his ear as he tried articulating through the elation of receiving positive feedback.

"I, uhm," he answered, "environments. People, yeah. I...like to illustrate book stuff. Not-- not as a job. Just for fun."

"Book stuff," Eve echoed, then curiously tilted her head. "Picture books?"

He nodded. "Yeah, kind of like that."

"Like... children's picture books?" she asked.

"Um." Caspar picked at the grout between the tiles of the table. "Yeah. But not just kids' books all the time. Just stories in general, you know?"

Eve barely nodded, looking down at the sketch again with admiration. "Yeah," she said softly. "I... I do that too."

He straightened a little bit, finally looking back up at her. "Yeah?"

Caspar wanted to ask to see her work, but she was rather guarded to begin with, and he felt he'd pushed her enough today as it was. So he didn't.

"Yeah," Eve said shyly. "It's fun. To tell simple stories, I mean. Through pictures."

"Yeah, it's one of my favorite things," he agreed excitedly.

"It's also one of mine," Eve said, smile growing, mutual excitement shining in her pale blue eyes. "I like to draw a moment of time, too. But drawing many moments in time... that's a story. And what better story to tell than one that sparks joy and wonder? If a picture is worth a thousand words, then not all stories need to be read." Eve then paused, shyly shrinking back into her seat. "Sorry. I... got a little carried away there. I just wanted to say that I agree."

Her smile in that fleeting moment was...probably the most unabashed and bright he'd seen on her so far these past two weeks. He wanted to commit her smile to memory since he didn't have a camera, but gosh, he knew it to be a futile endeavor. His memory was just No Good like that. So, he'd just have to try and get her to smile enough times for the image to stick. Just long enough for him to draw her face in better detail.

"Do you illustrate stories, then?" he gently prompted with an encouraging smile.

"Sometimes... for fun," Eve said timidly. She quickly added, "Do you?"

Caspar couldn't help but huff in amusement. Because it was a conversational tactic that he often used himself. And, he'd...already mentioned that he did. Right?

He just nodded and added, "I don't have any of my stuff on me right now. But, if you want sometime, we can meet up and share we've got."

Eve was quiet for a moment, averting her gaze again. "Are Sundays usually your day off?"

Glancing sideways, he scratched at his beard. "Uhm, I think so. Yeah. And, if you want to visit outside of Sundays, I'm usually done work by the evenings."

"...Okay," Eve said after another delay, looking up with another small, gentle smile. "Maybe we can share sometime."
Last edited by urbanhart on Sun Nov 12, 2023 4:17 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Sat Nov 11, 2023 9:51 pm
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soundofmind says...

This was nice.

James sat in the bathtub, hair washed and skin cleaned, finally free of sand. He leaned his head back, shoulders resting against the back of the tub, staring up at the bathroom ceiling. Mel had been thoughtful to think of him, and even though their first interaction had been that dreadful interview, this was, perhaps, a suitable apology gift. Not that she'd ever given a formal one for asking him about his reproductive organs on television.

Even if it was her job, she could've at least... ah. Well. Nevermind.

He needed to clear his head. All he'd been able to think about for the past week was the DMV, their inner-workings, and how the hell he was ever going to get off of their bad side. He, of course, had no real hopes of this happening, but it did make the future look limited, at the very least. He imagined he'd never be able to make much use of his education even when he wanted, and he didn't see any other doors opening anywhere else.

It wasn't entirely depressing to be a farmer forever - in fact, there was plenty of joy in it, and he could testify to it personally. The disappointment stemmed more, rather, from the fact that most of his future hinged on a singular altercation with Oliver Trieu.

He was surprised no one really asked pressed for why he did it. He'd been able to offer decent explanations to Hendrik and Eve, keeping it to the short of the matter: that it was deserved. But in truth, he did regret lashing out with physical violence, and he wasn't proud of himself at all for failing to temper his anger. If anyone else had done it, he'd have condemned that kind of impulsive rage. It wasn't productive, and it was the furthest thing possible from kind. He could've gone about it in so many different ways. He played out so many different paths in his head for how it could've gone better. How he could've avoided all of this, and everyone would've been spared their dignity in the process.

And yet, in his gut, he had a feeling that no matter how gentle his opposition to Oliver's petty insults, Oliver would've always been bitter in the end, and James would end up with the short end of the stick.

He hated feeling sorry for himself, but it really did feel like that was his lot in life sometimes. It was agonizing trying to break the cycle.

With a sigh, he looked down at the spinning bath bomb in the water, watching as the outer pink layer gave way to a red one, and the red began to bubble out in swirling streams.

For a few seconds, it was mesmerizing watching as the pinks and reds rippled out like stagnant waves. But then the bath bomb split open, and suddenly the bright red color turned deep, and started bubbling up.

The color was disturbingly reminiscent of... blood.

No. No... this wasn't... this wasn't an accident.

His heart started to race as the tub rapidly went blood-red. He could feel the panic rise from his heart to his head, his pulse pounding in his ears. He blinked hard, splashing out of the water quickly, sloppily slipping out onto the bath mat with his hands and knees on the floor.

It wasn't real blood. It wasn't real blood. It was just color dye. Come on, stupid brain.

His vision was fuzzy, and just as he pulled for his towel on the rack, his face began to burn.

No. No.

Already, he could feel the dread pooling in his gut. Sometimes facemasks could burn because of skin sensitivity, but this was an entirely different sensation. It felt like his face was swelling up.

Holy hell, this was rigged too, wasn't it? What was happening to him?

Trying to collect himself, he rapidly wrapped his towel around him and got to his feet, hurrying to the sink to look in the mirror.

But that turned out to be the worst possible route of action for calming himself down, because the first thing he saw was that everything from his neck below; every part of him that had been submerged in the bath water... was red.

Vibrant. Saturated. Lobster red.

He bit back the string of expletives about to leave his lips as the nagging voice in the back of his brain told him someone had to be listening to this, already gloating in their victory over his own humiliation. He leaned forward onto the sink counter stiffly, painfully looking into his own eyes and examining his face, which was the only thing spared, but was covered in a black facemask.

It had said it was charcoal, but now he was terrified to find out what it might've left behind once washed off. His skin really was starting to swell, though, and he could see the red irritation around his puffy eyes.

He didn't have time to process. He needed to wash this off immediately.

He ran cold water and splashed it on his face, using a towel to panicked clean it all off, already too scared to touch his hands to his own face for fear of the red spreading like some kind of disease.

He didn't know if relief was the word for what he felt when the facemask was mostly washed off - because, though the skin on his face was spared from the lobster-red dye, there was another deeply concerning side effect that wasn't quite processing fast enough for him to even think of how to prevent it. Was it even preventable?

He didn't know. He was blanky staring at the bald spots in his beard, and the hairs that had fallen into the sink.


What the hell? Did the facemask have some kind of hair removal in it?

Eye twitching, he proceeded to wipe off the rest of his face in horror, watching as almost every portion of his beard fell away in small chunks, leaving only a few left in patchy scruffs, like he was some kind of mangey cat.

And his face only started to swell more.

No. No, no, no. He didn't have time for this. No, he didn't have the energy for this.

It took him a split second to decide what to prioritize. Facial swelling was far more dangerous than dyed skin. Skin cells died and fell off eventually, so there was no way the dye was permanent, right? Right? He couldn't let himself think about the possibility of being red forever.

He reached up into the cabinet beside the sink, scanning for different household medications he knew they had. There was an antihistamine, and if this was an allergic reaction - which it seemed to be - he needed to get it under control. He had to catch it now before it got worse or any swelling spread to his throat.

He popped them down dry. Then he pulled out another wash cloth and began to run it under the sink, letting cold water soak it. Then he put the cloth on his face, hoping that it would at the very least bring some swelling down.

Plopping back onto the bathroom floor with his towel around his waist, James peeked out from the wash cloth on his face down at his vibrantly red skin in exasperation.

Soap wasn't going to get that out, was it?

He thumped his head back against the wall.

The tub was probably going to be stained red too. What was he going to do? How was he going to hide this? There was no way he could possibly go out like this. He couldn't let the others see him - nevermind the whole world.

He ran through several cover-up plans in his head, deciding he'd bleach the tub, scrub his skin to death, and hope the swelling went down eventually. He didn't know if this was magically sourced or if his body would be able to heal it quickly as normal, but he'd have to wait it out regardless.

Sitting on the bathroom floor, he kept his eyes closed, stuck inside his head as he finally felt the skin on his face begin to cool.

Yes. Good. His body was healing itself as expected. That was good. That was normal.

Maybe ten minutes passed before he slid the cloth off and looked back up into the mirror, noting that his face was back to normal, aside from the entirely missing beard now. Whatever hair remained had come off with the cloth, apparently, and now he was clean-shaven without having even shaved.

Was this some kind of... prank? Did the DMV think this was funny?

He turned his face to the side, gingerly touching his smooth face with his finger to test if the dye on his fingers would transfer.

After a few hesitant touches, it didn't. But still.

And then, just to make this situation worse, there was a knock at the door.

"Hey, James?" It was Shane. "I was thinking of showering. Do you know when you'll be out?"

James's heartrate jumped again, and James froze with his back against the wall.

Swallowing, James stared at the door, rapidly trying to do the math for how quickly he could -- oh, who was he kidding? How was he going to hide the fact that he was red?

James couldn't come up with an answer. What could he say without sounding suspicious? Was it even worth lying about? It was inevitable that Shane was going to see, wasn't it?

"James?" Shane asked again-- raising his voice like he wasn't sure James had heard the first time, but he didn't sound impatient.

"Uh, yeah," James said, projecting enough to be heard through the door.

He stared down at his blood red feet.

This was not good. He felt like he'd been dipped in paint. Dipped in blood. It wasn't blood, and yet he could feel it on his skin. He stared out at the blood red bath, already imagining how horrible all of the conversations to follow would be.

He had to pull himself together. This was just... red skin. It wasn't going to kill him. It was fine. This was fine. It was going to be fine.

"Um," he said. "Shane?"

A pause. "Yeah?"

"Have you ever had a bath bomb dye your skin before?" James asked.

A longer hesitation, before Shane slowly said, "No. I don't think they're supposed to do that."

"Oh. Cool. Yeah. I didn't think so either," he said.

"...Is the thing I'm now thinking of something that happened?" Shane asked.

"I am currently a primary color, yes," James answered.

He thought he heard a sharp intake of breath from the other side of the door.

"I can get you something," Shane said. "Um... dish soap, and... baking soda. I think that removes stains."

James grit his teeth together and forced himself to get to his feet. Securing his towel around his waist, he hesitated at the door, not really wanting to see Shane's reaction, but having a feeling he didn't fully understand just how unnaturally red he was. Wincing, he unlocked the door and met Shane's eyes with a pained expression.

Shane's eyes widened, and he moved back a little. The shock slowly gave way to confusion, as his expression showed that he had a million questions. He lifted a hand to his mouth, rubbing it over the lower half of his face as his brows furrowed so tightly they were almost touching, seemingly speechless from the whole thing.

"Are you sure that works on skin?" James asked.

"It's... supposed to," Shane said cautiously. "It might take something higher-duty to get it gone entirely, but maybe it'll leave you... what does color theory say..."

Shane closed his eyes, now also looking pained.

"Pink," he said weakly.

"You should bring some bleach up here too," James said, glancing behind him. "The tub probably needs it."

Shane glanced in the bathroom, and his eyes widened again. This time he actually seemed to physically recoil, taking a couple steps back. Well, at least James knew as rough as he looked, he didn't look as bad as the bathtub. Which wasn't saying much. It looked like he'd murdered someone in there.

"I'll take care of it," James said.

Shane nodded, staring at the tub for a moment longer before suddenly tearing his gaze away and looking at something random to his right. "Yeah, I can get-- I think it's in the kitchen. Do you want the dish soap and baking soda as well?"

"It's worth a try," James said. "I'll uh. Yeah. See you in a minute."

At that, he closed the door. If only to have a moment to collect himself again. He could hear Shane's footsteps recede as he walked back to the tub and reached in, unplugging the drain.

The blood-like water slowly began to gurgle down as the tub emptied, and James took a moment to look back at himself in the mirror.

He was going to spend the rest of the day trying to get this out of his skin, wasn't he?

With a sigh, he went to fully dry himself off, thankful that at least his hair had been spared since it was tied up on his head. He put on his underwear and shorts for the time being, but figured it didn't make sense to get fully dressed if he was going to scrub down his skin in a few minutes. Still, he needed to be functional to clean the tub and wipe up all of the bathwater he'd splashed on the floor.

That was what he started with first - using his own towel to soak it up, since it'd already been stained with what practically looked like blood.

It had only been maybe three or five minutes before Shane knocked on the door again.

"It's open," James said, currently busied with drying the last puddle near the base of the sink.

Shane entered, several items in hand. He first set the spray bottle of bleach on the floor near the bathtub, seeming to avoid looking at it, even in the bathroom mirror. He then set out a large mixing bowl from the kitchen onto the counter, removing a washcloth and sponge out from it, then untucking a bottle of dish soap and the box of baking soda from between his arm and side. He gave the ingredients a hard look before hesitatingly reaching for the dish soap, uncapping it and squinting a large amount into the bowl.

The tub was just finishing up emptying, and the last of the frothy red water sunk down the drain. James grabbed the bleach and pulled out gloves from under the sink with a scouring sponge, silently putting himself to work with scrubbing the red-stained tub.

Bleach seemed to be getting most of the color out, leaving behind a faint pink on the porcelain instead.

That did not give James high hopes for his skin. He couldn't use bleach on his skin.

"That was the bath bomb the DMV gave you, wasn't it?" Shane asked after a few moments of work, speaking a little quietly.

"You know," James said, no longer filtering out the frustration in his tone. "The note said it was from Mel. Clearly it wasn't."

He saw Shane biting his lip in the mirror reflection. "You're right. I don't think she'd do this."

"Neither do I," he said, scrubbing harder on the tub to no avail. It was going to stay pink. "On that note, though. Please don't use anything else from that gift basket. The facemask made my face burn."

"Oh, that's--" Shane snapped his mouth shut, suddenly looking a little... angry. The expression didn't sit well on his face. "They're maniacs," he muttered, forcefully capping the dish soap.

"I think sadists is the word you're looking for," James said, scrubbing around the drain.

"They're both," Shane said with mildly outraged disbelief. "How--" He pressed the heels of his hands over his eyes, heaving a deep breath through his nose. "I'll be throwing it out."

"Good," James said, taking his suppressed anger out on the tub as he continued to scrub away. But even then, he had to restrain himself so the tub didn't get damaged.

It didn't take too long for him to take care of the whole tub. With how fast he was working, he got as much as he could up as he thought he ever would. No matter how hard he scrubbed the pink, it stayed pink, and he knew if he pushed it any harder, he'd start carving into the porcelain instead.

Taking off the gloves, he threw them over the side of the tub and set the bottle of bleach on the floor, sitting back against the wall with a sigh. He looked over to Shane, who looked like he was finishing up with the soap and baking soda.

"So," he said. "What do you suggest? Mix that in with another bath?"

Not that he really wanted another bath, but he would if he had to.

Shane paused, looking over his shoulder now that the bathtub was a less horrific sight. "I'm not sure," he said. "That seems like it would dilute it, and I'm not sure it'd do much good. So..." He paused, glancing to the washcloth and sponge. "Maybe direct application and scrubbing, occasionally rinsing?"

James sighed, getting to his feet.

"Alright," he said, picking up the sponge and washcloth on the counter. "I'll sit in the tub to contain the mess."

And together they brought everything over to the tub, and James sat in it with the bowl of soapy baking soda at his feet.

"Let's test it," Shane suggested, looking like he was silently praying.

With a small nod, James soaked the sponge up and started with his leg. He started scrubbing. And scrubbing. And scrubbing.

A lot of suds were created, but he didn't see much progress. He scrubbed more vigorously, but instead of the red coming out, he just irritated his skin to the point of breakage. It was already healing up quickly, but he could feel that he'd scrubbed hard enough to bring up blood. Fortunately, you couldn't really tell with all the suds.

James wiped all of the bubbles away, revealing a still-red leg in its place.

He hummed.

Shane sat back, clearly disappointed and more worried. "What did they put in there?"

"Perhaps it dyed my skin several layers down," James said dryly.

"This is--" Shane shook his head, clearly trying to quench his frustration. "Okay. I never liked chemistry much, but here's what I think."

He pointed between the dish soap solution and the bottle of bleach.

"Bases are what'll help clean something," he said. "Like the baking soda. Which wasn't strong enough. However, we're not going to be using bleach on you. So we need something between the two that's alkaline enough to do the job, but not so much that it'll be harmful."

James didn't really know an in-between.

"Right," was all he said as he furrowed his brows in thought. If only he had a functioning phone, he would google a solution. But he had a feeling those search results would get 'blocked' anyway.

Shane winced. "Sorry. I'm not exactly a science person."

James could think of at least one person on the island who was, but he wasn't sure he really wanted to leave to see her help at the moment.

"Neither am I," he admitted with a sigh.

He just... didn't want to leave the house. Not like this.

"...Clarity might be of use in this situation," James said. "She lives with the other ladies."

Shane sat up. "You're right. She's done things like this before, like... making some sort of vitamin shot that helped Alan recover from a killer cold in forty-eight hours. Creative solutions."

"All I know about her is that she's a chemist," James said. "But I guess it's worth asking her for help."

He leaned forward with another sigh, holding his hand over his face.

"Could you... go to her for me?" he muttered. "I don't... if anyone sees me like this..."

Shane quickly nodded, already starting to stand up. "Of course I'll go," he said gently. "Are you going to be okay in the meantime?"

A marvelous question. One he didn't know the answer to.

"I should be fine," he answered anyway. "I'll hang in there."

"I could get you something for boredom," Shane said. "I don't know how long I'll be. Maybe like... a history book?"

"I have books I can read, but thanks," James said, forcing a small smile.

Shane nodded. "Okay. I'll try to be fast."

"Good luck."
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urbanhart says...

"Oh my gods," Viktor said, biting back a laugh as he pulled up a chair. "Where the hell are you?"

Already seated, Papa was closest to the camera. He distractedly adjusted his glasses as he squinted at the array of buttons of the video software.

Glowering at the animal, Lyall pushed Lolly's curious nose back out of frame. "This was our sister's brilliant solution--"

"To our brother being utterly impossible," Hild shot back as she settled on the hay bale next to him. Pointedly at Lyall, she added sharply, "You're welcome."

Lyall only muttered incoherently under his breath.

"Can you see us?" Papa suddenly asked, brows knitted together as he looked up again. "You two froze."

"It might lag sometimes," Vik assured him, "that's all."

"The wine cellar really wasn't an acceptable alternative?" Lyall asked.

"The stable is more 'neutral' than either of our places of residence," Hild countered smoothly.

With another resigned mutter, Lyall frowned deeply as Lolly dropped her head on his shoulder.

"I haven't been able to catch up on your show," Papa began, his smile warm, if a bit sheepish. "What's the latest?"

Hild bit her lip. "How much have you seen?"

He hesitated.

"None of it, really," Vik answered, then added quickly, "Which is fine! Pops, seriously. They get it, we've still got work." To the camera: "I've been catching him up."

She suppressed a relieved sigh. Lyall beside her did not look so reassured.

"How much did you tell him?" he asked with a look of mild skepticism.

Viktor snickered shamelessly. "Oh, no worries," he teased, "he already knew about our trip to Crit."

It was Lyall's long-suffering groan that especially piqued Hild's interest.

"Your what?" she prompted with a deeply amused smirk.

Viktor barked aloud. "I'll tell you later," he said.

"You will do no such thing!" Lyall demanded sharply.

With a fond smile, Papa finally piped up again, "How have you two been? You both look so tired."

Well, they must have looked hellish if her father could see that much through all the grainy darkness of their end of the call.

"Did Vik tell you about yesterday?" she tiredly asked.

"You...grabbed beers with some new friends?" her father tried.

Beside him, Viktor shrugged with a grimace. He must not have wanted to worry their father.

Hild pursed her lips. She agreed, it might be for the best. Papa himself looked somewhat haggard and sleepless, and their island troubles would only become another, extraneous source of stress.

"We overdrank," Lyall expounded with half-honesty, evidently on the same page as the rest of them. "Just a little. But we're really fine, just a bit hungover."

Her father's expression turned worried. "That's quite unlike you, bug," he said, eyes flicking toward her. "What's wrong?"

Smiling weakly, Hild shrugged. "I...suppose there was something I needed to forget for a little while."

And, the moment she confessed it out loud, she realized only then just how true that was.

Bushy brows rising a smidge, her father waited patiently for her to possibly expound. Vik's stare also turned expectant. Lyall just sputtered and flailed with indignance as Lolly craned her neck around him, hiding his face from view.

After a moment's hesitation, Hild picked another half-truth and ran with it.

"I had that internship," she said slowly, "lined up for the summer. I'm just... disappointed in the timing of all of this."

Her father's face melted with understanding. "My darling," he said gently, "the DMV is just another opportunity."

"Think of all the success stories when people aced their tests!" Vik jumped in. "The career advancements! The social bonuses! The life experiences and friendships they'll treasure for the rest of their days--"

"Thank you," Hild said half-heartedly, "but I believe you two need to temper your expectations."

"I've been told," Lyall added, managing to wrangle the happy alpaca's face down to rest on his lap, "that this one is organized a little differently from your everyday DMV, as well. It's not so..." He waved one hand in vague circles as he thought. Then shrugged inconclusively.

"By reputable sources?" Vik pressed, brow arched.

Lyall glared. "Incredibly reputable, thank you very much."

A silent, doubtful beat passed between all of them.

"Blueddit," Hild and Viktor said conclusively.

Lyall threw his hands toward the ceiling with the most insulted frown.

Really, none of them had the best frame of reference. Magic was an incredibly rare trait in Fjelstad, so there was no need for more than one DMV in the entirety of the country-continent. And that one was located in the far south, approximately 500 miles away from where the Ashlunds had planted themselves.

Her father hummed in thought. "Your mother never mentioned ever going through the DMV herself, either, so you two really are in uncharted waters."

Hild offered a reassuring smile. "We'll make it through somehow."

"Enough about us, though," Lyall cut in. Absent-mindedly patting Lolly on the nose while she dozed off, his eyes softened as he went on in a teasing tone, "Geoff, you poor sod, I could fit my entire closet in those eyebags of yours. Are you not resting?"

Her father laughed. "Don't worry," he said, waving placatingly, "Vik's been dutifully monitoring my activity. I am resting, thank you."

"I've been his saving grace," Viktor said victoriously, patting their father on the shoulder. "Old man would forget to eat and stuff if it weren't for me!"

Laughing warmly, their father gave his hand an appreciative squeeze. "I'm not sure what I'd do without all of you."

While Hild allowed herself a full, fond smile as she watched them, her gut churned with guilt. Just entertaining the very concept of pursuing a career, separate to that of the family practice, felt entirely selfish of her. She couldn't leave them. They were so short-staffed as it was.

And with her and Lyall's statuses as magic-users globally made known, she didn't foresee calmer seas ahead for the Ashlund clan. Not unless Fjelstad was able to suddenly make a two-century jump in time to join the rest of the modern world.

Lyall was quick to usher them right into shop talk. To Viktor and their father's collective dismay, but there was no avoiding it. They knew he hated to be so far away from work and idle, so they humored him for a little while. His reactions to the growing pile of issues were more tempered than Hild would've expected of him, and he listened far more than he spoke. Might've been a subconscious effort to overcompensate for the disaster of the day prior.

Viktor eventually moved them off the subject of work and offered updates on things such as what concerts he'd been to and how their father tried jet skiing a couple days ago, which Hild remembered him mentioning through text on the day of. It was an experience he enjoyed indulging in, but he wasn't about to do it again anytime soon.

The more they talked about the mundane, such as house projects or conversations had with their friendlier neighbors, the more normal everything began to feel again for Hild. It was a nice escape, diving (indirectly) back into the parts of their day-to-days that she never anticipated they'd miss so.

Eventually the matter of Kaya came up, for which Lyall abruptly sat straighter again, disrupting a snoozing Lolly. It became evident that the couple had been trying to contact each other throughout all of this past afternoon, but were either just missing one another or the connection between the island and the nearest mainland had turned spotty for the day. Whatever the real reason, Lyall was relieved to know she'd been trying to reach out, and asked for Vik to assure her that he'd been trying to do the same.

Hild pursed her lips in thought, adding the matter of connection issues (seemingly a persisting problem for James as well) to the growing list of Island Concerns and Logistical Questions to bring to Dante sometime.

They talked for even longer, but Hild honestly found herself slipping away from the conversation. It was only when Lyall gently shrugged his shoulder under her chin that she realized she was actually falling asleep against him. Papa affectionately bid them goodnight, and Vik promised to fill her in on Crit, before they devolved into a light argument over the controls to the video call. The video froze on their father's enlarged glasses and nose as he leaned closer to the camera, then the screen turned to black.

Hild stretched tiredly. Then snorted at how both alpacas had taken the liberty of draping themselves around her brother. Shoulders tense and his hands shoved firmly into his sweater pockets, Lyall looked stuck in place, positively drowning in alpaca wool.

"Help me," he squeaked.
Last edited by urbanhart on Sun Nov 12, 2023 1:23 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Carina says...

All things considered, Eve's morning went well.

She was glad that James was feeling better, although that was relative. Regardless, he had a good night's rest, which was a step in the right direction. After he left, she studied up some more on microelectronics, jotting down notes and thinking through what-if scenarios. Most of them were regarding her time on the island on what would happened if she did this or if she did that. Fantasies, really.

What she didn't anticipate was befriending Caspar. No theoretical scenario in her mind ever considered this a possibility, but as she walked back to her cabin in a daze, she was accepting that that was real.

She made a friend. Maybe. Eve didn't know if that was the right term, considering she didn't really know him that well. It was just... he showed her kindness for no good reason, and he kept giving it to her, even though she hardly deserved it.

Why? She still didn't know, but his presence was warm, inviting, and... safe.

His drawing was really nice, too. Caspar had his own distinctive style, and Eve had imprinted it in her mind, wondering if she could try to recreate it later. She was good at remembering moments in time, but capturing it on paper-- even if just a copy-- would ensure that she'd remember this forever.

Perhaps they would meet together to show each other the stories they drew, if that was something he wanted to do. She knew he had a job, even though Eve couldn't imagine why on earth he wanted to work for the DMV.

It was that reason why she didn't quite trust any of the staff here. But Caspar seemed... different.

Was he even aware that he was working for the DMV? He didn't seem to be over-analytical of... well, his whole life. He did mention that the DMV was the only place who called him back. Did he have that hard of a time finding a job?

Maybe he needed someone to look over his resume. She made a note to ask him someday, because she knew that he could do better.

Eve wondered what she would show him and when. He was walking his dog, Hugo, on his day off. Maybe he walked by the plaza every week on Sunday. She hadn't been keeping tabs of his schedule yet to know, but she could sit outside again next week at the same time and place. Maybe they'd cross paths again. And maybe she'd be prepared to show him some drawings.

Shoes crunching over the sand, Eve was rounding the cabin when suddenly her stream of thoughts were interrupted because someone was at the porch. Shane. The Aphirah Heir of the House of Courage. The same one who she frequently saw at the cafe and never shared a single word.

Why was he at the cabin? He seemed slow to approach, hesitant to knock.

Eve slowed to a stop where the sand met the edge of the porch. "Are you looking for someone?" she asked.

Shane seemed to startle a little at her voice, turning to her with a surprised expression that shifted into a small, nervous smile. "Oh," he said quietly, with a faint laugh. "Hi, Eve. I was stopping by to find Clarity."

Eve nodded, stepping up the porch and making her way to the door. "She's likely in her room. I can let you in," she said and she unlocked the door, stepping through and opening it for him to enter.

"Thank you," Shane said, looking a little awkward as he stepped in.

Eve closed and locked the door behind her, glancing back at him as she removed her shoes. "You're welcome to go upstairs and talk to her if you want," she added, figuring he was too polite to suddenly leave.

Shane hesitated, then asked, "Do you know if she's generally free? James needs a favor."

Eve nearly told him no bluntly, but faltered at his last sentence, brows knitted together in concern. "Favor? What kind of favor?"

Obviously, it was a favor that involved Clarity. And Shane didn't know Clarity, based on her own observations and his question asking if she was "generally free". On top of that, it was Shane who was here instead of James.

Was James okay? Did something happen? She just saw him this morning, and he was fine. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Shane visibly faltered, opening his mouth without saying anything except a quiet, "Um..."

"Is he hurt?" Eve asked quickly, straight to assume that he must have wanted to go to Clarity for some sort of medicine. "Or sick?"

"No," Shane said just as quickly. "He's just, um--" He lowered his voice a little. "...dyed all red?"

Eve stared at him, trying to comprehend. "Dyed red?" she repeated. "What do you mean, he's dyed red?"

Shane took a deep breath, looking uncomfortable. "Well..." he started, then suddenly started rushing his words. "Mel sent by these bath bombs for our cabin, except they probably weren't from Mel, because James tried using one, but it somehow dyed his skin a deep shade of red, and we tried scrubbing it off with a soap and baking soda mixture, but nothing happened, and we need something stronger, but we don't know what to use, so I'm consulting Clarity for help." Shane winced. "Because we need some help."

Eve was following along. She was. But she couldn't get past the notion that James was just... red.

Still, there was no reason for Shane to lie, and he seemed sincere and honest in his words, considering how bizarre the situation was.

James needed help because he was red. Okay. Eve was more than glad to help with this.

Concerned, Eve drew her brows together, already rushing towards the stairwell and beckoning for Shane to follow. "I'll walk you to her room. I'm sure she'd know a solution."

Together, they quickly went up the stairs, and Eve didn't hesitate to knock on Clarity's door. Truth be told, she hardly even talked to Clarity since the first day, but she didn't often leave her room since she was busy with her experiments. Eve had been meaning to have a chat with her, but she didn't imagine it going like this.

"Coming," Clarity called from inside.

Ten seconds passed. With Shane beside her, Eve steeled her attention on the door, letting the silence sit between them since she was anticipating the door opening any second now.

The door then opened, revealing Clarity holding a blowtorch in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. She simulatenously looked dead tired and wide awake, with weariness set into her expression, but with a fierce spark in her eyes.

"Eve," she greeted, and then more questioningly, "Shane?"

"Clarity," Eve greeted back, deciding to skip the details and dive right into the main subject at hand here. "We were wondering if you have dealt with removing deep skin dye before. Perhaps a chemical solution that isn't harsh on the skin."

Clarity paused, tapping her fingers on the doorframe. "How deep are we talking?"

"Deep enough that scrubbing it off with soap and baking soda doesn't work," Eve answered, and Shane nodded.

Clarity pursed her lips, humming as she stared at the ground between them. "So, that was probably a pH of between 8 and 8.5, and with dye working best in acidic ranges that match that of skin..." she murmured, mostly to herself, then looked back at them, the spark in her eyes brightening. "Give me seventeen minutes."

"Okay," Shane said, sounding a little surprised at the specific time, but too relieved to say anything. "Thank you, Clarity."

"No problem," Clarity said, heading back to her lab. "Who's the unfortunate soul?"

"Their identity prefers to stay hidden," Eve said, figuring James would rather not let this become common knowledge.

"Well, you may send them my sympathy," Clarity said, squinting at a beaker.

"Will do." Eve paused. "You said you'll be finished in seventeen minutes?"

"Closer to sixteen minutes and forty seconds now," Clarity confirmed with a nod as she raised her hand, causing the liquid in the beaker to lift out and float into a small metal pot.

"We can wait for you downstairs if you'd like," Eve offered.

"Fabulous. See you there soon." Clarity already seemed intent on her new project.

Eve took liberty of closing Clarity's door, gently so that it could close with a soft thud. Hand still on the doorknob, she glanced at Shane, realizing now that she had sixteen minutes to spend until then.

"Do you want to wait downstairs? Otherwise I can come to your cabin with the solution," Eve said.

"Waiting's okay, as long as you're fine with it," Shane said, before smiling faintly in a grateful way. "Thank you, by the way. I know this whole thing is... weird, to say the least."

"Of course. It is strange, but I don't mind helping," Eve said with a pull of her lips as an attempt to acknowledge his smile. She glanced down the stairwell. "Do you want me to wait with you?"

"I'd be happy to, as long as you didn't mind," Shane said, hesitating before taking the first step down.

"I don't mind," Eve said, following behind him as they walked down the stairs. A short silence passed before she asked, "How long has he been red?"

"Less than an hour," Shane said. "It seems like it acted really fast." He paused. "Apparently, whoever wasn't Mel dropped off a self-care box for the whole cabin. James was the first to take anything from it. He'll be the last, since he took one for the team."

Eve led the way into the living room, motioning for Shane to sit on the couch. Instead of sitting there herself, however, she opted for the kitchen stools by the island.

"Are there more bath bombs in the box?" she asked. "If so, it may be useful bringing one back for Clarity. She could conduct a test to see what it's made out of. If the solution she's making doesn't work today, then I'm sure she could create a new solution from reverse engineering the bath bomb."

"That's a good idea," Shane said, taking a seat. "I haven't thrown them out yet, so we can definitely try that if we need to. Whatever was in those definitely wasn't normal." He sighed. "And whoever did it definitely wasn't being nice."

"It was just yesterday that everyone was drugged with magic. I have no doubts that this was also orchestrated by the DMV, imbuing magic in the bath bombs to turn his skin a deep shade of red. Like you said, this isn't normal, and this most certainly isn't nice. But nothing on this island is normal and nice," Eve said, voice flat as she rubbed her forefinger against the counter surface.

Shane nodded, looking almost relieved by her opinion. "Agreed. This is just yet another instance of sneaky ways of starting drama and problems. A lot of them are falling on James."

Eve couldn't help but wonder how much Shane knew. James told her everything about Tula, but how much did he trust Shane? How much did James tell Shane?

Eve hardly knew Shane, so it was hard to say for sure, but it felt like a safe assumption to make that he must be closer to him than she was. After all, they lived together. They spent more time together. But so did Constantine, and she didn't think he was particularly good friends with James, so therefore didn't know his precarious situation.

"How close are you with James?" she asked.

Shane hesitated, then softly said, "We're friends. I trust him, and I think he trusts me too."

"What makes you say that?" Eve asked.

Shane's gaze went around the room, a little uneasily. Finally, he said, "Being able to share things with each other, I guess. Including our problems on the island."

Eve nodded slowly. "I assume the distribution of problems shared between the both of you skews more towards James."

"Yes," Shane said, a little quieter. "He's been more of a target."

So he knows. But to what extent?

"Do you know who is involved?" she pressed.

Shane's gaze searched the room again, and he shrank back a little on the couch, looking uncomfortable. He gave her a weak, but firm nod. Eve watched him carefully, unable to firmly settle on a certain answer, but this was enough to at least gain a foundation of mutual trust.

"I do too," she said after the silence dragged on.

Shane blinked, and although it was hard to tell, he seemed the tiniest bit relieved.

"So you've spoken too," he said. "You and James."

Eve nodded. "Likely not as much as you. But yes."

Shane visibly relaxed at that, releasing a deep breath. "That's good. He needs people on his side."

"Agreed," Eve said with another nod. "It's good he has others he can trust, and hopefully, relax around."

Shane smiled faintly. "Yeah. I heard you took care of him at the festival. Thank you for that."

Eve settled her gaze over the granite countertop, tracing the triangular shape of a black grain on the surface. "It's fine. He needed help, and I happened to be there. I know you'd do the same."

Shane nodded slightly. "All the same, thank you. It's a good thing he had someone looking out for him at that time. What they gave him was another not-so-subtle way of him being targeted."

"Everyone is targeted, and no one is safe. But James certainly is in a unique situation. Especially now, at this very moment." She sighed. "It's too bad the bath bomb left his skin dyed red. Otherwise I'd be congratulating him for attempting to relax."

"About that," Shane said slowly. "I forgot to mention this because there's nothing more to be done about it now, but..." He sighed, wincing slightly. "There was something else they gave him to 'relax'. A face mask. It made his face puff up momentarily and..." He sucked in a breath through his teeth. "...burned his beard off, I think."

Eve couldn't help but stare incredulously at him. Just as she thought this situation couldn't get more bizarre, she was proven wrong.

"Is he alright? Is he still in pain? Should we ask Clarity for another remedy?" Eve blurted out, unable to hide her growing anxiousness over the situation.

What else was Shane about to say? That hand lotions melted his skin off? That an acidic lip balm ate through his lips? That a candle exploded their bathroom?

"He healed," Shane said softly. "He's not in pain anymore. The fact that they'd put him in pain, though, is..." He bit his lip and shook his head, seemingly unable to complete the thought.

"Cruel," Eve finished for him, the word sounding venomous as it left her lips. She furiously shook her head. "It's cruel and inhumane. It's torture."

"Exactly," Shane said quietly. "And they're getting away with it."

"It's because no one ever stands up against the DMV. How could they, if they can predict everything? Every move, every action, every thought you have before you can even think it-- they know it," Eve said harshly, furrowing her brows, averting her gaze away when she realized her stare was turning into a glare. "It's futile, and so they remain in power, playing us like dolls in a sick game of psychological torture."

Eve rubbed against the same black granule on the counter, tracing its edges with her finger. Shane only responded in silence, and she wondered if she said something wrong. Hesitantly, Eve turned her head back up, trying not to glare. With a glazed, empty expression, Shane stared at the ground, lost in thought.

"... But I'm sure we'll be fine," Eve added, wondering if she should soften her words. "They're televising us. It's not like they're trying to kill us."

"Right," Shane said quietly, seeming to return to reality a little as he nodded. "There's still a couple lines I believe they won't cross."

"Apparently, turning a man into a lobster isn't one of them," Eve deadpanned.

Shane closed his eyes. "That... is a pretty close description to what they did."

"I'd confirm that description after I see him, but for all of our sakes, let's hope I deny it," Eve said, sighing.
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soundofmind says...

James stared emptily at the exposed strip on his forearm as the skin began to regenerate. The sight of his own body repairing itself had long since lost its power, and all he really felt was the physical sensation of pain slowly receding along with an emptiness in his gut.

He knew he shouldn't have done it, but the intrusive thought had won over.

After slicing the strip of skin away, it was growing back as its normal color. But the process preceding has been painful, and he couldn't imagine having to do this for every inch of him. He didn't think he could bear it. Not unless he had to.

Nerves began to itch, and sensation reconnected as the patch of skin went through the several stages of healing rapidly before his eyes. That small patch of skin returned to its normal color, while the rest around it was still red, and it was only then that it really sunk in: he'd have to explain this to Shane when he returned, wouldn't he? Shane would wonder why there was an odd square shaped patch where the dye didn't reach. And it hadn't been there before, either.

Had James not thought someone could overhear, he'd have drawled out another swear.

Instead, he slowly leaned his head back against the wall and looked up at the ceiling in exasperation, not having moved since Shane left him.

What was he supposed to do, anyway?

He ran his hands down his face, still feeling strange about the sudden loss of his beard, which he'd been keeping up with for quite a long time. It wasn't like he'd never been clean shaven before - he'd kept up with it for years at a time - but it was how he lost the hair. It just felt wrong.

Suddenly, his attention was stolen when he saw the bathroom door, which was already barely ajar, peek open just a tad.

It was Shrimp.

The cat walked in gracefully, tail waving in the air. He paused in the middle of the bathroom to lick a paw, then rub it on his face. Shrimp stared at James with wide, unblinking green eyes before stalking over and hopping up on the edge of the tub.

The cat meowed, in a way that could have been either insistent or curious.

"You think so?" James asked, pretending the cat had shared its opinion on the matter. He reached over and pet Shrimp's head, scratching behind his ears.

The cat purred, happy for the acknowledgement of the thing he had most definitely said. Or maybe just thrilled to be petted. At least cats didn't care if you were a primary color.

"Yeah, me too," James said with a small sigh.

Shrimp's ears shot up suddenly, and James heard the faint sound of footsteps coming upstairs. A moment later, there was a knock on the ajar door. James looked to the door as well, picking Shrimp up unashamedly to hold the cat in his arms like a safety blanket.

"Yeah?" he asked.

"It's Shane," Shane said. "Clarity was able to help. Eve is here too, downstairs, but I wanted to check if you're okay with her seeing you."

Oh. That was fast. And... ah. He should've expected that Eve would've been involved, since she lived there too, and probably wasn't out and about much. Of course Shane ran into her.

James just wasn't sure if he wanted her to see him like this. But what was he going to do? Send her home? That felt childish, even if all of this was horribly embarassing. He'd already bawled his eyes out in front of her for a whole day. He didn't have any pride left to lose with her, it seemed.

It still stung, though.

He pinched his eyes shut, busying his hands with holding and petting Shrimp in his arms.

"...Sure," he finally answered. "She can come up."

"Okay," Shane said gently. "Just keep holding Shrimp. He'll be fine with it."

James nodded slightly, looking down at Shrimp, who was being very soft and cute. The cat snuggled in his arms a little more comfortably. James's expression softened, and he held the cat a tad closer.

"Okay," was all he said.

Shane smiled softly, before leaning back out the door again and calling downstairs, "You can come up, Eve."

There was a scurry up the stairs. The footsteps turned to hushed whispers, and James watched as Shane nodded and gestured for her to draw closer, opening the door farther for her to see.

Until she came face-to-face with James.

Eve's eyes immediately widened upon taking him in. Concern and worry washed over her all at once as she clutched a jar tighter to her chest. It was like he'd been turned into a tomato, but everyone was acting like he'd lost a limb.

"James," she said softly, anxiety entangled in her voice. "So it's true. You've turned red."

James didn't know what to say to that. He stared back at her dumbly.

"...Yeah," he said. "I have."

Eve finally pried her stare away, exchanging a glance with Shane. "I have this," she said, extending out a jar of green goop. "It's from Clarity. It can be applied as a lotion. Rub it in, and it will absorb the color. All you have to do is rub it off. This should help take the hue off the skin."

Eve paused, not yet extending it out for James to take it yet.

"There are side effects you should know, though. It makes you drowsy." Another pause. "And per Clarity's warning, it may make your skin shimmer."

James blinked slowly.

"...Shimmer?" he asked. "Like... shine?"

"Yeah," Shane said, a little weakly. "Maybe more like sparkle. She said it was a natural consequence of one of the ingredients."

He sighed. He supposed that was the lesser of two evils. Fine. Fine.

"Alright," he said. "Let's try it."

And, sadly for himself and for Shrimp, that meant he had to put the cat down. He looked down into his arms.

"Sorry, buddy," he said softly, lifting Shrimp to briefly smooch his forehead. He then set Shrimp down, but Shrimp seemed fine with this.

He beelined for Eve next, but she paid no mind to the cat, quick to offer James the jar for his taking. James popped the lid off, deciding not to waste any time.

He dipped his hand in and scooped out some of the lotion-like mixture, rubbing it on his lower leg. At first, it started to bubble a bit like soap from the friction, then it started to turn a brownish color.

Eyebrow raising and a bit hopeful, he wiped it off, looking at his skin underneath.

As opposed to being red, it was... pink. And sparkling.

Shane's prediction had been right, it seemed.

He stared for a moment, not really sure what to think of the partial transformation.

"It's..." Shane attempted.

"An improvement," Eve finished for him.

"My leg is pink and sparkly," James said in monotone.

"I said it was an improvement," Eve said again.

"It could be a sunburn," Shane suggested half-heartedly.

"A sparkly sunburn," James said.

"At least you're not bright red," Eve said more stubbornly.

James couldn't argue with that. He let out a long sigh.

"I don't think I like color theory anymore," Shane muttered.

"Pink is fine. It's natural, outside of skin tones. At least you didn't turn green or some other questionable color," Eve offered again.

The sparkles certainly weren't natural, but it was better James got this over with before the alleged drowsiness hit.

"Okay," he said emptily, scooping out more to lather it on his leg.

Eve and Shane continued to spectate, perhaps, because they were hopeful to watch the process work. Or continue to work.

"I might, uh," he said. "Need some privacy."

How else was he going to get his ass?

"Oh, um-- yes," Eve said quickly, shuffling out the bathroom. "I'll be in the hallway."

"We'll give you space," Shane agreed, bending down and holding his arms out for Shrimp. The cat leapt into them, and he cuddled him to his chest. "Holler if you need anything."

"Will do," he said, waiting until the door was shut to strip down and get this over with as quickly as possible.

Before he knew it, he was a muted sparkly pink from the waist-down.

But the drowsiness was starting to catch up to him quickly, so much so that he was swaying on his feet putting his shorts back on. When he sat back down, his body started to feel heavy, and his brain was fogging over intensely.

He didn't quite feel like he could fall asleep, but the drowsiness weighed on him like a heavy blanket.

He swayed, resting the side of his face against the wall.

If he was only going to get more drowsy, he didn't know if he could do this.

That, and he had no idea how he was going to get his back. He wasn't that flexible.

Good grief, this meant he was going to have to ask for help, didn't it? With a small groan, he forced himself to his feet, leaning against the wall the whole way to the door.

He opened it a bit lazily, his hands feeling like they weighed as much as they actually did. But it swung wholly open.

"When she said drowsy," he said, feeling almost like he was drunk from how sleepily and sloppily the words came out. "She really meant drowsy."

Eve and Shane were just outside the door, bonding over Shrimp, who Eve now held. But James opening the door startled her, and she quickly crouched down to let Shrimp go, standing up just as quick to anxiously study him with worry.

"Are you okay? Can you stand straight?" she asked. "Or need help?"

"I'm fine," James said slowly. "Just tired. And I can't reach my back."

Eve glanced at Shane, who pursed his lips thoughtfully.

"We could get it for you," he said. "But only if you're comfortable with that."

"It's fine," James said with a sigh. "I need help anyway."

"Do you want to go in? Or I can. Or... we both can," Eve said more quietly to Shane.

James turned away, sitting back down on the floor by the toilet, where he'd been before. They could both come in. And it took a few moments before they did, perching on both of his sides.

"You said you needed help with your back?" Eve asked, already scooping up the goop, spreading it across her palm in preparation to rub.

James leaned forward and tucked up his legs, resting his weight against them.

"Yeah," he said with a sad sigh.

At that, the two of them came over, wordlessly rubbing the soapy green goop into his back. He felt a little bit like a dish, maybe, being polished, and while they worked he managed to weakly rub his arms down in the same manner, and when they pulled away for a moment, he sat up, looking at his bright red stomach and chest that remained.

"Be honest," he said sleepily, beginning to rub his stomach slowly. It felt like he was half asleep trying to do this.

"How ridiculous do I look right now?" James asked.

"It's not so--" Shane started.

"You don't want to hear honesty," Eve said, still focused on applying the lotion on his back.

"No, I need to laugh about this," James said. "Please be honest."

Shane let out a quiet sigh, pausing before saying, "Like a paint catalogue for pink. A mint-condition Barbie. Those super pink poodles I've seen in drawings but never real life."

James huffed a snort-like laugh through his nose, too tired to laugh in full. Eve didn't further comment, still focused in her work, but she tightly pressed her lips together, like she was repressing a laugh.

"That's good," James said. "Keep it going."

Shane cracked a smile. "Vintage heart sunglasses. The little girls' toy aisle. An unfinished child's art project. The Pink Panther and Edward from Twilight's lovechild. Artificial strawberry flavoring. Achilles, but if he were held by the head and dipped in glitter."

James laughed harder at that, this time a sleepy chuckle escaping him.

Even Eve managed to crack, unable to hold back a snort. She slapped her hand to her face, flatly groaning out, "This is so ridiculous."

"I'm sorry," Shane said, but the faint grin he was holding back didn't look very sorry.

"You came up with all those just now?" James asked.

Shane shrugged sheepishly. "Your current state is very inspiring."

James laughed again at that, having to pause in scrubbing his chest as the laughter took over. His shoulders shook and he smiled, shaking head before flopping forward, head between his knees.

When his brief burst of laughter died out, the three of them continued to scrub, except the laughter was still tied up in the air.

James couldn't help but laugh at how silly all of this was. He was pink. Actual pink.

He dissolved into laughter again, and Shane joined him. Eve lightly smiled, but remained focused, finishing his back.

"You're set to wash this off now," she announced when done.

James nodded, stifling his laughter. He went over to the tub and decided to just turn on the shower head. He was pink. It didn't matter if he got wet.

Stepping under the stream of water, he let it wash off the soapy brown suds, looking down at the dirty color swirling at his feet down the drain. He turned around and let it get the rest of him, and when it all washed away and the water turned clear, he shut it off.

Standing there, he looked down at himself. Pink. Sparkly. And wet.

"Do you want us to pick you clothes that match your skin tone?" Eve deadpanned.

Shane cracked first, laughing until he had to turn away, his shoulders shaking. James burst into laughter again, feeling delirious. He was so drowsy. He slouched forward, gripping the side of the shower wall to keep him upright, but the laughter made him sink to his knees. He crumpled into the tub in a fit of laughter, lying down and holding his hand over his face.

"I'm pink, and half asleep in a bathtub," he said, laughter weakening.

Eve smiled, turning to a grin as it grew from hearing their laughter. She picked up a folded towel, offering it to James.

"Let's get you to bed," she said, more gently.

"My life is a sitcom," James muttered, still smiling.

"Yes. It's hilarious. Let's get you to bed," Eve pressed.

Meanwhile, Shane had stopped laughing out loud, but his shoulders still shook silently, and he was covering his mouth with the back of his hand to hide a grin.

James forced himself to his feet, trying not to sway too visibly. He tried to reach out for the towel in Eve's hands, but he ended up missing as his arms stopped functioning like waking ones.

Instead, Eve unfolded the towel in the air, draping it around his shoulders like a cape, patting it down so his back wasn't dripping wet.

"Can you walk?" she asked.

"I can walk," he said.

"Maybe we can help you get to your room. Shane?" Eve called, arm around his back.

"I'll help," Shane said, stepping forward to also put an arm around his back and attempting to compose himself. Half-successfully.

"I am the world's heaviest, pinkest rock," he said, flopping his arms to his sides. "And I'm wearing a cape."

"You're going to have to work with us here. We can't get you to move if you don't want to. Are you ready to go to your room?" Eve asked, voice gentle.

James hummed lowly, shuffling forward. His vision was getting fuzzy, but if he really focused, he could stay steady.

"Leaving the bathroom now," Eve commented, his vision blurring as he only caught sight of the door just barely opening.

With Eve and Shane on either side of him, he shuffled out the door sideways.

"You really need to get this door fixed," Eve commented some more.

Ah. They were already at his door. His door that read: "Shane Hawking."

"It adds character," James mumbled as they pushed through it, and he stumbled around the hole in the floor.

"If you like it that much, you ought to put your name on it," Eve said. "Okay. Lean back. The bed is just behind you." She paused. "Or at least, what's left of it."

That was fast.

James trusted her instruction, and he fell backward. The bed creaked under his weight, but it didn't break more than it already had so far.

Lower legs hanging off the edge, James laid back with his eyes half-open. He looked up at Shane and Eve lazily, finding it difficult to keep his eyes open.

"Did she say... how long the side effects last?" he asked, but the words came out more incomprehensibly than planned.

"Nope," Shane said. "Hopefully, long enough for you to take a good long nap."

"Get some rest. We'll be here when you wake up," Eve added.

Like... there in his room? Or there in the house? He couldn't find the brainpower to ask.

"Mmokay," he said, his eyes closing even though he was still trying to stay conscious.

Eve placed a blanket over him. No, two blankets. Then hushed voices as he felt something being excessively smushed under his head. A pillow.

"Thank you," he managed to say, already feeling himself drift off.

The last thing he heard in reply was, "Sleep well, James."
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Carina says...

Alan awoke with a jolt. Not because anything had woken him up in particular, but because it felt like something was splitting his skull open.

A headache.

Moaning, Alan stiffly lifted his head, adjusting his crooked glasses and then rubbing his eyes. It felt like his neck was about to lose his head, and it was like the headache only thundered as a warning that he was about to completely lose his mind.

Alan sat up straighter, ignoring the stiff pain of his back as he blinked, staring at the papers in front of him, now littered with his scrawl and, now, a small puddle of drool.

Ah. His desk. He fell asleep at his desk. Because...

What time was it?

Alan instinctively glanced up at the clock against his wall, which he remembered too late was stuck at 3:32 since he removed the batteries after his first nightmare.

Nightmare. This week was becoming a nightmare.

God, sleep felt impossible when he was so restless. Alan wasn't an insomniac, but it was nights like these that he had to question if he were. His heart kept him awake all night, making him toss and turn in his bed with sheets that smelled too much like bleach, which prompted him to wash it all again, which prompted him to wash the rest of his clothes, which promoted him to...

Music. Not play music: write music. That was what he did before he finally fell asleep.

When did he go to sleep...? He didn't know. His clock was broken. Time was becoming a social construct. At this point, was time even real?

After all, wasn't time nothing more than the quantitative measurement of the passing of events, constructed by humanity to measure societal productivity? What was time without society? Without productivity? Without people? Without life?

Nothing. Or perhaps, everything.

Music. He had to pour every ounce of his soul into music.

Alan stared at the messy, frantic notes he wrote yesterday, picking up one paper at a time. He had ideas for lyrics, ideas for a melody, ideas for harmonies. But none of them were finished. None of them were coherent. The lyrics, the sheet music-- it was all a big, jumbled, incomprehensible mess.

Useless. It was all useless. He couldn't use this.

Alan let out a frustrated groan, pushing all the papers to the other side of his desk so he could bury his head in his arms.

It must be morning. He was insanely hungry, and he felt his body shutting down since he hardly ate yesterday. It was getting hard to think clearly. No wonder all his notes yesterday were terrible.

Food. No, wait-- a new set of clothes. A shower. Water. That would do him some good.

But instead of doing all that, his body only kept repeating the word food, and Alan found himself going down the stairs, meandering into the empty kitchen. He caught sight of the time on the stove.

Ah. Brunch was soon. When was the last time he cooked brunch? Today was his day, wasn't it?

He should get on that.

~ ~ ~

To be honest, Alan didn't really have much of a plan when he started everything. He didn't didn't have the bandwidth to figure out what dishes he should make, so naturally, he decided to do all of it. Whatever ingredients were in the kitchen, Alan pulled it out and ran with it.

Eggs of every style. Pancakes with every add-on. Waffles of various shapes. Sandwiches with all combinations of meats and cheeses. Sleeves of crackers with every dip imaginable. A platter of fruits, all sliced. Three different types of coffees. Every fruit juice. Every sliced bread they had, toasted and buttered.

How the hell did they have this many ingredients? It didn't matter. If they had it, obviously, it was to be eaten.

By the time he finished making everything, the entire kitchen island was filled to the brim of foods and splashes of colors. Glancing back at the clock, Alan began to question his own sanity.

Didn't he get here a little bit ago? How did he have the time to make all this?

Maybe he misread the clock. Yeah. That was it. He did had to flip the lights on, after all. He waddled in in the dark. Which meant... he didn't start all this at morning at all.

Alan only hoped that he was quiet when he prepared everything. He didn't want to wake up Lyall or Cyrin while they were still sleeping... if they were still sleeping.

Alan didn't want to eat until he was fully certain he was finished, but now that he could step back and admire the feast he had accidentally made, he realized he was no longer hungry.

That happened, sometimes. Bodies tend to eat itself if it wasn't being nourished.

The kitchen was in a state of a mess, but considering how Alan had spent nearly all morning and afternoon and night cleaning every single inch of this cabin, he was grateful for having something else to do.

Yeah. That was what he needed. Something to do. He needed to put his body to work. Silence was deafening, and he preferred music.

Just as he was about to begin washing dishes, however, the door opened, and in came Cyrin.

Looking like their usual post-workout self, braid and all, Cyrin sniffed then air, turning to Alan with a smile. Their eyes widened, however, when they saw how much food was around him.

"Hey, Alan," he said in a half-casual tone, still staring. "How many armies are we hosting today?"

It suddenly dawned on Alan how parched he was. When was the last time he drank water?

"I think it's just the three of us," he answered distractedly, reaching up the top cupboard, rifling through the clean glasses, and picking out the one that seemed the least dusty. He should clean these up next. He must have missed this yesterday in his deep clean with Lyall.

Cyrin didn't answer for a couple moments. Meanwhile, Alan was idly filling his glass up with water.

"Did you leave time for eating last night?" they asked, more gently.

Turning off the faucet, Alan drank the glass of water in one breath, suddenly feeling a lot more satisfied now that his thirst was quenched. "I ate," he answered, although he wasn't fully sure if he actually did. Time was blending in his head, anyways. "Did you?"

"I did," Cyrin said. "Just wondering, since this looks like enough food for a lot of meals." He laughed, but it was hard to tell how much humor it held.

"Yeah," Alan said with a weak laugh, his heart not really in it. He set the glass down, tempted to begin cleaning now, but he didn't want to leave Cyrin by himself. "I got a little carried away there, but you must be hungry since you came back from the gym." He offered a half-hearted smile. "Feel free to help yourself."

Cyrin smiled back, getting himself a plate from a cupboard, but it also seemed a little weak.

"Are you doing better?" he asked, helping himself to some of the fruit.


Ah. The last time he talked to Cyrin outside of the subject of cleaning, he was in their room, having a little panic attack about Shane. That must have been what he was talking about... unless he was talking about his health.

"I think so, yeah. I think I just need something to do," Alan said with a long sigh, leaning back against the counter, hands gripping the edges. "I'm not used to having long days of nothing. It's driving me insane."

Cyrin nodded. "I get that, actually. Maybe it's time we do something as a cabin?"

"No better time than the present," Alan said with a small smile, and Cyrin's own smile widened more.

"Ah," Lyall's voice called as he came down the stairs, "you're both here! Excellent. I have a question--"

He screeched to a halt at the threshold of the kitchen area, the words dying in his throat as he took in the sheer amount of food.

"Hi, Lyall," Cyrin greeted. "Is that question 'What's for breakfast?', by any chance?"

With a surprised snort, Lyall lifted both hands with confusion. "I mean... No, more like, 'what the hell'? Are we throwing a party?"

"I hear it's just us," Cyrin said. "It can still be a party, though."

"Three's a crowd," Lyall said in light agreement, padding in to scan the options. His amusement faded a little though when he looked to Alan. "Is, ahm. Everything alright?"

It occurred to Alan that he had only been half paying attention. He hadn't been entirely zoning out, but he felt his mind already beginning to wander.

God, it was practically begging him to do something.

He needed to find a job. Were there jobs on the island? Was there even an economy? Wasn't everything free?

Didn't matter. Alan would even work for free. He was that desperate.

"I think..." Alan began slowly, but then let out a deep hum, feeling inspired to move again, opting for the shoe rack. "I think I'm going to go for a walk. Also, I just remembered that I had to talk to Dante about something, so I'm going to stop by before he goes off... somewhere," he said as he quickly slipped on his shoes, then glanced back at Lyall and Cyrin with a small smile. "Do you need anything while I'm out? I can grab anything you need."

Brows raised, Lyall very briefly glanced to Cyrin, then answered, "Um. I'm...good, thank you."

"Me too," Cyrin said. "Do you want a plate to go?"

Alan shook his head. "I'm good, I'll probably eat when I come back. And..." His eyes drifted to the disastrous state of the kitchen. "Annnnd I will clean that," he said with a faint laugh, weakly pointing at it. "Sorry. I'll be back soon, though. You two enjoy your morning and the food."

"Thanks," Cyrin said, hesitating a moment before smiling again. "Don't worry about it. See you later."

Lyall just offered a slight grin and wave goodbye.

"See you," Alan echoed.

And then he was off, back in the open air outside. He was so cooped up yesterday that he felt like he was in a whole new world. The colors were brighter, the sky bluer than he'd ever seen before. The sharp oceanside air stung his eyes with salt, and even the wind in his ears felt like a symphony, whispering a melody only meant for him to hear. The sun shined on his skin, warmly and lovingly at first, but the more he walked the more he felt betrayed by its evil rays.

...Where did Dante live again?
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urbanhart says...

Hand slowly falling back to his side, Lyall silently watched as their cabin mate rushed past the front porch window. Then cast Cyrin a concerned look as he asked, "He's...not alright, right? You see it too?"

Cyrin nodded, following Alan with his gaze until he was out of sight, at which point he looked back to Lyall. "I think he's having some sort of... crisis," he said, sounding equally concerned.

Lyall hummed as he turned back to the...mountain of breakfast options spread out before them. How long had Alan been up for? How much of that time was spent cooking? Seriously, he couldn't see an inch of actual countertop right now.

God, Lyall hoped that he himself wasn't nearly as transparent. He'd have to keep his own frenzied task-doing in check around Cyrin.

"Maybe we'll be able to catch him sometime this evening." Lyall took up an empty plate and meandered through the literal buffet. "Though...he didn't really take a direct conversation with us very well the first time."

Despite him asking for their inputs to begin with.

It was fine. He could understand, truly! Alan found himself in a rather...unique position, to put it lightly. But the rate at which he was spiralling suggested there were some underlying... 'Issues' felt like a strong word, but it was the only one he could think of.

"Maybe," Cyrin said, but their voice held a trace of doubt. "I have the feeling he might be out long enough that we'll have to put all this food away."

Lyall snorted half-heartedly. "Between the two of us, the kitchen will be spotless in no time, I'm sure."

"It feels like just yesterday it was pristine," Cyrin said, and even though the look he gave Lyall wasn't exactly a... meaningful look, Lyall understood something by it.

Studying the various waffle shapes, Lyall was decidedly not avoiding eye contact right now. Because he was studying the waffles, of course.

"Funny how that happens," he replied breezily, trying to decide whether he wanted a square or a circle.

Cyrin's more direct attitude seemed to drop a little, and they looked at him with the same kind of concern they'd looked at Alan with.

"Seriously, though, are you alright either?" they asked. "You're both acting about the same."

Pressing his eyes shut, Lyall bit down a defeated sigh. Okay, so clearly he was doing just as poor a job at keeping it under wraps as Alan.

Still, he couldn't help but weakly argue in his own defense, "The cabin needed cleaning, and I didn't want Alvaro doing it by himself."

Cyrin raised an eyebrow.

Finally looked back up to meet his cabin mate's frankly unimpressed stare, Lyall set his plate down with an audible sigh. "Sorry," he murmured, "sorry. I'm just...finding it hard to regain equilibrium after the." He threw a hand in the direction of the front door. "That."

"The festival?" Cyrin asked, leaning slightly on the counter. "Me too. I've hardly seen anyone out this morning or the last, so I think the whole island is recovering."

"It's almost like a ghost town," Lyall agreed, taking a seat by plate of bacon on the kitchen island.

As he piled some strips on his plate, it occurred to him he'd yet to ask Cyrin how they were recovering from it all. Which Lyall felt was an atrocious oversight on his own part. Something he needed to amend immediately.

"Though I can't imagine how it might've," Lyall said, hesitantly meeting Cyrin's eyes once more, "I hope your evening during the event didn't...somehow take a turn for the worse."

Cyrin hummed. "Besides the hindsight of realizing that I most definitely appeared ridiculous, nothing bad actually happened. I now see I deserved every bit of teasing that came my way."

Lyall huffed a wry laugh. "Well, 'deserve' might be a rather strong way to phrase it."

"Thou couldst still argue t'was merited," Cyrin replied without missing a beat, then raised an eyebrow. "See? Roast me."

Barking a laugh, Lyall sat straighter and smoothly replied, "Nay, for how could I hold such an impressive feat in contempt? In fact, I laud you for the sheer depth of your vocabulary, which might even rival that of the sea itself."

Cyrin shook his head with a faint smirk. "Alright, I'd need that spell back to rise above you there." He paused. "Did I seriously say 'verily'? Twice?"

Biting back his next laugh, Lyall felt the terrible knots in his chest begin to loosen now. "Indubitably," he confirmed. "Twice."

"I now understand the laughter," Cyrin said. "To my ears, it sounded as simple as 'for real'."

"No, please," Lyall said, tone softening, "I really am sorry. That shouldn't have caught me so off-guard. Right when we were on the verge of soul-baring, no less."

"All is forgiven," Cyrin said with a smile, but it slipped into something more solemn as they watched Lyall. "Do you still want to talk about that, though? Or... anything else?"

For a fleeting moment, Lyall was tempted to joke about the speed-date they never got to share.

Instead, he stamped that thought down and answered honestly, "I'm...more interested than anything about what you might've had to say on the matter." A pause. "The matter of...happenstances as opposed to merits."

Cyrin nodded, watching Lyall for a moment longer. "Alright," he said, leaning back and forth with their hands wrapped around the edge of the counter. "Well, I know I'm somewhere pretty good in life right now. But I'm a lucky person, both in terms of background and natural luck. Which leads to questions like--" He paused. "Would I have gotten into such a good university if I didn't have status? Would I have gotten a silver medal in the last Oolympics if my brother wasn't recovering from an injury while he was competing against me? Would I be considered a good social scientist if my name wasn't already known to the world from the moment of my birth?" They shrugged. "I'd say much of that is chance, and I don't know what I've actually earned. Which can be a difficult rabbit hole of impostor syndrome to fall down."

Gaze fixed on Cyrin, Lyall quietly took it all in. "But," he began with a small, if hesitant smile, wanting to offer some encouragement, "you do, at least on occasion, entertain the possibility that you put in some of the work? Right?"

"Of course I worked," Cyrin said, matching his smile. "But I doubt it would've paid off the same way without luck."

With a slight nod, Lyall conceded, "There really is no way of knowing how far we'd make it without the cards the Fates have dealt us, I suppose."

"Perhaps it's best not to know," Cyrin said, smiling more gently. "We're likely not meant to." They paused for a few moments before asking, "What would you have said for yourself?"

That the Fates were, more often than not, cruel and unfair. The cards dealt to his family were unforgiving. That finding some semblance of stability was a desperate, ongoing fight, despite all of their honest efforts to rise above their station. That he'd resorted to lying and cheating his family's way into a minimally better place. Just so they could hold their heads above the water for a little while longer.

The moment drew out for just a second too long.

Turning his eyes back down to the absurd feast of breakfast foods, Lyall eventually settled for an honest, "I've learned to keep an extra ace handy."

"If you've learned you need it, then it's a good lesson," Cyrin said. "Things go better with something up your sleeve."

Brows twitching inward, Lyall kept his eyes trained on the bacon. Mayhaps he was reading too far into it, but the last additional comment gave him pause. It felt as though... Cyrin knew full well what he'd meant, by what anyone else likely would've taken as just a quick, clever throwaway line.

He felt the wheels of a new train of thought beginning to turn.

Then he quickly put a stop to it, to fully unpack another time. Because he was really was quite hungry. After neurotically cleaning every nook and cranny of the cabin the night prior, he'd stayed up late to fit in an hour of exercise, and later still to research...basically anything that crossed his mind. His laptop nearly overheated from the sheer amount of tabs he managed to juggle-- forgot he had up to begin with.

Clapping his hands together, Lyall put on a breezy grin as he looked back to Cyrin once more.

"So," he said, finally deciding that he wanted square waffles, to turn into triangles, "Alan may not be with us at the moment. But I may as well ask while I've got you: Would you be alright with Kaz visiting the cabin this week? I think he's in need of the occasional break from...one of his current house mates."

The faintest flicker of some new expression passed over Cyrin's face at the change in topic. But it was too rapid and indecipherable to read before he also grinned.

"No problem," he said. "What are you thinking of doing?"

Lyall grinned easier now. "I appreciate it. He planned on introducing me to the vast new world of 'gaming'."

Cyrin laughed. "That's a worthwhile reason."

"He's quite fond of it all," Lyall said in agreement, "so it certainly will be."

The bacon and waffles in front of him were slowly growing cold.

Flashing Cyrin a playful smile, Lyall picked up a fork and knife and pointed at either side of the kitchen with both utensils. "Alright, here's the plan," he said. "You start by the toaster, I'll start beside the sink. We'll see if we can meet in the middle, yeah?"

Cyrin barked a laugh, lifting his fork. "Sounds like a stomachache. At least it'll be a fun one."

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SilverNight says...

    The stars were bright, and Shane almost felt blinded whenever he was looking up at the sky. Fortunately, he had something different to be looking at.

    Alan, too, was largely ignoring the stars to be looking at Shane. His head was on Shane's thigh, beaming up at him with an adoring look. Shane smiled back at him, reaching down to softly brush some hair away from his forehead. His heart felt full, and he couldn't remember the last time it hadn't been. Even though the night was cool, he felt warm all over.

    "We came here to see the stars, but..." Alan's smile softened, more adoration pooling in his eyes as he gazed up at him. "I can't seem to look away."

    Shane grinned, leaning down so they were closer together, keeping his hand on Alan's face. "You know, I'm still seeing stars looking at you," he said, tapping the frame of his glasses. "They're reflected here. In your eyes, too."

    Alan placed his hand on top of Shane's, keeping it close to his head without breaking his gaze. "You see stars in me, but I can only feel them," he said, gingerly taking Shane's hand and reaching it up, placing it over the left side of Shane's chest. "In here, connecting and joining together to make more and more constellations, happening all at once, in my heart, all the time." Alan's smile warmed, the adoration seemingly spilling out of his eyes with each passing second. "You make me feel that way every second of the day, Shane. I don't know how you do it."

    Shane felt like his heart was about to burst with light and create more stars, and he smiled wider, unable to tear his gaze away. "I want all of my seconds to be with you," he said softly. "We've had many over our time together, but I'm wishing for all I can get with you."

    Alan grinned, the playful glint in his eye returning. Shane knew that look. He always had this look whenever he was about to do something silly.

    "Then what are you waiting for? Come here," he teased, pushing him backwards, while pouncing on him.

    Shane landed backwards on the grass, with Alan on top of him, grinning victoriously before rolling on to his side away from Shane. He wrapped his legs around his, pulling his face in closer until they were inches away, his fingers gingerly cupping his cheeks. Shane grinned back, feeling his heart leap in his chest.

    "Ah," Alan said softly with a smile, getting lost in his eyes again. "You're right. There are stars in your eyes, too."

    Shane's face hurt from smiling.

    "Can I make a wish, while we're here?" he asked softly.

    "Of course. But I don't think I need to make one, because all of my wishes have already come true," Alan said, sweeping Shane's hair back.

    Shane smiled, looking up at the sky. "Mine too. This is just an extra."

    Picking an especially bright star, he wished for a love that lasted as long as any of the stars up there.

    "There," he said, his smile widening as he looked back at Alan. "And there you are."

    "What did you wish for?" Alan asked curiously.

    "You know, you can't say wishes out loud," Shane said, his smile turning teasing as he touched foreheads with Alan. "But you might have a guess already."

    Alan slowly smiled, the smile reaching his eyes as he held Shane's face. "All my wishes have already come true," he said gently. "But say I added one, and wished for you."

    Shane snuggled in closer, his cheeks almost painful from smiling. "You can have me, as long as you want," he said softly. "Which I hope is forever."

    "You don't need to hope for that," Alan said, just as soft, seemingly holding his breath as he kept his gaze on him. "Not when it's already true."

    "Promise?" Shane asked softly, feeling a little short of breath as well.

    Alan angled his head and drew closer ever-so-slightly, his lips just barely grazing his. "I promise," he whispered, then leaned in to kiss his lips with a gentle and loving passion.

    Shane closed his eyes as they kissed, letting himself fall into a now-familiar peace. Promises were promises. And while this moment was all he knew, he felt like he'd never find his way out of it. Alan, and the stars, all one and the same.

    A shiver suddenly shot down his spine, and he assumed the night must be getting colder. He drew closer into Alan's arms, looking for his comforting warmth.

    But Alan's arms weren't around him anymore. Neither were his lips on Shane's.


    "I know. And I'm getting tired of it," Alan's voice came in tiredly, volume increasing the more Shane focused in on it.

    In the midst of his confusion, Shane blinked his eyes open, suddenly finding his surroundings bright and blurry. He kept blinking until his vision came back into focus, allowing him to see what was happening.

    He was back in his apartment-- their apartment?-- standing in the middle of the living room. Alan was standing by the couch, a duffel bag open over it. He was packing it, throwing items and clothes in with a clenched jaw, seeming... frustrated.

    Shane didn't understand. Where had they gone? Why was he seeing this? What had happened in between?

    "Tired of what?" he asked confusedly, feeling his heart skip a beat with worry.

    Alan sighed tiredly, throwing in a book in the bag, pausing in his steps to give Shane a weary look. "You really want me to say it again?"

    "Yes," Shane said quietly, still confused, hurt stabbing through him. Why was Alan talking to him this way? This wasn't like him. He hadn't even... heard the earlier part of the conversation. It didn't make sense that he was so impatient.

    How had they gotten here?

    His wearied stare never ceased. It only worsened.

    "Of you, Shane," Alan said with a dull, drained voice. "Of us. We've been over this before. I'm getting tired of having to explain myself again."

    And with that, he resumed his movement, turning his back towards Shane as he threw in more clothes in his bag.

    Shane opened his mouth, but no words came out for a long time. Him? He was the problem?

    He hadn't even known there was a problem.

    "Wait," he said hurriedly in a hurt tone, stepping forward and trying to catch Alan's eye. "I don't understand. What's wrong? What did I do?"

    "Stop it, Shane," Alan snapped coldly, only giving him a tiring glance. "We've been over this. Don't make this any harder than it needs to be. This is hard for me, too."

    Shane flinched, staring at him as the aching pain spreading through him. What had they been over? What had happened that he'd missed that Alan was acting so cold over?

    God, what had he done?

    "Alan," he said softly, trying to pull the panicked mess of his thoughts together. "I don't-- I don't--" He shook his head, frantically trying to convey that he didn't know how that sentence ended, before blurting, "Please, Alan, what are you doing?"

    Alan pushed down the contents of his bag, beginning to zip it. "Leaving," he said simply.

    "Leaving...?" Shane echoed.

    He didn't know of any trip Alan was supposed to be on. But the duffel bag was packed with everything Alan would need if he were going somewhere. So...

    Shane's brain finally caught up to the situation, and it felt like an electric shock.

    "Wait," he said suddenly, again trying to move and get Alan to look at him. "Alan, I don't know what I did, but-- please, I want to fix it. Please. Isn't there anything I can do?"

    The more Alan acknowledged Shane, the more weary he grew, and the agitation started to show in his movements.

    "This is exactly what I mean," he muttered, sighing as he picked up the bag, casting Shane a weary look. He paused, like he was going to elaborate some more, but instead moved towards the door. "I should have everything now, so I don't need to come back. If you find something that's mine, feel free to toss it or sell it. I don't need it."

    Shane didn't know what he was thinking, but everything was happening so fast, and he caught Alan by the elbow, trying to hold him here a little longer. "Please," he pleaded, starting to feel and sound choked up as he looked into Alan's eyes. "I really, truly don't understand what's happening. Please explain it to me like I'm a toddler. What did you mean exactly?"

    Alan halted in place upon getting pulled back, staring at Shane's hand holding back his elbow. He set the bag down, and it landed on the ground with a thump.

    "This is what I mean," Alan said as he swiped his arm away from him, finally meeting his eyes with the same cruel coldness that matched his voice. "You're clingy. You don't know when to let go. You're needy. You're emotional. You're too much. Is that what you want to hear, Shane? Do you want me to keep going? Do you want me to be the bad guy here? Is that what you want?"

    Each sentence felt like a new blow to the chest, and Shane felt strangled of air by the end, reeling and wounded as his heart slowly split open. He could feel the first tears burning.

    "If-- If that's who I am, Alan, I want-- I want to change it," he whispered, voice shaking. "What happened? We were happy. I remember that. But I don't remember what I did."

    Alan let out another long sigh. His expression searching Shane's face wasn't one of empathy, like it usually was. It was of pity.

    "I know," he said, more calmly this time. "That's one of life's cruelest ironies, isn't it? You can love someone, but you're not meant to be with them." Alan paused, searching Shane's eyes again, face stony and unreadable. "I loved you, Shane. I'll always remember that. But I'm sorry. I don't love you anymore."

    And with that, he picked up his bag again, heading back to the door.

    For a few moments, Shane could only stand there, too in shock to move. He took a shuddering breath, wiping at a wet streak that was suddenly underneath his eye.

    He'd been... loved? And now not? Was it those things Alan had said about him?

    Who the hell was he that he might've seemed worth loving at first before he wasn't anymore?

    "Don't change who you are. It's better that I leave instead," Alan finished, his back towards him as he briskly walked away.

    "Alan," Shane said on instinct, before he knew how to complete it, taking another step and reaching out.

    I don't want you to leave? Isn't there any hope? Why did you stop loving me? I don't love me either? Can't I change myself if I don't love me to be loved by you?

    Alan finally reached the door, swinging it open wide, but not yet stepping through. When he did so, the room darkened, the lights dimming around them. A pit of dread sunk in Shane's stomach as Alan slowly turned back around to face him, face darkening as well.

    "That's just it, isn't it?" he said cooly. "If you don't love yourself, how can anyone love you? How can I love you? You want to change yourself, but have you ever considered the simple possibility that you are unloveable, Shane?"

    Shane stared, mouth open as he took another shuddering breath, with his heart feeling like an open wound. "I... I thought..."

    "You thought what? That I truly loved you? That we could run away? That we could have a life together?" Alan scoffed. "Get real, Shane. This is real life, not some fantasy."

    Another stabbing pain followed, and Shane took a step back, hands shaking. But he said he did.

    "I did," Alan said, voice growing colder as he glared at him. "But then I saw the true you. And I don't like what I see."

    "I'm sorry," Shane whispered, feeling tears roll down his face as he didn't even know what terrible, unspeakable thing about himself he was apologizing for, only that it was there. Then louder, more desperately. "I'm sorry!"

    Alan's glare only deepened, burning in his eyes as he shook his head slowly. He lifted his bag higher, staring Shane down until Shane himself felt cold. The room felt icy and dark, like it hadn't felt the sun in years. A new shiver rippled down Shane's spine as he waited. Waited.

    Finally, Alan turned, peeling his gaze away from Shane as though he'd disgusted him for too long. He stepped through the doorway, bag clenched in one hand and the handle in the other.

    "Alan," Shane said more urgently, choking the word out through a sob.

    The door slammed so loudly that his ears hurt.

    That sound. Rattling, reverberating, building into a tremor that seemed to shake him to the bone, until the whole room was blurry with motion, everything in there trying to dash itself to pieces. Including his heart.

    It was all dark until it wasn't.

~ ~ ~

Shane stiffened in bed when he woke up, fingers curling around the edge of the covers until his knuckles were white and painful. He stared at the ceiling with wide eyes while his heart tried to race out of his chest.

Not just wide eyes. Wide, blurry eyes. Shane sniffed, reaching up to his cheek and finding it wet.

He really did want to cry.

Instead, he took quick, shallow breaths, wiping at his eyes until his hand was more wet than his face. There was a painful tightness in his chest, and he closed his eyes and brought his legs up to his chest, letting something that could have been either a shudder or a silent sob wreck through him.

It wasn't real. Alan hadn't said those words.

But he could. It wouldn't even feel out of place.

Shane took another shuddering breath, covering his eyes with a hand as he forced the tears to stop. He felt impossibly weighed down, and he was stuck between trying to distract himself away from it or going back under the covers.

Deciding on the second, Shane lowered himself back down, placing his hand on the pillow to bear his weight as he did. A multitude of frantic, panicked waking moments from nightmares flashed through his head, and he pulled his hand back as if he'd gotten burned.

Nope. He could face the day after all. But he was going to hate it.

Shane's movements were shaky and erratic as he quickly clambered out of bed, and he had trouble changing into clothes for the day with the way his hands trembled. When he went downstairs, he nearly tripped down the staircase-- with thankfully no one around to witness-- and tying his shoes was nearly impossible. Deciding he'd just deal with it if the knots came undone, he pushed open the door and went outside in a pointless hurry.

Maybe the sea air would be good for him. He didn't want to stand around, though, so he walked down to the beach, getting close to the water before he randomly picked a direction to walk alongside it in. If he didn't like the way he picked, he could just turn around and walk the other way. Revolutionary. Whatever.

The time of half-walking, half-stomping along the beach passed by fast, and soon he wasn't near any cabins.

Suddenly there was a splash in the ocean's direction. Shane quickly turned, catching sight of someone shooting out of the water like a rocket, landing gracefully on the shore. How did they have that much force to propel out of the water, Shane didn't know, and he didn't have time to think it through since he realized with horror who this person was.


Standing tall a few yards away, Hendrik's bare chest glistened in the sun, beads of water falling to collect on his sandy feet. He was wearing nothing but a speedo, goggles, and a swim cap. He stood in the way of the rising morning sun, a shadow outlining his body as he stood with his hands over his hips like a superhero. It didn't take him long to notice Shane, since he slid up his goggles and squinted in his direction.

Then yelled at him.

"Horn dog? Is that you?" Hendrik called with a bellow of a laugh, stomping his way over as an invitation to draw near.

Shane gritted his teeth. He was an Heir. He would not be swearing at anyone so freely--

No, he was just a guy having a bad day.

"What the (BLEEP) are you talking about," he deadpanned.

Hendrik guffawed at that, standing a few feet away now, blocking the sun for him. "Hah! You like what you see, horn dog? Maybe now you don't, but you oughtta cause more splashes."

And then Hendrik let out a big bellied laugh again, reaching over to aggressively pat his back.

Shane flinched, stepping away.

"I asked you," he said in a more measured, but no less fed-up tone, "what the (BLEEP) you meant."

Hendrik lifted his hands up with amused innocence. "Alright. No more sexual attraction jokes. Understood, it's a sensitive subject. Someone's having a bad day, but I don't blame ya."

Shane sighed tiredly. "Why would you even be making them?"

Hendrik waved himself down. "Thought after Ooktoberfest you'd like what you see. You into men now, Cinderella? About damn time."

Shane had to clench his jaw to bite back the Shut up that wanted to speak itself into existence.

"That's nothing new," he said, through slightly ground teeth.

"That so? Thought you were about to marry a lady, though," Hendrik said.

Shane stared at him, too confused to be aggravated by that comment.

"I... no," he said. "Why would you think that?"

"Hmph! So the TV lied," Hendrik mused. "You didn't give her a rock?"

"What was the TV even saying? I--" Shane took a deep breath, trying not to snap anymore. "I'm not engaged."

"Sure hope not, after you went on your honeymoon with romantic," Hendrik said with a roar of laughter. "You both sure were a perfect storm together. Glad you can experience the fun."

Shane was practically glaring. "I never was engaged. There isn't even a 'her'."

"Sure there isn't. That rough of a breakup, eh?" Hendrik said.

"No!" Shane exclaimed. "Look, I don't know who it is with my face you've seen, but I didn't have a fiancée. There was no breakup. And I've been out as pan since I was fifteen, so it's not like I'm only learning I like men. Are you done?"

Hendrik let out another "hmph," setting his hands back on his hips. "So you didn't tie her down with a rock, and you've always been a horn dog after all." A pause. "You sure you don't live under a rock?"

"I am not--" Shane braced himself. "--a horn dog, and I'm perfectly caught up on everything. Thanks for your concern."

"Hmph. That's what I like to hear," Hendrik said with a brisk nod, glancing down the shoreline. "You take long walks by the beach now?"

"I just needed a break," Shane said evenly.

"Life pushing you down?" Hendrik asked.

"You're not actually concerned for me," Shane said stiffly. "Just trying to get answers out of me. You wouldn't be asking so many questions about my love life otherwise."

"I don't have a damn about your love life, flannel. You can go on smooching whoever you want. But I'll back off if it offends you so much," Hendrik said gruffly.

Shane sighed. "Then why do you ask so many things and insert yourself elsewhere? Why all the belittling or insulting names? Where do you even get those from?"

Hendrik raised a brow. "I don't know where this came from, but you've got spunk, kid. Seems you've got what it takes to be the Heir after all."

Shane blinked. "It didn't look that way?"

"No offense, but until today, you acted like a pansy. But you're tough, like a true leader should be. Keep it up."

Great. All Shane needed to do was be horribly upset and hurt, and he'd be perfect for the job. Brilliant. His life was going to be great.

"Thanks," he muttered, starting to turn away and resume his walk.

"You looking for company?" Hendrik asked. "Life may be pushing you down, but you don't have to walk alone. Wouldn't want you walking down a lonely path."

"I'm okay," Shane said quickly-- not rudely, but firmly. "I could use some time alone, in fact."

"Are you sure about that, Shane?" Hendrik asked more firmly as well, voice serious. "Do you truly want to be alone?"

Shane paused, glancing back over his shoulder at him.

Hendrik had used his actual name.

"Why not?" he asked.

"You seem deeply troubled. It's no good keeping it all inside. So I ask again: do you truly want to be alone?" Hendrik asked with an even voice, dead serious.

Shane didn't move for a few moments.

He... well, he didn't want to be isolated. But he did want to be left by himself. He needed time to rethink how to interact with others. How to let them treat him. How to prepare for the inevitable eventuality of them wanting nothing more to do with him.

"I do want to," he said. "But thank you, Hendrik."

Hendrik hummed. "Alright, laddie. Have a safe walk. Self-reflection is good for the soul."

Shane pulled his lips back in a smile, nodding slightly. "Thank you. Enjoy your swim."

Henrik saluted him, and then he bolted back into the ocean, sprinting ahead before he dove into a deep end with perfect posture, arms and head first, hardly making a splash.

Shane looked away, sighing softly as he started to walk again. He had no idea what that talk was about, but there probably wasn't an easy answer.
"silv is obsessed with heists" ~Omni

"silv why didn't you tell me you were obsessed with heists I thought we were friends" ~Ace

"y’all we outnumber silver let’s overthrow her >:]" ~winter

silver (she/they)

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urbanhart says...

The day of the festival was a blur. The only thing Aaron thought to be true-- which was his changed state that day-- turned out to be untrue.

But the fear remained. Damage had been done.

What if they knew? They saw him. He wasn't himself-- he bit someone! Someone had to have figured it out by now.

You're a monster.

When he awoke sobered and afraid the next morning, he never ventured back out of his room. Not once, not even to eat, and he dared not sleep again.

Aaron paced his room. He was housed with a literal monster hunter. There were eyes affixed in every corner of the island. They were all watching, waiting for an opportunity to strike.

He could see it now. The only way he was getting off this island was with his head severed from his body, and mounted on a plaque like the head of a stag.

The gaunt face of the monster flashed across his vision and hummed lowly, "You're like me. "

Aaron whipped around to face the invisible threat. He glowered at his empty room.

"I'm not," he shot back, though the waver in his voice betrayed him.

He needed air.

As he turned to open his window, hunger sharply ran him through the gut like a sword. With a pained moan, he fell against the wall.

God, he needed to sink his teeth into something warm, something alive. To tear through its layers of skin and sweet fat, feast on the red flesh beneath, to drink from the marrow. He was famished.

He was going to die here. If not from starvation, then at the hands of someone hunting him. There was no escaping his fate, now that the whole world knew.

Staggering back to his feet, he looked out his window at the darkening sky. He had to get out. He needed to go. Anywhere else! He'll take his chances with the ocean, he'd try to swim to the mainland--

Another pain tore through him. Aaron bit back a cry as he crumpled to the his knees again. Bile rose in the back of his throat. His shaking hands, braced on the floor in front of him, rotted away before his very eyes. His skin peeled back, one layer at a time. Exposing his flesh, his bones, and staining the wood black beneath his palms. The coppery smell filled his nostrils, thrusting another invisible blade through his gut.

"Just a taste," voices urged.

His hollow insides churned violently as he raised a trembling hand to his teeth.

No. No.

Scrambling for the door to his room, Aaron shoved the voices to the deepest corner of his mind. He fought with the handle. The brass knob was left red and slick in his wake. Leaning his whole weight against the wall, he dragged himself over to the window at the end of the hallway. The corridor pulsated and blurred around him.

He just needed some air. To get out.

You need to eat.

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soundofmind says...

His feet sunk into the sand with every step, and it flew behind him as he ran, kicking it up along the shore.

He'd slept more than he had in weeks, and yet he felt delirious as the horrible sensation from his nightmare clung to him. He wasn't able to shake it off. It felt like he was drowning, choking on his own blood, and he couldn't get up for air.

His body was still shaking, and all he could see was red.

The moon was up, but he didn't know what time it was. He didn't check the clock. He didn't run into anyone on the way out. It was late enough that no one was up outside, and when he sprinted down the beach, no one followed. It wasn't until he was halfway around the island that he finally slowed, feeling the palpatations of his heart in his chest painful enough to finally listen to his body.

He fell to his knees in the sand, holding his chest as his heart continued to race from running and from fear.

So this was just the start of it, huh? Tula, making his life a living hell. As if his dreams weren't already doing that for him. Now he was a glittering pink, and the shimmer of his skin caught the moon's light. He didn't want to think any of this was real.

Groaning, he curled forward, trying to push his anxiety down, even though it was strangling him from the inside-out. It wasn't working, but he didn't know what to do anymore.

Running wasn't helping. He never expected it to solve anything, but it at least used to help him clear his head. Now, all it seemed to do was make him feel worse. Even after sleeping for several hours, all his body wanted was to be back in bed while his mind wanted anything but that.

He was so tired, but he couldn't bear another nightmare like that. He couldn't.

Holding his hands over his face, James let out a deep sigh and turned his eyes to the stars, letting the weight of it all hit him under the sliver of the silver moon.

Just two more months of this, he told himself.

Just two more months.

He focused on the small breeze. The sway of the palm tree's fronds. The faint shuffle of leaves, and the constant lapping of small waves against the sandy shore. Deeper in the jungle there was the occasional flap of a bird's wings, or the shuffle of a land-locked creature scuttling in the night.

His gaze turned towards the ocean, and he tried to let himself rest in the quiet of the night.

But something... felt wrong.

A deep, instinctual response crept over him. The hairs on the back of his neck started to raise, and something uneasy began to settle in his gut. Fear - that he normally only felt in the deep of the wilds - crawled over him, spurring him to his feet in an instant.

A shadow fell over him, and he slowly turned to look behind him at the source.

He stared.

A towering creature stood over him, only a few feet away as its inhumanly long limbs dangled in front of it. Its gaunt features were harshly shadowed in the moonlight as its animal-like face turned to the side, revealing it was lacking in all flesh, and its face had been stripped to the bone.

Beads of light sat where its eyes should be, glowing a sickly, unnatural green that narrowed upon eye contact.

Its tattered clothing flapped against its hollow, wiry frame in the breeze, and for a moment, it and James stared at each other.

A horrified chill ran down James's spine, and he only knew one thing to do in that moment.

He ran.

Sprinting off down the beach, James began to run like his life depended on it. He didn't want to end up in the claws of whatever otherworldly being had posessed this jungle. Even if he could recover, he didn't want to take his chances.

What the hell was that thing?

Terrified, James glanced over his shoulder, seeing the creature running after him on all fours, low gutteral growls tearing from its throat and ribcage rattling as it pounded the sand.

No, no, no, no.

Where did this thing come from?

James pushed himself to run faster, and faster, running with all of his might.

He started scanning the beach for a way out. Some way to outsmart this beast, since he knew he couldn't keep this pace forever, and the creature was gaining. James had to make it halfway back around the island, and he wasn't going to make it at this rate. And even if he did, he'd be leading this creature straight into the heart of the island where the others were. Would that be better or worse?

Well, facing it alone was certainly worse. And that's what he was stuck with.

James darted into the jungle. He was smaller. He could move faster through the rough terrain.

Barefoot, James pounded through the thickening plant life, ignoring the constant knicking of plants he ran into. The creature was still behind him, huffing and growling in hot pursuit.

James zig-zagged, darting through the trees on fast feet. The creature behind him got caught in the trees behind him, letting out a low, scraggling roar as it hit a tree-trunk with a thunk. James didn't look behind to see how much it slowed it down, though, and he continued to wriggle through the jungle.

If he cut through the jungle, he could make it to the plaza. If he cut through the plaza, he could bee-line for the cabins. If he made it to the cabins, maybe he could be safe. Or maybe the creature would stick to the jungle. James didn't know. But he didn't stop moving.

Eventually, the jungle began to clear, and James leaped out onto the plaza's paved roads, darting straight for the heart of the shopping center. There, there would be the most buildings and places to hide if he needed. And the most places to lose it.

The creature followed him, scrambling onto the cobblestone paths with horrifically loud clatters. James could hear where it was going without looking. He hurried, letting manic adrenaline push him past his limit, and letting his own weight carry him as the path turned downhill.

Now, inertia was going to take him regardless. He just had to control it.

James was speeding down the hill, and he could hear the creature's chaotic footfalls receding, growing further and further away.

There was a crash, and a dreadful pop and creak, like the creature was breaking into something.

James could only hope that the plaza was empty at night. He hadn't seen anyone there or any lights on when he ran through.

The creature, however, was distracted, and James seized the opportunity to dash back into the cover of the trees, keeping his pace as he weaved down back to the beach-front.

Cabins. Cabins. Cabins. He just had to get back to his cabin.

Branches and leaves clipped his face, legs, and arms more times than he could count. The only crashing he heard now was that of his own feet as he crushed many plants underfoot. The noises of the creature behind him had gone silent, and he could only hope that meant its path had been diverted.

James stumbled out onto the sand.

The trees fell away. He tumbled towards his cabin, falling into the ground just a few feet in front of it, skidding to a stop. His back hit the porch steps, and he scrambled to his feet again, trying to get his bearings.

He whipped his head around, scanning the area for any signs of the monster that had pursued him, and he saw nothing.

He shakily reached for the door, taking far too many attempts to unlock it with his trembling hands.

He'd almost lost his life to monsters like this before, and his body remembered it well. The panic gripped every inch of him, and he had no idea how long it'd take him to calm down.

He stepped inside.

Locked the door.

Realized this was not his cabin door. Hastily tried to unlock it again, but it didn't budge.

No. Not this again! This door and its portals!

"There's no use fighting it, dog. Tonight, you are mine," Tula's sultry voice came in behind him.

James smashed his full weight into the door with his shoulder, still fighting it. He didn't know where he was. This wasn't Tula's room. It was somewhere else, in some dark, windowless room. The lights overhead were white and lifeless.

He fought with the door handle, trying to force it open, but still, it didn't budge.

He escaped one monster only to get stuck with another.

James whipped around, back against the door as he looked to Tula, standing an uncomfortable mere foot from him.

"Relaaaaax," Tula said innocently with a sly smile, holding a large knife and glinting it in his eyes. "I'm not going to hurt you. Why don't you sit? We can have a chat."

A million thoughts ran through his head at once.

This was her following through on her promise. She was determined to get back at him, still convinced that he'd "drugged" her.

He also knew if he resisted, the first person to suffer was going to be Shane, since Eve had Oliver as a buffer. And he couldn't let Shane become Tula's next target. Not if he could help it. Shane was struggling enough, as is.

Swallowing, James looked around the room.

It looked like it had come right out of a fantasy book. On one end of the room was a stone table, eerily shaped like an operating table, with straps to hold a person down. On the other side of it there was a long table, shelves, and cabinets lined with every medieval torture device imaginable.

The walls were bare, and the wooden floor looked stained with bleach, and it smelled of it, too.

The only two places to sit were a stone chair not unlike the operating table in function and a bench, seated in front of a piano.

James didn't want to ask what the hell the piano was for. And he had a feeling Tula was not asking him to sit there.

Stiffly, he walked over to the stone seat, eyeing the metal cuffs that hung open, where ankles and wrists should be.

He glanced back at Tula.

He didn't want to ask to confirm, because he felt he already knew, but he was desperately hoping he was wrong.

"Good boy," Tula said with a devilish smile.

Every time she said that, he cringed internally to the deepest possible degree.

Still, he sat.

"You said it's for a chat," he said, still trying to be hopeful Tula wasn't a complete psychopath. "What did you want to talk about?"

"That's right. A chat," Tula confirmed, now in front of the table with all the weapons. She placed the knife down, holding up a machete to admire instead. "I have one question for you: what's your favorite weapon?"

James didn't know what came over him, but he let out the weirdest, nervous laugh he'd ever heard from his own mouth. Just yesterday, he said his life was like a sitcom. Now it felt like a movie. A horror movie.

"A gun," he said succinctly.

Tula hummed, pulling out a drawer and taking out a shotgun to admire now. "A coward's choice. I respect it, coming from you."

What the hell was that supposed to mean?

"They're arguably still one of the superior weapons someone can afforably get their hands on," James said. "It's more a practical choice than anything."

He was going to pretend like this was a normal conversation, and not like Tula was asking him how he wanted to die. Because that's what this was, wasn't it? Why else would he be in a room like this?

"Yes," Tula said as James watched her load the gun with bullets, one at a time. "A practical choice. It's painless. Easy. Quick. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

James pressed his lips into a line, trying to keep himself from running for the door again.

"I feel like you're not just talking about weapons anymore," he said a bit quieter.

Gun in hand, Tula turned around to face him, clicking her tongue with a pout of her lips. "Aw. Keep up, dog. Otherwise you'll need disciplining."

In other words: stick to the bit or get hurt.

Just as he opened his mouth to respond, the bonds of the chair snapped into place. His eyes widened, and he looked down at his ankles and wrists, tugging to no avail.

"There," Tula said with a sinister smile, sauntering to his side. "That's better. Do you feel better? Dogs feel better after knowing what they've done was wrong."

He hated this over-extended dog metaphor. He shot her a glare.

"Yes," he said in monotone. "I feel better."

But he knew going along with this wasn't going to get him out of the situation any faster. He was going to have to endure it regardless. The only thing cooperation earned him was hopefully protection for those he cared about. But he didn't know how much he could trust Tula for that.

"Good. Then perhaps we can have a real chat, now." Tula slowly circled around him, gun in hand that she loosely tapped against her other palm. "Starting with: how did you drug me?"

"I..." he hesitated. "I told you. I slipped it in your drink when you weren't looking."

"No," she snarled cooly in his ear, slamming the side of the gun against the metal back of the chair, a loud metallic crack ricocheting in the room.

Geez, he had to come up with a different lie, now? She wasn't going to but anything he said, was she?

"That's not what I asked," Tula continued to harshly whisper in his ear, voice like venom. "How did you drug me?"

James swallowed. Okay. She wasn't asking about the manner. She was asking about the means.

"In... the nurse's cabin," James said slowly. "There's a drug cabinet. It wasn't hard to break into. I go on nightly runs all the time, anyway. No one suspected a thing when I disappeared for a little while."

That seemed to appease Tula, who was back to circling around him. "Which nurse?"

"Elise," James said, recalling the name Eve gave him, when she mentioned sleeping pills being an option.

Too bad sleeping pills couldn't help him escape this nightmare.

Tula clicked her tongue. "That wasn't so bad now, was it, dog? Unfortunately, this action deserves punishment. And it won't just be you who gets punished."


"Please," he begged. "She had nothing to do with this. She didn't even know."

Tula smiled again, sinister evil glinting in her eyes. "I like it when you beg. Why don't you keep begging?"

Before he could even consider coming up with some kind of elaborate, dramatic monologue to appease her, the chair rocked beneath him. It fell backward with a jolt, and he was spun onto his back, now staring up at the harsh pale lights on the dark ceiling.

Tula looked down at him.

"Just... don't hurt anyone else," he said, trying to brace himself for whatever she was preparing. "Please. It's my fault and mine alone. I alone take the blame. No one else was involved."

Her smile disappeared, her expression replaced with disgust and disappointment. With a shake of her head, Tula disappeared from his view, her steps clacking against the stone floor.

"Pathetic. I'm disappointed," she said.

Seriously? She asked for it. What did she expect? She really was doing all of this for show.

What was he supposed to say? Sorry, I'll do better next time? Like this was some kind of work review?

"Tell me how I can make it up to you," he said instead, not liking that either.

"By screaming. By suffering. By feeling pain," Tula said, her face coming back into view above him. "You can do that for me, can't you?"

James stared back up at her, unimpressed. And angry.

"As you wish," he said, letting the sarcasm slip through.

"You're going to pay for what you did," Tula said, hate laced in her words.

James just wanted to know what he did to warrant this kind of hatred. Sure, she was working for Oliver, right? But this kind of vicious hatred wasn't fitting of something impersonal. He didn't even know Tula. What crime had he ever really committed against her but exist?

"Any last words?" she asked.

"See you on the other--" he began grimly, but was cut off by Tula jamming a gag in his mouth, quickly tying it around his head. She threw a towel over his face.

Before James could process a shadow falling over him, he was being doused with water.

It felt like the waterfall was unending. The bucket - or whatever it was - seemed to have a source outside of itself. Water kept coming, and James couldn't hold his breath without sputtering. He could feel his vision getting spotty as his breaths slowed and grew ragged. Water felt like it was starting to fill his lungs, and though his body was actively fighting to heal at a competing rate, it was just slow enough that the light was starting to fade.

But just as he thought his body was going to give up, the waterboarding finally stopped.

Tula swiped the rag off of his face, and he looked up blearily, only able to make out her silhouette with the ceiling lights blindingly shining behind her head.

She stared down at him, her malicious smile growing as he began to sputter again, coughing up water that seeped into the gag and puddled out the sides of his mouth like drool.

"Are you going to be a good boy now?" she cooed.

All James could manage was a bleary nod.

"Good. Then you will not suffer. You will not feel pain. Consider this my gift to you," Tula said, reappearing in his sight, gun back in her hand, sinister smile growing.

What did she mean... gift?

The chair flipped him back up abruptly, and the sound of a gunshot echoed off the stony walls, ringing in his ears.

"I said I wouldn't hurt you. It doesn't hurt, does it?" Tula said with an even voice, eyeing his chest with morbid fascination.

James blinked, turning his head down to his chest slowly.

And that was when he saw what she saw too.

She'd shot him. There was a gaping hole in his chest, piercing right through his shirt where his heart was. Already, his blood was clotting, and his skin and muscles could be seen twisting around the wound, pushing the bullet out and self-sewing the wound shut.

Blood had been pouring out if his chest, staining his shirt in red, and yet... he hadn't felt a thing.

He stared. Panic started to set in.

No. No. This was dissociation. He could feel the difference.

What had Tula done to him? Why couldn't he feel any pain?

He looked up at her, his brows knit into a fine line.

"What...?" he barely got out.

"Enjoy. See you on the other side," Tula said with a devilish smile and a wave.

And then the chair flipped, this time falling through the floor. The bonds released him, and he went flying...

...into his bed.

He bounced off of it and landed on the floor with a heavy thunk.

James laid there, face smashed against the floor, unmoving.

He didn't even feel the pain of falling.

Slowly pushing himself up, he looked around his room, confused at why it was suddenly tidy. He couldn't even remember what it had looked like when he woke up from his nightmare. He wasn't able to see much without his glasses anyway - but now that his eyes were adjusting, he realized that Shane or Eve (or both of them) must've cleaned things up.

Well, as much as they could manage, anyway.

James looked down at his chest. For the first time in his life, the small spot where he'd been shot almost looked like a scar because the skin grew back normal. It was tan, while the skin around it was still a glittering pink.

So that meant... his body just needed to... shed.

Because when it healed back, it went back to normal.
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SilverNight says...

Honestly, Clarity wasn't sure that a dye remover was the best use of her time this late at night. But she'd told Eve she'd have it done in nine hours and six minutes, and by God, she planned to be accurate.

Eve had delivered the remaining bath bombs to her lab, and Clarity had examined them for a while, trying to determine what had made them so potent. She'd burst the blue one into a tank of water, then collected a sample into a cuvette to test using a spectrometer. Strangely, the light absorbance results had suggested that the concentration of dye was no stronger than that of a blue sports drink like Crocodile-Ade.

It didn't hold up that it would stain a person's skin and resist washing for hours.

Clarity jotted some notes down about the dye solution's molarity, doing some mental math to expand the volume to one of a full bathtub. Realistically, if this bath bomb were diluted, it would be even less concentrated, fading to a paler blue. Even less likely that it could manage to dye skin.

She stared at the tank, then pulled out a new container from a cabinet as a thought came to mind.

With a flick of her hand, she levitated a small amount of the dye solution, transferring it to the new tank. She then went over to the sink, turning on the faucet and directing the flow of water towards the tank before it could reach the bottom of the sink. When the tank was almost full, she turned off the faucet, letting the rest of the water splash in the sink as she went back over.

...It was still the same shade of blue. It should've been a lot paler.


Clarity squinted at the dye, willing it to make sense, or to at least follow the molarity dilution equation to a reasonable degree. The tank disobeyed.

Maybe it was too late for this.

Or she could add another twenty two minutes to her time prediction and get to the bottom of this. Because now she was curious.

She was about to retest this sample through the spectrometer when she caught unexpected motion in the corner of her eye.

A pair of goggles had started to... levitate.

As if floating on their own, the goggles began to lift off the edge of the table and fly across the room.

Clarity slowly blinked.


It wasn't that late, was it?

"Um..." she vocalized, already trying to think of some scientific explanation for this.

The goggles started flying faster. Towards the window.

Clarity wasn't sure how she was supposed to react to that, but-- well, she had to react. Because unless her goggles were going on strike to protest their current working conditions-- constant lab work on off-hours-- they were probably being stolen, by...

Well, goggles didn't steal themselves.

Something invisible?

Science wasn't the only thing on the island. She had to account for magic too.

"Oh no you don't," she muttered, scrambling around her lab counter for something.

She needed to... throw something. If someone invisible was there, they surely had a form she could hit. She didn't want to throw glass, though. Something powdery was best. It would stick to them, and she'd probably get a glimpse of a figure.

The window started to clatter, like something was fumbling with the latch.

Clarity lunged for a sealed jar, prying off the lid and preparing to throw the grainy contents inside, already aiming for the window before she froze, staring back down at it. The side of the container was helpfully labeled NaOH. Sodium hydroxide.

Holy shit, she'd grabbed lye.

If she threw something else, she'd risk running out of time to try this. But if she did throw it...

Even if she was getting robbed, she couldn't give someone chemical burns, could she?

The window latch finally thunked open. The lower pane started to get pushed and rattle, but Clarity knew the window was irrecoverably sticky; she'd never opened it.

Clarity growled in frustration, setting down the lye and reaching for a much more harmless compound next to it. NaCl, sodium chloride. Plain old table salt.

This she threw towards the window without any further hesitation.

The salt clattered against the window, not sticking to any sort of frame at all. But she did hear what sounded like a faint cough.

"Who's there?" Clarity hollered, clenching a fist to cause some of the dye to condense and rise into a ball of liquid. It was harmless, but this person probably didn't know that.

The lower pane continued to shake, like the person was still wrestling with the window that was practically glued shut. The window moved up a few inches with a jolt, and it was then that the image of a man flickered into existence. Still semi-transparent, Clarity saw Jay - one of the men from the cabin where Tula lived - crouched by the window with his fingers under the pane.

"Fuck," he said audibly.

In her surprise, Clarity let the dye splash back into the container.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded, too shocked to be as snappy as she wanted.

His body started flickering in and out of view, and as Jay gave one last tug against the frame, instead of the window budging, his efforts sent him falling off the window frame, onto the floor. Finally materializing, Jay hit the ground with a thump.

"I needed goggles," was all he said, lying on the floor.

Clarity stared at him, wondering how much of this was hallucination.

"I have... a front door to knock on," she said. "And a willingness to take requests."

"I have an aversion to people," Jay said matter-of-factly as he got to his feet, goggles still in hand. "And you never open your windows."

"Touché, but what about a note? None of this was necessary," Clarity said disbelievingly. "I nearly threw lye at you. Lye. I wouldn't have come close to that if I had been asked to lend my goggles instead of watching them levitate away."

Jay stared at her, like he was thinking through what to say next.

"Can I borrow these?" he asked, lifting up the goggles he was holding.

"Yes," she said flatly.

"Cool," he said, putting the goggles on. "Thanks."

"I will ask that you don't break in again, though." Clarity turned her attention to the blue dye, making sure that none of it had splattered out of the tub and stained anything.

"Sure," he said, reaching for the window, trying to close it for a total of two seconds before quickly giving up. "I'll use the door."

Well, Clarity severely hoped none of her roommates were out and about. She'd almost prefer to let them assume what had happened than correct them with the truth that she'd gotten burgled by an invisible man and let him get away with it.

"Be my guest," she said calmly.

Jay nodded, and then he flickered out of existence again. This time, the goggles disappeared with him. She saw no more movement from the window or the door.

He was just... gone.

"Hmm," Clarity muttered, staring around the room some more.

The salt hadn't hit him, had it? Maybe materials were capable of passing through him, or him through materials. Like a ghost. Interesting.

Speaking of the salt, there was now a large pile of it scattered below her window.

Clarity sighed, looking back at the tub of dye. She wanted to figure out why it was so strange. But she'd have to develop the chemical to get rid of it first.

And clean up the mess.

"Ten hours, eleven minutes," she estimated under her breath, hurrying to get to the broom.
"silv is obsessed with heists" ~Omni

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soundofmind says...

One day prior...

Clanny knocked on the door to Robin's cabin. After finally getting changed out of her pajamas and into normal clothes, she hurried over to Robin's first thing.

Well, okay, it wasn't first thing, because there was the whole girls' brunch and nail-painting and all that. But it had been a crazy day, or crazy morning, and she still kept thinking about falling out of a ceiling mouth onto a table while covered in saliva.

Like she said, it wasn't her first time being in a big mouth, but ceilings didn't have mouths?

She tried to put that question on the back-burner. Right now, she just needed to check in on Robin.

She tapped the door again when there wasn't an immediate response. Maybe she was being a little impatient, but she wanted to make sure she was heard. Swishing side-to-side in her second oversized dragon t-shirt of the day, she wiggled her toes in her flip-flops. She could hear footsteps approaching, and there was a pause before the door popped open.

Hendrik. He was shirtless, a hairless cat perched on his shoulder wearing a blue sweater, which looked at Clanny with wide, green eyes.

It was kind of funny that Hendrik wasn't wearing anything, but he put his cat in a sweater.

"Morning, pinky. You still hungover?" Hendrik asked gruffly, giving her a lookover.

Clanny let out a small laugh, patting her stomach. She had no idea what Hendrik was talking about pinkies for but she wasn't going to question it.

"Who, me?" she said. "I'm hardier than I look."

She turned her attention to the cat, smiling brightly.

"Also, hi there!" she said. "I don't think we've met! What's your name?"

The cat widened his green eyes some more. "Help me," he meowed.

Clanny's smile fell into a look of concern.

"Oh no, what's wrong?" she asked.

"The hell you talking to?" Hendrik asked.

"Your cat!" Clanny said simply. "My power is to talk to animals."

"Really?" Hendrik grinned. "What's Ham saying? He hungry?"

Clanny put up a hand, trying to tell Hendrik to stop talking so the kitty could get a chance to speak.

"What's up?" she asked.

"I'm so cold. My mittens are off," Ham mewed.

Clanny pouted.

"You're cold?" she asked.

"I knew it!" Hendrik barked. "Everyone tells me he doesn't need a damn sweater in this hellish island, but of course he's still cold."

"I wish I had pants, too," Ham continued to meow. "My legs are cold."

Clanny tilted her head, slightly amused. This was a first. It sounded like Ham might've had some health problems going on. There really wasn't many reasons for the cat to be super cold on a tropical island.

"He says he misses his mittens and wants pants," she said. "It might be a good idea to take him to a vet at some point. That kind of inability to regulate body temperature could be a sign of underlying health problems."

Sudden seriousness washed over Hendrik's face. "That's no good. I don't want my baby to be suffering. You know if there's a vet on the island?"

"And pooping hurts," Ham mewed, voice strained.

"I'm not sure," Clanny said. "I work with animals a lot myself, but I'm not licensed. I know Hild is studying to become a veterenarian. She could be of help, since she's more informed on these sorts of things. I could make some educated guesses, but she'd be better for a proper diagnosis."

She paused, frowning in concern for the poor kitty.

"He says he's having painful poops," she said. "Poor lil guy."

Hendrik's eyes widened as he then scooped up Ham, cradling him in his arms, face creased with worry. "Don't worry, little guy. We're going to get your poops checked out real soon. Hang in there."

"And get my mittens," Ham cooed, purring. "And I'm tired of eating chicken kibble. I want fish."

"Ah. He's asking for his mittens," Clanny said.

This often happened, where she felt like a translator for people's pets. But she really didn't mind it. She was glad Ham was able to express his needs and that now he could get help.

"On it." Hendrik turned, but then whirled back around to her. "Did you want something, by the way?"

"I just wanted to come in to check on Robin," she said, perking up with a small smile. "Would it be okay if I came in?"

"Come on in. Shut the door on your way in," Hendrik said with a wave of his hand before running up the stairs, skipping three steps at a time.

"For sure," she said, even though he was already quickly ascending out of earshot. She grinned in faint amusement, endeared by Hendrik's devotion to his spoiled little cat. The one thing she left out in translation was that Ham was being incredibly whiny. The little cat's voice reeked of entitlement, but at least the cat was being cared for, she supposed. She met lots of pampered pets in her time, so at least Ham wasn't mean. Just needy.

She glanced around the living room for a second, noting all of the empty glasses on almost every surface, and the fully stocked gaming shelf. It really did look like a bachelor's pad, which was kind of weird, because that really didn't fit Robin's style. It felt like the cabin was fitted more to Hendrik and Kazimir - both of which, she enjoyed, but were very different from Robin.

Robin was always more reserved and proper. At least, style-wise. She couldn't always say the same for his attitude, but even when he was being a bit of a grump he was all fancy-worded about it.

She hoped he was okay though, and with that thought in the front of her brain, she hurried up the stairs, finding his room.

She stopped at his door, knocking with a few light taps.

"Hey," she said. "Robin? You in there?"

She assumed he was, but the question was whether he was awake or not.

She heard a whine. Sounded like Robin was in his wolf-form.

"Can I come in?" she asked.

Another whine, and then a loud dog-like sneeze.

"Yes," Robin finally groaned.

Testing the knob, Clanny checked that it was unlocked before she stepped in. She'd been in Robin's room once or twice before, so she already knew it was a lot simpler than the other rooms she'd seen. There wasn't a whole lot to look at in the minimalistic decor, so it wasn't too hard to spot Robin, who was sprawled out on his bed, stomach to the ceiling.

If Clanny had to guess, he'd only just woken up.

"Man, you really had a rough go of it yesterday," she said softly, approaching the bed slowly.

Robin rolled onto his side with another groan, ears flattening against his head.

"I was not myself, Clanny," he said morosely. "They turned me into something I am not."

"You really wore yourself out with all the singing and dancing," Clanny said empathetically, reaching over to pat his head for comfort. He sighed.

"I don't sing or dance," he said.

"I know," Clanny said, softer. "You did a lot of howling, though. I guess that kind of counts at singing. It's sort of melodic."

"It was humiliating," Robin muttered.

"I'm pretty sure everyone's in the same boat," Clanny said, scratching behind his ears. "Not that it doesn't still suck, but I think everyone is upset about what happened yesterday. I don't think anyone will judge you for it."

Robin let out another sad sigh, a high-pitched whine escaping him as he closed his eyes, leaning into her hand.

"I made quite the fool of myself," he said. "Not just by becoming an entertainer. I drank far more than I should've. Poor Connie had to look after me."

"I know," Clanny said. "I heard about that. But I'm glad he was there for you. I'm sorry I wasn't. I ended up getting preoccupied with Kazimir. The poor man was convinced he was a shark. But I think he's recovering now."

Robin huffed at that.

"You have my forgiveness," he said. "And I'm glad to know Kazimir made it back to humanhood."

"Me too," Clanny said. "Maybe we can check on him after you get up. You'll be needing a lot of water and a suitable breakfast, I bet."

"T'would be wise," Robin agreed, sitting up and shaking his head with a flop of his ears.

Clanny pulled her hand away, watching as Robin instantly shifted from his wolf form to his human one, and he repositioned to sit next to her on the edge of the bed.

"How do you fare?" he asked.

"I'm pretty hungover myself," she said. "But I'm doing better, now. Taking it slow today."

"Ah. Yes. Good," Robin nodded.

"Had a pretty weird interview this morning," Clanny said. "Did you know there was a morning show for Island Magic? They do uh, quizzes and recaps and stuff."

"I was not aware," Robin answered, leaning forward to hold his head. Poor guy probably had a horrible headache. "But alas, it does not surprise me."

"Yeah. It was really weird. They portaled me in through a giant mouth," she said.

Robin did a double-take at that, looking at her with great confusion.

"I beg your pardon?" he asked.

"I really don't know how else to explain it," Clanny said.

"No, I only mean that you said that so casually as if it were nothing," Robin went on. "You really ought to let your words carry more weight, Clanny. That sounds horrific. Are you alright?"

Clanny smiled weakly, feeling a little embarassed at Robin's small correction. She knew she had a tendency to understate things and sweep them under the rug, but she'd always thought it was a fine enough coping mechanism. It didn't really make sense to exaggerate, and she really didn't feel like describing it in detail.

"I'm fine, now," she said. "The uh, the interviewer. Her name's Mel. She's really nice, actually. She helped me out after and gave me a hug and all that. She's really sweet."

Robin's worries didn't seem to be assuaged, but he nodded.

"Alright," he said tentatively, eyes flicking to her hands. "...That's new."

Clanny brightened a bit, smiling as she wiggled her fingers, showing off her new nail polish.

"Yeah?" she asked. "What do you think? I was going for: 'my fingers are a valentine.'"

"You certainly accomplished your goal," Robin said with the faintest hint of a smile. "It looks lovely, Clanny."

"Thanks," she said, putting her hands back in her lap.

"We should probably see about that food, now," Robin said. "I'm not going to recover without it."

"Good idea," Clanny said with a small smile. "Let's go."


Robin was looking a lot better with a full stomach and his usual glass of milk in his tummy. Clanny let him sit at the counter while the food settled while she took care of cleaning up in the kitchen. Robin tried to insist on helping, but she was more stubborn, and eventually he relented.

She could tell he was nauseas just from the little look in his eyes, so she didn't want him pushing himself out of obligation. She could wash a few dishes.

Robin was slowly sipping on a glass of water while Clanny was elbow-deep in suds, hand-washing in the sink. In the living room, she could hear Hendrik channel surfing on the TV, and Kazimir playing video games on the opposite couch. The video game noises were faint over the sound of the TV, which eventually landed on a news channel, talking about some kind of political upheaval in Aphirah.

Wasn't that where Shane was from? That was his home country, wasn't it?

She couldn't make everything out super clearly from the kitchen, and she tried to lean around the counter to see the screen.

Something something... they mentioned Shane. A picture of Shane and Alan kissing briefly passed over the screen.

Clanny frowned. The kiss was on the news?

Just as concern and confusion started to swirl, everyone's attention was diverted by a knock at the door.

"Nose goes!" Kazimir said, touching his nose.

"I'll get it, you lazy ass," Hendrik said gruffly, placing his mug of vodka on the table before grunting to his feet, heading to the door. "Anyone expecting company today?"

Clanny shrugged.

"I don't live here," she said.

"Could be Lyall again," Kaz said.

"No," Robin answered simply.

"Hmph," Hendrik sounded, marching to the door. "We can say howdy to cowboy again."

But when he opened the door, it wasn't Lyall on the other side. It was Connie, who was dressed in his usual linen whites, standing tall and proper, expression stoic. Hendrik stared at him before he straightened up, alert.

"Prince Connie. Hello," Hendrik greeted.

Clanny's eyes lit up, and she smiled brightly, waving to him from across the room.

"Connie!" she said.

That got Robin's attention. He looked over his shoulder at the door, expression tired but hopeful.

Connie looked past Hendrik, peering in slightly. "May I come in?"

Hendrik was quick to step to the side, motioning for him to enter. "Please do."

Connie took a few steps forward, still hovering by the door. He was holding his tote of art supplies, which Clanny recognized him carry every morning whenever he and Robin painted.

"I see you're doing better," Connie said, nodding to Robin. "Good."

"You seem more yourself as well," Robin replied. "Good to see it."

"Are you feeling well enough to venture outside?" Connie asked.

Nodding slightly, Robin took one last sip of his drink.

"I think some fresh air would do me well," he said, hopping down from his stool and looking over to Clanny.

"Could Clanny join us this morning?" Robin asked.

"I have no qualms about her joining," Connie said, glancing back at the door behind him. Hendrik quickly opened it for him again. "I'll wait for you both outside."

"Alright," Robin answered. "See you shortly."

Connie stepped outside, and Clanny quickly finished washing and drying the pan she was working on. She left it on the drying rack and dried off her hands on the towel that hung over the oven's handle.

"Do you need to grab anything?" she asked Robin.

"Connie should have enough supplies," Robin said. "I've already changed. We will bring ourselves."

Clanny nodded in agreement, and the two of them headed for the door, slipping on their sandals and flip flops.

"Since when have you been buddies-buddies with the Prince of Talia?" Hendrik balked, still at the door, watching them while being completely flabbergasted.

"Hm?" Clanny asked, looking up at him curiously. "Oh. I mean, I just starting painting with Robin and Connie last week, I think. We've gone out a few times! It's been fun."

Hendrik grumbled something unintelligible under his breath-- or maybe it was in Germa. He opened the door for them, sweeping his arm out in front of him for them to leave. "Have fun."

"Thanks!" Clanny said with a smile. "I hope you have a great day too, and I hope Ham starts feeling better! See you around!"

Clanny and Robin left out the door, and Hendrik closed it behind them with a faint harrumph. Looking to Connie expectantly, Clanny and Robin were ready to go. Connie nodded at them, as he usually did when he acknowledged someone, then turned towards the trail to walk.

Like usual, the three of them headed out onto the trail in comfortable silence, and Clanny found herself enjoying the quiet company of her friends along with the peaceful rolling landscape around them. When they finally stopped, it was at a cliffside, and they settled at the top, looking down at the ocean.

Connie was always helping them set up their canvases at first, but now Clanny knew how to start without assistance. The three of them found a spot they liked and began painting, and Clanny found it to be a really relaxing exercise after a really weird, stressful day yesterday.

Glancing over at Connie and Robin, she couldn't help but smile.

Robin was painting with his paws, creating big shapes and focusing on colors.

Connie was painting more delicately, capturing the cliffside view in full detail.

Heart warmed, Clanny found herself really thankful for her friends.
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Carina says...

Eve checked the time on her phone. 8:55am. She should check on James again.

Yesterday wasn't the worst, but today brought a new day, and she wanted to be there for him in case anything horrific happened again. Apparently Oliver cared about her enough to grant her immunity to whatever inhumane magic they used here, and Eve was stuck feeling grateful and disgusted by it.

She ought to play her cards and use this situation to her advantage. Perhaps James would be targeted less if she were more involved.

Or perhaps, he would be targeted more. She didn't know for sure. There was a lot of uncertainty.

Before leaving her room, she glanced at herself in the mirror, noting the long yellow gingham dress she was wearing under a white tee. She supposed this was fine. Although, if they were going to mess with dyes, then maybe she should bring an apron, or...

Eve could always come back if she needed to. Right now, she ought to simply head over there and check in on him. Especially since Clarity wasn't done creating her skin dye solution yet.

Passing by her door, Eve heard more mutters and clattering on the floor, and she wondered if Clarity even slept yet. The light under her door had been present all night, and it was apparent she was still up.

Perhaps the magic bath bombs had been giving her more trouble than she realized. Regardless, Eve was going to hold her accountable to her original precise estimate of finishing-- not because she truly expected her to finish down to the exact second, but because Eve was interested to see how accurate she was to begin with.

Venturing outside, Eve was glad she didn't run into anyone else when she approached James's cabin. With dainty steps, she walked up to the porch, giving the door three firm knocks with her knuckles.

There was a long silence, and for a moment, Eve wondered if she'd been heard. She waited a little longer, glancing around for any signs of life or movement, and then she heard heavy footsteps stomping from inside, presumably down the steps from the rate they were traveling.

The footsteps got louder until they came to a sudden stop, and there was a beat of silence.

Then the door unlocked, and James poked his face into view, only opening the door enough for his head and and shoulders to peer out.

It looked like he wasn't wearing a shirt.

"Um," Eve stammered, not quite expecting this. Frankly, she was expecting Shane to answer, not James. She figured James would still be asleep. "Is now a good time? I can come back. It's fine."

James's expression was a bit blank and wide-eyed. She noticed that his eyes looked a little bloodshot, and his hair - formerly in a bun last she saw saw him - had yet to have been fixed. Instead, it was just progressively falling out of the bun around his very pink shoulders.

Maybe he'd just woken up?

"No, uh, its--" James started. "It's fine. I uh. What's up?"

Something seemed off.

"Is... everything alright?" Eve asked cautiously.

James blinked slowly, and his adam's apple bobbed up and down, indicating a hard swallow.

"I'm pink," he answered.

"Yes," Eve said steadily. "I know. Clarity's working on a solution."

This looked like it was news to James.

"Another one?" he asked.

"With the goal to not make you pink, yes," Eve said, furrowing her brows. "Can I come in?"

"Oh! Oh, um. Yes. Yes," James said, pulling the door open. She noticed he hid behind the door as he did so, possibly to hide from the cameras.

Nimble in her steps, Eve slid past the door, stepping to the side so James could shut it quickly. When James closed the door behind them, she could tell his movements were stiff and hesitant. He checked the windows more than once with a flick of his eyes, and he closed the blinds for good measure. When he turned around, however, his jaw locked tightly, and any kind of friendly front he'd mustered up disappeared into something far more concerning.

Right over his heart, there was a jagged mark where the pink was gone. Instead, it was his normal fleshy color.

"Is everything alright? Besides you being... pink," Eve said again, flicking her eyes to the tan spot of his chest.

Holding a hand behind his back, James swallowed again, flicking his gaze around the room. Paranoid. She noted that everything in the room looked like it had been rearranged, and the room was partially in disarray, with cleaning supplies out on the floor, like it was a project half-finished.

"I..." he said faintly, already trailing off before finishing.

"Something happened," Eve blurted out anxiously. "Didn't it?"

"Yes," he said hesitantly, looking down at the floor. Messy strands of loose hair fell over his face, which was already starting to have a shadow of his beard growing back.

Eve glanced behind him. It was quiet, but James was paranoid. At the same time, she didn't totally blame him for being paranoid, given that he was targeted.

"Do you feel safe here?" she asked.

"I don't feel safe anywhere," James said quietly, and though the admission was sad, it seemed honest.

"I know, but..." Eve took a deep breath. "I want to help, but I can't if you don't tell me anything."

Without saying a word, he brought his hand out from behind his back. Opening up his fist, he revealed several small devices in his palm. Eve immediately recognized them.

The room had been bugged. Bugged.

But even more concerning, she noticed that somehow, James's entire thumb had returned to its normal skin-tone, but the rest of his hand remained pink.

Eve couldn't help but stare, slowly making sense of this. Dread set in her stomach. Like an infectious desnse, paranoia began to sink in as well.

James held his other pointer finger up to his lips, briefly tapping the tip of his nose.

"I know," he said. "But some things are better left in the dark."

Eve felt her jaw tighten, and she had to force it to relax, steeling her nerves as she glued her eyes on the bug. She took a deep breath.

They had to be smart about this.

"Are you sure, James? I really think you should tell me what's wrong," she said, hoping he would pick up her silent cues.

James let out a small sigh, and his shoulders sagged. Looking down into his hand for a moment, he looked like he was pondering an answer, or perhaps, pondering who was listening.

"I had a nightmare," he said. "I woke up in the middle of the night, and wasn't able to fall back asleep."

Eve thought about continuing on the lies. Continue on playing this to their advantage. Continue to use wit and ingenuity to one-up the listeners.

But that was difficult-- no, impossible-- if the listeners were the Trieus. The Trieus, who could predict actions well before one could even form a comprehensive thought, and who likely already knew that this bug would be found.

If it was found, they wanted it to be found. They wanted drama. They wanted a show. They wanted to see what actions each person would take given a specific scenario, and this was no different. They were lab rats, tested for their psychological state of mind and executive function.

This truly was no different.

What Oliver once again failed to predict, though, was herself.

Eve stormed to the kitchen, swishing open their cabinet doors, rummaging through the same shelf where her cabin held a hefty cast iron skillet. It was at the same location, just one shelf down. She pulled it out, weighing it with both her hands.

And then she stormed back towards James, ignoring his silent confusion and instead ripping the bug out of his hands. She slammed it on the floor, smashing the skillet again and again, not stopping until the device had been smashed to bits, scattering across the floor.

Huffing with deep breaths, Eve felt satisfied, setting the pan gently on the counter. She turned back to James with a steely expression. He was watching here with wide eyes and raised brows, but he didn't look judgemental. Just surprised.

"If there's one, there's more. Let's find them," she said cooly.

"Let me get Shane," he said, nodding slightly. "I'll be back in a few minutes. Wait here."
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urbanhart says...

It wasn't like he fully lost consciousness. If Aaron held on tight enough, he could, for lack of a better way to phrase it, spectate from his own eyes. But it always felt like something feral, something 'other than', was fueling him, and he had little say over the matter of what he actually did once transformed.

So the destroyed bakery when he finally snapped out of it wasn't a total shock. Neither were his torn clothes. Just a severe disappointment.

Through the shattered window, he could see the still-darkened sky.

Heartrate spiking, Aaron frantically scanned the shop for the time. The third day of the week had yet to dawn, but it was fast approaching.

With a disgusted groan, he looked down at himself. His coat was still in-tact, but he was really only half-decent due to the ruined state of his attire. Not to mention he was bloodied and covered in...whatever it was that he got into. Pastries and things.

Not only were there eyes affixed on every corner of the island, a handful of the other contestants were prone to night-time wandering. There was no way he could slip back into his cabin unseen, even if it was dark.

Hissing out a resigned curse, Aaron hoped there might be some sort of uniform in the back.

As luck would have it, there was a small locker unit. Unlocked, and filled with a few spares of miscellaneous goods. Including clothes.

Less fortunately, it appeared that the bakery primarily employed giants. Because, when he unfurled one of the shirts, the hem dropped nearly down to his knees.

Aaron sighed. Well, at least he had something eat.

~ ~ ~

The climb back up the vines to the hallway window was always less treacherous than the climb down. That said, Aaron was hesitant to touch them because there still remained...residue from the transformation.

As silently as he could, he padded down the hall. Again, with a deep grimace at the trail he'd left. He'd have to scrub the blood from the wood before any of his cabin mates woke or emerged, or whatever verb applied.

Not even for two seconds did Aaron get to stand in his room in peace, before his bedroom floor seemed to move of its own volition.

Unannounced, Jay began to flicker through the floor, floating up as a ghostly apparition. But this time wearing goggles.

Clutching at his thundering heart, Aaron stumbled back and locked the door.

"Shit," he hissed lowly at Jay, "would it kill you to knock?"

"Maybe," Jay said, taking the goggles off his head as he materialized. "Never tried."

Just as he was about to shoot back a retort, Aaron stopped himself short.

"Oh!" he realized, "the goggles! Excellent. We may proceed to actually procuring ourselves a euphorbia, or something akin to it." Tilting his head, Aaron then asked, "Did obtaining them go smoothly? The chemist never seems to sleep."

Jay held the goggles in his hand, looking Aaron up and down for a moment with a very judgmental look. But he didn't comment.

"She wasn't sleeping," Jay said. "So instead of stealing, I asked politely to borrow them. She didn't bother asking why, either. So here."

Jay tossed him the goggles. A full second delayed, Aaron reached out a shaky hand to catch them. The goggles hit the floor with an unenthusiastic "thonk".

Jay stared at the goggles for a second, then looked up at Aaron.

"So... how was last night?" Jay asked.

Aaron glared half-heartedly, fully aware of how he and the room looked-- hyperaware, in fact. "I'm sure you can piece that together yourself," he answered curtly.

"I can piece together what happened, sure," Jay said. "You left, and you shifted."

He frowned, looking annoyed as he looked off to the side with a sigh.

"I was asking how you're doing," Jay said with a huff, folding his arms.

Aaron felt his own glare melt with confusion. Was it not also obvious that his night was absolute hell?

He blinked at Jay. "I survived," he said simply.

Jay pursed his lips.

"Right," he said.

And there was a long, awkward silence as Jay stood there with his arms folded, saying nothing as he merely looked at Aaron with a deep frown.

"You should... eat," Jay said stiffly, one of his eyes twitching.

Brow furrowing, Aaron tilted his head and slowly answered, "I did." Then awkwardly added as he looked askance, "Uhm... thanks."

"I mean something normal," Jay said, a little sharper. "Not whatever you ate last night."

A pause.

"You look like shit. You should shower too."

Aaron dumbly looked back down at himself. Then mustered some annoyance as he half-heartedly shot back, "I know I look like shit. God..."

He figured Jay would just show himself out whenever, so Aaron didn't bother saying anything about it as he turned to the closet off to the side. With some hesitation, he shed his coat and tossed it aside. Then pointedly dug through the duffle in the closet, trying to silently emphasize that he did in fact have a wardrobe.

Jay let out a groan. When Aaron looked over his shoulder, Jay had turned away, but was still there.

With a bundle of clean clothes in his arms, Aaron looked back to Jay with a slight frown. Maybe he did need to explicitly kick him out, then.

"You can just," he started, awkwardly but with an edge to his tone as he waved a hand vaguely, "float back to your room now."

Jay turned, looking at Aaron with a flash of... something other than disappointment and annoyance. It was hard to tell what it was though. Especially since he only ever wore disappointment and annoyance.

"If I leave, you're just going to pass out on your floor and forget to meet any of your basic needs," Jay said flatly.

Aaron huffed defensively. "I will not!"

"I've watched you live in the same outfit for a week straight," Jay said. "Self-care is not in your compendium of life skills."

Frown deepening, Aaron set a hand on his side. "And why do you care?" he retorted, trying to maintain an irritated front. "What difference does it make to you?"

Jay's eye twitched again, and he stuttered briefly.

"Just... meet me downstairs in a few minutes," Jay huffed in frustration. "There's food in the kitchen."

Not waiting for a reply, Jay fell through the floor, disappearing.

Aaron blankly stared at the spot where Jay once stood.

Well, that. Explained nothing.

Squinting at the floor, Aaron tapped his chin in thought, determined to get to the bottom of this strange change in behavior.

After hastily showering off the night's events and changing into clean clothes, Aaron opted to abandon his coat for now. It was in desperate need of washing as well, but he didn't want to cause much more a commotion than he already had.

Following the scent of cooking eggs, Aaron shuffled into the kitchen. He watched silently for a moment as Jay moodily stabbed at and stirred a giant pan on the stove. It was a wonder that he didn't spill any of the food with all his sharp, angry movements.

Unsure of how to even approach the spectre in such a mood, Aaron just made his way to the chairs by the kitchen island.

Jay took the pan off the heat, and he slid the pile of scrambled eggs onto a large plate, spinning around to plop it in front of Aaron. He reached into a drawer and pulled out a fork, stabbing it into the eggs and leaving it there.

"Eat," Jay said simply.

"Why," Aaron said back.

"Because you're always hungry!" Jay said with a huff.

"But I already ate," Aaron reiterated.

"Eat the eggs," Jay said again, more firmly.

Lips pursed, Aaron studied him with slightly narrowed eyes. "Which are not laced with anything."

He didn't actually suspect Jay to do such a thing to him. But that was what he found odd to begin with, and he needed to see what was going on there.

"I'm offended you would even think so," Jay said. "I made you food. It's a gift. Just take it!"

After a brief silence, Aaron softly snorted at Jay's irritation. He took up the fork and asked, "Why does that offend you?" And finally took his first bite.

Jay frowned again, hopping up onto the stool across from him.

"I'm not going to poison you," he said. "I don't know why you'd think that."

Aaron started shoveling the eggs into his mouth, now that his appetite had ramped up once more. And he found it a good way to stall, since he wasn't sure how to articulate at first.

"I don't," he eventually answered between bites, "not really. But you confuse me."

Once his plate was completely cleared, Aaron had nothing else to look at other than the fork in his hand. So he just stared at it as he went on, "You invade my personal living space, you're rude to me, you laugh when I fall. And yet you tell me to shower, and gift me with scrambled eggs." He shrugged. "I haven't given you any reason to...act this way. So what's your reasoning? Do you want something from me?"

Jay's brows furrowed, and he looked at Aaron like he was the one being weird in this situation.

"Normal people take care of each other," he said. Then after a beat: "I'm just not nice about it. Sorry. It's a side-effect of my personality."

Idly tapping his fork to the edge of the dish, Aaron looked up at Jay, tempted to ask once more, "Why? Why me?"

Instead, he lamely countered, "But we're not normal."

"Yeah, well, that's obvious," Jay said. "But you don't try to be. Me? I'm at least trying. So... stop being all weird about it when I just... you know..."

The rest of Jay's words turned into an incomprehensible mumble.

"Right," Aaron murmured with the barest of smiles, "you're at least trying."

One of them had to appear somewhat normal, he supposed.

Jay pressed his lips together, looking awkward as he looked off to the side.

"Anyway," Jay said. "Do you have everything you need, now? With the goggles?"

"Ah." Aaron blinked. "Yes, we're all set now. We may now-- soon resume our search in relative safety. From the plants."

"Cool. Well... after you rest or whatever, we can do that," Jay said. "You know where I'm at."

Aaron nodded sharply. "Yes, good. Good plan."

"Good," Jay said.

After a short pause, Aaron set his fork down and mumbled, "Thank you. For the..." And gestured vaguely at his plate.

"Don't mention it," Jay said. But then reiterated: "Seriously. Don't."

Hopping off the stool, Jay began to flicker and fade - a sight Aaron was only barely getting used to.

"Knock on my door when you're ready," he said.

And without another word, Jay disappeared.

Aaron sat with the silence and his empty plate, feeling quite odd. He wasn't sure what to do with... 'normal' people stuff. And he wasn't sure that he wanted to invest the energy in 'trying'. But he felt now that he ought to. In the spirit of... keeping things even between them, he ultimately decided he might try.

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urbanhart says...

So. Eating enough food for three armies with only Cyrin for support was...slightly regrettable. Suffice to say, lunch was never an option.

Once he and Cyrin had cleaned up the kitchen-- there was no way they were going to let Alan clean it by himself later-- Lyall popped out to pay his sister another visit.

As he approached the ladies' cabin, he caught sight of Miss Clanny just disappearing into the alpaca stable. And just when he was about to walk up to the cabin to knock, the front door opened, Miss Eve stepping out instead.

"Oh. Hello," she greeted, closing the door behind her, hesitating in place as she glanced at the now-closed door behind her. "Were you looking for someone?"

As Lyall put on an easy grin, it occurred to him that he hadn't had much opportunity to better acquaint himself with Eve. And Hild hadn't much to say about the woman, other than that she had studied math and was incredibly artistic. Basic things that suggested that Hild and Eve were not in the habit of spending much time together.

Eve was often on her own intently drawing everyone else. Anytime he did come within a ten-foot radius of the mathematical artist, Lyall was able to read a rather severe sense of guardedness in her steel-colored eyes. So it made sense that the woman had Hild's respect.

Hands tucked in his pockets, he airily greeted, "Good afternoon, Miss Eve! I was, in fact, just about to inquire after my sister's whereabouts."

"She left this morning but hasn't been back since, to my knowledge. If it helps, Hild went off to find Dante," Eve answered evenly.

"What a coincidence," Lyall mused aloud, tilting his head in thought. "Alan hasn't been back since he likewise set out in search of Dante."

Eve stared back, seemingly unsure what to say. She nodded. "He's your cabin mate. I'm sure you can ask him for answers. I apologize for not knowing anymore."

And with that, she locked the door, going down the porch steps past Lyall and dismissing herself from the conversation.

"No need for apologies," Lyall politely called after her, mustering a small smile at her quickly-retreating back. "You were quite a help, and I thank you!"

Eve only glanced back with a pull of her lips and a nod in recognizing his thanks, already walking away. But not away from the cabins completely; she was heading towards the bird cabin. Most likely to see James.

Hm. Come to think of it, Lyall himself hadn't seen hide nor tail of James since the week began. He wondered if that was any cause for concern. He might have to drop by as well sometime, if this MIA pattern persisted.

Which reminded him, he had that meet up with Clarity that they'd agreed upon. He didn't expect her to be nearly so gung-ho about it as she seemed during the festival, but Lyall figured he was already here and might as well re-extend the offer now that they were both sober.

Which reminded him of the vitamin shots that she'd concocted for Alan. They were quite effective! And, as far as Lyall could tell, left no side effects, so her work was to be trusted.

He wondered if she and Aaron Keller found any opportunities to connect. The small bespectacled man had interests relating to pharmaceutical sciences. Which could be considered a type of branch within chemistry, right? But he wondered about them only briefly, since Aaron never seemed to emerge from his cabin either.

Hm. Maybe Lyall won't be seeing Clarity today. She might've holed herself up with her work again, as Hild had said she was wont to do. He was familiar with the phenomenon of tunnel-visioning on work. In fact, his family constantly ragged on him for it.

Oh! Maybe he might be able to reach Kaya in the meantime. He took out his phone and-- Oh, drat. He wasn't sure if she was busy. Far later into the evening was the better time to try, that was when she was usually done with work.

Although, Vik might be able to--

"Oh, well if it isn't Mister Lyall Ashlund himself, all ready to see me!" a familiar voice said behind him with a giggle. "I was just looking for you! That's a funny coincidence. Dinner is meant to be now."

Looking up, Lyall was caught by mild surprise to find none other than Miss Mel already at his side. With her curly hair and ruffly skirt bouncing as she hopped to a stop, she smiled with her usual, infectious enthusiasm.

He put on a friendly grin of his own and greeted warmly, "Miss Mel! It's wonderful to see you again. Is it indeed suppertime already?"

"Mmmm no. But who cares, we make the rules, and I say yes," Mel said with a bright smile. "Are you free? I was thinking we could go to the plaza and get some food. It's bottomless mimosa hour somewhere, probably. I can make it happen." She grinned, swiping curly hair behind her shoulder. "Perks of being an island employee~"

He had to suppress an audible groan at just the concept of eating or drinking. "Sadly, I don't think I have another meal in me at the moment," he answered with a regretful pat to his stomach. "But I'll definitely take the excellent company."

"And that's all I ask!" Mel chirped. "I can't lie, I'm soooo hungry. But if you don't mind me chowing away, we can go to the plaza and find a spot right now. What do you say?"

Lyall grinned brightly and swept an arm toward the porch steps. "After you."

~ ~ ~

"Oh my gosh, finally! That took so long! Yesssss," Mel said excitedly, silverware out as a robot served her food.

The robot slid a plate of toasted whole-grain bread with slices of smoked salmon, cream cheese, dill, and cherry tomato slices. A strawberry mimosa was also served for Mel, while strawberry lemonade was served for Lyall.

"Are you sure you don't want anything? You can have a bite if you want. I don't mind sharing!" Mel said with a breezy smile.

Taking up his glass, Lyall tipped it with an appreciative smile. "I promise you, I'm alright with just a drink. I suspect this morning Cyrin and I both ate enough to last us an entire season of hibernation."

Mel snorted, nearly choking on her drink from taking a sip of the mimosa. She covered her mouth with her palm, biting back a laugh. "What, why? Are you secretly a bear?"

Laughing, Lyall took an experimental sip of his lemonade. "No," he answered lightly, "and I suspect I haven't even an ounce of 'bear' energy."

Mel giggled.

Lyall glanced up at the thatched roof of the eatery in thought. "Y'know, I'd classify Cyrin more as a...sort of sighthound, since we're giving it some actual thought."

Mel hummed. "True. They're agile and smart, just like Cyrin. You, though..." She paused in slicing her meal with the knife, narrowing her eyes at him. "You'd be a poodle."

Arching a brow, he grinned. "I suspect I already know why, but I'm willing to hear out your line of reasoning."

"Well, I'd be a poodle too, and you're cute and poofy, just like me!" Mel said with a sunny grin, swishing her curly hair behind her shoulder. "Plus they're hypoallergenic. No one can be allergic to you. They're really the best dogs."

Ah. Al-- alright.

Snorting, he conceded, "Okay, so I wasn't fully correct in my assumption."

The matter of 'allergies' to him as a person was... debatable. He'd accepted that about himself, though, he knew he was a tough personality to be close to.

Lyall opted to gloss over that. "Well, I do heartell they are an intelligent breed. So I'll say you've chosen well for us."

"Hmmm, true. But I wouldn't say poodles are the smartest. I mean, don't get me wrong, they're smart and cute, but there are way smarter dogs." She shrugged, picking up a bite with her fork and waving it in front of her. "You are a clever little rascal, though, Doc!"

He blew a raspberry at that. "'Little'," he echoed playfully, "I'll have you know, madame, that I am average height."

Mel giggled at that. "Totally, me too."

His grin turned flat. "Came for a good time..." he murmured, shaking his head in feigned regret.

Mel's smile turned playful as she ate her first bite of her meal, waving her fork around again. "Okay, but really, were you that hungover that you had to eat a ginormous meal?"

"To be honest," Lyall answered, picking up his glass again, "there was absolutely no need for it. Aside from avoiding food waste." He took another sip. "Alvaro took it upon himself to cook enough to feed a small country."

Mel hummed, taking another bite. "Was he hungover?" The playful grin returned as she held back another giggle. "Who am I kidding. He was too busy all night to be hungover."

Lyall may or may not have choked on his drink at that. Clearing his throat, he set his cup back down. "I'm not sure what came over him this morning," he answered instead, "because he didn't eat a scrap of it."

In fact, Alan had fled practically the instant Lyall first showed his face for the day. Made him wonder how long the musician had been awake leading up to the brunch hurricane.

Mel hummed again, still grinning, but looking up in thought. "Maybe he ate breakfast in bed. It must have been a biiiiig meal."

He was fairly certain that was another innuendo, but he was frankly too scared to confirm.

"He's been troubled since the festival," Lyall went on quickly. At first to simply redirect the conversation, but then out of genuine concern once he'd said it. "As we all have."

Mel nodded, cutting up another piece of her toast. "Yeah, that festival was insane. I hope you guys are all processing with one another."

The next beat of silence that followed was...awkward for him, since he was supposed to answer. But he didn't have one to offer.

Mel narrowed her eyes at him suspiciously. "You did all process together. Right? Aren't you and your cabin mates, like, good friends?"

"Friends," Lyall said, half agreeing, half amending. "Of approximately two weeks, mind you."

"Well, yeah, it's not like I said you're all best friends," Mel huffed. "Still. What does two weeks have anything to do with this? You all suffered through that weird event together."

A little defensively, Lyall conceded, "Alright, fine. I mean. Cyrin and I spoke over brunch, so. We have that."

Mel stared at him. "...What? Really? That's it? What did you do, like, literally all of yesterday and earlier today?"

He didn't owe Miss Mel any explanations, he thought with maybe a smidge of petulance. But she was concerned, or at the very least invested, and it would be rude to just dismiss her questions.

Drawing in a breath, Lyall drummed his fingers on the table. "I just needed some time and distance to think."

"Do you need some more time and distance, you think?" she asked.

"I..." He shrugged. "While preferable, I do realize that that is no longer productive by this point."

"I get that," Mel said with a shrug, swallowing another bite. "Well! If that's no longer productive, you can totally process with me, if you'd like. Up to you, though."

Lyall looked back to Mel, admittedly with the slightest hint of distrust. "Thank you," he said politely, "but I think it best I don't weigh you down with my inner-most thoughts."

Mel raised a brow. "Try me. I'm basically impossible to weigh down."

"I--" He sighed. Bouncing a leg, he briefly and subtly glanced at the camera pointed their way from the corner of the eatery.

Mel squinted at him, following his gaze. "Oh, are you worried about the cameras?" She blew out a raspberry, hand waving out in front of her. "No need. I am the montage, so I can make sure this doesn't come up at the recap. Plus, that's a stationary camera, not the live feed. I can talk to film crew to not use this footage." She smiled at the camera, holding out a peace sign. "You're good."

Lyall nodded slowly, and mustered a sincere smile. "I... I thank you kindly, Miss Mel."

That truly did put him more at ease, and he it was no longer a question of if he would open up to her. It was just a matter of what he'd delve into now.

"No problem!" Mel said cheerfully. "So, what's on your mind?"

A loaded question. With a million answers.

He opted for one that seemed most appropriate, given their current context.

"This whole..." he began, waving a vague, slightly irritated hand. "The island. The chaotic events, whilst we've been strangely idle. Considering this is the 'test of our lives'." He looked curiously to Mel. "Do you have magic, by the way? I've been curious."

Mel beamed, then waved a finger in front of her. A plump, cartoonish yellow star floated around Lyall's head, spinning around and leaving a glowing trail of neon that faded within a second. He'd watched it dance around with an awed smile, then blinked away the lingering light it left behind.

"Illusion magic. How'd you think I gave you that fancy suit when I brought you in as my co-host? Magic, of course!" She dropped her hand, the illusion fading with it. "You'll get tested. Everyone who goes through the DMV does. The island is just weird 'cause everything is being televised, so they're probably drawing it out. But I doubt they'd skip out on this. They're the DMV, after all. That's, like, their whole purpose."

"Ah," he said, trying not to sigh. "So. Just give it time."

Not his forte, but what other choice did he have?

Although, there was that mansion right on the hill...

"Mmhmm! Is that really what's on your mind, though? You're impatient that they're not testing you fast enough?" Mel asked.

At this, he did audibly sigh and mustered a small grin. "Part of it, I suppose," he relented. "All of this existing for the sake of entertainment is...slowly turning troublesome. Lives hang in the balance, you know? And now toying with our minds and what we consume is no longer off the table..."

Lyall really wasn't sure how to navigate this conversation. Which felt like a first.

He leaned an elbow on the table between them. "I don't...have time for this," he said quietly. "For them to simply play with my life, when I have folks and work back home whom I can't really afford to neglect."

Which honestly wouldn't be such a source of worry if he could simply talk to Kaya. At least once, after the festival fiasco! Just so he could directly tell her he was fine, that they were fine.

"Aw, sorry, Lyall. Hang in there. You have people rooting for you-- including me. It's not all bad," Mel said gently, offering a little smile.

Drawing in a breath, Lyall nodded with a slightly encouraged grin of his own. "I do appreciate that, Miss Mel. Thank you."

"Of course! I sadly don't really have a lot of time with the contestants, so happy to talk things through with you. What else is on your mind?" Mel asked, taking another bite.

"Ah, no," he said, voice taking on a slightly teasing edge, "this shan't become some sort of therapy session. This will be an equal exchange!" Taking up his glass, Lyall tipped it her way. "How about you? You seem to be everywhere, constantly as the face of the show. How is that treating you?"

"This conversation isn't transactional, silly! I just wanted to know," Mel said with a smile and half-roll of her eyes, waving her fork with salmon around. "But yes, life's been pretty good, actually. It's not like I woke up and said, 'You know what, I'd love to work with the DMV'-- but they offered me a job that's soooo good for my career. I get to pick and design outfits for everyone, coordinate and decorate all the events, and organize a weekly montage show! It's been fun, ignoring the fact that I feel really bad for you guys. But if I go off-script, I'm sure I'd get fired." She shrugged. "Just have to be clever about it. And you're pretty clever, keeping up with my energy and all."

Ah, right. Career advancement was one of many things the DMV had the power to deliver.

Tilting his head, Lyall grinned with amusement. "Well, it takes two to have a sharp-witted back and forth." He nodded toward her. "What do you do for a career, anyhow?"

"Event planning, fashion apparel, and design," Mel answered, poking at him in the air with her fork. "What about you, Doc?"

He huffed, a bit wryly, and answered, "I'm more of a nurse and glorified secretary, rolled into one. I'll accept the nickname, though!"

"Oh, you're a nurse?" Mel hummed, grinning again. "I think I'll design a nurse outfit for you, then."

Lyall barked a surprised, slightly embarrassed laugh at that.

"And it'll be soooooo hot," Mel teased. "You know. Because of your magic."

Still snickering, he had to put his drink back down. "I'll politely decline," he said, "please! Anything but that."

Mel hummed again, tapping her chin. "There's always that sexy cowboy outfit you denied. I think I could even get Kroks to sponsor us again."

Lyall covered his face with his hands. "That's somehow worse," he half-sighed, half-laughed. Setting his hands down in his lap, he barely managed to recompose himself as he suggested, "You said something about a...'super suit' fairly recently. Is that truly a possibility?"

Mel's eyes sparkled at the mention, the excitement returning. "Oh, yes! I can totally design that for you. I'd have to ask Maeve to enchant it since she's been the one running all the crazy magic around here, but I don't see why she'd deny that. I think you'd look sooooo cool with it!"

Huh. The director of the DMV? He'd probably already burned any potential bridge with the vice president on the first day, but... He wondered how accessible the director would be?

He put on another easy grin. "If it's not too much of a trouble, I would actually deeply appreciate something like that, yes." He bounced his leg again and added curiously, "Are you often in direct contact with Trieu?"

"Directly? Hardly ever, actually. I ask Mireya, who relays information to Maeve, who then relays it back to me. Or I email. But I'm pretty sure all her emails get relayed to Mireya anyways, so." Mel shrugged. "They're busy people, so it's no big deal. I can definitely get you that supersuit, though! My request will just have to work its way up through the chain of command."

Lyall tsked with a slight frown. "Given all your current duties, it's a real shame you have to jump through such hoops for the greenlight."

"Oh, it's fine. Such is the corporate life," Mel said with a giggle. "But okay, enough about me, Mister I'm-transactional-in-my-conversations. Let's talk about you! How are you really holding up?"

"Miss Mel," he whined playfully, grin turning pointed, "I've had my fill of talking about myself. You know so much about me already, anyhow, and I'd like to get to you know you a little better. If only you'd allow me to!"

Mel rolled her eyes. "Fiiiiiine. You win. But only because you're such a gentleman."

He smiled victoriously. "Well, how about your personal life, then? Are there any troubles likewise weighing on your mind?"

"Pssh. There's always trouble," Mel huffed. "Let's see... I've got so many things I have to do to coordinate for the weekend, and we ran out of pumpkins, so we have to send in a barge to send more. I'm also getting so sick of kale. Eugh! It's supposed to be a diet superfood or whatever, but it tastes like baby barf. And gosh, don't get me started on the men here. Why are the cute boys either gay or taken? Ugh! I'm so sick of it! I'd be all over Bo if he wasn't married with a kid-- but also, his kid is so cute, so I can't be mad. Cas is cute, too, but I think he's older? I dunno, he's kind of spacey sometimes, but that's not a bad thing! I just have a lot of energy and want someone to feed off it. Ethan is super cute too, but I feel like I've seen him wear a ring before. Is he married? I have no idea, but why would he take it off? That seems suspicious. And Dante is also gorgeous and he is soooo sweet! But man, can he not take a hint?! Ugh. It's like he's all work, no play-- even during his days off."

She blew out a raspberry, slumping back on her chair.

"Boys! You can't get enough of them, but you also get sick of them," she finished.

Nodding slowly, Lyall hummed as he tried his best to take it all in. "Oh, wow," he murmured with empathy, "you've really searched this island high and low, haven't you? I'm sorry it's been a tough search."

Mel shrugged, scooping up another bite with her fork. "Part of the dating experience, I guess. Luckily, you've already found yours." She was about to bring her fork to her mouth, but stopped just before she did, playfully grinning. "But in another universe, I'm sure Cyrin would say you're real attractive too," she finished with a giggle. "Especially with your super suit. You'd look so smokin'."

Lyall stared dumbly at her. Opened his mouth to say something, then snapped it shut. Then tried, "I don't-- Why would--" And devolved immediately into undignified stammering.

All the while, Mel smiled innocently at him as she took her next bite.

"I don't," he tried again, heat rising to his face, "see...how Cyrin is relevant. To that. This."

Mel tilted her head at him with a smile, finally swallowing down her too-big bite. "I'm just teasing you, silly. I know you're with Kaya."

"Right," he agreed, with a little more force than necessary, "I am. So I'm not sure--"

Nope, no. He knew what Mel was referring to.

"Hm?" Mel's teasing smile turned more curious and confused as she squinted at him. "Not sure about... what?"

With a wilty smile that felt really more like a grimace, Lyall barely managed to meet her eyes now. "You're referring to the...festival, aren't you?"

"Yes...?" Mel answered, growing more suspicious by the second.

He didn't know what to make of her tone, either. Was that... It was an intentional reference? But she didn't seem to catch-- or, she was just now catching onto his discomfort pertaining to the subject.

And now he didn't know how to withdraw from the subject.

Lyall cleared his throat as he scrambled for a way to recover. "Right, well," he said with forced breeziness, "that's only if it's given the go-ahead, anyway."

It was too late. Mel had latched on to her suspicions, and Lyall had a feeling that no amount of backpedaling was going to dissuade her from letting the tension go.

"Wait, wait, wait. Why were you being so weird about this? Something's up. What are you not telling me?" she said, narrowing her eyes at him even more.

He shook his head. "No no, it's alright. We don't have to...delve into everything at once." He shrugged. "We can just! Pace ourselves, the conversation!"

"Uh, okay," Mel said with a faint laugh, setting her fork down and picking up her drink instead. "Then maybe spill the tea slowly?"

He'd rather not spill the tea at any rate, thank you very much.

"...I don't know how to," he relented honestly. "I don't...fully understand it myself."

"Understand what?" Mel asked. "Maybe I can help. What are you feeling weird about? Is it... the supersuit? The hotness? Boys? Cyrin? Kaya? Marriage? Something else?"

"Yes, that--" Lyall almost smacked himself for his own foolish response. Because one doesn't just answer 'yes' to a multiple choice question. Instead, he waved both arms helplessly. "I mean-- The festival!"

"Like, in general?" Mel pressed, still guessing. "Or are we talking about your come-to-Yeezus moment with Cyrin?"

Lyall choked on air and squeaked, "My what with Cyrin?"

Mel giggled. "Lyall, really, what's bothering you?"

He blinked at her and quietly said, "Apparently my...moment with Cyrin." He ran a hand through his hair as he ducked his head. "I haven't...been able to sustain a conversation with him for longer than 10 minutes. Even though we feel fine and normal, it doesn't feel fine and normal to me because I'm fairly sure he still remembers that disaster of a conversation as well. What am I supposed to--" Lyall wildly waved both hands again. "I just want it to be normal! Everything in my cabin changed in the blink of an eye!"

Mel slowly blinked at him before falling into another grin. "What! Lyall, that's what you're worried about?" she said with a quiet giggle. "Oh my gosh, you've been worried sick for nothing. Cyrin and I go back. My dads have designed some of their clothes, and so do I! I call him hot all the time. He calls me cute in return. There's nothing weird about it." She shrugged. "He's a celebrity. They're used to being called hot, attractive, whatever. I really doubt they're worried about that. It's only weird if you make it weird, and sorry, Lyall-- you're making it weird."

...Mel and Cyrin were already well-acquainted? Blinking, Lyall simply tucked that away for later consideration.

"I... I know I am." Shaking his head slightly, he answered with an oddly awkward-feeling smile, "And that's all well and good for...you two, but I'm. I don't have such thoughts. I'm not... supposed to think like that."

Because that was just another thing fundamentally wrong with him to add to the list.

Mel quirked a brow. "What do you mean, you're not supposed to think like that? There's nothing wrong with thinking people are attractive."

He hesitated. "Well, no. In and of itself..."

This was a harder point to get across than he thought. Since they didn't seem to be on the same page anyway, he was leaning toward simply abandoning the topic altogether.

But of course, abandoning the topic wasn't on Mel's radar.

"So why are you being so weird about this?" she pressed, now starting to get defensive herself. She frowned, scrunching her brows. "Oh, god. Don't tell me you're one of those people who think gay people are wrong. Ugh, Lyall, pleeeeeease tell me you're not homophobic, or I swear..."

"Oh my god," Lyall said hastily, blanching, "no, that's not at all what I'm trying to convey here!"

"So what is it? You're being so weird!" Mel huffed.

Feeling utterly defeated, Lyall threw his hands skyward. "It's-- it's fine! Really, I don't mind it! And finding people attractive in general isn't the issue." He emphatically gestured to himself. "Being attracted to... other men just isn't an option for me. But no one else seems to understand that. Or, if they do, then it feels like it's being intentionally misconstrued to put my actual relationship with Kaya in jeopardy!"

Mel slowly set her drink down, processing. Fortunately, the defensiveness seemed to have faded away completely, but she was still trying to understand and get on the same page as him.

"You know you can think people are attractive while being in a relationship. You know that, right?" she said evenly, meeting his eyes. "It's so normal to think this. And there's nothing wrong with it. You're only human, after all. The difference here is acting upon these thoughts. But the fleeting thought that someone's nice to the eyes? That's totally harmless."

He really didn't know how else to explain it anymore. Logically, he knew all that. That wasn't the problem, though.

Completely out of indirect ways to say it, Lyall set his hands on the table and said with some frustration, "I'm supposed to be straight, Mel, but now I'm completely discombobulated."

The impatience instantly faded. "Oh," she said, sitting back on her chair, contemplating. "Oh." She paused, pursing her lips, then pouted at him. "Why, why didn't you say so to begin with?" she huffed.

"I--" He frowned. "...I don't know."

"It's fine!" Mel said cheerily with a smile. "But. Okay. This is huge. Like, huuuuge. How many people have you told?"

Lyall couldn't help but pout as he wilted. "How huge?" he whined. "I don't have time for these kinds of revelations."

Mel glanced to their side, towards the empty plaza. "Didn't you say earlier you had too much time on your hands?"

Ah, shite.

"I--" he started, but found he didn't have an actual rebuttal.

Shit, shit, shit.

"I'm not trying to attack you or make you uncomfortable, so I'm sorry if this is hard for you," Mel said, more gently this time with a small smile. "But what I can give you is undying support, especially because I think you should own who you are and be the cool person that you are! I can't force you to get there, though. I know we're still getting to know one another, but." She shrugged. "It's up to you. Personally, this sounds like a big revelation, and you really should process with someone about it, whether it's me or someone else. That's just my opinion though."

For a silent moment, he let her supportive words sink in. Let her warmth lower his guard. Then he sighed.

"I didn't...mean to get defensive," Lyall murmured, deflating. "You're right. And I deeply appreciate you bearing with me."

"I definitely didn't expect this afternoon to turn to an identity crisis, but hey, I'm here for you! I just don't think you should keep this all in. I'd go crazy if I did."

"This certainly has taken an unexpected turn," Lyall agreed quietly, briefly glancing back at the camera in the far corner. Looking back to Mel, he huffed through his nose with a small grin. "I can see exactly why they put you on interviews. You're quite tenacious, and I once again thank you for being so patient with me."

Mel smiled, pushing her nearly-empty plate and drink out of the way, making room to perch her elbows on the table, so she could hold her head in her hands. "I'm so flattered. Please continue. With your story, I mean."

His smile faltered a little, and he obliged, "Right, well. True, I have an excess of time now. But it's all a... It feels like a waste thus far, because there's much that needs doing at home." Waving both hands, he shook his head. "It's neither here nor there, however. I am where I am now, and there's little I can do to change it at the moment."

Mel sat still, head still perched in her hands, smiling at him. Not replying. Waiting.

Her silence prompted him to further, "With nothing to do presently, the tension, the apprehension of not being able to help out back home is that much more...prominent. It's all I can feel. Same with not being able to talk with Kaya. We seem to keep missing each other, or...signals get jammed, I don't know. I can't get a hold of her, and I really just want to be able to tell her that none of this is going to change us. That we're fine--"


He didn't need a good signal to tell her that in real time. This was all being broadcasted! He'd just have to find a way to communicate one-way-ish for now, until connectivity can get fixed.

Clapping his hands together, Lyall grinned wide at Mel. "I've got my solution," he said victoriously. "Sort of. More a vague idea of a solution, I have to work out the logistics. But I'm not completely out of options yet!"

Mel blinked, letting out a soft laugh before grinning. "Um. Okay! That's good, right?"

"Incredibly!" Lyall confirmed brightly. "I thank you once more for lending an ear, and for the drink. It was wonderful chatting with you, Miss Mel!"

Not waiting for a response since he needed to start brainstorming now, he leapt up, pressed a quick, chaste kiss to the top of her curly hair, and bolted out of the eatery.

"Thank you!" he called over his shoulder one last time as he ran.

He heard her giggle behind him. "Bye, Lyall! Good luck!" she called.

'This must be Thursday,' said Arthur to himself, sinking low over his beer. 'I never could get the hang of Thursdays.'
— Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy