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Island Magic

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Mon Nov 27, 2023 4:43 am
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Carina says...

What did Alan want?

What did he truly want? And more importantly, what was achievable? What was doable? What was attainable?

Alan woke up feeling disoriented, once again asking himself how he got here. He was in the cabin, but not in his room. He was in the living room. On the couch. In the dark. With a blanket over him. And a pillow under his head.

Lyall. He slept with Lyall.

No, not in that--

He cuddled with Lyall? No, that wasn't it either. Maybe?

Alan felt so... rested.

Now he had too much energy. And it was night now. How long was he asleep? Too long. Now he couldn't go back to sleep.

What did he want? What did he truly want?

Sleep. Or perhaps not.

Alan stood on his balcony, head angled up towards the night sky. It was a peaceful night. For all he knew, it was still 3:32am, since that was what his broken clock said.

Broken. It wasn't broken. He took the batteries out. He broke it. It wasn't born broken.

What did he want in life? Truly want?

Alan ran his fingers along the surface of his keyboard's keys, contemplating playing. The musical muse in him was quiet, now. The books he piled on the floor were beckoning to him, but he was in no mood to read. To sightread. To read other people's works. To live in their heads. Their story. Their works.

He wanted to tell his own story.

That was what he wanted.

What did that mean?

Hunger. Humans evolved from hunger. An insatiable thirst to feed, to survive. To keep living. It was what propelled humanity to evolve past their animalistic tendencies, developing brains and emotions and complexities that was one step above the voracious compulsion to be nourished.

Alan wasn't hungry. At least, not right now. But he knew he should eat. He was always hungry. His stupid, too-fast metabolism, preventing him from doing the things he enjoyed. Running. Fitness. Music. Time. Everything. Time was everything. He had no time to eat.

Alan played a chord, adjusting the volume so it was soft and wouldn't wake Cyrin or Lyall at this hour. The sound was discordant. Jarring. Unnatural. Uneasy.

It was perfect.

He played another discordant chord, this one with an extra note that made the chord sound too harsh, increasing the discordance.

No. This was imperfect. It was too much.

What did he want?

Sex. A completely natural, beautiful endeavor to maintain and preserve life. Like hunger, sex was a desire passed down through bloodline, but it was not unique to humans. The desire to procreate and pass down the biological genome transcended hunger across the animal kingdom.

It was forward-thinking. Humble. Selfless. To think of the future's needs over your own-- to think of your children, of the future generation. To find a partner and choose to become part of the process, leaving your mark in the world.

Natural. Natural, and beautiful. A basic human desire.

Alan played a minor chord, this one softer, this one harmonious.

There was something wrong with him, wasn't there?

Romance. This separated humans from animals, but romance was still driven by biological instinct. Children with parents who stayed together were more often likely to survive back then. It was all about surviorship. About preserving the human race. About living. About living a life past meager, insatiable hunger.

Human connection. It was coded in everyone's blood, to be wanted and desired. To keep on living. To eat. To feed. To connect. To make a family. To procreate. To embrace. To keep company.

How much of this was true today? How much of this was hardcoded in his DNA, and how much of this was societal construct? How much of this was human?

How much of this was natural? And more importantly, was the absence of any of these desires unnatural?

It would be strange and anomalous if a person lacked the desire to eat. There was something wrong with them. They should be medicated. They should go to therapy. They couldn't live a normal, fulfilling life without major drawbacks.

Alan played a louder note, minor and discordant again. He let the note fill the air until it completely faded into silence, his thoughts stepping into place instead.

Love. The final pillar to human connection. The beautiful instinct to cherish another person. To connect. To find fulfillment past hunger. It was a purpose in life. A basic desire to be met. To be loved by family. To be loved by friends. To be loved by another.

What was love, if it started from hunger?

Love evolved past sex and romance. It was sex and romance, combined. It was the final piece of the pyramid that made connection so fulfilling, beautiful, and harmonious.

If sex was a body and romance was the mind, then love was the soul that bridged the gap between them.

Love was the unity of mind, body, and soul. Love was the harmonious unification of these three pillars. Take one away, and it wasn't truly love.

So what was mind and soul, if not for the body? Was it truly love? Or was it only the ghostly idea of love, doomed to fail for anyone with a living, beating heart? Was this type of broken love only destined for the art, which could only be enjoyed through a medium outside the body?

Was Alan destined to join other desolate artists to create works that would outlive man, but to never grow to understand the impact they made, instead living a life of anguish? Was he destined to circle through a cycle of grief and heartache, breaking his heart over and over again, reminding himself that he was physically incapable of love?

It was cruel, what the DMV did. To give him the opportunity to freely love. To get a taste of what that was like.

And then to rip it all away, confirming every doubt he had about himself that there was something wrong with his brain chemistry.

Alan headdesked into the keyboard, sounding another ugly note, this one chaotic with no pattern or thought put into it. It rang out loudly, but without looking up, he fumbled through the buttons, turning off the keyboard.

He needed to get a grip of himself. Lyall was right. He needed to think about what he wanted. What he felt and wanted was important, too. Alan just didn't want to admit that what he truly wanted was impossible to achieve.

But such was life. Always raining harsh realites on the idealists, the optimists. Crushing them and forcing them to adapt.

Adapt. He needed to adapt.

What was he going to tell Shane?

What did he want...

Alan didn't know how long he sat by his balcony window, forehead against the glass as he stared out at the other cabins in view. Some lights were on. He wondered who else was up late at this infinitely long 3:32am time period.

Time could pause right now and it wouldn't matter. Alan would still be thinking about what he wanted and what he felt.

The sky was turning purple. Dawn was approaching, and finally, Alan settled on a final thought: he wanted to love.

He was cautious before. He was closing his heart to the idea because there was only so many fractures a heart could take before it became incapable of love. But if he was already incapable, did it even matter? Why even hold back? What was the point? He was making himself suffer for no reason.

Suffer. He needed to atone for his sins. He needed to relieve himself from the anguish he had bestowed on everyone he hurt. On his past loves. On Shane. He needed to remove himself from this cycle of heartache.

What did he want?

To love.

And to hurt.

Alan could be more honest with himself. This was a temporary summer. It was fine to suffer through it. He needed this. He needed to let go of the agony. He needed to accept that this was who he was.

Maybe he didn't need to close his heart off, after all. Maybe he was ready for a relationship. He just needed to let go of the idea of the ideal love and settle into companionship. He just needed to let that part of himself go.

What could he change? Was he even capable of this?

Alan rubbed his eyes, seeing the sun begin to creep up in the horizon.

He honestly didn't have any answers. But he could at least start by... being honest. By telling Shane the truth. By telling him what he realistically wanted-- wanting only what was achievable.

Sleep. That was achievable now. His sleep schedule was all over the place, but... he could rest again. At least for a little bit. He only had thirty minutes before he had to get up to run with Hild, but it was something. He'd take a little sleep over no sleep.

Yeah. That was what he wanted. Sleep.

Alan crawled into bed, not bothering to draw the curtains. He took a deep breath, setting his glasses on the nightstand before pulling the covers over his head.

This was what he wanted. To sleep.

Too bad he was an insomniac.
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urbanhart says...

After Alan essentially crashed on him, Lyall opted to simply lie back for the time being, so as to keep from waking him again. Strangely enough, he found himself feeling...alright with being idle for so long. There was the passing thought to check on things such as his sister, or his plants, or that it was entirely possible there was a camera staked out by their window.

But he was actually able to just... let all that pass him by. With Alan dozing rather peacefully on his chest, feeling more like a weighted blanket than anything, he truthfully couldn't be bothered.

A little later, Lyall opened his eyes again. The sun cast a golden light through the living room windows. He...must have taken a small sleep there too, huh.

Lyall carefully extricated himself from...the situation he put himself in. Much to his relief, Alan didn't even stir. He threw a blanket on top of the musician, grabbed himself a small bite to eat from the fridge, and headed up to finally finish sorting through his things.

And it was then that he lost himself in things such as cleaning and research (both work-related and completely extraneous, and entirely without any sort of real focus), well until the sun began peeking back up over the tops of the trees again. All to distract from how he still couldn't seem to get a hold of Kaya.

God, was she worried? Was she doubtful? It killed him to think she might doubt his loyalty for even a second. He ached to tell her directly how much he loved her, how he truly only ever wanted-- now more than ever-- to spend the rest of his days beside her.

He could use a drink. He began composing something lyrical instead. For that grand gesture.

Slouched in the armchair by his bookcase, Lyall set aside his laptop and pressed the heels of his palms against his stinging eyes with a drawn-out exhale. Exhaustion pressed down on him, weighed on his eyelids.

Sleep was probably a good idea, despite the odd hour. But it was an idea he quickly disregarded, however, when he caught the faintest hints of activity downstairs through his cracked door. It was rare that he actually ever heard his cabin mates leave.

Lyall squinted up at the ceiling. Come to think of it, he really only heard one set of feet pattering around. But the door closed twice? And the ensuing silence was the unique kind only indicative of a completely empty house.

Something he'd started to notice, was that he pretty much always knew whereabout Alan was whenever he was home. Not because he was particularly loud, but simply because he wasn't actively trying to be silent.

But this was only worth noting becauce, in stark contrast, Lyall never quite knew where Cyrin was whenever they were home. Or outside, for that matter, beyond their morning routine. But the athlete never seemed to make any sort of sound? Ever.

They also believed in keeping an extra ace on hand. Wasn't visibly troubled by the implication of winning through slightly less-than-honest means.

Were these two characteristics connected? It felt like they connected somehow, but Lyall just... didn't have the brainpower right now. And he needed more data.

He sank even lower in his chair as he stretched away any lingering stiffness. Then hopped straight into his day.

Alan hadn't truly slept in three days apparently. Lyall could tell on his own that he hadn't been resting enough. But now that the amount of sleep lost was firmly quantified, Lyall decided that he ought to get a head start on brunch this morning on Alan's behalf. He was awake, anyway.

Once he'd cleaned himself up, he threw his sweater over the back of a chair, popped a CD mix of his favorite songs in the radio that miraculously could accommodate a disc to begin with, and set to work. He threw together a crepe batter, then set a tray of neatly arranged bacon in the oven.

As the strings from Lind Roonstad's "Long Long Time" faded in, marking the halfway point on his mix of classics, Alan finally returned. Lyall was in the midst of juggling fruit slicing and crepe flipping. Without pausing, he flashed the musician a bright smile.

"Alan Alvaro!" he greeted happily. "How does this new day find you? Better rested, I hope?"

"Lyall. Good morning," Alan greeted with pleasant surprise, offering a smile before fully closing the door behind him. "You're up early."

"Certainly a sight you should not get accustomed to," Lyall said honestly with a chuckle. "Try as I might, I don't think I could sustain it."

Alan sauntered up to the island, eyeing the crepe batter as he reached for a clean glass. "Are you cooking for brunch?" he asked.

"Nah," Lyall said breezily, sliding freshly-cooked crepes off the griddle, "just for the hell of it."

Alan stared at him for a second, just barely cracking a smile before he slowly drank the cup of water, only taking in a few gulps. "Well, thanks for cooking. I've always wondered what it's like to have a personal chef," he said as he gently placed the cup back down.

"Well, wonder no longer, my good sir."

After ladling more batter onto the griddle, Lyall unthinkingly skipped the oven mitts as he grabbed the bacon from the oven, setting it onto the counter to cool a bit. Alan didn't move where he was, watching him take the tray out with great interest.

"Right. Well," Alan said with a sigh, tapping his fingers on the counter as he rounded the island. "I'm going to take a quick shower. I'll be right back." He paused, turning back to face Lyall. "Unless you need help? I can be an extra pair of hands."

Lyall waved him off with a small grin. "Everything's taken care of here. Thanks, though."

"Alright," Alan said with an appreciative smile. "Thanks, Lyall."

With a nod, Lyall turned back to the griddle as Alan then jogged up the stairs.

While watching the next set of crepes cook, he wondered what prompted Alan to suddenly take up running this past week. It coincided with the time that he knew Hild usually headed out for the mornings as well, so. Were they doing that together too? That made three of them, right? Since it was originally something Hild and James were already doing.

Oh. Lyall hadn't visited with James recently enough. What was that maniac up to this past week? It was a little disconcerting that Lyall hadn't even seen the man in passing.

Travesty! He made a note to head over to the Bird Cabin sometime later. Though. He'd have to ensure it didn't run into the time he and Kaz set aside for a visit. Then again, they were all so close by, it wouldn't delay him by that much, if at all.

Humming along to Don McClean's "Americhihuahua Pie", Lyall began arranging a plate. Topped a rolled crepe with bright red strawberry wedges, lightly dusted it with powdered sugar, and drizzled it all with maple syrup in artful zig-zags.

True to his word, Alan came down a short time later, taking quick heavy steps down the stairs. He ran his hand down his drying hair, smiling as he entered the kitchen again, this time freshened up with new clothes and even a mild scent of cologne. He watched Lyall with interest as he pulled up a stool from the other end of the island, still smiling.

Briefly meeting Alan's gaze, Lyall huffed a self-conscious laugh before sliding the finished plate his way. "Votre nourriture, votre altesse," he said with an exaggerated bow.

Amused, Alan flicked his eyes between Lyall and the crepes. "I'll wait until you're ready to eat too. But thank you. This is nice."

"I may have snacked a bit as I cooked," Lyall admitted as he picked some blueberries from the bowl. "I'm good. So, please." He gestured to the plate in invitation to eat as he popped the blueberries in his mouth. "Enjoy!"

Alan hesitantly picked up the fork set on the plate, idly moving the berries over an inch. "How long have you been up?" he asked.

"Awhile," Lyall answered simply, turning back to the stove now.

"Usually you don't get up until..." Alan craned his neck to peer at the stove clock. "Well, until now. Or even later."

Lyall cast him a quick grin over his shoulder. "Yeah, and?"

Alan hummed, slightly narrowing his eyes at him, voice a little more playful. "This feels intentional. That's all."

Lyall glanced up at the stove hood. Then, head tilted curiously, twisted around to look back at Alan more fully. "That's probably because it rather is," he said slowly, huffing a bemused laugh.

At that, Alan broke his gaze, smiling as he perched his cheek against his palm, slowly cutting through the crepe and not commenting further. Was he...not accustomed to people doing things for him?

His own grin melting with fondness, Lyall quietly watched him for a moment before readdressing the griddle. The music of the radio filled the short, comfortable silence that passed between them.

"So," Lyall eventually piped up again, "any big plans for today? Small ones are acceptable too."

Alan delayed in answering for a few seconds, still slowly cutting away, making several bite-sized pieces for future eating. "I've been thinking about talking to Shane after this, actually," he said casually. "It's been a few days since we've talked to each other, so it's about time I head over."

Ah. So... had the two been avoiding each other for that long? Was it that bad?

Well, this explained the distinct lack of banter this morning.

Lyall experimentally shuffled the spatula under the crepe closest to him, then flipped it when it seemed to hold its own. "That's a good idea," he agreed, "now that you've had time and distance enough to give it careful thought."

"I don't know if there's enough time that has passed, but I'd be waiting forever if I only act when I feel ready." Alan lightly shrugged, still focused on poking around his food. "I don't know exactly what I'll say yet, but... I'll just make it up as I go, I think. I just have to go up there and talk to him."

Lyall only nodded at the stove. Actively biting his tongue to keep from tossing out any unsolicited thoughts.

"I don't know," Alan said with a long sigh. "What do you think I should say?"

At that, Lyall paused in his idle crepe-poking.

"I don't think," he said slowly, glancing over his shoulder, "I can give my thoughts in good conscience. Not without...sufficient context."

"I'm kind of at the same spot. What would you say given what you know now?" Alan asked instead.


Turning around, Lyall leaned back on the counter, arms folded as he studied Alan.

The morning after the festival, Shane had apparently left with a hurting heart, and Alan was left an utter mess. Lyall couldn't be too sure, but it seemed safe to assume that Alan was as honest as he could be, given the multiple stressors of their sudden dilemma. Magic-induced dilemma.

Apparently, though, there was the expectation to still move forward with a relationship. Like, officially. But even the mere thought of going on an actual date had caused Alan to completely spiral. Which begged the question, how honest was he truly with Shane? Not enough, Lyall concluded. Likely for the sake of preserving what the two had built the past couple weeks. And, evidently, for the preservation of Alan's very life. Which felt a bit more like a stretch, as far as fears went, given the fact that this involved... well, Shane. Who Lyall was sure didn't have a spiteful bone in his entire body.

"Well," Lyall began carefully, "it seems that the next natural thing to address is, as I mentioned before, what you truly want. And..." He vaguely waved a hand Alan's way. "...by 'you', I mean Alan Alvaro in particular."

"I just don't know how to tell him that without destroying everything," Alan murmured, still idly poking his food. "He's a political figure, Lyall. If the truth does destroy everything, the world will know too, and--"

Alan groaned through a sigh, pushing his plate away in front of him so he could make room to perch his elbows on the counter and cover his face with his hands. "This would be so much easier if this wasn't a cliche trope of a peasant and a king falling for each other," he mumbled.

Motive confirmed: preservation. Which was the ultimate goal of fear.

Which had been brought up rather tactlessly that one morning show during just the first week. Though he wasn't entirely certain which two questions he got wrong then, but he felt he might be able to surmise.

Pertaining to Shane, there was the matter of fearing rejection. Which, honestly, who didn't worry about that? It was something that Alan was very clearly trying to be mindful of as well.

The matter of being able to 'love properly' in relation to Alan felt vaguely like a puzzle piece that definitely belonged somewhere here, but Lyall just couldn't place where exactly right now. So he tucked it away for further consideration another time. He needed more data for that.

Back to the present, Alan was in a way right to be concerned about the political aspect of a potential relationship. Shane was, after all, the heir of an entire freaking country, and that couldn't be ignored. That would be a gross oversight.

"That's a legitimate concern," Lyall said with a nod. "But..." He tilted his head, trying to find the right words. "Shane is important to you, yes?" he asked, taking a chance on changing course for the time being.

Alan rubbed his face, not answering right away. "He is," he finally said. "Of course he's important to me. I enjoy my time with him. But I'm an idiot and ruined it all in one night, and now I don't think we can go back to what we had."

New note: Alan's internal dialogue was potentially damaging. Not the focus here, though, they needed to stay on task at the moment. File away for later.

"The political doesn't not matter, of course," Lyall said honestly, "but let's set it aside for now, okay? We need to focus on you and Shane, because that's what ultimately matters." Pushing off from his spot by the stove, he leaned both hands on the island counter. "What was it that you told me on the pier? And when I asked about you and Hild?"

"...What?" Alan said flatly, dropping his hands, growing weary.

Lyall sensed he was losing Alan. He needed to speed up his process, he supposed.

"You're not looking to pursue a romantic relationship right now," Lyall finished for him. "If you haven't told him already, you need to be upfront about it now. It doesn't have to be a flat-out rejection, though. Maybe relationships usually aren't salvaged after taking steps forward, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to. Leave maintaining your friendship a clear option."

"That's a flat-out rejection," Alan said with another sigh, setting his head against the table.

"It's a boundary," Lyall gently corrected. "Which is necessary in any kind of relationship."

"Which, yes-- I agree. And I think that would have been fine if I didn't tell him the things I told him that night," Alan shot back. "I told him I wasn't myself. I don't think the words were lies, necessarily... I just wasn't ready to say it yet. But it was like, with the magic, I was ready." Alan run his hands through his hair again, letting out another frustrated groan. "It's hard to explain. I can't just tell him that without it sounding like I don't care for him anymore."

Oh. Hm.

This was quickly broaching territory that Lyall felt... wrong to ask about in great detail.

For good reason, though, which was:

"Then tell him that," Lyall said. He leaned forward on his elbows. "It's okay to say you don't know how to fully communicate something--"

"But I did," Alan cut in. "He knows that I wouldn't have said or done all of that had I been in my normal state of mind. I already apologized for it."

Lyall nodded slowly. "Tell him again," he said gently. "Tell him you care about him, but you're not ready for next steps. Now that you've both had some time and distance from it. Maybe you're both in a better headspace to address this rationally." He lightly tapped his fingers to the countertop and re-emphasized, "Talk it out with Shane."

Alan took in a shuddered breath, but then he snapped his head up, abruptly pulling in his plate and suddenly eating all the bites he cut up all at once. It was hurried, like he was both starving and running out of time, given that he was simultaneously moving with the plate as he ate, walking to set it by the sink. With food stuffed in his mouth, he drank a whole glass of water to down it all in one breath. When finished, the glass was nearly slammed on the counter, and Alan briskly headed for the door.

"I'm going to talk to Shane now," Alan murmured, bending down to hurriedly put on his shoes.

The result Lyall supposed he was hoping for. Direct communication with the only other participant directly involved. But the manner in which Alan declared this had Lyall...deeply troubled, he wasn't going to lie. He feared he inadvertently made this worse.

Alan glanced over his shoulder, pausing as he stood up, hand on the doorknob. "Thanks again for the food. And for the advice. You're a good friend, Lyall."

Hesitantly, Lyall straightened and waved. "Sure," he said with uncertainty, "of-- of course. Glad to assist in what ways I can."

Alan nodded, opening the door. He hesitated again, looking back at Lyall with a half-smile, and then he was gone.

Lyall stared blankly at the door. Then scrubbed both hands over his face with a drawn-out, tired groan. Dread settled heavily in his gut. He shouldn't have tried to be smart about this, who was he to offer relationship advice? He was no longer hungry.

Dear god, he hoped that things turned out okay...

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Tue Nov 28, 2023 1:03 am
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urbanhart says...

Lyall was in the midst of bouncing back and forth between medical texts, various tabs about old folk remedies on his laptop, and remembering that he could not in fact contact James via instant messaging, when whom he presumed to be Kaz excitedly thumped on the front door. Staring blankly at his mess of papers, Lyall quickly decided, bah! They were fine, they'd keep. He and Kaz were likely to just stay downstairs anyhow, since both Alan and Cyrin were out.

So he left the piles of research as was, and hastened to let Kaz inside.

The giant lightning man, as planned, had brought his gaming devices and a beefy stack of cases. Holding everything in his arms, as if he didn't believe in using bags or boxes, Kaz came bumbling in, tossing everything onto the clear coffee table in the middle of the living room. Closing the door after him, Lyall watched in amusement as Kaz began setting everything up.

"Good to see you, Kazimir!" Lyall said with a grin. He padded into the living room to scan the options. "Where do you think we shall begin, then?"

Kazimir handed Lyall a handheld swatch. The device was already booting up on the loading screen.

"Legendary League!" he said. "I think you'll like the character creation at the beginning. It's really detailed and it's fun to make them super customized. I've got some mods in there too so there's even more options."

Lyall curiously fiddled with the control stick. "Options are great!" he agreed. "You said this one had... a large world, right? So, an element of exploration?"

"Yeah!" Kaz said, excitedly bouncing back into the couch with a swatch in his own hand. "We can start with just exploring so we don't have to focus on the quests right away."

Lyall tucked himself into the opposite corner of the couch.

The swatch screen lit up, then opened up the inserted game seemingly of its own volition. The painterly artwork featured while it booted up put front and center characters of various humanoid species. Rather reminiscent of Toolkien's fantasy world, with elves and orcs and things.

Before he could comment on any of it, it changed into a multiple choice...segment? He was...admittedly a little lost already.

"You gotta choose your character name," Kaz said, leaning over. "It's taking you through the intro dialogue. You get to answer your name and gender and stuff, and then it transitions to choose what you look like, and will cut back to the convo."

"Oh! Jumping right into it," Lyall said as the game indeed prompted him for such information. "Smashing."

"No, there's no smashing in this one," Kaz said. "That's the other game."

Huffing a laugh, Lyall nodded. "Right, yes, my bad."

After a second of fumbling with the character settings, he eventually landed on a male elf named Lief.

"We're doing multiplayer," Kaz added. "I'm already setting it up so you can join and we can be an adventuring party."

"Is that why it's called an 'open world' game, as my younger brother calls it?" Lyall asked.

There was a class segment where he had to, as he understood it, pick a trade. He didn't know what 'rogue' implied, but the information box told him that stealth was a major feature of such a character, as well as sleight of hand.

Sure, why not.

Kazimir was looking over his shoulder.

"Oh! Yeah," Kaz said. "That'll be a fun class to play. You get to sneak and steal things. You also don't have to be in the thick of it if we're in a battle, so I'll be a barbarian then to balance us out."

Lyall grinned. "Perfect!"

"Brb making my character the biggest coolest orc you've ever seen," Kaz said, leaning away and poking his screen quickly.

Lyall leaned over with him, to watch over Kaz's shoulder this time.

"I'm naming him Tree," Kaz said. "Since you're Leaf."

Looking at Kaz's screen, Lyall could see that his character indeed was a very large, muscular orc with intense, intimidating features.

"A balanced, aptly-named pair are we," Lyall hummed.

"His weapon's gonna be a big log," Kaz said. "On theme."

Lyall laughed at that.

Once everything was set up, Kaz granted him entry into his...world, Lyall supposed. There really was a lot of freedom to simply roam if they so pleased. And, since Kaz was very amenable, that's what they started with.

While Lyall explored the fascinatingly in-depth dialogue of the game, Kaz ran around collecting random items that he said could be very helpful later on. Every once in awhile, his orc would bend down in the distance to pet a cat.

To test the full breadth of their characters' skills, Kaz suggested they pilfer from guards. While he created a diversion by applying intimidation tactics (ie, beating his chest like a gorilla and brandishing his log), Lyall snuck around back and successfully pinched coin pouches and a set of keys. The keys, Kaz helpfully informed him, could lead to something very valuable later, either monetarily or in terms of story advancement.

One conversation that he'd opened up with a villager soon led them out into a densely wooded part of the game. The villager turned out to be a widow, and requested assistance in retrieving her small son who must have lost his way back home.

The dialogue revealed or at least hinted at a rather rich personal life of the widow. It was an admirable amount of attention to detail on the game writers' parts. Lyall certainly understood this was a very good selling point on the game.

The trek through the woods was a little aimless at first, since Lyall had yet to fully gain his bearings in-game. As they trudged along, Kaz launched into a little wordless, comically high-pitched ditty. One that Lyall was familiar with, and joined in with the singular line that he could remember from it, about sleeping lions.

Lyall wasn't sure what it was about the man, but Kaz just seemed to effortlessly bring out this excessively silly side of him that he didn't even know he still had. Every very real worry in his life was...still there, yes, but far quieter in his mind. It was nice.

The quest actually went by very quickly. Once they were on the right path, anyway. They followed a distressed child's voice into a rather ominous cave, where they had to face down a spider of nightmarish proportions. It was bigger than Tree! Who Kaz had dive straight into combat, while Lyall sent Lief along the shadows to nab the kid. Then they booked it once the defeat of the giant spider only wrought upon them the wrath of an entire nightmare spider clan.

Their first mission was a success! Once the child was returned safely, the widow gifted them their first item with magical properties. A 'bag of holding' as the game dubbed it. There was a short animated sequence that Kaz explained indicated they'd 'leveled up' too.

"I can certainly see why this is your favorite," Lyall said, setting aside the swatch for now to rest his eyes. "It's quite thrilling! A very engrossing experience."

Kaz smiled wide, grabbing the swatch from Lyall.

"We gotta save!" Kaz said. "Or it won't save your progress! Hit the save button right there."

He pointed insistently. Reaching over with a laugh, Lyall obliged and tapped this 'save' button.

Kaz let out a relieved sigh. "Okay. Now we can pause."

He set both of their swatches on the table, sitting back into the couch.

"So, how was your first video game experience?" he asked.

"A little confuzzling," Lyall said, drawing his knees up to his chest, "but far more entertaining than I anticipated." He tapped his chin in thought. "You mentioned a Megan? Is she a gaming friend of yours?"

"What? Noooooo! No, Megan is my girlfriend," Kaz said. "Girlfriend first. Gamergirl second."

He paused.

"On second thought, I don't know if she'd call herself a gamergirl, but we game together, so there's that," he added.

Lyall grinned, excited for even a small glimpse into his friend's personal life. "How long have you been together?"

"About a year, now," Kaz said. "It'll be our one year anniversary when I get back, actually."

"Oh, hey!" Lyall patted Kaz's arm. "Congratulations, my friend! Do you plan on celebrating upon your return?"

"Oh, yeah," Kaz said with a smile. "First thing I'm going to do is hug her to death. Then we will feast."

That warmed Lyall's heart to hear.

It also about summed up what he himself hoped to do once this was all over, and he could see Kaya again.

"Has she been following with the show at all?" Lyall asked. "Keeping up on the latest in the thrilling life of Kazimir Petrov?"

"She has!" Kazimir said with a small laugh. "Honestly, though, she says I don't get enough screentime. Says I've been kind of labelled as the 'doofy guy' and they just cut scenes in of me for comedic value or whatever. Which is so lame."

"She's quite right," Lyall agreed, "you are far more than your comedic moments. The world doth miss out on your creativity! Your wisdom, your wholesomeness!"

"I was thinking more, like, my badassery," Kazimir said. "But that too, I guess..."

"Of course," Lyall said, trying not to laugh. "I'm sure with the tests, there will be plenty of opportunity to display your badassery as well."

"Is Kaya keeping up with your stuff?" Kaz asked. "Hopefully she saw our sand city."

Lyall brightened. "Yes! She did, and she strongly agreed that your technique and vision are unmatched."

Kaz grinned, leaning back into the couch a bit as he shifted into a more comfortable position, stretching his legs out.

"What's she like?" Kaz asked. "Like, why'd you want to get married to her I mean? In the good way."

Sinking down with a sigh of longing, Lyall grinned up at the ceiling. "She's...passionate, creative. Ever an optimist, a daring, adventurous spirit. Kaya's an exciting, driven young woman with such a generous heart." His smile turned into one of slight heartache. He really missed her. "She's going places," he added in a murmur, "I know it. And I want to be along for the ride."

"Wow," Kaz said. "She sounds amazing. How often do you guys keep in touch? Me and Megan are texting all the time."

Lyall tilted his head to look warmly back to Kaz. It sounded like Kaz and Megan had a very close friendship as the foundation to their romance, which was very heartening.

"We, ah, did stay in contact daily for the first two weeks as well. Recently, though, we haven't been able to reach each other. Connectivity issues, I believe."

"Whaaaaat? Dude, that's mega sus. It's not your network provider, right? Like, why'd it stop working all of a sudden?"

Well. Lyall indeed had his suspicions. Which felt validated when his sister returned with...no answers, granted, from her conversation with Dante. But it was the inconclusiveness that felt like sufficient confirmation.

"Here, you should try calling her from my phone," Kaz said, sliding across the couch and insistently shoving his phone into Lyall's hands.

He blinked down at the number pad Kaz had already whipped up.

How had Lyall not thought of that already? No wait, he did. He tried Hild's phone, and it didn't work then.

"It doesn't hurt to try," he decided with a shrug. Then glanced up at the ceiling in thought. "She might still be working, but it doesn't have to be a long talk."

"Yeah, man," Kaz said. "Whatever is cool with me. Give it a try."

With his good friend's bolstering encouragements, Lyall quickly dialed Kaya's number. Hesitated, then hit the call button.

And, by gods, it actually started ringing this time. It went on for a few beats before Lyall realized, right, this was an unfamiliar number. The likelihood of her picking up was--

The ringing cut short, and he heard from the other end a polite, "Hi, you reached Kaya Olsen, indie painter and photographer. How can I help you?"

There was a slight sigh in her voice, the kind that suggested he caught her in the midst of an art block. Which meant this wasn't a pre-recorded message, which meant Lyall could finally actually talk to her in real time!

Kazimir pumped his fists in the air in silent celebration, beaming. He waved his hand, egging Lyall on to respond.

With a bright, appreciative grin of his own, Lyall quickly answered, "Yes, Kaya! Hullo! God, you have no idea how much I've missed your voice!"

There was a second's pause on the other end.

"Lyall!" Kaya squealed. There came the clattering of what he assumed were paint brushes in the background. "Finally! Oh my go-- Whose phone are you using? I didn't recognize the number. I was so worried after the whole Ooktoberfest mess! It hurt to see you having such a hard time, and not being able to reach out!" Her voice sounded slightly teary.

Before he could offer any words of reassurance, she sniffled loudly and went on, "Seriously, who is our saviour? I need to thank them right now, and ask if we can talk for five hours. Unless this is a burner phone, but like. Where would you even get one of those anyway?"

Lyall laughed, heart aching from the sheer joy of just hearing her voice again. "My good friend, Kazimir," he answered warmly, "generously lent his personal device so that we can talk again."

"Hiiiiiiii Kaya!" Kaz said, leaning over to speak loudly by the phone.

Kaya gasped audibly. "Kaaaaaaz!" she squealed again, and Lyall could picture her bouncing around the studio with her boundless, infectious excitement. "It's so lovely meeting you! Thank you, thank you, this means so much to us!"

"Yo, of course," Kaz said. "You can talk as much as you need."

A beat.

"Okay like not forever but. For a while yeah. I need my phone eventually," Kaz added. "You know what I mean."

Lyall nodded. "Maybe about an hour?" he suggested.

"Three at most?" Kaya said, a sheepish smile in her voice. "Or two. Two's more reasonable."

"Yeah, that's chill," Kaz said. "I'll just game on Lyall's couch."

"You are the literal best," Kaya said emphatically, "thank you! Love Sand Angel City, by the way!"

Kazimir brightened.

"Lyall was right, you're an appreciator of the arts," Kaz said with a chuckle.

Kaya giggled. "Okay, take me off speaker please, babe. We have a lot of ground to cover."

Obliging, Lyall settled back in the corner again. He mouthed a warm "thank you" to Kaz as he held the phone to his ear.

After a quick smile and nod, Kaz turned his attention to the gaming console he's left on the table. Turning it on again, he leaned back and seemed quickly lost in the game.

The first part of their conversation was largely just Kaya emphasizing how hard she tried to reach him. Lyall eventually had to cut in with warm reassurances that he understood, because he didn't like the way the anxiety and sadness welled up in her voice again.

Then it was his turn to apologize for not sending out a one-way message sooner. He admittedly got caught up in crafting the perfect message through the perfect medium, and thus delayed the all-important intent to simply put some sort of signal out there for her. His lovely Kaya quickly talked him out of his own guilt, and urged him to finish whatever project he'd started.

She backtracked a bit, and widened their focus to the past week in general. Which he really didn't feel like addressing his own things, so he quickly asked for how she'd been.

"I need an update on the exhilarating life of Kaya Olsen, soon to be Ashlund," he pleaded. "I need news of the outside world!"

Kaya giggled softly. "Fine, I can go first," she relented. "I...kind of hit a big art block yesterday? Which is fine, I guess, since the actual deadline isn't for awhile. But my client wants to see the progress so far tomorrow. Which would also be fine if I hadn't...fallen a little behind. I'm not where I wanted to be in the process by now. I keep getting hung up on little things..."

"I don't have the artistic eye that you do," Lyall gently said in the short pause, "but maybe I can take a quick look at it? Right after I see your face first, of course."

"Oh!" Kaya laughed. "Very smooth, mittens. Okay, give me a sec..."

Holding the phone out now, Lyall used that second of waiting to quickly smooth back his hair as best he could.

Then Kaya's bright eyes appeared, and she smiled excitedly as she propped her phone up on her desk. She made to move out of frame, but he quickly waved her back down.

"No, wait!" he said, laughing. "Indulge me a moment, would you? It feels like an eternity since I got to actually see your face last." He felt himself grin wider. "Something's different..."

Leaning back, Kaya playfully tilted her head at various angles, framing her now-chin length hair and new bangs with her hands. "We had an actual heat wave this past week, which is a good excuse try something new, I guess."

"Exquisite! Show-stopping!" Lyall exclaimed with playful awe. Then with all sincerity and warmth added, "It really suits you."

She tried biting back a smile as she bashfully looked down at her lap. Lyall wanted to go on, shower her with praises. But he found himself just...staring quietly and adoringly at her instead.

"Okay, okay," she eventually said, waving both hands suddenly, "enough of that!" She hopped up to her feet and moved their focus right along to the large canvas panel behind her. Standing beside it, she gestured broadly with both arms. "This is installment one!"

"Yes, I am your sounding board," Lyall said with a full grin, settling back once more as he gave her his undivided attention. "Walk me through what you've got."

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Tue Nov 28, 2023 1:04 am
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SilverNight says...

When the knock at the door came, it startled Shrimp, who started meowing and pawing at Shane's arm while he held the cat, sitting on the floor of his room, his legs crossed.

"Yeah, I know," Shane said quietly, absent-mindedly scratching behind Shrimp's ears. "Someone's there."

Shrimp blinked at him meaningfully, rubbing his head against Shane's hand.

"I don't want to get it," Shane said with a quiet sigh.

He knew that if anyone was going to, it was him, though. He'd heard James and Connie both leave while he was in his room, and he hadn't heard them return.

"Maybe I could ignore it," he went on. "They could think no one's home, or maybe that I've died in my room. Which is half-accurate. I feel like I've been..." He sighed again. "...withering."

Shrimp stepped out of his arms, stalking over to the door to paw at it.

"Traitor," Shane mumbled as he got to his feet, opening the door and heading down the stairs.

He didn't even think through the possibilities of who might be at the door before he opened it.

It was Alan.

"Hi Shane. Good morning," Alan said softly, standing up a little straighter. There was a brief hesitation, and he offered a small smile. "I know it's been a few days. So... I thought I'd come by."

"Alan," Shane managed, forcing a faint smile in return. "Morning. It's been..."

Was there any way to make it sound non-accusatory?

"...a bit," he said, internally wincing and cursing himself. "Thank you for stopping by. It's good to see you."

"It's good to see you too," Alan echoed. There was a slight pause as he flicked his eyes between Shane and the room behind him. "Is now a good time?"

Shane wasn't sure what he meant it for, but he nodded. "Yes, uh. Now works."

There was another pause.

"Would... it be alright if I came in?" Alan asked with another small smile.

"Yeah," Shane said quickly, hurriedly stepping out of the way. "Of course. Please, make yourself comfortable."

Alan nodded appreciatively, stepping in and taking his shoes off the doorway as Shane closed and locked the door behind him.

"Hm," Alan hummed, admiring the newly-arranged decor. "Changing things up in the cabin?"

Shane had to clamp his jaw shut for a moment to bite back the explanation with Shrimp that they'd given to Connie.

"Yeah," he said, letting out a quiet, self-conscious laugh. "We, uh, thought we wanted a more cozy layout."

"It is pretty cozy," Alan mused. Another pause. "I was thinking we could talk through some things first, if that's alright with you. Do you want to talk here? In your room? Or maybe somewhere else?"

Shane straightened a little. Right. Talking. He wasn't sure if the emotion that was filling him now was relief or dread.

No. Definitely dread.

"Talking sounds good," he said, looking around the space a little helplessly. "I... we can do it wherever. Wherever you're most comfortable."

Alan hesitated. "Are any of your cabin mates home?"

Shane shook his head. "James and Connie are both out."

Alan nodded. "Okay. I think here is fine then." Another pause, and he weakly gestured to the couch. "Would you like to sit?"

"Sure," Shane murmured, moving towards the couch and sitting down. He couldn't get comfortable when he did, though, even after shifting his position so that his legs were folded up to his chest. Now his heart was racing against his knee.

Alan sat an arms-length away, gingerly sitting with his attention fixed on Shane the whole time, concern washing over his face. "How have you been doing the last few days?" he asked.

The feeling of dread got worse, and Shane took too long in thinking. Should he be honest? Should he lie and say he'd been well? Should he answer in some non-committal, in-between way to avoid suspicion?

"Alright, I guess," he said quietly, going with that option. "How about you?"

Alan kept his gaze on Shane, the concern fading to an empty slate, and then one of confliction. He slumped back against the couch, craning his head back so it was angled up towards the ceiling.

"A little weird, honestly," he murmured. "I've been keeping busy. Or at least, I try to. Dante wouldn't give me a job, so I have to create my own. I think my room here has been the most organized out of... well, pretty much any room I've ever lived in." A beat. "Actually, I take that back. I haven't put away the piles of books I'm still organizing."

Shane blinked. And this was all because...?

"Restlessness?" he asked quietly.

"I'm really not an insomniac. I'm not. But I can't sleep when--" With newfound focus, Alan sat up straight again, folding in a leg as he repositioned himself to angle more towards Shane. "Do you ever ask yourself, 'where the hell am I, and how did I go to sleep like this?'"

Shane opened his mouth, but the words didn't come for a few moments.

"You'll have to explain that one," he said.

Alan quietly groaned, repeatedly running his hand through his hair as he turned away. "I don't know if there's much to explain, unless you consider inconsistent sleep patterns as an explanation. I think I'm going crazy. Not from lack of sleep. From lack of... jobs. I really wish there was an economy on this island. Maybe then Dante would have given me a job."

Was this still small talk, or was... this connected to what he was actually here for? Shane didn't know what to expect anymore. Maybe he wasn't quite ready for this. He didn't even know what this was.

"I'm sorry for that," he said softly. "Sorry that you ran out of distractions."

If Alan had been struggling to keep busy, why hadn't he shown up earlier?

Or maybe he was trying to avoid Shane. And couldn't avoid him any longer.

His heart sank a little again.

Alan's movement slowed to a stop as he turned back to Shane, dropping his hand and softly sitting back against the couch again.

"I'm sorry," he said softly, not elaborating further.

Shane's brow furrowed. "You don't need to be," he said, quietly and slowly.

"I'm sorry anyways. Just for..." Alan turned away again, loosely waving his hand in front of him. "Ruining what we had. I know that things are tense between us. I want to fix this so bad, especially since I care about you. I wish I had the answers, but I think if I waited until I had them, I'd forever be waiting. So I'm here now. To... atone for what I've done. To make amends, provide closure, anything you need."

Shane faltered in his answer as his thoughts spun.

This was leading him down separate trains of thought all at the same time. Different, new hopes and dreads. Alan said he cared, but... also mentioned ruining something, and closure.

He didn't know how to interpret any of this.

"You don't need to atone for anything, Alan," he said quietly.

"But I do," Alan quickly said back. "I hurt you. I led you astray. And since I wasn't ready yet-- in a way, that's a lie. I lied to you and fed you false hopes. I led you to believe that I could give you what you want, make you happy." Alan took a deep breath, partially covering his face as he spoke quieter. "I'm a man of my word, but I gave you false promises that night. So I'm sorry. I really am."

Shane took a deep breath, leaning his elbow on his knee so he could rest his forehead on his palm. So those were false hopes. Right. He'd thought so.

And he had to admit to himself how much he'd been hoping otherwise in the meantime.

What was he supposed to do but hope? Wish? Long for anything different? It was another way to be a fool. To be foolish enough to hope in the beginning and then be foolish enough to hold hope past that that Alan might change his mind, or come to some realization. Of course it wouldn't happen. This wasn't some fantasy. Just some nightmare he hadn't woken out of-- couldn't wake out of.

"It's my fault more than anything," Shane mumbled. "It's not like you were intentionally deceiving me. I was just... too eager to believe it. Too wishful."

"It's not your fault," Alan said softly, hurt in his eyes as if he was hurt that Shane would even suggest that. "Being too eager or wishful isn't a flaw. It's not your fault. You have no blame in this."

"I still--" Shane inhaled sharply, now covering his eyes with his hand as pain blossomed in his chest. No. No, he wasn't supposed to do this. He was supposed to let Alan say what he meant to say and let it hurt. Not push him into softening his words with reassuring lies. "I should've thought about it."

There was a long silence.

"I'm sorry, Shane," Alan said quietly, breaking the silence. "I've really failed you."

Shane swallowed, closing his eyes and causing the faint lines of light he could see through his fingers to vanish.

He didn't know what to do with an apology. It wasn't like it meant nothing to him-- it just did him no good. It wasn't what he needed. What he needed was for this stabbing ache in his chest to go away, in any way possible.

He'd thought it had dulled over the last few days into something more numb, more hollow. Apparently not, if this conversation was able to tear it open so quickly again.

"I don't want you thinking that," he heard himself say quietly, barely thinking about the words. "What you want is what you want. I believed you before, and I can believe you again now when you say that's not what you want. I understand. I really do."

"What is it that you think I want and don't want?" Alan asked, just as quiet.

Shane felt his cheeks burn. God, he didn't want to have to say it.

"I know you don't want a relationship," he said quietly. "Which is fine, if you aren't ready. And you say you want me, which is something that doesn't necessarily contradict the first thing, but I've been finding that hard to really believe. Not if you didn't really mean everything."

There was another long silence.

And then Alan sprung to his feet, bee-lining towards the kitchen, taking out a glass cup to fill up in the sink. Shane pulled his hand away from his eyes, frowning in sudden confusion. Alan turned off the faucet, but made no sudden moves to drink or turn around. Alan stood still, back still facing Shane, presumably contemplating the glass of water he was still holding.

"I think I've been glossing over an important distinction," Alan said, voice steady. "Do I want a relationship? Or should I have a relationship? Or can I have a relationship?" He deeply sighed, still unmoving. "I don't really know what the answer is, so it's just easiest to not to be in one. And maybe that's why I said everything I said to you that night. It's like-- it wasn't not me. It was me under different circumstances. Impossible circumstances. So, that's what I mean when I say I wasn't myself. And under different circumstances, had that night not occurred-- maybe we'd be friends, maybe we'd find ourselves being more than friends. I don't know. I haven't deeply considered it. And I'm beating myself up that I completely fucked this up. I don't want you to feel this way. You are a treasure, Shane, and you deserve to be adored. I don't know if it matters whether I want you or not, because I think you deserve to be with someone who can actually love you."

Shane wasn't sure what to compare the last sentence to. Not quite a punch to the chest. Not a slap in the face, either. Just... the heavy weight of words colliding with him in a way that felt physical.

"I felt adored by you," he said quietly. "Why is it you think you couldn't... actually..."

The words love me felt too fragile to be spoken into existence, like either they could break in the air or his voice would shatter if he tried.

Alan poured the water out of the cup, and he placed the empty cup back on the counter, still partially turned away from Shane. "I think that's everything I have to say," he said distantly instead.

Shane stared at him, his heart racing painfully. That... It wasn't the worst thing Alan could have said. He knew that from his dream. But those words definitely felt like a punch.

"Then please let me say something," he whispered, the words sounding choked in his throat.

Still standing where he was, Alan hesitantly turned around, facing Shane with a mix of hurt, sadness, and tiredness in his expression.

What had Shane gotten himself into? Now he had to speak. He could make things a million times worse. He swallowed, taking a shaky breath while feeling like he was trembling all over.

"It really does matter to me whether you want me or not, because you matter to me," he said quietly, feeling like he was about to either burst or be crushed under pressure. He took a deep breath, already feeling out of air from the last one. "Any way that you could care for me would be the way I want it, since it's from you. I don't think anything's ruined, or beyond repair. I don't think you're unable to love." He felt his voice catch painfully on the last word. "What I do think is that I want you. For all that you are. I said that before, and I still mean it now. If you want me at all, then I want the way you want me, and that would be all I want. What matters most to me is that it's really you as you are."

Please. Please. Please.

He didn't know who he was silently pleading to, or pleading for. Maybe for a chance to take his words back from the air between them. Or for a prayer that they would land well. He didn't know what he would do if they didn't.

There was another tense silence as they both stared at each other. Then, finally, Alan opened his mouth to speak. But nothing came out. Not right away.

"I--" he choked as he turned away, sounding like he was holding back a cry.

And that was when Shane realized: Alan was holding back a cry.

Shane scrambled to his feet, quietly but quickly crossing the distance between the couch and the sink. Alan crumpled to the floor, sitting against the cabinet with his hands on his face.

"Alan?" Shane asked softly, concern and mild panic in his voice as he joined him on the floor, leaning against the cabinet next to him.

"I just--" Alan began, voice breaking. He took in a deep breath, glasses lifted up as he rubbed his eyes. "Sorry. I just need a second."

Shane watched with sadness and mild alarm, shuffling slightly closer to Alan. He didn't really know what to do. There were a lot of dramatic scenarios he'd figured his words could lead to, but he hadn't expected... this.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "Was it something I said? I didn't mean to make you--" He faltered. "I'm sorry if I hurt you. Are you okay? I'm sorry."

"No, no. Don't be sorry. You didn't hurt me," Alan said gently with a faint laugh, lowering his hands from his face. He rested the back of his head against the cabinet as he kept his misty gaze on Shane, with the barest hint of a melancholic smile.

"Then..." Shane said slowly, scanning his face with concern and uncertainty as he silently asked for an explanation.

But instead of responding, Alan took action. He moved slowly at first, scooting in closer, but then wrapping his arms around Shane's waist, bringing him in for a tight hug.

Oh. This wasn't at all what he was expecting, but it felt... nice. Really nice.

Shane released a deep breath that he hadn't even known he'd been holding, moving in closer and hugging Alan back. After a few moments, hesitantly, he lowered his head to rest it on Alan's shoulder.

Alan hugged him tighter, pulling him even closer. One hand was wrapped around his back and the other supporting the back of Shane's head. A short silence passed, and Alan took a shuddered deep breath.

"Thank you," Alan whispered in his ear.

"For what?" Shane asked softly, certain that Alan could feel his racing heart. Maybe even hear it.

"For being you," Alan answered. "For being gentle and kind. For being forgiving. For being hopeful. Wishful. Eager. Compassionate. I like you for who you are too, Shane. Thank you for being you."

Shane felt dizzy. Even a little breathless and weak. It was all he could do to hold onto Alan as the kitchen felt like the deck of a rocky ship, or the peak of a rollercoaster track.

He didn't understand what was going on. How one moment he did feel unlovable, and in the next, he felt...


He wasn't sure it was hope he felt. Not with his head telling him he'd been too much of a fool already. But his heart-- his swelling, splitting heart-- felt like it was singing at these words.

He felt like praying in that kitchen. Begging the world to let the words mean something this time. Because he felt like he was dying to believe them, or like he could die if they weren't true.

Shane choked on his next breath, feeling his throat clog up as he hugged Alan tighter like he was a life raft.

"And you should know," Alan went on softly, "that you matter to me too. I enjoy all my time with you, and I care about you. I care about you a lot, Shane."

Shane felt his eyes starting to burn-- or maybe they already had been. The kitchen tile and cabinets over Alan's shoulder were getting blurry. The next breath sent a shudder through his entire body.

"Shane," Alan called softly, giving him a gentle squeeze. "Can you ask me what it is I want?"

Even when the words were given to him, Shane struggled to put a voice to them.

"What is it you want, Alan?" he whispered, barely finding the air to speak.

Alan loosened his grip, gently pulling back a little. His hand moved from the back of Shane's head to his cheek, and Alan finally met his eyes. Shane blinked, trying to see through the tears that were really starting to form now. Shane couldn't hold back the first tear that fell, but Alan gently wiped it away with his thumb.

Alan held his gaze for some moments, tender gentleness in his eyes as he held Shane's face. And then he leaned in, closing the gap between them to softly, gently, kiss his lips. Shane slowly let himself relax, kissing him back lightly. It felt impossibly gentle, and he felt even dizzier, like all gravity was gone and he was left to float away on some nameless feeling.

The kiss only lasted a few seconds, but just as softly, Alan pulled away with a tender smile, gingerly caressing his cheek with his thumb. Shane smiled back, and he knew it was faint and shaky, but he also knew it was genuine.

"If it's me," he breathed, very quietly, like he was scared to say it, "then it's you I want. And I'm glad that you are who you are."

Alan pulled him in for another hug, holding him tight as he took a deep breath. He hung his head over his shoulder, giving Shane another gentle squeeze.

Shane hugged him back tightly, closing his eyes. This still felt painful. But at least it felt good.

They hugged in silence for what felt like a long time. Alan kept his grip around him tight at first, but it gradually loosened until he was clutching at the seams of his flannel.

"I'm glad we talked," Alan said quietly, almost a mumble. He almost sounded... tired. "I feel like I can rest now."

"I'm glad too," Shane said softly, slowly and soothingly rubbing Alan's shoulder. "You can rest."

"I'm a simple man. I don't want a lot of things. But, right now... more than anything..." Alan went on, his sleepy voice growing more soft as he leaned more of his weight against Shane. "I want you, and I want sleep."

"You can have both," Shane said softly, smiling slightly as he held Alan up. "Do you want to lie down somewhere? The couch, or maybe upstairs?"

"Wherever you're most comfortable," Alan replied after another delay.

Slowly, keeping his arms around Alan, Shane stood from the kitchen floor and took Alan with him. Alan's movements as they walked were slow and less coordinated, so Shane let him rest his weight on him as he led them towards the couch they had sat down on before.

As Shane laid down on his side, facing away from the back of the couch, Alan flopped on his back, head tilted up to watch the ceiling with a tired gaze, but nestled against Shane. Shane held him closer, slowly laying his head to rest on Alan's shoulder. Alan sleepily wrapped his arms around him, bringing him closer.

It felt perfect. Perfect in the way that he was sure he was imagining it and it would only take a blink for it to all shatter.

As Shane tightened his embrace ever so slightly, he saw Alan's eyes close. He looked restful now, almost like he hadn't been resting enough.

Shane hadn't been resting much either, but peace didn't come for him as easily as it seemed to for Alan.

He didn't know what to hope for anymore. Not when hope felt so foolish to him.

He'd try this, Shane promised to himself. He'd trust Alan that he did want him, and believe that he wouldn't change his mind so easily. He wanted it to be true, so he'd act like it was. And if his suspicions were true...

Shane's heart sank at the thought.

...he'd have learned his lesson, at least. If he was unlovable after all, it was better to learn that sooner rather than later, so he didn't go on begging for love that he wasn't worthy of and that would never be provided.

But for now, he'd put his faith in this. One more time. Even if it was almost sure to hurt.

Alan's breathing was gentler now, deeper. Shane snuggled up against him and closer into the embrace, his head against Alan's heart, willing his own breathing to steady as well.

Maybe he could close his eyes too. Maybe he could let his guard down. Maybe he could even rest while he was at it.


Shane closed his eyes.
"silv is obsessed with heists" ~Omni

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

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Tue Nov 28, 2023 1:04 am
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Carina says...

It really only felt like Alan closed his eyes for half a minute. A louder noise woke him up, and for a second there, he was mildly disoriented, feeling like he didn't know where he was.

Was he back at his mom's place? Or uncle's? Brother's? No. Did he crash at a friend's couch after a party, or...

Right. Right. He was still on this damn island.

But this was not his room, nor his living room. Nor his cabin.

That much, he could guess-- since Alan was laying on his side, vaguely aware that Shane was breathing against his chest, as he looked up to make eye contact with the Prince of Talia coming in.

Strangely, there was some poetic irony in this situation right now. Any other time, and perhaps Alan would laugh. After all, it wasn't every day that he'd witness a royal watching him cuddle a different royal, sleeping soundly next to him.

Alan was just waking up, and it occurred to him that he hadn't had the chance to even introduce himself to Connie the entire time he'd been here (though to be fair, Connie wasn't exactly easy to find most of the time), but it seemed he wasn't really in the mood to talk anyways. As Alan slowly sat up, careful in trying not to stir Shane too much, Connie slipped past him, barely giving him any more acknowledgement as he went up the stairs.

Well. He didn't know what to make of that, but Alan would think about that later.

How long had he been asleep...? He straightened his glasses, squinting at the oven clock.

Ah. Three hours. Hm. That was... well, it was longer than he thought. He didn't mean to suddenly collapse and sleep with no warning, but... it happened, and now he was rested. They both were. That was good.

Alan gazed down on Shane, still sleeping soundly against his chest. He was afraid of wriggling any more because he didn't want to wake him. Shane looked so peaceful, and if the door opening and closing didn't wake him, then he must be sleeping deeply.

He laid back flat against the couch pillows again, running his hand through Shane's soft hair. This was... nice. Alan didn't want to disturb him. He didn't want to disturb this.

Alan didn't know how much time had passed. It couldn't have been more than a couple of minutes since he was just about to get lost in thought, but his attention was taken when Shane began stirring.

Shane let out a soft, sigh-like sound as he shifted, his head rubbing against Alan's shoulder. A few moments passed where he slowly opened his eyes, and he blinked a few times before his gaze settled on Alan. He then smiled softly, angling his head so he could see Alan better. There was something like relief on his face.

"I'd say good morning, but it's afternoon now," Alan said with a smile, pulling his hand away from Shane's hair. "Did you sleep well?"

Shane's smile turned warmer as he let out a quiet laugh. "Yeah. Did you?"

"I'd say so. I'm still a little tired, but I think I'd rather get our day started," Alan said as he began sitting up with slow, gentle movements, not wanting to disrupt Shane too much.

Shane let him, pulling away slightly so he was partly leaning on the couch. "Our day?" he echoed, dimples showing as he smiled brighter.

Alan sat up against the arm of the couch, pulling out his glasses to wipe the lens with the hem of his shirt. "Or what's left of the day, anyways. But it could also be our night if you'd like," he said, placing the glasses back on.

Yeah. He thought the lens was smudged. Now he could see his smile more clearly.

That smile turned into a soft grin as Shane beamed at him.

"I would like that," he said. "Quite a lot."

Alan almost asked if he was referring to the day or night or both, but he decided that it didn't really matter. A part of him wondered what the hell he was doing, but he knew he was just doing what felt right. And this felt right.

There were a lot of unspoken questions and subjects, but not everything needed to be said right now. He just wanted to enjoy the moment with Shane.

"Have you had coffee yet?" Alan asked with a smile. "Or maybe I shouldn't ask to prevent enabling you."

"Not so much that I couldn't have another cup," Shane answered anyway, still smiling.

"Enabling you it is," Alan said with a warmer smile. "Are you up for a walk? We haven't seen a lot of the other cafes yet. Maybe they're still open."

"I'd love that," Shane said, his excitement apparent. It was endearing. He thought on something carefully before adding, "Can I just run upstairs to check on Shrimp really quick? I usually give him a treat around this time, and even if I forgot, he wouldn't. The beast needs tamed."

Alan chuckled, finally wriggling his legs free from the couch to plant them firmly on the ground. "Of course, take your time. Do you need help with anything?"

"I should be quick, but thank you" Shane promised, also standing to stand. "Two minutes at most, if he also demands parting pets."

Alan watched Shane scurry upstairs, meeting his backwards glance with a smile. Left by himself, Alan stood up and stretched up towards the ceiling, dropping his hand to run his hand through his hair. He had the thought that maybe he should freshen up consider he just woke up... again, but he didn't have much time to think about it too much. As he paced around the room and stretched up to touch the lower part of the ceiling, the front door opened again.

For some reason, Alan thought it would be Connie again, even if that didn't really make much sense since he hadn't seen him leave yet. It was the first reason he stared up at James with mild surprise.

The second reason was because James came in carrying six buckets of water. And the third reason was because he was staring-- no, glaring-- back at him.

That was... fair. Alan didn't exactly live here, and he was alone in the living room right now. Very convenient.

"Hey," Alan greeted, eyes drifting down to the buckets.

He really needed to think of something better to say than a simple greeting, but he was working on it.

James didn't say anything at first as he walked in, heading towards the kitchen.

"Uh," Alan found himself saying to fill the awkward silence. He gestured towards the stairs. "I promise I didn't break in. Shane's coming down in a minute."

James set down the buckets on the kitchen counter, heaving them up effortlessly.

"I figured," James said. He seemed distracted. He reached up into the cabinets, pulling out some bottles. He started dunking them in the buckets and filling them, sealing the bottles off and lining them up on the counter.

Alan half-expected James to elaborate because, well-- buckets. But he seemed busy and disinterested. Alan didn't blame him. He'd always had a feeling that James didn't like him for whatever reason, but that was his business, and Alan wasn't going to pry. It was just a little awkward, but it wasn't the worst thing in the world.

Alan glanced towards the stairs again, debating joining Shane up in his room. Then Alan felt James's eyes on him.

"Have you been hanging in there since the festival?" James asked, looking up from his... bucket-to-bottle water transferring.

Alan blinked, taken back by the question, but in a good way. He didn't mind talking, if James cared for it.

"I'd say so. It was a crazy day for everyone, but I'm hanging in there," Alan replied, leaning back on the side of the couch. "What about you?"

"I'm doing alright," he said, still filling up the bottles. "I'm glad it's over."

James flicked his eyes back up to Alan, like he was observing him closely. Alan found himself standing straighter, although he didn't know why James would be watching him. He didn't even know what he was doing with the bottles. What was this, a plastic water bottle company?

"Are you and Shane going to be hanging out here for a while?" James asked.

Alan shook his head. "No, we'll be stepping out soon, so we'll be out of your hair."

With the faintest huff, James looked back down. He seemed displeased by that answer for some reason, as he frowned a little deeper than before. Alan didn't know why he'd even care considering they hardly knew each other. He found himself idly tapping his finger against the couch, wishing Shane would come down faster.

"You know..." James started. "I don't know you very well, but Shane seems to have grown very fond of you."

A tense pause. James looked up, meeting Alan's eyes.

"His heart is in a fragile place. It shouldn't be toyed with," James continued. "I don't think you have bad intentions. But..."

James looked back down at the counter, looking lost in thought for a second before he looked back up with shadowed eyes.

"Just be careful," James said.

But it felt more like a warning. Or a threat. The more Alan thought about it, the more all of this felt like a threat. Were the water buckets a threat too? Was that intentional? What the hell did that even mean?

What was this? An intervention? For what?

Did James just imply that he was toying with Shane's heart?

Alan felt like he was staring back too long without saying anything back. He wanted to reply back with all his thoughts, but frankly, he was afraid James was going to crack him open and pour his blood in the buckets to scoop out instead.

"I know," Alan said calmly, trying to look away from his bottle operation, but he found himself unable to do so. "I am."

James's expression hardened into something more severe.

"That's what worries me," he said more quietly.

Alan had no idea what to say to this. He didn't even know what this was.

James sighed.

"Do you remember when we talked that first week?" James asked. "In the middle of the night, out on the beach? You told me you weren't looking for a relationship. Is that still true?"

Right. That was what this was. An intervention of some sorts. It was just like life for Lyall to say something similar before Alan came here, then feel different about everything after he talked with Shane, then James to come in with the same line of thinking, this time with thinly-disguised threats. Of some sort.

Was this life's cruel way to send him a message? What was the message?

"I..." Alan sighed, looking up tiredly. He really didn't feel like he owed James any explanation, but he felt trapped into one. "I'm figuring it out," he said instead, figuring it was the safest answer to say.

James stared at Alan unflinchingly, and it made Alan feel uneasy.

"...Okay," James said with a small sigh.

And at that, it seemed James was no longer giving Alan any of his attention. He looked down at his water project, initiating conversation no longer.

The feeling was mutual, at least. Alan stared at the stairs, tapping the passing seconds with his finger, trying to predict the second Shane would skitter down the stairs.

Mercifully, it was only about twenty of those seconds before a door creaked upstairs, and then Shane was hurrying down.

"Sorry about that," he started saying before he'd even reached the bottom of the stairs, chuckling. "The beast took more pets than I expected to be tamed."

His head snapped to the side, and he gave James a small smile and a wave.

"Hey, James," Shane said once he'd gotten all the way down, looking over the bottle and bucket setup like he wasn't quite expecting to see it, but wasn't astonished either.

"Hey, Shane," James replied with a small nod.

There seemed to a moment of quick, silent communication between them. Whatever was exchanged, it didn't seem to make Shane concerned about the buckets.

"The two of us were about to step out," Shane said, looking between Alan and James. "Although maybe you heard that already."

Alan nodded, dipping out to head for the door. "Ready to go?" he asked over to Shane.

Shane nodded, still smiling, although he seemed more perplexed now. He joined Alan at the door, giving James a glance over his shoulder. "Later, James."

(James says buhbye don't let him get you for the money)lol

Alan was glad to have left the cabin. It strangely felt really stuffy in there, so walking out into the fresh air felt nice. He sighed as they walked through the sand, and he glanced over to Shane with a small smile.

"Do you know where you'd like to go?" he asked.

"You suggested somewhere new," Shane said, smiling back. "Unless you have a favorite, that sounds good to me."

Alan shook his head. "Somewhere new is fine. We can head to the plaza and figure it out."
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SilverNight says...

When Shane and Alan parted ways, and Shane ended up back at the cabin, it was already quite dark. So it wasn't surprising to see James and Connie both eating pasta with tomato sauce while sitting on the living room couches. Connie's was vegetarian, but James had added meat to his, and there was also a bowl of salad out on the coffee table.

There was a bowl of pasta with meat sauce and a fork left out for him, and Shane smiled slightly, joining them and taking a seat once he'd gotten his shoes off.

"Hey, guys," he said, picking up the bowl. It was warm in his hands, and it smelled delicious. "Thanks for taking care of dinner. This looks great."

"You're usually the one cooking anyways," James said. "This time you just get to eat."

Shane smiled again, taking a first bite. The pasta tasted better than usual. Fresher. He thought about it as he chewed.

"Connie, did you make this pasta?" he asked, holding up his fork. "It's delicious."

"I did," Connie said after taking another bite. "It's much more preferable than prepackaged pasta."

"I like it a lot," Shane said, not surprised that Connie knew how to make pasta-- and not surprised he would like it better than packaged kinds. James and Shane had made a lot of that kind, but Connie had never touched the leftovers, even if it was vegetarian. Now he knew why.

"So, how was your day?" James asked casually before taking a big bite of food.

"It was alright," Shane said, between bites. It had been more of a day with highs and lows, but it was probably best to take the average. "How about yours?"

James looked up in thought as he finished chewing. "Better than the rest of the week." He looked to Connie. "You?"

"The usual," Connie replied.

Then something unexpected happened: Connie's phone went off from his pocket. It was short, signaling a text instead of a call. Instead of the default tone, wind chimes played instead. Connie pulled it out without a word, unlocking it and reading his notification in silence as if this was a normal occurrence.

James exchanged a surprised glance with Shane. Both of them had assumed Connie didn't have a phone, so it was unusual to see Connie with one, especially when he seemed so against them in general.

"Is that your family?" Shane guessed tentatively after a few moments of silence.

"No," Connie answered, the keypad clicking as he responded in real time. "I only call them."

James cast Shane another curious bit of side-eye.

"...Who is it?" James asked after a pause, like he was deciding whether or not to ask.

Connie continued to tap away, putting together his reply as he answered, "Princess Eliza."

James stared at Connie. Shane stared too.

Okay. Shane's contact book wasn't exactly full of global royal figures, but he had some numbers, certainly. That wasn't terribly unexpected for Connie, especially since he'd been living life as royalty longer than Shane had, but there was still something strange about the whole thing. Or maybe it was just the casualness of it all.

He could see why James would be thinking about it differently, though. Eliza was the princess of the Moonlight Kingdom, after all, and... well. Understandably, there was some reason for bad blood.

"I didn't know you were friends," Shane said after a few moments.

"We're not," Connie said, and the swoosh sound played, indicating that he sent the text. He clicked off his phone and set it aside again, returning to his food.

"Oh. Formal business. Of course." Shane let out a slightly awkward laugh. He couldn't really remember how closely allied Talia and the Moonlight Kingdom were, but there had to be some kind of communication between them.

"Not that either, unless you consider marriage a formal business." Connie half-shrugged. "It is, sometimes, with royal families."

At this point, James audibly made a choking noise after taking a bite of food. Shane set down his fork suddenly.

"Marriage?" he asked incredulously.

He had the feeling he should be trying to react less dramatically, but... Well. It was dramatic news, even if it hadn't been delivered as such.

"We're not married," Connie said as if that was supposed to reassure them. "We only dated."

His phone went off again with the same windchime tone. Just like before, Connie took out his phone to read and reply again.

Shane was aware that he was staring, and that was probably a little impolite, but he really didn't know what he was supposed to be.

Had he been living under a rock?

"I never knew," he said, still processing the fact that Connie and Eliza were... exes.

"It's not public knowledge," Connie said, another chime going off that sounded like a reaction to a message. It must have been from Connie, since he put away his phone without responding.

Spoiler! :
Eliza wrote:Hello, Connie. I've been informed about an event that's supposed to occur next week, and I didn't want to blind-side you. I was invited to visit on-set for a week on Auslanii. Because of how we left things, I am considering denying the invitation, unless you'd like to open that door again and make things public. I leave the ball in your court.

Connie wrote:Good evening, Eliza. Thank you for letting me know. What is this event you speak of? I do not have time for trivial events, and neither do you. If you wish to meet, let us reconvene after the summer.

Eliza wrote:I unfortunately am not at liberty to discuss the event in more detail. I agree it would be prudent to meet later when the these matters are more within our control. I will decline their offer and I look forward to seeing you after your DMV.

Connie wrote:👍

Shane slowly nodded. "Please forgive my surprise, then. I take it you haven't told too many people, so..." he shrugged, still reeling. "It caught me off guard. Sorry."

Connie waved him off. "All is forgiven. It doesn't bother me."

James had been sitting quietly, looking perplexed as he set his own bowl of food to the side and stared down into his lap with his brows knit together.

"How long ago was this?" James asked.

"We broke up a few months ago," Connie said as he stirred his kale salad with his fork.

The look in James's eyes was one Shane hadn't really seen before. He looked deeply disturbed.

"That's... pretty recent," Shane said, more softly and gently. He didn't know how to comment on... the other implications of this. "I'm sorry."

"It's quite alright. I ended things because there was too much drama." Connie lightly shrugged. "Both in countries and her personality, among other things."

Yeah. Other things, alright.

"That can still be difficult, all the same," Shane said.

"No. I'm quite relieved it's over," Connie replied, then paused in thought. "Although, it sounds like she wants to see me next week. I said no. Neither of us have time for such trivial matters."

Shane frowned. "She wants to... go here?"

"Eliza denied the DMV's invitation," Connie assured.

"Invitation?" James asked.

"That's what she said. Yes," Connie said patiently, although Shane had a feeling the patience was beginning to run thin.

This didn't make sense. Royals had better things to do than get summoned to a tropical island. Unless they were Shane or Connie, of course, and didn't have much choice in the matter.

"They're often up to something," Shane muttered. "Guess they're allowing visitors."

"I highly doubt that. This is what Eliza said, but it doesn't mean it's the truth. Politics, lies, and deceit often leak into all relationships for royals. This is no different," Connie said matter-of-factly.

Shane nodded slowly, even though he wasn't quite sure either. It didn't make sense for the DMV to invite people over, yes, but he'd failed to see the logic in a lot of their actions thus far.

"Well, I'm sorry you have to deal with that," James said after a small bit of silence.

"Likewise," Connie said, taking a bite of his salad.

James glanced over at Shane. It was hard to read what he might've been thinking, but it seemed like he was conflicted.

"I do hope it's just some ploy she made up, though," James said faintly. "I don't know why they'd bring her here other than to cause drama for you."

Connie huffed through his nose. "There would be no drama from me. If she wants to go on television and embarrass herself, she is welcome to. But I advised her not to, suggesting we meet when the summer is over."

"Are you actually going to do that?" James asked with a raised brow.

"I deal with government figures from many countries around the world, political and economic in nature. Us meeting again is unavoidable. We have a mutual understanding," Connie said assuredly.

"I'm glad you're able to be mature about it," James said. "I know it's still hard regardless seeing an ex again if you were together for a while."

Shane nodded, even though he wasn't really familiar with that. He hadn't seen Tristan since graduation-- high school graduation, at that-- and so he'd never dealt with that difficulty. It was best they didn't meet, anyway.

"Though, to be honest," James continued. "I wouldn't put it past the DMV to do something petty like that at this point. Doing something ridiculous like wanting to bring our exes onto the show just to mess with us."

"Perhaps," Connie said. "Although, if that is the intent, then they would be damaging Eliza's reputation more than mine. The Moonlight Kingdom is already reeling from current events. It's for her own good that she doesn't come here. I only trust that she heeds my words."

James looked into the near-distance, as if sharing his dead-eyed stare with the void.

"Right," James said. "Because that's the only reason they'd bring her."

"The DMV is about to renew their ten-year contract with Talia and Aphirah. It's no coincidence Shane and I are both here," Connie said. "It's best not to play their political games."

And they were doing a pretty poor job of ensuring that Aphirah wanted to renew it, if Shane's conversation with Flint was anything to go by.

"You've been relatively untouched, haven't you?" James asked.

"The contract is only awaiting my signature. It's essentially done," Connie said, taking another bite of the salad.

"Ours is not," Shane said quietly. He shifted on the couch, a little uncomfortably. "I don't think this show is making Aphirah sympathetic to the idea. If they're bringing people here, I don't know who or what they'd try with me, but it probably wouldn't be helpful to the cause either."

James looked over to Shane, his expression softening a bit with what looked like worry.

"I mean... if there's a theme," James said. "It could be Alexandra. But we don't know enough to jump to that conclusion."

Shane blinked in confusion. He'd heard that name twice this week now. Why?

"...Who?" he asked slowly.

James stared at Shane, blinking in confusion just the same.

"Alexandra?" James asked slowly. "Your... ex-fiancee?"

Shane stared back until an incredulous laugh bubbled up in his throat, even though this wasn't funny. No, it was funny. First Hendrik and now James? He wasn't sure why everyone thought he was previously engaged. Maybe it was really for the coincidence to be this big.

"Sorry," he said, recovering from the laughter. "I, uh, don't actually know who you mean. You're not the first person to think I was engaged for some reason this week, though."

James's expression turned bewildered and concerned. His brows pinched together, and his mouth hung open.

"You're being serious?" James pressed.

The amusement faded as quickly as it came, and Shane was frowning now.

"Well, yeah," he said. "I don't know who you mean, and you're not confused on the name, either. I don't have an ex-fiancee."

James's concern only deepened, and he met Shane's eyes intensely. "Alexandra Harlow. Your relationship was public for years. You were engaged for two. The whole world knew about it. It's in tabloids and magazines and all over the internet. Shane, please tell me you're just joking because of how things ended."

Shane slowly opened his mouth, but no words came out.

This was... insane. This wasn't him James was talking about.

"...I'm not joking," he said carefully. "I don't know who she is. Unless I'm somehow the last person to learn about this, and I don't think I've been living under so much of a rock that I'd be unaware of my own engagement."

James stared intently at Shane, uncomfortably and unblinking. Behind him, Connie picked up his bowl and silently dismissed himself to the kitchen, only casting Shane a quick, almost judgemental look.

"You really don't remember anything?" James asked, lowering his voice.

"What's there to remember?" Shane asked, starting to feel a little freaked out. "Look, I-- I'm not sure who has a face or name like mine that you might have mixed me up with, but Hendrik said literally the same thing earlier this week. Whoever there is, that's not me."

"There isn't another Shane Hawking in popular media who looks like you and is the heir of Aphirah and son of Gwen and Ray Hawking!" James sputtered, throwing his hands up in the air. "There literally isn't! There's only you!"

Shane shrank back, feeling like one of them had to be insane. He wasn't sure who, at this rate.

"Is your -- do you not remember when you and Alex graduated together?" James asked. "That was on live television."

"I know who I graduated with," Shane said, more defensively. "I remember that well. There wasn't anyone named Alexandra, at least not associated with me."

James lifted his hands up to his face, holding his hands together as if in prayer. He held them over his nose and mouth, squinting at Shane in the deepest display of distress he'd ever seen James show. And that was saying something, considering James had been through... well, a lot.

"...Shane, I swear I'm not lying to you," James said, lowering his hands from his face, proceeding to talk calmly and steadily. "I wouldn't just make something like this up. Why would I? I have nothing to gain from making up a fictional ex for you. I'm not trying to play some kind of trick. I'm genuinely, deeply worried right now because I'm pretty sure you could ask anyone who keeps up with things in the world and they would at least be aware of Alexandra's existence. I don't know what happened to you that you lost the memory of her or can't recall, but... that's really not something to be ignored."

"James, I'm not lying either," Shane exclaimed. "I'm not-- saying this because of how... 'things ended' or whatever you meant by that. I don't know what things is even supposed to mean. My memory is good. I could probably tell you all the names of the people in my graduating class, if I sat down and thought about it for a while. How would I forget someone who was my girlfriend, of all people? Nothing's happened. I'd know if something had."

Connie walked upstairs without a word. James glanced back at him almost desperately, like he was hoping Connie would stay. He turned back to Shane, lifting a hand to his temple and looking down into his lap with a deep frown.

"If I had any faith in the searching system on this island I'd tell you just to giggle it right now," James muttered. "But somehow, I feel like they'd be cruel enough to twist this too."

"Why?" Shane asked, frowning again.

"Because they're milking all of our lives for as much drama that they can capture on-screen as possible," James said. "Did you know that when Hild and Lyall came here, neither of them knew the other was here? I found out before the crew had planned the 'great reveal,' and messed up that planned reunion. I'm afraid this is something like that, but worse. But even they remembered each other. What worries me is that you can't even remember who Alexandra is. Her name is now stamped in Aphiran history, and the fact that you don't know of her, with you being who you are, is... well, it's just wrong."

Shane placed his head in his hands.

Well, if one of them was insane, James clearly thought it was him. But Shane knew he wasn't. If he'd known someone like this for any amount of the time James had described, he knew he wouldn't have forgotten who she was. Especially not if she was someone important.

He'd never had someone that important.

"James," he said quietly, only feeling tired now. "I'm sorry. I don't know what to tell you. But I still have no clue what you're talking about."

James let out a long sigh.

"I know you don't believe me now," James said quietly. "But please just keep this in mind. I have a feeling Alexandra may come up in the future. Maybe sooner than later. I just don't want to see you blindsided."

"She already has," Shane said, looking up at him desperately as he lifted his face from his hands. "I heard someone with her name interrupt the call with my uncle the other day, on the other side of the phone. I heard her voice. I still didn't have a clue who she was, and Flint said I didn't know her either."

At that, James's head snapped up, and Shane looked at him intently.

"Flint said that," James said flatly.

"Yes," Shane said tiredly. "He wouldn't answer any questions about who she was, so I stopped asking. He's stubborn like that."

"And you didn't find that suspicious at all?" James asked carefully.

"No. Yes." Shane facepalmed. "It's politics, okay? There's plenty of secretive business, and this is far from the first time he's discouraged further questions about something. It wasn't that odd to me."

"Is it really that hard to answer a simple question about who someone is, though? And why would she have burst into your call in the first place?" James pressed.

Shane threw up his hands helplessly. "I don't know. She could've been someone classified, for all I knew at the time. And she came in to say she wanted to talk to me, because she somehow figured out it was me on the phone. He wouldn't let her. Yes, it was strange, but it was also a dead end."

James leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and he let out a very, very long sigh.

"... I think we should drop this for now," James said, sounding defeated.

"Wait, wait," Shane said, holding up his hands. He wasn't sure why, but now that he was aware of this, he didn't think he could just... leave it be. "I... still don't even know who Alexandra is. Except that we were engaged-- supposedly-- and that everyone would agree I've forgotten her. Again, supposedly. But I don't know who the person you think I've wiped out is."

Briefly rubbing his face, James shook his head slightly.

"Okay," he said with another sigh. "Alexandra Harlow. She's... lean. Petite. A little shorter than you. She has sharp, but pleasant features, and short, straight dark hair. In any interview I've seen her in she's always had more of a confident, aloof sort of manner. She seems more pragmatic and straightforward. Has that dry wit. I know you two apparently were highschool sweehearts and went on to go to the same college, graduating at the same time. She's gone on to be an astrophysicist, in part due to her super-human affinity for mathematics. That's her magic, I suppose. To essentially be a human calculator. Not that anyone is merely the sum of their powers, but... that's probably all I can say without adding conjecture. I never met her personally, of course. I only really know what's been publicized."

This... sounded like a whole person to Shane's ears. Someone who could plausibly exist out there. Someone who could be interesting to know, even.

But it didn't feel like anyone he knew. There was no deja vu for any of the details. No sense of familiarity or recognition.

Shane took a deep breath, closing his eyes.

"And you promise," he said, his voice starting to feel shaky, "that you aren't mixing anyone up in this situation, and that this isn't some elaborate concept of a person that just exists in everyone's minds but mine."

James looked up, sitting up straight and turning to face Shane squarely. With concern and compassion in his eyes, James leaned forward.

"I promise," James said. "I'm as sure of it as I am that the sun will rise and set another day."

Shane buried his face in his hands again.

"Then what's wrong with me?" he mumbled.

James was quiet for a moment.

"I'm sorry. I don't know," James said softly. "But it sounds like Flint might know something. I know things aren't so simple with him, but would it hurt to ask?"

"If he doesn't want to tell me something, he doesn't tell me," Shane said weakly. "But I don't know why he'd lie about this."

Shane felt the weight on the couch shift a lot. James must've inched closer.

"Do you...? I don't know if we've established if you're a hug person," James muttered.

"Very much a hug person," Shane mumbled, pulling his hands away from his face slowly.

James was sitting beside Shane, and he lifted his arm over Shane's shoulder, silently inviting Shane to lean in.

Shane did, sinking against him like he couldn't hold himself up anymore. Maybe it wasn't much of a 'like'. He sure felt that way.

"I don't know why Flint would lie," James said. "But from what I remember, the break-up happened not long after your parents passed, only three months ago. I can only imagine that it was an incredibly difficult time. Maybe... well, I don't want to make any assumptions."

"No, you can say it," Shane said quietly. "It's not like I can put the pieces together very well."

"I wouldn't be surprised if you wanted to forget it," James said faintly.

Shane swallowed, feeling a heavy lump in his throat.

"I... would rule that out for you, because I can't see myself ever doing that," he said quietly. "Except I can't even say that, because I... I wouldn't know, or remember my thought process if I had done that, or..."

He trailed off helplessly.

What was wrong with him?

"I don't even know how that'd work," he said weakly.

James lightly patted Shane's arm.

"I'm sure there are ways," he said quietly. "What with all the different magics in the world."

"Probably," Shane said quietly.

But the how was the last of his burning questions. The who, when and why were much bigger mysteries to him.

"If it was me..." he started to say, then shook his head. "I would hope I'd anticipate finding out from someone. If the world knew and I didn't, I'd end up learning from someone, somehow, just like this. It would be futile. If this was my decision-- and I can't see myself deciding this-- I'd know it wouldn't work for very long. I don't know why I'd still go through with it then."

"Maybe it was never meant to be a long-term solution?" James suggested quietly.

"I'm not one to make short term solutions with long-term, high impact, possibly irreversible consequences," Shane said faintly. "I'm not an escapist. I'm not. I wouldn't try to leave something painful behind me, even if it meant I wouldn't have that pain anymore."

Had it been painful? He didn't even know. He couldn't remember any sort of heartbreak for it, even though he knew he would have felt it.

How had things ended, anyway?

He didn't know. But he should know, and that terrified him.

"I'm sorry you had to find out like this," James said after a long pause. "I wish I had more answers for you."

"It's best I did find out, sooner rather than later," Shane said quietly. "Before..."

Before I did anything uninformed.

But he had, hadn't he? He'd had that whole conversation with Hendrik, who had been right, in hindsight, but Shane had denied everything. That conversation was probably televised in the episode for that part of the week, and he probably looked like a jerk for it.

He was starting to see why Alexandra might have wanted to speak to him. He doesn't know what he's doing, she'd said on the phone call.

Except that call had been after the festival, not the conversation with Hendrik...

Shane suddenly sat up, covering his face again.

"Oh my god," he said in quiet horror. "She's probably seen everything on this island. She's got to hate me."

"Okay, hold on," James said calmly. "You were exes before you came on this show, first of all. Remember that. And I'm sure -- well, she must know something's up with your memory. Right? If not, you'll have plenty of opportunities to tell her once this is all over if you decide that's something you want. We still don't know for sure how you lost your memories, so don't go blaming yourself for all of this yet, okay? We don't have enough information to make any conclusions."

"I'm still hurting someone's feelings, probably," Shane said frantically. "You said it was three months ago? That's-- in the entire world's eyes, I should not be acting like this. It doesn't matter that I didn't know, I look heartless."

"I know the whole world is watching, Shane," James said. "But even things like this are not irreparable. Apologies can still be made and conversations can still be had. And now that you at least know, you can start to make more informed decisions from now on. Yes, you'll have to live with these past two weeks, but just because something looks a certain way doesn't meant that's the full truth. The world sees one side of the story. It's not who you are."

"Who I am doesn't matter to the world," Shane said quietly, but it was only a semblance of calmness. "It's all about what they see, good or bad. Regardless of how much of a spotlight I've had on me across my life, there has always been an attempt to control my image. I'm never the one doing it. I often don't even know how I look to people who have never met me, except that the real me is irrelevant in contrast. And now, when I'm appearing to the world under a whole different lens--" Shane's voice turned strangled. "I can't afford to look bad, to mess up, to fail. Even if I step in front of a camera now and issue an apology with an explanation, I'll always have this hanging over me. And if I try and act according to my conscience in light of this, I have to go back on things that have already been done and moved forward with that I don't want to take back, either." Shane closed his eyes. "I can't win."

James held Shane a little tighter.

"I'm sorry," James said. "It's a battle you'll never be able to win."

Shane slumped even more, wishing it was possible to just give up. Or else run away from the problem somehow.

"I'm tired of fighting it," he muttered. "I didn't even know there was this problem. I was just... what? Oblivious?"

James hummed in sad agreement.

"You know," James said softly. "I... I really think you should talk to Flint about this."

Shane sighed. "And say what? 'Hey, you lied to me, what's up with that? Spill the truth now or else I'll resign and appoint Shrimp in my position'?"

James hesitated. Shane could feel it in the slight hitch of his inhale.

"I mean, you don't have to talk to him about it if you don't want to," James said. "But you could approach it like... 'Hey, I was told by a few people about this, and it seems credible since I'm hearing it from separate sources who would have no reason to conspire against me with this information. I think it would've been wise for me to know this ahead of time going into the DMV with the knowledge many of my conversations are on air. Why didn't you tell me? I'm afraid that now I've said and done some things I wouldn't have if I'd known this before.'"

Shane was silent for a few moments. It wasn't bad advice, even though James didn't know Flint personally, or how much of a brick wall he could be. He had no idea if such a conversation would lead anywhere.

Then again, he rarely knew where talking with Flint would go. The conversation where he'd been appointed as Heir had come as a complete surprise.

Which meant it wasn't much more of a shot in the dark than all other times he'd tried to have a talk with him.

Shane took a deep breath.

"Okay," he said quietly. "What if I... I don't know, I called him, but with you here, and put him on speaker without him knowing? I take it you want to hear whatever he says, so this would mean you could hear it for yourself."

James pulled away a little so he could look down at Shane.

"Do you want that?" James asked gently. "Would that be helpful for you?"

After a moment, Shane hesitantly nodded.

"I don't think I can trust myself right now," he said quietly. "But I do trust you."

James's eyes softened, and he nodded firmly.

"Okay," he said. "I can be there for it. Just let me know when you're ready to do it."

Shane nodded back again, trying to put on a brave face.

"We could even try it now," he said. "It's daylight in Eastern Aphirah."

James raised a brow. "Sure," he said. "If you feel ready for it."

Shane let out a quiet, vaguely uneasy laugh as he took out his phone, setting it on the coffee table.

"Ready as I'll ever be," he said.

"Alright, then. Let's do it."
"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

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soundofmind says...

The phone rang twice on the coffee table, and James and Shane both watched it in silence for a few moments. Shane was biting his lip, staring intently at the screen. His position on the couch looked rather uncomfortable, but he hadn't moved, instead waiting apprehensively and holding very still.

James understood Shane's anxiety. It was clear that Flint knew more than he was letting on, and from all James understood of their relationship, Flint was not a warm man, and seemed more concerned with the future of Aphirah than Shane's overall well-being. The one thing James was too afraid to suggest to Shane was the thing he suspected most: Shane had admitted he would never be open to the idea of removing his memories of Alexandra. But that was the thing. James didn't think it was Shane's idea.

Shane had already said on multiple occasions that he always had to think about his image and how the public was responding to him. Him being on this island was causing a stir because even the mundane moments between him and others were being recorded for all the world to see.

Shane already lived in the public eye. But here, there really was no escape, even in their own rooms.

Flint would be painfully aware of this.

Their waiting was brought to an end by the third ring being cut short. James heard Shane hold his breath.

"Isn't it late for you?" the rough, low voice on the other side of the phone answered. Flint Hawking.

Strangely enough, this way of greeting seemed to make Shane more relieved than anything, as he released the breath he'd been holding.

"Good morning, Flint," he said neutrally. "It's only eleven, and it's not past my bedtime."

Flint let out a hum. "Not with that caffeine addiction, it isn't."

Shane looked like he was suppressing a sigh.

"Good to hear from you too," he said, looking away from the phone to make eye contact with James. "I have something I... want to hear more about from you, actually."

James offered Shane a supportive nod. In response, Shane gave him a bare, stressed smile.

There was the sound of paper turning, and James could imagine Flint sitting at a desk. If Flint was distracted during this conversation doing paperwork, then maybe they could catch him off guard. But it was just as possible that he'd be more dismissive.

"If it's about your dating escapades, I'm working on those right now," Flint said flatly. "No need to thank me."

Shane actually sighed. James was unimpressed by how condescending Flint managed to be in one sentence.

"They are not escapades," Shane said, sounding like he was trying hard to stay calm, "and I would appreciate it if we didn't talk about that, actually."

James gave Shane another approving nod of encouragement, glad that Shane was speaking up for himself.

With that, Shane took another deep breath. "I'm calling to talk about Alexandra."

The sound of paper flipping abruptly stopped. They both waited. It then started again. James felt a sense of guilty pleasure in having caught Flint off-guard.

"Is that Alexandra M, or Alexandra K?" Flint asked after a second of brief pause, no sign of concern in his voice.

Shane narrowed his eyes at the phone. "You know who."

In the event Shane happened to forget her last name, James reached under the coffee table where he'd stored the child's writing toy. Clearing it of cat scribbles, he wrote: 'Alexandra Harlow,' and angled it for Shane to see. Shane gave him a quick thumbs up, though it looked like he had remembered.

"I don't, actually. We have a lot of interns this year, and I think there are a few Alexandras," Flint said, as though this was perfectly reasonable. "Even an Alexander, I think. What do you mean, 'you know'?"

"I mean, I know you're playing dumb right now," Shane deadpanned. "Alexandra Harlow, of course."

"I don't think we have an Alexandra H," Flint said, sounding almost bored. "Maybe check with one of the other Houses."

Okay. This was just ridiculous and demeaning. James wasn't going to put up with this. Maybe Flint felt like he could treat Shane this way, but James wasn't going to stand for it.

"Now, Mr. Hawking," James spoke up.

Shane's gaze flicked to him, and he looked tense for a few seconds, but he gave him a nod, indicating he could keep speaking.

"We both know that's not true," James continued. "And frankly, it's rather insulting that you would blow off Shane when he's being entirely reasonable."

There was another moment of silence on the call. Just the barest moment. But it was another hesitation.

"Who is this, and does he have the proper authority to be here?" Flint said tiredly.

James flicked his eyes to Shane, silently asking if he wanted to reply or if James should take this.

"You know who James is, too," Shane said. "This is his cabin, he's my friend, and I wanted him here for this talk. He is perfectly welcome to be here."

"This is a private line," Flint objected.

"Flint, you've ordered pizza from that line. Stop acting like I've breached national security," Shane said, now sounding the more tired of the two.

Flint sighed. "Very well. I reserve the right to pretend there are only two people on this call at any given moment."

"Great. Now that we've cleared that up," James said. "Are you going to stop feigning ignorance?"

"What interest does James Hawke have in an intern?" Flint asked. "Seems a bit excessive, if you ask me. Are you trying to recruit her? I'll have you know, we're competitive in our wages."

James pressed his lips together and let out a harsh sigh through his nose as he mouthed: I swear to god, at the floor.

He's like this all the time, Shane mouthed.

All the time? James mouthed back.

Shane gave him a fierce nod and a bit of an eyeroll.

"You can reserve the right to ignore me," James said. "But I reserve the right to respond. I'm not the one interested in Alexandra Harlow. Shane is the one who wants to talk about her."

"That's right," Shane said. "Because I think I have the right to know why I've suddenly forgotten a major figure in my life."

James waved his hands to Shane in expressive, pointed encouragement as a silent way of saying: "Exactly!" Despite his stressed expression, Shane managed to smile again.

"Have you?" Flint asked. "That's a shame. I hope it wasn't myself."

James pressed his lips together tightly and shook his fist at the phone on the table.

"Do you genuinely have short term memory problems, Flint?" James asked. "We've said her name at least four times now. I'm concerned that you can't remember her either. You know exactly who Shane's talking about. Don't make him say it again."

"My memory is perfectly well, although I thank you for your concern," Flint said flatly. "I remember your trial, for instance. You knew you were in your place then. It seems you've forgotten that."

Flint was trying to push his buttons, then. James wasn't going to let him.

"Stay on topic," James said firmly. "Alexandra Harlow."

James nodded to Shane in small apology.

"Is that a topic?" Flint asked. "If so, it's not one I have much to say about."

James stood up from the couch, taking in a sharp inhale.

Shane dealt with this all the time? James wouldn't put up with this for more than a minute. He used to put up with this kind of behavior all the time, but he refused to put up with this kind of manipulative, gaslighting shit anymore. He'd learned, and now he was not going to tolerate it in his life. He understood why Shane probably felt he had to appease Flint because of the family and political ties, but holy hell. This was insanity. Flint was talking them in circles.

"You would really pretend an entire person doesn't exist?" Shane asked disbelievingly. "Who's paying you for this?"

"My salary comes from taxes, but also from my work," Flint said flatly. "Which you are keeping me from. In case you actually needed to know the answers to those."

James took a second to take in a deep breath, collect himself, and lean back into reason.

So, Flint wanted to waste their time with this dance? Then they weren't going to dance around it any more. James only had one question he truly wanted to know the answer to, and it was one that he knew Shane needed to know too.

If Flint couldn't answer it, then something was really wrong with him.

James sat back down and leaned forward, glancing at Shane briefly, then the phone. Flint had a way of taking the one thing in any question or statement that was the least relevant and addressing that and ignoring everything else. So he was going to ask a question that made that impossible.

"You care about Shane, don't you?" James asked pointedly.

"Of course," Flint said neutrally. "He's my kin, and I have a duty to protect him. I'm worried about you being a bad influence, quite honestly."

Suuuuuure, sure. James wasn't going to take the bait.

"Do you think Shane deserves to know the truth?" James asked.

Shane was watching him a little closer now, like he was wondering what James was up to.

"Deserves, sure," Flint said. "But what truth? If he's looking to know the secrets of the universe, he should direct his questions elsewhere. Maybe mention more relevant names, too."

"Just answer this one question honestly, then, if you really mean it when you say you care about him," James said. "Whose idea was it to erase Shane's memories of Alexandra Harlow? His, or yours?"

Shane leaned back into the couch, looking very stiff as the seconds passed by.

It felt like forever before Flint spoke up again.

"I certainly do mean it when I say I care," Flint said. "I care enough to protect him. And there are threats out there that are entirely pointless for him to face."

James's jaw stiffened. That was not a straight answer, but it still was one. Flint wasn't pointing fingers at Shane. Instead, he was taking ownership for wanting to protect Shane. Indirectly, he was giving the answer James dreaded, and he knew would crush Shane.

"Did you think removing his memories of Alexandra would protect him?" James asked.

"I think nothing of that," Flint said gruffly.

James took in a deep breath, leaning back into his seat. He looked over at Shane, who was staring down at the phone, his gaze distant. He'd pulled his legs up to his chest and had wrapped his arms around them. Shane did not look like he was capable of continuing this conversation.

"Do you want me to wrap it up?" James whispered, barely audible.

Instead of answering directly to James, Shane lifted his head, his gaze remaining a million miles away.

"Thanks, Flint," he said, his voice dead of emotion. "Call me back when I've made things difficult for you again. I'm sure it won't be long. It seems that's all I'm good for."

And before James could hear anything more from Flint, Shane reached over, hitting the end call button on the phone without looking before pulling his arm back around himself again. James was not normally quick to initiate hugs, but knowing that it comforted Shane, James reached around him, pulling him into one. Shane hugged him back, seeming to do it on autopilot.

"I'm sorry if I overstepped," James said quietly.

"No, you didn't," Shane said, just as quietly. He sounded weary. "I was glad you were there. I wouldn't have gotten anywhere at all by myself."

James hugged Shane a little tighter.

"I'm sorry," he said, still keeping his voice down. "I'm sorry about all of this. You don't deserve it."

Tiredly, Shane let his head thunk against James's shoulder.

"I just don't know what to do with this," he muttered. "What I know. What I still don't."

"You don't have to do anything right now," James said softly. "I think right now, just... let yourself feel how you feel. It's okay to stay there. Figuring out what to do can come later."

Shane nodded numbly, still not quite looking at anything in particular. "Okay," he said quietly, then took a deep breath. "I feel... tired. But I know I'll be thinking for hours now."

"Can't say I'll be able to fall asleep any time soon, either," James murmured.

And he'd been tired for weeks, now. But especially the past few days. He hadn't told Shane - or anyone, really - but he hadn't slept at all.

"I'm fine with staying up if you want company," James said. "I don't think it's a great idea to be alone with stuff like this. Especially since... well, I think it's safe to say you get caught in your head sometimes. Right?"

Shane hummed softly. "Yeah," he admitted in a quiet voice. "That might help. It's okay if you do fall asleep, though."

A slight pause.

"Sorry for all the cheap shots he took at you," he said, sighing again. "That can't be nice to think about, either."

James leaned back into the couch with a sigh.

"Eh, it was pretty tame, honestly," James said dismissively. "I've heard a lot worse."

Shane nodded, his head bumping into James's shoulder as he did. "I'm sure," he said, quietly again. "Still. Flint is regularly insensitive, but doesn't usually make it that personal. I think you must worry him a bit." He paused. "It makes sense why. I think you're a hero, James, but Flint wouldn't see it that way. Although he'd never admit it, you're more like a threat to him."

James was caught off guard a bit. He kind of already figured Flint saw him as a threat - that, he was flattered by - but it always felt a little awkward to be called a hero. He was just... some guy.

"Well... uh, thanks," James said.

Maybe if he was less sleep deprived, he could respond with more grace. Unfortunately, his mind was working a little slow these days, and it felt like he'd already expended most of his mental energy during the phone call.

"I guess that's why he doesn't seem a fan of us being friends," James said.

"Apparently this is my rebellious phase," Shane joked dryly.

James snorted faintly at that.

"Better late than never," James said.

Shane let out a tired chuckle. "He'll act like I'm trouble regardless. It's something to actually play the part for once."

"If he thinks this is you causing trouble," James said. "Then I can't imagine how he'd react if you were actually stirring the pot."

Shane shook his head as if he were picturing it disbelievingly. "Poorly," he said, his tone indicating he knew it was an understatement. "I've never really gone that far. The most I can say I've done was arguing against him giving me the position of Heir." He raised a hand, then lowered it again, as if to indicate where they were at now. "He won, of course."

James had a feeling that the one argument Shane had with Flint probably colored their relationship forever, after that. It saddened James to hear that Shane probably felt helpless and controlled. That wasn't a good way to live.

"Has he ever listened to you?" James asked softly. "At all? Or does he always have the final say?"

Shane frowned slightly, and that was basically James's answer right there.

"He doesn't need to," he said, stating it like it was a fact, but his words rang hollow. "He doesn't answer to pretty much anyone, and he definitely didn't choose me so that I'd contest his decisions."

James nodded slightly. Well, he could see why Flint would hate him, then.

"I'm sure that Flint believes it when he says he cares about you," James said softly. "But he has a crappy way of showing it."

Love had to be more than words. It was also proven in actions, over time. Flint probably believed he was doing the best for Shane, but at the end of the day, it sounded like everything Flint did for Shane was less about protecting him and more about controlling him. Shane forgetting Alexandra made things easier for Flint, but it certaintly made things more harmful and complicated for Shane in the long run.

Shane nodded distantly at that.

"Yeah," he said, more quietly. "He does care, even if he'll rarely admit it. But it's not always the best way of caring. He might be an empath, but he doesn't... have the best emotional intelligence, somehow."

Flint just didn't care enough to give Shane any agency. So did Flint really care about Shane? Or did he just love the idea of Shane?

"People can be good at feeling emotions, but poor at managing and understanding the emotions," James said.

A pause.

"You said he's an empath?" James asked, trying not to sound too skeptical.

"I know," Shane said, nodding like he also thought it was unbelievable. "It's peak irony. He can stand in a room full of people and know all about how they're feeling at that moment, but he only seems to only understand them in a practical sense. He labels and categorizes them all according to what they are-- joy, confusion, bitterness, hurt, or whatever-- but that's just a surface level comprehension. It's like... I don't know, it'd be like me going around the island to pick up rocks, and identifying them as quartz or feldspar or whatever else, but having no geological knowledge of any of them besides that. He'll know what someone's feeling, but doesn't know what to do with it. I think it's the same for his own emotions, where he can identify them, but not much else."

Huh. So 'empathy' was Flint's magic. Suddenly, things were starting to make sense. With a power like that, it was no wonder Flint probably thought he understood emotions well without having to put in any of the work that normal people had to. Flint probably thought he could bypass normal internal reflection because he felt people's emotions himself.

No wonder Flint was so infuriating. Flint probably thought he had Shane all figured out. But just because you could pick up on someone's emotions didn't mean you understood why they felt that way, what they were thinking, or knew them as a person.

"And I imagine no one's ever told Flint to go read a book about emotional maturity," James said dryly.

"Can you imagine someone trying?" Shane asked with a faint sigh.

Well. He could, yes. Because he would.

"Yes," James answered simply.

Seeming to guess who he meant, Shane let out a faint huff of laughter.

"I would love that, honestly," he said. "I believe my aunt tells him to... 'get his head out of the emotion dictionary' and start emphasizing with the feelings he's good at defining. It's occasionally successful, if he's in a good mood. Which he rarely is."

"Bless your aunt for trying," James said with a huff.

"She's fighting the good, near-impossible fight," Shane said, shaking his head.

James let out a small sigh. Maybe for Shane and his aunt, it felt impossible. But... James was of the mind that nothing was impossible.

Looking down at Shane for a moment, James tilted his head to the side.

"I think we've talked enough about your uncle for now," James said. "Unless there's anything burning in your heart left to say."

Slowly, Shane shook his head.

"I'll have to think about... what this means he might have done," Shane said quietly. "I'll have to process."

"For sure," James said in agreement.

He let a small lull pass as Shane still rested his head against James's shoulder. It was good to let things breathe for a minute, even though he knew the implications of what Shane had learned were painful and weighty. James had to admit he wasn't entirely comfortable with close contact like this, but he was always willing to offer it if he knew it helped a friend. He was going to wait for Shane to pull away when he wanted to.

"Do you want to talk about something else?" James asked eventually, after a few minutes had passed in silence. "Maybe to get your mind off of things for a little bit?"

Shane hesitated for a few moments.

"I did have some questions about you," he said. "And this could be a fitting time to ask. But you don't have to answer them unless you want to-- or you could decide you don't want to after hearing them."

Curious, James honestly didn't mind hearing what was wondering. Shane wasn't crass, and James trusted him to be tactful. If James was going to answer questions about his life honestly with anyone on the island, it was most likely to be Shane, anyway. Shane had earned his trust.

"I don't mind," James assured him. "What's on your mind?"

Shane nodded, his gaze falling back to his phone on the table. The screen had since shut off.

"I'm sure you know all about... standing up to controlling figures," he said carefully. "And about rightfully rebelling when something you see is clearly wrong. So..." He took a deep breath. "How did you prepare for it, knowing what you wanted to do? What it could lead to?"

Well, that was a question he didn't get that often. James looked out into the living room, letting out a small sigh.

"To be honest," James said. "There wasn't really much I could prepare for, except making sure my family was going to be okay. That was probably the hardest thing for me... was counting the cost it could take on my family."

He didn't think that was the answer Shane was looking for, but it was his answer. Shane nodded, his gaze turning sad.

"I kind of expected my personal life to go up in flames, though," James said quietly. "Which... it did. And I don't think there was any way to prevent that."

Shane's expression turned even sadder, deep empathy in his eyes.

"You really did make a heavy sacrifice, James," he said quietly. "One that many people wouldn't have dared to do. I admire that strength you had to do it, but also... I'm sorry. No one should've even had to be in the position choosing between giving everything up or turning a blind eye to something terrible. The atrocities never should've happened in the first place. I'm sorry you had to bear that burden, even though it had to be done."

James smiled faintly.

"I don't regret it," he said. "And I'd do it again if I had to."

Shane smiled faintly back, although it was still sad. "I know," he said. "You're very brave for it."

"Psh," James said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Not too hard to be brave when you're basically invincible."

Shane let out a quiet laugh, but it died rather quickly.

"Invincible, yes," he said, softly again. "But... not immune. Not to everything that could scare a person."

"I-- well, sure," James said. "I... yeah."

Well, that was not convincing or reassuring. Normally James was better at this. The sleep deprivation was getting to him.

Shane seemed to realize this, and he tore his gaze away from the coffee table, glancing up at James.

"Whether it's hard or not, I'm glad you're brave," Shane said. "And even more glad you're on my side."

James smiled faintly at that. "That's what friends are for," he said, giving Shane a pat over the shoulder.

Shane returned the faint smile, his expression saying he was glad for that too.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Carina says...

    "Seriously, bro?" Alistair said through a scoff, face palming with a big smile. He held a lit cigarette between his fingers, the gray smoke puffing up in the sky. "You're messing with me. What are you going to tell me next? That you shit out bricks of gold?"

    Alan rolled his eyes with a smile, peering over their balcony. He had been living with his brother for the past year, and all things considered, life was pretty good. He was used to peering down the neighborhood from the roof of the townhouse they grew up in, but this was different. This was new.

    Now, they were the ones living in the tall apartments with the mountain view, overlooking the people below who could only dream to live here.

    "Wrong. I'm going to remind you once more that you need to stop smoking," Alan said with a smirk, leaning against the railing.

    Alistair rolled his eyes. "Wow. Thanks, mom."

    Alan reached over, plucking the cigarette away from his fingers. Alistair seemed displeased but unsurprised, watching with half-lidded eyes as Alan brought the cigarette to his lips and took in a puff. Before he could point out his hypocrisy, Alan tossed the cigarette over the balcony, and they both watched it disappear below.

    "Funny. A cig once landed on me when I was walking by this building a few years ago," Alistair mumbled.

    Alan smiled, patting his brother's shoulder firmly. "I know, that's why I did it. It's the circle of life."

    Alan ignored the odd look Alistair gave him, turning back to head inside. There was a lot he had to do today, and the day wasn't getting any longer.

    "But really," Alistair said, leaning against the side of the balcony door with his arms crossed, watching Alan put on his bomber jacket. "Where are you really getting the money?"

    "I told you: don't worry about it," Alan said more firmly this time, straightening out his jacket as he met Alistair's eyes. "I have my ways. But it's confidential."

    Alistair sighed, murmuring, "I think I'd be less concerned if you told me you were scamming more people."

    Alan scoffed. "Those days are long over."

    "Yeah." Alistair rubbed the side of his face tiredly. "Hard to top that when you literally scammed an heir. Is that how you got all this money? Do we have a trust fund now? That's a thing, right?"

    Not amused, Alan quirked a brow, dangling the key fob in front of him. "Are you going to use the bike today?"

    Alistair pursed his lips. "You know, if we have a a gazillion dollars in a bank account that grows exponentially, I think we can afford two motorcycles."

    Alan half-rolled his eyes with a smile, slipping on his shoes. "I'm going to take that as a no."

    "I do plan on using it later today, actually," Alistair said. "Looks like you're going to have to drive the Lamborguinea instead."

    Alan stared at him with a dead look. Without looking away, he dropped the key fob back on the side table then opened the door. "I think I'm going to ride the bus today. Like a peasant."

    Alistair nodded, looking contemplative. "While you're at it, can you pick up my cigarette for me? I think I saw it right outside this building."

    "Bye, Alistair," Alan said loudly, leaving before he could say any more.

    The door automatically locked behind him, so Alan hurried out of the building. The trip down the elevator, through the tourist district, and to the bus station felt like a haze where he wasn't totally there, stuck on auto-pilot. Before he knew it, the sun fell low in the sky, and Alan was sitting in the office alone, holding an unmarked envelope.

    It was a lead from the DMV, his employer. He was sometimes sent to persuade specific people at specific times and specific places. The leads were always sent in unmarked envelopes, and he was always supposed to open it at a specific time.

    Alan opened the letter, noting the coordinates and the time. Hm. The time was... soon, actually. Were the coordinates close? Alan pulled out his phone, tapping in the coordinates.

    The position was... here?

    There was a knock at the door, and Alan nearly jumped from his chair. He quickly jammed the envelope and letter in the drawer, reshuffling his desk to make sure any other confidential piece of information was hidden.

    "Come in," Alan said when finished.

    The door slowly opened, and Alan half-expected someone from the DMV to show up. Maybe Tula, sent to use him for one of her spy missions. Or maybe even Nyah, considering she was more likely to scheme a grand entrance like this.

    Instead, Alan stared face-to-face with Alistair. He looked the same as before, except without his black snapback hat, and wearing a leather jacket.

    "I knew you had a secret job, but I didn't think it was an office job," Alistair mused, closing the door behind him.

    "Alistair," Alan called, the shock quickly fading as he tried to piece together the logic of all this. "What are you doing here?"

    "I was hoping you'd tell me," Alistair said, drawing closer, but stopping halfway.

    Something about this felt wrong. Alan glanced at the clock. The time was coming close to what was written. They didn't have much time now.

    "Do you mind if we come back to this later? I'm expecting someone soon," Alan said, voice neutral.

    Alistair glanced back at the same clock. "Are you sure it's not me? I came here a little earlier. Sorry."

    Alan discreetly opened the door under his desk, quietly pulling out a handgun. "Who sent you?" he asked casually.

    "...I don't know," Alistair said softly. "I was hoping you can tell me everything."

    Alan stood up, and with every step forward, the room darkened and shifted. He kept his eyes glued on Alistair, but something in his gut told him they weren't in the office.

    They were home. Their old home. The townhouse.

    The floors creaked beneath them, and the dark light made the walls of the room look grisly green next to the peeling wallpaper. The lights flickered, and Alan caught sight of the hung crayon drawings he made of the family. Of Alan, Alistair, his mom, and his dad.

    "You think I don't know? I know you don't need me anymore. I certainly don't need you," Alan said as he circled Alistair, gun heavy in his jacket under the palm of his hand. "You don't need to pity me. Please, if you're only here to make me feel special, then leave. Fucking leave."

    His voice sounded cold and foreign. Alan hardly recognized it. He hardly recognized that this was him talking.

    But it felt... right.

    "You're drunk," Alistair said softly. "Have you been drinking?"

    As if on instinct, Alan pulled out the gun and shot threateningly at the wall behind Alistair. Except instead of a gun and bullet flying out, a glass beer bottle flew and shattered against the wall. Alan stated dumbly at his hand, now empty. No gun.

    "I'm sorry!" Alistair said pleadingly, covering his head as the glass shards bounced off the walls. "Please, just don't hurt the boys."

    A pit of dread sunk in as recognition weighed him down. This felt like sinister deja vu. Like he was reliving an old memory, but it was wrong. All of it was wrong. It didn't play out like this.

    So why did it feel so right to him?

    "I'm not going to hurt you. You know I'd never hurt you," Alan said distractedly as his fingers brushed against the wall of liquor bottles lining the shelf of the living room. "I just want to know one thing. I want to know the truth."

    Alistair sniffed, looking up with big, teary eyes. He blinked, sending tears streaming down his face. "What is it?" he asked with a wavering voice.

    Alan picked up the big, clear bottle of vodka, looking down at him with annoyance and disgust.

    "Why haven't you fucking killed yourself yet?" Alan hissed.

    He only had time to see Alistair's eyes go wide before the bottle was smashed against his head.

    The following seconds simultaneously felt like it was in slow and fast motion. The glass bottle shattered against Alistair's head, the glass shards nicking skin and sending beads of blood in the air.

    No. That wasn't it. Blood was already in the air.

    The vodka was turning red, pooling in the air before grasping on to Alistair's hair, skin, clothes.

    There was a loud clatter, and suddenly the room was darker, and Alan's visioned blurred. He could hardly make out Alistair laying in the darkness with a pool of red growing by his head. There was a sharp pain on his right arm, and as he looked down shakily, he saw his scars opened up again, shards of glass embedded deep in them.

    Alan felt his vision blurring again, but he caught sight of himself at the side mirror before he fully lost focus.

    But he didn't see his own face reflecting back at him.

    He saw his dad.

Alan woke up with a jolt, feeling like his heart was about to leap out of his chest. He took in heavy, frantic chests, feeling so wet-- god, why was he so sweaty?! He needed to get out of here!

The panic surging in his veins, Alan peeled out of his shirt, throwing it somewhere across the room. He felt a phantom pain on his right arm, and instinctively, he swatted it like he was killing a bug.

Smooth. No glass. No blood.

Still, Alan frantically reached over his bedside table, pulling down the lamp lever and nearly knocking it over. Warm light filled the room, and Alan controlled his breaths as he stared across, realizing he was still on this island, alone in his room.

A... nightmare?

He had been getting a lot of nightmares lately. What did this mean?

Hands still shaky, Alan looked down at his palms. The faint scar still curved over his thumb, as did the few others down his arm. No glass. No blood.

What did this mean?

Alistair. Oh god, Alistair. He had to talk to him. Was he dead?!

Panic returning, Alan scurried out of bed, nearly tripping from getting tangled in the bedsheets again.

What time was it? He didn't know. How could he talk to Alistair? He didn't know. Was Alistair okay? He didn't know!

Lyall. He could talk to Lyall. He had a way to talk to his brother. He had to talk to Lyall!

Alan felt like he was in another haze, his legs walking for him as he hurriedly left his room, standing in front of Lyall's door. He softly knocked, but decided he didn't want to make too much noise. He had already woken up his cabin mates so often from nightmares. Alan didn't want to add this night to the list.

Alan tried for the door. It was unlocked. He pushed open the door quietly, stepping into the dark room before quietly closing the door behind him.

And then he flipped on the lights.

Hidden amidst a pile of pillows and blankets, Lyall only stirred at first. Then bolted upright with a flash of panic in his eyes. When he saw Alan, he breathed out a curse with visible relief.

"Shite," he repeated, stiffening again as he did a double take. "Alvaro? What...?"

"Sorry. I'm sorry," Alan said apologetically. "I didn't want to wake you, but..." Alan's gaze landed on his phone face-down on the edge of his bed. "Can I borrow your phone?"

"Uh, I guess..." Lyall glanced off, then back to Alan with open concern on his face. "Are you...unwell? You look unwell."

"What?" Alan murmured, drawing closer. "I'm fine." He reached out to take the phone, but hesitated, looking back at Lyall for permission. "I can use it?"

Lyall's gaze sharpened ever so slightly as he looked Alan over. "Yeah," he answered absently. Shaking his head, he cleared his throat to answer more clearly, "Yes, of course."

Alan nodded, taking the phone and already turning to leave. "Thank you. I'll just take a minute. Sorry again."

"Don't worry about it," Lyall answered, voice wilting a little at the end.

Alan left the room, quietly closing the door behind him before trotting back to the privacy of his room, phone firmly in hand. He sat on the floor, leaning against the bed as he took a deep breath.

It would be a quick call. Considering time zones, he was sure Alistair was still awake. He was sure he was okay.

Alan tapped on the screen, staring back at the locked phone.

Right. He didn't have the password. Why were there so many characters to fill in?

Alan stared at the keyboard. Maybe he'd try... guessing.


Incorrect. Two tries remaining.


    Lyall Ashlund

Incorrect again. One try remaining.

Well, that didn't work. Alan sighed, throwing the phone up on his bed, hearing it bounce on the mattress. He rubbed his eyes, knowing he should go back to talk to Lyall and have him unlock the phone. But now this felt... silly. He was sure Alistair was fine. He was fine, right? Right.

Alan slowly stood up, finally picking up the glasses on his nightstand to wear and see more clearly. He stared at himself through the mirror on the other side of the wall, half-expecting to see the ghostly face of his dad staring back at him.

But Alan stared back at himself.

Maybe... he could call his dad too.

He should put on a shirt. Why wasn't he wearing a shirt? Ah, right. Because it was soaked in sweat.

Alan picked up the pajama shirt he threw across the room, chucking it in the laundry basket next to the closet. He idly rifled through his hung shirts, opting to wear a white sweater he hadn't worn yet since he'd always be too hot in it.

Alan took a deep breath, taking in his room for a moment. It was then that he remembered that the sketch of Lyall was still sitting on top of his dresser, upside-down.

That was a random thought. He didn't know what he was supposed to do with that, but this phone call was more important.

With that, Alan swiftly picked up the phone out of the bed, once more leaving the room to go to Lyall's. He hesitated by the door, suddenly embarrassed that he had bolted in previously without knocking. This time, he softly rapped his knuckles against the door.

The door eased open on the last tap. Lyall offered a sheepish, tired grin. "It just occurred to me, too," he mumbled, gesturing for the phone back.

Alan mustered a similar smile, faintly laughing it off as he handed the phone back at him. "Yeah. I forgot you had a long password."

The keypad made soft tacking noises as Lyall typed. Then a bold padlock symbol popped up on the screen, kindly informing them that they blew their last shot, and now had to wait five minutes before trying again.

Lyall blinked. "Did you..."

"I..." Alan began, staring down at the counter. He had no idea how to explain himself. "Did you put it in wrong?"

Leaning a shoulder on the door frame, Lyall pinched the bridge of his nose. "...Sorry," he sighed.

"No, it's fine," Alan assured in a hushed voice.

He glanced towards Cyrin's room. The lights were out under their room, but maybe Alan could ask for his phone. It would still be a bother because he'd have to contact them through their socials again. That, and he didn't want to bother Cyrin again. He felt like he caused him too much concern from... well, from the first nightmare when he was dumb and agreed to transfer the wound, and also when he barged in Cyrin's room without notice. Alan had done enough damage as is.

His door was also opened just a crack. Alan would rather not wake him again, so...

"Do you mind if I wait with you?" he dumbly asked Lyall.

"Hm?" Lyall tilted his head up, blinking himself awake again. "Oh! Yeah, sure." And he stepped back, waving Alan inside.

Alan only felt safe when he was able to step in and close the door again. Now he felt like they could speak without worry about waking Cyrin.

Now he was back to worrying about his brother. How much time was left? Four minutes? Four and a half minutes?

"What's troubling you?" Lyall asked softly.

Alan sighed, stalking away from the door so he could steal the desk chair. He flopped into it, tiredly rubbing his face.

"Nothing. It's just a bad dream. I wanted to call my brother to make sure he's doing okay. That's all," he said, dropping his hand to offer an apologetic smile. "Sorry again for waking you so suddenly."

With his legs drawn up to his chest, Lyall tucked himself into the armchair. "Are you sure? It seemed...quite urgent a moment ago. Did something happen to your brother?"

"I... I hope not," Alan said, feeling the urgency and panic return in his head, swelling with pressure. "That's why I wanted to call him. To make sure he's fine."

Lyall's brows furrowed with concern. "We can... No, wait." He looked down at the phone in his hands. "Right. No, I've got nothing for the time being."

"For four minutes," Alan corrected. "I guess we wait. In agony."

"It doesn't--" Lyall unsuccessfully stifled a long yawn. "It doesn't have to be in agony."

Alan hummed. "Boredom, then?" he offered instead.

"No," Lyall said with a huffed laugh. "Unless you prefer it. To each their own."

His eyes then lit up as a new thought occurred to him. Hopping from the chair, Lyall padded over to the desk and opened his laptop.

"Or we can simply try a roundabout way," he suggested, smile still sleepy, but quite self-satisfied.

It took a second for all of this to click, but when it did, Alan grinned, relief flooding in. "Lyall, you're a genius," he exclaimed proudly, watching him type an equally long password in. "You're friends with my brother on HeadBook, right? I could start a call that way."

"I am, as you say, a genius," Lyall answered smoothly, "and yes. He reached out very shortly after we connected you back with your mum."

Alan slowly nodded. He... did not know that, actually. That was sweet. Did they talk? Unlikely. That didn't seem like Alistair, though Alan made a note to ask later.

He thanked Lyall once he pulled up the messaging app, and Alan was quick to start a video call with Alistair. It only rung a few times before Alistair picked up.

As expected, it was late morning there, though judging by Alistair's messy floppy hair, it looked like he had just woken up. Or maybe that was just his hat hair. It was hard to tell sometimes.

Wait, no. He was laying down on his bed. So he had just woken up.

"Hey, I think you have the wrong number," Alistair said casually, hardly cracking a smile.

Alan felt frozen with relief, glad that he was okay, although being an annoying smart ass again.

"Hey, Alistair. I just wanted to hear your voice. I'm glad you're okay," Alan said softly, eyes glued on his brother on the screen.

A short silence passed as Alistair quirked a brow, sitting up straight. The phone moved with him, blurring from the fast motions before he steadied it again, holding it front of him.

"Are you okay? I haven't heard from you in a while," Alistair said, hand pressed against his cheek.

"Yeah. I'm okay. Are you?" Alan asked.

Alistair shrugged. "I'm doing alright, but I'm doing better now that I know my brother called me at-- what time is it there? Almost 4am? Yeah, doing better now that I know my brother called me at 4am in another man's bedroom again." Alistair pressed his hand against his chest, feigning fake inspiration. "I'm touched that you thought to call me at this hour."

Alan tried not to groan from embarrassment, feeling his face go hot as he buried his hands in his face. In the background of his own videofeed, they could see Lyall by the bookshelf, his audible page-flipping coming to a slow stop.

Alistair seemed to pick up on the subtle awkwardness.

"...I'm on speaker, arent I?" he said distantly.

"Yes. You are," Alan moaned.

He watched as Alistair suddenly turned his camera off, but his microphone still picked up sound. Alan slowly dropped his hands and stared at the initials of his screen, listening to the loud shuffling of Alistair moving. Lyall had disappeared altogether from Alan's end of the video call.

Finally, Alistair reappeared, this time sitting by his desk. As if that was supposed to help... somehow.

"Sorry," Alistair said in Argent, running his hand down his hair. "What were you saying?"

Uh-huh. So they were speaking in Argent now. It didn't matter, though. Alan could play along.

"Are you done embarrassing me yet?" Alan mumbled, also in Argent.

Alistair took a second to think about it, then answered with, "No."

"Fine," Alan said, crossing his arms. "Get it out of your system."

Alistair stared at him, raising a brow. "Are you seriously allowing me to roast you right now?"

"Hurry up, or I'm going to change my mind."

Alistair hummed. "I don't know. We're more of carpe diem men, don't you think? It doesn't feel right to roast you if you're asking for it. It needs to happen naturally."

"God, how did I put up with you for so long?" Alan mumbled, rubbing his face again.

"Oh, hey, I've been meaning to ask you something," Alistair said casually as he sat on the edge of his chair, a telltale sign that he was about to unleash all the sarcasm. "Are you actually strictly monogamous?"

Alan groaned, headdesking.

"I'm impressed," Alistair went on. "But you might want to keep them hidden from each other though. That might be hard to do with all the cameras, though."

"Alistair," Alan groaned. "It's not like that."

Alistair was quiet for a moment. "Are you sure you're doing okay? Are you... sleeping?"

"I'm sleeping enough," Alan answered, sitting back up.

"But not enough," Alistair guessed, and Alan shook his head. "You'd think for a luxury island, you'd learn to relax."

"I know. I just... I don't even know," Alan said defeatedly, looking off to the side. He didn't even know what he was doing or saying anymore. He turned back to Alistair, recognizing the concern in his eyes. "Enough about me. What's going on with you?"

"Oh... me?" Alistair shrugged. "Nothing new." A pause. "Well..."

"Well what?" Alan pressed.

"It's not a big deal." Alistair sighed. "Andy and I got back together."

Alan drew his brows together, thinking. "I thought you broke up a few weeks ago."

"We did," Alistair said simply.

Alan didn't comment further. This wasn't particularly big news, since he and Andrea often broke up and got back together. Honestly, Alan was losing track. He could understand why Alistair said it was no big deal.

Though, Alan would be remiss to say that he was glad they were together again. He had a feeling his brother knew that.

"The Alvaros are cursed with bad relationships, I guess," Alistair deadpanned.

Alan scoffed. "I wouldn't say that."

There was another drawn out silence. Alan wondered if possibly Alistair felt awkward talking about this with someone else in the background. They were still speaking in Argent, but Alistair was also fairly private despite the language spoken.

Another voice was heard in the background.

"Oh. Andy is here. She wants to ask you a question," Alistair said, looking past the screen, presumably to Andy.

"Can you ask him if he's, like, gay now or something?" Andrea asked with the thick rural Argent dialect that always took a while for Alan to decipher.

Alistair simply looked back with a shrug and an innocent smile. Alan tiredly sighed.

"I should probably go now," he said back in common, not wanting to give Andrea more attention. "It was nice talking to you again, though. I miss you."

"Yeah... I miss you too," Alistair replied, sitting up more upright. "If you ever can't sleep again... I don't mind if you call. Maybe by then I can think of a proper roast."

Alan smiled. "Yeah. I'm counting on you."

"See you on the other side?" Alistair said.

It didn't often make sense, but they used this phrase a lot to say goodbye. And Alan was always happy to return it.

"See you on the other side," Alan echoed, waving with his forefinger pointing upward from his temple as a goodbye salute. Another one of their farewells.

Alistair smiled, returning the salute, and then the call ended. Alan quietly shut the laptop, turning back to see Lyall curled up in the armchair, fast asleep again.

Alan watched him for a moment, waiting to see if the silence would wake him up. When it didn't, he quietly got up from the chair, picking up a fuzzy blanket off his bed to drape around him. Unsatisfied with just one, Alan draped a second blanket around Lyall.

There. Now he looked warm and cozy.

Alan hovered by his desk again, deciding to write a quick note since he couldn't say goodbye to Lyall.

I can confirm there was no agony or boredom in the five long minutes that passed.

Sweet dreams, Lyall. If you were cold, then you'd have to let me know. That way, I'd know to set a third blanket on you next time.


Alan set the note on top of his laptop, glancing back at Lyall to check that he was still asleep. He quietly headed for the door, hand over the light switch, half-expecting Lyall to wake up.

To say what? To do what? Alan wasn't sure.

He was still asleep, though.

Alan flipped the lights off, quietly leaving the room again. He stood in the dark hallway for a second, taking a deep breath.

He had two hours before he had to get up to run with Hild. He may as well stay up.
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Carina says...

Garbage. Garbage, garbage, garbage. Why couldn't Alan make music?

With an exasperated sigh, Alan balled the fifth paper, tossing it in the trash can and missing. Again. He slumped forward, hands running through his hair frustratedly.

He didn't know what he needed to obtain enough inspiration to make a coherent song. Excitement and new beginnings often sparked inspiration, but Alan was unsure he felt that, even though he'd been through the wringer with ups and downs.

Right now, things just felt... chaotic. And in times of chaos, there was too much noise. He couldn't hear the music.

Alan glanced down at the wristwatch that he kept by his desk. It was almost 6am. He had already taken a shower-- this time, an insanely hot one that he came out pink and feeling mildly burned-- so now he just had to get dressed and leave.

It was strangely fitting to dress in his hiking clothes every morning now. He only brought two sets, and it was strangely nostalgic to make this a part of his routine. A part of him wanted to pack everything in his bag and leave into the silent abyss of nature again, taking a chance with Mother Nature's mercy while carrying only the items packed on his back.

But alas, he was on this island. It almost felt like a prison, didn't it? A prison without music, and he was stuck with nightmares that didn't make sense, and people who maybe, subtlety, threatened him with bottles of water.

What did all of this mean? Alan wished he knew.

He could only step forward one day at a time. This was a new day, and what better way to start a new day than going on a morning run with a friend?

At least, that was what Alan thought as he approached Hild's usual meeting spot, accidentally running a minute late like usual.

Except Hild wasn't alone. Who was chatting next to her? Was that... James?

Despite being dressed head to toe in clashing neon colors, James seemed to radiate a dark aura. His expression looked grim, and it was like he went out of his way to pick a muscle shirt just to show off how strong he was.

Maybe that was on purpose.

Alan weakly waved at them, slowing in his approach as he tried to make sense of this.

Why was James here? Hild never mentioned James was running with them... right? Or... did she? Someone was supposed to run with her. Was that... James? And he was here now. Why was he here now?

Alan couldn't help but glance down at the jug of water by James's feet. Oh god, he couldn't stop assuming the worst.

"Alvaro," Hild called warmly, beckoning him over with a tilt of her head. "You're nothing if not consistent...ly late by a singular minute."

"Yeah... hey," Alan said distractedly, coming to a stop in front of them. He tried not to stare at James too long. "Sorry."

"Good morning," James said, but it didn't sound like a friendly greeting.

"...Morning," Alan greeted back after a brief hesitation. Somehow, the one word felt forced to say.

Hild glanced between the two. "Now that the time of day has been well-established," she said breezily. She landed her gaze on James and asked, "You're...sure you're up for this today?"

James held his hands out at either side. "I am but a beacon of energy," James said dryly. "Let us run."

She pressed her lips in a thin line, looking unconvinced. "Since you so insist."

James bowed his head, but that was all. He shot another glance at Alan, and for some reason it felt like James was staring straight into Alan's soul. Alan cleared his throat, mostly as a distraction to... well, away from James. But then he realized he should say something.

"Well," he began with a mustered smile, loosely gesturing to the trail ahead of them, "shall we start?"

With a decisive nod, Hild silently set off on the path first. James set off beside her at a steady pace, and Alan followed suit on her other side.

The run was faster than normal. Or maybe it only felt like that because they made no stops. That was fine. He didn't really care to make any, anyways. It was good to run. Again. In silence. Without distractions. Long distance. That was how it should be, anyways. It was easier to build endurance this way.

Finally, they came to a stop. It seemed they had already reached the end of the trail.

Hands set on her sides, Hild turned a pointed grin back to Alan. "I'm supposing your heart wasn't very into the adventure aspect of this trek," she commented, slightly breathless. "Is something on your mind?"

Alan shook his head, offering a small smile as he wiped the sweat off his brow. "Not particularly. It was a good run."

"I'm glad you thought so," she said with an idle nod, quickly scanning him. Slowly, she added, "Would you like to join for breakfast?"

Alan glanced at James. He was staring at Alan with half-lidded eyes and didn't seem happy to be here.

"Oh. That's alright. I don't want to intrude. I appreciate the invitation, though," Alan said with a mustered smile back over to Hild.

Hild tilted her head curiously. "It wouldn't be an intrusion since I offered," she said, softening her voice a little. "I won't force you to come, though."

"I..." Alan started, but suddenly it felt like all words left his head.

It was kind of hard to think straight since James was still staring at him. Or maybe he was glaring. Now that Alan thought about it, he was fairly sure James glared at everyone. Or... did he? Did James only glare at Alan, specifically? He couldn't remember.

"Okay. Do you want me to come?" he asked instead.

She pursed her lips. "...I would," she answered plainly. "Hence. The invitation."

"Right," Alan said with a nod. "Sure. I can join. Thanks."

Nodding slowly, Hild seemed to study him for another moment, before leading the way up to the plaza. Alan and James followed along, and silence fell between them as they walked.

Eventually, Hild cleared her throat to break the silence and asked, "Have we any culinary preferences this fine morning?"

"None from me," Alan answered when the silence dragged on since James didn't answer first.

"Pancakes," James finally offered.

"Excellent," Hild replied simply.

So that was where they went. Frankly, Alan wasn't big on pancakes, but he didn't really care what he liked or disliked right now. Nothing really sounded good, anyways.

They walked into the plaza, and Hild led the way into the a breakfast diner. Hild opened the door for both of them, and Alan nodded in appreciation at her. He followed James in, who picked a table booth to sit in. Without thinking about it, Alan sat across from him. Hild joined a moment later, so Alan scooted further in to make more room for her.

In the next short silence that followed, Hild looked back and forth between the two men. Looking like she wanted to say something. She quietly folded her hands in her lap as she opted to simply study them. Alan focused intently on the menu instead.

At least, until a very, very tall man came out from the kitchen with an apron on, a net over his buzzed head, and a beard-net as well. He had a nametag on his apron that read: "Bo," and he shone a big, bright, one-eyed smile.

The guy only had one eye. The other socket was empty, with only a scar over it. It then dawned on Alan that he was the same person who worked a cafe he went to with Shane.

"Good morning," Bo greeted. "Could I get you three started with beverages?"

Hild smiled politely back, and warmly greeted, "Mister Bo, how lovely to see you again! Some water would be nice, yes."

"Gotcha," Bo said. "Water for the lovely Ms. Hild. How about you, James?"

"Water," James said. "And a black coffee."

"Can do," Bo said, jotting that down on his pad with a scribble. "And how bout you, Alan?"

Ah. He remembered his name. Did he ever give it? He couldn't remember, though he felt like he should.

"Water is fine. Thank you, Bo," he said with a small smile.

"Three waters and a wake-me-up," Bo said with one last scribble. "Alright, I'll get those drinks to you shortly and give you time to look over the menu. If you have any questions, you're my only guests this morning, so feel free to give me a holler!"

With a small bow of his head, Bo dismissed himself and hurried through the kitchen doors, leaving the three of them alone in the morning light that was starting to spill through the adjactent window. It was very bright.

With some hesitation, Hild looked to James and asked, "How are you faring? It's been a few days since we last ran, after all. And..." She looked like she was putting a considerable amount of effort into filling the silence. "...stamina is much quicker lost than it is gained."

James glanced at Alan first instead of Hild. His eyes flicked between them, like there was something, perhaps, meant to be unspoken. Alan decided to focus his attention on the checkerboard wall behind James instead. It was a gingham red and white.

"I'm... alright," James said unconvincingly. "It's nice to get out."

Hild nodded. "Good," she said, tone relenting, "yes." She idly tapped her fingers to the table as she glanced between them again. "I'm about halfway through the rabbit book. I'd have made more progress by now, but realized that I've shamefully let cello practice go this past week."

Attention piqued, Alan glanced at her with a slight smile and brow raise. "You're reading a book about rabbits?"

"Rabbits at war," James said.

That... hm. Alan only nodded slowly at that.

"It's an allegory," James added.

"'Watership Down', it's called," Hild added helpfully. "A piece of literature intended for younger audiences."

"That's what's made it controversial," James said. "But as an adult, it's a good read."

Hild turned a faint grin to James. "It has been thus far."

Their attention was stolen by Bo coming up to their table, drinks balanced one-handedly on a tray.

"Hello, again," he said pleasantly, setting the water glasses down in front of each of them, and then carefully placing a mug of coffee in front of James. "Have you all decided what you'd like to order or do you need more time?"

Hild quirked an expectant brow at Alan. He then realized that he had been staring at the menu earlier, but he didn't actually... settle on anything. Or even really actually look at it.

"You can go first, if you're ready," Alan said, scanning the menu again.

"Very well, then," Hild said, closing her menu as she looked up at Bo. "Some oatmeal with mixed nuts would be nice."

Bo nodded, jotting that down and then looked to James.

"The ten-stack of pancakes," James said. "Two omelets with chorizo, the biscuits and gravy, and three bowls of what Hild's having."

Huh. That was... a lot of food.

Bo's pen scratched quickly against the notepad. He hummed in confirmation.

"Got it," Bo said with a smile. "You need a little more time, Alan?"

"I'll just take the omelet," Alan answered, settling on that since the picture of it took up the corner of the page.

He'd have ordered waffles, but he didn't see that on the menu. It seemed that this was a pure pancake establishment.

"Alright, I'll go get those started for you! It should be a 20 minute wait," Bo said. "I'll see you soon!"

At that, he spun around and headed back into the kitchen with haste.

Alan turned to Hild. "I'm sorry I haven't been available to practice with you. We can start that up again, if you'd like. Or at the very least, I can give a listening ear."

Hild inclined her head with a small but genuine smile. "I'd like that, yes. We can cut it back to meeting once a week, though, since you've been so busy."

Has he been busy? Somehow, it felt like he didn't have any time to do anything, but also having nothing to do.

"That's fine, but I can always make time. There's plenty of that here," Alan said with a gentle smile.

"Appreciated," Hild said warmly. "We can, as some say, wing it."

"We'll play it by ear," Alan said with a wider smile.

She huffed a dry laugh. "I suppose we shall," she said flatly. Then, sitting straighter, she gestured to James and went on, "Ah, since I have both of you here now, I have a proposition for you two."

James looked to Hild, raising a brow.

"That so?" he asked.

"As you might recall, Mister James," she said with a nod, "there were vague plans made to join our musical efforts. My brother has since dilly-dallied long enough, I feel, so I plan on dragging him out for practice today after breakfast." Shrugging a shoulder, she looked back to Alan. "If neither of you had any prior obligations, consider this a formal invitation to join us."

It took Alan a moment to realize that Hild was essentially opening the door to the prospect of a quartet. He glanced at James.

"Do you play an instrument?" he asked.

"Guitar," James answered. "Decently."

Ah. So not a quartet. At least, not a traditional string quartet. Although, he couldn't assume what Hild and Lyall would be playing. Likely cello and piano. Or voice. Alan remembered Lyall said he sang too, and that was his greater strength.

"I'll join you," James added. "Should be fun. I'm sure Lyall will like that as well."

Hild hummed in agreement. "Excellent. What of you, Alvaro?"

Alan slowly nodded. "I can join. I can't say no to music."

"You play... piano, right?" James asked, and it took Alan a second to realize he was talking to him.

"Mostly. But I also play violin." He paused. "I'm not sure if there are a whole lot of existing songs we could play that suit all of our strengths, but I'm sure we can find something. Or at the very least, make something up."

"Or simply rotate who plays," Hild suggested.

"Or we could write something where we all play," James suggested.

Alan hummed. "Does anyone dabble in songwriting?"

There was a brief silence. James and Hild both shared a quick glance.

"...A little," James mumbled.

"Wonderful," Hild said. "That should be enough to start. We can bungle our way through together."

Alan nodded. "Yeah. That should be enough. It sounds like fun." He paused, looking at James curiously. "What kinds of songs have you written?"

"Mostly... singer-songwriter type stuff," he said. "More melodic, finger-style playing. Instrumentals and the like. Nothing official or published, though. It's really just a hobby."

"Whether capitalized or kept as a hobby, it's still music all the same. I'm sure it sounds lovely. Have you recorded it?" Alan asked.

"Uh... only on my phone, really," James said, looking down into his coffee mug. "But... my phone's dead."

There was something strangely poetic about how it was possible that James and Alan may be the only ones on this island who recorded their own songs, but they only had copies of it on their phone. Which... neither of them had.

So in a way, it didn't exist.

At least on the island, it could be a new beginning.

"Aw. So I guess I can't embarrass you and ask to listen to it now," he said teasingly.

James's eyes flicked down into his mug again, and his lips pulled back ever so slightly. It was subtle, but it was like he was embarassed already, even at the suggestion.

It was strangely... endearing? Was that the right word?

"Well, we can... write stuff," James said, still avoiding eye contact. "Since that's what we're doing later."

"What drives your inspiration?" Alan asked, then shrugged. "I only ask because it'd dictate the direction of the song."

"I-- I don't have to be the only one writing it," James said. "We can all pitch in ideas."

"I like that idea," Alan murmured, turning to Hild next to him. "What drives your inspiration, Hild?"

Hild leaned back in the booth, hands folded in her lap. "Regular practice," she answered simply. "A more reliable source than fickle inspiration alone."

James huffed lightly through his nose.

"You never just feel drawn to play?" he asked, looking at her.

She shrugged a shoulder. "Well, yes. On occasion."

"Surely that's a bigger draw than the desire to simply improve," Alan said.

"It certainly helps," James said. "But... you do need both. The discipline and the enjoyment."

"Very true," Hild agreed with warmth in her eyes.

Alan nodded. "Wise words. After all, music without enjoyment isn't music. It's noise. I'd like to think songwriters around the world across all of history and time don't compose the song so one can practice. It's composed so that others can hear their story in song form then feel inspired enough to recreate it their own way." He shrugged, smiling. "That's just my opinion. We're here to enjoy ourselves, so we might as well pour our souls into this."

The corners of James's lips pulled back again, ever so slightly.

"Maybe once the invitation is officially extended to Lyall," James suggested. "He'll have some ideas of his own for how to go about things."

Hild snorted. "He certainly will."

Alan nodded, thinking about this some more. "Since we have a wide array of instrumentalists, we can also consider asking Cyrin as well. They play the drums."

"Indeed," Hild replied, "Bridger was actually next on my to-invite list."

"Oh? You have a list?" Alan mused. "Who else is on it?"

"Miss Clanny," she answered, "since she has an interest in learning."

Alan smiled. "That's a lovely idea. I've been meaning to talk to her more about that. I think she'd love to learn to play the piano. We can certainly invite her."

"While I am open to potentially expanding this newly-forming group," Hild went on, "if either of you know anyone else who could contribute, I do think we've enough people for whom to figure out placements and such as is."

Alan shook his head. "I don't know anyone else, but you're right, this is enough to start. When should we start?"

Quirking a brow, Hild hummed with amusement. "After breakfast," she answered, tone pointed. "And after tidying ourselves up, of course."

"Right. Of course," Alan said. "Well, looks like you'll have to stick with the two of us for the whole morning."

The kitchen door swung open, and Bo came out with a large tray in his arm with plates of food. With a cheery smile, he gracefully made his way to their table.

"I hope you've all worked up an appetite," he said, taking the omelete and setting it down in front of Alan first. Then he set Hild's oatmeal in front of her.

"We'll bring yours out in phases," Bo said to James. "Just so you don't run out of space on the table."

James only nodded at that as Bo set down the massive stack of pancakes in front of him, and then put three bowls of oatmeal around it.

"We can move tables if you'd rather do that," Alan suggested, unable to look away from the large stack of pancakes.

"This is fine," James said, already picking up his fork and knife.

"Then we'll bring out the rest once your plate's cleared," Bo said with a nod. "Do you three need anything else?"

James shook his head as he started cutting into the pancakes.

"I think we're good. Thanks, Bo," Alan said with a smile.

"Yes, we're set," Hild confirmed. "Thank you kindly."

"You're most welcome!" Bo said. "I'll see you in a bit." And at that, he was off again.

Alan picked up his fork, cutting into his omelet. "By the way, how have you been doing, Hild?" he asked. "We've been running together the last few mornings, but outside of that, I haven't seen you around. I ought to come by more often to see you and the alpaca more."

"Existing comfortably enough," Hild answered as she stirred her oatmeal. "However, the stagnation of this past week has been...slightly maddening."

Alan hummed, taking a bite, asking another question after swallowing it down. "Why the stagnation?"

She cast him a rather flat look. "Lack of direction."

"I'm not sure I follow. Are you expecting direction?" Alan asked with a raised brow.

"Are you expecting our stay here to remain an aimless beachside frolic?" Hild asked in turn, likewise arching a brow.

"I don't know if I'd say our time here is aimless. Didn't we just make plans to make an island band?" Alan said.

"Newly gained direction, yes," Hild agreed.

He hummed. "Alright. What are you looking for, then? It sounds like you're looking for something specific to fill your time."

Taking a jar of honey from the side of the table, she drizzled it over her bowl, then took her first bite. "The whole purpose of the DMV is to test our abilities. Nary a productive thing in sight, however, and this third week is already drawing to a close."

Alan balanced a bite of the omelet on his fork. "You sound disappointed."

"I rather am," Hild confirmed, glancing at the far corner of the diner.

With his mouth and cheeks entirely full, James very slowly looked over at Hild with a blank stare. Alan didn't know if he should be weirded out or laugh, since he looked like a grumpy chipmunk. Catching James's look, Hild's own eyes softened a little as she only shrugged in response. With a faint hum in the back of his throat, James just looked down and went back to inhaling food.

Alan felt like he was missing something here, but he decided to move on anyways. "Well, the days are what you make of it. I'm sure you can consult the DMV for the tests, or at least, make up your own if that's what you really want."

"Hence, band practice," Hild chirped with a small but undeniably excited spark in her eyes.

It wasn't quite the "tests" she was looking for, but it was still nice to see her excited. Alan wondered what else could excite her.

"I want to go back to what we were talking about before," Alan said, deciding to take a break in eating to focus on this conversation. "What inspires you? Tests, obviously. And band practice. But surely there's more than that."

Looking back down at her food, Hild shrugged again. "The...innate, human desire to simply create, I suppose."

He hummed, tapping his fork against the omelet. "Do you have other creative hobbies besides playing the cello?"

"I once considered pursuing a career in fashion design," she answered, then took another bite.

"Oh, really?" Alan said with a warm smile. "I didn't know that. Why didn't you consider it further?"

There was a brief pause as she hesitated.

"It wasn't meant to be," she said, voice unsually soft. "The family practice needs all the support it can get."

Alan nodded in understanding. "Just because you don't pursue something professionally, doesn't mean you shouldn't do it at all. Do you design clothes for fun at least?"

"Every once in awhile, yes," she confirmed, casting him a faint smile. "When fickle inspiration strikes."

"Has fickle inspiration struck during your time on the island?" Alan asked, smiling as well.

Hild turned her eyes back down to her bowl. Almost shyly. "Not yet."

"Well, I'm certainly no expert in fashion design, but if you ever get around to designing anything, I'd be interested in seeing it. I'd love to see your work come to life," Alan said with a warmer smile.

James, surprisingly, swallowed his mouthful of food just to chime in.

"Same here," he said. And then effortlessly inhaled the last pancake. It was impressive, really.

"You both will be among the first to see, then," Hild answered, gaze still fixed downward.

"I'm touched," Alan said, and he really did mean it. "What would you design first?"

"Probably something formal," she said, slowly regaining some of her usual outward confidence, "though there's hardly been any real occasion for it."

Alan hummed. "You said you've been looking for a challenge. Right?"

At that, Hild cast him a flat, knowing look, and didn't answer.

"Who's to say that we can't throw a gala?" Alan went on anyways, grinning. "If it's an occasion that's holding you back, then I say we bring the occasion to you."

She cracked a small grin. "Not a bad idea, Alpaca Alvaro."

Alan scoffed playfully. At this point, it was far too late to contest that silly nickname.

"How are your party planning skills?" he asked instead.

"Not quite on par with my brother's," she said, eyes glinting at the new challenge, "but decent, I'd say."

"That's alright, it's not a competition. I think combining forces would bring a fresh, new perspective anyways. I think it would be fun, especially if you're looking for a new challenge," Alan said, then playfully shoved her with his elbow. "Although, I still think your challenge should be playing advanced cello duets with me."

"One of three," Hild agreed with a very serious nod.

"Does that mean your week is no longer stagnating?" he asked.

"There's hope yet," she hummed with another half-smile.

"Good," Alan said with a brighter smile. "That's what I like to hear."
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urbanhart says...

The combined efforts of the curtains being audibly thrown open, and the late morning sun harshly flooding the room with light, woke Lyall in an instant. He jumped slightly. Then let out a low groan as he tried rubbing the stiffness from his neck.

"Your friend, Bridger, showed me in," Hild said evenly as she made her way to the next window.

Oh. Fantastic...

With another incomprehensible grumble, Lyall sank even lower in the armchair. Making a mental note to consider blacklisting his sister from impromptu morning visits.

"Charming chap," she went on, a smirk in her voice. "I can see why you're quite taken with them."

He flinched when the next set of curtains flew open, allowing the sun to focus its death rays on him directly.

Usually he would be downright irritated with Hild's efforts to bother him back into the full consciousness. But right now he just felt too...drained. He'd slept a full night, but didn't seem to regain much of anything from it. There was a strange tightness lingering in his chest, something weighing on his heart. Blinking, he found his eyes were wet.

"Apparently you made plans to go rock climbing with them?" Hild said, making her way back to the bookshelf beside him.

Lyall hastily wiped at his eyes before drawing in a sharp, sobering breath through his nose. "Hm? Ah, yes. I..." It took him a second, but he did recall his friendly conversation with Cyrin on their walk back from the amphitheater. "I suppose we did agree upon that."

"Man of your word that you are," she said, tone turning reprimanding, setting a cup on the small table next to his chair, "you ought to follow-up on that. I see your friend often not in your company. Which is odd, considering his status as 'your friend' to begin with."

She was unfortunately correct. Looking back, Lyall did find his talks with the athlete had grown far and few in between. Which was a gross oversight on Lyall's own part.

Not that he'd ever admit that to Hild's face.

Scrunching his nose unappreciatively, Lyall picked up the hot cup to better savor the smell of freshly-brewed coffee. "Ease off, mum," he snapped half-heartedly. "What else could I be doing better?"

"Sleeping, apparently," Hild shot back. She gestured up and down at him. "You look like a... a depressed shrimp burrito. Why would you sleep here when you've already made yourself a perfectly suitable nest on the actual bed?"

"That was rhetorical," Lyall muttered into his first sip, "and thanks. I resent the imagery and your judgements."

"I have plenty more to offer--"

"Undoubtedly." Lyall sank deeper into his cocoon of fuzzy blankets. "I request you hold onto them until after this cup is emptied, at the very least."

"Very well," she said, tone polite.

With a nod, Lyall sighed as he rubbed his temples.

A moment of quiet passed, and he started to believe that she might actually have found the decency to listen just this once. The instant he let his guard down, though, something at his desk apparently caught her eye.

Still really only half-awake, Lyall dumbly watched as she marched over and picked up a small bit of writing that he did not recognize.

"'I can confirm there was no agony or boredom in the five long minutes that passed,'" Hild read aloud, tone plain. Her confidence quickly waned, however, as she read on, nose scrunched in distaste, "'Sweet dreams, Lyall. If you were cold, then you'd have to let me know. That way, I'd know to set a third blanket on you next time. AA.'"

Lyall blinked. 'AA'? The...battery?

Oh, no wait. Alan had barged in last night, in urgent need of contacting his brother.

Lyall picked up his phone from the side table. The screen prompted him to input his password, now that he'd waited more than the required five minutes. So, yes, awkwardly standing in the background as the brothers had their private chat in front of him was indeed part of his reality the night prior.

Once they switched to Argent, he lost track of the conversation. A blessing, given Alistair's...choice of discussion. But Lyall predicted this to be a short-lived one, however, given the fact that part of his desperate time-killing endeavors was taking up the language himself.

Scoffing, Hild turned the note toward him with yet another one of her signature Judging Stares. "You two still leave each other extraneous, tooth-rotting notes, I see."

"A phenomenon you'll better understand," Lyall groused, "if you ever find your soulmate. Still a tossup on whether or not they actually exist."

She only huffed testily in response as she folded up Alvaro's note and set it back on the desk with another look of disdain.

"Ah, yes," Lyall said, sipping his coffee, "the all-important 'Life Plan' of yours. I imagine a soulmate would only serve to disrupt it."

"I'm adaptable," Hild snapped. "For instance, I've adjusted my summer plans to accommodate the sudden appearance of the blight upon this world that is the DMV."

Lyall snorted, unimpressed. "Only because we legally can't opt out, and..."

His next verbal jab died in his throat the instant he picked up a voice that wasn't one of his cabin mates.

Mister James?

Lyall wasted no time in booting his sister from his room the moment it clicked that they had company waiting downstairs. He drained his coffee, threw on some day clothes, and quickly made his way downstairs.

Miss Clanny had also joined, apparently by Hild's invitation and much to Lyall's delight. He enjoyed Miss Clanny's bright energy! Cyrin and Alan were naturally present, since. They lived here. Also never not a pleasure to see them!

Lyall found himself first making a beeline for Mister James, though. Had it really been almost an entire week since they last had a full-on conversation? A truly devastating revelation!

Though previously engaged in conversation with Cyrin, James caught sight of his approach, and was quick to politely excuse himself.

They met in the middle, Lyall extending an eager hand as he warmly greeted, "James Hawke! How the Fates smile down upon us, bringing us together this fine morning! Just after I'd been despairing how we haven't had a proper conversation all this past week."

James shook Lyall's hand firmly, pulling away after a few quick shakes. Though James mustered up a small smile, it didn't quite meet his eyes. When their eyes met, it felt like Lyall was staring into an empty cup. There was something about the look in James's eyes that was simultaneously vacant and exhausted, and the dark circles under his eyes only served to prove it.

"Sorry it's been a minute," James apologized. "I've missed your company. How've you been?"

Lyall tucked his hands in his pockets as he grinned brightly. "Likewise, my friend!" It lifted his already-raised spirits to hear it was mutual. "I don't know how time got away from me the way it did. It's been a mixed week, but I can't really complain. Yourself?"

There was a split second of hesitation.

"Ah, it's been alright," James said, but it was said with a lack of conviction. "Caught up on some reading. Cleaned the cabin. Nothing exciting."

Lyall hummed as he noted the glaring omission of...something. There was no telling what, but he fully planned on trying to broach whatever it was later. Should the opportunity arise. Or not, he could make an opportunity himself just fine.

Come to think of it... Lyall gave Mister James another quick once-over. There was a general vibe of 'I'm Not Okay' on this man. Coupled with the clear signs of exhaustion on James's face, the barest of tremors in his hands suggested he tried covering it up with caffeine. And-- Wait, was that a slight sparkle on his skin?

"Uh, has Hild told you already about... well, she's been gathering everyone so we can play music together," he said. "Finally following up on that band idea."

So as to not make the man anymore self-conscious than necessary, Lyall easily went along with the change in subject. Turned his attention back to their gathering, and the combination of folks suddenly made far more sense.

"Ah, yes!" he said, brightening. "I mean, well. No, she neglected to mention anything of the sort. Though, to be fair, I booted her out of my room before she had the chance." Lyall looked up to the ceiling in thought. "Though...there was ample opportunity to do so before then. But instead she squandered it in favor of harassing me."

James nodded slightly. His somewhat glazed eyes drifted across the room to Lyall's sister. From beside Miss Clanny, Hild threw Lyall a half-hearted glare before turning back to Cyrin.

"Sounds about right," James commented.

"I trust you came prepared for a performance, then?" Lyall asked with another grin.

"My guitar's back at my cabin," James said. "But... I guess."

James gave a small shrug, glancing off to the side with a lack of confidence that was unusual for him.

Lyall arched a brow. "...You guess what?" he prompted curiously.

"I'm ready to play," James said, a little more firmly. "Sorry, that's all I meant."

Hm. Poor sod. Not firing on all cylinders, it seemed.

"I look forward to it," Lyall said warmly.

"Have you had breakfast yet?" James asked.

Lyall grinned at the second abrupt change in subject thus far. "Considering I was dead asleep a mere ten minutes ago, I haven't really had the chance yet." He shrugged. "I can grab a quick something for the road, that way we can get started in a timely manner."

He gave Mister James a light pat to the shoulder, and began to step away. Then quickly turned back and asked, "Oh, could I get you anything? Food, a drink?"

"Coffee?" James asked.

Was that wise? Certainly not.

Was Lyall actually James's doctor? Nope.

"Sure thing," Lyall answered with a nod.

And he slipped out from the living room and into the kitchen area to get a pot brewing, and some bread toasting for himself. Alan, Cyrin, and Miss Clanny were already gathered by the island. Hild was also there, but quickly extricated herself from the conversation when she saw Lyall.

Linking arms with her before she could make a full escape, Lyall dragged his sister back in with him and cast Cyrin a friendly smile. "My dear friend!" he greeted. "I trust my sister has already extended an official invitation to perform with us?"

Cyrin flashed him a grin. "She has," they confirmed, turning to smile at Hild for a moment, "and I have gratefully accepted. I'm looking forward to our new music career."

"We were thinking of possible band names. So far we only have silly ideas. But that's also how great band names form, anyways," Alan said teasingly.

"My idea," Clanny spoke up, leaning on the kitchen counter beside Cyrin. "Was that we could call ourselves the DeemieVeebies. Like DMV but with 'eebies.'"

"I can't find any problem with it," Cyrin said, grinning wider. "It's flawless."

Hild mustered a polite grin. "It will certainly remain an option going forward."

"I was thinking we'd simply be called the DMV, which stands for the Department of Motor Vehicles," Alan mused.

Clanny shook her head. "Eh, I don't see it," she said.

Cyrin groaned good-naturedly. "Alan, for the twelfth time, no one knows what that is."

"True. We need to be famous first," Alan said, cracking a grin.

Lyall huffed a laugh. "There have been worse band names in the broader history of band forming," he said. "However, think of the resulting Weekeepeedia page. Do we really want people to have to navigate a directory full of other nonsensical organizations until they can find us?"

Alan hummed again, hand over his chin. "DeeEmmVeedia could be another name."

"Even DeemieVeebies is better than that," Hild said with a teasing glint in her eyes.

"It could even be nonsensical. Like Dreamers of Melodic Visions or Dragonfly Meadow Vagabonds," Alan went on. "There's no rhyme or reason for band names sometimes."

"I actually rather like DeeEmmVeedia," Lyall said, mirroring Alan's thoughtful chin stroking.

"Oh yes," Alan said with a grin, exaggerating his chin stroking now that Lyall was copying him. "You're a man of great taste."

"We should have everyone's input before we commit to something, though," Clanny said.

Alan nodded. "This is an Island Democracy, after all." He paused. "Also another great band name."

"DMVocracy," Clanny said in return. Cyrin snapped their fingers as though it was genius. Hild nodded with milder approval, but approval nonetheless.

"Is there a limit to our endless creativity?" Alan mused, still grinning. He shook his head. "No. No, there is not."

"The true question," Hild said with a wilting smile, "is 'Should there be?' To which the answer is, yes. Yes, there should."

"I veto your statement using the power of democracy," Alan shot back.

Lyall raised a hand. "I second this veto."

At that, Alan high-fived his raised hand, and Lyall barked a mildly surprised laugh.

"Mister James," Hild suddenly called, feigning desperation, "please, join the Island Democracy Debate. We need an extra brain to hopefully balance out the absurdities."

Standing in the middle of the living room alone, and looking strangely very small for it, James blinked, formerly appearing to be on another planet. He turned his attention Lyall with a bit of confusion at first, but then approached.

"What?" he asked, coming up beside Hild.

"We're working on a band name," Cyrin explained helpfully. "Which should be a group effort and decision, so we're currently brainstorming ideas to vote on."

"Ah," James said.

"We mostly have silly names going," Clanny offered.

"We also don't really need to commit to anything now, or really at all, if we don't want to. It's just for fun," Alan added.

"There's really no rush to commit," Hild firmly agreed, "especially considering the overall silly nature of our current options."

"Maybe... we should wait until we've played something," James offered. "Genres tend to influence names."

"Oh, speaking of which, I have an idea. Can I borrow someone's phone?" Alan asked, glancing around at everyone.

Lyall fished his own out of his jacket pocket. Wiggling it, he said, "Ah, your daily mail as well, my good sir." And then, quickly keying in the password, tossed it to Alan.

Alan caught it, smiling as he tapped away on the phone. "I'll check that later. I wanted to play a song."

The Blootooth ding signaled, indicating that he had connected the phone to the speaker. A few more moments, a song started to play.

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"It dawned on me earlier that this song has all the instruments we play," Alan said with a smile, setting the phone down as the song opened up with the introduction. "It's a classic. I assume everyone has heard of it?"

Cyrin gasped with delight, beating out the rhythm on the counter once the drums came in. "Are you kidding? It's one of my favorites. I already know the drum part."

"Oh, really? That's perfect," Alan said with a laugh.

Cyrin's excitement was immediately contagious. Lyall bounced on his heels, unable to fully contain his own slight giddiness.

"I like this song!" Clanny chimed in with a smile.

A look of deep concentration fell over James's face as he listened intently. Hild likewise made no open comment as she idly tapped her fingers on Lyall's arm along with the beat.

Alan's innocent assumption was thus. Incorrect, because the two were trying to absorb the melody on what must have been their first listen. Lyall snorted, but said nothing, not wanting to break their concentration.

"Okay, but consider," Alan went on with a glint in his eyes, grinning wide at Cyrin tapping away on the counter. "The song comes in with the violin. It's repetitive, but what pop song isn't? There are harmonious parts, too." He leaned closer to Hild, loosely putting an arm over her shoulder, lightly shaking her. "Which is where you come in with me. We might have to transpose some of the bass parts for the cello, but that only adds more beautiful complexity. And--"

He let go of Hild, arms out to gesture at Cyrin, still tapping away. "The drums!" he continued. "This brings the energy. The very essence of the song. You are the beat to the heartbeat. Though, that's only one aspect of this bittersweet symphony. Because, of course, we have to have guitar." Still beaming, Alan grandly gestured towards James. "The guitar will truly synergize the song, blending the classical and element genre into a mellow harmony. There's a lot you can do here. You can even have a solo. We can all have a solo. What's stopping us?"

At that, Alan slipped past Hild, sandwiching himself between Lyall and Clanny, wrapping his arm around both their shoulders. "But I think both of you should have the true solo. Clanny, what do you think about being the backup vocals? And Lyall, you can be the lead vocalist."

Clanny looked a little surprised at that, but she smiled and nodded. "I can try!"

Lyall grinned, laughing lightly as he nodded and said, "A terrific idea!"

The song happened to land on the refrain, and Alan slowly let go of the two of them, singing along to the same words. "'Cause it's a bitter sweet symphony, that's life..."

And the next look Alan cast Lyall was one of open invitation to join. Who was Lyall to say no?

"Tryna make ends meet!" Lyall sang loud and clear, and vibrato subtle and controlled. "Tryna find some money, then you die..."

Alan cast him an impressed look, grin widening. He slinked away from him, but still sang along, heading to the keyboard instead. He turned up the volume, improvising on the keys as the song went on. Clanny joined in singing, and Cyrin knocked out the beat on the kitchen counter, singing in a clear tenor voice while smiling like he was having fun.

Lyall drifted back out into the living room after Alvaro, absolutely relishing the way they so quickly harmonized through the third verse. Casting a backwards glance over his shoulder, he grinned at his sister and James as the two only shared an awkward look with each other.

Eventually the song faded to an end, but Alan played a few last chords, improvising a short, melancholic ending so it didn't completely fade away. He let the last chord ring out before he pulled his hands away.

"Well, anyways. We can play that song first if we want. I think it could be fun," he said with a sigh as he sat up, turning off the keyboard.

"It would," Cyrin agreed, leaning gracefully against the counter. "It has something for all of us."

Laughing brightly, completely energized by the impromptu performance, Lyall came up beside Alan and grabbed him up in an impulsive hug, effectively sweeping his friend off the bench. Alan yelped a laugh, caught completely off guard.

"A fantastic way to start, indeed!" Lyall exclaimed, giving Alvaro a quick, final squeeze before withdrawing.

Except that was only an invitation for Alan to playfully sweep Lyall off his feet as well. He wrapped his arms around him to lift him up a few inches off the ground, spinning him around once before withdrawing with excitement sparkling in his eyes.

"You sound so good. You've got serious pipes!" he said with a laugh, playfully shoving him.

Laughing, Lyall playfully bowed, flourishing both hands. Then warmly pat the musician's shoulder as he replied, "And your improvisational skills are truly incredible, my good friend! Unmatched in the modern era!"

Alan playfully swatted Lyall's hand away by grabbing his wrist, shaking it in front of them. "You flatter me. But you're the true soloist. You've got to promise me that you'll show off and let the world hear your voice."

Hiding his hands in his pockets to now better contain himself, Lyall bumped shoulders with Alan and gladly replied, "Cross my heart. So long as you do the same!" With a more tame, but no-less-genuine smile, he added with all earnestness, "You, Alan Alvaro, have a true gift."

Alan warmly smiled, letting go of Lyall's wrist to draw out an 'X' over the left side of Lyall's chest. "Cross my heart," he repeated, then did the same over his own heart. "And hope to die."

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Carina says...

Admittedly, today was kind of strange.

The day started with Alan waking up from a horrific nightmare. Then it proceeded with him barging into Lyall's room at 4am to use his phone, only to end up using his laptop to chat with Alistair. Then he ran with Hild and James, figuring James wanted to kill him the entire time. Then he learned that he didn't. Apparently. Because he must have just been hungry. And no longer thirsty.

It didn't really matter. They were playing in a band now, which was the important part.

A band. A band. He hadn't been in a band since he started Alvarose, and that was started back in high school. It felt like it had been so long since he played with a large group equally excited about music, and suddenly Alan felt re-invigorated.

Finally. Finally. The long-awaited inspiration was coming back.

They were to meet at the amphitheater in half an hour, so Alan swiftly got ready, telling Lyall and Cyrin that he'd meet them there. He had a few things he wanted to do in advance.

Wearing his violin case like a backpack, Alan left the cabin first, stepping out to go to James's cabin instead. Except he wasn't there to see James.

He knocked on the door, stepping back and idly peering over the ocean as he waited for a response.

There was the sound of an insistent meow behind the door, then hurried footsteps. A moment later, Shane opened the door, cradling Shrimp. At first, he looked tired, but his face brightened with a soft smile once he saw Alan.

"Alan!" he said, stroking the fur of Shrimp's neck. "It's good to see you."

"Hi, Shane. It's good to see you too, but it always is," Alan said warmly. "Question for you: what are you doing right now?"

Shane let out a bashful laugh as Shrimp wriggled in his arms. "Besides being a parent to a spoiled cat? Nothing, honestly."

"I have a proposition for you, then. How do you feel about listening in on a new band full of island celebrities playing their latest new single?" Alan said playfully with a grin.

Shane's smile turned curious. "I feel quite positively."

"Well then, look no further. I'm here to sweep you off your feet." Alan paused. "Except we have to leave... like, right now."

Shane lifted Shrimp up, giving the cat a smooch on the head before setting him down inside. "Sorry, little guy," he apologized. "I'll be back after the concert."

The cat moved away, hopping onto the living room couch, and Shane started to quickly put on his shoes, looking up at Alan with a smile.

"You've got a band?" he asked, intrigued.

"We haven't met yet, but it's forming," Alan said with a faint laugh. "I know you don't play an instrument, but I wanted to include you since I thought you'd like to listen in anyways."

Shane nodded eagerly, still smiling. "I really would. Thank you for inviting me."

"Of course, Shane. I care about you, so of course I'd keep you in mind," Alan said sincerely. "Though, if you get bored, you won't offend me if you disengage. I have no idea how late we'll go." He shrugged. "We could finish in half an hour or go into the night. Who knows."

Shane's smile widened, his gaze staying soft. "I'm sure I'll find all of it fun, Alan. I can make that a promise. No need to worry."

Alan hummed. "There's no worry on my end. But you must know: I still promise to hold you to it."

~ ~ ~

Weirdly, the amphitheater had everything they needed to set up, especially with microphones and amplifiers. It seemed the DMV was paying attention to their conversation this morning, which was a little unnerving, but this also happened to be convenient.

Everyone was here and setting up. Alan was helping Hild with her pick-up microphone attached to the bridge of their instruments. He'd always preferred using pick-ups over electrical versions of the violin or cello, anyways. Meanwhile, Cyrin was getting settled into his drums, and James was setting up his guitar. Lyall, Clanny, and Shane hung back, chatting and helping out as needed.

Alan set up his stand next to the piano, figuring he'd bounce back and forth whenever it was convenient. The seat was always open for Lyall or Clanny to play if they wanted to, though.

Somehow, Alan found himself leading everyone, assuming charge in directing who played what and when. He didn't mind it, especially since he had a specific vision of how this would be arranged.

After tuning, he set his violin down on the surface of the piano, playing out the main chords of the song. E, Bm7, Dsus7, and A, he was pretty sure.

Alan nodded, turning to Hild. "Okay, Hild. For the first jam, let's keep it simple for you since you're also our bass part. Can you play these four whole notes?"

He played the four notes on the piano, saying the notes out loud, then looking up to her for confirmation. With a faint grin and brow arched, Hild inclined her head and obliged, expertly ringing the notes out on her cello.

Perfect. Alan then glanced up at James, playing the full chords on the piano again.

"Here are the chords," he said to him. "Do you know them? You can improvise with these chords for now since we're still learning it."

James simply nodded.

Next, Alan turned to Cyrin.

"You said you know the song, right? Do you know when to come in? I'll give you a silent cue," Alan said.

Cyrin nodded confidently. "I know the number of measures to wait, but I'll be watching anyway."

"Perfect." Alan glanced back at Lyall and Clanny next. Their phone was held out in front of them, likely pulling up the lyrics. "And Lyall, Clanny: do you know the lyrics and know when to come in?"

"Quite well, yes." Spreading his arms out, Lyall bowed slightly at the waist.

Alan stood up from the piano bench, picking up his violin again. "Okay. Hild, you're starting us off with the notes. I'll come in, then James can come in when he's ready, and then I'll cue Cyrin in. Then of course, our lovely vocalists will steal the show."

Alan looked out into the nearly empty audience seats, with only Shane sitting in the front row. He briefly met his eyes, smiling warmly at him. Shane smiled back, sitting forward and giving them all a thumbs up.

"Okay," Alan said enthusiastically, picking up his violin higher and turning back to the group. "Let's make some music."

~ ~ ~

It was a fun jam session, but eventually, they began to part ways. James left first, then Hild and Clanny, leaving behind Alan, Lyall, Cyrin, and Shane.

It seemed like they were going to step off the stage, but after Alan put his violin away, he played a quick, five second tune to get their attention.

Well, Lyall's attention.

"Hey, I was thinking, actually, Lyall," he began, playfully smiling. "Why don't you show off a little on the piano? I haven't heard you play yet."

Setting his hands in his pockets, Lyall rocked on his feet a little as he grinned back. "Well, 'showing off' might be a bit of a reach," he replied with a shrug. "It truly has been ages."

"Remember what I told you?" Alan said with a grin as he stepped aside, grandly gesturing for him to sit. "You can play hot cross buns and still wow me."

Lyall blinked at him, the gears in his head almost audibly turning. Then he barked a laugh as it struck him. "Have you any idea," he asked as he obliged and sauntered over to the piano, "how many words we exchange in a single day?"

"Not enough," Alan teased, leaning on the piano with his elbows on the surface.

He looked up at Shane again, still sitting at the front row. With a smile, he gestured with his head for him to join them up at the stage. A little uncertainly, Shane pointed back to himself, as if asking, "Me? Really?"

Alan grinned, only nodding more aggresively. Returning the grin, Shane slowly stood up from his seat, walking up the steps to the stage. There was still a certain doubtfulness in his expression, and he walked as though he was ready to be sent back to his seat at a moment's notice, but he looked eager to join them up there.

"So. What are you going to play?" Alan asked Lyall, smiling as Shane joined them by the piano's edge. "I'm putting you on the spot, because maybe Cyrin and I can follow your lead."

Cyrin nodded excitedly, tossing a drumstick upwards and letting it twirl in the air before catching it neatly as it fell. "Whatever you've been wishing you could play on a stage, now's your chance."

Lyall tapped experimentally on the middle-most C, then hummed in thought. "I haven't anything in particular in mind. Though perhaps, a song from more recent times? I appreciate the classics and all, but I'm dreadfully simple as far as music tastes go."

"Music is music, regardless of when it was made or how complex it is," Alan said, still smiling. "The only wrong song choice is picking no song at all."

Lyall huffed through his nose. "Hypocrite," he mumbled playfully.

Alan scoffed through the smile. "Just pick a damn song."

Without further ado, Lyall maintained eye contact as he lead into a familiar song with gusto and a second's worth of sass. His playfulness quickly melted away, though, as he looked back down at the keys. His expression turned deeply focused as he subtly nodded along with the beat.

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It took Alan a few seconds to recognize the melody. He played countless songs, from classics to recent pop songs due to a wide array of audience, so he picked up quickly that this was a Chainsmoka and Hotplay song.

Lyall sang unconfidently for the first verse, which was rather strange since Alan had heard him sing with gusto and passion the whole time. That combined with him suddenly fumbling on the keys made Alan realize: Lyall wasn't versed with playing and singing at the same time.

Understandable, especially if he was rusty. If this was uncomfortable for him, Alan didn't want to put him in the spotlight with such pressure.

So after Lyall silently cued Cyrin in, Alan came in and took over the vocals, singing along with him. They both met each other's eyes for a second. Lyall flashed him an appreciative and excited grin before he focused on the keys again.

It had been a while since Alan heard the song, so he wasn't fully sure he sang the lyrics completely right, but it didn't matter. What did matter was that he had the melody down and that he was singing in harmony with Lyall and Cyrin.

If music was a story, then it had to be expressed with the right emotions. And if he was on stage, then he could sink into the act, committing to the role as if he were an actor in the story crafted together by lyrics, instruments, and an artist with a dream.

After he sang out the first few verses and the instrumental part came in, Alan shot everyone a grin, getting into the groove of the song. Cyrin returned the grin, drumsticks flying over the drums to build up the rhythm into one with more excitement. Eyes bright, Lyall bobbed his head steadily as he played with more intensity and confidence.

Entering into the vocals again, Alan pulled Shane aside, walking backwards with his hands in his as he met his eyes. Shane's eyes sparked with excitement, letting Alan lead him across the stage as he smiled brightly. Getting into the song, Alan used grand gestures to talk with his hands as well, from wrapping his arms around Shane to broadly gesturing to the whole amphitheater around them.

Sticking to the energy of the song, Alan excitedly brought Shane to Cyrin, letting go to prance around his drumset. Playfully, Alan set his hands on Cyrin's shoulder, singing beside him. Cyrin grinned, continuing his drumming, shoulders flexing with slight movement with each beat.

At the last verse, Alan made his way to Lyall, first sitting on the grand piano and motioning for Shane to sit next to him. Shane followed, still smiling, hopping up after exchanging a look with Lyall to verify that it was okay. The young doctor had nodded and smiled wide in warm invitation. Alan continued to sing loudly, gesturing around the stage excitedly before suddenly hopping down to not-so-sneakily surprise Lyall as the instrumentals played again.

Alan first hugged Lyall from behind, moving his hands up his back until he playfully ruffled his hair. It was partly to tease him, partly to see if he'd remain focused, and partly because he felt inspired. Laughing, Lyall wiggled and shrugged him off as he managed to smoothly play on.

Grinning, Alan then shoved himself on the bench next to Lyall, forcing him to scooch. Now in front of the piano, Alan grinned at Lyall and followed his lead on the right side of the piano, improvising melodies with higher pitched notes. As the song progressed, Alan inched his hand down, brushing his hand to challenge Lyall to keep up else he would be booted off.

Though, Lyall either gave up completely, or took that as a sign for Alan to take it away. His wide grin as he lifted both hands up in relenting suggested the latter. The spark in his eyes made it feel more like a challenge.

Alan found himself now deeply focused on the song, improvising new melodies with a jazzy feel, deciding this would be more playful and fun to hear. He didn't know how long he'd been doing this-- it couldn't have been that long-- but dawned on him that Cyrin had started fading out the drums, so Alan closed the song with a slow and soft ending.

After the final notes rang out, Alan teased out the 5-second outro of the Looney Tooneys as a silly way to end.

"That's all, folks. The show is over," he mused, finally pulling away.

Cyrin tapped the drumsticks together as a way of applauding, and Shane actually clapped, carefully slipping off the grand piano to stand on the stage.

"The three of you are so talented," Shane said, still smiling. "I had no idea. Are you sure you haven't been rehearsing together before this? If not, I'm in awe of your improvisation skills."

Lyall playfully waved it off with feigned modesty. "Our good friends here who actually studied the arts are the true talents."

"Oh, you don't need to study the arts to do that," Alan said distractedly as he played out a soft melody with just his right hand. The notes came to him as sudden inspiration, and he wanted to at least ring out the notes before it completely disappeared. "You just need to listen and love music to appreciate it."

"Of course, but--" Shane laughed softly, shaking his head. "None of you let on that you were this good. It really sounded amazing."

"I feel outright deceived," Lyall said, bumping shoulders with Alan. "I've been in the company of a musical prodigy this whole time, and you never said anything."

Alan scoffed, barking out a laugh as he continued to test out the melody in his head, but then he gave up on that, ringing out a few chords instead. "Yeah, Cyrin. Why didn't you say anything?"

Cyrin huffed a laugh, twirling a drumstick between their fingers. "I would speak now, but it would just be to encourage you to admit to that prodigy being yourself."

Alan hummed to himself, pleased that he found the chords he was looking for. "How about another song?" he said with a grin to Lyall.

He didn't wait to hear for anyone's confirmation, diving right into playing.

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If Alan remembered right, this was Lyall's favorite song. Admittedly, he didn't actually know how to play this on the piano. But he did know the song, and he had about thirty seconds to figure it out-- or at least, start it.

Folding his arms, Lyall followed Alan's hands with his eyes as he listened intently. Then there was a bright spark of recognition in his eyes, and he turned an elated smile toward Alan.

Without needing a cue, Cyrin improvised a beat on the drums after a few measures, adding a helpful rhythm to follow.

Alan sang the first verses, matching the energy of his voice with the music, entering the groove. He sang with his full heart, pouring his soul into it since he wanted Lyall to hear this version of his favorite song. But he didn't intend to steal the whole show.

Spoiler! :
If you said goodbye to me tonight
There would still be music left to write
What else could I do
I'm so inspired by you
That hasn't happened for the longest time
Once I thought my innocence was gone
Now I know that happiness goes on
That's where you found me
When you put your arms around me
I haven't been there for the longest time

At the bridge, Alan bumped his elbow against Lyall repeatedly, nudging with his head for him to join along. After a second of this quiet egging on, Lyall gave in with a grin and lent his voice too. Alan happily sang along, exchanging frequent glances as he kept up on the piano. But as the bridge came to an end, he let Lyall take the vocals, focusing on the keys instead.

Spinning around on the bench to face Cyrin, Lyall happily took the lead with the next stanza. Hitting highs and lows effortlessly and with perhaps slightly exaggerated feeling. Even as he threw in a few silly faces, he exerted incredible control over his voice with every held note.

It was nice to see Lyall in his element, clearly in love with the song and with singing. Lyall's passion, skill, and devotion he displayed was the reason Alan couldn't stop smiling. It was always so refreshing to see someone enjoy an activity they hold dear to their heart. It was clear that this was singing for Lyall.

Alan matched his tempo, playing along on the piano for the entirety of the song. During the refrain, he sang to softly harmonize with Lyall. Sharing an excited look with Alan, Lyall slapping both hands over his heart, as if he were just struck by Cupid himself, and playfully leaned his head on Alan's shoulder.

This went on for a few more stanzas, but eventually, the song was come to an end. Alan and Cyrin watched Lyall stand, propping one foot on the bench and lifting both arms for a grand finale, and eased them into a slowed-down end. Alan thought about adding in a playful jingle at the end, but he rather liked that they ended together, so instead he leaned away and clapped.

"Impressive!" he said, still smiling wide. "I can rest easy now that I've heard you show off and steal the show."

"I live to entertain," Lyall said brightly, an echo of Alan's own words. Hopping off to stand to the side, the doctor spread both arms wide and took a deep bow. "Your musical requests are my commands."

"Careful. That's a dangerous statement you're making," Alan teased.

Straightening, Lyall tsked thoughtfully. "You're right. I would like to formally amend my statement: Cyrin's and Shane's musical requests are my commands. You, my good man, shall be exempt from this wonderful privilege."

Alan exaggerated a pout, glancing between Shane and Cyrin. "Please, I beg you. Now is your chance to request a silly song."

"Silly," Cyrin mused, leaning back a little on the stool they were sitting on. "Silly, you say. Would you be willing to go back to that violin, Alan?"

Alan raised a brow. "Is this for Lyall?"

"He can sing soprano quite well, evidently," Cyrin said innocently, with a bit of a playful smirk. "But can he sing Toxic?"

Shane let out a surprised laugh, covering his mouth with his hand and lowering his head.

"Oh my god," Lyall uttered with a rueful shake of his head. Still, he couldn't help his smile of genuine amusement as he feigned a put-upon sigh. "Only for you, my good friend."

Hm. Alan had played this song before, years ago when he was requested to play it with his band. He had played it before when he used to work in a piano bar, although he couldn't remember the key. He tested out the notes on the piano quickly.

No, that wasn't it. Maybe one more flat? He tried again. Not quite... One more time, then. After running down the first few measures a few times with different keys, Alan landed on the one he thought was right, nodding and standing up from the bench.

"Sure, we can give this a go. I'll go get my violin," he announced, going back over to his violin case.

Cyrin grinned, leaning back to the drums. "Fabulous. Whenever you two are ready, then."

Lyall strode back over to the standing mic he'd used during their group session. He cast a grin over his shoulder to Cyrin as he asked, "Any reason for this song in particular? Or is it purely because the idea itself tickles you so?"

"Purely for the bit," Cyrin confirmed.

Violin and bow ready, Alan walked back to the piano next to Shane, hopping up to sit on the grand piano again. He flashed him a playful grin, bring up his violin to his shoulder. Shane smiled back, cautiously leaning against the side of the piano. This was such a relaxed position to play in, but this was also a relaxed jam session where he was about to completely bullshit everything.

As jam sessions often were.

"I'll start us off. Lyall, I'll cue you in. And Cyrin, you can come in after that. How does that sound?" he said to the group.

Cyrin gave him a thumbs up. Bouncing on his heels, Lyall put on a show of shaking his limbs loose, prepping for the next performance. Then cast Alan a breezy grin and nod in confirmation.

Alan counted down in his head then began, starting off the iconic violin measures. He did this twice, glancing up at Lyall to signal that he could come in now.

Taking his cue, Lyall dove straight in. He maintained the original energy of this song, and matched the higher registers with such ease. The deeper they went into the song, the sillier he got. He struck a few dramatic poses and indulged in little dances during Alan's solos, all with a wide smile that suggested he was thoroughly enjoying himself. It was silly, and Alan had to remain focused and control his smile since he was also harmonizing between the solos.

They all came to a synchronized stop again, and Alan couldn't resist ending the song with a fast, over-the-top syncopated version of the main melody, going up and down the neck of the violin before dramatically swooping his bow in the air to signal that he was done. In sync with Alan's flourish, Lyall flung both hands heavenward, like the conductor of an orchestra. Then bowed deeply at the waist.

"You have done Brytaneigh Shakespeares proud, Lyall," Cyrin declared, grinning again-- although it was more likely they hadn't stopped grinning for the whole song.

"High praise, indeed!" Lyall said, clasping his hands together over his heart. "Especially coming from you, Cyrin. I shall cherish this moment for the rest of my days."

"I wish for it to get to your head, so you might feel moved to sing more often," Cyrin said with grandeur, resting the drumsticks on his knee. "The world must be clamoring at their screens to hear more of the great Lyall Ashlund."

"Agreed," Alan said as he set his violin on his lap, smiling warmly at Lyall. "You really do have a lovely voice, Lyall."

With a broad, elated smile, Lyall inclined his head. "I thank you both kindly," he said with warmth. "Having the opportunity to perform alongside incredible talents such as yourselves will definitely serve as a fantastic motivator to indulge in it more often. And for that, I must thank you again."

Cyrin tipped his head graciously, smiling more gently. "Likewise. I haven't had this much fun playing in a while, and it's an honor to do it with you both."

"You could have fooled me. You're a phenomenal drummer, and you're even better at improvising. I'd have believed you if you told me you were also a professional drummer," Alan said to Cyrin, smiling with sincerity. "Is there anything you can't do?"

"Linear algebra," Cyrin answered, keeping a straight face. "And between you and me, I think I've forgotten long division too."

"Hm. Fair," Alan said with a playful smile. "Yeah, you're not alone on that one."

"If my fourth grade teacher is watching this, that was a joke and I totally remember it," Cyrin said loudly, then shook his head with a smile as he mouthed, No, it wasn't.

Lyall barked a laugh. "No one retains that information, anyway, once its all done and over with."

"I can count to eight, and that's good enough for the drums," Cyrin said, playing out a quick bam bam bam bam ba dum tsh on the drums.

"That's all anyone needs in life," Lyall said with a sage nod.

"The day isn't over yet," Alan said with a smile, nudging Shane's side with his shoe. "Do you have a song request? Or want to hear anything specific or in general?"

Shane let out a bashful laugh, ducking his head. "I haven't got one, really."

"Are you sure?" Alan asked more gently. "It's okay if you don't, but I wanted to give you the chance to speak in case there's anything you'd like to listen to."

Shane paused, tapping his foot on the ground as he thought.

"How about your song of choice on the violin?" he asked. "I really don't have any particular requests, but you're very good at playing that. I'd like to hear more."

Alan blinked, taken back by the generic and thoughtful request. "You want me to just... play? Any song?"

Shane nodded reassuringly. "Any song you like."

Alan hesitated, exchanging a quick glance with Cyrin and Lyall, who only smiled at him, silently confirming that he could take the stage. Cyrin set their drumsticks down, and Lyall took a seat at the piano bench.

Suddenly Alan felt very awkward. And he didn't often feel awkward.

"Uh..." he stammered, drawing a blank. Both in words and thoughts, because he had to think about what he could even play.

"Is that okay?" Shane asked quickly, more nervously. "I mean, if you're not comfortable with that, you don't have to."

"I can play," Alan assured, picking up his violin and bow and hopping down from the piano. He cast Shane an appreciative smile. "It's thoughtful for you to think of me. I was just thinking of what to play." He paused, his thumb brushing the back of the violin scroll. "Are you sure you don't want to hear anything in particular?"

Shane smiled back, more shyly. "I want to hear what you most want to play."

Alan quietly hummed. "Alright," he said softly, finally moving to the center of the stage.

He stood and stared over the empty outdoor amphitheater, but for a moment there, he imagined that he was back on the orchestra stage, entering at the main soloist. The conductor would smile and bow his head at him, and the first violinist would wait for his cue. The whole orchestra would, watching and listening for him, following his lead.

But there was no orchestra. There hadn't been one for a while.

But, just for the next few minutes, he could pretend that he was playing to one.

Alan brought the violin to his shoulder, readying his bow. The air around him grew quiet and dark, and it was just like it was him on the stage. Him and his violin.

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Alan played a famous cadenza that he had memorized long ago, absorbing himself in the song. He drew out the solo, dramatizing and romanticizing the movements and pauses to express more emotion. Alan fully sunk into the song, feeling like he had entered a timeless, spaceless void. There was only music and the dedication to playing it.

The song quickened, and by the end of the song, Alan was running his bow across the strings, keeping up with the complicated fingering patterns while maintaining the beat of the song. Drawing to an end, he finished with a dramatic double-stop and lifted his bow up, ringing the notes for the stage to hear.

And then the light returned, and instead of an audience, he was facing the empty amphitheater again.

"I played the cadenza of the Mendelson first movement violin concerto, opening 64 in E-minor," Alan said as he pulled his violin away, relaxing his stance as he turned around to face his real audience.

Shane's expression was one of open awe and admiration, his eyes shining as he watched Alan with a smile. Cyrin looked equally impressed, nodding approvingly as he sat with close attention. Leaning back on the piano, Lyall watched with open affection in his gaze.

Alan cleared his throat, glancing over the empty audience again and suddenly feeling like he had to say something else in the stiff silence that followed. "There's more to the song, but it sounds better with an orchestra." He paused. "It's also way longer."

"It sounds amazing as is," Shane said softly. "That was incredible, Alan."

Alan smiled at him. "Thank you for the request," he said simply, making his way back to his case to put his violin away.

"You've truly been underselling yourself this whole time," Lyall piped up, voice warm. Then, lighter, added, "It's almost criminal."

Alan faintly laughed, opening his case to set his violin down. "It just takes a lot of practice. I've practiced that cadenza for years."

"It's not any less impressive for that," Cyrin said, smiling gently. "I'd argue it makes it more so, in fact."

Alan placed his bow back in place, setting the cloth cover over his violin before closing the case again. "Maybe," he murmured as he closed the buckles.

"It's really been such a pleasure," Lyall eventually said after a quick beat of silence, casting Cyrin a bright grin, "delving back into music with friends."

Cyrin nodded in eager agreement. "It's been quite fun. Thank you for inviting me to play with you."

"And for inviting me to watch," Shane added.

Alan smiled warmly at them, standing up with his case balanced upright. "Thank you for coming. This was really fun. We should definitely do this again. No-- we are definitely doing this again."
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urbanhart says...

It really felt as though it had been ages since Lyall last indulged in any music-playing. His studies kicked up overseas, and he simply fell out of the habit since he didn't have Hild or Vik right there to practice with.

Both jam sessions felt collectively like a dream come true, almost. The circumstances were highly unorthodox, but the fact remained. He got to perform for the world with people whom he adored and shared a love for music. All that was really missing in that moment was his lovely lady to share in the moment with as well.

One of them had suggested grabbing drinks, since they were still in the plaza with daylight to spare. Lyall didn't quite remember who, he was busy being caught between still riding that post-show high, and aching for Kaya's company.

Alan briefly bumping shoulders with him brought Lyall fully back to the present. In the joyful company of good friends.

With a bright grin, Lyall spun on his heel to walk backwards in front of them. "So, we have our choice of...basically any imaginable cuisine, I suppose. Are there any strong preferences?"

Though... hm. He and Shane hadn't really had a chance to share in a meal yet. Just to err on the side of caution, he added, "Dietary restrictions?"

"None from me-- at least, for it to affect others," Alan chimed in with a smile. "A meal with drinks sounds really nice though. A perfect way to end our jam session."

So, there was something. Lyall tucked that away for later poking into.

"I agree, it does," Cyrin said, also smiling. "I don't have any dietary restrictions either. There should be at least one bar in the plaza. Hopefully the drinks are normal this time around."

Shane nodded, looking eager, but also a little distracted from their situation. He'd been more quiet, seemingly happy to let the three of them have their conversations, often glancing off to the side. "No dietary restrictions for me," he added.

They didn't really further discuss where to go. They simply drifted into the nearest eatery-- a tiki bar, as it turned out-- and found themselves spots at the bar in the back. Alan teased Cyrin to get the first drink, mentioning that if they were tainted again, then they'd know by how they spoke. Fortunately, after Cyrin complied with a playful roll of their eyes, he continued to speak normally, which instilled trust for everyone to drink again.

The special of the day were fresh piña coladas, which-- turns out-- was the special of the day everyday. But that didn't stop them from getting a round of it.

They clinked their drinks, toasted to new beginning for music, then fell back into comfortable conversation.

"My cousin used to have a cat named Piña," Alan mused as he spun the pink tiki umbrella between his fingers. "She named him that since she found him in an alleyway licking a pineapple. So, now I think of that cat every time I drink one."

"Aw," Lyall said, leaning an elbow on the countertop, "we should've toasted your cousin's cat."

Alan huffed out an amused puff of air. "Could have. But now she has a cat named Pepino." He flourished his hand in front of him. "Which means cucumber."

Shane awwed softly.

"She's staying in theme," Cyrin said with a smile. "I respect it."

"Commitment!" Lyall agreed. "Commendable!"

Alan grinned, glancing around the tiki bar until his eyes landed on a bulky camera that was situated on the corner of the bar. He pointed at it, called out "Isabel!" then proceeded to speak in Argent quickly, exaggerating his intonation that made it sound like he was teasing her.

Lyall glanced up at the mounted camera with an amused grin. He only caught a few words in the spiel-- baby, school, cat, and love-- and. Yeah, he had no clue what Alan was about, it was too fast. But the affection in his words was clear.

With a playful grin, Alan shrugged and leaned back on his chair, lifting up his drink. "I had to send a message," he said simply before taking another sip.

Cyrin hummed, turning towards the camera. "I admittedly haven't tried that yet," he mused.

"Well, it is more fun than ringing them up," Alan said teasingly.

As if Alvaro had much choice in the matter to begin with.

Shaking his head in amusement, Lyall lifted his glass for a first sip. Then waved to Cyrin. "Perhaps give it a shot. No time like the present!"

A playful smirk settled over Cyrin's face as they straightened, looking directly at the camera.

"Dear Magnus," he began. "I miss you very much, and I'm sure you'll be a full foot taller by the time I'm finally home. Please tell Allison that she shouldn't be letting you watch this show, unless I blinked and you already grew up to an adult. Time passes so fast when I don't see you. Love you to death. Tidy your room." Cyrin paused, then said something more teasing in Aphiran.

Shane let out a sudden laugh, setting down his drink and covering his smile with the back of his hand.

Lyall made a quick mental note to delve into the Aphiran language in addition to Argent.

"Aw," Alan cooed with a big smile, sitting up straight as he gazed at Cyrin with open affection. "That was so sweet, Cyrin. I'm assuming they're family?"

"My younger brother," Cyrin confirmed with a warm, beaming smile. "He's twelve."

"Twelve!" Alan echoed brightly. "Aw, he's going to grow up so fast and be a devilish little rascal."

"Oh, he already is," Cyrin said with a laugh. "The most devilish angel there is."

Lyall laughed warmly. "I rather miss when Vik was small, too."

"Oh, Lyall!" Alan exclaimed, grabbing his attention. "Why don't you say a message too? To Viktor and Kaya. Why not?"

Huffing a quieter laugh, Lyall nodded. "But, since it'll take double the screentime, I would like to offer our dear Shane Hawking the floor first."

"Yes! Shane, now's your time to shine," Alan encouraged, smiling wide. Cyrin nodded affirmatively as well.

Shane looked surprised, lowering his head a little.

"Oh," he said, letting out a quiet bashful laugh. "Are you sure? I mean, they're your sibling and fiancee, and I don't really have anyone closer to me than a first cousin."

Lyall offered him a gentler grin. "No personal message for this first cousin, then?" he said in light teasing.

"Well--" Shane faltered, before smiling faintly. "I mean, I could certainly have something to say. I don't have to go first unless you want me to, though."

Grin widening a little, Lyall gestured back to Shane with a flourish of his hands. "In that case, I shall politely insist."

Shane's smile brightened almost imperceptibly, and he looked up to face the camera, clearing his throat slightly.

"Hi, Phoebe," he said, raising a hand to do something unexpected-- fingerspell out a name. "Hope you're doing well over there. Sorry that Shrimp left your care, although I'm sure he had a good time before he got sent over here. Both of us miss you lots." He smiled wider, continuing his hand signing as he spoke. "Felix, too. Stay safe, and love you tons."

"That is a really lovely message, Shane," Alan said with open adoration again. "That's so sweet. They're going to adore this, I just know it."

Shane smiled more bashfully, dropping his gaze to the table again as he lowered his hands. "Thank you."

Leaning forward to peer around Alan, Lyall said, "Might I inquire after this...'Shrimp' figure?"

"I was also wondering that," Cyrin said with a grin.

Alan held back a snort since he was mid-drink. "Don't you both know? There's a giant shellfish living among us, aptly named Shrimp."

"Don't let the name fool you of his size," Shane said solemnly, as though he were saying the Kraken was in these waters.

Lyall blinked at both of them. Then huffed with feigned annoyance as he straightened. "Fine," he sighed, "stranger things have happened. Though I'm fairly sure a giant shellfish as a royal pet would've made at least a dozen headlines, so I'm inclined to not believe you."

Alan gasped. "You don't trust us? I've seen the beast myself. He's a mighty creature."

"One of the other Heirs has a pet fox, doesn't he?" Cyrin asked. "This isn't so unusual, I suppose."

Shane let out a laugh. "That's Leilan. His House has a whole menagerie, basically."

"But!" Lyall waved both hands with some indignance, unable to hold back a laugh. "This doesn't answer my original question!"

Shane grinned slightly. "Alright, Shrimp is not a shrimp. You have that hint."

"I think the little guy may be in the same animal kingdom as pineapples and cucumbers," Alan said with a shrug, taking another long sip.

Pineapples and...?

Pressing his eyes closed, Lyall breathed out another laugh. "A very...intriguing choice of name for a feline," he eventually offered.

"I did my best," Shane confessed, laughing sheepishly.

"Shrimp the cat," Cyrin mused, taking a sip from his glass. "I like it. It has little guy character. Is he a little guy?"

"Very much so," Shane confirmed.

"Well," Lyall said lightly, drumming his hands on the counter, "we must commemorate the little guy. Bartender! I'd like your shrimpiest cocktail please, and a cucumber mojito for each of my friends."

Alan hummed. "I suppose it's not too late to make a toast to the cats."

Lyall raised his glass and agreed, "The night is young yet."

"And there's still plenty of time for you to say hi to your people," Shane suggested.

Oh! Lyall swallowed his drink. Right, yes!

"Thank you for the reminder," he said warmly, before turning his attention back to the camera still fixed on them.

"Consider this a second birthday speech, several months delayed," he said with a broad smile. "Vik, you've grown into a very fine young man. I wish I could take credit, but that was all you. I'm so immensely proud of you. Take it easy, dear brother. And Kaya. My heart, my light. I miss you, and love you with all that I have." Lyall lifted his drink as he inclined his head. "See you soon."

There was a brief second of silence on all sides. Glancing off, Lyall took a long swig.

Alan gazed at Lyall with transparent adoration, endeared by the sweet sentiments. He smiled fondly, slapping his hand over his heart. "My heart. That was so sweet. I'm so glad I got to witness your loving spiel."

"I was tempted to keep it a private message," Lyall said jokingly. "No regrets sticking with Common, however, since it touched the heart of Mister Romantic so."

Alan grinned, one hand twirling his straw around the rim of the pineapple container as he perched his chin against the palm of his free hand, leaning forward on the table. "I think I can listen all day to others professing their love to their friends, family, or partner. Nothing makes me happier."

Lyall hummed with an amused, fond grin of his own. "You're a big sap," he murmured into his drink.

"Yeah, I know," Alan said with a bigger smile, sitting up straight and plunging the umbrella out from his drink, pointing it at each of them. "But so are you, and you, and you. And I love that about you guys."

Cyrin awwed at that, placing their hand over their own heart as they swirled their drink with the other hand. "Don't make me blush."

"But it's true," Alan went on adamantly, swishing the umbrella around. "Why does being sappy have to be so bad, especially for men? I say we reclaim the word."

"I second the motion," Shane agreed, smiling again. "I could write it into law somewhere: Men can be as sappy as they want."

"Hear, hear," Cyrin said, raising his glass.

"The Island Democracy has spoken," Alan announced as he raised his drink as well. "It says: let us all be saps."

"In which case," Lyall agreed, mirroring his friends with his own glass, "there's hope yet for this place."

And, with this toast, Lyall drained what was left of his drink. How many things had he toasted by now? He might need to start a new list, just to keep track. And he'd need a new drink, because he sensed they would find plenty more to toast as the night went on.

~ ~ ~

They were all a few drinks well into their evening. A little tipsy by this point, but thoroughly enjoying their time spent together over dinner.

He noted of his friends the farther along they all were:

Cyrin became...chattier, in a word. Looser, in another. Candid to a degree that Lyall hadn't seen them before.

And Alan was just himself. But definitely dialed up. Touchier, patting Shane and Lyall more and more frequently on the arms or shoulders. And he was more sentimental, were it possible.

At some point, Lyall felt himself slipping back out of the Common accent. Which marked his third drink as his last for the day. He set his empty glass aside.

"Wait, wait, wait. Lyall," Alan said with increased focus as he twirled his finger in his direction, narrowing his eyes at him. "Say that word again."

Lyall blinked. "What?" He put conscious effort into slapping on the Common filter once more. "Which... which one?"

Alan leaned in closely, suspicious. "...Why do you sound like that?" he murmured.

"Why..." Glancing off, Lyall huffed a self-conscious laugh. "I sound fine," he said in a playful bout stubbornness.

"He's not speaking like I was last week, I'll give him that," Cyrin agreed. "Do you all remember that? The verilys? The increasingly archaic language? Everyone said I was speaking in Shakespearean style, but I didn't actually start speaking that way until the evening. I was Victorian first. Victorian! Everyone got that wrong."

Lyall barked a laugh. "I do remember the verily's, clear as day."

"When did you say ver-il-y?" Alan asked, emphasizing the pronunciation.

"Both times were with Lyall," Cyrin said, pouting. "We were about to have a heart to heart before I said it the first time and he laughed at me. Laughed! I just thought I was saying something along the lines of 'really'!"

Out of slight lingering guilt as well as second-hand embarrassment, Lyall buried his face in both hands, muffling his next laugh.

"A heart-to-heart!" Alan repeated, attention piqued. "How am I just hearing about this now? What is this heart-to-heart you speak of?"

"What were we talking about?" Cyrin mumbled, taking another sip of his drink before nodding. "Ah, right. I believe the discussion didn't go very far because Lyall decided to mock me ruthlessly, but the sentiment was this: fate's a bitch and so is life."

Oh, god.

Leaning over on the bar, Lyall hid his face behind his arms as he fought to recompose himself. "I didn't--" he wheezed between guffaws. "I'm sorry!"

Alan laughed, patting Lyall's back. "So rude, Lyall. Don't you know it's bad manners to call out people speaking funny?"

Lyall swatted playfully at Alan's hand. "Oh, that's rich, coming from you!"

Alan lifted his hands innocently, grinning. "Oh, sorry. Fate's a bitch and so is life."

Still snickering, Lyall bumped shoulders with Cyrin. "Well, if I recall correctly, we said we'd revisit the matter another time. Might as well be now."

Leaning back, he tried mentally tracing back the conversation to that loose thread.

Fate ... No, plural. The Multiple Fates. They all sucked for beans. Miserable old crones. Lyall didn't care for them.

"Might as well," Cyrin agreed. "Was there anything else?"

"Ah," Lyall said slowly, "hands? Staying... Steady hands." He snapped his fingers. "Darts. Which you killed, by the way. Deadly accuracy, and what have you. We should play again."

Cyrin plucked the umbrella from their drink-- actually, it was Shane's drink, because their spatial perception seemed to be off-- and held it like a dart. "We most definitely should."

Lyall beamed. "A date-- Another! As in, we've yet to go rock climbing." He patted down the front of his jacket. "I need...a pen..."

Ntohing. He groaned, then whipped out the next best solution; he began to compose a text message to his sister.

"Do you have a pen?" he mumbled aloud as he typed. Then explained as he hit send, "She always has something to write with on her. She's an insufferable, adorable nerd."

"Is that to Hild?" Alan asked with a smile, leaning over to peek at what he was typing down.

The three dots to indicate a response was in the works appeared.

The text Hild sent back:

"Don't you? - H. Ashlund."

Alan was peering over his shoulder, reading the text with him and chuckling. "Can I write a response back?" he asked.

Lyall snorted and handed off his phone. "Have at it."

Deeply concentrating, Alan took the phone and composed his text, not letting Lyall see. Lyall leaned against his friend's shoulder, trying to get a peek anyway. He counted over twenty seconds as he waited.

The swoosh sound signaled, indicating that Alan sent the text. Smiling proudly, he wordlessly gave the phone back to Lyall.

The text read: "Dearest sister. I love you with all my heart. If you wish for me to rescind my statement, please join me at the tiki bar in the plaza. Your lack of attendance indicates that you love me back and I'll tell the whole world. XOXO, Your Favorite Brother"

Lyall blinked at the text. Reread it. Then cast Alan a flat look. "How dare you."

"Let's not stop there," Alan said with a playful grin. "Do you have most of everyone else's number?"

"Oop, one moment," Lyall said, looking back down at the chime of his phone. "She's writing back."

"Send her a heart emoji while you're waiting," Alan teased.

"Fine," Lyall quickly relented. But instead, began scrolling a library of GIFs.

"Oh, send that one!" Alan said, tapping a sparkling, winking heart gif for him. Which... sent automatically as a text. He blinked, processing. "Well, hope you liked that one. You can't take it back now."

Lyall barely had time to form an opinion before Hild's reply appeared.

"You're clearly inebriated. Miss Clanny and I are on our way to personally deliver you back to your cabin. Don't move. - H. Ashlund."

"Yes!" Alan cheered, triumphantly getting up from his seat. "Now it's a party!"

Lyall cast him a suspicious glance. "Was that the intended effect? Make me appear like a fool? Cast me in an unflattering light, to such an extent that--"

"It was always a party," Cyrin said, pouting sadly.

"Now it's an even bigger party," Alan said with a wide grin, practically pulling both Lyall and Shane out of their seats. "We should move somewhere else and invite the whole island."

Lyall stumbled after, nearly dropping his phone.

"To where?" Shane asked, laughing as he was dragged along.

"No clue!" Alan said with a laugh, pushing Cyrin along as well so they could move out the door. "Let's find out!"

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Carina says...

Did Alan have a plan? Not really, but he found that the best of nights often weren't planned. They were completely spur-of-the-moment, strung together by being at the right place, during the right time, with the right people. And tonight was one of those times.

To be honest, Alan only picked this place because the advertising was shiny, its fluorescent neon sign glowing in the dusk. It wasn't until they entered that he realized this was a karaoke bar.

Did this exist before? How did he not know of this place? How had they not partied here before? This seemed like a missed opportunity... until now.

Alan, Lyall, Shane, and Cyrin sat on the big open table, gathering around Lyall's phone so they could invite more people.

"Ah, wait," Lyall mumbled. "We moved."

"Who else do you have in your contacts?" Alan asked instead. He glanced up at Shane and Cyrin. "Same with you two, actually."

"There's..." Lyall went through his contacts. His face lit up. "Oh! I'm sure Kaz would appreciate an invite. And I know Connie won't, but I'll do it anyway."

"I have Clarity and Clanny," Cyrin said. "Though Clanny's already on her way, and I'm not sure Clarity would go. Not because she hates us, probably because she just likes science more than singing."

Alan hummed. "That's a lot of C names. I hope they all come."

"I'll text Clarity anyway," Cyrin said, taking out their phone.

Lyall frowned at his phone. "Aw, what? He didn't save my number..."

"Who?" Alan asked, but he stared down at his phone to read the next anyways.

Lyall wrote:hllo, good eve, care to join at the plaza?

Connie wrote:Who is this?

"Maybe he thinks you're a spam text," Alan offered.

"Ah." Lyall nodded. "True. I'll resend, reformatted."

With Lyall's phone still on the table, Alan leaned in closer to see how he'd go about sending the text, but so did Lyall since they bonked each other's heads.

"Ow!" Alan moaned with a laugh, rubbing the spot where he felt a few brain cells die.

"Alan," Lyall said, huffing his own amusement, "you're my spellcheck, get back here."

Hearing those three words, Alan instead ducked behind him, arms draped over his shoulders and loosely wrapped around his neck as he peered over Lyall's shoulder.

"Whatcha writing?" he cooed in this safe position instead.

"Oh my god," Lyall laughed, trying to wiggle out of Alan's grasp, "you can't lean in and not whisper. That's basically an ambush!"

Alan laughed, leaning forward again as he leaned against Lyall. "Whatcha writing?" he asked again, this time a whisper.

"Draft five," Lyall answered, still giggling a little bit. "I have...punctuation this time. That should help, right?"

"Let me see," Alan said, unwrapping his hands to take the phone, head still crouched to perch over Lyall's shoulder.

Lyall wrote:Connie Falco, Please come to the plaza. It's urgent. (It's a party.) Would love for you to join. And save my number under 'Lyall', or even 'that guy'. Please and thank you. :)

"Awww," Alan cooed with a smile. "I think it's sweet. You should send it. Maybe add a heart emoji, if that's your jam."

Lyall snorted. "It most certainly is not."

He added one anyway.

Alan laughed, pressing send for him.

"Okay, I'm trying to appeal to Clarity here, but I didn't think that she technically must have alcohol in her lab," Cyrin said, holding up their phone. "Can someone more sober help?"

Cyrin wrote:why hello clarity

Cyrin wrote:would you care to join us for an evening of drinking and singing

Clarity wrote:you had me before the singing part

Cyrin wrote:perhaps just an evening of ethanol then?

Cyrin wrote:unless there's some in your lab already

Cyrin wrote:hmm

Cyrin wrote:i'm not very good at this sales pitch thing am i

Alan and Lyall had both equally leaned in close, squinting at the phone instead of taking it. Grinning, Alan took the phone, snatching it from Cyrin to draft his own message.

"I know just what to send," he said triumphantly.

But instead of sending a message, Alan lifted the phone out for a selfie, grinning as he also included everyone else in the background.

It was quite dark, and so Alan didn't actually see if anyone else was positioned to pose. At least, until the flash went off. After taking the picture, Alan opened up the picture to examine it.

He'd taken it at 0.5, and everyone's forehead surface area had increased by a factor of 2. Or decreased by a factor of 0.5. Was that why it was called 0.5? Quick maths.

"When Cyrin said 'someone more sober'," Shane said, rubbing his eyes from the flash with an amused groan, "they probably did not mean you."

"Shhhhh," Alan said with a giggle, leaning in and placing a finger on Shane's lips. "Look at this picture. It's a masterpiece."

"I studied culture, and I can tell you: this selfie is about to become the newest centerpiece of pop culture," Cyrin declared grandly. "A true artifact of the internet age. Memed left and right. Preserved in textbooks."

Alan bowed deeply, grandly flourishing his hand in front of him as he did so. "Thank you. I'd like to thank my forehead for being the main star."

Cyrin leaned over, bopping the send button on the phone screen. At least, he tried. He actually hit different keys several times while missing the button, meaning Clarity also received the enigmatic message of "jiguiuiui" with the photo when he finally got the send button.

"Oops," he said. "Maybe she'll think it's a cocktail name."

Shane buried his face in his hands as he visibly tried not to laugh. "It's more likely she'll think you're been pretty heavy on the ethanol already."

Alan hummed, snapping his fingers with a grin. "Does that mean we're ordering more drinks?"

"We really shouldn't," Lyall said, trying and failing to school his features.

"Yeah... that'd be a really bad idea, wouldn't it? We should be responsible," Alan mused, smile growing as he narrowed his eyes at Lyall.

Tilting his chin up, Lyall mirrored his look. "...You are so bad for my health," he muttered with a grin.

"One can even say... toxic," Alan said, matching his knowing grin.

"Ba dum, tsh," Cyrin said, making up for the lack of drums by thumping out the beat on the table.

Lyall barked a laugh at that.

His phone chimed, grabbing his attention in an instant. Then it began ringing before he could even pick it up. The screen displayed "sister from another mister" in bold letters.

"Oh! Who is that? Hild? I want to talk to her," Alan said, butting in again to peer over Lyall's phone.

"No no," Lyall waved him off, "sssh, she can't hear us actually talk, she'll know we're drunk."

"Should I talk to her?" Shane suggested. "I mean, I'm tipsy, but not to the extent that you all are."

Lyall shoved his phone Shane's way before he was even done speaking. "Yes, brilliant!"

As Shane picked up the phone, Alan leaned in close to Lyall to whisper in his ear, "Do you think he's actually sober?"

Lyall leaned slightly away from Alan with a grimace. "Volume, my good man."

"Shhhhh," Shane hushed them, pressing the call button and raising it to his ear. "Good morning, Hild! This is Shane."

A beat. Then Shane closed his eyes and muttered something that sounded like a swear word of some kind.

"Oh, that's the Aphiran word for fuck," Cyrin said cheerfully, also too loudly.

"Can you say it again?" Alan asked since he missed it the first time.

Lyall guffawed, then loudly shushed Cyrin, who was already opening their mouth to say it. "No, not in front of my sister!"

"I mean, good morning, Hild, it's morning somewhere," Shane said even louder to cover their voices. "How is your morning going?"

Abruptly reaching over, Lyall fumbled for the speaker button. Shane let out an awfully cute little squawk of surprise as Lyall pulled his hand away from his ear and pressed the button.

"My morning," Hild answered slowly, "has long passed." A short pause. "Shane, where is my brother?"

"Oh, he is..." Shane stared at Lyall with a trapped, pleading look.

Lyall shook his head frantically. Alan had to slap his hand over his mouth to stop himself from laughing.

"...Playing beach volleyball," Shane said eventually. "You know, as one does."

"Oh my god," they heard her murmur. Then her voice sounded distant, as if she pulled her phone away from her ear. "They're all drunk," they heard her say tiredly.

"I got this," Alan said as he continued to repress his laugh, leaning into the phone. "Hild! I miss--"

"No, you're drunk!" Shane scolded him, yanking the phone away before bringing it back up to his face. "No, we're not drunk, I promise."

"...Alright," Hild said politely. "Well, since I have you, Shane, would you care to tell me which way my brother went? And where you are, for that matter."

"I forget which beach," Shane said. "There's, uh, a few of them."

"Follow the neon signs! Follow your heart, Hild!" Alan called, cupping his hands around his mouth like a megaphone so the phone could pick him up, even though he was right next to Shane. Shane tilted his head so his ear that was closest to Alan was covered by his shoulder, looking this close to laughing.

"Ah," Hild said flatly, "Alvaro. What--"

"Nope, no Alvaro in this karaoke bar," Shane said, playfully hushing Alan.

Alan snickered, leaning into Shane so he could try to take the phone, even though Shane kept distancing it away from him.

"Ah, I see you, then," Hild said conclusively.

"Wait, how does she know where we are?" Cyrin whispered to the group.

Lyall leapt out of his chair and ducked behind a plant.

With shining eyes, Alan then ran towards the door, opening it wide and squinting to see where where they could be. "I don't-- oh. Hey," he said with a laugh, realizing she was actually... right next to the building. He almost missed her. "Hild!"

She began to lift her free hand in greeting.

Alan excitedly pounced on her, picking her up and twirling her around, laughing as he did so. She was so small and cute, like a little doll. A pouting, angry, fierce little doll... but still a doll nonetheless.

Hild squeaked with surprise, and swatted him away the instant her feet were back on the ground.

"Ow!" he said with more laughs, swatting back.

"Refrain from doing that again," she said sharply, casting him a quick glare. Then said into her phone, "Mister Shane, your efforts were valiant, however the execution lacking. Someone ought to formally instruct you on the art of deception."

"I'm not that good of a politician yet," Shane admitted, and Alan heard his voice behind him as well as through Hild's phone.

Hild grinned faintly. "It was a good start."

Alan's gaze drifted to Clanny next to her, smiling and beaming. He swore for a second there she looked like a beam of sunshine. Wait, no, that was just the setting sun behind her.

"Hi, Clanny. It's nice to see you again," he said as he leaned in to give her a warm hug.

"Hey, Alan!" Clanny said, pulling him in for an embrace. She gave him a firm squeeze. "Thanks for the invite," she added with a chuckle.

"Of course. I can't believe we haven't done this before. Come on!"

He took her hand, excitedly dragging her back in. After a few steps, he realized he forgot about Hild, so he let go and whirled back to grab Hild as well. "You too! Come on!" he said with a warm smile.

Ducking out of his reach, Hild hastened inside ahead of them. She made a beeline for the table where Shane and Cyrin were still seated. Lyall slid back into his chair, taking his phone back from Shane with a laugh.

"Have you ever sang karaoke before?" Alan asked, turning to Clanny.

"Yeah!" Clanny said. "It's so fun. Do you have any go-to songs?"

"Weirdly, I don't. Do you?" he asked.

"I always like to sing 'All Star,'" Clanny said with a grin.

Alan mirrored her grin, eyeing the stage. "Want to sing that together right now?"

"Omg yes!" Clanny said, practically exploding with enthusiasm as she grabbed his hand tighter and started pulling him to the stage immediately. Alan laughed, fumbling after her. Her enthusiasm was so contagious.

It took a minute for Alan and Clanny to figure out how to put a song request in.

"No, that's not it, you goof. You're supposed to click this button," Alan said, swatting her hand away from the absurdly difficult-to-use interface to search by song title.

"You need better glasses," Clanny teased. "It's this button."

And upon clicking, apparently, Clanny had finally found the song and qued it up.

"Ha! Ha!" she gloated with a smile. "Got it!"

"You're an all star," Alan said, suppressing a laugh. "Wait! Look, they have props."

And on top of the pile of props were two pairs of headbands with bouncy ogre ears. Alan scooped them up, offering one to Clanny.

"It's all ogre now," he said with a stupid grin, placing the headband on, along with a pair of chunky green glasses that awkwardly sat over his own glasses.

Clanny snorted. "Oh my gosh," she said, putting them on. "Come on, let's do this."

She ran up onto the stage as the song loaded on the screen, title scrolling into view.

Alan inhaled a deep breath, facing Clanny straight-on for the first line of the song.

"SOME-body once told me..." he began.

"The WORLD was gonna roll me," Clanny chimed in.

"I ain't the sharpest tool in the sheeeddd," Alan went on, feeling so silly, but also so alive.

"She was lookin' kinda dumb with her finger and her thumb," Clanny said, putting an L up on her forehead with her fingers.

Alan mirrored her movements, singing, "In the shape of an L on her forehead."

"Well, the years start coming, and they won't stop coming!" Clanny went on.

The two of them sang in sync, eyeing each other for silent cues since they exchanges verses often. Every few lines, either Clanny or Alan would do a fun little dance move, and the two of the played off each other's movements. It was a lot of fun, and they both got really into the song, so it surprised Alan when it was suddenly over.

The audience clapped, whistled, and-- honestly, Alan kind of forgot where he was for a second there. Right, they were at a karaoke bar with his island friends, and they were all watching.

And... wait, there were more people at the bar? Was that staff?

"Thank you, thank you," Alan said with a bow, and he playfully elbowed Clanny to deeply bow as well.

Clanny bowed even lower than him, practically touching her forehead to the ground before she sprung up with her hands in the air, waving for more applause. Alan laughed, copying her movements, but alas, he was not as flexible. God, he almost pulled a muscle trying to go as low as she did.

Clanny gracefully walked off the stage, taking Lyall's hand to help her off the side. Meanwhile, Alan set the props down then hopped off the stage, microphone still in hand. He was debating whether to embarrass someone by calling them up the stage. Maybe Cyrin? No. Lyall. Definitely Lyall.

Before Alan could choose the next victim, the front doors flew open as Kazimir walked in.

"YOOOOOO WAZZUUUUUUP," Kazimir practically shouted across the bar. "I heard drinks and karaoke!"

"That you did, my friend!" Lyall brightly exclaimed back. "You're just in time to take the stage!"

Kazimir smiled and ran through the crowd, patting Lyall on the back before he leaped up on the stage.

"Someone get me 'Rap God' on the screen," Kaz said, looking down at Lyall and Alan.

"ON IT!" Clanny said before either of them could move.

"Hey, Kaz! Here's the mic," Alan greeted as he tossed it up to him. Kazimir caught it mid-air with a laugh.

"Thanks," Kaz said, while the song lyrics loaded up behind him, and the song started to play. Without even looking behind him, Kazimir turned to face the crowd and began quoting the intro word-for-word.

"Look, I was gonna go easy on you not to hurt your feelings. But I'm only going to get this one chance. Something's wrong, I can feel it. Just a feeling I've got, like something's about to happen, but I don't know what. If that means what I think it means, we're in trouble, big trouble; And if he is as bananas as you say, I'm not taking any chances. You are just what the doc ordered," Kazimir said in perfect synchronization, pacing back and forth on the stage.

Oh, hm! Kaz was pretty good at rapping. It was almost mesmerizing to watch, even though Alan was still at the front of the stage, peering up at an unflattering angle.

Then, the song went into the part that had the title-lyrics.

"I'm beginnin' to feel like a Rap God, Rap God! All my people from the front to the back nod, back nod. Now, who thinks their arms are long enough to slap box, slap box?
They said I rap like a robot, so call me Rap-bot!"

Eventually the lyrics picked up faster and faster and suddenly Kazimir was speaking, like, five words per second. It was impressive at how well he could still enunciate his words, and it was fun to watch. Regardless, Alan finally moved so he wasn't gaping at him the entire time at the bottom of the stage, dipping to the right. That was when he realized Clarity was at the bar with a drink in her hand, sipping from a straw as he watched Kaz perform.

"Oh, hey, Clarity," Alan said with a smile, leaning against the bar next to her. "I'm glad you can make it."

Clarity gave him a slight smile in return, raising her glass. "I saw the selfie, and I had to wonder, did something happen to your foreheads? So I wandered over." She squinted at his face. "Looks like you didn't get stretched out, at least."

Kazimir's voice cut in more when he started rapping even faster.

"Lyrics comin' at you at supersonic speed. Uh, summa-lumma, dooma-lumma, you assumin' I'm a human. What I gotta do to get it through to you? I'm superhuman. Innovative and I'm made of rubber so that anything you say is ricochetin' off of me and it'll glue to you and, I'm devastating, more than ever demonstrating--"

The pace cut back just a little, but he was still rapping really fast, and Alan lost sight of the words he was saying.

He glanced back at Clarity with a triumphant smile. "The only thing stretched here is my ego. I can't believe my plan worked. I should try to snap more pictures like that to someone whenever I want them to join me."

"Well, you did lure in an introverted chemist," Clarity pointed out. "It could work on others too."

"Ah! That reminds me. I never got to thank you for the medicine you made me forever ago," Alan said brightly, remembering the immunity vitamin shots he took when he was sick. "So, thank you, belatedly."

Clarity's smile widened slightly. "Of course. I was glad to hear that it worked. Not that I thought it wouldn't, mind you--"

Alan cut in with a hug, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close. "Thanks anyways," he said warmly, her blonde hair in his face.

Her hair smelled like a field of lavender. Oddly, the scent reminded him of Lyall as well.

Clarity seemed a little slow to react, eventually wrapping her arms around him too, although it was mostly to pat his back.

"You're very welcome," she said, and even though she sounded pretty awkward, her tone was sincere too.

Alan gave her one last pat, pulling away with a smile as he leaned against the counter. Clarity smiled back, although she still seemed a little awkward and stiff. Not to the point of looking uncomfortable, though. Still, he hoped that he didn't cause her any discomfort. She looked like she could use a hug, so he simply went for it.

"How come I never see you around, anyways?" he asked as it dawned on him that he hardly saw Clarity, like... ever.

"I'm often in my lab," Clarity explained. "It doesn't leave much time for going around the island."

Alan hummed. "Then maybe I can come to you. Yeah, maybe I'll stop by and pay you a visit sometime. I've never been in a legit science lab before."

"If I can get a second pair of goggles, you'd be welcome to," Clarity offered. "Provided you don't set anything on fire. Unless I tell you to. In which case, by all means, set the thing on fire."

Alan tapped the side of his lens. "Already have one," he said teasingly. "And sure, I can set things on fire. And also not."

"Wonderful. You're ready for chemistry. Or at least, chemistry is ready for you," Clarity said. "I've found it tends to be the other way around."

Kazimir's song came to an end with a small burst of confetti from the ceiling-- confetti! -- and the entire room erupted into loud cheering and claps. Alan followed suit, loudly clapping for the impressive rapper. Kazimir proceeded to do a backflip off the stage, narrowly missing hitting a table with his feet as he landed beside Lyall. Heartily patting Kaz on the back, the smaller man whooped and cheered for his friend.

Alan lightly nudged Clarity with his elbow. "Hey, what if you took the stage next? If you're up for it, I think it'd be fun to hear you sing."

"Only with a few more drinks in my system," Clarity said. "Which means, in a few minutes."

"Okay, then you have to sing after that, otherwise I'm dragging you up there," Alan teased.

Clarity snorted. "You may try."

Alan glanced at the bar behind him, and it just dawned on him that a negroni was already prepared for him, embellished with an orange peel. How did the bar know that he was thinking of ordering this drink? Did it read his mind? Without questioning it, he slid the drink off the counter, giving Clarity one last smile.

"I'm going to catch up with others, but I'll see you on that stage, yeah?" he said.

"You will," Clarity promised. "Free of dragging. Have a good time."

Alan gave her one finaly wave, bounding to the table that Cyrin and Shane were at. Was the bar growing smaller with every minute that passed, or were there more and more people? Maybe the latter.

"You know the stage is empty, right?" Alan said, sliding the chair to slump in it, casting a playful glance between Cyrin and Shane.

"Is it?" Cyrin asked, sitting up. "Oh, yeah! I saw that flip Kaz made."

"Maybe you ought to flip your way to the stage," Alan said casually.

Cyrin turned his head to the stage, seeming to gauge the distance, obstacles, and people between them and it. He suddenly nodded, standing up confidently as he drained the last of what looked like a Womanhattan from his glass, setting it down on the counter.

"Say no more, friend," they said, stretching out their neck by rolling their head in a circle.

Alan knew he was about to flip after those words, but the way the athlete burst into motion still caught him off guard. Cyrin jumped upwards and to the side, spinning in the air in a way that looked like a figure skater, arms folded in to his chest. He tucked into a roll, reaching out his arms so he could land on the table ahead hands-first and flip off of that. Cyrin continued in this handstand-cartwheel-flip, touching the ground and pushing off of it several times, until he landed feet-first on the stage, hands outstretched overhead.

What! Alan could hardly process what he was seeing as he watched Cyrin move with awe. He looked like a video game character with this level of dexterity and precision.

"Woooooo! Cyrin Bridger, everyone!" Alan cheered, clapping loudly to applaud the impressive feat while also encouraging Cyrin to sing. Next to him, Shane clapped excitedly.

Cyrin grinned, bending over in a deep bow as the audience clapped. He snatched the mic off the stand, leaning over to Lyall, who was still at the machine. "Just Like Heaven, pretty please."

"Absolutely, my good man," Lyall obliged with a bright grin.

An upbeat bass riff started playing, accompanied with a lively riff. Cyrin grinned, bopping their head to the sound of the beat, tossing their hair around. The length of their hair made them seem a bit like a rock star, which was fitting given the style of the song. He got into the groove, dancing around a bit on the stage for the beginning instrumental. It was clear he was having fun, and he expressed the energy of the song through each movement.

Alan tapped his finger against the table, but then he realized he was tapping several fingers. It dawned on him that he was in auto-pilot, trying to figure out the melody on the piano even though he wasn't in front of one. He set his hands against his lap instead, turning to Shane with a smile.

"Have you heard this song before?" he asked.

"I have," Shane confirmed. "My dad liked this band a lot."

"Oh, really?" Alan said. "Your dad had good tastes, then." He paused. "What was he like, anyhows?"

Shane paused, glancing back to the stage where Cyrin was still dancing around, spinning the mic stand around.

"He was a man of good tastes," he said. "Very... vibrant. Poetic. Warm and kind-hearted. A romantic at heart, too. He had a lot of vision, and the bravery to go with it. He touched a lot of people's lives for the better."

Alan leaned forward, holding on to every word. "He sounds like a very good man. I wish I could meet him."

Shane smiled, faintly and sadly. "I wish you could too. He was a very special person."

The instrumental ended, and Alan heard Cyrin's voice from the stage, singing in a clear, melodic tenor.

"Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick, the one that makes me scream," she said," Cyrin sang, bringing an upbeat energy to every word. ""The one that makes me laugh," she said, and threw her arms around my neck. "Show me how you do it, and I promise you, I promise that I'll run away with you, I'll run away with you."

Out of the corner, Alan noticed Shane had mouthed along to the last five words, nodding his head to the beat of the song.

"Do you know what his favorite song was? Or at least, what he liked to listen to?" Alan asked.

Shane nodded after a moment, a little slowly.

"I think so," he said. "It was probably a different song by this same band. Lovesong."

"I'd love to listen to it sometime with you. Only if you want to, of course-- but I think remembering someone by song is a great honor," Alan said with a gentle smile.

Shane smiled back at that. "I think that would be nice," he said softly. "I haven't listened to it in a while, either, so this would be a good way to hear it again."

"There's no better time than the present." Alan paused, then loosely gestured to the stage. "Well. Maybe there is. I'd rather we do the honor in a more peaceful setting. Your father deserves that."

Shane nodded. "Whenever you do want to, we'll do it then," he promised. "But I also don't think this is the time."

Alan lifted his gaze back to the stage, his finger idly tapping along to the beat of the song. For some reason Shane's first sentence really stuck with him.

"You know, Shane," Alan began, "it's alright to be a little more selfish. Or maybe that's not the right word. But I think it's fine to do what you want to do by your terms with your needs and wants. No need to adapt to mine or someone else's. Your voice is just as important."

Shane blinked, scanning Alan's face carefully for a few moments.

"I mean, I figured that in general, I should match your pace," he said, a little softer. "It doesn't bother me."

"I know," Alan said with a gentle smile. "All I'm suggesting is for you to be a teensy bit more selfish by pursuing what you want on your own terms. That's all."

Shane nodded hesitantly after a moment, seeming to give it some thought.

"Maybe... tomorrow, then?" he asked. "If that's not too busy for you?"

Alan beamed. It was nice to see this shine of confidence, even if it was shy. "I'm not busy, so tomorrow works. You know I'll always make time for you."

Shane smiled back, more warmly and brightly, and they held eye contact for a few moments.

Alan missed part of Cyrin's singing, but he managed to catch the end of the second verse and the refrain. They were still living it up on the stage, grinning and walking around in a way that looked a lot like a rock star.

""Why are you so far away?" she said," Cyrin sang out. ""Why won't you ever know that I'm in love with you? That I'm in love with you?" You, soft and only, you, lost and lonely, you, strange as angels. Dancing in the deepest oceans, twisting in the water, you're just like a dream... You're just like a dream..."

"It's actually a pretty sad song," Shane said, once the instrumental break began again.

It was then that Alan realized he was being a terrible musician right now. It was normal for him to sink deep into a song when fully listening to it, but he was hardly paying attention to the song itself, mostly taking the time to appreciate Cyrin singing in confidence, all the while sitting with Shane's presence.

...Was it a sad song? Alan found himself slowly nodding, squinting at Cyrin, trying to think.

"Daylight licked me into shape, I must have been asleep for days, and moving lips to breathe her name," Cyrin sang on. "I opened up my eyes and found myself alone, alone, alone above a raging sea that stole the only girl I loved, and drowned her deep inside of me. You, soft and only, you, lost and lonely, you, just like heaven..."

Ah. A song about a lover who was nothing more than a dream.

The song ended there, drawing out a soft synth note that faded into silence-- but not for long, because the audience then applauded for Cyrin. Taking a playful bow, Cyrin tucked the mic back onto its stand and hopped off the stage.

Alan clapped along, albeit a little slowly. He mustered a grin for his dear friend, applauding the performance. Shane clapped along as well, with a little more energy than him. Cyrin flashed the both of them a grin as he made his way back to the bar.

"Confession time," he said, holding up his hands. "I should have done that with one less drink."

Alan huffed out a laugh. "You sounded so great, though."

"Oh, good. Because I had a headache and couldn't tell," Cyrin said with a laugh, leaning his elbows on the counter and resting his head in his hands.

Taking the spotlight next was Lyall, and Alan sat up straighter with an eager grin. Lyall hopped up and took a preliminary bow as he warmly greeted their audience with a silly, drawn-out, "Good evening, City of Angels! First, one more round of applause for our dear Cyrin Bridger! A performance like that must be thoroughly acknowledged."

The audience clapped, and Alan playfully clapped obnoxiously, leaning too close to Cyrin as he did so. Cyrin, by a stroke of the same judgement, leaned back against him with an amused expression, and Alan had to give up the fight due to their greater force.

"Tough act to follow," Lyall went on breezily, "but I shall try my best. Perhaps a crowd pleaser would work in my favor." Pointing with both arms, he said, "Miss Clanny! Kindly put on 'I'm Yours'."

While Clanny gave him the thumbs up and typed the song into the machine, Alan whistled and cheered, "Yeah, Lyall!" in support of his friend.

With an excited spark in his eyes, Lyall grinned directly at Alan past the small crowd. Stepping up to the mic with the air of a seasoned performer, he began smoothly:

"Well, you done done me in, you bet I felt it," Lyall sang, putting on a quick pout as he got into character. "I tried to be chill, but you're so hot that I melted. I fell right through the cracks..." He broke into another bright grin. "...now I'm trying to get back."

Alan was once again drawn in to Lyall's velvety voice. It was nice to hear him sing and take the stage again, stepping into the light and enjoying himself. It warmed his heart.

Although, it just dawned on him that they had locked eyes the entire time. Alan slow blinked, snapping out of the trance as he then sputtered a laugh, innocently glancing around the room and pointing at himself, mouthing, "Oh, me?"

Nodding in response with laughter in his eyes, Lyall began bopping along with the rhythm of the music.

"Before the cool done run out, I'll be giving it my bestest. And nothing's gonna stop me but divine intervention. I reckon it's again my turn, to win some or learn some..."

As she passed, Hild momentarily blocked Alan's view of her brother, which made Alan do a double-take.

"You two do that a lot," she commented loudly over the music, taking the seat beside him.

"Hm? Do what?" Alan asked, attention briefly fixed back on Lyall. He'd locked eyes with Clanny in the same way he did Alan, and Clanny was beaming wide.

Swallowing her first sip, Hild snapped her fingers for Alan's attention again. "That, see? Right there."

Alan gave her a funny look. "I didn't do anything."

She only nodded slowly, a mischievous glint in her eyes as she leaned back. "...If you say so."

"You look like you're having fun and enjoying yourself," he said with a growing smile, watching her instead.

"I was," she said, crossing her arms with an exaggerated sigh, "until my brother took center stage."

"Oh, right, because you were going to take the stage instead, right?" Alan teased, playfully elbowing her.

Hild barked a laugh at that. "No," she retorted, "because I've rather had my fill of his voice for the day. To last me a week, really."

"Really? I don't know how you can get tired of hearing Lyall," Alan said, gaze fixed back on the stage. "I love hearing him sing. And speak. I rather like being around him."

Scrunching her nose, Hild let out an audible, "Eugh!"

Oh, right. Hild didn't like it whenever he gushed about him.

So naturally, Alan was going to keep doing it.

"The Ashlunds are so talented! It must have been such a treat to be with each other every day growing up. You're so lucky you have each other," Alan said warmly, only dawning on him now that he inadvertently gushed about Lyall and Hild.

Hild feigned disgust again, before melting into a quiet giggle. "I'll concede," she said, "he's not all that bad."

"Far from it." Alan paused, contemplating and smiling along to the lighthearted song as he watched Lyall sing with more playful passion, directing all his attention on Clarity now. "I think he makes me a better man."

Nodding slowly again, Hild looked Alan over more thoughtfully. "You make him happy," she eventually said. "I'm glad you two have become such friends."

Alan grinned, smiling wide at that. It wasn't like it was his intention to befriend Lyall to make him happy, but it was nice to hear this from Hild. "Me too. We're still new friends, but we quickly fell into a natural friendship, and I have a feeling we'll remain in touch for a long time." He poked her side. "And you too, you know. You're on that list too."

She hummed, then allowed herself a small, warm smile. It really was nice to see her smile. "I look forward to years of a musical partnership," she said, lifting her glass.

"I'd toast to that, but I think you mispronounced friendship," Alan teased.

She pursed her lips then, trying to suppress a laugh. "Don't push it, Alpaca Alvaro."

Alan pouted. "Don't make me go up on the stage and serenade you."

"I will walk out the door," she said flatly.

"I'll just run out and serenade you in private then," Alan went on with playful stubbornness.

Her flat look morphed into a playful glare. "Absolutely not."

Alan pursed his lips, leaning back on his chair as he took a slow sip of his drink, thinking through alternatives instead. "How about we meet in the middle and I'll serenade you with my violin during our next practice session?"

"Or," she countered, "you simply take 'no' for an answer."

"Or," Alan countered back, "you serenade me."

Hild scoffed. "A far less likely scenario."

Likely. So, still possible.

"I'll take my chances," he said with a grin.
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Carina says...

A hand warmly brushed across Alan's shoulders then, which startled Alan a bit, but then he saw that it was just Lyall. He rounded the back of his chair to appear at his side. When their eyes met, Lyall grinned wider.

As he took Alan's hand and playfully dropped to one knee, he effortlessly belted out, "Look into your heart, and you'll find that the sky is yours!"

Alan couldn't help but grin wide, greatly amused by the act, and even more impressed that this was happening while Lyall was singing. He thought about singing along, but Alan was far too caught up in being endeared that by the time the thought occurred to him, Lyall was already pulling away.

"...So please don't, please don't, please don't--" Lyall traveled around the table until he reached Shane, wrapping an arm around him. Shane smiled, nodding his head along as he placed his arm around Lyall as well. "There's no need to complicate, 'cause our time is short..."

With a delighted spark in his eyes, Lyall then began tugging Shane up to his feet. Shane looked mildly surprised, but he let Lyall pull him up, getting on his feet with a curious smile.

"...this is our fate, I'm yours!" And with that, Lyall linked arms with Shane and lead the way back to the stage, breaking out into a little bouncy dance as they went.

Once back in the spotlight, he spun Shane around in a sort of loose waltz as he closed out the song. Shane let out a shy but delighted laugh as he spun, first stepping away with an outstretched arm, still holding each other's hands, then spinning back inwards to stand next to Lyall again. Positively beaming at him, Lyall lifted both their hands in triumph, then dipped into a low bow toward their audience as the music faded out. Shane didn't bow, but he snapped the fingers of his free hand in a sort of applause while claps rose from the audience, and he was smiling brightly.

Alan was too, smiling wide and clapping loud for both to hear. The gesture was unexpected, but it was really nice to see two of his favorite people on the stage together.

Lyall popped upright again and turned his attention back to Shane. "Mister Nurse Hawking," he greeted with a silly smile, "thank you kindly for joining me!"

Shane kept smiling, ducking his head shyly for a moment. "I couldn't say no," he said through an adorable, bashful laugh.

Lyall's grin turned endeared. "Well, in the spirit of indulging me," he said warmly, "how about taking a turn serenading us this fine evening?"

Doubt and anxiety flickered over Shane's face for a moment.

"Oh," he said with a more nervous laugh, sounding like he was surprised to be asked. "Are-- are you sure? I'm not really a singer."

"Peeshaw!" Draping an arm around Shane's back, Lyall waved his other hand. "I strongly believe everyone has the capacity to sing." He glanced up in thought for a second. "Ah, why don't we warm you up a bit first? I'll be right here with you. We'll make it a, ahm... duet!"

A more hesitant smile crept across Shane's face.

"You're sure?" he asked, more softly.

Lyall grinned warmly. "I'd love nothing more." He looked back out at their audience. "Right?" he said louder. "What an honor it would be to witness our dear Shane's musical debut on this fine evening!"

"Yeah, Shane!" Alan cheered first with a silly grin, cupping his hands around his lips so he'd be heard easier. "We want to hear you sing!"

Next to him, Cyrin let out a supportive whoop, and they weren't the only one-- people around the bar were joining in on cheering Shane on.

Shane looked around the audience, smiling a little wider every second until he looked back at Lyall.

"Okay," he said, with another laugh. "Your pick."

Lyall grinned. "Tremendous!"

Mounting his mic, Lyall made a show of dropping down onto his knee to snap the stand up to a higher height for Shane. He did a little flourish with his hands, as if presenting the Aphiran heir to their audience. Then hopped off the stage to quickly key in the next song.

"How's 'Lucky' sound?" he asked.

Shane nodded. "Let's do it."

The song started up as Lyall hastily took his spot next to Shane once more.

"Do you hear me?" Lyall pressed a hand over his heart, flashing his duet partner a playful, pleading look. "'M talking to you across the water, across the deep blue ocean, under the open sky, oh my." Then he gave a small wave as a cue for Shane to ready himself for the reply. "Baby, I'm tryin'..."

"Boy, I hear you in my dreams," Shane joined in, still smiling in a shy but bright way. His voice wasn't as powerful as Lyall's, but it was sweet and nice to listen to, and he hit the relatively higher notes of the female voice part well. "I feel your whisper across the sea, I keep you with me in my heart. You make it easier when life gets hard..."

Unable to contain his excitement, Lyall quickly applauded as Shane sang, which was followed by their audience likewise bursting with audible approval. Alan especially cheered loud for him, the excitement incredibly contagious. His heart swelled, completely overwhelmed by affection and adoration for seeing them performing on stage and enjoying the moment.

Sliding up next to his partner, Lyall slipped an arm around Shane's waist, which caused Shane to grin and rest his arm over Lyall's shoulders. They next harmonized:

"Lucky I'm in love with my best friend, lucky to have been where I have been, lucky to be coming home again..."

Lyall smoothly adjusted the way he sang, softening his own voice so that he wasn't drowning out Shane's. He maintained his silly exuberance, though, dropping to his knees at some point to sing with exaggerated feeling.

"So I'm sailing through the sea, to an island where we'll meet." Reaching back, Lyall plucked a flower from the vines at the edge of the stage. Then hopped back up to his feet, gently tucking the blossom behind Shane's ear with another silly grin. "You'll hear the music fill the air. I'll put a flower in your hair..."

Shane was grinning as well, looking like he had to stifle a laugh before singing again. "Though the breezes through the trees move so pretty, you're all I see," he sang, lifting a hand to his ear to make sure the flower remained in place. "As the world keeps spinning round, you hold me right here right now."

For the next verse, Lyall slipped around Shane to hold him from behind, leading them into a small swaying dance. He had to stand on his toes in order to prop his chin on Shane's shoulder. Shane's grin turned warmer, dimples clearly visible in his cheeks as he playfully rested his head over Lyall's.

Alan found himself leaning forward until he eventually propped his head up with his hand, smiling warmly as he angled himself to watch them sway and swing. He was aware that there was chatter between Cyrin and Hild beside him, but he couldn't register their words.

During the final verses, Lyall took Shane by both hands and pulled him into another, slower waltz. Spinning them around the stage, and leading the prince into a dip. Shane didn't look to be expecting it, but he went with it perfectly, still beaming as he leaned back into the dip and lifted a leg off the ground. Lyall let out an audible laugh, missing his next lines, as he pulled him back upright. Then recomposed himself in time for them both to hum the outro. Their voices harmonized softly and effortlessly.

After a final spin away from each other, Lyall lifted their joined hands once more as he gave a finishing bow. Shane joined him in bowing, beaming brighter than the spotlights shining on them. Lyall barely gave him time enough to stand fully upright again, before grabbing him up in a warm hug and excitedly spinning him around. Shane let out a giddy laugh and wrapped his arms around Lyall as they spun, turning around several times before they broke apart from dizziness.

"Mister Shane Hawking, everybody!" Lyall declared ecstatically, stumbling slightly as he grandly gestured with both arms.

Their audience broke out into another burst of cheers and hollers.

Offering his arm, Lyall nodded for them to take their leave. His grin never fading, Shane took it, and they elegantly stepped off the stage. Lyall hazarded a little hop and click of his heels as they went.

"So, Bridger," Hild suddenly spoke up again after Shane and Lyall left the stage, though Alan noted that they stopped to chat with one another. "You're an athlete, performer in more ways than one, with a smattering of published research. Correct?"

"It sounds overly grandiose when you put it that way," Cyrin said with a humble laugh. "But I am, yes."

With an arched brow, Hild grinned faintly. "Alright, let me rephrase then: you do flips for a living, bang on drums sometimes, and you've written, but only an infinitesimal amount."

"Nice summary," Alan said with an amused smile.

"That's more like it," Cyrin agreed, nodding sagely with a grin.

Hild hummed in amusement. "More importantly," she said, "I hear from Miss Clanny that you are an appreciator of animals."

"Oh, yes," Cyrin said, smiling more warmly. "Pets and wildlife alike."

She nodded, then angled her chin up slightly. "What of those of...more epic proportions? Creatures of legend?"

Cyrin hummed. "Legendary creatures? I take an interest in those too, although it's through more of a cultural lens than just an appreciation of nature. I like studying folklore that they feature in."

Hild broke into an actual smile, her gaze deeply intrigued. "Have your studies ever touched on Fjelstad? We've an extensive collection of folktales, both written and spoken."

"Yes!" Cyrin exclaimed excitedly. "Quite a bit, actually. If a story I'm looking at isn't either Aphiran or Ren in origin, there's a very strong chance it's from Fjelstad. The folklore is a treasure trove in the cultural landscape of the world."

Hild's eyes were similarly alight with interest. "I will attribute the sheer quantity of stories to our rather loose traditions in oral retellings. Which I believe is a contrast to Renvara's storytelling traditions, right?"

"It is," Cyrin agreed. "There's value in both traditions, though. If I heard a story from you, for example, I could be hearing a unique version that no one else would be able to share with me. And if you heard one from me, you would be hearing it exactly the same as people who lived thousands of years ago heard it, sharing the same moment millennia apart. Both ways are beautiful."

"I like that. That is beautiful," Alan said with a slight hum, mulling this over as he tapped the side of his half-finished drink. "There are infinite ways to tell a story across time and space. The stories we tell to pass on are truly timeless."

"Yes," Cyrin said empathetically, pointing at him meaningfully-- although, his spatial perception was off yet again, because he was actually pointing directly over Alan's shoulder. "There's a reason they last so long, since us knowing them back and forth. We can't get enough of hearing them."

Abruptly, Cyrin winced as the sound of feedback came from the stage, and they all turned their heads to see who was up there now. Clarity, true to her word, had taken the stage-- and even more true to her word, she'd evidently needed a few more drinks to get up there, because she was holding a cocktail in each hand, neither of which was the one she'd been drinking from when Alan had been talking to her. She stood in front of the mic stand without reaching for it, staring into the audience with a bold look that was so serious that it became comical, and Alan had to hold back a laugh.

"I went into the kitchen and asked Mireya what I should sing," she hollered. "She gave me this song. Everyone better go and thank or complain to Mireya for whatever happens next."

There was some giggling towards the bar, and a stomping like beat started playing. Alan realized a few moments later that Mel, Shay and Mireya were around, also stomping along.

"Uh huh, this my shit! All the girls, stomp your feet like this!" Clarity called, pop star-style. "A few times I've been around that track, so it's not just gonna happen like that! 'Cause I ain't no hollaback girl! I ain't no hollaback girl!"

Alan barked a laugh, recognizing the song immediately and not believing that this was her song choice. Well, Mireya's. It was strangely fitting for Clarity, though.

"Oh my god. This is hilarious. Excellent song choice," he said with a grin, leaning back in his chair with amusement, drink in hand.

Cyrin let out a laugh, watching with delight. "I knew it was going to be great."

"I heard that you were talking shit and you didn't think that I would hear it," Clarity sang from the stage, adopting the same taunting tone as the original song. "People hear you talking like that, getting everybody fired up. So I'm ready to attack, gonna lead the pack, gonna get a touchdown, gonna take you o-out! That's right, put your pom-poms down, getting everybody fired up!"

Taking the empty seat at Alan's other side, Lyall dropped into the chair, clapping and cheering Clarity on. Alan glanced at the side of the stage, briefly noting that Shane and Clanny were chatting, before he nudged Lyall with his elbow.

"Ten out of ten performance. You're a natural. Both of you are," he said with a smile.

Lyall beamed with the praise. Before he could reply--

"Oh my god," Hild groaned loudly, "his ego! Please, desist."

Alan playfully scoffed. "Lyall, you grace us with beauty and elegance. Your voice is as velvety as silk. Your dance moves are to die for. You're an absolute charmer."

Lyall laughed, then flopped over to lean his head on Alan's shoulder. "With a muse like you, how could I fail?"

Grinning, Alan placed a hand over his heart, conveying with great exaggeration that he was absolutely smitten. "Being someone's muse is life's greatest honor."

"The way you laugh, light and warm like a summer's breeze," Lyall went on, voice playfully dreamy. "How the sun can't help but kiss your lovely face. With a soul so pure and sweet, the heavens themselves should be moved to weep, if ever you shed a tear."

To punctuate the impromptu ballad, Lyall then wrapped both arms around Alan in a tight embrace, squishing his face against him in a silly manner.

Alan had to hold back a surprised laugh. It wasn't because he thought Lyall's sentiments were comical-- far from it, actually. It just caught him by surprise. He usually was quick-witted enough to reply promptly and cleverly, but he found that all words left his head, and he just wanted to focus on being present with Lyall, just for a second.

Or maybe he was tipsy.

No, what Lyall said was definitely really sweet, and ought to be appreciated regardless of the state of mind he was in.

Alan embraced him back, although much more gently since Lyall was already holding on tight. "That was actually really sweet. Do you write a lot of poetry?" he asked.

There was a beat of unreadable silence, and Alan lightly patted Lyall's back.

"Poetry!" Lyall exclaimed suddenly, still with his face smushed to Alan's arm. "Of course! Shall I compare thee to a summer's afternoon?" He lifted a hand toward the ceiling in a grand gesture. "Thine eyes like--"

"How many drinks did he have?" Hild cut in flatly.

"Just the right amount," Cyrin said through a laugh.

"Shhh, Hild. Let the lovely and temperate poet speak," Alan said with a grin, playfully shoving Lyall away, mostly because his voice was too muffled in this position.

Lyall shoved back at Alan. With a mischevious glint in his eyes, he began again, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Nay, because a summer's day is not a bitch."

Alan huffed out some air, pushing him shoving him again so he could sit in his own chair. "That's right, because life's a bitch."

Cyrin muffled a laugh, covering their mouth.

Snorting, Lyall lightly elbowed Cyrin. "True poetry, right there!"

"I'll put that quote in the public domain," Cyrin declared. "Everyone is free to use it in their poetic works without fear of plagiarism."

"Still, I'll be sure to not put that on a shirt the first day I vacation on another island. Wouldn't want to get punished for copyright infringement," Alan said with a smile and a shrug.

"If you do, just make sure it isn't attributed to Rickey Rat," Cyrin said.

Alan nodded, feigning contemplation. "Right. Instead, I'll make up a bootleg version named Mickey Mouse instead."

Lyall barked a laugh. "God, could you imagine that? Ridiculous."

"Yeah, sorry, but Mickey Mouse would never make it in the studio industry," Cyrin added.

"Definitely. That shit would be bananas," Alan said, loosely gesturing towards Clarity like he was cueing her in to sing the main chorus.

"This shit is BANANAS!" Clarity hollered with energy. "B, A-N-A-N-A-S!"

"This shit is BANANAS! B, A-N-A-N-A-S!" Mel, Mireya, and Shay towards the bar yelled back.

The call and response went on a few times, much like cheerleading. Clarity was also acting out the part, adding in a few stomps and hair flips as she sang.

"Another natural performer," Hild hummed, watching with a faint, impressed smile. "Shame on me for ever assuming otherwise."

Alan grinned, gently elbowing her. "That could be you up there next. I know you're a natural performer too. I've seen it."

She scoffed at that. "Easy on the flattery, Alvaro. It's not going to work."

Alan hummed. "Fine. I take back my words. You haven't proven yourself to me yet." He shrugged innocently. "Guess I'll never know if you're good at performing."

Hild cast him a sharp look.

"Yeah, no," Lyall cut in, waving her off before she could say anything, "she prefers to play it safe. Never was the daring type."

"I don't have to 'prove' anything to either of you," Hild retorted.

"I completely agree with you, Lyall," Alan said, ignoring her. "If only she could reach her full potential. Such a shame that our little girl isn't ready for the big, cruel world of karaoke."

Cyrin barked a laugh, quickly hiding a smile behind their glass. Hild next shot him a quick glare too.

Wrapping an arm around Alan's, Lyall leaned on him with a woeful frown. "Yes, but alas. Since she dost prefer it, we can allow her to sit, content with her stagnant state. Though gain comes not without pain. A triumph, without a test! A--"

"You think I can't," Hild said darkly, narrowing her gaze at them.

Lyall snorted. "My dear sister, why else would you hide, if not for a voice as wretched as a banshee?"

"Oh, Lyall," Alan said playfully, hand patting the curls on top of his head. "She's not hiding. Instead of growth, she chooses love. To sit here and be present with us. Isn't that sweet?"

Setting her glass down, Hild politely folded her hands on the table. "I shall not take this slander," she said determinedly. Then angled her chin up as she looked at Alan. "A proposition for you, then."

Alan tilted his head, curiosity piqued. "I'm listening."

"I will perform," she said with a challenging light in her eyes, "a song of your personal choosing. Anything. So long as you agree to likewise perform any song of my choosing."

Alan found himself grinning. Considering that he used to have a career in taking ridiculous song requests, there had to be a bigger catch. "Any song?" he repeated suspiciously.

She gravely held out a hand, her determination never faltering. "Any song."

He was already thinking of the most ridiculous song to choose for her.

"Deal," he said with no more hesitation, smirking as he took her hand, giving it a solid shake.

Right on time, Clarity finished her song. She held up the mic in front of her, and Cyrin tended as if anticipating the loud sound, but the action gave Clanny just enough time to dive for the sound system and momentarily lower the volume so Clarity could drop the mic and walk off stage without murdering anyone's ears.

Alan exchanged a knowing look with Hild. "Ladies first? I know just the song."

She tied her hair back loosely as she stood. "How gentlemanly of you," she said flatly.

"Thank you. It's my best trait," he said with a silly smile, also standing with her. He glanced back at Lyall and Cyrin. "Gentlemen. I'll be right back."

Alan walked her to the stage, but he didn't go up the steps with her, instead typing the song name into the machine and obstructing her view so she didn't see since he wanted to keep it a surprise. She folded her arms with a scoff, but didn't press for even any hints. Just took the stage, and let him take his time.

It took a little bit of time to get it working, but finally, he managed to queue the next song: Numb by Lincoln Logs. Seeing the countdown timer start, Alan walked backwards from the stage while bopping his head to the beat, giving her a grin and two thumbs up just in time to see her reaction. As the lyrics loaded up, there was a flash of deep regret in her eyes as she scanned them. She glanced sideways at the props box, then sighed as she walked off the stage entirely.

Before any of them could question her, she strode over to Cyrin's side and hastily said, "Can I borrow that?" And pointed at him.

Cyrin grinned as they caught her meaning, quickly shrugging off their stylish black jacket and handing it over. "Have fun."

"I'll..." She just shook her head instead of finishing the thought. She tugged their jacket on, and it completely swallowed her small frame, which Alan thought was oddly adorable. Before he could comment, she quickly made her way back to the stage. By the time she was back in the spotlight, the first two lines had already passed her by. The next was also left unsung as she shook out her hands, looking like she was trying to crawl into a completely different mindset.

Well, Alan did want to see her sing this. But he'd regret picking this song if it led to an embarrassing memory.

"Let's hear it for Hild!" he loudly cheered in hopes that it would encourage her and the crowd.

Lyall jumped out of his chair, pumping both fists in the air as he hollered encouragements. Cyrin also clapped his hand overhead and cheered. The others in the bar also turned from whatever they were doing to encourage Hild.

"Put under the pressure," she finally started, voice just a little unsteady, "of walking in your shoes..."

"Caught in the undertow, just caught in the undertow," Alan casually sang along, grinning towards his table mates as he remembered that the next line were backup vocals.

Catching his voice, Hild cast him a slight, encouraged grin. "Every step that I take is another mistake to you..."

Alan wrapped an arm around Lyall's shoulders, shaking him as he again sang out, "Caught in the undertow, just caught in the undertow."

Tugging her wild hair loose again, Hild squared her shoulders as she launched more boldly into the chorus:

"I've become so numb, I can't feel you there! Become so tired, so much more aware!" Thumping her heel to the rhythm, she pointed out over the small crowd. Giving her voice more grit: "I'm becoming this. All I want to do is be more like me, and be less like you!"

Alan sang along with her, which admittedly wasn't as loud since Hild practically yelled into the microphone, but it was fun to be in sync with her, both in words and fun. Lyall, who at this point slipped away from Alan's side, jumped to his feet as he loudly sang long with the last phrase. When the two siblings shared elated smiles, he emphatically waved for everyone else to join too.

And everyone did. It was so nice to witness, with everyone singing or screaming along to this admittedly emo song that Alan only picked to tease Hild. It elated him to see and hear that everyone-- including Hild-- was having a good time.

With the finishing line, all of Hild's former bravado vanished. She stood with a far more timid smile as she awkwardly soaked in the applause at the end. Looking a little lost, her eyes drifted back toward her brother. With a proud, adoring smile, Lyall silently prompted her to bow by doing so himself with a small flourish. Schooling her features, Hild stood straighter with her hands folded as she followed his instruction. Then she stiffly fled the stage.

It was really sweet seeing the Aslunds interact without words. Love truly transcended language.

"I can tell you really love her," he said teasingly but softly to Lyall, lightly shoving his arm. "You really ought to translate that to words for her, though."

Dropping back into his seat next to him, Lyall playfully pushed back. "Yeah, I know," he said, voice growing oddly distant, even as he grinned back. "I just wished she wanted to hear it from me."

The words sunk in slowly, and for a moment there, Alan was tempted to ask Lyall if he wanted to step out since this didn't seem like an appropriate setting to have this conversation. But even if Alan had the right words to say right now, he didn't have time to say it, since Hild and Shane were both quickly approaching.

There was a time and place for every conversation, and he was sure they'd come back to this topic some other time. Alan was patient and wanted to be there for his friend, after all. And this felt like a crucial conversation that deserved his full attention with no constraint on time.

Alan tried to convey through his expression at Lyall that he heard him and he empathized, but he wasn't sure how much of it was received since Lyall still seemed distant and otherwise distracted by Hild and Shane returning.

"Twasn't half bad!" Lyall declared, playfully nudging his sister as she squeezed onto the same chair as him.

"I will push you off," she replied flatly. Turning a warm grin to Cyrin, she doffed the jacket and awkwardly held it out to them. "I kindly thank you for the use of this impeccably-made coat."

"I am glad it helped," Cyrin said warmly, taking it back and throwing it on again. "I'd say it was a good luck charm, but I think you would've done great on that stage regardless."

Cheeks flushing slightly, she inclined her head in quiet, humble thanks. It was strangely adorable.

"Nurse Hawking!" Lyall greeted brightly as Shane took the remaining seat at the table. "Never have I so thoroughly enjoyed duetting with someone!"

Shane grinned, ducking his head again. "That was really fun. I'm glad you were there to make me do it."

Lyall clasped both hands over his heart and leaned back on his sister. "Did you hear that? He's glad I made him do it. I'm sure you are too."

Her expression turned flat again as she leaned back against him. "Three strikes, then you're out, brother."

"I shall use it wisely," Lyall said with a pout. "Make it worth a sore ass."

"I expect nothing less," Hild retorted, digging her elbow into his back.

Lyall yelped, then snickered as he leaned his full weight against her.

From her slightly squished angle, she pointed at Alan threateningly. "You're next."

"Next for what?" Shane asked curiously.

Alan had been idly sipping his drink, which he just happened to finish. It took him a second to remember what Hild was referring to, but when it came to him, he smiled and set his empty cup down.

"Ah. Right," he said as he stood up, smiling over at Shane. "Stay tuned and find out."

Shane smiled, leaning back in his seat. "Alright. I'm watching."

Alan smlied wider, then looked back at Hild. "Do you have a song choice in mind yet?"

"Not yet," she said with a challenging grin, "but I will."

"Yeah, of course you will," he said with a chuckle and a shake of his head. He figured she wouldn't tell him early, just like he did with her.

With that, she slipped out from under Lyall's weight, leaving him to almost fall out of his chair completely. He caught himself on the table and shot her a quick glare.

Taking Alan by the arm, Hild marched them back up to the stage. She waved him up to the mic while she skimmed the machine for songs.

Mic in hand, Alan shrugged and skipped up the steps, smiling to the crowd. "Hello everyone. That was quite a performance by Hild, wasn't it?" he said as he walked up the stage, gesturing back at Hild. "Let's give her another big round of applause for showing her impressive vocal range."

The small audience all clapped and cheered, with the loudest cheers coming from the table he just left, though Alan couldn't be sure since he was too busy relishing Hild's grouchy glare she cast towards him.

"I have a humble request from you all, actually," Alan continued when the audience died down. "See, Hild and I had a little deal. To encourage her to go up the stage, I agreed to her request that she'd go up in exchange that we pick each other's songs. And I know what you're thinking: Alan, why did you pick the Lincoln Logs song?" He shrugged innocently, smile charming. "I don't think that's a hard question to answer, actually. Just look at her. She's small and mighty. There isn't a single curved edge on her. Just pure, sharp edge."

There were a few laughs in the audience, but again, Alan was too busy grinning and taking in Hild's sharp death glare. It was like she was actively trying to burn holes with the heat of her stare.

"Anyways," he continued, pacing around a bit, relaxing his hold on the mic. "On to my humble request. If it isn't a bother, I kindly ask everyone to repeat after me: Hild, please have mercy."

She barked an unimpressed laugh at that.

Alan's grin widened, chuckling. "Alright. Let's do it together. On the count of three: one, two..."

"Do your worst!" Lyall called instead, laughter in his voice.

"Yeah, I wanna see him sing something funny!" Mel shouted as well.

"HELL YEAH!" Kazimir whooped.

"It's karma time!" Cyrin hollered.

Shay shouted and pumped both fists from her spot by Mel. "You the man, Alvaro!"

Alan bit back a laugh, clicking his tongue instead. "We really need to work on our countdown skills. Ah well." He pointed at Shay, who was the only one who encouraged him. "Lovely woman at the bar: this song that I totally know is for you."

His timing was impeccable, because the song just started with recognizable "ba-booms" and a high-pitched percussion sound.

Wait. Was this Santa Baby? A Chrysler song?

Alan had to bring away the microphone from his face to let out a laugh, shaking his head at Hild. Arms crossed, she tilted her head with a satisfied, deeply amused grin herself.

This was... so random. Maybe she really didn't have a song in mind and took a while because she was going through the entire list of options, somehow landing on this one as her song of choice.

Okay. He had heard this song a million times. He could do this without looking at the words.

Which meant he didn't need to stay on stage.

Hurrying to the prop box, Alan quickly rummaged through it until he found something that would be fitting for the song. Beneath a bunch of varying accessories he found an oversized white fur shawl that seemed awfully perfect for this song. A little too perfect, actually.

Just in time, Alan draped the shawl over his shoulders, sinking into the mood of the song as he exited the stage, timing the motions of his steps, hips, and shoulders with the rhythm of the beat.

The closest person by the stage's end was Clarity, and Alan locked eyes with her as he sang the first line of the song.

"Santa baby, just slip a Sable under the tree for me," he sang as he slowly moved past her, his fingertips just grazing her chin at the mention of 'sable.'

Clarity stared at him a moment, then sputtered a laugh, shaking her head with concealed amusement.

Moving past her with exaggerated hip movements in his walk, he tilted his head up as he placed the back of his hand against his forehead, singing, "Been an awful good girl. Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight."

At the short brass solo, Alan moved his steps with the beat of the song, spinning once and sliding to the bar next to Mireya, shoulders touching as he threw the loose end of the shawl over his shoulder.

"Santa baby, a 54 convertible too," he sang with a big smile, then twirled a strand of her blue hair around his shoulder. "Light blue."

Mireya let out an amused snort, smiling back. "My car is that color," she said, the mic picking up her words. There was a ripple of laughter from the audience.

"I'll wait up for you, dear," he went on anyways, tucking the strand of hair around her ear, then peeling away from her, going on to sing, "Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight."

At the next instrumental transition, Alan spun around again, matching his steps to the rhythm of the song, but taking in long, sliding steps so that he could move further.

Next, he locked eyes with Lyall.

"Think of all the fun I missed," Alan sang innocently as he slid the nearest empty chair towards him. Grinning broadly, Lyall raised both brows curiously, deep amusement sparking in his eyes.

The back of the chair was towards Lyall, which Alan brought tightly against his knees. At the instrument's cue, Alan then abruptly brought the chair to himself, sitting down with great force. Lyall huffed a bewildered laugh as he raised both hands in surrender.

Alan then ran two fingers up from Lyall's chest towards his face, movement playful like he was mimicking actual running. "Think of all the fellas that I haven't kissed," he sang, ending his fingers at his lips. Though still grinning wide, Lyall's brow furrowed ever so slightly with that millisecond of touch. But Alan then pushed his face back with his whole palm, which gave him enough momentum to also get up from his chair.

"Next year, I could be just as good," Alan went on innocently as he slowly passed the back of Shane's chair, hardly giving him any acknowledgement. That was, until the end of the line when he sat back on Shane's lap, leaning in close. "If you check off my Christmas list," Alan sang with a sultry voice, pulling back his hair. Shane's cheeks were flushed with a pink blush as he made eye contact with Alan.

At the end of the line, Alan pulled away to get back on his feet, eyeing Cyrin next. "Santa baby, I want a yacht," he went on as he placed a hand on Cyrin's shoulder, who flashed him a playful grin. "And really, that's not..." Alan slid slid his hand across their back until it landed on his other shoulder. "A lot," he finished as he peered over his shoulder, leaning in with their faces close. Cyrin raised their eyebrows at him, still amused.

"Been an angel all year," Alan sighed, peeling away to sit on the edge of the only open spot on the table, tossing the end of his shawl over his shoulder again as he leaned back with his head angled up. "Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight."

As he sang that bit, Alan picked up the cocktail stick in Cyrin's glass that had a maraschino cherry at the end of it, twirling it in the air a few times until the end of the line. By then, he locked eyes with Hild, pulling the stick to his mouth and cleanly biting the cherry off the stick so it was between his teeth.

And at the last note of the cheerful instrumental, Alan spit it out at Hild, aiming for her forehead. She sputtered as the cherry bounced off her forehead, equal parts indignant and entertained.

"Santa honey," Alan went on, getting back on his feet and quickly glancing around, deciding to go after the first person he found first. Dante. "One little thing I really need... the deed."

He sauntered over to him with, still following the slow pace of the song and walking with weight transfer with every step so his shoulders and hips could roll more easily. Dante was smiling good-naturedly, which turned to an amused, curious grin when Alan got close.

"To a platinum mine," Alan went on after circling around him once, then playfully picked up his sunglasses that he always wore, putting them over his own face. It was admittedly clunky since he put it over his glasses, so after walking another half-circle around him again, Alan placed it back on his face. Dante laughed, quickly adjusting them so they were in place.

"Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight," Alan finished as he sang broadly to the audience. He used the next instrumental transition to do another dance, taking in quick, docile steps before prepping to do a triple spin right to land right next to Shay.

"Santa cutie," Alan said with a sultry voice, leaning in close with his back towards her, tightly holding on to his fur shawl. Tilting her head up with a close-lipped smile, she lightly leaned back with her shoulder against him.

"Fill my stocking with a duplex and checks," he sang, moving his hips to the beat of the song, running his hand up from his hips up to his side. "Sign your 'X' on the line," he continued, now reaching over to take her hand. Stifling a snort behind her other hand, Shay let him.

Now that he had her hand, he loosely pulled her away to direct her to an inside-turn, spinning her around and directing his hand so that he caught her back, motioning her to a safe and gentle dip.

"Santa cutie, and hurry down the chimney tonight," Alan sang with a grin, faces close. Although, the end of his shawl was prickling her face. She scrunched her nose as she laughed, winking at him over the faux fur.

At the transition, Alan brought her back up, flashing her a warm smile, feeling good considering this was supposed to be a song devoted to her. Supposedly. He winked back, peeling away as he turned his attention to Mel giggling beside her.

"Come and trim my... Christmas tree," he sang as he wrapped the fur coat around Mel, causing her to smile wide and giggle some more. "With some decorations bought at... Tiffany's."

Alan leaned in close, unwrapping the shawl around her so he could have it back, but some of her hair clung to it, and they shocked each other with static electricity.

"Ow!" Mel said with a giggle.

Alan had to press his lips together to not go out of character and laugh back, but instead he focused his attention to Clanny beside her, who was smiling wide with amusement.

"I really do believe in you," Alan sang as he casually walked past her, but then abruptly stopped by her side, leaning in to push some of the bangs away from her face. "Let's see if you believe in me," he sang slowly, locking eyes with her.

Clanny's smile faded a little at first before she burst into laughter with a snort. It was hard to not laugh with her.

"Santa baby," Alan said as he pulled away, strutting down the bar. He stopped when there was an open space in the middle with no chair or person. "Forgot to mention one little thing," he went on, slowly heaving himself up to sit on the bar as he maintained the innocuous expression.

"A ring." At that, he pouted and extended his right hand hand in front of him, fingers curled down to show that there was, indeed, no ring. "I don't mean on the phone." He set his hand back down, now loosely wearing the fur shawl as he tilted his head to the side. "Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight."

At the string's two notes, he pushed his legs up on the bar, leaning back with an arm behind him. "Hurry down the chimney tonight," he sang at this position. At the next string's two notes, he pushed his legs over the other side of the bar, looking over his shoulder towards the audience, whispering, "Hurry, tonight."

With the end of his song being his cue, Alan then jumped down behind the bar, disappearing from view.

Then a few seconds later, the audience roared with applause and laughter. Alan finally relaxed, letting the laugh escape his lips as he ran his hand down his hair, leaning back. Then he realized there was nothing to lean back against since he was against a below-the-counter open shelf of glassware.

Taking a deep breath, Alan finally shook off the fur coat and stood up, exaggerating a bow with several flourishes of his hand. Grinning, he placed the mic down on the counter, wondering if he ought to hop over the bar again or go around it like a normal person, but he didn't settle on an answer since a voice caught his attention.

"Nice moves, Alvaro," Shay said with a lopsided grin and laughter still in her voice. She leaned both elbows on the bar. "But you don't gotta serve the drinks too."

Alan hummed in amusement, leaning forward with his elbows perched on the bar. "Maybe. I definitely could, though."

"And take my buddy's job for the night?" she asked with a small pout.

Alan glanced down the counter, noticing the man usually behind the camera standing awkwardly with a glass and cleaning rag in hand. It seemed that Alan's presence made him stiffen, like he didn't want him there.

"Oh, sorry," he said with a weak laugh, standing up straight. "I'll get out of your hair."

The cameraman now-bartender shook his head. "No worries, Mister Alan," he said quietly.

Hm. A lot of people called him Mister Alan on this island. He pondered this as he went around the bar, wondering why this never happened until now, and with so many people too.

His thoughts didn't get too far since Cyrin's voice came in through the speakers.

"Well, that sure was a great dance," Cyrin said, grinning as some more cheers rose up for Alan. "What a shame it didn't end in him putting a ring on it! If he wants to amend that, though, he should get on stage. Lyall, too. It's dance time."

At that, Clarity started a song for them-- Single Ladies.
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soundofmind says...

Why must sleep evade him so? James felt he was beginning to go mad. Even with his eyes closed, tossing and turning, any rest he got was restless, and after what he discovered was two hours of failed napping, he begrudgingly got up.

Feeling a bit like a zombie, he wandered downstairs with heavy footsteps. He caught the smell of pasta and vegetables cooking wafting up from the kitchen, and recognized it as Connie's work. When he stepped out into the living room, he decided the best thing for him to do right now would be to keep busy. Lying around and lazing wasn't helping him sleep, so maybe he just needed to tire himself out more.

It was a bit foolish to think it'd work now when it hadn't worked before, but he was running out of options.

Stepping into the kitchen, he offered to help Connie cook. With a simple "sure," James was silently enlisted into helping with simple tasks. Namely, chopping vegetables.

At the counter, with Connie behind him manning the pot of pasta on the stovetop, James chopped away at a steady pace.

It was a quiet moment. Still, in nature. Connie and James didn't exhange many words for quite some time. Vegetables simmered in the pan over the stove-top. Pasta bubbled in the boiling water. They both occasionally stirred beside each other while the pleasant aroma of fresh pasta and vegetables filled the kitchen. Onions, garlic, and tomatoes were the prevailing scent amidst the Talian seasoning.

Eventually, the meal was completed, and they both worldlessly pulled out bowls and serving utensils. Sitting at the counter stools, James started eating his disproportionately over-filled pasta bowl quickly, while Connie ate at a more... acceptable pace.

At this point, it was probably unsurprising to Connie that James finished his food faster than Connie despite his much larger portion.

Pushing the empty bowl away, James let out a small sigh, idly looking over to Connie's bowl, that Connie was still eating through. For a few minutes, his mind drifted, empty, and lost. He felt he was losing the capacity for thinking at all until he by some miracle remembered something he'd mentioned to Shane what now felt like weeks ago.

Connie had the ability to dreamwalk. Had Shane spoken to him at all since?

James had a feeling he hadn't.

"Hey, Connie," James said, finally breaking the 30-minute record of complete conversational silence.

"How much have our dream lives been affecting you?" James asked, getting right to the point.

Connie seemed unfazed by the question, finishing his bite and twirling another forkful of pasta. "I appreciate your concern, but I am quite fine. I get enough sleep."

James's brain lagged behind a bit, piecing together what that meant. So, he didn't say their dreams weren't bothering him. Only that they weren't affecting his ability to get enough sleep.

"Do you uh..." James started prematurely before he could gather his thoughts. Pressing his lips together, he let out a sigh before starting over.

He couldn't think of a less direct way to ask.

"Have you seen anything in them?" James asked.

"No. I don't invite myself in to other's dreams without their consent," Connie said as he glanced at James with a hint of offense.

James shrugged apologetically, lowering his head.

"Sorry," he said softly. "Wasn't sure how it all works exactly."

There was another long, awkward pause, and James stared down at the counter. James was beginning to get the feeling that Connie knew plenty more, but just felt no need or no freedom to say it. He was sure Connie was aware of far more than he let on, but Connie didn't seem to show any concern. Or even... interest.

Then again, Connie hardly seemed to show any of that in general. He was... well, James couldn't think of any kind ways to put it at the moment. A little self-centered, when it came down to it. Nothing seemed to bother him much unless it touched him personally - which, nothing had, it seemed, since coming to the island.

It wasn't like Connie wasn't aware that James and Shane were having a hard time. He just... didn't seem to care.

If anything, he seemed more inconvenienced or annoyed by it than anything. And if James was being honest, that kind of hurt.

He wanted to think that Connie could be a friend, but... friends were people who cared. Cared enough to at least say something. Right?

"I'm not sure if you are aware," Connie began, as if he had been reading his mind, "but someone has been interfering with your dreams."

James froze.

Wh... what?

James didn't know how long it took him to turn his head and stare at Connie in bewilderment, but he didn't know what to say to that. I'm not sure if you're aware -- well, James sure as hell hadn't.

"You didn't know," Connie said as he stared back at him, face and voice neutral. It was phrased as a statement rather than a question.

"No," James said a little too forcefully. "No I fucking didn't know! What do you-- how was I supposed to know? Wh-- how--how long have you known? You just-- drop that like I should've known already?"

Connie sighed, dropping his fork in his almost-finished bowl and angling himself to turn more towards James. "I don't mind having this conversation, but I request you drop the accusatory language. Please direct your anger somewhere else."

James let out a long huff of a breath, frankly, shocked at Connie's own attitude. Connie clearly had known about this for a while and took his sweet time before finally telling James. Connie had to have known James was losing sleep over this.

Using any self control he had left, James tried to tame the anger inside of him into something more 'acceptable,' but he found all it resulted in was him being incredibly tense.

Holding his hands together on the counter, James pressed his lips into a frown, trying to keep himself from all of the sassy, biting comebacks that were at the tip of his tongue.

"I think I have a right to be angry," James said as calmly as he could manage. "But if you insist, I'll bottle it up."

"I'm not saying you shouldn't be angry. I'm only asking that you don't take your anger out on me," Connie said calmly.

"Connie," James said through his teeth. "I am angry at you."

Connie sighed, getting up with his bowl to move towards the sink. "So be it."

James felt the pressure in his head growing. How the hell did Connie manage to be so apathetic and so entitled all at the same time? James took in a very slow, controlled breath.

He knew Connie was unlikely to be cooperative if he let his anger show, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to conceal it. Rubbing his face, James took in a few deep breaths while Connie quietly washed his dishes.

Fine. Fine. James would be 'calm.'

"So... you said someone's been influencing our dreams," James said.

"I assume it's the DMV, since we are on this island with a purpose," Connie said, back turned as he scrubbed away.

"Do you know if it's a person?" James asked. "How do you know our dreams are being influenced in the first place?"

"Because it feels unnatural. I'm fairly certain it's of magical origin," Connie went on. "It's not just you two. It's also affecting one other person on this island." He paused. "That's all I know."

James rubbed the sides of his temples. He was getting a headache.

"Who else is being affected?" James asked.

"I don't know," Connie said.

So there was one mystery victim. That wasn't helpful. If it was someone James was close to, he'd guess he may have heard about it, but then again, he couldn't be sure. They were all still very new to each other...

"And... if you were given consent," James said. "Would you be able to enter someone's dream and get a better idea of what magic is causing the nightmares?"

Connie placed the bowl on the drying rack then turned around, leaning against the counter as he dried his hands with a handtowel. "I could. Yes," he said more slowly.

James nodded, more to himself.

Okay. Okay. So they weren't entirely powerless, then. Connie could help them investigate. Right? If he was cooperative.

"I want you to peer into my dreams, then," James said. "See if you can find out who's causing them."

Connie stared at James, expression stoic and unreadable, as always. But he seemed to mull this over with hesitation since he was slow to dry his hands. Finally, he folded the handtowel on the counter and said, "I don't peer into dreams. I enter them. I'd be a part of your dream."

James covered his face, letting out a long sigh.

"O...kay," he said. "That's. That's fine. Sure. Would you be able to find anything out, still?"

"It's hard to say. I wouldn't know until I entered your dream," Connie said.

Right. Naturally.

James held his face in his hands, wondering if this was going to be worthwhile or not. But at this rate, he didn't have many options, and he couldn't just sit back and do nothing now that he knew the nightmares were being caused by an outside force. If someone or something was interfering with his mind while asleep, he wanted to know what it was. He had to find out some way to stop it.

He couldn't keep going on like this.

"That's fine," James said, rubbing his eyes. "I just... would like you to try. Please."

Connie quietly sighed, nodding. "Would you like me to do this the next time I detect the unnatural dream magic?"

"Yes," James said, looking at Connie with half-open eyes.

Despite having eaten, it didn't help compensate for the lack of sleep. James felt like he was wasting away.

"Okay. I will," Connie said simply.

And if James had wanted, he could've left it at that. But the nagging thoughts that normally stayed inside were leaking out. Without any forethought to how he might regret it later, he found himself asking: "Do you even care that I haven't been sleeping all week?"

Connie slightly raised his brows, surprised by the question. But he otherwise kept his steady composure, taking a moment to consider his question before speaking. "Of course I care. I'm not heartless, James-- nor am I oblivious. I set a deadline to myself to tell you and Shane by the end of the third week if your nightmares do not get any better. There are politics at play on this island, but now that we are approaching the end of the third week with no clear direction, it is clear that this may not be the DMV's doing after all."

James didn't know what he expected when he asked the question, but by the time Connie stopped speaking, James had sunk his face down to the counter, forehead on the cold granite.

An arbitrary, three-week timeline. That was why Connie hadn't said anything. For some reason, that did not help James's headache at all.

"...Okay," he said weakly. He knew it was an insufficient response. He wanted to say something like: 'I'm sorry I underestimated you.' Or perhaps, 'Apologies for being so presumptuous. It was unkind of me to insinuate you're heartless.' But thoughtful words took too much energy, and James couldn't muster it up anymore.

"Perhaps consider sleeping during the day," Connie said in the stiff silence that followed. "These dreams happen late into the night. It's possible the magic doesn't work during daylight hours."

Now that, was at least, helpful. But James didn't know if he'd be able to sleep. And even if he could, it'd be a miracle if he could stay asleep. Nightmares or no nightmares, he was bad at sleeping as it was. But it didn't hurt to at least try.

"Okay," he said again, annoyed at himself for not being able to think of a different word.

"I hope this was... helpful," Connie said, saying the last word with a brief pause, like he had to think about what word to pick before settling on that one.

James nodded, but his face was flush with the counter as he did.

"Thank you," James said, but he didn't know what he was thanking him for. It just seemed like the right thing to say.

Instead of another awkward reply, what filled the silence that followed was a text notification. The only person the ringtone could've possibly been from was Connie, and Connie hardly used his phone from what James saw.

Tiredly, he looked up, watching as Connie looked down at his phone in his hand. He stared at it with furrowed brows, typing in a short reply.

Was it... "Eliza?" James asked faintly.

Connie flicked his eyes towards James, sending a reply and putting his phone back in his pocket. "No. Some unknown number."

"Spam?" James asked.

"Quite possibly. But royals don't get spam messages," he said matter-of-factly.

Huh. Must be nice. Then how did this person get Connie's number?

"What's it say?" James asked.

Connie pulled out his phone again, unlocking it and pulling up the text. "Hello, good eve. Care to join at the plaza?" he read in a monotone voice.

James blinked.

"That... sounds like one of the other contestants, probably," James said.

A swoosh sound was heard. Connie had received another text. He stared down at it.

"Probably Lyall," James said, based on the context and the word choice. He didn't think Hild would text Connie, but... maybe she would?

"Good intuition. It is," Connie murmured, then read the text out loud in an emotionless tone. "Connie Falco. Please come to the plaza. It's urgent. It's a party, in parentheses. Would love for you to join. And save my number under 'Lyall', or even 'that guy'. Please and thank you. Smiley face. Heart emoji."

Had James any energy, he might've laughed at Connie's emotionless reading of Lyall's clearly emotive text. It sounded like Lyall might've been inebriated, but that was only a suspicion, since James didn't think Lyall used 'heart emojis' liberally.

"What'd you say?" James asked.

"Between the texts, I wrote: 'Who is this?'" Connie answered.

James huffed weakly through his nose.

"And now that you know it's Lyall?" James asked.

Connie began drafting a response, typing in a few words while also saying out loud, "No, thank you."

James rested his head back against the counter, but this time with his arms as a barrier. He looked up at Connie with a wearied curiosity.

"Are you going to save his number?" James asked.

Connie sighed, tapping away on his phone again. "Might as well."

"It would be nice, I think," James said. "I'm sure Lyall would appreciate it."

Connie took a moment to do exactly that, but then he turned the phone around, extending it out to James. "Here."

James blinked a moment, sitting up slowly as he took the phone in a bit of confusion. He didn't realize that Connie was asking for his number until James looked down at the phone and saw an empty contact form with only "James Hawke" filled out.

James was clearly over-tired, because the motion probably moved James more than it logically should. Suddenly feeling a little misty-eyed, James tried very hard to blink it away, but he was pretty sure Connie would've seen the small tears leaking out the corners of his eyes as James looked down and typed his number in. If Connie did see, he didn't comment.

"My uh, my phone's currently out of commission," James said quietly.

"I know. This is for after the island," Connie said.

James nodded stiffly, swallowing hard as he tried to blink the tears back and handed Connie's phone back to him.

"Right. I'll uh. Be sure to keep the same number, then," James said.

Connie took the phone back, staring down at the screen as he edited a field. "One moment. I'm trying to find the potato emoji," he said cordially.

James let out a small huff through his nose.

"Take your time," he said.

And he did. Clearly, Connie was not familiar with the list of emojis since it took him half a minute to find it. But James was patient, and by the time Connie placed his phone away, he was already moving to take out a bottle of half-finished wine in the fridge.

"Do you like wine?" he asked, opening the cupboard to take out two wine glasses.

"Uh. I try not to," he said. "But thanks."

"To like wine or all alcohol?" Connie clarified.

"Yyyyes," James said, holding his head up once again in his hands.

Connie poured himself a glass of red wine, pausing to look up at James. "Do you want a glass or no?" he asked instead. "Red wine could help you sleep early."

Normally, there was a lot more internal traffic at a suggestion like this, but it ultimately landed on: no. But for some reason, Connie's logic made sense, and James couldn't lie that the thought sounded nice.

Maybe it would help.

"...Sure," James said with a small nod.

Connie poured himself a cup that matched his, which was filled to the first-third of the glass. He slid it over to James, picking up his own glass.

"I apologize if my actions thus far have been cold, inconsiderate, or insensitive," Connie said as he slowly swirled the wine glass by the stem. "My only objective on this island is to check off the DMV requirement and leave by summer's end. Ruining relations is not an objective on mine."

James slowly slid the glass closer to him, glancing down at the red wine.

"I'm sorry I've been..." James said, trying to form an apology in response, but he couldn't find words. "Difficult," he finally landed on with a small sigh. "I'm not at my best right now."

"Who ever is?" Connie said with a sigh before taking a sip.

James hummed, still staring into the red liquid.

"Good point," James said quietly.

"...You don't have to drink the wine if you don't want to," Connie said after a long silence, noting how James was staring into his drink.

James blinked. He hadn't really been consciously thinking anything, nor had he been fully aware of how long he'd spaced out, but... there was a lingering discomfort under his skin. He felt like he could taste blood on his tongue.

Swallowing, James pushed the drink away a tad.

"I... yeah," he said faintly. "I shouldn't."

"That's fine. Red wine is not everyone's favorite," Connie said, lightly swirling the glass again.

It wasn't that James didn't like red wine. But... it was for the best that he didn't have any.

Pushing the glass a little further towards Connie, James thought it was better he physically distanced himself from the spinning red liquid. It was spinning, wasn't it? Or was he just seeing things like earlier...

That wasn't something he should bring up, he thought. Hallucinations were normal. Well, not normal. But normal for people who weren't sleeping for longer than 48 hours. It wasn't something to be concerned about. That was just a normal side-effect of sleep deprivation. It would fade once he got some sleep and felt normal again. Especially if he was able to get, uh, the nightmare situation under control with Connie's help.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door. Connie and James glanced at one another.

"Are you expecting company?" Connie asked, already moving towards the door.

James shook his head. He turned and watched as Connie stopped at the front door and briefly glanced out the window before opening the door, revealing Eve on their doorstep.

"Prince Constantine," Eve said as she straightened up. "Hello."

"Connie is fine," Connie answered.

There was a short silence as the two of them seemed to wait for the other to speak. Or rather, Connie waiting for Eve to speak while she regained her bearings.

"Do you--" he began.

"Is, um--" Eve began at the same time. She snapped her mouth shut but proceeded when Connie was patiently waiting. "Is James here?"

Connie nodded, stepping aside and gesturing for her to come inside.

"...Thanks," she said quietly, stepping in and locking eyes with James. She stood by the doorway so that the door couldn't quite be closed yet. "I just wanted to come by and check in. That's all."

Turned around on the stool, James nodded and waved a hand loosely.

"You can come in," he said.

Eve nodded, stepping aside so Connie could close the door behind her. He didn't say another word as he returned to his wine glass.

"I hope I'm not interrupting anything," she said, flicking her eyes between the two of them.

"You are not," Connie said.

"Do you like red wine?" James asked.

Eve's gaze rested on to the untouched wine glass in the middle of the counter. "I do," she said hesitantly.

James waved to the glass. "All yours, then, if you want."

Eve slowly nodded, quietly slipping out of her shoes and joining James by his side. She gently picked up the glass.

"What kind of wine is this?" she asked.

"Red grapes from a small vineyard in Germaknee, barrelled about ten years ago," Connie answered. "Wet and peppery. It lacks the dry, floral aftertaste I prefer."

Eve slowly nodded, taking a quiet sip. "Talian wines, I presume?"

"That's right," Connie said.

There was a short silence that sat comfortably between everyone, but it must have felt tense to Eve since she then turned to James to promptly ask, "How have you been doing?"

James felt like he'd answered this question too many times in the past 24 hours. But also, he couldn't remember a single answer he'd given prior. Giving the laziest, almost-smile he could muster, he looked at her with half-lidded eyes.

"It's complicated," he said, like a relationship status.

"You're tired," Eve said instead, answering for him.

"I have ascended past tired to the fifth level of existence," James said. "I no longer need sleep. I am simply vibing."

Eve's face only contorted to more worry. "James," she said urgently, setting the glass down. "When was the last time you've had a full night's rest?"

"You're not the first person to ask me that," James said, even though he wasn't sure if someone else had actually asked him that, or if he'd just imagined it.

"Have you had any this week?" she pressed.

"I have not slept for at least..." James started, but then squinted when he found he was unable to do the math. He hesitated, looking down at his hands. He tried counting with his fingers slowly. No luck.

Eve was frantically going through her tote as James attempted to count. A few more moments, she firmly placed an labeled orange medicine bottle with pills on the counter.

"I brought the sleep medicine," she announced, voice still serious. "Just like we talked about last week."

James stared down at the bottle. He'd forgotten they'd had that conversation.

"Where'd you get that?" he asked.

"Elise," Eve answered. "She has a wide array of medicine."

"She's... the doctor," James said, scrubbing his memory.

"That's right," she said with a nod. "She prescibed these to you. The instructions are on the back. Just take one pill a night."

James took the bottle, sliding it close before he picked it up and inspected the pills through the orange tint. He tried comparing it to pills he'd had in the past for sleep and other experimental... things. They looked convincing enough.

He squinted, shaking the bottle.

"Just one?" he asked skeptically.

"That's what the instructions say," Eve said more firmly.

"Are the instructions written for me or for normal people?" James asked.

Eve stared at him. "Are you... not normal?"

James blinked. Hm. Was that something he'd discussed with her? He wasn't sure if he had. Well, now this was awkward. Squinting off past her head, he tried to think of a way to talk himself out of the corner he'd put himself in.

Thankfully, he didn't need to get very far since Eve did it for him.

"The instructions are written for you," she answered. "Take one a day."

Hm. Okay. Fine.

James popped the bottle open. Eve stared at him indignantly.

"Are you taking it now?" she sputtered.

"What? I'm tired now," James said.

"It's... well, I guess..." she murmured, checking the time on her phone.

"Good idea. You ought to rest," Connie chimed in.

Eve cast him a stony stare. "It's only six o'clock."

"You know what would make this better," James said, popping a pill into his hand. "If we announced that I am sleeping."

"James, these pills will keep you asleep for a while," Eve warned. "I suggest you take them later, but if you want to take it now... well, I suppose you do need the rest."

"How long is 'a while?'" James asked, deflating a bit as he held the pill in one hand and the bottle in the other.

"Elise said it depends on how much sleep you need. If I had to guess, the first pill may put you out for at least twelve hours," Eve answered.

James met Eve's eyes, and very slowly, he leaned forward, holding the pill up for her to see.

"You must understand how enticing that sounds to me right now," he said.

Eve sighed. "Okay. Take it."

Popping his mouth open, he flicked the pill into his mouth and swallowed it dry. He then put the lid back on the bottle and stuck it in the pocket of his pajama pants. He got up from the stool with a small grunt and walked over to the couch.

"Are you going to sleep there?" Eve asked.

"Is that allowed?" he asked, said, turning around with his hand on his hip.

"No," Connie said dryly after taking a final sip of his wine. "Strictly forbidden."

"Good thing I am a rebellious rule-breaker who doesn't care about words like 'forbidden' and 'strictly,'" James said, flopping back onto the couch beside him.

"Good thing I'm not king of a country that can exile you," Connie deadpanned again.

James hadn't thought he'd had the energy for it, but that comment drew a genuine, wry laugh out of him.

There was a brief clatter as James recognized the sound of dishes and glassware being put in the sink. "Are you going to stay?" he asked, directing this to Eve.

"Oh. Um." Eve slid the chair back, standing up. "No, I'll take my leave. That's all I came here to do."

James turned to look over the edge of the couch's arm, peeking out at her.

"I heard there's a party in the plaza," he said.

Eve nodded, walking over to stand over James, tote over her shoulder. "My cabin mates invited me, but I declined the invitation."

"If I hadn't just taken a sleeping pill," James said. "I might invite you to stay. But I won't be much company while asleep."

Eve glanced over at Connie, who had resumed cleaning dishes. "That's okay. But... if you don't mind, I could stay anyways. To... you know. Make sure the sleeping pills... work."

James stared up at her, not sure what that was supposed to mean.

"Connie," James said. "Are you ok if she stays?"

"Fine by me," he said.

"Sounds like you're good to stay, then," James said.

Eve nodded, smiling a little as she sat on the armchair beside him. "I'll probably just stay here and draw. I can keep myself busy."

James turned his head so he was looking at her from the side.

"I don't remember if you ever mentioned that you draw," he said.

"Oh... I haven't?" Eve said quietly, voice distant.

"Is it something you do often?" James asked.

Eve shuffled her position on the armchair, bending her legs to fold up beside her. "...I'd say so," she answered after some hesitation.

"How long have you been drawing?" James asked.

"Oh, I don't know... A long time." She paused. "Maybe when I was seven or eight."

"That's a long time," James agreed. "You must enjoy it to keep with it that long."

"I do. It's a good way to pass the time."

James hummed, turning onto his side to a more comfortable position, his head resting on the arm of the couch while he tucked his arms under his head to even out the small shelf of space.

"What kinds of things do you draw?" he asked.

There was another brief hesitation before Eve blurted out, "You should try to sleep. Are you tired?"

James let out a singular, dry: "Ha."

"Yes. I'm trying to. But I'm not feeling it kick in yet," he said.

"Fair enough. It does take some time to come into effect," Eve said. "But... if you're tired, think you should try to sleep. No need to stay up talking to me. You need to rest."

"I want to talk," James said plainly.

"...Okay," Eve relented. "What do you want to talk about?"

"You draw stuff," James said.

"People," she corrected. "I draw people."

"Oh," James said. "That's nice. Like... just anybody?"

"Just... people," Eve said said, more stubbornly. "Anybody. Anyone. People."

James didn't know why she was getting frustrated over the question, but he found it kind of funny. With a weak smile, he relented.

"Okay. Cool. I like people," he said.

He heard her exhale a puff of air in amusement. "They're okay," she said.

"Sometimes," James added.

"Yeah. People are okay sometimes," Eve said.

"Not when they're rude and do things like..." and suddenly, he couldn't think of any singular example ever. All he could come up with was: "When they don't use their blinkers."

Eve laughed through her nose. "Or when they don't ever sleep despite what anyone says."

"In my defense," James said, lifting a hand. "I have tried."

"What keeps you up?" she asked.

At that, James held both hands out in front of him in a tense gesture, splaying his fingers out in arches as he grabbed for the words as if they were in the air.

"The horrors," he said straight-facedly, squinting meaningfully.

"Horrors...?" Eve echoed, not quite following his line of thought.

"Yeah," he said. "You know. The horrors."

"What horrors?" Eve pressed, remaining serious.

James let his hands flop off the side of the couch with a sigh. In the corner of his eyes, he noticed Connie had joined them, sitting at the opposite side of the sitting area.

"Like... nightmares and... bad stuff," he muttered. "Boo. Scary."

"Oh," Eve said softly, watching Connie take out a sketchpad. He otherwise paid them no mind. "I'm sorry."

"Meh," James said dismissively. "It's life."

"I wish there was something I could do to help," Eve said quietly.

"I'm sure the pills will help," James said. "Once they knock me out cold and all."

"Have you always had trouble sleeping?" she asked.

"Not always," James said. "Not like I popped out the womb with insomnia. Though I guess some people do..."

"When did it start for you?" she asked instead.

"When I was... well. In the army," James said with a small sigh. "Not hard to guess there."

"That was when you were... eighteen? Twenty?" she guessed.

"Yeah," James said.

"That's a long time," she said softly.

"I guess it is," James said. He hadn't really thought about that.

"And back then, it was the horrors that kept you up as well?" Eve pressed.

"More or less," James said non-commitally.

"I imagine there are a lot of them."

An ugly snort came out of the back of his throat instead of a laugh.

"Don't imagine them," he said.

"Why?" she asked.

Wasn't it obvious?

"It's better that you don't know all of the shit I've been through," he said a little quieter. "No one needs to hear all of that."

"Maybe no one needs to," Eve said, matching his tone.

"Oh noooo," James said in monotone, covering his eyes. "I think I'm getting sooo sleepy."

"I do like drawing people," Eve said stubbornly instead, answering his older question. "I always have. But I prefer drawing people I've observed or seen. It's now turned into a challenging hobby with a game of observation."

James slowly pulled his hands away, peeking out at Eve over his fingers with his face half-hidden. So she was self aware, then. She was just being avoidant on purpose until she could use it as a bargaining chip to get him to open up more too. Or something. He wasn't sure what that other something was at the moment. Too hard to think.

"Life drawing," he said.

Eve nodded. "A snapshot in time, really. I don't need people to stay still for me to draw them. I only need to remember the details."

"Do you have a photographic memory?" James asked.

"No. I wish," Eve said with a faint puff of laughter. "But I think I have a decent memory."

He hummed. "Makes sense."

"So if you don't want to talk about your horrors now, that's fine," Eve said blandly. "I won't forget."

James let out a small snort again.

"Wow," was all he could say.

"Go to sleep," she mumbled.

With a huff, he closed his eyes. He shifted again, tucking one of his legs up and ending up a little more on his stomach. He didn't want to admit that he was actually starting to get sleepy, but once he finally let himself close his eyes, he could feel the pull of sleep lulling him in.

He thought about saying: "I'll try not to move too much." As a joke, if Eve drew the people around her. But before he could say it aloud, the tides of sleep drew him in, and he had no strength to fight it anymore.

Just like that, he was out like a light.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

"Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood."
— George Orwell, 1984