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Island Magic

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Wed Jan 17, 2024 10:06 pm
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Carina says...


Alistair hated boats.

He didn't even know that he hated boats until last night when he was vomiting his guts out. And he shared a bathroom with his mom, so of course, he was absolutely babied last night too.

Which was so annoying, because he was a grown ass man.

Moaning, Alistair rubbed his face in his hands, feeling like he was dying. Pushing in towards his skull, his fingers slipped over his skin to slide through his hair, anchoring into his scalp with his fingertips.

Fucking hell. Maybe he should just throw himself over the edge of the boat. Then he'd be churned to bits by the rotors, turning into fish food and becoming a part of the circle of life. That sounded like a good way to go. It was better than withstanding this hellhole of a place where he could stomach nothing, the sun was annoyingly shining on his face, and the skies were too damn blue.

Seriously. Why was it so... damn... blue?

And why was it so fucking hot?

Alistair groaned, bonking his sweaty forehead on top of the plastic table, praying to any god above to just end him now.

He didn't know how much time had passed, because frankly, he dozed off like this, only startling himself awake when he heard a voice.

"You've heard of Dramamine, right?" someone young-sounding asked with a smile in his voice.

Alistair flinched, just a little bit, disoriented as he tilted his head towards the side to peek through his hands, not sure who was talking to him.

It was some punk kid he didn't know, looking like he was the diversity token on the front cover of an advertisement for a resort cruise ship.

"Who?" Alistair muttered, squinting.

With a snort, the kid took the seat across from him without invitation, and swung his backpack onto the table to dig through. "I'll guess no, then," he concluded. "We ought to get you guys acquainted!"

What the hell? Who was this kid?

Alistair didn't even know what to do besides sit there, completely baffled. Did this kid not know that he should not talk to random people? Maybe he grew up in the suburbs or something.

The kid set a small white bottle on the table between them with a victorious grin. "This little guy is going to be your best friend for the rest of our journey. Take 2 tablets every 4 or 6 hours. Should help drain that flattering shade of green from your face."

Alistair had the fleeting thought that this kid was a drug dealer. To which he, honestly, wouldn't be opposed. That could be a decent side hustle, actually, considering that this cruise ship was fucking miserable.

But he thought better of it, instead skeptically picking up the bottle to read the label. He didn't trust random people with their random free drugs, no matter how innocuous the situation or setting.

Though, he learned that lesson years ago when he bought fenty-laced weed at a steep discount from a gas station late at night. Which wasn't very innocuous, but... still.

Because, god, that was fucking awful.

Alistair brought the bottle close to his face, scanning the label.

Dramamine. That was the name of the drug. Oh. It was for motion sickness. Hm.

It looked legit, but...

"Where'd you get this?" he asked, slowly lowering the bottle.

Tilting his head, the kid grinned. "Uh, CeeVee-Ess?"

Yeah. Okay.

You know what, sure. He had nothing to lose.

Alistair popped open the bottle, taking out two tablets and popping it in his mouth, dry swallowing it.

"Thanks," he muttered, carefully twisting the cap back on and sliding the bottle back towards him.

"No prob," the kid said breezily, nudging the bottle back to Alistair. "Keep it. You need it more than I." Then he stuck out his hand and smiled even brighter. "Name's Viktor Ashlund. Nice to meet you!"

An Ashlund. Alistair immediately connected the dots, figuring that he must have been Lyall's younger brother.

Sitting more upright, Alistair slid the bottle back towards himself, but then slouched back down, leaning his head against the uncomfortable table. He was still in a little bit of a daze, and he realized that he had been staring at Viktor's open hand for a few seconds, but whatever. At this point, it felt too awkward to take now, so he let it hang in the air.

"Alistair," he said back. "Nice to meet you."

Unphased, Viktor folded his arms on the table and tilted his head to the far side to mirror Alistair. "Yeah, I saw you in one those interviews! Jealous that you were able to get one of those shirts. They don't ship out to Fjelstad. Can you believe that? I swear, it's like we're a whole century behind literally everybody else."

So this kid was on top of the show, then.

Alistair slowly nodded, respositioning himself to swing his head to the other side so that Viktor wouldn't stare at him. Turned out, that didn't matter, since the kid just followed his movements again. Alistair sighed.

"I'd give you mine, if I brought it. But I didn't," he said.

Which was the truth. After the interview, he threw the Lylan ship shirt back in the room full of other cursed objects so that Alan would have the joy of returning to it after the summer.

"Eh." Viktor shrugged. "Probably wouldn't have fit me anyway."

Alistair gave the kid a lookover. He definitely gave some sort of suburban boy energy. It wouldn't surprise him if he had a cringy band who played in his parent's garage. He seemed to be well-equipped for the tropics, though, with a short-sleeve button down that had tiny pineapples wearing sunglasses. He also had big, frizzy hair and a million freckles on his tan face, along with the tiniest hint of a moustache.

The kid was maybe sixteen at the youngest. Maybe nineteen or twenty at the oldest.

Alistair wracked his brain for facts he knew about Lyall's family, but truth be told, he now only really tuned into the show whenever someone sent him links or pictures. Which... was quite often, really, considering Alan was in love with everyone.

That was unsurprising. And also weird. Alistair wished he could unread and unsee some of the things he'd learned about him.

"Are you here for Lyall? Or Hild?" Alistair asked.

"Probably my sister," Viktor was quick to confirm, "since my bro's fiance is also hanging around."

Alistair pressed his lips together, trying to recall the name. "Kayla...?" he asked uncertainly.

Viktor laughed. "Kaya. Close, though!" He finally leaned back in his chair. "I'm guessing you're here for your brother, so... were you allowed to bring your mom as a plus one or something?"

Okay. Well. He was just going to ignore the fact that Viktor knew his mom was here.

"I don't know," he admitted. "We both got invited. I figured we're both here for Alan."

"As I understand it," Viktor went on, "there's only one visitor per contestant."

Was that how it worked? Did he miss the rules or something? That seemed awfully arbitrary.

"Maybe our mom is here for him, and I'm here to meet my island fiance," Alistair deadpanned with a straight face.

Viktor snorted. "That's a good way to build a reputation."

Alistair took in a silent deep breath, feeling a little less woozy now that he'd taken the medicine. With the natural lull of silence, he stared off towards the side, wondering if he should try eating again.

But also, if he ate, would this kid follow him? Did Viktor even come with anyone? Did he come by himself? Or was Kaya looking after him?

Maybe he was lonely?

God, why me? Alistair thought to himself, repressing a groan.

Leaning sideways, Viktor squished his cheek against the table to study Alistair. "It should be kicking in by now," he said in thought. "You good?"

Hesitantly, Alistair slowly sat upright, narrowing his eyes as he saw Viktor again copying his movements. "Yeah. I think I'm going to try eating," he said, leaving it at that and praying that Viktor would interpret this as a goodbye.

"Aw, yeah," Viktor said, brightening, "I could eat! Haven't had anything since yesterday."

Oh, great. Alistair set this one up for him to spike, didn't he? This was just his luck.

So that was the story of how he ended up eating breakfast with the kid who was way too excited to be here. Honestly, even if Alistair wasn't woozy, he didn't need to do the talking, because this dude talked a lot.

Like... a lot.

They both went through the breakfast bar, and Viktor followed Alistair along, seemingly imprinting on him like he was a baby bird who didn't know how to fly. He followed him around the food trays, circling around wherever Alistair went until they both landed back on the same table.

Aaaand that was when Viktor yapped on and on about random things. He talked a lot about his home life, and so Alistair learned a lot about Fjelstad along the way. Apparently it was very old fashioned and a bit backwards, which made sense in a lot of ways, considering how the Ashlunds talked. It was very polite... in a suspicious way.

But admittedly, Alistair hardly knew anything else about Fjelstad outside of what Viktor said. He may have learned the name in world geography years ago, but who the hell remembered any of that? The world was fucking massive, and none of this mattered anyways.

Alistair also learned that Viktor brought his guitar with the intent to jam with his family. Oh, great. Another music fanatic. Yaaaay.

It also further cemented that Viktor was a garage band geek. He was almost tempted to ask, but he'd rather use his imagination on this one.

Viktor also went on and on about people on the island. He mentioned wanting to rock climb with Cyrin and play video games with Kazimir. He also-- too excitedly, really-- recommended the new First of Us game. Alistair merely nodded, deciding not to comment that he also liked that game, since he knew that he'd go on to beg for his gaming handle.

No thanks. He didn't want to play with children.

Viktor was definitely someone who was friends with his friend's friends. He even said so himself.

And apparently, Kaya had mentioned that she'd like to hang out with Alan. That also didn't surprise Alistair, because come on, who didn't? Alan had a million friends and was unsurprisingly popular in literally every social space ever. Everyone wanted to be his friend.

Especially other music nerds. Or any artist, really. Kaya was no exception.

"Oh, hey, you two can actually get acquainted right now!" Viktor chirped. He flung an arm up and waved it wildly as he yelled at the top of his lungs, "KAYAAAAA!"

Alistair grimaced, sinking backwards into his chair as he felt everyone's eyes go to them. There weren't many people around, but... still.

That was certainly a... greeting.

At the far other side of the deck, a dark-haired woman with a tote bag hanging from her shoulder was just stepping outside. She bit back something of a cross between a smile and a grimace as she awkwardly weaved between furniture to reach their table.

"Ssssh!" She waved Viktor down with a laugh. "Please, there are other people!"

Viktor scoffed. "Yeah, like... three? And they're a hundred miles away, what difference does it make to them?"

"Well, this one isn't a hundred miles away," she countered, casting Alistair an apologetic smile.

Alistair mustered a smile, but it was totally fake, like one of those smiles you do when you pass by someone in an elevator. He glanced off to the side, noting the other people nearby-- which was definitely more than three. The closest were two ladies sunbathing on chairs gave who gave them an annoyed side-eye.

Well, whatever. He had a feeling they were about to approach Drama Island anyways.

"I'm so sorry," Kaya said more directly, "I haven't been able to find him again all morning since he first took off on me--"

Viktor squawked in offence. "I'm not some lost dog--!"

She huffed through an amused grin. "I can... take him off your hands, I'm sure he's talked your ear off by now."

"It's fine," Alistair assured. "Not like there's anything to do on this all-inclusive resort cruise ship anyways."

"What-- There's tons to do!" Viktor retorted with a goofy smile.

Alistair tapped on the edge of his empty plate. "Yeah. Like eat breakfast."

"Yeah, but like. Other than that," Viktor said, snorting.

Alistair sighed, tempted to respond with sarcasm, saying that his schedule was already booked babysitting a certain someone. But he decided to keep it to himself instead.

"You look, uhm," Kaya started tentatively. Then tried again, empathy in her voice "Rough trip already?"

Alistair glanced back at her, sitting more upright. "It's been getting better," he said nodding over to Viktor. "Your little brother gave me Dramamine."

As soon as the words left his mouth, Alistair realized his mistake.

Ah, shit. He made the connection to soon. They weren't in-laws yet.

"Viktor," Alistair quickly corrected. "Viktor gave me Dramamine."

Kaya blinked, initially confused, then giggled once she caught up. "Oh, yeah. He's basically a little brother to me already," she agreed easily. "In which case, I'm glad he found you. He's a bit of an overpacker, which comes in handy sometimes, I guess."

Yeah. In suitcases and in words.

"Thanks again," Alistair said to Viktor, meaning it more now that he didn't feel like he was going to puke out his stomach again. "I feel a lot better."

Viktor beamed. Possibly brighter than the sun. It almost hurt his eyes. "Anytime, man!" Then he reached over and nudged the chair between them. "Keep us company, would you, Kaya?"

Hesitating, she cast Alistair an unsure grin. "Only if that's alright with you...?"

"Oh, yeah," Alistair said, giving her a nod. "Go for it." He paused. "My name is Alistair, by the way. I'm Alan's brother."

He didn't really like introducing himself like that, but, well. She was probably wondering what his connection was to the island, so might as well say it this way.

Hanging her bag over the back of the chair, Kaya obliged and took a seat. "Awh, it's so good to meet you, Alistair! I'm Kaya, as you've already gathered. I'm, uh, an indie artist. Muralist. Mostly." She shrugged and smiled awkwardly, and left it at that.

"Nice to meet you," Alistair echoed, then quickly wracked his brain for something normal to say afterwards. Instead he deadpanned, "I'm a corporate service worker slaving away for the elite rich. Mostly."

Yeah. That was normal.

Quirking a brow, Kaya huffed a laugh. "Well, you have my deepest condolences."

"Thanks," he said with a sigh. "I'll need it."

"Oh, hey!" Viktor waved his spoon Alistair's way. "What's it like being a twin brother? Is there ever, uh, that twin sense with you guys?"

Alistair slouched back on his chair, loosely crossing his arms. "Yeah," he said with a sigh. "We can talk to each other without saying any words. It's a sort of telepathic connection."

Viktor smiled wide with awe. "That's so cool! There's stories about twins, like, feeling the same pain at the same time, even halfway around the world from each other. Is that something that ever happens to you guys?"

Alistair pursed his lips, pretending to give this legitimate thought. He shook his head. "No. But we do have a fifth sense of knowing when we're talking about each other. I'm sure Alan's shivering right now, knowing we're talking about him. Should I send him a message?"

Just when he couldn't possibly seem more impressed-- Viktor's face fell with confusion as he paused. Then quickly turned flat once he finally caught on that he was the butt of this joke.

"Ah, we'll probably get to meet him in person soon enough," Kaya interjected with a light laugh. "That's fine."

And, just like that, Vitkor's spirits lifted again in an instant. "Yeah! Either I'm going crazy, or the island's up ahead that way!" And he pointed to the side with his entire arm.

Alistair turned to see where he was gesturing, squinting. He kept checking the time on his phone, and they still had a few more hours until docking. Was it really the island up there?

Alistair squinted even more. He was pretty sure that was a boulder, but he wasn't going to correct Vik.

"What's the first thing you think you'll do once we land?" Viktor asked, drawing his attention back to the table.

"We're probably going to be filmed when we reunite with everyone," Alistair murmured, thinking out loud.

"So, save the tearful reuinions for indoors," Viktor concluded with a nod. "Got it. Smort."

"Or... don't," Alistair said, shrugging. "I don't think it really matters, unless you think it'll be tense."

Viktor shrugged. "Nah, I know I'm gonna cry. The goal at this point is to see if I can get my bro to burst into tears on camera with me."

Kaya glanced off as she bit back a laugh.

Alistair stared at him, scrunching his face and giving him an odd look. Yeah, he was pretty sure Lyall was way more likely to burst into tears when seeing Kaya, not Vik.

"Good luck with that," he said instead.

"So? What about you?" Viktor then asked.

Alistair angled his head towards the direction of the supposed island, idly taking in the too-blue ocean. "I think Alan will be surprised, yeah. He doesn't know we're coming. And knowing him, he probably doesn't even know anyone is coming."

"It'll be a really nice surprise for him, then," Kaya supposed with a soft grin.

"Yeah," Alistair agreed.

He then turned back towards them, feeling like he should be saying something else. It was just all really weird because he hardly knew these two. And honestly, this whole situation was so bizarre. If Alan weren't already on the island, Alistair would have thought this whole thing was some elaborate scam.

Who knows. Maybe it still was.

"What about you?" he went on. "You probably miss Lyall."

She turned a shy smile down at the table. "Well, yeah. Of course I do." She shrugged. "This is probably the longest we've been apart so far."

Huh. It had only been three weeks. Not that we was trying to throw disrespect her way, but Alistair would argue that it wasn't that long. Still, he empathized. Long distance relationships suck.

"It's nice you get to see him, at least," he offered. "Since, uh... you know. There are two months left."

He inwardly cringed, fully aware that this was not helping.

"Yeah," she agreed, idly tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, "helps... break it up a bit, yeah."

"Well," Alistair sighed. "If you want a free honeymoon, there you go. Here's your chance."

Kaya hummed a laugh. "Not quite tied the knot yet," she corrected, smile turning a bit awkward. "But, I guess I won't say no to a tropical vacation?"

Alistair sighed again. He should start keeping a tab on his sighs. Maybe he was just tired. But he was always tired.

"Personally, I hate the tropics," he mumbled.

Finally munching on his cereal, Viktor gasped through a mouthful, appalled.

"It gets pretty muggy," Kaya said with a sympathetic shrug. "I prefer the cold and snow, myself."

"It's just so damn humid," Alistair mumbled again, pushing back the damp, sweaty hair that was clinging to his face. "How can anyone live like this? It's literally hell."

"I heartell there are modern amenities, at least," Kaya offered with a quiet giggle. "We'll just have to take refuge indoors where we can, I guess."

Alistair hesitated, slowly taking a self-aware glance around them. Why the hell were they even outside to begin with? He had only temporarily stepped outside for a smoke break, but it seemed Vik finding him half-asleep in this area was enough to keep him here.

"Speaking of which," Kaya went on, seeming to follow his line of thought, "we can always head in now? Before you sweat yourself to death."

"I..." Alistair began, then trailed off as he quietly sighed, scooting his chair back. "Yeah. I should probably go anyways, since the island is so close. You know, to get ready for the cameras. All that fun jazz."

"Sop up the waterfall on your forehead," Viktor agreed, nodding as he took another bite of cereal.

"Mmhmm," Alistair hummed, standing up and grabbing his empty plate. "See you both later, maybe."

"Byeeeeee," Vik said.

"See you later, maybe," Kaya echoed with a small, cheerful smile.

Alistair gave them both a half-smile before drifting away from the table, making sure to place the plate on the empty tray on his way out.

They actually still had a couple of hours until docking, but frankly, Alistair could use a mid-day nap.
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soundofmind says...

When Mel and Aaron left, James ripped the flyer off their front door, taking it inside with him. He didn't know where Cyrin was, but he didn't want to go storming in just yet.

He needed to think. He needed to get his wits about him. He needed to formulate a plan.

James sat at the counter, feeling the headache from lack of sleep pounding in his skull. There was no way he was getting any more sleep now. It just wasn't going to happen. He had to stay awake, but coffee wasn't helping.

He took time making himself a big breakfast. He'd need as much fuel as possible to be physically prepared for any altercations, especially if he was needed to use his magic at full strength.

As he cooked and ate, he tried to piece together where everyone else was.

Shane was probably with Alan. Connie was probably out painting like he always was. He assumed that Eve left to go home at some point. Everyone else was a question mark in his head.

If Shane had gone and was with Alan, he was probably at Cyrin, Lyall, and Alan's cabin - but that was just conjecture. Where was Cyrin, then? He'd have to find him as soon as possible.

He had to brace himself for what was next. Any time there was an "event," something bad happened. He couldn't even think of an exception. He knew that this next event wouldn't be any different, and all he could do was think of the flyer, rolling through every worst case scenario of who could show up. He couldn't assume Constantine was coming. But something in his gut told him not to let that assumption go. Not if his life depended on it.

But if Constantine was coming -- most definitely for Aaron -- then who was coming for him?

He hated that he already knew it wouldn't be his family. He hated that he knew it wouldn't be anyone who actually cared about him. He hated that everyone was probably in that boat, or at least, the people closest to him would be.

James sighed, finishing his meal and picking up his dishes.

Attendance is required. Yeah, of course it was. This whole island was required. This whole test was required.

James set the dishes in the sink and began to scrub them aggressively, quickly washing them down and then putting them on the drying rack.

He was turning into Shane. He'd already had two strong cups of coffee, as he was now relying on coffee to hopefully carry him through this day so he could function. But the problem was, it wasn't actually helping. All it was doing was making him more anxious than he already was, and it as fuelling the tailspin his head was in.

Normally, in a moment like this, he'd go for a run to clear his head. But something inside of him was on full alert. If he went outside and strayed too far from the cabins, a wendigo could already be there waiting for him. Or another trial. Another enemy.

And yet at the same time, he didn't feel safe in the cabin either. Sure, the bugs were gone. But were they really?

The DMV knew about his and Shane's communications - or at least the nature of it. That meant nowhere was safe. There was no way to talk about anything anymore. Not without someone listening in or predicting it.

He wished he could do something. But he had no resources. No people he knew he could trust that had the power to make a real difference. And he had no hope that any of this would really change. Only that it would be over...


James set the last cleaned dish aside, but he felt it crack under his grip.

Shit. He hastily grabbed it with both hands and lifted the pressure, quick to keep it from shattering entirely - but the plate had already split in half, pretty evenly. Gritting his teeth, he hurried over to the trash can, pulling it out of the drawer it was hidden in with his foot.

Just as he dropped the broken plate into the trash, he heard the front door open.

That made his head snap up. Whipping around a bit too quickly, he stared at Connie, who was home... earlier than he thought he'd be.

James was aware his eyes were probably bloodshot when he made brief eye contact with Connie. A consequence of too much coffee and too-little sleep.

"...Hi," James forced out.

"Good morning," Connie greeted after meeting his eyes. He closed the door and then slipped off his shoes by the doorway.

James knew he was getting delirious when hearing "good morning" made him want to laugh joylessly. He bit it back and instead moved to sit at the counter, pretending everything was fine. He didn't need to let on his plans to Connie.

"What brings you home?" James asked.

"Preparation," Connie said simply, meandering through the kitchen to snatch an orange from the fruit bowl. "Before the visitors arrive."

Ah. He should... probably change too. At some point. But maybe he didn't want to. Not if he knew whomever was visiting was likely going to be an enemy.

James paused, remembering that Connie already had hints that this "visitor week" was coming. Who was coming to see Connie?

"Do you think it'll be Eliza?" James decided to ask, remembering Connie's text conversation.

Connie paused in peeling his orange, which he was peeling in one long continuous spiral. He briefly stared up at James before continuing to peel.

"No. My brother Remus is arriving," he said.

James scrubbed his mind for what he knew of Connie's family. Remus, otherwise known as Romulus Falco, was Connie's younger brother, but the second oldest of the three brothers, after Connie. He shared in Connie's genetically handsome features but was far more charismatic and popular with the public. Remus was well known for his charity work, which was one of the reasons he was so well-liked.

"Did he tell you?" James asked. Connie seemed confident it was his brother coming, so James imagined there was communication beforehand.

"He said he was planning on visiting, but Remus says a lot of things," Connie said.

"So... you weren't sure if he was telling the truth?" James asked with a raised brow.

The peel of the orange dropped down on the counter, which Connie scooped up to throw out. "Not until this morning," he answered.

James hummed, and a small lull of silence passed between them as James watched Connie pick the individual slices of the orange apart.

"Do you and Remus get along?" James asked.

It was a genuine question, but James was also wanting to feel out something. He wanted to see if his suspicions were true - that the visitors were being sent to stir the pot. All of this was just to cause more drama.

Connie ate half of an orange slice, thinking it through as he chewed. A short silence passed before he finally answered.

"Remus can use a few lessons on humility, but yes, we get along," Connie answered. "I am looking forward to showing him around the island."

James nodded slowly. Connie wasn't the kind of person to dress things up or say things as they weren't, so James decided to take Connie at his word on this one.

"Well, I hope that goes well for you two," James said with a nod. "Do you two get to spend time together often?"

"How do you define often?" Connie asked instead.

"I guess that's relative," James admitted. "Maybe it's better to just ask how often you seem him in general."

"I say we see each other inconsistently, considering we both live in the same palace. But the palace is big, and we both have busy schedules," Connie said, then paused before adding, "Although, this may also be because he is actively trying to avoid me."

Ah. Okay. So there was something up between them.

"Why is he trying to avoid you?" James asked.

Connie plopped the rest of the orange in his mouth, swallowing it down. "Because I brother him too much," he said with a sigh.

Huh. That was interesting to imagine.

"Do you think him choosing to come here is a show of goodwill towards you?" James asked.

"It's hard to say without asking him," Connie said as he leaned agains the counter, picking out another orange slice. "But the intent doesn't change how I treat him."

"When you say 'brothering too much,'" James said. "What does that mean? I can imagine my interpretation, but I may be wrong."

"You have a sister. Correct?" Connie asked, presumably to lead up to his answer.

James nodded. "And a brother," he added.

"Older or younger?" Connie asked.

"Both younger," James said.

Connie nodded. "Being the oldest automatically puts you as the role model. Younger siblings hold a higher degree of respect for you, whether they like you or not. I'm certain you can relate that adolescent years between siblings can cause short-term tensions."

"Yes," James agreed, expecting Connie to continue.

Connie flourished his hand in front of him. "Remus is 18 now, and he is growing out of this tension. Hence, why he may be avoiding me as the older brother. It's a natural sibling phenomenon."

James nodded slowly, trying to understand where Connie was coming from without jumping to too many conclusions of his own. In his own experience, his relationship with his siblings had been a lot more nuanced, and he couldn't help but wonder if it was a little more than just teenage angst contributing to tension.

Connie had a pattern of intentionally omitting information. Usually, it seemed neutrally intentioned. It seemed like maybe it was Connie's way of avoiding conflict, or keeping from saying anything that could be misinterpreted or taken out of context. In some ways, it was very passive. In other ways, it was actually very much like a politician, which didn't surprise him in the slightest. He'd been conditioned to talk and think like one all his life. Of course he was careful with his words.

So what was Connie not saying?

From what James could gather, "needing a few lessons in humility" directly translated to one very predictable thing: Remus was a brat. Connie "brothering him" was probably more akin to attempts to humble his brother and check him on his entitlement and other various character flaws. And considering what he knew about Connie's personality and approach to things, he could see how Remus would rather not subject himself to that kind of accountability if he was comfortable with being comfortable.

That, and Connie had embraced a radically minimalist lifestyle. It was completely opposite of what most people in power and wealth aimed for. Usually when wealthy people embraced minimalism, it was surface-level at best. It was never actually embraced as a worldview and idealogy. Connie was unique in that way.

Remus, however, from what little James had seen of him, though perfomatively altruistic, did not seem to actually want a simple life. The kid was 18. The charity was for publicity, not because Remus actually wanted to.

If it was, it wouldn't look the way it did on camera; self-glorified, exalting the Falco family, and focused far more on the royalty than those in actual need.

James let out a small huff.

"So... what I think you're not saying," James said with a small tilt of his head. "Is that your brother is, in the kindest words I can find: spoiled."

And in other words: yes. The DMV was sending people who would stir the pot.

Connie was unbothered by the light humor, eating another orange slice as he stared at James. "That's certainly subjective. You're free to draw your own conclusions when you meet him," he said.

"Spoken like a true politician," James said with a small smirk.

And Connie smirked back. At least, a teeny bit. The edge of his lips raised up a bit as he peeled away another orange slice.

"Will any of your siblings be visiting?" he asked.

James's smirk faded.

"No," he said. "Had they a way to communicate with me, I wouldn't be any less certain."

"Do they not have cell phones?" Connie asked.

"Ah. No. I'm the one without one, at the moment, since mine died the first day I got here. Water damage," he said.

Connie nodded. "That explains why you never responded to my text."

James stared at Connie for a second, blinking.

Had they exchanged phone numbers? That first day was a fever dream. He couldn't even remember. Was it later than that? When had they done this?

"Oh," he said. "I'm sorry. I should've clarified. What was it you tried to send me?"

"My name," Connie answered simply.

Right. James pinched his eyes shut for a moment and rubbed his face with his hands.

"Sorry," he said through his fingers. "My memory's been less reliable lately."

Connie slowly picked up an orange slice, holding it between his fingers as he kept his usual stoic gaze on James.

"How have you been sleeping?" he asked.

James didn't stop the wearied laugh that escaped him in time, but it came out more like an aggressive huff of air.

"Well, I probably got two hours of sleep today," James said, dropping his hands down onto the counter. "So that's where I'm at currently."

"And the rest of the week?" Connie pressed.

James stared at Connie for a moment, letting out a helpless sigh as he met Connie's eyes with a small shake of his head.

"You already know," he said faintly. "Why are you asking?"

"So you can admit it out loud and hear how bad the situation really is," Connie said, continuing on his eating.

It felt like whatever energy James had, it'd been a balloon that immediately deflated at Connie's words. Feeling his face fall, he looked down at the counter.

"Admitting hardships can help with denial, which it sounds like you have," Connie went on.

"You think I'm in denial," James repeated in a mutter, reaching up to hold the side of his head, leaning his forehead against it and his elbow on the counter.

"Perhaps not about sleep, but something else that causes you to lose sleep," Connie said.

Cool. So now this was a therapy session. Didn't Connie already know things about his life? What he'd been through the last three years? It wasn't just one thing stealing his sleep from him. It was everything.

James closed his eyes for a moment, trying to tell himself that this was just Connie's way of caring. But he couldn't help the fact that something inside of him had already bucked up against the pain of this conversation.

"I know," he said quietly, not sure what else Connie expected him to say, nor knowing where to take this conversation.

And neither did Connie, since he responded in content silence, picking away at the orange.

Fine. James would change the subject, then.

"Last night," he said curtly. "Whose powers did you have?"

"Kazimir's," Connie answered. "And yourself?"

James expected the question in return. He just had to keep it vague enough to avoid any prying.

"How much do you know about everyone's magic on this island?" he asked - taking a card out of Connie's book and asking a preliminary question instead of answering.

"Not much," Connie answered. "But I know names."

Okay. He could work with that.

"I had Aaron's magic," James said.

"How was that? To wield his magic?" Connie asked.

James stiffened, but he was successfully separating himself from the memory and the question at hand.

"Let's just say I'm glad our powers have switched back again," he said.

There was a longer pause here.

"If you are free one morning, consider taking a hike with me," Connie said, breaking the silence. "Shane did, yesterday. It was quite pleasant."

James nodded slowly.

He appreciated the invitation, but James wasn't sure how soon he could take Connie up in it. Walking far out into the island to paint felt like a good way to get themselves killed. Or turned, rather, since they'd be completely isolated and far from others. The question was, he didn't know if Constantine cared enough to hunt James down while he was alone or merely alone enough.

And even if he turned out to be wrong about his suspicions of Constantine's arrival, Aaron was still a weapon in his hand. James had to avoid putting himself in situations where he might run into him at all costs. And per James's experience, deep in the jungle was exactly where Aaron fled - presumably to keep himself in check.

"That sounds really nice, actually," he said. "I'll let you know when I'm up for it."
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SilverNight says...

The door was already cracked open for Shane when he got over to the charisma cabin. He'd had to pry Shrimp's claws out of his pajama shirt to get changed, which had taken him some time and many whispered assurances, but soon enough he'd gotten into regular clothes. It felt good to have his psychometry back and have the familiar mental white noise of tiny readings from his clothes, even though he hadn't known what to make of when he'd picked up Alan's glasses and been rewarded with a confusion vision of Alan being facedown in a room full of cat cushions. He'd tucked those in the chest pocket of his flannel before resuming his hurried trip over, slipping past a sleeping Eve downstairs and running out, Shrimp tucked under his arm.

Shane stepped inside the cabin, closing the door behind him. Cyrin and Lyall were in the kitchen, and they were talking, while Cyrin made coffee and Lyall aggressively mixed together a batter. The two dropped their conversation once Shane entered.

"Glad you're here," Cyrin said, sounding relieved. "Breakfast will be ready soon, if you'd like any."

Shane smiled weakly. "Thanks. That would be great."

"Make yourself at home, please," Lyall said, flashing him a warm, if distracted, grin.

Shane nodded, taking a seat at the kitchen counter. He tried letting go of Shrimp and setting him on the counter, but his cat let out an unhappy meow, rushing back to Shane's arms the moment he was released. Shane felt his heart sink again at how scared his cat was.

Cyrin gave him a concerned look over their shoulder, from where they were at the coffee machine. "Is Shrimp okay?" they asked, starting the grinder.

"I think he got startled," Shane said quietly. "It was violently sudden, and he probably also got pushed."

"Poor guy," Cyrin murmured. "He must be spooked."

Shane nodded vacantly as he held his cat close. Yes, that he was.

"If you want him checked," Lyall said, setting the bowl of batter down on the counter, "I'm sure my sister would be more than happy to give him a look."

"I'll keep an eye on him," Shane promised, Shrimp's claws poking into his side, "and I'll run over to her if he seems hurt. Mostly, he just appears jumpy and in need of some hugging."

Lyall nodded, gaze softening as he looked Shane over. "How about you, then?" he asked. "Are you in need of anything?"

"Coffee," Shane said honestly. "And maybe an ice pack."

"The first should be ready in a few," Cyrin said, pulling open the freezer and tossing him an ice pack without looking. Shane was not much of a good catcher, but Cyrin's aim had been on point, and so he managed to snag it in the air.

Should he use it for his chest or for his back? Both hurt. He eventually settled on holding it over his stomach, since he'd gotten hit there twice.

These were about to be the most ridiculous bruises he ever got. He knew it.

"Thank you," he said appreciatively.

"Don't mention it," Cyrin said, with a slight smile. "And if you're in need of any more healing, Lyall's waffles will make you forget all about it."

"Completely forgetting might be a stretch," Lyall said with a huffed laugh. He pushed up his sleeves as he turned to prep the iron. "But, eating is certainly a good place to start."

Cyrin chuckled. "There was no hyperbolical intent."

Humming his amusement, Lyall idly stirred the batter as he quietly waited for the iron to warm.

Shane rubbed Shrimp's back, thinking quietly. A feeling of unease was pooling in his stomach, and he didn't know what waffles would do for that.

"So," he said quietly. "About Alan. I thought he was just fine the night before. Didn't you?"

There was a second's pause. Almost like a hesitation.

"Last I saw him," Lyall offered, "yes. He seemed his usual chipper self. But we were all separated a little past the halfway point, so I can't quite speak for how the rest of his evening went."

"He seemed unusually well," Cyrin added. "And not in the way that seemed like it was fake."

"Right." Shane nodded faintly. "I thought the same when I saw him afterwards. But... It didn't last, I guess."

"Well, he was rather enthralled with the insects," Lyall mused, ladling batter into the iron now.

Shane paused. "Insects?"

"Alan found two caterpillars he could talk to, one of which became a butterfly," Cyrin explained, grabbing a few coffee mugs down from a cupboard. "It was very bemusing to see."

"Ah," Shane said, nodding as he glanced down at Shrimp, patting his head. "It sounds like he would've liked that."

He hesitated, realizing what he could do with this.

"Any other insects?" he asked casually. "Dragonflies, ladybugs, locusts, beet--?"

The sound of a mug slamming on the counter made him flinch, both at the volume of the noise and the way it sounded so close to breaking. Shane jumped, looking up in surprise, then almost flinched again when he saw the way Cyrin was staring at him. Their eyes were wide and intense, and their knuckles were white around the handle of the mug, which they didn't even seem to notice they'd slammed.

"What did they do to you?" Cyrin demanded.

Shane faltered, tearing his gaze away to look at Lyall, who glanced with open confuzzlement between the two, having absolutely no context for this. He was thinking it'd be subtle, but it looked like Cyrin was ready to discuss it now.

"It's--" he started weakly. "It's a long story."

"Who--" Lyall then turned a concerned look back to Shane. "Are you alright? Who's 'they'?"

Shane glanced helplessly back at Cyrin, who was still watching him intensely. Right. They didn't have the answers, so they couldn't help him here.

"When we were in the maze," he started quietly, "and Cyrin was helping to break me out of a dream, I shared something concerning from earlier in the maze with them that seemed like a threat to my group. They told me that if anything bad did happen to us, I was to find them and say--"

"Locust," Cyrin completed simply.

"Right." Shane nodded faintly. "And, well, something did happen."

A look of understanding then fell over Lyall's face. He nodded once, and asked apprehensively, "What happened, then?"

Shane dropped his gaze, feeling his cheeks heat with shame.

"I would've thought it would be something believable, but it's not," he muttered.

"Try us," Cyrin said firmly.

Uncertainly, Shane looked back at Lyall.

Lyall softened his expression. "I can step out," he offered gently, "if that'd be more comfortable for you." Then he lightly added with a grin, "Just know in that case, that the waffles will be a bit delayed."

"No, no," Shane said, shaking his head quickly. "It's not that. I just... I'm going to sound insane."

Why was it that every time he had to share some important, crucial information, it came with some admission that felt like he had to go on the defense? Just today, it had first been anticipating Lyall and Cyrin's presumptions about Alan staying over, and now it was trying to convince them that his brain hadn't split apart under stress and caused him to hallucinate a near-death experience. There were too many eyes on him, too many ears. Every day felt like trying to live truthfully meant that he was pleading for the world to see that he wasn't a mess of a person.

"Shane," Lyall started, tone reassuring, if a bit wry, "literally anything that has happened to the majority of us thus far would sound utterly mad, with or without context. The preface is noted, but respectfully disregarded." He offered another gentle smile as he echoed Cyrin's words, "Try us."

Shane took a deep breath, holding Shrimp close to stay grounded. Okay. Okay.

"The threat was in the form of three dolls that resembled our team," Shane said, knowing Cyrin had some of this information, but Lyall was still in need of it. "We uncovered them through a puzzle that had us dig in a graveyard for a coffin that contained them. They were... voodoo-esque." He felt a chill run down his spine. "Eve's was normal. But the head on James's doll popped off with a spurt of red paint when we were instructed to squeeze it, and mine was already made to look blood-covered. We knew it was meant to unnerve us, but... it felt like foreshadowing."

Cyrin was silent, which was to be expected, as he knew it already, but it was a heavy silence. Lyall's expression was kept carefully blank as he listened intently. Shane couldn't help but swallow nervously.

"It did end up being a threat that was acted on," Shane continued quietly. "In an absurd way that they obviously wanted no one to believe. We were all but ushered into a section of the labyrinth that contained a garden, where... two puppets popped up between the bushes and started singing about our demise. I believe 'you're gonna die' was the refrain. One of them looked like Stravos. The other one... I don't know, it was an unfamiliar bearded man. Then they disappeared, and..."

Shane buried his face in his hands. This was too much. He was trying to share how he nearly died and all they were hearing was that he should be committed to a mental asylum.

"I can't go on," he said quietly. "You won't believe me. I can't tell you this and not have you believe me."

"Shane," Cyrin said firmly, but with underlying gentleness. "Give our faith in you a little more credit."

"This place has had a strange and, on occasion, twisted sense of humor," Lyall said quite seriously. "I'm not inclined to discount your tale so quickly. Please, continue."

Shane groaned, not looking up. Fine. Fine. He could always tell them he told them so after the fact. And then he'd have to see himself out because he wouldn't be staying for breakfast if they thought he was crazy.

"We were ambushed," he said weakly after a few moments. "By magical pumpkins, of all things. They were carved with sharp teeth, like jack-o-lanterns without the candles, and some of them were even armed with swords and carving knives."

He paused for a split second. Immediately, he regretted it. That instant of silent feedback was crushing.

"James stood up to them, but one of them got past him," he said, barely audibly. "I don't remember it well. One moment, some orange blur was leaping at my face, and the next I was bleeding. My throat got slit. I... I..."

Damn it, he needed someone to try and kill him again right now just to get out of this moment.

"I would've bled out." It felt like he was on autopilot, hearing someone else speak with his voice. "I thought I was going to. The only reason I didn't was because I was assigned James's powers, and I healed later." Shane took a shaky breath. "I know it's unbelievable. But that's the entire point. They wanted me to get that close to dying, but have a sure-fire way of surviving so there's no consequences, and make the reason sound like a moment of insanity while not showing it on cameras." Shane blinked, his eyes stinging. "I wouldn't have told you if I hadn't already committed to sharing. I'm not saying this for attention. I get too much of that already. So please, please believe me."

Leaning his elbows on the counter with a hand over his mouth, Lyall looked Shane over, eyes assessing. Then something like anger flashed in his eyes, but only briefly.

"You have my complete trust," he eventually said firmly in reassurance as he stood straight again.

"And mine too," Cyrin said quietly, meeting Shane's gaze from across the kitchen. "You should get to have a place to freely share grievances, without fear of judgement or skepticism. It wouldn't help you to keep that to yourself."

Shane let out a long, deep breath, pulling his hands away from his face.

"There's no doing anything about it anyway," he murmured. "They've made sure of that."

Lyall turned back to the waffle iron. "Buggers," he groused under his breath.

Shane blinked, confused. Lyall's way of speaking wasn't always completely intuitive to understand.

"That's like... humbug, right?" he asked.

"Bah!" Lyall poked at a finished waffle before setting it aside. "Worse."

"There's nuances," Cyrin translated for Shane. "If I were to express the sentiment, I'd call it, 'Bullshit'."

Shane huffed a weak, near-humorless laugh.

"It's a nice sentiment," he said. "One I don't believe much in, though."

Cyrin paused, looking him over for a moment. "We believed you. It's time for you to believe us. Something can be done."

Shane sighed quietly, looking down at Shrimp.

"We've been too discouraged to try," he said.

"Take heart, Nurse Hawking," Lyall offered, voice warming as he looked back again. "You have some friends in your corner."

Shane managed to barely smile. Maybe that was true. He hoped it was. He hoped it posed any advantage at all.

He was snapped out of this brief spark of hope by the sound of something bouncing off glass, and muted, indignant squawk.

With a shocked yelp, Lyall leapt away.

Puzzled, Shane glanced at the window, where he saw the wild flapping of wings as a white bird tried to regain its bearings. He stared, shocked at what he was seeing, on this tropical island.

"It's a snowy owl," he said.

"Here?" Cyrin asked incredulously.

"At our window, of all places?" Lyall said, disgruntled from behind the chair next to Shane.

Cyrin moved towards the window with intention, and Shane's brain was a little late at realizing that intention.

"Uh--" he started.

In one swift motion, Cyrin opened the window. Shane braced himself for bird chaos, but the owl seemed content to merely hop on the window while hooting indignantly at them all.

"There's a few things strapped to it," they said.

"A slip on which to file a formal complaint about invasive species?" Lyall asked.

"Or perhaps animal mistreatment," Cyrin said, taking two slips of paper off the belt-like thing the owl was wearing. "Thank you, bird. Now go thy ways and soar to a land where the breeze blows colder."

The owl hooted, flapping its wings, but not taking off.

"I guess it doesn't understand Shookspearean," Shane said.

Cyrin sighed. "Tragic."

Cautiously, Lyall shimmied back around the island to stand by Cyrin again. "What are those?"

Cyrin stepped back from the owl, laying out the two pieces of paper on the counter. Shane leaned over their shoulder to read the first. It was a flyer with a promotional graphic of a cruise next to a tropical island, with instructions to meet at the docks at 2pm-- for another mandatory event-- promising a surprise from home, and mentioning people.

Shane stared at it for a long moment, during which the three of them were silent.

"I think," Cyrin said, "that we're getting some guests this week."

"...And we trust this?" Lyall asked, squinting at the flier with suspicion.

"I trust the information," Cyrin said. "Not the people behind it."

"It's real," Shane said, standing up straighter. "Connie got a text from someone the other day saying that they'd been invited to the island for an event. It made no sense at the time, but it does now."

Lyall clasped his hands together. "Well, that's that, I suppose. Visitors, from home." He hesitantly glanced sideways at them. "Though, there's no telling if they'll be who we might want to see."

Shane nodded, but whatever he might've said died on his lips when he took a sideways glance at Cyrin. His mouth was pressed into a thin, hard line.

"Casper's going to be here," he said quietly.

Letting out a short breath, Lyall turned a resigned look back down to the papers. "Figures," he murmured.

"Casper?" Shane asked slowly. "Your... brother?"

"The very same," Cyrin said simply.

"Oh," Shane said, trying to think of something non-rude to say, while internally groaning. "Well, you must be--"

"Feeling a headache brewing at this very moment," Cyrin muttered.

Ah. Well, he had nothing to fear about accidentally sounding rude.

"It'll be just for a week," Lyall said, trying his best to sound a little hopeful. He picked up the other paper, sealed closed with pumpkin shape in the wax. "We can find ways to... buffer inevitable encounters, I'm sure."

Cyrin only nodded distantly, and looking at their face, Shane had a feeling they weren't exaggerating the headache.

"We can cross that bridge in a few hours," Shane offered, deciding he didn't want to worry about who he might see. Not with other pressing issues. "What's that other thing?"

Holding it higher, Lyall read aloud, tone more flat than the font and text size of the paper hoped to indicate, "'Congratulations, Lyall. You now have the opportunity to mend any singular thing broken in your life, of your choosing, with little-to-no-risk of disrupting the space time continuum. Hooray.'"

He held the paper closer to read the finer-printed text below. Then he turned it over, checking for anything else on the back. "The rest is just an exhaustive list of disclaimers. One of which was a rather long-winded statute to remain succinct. Rather ironically, if I might add. They utilized approximately 35 'very's to get their point across."

"Ah," Shane said, with a slow nod. "Congratulations."

Cyrin slowly turned to Lyall, confusion on their face that was turning into realization.

"Did you win?" he asked.

Brows furrowed, Lyall looked back to Cyrin with utter bewilderment. "Did you not know?"

"No," Cyrin said, equally bewildered. "How would I know?"

"There--" Lyall waved both arms. "Fireworks display? An announcement that screamed to both ends of the earth, 'You won'?"

For the first time, Shane saw a look of embarrassment pass over Cyrin's features.

"I might have been..." he started. "Intoxicated."

"...In the maze?" Shane asked.

"No. I broke out before it ended," Cyrin said. As Shane's eyebrows shot up with confusion, he did not explain it before continuing with, "Once I had, I decided I was done for the day."

Lyall's baffled look morphed into one of understanding, then pinched slightly with concern. "Did you get any rest at all, after the maze?"

"Never mind you that," Cyrin said breezily. "That next waffle is ready."

Lyall opened his mouth to retort, but looked back at the iron anyway. Then, with a double take, hopped over to fish out the now-burnt waffle with his bare hands.

"Maybe owls like burnt waffles?" Shane suggested.

The owl hooted at the window, eyeing Lyall.

"It's not worth the calories," Lyall flatly addressed the bird, and wiggled the blackened waffle to prove his point. "Go find a rodent to eat, or whatever."

Disregarding him, the owl swooped into the kitchen, snatching the waffle with its talons mid flight. With a shocked yelp, Lyall immediately relinquished the waffle and jumped behind Cyrin. It soared up to the top of the fridge, perching there and tearing off a chunk of the waffle with its beak, hooting irritatedly at them.

"Don't wave food at birds," Cyrin said sadly, patting Lyall's back comfortably. "They'll go 'is anyone going to eat that' and not wait for an answer."

"Sky vermin!" Lyall cried at the bird, shaking his fist.

The owl squawked its disdain between bites.

"I'll start another," Shane said, crossing the kitchen, "that will not be for it."

"Blessings upon ye, Nurse Hawking," Lyall said, casting the owl one last scornful look.

Shane smiled faintly, scooping the batter into the waffle oven and closing it up.

With steepled hands, Lyall pointed to Cyrin as he took a seat at the island. "Now, my dear Bridger," he said diplomatically, "this is twice you've dodged my question about sleep. What is it that you hope to gain by being so indirect?"

"Twice?" Cyrin asked innocently. "When was the other time?"

Lyall tilted his head, mustering a weak grin. "Just this morning?"

"This morning," Cyrin said. "Well, I don't recall that, but I do remember one of my cabinmates grafting himself to the couch earlier because he was too sleepy to stand up himself."

"I was merely comfortable," Lyall huffed defensively.

"At least I could extricate myself from the armchair," Cyrin teased, and Shane laughed quietly, shaking his head as he poured himself a mug of the coffee that had just finished.

"I could too!" Lyall retorted stubbornly, "I simply chose not to." He waved an arm for Shane's attention. "I'm not reading into this, am I? He's avoiding the question, right?"

Shane squinted at Cyrin. "As one avoids the plague."

Cyrin held up his hands. "I plead guilty... to pleading the fifth."

Lyall threw his hands skyward in defeat. "I swear, half of the island population is comprised of borderline insomniacs."

"I could see that," Cyrin teased. "Especially since you know where you fall in that statistic."

"Cleanly in the non-insomniac category," Lyall insisted with a small huff. But a grin started to slip through, betraying his own amusement with the debate.

"Of course," Cyrin said smoothly. "By the way, Shane, can you pour that entire pitcher of coffee out for Lyall? I'm prescribing it for his sleeping habits."

Shane held up the mug next to the pitcher. "Might not fit," he said.

Cyrin shrugged. "Just do the best you can."

With a grin and shake of his head, Shane poured out a mug for Lyall.

"'Prescribe'--" Lyall started incredulously. "With what medical license, sir?"

"Ever heard of civilian arrest?" Cyrin asked. "This is civilian healthcare."

Carefully pulling the mug now-filled to the brim toward himself, Lyall let out a huffed laugh. "Something I'd rather not resort to so soon, under circumstances that are not so dire. However, I cannot deny the allure of this drastic measure." And he lifted his mug by way of explanation, coffee spilling over the sides a bit. "I will get you to go the fuck to bed, some point or other. In the meantime, cheers."

Cyrin grinned. "You may certainly try."

Lyall took a long, loud slurp of his coffee. "I certainly intend to."

Shane grinned softly, petting Shrimp with one hand as he took out the waffle with the other. "Should that fail, I learned a little trick in grad school. It's called mixing an espresso into an energy drink."

Cyrin sputtered with laughter. "No way you did that."

"It's what you do if you need to stay awake for four nights and sleep seventeen hours on the fifth," Shane said.

Lyall barked a surprised laugh. "It cannot be over-emphasized how... completely ill-advised that is. How did you survive?"

"To this day, I have no idea," Shane said. "Possibly luck, spite, or a decreased risk of heart attacks that I might have."

"I'd say you would need at least two of those three," Cyrin said.

"Sounds about right," Lyall agreed, lifting his mug again. "So says the actual medical professional."

Shane grinned softly with amusement, pouring a third cup of coffee for Cyrin as Shrimp-- starting to act himself again-- nuzzled his arm. This was more than a strange day, with a mysterious event, unexplained behavior from Alan, and a literal snowy owl in their kitchen. But for one moment-- just one moment-- things felt okay, despite all that.
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SilverNight says...

Cyrin sat up, narrowing his eyes as he set his drumsticks down. That sounded like knocking, not the snare.

Insistent knocking, too. He had to think through who that meant. Not a cabinmate-- unless Alan was back, still unhinged, and also using the front door this time. Most likely, it was someone else, and they really needed to see someone who was here.

It took them a moment to remember that wasn't necessarily a threat. There weren't cops here, and anyone else who could be after them wouldn't announce themselves. Still, they cracked their window open before leaving the drumset behind and moving downstairs.

There was more knocking as they crossed the living room. Cyrin hoped it was good urgent news, but he wasn't enough of an optimist to think on that.

He opened the door halfway, gaze landing on who stood on the porch. James. James's hair looked entirely different since Cyrin last saw him - like it'd been recently cut short. His face looked put together, but the rest of him was dressed in a giant, oversized tie-dye shirt and sports shorts. And he was barefoot.

"James," Cyrin greeted. "Nice haircut. What brings you by?"

"Are you alone?" James asked first. His expression looked severe.

Bad news it was, then.

Okay. Cyrin kept his face neutral. This was James, but he was having to suppress all the instincts that wanted him to act like he was talking to a police officer-- admit nothing, share nothing, show nothing. Maybe that was a bit much for here, but it didn't hurt to be cautious.

"Are you here for me, or someone else?" they asked.

"You," James said. "I'm sorry for the manner I'm going about this, but there is something very urgent I need to discuss with you. It would be dishonest of me to say that it was not regarding your safety. Is there somewhere we could talk privately? Again, I'm sorry, but I really don't want to waste time."

Cyrin tensed his hand on the edge of the door. This was getting better and better.

He hadn't spoken much at length with James. Their climb at the cliffs was long ago, in island time, and he wasn't sure in their dream talk counted. If James's manner wasn't so urgent, he would've guessed that was his reason for being here. He wouldn't have been surprised if it came up between them again-- but there was nothing about that which demanded his immediate attention, or threatened his safety.

Which meant this was something he didn't know about yet.

"We can talk here," Cyrin said, squashing the urge to ask for a warrant as he stepped out of the doorway. "There's no one else here."

James dipped his head in a small bow, entering in. The tension was evident in his posture, and James did not relax as the door closed behind him. Cyrin knew James was the vigilant type-- to the point where he'd refused to close his eyes in their presence. But this seemed like behavior driven by actual threat, not mere survival instinct.

He turned to Cyrin, still standing.

"One of the people on this island is a wendigo's host," James said. "Last night, their magic was given to me, and I was temporarily the host of that monster. I can explain the why behind the what, but I'll start here: this wendigo has put you and I on a hit list because of our magic. He's looking to turn us into his hosts, and the threat could potentially be imminent. I can't be sure, but I had to warn you as soon as possible."

Cyrin narrowed their eyes at him-- not suspiciously, but processing.

A wendigo. It had been some time since he'd heard of or dedicated much thought to those, but they were something he was knowledgeable on. He had to be-- Renvara had them, after all, and that was where the expertise he had focused on. If he'd had to put money on the next time the subject would arise, though, he would not have bet on it being this island.

They had many questions already. But they had to start with just one.

"A wendigo," Cyrin echoed. "Do you know who, or just that it must be a contestant due to the swap?"

"Aaron," James said. "But he has made it explicitly clear that he desires none of us should approach him on this issue. The parasite, or wendigo, calls himself Constantine. He has the ability to force Aaron into a transformation, and out of respect I want to honor Aaron's desire to not be used as Constantine's weapon against his will if we were to come to him in private."

Seemed like Aaron didn't want anyone approaching him anyway, Cyrin noted quietly, but that was of secondary importance to this information.

He wouldn't have guessed that. Neither would have James, presumably, if yesterday's event hadn't revealed it all to him.

"Right," Cyrin muttered. "I can abide by that."

A beat.

"And... how do you know it's us this Constantine wants?" Cyrin asked.

He saw the connection of their powers, of course. Both of them could heal themselves, one way or another. It wasn't... surprising that a wendigo looking for new hosts would find that a helpful tool. But James seemed to be convinced rather than projecting.

"The wendigo holds a telepathic connection with his hosts," James said. "He confirmed it to me himself, alongside Aaron's testimony and warning."

A pause.

"I'm not inclined to think a wendigo would make threats he didn't plan to follow-through on," James added. "Nor am I willing to risk thinking anything otherwise."

Cyrin glanced over their shoulder, towards the upper floor.

"You said this threat is imminent," they said. "Does it leave time for going over some research?"

"I suspect it to be imminent," James corrected. "But I can't say that with 100% certainty. If you're not already aware, the DMV plans on shipping in 'visitors' this afternoon at 2pm. They've indicated the visitors will be people we know from home, and considering how much Aaron has isolated himself due to his condition, I fear the DMV may have invited the wendigo to see him. And I am not so naive to think they would do so blindly."

Cyrin pursed their lips. Right. With Casper-- who they knew was their guest, judging from the message the mirror had given them-- that would make two monsters arriving to this island.

"There's time before it starts," he said. "Enough for me to go over some lore with you, if you would find that helpful in preparing."

"I believe it would be helpful for us both, yes," James said. "I really do hope I am wrong about Constantine coming, but I'm admittedly too cynical to truly believe so."

"Even if you were, there's still a host here he can control," Cyrin said, already turning.

"Yes," James said with a small nod. He was already moving to follow. "Again, I'm sorry that this is so sudden and overwhelming."

"You know what they say," Cyrin said, glancing over their shoulder as they marched swiftly up the steps. "Better safe than sorry."

He quickly slipped into his room, not caring much about whether James followed to the bookshelf or not. Everything was clean, and Cyrin snuck a glance towards his bed to verify the knives were indeed covered by the pillow. They were.

"We'll want... these three," Cyrin said, removing three books from the bookshelf. "Just the relevant chapters. All three are about magical creatures and monsters, and have a section on wendigos, but they each focus on different cultures."

Coming up behind him, James merely nodded, eyeing the books with intensity. Cyrin held them up, spines towards him.

"The good news is," they said, "these will have answers."

James met Cyrin's eyes with his ever-present glare.

"And the bad news?" James asked.

Cyrin's lips twitched in a thin, humorless smile. Seemed he was of a similar mind.

"The bad news is that the answers will vary, and these texts will disagree with each other," he said. "That's folklore for you."

"I'd rather have an excess of information than be in lack," James said quietly, taking the book on the top of Cyrin's pile. He immediately started flipping through pages, searching for the index.

"To some extent, you can be a fact-checker," Cyrin said, tucking the other two books under their arm and starting to walk back to the living room.

James followed, nary looking up from the book. He'd taken the one about the Annexed States, Cyrin noted.

The two of them walked briskly down the stairs, and Cyrin motioned for James to sit in the living room, setting down their books on the coffee table and taking a seat on one of the couches. James took the first, closest seat on the couch, eyes still glued to the book as he'd evidently found the chapter he was looking for.

"The Annexed States, Renvara, and the mountainous regions of Talia all have wendigos among their magical fauna," Cyrin began, flipping open the Renvara and Talia books to the proper section, side by side. "But the stories differ."

He tapped a line of text in the Talia book.

"For example, Talian folklore contends that wendigos can be killed by the use of weapons, such as bullets or clubs," he said, before indicating a section of the Renvara book. "But Ren legend says that it takes the work of a spell to kill them."

"Wendigos regenerate," James murmured, flipping a page. "When in wendigo form. Making them resistant to physical damage. At least... that's how it was for me."

Cyrin nodded slowly. So, James had... actually shifted. "There's no reason that's true for all wendigos," he said.

"But it may be so for Constantine," James said, still constantly scanning the page - presumably reading while conversing. "Who's the only wendigo we have to worry about at the moment."

"The fact that there is a Constantine complicates all three schools of thought that we have here," Cyrin said. "Some legends say wendigos are caused through a person's spirit weakening and corrupting enough during a bleak winter to turn them into a monster. Others say it's through another one possessing them. But no account that I'm familiar with has ever suggested... that that invasive spirit is another human."

"According to Constantine," James said, "whose account can't be considered trustworthy; he was at one point, a human, as he had parents. Who apparently, later waged war against him to presumably, stop the monster he became and died doing so."

Cyrin bit his lip. Well, assuming he survived this-- this would make a great paper. If he had sources to cite, of course.

"If you ask me, though," James murmured, "Sounds like he had the character qualities of a monster far preceeding the physical capabilities to be one."

"Maybe there's some truth to the version where it's a person's greed and hunger that causes the transformation," Cyrin suggested.

"That would explain the constant, permeating hunger," James said all-too casually as he flipped a page.

Cyrin flicked their eyes up from the page.

"I assume you mean cannibalistic," he said calmly.

James hummed. "Not exclusively," he said. "But the temptation was certainly there."

That tracked. And was also extremely disturbing.

Cyrin shook his head to clear it.

"Many people think that if that's true, it would explain why wendigos are less and less heard these days," he said. "Brutal, cold winters that brought dread, desperation and starvation are universally pointed to as the culprit. But there's been fewer of those over time, as more people have food security and are less affected by the elements."

"Yes," James said. "Now, apparently, their spread is not unlike a vampire finding a new slave. Instead of the hunger being their own, it comes from the creature."

Cyrin paused, glancing up from the Talian book.

"When you mean this... parasite means to make us his hosts," he said. "We wouldn't be devoured, as wendigos are said to do to people. We'd be... converted. Infected. Something of that sort."

"We'd become another food source for him by extension," James said, still far too calm. "Not sure how long that lasts honestly. He himself is an ancient being. I don't know how much being infected extends a host's lifespan. But at worst, we'd be his hosts forever."

Cyrin pinched the bridge of his nose. Saints. Had no one uncovered this?

On one hand, this could mean all research so far synthesized was inaccurate, and needed re-examining. On the other, it could mean that the information in these books was not false-- or at least not entirely so-- and Constantine was something unique of his own.

The first possibility annoyed him. The second terrified him.

"I knew the overarching idea with wendigos is about how evil and greed can infect a community and tear it apart," Cyrin muttered. "But no one said anything about them being a fucking pyramid scheme."

James inhaled sharply at that, finally looking up from the book in his hands. He let out a long sigh.

"Full transparency," he said. "My only intent in understanding them is to learn how to kill them."

"Page fifty-two," Cyrin said simply.

James started flipping.

Well. He meant it seriously then.

Cyrin took in a deep breath through his nose, leaning back on the couch.

Perhaps they shouldn't be surprised. If James was formally part of the military, surely he would have... an understanding of his own of when killing a threat was a necessary evil. Avoiding being a slave to a power-hungry host-- and becoming a monster who could take on a nightmarish, violent shape-- warranted self-defense. Even the offensive side of self-defense.

What Cyrin didn't yet know was how many steps-- or less drastic plans-- James could have possibly skipped by before settling on murder.

James closed the book shut.

"I believe you are quite a capable person," James said suddenly, as he set the book to the side. "I regret that I do not know you better, but I hope you are smart enough to know that in this next week, should Constantine arrive, you ought to surround yourself with trusted friends capable of aiding in your defense. Even if he does not show, vigilance is a must. I aim to do all that I can to combat the threat he poses, but I want you to be okay. This is not a burden either of us deserve to bear alone. If you are ever in my presence you can be assured that I will defend you with all the strength I have to offer."

Cyrin would've smiled, if it wouldn't have given something away. The drama wasn't what got on his nerves, although it did also feel over the top. It wasn't like he didn't appreciate the sentiment either. But he felt like he was being somewhat underestimated here.

"I will be vigilant," he said instead. "I already am. And you don't have to be the only one working against this threat, either."

James nodded. "I know," he said. "That's why we're talking."

Cyrin nodded, dropping their gaze back to the books.

"If killing is the only way to resolve this threat," they said, more quietly, "I won't stop you, and I will even lend my help. But even if you already think you have no further options, I would urge you to keep considering alternatives."

"It will always be my last resort," James said soberly. "But I will not be caught unprepared to do it."

Cyrin met his eyes through a passing glance, seeing nothing but seriousness.

"If it comes to that," they said, "don't just be prepared to do it. Be prepared to get away with it too. You shouldn't have to serve time for this."

James reached a hand out, nonverbally asking for another book. Cyrin passed him the Ren one.

"I'll do what I can," James said. "If it's possible. I don't know how public of a spectacle he wants to make."

Of course it's possible, Cyrin thought, but he wasn't eager to vocalize that.

"I would assume his actions won't be taken in broad daylight, visible for all to see," Cyrin said, "but he has no need to be sneaky with us, or at least with you."

James looked down at the new book, but flicked his eyes up to Cyrin as he opened it.

"I know I am more vulnerable than you are," he said faintly, looking back down.

Cyrin frowned slightly.

"That's not what I was getting at," he said, a little more gently. "Why do you say that?"

"Your powers are more offensive than mine from a distance," James said. "You have the option to harm him and defend yourself without risking close combat. Easier to avoid infection."

He flipped through the pages of the book in his hands, but this time more idly. Not reading them. Just moving them.

"In my case, I have to let him get close," he said. "Or just run."

A slight pause.

"That, and he knows I know that he's coming," James said. "He doesn't have to be sly with me. You, however, will hopefully have the upper-hand. In however small a way possible."

Cyrin released a quiet sigh, turning a page and staring down at a full-page illustration of a wendigo. Renvara interpreted the creature as bone-thin no matter how much it consumed, with a skull for a head and bony antlers and eyes that glowed like coal. It was the kind of art that might have scared him as a child.

"So..." he started. "Are you saying I should strike first and strike fast, or stay undercover?"

"The latter," James said quietly, finally finding his page. "But... I won't tell you what to do."

"I can manage that," Cyrin said. "Until up to... whatever first strike there is on me, if there is one."

James nodded once, but he said nothing more.

"As part of narrowing it down," Cyrin said, turning the book around for James to see, "did you look... anything like this, when you shifted?"

James looked up, and his eyes scanned the page with a squint. He leaned in just a little closer. His expression dimmed, and he seemed to look a little absent for a moment. Cyrin regretted that he had to ask.

"I didn't shift completely," he said lowly. "And I couldn't see everything. But I did... have horns. And..."

James's gaze dropped down to his hands where the book laid, but it didn't look like he was looking at the book at all.

"It wasn't fully formed," he reiterated. "There was a lot... exposed..."

"Right," Cyrin said quietly in an understanding tone, communicating that he didn't have to go into further detail. "The Talian version certainly accounts for a peeled back skeleton."

James only nodded at that, falling back to silence.

Cyrin flipped the page, hiding the illustration from view.

"It's not going to happen to you again," he said gently. "Not if either of us can do anything about it."

"That's what I'm hoping," James agreed softly.

Cyrin gave him a faint smile of reassurance, but it didn't stay on their face long. It was hard to be hopeful over this.

"It says a lot about your will that you were able to only shift partially, and then shift back," he said.

And he thought he knew why he had, from Shane's story earlier.

James frowned, looking stiff and awkward as he turned the page of the book in his hand, not looking up at Cyrin.

"If anything," James said. "At least we know it's possible."

For James, it could be, at least. Cyrin didn't know how their will compared.

Good thing I'm not thinking about that, they told their brain.

The two of them poured over the books for a while, mostly silently, occasionally making quiet observations out loud. Cyrin noted that it was generally agreed that wendigos were weakened by losing limbs, and James found a reference to a legend where a wendigo had been defeated by fire. Those were helpful, but nothing had a consistent guide to wendigo slaying. The book from the Annexed States even took a skeptical tone towards the current existence of wendigos, to which Cyrin quietly remarked that said book had not been written by someone of the cultures the monster pertained to.

Once Cyrin could tell they were drawing near to the end of this research session, he decided it was time to share a new thought.

"Should we want to involve anyone else," he said. "Clandestine's a certified monster hunter. I don't know if she's ever dealt with a wendigo before, but she may have some practical advice for us."

"I'll seek her advice," James said with a simple nod. "Thank you."

He then glanced down at his watch, and looked up at the door.

"We've got a little over an hour before we have to be at the docks. I think I'm done reading, and there are some other things I need to do before then," he said. "Is there anything else you need from me before I go?"

Cyrin paused, shaking his head. "No. Thank you for informing me."

A beat.

"And for protecting Shane," he said, a little quieter.

James had already gotten to his feet, but when Cyrin added that, James froze in his turn towards the door, and he looked at Cyrin sharply. There was an uncomfortable edge to his stare.

"...How do you know that?" James asked tensely.

"I heard what happened from Shane himself," Cyrin said calmly. "He didn't share how you came to his defense, but I figure it must've been through this power. That's a mark of great resolve and bravery."

James swallowed hard, and the tension in his shoulders visibly released and James let out a long sigh, looking relieved.

"He told you," James muttered.

"Yes," Cyrin confirmed with a nod. "I spoke to him in his dreamscape during the maze, where he mentioned a threat might exist to the three of you. Since I knew our conversation there would be secret, and nothing related to it afterwards would be predictable, I asked him there to seek me out later if something bad did happen."

James nodded slowly.

"So that's where he was this morning," James murmured.

Cyrin blinked. So, James didn't know about the chaos of the morning. Good for him, honestly. "He stopped over for breakfast and coffee. Lyall was also privy to it."

If James felt anything about that information, he didn't show it.

"...Alright," he said after a long delay.

Cyrin let out a quiet sigh, clasping his hands for a moment.

"Sorry if that information was startling," he said. "I assume Shane couldn't let you know while you were in the maze. My point is this, though: knowing what you did, I feel as though I can trust you. That speaks to good character and a willingness to protect, as well as being strong enough for it. So you've earned my trust for that."

James was quiet for a moment, and his gaze dropped to the floor.

"Thank you," he finally said quietly.

Cyrin nodded, standing up from the couch.

"There's this... parting blessing in Renvara," he said. "It translates literally to 'safe wandering', but it can mean all sorts of things from 'good luck' to 'see you next time' to 'stay safe'. So, safe wandering to you."

"Safe wandering," James said, in accented Ren.

Cyrin raised an eyebrow, pleasantly surprised.

"Never heard anyone who was off the continent say that phrase," they said.

"I'm not fluent," James said quickly. "I just... like languages."

Cyrin found himself smiling faintly, for just a moment. "I do too," he said, before clearing his throat and speaking back in Ren. "Safe wandering."

At that, James bowed his head, along with his shoulders. Recognizing the action-- he knew it was a sign of respect in Nye-- Cyrin did it in turn. As James dipped up, Cyrin caught the slightest hint of a sad smile as he turned to leave once more.

"I'll see you around," Cyrin said, much like a promise.

James stopped at the door, pulling it open. "That you will," James said in reply. And then he shut the door behind him.

Silently, Cyrin picked up the books, collecting them under their arm as they walked upstairs. That had been the most unusual study group they'd had in a while.
"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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Fri Jan 19, 2024 4:21 pm
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soundofmind says...

Tension was pent up in James's body like a coil. Too much had happened today, and the cruise ship hadn't even arrived yet. God, this was just getting worse and worse, wasn't it?

At least he warned Cyrin, and he got whatever information he could. From all of the sources there were two consistent vulnerablities that wendigos were suspected to have, and those were: dismemberment, and fire. Dismemberment was the easiest thing to accomplish with his natural skillset, as he had literal swords sheathed in his skin. The latter was still easy to accomplish by practical means, so that meant that James was spending his remaining time before the ship's arrival making bombs and firestarters.

His room was already a mess, but now it looked like a disheveled serial killer lived here.

He was using plastic water bottles to create drano bombs and other concotions. He was also collecting all of the matches he could find, along with flint, lighters, and anything that would quickly catch flame. Essentially, he was putting together several small kits for creating flames quickly and easily, and because of his ability to regenerate quickly, he really wasn't concerned about causing an explosion or a flame that would harm him. If it harmed both of them, that would be fine. James would recover. Constantine, hopefully, wouldn't.

Okay. He had enough small packs to hide on his person. He didn't need other sharp weapons when he always carried his own, so his next concern was only to put together something to protect himself from penetration.

Scrambling around his room, James started searching for magazines. There were a few stacked over by his window that he'd forgotten about, but when he went to grab them, he noticed that his window was open a crack.

Immediately alerted at the security breach - because he never opened his window - he snatched the piece of paper he saw stuck between the panes.

A note. Written in Kennesaw.

After the boat docks, I'll be on the northern end of the island. Do not look for me.
However, I humbly ask that you do seek out my companion, Jay. Please, keep him fully up-to-date on your findings, and insist he likewise keep his distance from me.
And let him know, I will be alright.
- Aaron Keller

James released some of the tension he'd been holding in his chest.

It was just Aaron. But Constantine would've known that Aaron left this note, and Constantine would've seen through Aaron's eyes that there was a way to reach James's room. That the window was vulnerable, even.

James pinched his eyes shut, quickly shaking his head.

That wasn't the point of the note. Aaron was aiming to isolate himself in hopes of keeping others safe, and James was now responsible for telling Jay that information. Along with "keeping him in the loop."

Goddamn there were too many people to get in the loop already, but fine. James would do it. It was just... god, there were so many people he needed to talk to about last night. He hadn't had a real moment's rest since.

He needed to update Eve, and he still had to ask her (or interrogate if she continued to be stubborn) why Connie's magic didn't work on her, via Cyrin. And he needed to talk to Clandestine, now, too, in hopes that she'd have some useful advice for killing and/or defending against wendigos.

Then there was Shane, who he really did want to check in on, and he also wanted Shane to be aware of the wendigo threat. Hild too. She probably knew the most about everything, next to Shane... and James knew he needed accountability in this matter, along with support.

He was trying not to make the same mistakes again. Going in alone.

James tucked the note away. He took the stack of magazines and brought them over to the duct-tape on the floor.

If he'd known he was going to have to face one of the few beings in the world who actually stood as a real threat to his long-term physical and psychological well-being, he'd have packed armor. But nooooooo, he was told this was a pleasure trip. A vacation of all things. What a load of bullshit that turned out to be.

James wrapped the magazine around his forearm and began to duct-tape it around. It wasn't going to be a perfect solution, but it was better than nothing. He did the same to his other arm, and then his upper-arms and shins. He didn't care too much if the duct-tape caught on his skin. He'd rather have to rip if off later than get pierced by a wendigo's teeth.

Just as he found a sufficiently loose enough pair of sweatpants to fit over the "armor," he heard a rapping at the front door downstairs.

That was... odd. Maybe not too much so, but he didn't know who to expect.

He shimmied his sweats on quickly and grabbed his largest hoodie, fitting it over everything and successfully disguising it behind loose layers. It was discreet enough. It also fit over the padded chest and back "armor" he'd put together out of other things in his room, and it really couldn't be seen given that the hoodie already disguised his whole figure in one giant blob.

Scrambling down the stairs to the continued knocking, James hopped down the stairs on bare feet. When he came to the door, he took a quick peek through the adjacent window, seeing that it was Hild.

Well, thank goodness it was her, and not... well, a number of worse options.

He opened the door quickly.

"Hild," he said, flashing a somewhat genuine smile for the first time of the day. "Hi. What brings you?"

"Hullo." Brow arched, Hild gave him a once over. "My business can wait on... whatever it is you have going for yourself."

James blinked, realizing that he looked like a walking tie-dye tent. He glanced down at himself.

"I... I'm about done," he said, realizing that that was not a good answer, and would only confuse her more.

With merely a curious expression, Hild gestured past him, a silent request to enter.

"Ah," James said, backing up. She walked in and he closed the door behind her.

Once inside, she slipped off her sandals and turned a polite smile back to James. "I do apologize for arriving unannounced. The purpose of this visit, however, should be able to remedy that for future visits."

James raised his brow slightly in interest and mild confusion.

"How so?" he asked.

Pulling the bag over her shoulder in front, Hild quietly picked through, then held out a small, blocky device with more buttons than screen. A pager.

James's brows raised a little more.

"Is that for me?" he asked.

Head tilted, Hild gave him a somewhat flat grin. "This way, we might be able to communicate without having to physically be in each other's presence. Since your personal device is out of commission."

James gingerly took the pager from her hand with a faint smile in his eyes, appreciative of the gesture. It was really thoughtful.

"Thank you," he said. "I'll... I'll make sure not to lose this."

And not drop it in the water or get it wet like his last personal device.

He tentatively put the pager in his pocket, noting that he should probably... put it in his room, for the time being. Potential incoming events being what they were, he felt he was likely to lose it immediately. Just a gut feeling.

"It'll be nice to... well, page, someone I suppose," James said with a huff. "Now I really do feel like an old soul."

Her grin turned amused. "We'll bring paging 'back into style', as they say." Then Hild added, a little more seriously, "These should be effective in circumventing whatever network block they've placed on you. So, should anything else happen, or you need support, you're free to contact me anytime."

James narrowed his eyes, nodding slowly.

"Ohhhhh. So this is a 'help me' button you're giving me," he joked.

Hild dropped any remaining traces of a grin altogether. "Walking disaster magnet that you are, it felt pertinent to equip you with something."

Okay, well. He couldn't argue with that when she was right. He huffed through his nose.

"...Appreciated," he muttered, feeling a little embarassed that his somewhat dark humor was taken a bit too seriously.

Mustering a little more lightness again, Hild glanced down and awkwardly tucked some hair behind her ear. "So, you're meeting our visitors like...that?"

James blinked slowly, as it took a second for his brain to register. Then he let out a slightly embarassed laugh.

"Oh," he said. "Um."

He looked down at himself, aware that he looked like a rainbow had vomited on him, and not in a complimentary way.

"It's... the largest clothing I have," he said unhelpfully, realizing he was going to have to backtrack so much to contextualize that statement alone. He looked back up at Hild, letting out a sigh.

"To be honest, there's quite a lot that's happened between when you saw me last - I.E. recovering from being deathly sick - and now. Amazing how so much can develop in under 24 hours, really," he said. "But I'm not dressing like this solely out of spite. It's actually more practical."

Hild arched a deeply disbelieving brow, but prompted him with a very polite, "Elaborate?"

"This is about to be a lot of information so maybe you should sit down," James warned.

Both brows furrowed with open skepticism now, Hild only tilted her head.

"Okay, well, I'm going to sit down," James said, walking over to the nearest couch and plopping down.

Letting out a short breath, Hild followed and perched a couch cushion away from him.

James took in a deep breath.

He was about to condense all of this information a lot, and he was aware of that, but he decided he was going to leave pauses for questions and clarifications since this would all be new to Hild, and he'd already had time to synthesize it.

Putting his hands together at his fingertips, he pointed with his hands in front of him as he started.

"When our magics were mixed around last night, I inherited Aaron Keller's abilities. He's a wendigo - or rather, a victim of one - and I was temporarily made one myself in turn," he said.

"A wendigo?" Hild echoed in alarm.

Ah yes. James expected this to happen. Except he was a little too numb to the idea now that he'd been exposed to it personally at the moment.

"Yes," he answered. "It's..."

Well, there was no way to make it sound better than it was.

"Gone," he said. "From me. For now."

Okay, that was worse. The 'for now' was unecessary.

"Aaron has his powers back, so the wendigo is back in his body now," he tried again. "My powers are back to normal. But now the wendigo has become more personally aquainted with me and wants to inhabit my flesh."

Yeah. There could've been a way less disturbing way to put that. Too late now. He did better in his talk with Cyrin. He felt like his brain was running on fumes, now. And it was only halfway through the day.

Slipping her bag from her shoulder to the floor, Hild heavily sat back as she visibly reeled. She lightly shook her head, trying to recompose herself. "And... How does this connect to the..." And she gestured at all of him.

James pulled down one of his sleeves, revealing the duct-tape-paper-armor beneath.

"Any extra layer of protection is something," James said.

"Because you anticipate this creature... being brought here?" she tentatively furthered.

Oh. Right. He forgot to mention that first.

"You saw the visitor flyers, yes?" James asked.

She furrowed her brows at him. "Hence my confusion about your stylistic choices. And, to be frank, I still don't fully understand the logic behind it."

"I have reason to suspect that the wendigo - who is a person, I should add, that basically acts as a parasite that lives in other people to feed off of them - might be coming for a visit," James said. "Along with whomever else they're bringing in an hour."

He double-checked his watch.

"55 minutes," he corrected.

Looking back up, he continued. "Wendigos primarily infect their hosts through penetration of the skin via claws or teeth. I'd like to not think about any other ways. And I'd like to not get stabbed at all."

He weakly flopped his arms out in front of him, letting the loose sleeves flop with them.

"Hence the layers," he said.

Before Hild could reply, he thought he should add: "The wendigo -- he has a telepathic connection with the people he hosts. A lot of what I know is from talking to him, albeit mostly against my will, from when he was in my head. Very unpleasant experience. Horrible personality. I think his mind just lives in the gutter. If you know what I mean."

Still lagging a second behind, Hild looked from his sleeves back to his face. Her nose scrunched once she finally processed that last bit.

"Alright," she said slowly, steepling her hands under her chin. "So, you're taking whatever measures you can to prevent wounds..."

"Getting turned into a wendigo, specifically," James said. "Wounds I can handle. Whatever's transferred from his person into my blood, though. That I don't think I can heal from."

Hild nodded once, pointing her steepled fingers at him. "Right. Yes. However..." She glanced back down at his hoodie. "...as I understand these creatures, I seriously doubt your..."

"I know," he said, putting up a hand. "I know. You think it won't do much. Please at least let me do this in my delusion for my peace of mind, thank you. I got a crash course on wendigos earlier this morning from Cyrin, whose studies are reliable, and I've deciphered at least two plausibly reliable means of defense against them."

He held up one finger.

"Fire," he said, then lifted another finger alongside it. "And dismemberment. I'd be more immediately prepared for the latter, although neither are very PG. But if the DMV wants to throw a wendigo at me I am prepared to do what I must so I am not enslaved to a narcissistic psychopath for potentially eternity. I still don't know if becoming a wendigo affects your lifespan in the same way becoming a vampire does, but I'd really rather not find out."

With her folded hands held up in front of her mouth, Hild stared intently at him, open concern pinching her features.

"How many people know, in addition to Cyrin?" she asked after a drawn-out silence.

James pursed his lips, taking a sharp inhale. "Just Eve and Shane at the moment. That really couldn't have been avoided, since we were in the same group. About the wendigo thing, I mean. I haven't really had a chance to explain to them that Constantine - that's the wendigo's name, by the way - has put a target on my back. Cyrin's too, actually, which is why I informed them, aside from the fact that Cyrin has a wealth of information on mythical creatures and lore because of his studies."

He paused, briefly scraping his brain.

"Oh. And Aaron," James added. "Him too. Maybe Jay, now. I don't know if Aaron told him already or not, but he insisted Jay be involved because he trusts him. And they're friends."

Was James talking too much? He felt like he was saying a lot, and he knew it was a lot to take in. But also he felt the pressure of the ticking clock on his watch.

50 minutes.

"Personally, I'd like to not involve any more people than necessary," James added.

"Personally," Hild started, tone indicating a retort, "I'd rather as many people as possible be aware of a lurking threat, should it actually arrive."

"You know, I forgot," James said, lifting up a finger. "Cyrin mentioned I should talk to Clandestine. Professional monster hunter. I have not had a chance to find her, yet, today."

"I can speak with Miss Clanny for you, if you'd like," Hild offered. "I'm meeting back up with her twenty minutes prior to the boat docking."

James opened his mouth, but then closed it with an inhale. He squinted his eyes at her.

"Are you... going to just ask her about wendigos, or tell her about our -- my -- uh---"

"What would you like for her to know?" Hild asked in turn. "I'm only a messenger."

James hesitated, letting out thin exhaled as he leaned forward, resting his hands in a steeple over his nose with a hum.

"It's... probably better she knows a wendigo might be on the island," James answered. "Well, is on the island, whether Constantine arrives in person or not, but if it's Aaron, I'd much rather she not be compelled to go kill him. Not that I think so little of her, but I really don't know her stance on where wendigos lie in the spectrum of sentient monsters and priority killing."

"Miss Clanny has exceptional judgement," Hild said confidently. "I'm quite certain killing is always her last resort. We can trust her to make the right calls."

"I just... I want to see Aaron get free of this," James said a little more quietly. "And I don't want that to come through death."

The only one who deserved to die was Constantine.

"And if we can help it," Hild said, gentle yet determined, "it won't come to that for him."

The 'if we can help it' part gave James no peace. But he had to remember that he hadn't felt peace since the day he'd arrived on Auslanii.

"I cannot promise anything, of course," Hild began.

"I know," James said quietly.

"Only that you will not have to face this alone," she finished, voice softening.

James rubbed his hand over his forehead, holding his face as he looked down at the floor.

Alright then. Fine.

"If you're going to tell Clandestine," James said. "Clarity might as well know too. I trust her enough to carry this information, and I'm in her debt. If you can find a way to tell them all of this in a manner that's respectful of Aaron... I think everything I've said thus far would be helpful."

Mostly because James had kept all of his emotions out of it. It was just the facts, not the effects of everything that had happened thus far to his psyche. And like... everything else.

He still hadn't even told Hild about the sentient pumpkins.

Letting out a long sigh, he buried his face in his hands, glancing at his watch.

45 minutes.

"I fear we don't have too much time to get lost in the details of everything that's transpired at present," James said, running his hands down his face before looking back at Hild. "That's my last 12 hours in a snapshot, but I would like to hear how you're doing as well."

A pause.

"That is... if... you'd like to share."

He knew she'd just been given a lot. So. Maybe she needed a moment to just process.

With less of a delay now, Hild offered a faint grin. "My last 12 hours have been far less intense compared to yours," she said.

"Thank goodness," James murmured.

There was a quick flash of empathy in her eyes. "Thus, I can condense it easily enough." She clasped her hands in her lap as she glanced up in thought.

"I began the maze with Miss Clanny and Kazimir Petrov as my teammates," she said. "Fairly quickly after the start, we were able to determine whose abilities we were given. I had that fellow, Stravos's ability to read minds. It was...horrendously inaccurate, and I now wonder if his scant presence of mind is due to the inability to turn it off. It was entirely dicombobulating."

"That sounds horrible," James said softly.

Horrible for Hild and Stravos. No wonder Stravos was so disturbed. His mind was constantly bombarded with outside thoughts and information and he couldn't trust half of it. That was bound to drive anyone mad.

Maybe the DMV thought Hild wouldn't be, at least for a night. Seemed they were right.

As they usually were. (And he thought this with spite).

"And I only had the ability for an evening," Hild murmured with a somber nod.

James shared the same sentiments about Aaron's magic. James had only endured it for an evening, but Aaron had been living with it for years. And for Stravos, it had to have been his whole life.

People who were troubled were not to be demonized, but empathized with. Even if James didn't have the resources to help them himself.

Aaron, though... he hoped he'd be able to help.

"Miss Clanny," Hild eventually went on, "had received my half-brother's pyrokinesis. Which we quickly determined when she became inexplicably chilled. And Kazimir had Miss Clarity's ability to manipulate and shape liquid particles. And I learned in watching an impressive display, that he is quite the masterful element manipulator."

Hild was right. This was a lot less dramatic than his evening, so far.

"We quickly got separated." She scrunched her nose with disdain. "Miss Clanny and I had the great misfortune of running into Tula. From there, I proceeded to lose Miss Clanny as well, actively shook Tula, then never even made it past the mists in which we were lost."

She looked back to James with another hint of worry. "I presume you heard the race's finishing announcement?"

James nodded, biting his lip at the recollection of Tula's name being thrown into the mix.

"I've already questioned my half-brother about the highly-suspect last-minute association," Hild continued, severe disapproval lacing her voice. "At length. He claims to have sniffed out a bit of her dishonesty, and feels it could be beneficial to maintain the alliance." She paused. "What do you think?"

James stared at Hild intensely for a moment. It took a moment for the implications of the question she was asking to sink in.

"He wants to maintain an alliance with her?" James asked. "How did he get it in the first place?"

"He used Alan's ability to influence people," Hild answered evenly.

James's stare remained unbroken.

Alan's ability...?

Charm magic. Lyall used Alan's charm magic. Charm magic altered people's memories and rewired their brains.

"Evidently, the one drawback to using it," Hild mused aloud, brows furrowed, "hadn't even effected Lyall's thoughts or psyche. Which... is another point of great suspicion."

James's fingers arched in tension as he slowly brought them up to his face again.

Did that mean all the effects would go to Alan? Did Lyall not think this through? Did he not know? What on earth was Lyall thinking? What was so important about winning that it was worth ruining Alan's mind over it? Why did he have to win anyway? It was a stupid competition. The DMV controlled everything. They weren't going to give out any real power.


No. No. The DMV planned this. They planned fucking everything. Maeve could see the future.

What the hell were they planning to do with Lyall?

No, no, no. This...

James buried his face in his hands, running his fingers down into his hair, digging them into his scalp.

"Fuck," he said.

"Indeed," Hild uttered darkly, as if reading his mind now.

He assumed that Hild had already given Lyall a piece of her mind on the matter, but James had the dreadful feeling that Lyall learned nothing from it. Lyall and Hild sparred all the time, and though it was clear they cared for each other, there was an invisible wall that always seemed to emerge between them at the end of the day. James didn't know how to explain it.

Yes, they were related. But they were two entirely different people.

James remained with his face in his hands, trying not to get lost in the doom of what was to come.

God. There was so much. Constantine was just the tip of the spear, and that wasn't even including everything in the past three weeks. James also had to worry about Tula, and Aaron, and whoever was still a mystery, giving him nightmares. Now he had to worry about Lyall too?

He'd only known everyone for a month. He didn't have even remotely near the amount of relational equity needed for any of the conversation that needed to be had. Should be had. Should've been had with everyone by people who were... ugh.

"James," Hild softly called, trying to grab his attention back from his spiral.

James forced himself to look up at her from between his fingers.

"The weight of this world is not resting on your shoulders alone," she said quietly, steadily holding his gaze. "Just focus on the wendigo for now. Got it?"

James swallowed. And, actually feeling a small sense of relief and gratitude, he nodded slightly, face still partially hidden by his hands.

"Okay," he said quietly.

He clenched his jaw, trying to refocus as he sat back up again, placing his hands back in his lap.

Think about Hild. Get his mind off the crises.

She nodded as well. "Good."

"I'm sorry about Lyall," James said softly.

He knew that she loved and cared about him. Seeing him make a mistake like this was painful for him. He couldn't imagine what Hild was feeling.

Hild huffed out a short, sad sigh. "...I've learned he will do as he is wont to do," she murmured, looking down at her hands. "Far be it from me to offer him any wisdom."

James watched Hild with great sympathy, but also... it pained him.

He heard his own sister's voice in her words. He knew that he'd been the brother to cause his own family pain just a few years ago. He used to be the one everyone worried about. And... he knew he still was.

He wished he knew what to say. He opened his mouth anyway, and words started spilling out.

"I don't know what it's been like with Lyall beyond your experience on this island," James said softly. "And I know there's still much I've yet to learn about you. But if I know anything, it's that your consistency and your care mean far more than you know. He may not appreciate it now, and he may not for a while. And you may not be able to reach him yourself. But... there's going to come a moment where he'll need you. And I know it's painful to hang on, and to hold out for hope. And it's painful to be the strong one, and to be steady. But please keep the door open. I don't know how long it'll take, but I have hope that he'll come back."

James swallowed, feeling his throat start to tighten.

These were the words he knew his sister needed to hear. When she was having trouble holding onto hope for him.

"Not just to his senses, but to you," James said. "And I hope that when that day comes he'll be able to recieve all of the love you have in your heart for him. Because I know it's there. Otherwise you'd have given up on him a long time ago."

Looking back up to James, Hild was stunned into momentary silence. James swallowed again.

Had he... spoken out of turn? Had he been too presumptuous?

Glancing off in a weak attempt to hide it, Hild quietly blinked as she wiped under her eye.


James immediately reached for the tissue box under the coffee table. He quickly came around, joining her on the couch beside her.

"Sorry," he said, setting the tissue box beside her leg. "I only meant to be encouraging. I didn't realize how much this was weighing on you."

"No," she interjected, voice tight, "it's... you're fine."

James pulled a tissue out of the box and reached over, taking her hand and placing the tissue in it. Now accepting it with a faint nod, she pressed it over her eyes.

Then, turning a sad but grateful smile back to him, she murmured a simple but earnest, "Thank you."

James nodded, and there was a small silence that passed before he spoke.

"I know you probably feel like you have to bear the weight of worrying about Lyall by yourself," James said softly. "But... I'll share it. It's easier to carry a heavy load with a friend."

She nodded again as she looked at the crumpled tissue in her hands. "Thank you," she repeated softly. Then, managing a playfully stern tone, added, "Yes, this is a two-way street, mind you."

James offered her a small smile.

"I know," he said quietly. "I prefer it that way."

Humming a soft laugh, Hild was content to let a quiet beat pass between them.

James offered her another tissue. Huffing wryly, she took this one with a nod of thanks.

"...I don't imagine you got much sleep," she eventually spoke up again. "After the maze."

James let out a huff through his nose.

"No. Maybe two hours at most," he admitted.

"An unfortunate norm at this point, hm?" she murmured. Drawing in a breath, she added, "What was an unusual occurance, however, was the night terror I experienced last night."

James frowned, turning to her with worry creasing between his brows.

"Night terror?" he asked. "That's not normal for you, is it?"

She shook her head slightly. "It's not."

James felt his mind lagging a bit.

"It was... inexplicably gruesome," she explained tentatively. "Thus I wonder if it's yours and Shane's dream pest."

Then his mind caught up.

"Your mind was left vulnerable without your magic," he said. "Someone was finally able to break into the steel trap."

Hild inclined her head in confirmation.

"But it couldn't have been the same person who's been torturing Shane and I with nightmares," James said. "Because their magic would've been switched too."

But how would they have discovered what their magic even was, if they couldn't do it unless someone was sleeping? Has there been another set-up in the maze like the one that been created for Cyrin to use Connie's powers? Even so, why target Hild?

"Tula," Hild said suddenly, as if just realizing at the same exact time he did. She sat straighter, more alert. "In the few moments I was exposed to her... lovely presence in the maze, I was bombarded with her frankly deeply disturbing thoughts. Which would make the dream entirely on brand for her."

Well, Tula having disturbing thoughts didn't surprise James one bit.

"Had you done something to gain her...?" James asked but couldn't find a word to finish.

"I..." Hild glanced off, actually a bit sheepish as she confessed, "I tipped her off that I know what she'd done. What she's been doing, to you."

Oh. Well. That'd do it.

"Are you positive it was her who sent the dream?" James asked. "Is there anyone else that would be plausible?"

"By process of elimination," Hild mused, "she's really the only likely candidate. She's the only person I've antagonized. What concerns me more is that, this isn't her power to begin with. Which means someone else is tormenting you and others at night, with even less of a solid line of reasoning, as far as we can tell."

James frowned, looking out into the living room in thought.

"Tula's really been the only out for me since day one that I'm aware of," James thought aloud. "And that was when the dreams started. Do you think she could be working with someone?"

"The real question is," Hild said with certainty, "who is she working with?"

That, James couldn't answer. He furrowed his brows in deep thought.

"It's most likely to be someone she lives with. But... I thought I knew everyone's magic by now," he said. "Except... maybe Jay."

But what did Jay have to gain from giving him nightmares? Was Tula paying him to? Jay didn't seem to bother interacting with anyone outside of Aaron.

Could that be a reason?

"From the sounds of it," Hild ventured, "Tula has at least a few island resources at her disposal. Is there anyone on staff who might have something to gain from it?"

"I don't know everyone who's on staff," James admitted. "But would they really task someone on staff with something like that? And why primarily Shane and I? And now you. But... how would Tula have discovered the dream magic in the first place? Something like that... wouldn't she need it spelled out for her? Those kinds of magics take years to even discover."

Hild nodded slowly. "It had to have come from a different contestant. Unless the DMV is bending rules to such an extent for her."

"If no one else got magics from outside of the contestant pool I think it's safe to conclude it was just between us. At least, for now. If that's the case, that would mean that Tula might've realized she had dream magic because she already knew whose it was."

Hild scrunched her nose in thought. "The only person I've seen her interacting comfortably on a regular basis with, is Alexander. But he said he has a type of memory magic."

James pursed his lips.

"Is it... possible that he's lying?" James asked.

She hesitated. "It's likely. I don't know him past the surface level."

"Memory based magics are more difficult to test in casual settings," James said. "And they're some of the least visible ones. If it is a lie, he picked a good one."

Hild sighed with resigned agreement.

"But there's also Jay," James said. "I don't know if I can rule him out aside from the fact that Aaron trusts him, but that doesn't make him innocent."

With a frustrated sound, Hild flopped back on the couch, hair puffing around her face. James watched her with slightly raised brows, only because it was a far more relaxed motion than she usually expressed.

"This would be so much easier if there was a way to look into others' brains," she said, like this wasn't the first time she'd thought of it. "And I could actually justify a small peek here, since whoever it is that's been bothering you swung first."

"Unfortunately, the reading minds ability seems to belong to Stravos," James said. "And as it turns out, it's not all it's cracked up to be."

Conceding, she only muttered incoherently. James huffed a small laugh through his nose, finding himself amused with her frustration, even though he understood where it was coming from. He wished he knew more answers, too.

"Maybe you can go around touching people's heads like crystal balls and it'll just come to you," he joked.

Hild cracked a grin at that. "If only it were that simple."

"Well, how do other mind-readers do it?" James asked, still running with the joke. "I don't know. Stravos's magic isn't the only one of its kind out there. Not all mind-reading magics suck that much."

Grin turning wry and flat, Hild straightened as she considered this.

Oh. Wait. She was actually considering it seriously? She was, wasn't she? Maybe he hadn't made his sarcasm clear enough.

Reaching up, she suddenly put her palm to James's forehead with a light, harmless 'smack'.

James met Hild's eyes with a small smile, and a little laugh escaped him.

"Any luck?" he asked.

She shushed him as she pressed her eyes shut. "If there's any brain activity to speak of, then it must be the bare minimum. I can't hear it over your voice."

"Woooow," James drawled, deciding to play along. "Fine, I'll be quiet."

With a sigh, he raised his brows expectantly, waiting for Hild to come up with a final punchline.

It never came.

Her brows furrowed, just slightly. She finally drew away, folding her hands together as she met his eyes once more. "Inconclusive," she said, now seeming to actually take it seriously. "More data required."

James squinted at her, faintly smiling.

"Wait, what?" he asked. "You didn't actually...?"

She just cracked another, almost cheeky grin.

James huffed. "Okay, well," he said. "Better luck next time."

Hild shrugged both shoulders with a hummed laugh. Then her smile softened as she asked, "So... do you feel ready for today?"

Well, James had almost forgotten about the potential predator coming to hunt him down. But now that Hild mentioned it again, he suddenly glanced down at his watch.

20 til.


"Ready as I can be," James said neutrally, but the response was automatic. "You should probably get going. You don't have much time."

Resting a hand on his shoulder, Hild nodded. "I'm actually late for the meetup," she said.

"Oh," James said softly. "Sorry."

"Worth it," she countered sternly as she stood. "Don't forget your 'help me' button. Contact me anytime you need, alright?"

James mustered up a small smile.

"It's a two-way street," he said.

Hild smiled again, a little brighter at that. "Of course," she agreed.

And with that, she said goodbye.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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soundofmind says...

He was at the dock. So was everyone else. It was three minutes 'til, but the cruise ship had already been docked for some time. The smell of sea-salt filled the air, and the ship brought with it a breeze. The ship's crew had just begun to lower the offloading ramp, and several of the workers were bustling around, busying themselves with securing things and clearing the area.

The contestants stood a little further back, leaving space as they all clustered in different groups, all wandering in around the same time.

James had come alone, but he noticed all of the ladies had come together, and some others came in pairs. Alexander and Hendrik were together - which James would've thought to be random if he hadn't unwillingly witnessed a portion of their maze experience - and so were Aaron and Jay. That, James had expected.

Cyrin and Lyall had found Shane, exchanging greetings. Tula weaseled her way through the groups, seeming more outwardly despondent than her usual mask. Robin and Connie arrived with Connie's paint supplies still in his bag, and Kazimir strolled up to the ladies, immediately starting conversation.

It looked like everyone was here...



Still standing off to the side, James frowned.

James made eye contact with Shane through the crowd. Wordlessly, they both hurried to meet each other. After quickly closing the distance, James spoke first.

"Where's Alan?" James asked.

Shane blinked, not looking sure how to answer for a moment. "It's... a long story," he said finally.

Okay. Well. They didn't have time for a long story at the moment. James could hear the details later.

"Can I get the gist?" he asked.

Shane bit his lip for a moment.

"He went missing for a while," he said in a hushed tone. "Now I hear he's with the staff."

James knew that Shane was filtering a lot of information from the look on his face alone. If Alan was with the staff, then hopefully he was safe and being cared for. The reasons why he'd gone missing were important, but James didn't need to know them now - and if Shane didn't want to share them, then it was none of James's business. So James simply nodded, content to leave it at that.

"Alright," he said.

Shane looked a little relieved at that, but his expression soon returned to unease as he glanced back at the boat.

"Have you seen anyone on board yet?" he asked.

James shook his head. "I think they'll be coming off in a minute."

He glanced down at his wrist, where he'd strapped his watch over his sweatshirt sleeve. Two minutes.

Shane nodded silently, standing taller. "Right," he murmured.

He was looking fancier than James-- which was a low bar, since even his normal style qualified for that, but he'd gone less casual for this event in a button-up shirt and dress pants. James could tell he seemed particularly aware of camera attention today.

James might've dressed up if he didn't think that the DMV was shipping in his worst enemies and people who wanted to kill him or otherwise cause him grievous harm.

His tie-die sweatsuit was an act of protest, just as all his other ridiculous articles of clothing were.

"Are you nervous?" James asked.

"No," Shane said evenly, but didn't elaborate.

James flicked his eyes to Ethan, one of the camera-men who had their lens fixed on the two of them.

Right. No real conversations out here, then. That meant James had nothing else to say. Fortunately, though, it looked like the "event" was finally kicking off.

A banner was raised over the end of the ramp that read: "Visitor Week." It was shamelessly colorful and written in a cheery font. A big red ribbon was strung out as a barrier between the posts, with a big bow in the middle.

Mel, who was often seen as the hostess, walked in with the same sunflower dress as this morning, a microphone pinned to the neckline of the dress. She waved to the crowd, holding a pair of giant scissors.

"Woohoo! Are you all ready for Visitor Week?" she said enthusiastically, to which the crowd fell flat. She scoffed. "Aw, come on! Let's hear some energy! Are you ready for Visitor Week?!"

About half of the contestants mustered up a cheer or clap of some kind. James and Shane didn't bother. Hendrik, however, took up eighty percent of the noise, whistling so loud, it even hurt James's ears some yards away.

"HELL YEAH!" he hollered, practically screaming.

"Thanks, Henny!" Mel said with a giggle. "At the base of the the dock is a bulletin board where you'll find a list of who's who and who came for who. So if you're confused, grab a phamphlet! We got you! And in case you're wondering, no, the visitors aren't staying with you-- but they totally can if you want them to! It's up to you! Otherwise, we've cozied everyone in the mansion."

Mel gave the crowd a sunny smile, holding the scissors up high. "Okay, here they come now! Phew, right on time. Let's cut the ribbon! Happy Visitor's Week, everyone~"

Mel then snipped the red ribbon with the scissors, and Hendrik clapped and whistled loudly. Again.

Then, right on cue, the door of the cruise ship opened so the visitors can walk down the ramp.

Hendrik was still cheering loudly-- that was, until the first person stepped out. Then he froze, going silent.

A broad, tall, brunette man stepped out wearing short blue shorts and an open button shirt with colorful pastel colors on it. He was otherwise shirtless, with his hairy but chiseled chest exposed. With his flip flops padding down the railing, he looked ready to lounge in the beach chair since he carried a rolled up beach towel and tote bag slung over his hot pink suitcase rolling behind him. Lifting up his yellow neon sunglasses from his eyes, he cast a pearly smile to the crowd as he waved to the camera capturing his entrance.

"What the (BLEEP)?" Hendrik boomed, the magical filter bleeping out his cursing due to the live event.

Ah. Yes.

The expected response. Seemed that the DMV was going to put everyone "through it." As the kids say.

"Luka? The hell?" Hendrik went on more to himself this time, frowning as he stared at the man, frozen in place.

The man, Luka, gave Hendrik an apologetic smile but otherwise didn't comment, going down the ramp and already talking to Dante about logistics. James couldn't give much more attention to Hendrik's apparent tense reunion, because more guests started coming up behind Luka.

An older woman who bore a striking resemblance to Alex walked down the ramp, with the same white streak of hair that Alex had. Alex was already running across the ramp to meet her, and he swept her up into his arms in an embrace.

Presumably his mom. Well, that at least seemed... good for him. Sure.

After her, there was another group of people coming up. A young man with curly hair and a colorful tropical shirt, a taller guy dressed in all black with dark hair and who looked to be in his mid-20's, and an older woman who looked like she might've been related to Alan Alvaro.

Well, that was unfortunate.

The younger fellow bee-lined for the Ashlunds, and James quickly put two and two together. That must've been Viktor. He practically tackled Lyall and Hild in a hug.

Behind Viktor was a woman who followed behind with a smile, but looked more reserved as she caught up behind him. From the way her eyes were fixed on Lyall... James wanted to guess that it was Kaya, Lyall's fiancee. He'd only ever heard about her, though, so he could be wrong.

After that, an older man stepped off. He was a very short, lean man, with long hair in two long braids. There was a warm smile that grew on his face as Clanny and Robin both ran up to greet him. They were met with a hugs and pats. It was unusual to see Robin expressive, but then again, he'd shifted into his wolf form to greet the man. His tail was wagging.

After that, there was a young woman who came bounding down the ramp, tossing her bags to the side. Kazimir was running to meet her, and they collided in a spinning embrace and a kiss.

Girlfriend, then. Or something.

Right behind her were two young men. One, James already recognized as Remus - Connie's brother - and the other looked suspiciously like... Cyrin? Whoever he was, he didn't look as thrilled to be there. His expression was somewhere between disgusted and unimpressed.

James admittedly didn't know as much about Cyrin. Was that a brother?

Remus walked down the ramp, waving to everyone with a charismatic smile. Connie was waiting for him expectantly at the base of the ramp, and James caught the two brothers exchanging brief words before they walked away. Remus seemed intent on staying, but of course, Connie was ready to go.

Cyrin's demeanor was stiff and uneasy, gaze fixed on his lookalike, who was marching up to them. Side-by-side, there was no doubt they were related-- their hair and skin tone were alike, but their facial structures, cheekbones and jaws, were even more so.

"That's Casper Bridger," Shane said quietly. "Another gymnast, but also a businessman."

Casper strolled up to Cyrin, a slight sneer curling back his lip. The two of them were close enough to hear.

"It's so (BLEEP)ing hot," he growled, as if that were Cyrin's fault.

"Nice to see you too, Casper," Cyrin replied flatly.

Casper's look of disgust and disdain only grew as he shrugged off his suit jacket, bunching it up in his hands. Without so much as a glance in James and Shane's direction, he suddenly threw it at them, tossing it at Shane's feet. Shane stepped back, staring at the expensive jacket lying on the dock.

"You, would you hold on to that and deliver it back later?" Casper ordered boredly. "I don't want a single wrinkle."

With that, he walked past Cyrin and the two of them, on his way to the mansion.

James cast a judgemental glance in Casper's direction as the entitled man left, and then he grabbed the jacket with his foot, tucking it under his shoe.

"I am so sorry," Cyrin whispered to Shane. "I don't think he knew who you were."

"It's fine," Shane said, forcing a laugh, but he still appeared startled from the action.

James listened to Cyrin and Shane, but looked off back at the ramp. There was an older man coming down the ramp with glasses, glancing around as if he wasn't sure where he was. He seemed to get an idea when his gaze landed on Clarity. He made his way to her, and they spoke in calm, neutral tones that quickly turned to silence.

At the same time, there was a woman [descrip here] who had gone up to Jay and Aaron. She was speaking with Jay, handing him a small, ferret-like animal, and Aaron was merely... staring at her. His face beet red.

Hopefully that wasn't a bad beet red, but. James decided not to make assumptions.

James reached down to pick up Casper's coat off the ground. Briefly, he considered tossing it into the ocean.

But then there was a commotion.

"Oh, hell no," Tula said loudly, now completely dropping her fake persona as she glared at the next person entering.

A young lady with long, wavy pink hair bore a striking resemblance to Tula. She was a tad more slender and smaller in stature, but their similar facial features were undeniable. They must have been sisters. The visitor was likely Tula's younger sister, judging from her more youthful bright-eyed expression.

"Tula!" she said with an eager grin, scampering down the ramp as her sundress flowed in the breeze. "Aaaaaa! Come here!"

"Oh my god! Get the (BLEEP) away from me!" Tula screamed back, turning her heels and running.

Disappointed, the young lady pouted, sadly watching her sister run away. Sighing, she moved on to talk to Dante alongside a few of the others.

"Tula told me her sister died," Shane said. "Looks like that was a lie."

"She probably wishes she died," James concluded.

Shane sighed. "She does put on an idealist act."

James huffed through his nose, honestly a bit amused as Tula continued to run off the dock and into the sand. It looked like she was heading home. He turned back to look at the ramp with a faint smile.

But the smile faded immediately.


Walking down the ramp wasn't someone from the trials, prison, or behind the scenes. It wasn't a family member, and it wasn't a friend. Of all the people they could've chosen to come visit him, they scraped the bottom of the barrel and found his ex-girlfriend.

His face paled as he felt his soul, perhaps, leave his body prematurely. Yes. He'd died and this was the stasis between life and heaven. Or wherever there was left to go after death.

No. No. This was definitely hell.

His vision tunneled on the tall woman who was walking straight for him.

No, no, no.

He... he hadn't seen Ingrid in three. YEARS. And he'd hoped to never see her again. What the hell was she doing here? Now? Why did she agree to this? The last thing she'd said to him before he thought he'd never see her again was--

"Hi," Ingrid said, stopping short of a few feet in front of him.

James was frozen in place, staring up at her. It was like she hadn't changed at all, save for cutting her hair to her collar-bone. She looked uncharacteristically relaxed, though, and that gave him unease.

Refusing to look at anything but her face, and too afraid to look anywhere else, James found his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth.

Anything he'd wanted to say to her he'd already said three years ago. And she hadn't heard any of it.

Ingrid smiled a little wider, as if she was amused by him freezing up. She tilted her head to the side, sliding her sunglasses up her face to tuck her dark hair behind her ears, revealing her piercing blue eyes.

"Well, I guess that answers my question," she said. "You didn't get my text, did you?"


"My phone is dead," James managed to say stiffly.

Ingrid pursed her lips and nodded.

"Of course it is," she said. "Was that an accident?"

"Yes?" James said, not sure what else she was implying.

Ingrid turned to look at Shane, who was still standing beside him.

"You must be Shane," she said. "I'm Ingrid."

She extended a hand for Shane to shake.

"Hi," Shane said, putting on a smile with stiff politeness. As he went to hesitantly shake her hand, James finally got his bearings, and in a panic, smacked Shane's hand away.

"Wow," Ingrid said, as Shane rubbed his hand, wincing and confused. "You really think I'd do that?"

"I don't know what you'd do anymore, Ingrid," James said sharply. "I haven't seen you in years."

Ingrid let out an affronted exhale, clearly offended.

"Sorry," James said a little softer to Shane. "She--"

"He apparently thinks I'd stoop to using my magic on you," Ingrid interrupted.

Shane tucked his hands in his pants pockets, looking at Ingrid evenly. "He's fine," he said calmly.

Ingrid looked at Shane as if she didn't understand what he meant.

"Right," she said. "Well. It's nice to meet you, Shane. I've been keeping up with the show. I'm glad you and James have become friends."

"Me too," Shane said, leaving the 'nice' part unanswered.

Apparently now uninterested in Shane, Ingrid turned her attention to James once more. James felt uncomfortable under her gaze, and he couldn't help but feel the pressure of all the cameras watching, along with everyone around them.

There were things he could say, but he didn't want to say them here. Only because he still had some respect for her, despite everything.

Ingrid glanced him up and down.

"The tie-dye's fun," she said, but he knew from her tone that she meant it looked ridiculous.

"It's comfortable," he answered stiffly.

"I figured as much," she said. "It doesn't fit you, though. You look like you're drowning in colors."

"You know, I really do get enough fashion critique from literally everyone," James said. "So if you're thinking your opinions will change my habits, it's highly unlikely."

"Alright, I'll ask a question, then," Ingrid agreed. "What's under the hoodie?"

James blinked very, very slowly.

"My... skin," James said even slower.

She knew how that question sounded, right?

Ingrid huffed through her nose.

"I meant," she said. "What are you hiding? I know you don't dress like that for pleasure."

James frowned.

"Okay, let's-- back it up. To be completely honest with you--"

"Oh, here we go," Ingrid said under her breath.

"I don't want to have a normal conversation right now and act like nothing--"

"Hi, sorry," a woman's voice interrupted from the side. "Have you got the time?"

"Oh, sure," Shane said, taking out his phone, sounding almost relieved to have a distraction from the other conversation. "It's two o' four."

James stuttered to a stop, and when he looked over, his eyes widened when he found himself looking at Alexandra Harlow.

Oh no.

Oh god.

She was talking to Shane and Shane was oblivious.

Alexandra had been smiling when she asked the question, but it quickly dropped, turning into a dark, stormy look. And before James could figure out what that meant, she snatched the phone out of Shane's hands before shoving him by the shoulders off the dock.

With a shocked yelp, Shane fell backwards into the water.

Ingrid jumped out of the way in surprise.

"What the--" James sputtered, but his mind moved too fast.

Shane had been pushed into the ocean. The dock reached out a good distance out over the water. The water was deep. The dock was too high up to climb back onto.

James dropped the jacket to the ground and dove in with a point of his hands. The water splashed around him as he plopped into the water like a heavy stone.

The water displaced around him for a moment, but he was quick to open his eyes and when the bubbles cleared, he could see the shadow of Shane, kicking a few feet underwater.

James swam to him, putting an arm under his and kicking alongside him, helping to propel the both of them to the surface faster.

This would make for his second time in the ocean - at least, further than his shins.

They surfaced together, the water breaking over their heads. Utterly soaked, Shane coughed up water, gasping loudly for air. James took in his own deep breath, but he'd had more of a chance to inhale before diving. He looked at Shane, full of worry as he treaded water furiously beside him.

The water was cold. Far too cold for his liking, and the chill went straight to his bones.

"You okay?" James asked, his head bobbing under for a second.

Shane wheezed instead of answering, hacking up more water.

"You'll sink," he sputtered after a few moments.

"Yeah," James said, struggling to stay afloat. "Let's swim to shore, then."

"I can swim," Shane said, with another cough.

"Okay," James said, letting go but keeping an eye on Shane in case he'd sustained any injuries from the fall.

Together, they began to swim back inland. It wasn't horrifically far, but it felt far. Swimming was always the worst physical activity to date. Most people found more ease while swimming because their bodies were buoyant. But James's never was.

When they touched sand beneath their feet, James gave up on swimming and stood up, with the water waist-deep, and he started trudging slowly, eventually finally free on the sand.

Panting from exertion, James slumped with his hands on his knees, glancing back at Shane, who emerged from the water just as soaked and very distressed. He was staring indignantly at Alexandra, who was standing at Ingrid's side. The two of them were watching from where they were, further out on the dock. James couldn't make out their expressions from here, but they were coming closer.

"That's... your ex-fiancee," James said between heavy breaths.

Shane took a few moments to answer, still trying to clear up his lungs.

"Only figured that out after I got pushed," he muttered.

Shaking some of the dripping hair out of his eyes, Shane kept staring Alexandra down.

"Sorry... for not warning you... sooner," James huffed. Good grief, now his clothes were so heavy. Water was dripping into his eyes.

Instead of answering him, Shane hollered, "Really?"

Alexandra held up something. "Got your phone," she said matter-of-factly.

That would be considerate, if she hadn't pushed Shane in. However, it was starting to make sense to James now.

Alexandra didn't know that Shane's memory had been erased. So in her eyes, she had every right to be angry. She was just... wrong.

James stood up straight, feeling the makeshift armor under his clothes turning into duct-tape-covered-paper-mush. Lovely.

Shane swept the hair out of his eyes, his face displaying a thousand emotions at once. The button-up shirt and dress pants, already well-fitted, were plastered to his frame now.

"I take it you're Alexandra," he started quietly.

Alexandra raised her eyebrows, staring at him incredulously, as a shocked laugh escaped her mouth.

"That's what you're calling me now?" she asked. "Alright, that is low."

"I'm not--" Shane shook his head helplessly. "Okay." He paused. "Sasha...?"

Alexandra's eyebrows were almost in her hairline.

"What is your problem?" she asked bluntly.

"Alex? Is it Alex?" Shane asked, more desperately. When she didn't look any angrier, he sighed weakly. "My problem is I don't remember you, and I learned about you on Thursday. Can you give me back my phone now?"

James was tempted to tell Shane to back out of this train wreck now, but he found himself moving slowly, losing his hands in his dripping oversized hoodie sleeves. God, his contacts had salt water in them now. Ow.

He reached into his eyes, trying to peel them out. His eyes stung so bad.

Alex turned to stare at Ingrid, looking shell-shocked.

"What do I do?" he heard her whisper-hiss. "He's got to be lying. That's bullshit."

"He's already dug his own grave," James could hear Ingrid say beside her. "That's his choice. I say leave and let him lie in it."

With a reluctant sigh, Alex turned back towards Shane, holding his phone at arms-length. Shane slowly walked to get it, scanning Alex's face with a furrowed brow as he did. If he was looking for something familiar, he didn't seem to find it. There was no recognition in his face as he carefully took the phone, like he was wary that she'd throw it, before turning and walking back to James.

But James's attention was stolen away from the tense exchange when he caught sight of a man slowly walking up behind the two women.

The first thing he saw were the grey hairs. The dark, slicked back hair. The mustache. The tanned skin. The smirk.

James thought he'd known the freeze response when he saw Ingrid.

But when he realized he was actually staring at Constantine, something inside of him crumbled.

He hated that the reason he recognized him was because the man actually resembled the puppet the DMV had made of him. This should not have been that absurd, and yet, this was his life, and he was staring at the man who was looking to... to...

The moment Shane came within arm's reach, James grabbed Shane's hand. His brain did not leave him any room for explanation. Only panic.

Maybe he should've been ashamed of the fear response, but he didn't feel remotely prepared to face Constantine anymore. Not with everyone around. He didn't have it within himself to fake a conversation. He didn't want it to escalate. He didn't want everyone to see. He didn't want to deal with any of this.

He started running. He let go of Shane's hand only so he didn't drag him along with force, but by god he hoped Shane was following him.

Barrelling for their cabin door, James threw it open, storming into the living room.

This was... this was the beginning of a panic attack. He was sure of it.

Shit, shit, shit.

He fell to his knees between the couches, now hoping Shane hadn't followed him at all.

Curled over, he held his chest, pained as his heart started racing far, far too fast.

He heard the squelch of wet shoes behind him. Then the sound of those shoes being thrown off. Then the door closing.

"James," Shane said intently, half-question, half a fearful statement.

James was holding his knees at his chest. He was desperately trying to take deep breaths.

"Constantine," James shuddered out.

"Was that him?" Shane said, but it sounded like he already knew the answer.

James nodded.

Okay. He needed to pull himself together. Calm down. Then maybe he could-- he could find-- no. No, he didn't know.

James closed his eyes, taking another deep breath - but this one more successful than the last.

There were sounds of Shane walking around. A cupboard opening. Then footsteps drawing near.

"I got us towels," Shane said quietly, through chattering teeth.

James swallowed, almost having forgotten how cold he was. But he was shivering. More than he should've been, really. With trembling hands, James reached over to take the towel from Shane, but realized it was too small to really help James as long as he stayed in these heavy, soaked layers.

He shakily set it to the side, then reached over his head, pulling the hood over his head and then pulling it off of him, tossing the bundle of seawater onto the floor.

And yeah, the rest of him looked ridiculous. It didn't make sense to feel embarassed anymore. Shane had seen everything.

James ripped the duct-tape-mush off his forearm. His hands were tremoring too much to do it quickly. It took a few tugs.

"Armor?" Shane asked quietly.

"Something like that," James said through wavering vocal chords. He couldn't control the shaking.

He ripped off another piece, throwing it to the side.

"It was smart," Shane said softly. "Paper armor can be stronger than metal in some cases. It's been used effectively by a lot of historical empires."

James really didn't have the capacity to respond to the compliment. At least, he thought it was a compliment.

"Yeah, well it's no good when it's soaked," James shuddered, still shaking as he tried to peel it all off his other arm.

"It's not part of the design," Shane agreed quietly, throwing a towel around his own shoulders.

There was silence for a moment as James distracted himself with, essentially, doffing his "paper armor." When his upper body was finally clear, he took the towel beside him, wrapping it tightly around his shoulders.

Even with his "armor"... would he have run away?

He curled up tighter in the towel, still shivering.

He didn't know what to say. So much for being brave. James hated that all of this was happening, but he hated even more that it was all being caught on camera.

And that it was all happening at once.

Taking in more deep breaths, James felt he was managing to stave off the panic attack from escalating. But it was draining as hell.

"I should... tell you," he managed to chatter out. "That I told Cyrin. About Constantine. Since they might be a target as well."

"That's good," Shane said quietly. "Did they have anything to say?"

"A lot," James said faintly. "Actually."

Shane nodded. "If it would help or be grounding to share," he said softly, "you can. But if you don't want to think about that anymore, you don't have to."

"He's outside," James said quietly through his teeth. "How can I not?"

Shane was silent at that.

"I'm going to have to kill him," James admitted, in a hushed whisper. "Cyrin thinks there could be another way, but what other way exists that will free Aaron? As long as he lives, he's got who knows how many people under his control. Who knows how long they've been begging to be free? I don't know what the DMV wants from me, but maybe this is their cruel way of forcing me into a corner. Commit another crime, go back to prison and rot. Cyrin thinks there's ways to get away with murder. On an island like this? What does he expect me to do? Burn the body? Would the DMV look away? They have cameras everywhere. I don't -- I don't know what they expect me to do. I can't--"

But James's own words were shortening with his breaths.

He was hyperventilating. Damnit. He'd done this to himself, working himself up.

"James," Shane said with quiet urgency. "I know you don't want to, but you need to hold that thought. All of them. What can I do for you?"

James was still shivering.

"I..." he tried talking, but it pained him. He couldn't breathe.

"I need to get... warm," he huffed out, curling over when it felt like his chest was caving in on itself.

"I'll get blankets," Shane said. "And Shrimp."

James couldn't manage a response. His chest hurt so much. Why were bodies so stupid like this? He could heal from bullet wounds in seconds and yet he couldn't handle a panic attack. Stupid psychological response. Stupid involuntary stress reaction. If only he could channel all of the power his body had to heal into his brain. Then maybe he could forget all of this, and it wouldn't affect him at all.

"I'll be back," Shane said softly, wrapping his towel tighter around himself as he rushed off.

James had curled into a ball. He felt pitiful, rocking back and forth like some... some...

Oh, who was he kidding? He was a veteran with PTSD. He just hated the truth of it.

Groaning, he vaguely registered the sound of stairs creaking. Then a cat's meow.

"Here's the little guy," Shane said gently.

James looked up just enough to see Shane extending the cat towards him. Shakily reaching out, he brought Shrimp in for a hug. The cat purred, happily accepting the hug.

"He missed you," Shane said, unfolding a blanket.

James nodded, still hyperventilating as Shrimp licked his chin. It was warm, but coarse like sandpaper. Shane set a warm blanket over James's shoulders, then draped another over their heads between furniture, creating a sort of blanket fort. He also snatched some cushions off a couch, placing them in their fort, before pulling a blanket around himself with a shiver.

Shrimp was still licking James's beard. James was still holding him close.

It took a while for the warmth to seep in and for James to stop shaking. It took just as long for him to start breathing normally again, but once he had, the exhaustion of the past day started seeping in.

He was so tired.

Sighing, he slumped around the cat, holding Shrimp a little more loosely.

Then there was a knock at the door.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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soundofmind says...

James tensed immediately, and his eyes shot open.

"I'll check," Shane said, getting up.

He went over to the door, putting a hand on the surface and closing his eyes briefly before reopening them and making his way back to the fort, sitting down again.

"It's Ingrid," he said gently.

James petted Shrimp's head as a soothing motion.

Of course it was Ingrid. She... she probably knew exactly what was happening. It wouldn't be the first time she'd seen him like this.

The knock at the door repeated, this time a little louder.

"James?" she called through the door. "Are you alright?"

Well she knew the answer to that question.

Silence again. Then she said more.

"I know you don't want to see me right now," she said. "But... I can help, if you'll let me."

James shook his head fervently.

Nope. Nope. Nope.

"We don't have to let her in," Shane agreed. "You're right to set boundaries."

He knew he was. She was just determined to keep pushing them. Constantly.

She knocked again, but it sounded less insistent this time. Hopefully that meant she was turning away.

James waited, and when there were no more knocks heard, he wanted to assume she left. She at least had the self-respect to do that.

Glancing over at Shane, he briefly looked him over. He had his blanket pulled tightly around himself, and he was staring blankly at the opposite wall.

"You got your phone?" he asked.

Shane nodded distantly.

"It was unlocked when I got it back," he said.


"You should uh," James said faintly. "Change your passcode."

"I guess so," Shane said quietly.

"She didn't have time to... do anything," James said. "Did she?"

Shane wordlessly took his phone out of his pocket, holding it in his hand without turning it on.

"She took a selfie," he said. "That's all."

James sighed. "That's... really petty."

Shane set his phone aside, rubbing his face.

"I didn't... think I would get engaged to someone petty," he said weakly.

"Maybe she wasn't always that way," James said. "Or you didn't always know. Some people are only petty once things don't go their way."

"Still," Shane said quietly. "I didn't get... any sense of whatever I could have seen in her once. Or what she could've seen in me."

"I'm sorry," James said softly.

And for a moment, the two of them sat in silence. Shrimp was the one to break it with his purring, which got louder when James started massaging the cat's neck.

"Ingrid," Shane said finally after a while. "Is she your ex, too?"

James nodded slightly. "We dated a little over two years. But... we'd known each other since we were teens."

Shane swallowed, and it was his turn to say, "I'm sorry."

James looked down at Shrimp, who was content, but may be more appreciated by Shane at the moment, now that James's heart-rate had returned to normal.

James offered Shrimp back to Shane. With a murmured word of thanks, Shane held the cat close, and Shrimp purred again.

"There's... one little good thing that's happened lately," Shane said quietly after a moment. "Alan got Clanny's powers in the shuffle, so he and Shrimp could talk to each other during the maze. When he delivered Shrimp, he was able to translate me telling Shrimp that I loved him for him to understand. I wish I could describe his purring when he heard it. It was the happiest sound I've ever heard."

Okay. That was actually really sweet. James just wished he could fully appreciate it in this moment.

"I'm sure Shrimp will remember that moment forever," James said fondly.

"He better," Shane said softly, just barely smiling at Shrimp as he scratched under the cat's chin. "He's the best cat in the world. He knows that now too."

James nodded.

He was trying to come up with something else to talk about - something that would keep him from slipping back into a panic. Shrimp was a fine subject, but also related to Alan. James didn't know if Alan's absence was still a sensitive subject, but... cameras weren't watching.

A small lull passed before James decided to just ask.

"You mentioned that Alan is with staff," James said. "I don't know if the lack of details was because we were on camera or if it was for other reasons - so if you still would rather not say more, that's fine - but now that no one's listening... I figured I'd ask again."

Shane's wince looked like he'd just put pressure on a bruise.

"It was somewhat for both reasons," he said, his gaze on Shrimp while he pet him absently. "What happened is nothing the cameras don't know about, but I didn't want to explain it there or have my reaction filmed. So..."

Shane sighed.

"I hate to put it this way, but Alan seemed to have... a moment of insanity this morning," he said. "It was extremely strange. He jumped off a balcony, climbed up the side of his cabin to his room, and then jumped off that balcony too."

James frowned.

So the consequences had carried over, just like Hild suspected. But what James didn't want to do was expose Lyall like that to Shane. Lyall should be the one to admit what he'd done... but it didn't sound like Shane knew, and Shane had talked to Lyall about their experience in the maze. Why hadn't Lyall shared his?

Damnit, Lyall. They deserved to know. Even Cyrin didn't seem to know, or at least, didn't let on that they did.

Who was holding Lyall accountable? It couldn't just be Hild. What about his friends?

James pressed his lips together in a line.

He... he had to say something. Shane deserved to know what Alan was going through. Hell. Alan deserved to know what he was going through. Even he didn't seem to know. How could he?

Pained, he said: "It had to do with his magic."

Shane blinked slowly, drawing his brows together.

"Explain?" he asked, even though his expression looked like he was starting to put things together.

"I heard from Hild, who spoke with Lyall, that Lyall had Alan's magic during the maze. He used it on Stravos, who attacked him after the maze was over. Stravos had Robin's magic - the ability to shift into a wolf," James said. "There are consequences to using Alan's magic that I don't think Lyall was aware of, and maybe didn't have to deal with because the magic wasn't fully his. But now that it's returned to Alan, I think he's having to bear the consequences of Lyall's actions."

And yes, James left out the fact that Lyall also used the magic on Tula and Alex. That he'd already figured out. It was implied. But James hoped Shane wouldn't put that together, if only for Lyall's sake.

A look of realization fell over Shane's face.

"Jumping off of balconies isn't at all like Alan," he said slowly. "But I wouldn't put it past Stravos."

"Stravos has proven in many circumstances to not be of the right mind," James agreed. "If Alan has any percentage of Stravos's influence in his head right now, it probably explains a lot of his behavior."

Shane groaned softly, rubbing his head at the temples.

"It does," he said quietly. "But... then Lyall must have known. And he let nothing on to me earlier."

James swallowed.

"I... imagine he feels guilty and ashamed about it," James tried to empathize. "Though that doesn't justify it."

Shane was quiet for a few moments.

"That's how he won, wasn't it," he muttered.

James sighed. Shane caught on anyway.

"Yes," James admitted quietly.

"Then he didn't admit it to Cyrin," Shane said. "Cyrin didn't even know Lyall won."

So it was worse than James thought. Lyall was already drawing back in secrecy - which made James suspect that maybe the DMV was already curling its predatory claws around Lyall's neck. Did Lyall even feel it?

"This... might be something to confront him with later," James said. "I feel like I'm caught in the middle of something that should've been communicated to you directly."

"...Maybe," Shane said, not seeming to like the word 'confront'.

"Or... just talk to him about it," James softened. "I think it'd be better than avoiding it in the long run. For everyone's sakes. I just... I don't know if it's my place to."

Shane nodded hesitantly.

"Right. Maybe when Alan's back and..." He winced. "Fixed is not the right word. Recovered."

"When Alan returns would be a good time. But I'm sure the effects of his magic aren't permanent. The DMV must have ways to reverse it, or speed up his recovery," James said. "If they can switch magics, they can do that."

That was, of course, if the DMV wanted to.

"I hope," Shane said quietly. "It's already got him hurt. He got injured on those jumps."

Jumps? Right. He'd jumped off of two balconies. James almost missed that, apparently. It made sense now that Alan was with staff, especially knowing he needed professional medical attention for both his mind and body.

He wanted to say Alan was in good hands - but James didn't know that. Legally, though, the DMV was obligated to help.

"Do you know what staff members are caring for him?" James asked. "That is, if you wanted to check in on him at some point."

"Caspar said he was getting help, and that we should wait," Shane said. "I don't know who he went to, but... I assume it's best to wait for Alan to return."


James let out a long sigh. He didn't want to argue that point. The staff were more capable at the moment to care for Alan - and if James was being honest, he and Shane already had enough trouble on their hands to deal with.

James just hoped that Alan was getting care and came back to them okay.

Shane wrapped his arms around Shrimp tighter.

"I know what you're thinking," he said quietly. "Or probably, what you already know. Yeah, Alan was here last night. But not very much happened. We just talked, really, and he fell asleep here. His breakdown happened once he woke up, and it was my balcony he jumped off of first." Shane shrugged, pausing for a moment. "Which, you probably already put together. I just wanted to let you know nothing untoward happened."

James looked to Shane with a faint smile. He felt bad that Shane was so nervous about this.

"It's fine, Shane," James said. "I'm not judging you or anything. I just hope you know you don't have to be secretive about it. You're not in trouble. Thanks for telling me, though. I did put two and two together but I much prefer to hear it from you than to just be left to make assumptions."

Shane returned the faint, thin-lipped smile, looking a little relieved. "Good. Thank you."

James nodded. Well, no use drawing it out if Shane still felt weird talking about it. Maybe later. But not right now.

He glanced out of the blanket fort around them, eyeing the front door.

With a whole day ahead of him... he knew he'd have to face the music eventually. It wasn't like he could hide away forever, even if he wanted to.

He glanced at Shane again.

"I... I'm going to need to talk to Ingrid," he said. "I don't want to, but it's going to be necessary if she's going to be here all week. I'd rather get it overwith than postpone it and cause more problems."

Shane nodded.

"And I'll... probably have to talk to Alex," he said. "I can't imagine what she must be thinking right now."

A beat.

"But I need to talk to Flint again first," he added quietly. "Probably even today."

James raised a brow at that.

"About her again?" he asked.

Shane sighed.

"This is past personal injury, or betrayal," he said. "It's about to make me look terrible to the world. And if I'm going to have anyone's respect after this, I need him to issue an explanation for what everyone's been seeing with me and Alex. Ideally, before this episode even drops."

James nodded. That was a completely reasonable demand to make.

"Hopefully he'll see reason," James said. "If, at the very least, for the sake of your future leadership and Aphirah."

Shane scowled faintly, as if he wasn't certain of that much. And James understood. Even from his brief conversation with Flint, he understood that Flint was consistently stiff-arming Shane in every way possible. Someone who gaslit and manipulated that much was difficult to reason with. It sounded like Shane might have to resort to threats, honestly -- which hurt James's heart to consider. Flint was the only family Shane really had left. Or, at least, the only parental figure left in his life.

"It's going to take some convincing," Shane said quietly. "I've got an idea, though."

"What do you have in mind?" James asked.

Shane lifted a corner of his towel to his hair, attempting to dry it. His hair was nearly black with water.

"Threatening a filibuster," he said, covering his head with the towel. "Which, in an arsenal of political strategies, is the nuclear bomb."

"You might have to tease that out for me," James said. He didn't know what was going on in the background of Aphiran politics.

Shane lowered the towel.

"It's drastic," he said. "Everyone hates a filibuster. Currently, there's been some heated debate over political issues relating to magic use in Aphirah, and there are plenty of bills on the table. Not just the contract with the DMV, which will determine whether we cooperate with them in the future or not, but new proposals that would codify anti-magic regulations into law. Many of which are surprisingly punitive and move in the opposite direction of what Aphirah has historically stood for."

Shane was silent for a moment.

"Flint is a magic user himself, but he's leaning in support of those measures. So is much of my House," he said. "When they vote on it this fall, it's likely to pass-- but not if it's filibustered. It's a death blow to a bill." Shane looked down. "I could do it. The problem with that is I'd make a lot of enemies, and... Flint would be very unhappy with it. Threatening it is putting a gun to our relationship, familial and political. And acting on it is pulling the trigger."

James nodded slowly.

So, Shane was about to do it, then. Hold up a gun and threaten everything.

"How long have you thought about this?" James asked softly.

Shane covered his eyes with his hand, rubbing his face.

"Not long," he said quietly. "And I won't have much longer, either."

James understood that this wasn't something Shane could wait on, but he felt for him. This was a very difficult decision to make, and the consequences of this would be playing out not just for weeks but even years. This could potentially burn the bridge between Shane and Flint, and rebuilding something like that could take a very, very long time.

At the same time, though... maybe this was the kind of push Shane needed. James hated that it had to come this way, but it sounded like Shane and Flint's relationship had been unhealthy, for a long time. Maybe there were better ways to go about this, but they'd already tried appealing to Flint, and Flint hadn't even tried to show an ounce of genuine reciprocation.

It sounded like this was something that was bound to come eventually. If not now, then it would've come up later.

"I'm sorry," James said. "I know this is a very painful decision for you to make, but I think it's the right one. You have my support in this, Shane."

Shane nodded, just barely, slowly pulling his hand away from his face.

"I'll call," he said quietly.

"Do you want me with you when you do it?" James offered, just as quiet. "Just as a quiet support? I won't say anything unless you want me to."

Shane shivered, pulling the blanket tighter around himself.

"I didn't think you were eager to hear from him again," he said.

James offered a small smile.

"Maybe not to hear from him again, but I wouldn't mind another opportunity to give him a piece of my mind," James said a little lightly.

Shane's lips pressed together in a thin smile.

"That I believe," he said, and then softer, "Okay."

"Okay to me being in the call?" James asked to clarify. "Or to me giving him a piece of my mind?"

"Both," Shane said, taking out his phone. "You may pick your moment."

Oh, so they were doing this right now. James nodded, preparing his internal arguments so they would come out right.

Shane quietly went into his contacts, taking a look at the time before calling Flint. He immediately put it on speaker, holding the phone out between them.

They waited a while-- a while longer than expected-- before finally, James heard a shuffle on the other end of the phone.

"This better be good," Flint grumbled.

Wow. Off to a great start. James bit his tongue.

"It is," Shane said. "Happy morning to you."

Flint sighed. "What is this now?"

"There's an episode that'll air in a few hours," Shane said. "I need you to have some sort of statement ready by then."

"For Saints' sake, Shane--"

"They put Alexandra on the island," Shane interrupted. "Which has already blown up in my face, because the world thinks I'm putting on some cruel act of not knowing who she is."

There was a brief silence on the other end of the phone.

"Did she tell you she was going to be here?" Shane asked.

"No," Flint said firmly.

"I can see why," Shane said. "As indifferent as you're acting, you probably would've stopped her from shoving me in the ocean."

Another silence. Silences from Flint had a way of seeming like you were only speaking into the void.

"Not ideal," Shane said. "So, that's why you're going to admit to tampering with all my memories of her."

"I'm not lying in any official House statement," Flint said. "Or taking orders, for that matter."

"I'm asking for the truth," Shane said irritatedly. "And if you want to see anything being done in our House this next year, you'll be sharing all of it."

"I don't take threats either," Flint said flatly. "I'm sorry for your lapse in memory, but this is too far. You're going to have to live with the consequences. Hold your head up. Make whatever apologies you have to. Take it as a lesson in scandals and damage control. It's politics. Get used to it."

Okay. Yeah. James had been trying to hold his tongue but this was just straight up disrepectful and immensely unkind. Flint thought he could walk all over Shane with no consequences. Well, today he'd learn.

"I'm sorry for your lapse in judgement," James said, repeating Flint's tone as he reshaped Flint's own words. "But we don't take deflections as an alternative to accountability. You're facing the consequences of your actions, and you're going to have to take a page out of your own book and hold your own head up, be a grown man, and make the apologies you have to. Take a lesson in relational wholeness, selflessness, and loving those around you with truth. It's maturity. Get used to it."

As James spoke, he heard angry muttering in Aphiran over the phone.

Oh, that's good, Shane mouthed at him.

"Someone needs to get you acquainted with respect," Flint said.

"If you want respect you need to give it," James responded quickly.

Flint sighed. "I haven't spent my entire adult life as a politician to be spoken to this way, ordered around, or threatened. I apologize for the vulnerability you must be feeling in order to lash out desperately in attempts at intimidation, but unfortunately, I've not been cowed before and I won't be now."

"Since when was trying to have an honest conversation intimidating? Sounds like you're the one feeling vulnerable, Flint," James said. "Shane is an adult. He deserves the truth. Treat him like one."

"He's stopped acting the part," Flint said dryly.

Shane drew in a sharp breath, composing his features into neutrality.

"So have you," James said curtly in response.

"I'll let you in on something," Flint said. "My job isn't to make you happy. It's not to make Shane happy. It's not to make anyone happy. My job is to make the difficult decisions that won't please everyone. And currently, my job extends to informing you that I am not going to throw myself under the bus just to make you happier. I almost wish I would, because I'm making myself unhappy by having my job become more and more about managing you, Shane."

"You could've thought about that before getting my memories erased and leaving me to wade in a PR crisis I didn't know existed," Shane said. "I'll give you a little time to think about it now, though. Just in case you were hoping to not have your first year of being in charge stuck in legislative gridlock."

"If it will be, you'll have no connection to it," Flint said boredly. "You'll vote a handful of times this year, maybe, and your only job will be to get us out of gridlock."

"But I'll still be at every debate that's brought to the floor," Shane said. "I'll be allowed to participate. And it would look pretty bad for you if every single piece of legislation you co-sponsored or supported was brought down because someone decided to speak until the entire time scheduled for the bill had passed."

There was a beat of silence.

"You wouldn't manage a filibuster," Flint said in a low tone. "You haven't got what it takes."

"Let's see about that," Shane said. "I've got the schedule for the House legislative season in a folder here, given to me by you. I used to write long, polished papers in no time at all before you took me out of my PhD program. My typing speed is impressively fast. And I've got over two months of vacation where I don't have to do anything at all. I could spend most of that time writing, I think. And before you say I might come prepared, but fall short on the House floor, I have gone upwards of four days without sleeping before and could do it again for the right reason. Do the math."

Ah. So there it was. He just pulled out the gun.

Shane's expression was pained, but resolved. Shrimp was worriedly nuzzling at his hand, seeming to notice something was wrong. James silently nodded to him in approval and encouragement.

"And what would you do that for?" Flint asked finally. "The absolution of your guilt? I'm afraid the damage has already been done."

"The world has got to see us both honestly," Shane said. "Which means they need to know I'm not playing dumb and thinking I can get away with pretending the ex everyone knows about doesn't exist, and that they should be told why things aren't as they seem, as well as who did it. As much as it looks like this is my scandal, it's yours. You're the one who messed with my memory for your own personal benefit."

"I'm not going to tell the world I did something I didn't," Flint said stiffly. "I won't lose my reputation."

"You'll look bad either way," Shane said. "How many bills have managed to pass since you took over? Two. And one of those was just a motion to put Mom's face on a new fifty-cent coin. Now imagine that for a full year. You'd set the record for the lowest turnout a House has ever seen."

There was another oppressive silence.

"This isn't a day where you win, Flint," Shane said. "But you lose even worse if I do, too."

More silence. Shane seemed to be holding his breath. Finally, Flint spoke again.

"I'll raise concerns that your memory must have been altered, due to your behavior matching perfectly in line with how you would act if Alexandra was a stranger, and too realistic to be faked to that degree," Flint said. "It will be taken seriously, and there will be an investigation, which will soon find that your statements are true and that you are not to blame for your actions."

"It would be helpful," James said. "If you also addressed the inconsistencies with your own behavior in regards to Alexandra. Just last week, you denied her existence. Now she's at our doorstep."

"I told you I cared enough for Shane to protect him," Flint said. "If he doesn't know who she is, that is for the best. She's a threat to his well-being, and if you knew where he'd been two months ago, you would never let her back into his life again."

James was rolling his eyes already.

"So you acknowledge that his memories were erased because of his mental state and your inability to be patient with him in the process of grief and a traumatic break-up?" James asked.

"I acknowledge that if they have been, it's a good thing," Flint said. "Patience is a luxury I can't give him. Nor did I want to wait and see where the path of letting him attempt to process ended."

The look James gave the phone in Shane's hands was of utter disapproval. This was probably the closest thing to a confession they'd ever get.

"Thanks for confessing," James said. "Took you long enough. Now we're just waiting on an apology."

"I haven't given you the first, and I won't give you the latter," Flint said. "But I'll leave you with a warning. You may not like who this investigation finds."

James looked at Shane through the side of his eyes. The person would be a scapegoat, no doubt. James would pity them.

"That's not justice," Shane said quietly. "If this is such a great thing, why don't you take ownership? I know you won't be applauding the valor of whoever you frame for it."

"I can be grateful for them while treating them as the law should," Flint said. "One day, you'll be grateful too. It's easy to curse your fate when you don't know you could have it much worse."

James almost wanted to laugh. Yeah. Sure. Easy to say when you never put your reputation on the line.

"Spoken like a true dirty politician," James said.

"My hands are clean," Flint said curtly.

"Only because you've washed them with a cover-up," James answered.

Flint sighed. "There are necessary evils, and there are those willing to do them."

"You want me to quote you on that?" James asked.

"I'll quote you," Flint said. "By asking what you asked me the last time you gave me a migraine. You care about Shane, don't you?"

James glared at the phone. He already knew where this was going.

"Just get to your point, then," James said.

He'd already done enough talking in circles.

"You didn't know him a few months ago," Flint said. "But if you do care, I presume you're much happier he lived to have met you. Have a good rest of your evening."

And with that, the phone call ended.

"Asshole," James hissed.

There were alternatives to suicidal ideation that didn't involve erasing someone's memories. Fuck him. Fuck that. And to leave Shane with that? No further explanation and just hanging up? Fuck him.

Shane slowly lowered the phone, a blank expression spreading over his face. He was staring ahead at nothing as he set it on the ground, now holding Shrimp with both arms as he clutched the cat close to his chest.

James turned to his friend, his heart hurting for him as he knew that that last comment must've been heartwrenching to hear. His brows pinched with deep concern, and he reached over, gently setting his hand on Shane's shoulder.

Shane pressed his cheek into Shrimp's soft neck fur.

"I don't even know whether he's right or not," he said quietly.

"Whether he is or isn't," James said softly. "I don't think it changes much. We still take this a day at a time. You'll get answers, but it's okay if they don't all come right away. It's going to take time."

Shane closed his eyes.

"I don't..." he said weakly, but whatever he meant died out as he trailed off.

James pressed his lips into a frown.

There were no good words to say in response to something like that. James lowered his head.

"Can I give you a hug?" he asked in a whisper.

Shane nodded mutely. That was all the permission James needed before he firmly pulled Shane into an embrace, hugging him close. Shane let his head fall against his shoulder, taking a shuddering deep breath as he let himself be held. Shrimp meowed softly, worming up through Shane's arms to perch his head on James's elbow.

Content to stay like this, James wasn't in a hurry to move.

There was a lot that just happened. Shane effectively sabotaged his relationship with Flint, and there was no knowing how and if he'd ever come back. That, and the few things Flint did share about Shane's former state would no doubt have shaken himself if he were in Shane's shoes.

His heart broke for Shane. He wished none of this was happening, but he knew it produced little to wish for things to be undone. Flint had proven that doing so only made things more complicated and painful. And it never actually worked.

Life had to be lived, no matter how much pain was involved in the process.

James gently rubbed Shane's back with a constant up and down motion of his thumb.

"I'm proud of you," he whispered. "I know that was really, really hard."

"Thank you," Shane whispered, taking a deep breath that passed through him with a shudder. "I'm glad you were there. Thank you."

"Thank you for letting me be a part of it," James said softly.

Shane nodded weakly, closing his eyes tightly. He took some more deep breaths, which was good, because he looked a little faint. Pale, even. James patted his back lightly.

Another long silence passed before James spoke again.

"I don't think you should feel obligated to do anything else today," James said softly. "This was a big decision, and you have a lot to process. You should take the space you need to do so. Or even just to rest."

Shane nodded faintly. "Yeah," he said quietly. "You should too."

James huffed through his nose.

"I kind of want to get talking to my ex out of the way first," James said faintly. "Maybe I was inspired by your balls of steel."

Shane didn't say anything immediately, but very slowly, he cracked a thin smile. Then he let out a faint laugh, the corners of his lips ticking up the tiniest bit further.

"If you do, I can have dinner ready when you get back," he said. "A dinner fit for champions."

James snorted.

Yeah. He didn't really feel like a champion, but. He appreciated the sentiment.

Finally pulling away, James let out a long sigh, looking up at the blanket over their heads.

"You know," he said. "I'm not opposed to keeping the blanket fort up. This is kind of nice."

Shane huffed another faint laugh.

"We can keep it up," he said. "For as long as Shrimp leaves it standing."

"We'll just have to make it more fortified," James said. "Tie the blankets down, get more chairs involved."

"Awfully bold of you to discuss our battle plan when the beast himself is right here," Shane said, bopping the cat lightly on the head.

James looked down at Shrimp, leaning in to the cat's face to meet his eyes with intensity.

"You don't scare me," he said to Shrimp.

Shrimp patted his nose with his paw. An old, brotherly instinct kicked in, and James feigned being wounded, holding his hand to his face as he pretended to dramatically fall over and topple onto the floor with a groan.

"Noooo," he said. "He got me."

Shane gasped, holding the cat up and in front of him like that scene from the Lioness Queen.

"We underestimated his might," he said.

"I accept defeat," James said, flopping his hand from his nose to the floor. "No blanket fort. Just blanket pile, I guess."

"This is his empire now," Shane said, setting the cat down. "All hail his majesty."

Shrimp, in all of his new-found kingly power, nibbled on a pillow.

James couldn't help but crack a grin. He reached over and petted Shrimp's head.

"I understand him," James said quietly as he watched Shrimp nom on the seams.

"There's other pillows to eat," Shane said.

James hummed. Yes. He would follow their feline leader's example. Reaching over his head, he pulled a pillow off the couch and bit the corner.

After two or three perfomative, mimicking chews, he pulled it away and smacked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, squinting.

"Hmm," he said, plopping the pillow over his chest. "Not all I thought it'd be."

Shane was biting back a laugh, raising his eyes skyward-- or just to the blanket over their heads.

"Here's another menu option," he said, smoothing out a blanket and gently picking up Shrimp, laying him down there. The cat complied to being rolled up into a burrito.

God, James wished that were him.

James laid on the floor, watching as Shrimp was turned into a roll, and eventually embraced by Shane. He didn't want to move from here - on the floor, surrounded by blankets and pillows. Delaying the inevitable trouble awaiting him outside by hiding in the comforts of his living room, in the illusion of safety, with probably the first real friend he'd had in a long time aside from his family.

It was nice, but he knew it wasn't going to last. Not the peace of it.

Letting out a small sigh, he looked up at the ceiling. He didn't want to think about the fall out to come following that phone call; for Shane and for him. He wasn't so stupid as to not hear the thinly veiled threats in Flint's words.

"Get in line," he wanted to say to Flint.

It wasn't like Flint was the only one out to get him. So was much of Nye. So were the Haddons. So was Eliza. So was Oliver, and Constantine, and too many others.

God, it was never going to end, was it?

And he did it to himself, too.

"I'm drafting what to say to her in my head," he murmured aloud.

And he meant Ingrid, of course. He had to mentally prepare himself for that conversation and all of her mind games.

Shane nodded, looking up from Shrimp.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" he asked softly.

James let out a weak laugh.

"I don't think so," James said. "Really I just have to tell her to stay away. But it's not going to be that simple because I'm sure she has things she wants to say, too. Whether she's earned it or not I do want to give her a chance to speak. Not that it's going to change my mind."

Shane nodded quickly in agreement.

"Set some boundaries," he agreed.

"I intend to," James said, letting a small pause pass before adding. "It's... been three years since I've last seen her. I don't actually know why she's here."

Frankly, he hadn't thought she'd wanted to see him again, based on how things ended.

Alexandra, he assumed, had come to see Shane just to spite him, likely because she didn't know why he claimed not to know of her existence (which wasn't his fault). She'd made that clear when she pushed him into the water, like a child having a temper tantrum. But Ingrid...

James sighed, rubbing his face again.

What did she want? That was the thing he honestly didn't want to find out. He'd thought that chapter had closed in his life, and now she'd come back into his life again just to -- what -- give him a heart attack? Was she just taking the free vacation the DMV offered at his expense? He supposed he wouldn't put the latter past her, but she'd gone out of her way to follow him to his cabin. Clearly she wanted more than just an all-expenses-paid vacation. If she only wanted that, she wouldn't even bother with him. Instead, she'd gone straight up to him and engaged in the weirdest, stiffest obligatory interaction ever. At least, until he'd jumped into the water.

Not to escape the conversation, mind you, but to go after Shane.


James smacked his face with his hands a bit.

Pull yourself together. Ingrid and whatever "threat" she posed paled in comparison to Constantine, who was the one James actually needed to look out for. The only thing he really needed to be wary of with her was her touching him.

He didn't want her to... use her magic to change his feelings. About any of this. He hated that he couldn't trust her not to.

Shane gently unrolled the Shrimp burrito, watching James with a soft, concerned look.

"Do the two of you have... loose ends?" he asked gently. "Unfinished business?"

"I didn't think we did," James said, throwing his hands up in the air with an amount of frustration he hadn't realized was in there. "The last time she saw me she literally said she never wanted to see me again! I didn't think she could have made it any clearer. And now she's here, and clearly wants to see me."

Shane frowned slightly.

"People can and do change their minds," he said. "But I wouldn't be surprised if she had more intention than just a simple meet-up."

Yeah. That's what James was worried about.

"I don't know what she wants from me," James said with a sigh.

That was the thing. Ingrid was always saying things she didn't mean and changing her mind. It was exhausting having to read between the lines and predict what she actually meant and wanted.

"Why?" James asked with his hands extended to the ceiling, as if someone above would answer.

Shane could only offer him something that looked like a sad smile.

But he knew he couldn't throw himself a pity party about it all day. He'd have to go be brave and mature even if Ingrid wasn't going to be.

James sighed, rubbing his face again as he sat up, shaking his head.

"I should go... change, I guess," James muttered. "I don't know why this keeps happening to me. Losing clothes. Getting them dirty, soaked, sandy... various other... liquids."

Blood, namely, but somehow saying 'liquids' sounded worse.

He let out a huff through his nose.

"I really do look like a disaster most of the time," James grumbled, getting to his feet. He looked down at the soaked hoodie on the floor a little aways from them with a small pout.

"I actually like that hoodie," he said, barely comprehensible.

"It's served its purpose well," Shane said. "And will do so again when washed and dried."

"True," James mumbled, picking up the sopping wet lump of clothing. He looked down at Shane, and his eyes rested on Shrimp for a moment.

"Will you be okay while I'm gone?" James asked. "Or do you want me to stay with you a while? Ingrid can wait."

Shane offered him another faint smile.

"I'll be okay," he said. "You can do what you need to do. I'll be here when you get back."

Smiling faintly in return, James nodded.

"Okay," he said. "I'll see you later, then."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Carina says...

Okay. So Alistair had joked that Alan wouldn't know that this visitor event thing was happening. He wasn't actually serious, but turned out, his little remark ended up being true.

Still hovering by the base of the ramp with his mom, Alistair scanned the group for the third time, one hundred percent certain that Alan wasn't here.

Well, this was awkward now.

Vik and Kaya excitedly joined Lyall and Hild, who Alistair noted from afar. They seemed happy with their reunion. Good for them.

"Son?" his mom called, smiling as she tilted her head. "Where's Alan?"

Man, it was still so weird to hear her talking in Common. And it was uncanny how some of what she said didn't really translate well with the magic, but whatever.

Apparently, there were pills you could take that enabled you to understand and speak another language for a limited amount of time. Honestly, it was mind-boggling that this even existed, but Alistair had a feeling that this island had impossible levels of magic he couldn't even comprehend.

And was it only restricted to the island? That was certainly something to ponder about later.

"I don't know," he said back. "I'm sure he'll turn up, though."

Alistair gave the crowd one last glance to be extra sure that he wasn't around. Now that more visitors were exiting the boat, everyone was more dispersed, and he could point out some of the people he recognized on the show.

There was Shane, Heir of Aphirah. Who Alan also managed to woo. Of course. But Alistair would really rather not think through his brother's sex life, never mind the implications that he slept with literal royalty.

Alistair already had an aresenal of roasts for his brother to throw at him, and he was unashamed that most of it involved some aspect of wanting a sugar daddy.

He recognized a fair number of others, as well. There was Connie, Prince of Talia, who was so good looking, he could be AI-generated. Then there was Cyrin, who seemed pretty cool actually, but Alistair imagined their life to be as busy as AI-generated Connie. Alistair also recognized James, who always wore murderous killer eyes while dressed as a seven year old who just discovered fashion.

Who else? Right, yeah, there were the Ashlunds. Though, Alistair felt bad roasting them in his head since he got to know Vik and Kaya. It admittedly did warm his heart a little seeing their happy reunion.

Which, wow! He'd love to be having right now!

Alistair rubbed his face, pushing his damp hair back again. God, it was fucking hot in his hellhole of an island.

Okay. Maybe they should just... put their stuff away. Come back to all of this when it was less noisy, especially since mom was just as clueless as him. So naturally, she depended on him for answers.

A good amount of people were now gathered around the sunglasses dude who called himself the groundskeeper-- Dante, was it?-- so Alistair went towards the bulletin board, nudging his mom to follow.

- Aaron Keller: Ava Smith
- Alan Alvaro: Alistair Alvaro
- Alexander Kingsman:Sienna Kingsman
- Clandestine Summers: Natalia Alvaro
- Clarity Sable: Byron Sable
- Constantine Falco: Romulus Falco
- Cyrin Bridger: Casper Bridger
- Eve Lacroix: Maylin Zhang
- Hendrik Friedrich: Luka Smirnov
- Hild Ashlund: Viktor Ashlund
- James Hawke:: Ingrid Prosch
- Jay Mournsky: Meanie-mo
- Kazimir Petrov: Megan Aldo
- Lyall Ashlund: Kaya Olsen
- Robin Mann: Mickey Reyes
- Shane Hawking: Alexandra Harlow
- Stravos Bezumnik: Dr. Mel Petrov
- Tula Nazar: Nyah Nazar

Huh. Okay. So... his mom was paired with Clandestine?

"Look!" mom said excitedly, brightly smiling as she pointed at her name, then at his. "There we are. What's this list for?"

"Uh..." Alistair stuttered.

He wasn't really sure how to begin explaining to his mom that she was here because the island overlords wanted her to meet a stranger, apparently.

Clandestine... Yeah, he remembered her. He recalled some meme that involved her, Alan, and Hild on a boat. His memory stopped there.

Well, he also remembered she dressed in a lot of pink.

He scanned the group again, and eyes landed on the lady he was sure was her. Well, maybe. It was just a gut feeling.

She was talking to the wolf and the short guy with braids. Even though she was probably of average height, she looked pretty tall next to them. She wore a bright, shining smile, and she twirled briefly in a knee-length yellow sundress.

"I think, uh," Alistair said back to mom, turning away from Clandestine. "I think you're here for her." He loosely gestured towards Clandestine, who was none-the-wiser.

Mom brightened, locking on to her. "Really? Is she Alan's friend?"

"I have no clue," he admitted. "Probably."

"Can you introduce us?" she asked, enthusiastic as she quietly clapped her hands together.

Alistair thought about making a snarky remark that she really could do this herself now, since she obtained the magic tongue of speaking a common language everyone else knew now. Instead, he sighed, nodded.

"Sure," he said, leading the way and beckoning with his head for her to follow.

Halfway into closing the distance between them, they already garnered the group's attention. Maybe it was because they were staring. Or maybe it was because mom was waving at them, mouthing "hi!" with an excited grin.

Yeah. It was probably that.

Alistair heard their conversations come to a stop as they approached. Standing in front of them, he mustered a half-smile, glancing at Clandestine.

"Hey," he said to her with a nod, then gestured to his mom. "My mom is paired with you, for some reason."

Clandestine smiled brightly, though she did look a little confused.

"Oh! Really? Huh," Clandestine said. "I don't know why that is, but it's nice to meet you Mrs. Alvaro!"

So she recognized her. But maybe that wasn't too hard to figure out, considering that it'd be pretty easy to narrow down that they were here for Alan. That, and there was the obvious resemblance.

His mom beamed, swooping in and giving Clandestine a tight hug.

"Oh, heavens! It's so nice to meet you, darling!" she said with a squeeze, her long brown hair spreading over their bodies.

Clandestine let out a gleeful laugh, and returned the hug.

"Awh!" she said. "Nice to meet you too! I know your son, Alan! We're friends!"

Mom pulled away, brightening as kept her hands on her shoulders. "Really? Oh, that's lovely, my dear! I hardly ever get to meet his friends." She briefly pouted, but then brightened up again. "What's your name, love?"

"Well, my full name is Clandestine," Clandestine said. "But you can call me Clanny! That's what everyone calls me."

"Clandesteen is a beautiful name for a beautiful girl!" mom said adoringly, though Alistair had to bit back an amused laugh that she mispronounced the name. She pulled away, beaming. "Clanny is so cute too. You can call me Natalie!"

Clanny laughed again. "Awh, okay! Natalie's a really pretty name too. I've actually always thought if I ever had a daughter I might name her that."

Mom gasped, hand over her mouth. "Really? That would be so sweet, Clanny, darling! I've always wanted a daughter, but... I'm still happy with my sons!"

She beamed again, her hand now patting Alistair's shoulder, which he was tempted to swish away.

"Have you met my other son, Alistair? He came with me, too!" she said proudly.

Alistair flicked his eyes at Clanny, giving her another half-smile, but frankly, felt so awkward, especially since they hardly even acknowledged that Clanny was already with others. He should just dip out, anyways. Figure out where they were staying. He was sure mom would be okay with chilling with Clanny, anyways.

"Hi, Alistair," Clanny said with a smile, reaching out a hand to shake. "Alan speaks really highly of you. It's so cool to get to actually meet you face to face."

Did Alan...? Oh, yeah. He did. That was embarrassing.

Alistair reluctantly took her hand, giving her two gentle shakes.

"Hey, yeah. Nice to meet you," he said.

"Oh! Do you know where Alan is, Clanny?" his mom asked with a smile.

Clanny's smile fell, and she looked more sad and apologetic. "I... I don't, actually," she said, a little quieter. "I think, maybe he... wasn't feeling well?"

"That's fine. I'll go look for him," Alistair said, quick on the opportunity to find a way out of this awkward conversation. He glanced between Clanny and his mom. "You good?"

"Yeah," Clanny said, mustering a smile again.

Alistair nodded, recognizing the hesitant look in his mom's eyes. She didn't want to be left alone, but the confirmation from Clanny at least assured her.

"I'll text you later," he said in Argent to his mom, backing away.

The language shift must have really messed with her brain, because she acted like she didn't even hear him, instead tilting her head in confusion.

Ohhhh-kayyy... must have been a side effect of the magic pill? Or something like that.

"I'll, uh... text you later," he repeated again, this time in Common.

She brightened up, nodding. "Okay. I'll be with Clanny. Don't go too far, son!"

Alistair turned away and dipped out, quickly moving and deciding to just ask around, see who knew what. He was about to ask Shane and James since they were the first people his eyes locked on to, but dear god, there was so much drama in front of them, and Alistair witnessed Shane being pushed off the edge of the dock.

Yeah, okay, so someone else, then.

Naturally, he turned away, back to the people he was familiar with: the Ashlunds.

At least, that was his intention. But he was far closer to Cyrin Bridger. Well, actually, he was passing Cyrin Bridger.

Scratch that. They were walking together. Towards the Ashlunds, at the same time, same pace, close by. Alistair couldn't help but steal a few glances at him, suddenly feeling way more awkward.

He slowed to a stop when he could see Cyrin thinking about slowing to a stop too.

"Hey," he called, standing stiffly in front of them. "You live with Alan. Right?"

Cyrin stopped as well, offering him a smile. "I do," he said, a curious glint in his eyes. "Would you happen to be Alistair, by any chance?"

Oh, god. How much had Alan told them?

"...Yeah. That's me," he said, deciding to just gloss over that for now. "Do you know where he is?"

Cyrin's smile faltered for the briefest of moments, but between this and Clanny's reaction, Alistair was already overthinking this. Why couldn't he shake the feeling that something bad happened?

"Not exactly," they said. "He's not avoiding here, though. He's got something else going on and he doesn't know about this."

That was... helpful, but also, not at all helpful. It was just... strange.

Alistair looked off to the side, elbow bent in the air as he placed his hand on his head to push back his sweaty hair again, relentlessly sticking to his skin in this relentless heat. He kept the hair between his fingers as he slowly clawed his hand backwards against his scalp, wondering why the hell he didn't bring his hat with him.

It was so fucking hot. And his eyes were melting from the burning sun.

"Oh... kay," he said slowly, dropping his hand. "When is he coming back?"

"I don't know," Cyrin admitted, and it sounded like he was sorry.

Well, Alistair didn't know what to do with that. He stared at Cyrin, trying to make sense of this.

Should he be... worried?

"If you want," Cyrin said softly, "I can explain things at a better time and place."

He glanced over his shoulder at Shane and James, who were currently swimming up to the shore, and something in their face made it look like they wanted to help.

What the hell was happening? They literally just got here like five minutes ago.

"There's... already a lot happening here," Cyrin said.

Yeah. Go figure.

"That's fine," Alistair said, then glanced up ahead where the Ashlunds gathered. "Are you...?" He gestured ahead.

Going to see them too? You know, since we were walking there together?

Cyrin nodded. "They seem nice people, and they're dear to Lyall."

Alistair watched Vik excitedly talk, flailing his arms around like the dramatic little guy he was. Maybe he was still trying to get Lyall to cry tears of joy.

"Yeah. They're cool," Alistair added, then paused. "I was going to ask if they know where Alan is. Should I... not?"

"Lyall knows just as much as I do," Cyrin said. "Which is that he doesn't know either."

Alistair rubbed his face, feeling unnecessarily stressed out despite being five minutes into this supposed all-inclusive resort vacation.

"Should I be worried?" he asked flat out. "Because I know Alan can be... you know."

Dramatic. Moody. Over-the-top. But he was sure he didn't need to say that out loud.

Cyrin pursed his lips. "Things will be fine," he said reassuringly. "I trust that much, but I really don't have a good explanation right now. Can this wait?"

Alistair decided now was not the time to mention that, just before this trip, Alan had disappeared for a month to go on that hiking trip with absolutely no way to reach him, only leaving an ominous note. But, you know, he was used to this. This was fine.

Could he wait? Yeah. Alistair could wait.

"Yeah, no problem, man," he said with a slight nod. "Thanks."

Cyrin offered him a faint smile as they finally joined the Ashlunds.

Viktor was the first to noticed their approach. He waved both arms, despite being only three feet away. "The most ambitious crossover in recent history!" he declared, pumping both fists in the air. "Ashlunds and Alvaros!"

Which instantly drew the entire clan's collective attention to Alistair and Cyrin. Alistair immediately felt ten times more awkward with the attention.

"Almost," Hild, the sister, interjected with a polite, close-lipped smile. "We have one Alvaro at present."

Alistair gave a hesitant look to Cyrin. Were it not for Cyrin's foreboding warning, he'd ask if they'd seen Alan around. But maybe now wasn't the time to ask.

Stepping forward, Lyall held out a hand with a friendly smile. "Alistair, a pleasure to meet you in person!"

Alistair mustered a smile back, though it again felt forced. He took Lyall's hand, giving him too gentle shakes.

"Hey, yeah, nice to meet you," he said.

Tucking his hands into his pockets, Lyall stepped back again. "I presume you've well-noticed your brother's absence by now?" he asked, voice softening a bit.

Okay. Dive right into it, then.

Alistair slightly pinched his brows together, barely nodding. "Yeah. I'm asking around, trying to look for him."

Lyall nodded, grin fading naturally as he went on, slipping into a professional tone of voice, "There was a... slight incident this morning that led to Alan sustaining minor injuries. Thus, he's with a healer on staff at the moment. He should be back shortly to greet you properly."

Well, that was... a little concerning. But if he was with a healer, then it was probably fine. Probably.

What was this incident...?

Mulling this over, Alistair turned away, hand back to brush back his hair again. Maybe this position helped him think. You know, with the cool breeze flowing through the inner circles of hell and whatnot, brushing by his forehead.

"Oh-kay," he said slowly, searching the crowd for possible staff members, all of whom were wielding cameras. "Do you know which staff member it is?"

Lyall twisted around, scanning the distant film crew as well. "Ahhh, that one-- Oop, nope, there he goes."

In the distance, a contestant was storming off towards her cabin, and the film crew guy Lyall was referencing was running after her. Nice, it was just Alistair's luck for this convenient timing.

But another staff member was staring at him. She held a boom mic, and for a second that, he wondered if she heard this conversation, and that was why she was staring. Did she know something?

Damn, hold up. Did he walk into a island murder mystery? Why the hell was he playing detective right off the bat?

After casting sideways glances, as if to check that no one else took notice, the staff member set aside her boom mic, and slipped her bulky headphones off as she headed straight for their group.

"Eyo, Alvaro!" she called, waving an arm.

Stupidly, Alistair glanced behind him towards Hild, Lyall, Vik, and Kaya, wondering if maybe she was talking to them. But of course this lady wasn't. He was the only Alvaro here.

"Yeah, you!" she said with a snort. She bounded up the dock, hands in her jacket pockets. "Couldn't help but listen in. Since, you know, that's my job."

That wasn't creepy at all. He gave her a lookover and decided that she sounded and looked sassy since she had an undercut and donned a colorful 80s-style bomber jacket while wearing gym shorts.

"Okay?" he said uncertainly with a skeptical look, not really sure what she wanted him to say.

She tilted her head with a slight, uneven grin. "Look, there's a whole schedule thing going on here with meet-and-greets, but I say fuck the schedule. Your bro's in great hands, so you don't have to worry. But you probably want to see him sooner rather than later, right?"

This was weird. Alistair was beginning to feel like he was some random character who popped up for a pivotal scene in a telenovella, and he'd rather... not.

"Uh..." he stammered, flicking his eyes between the Ashlunds. "Right. Nice to meet you all. I'm going to... yeah." He trudged back along the dock where the sassy lady came from, nodding for her to follow. "Let's talk over here, yeah?"

"Noice," she said, waving the Ashlunds bye as she spun on her heel. "Name's Shay. I'll fill you in on the way there, a'ight?"

Alistair nodded and gave the Ashlunds one more glance over his shoulder, noting them waving the two of them away. He led the way along the edge of the dock, though admittedly had no idea where to go once when they inevitably reached the end of it, so he slowed down so he could follow her instead. With a nod, Shay hopped a few steps ahead, taking them along a wide path uphill.

"So, your bro," she started, glancing over her shoulder, "kindaaa... lost his shit this morning? Fucking flung himself off two balconies, then ran for the hills like a maniac. I chased him down, my buddy went and grabbed him medical help. So, he's kinda just chilling at my other guy's house at the moment. Sorta. Still acting kinda mental, actually."

Alistair couldn't help but stare at her incredulously.

"The fuck?" he muttered, realizing too late that he said that out loud.

Shay snorted softly. "Yeah."

Okay. So he could understand now why Cyrin and Lyall would be hesitant to share this in front of all of the cameras. But dear god, still-- what the hell?

"He jumped off the balcony twice?" Alistair said skeptically. "Why?"

"Nah." She pointed at two different spots in the air. "One balcony, then another." She shrugged. "Still don't have a fucking clue why."

Still walking steadily on the dirt path, Alistair scratched the side of his head, trying to picture this. Alan was certainly not some unstable, suicidal guy. There must have been some sort of reason.

Maybe it was for... theatrics...?

Alistair knew he was dramatic, but he figured Alan wasn't that dramatic. Maybe.

"Maybe something scared him," he mumbled, though he didn't know what this could be.

"Dude was scared shitless," Shay agreed. "Didn't want anybody close to him."

"Whose balcony did he jump from?" Alistair asked. "'Cause you said they're two different ones, yeah?"

Shay nodded. "First Shane's, then his own."

Huh. Maybe Shane scared him off...?

Had this situation been a lot less serious, Alistair would be tempted to make a joke that it was commitment that scared Alan away and made him act crazy.

"Even climbed up to his own, on the outside of the house like some..." Shay shrugged. "...insane monkey. Wicked strange."

Alistair scrunched his face skeptically, staring at her. "A monkey," he repeated in disbelief. "Seriously?"

"I got footage to prove it."

Alistair huffed through his nose. "Yeah, okay. Maybe you can show me when this all blows over."

Add it to the growing pile of blackmail material he had on Alan. He was sure he'd appreciate that.

He glanced back at Shay, still a little uncertain. "Are you taking me to him?" he asked.

She blew a raspberry. "Yeah, man! Obviously."

Alistair let out a long sigh. "I feel like I just walked into a real life game of Clue. And it already sucks."

"Welcome to island hell, my guy," Shay said with a wry huff. "And this shit show?" She jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. "Only getting worse from here."

"Wow," he said dryly. "I feel so welcomed."

Shay only grinned. Indicating a turn with a sideways nod, she suddenly veered off the path and into the trees. "Staff housing's this way."

Alistair followed close behind her, ducking under twiggy branches of trees. "What, so is this a normal day in the life here? People jumping off balconies, running away? Filming drama and all that?" he asked.

She hopped a gnarled root, then lead them down a rocky slope. "Honestly, weirder has happened."

He cast her another skeptical look. "Like what?"

Over her shoulder, she threw him a flat grin. "Someone hasn't been keeping up with the island drama."

"Hell no," Alistair said curtly. "I turned that shit off once they made my brother's sex life a whole debate."

Shay barked a laugh. "You for real dodged a bullet there." Shrugging, she looked ahead again. "Eh, you'll see soon enough."

"...Ominous," he said flatly. "But whatever. I'll stay out of drama."

"Good luck with that, man," she said simply.

He cast her another flat look. "Wow. Okay," he said back, leaving it at that.

Snickering, she swung between two trees, down onto an actual path, like an actual monkey. Narrower than the one leading from the beach.

"Destination's up ahead!" she singsonged, gesturing broadly out to a row of hut-like houses. "Welcome to our humble abodes."
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urbanhart says...

After the absurdity of an actual bird delivering their morning papers through their kitchen window-- then going so far as to steal one of their waffles!-- Lyall quickly turned his focus back to his friends. They had a guest over! He couldn't lock himself away in his room to come to any big decisions just yet. That would've been rude!

Something he did wish either Cyrin or Shane would ask more about, was the mental state of Alvaro. In fact, he was quite certain they would, to the point that he had drafted thirteen different responses to the great-anticipated question.

But it never came up again, and he honestly didn't know how to broach the subject himself. So... he didn't. It was honestly easier to silently sit with the guilt of it all.

Especially since the magical request form came barreling into their window.

They had their coffee and ate some waffles (free of the snowy devil-spawn's judgmental glowering, since Cyrin finally convinced it to take its business elsewhere). Then eventually Shane tucked his cat under his arm and took his leave too. Cyrin, with that steadily growing migraine at just the thought of his slimy eel for a brother potentially arriving in several hours, also parted ways to... Lyall presumed, prepare to the best of his ability.

Having agreed they could both clean up the kitchen some other time soon, Lyall left the cooking utensils in the sink and padded upstairs himself. The visitors' docking won't be for another several hours.

He silently locked his bedroom door behind himself-- with the passing thought that, apparently it wouldn't make much a difference anyway with apparently a master burglar residing here as well-- then laid out the contract and the request form on his desk.

The net gain of slipping into the winning team combined with the fact that he was the sole cause of Alan losing his mind entirely... Zero. Lyall will have gained nothing from it, because the only right thing to do now was to use the request form to scrub literal insanity from the unsuspecting musician's brain.

And, even then, Alan would still have to psychologically recover from it. It couldn't just...magically disappear in an instant. The uncharacteristic thought processes would be gone, but the damage was done.

Raking his hands through his hair, Lyall bowed his head with both elbows on the desk.

This felt more like a loss than anything.

...Because it was.

Maybe the test wasn't using it. No, he failed because he wasn't supposed to use it. He should've seen it from the start. They made it far too easy to use that magic by barring the consequences until sunrise, so that that wasn't even a challenge.

That was his mistake. Fine. A small loss in the greater grand scheme of this convoluted game of chess against algorithms.

Pulling the request form closer to himself, he wrote in the small space provided. In his cleanest handwriting, and in the smallest font size he could manage to spite the DMV overlords:

To whom it may concern,
Revert the mental and psychological wellbeing of Alan Alvaro back to their original states, before I disturbed the delicate balance of his brain chemistry with my impulsive actions when I wielded A. Alvaro's ability to magically influence others.
So as to leave no room for confusion or the misconstruing of my words, as imps like you are wont to do, I shall define the current situation as clearly as possible:
  • 'Alan Alvaro' and 'A. Alvaro' refers to Alan Alvaro, the talented musician with whom I, Lyall Ashlund, currently share a residential space.
  • 'Lyall Ashlund' refers to the writer of this note, one of three victors of the Island Maze.
  • A. Alvaro's 'ability to magically influence others' refers to what is simply called his charm magic, which is the ability to magically change one's thoughts and thus influence their actions.
  • Both 'Mental/psychological wellbeing' and 'brain chemistry' of A. Alvaro refers to the soundness of his mind.
  • 'The original states of A. Alvaro's mental/psychological wellbeing' refers to the state of A. Alvaro's brain prior to this morning's sunrise.
  • 'This morning' refers to this fucking day. The first day of the fourth week of our stay here with the DMV.

Lyall tapped his pen on the desk. That seemed well-defined enough, right? Yes, it should be. And if they managed to twist even this, he'd just... pay Maeve another in-person visit.

...Was. He supposed to keep the bird? Was he to hand-deliver the request form anyway?

Pushing out from the desk, he stood by his window, leaning an arm over his head as he peered out to the hilltop mansion.

The DMV was bigger than this. Than the island, the televised drama of tossing a handful of strangers into the frying pan, seeing who'd jump ship first, and who'd make it to the end of some sensationalized gameshow.

The fact that they were able to draft actual young royalty into this mess was indicative of some global secret or other behind the DMV's alabaster administrative facade. Just as the contractual clock was counting down until expiration, and Shane's and Connie's respective countries were gearing up for transfers of power, no less. They were each barreling toward a transition state, when nations were far easier to destabilize. Aphirah, in particular, was in turmoil.

This was the enormity of power they were lording over the world. Trieu's promise to give him access to it felt too easy. Technical 'test-run' though it was. And why Lyall specifically? Hild, though he felt she didn't quite fully grasp the kind of powers at play here, was more than qualified to administer tests on their behalf as well.

There were pieces he was still missing to this puzzle. He wasn't naive or idiotic. But neither was he fully altruistic. The world was a hopeless catastrophe. Always had been, and always would be. The fact that this show was up and running still was evidence of that.

There was no fixing the world, no matter how high one climbed politically or financially. And, frankly, the world had given Lyall little reason to actually give a fuck. It could burn, for all he cared.

He only wanted to ensure his family's and Kaya's safety and well-beings.

Though, lately... He couldn't ignore the injustice of James Hawke's whistleblower case. How a good man had been imprisoned for bringing an ugly truth to light, in the defense of those with magic being exploited by a deeply corrupted military.

Twisting to lean a shoulder on the windowpane, Lyall contemplated the contract on his desk. Slowly padded back to the edge of his desk, and tapped the corner of the unassuming paper.

This would cost him his soul. He knew that much too. He was no stranger to contracts with devils, and the give and take of life, the initial cost to building one's own success. Thus, he actually preferred that Maeve extended this offer to him, rather than his sister or anyone else. His soul could withstand another beating just fine.

Lyall reached for his pen. Then hesitated.

He still had until the end of this week to decide. Time that could be used to gather more data, find those pivotal missing pieces to this puzzle, contemplate the full implications of the provided advantages before he committed. He needed to be sure that he could actually help anybody with this.

Locking the contract away in his desk drawer again, Lyall was just mentally preparing for a trek uphill as he officially signed off his name on the bottom edge of the request form. Before he could tuck it back in its envelope, however, his handwriting began to glow around the edges.

He dropped the paper on the desk, slowly backing away to watch as the ink actually lifted from the page. The microscopic letters wafted up like steam, spiraling tightly into an upside-down funnel. When the last of his signature was condensed into the floating mass of text, he startled at the pop! as they burst from view in a small cloud of confetti. Leaving a mess on his desk and floor.

Huh. Dammit. He just cleaned his room.


He glanced at the now-deflated "sorry" balloon, with the little bottle of confetti still tied to it.

Last edited by urbanhart on Tue Feb 27, 2024 9:06 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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urbanhart says...

Unfortunately, his sister found him and hounded him about his "win" for the rest of the morning. And she did not let up until he gave her the full story. Ughhh.

It was only after he apparently confirmed her suspicions of him that she finally showed herself out. Once the front door to the cabin slammed shut, Lyall let out a weary sigh. Not for the first time, wishing she knew just how hard he was trying to keep everything from falling apart.

He spent the rest of his time until 2 PM tending his plants, then deciding how dressed up was to code for the DMV's boat docking ceremony.

He actually found himself unable to scrounge up the energy to ponder the cryptic details of the notice that horrid waffle-stealing bird delivered.

Sweater? Or suit? A sweater was more comfortable in a lazy, "hide all my shame and a multitude of sins" kind of way. The suit jacket would help him slip back into the "I've got my life all figured out, don't question me" headspace.

Suit jacket, it was.

Whilst Lyall was mid-conversation with Cyrin and Shane at the docks, Hild snuck up from behind and poked his back with her elbow.

"You should've worn a tie, at least," she said disapprovingly.

Likewise elbowing her in turn, he huffed, "You said it didn't matter!"

"You look slovenly without one," she shot back.

As the boat crew yelled a head's up, they lowered the ramp from the deck. Hild turned to stand beside him like a sentry. Lyall likewise straightened, hands folded in back, as he watched some unfamiliar faces venture down to the dock.

"Did you check the bulletin?" Hild murmured.

Brows furrowed, Lyall then looked intently for where that might have been. "No, why?"

"Our names and our respective visitors were publicly posted." There was a hint of disdain in her tone, like he was an idiot for not noticing.

Lyall cast a displeased stare off to the middle-distance. "And?"

"I got Vik," she said simply.

Lyall felt himself grin with genuine excitement as he peered around others' reunions for a glimpse of Vik's wild mane. "Lucky duck," he said teasingly. "He's been dying for a behind-the-scenes look at the place."

She hummed, letting a hint of warmth seep through the steely exterior she'd put up. "He'll have a good time, I'm sure."

Certainly, Lyall agreed. King of relaxation that he was, however, the other side of that facet was an inability to handle external conflicts very well. For Vik, anyway.

"We'll make sure of it," Lyall said.

Hild nodded quietly in understanding.

So, if Viktor was here for Hild, then...

It was entirely possible the DMV would plan something unsavory, as they did unfortunately for Cyrin with their brother. But Lyall dared hold out an ounce of hope that he'd get to see his beloved Kaya again. In person. Face to face, her hands in his. He wanted nothing more than to sweep her off her feet, bring her someplace quiet for just the two of them. Serenade her, tell her how he missed her with his whole heart. Resume wedding plans, hold her warm and close as they talked well into the late evenings.

Vik's head first poked up at the top of the ramp. He waved with both arms, then hauled along both luggage and his guitar case.

Ah. Excellent! Vik had mentioned he wanted to join in on a "jam session", as he called it, if ever the chance to meet any of their friends arose. Well, here was his opportunity. Silver platter and all.

Just behind the youngest Ashlund, Kaya shyly peaked out over the railing. Her wandering gaze quickly latched onto Lyall's intent one, and she offered a small wave and a smile.

His heart practically burst within his chest. Smiling broadly, all troubles of the past morning completely forgotten when she smiled so hesitant and sweetly, Lyall waved back excitedly as he started weaving through the mass of bodies on the dock. He barely registered Hild following close behind as he parted the miniature sea of people for her.

God, three weeks was too long to go without holding Kaya.

As the two pairs made to meet in the middle, Viktor dropped his things and dashed ahead, making a running leap for Lyall. Almost caught entirely off-guard, Lyall grunted as he quickly switched from rushing himself to stabilizing as he caught his ridiculous brother. Holding him tight, though, he spun Vik around as though he were the long-awaited love of his life.

"So good to see you!" Lyall playfully gushed, smacking aggressive kisses to Viktor's cheek.

"Hey, hey!" Laughing, Viktor swatted him away and twisted out of his grasp, landing neatly on his feet. "Save it for your actual girlfriend, you weirdo!" he snickered, wiping his cheek with his sleeve.

Lyall squawked indignantly, reaching to grab him up again. "You can't just wipe off my undying love for you!"

"No, my god!" Viktor quickly side-stepped out of snatching distance, hiding behind their sister with a cackle. "Make him stop!"

"You started it," Hild countered plainly, unable to contain her amused grin.

Lyall grinned. Now that that was out of the way...

"Hi, babe--" Kaya began, but squeaked with surprise when Lyall then turned and grabbed her next in a tight, spinning embrace. She threw her arms around his neck to hold on.

"Give a person a warning!" she laughed.

"Oh, my love, my heart!" Lyall replied instead. He set her down on her feet so that he may lead them into an impromptu waltz on the dock. "How bright you shine, my dear, over a dark, turbulent sea! How the warmth in your gaze from even afar promises refuge from a cold, unforgiving world. A steadier place to land, than the unsure sand of an ever-shifting shore. A lighthouse, a beacon of hope, for this lost wanderer."

When they drifted to a stop, still holding onto each other, he couldn't help but simply gaze adoringly at her. Taking in the softness of her cheeks as she smiled, the glitter of her blue eyes.

"I missed you, too," Kaya said, her own smile just as longing, albeit a good bit amused as well.

Lyall affectionately bumped foreheads with her. "I hope you know how much it means to me that you're here," he murmured earnestly.

Her smile faltered, for just a second. Drawing in a breath, Kaya mustered an imitation of her former excitement. Still sincere, but with something hidden behind it now.

He felt his own smile fade, his heart deeply troubled by this.

Did she... not know? Had he not screamed it loud enough for the whole world to hear?

Before he could inquire, a new presence fast-approached from off to the side. Silently, Lyall and Kaya broke apart to properly greet none other than--

"THE LEGENDARY KAYA!" Kaz boomed, wrapping his arm around Lyall's shoulders and Kaya's, pulling them both into side-hugs as he wedged between them. "I can't believe you're here! This is so crazy!"

Kazimir pulled away with a laugh, quick to pull in a woman with light brown skin and deep brown eyes. Her curly brown hair was long and frizzy from the humidity, and she beamed alongside Kaz.

"Hi!" she introduced herself with a little laugh. "I'm Megan! You probably know me as Kazimir's girlfriend."

"Oh!" With a pleasant smile, Lyall held out a hand to her. "The lovely Megan, whom I've heard much about! What a pleasure to get to meet you in person!"

Megan gave Lyall a very aggressively friendly handshake, waggling his arm up and down. In size, she was comparable to Kazimir, standing only an inch or two shorter than him. Together, they towered over Lyall like two giant happy golden retrievers.

"Dude, same to you!" Megan said. "You're a real one. The og."

She finally let go once she must have felt he'd been sufficiently jostled. Lyall cast an utterly confused grin between her and Kaz. Neither provided any elaboration, however, so he had to assume these were compliments.

"You're Kaya, right?" Kazimir asked, as if questioning after the fact that he had the right person as he looked at Kaya in question. "You look like the photos so. Unless there's a clone of you."

Kaya giggled and wiggled both hands in the air. "Yeah, it's me!" she said with an awkward smile. She held out a hand to Kaz in greeting. "How lucky that we get to meet so soon!"

"For real," Kazimir agreed. "And yo-- VIK!" He shouted, looking around. "Lyall, where's your brother?"

"Tha's meee!" Vik's voice declared happily from behind the giant.

Kazimir whirled around. "YOOOOOOOOO," Kazimir laughed. "Dude, yes!"

Kazimir went right for a combination hand-shake and high-five, somehow engaging Vik a series of hand-shake-like movements as if it was something they'd planned despite only just meeting each other.

"We have got to play Smack Bros together," Kazimir told Vik.

Viktor's face positively lit up, and he vibrated with excitement. "Yeah, that'd be awesome!"

"Lyall has to play too," Kaz said, putting his hand firmly on Lyall's shoulder. "We gotta get him up to par, man. His Smack game is weak. We gotta do, like, a training tournament."

Lyall raised both brows. "Ah, sure, we should definitely try that sometime!"

Viktor punched his other shoulder. "Man, I still can't imagine you actually gaming." To Kaz, he added, "Guy acts like a grandpa or something, hasn't picked up a remote until you got him to."

"Hey!" Kaz said. "He's getting the hang of it, though! Lyall's a very smart guy and a fast learner. Very smort."

He patted Lyall's shoulder again with two firm pats.

"Debatable," Hild interjected helpfully.

Lyall just stared ahead flatly.

"We ain't in court!" Kaz defended.

"Thank you, Kazimir," Lyall agreed, casting Hild a vindicated look.

Kazimir lightly elbowed Lyall in the shoulder, shooting him a grin.

"So, what are your guys' plans for the rest of the day?" Megan interjected. "We should totally hang out!"

"Aside from the boat's docking," Hild answered, neatly folding her hands together, "I intentionally kept the rest of my day clear. In order to 'hang out', as proposed."

Vik patted Kazimir's back. "Her clearing her schedule is a literal honor, bro."

"I feel honored," Kazimir said with a smile. "I'm so excited. Guys, we should go to the pool since the mansion is open again. Literally it's so insanely bougie up there. I heard they even put in a slide."

"Ah," Lyall started tentatively, "I think. I'll politely pass on the pool plan."

He felt Kaya cast a concerned look his way.

"Okay well there's also like, this pretty cool garden in the plaza and this bakery that this guy Bo has with every pastry you can imagine," Kazimir quickly moved on without blinking an eye.

"Ooh, I could eat!" Viktor easily agreed.

"Still?" Kaya asked, a light tease in her voice. "You just ate half the buffet on-deck for brunch."

"He's still growing!" Kazimir said.

"I haven't had a chance to eat much since early this morning," Megan added. "So I could eat."

"I think that settles it, then!" Lyall declared, clapping his hands together. "We'll give you three time to settle in, first, and meet up in the plaza for a light meal in approximately an hour? We keep it loose, though, there's wiggle room."

Viktor picked up his things again and was already off like a shot. "Sounds great, see youuuu!"

With a nod, Kaya picked up her own bags and pressed a short kiss to Lyall's cheek. "We'll be there, yeah," she said with a bright grin. Then she quickly followed after his brother before Lyall could offer to carry her things for her.

Kazimir turned and picked up Megan's bags - two very large ones for only a week visit - and tucked one under each arm. Setting off into a run as if to follow the current fleeing trend, Kaz headed for... his cabin.

Seemed Megan and Kazimir already came to an agreement for her to just stay with him instead.

"I'll see you soon!" Megan said to Lyall with a big smile before following after her boyfriend.

Lyall waved back at all of their fast-retreating forms.

It felt... quite abrupt and thus surreal how they all swept in, then fled right back off the scene as if none of this had mattered. But, they did come on a boat. The worst mode of international travel. They needed this time to set their things down and sufficiently settle back on land. And he quickly caught sight of a goolf cart departing, with both his fiancée and brother in it.

Ah. They were rushing to catch a ride. Yes, of course.

"And then," he started pleasantly, tucking his hands in his pockets, "there were tw--"

Hild was already walking away, with hardly any acknowledgement.

With a frown, Lyall watched her go. He was... not unfamiliar with her scorn, but it certainly did not feel nice, being on her bad side again. He sighed wearily as he started for his own cabin.

At least hers wasn't the only familial connection on this island anymore.

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Carina says...

Eve was wringing her hands together so much, it was starting to hurt.

One by one, people left the boat, meeting up with the person they were here for. If it weren't already announced that everyone would be getting a visitor, then perhaps Eve would be more closely paying attention-- especially since drama unfolded around James, Shane, and Tula.

There was so much to analyze. So much to consider for others. But Eve... couldn't. She couldn't. Not when she knew that there was someone here for her, too.

One question kept ringing in her mind: who? Who?

But in her heart... she already knew. In her heart, Eve knew who the DMV would pick for her. Who Maeve would pick. Who she would pick because she so badly wanted to see them.

But Eve couldn't believe it. She wouldn't believe it-- not until she saw the person herself.

She had been standing awfully still, body stiffening by the minute. Forcing herself to relax, Eve realized that she had been staring at the door of the ship for quite some time now, waiting for someone else to leave. But no one else did.

Everyone around her was gathered with mixed feeling. Some were hugging, others were fighting. But... it was something. Some emotion. Something.

Pushing away the tension creeping in her chest, Eve found herself moving with a light footsteps and a lighter head, taking the long route to avoid others. She kept her head low, trying not to get in the way.

She just had to get to the bulletin board. The bulletin board held all the answers. The bulletin board would shake away the dread in her chest, the looming uncertainty.

She had to see who she came for her. She had to.

Wringing her hands to stop them from shaking, Eve stood in front of the board, biting her lip as she felt her heart anxiously thud against her chest. She quickly searched the board, eyes landing on her name. Or rather, the name next to her name.

She read it. Again, and again, and again. Thinking, maybe, she misread it. Her eyes were only telling her who she wanted to see.

Maylin Zhang.

That was the name next to hers.

That was the name of her mother.

Feeling her breath catch in her throat, Eve forced herself to look away, casting a pitifully hopeful glance back at the boat, thinking, maybe, she came in late. Because everyone else had someone. Certainly she'd have someone too, right? Certainly, a mother would come for her daughter?

But there was no one else. No one else was coming. No one was coming for her.

Eve felt like she hadn't been breathing for the last minute. She forced a breath through her lungs, feeling her chest grow heavier and heavier. A shiver ran through her despite it being a warm day, and a breeze whispered in her ear, taunting her. Telling her that the world was cruel and unforgiving, and this was yet again another harsh lesson.

Don't cry. You're stronger than that, Eve thought to herself, feeling tears threaten her sight. She repeated the words again and again, using it as a mantra to push her feelings aside.

She was being dramatic. Overemotional, needy, clingy... Surely there was a reasonable explanation for her mother to not show up. If this were another lesson to teach her that pain could make her stronger, then she should adhere to it. Learn from it. Become better from it.

But Eve was weak. She couldn't snuff away the pathetic flame of hope that sparked in her heart, and she couldn't stop herself from taking out her phone and looking her up. After all, if everyone was innocent until proven guilty, then Eve wanted to prove without a reasonable doubt that she was purposefully abandoned to be left by herself.

Filtering away the noise around her, Eve quickly browsed through the discreet data public archives of the DMV website, pulling up the giant list of government lawsuits from around the world. She wasn't looking for any case in particular. There were so many, and they were so inconsequential, that the case itself did not matter.

The name of the attorney did.

There was a hearing today. Eve opened up the 300-page document, zooming into the section with names. There, on the header, was the name of the attorney representing the DMV: Maylin Zhang.

Eve closed her eyes, taking in a shaky deep breath as she allowed herself to slip through the cracks and analyze the situation.

Her mother was busy. She wasn't coming. She had a hearing. She never missed one, and she surely wasn't going to miss one for her. Her father's name wasn't on the list, though. He was free. Surely, he must know that she was on this island too. Surely, he would know that her mother would be unavailable. And yet, he did not take action. His name was not on the list.

No one was coming. Eve was by herself.

Eve quickly turned away, first shuffling along the dock, but finding herself speeding up more and more, matching the pace of her aching heart. There was so much tension in her body and nowhere to release it. A pressure ballooned in her head, desperately trying to claw its way out behind her eyes, else it make her blind.

Keeping her head low, Eve rushed away from the dock, nearly running when she felt the familiar soft, sandy footing. She clenched her jaw and fists, her breaths getting more and more airless, her thoughts spinning out of control.

Eve was losing control of herself. She was slipping into a weak state, one without the safety of protective walls or steely locks that prevented her from opening up. Her emotions were bubbling up from the surface, just barely beginning to spill from the edges.

She had to pull herself together. She had to be stronger than this.

But her heart hurt so bad. And yet, it hurt her more that she couldn't let it go.

This always happened. Eve was weak. She never learned to let go.

Tears stung her eyes, and Eve couldn't blink them away. Her cabin was just up ahead as a big blur, but someone was catching up behind her. Panicked, that only made her ran faster, desperately trying to get to the cabin so no one could see her like this.

"Miss Eve?" Caspar's voice called after her, voice pitched slightly with worry.

Caspar. Caspar? Why was he following her? No, she didn't want him here. She didn't want him to see her like this. She knew he'd reach out, and she just wanted to be left alone.

"Go away!" Eve said with a shaky voice, biting down on her jaw as she wiped her eyes as she ran. "Just leave me alone, please."

His pace behind her slowed, as if hesitating now, but didn't stop. That only caused Eve to panic more, nearly tripping over the sand. But by some miracle, she was able to get to her cabin door, once again nearly losing her footing on the steps of the patio.

Hot tears streamed her face as she took a shuddered breath, shoving herself against the door as she turned the doorknob, so close to safety now.

Locked. It was locked. Of course it was locked. They always locked the door when they left, and she was the first one back.

Anxiety and panic ever-increasing, Eve shakily took out her keys from her pockets, feeling to be on the verge of completely losing herself with her emotions. The keys slipped from her fingers, landing on the floor. She hurriedly bent down to pick it up, fumbling to insert the right key into the lock.

The porch behind her creaked under a new weight, and a heavy pit of dread and apprehension sunk into her stomach.

"Miss Eve," Caspar said, voice soft and saddened, "what's wrong?"

"Nothing," she said sharply, closing her eyes for a moment to collect herself, not daring to turn around and face him. "I'm fine. Please leave me alone."

It was the silver key that opened the door of the cabin. Eve inserted it into the lock, grateful that she didn't have another stupidly clumsy moment when it successfully turned.

"Did..." He hesitated again. "Did no one come for you?"

It was like he took out a sharp dagger and stabbed her in the back, twisting her with the idea of his words. Just as she ripped open the door, the flood of emotions tumbled out like a broken dam, erupting through her whole body. Eve slammed the door on Caspar's face, quick to lock the door.

Safe. She was safe to cry now.

Biting back a whine, Eve buckled to the ground, quietly sobbing as she slid against the door, letting her emotions take control of her.

They were intense. It always was, especially when she thought about her parents. Her heart ached to see them again, and she often wondered if they thought of her as often as she thought of them.

Eve didn't know how much time had passed with her crumpled on the floor, uselessly crying until she felt empty and numb, completely devoid of any will to care anymore.

No one was coming to her. There wasn't anything she could do about it.

But there was something else she could do.

Sniffing, Eve wiped her eyes and the dripping snot with her sleeve, taking a deep breath to regain her composure. This was good. She cried until she couldn't anymore. Now that she felt empty, she could think with a clearer mind. Be less emotional about the decisions she made.

She pulled herself to her feet, taking another deep, steady breath as she brushed back her hair that was wet from tears. Using the hair tie around her wrist, Eve pulled it into a tight bun and then brushed back any stray hairs that dangled around her head. She patted down her dress, making a mental note that she ought to change into a new one since this one was now tainted.

She could do this.

Eve walked in a steady, even pace, going up the stairs and back into her room. She calmly closed the door behind her and then stride to her desk, carefully pulling out the white box she neatly tucked away in the drawer. Sitting down on the chair, Eve opened the lid, taking out the long DMV contract that Oliver had given to her a week ago.

She had read it twice, now. She was used to reading legalese and had extensive notes detailing anything suspicious. Eve had weighed the pros and cons all week, though her decision had largely become inconclusive, hence her delay.

But now, she was sure.

There were people on this island that had others to protect, but no one to protect them. And if no one was going to do it, then she would do it herself.

Flipping to the last page, Eve signed her name on the dotted line, using her former name before she legally changed it in Canidia: Evaline Zhang.

~ ~ ~

Eve sat against the door of her room, her head leaned up against the door. After she placed the contract back in the ornate box, it disappeared in a bright flash and a burst of colorful confetti, which was a pain to clean up. But now that she had finished cleaning, she found that she had nothing else to do but wait.

She had to wait for further instructions on how to utilize the new advantages given to her.

The door downstairs opened. Someone else was coming in. If there were words exchanged, Eve didn't hear them, but she knew there were two people who entered. One person had heavier footsteps, who she didn't recognize. The other sounded like Clarity. Eve could tell in how she carried herself, her footsteps being brisk and fast-paced since she walked with purpose and grace.

Eve found herself pressing her ear against the door, quietly listening in.

"It's upstairs?" A low voice sounding like it belonged to a middle-aged man spoke.

"Yes." That was Clarity, sounding almost bored.

Eve heard the heavier set of footsteps going up the stairs, then walking down the hallway, past her door. She heard the creak of another door opening and closing, but no footsteps from Clarity. She must've stayed in the living room.

Eve relaxed, comfortably resting her head against the door again.

She wondered who that was. Had she been her normal observant self, Eve would have noted the name next to Clarity's name. But if the voice indeed belonged to a middle-aged man, and Clarity was comfortable but bored enough to bring him into the cabin with the freedom to explore on his own, then it would be a reasonable guess to say that he was her father.

Eve wondered what their relationship was like. She actually hardly knew Clarity since most of their discussions were very cordial and pragmatic, usually involving roommate day-to-day interactions or about their love of science, which they both shared-- though, Clarity moreso than Eve. Eve just liked math since it was all logic and reasoning.

With her sketchbook next to her, Eve idly opened it and flipped to the section she designated for Clarity, recalling their interactions. She added more notes about her, which was filling up-- though she had an unfair advantage since they lived together-- marking a spot about her dad, adding a question mark at the end.

Flipping to another page, Eve fell back into the safety of her drawing safe haven, sketching out an outline of Clarity wearing a lab coat and goggles, smiling.

She lost track of time, focusing on perfecting this drawing, pouring all her time and energy into it.

When finished, Eve admired her work, tilting her head and bringing the sketchbook up to view it at different angles. This one was the best one she had drawn of her yet. Perhaps because she actually drew her smiling this time.

Taking a silent deep breath, Eve closed the sketchbook, finally getting up on her feet as she shook away the numbing sensation on her leg. She placed the sketchbook back on the shelf with the others, then daintily perched herself on the edge of her bed, bouncing her knee.

Eve felt better now. She did. But she couldn't help but remember old memories, in which she was left alone to cry at home, and her childhood friend would come by and cheer her up. That was so long ago now, and she didn't even keep in touch with him anymore, but she thought about it often.

Was Clarity left alone, too? Was she in need of someone?

But Eve knew, deep down, that she only wanted to believe that this was true. It was Eve who was in need of someone, but she could fool herself into believing that it was Clarity.

Abruptly standing up, Eve briskly left her room with light feet, quietly closing the door behind her. She stood at the doorway for a moment, listening for other sounds. There were none, outside of the hum of Clarity's lab. Otherwise, it was awfully quiet.

Quietly, she bounded down the stairs, meekly take one step at a time. Over the railing, she saw Clarity lying on her back on the couch, holding a cup of tea on her chest with her hands folded around it. She was staring blankly at the ceiling, but as Eve got closer, she turned her head to watch her go down the stairs.

"Oh, hi," she said. "I didn't realize you were back."

Eve glanced up the stairs, her hand still at the base of the railing. She suddenly regret coming downstairs without much of a plan.

"Hi," she said back, forcing herself to not stand so stiff. "I came in a little bit before you, I think." She paused before blurting out, "Do you want company?"

Clarity nodded, tipping her head to indicate another couch. "Sure. There's freshly boiled water for tea if you want it, too."

Grateful to be given an opportunity to move somewhere else, Eve slinked into the kitchen, opening the cupboard to take out a mug. Like Clarity mentioned, there was already water prepared in the kettle, which Eve carefully poured out. In another cupboard were various teas and coffees for their disposal. Rose oolong was her favorite, which was more of a niche combination, but the DMV once more liked to subtley prove that they knew everything about them.

She dropped the rose oolong teabag in her hot water, lifting it up and down a few times as she watched it steep. Hesitantly, Eve glanced back at Clarity, who had otherwise unmoved, still staring up at the ceiling.

Wordlessly, Eve moved back out of the kitchen, sitting on the edge of the couch across from Clarity, trying not to stare at her. She sat still for a few moments, but then sat back into the couch, folding her legs behind her. Holding, the mug with both hands Eve brought it closer to her mouth, quietly blowing the steam.

Eve stole another glance at Clarity, still unreacting. The long silence was starting to make her feel anxious.

"What's running through your mind?" Eve asked softly.

Clarity hummed, rapping her nails on the edge of her mug.

"Oh, you know, just..." She trailed off. "Starting to wish my room and lab were separate, honestly. My dad's up there and I figure he'll stay until tomorrow morning."

Ah... so the person was her dad. Perhaps he was a chemist too. Eve wondered why they couldn't be together, though. She held on to that thought for now.

"If you want more privacy, you can share a room with me, if you'd like," Eve offered without thinking. "I don't mind."

She only processed the words after she said it, but... she didn't regret it. It would be nice, actually, to have company. Even if they didn't acknowledge one another.

Clarity blinked in surprise, half-sitting up to look at Eve.

"You... sure?" she asked.

She sounded... touched. That brought Eve relief. She had the fleeting thought that perhaps she offered something that was outside appropriate boundaries.

Eve nodded, keeping the mug still in her hand. "I'm sure. I don't mind," she affirmed.

A real, soft smile slowly spread across Clarity's face. Eve made a note of it for her future drawings.

"Thank you," she said. "I... would really appreciate that."

"Of course," Eve said with a small smile of her own. "I'm sorry that you don't have that separation between work and rest. That sounds exhausting."

"A little," Clarity admitted. "Hard to get to bed when the lab is right there."

Eve paused. "Do you... normally get a good amount of sleep every night?"

"...No," Clarity said. "Not very often."

Eve pinched her brows together in concern. "I'm sorry, if I had known, I'd have offered earlier. You deserve to rest as much as any of us do."

Clarity waved a hand dismissively, sitting all the way upright and holding her tea in front of her. "No, it's fine. That's got nothing to do with you, that's me being a weirdo."

Eve pressed her lips together tightly, staring at her. "Because you're... working? Instead of sleeping?"

Clarity nodded, very casually. "Yeah."

Eve lowered her mug. "What's so important that you can't sleep?"

"There's..." Clarity shrugged. "It sounds silly, but there's something very weird about those remaining bath bombs. I've kept looking into those."

The bath bombs. Clarity was still analyzing that?

"I don't think it's silly," Eve said. "What have you found so far?"

"Chemically, they seem pretty normal," Clarity said. "Not at all something you'd expect to stain skin in that way. Their molarity and absorbance just isn't sufficient. So I've been holding on to them, because they might offer real some insight into the magic they must have-- since while we know there's all sorts of strange magic uses happening here, this might be the only thing we've kept that has it."

Eve was quiet for a moment, connecting the implications herself. The strange magic on this island hadn't been studied, because it was often used in chaotic moments where it couldn't be contained. However, the bath bombs-- though innocent in comparison to the other enchantments the DMV had used-- were already imbued with this strange magic. Clarity had held on to it, supposedly attempting to reverse-engineer it.

Certainly, if they were able to use the magic forces on this island against the DMV, that would put them at a strong advantage.

"Do you think you'll be able to... harvest it?" Eve asked, wincing at her word choice. "I know 'harvesting' may not be the appropriate word, since it works through a medium. But do you think you can study its properties and manipulate it?"

"I'm hoping to," Clarity said. "So far, the magic's been fickle. But I'm not giving up."

"If anyone can do it, it's you," Eve said encouragingly. "It would really change the tides of our time here."

Clarity smiled again faintly at that. "Thanks. I'll let you know about anything new."
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urbanhart says...

Why couldn't anything here happen even semi-normally? Why was everything made into such a big deal? "Attendance mandatory" this, "wear something nice" that-- The sheer level of orchestration and over-management of every singular aspect on this island was exhausting just to think of.

Standing stiff and with his hands folded behind his back, Aaron felt utterly exposed without his coat. A staff member, Gary or whatever, had taken it, claiming it wasn't to the director's standards.

Hogwash! What about Jay? Why was he allowed to arrive looking... as he usually did? The only difference was that his poncho had colors!

Hawke came looking like he fell into a giant vat of neon-colored chemicals! How was that to standard?

As visitors trickled out from the newly-arrived boat, Aaron shuffled sideways, trying to inch as far away from the ramp as possible. The only downside to this distance was that he never had an opportunity to skim the bulletin for names.

What if Hawke was right? What if the DMV was horrid enough to ship in Constantine straight to them?

What if they brought in Aaron's father? Which should've felt like the lesser of two evils, but. Did not.

Just when he was about to turn and run from both possibilities, someone entirely unexpected appeared instead.

Ava Smith.

What the hell?

...How did they know?

Eyes wide and heart suddenly hammering away in his chest, Aaron dumbly watched as she carried down a duffel bag under one arm and an animal carrier under the other. She glanced down at the tag attached to the cage, then intently scanned the dock.

"Uh, Jay More? Uh, Mourn-sky?" she called over the bustle, confusion pitching her voice. "I have your ferret now, I guess, so. If you're around...?"

Aaron blinked, then slowly turned a blank look to Jay.

Jay let out a huff.

"I'll be damned," he said. "They sent my pet stoat."

But the lack of enthusiasm in his voice did not match Jay's quickness to hurry up to Ava. There was a... almost youthful excitement in his step, but it was subdued. As if he was trying very hard not to show it.

"Oh!" Ava smiled as she took notice of Jay's approach. She held up the cage by its handle. "Hey, is this little guy yours?"

Jay eagerly took the cage from her. Practically grabbing it from her hands.

"Yes," Jay said. And Aaron knew well enough now that this was Jay trying to stay stoic - though Aaron had never been used to seeing Jay suppress what almost seemed like a smile.

"He's mine," Jay said a little too formally. "Thank you for caring for him."

Ava just laughed. "Yeah, sure. It super weird when they just. Handed me a ferret, but no problem."

"Stoat," Jay corrected.

"Oh, oops." She pointed at the carrier. "Stoat. Got it."

"Not to be confused with weasels or minks," Jay added, holding the cage close like it was going to be taken from him.

She nodded, grinning with amusement. "Right."

Aaron glanced off to the side. There was a small space through the crowd by which he could slip out, unnoticed--

"Oh, you!" Ava suddenly shouted, excitement returning. "I remember you."

With a squeak, Aaron froze in place. Both Jay and Ava were staring at him. An awkward silence lapsed, where none of them seemed to know what to do.

Aaron sure as hell didn't know what to do with this.

"You two know each other?" Jay decided to ask.

"Yeah," Ava answered easily. "I mean, kinda mostly in passing? College stuff, you know."

Jay's eyes slowly drifted from Ava to Aaron, and Aaron saw a knowing look pass over his face. And then... oh no. Was that... was Jay smiling? He never smiled.


Aaron wanted to just disappear, by any means possible. Instantaneously. Didn't have to be painless.

Jay nodded his head to Ava, closing whatever gap remained between the three of them.

"College stuff, you say," Jay said. "What's your name, then?"

Fighting the urge to jump into the ocean, Aaron hastily dusted himself off and straightened, answering first, "This is Ava Smith. She-- we, uh. Shared class."

Following after Jay, Ava grinned with an arched brow. "Wow. You actually remembered my name."

"He's good at that," Jay said. "He has a sharp memory."


Was that a compliment?

"I mean," Ava countered with a light, teasing laugh, "he had a shared essay to work on? Not once did he get his partners' names right."

Jay shrugged.

"A selective sharp memory," Jay offered. "Guess you made an impression."

"I guess so," Ava mused.

"Well-- Certainly!" Aaron abruptly agreed, wincing at his own volume. "Yes. You are quite... competent."

Dammit. Uh, something more specific--

"Gorgeous," Jay mouthed at Aaron behind his hand so Ava couldn't see.

Aaron felt heat rise to his face. Well-- True! But he couldn't just say that!

"An excellent... researcher," Aaron added. "Very engaging writer."

Jay's expression fell flat, and he sighed.

"Yours were the only presentations I actually ever. Found myself interested in," Aaron stubbornly went on.

No, wait, that was weird. Was that weird?

Jay slowly nodded in approval.

Ah. Okay. Step in the right direction.

Laughing lightly, Ava shrugged as she glanced modestly at her shoes. "Super high praise," she said, turning a smile back up to him. "Thanks."

Slightly behind her, Jay gave Aaron a subtle thumbs-up. Aaron wasn't sure how to acknowledge this since Ava's attention was fixed on him, so. He didn't. Just. Committed to memory the feeling of. Extending a sincere compliment; which was, a mix of weird and uplifting.

"What did you study, Ava?" Jay decided to ask.

"Uh, sociology," she answered, stepping back so that she could see Jay too. "We shared an anthropology class?"

"Well, what a pleasant surprise that you two get to see each other," Jay said. "What a small world."

Oh god.

None of this felt real. Ava Smith was actually on island hell, talking to him. Jay was being pleasant and it actually felt genuine? Had the world gone mad?!

"Uh, Jay, right?" Ava asked.

"Yeah," Jay said.

"Right." She nodded. "Aaron never mentioned a Jay anytime, so I'm just curious how you know each other."

"We met on this island," Jay answered for them. But then had the boldness to add: "He's my closest friend here."

Aaron blinked.

...He was? Jay really thought that of him?

"Aw, awesome!" Ava commented, casting Aaron an endeared grin.

Aaron managed a weak smile in turn. "It. Yes," he agreed, awkwardly.

"You know, you two should catch up," Jay suggested. "Sounds like it's been a while since you've talked. And I should check on Meanie-mo and get him situated." A beat. "That's the stoat's name."

"Awh!" Ava giggled. "Such a cute name for a little guy!"

Aaron slow-blinked at Jay again, brows raised in silent questioning.

"I didn't name him," Jay said. "A friend did. But yes. It is a cute name."

Jay peeked into the cage, and the stoat in question stuck its tiny nose out, wiggling it at him. Jay offered the stoat his finger for the creature to sniff. The stoat bit it.

Not reacting to the bite in the slightest, Jay lowered the cage.

"Anyway. He's probably dying to be let out. So," Jay said. "I'll... leave you to it."

Trying not to panic that he'd be on his own, Aaron nodded slightly. "Yes, whilst you. Catch up with your stoat?" He winced at how that might've sounded judgmental. He just didn't know what else to say.

"Yeah, we'll have lots to talk about," Jay joked dryly, thankfully making it sound like Aaron meant to joke too. "So many stories to tell."

Ava smiled. "He is a chatty little guy, I've found," she agreed. "Nice meeting you, Jay!"

"Yeah," Jay said with a small wave. "I'll see you around."

And as he walked forward, passing Ava, he made brief eye contact with Aaron and mouthed: "Good luck."

Thanks. Aaron was in dire need of it.

Looking back to a still-smiling Ava, Aaron flushed with anxiety and self-awareness. Was he sweating? More than normal? It felt like someone cranked up the dial on the sun all of sudden.

"Uhm," he stammered, sticking an arm out to the side in stiff invitation, "shall we walk? Where to? I'm not entirely sure, but I heartell that walks, aimless though they may be, are most scenic in the tropics."

Raising an amused brow, Ava shrugged. "Yeah, please!" With a little elbow nudge, she added teasingly, "Lead the way, professor."

Aaron felt himself crack a small but real smile as he obliged and lead the way through the commotion. "I still don't understand that nickname," he murmured.

She laughed. "Dude, really? The glasses? The button-downs with starched collars? The occasional bowties?"

"I don't--" He shrugged with embarrassment.

"No, I'm sorry! It's okay!" She giggled again. "At least it's a classy vibe, right? Remember my grunge phase? Worst haircut I ever tried, and the neon pink hair dye?" She scrunched her nose. "No idea what I was thinking, it's like my brain turned off for an entire semester."

With another shrug, Aaron quietly offered, "I don't know, I thought you wore the color quite well."

Then it occurred to him, when she paused to readjust the strap of her duffel, to maybe offer to carry it for her. That was gentlemanly, right?

Stopping at the edge of the dock, he gestured with both hands to it with an uncertain, "I can...?"

"Aw!" Ava's smile melted with another flash of endearment. "That's really sweet, thanks!"

She swung the bag from her shoulder. The minute she let go of the strap, it nearly took Aaron down to the ground with it. Trying not to strain audibly, he adjusted his stance to keep upright.

"I want to just take off my shoes real quick," Ava said, not noticing as she bent over to undo the laces, "then I can it take it back."

"No, it's fine," he insisted, voice faint. "I got it."

After tying together the laces to hang her shoes over her shoulder, Ava bit back another laugh. "...Are you sure?"

With a grunt, Aaron successfully swung the bag around to rest on his back. He wheezed out a small, "Yes."

The pitiful, embarrassing state of his physical condition notwithstanding, it was. Really nice, the way she smiled and laughed. Not an ounce of unkindness to it. Almost affectionate, despite not ever being super close in the past.

"Lead the way, big guy," Ava said warmly. "I still don't fully understand what this place is, and what we're supposed to be doing. If anything."

Aaron huffed, managing another small, genuine grin of his own. "To be honest, it's still unclear to me as well," he said, taking them up the beachside.

Shrugging as she stayed in step beside him, Ava concluded, "Then we'll just be clueless together. Do our own things."

Aaron only nodded, trying to keep the smile plastered on.

Because he felt a familiar icy presence, faint but there, and knew there was no way something this nice could possibly last.

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Carina says...

Alistair stared at the staff houses.

Yeah. Very humble. These cabins were literal huts compared to the giant cabins the contestants had. But you know, this was so typical of every greedy corporation. It was all glam and glitz for the cameras, and literal dirt and shambles for everyone else.

It wouldn't even surprise him if the staff had crumbs and porridge to eat while the contestants ate like kings. Hell, they basically had two king-like figures on the island, anyways.

"Which one is Alan in?" Alistair asked.

"That one, closest to us." Shay pointed as she sauntered down the path. "He's probably with Doc Mel and or Bo. Might not be feeling himself yet, but we can pop over and ask."

Alistair didn't know who any of these people were, but he nodded, following after Shay. "Sure, yeah. Thanks."

It was a short walk, especially since the townhouses were pretty close together. Shay was quick to skip ahead, knocking at the door that supposedly where Alan was kept.

The door opened after a ten second wait, and a very large, tall, ripped man opened the door. At first glance, he was terrifying. Not only did he tower over them, but he had a nasty scar over his face that took out his left eye. The only thing that alleviated the intimidation was the genuinely warm smile that came to his face.

This must've been Bo.

"Oh, hey Shay," Bo said. "And you are...?"

Alistair placed a hand on his chest. "Alistair," he said. "Alan's brother. I heard he's inside?"

Bo's brows raised up, and there was a look of empathy and concern.

"He is," Bo said softly. "But he's still pretty frazzled. He's doing a lot better now that he's been healed and is in a quiet environment, but he's still pretty easily spooked. I assume Shay caught you up to speed on what happened?"

"Kind of," Alistair said hesitantly, exchanging a glance with her. "Thanks for healing him, though. Do you know what spooked him so bad?"

"We're still not entirely sure," Bo said. "All of this happened after the magic switched back from the previous event. I don't know everything that happened to him during the maze, either. I'm still trying to catch up on the footage from last night, but I've been swamped with preparing food orders for the visitors coming in."

Alistair rubbed the back of his neck, thinking. He didn't realize that everyone's magic was switched around, but he read some group texts about some kind of mention of this, and things were making sense now.

Still... what happened?

"I can ask Alan," Bo said, a little softer. "If he's okay with seeing you. Right now he seems to be alright with me being around - after a few hours of working that out - but I'm not sure how he'd respond to someone new. I know you're his brother but he's really not himself at the moment."

Alistair dropped his hand, nodding. "If you don't mind, I'd like to see him, yeah. If he wants to."

"Okay," Bo said. "Let me ask him. Just a minute."

He closed the door.

Alistair turned to Shay, eyebrow raised. "Everyone's magic was switched around? How's that possible?"

Shay shrugged. "Fuck, if I know. I've been trying to read up on studies about, uh, 'magical grounds'. I'm guessing this island counts as one of those."

Alistair scrunched his nose, pinching his brows together. "What the hell is that?"

With a huffed laugh, Shay glanced up in thought. She held up both hands. "It's like. Places so old, that there's this arcane magic that kind of just..." Making a 'swoosh', she made a flowing gesture with her hands. "...is imbued in the ground or whatever."

What the hell? No way that was real. That sounded like terrible fantasy fiction.

"Oh my god," he muttered. "This island is seriously hell."

Shay laughed. "Dude, is there nothing in Argentia? Like, no kind of magic built into its culture and shit?"

"Not really. It's basically anarchy," Alistair deadpanned. "Magic users are rare. It's mostly from rich tourists who think they own the place."

"Well, that fucking sucks," Shay said with a snort.

"Yeah. I know," he grumbled.

Suddenly the door opened again, and Bo reappeared.

"I'm sorry," Bo said with a sadness in his singular eye. "He said he doesn't want to see you. I think he's afraid he might hurt you. He doesn't feel like he can trust himself right now."

That only made his heart hurt. Alistair could be okay with hearing that Alan wasn't ready to see him, but hearing that Alan didn't trust himself? That made his heart ache.

He could only imagine how much worse Alan felt. He couldn't even imagine it.

"That's alright. Thank you for checking," he said more softly, hands in his pant pockets. He paused, feeling his phone in his pocket. "Can I get your number, at least? So I can check in?"

"Totally," Bo said. He pulled out his phone, quickly opening to the contacts app and pulling up a new contact form. "Here, put your info in and I'll text you."

Alistair nodded, taking his phone and adding in his name and number, giving it back to him. He then pulled out his own phone, patiently waiting for the text as Bo started typing.

He just realized had a ton of unread messages from Andrea, but he could open those later.

"There ya go," Bo said, and Alistair heard the swoosh sound from Bo's phone as the message sent.

Right on cue, his phone vibrated with a new text from an unknown number, only sending "Bo Petrov" as the message. Alistair nodded, slipping his phone back in his pocket.

"Got it, thanks. I'll check in when I can, but if anything happens, can you also send me updates? I know my mom would like to know too," he said.

"Of course," Bo said. "I'll keep you in the loop."

"Thanks for looking after my brother, man. I appreciate it," Alistair said.

"I'm happy to do it," Bo said. "He's a good kid. I hate that this is happening to him."

"Yeah..." Alistair sighed, slipping his hands back in his pockets. "Sounds like we don't really know too much, but... we'll figure it out. I trust he'll be okay here in the meantime."

Bo nodded, and there was a small, empathetic smile on his face.

"I know he said he didn't want to see you," Bo said. "But I can tell he was happy to hear you're here. I think he really appreciates you coming by, even though he's having a really hard time right now."

"Thanks," Alistair said a bit softly, though he wasn't sure what else to say. These were nice sentiments, though.

He gave another glance at Shay, then towards the path they came from.

"Well," he said with a sigh. "My mom's still at the dock, so I should go back. But I'll keep in touch."

"Sounds like a plan," Bo said with a small smile. "Maybe I'll send you some pictures of your brother rolled up like a burrito. That's kind of his permanent state at the moment."

Alistair let out a puff of air. "Right. Yeah."

"You know, like, when you finish giving a kitten a bath," Bo continued. "And they're still a little feral, and you have to squish them into a blanket and burrito them, and suddenly they go all big-eyed and realize it's actually kind of nice?"

That was... weirdly descriptive. Alistair nodded slowly.

"Sure, yeah," he said.

"Yeah, it was kind of like that," Bo said. "He's just like a big overgrown feral kitten learning how to receive care again."

"Well. Please give him a pet for me, then," Alistair said dryly.

Bo snorted.

"I like your humor," Bo said. "If he weren't also a grown man I'd give him a pat on the head. Unfortunately, he is, though. Or -- fortunately, I mean."

Alistair was tempted to say that that was fine since he was glad to do it for him. But he decided to keep that to himself.

"Yeah. Fortunately," he said instead.

"Anyways, I don't want to keep you from your mother," Bo said. "So I'll stop holding you hostage at my door with kitten analogies."

There was a joke in there somewhere, but Alistair looked the other way. Unless that was the joke. It probably was.

"Alright. See you around," he said with a nod for goodbye.

"Later, chief," Shay said with an uneven grin and a salute.

Bo lifted a hand. "See ya," was the last he said before closing the door.

Alistair stood stiffly, turning his head back at Shay.

"I feel like I walked away with more questions than answers," he mumbled.

Turning on her heel, Shay lead the way off the front porch. "And that's just another wonderful facet of this hellhole," she said cheerfully. "Having no fucking clue."

Alistair let out a frustrated groan, following after Shay but temporary blinding himself by burying his face in his hands. God, he was going to get an aneurysm; he could feel it.

"Silver lining, though!" Shay offered, ambling up the path they took here. "Place has some awesome views."

"Yaaaay," he said with absolutely no enthusiasm whatsoever.

She snickered, but offered nothing else.

So they walked in silence, and Alistair took advantage of this time to really think this through again. If he was thrown into a detective role, he may as well bullshit his way to be in one, even though this was far above his paygrade.

Okay. So magic was switched around. That was a new development.

Alistair let that sink in for a long while. And then it finally hit him.

"Hey... Shay?" Alistair called, breaking the silence as they walked.

"What up?"

"People's magic was switched around for the previous event, right? So..." He kicked the dirt. "Who had Alan's magic?"

A quick beat of silence passed as Shay raised a brow at him. "Uh... Yeah, that was Lyall."

Huh. The plot thickens. Or so they say.

God, he really was walking into a real life game of Clue.

"Uggggghhhhhhh," Alistair groaned, rubbing his face with irritation.

Because now he had to interview Lyall, didn't he?

Shay winced at a new thought. "And the little dude used Alan's magic on the island's three craziest fuckers."

He stared at her incredulously, stressfully running his hand through his hair. "What?"

"What-- Oh, right. You don't actually watch this show. Like a sane person." She spun around to walk backwards in front of him. "Alright, so there's this mind reader guy, right? Stravos. He's from Fjelstad. Clinically insane. No one goes near him, the guy needs serious help."

What the hell? Was this for real? Of all the people the DMV invited, they picked a fucking tweaker?

"Then," Shay went on, gesturing from one side to the other with her hands in her coat pockets, "there's this absolute bitch, Tula. Arabbean. Fakest gal to ever walk this shitty earth. Obsessed with actual torture and stuff."

Alistair couldn't help but open his jaw in shock, completely flabberghasted.

Did she say... torture? Torture? What? What the fuck?!

"And then there's Alexander. Monster hunter from Nye." Tone way too matter-of-fact, she added by way of all explanation, "He's a pole dancer."

Okay. That was...

Alistair fiercely shook his head, reeling from this insane information.

"You're fucking with me," he said, not believing this at all. "Right? Tell me you're fucking with me."

Shay barked a laugh. "Dude, I wish I fucking was! I swear, everyone here is either hot as the fucking sun, or just batshit crazy. Sometimes both."

"Oh my god," Alistair murmured, completely losing it as he stressfully ran both hands through his hair again, pulling it with so much tension that it kind of hurt. "What the fuck is happening on this island?"

"It's basically televised hell on earth, my guy," Shay agreed.

"My god! Torture? Torture?! Are you for real?" Alistair spat out, feeling a spike of anxiety upon realizing that all of this-- all this insane, crazy shit-- was so damn normalized.

Finally, Shay let go of the breezy facade. Gesturing emphatically with both hands, she shouted back, righteous anger flashing in her eyes, "Right?! God, I cannot tell you how many times I wanted to fucking revolt against those island tyrants! But fuck if my opinion actually matters. My broke ass can't do shit against their army of literal spies and lawyers!"

Typical! Of course the organization who gave the staff little shacks treated them like absolute peasants with no voice. These stupid rich people will do and say anything to keep people below them.

Alistair was used to interacting with rich, entitled snobs-- but this? This was a whole new level.

And it was insane.

"Fuck!" he yelled out into the woods, not able to keep the growing anxiety inside. "What the hell is this place? Isn't this shit illegal? And the world is watching too. Is no one doing anything?"

"The--" Shay stopped herself short, scanning the trees before taking a step closer. "They've got entire governments in their back pockets," she said, voice a dark murmur. "It's a whole convoluted scheme of money and shitty politics." Brows furrowed in earnestness, she went on, "I wish there was something we could do. None of us like this, but dude; we're all out of our fucking depth out here."

"This isn't a fucking conspiracy, is it?" Alistair said as he finally pulled his hands away from his head. "Because you sound like a raging lunatic. But somehow, I also believe you."

"Fuck, man!" Shay barked another laugh, dry and harsh this time. "I'm living out this 'conspiracy' in real time. I feel like a raging lunatic!"

Alistair rubbed his face, trying to think through one thought at a time. He usually kept his thoughts to himself, but his head was such a mess, he decided to just... think through it out loud.

"So there are legit crazy people on this island. Stravos, mentally insane. Tula, torture bitch. Alexander..."

He bit his tongue, almost saying pole dancer out loud. But that really wasn't important.

"Yeah," he continued. "Crazy people. Noted. And Lyall had my brother's magic. He used it against the three of them, which... made Alan go crazy, maybe." A pause. "Did Lyall act crazy at all?"

"Uh." Shay winced, uncertain. "My buddy didn't mention him losing his shit or nothing, so. I'm guessing not?"

"Weird," he muttered, but maybe she just didn't know. "Well, okay. Now the question is, to what extent did Lyall use his magic? And for what?" He glanced at Shay. "Do you know?"

Shay shrugged, shoving her hands in her pockets again. "I think he used it to sneak his way onto the winning team. Which was. Tula and Alex." She grimaced and muttered, "God, the next event is gonna suck..."

Alistair didn't know what that meant, but... one layer at a time.

Could Tula and Alex influence Alan so much that it could cause him to tweak out, go crazy, and jump off balconies? Alistair couldn't say, but this didn't feel right.

"Then my buddy just mentioned the insane mind reader encounter was a freak accident," Shay finished. "Basically attacked the little doc."


Oh no.

"When you say insane," Alistair began slowly, "how insane is this dude?"

Shay actually hesitated this time. "...Literally off his fucking rocker."

"Oh my god," Alistair muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Everything clicked into place now. Alistair had witnessed Alan use his magic on an unfortunate soul before, but the person he used it on wasn't batshit insane... just insane.

But this? Being literally clinically insane? Holy shit. He couldn't even imagine. Alan's behavior made complete sense now.

"No wonder Alan went insane," he added, groaning.

Nodding slowly, Shay quickly caught on. "...Fuck."
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SilverNight says...


Everything was set in motion. It was time to leave.

Mireya checked her watch, glancing at the time. Thirteen minutes had passed since the ramp had lowered, but since there had been so many cameras focused on every different part of the scene, there would be enough footage to create an episode ten times over.

Of course, not all of it was useful. She for sure wanted the footage of the Ashlund clan reuniting, the Bridger sibling faceoff, and whatever of the ex-drama was camera-worthy. She had to do the math on whether she could actually show Shane getting pushed in, but she sure hoped so. She hadn't managed not to laugh when he and James had emerged dripping and wet from the ocean.

But others lacked excitement. Mireya had counted seven words exchanged between Clarity and her father. If that made the cut, it needed some cricket sound effects.

She snuck around behind the cameras, sneaking glances at the remaining contestants before she joined Mel, holding up her hand with a grin.

"Where's my high five? We did it!" she said brightly.

"Right here!" Mel said just as bright, high fiving her eagerly. "Man! It's been such a long morning with all the visitor preparation and montage stuff. On top of that, I also gave two makeovers! Sheesh. Can't wait to unwind and relax!"

Mireya shook her head. "Girl, you need some self-care."

"We need some self-care!" Mel corrected as she playfully poked her forearm. "You've been working soooo much, Mireya! Come onnnn, live a little and have some fun."

Mireya pretended to give it some thought, putting her hands on her hips and looking up at the sky. "You think I should?"

"Yeah!" Mel said eagerly, giving her a sunny grin. "Maybe we should have a beach day. Just two hot gals sipping drinks in their bikinis. What do you think?"

Mireya returned the grin. "You know, Mel, that sounds perfect. Girls just wanna have fun, right?"

"Oh my gosh! We should have sang that song together in karaoke!" Mel giggled. "Maybe we should throw our own karaoke night. I feel like the contestants are going to be angsty all week, soooo..."

Mireya laughed, but felt a bit like looking over her shoulder, back at the docks.

Yeah. That was probably true. Of course, it was what she'd planned on, but it was definitely going to dampen some moods. Maybe she could arrange for another mandatory party...? No, not everyone would be happy with that either.

Looked like she might just have to get accustomed to the angst.

"Hey, it could be a staff karaoke party," Mireya suggested. "Ever wanted to see Dante sing? Ethan? Come on, imagine Cas singing."

Mel's eyes brightened at the idea. With a giddy smile, she clapped with glee, skipping in her step. "Oh my gosh, that's a great idea! I should do a cute duet with Dante. Maybe he'll get the hint then? Either way, that sounds so fun! We totally should do this!"

Mireya whooped a little. "Oh, I'm sure he'll get it, Mel. You just gotta pick a classic swoony romance one."

Mel hummed. "Maybe I'll pick the same one Lyall picked with Shane. Or is that too innocent? Maybe I'll do a lil dance too!"

"Mel, please. I am begging you to dance," Mireya said, clasping her hands pleadingly.

"No begging needed," Mel said with a grin. "I love to dance! Just sucks, 'cause pretty men these days think they're too cool to dance. Don't they know that girls go weak for a man who dances? Eesh."

"Do you think Dante dances?" Mireya wondered. "I have no idea."

"Maybe! Consider: we throw a dance party to find out," Mel said, waggling her brows.

Mireya clapped her hands. "Now that's going on the calendar."

"Yessss!" Mel cheered, another skip in her step. She beamed, playfully nudging her with her elbow. "But for real, girlie, what do you like to do in your spare time? I feel like you need a break. You know, unwind and be the fabulous Mireya off work hours."

Mireya shrugged a shoulder. "Eh, you know, just be cool and lazy and comfy cozy."

Mel pouted. "Booo. Try again. That's a low effort answer."

"Just like my time off," Mireya said with a grin.

Mel smiled, half-rolling her eyes. "You hustle too much, girl."

"Hey, hustling gets me more money, and money can buy more coziness," Mireya reasoned.

"Sheesh, maybe you should sing Santa Baby too, then!" Mel said with a snort. "If all you do is make money, how the heck are you going to spend it? You've got no time to even do that!"

"Well, the island's free, so I couldn't if I wanted to! We're talking about future coziness here!" Mireya said, poking Mel's shoulder playfully.

Mel giggled, poking her back. "Oh yeah? Whatcha going to spend it on after we leave the island, then?"

"The coziest, grandest house," Mireya said boldly. "Somewhere that's warm even in the dead of winter. Oh, and I want one of those wine cellars the contestants have."

Mel raised a curious brow, smiling. "Dang, do you know how much that would cost in this economy? I feel like that'd cost, like, a bajillion dollars."

"Exactly," Mireya said, pointing at her. "Hence, the hustle."

Mel sighed, still smiling. "Well, you better have room for your pal Mel, then! We can turn it up if we're roomies again."

"Ooh, wouldn't that be fun?" Mireya asked with a smile. "You're right, it seems silly for one person to have a wine cellar all to themselves."

Mel snickered. "Yeah, that's so extra! Like... why not just put wine? On a shelf? Like a normal person?"

"I don't hustle to be normal," Mireya said with a shrug. "But good point, that would be excessive."

Mel shrugged, still smiling. "At the end of the day, it's your money, girlie! Just want you to live your life and have a good time, is all."

Mireya was about to answer, but then she noticed Shay walking along the beach with Alistair. Alan's brother. When she'd been going over the lists of who to invite, figuring out which candidates would be most popular or impactful, Alistair had been an obvious choice. He'd already garnered attention, both from Alan's mentions of him and his own appearance on the montage. She was still a little upset that Alan had to go be crazy or something this afternoon instead of being at the docks. Whenever they met up, she hoped there were cameras.

At least the chaos of the morning was filmed, which lessened her disappointment a bit.

"Yo, Shay!" Mireya called out, waving. "Didn't know you were giving personal tours!"

"Eyo, Mir! Mel!" Shay waved back with both arms. "Tour's only for the coolest fuckers around! Wanna join?"

"Yeah! It's a party!" Mel called out, waving both her arms. She cast Mireya a grin. "Hey, the DNI order doesn't count for visitors, right? Let's go!"

"Right!" Mireya said, jogging up to them. "Hey, speaking of visitors-- welcome to the island, Alistair! How's it so far?"

Alistair stood stiffly, hands in his pockets, mustering a half-hearted smile. "Hey, yeah. It's fine."

"His bro's still a little under the weather," Shay offered, tone softening just a tad. Brightening he next instant, she bumped elbows with Mel. "But, hey! We can make a party out of walking him back in the meantime." She pointed finger guns at Alistair. "Just you 'n the gals!"

Alistair let out a thinly-disguised long suffering sigh, and Mel cheered, swooping her arms up in a cricle to point back to where they were walking from.

"Woooo, yeah! Back to the docks, this way!" she called, motioining for them to follow.

But with a curious glint in her eye, Mel fell behind so she could walk alongside Alistair, who leaned away from her.

"I'm Mel!" she said brightly, hand on her chest. She then gestured to Mireya. "Blue-haired gal over there is Mireya. Now you know!"

"...Nice," Alistair said, seemingly not knowing what to say.

Mel hummed, playfully narrowing her eyes at him. "You're kind of grouchy."

Scoffing, Alistair shot her an offended look. "Wow."

Mel giggled. "You seem funny, though!" She poked his arm, to which he stepped and leaned away from her, frowning. "I can just tell. You're so funny. You should say a joke."

Alistair let out a long sigh. "Knock knock."

"Who's there?" Mel said eagerly.

"Leave me alone," he said.

Mel snickered. "See! I knew you were funny, Mister Grouchy Pants!"

Falling into step beside Mireya, Shay playfully poked her shoulder. "Yo, where you been hiding, dog? Not even ten minutes, and it's complete chaos over there."

"Oh, you know, behind the cameras," Mireya laughed. "And breathing down Ethan's neck while asking if he 'got that'."

Shay huffed a laugh. "Gotta help keep the dude on task, yeah."

"We did get most of the chaos, though," Mireya said. "What'd you miss? I can fill you in."

"You fucking rock!" Shay said, flashing an appreciative grin. "Yeah, I only got to see some of the Alvaro stuff? Natalie and Clanny things. Then I kinda had to step out with Al shortly after. So." She shrugged with a laugh. "Basically missed everything else."

"Oh, better brace yourself," Mireya said, with a shake of her head. "You won't believe some of it. Did you know our very own Shane Hawking got pushed. Into. The. Ocean. By his ex, even!"

Shay's eyes widened. "No fucking way! How did I miss that?!"

"Oh my gosh, I saw that!" Mel cut in, attention stolen by the gossip. She slowed in her steps until she squeezed between Shay and Mireya, literally butting herself in. "Man, I can understand having a ruthless ex, but imagine how immature you have to be to push them into the ocean. Like, come on, girl. You're better than that." She shrugged. "Even if your ex pretends you don't exist."

Mireya puffed out a laugh. "Right? Just leave him to it, girl, he's not yours anymore."

"For reallllll!" Mel drew out, huffing.

Shay laughed dryly. "Man, is she like. Fucking ten years old, or what? God."

"I mean, to be fair, they dated for like seven years. I swear, this is why high school relationships never work out! You date when you're a teenager, and it's like your relationship is founded on teenage angst!" Mel huffed.

"I bet they bought into the sunk-cost fallacy," Mireya sighed. "Either that or something happened to her crazy high IQ here."

"You're probably right, Mir," Shay hummed. "I'm not caught up on all the hot world goss and shit, but seven years? Never tying the knot? Yeah."

Mel nodded, but upon further broaching of Shane's prior relationship, the enthusiasm seemed to fade away. She was quiet for a moment, but then brightened up again, kicking up sand ahead towards Alistair's feet, who was walking ahead of them despite being the visitor.

"So, Alistair!" she started. "The three of us are single ladies. What about you? Anyone special at home?"

He hesitantly glanced at her over his shoulder, frowning, but otherwise not commenting. Mel grinned.

"Ooooh, so there is!" she teased.

"I didn't even say anything," he muttered.

"What's her name? Or his name. Or theirs." Mel beamed. "Inclusivity and all that. We won't judge!"

"Her," Alistair said more quickly.

"What's her name?" Mel asked again, pressing for an answer. Alistair was hesitant and slow to answer again, to which Mel pouted and said, "Aw, come on? Please? I just want to know. It's an innocent question!"

Alistair let out another long suffering sigh, but he paused in his steps and stepped aside towards Shay, joining up with the group so they were all walking side-by-side.

"Andrea," he answered simply.

"Oooh, how long have you both been dating?" Mel asked.

Alistair rubbed the side of his head, thinking. "It's, uh..."

"... A year? Six months? A day? Oh my gosh, don't tell me it's seven years," Mel went on when he took too long to answer.

"In total, two years," Alistair finally said.

Mel hummed. "Huh! That's a long time. Definitely long enough to tie the knot."

She waggled her eyebrows at him, causing him to look away, embarrassed.

"Mmhmm," he simply hummed, leaving it at that.

"Ey, Mir," Shay said suddenly, reaching around Mel to poke her again. "How 'bout you? You haven't brought up any of this kind of shit when we hang out. Got anybody? Past, present? Future? Just ain't your style?"

"Eh," Mireya said, waving a hand around dismissively with a carefree smile. "I don't see how I'd have the time for that. Or, better answer, I'm too cool for that."

Mel gasped. "How dare you. People don't deserve your coolness, Mir. You're only allowed to date the coolest people ever. Why? Because I say so."

Shay snorted. "I say we make time for what counts. So, if it's just not on your radar for whatever reason, that's cool."

"Maybe sometime," Mireya agreed breezily. "In the meantime, I'll just work on getting cooler."

"Who knows, maybe you'll meet someone who makes you cooler!" Mel said, still smiling. "That's how you know they're the one."

Mireya snorted playfully. "Oh, that would be something."

Mel poked Shay's side. "What about you, Shay? Got anybody: past, present, or future? Or not your thing? All of the above?"

Snickering, Shay lightly swatted at Mel's hand. "Nah, nobody." She cast Mireya a playful grin and added, "If that 'maybe sometime' ever comes around, though, call me up! We can be the coolest shit together." And, with a goofier grin and wink, she pointed finger guns at her.

"Will do," Mireya said eagerly, pointing finger guns back.

Mel playfully narrowed her eyes at Shay, seemingly not hearing the last few sentences to come out of her mouth. "Shaaaaaay?" she called playfully. "Why do I get the feeling you're hiding something? Like, a yet! A nobody, yet! Or something. Hm? Hmmm?!" She giggled, playfully elbowing her impatiently.

Laughing, Shay stepped around Mel to walk at Mireya's other side. "Dude, why'd you let Alvaro off the hook so fast and not me?"

"Because you're not grouchy, duh!" Mel said with a laugh.

Alistair only rolled his eyes in response, not commenting.

"Mir, did my response strike you as grouchy?" Shay asked with mock-offense.

"Nah, just secretive," Mireya said with a grin.

"Ah-hah!" Mel said victoriously.

Shay barked a laugh, lightly shoving Mireya's shoulder. "Dude! Throw me under the fucking bus!"

Mel slipped away to now be by Shay's free side, hand under her chin as she squinted at her with a silly smile. "You're totally hiding something. What is it?"

"I ain't like the little doc," Shay said, lifting both hands placatingly as she grinned down at Mel. "So it's definitely not my sexuality."

Mireya snickered. "Good one."

Shay smiled brighter, thoroughly pleased with herself.

Mel giggled. "If it was, we could chat about it anyways, since I talked about it with Lyall." She flicked her hair over her shoulder, clicking her tongue as she playfully tilted her chin up. "I'm kind of the crisis queen. You got a crisis? I'm your gal."

Tucking her hands in her coat pockets, Shay just shrugged. "And that's what makes you a fucking rockstar," she said, light-hearted yet sincere. "If I've got a crisis, I'm coming to you first."

Still, Mel hummed, suspicious. "So?" she said casually, grinning. "What's your crisis? I'm all ears!"

"I don't have one yet, dummy!" Shay said with another laugh, bumping her arm to Mel's shoulder.

"Yet?" Mel echoed with another suspicious eye squint and grin. "Okay, you have to spill, now. I am way too intrigued. Spill the tea, sis. Something is up, I can smell it!" She hummed again, not waiting for her to answer. "Someone on this island is giving you a crisis. Is that it?"

"Alright, yeah," Shay finally relented, grin fading as she slowed, "you got me. There is someone bugging me."

Taking a folded-up cap from the pocket of her jacket, she flicked it back into shape-- then promptly shoved it down over Mel's eyes before bolting. "And that pest is you!" she shouted, cackling.

Mel scoffed and sputtered, pausing in her steps as the cap was pulled down her eyes. She laughed, quickly recovering as she quickly pulled back the hat, running after Shay.

"Waaaait! Shaaaay!" she called, waving the cap as she ran with some out-of-shape huffs. "Come back here!"

Mireya laughed, watching them run off. Well, Mel was out of luck. There was no catching up to Shay for her.

She glanced around the beach, wondering what she'd do know that she was alone. Wait. She wasn't.

Beaming, she turned to Alistair with an amused shake of her head. "Aaaaaaand now we'll never know," she said. "Shame."

Alistair quietly huffed through his nose, still focused ahead. "Yeah. A real shame."

"But hey, there's still a week left to get it out of her," Mireya said. "One whole week of fame! I mean, that's mostly for all the other visitors, with you already being popular and all."

Alistair hesitantly cast her a skeptical look. "Popular?" he said with heavy doubt.

"Duh," Mireya said. "I mean, people were so happy to see you on the montage! I had people asking me to have you visit before this visit was planned."

Alistair squinted ahead, tightly pressing his lips together. He was quiet for a moment before finally muttering, "I didn't think the interview was that impressive. It was honestly kind of weird."

"It wasn't about impressing anyone," Mireya said, amused. "Just people liking you."

Alistair let out another puff of air, self-consciously looking down at his feet. "Yeah. Still weird. Not like anything caught on camera here is real, anyways."

"Not real?" Mireya huffed. "Sure it is! I should know, I'm the director."

"Well, yeah. So you're shielded from it all in a bubble." Alistair lightly shrugged. "Life outside this hell island is far different."

"I'm not understanding," Mireya admitted. "What you should be seeing outside the bubble is what's inside it."

Alistair was quiet for a moment, giving her a quiet glance. "I'm just saying the world is a big place, and a lot of it can't be bothered by a show. That's all."

Couldn't be bothered? Like, impacted? Affected?

Mireya blinked, more perplexed than annoyed.

"I mean, sure," she said. "I'm aware this show doesn't reach everyone. I was just saying that yeah, those it did reach are glad to have you here."

Alistair kept his gaze down again, letting a brief silence pass. "Well, thanks," he said with a sigh. "I can't say I'm glad to be here, but I'm glad I can see my brother again. Even though I can't see him right now."

"He'll be around soon," Mireya promised, meaning it. "It'll be a good week."

"Do you have anything... planned?" Alistair asked.

"Nope!" Mireya said. "The week is yours to do whatever you want with."

"Nice, I can now pretend life is normal while the whole world is watching," Alistair dead-panned.

"Oh, you're good at this," Mireya said, nodding as though as she too was serious.

He sighed. "Doesn't it bother you that there's not a lot of privacy?"

"There is, within the spaces meant to be," Mireya said. "We intentionally shared which spaces-- like the cabins-- were private, and which ones could be subject to being filmed."

Alistair grimaced. "I don't know... This feels like a prison for rich people."

Mireya snorted. "Does it make it better or worse to be one of them for a week?"

"Worse," he quickly answered. "Definitely worse. I feel bad that I can't take Alan or anyone else with me when I leave. I don't know, there's just... a lot of insane people here. This isn't right. It's messed up."

"Hey," Mireya said, allowing herself to slip into a more sincere tone. "I hear you. They really did pick some of the weirdest people that you never knew existed and sent them away to summer camp. But most people get three months at some DMV academy which they also can't leave, but that doesn't even try to be glamorous. These folks got lucky, in a way."

Alistair pinched his brows together, confliction washing over his face. "You say lucky. I say cruel. But what do I know? I'm just an outsider," he said more quietly.

"Cruel," Mireya echoed, staring at him.

"I... well, it just feels like a zoo," Alistair went on. "Animals may have everything they want, and they get a lot of attention, but they're still behind cages. It's sad and cruel to see them waste away."

Mireya nodded slowly.

She was allowed to take feedback, wasn't she?

"Okay," she said. "So, you've got outsider experience here. What do you recommend so it's not a... sad, cruel zoo?"

Alistair rubbed the side of his face, sighing. "I'm not sure. I don't think I can reasonably answer that without cynically saying 'nothing.'" He dropped his hand, kicking a bit of sand in the air. "Sorry, I know you're the director. The show is popular. If that's what you're aiming for, you're doing a good job."

Mireya nodded, shrugging light-heartedly. "Well, lemme know if you do have any feedback sometime."

"Sure. You can interview me at the end of the week," he joked flatly, then grimaced. "Or... don't. Please don't. I'd rather not."

Mireya let out a puff of laughter. "Alright. No interview for you it is, then."

A short silence hung in the air as they walked.

"I, uh, think I know where I'm going, actually," Alistair said after clearing his throat. "You don't have to accompany me. I'm just heading back to the docks. It's hard to miss. It's literally just... follow the shoreline."

Mireya blinked. Oh, sure. They'd been bound somewhere.

Or rather, he had been. She'd been going with Mel. Which sort of left her with no particular destination.

"Oh, of course," she said after a delay in thinking. "Well, see you around, then! Maybe."

"Yeah... See you around, maybe," Alistair said with a goodbye nod and a small smile.
"silv is obsessed with heists" ~Omni

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

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

silver (she/they)

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Mon Jan 22, 2024 3:55 am
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soundofmind says...

Perhaps a bit too pettily, James put on his now infamous "fart reverb fx" shirt for this conversation. He didn't bother showering after his dip in the ocean, but he did bother to get completely dry, because the lingering ocean water still left him chilled to the bone. After getting fully dressed, he passed back through the living room again, getting a quick good luck from Shane and a meow from Shrimp before he stepped outside the cabin once more, this time hoping that he held himself together better now that he'd had a chance to...

Well, do something. He couldn't say it was all productive, but at least he'd had a breather.

It hadn't been more than an hour that had passed. Maybe only 40 minutes, though it'd felt like an eternity. As he walked past the cabins he could already see that a lot of people had left the docks and were dispersing, but several people were still hanging around in the area - looking around, still caught in conversation, or figuring out where they were going.

James couldn't help but wonder where his friends were, but his glasses weren't helping to make out people's faces from a distance.

Trying to follow the shapes of people moving several yards away, he finally began to recognize people from afar.

Okay. A lot of the visitors were still around. It looked like they were waiting closer to the path that led to the plaza, probably for a goolf cart to come down and help them carry their things up to the mansion. James spotted Ingrid amongst the ones waiting, along with Alexandra and that one guy, Luka. But more importantly, he also saw Constantine - who he was now able to look at with a clear head without panicking. Thank goodness.

Constantine, however, looked... busy. He was stepping away from a conversation with Ingrid and Alexandra of all people to approach...

Wait a damn minute. Fuck.


James broke into a sprint, approaching from behind. Constantine wore a charismatic smile as he waved to Cyrin and approached the unassuming scholar with ease. But James intercepted, just in time.

Right before Cyrin could reach out and shake Constantine's hand, James ran up from behind and picked Cyrin up. Which would've been a one-and-done thing, if Cyrin hadn't abruptly twisted in his grasp and kicked him squarely in the stomach with both legs, nearly propelling himself out of James's grasp as he did.

"What--" Cyrin growled.

"It's, it's me!" James said a little too loudly. "Sorry, sorry!"

Ow. James had only taken Cyrin a few feet before he set them down, aware that the tackle was abrupt and perhaps too dramatic, but deciding he'd rather do that than risk Cyrin's life. Cyrin thrashed as he released them, but he seemed to have the awareness that James wasn't trying to hurt him. They fell on their back, quickly rolling to a stand on their feet with a baffled, mildly angry look.

James glanced back at Constantine, who tilted his head as he cast them both a curious smile.

"I forgot to tell you what he looked like," James hissed apologetically.

Cyrin's gaze flicked to Constantine and back in an instant.

"Shit," he muttered, which somehow had a way of doubling as a thank-you.

James stood stiffly, keeping his eyes locked on Constantine. He would've offered to help Cyrin up if he didn't want to let his guard down.

"Gentlemen, please," Constantine greeted pleasantly, arms spread in a shrug, "surely there's no need for a brawl. We're all civilized folk, aren't we?"

"No," James immediately said, shaking his head and wagging his finger at Constantine. "Nooooo, we're really not."

Constantine arched a brow, an amused grin tugging on his lips. "At least some of us are self-aware," he joked lightly, letting his hands drop to his sides.

James watched Cyrin out of the corner of his eye. Their dark eyes were narrowed on Constantine, expression deadly serious as they raised their chin regally, arms folded over their chest.

"Word of advice," James said cooly. "Leave us alone or you'll find out just how 'civilized' we really are."

Constantine raised both brows now with a bemused click of his tongue. "Feisty. Fighting words. And I don't believe we've even... met before?"

James glared at Constantine with daggers in his eyes.

"Some people leech a threatening attitude into the air," Cyrin said evenly. "I suppose you qualify."

"And then there's other people," James went on. "Who are wolf in sheep's clothing."

"Hold on," Ingrid spoke up, walking up behind Constantine as she held up a hand. "What's going on here?"

"Oh, no, my dear," Constantine said reassuringly, "not to worry. We're settling this like sane--" And he gave the two a pointed head tilt. "--adults. Yes? We can talk this out."

James's upper lip twitched in contempt.

"Oh, sure, let's talk it out while the world's watching," James said, with fire on his words.

"I am curious what you have to say," Constantine hummed, folding his hands behind his back. "Seeing as we've only just smacked eyes on each other a mere moment ago."

James barked a rueful laugh. "Ohhhh, fuck you. Fuuuuuck you."

"Okay, hold on, now," Ingrid butted in. "I think there must be some misunderstanding."

"There isn't," Cyrin said, lightly, but with a cold firmness to his words. "I think I speak for both of us when I say we'd like to be left alone by this man."

"'This man'?" Ingrid asked increduously. "How do you even know him? He's never met you before."

"That's not a prerequisite for him knowing me," Cyrin responded evenly.

Alex stepped up behind Ingrid, huffing a sigh. "What? Is he a stalker?"

"Yes," Cyrin said, taking that excuse in speed. "Although I'm sure he'd think of himself differently. A fan, perhaps."

At this, Constantine's breezy exterior cracked. He huffed, affronted and bewildered-looking. "I--" He shook his head as he cast an incredulous look over his shoulder. "Perhaps I've seen you competing in the Oolympiks and whatnot on occasion, but I'm no--" He scoffed. "This is outrageous!"

"Cyrin Bridger?" a higher-pitched masculine voice boomed over their heads. It was Luka, the tall, broad man who came for Hendrik. He was grinning, squealing with delight as he clapped his hands, butting himself into the group. "Oh my lord, heaven have mercy. We are blessed with with the fabulous presence of Cyrin Bridger!"

Wh... what?

James stared at Luka in bewilderment. Was this his idea of diffusing tension?

Luka gasped, hand slapping over his chest as he glanced around the group, seemingly understanding what he walked into. Maybe.

"Ladies," he chided. "Is this silver fox bothering you?" He placed a firm hand on Constantine's shoulder.

Constantine blinked in genuine, dumb shock at Luka.

Ingrid blinked several times rapidly, letting out a wheeze of a laugh.

"No," she said with a laugh. "He's actually the one being bothered. Or... well, it's unclear at present."

"Well, my word! Ya'll are here because of Cyrin, too!" Luka said confidently, pulling his hand away to slap it over his own open, chiseled chest again. "Cyrin, I'm your number one fan. You're the reason I work out every morning. You're the gay icon I've always wanted to be. Bless your kind, sweet soul. I'm honored to be standing here with you."

Cyrin's expression, previously sharp as knives and fixed on Constantine, had mellowed into an easy, camera-worthy grin-- probably managable since he was no longer acting like Constantine was present.

"Sir, I'm flattered," he said. "Luka, was it? It's so nice to meet you. I'm always happy to meet with fans."

James stared, frankly feeling like this wasn't a real interaction. The dramatic tonal shift was making James tense, and he didn't know how everyone was able to drop what just happened. Sure, Luka had cause a big distraction. But James was still focused on Constantine.

Though, Constantine seemed bewildered by this turn of events too.

"Why, yes!" Luka squealed, clapping with delight. "Luka Smirnov, my good sir. It's a real pleasure to meet you. May I?"

But without waiting for a response, he reached over, taking Cyrin's hand and shaking it with both of his hands, not letting go.

"Heavens above, it's a real delight to see you, my dear!" Luka continued. "I'm here for my old ex Hendrik, and my goodness, that man's a hoot. He's not ready for any relationship, but that's none of my business. Oh my, I've rambled. I ramble when I get excited."

Pleased, Luka finally let go of Cyrin's hands, placing his hands on his hips again.

As Cyrin and Luka chatted pleasantly for a moment, James noticed Ingrid whispered something to Alexandra. Ingrid was looking at James.

Cyrin's gaze flicked back to Constantine for the first time since Luka's arrival, eyes narrowing again.

"See, I love meeting fans," he said. "Provided they're pleasant and respectful, like Luka here, and not intent on making me uncomfortable or unsettled."

It took James a second, but he picked up on what Cyrin was trying to do. He was trying to make this look like James had intervened as a friend (albeit very dramatically) to keep Cyrin safe from a creepy fan.

"Oh my!" Luka gasped. "Have I been uncomfortable or unsettling? I'm sorry, dearie, I don't mean to come on too strong."

"Not in the least," Cyrin assured him. "It's been a pleasure meeting you, Luka. I wish I could say it's been the same with him."

Luka followed Cyrin's gaze, narrowing his eyes on Constantine. "Oh my, shall I call security? Silver foxes, my dear. You can never trust them. Sly little boys that they are."

Constantine sputtered. "I-- Sir! I can assure you, I was merely greeting him as any--"

"Luka," James butted in. "Maybe you could make sure Cyrin gets back to their cabin without any trouble. The--"

"I would love to do that if Cyrin wants to," Luka butted in. "It's awfully rude to talk about someone when they're right here, honey."

James opened his mouth, but said nothing. He just sighed.

"It's a good idea," Cyrin said agreeably. "Thank you, to the both of you. Luka, it's over this way."

"Oh, please, let's comemorate us meeting with a selfie," Luka said, taking out his large phone and bringing it up in the air with the camera app ready, grinning. "Say cheese, ya'll!"

James could see himself in the background of the photo. He didn't smile. Neither did Ingrid. She just looked at the camera in confusion, and so did Alexandra. Constantine's brows were raised, utterly flabbergasted. Only Cyrin and Luka were smiling and picture-ready.

Luka pulled the phone down, frowning. "Chipper crowd we've got here, hm?" He flashed another smile, sliding his phone away. "Not a worry, I'll crop out the fox." He glanced back at Constantine. "No offense."

Constantine sputtered some more. "How could I not take offense?!"

"Ready to go, m'dear?" Luka said to Cyrin with a smile, completely ignoring Constantine. He held his elbow out, signaling for Cyrin to loop their arm around him.

Although it must have been there, there was no sign of ill-humor or resentment in Cyrin's face as he laughed, patting Luka's elbow. "I'm ready, yes."

As they walked away, Cyrin did shoot a glance over their shoulder. First at James-- a look of quiet thanks and solidarity-- then another cold, deadly-sharp look at Constantine. But it was only for a moment, and soon the two of them talking turned into background white noise.

And then James was left with Constantine, his ex, and Shane's crazy ex-fiancee.

The four of them slowly turned to each other in Luka and Cyrin's absence, but it was Ingrid who spoke up first.

"Okay. So--" Ingrid said, looking to Constantine. "Are you actually a stalker?"

Constantine opened his mouth to answer.

She grimaced, throwing up her hands and shaking them in front of her. "Nevermind. Don't answer that."

"Well, he wouldn't admit to it," Alex said.

"I know," Ingrid muttered.

Huffing, deeply affronted, Constantine threw his hands skyward. "I--" He scrubbed a hand over his face, sighing deeply in resignation.

Just at that moment, a goolf cart started to roll down the path towards them. Ingrid looked to Alex, but then looked at James with a frown, a deep concern flashing in her eyes.

The goolf cart rolled up, and a man James had never seen before was driving it. He waved to everyone.

"Alright, load up," he said.

Ingrid hesitated, looking between Alex and James.

James decided to take the opportunity.

"We need to talk," he said.

Ingrid froze for a moment, but then nodded quickly.

"Yeah," she said earnestly. "Sure. Sure."

She looked at the man on the cart. "Can I send my bags up with you?" she asked. The man just nodded.

"Thank you," Ingrid breathed in relief, picking up her two suitcases and sticking them in the back of the cart.

Alex hopped in as well, taking her bags with her. Constantine climbed in with her without further comment. There was a tense, awkward silence as Ingrid and James both stood by and the goolf cart backed up to turn around and then sped up the pathway.

The two of them stared at it for a while, until it got well over outside of earshot.

Ingrid turned to James slowly, her eyes scanning him up and down, eventually locking onto his chest. She blinked slowly, as if she was processing what his shirt said, and he could already tell she was thoroughly unimpressed.

Good. That was his goal.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

He who knows only his own generation remains forever a child.
— Cicero