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Island Magic

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Mon Feb 05, 2024 10:36 pm
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SilverNight says...

Shane cracked an egg into the bowl of feta and anthotiro, reaching for the mixer again. He'd felt like making an early dinner, and not just anything. Making tiropitakias had come to mind, and it seemed even easier than usual, since their fridge always had some filo dough. He'd brushed it with olive oil, and was now intent on making the filling, hoping to get them in the oven soon.

Ideally, before Remus smelled that anything was happening in the kitchen.

The Talian prince had been a nuisance ever since Connie had left their cabin, and Shane knew it was only a matter of time before he started giving him a headache. Just the night before, he'd demanded Shane cook for him-- reheated leftovers wouldn't do for him, apparently-- ordered James to be his bodyguard, and argued over which room he'd be staying in.

Unsurprisingly, Remus wasn't happy with the one Connie lived in, but he'd taken his dislike a step further by dissing James's room and demanding that he get to have Shane's, which was apparently the only one that even threatened to near his sky-high standards. He'd spoken of the room as if it were already his. Shane had retorted that it belonged to the person whose Master's degree was hanging on the wall in there, and he didn't see Remus's name on it, which had sent the prince into a hissy fit. Shane had nothing to do except make eye contact as he slowly closed the door and lock it up behind him.

Shane beat the egg into the mixture, throwing in a generous pinch of salt and pepper as he did. Satisfied, he reached for a serving spoon, ready to serve it out onto the strips of filo dough that were all ready to go.

"Ah yes, excellent!" Remus said as he trodded down the stairs in his satin bathrobe, and Shane had to bite his lip to suppress a groan. "Finally, a five-star meal is being cooked in this establishment." He scrunched his nose, inviting himself into the kitchen as he swatted his hands in front of him in disgust. "Not like that horrid excuse of 'pasta' that the farmer put together. Eugh! Not an ounce of freshness in that meal. How ironic."

"His name is James," Shane said, spooning out a dollop of the creamy filling, "and I don't think he was claiming that the macaroni and cheese was a five star meal."

"Please. That was a one star meal, at best," Remus said as he took out the jug of milk. "Would you like some milk?"

"I'm fine," Shane said evenly, but not rudely, carefully rolling the dough into a triangle shape around the filling.

"What are you cooking, savant?" Remus asked as he poured himself a glass of milk.

Shane tried not to raise his eyebrows skeptically at the name.

"Tiropitakias," he said. "It's a Western Aphiran dish."

"Mm! Agatha makes those lovely pastry pies to wake us up," Remus said with a smile, putting the milk away. "It's her family recipe, you know. This was before she emigrated to Talia, of course. Regardless, tradition brings taste. I highly doubt yours can compare to hers."

Shane felt his brain stalling at how... odd that all sounded. Pies to wake up to? That sounded like an excessive level of being waited upon. Not to mention that Remus had dropped the name Agatha like Shane should've known who she already was, when she sounded like a staff member of another country's palace.

Also, his cooking was being insulted right now. Was Remus implying his cooking didn't come from... tradition? This recipe was his mother's, and his grandfather's before her, and his great-grandparents before him who were from Western Aphirah themselves. Shane couldn't trace it back further than that himself, but it wouldn't surprise him at all if it went back several more generations. There was nothing about it that lacked tradition.

"I'm sure hers are lovely," Shane responded, spooning out another filling. "The good news is that if you don't think these will be any good, you don't have to have any of them."

Remus huffed out some air, taking a swig of his milk, which left a milk stache on his stubble above his lip. "I suppose I will have to first taste it to find out."

Shane looked up, casting him a blank stare. "You would," he said. "But you didn't exactly help your odds there of that happening."

Remus hummed and put on a fake smile, drumming his fingers against the counter. "When shall they be ready, savant?"

"I don't know who that is, but I'll be eating in twenty to thirty minutes," Shane responded, folding up the pastry and starting on another.

"Excellent." Remus clapped his hands together and clasped them, casting him another smile. "Just in time for me to get ready."

Saints, the audacity. He had cousins around his age, give or take five years, who acted like this. It was times like these Shane was genuinely glad he'd been raised more normally instead of within the walls of the House. It had one downside, though-- he was nearly certain the reason Flint had selected him as Heir was because he wasn't someone who had let the thrill of power get to his head at a tender age.

"Are you planning to eat at the same time?" Shane asked flatly. "Because you'll need to get started on something soon."

"Nonsense. We will eat together, like true heirs to their throne," Remus said with a dismissive wave of his hand, then frowned as he glanced around the living room. "Although, it is much too bad that we cannot dine like kings. Ah well."

"You know, if you want a kingly meal, you're free to it," Shane said. "We have all sorts of ingredients available for your use. You can make whatever you want out of them, as long as you're the one cooking."

"A humble reminder," Remus said with a cheeky smile and a bow of his head. "From a humble prince. Indeed."

"Humility's no flaw," Shane said, a little stiffly. "Just as entitlement's no virtue."

"Mm! Wise words, savant. Short and simple philosophy." Irritably, Remus waved his hand in the air in front of him. "Unlike brother, who drones on like a machine. Which is quite ironic, considering he hates machines."

"Ironic you're calling me the philosopher," Shane said, wrapping up another pie. "Your milkstache matches the powdered wigs of old intellectuals."

Remus stared at him incredulously before balking and furiously dabbling his mouth with a nearby napkin. "You tell me this now, savant?" he said with clear annoyance.

"I might've done so earlier," Shane said. "But I had to put all my words towards the explanations of why you can't exactly belittle someone's work and then expect to reap the rewards."

Remus scoffed, slapping his knuckles against the counter. "I wasn't belittling you. I was..." He squinted off in thought, circling his fingers in the air. "Critiquing you. Yes."

"As if that's any better, or any more appreciated when unsolicited," Shane said dryly.

"Very well," Remus said with a tired sigh. "I rescind my so-called belittlement." He paused. "After I taste."

"Nice try," Shane said, no longer looking at him as he completed another tiropitakia. "It doesn't work that way either. Since your eating these is dependent upon my acceptance of your apology."

Remus pressed his lips together with clear apprehension, but then he threw his hands up in the air, unleashing the theatrics. "Oh, please, Hawking. I cannot eat another morning salad. I will simply go mad! And don't you dare suggest the sorry excuse of 'pasta' at me. That is severe insult to feed to a Talian prince! I kindly suggest you bring mercy to my table. I am far too famished to argue."

Shane turned around, setting his serving spoon down as he regarded Remus with a stern look.

"Has no one ever told you 'no' before?" he asked flatly.

"Eugh," Remus moaned, peeling away from the counter and pitifully sauntering back towards the stairs. "Spare me from the lecture, savant. I shall instead wilt with hunger in my prison."

"I have no intent to lecture you," Shane said plainly, raising his voice as Remus stomped away to head upstairs. "I don't think that's my job. Nor do I intend to play the role of some cruel prison guard. But even though you don't realize it, you're choosing what is probably the worst of three options. You can apologize and eat this, you can suck it up and eat some perfectly good leftovers, or you can fast of your own volition. And it's ridiculous to do that instead of setting aside pride for your own well-being."

The slamming of a door punctuated his words. Shane sighed.

It was going to be a long lockdown. At least he had good food to get him through it.
"silv is obsessed with heists" ~Omni

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

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

silver (she/they)

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Wed Feb 07, 2024 3:37 am
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SilverNight says...

Shane was just taking the baking sheet of tiropitakias out of the oven when he heard heavy creaks from upstairs. Sounded like James was up and about. He glanced over his shoulder while he set the tray on the stove to see James trudging down the steps, still in pajamas. His expression was weary, and Shane had a feeling this day had been taking a heavy toll on him.

"Would you like some dinner?" he asked. "You look like you could use some food."

James squinted out at Shane with some of the most genuine confusion he'd ever seen on his face.

"What time is it?" James asked.

"7:12," Shane responded after a glance at the oven clock.

"Damn," James muttered, scratching the back of his head as he walked over to the counter and sat down heavily on a stool.

"Yeah," Shane agreed. "Time is weird today."

James leaned on the counter, rubbing his face. "I swear I just woke up," he mumbled. "Or it feels like it, anyway."

"What time did you wake--" Shane paused. "Never mind, don't bother answering that."

"I slept for a long time, is all I know," James said.

Shane gestured to the tiropitakias. "Well, feel free to grab a bite."

James nodded. He got to his feet and walked over to the baking sheet, grabbing one and plopping it into his mouth.

Shane was kind of impressed, considering this wasn't exactly a one-bite kind of food. He took down a plate to grab one for himself, glancing at James to see how he liked it. With his mouth entirely full like a chipmunk, James nodded, looking pleased.

Shane smiled faintly, taking a bite for himself.

"Glad you approve," he said after he finished it. "Remus did not."

James's mouth was still full, but his brows furrowed at that. He looked offended on Shane's behalf.

"Yeah," Shane said with a sigh. "Of course, he didn't try it before he offered his opinion, and then thought he'd get some afterwards."

Finally finishing chewing, James shook his head.

"That kid," James muttered.

"And now he's upstairs acting like by asking him to maybe apologize before demanding my food, I sentenced his to forty days in the wilderness." Shane sighed again. "I don't know. Do I relent?"

James pursed his lips, looking out to the stairs.

"What's the alternative?" James asked.

"He moans at us that we're starving him, probably," Shane said.

"Probably best to feed him then," James said. "If only to take pity. I'm sure despite his poor manners that he really is hungry. And even though I'd personally like to see him try to make something himself, I also don't want to see him starve."

Shane glanced back at the pan.

"How many of these are you going to have?" he asked.

James pursed his lips. "I can eat what's left," he said. "I can always make more food to eat."

Shane nodded, setting two more aside on his plate for himself before getting down a new plate that he set four on. "Don't let them get cold."

James nodded. "Will do," he said, happily helping himself to another.

With that, Shane took Remus's plate and made his way upstairs, pausing in front of Connie's room before knocking on the door.

There was a delay and a scuffle behind the door. "Who is it?" Remus asked from the other side, already sounding impatient.

"It's Shane," Shane said, hoping he'd actually call him by his name someday. "I have food."

More shuffling was heard until the door swung open. Remus was no longer in his leisure bathrobe, instead already dressed in a silky pajama set, already ready for sleep.

"Good evening, Hawking," he greeted, eyes flitting to the food as he bit back a scowl, lowly saying, "I see you've come to taunt me with your cuisine. Have you no mercy but to humiliate a starving man?"

Shane sighed. "Why-- why would I be here to taunt you? No, this is for you to eat." He held the plate out.

Remus suspiciously narrowed his eyes at him, but reached out to take the plate anyways, staring down at it. "You made this for me, savant?"

"I made it," Shane said, eager to make the distinction, "and I'm choosing to share it with whoever I please."

Remus was quiet for a moment, inspecting the tiropitakia in his hands, turning it at various ankles. "Well. That is quite kind of you, savant." He then nibbled the edge of it before taking a cautious bite, eyes brightening into a smile. "Mm! That's scrumptious! Heavenly, even!"

"Thank you," Shane said, sounding less pleased than he felt for a short moment. "It's appreciated."

"Mmmm." Remus ate more and more, taking bigger and bigger bites. "Is that anthotyro I taste? Mm, you also used fine olive oil. I can tell it's Talian. Other world reserves simply do not compare."

"I believe it is," Shane said. "You know your cheeses, I see."

"Why, of course!" Remus said with a scoff, talking with his mouth full from already eating half of the tiropitakia. He waved the remaining half in the air as he went on with full cheeks, "I'm Talian. Of course I know my cheeses."

Not that Shane had a problem with it, but it was... really ironically funny this royal talked with his mouth full.

How did they miss that one in etiquette lessons?

"Of course. I just wasn't about to stereotype," he said.

Remus rambled on about cheeses and the food, and Shane didn't mean to tune him out, but it happened sometime after he heard "feta" five times in two breaths. He waited until the prince had his mouth full again-- and was actually using that time to eat instead of talking-- before he spoke again.

"Thank you for the praise, Remus. I appreciate it," Shane said. "What I do wish, however, is that this won't happen every meal this week. I don't want you to go hungry, but I also would rather you have the courtesy not to see James and I as your attendants."

This time, Remus was chewing at a normal pace, not speaking until he swallowed. "Very well, savant. Thank you for the fine food."

Shane nodded, but said nothing as he gave him a firm, searching look. Remus let out an annoyed sigh.

"Yes, your majesty," he said, voice thick with sarcasm.

"Cool," Shane said. "Though you don't have to call me that, by the way. Or savant. Or even Hawking. I'm rather fond of my first name."

Remus waved his hand in little circles in the air, as if trying to tell him to get on with it. Or take his leave. "Of course. Yes. Of course you do," he said.

"Wonderful," Shane said, turning around. "Have a good night."

"Yes, yes. Have a pleasant evening to you too, Shane Hawking," Remus said as farewell right before closing the door.

Well. At least his first name had been in there somewhere.

Shane went back down the stairs to join James again, who was quickly making his way through the remaining tiropitakias. He picked up his own plate, scarfing down one of them that he'd set aside for himself.

"Mercy has been granted," he said to James.

James's mouth was once again stuffed, though it seemed he'd already finished the food Shane gave him, and now he was eating something else from the fridge. He turned around, humming through a mouthful and giving a thumbs-up.

A five star meal, it seemed. A win was a win.
"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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Wed Feb 07, 2024 5:38 am
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urbanhart says...

While Alan helped Natalie set up in his room for an unexpected night over, Lyall silently leaned against his own bedroom doorway, arms crossed as he stared intently at the hole in Cyrin's door.

Cyrin still wasn't back yet. It had been an entire day, and all Lyall had to settle the uneasiness deep in his gut was a game of literal telephone indirectly connecting him back to his absent friend.

He had hoped to meet with Mel about fireproof clothing sooner rather than later. But that was before the lockdown. For the thirty-fourth time that day, Lyall seriously considered sneaking out. It felt wrong to sit inside, twiddling his damn thumbs when he could very well be out there, helping take the offensive against the monster issue.

In the darkened room across from him, he caught sight of the toolbox Cyrin received the beginning of week 2, tucked away beneath the bed.

Well. If the broken door wasn't being a help, it was a hindrance.

The toolbox did not come equipped with any power tools. That was fine, Lyall was trying to kill time, anyhow. Unable to decide whether unbolting the top or bottom first would be best, he started in the middle. Once he'd set aside the parts, he figured that he should be standing for when the door was completely free from the wall, that way he would be ready to catch it.

Alan emerged from his room by the time Lyall was starting to undo the upper-most hinge. He quietly closed the door behind him, sauntering over to lean sideways against the wall next to Lyall, crossing his arms with a curious smile.

"Whatcha doing there?" Alan asked innocently.

"Home improvement," Lyall answered breezily, pocketing the first screw. "Natalie's set up, yeah?"

"Mmhm," Alan hummed, watching him work. "Do you frequently pursue home improvement projects?"

Lyall kept his heels firmly on the ground to resist the urge to reach on his toes. "Only out of dire necessity."

"Such as?" Alan pressed, still smiling.

The screwdriver slipped. "Bugger," Lyall muttered, then answered aloud, "Ah, you know. Bug-infested windowsills, leaky sink pipes, smashed-in rooves from stray trolls, singed foundations from wyrms, basement flooding caused by nixie..."

After successfully extricating the second screw, he stepped back and carefully angled the splintered door to emphasize, "The usual."

"Mm." Alan slowly nodded along. "How would you describe your current project?"

"About the most challenging I've faced yet," Lyall said, chin tilted up as he flashed a grin. "Difficulty level based on a scale of one through twelve--" He turned back to the last bolt still holding the door in place, having to resort to standing on his toes this time. "--it's a whopping one."

After a singular turn of the screwdriver, the doorway opted just then to make his job a hell of a lot easier by simply breaking. The wood around the last bolt cracked. The door, unsupported, hit the floor with a low "thump", teetered, then fell with a much louder "smack" out into the hallway. Structurally compromised as it was, the door gave up hope altogether and fell apart into two mostly-even halves.

Blinking, Lyall dropped back down onto his heels, his hands falling listlessly to his sides. Meanwhile, Alan didn't even flinch, making no comment as his stare moved from the door then back to Lyall, his amused smile only growing.

Lyall turned an unamused look to Alan. "You did absolutely nothing to try and catch that."

Alan innocently shrugged. "I was too busy watching you work." A pause. "A whopping 'one,' you said was your difficulty rating?"

Lyall huffed through his nose and pointed an arm at the completely fractured door. "All this to say, no. I do not usually pursue home improvement projects."

Alan grinned, fondness in his eyes as he shook his head and stood up straight. "What were you planning to do anyways? Maybe I could help."

Lyall arched a somewhat doubtful brow, but obliged and answered simply, "I'm switching out the door for one that is intact. I was thinking the closet door."

Alan hummed, gaze settling into his room. "Yours?"

"Unless you'd like to volunteer yours," Lyall replied, stepping over the door to assess where to begin cleaning up now.

"I would, but I'd rather not barge in the room and explain to my mom why I need to take apart my closet door," Alan said with a smile, then bent down grab ahold of one half of the door. "Let's chuck these bad boys outside on the porch for now. We can deal with it in the morning."

"Assuming Hendrik will let us even open our door," Lyall murmured wryly.

Alan hummed, standing back up with half the broken door in tow. "Maybe we should leave it in the balcony for now, then. Until later. I'd rather not get threatened tonight."

Pocketing the screwdriver, Lyall carefully lifted up the other half. "Works for me," he murmured.

~ ~ ~

Before long--

...After awhile of bouncing from one project to the next-- because house projects rarely were ever linear as was-- and of Alan indulging Lyall's tangents, they did eventually re-install a fully-intact door for Cyrin's return.

Lyall... deeply appreciated Alan's company. For a multitude of reasons. For one thing, he never would have finished the door project within a reasonable time frame on his own. For another, Alan keeping engaged in their little chats along the way kept Lyall's mind off Cyrin's continued absence in the midst of still-looming threats. For yet another, all these things combined provided a effective distraction from the hurt of...


He was still tired, of course. He wasn't very close to making up for the lost hours of sleep, but sleeping the entire morning away certainly made it hard to go back now. So Lyall opted not to try.

Despite the late hour, Lyall drifted into the kitchen to poke around through their options.

"Hungry?" Alan asked, opting to heft himself on top of the kitchen counter rather than use the stools.

Was he? Frankly. No.

Lyall closed the pantry. "...I might just have a cuppa instead," he said in relenting.

"Herbal tea?" Alan asked with a hum.

Lyall hummed an affirmative as he filled the kettle. "How about you, my good man?"

"I'm not a big tea drinker, but I'll gladly drink a cup with a friend," he said with a gentle smile.

"Very well." He set two mugs on the counter, then picked through their tea options.

"Are you tired?" Alan asked after a few beats.

"Yes," Lyall answered honestly, "but. It's the kind that leaves you unable to do anything else. Including sleep."

Alan nodded, gaze still fixated on him. "Would having a long chat be on that list?"

Lyall cast a small, curious grin over his shoulder. "I'm open to that, yes."

Alan smiled, pausing for a moment as he continued to watch Lyall rifle through the tea options. "I'm mostly curious about you," he began. "To start off: what does your availability look like this week?"

"Ah, let's see," Lyall hummed. He set a bag of chamomile in each mug, then turned around to lean back on the counter. "We've about a half-week left with our visitors..."

The 'why' was better left unmentioned.

"But it's not as though I won't see Vik again for an actual eternity, so we won't need to spend every waking minute with each other." He folded his arms, tilting his head slightly as he studied his friend closely. "Why, have you got something to coordinate?"

Alan tapped his finger along the counter he sat on across from Lyall, still smiling as he playfully mirrored the head tilt and studious gaze. "A more specific question: what does your availability look like two days from now, on Thursday?"

At that, Lyall raised both brows. "As far as I can tell: quite open." He pointed at his friend with his chin as he repeated, "Why?"

"Quite open," Alan repeated, again ignoring the simple question. "As in, your whole day is open?"

Huffing through his nose, Lyall stepped forward to lean both hands on the counter space between them. "I don't know, Alan, I wish I had a clearer vision of how my two days out from now looked." He shrugged and tilted his head. "As it is, I find my week planning rather tied up at the 'survive the night' bit we've got going on right now."

"So. That's a yes," Alan deduced.

Lyall blinked at him. "That's a, 'Why would you like to know?'"

Alan smiled, sighing before leaning back with one hand behind him, supporting his weight. "No preparation is needed on your end," he began, "but I'd like to plan a getaway for you. I only ask for one day of your time. I hope it's not too much to ask for, though."

Lyall huffed an incredulous laugh. "A getaway?"

Despite the skepticism, the sincerity still showed in Alan's smile as he nodded once. "A getaway," he affirmed. "A place to get away from the noise, at least for a little while. Just for one day."

Brows furrowing now, Lyall grinned with open confusion. "I... What about your family? You haven't seen them in months."

"It's not as though I won't see my family again for an actual eternity, so we won't need to spend every waking minute with each other," Alan said with a bit of a cheeky smile as he completely plagiarized Lyall's earlier words. "It's only one day."


Lyall's grin turned utterly amused as he conceded in a murmur, "Touché."

"I'll need to ask you a few questions, though." Alan casually shrugged a shoulder. "Mind if I interview you?"

Tilting his chin up, Lyall narrowed his eyes in a look of mock skepticism. He was already paging through every potential day-long event this ridiculous man could have planned.

"I suppose," he said slowly, "an Alan-curated set of questions couldn't be any worse than DMV-curated ones."

Alan grinned. "We'll see about that."

"Oh gods," Lyall muttered with amusement, "what hath I wrought?"

Alan sat up again, hands clasped together in his lap. "To begin, I must know: what is your favorite home improvement project?"

Angling his chin down, Lyall leveled him with an unimpressed look. "The ones I don't have to do myself."

"Mm." Alan nodded. "Entertain me, anyways. Let's say you must do one. We can keep it simple, such as..." He pursed his lips in thought before continuing on with a smile. "Ah. Painting walls. What color would you pick?"

"Something light and cool-toned," Lyall answered easily. "Like, a cornflower, periwinkle, lilac, perhaps a light sage. Desaturated, cool colors are scientifically suggested to settle a person. Mentally, emotionally." He turned and picked up the kettle once it clicked off. "Which could contribute to a better night's rest, since the nerves had been previously calmed by a less-stimulating color."

Alan softly hummed, still keeping his attentive gaze on Lyall as he readied the mugs. "That's a thoughtful answer. Is that also your favorite color?"

"Which one?" Lyall poured the boiled water, then rounded the counter to set one of the mugs by Alan. "I listed a few."

Alan grinned in amusement. "You tell me."

Holding his own mug in both hands, Lyall leaned a hip against the counter. He hummed as he glanced up in thought. "I don't have a favorite," he eventually said with a playful grin.

Alan slightly narrowed his eyes at him, huffing out a wry laugh. He picked up the mug beside him, holding it with both hands between his legs. "Maybe not one favorite. But it sounds like you prefer the cooler colors."

"The agitated brain certainly does," Lyall replied cryptically, contentedly lifting his mug to his lips.

"What about the relaxed brain?"

"Certainly can't worsen the situation," Lyall confirmed.

Alan nodded, peering down at his mug and breathing in the steam before turning back to Lyall with a smile. "Even so, you don't strike me as someone who prefers cooler days. So, I'm wondering: what's your favorite season?"

"What's this persona you've taken on?" Lyall asked with a quiet laugh. "A complete stranger? Surely you can deduce that one well enough on your own."

Alan rubbed his thumb against the rim of the mug, softly smiling. "Maybe I want to again hear you say that you enjoy the summer," he said, turning his gaze towards him.

Lyall nodded, averting his own gaze down to his tea. "I do enjoy the summer," he relented.

"And I think it makes sense, given what I've learned about your magic," Alan went on with a gentle voice. "Maybe you prefer cooler colors, but it doesn't mean you prefer cooler days. I can't even imagine how terribly cold winters can be for you."

Lyall hummed a laugh. "Perhaps not ideal, but we live in a modern age of convenience. Cold winters are perfectly doable, not to worry."

"How do you bear it?" Alan asked anyways. "You can't always stay indoors. Surviving may be doable, but surely comfort is no easy feat."

"Really," Lyall insisted gently, gesturing with one hand to emphasize, "it's fine. I get by as any other person does in freezing temperatures. The proper layering traps the heat I throw off." He patted his hand to his own chest. "Warms me, I remain comfortable and intact." He lightly patted Alan's arm. "What's the interview about, then, hm?"

"Ah! Right." Alan grinned, holding the cup higher with his hands. "Next question: when is your birthday?"

"July 13th," Lyall answered. Then snapped his fingers and asked, "While we're on the subject, what about yours?"

"September 7th," Alan answered, his grin growing as he focused in on Lyall. "That's good to know. Your birthday is two weeks away."

With a good-natured sigh, Lyall could only roll his eyes in response. Maybe he should've thrown in a fib instead, say it'd already gone and passed them by. Before arriving here, even.


"How old are you, anyways?" Alan asked curiously. "I can't believe I haven't asked yet."

Carefully setting his mug down, Lyall twisted around then reached back for a pen on the counter. "That, my good friend," he said pleasantly, "is for you to never find out."

He clicked the pen, then scribbled down "Sep. 7 - AA" on the palm of his hand.

Alan twisted over and craned his neck to see what Lyall could be writing. Closing his fist, Lyall leaned away with a grin and playful tut.

"Right," Alan said with a playful grin of his own, narrowing his eyes at him. "My guess is thirty-five."

Lyall balked indignantly. "The audacity!"

Alan pursed his lips, tapping his finger against the rim of the mug. "My bad. Forty?"

Turning away, Lyall waved him off with feigned offense. "Nope, interview's done. Good evening to you."

"Okay, Lyall, wait," Alan said with a laugh, nudging his leg with his foot. "Indulge me for one last interview question?"

"Ah, hang on," Lyall said, unable to contain a laugh as he made a show of patting down his pockets, "I do believe I'm being paged. Could be something dire, like a sneeze."

Alan gasped. "Oh my goodness. You use a pager? Welcome to the 21st century. And here I am, still using telegrams."

Now with a full smile, Lyall bumped his shoulder to Alan's elbow. "A truly marvelous time, this era of modern technology."

Alan smiled, raising the mug up to his face, the rim close to his lips. "And so, I present you a question with the context of being present in the era of modern technology," he said then finally took a small sip of the tea. He set his gaze back on Lyall, but didn't lower the mug. "Which is: what's your favorite memory?"

That actually caught Lyall off guard for a moment. He felt his grin fade a bit as he instinctively answered, "Well... I don't. Rightly have a singular favorite memory."

"That's okay." Alan lowered his mug back on his lap, giving him his undivided attention. "What comes to mind first, then?"

Lyall folded his hands as he searched Alan's face. He figured that Alan would have asked a few questions to make Thursday's whereabouts harder to guess accurately. Throw in red herrings and whatnot. So he looked for any hints of joking or pretense.

Nothing. Just. That same damn sincerity in his eyes as always.

Shrugging a shoulder, Lyall looked back down into his own tea, fiddling with the tag. "Not a singular memory," he reiterated, "but. I very fondly recall the times I gardened with my mum."

"That sounds like a lovely memory," Alan said with a soft smile in his voice. "What did you both plant?"

"Whatever suited our fancy, I suppose," Lyall hummed. "Though, that was often further limited by our region. Factors such as hours of daylight and soils played roles in our choices."

He slowly sipped his tea, briefly diving back into a hazy, sunlit memory of the greenhouse. "She appreciated a wide variety, took a special interest in poisons and their antidotes." He huffed a fond laugh. "Indulged in a few imported species that most certainly did not meet phytosanitary import requirements. But she was most fond of lavender."

Alan was grinning wide, though it seemed to sourced from a mix of endearment and playfulness. "But what were your favorites?" he pressed with a faint laugh.

Lyall laughed, feeling slightly bewildered. "I-- Do I have to have favorites?" he asked curiously. Then waved him down as he went on, "I just very fondly recall any times spend in our old greenhouse. They were..." He waved his hand in wide circles, trying to find a better way to phrase it. "...good times."

Simpler times.

"I can tell," Alan said with a now fond grin. "You're lighting up at the memory. It's less about the plants and more about the experience of enjoying the activity with your mother. It's sweet and precious. Thank you for sharing."

Nodding slowly, Lyall looked down again. "Would it be safe bet to say you don't quite have a favorite memory either?"

Alan nodded. "That's right. But I'd be happy to share my fond memories with you during the getaway. I know it's getting late."

Lyall tsked. "Very well."

Clicking the pen twice more for emphasis, he jotted down, "AA's fond memories," below the birthday note.

"What are you writing?" Alan asked with another faint laugh, staring at him suspiciously.

Tucking the pen behind his own ear, Lyall smugly waggled his brows as he answered, "That is for you to seriously never find out."

Alan narrowed his eyes. "I can literally just take your hand to read it."

Tilting his chin up, Lyall hid both hands in his pockets. "No, you can't."

A short silence passed as they stared at each other. Until, finally, Alan playfully asked, "Is that a challenge?"

Lyall pushed off the counter with a noncommittal shrug, and at the same time, Alan set his mug on the counter, but didn't quite move. Yet.

Turning, Lyall took a singular backward step toward the living room. And as if that was supposed to be his cue, Alan flung himself off the counter to crash against Lyall, wrapping his arms around him. Caught entirely off guard this time, Lyall lost his footing and had no choice but to simply fall with Alan's momentum to avoid injury. His back hit the floor, and Alan landed on his chest with an "oof", knocking the wind momentarily from Lyall's lungs.

Alan was quick to lift his weight that was against Lyall, hands planted on the floor at either side of Lyall's chest. "Are you okay?!" he asked with a laugh.

"The hell was that?" Lyall half-laughed, half-wheezed, tiredly covering his bewildered smile with his hands.

"Oh, oops. I take your breath away," Alan said playfully, then pried away his left hand against his mouth. He lifted his left arm up by his wrist and shook it in the air, grinning. "Any last words before I read your damning words out loud?" he teased.

Lyall sighed, dramatically falling limp on the floor beneath him. "I want a lawyer..."

"Denied," Alan said with a victorious grin, then angled his hand towards him to read. Despite finally seeing the words, his grin fell flat, and he stared back at Lyall with disapproval. "Why is your handwriting impossible to read?" he said with a scoff.

Biting down a laugh, Lyall pointed a finger gun at him with his free hand. "Psych," he murmured weakly, frankly still a bit winded.

Alan pouted, dropping Lyall's hand so it could fall back against his chest. He met Lyall's gaze with an expression that was mischievous yet also unamused. Leaning in slightly, Alan flicked a strand of curly hair out of Lyall's face, the air cutting into his skin. Lyall quirked a curious brow. But before he could protest, the musician rolled away from him, sitting cross-legged beside him like an impish cat.

Letting his hand fall listlessly over his chest, Lyall exhaled deeply as he sank into some semblance of rest on the floor. "T'will forever remain one of life's greatest mysteries," he couldn't help but gloat.

Alan pursed his lips, tilting his head so he could see Lyall more upright. "Is the floor comfortable?"

Lyall nodded. "Immeasurably."

Alan hummed. A short silence passed again, interrupted when Alan flopped to his side, letting gravity pull him down without cushion.

"Hm." Alan uncomfortably wiggled against the floor, turning to lay flat on his back next to Lyall. "Yeah. It's not so bad."

With a soft hum of agreement, Lyall slung his other arm across his forehead. He trained his gaze on the ceiling above them, idly counting the rivets in the exposed beams.

"It's too bad we're indoors," Alan went on. "The ceiling isn't as interesting as the night sky."

"Would've been a lovely view," Lyall further agreed. "The lockdown is rather a misfortune. For more reasons than one."

Gods, had he really forgotten for a moment that they were on monster lockdown? He hoped Cyrin was almost back...

Alan rolled back to his side towards Lyall, elbow on the floor to prop his head up with his hand. Grinning and meeting his eyes, he proposed: "We could go to your balcony."

Tilting his head sideways, Lyall blinked at him. "But." He grinned uncertainly. "The lockdown?"

Alan waved his free hand in front of him, dismissing the thought. "That only affects the ground floor."

Lyall frowned slightly at this deeply flawed line of reasoning. But only melodramatically whined, "But. The stairs!" And flopped back again.

Alan grinned. "Do you want me to carry you? I'll gladly carry you. You can get on my back."

"I shall do no such thing," Lyall said with a pout. "The floor is my new home now. Whereby I shall spend my mornings, afternoons, and eves. The ideal placement, equidistant from the coffee maker and the couch. A poetic mirror, you could say." He pursed his lips in thought. "Reverse mirror? For one beckons you to begin the day, whilst the other beckons you to end it. The visual contrast of wakefulness and rest. Tis between the birthing of the day, and its death, where I lie. On the fruits of craftsman's labors."

He turned his head again with a quiet grunt of effort to study the grains. "Is it walnut? Cherry? I can't tell, I'm not a woodsman. But that'd be pretty damn convenient, for the sake of poetry." He set his head back again with a quieter sigh. "Well, anyway."

Then. Feeling Alan's gaze fixed on him promptly made him feel a tad self-conscious and completely ridiculous.

Alan had been giving him his undivided attention, keeping still with his gaze fixed on Lyall the entire time. The silence drew out, as if he was patiently waiting for Lyall to truly finish before he could speak. His fond grin grew the longer he met his eyes.

"Don't mind me," he said warmly. "I like hearing you speak. I can listen to you all day."

Lyall blinked, then huffed as he pushed himself upright. "I think," he said, finally taking the reins of the conversation, "a getaway could indeed be beneficial."

The thought of removing all distractions was honestly frightening, but he was starting to figure... maybe he wasn't the only one who could use a break from the weight of everything.

"I'm glad," Alan said, still smiling while having unmoved. "It's the day after tomorrow. I'll remind you tomorrow as well."


"Appreciated," Lyall said, inclining his head in thanks.

So. Alan was in fact organized. All it took was a cannibalistic monster problem to bring it out of him.

Cracking a more sincere smile, Lyall added, "I look forward to it."

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soundofmind says...

A day of lockdown resulted largely in James's own isolation.

Remus was a bugger, Shane was introverting, and James was frankly, more emotionally exhausted than he cared to admit. Staying in his doorless room didn't quite feel like a retreat, but he couldn't motivate himself to crawl out of it except to eat and use the restroom. It wasn't like there was much else to do, anyway.

Shane came by for a bit. They talked. It was hard for James to maintain small-talk, though, and he didn't have the energy to spare for a conversation about their current situation, so it didn't last too long. James wished he could've been more present, or at least had the will to try, but after Shane bid his goodbyes to go deeper in his studies of wendigos and regional folklore, James sat in his room alone.

He'd thought several times, now, that he ought to try to clean up things. But the messier his room became, the less salvagable it seemed to be.

He forced himself to organize his belongings at least. Clothes got folded. Items were placed back in the suitcases they came from. Still, after almost a month, he hadn't even unpacked. The dresser he could've used was split in half now, so there was no use using it when it was non-functional.

When he "made his bed," it was more like throwing a blanket over a giant hole. There was a dip in the middle that could not be covered, and James couldn't decide if it looked intimidating or just sad. It was certainly uncomfortable, but he'd gotten used to it.

That was, until he had the genius idea to just start sleeping on the floor.

Taking his pillow and blankets down onto the carpeted rug, he made his "bed" on the floor when night came. Remus passed by briefly and made a condescending comment that James didn't care to reply to, but once the cabin was still for the night, James curled up and closed his eyes.

Maybe... this would all be resolved by the morning.

Connie had put pressure on the DMV to take action, which meant that they wouldn't have to. Constantine was probably caught by surprise, just as the rest of them were, and maybe it meant that all of this really could be out of his hands.

For the first time in a while, it actually felt nice to think that others would be able to take care of things for him.

After a few long hours of tossing and turning, sleep finally came. A familiar nightmare - one he had often before Alexander's influence - began to creep in quietly, but before it could play out, James was pulled out of it, and he found himself in Connie's mind palace again.

Content not to speak at first, James only nodded in gratitude to Connie, curling up where he had the night previous, letting his mind empty and be at rest.

But then he started to feel a creeping feeling.

Something... something felt wrong.

James sat up. The hairs on the back of his neck started to raise. He could feel himself starting to stir, and didn't know if he'd wake soon. His perception of Connie and the space around him started to blur.

"James," Connie called evenly. "It appears you are waking."

"Something's wrong," James said under his breath. And he could feel his waking ears catch something around him.

Scratching. Cracking.

"How so?" Connie asked.

James swallowed. He knew he was going to wake up any second.

"Something's in my room," was all he managed to say before his eyes shot open, and he jumped up off the floor. He narrowly dodged a set of jagged, carnivorous teeth as they snapped mere inches away from his gut.


James ducked as the creature's claws swung over his head. He heard them catch air as James scrambled, rolling to the side and dashing for the broken window Aaron must have come in through.

He had to avoid getting sliced by any of the broken glass, lest his blood mix with Aaron's. Behind him, he could hear Aaron stumble, antlers scraping the floorboards as he let out a bloodcurdling cry. It hurt to hear.

It sounded human. James could tell Aaron was trying to fight this.

James wasted no time diving out the window. He leaped over the shattered glass and spun in the air, launching down into the sand from the second floor with a heavy thunk. His legs absorbed the impact with a shiver, but he focused on healing the muscles around his knees and ankles as he burst into a sprint, pushing through the pain.

He was aware that he couldn't run forever, but he refused to hurt Aaron. Not when Aaron was doing everything in his power to give James a fighting chance.

Heart racing, James didn't look back when he heard feet scrambling behind him. Aaron let out another strangled cry, and his movements sounded sloppy and uncoordinated. There was a wrestle happening internally between Aaron and Constantine that James couldn't help Aaron win. The only thing he could do to help him was make as much distance as possible, and hopefully lead Aaron away from the cabins.

For a while, it sounded like Aaron was following. But a mile or two in, he finally glanced behind him, and saw that Aaron had fallen behind. So much so that James couldn't even see him anymore.

And that worried him. Not just for Aaron, but... for everyone.

James finally let himself slow to a stop, realizing that now, he was quite a distance away from the cabins. Alone. And it'd take him at least fifteen minutes to get back.

The relative silence of the jungle once James's pounding footsteps ceased was deafening, and James found himself longing even for the sound of a cricket or a cicada to fill the silence. It was like even the creatures of the jungle were holding their breath in anticipation.

Or rather, they, too, were cowering from a bigger predator, hoping to be overlooked.

That meant either Aaron was now trying to prowl around in secret, or this had all been a set-up.

There was a split-second of leaves rustling overhead, before a massive form leapt out at him from the branches. James's constant weakness in life was that, despite all his attempts to compensate, he could never be as quick as he desired. The weight of his own body resisted his reflexes to leap out of the way, and he failed to dodge in time.

The giant creature came crashing down on top of him, pinning him to the ground. In the low light, he caught a glimpse of a vaguely human face before it lifted like a mask. Long jaws unhinged beneath it at the neck, and clamped serrated teeth down on his shoulder.

Or, at least, that was what was happening in the present. But for James, it all seemed to happen in slow-motion, like his life was flashing before his eyes.

His heart beat rapidly in his chest as he locked eyes with Constantine, the wendigo on top of him. Fear pulsed through every possible artery and muscle like a beating drum. As Constantine's jaw split open, he could feel the cold, creeping breath of the creature pass over his face, like the hand of death itself.

James had faced death many times in his own life. It was like every moment flashed before his eyes. Creature after creature, person after person. Near-death upon near-death. What made this stand apart was the fact that he wouldn't actually die right away. It would be a slow death; one he'd be subjected to for the rest of his life.

The thought that this could be his future made something else inside him roar: not like this.

No. He would not go out like this.

The creature's mouth lurched for James's shoulder, and at the same time, it was like every cell in James's body multiplied. A hardened layer of scale-like skin grew over every surface of his body like a shield. In the corner of his eyes he could see it glint in the faint moonlight, and when the wendigo's teeth clamped down, they clanged, as if against metal.

With an enraged snarl, Constantine quickly reared back to stalk at a safer distance.

James was quick to get to his feet, but the layer of metal that had grown over his skin was new. He'd never experienced this before, and he didn't know what kind of power he'd unlocked, nor did he know how long this metal shell would last.

But he could feel where it was sourced from.

The metal scales were directly being drawn from his bones. Somehow, the material had been multiplied, but he could sense that it wasn't sustainable. His body felt even heavier - and slower - but as he clenched his fists at his sides, he could also sense that he'd caught Constantine off guard.

James knew that Connie and others didn't want this to end in bloodshed.

But James was ready to end this.

Flexing his hands, he unsheathed the claws from his hands and looked up at the massive creature in front of him, finally seeing Constantine in his true form, fully revealed in a spot of moonlight.

The wendigo stalked on all fours, built like a gigantic boar with a wiry lion-like mane around his neck. The silhouettes of various animal heads snarled and hissed about his shoulders. His jaws closed, putting back in place his human mask just as he paced back into the shadows of the trees.

It was disgusting.

"You've been holding out on me," Constantine tutted, a pout in his voice. "Here I thought we had a true connection."

James held his ground, staring down the prowling monster.

Eve was right to call Constantine an it. This wasn't a human. Not in the slightest. Not anymore.

"You're getting desperate," James said lowly. "Drawing me out here. You weren't expecting this much attention, were you?"

"Your new friends were a bit of a surprise, I'll concede," Constantine said pleasantly.

James was waiting for Constantine to strike. Until then, he wasn't going to move.

The wendigo then broke from his path to rush him. James let him come in, and when he was within range, he swung, and Constantine drew back. James's arm came down, grazing the very fringes of Constantine's hide, but Constantine successfully dodged. When James's claws were facing the jungle floor, Constantine came in again with a lunge, and this time, James let him come in.

This metal hide better hold up.

His life depended on it.

Constantine's teet clamped down on James's shoulder again, and James could feel some of them shatter. Reaching for the closest joint, James retracted his other set of claws through Constantine's shoulder joint, finding the cartilage between the bone.

He ripped his claws through the side, severing the muscles, and as Constantine jumped back, blood began to spurt out like a fountain.

James had hit an artery.

As Constantine backed away, James stalked forward, feeling the tides shifting in his favor. But he knew he couldn't let his guard down.

With three different growls overlapping, Constantine turned and disappeared back into the trees, branches shaking under his weight as he fled for higher ground. His size amidst some of the tightly-grown branches hindered him, making him easier to follow.

Eyes locked on the giant's lumbering shadow, James began to run in pursuit as fast as he could.

Constantine's movements slowed as he fixed his attention on something in the foliage with him. Then turned lightning quick as he hissed out a low, "Well, hello there!"

Shit. Someone else was out here.

And then in the blink of an eye, something caught the moonlight, a silver gleam twisting in the air. It whirled around its axis for a few spins before James heard a sickening sound of a blade sinking into flesh, and a knife appeared, speared through the throat of Constantine's head.

Constantine stumbled with a pained roar, but caught himself before he could fall to the forest floor. Three sets of teeth bared as he tracked the movements of the third person with his gaze. Then he gave chase once more, bellowing, "I will have my pound of flesh!"

James, still in pursuit, couldn't tell who was out there. But whoever it was, he hoped they'd lead Constantine back to him. He couldn't keep up like this.

The foliage rustled, too fast to track. James heard a sharp but quiet, almost choked, intake of breath before another knife shot out from a tree to his right. This time, it hit Constantine cleanly in the eye. The wendigo came crashing back down through the branches with a pained howl.

James closed in. Whoever was striking, they had Constantine distracted, and now the wendigo was injured enough that James could come up while it was down. Now if only the attacker would keep Constantine preoccupied.

James was almost there.

Ripping the knife out, Constantine stalked around the bases of the trees, voices rumbling in low, threatening growls.

"You only delay the inevitable," he said darkly, heads swiveling to relocate his new target.

There was no response from the attacker except for another knife, this one spinning through the air until it struck the boar head in the eye. Managing this time to stay steady, Constantine roared as he charged again for the source.

But with Constantine's sights set elsewhere, James was finally able to get in close without Constantine noticing.

Coming up underneath the massive creature, James weaved between its legs and came up under its main head; the one with the false face. Grabbing onto the cavity where an arm once was, James swung himself up and punched his fist into Constantine's chin. On contact, he let his claws erupt not only out of his knuckles but through Constantine's skull.

The sudden stillness that followed felt unreal. And he couldn't shake the feeling that somehow, somewhere, he was being watched.

Someone was still in the trees overhead, hidden by darkness. But now, the wendigo pursuer was dead. Constantine's body fell limply, thumping against the base of the tree. And James's claws slid out of the creature's skull as it did so.

He could feel the hot splatter of blood on his face, and as he stared at the dead wendigo, all he could wonder was if the power of Constantine's blood carried over through death, or if he was safe now from its influence. He felt like his body didn't know how to react. The monster was dead, but he still didn't know if he was safe, and if the threat was dealt with. What if his metal skin hadn't shielded him from everything?

His body started to ache. Painfully, it was like he felt every individual scale start to recede back under his skin. One by one. But his claws felt stuck outside his hands, and he couldn't pull them back in.

In front of Constantine's face, he fell to his knees, heaving.

What was that? Since when could he harden his skin like metal?

He looked down at his hands, watching as they turned from a dark, burnished silver to something more human again. But when his skin re-formed, he realized just how steeped they were in blood.

He really did it. Constantine was really dead?

A shadowy figure moved above, hardly distinguishable against the dark leaves. Silently, it lowered itself from the branch it was perched on, dropping to the ground a few feet away from James.

The moonlight showed every bit of the horror on Cyrin's face.

So it was Cyrin. James didn't know how or why Cyrin had been out in the jungle when he had, but he didn't want to ask. He looked back down at his hands, finally taking in a deep breath and forcing his hands to relax.

With a painful shnk, his claws sunk back in slowly, the blood of the wendigo pushing off onto his fists as they receded, brushing against his skin.

This was the outcome Cyrin wanted the least. James felt the weight of that, atop the weight of his own guilt. He never took pleasure in taking someone's life, even when it was deserved.

But Cyrin looked like they were stuck in shock, and it was enough to pull James out of his own, if at least to get to his feet again, and come beside Cyrin.

"We should get back to the cabins," he said.

He didn't know why. It just seemed like the better thing to do than stay behind with a massive dead body they would have no means to bury.

Cyrin was still speechless for several moments longer, staring at Constantine.

"And do what?" he finally whispered, sounding sick.

James stood up a little straighter, swallowing down his own displeasure.

"To get away from this," James said softly. "We don't have to stay here."

Cyrin pressed a hand to their mouth, taking in a deep breath, and James saw their hand was trembling. They had no words for him. And James understood the feeling, and he knew the face. He'd seen it on many a soldier.

"Come," James said more gently, inclining his head.

Slowly, still shaking, Cyrin stepped around Constantine's body, unable to look away from it. Their breathing was heavy and shuddering, and their mouth opened, but no sound came out. James turned to slowly lead the way away from Constantine, back through the jungle. But he stopped two steps in when he heard what sounded like footsteps. A group of people, coming up behind them.

Both James and Cyrin came to a sudden stop, whirling around to the source of the noise, and they peered through the trees in the dark. James could make out three sihouettes amongst the trees, but he couldn't recognize anyone shaded from the moonlight. He didn't have his glasses.

"Who's there?" James asked, a bit more threatening than was helpful.

Squinting, he watched as a man stepped forward, hands out in front of him, palms out. It was one of the cameramen, Ethan.

"Hey, it's just me, Ethan," he said calmly. "There are three of us here, myself included. There's me, my wife Flora, and my friend Cas. They're right behind me. We heard some noise and came to see if everything's okay. You're safe, and we're not here to judge. I'm here to help and mean no harm. Let's talk about what you need right now. How can we help you?"

James stiffened, standing up a little straighter as he stood beside Cyrin, who he knew was still very much in shock. He was, himself, but he knew he had to be functional for this right now. He would be foolish to think there'd be no consequences for all of this, even if it'd been necessary.

"We'd like to get away from here," James said lowly. "Can you take care of the body?"

A pause.

"Make sure it's... handled respectfully," he added.

"Of course, James," Ethan replied gently. "I'll take care of everything here. If there are any specific customs you'd like us to do, please let us know so we can respect your wishes." A pause. "And when you're ready, we're here to support you. You're not alone in this."

James nodded stiffly.

"Appreciated," he said. Then glanced back at Cyrin.

Cyrin watched Ethan distrustfully for a few moments, eyes narrowed. Finally, he nodded without saying anything. James turned to Ethan and gave a small nod in agreement. It felt wrong to just walk away, but he also knew there was nothing more he could do. The body was a massive heap, and still the malformed remnant of what was once a person. He didn't know how to go about a burial, and he could only assume that it'd been decades upon decades that Constantine had any living relatives, nevermind anyone who'd miss him if he were gone.

James also didn't know for certain how Constantine's death had affected Aaron, now, who was presumably still out in the jungle, probably passed out somewhere.

God, hopefully not dead, too.

With a final, silent, singular wave of his hand, he bid Ethan and the other staffers goodbye, ushering Cyrin and himself away from the brutal scene behind them.

It took a few minutes for them to truly get out of the thick of it, passing over trampled plants and trees until the remains of the fight and the hulking dead shadow were no longer in sight. They could see the faint lights of the cabins through the trees, and James heard a faint commotion of yelling - one that he wasn't too eager to run to, if he was honest.

Hesitating, he looked over at Cyrin.

The others would be worried for them. To see their faces would calm some worries and bring up a long list of others.

Cyrin wasn't looking back, or seeming to notice his glance. Their gaze was out of focus and pointed directly forward as they matched James's pace and direction without seeming to care where they were headed. His lips were pressed into a thin, hard line.

James came to a stop.

"You didn't get hit," James said softly. "Did you?"

Cyrin slowed to a stop beside him, shaking his head. "No," he said quietly. "Did you?"

James shook his head.

"I don't think so," he said. He couldn't be sure. It all felt like a blur, and it all happened so fast, but he couldn't remember anything breaking skin. Or... metal.

A beat.

"Did he lure you out there too?" James asked.

Cyrin flicked his gaze down to the ground, expression still blank.

"I caught signs of a commotion, and I went in," they said. "I had a bad feeling it might have been him, and an even worse feeling that it involved you."

James felt like there was more to that story. But he didn't want to ask right now. Now wasn't the time for pressing - in fact, that time might never come. So he'd just leave it. It didn't really matter why Cyrin had been out there. Either way, he was right. It had involved Constantine.

James nodded.

"...Thanks," he said faintly.

Cyrin nodded, still looking down.

"He lured you out?" he inquired quietly after a moment.

"He used Aaron," James said. "Broke into my room. Not unlike what he tried with you."

Cyrin slowly looked up again, meeting his gaze. "Where is he now?"

"I don't know," James said more quietly. "I lost him. And then Constantine found me."

Some of the blank shock on Cyrin's face made way for concern.

"We should..." he started. "Should we try to find him?"

"I have a feeling staff will be trying to do the same," James said quietly, looking around them into the jungle. This was around the same area he'd lost Aaron.

"I'm not sure there's much we could do for him if we did," James said. "But..."

He did want to at least confirm that Aaron was alive.

He turned, breaking off into the bushes.

"This way," he said.

Cyrin followed wordlessly, taking a cautious glance over their shoulder before trailing behind him.

James led the way silently. He retraced some of his steps, and eventually, he came upon a split in the paths left behind. His footsteps always left heavy prints, and Aaron's wendigo prints were just as clear. As some point, Aaron's feet had shifted, and that was where the path broke off. A nearby tree was marked with shrinking claw marks, as if sliced while Aaron's hand was mid-shift.

James followed, pushing through the trees.

He didn't go far before he found Aaron, lying limp on the ground in the arms of Jay. James came to an abrupt stop, not wanting to startle them as Jay turned to look at them with daggers in his eyes.

There was a heavy, painful silence as Jay's piercing glare slowly relented - scanning James and Cyrin both, and putting two and two together. His expression turned more wary.

"Is he--?" James started to ask.

"Alive," Jay interrupted lowly. "He's alive."

Cyrin let out a quiet breath of relief.

"He's exhausted," Jay added quietly. "He's been running on empty. And thrown around against his will."

James noticed that a blanket had been thrown over Aaron. Wrapped around him, too. Presumably to cover him, since James knew no clothes could withstand the transformation. But even so, Aaron looked so pale. And somehow... cold.

If he was alive, his pulse was weak. Aaron had been pushed to his limit, just so Constantine could get to James and Cyrin. And James hated to see it.

"What happened to you two?" Jay asked after another awkward silence. His eyes landed particularly on James's blood-red hands.

James slowly glanced at Cyrin out of the corner of his eye, but he spoke for the two of them.

"Constantine attacked us," he summized.

A heavy pause. Jay stared expectantly.

"He's... dead, now," James said quieter, leaving Jay to deduce the obvious.

"Fuck," Jay said.

Well, that was certainly an understandable reaction.

"Thank god," Jay said directly after.

To James's left, Cyrin swallowed heavily and managed to barely nod.

"Is Aaron... hurt?" they asked quietly. "I'm able to help."

Jay shook his head. "No," he said. "He's not."

Aaron's head twitched inward in Jay's arms at the mention of his name. Jay froze for a moment, and a brief look of panic showed in his eyes, as if he was... well, James didn't know. Afraid that Aaron was waking? But what for?

Jay hesitated, but then carefully laid Aaron down on the ground.


"His..." Cyrin frowned, his eyebrows raising in a mix of confusion and realization. "His pulse is very faint."

Jay shot Cyrin a glare. "How do you know that?"

James wanted to say it didn't take a doctor to guess, but he too, was curious why Cyrin felt compelled to say so.

Cyrin blinked, staring at Jay.

"I can... feel it," he said slowly, like that didn't make sense to him. "Just the thudding of his heart, barely there. I... I'm not supposed to feel that."

James turned to look at Cyrin, and Jay's glare turned judgemental, as if he were disappointed in the answer.

"Whatever," Jay said. "It wouldn't be the weirdest thing someone's claimed on this fucking island."

That much was true. Cyrin didn't seem to care much for hearing it, though, by the way their eyes narrowed.

Trying to diffuse the tension, but also wanting to take care of the matters at hand, James took another step forward, aware that Jay was watching him with a near-snarl.

"You could wait here with him until help comes," James said softly. "Or we could get him out of the dirt, at least. I don't know how long it will be for other staff members to come by and find him."

"Like I'd trust them to do anything about this," Jay said with a quick bitterness.

"Then allow me to help," James said, kneeling down beside Jay and Aaron. "You'll need to bring him back to your cabin. I can help carrying him."

Jay gave James one long, flat look.

"You don't need help from me," Jay said, as if unimpressed James would give Jay the courtesy to assist.

James nodded. "Then may I?"

Jay bristled, but then nodded, getting to his feet. James, in turn, carefully scooped Aaron up in his arms.

It seemed that now they'd have to face the music. Or, rather, the chaos of worry awaiting them beyond the trees. He supposed he'd rather do it now than later.

Cyrin was still frowning, seeming to still be a little hung up on Aaron's pulse, but he stepped back, suddenly glancing to the side, where the trees blocked their view of the beach.

"I think people are out there," they said. "I can hear--"

Suddenly, the unmistakable sound of a gunshot rang out across the island, drowning out Cyrin's words in its echo.

"Fucking Hendrik," Jay muttered harshly. "He's getting trigger-happy."

"Hendrik has guns?" Cyrin asked, disbelievingly and yet like it didn't shock them at all.

"He pulled them out of somewhere," Jay said. "I don't know what he's doing but--"

Jay turned and looked at James squarely.

"I'll go make sure no more shots are fired so you can approach safely," Jay said. "Bring Aaron back. Give me a minute, then come out."

James stared at him and gave a nod. Before James could say anything more, Jay disappeared into thin air like a ghost, and James found himself staring in the space Jay once occupied, thoroughly caught off guard.

So... apparently that was a thing. The disappearing, ghostly power was Jay's. He didn't know why he hadn't put that together until now. He hadn't expected it to look like that.

Slowly, he turned to look back at Cyrin. Cyrin also looked caught off-guard.

"I trust you'll stay safe, then," they said to Jay.

But James didn't know if Jay was even still there to hear it.

There was an awkward pause as James listened for some kind of indicator that Jay had left, but there was nothing. No footsteps or disturbance. So it seemed Jay truly could become a spectre, then - not only invisible, but intangible as well. So much so that he didn't disturb a thing in his departure.

James waited in silence for a solid minute, reflecting on little more than the sound of his own heartbeat and Aaron's weak breaths.

Jay hadn't told him there'd be a sign it was safe to go - only to wait. James wasn't sure how long "a minute" really was. Right now, a minute felt like an eternity.

"This feels so wrong," Cyrin said quietly at last.

James looked to them again, giving Cyrin his full attention. He said nothing. It felt like Cyrin had more to say.

"Not-- not that you did it," Cyrin said hastily after a moment's pause. "I mean, there is that too, but mostly... To me, it's more..."

At an unusual loss for words at the moment, Cyrin's shoulders slumped as they shaded their eyes with their hand.

"Sorry. You didn't ask," he said quietly.

"I am now," James said softly. "To you, it's more what?"

Cyrin took a deep breath.

"More about how it happened and less that it happened," he said quietly. "These aren't your beliefs, I know, but I'm used to the practice of saying blessings for the deceased, regardless of who died or what it was for. It's something to be taken seriously, and there's different blessings you learn for everything-- humans, different animals, even for plants. I know blessings for people. I know blessings for when you've hunted a deer, which are different than the blessings when you've hunted a bird. I even know blessings of thanks for foraging wild berries. Everything that dies or loses itself gets a blessing."

Cyrin was silent for a moment.

"But when we were standing there," he finished, his voice so quiet he seemed to hardly be speaking, "I realized I don't know how to bless a monster. And I feel even more shame for it."

James let the sobriety of Cyrin's feelings fill the space between them for a moment. He didn't feel in a rush to speak, nor to heal the wound they now shared in, in the wake of Constantine's death. There was little that would help in this, and James understood that the sentiment Cyrin was communicating went deeper than fulfilling a rote tradition.

Now was not the time to unpack it. But James did find himself searching for something - anything - to offer someone who had nothing to fill the gap. There was something missing, and if James could offer even something small to give Cyrin some semblance of peace, he wanted to.

A long lull passed before he spoke up.

"There's a saying in Nye," he said softly. "In the Moonlight Kingdom. It translates: 'May your death have meaning.'"

A pause.

"It is used to honor the dead," James said quietly. "No matter their story."

Cyrin slowly turned their head to him, their bleak expression softening into something more sad, almost mournful.

"Can you tell me how to say it?" they asked quietly.

James nodded, and then spoke it in his mother tongue. Cyrin repeated it back slowly, careful to keep every sound and syllable the way James had said it. After they had, they seemed to... almost imperceptibly relax. Just the tiniest bit.

"Thank you," Cyrin said quietly, with sincerity.

James nodded, and he was content to say nothing more. With a small tilt of his head, he silently asked if Cyrin was ready to go out and meet the others. Cyrin gave him a slight nod in return.

Taking in a deep breath, James turned to the lights peering through the trees, and he led the way.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Carina says...

Alan yawned, flopping back against the couch to stare up at the ceiling, counting the same rivets from last night.

Everything seemed to change in only a span of a few hours, but that wasn't a bad thing. New situations meant new experiences, which only enriched life. Even if it was painful in the moment.

Though, the only pain Alan felt was knowing that others weren't enjoying their time.

He pulled out his phone, opening the location app and breathing out a sigh of relief when he saw Lyall's bubble within the same vicinity as his. After the early morning chaos that only happened a couple of hours ago, Alan was worried that Lyall would once again push himself to his limit so others felt safe and secure, even though that was not his responsibility to bear. And with everything that happened, and with Cyrin upstairs resting, Alan wanted to ensure that Lyall rest too.

Hence, his proposal to sleep in shifts. Lyall should be sleeping, and maybe he wasn't, but it at least brought Alan peace of mind that he was in his room rather than zipping around the island in a mildly frenzied panic.

It was inevitable that the random chaos of life would throw unpredictable situations their way, but Alan was quick to adapt and be there for others as needed. Though, this did mean that Lyall's getaway had to be postponed another day, which thankfully Lyall agreed to.

One day at a time.

After moving around the events in his calendar app, Alan opened up his messaging app again, reading the text that was delivered that morning, over and over. It made quite an announcement, saying that the monster threat had been eliminated, the lockdown was no longer enforced, security had arrived on the island, visitor stay was extended by another week, and the weekend DMV event was postponed. It seemed the DMV was apologetic about the unforeseen circumstances and wanted everyone to rest, which was thoughtful, and much needed.

Alright. On to the next thing.

Alan rolled out of the couch, landing on his hands and feet and quickly springing back up to wander to the kitchen. Alistair had been sitting by the kitchen island to broodily bang his head against the counter, and as Alan passed by, he grinned and tussled his hair with his fingers.

Alistair moaned, heavily dropping his cap on the back of his head, now covering his messy hair.

"You know there are more comfortable spots to sleep," Alan teased with a smile, opening a drawer to pull out a pen and paper.

"Can't sleep," Alistair mumbled, hardly understandable with his face muffled against the counter.

Alan huffed out a breath of amusement, clicking the pen. "Of course. It's be a shame to sleep through morning."

Slowly, Alistair sat up, firmly setting the cap on his head before tiredly rubbing his eyes, still slouched forward. "How can you sleep after going through a horror movie event?" he groaned. "My god, every day gets worse and worse. What's next? Is chainsaw man going to come out and murder us?"

Alan hummed, his smile growing wider. "You know, not impossible. I did get swallowed up by a giant sphinx, so who knows what could happen?"

Alistair spluttered and bristled at that, but before he could predictably hound him with interrogating questions, their mom turned whirled around with the plate of mixed empanadas, smiling brightly.

Despite the tensions of last night, Alan was grateful that he could spend the day with his family. To be with Alistair, even if he was a grouch, and to be with his mom, a bundle of love and joy, quick to prepare a meal so that he could deliver it to Cyrin.

"Here you go, my love!" she said, offering the plate to him. "Oh, I hope he's not too sick to eat empanadas. Do you think he'll like it?"

Alan beamed, nodding once. "I'm sure Cyrin will love it."

On the notecard, he quickly drew a circle with lines surroundings the shape, inspected it, then scrawled a sentence underneath it.

Thought I'd switch it up and bring the sunrise to you.

With the note in one hand and the plate in the other, Alan was already off dashing up the stairs, waving at his family with his head. "Alright, going to deliver this. Be right back."

His mom waved back, and Alistair was back to melting against the counter, unbothered.

"Tell him we say hello! And Ly-all, too!" she said brightly, and it occurred to Alan that perhaps he should tell her that Lyall was sleeping, but... it was fine.

The delivery was quick. All Alan did was place the plate on the floor, set the notecard in front of it, and then knock. He didn't wait for Cyrin to come out, instead skipping down the stairs again to meet his family.

From the little Alan knew of the situation, he felt like Cyrin wanted some time and space, which he understood and respected. Though, even in times of stress and hardship, there was always room for small, thoughtful acts of kindness.

"Alan!" his mom scolded playfully, hand on her hip. "That was fast. Did you even say hi?"

Alan met her in the kitchen, dismissing the thought with his hand. "It's alright. I delivered it."

He paused, but continued on before she could comment further, gesturing towards the coffee maker.

"Should we make coffee?" he asked with a smile. "It's an exciting new day, and Alistair needs to wake up."
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urbanhart says...

So the "sorry" balloon did in fact serve a purpose. The confetti bottle attached opened with a small "pop", and Lyall was suddenly lost in a kaleidoscope of swarming colors. And it was just as disorienting as the first time this happened.

Once the flashes of colors dissipated, he took two stumbled steps back into a dimly lit computer room. Walls were lined with filing cabinets, servers, and monitors, making the space feel like a dark, technological jungle.

Twisting around to scan the place, he found a complete absence of doors. Which felt like a gross oversight as far as safety went. He squinted at the walls around him, then figured he'd simply. Cross that bridge once he got to it.

Trieu wasn't here, either. Thus rendering this entire venture moot.


Quietly padding through, Lyall approached the vast console awaiting below the monitors. Experimentally, he tapped a key at random. The screens flashed brighter, before collectively displaying a single lock screen.


He scanned the room for potential traps. Then cautiously keyed in "Trieu1000$$", and pressed enter.


In a smaller window beneath the big bold letters, a helpful message read:

HINT: Watch your head, sweetie! ;)

Lyall frowned. "The fu--"

He heard a fluttering of pages, alarmingly close behind him, before something heavy hit the back of his head with a loud whack! The sheer shock of it cause him to stumble momentarily. Taking a defensive stance, he whirled around, eyes frantically darting between every corner of the room.

No one. Just a heavy tome on the ground.

Out of nowhere, a metal stapler flew for his face. Flinching, Lyall instinctively raised a hand and just managed to catch it before a collision.

"This is quite the--"

"How did you get here?" a feminine voice growled threateningly from behind the servers.

Ah. Well, this was just a terrible misunderstanding, probably.

"I don't know that you'd believe me if I told you," Lyall answered, keeping his tone light as he took a tentative step closer to the computer towers. He lifted both hands nonthreateningly.

The moment he opened his mouth to say more, a three-inch binder was suddenly chucked his way. He hastily side-stepped so that it only clipped his shoulder.

"Miss, please--"

A thick manual flew out next. He batted it down in time to catch a dark blur scurrying out to hide behind a different server.

Trying to speak was apparently futile. Whoever this was-- though he could swear he recognized the anxious edge in her voice, however forcefully lowered her pitch was-- was making a break for the monitors.

Quickly backtracking, Lyall followed their potential path, eyes fixed on where he last saw them disappear to.

"Might I intro--"

Again, a book was simply lobbed at his face for his efforts. A bit that was getting quite old, exceedingly fast. Dodging that one, however, only put him directly in the flight path of another. Their throws grew increasingly panicked and less coordinated.

He just wanted to introduce himself, dammit. Maybe he was a surprise visitor here, but there was still an etiquette to these things!

Navigating a barrage of other texts and heavy office supplies, Lyall gradually closed in. He faked a step closer to the left edge of the tower, then slid sideways to the other side when he heard his attacker try to flee out that way.

This time, only shock hit his face when he saw none other than:

"Miss Eve--"

Then, perhaps inevitably, he did take an actual blow to the face this time. Her hand struck under his chin like lightning, whipping his head back. In the next instant, while he was still stunned, Eve then swiftly dealt the death blow: a sharp strike of her knee between his legs.

Still reeling, he faintly registered himself falling-- no, being actively pushed down onto his back. He tried blinking the stars from his eyes, and blindly flailed in her hold on his arms.

Something quickly fastened around his wrists with a distinctive scratch of plastic. His senses sharpened again. He found enough presence of mind to try and put distance between them now. He yanked his tied hands away, trying to shake Miss Eve's iron grip on him.

"Stop, just answer my question!" she hissed over him next to his side, hand shaking along with his.

"What-- You started this!" he sputtered, completely affronted by her audacity by this point.

"How did you get here?!" Eve yelled again, clearly panicked by the situation she caused. "Who sent you? Why are you here? What do you want?"

Fuck no. He wasn't entertaining any questions like this.

Lyall switched from "flee" to "fight". He threw his weight upward so that he was sitting, a more leverageable position. Then, grabbing hold of one of her wrists with both hands, he dragged her down to the floor as he twisted around to kneel over her. He held her down with her arm pinned across her middle.

"Get off me!" she hissed, squirming under his grip, attempting to kick him away, her legs only flailing in the air instead.

"Only once you've agreed to stop throwing things at me," Lyall shot back. He made sure to stay aloft on his knees, to keep from pressing his weight on her. "I am not here to hurt you," he explained, forcing his voice to calm, "I'm not even here for you at all. This just happened to be an unfortunately timed encounter."

Eve, still panicked, still wriggled under his hold, grunting and desperately trying to free herself. "Then answer my questions!"

"I shall gladly do so," he said diplomatically. "After you've settled."

Eve slowed her movements until she finally limped back, her brows furrowed together as she pressed her lips together into a fierce frown. She leveled her steely eyes with his and said through her teeth, "I don't trust you anymore."

Silent for a moment, Lyall searched her eyes, trying to make sense of her heated proclamation. Then sighed and gently asked, "Will you stop throwing things at me, at least?"

"Will you get off me?" she shot back.

Pursing his lips, he flicked his eyes down to his tied hands.

Fine. Sure, he could extend the olive branch first. And if he suffered a stapler to the face for it, so be it.

He raised both brows pointedly, and watched her closely for any new brilliant ideas of hers as he then released her arm. He then slowly straightened with a mildly pained wince, allowing her some space. But he didn't back off, not yet.

They were watching each other closely. Eyes on him the entire time, Eve slowly sat up, carefully watching for his movements.

"To answer your question, Miss Eve," Lyall explained civilly, "I unexpectedly arrived here via a jar of confetti." Then spread his hands in a pointed, 'Believe me?' gesture.

But Eve didn't react, staying still with only a slight twitch of her brow as she silently stared at him.

Well, this entire situation was beyond exhausting already.

Sighing, Lyall opted to stay put as he prompted, "You had multiple questions, correct?"

Eve nodded once. "How did you get here," she began coolly, "who sent you, why are you here, and what do you want?"

Lyall mirrored her nod. "Alright. I answered the 'how'. No one sent me, I came in search of a friend on staff, and--" He lifted his hands and wiggled his fingers. "--I'd really like to know what the hell got into you just now."

"You came here for a reason," Eve went on, voice calm and steady. "What's the reason?"


Was this woman serious?

"I just gave you my reason," he said indignantly, letting his hands drop.

"Lyall," she said stiffly, clearly holding back her own reservations. "There are no doors here."

"Miss Eve," Lyall said pleasantly, "I'm beginning to understand the frustration of all who try to follow my circular ways of conversation." He folded his hands together. "What else do you want from me?"

"Who is the friend on staff?" Eve asked curtly.

"I'll presume you don't know them, and thus cannot rightly give you any identifying information of this friend," Lyall countered.

Her stare was quick to turn into a daggering glare. "You're lying."

"'Lying'--" Lyall glanced up at the ceiling, desperately praying to the loathesome gods for patience. "You're perplexing!"

"What are you hiding?" Eve went on, tensions rising with her voice, along with volume. "Did the DMV put you up to this?"

"This entire room is a DMV resource, is it not?" he asked instead. "Which begs the question: why are you here?"

"So you know this room is a DMV resource," Eve said, ignoring his question.

Lyall waved his hands in a circle. "The general 'villainous lair' vibes of the place gave it away," he deadpanned. Then emphatically repeated, "Why are you here?"

Eve's glare only intensified with every passing word. "Conveniently," she said with feigned energy, "I am in search of a friend on staff. What a delightful coincidence. Perhaps we are in search of the same friend."

Tilting his head, Lyall slapped on a grin full of mock cheer. "Well, wouldn't that just be swell." He raised his bound hands pointedly again. "And this was necessary because...?"

"Because you didn't answer my questions," she said evenly.

"And the book tossing prior to this impromptu interrogation?" he pressed.

Eve faltered, pressing her lips together even more, clearly not having an answer to this question. At least, not an immediate one.

Lyall sighed quietly, then began to say, "May I--"

"I wasn't expecting company," she blurted out apprehensively.

He blinked. And quietly waited for her to further her thought.

But instead-- and rather unsurprisingly by this point-- she switched topics.

"Who gave you the confetti?" she asked instead.

"Can I," he gently insisted, "please, just." He demonstratively shook his tied hands between them. "If we're to have a civilized conversation, I'd rather it first become a slightly more balanced set of circumstances."

"No," Eve said firmly. "I don't trust you. Just answer my question."

He tilted his head, genuinely intrigued by her insistence. "And why don't you trust me?"

She furrowed her brows deeper and asked with a tilt of her head, "Do you trust me?"

He smiled incredulously at her. "Is that a legitimate question?"

"The feeling is mutual," she said steadily. "Who gave you the confetti?"


Lyall wasn't going to wait for her permission anymore, this was ridiculous. He clenched his hands, lips pressed into a firm line as he focused on concentrating the heat of his skin beneath the ziptie.


He blinked. Then tried again.

"Bloody hell," he murmured, baffled as he studied the ziptie at various angles.

"Magic doesn't work in this room," Eve said as she carefully watched him.

"Bollocks," Lyall retorted, "I used magic to get here."

"This does not extend to magical items." She paused. "Which only the DMV possesses."

He looked back up to Miss Eve and stubbornly insisted, "That's not how it works. It's not that selective."

Eve didn't even try to hide her glare as she let out a tired sigh. "Then don't believe me. I don't care."

He huffed out through his nose, frustrated by this standstill.


Was Miss Eve farther away?

Warily eyeing the placement of her knees-- which were within striking distance still, what with the way he was still kneeling over her himself-- Lyall silently weighed his options.

Neither of them were going to get anywhere like this. Something had to give.

He let out a quiet breath. Stapler to the face it was, then.

Making eye contact to let her know he wasn't fully letting down his own guard, he slowly but surely backed off, giving her full space now. With slow movements, Eve got up on her feet, eyes glued on Lyall to watch for his reaction. He simply settled back, sinking lower on his knees. Physically yielding control to her, in an attempt to build some semblance of a safer context for her.

And, frankly, he was still too sore to do much else at the moment.

"Whose side are you on?" she went on, unrelenting her interrogation as she stiffly stood over him.

Ah. So Miss Eve likewise had a sense of "them versus us".

He didn't have time to ponder if this was a ruse, nor whom exactly the 'them' and the 'us' entailed, lest the silence draw out too long for her liking. He opted to answer truthfully, "On that of my friends."

"And you're here to protect them," Eve deduced.

"Or to at least give it the old college try," Lyall said with a confirming nod.

Her glare was unrelenting, observing him closely. Until she finally asked the question: "Do you work for the DMV?"

Lyall hesitated.

He still couldn't gauge where she seemed to align herself in that DMV versus contestants situation. He couldn't tell what she'd do with any of this information. He didn't know her well enough.

What if she exposed him? His chances at enacting any degree of meaningful, institutional change would be made nil.

...What if she could be a true ally, though? She was hyper-observant, quick on her feet, and quite resourceful. And she seemed closest with James, which spoke to her character.

Lyall pursed his lips, and finally replied, "Shall I consider this a part of the onboarding process?"

Eve stiffened, quickly blurting out the next questions. "How many times have you been here? How long have you been working for them? Who are you working for?"

The anxiety in this response made him lean more towards the conclusion of, she was allied with the DMV at surface level.

Lyall was truly exhausted by this back and forth now, however. Pressing his eyes closed, he tiredly tilted his head back with a slow exhale.

"This is literally the first time I've set foot in the place," he answered, long-suffering, "I sold my soul to the very devil only two-- three? days ago. And, yes. That." He nodded once. "We'll just refer to them as the devil." Opening his eyes again, he tilted his head expectantly.

Finally. Eve began to relax in her posture, just a little. Her glare softened into a steely stare as she steadily asked, "Why? Why did you sign the contract?"

He blinked slowly. Then tilted his head the other way as he looked up at her with intense curiosity.

"...How do you know there was a contract involved?" he asked.

"Answer my question first," she said stubbornly.

This had to be-- what? His fifth sigh in the past ten minutes?

"Miss Eve," he began, lifting his hands placatingly.

"You don't know what you've signed up for," Eve cut in with a low voice.

"Look at me," Lyall cut her off now, voice sharper as his patience began wearing thin. He pointed to himself. "I have given you space, I have given you direct answers, I have not given you cause for further alarm-- I'm on my fucking knees right now, giving you the benefit of the doubt! Whilst you have left me to draw conclusions from practically nothing. Please." He shook his fists. "Give me something to work with here."

As usual, Eve was hard to read-- even as a short silence fell over them, the two of them keeping a close eye on each other.

That was, until Eve turned her heel, the soft thuds of her footsteps echoing in the room as she approached the same computer that Lyall had earlier attempted to access. Craning his neck, Lyall could just barely catch the long string of characters she typed in the passcode field. And then--


The computer appeared to be some sort of file database, though it was hard to tell from the distance. Regardless, Eve continued to click away, focused on the screen. Seconds ticked by in silence, until--

"I came here to see the footage of what happened," she said neutrally.

Cautiously, and carefully due to lingering pain thanks to her warm welcome, Lyall finally rose to his feet. He briefly considered burning off the ziptie now. Then instead slowly approached as he was, for a better view of the screen. Fortunately, Eve did not react or seem to mind him drawing closer.

"Elaborate," he requested evenly.

"I came here to see what happened in the early morning hours, from beginning to end," Eve amended. "This affects both James and Cyrin. Are you here to learn answers?"

Lyall came up alongside her, observing her as she scoured the numerous folders within the database. "Answers to what?"

Eve paused in her clicking, pulling open a drawer under the keyboard. Lyall drew back slightly, bracing himself for that stapler as he watched her dig through. Instead, she pulled out a pair of scissors. Holding it steadily in her hands, she turned to him, briefly met his eyes, then reached over to snip the ziptie with the blade. Keeping his movements slow and deliberate, he slipped the ziptie off and rubbed at his wrists as he turned his attention back to the screen.

"...Thank you," he murmured.

Eve flicked her eyes towards him in a sideways glance, continuing on. "You don't have access to the database. Why?"

He leaned his hands on the edge of the console. "I'm going to guess I'm at a lower clearance level than you."

Eve was focused on the screen, but she didn't move the mouse nor click on anything. "I think," she began neutrally, "we are meant to work together."

...He couldn't rule out the possibility.

Sighing for the sixth time, Lyall muttered, "Aces."

Eve gave him another hesitant side-eye, not further commenting and continuing on. "Why did you sign the contract?" she asked again.

Make that seven times.

"I..." He shrugged a shoulder and quietly answered, "I saw no other way."

"What answers do you seek?" she pressed.

"I'm not here for answers, really," he said honestly. "Just guidelines, the limitations, for what my new role entails exactly."

Eve faltered, quickly snapping her head towards him with her brows drawn together. "New role?" she repeated. "What--"

"No," he gently cut her off, holding up a finger, "no. My turn." Standing straighter, he folded his arms as he leaned a hip against the console. "What is your connection to the DMV here? Why do you have a higher access level than I? Why did you sign your contract to begin with?"

Eve quietly took a deep breath, turning away, unfocused on the screen. "I already told you," she said coolly. "I came here for answers." This time, it was her turn to sigh. "I am a contestant, like you. However, our contracts must be different, if I am given a higher access level. You can take it to Maeve or Oliver if you'd like increased clearance." She angled her head back towards him with a small tilt. "Who is your point of contact, anyways? Is it Maeve, Oliver, or someone else?"

She kept saying "answers, answers," and stating the obvious. But was still refusing to provide any real context for herself. She'd asked Lyall about wanting to protect friends. The fact that that was her first assumption felt like an indication that that was what fueled her decision too.

He'd have to circle back to that another time. He had a feeling she wouldn't give him anything in the span of this discussion. Or any time soon.

"Maeve," Lyall answered. He tilted a curious gaze toward her as well. "You?"

"Maeve also facilitated my involvement," Eve answered, quick to move on. "Now, can you please elaborate on this 'role'?"

Oh, they were resorting to manners now? And her specificity of "facilitated involvement" suggested that a direct connection with the sister Trieu ended there.

Quirking a brow, Lyall had to actively bite back a slightly amused grin. "My contract," he obliged, "mentioned duties not unlike that of a test administrator."

He flicked his eye toward the monitor. How far back would this day-old footage be?

"Test administrator?" she asked skeptically.

"Think you're any closer to that footage, ace?" he prompted pleasantly.

Eve stared at him with another twitch of her brow. "Why..." She sighed, giving up on the question. "Never mind." Before he could further comment, she pressed a button on the keyboard, and the screen snapped to a video.

The footage was a little grainy, given the extreme dark conditions of the setting. The audio was astonishingly clear, however. Leaves rustling, the creak of the branches under a tremendous weight, the short breaths of a fast-approaching being.


He slowed to a stop in a small clearing, turning to watch where he came from. Like something had been chasing him.

Instead, a gigantic chimera-like creature dropped down from the trees on top of the former soldier. It pinned him down, and clamped down on his shoulder-- Then leapt back with a pained howl. When James pushed himself back to his feet, there was an odd gleam to his skin as he passed under a patch of moonlight.

In fact. It didn't look like human flesh at all.

He looked like a living, breathing Oolympian sculpture, made entirely of a roughly cast metal.

Was this--

"Test administrator," Eve repeated, gesturing to the screen after she paused at a frame where the monster next attempted to bite into James's metallic skin. "If you are here to administer magic tests, then this sudden new magic may interest you." She set her hand down, tightly pressing her lips together as she stared at the screen. "Unless this-- this experience-- was the test itself." A pause, before she continued more quietly, "There have been studies conducted by the DMV that, when put under immense pressure to be stretched to their limits, those who hold a specific genotype can 'unlock' new magic potential. And... I have reason to believe that we all fall under this group."

So it was a new feature for Hawke.

Lyall felt himself faintly grin in silent awe at the paused frame.

"That certainly tracks," Lyall said, quickly casting Eve an impressed grin. "Nice work, detective."

Eve glossed over the compliment, scrubbing ahead a few minutes, pausing on the gory frame of James's metallic claws shooting cleanly through the skull of the monster.

"It was all arranged," she murmured. "The DMV arranged for the monster to be here, and it had a purpose for dying. This was all part of the grand plan, conveniently timed with visitor week and you signing the contract."

His thoughts exactly.

Bending over, Lyall leaned on his elbows as he tapped his fist to his chin in thought. The full implications of test admin were starting to sink in now. And he already despised it. Certainly, he wasn't expected to bring in a monster for every test? Nor put everyone in such dire straits to unlock every new magic.

No, there were other ways to introduce different stressors that would induce evolving at such a rapid rate.

Could there even be an entirely alternative method? There had to have been. He refused to believe mental and physical trauma was the only key to unlocking new strengths.

"This explains the torture," Eve went on with a venomous voice, rewatching the kill over and over. "The unjust suffering. The needless pain." She shook her head, finally pausing after the monster's body flinched and convulsed on the ground, dying in its own pool of blood. "And still, I ask..."

With a dead serious expression, Eve snapped her head back towards him, frowning.

"Do you know what you've signed up for?" she finished coolly.

Fists clenching, Lyall ignored her hard stare fixed on the side of his head, as he intently studied James's and Cyrin's figures on the screen.

He could make this work. Find workarounds. Loopholes. This couldn't be the only way.

"I think you're right," Lyall murmured, "we're meant to work together." He turned and firmly held her intense gaze. "With DMV resources now at our disposal, I'm going to get as many of us through this hell as I can. Intact, perhaps with promising futures ahead. Meanwhile, with your higher access levels, you can start poking at whatever holes in the system you can find." He grinned at her. "Tear this beast apart from the inside."

He wanted to shake hands to make it official, but. Stapler.

Eve did not react or comment on his encouragement or direction, silently turning her head back towards the screen as she studied the gruesome scene of the paused frame. "Everything happens for a reason here. You can't beat someone who knows the past, present, and future," she said steadily. "Be careful."

Not quite the promise of allegiance he hoped for. But it wasn't quite a "fuck you" either.

He'll take it.

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urbanhart says...

After everything that transpired the past few days... Was Hild still going on her morning runs? Lyall hoped to gods that she wasn't.

Even though the threat of the monster had passed, and apparently served a purpose, he wasn't inclined to trust that the DMV wouldn't plan any other little surprises for the sake of screen-worthy excitement.

Anyway. On the subject of his sister.

All throughout the morning, he couldn't help but mentally replay their short exchange on the front porch. How horribly he fumbled through trying to scrape together some sort of defense, how he was yet again so quick to brush aside anything Hild had to say. The the way he turned and ran with hardly a proper apology for his needlessly cutting words.

Over and over and over again, he rewound to the split-second the resolve in her eyes crumbled, when her new warmth and openness blinked out of existence. The way she threw up her old walls in an instant to guard herself against... him.

Guilt twisted in his gut like a knife. Lyall was her goddamn brother. She shouldn't have to feel the need to protect herself from him. There never should have been this wedge between them to begin with.

And once again, he only had himself to blame for this latest installment in the "I Royally Fucked Up" series.

Lyall had to make it up to her. Make up for everything. For leaving in the past, not being around when the family needed him most. For being the reason they had to uproot their lives and resettle so many times, for continually ignoring her, for having to bear down on her as a father rather than lifting her up as a brother, for snapping at her most recently.

Their usual unspoken forms of apology wouldn't cut it. Not even close. He knew she'd hate him for the rest of time if-- when she found out sometime in the future, about his alliance with the DMV.

But it was the only way. This was his only chance to take a shot at an entire institution, burn out the corruption. The only way to finally try and tear apart a world that mercilessly tore up his family, time and again.

It might very well be the final nail in the coffin, the very death of what little remained of his and Hild's relationship. And a little song wouldn't be able to begin to cover his sins, past, present, or future. But it had to count for something. A wordless song was all they ever had, really.

But this time, the song wasn't an apology.

This time, it was a final, very fond, farewell.

8:27 AM.

He got dressed, grabbed a loathsome tie because he knew Hild appreciated those, styled his hair, then pondered why the hell, all-knowing overlords that they were, the DMV had neglected to provide him with some instrument or other.

Bah! Fine. Whatever. He recalled an array of instruments that were simply sitting around at the amphitheater in the plaza. Perhaps they had a violin at the ready, he could pick up a song on that quickly enough within... however many hours it took. Preferably before the day ended.

8:35 AM, he descended.

Mindfully quiet clattering of cooking utensils and warm scents drifted out from the kitchen. Lyall followed both to find Alan predictably already bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he spearheaded breakfast endeavors.

"Good morning, Lyall," Alan greeted warmly as he finished arranging the assortments of proteins and breads on the plate, only turning towards him when he finished. His smile turned curious as he met his eyes. "Oh, you look nice today. Really sharp. At least, sharper than usual."

"Alan! Good morning to you, as well." Arms spread, Lyall gave a small, performative spin as he approached. "Look good, feel good, right?" he said jokingly.

Alan smiled, sliding a plate against the counter towards him. "Hungry?"

"In a bit," Lyall answered, smiling fondly at his friend. Softening his tone, he asked, "Has Cyrin made an appearance?"

Alan shook his head, preparing food on another plate. "Not yet, though I've been checking in every so often. They're eating the food I've dropped off, which is good. So, progress." With more enthusiasm, Alan turned back with a smile, giving Lyall another curious lookover. "I've got this covered, though. I'm curious: what are your plans for the day?"

"Nothing so riveting," Lyall said. Then glanced down at himself, a tad self-conscious now. "The tie is overkill, isn't it."

Alan softly hummed, eyeing the tie. "Well, that depends on the occasion. But I think it suits you anyways. It's fitting, for you."

Still, Lyall grimaced slightly as he fiddled with the tie. Then, looking back up at Alan, angled his head to the side just a bit as he cracked a grin. "...Something's different about you, too." He snapped his fingers and playfully guessed, "You... got a haircut?"

Alan grinned, now buttering a slice of bread to go along with the meats. "I could say the same thing about you, but my guess is: did your hair grow longer?"

"Thankfully, no," Lyall said, humming his amusement. "Just finally decided to put in a few extra minutes of effort to tame it." He leaned an elbow on the counter and gestured broadly at Alan. "Ah! Now I see it. A smattering of color in your wardrobe, at last. Did you hit the shops in the plaza sometime recently?"

Alan half-rolled his eyes, still smiling in amusement as he went on to butter the other slice of bread. "I know this might look new to you, but this is my normal wardrobe. Alistair packed my closet for me, which was considerate of him." He turned to loosely shake the butter knife towards him, a mild pout in his voice. "Of course I wear colors, silly."

"And how wonderfully colors suit you, my good friend," Lyall responded warmly. He thought of more compliments, but stopped himself short of adding anything more. For the sake of being short on time.

Alan stole another amused glance towards Lyall, once more eyeing his own outfit. He hummed, setting the bread slices down on the plate. "No," he said with smile. "The tie is not overkill. Mostly because dressing nice suits you." He curiously tilted his head, watching Lyall carefully. "Seriously, though. What are your plans for the day?"

Glossing over the returned compliments.

Lyall idly flicked at an invisible speck on the counter. "I hope to meet up with my sister some time today," he answered honestly in a murmur. "Formally extend a heartfelt apology for my boorish behavior just days ago."

Alan paused, turning to now fix his full and undivided attention on Lyall, processing the implications. But instead of letting the silence dwell, he softly replied, "That's so considerate of you. That's a great idea, and it's thoughtful for you to put time and effort into how you will appear as well, since first impressions are equally as important." He paused. "Do you know what you'll say?"

Glancing up again, Lyall met his eyes with a smaller, close-lipped smile. "I've got to practice a bit more," he said, "but. Yes. I've a fairly clear idea."

Enough about himself, though. Alan was pouring out enough of himself to others these past days.

So, patting the counter, Lyall asked with sincere interest, "How is your day looking, my dear friend?"

"Ah. Glad you asked." Alan grinned, turning back to place a sprig of parsley on top of the scrambled eggs, then pushed away the plate so he could lean his elbow against the counter. "I'll be out and about most of the day, checking in with family and a few others. Are you still up for the getaway day being tomorrow?"

Ah, yes. The getaway.

Lyall couldn't help but grin a little brighter out of intense curiosity. "Wouldn't miss it for the world." Straightening, he slid onto the bar stool to settle in for a quick chat. "How are your folks, anyhow?"

"Great, actually," Alan said with a smile, sliding two glass cups together to seamlessly pour two glasses of orange juice at the same time, in one sweeping motion like a seasoned bartender. "It was nice to spend time with them yesterday, even with the chaos of the early morning. I don't think my mom really understood what happened, which, well, maybe it's for the best, since it's over now."

"Certainly," Lyall agreed quietly.

Alan set the jug down, picking up one glass to slide it across the island, next to Lyall's plate. "But," he continued, "I was listened to Alistair's grumpy lines all day. I think I have enough quotes to fill a book, now."

"That's not a bad gift idea," Lyall mused, tapping his chin in thought. "A book of brotherly quotes."

Alan grinned. "I should consider pitching this idea to Hild. She may agree with your sentiments."

"Mayhaps," Lyall hummed. If his own name was left unmentioned, then the likelihood was certainly increased.

"Will you be out and about most of the day, then?" Alan asked.

"Just the better portion of the morning, probably." Drumming his hands on the counter, Lyall slid off the stool. "I'll be back around lunchtime, most likely."

"We may be missing each other, since I don't anticipate being back until evening." Alan gestured to the plate of food be prepared for him. "You should eat before you leave, though. It'll give you energy."

That was probably wise, actually, yes.

"I may as well," Lyall warmly conceded with a bow his head. He rounded the island to take a plate. "You took the time to prepare everything, and it should be enjoyed whilst still hot."

Alan grinned. "That's what I like to hear." Turning around, he scooped up the other prepared plate and the glass of orange juice. "I'm going to deliver this to Cyrin so he can enjoy it while it's hot too."

Lyall watched with a softer smile, fondness compelling him to say, "You're a good friend, Alan."

Alan smiled, bounding for the stairs but saying over his shoulder, "Good friend, delivery person, cabin mate. I accept any of those words."

Huffing a quiet laugh, Lyall turned and portioned his own plate, content to leave that conversation there.

While he ate in the kitchen, Alan eventually returned and lingered a bit so they could chat a little more. Just their usual back and forth, light-hearted and an effective mood-lifter as ever. As they parted ways from the front porch, Lyall insisted that he'll clean up whatever's left upon his own return in the afternoon. Alan was predictably resistant to the idea, but did relent.

Victorious, Lyall bid him farewell with the reminder that he would be still be reachable anytime via phone. Then headed for a side path up the hill for the plaza, while Alan took the main road to the mansion.

On his way, Lyall sent out a small invitation to Vik to join for practice. He received an immediate and enthusiastic yes and smiling emoticon.

~ ~ ~

As the Fates would have it, there was indeed just a violin sitting at the ready in the ampitheater. Pertaining to the quality of the build and its sound, and whether or not its sizing was appropriate for him, Lyall really couldn't say. It'd been years since he last held one, but it felt alright when he propped it up on his shoulder.

Vik arrived while Lyall was still re-acquainting himself with the instrument. Wearing a horrendous shade of neon yellow. Thank gods Lyall didn't plan on looking at him the whole time.

"Hey!" Vik called, waving an arm as he bounded down the stairs. "What's with the getup? It's just rehearsal."

"Doesn't hurt to dress the part," Lyall countered with a grin. He pointed the bow toward his fast-approaching brother. "I feel as though I should've mentioned there was a dress code."

Skipping the steps to the stage, Vik simply leapt up to join him, lightly swatting at the bow as he passed. "Nah, wouldn't have made a difference. Unless you wanted me to drop from heat exhaustion?"

Huffing through his nose, Lyall plucked at the strings. "No, I'd much rather you didn't."

Vik wandered the stage a moment, poking at various instruments and taking in the sweeping structure overhead. Then, hands in his pockets, ambled back to stand behind the sheet music Lyall had found backstage. Ignoring Vik's scrutinizing head tilt, Lyall kept his eyes trained on the paper as he experimentally played a few notes with the bow.

"Oh no," Vik sighed after listening quietly for a few beats. "What happened this time?"

Lyall scoffed as he played on. "I'm sure you can guess well enough."

Vik shrugged and tentatively said, "Yeah... I guess she kind of told me already, anyway."

Lyall let out a small, tired huff through his nose. "Marvelous."

Leaning over the stand, Vik peered down at the sheet music, blocking it with his poofy head for a moment. Lyall let his bow drop to his side with a flat look as he waited.

"This one's got a piano," Vik eventually said, straightening with a brighter grin. "Want a partner for this piece?"

Lyall smiled back, genuinely appreciative. Excited, even, at the prospect of being able to perform beside one of his siblings again. "Would I be asking too much if I told you to first change?"

Blowing a raspberry, Vik hopped back to the piano bench behind him. "This is your apology song, man, not mine. I don't need to suffer for it."

Lyall poised the bow again with a wry chuckle. "Touche, my dear brother."

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SilverNight says...

A downside to their coffee machine (if there even was a downside, because it made coffee) was that Shane couldn't tell if there had been a knock at the front door over the sound of the noisy grinder.

Shane frowned, glancing over his shoulder at the door. It was kind of early for a visitor, which made him less inclined to trust his hearing-- or if he did trust it, to think of this as a bad sign. Luckily, he had an easy way of determining whether there was a knocker and who it was.

He left the kitchen, walking quietly through the living room and experimentally pressing his palm to the door, in search of its most recent memory. In a quick flash, he saw Ingrid, standing on the other side of the door with her fist raised to knock. He felt a rush of mixed emotions, some of which were easy to label and others that took more thinking. Her anxiety was simple enough to notice and identify, but there was a sort of... vague, but overwhelming need that went with it. He couldn't tell what it was for with that alone, but with context, he guessed it was to see James.

Shane opened his eyes, stepping back from the door.

"Ingrid," he said, loudly enough that he could be heard through the door. "What do you want?"

"I heard about what happened the other night," she said. "I just wanted to check in. I'm sorry it's so early, but... I couldn't sleep."

A beat.

"Do you really have to talk to me through the door?" she asked in a bit of a whine.

Shane knew James was awake-- he'd heard him moving upstairs-- but he doubted he'd like a visit at this time of morning.

"I don't know," he said simply. "All I know is that James probably wants to see you on his terms, not the other way around."

There was a pause, but Shane could sense Ingrid's indignant sigh without hearing it.

"Why don't you go ask him what his terms are?" Ingrid asked. "You don't get to speak for him."

"I've spoken with him," Shane said, "and it sounds like he didn't want to talk on this island. I'm not putting words in his mouth, that's what I've heard from him."

Not to mention that James didn't really want to talk afterwards, either, but that seemed irrelevant right now.

"Ask him," Ingrid demanded.

Shane sighed. "Look, you don't need to be wasting your time on our porch. You could walk back right now, or wait a few minutes to be told to walk back."

"I'll wait," Ingrid said firmly.

"I didn't say I was getting him during those few minutes," Shane said. "I was actually going to go into the kitchen, make my coffee, and come back in five to tell you to walk back. I don't see how that's worth your wait."

Ingrid fell silent. When the silence went on for a while, Shane poked at the door to see her turning down and frustratedly stomping her way back to the mansion.

"Alright, you did the math," he muttered, turning around and going back into the kitchen.

As if on cue, Shane heard James's familiar heavy footfalls coming down the squeaky steps. He looked up, offering him a faint smile.

"Hey," he said. "How'd you sleep?"

James shrugged weakly with a hum, rubbing at his eyes with the back of his hand. "You?" he asked.

Shane waved his hand vaguely in response. James nodded, finding a stool to sit on in the kitchen. He didn't look quite awake yet.

"Coffee?" Shane offered, pointing to the machine that had just stopped.

James nodded again with a small hum of affirmation.

Shane took down a pair of coffee mugs, filling them both up and passing James's to him before he went to the fridge to get the milk and rosewater for his own.

"Ingrid stopped by just before you came down," he said, pouring some milk into his coffee.

James let out a low groan at that, and he leaned over his coffee mug, holding his head in his hand.

"What did she say?" he asked.

"She demanded she speak with you," Shane said. "I asked her not to waste her time here."

James rubbed his face with a sigh, appearing troubled by that, but he said nothing.

"Was that right?" Shane asked softly.

"I don't know," James mumbled, still rubbing his face.

"I said you didn't want to meet," Shane said gently. "If you don't, then you don't have to."

"She's probably worried," James said. "I... she still had every right to be."

"She can be worried and still not be entitled to cross a boundary," Shane said.

"...Right," James murmured softly.

Shane poured a spoon of the rosewater in his coffee, stirring it in.

"Speaking of worried, though," he said, glancing back at James with a slightly concerned look. "It's been a day. How are you feeling...?"

To that, James set his gaze on his coffee cup. His brows knit together as he seemed to search the mug for answers, and his face was drawn with a weary sadness, unmasked.

"Used," he said faintly, brushing the side of the mug with the hand that didn't hold his head. "Tired."

Shane nodded quietly, taking his coffee and sitting down next to him, still stirring absently.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "They shouldn't have done that to you because of their own mistakes."

"I don't think it was a mistake," James said softly. "At least... not in it's entirety."

Shane blinked. "You don't?" he asked quietly. "I had the feeling this wasn't their... preferred outcome when they brought it to the island."

James, however, didn't seem to agree. He shook his head and let out a long sigh, then looked down at his hand, as if it held some significance when he turned it over to look at it on both sides.

"I don't think they cared what happened to Constantine," he said faintly.

"I don't think so either," Shane said quietly. "At least, not greatly. But it feels like there was some partial loss of control that happened with the situation which they had to recover."

"...I guess so," James said, sounding a bit distant.

Shane watched him sadly for a few moments, heart sinking for his friend.

"We don't have to talk about this," he said softly. "Would you rather have a distraction instead?"

"No," James said quietly. "It's just... I think that maybe all of this was meant to make me..."

James took in a deep breath, letting out a long sigh as he rubbed his forehead and looked down into the mug with weariness.

"I guess it's not unlike the army," James said faintly. "With enough pressure, you either break, or you grow. They got lucky that I didn't break."

Shane slowly set down his spoon, letting go of dozens of micro memories of them eating around this counter as he did, to focus more on James.

"You think they were trying to break you?" he asked quietly.

It didn't shock him. It was the end goal of torture, after all, and it was evident that was this island's vision for James. But it still filled him with quiet anger to hear it.

"They were trying to test my magic," James said after a pause. "I've never been under the threat of something that could injure me in a way that matters without the prospect of healing. I don't know if they suspected I was capable of more, but with their foresight, I wouldn't put it past them."

Shane stared at him, a new scenario starting to develop in his head. A more sinister one.

"James," he said quietly. "What more did you do?"

James's expression saddened deeply at the question.

"I... formed a new skin," he said quietly. "Like... a shell."

...Holy hell.

"A shell?" Shane echoed. "Like... metal? An exoskeleton?"

"I think so," James said. "I... it was dark, and it happened instinctively. I don't know how to recreate it yet. It all happened so fast."

Shane rubbed his face in his hands.

"I'm guessing here," he said quietly. "But you're saying they took a gamble on you having this magic, as well as you being able to suddenly activate it for the first time, by intentionally placing you well and truly at threat?"

"I don't know how much was guesswork for them," James said. "But... it is the DMV. I think amidst all of the petty drama it's been a bit easy to forget that, ultimately, they're looking to expand and strengthen our powers. If they can, that is."

Shane threw up his hands furiously. "Most people who have been through it didn't have to do very much. They just practiced and practiced and practiced. There's a damn order of magnitude in difference between that and being psychologically pushed to your limits to see just what someone's capable of." He lowered his hands. "Most humans are capable of putting out the strength required to lift the full weight of a car. The reason we don't do it all the time? Our brains literally won't let us unless we believe that we or someone else is about to die. Unlocking someone's 'true potential' by placing them in life or death situation is not only horribly unethical, it's new and terrible, even for them."

James nodded slowly. But all he let out in response was a sigh.

"Sorry," Shane said quietly, wrapping his hands around his coffee. "I know that you know. Just..." He waved a hand, with lingering anger. "Couldn't we have been assigned to sit in a classroom instead? The only mental torture that ever taught me anything was calculus. I don't need to have my life threatened to improve upon a mediocre power."

James hummed faintly, but it sounded like more of a sad sigh through his nose.

"I'm glad it sounds like you've never had to endure punishment to learn your magic," he said softly.

Shane shook his head. "No, that's... unthinkable to me. There were times I didn't know how to handle it, but they were accidents, and no one put me through anything. I had my parents keeping me as safe as they could, too." He sank his chin into the palm of his hand. "I recognize that wasn't your reality, though," he finished quietly.

"My family never did anything to hurt me," James said, just as quiet. "I... can't say the same for the military."

Shane nodded faintly.

"I have a distant family member who seriously suggested to my parents that the secret service would want my magic," he said quietly. "I was literally seven, but they got the idea that I could've been solving murders and high-profile crimes. My parents refused to talk to them ever again after that and kept me away from them too. I dodged a bullet there. I wish you'd had the chance to, too."

There was another pause. James seemed slow this morning, but it also felt like he was lingering on Shane's last sentiment. Maybe imagining what life would have been like had he not been subjected to all of the pain he'd endured.

"My grandparents were both veterans," James said, and for a moment, it felt very out of the blue. "On my mother and my father's side. All but my maternal grandmother died in the field, and she was the only one who'd had a chance to retire. When I was still in my mother's womb, apparently she prayed and prayed that I'd be born without magic. A statistical oddity. Because she was terrified for my future before I was even born. Apparently she was against my parents ever having children for that reason. She didn't want to see what kind of magic would be produced with their genetics combined because she knew no matter what, their firstborn would have to go the same path she did."

James paused, holding his hand over his eyes. Shane watched him with a heavy sadness.

"I hate the drafting system in the kingdom and how it's created generations of loss and trauma," he said, barely audible. "I was hoping I could change things, but sometimes I worry all I did was make things worse. My country's more a mess than it ever was, and investigations into the military are still ongoing. I don't know how much they're actually going to be able to change."

"Change doesn't happen overnight," Shane said softly. "Especially not in courts. They weren't designed to legislate from the bench, and even the best-minded judicial activists have to jump through many hurdles of due process to make any dent in the problem. Just because nothing's happened yet doesn't mean nothing will."

James sighed.

"Yeah..." he said, but Shane could hear a twinge in James's pitch. "You're right."

Shane heard what it was. He knew very well how his own voice sounded when he was close to tears.

He clutched the handle of his mug tighter, even though he hadn't had any of his coffee yet.

"I know you feel hopeless," he said softly. "Can I... share something that I don't think you've heard yet? It's not much, just..." He trailed off. "A small hope."

James swallowed and nodded, sniffing a bit as he seemed to be forcing the tears back. Shane stayed quiet for a moment as he slid over a box of tissues within James's reach should he need it. However cruel the DMV had been, they'd at least been considerate enough to give them a box for every room in the cabin.

"A few months before you got acquitted, I was talking with my dad over the Moonlight Kingdom's situation and your trial," he said. "You had a lot of people all over the world calling for your innocence, and while I can't say Aphirah or its government as a whole was on your side, my parents were extremely passionate in their petitioning-- especially my dad. He was in jail for his own activism once, so he must've felt some kinship with you, I think."

Shane paused, finally taking the first sip of his coffee.

"I remember expressing some hopelessness of my own," he said quietly. "And then he spoke with such unwavering faith in you and eventual justice. He firmly believed that you'd get out and that the world would be able to take it from there, thanks to the way you made it impossible for them to turn a blind eye to it anymore. Importantly, he said that the burden of bringing about further change didn't have to rest on your shoulders-- you'd done more than enough already, he said. But he added that if you did want to see it through, he believed you had the strength to do it."

James kept his eyes on his mug, but Shane noted his eyes were getting progressively more and more misty as Shane spoke.

A single tear dripped down into James's coffee, and he let out a huff through his nose.

"He really said all of that?" James asked.

"He really did," Shane said softly. "He had a lot of admiration for you. I think he'd have loved to meet you, had he ever gotten the chance, but he was happy to support you from afar too."

James swallowed again.

"Well it's... a shame I never got to," he said quietly.

"Yeah," Shane said faintly. "It is."

The pause that followed would've been a great time to have more coffee, but he couldn't put his mind to it now. His thoughts were heavy with things that never happened. What if Ray Hawking could've been on the island instead of Alex?

"I think the shell came from my bones," James said suddenly.

Slowly, Shane looked over him, not trying to hide his confusion.

"Do you mean you lost your bones to it, or... you just produced more steel?" he asked.

"I think the latter," James said. Shane noticed that James's focus shifted to his hand once more. He was flexing his fingers.

"Are you trying to do it again?" Shane asked uncertainly.

James briefly looked at Shane for the first time since coming downstairs, but he quickly looked away.

"...Yes," he muttered.

"That's fine," Shane said quietly. "You discovered you can do something new. I'd be trying to replicate it too."

"I couldn't sustain it for very long," James said. "It was maybe... a few minutes."

Shane took a slow sip of his coffee. "Maybe you couldn't do it without the fear," he said quietly.

James frowned at that, closing his fist. He let out a sigh.

"Maybe," James said faintly.

Shane rubbed his face.

"When was the last time you learned your magic could do something new?" he asked.

"...Two years ago," he said.

Shane nodded slowly. "It's possible you're not done learning."

"I guess not," James said heavily.

Shane stared into the depths of his coffee blankly. "Are you... what are you thinking? Are you going to try to learn before they come up with ways to teach you?"

James flicked his eyes to Shane, looking a bit shameful at the suggestion.

"If I can... maybe it'll spare me some pain in the future," he said, barely audible. "But maybe that's wishful thinking."

Shane shook his head. "No shame in that," he said quietly. "It could be worth a shot."

"It might get a bit, uh..." James said. "Noisy upstairs. In the future."

Shane shrugged, even though he wasn't sure how the process produced much noise. "That's fine. I'll be an insomniac either way."

James nodded.

"If I... make any progress. You'll probably be the first to know," James said.

Shane smiled faintly. "Yeah, feel free to keep me updated. This..." He shrugged again, looking for the words. "This doesn't happen every day. The more you know about what you can do, the less they'll be able to come after you."

James glanced at Shane again, this time with a small look of skepticism, but he nodded. Then, finally, he took a long drink of coffee. His doubt didn't surprise Shane at all, after how this island seemed to present hell at every turn. He sighed quietly.

"I know," he said weakly. "It's hard to hope for the best."

"I appreciate that you keep trying, though," James said. "Someone's got to."

Shane huffed quietly. "I'm not exactly the man for the job. It would be sad if I were the local optimist."

James huffed with him. "Yeah. Maybe that award should go to someone like Clandestine or Alan."

Shane chuckled. "If we hosted an optimist award ceremony on this island, it would bypass everyone else, and they'd each be trying to give it to the other."

"I can see that happening," James said. "They'd probably decide to share it."

Shane nodded. "I should learn their ways," he murmured.

"Ask them what the secret is," James said.

"If it's 'lack of trauma', I might just have to quit optimism." Shane sighed.

James let out a rueful laugh through his nose. He reached over and patted the back of Shane's shoulder.

"Perhaps you can settle for realism with a bit of hope," he said, taking another sip of coffee.

"Perhaps," Shane said, smiling faintly at his hand. "It'll have to do."
"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 Feb 12, 2024 4:32 am
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SilverNight says...

Coffee. And more coffee.

Shane twirled the mug around by poking the handle, letting it wobble in a circle. He was getting by, or at least surviving in what felt a bit like a third day of lockdown. Both James and the DMV had said it-- Constantine was well and truly dead-- but Shane hadn't found many reasons to leave yet, since it had been widely agreed yesterday that everyone felt better staying at home for a little longer. That was, none of the reasons were pull factors. Remus being a thorn in his side was starting to become a serious push factor.

At least there were upsides, Shane figured. Every time he'd picked up the milk carton to make himself a latte, he'd been greeted with a new milkstache of Remus's.

He laughed quietly to himself in the empty kitchen at the memory, just as his phone buzzed.

Shane was quick to check his phone, and he smiled when he saw Alan's name on the screen. He opened up his messages, pulling up the text.

Alan wrote:Question: what is your availability for, say... the rest of the day?

Shane quickly wrote back.

Shane wrote:I don't even need to know what this is for, I just went and cleared my schedule for you.

It didn't take long for Alan to text back, sending him a location pin.

Alan wrote:Meet me here now?

Shane opened the map, zooming and swiping until he saw both the pin and its position relative to his cabin. Looked like it was north along the beach, maybe a two minutes' walk away. He thought he recalled a trail being there, although he wasn't sure where it went, because he hadn't followed it before.

Shane wrote:You got it.

With that, he rushed to stand up, rinse out his mug in the sink, put on his shoes, and head out the door to quickly walk north.

He soon spotted the trail ahead, and with it, Alan, who was wearing a light mint-colored button up shirt, dark fitted pants, and a backpack slung over his shoulder. Their eyes met, and they each smiled, waving at each other. Shane quickly crossed the remaining distance between them.

"You look well," he said with a warm smile.

"As do you," Alan replied, matching his smile. "Thanks for coming out to meet me. I'm on a bit of a mission that requires me to be at the other side of the island, and I thought it'd be nice to have your company. I'm glad you're here."

Shane's grin widened. "I appreciate that," he said gratefully. "Are we headed on a hike? Or is this some kind of surprise?"

"Yes, and yes, but kind of," Alan said with a chuckle. "I'll explain on the way. Are you up for a long walk?"

Shane nodded, laughing as well. "Of course. You've got the rest of my day, as promised."

"Perfect. It's this way."

Alan led the way down the well-trodden path, beckoning with his head for Shane to follow. Shane followed in his step, and a brief silence fell between them until Alan asked, "How have you been doing? I know things have been tense lately."

"I've been holding up," Shane said, offering him a reassuring smile. "Mostly I've just been keeping the cabin together. Having lots of coffee, starting baking projects, babysitting Shrimp, and teaching Remus how to use a washing machine. That last one was something I've never expected to have to do, but hey, what is this island if not a constant flood of surprises?"

Alan smiled fondly, gazing at him with a raised brow. "That sounds like a comical story. I'd like to circle back to that. But first..." He tilted his head, eyes slightly narrowing with a glint of curiosity. "Baking project? I didn't know you like baking. Though, this also doesn't surprise me too much."

Shane grinned. "I suppose I'm prone to random urges like baking three dozen cupcakes and then giving thirty-three of them away because I can't actually eat that many. If you stop over anytime in the next week, there's sure to be some for you."

"You're giving me another reason to visit?" Alan said playfully. "Well, now I must take that up with you."

"I'll hold you to it." Shane laughed. "What about you? What have you been up to?"

Alan offered a reassuring smile of his own. "I've also been holding up. I'm trying to be there for the people who could use some comfort. That list has mostly included Cyrin and Lyall the past few days, though maybe it skews towards bias since I live with them. But I've also been spending time with my family, treasuring the little time I have with them before we temporarily part ways again. I'm glad their visit is extended another week, because I don't think I'm prepared to say goodbye just yet."

"That's a great use of time," Shane said, smiling back at him. "I'm glad they'll be here for longer too. I was worried the chaos of this week would get in the day of everyone's family time, but it's good it's been extended. That time's not something that should be lost."

Alan nodded, smiling back. "I'm glad too. Though, I know I will see my family many times after the island, so I am prioritizing time accordingly, since I treasure multiple people on this island." He gestured in front of them. "Hence, time spent together now."

"And a mysterious hike," Shane said with a playful hum and a raised eyebrow.

Alan grinned. "Do you remember when we were all sent to detention on day one?"

Shane let out a good-natured groan, covering his face with his hand as he also grinned. "How could I forget? My wrist cramped up again the moment you said that."

"Well," Alan began matter-of-factly with a flick of his wrist, "that's where we're going, and it's on the other side of the island. So it'll be a bit of a hike."

"Better than the goolf carts." Shane smiled, scanning the side of Alan's face as they walked on. "So why the pilgrimage to where it all began?"

Alan was quiet for a moment, his smile turning wistful while remaining attentive to the path that winded in front of them. "To preface: I proposed this idea before the chaos of yesterday morning. But... this is for Lyall." He paused as he slightly knitted his brows together in contemplation. "In retrospect, I ought to plan something like this for Cyrin as well, but that's a future plan." Alan nodded to himself. "But anyways, the gist of it is: Lyall and Kaya broke up, and I'm devastated for him."

Oh. Shane felt his heart ache as his own expression turned to match Alan's in mournfulness.

"Lyall has grown to be a close friend, and I worry that he'd continue to put everyone else's needs over his own," Alan continued. "So, I wanted to plan a day for him to get away from the noise and quietly process and think through things. I talked to staff, and they agreed to let us use the multipurpose cabin for the day. Apparently, they already transformed it to my request, but... I'd like to check, just to make sure. Since this is a surprise for him, and I'd like him to be comfortable."

"That's a good idea," Shane said softly. "That's... I'm so sorry for Lyall. That must be devastating. I'm sure he appreciates you endlessly-- this is incredibly thoughtful and caring of you, and it'll mean a lot to him. It's probably just what he needs. You're a good friend, Alan."

Alan smiled softly, only glancing at him in turn. "It's not much, but... hopefully it helps. There's a lot of chaos here. I think some peace and solace could do him good."

"You say it's not much," Shane said, offering him a soft smile of his own. "Which are common words used to hide the reality that it's more than enough, since it comes from a place of love, and that's something you have so much of-- so much wonderful love in your heart. I think you've got a great idea."

Alan listened to him attentively, his smile fading until he sheepishly turned away, faintly laughing. "Thank you. It's scheduled for tomorrow, so I'm hoping to do all the prep work now so he can relax for the remainder of the day." He sighed, the contemplation returning in his expression. "I think, with these kinds of things, it's helpful to just... be. To be, with your mind, shuffling through the pained thoughts, grieving, and then finding hope. Setting is half the battle, so if that's what it takes to help someone process heartbreak, then I'd do this again in a heartbeat."

Shane looked him over, taking in his words and expression with attentiveness for a gentle, still moment before nodding. "I think you're right," he agreed. "And that's how he'll know you've got his back, even in painful times. He'll remember your compassion you're showing him now."

"That's true. Though..." Alan pulled on the straps of his bag, pulling the weight up a little higher. "I'm really not expecting anything in return." He shrugged, glancing back at Shane with a small smile. "The world can use more kindness and compassion. And giving that away to people you care about is already a joy. It doesn't really matter to me if he forgets it the day after. I'd just be glad that it helped."

Shane grinned very softly, watching his face. "The world sure could use that, and you seem like the man for the job," he said, before waving him along, a little excitedly. "Come on. This trail isn't going to hike itself."

~ ~ ~

Shane looked around the cabin in awe one last time, admiring the way it had changed since that fateful day they'd first been here. Where there had been an old-fashioned classroom with uncomfortable desks and grossly inaccurate world maps, the cabin had been redecorated into a cozy atmosphere fitting for a retreat. Plenty of blankets, cushions and bedding adorned the space, and a corner of the room was filled with spa items. There was even a piano in the room. Taking it in for another moment, he turned, stepping out and joining Alan on the porch.

"I would say something like you've outdone yourself," he said with a grin, "but that would be diminishing the credit given to the mastery at planning you must have to arrange this."

"It's not quite ready," Alan murmured, tapping his chin in thought as his eyes scanned the surroundings. "There's one detail I'm missing."

"What's that--" Shane started.

"AYO ALVARO!" someone yelled, completely startling them. They only had time to flinch before a teal blur tackled Alan out of nowhere.

Together, the two of them flung out the porch, landing onto a thick bush that completely absorbed them, swallowing them up with an aggressive rustle. Shane let out a panicked squawk, nearly tripping over himself to get to the bush.

"Are you okay?" he asked urgently with great worry.

"Not to worry, mister prince!" the stranger called with a cackle.

The bush then spat Alan back out onto the porch, and the stranger hopped out after with a mischievous grin.

Ruffling leaves and twigs from her hair, she assured Shane, "He's tougher than he looks."

"Oh my god," Alan moaned, adjusting his glasses after wobbily sitting up, a leafy twig sticking out from his hair. "Was that really necessary?" he asked sharply.

She just shoved at his shoulder with another grin as she jumped to her feet, then held out a hand to Shane. "Name's Shay," she greeted pleasantly with a wink. "Nice to finally meet ya face to face!"

Uncertainly, Shane looked to Alan, silently asking if he was unhurt. Though, Alan didn't seem to notice, huffing as he stood up and ruffling his hand through his hair, brushing away the leaves.

"Uh, nice to meet you, Shay," Shane said, with lingering confusion as he shook her hand. "You, uh... tackled him...?"

"God, I think..." Alan frowned, craning his back. "I feel like I just went to a chiropractor."

Grinning brighter, Shay gave Shane's hand a solid shake before tucking her hands away in her jacket pockets. "Oh my god," she said, nudging Alan's foot with her toe, "you sound like my grandpa."

Alan scoffed, indignantly gesturing his hand to her, wildly waving it in the air. "Is this how you normally greet people?"

"Nope!" she chirped. "Just the dummies."

Alan faltered, giving her a flat look. He then straightened up, calmly turning to Shane to say, "I actually don't even know who she is. I'm being assaulted right now."

Shay gasped and punched his shoulder. "You jerk!"

"See what I mean?!" Alan said as he recoiled back, wincing with his hands out in front of him. "Calm down, lady."

"Are you?" Shane asked worriedly to Alan, looking at him with open concern. "Actually, I mean?"

The two of them were quiet for a moment, and in sync, they both turned to each other, seemingly having a wordless conversation-- or at least, a quiet understanding.

"No," Alan said with a mock smile, weakly punching her arm. "She's just annoying. In a good... no, tolerable way. Sometimes."

Shay pointed a thumb his way. "He's an official member of Weirdo Club. We go wayyy back... to karaoke night."

Alan gave her another flat look. "That was literally one week ago."

"Wayyyyyyy back," Shay repeated.

"Yeah, I hardly know her," Alan affirmed.

Shane felt like he'd missed something very crucial, either in this moment or a past one, and he couldn't help but feel embarrassed. He wanted to get it, but he couldn't grasp their behavior.

"Oh," he said with a nervous laugh. "Got it." He did not.

Alan sighed, straightening up again and loosely waving his hand in front of him. "Yeah, okay. Thanks for all your help on all this. But." He poked her shoulder. "You forgot the flowers."

"Uh." She poked him back. "Nu-uh."

Alan frowned, poking her back, twice this time. "Yes. You did."

"I couldn't find any," Shay shot back, poking him three times in turn. "There's a distinction, my guy."

Alan let out a long suffering sigh, dropping his hand. "Isn't this a magical house? Can't you... you know. Just will flowers to exist?"

Shay snorted. "As if I've got any control over this stinkhole."

Alan glanced back at the cabin, then at Shay, then back at the cabin. "Then who-- how did you do this?"

She just shrugged with a noncommittal, "Meh." Then was quick to move on as she fished her phone from her pocket. "I couldn't find anything," she repeated, already keying in a message with her thumb, "but my buddy knows all the potential spots. Lemme text him real quick."

Alan squinted at her with suspicion. "Caspar?"

"Hell yeah," Shay hummed with a smile. After a long beat, her phone chimed.

It took some more back and forth, equal parts huffy and thoroughly amused, and waiting long moments on Caspar's responses until Alan was finally able to extract clearer directions from Shay. As they all parted ways, Shay sent them off with two middle fingers raised high in the air. Alan either didn't catch it, or was intentionally paying her no mind. He was leading the way in the direction she sent him off in, busy scanning for flowers.

"Well, it should be nice to look," Shane said, joining him with a smile as he shook off the lingering awkwardness he felt. "What kind of flowers are we searching for?"

"Hm? Oh, right." Alan nodded, suddenly stopping in place. "Lavender. We're looking for lavender." And with that, he moved ahead again, briskly setting the pace.

"Lavender," Shane echoed curiously, before he perked up, walking faster to join him by his side. "Oh! Is that Lyall's favorite flower?"

Alan turned back to smile, now slowing in his pace to more easily match Shane's. "Yeah. It's a small detail, but I think it'd be nice touch. Plus it would bring a lovely scent."

Shane grinned softly at him. "People love it when you pay attention to their favorite things. I know Lyall will feel the same."

Alan hummed, pushing away a low tree branch that was in the way of the path, ushering for Shane to go on ahead first before following. From behind, he asked, "While we're on the topic, what's your favorite flower?"

"Irises," Shane said, glancing over his shoulder to smile at him. "But potted orchids are also very nice."

Alan met him by his side again, brushing against his shoulder. "They're both lovely flowers. Have you seen any grown on the island? Maybe we'll come across them in the meadow."

Shane gave him an excited, hopeful look. "Not yet, but that would be great," he said. "What's your favorite? Wait. Can I guess first?"

"Oh, god. I must truly be a walking cliche," Alan said with a hum of a laugh.

"Hey, no," Shane laughed, nudging him playfully. "You're your own incredible person. Who just might have vibes of liking..." He squinted at him with an exaggerated expression of scrutiny. "Roses?"

Alan slapped his hand to his chest, feigning defeat as he said in the air, "Defeated by the sword of cliche! Here lies the hopeless romantic who idolizes red roses, candlelit dinners, and love songs. Whatever will his next preferences look like?"

"Aha!" Shane crowed triumphantly, turning to walk backwards in front of Alan to face him and point at him with a grin. "This is the man, officer, the one with too good tastes in flowers. Better catch him before he mentions any other good preferences."

"'Catch him'?" Alan repeated with a scoff, slipping into a posh accent. He threw his hands in the air, searching the sky. "Nay, for you do not need to catch him at all! Not when he lends his heart away so freely, donning it on his sleeve."

Alan turned back to Shane, brushing both his hands against his elbow so his fingertips slid down his flannel sleeve so that he could take Shane's hand in his, holding it up firmly as he leveled his eyes with him.

"No chase is needed," he said more gently, still with the posh voice. "If it is I you seek, I gladly turn myself in."

Shane laughed, grinning wildly at him as he held his hands, meeting his eyes with bright but soft joy. His cheeks felt almost sore from smiling.

"Better raise the white flag, for it is so," he said goofily, attempting fifty percent of a posh voice.

A smile tugged on Alan's lips as he lifted their hands up a little higher. "Then perhaps, my liege, a proposition: I fall, you fall, or we fall."

Shane kept grinning with abandon. "Why then, I concur to us both falling."

"Is that so?" Alan hummed. "You must be certain with your answer, my liege, else you may come to regret your decision."

"How could I possibly?" Shane said, with another laugh. "I give you my confirmation."

"Aha!" Suddenly, an impish grin spread over Alan's lips. With a glint in his eye, he leaned in to whisper in his ear, "Never trust the suitor with your heart."

And without warning, Alan wrapped his arms around Shane, propelling himself forward so that they fell backwards. With another squawk of surprise that quickly turned into a laugh, Shane held on to him tightly as they began to barrel roll together down the hill over soft, long grass that tickled at their faces. They were both still laughing when they slowed to a stop at the bottom of the slope, and Shane buried his grin against Alan's arm, still holding onto him as they both landed on their side.

"Aaaand end scene," Alan said with a victorious grin, flopping back on his back, one arm still under Shane.

"Oh, you--" Shane cut himself off with more laughter, his head falling back as he kept grinning at Alan. "I can't believe you."

Alan beamed with a playful flint in his eyes, flopping back to his side to fully face Shane again. "Well, you started it," he teased after pulling up a feathery blade of grass, tickling Shane's nose with its end.

Shane nearly sneezed, avoiding it by laughing instead. "I believed I was answering more figuratively," he said, through a grin, "but no complaints."

Alan smiled, throwing his arm and the blade of grass into the air, letting the momentum flop him back on his back. He let out a soft moan as he settled into the grass, gazing up at the blue sky that had a splash of white clouds.

"Full disclosure, though," Shane said with a smile as he plucked a blade of grass out of Alan's hair, "I've actually always wanted to go rolling around in a flowery meadow. A bit like your non-serious bucket list item of dancing in the rain. So I thank you for making that happen."

Alan smiled softly, slightly angling his head to be able to meet Shane's gaze. "I can't say that was entirely on purpose," he said with a hummed laugh, "but I love how that worked out anyways. I'm glad to be there."

Shane grinned, turning his head to him as he spread his arms slightly, like he were about to make snow angels in the meadow. Except he didn't, so that he didn't squash more plants than he needed to.

"I'm glad too," he said, reaching up to his hair to find a daisy, pull it out, and hold it up for examination. "You're here to witness some brand new fashion accessories too. If I kept this in my hair, how would I look on a scale of a fairie queen to someone who fell face-first into a field?"

Alan drew out a hum, idly watching as the daisy was turned at various angles. "I think it would make you look like a very pretty wallflower," he said instead.

"Hmmm," Shane mused, giving the daisy a longer look before he suddenly grinned wide and quickly tucked the flower behind Alan's ear before he could react.

"Nope, definitely someone who fell face-first in a field," he teased.

With a intrigued grin, Alan grinned and then spread his own arms and legs, sinking into the grass. "This is my life now," he announced seriously. "I am hereby banned from becoming a fairie queen, doomed to endlessly fall face-first into a field and collect flowers in my hair. I accept my fate."

Shane let out a giggly laugh as he combed through his own hair in search of another flower before finding a white clover, which he tucked behind Alan's other ear. "There, now you're matching," he declared.

Alan gasped. "Matching with mismatched flowers? This is simply unacceptable."

"Oh, the audacity I must have," Shane drawled playfully, patting the ground around him to find and pick another daisy and white clover, which were thankfully in abundance. He then tucked the daisy behind Alan's ear with the white clover again-- or at least, attempted to.

Alan was quick to interfere, grabbing his wrist in the air with a playful grin. "Is this your grand plan? To pile flowers behind my ear?" he teased.

"Hey, you said it would be your fate," Shane said with a laugh, beaming at him. "I'm merely destiny's messenger in making it happen. I figured I could at least make you symmetrical."

"Well, today we are crushing destiny!" Alan huffed, suddenly rotating to toss himself towards Shane, pinning him down by sitting on his stomach. Shane let out a dramatic gasp, but didn't stop him or fight back. "You're going to get all the grass and flowers!" Alan went on with a comically evil laugh, tearing up bunches of grass and flowers to throw over his hair.

"Noooooo," Shane wailed, but soon enough he couldn't keep it up and started laughing again instead. "Oh, the horror of it all! Not the flowers, I beg you."

Alan kept sprinkling the flowers over his hair, and some grass got in Shane's eyes, but he kept laughing, occasionally batting futilely at the air to try and knock away some of it. He soon resorted to grabbing flowers of his own and tossing them back at Alan's face and crowing, "Take that!"

As if he were hit by bullets, Alan fell back dramatically on the meadow, rolling over until he was limp on his stomach. "I wave my white flag," he said with sorrow as he waved an invisible flag, voice muffled from being planted on the grass.

"Oh, no, this isn't over," Shane said, grinning as he scrambled to find two flowers and tuck them behind Alan's ears as he'd intended. "Behold, the immaculate flower arrangement."

Alan patted the top of his head. "Hm." He squirmed so that his face peeked out and he could speak more clearly. "I feel pretty."

"Rest assured you are," Shane said, flopping to the ground next to him with a grin. "Fashionable, too."

"I accept these compliments," Alan said with a small grin.

Shane grinned back, settling in and turning his head so he could watch him more comfortably. This felt peaceful. Lighthearted. Almost entirely removed from everything else.

"I think I told you that whatever time and place we spent time together, I'd like to also know you better from it," he said, smiling softly at him. "I've learned your favorite flower, but I'd like to learn about you past that, at the deeper level you deserve. Can I ask you some questions, while we're here?"

Alan craned his neck to peer up at him with a glint of curiosity, then rolled to his side to better face Shane. Scruffing the grass out of his hair a few times, Alan leaned his head against his hand, the flowers still neatly tucked behind his ears. "Sure," he said with a smile. "Hit me. What questions do you have?"

Shane let out a soft laugh. "Many. I'm trying to sort through them now," he admitted. "I've been a pretty bad historian so far. I haven't been asking nearly as much as I should about you." He paused thoughtfully. "Let's start there, actually. Can I have a piece of your history?"

"You're not a bad historian," Alan said with a gentle smile, tapping his foot against Shane's, still meeting his gaze. "You're being a good friend, and that takes time, which I'm happy to spend with you." He paused, ruffling his free hand through the grass. "What would you like to know specifically, though? I don't mind sharing, if you're interesting in knowing."

Shane hummed softly, smiling back as he tapped his foot against Alan's in return. "I think everyone's got memories that they wouldn't be themselves without," he said. "Sometimes it's a big defining moment that feels like the stars are aligning to settle their future, but they can also be small in scope while remaining incredibly significant. History is filled with moments of both kinds. After all, even something small like the one stray shot that went 'round the world can lead to the birth of a nation." He smiled gently at Alan. "There's history that makes you Alan Alvaro. And I want to know what makes you, you."

With a fond smile, Alan inched his foot closer until his shoe rested against Shane's. He searched his eyes, engrossed in his words. "I love hearing you speak," he said longingly. "Especially about history. I can tell you adore the subject. And I'm touched that you placed me there, as someone to study."

Shane grinned softly. "You've thanking me like I made the choice to, instead of not being able to help that I'm curious about you. I couldn't not wonder if I tried."

Alan was quiet for a moment, staying still with the soft smile and searching gaze. That was, until he tore it away to idly pick at the grass, twirling a fallen white clover between his fingers.

"I'm right here, so you don't need to wonder anymore," he said with a warm smile, meeting his eyes again. "I can't say my life is too interesting, but if you want to know, then all you have to do is ask to your heart's desires. For instance..." He held the flower up a little higher. "May I tuck this behind your ear?"

Shane laughed softly, still grinning at him. "Yes, you may."

And Alan did just that, gently tucking the flower behind his ear, then relaxing back to admire his work. "Thank you," he said with a smile.

Shane beamed. "Thank you. I now feel ready for this study session." He tilted his head amusedly. "Unless you're stalling."

Alan huffed out a laugh, his smile erupting into a grin. "Maybe. I'm actually not really sure how to answer the question of 'what is your history,' unless the answer of 'I was born, I lived, and now I'm here' suffices."

Shane chuckled. "I mean, it seems like a tremendous oversimplification on your part. I'm not asking for a timeline, though. Just..." He waved his hand around as he thought. "A snapshot. A small insight on your life. A single memory that matters to who you are. Imagine it like taking a telescope and pointing it at a single star. It's just one part that makes up the galaxy, but it's distinct, and it contributes to the entire thing. And everyone's got just as many of these as there are stars in the sky." Shane smiled at him. "So, what's a shining moment in time for you?"

Alan was listening attentively, absorbing every word and giving him his full attention. Awe and admiration washed over his face, a smile spilling over as Shane finished. "I like that. That was beautiful and poetic," he said sincerely, then paused in thought. "It may help if I have an example, though. What would you say is yours?"

"I'll answer, but I will not forget that I asked you first," Shane teased, shaking a finger at him.

"That's okay. I'm not trying to avoid answering. I'm really genuinely curious," Alan replied back with a 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)

User avatar
135 Reviews

Gender: Female
Points: 4275
Reviews: 135
Mon Feb 12, 2024 4:32 am
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SilverNight says...

Shane grinned. "Alright. A piece of my history, coming right up." He ran his fingers through the grass at his side while he thought, idly playing with the head of a daisy. "There was a time in undergrad when I got locked up in a museum past closing," he started. "I would go on to work there, but I was just an intern at the time, and closing time slipped my mind while I was working there until the lights suddenly went out on me." He let out a laugh. "I was fine, I managed to get out in the early hours of the morning. But I don't think I'll ever forget the strange excitement I had at being there alone. It was just me, the centuries of art and history I was walking through to pass the time, and my phone flashlight to see it by. I had it all to myself for a short time, and even though I felt so small surrounded by it, I also felt... honored, somehow. I can't describe it. Everything looked so different in the harsh contrast of light and shadow, and it was a tour just for me." Shane shrugged, still smiling. "I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't been so focused at work that day. But I know it changed something about the way I feel about history. That's my shining moment."

"I know it's not allowed, but I have to ask, because I simply must know how this looked through your eyes," Alan began curiously, then asked, "Did you touch any of the exhibits?"

Shane hummed innocently, flashing him a non-committal grin without answering.

Alan huffed a laugh, grinning. "I was wondering why it took you hours to find your way out."

"Hey, I said nothing," Shane said, laughing as he held up his hands.

"Right. Of course," Alan teased with a flourish of his hand. "You were busy admiring all of the exhibits on your own personal tour. And thus, began your origin story for studying history."

"Absolutely. You understand it all," Shane joked, still smiling. "Was that a helpful example?"

"I think so," Alan said with a nod. "It sounds like you're wanting to know a defining memory that marked future goals and ambition." He paused. "Thank you for sharing this, by the way. I loved listening to your story. It was very immersive, as if I was there that night with you. And knowing what I know about you now, I can see how this shining moment defines the person you are today."

Shane beamed softly at him. "Thank you," he said gently, looking at him with curiosity and intrigue. "I'd love to learn the same from you."

Alan smiled gently, idly picking through the grass again. "I am not sure I have one. At least, not any that defines the person I am today," he admitted after a short silence, then met his gaze again, more enthusiastic this time. "But I can think of times that were important and pivotal to my history, even if it doesn't affect me deeply today. Would you like to hear that?"

Shane nodded eagerly. "Absolutely. Please."

Alan hummed, distractedly picking at the grass as he considered his story. "I used to spend my childhood summers in the States," he began. "Those were simpler times. I spent a lot of time with my dad and my aunt. This story is about my aunt, though."

Alan paused, softly turning to lay against his back, idly watching the sky before continuing. Shane shifted to his side so he could watch him better, smiling with a soft look.

"I was ten years old, the last time I was there for the summer. One day, she whisked me away for the weekend. She said I needed a break from practicing, because music came from the soul, not the instrument. Back then, music was more of a chore I happened to be good at, so her lessons were really odd to me, but they always left an impact. That day, she took me to a river. And then she just... jumped in."

Shane looked at him more curiously, and Alan let out a soft laugh, shaking his head. "I didn't know what to do. I was ten. But she re-emerged a good ways away, shivering and exhausted. It seemed stupid and nonsensical, but... she said she would do it again. She told me in song: 'A bit of madness is key, to give us new colors to see. Who knows where it will lead us? And that's why they need us.'"

Alan paused again, sitting comfortably in the silence as he stared up at the sky, deep in thought. "I don't know," he continued on with a hum. "That stuck with me. She died four years later, and it got me thinking about everything I wanted to do before my time was up. She was a struggling playwriter who had big dreams, and I wanted to live in her legacy. I took music a lot more seriously after that, and suddenly all her words and lessons made sense. So, maybe I felt a little foolish and crazy at times for not giving up on art, but just like her jumping into the river, I would do it again."

Shane watched him with a soft gaze, smiling gently at him with a touch of wistfulness.

"Thank you," he said softly. "That's a lovely slice of life story, and I'm honored you shared it with me. I do see its effects in you today, though-- you're someone who lives to the fullest, and who lives through music. I greatly admire that, and I see where you get it from. You're building her legacy, and she'd love the way you love music now." Shane watched him with a longing look for a few moments. "I sure do."

"...Thanks," Alan said quietly, still gazing up at the sky. He sighed, clasping his hands together on top of his chest. "I do love music, but only sometimes. I'm trying to balance what I want versus what's achieveable, but it is difficult when the world is already saturated with musicians and artists. So I'm also trying to be realistic here, maybe pivot to something new. I don't really know yet. I'll probably give it more thought after the summer."

Shane blinked, momentarily confused. Pivot? Did he mean... giving music up?

"I believe the world has plenty of room for you and your art," he said softly. "Art is beautiful in its abundance, not in its scarcity. It's not like diamonds, which would suddenly be worth less if there was much more of them. The world could only benefit from you remaining an artist." Shane smiled softly. "I did have some questions about music for you, though, since I know it's important to who you are."

With a small smile, Alan tilted his head to better see him. "Sure. Let's hear it."

"You told me you wanted to be a professional violinist, but you now consider yourself more of a pianist," Shane said curiously, twirling a flower around his finger. "Why is that?"

"Well... being a professional violinist would be nice. It's a nice dream," Alan replied wistfully, back to admiring the sky. "Though, it's a not really a solo instrument. People hire quartets and listen to orchestras, not one person. On the other hand, pianos are versatile. They often accompany other instrumentalists as the backdrop, but they can be a solo instrument. It can play the melody, the bass, and the harmony. It's a lot easier to find gigs as a pianist than a violinist." He paused. "It's still a good instrument. I don't mind it."

Shane nodded, listening attentively with his full attention on Alan. "I understand that. I hope you're able to find more times to play it on the island, where gigs and performances don't matter as much," he said with a soft smile.

Alan sighed, turning back with a smile. "Don't worry, I do. At the very least, music will always be a fulfilling hobby for me. And I love seeing how much joy others can get from music or song. It's been nice to see that on the island, too."

"It has," Shane agreed. "Is there a piece that brings you the most joy to play?"

Alan hummed. "That's all subjective, isn't it? Like every other emotions, joy is a constant state of flux, dependent on circumstances. What brings me joy one day may not bring me joy another day. Sometimes it's big, sometimes it's small." He paused, smile growing. "Maybe ask me the next time I'm next to an instrument, and I'll play you a song that gives me joy right then and there."

Shane grinned. "I'll remember," he promised. "I would love to hear whatever you play, especially one that brings you joy."

"Mm!" Alan suddenly sprang up, sitting up straight and ruffling his hands through his hair, shaking out the grass. "Speaking of joy, we should continue our joyous hunt for the lavenders."

"Sure," Shane agreed, propping himself up on his elbows. "Can I keep asking questions as we do?"

Alan chuckled, bouncing up to his feet but crouched down to offer a hand. "Always."

Shane smiled as he reached up and took Alan's hand, and they stood together.

"What's an important memory you have relating to an immediate family member, like a parent or Alistair?" he asked, as they resumed their walk down the hill.

"Important how?" Alan asked as he slid down a small patch of dirt. "I've got tons of memories about them. Especially Alistair, but most of them are dumb and hilarious."

Shane laughed. "It's open to interpretation, so it can be anything memorable. Which can of course be dumb and hilarious."

Alan hummed, watching Shane with amusement before bumping his elbow against him. "What about your interpretation? I want to know exactly what you're curious about."

"Ah, ah," Shane scolded playfully, bumping him in return with a grin. "I'm a researcher. That means I'm not allowed to interfere. You must interpret it as however it comes to mind for you."

"Well, too bad," Alan teased. "I'd like to ask Researcher Shane to leave. I'd much prefer to talk to Friend Shane instead."

"Oh, fine," Shane sighed dramatically, holding a hand in front of his face and changing his expression to a new smile as he moved it so it appeared as though he'd switched personas. "Very well, Friend Shane is curious about dumb and hilarious memories with Alistair."

"I knew it," Alan said with a victorious grin, earning him a laugh from Shane. "Let's see. Eesh, there are so many." With a glint in his eye, he contemplated through possible memories as they walked. "There were tons growing up. We were in a lot of the same classes and also shared a room, so we spent so much time together. Do you ever hate someone so much you love them?" Alan laughed. "God, we were a riot. I don't know how my mom put up with us. As kids, we were always getting into trouble somehow, but admittedly, I was the mastermind behind most of the plans. But of course, Alistair was the one who was blamed for 99% of it."

Alan grinned, flourishing his hand as Shane listened attentively with a growing smile. "All part of the grand plan of nine year-old me, of course. Though, even as we got older and ended up in different social groups and in completely different paths of life, there are so many small, memorable, funny moments we share together. Even now, while he's here on the island, I find myself laughing at the absurdity we share, from the deadpan sarcasm to the way he freaks out over nothing. I don't know, there are dozens upon dozens of memories I can share, though there isn't 'one' thing that sticks out. I love my bond with him, defined by the small moments in life that make up one collective picture."

Shane kept smiling with passionate interest. "I love the way you talk about him," he said warmly. "I can tell he means a lot to you. What's one of the things the two of you-- or maybe just poor Alistair-- got in trouble for when you were young? Something dumb and hilarious, naturally."

Alan hummed again, tapping his chin in thought. "I don't remember how old we were. Young, for sure. But the two of us were fascinated by a lit scented candle for whatever reason, and I had the genius idea to lift paper over it, seeing it blacken. It somehow devolved into a dumb competition, and next thing we knew, Alistair's paper was on fire, and neither of us knew how to put it out. So imagine him running around yelling fire while holding a burning sheet of paper, until my uncle came in and stamped it out with water." He laughed, shaking his head. "To this day, I still randomly make fun of him for it. Though, what makes this story even more ironic, was that he went on to become a volunteer firefighter for a few years. I'd like to think this was his origin story."

Shane burst into laughter, covering his mouth with his hand. "He learned something that day, I bet. The importance of a quick response and the danger of fire-related competitions."

"Oh, no," Alan said with a laugh, facepalming. "Think smaller. He learned to never buy candles."

"That was his takeaway?" Shane asked, cracking up.

"I'm not really sure, actually. I should ask." Alan hummed, still grinning. "It's true, though. He doesn't use candles. His girlfriend gave him a candle two years ago, and the wick is still white. Such a shame. Their apartment could smell like gingerbread."

"Oh my god," Shane said, unable to add more with his laughter for a few moments. "He's committed."

"Maybe I'll give him a candle for his birthday," Alan mused. "Gauge his reaction. We only gift each other stupid things, but I can totally play innocent since everyone likes candles."

"As long as you're prepared for his revenge the next year," Shane said with a grin.

Alan waved a dismissive hand, blowing a raspberry. "Can't be worse than last year, when he wrote me a letter that was full of loose glitter. I was dumb enough to open it right before I left for work, too." With a slight pout and narrowing of his eyes, he mumbled, "I was really sparkly that day."

Shane gaped in awe. "And what, praytell, did you do to deserve such a crime?" he exclaimed with deep amusement.

"Turn one year older," Alan answered with an incredulous scoff.

Shane laughed, rubbing his face. "Heinous glitter bombs aside, silly gifts are actually a fun tradition to have on a shared birthday. Although I'd be scared to open anything if it were me. When is your birthday, anyway?"

"Most of the time, our presents are low effort and harmless, so it does make for a fun tradition," Alan agreed with a smile. "My birthday is September 7th. When is yours?"

"March 2nd," Shane said, smiling back. "Looks like you have two months to procure him the finest candle that he will never touch."

Alan hummed, playfully stomping up the next meadowed hill. "It's too bad we don't have a silly gift exchange," he mused. "I'd get you a pumpkin scented candle."

Shane groaned amusedly. "You wouldn't dare."

"Well, I wasn't," Alan teased with a grin. "But now I'm considering it."

"You do that, and I will personally commission the world's first cheese scented candle," Shane said, grinning back as he wagged a finger at him. "Cheddar or Swiss?"

"Eugh!" Alan gagged, scrunching his nose in disgust. "That sounds horrid. What does that even smell like? Wait, no." He quickly waved his hand in front of him, dismissing the thought. "Don't answer that."

Shane laughed, thoroughly amused by the strength of his reaction. "Perhaps that would be too cruel. I'll withhold that gift."

Alan turned to him with a warm smile. "Enough about me though. Can I ask you questions?"

"Wait, who said I was done?" Shane teased. "I haven't forfeited my time yet."

Alan laughed, shaking his head. "Is this Friend Shane talking? I so love to talk to Friend Shane, even if he still thinks like a researcher."

"Still the one and only," Shane said with a grin. "And he's still curious."

"You know, Mel ought to consider hiring you for the interviews," Alan said with a hum. "You think of better questions to ask."

"I try," Shane said, with a humble laugh. "Okay, this is asking as Friend Shane: what does your everyday life at home look like?"

They were passing fields of larger assortments of wildflowers now. Bending down to pick out a cornflower by the stem, Alan spun it between his fingers, thinking through his answer.

"Busy," he said with a smile, reaching over to plop the flower behind Shane's ear. Shane laughed shyly, patting it down to make sure it'd stay there as Alan continued. "I work a lot between a few jobs and inconsistent gigs. I feel like there's always something going on, but they're not all bad. If it's not work, then my family is celebrating someone's birthday. Or maybe my cousin needs extra help on her homework. Or maybe my mom has already told everyone that I'm stopping by for a jazz solo. Or maybe a friend is going through a crisis of some sort and would appreciate extra support." He shrugged. "Busy is a good word, I think. My every day is different. Life is always interesting."

Shane nodded thoughtfully. "Do you like it that way?" he asked. "You seem to keep busy even on this island."

"Oh." Alan let out a bashful laugh, kicking at a patch of grass. "Have I? Well, yes. I have. I'm surprised you noticed, but yes, I suppose I have." He weakly shrugged. "I'm just seizing the day."

"Nothing wrong with that," Shane said with a light laugh. "I noticed, but I wasn't sure if it was out of a desire to stay occupied or unintentional."

Alan squinted his eyes at him, leaning in suspiciously with a curious smile. "You have been studying me," he mused, then playfully elbowed his side a few times. "Well? Now I'm curious what Researcher Shane thinks. I feel like I'm on an other side of an experiment. What's your scientific conclusion?"

"I thought I could not have told you more clearly that I couldn't help it," Shane said, grinning playfully. "Researcher Shane thinks you've shrugged off the idea that this vacation needs to be restful, so you're going around to make the most of it, filling up your schedule just like you would on a normal day instead of... sipping mai tais on a lounge chair or whatever people are supposed to do on tropical vacations. What are people supposed to do on those? Turns out Researcher Shane doesn't know either." He nudged Alan's side playfully. "Friend Shane, however, is just glad to have your time right now."

With a mix of fondness and pleasant surprise, Alan kept his gaze on Shane for a moment before huffing out a faint laugh, nodding. "Yeah, me too. There's only one of me, but I'm glad to have your time." He paused, pursing his lips. "Though, I think, maybe, you're right. About me." He loosely shrugged a shoulder. "But it's not like I'm working or hustling for money here. I think spending time with others can be a vacation on its own, especially when everything is already paid for."

"It definitely can," Shane agreed. "If I can get anything out of this island, I hope it's that. Speaking of vacations, though..." He glanced at Alan with a warm smile. "What's a place you've always wanted to visit?"

"Oh, hm." Alan took a moment to contemplate this question. "I don't know," he said with a quiet laugh. "If there's a place I want to go to, I just go. I don't really think too much about places I can't go to because it's too far. Though, Cyrin, Lyall, and I discussed visiting Renvara together one day. So, let's go with that."

"Really? That's a great idea," Shane said with a bright smile. "What would you be going for?"

"We haven't really planned it out too much, but we discussed spending a winter day together." He shrugged, smiling. "It doesn't really matter to me as long as I'm with them."

Shane took a moment to think about what the 'places he couldn't go to' were. Presumably, Alan was somewhat limited in his ability to travel, but he'd thought everyone had dream destinations even when they were aware they might not ever get there. Even he had places he'd yet to go that he'd been meaning to for ages. But he believed Alan when he said he didn't think about it much.

"You'll have plenty of winter days in Renvara, that's for sure," he said with a laugh. "That sounds fun. I'm excited for you."

"Like I said, it's hardly been planned," Alan said with a soft laugh. "But I look forward to it, whenever it happens. Plus, I think playing around the snow would be fun. I imagine it to be like wet sand."

Shane grinned. "Sort of, I guess? But wet sand is heavy. Imagine it as if... the sand was made of feathers. It'll fly easily in the air when you toss it around."

Alan hummed, grin returning. "Okay, but that sounds pretty awesome."

"It is awesome," Shane agreed. "You won't have to take my word for it. I look forward to hearing your own snow opinions soon enough." He scanned the flower pastures around them-- seeing hints of purple in the wildflowers, but no lavender yet-- before smiling at Alan. "Next question is, are there things you feel like people fail to see or underestimate about you? Misconceptions, misunderstandings?"

"Oh, of course. Plenty of that," Alan said breezily after picking up a few bunches of wildflowers, starting a small bouquet in hand. "Let's see. Well, to start, I feel like I'm pretty average. I'm definitely not a musical genius, and I wouldn't consider myself the smartest person in the room. I'm by no means perfect. I don't get along with everyone, and I make dumb mistakes. Sometimes they're big, sometimes they're small. The best we can do is move on and not make the same mistakes, so that's what I try to do." He paused, snapping out of his daze to glance back at Shane. "Did that answer your question?"

Shane nodded, kneeling next to him to pick some flowers as well-- asters, lilac, verbena, all in varying shades of purple he thought would look good with lavender. "That was a pretty thorough answer for also being quick," he said with a slight laugh. "Would it be besides the point for me to say I don't find you average at all?"

Alan smiled, tickling the tips of his flowers against his hand. "Well, thank you. I also happen to find you above average."

"I feel like I'm not, but since you say it, we'll make a deal here. We're each allowed to see what we see in each other," Shane said with a smile.

"I accept this compromise," Alan said with a grin, continuing down the path.

"It's settled, then." Shane glanced at Alan, tapping his lips as he thought of what to ask next. "This question's a little broad, but I think it's important. What's something you're proud of yourself for?"

Alan quietly hummed, the silence drawing out as he thought through his answer. "Maybe," he finally began, "being there for others." He nodded once. "Or making the time for others. I'd consider that one of my bigger strengths, which I'm proud of."

Shane tilted his head at him curiously. "You took a lot more time on that one," he remarked.

"Well, you did say that my last answer was too quick," Alan teased with a smile.

"Sure," Shane admitted with a laugh. "But it was also much more thorough."

Alan pursed his lips, peering up at the sky before he snapping his fingers. "Humility. I'm proud of my humility." With a playful smile, he waved away the thought with his hand. "No, wait. That's too ironic."

Shane let out a huff of laughter, shaking his head. "If you won't say anything, I'm going to have to make my own list about you."

Alan quirked a curious brow. "You have a list?"

"You're quite good at making time for others, but it goes beyond that, extending to a deep compassion and empathy for others even without fully understanding their situation or problems," Shane began, deciding to get right into it as he quickly consolidated some thoughts. "You speak from your heart without fear in a way most other people can only dream to match, and not only do you find beauty in seemingly everything, you seek to share that with others too and bring it to their attention so they don't miss out. You remain approachable while being well-liked, and you're good at connecting with people who would otherwise be more aloof in social environments, creating a welcoming and safe presence for them. And don't get me started on the way you pour passion into your music. People will think and feel strong things about art, but rarely so boldly as you, and I don't see anyone else sharing that passion as vividly as you do. All of these things add up to you, and you should be proud of each and every one of them."

Alan was quiet, slowing in his steps as he distractedly kept his gaze ahead. Confused and a little concerned, Shane closed his mouth giving him a perplexed look as they walked on.

"Sorry," Alan said with a faint laugh and a smile, finally breaking the silence. "I'm usually quicker on my feet to reply." He paused. "I was trying to think of what to say back, but... only two words come to mind right now." He turned to Shane with a soft smile to say, "Thank you."

Shane smiled softly back. "I wasn't saying it to get a reply out of you. I just wanted you to hear and hopefully internalize it."

"I know," Alan said more quietly. "That is very kind of you. I want to thank you anyways."

Shane glanced at him while stepping over a flower, his smile a little sadder now. "Always," he said softly.

Alan remained quiet for a while, and without lavender around to draw his attention to, Shane had to think of ways to change the topic. Alan had reacted like he'd never really heard that, which... was sad. Shane hoped he wasn't the first to say it. In fact, he wanted to make sure that he hadn't been.

"If you're good with some more questions," he said gently, smiling warmly at Alan, "I'd like to know: What's the kindest thing someone's ever done for you?"

Attention seized, Alan smiled and nodded as he loosely waved the bouquet of wild flowers in front of him. "I don't mind the questions. Sorry, I don't think I've ever been interviewed quite in this way," he said with a small laugh. "Alright. Let's see..."

Stepping back into a contemplative daze, Alan trudged on ahead, delving into his story. "I was eighteen, and I was stressed beyond belief for only being a high schooler. I was always on the move, doing something, going somewhere, and using my spare time to study or practice. I was on some kind of insane fever dream, obsessed with a song so I could nail my audition piece, which was a two hour bus ride away."

He paused, sighing, as Shane kept attentively listening. "It must have been a insomniac oversight on my end, because I accidentally bought a ticket to the wrong destination, and it was the complete opposite direction. I was devastated, because even if I could have made it in time if I headed back then, I didn't have enough money to travel the longer distance and also return home. So I sat on the bus stop bench with my violin case, head in hands, beating myself up for making such a stupid mistake that cost me my dream college and scholarship."

Shane's heart sank, even though he knew it had to get better from here. He was waiting for the ball to drop on the moment of kindness.

"I must have gained pity, because an older couple sat next to me and asked me what was wrong," Alan continued. "I was reaching a breaking point, and I just about spilled all my frustrations on two strangers I didn't know. But somehow, through it all, they showed me kindness I'll never forget. They offered me a ride in their car, and they said they were passing by the city anyways, though I wasn't sure how true that was. I stayed with them until I reached my destination, exchanging stories and learning about the fulfilling life they lived, all the while sharing my own young aspirations.

"I made my destination with only fifteen minutes before I was up for audition. I didn't have time to practice at all, and yet, I still made it. And by some miracle, I still managed to come through and pass expectations. I wouldn't have been able to do that without their kindness and empathy for another person in need. They went out of their way for me, and when I parted ways, they told me: 'Today, it is me. Tomorrow, it is you.' Those words have really stuck with me, even to this day. I think about it, sometimes."

Shane wiped at his face, feeling almost misty-eyed by the time Alan finished. As heartwarming of a story it had turned out to be, it still pained him that Alan had had the chance to go to music school-- possibly even gotten an acceptance to the dream one this story had been about-- and still denied all his offers. He'd already heard Alan's regret, and he felt bad that it had come up again here. And the sadness he felt stood in stark contrast to the warmth of relief he'd felt when hearing that kind act of humanity that must've stuck with Alan all these years.

"That's... beautiful," he said softly, gazing tenderly at Alan. "That couple had such good, kind hearts. I hope life is treating them as kindly as they treated you."

"Yeah," Alan said just as soft with a wistful smile, his gaze lost in thought. "Me too. They didn't pass me their contact information, so I have no way to reach out to them. But I hope they're doing well."

"I've met the same stranger twice in completely different places before. You might still see them again. It's a small world," Shane said with a smile. "But even if you don't, they've still left their kindness with you. You've gone on to share it with others, and that would make them delighted to hear."

Alan mustered an appreciative smile, turning to Shane with a nod. "Thank you for listening, Shane. It's nice to share. I appreciate you asking."

"Of course," Shane said, smiling warmly, but he didn't add more just yet.

There was another question that was on his mind, but he didn't know it was too much, or the implications were too heavy. He thought he felt confident enough to ask, more or less, but he wasn't sure about how good of an idea it was.

Shane found himself slowing in his walk as he squinted slightly at Alan, trying to access every part of his expression. Wistful, dreamy, nostalgic, and seemingly quite unaware of being examined.

He needed some kind of plan if he were to ask, with a backup plan built in it. But what? There wasn't a way to take back a question that had been asked. He could always... reframe it, and paraphrase it in a way that made his first way of asking it seem like an unintentionally bold way of asking for something more innocuous. But he couldn't quite come up with anything that had the same meaning of what he really wanted to ask that also made it less intense.

Over time, the slowed steps resulted in being several paces behind Alan now. Sensing Shane's lack of presence, Alan looked over his shoulder, coming to a full stop as well. "Is everything okay?" he asked with a smile, turning around.

"I-- yeah," Shane said, with a bashful laugh. "Everything's fine, sorry. I-- I thought of a question, but I wasn't sure if I should ask it."

Alan tilted his head, smile turning curious. "That's alright. I'm an open book. If you're comfortable asking, I don't mind answering."

Shane hummed thoughtfully, laughing again. "Okay. If you dislike the question, I reserve the right to drop to the ground and make you worry about that instead of answering."

Alan hummed out a laugh. "There's definitely no need for theatrics here, but I accept this proposal anyways."

Shane smiled, searching his face for a moment before deciding to just go for it. "Alright," he said, and before he could change his mind, he added, "What would you say is the fastest way to your heart?"

There was a beat of silence as mild surprise washed over Alan, but before Shane could begin to panic, Alan smiled and held his palms out in front of him. "Not a bad question," he said with assurance. "I need to think about it, though. Can we walk together again?"

"Of course," Shane said with an anxious but bright smile, closing the distance of a few steps between them, and they kept walking through the meadow again.

And Alan did need to think this through, because he sure took his time, another contemplative wistful expression falling over him until he finally said, "You know, I'm not really sure." He huffed out a laugh, shaking his head. "I feel like I should know this, given who I am. I'm thinking back on my past relationships, dissecting it in my head. Thinking about what drew me in and all that."

"You can think through it out loud if that feels comfortable," Shane suggested. "You don't have to, though."

Alan hesitated, glancing his way. "Are you sure? I haven't given this much thought, so it might be a little messy."

Shane smiled softly at him. "I would love to hear your thoughts," he promised. "I can't get enough of them."

"Well... alright," Alan said more quietly, then scratched the side of his neck, weakly laughing. "Just... well. It's also just a tiny bit embarrassing, so try not to judge me too much."

Shane laughed quietly. "I won't judge you at all, but don't say anything you don't want to tell me. You don't..." He faltered a little. Was this a bad question? "If you'd rather not, you don't have to dissect anything for me. I wasn't really thinking of that when I asked, and I understand it's touchy."

"It's alright," Alan assured gently, casting him an appreciative smile. "It's not so touchy for me. Just mildly embarrassing since I was young and dumb." He shrugged. "I don't think my preferences changed too much. I'm just a lot more careful and cautious now. But, let's see... Thinking back on my experiences..."

He squinted ahead, where a splattering of purple sprayed across the field. But he paid no mind to it, continuing on with his story.

"Some years ago, there was someone who completely enamored me. Very quickly too, within the span of a few short days. Or maybe it was a week...? I'm not sure, time felt surreal and pointless when I was with her." He brought the bouquet up to his face, taking in the scent. "She was clever, and expressive, and so passionate. She lived in the moment, pulling me into her song, catching me completely off guard as we danced on the streets. With her, it felt like life had new meaning, and we both felt the same way, rushing into a relationship and feeling absolutely unstoppable. I seriously considered marrying her after only three months together."

Alan huffed a laugh, picking out a stem and tossing it in the grass. "I know. Stupid. But I was young and dumb, though thankfully smart enough to realize that as well. Obviously, we didn't work out, because the relationship fizzled out as soon as it started. God, I still remember the long nights spent together in agony because we couldn't come to an agreement over anything remotely responsible and realistic."

He sighed, tossing a leaf as he continued to walk through the path. "So, I don't know. I want to say that's my answer, to be a free spirit and live in the moment with passion and excitement, though at the same time, I recognize that that's completely unsustainable. There should be a balance to these things. And, well, I thought maybe I found a balance, but..."

Alan let out an annoyed sigh, now tossing away a daisy. "I guess not. There's always something, isn't there? Something wrong, something we're not able to compromise on. It doesn't even matter how I feel, how they feel, how anyone feels. Sometimes, love exists to cruelly taunt you so it can die in your arms when you need it the most."

Lips pressed together, Alan hesitated before finally glancing back at Shane, immediately apologetic. "...Sorry," he murmured. "I feel like I got off track here. You didn't need to hear all of that. That felt like a long answer to say I don't know."

Shane couldn't help but feel... disappointed, even though he didn't like it, and he wouldn't admit to it. He'd hoped for somewhat of a list, even if it wasn't organized-- things Alan found thoughtful, things he wished would do for him more, his love language-- something to work with, some kind of guidelines that he might be able to follow. Not to hear about someone he'd inevitably want to compare himself to without even knowing what they did well at.

He also just hadn't meant for this to be about past relationships at all-- it wasn't even in the question. He'd tried to suggest a different pathway of answering, too, since this wasn't a topic he'd meant to breach. Even in his initial doubts in asking the question, Shane hadn't thought he'd need to worry about this. Great.

He almost regretted asking after all-- but not quite. Alan's insight was always valuable, regardless of whether it was something he'd meant to get or not, and even if it hurt to hear.

"You're okay," he said with a smile. "It's okay if you don't have the answers. The questions remain the same, and they'll still be there for you. Besides, it's still helpful to hear your thoughts from you, and I appreciate and value each one of them. What's important is that you're speaking your mind," he finished softly, nudging Alan gently, "because that's how I get to know you. And that's what I'm here for."

"Thank you, Shane," Alan said appreciatively, but there was a bit of weariness in his voice. "I feel like I've talked forever, though. Conversation is a two-way street, after all. Would you mind if I listened to you instead?"

Shane hesitated, conflicted. Honestly, he didn't want to turn the conversation to him, and not when he'd stumbled on something new, either. But he also didn't want to test Alan's patience or energy, especially if he'd gone too far with the last question.

"Are you asking because you've gotten bored or tired of questions, or because you think I'm no longer interested in hearing from you?" he asked uncertainly at last. "If you're assuming the latter, I'll have to strongly correct you."

Alan blinked, taken back. "What? No." He offered a gentle smile, slightly shaking his head. "I just want to listen to you. That's it, there's no other reason."

Shane didn't really have the heart to hold his ground anymore. Still, as if he was trying to drag it out, he paused for longer.

"I don't think I'll have much to say," he said honestly, with a slight laugh. "You've given me a lot to think about."

"That's alright," Alan said assuredly, gesturing ahead. "The lavender field is up ahead now. We can talk and pick flowers together then."

Shane looked over to where he was pointing, to see they were finally coming up on the lavender. The flowers were swaying in the breeze, and he could smell it from here. It looked beautiful in the late afternoon light.

"Sure," he said, finding it in him to glance back at Alan with a brighter smile. "Prepare for more flowers in your hair."
"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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urbanhart says...

With the island lockdown lifted, and her half-brother back on a work schedule it seemed, Hild figured that heading out for a run at her usual time would be best. It decreased the chances of running into Lyall, and she simply enjoyed rising with the sun.

Was it entirely wise to traipse through the jungle, after a monster supposedly died out there? She didn't really see the problem, since. Well, it was confirmed to be gone, and she could simply avoid the western side of the island anyhow. She saw no need to let any lingering fears of a bygone threat keep any of them from resuming their lives.

Though, she did assume that James and Cyrin would need more than a singular day to recover from it. Upon their return after encountering the monster themselves, Cyrin seemed thoroughly shaken by it, and James, seemingly steady as ever, was splattered in the evidence of what transpired.

Thus, finding Hawke himself waiting on her front porch was a mild surprise. Hild didn't argue with him or attempt to even gently dissuade him. Only told him that she planned on finding a new path out on the east side of the island. Then from there, they set out in comfortable silence.

She started them down one of their established paths, where she could still see the prints of their shoes in the dirt from their last pass through. The familiarity of the first fifteen minutes allowed her to reflect further on her revelation in talking with Alan.

Frankly she wasn't sure how she didn't see it sooner. But Lyall's nosedive into panic when the monster was first announced, every time he could have initiated a tough conversation and yet didn't, and how he had a hard time facing even his own emotions, all made complete sense. He refused to bear the loss of yet another loved one. He never really fully processed any past losses.

Yes. Grief counseling was probably his best route forward.

Hild shook herself from her thoughts in time to catch sight of the rooves of staff housing up ahead. Instead of dipping down along the path that would've taken them around the outskirts of this residence area, she veered left through the underbrush to follow along the edge of a rising cliffside.

Slightly rougher terrain through here, due to a lack of regular foot traffic. It forced her to be more intentional in where she stepped, in keeping an eye focused ahead to plan out her next few steps at least a second before they came.

She brought them to a stop when they reached the peak, facing the sun as it steadily climbed with them. A cold breeze wafted up from the rolling waves far below them. Closing her eyes for a short moment, she silently basked in the warm light.

"Would you mind if we lingered here for a short while?" she asked, facing James.

James shook his head.

With a small bow of her head in turn, Hild settled by the edge, facing out over the sea.

"Thank you for joining me this morning," she said, casting him a small but sincere smile.

James took a seat beside her, and he offered her the slightest smile of his eyes. But there was a heaviness she could feel without him saying a word. It showed in his face, the way even his smile was weighed down.

"Thank you, too," he said softly.

Her eyes softened further with empathy, but her smile never faded.

James looked away, turning his eyes to his lap as he fell to silence.

Words couldn't begin to address what he was most likely going through. Moments of quiet companionship, she found, sometimes spoke far more meaning anyhow.

Drawing up her knees and clasping her hands around them, Hild very lightly leaned her shoulder on his. Just so that he knew she didn't mind the heaviness, that she was willing to share that load.

It was approximately another twenty minutes before either of them spoke again.

"I know you're not much of a hug person," James said faintly, finally breaking the long silence. "But..."

Tilting her head, she took a second to mentally fill in the blank. Then, once it clicked, she didn't hesitate to extend an arm in silent invitation. James turned, and he reached around her, pulling her into a full hug. It was a firm embrace, but she knew he was still exhibiting incredible restraint. In turn, she wrapped her arms around his back. Not nearly as strongly, but as steadily she could manage.

"You have an incredible heart," Hild murmured, "and a noble spirit, James Hawke."

James hugged her just a little tighter. She felt his face press against her shoulder. She held him firmly, never moving, saying nothing else. Determined to simply give him as long as he needed. It turned out that he needed quite some time, and he pulled away after a solid two minutes, returning his hands to his lap as he set his gaze on the ground near his feet.

"Thank you," he said softly.

Hild similarly withdrew, hands folded as she inclined her head with a sincere, "Anytime."

James nodded once, and for a moment, it seemed like he was going to fall back to silence. But after a minute of looking out at the ocean once more, he spoke up.

"Thank you for your company," he said, as if to be more specific this time. "I really appreciate it."

Blinking, Hild glanced back. She quirked her lips in a soft smile and replied, "I appreciate your company as well." She turned her gaze back out to the ocean. In a strange bout of boldness, she went on, "I don't believe I've quite trusted anyone as much I trust you."

She had given really only bits and pieces of herself, her actual heart to very few people. And even then, what she gave was highly circumstantial. Her academic advisor only had the information they needed to guide her through her studies. Anything pertaining to her family's current situation only came up when they gently pressed one day, sensing Hild was struggling with the distance.

Maybe he knew more than he let on, but Hild never let her father know she had many reservations about joining the family practice. She had to withold her true aspirations for fear of breaking his heart again.

And nowadays she wasn't so sure if she could even confide in Lyall as much anymore. For... a litany of messy reasons.

But in the times she and James had taken turns lending a quiet ear, extending comfort to each other in ways neither seemed to know how badly they truly needed... Yes. She well and truly meant what she said.

James looked up, meeting her eyes with a tender weariness.

"You have my trust," he said quietly. "I'm honored to have yours in return."

She lightly pressed her shoulder to his again. "Likewise."

They sat, content with silence settling comfortably over them once more. Letting the sounds of peaceful nature fill their ears as the sun washed them in warmth.

"How has it been for you having Vik around?" James asked softly.

Hild grinned at just the thought of her younger brother's excitability and antics. "It's been nice. I've... deeply missed his company. He's mostly silly, but he has a golden heart." She very lightly nudged James's elbow with hers. "He'd like to spend more time with you. Felt bad he called you over so late last time."

"I wish I'd been more present," James said. "But... hopefully we'll have more opportunities for that, now."

"He'd quite enjoy that," Hild agreed. Softening her tone, she asked, "How are things with your visitor? I got a sense that you two aren't on the friendliest of terms."

James let out a long sigh, already indicative of longsuffering.

"Ah. She's, um. How do I put this?"

Hild quirked a curious brow.

"Ingrid is my ex," James said. "And she wasn't the best partner when we were together. So. Things are tense."

Nodding slowly, Hild quietly said, "Ah."

So. This Ingrid had intervened earlier out of... Hild actually had no clue. She could not fathom.

"I'd, um. Recommend maybe avoiding physical contact with her," James said slowly. "Not-- I know that sounds weird, but. Her powers require touch. And..."

He let out a long sigh.

"It's just... for the best," he said.

"Hence," Hild ventured carefully, "you smacking Shane's hand away from hers at the dock?"

"Yes," James said, sounding a little embarrassed. "I... well. Suffice to say I still don't trust her."

Hild couldn't help but huff with faint amusement at his embarrassment. But then replied in all seriousness, "I shall heed your warning. Thank you."

James sighed again. "Okay."

Another beat of quiet passed between them. After momentarily wondering about the true depth of any potential damage caused by Ingrid, Hild slipped back into silently pondering her own visitor, her brother, when a sudden idea occurred to her.

Perhaps they would, but... Perhaps the DMV wouldn't go so far as to intervene on the outgoing calls of a visitor's device? Vik would be more than happy to assist in any way in helping James contact his own siblings, and Hild did have-- well. Lyall did have Larrel's social media account saved on his phone.

Still. Hild didn't want to raise James's hopes, only for the plan to fall through. Pursing her lips, she simply tucked the notion away to simply test the next time Vik visited with them. And, if it did end up working, they might be able to ease the sting of being forcefully cut out of contact from his family for this long--

James slowly tilted his head, resting it against hers. Hild mentally froze up.

"This is nice," James said quietly.

She wasn't sure how to read that. What was he referring to exactly? The head touch? Chatting in general? Warning her of insidious exes? The view before them?

"It's nice getting out, seeing the ocean," James said. "Just... sitting. With you."


How was she to read that?


Hild hated how much her mind was stuttering. She couldn't even manage a proper response for a solid 34 seconds.

Clearing her throat, she finally agreed aloud, "It is. Quite nice."

With his head against hers, she could feel the small grin that came to his face. It met his eyes. But he said nothing. And in doing so-- or. In not doing much of anything really, he managed to make her feel at peace and in an utter tizzy all at once.

The way his eyes actually smiled this time quickly drew her away from her mild panic, though. It seemed a rare sight, James fully smiling like this.

Letting out a quiet sigh through her nose, Hild finally decided to tilt her head more against his. James silently adjusted his own position, leaning to the side by just a couple inches. Slowly tucking her legs sideways, she moved with him and sank more fully into his side. Things clicked into place for her as she realized they... fit very nicely against each other like this.

Hild had to agree. They were a... more than acceptable circumstance, yes.
Last edited by urbanhart on Tue Feb 27, 2024 6:51 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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urbanhart says...

Having replaced the original decimated door with his own intact closet door... Well, it served its purpose. It fit nicely, and was a painless process with Alan's help. However.

Lyall tilted his head as he considered the off-white paint. Now it didn't match the dark, natural stain of the other bedroom doors. A trivial detail that will bother him until the end of their stays on this island.

Shaking the thought, Lyall tapped his knuckles to Cyrin's doorway and called soft yet playful, "Care to dine-in downstairs, or take your food to go?"

There was a slight pause where he didn't hear anything. Finally, he heard Cyrin softly say, "It's lunchtime?"

Lyall leaned a shoulder on the doorway. "That it is." With a small smile, he elaborated, "Vik wanted to show off his sandwich-making skills."

Another pause, before Cyrin said, almost hesitantly, "That seems a good thing to see in person."

Smile growing, encouraged, Lyall agreed, "It certainly shall be. I think he mentioned the involvement of a panini press, so he means business."

Then he waited patiently another moment, tilting his head sideways to lean on the doorway.

After a moment, without him hearing any footsteps in the room, the door creaked open gently. Cyrin looked weary, but he managed a faint smile for Lyall.

"I'm down," he said.

Tilting his head up, Lyall's chest warmed with just the sight of his dear friend. He offered a small, affectionate grin in turn as he pushed off the doorway and offered his arm.

"I am like, twice your height," Cyrin said, cracking a slightly wider smile as he looked down-- yes, down-- at Lyall's arm.

Lyall tsked with mock offense. "You're only about two heads taller," he lightly countered. "Besides, chivalry cares not for matters such as height."

Cyrin huffed, graciously taking his arm. "Very well, sir. Lead the way."

And it was in this manner, arm-in-arm, that the two descended for the most refined of lunch affairs.

Which were already partially burnt. They were greeted with a small puff of smoke from the kitchen, and an apologetic, "Sorry! Blimey..."

"How goes the panini effort, Vik?" Cyrin asked, an amused tone in their voice.

Vik cast them a sheepish grin as he poked at the burnt sandwich with a fork. "It's... It was going alright."

With an amused huff, Lyall slipped from Cyrin's arm and poked at his brother's side until he relented. "I step away for all of two minutes, brother," he said good-naturedly, directly picking up the rectangular piece of coal with his hands and setting it in the sink.

"I think the setting on the press is too high or something," Vik explained simply. Smiling at Cyrin, he said, "Hey, man! Great to see you again. Any allergies or dietary restrictions I should know about?"

"None," Cyrin said, smiling faintly back. "Good to see you too, Vik."

Vik beamed. "Awesome! In which case, I'm going to make you a Vik's House Special." He perched on the counter cross-legged, and counted off on his fingers, "It's got chicken, avocado, gouda cheese, these sweet-kinda-hot peppers, and a homemade sauce that a friend online lent me, all on a focaccia."

"It's quite good," Lyall warmly confirmed as he scraped off burnt remnants from the press. "Usually."

"When is it not?" Cyrin asked with a laugh.

With a slightly flat grin, Lyall pointedly held out the blackened bits in his hand.

"I'd eat it," Cyrin offered. "Lowering food waste and all that."

"I implore you," Lyall said with a barked laugh, "do not."

"Please," Cyrin beseeched him teasingly, "the crunchies."

Vik snickered as he set about slapping together a new sandwich.

"This is for your own good, Cyrin," Lyall insisted with a laugh, likewise tossing the charred crumbs into the sink.

Disappointed, Cyrin sank into the counter stool. "I'm going to need some time to forgive and forget this," they sighed.

Clapping off his hands, Lyall huffed his next laugh. "Would a proper sandwich and some water help ease the sting of betrayal?"

"Perhaps," Cyrin answered noncommittally.

"Well," Lyall hummed, "it couldn't hurt to fuel you, be it for bitterness or forgiveness."

Cyrin smiled thankfully in response.

They all proceeded to talk awhile over lunch preparations, falling into a very natural-feeling camaraderie.

While Lyall didn't want it to feel as though he was simply ignoring or had forgotten what transpired the past few days, it didn't feel right to undercut the current light-heartedness, the much-needed sense of normalcy with prior heaviness. He opted it be best to wait for when Vik left, perhaps, to keep from putting Cyrin on the spot in front of a guest they didn't know as well.

While he was still visiting, though, Viktor of course took it upon himself to somehow segue from asking to rock climb with the athlete, into exposing Lyall. In a fashion very similar to his chat with Alan over video.

Lyall only knew what was coming because of the little impish smirk on his brother's face. All he could do was bury his face in his hands, knowing he had no way of stopping this freight train.

"Did my dear elder brother," Vik began, steepling his hands under his chin, "ever tell you he wanted to be acrobat when he was younger?"

Perking up, Cyrin looked between the two of them with sudden excitement. "Really?" they exclaimed. "No, he did not."

Lyall mustered a weak grin in response.

Vik playfully elbowed his shoulder. "Dude, you're holding out on your buddies here." He slung an arm around Lyall as he turned back to Cyrin. "This guy was basically obsessed with the concept. Trained basically every day for a whole year in high school. He may hate running, but he's super fast, wicked agile. You should see him in action sometime."

"It's," Lyall cut in hastily, waving down the suggestion, "been awhile. I probably couldn't--"

"I've got home videos on me," Vik amended happily. "I can show you sometime, Cyrin."

Lyall actively fought the urge to simply wither right then and there.

"Maybe if Lyall likes the idea," Cyrin offered, seeming to know that 1) Lyall did not want that, and 2) discouraging Vik was also not an option.

"Anyway, I think he had really high hopes for this," Vik continued, undeterred. "It was honestly one of a few times that I saw him genuinely excited about the future. Kept saying it was going to be our ticket out of Fjelstad." He playfully nudged Lyall again. "Even seriously talked about moving to Renvara, he had such a big crush on you."

At which point. Lyall did visibly wither on the spot.

Pressing their lips together to suppress a laugh, Cyrin nudged Lyall playfully. "Lyall," he said with a smile. "You could have said something. I didn't know I had a long-time admirer here. Not many can say they were part of the original fan base."

"I..." Lyall actually had no words to cover this up. So he let his voice simply peter out as he scrubbed his hands over his face, trying to hide the heat in his cheeks.

"I still catch him muttering about plans to switch continents sometimes," Vik added unhelpfully. "Even texted me all excited when he first found out he was rooming with the Great Cyrin Bridger!"

"Hey, it's fine," Cyrin assured Lyall with a gentle laugh. "It's not weird to me. In fact, I think it's great you were into gymnastics once, and I'm flattered I was inspiring to you. What did you like about it?"

Lyall let his hands drop to the counter and drew in a steadying breath. Yes. He was dignified, he was fine. He could talk about this. The "crush" part of Vik's claims were merely libel. Thus, he didn't dignify it with any real response. Aside from visibly bearing the brunt of crushing humiliation a moment ago.

"It was," he started slowly, idly running a hand over his hair, "rebellion. It was freedom. Fighting gravity's hold, physically rising above... my worries, things like responsibilities or expectations that weighed on me." Lyall shrugged. "I got pretty good, I think, so I felt I had a real shot at. Leaving all those things behind. Believed I could carve out a path of my own."

Cyrin nodded in agreement, smiling more warmly. "I feel the same about it. I never knew you understood, but I think that's great."

Lyall mustered a more sincere grin. "What first got you into the sport, anyhow?"

Cyrin's smile faltered for the briefest moment before he regained it again.

"Well," he said, with a rueful laugh, "Casper was already at it, and he told me I wouldn't be able to pull it off. I was only intending to prove him wrong, but..." He shrugged. "Two Oolympiks later, it seems it got out of hand and turned into something of my own."

Lyall grinned with a hint of mischief. "A fantastic way to stick it to him."

Cyrin huffed with a laugh. "Well, he's still ahead of me. But maybe one day."

"One day," Lyall agreed with full confidence.

"If nothing else," Vik offered, shrugging with one hand, "I'm pretty sure you're the real reason Lyall was so into it to begin with."

Turning his eyes up to the ceiling, Lyall silently prayed one of the bitter deities would simply strike him down now. Spare him this grief.

"He was crushing on you before his obsession with the sport," Viktor went on, "so. You've at least got that on your bro."

Cyrin stifled a laugh. "Casper probably made the sport look bad and removed from its numbers," they joked, before shrugging nonchalantly. "Whatever Lyall's reasons, I'm glad he had a good time with it." He glanced towards Lyall. "Did you stop at some point?"

"When I graduated, yes," Lyall answered, a touch too quickly. "My studies overseas took up a lot of my time."

Cyrin nodded. "Ah, yes. Well, the gym here is pretty good, so you could always get back into it in a more leisurely setting."

Vik lit up and lightly punched Lyall's arm with genuine exitement. "That'd be so cool! He won't disappoint, I mean it when I say he's wicked agile. I think high school was probably the best he ever physically looked--"

"Viktor!" Lyall finally cut in, throwing his hands skyward in indignance. "Please!"

"You," Cyrin said, looking at Vik with amused endearment, "are a menace."

"I am merely a master of breaking the ice," Vik countered smoothly, looking far too pleased with himself.

"A menace," Cyrin repeated, then lifted up his sandwich. "Although you're pretty good at the paninis that don't burn, too."

"I accept both accusations," Vik relented with a laugh.

Having done what he apparently set out to do (obliterate Lyall's dignity), Vik then took his leave with claims of needing to meet up with a new friend. Lyall was frankly too eager to have him out of the cabin as well to ask for an elaboration, or that he'd be available to assist with the upcoming apology performance for Hild. It was only when he and Cyrin had waved him goodbye and the door hastily closed behind Vik, that Lyall realized his brother pulled another classic: leaving the dirty dishes.

"Bugger," Lyall muttered with an exasperated grin.

Cyrin smirked, drifting over to the sink and turning on the sink. "Ah, younger siblings," he sighed.

"You get it," Lyall said, picking up the plates from the counter. "Does Magnus ever similarly choose the war path, unwarranted?"

Cyrin hummed as they dunked a sponge under the water, smiling. "Oh, sure. He once used one of the few times someone has stuck a microphone in front of his little face to loudly comment on how my tie was too short at a red carpet. Thank you, Magnus."

Lyall snorted softly. Setting the plates down by the sink, he leaned a hip against the counter. "That doesn't count," he said playfully, "he was being helpful!"

Cyrin let out a spluttery laugh. "Well, what was I to do about it? Find someone whose tie was too long, cut off a half-inch, and stitch it on right there?" he asked with a grin.

"A perfect solution," Lyall countered with a chuckle, "if I ever heard one." Tilting his head to the side as he watched Cyrin, he couldn't help but insist, "That's such a mild war tactic, though. I actually can't rightly call it one to begin with."

Cyrin hummed, more thoughtfully. "What qualifies? Maybe I'll have a better example for you."

With a flat look, Lyall gestured pointedly at the door where they last saw Vik. "Shamelessly unveiling the deepest, darkest secrets of your undeserving eldest sibling?"

Cyrin snorted. "Wait, was all of that true? I thought he was making up everything but the gymnastics."

Lyall blinked, feeling his face burn again. Dammit.

"...No," he said weakly.

"Hey, real talk, it doesn't bother me," Cyrin said with a smile, pausing in their dishwashing to hold up their hands. "But I'm guessing you need some blackmail on me to feel more even."

Undeniably intrigued, Lyall quirked a brow. "That's," he slowly countered anyway, "not entirely necessary."

"But could it be helpful?" Cyrin guessed.

It would be. However, that felt hard to directly admit, for some reason.

Lyall was fairly certain he didn't fall prey to subconscious traps such as hero worship. Not so easily, anyhow. But... maybe Vik was actually onto something there.


Folding his hands together, Lyall eventually allowed himself an openly curious grin as he leaned an elbow on the counter. "Since you're insisting..."

Cyrin grinned, turning off the sink so he could turn around, resting his hands on the edge of the counter and leaning back on them. "Well, let's see," they said. "Would you like to hear about the time that I, before God and everybody, walked straight into a mirror wall at an Heir's private birthday party?"

Oh gods. Just the mental image alone.

Full-on smiling now, Lyall huffed a mildly surprised laugh. "Judging by implications," he said, "I'm supposing this party was no small affair?"

"Far from it," Cyrin confirmed with a grin. "It was the crème de la crème, as one might say. Not a forgiving or forgetful audience, either."

"Oh my god," Lyall murmured, stifling another laugh behind his hand. "Is there video evidence of this? If we are to maintain well and truly even ground between us, then please." He folded his hands in an imploring manner. "Tell me there is video evidence."

"Oh, Saints," Cyrin muttered, rubbing his face with a laugh. "I've never been shown anything, but I'll check YooToob later, just for you."

"I'm anticipating results," Lyall said, playfully posh-sounding. "Vik is true to his word, especially when my good reputation is on the line. So expect that home-captured footage of my younger, evidently more strapping self in about one business day."

"Deal," Cyrin said with a grin. "Our reputations go down together. But first, I'm guessing you want the narrative."

"I get full context as well?" Lyall pressed a hand to his heart, as if touched by a grand gesture. "How you spoil me."

"It's your lucky day," Cyrin said, and without further announcement, he pressed down on the counter to swing the rest of his body to a lounging position on the counter, leaning back against the overhead cupboards and letting his legs dangle off the edge. They grabbed a serving spoon from the drying rack to hold up as a microphone.

"The year was 2014," they began dramatically into the spoon, with a smirk to Lyall, "and it was the momentous occasion of the late Heather Fairburn's twenty-third birthday. Lo and behold, my family was invited, and we all prepared for the occasion as best we could." Cyrin paused. "Oh, no, if you see a video you're also going to see what my hair looked like when I was fifteen. Terrible. You'll have to ignore that."

"This certainly feels like the start of a cautionary tale from the brothers Greemm themselves," Lyall said, deeply amused. He was fairly certain he could still picture fifteen year old Cyrin's general look, but lifted both hands in yielding anyway. "Noted, and forgiven. Proceed, please."

Cyrin chuckled. "Alright. Picture it with me now, then-- the gilded hall of the House of Loyalty's palace, lavishly decorated. Live music by the finest musicians! The best champagne-- don't tell anyone that I had any-- that could be found! Gold and gems sparkling on every surface! The only oversight?" They paused dramatically. "Not nearly enough food for the number of guests in attendance. The buffet spread was a little small."

He was momentarily so caught up in the picture Cyrin so vividly painted, that Lyall only quietly set his chin in his hand, listening with rapt attention.

"As a result, people were getting a little hangry," Cyrin continued, already seeming to forget the purpose of the spoon as a prop and absently flipping it into the air to catch it again. "I was going to grab a bite from the buffet, but out of nowhere, Casper stepped in the way and started arguing with Heather about the lack of preparations. It was a loud argument, and it got a lot of people's attention-- they were undoubtedly wondering how he had the audacity to do that when it was her party. And since I was nearby, I found myself regretting picking this time to get some food.

"So I was looking for escape, while being very hungry, and a little irritated, and that's when I saw it." Cyrin paused for dramatic effect. "Another buffet table, on the far side of the room! Oh, it was a sight for sore, starving eyes. I quickly noped out of that argument, but I kept an eye on the argument as I walked across the room. Heather's younger sister, Dawn-- she was probably ten at the time, it's wild to think she's the Heir of that House now-- was sticking up for her, and I was starting to get worried that Casper might snap at a kid, when I suddenly collided right into a wall."

Cyrin shrugged helplessly, making jazz hands.

"There was never a second buffet. That was a reflection I was way too hasty to walk into," they sighed. "And of course, to make things worse, everyone's attention turned from them to me as I thunked face-first into a mirror."

Lyall blinked slowly. Then sank lower against the counter as he covered his wide grin with his hand.

"Oh my god," he uttered again, his shoulders starting to shake with laughter. "How..." Tilting his head down, he covered his whole face now. "I should not find it this funny..."

"I was not blessed with braincells that evening," Cyrin lamented, but they were grinning, sharing in the humor. "In fact, I think all of today's Heirs were in attendance to that moment. I should ask Shane what he remembers."

Lyall fully intended on asking Shane himself.

"So, did you," Lyall tried asking through a fit of undignified giggles, "simply... mistake the reflection for the actual room itself? I." He lifted both hands in a broad shrug. "Cyrin, you poor sap!"

Cyrin groaned, lifting his hands to his face. "Yes. Yes! You must understand, I was desperate."

Hiding his face in both hands, Lyall lost all composure. "Nooooo," he managed to articulate with empathy, "I'm so sorry. The sheer loss of brain function in that moment..."

He was definitely scouring every corner of YooToob himself, as well. He needed to see if this kind of footage existed. This was going to one of those things that simply popped back up unexpectedly to the forefront of the mind. Nary a good reason why. And he'll laugh like a fool who'd lost his last marble, he was sure.

"I'm sorry," Lyall repeated, finally managing to rein himself back in, "I've laughed enough at your expense." He stood straighter again and bumped his hand to Cyrin's arm. "Thank you for indulging me."

Cyrin grinned, ceremoniously lowering the microphone-spoon. "Thank you. I've placed a great deal of trust and secrecy in your hands, you understand. Guard this carefully."

Raising a hand, Lyall crossed his heart with his other. "I am sworn to secrecy," he said gravely through a wide grin. "I'm taking this to the grave. Laughing, mind you, but no one will have the foggiest as to why."

"I thank you kindly," Cyrin said, also close to cracking up. "I alone shall know."

Turning to lean back on the edge of the counter beside him, Lyall nudged Cyrin's knee with his elbow. "Similarly, you must promise me you won't tell or show a soul once Vik gets back to you."

"I can already tell it'll be tempting, but my lips will be sealed," Cyrin said, smiling as he mimed zipping his lips shut and poking Lyall in the shoulder. "Although you should know it'll be agonizing."

"The cost of knowing," Lyall said with a sage nod. "Almost too great to bear--"

Suddenly, his phone rang off from his sweater pocket.

"Oh gods," Lyall muttered, "that might be him now..."

Ah. No, it was merely a reminder he'd set for himself to continue practice before sundown. Lyall figured he could put that off a little bit, however, since he was visiting with Cyrin.

"Has he dug it up?" Cyrin asked with a grin.

"To my great relief," Lyall answered lightly, quickly skimming through the whole stack of piling up reminders, "not yet."

His attention was caught by one text box that exclaimed, "GETAWAY TMRW". It took him a split second to recall what the hell that even meant.

"Ah," he said quietly, slipping his phone back into his pocket, "right. Ahm. I should probably inform you, Cyrin..." Probably more apprehensive than he ought to be, he looked tentatively back up to his friend.

Cyrin blinked, the lightheartedness fading. "What is it?"

"I... Alan and I are going to disappear for all of tomorrow. Just to some other corner of this island. He insisted-- and I agreed-- that a day away from... things." Lyall winced at how criminally vague that was. "Could be beneficial. I don't believe he'll let me keep my phone, either. But you should be able to reach Alan still, should anything come up."

Cyrin's expression turned a little unreadable, save for some obvious confusion.

"Like... a retreat?" they asked slowly.

Well. Lyall wasn't sure what to call it, really. 'Retreat' wasn't entirely wrong, but it also. Felt incredibly selfish, to up and leave only a few days after the horrendous monster debacle. In which, Cyrin had been dragged right into the middle of.

Lyall averted his gaze to the living room ahead. "...Perhaps some context is in order," he murmured.

Though. It likewise felt self-centered to take time away because of a breakup, when a friend potentially still needed his company during their own emotional recovery from a far deeper trauma.

Cyrin nodded, obviously listening. "Okay."

Lyall slowly nodded too, drawing in a breath. "I'm... no longer with..." Bah, that felt weird to begin. So he tried again, plowing straight through so he didn't have to dwell. "We've... Kaya and I have broken off. Officially. Closer to the start of this week. The day away is just to. Parse through things, clear my head." He patted Cyrin's arm. "Then we'll be back."

Cyrin's expression slipped into deep sadness and empathy for him as he spoke.

"Lyall," they said softly. "I'm so sorry. I had no idea."

Swallowing, Lyall glanced down at the floor. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner," he murmured. "There just... wasn't a good time to bring it up."

"No, I understand," Cyrin said quietly. "This has been a week. I..." He inhaled, seeming to wrestle with words for a moment. "Alan's right, you could use a break."

Of course Cyrin would agree out of concern for Lyall. It did little to appease the slight churning in Lyall's gut.

"I'm sorry," he said again, meeting Cyrin's eyes with open concern and remorse. "I-- I could have insisted on 'no', or simply tried to have worked you into our plans too. The idea was so sudden, though, and I haven't been allowed to-- No, I relinquished all control over planning for tomorrow, and it honestly slipped my mind at the time to think of how we'd be leaving you here on your own. Not that I think you incapable, by any means. I just don't want to simply leave you, I truly don't. We really should be sticking together after all that happened, because there's strength in numbers and all that. And you're my friend, I want to be here for you. What you're going through isn't easy either--"

"Hey," Cyrin interrupted softly, holding up their hands. "I don't want you apologizing for doing something good for yourself, alright? I don't want you apologizing for the way it looks, either. I care about you, and I want to see you doing well. If this will help you, I want you to do it. No guilt or explanations needed."

Lyall wilted, guilt not quite assuaged. "I don't know if this will even help," he admitted, voice small.

"If there's even a chance it'll help you more than staying here, I want you to do it," Cyrin said quietly. "I don't want this swallowing you up."

...Right. Yes. Lyall couldn't let this overtake him in some dire time later, when he needed to be focused and alert, fully aware of his surroundings. He needed to let this run its course-- perhaps expedite it-- so that he could let this pass him by too, and then keep focused on his friends later down the line.

Lyall nodded, letting out a slow breath. "Alright," he softly yielded. "...Thank you, Cyrin."

Cyrin nodded quietly. "Don't thank me," he said after a moment. "Thank you for doing this for yourself."

He couldn't bring himself to do such a thing. It still felt horribly selfish.

"I'll be back in a day," Lyall opted to repeat quietly, as a reassurance to his friend and himself.

"Yeah," Cyrin said with another nod after a beat. "I look forward to seeing you and hearing how it goes afterwards."

Lyall wanted nothing more than to gently lean on his friend. But Cyrin's shoulder was at an unreachable height as they sat up on the counter, and Lyall was not about to use their knees or lap or anything. That would be unwarranted on a number of levels.

So he simply folded his hands together with a small sigh. "I'll miss you, too," he said softly, feeling a bit silly since. It was only a day. But he meant it fully.

Cyrin was quiet for a few moments, a new shifting, hard-to-read expression flickering over their face. Finally, they quietly said, "Can I... hug you?"

Lyall felt his own expression soften in an instant. "Please, yes," he answered weakly, wanting nothing more.

Cyrin slipped off the counter, joining him on the ground. Without further ado, they wrapped their arms around Lyall in a tight but gentle embrace, holding him close to their sturdy chest. Bringing his own arms tightly around Cyrin in turn, Lyall pressed his eyes shut and tucked his head under their chin. He could feel the deep breath they took as they rested their head over his protectively, leaning into the hug more. He reached a hand up to the back of Cyrin's head as he did once before. Then melted completely in their arms with a shuddering breath of his own.

"It's just for a day," Lyall promised again in a sad murmur.

I'm sorry.

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urbanhart says...

After quite the deep dive into Giggle Scholar, Hild did eventually find a wealth of reputable-- or, at the very least, long-standing studies on the expansion of magical abilities.

The oldest standing theory had recently come under intense scrutiny. The concept of individuals' powers evolving naturally as they aged was increasingly regarded with doubt once the separate concept of trauma came into play in the late 19th century. From then on, the majority of subjects from studies officially acknowledged by the scientific community shared an increasingly glaring common denominator: almost all underwent at least one traumatic event, which directly preceded the emergence of at least one new magical skill related to their first observed skill.

Thus explaining the introduction of a monster on this island, in addition to the sheer chaos of the weekend events.

That said, evolution of the individual with aging couldn't be completely discounted. After all, for approximately 60% of the magic-wielding population on the earth, magic only really manifested roughly beyond the age of 5 or 6. And in the aforementioned studies, an overwhelming majority of (supposedly) volunteered subjects had new powers linked to a traumatic event. But not necessarily all, nevermind the parts of the population who hadn't participated.

Prison-based studies of the magic population in particular piqued Hild's interest. In descending order, these studies and/or tests were conducted primarily in Nye, the States, and Aphirah. She found mentions of similar endeavors held in Fjelstad, but such data was predictably unavailable for public viewing.

After picking two studies based in Nye, she scoured long lists of names in search of James' information. Then after a few long moments of squinting at her laptop screen, decided to shelve that effort for a later day. Buster's scratching at her bedroom door alerted her of impending mealtime.

Easing her laptop shut, Hild glanced at her window. The cabins across the way were cast in golden light and long shadows. She hadn't intended to spend the better part of her afternoon holed up like this. Just some light digging.

Well. What's done was done. And she still had another half-hour until she met up with Viktor again for dinner.

Just as she rose from her desk, a violin unexpectedly began to play softly from outside of her room. Scanning the walls with mild confusion, she pinpointed the source: out her window.

Hild peered out tentatively, then slid her window open with a quiet sigh through her nose.

Lyall stood outside in the sand, playing Meditation from Thais on a cheap-looking violin that she knew he didn't own. He'd taken the liberty to dress up in a suit and an actual tie, then seemingly decided he ought to complete the look with... the most horrendous, glittery red shoes she had ever laid eyes on. And. Did they have holes in them?

She knew what this was. It was a truly heartfelt gesture in apology, as was their custom. Still. She couldn't help but let out a baffled snort. Which caught her half-brother's attention. He glanced up and merely cracked a pleased grin.

Abandoning her window, Hild made her way downstairs to spectate from the porch. Buster stayed close on her heels, then bolted out the front door as soon as she cracked it open.

With a far less pleased frown now, Lyall regarded the energetic pup with disdain. He played on as he carefully stepped over the dog toward the porch. His performance was free of embellishments, and he missed the occasional note here and there. So he must have just learned this song, for this occasion.

Folding her arms, Hild leaned on the doorway. She was vaguely aware of Clanny and Eve somewhere in the cabin behind her, as well as some contestants outside past her brother passively spectating as they went about their evenings.

As Lyall stepped up onto the porch, he smoothly faded the song out with a slow lifting of his bow. Then bowed deeply at the waist. Buster expectantly sat directly below, so Lyall was quick to straighten again.

"Madam," he greeted in playful formality.

"What on earth are you wearing?" Hild asked, quirking a faint grin as she flicked her eyes down to his feet.

"Oh, these old things?" Following her gaze, Lyall looked down as he tilted one foot at various angles. "If you're interested, I'll gladly accompany you to the Kroks store in the plaza. I'm sure Dante or whoever's running the place could use the company."

"Oh, god." Looking skyward, Hild bit back another laugh. "No. Thank you."

Lyall shrugged. "Your loss."

She cast him a doubtful look.

His stupid grin quickly faded with a new seriousness. Holding the violin and bow behind his back, he stood straighter and set his other hand over his heart. "I came to apologize," he murmured in Swede. "My behaviour days ago was impermissible. I... panicked, and was frankly a little hurt. But none of that justifies the way I spoke to you. I am sorry, Hild."

Hild felt the light-heartedness fall from her own expression. "All is forgiven," she quietly replied, without hesitation. "I'm only sorry that I--"

"No." Her brother held up a hand to stop her, another small grin tugging at the corner of his lips. "Sorry, you'll have to come up with your own humbling gesture before you can further that thought."

Pursing her lips, she only glared half-heartedly at him.

"In all seriousness," Lyall went on, dropping his hand to his side, "there's nothing to forgive. It was still a new and no-doubt shocking development at the time, and out here we don't quite have the emergency response system of a proper society." He smiled with somber acceptance. "You were doing your best."

Averting her gaze with a lingering pang of guilt, she nodded slowly. "...Thank you," she said. "For understanding."

Smile growing, Lyall tapped the toe of his hideous shoe to the side of her sandal. "You're meeting with Vik later, right?"

"In a little under 25 minutes," Hild confirmed with a slight nod.

"Would it be presumptuous to invite myself in on your party of 2?" Lyall asked, tone lightening once more.

Narrowing her eyes in thought, Hild hummed as she tapped her finger on her arm. "You have to wear the shoes."

Lyall tsked. "I accept my fate."

Hild smiled.

Lyall opened his mouth to add something, but then was promptly interrupted by soft upbeat clapping and a gasping voice from behind, saying, "Oh my heavens! My word, what a beautiful performance! Simply divine!"

Just past her brother, a tall, broad-- incredibly well-built man wearing an unbuttoned shirt with flamingos and hibiscus petals practically skipped up to the porch steps. Somehow his exuberance did not knock askew the sunglasses perched on his head.

With a giddy squeal, the man bounced between both legs as he towered over them, eyes lit with excitement. He quickly patted Lyall's shoulder with his fingertips several times, still giddy. "Laddie, you summoned up sweet baby yeezus with that fiddle of yours! Goodness me, it was like the pearly gates of heaven opened up to serenade us with your tune! Beautiful work, sir!"

Lyall blinked up at the man with an unsure grin. "Ah. Well. Thank you, my good man, you're too kind." He held out a hand. "Pleasure to meet you..."

"Name's Luka!" he said with a pearly grin, grabbing Lyall's hand and sandwiching it between his own, giving him several up and down shakes before curiously turning to Hild. "And you must be Hild! Oh, sweetie. You are adorable. So much cuter and shorter on camera, I say!" Luka pursed his lips, flicking his eyes and waggling his finger between the two of them. "Both of ya'lls, actually. Small little adorable munchkins! Goodness me, I am so glad to finally meet you both! Such a pleasure!"

Lyall's blank grin remained unchanged. "Oh!" was all he could manage.

"Thank you, Mister Luka," Hild said with an amused smile, "we're quite flattered. I hope you've enjoyed your visit to the island thus far."

Luka puffed up his chest, hands on his hips. "My, of course! And it has gotten a whole lot dang sweeter after hearing your sweet tunes, honey. How long have you been playing the fiddle, dear?"

Lyall blinked rapidly in silent bafflement. "Ahm," he said, "several years, sir. On and off."

"Oh, isn't that sweet?" Luka cooed. "Ah, the joys of music. Takes years and years of dedication. So much patience! Such a smart young man." He turned to Hild with a smile. "What about you, young lady? Musical talent must run in the family genes!"

Hild had to bite back a laugh at her brother's persisting bewilderment. "I play cello, good sir," she answered.

"Cello!" Luka repeated in awe. "My, what an impressive instrument! It must be as big as you! And so beautiful too, of course." He straightened up with a grin, shooting her a flamboyant wink.

She ducked her head with a hummed laugh. "Thank you. It has height, yes, but as an electrical variation, the body is quite a bit slimmer. Less formidable to carry."

Luka gasped, visibly impressed and intrigued. He playfully elbowed Lyall's side, grinning at Hild. "Will you look at that. Your sister's so smart! Lord's on her side, blessin' her with brains and beauty. No wonder you serenaded her, dearie!"

Lyall's brows shot up nearly to his hairline as he turned a perplexed smile to Hild.

"Mister Luka," she said with a full-on smile now, "what are your plans for this evening?"

Lyall's expression turned to one of mild dread.

Luka brightened, already grinning in excitement despite plans not yet being announced. "Why, I was on my way back from spreading my summer tan-- now is the time to get the sunkissed look, sweetie-- and was thinking I'd pick up some ingredients to bake blueberry muffins this evening. I've been itchin' to pull out my late granny's recipe, you know. I'll have to bring you two a piece each. I guarantee it's one of the best dang muffins you'll ever have. Careful, though, they're obsessive. It's hard to not eat another!"

"A very generous offer," Hild said warmly.

"Very tempting," Lyall agreed politely, shuffling sideways to retreat.

"Why, what are your plans this evening, dear?" Luka asked back, still with the plastered smile.

"I was on my way out to share a meal with my brothers," Hild answered. "If you'd like, we'd be happy to have a fourth person join us."

From behind Luka now, Lyall vehemently shook his head. But Luka was already clapping giddily, beaming with excitement.

"Yes! I'd love that, dear!" he squealed happily. "Oh my, I finally get to talk and eat with the contestants. Oh, lucky day! I've only gotten to meet Cyrin Bridger once, and oh! I have to pull up a picture! Oh, so much to share." With a warm smile, he wrapped his arms around their shoulders, pulling them in closer. "And to spend it with two smart, beautiful souls! Oh my." Tilting his chin up, Luka straightened up with a smile. "It's my lucky day."

Hild simply had to laugh out of endearment. "And how fortunate we are to get acquainted with a gentleman of such refined tastes."

"I love how you speak, dear!" Luka chirped, now leading the way with his arms still wrapped around their shoulders. "Like poetry to my ears. Have you ever considered being a poet? My word, Hild Ashlund already sounds like a fancy poet name. It's almost history in the making."

Hild was happy to let the man take the lead to their previously-family dinner now open gathering. Lyall managed to put on another breezy brave face, but was a bit stiffer in Luka's hold.

"I have not considered the notion before," Hild answered. "May I ask, Mister Luka, who the DMV intended for you to visit?"

Luka scoffed, throwing his hands up in the air dramatically, kicking up sand as he walked. "My ex, Hendrik. Can you believe it? We haven't dated for years. I left his sorry self after he nearly drank himself to death." He sighed, shaking his head. "Looks like times haven't changed. But I've been doing swell, sweetie! The DMV asked if I wanted a free vacation, and I was said, 'um, yes!' Henny gives me some pouts from the distance sometimes, but he's going to have to deal. You know how it goes. Men seeing the glow up and getting grouchy from the side lines. Tsk, tsk."

She. Did not "know how it goes", no.

"Sounds like you're certainly living your best life," Lyall offered.

"What do you do for a living, Mister Luka?" Hild asked.

"Why, I'm a vet, sweetie!" Luka said brightly. "It's a natural choice, of course. I mean, just look behind you."

Hild and Lyall both glanced back. Somehow they had missed the flock of tropical avians hovering close by.

Luka winked at her, grinning. "My magic is being a Didney princess."

"Well, wouldn't you know it." Hild turned a bright smile back up to Luka. "I have aspirations to be a vet."

At that, Luka brightened as well, biting back a squeal as he slapped his hands against his chest with glee. "Honey," he said with mock sternness through wide smile. "You better not be joking with me."

"Not to worry," Hild said, humming another laugh, "I'm being quite serious."

"Oh my goodness. I think I found a new island favorite!" Luka squealed, clapping his hands with more glee. "Honey, you and I going to hang out more now. How do you feel about sun tans?"

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Carina says...

The morning was a success. Alan got up a bit earlier than usual-- which in retrospect, wasn't really that early, considering he used to get up around sunset to run with Hild-- but he had a lot to do before Lyall woke up.

Getaway plans today, confirmed. Breakfast platter, cooked. Daily Cyrin check in, done. And not only that, but Alan pushed their limits a little more, encouraging small talk conversation with Cyrin. It wasn't anything big; Alan was happy to carry conversation, talk about his family, and any amusing stories that came across his mind.

At the end of the day, it seemed that Cyrin was seeking friendship and companionship. Someone safe, trustworthy, and easy to talk to. Alan was happy to bridge that gap, and he would gladly do this for as long as it took. Because that was what friends were for.

It was nearing 8am, which was earlier than the time Lyall usually came down, since the prior weeks he usually came down at 10am. Though, yesterday he came down at 8:30am. Throughout the week in general, Alan noticed Lyall was up earlier than usual. It was a little odd, but he didn't question it too much, considering his own sleep schedule was a bit all over the place.

Hence, Alan gave himself a hard stop at 8am, assuming that he would come down at that time or later. Glancing back at the clock on the stovetop, it just striked 8:00am when he sprinkled the chopped chives on top of the poached eggs.

Spoiler! :
these super fancy vibes, he go all da way

Eggs benedict and Vietance toast with fruit was a fancier breakfast than he usually made, but it felt right. After all, today marked a momentous occasion: it was a day for Lyall to have the full day himself, away from the noise, where he could relax, unwind, and be himself. A healthy, spectacular, fun breakfast was a good way to start the day.

There were two plates for the both of them, and Alan had just finished arranging the plates and beverages, moving on to set the napkins and silverwear, all while wondering if this would happen to be the one day that Lyall woke up later, and therefore would eat when the food was colder. The thought was interrupted and thrown out when he heard a creak in the steps, signaling that someone was coming down. Lyall.

Smoothing his still-straightened hair back, Lyall padded into the kitchen with a mildly surprised grin as he took in the spread. "What's the occasion, my friend?"

"You," Alan said with a smile, slipping into one of the stools in front of the plate. He gestured to the open seat next to him, patting down the cushion. "This day is all about you, after all. So I figured a more memorable breakfast was due."

"I." Lyall tilted his head, his grin turning a touch confused as he took the seat beside Alan. "...Thank you."

"You're very welcome, friend," Alan said warmly, picking up his fork to slice open the egg yolk so it spread evenly over the biscuit. "There's no rush at all today. You can absolutely take your time, but when you're ready, we can leave the cabin. There isn't any prep work needed on your end. My only ask is that you relax and enjoy your day."

Lyall was already tucking into his meal as if he hadn't eaten in days. Alan was almost tempted to ask him to slow down so he could enjoy the meal. He briefly cast Alan another odd look, though Alan wasn't sure what warranted that. He smiled back anyways.

"How far are we headed, anyhow?" Lyall asked, adjusting his eating pace now. Then went on without waiting, "The hell, Alan, I think you missed your true calling. This is amazing."

Alan huffed out a laugh, slicing the food into bite-sized pieces with a fork and knife. "I can fool others into thinking I'm a professional cook, sure. But really, all I did was follow simple recipe directions. I'm glad you like it, though."

Lyall hummed, turning back to his food. "Pretender or no," he insisted, "the results are quite real. Anyways. Distance?"

"You'll find out soon enough," Alan said as he cast him a more playful smile, knowing that Lyall not knowing anything was likely to drive him crazy. "Like I said, no prep work is needed. Leave all the planning to me. I'll get you where you need to go."

As expected, Lyall was not satisfied with this lack of answer.

"The island," he started to ponder out loud, "is approximately 22 kilometers - 14 miles, long and almost 5 kilometers - 3 miles, wide according to Dante. Hild mentioned the longest trail one-way is 11 kilometers, so I'm presuming the trek can't be any longer than that. Unless you intend to take us off any sort of established path. Then, I couldn't guess."

Lyall paused only long enough to take another bite, chew, and swallow. Then promptly resumed: "Staff housing is almost 2.5 kilometers away, but that's not quite as isolated as you implied. The only other plausible option is the building used for 'detention', but I didn't have the opportunity to mentally chart that walk that evening. James and I were quite out of it then. But as far as I can recall, that took far more time than it usually does to walk from the staff area. So, I'll simply go with the longest trail option, since it must lead to some place or other. Which is a two hour trek?" He glanced curiously back at Alan. "About?"

Alan slowed in his cuttings, coming to a full stop after he picked up a bite with his fork, though not eating it quite yet. He was watching Lyall speak with, quite frankly, impressed awe that he was able to break this down with little to no hints. Alan didn't even allude to their getaway destination being isolated, though he supposed Lyall could read between the lines. He couldn't help but break into an endeared smile.

"I like how you think," he teased. "But I'm not revealing anything." He hummed, pointing his fork at Lyall, smile widening. "Wear comfortable shoes and clothes, though."

Lyall's curious look morphed into one of unamusement. "Very well," he mumbled with a slight pout in his voice.

~ ~ ~

Alan encouraged Lyall to take his time eating, and he did this by drawing out conversation so he was forced to talk instead of eat. It was always nice to listen to Lyall, though. Conversation was always fun and amusing, though even more so for the morning since Lyall was getting more and more fussy about not knowing what Alan had planned. This was all in good fun, though. He was playfully digging into hints, poking around for details, and sharing his own theories. Though, Alan was close-lipped, amused by his theorizing, but not sharing any details of his plan.

Plus, Lyall didn't mind surprises and mysteries. Even though he was subtley poking for details, Alan could tell that he was looking forward to whatever he had planned, and truly wouldn't miss it for the world. And since there was no anxiety in not knowing, Alan was glad to entertain him by novelty and surprise. It was certainly always more fun that way, especially since Lyall already seemed taken aback by the breakfast.

Eventually, they finished eating. Lyall insisted in helping out to clean, which Alan didn't fight, though he hurried through it anyways so Lyall didn't have to do as much. When they finished, Lyall went upstairs to change, coming back down with a more relaxed athleisure attire. It amused Alan that he was simultaneously dressed for the gym and for a cozy winter day, though that was Lyall's style in general, which Alan always found delightful in the cutest way. Though he wasn't ever going to tell him that.

Alan looked down at himself. Even he wasn't dressed like he was about to run for miles, but... well, Lyall did like to prepare.

"Ready?" Alan confirmed after packing a few water bottles and snacks in a bag, meeting him by the door.

Lyall opened the door for him with a flourish. "Lead the way, my good sir."

And then they were off.

So, yes. Lyall's theory was right. They were going to the multipurpose cabin that was about a two hour trek away. Though, Alan still gave no hints or indication that he was right. It sounded like Lyall barely remembered the path to get there anyways, but to save him from thinking too hard on it, Alan kept up a steady walking pace while they chatted.

"Oh, Lyall, I meant to ask you," Alan began after they went off the main cobblestone path, now following the thin dirt trail that would eventually get them to the cabin. "How did it go yesterday with Hild?"

"Well, Alan," Lyall answered with a small grin, "I'm sure you'll be pleased to hear that it went rather well." He tucked his hands into his sweater pockets. "The tie, as well as the hideous kroks you insisted I add to my wardrobe, were an act of humbling, and well-received."

Alan nearly snorted hearing that detail. He grinned, fondly remembering the day he managed to convince Lyall to get a pair of kroks. "You wore the sparkly red kroks with the suit?" he asked with a laugh.

Lyall shrugged, his grin broadening when he met Alan's gaze. "I think they paired quite nicely. Navy blue and scarlet are a solid color combination."

Alan drew out a hum, squinting up ahead as he tried to imagine this. He could not. "I wish I got a picture of that," he murmured, then turned back with a grin. "Did Hild take pictures?"

Pursing his lips, Lyall narrowed his eyes slightly. "She did not," he said, but his tone sounded suspiciously like a lie.

Alan sighed in feigned defeat. "I formally request that you re-wear the outfit again. To ease my imagination, of course. Since no pictures were taken."

"Denied," Lyall said simply.

"Are you open to bargain?" Alan pressed anyways with an endeared grin from the comment's callback.

Lyall hummed. "What are you offering?"

"I'm open to suggestions," Alan said with a silly smile and a shrug. "Though, as a starting point: one silly outfit in exchange for another silly outfit."

Folding his arms, Lyall tapped his chin as he closely considered Alan. "Perhaps," he drawled, tilting his chin up with a mischievous glint in his eyes, "a lion costume?"

Alan narrowed his eyes at him, simultaneously biting back a groan and stupid smirk. "That simply won't do," he answered with a wave of his hand. "I am only open to dressing as a lion if I am matching with someone else. Whatever will you do?"

"Well, clearly," Lyall answered smoothly, "I'll already be matching. As Dorothy from the Wizard of Ooz."

"Oh, really?" Alan hummed. "Blue dress and all?"

"I'll be wearing trousers, thank you very much," Lyall countered flatly.

Alan pursed his lips in thought for a moment, an idea coming to mind. "What if we meet in the middle? You can wear overalls instead. I think you'd look so good."

Lyall tsked with a pout. "I thought you wanted the suit look?"

Alan tsked back, but more stubbornly. "I do. But you're being difficult."

"No," Lyall countered. He hopped ahead a few paces to walk backwards in front of him. "You're being contradictory. I can't do both."

"Aw, come on, Lyall," Alan teased, kicking a puff of dirt towards his shoes. "I just want to see you dressed all dapper while wearing glorious sparkly, red kroks. Is that too much to ask?"

"It is," Lyall said, breaking out into another grin with a huffed laugh, "when you're asking two very different things of me." He gestured to his left with both hands. "Suit?" Then he pointed both hands the other way. "Or overalls? You can only have one."

Alan reached forward, grabbing Lyall's hand so it gestured to the left again. "Suit," he confirmed more firmly with another smile, pulling away.

Lyall nodded. "Fabulous. Suit it is."

Alan bit back a laugh. He didn't mean to, but it seemed he accidentally tricked Lyall into wearing the suit and kroks. "Okay, so we've established appearances," he continued with a nod, circling back to the main topic at hand. "You said the talk with Hild went well, yeah? Can I hear more about it?"

"Ah. Yes." Lyall faced forward again and fell back into step beside Alan. "Tie and kroks, plus a performance of Meditation from Thaïs outside her cabin served as a well-rounded peace offering, I believe. Vik would've accompanied on piano, if the piano were more portable. Alas, a solo it remained."

Outside Hild's cabin. Accompanied on piano. A solo.

Alan watched Lyall closely, raising a curious brow. "What instrument did you play?" he asked.

Lyall glanced back with a slight grin. "Ah, the. Violin?" he answered, as if it were obvious.

But it wasn't. In fact, this was big news to Alan. He knew Lyall was familiar with the instrument, but he talked as if it was an older chapter of his life, and he had no interest in picking it up again.

The pieces were falling into place at the same time as his excitement. Lyall, playing a classical song to Hild to signal an apology. And Lyall, playing the violin, which opened up so many exciting possibilities for further collaboration. There were details he didn't know, like where did he manage to find a violin, but none of that was important.

His growing grin and bright-eyed stare seemed indicative as such. Lyall's own grin turned a little unsure.

"What?" Lyall prompted with a huffed quiet laugh, glancing off.

Alan grinned wider, gently bumping shoulders with him. "I didn't know you still played. I couldn't help but think of the possibilities."

"It's been awhile," Lyall countered gently, "and it certainly showed." He bumped his elbow to Alan's. "What do you mean, 'possibilities'?"

Alan considered what Lyall wasn't saying. Meditation from Thaïs wasn't a challenging song, but it also wasn't a beginner song. Considering that Lyall didn't practice daily, it was impressive that he could pick up a song easily, which displayed high aptitude to learn and apply himself fast. Though, Alan already knew that about him.

After all, it was such a joy to play with Hild. And now that he was imagining duetting with Lyall... he could hardly even begin to comprehend how much more joy that would bring him.

"Violin is often a solo instrument," Alan began gently, meeting his eyes with a warm smile. "But it is often when you play with others that the instrument truly shines. Would you be interested in duetting with me?"

Lyall's own grin softened with Alan's voice. Scanning Alan for a quiet second, he seemed to give it careful thought before warmly agreeing, "A marvelous suggestion."

Alan beamed. "I'd really like that. There are so many violin duets that I haven't played in ages. I think it'd be so fun to go through it with you. I'd really like to hear you play." He lightly elbowed his arm. "Not just violin. Piano and voice, too. I think the world ought to hear more of your song, regardless of the medium you choose. But I'd also be very happy-- and honored, too-- if you only let an audience of one hear you out."

Lyall hummed, his smile broadening. "Ah, yes. I did promise you a private performance, didn't I?" he asked, a bit playfully now.

Alan cracked a grin, searching his memory of when he said this. It only took a moment to resurface as he fondly remembered their first week together when they selected each other during the speed dating event, and was admittedly the catalyst to their budding friendship.

It was insane how far ago that felt, but it was really only a few weeks ago. And yet, so much had changed. Alan picked Lyall out of pressure with everyone else, since he was already in a relationship. That was no longer the case now.


"I believe you called it a serenade," Alan corrected with a playful grin of his own. "Though, I may have mistook the words, since I was too busy calling you my soulmate."

Lyall huffed a quieter laugh, turning his gaze back to the path ahead of them. "Right," he said simply, "a serenade."

In the natural lull that passed, Alan allowed himself to dwell on his prior thought just a little more. At least, for a little while longer, because he didn't want Lyall to sit in silence by himself for too long.

Honestly, Alan hadn't even begun to consider the implications of Lyall being single. At least, until now. Of course, with a relationship as long as his and Kaya's, and the level of commitment that was broken off-- Lyall should and deserved to take all the time he needed to grieve.

But when his heart was ready, whenever that would be... the next person he holds in his arms would be so insanely lucky to have him. Lyall deserved the world. And anyone would be so lucky to date him.

Alan wanted to tell him this someday, but now was not the time. Or perhaps, the time would never come at all, if heartbreak was something Lyall could not jump over without requiring ample time to pass. But if or when the time ever came, Alan wanted to tell him this. He wanted to tell him the words his best friend deserved to hear.

But right now, Alan was happy to just be in his presence, listening.

Alan had been keeping track of the walk to the cabin, noting the times. It should have been a two hour trek, but it ended up being closer to three. Though, that was mostly Alan's fault, since he kept distracting his friend with silly gestures.

Like asking for random stories in Lyall's life while he fell into a step behind him so he could throw leaves and petals in his hair every minute that passed, seeing if he would notice. Turns out, 21 was the number before Lyall miraculously felt the subtle fluttering of weight on his head.

Once Lyall did finally take notice, he swatted at Alan with a barked laugh, and aggressively tousled the leaves and petals from his hair as best he could. He only succeeded in shaking out about half of the mess, and it left him looking quite mussed afterward.

"You--" Still grinning, Lyall tried leveling him with his most put-upon glare. "Wanker. This!" He pointed to his own head. "Takes ages to tame. Ages!"

Alan couldn't help but laugh. "Want me to pick out the leaves for you?"

Lyall hurried ahead again, half-stumbling over a root in his haste. "No! You'll only make it worse!"

"Aw, you already look good. Like a crazed caveman," Alan teased. It was just too easy to tease him.

Lyall just threw his hands skyward with a bothered, "Bah!"

Alan was also happy to stop by for every sight, every overlook, every interesting plant. The scenic overlooks were a sight to behold, which Alan stopped to stare at with awe. Though, stopping for the plants were more interesting considering Lyall knew quite a bit about botany. Alan thought he knew the basics of foraging, but Lyall's knowledge blew that out of the water.

Alan didn't mind, though. He loved hearing Lyall speak, even if he droned on and on about plants. He was happy to entertain conversation about it, curiously asking for more details.

Those were the times Alan made a complete stop, saying he needed a break: to listen to Lyall and/or bask in the scenic overlook. During a more prolonged break, Alan fed granola to white birds that stopped by their feet, but they ended up having to run away from them when too many flocked.

Which was a fun little adventure. Though, this entire walk was a fun little adventure.

Eventually, they did reach the cabin. When it came to view behind the thicket of trees, Alan continued to lead the way towards the porch, smiling as he turned to gauge Lyall's reaction.

"I don't know how you guessed it," he said with a faint hum of a laugh. "Either you're clever, or I'm too predictable."

Lyall lit up with a positively vindicated grin. "Why not both?" he asked pleasantly.

"I knew you were going to say that," Alan teased. "Maybe we're both predictable."

Lyall hummed, tilting his chin up as he considered Alan. "Or," he countered, "perhaps a secret third option."

Alan tilted his head, hopping up the steps of the porch, hovering in front of the front door. "And what's that?"

Skipping the steps entirely, Lyall hopped up the edge and leaned by the front door beside him. "Perhaps we're just both clever," he suggested with a sillier grin.

Alan pursed his lips, pretending to deeply contemplate this, but then shook his head with a slight shrug. "Nope. Still predictable."

Lyall gasped in mock offense and clutched at his heart. "I never-- How dare! The sheer audacity!"

Alan grinned, waving his hand in circles and bowing as he gestured towards the door. "And on that note, I implore you to step through first, my good sir."

Angling his face slightly to the side, Lyall narrowed his gaze with exaggerated suspicion. "I insist," he said, "you lead the way. In the event this is some fiendish trap."

"Now hold on a second. Fiendish trap?" Alan echoed with an amused smile and raised brow, standing up straight. "You really think I brought you all the way here to set up a trap?" He narrowed his eyes at him, crossing his arms. "What do you think is going to happen when I open the door? Rope falls from the ceiling and traps you like a spiderweb?"

Grinning wider, Lyall pointed both hands at Alan. "The speed with which you thought of a scenario!" He shrugged with both arms. "I don't know. Perhaps the banter over predictability was a red herring? A ruse, to get me to lower my guard? Settle for a 'predictable' scenario in order to entirely overlook a more insidious scheme?"

Alan had to bite back his own silly grin. The way Lyall was overthinking this was simultaneously comical and endearing. He couldn't help but continue to dogpile the speculation. Lyall's reaction was too good to pass up.

He nodded, rubbing his chin with his thumb and forefinger. "I hope my tile traps work. I put a lot of effort and time into that," he mused out loud.

"Step inside," Lyall said grandly with a sweep of his arm, "and find out."

"Okay, okay," Alan relented with a smile, hand on doorknob. "But you better duck right away. Ready?"

Pushing off from the wall, Lyall rubbed his hands together as he took a steadier stance beside Alan, facing the door. "Go for it."

Alan then swung the door open. With a dramatically emphasized bounce, he acted like he was about to duck and cover, grinning with his head looking over his shoulder to gauge Lyall's reaction.

...To which there wasn't one, save for Lyall standing still with a confused smile, staring at him like he was the only ridiculous one here.

"Damn," Alan said with with feigned disappointment, pouting as he stood up straight again. "I thought that'd work."

"What are you on about?" Lyall said, feigning innocence. A small grin slipped out, though, betraying his amusement. "Are we going in or not?"

"Um. Yes." Alan let out a faint laugh, opening the door wider as he stepped to the side, grandly gesturing him inside. "Welcome to your humble abode for the next 24 hours."
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urbanhart says...

Per Vik's insistence via text messaging, Hild took her research out of the cabin and to one of approximately twenty cafes that existed on the island. She often didn't find herself "hanging" in cafe settings. Nothing against them as a concept. She just generally found they didn't have enough room to accommodate the intensity of her research efforts. In her dorm or at any library, she was able to spread out with her work, physically cross-reference between various texts.

Cafes generally didn't provide the same amount of ample space for such endeavors. But, the tables outside on a sunny day were nicer than hidden away at her desk indoors. So, Hild traveled light, only with her laptop and a full-sized notebook in tow.

She quickly readjusted her plans to sit outside, however, the moment she stepped in for a beverage and caught sight of Shane off to the side. There was a short stack of books on the table before him. With one hand holding the pages of an open book flat, Shane sat entirely engrossed in the text as he idly hovered his other hand by the open book bag hanging from his chair. At the ring of the bell above the door, Shrimp the tabby cat poked his head out from inside the bag with a happy trill.

With a faint grin, Hild decided to detour for a moment to greet them.

"Does Mister Shrimp often accompany you to cafes like this?" she asked warmly, standing behind the chair across from Shane.

Shane peeked up, smiling faintly but warmly when he saw her. "Oh, hey Hild," he greeted, reaching to scratch behind Shrimp's ears. "He does, to the cafes that'll let him in. He's a very well-behaved patron, so more often than not he'll keep me company and walk all over the books."

Shrimp, seeming to sense that he was the topic of conversation, purred in a pleased way.

Hild hummed. "Sounds like he makes for a less-than-focused study partner, however," she commented lightly.

Shane grinned slightly as Shrimp swatted a paw demandingly in Hild's direction. "He makes up for it in emotional support, though."

With a gentle smile, Hild waved a hello to the cat. "He certainly has heart," she agreed. Then tapped the back of the chair in front of her and asked, "Would you mind an extra study partner for the morning?"

Shane smiled, waving to the chair as an invitation. "That sounds great," he said warmly. "What are you here to study?"

As ever, she briefly noted the cameras in the corners of the establishment. One was affixed on the wall behind Shane, and another behind the counter where the barista waited.

"Today," she answered, hanging her own bag on the chair and setting out her laptop, "I'm looking into thought exercises said to... increase mindfulness." She pulled the chair out and took a seat. "Yourself?"

"Some light reading on the Summer War," Shane said, tapping the open book that was thicker than the four fingers of the hand together, and it was hard to tell if he was making a joke about it or this was, indeed, light reading to him. "I don't have any goal in mind for it, I just thought it was time to return there."

Hild considered herself an avid reader, and at first glance, she'd agree. It was a middle-weight text, at most. She paused to reconsider the thickness of the book, though, and found the humor in how most would argue it was a bear of a volume.

Tilting her head, she noted he was approximately halfway through. "A fascinating subject," she said, straightening again with a polite smile. "Unlike your companion here, I'll try not to keep you from it."

Shane smiled softly. "I don't mind distractions. In fact, if you'd like to talk about anything you're reading about, I'd be happy to hear about it."

Her smile warmed. "Likewise," she answered, glancing at his collection of books with open curiosity. "I'm quite open to discussion, should it strike your fancy."

Shane nodded with equal curiosity, his gaze flicking to the back of her laptop. "Is it psychology you're researching?"

"A form of it," she answered after a split-second of hesitation. Hild glanced at the camera again. "More like, psychology is an aspect of it."

Shane tilted his head to the side, but his gaze followed hers to the camera. "How so?" he asked, as Shrimp tentatively set a paw on the table.

Hm. Discussion time was now, then. The preferred option, to be frank, compared to the alternative of small talk.

"How high-stress situations," she answered more directly now, "may or may not impact the development of magic."

Shane hummed an ooh sound. "Oh, that's very interesting," he said, expression now thoughtful and a little searching. "I assume you mean the unlocking of new abilities."

Slowly nodding, it was Hild's turn to briefly scan the prince for any clues here. Not out of mistrust, but simply trying to gauge what he knew. She had a feeling that a specific instance had occurred to him, and thus a piece to some puzzle she herself didn't have.

Perhaps he knew of-- or was someone with a recently unlocked ability from the maze. Judging by what James had told her about their trails there, there was an abundance of opportunities from which to "grow".

But, if the event was half as harrowing as she imagined based on James's accounts, then. Perhaps it was a subject best broached not in public.

As the moment of quiet went on, Shane shifted in his seat, looking a little uncertain. Shrimp, seeming encouraged by the lack of action to contain him in the book bag, happily swished his tail as he bounded up and perched on Shane's shoulder like a parrot.

"Are you, uh..." Shane started, having to sit up straighter due to the new weight on his shoulder, "doing this research for yourself, or on behalf of someone else?"

She blinked, starting to sense... discomfort?

Ah. Ill-timed deep dive into the theoretical. Oop.

"Yes," she answered simply. Then amended, "Both. That. Yes."

Shane slowly nodded, seeming to attempt to interpret her answer. For a moment, from the intent that passed over his face, it looked like he had more to say. What he eventually answered with, though, was, "Has anything-- come up for you?"

His tone indicated this was a secondary option he opted to respond with, rather than a different, original thought that might have actually first came up.

"Yes," she answered truthfully, lowering the screen of her laptop, "though my circumstances were slightly incongruent with the majority findings of these studies."

Shane drummed his fingers on the table, still looking thoughtful. "The general consensus is that there is a correlation between stress and unlocking new abilities, right? Is that different from what you're expecting?"

"The general consensus," Hild agreed, "yes. Though most studies indicate new abilities unlock under more extreme levels of distress, in particular." She softened her tone: "This past week, I believe, more than qualifies as an extreme."

Shane sighed knowingly, nodding. "Yeah. I believe so too. It's been-- hey!"

Shrimp swatted his face with a paw a second before his protest, and Shane let out a more exaggerated sigh to scoop the cat off his shoulder and cradle him lovingly.

"I forget what I was going to say," he admitted, with a faint chuckle.

Smiling faintly, Hild figured it was best to let that train of thought pass them by for now. The week wasn't over yet, and for some contestants it hadn't been such a pleasant time.

So, she backtracked a bit and asked, "Have you ever considered how your own powers might evolve? How they'd potentially expand?"

Shane pursed his lips, pausing for a few moments. "I've seen it happen before," he said. "I don't know in what ways it'd happen again, but I assume it'd be similar in that very suddenly, I'd be able to do something that I thought was impossible prior."

Hild quirked a brow with great intrigue. "You've witnessed such an instance first-hand?"

Again, Shane paused. "Yeah, it's happened," he said.

A needlessly vague response.

She suppressed the urge to give him a flat look. "For yourself, or someone you knew?" she pressed. "A stranger in close physical proximity?"

"Me," Shane said quickly, a little awkwardly. "Although, that's just... how I know it to go generally, too."

Hild blinked. Then glanced off with a pang of guilt. "Ah," was all she could say in response, for fear of digging herself a deeper hole.

They hadn't actually utilized the term "trauma" aloud thus far. For the sake of this being a public conversation-- as public as it could get. Thus, the full weight of the implications of an expanded power may have been a bit lost on her until now.

The use of "again" in his vague answer suddenly became a lot clearer.

"I apologize," Hild eventually offered quietly.

"It's fine," Shane assured her, letting out a weak laugh as he lowered Shrimp to his lap. The cat poked his head above the table, sticking out a small, pink tongue at Hild. "I suppose I just-- I don't know, I wasn't expecting that. It's alright, though."

She nodded. Figuring she put Shane on the spot more than enough for one conversation, she tentatively furthered, "Supposedly gender plays a role in the matter as well. It's no mistake that there is a disproportionately small number of female contestants on this island. Magic manifests more frequently, and at earlier ages in males to begin with."

"I'd noticed the gender imbalance, but I didn't know why there was one." Shane hummed. "That explains it now. Is it a big difference, though? This island is really skewed."

"You're quite right," Hild said with a slightly bitter scrunch of her nose, "this island is no true reflection of the outside world. Thus, I myself am not sure. But it's a general observation made by some reputable sources."

"There might be some bias or blind spots in the research on the effects of high-stress on magic, then," Shane suggested. "Since I'm guessing their sample pool also had more men than women and non-binary people."

"Precisely," Hild agreed with a slight nod. "Hence, 'supposedly'."

Tapping at some keys on her laptop, she quickly pulled up some articles and studies referred to as "reliably sourced", then finally turned the device to face Shane fully.

"And now," she went on, tone quieter and more grim, "having gone through what we have here thus far, it feels pertinent to more closely scrutinize anything conducted by or having any sort of relation, however indirect, to the DMV."

Shane scanned the screen, squinting as he read the database list. "Looks like their research on the subject is concentrated in the last couple years," he noted. "It doesn't look like it received much focus until recently."

Hild hummed as she considered this. "How long has this televised portion of the DMV been in production?"

"I think this is their first season," Shane said. He paused. "Hopefully their last, too."

"Hopefully," she echoed in a mutter, casting the camera one last disdainful glance. "Well," she said simply with a sigh, "that's been my morning."

Shane nodded, and for a moment, that same look of intent passed over his face.

"Did you get the idea from James?" he asked.

She blinked curiously at him. "I suppose I was... spurned on by the fairly intense want to assist him this past week. But, the expansion of my own magic, free of extreme stressors, creates incongruence with past findings. Not to say that it was entirely out of the realm of possibility before." She weakly shrugged a shoulder with another, slightly less reasonable pang of guilt. "It just makes one wonder about the causes."

Shane nodded faintly after a bit.

"He might be able to speak to it too," he said, almost hesitantly. "You might learn some more from him."


"From James?" she clarified.

"Yeah," Shane said, then added quickly, "I mean, he wouldn't mind. Probably. I don't really know, actually, so..."

A slight look of regret passed over Shane's face as he ducked his head.

"Well, maybe I shouldn't be volunteering him," he murmured.

Hild offered a faint grin of reassurance. "I'm sensing he might also fall into the majority, thus making the subject harder to broach. I have my shortcomings, I know, but not to worry. I do try not to be one to push." She glanced to the side, briefly considering the drink options on the menu behind the counter. "And he might initiate conversation sooner or later, anyhow."

Shane nodded as he glanced up, looking relieved. "He might. Hopefully it's informative."

"He's quite skilled in the art of debriefing," Hild hummed with a slightly more confident smile of her own. She slid her laptop back toward herself, angling it slightly closed. "Might I retrieve a drink for you? Since I'm going to grab myself something anyway."

Shane smiled softly. "That'd be lovely, thank you. Can I get an iced latte?"

She nodded once before rising to her feet. "Of course. And if I haven't exhausted conversation between us yet, might I inquire of your findings on the Summer War once I've returned?"

Shane nodded again, smile brightening a touch. "Of course. I'd be happy to share."

With another bow of her head and warmer smile, she quietly made her way to the back and politely ordered two iced lattes. With the prepared drinks in hand, she turned--

And stopped short when she caught sight of the woman she recognized as Alexandra Harlow just entering the establishment. She neither regarded Miss Harlow with full disdain nor with any sort of endearment. Hild bore witness to the dock incident, but abstained from forming any strong opinions since she didn't have a shred of context.

Until now, anyway.

Alexandra seemed to hardly pay any attention to her, however, as she turned a knife-sharp look towards Shane. Shane, who seemed briefly frozen in what looked like panic, flinched and quickly dropped his gaze to the book on the table. He kept looking down stubbornly, even as Alexandra's fierce stare turned into a glare with open bitterness and scorn, but he seemed to be keenly aware of it despite not seeing it.

Finally, after several seconds of the tension being so tangible Hild could have walked into it, Alexandra huffed under her breath, tearing her gaze away from Shane and ignoring Hild as she moved to the counter.

"One iced latte, to go, please," she muttered.

Side-stepping the befuddling woman, Hild cast her one last look of intrigue as she rejoined Shane at their table.

Honestly, Alexandra Harlow's purpose for being on this island at all... Hild couldn't fathom. Especially since it was entirely optional for her. If she was so embittered toward Shane, why would she seek to be in such close proximity? Encounters in a small place such as this were inevitable.

She set his latte beside his books with a nod of acknowledgement, and conversationally asked as she reclaimed her own seat, "Where about did I interrupt you in your reading?"

"Not an interruption," Shane murmured. There was a moment's pause as he risked glancing up, then looked down with even more determination after, presumably, seeing Alexandra's glare. "I was maybe two years into the events."

Hild herself briefly glanced back Alexandra's way. She was still glowering, with no less venom in her gaze. "It's been awhile since I last read up on the war, and even then, I only read one or two rather short texts." She closed her laptop entirely to now give Hawking her full attention. "A refresher on foundations of the conflict would be appreciated. If you don't mind."

"Sure thing," Shane said, taking a quick sip of his latte before clearing his throat and then lowering his voice. "This book is rather biographical of the person who started it, maybe overly so, but it does a good job at presenting the context that led to the outbreak of war. The Summer War was the result of many different tensions of the time-- a society that had just begun to politicize magical issues, a dissatisfied Eastern Aphirah, a weakened House that was falling apart due to internal conflict-- and all that was needed for everything to ignite into a conflict was someone to set the fire. Theo Summer was the perfect storm for these tensions, being both a confident, charismatic leader and the most powerful magic user in Aphiran history. Everything was in just the right conditions for problems that had been quietly lurking under the surface to suddenly emerge and start a ten-year war."

After a quick dive back into her long-term as well, Hild mentally filled in certain details left only implied.

8 centuries ago, the House that fell for the duration of this decade-long conflict was in fact the one from which Shane's own family hailed. Its downfall at Theo Summer's hands was in fact the catalyst. Summer thus set up his stronghold in the east, where he dismantled the House of Courage for his own palace. Creatively dubbed the Summer Palace.

His reign at last ended when he attempted to stretch the bounds of his telekinesis-- by essentially trying to puppet the city's entire population. Thus, Aphirah found opportunity to finally get close enough and end him in combat.

As true historians, the restored House of Courage preserved the Summer Palace, despite the era of sheer tumult it symbolized.

As she took a slow sip of her latte, Hild noted the hard lines of Shane's shoulders, now that Alexandra Harlow was present and not-so-subtly glaring daggers. It crossed Hild's mind to offer they fnd a new spot, but that felt a smidge unnecessary. Alexandra Harlow would be leaving shortly, and Shane was here first. Per an unspoken etiquette, he was fine.

"This Theo Summer," Hild said, setting her cup down, "as a sorcerer with thus far unmatched levels of control over his own magic. Is he ever brought up in political and social debates, as of late?"

Shane hummed, nodding. "Quite a bit. I should be keeping a counter of the times I've heard the phrase 'the next Theo Summer' on the House floor or the TV screen. Anyone who's afraid of what freely-wielded magic can do is deathly terrified that someone new might come along and raise the same level of havoc-- forgetting, rather importantly, that it's been eight centuries and that no one has even come close to brushing the pinnacle of his power in that time."

"Ah, yes," Hild hummed into her drink. "The casual and irreverent reiteration of modern sentiments that undercut the true devastation wrought in the past. A wonderful human phenomenon."

She glanced to the counter in the back of the cafe. The barista was unfortunately delayed by a spill behind the counter, thus delaying Alexandra Harlow's exit.

"Do you think anyone ever will in the near future?" Hild asked, a bit idly.

Shane shrugged, the motion stiff with the tension in his shoulders. "Maybe," he mused. "The time in the future is infinite, after all, and what happened once can happen again. But I don't think it makes sense to reform our entire society in fear of the off-chance that there might be someone equally or more powerful than him one day. Every piece of history contains a lesson, but I think the takeaway here isn't to dread the power of magic. I think it's more important to treat people with magic more equitably, so that no one is marginalized, and so no one will be radicalized to the point of starting a war just to feel heard ever again."

Quirking a brow, Hild inclined her head. "Well-said," she hummed warmly in agreement.

Her compliment was cut off by the sound of the cafe door heavily closing. Through the windows, Alexandra could be seen marching away with an iced coffee in hand.

Startled, Shane watched her leave, a strange expression passing over his face before his gaze flicked back to Hild.

"...Thank you," he said softly, sounding distracted.

"The preservation of the Summer Palace always struck me as interesting," Hild commented, backtracking and switching gears just a little. "I'm curious as to your insights on the matter, given your passion as a historian, as well as your own close proximity to it."

Shane managed a faint smile, tipping his head. "I suppose it is interesting, is it? It certainly makes my job easier to have it there as something to study, but I doubt that it was preserved with fully good motives in mind." He waved his hand. "Many people from my House would find this an egregious hot take, but they should learn to expect that-- the Summer Palace is mostly around to make an example of Summer's rise and fall, not to preserve any cultural heritage. It's often said that history is written by the victors, and Aphirah had the chance to pen the narrative after the war ended, which is reflected in the historical tour of the palace. Admission is free and the site is funded by my House, so the central message they're pushing-- that a powerful stand against the Houses may hold its ground for some time, but that it will end up collapsing-- gets ingrained in a lot of people's minds." Shane shrugged. "The monument itself is incredibly impressive and rich with history. I just wish it could exist as a historical landmark without being turned into propaganda, regardless of how the messaging might improve stability."

Hild hummed in open fascination. "Now that indeed had not crossed my mind," she said. "It certainly makes strategic sense, in the name of preventing another devastating coup." She glanced up in thought. "Free admission, you said?"

"It's free," Shane confirmed. "Best way to get the messaging out, I suppose."

She cracked an amused grin at that. "My brother mentioned planning a visit to Aphirah sometime, once..." She waved both hands vaguely at the cafe around them. "...this is done and behind us. Assuming we are able to make such a trip, would it be too presumptuous to ask for a walkthrough with yourself as a guide? Complete with more 'egregious hot takes'."

Shane smiled warmly. "I'd be delighted to. In fact, I think I also promised Lyall that I'd show him the Permafrost's Fall, so it can be a double destination trip."

"Splendid," Hild said, taking a small notepad and pen from her bag, "the beginnings of an itinerary."

Shane grinned a little more. "Have you been hoping to visit for a while?"

"Yes," she answered, casting him another faint grin. "We've had vague plans for a few years now, debating between a week-long trip to either Talia or Aphirah. Honestly, the only reason we haven't gone to either yet is merely because we haven't been able to agree on which country."

Shane chuckled. "Well, if it influences your choice at all, one of them comes with a tour guide."

"The scales have definitely tipped in favor of Aphirah for it," Hild agreed warmly. "My father and Vik certainly can't decline an offer to visit a friend."

Shane's smile softened. "Oh, I've met Vik! He's pretty great."

"He's rambunctious," Hild said fondly, "but he means well. He spoke very highly of you, as well."

Shane let out a somewhat bashful laugh, tipping his head. "It would be nice to meet up with him again sometime after this is all over."

"He's said as much, too," Hild hummed. "Which makes my father at the moment out-voted." She made a quick additional note to call him with her brothers, as soon as Lyall returned, then flipped the notepad shut.

"I'm guessing he's the one who wants to go to Talia?" Shane inquired.

Hild nodded. "He visited his father there recently, but wants to take the rest of us with him sometime."

"Talia isn't too far from Aphirah's western shore. If you were prepared to do some hopping around, you could make both-- and two Aphiran cities-- in a week," Shane suggested.

"I believe we've considered that once before," Hild said, glancing off again as she reached for the memory of that discussion. Then nodded once more. "There's no reason why we couldn't try. We'll revisit the option."

"Let me know what your itinerary looks like, if it takes you to Aphirah, and I'll try to join in," Shane promised with a smile.

She inclined her head with a warm, "I shall."

Though she fully intended to visit Shane and some of Aphirah's historical sights, either on that trip with her family or solo another time.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.
— Alvin Toffler