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Island Magic

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Fri Nov 17, 2023 6:01 am
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urbanhart says...

One of the trails Hild took with James on one of their many morning runs lead them along the edge of the staff housing area, just on the other side of the mansion atop the hill. So she had a good idea of where she was going. It was just a matter of catching Dante either there, or on the way.

She hadn't known where exactly to find him since she'd caught word of various Dante sightings around the island from her brother and the other contestants. And none of the given locations connected in any sort of perceivable pattern. He was just constantly sweeping over the entire estate, it seemed. And grounds manager was made a rather large job when the entire estate officially spanned the entire island itself.

As Hild ducked down a narrower path through the trees, she hoped that he at least made good use of the goolf carts. For the sake of his feet, and efficiency.

Not much farther along this trail, Hild paused and pricked her ears at the sound of another set of shoes crunching over fallen plant matter and sand. She hoped it wasn't one of the filming crew. She wouldn't know what to do in that kind of situation. Would they try to candidly interview her out here? Make small talk? Comments on her idiocy during Ooktoberfest?

Through the lush greenery, she caught sight of a cream-colored shirt, and the back of a more familiar head. Which spurned on another bout of dread. For the same reasons, but in this new scenario, the other person was Alan Alvaro, rather than filming crew.

Hild was tempted to simply. Turn around and head back. She didn't need to find Dante this badly. But the way Alan managed to appear both dead-set on...something whilst wandering rather directionlessly made her pause again.

Was he... Did he know where he was going?

Hesitantly, Hild called, "Alvaro?" as she headed his way.

Visibly startled, Alan flinched at his name and then whirled around, staring back at Hild. A second passed before relief and a look of recognition washed over him.

"Hild," he called with a breath of relief, keeping still so she could approach. "Hey. Hi. It's good to see you."

She hopped a root that jutted out from the dirt, before coming to stop beside him. "Nice seeing you too," she replied. "Though also...frankly, unexpected."

Alan glanced around their lush surroundings. "What brings you out here?" he asked.

Hild arched a brow. Her comment seemed too indirect a prompting for why he was out here.

"I'm in search of our grounds manager," she answered. "I have a set of questions that I'd been meaning to address with him." She pointed her chin at Alan. "What of you?"

There was a second's delay of Alan processing this before he nodded, offering a small smile. "Oh. I'm also trying to talk to Dante. It's funny we ran into each other. I suppose we can find him together, then."

Hild absently looked down to ensure there was in fact an arm length between them. "Perhaps it was fate," she said wryly.

Alan huffed out an amused puff of air, smile turning playful. "I thought you didn't believe in fate."

Humming, she beckoned him along with a nod as she headed back for the trail. "I find my perception of the world askew in your company, I suppose."

Alan followed along, both in walking and in thought. Whatever he was distracted with earlier must have faded in his mind by now. "Is that a good thing?"

Honestly? She hadn't a clue.

So she settled for a simple, "It depends."

"That's the short answer. What's the longer answer?" he asked.

Hild only briefly looked at him from the corner of her eye. "It depends," she furthered, slowly as she formed the words, "on whether you prioritize shrewdness or optimism, I suppose. If I valued a more realistic outlook, then I'd say this skewed perception is less a good thing. Optimism, however, would say I'm taking a step in the right direction."

Alan let out a soft hum. "And in this moment? What do you value more: shrewdness or optimism?"

"...Undecided," she answered.

"I didn't know the great Hild Ashlund held undecided opinions," Alan teased.

She pursed her lips to hide her amusement. "The preferrable stance when I've found myself out of my depth is none at all. Not until I've enough data to form a proper opinion."

"If you apply that logic for every thought and decision, you may be searching for data forever," Alan said with a shrug and a little smile.

"Hence discretion," she said, tilting her head his way now, "in deciding how much data is in fact enough."

Alan sighed, kicking dirt in the air with his step. "That sounds like an impossible task."

Her gaze turned curious. "How so?"

"I think you may be overthinking things," he said instead. "It doesn't hurt to simply live and let things happen as they are."

Hild angled her chin up, eyes narrowing ever so slightly at that. "Perhaps you don't think things through enough," she countered lightly.

"Yeah, I know," Alan said dryly. "But I'm the idiot out of the two of us. All I'm suggesting is for you to think less."

She huffed a dry laugh. "I'm sure you can imagine I've been told as much. Many times before now."

Alan glanced over with a raised brow. "And does it work? Do you think less after it's suggested to you?"

Now she couldn't help but snort. "No, because usually it's one of my two brothers saying as much. And coming from Lyall, it's purely hypocritical, so it means nothing to me by that point." She glanced off in thought again. "I'm sure I could rewire my brain in that sense. I'd...just rather not."

"And I don't think you should," Alan said, voice sincere. "I only suggested this because you seemed at odds with yourself. But I think you're perfectly fine as you are right now, overthinking brain or not. It's what makes you, you-- and I don't think that needs changing."

Hiding her hands in her sweater pockets, she looked back at him now. "Noted," she said, "and appreciated." She tilted her head as she glanced back to the trees to her left, and added softly, "I don't think you're an idiot. Just optimistic."

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Alan grin, attention fixed on her.

"Noted," he said warmly. "And appreciated."

Hild allowed herself a faint grin as she looked down at their shoes. She was pleasantly surprised by the direction this conversation took them.

Already she was combing back through it, though, to pick up any missed threads.

"While we don't always seem to pay attention to the same things," she ventured, "you are taking in information most of the time. And you seem generally a decisive person, so what makes deciding how much information is enough, an impossible task?"

Alan let out a deep sigh. "I don't really have a firm answer on this-- I suppose I can say that I don't have enough data. But if I had to answer now, with my current knowledge and opinons... I'd say some things are too uncertain, and perhaps always will be. Not everything can be known. And I think it's fine to not know everything. The world is too big to completely understand."

Hild hummed. "So... How do you decide on what kinds of knowledge to pursue? What's something you refuse to leave unexplored?"

Alan lightly shrugged, tilting his head up towards the sky and squinting so the sun didn't get in his eyes. "I don't. It doesn't need to be overcomplicated. If something is too difficult to tackle because I lack the knowledge, then I simply move on."

Hm. A blissful way to live, she supposed.

"Fair enough," Hild replied in understanding, trying to fill in the many blanks his answer left empty.

"I assume that isn't the case for you," Alan said, gaze fixed on her again.

It was her turn to shrug lightly. "Not all the time," she answered. "Just with my interests. Which, the same could be said of anybody, right?"

"Maybe. I think the way we think is fundamental to our character, anyways." He shrugged, this time with a friendly smile. "There are no right or wrong answers here. It just is."

"True," she agreed, casting him a warmer grin in turn. "I admit, I simply wanted to pick apart your brain a little. Thank you for indulging me."

Alan raised a brow, quirking a brow, smile still present. "You're welcome, I suppose. But-- you wanted to pick apart my brain? Why?"

Hild looked back down at the dirt. "It...intrigues me," she answered honestly, after an embarrassed hesitation. "That's all."

"Huh." Alan mulled this over, letting out a faint, weak laugh. "I didn't realize I was that intriguing to you."

Oh, god. Hild felt her face grow warm, and was unable to scrounge up a proper response. So she stayed quiet.

"For what it's worth, I think you're intriguing too," Alan said warmly, smile and attention fully given to her again. "Not in a weird way. Just in a friendly way."

"...Thank you," she murmured, sincerely grateful that he seemed to understand her own meaning. But she was still unable to fully meet his eyes.

Thankfully, Alan changed the subject.

"Ah, I've been meaning to ask you. What did you want to talk to Dante about?" He paused. "And also, I hope you know where you're going, because I'm following you."

Hild snorted in a slightly undignified way. "I'm fairly sure this leads to the staff housing," she answered, "though I honestly have yet to take this exact path. So, we'll see."

Alan nodded slowly. "I take it you've visited the staff in their cabins, then."

"I haven't," she answered. "I've only seen the area from a respectable distance on my morning runs." She looked back up in thought. "I do believe...that I catch Miss Eve wandering this way every once in awhile, though."

"I suppose if we both get lost, we can ask her for directions," Alan mused, turning back to Hild with another smile. "How often do you go on morning runs?"

"Most days." A pause. "Basically everyday."

Alan hummed. "Well, if you're looking for a running partner, I wouldn't mind joining you. I used to train for marathons. I only stopped because my wallet was getting drained from having to double my caloric intake."

She looked back at him, more directly this time. Honestly, just trying to imagine him in running gear. Simply because it was a hard mental image to put together, she was so used to his current wardrobe full of relaxed-fitting clothes in all soft, neutral tones.

"I'd like that," Hild answered sincerely. "We can both familiarize ourselves with the island layout that way."

She'd want to check with James first, just to be sure that he was alright with an additional running partner. But she couldn't imagine any reason for him to take issue with the idea.

Alan beamed, an excited glint in his eye. "That'd be nice. We can rise and run with the sun, travelling around the perimeter of this paradise. And what better way to do that than with someone you care about by your side."

Hild smiled more freely at his excitement. "I couldn't agree more."

"What time do you start your runs?" he asked.

"6 AM," she said. "And I actually don't run alone. Would that, plus extra company work for you?"

"Fine by me. Mind if I join tomorrow?" Alan asked with a smile.

With a hum, she held out her hand to shake on it. "I look forward to it."

And just like last week, Alan fist-bumped her open hand. "Deal," he said warmly.

She closed her hand around his and sealed the deal by giving it a light shake.

~ ~ ~

Dante, turned out, was not 'home' for the time being, according to Bo, the head chef of the entire place. With a smile just as warm as when he handed out the pretzels, he kindly sent them down to the beachside just past the housing area, to save them the extra work of having to scour the entire island for the grounds manager.

True to his word, they found the grounds manager not too far from the water's edge. He had set up an easel and a canvas on a boulder above the beach, paintbrush and palette in hand as he sat on a stool, mixing oil paint. His sunglasses were off and resting on the top of his head, over the curls of his hair, as he painted a line of pale blue over the canvas. There was a dreamy but intent look on his face as he focused on his work.

"I don't know if we should disturb him," Alan whispered to Hild, watching him from a distance. "It's rude to disturb an artist at their flow."

Hild paused at that. She did not consider herself an artist, and considered taking Alan's word for it. Just for a moment. Fleeting second, really.

"I mean," she gently countered, "it's...his job? He told us to reach out." She gestured toward the grounds manager. "This is me reaching out. I have questions."

Alan quietly sighed. "Let's approach quietly then see if he's at a good stopping point before speaking. Yeah?"

Hild pursed her lips. Then silently urged Alan to lead the way, since she was evidently unfamiliar with the art of approaching an artist at work. Alan did so hesitantly, sauntering over with quiet feet, careful to approach. They stood behind Dante for nearly fifteen seconds, Alan watching him paint with careful brushstrokes.

Hild looked between Alan and the canvas over Dante's shoulder. The seconds seemed to stretch into a short eternity, however. Once Dante lifted his brush from the canvas after one long stroke, she, perhaps childishly, resorted to an awkward cough to grab his attention. Alan cast her a sharp look. She paid him no mind.

Dante sat up, turning his head until he caught view of them.

"Oh!" he said, turning around on his stool to face them, setting his palette in his lap. "I'm so sorry, I didn't even notice you were there. Please forgive me."

He was smiling, and it was genuine and kind, but there was something a little off about his expression. Like he was staring at some other part of their faces instead of their eyes.

"Hi, Dante," Alan said, mirroring the friendly smile. "I'm sorry for having to disturb you while you work-- beautiful painting, by the way." He paused. "We just wanted to come by to ask you a few questions, if that's alright."

Dante nodded. "Please do. It's what I'm here for."

With her hands folded politely, Hild lightly nudged Alan with her elbow. "Ladies first," she murmured.

Alan cast her another sharp glare, unamused. He quickly recovered, smile and attention back on Dante. "Personally, I was wondering if you or anyone else on staff need help on the island for anything. I get the sense that you're short-staffed, and I have lots of time on my hands. I wouldn't mind helping out wherever needed."

Dante's smile turned a little warmer. "Oh, that's very kind," he said, sitting up a little on his stool. It seemed like he was looking at Alan's... forehead. "I'm not sure what I can do for you there, though. I don't think we're able to make you work."

"Oh, this would be my choice-- you don't need to worry about that. I'm willing to volunteer. Really, I don't mind," Alan said, friendly and gentle smiling unceasing.

Dante's expression turned more apologetic. "I know, and it's very much appreciated. I can actually think of some places that could use an extra worker. But the DMV has decided that contestants shouldn't be doing staff jobs."

Alan sighed. "Well, it was worth a shot." A beat. "If you have a lot of work piling up on your plate, though, I wouldn't mind helping you. I think the island too huge to leaving upkeeping for one person. If you need a helping hand, you know where to find me."

Dante smiled again. "Thank you, Alan. The offer is very much appreciated." He glanced between the two of them. "Anything else I can do for either of you, though?"

Hesitating, Hild glanced at the canvas just behind him. "I have some questions pertaining to our stay on the island," she said, "though I realize...it's an entire list that may take a little bit to work through. And you have paints that you likely don't want to dry up on you. If now is an inconvenient time, might we at least agree upon a time and place for deeper discussion?"

"Now is fine," Dante assured her. "Please ask away."

With a determined nod, Hild whipped out her notepad and pen. "To begin, I've had some lingering concerns about the mind reader since the...botched pool party. James mentioned a sort of holding cell. And others, about how the man's cabin door locks from the outside." She glanced up at Dante once she found an empty page. "Is he...unwell? Does he have anyone to represent him, if he is not in fact of sound mind?"

Dante pursed his lips thoughtfully. "His name is Stravos. He is able to speak for himself, which means that what you see him doing is what he means to do. It's understandable if you haven't had very pleasant interactions with him."

This did put her mind somewhat at ease. Hild gave Dante an appreciative nod as she scribbled down, "Stravos (mind reader) is fine."

The deadbolt on the outside of the door was still mildly troubling, but she figured she didn't need to delve into the ethics of that with Dante. Seeing as he was not in any position of authority.

"Is there," she moved right along, "a sort of...technician on the island with whom we might consult? I've found a few of us, namely James Hawke and most recently my brother Lyall Ashlund, have run into repeated connectivity issues in rather odd, inconsistent ways."

She didn't want to directly reference her suspicions of foul play. There might still be cameras nearby, and she really didn't want to seem like she was holding Dante in contempt for it.

"Repeated connectivity issues," Dante echoed, sitting forward. "Like, their Wi-Fi reception is poor?"

Turning her eyes up to the trees in thought, she took a silent moment to find any technical terms she might need to explain. She didn't consider herself very tech savvy, so she decided not to expend more energy necessary trying to sound it.

"On one hand, my brother," she started slowly, looking back to Dante, "has been unable to contact his fiance. But only her. And on the other hand, Mister James Hawke hasn't been able to work any piece of technology on the island at all."

Dante looked disturbed, and he tapped his fingers on his knee.

"James no longer has his phone," he said. "You're saying he can't use anyone else's, either?"

Hild nodded. "He tried borrowing my brother's once, turning his device almost completely defunct for just that moment."

Alan, late to the conversation, quietly asked, "Lyall isn't able to reach Kaya?"

She glanced sideways at Alan. Right, he and Lyall were friends, weren't they. "The issue just turned up the day of Ooktoberfest," she confirmed.

"Do you think something caused it? That seems strangely timed," Alan said.

Hild only quietly furrowed her brows. Did Alan not...suspect anything at all?

Dante was rubbing his face with both of his hands, frowning while in deep thought.

"These are very strange," he said. "I don't know what to make of either of them, and any theory I could provide you with would be wild speculation. That is, unless..." He flipped his sunglasses back on as he looked to Hild, and she now couldn't tell where he was looking. "I hope you won't be offended by me suggesting this, but Kaya wouldn't block Lyall, would she?"

"No offense taken," Hild assured him, because there was no other way for him to know, aside from asking. "She really wouldn't, for any reason. So it's especially confuzzling."

"I see. Thank you. Then..." Dante slowly nodded. "It is possible for the DMV to do things such as limit a contestant's Internet access, which includes things like text messaging and calls. I believe they have a good level of control over it, which means if they wanted, they are capable of doing such things as causing one person to lose contact with one specific person off the island, or to mess with a device that belongs to one person but is in the hands of another person. I fail to see why, however, they would do so outside of grave circumstances."

Hild only slightly arched a brow at his frankness over the subject of his own employers. But appreciated it.

"I suspect pettiness," she quietly offered, hoping saying such to him wasn't too presumptuous.

Dante paused, drumming his leg on the ground before quietly acknowledging, "I hope it's not a safety concern. I don't believe it is, though. They should be allowed to have their access."

She mildly wished he hadn't hidden his eyes just yet. Then she might have been able to better read that split second of silence preceding his answer.

"I realize the matter may be outside your list of duties as grounds manager," Hild said. "I just thought I'd bring it up, and inquire after someone who might be able to help."

Dante smiled again, but it was more regretful now. "Of course. Thank you, and I truly will look into it."

Hild faintly smiled and inclined her head in thanks. Quickly, she scrawled in her notepad, "connection issues - wip." Then paused and added a small, "thanks, Dante," at the end of the same note.

At this point, she figured she ought to settle in for the rest of the conversation. Because they were only halfway through her list of questions. Tucking her legs underneath herself, she looked back up to Dante from the ground.

"On a less serious note," she continued, "I was curious about the...teleportation magic. To and from the studio, for the...'montage show'? How does that work?"

"Ah, that," Dante said with a knowing nod, and then a small laugh. "Well, you've asked me something about magical science, which is not my strong suit, but I can try. It's designed for the show, and it's able to transfer people from one place to another through rapidly opening and closing portals. It works a bit like a battery in that if we use up all the magic, we can't use it again for a bit."

Curiously, Hild raised both brows. "How long is 'a bit'? What recharges it?" She squinted a bit in thought. "Why does it...turn people into confetti?"

Dante hummed. "Maybe a day, I think it does so naturally with rest, and..." He paused. "Well, it's chaos magic. It can have some dramatic effects when something goes wrong. Thankfully, we're good at preventing it, if you're worried about safety."

"That is reassuring," Hild answered sincerely, "hearing it from you."

Back in her notes: "Island magic - recharges like battery; just is."

"What of Ooktoberfest?" she asked next.


Spoiler! :
we pretend that we added this info but we too lazy to write so just imagine it in brain

this island is FULL of chaos magic
its why the dmv picked this island
its in da air in da ground EVERYWHERE
only dmv can control it (that he know of)

- ooktoberfest drinks. how dat work,also wat everyones status effects
- is this a harmless island???? no??? DMV SEEMS EVIL
- wat da end goal here anyways huh

Narrator: and then they all went home.

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Sun Nov 19, 2023 4:25 am
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SilverNight says...

Shane eventually retreated back to the cabin once he'd noticed he'd started dragging his feet in the sand instead of properly walking. He wasn't sure if it had really helped-- he felt numb rather than better. But maybe that was better.

He entered the cabin and took off his shoes by the door, planning to make coffee. That plan, however, was put on hold when he saw James and Eve standing in the living room.

"Oh," he said, attempting a weak smile. "Hi."

He immediately paused as the other details of the scene got his attention.

Such as, the entire living room was mess.

He was staring at flipped couches, displaced coffee tables, and cushions thrown all over the place. Even Connie's paintings were on the floor, propped up against the walls they normally hung on. It looked a bit as though a tornado had passed through.

Shane slowly turned his gaze questioningly back to James and Eve.

"...What's the matter?" he asked.

"Bugs," James said.

"Roaches?" Shane asked uneasily, standing on his tiptoes and staring at the ground.

James walked over, holding up a small recording device in his hand.

Then he crushed it between his fingers.

Shane gaped for a few moments, feeling his heart suddenly hammer in his chest.

"Oh," he said quietly. "Bugs."

He looked around the living room again, this time swallowing.

"Where?" he whispered.

"Everywhere!" Eve answered for him, practically yelling as she stood on her tippy toes on the kitchen counter, propping up a ceiling tile. "There's no use in keeping quiet. They already know."

James looked back at Eve, then back at Shane with a helpless shrug.

"We're finding them and destroying them," he said. "If you're not otherwise occupied, I thought you might want to help, since you may be better at finding creatively hidden ones than us."

Shane quickly nodded. "Right. Right. I can... read things." He cleared his throat. "You've got the living room. I'll head upstairs."

"Let us know if you need any help," James said.

Feeling there was little more to say, Shane tore up the stairs, mumbling an apology to Shrimp as he ran past him. The cat had been going down the steps, but after seeing that Shane was heading the other way, he turned and followed.

Where was he even to start? He hadn't actually gotten an answer about where the bugs had been.

At least he'd had a reputation for being able to find things. Whenever he lost something, he only had to go tapping around the place before he got a reading of him thoughtlessly putting something in a drawer or accidentally placing something over it. He could find a needle in a haystack if he needed to.

That sounded like a nicer problem. Shane wasn't worried about a needle spying on him.

He decided on an order. First James' room, then the hallway, bathroom, Connie's room, and then his own. If they were bugged, it was likely that James was the most significant target, and although he would still check his own room, he'd gotten plenty of readings in there already.

He just had to hope that thing where he hadn't been able to read James's note didn't happen here. If it did...

No, that thought was not good for his peace of mind.

Shane gently pushed the door to James's room open, careful of its condition. Shrimp followed soundlessly, sitting in a corner as Shane went on to look around for a starting place.

...The light switch? He'd heard there was historical precedent for unscrewing the plate and placing a bug underneath.

Shane gingerly ran his fingers over it. A few snapshots in time of James turning on and off the light went by, his moods flickering each time. Then Tula with a screwdriver--


Shane pulled his hand back.

"There's one up here," he called downstairs. "Do we have a screwdriver? It's under a lightswitch plate."

"Should be one in the hall closet," James called back.

"Alright," Shane called, then paused. "It's Tula."

Eve was quick to race up the stairs, meeting him in the hall closet before he could even find the screwdriver. She had been more agitated and frantic since he stepped in, but now even more so.

"Tula," she repeated, bending down and helping him dig through the toolbox, pulling out the screwdriver for him and offering it for Shane to take. "You saw her? With your magic? It's confirmed?"

"Yes," Shane said, taking it and going back into James's room, quickly working on removing the first screw.

James came trailing upstairs behind her, at a much more reasonable pace.

"She's probably the one who planted them all," James said, catching up to them.

"Of course she is! Who else could it be?" Eve snapped. "But it's confirmed now. There's no ambiguity. She's working for the DMV, and she is targeting you. She's spying on you." She threw her hands up in the air. "She's spying on us right now! They all are!"

James let out a long sigh.

"They likely always have been," James said a bit tiredly.

"Let me get this, Shane," Eve said, already taking the the screwdriver after he only removed one screw. "See if you can find others. The sooner we find them all, the better."

"Okay," Shane murmured, quickly looking around the room again. "James, I might... have to go through your things. Anything I should know about?"

James hesitated. His eyes flicked to Eve, then slowly returned to Shane.

"Now's not the time for secrets," Eve growled.

"Not only secrets," Shane said quickly. "I mean, like-- also strong emotional connections to things in this room. So I can brace for them."

Eve pulled out the light switch casing, yanking the bug and pulling out the cords. With the bug in her hands, she glared fiercely at Shane.

"We're being bugged, Shane!" she yelled. "Just use your magic!"

"Eve," James said softly, as Shane recoiled. "It's not necessary to yell at him. He knows. And we don't have to be in such a rush. If it's been bugged all this time, taking a few more minutes won't make much a difference."

"No, it's okay," Shane muttered, taking a random direction in the room. That led him to the punching bag.

Meanwhile, Eve ignored James, throwing the bug on the ground and repeatedly stomping on it.

"Maybe I should check that," James said quietly, following Shane. "There's... a lot of emotions in this room. I don't want you to get overwhelmed by it."

"I'm going to have to check everything I can think to in this cabin. It's fine," Shane said, surprising himself at how tired he sounded.

James frowned with sympathy, and gently rested his hand on Shane's shoulder.

"I appreciate you doing this," James said. "But if you need to take a break, you can, okay? We'll wait for you."

Shane didn't need to look around to guess that Eve wasn't of the same opinion.

"Please proceed. I don't think you need my help," she said cooly, turning to leave and rushing downstairs again. "I'll check on you later. I have to take care of something."

Shane could only nod.

"Thanks," he said wearily to James. "I've got it, though."

Even so, he took a deep breath before closing his eyes and reaching out to touch the punching bag.

The first punch he witnessed seemed to hit him in the core. He flinched slightly, stiffening as the anger and desperation hit him next. Each of James's strikes left him reeling with what felt like a heavy sadness and despair, and he forced himself to pay attention past the first few blows, but he saw nothing of Tula or a bug.

Shane felt himself shudder as he opened his eyes.

"No bug there," he said weakly.

"I'm sorry-- just, one moment," James said. "She doesn't seem alright. I'll be back, I promise."

"It's fine," Shane murmured, already looking around for the next thing to read. "I'll keep searching."

James gave Shane a deeply apologetic look before he hurried out of the room after Eve.

Shane's shoulders sank as he saw James's bed next. He knew he didn't want to read that.

But he had to, didn't he?

Steeling himself, he knelt next to him, reading one part at a time. The frame, the mattress, the pillows, the covers. Each part felt saturated with terror, and each shock of James suddenly waking up from a nightmare coursed through him like lightning. He snapped out of it when he heard a door slamming downstairs, and it took a look at his hands to realize that he was shaking.

Nothing here. At least, it wasn't another bug. He weakly pushed himself to his feet.

He went around to the other furniture in the room, most of which was more normal in emotional association. Or maybe he was just too numb to feel it.

He determined that there was another bug in the closet after merely touching the door and seeing Tula, and then ran his hand around the frame to see that it was tucked between the edge of the table and the ceiling, at a place where it wasn't visible from the outside. He fumbled around for it blindly overhead, soon finding it and pulling it down. As he did, he saw another brief vision of Tula standing in the closet, pushing herself up on the wall to stick it up there. She felt bored, as if she were above this or found it a waste of her time.

A spark of irritation flashed through Shane. She was making their lives hell like it was nothing to her.

He threw the bug on the ground, crushing it under his heel and scooping it up on his way to throw it in James's trashcan. That would be the next thing to check.

He leaned over it, pausing before he threw it in. There was something hanging over the edge. A... bloodied joke T-shirt, with a bullet-shaped tear double-dotting some "I" in a message he couldn't fully read.

He slowly reached for it.

"Don't touch that," James said from the doorway.

Shane flinched, drawing his hand back and turning his head so quickly his neck hurt.

"What happened with it?" he asked quietly.

James's brows knit together, and his mouth opened, but no words came out at first.

"I..." James started, then sighed, and started over, rubbing his eyes as he looked to the floor. "I was shot. It... maybe I should explain it later."

"You were what?" Shane demanded in a half-whisper, half-hiss.

James looked at Shane helplessly, like he didn't know what to say. He managed the smallest shrug.

"It was..." was all James got out.

Shane dropped his face into his hands, closing his eyes. This was too much. He had too much to care about and no desire to care anymore.

"We're talking later, then," he said quietly, dropping the bug on the floor for James to see as he prodded the trash can. Nothing important to see. "Closet."

James looked at the bug, nodding.

"Ah," he said, walking over and stepping on it. It crushed under his heel, breaking it better than Shane had.

Shane sat back on the floor, barely noticing Shrimp wandering over and sniffing at him.

"I'm calling this room cleared," he said, setting a hand on the cat's back.

"Do you want to pause for a moment?" James asked.

Shane shook his head.

"Alright," James said, offering Shane a hand to help him up.

Shane took it distractedly, taking a moment to get his feet under him and rise.

"The hall next?" James asked.

Shane turned his head to look through the doorway, sighing very quietly. He'd never considered he might have to do something like this. But someone had to do it.

"Yeah," he said distantly, already leaving the room.

~ ~ ~

Shane found four more bugs around the cabin. Two in the bathroom-- one behind the mirror and one on the drain pipe for the sink. One more in the hallway, similarly tucked within a light switch. Then one more in Shane's room, found just as they'd been wrapping up and had the thought to check the ceiling light sconces-- a surface Shane had never touched before. The realization that they'd very nearly given up too early should have made him more paranoid, but he was at his limit with anxiety already.

The two of them were now seated in the hallway, the four bugs crushed on the floor between them. Shane picked up the one that had been in his room, pinching it between his fingers to focus on the vision of Tula standing on his bedpost to reach the ceiling. He wasn't sure how to name the emotion in that scene. It was there, but he was too tired to recognize it. There had been too many of those already. He pinched the bug tighter, causing a crack in it's already broken case to spread.

"I guess this means... we can speak freely," James said tentatively, breaking the silence.

James sat across from Shane with his head leaned back against the wall, staring up at the ceiling.

"I guess so," Shane muttered, dropping the bug. "No more codes."

"Though I can't say I trust Tula to not try again," James admitted. "So... I'm not sure how long the privacy will last."

Shane sighed, resting his forehead in his palm. "Even if she didn't hear us finding them, she'll notice when there's only silence from here on," he said quietly. "We can't always be watching, waiting for her to come back."

"Fair enough," James agreed softly.

Another silence fell between them for a few moments until Shane finally looked back up.

"You said you were shot," he said quietly. "Tula?"

"Yeah," James said. "This morning. Our, uh... front door. Sometimes acts as a portal to somewhere else."

James pressed his lips together.

"It, uh," he continued. "Opened into an underground room. She was upset. She was convinced I'd drugged her at Ooktoberfest, even though we were all in the same boat."

Shane stared at him for a few moments.

"So, instead of accepting the fact that the DMV treated her as everyone else," he said, "she blamed you. And shot you for it."

"Yep," James said. "Pretty much."

"Is this seriously who we're up against?" Shane muttered, shoulders slumping. "Overlords who think it's fun to play with us like toys, and people among us who think it's fun to torture us?"

"Unfortunately," James said. "It seems so."

Shane closed his eyes. "I want out of this dollhouse."

"Me too," James said with a sigh.

A beat of silence.

"I don't know what we're doing anymore," Shane said weakly. "I mean, we're aware of the nature of this place. So is Eve. But what is there to do about it? What's our goal? Survival is hard enough, I know, but do we have to do more?"

"I think right now, we are ill equipped to do much else," James said quietly. "It would be unwise to push the DMV. And if I've any understanding of our current situation, all of this is likely being orchestrated or at least intentionally controlled still with the intentions to test our powers."

James pursed his lips, looking off to the side.

"I suppose I can't be surprised, what with my own magic, that getting wounded was an inevitability," he said. "But it seems they also mean to test our mental fortitude as well. I can't claim to have any foresight on where the next two months will take us, but I believe the best plan forward is to endure. If there is anything we discover we can do to control the situation, we can cross that bridge as it comes. But at present... I think trying to come up with some grand scheme would be unhelpful."

At that, James let out a small sigh, looking over at Shane with a tired but empathetic look in his eyes.

"You seem exhausted," James said. "When did you leave this morning? I didn't see you for your regular coffee."

Shane sighed quietly, slumping forward a little.

"I don't know," he said quietly. "I woke up, and..." He shrugged. "I don't know."

"Another nightmare?" James asked gently.

Shane pinched the bridge of his nose. "Yeah. I guess."

There was a long pause.

"Do you want to talk?" James pressed quietly. "You look like you could use a nap."

Shane hesitated, rubbing his eyes now.

"I don't know what I really need," he said quietly. "Besides maybe some peace of mind."

James hummed at that with a small huff.

"Seems a bit hard to come by in this cabin," he said. "Maybe we can borrow some of Connie's."

"He does seem pretty undisturbed," Shane murmured. "I don't know, maybe I should go stare at the ocean for six hours and see if it does something for me."

James stared at Shane for a moment. Shrimp came walking over out of James's room, slowly inching up to Shane.

"You know," James said. "He's never talked about it, but Connie's magic involves dreamwalking."

Shane absently nodded, wrapping his arms around Shrimp as the cat crawled over his lap. "Yeah."

"From what I understand, he's not able to influence dreams, but he can influence the people in them," James said. "I imagine he's aware of the turbulence of your sleep. Maybe you could ask him to help."

Ah. Connie being aware of that made Shane feel... worse, actually.

Maybe the prince didn't have such peace of mind after all.

"I think he dislikes that he has anything at all to do with our dreams," he said.

"I'm sure he'd rather be blissfully unaware," James said. "As would I, in his shoes. But he's not unreasonable. Though he's not a warm fellow, I don't think he'd oppose to helping. It would probably help him as well. Or so I imagine. It's an agreement of mutual interest... not to make it sound like it's a mere business arrangement. It's sleep. Which is a vital necessity."

Shane released a deep breath through his nose. "I'll think about it," he murmured. "He'll probably be more amenable to the suggestion if we replace the furniture downstairs."

James glanced off down the hall.

"Ah. Right. It's been rearranged," he said. "We should probably take care of that sooner than later."

Shane scratched behind Shrimp's ears. "If only this little guy had opposable thumbs. He'd be able to help."

"He lends his aid in moral support," James said, slowly getting to his feet with a grunt. It was still a little bizarre just how pink his skin was, and his bright pink feet sparkled against the carpet.

"Maybe he'll provide some input on interior design," Shane said, carefully rising as well, cat in hand. "We have the unique opportunity to redecorate."

"When Connie returns, we'll just say we had the urge to 'change up the vibe,'" James said with a small flourish of his hands. "It was Shrimp inspired."

Shane cracked a faint smile, cradling Shrimp to his chest. "I'm sure he must understand my cat's new vision for our place."

"If anyone would understand, it's Connie," James said. "He respects a simple lifestyle, and Shrimp certainly upholds that standard."

"Don't you?" Shane asked the cat.

Shrimp meowed, batting a paw at James.

"He says his cat food could be a little fancier," Shane said.

James smirked at that, reaching over to pat Shrimp's head.

"That can be arranged," James said. "After we arrange the living room."

"Nothing but the best for this cat," Shane agreed, and they started to walk downstairs.
"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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Carina says...

Eve had enough. She was done wasting time. Destroying bugs was unproductive. More of them will be planted, and nothing would change. Destorying the bugs didn't change anything. It was easy to be reactive and cut away any weeds that come up, but she didn't want to cut the weeds.

Eve wanted to uproot them. Use pesticide control, if it came to that. Get to the root of the problem and be done with it.

So she was going to the root of the problem.

She had a key. She was being treated lightly. Immune to events. Clearly, she was a special case. Clearly, Oliver and/or Maeve wanted to talk to her.

So she would talk to them.

Eve lost sight of everything else, quickly marching to the mansion on top of the hill. Her mind raced with everything that could go wrong and everything that could go right. She could talk to them and fix this, or she could talk to them and make this worse.

What should she say? What should she do?

Her head raced with possibility after possibility as the minutes ticked by, each second passing loudly in her head. There was absolutely no one around. Nothing or nobody stopping her. Not a camera. Not a person. Not a thing.

Not even the doors were stopping her. In fact, they opened for her.

She didn't even bring the key. The mysterious keycard that she had been sleuthing around for-- it wasn't on her. The wooden doors were opening for her before she even went up to it, almost as if it was beckoning her to follow this path.

Like they knew she was here. Like they wanted to talk to her.

Perhaps this was a trap, but Eve didn't care. She was at the disadvantage of being on this wretched island where the Trieus had all the control.

Almost all the control. She knew they couldn't control her. Not in the way that they could everyone else.

Finally, after going through one hallway to the next, venturing up the floors and following the doors that waved her through without crossing a single person, Eve found herself in the final room.

Spoiler! :
i put pic because i am too lazy to describe forgiv me

Standing face-to-face with Oliver and Maeve.

"Oh, good! You found us," Maeve said impatiently, swirling around in her chair and clacking her pen over and over again. "Did you like our party trick? It's a bit fitting, I think, you following our clues in our maze. It's quite rat-like, don't you think?"

Like always, Eve ignored Maeve due to her deeply immature presence, eyes instead landing on Oliver, standing straight with his hands in his pockets, staring back at her.

It had been a while since they had come face-to-face like this. Not since they broke up almost three years ago.

He looked good, all things considered. He was bigger and stronger. And that was what he always wanted, wasn't it? With that, he grew more detached. More cold.

It seemed times haven't changed.

"Hi, Evaline. You look well," Oliver said with a gentle, softer tone, which almost made Eve want to roll her eyes.

Fortunately, Maeve did it for her.

Maeve groaned, swiveling around at her brother before getting up on her feet to walk between them, her heels clacking against the cold floor. "Ugh, can we please not do this? Blah, blah, blah," she mocked with exaggerated arm movements. "He wanted to get back together with you, you still say he sucks-- and let's be honest, she's not wrong-- and then you'll both argue, but she'll fold first, and then you kiss and make up and, look at that! Another toxic relationship in the making!"

Maeve set her hands on her hips, the playfulness now replaced with hostility as she glared at Eve. "We don't need to look into your future to predict you, Evaline. You're already so damn predictable."

Again, Eve decided to completely ignore that she existed. She knew that if she did this, Maeve would likely throw a tantrum for attention. Truly, who was the predictable one?

"Why did you bring me here?" Eve asked lowly, attention on Oliver.

"I could ask you the same question," Oliver asked.

Eve scoffed. "Please. You know why I'm here."

She and Oliver held the same gaze for several long, drawn-out seconds. Except's Eve's was a harsh glare, and Oliver's was one out of sympathy.

"This is literally torture," Maeve grumbled, letting out another exasperated groan as she fell back in her chair. "Listen up, buttercup. We brought you here for two reasons. One, my brother is dying to fuck someone--"

"That is not true," Oliver cut in coldly, even though Maeve kept talking over him.

"--and two, we wanted to strike you a deal."

The screens in the room suddenly showed various clips of James-- suffering. Most of them involved Tula. The audio and pictures filled the room.

"Oh? You like this?" Maeve cooed teasingly. "Well, you can totally have this, unless you choose to sleep with my idiot of--"

"Maeve," Oliver loudly scolded through his teeth. He took in an irritated deep breath before returning his attention back to Eve. "Evaline, you don't have to do this. You can still be protected with the DMV. Your time here could be kept pleasant. I guarantee this."

Eve gave him a flat look. "You put me here. For what? For making yourself seem so generous? You're such a savior, Oliver. You saved me. Oh, thank you so much. What would I ever do without you?"

"Alright," Oliver said tiredly. "I get it. You're frustrated. Angry. No need to be so emotional right now. We can--"

"I'm being emotional?" Eve blurted out loudly, unable to believe his words. "You brought me here because you can't get over the fact that I left you. I rejected you because you're a coward. You think you're so powerful, but you're a coward, Oliver. And for every minute I'm here, I'm reminded of your corrupted disgrace self." She clenched her jaw, unable to contain her glare. "I do have regrets," she said cooly. "And it's not leaving you sooner."

"Alright," Oliver said tiredly, hand wearily rubbing his face as Maeve howled beside him.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I can't. That was so good," Maeve wheezed, wiping a fake tear from her eye. "She roasted your ass."

"...We can discuss this later," Oliver said, voice neutral as he loosely waved over to Maeve. "Maeve, please procede."

"Like I said. We wanted to strike you a deal," Maeve went on, laughs immeidately fading, instead replaced with a sinister grin. "Consider this: James will no longer be targeted by Tula. You can finally rest easy. However..." She tilted her head, smile growing. "You must pick someone else to replace him."

Eve was already thinking through possibilities of who this could be. A single name came to mind, one that was win-win and would benefit all sides, but--

"And no. It can't be Stravos," Maeve went on, sounding annoyed. "That would be too easy."

"There's another condition, isn't there?" Eve asked. "You always have hidden conditions."

Maeve shrugged innocently. "No, actually. But now that you mention it... Mmm, yeah! Let's add another condition." She grinned menacingly. "Shane's cat dies."

Eve opened her mouth to speak, but found that no words came out. His cat dies? That was so unnecessarily cruel. It was evil. What did Shane have to do with this? What did his cat have to do with this?

"We are not killing anything on this show," Oliver interjected. "Not people. Not animals. That's not part of the deal."

Maeve pouted. "Fine. Then we kill the llamas."

"I said we aren't killing animals," Oliver said impatiently.

"Why not? We literally brought them here!" she huffed back.

The two bickered some more, leaving Eve to wonder how much of this was serious, and how much of this was for entertainment. She already knew that Maeve was a sociopath, not caring if people or animals got hurt. She only cared about two things: entertainment and money.

But if what she said was true... if James could be immune to his unending torture from Tula if Eve picked someone else...

As Eve's mind raced to think of an alternative name, the siblings suddenly both turned silent, both of them staring past Eve at something behind her. There was a swishing sound and a clack of boots against the floor that even Eve was all-too-familiar with. She slowly turned around, her gut feeling confirmed.

Ivonne Trieu. The President of the DMV. Oliver and Maeve's mother.

Ivonne walked away from-- well, Eve wasn't sure how she got here, actually, but that wasn't important. Her eyes were glued on to a holographic screen as she walked with purpose across the room, continually swiping away at the screen without having looking up at them once.

"Hello, darlings," Ivonne said with an even voice, flicking text from her projection device over to a computer, transferring data.

Eve felt her heart rate quicken, the three of them frozen in her presence.

"Hi, mother. I didn't know you were coming in today," Maeve squeaked, straightening her blazer.

"We're taking care of the island well. Rest assured, we're handling the situation professionally," Oliver said.

Ivonne typed up code in rapid fire, sending the holographic files to the computers one-by-one. Silence filled the air until she finally looked up from her work, giving an icy stare to the three of them until she landed on Eve. Eve found herself holding her breath.

"Hello, Evaline. You look well," Ivonne said, still with the even voice as she then continued to focus on her work, walking to the other side of the room.

"Hi, Ivonne," Eve said quietly.

"Your parents have been asking me about you. You ought to keep in contact," Ivonne said, still focused on her task.

Eve didn't know what to say to that, feeling the tension in her body increase tenfold. There was a stillness to the room as Ivonne continued to transfer files in silence. She tapped away on her device, brows furrowed with intrigue.

"Hm." She tilted her head, reading the text in front of her.

"Is something wrong?" Oliver asked, and Eve caught the hint of nervousness in his voice.

"There's nothing wrong, dear," Ivonne said.

Some seconds of silence passed, and she flicked at the holographic screen again, transferring the file to the computer that Maeve was sitting in front of earlier. Satisfied, Ivonne walked back to where she came from, her heels clacking behind her again.

"I've uploaded new futures and valuable information about the contestants. Please review them diligently," she said as she passed them without a glance their way.

"Of course, mother," Maeve said.

"We will," Oliver added.

Ivonne stepped in front of a machine, pressing a few buttons and submitting her thumb print on it. A portal suddenly opened, but she turned around before stepping through.

To Eve.

"Have you considered returning to intern with us?" Ivonne asked, her expression stony and unreadable, like it always was.

Eve knew Ivonne was impatient, but this caught her by surprise and she didn't know what to say to this, so she only managed to say, "What?"

"Don't make me repeat myself, dear," Ivonne said curtly. "You're on this island for a reason. Do you accept?"

Eve's head was spinning. There were so many implications behind her words, and she couldn't begin to decipher them all.

"Oliver," Ivonne said tiredly.

"I'll get the contract ready," Oliver chimed in.

Ivonne cast one last steely look between the two before punching in more numbers on the pad in front of her, causing the portal to change colors.

"Oh, and Oliver?" Ivonne said, glancing back.

Oliver stood up straighter. "Yes?"

"The system infrastructure is behind on the latest firmware updates. Please work with your father to update."

And then Ivonne stepped through the portal, and the portal disappeared with her.

Maeve smacked her hand against Oliver's back. "You didn't tell me that mom was coming!" she hissed.

Oliver rolled his eyes, moving away to pick up a white box on the table, walking to Eve. Eve tensed again, watching him approach until they were face-to-face, a few feet apart.

"This is the deal we wanted to strike with you. A job offer. It's a step up from the internships you took in undergrad," he said gently, offering her the box. "You don't have to commit now. Everything you need to know is in here."

Eve hesitated, staring at the box. This felt like some sort of trick.

"Take it," Oliver insisted. "And should you accept, you will have a direct line with us. Your voice will be heard. You'll be an equal again. You can protect others, and we'll keep you safe."

Eve bit back her tongue to keep herself from blurting out, From who? Yourself?

Maeve pouted from the other side of the room. "That is such a lame deal. You know, my deal is still available, if you'd rather do that. Come on, curiosity is killing to cat because it's dying to know what you'd do."

"How do I know you aren't playing some trick on me? How can I trust you, after everything you've done?" Eve asked cooly to Oliver, again ignoring Maeve.

"You know I wouldn't hurt you, Evaline," Oliver said softly.

It was too bad Oliver couldn't understand that he could still hurt even if he said or did nothing to her directly.

He set his hand on top of the box. "Just take the box. You can throw it away if you'd like. There is no commitment. If you decide no, then no action is needed on your end. If you decide yes, then come by to see us again."

Eve came here to do something about the inhumane conditions on this island. She knew she wouldn't be able to walk away without striking some kind of deal. Every new deal that was discussed would only get worse.

She had to remind herself that she may not have all the solutions immediately. The right solutions often take the most time to build.

Eve scowled, briskly turning to leave the room. Her footsteps were heavy like Maeve and Ivonne's, practically stomping to make her presence heard. The door to leave opened for her again, but she stopped in her tracks before she could step through.

"Oh, and Oliver?" Eve lightly mocked, glancing over her shoulder.

"Yes?" he said expectantly.

Eve glared at him, clutching the box tighter.

"My name is Eve."
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Sun Nov 19, 2023 8:58 pm
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Carina says...

Stop. Pause. Rewind.

Where the hell was he?

Moaning, Alan squinted up at the rising sun, feeling every bone in his body creak with each movement. He rubbed his eyes, his mouth feeling cotton dry, his skin caked with the week's grim.

God, he felt disgusting.

What time was it? The sun was barely starting to--

Wait, was he outside?

Alan straightened out his glasses, focusing on the metallic bars that separated him from falling from impeding death. He peered down below, making out the sand that almost looked purple from the hazy dawn of the sun's rays.

Well. Maybe he wouldn't have died if he fell from here. But he was sure he'd break a bone or... something.

God, what time was it? He felt like...

Shit. He had to go on his run with Hild.

Scampering to his feet, Alan hurried back into his room, only partially processing that he left his balcony door wide open. He hoped he hadn't let in some beach pests, but at this point, he didn't care. He didn't want to make Hild wait.

~ ~ ~

It was a miracle Alan was only a few minutes late, considering that he managed to shower, dress, and eat something to burn off. In retrospect, he should have waited on his shower until after he went on the run, but whatever. He could shower twice. What was stopping him? Nothing. Today, he would be ultra hygenic. He had to take care of himself.

Alan waved to Hild from afar, jogging to meet her at the base of the trail. He noted that she was alone, which relieved him, because if she ran with others, then that meant he wasn't the only one late.

"Hey, good morning, Hild. Sorry I'm late," he apologized with a smile, coming to a stop next to her.

She offered him a polite smile and assured him, "Not to worry. There isn't a strict starting time to this."

Alan hummed. Still standing, he bent his knee behind him to hold his foot up, stretching his quads. "Really? I take you as a very punctual, on-the-minute person."

Hild tilted her head at him before pleasantly conceding, "Alright, yes. I... Yes, I try to be. But it's really fine." Her smile faded with her next thought. "My usual running partner hasn't shown yet, so I'd say you're in a relatively better position."

Alan nodded, setting his foot down to switch legs. "Good and bad news, I suppose. There's no rush from me, so I don't mind waiting with you. You're good company, running or not."

Checking her wristwatch, Hild hummed. "Just a few more minutes, yes. Though..." She frowned faintly. "He hadn't shown the last couple of days either."

Alan couldn't help but empathize and feel bad for Hild. Getting stood up was never a good feeling. And if it was just the two of them now, then this meant she ran alone the last couple of days. He was glad that he was here with her now, though.

He placed his foot back on the ground, standing up straight again, offering a friendly smile. "It's up to you. We can wait or start running. I'll follow your lead."

She let her hand fall back to her side as she cast a more concerned glance back toward the cabins. "...Just a couple more minutes," she repeated with a small, appreciative smile.

"Alright," Alan said, mirroring her smile.

And so he went on to ask about her morning, and they went back and forth a few more times, still standing by the trailhead as the sun slowly crept up. Exchanging breakfasts ideas, and talking about their routine after they run. Alan also asked about more practical subjects, like the trails she preferred, and what they could expect on this run. And they also shared their personal running highlights, with Alan highlighting a few 26-mile marathons that he'd done in the past, and Hild mentioning the migration patterns of certain birds that flew overhead.

When the conversation came to a natural lull, Hild checked her wristwatch again. "I suppose," she ventured slowly, lips pressed into a thin line, "that he's a no-show once again. We may as well start our days, then."

Alan couldn't help but note the hurt in her expression, voice, and body language. "Hey," he said softly, hand on her shoulder, gently smiling as he tried to meet her eyes. "I'm sure there's an explanation. Don't let this ruin your day. After all, it's only just begun, and there's still so much to see and experience."

Flashing him a quick, faint smile, Hild nodded. "Right. Yes, a small delay shan't bring down our morning."

"No, it shan't," Alan agreed, patting her shoulder once more before pulling away.

She swept an arm toward the nearest trail, with a small flourish of her other hand. "After you, good sir. It's a fairly clear path. Easy to keep track of, and hard to stray from."

Except it kind of was.

The run lasted way longer than either of them thought it would, but that was mostly because there was so much to see, so they were running inconsistently. Alan wanted to admire and appreciate nature-- whether it was a scenic overlook, the smell of pine, or a plethora of colorful flowers-- he wanted to enjoy it and take his time with it. Hild seemed glad to stop whenever he suggested, so he didn't think to minimize any stops.

Maybe it was a good thing. Hild told him random facts, like how it was within the intertidal zone that semi-aquatic iguanas fed almost exclusively on various algaes. It was nice to hear. Endearing, actually. Hild knew so much, and he liked to hear her talk with passion, fascinated by the subjects she spoke so deeply about. It was infectious, and he wanted to listen to more of it.

But by the end of it, Alan realized: well, he was a bit out of shape, wasn't he? He hadn't gone on an endurance run in a while, and he was diving right in. Perhaps all the stops were a blessing in disguise, so that when he finished, he wouldn't totally be sore.

It was also nice to talk to Hild. She was stable, admist the sea of chaos. Stable, constant, safe, and secure. She had a strangely grounding presence, even though she did peeve him sometimes.

But not in a bad way. Alistair peeved him too. But he also loved his brother to death.

They did get lunch together since Alan was starving by the end of it, but he was far too embarrassed to pig out and eat the amount of food he should eat, so he held out until he reached his cabin.

Ah. Back to instability. Like thick, wet paint dripping down a canvas on a sweltering hot day. That was what he was. A blob of paint, mixed in with colors that didn't match, turning into an unflattering brown.

He should shower. Again.

So Alan took the coldest shower known to man. If anything, he wished it could be colder. He was so tempted to run down to the kitchen, dripping wet, and pulling all of the ice from the freezer so he could dump it on his head.

He needed a cold awakening. Apparently, this wasn't it. This wasn't cold enough. How could he get colder?

Dressed and presentable now, Alan spun in his chair, feeling incredibly antsy. He needed to do something. He had already left a note saying he was sorry that he missed brunch, and Alan briefly wondered what his cabin mates were up to.

But he had other things to worry about. For instance, music.

There were dozens of music books on his shelf. He could sightread them.

Wait. No.

Cleaning. He should clean his room. Yes. He should do that first, and then organize which book he wanted to play, separating them into different piles: piano, violin, and duets. And then taking tabs and selecting songs he wanted to focus in on. Or perhaps entire books. There was so much to go through! There was so much to do!

But first, clean. His room was a mess.

Alan glanced around, noting the papers scattered on his desk. A mess. He should clean that up.

Then, books. Music. Books.

~ ~ ~

Alright. So Alan cleaned his room. But one could argue that it was now even more of a mess.

Alan crossed one arm, one hand on his chin as he peered around his room. Piles of books were scattered throughout the floor, along with piles of sheet music and other papers. Other piles included his clothes, which were also in the process of organizing. He wanted to organize it by different colors and material type, maybe.

It wasn't like this giant closet had his clothes to begin with. Frankly, this wasn't even really his normal stylistic choice, so he wanted to create different piles for what was him and what was not. Turns out, the not pile was way bigger than the him pile.

So his room had many piles now. It was fine. He was in the process of cleaning. He would clean this up in no time.

Sweeping around the room, Alan's eyes landed on the sketch of Lyall, neatly placed on his desk.

Honestly, he had no idea what to do with this. Did Lyall give this to him? It was a good sketch, but he couldn't remember why or how he got this. Maybe he wanted it back. It felt wrong to keep artwork that wasn't his, especially since he didn't have any recollection of receiving it.

Lyall. He should check on Lyall.

Honestly, Alan should also check on Shane. He was going on the third day now without talking to him. They were supposed to go on dates. Dates. Why wasn't he on a date now? Because he had to clean his room!

No. Because he was going to check in on Lyall.

Alan hastily left his room, closing the door behind him. He usually left his door open, but lately, he didn't want to see either of his cabin mates see the messy state of his room. And now? Definitely not now. He'd rather not.

Alan ran his hand down his hair, straightening it out and then taking the few steps over to pay his friendly neighbor a visit. Lyall's door was partially open, but Alan didn't want to be rude and open it any more than Lyall was comfortable with. He rapped his knuckles against the wood, careful to knock closer to the hinges so that the door wouldn't swing open some more.

"Hey, Lyall. Mind if I come in?" he asked, staring at a viney branch of a plant that was visible through the crack of the door, hanging down from the ceiling.

The door was pulled open wider. Lyall peeked out, then up at Alan with a small, if surprised, grin. "Alvaro!" he greeted pleasantly, waving him in as he stepped aside. "What brings you here?"

"Oh, nothing really. Just wanted to see how you're doing," Alan said, about to come in, but pausing. "Unless you're busy? I can stop by another time if you'd like."

"Just brainstorming," Lyall answered. He padded back to his desk and closed his laptop. "It'll keep, though."

Alan took this as an invitation to come in, and he shut the door back to its original place before leaning against the open wall adjacent to the door. "What are you brainstorming?"

Spinning his desk chair around to sit in it backwards, Lyall folded his arms across the top "Something for a deeply personal matter," he answered with a shrug. "A...gesture of sorts, to hopefully assauge the difficulties presented by distance."

"A gesture," Alan echoed. "What do you have in mind, if you don't mind me asking?"

Lyall quirked a brow with a faint grin. "Ah! I actually don't mind. While you're here, I may as well procure the professional opinion of Mister Romantic himself."

"I think Mister Romantic has retired, but." Alan smiled, shrugging. "Sure. Maybe I could help."

"My current three ideas," Lyall said, spreading both hands in front of him. "I harass one of the camermen into helping me record a reciting of the most heart-felt poetry I can scrounge up; or a tastefully put together slideshow slash photo montage, played out to a song of great personal, sentimental value; or a loving message spelled out with...I suppose organic materials found on the beachside." He shrugged and added, "I only started idea-creation yesterday, so these are rather on the...simplistic side, I suppose. Thoughts? Suggestions? Are there these all complete rubbish, and thus require scrapping entirely?"

Alan quietly drummed his fingers along the wall, gazing out the large window, admiring how the sun's rays reflected through the leaves of the plants. Filtering through the leaves, the rays cast a warm glow into Lyall's room.

"I these these are all good. Not rubbish at all," he said, then paused. "Although, I am a little worried that the message would get lost in translation, especially since you both are so far away from one another, and the gesture is told through a medium. The most important thing that these ideas should convey are your feelings. As long as you speak from the heart, and you pour out all your love and adoration you have of her, I don't think it matters how you show her. It's about what you feel, not how you say it."

Lyall nodded slowly, gaze thoughtful as he took Alan's advice into serious consideration. "Right, well," he said softly, "here's hoping whatever I go with, goes well. There's no shortage of, ah, feelings here anyhow, so." He shrugged with a small grin. "I thank you kindly for your input."

"Of course," Alan said with a small smile. "It's really considerate of you to think of something like this. I'm sure Kaya would love it. And since she loves you, I think she'd enjoy seeing you as is for any moment of the day, grand gesture or not. I'm sure she'd especially love to hear how much she means to you, and that's all that's needed, anyways. A grand gesture adds a unique flair to the memory, but with this much time and distance apart... I imagine all she wants is to hear the sound of your voice."

Lyall's grin softened as he looked at Alan with clear admiration in his eyes. In the next instant, his smile turned into something a little sad. But only for a second, before he sprang up to his feet to grab the watering can.

Right. Alan heard from Hild that Lyall had troubles reaching Kaya. Perhaps this grand gesture needed to be grand after all.

"So, it was in fact nothing in particular that brought you by," Lyall asked, casting a curious, breezy grin over his shoulder. "Is that correct?"

Alan had to think to self-reflect. Was there a reason? Nothing came to mind.

"No," he finally answered. "But I certainly don't need a reason to visit. Right?"

"Of course not," Lyall replied easily, turning his attention to the lavender on his desk, which made Alan recall that this was his favorite flower. "As I said, you're welcome here anytime."

"Same goes to you, by the way. I know I've mostly stepped out the last few days, but I'd never close my door on you. You can visit whenever you'd like," Alan said with a smile.

"I appreciate that, Alvaro," Lyall said, casting him a warm smile before he turned back to poke at the dirt. "If you don't mind me asking, what exactly has been on your mind lately? You seem quite thrown by it."

Alan sighed, peeling away from the wall to sit at the armchair by the bookcase. It was awfully cozy-looking, and this was only confirmed when he slouched against the cushy backside, crossing his legs and idly rubbing over the arm of the chair.

"Just... I don't even know. Everything, I guess," he answered with another sigh, hitting the back of his head against the backside of the chair. "I'm still reeling from the event and trying to figure out where to go with Shane. I also feel mildly distracted by the cacophony of life. I'm usually pretty good at filtering the noise, or at least transposing it to music, but it's been so unbearable lately, and I feel like I have to do something, else my song becomes noise too. It's hard to explain."

Lyall hummed softly. "Even as a non-artiste, I think I at least have an idea of what you mean." Setting down the watering can, he knelt down to dig through the bottom-most drawer of his desk. "I understand needing to fill your hands with task-doing, in order to keep the mind from spinning itself off its own axis. The breakfast storm, though still mildly disconcerting, makes sense."

Alan huffed out a puff of air, watching him work with a shred of irony considering Lyall had been keeping busy "doing something" for the entirety of this conversation.

"I didn't mean to worry you, though. I apologize for that." Alan paused. "How have you been holding up? I know you keep busy too."

There was another pause, this time in Lyall's dig through his things. Then, with renewed vigor, he started pulling out piles of papers and illegible notes. "Keeping busy," he confirmed, grin sheepish as he began sorting the papers on the floor. "Otherwise alright, though. I'm determined to give myself direction."

Alan watched him busy himself for a few moments. "Do you want to step outside with me?" he asked out of the blue.

From his new spot settled on the floor, Lyall looked up and blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

Alan smiled, tapping his palms against the arms of the chair before swinging to his feet. "Let's go. I think a walk would do us both good."

Lyall glanced back down at his new project of paper sorting. "I...suppose," he relented, but still hesitated before getting to his feet.

"It's just an idea," Alan said more gently. "We don't have to do it. But I do miss your presence, and I think we've both been cooped up in our rooms. The island is too big to explore on your own, so why not have someone by your side?"

Lyall mustered a slightly confused grin, but further conceded, "True, there's...a lot of the island I haven't seen yet."

"Then come on," Alan said more playfully, walking backwards towards the door. "There's no better time than the present."
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It actually wasn't a far walk. Considering that Alan had come back from the run with Hild that morning, he had a vague idea of where to take him.

Lyall liked plants. So naturally, the forested woodsy area was what came to mind. Not far from the head of the trail was a picnic table surrounded with lush pinetrees, wildflowers, and deer. Last time, Alan took him to the pier where they overlooked the ocean, so it felt right that they venture into some place greener.

Alan hopped on picnic table's bench, opting to instead sit on the table with his feet flat against the bench. "You know, if I had come better prepared, I'd have brought food with us so we can have a picnic. An oversight on my end," he said apologetically with a smile.

Lyall slid onto the bench at the other end of the table. "Not to worry," he said lightly, already looking refreshed by the walk here, "there's no shortage of food just ten minutes north of here."

"I suppose not. But it's not about the food." Alan floruished his hand in front of him. "It's about the experience. But I'm sure you know that, considering you're contemplating grand gestures."

"Very true," Lyall hummed with an amused light in his eyes, "it's about going the whole way. But the walk here was a nice enough experience in itself. So, I hereby declare your oversight officially--" He inclined his head with a flourish of his hand. "--pardoned."

"So generous," Alan said with a quiet chuckle. "I figure you liked plants, though." He lifted his hands, palms facing up to loosely gesture around him. "So here we are. In a plant kingdom, just for you."

"Oh?" Lyall huffed a laugh as he twisted around to scan the greenery. "It's a nice spot," he said with an approving nod. "Do you come here often?"

Alan shook his head. "No, I discovered this spot only this morning. I figured you'd like it, though."

Lyall's grin faded naturally as he considered Alan. "So, aside from frenzied chore-doing, what have you managed to accomplish these past few days? It feels like we keep missing each other, so I haven't a clue what you've been up to."

"Accomplish?" Alan murmured, repeating his use of word as he scooted back.

He instead opted to slowly lay his back against the table with his legs still bent, feet planted on the bench. The sunlight filtered in through the pine trees, and so Alan held up his hand in the air in front of him, blocking out the light so he didn't have to squint.

"I don't think I've really accomplished anything the last few days. The past few years, even, for that matter. But in terms of what I've been up to... I've kept busy." Alan hummed, briefly letting the sunlight filter through his fingers. "Cleaning, mostly. And music. Lots of music. And thinking, too. Self-reflecting, if I have time. Sleeping... if I'm able to. Running, now. Training, maybe, for a future marathon. I don't know, there's a lot I can do. So I'm doing a little bit of it everyday."

Lyall idly tapped his fingers to the table. "The past few years?" he echoed curiously. "What makes you think that?"

Alan deeply sighed, still focusing on his hand in front of him in the air. "The world doesn't need any more romantic musicians, Lyall. So I'm pivoting. To something. Or hitting a dead end. Maybe both. It could be synonymous. It likely is."

Softly humming in thought, Lyall leaned an elbow on the table and rested his cheek on his hand. "Dead ends are unfortunately inevitable," he said gently, "but that's not the end of all. If not on the stage, then where else can you picture yourself finding fulfillment?"

"I need to live a humbler life. One of humility and grace," Alan answered instead with a lower voice. "Art is dead. Maybe I need to volunteer for things that actually matter." A beat. "I should move somewhere even more underprivileged. Somewhere with even less opportunity. Maybe a place that's constantly hit by hurricanes or other natural disasters. Help those in need. Actually do something with my life, not get wrapped up in fantasies that never pan out."

Alan sighed again, dropping his arm to rest along his forehead instead. "Yeah. I'm in a transition point in my life, anyways. Maybe that's what I'll do once I leave this godforsaken island."


The bench creaked. With his hands tucked in his pockets, Lyall rounded the table to lean against the edge where Alan lied, blocking the sunlight. Alan peered up at him, forearm still draped over his head.

"Well, that's certainly one way to move on with your life," Lyall said with a faint grin. "But that doesn't necessarily make it a step forward. Like, don't get me wrong, that's quite a noble undertaking, and no doubt you'd find a sense of gratification there. It doesn't hurt to ask yourself, though, if that would just be another place to simply...run away to."

"Well, it's my life. I absolutely have the free will to run to the other side of the earth if I want to," Alan said, trying not to sound too defensive.

Brow quirking, Lyall huffed softly with something like fondness. "Of course you do," he agreed, leaning away and inadvertently letting the sun behind him wash him out. "And I'm in no position to try and stop you. Just remember to call every once in awhile." A pause. "Assuming your humbler life leaves room for some modern ammenities."

"That's a good point," Alan murmured, contemplating this. "Maybe I don't need a phone after all. I've gone the last two months without one. Maybe I'll resort to letter writing instead. That seems like a humbler, more intimate way to connect."

"Oh." Lyall snorted. "Sure. I agree, actually. Letter-writing is a bit of a lost art nowadays."

"I don't know if it'd be productive if I sent you letters, though. Your handwriting is impossible to read," Alan said with a lightly teasing smile. "Must be the doctor in you."

Lyall hummed a laugh. "Nah," he said softly, "that's just an excuse. No need to enable my laziness."

"Well," Alan began with a sigh, "maybe try to write neater when I eventually write to you, then."

Tsking, Lyall tilted his chin up in defiance. "I make no promises."

"That's a shame," Alan mused. "I'm only full of promises."

Lyall offered a warm grin at that. "Something you ought to keep in mind when you next mope about how 'art is dead', and 'the world doesn't need more musicians'."

Alan huffed out some air in amusement. Well, he got him there.

"I promise I'll keep that in mind," he said with a smile, still peering up at him.

Lyall grinned a bit wider and nodded conclusively. "Good."

Alan swung back up to sit upright, scooting to sit at the corner of the table next to Lyall, with one leg dangling in the air, the other foot planted on the bench. "Enough of my moping self, though. How have you been holding up? I know you're keeping yourself distracted."

"Ah, yes," Lyall conceded. He glanced up at the pines as he let out a long, exaggerated sigh. "The quest to keep idle minds busy by filling the hands with whatever menial tasks we can find. Hence the...frenzied house cleaning that I am indeed guilty of myself."

He turned so that he leaned back on the table's edge, and so that he and Alan were both facing the path they took here.

"I'm going insane," he admitted with a wry laugh. "I don't like sitting here on some..." He waved both hands at the trees around them. "Some island paradise, twiddling my thumbs while my family struggles to keep the practice running. And it's out of love that they do this, but they won't let me try to help. And maybe I can't actually, not from here, but..." Hesitating as he actually struggled to find the words, Lyall eventually shrugged. "I don't know. I guess we're in the same boat, though. Wanting to do more."

"Similar, but still different. Everyone walks a different path," Alan said, quietly tapping his fingers against his knee. "Although, it's interesting to hear that your family doesn't want you to help. I'm used to helping my family in every way imaginable. I can't imagine them refusing my help, or not expecting me to be involved."

Lyall hummed. "Similar, but still different," he agreed softly.

"Is it mostly finances that they're struggling with? Or perhaps lack of time and resources, so they're overworked?" Alan asked.

Lyall pursed his lips. "...Yes."

Alan hummed. "Maybe my humble life can start at the Ashlund estate," he mused.

Lips quirking in another grin, Lyall tapped the side of his own head. "It's like you're in here," he whispered in awe.

"I prefer to be in here instead," Alan said with a playful smile, hand over his heart.

"That explains the mood swings," Lyall said with a huffed laugh.

"Mood swings?" Alan repeated with a raised brow, dropping his hand. "I don't have mood swings."

Both brows raised somewhat disbelievingly, Lyall nodded slowly. "Right. Of course not."

"I really don't," Alan said stubbornly.

Pressing his lips into a thin line now, Lyall still looked skeptical.

Alan sighed. "Okay, but really. What's life like with your family, anyways? I know you're close with your siblings. What about the rest of your family?"

Setting his hands on the table, Lyall pulled himself up to perch next to Alan. He blew a raspberry and asked, "Is there anything...in particular you'd like to know about us? Because I could probably go on and on about anything and everything, anywhere between directly and vaguely-related to the matter."

Alan leaned back with his hands on the table, thinking. "I don't know if I had anything specific on my mind when I asked. I mostly just wanted to know more about your life. Family means a lot to both of us, so it felt right to ask." He shrugged, offering a small smile. "Though, if direction is helpful, then I'd like to know more about your mother. Hild mentioned that she had an artistic soul, and that she set the three of you up with different instruments." His smile widened, imagining young Lyall picking up different instruments. "I've been meaning to ask you about that, actually. You played other instruments besides piano?"

Lyall looked him over for a second, before laughing again. "Alright, sure. Anything and everything it is, then." He idly scratched the back of his neck as he thought. And the longer he thought, the more his gaze turned almost longing as he smiled to himself. "Yeah, our mother rather was an artistic individual. She considered being able to play an instrument, or at the very least investing yourself in some creative endeavor, an essential life skill. And it was a good way to, ah, network too. Helps in a social setting, you know?"

He shrugged, and went on, "So, yes, I've dabbled in a few others. I found the violin was a natural next choice after the piano, since the sheet music is essentially the same. And, as mentioned before, I do sing." He furrowed his brow as he thought harder. "I tried the flute. Didn't care for it. Saxophone too, but then figured wind instruments weren't my thing. The guitar is nice, but I didn't keep up with it, sadly, so." He lifted both hands and wiggled them. "Eh."

Alan nodded slowly, taking this all in. "It's interesting, and maybe a little ironic to hear that I've taken a similar path of you in terms of musical choices." He paused. "I can't say I've tried the flute or saxophone though."

"Too much..." Lyall scrunched his nose. "...tooting with the flute."

Alan cracked a grin. "Yeah. It's a lot of blowing."

"What else do you play, then?" Lyall asked curiously. "Do you ever perform with your family? Even if it's just for you guys, no outside audience."

Alan huffed a laugh. "My mom expects me to perform with her, especially during the holidays. She sings and plays piano for jazz group, mostly centered on salsa. As you can imagine, there's a lot of music and dancing whenever we all get together. You've pretty much named all the instruments I play, though: piano, violin, and guitar. I'd rather be a violinist, but." He shrugged. "Hard to be a soloist without an orchestra. And I'm far too novice of a guitar player, mostly playing chords for originals. So, I stick with piano. Mostly as accompaniments, or in the background, or also for originals. But it's the most familiar, and what I'm better at."

Lyall's brows pinched together slightly in thought. Then he sat straighter and asked with a grin, "You brought your violin here, right? Why not catch up on that during our stay? I've yet to witness the full breadth of your artistic abilities, and would love for you to show off a little more."

"...Maybe," Alan said with an awkward laugh.

He used to perform often and was used to being in the spotlight, but hardly ever due to personal request. It felt a little jarring and awkward. It didn't really feel right.

"To be honest, I've hit an inspiration drought for the past year or so," Alan admitted instead. "I was hoping that coming to the island would inspire me. I think it did, since I've been pouring myself with music the last few days."

Lyall quietly raised a brow, as if waiting for Alan to say more. Except Alan wasn't sure what he was expecting him to say.

"All of it is garbage, if that's what's you're wondering," Alan muttered. "It's unusable. Or if it's good, then I didn't record it or wrote it down, so it's gone forever. But such is art."

"Such is," Lyall said slowly, "the mark of a perfectionist."

"No, not a perfectionist," Alan said, mulling this over.

Lyall's attentive gaze turned flat.

"I'm really not," Alan said with a quiet laugh. "I try to freely create without limitation. It's more like..." He hummed. "I don't know. It's just not the right emotions I want to convey. Music is only as good as the love you pour into it, and I don't think I've put enough love in my songs."

Eyes softening again, Lyall looked down at the grass in thought. "Mmm, I don't know. I think art is... It's not just the love. It's passion. It's anything that makes a statement, tells a story. It's expression, a reflection of ourselves. Thus, art can sometimes look or sound rough and tumultuous as a result."

Lyall was right. Alan knew he was right. He had the same thoughts too.

He supposed he didn't like to admit that, sometimes, he preferred the rough and tumultuous songs over the loving and passionate ones.

"Spoken like a true artiste," Alan said instead, smiling teasingly. "You're right. Art is a story. Music is only the medium, and there shouldn't be any limitations placed on it-- including moods." He flourished his hand in front of him. "Like I said, not a perfectionist."

Snorting softly, Lyall raised both hands in surrender. "Not a perfectionist. I rescind my initial, clearly erroneous observation."

"Good," Alan said brightly, then paused. "I don't think I've heard you play, though. That isn't fair. I thought our friendship was transactional."

Lyall clutched a hand over his heart. "My god, you are right," he said with exaggerated urgency. "The balance of the universe is all askew! We must rectify this immediately."

Suddenly an idea sprung to mind.

"You know what you ought to consider, though?" Alan began with a grin. "All this talk with music being a story has me thinking: perhaps you could create an original song for Kaya."

At that, Lyall grinned brightly. "Not a bad idea, Alvaro," he said with genuine excitement. "You should really consider pulling Mister Romantic back out of retirement, the world could still use his wisdom."

Alan huffed out a faint laugh, idly kicking his leg in the air. "Yeah, I don't know about that. I think I'll stay in retirement for a while." He shrugged. "But occasionally I can say something wise. It's a side effect from retiring at the ripe age of 25."

"A true shame," Lyall said with a small pout. "So young, with your best years still ahead of you."

Alan sighed. "It's too late. I've already retired, so I'm going to die sad and alone."

"Oh god," Lyall murmured with an amused grin. Then, despairingly holding his hand to his forehead, said much louder, "Is there no hope for Alan Alvaro? No future where he might fall in love, grow old with his soulmate? Cruel, unforgiving world. If only there was someone out there for him!"

"Probably not," Alan said with another sigh. He let go of his grip on on the table, his back laying against the table again with a thump. "Soulmates don't exist, and neither does true love."

Lyall hummed, and let a beat of quiet pass before asking, "Then what are we to make of Shane Hawking?"

Alan groaned, slapping his hands to his face to shield it from the world. He didn't know what to feel at the mention of Shane's name. Embarrassment? Shame? Something? It was something.

"I slept with him. That doesn't make it true love," Alan said lowly, tightly closing his eyes even though he hands were still covering his face.

Right? That wasn't love.

It did feel like it could have been, though.

It really did.

His head hurt.

The ensuing silence was long. Lyall either didn't know what to say in response, or he was simply... who could say, actually. But Alan could feel his eyes still fixed on him.

"I don't want to seem pushy," Lyall said gently, "but, if... you want to talk it out with someone, I'm here for you. Alright?"

"I don't think there's much to talk about," Alan said, suddenly feeling weary. His hands melted off his face, limply landing on the table as he squinted up at the sky. "People sleep around. It's only human. There's nothing really to discuss."

"Maybe so," Lyall said. "But, considering the...frankly severely problematic circumstances surrounding you two that night..." There was some hesitation, before he changed course and said, tone turning very serious, "Alan, did you want to sleep with him? Like... would you have, had it not been for the drinks?"

Lyall's words slowly sunk in. Severely problematic circumstances? And--?

They were being filmed, weren't they? God, he was an idiot! Why did he offer to go outside where everything was public? Did he want to continue to crucify himself? Yes, that was it. He should continue to break the Heir's heart and end up on some assassination list and truly live forever alone in a gulag until he died. Why did he keep doing this?

Alan sat up quick, frantically glancing around. There had to be a camera around them. Wasn't there? Wasn't there?

"I'm so stupid," he muttered. "Why did I suggest we go outside? I'm so stupid! We're being recorded, aren't we?"

Lyall frowned deeply at that. "I keep forgetting," he muttered as he slid off the table.

Alan hopped to his feet, already briskly walking back the same way they came from, expecting Lyall to follow. "I change my mind. Walks are now forbidden on this damn island. I think I'll forever stay in my room now. This will be how I spend my summer."

"Alan, you're going through something right now," Lyall said with understanding as he hurried after him, "but such drastic measures aren't necessary."

"I'm not going through anything. I just don't want the world to see me," Alan said, trying not to sound too agitated as they walked. He was so tempted to just... bolt.

The rest of the fast-walk back to the cabin sped by with nary another word spoken between them. Once in the cabin, Alan was so glad to shut the door, feeling he was safe.

For now.

It was weird, though. He didn't even really know what the danger was. The cameras? He hadn't been intimidated by them before. Not until now... at this moment, really.

At least they were safe from this invisible threat.

"I wonder if Cyrin is home," Alan muttered, locking the door before sauntering to the kitchen to get a glass of water.

"I... don't think so," Lyall said slowly, peeking up the stairway on his way to take a seat at the kitchen island.

"I feel like I haven't talked to him in a while. Maybe I should check in," Alan said half-distractedly before downing a full glass of water with one breath.

"I'm sure he'd appreciate that greatly," Lyall said with a nod, watching Alan closely.

As Alan refilled his glass, his mind wandered to how he could talk to Cyrin. Just... well. He just needed to talk to him. Stop by, like he did with Lyall. Actually, maybe now that he was running again, he should really connect more with Cyrin.

Actually. Wait. This could be the start of Alan's fitness journey. After all, Alan had always said the only thing stopping him from truly achieving his weight goals was food, money, and--

"Alan," Lyall eventually spoke up again, eyes gentle but voice firm, "stay with me, alright?"

...time. That was the last thing he needed.

Ah. His glass was overfilling. Ironic. He lost track of time.

Alan turned off the faucet, deciding he was no longer thirsty and slowly spilling the contents back in the sink.

"I'm here," he said distantly, still watching the water run. "No place I'd rather be."

A long beat of silence passed between them. Alan had finished pouring out his water, and now he was wondering what else he should be doing. Maybe pour another glass and restart the process?

Sliding off the stool, Lyall quietly rounded the island to stand by Alan. Hesitantly, Alan placed the glass back on the counter, finally turning to face Lyall. The younger man looked up at him with worry in his eyes.

"Alan," he said, voice dropping to a serious murmur, "you were essentially drugged into sleeping with someone."

"I wasn't-- no," Alan quickly corrected, shaking his head. "This was out of my own volition. I wasn't forced to do anything I didn't want to do."

"Would you have done it," Lyall pressed gently, "before the festival? Without the effects of the drinks, then? Is that what you wanted beforehand?"

"I... maybe," Alan said distantly, prying away from Lyall to pace around the room, running his hand down his hair. "I don't even want to be in any relationship. I still don't! What the hell am I supposed to say?" He stood still, saying in a more mocking voice, "'Oh, sorry for sleeping with you. I didn't know what overcame me, but something about you drew me to you, but turns out, not anymore! Not in that way! I guess I just really liked your body at the time!'"

Exasperated, Alan whirled back to Lyall, hands out like he was trying to plead with him, even though he didn't know what for. "Do you know how that looks, Lyall? Let's just give the romantic all the sex appeal! And let's pair him with the Heir of Aphirah and make this a tragic romantic comedy that ends with me being in a blacklist anywhere near that country!"

Following him out into the living room, Lyall stood by, waiting patiently as Alan paced. Then stepped closer again to look him in the eye.

"There are a million problems closing in on you," he said empathetically, "but we need to rewind just a second, alright?"

Alan moaned, throwing himself on the couch so he faceplanted on to the pillow. "Whatever," he said, voice muffled.

"...Alright," Lyall said. "For the record, none of us were ourselves that day. And that was only because the DMV had messed with our drinks."

The couch quietly shifted under an additional weight.

"You and Shane were both drugged," Lyall reiterated quietly. "You were both forced into that situation, which-- You need to understand how serious that is, Alan. And that it wasn't really you that night."

"I know. I know," Alan said, snapping his head back up, briefly getting on all fours on the couch. He felt too much like an animal, though, and instead opted to sit with his legs bent, knees brought to his chest as he ran his hand down his hair again. "I know. I told Shane that. And it was like... I don't know. He freaked out."

"Understandably," Lyall said, eyes sad. "Was he hurt by it?"

"Yes. He was." Alan sighed, hand waving in front of him, feeling slightly agitated again. "Do you see my dilemma now?"

Lyall tilted his head, brows knitting together. "Alan, were you hurt by it too?" he asked quietly.

Alan faltered, the agitation completely washing away as he contemplated this question. He fell back against the couch, wrapping his arms around his knees.

"No," he answered honestly, shaking his head. "No, it's nothing like that. It was a pleasant night, actually. There was no hurt involved on my end."

Calm, and quiet, Lyall pressed, "Are you sure?"

"I am," Alan said more sincerely. "I promise you, it was nothing like that. It was consensual. And I got to know Shane on a more intimate level, since we talked for hours. It was personal. Romantic. And--" Alan sighed, facepalming. "I don't need to go into detail, but I promise you, it was nothing like that. Don't think that I was held against my will, or that I'll look back on this day and hold regrets. I don't. If anything, it's the opposite. I'm not traumatized. I don't have any regrets. I just wish it wasn't all so weird afterwards."

With a slow nod, Lyall searched Alan's eyes for a silent moment.

"Alan," he said carefully, "why is it that you feel unsafe? Why react the way you have been, if all was well?"

Alan hesitated, glancing at him. "What do you mean?"

"You're..." Lyall shrugged with one hand. "Frankly, you haven't been very calm now that we've opened up the topic."

Calm? He wasn't calm?

... Well, maybe he had a point.

Alan sighed. "I can be calm."

"It's alright that you're not, though," Lyall murmured.

"I don't know why this matters," Alan murmured back.

The next look he received was a mix of confusion and affection as Lyall answered, "Because you matter."

Alan found himself staring at Lyall, at a complete loss for words as he processed what he said. He didn't even know what to say that.

"You keep dismissing yourself out of concern for Shane," Lyall went on gently. "But how you feel, and what you truly want, matters just as much."

Alan found himself burying his face in his hands again, suddenly feeling immensely exhausted. The lack of sleep hit him all at once, and he couldn't even remember how many hours of sleep he was running on. He wasn't an insomniac. He wasn't. He just had a lot to think about. And now it was like his body was finally shutting down thoughts, allowing him to rest.

A hand gingerly rested on Alan's shoulder, slowly tugging him forward until he was enveloped in warmth. Lyall wrapped both of his arms around Alan, and it took him some moments to realize that he was being hugged. After it occurred to him, Alan dropped his hands from his face, wrapping his own arms around Lyall's waist, perching his head on his shoulder.

Alan wasn't really big on hugs. He didn't mind them; they just didn't particularly make him feel better, even though he was aware that this often wasn't the case for others.

But it was nice, actually. To be hugged right now.

"You're really warm," Alan muttered, droopily hanging his head against his shoulder, taking a quiet deep breath as he gave him a squeeze.

Lyall hummed a soft laugh. "Don't tell anybody else. I'm only a personal space heater for important folks."

Important folks...

Sleep tugged on his eyes as Alan relaxed, letting the tension release from his body as he loosened his embrace around Lyall, but didn't pull away.

"I haven't slept the past three days," he mumbled.

Lyall idly rubbed small circles on Alan's back. "Yeah, I can tell."

There was a delay in answering as Alan closed his eyes, taking even breaths. "I'm getting really tired, though."

"You should rest, then," Lyall said, a gentle smile in his voice.

Alan had no clue if that was supposed to be his cue to get up and get to his bed. But frankly, Lyall was so warm, and his sweater was so comfortable, and his presence was so safe, that Alan didn't even want to leave.

If Lyall said anything else, Alan didn't hear it.


He could prove that he wasn't an insomniac.
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SilverNight says...

It was noon, and Cyrin didn't have plans for the rest of their day. They'd gotten up early to train, which had resulted in them also being done earlier, and they wished they hadn't dedicated so much of their schedule to training. The Oolympiks were important, but they were hardly what he was here for, and he was starting to feel like he needed more to do.

He hadn't gone to this island to prove a point to Casper, after all.

And so, Cyrin found himself pacing on the porch thinking over where to go next. He felt like talking to someone, someone he hadn't seen since the festival. It seemed like there was a lot of embarrassment going around, and now that it had been a couple days, he was sure people were processing the events and hoping their social lives weren't negatively affected.

Cyrin knew they'd been pretty lucky with their magic effect. Speaking only in archaic language, as bothersome as it had been to wonder why he'd gotten so many weird looks, was a lot better than a lot of the other enchantments.

He probably needed to catch up and debrief with someone about how they were doing. In terms of the people outside his cabin, he'd spoken more at length with Shane, Clanny, and Connie, but Connie was hard to find most days, and Shane... Had he even shown his face around the island since then? Cyrin felt bad for him.

So that left Clanny, who he'd been wanting to catch up with anyways.

He left the porch and ventured over to the cabin she shared with Eve, Clarity and Hild. Those three were also people he should see more of, honestly. Maybe they really did spend too much time training.

Cyrin was about to knock on the door when they got the idea to poke their head in the stable with a smile. Clanny was patting the top of Lolly's head. The alpaca's large poof of wool on its head bounced with each pat, and Clanny seemed greatly amused with herself, grinning and unaware of Cyrin's presence. Lolly, meanwhile, seemed unperturbed.

Cyrin wanted to awww over the cute fluffiness, but given that she didn't seem to have noticed him, he figured it was best to announce himself and then gush.

"Hey, Clanny," they said warmly, grinning at the scene. "How are you and Lolly doing?"

Clanny turned to Cyrin with a big, bright smile. "Oh! Cyrin!" she said, beaming. "Lilly and Lolly are doing great, actually! We've been chatting all morning."

"That's great," Cyrin said, smiling at the calm, very fluffy alpaca. "Are they doing alright in the heat? They're looking even woolier than the last time I saw them."

"They're hanging in there," Clanny said. "We were just talking about shearing, actually. The wool's getting to be a little much."

At that, she booped the top of Lolly's head again, and Lolly shook her head. Lilly poked her head out from the stall, looking curiously at Cyrin. She let out a little bleat-like noise, and Clanny laughed.

"She missed you, I think," Clanny said. "She says she likes you."

"Awww," Cyrin said with a laugh. "Is she alright with being petted? I missed her too."

"Oh, yeah! She likes pets," Clanny said, then turned to Lilly. "Cyrin's asking to pet you."

Lilly nodded her head a little, as if bobbing it, then quickly wandered out of the stall towards Cyrin, seeming eager to recieve affection.

Cyrin smiled as he ruffled the wool on the alpaca's head and neck, marveling at how soft and thick it was.

"They're so cute and sweet," he gushed.

Clanny grinned. "They're both very good," she said. Then looked at Lolly a bit teasingly. "Most of the time."

Lolly huffed at that, but leaned her head against Clanny's chest. Clanny laughed, hugging her neck loosely.

"Okay, okay," she said, then looked up at Cyrin. "Do you think you'd be up to help with shearing?"

Cyrin grinned excitedly. "Really? I would love to."

"Sweet!" Clanny said, pulling away from Lolly. "Okay, let me show you the tools and the basics. It's really not too complicated, it just takes a gentle, confident hand."

Cyrin nodded, following her over to a shelf of equipment, where Clanny removed two sets of electric shears and passed one to him. She demonstrated with Lolly, who Cyrin was beginning to guess was the fussier alpaca, from the way she took some persuading to let the shaver be near her. Carefully, Clanny sheared a clump of wool from the side of Lolly's neck, and after watching, Cyrin gently did the same with Lilly. It was funny to see that they had skin underneath all that wool.

"So, how's your week been treating you?" they asked, once they'd both gotten into the rhythm of shearing and were standing in a pile of wool that went up to their ankles. "Festival aftermath and all that?"

Clanny let out a little laugh and sigh.

"Ah. Well, I'm doing okay, now, I think," she said. "I had a pretty bad hangover the morning after, though. I drank way more than I usually do, so it took me a hot minute to bounce back. What about you?"

"Same, quite honestly," Cyrin admitted, even though it wouldn't have been that much alcohol for them once. "I had a headache for hours."

"Gosh, same," Clanny said. "And that morning was so weird for me, too. I got magically teleported to a studio and was interviewed for the morning show. I was still in my pajamas, too, which was honestly a little awkward. I felt so self conscious."

"Really?" Cyrin said, frowning sympathetically. "That's kind of rude of them. I don't see why they couldn't just make an appointment with you and bring you in at a time that you're ready for it."

"Yeah... I guess I didn't even think of that," Clanny said a little more absently, sitting beside Lolly so she could shear the alpaca's rear legs. "I've never really been interviewed before all of this."

Cyrin glanced her way as they carefully finished shearing Lilly's back, scanning her face.

"Was it alright?" they asked, a little more gently. "I know those can be uncomfortable. It's hard to feel like you're in control of the situation when they ask things you don't want to answer, or when you wish no one was wondering those questions in the first place."

Clanny was quiet for a moment, and she looked like she was recalling the interview with some distress. There was a resigned sadness in her eyes.

"Yeah," she said softly. "People are weird."

Cyrin's expression saddened a little too. "I'm sorry," he said gently, lowering the shaver for a moment. "You don't owe anyone the details about yourself and your life that you'd rather not share. It's unfair that they expect you to provide them anyway."

"I mean, I kind of lost respect for the DMV pretty soon after coming here," she said, a little more quietly. "Ever since what happened at that first party. So I guess I didn't really expect much respect in return. Not that the staff are mean, or anything. I know they're just doing their jobs."

Cyrin hummed in soft agreement. "There's a bit of a divide where some of the staff seem to be really trying their best, and others who don't care so much. Unfortunately, the ones who don't care seem to be above the ones who do, in terms of a hierarchy. It's upsetting."

"I mean, that's probably on purpose," Clanny said. "Right?"

"Probably," Cyrin said with a slight nod. "I figure that within a power structure like the DMV, those on top probably felt they had to step over others to get there. It makes sense that they'd have less respect for people."

"Yeah," Clanny said. "And we're on TV. They're going to do stuff they think will be entertaining, even if it's not that nice. The festival showed as much. It's kind of weird that the DMV feels like it's more about money and views than testing our powers, but I guess... well, I don't even know how they'd test mine anyway."

She sighed, finishing off Lolly's back legs. She patted Lolly's back as an indication she ws done, and Lolly eagerly got to her feet, leaving the giant pile of wool behind as the alpaca left the stable to go outside.

Cyrin went back to his shearing as he spoke. "I have a feeling they do have plans for us all," he said. "I just don't think that's a good thing, exactly, given how happy they are to meddle in our lives. So I feel more apprehensive than reassured."

"Can't say I'm looking forward to what's next either," she said, beginning to gather all of the fallen wool in a pile. "But I guess... they did give me an alpaca? Which is nice. I like Lilly and Lolly. I don't know if I'll get to keep all my new animal friends, though, after this."

"If they let you take them with you, would they have somewhere to go with you?" Cyrin asked, moving on to Lilly's only unshaven leg."

Clanny stared at the pile of wool in her hands.

"...Fair point," she said quietly. "Even if I move, I don't think I can afford to move somewhere with a backyard. I really don't make that much, honestly. I will when I've been doing monster hunting a little longer, but it's hard at the start."

Cyrin's expression softened as he watched her. Something like that shouldn't be an impossible desire.

"I think you're more than qualified to be a great monster hunter, Clanny," they said. "I'm sure you'll get there, too. Who knows, you could maybe find all your animal friends temporary homes until you're ready to welcome them into your own one day."

"Maybe," Clanny said with a weak smile. "Honestly, I'd have to sit down and figure out how to budget all that out. And then that affects my taxes, too. All the things you do as an adult."

"Are animals tax dependents in Nye?" Cyrin asked curiously.

"Yeah, it's weird like that," Clanny says. "Like, they don't tax household pets but anything under the farm animal or 'exotic animal' category is included. It's kinda complicated. They tell you what you owe but you have to be on top of registering everything."

Cyrin hummed, nodding as they absorbed the information. "That is strange. And not very helpful to someone who just wants to fill their home with feathered or furry friends."

"Yeah, well, there's probably a reason for it," Clanny said. "There's a lot of, uh, maybe more risky animals to have as pets on Nye, so I guess raising the bar for entry in a sense hopefully means people who actually want them will be more responsible pet owners or something."

"Which is sad, because you're predisposed to be the best, most responsible pet owner in Nye," Cyrin said, more lightly, as they set down the shears. Lilly looked a lot more... skinny without all the wool they were now standing in. Like a camel without the hump.

Clanny let out a genuine laugh.

"I guess I did get lucky that way, huh? It would suck if I had this power and hated animals," she said. "I'm glad it's not that way, though."

"Gosh, yeah," Cyrin said, with a laugh of their own. "That would be too much irony. It's much better that you get to have all these friends."

"So many!" Clanny said, throwing her hands up in the air with a smile. "You, of course, included."

Cyrin couldn't help but match the brightness of her smile, feeling touched. "Thank you," he said warmly. "You're a good friend to have, Clanny. I mean, who else would I be shearing soft fluffy alpacas with?"

"Definitely not Alan and Lyall, that's for sure," Clanny said, flopping her arms to her sides with a small giggle. "Lyall's sooooo awkward around animals and Alan's just clueless. Hild knows how to shear, now, but I don't think I've seen you guys talk much. She's nice, though. Definitely the more serious type, but she's a softie under all of it. I'm glad I get to live with her and got to meet her here."

"I should talk with her more," Cyrin said, chuckling. "We should unite the animal lovers on this island."

"Oh?" Clanny said, brightening. "Let me think of who those are. Hmm." Clanny began counting on her fingers. "I know Shane likes animals. He's got Shrimp, after all. And then there's Hild. You. James likes animals, too. You should've seen how cuddly he was with Buster! And... hm. Who else can you think of? I would say Robin, since we're friends. But I know him. He's not actually that fond of animals. It's a bit weird for him, being part wolf and all."

Cyrin let out a small laugh. "I heard about Robin's power. I actually really like wolves in particular, but-- you know, I figure it'd be kind of weird to approach him only for that reason. That would feel a little disrespectful."

"I mean, you can approach him anyway," Clanny said. "I don't think he'd find it offensive that you find him cool. Maybe just don't like, I don't know. Make it weird. Like ask him to howl or something."

Cyrin let out a small laugh. "I would not ask that, that's for sure."

"Oh!" Clanny burst out, lifting her finger. "Hendrik! I almost forgot Hendrik! He loves animals too. Especially his cat, Ham."

"Ham?" Cyrin asked, smiling. "I like all these cat names."

"Yeah, I guess people like naming their animals after food," Clanny said with a little laugh. "Even Lolly falls in to that category. Maybe Lilly does too, sort of. I mean, you can eat lillies."

"It's fun to see what names people choose for pets," Cyrin said. "Speaking of, did you name Lilly and Lolly, or did someone else do that? Did they name themselves?"

"Oh, they just told me those were their names," Clanny said. "They were the names their original owners gave them. I asked if they liked them, and they said yeah, so no need to change it. It's kind of like if someone asked me my name and I said Clanny, and they were like no I'll call you Emily instead. Like... why? You know?"

Cyrin let out a laugh. "That would be strange. Their original owner had a good idea when naming, them, I think."

"Yeah, I think it's cute," she said.

She got to her feet, picking up a big bag and throwing the wool in it.

"You almost done over there?" she asked. "Lilly seems comfortable with you, but she probably wants to get up soon."

"Oh, yes. Please tell her I'm sorry for keeping her," Cyrin said, unplugging the shaver and gathering up handfuls of wool as well.

Lilly shook her head, getting to her feet with a little "baa"-like noise. Kicking some of the wool away from her own feet, she walked out to join her sister in the pen.

"Someone's gonna need to start knitting all of this," Clanny murmured, holding the bag open for Cyrin. "We're going to have so much by the end of this. You wouldn't happen to have a loom, would you?"

"I don't," Cyrin said regretfully. "I don't know how to use one very well, either. My mother knew how to weave, but I never got around to learning."

"Maybe we can try to learn together!" Clanny said. "We should try to make a sweater. A really ugly sweater."

Cyrin chuckled. "It could have woolly alpacas on it."

"You're a genius!" Clanny said, continuing to hold the bag open to Cyrin could throw all the wool in. "An alpaca sweater. Or, consider, a sweater for an alpaca covered in alpacas."

Cyrin gasped excitedly as they put the wool in. "I'm considering. Okay, I like it."

Clanny smiled, laughing lightly for a moment before saying: "It's a plan then."
"silv is obsessed with heists" ~Omni

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soundofmind says...

Clanny knocked on the door of Tula's cabin, hoping that she was home. It was about noon, which was a time a lot of people tended to be out, but also was the peak of heat during the day, so sometimes people were escaping the humidity at home. She figured it was going to be a gamble either way, but she'd decided she couldn't delay this any more. A few days of processing was more than enough, and she wanted to clear the air between her and Tula after what happened at Ooktoberfest.

Alex was the one to answer the door, and he looked strangely a little haggard for the time, but she wasn't one to judge. Alex seemed to be a big night owl from what little she knew of him, so maybe it shouldn't be so surprising.

Holding a cup of coffee, Alex offered her a smile.

"Hello, Clandestine," he said. "Good to see you! What brings you to my door?"

"Oh!" Clanny said, her smile real, but admittedly a little nervous. "I wanted to see Tula, actually."

"Is that Clanny at the door?" Tula's voice came from inside.

"Yeah," Alex said over his shoulder. "Here to see you."

Alex stepped away from the door, retreating into the cabin. Clanny could see a little more of the interior format once he did so, and she recognized it was similar to her own cabin, just mirrored. She saw Tula coming out from behind the kitchen counter, and she offered Tula a small smile as Tula came to the door.

"Hey there. Nice of you to come by," Tula said with a smile of her own. "What's up?"

"I just wanted to talk to you about what happened at Ooktoberfest," Clanny said, deciding to jump right into it. "I wanted to apologize. I know nobody was feeling themselves that day, especially myself, and I'm sorry if our interaction made you uncomfortable. I know we don't know each other very well but I wanted you to know things are okay on my end. I just wanted to make sure you're okay, too. It was a really weird day."

Tula's expression remained focused with a hint of concern, and Clanny swore she saw the faintest eye twitch. She tilted her head, confused.

"Sorry, that day is kind of fuzzy for me. What are you referring to, exactly?" Tula asked with a sheepish laugh.

Oh gosh. That was right! What was Clanny thinking? They'd all gotten so drunk that day. Who was to say Tula even remembered everything that happened? Clanny suddenly felt bad for even assuming.

"Oh!" Clanny said. "No, that's totally okay. Lots of it was kinda blurry for me too. But there was a really brief moment where you came over to me and asked for a kiss. It was really brief, but consensual! So please don't like, freak about that or anything."

Tula's eyes went wide. "A kiss?" she repeated quietly. "We kissed?"

"I know! It's so weird, I'm sorry," Clanny said with an empathetic smile. Man, she felt bad that Tula didn't even remember, now!

"No, no, no. That can't be right," Tula said, pinching her brows together as she gripped on the door frame tighter. "I've been saving my first kiss for my one true love. We couldn't have done that. We couldn't have kissed."

Awh, man. That meant they were both in the same boat! Clanny understood why Tula wouldn't want to believe it, though. Especially if she wasn't feeling like herself that day.

"I know it's hard to believe," Clanny said. "When I remembered everything I didn't feel right about it either."

"I did see you guys kissing in the middle of the festival," Alex spoke up from across the room.

Tula gasped, sharply turning around with hurt in her eyes. "Alex, why didn't you tell me?" she asked with a wavering voice.

"I figured you remembered," Alex said. "Sorry, Tula."

"But you knew I remembered nothing that day. How could you?" Tula went on.

Alex, sitting at the kitchen table with his mug, gave Tula a very strange, tired look as he sipped his coffee.

Something about this felt... weird. Clanny wanted to believe Tula was being genuine, but even she could feel like something about all of this felt performative.

Was Tula mad at her?

"Sorry," Alex said. "I was preoccupied with other things."

Tula pressed her lips together as she turned back to Clanny, looking conflicted as her jaw tennsed up. "Is that all? Did you come here to taunt me?"

Clanny frowned.

"No, not at all," Clanny said, softer. "I'm sorry you had to find out this way. I get it if you don't want to talk about it, though."

"Get out of my sight. I don't want to see you again," Tula said coldly, slamming the door in her face.

Clanny stood there, blinking a few times in shock as she stared at the closed door.

She couldn't really figure out how she was supposed to feel.

Bad? Guilty? Ashamed?

And yet, all she really felt was confused. Tula was being strange. One moment, she was friendly, and the next, she went cold and calloused. And then there was the weird thing with her and Alex, too. Alex made it sound like Tula remembered things, but Tula insisted she didn't.

It didn't make much sense.

Frowning, Clanny stepped off the porch.

She guessed she'd have to make it up to Tula again.
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soundofmind says...

The night after the cabin was rearranged and cleared of bugs, James couldn't even fall asleep. For hours, he tossed and turned, tired enough not to get up, but too awake in his mind to rest. It felt like last year all over again. For days after his imprisonment, he'd been sleepless. The compounded stress of the world looking at his life and tearing it apart along with the exposure of the entire Moonlight Kingdom army was enough to keep him from ever resting. But now, it felt like an insult that the things keeping him awake felt so comparatively small.

Face in his bed, James groaned lowly, checking the clock for the tenth time that night, aggrieved to see that it was almost 4am, and he still couldn't fall asleep.

Finally deciding to give up, James forced himself out of bed, put on his running shoes and a new shirt and shorts, and he went running. This time, up to the plaza, in hopes that keeping away from the wild jungle would help him avoid any more run-ins with monsters.

Fortunately, he didn't see any. But he did see one of the shops had been broken into and now had construction cones and caution tape over it, blocking it off from public access. He hoped he hadn't led the creature to too much trouble, but he also hadn't even begun to think through the consequences of something like that existing on the island.

Surely the DMV was aware of something like that existing on the island. They would've combed the island before anyone came here.

James knew that, if anything, they were the ones who brought it here.

Racing back to his cabin, he kept the run shorter this time, and he crawled back into his room, still buzzing with anxious energy, building in his chest. A new punching bag had replaced the former - a cycle he was becoming used to, as it was one of the lesser of the bizarre occurences happening to him - and he got the stress out that way.

At least, for the time being.

He made breakfast early, making a bunch of eggs and pancakes from a mix that had just been restocked (as it was with all of their food, being mysteriously restocked). He made everything in bulk, but his appetite was even larger than normal, so even with everything he made, it all ended up in his stomach.

Shane came down when James was just about done cleaning up, but James had started coffee for him like he usually did. Shane helped himself to a cup while James was drying dishes, and the two of them coexisted peacefully in the kitchen. Connie passed through as well, giving his usual silent acknowledgement before leaving for the day with all of his art supplies on his back.

James was hoping that they'd hear back from Eve on Clarity's solution for the skin dye by morning, but he was trying not to have too much hope in it.

He wanted to believe the dye would fade eventually, as all skin cells eventually died off and shed. But it might take a while if he had to wait for it to occur naturally.

While he was finishing up setting dishes on the drying rack, he felt a sudden gurgle in his stomach.

It started slowly, but very quickly built up, and with a dreaded knowing, his eyes widened as it occurred to him he was going to need to go to the bathroom.

Very. Soon.

Not wanting to waste time, James abandoned the pan he held in the sink and darted up the stairs. He heard Shane faintly squeak in confusion behind him, but he didn't pause to explain.

James skidded into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him as he ran for the toilet, barely making it in time before he couldn't hold it anymore.

It was the most bizarre feeling ever.

He couldn't feel the pain of it, but he knew it was there. His body was starting to tremble, going so far as to get sweaty from the strain of sudden, dramatic indigestion.

Good grief, what was happening now?

Head in his hands, James had a feeling this was going to take quite a while to pass.
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SilverNight says...

Shane stared at the coffee in his mug for a few minutes, wondering if it was the reason for James's sudden departure.

Caffeine was a diuretic, right? But... not that much of one.

After a few seconds, he cautiously took a sip. It didn't seem to kill him, so he took another.


He wasn't sure how long he stood in the kitchen, mug in hand, staring blankly at whatever was in front of him. What finally brought him out of his trance, however, was the sound of a knock at the door.

Tiredly, Shane left the kitchen, opening the door while still holding his coffee.

It was Eve. She stood up straighter, hands behind her back.

"Hi, Shane. I wanted to come by to see you, actually. And also check on James," she said, going straight to the point.

Shane nodded, slowly at first, then a little more assertively.

"Hey, Eve. Come on in," he said, moving out of the way and glancing upstairs. "James might be a moment."

Eve stepped in, hovering near the door as she also glanced upstairs. "I'm sorry about yesterday. I shouldn't have yelled at you. We were all stressed, and I shouldn't have taken it out on you. I'm sorry."

Shane's expression-- which he was realizing must have been a little stony-- softened a little. "Oh, it's okay," he said quietly, a bit surprised. "You were probably right anyway. I should've just gotten to work."

"It wasn't about being right. It was about being mindful." Eve sighed, looking down to quietly slip out of her shoes. "It was a really stressful time for everyone involved-- especially you, because of your magic. You needed support, not someone yelling at you. I apologize for that. The last thing you needed is more stress."

Shane shook his head. "It really was fine. It didn't make anything worse."

There was a short, tense pause as Eve
moved her hands to the front, revealing a jar of white lotion. "Clarity finished her solution. This should help with removing the last of the dye on James's skin."

Shane leaned over to give it a look. It seemed... pretty unassuming in appearance, but he wasn't about to make judgements.

"Having the bath bombs helped, then?" he asked.

Eve nodded. "It did. I'm not sure exactly what she did with it, but it took some time to essentially reverse engineer. I'm sure it's no surprise to you that the bath bombs were imbued with magic." Eve held the lotion up a little higher, offering it for Shane to take. "Hopefully this is enough to remove the disastrous magic effect on him."

Shane took the jar, holding it up to the light and lowering it with a nod. "Got it. Thanks, Eve. Can you send my thanks to her as well?"

Eve nodded. "Of course. I'd be happy to."

There was another tense pause as Eve kept her focus on him, like she was debating in her head whether to say something more or not.

"Are you sure you're okay?" she finally blurted out. "It's alright if you're not. You don't have to hide it."

Shane blinked. "Me? I'm okay."

Eve furrowed her brows. "Are you?" she pressed in a disbelieving voice.

Shane frowned. "Yes?" The word was somewhere between a statement and a question.

"You don't sound so sure," Eve went on.

"I--" Shane inhaled sharply, rubbing at his face. "I'm okay, Eve. Thank you."

But Eve didn't believe him.

"It really is okay to not be okay," she said, frowning as well as she crossed her arms. "It was only yesterday that panic was high as we removed all the bugs in this cabin. And with everything going on here, it's understandable to feel like you have no control, and you're only a pawn in the grand system. I just..." She sighed. "I want to help. I know we are still getting to know one another, but I don't mind helping. You're not alone. You have allies. Remember that."

"I know," Shane said weakly, feeling pained as he covered his face with his hands. "I appreciate it, especially with the bugs. I want to help you as well. Not everything on this island can be helped with, though. There's..." He shook his head helplessly, his face still buried in his hands.

"Hope," Eve finished for him, rubbing her thumb against her forearm. "We're not doomed here. We'll be okay. You will be okay. Maybe it doesn't feel okay now, but the feeling will pass. Maybe not everything on this island can be helped, but that list doesn't include you."

Shane smiled, just barely, even though the hope didn't feel that bright. It was an instinctive pulling back of his lips more than anything else.

"Maybe," he said quietly, slowly pulling his hands away from his face. "We'll see."

Eve studied him, slowly unfolding her arms. "Do you mind if I stay here with you?" she asked.

Shane took a moment to nod. Not because he was hesitant, but because he was surprised.

"Of course you can," he said.

"I can take care of James. You've had a lot going on lately. I think you should rest, or at least try to," Eve said, voice more gentle.

Shane furrowed his brow, setting the jar aside. "You've had a lot going on too," he said. "That wouldn't be fair."

"Shane, it's alright," Eve assured quickly, taking the jar and holding it with both hands. "It's not about fairness. It's about doing what's right. And what's right is you resting."

Shane closed his eyes, not trying to hide from himself or anyone else how weary he felt now.

"Are you sure?" he asked quietly.

"Positive." Eve glanced at the kitchen. "Have you eaten yet?"

Shane looked around for his mug of coffee, picking it up again. "I've had this."

Eve made her way to the kitchen, opening the cabinet to take out a plate. "I can bring you something to your room. No need to wait for me."

Shane hesitated, not quite moving yet. "Eve..." he started to say, trying to express without words that she didn't need to do this.

"It's alright. It's really no big deal," Eve assured a bit more forcefully. "Please. Get some rest, Shane. Let me take care of this."

Again, Shane paused for a moment longer, before deciding she wasn't going to back down. He gave her another bare hint of a smile.

"Thank you, Eve," he said quietly. "It means a lot."

"Of course. Glad to help," Eve said, taking out an apple and a knife. She waved Shane away, shooing him with her hand. "Now go, before I resort to commanding an Heir to rest."

Very quietly, Shane laughed. "I'll be on my way."

As he took the mug of coffee with him upstairs, he did pause in front of the bathroom door, which was closed.

"Hey, James?" he said. "Eve is here with a new product from Clarity. It's ready whenever you'd like it."

A long delay.

"Okay," James finally said. But he sounded... strained.

"Are you okay?" Shane asked. "You left pretty fast."

Another long pause.

"Just having... irregular bowel movements," James answered, barely audible through the door.

Shane winced. "No need to rush, then."

"Okay," was all James said in reply.

Shane decided any further conversation would be awkward, not to mention possibly difficult for James, so he stepped back, heading into his room.

"Hey," he said quietly to Shrimp, as the cat came padding up to him. "There's someone downstairs who likes you. You can go see her if you like."

Whether or not he understood, the cat let out a soft purr, letting Shane scratch behind his ears before slinking out the door. With a quiet sigh through his nose, Shane closed up behind Shrimp.

Rest. Here went nothing.
"silv is obsessed with heists" ~Omni

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

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

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Fri Nov 24, 2023 9:33 pm
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soundofmind says...

James flushed his system with water, but after his body finally calmed down, he just felt... nothing.

No hunger, no aching, no nausea, no nothing. What had at first been an inability to feel pain had intensified to an inability to feel much of anything. His body just felt numb.

Sitting on the couch, James stared vacantly at the wall as he pet Shrimp, who sat in his lap. He couldn't even feel the texture of Shrimp's fur. He wasn't sure how much time had passed as he sat there, wondering what the hell was happening to his body.

The cure for his "pink-ness" was waiting for him in the bathroom, but he, frankly, needed a moment outside of the bathroom, since he'd spent the entire morning inside of it.

He needed to recover.

There was a knock at the door.

James didn't register at first. He didn't know who it could be, since Eve had already gone home for the day, and he wasn't expecting anyone else. Already on edge and wary, James flicked his eyes to the front door, narrowing his eyes, trying to run through all of the possibilities in his head before he got up.

In order of likelihood: it could be Eve again, maybe Alan to see Shane, or possibly one of the Ashlunds. More likely, it was Tula, but he had a feeling she knew he wouldn't open the door for her. Unless she just planned to taunt him again.

James gently picked Shrimp up off his lap, sad to move the cat after it had gotten comfortable for some time. With a whispered apology, he watched as Shrimp refused to be abandoned, and jumped back onto him, climbing his side.

Unsurprisingly, James couldn't feel the cat's little claws snagging his shorts and shirt. He scooped up the cat, cradling him in one arm, and then approached the door on light feet. He didn't want to give away that anyone was home on the chance it was someone he didn't want to see, but when he squinted through the peep-hole he was a bit surprised to see it was Hild.

A sting of guilt bit at him. He knew he'd neglected to communicate or show up for their regular morning runs. If he'd had a phone he would've sent a message, but with only word of mouth to rely on, he hadn't found the courage to go meet her in person. Understandably, that was more than enough to warrant worry on her part, and he understood why she was at his door.

He just wasn't looking forward to having to explain his, er... situation.

Glancing down at his pink hand holding Shrimp, he thought about staying silent and not responding. He didn't think about it for long, but it did pass through.

Biting his lip, he decided to buck up and talk to her.

He opened the door.

"Hey," he said, feeling like he'd forgotten how to hold a conversation.

"Hullo," Hild replied simply. Her brow twitched inward, but that was really the only visible indication that she was noting his current condition. She cleared her throat and tried softening her tone a bit as she went on, "I... was concerned that you missed our runs the past few days. I don't hold any ill will toward you for it, of course, and actually hope you spent that time resting. But..."

She more obviously looked him over now, but didn't expound.

"I didn't," James found himself saying.

A beat.

"I've had an interesting few days," he said. "I'm sorry I didn't send word to you that I wasn't going to make it."

"It's alright," she said with understanding in her gaze, "really. You don't exactly have the convenience of instant messaging like the rest of us at your disposal."

Another pause.

"Interesting how?" she asked, tilting her head ever so slightly with a mix of curiosity and worry.

James hesitated, trying to think of where to even begin. He glanced over his shoulder, and then nodded his head for her to come inside, where there was hopefully more privacy now that the bugs were gone - at least, for now. Casting a backward glance over her own shoulder to the cabins outside, Hild obliged and followed him inside.

James shut the door behind her.

"Sorry," he said, keeping his voice low by the door. "I'm not a fan of prying eyes."

He'd already had the blinds shut, not wanting his pink appearance to be broadly broadcast more than it already had. He found his way over to the couch furthest inward of the room, away from the walls, and clear of any bugs. Even though they'd checked the room over, when they'd put things back, he checked again. And after Shane left to rest upstairs, James checked again.

This room should be clear. Hopefully. Please.

James plopped on the end of the couch, wishing he had it in him to be more of a host, or to try and make Hild more comfortable. But he already felt so tense and tired, and when the couch creaked beneath his weight, he let out a long sigh.

Leaning forward with his arms crossed over his knees, he looked at the floor, letting Hild find her own way to where she wanted to sit. Lingering by the door for just a second longer, Hild scanned the room. Then took even, measured steps to the armchair adjacent to the couch.

James rubbed his face with one hand, running his fingers over his brows. Hild probably noticed that nothing in the cabin was where it once was. They'd managed to clean and tidy everything up again so it looked normal, but nothing was quite where they remembered it. That probably only left Hild with more questions.

"You..." Hild looked him over once more. "...look unwell, to be perfectly candid."

James slowly dragged his eyes up off the floor, meeting her eyes.

"And I'm not," she quietly added, "just referring to the color."

"Is it my bare face or the dull light in my eyes?" he asked.

She pursed her lips. "Yes."

"Well. You're observant as always," James said, looking down at himself briefly. He pulled out the bottom hem of his shirt, rereading the slogan on it, since he actually hadn't paid attention to what he put on.

He'd thrown it on in a frenzied panic when Eve knocked on the door that morning. He was in a hurry to get out of his bloodied one, after all. Now, however, he was wearing a shirt that said: "Hang in There." With a cat, hanging on a tree branch.

Quaint. Life had a sense of humor.

Hild folded her hands in her lap as she looked at him expectantly.

"Yesterday I got a gift on my front door addressed to me from Mel," James said. "I got another gift today from her as well. The first was, in fact, not from her, but likely from someone else in the DMV impersonating her. I ran into her on my way our from your cabin, and she said she'd send a 'care package.' That included a bath bomb, and facemasks."

He didn't feel like embellishing the story, so he proceeded to point at the pink skin on his exposed knee.

"Bath bomb," he said.

Then he pointed to his face.

"Face mask," he said. "The real thing came today - supposedly. But I'm not taking my chances."

Angling her head slightly to the side, Hild's brow furrowed as she took this in. "Someone is actively targeting you."

James blinked slowly.

"Yeah," he said. "Since day one."

She narrowed her gaze just barely as she mulled it over. "...So this isn't an isolated display of lingering scorn," she slowly furthered. "There have been others?"

James took a moment to take in a deep breath, considering how to proceed from here. Thus far, only Shane and Eve were wholly in the know of everything that had gone on, and even of recent events he hadn't had a chance to fully disclose details. Frankly, he wasn't sure if he should divulge more any time soon, considering that Shane seemed shut down, and it sent Eve into a tailspin. He still wasn't sure what she hoped to accomplish by disappearing, but he could only assume she meant to take action. When they last spoke of an action plan, she seemed dissatisfied with anything that didn't create a verifiable solution. James was less convinced that wholly avoiding pain and discomfort was possible, so he wanted to focus his efforts less on "stopping" everything and more on adapting and support of those around him.

He could imagine Eve might've stormed off with intentions to use her past connection with Oliver, but he couldn't see it ending well. Part of him wished he could've followed Eve to convince her to avoid risking the entirety of her future livelihood on the chance of his temporary comfort, but he had a strong feeling nothing was going to stop her. Whatever it was she'd planned to do, she set her mind to it. James just hoped she'd be okay, and prepared to face the consequences.

He wished he could've done more.

James glanced at Hild, sincerely wondering just how invested she was willing to get. He didn't want to drag her into this mess if she wanted out. She was already one foot in by this point, but it wasn't too late to cut ties with him if she'd rather think about herself and her family - which he wouldn't blame her for.

Her expression stayed even as she stared back expectantly at him.

"I believe," he started slowly, after what must've been an uncomfortable pause on her end. "That there's much I still have yet to tell you, Miss Hild, and I'd be remiss to not inform you that such information is sensitive. Not just because it involves private matters, but because your involvement could put you at risk. I don't mean to sound ominous, but I want to be fair. I've greatly appreciated your friendship and company thus far, but you are by no means obligated to stick your neck out for me with the DMV."

He took in a deep breath and sat up a bit straighter, meeting her eyes.

"This is my warning," he said. "As I give you an out, if you'd like to take it. And I sincerely will take no offense if you do so."

Her brows knitted together as she frowned with concern at him. She silently studied him for a long moment, looking at a complete loss for words. Then finally squared her shoulders and firmly asked, "What the hell is happening with you?"

So, she wanted to open that can of worms. James looked down at his hands, holding them now between his knees. He idly wrung them, trying to hide his flesh-colored thumb from her view, aware that it'd stand out against all of the pink.

It felt like it'd be tonally innapropriate to start with 'well, they haven't tried to kill me yet,' but even that wasn't entirely true. It was and it wasn't. He'd been shot in the heart, and he and Tula both knew that wouldn't kill him, but it still should've been a deadly blow.

Where to start?

"I have reason to believe I've made Oliver an enemy," James said. "And that may be the reason an exceptional amount of misfortune has happened to me, disproportionate to everyone else that I'm aware of. I've come to learn that Oliver is a very petty man and that Maeve cares little for the well-being of others. This DMV was advertised as a vacation, but they said we would still be tested. I'm beginning to think that the tests are more psychological in nature."

A pause.

"For... most of us," he said.

Hild looked him over again, a flash of concern in her eyes. "And...you think yours are leaning toward psychological?"

James pressed his lips into a line, realizing there might've been... quite a lot, actually, that he'd neglected to discuss with her in clarity.

"I only assume this," she went on, "because I fail to see how they can actually test..." She pursed her lips as she glanced off. "...bones."

Right. He'd forgotten to mention his main magic, hadn't he? That was just like him, wasn't it, to avoid talking about it when possible.

"There's more to my magic than that," he said slowly.

She curiously arched a brow.

"My body rapidly regenerates," James said. And then, more carefully, added: "Bones included."

Her expression turned...deeply troubled as she seemed to draw the next, most natural conclusion.

"What have they done to you?" she asked, tone quiet and serious.

James grew a bit more nervous under her unwavering stare, knowing that he was going to have this conversation, but still nervous for how she'd respond. So far, it felt like all he'd managed to do was drag Shane and Eve into his problems, putting them in mental spaces where they were worse off than before.

He was trying to keep from believing that telling others was for the best. He knew he needed people in his corner. He just hated having to, for lack of better terms, moderate everyone's reactions to his often more-dramatic-than-he-ever-wanted life circumstances.

Still hiding his flesh-colored thumb from view, he stared down at his hands.

"Things hadn't gotten physically violent until recently," James said evenly. "Unless you count being restrained in that category."

Another beat of silence passed between them.

The armchair creaked quietly as Hild got to her feet. She padded closer, and the couch subtly sank beneath her weight as she slowly took the space beside him.

"Does anyone else know?" she asked, softening her voice.

"Shane and Eve know most of it," James said quietly, still staring down at his hands. "But less about... the past two days."

With a moment's hesitation, Hild reached out a hand, open palm facing up in silent invitation to hold. James stared down at her hand for a moment, hesitating.

It would make sense to take her hand with his right hand, since she'd sat on his right. But that was the hand that had the mismatched skin on his thumb. She'd have questions, and he'd have to explain the one thing he'd wanted to avoid, even more than the torture, or the drug that was still coursing through his body, numbing his senses from feeling pain, and even dulling any sense of touch.

His heart began to beat a little faster, the anxiety creeping in as the seconds dragged on painfully, and James could sense Hild's patience was turning to worry. He couldn't say which direction the worry went.

Stiffly, and with a small tremor, he pulled his right hand out from under his left. Swallowing down the nerves, he wrapped his hand around hers, trying not to squeeze it too hard.

Then resting her other hand over his, gently enveloping it in warmth, Hild's expression softened completely as she trained her gaze on his face. "You are under no obligation to share anymore than you're comfortable with," she murmured, "but don't feel like you have to withhold anything either."

James didn't know that he'd been longing to hear those words from someone until Hild said it. There was a strange, pained sort of relief that ached in his chest, and he found he couldn't hold eye contact any more than a second. He stared down at their hands, aware of her thumb's gentle movement over his knuckles, even if he could hardly feel it.

He wanted to say something, but also wanted to take a moment to collect himself.

Closing his eyes, he turned his face away, nodding faintly. Thankfully, Hild said nothing more, letting him gather his thoughts - but more importantly, push the emotions down enough so he could actually talk about it with a level head.

Turning back to her, he let out a small sigh.

"I trust that you won't discuss this with others," he said quietly. "Aside from Shane or Eve, if the need arises."

"You have my word," Hild answered firmly.

"Thank you," James said. And, after briefly biting his lower lip, he gently pulled his hand out of hers, returning it to his lap.

"It might be most useful to start from the beginning. I have a tendency to nutshell in a succinct manner, but if you have any questions after, I don't mind," he said. "But it'd be nice if you didn't interrupt, just so I don't lose my train of thought."

"Of course," she said with understanding. "Please, proceed then."

James nodded, feeling more mentally prepared for this, and hoping he wasn't making a mistake.

"It all started after I punched Oliver," James said. "But I can see back to moments even before that where I'd already begun to do things I wasn't 'supposed to.' For example: encouraging Clandestine to wear the shirt mocking Oliver, or telling you and Lyall about your mutual existence on the island prematurely. For the latter, I'd been pelted with acorns as punishment. Comical, in hindsight, but bizarre at the moment. On occasion I've had one or two pelt me while I'm on runs, for no apparent reason. No squirrels in sight."

"As for the increasingly troublesome events that followed, many of them intersected. That night, I was stuck in a cell with Stravos, whom I think most of the island now knows as the mind-reader. His accuracy, however, is poor, so he's more a nuisance than anything. After a whole night with him, the only useful information I got out of him was that he was obsessed with a woman named Tula."

He looked to Hild meaningfully. Her expression remained neutral, save for a slight twitch of her lip and a flash of...something almost disdainful in her eyes.

"The next day, Tula arrived. She claimed to have been late because of health reasons. A 'surgery' and recovery. But she was not previously on the public contestant list until day two.

"That following day, about half of the contestants were here in this cabin; Tula included. Near the end of that party, she went out of her way to find me alone. She gave me a note that had a threat written on it, but the message soon disappeared into something innocuous. Wanting to confirm what I saw, I asked Shane to use his magic to see the note's history. He said that for the first time with any object, he wasn't able to get any read on the note.

"Since then, Tula has personally cornered, trapped, and threatened me several times. On more than one occasion she's leveraged the safety and stability of those around me to coerce me into submission or silence. She's only done so when we're alone, and though I've made it my aim not to be alone with her in private, she's still found backdoor ways, using the DMV's resources. I'm convinced she is working with them and was hired by the Trieu's to cause trouble, but specifically to cause trouble for me.

"I've endured other difficulties of lesser intensity, but the peaks of conflict have always involved Tula," James said.

James hesitated, knowing that he was still being quite vague, and avoiding many details. He was giving the overarching theme, but he hadn't yet told anyone the full details of when Tula had trapped him - the first time, in his own home, and the second, in a room made for torture.

He fiddled with his hands, nervously rubbing his discolored thumb, trying to think of what else to say that wouldn't cause great alarm. But the truth was, everything should've been alarming. He was just desperately trying to cope.

"The other day, uh..." he started quietly, staring at his hand. "I was transported somewhere underground. Tula was there, angry because she was convinced I was the one who drugged her at the festival for no logical reasons besides that she couldn't accept the fact the DMV had treated her like everyone else. Coerced into false admission, I was bound to a chair, and..."

He bit his lip, trying to numb the helpless panic his mind wanted to relive.

"She almost drowned me," he said, barely audible.

A long pause followed.

"Almost," he added, eyes losing focus. "And then... she shot me once. I couldn't feel a thing. I don't know what was in the water. But I still can't feel pain, even now."

He closed his eyes.

"...That's all," he said softly as a cue that he was done.

He waited quietly for her to respond, accepting it might be a while.

There was a storm of emotions in Hild's eyes as she silently picked through every new piece of information.

"For how long have you been numb?" she eventually asked.

"About a day and a half, now," he said quietly.

She hummed, brows furrowing with open concern. "Any working theories as to how this is?"

"I can think of natural drugs that numb pain, but none that are so long-lasting," he said. "I can only guess that it's magically enhanced, but I was never well taught in the subject."

Hild nodded, glancing off to the side now. She bit her lip as she thought, then said slowly, "My brother is better-versed in the subject than I. Perhaps he could be of help?"

James hesitated. It wasn't that he didn't think Lyall could be trustworthy. There was just not enough reason think he would reliably be trustworthy going forward. Lyall was well-meaning in many ways, but James was already taking risks involving Shane, Eve, and Hild. Clarity was involved indirectly, now, and pulling someone else into everything felt overwhelming. It was another variable, and Lyall wasn't a variable he felt like he could predict.

"It's fine if you'd rather not," Hild added gently, "since you two haven't spent as much time together yet. I can do the research myself."

"I may seek out Clarity personally, if this persists," James said. "But... I'll give it another 24 hours. If it resolves on its own, I'd rather not make more waves than necessary."

She tilted her head with her lips pursed again, looking like she disagreed with this plan, but relented, "Very well. Please let me know by then if it's worsened or subsided, though, that way I might be able to better pinpoint potential sources."

James nodded. He held his hands together between his knees, squeezing them a little tighter.

"Thank you," he said quietly.

Inclining her head, Hild offered a quick, close-lipped smile. "I thank you," she murmured, "for...trusting me."

James glanced over to her, only briefly meeting her eyes as he weakly offered a quick hint of a smile in return.

"Thanks for being trustworthy," he said in return.

With a soft hum of acknowledgment, Hild averted her eyes to look down at the floor. A lull of silence passed once more, and James found himself feeling weary the longer he sat still.

"Your hand," Hild eventually said, breaking the long silence. She gestured up and down at James. "Your...thumb. I've noticed the discrepancy in hue and...texture."

James stared at his hand, slowly bringing the thumb back into view. It was a completely reasonable question. James just wasn't proud of his answer.

"Because my skin rapidly regenerates," James said slowly. "I thought I could solve the issue on my own."

He had to actively suppress the shame that fought to silence him. He pressed his lips together as he turned his arm, revealing the small patch of normal skin on his forearm that he'd had hidden from view.

"It grew back normal," he said quietly. "But... I knew it wasn't a real solution..."

Trailing off, he hoped that Hild understood what he was trying to say without him having to spell it out.

After a second's delay, Hild sadly sighed, "Oh, James," and brushed her fingertips to his forearm as she studied it closely.

James froze a bit, not sure what to say. She'd already looked worried from the start, but now the expression only deepened, and he wasn't sure if he regretted telling her or not.

Withdrawing her hand, Hild tightly folded her hands together in her lap. "If there's anything else I can do to help, please don't hesitate to...reach out. Let me know."

James nodded again, only once.

"Alright," he said quietly. "I will."

And as someone who determined to never say anything he didn't mean, he really would.

"Good," she said, sounding a little more awkward now as she nodded once as well.

James knew that this was a natural breaking point for the conversation, but he didn't really know where else to take it from here. He sensed Hild didn't, either. So James took a shot in the dark.

"I can," he began. "Uh. Join you tomorrow morning again, if you'd like. I guess it doesn't make sense to hide from you anymore now that you've already seen what I look like."

"Ah." Hild nodded. "Though that would be nice, yes, you're under no obligation to. Your body is... likely isn't quite at its best at the moment."

James glanced back at her.

"I think it'd be nice to have some stability," he said, softer. "Even if it's something small, like routine."

Hild's eyes sparked with understanding. She softly smiled and said, "I look forward to it, then." Then paused before adding, "I, ahm, hope you don't mind running with a third person."

James blinked.

"Who?" James asked.

"Alvaro," she said with a small shrug. "It...happened unexpectedly while you were..." She waved small vague circles at James.

"Turning pink," James finished for her.

"Turning pink," Hild quietly echoed. "I can rearrange things, though, if that would be more comfortable. And it was originally..." With another hand wave, she let the last thought drop.

James sighed. He didn't have many fond feelings towards Alvaro at the moment because of how Alan's relationship with Shane was affecting Shane behind closed doors. But he also knew he didn't know the full story, and he couldn't make too many assumptions just yet. There was a lot he still didn't know about Alan, and if Hild was friends with him, maybe there was something she saw that he hadn't yet.

James wasn't the type to be petty. He could be grown. It wasn't a big deal to have another running partner. Besides, they'd be running, not chatting the whole way, anyway.

"I don't mind," he said. "It's fine with me."

Hild allowed herself a small grin. "Alright," she said. "I'll be sure to inform him before then, that way we're all on the same page."

"Sounds good," James said, managing a small grin in return.

And yet another lull passed, and in the few seconds of silence, James had a feeling that Hild was unlikely to get her bearings herself by means of driving conversation. Understanding that the ball was left in his court, he knew he had to give her an out, so she didn't feel obligated to stay.

"I know you came all this way to check on me," he said after the pause. "And I'm grateful for it. But I don't want to keep you long, if you've other responsibilities or needs to tend to."

"'Responsibilities' is a rather strong word for anything to do here," Hild replied, looking grateful that he took intitiative and broke the short silence first. She glanced him over with one last look of concern. "I don't mind keeping you company, though, if you'd prefer it."

James hummed.

"I wouldn't mind it," he said, smiling faintly. "Though I can't say I have much capacity to host at the moment, maybe I could grab you a book to read? I've been meaning to catch up on some reading myself."

Her eyes lit up at the suggestion. "What of the children's rabbit book about war that you mentioned?"

James raised his brows. "Ah. Yes! I do have that upstairs," he said, getting to his feet. "I'll grab that for you, then. Is there anything else I can get you while I'm up? Food? Tea?"

Hild grinned softly at him. "No need to host, Mister James," she said. "I'd much rather you rest right now."

James smiled, just barely.

"Alright," he said, relaxing a bit more. "I'll grab that book for you then."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Mon Nov 27, 2023 4:17 am
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urbanhart says...

Shay had promised that she'd take the next battery check around the island, after Ethan's insistence that Caspar rest.

Caspar found it hard to argue with them. Mostly because he could hardly get a word in edgewise once the two were off on one of their silly tangents. He didn't mind, honestly, he actually found it really amusing. It wasn't like he had anything of value to say anyhow, so.

Anyway. It ended up not mattering because, as soon as Caspar had come to terms with the concept of a midday nap, Shay was called away for coffee shop duty. And Ethan was already gone to help with studio maintenance.

This was fine. Caspar didn't really want to sleep anyway. The day was too nice to spend inside.

Calling for Hugo, he ducked into the kitchen to grab some water before he went. Then slowed to a stop on his way when he caught sight of freshly-baked cookies piled onto a wide platter.

Oh, that's right! He did hear Bo baking earlier.

Hugo trotted in, then took a sit on the floor beside him. Caspar looked down to the dog and asked, "You think Miss Eve likes chocolate chip cookies?"

Hugo blinked up at him.

Caspar grinned. "It's been a bit since you last saw her, huh?"

The shepherd dog tilted his head with a huffed, expectant bark.

Shrugging, Caspar dug around the kitchen drawers for a take-out box, and paper and pen for another note.

"Hey, Cas," he heard Dante greet him, as he entered the kitchen. The grounds manager rifled through the pantry, presumably in search of some snack. "How's it going?"

"Dante," Caspar greeted with a bright smile. "A little tired, but alright." He closed the drawers in front of him, then knelt down to dig through the lower cabinets. "Any new projects?"

"Just another sea painting," Dante said warmly, taking out a granola bar and tearing open the wrapper. "The clouds were nice today."

"Oh, nice!" Caspar said over the light clanging of pots. He re-emerged empty-handed, and sat back on the floor to think. They had take-out boxes, right?

"Your cloud paintings are my favorite," he added, looking back up at Dante.

Dante smiled softly. "Thank you. I think it's fun to paint the same kind of thing but have them all look different."

Scooting over to the other end of the counter, Caspar looked in the cabinet at the other side of the stove. "Have you ever tried those, uh...studies that people do? Of one place at different times of day?"

"I've gone back to the same cliffside to paint a couple times," Dante said thoughtfully. "Not sure if that's the same thing, though."

"Huh." Caspar shrugged. "Maybe."

In all his digging around, he couldn't find pen or paper either. They kept those things around, right? Those were...household staples, he thought.

Maybe not...

"Do you wear your glasses while you paint?" Caspar suddenly asked, casting a curious look at Dante. Who he was pretty sure never took the shades off, and it sometimes worried him that the tropical sun was too harsh for the grounds manager. "Do they...enhance the colors?"

Dante shook his head. "They tend to make the colors look duller, actually-- or at least a different shade, usually darker than real life. So I tend to take them off for that."

Ah. Caspar nodded. That made sense, yes.

He hadn't had any breaks that coincided with Dante's yet. And he really wish even a small pocket of time would free up, because he wanted a chance to paint with his new friend. Because he could ask Dante questions all day about things like what kinds of paints he preferred and what visual elements he liked to emphasize in a painting, but he felt like that could turn tiresome quickly. Answering so many questions.

Dante took a bite of the granola bar, turning to look at Caspar on the floor.

"Are you looking for something?" he asked curiously.

"Oh, yes!" Caspar scanned the kitchen from his admittedly low vantage point. "I... We have food containers, right? I can't..." And he shrugged sheepishly. "...seem to remember where they are. If we...have them."

Dante hummed, glancing around and pointing at a cabinet on the other end of the kitchen. "I think we have some in there."

Caspar blinked. "Oh!" Of course. He felt a little silly, but smiled appreciatively as he pushed himself back to his feet. "Oh, hey, were you busy at all today? I was thinking of dropping off cookies for Miss Eve again. Hence the." He pointed to the cabinet as he slipped around Dante. "These."

Dante smiled again. "That's very nice of you, Cas. I'd be happy to help with running them over."

Caspar smiled happily. "Great!" He looked down at the empty container that he'd found.

Maybe he didn't need to write a note, if they were going to hand-deliver this. Though. He couldn't expect to run into Miss Eve. Who knew if she'd be busy by then, and unable to meet them at the door. Or on the way.

Hugo plopped himself down onto Dante's foot and chuffed expectantly at them. Still smiling, Dante bent down to pet his back.

"I still need paper," Caspar said apologetically.

"That's the drawer under the microwave, I think," Dante said.

"Ah!" Caspar shuffled around the grounds manager back to the other side of the small kitchen space. "Thank you."

Despite the DNI order, Caspar was sincerely hoping to be able to catch Eve sometime. They still had that art trade of sorts to follow up on, after all. He understood not needing a very large social circle, he himself had a rather low social threshold. But he also felt like, from all the video he'd had to cut together so far, she could maybe use a friend or two more.

Shouldn't be a problem, right? She was pretty low on the DNI list anyway.

Though... Wait, was that list ascending or descending?

~ ~ ~

Standing on the front porch to Eve's cabin felt too presumptuous. Caspar shuffled in place at the door, hesitantly lifted a hand to knock, then shuffled away again as he seriously considered dropping the box and running.

Dante waited patiently a short distance away.

Maybe Eve wasn't home right now, Caspar thought. In which case, they really should just leave the box and be on their way. But he'd really hoped to catch her today, for long enough to at least ask her about her mansion visit.

She knew a lot about the Trieus, it seemed. He only knew this vaguely, though, because she only heavily implied it. He wasn't one to pry, but the connection had him worried.

What was the nature of it? She seemed very mad when she marched up there, what had she hoped to accomplish? Would they retaliate? Hold something over her to intimidate her into silence? They certainly weren't above doing any of these things.

Caspar faced the door again, determined now. He wanted to make sure she wasn't trying anything stupid. Not by herself, anyway.

Just as he lifted a hand to finally, actually knock this time, the door clicked open. Caspar jumped, surprised by the timing of it.

"Caspar?" Eve called, looking him up and down, the door opened halfway. "Sorry, I saw you out the window on my way down. Did you need something?"

"Oh! Hi, Miss Eve," he said with a slight stammer, then cleared his throat. "Uhm, yeah, actually. To give you this." And he awkwardly stuck out the box with both hands, the cookies quietly rattling inside.

Eve stared down at it, quietly taking it and gingerly holding it in her hands as if it were extremely fragile. "Oh... what's this?" she asked softly.

"They're--" He blinked as a new thought struck him. "Uhm! You don't... Any allergies at all? They... They're cookies, and they have peanut butter, I think."

Eve slowly shook her head, a slight smile tugging her lips. "No. No allergies. Thank you. This is thoughtful. Did Bo make them?"

Breathing a sigh of relief, he smiled brightly at her. "Yes, just this morning."

"I'll have to stop by sometime again to say thank you. But for now, I hope you delivering the words to him for me is enough," Eve said, smile growing just a little as she lifted the box closer to her chest. "Thank you."

Caspar nodded once. "Of course. I can tell him, yeah."

"That reminds me. I have something for you too." Eve glanced behind her. "Do you want to come in?"

He hesitated.

He did want to. But was that even appropriate? A man, entering a house with only ladies present? That didn't feel completely appropriate.

It felt like there was some island rule on this too. He looked up at the porch roof as he scrounged his memory for anything from the staff DNI meeting.

At the same time, this would be the only truly secure opportunity to pass along information on the island's cameras...

Eve wasn't very high...or low? On the DNI list anyway.

He really ought to try and clarify about the list order.

"You don't have to if you don't want to. I just need to run upstairs to grab it," Eve said in the silence that followed.

"I mean..." He awkwardly scratched the back of his neck. "I guess for a second couldn't hurt?"

Eve stopped to study him for a long moment, but then she stepped back and opened the door wider for him, wordlessly gesturing for him to step inside. Taking off his hat, Caspar ducked in.

"Should I take off my shoes?" he asked quietly, lingering by the door, "the floor looks so clean."

"No need. It won't take long," Eve said as she turned towards the stairs with the cookie box. "Feel free to make yourself comfortable. I'll be back in a minute. Just going to grab you the..." She shook her head, quickly going up the steps. "You'll see."

Standing stiffly by the door, Caspar blinked as he watched her go.

Get comfy? He glanced around the living room. The cabin was...big. Bigger than any of the staff housing. Also pristine. Which added another, subtle level of Not Belonging Here when he glanced down at his slightly sandy, very sweaty self.

Dropping onto the floor, he decided he should just take off his shoes anyway. After setting his work boots neatly aside, he slowly ventured in to the seating area. But...decided he shouldn't actually sit. Not in this state.

A literal minute passed before Eve returned, holding a gray folder. She silently trotted down the stairs, approaching him again.

"It's not much, but I wanted you to have it. You can look at it later," she said as she offered the folder out for his taking.

Carefully taking the folder, he studied it with open curiosity and wonder. He wanted to look through it now. But the suggestion felt like she'd...prefer he waited. Which he decided he could do, yes.

"Thank you," he said, casting her a warm smile. "I'll, uh." He looked down at himself again, disappointed that he didn't bring a bag or anything to keep it safe. "I'll look at it later, yeah."

Eve nodded, and a brief silence passed as she intertwined her hands in front of her. "Do you, um..." she started, trailing off for a second before she continued with, "want a glass of water? Or anything else?"

Did he? Well. He could eat, he supposed, but he could do that later too.

"I'm good, thank you," he said with an appreciative nod. He idly tapped the edge of the folder. "Oh! I, uh, actually wanted to hand off something else, while we're here."

Tucking the folder under his arm, he patted himself down. Oh! He lightly smacked his own forehead. Dumb! Back pocket. Twisting as he spun around a couple times trying to triangulate, he grabbed a messily folded-up paper and held it out for her.

"It's really not much," he said, an echo of her own words, "but. Hopefully something that can help. Just a little bit."

Eve carefully took the paper, gingerly lifting it up again. "Should I look at this now? Or later?"

Caspar just shrugged a shoulder. "Anytime, I guess. It's just a map."

Eve hesitated, but then unfolded the paper, staring down at it. "Is this... the island?"

He nodded, folding both hands in front, with the folder in hand. The fact that she recognized it as the island meant his measurements were accurate, and he couldn't help but smile a little, satisfied with his work.

"What do the red circles mean?" Eve asked, still carefully studying it.

He coughed awkwardly and answered, "Dead cameras. Nothing can record you in those areas."

Evr furrowed her brows, still staring down at the map for a long moment. Then she folded it back, careful to fold it along the original crease lines. "Does anyone know you gave this to me?" she asked, focused on her folding.

He watched her quietly for a second. She was always so careful about...pretty much everything.

"Uhm, no," he said. "I figured it'd...be easier for only one person to keep track of." He paused, then gestured to Eve. "Two. Because, I can't leave them dead forever, so which areas are safe will change on occasion."

Another beat of quiet.

"I imagine certain other contestants-- Mister James Hawke, especially-- could use this kind of reprieve too. So." Caspar shrugged again. "Share. With care, please."

Eve nodded, tucking the paper into the large side pocket of her long navy dress. "Thank you, Caspar. This means a lot." She met his eyes with sudden seriousness. "And if the DMV ever reprimands you for anything, especially if it's related to anything you've given me... please let me know. Okay?"

The weight of this request was...really quite unexpected. She spoke as though she had authority on this matter. Which. he was willing to trust her, but... He had a feeling this was connected to her Mansion on the Hill visit, which deeply concerned him.

Pressing his lips into a thin line, he glanced sideways at the window. Just to be sure.

"Uhm," he started hesitantly, "I... Sure."

Eve nodded again, wringing her hands. "Good. Thank you." She flicked her eyes towards the same window, then towards the door, clearing forming ways to say goodbye now.

"I'm..." Worried about. Curious too, of course, but mostly worried. Caspar scratched anxiously behind his ear, trying to find a better angle. Then decided. Direct was best. "How... well exactly do you know the Trieus?"

Clearly caught off guard, Eve opened her mouth to speak, but only managed to say half a syllable, frozen with surprise. She frowned, shaking her head while pinching her brows together. "What do you mean, how well do I know the Trieus? How do you know them?"

Brows furrowed, Caspar just...became more confused. "I mean!" He shrugged helplessly. "I don't! Not really? But you sounded really familiar with them, I guess. Like. You kept hinting at secret things they do, and just recently you went straight into their house..." He tried waving it off with both hands. "I didn't mean anything by it, I'm sorry."

Eve pressed her lips together, her stare beginning to turn to a glare. "Are you... watching me?" she asked cooly, tone accusatory.

Caspar blanched. Oh no.

"I--!" He shuffled in place. "It's...still my job," he answered quietly, unable to meet her eyes now.

"You can still do your job, but please stop watching me. I'd like you to stop it," Eve said, crossing her arms.

Well...that wasn't entirely possible? His job was essentially to watch everybody. Miss Eve included. How was he supposed to accomplish these two diametrically opposed goals at the same time?

"I'm concerned for you, is all," he eventually mumbled.

"You don't need to be!" Eve said, sounding more exasperated. She sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Caspar. I appreciate you looking out for me, but I really don't need you to. I can take care of myself. I'd like you to take care of you. I'm sure the DMV wouldn't be happy knowing you gave me insider information, so please use this energy to look after yourself. Okay?"

Caspar stared down at his socks. Feeling for the world like a scolded child.

He found in his own personal experiences that, whenever someone pushed back on being cared about like this, it was normally indicative of them needing it more than ever.

It wasn't his forté, but he'd just have to try and be smarter about this, then.

Silently, he just shrugged. Not giving any promise of change, nor distinctly disregarding this particular request. He hoped avoiding eye contact long enough would get her to simply drop the subject.

And it worked. Thank goodness.

"Sorry for yelling at you," she said with a sigh, dropping her hands. "Did you have anything else you wanted to tell me?"

Glancing back up to her, Caspar gave it some thought.

Stay safe yourself? Come visit if you need anything else from me too? You look nice today?

"Uhm, just...hi." He shrugged and managed a small, sincere smile. "It was nice seeing you again."

Even with the yelling again. He was getting the sense that that was just how she cared about people. Loudly.

Eve huffed out a puff of air through her mouth, mildly surprised again as she stared down at the floor. "Um..." She furrowed her brows tighter, seemingly focused on saying her next words. "Yeah. Likewise," she finally finished, sounding defeated.

Caspar huffed an endeared laugh through his nose. "That's convincing."

Eve tightly pressed her lips together, looking up to give him a flat look. "Do I need to kick you out?" she deadpanned.

"Oh, gosh," he mumbled, suddenly sheepish as he searched for the time, "have I overstayed my welcome?"

"No, that was a--" Eve said quickly, then sighed, trying again. "You're fine." A beat. "But... you probably shouldn't stay too long. I heard from Bo that staff are generally not allowed in contestant cabins." Another beat. "Outside of requests, that is." And another one. "Which... it was a request for you to come in. But-- that was only a quick visit. To give you the..."

Eve sighed in annoyance, pinching the bridge of her nose again. "You know what, it doesn't matter. You can stay as long as you'd like."

Also not completely reassuring.

"Thanks," he said slowly. "I, um, don't want to intrude on this shared living space of yours, though."

Eve studied him for a moment. "Aren't you supposed to be working today?"

"Uh..." He was. But. How did Miss Eve know what his work schedule looked like?

"You might want to return to that," she suggested.

He tried not to sigh aloud at the tasks still ahead of him. "I...should, yeah." He glanced at the window again. "Plus Dante came with me, so. He's just waiting, I guess, and I don't want to keep him for too long."

Eve raised a brow at that, but if she had something to say, she didn't voice it.

"Wouldn't want that," she said as she opened the door for him, a universal sign that she'd like him to leave. She stared blankly at Dante a little ways away, admiring the ocean from afar. He waved at them, but she didn't wave back.

Caspar waved for both of them. "Thanks for your hospitality, Miss Eve," he said as he ducked outside, his shoes hanging from his fingers.

"Thanks for stopping by," she said, hovering by the door. "I, um... We'll see each other again, I'm sure."

He looked back over his shoulder and simply replied, "I hope so." Then, hopping as he went, clumsily tugged his boots back on.

Behind him, he heard Eve hide behind and ease the door closed once more.

Shoelaces still untied, Caspar stood awkwardly on the front porch for a silent moment, fingers idly tapping the...thing in his hands. The grey folder.

Hm. Well, it was...later now, wasn't it?

With Eve out of speaking/looking range again, he opened it up.

Artwork, he was happy to find. Better yet, sequential, to tell a story visually. Just as Eve said she loved to do most.

It was a comic, to be more exact. Fours pages, each broken into three individual panels. Surprisingly, it featured Caspar himself, walking Hugo and encountering new creatures along the way. First, Hugo sniffed out a fuzzy polka dotted caterpillar, which he almost ate. Then Hugo chased down a squirrel, barking at it when the squirrel climbed up a tree. Eve sketched out Caspar tugging Hugo away, but then Hugo tugged Caspar to run towards a cat on a porch. Caspar recognized it as Shane's cat, Shrimp, who was just as friendly in the comic as he was in the footage. Hugo and Shrimp played with each other before Caspar tugged him away again, walking down the beach with a smile.

Caspar stood studying the panels, the composition and linework, all in quiet awe. That was him! And Miss Eve captured Hugo's happy energy perfectly.

He wanted to thank her, but the door was already long-closed by then. And Dante was waving him along again.

Taking the front steps by twos, he walked alongside the grounds manager back toward the staff residence area. Thinking of what else he could gift Miss Eve instead of cookies next time.

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Mon Nov 27, 2023 4:18 am
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urbanhart says...

It did briefly cross Caspar's mind on the way back, that he ought to check those cameras still. Since he wasn't sure if Shay and Ethan were still held up with other island duties. And. It was still his job, on his to-do-today list.

But the view of the setting sun from the shoreline was simply too pretty to miss out on. So Caspar happily fell into step beside Dante, letting him set the pace for the walk back along the beach.

After chatting with Eve, Caspar felt just a tad bit drained socially. He really wished he had more brain power to fuel a conversation, since he wasn't sure when he'd next have this much shared time with Dante. Caspar's schedule was pretty often filled to the brim, he'd found.

Maybe he should ask about that. He was pretty tired from all the night shifts.

Just when he'd finally managed to scrounge up enough focus to ask a question, he pricked his ears at the very distant sounds of intense footfalls thumping in the sand ahead.

Off in the distance, staying close to the beach, was a dark silhouette, running at a speedy pace. The person was running towards them, and upon closer approach, Caspar noticed the person was practically covered head to toe. In a set of gray sweats and a gray sweatshirt, the runner had the hood pulled over their face, black gloves on, and neon tennis shoes that were covered in sand.

The neon shoes gave away who it was, because there was only one contestant on the island with shoes that luminescent.

It must've been James.

He looked like he was a bit tunnel-visioned, as he didn't really glance over at Caspar and Dante to acknowledge them even as he came within a reasonable distance.

Caspar tried not to frown visibly at James's attire. Wasn't it near-80 degree weather? Maybe he wasn't vulnerable to heat stroke, too. Who was Caspar to question? No one. So he opted to say nothing.

Especially since James seemed so focused. He'd hate to break the man's concentration.

"Hey, James," Dante called out, smiling warmly, but Caspar heard the faint concern in his voice. "Are you doing alright?"

James's heavy footfalls hesitated to a stop, and it was clear that James had seen them as he awkwardly turned and gave a weak wave. He seemed a bit reluctant to slow down from how stiffly he stood, and how he didn't come closer.

"Oh," he said. "Hey. Dante, right?"

"That's right," Dante said, still smiling as he gestured to Caspar. "This is Cas. You've met, right?"

"I... yes," James said.

Caspar mustered an embarrassed smile and offered a weak wave. "Hullo."

Standing like he didn't know what to do with himself, James glanced off, like he was already thinking of moving on.

"Well--" James said faintly, but Dante spoke at the same time.

"Are you--" Dante paused once he realized he'd spoken over James, then apologized. "Sorry. I meant to ask, are you feeling cold without that sweater? It seems rather warm to run in."

Upon closer observation, Cas noticed that James was... very sweaty. There were dark sweat stains showing through his sweatshirt, looking as if water had been poured over his head. Even James's face was shiny, and not in a pleasant way.

Honestly, James looked the way Caspar felt most of the time on this island. Everything outside of the air-conditioned studio was too warm and sticky here.

Pressing his lips into an awkward semi-frown, James flashed his teeth in something more akin to gritting his teeth than a smile.

"Oh. Um. It's an endurance technique," James said. "To build up resistance to heat sickness. I learned it in the army."

Well, Caspar knew himself to be less-educated than most, but even he could tell that wasn't an actual thing. Though... maybe military training in Nye just differed from that of Fjelstad.

Dante slowly nodded, and from the way he only frowned more concernedly, it looked as though he wasn't buying it either. Right, yeah, no, that was a ridiculous claim. Caspar slowly mirrored Dante, feeling validated in his initial judgement call.

"I'm joking," James said quickly, before either of them could reply. "I just feel a little under the weather is all."

Dante's expression immediately turned sympathetic. "Can I get you anything that might help with a cold, or anything of the sort? We've got a pharmacy, since it's easy for something to be passed around in an isolated island community like here."

James stared at Dante, and Caspar felt like he saw a flash of panic in James's eyes.

"Oh. I... I can just go home and stay in my room to wait for it to pass, then," he said. "I don't think it's anything too serious."

Even in the really warm-tinted sunlight, James looked pallid. In that particular way people looked sometimes right before completely hurling their guts.

"Are you sure?" Dante asked concernedly. "You do look rather ill."

The delay from James was longer this time, and within seconds, James's expression seemed to tense, and he swallowed hard. Caspar frowned when he heard James's stomach gurgle.

"Um," James's voice wavered.

Dante's expression softened further at the single word.

Hesitantly, Caspar pointed to the ocean just past the man with steel bones. "Do you need to...?"

James didn't respond. Instead, he turned around and ran into the ocean. Knee-deep, he bent over and began to vomit into the foamy waves. It was a kind of terrible sound that made Caspar feel mildly sick himself.

"Oh, that looks bad," Dante murmured sadly. "Can you get him to the nearest staff supplies hut? I'm going to get some nausea medicine and meet you both there."

Caspar nodded. "Yeah, of course."

He'd try, anyway. James would need to be able to walk himself, though, since. Caspar was fairly sure there would be no supporting him without throwing out his own back.

"I'll be fast," Dante said, turning and taking off across the sand. He was pretty fast. Caspar wasn't sure if he'd ever seen Dante sprint before.

James was still standing in the ocean with his hands on his knees. Caspar heard another retch that made his stomach turn.

"Oh gosh," Caspar murmured queasily before wading out to stand next to the poor man.

"I'm fine," James rasped faintly. "Just had to get it out of my system."

Caspar frowned, unconvinced. "It might help to cool down your system, too," he suggested. "Why're you wearing a hoodie in this weather, anyway?" He paused in thought. "If it's the silly shirts, there's... I don't know, I like them."

"It's... a new fashion choice," James murmured. Then he made another gurgling sound from the back of his throat, and spat up more into the water.

Trying his best not to visibly grimace, Caspar lightly patted James's back in an attempt at reassurance, or to. Even maybe to usher along this oddly fruitless purge.

Was he throwing anything up other than stomach fluid? Caspar bent over a little to study the ocean water more closely. He didn't see anything floating in there...

"It's not a very sensible one," Caspar said, sad to be so blunt but really not seeing any way around it. "I guess people say you should suffer for your art, but. I don't think that's very necessary."

Letting out a low groan, James hung his head low as he shakily held himself up, still squatting over the ocean.

"I think... that's it," James croaked, and he stood up straighter, pulling his hood drawstrings tighter to hide his face as he turned around, half-soaked and half-splattered in vomit.

Oh, man... He was in rather rough shape, huh.

"We should find that, uh," Caspar said, "supplies hut that Dante mentioned. You can clean up and take a sit there."

"I don't -- I'm okay," James said, even though he still looked pallid and unwell. "I'll just go home..."

"But the nearest supply hut is closer than your place," Caspar explained, trying for his most diplomatic voice to keep from potentially spooking the younger man.

"I know you're just trying to do your job," James said more wearily. "But I can take care of myself."

Well. That was objectively untrue, based on this encounter alone.

Caspar felt a pang of guilt. He knew what the DMV was doing. He knew they were behind every left turn in James's path thus far. And it wasn't like he was powerless to try and stop it. It wouldn't make a difference anyway, he supposed. But he hated being complicit.

He also couldn't remember how high or low James was on the DNI list. Both things were probably what made him a bad soldier.

"I can just walk you there," Caspar suggested gently, lifting both hands in a placating gesture. "Dante will be expecting to find you so he can help, so. May as well not leave him hanging, right?" Then added, knowing full well that James had absolutely no reason to feel comfortable with him, "And once you're at least through the door, I can disappear."

James slowly came to a stop in his hasty pace away, and he looked at Caspar over his shoulder. James looked like he was studying him, narrowing his eyes, looking Caspar up and down. James's breaths were more labored, and there was an exhaustion clear in his tired eyes and his dark circles.

James didn't look particularly happy, but he finally conceded.

"...Okay," James said. "Lead the way."

Caspar nodded, and quietly took the lead.

He really wasn't lying when he said it was close. It was about a ten-minute walk. But it was probably made much longer for James. Every once in awhile, Caspar heard him make a sound akin to a very slowly deflating balloon in his attempts to keep himself steady.

Through the small window, Caspar caught a glimpse of Dante inside.

He wanted to stay to make sure James was okay, but... His presence probably would only present another problem rather than help, so he stopped just twenty feet from the door.

"I think he's already inside," Caspar said, waving for James to keep going.

James took a few steps forward, then looked back over his shoulder at Cas again, his brows knit together intensely.

"I'm not going to hurt you," James said slowly.

Oh. Well, this was a terrible misunderstanding. Caspar hadn't meant to make him feel like he was a danger, and it hurt him to think that he'd inadvertently led James to believe this.

"It's not that," Caspar tried explaining in earnest, "not in the least! I just..." He shrugged. "I figured you wouldn't be comfortable with any filming crew hanging around. Most people haven't been-- which I completely understand! So I was. Only trying to give you space."

James narrowed his eyes again.

"You don't have your camera on you, do you?" James asked.

Gah, Caspar really hated this job...

"I don't," he answered, unable to hide his saddened frown. "...But I can go, it's really fine if that's what you prefer."

James huffed through his nose, looking tired as he looked away.

"I don't care either way," he said quietly, approaching the door with heavy steps.

That was fine, then. Caspar didn't need to stay. It would probably be like a doctor-patient visit, anyway. You don't need a third party for that.

As James approached, Dante poked his head out of the hut-- already there, apparently-- looking relieved to see them. "Come on in," he said, looking between them as he went back inside.

James stepped in first, his head low as he walked in.

Caspar hesitated, debating whether or not he should insist on leaving. But Dante had addressed both of them, and James said it didn't matter, so... With a small knot of persisting guilt in his chest, Caspar followed him only as far as the doorway. He lingered there, still unsure about staying.

Dante had pulled out a chair for James, and was now working on pouring out a couple anti-nausea pills next to a glass of water. There was also a bottle of ibuprofen on the counter.

When James stopped at the chair, he sat down heavily. Almost instantly, the chair's legs snapped off the body beneath it, and James slammed down to the floor. It was almost cartoony in effect.

Lying down prone, James stared up at the ceiling with the most over-it expression Caspar had ever seen on another human being.

"...I am so sorry," Dante said after a few moments. "The furniture here can be... unsturdy."

"Don't be," James said with a groan as he slowly sat up. As he did so, his hood fell off his head, and Caspar caught a glimpse of something... very pink and sparkly around his neck. James quickly pulled up his hood again, hiding it from view.

He didn't get up, though. James just sat there on top of the broken chair.

"Do you need a hand?" Dante asked, but he said it as though he already knew the answer.

"I'm fine right here," James said, legs splayed out as he slouched forward.

It didn't...look particularly comfortable, though. The legs of the chair stuck out from under him like a wooden splat.

Dante nodded, hesitating a moment longer before offering him the water and pills. "These should help you feel less naseous," he said. "There's also ibuprofen here."

James took the cup, and he took the pills, but he didn't take them. Instead, he stared at them very, very intently for several long seconds that dragged out uncomfortably.

There was a shift in Dante's expression as he looked to be thinking.

"So, that is from this water bottle here," he said, carefully and slowly, holding a plastic bottle up to reveal some of the water inside had been poured out. "I think I'll have the rest."

James squinted at him, looking to only grow more in suspicion.

With that, Dante confidently took a sip of the water, doing it slowly and while watching James. As if he wanted him to notice that he was... really drinking it.

James lifted up the ibuprofen in his hand. Wordlessly, he seemed to be asking Dante to have one as well.

Dante nodded, taking the bottle again and shaking out a pill into his hand. "Hope you don't mind if I have one of these too," he said, before swallowing it with a sip of water.

Seeming to finally come to the conclusion that what he'd been given was safe, James nodded slightly. He tossed the pills into his mouth and took a long drink, completely emptying the glass.

Setting the glass on the floor between his legs, James let out a long sigh.

"Thanks," James said simply.

"Of course," Dante said sincerely, leaning against the edge of the counter. "I'm sorry you don't feel well."

"...Thanks," James said again, a little less confident.

Caspar shifted uncomfortably in his spot in the doorway. He didn't want to seem like he was trying to get away, but... he really wasn't sure what he was doing here. Providing moral support? For who?

"There's a..." Caspar pointed to one end of the single-room hut. "...cot over there on the wall. We can pull it out if you need to rest a minute."

Dante nodded. "Please feel free."

"I might break that too," James said.

Then after a beat.

"Not on purpose," he added.

Oh. That was probably true.

"We can," Caspar said slowly in thought, "put the blankets on the floor, then?"

James glanced around the room, his eyes locking onto the thermostat. He looked down at the broken chair beneath him, and instead of responding, he started to get up. Caspar could've sworn he heard a metallic creak as James's knees straightened, but he was distracted by the patch of shimmering pink skin peeking out from James's collar, around his neck.

James lightly kicked the broken chair under the table, nudging it with his foot.

"I should go home," James said quietly.

"If you do feel better, we won't keep you here," Dante promised. "But if you do want to stay, you'll be kept safe."

James's eyes flicked to Dante quickly at the word 'safe.' Almost imperceptibly, Dante gave him a nod.

"Why should I trust you?" James asked.

The question was so very valid. And made Caspar's insides crawl with guilt.

Maybe he should go now...

Dante, however, didn't look offended or stung if he felt that way. He nodded calmly, looking almost regretful.

"I'm aware that simply being in the 'trusted staff member' position does not immediately earn me your trust, and neither am I entitled to it," Dante said. "James, if you decide to trust me, I hope it's after you've decided I'm actually worthy of it. Vigilance can be a good trait, and I don't blame you for your doubt. That being said, I hope you know I am here to help you, and that I want to do my job well. So, if you should trust me, it should be if and only if you believe I do my best to help the problems I am informed of, without ulterior motive on my part."

A beat.

"And if you don't believe that, I understand," Dante finished. "I hope to earn your trust, James, but I will not demand it of you. That choice is yours."

James didn't budge. He seemed to be seriously considering Dante's words, continuing to watch Dante with a critical eye. There was still an overall sickly shine to his forehead, but his gaze was focused. And paranoid.

"Do you know any of the shit that's been happening to me?" James asked pointedly.

"Some," Dante said, more grimly. "And certainly not all."

James ripped the gloves off his hands, throwing them to the floor. He held his hands up, revealing that his skin was a bright, unnatural pink. Flecks of what looked like glitter on his skin caught the light along with the sweat slicking his skin.

"Do you know about this?" James asked accusingly. "My skin's fucking pink!"

The genuine shock on Dante's face and his agape expression indicated that no, he did not know. Caspar couldn't hide his own look of complete bewilderment as something uncomfortable roiled in his chest.

What... What the absolute hell?

"James," Dante said slowly, his voice bearing the effort of having to stay calm. "Who did this?"

"You think I know?" James asked with a wry laugh. His mouth twisted into a frown as he wiped his sweaty hands on his sleeves. "As if they'd put their name on it, like they were proud of their work."

Caspar heard the sharpness of Dante's inhale as the grounds manager stood straighter, his expression suddenly taking on a determined look. There was a slight clench to his jaw.

"I'm going to speak to someone," he said, his voice still deceptively calm.

"I'm not sure how much I could find," Caspar finally piped up, voice unsure, "but I can also try and dig around for the source of this..." He wasn't sure what to call it, without resorting to vulgarities himself.

Seriously, what the ever loving hell? What did this level of retaliation accomplish? This man had been pushed to the point of not trusting in anything. How many torturous stressors did it take to push him to the very brink? What was the DMV hiding from even the staff?

Caspar glanced off, trying to mentally run through a list of potential trouble-makers. Really, his money was on Tula, especially after he started inexplicably receiving footage that he knew none of the actual filming crew was gathering.

Was there a way to make that a two-way street...?

James's expression seemed to turn more and more transparent. The anger and frustration that had boiled to the surface was quickly melting away into something more desperate. With his mouth starting to tremble ever so slightly, his shoulders sagged, and he took a step back, crossing his arms over his chest.

Normally, every shot Caspar ever got of James naturally framed him as intimidating. He usually carried himself like a soldier, and his resting expression was usually less than friendly. But suddenly, all Caspar saw was a scared little boy.

James seemed so small.

"Will it even change anything?" James asked, the previous biting tone dissipating into something far less pointed. Now he just sounded sad. Defeated, even.

"James," Dante said, in a tone that was both firm with promise and soft with gentleness, "please know I will do everything in my power for that. It's not very much power. But it's what I'll spend it on."

Caspar depserately hoped that this was something for which James would take Dante's word.

"What will it cost you?" James asked, looking at the floor.

There was a hesitation.

"I'll find out," Dante said.

Caspar cast his friend a concerned look at that.

"...You don't have to," James said, barely audible.

"Dante," Caspar said, soft but serious as he finally stepped all the way in, closing the door behind himself. "Maybe... I don't know, I can try to find some info on this instead? Because we really need you, you know... actually around to be able to help."

Dante's more determined expression softened almost imperceptibly.

"I appreciate it," he said. "From both of you. But I'm here to help you. More than that, here to be the bridge between cast and crew. And if I'm here, I'd much rather be doing my job properly than not."

Caspar's own expression turned into one of open admiration for Dante. "What if they retaliate, though?" he asked, brows furrowing with worry. "What if... I don't know, they replace you with someone? Who might not care nearly as much."

"They aren't able to do that over this," Dante said. "Fire me, I mean. I figure that whatever retaliation could look like is worth the cost."

Caspar wasn't so sure. The DMV had lashed out mercilessly over far less.

"I... look," James said. "I appreciate you wanting to help. I'm... glad for it, actually. I just don't..."

James pressed his lips into a line, trailing off as he sent his intense stare to the floor.

"Don't what?" Dante asked gently.

James was quiet for a long moment.

"...Sorry," he muttered. "I shouldn't have said anything."

Dante carefully nodded after a second.

"If it's extra retaliation on you you're concerned about," he said, "I will try to shield you from that too."

"I wasn't thinking about me," James said. "I was thinking about you."

Very slightly, Dante smiled. In a sad way.

"Let me think about that," he said. "I'll handle this."

"If there's anything I can do to help, too," Caspar offered, quiet but firm as he looked meaningfully between the both of them, "let me know."

Maybe it didn't mean very much, considering his role so far, but he wanted the it out there.

"I will," Dante promised quietly.

James fell silent, staring intensely at the floor.

He... James looked like he could use a good hug right now. He looked so small and...afraid, it broke Caspar's heart.. But he didn't feel presumptuous enough to offer.

"I'll..." He gestured awkwardly to the door. "I can take my leave, now."

"I can too, if you're alright, James," Dante said.

"I don't live here," James said faintly. "And I'm not on staff."

"Mmmno," Caspar agreed softly, "but you could use the reprieve, probably." Dante nodded in agreement.

James looked around his feet.

"So, what," he said. "I should just... sit here?"

"What is it you think you should do?" Dante asked.

Preferrably, James would be able to go the whole way and lie down for a sleep. But that felt unlikely, and it wasn't Caspar's place to say.

"I don't know that me staying here will make much of a difference," James said quietly. "But... maybe in the future. If I need it, and the offer's still open."

Dante nodded. "It will remain open," he said. A pause. "I'm also accessible, if it's me you need. The more you reach out, the more I can help."

James nodded.

"Okay," he mumbled.

There was another moment of silence as the three men stood in the hut, feeling the weight of an uncertain future. James then walked towards the door, pausing with his hand on the handle.

"Thanks," he said, looking back at Caspar and Dante.

"Of course," Dante said. He then paused, as if debating whether to say more, before quietly adding, "Hang in there. We'll sort things out."

James pressed his lips together, giving a little nod. Saying nothing more, he dipped out, gently closing the door behind him.

Caspar quietly watched as the tired, glitter-covered man slipped away.

After watching James leave, Dante let out a soft sigh, turning back to Caspar.

"You alright, Cas?" he asked gently.

Now turning back to Dante, Caspar mustered his most reassuring grin. "Yeah, I'm just. Worried..."

He wondered momentarily if he was allowed to mention the Tula-captured footage. There were too many lists of work restrictions, people who weren't supposed to know certain secrets, and others of people who were. It all got so jumbled and confusing sometimes.

Maybe... since Dante was the grounds manager, he had more secret knowledge privileges than most?

Caspar wasn't sure enough about that to take a chance. Apparently there was cause for legitimate concern about DMV retaliation against staff, as well. He didn't want to put Dante in a difficult situation. Even if the other man welcomed it.

He turned his open worry toward Dante once more. "Are you sure that... I mean, we should absolutely try to help where we can, but I really can take any questions to higher ups in your stead."

Dante smiled appreciatively, but it was also sad in nature. "It's okay, Cas. I figure talking to Carter will go best of anyone, so I'll pay him a visit. It'll be okay."

Caspar nodded, not totally reassured at the mention of Carter, but deciding to just trust Dante on this. "Alright." He managed another small, warm smile. "Yes, you've got this."

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soundofmind says...

The doorbell rang, sending a mechanical ding ringing through the overhead speakers. Carter spun slowly in his chair, turning away from the security cameras to glance back at the door.

If it was one of the Trieu siblings, they would've been ringing again already. He was working. Constant monitoring of the camera feeds required most of his attention throughout the day, and even when he was out he always had his watch on to notify him if something was happening that required him to come in.

With a small sigh, Carter got up from his chair and pressed a button on the remote on his hip. The metal door slid open with an exhale, and where he'd expected to see a superior, instead he saw Dante.

The man stepped into the dark room, only lit by the dozens of screens lining the walls - one for each camera feed - and the blue LED lights that lined the ceiling.

Despite the low light levels, Dante's sunglasses remained on as he turned his head to Carter. He was standing straight, but not stiffly, although he had his hands folded behind his back.

"Good evening, Carter," he greeted. "Apologies for the interruption."

"Not a bother," Carter said. "I'm actually glad it's you."

The corners of Dante's lips twitched into what should have been a smile, but his expression remained too serious for it to look much like one. Carter tilted his head with a show of concern.

"I figure I should explain why I'm here unannounced," Dante said. "Something has come to my attention regarding James Hawke. I am aware of the DNI rule that is in place for him, but he had a medical emergency that required my assistance. Following that, he told me of something that has led me to believe he's being targeted by at least one person on staff."

Internally, Carter found himself irritated that this was coming to light so soon. If only James had kept his damned mouth shut. Carter had been hoping his stubborn independence was still a fault in his character, but it appeared James was changing his ways. Now he had to deal with Dante's 'righteous anger' and be a median between him and the Trieus, who were the real ones enabling this kind of petty vengeance.

If only Dante knew what was really in store for James - then he would think all of this was child's play up 'til now.

"Medical emergencies always take precedence over any policy," Carter said. "So there's absolutely nothing to worry about for doing your job - and, well, being a decent person. But if he's being targeted, that is very concerning. Did he give any evidence or indication of who it might be?"

Dante pursed his lips. "He made no specific accusations, and told me he didn't know who specifically was responsible, instead using a general 'they' for all staff. He seems to be applying that distrust to all of us."

A pause.

"However," Dante said, "while he didn't say this, he might have believed it was Oliver. He didn't wonder aloud at why it was happening, and I think he's assumed a grudge from someone on staff exists."

Carter let out a long sigh, pacing back to his chair. He sat down, leaning into it and crossing his legs as he glanced idly out at the camera feeds in thought.

"Right," Carter muttered. "Oliver. He's had a grudge against James ever since James broke his nose. I suppose it's no secret that Oliver's petty."

Dante nodded, as though he'd had a suspicion confirmed.

"I try to pick my battles," he said. "And I dislike the ones against Oliver. But it's apparent that this grudge is directly affecting James's wellbeing, and I have to raise warning flags when I see that."

"Can I ask what exactly has happened to James that's escalated to a medical emergency?" Carter asked, even though he already knew the answer. "He's been cooped up the past few days, so I haven't really witnessed much myself."

"His skin was turned pink." Dante shook his head in what looked like disbelief. "And glittery."

Carter wasn't going to let himself laugh, but he couldn't help but feel deeply amused, hearing it from someone else. He furrowed his brows, looking disturbed, but he truly wanted to smile.

"Oh... god," Carter said with bewilderment. "How on earth did that happen?"

"He didn't explain, but he said someone intentionally did that to him," Dante said, grimacing faintly. "It looked like dye."

Carter frowned, even though he'd been the one to deliver the bath bombs to James's door via the chute system.

"That's disturbing," Carter murmured.

Dante nodded. "I doubt it's the worst thing to happen to him here, either. Not to mention this could only be the start."

"I can look into a solution for the skin issue," Carter said. "At least, to address the immediate need."

"That would be good," Dante said, nodding approvingly before pausing. "I assume you would also be able to find out who delivered it."

"I'll look at the camera feeds. It would be helpful if you could get me a time window to look at, so I'm not scrubbing for hours," Carter said.

"I'll try," Dante promised. "Does this mean I can look into this and other matters with James further?"

"I think, with your job being what it is, you are well within your rights to," Carter said. "There's enough wiggle room that if pressed, either of us can use contractual evidence that you weren't out of line. So yes. You have my approval to investigate further."

Dante nodded again, more slowly this time. "Thank you."

"Of course," Carter said.

And after a brief moment of silence lingered between them, Carter added: "I'll do what I can to keep away prying eyes," he said.

And he felt that Dante knew what he meant. Carter was the prying eyes, and as far as the cameras went, he was the in-between for everthing. Nothing went to editing or to the Trieus before it passed through him first. If he wanted to cover up something, he could. And if he wanted to protect someone... at least, for a time...

Dante's smile that followed was thin, but grateful. "I appreciate it," he said sincerely. "Let me know if there's anything you'd like me to do on my end."

"We'll keep in touch."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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soundofmind says...

Finally, his skin was normal again.

After his manic run and sweating out every fluid in his body, every part of him remained numb. But, at the very least, he could return home and finally free himself from his pink prison. Standing in the shower with pink suds at his feet, James finally felt clean. The silvery glitter in his skin disappeared with the dye, and after over an hour of scrubbing every inch of himself, his skin was pruny, but recovered.

In relief, he stood and let the hot water of the shower wash over him for some minutes, and then he stepped out to dry off. By now, it was late, and Connie had gone to bed early. Shane had retired earlier too, at least to his room, and James had nothing else to do for the evening. He thought, for a moment, he might wander outside as a free man, but he also knew there were likely things going on in his body that he wasn't aware of, since sensation had been robbed from him.

Trying to play it smart this time, he went to lie down, letting his broken bed creak beneath his weight as it normally did.

His wet hair cooled him off as the ceiling fan spun overhead, and he idly scratched at the beard that was slowly returning.

Maybe things would be alright.

At least, that's what he hoped. But after four hours of tossing and turning while sleep evaded him, finally there came an interruption he wasn't prepared for.

Suddenly, he felt the irresitable urge to throw up.

Eyes going wide, James stumbled to his feet, darting to the bathroom. It felt like he was reliving yesterday morning, but this time, things were coming up, not out.

And this time, he didn't make it to the toilet soon enough.

A few feet away, he started blubbering up red liquid. But the moment the smell hit his nose, he knew it wasn't merely that.

It was blood.

Sputtering all over the floor, James leaned over the toilet seat, sticking his head in as another retch drew out of him a stream of blood. Now that it was landing in the toilet water, he could see that the blood, when diluted, had what looked like glitter in it.

He didn't have much time to think about how that worked, though.

Blood was getting all over his hair. His shirt. Everything.

He tried pulling his hair back, but his hands were shaking. He wished he could feel all of the warning signs his body must've been putting off, but instead he was only dealing with the outer effects.

What was going on? He didn't know anymore.

And then, as if this wasn't enough of a mess already, he heard a sharp intake of breath behind him that he could immediately recognize as Shane.

He wasn't even sure what the Heir muttered, but it sounded like an expression of horror in Aphiran.

"James?" Shane said more urgently after that, hurrying into the bathroom and dropping to the floor next to him.

James's eyes were tearing up from the exertion of vomiting. He shakily gripped the sides of the toilet, waiting for a brief reprieve before he looked up, wishing he could have done something - anything - to make this look less horrific than it did.

This was probably worse for Shane than it was James. Just seeing this was traumatizing.

"Can you... hold my hair back?" James asked weakly.

Shane didn't spare a moment, sweeping James's hair out of his face to pull it back behind his head, and he could see Shane's hands were shaking. James wished he could say something to calm either of their nerves. But this was a first for him, too. The only thing he knew was that, at the very least, he wasn't dead. So whatever this was, it wasn't killing him. But that wasn't saying much, since nothing in his life had killed him for more than a few seconds thus far.

James waited for another hurl to pass.

"I'm... not sure what's going on," he admitted honestly, his voice hoarse.

"Is it something they're doing to you again?" The tremor in Shane's near-whisper was part fear, but also part outrage.

James didn't know.

"Maybe it's..." James tried to say, but coughed up more blood again. He groaned, thunking his head against the side of the toilet. "Glitter. There's glitter in it."

Had there been glitter in the bath bomb? Maybe this was leftover from that. James didn't know how that even made sense, but not much was making sense these days.

Shane was silent for a few moments, then muttered something else in Aphiran that sounded like it contained a swear this time.

"This is madness," he muttered. "Did they poison you? There's no way they should be allowed to..."

His sentence died off, maybe from the realization that whether or not the DMV was allowed to do something mattered little to them.

James shakily lifted his head again, peering out at Shane from the toilet rim. Shane's expression was a mask of blank shock and horror, looking almost dazed.

Nice. He'd been needing a good gut punch.

Good grief, this was horrible.

"I think... I'll be okay," he managed to say. He was aware, however, that tears were streaming down his face.

Shane took a deep breath.

"Do you want to be left alone, though?" he asked quietly.

James sputtered again.

"...No," he admitted faintly.

"I can stay," Shane said softly. "I think you shouldn't be alone for this."

James nodded, and genuine tears mixed with the ones he was crying involuntarily. He didn't know how long this would last, but he had a feeling it was going to be a while.

There was a bit of shuffling behind him as Shane reached for something, still holding his hair back with one hand, before placing the tissue box that was on the sink counter on the ground nearby. He took one out, silently offering it to James.

It took James a moment to register if the tissues were meant for the blood or the tears. When he put two and two together, he eventually grabbed one and dabbed his eyes.

"I'm so sorry for all this," Shane said quietly, sounding almost numb.

James finally managed to swallow, but he regretted doing so after tasting his own blood.

"Me too," he muttered.

"It's not on you to be," Shane said. "This is all just... happening to you. There's someone different to blame."

James knew that. But he couldn't really muster up the energy to be angry at Oliver, or the Trieu's, or the DMV right now. He couldn't really come up with a response, since every few seconds he was hacking up more blood.

Eventually, the toilet was starting to fill up, and James shakily reached for the handle to flush it. Shane beat him to it, and the red of the blood swirled down with the water.

"Do you want me to... try to take your mind off things?" Shane said quietly. "I could just talk, as a distraction. You don't have to say anything back. Sometimes I've just found it helps to listen to something."

"Okay," James croaked.

"Okay." Shane was quiet for a few moments. "Maybe a story?"

He nodded.

There were a few seconds before he heard another deep breath from Shane.

"I don't usually have a lot of stories about myself to tell, but my dad had one he was fond of retelling," he said. "It's from when I was ten. My mom wasn't yet in charge then-- she wouldn't even be an Heir until a few years later-- so we had some freedom to travel. One summer, we decided we'd vacation by the northern coast of Aphirah. We rented a cabin by the ocean, and we spent some time away from the world. Just the three of us."

James was listening. But just as he thought he might be able to comment or at least look at Shane, he let out the biggest consistent stream of blood since the start.

Shane paused, seeming to watch James for signs that he was okay after that. James shakily lifted up a hand, giving a thumbs up, even though his face was still in the toilet.

"We were surrounded by rocky beaches and a vast pine forest," Shane said, after another few moments' pause. "It was really beautiful, although I was told not to wander too far into the trees. My parents were always a little protective of me, probably because I'm an only child. I didn't really see what the big deal was, though."

He paused again, though it seemed to be more like he was thinking.

"I got the idea to venture out by myself, one day we were there," he said. "I had a clear opportunity to sneak off. My mom was reading inside, and my dad was on the opposite side of the house, grilling smoked salmon for dinner. I figured I wouldn't be noticed for a while, so I picked a direction and went into the forest. It wasn't very smart, but the scenery was gorgeous, and at the time I was eager to see more of it."

"For a while, it was great," Shane continued. "I found my way through evergreens and ferns, surrounded by all kinds of green. Every so often, I'd catch a glimpse of the ocean through the trees, or hear a new kind of birdsong. I felt more and more glad that I'd decided to leave, especially when I stopped for a while to watch the sunset over the waves."

Another pause. James felt like he knew where this was going. Shane got lost, didn't he?

"The problem I didn't think of until after that, though, was that it got dark after sunset," Shane said. "And I'd wandered farther than I meant to. I still knew of the general direction I'd been traveling in, but once I started to walk back, I couldn't find the exact path I'd taken. The trees all started to look the same in the dusk shadows, and it didn't take long for me to decide this had been a mistake."

"I wasn't completely lost. After my initial panic, I remembered I could use my magic. I went around touching nearby trees, looking for memories of me passing through," Shane said. "Whenever I found one, I knew I was on the right path. It took a long time, though, and by the time I thought I was getting close to the house, it was almost pitch-dark in the forest. I could hardly see the trees I was reading, let alone what was in front of me."

Again, a pause. James hoped this story didn't end poorly. That would be depressing.

"I was incredibly lucky I didn't walk straight into the bear that was crossing through my path," Shane said, a little quieter. "I think the only reason I didn't was because I heard it first. I was just starting to smell the smoked salmon for dinner, and I was about to run through the trees when I heard the snapping of branches nearby, and I knew it wasn't me. So I froze instead." A beat. "It was a grizzly bear. Probably an adult, and definitely very hungry. Smoked salmon might be my favorite food, but I'm sure it was even more appealing to the bear, who could probably smell it a lot better than I could."

Damn. Well. Clearly Shane survived. He was alive to tell the story.

"As if I wasn't lucky enough to not run straight into it, and then not to be noticed while I was standing there, holding very still," Shane continued, "I had another stroke of luck. My dad's power was being able to sense and cause vibrations in the earth around him, which gave him a keen alertness to movement nearby, among other things. I managed to sneak by him when leaving, thanks to being just far away enough, but he didn't miss the bear prowling up to the grill, with me nearby. I heard him shouting out of nowhere for me to run to my left, towards the house."

"I did run immediately," Shane said. "The bear saw me then, and I heard a growl from it. But before it could start chasing me, the ground started to shake under us. It was enough to nearly make me stumble at first, but it was clearly targeted at the bear, because it fell over from the tremor, and the shaking got weaker with every step I ran away. My dad ran out of nowhere and immediately picked me up, running inside and closing the door behind us. We watched silently as the bear turned around and disappeared back into the trees, invisible after just a few seconds. It didn't even go back for the fish."

Another pause. It seemed like they were reaching the end of the story.

"I didn't get in as much trouble as you would think," Shane said. "My parents were too worried sick for that, and I'd clearly learned my lesson. No more wandering into the forest. But also..." He let out a quiet sigh. "I learned that my dad was happy to fight off a bear for me. He was that kind of brave parent. After that, he started calling me his bear cub."

After enduring another bloodied cough, James looked up at Shane with bleary eyes.

"Why do you think the bear didn't go for the fish?" he asked. He was starting to lose his voice, apparently, since it came out in a weak rasp.

"I guess it was more scared than hungry," Shane said quietly, with a weak laugh. "We did get to eat the fish after that. After that scare, I ate faster than the bear would've."

James nodded.

"I like your dad," he said, his voice starting to give out. "From what I've heard of him."

"He was pretty wonderful," Shane said, more softly. "One of those people where the world feels it when he's gone."

"Certainly so," James said, though his voice barely came out audibly. It was more like a wheeze.

Shane waited a few moments for him to recover.

"It's good to have stories left," he said. "Even ones that were scary or dramatic at the time can be retold enough that they become about love. And having this makes it feel like it's enduring love."

Shane had said something so profound, but James was in no state to acknowledge it. Instead, he met Shane's eyes, letting more tears well up as he felt old tears and old blood beginning to crust on his face.

Shane offered him a sad, slight smile, but it was a trembling one. His eyes were a little teary and glistening as well.

"I've heard grief is love enduring as well," he said quietly. "All the love we didn't get to give to someone. And mourning is wishing we could. So maybe people will have grief as long as they have love. I might not be able to share it anymore, but I'll always be reminded that it's there, through stories like this."

Shane was trying to alleviate James's discomfort by being genuine. By keeping conversation going, even when one-sided. And somehow, Shane was also managing to be heart-wrenchingly vulnerable at the same time.

James let out a sad groan as a cough came up dry - a miracle of the par twenty minutes, to be sure.

"Thanks for sharing some of it with me," James said, his voice withering as he pushed the words out.

"Of course," Shane said softly, dropping his gaze for a moment to reach for another tissue and pass it to James. He took another for himself, however, clutching it tightly in his hand. "Thank you for listening. It was once my dad's favorite story to share."

James managed a weak closed-mouth smile, but it faded when another wave of vomit came up.

He felt Shane watching him sadly, waiting patiently but still tense, ready to act.

James felt like the steady upchucking was beginning to wane, at least for a moment, and he tried to sit up a little straighter, looking out at the bloody mess he'd made on the floor.

"I'll have to... clean that up in a bit," he said, voice cracking.

"Or I could take care of it," Shane said. "You're going through enough as is."

James hesitated.

"Or... that," he said.

"If you do feel better, I can start," Shane offered. "Otherwise, best to wait."

James swallowed.

"Probably best to wait."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Mon Nov 27, 2023 4:42 am
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soundofmind says...

James knocked on Clarity's door.

He hadn't really spoken to her much personally. The last time he could recall exhchanging any words with her was the very first day, at the pool party that quickly went south. He knew that Eve hadn't told her who she was helping, but he knew it was only right to thank Clarity personally. She'd saved him a lot of grievance, after all.

Clanny was the one who opened, flashing James a smile when she saw him.

"Oh, hey James!" she greeted. "What's up?"

"Is Clarity home?" James asked. "I'm here to see her."

Clanny nodded. "Oh, yeah! She's in her room, I think. I saw her come out earlier this morning and then go back in, so I don't think she's been out since. Want me to grab her for you? Or...?"

Taking a second to think on it, James nodded, thinking that would be more appropriate.

"That would be lovely, thank you," he said.

"Okay! One sec," Clanny said. "You can come on in and wait in the living room!"

With a bow of his head, he accepted the invitation and followed inside as she swept her arm. When she closed the door behind him, she bid him adieu with a quick "make yourself comfortable," and disappeared up the stairs.

He looked around, scanning the living room idly for a moment as he stood near the doorway, hands in his pockets.

He didn't know that he'd really be here long, so felt a little out of place. Instead of making himself comfortable - a feat that was difficult in and of itself - he simply waited. A few short minutes passed before he heard footsteps descending, and he saw Clarity emerge from upstairs.

Clarity had her hair tucked up in a messy bun that left a few blonde strands to frame her face, and she wasn't wearing a lab coat, so she likely hadn't been up to any experiments that needed protective gear or clothing. Instead, she was wearing a long, open blue cardigan over casual clothing. Her expression and movements looked a little tired, but there was still a spark in her eyes as she reached the bottom of the staircase.

"James," she greeted, moving to stand behind the kitchen counter. "What brings you by?"

James approached, stopping a few feet from the counter.

"I wanted to thank you," he said. "I believe Eve never did say who you were helping, but all of the work you've done the past few days helped get me back to a normal appearance. Thank you for all the time and energy you gave to it. I heard it took longer than expected."

Clarity's eyes widened in understanding.

"Oh!" she said, nodding. "So that was your predicament. I'm very sorry that happened to you." She gave him a look up and down. "So it worked, then?"

James smiled faintly. "That it did," he said, with a small wave down his body. His skin was normal, now. Thank goodness.

Clarity looked pleased with herself as she nodded. "I'm very glad it did," she said before she paused. "And glad that you thought to reach out. Those bath bombs have... given me a lot to think about. Every way that I've tested them indicates that they are very strange."

James raised a brow. He knew that bath bombs had the capacity to dye people's skin when they had harsher ingredients, but it sounded like Clarity had found something unnatural.

"Really?" he asked. "How so?"

Clarity tapped her fingers on the counter, looking thoughtful.

"As in, the dye didn't behave as it should, chemically," she said. "No matter how much water I added to it, it didn't dilute at all, and the molar absorbtitivity of the dye that I calculated for it was far too weak to discolor skin that much. I suspect it's magical, in a way I'm not familiar with. It's a puzzle."

Huh. So it was as James suspected. There really was something magical going on.

"Have you studied spells and potion making?" James asked. "Or are you less versed in that realm of chemistry?"

"Somewhat," Clarity answered. "It's an area of interest, but not my area of expertise, so this is unfamiliar territory."

Seemed it was unfamiliar for everyone, then.

"Hm," James hummed. "Are you planning on investigating more?"

The spark lit up again in Clarity's eyes as she nodded.

"Oh, yes," she said, sounding determined. "Whatever magic this is, it needs something. Especially if it could be used for more than..." She waved a hand. "Bath bombs."

James glanced off to the side, remembering his own words to Hild the other day.

He'd told her that if the numbness didn't subside, that he'd ask Clarity for help. The truth was, a whole day had passed since that conversation, and nothing had changed. Now that he was talking to Clarity, he really had planned on asking, but having to actually do it suddenly felt daunting.

This was different than a bath bomb. This was... internal. He didn't know what kind of information she might need to gather, and what she'd find out in the process.

Eve had trusted Clarity's abilities enough to seek her for help, but James didn't know much about her aside from the fact that she was extremely capable and knowledgeable. She seemed kind enough, all things considered.

But was she the kind of scientist to let her curiosity take her past the bounds of ethics? Or was she restrained?

Nodding distractedly, he said: "Right. I'm sure it's used for... other things."

Clarity examined him for a moment, pursuing her lips as if she was debating whether to say anything.

"Did you bring them over from home?" she asked finally.

James blinked.

"The bath bombs?" he asked.

"Yes," Clarity said, looking at him a little more intently now.

"No," James said. "They were a gift. Someone put them on my doorstep. It was addressed from Mel, but it turns out they weren't from her. Her real gift came later."

He cut himself off there, not sure how much more to say. He felt like that alone opened up a lot more questions about... well... everything.

Clarity had gone back to drumming her fingers on the counter, seeming to stare through him rather than at him now.

"So, it's another participant," she said. "Or the DMV, I wouldn't put it past them."

"I'm inclined to think the latter," James said weakly.

Clarity nodded, her gaze still unfocused as she seemed to think out loud. "I'm willing to bet they know how it works. Like a weapon at their disposal. Maybe it's even how they manage to make all their mysterious powers work. There's a lot of unrelated things they seem to be able to do."

"It wouldn't surprise me if some of that magic is used for the function of the island," James commented quietly. "And the events they've put on."

Clarity's gaze seemed to snap back to life, looking at him intently as she nodded. "Yes. That. They managed to give everyone a different effect for all the drinks at the party, even though there's no plausible enchantment that could do all those things at once."

James nodded.

"It's magic unlike any I've seen," James agreed.

And there was a small pause as he looked at the floor, then back up at her.

"If you're looking for... another opportunity to learn more about it," James said carefully. "Then maybe you could help me with the new predicament I'm in."

A beat.

"That is," he said. "If it's not inconvenient for you."

Clarity's eyebrows raised slightly as she leaned over the counter.

"I'm listening," she said.

"Recently," he said. "It seems any water I've consumed has contributed to a continual numbness in my senses. It started with an inability to feel pain, but now I can't seem to feel much at all."

"Numbness," Clarity echoed. "What does that extend to? Could you feel it if someone tapped you, or the temperature of the counter?"

"I haven't been able to register temperatures for at least 24 hours," he said. "I still sweat, but I don't feel it. As for touch, I can't say for sure. It's hard to say what I have and haven't noticed."

Because if he didn't see or feel it at all, how was he supposed to know it even happened?

"I feel pressure, I suppose," he guessed.

Clarity slowly nodded. "May I try something to determine that?"

Only the slightest bit apprehensive, James nodded.

"Sure," he said.

"You'll be okay," Clarity said, as if guessing, while she walked around the counter. "Just look ahead."

She stood directly behind him, and a couple seconds passed.

"Alright," she said. "I just poked you with my finger. Where did you feel it?"

James hadn't even known he'd been touched.

That knowledge made him uneasy.

"I... I didn't feel it at all," he said faintly.

Clarity hummed under her breath, also sounding confused. "Alright. That was your shoulder blade. I'm about to do it again. See if you can feel it while focusing on that."

"Alright," he agreed.

But even as he waited and focused on his shoulders, he still couldn't feel a thing. Not even a push.

"I take it you didn't feel that either," Clarity said after a moment.

"No," he said quietly.

Clarity quickly stepped back into his field of vision, her brow furrowed. "So, you can't feel pressure after all," she said, sounding distracted.

Trying not to frown too deeply, James only managed a nod.

Clarity pursed her lips as she looked back at him. "Where are you getting your water from? Tap? Water bottles?"

"Tap," he said. "But I've... stopped drinking water. Since this morning."

Not entirely true. He stopped drinking water yesterday, but that sounded worse, for some reason.

Clarity stared at him for a few moments. Not judgmentally, but there was a lot of force in her stare.

"I'm no doctor, but I think that leads to kidney failure," she said. "Among other things."

"My kidney can grow back," James said, before realizing just how awful that sounded.

"I thought that was the liver," Clarity murmured, half to herself.

"I..." James hesitated.

Did Clarity not know about his magic either? He supposed they hadn't really spoken much, so why should she?

"My body heals itself rapidly," he said, realizing that didn't make it any better.

"Ah," Clarity said, nodding understandingly before pausing, staring down at the counter. "As convenient as that sounds, you shouldn't dehydrate. Not that I don't see why you are, of course. However..."

There was another beat, and Clarity looked back up at him, looking like she'd thought of something.

"I take it you think it's also the DMV," she said.

James nodded.

"It seems the only plausible explanation," he murmured.

Clarity nodded again.

"I have an idea, then," she said, turning around. "I just need a bucket."

James's eyes flicked to the closet in the corner of their living room.

"Do you not have one?" he asked, wondering if they were lacking in cleaning supplies.

"I think there's one..." Clarity opened a cabinet underneath the sink, searching around for a few moments before holding up a bucket. "...here."

James blinked.

"What are you going to do with it?" he asked.

"If they've magically meddled with the water in your cabin-- which I suspect they can do, and probably have--" Clarity set the bucket on the counter with a thunk. "--I'd like to see them try that with the ocean. This bucket can hold a few gallons." She tapped the rim, looking James in the eye. "I'm going to fill it up with water, boil it until it's been distilled of the salt, and magically condense the steam into drinking water again."

"If it's ocean water you need fetching," James said. "I can run out and fill that real quick."

"That would be nice, although I think there's a quicker way to do this," Clarity said, moving over to the window and opening it.

As James watched, Clarity looked out towards the shore, extending her arm and flinging it in an effortless but controlled gesture. When she did, an orb of water lifted from the ocean, glistening in the sunlight. Clarity drew her arm back, and the water travelled the distance between the shore and the cabin, moving through the open window and splashing into the bucket without getting a single drop on the counter.

James watched with pleasant surprise, incredibly impressed by Clarity's level of power and control.

"Seems there is," he said, looking to her with a small grin.

Clarity returned the grin, now reaching for an electric kettle on the counter and opening the lid with one hand while she used the other to magically transfer water from the bucket until it was filled to the line on the side. "Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the offer," she said, turning it on. "But I can imagine the look I would get if I had you do the heavy lifting and then manipulated the water as steam in front of you later."

James huffed through his nose.

"Fair enough," he said.


They waited for the water to boil, and as it did, Clarity carefully contained the water vapor, directing it into a container until the water had completely boiled off. Sure enough, the salt was left at the bottom, which Clarity dumped out before refilling the kettle and starting to boil the next batch. She then sealed the container, and they watched as the water started to cool and condense, forming drops of liquid water on the sides.

"Soon enough, that'll be a few cups of water," Clarity said. "You'll probably want to wait for it to cool, though. It'll still be at boiling temperature for a while."

James nodded, content to have watched the process. He was glad that there was a solution to him staying hydrated, but he was still a bit worried about the numbness issue. It seemed Clarity was at a loss for what to do about it - or at the very least, still thinking through how to approach it.

"Thank you," he said. "This will help tremendously."

"Of course," Clarity said, sounding genuine. "I'm glad it seems I'm able to do something, even if it's small. This island is nothing short of insanity."

James leaned against the kitchen counter, watching the kettle as the boiling process started over again.

"Has it been much trouble for you?" James asked.

Clarity paused, going back to tapping her fingers distractedly on the edge of the counter.

"Certainly not as terrible as it's been for some people, based on my observation," she said. "But it's often dislikeable. Between the events-- most notably the festival-- and the strange staff practices, I find this place unnerving. And someone stole my lab goggles, but I sort of let them get away with it."

James's brows drew together, and he squinted at Clarity in slight confusion.

"You let them?" he asked.

"It was Jay," she said. "He was trying to steal them while being invisible, so I caught him once I noticed goggles floating across my room. We talked, and I let him borrow them, since I would have just lent them to him had he simply asked like a normal person. He should have. That's on him, though."


"Did he say what he needed them for?" James asked.

Clarity paused, frowning slightly.

"No," she admitted. "I was pretty tired at the time. It was while I was working on the bath bombs, and I wanted to get back to it, so I didn't think to ask."

"Ah," James said. "I see."

He looked down to the floor in thought. He didn't know if he'd even seen Jay outside of their required public events. He barely knew the man, so he couldn't really imagine what he'd be up to. But if he needed goggles from a chemist, it was unlikely he was stealing them for no reason. Surely not to merely swim.

Perhaps Clarity wasn't the only chemist on the island.

"Do you know Jay much at all?" James asked curiously. "Or was that your first time meeting him?"

Clarity thought about it for a few moments. "We were paired up at the 'speed dates'," she said. "It was spent mostly in silence. My leading impression of him is that he's... even less social than me. There was little else to learn from that."

Huh. That had been James's experience with Jay at the speed-dating events as well. At least the man was consistent, it seemed.

"Seems he's more of a hermit," James said. "In the true sense of the word."

Clarity nodded. "Apparently, if he would rather try to steal from me than have a social interaction. He said as much."

"Well," James said. "That's... extreme, for sure."

Clarity shrugged. "I've got no hard feelings, as long as he returns them. I'll need them back eventually."

"You only have one pair?" James asked.

"I guess so," Clarity said. "They must've figured I'd be the only one using them when they gave me a lab." She paused. "Apparently not. Maybe their predictions aren't infalliable."

That, or they knew others would need the goggles, and they were planning on them having to be shared or stolen. That felt more likely.

"Maybe so," he said, pausing just long enough to ponder his next thought.

"Strange thefts aside," he said. "I want you to know that -- well, if you need anything I can help with, you can always ask. The assistance can go both ways."

He wasn't sure exactly what he could offer her, but he wasn't entirely useless.

Clarity offered him a small, closed-lip smile. "Thank you," she said. "And feel free to return if you need me for anything, whether it's your skin turning any new and interesting colors or not."

James offered her a brighter smile.

"Will do," he said.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.
— Mary Shelley, Frankenstein