Fandom: Ar tonelico
Disclaimer: No ownership implied, no profit gained. This is a fanwork.
Characters/Pairings: Ayatane/Lyner/Shurelia, others mentioned
Summary: There's nothing too unusual about Shurelia writing little stories for Lyner to play out in the Binary Field. This time, it's a series of auditions to find Ar Ciel Records a new singing superstar. The only problem is that the story seems to be deviating from what's written, and each day, there's less and less of a line between reality and what Shurelia has - or hasn't - created. Lyner has a few ideas about just what's going on, but he has distractions on all sides. And he still has to select a virtual superstar, too.
Notes: This wass for smallfandombang! Also, thank you subluxate for taking the time to beta on top of everything else. You're amazing!
"I wrote us a new story," Shurelia said as she plunked down the two bags of groceries that she'd lugged into the apartment she was currently sharing with Lyner. They were still Administrator and bodyguard, for the most part, but... they'd also both decided it would be good for Shurelia to take some time for herself and enjoy being a normal girl. Hence the apartment in Platina, though there were plenty of days that Shurelia retreated to the Rinkernator to work.
Lyner was silent for a moment before looking up from where he was sorting supplies for his next major Grathmelding project. He had noticed Shurelia returning, but... not a lot else.
"Sorry," he replied with an awkward smile. "I missed that. Trying not to drop a thousand tiny screws or anything that might blow up..."
Shurelia simply frowned without getting too angry - all she did was sigh as she began unpacking the groceries.
"I finished a new story," Shurelia repeated after a few minutes. "I got the idea from a book that Aurica loaned me, and Mei Mei helped and..."
Lyner wasn't even sure he liked the idea of Shurelia writing a new story. Her last one had been a little too strange and ridiculous, though it had also been cute... There had been a lot of bunnies.
Still, he listened to Shurelia as he began to clean up his workspace. While they would have time for a project or two, Lyner didn't think they'd get to anything too complicated. Especially not with all the orders for some of the basics that he'd perfected. He always did what he could without Shurelia, but more often than not, just her presence helped him concentrate.
Patrols had decreased drastically since the virtual eradication of the viruses that had lingered in Mir's wake, leaving him more and more time to work on his own projects. Mostly, he Grathmelded, and his skills had earned him a growing number of clients who often needed specialized, complicated items - Tenba, the Teru Tribe, and even the Church of Elemia.
Shurelia had even suggested he open a store - before realizing that would involve losing him as her personal bodyguard.
"Did you want to go play for a bit after dinner?" Lyner questioned. He'd been fairly productive, so he felt good about the day. And just maybe...
"Do you really want to?" Shurelia asked in response, her face lighting up in a wide smile. She was wearing a summer sundress - a little under-dressed for the weather, but Lyner wasn't going to complain. Mostly he was just waiting for her school outfit or the maid's uniform to make an appearance in the real world.
"Sure," Lyner said as he watched her. Part of him just figured it would be good to get it over with. Though maybe - just maybe - Shurelia had created something good.
Opening his eyes in the Binary Field never stopped feeling a little strange, Lyner noted as he looked over at Shurelia. She was wearing her white Administrator outfit, like always, and she had her eyes closed as if she was working on something.
Mei Mei still provided them access to dive, from up in the tower. They'd considered the Dive Shop in Platina, but it came down to the need to keep up appearances and keep down gossip.
"Ready," she said a couple of seconds later. Opening her eyes, she smiled at Lyner.
And then she launched the program.
Lyner opened his eyes, again, a little curious about just how much free will he'd have in the game. Sometimes everything was scripted completely, and sometimes he and Shurelia could play around in open worlds. Sometimes strange things happened, which didn't bother either of them too terribly much, as long as it was within the confines of the program.
He seemed to be in an office of some sort, this time, though he wasn't entirely sure what his job was supposed to be. Leave it to Shurelia, however, to put him to work when it was supposed to be play time.
Tentatively, he stood and walked over to the door. Opening it, he noticed he also seemed to have an assistant.
"Mr. Barsset," she said as he looked around what seemed to be a combination lobby/reception area. The voice sounded instantly familiar and Lyner blinked once before looking her over and realizing it was Mei Mei. Or at least it she was modeled heavily after Mei Mei - it was hard to tell in this particular case.
"Going out?" she questioned.
"I... might be," Lyner replied. As he looked around the room properly, he noted that the walls were adorned with posters of beautiful women.
"Go find our next star," Mei Mei said before yawning. "I'll stay here with the phone."
"Next star," Lyner repeated. Apparently he was scouting performers for some reason - he could do that. He also wished he been listening a little more closely to Shurelia's description. He thought he'd heard 'fierce battle', but that didn't seem too likely.
"Don't forget to take the audition passes," Mei Mei continued as she pointed at a pile of oversized cards on her desk. "Give those out to ten girls you meet that you think have potential and then come back here."
Lyner breathed a sigh of relief - he could only assume that the real Mei Mei was responsible for the clear instructions.
"I'll see you later," he said to Mei Mei as he grabbed the passes and headed for the door.
The town was oddly reminiscent of Nemo mashed together with Em Phyna, seemingly large and uniquely colorful. There also seemed to be some sort of festival going on and hoping it would be full of girls to give passes to, Lyner headed towards it.
As Lyner approached, he could see he'd made the right choice. The street festival was filled with young ladies - too many, in fact. He didn't know where to begin. And he'd assumed - well - hoped there would be some pattern to assigning the passes and that he'd be able to figure it out.
He should have asked Mei Mei to come with him. It was odd, for starters, that he hadn't run into Shurelia yet. But it had to be part of the story and all he could really do was keep playing...
He heard a familiar voice a moment later, though it wasn't Shurelia's. It was, however, a welcome distraction from being the only guy wearing a suit and tie in the midst of a crowd all dressed in more traditional attire.
Looking around, Lyner found the source - in between a couple of booths, Misha was sitting on an ornately decorated wooden sphere, and wearing the red dress that Lyner always associated with her cosmosphere. She was flat out stunning, and for a long moment, Lyner didn't do anything aside from stare.
Instead, he simply stood and watched until she'd finished her song, and even then, he was momentarily lost for words.
The story did the talking for him, thankfully.
"Lyner Barsset, Ar Ciel Records," he found himself saying. "We're having tryouts for our next big star..."
He offered her one of the passes and after a quick moment, Misha was hugging him tightly.
"Thank you!" she said. "But you can just stay and hear me sing here..."
There was no refuting that logic, aside from Lyner knowing he had to move the story along.
"Tryouts will be taped," Lyner replied, the words pouring out of his mouth. "So I'll need you to come to the audition. But I'll stay for one more song."
Nodding, Misha tucked the pass into her dress and after a moment, started into another song. Her voice was clear and vibrant and honestly, Lyner was surprised. This wasn't the real Misha, after all, but Shurelia's view of Misha, which had apparently mellowed quite a bit into strong respect.
Misha offered Lyner a little wave once she'd finished, along with a bold smile. As much as Lyner would have liked to linger, he got his feet moving and didn't look back.
A few stalls further along, he had quite the surprise - there was Krusche, humming happily to herself while stocking all sorts of gadgets and gizmos onto high, shallow shelves.
"Need any Whatsits or Thingers?" she questioned, smiling. "You look like you need a Thinger in your life."
Apparently, however, Shurelia had some interesting thoughts about Krusche, which didn't make any sense at all. That or Shurelia just hadn't ever paid enough attention to the female mechanic to get the little details right, which was also definitely a possibility.
"No," Lyner said, despite wanting very much to say yes and see what some of the gadgets actually were, if they were anything at all. "But you were humming a nice song..."
Really? Lyner didn't really think he should be recruiting Krusche, but then again, this was a story and he was just playing along with it. And sure enough, before he had quite realized, a pass was slipping from his hands to hers.
"Here!" Krusche replied, grabbing one of the random gizmos and handing it to him. Lyner had no idea what it was, but it fit in his pocket and with luck, he'd get a chance to look at it later.
"Thanks," he replied, before moving onwards. Only after he'd started down the street did he realize that Krusche had been wearing far less clothing than usual. Honestly, the sight of Krusche's bare stomach had sort of become part of the scenery while traveling with her - it would have been stranger to see her covered up.
But perhaps to Shurelia...
Though Shurelia hadn't been wearing much, either. Maybe she just thought this stuff was cute and what girls would like to wear. Not that Krusche was terribly girly. Not on the outside, at least.
Lyner moved on, looking and listening for his next objective. Though he was amused and thought that Shurelia had obviously put a lot of work into the story, well, he wanted to get the passes handed out. And maybe fight an evil dragon or something - if this was that sort of story.
Yes, he really should have paid more attention to the summary she'd given, but she'd picked up Funbuns.
The next thing he heard over the din of the crowd was a little jingle. Looking over, there was Lyra with a table of treasures, including grathnode crystals that he couldn't begin to fathom - or imagine - installing in Shurelia.
He paused and wondered if Shurelia had a bit more of a naughty side than he'd originally thought. She was a strange girl, after all - but also one who meant a lot to him.
"These look amazing," Lyner commented. Lyra just smiled.
"If you like those, I can get you anything you want," Lyra said after a moment. "Anything."
"Well," Lyner replied. "How about an audition to be famous?"
Lyra blinked and the nodded, taking the pass Lyner handed her without question.
"I'll see you then," he said.
"And if you need anything before then..." Lyra gestured to her wares again.
Chuckling, Lyner gave her a little wave and then headed onward.
Before he found Shurelia, he also found and distributed passes to Spica, Claire, Aurica, Feyma, Ayano and even an almost docile, almost clothed Mir.
Shurelia was last, of course, and selling rice-ball bunnies in a little stall at the end of the festival. Lyner hurried to her, almost exhausted. He didn't think he'd been playing for too terribly long, but he'd certainly gotten quite an experience.
"Those are cute," he said gesturing at the rice bunnies.
"Thank you," Shurelia replied. "I made them myself. Would you like one?"
Lyner nodded, and accepted the one that she gave him. He wasn't sure he was supposed to eat it, though -- it sort of seemed rude to eat one of Shurelia's cute little bunnies.
"Thank you," he said, admiring it.
"You're welcome." She smiled. "My name is Leila... would you like to hear a song that I wrote?"
"Yes," Lyner replied. He wondered what she'd sing - around the apartment, she'd hum little things and little bits of rhyme, but she'd never really just sung for him. Not normal songs, not like Claire's.
Smiling, she sang a song about summer. And when she'd finished, there was nothing but silence - everyone on the street and in the surrounding booths had paused to listen.
"Here..." he managed, handing her the pass before he was nearly knocked out of the way by a sudden rush of adoring fans. Luckily the pass had all the details on it, likely also Mei Mei's doing.
Still holding the rice-ball rabbit, Lyner managed to escape the crowd and took a deep breath. The chapter should have been over, but... maybe there was something else? He'd handed out the ten passes... Quickly, he counted the girls again in his head. And by way of story, anyway, Shurelia - Leila - should have been last.
He didn't feel drawn back to her booth through the narrative, either. Maybe he just had to eat the rice bunny, then?
Glancing around, Lyner saw a vacant bench just on the other side of a small stone bridge over an even smaller little river, if it could be called that. Possibly, it was just a glorified drainage ditch.
Lyner took one last look back at Leila's very-busy stall before turning to--
Though it hadn't been a few seconds before, the bridge was now occupied. There was room for Lyner to cross, but... He paused, unable to see the woman's face. She was looking out over the stream, red yukata contrasting perfectly with pale skin and light hair that was blowing gently in the summer breeze.
Stepping onto the bridge, Lyner felt more awkward than ever, sure he should know her but...
When she turned, however, Lyner wanted to laugh at himself. It was Ayatane, yet again confusing someone with his inhumanly attractive appearance.
"Is that for me?" Ayatane asked, smiling and gesturing at the rice-ball bunny.
"Ah... we can share?" Lyner suggested. He smiled and pointed at the bench. "I was going to sit..."
"A good idea," Ayatane noted. "You're a little over-dressed for the festival, though."
"I know," Lyner said as he crossed behind Ayatane and then flopped on the bench. He had sort of forgotten about the fact that he was in one of Shurelia's stories. Ayatane was perfect - just perfect, and they'd had this conversation a thousand times. Usually, though, they were sharing Funbuns or other treats. Though one of Shurelia's rice balls would qualify, hopefully.
Ayatane sat down carefully beside him. "Is that from Shurelia's stand?"
Lyner nodded. "Looks good, doesn't it? I feel a little guilty about eating it."
"I don't," Ayatane replied with a smile, and took it from Lyner's hands. He broke it carefully in half, revealing some sort of sweet jelly inside, and then offered a piece back to Lyner.
"Thanks," Lyner said as he accepted. He watched Ayatane eat his piece, carefully, without getting a single grain of rice stuck on his lips or fingers. "Wasn't expecting to see you here."
Ayatane chuckled. "I think everyone is here, Lyner." He paused just long enough for Lyner to give him a bit of a strange look. "It's a festival, after all."
"I'm not actually sure why I'm here," Lyner mumbled after eating his half of the rice ball bunny. "I had just needed to find ten girls to give audition passes to..."
He reached into his pocket without thinking, and his fingers brushed against something hard. Another pass? But he'd found ten girls...
Misha was wearing her red dress.
Krusche was selling gizmos.
Lyra had grathnode crystals and bad ideas.
Spica had Kitty Candy, of course.
Aurica was selling intricate music boxes that sounded like crafted songs.
Claire was serving sake and beer.
Ayano was selling strange souvenir t-shirts, of all things... Maybe Shurelia hadn't been paying quite enough attention to Ayano, or had maybe only wanted her to cover up a bit.
Feyma and Radolf were together at a booth for the Church, offering prayer candles and healing - for free.
And Mir had simply been singing, though her songs were far darker than Misha's and Lyner wondered if Shurelia had written them or taken them from somewhere else.
So that was nine, plus Shurelia, so...
"Lyner?" Ayatane had leaned close. "Are you okay?"
Shaking his head as he pulled the pass out of his pocket, he wondered if the story would guide his response. "No."
"I was supposed to give out ten passes, and I did, but now I have another audition pass and I've gotten to the end of the festival," Lyner explained. "I'm really not sure what I'm supposed to be doing next."
Ayatane looked at him for a long moment before nodding. "That is something I understand. Though I suppose our situations are a little different. Yours is more immediate, after all."
Lyner swallowed hard - yes, here he was comparing being stuck in a story to Ayatane's sudden resurrection at the hands of Mir, Shurelia and the Tower. While Ayatane had gone back to the Knights at first, to help clean up what he could, he took longer and longer leaves to the point where it was normal to not find him cleaning up the apartment and not find him cooking for the three of them.
Shurelia hadn't ever really mentioned it. Lyner had tried not to dwell - he'd distracted himself. He'd...
"You're always welcome wherever I am," Lyner said. "You know that."
Ayatane shook his head. "You and Shurelia..."
"Roommates," Lyner interjected quickly. "That... hasn't changed and... I don't really know what to do about it. She'll come into my room in the evening, and talk, but then she'll leave or she'll fall asleep with her head on my lap."
There was an almost bemused smile on Ayatane's face. "And here I thought I was keeping you two from..."
"I just don't know if she's not ready or what," Lyner said. He shook his head. "I don't know if it's me, or her, or..."
"Have you asked her?" Ayatane questioned.
"It never seems like the right time," Lyner admitted. It did feel good to get all of this out, though. He knew he could trust Ayatane and hoped Ayatane felt the same way. "And I don't want to hurt her."
"And you can come back whenever. The Knights would love to have you. I know I would..." Lyner didn't get to finish his sentence. He hadn't quite noticed how close Ayatane had gotten, but Ayatane was very close and very softly kissing him.
"Wha-what was that for?" Lyner asked as Ayatane pulled away. He didn't feel terribly awkward, though he was far more aware of himself than he had been. The corner of the thin cardboard pass was digging into his palm and...
"Just showing you how easy it is to go ahead and find the right moment," Ayatane replied with one of his not-quite-innocent smiles.
"Still easier said than done," Lyner said as he leaned back and flipped the pass between his fingers.
"Give it a try," Ayatane reiterated. "And let me see that pass..."
"If you're secretly a beautiful young Reyvateil, I'll be forever indebted," Lyner said, handing the pass over. Because after all, this was just a story. Ayatane had not just kissed him. And maybe this was a really awkward way for Shurelia to tell him how she felt... Or... that she had some interesting ideas about all sorts of things.
No sooner had the audition pass gone from his hand to Ayatane's -- everything went dark. The chapter was over and Lyner was back in the Binary Field with Shurelia.
"What happened?" Shurelia questioned, looking confused. "I wasn't supposed to get all those customers! I had to make rice balls for them all before the chapter would end. You just vanished..."
"Me?" Lyner questioned. So... she hadn't written the parts with Ayatane? Then... "Ah... I just went and sat and ate my bunny. I was trying to figure out if there was something else I needed to do, and the chapter just ended."
He hoped it was a good enough fib, at least until he figured out what had happened. Maybe it was just a little glitch, or something Shurelia had written but decided not to keep and then not edited out correctly.
"It was fun, anyway," Shurelia said with a smile. "Did you have a nice time?"
"Yeah," Lyner replied quickly. "Wasn't quite what I was expecting, but it was fun."
They spent the trip home in near-silence. Shurelia seemed tired, which meant it really wasn't the right time for anything aside from letting her lean and Lyner settling a protective arm around her.
The apartment was quiet and dark when they arrived, which almost surprised Lyner. He'd nearly convinced himself that Ayatane would be there. Though that would mean, too, that Ayatane had also kissed him for real.
"That really wore me out... I'm going to go to bed, okay?" Shurelia yawned, stretching and arching her back. Lyner nodded.
"Okay," he said, before surveying the apartment one more time. "I'll finish up the dishes and do a few other things... But I'll be quiet."
Shurelia nodded. "Thanks, Lyner. Good night."
While there was warmth in it, Lyner definitely found himself wanting for more. He sighed once Shurelia had headed off down the hallway to her bedroom. And then meandered to the kitchen to wash their dinner dishes.
It had all been a story, after all. So maybe Shurelia did want him to make the first move. Maybe it was what she thought was the proper thing for a girl to do. But nevertheless, Shurelia was still his superior and well, that was just awkward.
Everything had been normal - as normal as things were in Shurelia's stories - until they'd met. And the story had gone off course when he'd taken the rice ball bunny and given her the pass. Shurelia - no, Leila...
Leila. Shurelia always, always used 'Leila' in her stories for herself, so she could take a little break from being the Tower Administrator. Yet Ayatane had most definitely referred to her as 'Shurelia', instead of the 'Leila' that anyone programmed into the story would use.
"Ayatane..." Lyner whispered to himself, before reaching with one soapy hand to brush his finger across his lips.
He... He really wasn't sure what he thought about it. Ayatane had really only kissed him for instructional purposes, so it didn't count, did it? It wasn't bad...
If it had really happened. If...
Lyner sighed again, rinsing the last of the dishes and then drying them carefully. No real point in dwelling on it until he could ask Ayatane. Though that might be a little odd as well.
After finishing the dishes, he puttered around a little bit, straightening, putting a few stray books away and then, though it wasn't terribly late and he was only bordering on tired, he went to bed.
Half awake, he was surprised that he'd been asleep. And that also, it was morning. And even better, he'd slept in enough that Shurelia was up and cooking. Though... it didn't really smell like her cooking. It also wasn't really that late.
Somehow, Lyner wasn't at all surprised to find Ayatane in the kitchen, happily making a full breakfast that looked more like an offering to the gods than what they'd normally been eating. Of course, on a technicality, Shurelia was one of the gods, but...
"Good morning," Ayatane said with a smile as he turned, holding a frying pan in one hand and a spatula in the other. He had his hair back in a bandana, but from what Lyner could see, he'd been growing it out.
"Morning," Lyner replied, still mostly just surprised. "Where have you been?"
Ayatane chuckled. "Can I say 'soul searching' without it being ironic?"
"I think so," Lyner said as he reached to scratch his own hair before plopping down at the kitchen table. He knew from experience that it was better to not help Ayatane when he was cooking. It was an art form and Ayatane was a master. "So..."
Ayatane turned back to the stove, but that didn't stop him from speaking. "If it's okay with you and Lady Shurelia, and with the pile of Grathmelding supplies you're storing in the guest room, I..."
"It's fine," Lyner said quickly. "I've missed you -- we've missed you."
"I've missed you too," Ayatane said, not looking away from what he was currently stirring. "I had the strangest dream about you yesterday, actually, and then I just sort of knew that this is where I should be. At least for a bit."
"Strange dream?" Lyner questioned.
Ayatane glanced over at him and nodded. "I don't remember much of it... I never dreamed before... Before. So now when I have them, I don't know... I just sort of keep the impression of them, but not the details."
"Oh..." Lyner wasn't sure how to ask for more without flat out asking, or if he should just flat out tell Ayatane about Shurelia's story.
The latter sounded like the better option, but before he could open his mouth, Shurelia appeared, hair down, wearing only a long, oversized Funbun t-shirt.
"Ayatane?" she questioned. "You're back? Is everything okay? And is..."
"Mother is fine," Ayatane said quickly with a smile, giving her the same look that he'd given Lyner. "Everything is fine. I just thought I'd come stay for awhile."
"That's wonderful," Shurelia said softly. "I think we've both missed you..."
"I've missed you both as well," Ayatane told her. "However, less talking and more cooking or things will get burnt."
Shurelia slid onto the chair beside Lyner and after a moment, leaned against him. Lyner smiled before putting an arm around her and very carefully leaning to kiss her forehead.
Shurelia didn't quite flinch, but she did seem surprised. But after a second of tensing, she relaxed and simply reached to settle a hand on Lyner's thigh.
Lyner exhaled a bit hard. Maybe this wasn't quite the time, but it was. He was overjoyed to have Ayatane there and couldn't wait til Ayatane had gotten breakfast onto the table and was free to be pulled into a rib-creaking hug.
"I do have some work to do today," Shurelia said after a long moment of silence, aside from the sounds of food cooking. "But I'll be free in the afternoon. Maybe we can get a few of those Grathmelding projects done?"
"That'd be good," Lyner replied, not letting go of her. "Might have a few extra, since I'll be digging through everything in the spa-- in Ayatane's room."
"Not too many - I want to play another chapter of the story," Shurelia noted. "I'm really curious, after what happened last night..."
"Mmm?" Ayatane turned, pulling the first pan off the stove and marching over to the counter to start dishing everything up. "What sort of story?"
"It's a competition to find a new singing star," Shurelia replied. "In the first chapter, Lyner scouted out ten girls to audition for him, and the next chapter is the auditions."
"And you're one of the girls," Ayatane surmised. "Are some of the others people I'm familiar with?"
"Pretty much everyone," Lyner said, before naming them off. "It was pretty interesting, and Shurelia did a wonderful job with all of the background details and scenery. As well as the story."
"I designed all the costumes as well," Shurelia reminded him. "It's the most complicated thing I've written so far and it does have multiple endings."
And then she pulled her hand away from Lyner's leg and clamped both her hands over her mouth. Apparently, that was supposed to have been a secret.
"Does that mean you might not be the winner?" Ayatane questioned. There went the second pan. And there were still two more. Lyner had no doubt that if they'd had a bigger kitchen, Ayatane would have made twice as much food, or more.
"Well, yes," Shurelia admitted. "There's a randomization subroutine set in the audition chapters, so there is a chance I'll fail one of my auditions. I thought it would be fun if I didn't know exactly what was going to happen."
"But what'll you do if that happens?" Lyner questioned. The story wouldn't be as fun without here there.
Shurelia pulled away from him and sat up straight, smiling. "Well, you're still charmed by me, so you hire me to be the assistant to whoever wins. That way, I can see how the randomization subroutine works, too."
"You'll have to tell me what happens," Ayatane said as he began bringing dishes over to the table. "I wish I could see it."
"I could try to write you in..." Shurelia said before trailing off. "Might be a little awkward to all dive together, though."
It was Lyner's turn to tense - Ayatane wasn't in the story anywhere? Except he very much had been.
"It's fine," Ayatane said, waving off the suggestion before grabbing another few dishes and bringing them over. "Play out this story the way it's supposed to be, and the next one can be for all of us."
"Are you sure?" Lyner questioned. He reached for one of the plates and had his hand tapped with the spatula.
"Not til it's all on the table," Ayatane said with a little grin. "And I am quite sure. It's just as fun to hear about it this way, after all."
Once Shurelia had left for the day, Lyner and Ayatane headed straight to what had normally been called the 'guest room', though the only person who had ever stayed in it was Ayatane. It was the smallest of the three bedrooms in the apartment, barely more than a walk-in closet, but Ayatane had never complained. The space around the single bed and accompanying bookcase and nightstand had gotten a little piled with half-finished projects and supplies, Lyner realized.
Had he not expected Ayatane to return?
While Lyner listened to Ayatane talk about all the places he'd been, and more about what Mir was doing, he couldn't help but wonder if Shurelia's 'randomization subroutine' was the cause of everything. Maybe it was pulling in purged parts of the story. Shurelia hadn't flat out said that Ayatane hadn't ever been in it, just that he'd need to be written into the current version. And possibly, depending on how and where the data for the story was being stored, it could be pulling in other data as well. That had to be it.
"Sorry," Lyner said quickly. He had somehow missed Ayatane standing just inches from him, hair still pulled back, revealing his porcelain face. "A-Ayatane?"
"This," Ayatane questioned, holding up a half-built item that looked almost hilariously like one of story-Krusche's 'Thingers'. "Where do you want it?"
"Ah... living room. I can finish it this afternoon," Lyner said with a bit of a wince. Once Ayatane stepped away, he exhaled and just stood there, confused.
Had he just wanted Ayatane to kiss him? Was this what Shurelia was waiting for? Except... Ayatane was Ayatane, his best friend and... Aside from Shurelia, the person he was closest to. Maybe even closer than Shurelia.
Working with Ayatane, like this, felt like Ayatane had never been away. They'd moved in perfect synchronization while washing the breakfast dishes. They knew each other's movements.
"The living room is starting to look worse than this room," Ayatane noted when he wandered back into the guest room. "I think if we work together, we might be able to tackle a few of the projects before Shurelia returns. I... know I'm not a Reyvateil, and definitely not Shurelia, but..."
"It's good to see her doing so well, here with you," Ayatane continued, looking at the bed, which was almost clear. "You two seem happy."
"Mostly," Lyner admitted. He leaned back against the opposing wall, which was only a couple of feet away, and shook his head. "I... don't really know how she wants our relationship to progress."
"It must be scary for her," Ayatane said as he reached for a cloth-wrapped bundle. "After all, she's the Tower Administrator and immortal and you're..."
"Not," Lyner finished. "I know. I'm okay with it, but yeah... it has to be something she thinks about."
"I suspect she thinks about a lot of things that we'd never consider," Ayatane noted. He began to unwrap the bundle and it took until he was halfway through for Lyner to even remember what was in there.
"Swords?" Ayatane questioned as gleaming metal came into sight. "For me?"
"Yeah," Lyner replied, pleased with himself and how good the swords looked. "I made them not long after you left. I guess they're... a 'welcome home' present, now."
"I'll have to go back down to the Wings of Horus to try them out," Ayatane said with a chuckle. "Not much up here to fight anymore."
"No," Lyner said. "But they'll still look good on you."
"They will," Ayatane confirmed before carefully wrapping them back up again. "And they can stay in here, once there's another flat surface for them."
Lyner glanced around and winced. "Not quite yet. You'll have to leave them on the bed. I didn't realize quite how much stuff I'd been storing in here."
"If we don't make enough progress, I'll just have to share with you tonight," Ayatane commented, his tone playful. "That won't be anything new."
"Might surprise Shurelia if she comes in to chat, though," Lyner said somewhat absently.
Ayatane laughed. They were both quiet for a long moment after. And silently, both went back to work.
Hours later, the guest room - Ayatane's room was under control though still half-filled with Grathmelding supplies. Enough, however, that Ayatane could stow his new swords safely and also unpack the bag he'd been using for travel. He never seemed to acquire many things, and Lyner knew that Ayatane's signature red armor was safely stored at the Knights headquarters.
They'd finished every project they could, packing up orders and items for general sale, until one entire corner of the living room was simply things that needed to be delivered.
Shurelia, when she returned, was energized and ready to help. Together, they finished everything that had been waiting and as a trio, carted the boxed items off to various couriers.
Standing in the middle of Platina, Shurelia gazed upwards at the Tower.
"Time to go play?" she questioned before glancing to Ayatane. "Are you sure you don't...?"
Ayatane shook his head. "Honestly, I think I'd prefer a nap. Unlike the both of you, I didn't sleep in this morning."
Lyner nodded. "We won't be too late. Before dinner..."
"Which I'll make once I wake up," Ayatane said. "I'll pick up a few things on the way back."
"Take care," Shurelia said, smiling at him before turning to Lyner.
Each waving, they parted, Shurelia reaching for Lyner's hand as they headed towards the elevator upwards.
"Lyner..." Shurelia began once they'd gotten into the elevator. It was a long ride upwards, and they'd both taken to doing it in silence.
"It's good to have Ayatane back, isn't it?" Lyner asked, fairly sure he was reading her mind.
She nodded. "It's nice to have you both..."
Lyner reached to brush back her hair, pulling her to him with his other arm.
He leaned and kissed her softly, just the way the Ayatane-who-wasn't-Ayatane,-unless-he-was had kissed him. Shurelia didn't protest at all, nor pull away. Instead she relaxed in Lyner's arms and settled her hands on his chest.
Almost a little surprised, he did it again, a little less chastely.
"Should we be doing this?" Shurelia questioned.
"Is it bad?" Lyner asked in response.
Shaking her head, Shurelia leaned her forehead against his shoulder, mumbling against him. "It's just that I'm..."
"Leila," Lyner supplied, thinking back to what he'd talked about with the Ayatane-who-was-definitely-Ayatane. Maybe Shurelia just needed permission to be something other than the Tower Administrator. That it was okay to take a break and do this. She'd worked so hard for so long, against the viruses and against Mir.
"Leila," Shurelia echoed.
Lyner kissed her again, and she responded cautiously, parting her lips just a bit.
The elevator stopped and they both jumped apart, startled and blushing.
"We've got the way down," Lyner said as he guided her off the elevator and onto the catwalk outside Mei Mei's Observatory.
"It's a long ride," Shurelia noted. "But... go slow."
"Everyone's ready," Mei Mei said as she walked into Lyner's office. "This is just the first round, but it's an important one."
"Right," Lyner said, hoping she'd provide a little more instruction.
"From the group of ten, you'll pick five," Mei Mei continued. "And those five will come back later for another audition."
"I can do that," Lyner replied. And then he thought of Ayatane. "Ten girls showed up, right?"
"Of course," Mei Mei replied. "Ten girls with ten passes. They would have been silly to pass up the chance to be world-famous."
"Of course," Lyner agreed, now even more intrigued. He'd hoped the story would at least stay somewhat consistent with its glitches, but apparently not.
"Come with me, then," Mei Mei instructed. "Bring your notepad and a pen for any notes you'd like to take. We should get started."
Lyner got to his feet and grabbed his pen and notepad from his desk. He'd been stuffed into a suit again, but it wasn't as awkward as it could have been, since at least this time he was prepared.
"You've got a really diverse group," Mei Mei noted as they walked from Lyner's office to a smaller, bare room with just a microphone and a table for him to sit behind. After stepping out through an almost-hidden door to somewhere beyond, Mei Mei came back in and settled beside him, looking on silently. Lyner wondered if maybe she was in control of the subroutine.
After a moment, Aurica walked nervously in and looked around. She was biting her lower-lip, Lyner noticed. And she was wearing her Skuwat Village outfit, which made her look a bit exotic.
"Go ahead and say your name," Lyner instructed, going along with the story. "And then sing."
"When you're done, you can send in the next candidate," Mei Mei added.
Aurica nodded and stepped to the microphone.
"Aurica Nesstimle," she said almost too softly. "Th-thank you."
Lyner crossed his fingers for her. She was trying so hard.
This time, she sang a fun song about animals, and about halfway through, seemed to be having so much fun with it that she seemed to forget she was auditioning for a record deal.
When she'd finished, Lyner wanted to applaud but couldn't.
"Thank you," he said, and meant it. He wondered if Shurelia could give that song to Aurica, if it wasn't already hers. He was sure she'd have fun with it.
Aurica blinked a couple of times, before skittering for the door.
Next in was Feyma, who was still dressed in her church garments. Lyner wondered if there was a Radolf out there waiting for her. Honestly, he hoped so.
While Lyner had expected the subroutine to produce five good auditions and five bad ones, it hadn't done anything of the sort. Instead, it had produced three stellar ones, three bad ones, and four that were wholly in-between. Shurelia had tripped on her way to the microphone, but otherwise done decently well. Still, it was distracting. Aurica's had ended up in the column of 'in-between', once Lyner had sat and arranged everyone based on his notes and memory.
Misha, Claire, and Ayano, of all people, had been slotted into 'stellar'. Spica, Lyra and Feyma were right out. Which left him with Leila, Aurica, Krusche and Mir to debate between.
"I need your list of call-backs," Mei Mei said after a long moment of silence.
"I'm working on it," Lyner replied, jotting a quick list. He wanted Shurelia to keep going, and as talented as Mir was, he just couldn't see her on a poster on his wall. So that left Krusche and Aurica.
Finally, he wrote Aurica's name on the list and handed it to Mei Mei. She headed out to tell the girls and Lyner, with nothing else to do, headed back towards his office. He assumed that once Shurelia knew she was in, the chapter would end, so it didn't really matter what he did.
Ayatane was waiting for him in his office.
"Too late for me to audition?" he questioned, flipping the pass between his fingers as he looked up at Lyner. He was sitting on the low sofa just inside the door - the sort of furniture that normally was never used, but took up space so the room wouldn't look so bare. There were a few plants strewn around for the same reason - to fill space and make everything friendlier. Shurelia was good with design, he had to admit.
"I didn't know you could sing," Lyner admitted, sitting down beside him. This time, he was wearing a suit as well, though his jacket had been slung off and the top couple of buttons were unbuttoned. Even his dress shirt was black. Black from his shoes on up.
"I've never tried," Ayatane admitted. "Did you get some good auditions?"
"Yeah," Lyner replied. "Everything went well."
"Then what am I here for?" Ayatane questioned, looking Lyner straight in the face.
"I don't know," Lyner admitted. The story was still running, because he couldn't ask any useful question about how Ayatane was there when he shouldn't be, or about the randomization. None of the questions worked. Until... "Why did you kiss me?"
"Because I wanted to," Ayatane said, his tone even. "It's strange... I want you to be happy, and yet..."
He'd kissed Shurelia and it had turned out well, and nothing felt particularly wrong about the thought of kissing Ayatane. Especially since this was just a story. He could... just go ahead and...
Yet again, Ayatane had caught him thinking, and surprised him with a much deeper, more urgent kiss than their last. More than what he'd done with Shurelia - about what he was hoping for during the ride back down to Platina. He parted his lips and grabbed for Ayatane at the first touch of their tongues.
Somewhere in there, though, he forgot to breathe and he had to pull away. His hands were still clinging to Ayatane's collar, though, and Ayatane was smiling.
"Ayatane?" Lyner began, unsure just what his question was.
"Yes?" Ayatane replied, reaching to loosen Lyner's tie.
Before he could get another word out, the darkness began. Lyner flailed a bit as he was snapped back to the Binary Field.
"It did it again," Shurelia said, frowning a bit. "Only at the end, though. Everything else executed perfectly."
"I made it back to my office," Lyner said, which was the truth. "I... thought that might have triggered it?"
Shurelia shook her head. "You were supposed to come out and tell us who passed. But Mei Mei did, instead. She told us, the five of us who passed talked a little and then when we left the building, it ended."
"Ask Mei Mei, then?" Lyner suggested.
"She only helped write the story," Shurelia said, shaking her head. "The one in the story isn't the one minding the Tower."
"She might know something anyway," Lyner suggested. "Though... I don't think I'd worry about it. It's not causing anything bad to happen. It's just making us work a little harder for the chapter to end."
Shurelia nodded. "I suppose." She paused, moving to end the Dive. "What do you think Ayatane is making for dinner?"
"I overslept," Ayatane admitted, his face a bit flushed as he scrambled to finish dinner. "I guess I was more tired than I though."
"As long as you aren't getting sick," Shurelia commented.
"I don't think so," Ayatane said. "I feel fine, now."
"That's good," Lyner said. "I have to admit that I'm kinda tired now, though. We did a lot today."
Shurelia nodded. "Me too. Though, Lyner, I might come talk to you for a little bit before I fall asleep."
Ayatane couldn't hide a little chuckle.
"The story did something odd at the end, again," Lyner explained. "We're just trying to figure it out."
"It's not doing anything troublesome, just... curious," Shurelia added. "Even though it's cheating, I want to explain the next chapter to Lyner, just so he can note where things change -- if things change."
"You'll get the recap," Lyner said, smiling at Ayatane. "Don't worry. But we should tell you about today's auditions."
"And what some of the girls waiting were talking about," Shurelia said.
Ayatane simply worked on the food. "I wish I could remember my dreams more clearly, just to have stories to tell."
"You had a dream?" Shurelia questioned. "While you were napping?"
Lyner tensed again. If Ayatane had gotten groceries and returned, put them away and then settled to nap, sleeping long enough that he was late starting dinner, than indeed... The timing was exact.
"I never remember details," Ayatane explained to her. "Just the general feeling."
"How did this one feel?" Shurelia asked. Her tone was innocent and Lyner didn't want to even suggest anything until he was positive. Especially because of what it involved.
"I think it was a little risque," Ayatane said with a grin. "I think that's why I overslept."
"Perhaps I don't want details," Shurelia replied. But she was smiling, and Lyner smiled, too. But while Shurelia was distracted with setting the table, Lyner mouthed a 'talk to you later' to Ayatane, and Ayatane nodded.
"That wasn't a very long chat with Lady Shurelia," Ayatane noted as he slipped into Lyner's bedroom.
"She's working too hard," Lyner said with a little headshake. "And I let her. But she was having so much fun today..."
"We all were." Ayatane settled at the foot of Lyner's bed, reaching back to make sure he wasn't going to hit Lyner's feet before flopping back. "It was really nice."
"It was," Lyner agreed. He shuffled out from under the covers and sat cross-legged with a pillow behind him. "But... that's not what I wanted to talk about."
Ayatane rolled onto his side and then pulled himself up onto the bed properly, settling into a position similar to Lyner's. "Then what...?"
"Your dreams," Lyner said softly. "Do you really not remember them?"
"Not really," Ayatane said. "I remember a bit more than I've been letting on -- why?"
"Well, the story that I've been playing with Shurelia... Every time the end of the chapter goes astray, you show up," Lyner said, watching Ayatane carefully to see how he reacted.
"But Lady Shurelia had offered to write me in, and it's a story about girls," Ayatane said, frowning. "I had assumed I didn't have a role."
"Yeah..." Swallowing hard, Lyner described the stone bridge and the bench, though nothing after sharing the rice ball bunny. And also Ayatane appearing in his office, and what he was wearing, but again, skipping the part where they'd kissed.
Lyner wasn't sure that Ayatane could get any paler, but his friend certainly looked it by the time he'd finished talking.
"That... sounds pretty accurate, except..." Ayatane had gotten close again, edging nearer while Lyner had been talking, leaving him a perfect distance to close in and...
Lyner didn't resist the kiss and after a moment of marveling, returned it fully. This was exactly correct, and Lyner was no longer trying to figure out how Ayatane was merging into Shurelia's story while he slept. Instead, he had his hands on Ayatane's sleep t-shirt, holding him close, trying to figure out what to do next. He didn't want to pull away, though he wasn't in the most comfortable position and he doubted Ayatane was any better.
He stared at Ayatane for a long moment, after.
"Really?" he managed.
Ayatane nodded slowly. "I wasn't ever going to let you know, though."
"Because of Shurelia?"
"Yes, and... I didn't know how you'd react..." Ayatane seemed hesitant and Lyner couldn't blame him. Honestly, Lyner wasn't sure how he felt. Not... bad. More like he really wanted to do it again, but...
"I don't know how to react," Lyner admitted. "I don't want to have to choose between you two. I..."
He let the rest of that statement remain unsaid, but he knew Ayatane understood.
Ayatane chuckled. "That's what you're worried about?"
Lyner didn't resist Ayatane's next kiss, nor another as Ayatane gently guided Lyner back on the bed. There was no hesitation - Ayatane's weight against him felt natural and if Ayatane didn't stop...
But he did, giving Lyner one more amused little smile before sitting up and stretching.
"You'll just need a bigger bed," he said. "Then you won't have to choose."
Before Lyner could quietly puzzle that through, Ayatane was up and gone.
Ayatane and Shurelia. That would be... Well, it worked in theory, Lyner supposed, but that was about as far as he could go without asking if Ayatane really meant it.
And Shurelia... well, they'd have to talk.
Lyner crawled out of bed to the smell of breakfast. He wasn't expecting Shurelia to be up early, but there she was with her hair pulled back and up, tending to a pan on the stove.
Ayatane was working on something else, but after a few seconds he slipped over behind her and helped guide her movements, hands over hers and chest against her back.
Swallowing hard, Lyner stepped back into his room and sat down on the bed. He very well knew this sort of thing could happen, but it wasn't supposed to be a permanent situation. Though... it would be the best permanent situation he could imagine.
Lyner blinked and looked over at the doorway, where Shurelia was standing and giving him a very odd look.
"Breakfast is ready... I didn't know you were up," she said, her expression slowly turning into a smile. "Ayatane helped me make everything..."
"It smells wonderful," Lyner said quickly, getting to his feet and heading over towards her. "I'm just moving a little slowly today."
"Then I'm glad I caught you. I might have been putting off some maintenance that I can't put off any longer, so I'm going to be gone most of the day," Shurelia admitted. "I'd invite you along, but it'd be pretty boring for you."
"If you want me to go..." Lyner carefully pulled her into a loose hug and smiled as she relaxed against him.
"She already volunteered you to help me clean the apartment and get groceries." Ayatane was standing in the hall, smiling and holding a spatula. "Both of you come eat before it gets cold."
"Of course," Shurelia replied quickly, slipping from Lyner's embrace.
Lyner just nodded. He knew Shurelia would be fine on her own and he knew that he'd just be bored if he went with her, but... He had to admit that the thought of an entire day alone with Ayatane seemed a little intimidating, all things considered.
"I'm not going to bite," Ayatane said as he reached over Lyner to put a couple of books up on a shelf.
"I know," Lyner replied quickly, despite pulling back just a bit. "I just... I'm thinking too much and even I know I'm not good at that."
Ayatane seemed unable to resist a small chuckle. "I just want to get this place clean today. Nothing else until we get Shurelia's input."
"Isn't that what you want?" Ayatane asked, frowning.
"I don't know," Lyner admitted.
"Then I guess you can vacuum and I'll work on a grocery list." Ayatane's smile was infectious and Lyner nodded. That would be good, yes. And Lyner could keep thinking...
"Mmm?" He looked up to see Shurelia standing over him. It was dark, and... "I fell asleep?"
"You both did," Shurelia said, shaking her head and gesturing over at Ayatane, who was sprawled on the sofa. Lyner stretched, trying to unkink his neck and figure out just how he'd managed to sleep in such an uncomfortable position in a barely-comfortable chair.
"What time is it?" Lyner asked. "We were trying to stay up..."
"Late," Shurelia admitted. "There was some unexpected defragmenting to do and there was no time like the present. But it's all taken care of."
"Time to go to bed?" Lyner questioned. He and Ayatane had just been talking... about the lower world, mostly. And about what Mir was doing. Nothing too involved, just talking...
Shurelia nodded. "I might bother you for a second, though."
"That would be fine." Lyner stretched again and got to his feet, not resisting the chance to give Shurelia a quick kiss on the cheek. "You can stay as long as you'd like."
"Lyner!" Shurelia's tone was probably a little sharper than she'd intended, but it was enough that Lyner felt overly awkward and was thankful for the half-awake mumble from the sofa.
"We fell asleep?" Ayatane asked, propping himself up on one elbow. "What time is it?"
"Late," Lyner supplied. "But everything's okay."
Nodding, Ayatane gave Lyner a long look before getting to his feet and shuffling towards his room.
"The place looks good," Shurelia said before yawning herself.
"Are you sure you don't want to just go sleep?" Lyner asked, reaching for her hand.
"Stay and talk for just a moment?" Shurelia questioned as she took Lyner's hand and lead him towards her room. "I think I figured out some of what's been going wrong with our story."
Lyner's eyes went wide, but luckily Shurelia wasn't looking at him, but instead at the pile of laundry on the floor in her room. Of course they hadn't cleaned in her room. Not without asking or being told.
Shurelia didn't say anything about the laundry, though. Lyner settled on her bed and closed his eyes, waiting until Shurelia's weight settled beside him. He wasn't sure she'd ever let him see her changing out of her administrator outfit and into her nightshirt, but he was hopeful.
"It's Mir," Shurelia finally said. This time, she was the one who reached for Lyner's hand.
"What about her?" Lyner frowned.
"I think she's sabotaging our story," Shurelia said firmly. "Even though she hasn't done anything too strange in it..."
"Mir's doing it?" Lyner questioned. His explanation wasn't too different, though he didn't think Mir was active in participation, just that she'd coded Ayatane to the tower in such a way that his data was accidentally merging...
"Well, I think I stopped it," Shurelia replied. "For now, at least. I can't believe she's still mad about all of that, though."
Lyner blinked once before chuckling. "I guess we'll have to see. Tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow," Shurelia said, leaning against him. She exhaled softly and squeezed his hand. "Would you stay til I fall asleep?"
"Yes," Lyner said, shifting with Shurelia until they were both fully on the bed. Except, with the way she'd settled... he was going to be staying longer than a few minutes.
"It's nice having Ayatane back, isn't it?" Shurelia asked sleepily, pressing herself close to Lyner.
"Yes," Lyner said, carefully kissing her forehead and then even more carefully kissing her lips.
Moments later, she was asleep and Lyner managed to get a blanket over them both.
"Morning?" he tried, opening his eyes and hoping he was correct. He was warm, and rather wanted to stay asleep.
Shurelia was close. Really close, because...
"What are you doing?" she managed to untangle herself from him and skitter to the far side of the bed, looking horrified.
"Me?" Lyner questioned, yawning. "You fell asleep on me, and I guess I just fell asleep."
"But we haven't..."
"We have to start somewhere," Lyner said softly, gesturing that she should really come back over to him. "I know you're afraid and to be honest, I'm a little intimidated, but... I already know we can do anything if we're together."
Nodding, Shurelia slowly settled back into Lyner's embrace and was quiet for a long moment.
"This is nice," she said, finally, resting her head against him.
"It is," Lyner replied, reaching to carefully stroke her hair. He couldn't believe he was finally holding her like this, and that she wasn't pulling away.
Yet at a very base level, under layers of joy at having Shurelia snuggled up in bed with him, he couldn't help wishing Ayatane could be there too.
"I'm taking Lyner with me today," Shurelia said firmly during breakfast. "Official business."
"That's fine," Ayatane said, smiling. "It'll be easier to clean the bathroom without interruption. I'm surprised this place didn't fall in without me."
"We certainly weren't eating as well," Lyner admitted.
Shurelia opened her mouth to protest, but apparently couldn't find the words. It was the truth - neither of them could hold a candle to Ayatane's skill.
"What do we need to do?" Lyner questioned, infinitely curious about what needed his attention as well as Shurelia's, and why she hadn't told him before.
"I'll explain on the way," she said curtly, before finishing up and stacking her dishes before taking them over to the sink. "I'll go get ready."
"I'll never understand her," Lyner admitted once she'd left the kitchen. "I can't imagine a day without her, but... I'll never understand her."
Ayatane just chuckled. "And yet I saw you come from her room this morning."
"Yeah," Lyner admitted. "I mean, we just slept, but... it was nice."
"I'm glad," Ayatane said. And Lyner could tell that he meant it.
"We're going to go play more of the story," Shurelia said as they headed towards the elevator to the Observatory. "It's important."
"Wait," Lyner said, tugging at Shurelia's hand. He hadn't noticed when she'd taken his, but... "You said..."
"It's official if I say it's official," Shurelia said firmly. She paused and then smiled. "We're going to test and see if I fixed the problem."
Lyner nodded and kept moving. If Shurelia thought it was that important, well, he wasn't going to complain. It was better than whatever actual work he was expecting to have to do, after all.
"It's the second day of auditions," Mei Mei said firmly. "You have to narrow down the field to just two girls."
Lyner nodded. "I can do that," he said, hoping he could do that. "Same format as last time?"
"Yes," Mei Mei confirmed. "And then the two girls you pick today will come back and compete against one another for a spot on stage on the last day of the festival. It's already all booked - we just don't know who'll be singing. But it'll be the perfect debut."
Well, it sounded pretty simple, and Lyner felt far more into his role than he had previously. Everything felt pretty tight, though this seemed like it would be a short segment. Not that there was anything wrong with that.
"Are the girls all here?" Lyner questioned. He had a notepad and a pen.
"We're ready to go when you are," Mei Mei said with a little smile.
Lyner nodded and stood - it was time.
This time, the randomization subroutine did its thing perfectly, though Lyner wasn't thinking about that. He was Lyner Barsset, from Ar Ciel Records, and he was holding auditions for the next star.
And he knew - he just knew without even really thinking afterwards, that he'd narrowed it down to two beautiful and talented young ladies: Leila and Claire.
It was almost a shame that he couldn't team them as a duo, but their voices, while each beautiful, had such different qualities to them that it wouldn't work.
He told them, without fuss, and then stepped back to go back to his office, like he normally did, when...
Lyner snapped his eyes open in the Binary Field, looking for Shurelia, who took just a moment to make her presence known.
"That was different," she said, almost concerned. "Perfect, really."
"Yeah," Lyner replied, shaking his head. "Felt a little too real. I feel like I should be asking for your autograph or something.
Shurelia chuckled, but only for a couple of seconds. "I suppose that proves that there was an outside force. But really, I can't believe Mir is still mad over us changing her one story that one time. I wouldn't be mad if she changed..."
"Shurelia, you are being mad that she changed..." Lyner tried, but Shurelia quickly cut him back off.
"That's different. She's not even really changing anything, just making it weird. If she wanted to change the ending so we had to fight dragons during the end concert, I wouldn't mind. I just don't like it being weird."
Lyner wasn't sure how dragons wouldn't be weird, but he wasn't going to say anything. Sometimes, well, most of the time, it was best to just agree with her.
And until he had a chance to talk with her and let her know about Ayatane, well, he didn't even want to mention exactly how Mir was changing the story. If it was her intentional doing at all.
"I'll stay and work," Shurelia continued. "But you can head home if you'd like. I know how happy you've been to have Ayatane around."
Lyner peeked into the kitchen, but it was empty.
"You're home early."
Lyner turned to see Ayatane emerge from the bathroom, sponge in hand. His hair was tied back in a bandana, again, and there were wet spots on his knees.
"Yeah... hey, you've been working on the bathroom this whole time?" Lyner questioned. He started pulling off his outerwear.
"Mostly, after I made beds and picked up laundry," Ayatane said. "Why?"
"Because Shurelia didn't drag me off for work," Lyner admitted. "She wanted to play some of the story, because..." He looked away, not sure if this was going to be difficult or not. "Well, when she was doing maintenance, she found some strange data that seemed to be Mir's work."
"You think Mother was causing...?" Ayatane trailed off, and Lyner looked back to him and nodded.
"Shurelia does," Lyner said. "But I didn't tell her about... well... the nature of the changes."
"I would like to think that if she was going to meddle in my personal life, she'd at least tell me," Ayatane replied flatly. "Is there proof?"
Lyner shook his head. "No. I mean, you're... Well, it's just as likely to be you, accidentally, isn't it?"
"I don't know," Ayatane admitted, frowning. "I didn't show up today, correct?"
"Everything went as planned," Lyner said. He shook his head. "Shurelia said she fixed everything, though. But you were awake as well, so it's... hard to tell."
Sighing, Ayatane turned to go back into the bathroom. "I don't know what to say... or really think. I'd like think she'd be a little more subtle. Or far less subtle, to be honest."
Lyner couldn't help a little smile.
"We'll figure it out," he said. "And it doesn't really matter exactly what happened - things are going to work out."
"Mmm..." There was something in Ayatane's tone that made Lyner hesitate. "What is it?"
"I just want you to know that everything has been of my own free will," Ayatane said almost-softly. "I..."
A little unsure what else to do, Lyner went with the first thing he thought of - damp grungy cleaning clothes be-damned, he pulled Ayatane into a tight hug and a moment later his mouth was against Ayatane's.
They jumped apart like they'd been burned, each staring wide-eyed at Shurelia for a moment before looking away.
"Ah... Shurelia..." Lyner winced, unsure of how to explain despite the explanation being very simple.
"Come here," Ayatane said, offering a hand to Shurelia.
She hesitated, and Lyner couldn't really bring himself to look at her. He should have told her. He should have...
Shurelia accepted, hesitant but letting Ayatane pull her into the bathroom, between his body and Lyner's.
"What's going on?" Shurelia questioned, her voice cracking. "You were..."
"When the story would get strange," Lyner said quickly, wrapping his arms around Shurelia's waist, "it was because Ayatane was there. And because we didn't think it was real, we..."
"Had some very honest discussions," Ayatane finished. "And realized that we work best as a trio. Possibly in every way."
Lyner could feel Shurelia tense against him.
She shook her head. "I... don't know. That's... I don't know."
Lyner didn't try to hang on when she pulled away from him, and Ayatane didn't try to stop her as she strode from the bathroom and towards her own room. They both flinched when they heard her door close, but neither spoke right away.
"I don't know what to do," Lyner said, shaking his head.
"Go for a walk," Ayatane suggested. "I'll finish the floor and then probably do the same. That... wasn't how I wanted that to go at all."
Lyner wanted to protest, but there was really nothing to protest. Instead, he just nodded and turned, walking out of the bathroom and through the apartment. He loved them both. He knew he did. And if he lost Shurelia in the process of obtaining Ayatane, was it really worth it at all?
Hours later, he still didn't have an answer as he wandered the streets of Platina.
Instead, he just had more questions.
"Lyner!" Two voices, together. Lyner was surprised to see Ayatane and Shurelia both rushing over to him.
"Hey... What are you two...?"
"She found me first," Ayatane said. "Though..."
"I wasn't lost," Shurelia said firmly. "But... I do need to think a little. I hope that's okay." She flicked her gaze to Ayatane and then back to Lyner.
"Ayatane explained a little more of how things might work," she continued. "We were talking while we were looking for you."
"We talked about quite a few things," Ayatane added. "Like your theories for the changes in Shurelia's story."
"I'm curious," Shurelia said firmly. "Let's go figure it out?"
Lyner hesitated for a moment, but finally nodded. "Okay."
Mei Mei gave them an odd look, but didn't comment on this being their second time that day. She only murmured something about being tired, and then set them up to dive.
Lyner hoped that Ayatane had managed to settle and sleep. The obvious solution would have been trying to merge him into the dive via Mei Mei's equipment, but it certainly wouldn't have answered the nagging question of how Ayatane was ending up in the story. If that was something that even could be answered.
They were short in the Binary Field, though Lyner could tell that Shurelia was checking everything just in case. She wasn't really looking at him at all, but... he really didn't think she was upset. Just... confused and trying to sort things through.
He stretched once as Lyner Barsset, record executive, and smiled. This felt more familiar - like he had half of his mind and wasn't locked into the confines of the game. So now he had to find Ayatane, along with navigating this - the final chapter.
But this time they were all aware of each other, and what might be happening.
"Ready to choose our star?" Mei Mei questioned when Lyner stepped out his office.
"I am," Lyner replied. "Are Leila and Claire here?"
"Waiting in the audition studio," Mei Mei said. "Each will sing two songs and you'll make your decision. Then we'll all go down to the festival and the winner gets to make her debut."
"Sounds good," Lyner told her, smiling. "You'll come to the festival too?"
Mei Mei seemed surprised and stuck for an answer. Apparently he wasn't supposed to have been allowed to invite her along.
"I'll see you there," he said quickly, hoping he would.
And hopefully Shurelia wouldn't get angry with him for changing her story a bit, now that he knew he was doing some of it.
There was no sign of Ayatane as Lyner made his way through the building, but he wasn't concerned. There was no need for the notepad this time, so he just ambled into the audition studio where Leila and Claire were both waiting.
"Which one of you would like to go first?" Lyner asked as he sat.
"I will," Claire said firmly. She stepped to the microphone and started into her first song without further prompting. Lyner knew right away that there was no reason to continue - Claire was the winner. Not once in the entire story had her voice been anything aside from stellar and he almost felt bad for Shurelia, even if she did have an alternate storyline in mind and had actually written everything so that she wouldn't necessarily be the winner.
Leila's voice cracked at first, and while Lyner could tell that she was trying and that she had obvious talent, she wasn't Claire.
Now, he just had to tell them.
"Thank you," he said once they'd finished. "You're both amazing, but unfortunately I can only pick one of you. And today, that's Claire."
The girls were silent for a short moment, before Leila hugged Claire and they both started fussing and squealing.
"However, Leila," Lyner continued, thankful for the push from the narrative, "you're a skilled songwriter. Perhaps you'd consider working with Ar Ciel records behind the scenes for awhile while you polish your voice."
"Really?" Leila's eyes went wide, and this time, Claire hugged her.
"I'll take things from here."
Lyner froze at Ayatane's voice. He turned, and sure enough, there was Ayatane, in his black suit again.
"Ladies, if you'll accompany me..." He gestured that they should follow him out through the other door. "Claire, we'll have our wardrobe department find you something perfect to wear, along with fixing your hair and makeup for stage lighting. And Shurelia-- Leila, we'll leave you with payroll to get you into the system."
"Thank you," Lyner said quickly, smiling. "I guess I'll go make sure everything is ready at the stage."
Leila didn't comment on Ayatane's slip-up with her name. He certainly didn't seem to be bound by the story's rules at all. And it was definitely their Ayatane there, and not just a fictional version.
Lyner watched as Ayatane escorted the girls out of the room and then made his way back to his office. Mei Mei had vanished, hopefully on her own way to the festival. But there was a checklist waiting, not complicated, and Lyner was quickly on his way as well.
Relaxing, and letting the story carry him along, Lyner worked through the checklist leisurely, almost forgetting that he was in a story. Sound was ready, lighting... Already there was a crowd forming, excited about seeing Ar Ciel Recordsí new star -- even if they had no idea who she was.
Lyner sucked in his breath. Leila was standing there, hair up in a bun aside from a few loose strands around her face, wearing a skirted suit and holding a clipboard.
"Leila... you're getting to work already?"
"Yes," she said, nodding. "Though I think we're almost ready to begin."
"We are," Lyner confirmed. "Are Claire and Ayatane here?"
"Claire should be arriving soon," Leila said, smiling. "We're going to do a big entrance."
"Excellent." It was a shame they had nothing else to sell. But they would, because... well, actually, the story would be over after this and...
"Until then, I'm just making a list of all the changes that have happened to the story," Leila - Shurelia said. Lyner nodded, knowing he was now fully talking to Shurelia and not just her character.
"I asked Mei Mei - the secretary version - to come along and she sort of froze," Lyner said, wincing. "I don't know if she'll show up or not."
"She was supposed to be in the role Ayatane took," Shurelia said. "Though he said he hadn't taken a particular role before, so this was a little odd..."
"A little," Lyner said, thinking. "But now that we all know what's going on, maybe he just felt free to step in?"
"I guess I'll ask when he shows up," Shurelia said, looking around. They were in the wings of the stage, and slowly they could see the area in front filling up with the people soon to be Claire's biggest fans.
There was the sudden sound of screaming as a small airship landed in a still-clear area and Clair climbed out, looking absolutely stunning in a dark-pink dress covered in glittering rhinestones.
"That wasn't in the script," Shurelia noted, peering past Lyner at the frenzy. "Maybe Ayatane should help me write the next story."
"Maybe he should," Lyner said, putting an arm around Shurelia and kissing her forehead.
"It's our story," Lyner said. "No one's going to mind."
Shurelia's protest was drowned out by screaming and cheering as Claire made her way to the stage and smiled.
"My name is Claire. I hope you all enjoy my songs," she said, taking the microphone in hand.
"You were supposed to go introduce her," Shurelia said, shaking her head. She didn't slip from Lyner's side, though.
"I don't think she'll ever need to be introduced again," Ayatane said with a chuckle, appearing from a side set of stairs and joining them.
"You're being pretty bold," Shurelia said.
"I'm still honestly not sure how it's happening," Ayatane admitted, shaking his head. He hesitated a moment, before moving to Shurelia's side. "I hope I haven't ruined anything.
They stood and watched Claire perform for a long moment.
"I can't complain about anything," Shurelia finally said, looking up at Ayatane. "The three of us do really work best together..."
"Then you aren't mad?" Ayatane questioned, gesturing towards Claire.
"The airship was a nice touch," Shurelia admitted, smiling and very carefully kissing Ayatane's cheek. "Thank you."
"You're quite welcome," Ayatane replied. He smiled at her, and then at Lyner, who was just sort of watching them, fascinated. "Then there's just one thing left."
"Mmm?" Lyner frowned. The story should be over, but...
"Time to go live happily ever after," Ayatane said, winking.
Without warning, the story ended, leaving Lyner holding Shurelia in the Binary Field.
"That was it?" Shurelia questioned. "There was supposed to be..."
She trailed off and sighed.
"Doesn't matter," she said after a moment. "Everything changed in there, and it wasn't bad at all."
"Let's go home?" Lyner suggested, not letting go of her.
"Ayatane's waiting for us, after all."
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