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Stumbling Out of the Shadows

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"I'M ON FI-YAHHHH!"

The screech came out off-key, his voice cracking—but as Kasey Manatos danced clumsily around his room, flicked his long, brown bangs off his sweaty forehead, and threw another folded pile of clothes into his suitcase, he didn't much care for technicalities. His veins were coursing with excitement, keeping him awake in spite of the early train he had to catch out to the countryside the next morning. "Light 'em up, up, up! Light 'em up, up, up!"

"Shut him up, up, up!" a teasing voice answered from his bedroom doorway, causing him to whip around with a startled squeak and almost lose his balance. Kasey's embarrassed smile quickly turned into alarm as he spotted his sister, Angelica, playfully imitating his dance moves and whipping one of his t-shirts around over her head. "That's right, Kasey!" she whooped. "Shake it like it's for sale!"

"Geez, Angie! I just folded that!" he yelped, snatching the shirt out of her hands and re-folding it meticulously as she giggled. His face reddened as he set the shirt into his suitcase, turning the volume down on his stereo. "Creeping up like that... go mess around with Nessie's crap."

Plopping down onto Kasey's bed next to his suitcase, the petite twenty-year-old grinned and shook her head, heavy brown braid swinging about. "Hell no! I've still gotta live with her after this. 'Sides, I think she was about to go to bed. Thank god. I thought they said evil never sleeps."

Clicking his stereo off, Kasey groaned, taking a spot on the other side of the suitcase as he lugged another one out from under his bed. "So... okay, point about you two living here, but what if I change my mind about doing this, then?" When Angelica let out a loud guffaw, he scowled and raised his eyebrows. "Okay, what's that—" He imitated the noise in a falsetto, "—supposed to mean?"

She waved him off in what she intended to be a nonchalant manner, though her chuckling gave her away. "You, change your mind. That's adorable. You're adorable, Kase. I don't sound like that, by the way." Still smiling, her laughter died down as she reached over and cuffed Kasey on the shoulder. "So... nervous?"

Kasey nodded slightly, smirking and giving Angelica a light shove away. "A... a little. I mean, wouldn't you be?" Setting his jaw pensively, he leaned back and propped himself up on his elbows, looking over at her. "But, at least I've been on a field trip to a farm before, though. And it's not like I haven't been reading up on it, so, I... I kinda know what I'm getting into. A little? And the mayor sounded pretty cool in his letter."

"True, true," Angelica agreed, shrugging. "No serial killer vibes that I could pick up on. No obvious ones, anyway, aside from the place being so freakin' cheap."

"Aren't you reassuring," Kasey muttered. He'd already rationalized the price away in his head multiple times. It generally wound up sounding like a load of crap, but it helped keep his nerves at ease for a little while. At the very least, he was pretty sure he wasn't about to wind up in the clutches of a cult. There were no cults in that part of the state. The news would've said something.

"Right? I really am, like a lighthouse in the fog." Nodding thoughtfully, Angelica swung her legs, looking around at the bare walls—posters depicting various musicians and films had once been tacked up, now rolled and tucked neatly into a box in the far corner. She bit her lip thoughtfully, giving Kasey a sideways glance. The long-overdue subject was bound to come up eventually—what better time to broach it?

"Soooo... you never told me what Danny needed to talk to you about last week, and Mom made it sound like you guys weren't gonna be moving there together..." When Kasey's face darkened at the mention of his boyfriend's name, her eyebrows shot up. "Hoo boy. Cold feet, huh? So lame. Wasn't he the one who started talking about you guys moving in together, anyway?"

Kasey nodded, jaw clenched even tighter. "So... I dunno what the hell it was, to be honest. Apparently—apparently I'm a giant, you know, selfish prick, and... and I didn't even think of his feelings about moving out there even though I brought it up, like, a billion times and I thought he seemed cool with it at first. Not that he put a cent of his money into it, or worked a shitload of overtime to save up..."

He balled his left hand into a fist and punched the mattress. "But, you know what really killed me? He just went on and on about how this bothered him, that bothered him, all this shit he never bothered bringing up until... until then." What had hurt even worse had been realizing the underhanded way Danny had even avoided arguments or talking about difficult subjects, but it wasn't a topic Kasey wanted to bring up to anyone. Especially not his own family. He felt stupid and used enough as it was, without letting others learn how blind he'd been. He swallowed a lump in his throat, blinking his vision clear. Like hell Danny was going to get the reaction he wanted—at least, not a second time. Even if he wasn't there to see it. "So... I-I guess he just... he just took his sweet time telling me that he thinks I'm the worst person on the fucking planet or—or—or something." He grimaced, and furrowed his brow in concentration to get the next words out: "I... don't need that. I don't. Whatever..."

Hearing Kasey's feeble attempt at a dismissive tone break slightly, Angelica sighed, reaching around the suitcase and rubbing his shoulder. It was no wonder he'd taken so long to say something, and she was a little surprised that he'd only taken some light prodding to do so this time. Kasey wasn't exactly the type to spill his guts at a moment's notice, and he hadn't had many friends in Twin Bluffs—no close ones at all, compared to the tight-knit circles Angelica and their baby sister Vanessa kept. He came by it honestly, being mostly shy, polite, and uneasy around most people outside of his immediate family for most of his life. Being outed in high school hadn't helped in the least. And while he'd gotten incrementally better after graduating, actually heading out with his co-workers to grab a drink every once in a blue moon, he was still struggling to build his confidence and figure his life out.

Not that he'd be the first to admit it, Angelica knew. He was awful at lying and hiding his emotions, which made him her favorite person to play poker with; but he also had the obnoxious habit of not wanting to burden anyone with his issues, which made him a bit of a pain in the ass to pull out of his shell. Alcohol helped. Not that she wanted her big brother to become a lush, utter lightweight that he was, but she had to admit, he was an unexpectedly fun drunk. She still thought it was a miracle that his co-workers had ever managed to learn this first-hand.

And then there was Danny. He'd seemed like a good guy for Kasey, really. A little quiet and introspective, himself, but supportive and sweet. At least, he'd seemed like it. He'd made the first move at the start of their year-long relationship, complimenting Kasey's drunken karaoke one night after downing a drink or two himself to work up the nerve. Numbers were exchanged. Dates occurred. Angelica and Vanessa gently ribbed their lovestruck dork of a brother, as was their sisterly duty. Kasey thought Danny was the best thing to happen to him since high school graduation. Their parents thought Danny was the best thing to happen to Kasey since speech therapy smoothed out most of his stutter. There was talk, serious talk, of the two of them moving in together, and Kasey had busted his ass to save up the money to make it happen—to surprise Danny by getting him out of the shitty off-campus apartment he lived in.

Kasey had been so damn happy. Danny had seemed happy with him.

And now, all that had been torn down. And if his stutter came back in full force because of this, Angelica knew she would have to punch Danny in the nuts.

"You wanna talk about it?"

Kasey shook his head bleakly, taking his time to sit back up. Clapping his hands on his knees, he shot her a wry smirk. "Nah. Mom... Mom pulled it out of me last week, and it... it was just exhausting. I-I could... mmm... I could barely even... get a fucking sentence out. Gah! Like that, but... but worse. Hold on." He clenched his jaw and focused for a few seconds, before going on: "It was just... a lot. I just made her promise not to tell anyone. Nothing personal, Ange. I just wasn't ready to say anything." At her understanding nod, he took a deep breath, and continued: "Besides, you know what? I'm starting a new chapter of my life. As far as I'm concerned, at the end of the last chapter? Rocks fell, the fucker died. And the kingdom rejoiced."

Despite her aggravation at Danny, and her concern for Kasey despite his shot at levity, Angelica couldn't help but let out a burst of laughter. "Hear, hear!" she crowed, getting up off the bed and pulling him with her. "He's history! C'mon, let's sing the song!"

Kasey paled. That wouldn't cheer him up at all. "Oh, god. Please don't."

Nonetheless, Angelica plowed on ahead: "You know the words, Kase! Let it gooo—"

"No, fuck that song!"

A pillow to the face was all it took to silence Angelica, and she stared at a smiling Kasey in mock-betrayal. "Whoa! Is that how you treat someone who's on your side?!"

"Yeah," Kasey admitted, shrugging and chuckling. "When they sing that shit, I do."

"You bitch," was all the reply Kasey got before being tackled to the ground and beaten with a spare pillow. With the two fighting for the upper hand in their battle, it took them a few moments to notice the new visitor lingering in the doorway of Kasey's room. The tall, gawky redhead watched them horse around a little longer, with an exasperated expression on her face.

"Hey, Nessie," Kasey panted, giving Angelica another whack with his pillow while waving at Vanessa with his free hand. "What's up?"

"Ummm, aside from it's one in the morning and Mom and Dad are trying to sleep?" Vanessa responded, shaking her head in admonishment. "I mean, I could hear you guys! And Mom's driving us all to the station tomorrow, remember?"

"Yeah, asshole, don't wake Mom up!" Angelica chimed in, slapping Kasey on the arm in mock-admonishment. "You rotten boy! Scoundrel!"

"Okay, see, and this woman is abusing me right in front of you," Kasey said, slapping Angelica's hand away and looking up to Vanessa. "That's not right. Help me kick her ass, Ness."

Vanessa raised an eyebrow.

"No, see, the feminist thing to do would be to help me whoop Kasey's ass," Angelica suggested, craning her neck back to give Vanessa a winning smile. "And you're a feminist! C'mon, Vanessa, what do you say? I'll take you under my wing and teach you how to disable Kasey!"

"Wait, disable me?!"

"...What planet are you people even from?" Vanessa finally muttered, rolling her eyes and throwing her hands up. "Why am I the only normal kid in this family? Took Mom and Dad three tries..."

"Don't flatter yourself," Angelica cut in.

Vanessa huffed and tossed her hair over her shoulder. "Whatever. I'm going back to bed. Just try not to wake up the rest of the neighborhood, okay? Love you, Kase."

"Love you too, Nessa! See, she likes me because I'm a good brother," Kasey said, smiling down at Angelica.

Wriggling out from Kasey's grasp, Angelica stumbled to the doorway, waving at Vanessa. "Hey, what about me?!"

"Yeah, you love me too, join the club," Vanessa called back, shutting the door behind her.

Angelica threw a rude gesture at the bedroom door, before turning back to Kasey and shrugging. "Well, good thing I'm probably getting your room after this. Was I that much of a pain in the ass when I was fifteen?"

"I mean... were you ever not a pain in the ass?" Kasey countered, though his slight smile betrayed his teasing.

"Har har. Fuck you too." Angelica picked up the pillows and gave Kasey a few more half-hearted thumps, before tossing them on the bed and flopping down on top of them. "You need to shave. You look like a hobo. What are you gonna tell everyone over there? 'Hi, nice to meet you. I got here by catching out.'"

"Yeah, well... you... need to shave," Kasey countered lamely, reaching down and pulling Angelica up by the arm despite her slight whine. "Alright, brat. I'm gonna finish my packing, shave my dirty hobo face, and hit the hay." Drawing Angelica into a tight hug, he mumbled, "Love you", smiling when he heard her return the sentiment. As they pulled apart, he kept his hands on her shoulders, smiling reassuringly at her. "And... like I said, Danny's just... just... old news. Really. I'm... I'm over it. I'll... be over it," he amended quickly, working to keep his voice steady.

"Yeah, you will," Angelica agreed, before bidding Kasey goodnight and padding down the hall to go to bed.

Shutting his bedroom door, Kasey slumped to the floor. He wrapped his arms around his knees as he stared listlessly at the half-packed suitcase resting by his feet, trying to stave off the seemingly countless doubts that had sprung up in the wake of his argument with Danny. It wasn't like he was ready for a new relationship yet anyway, but he certainly had no illusions about finding another guy out in Castanet just as easily—the sleepy, Mediterranean-style seaside burg had a ridiculously small population, not even fifty people in total.

Aside from the stunning images in the brochure—wide fields, gorgeous ocean views, lush forests, and towering mountains—the small population had actually been part of the draw for Kasey. He could only be okay with being tantamount to a loner and fading into the shadows for so long. It was easy to blend in somewhere like Twin Bluffs, just become another face in the crowd that could be easily replaced. And that hadn't gotten him any closer to being happy with himself. Leaving his comfort zone was the next logical step, wasn't it?

The farm had looked a bit dilapidated, sure, but there were other opportunities if that didn't work out... mining, smithing, carpentry, fishing, apprenticing the local tailor, the jeweler, or the doctor. The Ocarina Inn, at least by its own admission, boasted blue-ribbon cooking—perhaps he'd embrace the culinary arts? He could stand to learn to cook, at the very least. The town was small, but offered a startlingly diverse amount of exciting paths his life could take, as far as he could tell—and here he was, still at home!

One of those paths, something, had to lead him to... himself. He hadn't found that in Twin Bluffs. He certainly hadn't found it with Danny, and the reminder sent a pang through his heart.

Just take it one step at a time, he told himself, feeling his heart rate pick up. You're not changing the world here. You're just... making your own path in life. Just you, now. Kasey. In that house, and that empty bed, allll by yourself. Man, I hope the bed is empty when I get there. But, hey, bonus: You're not being dragged down by dead weight... so that's cool. You'll find what was meant for you. This'll all work out for the best. You'll see.

Staring blankly at the clock by his bed, Kasey wondered how much time would pass before he started believing that again.

------------------------

The Manatos family found themselves moving all too quickly through a lively, chatty breakfast the next morning, though the conversation was mostly dominated by everyone but Kasey. Before they knew it, the suitcases were loaded into the family van, rolling down Barber Avenue to the Twin Bluffs Rail Station.

"As soon as you have your phone service hooked up, call us," his mom reminded him tearfully, pulling him into a tight hug with the rest of the family after they'd finished loading his luggage into his compartment. "Although I'd really feel better if they had mobile service out there... are you sure you don't want to take your phone?"

"Too late, called dibs," Vanessa said from behind them, happily taking pictures on the cell phone that Kasey had handed down to her. "You want this phone back, you'll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands."

Kasey was about to answer that he didn't want to get tempted to do something stupid, like get drunk and text Danny, when his dad cut into his thoughts with a hug of his own.

"Hell, if there's a phone anywhere else in town, use that first!" his dad added, ruffling Kasey's hair. "Or write. Whatever! Let us know how you are, and if you need anything."

"I w-will, Dad," Kasey murmured, working in vain to keep his voice steady. "But I-I'll visit, too! When I can, anyway..."

"Damn right, you will," his mom said firmly, smiling as she stroked his face. "And be sure to call Grandma and Grandpa, too. They're going to want to know everything. And if you ever feel like you need to come back—"

"Noooope! Dibs on that, too!" Vanessa cut in loudly, earning smacks on both arms and noises of protest from both Kasey and Angelica. "What? Look at me, I'm fifteen and I'm already five-ten! What if I have another growth spurt? I'll need the space! Angie's, like, a midget!"

"Look, bitch—"

"I'll share space with her skanky dwarven butt when Kasey comes to visit, though," Vanessa continued, her lips twitching a little despite her efforts to remain cool and stoic. Her eyes were shiny as she pulled Kasey into a hug, dropping her voice to a watery whisper: "Just don't do it too much, okay?"

"I'll try," was all he could muster in response without his voice breaking.

Hearing the train whistle blow, Kasey waved his family together for one last, long hug, feeling his stomach flutter and his body tingle with a warm, yet slightly sorrowful feeling. "I love you guys."

"Jesus Christ, Kasey, we know," Vanessa groused, having managed to work herself out of the brief display of affection and slip back into her more familiar state of teenage brattiness. "It's not like you're going to Afghanistan or something, we'll probably just mope a little bit at Baskin Robbins on the way home."

A wave of chuckles followed this statement, though the others nonetheless returned Kasey's sentiments.

"And you forget all about everything that jerk said to you," his mom added quietly, prompting a nod from Kasey. "You're going to do great, Kasey."

"I'll kick Danny's ass for you," Angelica whispered into Kasey's ear, making him smile and laugh slightly through his tears. "Hey, dickweed, don't cry! You'll make me cry!" In spite of her words, her eyes were shining.

He shook his head and wiped his eyes. "Too late, bitchface."

"Ugh. See, you'd better loosen up like that when you get there," Angelica warned him. "I'm serious! First call back to us, you'd better be telling me that you called the mayor a bitchface."

They both knew he wouldn't, but Kasey agreed to it all the same.

All-too-brief moments later, he was alone on the train, craning his neck out of the window to watch his family grow smaller and smaller on the platform, returning his waves for as long as they could keep it up.

With a sigh, Kasey finally pulled his head back into his compartment as the train picked up speed, shutting the window against the rush of cool March air and slumping back against his seat. Eyes sliding shut pensively, he folded his hands in his lap, anxiously swinging his legs back and forth.

Off he went, into the unknown.

------------------------

In the weak, dry spring breeze, she felt the presence nearing—even with her faded strength.

She couldn't do much from her current position. Even speaking was a great task, and her mind felt as brittle as a dead maple leaf. Nonetheless, she focused her thoughts into a projector reel of images, splashed across the boy's mind as he slipped into an uneasy slumber.

She couldn't guarantee he would believe, or even understand, what she was trying to get across to him when he woke up. Not yet. She couldn't even guarantee his acceptance—she just knew that with the current circumstances as dire as they were, this desperate gamble on a complete stranger was better than nothing. Those around her were bitterly losing hope, unsure of what was even happening to them, and she couldn't even reach out to them. She could only wait for fortune to favor them once again while she helplessly watched the decay, confusion, and suffering.

It all depended on whether or not this outsider would be willing and able to help pull them out of it.

Chapter Text

The sun baked the dry, cracked land, the only respite being a wind so weak it may as well have not blown at all. The patchy, shriveled grass stood unmoving in the heavy, stale air. Stagnant water lapped feebly at the dusty, rocky riverbank, barely even contributing the hint of a sound.

"You want to totally uproot both our lives forever, just for something you don't even know how to do!"

A chasm ripped the ground open silently, devouring the blank, apathetic shadows nearby until nothing was left except a withered tree.

"You've become such a selfish, inconsiderate little bastard! There's nothing out there for us!"

A colorful bell rang out a mournful tune and shattered, the gleaming pieces glowing brighter and hotter until his eyes were seared dry from the heat.

"Angie, what the hell?!"

Bolting awake at the sound of his own voice, Kasey looked around the dimly-lit compartment, confused. That wasn't his room. No Angelica shining a flashlight in his face to wake him up, as she did sometimes. Heart beating wildly, so aware of himself that he swore he could feel every cell moving through his body, he ran a hand through his messy brown hair and sighed. He slumped back against his seat and looked out the window, seeing that night had almost fallen. Stupid jitters. Wish the train would hurry up.

After buying a few snacks from a passing concessions cart, Kasey re-opened his compartment window, drinking a soda and enjoying the cool feeling of the wind whipping his hair around his face. Even so, he found himself mulling over the details of the dream he'd had.

Dreams that were ominous, creepy, and occasionally apocalyptic in nature were nothing new to him, particularly when he was nervous about something. Frankly, he preferred it to stuttering. At least other people weren't witness to his dreams, and as far as he was concerned, it was weirder if people didn't dream about such things from time to time. And now, Danny's vehement accusations from the previous week were just an expected, albeit highly unwelcome, addition to the whole ordeal.

So, why had this dream felt so... unusual? There was a quality to it he couldn't quite put his finger on, something that told him not to just discard it like any other. A small, cold knot of dread had settled deep within his stomach, stubbornly remaining in place even as he reminded himself that it had been just another strange dream. Just like everyone else had sometimes.

------------------------

At the Horn Ranch, the MacArthur family was settling in for another quiet breakfast when a distinctive knock on the door caught their attention.

Renee MacArthur caught her parents' eyes and grinned, each of them taking a turn.

"One, two," she started.

Pause.

"Three four," her mother, Hanna, continued, shaking her head and smiling as the next two knocks came.

Pause.

"Five, six," her father, Cain, finished, rapping on the table in time with the final two knocks.

"Oh, I love it when he does that," Hanna said, giggling.

With a groan, Cain got up from his seat and made for the door, opening it a crack and grinning at the caller. "Morning, Caesar. Thought that was you! C'mon in!"

The short, rotund, gray-haired man on the other side peered up at Cain as he entered, a friendly expression on his face and a twinkle in his small blue eyes. "Had a little fun at my expense, hmm?"

"Aww, Mayor Hamilton, you know we love you," Renee called through a mouthful of egg, waving from the table.

"Renee! Gracious, you weren't raised in our barn," Hanna chided, shaking her head and tutting. Turning to Mayor Hamilton and making to get up from her chair, she added, "Caesar, you have time for a coffee, hon?"

Caesar cordially waved off the offer, adjusting his periwinkle waistcoat and sighing as Hanna sat back down. "It'd be a delight, but the young man from Twin Bluffs is due to arrive shortly, and I need Cain to pick him up and drive him back. And then I have to tend to some paperwork after that..."

Cain looked a bit taken aback, even as he headed to grab his boots. "Wait, wait, wait. That guy actually still wants to come live on the farm? Even now?"

Caesar fidgeted slightly, struggling to keep his face more jovial than guilty as the MacArthur family stared at him with a mixture of shock and exasperation. "Y... yes! Why, yes indeed! Im-imagine that, huh? What... what pluck! Ahh... heh heh..."

Suddenly slouching, Cain let out an exasperated groan and slapped a hand over his eyes. "Damn it, Caesar, you didn't tell him? The kid's... geez, you want me to leave now, he must be about an hour away! What, is today his birthday or something?"

"Surprise," Renee chimed in sarcastically, waving her hands and wiggling her fingers.

Sighing and looking down at his feet, Mayor Hamilton stuffed his hands into the pockets of his waistcoat and rocked back on his heels. "Oh, no, his birthday isn't until October." As Cain rolled his eyes, a nervous chuckle escaped the Mayor's lips. "Son of a gun, I must've forgotten! But! There's no need to worry about it—as a matter of fact, he did get quite a good price on that farm. It was only right. Deepest discount I could afford to post, actually!" Another, weaker chuckle followed, fading into a sigh. "So... he's got that going for him! It was the right thing to do, after all... hmm."

"Very admirable," Cain groused, sighing and cracking his neck. "The poor bastard... fine, I'll do your dirty work for you. You owe me! Especially if he still wants to live here after actually seeing the place... even if he did get a good deal on it."

Looking defeated, Caesar nodded, as Cain said his goodbyes to Hanna and Renee. Turning, the two men headed out onto the hot, dusty, dry land. Their feet crunched over dead grass and cracked earth, and they gagged slightly on the stagnant, yellow-tinged air.

------------------------

Cain arrived at the train station an hour later, seeing the lone figure of Kasey Manatos standing there with a number of suitcases. The boy was fairly tall and lean, standing only a few inches shorter than Cain's six-one frame, with slightly-wavy, shoulder-length brown hair, and light, olive-toned skin. With a faint hint of amusement as he shook the shy boy's hand, Cain noted he was wearing black jeans, gloves, and a maroon hoodie. With how hot Castanet had been recently, he'd be sweating bullets in that getup in no time.

"Cain MacArthur," he said by way of greeting. "You're Kasey M... Minton...?"

"Manatos, sir," Kasey corrected, giving the brawny man a friendly and slightly meek smile nonetheless, showing a slight gap between his front teeth. "It's, uh, it's Greek. Umm, I'm here about—"

"Yeah, Mayor Hamilton told me," Cain cut in, nodding as he and Kasey loaded the suitcases onto a pile of hay in the back of Cain's horse-drawn cart. He smiled wryly. "Sorry, but this thing doesn't have air conditioning. It's been a lot warmer than usual, recently." For the past couple months, he added to himself, scowling at the memory of the recent, balmy winter. Well, that had been more of a respite than anything, as far as he was concerned.

Kasey nodded back, setting the last of the suitcases into place and hopping onto the back of the cart. With a click of the tongue and a gentle snap of the reins, Cain set them off back towards Castanet. Kasey peeled his hoodie and gloves off and leaned back against his luggage—Cain hadn't been kidding about the weather.

As Cain made small talk with Kasey and felt his guilt increase, he mulled over the best way to break the situation to him. Undersell? Lie by omission? Nah, Hamilton had mastered that part already. Be blunt and scare the kid off, back to a presumably more fulfilling and enjoyable life? Inwardly, he cursed—Hanna was the one with the knack for smoothly navigating the awkward stuff, not him!

Thankfully, Kasey had suddenly deemed himself bold enough to drag the subject in, eyes darting around nervously and taking in the increasingly withered grass: "So... umm, bit of a, uhh, drought recently, huh?"

Keeping his eyes firmly ahead, Cain shrugged. "Yeah, you could put it that way. Mayor didn't tell you, huh?"

"Umm... I-I may have just missed the letter. I've been kind of caught up in some stuff recently..."

Cain smirked. Okay, if you wanna put it that way. Caesar probably won't have a problem with that. "I will warn you, you're starting this farm during a pretty rough period—for the whole area. Mayor Hamilton's perfectly willing to refund your payment full if you change your mind." At least, he would be willing to refund it once Cain fed him the suggestion. After all, the Mayor did owe him a favor now.

Coughing slightly as the air become staler, Kasey shook his head and cringed in the sweltering heat. "Sorry, swallowed a bug—"

Cain waved off his lie. He heard cicadas on a regular basis these days, but he hadn't seen an insect flying around in... he wasn't even sure how long now. "Nah, the air stinks, I know. And it's not even my cows stinking it up this time." Glancing over his shoulder, he addressed the top of Kasey's head from across the pile of luggage. "Like I said, the whole land's going through something bizarre right now. Been going on for a while, actually."

Scooting around to face towards the front of the cart and pulling himself up onto his knees to get a better view, Kasey shrugged. "I'll be fine. I-I honestly kind of need a change right now, an..."

The words died on his lips as he took in the waves of dead, patchy grass on the hilly outskirts of Castanet. A few humble buildings rolled into view—a barn, silo, and coop, a couple of dusty farmhouses, and an unmoving windmill. To his right lay a vast forest, the half-bare treetops varying between dull brown and sickly green. Cain was right—there was something more going on than just a bad drought.

The only signs of life came from within the barns, where cows, sheep, horses, and chickens could be heard, along with a girl's energetic voice.

"Whoa, shit," he muttered, eyes flicking to an apologetic-looking Cain. "It's all this bad?" At the nod, he swallowed a lump in his throat. His dream from the previous night whispered past the back of his mind, causing a shiver to run down his back in the blazing heat as Danny's angry voice echoed in his mind: There's nothing out there for us! "M...my farm. Is it like this, too?"

Sighing, Cain brought the horses to a halt right by his barn, walking around to the back of the cart as Kasey slid down. "Like I said, the Mayor will understand completely if you change your mind about this. Honest."

"Uh-oh! I don't like the sound of that!"

As they turned at the sound of the voice, Kasey saw someone emerge from the coop. It was a girl around his age, wearing cutoff shorts, sandals, and a baggy t-shirt. With her short, brown hair and fiery brown eyes, as well a strong jaw, he could only guess this girl was Cain's daughter.

"This is Renee," Cain introduced, nodding to her as she waved. "Told you about her."

"You're Kasey Manatos, right?" Renee asked, holding out her hand for Kasey to shake. He nodded, looking pleased, and she stuck her tongue out at her dad. "'Hard to pronounce', huh?"

Cain chuckled sheepishly and scratched the back of his head. "Ahh, well, you know..."

"It's fine," Kasey assured them, giving Renee a shy smile and nodding. "Nice to meet you, errr... Miss Renee?"

Looking amused, Renee crossed her arms. "Yeah, let's drop the 'Miss' stuff here. We've gotta be about the same age, and don't be mad, but I'm not gonna call you 'Mister'."

Kasey shrugged, feeling a bit embarrassed. Maybe he was a little too polite with strangers sometimes. "Umm... sure, Renee." He looked up as the door to the farmhouse suddenly swung open; a short, plump, kind-faced blonde woman bustled over to them.

"Ah, you're back, sug! Is this the boy?" Hanna asked, shaking Kasey's hand when Renee and Cain nodded. "Hanna MacArthur, honey. My husband here must've filled you in on the little, ah... situation at hand?"

Glancing off to the side, Cain mumbled, "More than Caesar did, yeah, kinda."

Nodding smartly, Hanna clapped Kasey on the shoulder and gave him a warm smile. "Well, what young man doesn't love himself a challenge? Right, hon? It might look daunting to fresh eyes, but that's life sometimes!"

Mulling over her words, Kasey nodded slowly. "It... it could be fun."

"Seriously?" Cain muttered, ignoring Renee's hiss for him to be quiet. Running a farm in the best of times was a challenge for a newbie. Was Hanna aware of what she was pitching to Kasey? Was he aware of what she was pitching to him?

"There's the spirit!" Hanna said cheerfully, rubbing Kasey's arm. "This'll all blow over soon, anyway! Now, Mayor Hamilton wants to meet you down at the farm—your farm, I should say. Got some papers for you to sign, little tour of the place. We'll have Cain drive you the rest of the way," she added, nodding meaningfully at her husband as he froze in the middle of unhitching the horses.

Chuckling sheepishly, Cain re-hitched them, nodding to the luggage piled on the cart and going a bit red through his tan. "Oh... yeah. Bit of a walk for us to lug all of this around..." He bit back his urge to voice his doubts on all of this. Kasey had seen what was waiting for him. And he was a grown man, really. If this was what Kasey thought he wanted, well, that was that.

Hanna headed back inside the farmhouse, after saying her goodbyes to Kasey and inviting him to lunch once he was settled in. With Renee sitting next to him on the cart to act as the de facto tour guide, and Cain taking the reins, the trio made off for the farmland in the center of Castanet.

"So—and bear with me, here—we just left Horn Ranch. And over there—" Renee pointed as they rolled past the various houses "—is Marimba Farm, where the Sellers family lives, including my awesome friend Anissa. They...usually have pretty amazing fields of vegetables growing." She chuckled sheepishly, as Kasey eyed the distant field with worry. The few, scattered vegetables growing there looked sad and pale. The figure of a thin, older man was barely visible through the rippling haze of the heat, slouching lifelessly around the fields. "Uhh... yeah. That's Anissa's dad. He's usually like that, don't worry."

As the cart rolled along, Renee continued chattering on excitedly about the other people living in the area, which she informed him was called Flute Fields.

He raised his eyebrows, looking at her with a mixture of intrigue and disbelief.

"Yeah, and that's the Fugue Forest over there," Renee said, giggling as she pointed to the withered grove. "Seriously, the whole town's named like this. I'm not even joking, they went all-out."

Smiling, Kasey nodded, feeling himself start to relax in Renee's bubbly presence. He was so used to only feeling at ease around his family, but Renee seemed earnestly friendly. "I... I like it. It's kind of... I guess quaint?" As they crossed the bridge over the Glissando River, he nodded in the direction they were heading. "Oh, hey, what's this place called?"

Renee pumped her fist into the air cheerfully. "The Clarinet District—or, as I like to call it, Flute Fields Redux! Y'know, since you've got a farm here, too. You're not outta here yet, Mister!"

Now a bit further out of his shell, Kasey smirked at her. "I thought you weren't going to call me that?"

Renee could only shrug and shake her head in response, smiling back at him.

When they reached the farm, Kasey gulped. Surrounded by dying grass, the distinctly-tilled fields were dry and cracked, with crumbling soil and a few unhealthy-looking plants popping up at random intervals. A weathered barn and coop sat near a rather beat-up, small, faded house. The paint was peeling quite heavily from the dull red roof and white sides, a good number of shingles and planks cracked or missing.

A soft, jovial humming caught everyone's ears as Mayor Hamilton waddled out of the house, shuffling some papers in his hands and rocking his head from side to side. Looking up, he flashed a rather tremulous smile at them.

"Ah, Mr. Manatos! I'm Caesar Hamilton, Mayor of Harmonica Town," he greeted, offering his pudgy hand for a shake. Kasey took it, eyeing the house skeptically. Hamilton's palm was very sweaty. Of course, it wasn't exactly cool and breezy outside. "I've been corresponding with you by mail. I trust your trip was a comfortable one?"

Nodding, Kasey rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. "Yes, sir. And Mr. MacArthur—"

"Cain," the man in question insisted.

Kasey nodded again, cheeks reddening. "R-right, Mi—umm, Cain... drove me into town."

Suddenly looking a bit solemn, Mayor Hamilton lowered his gaze shamefully. "So I hardly need to guess you've seen the... err, state of affairs around here. I am sincerely sorry I didn't inform you sooner," he said earnestly, looking Kasey straight in the eye. "There really is no excuse, especially if you're aiming to run this farm. Err, if you still want to, of course. I can hardly expect—"

"It-it's fine, sir," Kasey insisted, shaking his head. Yeah, he definitely wasn't calling this guy 'Mayor Bitchface.' Angelica would just have to take the disappointment. "It's really no big deal. Trying... it... won't hurt, right?"

Expression brightening, Mayor Hamilton stood up straight and nodded, clapping his hands together in delight. "Well, that's the kind of positive attitude we need around here right now! You're absolutely right, my boy." Beaming, he handed a clipboard with a few papers on it over to Kasey. "Well, then, if you're ready... sign here, and here—initial there, please. Ah, a lefty, just like me! Oh, and if I could, please..." Taking the clipboard back for a moment, Mayor Hamilton peered over the papers, humming thoughtfully. "Paid in full, right... ahhh. Well."

"But that's refundable, of course?" Cain pushed, prompting the mayor to nod in hurried agreement.

"Oh, of course! Of course! If you do change your mind, Kasey..."

"No, I'm good," Kasey insisted, but the mayor stood on his tiptoes and clapped Kasey on the shoulder.

"Well, of course! Of course, a bright young lad like yourself! Hahaha..." He saw Cain give a satisfied nod out of the corner of his eye. "Well. If that's truly that—it's a good deal, right? I made sure your gas, water, and electricity are in order. And you've got a TV! And a washer and dryer in the cellar—"

"Mayor Hamilton, really, you don't need to sell me on this place," Kasey assured him, taking an uneasy step backwards. Sure, it looked... dire, but the people he'd met so far seemed so welcoming, even if Mayor Hamilton really hadn't been forthcoming at all about the state of things around town. Though he had to admit, the washer and dryer sweetened the deal a bit. As did the TV. Vanessa had his laptop and his cell phone now, and he was already starting to second-guess his own generosity there. He was going to feel pretty stupid if it turned out that Castanet had wifi and cell service after all. "Seriously, I'm all for it!"

"He's all for it, Mayor," Renee echoed, pumping her fist in good cheer. "So chill out. Let the man name his farm!"

Looking from Renee, to Kasey, to the deed, Mayor Hamilton hummed. "Oh, yes! The name! I missed that part... well, it is effectively a business, after all. You'll certainly need to name your business!"

Kasey blinked. He hadn't thought of it like that, but it certainly made a lot of sense. He took the proffered clipboard back and stared at the blank line, as if trying to will a name into existence. "Umm," he began slowly, "does it necessarily need to be... uhh, musical? That—that's not, like... like some kind of an HOA thing or something is it?"

"Yes. We actually are the HOA, and we'll have to go over the rules and regulations in detail once you're settled in," Renee answered soberly, flashing a cheeky grin at the Mayor and her father when they shook their heads at her in exasperation. Kasey gave her a small smile as she waved her hands. "Kidding, kidding! We're not gonna kick you out if you name it, I dunno, the 'I Hate Music' farm. Personally, I'd love the irony. Go for it! Hell, festoon the place with a bunch of flashing Christmas lights, if you want! It's your party! Also, we're so not the HOA. I don't think we have one."

With a soft laugh at her words, Kasey hovered the pen above the line, letting options run through his head. He thought of a few of his favorite musicians before dismissing the idea as too corny for his liking. "Mmm... well, you know, I do kinda like it, though! Not the 'I Hate Music' part," he added quickly, scribbling in his farm's name in his neat handwriting, handing the clipboard back to Hamilton. "And I don't have any Christmas lights..."

"Well, have I got a housewarming gift for you."

The Mayor smiled as he read over the name, nodding and making an approving sound. "Dobro Ridge, is it? Very nice."

Catching Renee and Cain giving him amused glances, Kasey shrugged self-consciously. "I-I kinda like country music."

"Hey, you've got pretty good taste, then!" Cain laughed, giving Kasey a rough clap on the shoulder. "So, you need some help unpacking?"

"Umm, that's alright... you all have really done more than enough already. Thank you so, so much!"

"The boy probably needs his rest," Hamilton added, nodding at Kasey. "Well, I won't keep you any longer, lad. It's almost noon, and I'm sure you're starving, too! There's a working fridge and stove in there, and I had the grocer give you a little food to start off with." Nodding towards the ghostly-looking turnips and cabbage heads in the field, he added, "And the Sellerses from Marimba were kind enough to start you off with a little, erm... greenery!"

"'Greenery'? You make it sound like they left him a bag of weed or something," Renee cracked, making Kasey and her father laugh.

Hamilton groaned and shook his head. "No! Those two trees on the edge, is what I meant! They should be producing cherries in a few months, from what Mrs. Sellers said."

Nodding happily, Kasey propped the door open with his heaviest suitcase, lugging the rest inside with Cain and Renee's help—but, true to his word, insisting on doing all the actual unpacking himself.

The interior was dim and a bit musty, and the wallpaper peeled some, but he could see that someone had been by recently to give it a thorough cleaning. There wasn't a speck of dust to be found, and the double bed in the corner had fresh-looking sheets on it. A small kitchen and dining room table occupied the other side, with a tiny old tube television, tall bookcase filled with various titles, and beat-up, orange couch in the far corner. Three doors in a row led to the tiny bathroom, tiny closet, and narrow cellar stairs, respectively. A quick glance into the cellar found it dingy and dimly-lit, but with the promised washer and dryer waiting to be fed some clothes.

Thanking Cain and Renee once more, and bidding them goodbye, Kasey set to work unpacking. His small closet was soon filled with his clothes and a few bath towels, and he found a few beat-up gardening tools crammed into a smaller closet by the bathroom—a hoe, ax, sickle, hammer, and watering can, all of which were slightly rusted and worn down.

A small bag of potato seeds hung off the edge of the hoe blade, with "Courtesy of Ruth & Craig Sellers of Marimba Farm, Located at 14 Flute Fields" written on it in thin black marker. Below the address were the produce store's operating hours and telephone number—not that he had a phone in the house yet, he noticed. Still, he couldn't complain about being able to do his laundry and unwind with some TV. And there was a wall jack already in place, so the previous owner had definitely had a phone. Or possibly ethernet.

With a small grin, Kasey shook his head, flopping down backwards onto his bed. The mattress was a bit lumpy, but he didn't mind terribly—he'd slept on worse before his family had moved to their apartment in Twin Bluffs. All things considered, he felt surprisingly calm and at peace in this little, run-down house.

And everyone seems to like me so far and they don't seem like deranged cultists or anything, so maybe this wasn't a stupid and rash decision, he thought somewhat bitterly, picturing Danny's glowering face in his mind as he launched a verbal assault Kasey's way. I guess they don't think I'm a "selfish, inconsiderate little bastard", do they? With a soft groan of frustration as memories of their break-up soured his good mood, Kasey rolled up into a sitting position, drumming his fingers on his legs in agitation. Old news, he reminded himself, nodding resolutely. You can't concern yourself with what someone like that thinks about you. Not everyone acts like that.

Getting up and ignoring his growling stomach momentarily, he made his way over to the window—which he noted was so clear and gleaming that it looked new—and stared out over the land with a pensive look. The Pacific Ocean sparkled in the distance. He had no doubt in his mind that the start would be a lot tougher than even he'd imagined—and he had a lot of promised enthusiasm to live up to already, mere hours into his new life here.

Thank god this place was so cheap.

Nonetheless, something in his stomach stirred excitedly at the thought, dread and dream be damned. Rising above the challenge—he liked the sound of that.

You want to totally uproot both our lives forever, just for something you don't even know how to do!

He wasn't sure how, yet, but he knew he had to do it.

"Alright, let's do this," he said under his breath, staring at the dry, withered farmland.

Chapter Text

Something called his name... what, exactly? It was too dark to see anything. He couldn't even make out anything distinctive about the voice.

"...back to... this land..."

No, that wasn't quite true. Something brushed his ear—a vaguely feminine tone, still frustratingly faint. Old, young, high, low—everything and nothing? That couldn't be.

Despite the darkness, he felt... warm. And warmer—and even warmer, still. The heat began to get unbearable, the void brightening rapidly. He tried to yell as the scorching heat seared him, dried him up, shriveled him to nothing—all too aware of the blinding, harsh glare.

"...before... dies with..."

A bell rang, blazing as bright as the sun; the painful shine was quickly sucked into a chasm of freezing darkness. Lonely, bitter, howling darkness...

He shattered.

With a pained gasp, Kasey's eyes flew open—he was sitting straight up on the couch, heart once again thudding madly in his chest. His body was covered in a layer of sweat that he knew wasn't from the day's meager work—he'd only unpacked, watered his small cluster of starter crops, and showered, not even venturing to plant anything new yet. Learning how to till the land, he'd decided, could wait until he'd gotten some rest. It looked easy enough in the books.

The farmhouse was uncomfortably stuffy, even in the late evening. On the little TV, a cute girl with short brown hair covered the week's regional weather for the second time that day, sweet voice dancing atop a kitschy soundtrack.

"...Which I'm sure the people of Konohana will appreciate! And a happy twentieth to Miss Georgia Summers of Bluebell, as well!" Cheerful expression fading, she cleared her throat and shifted her posture, her change in demeanor clashing awkwardly with the perky music playing on in the background. "Now, in Castanet..."

With his attention caught on the line, Meteorologist Elli Farbess reeled Kasey in with her intriguing report:

"The unusual heatwave continues. However, there is promise of cloud cover heading south, so take heart! Wind speeds remain exceptionally low." Elli looked wary, slumping a little as she continued: "Residents of Castanet are advised to continue taking measures to seek refuge from the heat. Wear plenty of sunscreen if you're going outside, avoid overly strenuous activity, and remember to stay hydrated no matter what." At that last bit of advice, she chewed her lower lip a bit, looking troubled.

Face suddenly breaking into a small smile, Elli then clasped her hands in front of herself and added, "In more pleasant news, I have received word from Dr. Huang that his grandmother, Irene, has recovered from her bout with heat stroke! We here in Mineral Town wish her and Dr. Huang the best, and would like to remind the residents of Castanet that our doors are open to those seeking shelter and respite until this... unpleasantness has passed..."

Kasey felt his stomach flip, tuning out as Elli's coverage moved northward to Oak Tree Town. Something about her words bothered him even more than the sight of Castanet itself, even more than actually being there in person.

I'll deal with it, he reminded himself firmly. These things happen sometimes.

Heading over to the window, he threw it open, alleviating the stuffiness only slightly—until he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye. A relieved smile spread across his face as he went over to the thermostat, clicking it on and setting the temperature. Behind the house, he heard the whir and hum of the air conditioning unit kicking on.

I'll be fine for now. His mind was bleary as he clicked the TV off and yawned, feeling blissfully cool air blast him from the vent overhead. A quick sandwich and glass of juice later, Kasey lay down to sleep. As he drifted off, he felt an involuntary shiver run down to the base of his spine—he could hear cicadas singing loudly through the open window.

------------------------

"Sweet thing! The moon is high and the night is young, c'mon and meet me... in the backyard under the cottonwood tree—"

Kasey sang along with the music coming from his radio as he struck the earth once more—grunting and rolling his eyes as the hoe refused to budge. Growling slightly, he tugged fruitlessly on the handle, trying equally in vain to keep up with the radio at the same time. "I won't be leavin', till we're... kissin' on the—on the por—ah, hell!" The blade was stuck fast. Again.

Losing his place in the song, he groaned and kicked the stubborn tool free, sending it to rest by his turnips. "Ugh! Stupid hoe," he snapped, wiping the sweat off of his forehead.

After a pleasant night's sleep, free of any more unsettling dreams, Kasey had scarfed down breakfast and thrown on a fresh pair of shorts and a t-shirt, eager to take on the farm. Unusual weather or not, the thought of getting his hands dirty, taking command of the land and cultivating it as he saw fit, filled him with adrenaline. In a corny way, he admitted to himself that it felt like the start of a great adventure.

And the best adventures weren't undertaken alone.

"Who's a stupid hoe?"

Head snapping up at the sound of Renee's bubbly voice, Kasey's mortified expression froze on his face as she crested the hill leading up to Dobro Ridge, her yellow sundress seeming to glow in the strong morning sunlight.

Next to her was a beautiful young woman Kasey didn't recognize—tall and willowy in a pale green tank top and jean shorts, her deep brown eyes betraying a gentle demeanor. With long, shiny, dark hair pulled into a braided bun, and delicate features, she looked like a model who had wandered into town by accident.

"Umm, s-sorry," Kasey said, waving awkwardly at the two girls as they approached. Feeling a bit flustered, he explained: "Just, uhh... getting the hang of this whole farming thing. Trying to, uhh, plant some stuff." He nodded over at the sack of potato seeds sitting forlornly on his run-down shipping bin.

Renee grinned, shaking her head as she took in the randomly-placed gashes in the soil, as well as the hoe laying haphazardly on the ground. "And how's that going for you?"

Sheepishly, Kasey made a noncommittal noise and wiggled his hand, causing Renee's eyebrows to rise in amusement as she nodded.

"Mmmmhmm. Had a feeling."

The other girl laughed softly behind her hand, speaking up as Renee went over to retrieve the fallen tool: "Please, don't worry about her. It just takes a little practice... oh!" Looking a bit flustered, she bowed slightly. "Anissa Sellers, by the way. You're Kasey?"

He nodded, holding out his hand—she shook it with an astonishingly firm grip. "So, Ruth and Craig Sellers'...?"

"Daughter," she finished, smiling and taking the hoe from Renee. "Umm, I hope you're not offended, but..." She nodded at the tool in her hand, handing it to Kasey. "Would you like me to show you...?"

"Hmm? Oh!" Shrugging, Kasey cocked his head to the side, taking the hoe from her. "Umm, I don't want to trouble you, err, Miss Anissa..."

Renee crossed her arms and smirked, tossing her sweaty bangs off her forehead. "Kasey, you're gonna trouble me if you keep up with that 'Miss-Mister-Sir-Ma'am' stuff. What'd we talk about the other day, eh?" Despite her words, her eyes sparkled playfully, even as he blushed and apologized. "C'mon, we're mostly pretty laid-back around here. Just chill a little!"

"R-right," Kasey muttered, taking a deep breath. She had a point. She had the same point Angelica had made before he'd left, at that. He could stand to be more of himself. "I'll work on that. Guess a little help couldn't hurt," he added, giving Anissa a small smile.

With Dolly Parton's voice now floating out through the sultry air, Anissa instructed Kasey in tilling the fields, patiently correcting his technique and posture, while Renee showed him how to plant the seeds. Before long, Kasey's first patch of potatoes was set up and watered, and Renee rested by the coop, singing along happily with the radio.

Leaning next to Anissa in the shade of his house, Kasey surveyed the land with her, looking exhausted, but proud. "I owe you two big time," he panted gratefully.

She shook her head, smiling back at him and wiping a thin sheen of sweat from her flushed face. "Oh, it was nothing. We help each other out here—that's just the way things are. Even the towns nearby, we're pretty close-knit with them."

Remembering the previous night's weather report, Kasey nodded. "Yeah, that weather girl—I guess she lives nearby? She mentioned... some of the people here?"

Anissa's smile widened. "Elli, right? She lives in Mineral Town, to the south. I've met her a few times, at the bazaar over in Zephyr Town. She's very sweet." Gazing out wistfully over the land, she added softly, "Ever since all this started last September... we've had a very tough time growing anything. We can't catch that many fish, and the ones we do manage to pull in are pretty meager. Even the water's gone stagnant, so our crops aren't turning out terribly well. And I don't know how we'll fare if this goes on into summer, since we usually get a lot of tourists..."

"But the other towns have been a huge help," Renee piped up, looking over at the pair. The mood was getting too pensive for her tastes—she didn't want Kasey to suddenly run screaming for the hills. He was a work in progress! "I mean... they don't know what in the world is going on here any more than we do, but they've been sending in food, fresh drinking water, feed for the animals... stuff like that. The Guildmistress from Oak Tree's been in talks with some of their local trading partners about sending some aid, too."

Humming thoughtfully, Kasey followed Anissa's worried gaze—the land, in different circumstances, would most certainly be beautiful. He could see the shimmering ocean not too far south of Dobro Ridge. The steep hills, algae-filled lake, and old mill to the west of his farm still had a rustic draw to them, even in the harsh and dusty sunlight. And the mountain range to the northwest was definitely an amazing sight even with everything else looking so dead.

Sighing, Anissa rubbed her perspiring forehead. "I'm sorry, Kasey. I don't mean to sound discouraging—I'm sure you'll do fine here, and I know this will pass in time. It's just... a rough patch." She gave him a hesitant smile. "And we'll certainly do what we can to help you out. We've got your back."

Stretching and yawning, Renee cracked her neck loudly. "Hey, guys... how about we change the subject, huh? It's already past noon, and I'm kinda starving. Let's go into town and grab lunch, yeah?" At their nods, she stood up, cheering. "Yeah! And you can make some more friends, Kase! The people in town are really cool—we'll go to the Brass Bar! They're super nice there, and the food is fantastic!"

"We'll give you a little tour," Anissa added happily.

They set off for Harmonica Town in higher spirits, Renee once again providing the main source of intermittent chatter about Harmonica Town and its people.

"Well, the Ocarina Inn has really good food, too, but Yolanda—she does the cooking there—she's been sick recently. But our neighbor, Chase, he works at the Brass Bar—his food's just as amazing! I pointed out his house the other day. Don't worry if he seems kind of rough around the edges. He really doesn't bite. We don't let him. Our other neighbor, Julius, usually works at Koto Accessories up in the Garmon Mine district—" She pointed off to where the mountains rose high in the distance, "—but it's been closed for a while since—ah, here we are!"

Kasey felt his heart lift as the dirt path gave way to paved road, a short bridge leading over a canal into the colorful seaside town. It was a sight for sore eyes in all the dust and gloom.

The buildings were bright and cheerful, mainly clustered together over top of each other, mimicking the gentle slope of the hillside. A path led up to a large, flat plaza that played host to a humble church, with a large bell tower standing out proudly.

To Kasey, the town reminded him faintly of an M.C. Escher work, at first glance, with its little maze of stairs, canals, pathways, and mini-gardens. He wouldn't have been surprised to see someone walking upside-down on one of the stairways, into the water. His second thought was that it also reminded him of the pictures from his dad's childhood in Greece. Nonetheless, he drank in the sights eagerly, spotting a lighthouse at the far end of the town, a short ways from a docked shanty boat.

Renee and Anissa spotted his enthusiastic gawking and shared a quick smile as they led him through the town to the Brass Bar.

"Timpani Photography, Mayor's office, Mayor's house, Treble Elementary," Renee rattled off quickly, pointing around as they passed a bright pink-and-purple building, fashionably-clothed mannequins posed boldly in the storefront. "Sonata Tailoring, Shamisen Fishery just past the bar, Ocarina Inn and Choir Clinic up there—oh, hey, Doc!"

Renee and Anissa waved as the trio looked up, seeing a slightly older, bespectacled, Chinese man in a long white coat leaning over the railing above Sonata Tailoring. His long, straight black hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, and a small smile lit up his otherwise serious, yet handsome face.

"Good morning, Renee," the man greeted, earning a playful huff from Renee. "Anissa," he added, nodding to a faintly-blushing Anissa. His smile widened slightly as he regarded her, before turning his gaze to Kasey with a small nod. "And you would be Mr. Manatos, am I correct?"

"Yes, si—" Kasey stopped in the middle of clasping his hands and bowing, seeing Renee give him a look of good-natured exasperation. With a helpless expression and a small shrug at her, he turned his gaze back up to the man. "Err, sorry. Yeah. You can call me Kasey, uhh..."

The man gave a small laugh. "Dr. Jin Huang. You can just call me Jin, though. I may be a fairly formal person, myself, but I don't ask the same of everyone else."

"I hope not," Renee teased, crossing her arms and shooting a mock-scowl at the amused doctor. "I've been working my butt off to get this boy to unwind, you know!"

"We were about to get lunch at the Brass Bar, Jin," Anissa added, tilting her head hopefully. "Maybe you'd like to join us?"

"I'd like to," Jin started, looking disappointed, "but Ms. Talbot has an appointment with me shortly. Maybe we can meet for dinner later?" he added hopefully, perking up the crestfallen Anissa.

She nodded, feeling her face warm. "Dinner sounds lovely! Just give me a call."

"Of course. Enjoy your lunch, everyone. I'll see you around."

Sharing a quick smile, the two parted ways—Jin heading into the clinic, Anissa to the Brass Bar with her friends.

Kasey grinned at her as they stopped in front of the pale orange building, with Renee knocking on the door. "Boyfriend?"

"Three years now," Anissa confirmed, glowing.

Renee knocked again.

"Nice." Before Kasey could say anything else, the door to the bar creaked open. An irritable-looking, ponytailed blonde girl poked her head out, squinting and rubbing her temple with a groan.

"Shit, Renee, I heard ya!" Catching sight of Renee's company, she sighed. "Err, sorry, Ani. And... uhh... Boy." She did a double-take, shaking her head. "Wait, boy? ...Ah, fuck. Pardon."

Looking nonplussed, Anissa and Kasey watched as the door shut for a moment, before swinging open once again—the girl looked a little more awake this time, catlike eyes more alert. She held an empty glass in her other hand, leaning against the door with a toothy smile. "Afternoon, folks! Name's Kathy," she added as Kasey walked into the cool, dark bar behind the other girls, offering his hand. She shook it enthusiastically, jerking her head over to her left. "And that's my pop, Hayden, at the bar. Pleased to meet ya, Mister Kasey!"

"I'm fighting a losing battle, aren't I?" Renee muttered from in front of them as she sat down at a nearby table, ignoring Kathy's confused shrug. Waving to a bald, burly, bearded man behind the bar, Renee called: "Hey, Hayden! What's good today?"

Turning his intense, blue-eyed stare on the group—Kathy included, as she joined them at the table—Hayden shrugged. "The menu's Chase's area of expertise. I don't do my thing until four. You Kasey?" he added, icy gaze flicking over to Kasey, who only squeaked, gulped, and nodded in response.

Hayden's deep voice sounded warm and friendly, but Kasey had a hard time detecting an expression beneath the ferocious brown beard. He relaxed visibly when the corners of Hayden's eyes crinkled slightly, a booming laugh escaping from the mass of facial hair. "Scare ya, son?"

"S-sorry!" Kasey stammered, responding with a weak laugh of his own and waving nervously.

Kathy giggled and patted his arm. "Don't worry, sweetie. He gets that a lot, but he wouldn't hurt a fly. YO, CHASE!" she yelled suddenly, causing Kasey to jump in his seat as she whipped her head back towards the kitchen. "CUSTOMEEEERS!"

"The audience is now deaf," Renee quipped, screwing a finger around in her ear as a door behind the bar swung open.

A tall, thin, grouchy-looking young man emerged, his wavy, peach-colored mass of hair held off his face by bobby pins. His violet eyes flicked over to Kasey briefly, before settling back on Kathy with a scowl, flopping a dirty dish towel over his shoulder. "Aren't you supposed to be hung over? How'd you bounce back so damn fast?" he sighed, whipping a notepad out of the pocket of his green apron and pulling a pen from its spot behind his ear. "Nice to meet you," he added in a quick, disinterested mumble, pointing the pen at Kasey. "I'm Chase. I cook here. Go ahead. Order."

"Umm," Kasey responded, giving Chase a confused shrug. "I, uhh... I don't know the—"

"Fish stew, green salad, garden salad, bruschetta, chicken alfredo, curry rice, and pizza," Chase interrupted, rattling off the menu almost mechanically. "Lemonade, water, root beer, coffee, milk. Let's go."

Chuckling, Kathy patted the bewildered Kasey on the shoulder, leaning in and whispering loudly: "Don't mind the kitchen bitch."

Chase raised an eyebrow, allowing himself a small smirk. "Alright, wench, just remember who can slip laxatives into your food."

"Whoa, what the hell has Yolanda been teaching you?" Renee wondered aloud.

Kathy grinned up at Chase with false innocence. "Aww, and I was gonna invite you to split a large pepperoni and a lemonade with us. Sound good?" she added to everyone else, getting a series of happy nods in return. "Veggies and anchovies for Renee, of course. Meet the only person in the world who doesn't like pepperoni," she said to Kasey, winking at him.

Renee threw her hands up. "I like it! I just think anchovies are underrated. You people are missing out."

Chase shrugged, taking the order down and counting out everyone's share of the payment. "I think we've still got anchovies back there, anyway. You really want me socializing with the new kid, Kathy?"

Kathy nodded enthusiastically. "How else are we gonna teach you to act like a real boy?" She grabbed his dish towel and whacked him on the back playfully as he headed for the kitchen. "Scoot it, Skinny! Let's get that pizza out yesterday!"

"I'm telling your boss," Chase shot back dryly, turning his head to Hayden as he passed: "Mr. Sullivan, that horrible waitress harassed me. Did you see how she beat me just now?"

Hayden simply chuckled and shook his head, turning back to his newspaper. "Poor kid. You can have her tips today."

"Pop!" Kathy whined, slumping against the table in mock sorrow. "There goes my Ferrari."

In a short time, the pizza was out on the table, Chase scooting in between Renee and Anissa. He regarded Kasey shrewdly. "I hear you're taking on the farm out there. So, don't take this the wrong way, but I think you're nuts."

Kasey stared at Chase with a mixture of confusion and irritation, unable to reply as his chewing slowed to a halt.

"Wow, Chase," Renee sighed, elbowing him in the side and making him grunt. "Great tact, there. Don't stop now, just go ahead and read everyone else at the table while you're at it."

Frowning at Renee, Chase swiped a slice of pizza off her plate. "Well, anyone who tries to start up a farm in this condition..."

"I think that's pretty cool," Kathy challenged, snatching the stolen slice and returning it to Renee. "I mean, you didn't stop cooking once the ingredients started getting—uhh..." She trailed off, suddenly looking sheepishly at Anissa.

Anissa shook her head politely, sipping her lemonade. "No, you're right. But... I think we've already discussed that particular subject enough with him today." Renee nodded emphatically at these words, and Anissa shared a smile with Kasey.

"Well, I guess I can pick your brain later," Chase groused, resting his face against his palm and eyeing Kasey once more. "Because seriously, I've gotta know what's going on there."

"You'll live, Chase," Kathy told him, giving him a light shove on the shoulder. "So nosy!"

As the small group ate, Kasey found himself getting pulled into an easygoing conversation, relaxing enough to share a few anecdotes about his sisters that made the others laugh. Even Chase snorted into his drink as Kasey told them of how Angelica had once been arrested for indecent exposure after chasing Vanessa through a city park in broad daylight, topless and enraged at having the upper half of her bikini swiped.

Renee, in turn, shared a story about how Kathy had helped her feed the chickens when they were children, only for the flock to chase her away angrily when she tried imitating the way they pecked at their food.

"Those little bastards are territorial!" Kathy laughed, wiping her eyes. "I hid in the freakin' windmill till Hanna came and got me."

"I always thought the chickens were sweethearts," Anissa offered, tilting her head and smiling at Kathy.

"Yeah, they seem to like me, too," Chase chimed in. "Maybe you pissed them off."

When the subject turned to Kasey's love life, he stiffened, hoping they didn't notice his eyes darting around nervously. They had to have noticed that he came here alone, right? "Ahh, s-sore subject," he finally answered evasively, stuffing a large chunk of crust into his mouth before anyone could ask anything else of him and ignoring the skeptical glances. "Mmmm. You guys tried this? S'good."

"Ya don't say," Kathy said dryly, nodding at the nearly-empty pan. Shrugging, she decided to let the subject go—for now. So maybe Chase wasn't the only nosy one in the group. But then again, he could've just had a crazy ex. It happened.

All too soon, the food was gone, and Hayden called to Kathy to get the bar ready for the evening crew. Kasey looked outside, startled to see the sun was starting to set—he hadn't realized how much time had passed as the small group had eaten and talked.

Anissa and Renee excused themselves as they made to head back home. "I'm meeting Jin for dinner later," Anissa reminded them, beaming. "So I need to get ready."

"Promised my dad I'd give the cows their bath today, and I'm way late on taking care of that" Renee explained, giving Kasey a tight hug. He stood awkwardly for a second, not used to having strangers hug him, before tentatively returning it. He did the same for Anissa, as well.

"You too, grump!" Renee called, grabbing Chase and pulling him and Kathy into a group hug.

"Stop that," Chase demanded flatly, wriggling free and smoothing out his clothes. Stuffing his hands into the pockets of his apron, he nodded his goodbyes to Anissa as well, as she and Renee left. Turning to Kasey, he added, "You on your way out, too?"

Kasey nodded, waving to Kathy as she disappeared into the back to clean the dishes.

"I'll be back in a sec, Hayden," Chase called over his shoulder as he followed Kasey outside into the stifling air, untying his apron and slinging it over his shoulder. Harmonica Town was blanketed in a deep, golden-red glow, the water and air deathly still—the chirping of cicadas and crickets were the only sounds that pierced the silence. The two young men leaned against the building and stared out at the water.

Ruffling his thick, wavy mop of hair uncomfortably, Chase cast his gaze off to the side. "Hey, I know I was a prick to you earlier, but... well, I guess it just weirds me out that someone would actually want to start a new life here right now. This place is fucked. What's your story?"

Kasey shrugged, glancing over at him. He was a little intimidating, but Renee had already reassured Kasey earlier on that subject. Maybe he could try standing up for himself a little more. "I-I mean... I didn't even know, y'know, what I was getting into, first off. But the Mayor gave me a really good deal on the place. And... and I just... really needed to make some changes in my life. It's just too easy to get lost back in the city... I figured, maybe, maybe I could... I dunno. Come out of my shell here, I guess. And try doing my own thing."

Chase rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and nodded. "Sounds good, in theory, but what the hell do you think you can do about that right now? Unless you're some kind of 'wizard—'" he made air-quotes on the word 'wizard' and rolled his eyes, nodding towards a white house up at the north end of town, "—like that crazy fucker up there."

Kasey scoffed, jamming his hands into the pockets of his shorts as he looked up to where Chase was pointing. "Wizard? You're joking?"

"Not me," Chase corrected, pointing at the house again. "He says he's a wizard. Well, he says his name is 'Wizard.' Straight face and everything, so... I get the feeling he actually thinks that he's a wizard. Orrrrrr that his parents were hippie enough to name him that. Hell, maybe they were. My buddy Toby calls him 'Mr. Wizard,' so for all I know, maybe it's his last name. I don't fuck with that loony stuff."

Eyebrows raised, Kasey regarded Chase with interest. Chase actually had a buddy? "Huh. So, what's he do?"

"Well," Chase drawled, shooting an amused smile at Kasey, "get this: He's a fortune teller. Crystal ball readings, tarot, dream interpretation, astrology, stuff like that. Pretty good-looking, too, so he's got some of the ladies of town buying into that shit." He rolled his eyes again, snorting derisively. "You know, dark, mysterious, 'let me tell you who the spooky glass ball says will fuck you.'"

Images of a dying land engulfed in blinding light filled Kasey's mind. The faint vestiges of a plea were burned away. "Dream interpretation, huh?" he repeated quietly, his brown eyes narrowed thoughtfully at the house.

Chase simply stared at him in disbelief, scratching his head. Was this kid serious? "Oh, geez. You're really telling me you actually believe that stuff? Man, you are nuts."

Kasey shook his head, snapping back to attention and smiling at Chase. "W-well, yeah, I'm nuts. Hey, I'm running that farm after all, right?"

Chase sighed, shrugging and slipping his apron back on as he caught sight of a trio of men heading in the direction of the bar—Cain, and two men Kasey didn't recognize. "Suit yourself. Anyway, my next shift starts right now, so I'm out. Bye. Guess I'll catch you later."

"Nice meeting you," Kasey called, getting a halfhearted wave back as Chase disappeared into the Brass Bar. "Asshole," he added in a low voice, though he couldn't help but grin a bit. If he could be slightly more at ease around someone like Chase, maybe relaxing around everyone else would be a piece of cake.

"'Asshole,' huh? Sounds like you met Chase!" Cain's voice called from behind him, his hearty laugh booming through the still air.

Kasey spun around, seeing a bearlike man with a thick blue mustache and ponytail on Cain's left, and a thin, grumpy-looking blonde man on his right. With a start, he recognized the latter as the man he saw working in the fields of Marimba Farm on his way to the Clarinet District the other day.

Kasey chuckled nervously. "Oh, you, uhh... you heard—"

Okay, maybe it won't be that easy, he thought glumly.

"Ahh, Chase can be kind of a jerk." Cain smiled and cuffed Kasey on the shoulder. "Don't take it personal. He's not a bad kid, deep down. Just needs a butt-whoopin', probably. Hayden's just too soft on him. Ah, right! Guys, Kasey Manatos! See, I got it right!" he said proudly, returning Kasey's pleased grin and motioning to the large man: "Kasey, Dale Potter—Cornet Carpentry."

"Evenin'," Dale greeted, waving.

"Craig Sellers, from Marimba," Cain finished, pointing his thumb at the surly-looking blonde, who simply tipped his hat and mumbled "Yep."

"Ah, nice to meet you two. Umm, thanks for the seeds and tools," Kasey added, nodding at Craig. His thanks were waved off.

"Yeah, thank us when anything worth a shit actually comes outta using 'em," Craig snapped. "And the old lady might think it's a nice gesture, but I'm not gonna be holding my breath, mind." He stormed inside, with Cain giving him an apologetic shrug.

"Well, ah... you saw how their farm's going," Cain explained sheepishly, following Craig inside.

"Nothin' personal, boy. Well, pleasure to meet you. Don't be a stranger, alright?" Dale added, giving Kasey a friendly nod before joining the other two.

Stuffing his hands in the pockets of his shorts once more, Kasey's eyes flicked back to the Wizard's house, windows glowing warmly in the darkening air. He held his gaze intently for a moment, before sucking in a deep breath and turning to walk back to Dobro Ridge in the hot March night.

Chapter Text

Elli's promise had been kept—even in the blistering heat that baked Castanet, the next few days offered brief respite in the form of thick, patchy clouds. The air cooled only a smidgen as the land hid gratefully from the sun, and no breeze came to tickle through the strong beams of light that stabbed through the cloud cover. Still, it was enough to bring a few relieved sighs about, even if no smiles accompanied them.

"This isn't too bad, but I just want some rain at this point," Renee sighed, plopping down on the ground by Kasey's mailbox one morning and pouting. Her usual sunny demeanor seemed to have been shadowed out in the cloud cover. "It just gets my hopes up every time now, and that sucks! I mean, the cloudy days are okay when they happen, but it never rains anymore... it's like it's been forever since it last rained!"

"Since this all started?" Kasey asked curiously, sitting down next to her. When she nodded, his eyes widened slightly—going off what Anissa had said before, that would be almost seven months or so. What was going on with this place? He felt stupid for thinking it, but something about the whole ordeal seemed unnatural. "That... wow."

"Yeah," Renee agreed dully, gazing out at the land. "Wow." With a defeated sigh, her shoulders sank, and she scuffed her shoe at the ground.

In the week that had passed since his first real visit to Harmonica Town proper, Kasey had made a few more trips out, running into most of the other locals as well: The Mayor's son, Gilbert, who insisted on being called 'Gill'; Simon Kern, the local photographer and owner of Timpani Photography, whose wife and daughter both worked up in the Garmon district; Perry Whitman, the young priest at the Celesta Church; Ozzie and Paolo Takamoto at Shamisen Fishery; the Talbot family at the Ocarina Inn; and the Kozlowski women, who ran Sonata Tailoring.

In spite of all his new acquaintances within the town proper, he still hadn't quite gathered up the nerve to approach the house of the man called 'Wizard'.

Kasey's second visit to the Brass Bar for lunch had given him a chance to finally call back home, though nearly everyone was in a rush—Angelica was on her way to work, while Vanessa and his mom were both at school. Only his dad had the day off, Kasey feeling slightly homesick at the sound of his light Greek accent.

"The people there treating you good?" Dimitri Manatos asked, letting out a pleased hum when Kasey answered in the affirmative. "And how's the farm? Bet it looks even cooler up close, eh?"

"It's pretty unbelievable," Kasey half-lied, trying to keep his voice upbeat. From the far end of the bar, Hayden smiled behind his beard. "I even got some starter crops from the neighbors, too!"

His dad laughed heartily on the other line—Kasey couldn't help but join. "'Crops,' listen to you! My boy, sounding like a farmer already! Hey, you send us some real good ones when they come, okay, Kase?"

"You guys'll be the first," Kasey agreed, grinning. "Hey, I'll call back soon, okay? Tell Mom and the girls I miss them, and I wanna talk to them next time, too! Love you, Dad."

Even in the dire circumstances, the chat with his father had lifted Kasey's spirits a bit—along with the periodic visits from Renee and Anissa, stopping by to talk as they watched him work the small field.

"I think I already miss watching you hack away helplessly at the dirt," Renee quipped one mercilessly sunny morning, giggling as Kasey shot her a playful glare in the middle of watering his cabbages. "What? I thought it was funny."

"I'll find it funny if I dump this watering can out on your head," he warned, though the corners of his mouth turned upwards. He had a feeling threatening to dump cool water on someone in such hot weather wasn't quite the threat it sounded like. Renee's inviting gesture only confirmed this notion.

"Oh, he's still learning," Anissa admonished Renee, though she smiled as well as she nodded at the row of turnips Kasey was about to water—while the leaves certainly didn't look ideal, and the color was unimpressive, they had reached a decent size despite the conditions. "You know, it looks like you have your first official harvest coming up, too! If you want, those turnips could probably actually be harvested today."

Dark brown eyes brightening, Kasey grinned down at the little vegetable patch, hopeful gaze flicking back to Anissa. "Really?!" At her satisfied nod, he sighed happily, plopping down onto the shipping bin and letting out a soft breath. "Cool! Wow, it... it makes it seem more official now. Mmmm... I've never tried a turnip before," he admitted after a few quiet moments, staring back down at the vegetables with a pleased look on his face. "Well, I've had turnip greens, which are pretty nice, but not... turnip turnips. Guess they're not much of a thing back in the city..."

Renee rubbed his shoulder and warned him, in an exaggerated drawl: "Well, we're just gonna have ta countri-fy the heck outta ya then, city boy!"

After a quick harvest—with Anissa advising Kasey to leave a few roots in to harvest more greens from them later—the three friends were crowded together in Kasey's small, cool kitchen. Kasey was slowly stirring a large pot of the freshly-mashed, buttered vegetables at Anissa's instruction, quietly singing a song he'd heard on the radio earlier. Anissa hummed along with him between directions.

"Let the white dove sing... let the whole world know that today is a day of reckoning..."

"You know, that song's about a murder-suicide," Renee informed them nonchalantly, licking her lips at the smell of the food as she leaned back against the fridge.

Anissa immediately stopped humming and cleared her throat, looking embarrassed. "Okay, now that I'm hearing it, yeah..."

"Huh. Maybe I should listen to less country," Kasey mused, lifting the stirring spoon to his lips. "Well... down the hatch." He closed his eyes, absorbing the flavor, drinking it in—

"Whoa, shit, this is good!"

Renee and Anissa snorted at his glowing review, though he seemed a little sheepish about his reaction now.

"But if you could speak your mind, what would you really say?" Renee cracked.

"...I guess... 'Whoa, shit, this is good,'" Kasey answered.

"You really like it?" Anissa asked, beaming when Kasey nodded enthusiastically. "Oh, wonderful! That's one of my mother's recipes; she'll be happy to hear. You know, once the harvests come in better, they'll taste even more amazing, too."

While he was enjoying the freshly-cooked food in his house with his new friends, Kasey tilted his head thoughtfully. "You know, we made a lot... do your parents like this stuff?" he asked, looking at each of them.

"Oh, well, yes, but you really don't have to—"

"Heck yeah!" Renee interjected over Anissa's protests. "That's so sweet, Kase. Thank you!"

Giving Anissa a reassuring smile, Kasey shrugged as he took two small, beat-up plastic containers out of his cabinets and filled them up with the remnants of their meal. "Well, I wanted to stop by at some point anyway to buy more seeds and thank them," he explained, silently adding, And maybe try to get on Craig's good side a bit. He hadn't run into the grouchy man since they were introduced, but he couldn't help but feel challenged somehow by Craig's attitude, even compared to Chase's.

But it's not like I'm sucking up to him, he assured himself a short while later, smiling and waving at the grateful MacArthurs as he and Anissa left Horn Ranch for Marimba Farm.

As they passed Moon Hill—a name that Kasey couldn't quite reconcile with the town's musical motif—a nagging thought steamed out of his mind into the dry heat: "You know, Renee told me it hasn't rained in a really long time around here..."

Anissa only nodded quietly, feeling uncomfortable at the sudden re-introduction of the topic. The three of them had quickly shoved the issue aside over the past week, preferring not to dwell on it. Just like nearly everyone else in town—they knew the other villages were doing their best to help, and it would all go away in time. And yet, Anissa couldn't help but constantly wonder when "in time" would actually start.

Seeing Anissa's troubled expression, Kasey let his worries drop, crunching them underfoot in the dead grass. Searching for a less awkward topic to bring up, he recalled something else Renee had mentioned in passing a few days ago: "So, I hear you've got a little brother, huh?"

Relaxing a bit, Anissa nodded, as they passed what Kasey now knew to be Chase's house. "Taylor. He's ten. He's..."

"A nightmare?" Kasey tried lightly, giving a small laugh when Anissa shook her head. "Hey, I have two little sisters, remember? It's okay. I love them, but they can be nightmares sometimes, too."

"Well, Taylor's... certainly got his moments," Anissa admitted. "But he's still a kid, and he's really bright." With a sad smile, she sighed, as they reached the front door of her house. "A few weeks back, he actually snuck out of here by train to go stay with our aunt who lives a while out of town. He's trying to find some new crops for us to sell and plant..." Her face lit up as she laughed. "You know, he said he's going to be like a big superhero and save Castanet, too! He's a real sweetheart, but Paolo and Chloe are pretty upset that he ran off without them."

Kasey wasn't too sure who Chloe was, but put that thought into the back of his mind as Anissa led him into the blissfully cool farmhouse—the front was filled with displays and stands full of a variety of seeds, and spring produce. Kasey immediately noticed the sadder, sicker-looking crops sticking out among the more colorful crowd. He could only guess that the latter had been imported, and immediately felt bad for thinking it.

"Mom," Anissa called, keeping her voice level. "We have company!"

A thin, drawn-looking woman in a pink housedress emerged from the back, drying off a plate on her apron. Her face was lined and pinched, but her tired expression quickly gave way to a small, strained smile. With her dark, straight, shoulder-length hair, Kasey could only guess this was Anissa's mother, Ruth.

"Mrs. Sellers? Nice to meet you," he said, giving her a small smile in return.

"So, I've been wondering when I'd get to see the boy," Ruth said, looking curiously at the container in his hand. "You must be Kasey. I'm Ruth. Is everything okay?" she added, frowning slightly. "My husband and I left you some seeds and some crops..."

Anissa rolled her eyes. Sometimes, her mother just didn't want to be bothered with tact. "Mom, why on earth would you think something's wrong? Kasey's just here to say hi, and pick up a few more packs of seeds. He had his first harvest today! I think he was just looking to plant a couple more patches, right?"

Kasey nodded, now a little too intimidated by Ruth to speak. Did she not want him here?

Looking slightly impressed, Ruth nodded, setting the plate down on the store counter. "Well, that's a bit sooner than I'd thought it'd be, given the... circumstances... but it's a start! So, what kind of seeds were you looking for? We don't have much right now," she added, frowning once more. "I'd personally recommend sticking with the turnips for now, anyway. They come in faster, and they seem to be toughing out this strange weather alright... hardy things, turnips."

At Kasey's agreement, Ruth picked a few packets of seeds out and made her way to the counter, sighing. "At this point, my husband just wants to kiss the spring inventory goodbye and just get the summer seeds in because, hey, we've got this hot weather anyway... but knowing our luck, the second that happens? Things get back to normal, and we're stuck with stock we can't use yet, and nothing to grow or sell until summer actually starts... what a mess." Clicking her tongue as Kasey added a few pale strawberries and undersized potatoes to his order, she rang him up and eyed him critically. "You know, sweetie, I wouldn't be offended if you bought the healthy ones. I don't care for pity sales, though, and they are the same price. It's a little patronizing."

A heavy silence dropped down on the store, right in time with Kasey's stomach. "I-I just... I-I thought they were... cheaper..."

"Oh, for heaven's sake, Mom," Anissa snapped, her voice uncharacteristically terse as an uncomfortable-looking Kasey went red and tried to stammer out an apology. "You're unbelievable. You were the one griping that we couldn't move our own inventory because of the quality? And then you just want to complain because you thought Kasey was trying to help out, even though we've been helping him out? Just... stop talking and ring them up. You're being ridiculous."

"Anissa!" Ruth said harshly, before crossing her arms and looking at Kasey with a hint of remorse—he was gazing at the floor, ears red and hands jammed in his shorts pockets. She hadn't realized he'd be so sensitive. Just like Taylor when I scold him, she thought, feeling a twinge of regret in her stomach. I suppose I shouldn't take all of this out on him. Chewing her lower lip, she looked upward, muttering under her breath.

As Kasey said a quiet thanks and turned to leave, grabbing the bag of seeds and food, Ruth exhaled with a loud huff. "Young man," she said, making him stop in his tracks and look over his shoulder—was that guilt she saw on his face? So, maybe she'd been right. Still... "You forgot something." Even as she motioned to the plastic food container on the far end of the counter, she reprimanded herself inwardly. Without another word, she watched as Kasey dejectedly shuffled out of the store—without the container.

"Unbelievable," Anissa repeated disgustedly after Kasey had left, turning to narrow her eyes at Ruth. "We made some food from the crops he harvested, and he wanted to share some with everyone as thanks, Mom! What's your problem? Why are you being so high-and-mighty? It's bad enough Craig was so rude to him—"

"Dad," Ruth corrected instinctively, pinching the bridge of her nose and sighing heavily as it struck her how much worse she'd just made things. Was she really letting it get even more out of hand? Apparently so, she thought numbly as Anissa sucked in a deep breath and shot Ruth a venomous glare, before wordlessly marching out after Kasey. The house shook slightly as she slammed the door behind her—it was a good thing, Ruth noted, that Craig was out at the moment. At least she would have a perfectly peaceful environment for the time being, where she could feel like a complete ass.

She sighed into the empty building. "Oh, damn it."

Outside, Anissa spotted Kasey slumping past Julius's house, towards the water mill. Groaning quietly, she followed him, trying to quell her disgust with her parents' recent attitudes. Most everyone else he'd met, from Kasey's accounts, had been at least cordial, and at most, warm and welcoming. Chase was a rare exception, but she cared little for his brutal honesty as it was—there was certainly something to be said for support, and tact. And her father... well...

"I really can't apologize enough for what happened back there," Anissa said quietly as she caught up with Kasey, who was staring solemnly at the large, unmoving wheel on the side of the mill. He shrugged noncommittally, as Anissa continued: "It was really inexcusable... she had no right to say what she did."

"Sh-she was... kind of right," Kasey responded glumly, shooting her a guilty glance from the corner of his eye. "I-I kinda... I kinda felt bad. Sorry. I know it must seem a little... insulting."

Though she was a bit taken aback at Kasey's admission, Anissa shrugged. "Well, haven't Renee and I told you already, though? We help each other out around here. She of all people should have remembered that. And she needs to remember that she and my dad helped you out, too."

Nodding, Kasey regarded the wheel and the river thoughtfully, staring at his frowning reflection in the unnaturally still water. The more he thought about the state of things, the more it bothered him...

Deciding to abruptly change the subject, he addressed Anissa without looking at her: "H-hey, so... what do you know about that guy in town, that... Wizard, I guess?"

Looking nonplussed, Anissa blinked. "I... uh... I've never talked to him much." Folding her arms, she stared at him curiously. "I suppose he's harmless, though... I've heard my friends say he seems nice. Just really quiet and reclusive, I guess. Why?"

Tilting his head, Kasey shrugged. "Just wondering. Chase had... some interesting stuff to say about him—"

"—Chase has rude things to say about everyone," Anissa cut in, eyeing Kasey warily. "But don't let it stop you from introducing yourself, if that's what you're worried about. I don't think he's ever had a problem with anyone in the whole time I've lived here." Though, now that she was giving Wizard a second thought, she couldn't even remember how long he'd lived in Castanet.

Kasey grunted softly in response, still staring into the water as he debated with himself on whether or not to tell Anissa exactly why he was asking. He already had caused tension between her and her mother within minutes of meeting the latter woman, and Chase seemed to look at him strangely when the two passed in town now. Did he really want one of his first friends in town thinking he was gullible and foolish? Or crazy?

Still, those dreams he'd had...

"He... just sounded kinda interesting, is all," Kasey said finally, not completely lying. No point in doing something he sucked at. "Just, uhhh... haven't had a chance to introduce myself yet."

Giving him a strange look, Anissa smiled wryly. "Well, Renee, Luna, and Kathy went there to get their fortunes told once. They certainly had glowing praise for him." She suddenly giggled. "I don't think it was all because of their futures, either."

Kasey snickered. "Chase mentioned that, too. You know, I think that'd be a nice mood-lifter... how late's he open?"

Anissa shrugged. "I don't know, really. I've never bothered, myself. It's just not for me, to be honest."

"What's not for you?" an unfamiliar voice called, making them turn around. Anissa smiled when she saw who it was.

"Oh, Toby! You're back!" she exclaimed, walking over to hug him. "How was your trip?"

"Wonderful," he said happily, patting Anissa on the back. "I got a great haul. Uncle Ozzie's cleaning some of it right now, and we've got a lot of it on ice. I was actually just coming down here to relax and maybe fish a little more... oh, who's this?" he added, staring quizzically at Kasey with his light green eyes.

Feeling slightly self-conscious once more, after the incident at Marimba Farm, Kasey simply nodded quietly at the new boy. Toby—he remembered Chase referring to a friend of his by that name. It didn't help his apprehension any. Around Kasey's age and perhaps an inch taller, Toby appeared to be Japanese, with lightly-tanned skin, and short, messy silver hair. Though, despite his possible friendship with Chase, Toby looked more pleasant and approachable. Anissa seemed to like him, at least.

"That's Kasey, from the farm west of ours," Anissa explained, gesturing to them. "Dobro Ridge—that's what it's called now. Kasey, this is Toby Nishimura. He's Ozzie's nephew; he works down at the Fishery, too. He just got back from Sunny Island."

Toby gave Kasey a friendly smile, and waved, his posture easygoing. He was clutching a fishing pole, and between his oversized, light-blue striped shirt, baggy gray pants, and the large straw hat strapped to his back, his slim figure seemed to almost be swallowed up.

Kasey waved back with a small smile, relaxing a bit—Toby seemed okay, at least for now. Maybe Chase had been referring to someone else by that name. "R-right, Ozzie mentioned you. Nice to meet you."

"Likewise," Toby returned politely. He scratched the back of his head again. "Well, I'd love to chat a bit more, but it sounded like you had some business to attend to..."

"Oh, he's just going to get his fortune told," Anissa said lightly, giving Kasey a teasing smile when he groaned. "Well, weren't you?"

"Ehh, j-just... wanted to meet the guy," Kasey said, shifting the bag of groceries nestled in the crook of his arm. "...Okay, and maybe have him read me, for... uhh, for kicks." His uneasy gaze flicked to Toby, whose serene smile perked up slightly. Wait, no.

"You know, that actually sounds pretty fun."

What. No, please don't. I'm going to ask him really stupid questions and look like a dumbass, and I really don't need you telling people about this and

Kasey raised his eyebrows as he stared at Toby, who did seem to have a gleam of genuine interest in his eyes.

Ah, hell. Kasey straightened up his posture some, even as he felt himself slump inwardly—he could at least be more at ease meeting this Wizard person with a friendly presence in tow. And he could always return later to see about that dream-reading business. For all he knew, Toby could be the sort of person who blabbed about this to everyone he passed.

"You... ahh... you wanna come with?" Kasey asked, a nervous grin flicking across his face as he shifted the bag of groceries again. "I just need to make a quick stop back at my house to drop these off, but..."

Toby allowed himself a small smile. "Well, I wouldn't want to impose."

"Pffft!" Kasey scoffed, waving the concern off. "Impose? Nahhh!" Great job, Kase. Now he probably knows you're having doubts. And now you pretty much have to take him. Why do you even bother lying to people? Anissa, at least, was shooting him an odd gaze. "Always... always happy to chat with a new friend."

Pale green eyes closed happily as Toby nodded. "Well, okay, then. I'd be delighted! Lead the way, Mr. Farmer."

Anissa sighed, shaking her head and smiling as the two headed off for Dobro Ridge. Slumping against the wall of the mill, she cast her gaze over to the distant outline of Marimba Farm, smacking her palm against chipped white paint. Maybe she could just hang out with Renee until things cooled off a bit at home...

------------------------

Despite some initial reservations, Toby's calm presence actually eased Kasey's usual new-people jitters a fair bit following the unpleasant episode at Marimba Farm, and the two fell into an easy, pleasant conversation as they headed back to Dobro Ridge. He was pleased to hear himself barely even stuttering as they spoke. Though Kasey had never really been much of a fisherman himself, it was one of his dad's favorite pastimes, and he found himself able to casually swap a few second-hand stories with Toby during their walk.

"...At least, he says it was a giant octopus," Kasey continued as he placed the groceries in his fridge, leaving the seed packets on the table. He smirked to himself. "I personally think he just wanted an excuse to give my mom about why his new fishing pole was broken." Still bent slightly into the refrigerator, he looked over his shoulder at Toby. He had let his fishing rod rest against Kasey's wall for the moment, and was looking out the window at the distant sea. "Get you anything to drink?"

Not tearing his peaceful gaze from the window, Toby nodded, arms folded on the sill. "Umm... sure, thank you. Just water, please." Looking back at Kasey with an interested smile, he added, "Nice view, here. So, what about that octopus?"

Kasey grinned. "I'm just not buying it, is all."

Toby nodded and rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he placed his empty glass in the sink and left with Kasey once more. "Well, I might..."

"...Really?"

"Oh, you wouldn't believe the sorts of things you see on the ocean! My friend Denny saw this giant squid once..."

As the two lazily chatted once more, making their way into Harmonica Town, Kasey felt his apprehension start to rise once more. Even if he didn't intend to discuss his dreams with the Wizard this time, he still knew that—if the man was legitimate, and not too creepy—he would likely be back for answers at some point.

"Hey, Tobes!"

Grimacing, Kasey glanced off to the side to see Chase approaching them from the Brass Bar—his apron was off once more, and his face was far friendlier than Kasey last recalled seeing it.

Toby grinned back at Chase as he approached, the two engaging in what looked to be a secret handshake: Slap the others' hand back and forth, curl and lock the fingers, pull away and wiggle the fingers while making a whooshing noise.

Kasey folded his arms and shook his head in amusement at the display. Toby seemed like a decent person, and he seemed to be pleased to see Chase. Maybe Chase was somewhat human, after all.

"How was the trip?" Chase asked, readjusting the pins holding his hair back. "You bring me any good catches from the islands?"

Toby nodded, his usual lazy smile widening a bit. "Don't I always? Uncle Ozzie's got a few you can pick up later."

"Good point." Chase's violet eyes flicked back to Kasey, his expression now unreadable. "You guys hungry? I'm about to start second shift in a little bit..."

After looking to Kasey, who shook his head, Toby shrugged. "Nah, sorry. Maybe we can pop in later? We've got business to attend to, actually."

Kasey felt himself grimace as Toby spoke. Okay, let's leave it at that

"—Up there," Toby finished, pointing at Wizard's house. "We're just going to get our fortunes told for fun."

Thanks, Toby. If Kasey found any consolation in the moment, it was the slight amusement he felt at seeing Chase's face fall in almost exact synchronization with his own, as they both settled their eyes on the white house resting near the top of the town.

"Oooookay," Chase drawled out, shaking his head. "I don't know what exactly is fun about that horseshit, but enjoy."

Toby laughed softly. "Loosen up a little, Chase. It won't hurt. C'mon, come with us. I'm sure Hayden won't mind if you're a little late."

Chase backed up slightly, waving his hands. "Whoa, wait. Don't tell me you're—no way. I kind of have important things to do."

Feeling a bit of a rush at seeing Chase's unease, Kasey crossed his arms and smirked. "Scared, huh? Well, okay..."

"The 'chicken' ploy doesn't work with me, you know," Chase responded flatly, causing Kasey's smile to fade. "I've got nothing to prove. I already know I have no future. It's awesome."

Toby tapped his lips thoughtfully, gazing skyward. "How 'bout I give you this really rare rock lobster I caught? It's pretty huge."

Chase's eyes flicked back at Toby.

"...You always wanted to cook one, right? It's a good deal, I'd say."

A brief moment of silence passed, before Chase's shoulders slumped, his head suddenly hanging downward. "God damn it, Nishimura. I hate when you play hardball. Fine, I'll get my damn fortune told by that... pretty-boy hippie nutjob."

"Heh, heh, heh..."

As the trio approached the door, the purple paint weathered and cracked, Toby strolled right up and knocked.

"Mr. Wizard?" he called politely. "Are you open today?"

An low, indistinct voice responded from within, though they all heard the footsteps padding softly towards the door. Kasey gulped as the tarnished brass doorknob jiggled and clicked from the other side, before the door creaked open slowly. A stronger wave of oppressive heat billowed out from within.

Cloaked in the shadows of the dimly-lit house, the slender, tanned man waved them inside, the dark silver plait over his shoulder catching the harsh sunlight. Kasey gave a start as he caught the man's eyes—the left one was green... but the right one was a striking yellow, further accentuated by the stark white tattoo right under it.

Wizard only stared at him silently with those unusual eyes, motioning for them to take a seat on a large, weathered brown couch in the middle of the extremely stuffy room. They did so, Chase leaning back and crossing his arms as he scanned the room with a skeptical scowl; Toby leaned back in the middle, spreading his arms comfortably over the back and smiling away; while Kasey sat on the other end, hands folded in his lap. His legs swung back and forth as he took in what he could see of the room, only faint cracks of sunlight peeking in through the shuttered and deeply-tinted windows.

The walls played host to a number of large, heavily-packed bookcases; strange dried meats, leaves, and roots hung from the ceiling in clusters, giving off oddly intoxicating aromas; and what looked like a large telescope sat on a raised platform to his right. An observatory, of some sort?

"Evening..." Wizard spoke simply, his voice quiet and distant. "Please... relax..." While Toby's voice was also soft, Kasey noticed that it was quite gentle and clear as well. Wizard's, by comparison, sounded almost atrophied—hoarse, faint, and seeming to trail off with each statement.

"How can we relax?" Chase griped, giving Wizard a cock-eyed glare. "It's like an oven in here! Unless you're, you know, cooking up a little potion in your cauldron," he added in a quiet, sarcastic huff, eyes still darting around. Kasey buried his face in his palm, groaning softly.

Wizard regarded Chase impassively, eyes gleaming strangely in the dark, musky room. "I could. Would you like me to...?"

Toby clucked his tongue at Chase in an admonishing manner, before Chase could sass back. "No need to be rude. He was nice enough to invite us in. Besides," he added thoughtfully, "I don't see a cauldron here."

"I can... procure one..."

"Yes, of course you can," Chase mumbled under his breath.

"Oh, that would be pretty neat, but no thank you." Toby smiled apologetically at the strange man. "Thank you for having us, Mr. Wizard. I hope we aren't too much of a hassle."

Looking a bit impatient, Wizard sat down across from them, eyes fixated on the heavily-perspiring, very uncomfortable Kasey. "Not terribly so..."

"Oh!" Eyes brightening, Toby sat up a bit straighter. "Well, that's great, then. You see, we were hoping—"

Wizard, however, spoke over him, his unsettling gaze seeming to bore holes into Kasey's soul. "Yes. Urgent business... has priority. Manatos... correct?" At Kasey's hesitant nod, Wizard let out a quiet breath and closed his eyes, while Chase let out an unimpressed snort. Kasey, meanwhile, felt an uncomfortable, and faint sensation stir within his mind. Wizard seemed to hum with traces of a strange energy as the sensation increased slightly. "So... the dreams that have... troubled you. Let us... look..."

Before he could process what was happening Kasey felt the world start to peel away, piece by piece, leaving only blackness and silence. Chase's curious gaze melted into the shadows alongside Toby's concerned questions, until it was only him and Wizard, alone in the darkness.

The searing light flared up once more.

"I believe we witness... the possible fate of Castanet..."

Chapter Text

Kasey couldn't quite say he was standing or sitting there—floating, perhaps? He had visible form, but felt intangible all the same. Wizard was right by his side, seeming to project much the same ethereal presence into this strange, blinding void.

"I really just wanted my fortune told," Kasey blurted out, seeing Wizard's eyes flick to him—the eerie yellow one was closest, and he couldn't help but flinch at it. It reminded him of an Edgar Allen Poe story he'd read once...

"And so, it shall be." Wizard's response spoke straight into his mind—clear, smooth, and sure, a far cry from the withered husk of his physical efforts. "I suppose I must extend an apology to your friends, however... I was in a hurry to perform my duties..."

Kasey fought off the urge to correct Wizard's notion that he considered Chase a 'friend', in light of the current situation. The glare began to fade, a vision taking shape before their eyes. Muted colors, slowly growing vibrant... he could smell the fresh earth, and feel the calm breeze. The sound of pleasant, calm rivers caressed his ears as they flowed through lush, verdant fields.

Castanet, in its prime...

Various, vivid scenes blurred past—some people he recognized, and some he didn't, going about their lives: Toby fishing by the lighthouse, while his cousin Paolo approached with his own fishing rod; Maya Talbot, from the Ocarina Inn, laying on the sands of the beach with Kathy and the Kozlowski sisters, pointing out funny-shaped clouds from atop a checkered blanket; Anissa and Craig, exhausted, high-fiving each other and smiling as they surveyed a field of freshly-watered crops; a young, blue-haired man in a bandana, felling a tree and whooping loudly.

Suddenly, the happy images began to desaturate and shift, before settling on a faded fresco. As Kasey struggled to make out its depiction, it cracked. It cracked right down the center of a strange, beautiful tree.

Though he was... somewhere, somewhere that could almost be called nowhere... Kasey felt the mood change. Tension, sorrow, loneliness... anger.

The tree moved out of its depictive state, to as close as Kasey could place it to "reality"—thrumming with life in a serene, sunlit grove, branches fanning out brilliantly. The light intensified as the grass died. The leaves and flowers withered and fell, the sunlight getting brighter and harsher. Before long, the grove shared the same dried-out, desolate appearance as anywhere else in Castanet.

"A year ago, the anger of the land started to show through in small ways," Wizard's voice spoke up, once again reverberating in Kasey's mind. "Petty ways, really, perhaps better described as 'disappointment' compared to what would later come. As a warning, you see... first, the fires weakened, and the breezes died away as spring unfurled. They did not mind. Perhaps, even, they did not truly notice, simply happy to have left the bitter winter behind them. Soon, however," he continued, "the waters were taken with them, growing still and stagnant..."

Pascal Travers, the grandfatherly captain of the shanty boat in town, stared out to the eerily still sea with a frown on his face; Toby looked slightly concerned as he left his fishing spot for the night, carrying a small haul with him—a pitiful haul, really. Renee clapped him on the shoulder reassuringly, a cheerful smile on her face.

"...And the earth began to decay, the soil growing dry and weak as no rain fell upon it."

The blue-haired boy from before gazed with worry upon the dying Fugue Forest, motioning to a younger blonde boy to stay where he was, before running in alone; Craig threw his hoe down in irritation, yelling wordlessly. Anissa put a hand on her father's shoulder to placate him, before he spun around and shouted at her as well—getting a heated reprimand back for his actions. Anissa ran off, leaving him to kick at a patch of sickly-looking vegetables while Ruth watched anxiously from the window.

As the grass began to brown and the air grew dusty, Wizard's voice became bitter: "The people of this town believed it to be an unusually harsh summer, following a slow recovery from a trying winter—a simple explanation, a problem that nature could fix with little intervention on their own behalf. When no respite came in the fall, and the heat worsened... only then did they begin to truly worry. They fell into helplessness, and that helplessness has begun to spiral into apathy and stirrings of bitterness. A full year of slow vengeance upon the land and its people... only half-realized..."

Kasey gulped as the reel of images slowed to the current day—the land looked to be in even worse shape now, compared to the beginning of its decline. "V-vengeance?" he whispered, his eyes wide and fearful. "Why? Wh-what are y—"

"Admittedly, I have only suspicions," Wizard interrupted softly. "Dangerous suspicions, and the anger in the air to complement what I have observed. It grows slowly, festering... pressing upon us all... gradually killing this beautiful land..."

Kasey only watched the unsettling tableau repeat itself, reflecting in his dark brown eyes. "Wizard... what did they do...? Why... why am seeing this?" Turning to the tall, infuriatingly calm man, his voice rose slightly: "What do have to do with any of it?! I didn't come here for this... I just wanted to start over!"

Wizard let the images fade into a comfortable pool of soothing black for a moment, the absence of light not hindering their vision any. He regarded Kasey calmly. "I was only given a name... and a face, at which to direct her weakened pleas. I cannot find her anymore... but she can still speak to me, albeit barely. To you, even less so. When you arrived, I was merely to explain, and to guide you. She is desperate for what help she can get. She wants you to know..."

"Who?" Kasey shouted desperately, before everything became horrifyingly bright once more—the townsfolk were shielding their eyes in horror, desiccating and blasting away into dust as the light devoured them all. His skin felt like it was blistering and peeling, yet he couldn't find it in himself to scream, no matter how badly he wanted to. Wizard observed him impassively, his strange eyes unblinking.

The heat was promptly sucked into bitterly cold darkness, the image finally settling on an ice-coated, withered tree.

"Find her," Wizard stated simply, gesturing to the tree. "Aid her. Bring back our land, before it comes to this."

As he surveyed the scene of devastation, Kasey's own heartbeat hammered so loudly that he wondered if Wizard could hear it as well. It seemed to send blood rushing through his eardrums with a deafening roar. "I... I'm finding... who? Where?"

Wizard's gaze locked back onto Kasey—that gleaming yellow eye made his blood run cold. "The one who should be protecting this land... the one who cannot. Sephia..." He sighed, looking back up at the frozen, dead tree with a mixture of sorrow and confusion. "I hear her voice less and less as the seasons pass... she weakens with each day, clinging stubbornly to what little life force remains."

Wizard closed his eyes with a furrowed brow, rubbing his chin and bowing his head. "Perhaps it truly is her anger, but... I have my doubts. I feel no such emotions from her energy waves. Only desperate hope, and sorrow. Your presence has bolstered her strength some, but this can only last so long... I cannot even hope to locate her presence anymore. I only know that you have been entrusted with that task."

As Kasey started to ask Wizard where to even begin looking, brightness blasted his retinas once more. He let out a yell, bracing himself against the attack.

------------------------

Toby and Chase's chairs scraped loudly as they jerked backwards, caught off-guard when Kasey cried out and bolted upward in the bed, arms thrown over his eyes.

Letting their heartbeats slow down some, they saw him lower his arms, squinting and looking around in groggy confusion.

Toby waved tentatively at him, looking quite relieved. "Hey there, Kasey. Don't worry; it's just us."

"Geez, you scared the shit out of us!" Chase snapped, as a disoriented Kasey muttered their names. Scowl softening a bit, he crossed his arms and shot Kasey a thoughtful frown. "So, you okay, then?"

"Mmm," Kasey mumbled incoherently, waving Chase's question off and squinting. He sniffed the air, pulling a displeased face at the smell—musty, yet unmistakably antiseptic. "...Clinic...?"

"You passed out," Toby said quietly, scooting back up and laying a comforting hand on Kasey's shoulder. Kasey tensed up slightly, despite how calming and soothing Toby's tone was. "Mr. Wizard said it must have been the heat. You have a bad fever, so he gave us some herbs and helped us carry you down here. Jin's mixing up some medicine for you right now, though, so you'll be alright."

"Bastard's house was seriously stuffy," Chase grumbled, and Kasey finally noticed that, despite the coolness of the room, both Chase and Toby's bangs were messy and plastered to their foreheads, their clothes and faces stained with drying sweat. From the feel of things, he probably looked the same. That explained the musty smell. He made a mental note to shower and change as soon as he was able to.

"He's definitely nuts," Chase went on, "keeping it so hot in this kind of weather! It's like he's never heard of heatstroke."

Uttering a soft laugh, Toby added, "Yes, I think he understood your point the whole way down here."

Chase let out a derisive huff. "He'd better have."

Heaving a loud sigh, Kasey thought back to... just another disturbing dream, then? No, he decided, rubbing his temples and gratefully accepting a cup of water from Toby. He felt extremely warm even in the cool room, his skin beaded with sweat, but waved off the notion that it had been mere delirium brought on by his fever. No... I learned too much for it to just... be a coincidence. He probably knows exactly what I saw... but I guess he gave me as much information as he could give...

Grunting, he set the cup down on the bedside table, glancing at his two companions—Toby, light green eyes concerned, but mouth curved into a relieved and reassuring smile; Chase, slumped nonchalantly in his chair on the other side, yet keeping a keen watch on Kasey even through his poker face.

As Kasey debated how much to share—if anything—the door to his room swung open, bringing in two more visitors: a clipboard-carrying Jin, and an unfamiliar, older woman with a sharp, stern face and a dignified bearing in spite of her slightly stooped posture. She had straight, steel-gray hair pulled back into a covered bun, and serious gray eyes a few shades lighter than Jin's.

Jin hummed low in his throat as he read over the clipboard, giving Kasey a quick glance and a small smile. "Ah, Kasey. Good evening. I take it you're feeling somewhat better now?"

Laying back against his pillows, skin still flushed and itchy, Kasey shrugged. "I... I suppose. S-sorry to trouble you like this," he added quickly, as Jin crossed over to him and felt his forehead. "I know it must not look that great, popping up here so soon..."

"Bah," the old woman muttered, scowling as she unscrewed the cap from a small phial, scraping a bit of a pasty, purple substance out onto a tongue depressor.. "We're here to do a job, you know. The way things are around here lately, you probably would've wound up here before long anyway. Trust me, I know." Bustling over to Kasey's other side, she put a hand under his chin, tilting his head up.

He gulped.

"Say 'ahhh'," she said flatly, waving the depressor at his mouth.

Kasey cringed at the stench, pulling his head back as his lips curled in disgust. "Oh, geez," he hissed, not seeing Chase roll his eyes and huff.

Toby patted his shoulder encouragingly, the action going unnoticed by Kasey. "It's okay, Kasey. It probably smells worse than it tastes. Lots of stuff does." At the woman's disbelieving glance, his kind smile became sheepish, and his cheeks went slightly pink. "...I'm wrong?"

She nodded sharply. "Very. Open your mouth, young man," she snapped at Kasey. "Don't be such a child."

"S-sorry," Kasey muttered through clenched teeth, looking almost apologetic. "Reflex. Hate taking medicine."

It was the old woman's turn to roll her eyes, muttering "Reflex, my ass" under her breath. Who the hell liked it? She didn't have time for games. Inhaling sharply, she decided to try another tack—if this boy was anything like she'd heard from Yolanda and Hanna... "I'm Irene Huang, by the way. Nice to meet you."

Kasey's head snapped back in her direction almost automatically, hand shooting out to shake her free one. "Oh, right! Nice to meet you, Miss I—" His greeting was cut off as Irene jammed the depressor in his open mouth, swiping the medicine off along his tongue as he coughed and gagged. Chase snorted shamelessly into his fist, while Toby shook his head sympathetically.

"She got me like that once, too," Toby admitted, flushing slightly once again.

"That'll do it," Irene said brusquely, wiping the depressor off on a paper towel and tossing it into a nearby wastebasket. Catching Kasey's dirty look as he smacked his lips in agitation, she folded her arms and frowned. "It's for your fever. Think I'm a bitch all you want, but you'll thank me later, Mr. Manatos."

"I-I don't think you're a bitch," Kasey protested immediately, eliciting a short, cynical laugh from Irene.

Jin pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, stabbing Irene with an exasperated glare as he fetched Kasey another glass of water, which Kasey drained desperately. "Yes, Grandmother, we thank you."

"Thanks," Kasey echoed hesitantly, scowling as Irene wiped her hands on her brown apron and nodded.

"Anytime. Jin, I'll leave the rest to you," she added with a tight smile, patting her grandson's shoulder before sweeping out of the room.

Jin shook his head disbelievingly, watching the door swing in his grandmother's wake. "I apologize, Kasey. Her bedside manner... leaves something to be desired these days."

Kasey shrugged. "I was kind of being a baby, though." Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he sat up straighter—and immediately slumped back down, cringing as a wave of nausea and dizziness hit him. "Ah, hell... guess I'm stuck here a bit longer."

Chase raised an eyebrow in irritated concern. "Don't move so fast. That stuff doesn't work instantaneously, you know."

As Kasey groaned and grumbled, letting his head sink back against the firm pillow, Jin jotted something down on his notepad. "I won't force you to stay if you don't want to, but I do agree with Chase. I'd prefer to keep you here overnight, at least, to keep an eye on you. Just customary observation," he finished reassuringly, giving Kasey a questioning glance.

Answering with another shrug—Sure, why not?—Kasey rearranged his pillows, nestling back against them and looking at Toby and Chase, while a satisfied Jin exited the room. "Umm... thanks for bringing me here, guys. I owe you, big time."

With a small smile, Chase nodded. "Hey, it's nothing. I'm not a total asshole, after all."

"It's what friends do," Toby added, leaning back casually in his chair until it was propped against the wall—the two rear legs dangerously balancing the rest of the weight. Folding his arms behind his head, he glanced over at Kasey, who grabbed a remote off his bedside table and clicked on the wall-mounted TV. "Mind if we keep you company?"

Feeling a bit guilty, Kasey returned the look. "Well, you don't have to..."

An understanding nod. "We know."

Allowing himself a small, grateful grin as his stomach warmed a bit, Kasey flicked through the channels, until he settled on a re-run of some sitcom he vaguely recalled watching with Angelica.

"It sended! ...Please come back."

The three watched TV in an easy silence together for a while, chuckling every so often—until Chase eventually excused himself to leave for the bar.

"It's been pretty slow lately, so Hayden'll probably let me have the night off once I tell him what happened. If you guys are hungry, I'm sure he'll let me bring something out over here, no charge," he explained, yawning and stretching. As Kasey shook his head, and Toby asked for grilled fish, Chase nodded. "Got it. One grilled fish for Nishimura, egg salad sandwich for me, and one big, fat nothing for you. Last chance," he warned, turning to leave. "I'm not making two trips. You sure?"

"I still feel kinda queasy," Kasey said, quickly thanking Chase for the thought as he shrugged and slipped out, with a hurried "Suit yourself."

"We can share if you feel hungry later," Toby offered, keeping his eyes glued to the screen and laughing a bit as a man got slammed in the face with a model airplane. "I'm a slow eater, so there's no rush."

Another grateful smile went unseen. "Umm... sure. Thanks. I'll keep it in mind."

As the two continued watching TV, Kasey felt a small knot of worry and doubt form in his stomach, tumbling and twirling with the grace of a drunken gymnast. Feeling the weight of his newly-discovered responsibilities pressing on his stomach, he cast a thoughtful glance over at the peaceful, kind Toby, who had been willing to accompany Kasey to Wizard's place without scorn or hesitation. Definitely had the wrong idea about this guy at first. He seems okay. Perhaps it would be alright to talk to him about what Kasey had been seeing...

Catching Kasey's eye, Toby smiled gently at him. "Anything on your mind?" he asked, turning his eyes back to the TV as Kasey opened his mouth to speak and immediately stopped, index finger hanging pointlessly in the air in confusion. "Don't mind me staring off," Toby assured him, adjusting his posture until he was even more comfortable. "People tell me I do that a lot, but I've also been told I'm actually a pretty good listener. Go ahead. I promise, I'm not actually spacing out."

Wondering where to start—explanation? Question? There was so much ground to cover—Kasey worked his mouth for a few seconds, making no sound, before slumping defeatedly. "I think I'm just overthinking things," he decided finally.

Toby's eyes flicked over to him. "Sorry to pry, but is this about those bad dreams Mr. Wizard mentioned?" At Kasey's dumbfounded look, he glanced back at the TV, where a woman was now laughing at a spoonful of yogurt. "Hey, it's alright."

Finally gathering up his nerves, Kasey shook his head. "That's just it, though... I'm not so su—"

He stopped as he heard greetings being exchanged in the foyer. The door swung open a moment later—Chase had returned, carrying three covered plates.

"We had leftovers," he said shortly, handing a grilled chicken sandwich to a surprised, yet pleased, Kasey. "Dig in when you're ready."

Slowly chewing a bite of fish, Toby eyed Kasey thoughtfully as he thanked Chase and immediately tore into the food. Catching Toby's gaze, Kasey cocked his head curiously, though Toby couldn't help but notice a slightly guarded look in his eyes. Seeing his family and his other friends in town so troubled and helpless bummed Toby out enough, as it was. All he could really do for them was listen to their worries, but it still seemed to help them a little bit—sometimes.

Yet, thinking back to their trip to Wizard's house earlier, he had a strange feeling that Kasey was carrying a bit of a larger burden at the moment. Perhaps he just needed someone to talk to, as well. He'd been about to get something important off his chest, Toby was certain of that much. Something important, and—he had to admit to himself—possibly quite intriguing. Until...

"Thanks, Chase," Toby said finally, nodding over to his best friend once he'd swallowed his fish. Chase simply waved back without a sound, engrossed in his sandwich and the TV. Looking back at Kasey, Toby leaned in a bit, voice lowered: "If you want, you can talk to me about it later."

Mouth full of food, Kasey only hummed in response, though his lips turned slightly upward as he nodded.

------------------------

Though tired when he awoke the next morning, dreaming of an eerie, intense green-and-yellow stare from across a twisted landscape, Kasey couldn't help but gradually realize how much better he felt—his skin didn't seem so warm and itchy. His head and eyes didn't hurt.

And Dr. Jin stood at the foot of his bed, staring coolly at him over the clipboard.

"AHHH!" Kasey yelped, bolting upright once more, causing Jin to start and stumble back slightly. "Sorry," he quickly added, putting a hand over his heart as Jin straightened back up. "I'm fine. I'm fine!"

Exhaling loudly with his glasses askew, Jin nodded, looking a bit bewildered, yet satisfied. "That's good. And I do apologize if I startled you." Straightening his crooked glasses, he looked over the clipboard. "Grandm—ahh, Irene... she told me your fever's gone down, too. Let's stand you up, come."

Doing so, Kasey took a few tentative steps, feeling the chill of the linoleum through his socks. The room was empty, aside from them—Toby and Chase had likely either left after he'd drifted off, or been shooed out by Irene at some point.

"Nausea, headache, dizziness?"

Shaking his head, Kasey sat back down on the bedside, pulling his shoes on. "So... I'm good, then?"

Tapping his pen against his lips a few times, Jin looked upward, before nodding. "I don't see why not. Just be very careful in the future... you did lose consciousness for a short time, but otherwise, the symptoms thankfully only pointed to heat exhaustion, rather than heat stroke, which would have been more serious." His face darkened slightly. "And we've already had more than enough cases of that recently..."

Nodding absently, Kasey thought back to what he'd seen last night—a detail tugged at the back of his mind, stabbed with a barbed hook, yet refusing to budge out of place no matter how hard he pulled. A starting point... where? Dismissing it, he signed the discharge papers Jin handed him, following the doctor out to the lobby.

"Well!" Bustling over to them, Irene gave Kasey a quick, appraising glance. "Everything appears to be fine, then, eh? Let's not see you back in here too soon, then, young man." Despite her curt tone, she gave Kasey a small smile as she handed him a tube of topical cream. "Now, I've asked Barbara over in Garmon to stop by your house later with some sunscreen and bottled water. You will, of course, use them well. Because it looks like you've been getting a bit too much sun at that farm of yours already."

Kasey nodded obediently, gulping. "Ma'am."

Expression brightening some, Irene clasped her hands in front of her. "Then we've little else to worry about, I see. Good day, Mr. Manatos."

"Y-yes, Ma'am," Kasey agreed, giving her a slight bow and shaking her and Jin's hands with a soft "Thank you", before turning and heading outside.

Immediately, the blistering morning heatwave threatened to slap him right back into the beautifully chilly shelter of the clinic. Fighting back a wave of worry as the cicadas shrilled loudly, the vision replayed in his head—it wasn't a little hotter outside than it had been before, was it?

Letting his eyes adjust to the light, Kasey caught sight of a few of Harmonica Town's residents milling about—he waved politely to Candace Kozlowski and Simon, chatting over by Sonata Tailoring with Toby and Chase.

At the sight of Kasey, Toby and Chase excused themselves from the conversation, making their way up to him. Simon and Candace waved back at him meekly, before returning to their own quiet discussion.

"So, the old hag set you loose, eh?" Chase offered by way of greeting, hands stuffed into the pockets of his blue jeans. "Congratulations."

"Miss Irene woke us up and asked us to leave earlier this morning because I was snoring too loudly," Toby explained, shaking his head and frowning slightly at Chase's words. "But I'm glad to see you're feeling better. We were actually going to come visit you when the clinic opened." Face relaxing once more, he looked past Kasey and waved. Colleen Talbot had emerged from the Ocarina Inn with a watering can, dressed in freshly-ironed white capris, and a royal blue polo shirt. "Hi, Mrs. Talbot."

"Good morning, gentlemen," Colleen said politely, as she began watering the small, vibrant flowerbeds and potted plants in front of the inn. She wiped her short, neatly-parted orange hair from her forehead, her doll-like face pulling into a slight frown at the sweat on her hand. "Oh, dear... I apologize, I must look a fright. Are you feeling better, dear?" she asked suddenly, wide violet eyes settling on Kasey. She let a soft laugh hum in her throat as he hung back behind Toby, shrugging and nodding. He looked a bit embarrassed.

"It-it was no big deal," he muttered, idly wondering exactly how many people had seen him being carried to the clinic from Wizard's house.

Colleen nodded smartly, giving him a reassuring smile. "Well, that's a relief, then. These two here were really rather frightened, you know." As she turned to water another flowerbed, she missed Toby coughing awkwardly into his fist and quietly clearing his throat. "By the way, Chase, dear?" she called over her shoulder to Chase. "When you have a moment, Maya wanted to ask you a few questions."

Chase's grimace also went unnoticed by Colleen as she inspected the leaves of her sunflowers, humming happily. "Oh, sure, Mrs. Talbot. What's up?" In spite of his visible unease, his voice was eerily, convincingly perky.

"Oh, just a new breakfast... experiment she's trying." Another cringe escaped her attention. "You know how she is, with her darling little flights of fancy," Colleen said with a delicate laugh, inhaling the scent of the flowers and exhaling a blissful sigh, while Chase nodded sourly. "Forgive me for sounding selfish, gentlemen, but my flowers are really thriving in this weather. It's rather amazing, if you ask me. I'm quite grateful that something good could come of this... little misfortune. Silver linings, you know? We've just got to look for them!"

Colleen's gaze suddenly snapped onto Chase like a motion-sensing turret gun, with Chase instantly plastering on a big, fake grin—one Kasey found rather frightening. He looked as if he was showing off new veneers. "Ahh, Mrs. Talbot. Your optimism's so... refreshing. You're totally right!"

Colleen flashed her own, much more relaxed and elegant smile back at him. "Such a sweet thing to say! Well, dear, I'll let Maya know you'll be stopping by."

"Fun!" Chase chirped, turning and waving over his shoulder as Colleen headed back inside the inn. As soon as she was gone, he slumped and groaned loudly, the trio turning and making their way back past the clinic.

Kasey glanced at him, eyebrows raised in surprise. "What's wrong? Maya seems really nice."

"Oh, she's very sweet," Toby agreed, fanning his oversized green t-shirt slightly in the heat as they stopped at the intersection on the main road.

"And so is everything she makes," Chase muttered darkly. "The way she sugars everything up, you'd think she was hoping to murder a diabetic. And I mean everything she makes. The way she experiments with food would make Gordon Ramsay shit himself a whole brick house. She tried strawberry frosting on a fucking chicken salad sandwich one time," he explained to a sick-looking Kasey.

"...Seriously?" He blanched when he received a nod in response. "God."

"Yeeeep. Don't ask me why. I still haven't figured that out myself."

Toby pouted slightly. "Ahhh, it isn't that bad. I like some of it, you know. Those fish donuts were really quite good." Chase made a gagging sound at the mention, face scrunched up in disgust.

Kasey looked at Toby with a mix of confusion and revulsion, not quite believing what he'd just heard, in spite of Chase's example. "I'm sorry, fish what?"

"They're very nice, I think," Toby insisted with an earnest smile, rocking back on his heels in his thin straw sandals. "Maya taught me how to make them, if you'd like to try sometime."

"I... I'll keep that in mind, thank you..."

"They're actually just fish and breading shaped like donuts and deep-fried, though, not actually sweets," Toby explained, hoping to appease Kasey. "Although, she did want to see if actual donuts would mix well with fish, too. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't intrigued."

Snickering, Chase shook his head at Toby. "Yeah, well, you have weird tastes anyway. Renee tells me you eat grass when you fish."

"Well, moo," Toby responded simply, eliciting a snort from Kasey. "It's a wheat stalk, actually. I just like to chew on the end to relax a bit. It's really very soothing."

"Weird," Chase repeated insistently, looking around. "Weird, weird-ass weirdo." His eyes slowly fixated on a certain point, lingering suspiciously. "And on the subject of 'weird...'"

Following his gaze to Wizard's house, Toby and Kasey joined him in staring quietly, the shrill singing of cicadas blanketing the sweltering, nearly-empty town.

"D'you think something's odd about him, too? I mean, moreso than you normally do?" Toby asked, hands stuffed into the pockets of his baggy white pants. Neither noticed Kasey glancing away nervously behind them as Chase nodded. "He seems really nice," Toby continued thoughtfully. "But I have to admit, I wonder if he knows something about... ahh, some... things?" Trailing off from his rather lame finish, he turned his head slightly to regard Kasey, whose eyes had now seemingly caught something else slightly higher up. He was mouthing the same word to himself over and over again.

Fruity? Frisky? ...Fresca? Toby's brow furrowed slightly at that last one. Oh, no, I think that's a soda... is he thirsty, perhaps?

"Well... that guy gives me the creeps," Chase decided finally, shuddering slightly as he tore his eyes away from Wizard's house. "I... I think I'm just gonna steer clear of him for now." As he caught sight of Kasey's glazed, distant stare, he cocked his head. "Manatos, if you pass out on us again, we're leaving your comatose ass in the street this time."

"Maybe you are," Toby corrected, hesitantly waving a hand in front of Kasey's face. Kasey jolted back, startled, before grinning sheepishly at his two friends.

"S-sorry, guys," he muttered, rubbing the nape of his neck, shoulders hunching. The hook lodged in his subconscious had finally managed to pull the nagging detail free, smacking it against the forefront of his heat-fogged mind and briefly dazing him. "Just, uhh... thinking about things."

Eyeing Kasey shrewdly, Chase nodded. "Yeah, you... have fun with that." Suddenly looking grim and stone-faced, he squared his shoulders, turning in the direction of the Ocarina Inn. "Well, I've got an impending culinary disaster to temper. Again. Don't wind up back in the clinic, because I'm gonna need a bed after eating Maya's cooking," he added sharply, before nodding to Toby. "Later, Tobes."

"Have fun," Toby called, waving as Chase departed, muttering under his breath. Turning back to Kasey, he shrugged apologetically. "I hate to leave right in the middle of all of this, but my uncle might need me at work soon. We still have a lot of stuff to sort out from my trip."

With a glance out of the corner of his eye, Kasey gave a small smile. "It's fine. I, uhh... I-I have something I need to attend to, anyway, before I head back to my place." His eyes flicked back in the direction of the Celesta Church ahead, Toby turning his head curiously to match Kasey's troubled gaze.

Oh. Maybe it was "fresco?"

Crossing his arms, Toby let out a soft hum. As much as he wanted to ask, to lend a friendly ear, perhaps this wasn't quite the time or place. "Well... I hope you find whatever it is you're looking for, then. Take care, alright?"

Kasey nodded gratefully. "Thanks, Toby. Umm... see you later?"

"Of course." They waved, Toby heading off to Shamisen Fishery as Kasey made for the church. Nodding a polite greeting to Candace, Simon, and a groggy Luna as he passed them, Toby placed his hand on the doorknob of his uncle's shop, before hesitating and sparing another glance upward.

Even in the unforgiving morning sunlight, Wizard's white-walled house seemed faded and dull, the windows still as dark as ever.

What exactly do you two know about all of this? he wondered with a pensive frown, before shrugging off his curiosity with a sigh, and retreating into the chilly, briny fishery.

Chapter Text

With a small sigh, Kasey approached the Celesta Church, sparing a sideways glance or two at the bare trees all around the plaza. Certainly nothing like the beautiful, pink cherry blossoms he'd seen in the brochure...

And... have to do something about it. The sudden intrusion of the thought, completely understanding what he'd been so quick and ready to just accept the night before, shocked a disbelieving laugh out from high in his throat. Immediately, he clapped a mortified hand over his mouth and looked around furtively, eyes wide. Only the cicadas had heard, and odds were, they didn't really care what noises he made.

Another flickering glance, and his gaze suddenly held fast on the two towering, vivid stained-glass figures flanking the church doors: a tranquil woman with flowing, sea-green locks, and a rather severe, imposing man, whose wild red mane seemed aflame. Above the door sat a colorful circle of glasswork, portraying strange, elfin creatures.

Kasey had never been one to care much for art, often preferring to stay home and read or go see a new movie instead whenever an invariably disappointed Danny tried to drag him to a new exhibit in the city. All the same, he couldn't help but feel a strange sense of wonder, and a bit of sorrow, as he gazed upon the depictions that were half-swallowed by the sun's glare. Placing a palm flat against the door and tearing his eyes away from the strange visions, he sucked in a deep breath and pushed.

"Stand back, stand back... in the middle of my room, I did not hear from you..."

As the door loudly creaked open at his touch, Kasey heard the faint snatches of an old dance song playing from the back of the warm, silent, dusty church.

A soft yelp of surprise popped out from the back at the sound of the new visitor. "Oh! Ms. Jensen?! I'll be right out!" a young man's voice called from the other side of the slightly-ajar door, the music suddenly cutting off. "S-sorry, I wasn't expecting visitors at this hour—not that they're unwelcome, of course! I'll—" A loud yawn failed to be stifled, "—waaaaaghhhh! Hmm. I'll just be a moment—"

"Umm, i-it's just Kasey, Pastor Whitman," Kasey called, lingering by the back row of pews as he listened to the faint sound of a spoon clattering into a bowl, and a muffled thump."Err, if this is a bad time, I can just come back later..."

"No, you're fine!" A boy a few years younger than Kasey stuck his head out of the back room, cobalt-blue bowl cut rumpled and sticking up all over, amber eyes somewhat groggy. "Good morning, Mr. Manatos. P-pleeeeeease—" Another yawn cut off his words, and he shook his head rapidly, padding out in fluffy black slippers and narrowing his eyes in the bright shafts of dusty sunlight piercing through the colorful windows. "Oh, my word... sorry, Mr. Manatos. Please, come in. Make yourself comfortable. I'm g... g... glaaaaad you're... feeling better. Oh, all this yawning, honestly..."

Tentatively approaching the front row of pews, where a still-groggy Perry Whitman awaited at the altar, Kasey squinted thoughtfully at him. His clothes were rumpled, his long-sleeved black overshirt open and hastily thrown on atop a thin white t-shirt. "Y-you're, uhh... you're sure I'm not—"

"Not at all," Perry sang drowsily, waving off Kasey's concerns and rubbing his eyes. Clearing his throat, he flashed a pleasant, albeit sleepy smile, blinking hard a few times to make the yellow-and-denim blob before him take on a more human appearance. No use—he needed to put his contacts in later. "It's a pleasure to see you, Mr. Manatos. Hi. What brings you here this morning?"

Flopping down on a pew and sighing, Kasey folded his hands in his lap and swung his legs back and forth, avoiding Perry's bleary, yet curious gaze. He hadn't quite considered the hour before coming in, nor had he fully considered how to even bring it up. "Just... uhh... w-well, I kind of wanted to ask you about something, if that's alright."

Waking up a bit more, Perry slightly straightened his slumped posture, iron grip on the altar loosening. He nodded cheerfully. "Oh, certainly! Always! Forgive me, I had a late night of studying... oh, listen to me ramble. Enough about myself! Now, then, back to you!"

Perking up a bit, Kasey looked back at Perry, gratefully launching himself at the opportunity to divert the subject: "Oh, studying?"

Nodding enthusiastically, Perry folded his arms on the altar and leaned forward, eyes bright and alert now. "Oh, well... yes. Primarily general subjects. I usually teach at the school twice a week, you see. And..." He gestured behind him, to a large pipe organ—surrounded by more stained glass pieces, portraying the same figures Kasey had seen outside. "In my spare time, I study these folks here. The Harvest Goddess and Harvest King," he added, seeing Kasey's questioning gaze. "Or Mother Earth and the Harvest God... they both have a few titles to them, you know how those things get when passed down over long periods of time."

Nodding thoughtfully, Kasey focused on the rather serene woman—the Harvest Goddess, he figured. A lovely name echoed in the far corner of his mind, like the faint ringing of a bell... "So, they're... kind of like... local deities?"

Perry smiled excitedly, looking like a little kid on Christmas morning. "They have a very storied history among this land, actually! Not just here in Castanet, but this entire region—well, at least the Harvest Goddess does, though her appearance can change depending on the area. Quite a variety of depictions of her, yes! Findings on their history date back as far as... oh a millennium or so, at least!"

Face alight, an excited giggle popped out, hands moving emphatically as he prattled on: "Protectors, rulers, watchers of the land and its people. Guiding the earth and its workers into prosperity..." Wringing his fingers, he rocked back on his heels, now fully awake."And Miss Kern suspects there may be ancient structures dedicated to their worship... here! In Castanet!" Drumming his hands on the altar, he let out another giddy peal of laughter. "Oh, could you imagine?!"

Kasey shrank back in the pew slightly, intrigued and a bit frightened by the young pastor's fevered enthusiasm. "W-wow... that's really incredible."

With a high-pitched sigh, Perry slumped back against the pipe organ, sitting on its covered keyboard. Once more, he looked extremely, horribly tired... and miserable. "Yes, yes indeed... I apologize for my giddiness. Please forgive me, I must sound absolutely nuts. Oh, sweet Sephia, I haven't slept. This foresaken weather!" With a small whine, he kicked listlessly at the altar, the fluffy slipper making a dull whump on impact. "I wish I knew what we'd done... what we could do... my research isn't giving me anything."

As Kasey nodded sympathetically, he suddenly froze, the word finally shimmering into his consciousness from the stuffiness of the church air. "Sephia?" he mumbled, testing the word on his tongue.

"Her," Perry confirmed, nodding in the direction of the Harvest Goddess—the gentle-faced, smiling woman shrouded in white and green. "At least, according to Miss Kern's notes. It's the closest approximation she could get, and... oh, I don't know. What does it matter?" Mouth set in a thin, worried line, he bit his lip and gazed at the sunlit glass helplessly, eyes shining. "Oh, listen to me! On and on about my troubles, our troubles, and you came to see me... I'm very sorry, Mr. Manatos. This is very improper for someone of my position."

Feeling a bit alarmed at the despondent young pastor's mood swings, Kasey got up and took a tentative step towards him. He wasn't fantastic at comforting people, but he had important information to gather. "It-it's fine, really. I understand. You have to vent sometimes, too, right? It'll all... it'll be... fine."

Won't it? His heart sank slightly as Perry drank in his reassurance with a grateful nod. God, don't believe me so easily! Shit. This is a lot of pressure... maybe Wizard conscripted the wrong guy for this shit.

Suddenly remembering another detail, Kasey stuffed his hands into the pockets of his shorts, scratching the back of one leg with his other shoe. Where else in town...? "Hey, ummm... if it's okay, I'm... kind of interested in seeing more of the church's art. If—if there's any you'd like to show me, that is," he finished quietly, silently praying for—

"Oh... why, yes, now that you mention it! Here, in my room," Perry offered, clearing his throat and straightening up. Missing Kasey's relieved sigh, he smoothed out his rumpled hair and closed his overshirt, leading the farmer into the small back room of the church.

It was fairly austere in design—a simple cot, a writing desk just big enough for heavy reading or light napping, and a few fully-packed bookshelves flanking the perimeter of the room. A clock radio sat on the desk beside a bowl of mushy, colorful cereal and a drained glass of orange juice, and Kasey barely made out three tiny doors wedged into the walls—kitchen, bathroom, and closet, most likely. He idly wondered if the church had a cellar, like his own house.

And, in a small stretch of wall between the bed and desk, he spotted it: the fresco, paint long-since faded to the faintest vestiges of color. The finer details had worn away over time, though he could make out a compass rose up top, ringed by small, circular indentations. Below this, the ghost of a woman was depicted to the left of a strange, beautiful tree... a tree with a crack running right down the center.

Kasey's breathing became shallow as a vivid animation played before his eyes, awe thrumming through his bones. He felt light-headed, eyes tracing every detail he could comprehend in his current state of shock. "This tree..." he murmured vaguely, brow furrowing. "What... what is it?"

Perry nodded smartly, hands clasped behind his back. "Ah, yes. The Goddess Tree! Sephia's lifeblood... some may say Castanet's, too. A few ancient texts say she emerged from the tree... others argue that its roots spread from where she first descended unto us, and the tree thus sprang forth to contain her power." He allowed himself a small smile. "I personally prefer the latter theory, myself. Neat, innit?" Yet another chipper giggle popped out, despite his wise, academic air.

With an absent nod, Kasey wracked his brain for any memories of familiar ground he'd seen around the grove where Wizard had shown him the tree. Lit from behind by the unforgiving sun... "Do the legends... umm... say where, exactly...?"

Casting an intrigued glance Kasey's way, Perry shook his head—Phoebe aside, he couldn't really recall the last time someone in town had been so interested in these things. "Well, Miss Kern's notes point to somewhere in the Garmon district... but aside from the mine, it's really a very small area. There aren't too many places the tree could be hiding... perhaps on the other side of the mountain range, but there really is no safe way to traverse, I'm afraid." He sighed, shrugging and sitting down on his cot to exchange his slippers for dress shoes. Giving Kasey an apologetic smile, he cocked his head. "Bit of a lore hound?"

Torn between wanting to admit the true reasons for his inquiries, and not wanting to get Perry's hopes up, Kasey decided to stick to the easiest route—he nodded, hands back in his pockets. "My, uhh... well, my dad's side of the family is Greek, and I always liked... you know, the, uhhh... mythology..." He cringed inwardly at his own words, and how readily Perry nodded at them. At most, he knew a little about the story of Icarus, and a vague idea of Medusa from some Castlevania games he'd played at Danny's apartment a few times. Pretty much any other mythology in general was lost on him. No choice now, though, he thought wryly. Looks like I'm learning about Castanet's mythology.

"You know, I do devote myself heavily to the Harvest God and Goddess," Perry spoke up suddenly, giving Kasey an earnest smile. "But I've still got quite a bit to learn, yet... Miss Kern, however, has been researching the subject quite vociferously lately. It heartens me greatly, I'll admit. I'm sure she'll have some unique insights and perspective to offer, as well, if you're interested."

Brightening up a bit, Kasey nodded back. "Absolutely, sure! Ummm..." Sticking his hand out for Perry to shake, he gave a slight, grateful bow. "Thank you very much for your time, Pastor Whitman."

As Perry responded in kind, the two heard the door creak open once more in the main room.

"Ah," Perry sighed, suddenly looking forlorn once more. "I believe that would be Ms. Jensen... I'd properly introduce you, but the poor woman's still grieving, I'm afraid. She doesn't pay mind to much these days." Catching Kasey's concerned, curious look as they paused at the door, Perry explained quietly: "Her husband passed a bit over a year ago, during a rather nasty winter... so young, too."

Kasey nodded wordlessly, eyes downcast as the two headed out into the church. Out in the pews sat a thin, silent woman in a black dress, with a gauzy pink shawl draped over her shoulders. She was staring at the ground, her face obscured by her lank, dirty violet hair, and Kasey caught the faint scent of wine rolling off of her as he passed by.

"Please, stop by if you ever feel the need," Perry said quietly as he saw Kasey out. The farmer nodded, waving halfheartedly as Perry turned and approached the woman with a soft, "Hi, Mira..."

Head light and abuzz with the influx of new information he'd just absorbed, Kasey ambled absentmindedly through town, heading back to Dobro Ridge. A few polite, concerned hellos were returned with a more auto-piloted cordiality than usual, the vast majority of his focus spent on trying to soundly fit Perry and Wizard's revelations into the overall puzzle.

Perhaps meeting Phoebe later on would provide a few more necessary pieces.

------------------------

Kasey let out a confused groan as his eyes suddenly snapped open, face sandwiched between a pillow and an open novel. One eye flicking upwards, he blearily caught sight of the words "moonlit sea", making him instinctively glance outside for a glimpse of the moon in a small bit of panic.

Judging from the strong sunlight he could see filtering in, it was still only early in the afternoon—apparently he'd followed his light reading with a bit of light napping after he'd returned home, tended to his still-meager field of crops, eaten, navel-gazed a bit, and showered.

Garmon, his mind chimed in, repeating the word insistently as he rubbed the drool from the side of his mouth and bent down to pick up the book, staring blankly at the serene meadow on the cover.

As his brain finally started to wake up from its little nap, another rapid series of knocks jolted him back to life once more, sending the book flying into the wall as he yelped. Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool? the door sang in time with the sharp rapping.

"Kaaaaaase!"

Yes, Renee, yes, Renee, three bags full, he thought dully. Shaking his head to set his mind back right, Kasey stuffed his feet into his slippers and flapped quickly over to the door, yanking it open roughly to find Renee and Anissa there. The former froze in place, hands cupped around her mouth to call out again; the latter jerked back slightly, looking startled, and holding a familiar piece of Tupperware.

"Um, sorry," Kasey mumbled sheepishly, by way of greeting, as he waved the two inside. "Kind of wound up taking a spontaneous nap there..."

Shooting an apologetic grin, Renee gave him a friendly hug, which he returned. "Ah, it's cool. Sorry to wake you up so suddenly. Good to hear you're feeling better, though!"

"Jin called last night," Anissa explained, idly undoing and re-tying her ponytail as the trio sat down on Kasey's small, cramped couch, their knees smushing together. At Kasey's embarrassed look, she shrugged. "He just needed to reschedule our date to tonight and was letting me know why, that's all. No gossip or anything, I assure you." Once more, her face flushed slightly as she spoke about Jin.

"Oh! Umm... sorry," Kasey repeated quietly, getting up to make for the fridge. "Thanks for coming over, though. Can I get you guys anything?"

"We're good," Renee assured him, waving for him to sit back down. "We just wanted to see how you were doing, and then we needed to swing by the general store for some stuff. Toby called us this morning before Ani left my place and told us you were alright now. No fortune from that Wizard guy, huh?"

Garmon, his mind repeated with finality, lodging the reminder firmly into place now that he was fully awake. He shrugged half-heartedly, with a lopsided smile. No need to worry them over it. "Eh, maybe next time. Actually," he added, tapping his lips thoughtfully, "now that you mention it, I needed to stop by the store, too, and get some stuff. Is it... alright if I tag along?" He wasn't lying—he did need some dryer sheets, at least.

Anissa nodded, hands clasped as she stood up. "Oh, of course! We'd be delighted. Oh—" She bent back down, picking up the small container she'd set down on the floor and handing it to Kasey. Smile softening some, she added, "I'd like to apologize again about yesterday. My mother asked me to give you this—she said the turnips were delicious, she's sorry she was so rude to you, and she didn't mean to make you feel unwelcome." Her smile faded slightly at that last part. "She had a little peace offering for you, if you'd like."

Feeling his heart lift a little, Kasey let out a whoosh of air, looking into the container with a little grin—fresh, cut-up strawberries and bananas now sat in it. He nodded enthusiastically. "Okay... yeah, apology accepted." Looking over at Anissa as he placed the container in the fridge and went to retrieve his shoes, he added, "So, everything's okay now?"

She rubbed the back of her neck and nodded, Renee giving her shoulder a gentle squeeze as her eyes looked downwards. "Oh, yes, thankfully."

Missing her low tone, Kasey nodded happily as he tidied up a bit, making his bed, and grabbing a fishing pole sitting in the corner to put in his closet with the other tools. "Well... that's good. Guess we can hit the road when everyone's ready?"

The walk to the Garmon District wasn't terribly far, passing through a miniature canyon cut between the terraced ridges rising up on either side of the pathway, gradually growing higher on one side as the Garmon Mountains began to swell behind the faint outlines of dusty buildings. A rope bridge hung over a stagnant pool, leading down the river running past the farmland, and into the distant sea. Kasey couldn't help but feel that there had once been a gushing waterfall feeding into the pool.

As the district became clearer, Kasey took in the sights of the few, small buildings scattered about—Cornet Carpentry was almost just ahead, with neatly-corded bundles of wood and several barrels sitting by the house. A few axes leaned against the walls, and the muffled noise of a buzz saw could be heard from within.

Past a gap in the mountains with a forested path leading off for parts unknown, a cluster of faded white buildings pressed close together. They were old and weather-beaten, with shingles composed of rusting hunks of metal in irregular sizes, rickety wooden porches raised off the ground level, and a sooty brick chimney rising alongside the mine. At set intervals high up, dilapidated structures jutted out from the mountainside, alongside older tunnel entrances long-since carved or blown out of the rock. He could see the remnants of an old lift as well.

In front of the building farthest from them, a small group was shouting and laughing—two men appeared to be wrestling by the main entrance to the Garmon Mines, with a little girl and a slightly-older boy cheering them on. Kasey felt his stomach flip as he recognized two of the people from Wizard's vision.

Shaking her head and grinning, Renee took off at a light jog for the small group, Anissa letting out an amused sigh and following behind a bit more slowly.

"Over here," Anissa called over her shoulder when she noticed Kasey hanging back and staring off at the space between the carpenter's and the general store. "Is something the matter?"

Kasey shook his head, nodding in the direction of the pathway. Something about it seemed alluring to him, perhaps even important, and he couldn't quite place why. "Just wondering where that path in the trees leads, is all..." Catching sight of Anissa's confused look, he blinked curiously. "Err, guess you don't know either, huh?"

Hands twisting at her white skirt, Anissa shook her head slowly, eyes drifting to the bare stretch of mountainside between the two buildings. She squinted, wondering if maybe Kasey was mistaken, or perhaps a bit unwell. First, asking about Wizard, and now this. Of course, this unrelenting heat could make anyone act a bit off, she reasoned with herself, stomach flipping a bit. Still, something about his query stirred a strange, unsettling feeling in the depths of her heart. She shook it off, cocking her head, a finger to her lips in consternation. "I'm sorry, did... did you mean... the path over by the Fugue Forest...?"

About to shake his head and point, Kasey felt a small jolt at the base of his spine as he looked back over—there stood the same cluster of trees he'd just been staring at. It seemed too obvious. Yet, he admitted to himself as his mind hummed warily, Anissa didn't strike him as the prankster type...

"Oh. Y-yeah... sorry, I kind of just... worded it strange," he lied, nodding in assent to Anissa's question. "I just, umm... I always liked exploring places like that when I was a kid."

Anissa nodded slowly, fiddling with the strap of her pale pink tank top. Something about it still didn't quite add up, but she felt as though it would be best to just leave it be for now. "Well, my parents never really let me go in there, so I don't know for sure... but a few of the people around here played there before. I know Renee, Owen, Toby, and Kathy used to go in there a lot when they were little." With a soft chuckle, Anissa smiled fondly at the memories. "They got in a lot of trouble, too." Crossing her arms, a small shiver ran down her body. Her tone suddenly darkened as she softly added, "Seems dangerous now, though. I'd personally tread lightly around that place, if I were you... it's not the same as it used to be, I think."

Catching her eyes flicking in the direction of the small group over by the mine—Renee now among them—Kasey let out a quiet sigh. "Y-yeah, guess I should... thanks for the heads-up."

Straightening up, Anissa adjusted her top and nodded, her expression growing warm once more. She turned to make her way to the small group by the mine entrance, smiling over her shoulder at Kasey. "Of course. Hey, how about I introduce you to everyone? They're really very sweet."

Hands stuffed in his pockets, Kasey tore one last, troubled gaze away from the forested pathway and nodded, slowly approaching the group with Anissa. He shrewdly eyed them as he listened to the kids cheering.

The little girl, short and vibrant at eight years old, hopped from foot-to-foot while clapping madly. Her tiny, rose-hued ponytail bobbed with the movement. "C'mon, Owen! Whoop his skinny little butt! Break him in half like a piece'a wood!"

The sandy-haired, freckled boy that Kasey recognized shook his head, cupping his hands around his mouth. "You can do it, Luke! Take him down! He may be the oak, but you're the ax!"

"The hell kinda corny crap is that, Bo?" the little girl spat at him, blowing a raspberry.

One of the wrestlers—a beefy tank of a man, dark red spikes sodden with sweat—threw a stern glance over his shoulder in the midst of his struggle. "Chloe! Watch... your—" he grunted as the skinnier boy put him in a headlock, "—language! Ow! Easy, Luke!"

"I show no mercy to trees! TIMMMMMBEEEERRRRRR!" Luke bellowed, yelping as the large man dropped to his hands and knees and rolled over onto his back. "Uh oh! NOOOOO—" His startled shout suddenly went muffled, as Chloe, Renee, Anissa, and Bo all groaned and winced, while Kasey's jaw dropped. Luke's arms, riddled with various scars and half-healed cuts, were still locked in a choke hold around the other man's neck.

All went silent as Owen caught his breath.

"Owen," Bo muttered, shaking his head. "Wow."

"Dude," Chloe agreed simply, mouth hanging open in shock.

"I LIVE!" Luke's muffled shout came from beneath Owen, fists suddenly beating on the man's broad chest, scrabbling at the red t-shirt he was wearing. "C'mon, big man, let's go again! Let's do iiiiit!"

With another loud grunt, Owen rolled back over, freeing Luke and scrambling to his feet with a booming laugh. "God, no! You've been roughed up enough already! With how bad I'd whoop you, your dad would have my head on a platter!"

"You sayin' I'd lose?" a dirt-covered Luke countered with a wide smirk, taking Owen's proffered hand and stumbling to his feet, hitching his slipping denim shorts back up to spare everyone a flash of crack. With a sudden, sharp wince, he sagged and rubbed his bruised lower back. A faint flicker of alarm shot through Kasey as he caught sight of a jagged, half-healed gash crossing it. "Ah! Fu—" Catching Chloe's wide grin, Luke halted, returned it, and winced again. "F... friiiiiick, that hurts!"

Clapping Luke on the back—and eliciting another pained yelp in the process—Owen chuckled. "Sorry, man. Never take sucker bets."

"Your face is a sucker bet! Hey, people!" he added, waving at the three new faces watching them with varying levels of amusement. "Wass'ahhhhp?!"

Arms crossed, Renee cocked her head and grinned. "Well, we were gonna stop by Barbara's, but watching you eat dirt was way too good to pass up." She giggled as Luke—in a manner similar to Chloe—blew a loud raspberry at her.

"I was holdin' back! Y'know, so Chloe wouldn't cry!"

While Chloe pulled a face behind them, Renee's smile widened, giving the wiry young man a patronizing nod. "Uh-huuuuuh. How thoughtful!"

Luke nodded cheerfully, though he gave Renee a playful smirk, her sarcasm not going unnoticed. "Uh-huuuuh. You know it, sister! Hey, Ani!" he added, waving as Anissa exchanged pleasant greetings with the other three. She waved back, though his bright, golden eyes had already snapped onto Kasey. Luke bounded forward eagerly, hand out for a high-five. "Heyyy, new dude! My old man ran into you like a week back or somethin'! How's it hangin'? Name's Luke," he added at the end of his single-breath ramble, grabbing the baffled Kasey's arm and raising it up for a stinging high-five.

Kasey winced as he rubbed his tingling palm, nodding meekly at Luke—despite their wildly different dispositions and builds, Kasey was quite certain this was Dale's son. "Uhhh, Kasey. Nice to meet you." His eyes narrowed as he quickly looked Luke over—while he was still recognizable from Wizard's vision, a few startling changes had occurred since his trek into Fugue Forest.

Luke was skinny but muscular, his limbs, bare torso, and even his face riddled with a series of scars, as well as mostly-healed scrapes and cuts. His wild, sapphire-colored hair stuck out every which way from under his dirty, flame-patterned bandana, and Kasey couldn't help but notice a large shock of white sticking out among the blue. His eyes lingered on the snowy locks for a second, before noticing a faint flicker of discomfort cross Luke's face out of the corner of his eye.

"Cool bandana," Kasey said finally, pointing at the item in question.

Luke's face brightened up instantly, and he nodded like a bobblehead doll. "You know it, man! Birthday gift from the tailor! One-of-a-kind! So, you runnin' the farm, then?"

"Doing what I can," Kasey agreed quietly, as Owen came up to offer his own handshake, casting a shadow over the two, shorter boys.

"Owen Samuels," the massive man greeted, while Kasey stared up at him with a bit of intimidation. He was five-nine, himself, and he suddenly felt so tiny in Owen's presence.

Thumbing over his shoulder, Owen added, "I work over at the blacksmith there—well, my grandpa's the head honcho. I'm just the apprentice for now. And that's my little brat of a cousin, Chloe!" he added with a deep chuckle, lifting the little girl up to eye level with Kasey. "Say 'hi' to Kasey, shrimp!"

Chloe leaned forward and smushed Kasey's cheeks between her hands, scrutinizing him keenly with a squint. "Hmmm..." She turned his head to the side sharply, causing him to squeak. "HMMM..."

"Hmm?" Kasey repeated, shooting her a glance, and smiling through his squished-up face. Chloe reminded him a bit of Vanessa when she'd the same age. Goofy and playful. No shits to give.

Chloe turned his face back towards hers, nodding. Letting go, she patted his cheeks lightly. "Yup. I knew it. You're kinda squishy."

With a small grin, Kasey chuckled and nodded as Owen set Chloe down. "Yeah, I get that a lot."

"Well, it's not a bad thing," Chloe insisted, while Kasey let out an exaggerated sigh of relief.

"Oh, that's a real load off my mind!" he said happily, causing Chloe to give him a pleased nod.

Anissa and Renee shared a quick smile, while Bo introduced himself with a polite bow.

"So, how's farm life treating you?" Owen asked, rubbing his chin as he surveyed Kasey's slightly-burned skin. "Looks like you've been putting in some hard time out there already!"

"Not a lot," Kasey admitted, scratching the back of his neck uncomfortably. "But, I-I like it, and... yeah, it's kinda growing a little. It's pretty fun!"

"Ooooh!" Luke piped up, slamming a fist into his open palm, wide golden eyes flashing madly. "And if things keep getting weirder around here, maybe it'll make your crops mutate! Like, you can probably grow sh—" He glanced at Chloe again, then at Owen, who shook his head sternly. "—Grow stuff like, I dunno, an invisible watermelon, and use it as a volleyball—"

"What," Owen spat flatly.

"—Or a potato so hard it can crack boulders, or—"

"Ooh, yeah, do that!" Chloe chimed in, fist-bumping Luke.

"—Ooh, and a turnip that screams when you touch it—"

"I, uhh... think Kasey's heard enough of your... lovely ideas for today," Anissa cut in, shaking her head disbelievingly as she placed a gentle hand on Luke's dirt-smeared, freckled shoulder to stop him. All eyes then fell on Kasey, whose face was contorted in confusion, worry, and fear. Anissa sighed. "Uh oh."

"Great, Luke, you broke him," Renee scolded.

Kasey nodded blankly. "Sounds right..."

"Yeah, I ran out of ideas anyway," Luke agreed, folding his arms and nodding solemnly. With a shrug, he ambled over to the sign by the mine entrance, where a green t-shirt was draped. Slipping it on, he grinned. "Plus, all this food talk's makin' me hungry! Think I'm gonna go grab some grub at mi cabasa. Who wants to come with? We've got plenty!"

"I think it's 'mi casa,' but I'm in," Owen agreed, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand and watching as Luke bent down and let Chloe climb up onto his shoulders for a piggyback ride. "Be careful, now!"

"Chlo-Beard the Bloody laughs in the face of carefulness!" Chloe shot back as she drummed lightly on Luke's skull, humming a merry tune. "Prepare to shove off, matey!"

"Aye-aye, Cap'n!" Luke confirmed, wincing as the little girl tugged on his hair. "Ease up there, sea dog!"

"Chill, Chloe," Owen warned.

"Well, I am a little hungry," Anissa admitted, twirling her ponytail thoughtfully, as she and Renee followed the other three toward the carpenter's.

Kasey and Bo hung back briefly, and Bo gave an apologetic smile. "Don't mind Luke. He's a little out there sometimes, but he means well."

Kasey nodded, staring uneasily at Luke as he bounced Chloe on his shoulders. The sun flashed off the white shock of hair, and Kasey felt his stomach turn for reasons he couldn't quite pinpoint. Scuffing his shoe in the dirt, he squinted. "Hey, uhh, h-how'd... what got him so... beat-up looking?" When Bo bit his lip and averted his gaze, Kasey tilted his head. "...Oh. That bad?"

"N-no, nothing bad... at all," Bo mumbled unconvincingly, giving his head a rapid shake. "Luke just... plays rough a lot. That's all. He's really... really reckless. Hahaha... great trait for a carpenter, huh?"

Eyebrows rising skeptically, Kasey nodded, crossing his arms. "...So, what made his ha—"

"Hey, you guys comin' or what? We're not leaving any for you if you're late!" Renee called, cutting Kasey off in mid-question. The rest of the group was now waiting by Luke's house.

"Coming!" Bo called, sprinting off to join them, all too relieved to have an excuse to drop the conversation Kasey had started.

Kasey flinched when the realization settled in that he'd almost revealed knowing something he shouldn't to Bo—even so, he couldn't help but feel uneasy when he caught sight of Luke waving for him to join them. "Umm... I'll take a rain check," he called back, shrugging apologetically. His eyes flicked to the general store—if he was lucky, he'd be able to meet Phoebe and possibly get some clearer answers from her. "I need to pick up some stuff at the store and... err... a-and take care of a few things back at the farm. It—it was nice meeting you all, though."

"Well, stop by any time you wanna chillax!" Luke invited with a fervent nod, making Chloe wobble on top of him—Owen put his hands out to steady her. "Or if you ever wanna buy some furniture from us! Man, just check with me! You'll get the most extreme sh—"

"Luke!" Owen barked, poking his friend hard in the ribs and eliciting a pained yelp. "Geez, watch it! Welp, it was nice meeting you, man," he added, waving to Kasey. "Don't be a stranger, alright?"

"Bye, Squishy Face~!" Chloe sang as the others disappeared into Cornet Carpentry, leaving Kasey scuffing his shoe against the dead grass by the general store. With an amused grin, he noticed the name on the sign: "Encore General."

"Of course it is," he sighed, shaking his head good-naturedly as he sucked in a deep breath and made his way inside.

The little bell above the door jingled, lost under the cry of guitars and drums, a woman's shrill voice blaring out over the man on the radio:

"..Rollin' with the dice! Standin' on the ledge, I'll show the wind how to fly! When the world gets in my fay-ay-ace, I say... oh, hey, bubba!" The woman at the counter snapped her gaze up from her home decor magazine when she heard Kasey enter, apple-green curls bobbing under her sky-blue headscarf as she bounced up and grinned invitingly, still bopping along to the music. Her hair flapped about as she swung her head side to side with a smile, a guitar solo wailing up. "Welcome to Encore General Store, where the prices are so great, you'll want more-more-mooooore!"

Eyes dancing around from display to display—cooking utensils, basic groceries, televisions and telephones, and toiletries—Kasey nodded, approaching the counter slowly. "Ahhh... thanks? I'm Kasey, by the way. Mr Kern mentioned you—"

"Oooh, you're the guy who had the cajones to try out that farm!" the woman interrupted, nodding enthusiastically. If Kasey hadn't known better, he'd swear this woman was somehow related to Luke, with her excitable demeanor and fondness for cheerful headwear. "I'm Barbara, Simon's wife! He mentioned you. You can call me 'Babs,' though, don't be shy!" With a confident wink, she folded her arms, surveying him thoughtfully. "Too bad you came by so late, though—could've introduced you to Pheebs, but my little Lara Croft's off in the Valley with a couple friends of hers right now."

A few seconds passed in silence, the DJ announcing the next song coming up as Kasey took a moment to wonder if it would be safe to try speaking again. His heart sank a little as Barbara's words settled in, a sultry Latin dance song kicking into the silence. Damn it. Wish Perry had thought to let me know...

"...Oh, you mean your daughter?" Kasey finally asked, after Barbara watched him expectantly for another quiet moment.

She nodded once again, smiling and bouncing on her feet in time with the song. "Yup, yup! She's a fascinating kid, I tell ya. Couldn't pry her nose outta her research with the dang Jaws of Life, but she's so smart it makes my head spin! She's like a walking computer, heheheh!" Leaning against the back counter, she chuckled, swiping a finger under her nose and humming along briefly with the woman singing on the radio, before the noise became thoughtful. "Ya know, I could introduce you to her sometime! You wanna know anything about this place, she'll probably have it down pat, start to finish!"

How did she know that already? With a small laugh, Kasey rubbed the back of his head, nodding back at her. "S-so I've heard. Any idea when she'll be back?"

"Ahhh, 'bout a week, maybe," Barbara guessed, buffing her nails on her yellow t-shirt and shrugging. Kasey's crestfallen expression went unnoticed. "She and her archaeologist friends get so caught up in their work, her visits kinda go over schedule sometimes. Plus, she's supposed to be meeting this big-shot fella she idolizes! Calvin Hawke, I call him her 'big n' sexy Aussie thing'. Ha! Got a dang poster of him up in her room, but she gets so embarrassed whenever I bring him up to her. Turns all red!" With another squawk of laughter, she sighed, smiling as she played with her hair. "Got a little crush on him, I wager! It's cute. If you ask me, I think she should go for it, y'know?"

Having tuned out roughly halfway through, Kasey nodded idly, trying to play off his disappointment as he surveyed the store and made a list in his head: groceries, dryer sheets, toothpaste, and shampoo. And perhaps he could finally get a phone hooked up at his house. At least, he could if he had the money for one. His savings were doing okay so far, thanks in part to the deep discount on the house. "Well... I look forward to meeting her, then. Ahh, a-and I'd like to pick up some stuff before I go."

"That's what we're here for!" Barbara agreed, bouncing around to the front of the counter and rubbing his shoulder roughly. "Go hog wild, bucko! Get whatever you can afford! Ooh, and don't forget before you leave, Irene asked me to get you some sunblock and water. Don't wanna stay at the clinic any more than you gotta, right?"

Kasey chuckled nervously, wincing a bit.

------------------------

Later that evening, Kasey was sprawled out on his bed, staring thoughtfully at the ceiling as Elli's weather report played across the room. The setting sun bled its ominous light through the windows and across the furniture and walls, the orchestra of crickets beginning to strike up for their evening duet with the cicadas.

Next to his bed sat the cheerful green-and-yellow phone, hooked up and ready to take and make calls, and a freshly-bought meal was slowly digesting in his stomach. Eager though he was to call his family—and his grandparents—to catch up with them, Kasey found he had too much weighing on his mind at that moment to want to worry them. His mother in particular had an uncanny knack for homing in on his emotional state like a heat-seeking missile, and his concerns would be too particularly large and obvious a target for her talents.

Of course, I could just play them off as beginners' jitters, he reasoned, shrugging his sore shoulders. They don't necessarily have to know exactly what's going on... it doesn't sound like news has really reached beyond the region yet...

He knew his family would pick up on the lie immediately. But then again, I am nervous about all this, so it's not really a lie, just... not the whole truth.

Groaning loudly, he turned his thoughts to the biggest matter weighing on his mind—the forest path in Garmon Mines. He couldn't help but feel that, regardless of what others couldn't see, something was there. Something dwelling deep within, beckoning to him...

Calling only to me? The thought made him gulp as memories played through his head: Luke running into Fugue; the obviously-wrecked young carpenter covered in various wounds, hair now streaked flour-white; the uncomfortable look in his eyes as he caught Kasey staring. He had a feeling pressing Luke on the subject wouldn't be a terribly great option yet, no matter how exceedingly friendly the man seemed.

Scowling, he remembered what Anissa had mentioned about the others playing in the forest as kids. There was one in particular he felt safe asking, once he had a chance. A slight smile spread across his face at the prospect of maybe easing his worries some. Still, there was something else he had to take care of first.

Eyes closing for a moment, he steeled his nerves as he made up his mind—Phoebe may not have been present, but he'd learned enough by now to know where to look next. The pieces Perry had offered him earlier finally locked into place with those he'd found scattered in the illusory space between the general store and the carpenter's house. Wizard's pieces simply had to settle into their own spots in the picture from there.

Tomorrow night, he'd gather his courage, head through that forest path, and find out what awaited him on the other side.

Chapter Text

The following day passed by with Kasey growing increasingly agitated, opting to isolate himself for the day to avoid drawing any further suspicion—or to avoid inadvertently grilling the locals about things that would generate that suspicion in a heartbeat. Calling his family and getting them worked up and worried about him was out, as well—not after he'd so eagerly talked up his excitement to everyone over his move to Castanet. He sure as hell didn't feel like dragging them into the supernatural, either. He was already struggling enough with the concept as it was, wondering how he'd even come to agree to deal with all of this in the first place.

Frankly, he couldn't remember agreeing to any of it. Maybe it was tacit. But he'd certainly feel like an asshole if he backed out now.

There's nothing out there for us! a frustrated voice reminded him, causing his cheeks to burn in anger as he rolled over in his bed, flipping the pillow once more to lay his cheek against the cool side.

There was good enough reasoning for him. Idiotic stubbornness.

The end result of his self-imposed solitude found Kasey thrust into a lonely, torturous tug-of-war between dread and anticipation, each opponent reeling him viciously through their own passage of time as his mind spun with worries and hopes.

Dread seemed to ruthlessly tear large chunks out of the day every time Kasey blinked, downed another glass of water, or did another round of push-ups or pull-ups that left his arms increasingly sore. Anticipation, however, let the seconds drip by slowly, like drops of honey off of a honeycomb. Attempted naps that felt like hours of laying around were merely minutes inching past. Trips out to poke around in his run-down barn and coop crawled by, as he dusted away new cobwebs and shooed out freeloading spiders. Every TV show took eons to melt into the next century-long commercial break. He knew how to spell mesothelioma backwards and forwards now, and who he should call if he or a loved one died from it.

By the time ten o'clock rolled around that evening, Kasey's nerves were stretched thin and taut, a small mishap away from snapping as he adjusted his black toboggan and tucked his tight black sweater into his camo pants. Already starting to sweat heavily, he grabbed a bottle of water, took a few deep breaths, and slipped out into the sultry mid-March night for the Garmon district.

Even in the muggy air, thicker and more oppressive than usual, Kasey felt a chill run down his back beneath his heavy clothes. His shallow breathing and soft footsteps seemed to echo infinitely throughout the starry night, the usual nocturnal symphony of insects swelling and rippling in the reeds and in the trees. It occurred to him that as much as he heard them, he never really saw any bugs going about their usual buggy business in Castanet. Even they seemed wary. With the softly-lit buildings of Garmon bobbing into view ahead, and the ominous mass of dead trees rising high in moonlit shadow off to his right, he felt a cold sweat begin to trickle down his flushed skin.

"You are near..."

With a loud gasp, Kasey pressed himself against the side of Cornet Carpentry, jumping again when he heard a low, deep barking from within—the faint whisper that had breezed past his ear was all but forgotten immediately at the sound of the alert, energetic, and presumably quite humongous dog. His heart scrambled to burst out of his body and run off on its own as he pressed himself against the siding as hard as he could. Shit! Please don't see me...

Frantically strafing around to the back side of the building, he heard voices from within—Bo and Luke grunting and laughing, while Dale's gruff bass rumbled out, cheerful and muffled beneath the barking:

"C'mon, Boss! If I gotta sit down to eat supper, so do you! Sit, buddy!" A moment of silence, while Kasey allowed himself a small, relieved smile, listening to the dog whine and bark impatiently. "Nope! Sit, Boss! ...Yeah, there's my good boy! Alright, you big, spoiled monster, dig in!"

"Yeah, Bo, lay down like a good boy and taste defeat!" Luke's voice mocked from nearby, eliciting a shriek of laughter.

"Never!" A muffled thud sounded as Kasey inched his way along the wall once more, trying to keep his breathing slow and quiet while he listened to Dale admonish the boys to be careful.

Catching sight of his destination, Kasey scanned the rest of the Garmon area for any signs of life—Encore General was still bright in the late evening, with a faint flicker glowing from Koto Accessories next door. Straining his ears, he caught faint snatches of plaintive, discordant piano music drifting from Mira's shop. Hearing the voices of Barbara, Ruth, Hanna, and Colleen chattering from the open windows of the general store, Kasey crouched down low, hoping nobody came to their window and saw him lurking around like a burglar, or a Walmart-brand Solid Snake. The last thing he needed was for a bunch of small-town housewives or a gigantic, burly lumberjack to spot him acting suspiciously.

The front door of the general store creaked open, spilling a large cone of light out into the evening. At the sound, Kasey let out a small squeak and bolted, hearing a confused voice call out his name as he was swallowed up by the shadows of the forest.

------------------------

Tracing a finger around the rim of her wineglass, Colleen Talbot stared thoughtfully into the pale liquid, cheek resting against her fist as she half-listened to the other three women discuss out-of-town gossip. In the middle of the kitchen table lay a half-finished game of Trivial Pursuit, now completely forgotten.

"Oh, I saw it too!" Hanna piped up, nodding at Barbara's excited jabbering about the local weather girl's shiny new engagement ring. "Say, hon, isn't Phoebe friends with her?"

"Yeah, but I haven't heard a damn thing from her about the lucky S.O.B.," Barbara returned, shaking her head fervently. Nonetheless, her eyes were bright, her imagination humming wildly behind the deep blue irises. "She won't indulge her poor, nosy mother! Phooey."

Ruth cocked her head thoughtfully, draining the remnants of her brandy with a pleased hum. "Oh? I heard Elli was seeing that Brennan guy... umm..." She snapped her fingers a few times, tongue poking out and eyes screwed shut in concentration as she tried to call the name to mind.

"Jack?!" Barbara finished, jaw hanging wide open as she nearly knocked over her own glass of wine in shock. Grabbing it and taking deep, satisfying pull, she wiped her mouth and returned to her incredulous staring. "You mean the stripper?! Ooh, who told you?"

Ruth shrugged, holding out her snifter for a refill. "I heard Anissa and Renee talking about it once after they came back from that bazaar a couple months ago, that's all. Mmm... not that I knew he was a stripper, though. When'd that happen?"

Pulled briefly from her troubled thoughts, Colleen's violet eyes sparkled with interest as her gaze snapped onto Barbara, primly-painted lips curving into a sly smile as the shopkeeper handed back Ruth's fresh fill of brandy. "Well, now! Did I hear that right?"

"Oh, Manna told me that whole ordeal's all behind him now," Hanna cut in, shaking her head in disapproval at her friends as she sipped her sweet tea. "And from what she tells me, he's made quite a turnaround on that little farm of his. Besides, Elli's known him since they were babies; I'm sure she knows him far better than we do."

Crossing her arms and staring thoughtfully at the ceiling, Barbara nodded, while Colleen's gaze flicked between the two women in confusion.

"Ooohhh, I'm missing something really fantastic here, aren't I?" she sighed, drumming her fingers on the table in anticipation, her other hand pressed eagerly to her mouth, as if to catch and seal in whatever scandalous secret she was about to learn.

"Good point... man, an ex-stripper for a husband! That's hot," Barbara continued, ignoring Colleen's question and indignant huff. "I mean, my Simon's cute as a button, but that guy's gotta be seriously hot! Probably looks like Pheebs's Indy Jones fella, I bet! Heheheh! Cheers, Elli!" Barbara ended her statement with another lewd chuckle, knocking back the contents of her wineglass and refilling it with fluid ease. "Wonder if I could get the hubby to dance around in a sexy little cowboy outfit for me, whadda y'all think?" she added with a devious wiggle of her eyebrows, not noticing the other women shuddering slightly as a tipsy giggle popped out of her lips.

Sighing at the futility of getting any more information from her friends for the time being, and forcing the mental image of Barbara's gawky, gyrating husband out of her mind—her own husband fit the image much better—Colleen instead turned her honeyed smile to Ruth. "Anyway... speaking of young love, dear, Irene tells me your little Anissa's been getting on quite well with Dr. Jin lately."

Ruth sighed, staring pensively into her brandy. "From what I can tell, yeah... at least she's been getting along well with someone lately..." Her voice was quiet and solemn, bony fingers stroking the glass as Hanna patted her arm sympathetically. "I mean, I certainly don't blame her for being angry with everything that's going on, but..."

"She told me she was gonna make up with you, hon," Hanna said, looking a bit puzzled, while Barbara and Colleen shared a glance and a shrug before looking back at the other two women with rapt curiosity—they'd both seen Anissa out and about the other day, but hadn't heard a single word about any of this.

Catching their gazes, Ruth's thin lips pulled into a wan smile, and she took another sip of her brandy. "Ohh, you two didn't hear about this one, right..." Draining her glass a bit more, she filled them in on Monday afternoon's incident with Kasey at Marimba Farm, face falling a bit at Colleen's scandalized gasp, as well as Barbara's wry smirk.

"Whoa! Someone had her Carnation Instant Bitch for breakfast that morning, huh?" Barbara quipped, uttering a squawk of laughter as she drained yet another glass of wine. When Ruth glowered at her, Barbara simply shrugged, as if to say, Well, I'm not wrong.

"Yes, sweetie, I'm quite aware that I crossed the line, thank you..."

"Now, you two cut that out right now," Hanna warned, frowning and tapping her glass of tea with her wedding band. The contact created an unpleasant ringing noise that made the other three women cringe. Clearing her throat importantly as the tension eased up some, she nodded, turning back to Ruth. "It's okay, hon. Go ahead."

Grasping the base of her snifter once more, Ruth's shoulders fell. "Well... obviously, I felt terrible. He was just buying stuff! I mean, I'd already given Craig an earful about how he'd acted to the boy, and then I go and make it worse... so I made Kasey a nice little snack, you know, like a peace offering. Apologized up and down to Anissa when she came home yesterday, too."

"She didn't accept?" Colleen inquired, raising a pristinely-plucked eyebrow in interest. "That's very unlike her."

"Oh, no, she accepted my apology alright," Ruth corrected with a dismissive wave of her hand, grabbing the bottle of brandy herself and filling her glass yet again. "She seemed so relieved, and then... she just tried to comfort me." Uttering a humorless laugh, she pushed the snifter away and took a swig straight from the bottle instead, ignoring Barbara scrunching up her face in distaste.

"Said she understood how I must've felt, but that it was okay. You know, it's okay, because it's hard on all of us. So I told her, I said, 'NO!'" She banged the bottle on the table for emphasis, the other three women jumping slightly at the sound as she shook her head, her words beginning to slur slightly. "'No! How is any of this okay?! Taylor ran away because of this, your father's blowing his top and drinking himself silly all the time because of all this, open your eyes! This sucks!'" Realizing how loud she was suddenly getting, Ruth lowered her voice as she continued:

"She started getting upset again, telling me to keep my voice down and that she didn't mean it like that. So I told her, I said that that Kasey's a sweet kid, but maybe it's better I upset him again next time I see him, and maybe Craig and I scare him off instead of just—dragging someone else into this." She waved the bottle all around the room, sighing. "Not... this-this, okay? You have a lovely house, Babs. So pretty. Love. It." At Barbara's amused nod, Ruth flicked her head in the direction of the front window, her dark hair swinging with the motion. "Yeah, well, you know... that, I guess, out there. The mess."

"We gathered, hon," Hanna said gently, arm around Ruth's shoulder in a soft hug. "Guess she didn't like that, huh?"

"Of course not," Ruth sighed bitterly, pushing both snifter and bottle aside to fold her arms on the tabletop, laying her head down atop her hands. Huffing as Hanna stroked her hair soothingly, she stared out the open window, into the bright, starry night. Far off in the distance, the faint glow of the town's lights reflected off the eerily still waters of Harmonica Harbor. "She snatched the container right out of my hands, told me she was ashamed of us, and stormed off."

"It was a bit much," Colleen admitted, cocking her head thoughtfully and pursing her lips, violet eyes even wider than usual. To the other women, she looked just like an expensive porcelain doll whenever she did that. "Still, you meant well, of course. I think that's what should matter."

"You'd think," Ruth agreed, sitting up slowly, while Barbara shook her head, green ponytail flapping about.

"Nahhhh! Kid's been here, what, a week and a half already, or something?" she reasoned, tapping her empty wineglass against her exposed shoulder and humming disapprovingly. "He probably knows the score by now, doesn't seem too stupid to me. He still might try sticking it out a bit longer, so what's pissing him off gonna accomplish? A big ol' goose egg, and Hanna's the one raising geese, sister!" She let out a bark of laughter at her own joke, drowning out Hanna's quiet correction that the ranch didn't raise geese because Cain was scared of them. "Might wanna try and make nice with him, even if he bails later—you're gonna need the business, and he needs the tools. Get you back on Ani's good side, to boot!"

"She's got a point," Hanna agreed, nodding at Ruth and rubbing her back. With a firm clap against the ratty green t-shirt, she nodded cheerfully. "Of course, it's been tough on all of us, but we've gotten through it up till now, right?"

Sighing, Ruth carefully trickled the contents of her snifter back into the brandy bottle. She tilted her head halfheartedly as Barbara sighed in disgust and snatched the bottle, making a beeline for the sink to dump it all out again. "I guess you're right... well, I suppose if I can get Anissa to stop hating me again, I can work from there..."

"Oh, hon, I'll talk to her, if you want," Hanna insisted with a warm, motherly smile. "She's got a good heart, like her mama. She'll understand, no problem. And it'll all be alright, you'll see!"

Returning Hanna's smile at only half-wattage, Ruth nodded, standing up and smoothing her t-shirt out as she swayed a bit. She didn't quite buy Hanna's sunny perspective, but trying a hopeful outlook for once couldn't hurt, could it? Perhaps even Craig could pick up on it if she pretended hard enough... not that it had worked yet, but maybe she just needed to be more consistent about it. Sure, why not? "Thanks, girls... hey, mind if I step out a bit for a smoke? Think I just need to clear my head a bit... that brandy really crept up on me!"

"You drank it right outta the bottle," Barbara groused flatly, crossing her arms over her faded red tank top as she waved back at Ruth, who made a quick retreat from the general store.

"Oh, she's just having a tough time at home," Colleen admonished gently, staring up at Barbara with a patronizing smile. "Play nice, Babs. She said your house was pretty, you know." Across the table, Hanna tittered behind her hand, throwing Barbara an innocent look when the shopkeeper smirked wryly at her.

Outside, Ruth let out a long, drawn-out breath through her nostrils, ears catching the melancholy sound of Mira's piano playing next door, accompanied by quiet crooning. She shuddered and grimaced at the odd, jarring notes that briefly yanked the piece off-key and halted the singing momentarily—nothing new since Tom had passed, but it always grated on Ruth's ears all the same whenever she overheard it. Though admitting it to herself caused her a strong stab of guilt, due to the young widow's gentle nature, she partly wished Mira would finally accept an invitation to game night from one of them just to get her off of that damn piano for a change. Get her out of the house, too, even if it was just to get her into someone else's house for a bit.

As she withdrew a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her shorts and made to light one, a sudden rustling noise to her left caught her attention, followed by an odd squeaking sound.

Squinting into the darkness, Ruth gave a slight start when she spotted a tall, lean figure frozen in the shadows of Dale's house for a mere split-second, before he ran full-pelt toward the mountainside.

"Kasey?"

In an astonished blink, he was gone... had he even actually been there at all?

Frowning and rubbing the bridge of her nose, Ruth shook her head and lit up her cigarette, wondering exactly how drunk she was at that moment.

------------------------

Letting out a loud huff and stumbling to a stop in the shadowy forest path, Kasey spun around, hands on his knees as he worked to catch his breath. His stomach dropped slightly when he saw that the path behind him led only into inky blackness now—the lights of the Garmon district, only a few feet away moments before, had been swallowed up.

With a few tentative, curious steps forward, Kasey put a gloved hand out to find it meeting with rough stone—looking high up through the startlingly dense canopy, he saw rocky crags of Garmon Mountain thrown into sharp relief against the moonlight. Letting out a shaky breath, he rubbed the wall in wide-eyed disbelief for a few moments, before swallowing audibly—no way left but forward, now.

Feet crunching loudly over dead leaves and grass, Kasey found himself fighting to steady his breathing as the sultry heat began smothering him, the shrill cries of the insects seeming to form a tangible weight that pressed down on his chest. Every sound seemed heavily amplified in the stifling forest path, the thick clusters of trees on either side of him housing twisted, gnarled shadows that seemed to shift in the weak stabs of moonlight filtering in through the thickly-layered treetops. If he took off a glove and squinted, he could barely make out his own hand in front of his face.

Suddenly feeling very stupid, and wishing he'd thought to bring a flashlight along, Kasey uttered a weak chuckle as he continued—the path seemed to stretch infinitely into the darkness...

The sudden sound of a twig snapping pulled Kasey out of his thoughts, his back suddenly ramrod straight as he spun around, eyes darting all over in a vain attempt to spot the source of the noise. With a low whoosh of air escaping his lips, he squinted into the trees, turning back around with torturous slowness as he made to continue his journey. He now found himself looking side-to-side as the pace of his steps picked up in time with his heartbeat, eyes sweeping cautiously over the trees.

He jumped a bit as something caught his eye—a darting shadow? Or was his paranoia simply subjecting him to a cruel game at this point? Suddenly, he found himself wishing for the blazing sunlight, instead.

Hearing his own breathing become higher and faster, Kasey's walking became brisk, stumbling carelessly over small rocks and the odd root pushing up through the dirt like a thick vein. It couldn't be much farther now...

As it began to dawn on Kasey exactly how little wildlife he'd seen since his arrival, the low growl rumbled out of the trees behind him, soft steps crunching behind his in the dry grass.

He knew what he was about to do was incredibly stupid, but panic had taken the wheel now.

With a desperate yell, he broke into a run, hearing his pursuer spring into action behind him. It snarled loudly, matching but never quite exceeding Kasey's speed, even when he tripped over another root with a scream and stumbled back to his feet, ignoring the dizzying heat and the stitch in his side. Another creature joined in the hunt, uttering an unearthly shriek that sent a sharp chill through Kasey's bones, straight through to the marrow.

From the trees, unnaturally loud flapping and cawing fell into the cacophonous orchestra, pushing the terrified boy ever-forward, even as the assailants never really seemed to catch up with him—moonlight began to peek through the opening ahead, the trickle growing into a steady stream as his destination finally became wonderfully clear. With deep, gulping breaths, Kasey flooded his veins with every last ounce of desperate energy in his body, his sore feet slamming loudly against the ground and sending their own echoes into the night underneath the hellish mass of noise at his heels.

Massive ruins loomed before him, rushing closer and closer—and just beyond them...

"S...Sephia," Kasey panted at the sight of the tree at the very back of the clearing. He wasn't sure why he was even calling out for her. What sort of aid did he expect of her? Panic began to flood his body once more as he realized he was trapped, with no way to fight back. "SEPH—ahh!"

With a pained cry, Kasey tripped once more, landing hard on his front and yelling as the air was knocked out of him. Fighting to get his body back under control, he let out a helpless whimper as he rolled over onto his back, scrambling up desperately to face—

Nothing.

The forest pathway was gone now, faded back into the shadows of the Garmon Mountains. The trees, rotting stumps, and grass around him stood unoccupied, the muggy air still and silent. Not even the cicadas and crickets had any songs to sing in this strange grove.

Getting up slowly, and rubbing the dirt and leaves off his slightly-torn clothes, Kasey blinked a few times, unable to process anything for a few moments—save for the immense hammering in his chest, and the sudden sense that he could feel every last blood cell racing in and out of his heart. Willing himself to calm down to little success, he bent over, hands on knees, and let out a strangled noise of relief, halfway between a sob and a laugh.

With a hand over his heart, he turned and took in the surroundings—right before him were the ruins of what looked to be some sort of ancient building, cracked and crumbling stone choked with thick, dead vines and weeds. The remnants of an archway marked where the overgrown path gave way to weathered stone, the central area of the building half-flooded. Sneakers splashing through the filthy water, Kasey gazed around even as he approached the tree—the building itself looked like it had once been a temple.

A faint sense of reverence overtook him as he ran a gloved hand over what was left of a wall, tracing odd, runic inscriptions carved into the stone. In one ear, the first notes of a lovely melody began to play. As the piece began to worm its way through to the other side, the notes started to chime out-of-tune, becoming increasingly discordant. With a sense of foreboding, the final note rang out, gloomy and unresolved.

Unaware of the pale green light flooding from the inscriptions until the bells faded from his mind, Kasey shook his head rapidly, watching as the glow quickly dimmed, swallowed up once more in the shadows. Up ahead, the same light began to pulse weakly from the massive, bare tree, drawing Kasey towards it like a sailor to a siren's song. Idly, he spotted what appeared to be a large, horizontal gash scarring the trunk.

The voice from his dreams spoke into the night, serious yet comforting: "Kasey Manatos... welcome... I thank you for braving the night to heed my call."

Mouth working soundlessly a few times, Kasey finally croaked out, hand hovering tentatively in front of the tree: "Y-you're... S...S-Sephia...?"

"You are correct. I am the one who has drawn you out here to aid this dying land... my domain."

The tree glowed brighter, pale green flowering into white—before Kasey's squinting eyes, the flickering specter of a statuesque woman appeared. Her sea-green hair and pale blue gown flowed from an unfelt wind, golden adornments all over her body glinting in the moonlight. Her long, elegant face and green eyes held both kindness and sorrow, as she smiled down at the gaping boy.

His ingrained sense of etiquette pressing him to prostrate himself at the woman's feet in reverence, and the overwhelming sense of shock from the night's events urging him to pass out once more, Kasey instead stood rooted to the spot, mouth hanging open as he worked to find words. So many questions tried to bubble up at once, only to bottleneck helplessly in his throat and escape as strained squeaks and grunts.

"What... what happened to this place?" he finally choked out, trying to keep himself from babbling out the next few questions crowding onto the tip of his tongue.

Gazing wistfully out into the dying grove before them, Sephia redirected his attention with a simple sweep of her arm—the half-destroyed building, dead trees, and smooth stumps were cast into an eerie glow in her light. "Here, you stand on hallowed ground," she explained, her voice warm and soothing in the still night air, almost as if it encompassed the otherwise absent March breeze."This grove marks the site of my descent unto this wonderful place, millennia ago. I planted a sapling to infuse life into a dying land, at the pleas of the people who once thrived in this region far before written history..."

As his eyes fixated on the temple, shifting out of the shadows with the moon passing over it, Kasey saw the ghost of an ancient painting grow sharper and clearer—crude drawings that warmed his heart all the same, of long-gone subjects genuflecting in gratitude before the kind-hearted goddess.

"A beautiful grove soon sprung forth from whence I blessed this land, moving the grateful people to construct a humble place of worship," Sephia continued, casting her nostalgic smile to the starry night as she gazed deep into the universe, their myriad spirits shining and twinkling hopefully—memories that seemed impossibly far-off to any normal human flashed before her eyes as clearly as though they'd just occurred. Beautiful music and joyous singing rang in her ears, lively melodies she hadn't heard in so long. "Soon, the place you now know as Castanet was a thriving civilization, a hub of trade and agriculture. Throughout the passing of the centuries, I have watched and aided this land through prosperity and hardship."

Nodding almost automatically, Kasey kept his eyes glued to the depictions on what was left of the temple. With a deep breath, he repeated his question: "S-so... how did it come to all this...? Wizard... he says you're... you're dying, or... something..."

Sephia bowed her head, tearing her gaze away from the heavens as she regarded the mortal before her. "To aid this land, I tied the life force of the tree to my own, infusing the very earth with my powers... as its roots spread, so too have my blessings. This tie only strengthened parallel to the bond the people shared with the land. Yet... in my foolishness, I did not foresee the consequences of my actions." Shaking her head solemnly, Sephia looked up to the moon now, brow furrowed in worry.

"You see, the land itself is its own soul. The essence of Castanet lives and breathes as surely as we do, eternally grateful to me for healing it. Its love for me surpasses even its love for the very mortals who tend to it every day, nourishing it, developing it... and this grove, in particular, has always been considered a holy site; vibrant, fair, warm, and green year-round... out of the land's love for me."

Shaking his head, Kasey turned back to Sephia, eyes wide in disbelief at the flickering projection. "B-but... are you saying the... the land did this?! If it... this land... loves you, then..." He gestured wordlessly to their surroundings, looking completely lost. "Tha... you wouldn't do this to somebody you loved..."

"We are in agreement," Sephia confirmed, once more turning her benevolent smile down to him. "But, to this land, I am its mother... raising it from its weakened state, caring for it, pushing it to thrive. It responded with a beautiful gesture of gratitude. However... a short time back, I felt the land roar with anger... shuddering, seething. This grove, long seen as a holy sanctuary in my honor, had been profaned." Her eyes roved over the remains of the temple, the long-dead stumps... "Trees cut for lumber, an ancient structure of worship demolished for stone—nonetheless, I simply wanted my children to grow, and bore them no ill will. I fully understood that some things would not be eternal. Yet..."

"...That's not how everyone saw it, was it?" Kasey finished softly, eyes growing wide as Sephia shook her head—the full extent of the circumstances were becoming clearer and clearer. His horrified gaze settled on the gash in the trunk of the Goddess Tree—almost as if someone had tried to cut it down, as well...

"It sensed the wound, and I felt its startling fury as surely as if it were my own," Sephia continued, following his gaze and sighing. The distant screams of the poor woodsman echoed in her ears once more, causing her heart to ache. "To Castanet's soul, this act was seen as a grave and unforgivable affront to me.Though it had begun to exact revenge against the community, my efforts to soothe it were successful at first. Unfortunately, before long, something soon went... terribly wrong. I sensed a disturbance in the air, a foreboding shift... and then, somehow, its power had amplified far beyond my own control. Its wrath rose anew, and it lashed out at me as well. I was sealed away in a misguided effort to protect me from further harm, to protect me from the townspeople who had meant no disrespect. The pathway to this grove no longer exists to them. My ability to reach out is limited, and fades with each passing day. Even the few animals still left confined to these forests have been infected by the land's anger, seeking to kill those who would dare try to reach me."

A shudder ran down Kasey's spine at the mention of his earlier pursuers, their hellish screams rising like a tsunami and crashing down upon him. Deep in the back of his mind, he heard a terrible cry split through the earth, blood running cold as he imagined the waves of icy rage slowly killing the land, deaf to Sephia's pleas. Wrapping his arms around himself, he looked up helplessly at the Harvest Goddess. "So... wait, it didn't mean to take things this far?"

"I admit... I am not too sure," Sephia sighed, cheek pressed to her hand. "I have my suspicions about what happened, but I am unable to confirm them. I am unable to reach the one who may know more about this. Her energy has mutated into something strange, something with which I cannot communicate, and her whereabouts are a mystery to me. I have had plenty of time to think about it, even as my mind has weakened... yet I cannot say for certain what caused that fateful shift. I only know that the fury intensified, and my powers were subsequently dampened, imprisoning my soul within this dying tree, whose withering roots are now unable to restore even this grove... Nonetheless," she continued, her face falling into grave shadow as she bowed her head, "as of now, my primary concern is soothing the land, saving it... saving my children. This is the task I have entrusted to you." Her eyes locked with his, trust, sorrow, and determination meeting worry and unease.

"I... I'll try," Kasey promised shakily, unable to look away even as he felt his body tense up. "I... why, though? Why me? How can I even do this?!"

"You were not present when disaster first struck," Sephia explained calmly, her gaze never leaving his. "By the land's judgement, you have committed no sin against us. As a stranger to Castanet, you can see the knowledge that has been sealed away from the minds of others, even those who have inhabited this land for centuries past... the path that led you here to me. And..."

Ringing began to sound in Kasey's ears again—the same distorted, discordant melody, as five spots of light flashed one-by-one before his eyes: Red, blue, yellow, green, and purple, each contributing its own odd feeling to the air. Their individual songs overlapped, briefly merging into a hopeful, unfamiliar symphony, before breaking off and fading once more.

"Bells," Kasey murmured, starlight reflecting in his questioning eyes as they turned to Sephia once more.

"Ages ago, five colorful bells sang to herald the revival of this land, in celebration of my descent," she told him, eyes closed as she tried fruitlessly to recall the melodies. "Forged by five sages who helped strengthen the elements that led Castanet into prosperity, music has always played a strong role in the lives of the people... these bells have not sounded since the passing of those sages. While the precise locations of the bells have long been a mystery even to me, I could once feel the power of their elements resonating from the mountains, the town, and the fields..."

Kasey's brow knit as he scratched his cheek in confusion. "...You think ringing them will help?" he asked, tilting his head as the Harvest Goddess nodded. "...How?"

Humming a soft melody that she knew couldn't be the one she sought, Sephia swayed wistfully, eyes still closed. "The songs of these bells were composed by great men, to pay respects to the elements: fire, water, earth, and wind... as well as the very lives they sustain by acting in harmony—the heart." Her humming dying away, she looked up to the sky once more, hope shining in her eyes. "Though not easily recalled, these songs should revitalize the elements, one-by-one... however..."

Her eyes turned back to Kasey, filled with deep concern. "Please take great caution... though I have lost my connection with it for now, I believe the land may try to fight back as it senses the attempts to reverse its wrath." Her brow furrowed as she began to fade away. "Though I have entrusted this task to you, it will not be something you can easily undertake on your own. You must convince the people to work with you... for they may know where the bells rest. Where their songs can echo, to heal the damage that has been done..."

A bright light flashed again, visions of the townspeople withering up and blasting away reeling before Kasey's eyes. The intense heat faded into a bitter cold, before giving way once more to stifling warmth. As Kasey's vision adjusted, he slowly realized he was back in his house, Sephia's final warning ringing in his ears with the finality of a bell's chime:

"...Before the land's vengeance ends their lives, as well as Castanet's."

Questions still clamoring to be heard died on Kasey's lips as he sank to his knees in shock, supporting himself against the ground with his hands. Swallowing hard, he looked out his open window to the dark ocean, fighting to steel his nerves and his resolve under the weight of the tasks set atop his sore shoulders.

"But... where do I even start...?" he asked helplessly, straining his ears for any sounds other than the insects continuing their own melody in the darkness.

Sighing as he clambered to his feet, Kasey kicked off his sneakers, stripped off his torn and dirty clothes, and flopped into bed in his boxers, feeling utterly drained from the maelstrom of emotions that had coursed through his veins and exited through his pores as perspiration. A good night's rest would clear his mind, leaving him ready to form a new plan in the morning.

Chapter Text

In a hellish void of haywire sensations, heat and cold seemed at odds with each other. Yet, at the same time, they desperately tried to get back in sync, their failures only pushing them into more volatile and erratic patterns.

Every time the heat began to contain itself, it instead exploded forth, pushing a piercing freeze beneath it that sent jagged tendrils shooting up in protest. When the deflated heat draped down upon it like a dead balloon, melting through and beneath it into the ground, the chill swelled back up, before being smothered back beneath the blaze once more.

He heard a faint ringing, echoing with the sounds of something being stuck nearby. Shrill shouts and laughter were twisted and stretched, like a damaged cassette tape. A few hopeful snatches of familiar song flickered with painful distortion—perhaps the tune had been lost forever? Or, perhaps, they still knew somewhere deep down, struggling to rise to the surface amidst the chaotic war dance.

"Where am I...?"

A particularly jarring note was punctuated with a flash of red, the discord shooting through his freezing bones in a shock of desperation.

"So cold... I wanna go home..."

Fire and ice ignored the weak protests in their hopeless, off-kilter clash, more red wisps and sparks flying up throughout their constant strikes.

"Sephia... it hurts..."

Plummeting to absolute zero, every bone in his body shattered, the horrific sound veering the melody violently off-key once more.

In the dim light of the early morning, Kasey cautiously observed his reflection in the bathroom mirror, swallowing hard and willing his vision to focus as his heart hammered. Memories of the previous night were tangled with snatches of his latest dream, a few stray notes caught fast between the two. Every shaky breath sounded loudly, hands running through his hair again and again, craning his neck to check from every possible angle. He tried to shut out the horrifying shrieks and howls imprinted on his mind amidst the discordant chimes of a half-forgotten melody.

Dark, dark, dark. All of it, still dark brown in the blue-gray shadows of the unlit house. No white to be found.

His relieved sigh faded into a sheepish laugh at his own paranoia as he gripped the edge of the sink tightly, a slight shiver striking his tired body. His bones still ached, wracked with a faint chill.

Maybe he was going crazy after all.

------------------------

Above the few occupants of the cozy Ocarina Inn, a ceiling fan worked tirelessly to keep everyone cool, as a stout, rose-haired old woman emerged from the back room of the kitchen with a loaded plate. "Reuben, chips, and a Coke," she called pointlessly, bustling over to the only customer—Kasey, looking up from a particularly enormous book with small smile and a quiet thanks as he dug out his money.

"Here you go, sweetie!" Yolanda Talbot said brightly, counting the bills and slipping them into her shirt pocket. "Sorry it took so long—stove's seen better days, I'm afraid. Thing runs like it's older than I am!" She chuckled, blue eyes sparkling as she wiped her hands on her flower-embroidered apron. "Maybe I'm rubbing off on it a little, eh?"

Not quite sure how to respond to that, Kasey simply shrugged and grinned sheepishly, taking a sip of his drink. "It, uhh, it smells delicious, though."

Nodding smartly, Yolanda smiled as she now counted out the change, dropping it beside Kasey's book. "I'd hope so! Well, don't be shy!" she urged rather pointlessly. "Chow down! Holler if you need anything else—like dessert, perhaps..." As if to drive the hint home, she winked, eliciting a quiet laugh from him. "Well, I'd better get those dishes cleaned off. Maya and I will be in the back. Happy reading, kiddo!"

Kasey returned her smile as he watched Maya's grandmother disappear into the back to wash off the skillet and silverware, long pink braids swinging behind her as she strolled along and hummed to herself. Before long, he heard Maya join in, the two women singing off-key while they worked.

With an amused shake of his head, Kasey turned his attention back to his book and his dinner, tucking a few loose locks of hair behind his ears while he read and ate.

It had been two days since his trip out to the Goddess Tree—two days spent mulling over his latest cryptic dream as he sprawled out in front of the TV, or wracked his pressure-cooked brain for ideas in the blazing sun while he harvested another meager batch of turnips and greens for a paltry return, or watered his pale, slowly-growing cabbages and potatoes. They wouldn't be ready in time for St. Patrick's Day, most likely, but maybe he'd fetch a relatively better profit from them when they were ready to go.

In the wake of his trip to the clinic, he'd been wary to approach Wizard once more for guidance, the stoic gleam of that yellow eye still as fresh in his memory as the stifling heat of the man's house. Instead, he'd settled on discreetly turning to Perry for clues about the whereabouts of the bells—any of the bells, and how to ring them. He couldn't help but have a sinking feeling that it wouldn't be as wonderfully simple as just pushing the things and letting the clappers take it from there.

While Kasey still hadn't disclosed his true motives for the sudden interest, even as he'd quickly departed the church the previous morning in the looming shadow of the bell tower, the young pastor had nonetheless been more than happy to loan out the books he'd already finished.

"It gets overwhelming, since all those historians have different takes on the whole thing—you know how history can be, like that 'Telephone' game," Perry had said cheerily, pressing a few volumes into a weakly-grinning Kasey's arms. "But it's pretty fun seeing where they match up and diverge! I've made a little game of it, myself."

"I'll... uh, keep that in mind..."

He hadn't, instead reading obsessively and straining to absorb every last detail from the first book—the first book which, a few chapters in, didn't seem to have thought the bells had ever been a thing, given their complete lack of mention. The table of contents in the massive tome hadn't proved much more promising in that respect, instead listing off only a series of names and events, with corresponding dates. No bells to be found. Already, his mind was turning back to hoping Phoebe would return from the Valley soon, and prove to have more relevant knowledge on-hand. Perry and Barbara had brought her up enough for him to pin some hopes on her being able to point him in the right direction.

As his weary eyes scanned a passage about the ancient mountaintop palace of the Harvest God, and he idly grabbed a toothpick to get at a bit of food between his front teeth, the soft jingling of a bell rang throughout the inn. Kasey let out a soft gasp and jerked his head up instinctively at the sound, yelping and hissing out a curse as the end of the toothpick poked hard against his gum in his surprise.

Groaning in irritation as he rubbed his tongue against the thin trickle of blood now streaming down the side of one tooth, Kasey nodded a greeting to Chase, who shot him an odd look in turn.

"Poked myself," Kasey explained, agitated words slightly muffled as he licked more blood off his tooth. "Lousy gap."

"Need to go back to the clinic again?" Chase offered dryly, by way of greeting, as he shuffled over to Kasey's table with his hands jammed in his jean pockets and a smirk on his face.

Shaking his head, Kasey absentmindedly returned his attention to the book before him. "Oh, no thanks," he responded earnestly. "I'm fine, just a little sore. It's nothing serious."

Above him, Chase folded his arms and rolled his eyes, blinking in disbelief. "Well, thank God it's just a minor injury. I was about to organize a vigil."

"Thanks," Kasey responded distractedly, taking another bite out of his sandwich as he continued reading hungrily, free hand drumming impatiently on the table. Nothing... nothing... with a disgruntled sigh, he decided to take a break from studying, dog-earing the page and closing the enormous book, Looking up, he saw Chase staring down at him in confusion from the other side of the table. A bit taken aback, he nodded slowly, pushing the book aside. "...Err... hey...?"

"Jeez, what are you reading?" Chase responded, pointing at the monstrously large tome parked between them. "War and Peace or something? Holy crap."

Eyes widening slightly in alarm, Kasey laid a hand on the book and pulled it back towards him, hand over the title as he chuckled weakly.

"Ahhh... yeah, actually! It's my favorite. Yeah—love it," he lied, quickly chomping off another chunk of his sandwich and chewing slowly before Chase could ask anything else—

"Wow," Chase shot back sardonically, nodding at the book, "because I didn't know they changed the title to Composing Castanet: Regional History & the Gods Who Shaped Our Land. That's a mouthful."

Kasey's chewing slowed to a halt as he averted his eyes from the piercing violet stare.

"Fun fact: Reading upside-down really isn't that hard," Chase finished, rolling his eyes once more as he pulled out the chair across from Kasey and plopped down in it, leaning back and shooting him a cock-eyed glare. "You naughty, naughty boy, reading history. You're gonna make Jesus cry."

Swallowing hard, Kasey let out a small cough, trying to maintain eye contact lest Chase get even more suspicious. "Just... kidding?" he offered sheepishly, shoving the book away and shaking his head. He could only imagine Vanessa's disgust at his terrible lying skills, and made a mental note to call his family later that night. "So," he tried, forcing a pitifully casual tone as Chase eyed him coolly, "what... what've you been up to?"

Looking rather unimpressed with the effort, Chase sighed and laced his fingers behind his head, propping his ragged white sneakers on the table and kicking his feet together idly. Wondering how far a straight interrogation would get him, he opted to try his hand at a bit of finesse for a change: "Well, Friday evenings are when Yolanda gives me and Maya cooking lessons... well, for all the good they do Maya, it's more like she just gives me lessons," he murmured as an afterthought. "Maya actually just winds up taste-testing everything by the end of it all... So," he threw in with as much blatantly false innocence as he could muster, pretending to buff his nails on his white t-shirt, "what about you?"

Kasey, for his part, suddenly felt as though he should be sweating under a spotlight in a dark room. Eyes narrowing in confusion, he shifted the book off the table into his lap, legs beginning to swing a bit as he worked out his response carefully. "Well... just... learning a bit more about the place is all," he tested slowly, eyes shrewdly fixed on the other young man for any sign of reaction. "Pastor Whitman told me some pretty cool stuff... like, about the land's history and all..."

Chase nodded slowly, looking up at the ceiling for a moment with a soft hum, his face infuriatingly impassive.

I'm never playing poker with this guy, Kasey decided, willing himself not to avert his gaze and draw even more suspicion. Not that he was eager to play poker with anyone, really. "Just figured I'd kill time by learning more," he finished, not entirely untruthfully, eliciting another nod. "That's... all."

Gazing at him skeptically, Chase cocked his head to the side. "Oh... that's what you were so embarrassed about? Geez, I thought you were reading porn or something!"

An awkward silence fell over the table after this statement, Kasey now giving the strange looks and gesturing to the massive book in confusion.

"...A lot of porn," Chase elaborated pointlessly, shaking his head. "Okay, forget that. Look, I don't really know you that well, so maybe you're always like this normally, but... you're acting kind of shifty, is all," he continued, dropping his feet off the table and leaning forward, arms folded before him on the tabletop now. "I mean, blatantly shifty. I hope nobody ever called you subtle, because they're lying."

Kasey's eyes widened slightly, looking somewhat like a startled animal. Before he could explain himself, Chase cut in: "And yeah, I know it might seem I'm being my usual dickheaded self over this, but it's not just me... I heard Ruth and Anissa chatting about it the other morning, how Ruth thought she saw you sneaking around by Dale's place a few nights back... although, she did say she was pretty drunk that night," he offered, wondering if Kasey would jump at the excuse with another pitiful lie.

It was brief, but the flash of guilt across Kasey's face was confirmation enough for him, and Chase latched onto it, even as Kasey himself said nothing more. "...Why, though?" he pressed, his stare unwavering as Kasey let out a shaky sigh and finally tore his eyes away, worrying his bottom lip. "I mean, dude, you're going to see that kook on the hill about some weird dreams, okay, whatever. People do that shit all the time, even if I think it's dumb. But then you're creeping around at night like you're goddamn... Solid Snake or something. And now, this. You're acting weird because I caught you reading a history book? Come on!"

He motioned at where the book had been sitting, letting out an exasperated sigh. "You probably haven't lived in a small town before, but people talk around here, Manatos, especially if they notice someone acting funny. There's... like, maybe forty people living in Castanet, tops, and we haven't had tourists in a long time. You're not that inconspicuous."

"What the hell do you care?" Kasey muttered, just quietly enough for Chase to hear him. "All you're gonna do is just give me crap, anyway. And," he continued, voice getting a little more bitter as his eyes narrowed, "for the record, I got bullied a lot when I was younger. So yeah, I am usually like that around people like you."

Gritting his teeth, Chase uttered an irritated growl and smacked a palm to his forehead. Despite the fact that he'd just royally pissed Kasey off, he couldn't help but feel vaguely impressed that they were at least starting to get somewhere now. Still...

"Okay, yeah. I'm an asshole, alright? Dogs know that! This isn't about that! Literally has nothing to do with what you just said! This... this might actually be important! I mean, you're sure acting like it is! It's just... you haven't even been here a month, and people are starting to get suspicious of you because you're playing detective and trying to act like you're not, and you were getting all spacey around me and Toby... okay, this is gonna sound nuts, but do you know something about all this?" He gestured behind them to a window on the other side of the inn's registry counter, where the late-afternoon sunlight blasted in relentlessly. "I mean, if you do, then by all means—we kind of deserve to know, don't we?"

Legs slowing down their swinging until they finally came to rest, Kasey nearly had to force himself to nod as his anger faded, uttering a soft "Yeah" and looking back down at the book in his lap.

Eyes widening slightly in surprise, Chase slumped down in his chair, arms now folded over his stomach as he let the weight of Kasey's admission sink in. "...You're actually serious," he murmured, more to himself than to Kasey.

"I-I just kind of got dragged into this," Kasey added quickly, shaking his head in disbelief. "I mean... I want to help if I can, believe me. It's just... I don't know enough yet to help. It... I have no idea why it's on me. But it just... is."

"Okay, slow down," Chase cut in, holding his hands up to stop Kasey. "What's this about helping? I mean, okay, I've already kind of accepted that that Wizard guy maybe isn't total bullshit after all, but how much exactly do you know? Seriously, you've gotta let someone in on it. Why are you being so damn cagey? Does that help us out?"

As Kasey prepared a retort, Yolanda's voice piped up from the back of the inn:

"That you, Eric?"

"Hey, Yolanda!" Chase called back with a surprisingly genuine warmth in his voice, Kasey tilting his head and curiously mouthing, 'Eric?'. The tension had quickly faded in the wake of the distraction.

"Didn't think you'd ever be here early," the old woman laughed, poking her head out from behind the door. "Well, give us a minute to get everything ready, and then we'll get started, alright?"

"How's it goin', Chase-a-rooney?" Maya added jubilantly, her sugary chime of a voice ringing across the inn as Chase flinched at the nickname. Her cheerful, freckled face popped out next to Yolanda's, orange hair pulled back into a messy, frizzy ponytail. "Hey, so Nana says we're gonna try making a souffle tonight! Get ready to bake till ya' break, buddy!"

"Shit," Chase hissed, too quietly for the Talbots to hear. Plastering on the same disturbingly toothy smile he'd given Colleen, he turned to Maya. "Sounds like... like a blast!"

Yolanda's smile widened some as she let out a fond chuckle. "Spoken like someone who's never made a souffle before! You're gonna need a good drink after this baby, lemme tell you!"

"Bring it," Chase shot back with a confident smirk, causing Yolanda to laugh again.

"Alright, Eric! Just keep those balls outta the souffle, will you?" As the other three cringed at her remark, she nodded over to Kasey, adding warmly, "Was everything alright, sweetie?"

Returning her nod enthusiastically, Kasey stood up, book now tucked under one arm as he made to push his chair in. "It was excellent, thank you!" As Yolanda beamed, he gave the Talbots a small wave and began heading for the door, hoisting the giant book back up as it began to slip.

"Well, don't be a stranger around here, sweetie! Eric, just come on back here when you're ready," Yolanda added, before retreating to the back.

With a broad wave and a "See ya around, Kase!", Maya followed her grandmother, and Chase slumped down into his chair with a groan.

"With her rampaging through the place, that souffle's gonna be flatter than her singing," he grumbled, tilting his head back and squeezing his eyes shut as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "Had to be a fucking souffle. You know what a bitch those things are to make?" Eyes popping open, he spotted an upside-down Kasey over by the door, preparing to head out. "Hey. Manatos."

Looking up, Kasey rested his hand on the doorknob uncomfortably, hesitant to speak.

"Look," Chase began, "maybe... maybe I..." He couldn't figure it out–maybe what? Maybe he'd come down too hard on Kasey just now? It was possible. The dude seemed naturally jumpy anyway. He had a stutter, for fuck's sake. "Maybe I need to... stop apologizing for being a dick and just not be one every now and then. Alright?"

Shrugging, Kasey nodded, allowing himself a small smile—it wasn't much, but perhaps it was as much as he could reasonably expect from Chase. And he had to admit, Chase had made a very good point about him acting so oddly. "Well... y-yeah. Alright. Hey," he added quickly, as the thought suddenly came to mind from an earlier remark of Chase's—how had he forgotten? "...You wouldn't happen to know where Toby is right now, would you? I... kinda told him some of what I just told you, sort of," he half-explained, causing Chase's brow to furrow in confusion from trying to make heads or tails of the statement. "I just needed to ask him some stuff about it..."

Chase's ever-present frown only deepened as he turned slightly in his chair to face Kasey without straining his neck so much. It made a bit of sense, but only a bit. Toby certainly was concerned about Kasey—hell, Toby worried about everyone—and was definitely far easier for anyone to open up to than Chase was. Still, how much could he know? Unless any of this had to do with fishing or marine biology, Chase wasn't getting the connection. "Well... yeah, he's lived here a lot longer than I have," Chase began, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, "so I guess he could actually be some help... but, seriously, what's this about?"

Leaning against the door, Kasey tapped his foot, trying to figure out how to put it concisely—Yolanda and Maya were waiting on Chase, but... it was worth a shot. "Uhh... well, long story short... do you know anywhere in town there might be some... bells?"

"Bells?" Chase repeated, eyebrows knitting even tighter at Kasey's nod—he was surprised his own face didn't split open from all the tension. "Like, the one in the church tower, you mean? Or the smaller ones Renee's family use for calling their animals?"

"...I don't know," Kasey admitted, after thinking over it for a few seconds. He'd been hoping to wait out Phoebe's return if the books continued to prove unhelpful—and, as huge as they were, the thought of them being useless made his blood boil—but if anyone else could help, he'd take it. And Toby seemed like a safe and pleasant option to ask. He'd lived there for eighteen years, after all. Chase had only been there for the last five. "Crap. Maybe like that one at church... I guess. Except, they're... umm, supposed to be... special, somehow."

Running through it in his mind, Chase sighed. "Shit... I dunno. What do you mean, 'special?' Like... does it shoot laser beams or something?" As Kasey slumped against the door, looking lost, Chase shook his head bemusedly. "Yeah, maybe you should check with Toby. From what he tells me, he was all over the damn place when he was a kid. Couldn't sit still even if you mummified him. Hell, he probably found Jimmy Hoffa here at some point." He snickered quietly at Kasey's astonishment. "I know, right?"

"You okay out there?" Maya's voice called suddenly, causing Chase to spring up to attention, nearly toppling out of his chair.

"Yep! I'll be right there!" With a groan, he hoisted himself up, nodding to Kasey. "Toby's probably out chilling on the pier or something... hope he can help you out."

"Yeah," Kasey agreed, turning to head out. "I hope so, too. Umm, thanks," he added as an afterthought, getting an off-handed wave in return as he headed outside with an exhausted sigh.

------------------------

"Didn't I tell you... what I believe..."

His light green eyes locked on the red-and-white bobber sitting stone-still in the stagnant saltwater, Toby hummed along happily with the husky voice cooing into his ears, free hand swaying side-to-side in time with the beat. Balancing the fishing pole between his knees, he looked around furtively, before busting out into air-guitar and bobbing his head along with the music.

"Nyee-nyee-nyee-nyee-nyee-nyee-nyee," he muttered, tongue poking out between his lips as he continued to strum at nothing, watching the bobber in his swinging field of vision...

Out of the corner of his eye, he suddenly spotted something black and red rounding the far side of the lighthouse. Immediately, Toby froze up and cleared his throat, cheeks burning in embarrassment in the light of the setting sun.

Turning his head slowly and taking his earbuds out, he saw an apologetic-looking Kasey, hanging back uncomfortably and carrying the biggest book Toby had ever seen in his life. Relaxing visibly, Toby gave him a sheepish smile, waving him over and laughing awkwardly. "Erm... hey there, Kasey..."

"Uhh... I didn't mean to interrupt your fun," Kasey chuckled ruefully, sitting down next to Toby on the dead grass. "If it makes you feel any better, my sister walked in on me doing the same thing a few weeks back. Kind of."

Looking amused at the mental image, Toby shook his head, now readjusting his grip on the fishing pole. "Oh, really? I mean, no offense, but you don't seem like the sort..."

"Well, neither do you," Kasey pointed out with a slight smirk, resting his book in his lap once more, and adjusting his black cargo shorts as he stretched his legs out.

Turning his attention back to the motionless, glassy sea, Toby nodded. "Hmm... you've got me there. So, what's up? Have you been doing alright?"

Kasey shrugged half-heartedly, following Toby's gaze out to the water. "Mmm... farm's coming along okay, yeah. Think I'm gonna finally harvest something other than turnips." He gave a small smile at that, which Toby shared, nodding.

"Well, that's good. Renee said you were really excited when you had your first harvest," Toby noted, tilting his head slightly as the bobber appeared to move—no, nothing after all. Awww, rats...

With an embarrassed laugh, Kasey rubbed the back of his neck, feeling his own face warm up even more in the muggy air. "Did she? Geez... I mean, I know I'm kind of a dork, but hearing it like that just sounds... a little embarrassing."

"A lot of people like dorks," Toby pointed out casually, shifting a bit so he was now sitting cross-legged. "They think we're endearing... I think they think that, anyway. Kathy called me 'adorable' once, and she didn't really sound mean about it... maybe a little patronizing. But hey. If people think I'm cute..."

Kasey snorted, shifting the book on his lap as he drew his legs up and rested his arms on his knees. "That also reminds me of my sister..."

Toby nodded, turning his attention away from the water for a moment at the fondness in Kasey's voice. "You two are close, huh?"

In response, Kasey held up a hand, index and middle fingers crossed. "Like this. Both of my sisters, actually," he elaborated, eyes twinkling. "Except the other one—Vanessa, I think I told you about her before—she'd sooner get cholera than admit she actually likes anyone all that much. She's at that age, you know? You should see the way she and Angelica snipe at each other."

It was Toby's turn to snicker, the response catching Kasey off-guard. "She sounds just like Chase," Toby explained, setting his fishing pole down and uttering another soft laugh. "I should tell him that, actually... 'You know, Chase, you act like a teenage girl.'"

Another, louder snort rang out across the water after this statement, Kasey's head suddenly dropping down. His shoulders shook with silent, intense giggles before he threw his head back—

"Owwww! Christ..."

His laughter was cut off as he hissed and rubbed the back of his head, which hadn't taken too well to the side of the lighthouse.

Toby's head whipped towards him, a flash of concern and alarm running across his normally serene face. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah... I'll live," Kasey grunted, massaging the sore spot and sucking in a sharp breath through his teeth. "Who put that thing there, anyway...? Rhetorical question," he added quickly, seeing Toby about to answer.

"...Well, since it clearly wasn't there a moment ago, I was just going to say 'aliens,'" Toby explained wryly, turning back to the water with a smirk and watching the sun start to droop lower, clearly not in a hurry for its usual meeting with the horizon. He let out another small laugh as Kasey tutted at him and gave him a gentle shove on the shoulder. "Well, you asked..."

"Smartass," Kasey shot back genially, sighing and drawing his knees even further up as his thoughts sorted themselves out. Suddenly struck with curiosity, he turned back to his friend. "So... what about you? You got any brothers or sisters?"

"Mmm-mmm." Shaking his head, Toby looked somewhat pensive. "Well, I mean, Chase and Paolo are as good as brothers to me, but I'm an only child. Actually… it's really just me, Paolo, and Uncle Ozzie, overall," he elaborated in an almost-casual manner. "It's been that way for a while now." His relaxed demeanor turned only the slightest bit somber at this off-handed explanation, but it was enough to strike a pang in Kasey that reminded him to call his family the second he got home, and made him want to change the subject at that. Thankfully, he already had a new one ready—and it was getting late...

"Hey, Toby?"

The serious tone caught Toby by surprise, and his eyebrows shot up in response. "Mmm?"

Kasey shook his head quickly. "W-well, it's kind of weird to bring it up now, but I was hoping to talk to you about it eventually, anyway..." A patient nod warmed his stomach slightly, and he pressed on: "So, err—remember earlier this week, when you asked if anything was on my mind? You know, in the clinic...?"

Eyes instinctively darting up in the direction of Wizard's house, Toby nodded soberly. "Still bothering you, huh?"

"Even more, now," Kasey confirmed, keeping his thoughtful gaze out to the distant waters. He could almost see Sephia's gentle, refined features in the glassy reflection of the blood-orange sun. "And I'm a little scared to go back to see that Wizard guy right now, so... well, look, I've... found out some more stuff, and I had another weird dream. And—and it's kind of freaking me out."

Listening intently, Toby sat in silence as Kasey spilled out the more unsettling events of the past two weeks, starting with his strange dream on the train ride over... a conversation held somewhere in the recesses of his mind... and a sobering responsibility that had been placed on him by mere chance.

Everything seemed so absurd, like the product of a very active imagination—nonetheless, as he listened to Kasey hesitantly talk about the bells, his explanation of that night curiously vague, Toby couldn't help but feel his shock fade quickly. Of course it seemed bizarre–why wouldn't it, in the current circumstances? It wasn't like Castanet was experiencing something natural right now. Initial theories had pointed to the effects of climate change hitting Castanet, but there was far too much that just wasn't adding up to that conclusion.

The sun had balanced gently on the water's edge by the time Kasey was done speaking, looking more lost and confused than when he'd started. Still, he couldn't help but feel a tiny bit of relief, all the same, as he finished recounting his earlier conversation with Chase. Watching as Toby thoughtfully ran a hand through his messy hair and rubbed the back of his neck, letting it all sink in, Kasey exhaled softly. He'd taken liberties with a few details—as far as Toby knew, Kasey had simply, randomly learned about the bells in yet another dream, and the strange pathway by Dale's house had gone unmentioned—not wanting to overload the poor boy's brain more than he already had. How could he explain something that simultaneously was and wasn't there?

"...Wow," Toby uttered finally, still looking slightly nonplussed.

"Yeah," Kasey agreed solemnly, hugging his legs and resting his chin on his knees. "See why I didn't wanna say anything around Chase that day? I mean... I-I honestly don't mind him knowing now, especially since he kinda wrangled it out of me. But... saying it all out loud like this... geez. I—I sound kind of crazy."

Toby nodded, leaning back against the lighthouse with his hands clasped behind his head, looking up at the first stars of the night. "Mmmhmm. But even he has to admit, it's not like anything's really normal about this... so I wouldn't say you're crazy, more that this situation is crazy. You said you have to ring some bells to get things back in order, right?"

"Yeah," Kasey confirmed, glancing over at him from the corner of his eye. "Five of them, I think... Chase thought maybe one of them was that bell in the church tower. So that... maybe leaves four to find?"

Toby nodded, wracking his brain for anything that jumped out at him—he hadn't really run about Castanet with the others in quite a long time, but murky images began to ripple into clarity in his mind's eye, flashing with cheerful colors. Eyes widening slightly in triumph, he smiled. "Well... maybe just two more, actually..."

Kasey's eyes widened as well, face brightening as he scooted a bit closer, twisting his upper body to face Toby directly. "Wait, two? You—you might know where to find two more of them?" he pressed eagerly, wondering in the back of his mind if one would be in the Fugue Forest—he certainly hoped not.

"Well... maybe—yeah. Yeah!" Seeing Kasey beam at him, Toby couldn't help but let out a small chuckle. "I hope so, anyway. I know there's this little alleyway between the clinic and the inn, and there's this cave there that I used to go play around in all the time when I was a kid... I used that place a lot in hide-and-seek. And.. yeah, I remember now—there was this... this blue bell on a post—"

"—Shit, I should've brought something to write this down," Kasey muttered suddenly, shaking his head and bouncing right back into his sudden bout of enthusiasm. "Okay, sorry, go ahead! So, some weird cave in town, blue bell... well, that should be easy..."

Catching some of Kasey's contagious energy, Toby's head bobbed rapidly as he turned to face Kasey, hands drumming excitedly on the knees of his oversized, orange board shorts. "Hopefully. Right, and... I think I saw something like a bell post in the Garmon Mines, too... but that was a long time ago..." His face fell into a slight scowl, but he shrugged it off—a lead was a lead, wasn't it? He tilted his head at Kasey's surprised expression. "What's wrong?"

"You played around in a mine? Sorry, it just... I'm trying to picture it," Kasey explained wryly, getting another chuckle in response.

"Well, I mean, that cave by the inn is a mine, too," Toby clarified. "But Owen and Luke don't like going in there, since they're worried about it flooding... anyway, I still liked fishing a lot, even when I was a kid. And... you see, Luke told me that Mount Garmon used to be an active volcano a really long time ago, and that there were probably dragons and really cool, mutant fire-fish living deep down in there in the lava, and I'd probably get really rich if I caught one." His smile widened to match Kasey's as he went on: "I think Phoebe actually said once that there's still a magma lake really deep down in there, come to think of it, and—" He broke off as Kaseyy stifled a quick laugh. "So, yeah..."

"...You were seriously going to try fishing in a volcano," Kasey finished, looking both extremely amused and impressed.

"Heh... well, I was only eight and kind of stupid... besides, I didn't get down that far," Toby pointed out needlessly. "Uncle Ozzie found out what I was trying to do and dragged me all the way back to the fishery by my ear." Tapping his chin thoughtfully, he hummed low in his throat. "My ear would've hurt anyway, he was yelling so much that it kept ringing off the walls of the cave... stuff like 'I would've expected this out of that Sullivan girl, but not you,' and 'I hope Dale goes upside Luke's head before I do it for him.'"

Shaking his head and snickering, Kasey eyed Toby keenly. "Wow."

"Yeah, wow," Toby repeated with a soft laugh, looking pleased with his own childhood antics. "But... yeah, I got to this weird room a few floors down. It looked like some really cool temple ruins or something... lots of chunks of marble, this weird..." He clicked his fingers a few times, trying to settle on the word. "...Oh, right. Platform! A platform, with a bell post on it, a really big one. About the same size as the one in the cave over in town... no bell, though," he added with a disappointed sigh. "I mean, it's been a while, so hopefully it's come back..."

"But it's something," Kasey added happily, suddenly beaming as he bounced in place—another rush of enthusiasm flooded his bones as he took a mental note of Toby's information, feeling an uncharacteristic urge to spring forward and hug the living daylights out of him. Instead, he settled for a high-five, grasping Toby's hand briefly in thanks. "Toby, you're awesome! Thank you so, so much. So much," he repeated emphatically as Toby simply smiled back and nodded, practically glowing with the praise.

"Hey, glad to help!"

Heart pounding with exhilaration, and his worries briefly forgotten, Kasey looked up at the sky, then down at his watch. "Oh! Hey... I hate to leave so suddenly, but I need to take care of something back at the house... thank you again," he added, standing and helping Toby up. "Oh, don't forget your fishing rod."

"Oh, thanks. I seem to leave them all over the place, that'd be the second one I lost this week... is that your book?"

"Ah, right—I might still need that..."

Sharing a triumphant smile, the two walked back towards the Harmonica Town dock in the deepening twilight, soft glows beginning to light the windows and streetlamps. Even the ever-present cicadas and crickets were beginning to sound more comforting and quaint to Kasey, his body feeling far lighter than it had a few days ago.

They came to a stop in front of the Shamisen Fishery, Kasey's face bright against the late March sky. From inside, they could hear Ozzie and Paolo laughing at some TV show or another, the dialogue and music slightly muffled through the windows. "Well, see you later. And again, man, thanks for... everything. I mean, even just having you listen to me was a big help. I feel so much better." Maybe Angelica had a good point about opening up to people more. Letting his guard down. It wasn't easy, but he couldn't knock the results.

Toby nodded and smiled, bouncing the fishing pole against his shoulder. "Hey, anytime... well, I suppose I'll see you around. And I'll let you know if I find anything else out, too," he added, after a second's pause.

"Me too," Kasey promised, before exchanging one last goodbye and turning to leave with a small wave. Humming pleasantly to himself, he made his way back home to call his family.

------------------------

"You told them about the time I what?!"

Grinning at his sister's outrage, Kasey switched the phone to his other hand, trying to contain his laughter. "Hey, it was a funny ice-breaker!"

"I oughta ice-break your neck, you dickhead," Angelica shot back, though she couldn't keep the amusement out of her voice.

Grinning, Kasey leaned against the wall by his tool closet, kicking off his shoes and socks. "Bring it on, shrimp. As the oldest, I could make you and Vanessa fight to the death for my amusement, if I felt like it."

Angelica giggled, and clucked her tongue sympathetically. "Oh, you missed the boat there. Mom and Dad have been making us do that every day since you left. We're fighting for the right to claim your room. It's pretty thrilling."

"…I'm pretty sure 'fight to the death' implies the loser can only do it once," Kasey pointed out as he bent down to pick up his socks and throw them in the closet laundry hamper—which was currently holding his hoe, ax, hammer, and fishing pole upri—

Fishing pole…?

With a bemused hum, he pulled it out of the closet, wracking his brain for only a short while before realization struck. "Ahhh... heh."

"…You're, uhh… you're sounding kinda creepy there, Kase," Angelica cut in from the other end. "Am I interrupting something I shouldn't be?"

"Huh?" Shaking his head, Kasey was jolted out of his distraction, leaning the fishing pole back against the wall. "Oh. Uh, sorry, nah… it's just that one of my friends left his fishing pole here earlier this week, and I didn't even notice till just now. Need to return it to him," he added, more to himself.

"Ohhhh, a guy left something at your place, huh?" Angelica teased, picturing her brother's face reddening–which it did.

"N-not like that, you pervert. I-I don't even want to know where your mind went."

"No wonder you made that creepy noise!" she continued with a giggle.

Blowing a loud raspberry into the phone, Kasey nudged the closet door shut with his foot. "You're awful. I should toss you into a volcano."

"Bitch, I'd like to see you try! I'll break your fingers. Still," Angelica continued happily, as though she hadn't just called her brother a bitch, "you haven't even been there a month, and you and your friends are already leaving your crap at each others' houses, and you're telling embarrassing stories about your family! You're picking up on this whole socialization thing pretty fast. We should've shipped your ass out to the country long ago, you'd be a motivational speaker by now."

Kasey couldn't think of two words that described him less. "Okay, have we met?"

"No. Hey, listen," Angelica added quickly. "I hate to go, but I've gotta pull a double shift tomorrow… lousy spring breakers…"

"I miss being a lousy spring breaker," Kasey sighed wistfully, smiling in spite of himself. He hadn't really been much of a spring breaker, aside from a bar-hop or two with his co-workers. He did miss the week off he'd gotten back in school, though. He definitely could've used it after all the overtime he'd put in to save up for the move to Castanet. "But, yeah, that's fine. I was gonna call Grandma and Grandpa soon and see if they're still up. Give 'em Hell tomorrow, Angie. Tell everyone I love them, alright?"

"Well… you already told them earlier tonight, but sure, what the hell. I'll give 'em a reminder since you're just so cheesy like that. Take care, okay?"

He nodded, even though she couldn't see him—he'd decided not to let his family know he'd passed out and spent the night in the clinic three weeks in. "Definitely. You too. Love you, assface."

"Love you too, you goofy little shit."

Grinning, Kasey ended the call and began dialing out to his grandparents, leaning against the wall and eyeing the fishing pole with amusement and a bit of fondness.

"That'd be the second one I lost this week."

As Elvis sang his grandmother's ringtone, he couldn't help but shake his head and wonder exactly how often Toby did this.

Chapter Text

Toby was here, a neatly-written note declared from beside a crude sketch of the Garmon Mines, where a little bell and a question mark sat.

And here, responded the horribly-drawn cave between the inn and clinic, next to the word BLUE(?).

And probably here, too, mused the crooked crescent moon on the upper-right corner of the page, under which was written, If there's a bell up there FML.

With a poorly-drawn map of Castanet scribbled across the back of the deed to his farm, Kasey's eyes darted about, trying to piece together a decision from his myriad of notes. In the background, he could faintly hear his TV covering some sort of fashion show in Oak Tree Town.

The literary behemoth that was Composing Castanet had finally offered him a tantalizing promise of information about the bells, thirty chapters in—only to virtually repeat Sephia's revelations. The bells rang in praise and celebration. Where were the rest of them? The book didn't seem to quite care.

Probably there is one on the damn moon, Kasey thought with a scowl, popping the remainder of his chicken salad sandwich into his mouth and resting his sunburned cheek against his right fist while he chewed. As he finished the map and his notes, writing HELL NO in large letters by the Fugue Forest, he found himself growing increasingly restless—Toby and Chase's information from the previous night had left him itching to storm over to the two bells he knew of, and ring them so hard that his grandparents would hear the racket from halfway across the globe.

Still...

"So cold... I wanna go home..."

Fire and ice had clashed once more in his dreams early that morning, replaying exactly as they had the night after he'd met Sephia, with the details persisting desperately into his waking hours.

Flashes of red cracked across the silver screen of his subconscious like heat lightning, coupled with hoarse pleas under the clashing of the elements. Snatches and slips of a strangely familiar melody sent chills down his spine, the memories of each jarring, off-key note making the hair on his arms and on the back of his neck stand up. It almost sounded as though, in its proper state, it would possibly be a bright and merry tune, spiraling up and down like the music of a carousel.

"Sephia... it hurts..."

If only he could place where he knew the song that shouldn't have been so familiar to him... some kind of nursery rhyme or lullaby? But it didn't resemble any that he'd ever heard, that was for certain—no This Old Man, Brahm's, or Ring Around the Rosie, yet it sounded as though it could've fit in perfectly among them if given a spot.

He sang each note slowly and softly to himself, tapping the pen on his kitchen table in time and wishing he had a piano to test the song on, tempted to correct the pitch and key to something he knew he'd heard somewhere before. Someone had sung it once, somewhere in town, and he wracked his brain for possibilities. Not Maya and Yolanda, washing the dishes—or Renee and Anissa, singing along to the radio, either. But he could easily hear Mira's gentle, wistful alto, crooning it to...

...To...

Kasey's head shot up with a gasp, pen striking a black diagonal line across his makeshift map as the realization hit.

------------------------

In the vermilion flare of the setting sun, Kasey found that there was something particularly otherworldly about the dusty, rustic aesthetic of the Garmon District. Even as the warm glows pulsed from the various windows of each residence, and he heard the sounds of Dale, Luke, and Bo watching some game on their TV, he couldn't help but feel as though he'd stepped into some other reality, or perhaps back in time, even for a moment.

A slight chill swept his body as he quickly passed the forested path to Sephia's spring, heart pounding with every tentative step towards Koto Accessories. Though he strained his ears, he couldn't hear the song this time—the one he'd heard the night he'd gone to the Goddess Spring, the one his recent dreams warped and distorted beyond the occasional misplayed note.

Even as he walked by the general store, pitifully attempting to look casual, Kasey still wasn't sure how he even intended to approach Mira about any of it, or even what it all meant in the grand scheme of things. He just knew, as his head grew cooler and lighter with the dizzying anticipation, that there was something important within that song. He had to stop being so cagey, sure, but how did one broach such a subject, let alone with a complete stranger? He wasn't exactly the best with complete strangers. Half the time, he hardly even knew what to do with people he knew.

He found himself slowly humming the notes as Mira's front door loomed closely, hearing muffled voices speaking from within—with a small jolt, he realized he heard Barbara's and Simon's voices, along with what he could only assume was Mira's, as well as the slightly deeper voice of an unfamiliar man. Suddenly hesitant to interrupt whatever gathering it was that was going on, Kasey's hand hovered uncertainly by the tarnished silver doorknocker, listening to the irregular sound of his breathing—

No... not just his own breathing. Not at all. Feeling his heart contract, he took a wobbly step back, whirling about and craning his neck, gulping. He could hear the soft strains of the song echoing in the corners of his mind. "Is... is someone there?" he called softly, not wanting anyone to overhear him—he already was gaining a reputation for coming off as suspicious almost a month in. Chase had read him the riot act on that already, and he might not be the last. If anyone saw Kasey lurking around and acting parannoid again, let alone on someone's doorstep—

"Hey, man! You okay?"

Jumping slightly at the friendly, booming voice, Kasey spun to his right, seeing Owen Samuels emerge from the entrance to the mines. Chloe bounced merrily atop his shoulders, pigtails bobbing to and fro. "Oh! Uh—y-yeah! Hey, guys..." A small shiver struck his spine as he realized he could still hear the faint, erratic breathing, dovetailing awkwardly with the distant music in his head.

"Squishy Face!" Chloe crowed, waving her arms about wildly. "My old Namaste! Uhh... wait, no..." She tapped her chin in confusion, glancing upwards as if to ask the mountains for the right word. "Nem... nematode...?"

"Nemesis?" Kasey supplied weakly, waving at the pair as Owen chuckled and rolled his eyes at his cousin.

"That thing!" Chloe agreed with a peppy nod. "Ne...necrosis, yeah!"

Kasey and Owen grimaced, but shared an amused smile nonetheless at her error.

"That's gross, Chlo," Owen laughed, ducking his head as she tried to push his hair down into his eyes. "Hey, don't blind the driver! How's it goin'?" he added to Kasey, hunching his shoulders and trying to avoid his cousin messing up his neatly-spiked hair. "You need something?"

"Oh! Oh—uhh... yeah!" Hopping off of the raised walkway connecting Mira's and Owen's houses, Kasey rubbed the back of his neck and laughed sheepishly. The strange breathing seemed to have faded. "I, uhh... I just wanted to ask about getting my tools upgraded, and... I... I forgot which one was the blacksmith's place," he explained feebly, as Owen glanced skeptically at the weathered, peeling "Koto Accessories" sign above him.

"...Uh-huh..."

"Yeah, you're... you're over there," Kasey pointed out lamely, thumbing over his shoulder at the Cymbal Blacksmith, and feeling his face grow warm as Owen continued to regard him dubiously. "Whoops... I, uh... brain fart!"

"...Honest mistake," Owen finally offered, taking a bit of pity at Kasey's obvious discomfort. The guy really needed to chill at some point. "Well, just to let you know, though, we're kind of in a, err... we're kind of... not taking orders right now," he finished, grimacing as he glanced over his shoulder back towards the mines. "Sorry. Lack of materials and all."

"The mines are closed!" Chloe chimed in merrily, slapping her hands over Owen's eyes as if to help Kasey understand the concept. "They're a death trap~!"

Kasey's eyes went saucer-wide, heart sinking as Owen sighed. There went one of Toby's leads... "Shi—" He caught himself quickly as he noticed Owen motioning up at Chloe with his head and clearing his throat. "...S... seriously?"

"Seriously," Owen confirmed gravely, bouncing Chloe slightly as he indicated her with a massive shoulder. "This little terror scurried off to go play in there while our backs were turned, and my grandpa and I almost had heart attacks! It's... I mean, it's a risky place normally," he added with a shrug. "But Luke and Bo and I can usually handle it alright. But it's gotten really dark in there recently, on the lower floors... and really hot," he added with a frown. "Worse than out here, even, and the mines are usually pretty cool... it's like a furnace in there right now, and it's weird—like, the second you start descending, bam! Ironically," he continued, scowl deepening, "we couldn't even melt butter with the fire in our forge right now... and there's just something about the place overall that's giving me the creeps. I don't know what. I just feel uneasy even wandering near the entrance sometimes."

With a bitter grunt, Owen knelt down, putting Chloe down on the ground and letting her dart over to tug on Kasey's denim shorts. He looked down with a small smile, arms crossed as he tried to shove his disappointment away. "So, were you trying to help your cousin out or something, kiddo?"

Pulling a face, Chloe shook her head rapidly, sending her tiny pigtails flapping about. "Heck no, dude! I was treasure-hunting! There's all kinds of pretty jewels and crap in there—"

"Chloe," Owen interrupted warningly. "Language."

"Laaaaaan-guaaaage," Chloe sang back in a mocking tone, sticking her tongue out at Owen. "Ugh, I'm allowed to say 'crap,' Grandpa doesn't care! But okay, whatever, there's all kinds of pretty jewels and crud in there!"

Pinching the bridge of his nose and squeezing his eyes shut, Owen muttered something under his breath. "...Better... I think..."

Humming, Kasey nodded. "Sounds pretty cool... but you can't really enjoy having all those jewels if you get hurt hunting for them, right?"

Opening her mouth to remind him that she laughed in the face of danger, Chloe found no words coming out—the big dork had a good point. She hated when grown-ups made sense. Closing her mouth slowly, she stared off into the darkening horizon, deep in thought...

"...Dude," she muttered simply, floored by the revelation.

Gratefully taking the opportunity, Owen knelt down by her, tapping her on the shoulder. "Hey, shrimp," he said, smiling as she turned to regard him quizzically. "How about when the mines are safe again, Luke and I go get all that cool treasure for you, huh?"

Elfin face lighting up once more, Chloe nodded happily, bumping Owen's enormous fist with her tiny one. "You got it! I'll even let you keep a big fat ruby for Kathy!" she sang, not noticing that Owen had looked away and scratched the back of his neck with a sheepish grin, pink cheeks unnoticeable in the sunset.

"...Ooookay, squirt, go let Gramps know you're alright," he said, patting her on the back and clearing his throat in an attempt to redirect the conversation. "I'm gonna go catch the game at Dale's, so you can tell him it's just you two for dinner tonight!"

"Roger that!" Chloe nodded, waving goodbye to Kasey before darting off to the blacksmith's. She flung the door open with a cry of: "GOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAL!"

"There's the little runt!" Ramsey's gruff voice called from inside, before the door swung shut.

"...It's a basketball game," Owen mused to himself with a small chuckle, putting his hands in the pockets of his jeans and shaking his head. His face lapsed into a slight frown as he craned his neck back towards the mines, sighing. "What a mess... sorry about the inconvenience," he added, giving Kasey an apologetic shrug. "Hopefully we can get this figured out soon, though."

"Not your fault," Kasey returned, waving it off as a disturbing thought occurred to him. "...Toby told me there's a magma lake at the bottom of that mountain—"

He was cut off by a bark of laughter from Owen, whose face lit up at the mention. "Oh, right! He ever tell you about how he tried to fish down there when he was a kid?"

Easing up a little, Kasey grinned as he remembered the previous night's conversation. "Yeah, his uncle was pretty pissed, wasn't he?"

"Putting it lightly, yeah..." Letting out a wistful hum at the memory, Owen chuckled. "Yeah, me and him, and Kathy and Renee, we were just... well, we were probably as troublesome as Chloe at that age," he mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Come to think of it, I'm still not convinced Chloe didn't break off of one of us and just grow into people from there."

"You guys played in the forest, right?" Kasey pressed, feeling his curiosity start to get the better of him once more, feeling his heart speed up slightly at Owen's curious nod. "...What..." Looking over his shoulder towards Dale's house, he gulped. "...What happened to Luke in there, anyway...?"

Peering in the same direction, Owen's face grew troubled once more. "I dunno... he does not talk about it. Even to me, and he almost never shuts up... how'd you know about that, anyway?" he added suspiciously, eyebrows knitting together as his eyes narrowed.

Looking away and scratching the back of his tingling, peeling neck, Kasey shrugged. "Err... s-someone just... let it slip. You know, w-when I asked about the place..." Sike, a goddess and a wizard told me and I really should keep my mouth shut.

Nodding thoughtfully, Owen crossed his arms. "Yeah, it... it was really freaky. Julius and Toby found him by the water mill, all beaten up and unconscious ... you know his hair didn't used to have that big white patch in it?" he added offhandedly, face darkening further as he missed Kasey's hesitant nod. He shuddered at the memory of his best friend, tossing and turning in the clinic. "Doc thinks he may have PTSD from whatever went down, too. He's been drinking a lot more lately, and sometimes... he just stares off into space. And I really, really need to stress to you how not like Luke that is." Owen sighed and shook his head. "Shit, even wouldn't go in there nowadays..."

So help me, if there's a bell in there, I'm going to scream, Kasey thought irritably, stifling a groan of exasperation as Owen continued:

"...And to tell you the truth, I'm... a little worried about the mines heating up, too, now that you mention it. Phoebe says that while it's definitely weird, it's probably unrelated to the volcano, since it hasn't erupted for thousands and thousands of years, but..." He shook his head in disbelief. "...The hell's that even matter with all this crap going on? And it has a magma supply, so it can't be extinct... this whole thing messes my head up sometimes. Way too freaky."

Biting back the urge to ask if Phoebe had finally returned, Kasey spared the mines a quick glance, feeling his pulse quicken. How was he supposed to even check on the bell post in there? Between the heat, the potential volcanic activity, the darkness, and whatever else was going on in there—probably masked serial killers with chainsawshe wondered if he'd even have a chance of returning alive.

"Guess that's what I'll have to find out," he murmured, almost too softly for Owen to catch.

"What was that?"

Looking back up at Owen, Kasey shook his head. "It—it was nothing," he lied, hands stuffed in the pockets of his shorts. "J-just... trying to absorb it all..."

"Yeah, well..." Looking unconvinced, Owen grunted, running a hand through his hair as he walked past Kasey, heading for the carpenter's. "You have fun with that. Don't do like me and give yourself a headache over it, though. Me? I'm just gonna grab a beer, yell at Dale's TV, and hope that stupid volcano doesn't erupt."

Idly wishing he could do the same back at his own house, Kasey nodded and let out a loud exhale through his nostrils, scratching the back of one leg with his sneaker as he watched Owen make his way to Dale's house. "Right... w-well, see ya around."

"Yep," Owen called back, waving, as he disappeared into the building.

Giving the mine another helpless glance, Kasey kicked at the ground with a grunt, before starting to make his way back out of the Garmon District. He felt like he'd swallowed a cannonball, trudging forward with heavy-footed reluctance. He didn't know he'd be asked to navigate a death trap. "Fuck..."

He wasn't quite sure why, but in an instant, his gaze started darting around, trying to take inventory of his surroundings—something seemed out-of-place, something close by...

Blinking rapidly, he found himself coming to a stop as he neared the little bridge by Mira's house, crossing over the small, still brook that divided Garmon between Koto Accessories and Encore General.

"Who's... there?" he muttered uneasily, looking around and trying to figure out what exactly had caught his attention. A strange gleam...

As his eyes snagged on the motionless, silent waterwheel on the side of Mira's house, his breath caught fast in the scarlet flash the sun was casting on the mountainside—some sort of rusty, metallic, cardinal-red object seemed to be lodged between the blades of the wheel, close to the bottom. Something oddly-shaped, roughly the size of Chloe...

"...No way," he whispered, approaching the wheel as if in a trance, heedless of the soft splashes of his feet in the grimy water. The song began to sound in his head once more as he neared the red bell, unconsciously escaping his lips in a gentle croon while the drawn, raspy breaths started anew.

"...Someone's there...?" the voice from his dreams whispered hoarsely, causing Kasey to hiss and stumble back, landing flat on his butt in the brook. "No... don't go—!"

Shaking his head in disbelief, Kasey rose on quivering, damp legs, blinking hard. Feeling like his heart had lodged in his throat, he brushed dead leaves and grime off the back of his wet shorts and skin, trying to make sense of it all. Of course it was talking... of course it was, why the hell not? Castanet was just full of surprises anyway. But...

"Y-you... what are you...?" he croaked, his breathing shallow.

"Alan..." the voice answered feebly, sounding as though it would crack apart at any moment. Even Wizard's voice sounded healthier. "You... hear me...?"

Creeping forward cautiously, Kasey nodded—could the thing even see him? "Yeah... yeah, I can..." His hand shook uncontrollably as he reached out to feel the bell, to bring a sense of reality to this bizarre, surreal sequence of events. The moment his fingertips brushed the dull metal, he jerked his hand back with a quiet gasp—the surface was freezing cold, as though it had existed on some separate, icy plane away from the sun and the ambient heat. "Y-you're one of Sephia's... aren't you?" he muttered, suddenly overcome with the urge to shiver.

The bell was silent for a moment, struggling to breathe out its next words. "Sephia... I miss her..."

No, you seriously don't, Kasey thought in alarm, feeling a flash of panic deep in his gut at the thought of taking the bell down that nightmarish forest path. He'd been lucky the first time, but he'd personally always found his luck to be in exceptionally short supply. Steeling his nerves, he knelt down, looking straight at the bell. "D-do... do you need to... see her?"

"...No..." As Kasey slumped with a loud, relieved sigh, Alan's voice rasped into his mind even more insistently: "Home... please... take me home..."

"That... where's home?" Kasey asked uncertainly, looking around. "I... I don't live that far—"

"Garmon," Alan murmured insistently. "Home... please, I wanna rest..."

Blinking, and feeling his stomach roll, Kasey shook his head. Rest? Was Alan...?

"We're... in Garmon—"

"Within... Garmon," the bell pressed, sounding weaker with each word. "Please... get me home. I'm so cold..."

Squeezing his eyes shut with a sigh, Kasey hung his head, feeling guilt constrict his lungs. The melody in his head began to distort once more. As he started to tell Alan they couldn't go into the mines, that it was too dangerous—he stopped, taking a deep breath. Maybe it was a long shot, but... he had to try. If it got to be too much, they could retreat and figure out something else. Right?

"Okay," he said quietly, eyes opening as they found the bell again. "We're... we're gonna get you home, Alan... just hold on, okay? I'll... get you out of this thing..."

"Thank you... I'll... protect you."

Kasey wasn't sure Alan sounded up to protecting anyone or anything, but he appreciated the sentiment all the same. Going by what Owen had reported, he'd need all the help he could get in that department.

Cracking his knuckles, Kasey braced himself, gritting his teeth at the icy shock as he grabbed onto the bell with both hands and tugged hard. A groan of protest and a slight splintering from the wheel alarmed him, but after a bit more toil, he managed to tug the thing—tug Alan—free, almost slamming into the side of Mira's house as he attempted to correct his balance and keep from falling back into the water. For its size, the bell was nowhere near as heavy as he'd imagined it would be.

Shivering at the painfully frigid touch of the metal against his skin, Kasey crept slowly around the side of Mira's house, looking around furtively before making a mad dash for the entrance to the mines.

Once he was sure he was out of sight of anyone in the district, Kasey slumped against the nearest wall, shivering as he clutched the bell close to his chest and took a look around. The main area was fairly wide, a small amount of sunlight creeping in from outside and shining off several unlit lanterns. Immediately to his right, a wide path led off, sloping gradually upwards until disappearing into the murky shadows. Across the room, another pathway seemed to lead downwards. Wide, bright orange strips of plastic zigzagged wildly across the entryway in various directions, sending a very clear message.

Having a very bad feeling about the pathway, he held the bell out, surprised to see a faint glow pulsing from within it. "Alan?" he whispered, jostling the bell slightly and hearing a soft groan in response. He couldn't help but notice that, despite having a clapper, the bell made none of the expected sounds when moved about—the clapper was frozen just as solid as the bell felt. "Hey... which way do we go, now? Where's... where's your home?"

Without another sound, the glow seemed to shift about the bell and begin coalescing into a singular point, until all the light seemed to be pulling in the direction of the taped-off pathway, causing Kasey to suppress a groan.

Tiptoeing across the main room, he sucked in a deep breath, pushing the makeshift caution tape away with his free hand and peering down the dark passageway. At the end, he could barely make out a slope leading downwards, into darkness. Beyond that... Alan's home?

Guess we'll see, he thought resignedly, turning to the wall behind him to grab one of the lanterns, allowing himself a small smile as he noticed the light bulb screwed into it, and clicked it on. A small sphere of cold, white-blue light bloomed out, casting the room in an eerie glow. "Okay," he whispered, more to himself than Alan, "here we go..."

Stepping cautiously between the ribbons of tape, careful not to drop Alan or knock his lantern against the wall, Kasey made his way into the depths of Garmon Mine.

Immediately, as he carefully made his way down the slope into the first cavern, he was hit with a stifling wave of heat, closing in on him from all sides of the near-blinding darkness. His lantern's light bounced feebly off the walls, throwing jagged stalactites and stalagmites into sharp relief, jutting out of the ceiling and floor like massive fangs. The walls gleamed dully, showing glints of mineral deposits yet to be mined, as well as more lanterns and wiring strung about, shadows bouncing tauntingly off of the rocky walls.

Noticing with a bit of unease how the bell was still unnaturally ice-cold against his sweating skin, Kasey cautiously approached one of the lanterns, and clicked the switch back and forth, listening to the quietly sharp sound bounce off the walls until the gloom swallowed it whole.

Nothing.

Exhaling sharply, he gingerly slipped over to the next one, trying it much to the same results—and the next, and the next. Clearly, he'd lucked out with finding the one lantern that still worked.

Fuck... Owen wasn't kidding, he observed miserably, setting both the bell and his lantern down as his right arm began to itch terribly with the rash formed by the freezing metal. In what light the lantern sent up his way, he could see the angry red welt on the inside of his otherwise-sweaty arm. "Shit... okay... so, where to now...?"

Picking up the lantern and making sure to stand right by the bell, Kasey circled around slowly, straining his eyes against the darkness and fighting off the grogginess the thick, sweltering, musty air pressed upon him. Tunnels seemed to lead off in various directions, perhaps to more and more shafts... a maze he wasn't sure he had the time to traverse.

"Alan?" Kasey whispered, nudging the bell with his foot—the breathing had strengthened slightly, feeling exceedingly loud in the vast, empty room, but it still sounded troubled. "Hey, man... c'mon."

Much like before, the soft glow of the bell pointed off in the direction of one pathway, accompanied by a weak groan. It seemed that Alan hadn't much strength left to speak.

Pressing a hand to the bell to still find it shockingly cold, Kasey sighed, peeled off his sweat-stained t-shirt, and wrapped the bell up in it as best as he could. Hoisting it under his arm and picking up the lantern, he headed in the direction Alan had indicated. It still felt chilly through the fabric, and where the metal pressed against his thin white undershirt, but it was much more bearable than before.

As he descended the pathway into the next vast, empty chamber, the heat intensified sharply, as though he'd opened the door of a massive furnace. Deep, labored inhalations of the stale air bounced about the room, contrasting with Alan's slow, gentle breathing as the beacon of light spun around on the bell's surface. It glowed through the fabric of Kasey's t-shirt, and against his side—the next path was off to the left.

"Alright," Kasey agreed quietly, nodding as he approached the indicated pathway. "Good... just keep pointing me where you need to go, alright...?"

"Okay..."

The next three floors, while still stiflingly hot, were thankfully not much worse of a jump in temperature than the first few floors had been. That, or I'm getting too used to it, Kasey thought grimly, feeling his throat parch up as Alan's light once again pointed the way home. Please don't let me get dehydrated...

"Keep going," the bell urged, voice sounding a bit stronger now. "I can feel it... we're getting close..."

Panting and tucking the lantern under his arm to briefly fan his sweat-soaked undershirt, Kasey nodded wordlessly, beginning to feel a dull throb in his temples as they descended. His hair was damp and sticky, clinging to his forehead and the nape of his neck in lanky strands. The thin layers of fine, dark hair on his arms and legs were plastered flat to his skin, and he found himself more frequently raising his arm to wipe what perspiration he could from his forehead, blinking away the salty droplets that stung his eyes.

By the seventh floor, Kasey found himself feeling light-headed and dizzy, tripping over a small crack in the floor and smacking the side of his head against a stalactite. With a pained hiss, he sagged against the rock formation, trying to catch his breath in the hellish mugginess.

"A... Alan... we're... almost there, right?" he gasped, jostling the bell against his side and finding his breathing becoming heavier as he slumped to the ground.

"Don't give up," Alan urged, sounding better than Kasey felt at this point—Kasey's clammy head ached terribly and swam, feeling all too much like it was about to float away from his body. He couldn't place exactly what, with his gummed-up mind, but he knew that Owen had been right. Something else was very wrong with the mines. "We're so close... almost home. Stay strong..."

"I... I am," Kasey assured him hoarsely, grunting as he pressed the heels of his hands to his forehead, trying to catch his breath. Even the soft glow of the cloth-wrapped bell and the harsh glare of the electric lantern were starting to fade and become blotchy. With a grunt, Kasey unwrapped part of the bell, pressing it desperately to his forehead, hoping for the icy jolt of the metal to shock his senses back into place.

Narrowing his eyes in confusion, he pulled the red bell away, staring at it with a dopey expression through his failing vision. While still fairly chilly, it was no longer painfully cold—it felt as though it had finally absorbed some of the ambient heat, letting its glow pulsate stronger than before. "Y-you're... you f-feel better, I... I think," he murmured thoughtfully, pressing the cool metal against his cheek and letting his eyes slide shut as he took the sensation in. The feeling was, at least, soothing to a small degree, slightly easing the pain where he had struck his head. It would have to do...

His strained grunt echoed through the cavern as Kasey rose unsteadily to his feet, bracing himself against the stalactite as he swayed dangerously, squinting around and shining his lantern in hopes of finding the next path down. Alan had said they were close... how close? How much longer would he be forced to endure this? Never mind the ascent back to the entrance...

Feet dragging, feeling like he was trudging through a thick swamp, Kasey gathered his willpower and slogged onward.

"Home," Alan breathed again as Kasey began to make his way towards the next path. His voice came out clearer now, no longer sounding frail, broken, and tired—instead, it was gradually becoming more youthful, gathering more and more vitality as the bell grew warmer. "You'll be okay... we'll make it... I've got you."

Kasey scoffed weakly, leaning against a wall for support and squeezing his eyes shut to will away the maddening dizziness and nausea threatening to overwhelm his senses. He could've put up with the suffocating heat, he figured. But this was something else entirely. Whatever ideas Owen had given him, Kasey hadn't expected any danger quite like this to be awaiting him. Maybe he was just delirious from the heat, but he couldn't help but get the sense that some sort of actively malevolent force was following him, watching him, torturing him. Yet, turning back at this point seemed like a futile and terrible idea. He'd come this far already. Still, he sorely wished he'd prepared better for the descent, even if it had meant just running back to his house for a bottle or two of water. Why did I have to be so rash and stupid...?

Every breath felt like a battle at this point, and he couldn't help but notice a slight whistle in his chest as he struggled to fill his aching lungs with air. What did it feel like, he wondered in that moment, to know that you were dying? Would he know without a doubt when it was coming? "You know... I-I... I'm supposed... to be re...reassuring y—"

The bell and the lantern struck the ground loudly, the bulb shattering on impact and plunging the cavern into darkness, as Kasey suddenly collapsed to his hands and knees and retched violently, buckling under the assault on his body. The hellish heat, the crushing pain in his head and his lungs, the nausea, and the dizziness had all combined to push him to the breaking point, and his body was fighting against his will in a frantic attempt to force the stubborn, foolish boy to give up. He groaned and let out a hoarse, involuntary whimper before vomiting again, willing his trembling arms to keep him up for as long as they could. He was still breathing. He was still conscious. He'd already come this far.

"Are you okay?!"

"I... I'll be... fine," Kasey squeaked faintly, wiping his mouth and choking back a pitiful moan as he shakily rose. He bent down to collect the bell, legs feeling almost gelatinous—the lantern was no use now, and he inadvertently kicked it across the cave as he turned to get his bearings, hearing the echo of every skitter and jump until it finally smacked against the far wall. "O... okay... Alan. S-sorry I'm... g-going so s-slow..."

"It'll be alright," the bell reassured him, glow now bright enough to almost match the lantern's output as it pointed him towards the next pathway. "Stay with me... it's almost over..."

Nodding weakly, Kasey willed his thoughts to focus on his friends and family, even as his breath rattled off the walls of the next, boiling cavern. He thought he could feel steam billowing up from underneath him, and hear ominous hissing and bubbling sounds far below, beneath the warped and ghoulish notes of that damn melody. For a brief moment, he found himself almost wanting the volcano to erupt, to burn him away in an instant, to end this torture...

What the hell's wrong with me? he thought, shaking his head slowly and struggling to keep himself conscious. Forget that, what the hell's wrong with this place...?

"There," Alan's voice gasped happily, the glow intensifying as it swung to the right, illuminating the final pathway. Just beyond, Kasey could see the dim outline of an old, metal bell post, surrounded by broken chunks of moss-covered marble—it looked as though it had once served as an elaborate tomb. The room had a warm, fiery glow to it that didn't quite seem to reach the cavern they were currently in—but it was a welcome sight, nonetheless. "Come on... we made it!" Alan declared, voice strong and confident now. "We're almost home!"

Feeling a small surge in his heart at the sight of his destination, the pace of Kasey's clumsy steps quickened. He could feel a chill creep back in as he quickly crossed the corridor, stumbling out of the shadows into the bitterly cold room. Not caring too much as he shivered, he sank to his knees with a relieved cry that lurched into a nasty cough, struggling to catch his breath. His head still hurt terribly, his vision becoming even fuzzier as he looked up and took in the ornate, runic inscriptions on the bell post. His throat was raw, dry, and scratchy from his earlier sickness, as well as thirst, and he felt a stone's throw away from unconsciousness as his teeth chattered, arms wrapped ineffectually about his body.

But... they'd made it.

"It's okay," Alan said confidently, the bell's light warm and bright now, illuminating the room further in its strong glow. "I'm finally home... it's been so long." His voice quavered slightly, before adopting a more soothing tone. "When you're ready, just put me back on that post, okay? I'll take it from there..."

Panting, Kasey nodded, wiping the freezing sweat from his forehead and unwrapping the bell, slipping his rumpled t-shirt back on and letting his breathing slow down and even out as he wrapped his arms around the object. The metal had heated up to a rather comfortable temperature by this point, and made him want to fall asleep right then and there. He needed the rest so badly.

Struggling a bit with the sudden heaviness of it, he grunted as he hoisted it up onto the hook on the underside of the post. With a tired, happy laugh, he patted the bell faintly as it began to shine a comforting red... warmth seeped into the room, beginning to displace the unnatural chill and soothe Kasey's sick body.

"Thank you so much!" the young boy's voice called gratefully from within the bell as Kasey nodded, pressing his back to the bell post and sinking almost bonelessly into a sitting position. Low humming filled the room, the temperature continuing to rise gradually with the first, faint notes of the familiar melody sounding out. They grew in clarity and energy, spiraling up and down in a joyous circle, sounding a thousand miles away in Kasey's ringing ears.

Smiling feebly, he looked up to where the bell was continuing to swing back and forth, sounding out its bright, crackling song. "W... welcome home... Alan..."

The gentle warmth enveloped his aching bones, and Kasey felt a faint sense of pride swell in his chest as his body finally gave into the overwhelming exhaustion. His doubts and concerns began to blotch away with his fading vision.

Eyes rolling back in his head and sliding shut, his unconscious form slumped down further against the post, unable to hear Alan's worried queries woven amid the red bell's melody.

Chapter Text

A shockwave of heat blasted out in a massive radius across the land, sending him flying and ringing about wildly. The vibrations resonated throughout the air, but no sound came.

Each violent wave and crashing tsunami that shook and rocked the frame sent him tumbling about uncontrollably in the frozen blue sea. His vision soon grew obscured by thick, billowing blankets of fog.

Through it all, he remained completely silent, as though all the sound had been ripped from him and shredded out of existence.

The thought sent a small pang of sadness through him.

He just wished he knew why.

Kasey stirred feebly, a weak groan settling low in his dry throat, drowned out by fuzzy and constant noise in the background. Head throbbing, vision a gradually-focusing blur, ears ringing...

Ringing?

Unconsciously mumbling along with the sound, Kasey gradually came back to his dulled senses, blinking blearily as snatches of memory started to blotch back into his mind's eye. A song that invaded his mind, finally fixed even as his body began to break down.

Song... Alan?

"...Alan... Alan," he muttered again, his voice waking up more as he gave a slight start—a sharp bit of pain in his lower back quickly drove him to regret this rash action. His protracted hiss steamed about the room, quickly drowned out beneath the jovial song that continued to wind around and around. Up and down, spiraling, freewheeling...

Kasey grunted at a wave of nausea slapping him further awake, drawing into a tight ball and clapping his clammy hands over his ears as he tried to neatly sort everything out. Now he remembered, head pounding with the surge of recent memories crashing across his brain. Piercing cold and oppressive heat, near-blinding darkness, kind encouragement as his strength quickly fled his aching body—and that damn song.

"Alan... you can stop now, Alan... please..."

He knew he should be happier to hear it continuing, to even be awake at all, knowing he was alive, aware, and able to feel like complete and utter shit. Still, his throbbing temples were beating any thin dustings of positivity right off of him, and the last thread of his patience snapped.

"Alan, will you shut UP already?!" Kasey shouted hoarsely, voice cracking with fatigue and irritation as he tore his hands away from his stinging ears and smacked his fists against the bell post behind him, its previously-chatty occupant now giving no signs of any awareness. Immediately feeling a rush of regret, Kasey rose slowly, feeling like a newborn fawn on his shaky, weak legs. His spinning head and messed-up center of gravity sent him wobbling gracelessly right into the side of the post.

"S-sorry, Alan... I just... I need to... get out of here..." His deep, hoarse voice rasped away into a tired murmur. "Alan... can you hear me, Alan? I'm sorry, okay?" With a ragged sigh, his fingers gripped tightly against the post to keep him upright. "Just... can you please send me home? I need... I need to get out of here..." Sephia had been able to do it, after all. Why not Alan? Inwardly, he mused that he should really drag himself down to the clinic, somehow, even if Irene would probably kill him for popping back in again so quickly. No, not probably. She would definitely kill him. At least as a doctor, she'd be bound by Hippocratic Oath to be merciful about it.

Heedless of his pleas, Alan continued to merrily blast out his resonant alarm call, letting all within earshot know of his long-awaited return home. Unnoticed by Kasey, the glow had faded away from the metal by this point.

Scoffing, Kasey stumbled over to the entryway of the tomb, squeezing his eyes shut and pinching the bridge of his nose as the bell continued clanging behind him. "Well, fuck you too, then, you jerk... you're welcome..."

Coughing wetly, he shuffled back out into the massive chamber that had led him to the tomb. With a faint bit of confusion, he noted that, while it was still uncomfortably sultry, much of the stifling heat seemed to have dispersed. Scowling back over his shoulder at the room he'd just left—remembering how it had warmed with each note—Kasey shrugged. Whatever made things easier for him...

Turning his gaze back to the cavern, his stomach dropped, taking in another new detail he'd overlooked in his disorientation: Faint light buzzing from the lanterns strung about the walls, casting into relief a dizzying network of tunnels. They climbed, they burrowed, they seemed to intersect at points—all from this lone room. Some sloped upwards, others lay straight, and still more headed even deeper towards the base of Garmon Mines. How many were there on each floor alone? How many of them even led back to surface?

Panic beginning to bubble deep in his stomach, Kasey's breathing quickened, wide brown eyes darting about from tunnel to tunnel. Where had he even come down from? It had been so dark, his body wracked with that strange illness and exhaustion that still persisted, mind gummed up and fogged during the descent. He'd had Alan guiding him down, but it looked like the return trip might be all on him now. In his current condition, he didn't exactly have time to stand around and try to remember where to go. Yet, he couldn't really afford to meander about blindly, either...

"Alan," he called shakily, voice rising once more in desperation. "Alan, please send me back home like Sephia did... or just... show me how to get out." Even as he spoke, he wobbled uneasily over to the nearest, dim tunnel, squinting at the gentle upward slope it took. Had it really been this close? It felt like the tunnel he'd emerged from had been set at a different angle to Alan's tomb... perhaps on the other side...

Wracking his brain to remember every which way he'd walked, every direction Alan had led him on the way down only a short time ago—he had only been down there for a short time, hadn't he?—Kasey made his way over to a series of three branching tunnels set along the opposite wall of the chamber, surveying all three uneasily. The one on the left... it had to be. The other two led downwards, snaking away in different directions.

With the ringing continuing to strike his eardrums at an unnaturally consistent volume, echoing through the mines, Kasey gingerly made his way back up the first tunnel. He squeezed his eyes shut to fight off the way the world spun around him, the way every bone felt like it was about to snap under the weight of his exhaustion and send him crashing to the floor once more.

He still had four bells left. He had to make it.

------------------------

A smirk tugged Owen's lips upwards as he made a beckoning gesture with his fingers, letting loose with a deep chuckle while Dale and Luke grumbled, digging into their pockets for their payouts. Behind them, Bo happily counted out his own share, a wide grin on his freckled face while Boss snuffled curiously at the bills, giving them a light whack with his massive white paw.

"Sorry, buddy, this is people money," Bo apologized lightly, bopping the fanned-out stack lightly on Boss's wet nose. "Maybe I'll buy you a great big steak, though, huh? Huh?"

"Don't spend it all before I win it back next week," Luke warned, getting an approving laugh and pat on the shoulder from his dad.

"He's much better with money than you are, son. I don't think we've got anything to worry about!"

Nodding obliviously, Luke punched the air in agreement. "That's the spirit, Pop!"

"Whoosh," Owen muttered quietly, sweeping a hand above his own head and rolling his eyes. While garnering a raised eyebrow from Dale, the gesture also went unnoticed by Luke. Shrugging, he held out a hand for Dale to shake, the two sharing a friendly nod. "Hey, it was a pretty awesome game, though! Your team didn't do too bad!"

"Thanks, Moneybags," Dale responded dryly, though his eyes twinkled. "Don't go getting too attached to your winnings, now."

"What?" Owen said, raising his voice slightly and making a point of flipping his thumb loudly across the wrinkled bills. "Sorry, can't hear you over the sound of sweeeeet victory. I'm overdue, anyway. You're always kicking my ass at these things."

"Alright, sore winner, you'd better buy us all a round at Hayden's later!" Luke chimed in, rocking back and forth on his sneakers and grinning broadly. "You know, to... like, soothe the sting of defeat!"

"Sorry, buddy, this is peo-ple mo-ney," Owen shot back good-naturedly, flapping the money in Luke's face for emphasis as he mimicked Bo's earlier words. Pulling the money back as his best friend made a swipe for it and snapped "Bitch, I'm a people!", Owen snickered. "You'll have to buy your own beer to cry into!"

Bo perked up from his spot on the couch, where he'd been smushing the floppy folds of Boss's panting face together, and making low-pitched barking noises at him. "Oh! Hey, Dale, that reminds me! Can I—"

Cutting him off with a nod, Dale waved nonchalantly. "Sure, go ahead—one sip," he added sternly, as Bo snatched the open beer can off the side table, peering cautiously into it.

Taking a sniff of the can's contents, he curled his lip slightly. "...Does this stuff... taste good...?"

"...It's not exactly a taste thing..."

"Hey, if you're gonna puss out, I'll finish the can for you," Luke offered slyly, watching as Bo shot a dirty look his way. "Bawk-bawk-bawwwwwwk!"

"And to think, you're old enough to drink," Owen muttered, rolling his eyes once more as Bo screwed up his face and took a slow, careful sip from the can. A hacking cough and a gag later, he handed the can over to an amused Luke, who quickly chugged the rest of its contents.

"Eww! It tastes like... like earwax," Bo spat disgustedly, springing off of the couch and bolting to the kitchen for something to wash the taste away, while the other three shared a good-natured laugh.

"Guess that's one less kid I gotta worry about," Dale chuckled, shaking his head wryly as he and Owen watched Luke crush the can in his armpit with a grunt, and stick his tongue out at them.

Owen nodded, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "Must be a load off your mind, huh? Well, think I'll be heading back now. Thanks for the pizza, beer, and... oh, the victory!"

Rolling his eyes, Dale gave Owen a friendly clap on the back. "Thank your team, not me. I hate them."

"I'll let them know," Owen shot over his shoulder as he made his way to the front door, turning around to fist-bump Luke. He waved to Bo, who had emerged from the kitchen chugging a soda and waving back.

Swinging the door open and making to leave, he stopped with a hard jolt. He'd just barely avoided crashing into a startled Julius, whose bangle-covered wrist had been poised and ready to deliver a polite knock on Dale's front door. Instead, Julius yelped and stumbled back with a messy jangle of jewelry.

"Sweet Jesus," Julius gasped dramatically, hand pressed tightly over his pounding heart. His shadowed eyes scowled up at a puzzled Owen. "Be a bit more mindful, would you?!"

"You came here, Miss Priss. How the hell was I supposed to know you were right there?" Owen pointed out bluntly, hands jammed in his pockets as he stared down at the purple-haired man standing on Dale's doorstep, dressed in his usual flashy assortment of jewelry, make-up, and ruffly, leathery things. He supposed it would be hard to miss Julius. The man was like a human peacock. A short distance away, he could hear what sounded like joyful music ringing about, loud and insistent. Mingling with the sudden eruption of excited barking from Boss, the peaceful night had suddenly turned absurdly noisy. "What's up? Sheesh, Mira's really going to town on that thing tonight, huh? She feeling better?"

"Dude, what's with the music? Is there, like, a party going on or something?" Luke chimed in, approaching the doorway with a confused Dale and Bo, the latter of whom had quickly shushed Boss with a doggie treat. Spotting Julius, Luke waved his arm about like it was on fire. "Yo, J.P.! Welcome back, man!"

"Hey, Juli!" Bo added, receiving a distracted wave in return.

"Gentlemen. Mr. Potter," he added quickly, before turning his attention back on Owen. "Anyway, it isn't Aunt Mira. She's still a bit down in the dumps, I'm afraid, and that certainly isn't a piano we're hearing... but, I digress! Your grandfather asked me to fetch you, actually—"

"—Grandpa?" Owen cut in sharply, straightening up. "What is it, is everything okay?!"

"Yes, if you'll let me finish!" Julius snapped huffily, his refined, stuffy baritone pitching up slightly in agitation. Folding his arms over his ruffled white shirt, he jerked his head in the direction of the mines, multicolored braid and heart-shaped earrings swinging with the action. "Good lord... yes, everything's fine, don't worry! I'll even let that 'Miss Priss' remark slide for now," he added under his breath, before bringing his voice back up to a normal volume. "But your grandfather thinks there may be something going on in the mines... he heard that racket start up a short time ago, and it doesn't seem to be wanting to stop. And it's coming from there at that! Don't ask me how. Perhaps some half-wit snuck in there with a boombox, God knows why."

"Isn't that the song Mira's always playing?" Dale queried, rubbing his broad chin thoughtfully at Julius's troubled nod. "Okay, that's creepy. Sounds like someone else likes it, too. I'm guessing she's still at home, though. Has she been acting... strange recently...?"

"Not much different than usual, for better or for worse," Julius answered with a shrug and a forlorn sigh. "Well, we're having the Kerns for tea this evening, and that seems to be lifting her spirits some. She talks a little more. I'll take it."

"Good to hear," Dale muttered absently, scratching at his cheek as he listened to the strange song floating from the distant mines—while upbeat, there was something undeniably eerie about it. With a grunt, he and Bo were shoved aside as Boss finally squeezed between them, once again barking eagerly and flapping his tail about at the sight of the now-cringing Julius. Looking down at the friendly, fluffy white beast, Dale nudged him back gently with his foot. "Sorry, buddy! Daddy's gotta go check on some funny business. Don't eat Julius, he's your friend."

"Am I really?" Julius muttered.

"I'm going with you," Owen told Dale, squatting slightly to scratch Boss behind the ears. Looking back over at Julius, he added, "That's what Gramps sent you for, right?"

Nodding importantly, Julius straightened out his shirtsleeves just so, stepping back slightly as Boss struggled to lumber forward and slobber all over his finery. The dog was dragged back by an apologetic Bo, hands clamped down on his collar. "He said not to do anything stupid—" Owen rolled his eyes at this, "—but to just find out what you could. And take help, if you needed," he added pointlessly, looking up at Dale with a polite smile.

"Sounds good to me!" Luke piped up, cracking his neck and his knuckles, ignoring his father's admonishing glare.

"Not to me."

Wide-eyed and sputtering, Luke rounded on Dale, hands flailing about pointlessly. "Wha—seriously? I'm nineteen, dude! Why do you keep babying me?"

One of his arms was snatched and lifted up, Dale jabbing a beefy finger at the multitude of nasty scars along the tanned skin. "Because of that, and that, and that, and let's not forget this," he added curtly, flicking at a bit of white hair sticking out from under Luke's beloved bandana. "Oh, and I think I still have your discharge papers from the clinic stashed around here somewhere, if you want a reminder of your other injuries while you're waiting!"

"The ones I recovered from?" Luke snapped, swatting at his dad's hand and folding his arms tightly.

"Yeah, I bet those broken ribs were nothing, right? And that's just the physical scars, Luke—Owen and I will be fine by ourselves," Dale continued, surprising the others by raising his voice slightly to talk over Luke's objections. "You and Bo stay here and feed Boss—"

"You stay here, if you're so damn worried about safety!" Luke shot back, face heating in a mixture of embarrassment and anger. His golden eyes flashed dangerously, the other three watching the exchange with varying levels of discomfort. "Dude, you're like, fifty! And look at you," he added, poking emphatically at Dale's massive belly, while Bo and Owen's mouths dropped open. Julius turned his mortified giggle into a shocked cough. "I should be worrying about your fat ass running off to the mines! Oh, and I said mines, not forest."

Father and son stepped toward each other, muscles tensed as they sized each other up. Dale's voice came out coolly as he poked Luke hard in the chest: "You know damn well the mines aren't safe right now. And my 'fat ass' didn't get the living daylights beaten out of it, and I'm not the one who has—"

"Will you two just stop this insipid little pissing contest already?!" Julius interrupted, stamping a platform-booted foot impatiently. "Whoever wants to go, just go already and check out that stupid, annoying noise, since the rest of us aren't exactly fit to go into the mines ourselves! Jesus!"

"Guys, seriously, chill out!" Bo agreed, stepping between Dale and Luke and pushing them apart as best as he could. They continued to stare coldly at each other for a few moments, the only sound the continued ringing calling from the mines. Dale finally heaved a massive sigh and stepped back, holding his hands up in unwilling surrender.

"Fine. You can come, but you do not leave my sight. Understood?" he ordered, jabbing a finger towards Luke once more.

Luke relaxed slightly and nodded, fists slowly unclenching by his sides. "Alright, I guess I'm cool with that."

"You guess," Dale repeated in a resigned mumble, running a frustrated hand through his hair.

"Finally," Julius breathed exasperatedly, adjusting his bangles and waving as he turned to head back towards Mira's. "Well, chop-chop, hmm? You all be careful, now!" he called over his shoulder as Luke gave him a two-fingered salute, all earlier familial tension forgotten. "And play nice!"

With Bo echoing Julius's sentiments to be careful, Owen, Luke, and Dale headed out into the warm night, listening to Boss's whining fade as the door to the carpenter's closed.

"Dun-DUN-dun! Dun-dun DUN-dun-DUN dun-DUN-dun-DUN!" Luke sang loudly, in time with the odd, cheerful music bellowing from the dimly-lit mine. Seeing Mira's drawn, curious face peeking out from behind her living room curtain, Luke waved at her in his typically spastic fashion. She smiled tightly, returning his acknowledgement with a brisk nod before letting the curtain fall back into place once more as she went to let Julius in. While they passed the blacksmith, Owen hopped up onto the porch, waving off the Potters' confused looks.

"Just checking on something," he said quickly, opening the front door just a crack and sticking his head in. A few loud, but not-unpleasant exchanges were heard with Ramsey and Chloe, before Owen closed the door with a satisfied nod, rejoining his friends. "Just had to do a roll call."

"You wanna keep her on a leash?" Dale offered, cracking a small smile and getting a playful punch in the shoulder from Owen. "I'll let you borrow one of Boss's."

Owen smirked, nodding in Luke's direction—the hyper carpenter was already standing in the mines, head swiveling back-and-forth between the two tunnels leading into the various chambers and looking utterly perplexed. "Nah, I think you need it more. Hey, man, wait up!" he called, jogging in after Luke.

------------------------

Squinting and trying to stay awake, torn between his hammering heart and the myriad of downright exhausting aches peppering his body, Kasey leaned against the wall of the latest room he'd entered and let out a low whine.

He was lost.

He'd tried a series of tunnels that seemed to go upward, only to suddenly curve or dip in ways he couldn't quite remember taking before—and turning back around had left him a little more unsure, each time, of where exactly he'd started off. Navigating in near-complete darkness, confused and sick, hadn't been his best move, and he idly found himself wondering if he should've left a trail of bread crumbs behind him. He even found himself wishing—with a small bit of disgust—that he would come across the spot where he'd gotten sick and dropped his lantern, just so he'd know he was heading in the right direction.

And no matter where he went, no matter how high or low he felt he'd traveled, Alan's song kept echoing throughout the mines as unnaturally loud and clear as if he were back in the tomb with it. The only respite he'd found was that the mines were far cooler now than they had been, and the lanterns were working once more—well, enough of them, anyway. Even so, the cool air simply amplified the woozy, clammy sensations sweeping across his body in ominous waves. And the way some of the lanterns were flickering and buzzing definitely didn't help.

Mouth feeling like a desert wasteland and stomach dancing about madly, Kasey made his way to a dimly-lit, massive rock nearby and slumped down atop it, rubbing the heels of his hands against his throbbing forehead with an agitated groan. His eyeballs felt like they were preparing to pop out of their sockets, and he just wanted to whack his head so hard against the walls that he'd knock himself out again for a nice, long nap. Just a few hours would do, so long as he got home in time to water his vegetables tomorrow... or was it already tomorrow...?

"...I dunno, man, it's confusing the hell outta me..."

Kasey's eyes snapped open, breath hitching as he heard the distant, familiar voices echoing all around him, barely audible under Alan's incessant clanging.

"Luke! What did I tell you about running off?!"

"Pop, chill, seriously! I know this place like the back of my hand!"

"That's not the point—"

Owen's voice jumped in now: "Guys, will you cut it out already? Geez... let's just stick together for now, okay Luke? Safety in numbers..."

Swallowing a dry lump in his throat, Kasey felt his heart start dancing about, even if he wished for a nice surge of adrenaline to come with it. Could they hear the racket, too? And if he could hear them...

"Hello?" he called, his voice brittle and far softer than he would've liked, crumbling into nothing before the first syllable even ended. "Can you hear me?" he tried again, this time a bit louder.

"Seriously, we should kinda split up or something," Luke continued, thoroughly impatient. "That shit sounds like it could be coming from anywhere—"

Clearing his throat, Kasey cupped his hands around his mouth, and gave it one last shot: "Hello?"

Alan's song seemed to fade away unusually fast, snapping into a tense silence with the abruptness of someone flipping a switch.

"...You heard it, too?" Dale's voice questioned. "What in the world..." After a beat, he called back: "Someone there?!"

"Mr. Potter?!" Kasey responded, lapsing into a painful cough at the strain on his voice. Maybe yelling hadn't been such a fantastic idea.

"Kasey?!" Owen's voice responded, sounding incredulous and infuriated. "Are you okay?! You sound terrible!"

"I need to get out..." Kasey pushed himself off of the rock and stumbled over to the tunnel where it sounded like the voices were the closest. "I-I'm kinda... dizzy."

"You idiot," Owen grumbled, sending a hot jolt of annoyance across Kasey's chest. "Why are you even in here? What did I say earlier, huh?! Just stay where you are and let us find you! We can get you out of here!"

"You hurt, dude?" Luke added, his own voice sounding like it was coming from an entirely different direction than Owen's.

"No... I just need to rest..."

"You sounded fine earlier," Owen pointed out once more, sounding utterly unamused. "Okay, just work with us here—Luke, where the hell are you?"

Light, rapid footfalls bounced about for a brief moment. "Right here! Thought I heard Kasey's voice coming from thataway!"

"What did I tell you about running off?"

"Yeah, yeah... hey, Kase! Let's try this out: Marcooooo!"

Cottoning on, Kasey allowed himself a small, relieved smile, making his way unsteadily up the tunnel he'd chosen. "P-Polo!"

"Good idea, Luke—Marco!" Owen repeated, his deep voice echoing unnervingly about the caverns, footfalls moving as Kasey answered again, emerging into another empty room.

When Dale and Luke called out next, they seemed a bit farther away—spinning around, Kasey responded once more, straining his ears to figure out which tunnel seemed to be the best route to them. His voice nearly broke a few times as he responded to their calls, but they seemed to be getting clearer and closer, bit-by-bit.

"Kasey, are you moving?" Owen's admonishing voice called out moments later. "Seriously, you're all over the place, man! I told you to stay still! Marco!"

"S-sorry—Polo!" Kasey called back, leaning against a nearby wall and slumping down to the cool, damp ground. "Are you almost... here?"

"I think so, so just keep still for once and let us get to you, okay?"

Kasey nodded, his vision beginning to blotch again, forehead freezing with sweat. They sounded close. Close enough that he could probably afford to just give in and shut down again—he was so tired. What exactly had happened to him down here? "Yeah... hurry..."

The call-and-response didn't continue for much longer before Kasey finally heard Luke's light, quick jogging echoing down a nearby tunnel, his voice sounding as though it would burst into the room before he did. On nearly the opposite side, he heard heavier footfalls, accompanied by Dale calling after both Kasey and his son.

"Luke, I'm gonna kill you—hey!" Spotting Kasey slumped down against a nearby stalagmite, looking moments away from collapsing once more, Dale hurried over and knelt by him. "Hey—Owen! Luke! I found him!"

"Good! I'll be right there—thanks, Dale!"

"There you guys are!" Luke called next, sounding excited and relieved. "Geez, Pop, where the hell did you go?"

"What do you mean, where did I go?"

Kasey, for his part, released his stubborn grip on his energy and slipped in and out of nauseous consciousness, the voices of the other three swimming and spinning about as though they were communicating from within a massive whirlpool. He didn't bother opening his eyes.

"What the hell were you doing down here?"

A large, rough hand pressed against his forehead, speaking in Dale's voice. "He's burning up. He might need to go see Jin."

"No," Kasey protested weakly, wanting to just go home and slip into bed before he threw up again. "...He'll kill me..."

"We're not gonna kill you," Owen returned sharply, Kasey's mind jolting back into brief wakefulness as he felt his arms being slung around two pairs of shoulders, lifting him up and letting him float about slowly. "Not that I don't want to. I can't imagine what you were even thinking..."

"Alan..."

"Aliens?!" Luke's voice was bursting with unbridled excitement. "Dude, sweet! Are you for real?!"

"Alan," Kasey repeated insistently, heavy head swinging about as he tried to locate Luke to scowl blearily at him. "Had to help him..."

"Who in the world is Alan?" Dale wondered aloud.

Luke helpfully offered his take on the situation: "I think Kasey's, like... you know, deciduous or whatever. Loco in the caboco, yeah?"

A sudden stop and an awkward silence passed, before Owen finally let out a disgusted sigh, the eye-roll plainly evident in his voice. "Yeah. Okay, 'whatever' sounds right. But I just saw him maybe three hours ago... he shouldn't have gotten this sick this fast, should he? We shouldn't stay down here any longer. Let's go."

"Jin would probably know better than me, but... wait. Gasses?"

"...Ah, hell. I hope not, but you're probably right... okay, yeah. You're going to the clinic, buddy," Owen decided, giving Kasey a sharp pat on the shoulder and getting another wheezing groan in response. "Hey, don't bitch at me. I told you it was dangerous down here, didn't I? Hope we don't get sick, too," he added darkly.

"Hey—run on home and give Jin a call will you? And be careful going back up."

"Geez, alright, already! We're almost out anyway, and nothing's even happened. Fuckin' worrywart. Uhh... well, hope you feel better, Kase! ...Okay, I'm going! God!" Luke added irritably after a quick pause, footsteps quickly stomping off ahead.

Minutes may have passed, or even centuries—Kasey didn't quite know or care, by this point, head lolling about like he was trying to unscrew it from his body. Before long, the cool caverns gave way to familiar warmth, and he felt the night air on his face once more.

Dimly noting that something about the air was different than usual, Kasey heard an unfamiliar man's voice calling out to them:

"What in the world—is that that boy from the farm?!"

"Yep," Owen responded grimly. "Julius, meet Kasey. I think this is like the second time he's done something like this this month."

"Huh. You don't say... is he alright?"

An awkward pause. "...I have no idea what qualifies for 'alright' with this guy, to tell you the truth."

Kasey, at this point, was too far gone to feel stung or indignant about any of it.

"He'll probably be fine once we get him to Jin's," Dale added, shifting Kasey's floppy, half-conscious form slightly. "Maybe you should take him in the cart."

"Y'think it's safe?"

"Well, I let Luke use that thing to cart lumber to town, so..."

Manners subconsciously snapping on, Kasey began mumbling an introduction to Julius in a ragged, exhausted loop: "Nice... nice to meet you..." Why couldn't he move his hand out for a handshake? "Nice to meet you... hi," he continued, struggling to stay awake. "Nice... to... meet to... nice you..."

"...Yes, of course," Julius responded, sounding slightly amused. "Charmed... hoo, boy."

"You can say that again..."

With the formalities over, and the mines behind him, Kasey finally surrendered himself to his latest bad habit, and slipped away once more as Owen and Dale dragged him towards the mine cart.

"So, that's it?"

An astonished blink. He'd been expecting an argument, but he thought some sort of understanding would crop up at some point. Apparently not.

"Well... sure, why not?"

Cold silence. "Really? Wow. So, you still don't have any idea what the hell you're planning to do. Typical."

A flash of burning anger, low in his stomach, and a tight lump in his throat. He struggled to work around it.. "If you'd listened to me at all, you'd know that's not true. Maybe because you never gave any kind of input whenever I talked to you about it... it's not like this was news to you."

"No, it was just something you decided for us." Grey eyes rolling disdainfully. "Let me guess, you didn't expect this, either, right? Do you ever think ahead? Or think about how, I dunno, anyone else is going to be affected by your actions?"

"Oh, what, now that I actually know what I want to do with my life, you want me to go back to unloading trucks and stocking shelves? Because you'd rather I stayed miserable than pull you out of your stupid comfort zone?" Kasey spat bitterly. And then he spat again. He kept spitting and spitting, until a hand clamped his mouth shut, Danny's harsh reprimand snapping at him in the waspish voice of an old woman

Eyes flying open with a muffled yell, Kasey bolted upright, tasting something foul and familiar in his mouth. The knobby-knuckled hand clamping his jaw shut pulled away, and as he fought to calm himself and scrape the horrible taste off of his tongue, he saw three familiar faces in the room: Irene and Jin, both with stern looks of disapproval on their faces; and Anissa, arms folded across her chest, looking more concerned than anything.

"You know, young man, you're starting to piss me off," Irene snapped, dropping the purple-stained tongue depressor into the garbage can in the corner of the room. "I'd say 'welcome back,' but I'd really just like to go upside your fool head."

Annoyance and guilt wound together in Kasey's chest as he straightened himself up, gathering his wits and mumbling an apology. Idly, he noted that his head hurt far less than it had earlier, his face felt like it had been cleaned off, and he didn't feel as weak as before. And, if the disgusting medicine was the same as last time, the lingering remnants of his fever would drain away in due time. Whatever was in that stuff was ridiculously potent.

He also knew that if he told anyone in Castanet that he actually rarely ever got that sick, they'd think he was full of shit.

Slipping into one of the chairs by his bed, Anissa patted his hand, warm eyes studying him intently—for what, he wasn't quite sure, as he regarded her with curiosity. "Good to have you back with us." Despite her words, her smile was smaller than usual. "Well, I mean... not back here in the clinic, but—"

"Thanks," Kasey interrupted reassuringly, getting his hand squeezed in return. He nodded apologetically to her and Jin. "Umm, sorry if I interrupted your date or something..."

Anissa shook her head, her ponytail sliding back behind her shoulder with the motion—though Kasey couldn't help but notice slight bags under her eyes. "Oh, no, not at all! Actually, Irene was just showing me how to mix some medicine... including those herbs she just gave you a few minutes ago," she added, blushing a little. "Sorry if they tasted horrible..."

"That just means you mixed them right." Irene gave the young woman a brisk pat on the shoulder, fixing Kasey with a sharp, knowing stare. "They're not supposed to be like candy, you know. Good thing we had a few left over... feeling better, then?"

"A little, yeah..."

"Fever, nausea, dizziness, anything like that?" Jin continued, scribbling on his clipboard as Kasey gave his answers. He coughed slightly into his sleeve, and looked over the paper with a firm nod. "Very good, very good... now, I have a few other questions for you, if you'd like to answer them. But I think your visitors out in the lobby would like to hear, too. Would that be alright with you?"

With a puzzled nod, Kasey cocked his head to the side as Jin raised his voice a little, asking them to come in. He expected an annoyed-looking Owen, though his stomach dropped nonetheless as he watched the man enter—he faintly remembered the strange cart ride over, and the muddied voices as he was carried down the street to the clinic for the second time in less than a month. What he didn't expect, his stomach flipping a bit at the sight, was for Toby to trail in cautiously behind him. A strange expression marred his normally-serene face, something of an apologetic grimace.

Guilt? Kasey thought, feeling a fleeting rush of confusion and pity as Toby caught his eye. He quickly looked away with an embarrassed expression on his face, hanging out by the far corner of the room. No trace of his usual relaxed, carefree demeanor anywhere. Still, Kasey gave him a hesitant wave, which was halfheartedly returned after a moment.

A chair scraping off to his right jolted him back, and Kasey saw Owen pulling up a seat beside him, looking relieved, yet still clearly displeased with the whole ordeal. "Welcome back, man. You gonna be okay?"

Nodding, Kasey sat up a bit, giving him a grateful look. "Yeah... thanks for dragging me out of there. Uhh, Dale and Luke, too. Are they here?" he continued, pointlessly craning his neck as if the door to the lobby would swing back open and reveal them.

"Nah, they're back home, probably bitching at each other... anyway," Owen went on, crossing his arms sternly, "you're welcome, for starters. I'll pass the message on. But what the hell were you even doing there in the first place? Dude, there was caution tape up!"

"...That was actually what I was about to ask," Jin admitted, tucking his clipboard under one arm and adjusting his glasses. Behind him, Kasey saw Toby shrink back, looking conflicted and picking at the hem of his blue t-shirt, eyes nervously cast to the floor and bottom lip worried between his teeth. "Owen told me that earlier tonight, he informed you that the mines were unsafe... and even though you seem to be doing much better now, you may have inhaled dangerous gasses during your time in there, judging by the condition in which they found you."

Turning slightly pink, Owen scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "Okay, I didn't think to tell him about the gasses beforehand... but I really didn't think I had any reason to," he added, making Kasey feel a lot smaller all of a sudden. "'Course, I was kind of focused on making sure Chloe knew not to go back in there..."

Before Kasey could open his mouth to talk, Toby's voice cut in, sounding uncharacteristically meek:

"It, uhh... that's my fault, actually..."

Five pairs of eyes fixed on him, expressing surprise and confusion at his admission. Kasey, for his part, suddenly understood why Toby had been looking so remorseful, and shook his head in protest. "Toby, no—"

Jin held up a hand to silence him, walking over to Toby and leaning against the wall beside him, nudging him gently with his elbow. "Do you mind explaining?" he asked kindly, looking at Toby.

Rubbing the back of his neck, Toby looked up at the ceiling. "Well... he was looking for something, and... well, you all remember when my uncle dragged me out of the mines when I was a kid, right?" he asked, looking around the room. At the assortment of amused nods and small smiles, and at Anissa's slight giggle, he relaxed the tiniest bit. "I thought I remembered seeing something in there that... kind of fit what he was looking for. I didn't stop to think about how dangerous it was, though," he added apologetically, looking right at Kasey as his voice went softer than normal. Jin gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. "Sorry... that was really reckless of me."

Kasey shook his head, smiling ruefully. "Hey, I was the one who decided to go in there in the first place. Which, yeah, it—Owen's right, it was pretty stupid of me. No apology needed, man." The smile was gratefully returned.

"Why, though?" Anissa pressed, with a quizzical tilt of her head. "What in the world could you have been looking for in the mines, anyway?"

"Especially with how dangerous they were?" Owen scratched his stubbly jawline in confusion. "I mean, you didn't have a hammer or pickaxe or anything, that I saw, so I'm guessing you weren't there for the shiny stuff... and then there was that weird-ass music we heard when we found you. You get how weird this all looks to the rest of us, right? Wanna help us make sense of this shit?"

Kasey slumped back against the wall, letting out a loud whoosh and eyeing the ceiling. His last conversation with Chase reeled through his mind on a sped-up loop, and upon catching Toby's eye once more, he received an encouraging nod. Folding his hands in his lap, he tried to work out the best way to explain it all to them.

"Well... I..." He gestured needlessly, hand whirling around in a loop as if to crank his brain up. "It—I was looking for something that... that I thought could help this place out..."

"Help us out?" Irene interjected brusquely. "You mean, Castanet? Not that we don't appreciate the gesture, but what exactly do you think you could have done for us? I don't know if anyone told you, but we do have to rely on outside aid right now..."

Kasey shook his head once more, defensively waving his hands. "No, I know that—Anissa and Renee told me a couple weeks back... but there's something more going on here. It... I don't know how to really explain it," he admitted with a helpless shrug. "But—well... you've seen that tomb in the mines, right?" On that question, he turned to look at Owen. When Owen's eyebrows knit, Kasey elaborated: "With that bell post?"

"Oh! Oh, yeah!" Snapping his fingers in realization, Owen let out a thoughtful hum. "That thing—didn't realize it was a tomb. Phoebe wants to bring some big-shot archaeologist over to investigate that place, actually. Says there's probably some really priceless artifacts in there... is that what was making all that weird racket earlier, some bell? Must've been one hell of a bell..."

When Kasey nodded, Toby's expression brightened up somewhat. "Oh, Mr. Travers and I heard that music, too! It was pretty catchy. Did you find the bell?"

Unable to keep himself from smiling back, Kasey nodded again, a little more enthusiastically. "Yeah, it was by Mira's house—"

"That's why you were lurking around there like a weirdo earlier!" Owen interrupted, realization dawning on his face, as Kasey's cheeks heated up. "Geez, you were creeping people out..."

"Was that why my mom saw you by the carpenter's that one night?" Anissa wondered aloud, putting a finger to her chin in consternation. "I thought she was just imagining things..."

Now, all eyes were back on a very uncomfortable Kasey, though Toby was shooting him an apologetic glance once more. Hands twisting at his bedsheets, Kasey hunched his shoulders. "W-well... look, it—it's a long story, but... yeah. I... uhh, well, I-I learned that those bells... there's five of them, I think... so, well—ringing them is apparently supposed to help this place out..." In the back of his mind, he wondered if it wasn't too late for his parents to get a refund from his speech therapist. He hoped nobody needed him to repeat himself.

"And you're certain that they're supposed to help?" Irene pressed with an intense stare, looking torn between hope and skepticism. "Look, I don't know about everyone else here, but I've accepted that whatever's wrong with Castanet certainly can't be natural, even if it doesn't make much sense to me. But that little incident in the mines could've killed you, after all. You're very lucky the boys found you."

"Well, we really don't have much else to go on right now," Jin reminded her, shrugging. "Of course," he continued, glancing at Kasey, "I do agree that it all seems very dangerous. Especially since it sounds like there are apparently... supernatural elements involved in this." He shook his head in disbelief at what he'd just voiced. "Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

"I... uhh... well, no," Kasey admitted defeatedly, resting the back of his head against the wall and scowling. "I just... I just found the bell, and... it—well, I kind of just... worked out where to go from there... and then it just started ringing when I put it back on its post..."

A long silence followed his account, during which Owen sang "Creeee-pyyy" under his breath, shooting Kasey a sidelong look. Something about the whole account seemed incomplete, but he was too confused by everything else to pursue the subject further.

"That explains why it got so hot out all of a sudden," Toby mused, hands stuffed in the pockets of his shorts.

Looking nonplussed, Owen turned his gaze on Toby. "Uhh, I know you were away for a few weeks, but it's been pretty hot here for... like, ever."

Humming in agreement, Toby took his hands out and made a sweeping gesture of sorts with his arms. "Oh, I know—but, I mean, when that strange ringing started up... it was kind of like a burst of hot air blasted from the direction of the mining district. Like opening an oven, or a furnace, or something. You didn't feel it?" he finished curiously, glancing all around to see heads shaking. "Huh... I know Mr. Travers and Kathy noticed it... maybe because we were all outside?"

Rubbing his chin, Owen mumbled thoughtfully, "Come to think of it, the mines were a lot cooler when we went in to investigate. And some of the lanterns were working again..."

"Still hot as Hell out there, though." Arms crossed tightly, Irene wrinkled her nose a bit. "Well, baby steps, I guess... at least we can all go cool off in the lousy mines. Not my first choice."

"Where on Earth did you learn about all of this, anyway?" Jin asked, looking impressed. "Perry would've said something if he'd known anything about this... he's studied Castanet more than pretty much anyone here."

"Just... some weird dreams I've been having recently," Kasey answered uncertainly, not wanting to implicate Wizard any more than he had to. No need to have the man get swarmed with questions from all sides. And the path to Sephia's ruins gave him too much of a headache to bother trying to explain to any of them. Even Toby, who seemed to be more ready to accept things than the rest of them. "I just—I didn't want to... get anyone's hopes up by saying anything before I could investigate, or—"

"—Make anyone think you were nuts?" Owen offered with a small smirk, still looking somewhat befuddled.

"...Well... yeah."

"Well, no offense, Kasey, but..." Owen shrugged.

Kasey blew out a huff of air and nodded. "I know."

Mouth pressing into a thin line, Anissa squeezed Kasey's hand again. "Has Chase still been on your back recently about all of that?"

"Mmm-mmm. He kind of... pulled it out of me, but he also sorta knows what's going on," he assured her, though he still felt slightly grateful. Nonetheless, his stomach couldn't help but turn with a bit of discomfort—Toby and Chase knowing what was going on hadn't been too bad. Now, with four more people in the loop... and possibly more to join... well, it was just more pressure added on. He'd have to deal.

One down, four to go, he thought resignedly, wondering if he was imagining the sudden weight on his shoulders.

Owen was the first to throw his hat into the ring: "Well... you know what? If it'll put an end to this crazy bullshit, I'll help out however I can! Especially if it keeps me from having to save your ass again," he continued, locking eyes with a scowling Kasey.

"Same here," Jin agreed, Irene following suit with a prim nod. "I don't know how much help we can be, but of course we'll do what we can to fix this... mess."

"And do not keep this sort of thing a secret from us again," Irene added strictly, jabbing her index finger in Kasey's direction. "If you learn anything else that can help us out, or anything that might be a danger to us, you tell us."

"Seriously," Owen agreed, "this could've ended way differently if we hadn't found you, dude."

Anissa gave Kasey a supportive smile, rubbing his shoulder. "Remember what we've been telling you about how we help each other out here?"

Chuckling sheepishly, Kasey nodded. "Y-yeah... I guess I keep forgetting about that..." Scratching the back of his head, he fixed his eyes on a small crack in the ceiling. "Well... I... I'll keep doing what I can, too... thanks," he added, glancing around at the others in the room, who hummed and nodded in assent. "Guess there's no avoiding everyone knowing by now, huh?"

"It's a small town. People talk. I know I certainly do," Irene admitted glibly.

"They really should know, don't you think?" Jin pointed out. "The more people who know what's going on, the more likely it is that one of them knows or finds something that can help. Maybe this is just the push we need to get things back on track. I can ask around about those bells, if you'd like."

With the others quickly pitching in their agreement, it was settled—Owen, promising to ask around Garmon, bade everyone goodnight and left, citing it being his night to tuck Chloe in. Irene was next, excusing herself to read a letter Julius had brought back for her from Oak Tree Town.

"Marian writes novels, and he always has a lot of questions for me, so I'd better get started now," she griped shortly, bustling out and grumbling under her breath about her lost reading glasses.

Lingering by the door to the lobby with Anissa, Jin turned around. "I hope you don't mind if we keep you here overnight again." At Kasey's agreement, Jin smiled. "Great—I don't think we have anything to worry about, but I just want to be certain before I send you on your way. I'll be back shortly, but let me know if you need anything."

"Actually," Anissa added, Jin halting his exit as she spoke, "I think I remember seeing something like a bell post near my house before... it's pretty overgrown, though, so I haven't been to that place in a while. So let me just make sure—I can ask my mother about it."

Kasey's eyes lit up. "Really? That'd be awesome, Anissa—thank you!"

"Of course... and see you later, Toby!"

As the couple disappeared into the lobby, Kasey and Toby were left alone in the room, an awkward silence buzzing around them. Despite Kasey's earlier reassurances, Toby was once more hanging back by the wall, looking uncertain.

"Hey." Turning and swinging his legs over the side of the bed, Kasey nudged a nearby chair with his foot. "You... you doing okay?"

"Err... yeah, I guess... you?" Toby returned, taking the invitation and hesitantly sitting down by Kasey, hands folded in his lap. Kasey couldn't help but notice he kept wringing his fingers, and was once more reluctant to make direct eye contact.

Shrugging, he gave Toby a small smirk. "Well... I-I'm a little nervous now that everyone's gonna know what's going on, but... but, hey, one bell down!" When Toby gave a quiet laugh, but didn't say anything more, Kasey sighed. "Look, Toby... I wasn't just trying to keep the peace or anything earlier, okay? I'm seriously not upset with you."

Looking a bit cheered up, Toby smiled. "Hmm? You're sure?"

In response, Kasey pulled Toby into a one-armed hug and patted him on the shoulder. "Yeah! Besides, your information was a pretty big help, you know."

"Oh—well... glad to hear it," Toby said happily, returning the side-hug and rubbing Kasey's arm. A bit of warmth settled in Kasey's chest before they broke apart. "Glad you're okay, too... I was on my way home when Kathy and I saw Jin and Owen carrying you in here, and I kind of freaked a bit." He chuckled self-consciously at the admission, shrugging. "Guess I can be a bit of a worrywart."

"W-well... I can actually be a little reckless, believe it or not," Kasey admitted, cheeks warming with slight embarrassment. "I almost think the Huangs want to keep me here tonight so they can chain me to the bed while I'm asleep."

"Hmmm. Uncle Ozzie used to threaten to do that to me all the time to keep me from wandering around." A nostalgic grin settled on Toby's face. "I told him I'd just chew through the restraints."

Shaking his head in amusement, Kasey clucked his tongue. "Wow. See, I was actually a pretty well-behaved kid, according to my parents. Just really, really, really quiet. Worried the hell out of them, but they couldn't complain about my manners... I think they had me babysit my sisters so much because they wanted their troublemaking to rub off on me a little, or loosen me up a bit or something. Guess it kinda worked a little, too," he added with a soft, "huh."

Toby nodded, raising his eyebrows. "Kind of sounds like Paolo... well, he's not shy at all, but he's been causing Uncle Ozzie a lot less grief than I did at his age. Owen's asked me a few times if I wanted to trade him out for Chloe."

After sharing a quick laugh at the mental image, Kasey rolled his shoulders and yawned, covering his mouth and shuddering. "Ahhh, crap... sorry. Guess today's just kind of catching up to me just now..."

"Oh, no, it's fine... I should probably get heading home now, actually." Toby's voice was quiet as he glanced at the clock on the wall across from Kasey's bed. "Well, if you don't mind, that is—"

"I don't wanna keep you," Kasey assured him, giving an understanding nod. "I'll see you around, alright?"

Finally fully at ease once more, Toby held up a hand. "Of course. Err... high-five?" he offered, when Kasey looked at his hand in confusion. "One down, right?"

"Oh!" Feeling himself grin, Kasey high-fived him. "One down," he agreed happily, before another thought suddenly struck him. "Hey—by the way, I dunno when you want me to drop it off, but... uhh, I think you left a fishing pole at my house that one day you were over."

Pausing halfway through standing up, Toby narrowed his eyes thoughtfully for a brief moment, before giving himself a light smack on the forehead. "Oh, that! Boy... I really need to get better about doing that so much... actually, you know—I have plenty of fishing rods at home, if you'd like to keep that one. You're trying to help us," he insisted, when Kasey began to protest. "It's the least I can do."

"...Well... okay, sure!" Kasey was beaming. Even though he'd never been much of a fisherman, he certainly didn't mind trying it out again. "Thank you, Toby! You're really sure it's okay?" he added uncertainly, as Toby waved and made to leave.

"Yep! Maybe when things get a little better around here, I can teach you how to fish sometime, too." Seeing the pleased look on Kasey's face sealed it, and he gave a slight bow. "Well... take care, okay? 'Night, Kasey."

"'Night, man!"

Watching Toby exit, Kasey eventually settled back into his bed with tendrils of warmth curling in his chest, fluffing up his pillows and smiling at the ceiling as he heard Jin and Anissa saying their goodnights as well. Part of him was still brimming with his usual amount of anxiety, the pressure from pulling everyone else into the whole ordeal sending his thoughts racing. Still, he couldn't help but feel a bit more content and confident, at the same time, with a light clicking on at the end of the tunnel.

All he could do was work with everyone to figure out their next move.

Chapter Text

"...So break out those umbrellas, Mineral Town! On the plus side, that beautiful spring weather will finally arrive in the wake of the storms, with highs starting to creep into the upper 60s on average—you can get those picnic baskets ready for when everything's dry again!"

The familiar face of Elli was absent from the local weather forecast that Monday morning, though the equally-sweet and brown-haired Lillie Sauveterre was more than up to the task, blue eyes shining with professional confidence while she covered the warm front sweeping across the southeastern region.

Half-listening as Lillie congratulated Elli for her recent marriage and segued neatly into the five-day forecast, Eric Chase's trademark scowl only deepened. He surveyed his burnt omelet with confusion, shutting off the burner and poking at the crispy lump with his spatula. An annoyed whine squeezed out of his throat—same temperature, same cooking time as always, and it was a stupid omelet... so what on earth...? Vaguely, he wondered if it somehow had anything to do the events that Toby had called about last night—once again, Manatos's half-dead ass had been dragged to the clinic, this time following some funny business in the mines.

Still, Chase had to admit, he had a little respect for the crazy doofus's pluck.

"Son of a bitch," he sighed to nobody in particular, rolling his eyes as he dumped the mess into his trash can and made for his emergency box of Froot Loops—he'd just have to ask Barbara to take a look at his stove later. Hell, maybe Maya just up and died sometime in the last twelve or so hours—Probably from eating her own cooking, ashes to ashes and all that jazz—and now he was being possessed by her vengeful spirit, making him susceptible to fucking up simple recipes he'd mastered ages ago.

Just as he was about to add the milk to his bowl of pure sugar and chow down, a polite knock on the door interrupted him, causing him to stifle a groan and set the carton on the counter. "Yeah?"

"It's Mrs. Sellers, sweetie!" Chase sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose when he heard Ruth's voice drip from the other side of the door. "Is this a bad time? I just need to borrow some flour, if you have any."

"It's fine, just gimme a minute!" Stuffing the milk back into the fridge, Chase muted Lillie's peppy voice, plodding over to the door with a sigh, and a bag of flour in hand. On the other side stood Ruth Sellers and her measuring cup, pinched face done up with the same unnerving sunniness she'd suddenly started displaying over the past few days—in spite of the recent, constant bitch-fests Chase had been overhearing from Marimba Farm in the past few months, most culminating with either Anissa or Craig storming off for who-knows-where. As he wondered where the constantly-fretting woman had recently gotten her eerie cheer, his mind couldn't help but turn to the fact that the store stocked cucumbers.

Oh, god. Ew.

Expertly suppressing a shudder and knocking the disturbing mental image from his mind, Chase gave her a small smile and a curt nod, holding out the open bag. "Hey, Ruth. Here you go." Idly, as he took note of the usual blast of mugginess smacking him in the face, he couldn't help but notice that there was something... rather off.

With a gracious nod, Ruth measured the flour out carefully, digging into the pocket of her floral-print nightgown and pressing a bit of money into Chase's free hand. "Oh, thank you, sweetie—here you go, that should cover a new bag for you. Burned my damn pancakes this morning, of all things..."

As Chase was about to cut off her chit-chat and excuse himself to his breakfast, he frowned at her words. "Huh, you burnt your food, too? That sucks..."

Chase's words took a moment to sink in, leaving Ruth nonplussed. "Too? You mean you... oh, really? Never thought I'd see the day!" Missing Chase's baffled nod, she tittered, giving him a sympathetic pat on the arm. "Well, I guess even you blow it sometimes, huh?"

As he shrugged and began to reply, Chase was cut off by the sound of the Sellers' dining room window sliding open with a creaky racket. Craig poked his sleepy, grouchy face out at them, scratching at his scraggly blonde stubble. "Shit's sake, woman! Didja have to grind the goddamn wheat first or somethin'? While we're still in our forties, please!"

"Oh, go drink your coffee, you pissy old lush!" Ruth snapped over her shoulder, a few strands of dark hair escaping her lank bun with the motion. Letting out a loud huff as she turned back around, she rolled her eyes and shot Chase a strained, guilty smile. "Thank you again, sweetie. Sorry to bother you at this hour."

Chase waved the apology off, right hand resting on his doorknob as he made to discreetly scoot back inside. "Ehh... don't worry about it. Well, see ya around."

With a polite nod, Ruth placed her free hand protectively over the top of the cup of flour and scurried back home, returning her husband's nagging almost immediately as she nudged the screen door open and slipped inside.

Shaking his head as he overheard the pair bitch and snipe, Chase momentarily halted his retreat, leaning against the door frame with the open bag of flour under his arm, and regarding the sky with a curious frown.

Definitely something...

His attention was diverted by movement near the corner of his eye—Anissa, in a far-too-obvious attempt to look casual, making her way back home from who-knew-where. Chase had a pretty good idea where Point A was, having seen the same scene play out a few other mornings before—at least this time, her blouse appeared to be buttoned properly. Still, while he retreated back to the cool indoors with a chuckle, a small detail stayed lodged in the back of his mind:

The cicadas had finally shut up.

------------------------

Throughout the rest of Castanet that morning, similar observations were being made: Hanna shot up with a start on the couch, startling her husband, when her teakettle began shrieking for her attention much earlier than usual; at the Cymbal Blacksmith, Ramsey Bartlett hissed and jerked the poker away from the sweltering forge as an ember popped out, singeing the hair on his arm; and Kathy Sullivan noted, as she stepped outside the Brass Bar to clean the smudged and scratched-up windows, that the still-hot spring morning felt almost... bearable again, for the first time in a long time.

"...Here's hoping," she mused with a slight frown, which quickly gave way to a small, hopeful smile. Beginning to hum a cheerful song, she turned her attention back to spraying and wiping.

Each new discovery of the strange, sudden changes quickly sent an intrigued ripple throughout the residents, as a few neighbors approached them with odd questions—questions about things they'd never thought upon, or hadn't given consideration in ages. Questions that alternately sparked hope, or further skepticism, but mostly gave way to disappointing or repeated answers.

"...But, don't worry, Kase! He's gonna keep looking—we all will!"

That afternoon found a small group of friends stuffed into Kasey's cramped little farmhouse at his suggestion, discussing the events of the past few days as they devoured their lunches at varying speeds. Chase and Renee were slumped on opposite ends of the lumpy couch, half-watching a muted, trashy pulp flick on Kasey's television, while Toby, Anissa, and Kasey were clustered at the small dining room table, with barely any room to rest their arms around the tight arrangement of plates and drinking glasses.

With a quick nod and a grateful smile at Renee's words, Kasey pushed his sandwich aside and scribbled a series of question marks by the word "GREEN," next to his horribly-drawn windmill. By Garmon Mines, the bell was crossed out, with Done! THAT TOTALLY SUCKED written in large letters above it.

"Okay, thanks, Renee! Alright... so... Toby told me about the blue bell—" He pointed the pen in Toby's direction, earning a happy nod and a "Yup, yup" as he peered curiously at Kasey's map, chuckling when he spotted his name by the Garmon Mines and getting a sheepish grin in return, "—aaaaand I've gotta get permission from the Mayor to go in there, so I'll check that out later... and then Chase told me about the yellow one up in the church," Kasey finished, finally jabbing his pen at the couch.

Chase's head popped up over the back of the couch, swallowing his mouthful of chips as he glanced at the upside-down trio. "That about covers it. And I've already asked Julius, in case anyone else was planning to. He didn't have any clue what I was talking about, but he did offer to fetch me some special shampoo for my split ends, if you guys want any. Courtesy of Dr. DuBois in Oak Tree, too, so this shit is super-legit." Rolling his eyes as Toby and Renee snorted loudly, he twisted around on the couch so that he was fully facing the table now, with his long legs drawn up beneath him. "Seriously, you should've just hit the church first. Probably would've spared you another doctor's bill, unless Perry wanted to fight you before you could ring it, or something."

"...Yeah, okay, good point..."

Cheek propped up on his fist, Toby perked up, cocking his head to the side. "Huh. Why didn't I think to do that? I live right in town, after all..."

"Think to do what, fight Perry?" Renee quipped, cracking a smile and earning a fist-bump from an amazed Chase.

"Oh my god, I would pay so much to see that. Sorry, Tobes," he added, as Toby laughed awkwardly, scratching the back of his head.

"Yeeeeeah, I think you'd want a refund for that match..."

"I'm sure it's fine, Toby. Chase sounds like he'd rather handle it himself," Anissa said sweetly. Her responses were a frown and a loud raspberry in return from Chase, and Renee snickering.

"Orrrrr, you could've checked on it on your way home from the clinic this morning," Chase shot back with a smirk, his words turning three more pairs of eyes onto Anissa—whose expression was now unreadable, even as her nose and cheeks tinged a telltale pink.

"Don't be silly," she responded smoothly, sweeping her braid off of her shoulder. "Kasey and Toby saw me leave Jin's last night, didn't you, guys?"

"Hmm... you know, I wasn't paying attention, actually..."

"Well, I thought you were leaving, yeah..."

As Anissa sighed and rubbed her temples, Chase snorted. "Yeah, okay. Jin's. Relax, your folks probably thought you were at Renee's again, anyway. Right?"

Renee once again tore her gaze away from the gratuitously violent explosions taking place on Kasey's TV and grinned wordlessly at her now-exasperated best friend, while Toby and Kasey exchanged amused looks and shook their heads.

Turning her attention back to the map as her face burned, Anissa cleared her throat and pointed to where Kasey had doodled Marimba Farm—right next to Chase's house, which now had horns and a pointy little tail drawn on it. "Anyway, my mother showed me earlier—we do have a bell post, at this little cluster of trees a little ways down from our farm... it's really overgrown, since we haven't used it in a while, but we were able to find it under all of that. We should really mow back there," she continued thoughtfully, more to herself.

Tired, dark eyes lighting up, Kasey tucked a stray lock of hair behind his ear and began to write once more—only for Anissa's next words to halt his progress:

"...But the post is empty, and it's not in fantastic shape... I'm sorry!" she added quickly, seeing him slump a bit. "I'm afraid she's not sure what happened to it. She thinks maybe it was blown away during a storm at some point, or maybe Taylor hid it. She's going to ask him when she calls my aunt's tonight. She pretty much just works in the store unless either my father or I are sick, and... well, my father probably wouldn't know either, since he can be a bit—" She scowled as Chase grabbed his half-empty glass of orange juice and pretended to knock it back, "—absent-minded..."

Kicking at Chase's feet and receiving a dismissive wave for her troubles, Renee rolled her eyes and turned around much like he had, resting her arms and chin on the back of the couch. "But, hey, look at it this way—you've got that one bell already taken care of, and we still have those other two practically right in our own backyard!"

Kasey allowed himself a nod and a small smile, with arrows pointing to the two bell posts in Flute Fields—M.I.A. (We're on it!) "Right! Yeah, you're right... I think I'll check in on those bells in town later. I've gotta return one of Perry's books, anyway..."

"That thing?" Toby queried, pointing at the familiar, massive tome resting on Kasey's bed, and receiving a wary nod in response—Composing Castanet sat defiantly, as if daring anyone else in the room to take it on. Toby's eyes widened slightly. "Wow... you must read really fast..."

"I read non-stop," Kasey corrected with a wry grin, and at those words, the others couldn't help but suddenly take notice of faint circles under his eyes. "But I'm used to it and I can read pretty fast when I really focus, so it actually didn't take too long—seven hundred pages. And I got... a very detailed history of this place."

Renee tilted her head curiously atop her folded arms, eyes wide. "Sheesh! Seven hundred?! How detailed are we talking here?"

"...Like, 'the fourth mayor of Castanet bred miniature poodles' detailed." As Renee's jaw dropped in amused shock, Kasey shrugged wryly. "Yeah. And they knew the name of his favorite one, too."

"You're serious?" Anissa muttered, brow furrowed in utter disbelief as Kasey nodded. "...Wow. That's certainly... specific."

"No kidding... and you know what else? Seven hundred pages, and they bring up the bells... but you guys were the first I heard about where any of them were located."

Renee shook her head, tutting loudly. "...Geeeeeez. We can see the windmill from our living room window! Good for the poodle peddler getting his fifteen minutes, though..."

"That actually sounds kind of fun," Toby mused, now eyeing the massive book with intrigue. "I mean, the book, not the part about breeding poodles. I'm not a fan of their haircuts... I kind of want to read it now. Do you think Perry would mind if I borrowed it next?"

Kasey shrugged, swallowing the remainder of his sandwich hastily and draining his glass of water. "Mmmm... I don't see why not. He seemed pretty giddy that anyone wanted to read about Castanet's history at all... I can let him know you've got it when I stop by town."

"Speaking of stopping by," Chase started, snatching the remote away from a frowning Renee as she aimlessly channel-surfed, "I should probably get moving in a sec—Barbara's got my new juicer in, and then she was gonna stop by and see if my stove needed fixing or something."

Eyes half-fixed on the cheesy daytime soap Chase had settled at, Anissa nodded. "Oh, right! My mother said you burned your food this morning, too..."

"You guys, too?" Toby asked, eyebrows raised in surprise as he put his own emptied glass of milk down. He licked off the small mustache left behind on his upper lip. "Huh... strange. And poor Uncle Ozzie, he was really looking forward to his bacon."

Twisting back around, Renee chimed in, staring pointedly at Kasey: "Yeah, and my mom said our teakettle went off wayyyy earlier than it has been lately. Scared the daylights out of her!"

Everyone else turned to Kasey, who suddenly hunched his shoulders and grinned sheepishly. "Ahhh... I just toasted some frozen waffles... they turned out alright. But it is pretty weird," he added, after Renee rolled her eyes good-naturedly, and Chase clapped a hand over his face. "Way too much to be a coincidence..."

Everyone nodded in quiet assent, each mulling over the implications of this new development—before Chase excused himself, resignedly handing the remote back to Renee.

"Well, it's getting late, so I'd better make sure Barbara doesn't zip off to re-upholster everyone's furniture or something while it's slow... see you guys around. I'll keep an eye out for those other two bells, too." Standing up and stretching, before rinsing his dishes off in the sink, he nodded towards the group at the table. "Thanks for the grub, Manatos."

"You know, he does have a first name," Renee called after Chase as he headed for the door, waving dismissively.

"What? It's fun to say."

And he was gone, leaving Toby curiously testing Chase's claim out for himself:

"Manatos. MmmmmMAN-ah-toss... Mmmmaaaaannnn-ahhhhhh-tossssss... huh. What do you know?"

Kasey, Anissa, and Renee all stared at him with varying levels of befuddlement and amusement, prompting a defensive shrug.

"Well, he wasn't wrong..."

Watching Kasey scratch the back of his neck and let out a sheepish chuckle, Renee giggled, eyes sparkling mischievously. "Yeah, it kinda sounds like the name of a high-tech catapult, now that I'm really hearing it... yeah, the Man-a-Toss 3000! Quick travel made easy!" In spite of his embarrassment, Kasey let out a snort of laughter at this.

"Sounds a little dangerous," Anissa observed, smiling genially at Kasey and patting his wrist as she rose from the table to wash off her own plate and glass. "Well, I hate to have to leave already, but I promised my mother I'd take care of dinner tonight, so I'd better go get started. Thank you very much for having us over, and for the food. I'll let you know if we find anything out!" She pulled Kasey into a brief hug, then Toby, then Renee. "Oh, and if you'd like—your cabbage looks like it'll be ready for harvest soon, if you'd like me to stop by Wednesday morning to help with that. And maybe we can actually ship out those turnips, too, and not just the greens."

Eyes lighting up once more, Kasey nodded happily. There weren't many, but they'd ship for more than the turnip greens had. And probably the turnips themselves, too. "That'd be great—thank you!"

Anissa left with a wave and a small smile. After he'd helped Renee and Kasey with the remaining clean-up, Toby was next, having to tend to a promised grocery run at Horn Ranch and Marimba Farm.

"Hey—Toby! Book!" Renee called out abruptly, waving him back as he paused in the doorway and blinked.

"B... ah, right! Heh... whoops." Heading over to Kasey's bed to retrieve it, he clutched the massive tome under one arm and gave a slight bow. "Thanks, Renee... oh!" Suddenly snapping with his free hand and saying nothing else, he padded over to Kasey's ajar closet door, peering inside nonchalantly. Once again, confused looks were directed his way as he turned back around.

"Errr... you forget something else?" Kasey's voice was hesitant, face warming a bit—he hoped Toby didn't spot anything embarrassing.

Toby responded with a contrite shake of his head. "Oh, no—I'm sorry, I should've asked first... I was just curious which fishing rod it was that I left here last week."

Kasey nodded slowly—his face was still warm. "Ah... uhh, got it."

"Oh, here we are—hmmm, pretty nice."

Padding over to the closet as well, Renee craned her neck in for a look, ignoring Kasey's mortified squeak and frantic mutter of, "Uhh, guys? I... I keep my laundry hamper in there..."

"Yeah, we saw," Renee called back offhandedly. "Relax, we're not eyeing up your drawers... Huh, I thought that one looked familiar!" she added over her shoulder at a still-blushing Kasey, shooting him a teasing smile. "You little kleptomaniac!"

"Y...you're still talking about the fishing pole... r-right?"

Snorting, Renee nodded. "Well, yeah, what else? Actually, you know what—don't answer that. Not sure I wanna know." She poked her head back into the little closet, emitting a pleased hum as Toby leaned against the wall and shrugged apologetically. He and Kasey exchanged rueful smiles as Renee continued: "You kept a good one, too! I used to have one like this... I think I still might have it somewhere, actually... I'll have to look..."

Toby nodded. "Well, let us know if you find it—we can all go fishing together sometime. Sound fun?" he added to Kasey, who responded with an enthusiastic nod. "Alright—we can play it by ear, then. Well, I'll see you guys later!"

After giving them each a hug before leaving, and thanking a rather pleased Kasey as well, Toby departed. Kasey and Renee were now left behind, tidying up before preparing to head for Harmonica Town.

"Girls' night at the tailor's," Renee explained, clicking off Kasey's TV and fluffing the couch cushion she'd been leaning on earlier. "Ani usually comes along, too, when she has time—we like to cluster together and sob over a few chick flicks every now and then."

Opening the door and letting Renee exit first, Kasey smirked and shook his head. "Like that one about the prostitute, or that one where that one guy draws a naked woman on a ship?" He earned a playful punch on the shoulder for this as they set off down the path. "Hey, legitimate question!"

"Guys always remember that boob scene," Renee sighed in mock-exasperation, not noticing Kasey clear his throat and look away. "Nah, Luna doesn't like that movie—she hates that one song. We're just gonna start with Gone with the Wind and roll towards the 21st century from there."

Kasey looked nonplussed. "Start with? Isn't that movie like, eight hours long?"

Renee shook her head bemusedly. "Pfff! Eight... nah, it's just... a little over three-and-a-half, I think."

"Oh, well, just three-and-a-half hours, then..."

As the two approached the town, the sun starting to make its nightly journey to the other side of the world, Renee piped up again:

"Is it just me, or is it... kinda... almost nice out? I mean, compared to recently, not actually nice-nice," she elaborated, catching Kasey's eye as he nodded slowly.

"...Not even any cloud cover yet," he added, turning his gaze skyward and squinting thoughtfully. "I think that weather girl said we were supposed to have some soon, though. But, yeah... I mean, it's still pretty hot out—"

"—But not like you're gonna collapse and die just walking outside to check your mail," Renee finished, hands stuffed into the pockets of her white cutoffs as they crossed over the bridge into town—a few lights had already clicked on in some of the buildings, the yellow glow faint against the clear, amber-tinged sky. "It... almost feels, I dunno..."

"Not like Hell?" Kasey offered, drawing a laugh from her.

"Exactly! Like a really cruddy summer day. I can't believe I'm saying that as a positive... I hate summer!"

"It kinda is a positive, if it keeps improving like this..."

The two came to a stop at the small intersection by Town Hall's clock tower, Kasey waving to the Kozlowski sisters—Candace waved back timidly, while Luna acknowledged him briefly, before frantically beckoning Renee over. "C'mon! Grandma's got the popcorn ready, and you know damn well that stuff doesn't last long around her!"

"Ask her if she takes bribes!" Renee called back, indicating for them to wait. Turning back to Kasey, she shrugged. "Well, I'll catch you later—so, you're gonna see Perry about that bell up in the tower, right?"

"That's the plan so far," he agreed, hands stuffed into his own jeans pockets as he looked towards the church, its lights gentle and welcoming up on the hilltop. "I'll just check on the other one tomorrow... I think if Irene or Jin saw me heading towards another cave at night, they'd chain me up and seal me in my barn or something."

"Or, they'd load you into the Man-a-Toss 3000 and hurl you into the sea!" Renee countered, sharing a grin with him as he shook his head and sighed. "Well, I've gotta go before all the popcorn's gone—Luna wasn't kidding about that part. Let me know how things go, alright?"

"Right!"

Kasey watched for a moment as Renee jogged away and disappeared into Sonata Tailoring, before making his way up to Celesta Church.

"...have to check in on that later, myself..."

The church doors slightly ajar as he approached, Kasey heard snatches of conversation slipping out into the sultry air—the prim enunciation immediately gave the voice away as Gill Hamilton's. The voices faltered briefly as the door creaked open, Kasey poking his head inside with an apologetic smile. Perry waved to him from his spot behind the altar, and Gill acknowledged him from his pew with a curt nod.

"Umm... sorry, guys. I—I hope this isn't a bad time..."

"Oh, not at all, Mr. Manatos!" Perry assured him, beckoning him forward. "Never a bad time, no worries."

"This is actually a very convenient time, as luck would have it," Gill agreed, voice all business as he smoothed back his neatly-styled platinum blond hair. "You see, we were just discussing you, Kasey. Come, sit."

A bit intimidated by Gill's authoritative tone, despite being a few years older than him, Kasey shuffled up to the pew across from the Mayor's son, plopping down in it and sitting at an angle. "Ahhh... h-hey, Gill. Pastor Whitman," he added with a quick nod to Perry, who smiled and waved again. "You, uh... you guys were... talking about me?" he repeated, eyebrows raised in confusion even though he had a fair idea of what this was all about.

Perry shrugged. "Well, nothing bad! Just that little... incident from the other night. Well, and it's sparked a bit of chatter around the town, you understand..."

"I take lunch with Jin sometimes," Gill explained, legs crossed and one arm draped over the back of the pew. The casual posture looked at odds with his stuffy polo shirt, plaid sweater vest, and neatly-creased khakis. Between him and Perry, both looking so put-together, Kasey suddenly felt like a complete slob in his ripped, dirt-smeared jeans and sweat-stained white t-shirt. "Like today—I asked after you, and he said you were doing fine—aside from your propensity for trouble." As Kasey looked away and cleared his throat guiltily, Gill smirked. "I asked, what were you even doing in such a place to begin with? He simply relayed the same information to me that you relayed to him—about ringing bells, helping us out?"

"Yeah, that—err, sorry I didn't say anything to you earlier, too," Kasey added, glancing at Perry, who waved it off immediately.

"Well, you meant well—don't worry! Have those books been of any help yet?" he added hopefully, cocking his head.

Kasey shrugged. "Weeeell... I learned some stuff from it, yeah. I'm probably gonna start in on The Life of Castanet tonight... oh! And Toby wanted to borrow Composing Castanet, if that's alright. He thought it sounded pretty cool."

As Perry nodded cheerfully, Gill glanced over at him. "I think we can infer from his dodging that the first book wasn't any help..."

Okay, Prissy Chase, Kasey thought, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. "Well, it—it was interesting!"

Gill took the eye-rolling upon himself, throwing in a soft groan for good measure, before fixing Kasey once more with his cool blue stare. "It won't destroy him if you say it was unhelpful, you know."

"It is a bit rich with fluff for a purported history book," Perry admitted, leaning on the altar and propping his head on his palm. "But it is pretty fun, too—I have to agree with Mr. Nishimura on that."

"Yes, but this conversation's getting a bit... 'rich with fluff,' as well—" Here, Gill's fingers curled into air quotes, "—so, perhaps we should get back on track?"

Illegitimate brother. That's gotta be it. Kasey nodded, legs beginning to swing back and forth, hands folded in his lap. "Actually, I was coming here to ask Perry about... well, you know, all that stuff—bell stuff." Looking at the curious pastor, he clarified: "That bell up in the bell tower?"

"Oh!" Brightening up, Perry nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, yes! That thought had crossed my mind, too. So, you think that might be one of them, then?"

"I'm seriously hoping so," Kasey confirmed, standing up and dusting a bit of dirt off of his jeans. "Would it be alright if I tried it out?"

"Oh, absolutely! Yes, let me get the key—one moment... it's been so long since it's been rung, actually."

As he dug the key to the bell tower out from a compartment in the altar and headed to the door on the right-hand side of the pipe organ, Kasey and Gill followed behind him, the latter looking extremely skeptical. The door creaked loudly, sticking a little before Perry popped it open farther with his foot. "Sorry, gentlemen," he said contritely. "Like I mentioned, I don't believe this place has been visited in quite a while... possibly not since Father Chester left, if that."

"Previous priest; he left to teach in Leaf Valley. Bit of a nut," Gill explained to Kasey, getting a nod as Perry unlocked another door, this time leading to a rickety staircase.

Immediately, Kasey felt something odd about the little room just behind the pipe organ—the area outside the staircase was bare stone, worn wooden flooring, and a small, plain window set opposite the staircase. Still, he couldn't help but get a tight feeling in his stomach as they passed through the tiny room—a feeling of anxiety and dread that made the hair on his arms and the back of his neck stand up. It quickly faded as they ascended to the bell tower, mindful of every groan of the steps. Once again, the muggy night air enveloped them as they emerged into the dark belfry, Gill tugging uncomfortably at his sweater vest.

"Here we are!" Perry announced proudly, gesturing to the large, tarnished bell, resting high and weary upon its old frame in the fiery light of the sunset. "Hardly the bells of Notre Dame, but it's a lovely little thing, isn't it?"

Kasey nodded, approaching it and ducking just a bit as he made to stand under it—just high enough that the top of his head brushed against it, and just wide enough that he felt a little claustrophobic inside. Unlike Alan's bell, Kasey found he couldn't hear anything emitting from this one—and he didn't quite find himself missing the unsettling breathing or the strange melody looping through his mind, either. Grazing his head as he ducked back out and rubbing it, he noticed that his hair seemed to be sticking up everywhere. Futilely, he attempted to smooth it out before simply shrugging helplessly and looking back at the other two. Neither of them seemed to really care how shitty his hair looked. "So... just push, I guess, huh?"

"You can also pull that rope," Perry pointed out, indicating a short length of rope that was looped through a pulley, and down to the bell—not quite low enough for Gill or Perry to reach, but just enough for Kasey, if he stood on his tiptoes. Perry chuckled, crossing his arms as Kasey grasped the rope. "I'm afraid I just wasn't blessed with the height for it, myself. I guess if I gave it a jump, though."

The bell emitted a high, beautiful—albeit deafening—ring, the three young men flinching and stepping back as the sound reverberated through the open room, echoing across Harmonica Town and vibrating up to Garmon.

"I'd forgotten how noisy they can be up close!" Perry said loudly, hands clapped over his ears and eyes screwed shut.

Lowering his own hands as he stood back up straight, Gill winced and sighed in exasperation, looking out over the town—he could make out a few vague, darkened forms here-and-there, staring up at the church. "Well, the townsfolk are most likely extremely confused now..."

"Oh, I'll handle that... MY APOLOGIES, EVERYONE! THAT WAS JUST A TEST!" Perry suddenly shouted, cupping one hand around his mouth, and waving the other as Gill groaned again. "PLEASE, NO NEED TO BE ALARMED!"

"That'll do, Perry, thank you..." Pointlessly adjusting his hair once more, Gill turned to Kasey, hands stuffed in the pockets of his khakis and face impassive. "Well? Was that all?"

Screwing a pinky around in his ear and grimacing, Kasey opened one eye and glanced at Gill and Perry. "I... I don't know. It was... it was different last time, so..."

And I was pretty much unconscious, he didn't add aloud, as Gill raised an eyebrow impressively high.

"Oh? Different, you say?"

"Different," Kasey echoed, turning back to examine the bell thoughtfully. He felt his heart drop a little as he spoke, the implications almost immediately becoming clear to him: "It... well, the bell kind of started ringing itself when it was returned, and... it wasn't just one tone, either, like a normal bell would make. It was some kind of song... kept going on and on and on, too..." As their eyes widened slightly at his account, he tucked his hair back behind his ears again, wondering how to proceed next—Perry would probably explode if he outright said that the bell had been haunted by some long-deceased... whatsit, let alone that it had functioned as a sort of ghostly GPS. Not that it was out of the realm of possibility. Anything felt possible to Kasey at this point. A plague of frogs felt possible. Settling on being as vaguely accurate as he could, he went on: "Plus... there was this kind of... err... energy around it."

"Spiritual energy?" Perry offered, eyes shining with faint excitement as he received a shrug in reply.

"I... guess. Something like that. Like it was... aware or something." Oh, and it was possibly sentient.

Perry mouthed something quietly, wide-eyed with amazement, while Gill eyed Kasey with what appeared to be cool indifference.

"Aware?" Gill finally repeated, before turning to head back down the stairs, motioning for the others to follow.

Gingerly taking each creaky step, Kasey hummed in confirmation. "Yeah—like it was trying to... be found by someone, I guess. Mira kept playing its song over and over again on her piano, and it was right in that waterwheel by her house... I don't think she even realized it."

"Julius did say that she seemed to be stuck on one song for an unusually long time," Perry murmured thoughtfully, as they emerged from the staircase—once again, Kasey felt that strange sensation of anxiety and despondency tighten his chest and press on his lungs, half-wondering if it was just disappointment hitting him. He didn't notice Perry and Gill briefly start and shudder as well, but became vaguely aware of Perry going on, voice quiet now: "I never knew it was related to any of those bells, though. I just thought it was stemming from her grief—that the poor dear must've been reminiscing about a song that was very special to her and Mr. Jensen... from their wedding, or a first dance, perhaps..."

Face softening a little at these words as his own memories arose, Gill nodded in silent agreement, holding the door open to let the other two back into the sanctuary of the church proper. "Simon mentioned that she seemed a little more spirited after tea the other night. Julius's return seems to have buoyed her somewhat, as well. She's actually been eating a little of the food we've all been bringing her."

Perry's face lit up with the news, a slight glow on his cheeks. "Oh, really? That's wonderful to hear!"

Kasey nodded as well, thanking Gill as he crossed into the sanctuary, hands jammed back into his pockets. His shoulders were hunched once more. "Yeah, it is..."

As he slumped down into a pew and blew out a frustrated sigh, he felt Perry's hand pat his shoulder encouragingly. Shooting a tired, grateful smile up at the pastor, he sat up a bit straighter. "Thanks, Pastor Whitman... for letting me try out that bell, anyway. Sorry it didn't seem to work... I guess I should've known it'd be way too easy for it to just happen like that..."

Perry returned his smile with a shake of the head. "Nothing to apologize for at all, Mr. Manatos! That you're even taking action to help us at all, these people you've only just met, a land you've only just come to know... we should be thanking you! Many would've turned and left at the very sight of this place, you know. You returned that bell to the mines, after all!" Hands clasped before him, he added with complete sincerity: "In all honesty, this recent turn of events has only restrengthened my faith that everything will work out all right in the end, no matter the time it takes. The most rewarding paths are rarely the shortest and easiest, after all."

Feeling his heart warm and his spirits boost a bit at Perry's words, Kasey rubbed the back of his neck and nodded gratefully, at a loss as to how to thank Perry enough. "...Yeah... thank you. You're right," he finally said. "After all, we found out the location of the other two posts—I mean, we've still gotta find the bells, but we know where to put them... and we've still got that blue bell back in town..."

"That's the spirit!" Perry agreed with a sunny smile, cuffing Kasey on the shoulder. "And we'll find that last bell, you'll see. It has to be around here somewhere, after all—we'll just have to really keep our eyes extra-peeled for it!"

"How on earth can you 'extra-peel' something?" Gill muttered under his breath, before shaking the question off—not quite important right now. "Anyway... I had a feeling you would want to look into that bell in the cave near town—Toby made you aware of its location, correct?"

"Oh! Yeah—actually, I was gonna check with you or Mayor Hamilton tomorrow on that."

"That'll be fine, then." Gill folded his arms once more, glancing at the ceiling of the church. "My father should have the key at home... but, back to Garmon for one moment. You said that one bell was... calling out to you, correct?" At Kasey's nod, he pressed on: "What exactly do you mean by this?"

Gesturing pointlessly as he tried to explain, Kasey looked up at him. "Well... kind of like—I guess how Mira was always playing that song, from the sound of it. I just... I kept hearing it in my dreams, and—and when I connected the dots and went to ask her about it... I heard it again. Except, this time, it was like it was actually playing from nearby. Like someone left a radio on nearby or something... except nobody else seemed to be able to hear it..."

"...I see..." Sitting back down in his own pew and turning to face Kasey once more, Gill assumed his earlier posture—arm over back of pew, legs crossed, other hand moving about as he went on: "Nobody else in town has reported anything else of the sort at all, to my knowledge... of course, it does seem that Mira was subconsciously picking up on this... cry for help, I suppose we may call it. And Jin did indicate that you'd been experiencing some odd dreams that seem to be assisting you in this endeavor..."

"Perhaps the people just didn't want to be seen as delusional?" Perry offered helpfully, as Kasey rapidly bobbed his head in agreement. "After all, it would sound quite strange to many of them, wouldn't it?"

Gill scoffed, looking over at him. "Take it from someone who grew up here—at the very least, a couple of people would've been unafraid to say something. Maya, Luke, Barbara, that walking Magic 8-Ball that lives above the inn... well, perhaps not him—he's tantamount to a hermit. Still, we'd have heard something, believe me. No," he finished with a brisk shake of his head, "I can only deduce from this that—for whatever reason, and in whatever capacity—Kasey here is apparently our... key, let's say, to resolving this crisis."

Key?! Ah, shit... Feeling his throat go dry as the calm, light-blue stare bored into him once more, Kasey stammered out: "I-I'll do my best... it's... it's just—I think it's... because I moved here after this all started..."

Hell, Sephia had basically said as much to him, but part of him still couldn't help but think of that particular meeting as a strange fever dream.

"Be that as it may, you seem to know the most, collectively, in regards to the situation at hand," Gill countered, the confusion quickly leaving his face as he leaned forward, arms folded atop his legs. "Never mind the circumstances—relax," he added, seeing Kasey gulp. "We're not appointing you as some sort of de facto leader, or broadcasting it on the news or anything of that sort. Key or no key, we're just requesting your guidance and assistance in continuing this... progress."

"Y-yes, sir."

"And hasn't Renee been on you about addressing people like you're in the military? Which, I don't recall you were—I appreciate formality as much as any proper person, but 'Gill' will be fine. Although, my father does like his title," Gill murmured thoughtfully. "But then again, he doesn't care if you just call him 'Caesar,' either, so don't worry about it too much."

"Oh, Mr. Manatos must've just had a proper upbringing," Perry chided gently, plopping down by Kasey and patting him on the shoulder again. "Though, yes, 'Perry' will be fine, too."

"So long as I don't have to keep being 'Mr. Manatos,'" Kasey returned, a small smirk forming as they shook on it. "Alright... well, thank you again. I guess I should probably head home now and get some rest... I'll see you all around. Thanks again!"

"Very well. Just stop by Town Hall before five whenever you're ready, and we'll unlock the gate to the mine for you so you can investigate. We should really install one in Garmon's mine, too, come to think of it," Gill muttered. "Keep the children from running off in there all the time... well, good evening, Kasey."

"Goodnight!" Perry echoed, waving after Kasey as he left the church, into the night—cooler, still, than the previous.

His stomach flipping about as he made his way through Harmonica Town—past the warm, lit-up windows, and waving at Pascal as the captain headed for the Brass Bar—Kasey exhaled loudly and tucked his messy hair behind his ears again, idly reminding himself to shower when he got home. His eyes found the sky as his thoughts turned to all the people who were counting on him, agreeing to help him, putting their faith in his discoveries. People he couldn't disappoint—his heart fluttered a bit as one face in particular stuck out to him, though he pushed the thought away quickly. Don't be ridiculous, Kase. Just focus. He'd started the ball rolling, and if they didn't all know it by now, he had no doubt the news would make a complete circuit around Castanet in short order.

No matter the time it takes, right?

With Perry's encouragement and Gill's reassurance echoing in his mind, Kasey found himself hesitating outside his house, hand resting on the doorknob as he focused on the moon rising far to his right—round, pale yellow, glowing eerily in the darkening sky, like a single eye watching over the land. He shivered slightly as he slipped inside and made for the bathroom, starting up the shower and peeling off his smelly clothes—the man didn't strike him as malevolent in the slightest, but...

Well, if I have to go back there, I have to... let's just hope it doesn't come to that.

He had a feeling it would.

Chapter Text

"Here come ol' flattop, he come... groovin' up slowly..."

"...So, nothing yet, but I'm gonna help my mom clean out our attic tonight and check..."

Halting his quiet singing and looking up from where he was kneeling on the ground and inspecting his newly-planted potato seeds, Kasey's brow furrowed a bit at Renee's words. He watched, blinking blearily, as she continued yanking clumps of dead, dried weeds from the earth, stuffing them into the trash bag she'd nabbed from under Kasey's kitchen sink, and bobbing her head along to the radio. "You really think it'd be up there?"

Shrugging, Renee stood up and promptly slumped back against one of the nearby, wilting cherry trees, letting out a loud "Whew!" as she pushed her dripping bangs out of her eyes. "Well, my dad and I checked around the barn and windmill after I got back last night, and my mom checked our tool shed this morning... I also interrogated those suspicious chickens of ours before I left, but they weren't squawkin', either," she added with a cheeky grin, chuckling as Kasey groaned and shook his head at her. "Soooo, the attic's as good a place as any to check, I'd say. Plus, I think my old fishing rod's up there, so, hey—while I'm already poking around..."

At this mention, Kasey's tired face lit up a bit from his spot over by the water pump hoisting his freshly-filled watering can and starting to work on the remaining nearly-ripe—albeit undersized—crops in his field. Idly, he wondered if he should start planting even more—his first few shipments had yielded understandably meager returns at best, and even with the great deal he'd gotten on his house, the money he'd saved up prior to his move wouldn't last forever. Bills and necessities were still going to need to be attended to. "Yeah, that does make sense. I can't wait until things level out around here so we can all go..."

"You and me both," Renee agreed, now fanning her white tank top out to cool down. The fabric was so soaked through with sweat that her black sports bra was visible. She looked down at it and pulled a face, wondering if it would've been pointless to have brought a spare shirt. "Especially if it keeps on cooling off like it has!"

With a grateful nod, Kasey rolled his sore shoulders and neck, stretched, and stifled a long, shuddering yawn before returning to his watering. Relative to springtimes past, and to the rest of the region in general, temperatures were still unusually high in Castanet as April finally rolled around. Yet—as a cheerful Lillie had noted on that morning's forecast—they were nonetheless lower than they had been recently. Now, in the middle of Tuesday morning, they'd fallen a good ten or so degrees in the past two days, hovering around the high 80s—and the change was much more noticeable to the residents than yesterday's faintly-perceptible decline.

"Well, I'm supposed to be heading back to town in a little bit so Gill can get me into that one mine to check out the blue bell... err, well, hopefully it's still there," he added with a frown, prompting an understanding hum from Renee.

"Yeah, Perry told me about that one in the bell tower yesterday—you're sure it wasn't one of them?" she insisted, scooting around the trunk of the tree to join Kasey as he slumped down against it and nodded dejectedly. With a small, sympathetic smile, she nudged his elbow with hers, prompting him to side-eye her curiously. "Hey, chin up—I'm sure you wouldn't have gotten saddled with this if it were an impossible task, right?"

"'Saddled,' huh? Is that a rancher joke?" Kasey cracked, cheering up a little as Renee rolled her eyes and shoved him lightly. Still, she wasn't wrong—he had had the responsibility thrust upon him. "Aw, come on! You did it, too! 'Wah ha ha, the chickens weren't squawking!'" he added in a squeaky falsetto, wiggling his hands in mock-surprise. This earned him another playful shove, though this time, it was accompanied by an amused snort as well.

"You're such a goober. Who the heck even sounds like that? I mean, aside from you," Renee amended, standing back up and stretching out her arms and back with a loud grunt. A few satisfying pops and cracks later, she sagged with a blissful sigh, helping an amused Kasey to his feet and looking up at him. "Y'know, speaking of animals, you're kind of rocking the raccoon look a little bit, there... you still pulling all-nighters over those books?"

Scratching the back of his head sheepishly, Kasey shrugged and cleared his throat. She at least had it half-right—he had been up until nearly two in the morning, as had become the norm for him since borrowing those books from Perry, now poring over The Life of Castanet and trying to keep his mind from wandering to more trivial distractions. "Ahhh... err, w-well! I, uh... well, it's not like I don't sleep at all..."

"Well, I'd hope not!" Renee agreed, folding her arms and cocking her head to the side as she continued eyeing him concernedly. "Still... maybe you should just take it a little easier with that? I mean, I can only imagine how stressed out you must be over this, but we're getting there!" As Kasey nodded thoughtfully, looking rather guilty, Renee gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder and smiled at him once more. "And I know maybe those books might help, but... they're not going anywhere, alright? Plus," she added with a little giggle, "let's be real here—the Huangs will probably just cut out the middle man and kill you themselves if you wind up back in the clinic because you passed out again. And that'd suck, since we actually kinda like you!"

His heart warming a bit at Renee's words, Kasey grinned and nodded again, before his face pulled into a slight grimace—shifting his weight had pressed a few particularly pointy pebbles into the arch of his foot. He made his way over to the shipping bin and plopped down on it, prying off his ragged black sneaker to shake them out. "Yeah, good point... thanks..."

"Of course it is!" As the oldies station segued into a syrupy ballad in the background, Renee watched Kasey from her spot against the tree. Now he was bobbing his head and humming along as he plucked a burr from the back of his sock. "So, by the way, I almost forgot—you find anything yet in that new book?"

Shaking his head, Kasey shot a bemused look up at the sky—even though things had definitely cooled off, there was still a particularly stale odor to it, as well as a faint and dusty yellow tinge that made him feel like he was in a TV drama. It kinda looks like Mexico in Breaking Bad, now that I think about it. Well, baby steps, I guess. "I only got a few chapters in before I fell asl—I, uhh... I-I stopped," he corrected unconvincingly, while Renee sighed and clucked her tongue at him. "It's okay, though, I was reading in bed," he added quickly, causing her to grin and raise her eyebrows in amusement, before he shrugged again. "Anyway, I dunno. Table of contents didn't really single the bells out, and so far, it's not as... uhhh... exhaustive as the first one... not really sure if that's a good thing or not, though..."

With a pensive frown, Renee's arms dropped to her sides and drummed against the tree trunk. "Well, someone's gotta know something... right...?"

"I really hope so." Stretching his legs out and grunting, Kasey stood up, rubbing the back of his peeling neck. "I-I mean, if it comes down to it... I... err, I might have to just go back to that Wizard guy and see if he knows anything else, but... I-I kinda... uhh, I don't really wanna," he finally mumbled sheepishly, feeling rather stupid as he heard himself say the words aloud. Nonetheless, Renee shrugged in understanding.

"No kidding—even Toby said that guy's place was like an oven, and he can make himself comfortable pretty much anywhere."

Feeling his stomach flip slightly at the mention of Toby, Kasey unconsciously ran a hand through his sweaty, messy hair and stole a furtive glance around, before nodding slowly. "Yeah... and—well, not only that, but that yellow eye, uhhh... kinda freaks me out for some reason. Err—does that make me an asshole?" he added uncertainly, eyebrows knitting into a curious frown as Renee burst into giggles at his words. He couldn't help but weakly smile along with her, pointing to emphasize his next words: "I mean, people used to give me all kinds of crap about my teeth..."

Arms folded once more as she calmed down, Renee's eyebrows disappeared in her messy bangs, head tilted and a bemused smile on her face. "What, because of that little gap? I dunno what those jerks were smoking. It's actually really cute!" As a rather touched Kasey cleared his throat and turned a bit pink, Renee then turned a thoughtful gaze skyward, a sly grin once more overtaking her face. "But, yeah, I guess that yellow eye thing can kinda freak people out... I dunno. I think he's sorta handsome."

Snickering, Kasey leaned back on his hands, kicking his feet together and relaxing some. "You wanna go see him for me, then? Give you two a little alone time?" His eyebrows waggled.

"Uhhh, thanks for the thought, but I'm going to have to pass," Renee countered, walking over to Kasey and giving him another playful shove on the shoulder. "I said he's handsome, not that I want to have his babies. Goober," she said once again, blowing a loud raspberry at him. "Besides, I've gotta stop by Mr. Potter's—the axle on my dad's cart broke a few days ago, and the new one's ready. Well, if Luke hasn't been using it to play fetch with Boss," she added, chuckling lightly at the mental image and pulling Kasey up for a quick hug. "So I should probably hit the road before the thought occurs to him! And I'll have Ani update you on the search tomorrow morning—this friend of my mom's from Bluebell is coming down to take a look at our livestock, and..." Chewing her lower lip for a moment, Renee's normally-lively brown eyes wavered a little. "Well... we had to sell a few of them a little while back, since it was getting really tough to keep them all fed and watered with everything going on, a-and... and we're probably gonna—she might have to take a few more of them off our hands..."

Expression softening as the younger girl let out a shaky breath, Kasey wordlessly pulled Renee into another hug, rubbing her back and listening to her quiet, grateful sigh against his shoulder. "Thanks, Kase... I'm alright, though." She looked up at him with a small, sincere smile and patted his chest lightly. "I mean, my parents always make sure they're gonna be really well taken care of. Elli's husband actually was growing extra feed on his farm for a while to help us out—well, he was Elli's fiancé then, but—well, anyway, he wore himself out really bad trying to keep up... so he offered to take a few of them in for us instead, and he's been really fantastic with them. And it's not like we've never been through tough times before... we'll survive this, too."

Exhaling heavily, Kasey nodded, hand still warm against Renee's shoulder. "Still gotta suck, though..."

"Mmm. But we can't exactly be selfish. They'd know something was up!" Face brightening a bit as her smile widened, she stood up straighter. "Well, I'd better get going—got a lot to do when I get home, still! Good luck with the blue bell, okay? And you'd better get your tired butt to sleep at a decent hour!" she added, jabbing a finger at Kasey as she began walking backwards towards the trail to Garmon. He spread his arms out resignedly, despite his amused smirk as Renee now wagged her finger at him. "Eight hours, minimum! I'll sic Jin on you!"

"Alright, alright! I'll even throw in a nap, while I'm at it—scout's honor." Here, Kasey crossed his heart, earning an approving nod. "And... thanks for stopping by to help out, too."

With a wink and a salute that segued into a wave, Renee took a few more backward steps and nodded once more in satisfaction. "Hey, no problem! And the nap's a good idea—Toby swears by them, and they seem to agree with him. And... thanks again, Kase." Her usual sunny demeanor seeming to have returned to full blast, she turned and jogged off down the trail, leaving a concerned and slightly homesick Kasey watching her retreat.

After a few moments, he grabbed his watering can and hoe, heading inside to shower before his meeting with Gill, and smiling fondly to himself as he pictured a peaceful, sun-dappled Toby happily snoozing under a tree.

------------------------

"Right... no, Mayor Livingston, no need to apologize. I understand completely, I assure you—we truly do appreciate all you were able to do to help us." Chewed-up fingernails tapping away at his keyboard, Gill sandwiched the plastic white phone receiver between his ear and shoulder as the mayor of Zephyr Town continued prattling on. He was tripping all over himself to reassure the relatively-calm Gill—Believe me, buddy, I really wish we could do more! My damn traders got my hands all tied, though—as he reluctantly relayed his town's intentions to reduce aid to Castanet. But hopefully, just for the time being! Lloyd's gonna try to negotiate with 'em. That boy's got such a silver tongue, I'm surprised it's still attached to him!

Gaze flicking over to his father's office door on the far side of town hall, Gill hoped that he was having more luck with Guildmistress DeSilva, who had been facing protests from a few of her own trade partners over the ongoing diversion of goods. On the plus side, she was much firmer and more level-headed than Felix when push came to shove. Gill and his father understood that the other towns—small towns, like their own—had to think of their own economic well-being too, of course, and that they didn't have infinite resources to aid Castanet. Especially not in this sort of situation, where there was no clear end date. But every little bit helped.

One step forward, two steps back. Let's just hope the one step is bigger than the other two.

"...Well, actually, it has started cooling off a little bit here, so that's quite a decent start... oh, a few days ago," Gill answered, icy eyes once more glancing away from the monthly budget report on his monitor as the old front door squeaked open—Kasey Manatos padded in with a little wave, dark eyes darting about uncertainly as Gill beckoned him in and gestured for him to sit on the neatly-fluffed couch by the door. Just a moment, sorry, he mouthed, receiving a hesitant nod in return as Kasey took a seat and Felix continued chattering in his ear. From the corner of his eye, he noticed that the bags under Kasey's eyes seemed even more prominent than they had the night before, and every blink seemed to take a good deal of effort.

"...Oh, very recently, haven't you seen the broadcasts? ...Ah, right..." Gill let out a quiet, amused hum—Felix, for reasons unknown to him, almost steadfastly refused to adapt to even the 20th century, let alone the 21st, preferring to get his news reports from the regional papers in lieu of television. Even his son-in-law splurging on a massive flat-screen the past Christmas hadn't swayed him. It was a wonder he didn't just cut the landline and correspond by carrier pigeon, while he was at it. "Why, just the other day, really—but I'm confident this nasty business may be on its way out... right. Exactly. ...I'm not terribly sure, really—" Here, he looked once more at Kasey as he continued typing, watching the curious young man glance around the room and swing his legs anxiously with his hands folded in his lap, "—but I find it best not to look the gift horse in the mouth, don't you?"

A booming, not-unpleasant guffaw sounded out over the other end of the phone, causing Kasey to perk up curiously from his spot on the couch and let out a quiet chuckle of his own as Gill winced and pulled the phone away from his ear slightly. Letting out a disgusted sigh, he rolled his eyes and returned the receiver to its previous cradling position as Felix resumed speaking. "...Oh, absolutely—well, like I said, don't worry about it... well, I'm afraid I'm going to have to let you go, Mayor Livingston. My twelve-thirty is here. ...Of course, you too. Give my regards to everyone, would you? ...You too. Of course, I'll pass it along. Bye."

Hanging up, he gave Kasey a polite, albeit short nod, returning to his typing and sparing Kasey a cursory glance from the corner of his eye. "Sorry about that—the mayor of Zephyr Town had to discuss a few urgent matters with me. Just sit tight—I'll only be another moment, and then we can investigate that cave."

"Sure..."

Gill's tapping continued for a few more uninterrupted moments before the creaking of his father's office door filled the room, signaling the emergence of a very relieved Caesar Hamilton. Letting out a loud whoosh, the Mayor ran a shaky hand through his thinning gray hair and shot a smile at his son. "What a woman, Veronica! She managed to get most of the traders completely back on her side, and even the few opponents were convinced to at least just cut down their share, rather than back out completely... dodged a bullet, I've got to say!" he finished with a giddy chortle, as Gill's stiff posture relaxed slightly at the news. "Hopefully, we needn't rely on them much longer, but I could hug her right now, I tell you!"

"I had a feeling she'd come through," Gill agreed with a satisfied nod, a particularly pleased smile on his face. "Now, apparently, we just have to hope Lloyd can do the same with Zephyr Town... or that things improve enough that that particular outcome doesn't matter."

Hands stuffed into the pockets of his powder-blue slacks, Mayor Hamilton scowled slightly—though, to Kasey and Gill, it looked more like a pout. "Ahhh, bad news from Felix, I take it?"

Shrugging, Gill waggled a hand halfheartedly. "For now. Like I said, it may be up to Lloyd. And—" Breaking off his own sentence, he and his father suddenly turned their identical ice-blue gazes back to Kasey, who had been quietly watching the exchange with his hands clasped in his lap, and his curious eyes going back-and-forth between the two, as if watching a ping-pong match. "—Err... well, we'll leave those matters for when I return, shall we?" Gill amended sleekly, clearing his throat. "I apologize for our rudeness, Kasey."

As Kasey waved him off with a meek chuckle, not quite liking the direction the conversation had been steering, Hamilton strode over and clapped a pudgy hand on his broad shoulder. "Right, right! How have you been, son? Haven't been seeing much of you about lately—heard our fair share, though!"

With an anxious chuckle, Kasey looked up at the mayor, hands still folded in his lap. "I-I've, uhh... I've... been... here," he explained lamely. "Just—just doing my best..."

"And tinkering with Castanet's thermostat, from the feel of things!" Hamilton added with a broad, sparkling grin as Gill groaned behind him and buried his face in his palm, muttering "Really?" Oblivious, Hamilton cuffed a fairly-embarrassed Kasey's shoulder now, continuing, "And running that farm of yours to boot, too! I've passed by it a few times—very impressive!"

With a feeble grin and a stammered thanks, Kasey couldn't help but quietly wonder exactly what part of his crappy little farm was supposed to be considered 'impressive.' He was just starting out, sure, but it wasn't even halfway comparable to present-day Marimba Farm, let alone the thriving and enviable version Wizard had shown him.

Don't look the gift horse in the mouth, right? he decided, remembering Gill's conversation from earlier. "I, uhh, I think I might... maybe try expanding it a little, or something," he admitted, getting the expected approving nod in return.

"Well, look at you go, then! That's just the moxy this town needs!"

...Okay, maybe he's just really easily impressed...

Sensing Kasey's growing discomfort, Gill saved his report, putting his computer into standby mode and rising from his desk. "Well, speaking of going, I believe we shouldn't dilly-dally any further. I'll go fetch the key—same drawer?" he added to his father, looking over his shoulder as he hung out of the doorway of Mayor Hamilton's office.

"Same as always!" Caesar returned happily, ignoring his son's mutter of "Well, why didn't you bring it out here with you?" as the door creaked shut behind him. Turning back to Kasey with a soft chuckle, he sighed. "Ah... good kid, Gill. Runs himself ragged helping me out, though. I wonder if I could badger him into taking some time off when the dust settles?" he added with a thoughtful mumble, rubbing his chin as his son emerged from the office, brandishing an ornate silver key. "Ah, found it, have you? Very good, very good!"

Gill nodded curtly, giving Kasey a small smile as he got up from the couch and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his—Gill noticed—cleaner and far less holey jeans. "Right—well, Kasey, shall we go get that blue bell taken care of?"

"R-right! Umm... well, thanks, Mayor Hamilton," Kasey added with a quick, slight bow, not entirely sure why he was thanking the Mayor. In return, he received a pleased laugh, and a surprisingly strong—albeit kind—clap on the back that sent him lurching forward a bit and grunting.

"Anytime, my boy! Anytime—well, I'll be keeping an ear out for that bell to start making sweet music!" Chuckling at his own lame pun, he waved the two boys out, promising to handle the budget report while Gill was away.

"We won't be that long, I'd imagine," Gill protested, shrugging defeatedly as his father waved off his protests. "The man's absolutely terrible at math," he groused as the door shut behind them a moment later, rolling his eyes and beginning to stride briskly in the direction of the Choral Clinic. Kasey was left scrambling to fall into step behind him, having to catch his balance against the faded green wall of the building to avoid crashing into Gill. "Mind your step, please," Gill called evenly, frowning over his shoulder at Kasey.

"S-sorry..."

The two took a sharp right just past the clinic, making their way up a small staircase—Kasey briefly glanced up to see another set of worn, stone steps marching right up to Wizard's house, gulping at the sight of the sun gleaming off of the tarnished metal sign hanging by the door.

"...Is something the matter?"

Jolted back to his senses by the sound of Gill's slightly-impatient voice, Kasey spun back around—Gill had already pulled another key from his pants pocket to unlock a rusted, waist-high gate that had blocked off another short staircase, leading down past an orange stone archway and towards the mine. A large, heavy-looking door was faintly visible in the shadows of the cave entrance. "Uh, n-no... just kind of spaced out a bit, you know... sorry..."

"Mmm." Pressing his lips into a thin line, Gill nodded curtly, motioning for Kasey to head down first. "You do look extremely exhausted. Not that people have been sleeping fantastically around here these days, as it stands..."

Passing under a thin blanket of dead, withered ivy that hung from the archway and choked the old pipework that stretched between the inn and the clinic, Kasey couldn't help but notice that Gill's face, too, seemed faintly worn out and weary. Pushing the thought to the back of his mind, he waited as Gill fiddled with a particularly huge padlock on the door to the mine, heart and pulse starting to race once more. Suddenly, his forehead felt clammy, and his throat rather dry, as the groaning and scraping noises filled the air.

"Help me with this, won't you?"

"Huh? Oh—right!"

Swallowing hard, Kasey took in the sight before them as they entered the cavern leading down to the mines—damp, cool, and a bit musty, the smell of stagnant water even stronger inside the cramped little cave. Still, a fairly-large opening at the opposite end allowed a good amount of sunlight in, and as Kasey's eyes adjusted to the odd mixture of light, his heart soared:

There before them, upon its worn and rusted frame, was an ornate blue bell, roughly the same size as the red one, and thrown into a soft relief as the sunlight filtered in from behind it.

"Oh, thank you," he whispered, hand over his heart as his posture relaxed, and heedless of Gill's skeptical expression. "Thank you, thank you, thank you..."

Folding his arms and raising an eyebrow, Gill watched as Kasey cautiously made his way up to the bell post, wide brown eyes shining. As he wondered whether or not he should ask if Kasey was absolutely sure that they had the right bell this time—really, how many fancy blue bells could one expect to find?—he found his half-formed protest dying in his throat as Kasey's hand brushed against the metal.

Immediately, Gill felt his breathing become shallow, mind clouding with confusion—all of a sudden, as the bell began to pulse with a soft cerulean light, he felt... felt...

Empty. And a bit lost.

"...I... I-I'm... I'm... Kasey... a-and that's Gill..."

Kasey's soft, hesitant voice snapped Gill out of his brief trance—shaking his head rapidly to clear it, he watched in further disbelief as Kasey, now shrouded in the same gentle blue glow as the bell, seemed to be... speaking with it. Blinking hard and rubbing his tired eyes, Gill wasn't entirely surprised to see that nothing had changed.

...What in the world...?!

"...Hey, Ben," Kasey went on, a gentle smile evident in his voice—which had relaxed a lot more. Idly, Gill couldn't help but remember that Kasey had two younger siblings—and he sounded almost like he was addressing another one right now. That was... strange, to say the least. "One of my friends told us about you. You remember, that nice kid with the silver hair that used to hide in here all the time? ...No?" Now, he sounded confused. "...Well... well, do you remember... do you remember Alan?"

Those names...

"What's going on?" Gill muttered, raising his anxious voice slightly and wishing he wasn't deaf to half of the utterly bizarre conversation taking place—but Kasey didn't seem to hear him, his expression unreadable with his back to Gill. Kasey's hand remained planted on the bell, and his next words were tinged with worry:

"...Well... how about... how about Sephia?"

Gill's eyebrows shot up at this. The Harvest Goddess? What on earth...?

"Yeah! Yeah, Alan knows her, too... Ben, we need to ring you to help her, okay? She's in a lot of trouble, and... and so is Castanet..."

A few moments of unnerving silence. Gill shivered a bit, feeling goosebumps rise on his arms, not noticing as Kasey's fingers tensed on the surface of the bell.

"Y-you... you don't know how? What do you mean? Do... do you need a push? Or—" Another pause, and he slumped down. "...No... Ben, please, please try..."

"What's wrong?" Gill piped up again, getting an offhanded wave for his troubles. Hmph. Rude.

Kasey sighed, pressing his forehead against the cool, shining surface. "...You... you don't remember... you're sure? Can—can you try, Ben? For Sephia? ...Alright... alright, that's good." In spite of his irritation, Gill felt his hopes perk up somewhat at the sound of Kasey's voice. "Go for it, Ben."

The blue light shone stronger and stronger from the bell, and—as Gill watched in awe—a strange series of notes began to echo around the cavern...

...Yet...

"Ben! Ben, calm down—it's okay, Ben... don't worry..."

The notes were oddly stretched and warped, an irritatingly discordant jumble with no true rhyme or reason to them. The light intensified amid Kasey's pleas, before the cave shook violently, knocking the two boys onto their backs with pained yells. The radiant blue glow burst out into a blinding flash for a quick moment—again, Gill felt a strange, fleeting sense of emptiness and disorientation pass over him—before fading back to the initial soft cerulean shimmer.

A few painful, quiet moments passed by as the echoes of the twisted song faded away, before Gill and Kasey started feebly stirring.

"Ugh... G-Gill?" Kasey muttered finally, clambering awkwardly to his feet and helping Gill up a moment later. His face was twisted into a mixture of contrition and embarrassment. "Are... are you alright?"

Rubbing his aching tailbone and wincing—there would certainly be a bruise there later—Gill grunted out an affirmation. "I'll... live. You?"

"Yeah... no, Ben, it's okay," Kasey added quickly, spinning around to face the bell once more—Gill was left with his mouth hanging open wordlessly, right on the verge of launching forth a geyser of questions that was just as swiftly plugged up. "You—you tried, Ben... it's okay... we'll figure it out. Don't worry... just go back to sleep for now, okay? Alright... we're gonna do what we can..."

Turning around and slumping against the framework with a pained look as the glow drained away into the pool surrounding the post—shimmering down into the depths before the shadows swallowed it up—Kasey sighed and shook his head sadly. A lump was forming in his throat.

"...What the hell was that?!" Gill finally burst out exasperatedly, running his hands through his slightly-mussed hair and tugging at it, as if trying to pull some sense of rhyme or reason to the surface of what he'd just witnessed. Finger jabbing wildly at the bell, like he was about to shout an objection at it, he went on: "What—that... these bells talk to you?!"

With a weak chuckle, Kasey smiled wryly at the agitated man. He seemed even more exhausted than before, and his low voice was fairly tight now. "I... I didn't wanna tell Perry, since he was already really wound up... but that—that red bell had some kid named Alan haunting it, though. And this one says his name's Ben..."

"I—I gathered," Gill muttered, trying to slow down his racing thoughts. "Ben and... Alan, you say. Father Chester... he told us, about the history of this land. Alan, Benjamin... Colin, Daren, and Edge—" Here, each name was counted off on shaky fingers, while Kasey watched curiously, his own eyes going wide as the implications became clear to him. "Th-the five sages that... that helped shape Castanet... do—do you... mean to tell me you've—you've been in communication with them?"

"Y-yeah..." Swallowing again, Kasey gave a hesitant nod. "I... I guess I have..."

Ah. You guess you have, do you?

"I... I don't know what happened to them, but—but they have... songs, and the songs are supposed to... I dunno, fix this mess."

Gill heaved a loud sigh as he looked up at the bell—dull, and once again dormant... but no less unnerving to him now, in the wake of the recent events. "Yes, I recall you mentioned those songs of theirs the other day. So, from what I gathered... we've got an—an amnesiac spirit on our hands, is that it? He doesn't recall this song of his that's supposed to help us?"

"He could barely remember a thing," Kasey confirmed sadly, looking up at the bell from over his shoulder and letting out a shaky breath. "He—he says that he was asleep for so long... it was like his mind was rotted away. He just knew his name, and Sephia's... not even Alan's..." Pushing himself off the bell post and jamming his hands into the pockets of his jeans once more, he kicked dejectedly at the damp earth. "A-and—well, you heard what happened when he tried to recall how his song went. Hell, you saw it."

And felt it when it knocked me to the ground, yes, Gill thought darkly, though he simply gave a curt nod in response. A faint bit of pity twinged in his stomach at how despondent Kasey looked now—the hope and relief that had been in his eyes upon spotting the bell was now gone, and the dark circles stood out even more starkly in the shadows of the cavern.

Kasey spared the bell a glance over his shoulder as well, before shaking his head and turning back to face Gill. "He was falling all over himself, apologizing for forgetting, and being unable to help Sephia... he—he sounded like a child. Like he shouldn't even be old enough to even know what a sage is..."

"...I see," Gill murmured softly, his expression somber as he looked upon the bell once more. In the back of his mind, however, he supposed this Ben was fairly lucky if he couldn't even remember the rather... inappropriate activities that had led to the mines even being sealed off to public access in the first place. Gill considered himself lucky that he hadn't witnessed them first-hand. "Then, I suppose we'll have to help him recall this song of his... although, exactly how... well, never mind." He broke his pensive brooding, shaking his head curtly and motioning with it for Kasey to follow as he turned on his heel. "Come. There's not much more we can do for the time being, I'm afraid." He received a bleak nod in return as the two exited the quiet, chilly cave, a sense of unease continuing to hover within.

They shut and locked the door and made their way back up past the rusty gate in silence, eyes roving over the town below as they passed the clinic—Hayden and Pascal were chatting animatedly a few feet in front of the Brass Bar, while Kathy sat on one of the chain railings across from Sonata Tailoring, listening as Maya prattled on about some strange new culinary idea she'd devised.

"...Sorry we couldn't figure anything out..."

Looking up as they reached the door to town hall, Gill frowned and shook his head. "Don't be—this is hardly your fault, after all. You've been doing pretty much all of the heavy lifting for us, but that doesn't mean we think you'll have all the answers." He paused, as Kasey chewed his lower lip, dark, guilty eyes gazing off to the side. "You do realize you essentially moved us off of square one when you returned that one bell up in Garmon? And that blue bell is still present, too, at least. So it can hopefully still be rung. Just.. not now..."

Nodding slowly, Kasey rubbed the back of his head, tangling his fingers in his long hair and swallowing hard as he looked upwards. The fleeting doubt in Gill's statement hadn't eluded him. "I know, I know—it's just—I guess... I thought maybe the ball would finally get rolling... and now we're kinda stuck again..."

Gill shook his head and sighed, arms spread out in a broad shrug. "Well, I'm afraid that's just the reality of the situation for now. All we can do is just keep digging—after all," he mused, rubbing his chin, "that song has to have existed at some point in time... and those other bells were here once... what I saw today was proof enough that those legends were fact... and all of this just means that, however long it takes, we can fix this. Don't you remember a thing Perry told you the other night?"

Wracking his brain for a moment, Kasey chuckled softly. "Right... it—it's not always about the easiest and shortest paths, yeah..."

At this, Gill nodded. "Right. Now, don't beat yourself up over it anymore—just do the best you can. And I do hope we don't need to keep reassuring you of this, Kasey."

"R-right," Kasey agreed, taking a deep breath and letting it out. His stomach still felt like it was sinking slowly, mind wracked with confusion on how to even proceed from this point. "Yeah... yeah. I—I think I'm gonna go home and hit the books, then... see if I can find out anything el—"

"No," Gill interrupted brusquely, holding up a hand to stop him. "I think not. You're going to go home and get a decent amount of sleep first. Research can wait—you look half-dead, for God's sake." A fully unnecessary gesture followed, indicating Kasey's face. "I mean, honestly..."

Kasey found himself unsure of whether to be offended or amused at Gill's rather brutally blunt concern, but conceded that Gill did have a very good point—he'd frightened himself when combing his hair after his shower earlier, wiping the steam off of the mirror and jumping back a bit at the sight of his exhausted reflection gaping back at him. He could only imagine how much worse for the wear he looked now. And he'd certainly noticed his stutter starting to pop back up more and more lately—really, more since he and Danny had broken up—though he knew that it wasn't like anyone else in town would notice a difference. Just another thing I need to get under control. "Y-yeah... that sounds good. That... sounds really good... thanks, Gill."

"Mmm. Anytime—well, good afternoon, Kasey." His cool blue gaze held steady for a moment, his next words more order than formality: "And take care."

A weary nod. "R-right. You too. See ya..."

As Gill retreated into town hall, Kasey turned back to observe Harmonica Town once more, hands back in his pockets and lower lip worried between his teeth—Maya and Kathy had vanished, most likely inside Sonata Tailoring now to pester Luna and try on one of everything they could grab. Pascal and Hayden continued their chat, Pascal gesturing as he told some story or another that seemed to have Hayden skeptical. Feeling a fresh stirring of guilt rising in his chest as he caught sight of the distant fishery past the two, Kasey pictured Toby's easy, soothing smile slowly fading away to a crestfallen expression as he learned that Kasey had taken his lead on the blue bell and wound up at yet another dead end, heard his own voice as he tried to stammer out an apology-

Stop acting like an idiot, dude. He's not gonna be upset with you. Nobody is, you heard Gill. Get a grip.

Instead, he tore his gaze away and let it rove upwards, upwards...

Lips pressed together tightly, he squinted against the strong sunlight, taking in the weathered white paint of the lone house nestled in the shadows of Celesta Plaza. It sat quietly, the dark windows seeming to look out over the town.

Though he was far too tired, drained, and disappointed with the latest turn of events to pay Wizard a visit at that moment—or, perhaps, to deal with any more of it for the day—Kasey couldn't help but let out a resigned sigh, turning to head out of town and back home. Loathe though he was to admit it, it was—once more—really his only option left at this point.

And we know how much good that did me last time, he thought bitterly, his pitiful, dusty farm bobbing into view.

As he swallowed the hard lump in his throat and blinked the frustrated sting from his eyes, Kasey shook his head at how ridiculous he was being. Gill and Renee were right—he really did need a good night's sleep.

Chapter Text

Left.

"...And for you night owls just tuning in, you don't have to wait till midnight to make a little magic of your own..."

A few moments slipped by, seeming to blur and drip into fuzzy, half-waking hours, attempting to shush Kasey to sleep beneath an aural drapery of velvet and candlelight. A frown and an irritated groan slipped out as he found himself unable to drift away, trying to lose himself in the caress of quietly-glowing keyboards, sly bass, and lush strings.

"...You give me a smile, and then I'm wrapped up in your magic..."

Over to the right it was, then. A soft rustle sounded with the motion.

"...Anything, baby, just let me get next to you..."

His scowl melted away into contentment as he finally settled in comfortably, floating up on a cloud and trailing after George Benson's buttery voice with a series of groggy, off-key hums.

Confused eyes flying open as he felt fingers running playfully up his arm and stroking his bicep, Kasey quickly found himself shooting a broad grin back at the young blond man laying on his side next to him, each propping their head up atop a loose fist. Much like Kasey's, his breathing was slightly labored, and his bare skin—normally pale—was flushed and glistening softly in the light of the candles all around the room.

"Wow..." The word fell from Kasey's lips in a breathless whisper.

Danny's warm hand came to rest upon his shoulder, and Kasey let his own settle atop it, fingers lacing together and squeezing softly. His heart felt feather-light as it danced around in his chest—a mixture of slowly-fading adrenaline, giddiness, and a sense of ever-present bashfulness that never seemed to lessen no matter how many times they did this.

With a little chuckle, Danny reached forward with his free hand and tucked a loose lock of Kasey's long, untidy hair behind his ear, sending a pleased shiver down the latter boy's spine. He felt a finger trace lightly down to a jawline badly in need of shaving.

"Happy birthday, Kase."

Feeling a pleasant heat pool in his cheeks once more, Kasey's grin widened, and he could only imagine how dopey he looked right now, with his eyes half-lidded and his hair sticking up everywhere. "Thanks, man... heh, wow," he repeated, letting out a contented sigh as he finally felt his breathing even out a bit. "And I thought the books were awesome presents... well, just seeing you is still the best one, though," he added quietly, bringing the hand that held Danny's to his mouth and brushing his lips across the fingertips. "I know it sounds kind of selfish, but I've sorta... been seriously missing you since school started back up. I mean, like crazy. And then with all the overtime I've put in lately..."

Danny hummed in agreement as the slender fingers of his free hand settled on Kasey's chest, tracing a little circle in the sparse patch of dark hair and smiling back. His slightly-lopsided grin was a bit timid, but no less sincere. "Yeah... I really missed you too, Kasey. They've been running you ragged over there, huh?"

With a rueful laugh, Kasey nodded. "Well, nothing compared to all your homework, I bet, but... yeah, we're like four weeks out from Halloween, and they want us setting up for Christmas already..." They shared a little chuckle at this, Danny's twinkling grey eyes rolling in bemusement. "I mean, I'm surprised they didn't start doing that back in July, but still. I wish Christmas was that close..."

"Mmm." Danny shot him another small, crooked smile. "At least we'll have plenty of time to catch up over winter break, though, right? Because I'm gonna want you nice and rested up for that."

Kasey's face grew hotter, but he laughed it off and gave Danny a light shove on the shoulder. He didn't even trip over his words: "You're insatiable, you know that?"

"And you love it," Danny shot back, giving him a quick kiss and adding, almost offhandedly, "and so do I."

"Here you were, talking about my job running me ragged," Kasey mock-complained, giving Danny a playful kick in the shin. "Hmm, going back is gonna suck..."

A sympathetic nod. "Ahhh, yes..." Disentangling his fingers from Kasey's, Danny propped his face up on his hand once again, eyeing Kasey with a mixture of curiosity and face-warming appreciation, which was rather shyly returned. "Well... hopefully you don't have to deal with that much longer... hey, by the way—did you put in your application yet? I think you'd really like it here."

Running a hand through his messy hair and mussing it up even further, Kasey sighed and shook his head ruefully, his guilty eyes now avoiding Danny's. One foot began to anxiously bounce a bit against the mattress as he focused upon the bedspread rumpled up beneath them, picking idly at a loose, maroon thread. "I... i-it's not that I don't want to. I mean... seeing you more often would be great. But, I... I still don't know what I... where to go. What I want to do..."

"It's alright, Kasey..." His eyes—had they always been pale green?—were warm and encouraging as he placed his fingertips under Kasey's chin, tilting his head upward. Kasey's confused stare was met with loving confidence. "We all know you'll be alright... you can do this..."

Kasey nodded slowly, swallowing hard as he pushed back Toby's tousled silver hair with trembling fingers, studying his features with a slight frown. Closing his eyes, he let out a sigh that quivered slightly. "I—I... but... what if I mess up again...?"

"Hey—we'll figure something out," Danny's quiet, steady voice assured him, the back of his hand stroking Kasey's face now. "Don't worry... you don't give yourself enough credit, Kase. I wouldn't love you if I didn't think you were a fantastic guy."

As Kasey felt his heart start to flutter once more, he nodded and let out a shaky, grateful laugh, lips curving back upward into a small smile. He could never get tired of hearing those words. "Yeah... thanks. I love you, too..." His eyes opened once more and drank in the kind, green gaze searching his own, the soft glow of rumpled silver in the dim light of the candles placed around the room. Any trace of blond he thought he'd glimpsed had been melted away in the dusky flickers. He pressed his warm cheek against Toby's lingering hand and sighed happily. "I... I'm really lucky that I met someone like you..."

Thumb now rubbing Kasey's scruffy jawline, Toby responded with a shy nod. "Me too, Kasey..." His calm, encouraging, slightly-lopsided smile grew a little concerned. "...Hey... you look really tired, you know."

"Yeah, I... I still can't sleep..."

An understanding nod. "I know... but it's going to be okay... " Suddenly, a mischievous gleam flashed in his eyes, a sly note lacing his next words as his fingertips skimmed deftly down Kasey's spine: "...Say, would you like me to help you fall back asleep?"

Despite feeling the heat rush to his face as his body reacted eagerly to Toby's touch, Kasey returned the grin and nodded, tracing his hand lightly down Toby's side, over his bare, slim waist, pulling him closer...

Groggy and disoriented, a confused gasp filled the small farmhouse as Kasey jolted awake on his side in bed, snorting into consciousness under his pillow. Heart pounding forcefully, he could hear Luther Vandross's muffled, velvet-lined tenor serenading him from the nearby clock radio, and he tried to pull his guilty mind away from his dream and the rather embarrassing response that another part of his body was currently having to it—not to mention the conflicting storm of emotions now raging in his mind.

I'm such a goddamn wreck, he thought bitterly, sighing as he rolled over and checked the time, despite his tired, protesting mind warning him what a horrible idea that was. Half-past midnight, more or less—plenty of time to get back on track, yet he was all too certain he'd barely even been asleep for an hour or two since six o'clock the previous evening, despite his best efforts. Even the music had only barely helped. Shit... they're gonna kill me. I need to focus...

With an irritated whine, he rolled onto his back and pressed his pillow tight to his face, squeezing his eyes shut as he pictured the disappointed faces, heard the annoyed sighs and the harsh reprimands. The whine bled into a stifled groan. I'm trying, guys... please... just—I'm trying, I swear...

As he worked to calm his racing mind—sorting out a confused maelstrom of nostalgia, shame, arousal, bitterness, and heartache—Kasey lowered the pillow to his bare chest and hugged it tightly, feet kicking anxiously together.

If he was being completely honest with himself, he'd rather have had another cryptic dream about the bells instead of this bullshit.

At the memory of Danny's touch and his words, a slight lump rose in his throat, as much as he tried to ignore it. A string of failures following a harrowing success, every subsequent chance of another solid lead dissipating cruelly right as his hopes had started peaking... so much coming down on him in such a short span of time...

And now, this crapBlinking hard, he futilely tried to push aside the image of gentle, light green eyes searching his own; fingers running through sweaty, messy silver hair; the soft, imagined caresses on his jaw and hips as Toby's reassuring words soothed his worries away. With another aggravated groan, he felt the rather awkward, aching sensation below his waist grow more pronounced. Fantastic. Just what I need when I'm trying to get some fucking sleep. Rolling back over onto his side, he curled up and hugged his pillow even closer, eyes shut tightly as if to fend off any further distractions. Don't do this to yourself, Kase. And don't think about him like that... it's creepy. Just... stop it.

He sucked in a deep breath, counted to three, and let it out. And in, again, another count, and out. He kept at it, working to slowly steady his heart, soothe his nerves, and will his body to calm down, before he completely obliterated any remaining chance he had left of falling back asleep for the night.

He could only hope that paying Wizard another visit later that day would set pretty much everything right back on track again.

------------------------

A fuzzy, pearl-grey quilt rolled gently across the sky high above Castanet as Wednesday wore on, making the ever-cooler weather an even more pleasant surprise for the residents as they woke up and went about their daily business. The wind was barely blowing, the water was glassy and stagnant, the earth and trees were in poor condition, and the air was as dry and dusty as ever; nonetheless, spirits had slightly buoyed across the sleepy seaside community, their worries blotted away under the welcome cloud cover.

"Oh, Kasey... of course we won't get mad at you for trying..."

Still, at Dobro Ridge, an exceptionally fatigued Kasey slumped down against his shipping bin with a shaky sigh. His hands trembled as they pushed his slightly-grungy hair back and clutched tightly, almost as if he were working to keep his head on straight. "I know, I know...it-it's just... it's just everything that's been going on lately. I just... my mind's just so stuck on it, and—and—and... I really thought we had it right there that time... it's—it was right there..."

As Kasey's voice cracked slightly with that last statement, Anissa rose from where she'd been helping him plant a new patch of lettuce seeds, wiping her dirty gloves off on her cutoff sweatpants and watching him with even greater concern. She'd come to him late that morning, fresh from her half-finished chores and bringing the packets of seeds he'd promised to pay for when she got there—in spite of Ruth's peace offering, he'd still been reluctant to approach Marimba Farm himself since his first trip there.

But even as she caught sight of his obviously-haggard appearance—"I got... like... maybe five hours," he'd muttered wryly, looking both guilty and frustrated as he unearthed a slightly-wilted cabbage and set it aside for shipping—she found herself gently telling him that they hadn't made any headway yet on finding either of the bells they were looking for. Yet.

Still, as she saw his briefly-hopeful eyes once more grow resignedly dim and tired with the news, after she learned about yesterday's unsettling events in Harmonica Town... Anissa couldn't help but wonder if it wouldn't been kinder to have just given him some sort of false hope, instead. Or, at the very least, some sort of positive spin on the news—the sort of hopeful cheer that Renee and Hanna radiated as easily as they breathed. It's the most pleasant weather we've had in a while, after all... everything is relative, isn't it? she mused to herself as she picked up the watering can and tended to the final, fresh patch of seeds for the day.

She couldn't help but think that that particular spin had spun her way a bit too late.

"So," Kasey finally continued, his voice bordering on flat, "I... did Renee tell you, then? I'm probably just gonna... go back in town after this, and see that Wizard guy again." With a half-hearted smile, his shoulders rose and fell in a quick shrug. "I mean, why not, right?"

Only growing even more concerned at this news, Anissa set the watering can down and took a cautious step forward as she recalled what had transpired during Kasey's last visit there. "Well... if you have to. But are you... really sure that's a good idea?"

Whipping his head over in her direction, the irritated scowl caught her off-guard, as did the sharp tone of his voice: "No, Anissa, okay?! I'm not. I—well, maybe. Shit, I don't know! Do you have any better ideas?" He smacked the shipping bin in frustration, letting out a ragged groan as Anissa's eyebrows rose slightly. In the back of his mind, he knew he was being irrational, knew he wasn't taking in everything his friends had been telling him... but he kept on going, wondering if he could even stop himself from venting if he tried:

"I've pretty much used up all of my good ideas! But—that guy's gotta know something. And... and, if he does... then, great. Maybe I'll finally be able to relax and get some goddamn sleep. Maybe I'll pass out again there anyway, and still get some sleep! And then that song will come to me in a dream and it'll all be just great! I—I don't know. I just... I have to do something elseAnissa..."

Tense silence drifted between the two as slowly as the clouds overhead for a few moments, Kasey's ire draining away as Anissa stood rooted to her spot by the cherry trees, arms folded lightly, eyebrows knit together in distress.

"...I don't think you're aware of just how much you've done already," she said at last, her voice slightly apprehensive. "This weather, the fires returning to normal—do you think that was just a coincidence? That you had nothing to do with it? You know better than that..." Heaving a soft sigh, she watched as he clambered unsteadily to his feet, brushing the dirt and dead grass off the back of his black shorts. There was no indication he'd even taken note of her remark, so she went on:

"But... you don't have to do it all. I don't know how many times we've had to tell you in the past few days alone... do you think it's easier on us? Renee and I, our parents, Chase, Toby—" She barely noticed him flinching at this, but went on, taking a step forward as she poured out her frustration: "—everyone... we're all looking, we're all asking everyone what they know and coming up with nothing, but we're still trying, too, and we're going to keep trying. Luke, he... he was attacked in the forest by something, and he's too scared to talk about it! That happened before you even came here, all of this did! You're not the only one who feels lost, Kasey. Or... or scared. But at least we finally, finally got somewhere, and you need to realize that..."

Hands jammed in his pockets, Kasey stared blankly at his front door, one leg kicking anxiously at the dirt. Casting his gaze skyward, he felt his throat go dry as he fought to speak: "I... I know, Anissa. I know. I... I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you like that. I-I'm... I know I'm just being really stupid about this." He let out a weak chuckle at his own words, swallowing hard before the next ones followed on another humorless laugh: "You know, I—I haven't even told my family what's going on here. They worry about me so much, but—but they've worried about me a lot all my life, and... they just think I'm just a little homesick, just... adjusting to it all. And I wanna say I'm just... I'm just freaking out because I can't fucking sleep, and I'm just being... really bitchy and irrational and all, but... I dunno. I just..."

A cold February day flashed into his mind, glaring across a table at each other. Disenchantment, anger, exasperation—no plan, no direction, no surprise. A typical aimless mistake.

Nothing out there for them.

"...I don't want to let anyone else down," he finished in a small, tight voice, arms wrapped about his midsection. His heart and stomach were once again abuzz with a distressing mixture of feelings, all transmitting across his face as helplessness.

Despite the stirrings of pity she felt within her, Anissa was mostly left perplexed.

"Kasey, believe me—you're not... you won't. I know it must be intimidating—we've lived this for some time now, wondering if we could fix it, how... people who grew up here, who've never seen anything like this in their lives," she added, feeling a wave of sorrow tighten her chest as she thought to her family: Her father's kindness and love of his job now faded, leaving a pitiful and belligerent drunk who slouched about his dying fields and bitterly refused to let anyone else help him; her little brother, waiting out the disaster miles and miles away, leaving her mother to smoke more and more than she ever had in the past; and Anissa herself, staying away from home as much as she could manage, to avoid being drawn even further into the tension.

Choosing her words carefully, she added, "And, whether you like it or not—now that we know there's some way we might be able to help—we're going to try, too. So... it isn't just your burden to fix this anymore. Okay?"

It took a while for Kasey to respond, eyes narrowed curiously at the clouds rolling lazily above them as he absorbed Anissa's words—intertwining with Gill's admonishment from the other day, Perry's reassurance...

Danny's words still echoed beneath them, no matter how hard he tried to push them back down.

After what seemed like an eternity, he nodded wordlessly, and Anissa took it without complaint—maybe it was all she could expect from him in this sleep-deprived, wound-up state of his.

"...Are you still going into town?" she added quietly, getting another nod—much more quickly, this time. She sighed, brushing a loose lock of hair over her shoulder. "Okay... if you want, I can call Jin—" Kasey whipped around to look at her with a mixture of panic and irritation, and she quickly elaborated: "He can just prepare a sleep aid for you if you want, that's all! He has trouble with insomnia sometimes, so it's... he won't be upset. He'll understand," Anissa reasoned, holding up her hands defensively as Kasey gradually relaxed. "It's up to you, though... or do you want me to come with you?"

Hands still in his pockets, mouth in a tight, thin smile, he shook his head slowly and finally spoke again, his words coming out hoarse and contrite: "I'm... I think I'm good. I know you've... you've still got some more chores to do at home, and... all that stuff. But.. thanks, Anissa. I'm gonna go head into town now and just... get it done with," he murmured, licking his dry lips and kicking at the dirt once more, stomach starting to twist about. "I guess I'll stop by the clinic if things don't pan out, though..."

Anissa nodded. "Okay... if you're sure, then..."

Heaving a sigh, Kasey then redirected his gaze to the ground, his voice quieter now: "Yeah... and, I'm really sorry again... Anissa. I-I know it's hard on everyone else, too... but... but, we'll get through this..."

He didn't quite sound like he fully believed it. Still, to Anissa—thinking of her mother's rather fervent adoption of a spirited, can-do attitude in the past week, as disturbingly unnatural as it had been—it would once again have to be enough.

She smiled gently at him, nodding in firm agreement. "We will. We'll find those other bells, we'll... figure out that song, no matter how long it takes. And... we're all here, if you need us, okay?" she added, just as he turned to head into town. "Even... even if you just need to talk about... well, anything. It doesn't have to just be about this..."

Hearing this, Kasey stopped and looked back over his shoulder with another small, tight smile. "...Thanks, Anissa," he repeated, his voice a little shaky. "I'll... I'll try to remember that..."

"That's all I'm asking, Kasey," she responded, with a warmer smile of her own.

With a final nod in her direction, off he went.

Anissa's shoulders slumped in a worried sigh as she watched Kasey's retreating form, wondering if he'd ever finally start to trust them a little more, and puzzling over exactly what else could be eating at him so viciously.

Shaking her head helplessly, she turned and gathered his farming tools, placing them just inside his barn where they usually rested. One last glance was cast over her shoulder, before she turned around and started making her way back home.


As Kasey plodded to Harmonica Town, feeling half-dead and nigh-unstable, the clouds high above him seemed to darken and thicken with his heightening anxiety levels, and the smell of the air shifted slightly. He took no notice of this as his eyes drifted to the faint form of Wizard's house in the gradually-closing distance, high and unassuming as it watched over Harmonica Town in the church's shadow.

Still, he had to admit to himself—were he in a better mood, with the salty tang of the sea barely brushing past his face in the feeble wind, and the temperature hovering incredibly close to normal for early April—the walk over would've been incredibly invigorating.

As he finally passed over the little stone bridge into town, past town hall and the photography shop, he heard concerned voices calling out to him—Kathy, Maya, and Luna, from the sounds of it. Grunting in half-hearted acknowledgement, he waved almost instinctively at them as he shuffled by, before hearing them turn the conversation back inward, too inaudible for him to pick out what they were saying anymore. He couldn't help but think back to his high school days with a slight twinge of bitterness.

Looking up, and ignoring the ache in his tired legs, he realized that Wizard's door was right in front of him, as weather-beaten and faded as ever before. Raising a hand to knock, he hesitated quite abruptly, cheeks warming as he remembered the last time he'd visited—Wizard had seemed to know just what was on Kasey's mind without a single hint being uttered in advance. Unless Chase had given Wizard some sort of forewarning, after seeing Kasey express an interest in the dream interpretation services—and Kasey couldn't for the life of him justify that line of reasoning, given Chase's particularly hostile attitude towards Wizard—it only left one very uncomfortable possibility.

"Say... would you like me to help you fall back asleep?"

Shaking his head rapidly, as if hoping to fling the remnants of the dream into the ocean, Kasey threw aside his trepidation and knocked much more forcefully than he'd meant to. Hardly thinking, he followed up with a softer, more controlled knock in a rather unnecessary show of apology.

"Yes... I heard..."

Steeling himself as the door creaked open, Kasey met those startling eyes once more—emerald-green and moonlight-yellow, peering from behind dark silver bangs—and felt mildly proud of himself for not flinching as harshly as he'd expected to. Vaguely, he noted that he couldn't quite feel the intense, stuffy heat radiating out as it had last time—Wizard's house, while still heady with the aroma of cured meats, herbs, and spices, felt a fair deal cooler and much more comfortable this time around.

Once again, Wizard beckoned Kasey into the darkened house without so much as a greeting, shutting the door gently behind them. Kasey seated himself on the far end of the old, beaten-up couch, legs swinging as usual, curiously eyeing something that hadn't been there before: A small table, draped in a rich, wine-red cloth, with an immaculately-kept crystal ball perched on a little cushion in the middle. Despite the darkness of the room, the faint catches of sunlight leaking in between the slats of the shutters seemed to afford it a knowing glow.

Watching Kasey's weary brow furrow at the sight, Wizard sat down across from him—right in front of the crystal ball—and nodded at it. Kasey seemed very ill at ease. "I... have been working to locate a few... colleagues... of mine," Wizard explained, his voice still as withered and hoarse as ever before. "Missing... for some time now. Regrettably... little headway... has been made..."

In spite of Wizard's words, Kasey got the sense from his rather detached stare that the news wasn't quite all that regrettable. Still, he nodded in understanding, even as more questions seemed to rise to the forefront of his mind. "I-I'm... sorry," Kasey muttered sincerely, frowning thoughtfully at the solid ball of glass between them. "I hope everything's okay..."

"...I... appreciate your concern," Wizard responded rather flatly. Still, much to Kasey's surprise, a small smile curved his full lips slightly upward, as he went on: "However... one... is always causing many... problems. Perhaps her absence... is a blessing for me." He scoffed quietly at this. "There is no doubt... she is just fine... however she has wound up. I... do not search terribly hard for her... I admit."

A nervous giggle—high and squeaky, in stark contrast to his normally-deep voice—popped out of Kasey's throat at this news, unsure of how else to respond. Noting this, Wizard shook his head almost imperceptibly.

"...Still... I digress. My apologies." With a wave of his hand, a soft light flared to life within the crystal ball, making Kasey jump a bit. Unconcerned, Wizard went on: "You are here... to discuss many things... many concerns..."

Nodding dumbly, Kasey watched as Wizard closed his eyes and set his jaw, hands hovering over either side of the glowing ball—a cool, silvery light seemed to pulse around it, siphoning away from the ball and into his palms.

Despite his severe fatigue, Kasey fervently hoped Wizard wasn't about to link their minds and knock him out cold once again.

"...The other day... you awakened Benjamin," Wizard murmured softly, closing his hands into luminescent fists. Eyes saucer-wide, Kasey watched as he swept one hand out, palm flat, the light coalescing into a miniature panorama of Castanet—perhaps from the ocean, by the looks of it. A weak blue beam of light flickered up from Harmonica Town, sputtering like a dying flame. In the looming form of Mt. Garmon behind it, a stronger red glow pulsed. "...Incomplete... but once again conscious. His powers... unstable, but present... pulled from a slumber that... has blurred his memory..."

Kasey could only nod once again, feeling the lump resurface in his throat as he recalled Ben's distressed apologies playing directly into his mind:

"...I'm so very sorry, Kasey! I tried... please, please believe that I tried for her! I... I failed her, but... I'll keep trying until I succeed! Please, please ask her to forgive me..."

"...How do I... how do I help him?" Kasey murmured weakly, feeling his legs swing a bit more intently now. "I don't know the first thing about where to... how to—to look for this..."

Wizard's head shook again, a rather remorseful expression on his face. "...The hymns of Castanet... have not resounded... in all my time here. They are known... to some... but still quite old. Yet... I, myself... am not a native of this land," he explained evenly, as two more pinpricks of light surfaced on the far side of his floating map—green and yellow, barely visible at their proper stations in Flute Fields.

Shooting a startled glance at Wizard, Kasey's breathing quickened, picking up on and quietly mouthing a particular word that had jumped out at him. In the glow of Wizard's projection, the lines and shadows upon his face were even more pronounced. Exhaling swiftly, he went on, his voice pleading: "I... you don't... you can't think of anything...?"

"...We must... exercise patience," Wizard murmured, brow slightly furrowed, eyes still closed in concentration. Breathing out through his nostrils, his frown only deepened. "...Within the recesses of his mind... distortion... what little there is... barely recognizable..."

Feeling his heart sink lower than ever, Kasey's feet kicked together now, and he leaned forward, hands planted on the cracked leather cushions. "S-so... okay, l-let's just... move on from Ben for now, then..." He couldn't help but feel a fresh surge of guilt for saying so, but found his tired mind at an utter loss as to how to proceed from nothing. Anissa's reassurances from earlier rang in his mind. "A-alright, so, the... the others, ahhh... Colin... Darren... Edge..."

Chest rising and falling steadily as he severed his link with a still-despondent Ben, Wizard began to reach out to the other sages in question, one-by-one. "Colin... I do not sense his presence... here in Castanet," he murmured softly, not noticing as Kasey's fingers gripped the cushion even tighter, or as the dot of yellow dimmed in the grove past Marimba Farm. Still, the sense of despair emanating from Kasey briefly concerned him enough to continue: "...He may yet still be here... however, he may be too weak... too powerless... for me to sense..."

Fighting to get his nerves under control, Kasey nodded shakily. In the back of his mind, he now found himself wishing for stifling heat once more to smother him into an unintended rest. "Okay... I-I hope so..."

"Indeed... let us keep faith..." Refocusing his energy, Wizard's knitted eyebrows shot up in surprise, the green light by Horn Ranch wavering and distorting, his mind unceremoniously cast into a dreamy haze. He swayed for a moment, before pulling himself back to lucidity, shaking his head. "Darren... is lost in a slumber... neither here nor there. I... can sense him. However... his energy patterns... are muddled. Much like Sephia's... present, yet not... he is as good as missing..."

"He—he's here, too, though?" Kasey whispered hopefully, feeling a little jolt shoot through his body at Wizard's troubled nod. "So... so what you're saying, is... I just... w-we just have to find him..."

"He resides in Castanet," Wizard confirmed softly, the green light still going haywire—blinking erratically, stretching and snapping back. He grimaced as he felt a strange force push back against the link, not quite interfering... but... patrolling. "...But... on his path... danger. Something watches... a savage, protective force..."

As Kasey's face fell and his chest tightened, Wizard hummed low in his throat—he recognized something about this force, as twisted and harsh as it now was. A sliver of sorrow lanced across his chest—while he cared little for its mistress, the creature itself was beautiful, dignified, loyal. Far above this... apparent distortion of its nature. And wherever it dwelt... so, too, did she.

Vivi, he thought tersely. But where? What in the world could have...? No matter—it would have to be addressed at a later time. At least he'd finally made some progress. Renewing his concentration, he sighed. "...I fear that, perhaps... Darren... may be lost within the Fugue Forest..."

Kasey let out a shaky breath, trying to keep himself from losing his composure at the news. Luke flashed once more into his mind's eye—this time, Kasey couldn't help but picture him half-dead and covered in bruises and gashes, collapsed on the riverbed by the waterwheel. "No," he moaned softly, burying his face in his hands, feeling himself start to tremble. "No... it's... it's just—it's a hunch, right? Y-you said he... he may be..."

Sighing, Wizard opened his eyes, the projection growing dim as he cast an apologetic, mismatched stare Kasey's way. "...Based upon... conjecture. However... the gut feeling... is strong. I do not recommend... pursuing this lead... at this time. A suicide mission... something lurks..."

"Well, what—what the FUCK do you expect me to do, then?!" Kasey suddenly shouted, feeling his temper flare up again as Wizard simply watched, his expression unchanging. "Nothing, nothing, and more goddamn nothing—why did I even fucking VISIT you?!" His temples throbbed, and his vision blurred, knuckles white as he gripped the cushions tightly, trying to keep himself from... punching Wizard in his infuriatingly calm face, throwing that goddamn crystal ball out of the window—he didn't know anymore.

Voice shaky as his brief adrenaline spike quickly drained back out, Kasey shook his head rapidly, immediately feeling a wave of remorse crash into him and leave him slumped down. The corners of his eyes were burning. He wondered if he was losing his mind. "I-I... I... I'm s-so, so s-s-sorry," he stammered, his voice thick and wavering. "I-I shouldn't have—I... I know y-you're... you can only..."

"I will try," Wizard cut in gently, "to reach Edge now... do not despair..."

Kasey nodded weakly, gripping at the sides of his head and tugging hopelessly on his messy hair. "Y-yeah... okay... y-yeah, h-he's... he must... be in that p-purple bell, r... right?"

"...The heart," Wizard confirmed, eyes closing once more as he refocused his energy. "A particularly powerful sage... kind, empathic... Sephia remembers him most fondly..."

Kasey nodded blankly, too ashamed and upset with himself to lift his head and look Wizard in the eye. Instead, he kept his burning gaze focused on his ragged, black sneakers. His own eyes slid closed, trying to rein his emotions back in, as he waited for Wizard to speak once more.

And waited...

Eyes opening again, he scrunched up his brow in concern at the sound of shallow, ragged panting—looking up, his heart flew into a panic at the sight of Wizard, slumped back in his seat, clutching at his heart and spasming violently. His eyes were rolled back in his head, his free hand gripping the arm of his chair so intently that the veins were showing through. He seemed unable to even speak, instead having his communicative abilities reduced to helpless groans and whimpers.

Kasey was on his feet immediately, barreling over to Wizard's chair and grabbing his shoulders, unsure of what to do as fear surged through his body. All earlier exhaustion was forgotten. "WIZARD! Hey—W-Wizard! What's wrong?! C'mon, come back to me—i-it's okay, y-you're..."

The projection before him was now going wild, stretching and wavering like a television on the fritz. Bolts and beams of purple light flared up at random all over the miniature Castanet, in various intensities—small bursts, bright blasts, pillars, wild tendrils whipping about in a tumultuous storm.

Seeing the tan forehead shining faintly with the strain, dark silver bangs and braid in disarray, and face twisted in agony, Kasey gulped and released his hold on Wizard's coat, his own breathing harsh and ragged. "I-I'll—I'll get Dr. Jin! Y-you'll be okay, I'll—just—just please, d—"

"..I... I am... in no... need..."

"No, you—he'll help you," Kasey refuted, unsteadily backing away in the direction of the door, afraid that if he looked away for even a second...

"...I... I... will... be... fine!" With a great effort, Wizard squeezed his eyes shut and now gripped the chair tightly with both hands, gasping as his body lurched and jolted. The room suddenly dimmed once again as the projection blinked away, and the light in the crystal ball faded. Breathing still seemed to take a great deal of effort for Wizard, but he evened it out soon enough, hunched forward in his chair, with his palms pressed against his aching, clammy forehead. "Your... concern... is app... appreciated," he gasped out, shuddering with a rather harsh coug.

Kasey slumped against the door in a mixture of fear and relief, trembling legs barely holding him up. "W-Wizard... what... what the hell...?! A-are you okay? You—you..." Eyes sliding shut, he pressed a hand to his own forehead, feeling slightly dizzy now. He had a feeling he wouldn't like the answer to his next question, but he had to ask: "What... what happened to you, man?"

Letting his breathing grow steadier and slower as he straightened up, regaining his bearings, Wizard inhaled deeply. "...Overwhelming emotions... anxiety... despair... fear... a frightfully strong wave." He drew in another heavy, wheezing breath before continuing: "Such unexpected intensity... shocked my system... rather brutally." He pressed the heels of his hands tighter to his skull and massaged it, grunting softly. "I apologize for any distress... I may have caused you..."

Kasey shook his head quickly. "N-n-no... you're... we're cool. I-I'm just... I'm glad that... that you're okay." Swallowing hard and letting the knot in his throat untie itself, he went on: "E-Edge... he's... he's scared of something?" As he said the words aloud, he found that he wasn't quite able to really blame Edge for this. "Is... is he okay?"

A nod, his handsome face drawn up into yet another frown. "He... is safe. Yet... I fear that that may be the issue..." At Kasey's puzzled tilt of the head, Wizard cleared his throat. "...Safe from all the world... mortal and immortal... locked in upon himself. Here but there... he lies awake in Castanet... outside of our reach... our realm. He is not yet ready to... let himself be sought out..."

A moment of tense silence passed, the meaning of Wizard's words sinking into Kasey's weary brain. "He's... sealed himself away from us," he murmured, his voice growing thick and eyes starting to tingle once more. "He-he won't... he won't even let you in..."

Wizard nodded glumly. "I felt it... his fear for his brothers, his Goddess... his home... dying. Though, I do believe that... with time... he may yet come around..."

With a mirthless laugh, Kasey sagged against the door. He had to get out now. It had been a bad idea to come here in his current state. "Yeah... yeah. Of course, h-he'll... he'll come around... sounds like he's doing a pretty fantastic job of that so far..."

"...I am sorry... Kasey..." Wizard's head hung low now, shadows concealing his expression. "...Please believe... that I wish... this visit could have eased us all..."

Kasey shook his head. "No... no, it—you... did what you could," he muttered bleakly, hand finding the tarnished doorknob behind him. He wondered if he'd even have the energy to make it back home before breaking. "I-I... I don't want anyone else getting hurt trying to fix this. I'll—just... just, please let me know if... if anything comes up," he added, his voice wavering slightly as the strain began to overwhelm him. At Wizard's nod, he sighed. "Thanks, man... t-take care..."

"Good day, Kasey," Wizard responded quietly, casting a troubled stare to his dim crystal ball as the boy left. His thoughts turned back to Vivi, and he sighed.

Outside, under the charcoal sky, Kasey's vision blurred once more as the door creaked shut behind him.

Failure... failure... and, once again... failure.

Three strikes, and he was out.

He was barely cognizant of the world around him as he almost robotically made his way down the steps that hugged the wall of the Choral Clinic, idly taking note of a pair of raised, angry voices arguing in the town below. Kathy and Craig, Kasey thought offhandedly, as he slumped against the corner created by the clinic wall and the staircase leading down to the Ocarina Inn. He couldn't quite blame them for the tension, no matter the cause. He knew it all too well. It was starting to feel like all he knew.

With another quivering sigh, he slid down to the concrete and drew his knees up to his chest, hands pressed to the sides of his forehead and lips trembling as the events of the past few days, weeks, months caught up with him, a möbius strip of stress and fatigue that finally melted away the lump in his throat to something more constrictive. What had he been dragged into? And why had he let himself be dragged into it? What kind of person would he have been if he'd said no?

"Hey—we'll figure something out."

"It's alright, Kasey..."

"It isn't just your burden to fix this anymore."

His chest grew tighter as the reassurances and encouragement reeled through his head, feeling smaller and smaller as he kicked himself repeatedly for failing to take it all to heart. His rational side quietly insisted that he was just exhausted, but it was muted. His splintered mind tried feebly to push all the negativity away—memories fresh and faded, the anxiety, the exhaustion, the pressure, the heartache, the horrifying sight he'd just witnessed mere moments ago, the sobering news...

"I wouldn't love you if I didn't think you were a fantastic guy..."

Something surged against the floodgates, pushing them painfully open at last.

He wasn't sure of when his vision had started swimming and distorting, the first tear finally slipping out and rolling down his face. And another, and another, each one painting shiny tracks down his red, burning cheeks, trailing and dripping off the end of his nose, leaving dark spots on his gray t-shirt and causing his worn-out body to shake violently with each strained whimper. Not wanting to draw attention to himself as he clutched helplessly at his hair, he eventually choked the helpless sobs and moans back down into shuddering, painful gasps and sniffles, feeling utterly beaten-down, disappointed, and pathetic, wishing it would all just...

Stop. Just stop. Just... stop, please. "Please, just... just stop, already... stop..."

He didn't know when he'd started croaking out the broken, desperate mantra, but he found himself unable to do anything else but keep muttering it to himself as the tears kept coming, hoping someone—something, anything—would hear him, and finally take mercy on him.

"...Kasey...? K... Kase, is that you...?"

Arms now wrapped tightly about his legs and face pressed against his knees, Kasey looked up with a confused jolt, blinking his red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes at the strange blob of color standing a few feet away from him—orange, white, pink. The voice was quiet with concern, but the high pitch was familiar...

Hastily wiping his eyes and sniffling once more, Kasey sighed and shot a feeble, half-hearted smile Maya's way. The young waitress was looking unusually hesitant, hanging back by the foot of the stairs, freckled face twisted in concern as she picked at her bubblegum-hued shorts. "H-Hey, Maya..."

"Hey," she responded gently, taking a tentative step up towards Kasey. When he didn't shrink back or flinch, she sighed, and made the rest of the short trip up, sliding down to sit beside him and casting her worried blue eyes his way. "I... uhh, sorry if I'm interrupting something, but... what happened...? Did you... hear some bad news from Jin? Or is—is it your family?" she added, looking slightly alarmed at the sight of his worn-down face.

Blearily, Kasey shook his head, giving a rueful chuckle, his throat loosening up a bit as his tears began to subside. "I... I just... I've been kinda being really... stupid lately, stressing about a lot of stuff..." Sniffling again, he sighed. "I'm... I'll be fine, though, Maya... thank you..."

Nodding slowly, Maya reached over and slung an arm around him, rubbing his shoulder gently. "Well... hey, we all have those kinda days," she told him, exchanging a small smile with him. "Y'know... where everything... just, like, majorly sucks, and you're just... just like... super bummed out and all." With this, she nodded firmly at her own words, looking a bit more confident and squeezing his shoulder now. "So... you're not being stupid, Kase! You're just being... you know, like... human, and stuff."

With another small laugh—this one hoarse, but a little less watery than before, Kasey shook his head and allowed himself a little grin. "Yeah... I... I guess I am, huh...?"

"I hope so," Maya agreed, getting to her feet and holding out her hand. As Kasey took it and clambered unsteadily to his own feet, she tutted at him, shaking her head and holding her arms across the front of her white tank top. "Sheesh... wow, you look super-crappy, too. Err, s-sorry!" she added with a little squeak, covering her mouth. "Uhh, I mean! Well, yeah, you totally do, but I didn't m—"

"—No, no... you're right," Kasey cut in understandingly, shoving his hands back into the pockets of his shorts and shaking his head. "I... I haven't been sleeping great recently, either..."

Arms crossed and a thoughtful frown overtaking her cute face, Maya turned her glance to the darkening sky. "Yeah, no kidding... my Nana said she heard from Miss Irene that you've got a lot on your..." Her eyes brightened as she trailed off, unfolding her arms and smacking a fist into her palm. "Your plate! Hey, there we go!" At Kasey's bemused frown, she elaborated: "It's not, like, a miracle cure or something! But... y'know, when I get really bummed out and stuff, nothing cheers me up like some... some cookies, or cake, or... you know, whatever! Just, like stuff your face till ya wanna lay back and moo! Really hits the spot," she insisted, a sunny smile now on her face as she clasped her hands behind her back and eyed a chuckling Kasey expectantly. "It's on the hou-ooouuuuse," she tacked on in a cutesy, sing-song voice, tilting her head for added effect.

He resisted the urge to cringe at the thought—aside from a fondness for fruit and the very occasional bit of pie, he never had been and never would be known for having much of a sweet tooth. Many of his birthdays had more often than not wound up with him eating the tiniest slice of cake he could get away with, leaving his sisters to inhale the rest in a rather unholy manner. Not to mention the slight guilt he felt at the thought of accepting free food from the inn. Could they really afford that right now? "W-well, that's... I really appreciate it, I do, but..."

"Orrrr whatever else you wanna eat," Maya wheedled, cutting in rather insistently. "Like, ice cream, or a sandwich, or some pizza, or pie or... just... whatever you wanna eat! My folks are out at Renee's for lunch, and the kitchen's, like, stuffed with goodies—trust me, you'll probably feel loads better after pigging out a little!"

"Alright, alright! You win—I'll chow down a little bit..." Unable to resist Maya's endearing charm, Kasey held his hands up in surrender, earning a cheerful grin as Maya practically skipped down the steps with a victorious little squeal. The slight rumble his stomach had emitted in the middle of Maya's list hadn't hurt, either. "Thanks, Maya..."

As he wiped at his damp, puffy eyes once more and followed her into the inn, Kasey couldn't help but notice that the argument on the lower part of town had since faded—Craig was now sitting dejectedly on the pier, staring down into the dark, glassy water and picking at the splintery planks.

Feeling a small pang at the sight as he pictured Anissa's pained face, Kasey sighed, before trailing Maya into the inn.

A short time later found the pair happily digging into their respective snacks—Maya taking on a plate of cookies and donuts, and Kasey surprising himself at how ravenously he devoured his slices of leftover Hawaiian pizza. As he drained his glass of tea, he couldn't help but let out a pleasantly surprised hum—maybe it was the food, or maybe it was just the catharsis from finally allowing himself something of a meltdown earlier... but he found himself starting to feel a little cheered up already.

"Is... are you really sure it's alright for this to be on the house?" Kasey asked for the third time, getting a good-natured eye-roll in response.

"Kaaaaaase! Chill out, buddy!" Tsk'ing, Maya sternly waved a macaroon at him. "They always make a lot for when I have friends over! Plus," she added with a slightly-embarrassed titter, "they know I can't cook that great yet, soooo... when they're gonna be out for a little while..."

Chuckling sheepishly, Kasey shrugged, nibbling on a leftover bit of crust. "Okay, okay... I know. I really... I really do need to chill out..."

Maya nodded smartly, a pleased look on her face as she finished chewing her cookie, and swallowed. "You, buddy, are darn tootin'! ...Soooooo," she continued, index finger circling around on the polished tabletop, "I know maybe you don't wanna talk about it or anything... which is cool, bu-huuuuut... do you wanna talk about it...?"

Mulling it over, Kasey's chewing slowed down as he set the remainder of the crust back on his plate, drumming his fingers on the table now. He fought to keep his legs from starting their usual swinging, and hummed thoughtfully as he swallowed his food. He'd already pretty much vented to Anissa earlier, but he supposed—thinking on how alarmed she must've felt to find him earlier, curled up and crying by the clinic—he really owed Maya some sort of explanation, as well.

Maybe not a complete one, though, he thought wryly, stomach flipping as Toby and Danny's faces flashed across his mind. Taking a deep breath, he tapped his crust against his plate, trying to figure out how to best explain it to her. "Well... you... you know how Yolanda told you I've got a lot on my plate, right...?"

Maya nodded as she took a deep swig of her cream soda. "Mmmm?"

Kasey nodded back at her. "Yeah. I... I kind of... I've been putting a lot of pressure on myself over all of this. Just... getting myself really down every time I hit another dead end, every time... stuff doesn't happen right away." He sighed, running a hand through his long hair and giving Maya a slightly-crooked smile. "I... I think I just expected too much of myself too soon... and really beat myself up too badly over it." Like everyone's been telling me not to...

Maya chewed in thoughtful silence for a few moments, aquamarine eyes never leaving Kasey even as he cast his eyes downward. Reaching over, she patted his wrist and smiled, getting him to look up at her expectantly. "Well... yeah... I dunno what all's been happening with that bell stuff of yours. I mean, I wish we knew something here!" she added in a slight grumble, but then shrugged it off. "But—hey—we were going through this mess for soooo, so long before you even came here! And... yeah, we got by, right? So, like, stop—stop treating it like you're... defusing a time bomb and stuff!" At this, she giggled, prompting Kasey to crack a wider grin than he had all day and let out a genuinely amused laugh.

Maya went on, gesticulating as she spoke: "I mean... you've been here... what, a month already? And—ya know, I bet you've never really even just, like... sat back and chilled out yet, huh? All mission this, bell that, gotta farm, bell time again—bam-bam-bam!" Here, her hand whacked the tabletop three times, making Kasey smile even wider and shake his head good-naturedly. "So... so, yeah, Kase! Just... take it easy, and... like, take it day-to-day. Go arm-wrestle with Luke, or ride horses with Renee and Kathy and Owen, or... you know, just do something fun! Well," she amended quickly, "first get some sleep, because yiiiiiikes... but, then have some fun. That's why it was invented! All work and no play, right?"

Feeling his heart warm at Maya's words, it was Kasey's turn now to nod slowly, drinking in the advice. He'd had a few enjoyable moments since arriving, definitely—lunch at the Brass Bar, cooking with Renee and Anissa, a nice afternoon to catch up on some light reading, chatting with Toby...

Still, in the wake of everything that had happened recently—even having his friends over for lunch at his house—he found himself more and more intently focused on the mission at hand. Working hard to please everyone else, to keep the momentum going...

"You're... you're right, Maya," he finally said, feeling as though a small bit of weight had been lifted from his shoulders as Maya looked particularly pleased. "I could stand to unwind a little more often... I guess I'm just... just really used to having to be serious, responsible, all that..."

"Nothing wrong with that!" Maya agreed, pumping her fist in the air. "I mean, someone's gotta do it, right? But, yeah, we've all gotta loosen up once in a while! Even Candace has those movie nights, and sometimes we kinda just do each others' hair, and... stuff like that. Uhh, maybe a little girly-girly for you," she added with an awkward giggle, "but you know what I mean!"

Kasey nodded again, beaming across the table at her now. "Yeah... I do." Feeling his cheeks go a bit pink, he cleared his throat. "Actually... T-Toby and, umm... Renee and I are kinda hoping to go fishing... t-together soon... when things are a bit better around here... so that... might be a start..."

If Maya noticed him stumble over Toby's name, she—much to Kasey's silent gratitude—didn't say anything, instead nodding enthusiastically at the idea. "Awww, yeah, there you go! I mean, I can't really sit still for it, myself... but I hear fishing is tooootally super-relaxing! You'll be a happy little pile of farmery goo in no time!"

Kasey couldn't help but pick up on some of her enthusiasm, letting out a loud, pleased laugh that got Maya's face lighting up even more. "I hope so! I'm definitely—"

However, he stopped himself in mid-sentence, frowning a bit and letting out a soft "Huh?" as a very strange sound caught his ear.

Maya's eyebrows pulled into a confused frown. "Uhh... Kase...?"

Holding a hand up, he shushed her, straining his ears for the noise once more.

Had it been... a rumble...?

Going quiet and listening as well, Maya let out a soft gasp—she'd just heard it, too. And, as she slowly, hopefully turned her head to look out the window, her suspicions were confirmed.

"...No way," she squeaked quietly, bolting up out of her chair and lunging for the front door. She'd noticed the clouds rolling over Castanet earlier—they all had, murmuring hopefully, hesitantly, as the thick, grey blanket had grown heavier and darker with time...

But it just couldn't be...

Wrenching the door open as Kasey quickly followed her, they both found themselves stunned at the sight of Harmonica Town awash in a steady, cool rain, for the first time in well over half a year.

Kasey's mouth worked soundlessly, as something Wizard had said earlier floated about in his mind. Ben...

"No way!" Maya repeated, her voice quivering as she stepped outside in a daze—her trembling hands cupped together, she let the rainwater pool, let her hair and clothes slowly become drenched. Allowing it to trickle down her arms as she clasped her hands over her racing heart, she let out a happy little gasp, eyes starting to water as well. "Oh my god, Kase, look!" she whispered gleefully, spinning around to see Kasey simply taking it all in with a completely dumbfounded look on his face.

All around them, faces pressed against windows, and residents emerged from their houses—some proceeding cautiously, some darting right out. A level down from the Ocarina Inn, Candace and Luna were giggling in delighted disbelief, holding hands and dancing about in the rain without a care in the world. Their grandmother observed fondly from the doorway of Sonata Tailoring. She didn't even want to spoil the moment by telling them they'd catch a cold—she didn't have the heart, not when they both looked as elated as she felt.

Kathy, ponytail quickly plastered to her neck, watched her friends celebrate as well, grinning broadly and giving them a good-natured shake of her head. When they beckoned for her to join in, she pulled off her boots and splashed right on over, latching onto them in an excited embrace as they jumped up and down, cheering.

Toby came out of the fishery with his equally-awestruck uncle and cousin, clapping a hand to his wide-open mouth and laughing happily as Paolo darted off to join Candace, Luna, and Kathy in their festivities—Ozzie called after him to be careful as he hopped up the steps. Twinkling green eyes flicking upward, Toby caught sight of Kasey and Maya—waving and calling out to them a few times—but shrugged it off good-naturedly when they didn't respond. He instead ran a hand through his soaked silver hair and heaved a shaky, exhilarated sigh as Ozzie pulled him into an enthusiastic side-hug.

Even on the dock, Craig and Pascal were looking up, sitting side-by-side, with Craig's finger jabbed skyward in utter shock. He slapped the dock and let out a joyous cackle, slinging an arm over the similarly-overjoyed captain's shoulder and whooping loudly.

"You just keep it comin', whoever the hell ya are! I don't care if you keep this up for a week, ya hear?! Two weeks, even!"

"You tell 'em, Craig!" Ozzie hollered, fist rammed triumphantly in the air as Pascal chortled at their antics. "Hey, whaddya say we make it three?!"

"Now we're talkin', buddy!"

Broken out of his reverie, Kasey let out a tearful laugh, and felt his heart grow lighter and lighter—the cool rain soaked his hair, his skin, and his clothes, immersing him in utter bliss. As he stood there and pushed his wet hair behind his ears, he felt it sink in even further, washing away the stress, the exhaustion, the anxiety... even if only for the time being. They still had a lot of work ahead of them, but... Maya was right. It could hopefully wait, at least just for a little while.

Once again, he momentarily found himself feeling overwhelmed, sniffling and wiping his nose, feeling tears mingle on his cheeks with the welcome rainwater as another embarrassed chuckle came out—but, as he broke into a wide grin, as he listened to the soft rumble of thunder roll across Castanet... he found that he didn't quite mind this time.

Chapter Text

The day wore on into an inky, soaked night as the quiet storm continued to roll over Castanet in long-awaited waves, rinsing away the dust and grime and tension that had been building up for far too long now.

The residents of the Garmon District and Flute Fields watched with the same dropped jaws and disbelieving smiles as those over in Harmonica Town. Garmon Mines in particular rang out with loud whoops from Luke, Bo, and a raincoat-clad Chloe, as they splashed about merrily in the steadily-growing puddles, the amused families watching from inside their warm, dry houses. From the entrance of Garmon Mines proper, a smirking, dirty-blond man teased a shorter, utterly bewildered green-haired woman that he'd told her it was going to rain, the way the sky had been looking.

She promptly swatted at him and told him to put a sock in it, even as he chuckled and slipped an arm around her waist.

On the eastern end of Castanet, two families clustered around the windows of the Horn Ranch farmhouse, their meals forgotten as they stared in utter delight; Chase watched from his bedroom, almost hypnotized, as he lowered his flute and let it hang loosely at his side; and, crossing slowly over the bridge while a conflicting mixture of relief and anxiety bubbled in his stomach, Craig saw the gentle lights glowing from within his house. Through darkening sheets of rain and the brief, soft flashes of lightning in the clouds high above, the form of someone on the front porch was visible, unmoving as she watched him approach.

There would certainly be a lot to talk about, he knew. Hopefully it could wait, leave the moment be for a little while.

And, smack-dab in the center of Castanet, a faintly-smiling Kasey lay in his bed at Dobro Ridge, dead to the world for the night. The light rumble of thunder only shook his house the slightest bit, barely drowning out the sound of Toby's name spilling from his lips in a soft moan. He rolled over and nuzzled deeper into his pillow with a contented sigh, the boy of his dreams happily watching the stormy evening from his own bedroom back in Harmonica Town, head bobbing along to the music filtering out of his earbuds.

The rain hardly let up the following day, only bringing small patches of damp respite that were shortly washed away in another refreshing spray. For the most part, the residents of Castanet found they didn't mind terribly much at all, though the rivers and ocean still remained overall motionless in the downpour, and a few colds were inevitably caught from Wednesday afternoon's celebrations. Luke sneezed and snorted rather wetly, causing a soup-bearing Bo to cringe in disgust, and the Kozlowski sisters sniffled and grunted miserably in their beds while their grandmother fussed around them with hot tea and fluffed pillows. Rainy-day meals were cooked with cheerful hums; couches and beds played host to small groups huddling together to watch movies; books were read with the persistently soothing drumroll across their rooftops serving as a pleasant backdrop; and long phone calls were made between family, friends, and lovers alike.

Thursday night, Kasey chatted eagerly with Vanessa about her upcoming piano recital, getting a scoff and a "You come down here and do that" when he teasingly encouraged her to headbang and scream for the audience while she played; over at the Cymbal Blacksmith, a pink-cheeked Owen sat in his bedroom, a dirty little grin on his face as he listened to Kathy's suggestive murmurs slip straight from the receiver to his red-tipped ear, responding with a few whispered, racy comments of his own; and at the Ocarina Inn right above Kathy's own home, Colleen gossiped into her phone about the handsome new stranger staying at the inn, having arrived in town on Phoebe's arm after the young woman had been away for quite some time.

Ruth—who had seen the pair pass through Flute Fields a while before the rain had started on Wednesday—listened from the other end, pitching in her own thoughts on the matter with gleeful interest. Behind her, Craig sighed into his newspaper, rolling his eyes and muttering something under his breath with a small, tight smile.

When Colleen's husband embraced her from behind and began tracing light kisses down the side of her neck, she giggled into the phone that she had to go, Ruth's admonishing "Oh, get a room, you two!" being the last thing Colleen heard from her friend before replacing the receiver in its cradle.

Friday afternoon found a well-rested Kasey staring peacefully out his front window, arms resting on the sill and watching nature continue to take care of his crops for him. They still looked undersized and pale, but he felt a faint sense of pride in seeing them gradually take form. Behind him, a rerun of Lillie's ten-day forecast played, her voice bubbling with joy as she repeated that Castanet's rainfall was expected to continue strong for at least a few more days. Frowning slightly, Kasey couldn't help but think back to Ben's discordant song and frantic state, as well as Wizard's notation that the sage's powers were "unstable, but present."

Aside from the rivers and oceans lacking any sort of current whatsoever, Ben's powers looked like they were manifesting pretty damn well to him, at least. But, he reasoned, compared to a wizard, he was just... Kasey. Therefore, he was most likely missing something.

And we'll figure the rest of that out in time, he reminded himself firmly, the events of Wednesday afternoon looping back through his head. He'd spent all of yesterday cooped up by his lonesome, happily thumbing through a novel as Maya's optimistic advice took root in his mind. After all, he hadn't gotten much of anywhere actively chasing down the leads thus far... and kicking back to relax at home the other day had felt pretty good, particularly on the heels of one of his most restful nights in a while. And another day of relaxation wouldn't necessarily hurt, would it? Castanet was doing relatively better than before, for now. It wasn't like blowing off work, although he did have to admit that it could impact his ability to make a living all the same. His savings weren't infinite, after all.

Fingers drumming on the sill, Kasey looked back over his shoulder at the green-and-yellow phone sitting on his bedside table, worrying at his lower lip and humming to himself as he thought back to something Renee had told him this past Monday afternoon, when they'd been heading into town together. He had enjoyed himself quite a bit, having everyone over for lunch, even if it had mostly consisted of mission-oriented chit-chat. It was different from going out to drink with his old co-workers and mostly being overlooked in the darkness and music of the bars they'd hopped, where he could've ducked out and taxied home without anyone really saying anything later on. He'd been involved in the conversation, being heard and noticed, maybe even fitting in somehow as part of a little group. And, perhaps, it was a bit soon...

And maybe he's already got plans tonight, he thought, his mind turning back to Toby's slightly-lopsided, easy smile. Thinking back to his most recent dreams, his stomach wrenched a bit—he wasn't sure he could even look at Toby now without wanting to die of embarrassment... not that anyone but Kasey himself, and perhaps Wizard, would really even know why. At least when he'd started thinking like that about Danny, they'd been dating. And Kasey had had a chance in Hell with him. And Danny hadn't started out in his more intimate thoughts as some other guy entirely. Besides, I already hung out with Toby on Monday. He might think I'm... needy or something.

His heart sped up a bit, and he sucked in a deep breath. It was worth a try anyway, wasn't it? It was just spending time with someone whose presence he enjoyed. It was platonic! He'd done that before. He'd done that before with Toby, at that, and—their first visit to Wizard's aside—Kasey had pretty much enjoyed himself each time. Even his first night in the clinic, to some bizarre degree. And it certainly wasn't like Toby had to know how Kasey really felt about him, what was on his mind... Especially not when I'm asleep, he thought with a wry smile. And I'm probably out of my goddamn mind for even thinking of doing this... but... nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

The quick walk across his house took what he surmised was roughly half a century, hearing the little beeps in his ear as he dialed, listening to the ringing that seemed to drip into eternity...

Juuuust like ripping off a Band-Aid, Kase.

At the click of someone picking up on the other end, he suppressed a squeak, swallowing hard.

"Shamisen Fishery, this's Ozzie!"

Ozzie's gravelly, peppy voice sent Kasey slumping onto his bed in relief and trying to let out his held breath as quietly as possible. At least he'd have a little more time to mentally prep himself and calm down a bit before speaking with Toby, now.

Wouldn't he?

"...Uhh, anyone there?"

"Oh!" A jolt shocked Kasey back into rigidity, and he cleared his throat. "Uhh, h-hey, Mr. Takomoto. It—it's Kasey, down at Dobro Ridge, sir! How are you?" he added quickly, relaxing a bit once more at Ozzie's cheerful laugh.

"Yo, Kase! Doin' fine, kiddo! Lovin' this weather, if you'd believe that!" He laughed again—more of a raspy, deep cackle, really—and Kasey couldn't help but chuckle along with the sound. It was pretty infectious. "Hey, so what's up, bud? How can I help ya?"

Reach through the phone and slap me for doing this, Kasey thought blankly, trying to steel his nerves even while his swinging legs started up once again. It wasn't like they weren't friends... it was hardly weird, right? How the hell else was it supposed to work? Working to at least keep his voice steady, he swallowed hard. "Uhh... is Toby there...?"

"Yep! Hold on a sec, lemme get him—" And, a second later, Kasey heard Ozzie's slightly-muffled, still-boisterous voice: "Yo, Tobaroni! Phone!"

Amused, Kasey smirked and shook his head at the nickname, hearing a bit more of Ozzie's side of the exchange before he returned to the phone: "Alrighty, bud! He'll be out in a sec—he just got outta the shower."

...Oh.

And in that instant, Kasey was eternally grateful that Ozzie couldn't see his burning face, or the thoughts that had suddenly caused it. Ohhh, boy. "Th-thanks, Mr. Takomoto," he responded with another shaky little laugh, scratching the back of his neck and clearing his throat as he forced the inappropriate images from his mind, and waited. And waited. And...

"Hello?"

Feeling slightly proud that at least he didn't bolt upward and lodge his head in the ceiling at the sound of Toby's gentle, pleasant voice crackling out through the phone, Kasey cracked an unseen, nervous grin, his heart starting to pick up speed again. "Hey, man! It's, uh, it's Kasey," he added, feeling rather stupid for pointing out the obvious—he'd heard Ozzie mention it to Toby just a moment ago...

"Yeah, hey!" Toby responded, sounding pleased. "How are you, Kasey? What's up?"

With a fluttering feeling blossoming in his stomach, Kasey flopped backwards onto his bed, staring up at his ceiling as he spoke: "Ahh... just... putzing around the house." Sounding boring as hell, he thought sourly, even as they shared a quiet chuckle at his remark. Still, he couldn't help but be happy that he'd managed to at least avoid stammering—so far. He wasn't even going to question how. "So... how's it going over there?"

Toby hummed thoughtfully. "Pretty good. Kind of a slow day here... I think everyone's still enjoying the rain, though." He paused, before amending: "Well... actually, no, I guess not everyone—Candace and Luna are sick now, and I heard from Kathy that Luke is, too. But aside from them..."

Mentally slapping himself, Kasey nodded, rolling over onto his side and staring out of the window to watch the downpour. His heart sank a bit—what had he been thinking? Was he really going to ask Toby to splash out here, all the way from Harmonica Town, in this weather? When a few of the townsfolk had already caught colds from romping about in it? As welcome as the rain had been for everyone, this was probably asking too much. Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumbass... but, you're finishing this. Don't puss out, now. At least get an answer...

Toby went on, his voice breaking into Kasey's thoughts: "So... you're doing okay then?"

Caught off guard, Kasey straightened up a bit, before grimacing. Yes, it was definitely a good thing he was on the phone right now, instead of right there in the fishery, where Toby and his family could watch him acting like a moron. "Yep! Yeah, I was... uhh, just wondering though—" Out the window once more, and he shook his head. People went out in the rain all the time without getting sick or dying. They just had to not be stupid about it. That was all. "Well... I know it's raining out and all, but, uhh... if... if you're not busy, I mean! If... maybe you'd wanna... hang out tonight? ...At my place...?"

And he turned the mouthpiece of the phone upwards so Toby wouldn't hear him let out his breath in a whoosh, screwing his eyes shut as he waited for the response.

"Really?" At the surprise in Toby's voice, his eyes squeezed shut tighter.

"Y-yeah," Kasey stammered, briefly pulling the mouthpiece back down to respond.

Here it came—after all, it had been kind of a stupid req—

"Oh, sure! That would be nice."

Kasey's eyes popped open at the reply. "R-really?" he echoed into thin air, his voice cracking slightly. Doing a double-take as he noted the mouthpiece sitting rather far from his mouth, he pulled the phone back down again, clearing his throat. "Really?" he repeated, feeling no less like a doofus for having to ask again.

"Yeah, I'd love to! What did you have in mind?"

It was clearly mating season for the now-massive swarm of butterflies in Kasey's stomach, and he could once more feel them multiply exponentially at Toby's positive response, sending his heart rocketing into his throat. How had he ever spoken to Toby like a normal human being before? "Uh! Well—" Wide eyes darting around, he settled on the TV against the far wall, on the other side of the ragged old couch. The TV without a damn VCR or DVD player, but with the local guide sitting atop it. He didn't have cable, but he had enough channels to maybe find something. Kasey quickly jogged over to grab the guide, leaning against the set and thumbing through it as he spoke. His eyes lit up in relief as they fell on a few weekend marathon line-ups, some of which definitely didn't require cable. "Uh, maybe... watching a few movies, or... or something? There's—ahhh, here we go... an adventure movie marathon on..."

A slight shifting sound on the other end—Kasey couldn't help but wonder exactly how Toby positioned himself while talking on the phone with people. "That sounds pretty fun! I love those kinds of movies—I'm in. Did you need me to bring anything?"

Craning his neck in the direction of his kitchen and unable to help the dopey grin spreading across his face, Kasey inwardly pumped his fists and screamed gratitude to the heavens. "Ahh... uhh, I mean—I'd hate to put you out," he answered vaguely, searching his cabinets as quietly as he could. No popcorn. Crap. He sure as hell wasn't having a movie night and asking Toby to bring the most important ingredient himself. Off to Encore General it was, clearly.

"Oh, it's fine—I don't mind. I can bring some drinks, if you'd like... I think we've got beer, juice, some of those hard lemonade things, soda, wine coo—"

"—Ah, soda—soda's fine!" Kasey cut in a bit too quickly before Toby rattled off presumably the contents of the entire fridge, smacking himself on the forehead. "Err, sorry. Ahhh, yeah, the soda'll do." From what Danny and his co-workers at his old job had told him before, not only was he an utterly hopeless lightweight, but he was much less shy than usual when he'd had a few drinks—a blushing Danny in particular had noted after their anniversary that, when drunk, Kasey was "stuck in rutting season." And a surprisingly capable singer, having been fairly smashed the night he'd somehow belted out "Pour Some Sugar on Me"—thrusting obscenely against the mic stand, headbanging like he was trying to dislodge his skull from his neck, and inexplicably catching Danny's attention in a positive way for it. Never mind that Danny hadn't exactly been sober himself.

He still got mortified to this day whenever he even thought about it. No way he was drinking around Toby. He'd probably wind up exiled from Castanet somehow.

Toby hummed happily. "Sure thing. Hmm... Uncle Ozzie's been trying to cut back on his sugar intake anyway, so I should be able to bring plenty! Plus, I'm not sure about you, but... ahhh, I'm not much of a beer person anyway," he added sheepishly, once more chuckling with Kasey.

"That's fine. I like beer, but I'm seriously annoying when I drink, anyway," Kasey responded, feeling his cheeks flare up again at Toby's soft laughter. "Thanks for the offer, though, man. Ummm..." He padded back over to his bedside as he continued, checking his alarm clock—quarter to three. Enough time to put on some pants, dart over to Barbara's for the popcorn, and make himself and his house presentable. "Sooo, does, uhh... well, it starts at six..."

"Six sounds great!" Toby agreed readily, warming Kasey's chest to match his face. "I'll see you then!"

And, just as a thrilled Kasey was about to respond:

"Oh, by the way, I almost forgot—who else is coming?"

If Kasey's mind was a vinyl record, Toby's question just sent it screeching to a halt under the needle. Uhh...

"I want to make sure I bring enough for everyone."

Well... fuck. That's actually a pretty great question.

Suppressing a groan, Kasey grit his teeth. Others. Of course. How could he have... "Well," he started slowly, sucking his teeth in thought as the most obvious cluster of faces came to mind, "I was... thinking of asking... Renee, and Anissa, and... uh—Chase—if they wanted to come, too..."

"Yeah, that sounds wonderful! Err, hold on," Toby muttered quickly, causing Kasey to freeze in place. "Gee... I think Chase has to work tonight, actually, after his cooking lesson with Ms. Talbot... but I can ask him for you, though!" he offered, missing Kasey's relieved sigh. "He should be over there soon. I don't mind making a quick stop up."

Kasey nodded rather pointlessly, surprised at how bright his next words sounded: "Oh, sure! Thanks! So... so, I'll call the girls, then," he went on, twisting at the hem of his snug, black A-shirt and trying to stop his foot from tapping rapidly on the floor, "and... and, well, I'll see you guys at six, then!"

"I can't wait! Thanks for inviting us, Kasey. See you then!"

After their goodbyes were said, the phones returned to their respective cradles in their respective homes, and Kasey's heart had slowed down to a rate that was still well above average, he gulped and sat down on his bed, smoothing his long hair back. He felt the dopey grin forming on his lips once again.

"...That wasn't so hard," he mumbled to himself, flopping onto his back with a relieved sigh and letting his stomach continue engaging in its complex acrobatics.

And up he bounced again like a jack-in-the-box, suddenly remembering that he still had two more calls to make. The phone was snatched back from its base and dialed in short order, and Renee's voice greeted him before long, sunny as usual even in the persisting downpour.

"Hey, Renee! ...Doing alright, actually, how about you? ...Cool! Yeah, I know—it's awesome! So... hey, I was just wondering—are you up for another group movie night?"

------------------------

With Renee and Anissa now on-board as well, and Chase a tentative fifth member of their little group, Kasey found himself somewhat less intimidated when he pushed open the creaky door to Encore General. The jangly old bell announced his presence as water rolled off his blue-and-tan rain jacket, and at the counter, two women looked up: Barbara, and an unfamiliar, friendly-looking younger woman with neatly-combed, jade-green hair curled into a little flip at the nape of her pale neck, and red-rimmed glasses.

"Hey-hey, welcome to the Encore General Store!" Barbara trilled, with a wave just short of manic. "What's a-cookin', Space Kase?"

Flashing a bit of a grin at the nickname, Kasey waved back, pushing the hood of his jacket down and politely nodding to the other woman, who returned the action. "Some popcorn, hopefully! I'm having a couple friends over for movies tonight," he explained.

Barbara crossed her arms and nodded in understanding. "Sounds like a plan! Me and Simon kicked back and watched us a little Kill Bill last night, ourselves! Well, popcorn's over here—" She swept out from behind the counter and bounced over to the grocery shelves lining the right-hand wall, "—and we've got some candy, too, if you wanna load up! I won't tell the ushers," she added with a little wink and a giggle, making Kasey's grin widen a bit. Behind them, the young woman groaned and shook her head slightly, though she didn't look terribly exasperated.

"Ahhh, thanks—but Renee's got the candy covered. She, Toby, and Anissa are all coming and bringing some stuff," Kasey added quickly, watching Barbara's eyebrows shoot up with brief interest at the mention of Renee. "Maybe Chase, too."

A congratulatory slap on the back from Barbara sent him lurching forward slightly, with a grunt. "Well, look at you go, crawling outta that shell of yours! You go ahead with your bad, friend-making self, bubba! Hey, Pheebs," she added, as the young woman slid her glasses back up her small, upturned nose and stepped out from behind the counter to approach them, "I almost forgot—this here's Kasey, the new farmer! I told you about him. He's been a busy little beaver since he got here!" Phoebe's green eyes lit up with vibrant curiosity at her mother's words. "And this lovely young lady here is my Phoebe," Barbara went on proudly, making a sweeping gesture while her daughter and Kasey shook hands. "She just got back from pokin' around the Valley, and who knows where else!"

"Well, doing excavation," Phoebe elaborated offhandedly, "working at a dig site... it was a lot of fun! We found some pretty amazing artifacts, actually—more than we thought we might. It's great to meet you, Kasey," she added with a small, albeit genuine smile, hands immediately going back into the pockets of her khaki skort. "I've heard quite a lot about you already, and I only got back Wednesday afternoon! You're turning quite a few heads around here!"

With a sheepish chuckle, Kasey stuffed one hand into the pocket of his own jeans, other hand already at the back of his neck. "Ah—err, a-am I, really?"

"Cute little thing, ain't he?" Barbara quipped to Phoebe, shooting her daughter a catlike smirk and causing Kasey to feel a bit embarrassed. "Heh, and I'm not just messin' with you about the cute part—you ain't just turning heads because of that crazy-ass bell stuff, hearing how some of those girls talk about ya!"

Kasey gulped audibly and shot Barbara a crooked smile, shrugging. Admittedly, he had been hit on before by a few girls once he'd left his hellishly awkward, gangly teenage years behind, becoming more toned and fit during his time unloading and stocking—and, for reasons that had eluded him, his gap had suddenly attracted its fair share of positive attention in tandem with that—but he still couldn't help but be a bit puzzled by it all sometimes. "Ahh, ehehehehh... th-that's... that's nice...?"

Barbara tossed her head back and let out a loud cackle. "Hey, we've got some pretty chickies around here, bubba! I'd say that's pretty damn nice! Sheesh," she added, looking at Phoebe, "but listen to you talk about turning heads around town, child! They didn't let 'em keep most of the stuff they found—" Now her cheeky grin was back on Kasey, with Phoebe looking utterly perplexed, "—but wait'll you get a load of what she brought back with her!"

Cheeks going rosy now, Phoebe huffed and shot her mother a cock-eyed glare. "Mom, seriously! You leave Professor Hawke alone! I swear... sorry, Kasey," she added, with another little smile, now looking thoroughly embarrassed. "I told one of the professors—" Here, she stared pointedly at Barbara, who still wore a devious expression, "—what was going on here, and he came back with me to investigate—Calvin Hawke. He's done a lot of field work, so he's really looking forward to checking this place out! He's staying at the inn right now, but I could introduce you later, if you'd like."

Kasey nodded brightly, while Barbara looked as if she wanted to make another smart remark, but thought better of it. "Sure! Thanks, Phoebe! And," he murmured thoughtfully, rubbing his stubbly chin, "Perry's mentioned a lot about you, too... he, well..." He trailed off for a moment, not entirely sure how to phrase his thoughts as Phoebe cocked her head curiously—Kasey certainly wanted to take it easy a bit longer and let his brain rest, but he had been awaiting Phoebe's return for a bit, at the same time. "Well," he finally decided, "he says you know a lot about the lore of this place... legends and history and stuff like that?"

"Well... a bit," Phoebe agreed modestly, shrugging. Her nose and cheeks dusted a light pink again, before she continued speaking: "Professor Hawke's been studying this region for a while, though, so he wants to study the town more in-depth while he's here—but I certainly would enjoy going over some of the local lore sometime, sure!"

"I bet Calvin's gettin' the hands-on experience, though," Barbara cut in with a naughty wink and a playful punch on Phoebe's shoulder—the poor girl was now red and sputtering, seemingly trying to wrestle her tongue back into speaking condition. Kasey couldn't help but sympathize with her, and be slightly reminded of when he'd met Candace—one of the few people in town who seemed to be more socially awkward than he was. Her and Wizard, anyway, and Kasey highly doubted that Wizard really gave a crap.

"Good God, Mom!" Phoebe finally shot out, arms crossed over her tight gray t-shirt. "That's enough of that from you, thank you! Why can't you be a prude like Mrs. Sellers?" she added in a grumble, while her mother let out another whoop of laughter and threw an apology somewhere in the middle. "Geez... rude."

Kasey, for his part, let his deer-in-the-headlights stare dart between the two, unsure of exactly what he should be saying to smooth over the situation—Barbara looked like she was having the time of her life. "Err," he mumbled, catching their attention, "well, I guess I... should pay for my popcorn, and... uhh... get home, tidy up a little..."

"I'm terribly sorry about that," Phoebe sighed, heaving a great sigh and shaking her head. "This woman's absolutely batty sometimes." She and Barbara exchanged wry grins, before looking back at Kasey, Phoebe clucking her tongue and sighing. "I hope you don't let it impact your opinion of me too much."

Barbara simply chortled, patting Phoebe on the shoulder and bounding behind the register to ring up a sheepish Kasey.

------------------------

A few extra groceries and a pleasant goodbye to the Kern women later—Phoebe again offering to introduce him to Calvin and talk local mythology "sometime"—Kasey splish-splashed his way back to Dobro Ridge with a loaded bag in his arms, feeling as much like a drowned rat as he figured he looked.

Still, he darted anxiously about his house, dusting what didn't need dusting, fluffing the cushions on his hopelessly-lumpy couch, triple-checking the TV guide, and finding all of his dishes clean and accounted for—including the two large bowls he'd snagged at the store. Afterward, he took a shower that was perhaps a bit longer than it needed to be in an effort to soothe his raging nerves, hoping time would just hurry up already and get to six o'clock. Or maybe just freeze until he was ready, that would be fine too.

Kasey wasn't sure which he wanted more, and—as he pulled his hair back into a scruffy little ponytail and slipped on a fresh t-shirt—a distant, easily-noticeable figure outside his front window caught his eye.

Standing out for miles amid the welcome gloom with his orange jacket, Toby was strolling up to Dobro Ridge some fifteen minutes early. A rain-spattered paper bag was hoisted under one arm, and a black umbrella was clutched in his free hand, the usual cheerful serenity on his face—the charming smile that had given Kasey all-too-pleasant dreams the past few nights.

It almost felt wrong, to Kasey, to think of someone as sweet and easygoing as Toby in the ways that he had.

Don't picture him naked. Don't picture him naked. Don't picture him naked. ...Damn it, what the hell did I just—

Kasey stood rooted to the spot for a few moments as Toby drew nearer and nearer, wondering if he'd just imagined the sensation of his ribcage squeezing his lungs like a bony boa constrictor. With a hitched breath, Kasey darted to the door and nearly flung it open in his haste, catching Toby off-guard as he halted a few steps from Kasey's mailbox.

"Whoa! ...Ahh, hey, Kasey," Toby added, his surprised expression quickly switching back to his usual pleasant smile. His head inclined in greeting as Kasey ushered him in and helped get the bag from under his arm. "Sorry I'm a bit early," Toby continued, now shaking the rainwater off of his closed umbrella while Kasey set the bag down on the counter. "I was gonna try and make two trips and just clear out all the soda, so I left a little early... but this should actually be enough, right? I forgot until I was halfway here that I actually wanted to leave some for Paolo, anyway."

As Toby spoke, Kasey withdrew four two-liter bottles from the bag with a nervous smile. "Ahh, well, that's—that's cool! I don't mind—this is plenty, thank you!"

If only his voice would drop back down an octave. Kasey suddenly found himself very aware of how a dimple formed on Toby's left cheek when he smiled, how the corners of his pale green eyes crinkled up slightly, how his shaggy silver bangs were just short of falling into his eyes at this point...

And, Kasey suddenly realized, how creepy he himself would look if Toby caught him just... staring like that. Had he even blinked once the whole time?

Scrabbling about his rapidly-spinning mind, Kasey went on, as Toby unzipped and removed his jacket: "H-hey, so, uhh... what—what'd Chase say, by the way? Oh—don't worry, you can just... mmm, set that on one of the chairs if you want, it's fine." Maybe I should buy a coat rack or something one of these days.

"Sure, thanks—Chase isn't sure if he can make it, by the way," Toby explained with a slight frown, draping the jacket as instructed. "He says it sounds cool, and he'll try to come over if he can, but he'll have to see how busy it is tonight. So... possibly, more candy for us," he finished with another little smile, getting a chuckle from Kasey. "It might sound a little selfish, but he has a sweet tooth like you wouldn't believe, actually."

Finding it almost impossible to picture Chase inhaling a bag full of gumdrops—or something of the sort—while wearing his pissy poker face, Kasey snickered, feeling a little more at ease now. "Ah, well... I'm not really big on sweets, actually. So I should hopefully be spared from his wrath... plus, he'll have to fight Anissa and Renee, too," he went on, seeing Toby grin again—and, once more, Kasey found himself briefly fixated on the dimple. It hardly seemed fair to him—when the hell had that thing even decided to show up, anyway? It hadn't always been there, had it?

Blinking hard, Kasey cleared his throat and hunched his shoulders a bit. He was staring again. "So... err, hey, have a seat! Make yourself comfortable! Can... can I, uhh... can I get you anything while we're waiting for the girls to show up?" He punctuated the question with a rather crooked, awkward grin, meeting Toby's eyes once more as they settled at opposite ends of the couch.

"Oh, no—I'm fine, thank you... oh!" Sitting up a bit, Toby cocked his head and craned his neck. "By the way... that ponytail looks pretty nice on you! Hmm, I wish my hair looked good longer," he went on thoughtfully, while Kasey practically swallowed his own tongue, rubbing at the back of his neck as he averted his gaze to the TV. The ponytail in question brushed against his knuckles.

"Ahh... th-thank you. Your, uhh... y-your hair looks... cool like that, though," he mumbled, tugging at the collar of his shirt and wondering when exactly the room had grown so warm.

"Heh... well, thanks! But Mrs. Talbot's always threatening me that she's going to sneak up on me one day and cut it, though," Toby said, smirking and shaking his head, causing Kasey to ease up a little and let out a snort at the mental image. "I asked her if she could go after Chase instead, since his hair's longer than mine and he's over at the inn all the time anyway, but she really likes that thing he does with the bobby pins and barrettes and all. But she says I look like I'm trying to join a boy band. So she told me to watch where I take my naps, or..." He made a snipping motion with two fingers to punctuate his point. "...Well, I just hope she doesn't cut it too short," he finished forlornly, looking so comically perturbed by the idea that Kasey couldn't help but laugh out loud.

Off Toby's responding wry chuckle, Kasey shrugged apologetically. "Ahhh... well... if she tries anything, just point her scissors at me and run like hell." He tugged on his ponytail and grinned. "She'll probably forget all about you once she sees this thing, and you'll be free to go join that boy band of yours!"

Sinking back into the cushions with an amused look on his face, Toby shook his head. "Oh, I couldn't let you do that. Besides, I don't think they'd want me in one of those—I'm a terrible singer. I sound like a dying cat. But Renee tells me you have a really nice voice," he went on, as Kasey's smile quickly became embarrassed. "So, you can take my spot in the band and keep your hair. I'll let Mrs. Talbot shear me."

"Ahh... hahaha..." Kasey felt his legs starting their usual swinging once more and willed them to stop. "Mmmm, welllll... I... can play a little piano, but I can't really dance for shit. I think they make them dance in those bands, don't they? Guess we're both outta luck," he added lightheartedly. "Ahh, unless you dance, I mean!"

Toby pursed his lips and tapped his chin. "I guess that's the end of that road, then. I'm actually a little afraid of what would happen if I tried to dance... huh. Come to think of it, all I can really do well is... just... fishing. And... napping..." He trailed off quietly, folding his arms and looking rather stunned by his own admission. His face fell, and he sighed, glancing up at the ceiling. "Sheesh. So much for talent. Well, I... guess the fishing part isn't too sad, but..."

Something struck Kasey at the sight of the faint shadow falling over Toby's face all of a sudden—the easygoing, pleasant expression was now rather crestfallen. He thought back to a few hours earlier, and how surprised Toby had sounded that Kasey had wanted to invite him over...

Without thinking, Kasey reached over and patted Toby's arm, somewhat taken aback at how unexpectedly toned and firm it felt through the baggy, light-blue shirt. "Well... hey, don't get so down on yourself. Y'know, for what it's worth... I..." He swallowed hard, hoping it went mostly unnoticed. "I really can't wait to go fishing with you and Renee, and... I... I still think you're pretty cool," he finished in what he hoped was an encouraging manner, causing a rather touched Toby to look over at him, corners of his lips turned slightly upward again.

"Really?"

"Really," Kasey echoed, ignoring how much his heart had sped up in the past few seconds. "Plus, people like dorks like us, remember? And... hey, besides—you've got some explorer cred under your belt here in town, and you play a pretty mean air guitar!" They both laughed at this, and Toby's expression brightened back up, head cocked to the side.

"Heh, yeah—I guess I do, don't I?" At this memory, they shared another grin, and Kasey felt his legs stop twitching with the urge to swing about as he laughed again and nodded.

"Even better than Hendrix! You're hired," Kasey decided with another nod, feeling his racing heart now start to jump about at the twinkle in Toby's eyes. Still, Kasey couldn't help but feel calmed down again, at least a little bit—and given how wound up he'd been recently, that little bit was more than welcome. Granted, his stomach was still working on contorting itself into a shape reminiscent of an Escher carving, but not as fervently as earlier. Renee and Anissa could be late if they wanted to.

Clearly, however, it was too late to give them the memo—as Toby started to say something else, Renee's rendition of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on the front door nearly sent Kasey toppling off the couch, scrambling over to let the girls in with a hasty apology directed Toby's way.

Hugs were exchanged, bags rustled, and two more raincoats—maroon, and mint-green—were added to the now very colorful group around Kasey's kitchen table as Renee shook out her umbrella.

"Bring on the crystal monkey skulls and melting faces!" Renee cheered, leaning over the back of the couch next to Anissa and pulling Toby into a quick, one-armed hug, while Kasey got the popcorn started and shook his head. "Or whatever the heck they're showing tonight! Loving that 'do, by the way!"

"Thanks! Think they bust out the Indiana Jones at, like... ten or something," Kasey told her, shooting a grin her way and feeling much more at ease now that a few more people were present. "But if you don't wanna wait, I'll turn on my stove and hold my face over it until it starts melting off, how's that sound?" At the sounds of the other three laughing, he felt a different sort of warmth in his stomach.

Renee flashed him a thumbs-up and an approving nod. "That is some dedicated hosting, Kase! Hey, I can wait till ten to check out Harrison Ford, so you just keep your face on."

"I wonder what this one is?" Anissa added, the TV guide now in her lap as Toby peered over it with her. She squinted and cocked her head. "The one that starts at eight, I mean... the title's in Spanish, but... ahhh, I don't speak much. I do love foreign movies," she went on, "but this, it's... it's, err, something about unicorns... I... think."

Renee and Kasey—both leaning over the back of the couch now while the scent of popping popcorn began to fill the house—joined in their perplexed gazing, trying to figure it out.

"'When his village is razed to the ground by a horde of demonic unicorns, the lone survivor sets out on a mission of vengeance and self-discovery,'" Toby read softly. "...That actually sounds pretty incredible. I kind of want that one to be first now, honestly."

"You and me both," Kasey said quickly, getting another stomach-flipping smile sent his way. "Who comes up with these things?"

"Someone I seriously wanna meet," Renee quipped, pointing at the first movie on the line-up. "Ooh, Bridge to Cilua. I heard this one's pretty good! 'After a dark, cataclysmic force tears apart their home world, the survivors must learn to adapt and fight back in the new home granted by their protector, before the same destroyer takes away their second chance.' Sweet."

"That sounds like this game I played once," Kasey mumbled, head cocked curiously as he returned to his stove to tend to the popcorn. "Should be pretty good, then."

"I love those world-discovery sorts of stories," Anissa agreed with a dreamy sigh, as Toby clicked the TV on and flipped to the channel hosting the marathon. "I mean, I love it here in Castanet, don't get me wrong. But the concept's... kind of romantic, in a way."

Looking over his shoulder from where he was emptying the popcorn into large bowls, Kasey chuckled. "Heh, moving out to here from the city's been kind of like that for me... it's like stepping into a fantasy world, almost." He thought back to the night he'd met Sephia, the clearly-hidden path, Alan's tomb... a slight shiver ran down his spine at the memories, but he felt a faint rush in his heart at the same time. In spite of his nerves, he had to admit—in hindsight—that he found it fairly... cool. "There's just... it feels like there's a lot of history out here, its own world... like something out of a novel..." Out loud, he couldn't help but find it sounded utterly corny—still, the looks on his friends' faces told him they clearly felt otherwise.

"Yeah... I know what you mean," Renee agreed slowly, balancing one of the bowls between her and Anissa—the candy the two had brought over was on the arm of the couch beside her, balanced rather precariously. "Phoebe's boyfriend—" She and Anissa shared a quick grin at this, and Toby looked at them with raised eyebrows, "—is really fascinated with this place... and he's studied all over the region!"

"He kind of reminds me of Indiana Jones, actually," Anissa mused, finger to her chin. "A younger, Australian version, anyway..."

Renee giggled slyly. "Oh, God, don't get me started on that accent! I think I about swooned when he introduced himself." Behind them, Kasey simply rolled his eyes good-naturedly—it was like listening to his sisters gossiping with each other, on their more civil days. "I felt bad because I thought Phoebe might get a little ticked, but she just had this amused look on her face the whole time, like, 'Yeah, girl, I know—he gets that a lot.'"

And on went the light in Toby's head, with a snap of his fingers. "Ohhh, that guy staying at the inn! I met him when I stopped by there earlier today—he seems pretty nice. Heh, and Miss Yolanda called him her favorite dish," he added with a chortle.

After asking everyone what they wanted to drink and filling their glasses, Kasey clicked off the lights and made his way over to the couch, shaking his head and laughing. "I met Phoebe earlier today—she's pretty cool... and Mrs. Kern made this Calvin guy sound like a real panty-dropper, too," he threw in with a sly grin at Renee, who stuck her tongue out at him.

Noting the only spot left on the fairly-small couch was wedged between Anissa and Toby, Kasey felt another flutter in his chest and took his seat, clearing his throat and balancing the second bowl of popcorn on his and Toby's legs. "Guess that Wizard guy's got competition now, huh?" He shot a meek smile to Toby, who returned it easily.

"...I wouldn't go that far," Renee chuckled, though her crisp cheeks gave her away. "But, he was really polite... kind of a gentleman, really."

"And he seemed pretty smitten with Phoebe," Anissa chimed in, curious burgundy eyes flicking over in Kasey's direction. "It was very sweet. You'd think someone with his credentials would be stuck-up, but he's very easygoing."

Toby nodded, feet starting to tap together in anticipation as the host of the marathon finished her introduction, the screen fading into the rating and warnings for Bridge to Cilua. "Poor Paolo's not going to be very happy. He's kind of got a little crush on Phoebe. It's cute," he added with a little laugh, as the girls chorused an "Awwww!" and tilted their heads. "Heh, I'm a little worried he might run up to Calvin and kick him in the shins."

"Oh, Paolo's a sweetheart," Anissa admonished, clucking her tongue as the TV showed a beautiful blue planet engulfed in a deadly red glow. "...At least, as far as we're aware..."

"He's a good boy," Toby agreed sincerely, "but, uhh, he's been pretty obsessed with Mechabot Ultror lately, practicing their moves around the house. He might get aggressive. So... I think I'll soften the blow with some ice cream, just in case. Err, that works on them, right?" he added, sending a hopeful glance Kasey's way.

"H-huh? Oh! Well..." Kasey scratched the back of his head. "Ahhh, couldn't hurt to try!"

Though overall enjoying and engrossed in Bridge to Cilua, Kasey found himself periodically distracted—almost jumping a bit when his rough hand brushed Toby's slightly-softer one in their popcorn bowl, hoping Toby was too into the movie to notice anything off. On-screen, the destroyer's cult practiced a revival spell, a demented priestess brainwashing followers of the protector's church into serving their dark purpose.

On the couch, Kasey sucked in a deep, calming breath when he felt his and Toby's knees brush, his pulse quickening at the pleasant feeling of the warm skin. "Err, s-sorry," he whispered, trying to maneuver his leg away as comfortably as possible. Anissa once more looked over at him, only half of her attention focused on the movie.

Toby looked over at Kasey, eyebrows up. "Hmm?"

A bit relieved that he hadn't noticed anything, Kasey quietly waved it off. "Ahh... nothing."

As the movie wore on, Kasey found his attention increasingly drawn into its events, jaw dropping at the climactic, explosive showdown between protector and destroyer, and the ragtag band on the protector's side. To his right, he heard Anissa let out a little gasp, and Renee exclaim loudly as the creature was felled, and Cilua was saved.

A bittersweet ending later, as the protector left to restore their homeland and her lover vowed to follow her, he grinned wryly at the sound of Renee sniffling a bit—though, he had to admit, his throat was a bit tight as well.

He was only slightly glad that—as far as he could tell—Chase hadn't been able to make it down to see him discreetly wipe at his eyes. Though, he admitted to himself, he would've been fairly amused if Chase had gotten just as choked up over the ending.

...Nahhhhh.

Yet, when Toby let out a sad "Awww" to his left, Kasey unconsciously reached over and rubbed his shoulder soothingly—before freezing in place, wondering just what in the hell he thought he was doing.

"Ahh, sorry... I'm fine," Toby mumbled, sounding a bit embarrassed as Kasey jerkily withdrew his hand and cleared his throat once again.

"R-right..."

"Is everything alright?" Anissa whispered quietly in his ear, making him jump. Kasey felt a cold wave of panic sweep over him as he turned to her, noting the concern on her face, and nodded.

"Y-yeah. Err... just kind of sad..." he lied, glad the lights were off. She could still see him clearly, letting it go with a casual nod, but maybe his pink cheeks weren't as obvious in the glow of the TV...

I've really gotta get my shit together.

Thankfully, the next movie was so engrossing, he couldn't help but stare at the screen, transfixed, features twisted with the same befuddlement as those of his friends. Popcorn and candy were almost automatically popped into mouths that occasionally gaped, eyes torn between the subtitles and the utterly bizarre events taking place on screen.

The villagers fell into a hush, the massive form of the great, terrible creature splayed out over several crushed buildings—not the first victims of its maddening rampage, by any means.

Trembling, the elder approached its still, pale form, gulping audibly. A shaking hand reached out, touching it—he jerked his hand back instinctively, but the beast gave no regard. It gave... nothing.

With a flourish, the elder spun back to the people of his village, arms spread out in proclamation:

"...El unicornio es muerto!"

Gasps rose up behind him.

"¡Día feliz!" he continued, the cry echoing in an invigorating rally across the village.

"¡Día feliz! ¡Enviar el bestia al Infierno! ¡Infierno!"

"...What the fuck?!" Kasey blurted, eyebrows furrowed so close together, they looked conjoined. Toby, meanwhile, had his head tilted, scratching at his hair as if he could dig up some sort of understanding, and Anissa's lips were pressed into a thin, thoughtful line, trying hopelessly to follow the plot.

"This. Is. Amazing," Renee muttered slowly, popping a gummy worm into her mouth and chewing it with the biggest grin on her face that the others had ever seen—the only one of them who didn't look utterly lost. She let out a loud giggle as the unicorn rose up from its seemingly dead state and nuked the village with an echoing whinny. "Oh my God, yes. I so needed this movie in my life!"

"I..." Anissa turned to her best friend, blinking with widened eyes. "...Why."

"...Uh-oh," Toby cut in, voice laced with concern. "He took out their military forces. This looks pretty hairy."

"Seriously, what in the fuck?!" Kasey repeated, voice going higher as he gestured at the screen, looking around at his friends. "...What—?" Even as the movie wore on, and the day was saved thanks to the lone survivor from the movie's start, nobody had any more answers. Still, Renee was doubled over in gales of laughter while the credits rolled.

"I... I need to marry whoever wrote this thing," she breathed, wiping her eyes. "That was incredible. I don't think Indiana Jones is going to top... the... that!"

"She's got a liiiittle bit of a dark side," Toby explained to Kasey, who was still too dazed to be jumpy, and thus only nodded in nearly-mechanical response.

"I... I uhh... see that..."

"Dark side, shmark side," Renee scoffed. The host of the marathon seemed to share Renee's opinion of the movie, now introducing the third feature of the evening. Ten o'clock came and went as the host filled viewers in on the legend himself. "C'mon, you can't tell me that wasn't hilarious!"

"It... was something," Anissa mumbled, shaking her head in disbelief, while the iconic theme of Indiana Jones struck up on the TV.

Once again, the four of them were enraptured, watching a daring adventure unfold before them that they'd seen a few times before, no less thrilling for it from the moment Indy spotted the boulder bearing down on him. Though a few more accidental brushes gave Kasey the occasional jolt, he found himself much less flustered each time, too captivated with the film to care as much as he had earlier. Toby didn't seem too put out by it, cramped as they all were on that lumpy little couch...

I should still get a bigger couch or something, he thought, munching on another mouthful of popcorn, and listening to the soft rumble of thunder outside in the continuing rainfall. He was surprised—and silently thankful—that his body hadn't responded in much more obvious, awkward ways to being pressed up against Toby for a few hours.

Well, it had stopped responding that way since sometime during the second movie, anyway.

And he couldn't help but idly hope, as the Ark of the Covenant was opened, that saving Castanet would involve nothing like what he was currently watching... never mind how fun it looked.

Toht's face melting off—prompting Kasey to cringe and accidentally recoil sideways into an equally-revolted Toby, turning with another hushed apology—only reinforced that hope.

With the Ark of the Covenant now sealed away, Renee let out a stifled yawn that rocked her lean frame with a shudder, stretching her arms and grunting as she placed the nearly-empty bowl on the floor and stood up. "Okay, I might have to slip outta this thing a bit earlier than I wanted to... but I think I'm about adventured out for the night!"

The other three looked back to see Kasey's alarm clock displaying in its blue glow that it was, indeed, just after midnight—time had flown across the span of three movies, the sounds of the persistent rain outside all but forgotten to them for a few fun, cozy hours.

"I think so, too," Toby agreed, stretching his long legs out before following suit. He hummed happily as he clasped his hands behind him and arched his back with a soft crack, not noticing as Kasey watched him. "Ahhh... well, Kasey—I had a lot of fun tonight," he added happily, getting a pleased smile sent his way—next to him, Anissa once again observed curiously, even as she, too, nodded in agreement and thanked Kasey. "Thanks for having us over to do this!"

"Seriously, we should do this again sometime!" Renee agreed readily, taking Toby and Kasey's bowl of popcorn as well, and looking between the two. "Mmm... whaddya want me to do with these, anyway? I'll wash the bowls out, but..."

"Umm, you guys can divvy up the leftovers, if you want," Kasey told her, shrugging and getting up with Anissa. Remote in hand, he walked over to click the lights back on, then shut off the TV. "I've still got a few more bags. You don't have to worry about the bowls, though, I'll take care of those later..."

"Score! The night just keeps getting better!" Humming merrily, Renee dumped the remainder of the popcorn into two Tupperware containers, passing one off to Anissa, and rattling hers at Toby. "You're sure you don't wanna take any...?" she asked, picking up the speed of the rattling.

He waved it off with a light laugh. "No, that's fine. I'm hoarding the rest of the candy you brought, so it wouldn't be fair to take the popcorn, too. I'm gonna split it with Paolo, though," he tacked on, when Renee raised her eyebrows at the amount of candy he'd claimed. "...Honest."

Anissa giggled, patting him on the shoulder. "Well, if he doesn't come zipping through our farm sometime soon, I guess we'll know it's because you kept the candy from him!"

"I'll be sure to ask him if he can do that..."

"And you said Chase had a really bad sweet tooth," Kasey sighed, looking amused as a sheepish Toby hugged Renee goodbye, then Anissa. His hands in the pockets of his white shorts, he rocked back and forth on his sneakers. "Well... thanks for coming over, guys! I'll... I guess I'll see you all around later?"

Renee pulled him into a hug next, nodding. "Definitely! But, I think I'm gonna go see if I can find out where I can order that one movie... I think that was my favorite one of the whole night. Or maybe... ever."

"You have horrible taste," Kasey whispered in her ear before they pulled apart, getting a playful smack on his chest for his remark. "You're just mad because it's true!"

"Ahhh... well... you just don't know art!" Renee retorted, tongue once again sticking out at him. Picking up and slipping on her maroon raincoat, Renee clutched her container of popcorn to her chest and headed for the door, whistling lowly at the sight of the heavy rain continuing to drive across Dobro Ridge. "Well—I'll see you guys later! Careful going home, okay?"

With everyone else echoing her cautions back to her, she splashed out with a little squeal, ducking her head and clutching the hood of her raincoat tightly so it wouldn't fly off.

Toby was next, a rueful grin on his face as he listened to the rain pouring down, umbrella in one hand, bag of assorted candy in the other, and once again wrapped in his cheerful orange jacket. "Well, let's hope I don't trip and spill all this on the way back," he chuckled weakly, rattling the bag. "That'd just be depressing."

"Well... you just be careful going home, okay?" Kasey reminded him, surprised at the tender tone that had surfaced in his voice, and hoping he was just imagining it. Nodding, Toby turned and pulled him into a hug, and Kasey felt himself stiffen briefly, before relaxing. For that brief moment, he enjoyed how comfortably warm Toby was, his chest pressed to Kasey's, the minty scent of his shampoo...

Don't enjoy it too much, you lovestruck idiot.

"Oh, definitely! Thanks again for inviting us all, Kasey... sorry I couldn't get Chase to join us, but we all had a really great time."

Kasey's face and stomach warmed in concert as they pulled apart—it had been brief, but somehow, it had felt like time had stopped for that moment. "Y-yeah, of course... anytime." He smiled, tugging at the collar of his shirt. "'Night, Toby."

"Goodnight... and 'night, Anissa!" Toby added quickly, popping open his umbrella and letting the stormy night drown out her reply.

Kasey and Anissa were left in the tiny little farmhouse now, Anissa slipping on her pale green raincoat, and observing the expression on Kasey's face as he watched the door quietly. There was no mistaking it, really—Jin reserved the same look in his eyes just for her.

She chewed her lip, wondering what exactly to say to him—after what she'd observed all night, she certainly had a strong hunch that explained a fair bit about Kasey... but was it really her place to confirm it?

His wistful sigh as he turned back to her was all the convincing she needed. The spectre of their last conversation still hung in the air, and though he seemed a fair deal happier and more rested now...

"...Everything alright?" Anissa asked gently, tying the sash around her midsection and tucking her ponytail down the back of the coat, her Tupperware resting on the back of Kasey's couch. Out of the corner of her eye, she idly noticed that Renee had forgotten her umbrella, still resting on Kasey's kitchen table.

"Hmm? Oh, yeah, yeah!" Kasey nodded and rubbed the back of his neck again, free hand jammed back into his pocket. "That really was fun... I'm glad you guys were able to make it over."

"Me too," Anissa agreed sincerely. "I'm just glad to see you feeling better, too."

Both hands now jammed into his pockets, Kasey chuckled wryly, looking away. "Y-yeah... I... well, I ran into Maya that day, and... she kinda gave me the idea to do something like this, just... just give us all a little break, chill out and stuff... sorry I was such a shit to you that day," he added with an awkward smirk. "Seriously."

Anissa shrugged, smiling again. "Hey, don't worry about it—I'm not upset with you. I know how it is." Suddenly looking a bit guilty, she blew a stray lock of hair away from her face. "I... I've snapped at Renee before, when I was really stressed out, too... venting about stuff. I'm not proud of it, but... she understood that I... well... I wasn't at my best."

Kasey nodded, only barely keeping his eyes on Anissa at this point. "Y-yeah... so, I... is everything okay at home, then?"

Humming a little, Anissa looked up at the ceiling, nose scrunched up. "Well... honestly, yes, I think so. I mean, they're not perfect or anything... there's still some tension, but... we're all working on it." She let out a soft breath at that last remark, looking almost relieved. "I think we're going to be alright..." It warmed Anissa's heart to see Kasey's face light up at the news.

"That's great! Well... hey, I—I kinda... suck at comforting people, but I'm... I'm here if you wanna talk," Kasey offered, clearing his throat and sticking both hands back into his pockets. "I mean, after all you guys have done for me, it's the least I can do..."

The rush of gratitude strengthened, and Anissa nodded with a widened smile. "Of course... thank you, Kasey." Taking in another deep breath, she then went on: "And... I'm here if you need to talk. About anything."

He nodded, but then she continued, looking as though she was choosing her words carefully while she maintained eye contact as best she could with him:

"Even... maybe... maybe stuff about... yourself. That you don't... you don't think you can tell other people..."

A sharp intake of breath sounded, and Kasey's shoulders tensed, a look of panic flashing across his face as he finally directly met her eyes once more. She knew. For as hopeless a liar as he was, he knew there was no point in trying to play it off. He couldn't have if he tried.

A wave of anxiety crashed into him with the force of a hurricane at the realization. The rational part of his brain tried to reason that it wasn't the end of the world, but the blood pounding in his ears drowned it out.

Anissa wasn't sure what she'd been expecting, but it wasn't quite this. Apparently, it was a far more serious subject with him than she'd thought it might have been. Seeing him start to tremble, she wondered if it might have been better to just keep her mouth shut—let him think nobody had picked up on it.

Insult his intelligence...

"A-Anissa, I... err..." Kasey's mouth worked almost soundlessly after he trailed off, and he screwed his eyes shut. He knew he was about to start stuttering and stammering worse than he had in a while. "H-how di... no," he mumbled to himself, shaking his head rapidly. "...I can guess... but..." Swallowing hard, he let out a quivering breath, looking away and clenching his jaw. His voice was tight. You don't need to panic over this, he told himself, but he knew he couldn't help it. "God damn it... I-I didn't mean f-for anyone here t... I... fuck."

Taking a step forward, Anissa put a hand on his shoulder, his tension increasing beneath her touch. Feeling him shake, she kept her voice level as she addressed him: "Hey—Kasey... it's okay... calm down, okay? Look at me—" And he did, pressing another sigh out of her as she caught sight of the mixture of emotions playing across his face. "I... look, I'm sorry... maybe I shouldn't have said anything. But I... I thought, maybe... you just needed someone to talk to about it..."

Kasey gulped again, and took in another unsteady breath. "H-how... how l-l-long h-have you...?" He let the question die, trying to steady his breathing now. Just like he'd been taught, for what little good it had ever done.

"I... just realized it tonight," Anissa admitted quietly—and once again, she saw his eyes flash with fear as the puzzle clicked together in his mind. "I just... noticed..."

He certainly wasn't anywhere near as subtle as he wished he could be, and she'd been sitting next to him all night...

...Next to them...

Damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it, God damn it...

And if Anissa had noticed it, then it was all too likely that Toby...

"P-please, please don't tell anyone," he muttered thickly. His eyes were dry, but he still felt like his body was going to tremble into a million pieces with how badly he was shaking. The effort of trying to calm his nerves and re-steady his speech was too much for him right now. Maybe he just needed to get it out of his system and freak out a little. Maybe Anissa wouldn't be put off. "I... don't t-tell anyone, please don't s-say anything to T-Tob... to him. I-I like it here, s-so, I don't... I d-don't want people t-t-to... I don't want him t-to, uhh... to..."

His words were lost to his nerves yet again, and Anissa wrapped him in a warm, tight hug—one that, moments later, was returned. "Hey, I promise. It's not my place."

"Th... thank you, Anissa. ...Thank you," he repeated, letting himself calm down a bit in the embrace. There was one fear alleviated, just a little. After a moment, another murmur slipped out: "Umm... sorry I f-freaked out... like this." Kasey chuckled ruefully into her shoulder. "M-my, uhh... m-my... family... they... they know, and they... m-most of them... don't mind, s-so... I... I sh-shouldn't... be acting l-like this..."

"It's okay," Anissa repeated simply, giving Kasey a pat and a gentle rub on the back. He seemed to relax even more—at least, relative to a few moments ago, as Anissa noticed she could still feel his heart racing, and his breathing was still a little erratic. She'd seen him trying, though. "I'm here if you need me, Kasey... alright?"

"Y-y-yeah..." He pulled away and smiled down at her shakily, nodding. "I-I, uhh... s-sorry again..." He looked away again. "It... s-sometimes... people, umm... f-found out, you know, an... and... uhh... th-they... just... th-they were total assholes about it. I mean," he mumbled bitterly, face darkening at the memories, "they were huge assholes..."

Anissa nodded quietly, unsure of what to say—she could imagine a little, at least, given some of the remarks Julius had attracted in his youth. Though, it did wind up different in Julius's case, she thought. But... she had a feeling it wasn't quite that simple with Kasey, judging from his reaction. Nonetheless, when he looked back to her with a tight, grateful smile, she returned it. "Well... Kasey... that's really their loss."

His eyes softened, and he nodded back at her firmly. "Yeah... you're... you're right. Thank you, Anissa..."

"Anytime," she responded, her voice soothing and warm. "...Are you going to be alright, Kasey?"

"I-I... yeah, I think so," he decided, turning his gaze towards the windows, staring thoughtfully into the darkness. "I... just kinda panicked. It—people... people kinda knew back home. I mean... I... there was s-someone back home, that I—well, p-people knew about us, it was... mostly just... whatever to some of them, I guess. Th... he... h-he didn't really care who... well, who knew." His mouth pressed into a tight line at this, shoulders slumping while Anissa gave him another compassionate pat on the shoulder. "I mean... that—that was... there. But... I—I think if anyone else... figures it out... I'll... I'll deal. It... isn't... the end of the world."

And if Toby figures it out... or maybe he already...

He didn't let himself finish the thought, turning back to Anissa and willing his voice to steady with some effort: "Well... thanks, Anissa. Take care, alright?"

Anissa's eyes were kind, and she inclined her head, her container now tucked neatly under one arm—Renee's forgotten umbrella was clutched in her other hand. "Of course. You too, Kasey... I'll see you around okay?"

And off she went into the stormy night, sparing a sympathetic glance back over her shoulder at the still-glowing windows on her way down the path. She worried at her lower lip for a moment, before a brief clap of thunder startled her, sending her jogging back towards Flute Fields with her heart racing.

Back in his house, Kasey flopped onto his bed and stared at the ceiling in a daze, unsure of quite how to feel in light of Anissa figuring him out, in light of what he'd revealed to her. Now that the panic had faded, he found himself little stunned at how intensely fearful his reaction had been, a little scared of what it meant for his friendships, and his anxiety... but more grateful than anything else. At least, for now.

With a quiet scoff, he smirked wryly and shook his head. He'd been planning to move here with Danny, after all—wouldn't people have figured it out sooner or later? What would he have done then? Ah, right. I don't have any fucking foresight. Thanks, man.

Still, at least he knew now that he could confide in Anissa. He wasn't sure when he would, if he would... but if he wanted to, she'd be there to listen, just as she had since he'd arrived. The thought began to gradually comfort him as he got undressed for bed and clicked off his lamp, racing mind starting to slow down just a little.

His thoughts turned to Renee's sunny outlook and encouraging attitude; to Chase's quick wit and grudging, albeit sincere, support; to Toby's sweet and gentle nature, his constant consideration for others, the way Kasey felt both at peace and utterly on edge around him all at once. At the thought of each of them, his stomach churned with fresh anxiety, wondering how they might react if they found out... his first real friends outside of his family...

He had to admit to himself—Anissa's offer was one well worth taking up at some point.

Chapter Text

The first weekend of April held Lillie's promise to be true, the long-parched Castanet continuing along with its intense rounds of well-overdue hydration while the temperature continued its slow, steady trickle downward.

After congratulating Elli on her recently-announced pregnancy that Saturday morning, Lillie noted that Castanet's downpour looked good to continue strong for another week, if not longer. "And those highs are continuing to trend downwards towards average spring temperatures for the overall region, expected to level out somewhere in the low 70s, upper 60s!" she concluded cheerfully, tilting her head and clasping her hands before her with a little giggle. "Hope some sunshine comes back in time for the Flower Festival, though! Now, up north in Oak Tree..."

Many of the residents took the forecast in stride, still too relieved from seeing the end of their long, unnatural drought to look the gift horse in the mouth. While there was still a slight flood risk, with the water still utterly lacking in any sort of current—as Gill noted to himself later that same Saturday, idly filling out paperwork and internally debating what sort of preventative measures would be best undertaken should things get messy—the general attitude around Castanet ranged from cautiously to fully optimistic. It hadn't been long ago that they hadn't seen any sort of end in sight to the stagnation and decay, after all.

And, late Sunday afternoon, Kasey audibly gulped down his nerves and slipped into the store at Marimba Farm, wondering if he could snag a few more packets of seeds without committing a grievous social screw-up like he had during his first visit.

"Oh, Kasey! Hi, there!" With a small smile, Ruth waved to him, popping up from her stool behind the counter and sweeping around to the front to greet him. Her smile hitched with a bit of nervousness as she approached him—seeing his do the same as he appeared to take a deep breath—and she gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder of his rain-spattered jacket. "Well, come on in, sweetie. You'll catch your death of cold standing there like that!"

"That the kid?" Craig called from the next room over. Ruth groaned and shook her head as she heard the clatter of silverware on ceramic, followed by a muffled, "Afternoon, kid!"

"'Kid,' really?" Ruth muttered under her breath, pushing her hair back and sighing as Kasey politely returned the greeting. Following the scrape of a chair on the hardwood floor, Anissa poked her head through the doorway, exchanging a much more easygoing smile and a pleasant "hello" with Kasey. He felt a bit of grateful warmth in his chest as he remembered the events of Friday night.

"So, how have you been?" Anissa went on, as Craig ambled up beside her and gave Kasey a curt nod of his own.

Craig's smile was far smaller, but—Kasey thought to himself, waving meekly—seeing the man smile at all was most likely a huge step up. "Ahh, I... I've... been okay," Kasey responded, looking about uncertainly with his hands now stuffed into the pockets of his jacket—which was dripping water all over the Sellers' welcome mat. He breathed in, working to keep his stutter under control. "Just... wanted to stop by and pick up some more seeds... err, dunno if I should plant them in this weather," he added in a thoughtful mumble, his words punctuated by a quiet roll of thunder overhead as Ruth nodded in agreement. "But, well, figured I'd pick them up before I forget and all." He hunched his shoulders, looking around at the Sellers. "Uhh, s-so... how've you all been doing?" So he'd stuttered a tiny bit. It was far better than he'd expected to do around Ruth and Craig, given his previous interactions with them.

Seeing Craig open his mouth to respond, Ruth quickly dove in, suddenly steering Kasey further into the store and past the shelves of seed packets, fertilizer, and produce that looked a little less sickly than last time. "Oh, fine! Fine, yes—we've been enjoying the downtime, you know... it gets a little tiring sometimes, with all we have to tend to here."

Anissa and Craig exchanged baffled looks, shrugging, before Craig chimed in gruffly: "Yeahhh, I was about to say the same thing, actually—" Here, he shot a pointed glance at Ruth and rolled his eyes, prompting her to tut under her breath, "—but I guess you got the gist of it from Chatty Patty there." He punctuated his statement with a dry chuckle, while Anissa groaned and buried her face in her hand. Paying his daughter no heed, Craig folded his arms and stared down at Kasey with more than a fair bit of skepticism. "Heard you're the one responsible for this little turnabout of ours here, too, kid... how the hell'd you swing that one?"

Shaking her head, Ruth patted Kasey on the shoulder once more and gave her husband a tight smile. "Remember, dear? Kasey—" Craig rolled his eyes again at the pointed emphasis, mouthing it with an exaggerated expression as Ruth continued speaking, "—was looking for those strange bells around the area. Apparently, they're supposed to help get things set right here—I told you about it a few days ago, silly!" At his offhanded wave and "Yeah, yeah," she huffed and went on: "You said you were going to help look for that one we used to have, didn't you?"

With another sharp glance his wife's way, Craig shrugged, mumbling under his breath: "Yeah, well... we were drunk and it sounded stupid..."

"What was that, dear?" Ruth prodded, her expression becoming unnervingly sweet. "Something on your mind?"

Craig returned the simpering look, disturbing Kasey and Anissa even further. "Oh, nothin', honey. But," he muttered, rubbing his chin as his expression once more became acceptably grouchy, "I remember now, yeah... hey, I been checkin'!" he added defensively, when Ruth crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows at him. "Checked the shed, the cellar—you checked the orchard, right?" he asked Anissa, getting a nod and a "Yeah" in response. "Alright, then... and somethin' like that'd stand out for miles in the fields, way the sun was beatin' down. Yellow, right?" He turned to Kasey, who nodded hesitantly. "Yeah, well... that's ours, alright, but we're SOL so far. I mean, not like we ain't tryin' or nothin', but the damn thing's been missin' for about... what, three years now?"

Ruth nodded, sighing. "Yes, something like that... after Cassie hit, was it Cassie? Oh, a nasty little hurricane," she clarified, at Kasey's confused look. "I mean, thankfully, nobody was hurt too badly, just a low category three—but it was such a mess around here afterward. We think the bell might've been blown away in the storm... ohhh, and I scolded Taylor so much because I thought he'd taken it!"

"Ahh—" Craig waved his hand, scoffing, "—chin up, woman. He got over it and went right back to bein' a little hellion, didn't he?"

Brightening up a bit, Ruth giggled and cocked her head fondly. "Yes, he did, didn't he? Oh, I can't wait to see him again... oh, I almost forgot to tell you, actually!" She was addressing Kasey once more, this time with a much more naturally upbeat tone. "I can't believe it slipped our minds—our little Taylor's supposed to be coming home soon! I don't know if Anissa told you, but he's been staying with my sister Helen up in Brimson for a little bit, now... he's taking the train back out here with her next week!"

Kasey perked up a bit at this, looking rather happy for them. "That's great! My family actually lived in Brimson for a little while, before we moved back out to Twin Bluffs... I went to high school for a bit there..."

"Oh?" Anissa's interest was piqued. "Which school? Aunt Helen teaches algebra at Eagle River High—maybe you know her?"

"Umm... yeah, I think so! Her last name's... umm... Vance, right?" At Anissa's nod, Kasey smiled fondly. "Yeah, I remember her. I kinda stink at math, but... she's really nice. I actually did okay at it when she taught me!"

"Wow... such a small world," Ruth mused, looking slightly guilty at the revelation as she recalled her initial meeting with Kasey. "But she is a wonderful teacher, yes."

"Yeah, she's alright, " Craig agreed, humming and tapping his foot. "'Course, with all the punk-ass little snots she must deal with all day, even a kid like Taylor must be like a friggin' angel to her! Ha!"

Ruth let out another huff, striding over to her husband and swatting his arm. "Oh, what's that supposed to mean?! You make him sound like a monster or something, I swear... oh, sorry, sweetie," she went on, seeing Kasey once more looking between the two of them awkwardly. "Listen to us, bickering and keeping you here while we prattle on and on! You still need to pick up those seeds, don't you?"

"It-it's fine," Kasey assured her, shrugging. "I don't mind... it's probably a little too wet out right now to plant them yet, anyway..."

Craig waved the idea off. "Ah, it is right now, but you should be fine if you check it when the rain stops for a bit—just check the soil before you plant anything is all. Just dig up and squeeze a bit—" Here, he balled his hand into a loose fist as a demonstration, "—and if it presses into a ball, just give it a bit, let it dry out more. If it crumbles up, you're good."

"Well, wait," Ruth chimed in. "I don't see why it should should be too much of an issue... after all, my parents live in a very rainy climate, and they've never had much trouble with their planting. And when Mr. Beasley lived here, he never seemed to have a problem with it, did he?"

"He's the one who owned that farm before you moved here," Anissa explained, upon seeing Kasey's puzzled look. "He passed away about ten years ago, though. He went on farming into his eighties! I always wondered how he managed..."

"Oh, thanks a lot for the vote of confidence, kiddo," Craig groused, letting out a slight groan as Anissa shrugged at him. "Anyway, Ruth, I'm just tryin' to save the boy a little grief. It's been rainin' too damn hard right now, but he can wait a little bit, right? I mean, the boy's not doin' anywhere near as bad as I thought he'd be, anyway."

"Err... thanks?" Kasey muttered uncertainly.

"Yep. 'Sides," Craig went on, back to Ruth, "remember when I planted all those onions during that downpour that one year? That didn't turn out so pretty, eh?"

Ruth clucked her tongue, sweeping back behind the counter. "Oh, you were half-asleep and sick as a dog anyway, rain or no rain—I told you to get some rest and leave it to me and Anissa!" Chortling, she shook her head and sat back down on her stool. "I don't think you knew what you were planting where. I'm surprised you didn't plant our scarecrow in Chase's yard!"

"I oughta plant your bony ass in Chase's yard," Craig grumbled, sharing a scowl with her, while Anissa pressed her palm to her forehead and grit her teeth. "Alright, alright—I do most of the plantin' anyway, but Ruth here seems to have it under control, apparently."

"And I believe one of us grew up on a farm," Ruth added with a self-satisfied little hum, causing Craig to exhale loudly and turn around, grumbling under his breath as he stormed off for the back of the house. "Oh, honestly! Men!" She drummed her thin fingers on the top of the cash register, looking a bit put off by the whole ordeal. "They certainly do love to be right, don't they?"

"Mom," Anissa sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose and shaking her head, while an embarrassed Kasey averted his gaze to a display of preserves and vegetable spreads. "You realize Kasey's standing right here?"

"Ahh, I'm good," he muttered quickly, emitting a nervous laugh. "Uhh, didn't—didn't mean to make you guys fight, though... s-sorry..."

Now looking a bit guilty, Ruth shook her head. "Oh, it's not you, sweetie. Couples bicker sometimes, you know? Especially when they've been together for so long. This is nothing, just a little squabble. Mr. Sellers is just a bit... stubborn when it comes to his way of doing things. Though, he has been running this farm with me for twenty-five years," she added thoughtfully, rubbing her chin and squinting. "And we've certainly made it this long..."

Drumming her fingers on her elbows, Anissa hummed in assent. "...You know, I can take care of Kasey up here, if you want to go talk to Dad."

"I guess I shouldn't let him stew too long back there," Ruth agreed, once more coming out from behind the counter and giving Anissa a quick pat on the shoulder. "Well, thank you, honey." With a prim nod she looked over at Kasey now. "Anissa should be able to get you on the right track, so keep up the good work with those new crops! If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask us, okay?" She gave another small, somewhat-tight smile. "Hopefully next time, we'll both be able to give you the same answer."

After Kasey waved it off, and the two said their goodbyes, Anissa took her mother's spot behind the counter and groaned quietly, slumping against the shelves behind her and looking up at the ceiling in embarrassment. "Well... I can't say if that went better or worse than last time..." She shot Kasey a wry smile as he tried to shrug it off, scratching the back of his neck. "Sorry about that... we actually haven't been fighting as much recently, but... I guess they're just getting a little tense now that Taylor's coming home."

"W-well... hey, baby steps, right?" he offered weakly, getting her to chuckle along with him. "Don't worry about it. I understand... err, things really... are okay here, right?" he added, brows knitting with concern as he looked back up at her from the displays of lettuce and strawberry seeds he'd been checking on.

Anissa tilted her head side-to-side, humming noncommittally. "I think so, yes... I think they just need to adjust a little bit to things getting back to normal, is all. Well, sort of back to normal." She folded her arms over her chest and shrugged. "Well, and I think they're also just a little grouchy because they're trying to cut down on their drinking, and my mom's decided to try and quit smoking on top of that... but, it's actually been a good deal more peaceful around here recently, withdrawal aside. So," she continued, deciding to change the subject, "you've been okay, then?"

Kasey nodded, reading the back of one of the seed packets and letting his eyes flick down to the price tag, then back up to her. He shot her a grateful grin. "Actually... y-yeah, once I calmed down a bit. Sorry I—I freaked out like that. I... don't know what got into me. I mean, I-I've always been really jumpy, but... I guess the—" He halted and looked around, lowering his voice slightly even though they were the only ones now in the room: "You know... the whole thing with—with... with Toby a-and all, I was just... really on edge."

Anissa returned his smile warmly, leaning on the counter top and folding her arms. "Hey, I understand. Toby's really sweet, though." When Kasey nodded in agreement, his face coloring a bit, Anissa stood up and went over to the display shelves by him, noting to herself that he seemed to be stuck trying to figure out what to buy. "Oh, here—I think staying with lettuce and turnips will be fine if you're looking for something that grows faster." Here, she picked up a few packets of each, and nodded to the strawberries. "You'll get a good price on those, and you can harvest them multiple times, but they take quite a while to grow. The cabbages take a while, too, and those are a one-time harvest."

"A-alright—I guess I'll just get a couple packs of those, then... and maybe some of these." Kasey's nerves relaxed a little with the conversation turning back to farming. He picked up a pack of cucumber seeds now, eyes scanning the information on the back. Humming in approval at the quick growing time, he looked back over to Anissa. "So... errr, what's your take?"

Anissa raised her eyebrows, taking the seed packets to the counter while Kasey turned and picked up a basket from by the door, beginning to fill it with food now. "My take? On... Toby?"

"N-no!" Now as red as the strawberries he'd been observing, Kasey's eyes went wide and he shook his head rapidly. "I-I... n-no, I'm—I'm not getting my hopes up about that..." He reached over and picked up another packet of seeds and waggled it a bit, causing the flustered girl to give a quick start and smack herself lightly on the forehead.

"Oh! Oh, right... those, the planting! Sorry..." Anissa chuckled in embarrassment and began ringing his order up as Kasey brought the rest of his purchases to the counter. "Well... to be honest, I certainly don't want you to waste your money, or get yourself sick. But if you really want to get it done sooner—maybe just plant a few of each? See how it goes? And then, just... go from there." She tapped her lower lip thoughtfully as Kasey nodded in approval at the idea. "But—just to be on the safe side, I'd at least wait until the rain's let up a little bit... I know we've at least planted during drizzles before with no major problems."

Perking up a bit, Kasey dug the money out of his pocket and handed it over. "Alright—cool, thank you! I guess I'll try it later today, then, if I have a chance... probably should've waited until afterwards to shower," he mused with an awkward laugh, pocketing his change as Anissa finished filling his bags. "Whoops."

Looking amused, Anissa shook her head. "Well, whatever you decide, I'm sure you'll do fine...really, for someone completely new to this, you're actually off to a good start. Especially considering the circumstances—just don't overdo it, okay? And," she went on, after Kasey's agreement, "well... about Toby... don't be so hard on yourself about that, alright?"

Kasey scratched at his still-warm cheek, staring at Anissa in confusion. He appreciated her support, but he really wished she wouldn't keep circling back around to that subject. It just kept kicking his nerves back up into gear. "Err... h-how do you mean? I-I mean... hell, he's—he's probably already figured it out, the way I was... acting around him. A-and... if he hasn't, well, I-I just... I still really like being... being friends with him, so... I don't wanna make things... well, make them weird, you know? Or... or screw it up, or... something."

"Well... I don't think you'd do that," Anissa assured him gently, setting his bags on the counter. "And I don't think he'd let it ruin your friendship at all—Toby's one of the nicest people I know. I mean... well—you don't have to answer if you don't want to, but... how bad was it for you before? I mean, I can tell it must've been really rough, the way your demeanor changes..."

Kasey was quiet for a moment as he stared down at the bags thoughtfully, fingers drumming rapidly on the countertop. Anissa's open insight was almost a little embarrassing, but she had a point. He wanted to get this side of himself under control. He couldn't keep freaking out and having anxiety attacks over it. He'd really never spoken of it much before, whether to Danny or to his family—the latter of whom knew to some degree what he'd been through anyway. He'd been too self-conscious to see a therapist. Maybe this would be the next best thing, getting it out to a trusted friend. And if he stuttered, stammered, and stumbled over his words in the process, so be it.

"I-it... well... like I said, I—I think I just... was really on edge that night," he repeated finally. "You know, realizing—realizing that... he might've figured it out, too. I mean... when people found out, it didn't—it didn't make things easier, but... you know, I was kind of just always picked on about a bunch of things growing up. It was just—like... like another log on the fire, you know? I—I had my teeth, me being really shy, my... my stuttering—I used to be way worse, if you'd believe that." He and Anissa shared a quiet laugh over this, before he went on:

"Like... now, it's just... just mostly when I'm really stressed. Like... like lately. Lots of speech therapy, but... I... I know I need to just... practice getting that back in control. And, well... before my family moved back to Twin Bluffs, w-we... we were pretty poor, didn't really live in a great neighborhood over in Brimson, and my parents couldn't afford braces for me... so..." He sighed, his shoulders heaving as he slumped a bit. It was helping a bit, getting it all out like this. He was surprised he wasn't having too hard of a time getting it out now, and grateful for Anissa's patience when he did stumble over his words. "Th-there was a lot for them to choose from. I dunno... this guy I used to work with, I knew him in school. People found out about me because I... k-kind of got really nervous around him like with—with Toby, and people j-just... put two and two together, you know? I mean, I—I suck enough at keeping things a secret now, imagine how bad I was as a teenager."

Stuffing his hands into the pockets of his jacket, Kasey leaned back against the counter, watching the steady rainfall continue outside. Behind him, the realization dawned on Anissa as she thought back to Friday night, and Kasey went on: "I-I mean, in school, it was just like... I-I mean, it was mostly stupid shit... dumb rumors and getting tripped and shoved a lot, names, nothing new. I think they thought 'Gaysey' was this big riot, but it was so lazy that I couldn't even be bothered by it." Looking slightly amused at this, Kasey rubbed the back of his neck. "I-I kinda ditched P.E. when all that shit happened, though, but... whatever." He scoffed and shook his head. "Wound up flunking it, but no way in hell I was going in the locker room and getting my ass kicked every day—once was enough. B-but, yeah, the... the guy I liked in school, when he started at my job, he... he made up shit to my boss to try and get me fired, said I—I was saying these seriously gross things to him."

In spite of himself, he smirked, even as Anissa tutted and shook her head in disbelief. "I-it was actually kind of funny, though, because... so, I'd been there like a year by that point, and my boss was like, 'Please, even you know Kasey wouldn't say that kind of crap to anyone, get the hell out of my office and get back to work.'" He laughed again, rolling his eyes a bit. "I mean, I-I know I've got a mouth on me and all sometimes, but... like, the stuff he says I said was just... God, I—I didn't even talk to my ex like that!"

Sensing Kasey's tension ease up a slight bit at this, Anissa giggled again, pushing her braid back over her shoulder. He seemed to be gradually relaxing as he spoke, and she was more than happy to encourage it. "Mmm. I think I'm going to have to side with your boss on this one, too."

Kasey nodded wistfully. "Yeah, he was pretty cool. I-I dunno, my family, they were... mostly cool with it. But some people, they—they gave me shit over it, like... like, 'Hey, man, I know this chick who can get you right,' or... 'Don't... don't try to hit on me or anything, dude,' 'I can't believe I let you babysit my kids,' just... just... rude crap like that." Another resigned shrug, tension returning once more. "I dunno. I... I know I shouldn't have let it get to me, but... I've always kinda been like that, I guess, taking stuff really, really personally."

"Well... it's easier said than done," Anissa agreed quietly. "I mean, not that you shouldn't try, of course... but it can take time. Don't be too hard on yourself for being human, Kasey."

Another nod. First Maya, now Anissa. Kasey knew he'd do well to listen to their advice. "Y-yeah, and my mom's parents said some... some really harsh stuff, stopped speaking to us..." He trailed off for a moment, letting out a heavy breath. "So, I... I just hit a point where I freaked out. Not, like, suicidal or anything. But I kept thinking... well... like, I-I was always causing problems, you know, for my family, just—just almost drove myself nuts wondering how to—to fix everything, make it up to everyone somehow." His voice was tight now, exhaling through his nostrils as he felt Anissa rub his arm sympathetically. "It—it took my mom a while to convince me that—that she didn't blame me, that they—you know, that I wasn't a... a problem. But... I mean, I know she meant that, but—but she was really hurt over it, I could tell..."

He gripped the edge of the counter loosely now, expression shifting from tense to reflective. "Still... I—I think I've really gotta stop moping over all that stuff. Like, grow up a little, realize how lucky I am to have the family I do..." He frowned as he tried to pick out his next words: "And just... stop worrying that—that everyone's... like, jotting down notes and scoring me all the time or something." He cracked a self-deprecating little grin at this, pushing himself up off the counter and turning to face Anissa. The sight of her relaxing a little at his remark helped ease him more. "I—I mean, you're right, I'm not gonna ease up overnight, but it's... it's probably time I started... maybe, I dunno... picking the right people and—and the right... things to listen to a little more. Like, especially you guys."

With a little chuckle, Anissa sat back down on the stool and folded her arms in her lap, humming in amusement. "Don't take this the wrong way, I certainly do agree... but, would 'us guys' include Chase?"

Kasey tutted at her in mock-exasperation—though, he couldn't help but feel a fair deal lighter after confiding so much to Anissa and receiving her support and encouragement. His shoulders felt lighter, and the knot of tension in his chest was a lot looser now. "Ahh... w-well... hey, he can be kind of a dick sometimes, but... I dunno. I think he means well, maybe. He's made some pretty decent points, too, and he actually seems kind of alright... I mean, he did tell me to stop being so cagey, you know, with... what I knew about things here. Even if it took me, like... forever to actually listen," he admitted with a sheepish laugh.

"...He does have his moments," Anissa conceded primly, looking only a little pained at the admission. She put a finger to her chin. "I'll admit, I didn't make much effort to get to know him after he first moved here, since he was pretty rude to us. But," she went on, shrugging, "Renee's talked to him a few times, and she seems to get along with him just fine. Well... and Toby's really close with him, too... so if they like him, I guess he can't be all that bad."

Clearing his throat and tugging a bit at the collar of his jacket as his face heated up again, Kasey shrugged. "Okay, yeah, I... I can't be objective about that. But, yeah, he's—he's okay. Even if he did want to pit Toby against Perry in, like, a death match or something," he added with a grin, leading Anissa smile and shake her head. "I think the worst part is, it's kind of got me wondering how that would even go down."

Anissa giggled and shook her head. "Well, I personally think that there are some mysteries that were just meant to stay unsolved."

"Probably for the best," Kasey agreed, pulling the hood of his jacket up over his head and grabbing his bags of groceries. "Well... I should probably get home and get this stuff put away, make some lunch. I'll let you know how the planting goes, though!"

"Sure—I hope everything goes well. Oh—have you got it?" Watching Kasey shift the bags around a bit when he reached the door, she made her way back around the counter once more to help him. "Here, let me get it for you—"

"Thanks. Err... well, for everything," he went on, sharing another warm smile with her. "Seriously. I mean... it... I was kind of scared, but... it helped so much, just... just being able to get it off my chest. Uhh—by the way..." His eyes flicked over to the doorway leading to the back of the Sellers' house. "They've been back there an awful long time. Are—are they... okay?"

Clearing her throat delicately, Anissa nodded—and, Kasey noticed, she looked surprisingly as awkward as he himself felt ninety percent of the time. "Oh, it's sweet of you to worry, but... ummm... this, err..." Anissa tittered nervously. "It's actually a, ahhh... good thing. I think."

"...Uh huh." He wasn't quite sure he wanted to know now, but Anissa pressed on anyway, looking off to the side with rosy cheeks:

"...Let's, ahh, just say that over the past few days, bickering has... made them, umm... closer..." She trailed off, fiddling with a stray lock of hair as Kasey's eyes widened in understanding, his own face once again blazing.

"Oh... oh. Oh, wow. Umm... y-yeah, s-so..." His gaze once more flicked towards the back of the house, and he cringed a little. "Th-then, uhh, I-I'll... I'll just be g-going now... heh, ahhh... err, see you later, Anissa!"

Smiling wryly and waving as Kasey nudged the screen door open and hopped down the porch steps, Anissa sighed and shut the door, shaking her head and looking towards the back of the house in bemusement. She made her way back behind the counter, pulling out a medical textbook, and began to read as she awaited their next customer.

Out in the rain, Kasey made his way out of Flute Fields, idly noting Chase's darkened house as he passed. Even though he couldn't wait to be warm and dry at home, curled up in his bed and reading, he found something extremely refreshing about the damp, slightly-chilly air, long-drained of its usual mugginess.

He was halfway over the bridge to the Clarinet District when a name jumped out in his mind from his earlier conversation with Anissa, eyes lighting up as something suddenly clicked on upstairs. Feeling as though he were finally stumbling upon two more puzzle pieces that might just fit together, Kasey found his plans for the day changing.

------------------------

It was a bright and sunny day of high-speed excitement in the Mushroom Kingdom, various spectators gathered to watch the race around the winding circuit.

In third place, the little Koopa Troopa in his Cheep Charger rolled along happily, heedless of the blaring warning behind him—

"Uh oh..."

—but, ultimately, not immune to the red shell knocking him around. Or the Chain Chomp promptly ramming into him from the side as he recovered. Or the green shell careening right where he'd landed. Or the lightning bolt, adding insult to injury as he was quickly struck down from third place to dead last.

"Holy shit, Nishimura—who'd you piss off?"

In Toby's cramped, cluttered bedroom at the Shamisen Fishery, Chase looked up at him with raised eyebrows, keeping his peripheral vision on the race at hand so he could keep Yoshi in the lead. Outside, the rain and thunder continued to provide relaxing background noise, brief flashes of lightning peeping through the slats of the crooked, wooden blinds.

Shaking his head in disbelief at the events that had just transpired on his TV, Toby shrugged. "Nobody, I hope. Maybe it's just that that stereotype about Asian drivers is coming true for me."

Chase snorted as Yoshi zoomed across the finish line to victory, Toby's dejected Koopa Troopa squeaking in at ninth place. "Uh huh. Not touching that one. Well, hey, it's working out pretty well for me, so keep it up."

Chuckling, Toby grinned down at Chase as they started the next race. "Or maybe I'm just saying that to keep your guard down. I might sneak in a victory when you least expect it."

"Well, God, I'll never see it coming now," Chase snarked back, rolling his eyes in good humor as they started again. He snickered as Toby promptly spun out on a banana peel he'd left behind. "By the way, that's for all the times you've made me your bitch in Smash."

"Paolo taught me how to play that one," Toby pointed out, perking up a bit as he zoomed past Chase. "I could have him teach you sometime, if you'd like. He's really good at these games. I usually just play those farming things, though. They're really soothing."

"They have games about farming?!" Chase sputtered incredulously as Toby responded with a bright nod; Chase was distracted enough by the notion that he was swiftly knocked into an abyss. "Fuck's sake... speaking of which, how was the little get-together at Manatos's Friday night?" He shot a knowing glance upwards, smirking. "It sucked ass, you all were miserable without me, and I didn't miss anything fun and cool, right?"

Toby laughed at a little at Chase's remark. "You don't have to sound so hopeful, Chase! Sorry, but it was actually pretty fun. The movies were pretty good—even this weird one that was in Spanish. Well, Renee really liked it, anyway."

Nodding in acceptance, Chase frowned a bit as Toby came in second, five places ahead of him. "Ahh, hell... well, I'm sure you bunch of saps were all missing me in secret, though. Manatos doing okay, then?" he added, looking back up at Toby from his spot on the floor. "A couple of people around town said he was looking like total shit recently. You know—exhausted, miserable, stuff like that."

"Mmm... well, I hope he's doing better now. He seemed okay when I saw him," Toby mused, his expression growing thoughtful as he recalled the events of Friday night. "I mean... he seemed mostly relaxed. But... he also seemed kind of on-edge half the night, too, for some reason. If something was bothering him, he didn't say, at least to me..." Mulling it over, he found himself growing concerned, before cocking his head to the side. "Then again, I know he can be pretty shy, and he's certainly got a lot on his plate right now, so..."

"Dude's always on-edge," Chase agreed, huffing as the third race started up, and he found himself zipping past Toby in short order. Then, with a twinge of guilt in his voice, he went on: "I know he told me a little bit back, though, that he used to get bullied a lot. So... I guess there's that. Maybe he figured you, Renee, and Anissa, of all people, were going to be total buttholes to him like I was."

"Well... hey, he wanted to invite you over with the rest of us, remember?" Toby pointed out, their two racers now ramming each other fiercely, passing a buzzing thunder cloud back-and-forth on-screen like a hot potato. "So, I think he's probably forgiven you... he seems like he's got a good heart. And, yes," he added with a little smirk, before Chase could pipe up, "I know—you'll kill me if I tell anybody you were worried about that."

Chase was silent for a moment, rolling his eyes again as the race continued and the thunder rumbled gently outside the fishery. The cloud shrunk him, prompting a resigned sigh. "...You're about to get hit with a blue shell, Tobes."

"Hmm? Oh, no—" Toby groaned softly as he was knocked out of the lead, into the water, and all the way into last place as eleven racers gleefully zoomed past him, Chase included. "Well, it looks like I've got my work cut out for me..."

"Suits me just fine," Chase responded smugly, before pressing his lips into a pensive line. "You know, by the way, just thought of something else... Manatos ever fill anyone in on what happened with those bells he checked out? I know the girls here in town said they saw him heading to that Wizard dude's place the day it started raining again, when he was looking like crap, but I haven't actually run into him since that one time he had us all over..."

"Hmm... you know, I keep forgetting to ask, too," Toby admitted with a sheepish smile, shrugging apologetically. "Sorry..."

"Eh." Chase waved it off, as yet another race finished with him victorious. "Don't worry about it, I know how you can be sometimes. Whoever runs into him next can just check on that." He stretched and grunted, popping his spine with a satisfied noise. "Aaaand, I was thinking of looking around the mill by Julius's place, anyway, see if anything's gotten lodged over there... hey," he went on, violet eyes suddenly brightening up as he set his controller down and snapped his fingers, "you think that's why he was still kind of jittery or whatever the other night, maybe? He's still freaking himself out over this stuff?"

Toby rubbed his chin and nodded, though he couldn't help but feel a bit of doubt coil in his stomach. That certainly could've been part of it, but why did he feel like there was something else going on? "I guess so... I mean, Maya did tell us he looked like he needed a little break from worrying about all of it..."

Chase nodded in satisfaction. "Mystery solved, then. I'm brilliant. I dunno, I don't want the dude to have a nervous breakdown or anything. He's kind of grown on me, believe it or not." Suddenly cracking a grin, he snickered. "Actually, get this, though—for some reason, Kathy's got it in her head that Manatos has gotta be gay or something. 'Cause the day we met him, he clammed up big-time when she asked if he had a girlfriend back home. Never mind that my ex was a crazy bitch and I sure as hell don't like to talk about her," he added in a dark mutter, shuddering a bit at the memories of Claire. Or Mimi. Or whatever the hell she was calling herself these days. "Plus, I caught Kathy checking out his ass, too. So I figure she's saying he's gay 'cause she doesn't wanna feel guilty about it."

Eyebrows raised, and not entirely sure if he wanted to know—he certainly hadn't needed to know that much about Kathy—Toby nonetheless decided to indulge his morbid curiosity and ask: "And... you're going where with this, exactly?"

Chase scoffed, perking back up a bit, eyes sparkling with mischief. "Well, I dunno. Kathy's cool, but I think she's full of shit here. So we've got this little bet going—I personally think he's got a thing for Renee or something, and maybe he was nervous 'cause she was there. But, like... still—what if she's right, and he was all antsy because he's got a thing for you?" He smirked again, shrugging as Toby rolled his eyes and flopped backwards onto his bed, muttering "That's what I get for asking" under his breath. "I mean, he is pretty chummy with you. You know, so maybe he wants to drop his line in your pond and land some sweet Tushimura?"

Toby clucked his tongue in exasperation as his face flushed, rolling back onto his side and staring down at Chase with an expression of utter disbelief. The races were forgotten by now, the results screen threatening to burn into the TV eventually. "Really, Chase? Alright, sure." He rolled his eyes again—a bad habit he'd picked up from Chase—and nodded resignedly. "That's a pretty terrible metaphor, but if you say so, you pervert. It explains why I felt something odd in the popcorn bowl that night. Really, your mind goes to such strange places," he admonished, causing Chase to snort again, and stifle a burst of laughter with his hand.

"Dude, wow. And you called me a pervert?" Looking almost proud of Toby, whose face was now blazing red in the aftermath of his unusually raunchy comment, Chase reached up for a fist bump that was half-heartedly returned. "Damn, man. I must be an even worse influence on you than I ever realized. Now I just need to get you to cuss," he mumbled, looking disturbingly serious as he rubbed his chin like a cartoon villain. "I mean, without you injuring yourself first. Though, that is pretty funny..."

Looking thoroughly embarrassed by this point, Toby cleared his throat and gave Chase a gentle shove on the back of his head. "Yeeeeeah, that 'bad influence' thing sounds about right. So, do you want to get the next race started?" he went on, picking up his controller again and hoping to get off of the subject. He didn't really care either way if Kasey was gay or whatever, but this crush talk was just getting him a little too flustered. "I'm only a few points behind you right now, so if you were stalling to distract me..."

Sparing a glance to the wooden shark clock hanging above Toby's TV and seeing that it was almost twenty till five, Chase shook his head. "Much as I'd love to keep whooping your ass—and believe me, that's been so cathartic—it's getting kind of late now. I'm gonna have to take a rain check on that."

Now beginning to return to normal, Toby chortled as he shut off the Wii, changing the channel to a nature documentary. "Heh heh, that's cute."

Chase's brow knit in a confused frown. "...What?"

"...Because it's raining," Toby explained patiently, gesturing towards his bedroom window and causing Chase to shake his head and groan while he slipped his shoes back on and snagged his umbrella.

"Yeah, well, I'm... I'm gonna head home and make dinner now." Zipping up his raincoat, Chase handed his controller back to Toby and waved, before turning to head out of the room. "See ya, man."

"Later, Chase."

"And don't worry," Chase went on, lingering in the doorway for a moment and smirking once again. "I won't ask Manatos if he's gay for you next time I see him."

Burying his burning face in his palm, Toby muttered something unintelligible under his breath, before looking back up. "Gee, thanks. And by the way—I'm very sorry, Eric, but I just remembered that you really suck. So I think I'm going to have to get a new best friend now."

Chase rested his umbrella on his shoulder and bounced it a bit as he snickered, ignoring Toby's pointed use of his first name. "Heh. Yeah, and it only took you five years to realize that."

"Oh, no, I've known the whole time," Toby countered calmly, now reclining in bed, arms behind his head and legs crossed as he stared up thoughtfully at the ceiling. "See, I just figured you were some sort of... karmic retribution for all the grief I gave Uncle Ozzie and Aunt Mia when I was younger." Despite the brief flash of wistfulness when he mentioned his aunt, he and Chase shared a rueful grin at the idea.

"Well, don't worry—I'll keep giving you shit even after you've paid off your debt. Okay, okay, I'm outta here for real now! See ya, Tobes." Chuckling to himself as a still-flustered Toby only half-jokingly shooed him away and grabbed Composing Castanet off his crowded bedside table, Chase said a quick goodbye to Ozzie and Paolo when he passed through the front of the store, and out into the slightly-brisk, rainy April evening.

Finding his usual surly spirits boosted by the recent turn of events in Castanet—as well as his good-natured teasing of Toby—Chase hummed quietly to himself as he passed the glowing streetlamps and warmly-lit windows of Harmonica Town. The rain pattered heavily against his red umbrella, and atop the gradually-darkening surface of the sea, creating a soothing, steady wall of gentle noise all around him.

He even found himself sparing a cordial wave when he spotted someone else heading into town, receiving a wave in return and a friendly greeting from under the hood of the blue-and-tan jacket. Eyebrows raised in surprise as he recognized the voice and the slightly-shadowed face, Chase slowed to a stop a few feet away from the other boy, who quickly did the same. Well, now. Speak of the goddamn devil.

"Ah—hey, Manatos. Didn't know that was you. What's up?"

Pushing back his hood just a little, Kasey shrugged. "Uhhh... well—err, actually, I was heading into town to speak with Perry. I—I dunno, I just... something kind of popped up in my head earlier, y'know, with the bell stuff... and I figured he might actually be able to help out with that. Err, how've you been doing, anyway?"

Finding himself intrigued enough to put off going home for at least a little bit, Chase turned back towards town, motioning for Kasey to walk with him. "Alright, actually—was just chilling at Nishimura's for a little bit. You know, you're allowed under the umbrella, too," he added, giving Kasey a sideways glance—Kasey was walking along just outside the edge of the large umbrella's coverage, shoulders stooped a bit. "Unless you'd rather catch a cold."

With a meek chuckle, Kasey thanked him quietly and moved in a bit closer, now shielded from the rain as well. He pulled down his hood completely, re-doing his small ponytail and pushing the loose locks of hair back behind his ears as usual. "Yeah, good point... T-Toby told me a couple people here got sick after what happened Wednesday..."

Keeping a curious eye on Kasey as they splashed over the bridge into Harmonica Town, Chase shrugged, completely poker-faced. "Yeah, well... I know they were happy—hell, I was, too—but that's what they get for romping around in the rain like complete 'tards."

"Ehh... we were all kinda floored," Kasey admitted sheepishly, scratching his cheek. "I mean, Maya and I just kinda bolted right out into it and stood around, just... gawking."

Snickering a little at the mental image, Chase shrugged again as they turned past Town Hall and up the slick street to Celesta Plaza, the soaked cobblestones gleaming in the lamplight. "You and the rest of the town. So, hey—sorry I couldn't come by Friday night, by the way," he went on, still keeping an eye on Kasey. "Toby says you guys had a lot of fun."

"W-well... y-yeah, I think so!" Kasey agreed, rubbing the back of his neck and looking pleased, a faint tinge visible on his face. "I, uhh... I-I'm glad he enjoyed it, too... but hopefully you can come by next time," he added quickly, getting a nonchalant nod in response.

Shit, I was joking when I said that to Toby! Chase thought to himself, wondering how on Earth anyone could fail so miserably at being subtle at any given moment. Even Luke or Maya weren't that transparent. God damn it, Kathy... ehh, maybe I'm just misinterpreting it, though. "Sounds like a plan. But, also—before I forget, well... thanks for even inviting me at all."

In spite of—or perhaps due to—the sincerity of Chase's thanks, Kasey turned to him, looking nonplussed. "Umm... yeah, of—of course. Why wouldn't I?"

With a small smirk, Chase turned his gaze forward once more. "Well, you know, I didn't exactly start us off on the right foot. I can admit that. I've really gotta work on being less of a dick to people. And I know I kind of nosed around and got on your case about a lot of shit, but... you know, you're actually okay. I mean, hell, Toby says you've got a good heart, and... you know, I seriously hate saying cheesy shit like that, and he doesn't dislike anyone, but... I kinda agree with him on this one."

Touched, Kasey jammed his hands in his jeans pockets and stared at the ground, feeling his heart swell. "H-he said that?"

Inwardly resigning himself to giving Kathy all of his tips for a week, but deciding not to let on about what he knew—Kasey would probably bolt for the hills if he did that, jumpy as he was—Chase nonetheless gave him a friendly nudge in the side. "I know, right? Like I said: cheesy as fuck."

"Maybe... maybe a little," Kasey conceded wryly. "But, I-I'll take it. Thanks, man." Now looking a bit remorseful, he scratched the back of his head. "But, well, I—I didn't exactly... you know, you said it, I was acting really weird. Especially being new in town, everything going on. I—I just... need to stop being so... paranoid all the time. I... I've gotta chill. I can, I know it..."

Chase nodded in agreement. "Hey, you'll get there. And—" He switched his umbrella to his left hand, still keeping it tilted over both of them as he held his right hand out, "—what the hell—what do you say, Kasey? Clean slate?"

A broad, bright grin came over Kasey's face as he reached over and shook firmly. "Y-yeah! Definitely! Thanks, Chase..."

Chase couldn't help but feel just as pleased as Kasey looked at the development. Maybe there was something to the whole 'showing kindness' bullshit, after all. "You too, man. So, by the way—what's this you need to ask Perry?"

They'd stopped in front of the church now, a warm glow pulsing from within its stained-glass windows and filtering soft patches of color and light across the heavy sheets of rain. Taking a deep breath, Kasey looked up hopefully at the large doors, before beginning to speak again:

"Well... I tried ringing that blue bell, and... and... well, that—that sage in there didn't remember what his song was supposed to sound like. He said he'd been asleep too long—yeah," he added, seeing Chase's baffled look and laughing weakly, "I forgot, you probably don't know about that. It—it's a long story. I'll fill you in later, don't worry... anyway, Wizard couldn't... he wasn't able to find any of the other bells. He tried to locate them, I guess... like, psychically, telepathically or whatever you call it, and... it—" He shuddered a bit at the memory, letting out a shaky exhale. "...It... just didn't happen. But, well... when he was referring to their songs, he... he said they haven't been heard for a while, but—he called them hymns..."

Eyes widening a little, Chase blinked up at the church as well. "Huh. Well, hey... there's an organ in there..."

Kasey nodded hopefully, finishing the thought: "...Gotta be sheet music, right?"

The door creaked open almost quietly under the steady rolls of rain drumming across the plaza, and the two entered the warm, cozy, quiet church, hearing Perry singing along with the radio in the back:

"...Cause you make me feeeel liiiiike... I've been locked out of heeeeaveeeeen...!"

Chase and Kasey shared a quick grin at the sound of the pastor jamming along, though Chase quickly threw his two cents in: "Never thought I'd hear a pastor singing along with a song like this. Wonder if he knows what it's about... okay, this is going against my whole new 'stop-being-such-a-jerk' credo, but we should probably put a stop to that as quickly as possible."

"Well, you tried," Kasey shot back dryly, sighing. "Umm, Pasto—err, Perry?" he corrected in mid-call, wincing when he heard a startled yell and a thud from the back of the church. The music abruptly cut off. "Are—are you okay?!"

"I'm fine, Kasey! Absolutely fine!" Perry called back, sounding as unflappably chipper as ever. "Just tripped in mid-step, don't worry—pleasure to see you back here, by the way!" he added, poking his head out of his bedroom doorway and smiling. "Oh, and Chase, too! What a pleasant surprise! Is there something I can help you two with?" Out he padded, clad in his usual uniform sans jacket, hair only slightly messed up from his dancing mishap. "Or are you just dropping by for a little chit-chat?"

"Err... kinda—kinda here on business, I'm afraid," Kasey answered apologetically, getting it pleasantly waved off.

"Oh, don't worry—I'm more than happy to help out! What can I do for you?"

After Kasey quickly recapped what he'd told Chase just outside—clumsily leaving out the part about the bell's apparent possession, much to Chase's confusion—Perry rubbed his chin and nodded thoughtfully, squinting as he tried to figure out where Father Chester had left the sheet music. "See, there haven't been too many services around here, even since before I moved here," he explained with a shrug. "What I do know off-hand is that he made copies and took them with him before he left for the Valley, since he wanted them for research. Comparing them with the hymns of their goddess, Marina, studying the teachings of both... but the originals... where did he leave them again...? Oh! Of course, duh—"

Looking thoroughly amused by Perry's antics, Chase stuffed his hands into the pockets of his pants and rocked back on his heels, watching the pastor flip open the bench in front of the organ and rustle some papers around. "'Harvester's Gratitude'... 'O! Harmonious Winter!'... 'Praise Be to Our Fair Goddess'—ohhh, now I remember why I hid these away," he groaned, sounding a bit dejected as he came up with a few sheaves of old, worn paper. Even before an embarrassed Perry turned the papers around for Chase and Kasey to see, they'd already spotted the scrawls and scribbles filling up the pages.

"Ahh, crap," Chase muttered, smacking himself on the forehead and letting out a soft whine.

Kasey just took the papers and laughed weakly, shaking his head at the drawings. Though a few notes and bits of the measures were visible in spots, the papers were mostly covered with crayon and marker, obscuring almost every last inch, and only hinting at what their original purpose had been in the first place. There was no way he'd even be able to tell which hymn was which. "Heh... done a little babysitting, huh?" he asked, looking back up at Perry and returning the papers with an understanding grin.

Perry sighed heavily and shuffled the papers. "Chloe and Paolo, mostly. Taylor tagged along a few times, though. Oh, they're truly decent children, but, well... this is what I get for not watching them a little more closely," he muttered, cringing as he looked down at the drawings. "Though, I will say, Paolo's quite the little artist. He drew the one of him riding the shark."

"That was a pretty sweet-looking shark," Chase agreed, craning his neck to take another look. "Heh, awesome. But, hey—you said Chester made copies of this stuff, right? And I'm hoping that was before the little snots scribbled all over it."

Lightening up a bit and laughing at this, Perry shook his head. "Oh, absolutely! This was my failing, I'm afraid. Well... of course, if it'll help us out, I'll absolutely be glad to contact Father Chester tomorrow, ask him if he has any other copies he can mail over to us! It may take a few days," he went on, setting the papers back in the bench storage and shrugging contritely, "since I'll have to reach him by post—I don't believe he ever specified if the Valley has phone service. I should remember to ask him about that... but I'll give you boys a ring the second I hear back from him!"

Feeling his relief heighten, Kasey nodded enthusiastically, giving Perry's hand an energetic shake. "Perry, you're awesome! Thank you so much, man!"

Chuckling, Perry used his free hand to pat Kasey's. "Kasey, with all you've done for us thus far, we should really thank you. And you," he added to a confused Chase. "And your friends, for helping out however you can. I can feel the morale returning to Castanet already! I'm sure Sephia is exceptionally grateful, as well." He craned his neck to fondly observe the stained-glass depiction of the goddess in question, Kasey and Chase following his gaze. Kasey felt something stir within his soul at the memory of Sephia's kind face, and nodded.

"Well, we'll... we'll do our best to keep it up!"

"All of us," Chase chimed in, holding his hands out defensively at Kasey and Perry's amused looks. "What? I can be positive, too!"

"We know, Chase," Perry laughed, patting his shoulder. "After all, we figured Mr. Nishimura would rub off on you eventually! Heheheh..."

Nose and cheeks tinging, Chase cleared his throat and looked away. "Bah, you people... I'm not Eeyore or something, c'mon..."

"We know, Chase," Kasey repeated, snickering, and overall looking much more at ease now. "Alright, well... thanks again, Perry! I'd love to stay and chat, but it's my grandma's birthday tonight, so..."

"Oh, absolutely! I'll see you two around later—take care, alright?"

Chase gave the pastor a short wave as he and Kasey turned and headed for the door, preparing to pop his umbrella open again. "Yep. Later, Perry. Thanks again."

With Perry's response fading behind the closing door and the returning rustle of the downpour, Kasey held out his fist for Chase to bump, sharing a satisfied smile and letting out his breath in a loud whoosh. "Okay, that went a lot better than I figured it would, tell you the truth."

"Feel better, then?" Chase asked, noting how much happier Kasey was looking at the moment. "Sheesh, man, you really must've had a rough couple days..."

"Ehh..." Waggling his hand halfheartedly, Kasey started off down the road back into Harmonica Town proper, Chase falling into step beside him. "Yeah, for a little while. But... I dunno. I—I think I'm about ready to try and... and get past that shit. Can't go on letting everything get me down..."

Chase nodded, casting appreciative glances about town as the sky continued washing it clean, giving it a fresh, new start. "Not a bad idea. Think I'll give that a try, too. And, hey," he added quickly, as they crossed the bridge once more, the distant lights of Dobro Ridge beginning to glimmer into view beyond the thick curtains of darkened rain, "you ever wanna hang out sometime, gimme a call. I can actually be decent company, Toby can vouch for that."

Once again, Kasey's much more relaxed demeanor quickly turned flustered with the mention of Toby, and he cleared his throat. "H-heh, well... yeah, sure, okay. That works for me!"

"Cool." Maybe a poker game or something, Chase thought dryly, trying to hide his wry smirk. Win back alllll those tips I'm gonna lose to Kathy. Still, he couldn't help but almost feel a little bad for pushing Kasey's buttons, no matter how hopelessly obvious Kasey tended to make them. No way Toby hasn't noticed, if he's been this blatant about it. Geez... you're a mess, Manatos. Poor son of a bitch. "Well, I'm gonna head on home now, so you can call up Granny Manatos. Catch you later, man."

Pulling up his hood and giving Chase a light punch on the shoulder and a "Hey, don't call her that!", Kasey waved him off with a friendly "'Night, Chase!" and turned to jog back up to his house, feeling much more content than he had in a good while.

Chapter Text

Like a great, vibrant tiger, the sky over the vermilion ocean once again stretched out in a blaze of orange shot through with fluffy streaks of iron-gray, the brisk wind contributing a familiar tinge to the salty air.

With a small smile, he closed his eyes and leaned back on the rough, damp rock out in the middle of the icy sea. He let the glow of the setting sun warm his face, before sitting up straighter and hugging his knees to his chest—the gusts were shooting past sharper and sharper now, chilling him and leaving the smooth, glassy water utterly undisturbed.

"...Hmm?"

Frowning, he stretched his legs out and leaned forward, staring curiously into the water. Had something been calling out to him just now...? A strange sound, carried on the chilly wind—a melody? His name? Perhaps both, mingling and separating in an overlapping series of sounds that just as quickly blew off into the distant horizon... something mythical beckoning to him...

Yet, a few whispers struck him as strangely familiar—voices he hadn't truly heard in ages. Long-gone, thought to be suspended in the past forever; perhaps they'd sensed his loneliness, and soared over the glimmering surface of the endless sea to bring him comfort. Could they really be...?

"Hello?" he called hopefully, his voice echoing across the darkening expanse before quickly being swallowed beneath the hushed noises. "Is... someone there...?"

Carefully, he pulled himself into a crouching position, stretching out his upper body and his arm—all he saw reflected on the smooth sheet of salty glass, now stained indigo, was his own confused and slightly-disappointed face. His fingertips brushed against a frozen barrier, and he looked back up—

Nothing, save for a night sky now draped in thick clouds, gently shedding tiny, powdery stars across the infinite expanse of the sea. They danced gently, in time to something distorted and muffled by the sea's icy shield. Holding out a curious hand, he let a snowflake drift into his waiting palm, a cold shock immediately wracking his bones at the contact—

With a confused snort, his eyes popped open, and he jolted instinctively at his half-conscious re-entry to the waking world. Drawing his blanket tighter about himself against the slight chill seeping in, he emitted a grumpy whine and cast his bleary gaze about, taking in the darkened room around him and humming groggily. Though it was still clouded over in Castanet—still storming heavily and projected to continue in that vein for some time, just as Lillie had predicted—the murky light bleeding through the windows told him morning wasn't far off. Another two hours, if that. But I'm sure the day can start a little later than that, if it wants to...

Groaning slightly, he rolled over and jammed his other pillow over his head, wanting to cast the dream aside and get back to sleep, return to a more pleasant side of his subconscious. One where he didn't wake up to fleeting snatches of barely-remembered detail, not quite remembering what was supposed to be troubling him—especially not when he already had enough on his mind at the moment, as it was.

Fluffing up the pillow beneath him and getting himself comfortable, he let his drowsy confusion drain out of his body with a quiet sigh that was swept away in the white noise of the rainfall, and gradually slipped back into a new dreamscape under cover of his gentle snores.

------------------------

Toby sneezed, the loud noise muffled by the fabric of his dark gray sweatshirt. Hearing a faint "Gesundheit!" coming from the front of the store, he raised his voice slightly to thank his uncle, sniffing a bit as he returned to his breakfast and his book, and hoping he wasn't going to be the next person in town to catch a cold. It just couldn't have made its rounds in winter like it usually did...

As if indulging Ozzie and Craig's wishes for the rain to continue as long as it felt like, Castanet was still washing away months and months of drought, occasionally letting up just enough for the more fussy members of the community—Julius and Luna, first and foremost—to dart to wherever it is they needed to be before the downpour started again, raincoats flapping and umbrellas brandished like they were frantically charging into the fray of a very strange battle. Though concerns about possible flooding were finally starting to be raised among people other than Gill, nobody had yet noticed anything really off about the water levels in Castanet's various basins, lakes, and rivers—other than the fact that they didn't seem to be rising at all, even without a current to wash them out into the sea. On the other hand, strange had been the new normal in town for some time now anyway.

Trying to rub away the dull ache in his forehead and hoping to untangle his brain from where it had tried to twist around the peculiarity of it all—his mind was overloaded enough as it was, these past few days—Toby heaved a soft sigh and started over at the top of the page, munching on his lox-and-cream-cheese bagel and taking a swig of his blueberry tea, willing the words to form coherent sentences in his inexplicably-sleepy mind. He'd certainly gotten enough sleep the night before, and before that—even if he'd started periodically popping awake again in the middle of the night to brood over some random, sudden thought or another. I thought I'd outgrown that, he thought warily.

Just as he finally started to clear his clouded mind enough to drink in the sentences before him as actual, proper statements, a creak from the far side of the room distracted him. He let out another quiet sigh as he closed the book, with a polite nod to his little cousin. "Well, good morning, Paolo. We were wondering when you were going to get up. Are you feeling any better today?" he added, watching as the short, disheveled-looking eight-year-old padded past him with a congested mumble of "Morning, Fish Breath" and flung the fridge door open, squinting groggily and peering around inside.

"Hmm. I suppose that answers it," Toby mused with an offhanded shrug, dog-earing the page he'd been on and heading over to the pantry, while Paolo took a deep swig from a can of ginger ale he'd pulled out and let out an unholy belch. Chuckling, Toby clucked his tongue and shook his head, now popping a bowl of chicken soup into the microwave. "Well, now. You really are your father's son. Let's get some breakfast to go with that, though," he added when he heard Paolo cough hoarsely behind him, "and then you've got to take your medicine."

"Ugh, more of that... gross... soup stuff?" Paolo groaned miserably with a shuddering yawn, now sitting at the table across from where Toby had been seated, head resting miserably on his folded arms. Stomach unleashing a ferocious growl, he eyed the bagel with bleary, bloodshot longing, and pointed for emphasis. "Can't I have.. uhh... that thing...?"

His own eyes widening in slight alarm, Toby stepped quickly to the table and swiped his bagel away before Paolo could grab it with his germy fingers. "Sorry, buddy. But you know what Miss Irene said about keeping your stomach settled, and this—" Here, he waved the bagel for emphasis, "—might make you throw up again. Plus, you like that soup just fine any other time. Aaaaaaand I get the feeling you didn't wash your hands, either," he added with a wary little cringe, watching Paolo swipe the side of his hand under his runny nose and groan as he slouched over to the sink.

"I threw up because... soup is groooooss," Paolo insisted through another scratchy yawn, drying off his now-clean hands and coughing again into the dish towel. As he was about to absent-mindedly replace it on the oven door handle, he stopped when he caught Toby's disbelieving stare. "...Ohhh, riiiight..." With a sheepish grin, he headed over to the open washing machine sitting in the corner of the room, and—after blowing his nose rather loudly—tossed the soiled towel in, earning a satisfied nod from Toby, who quickly polished off the rest of his bagel.

"And your reward is gross soup," Toby announced with a quiet laugh, placing the steaming bowl in front of a guilty-looking Paolo, who coughed again and began blowing on the broth to cool it off. Placing his hand on Paolo's forehead, Toby hummed in satisfaction, and moved his hand up to ruffle the already-messy brown hair. "Well, you don't feel as warm as yesterday, so that's good..."

"Thanks, Toby. Umm... sorry for being so... uhh, so—" Too exhausted to think of the word he wanted, he instead grunted miserably before tucking into his breakfast.

"It's okay," Toby responded nonchalantly. "I understand. Besides, I did your chores yesterday and Monday, so Uncle Ozzie says you can do mine when you're better. And hey," he cut in, now rummaging around in the cabinets for the cold medicine as Paolo let out another groan, "if you're good, how about I take you to the inn for ice cream when you're better? ...Huh. Where is it?" Barely hearing Paolo's mumbled thanks, he frowned and cocked his head. "Well, it looks like I've got a trip to make. I'll be back in a moment, okay?"

"What's up, ToboCop?" Ozzie called, grabbing the attention of his nephew as he strolled in on Toby's last statement. Heading over to the table, he felt Paolo's forehead as well, before ruffling his hair much like Toby had. "And hey, there's my little champ! You feelin' better, buddy?"

Paolo sniffled and hummed in response, waggling his hand about listlessly. "Umm... a little...?"

"I just need to go pick up some more medicine for him," Toby chimed in, heading over to the coat rack and slipping on his rain jacket. "Did you need anything while I was out, Uncle Ozzie?"

"A million bucks," Ozzie responded promptly, sharing a quick grin with Toby, who shook his head. "Nah, I—hmm." He scratched his close-cropped, graying hair and mumbled, "Ahh, right, it's Wednesday... never mind," he added, shrugging, and sitting at the table cattycorner to Paolo. "Nothin' that can't wait. Just don't you go gettin' a cold while you're out!"

"Let's hope not," Toby agreed, waving to them and heading out. "Bye, guys. I'll be back in a moment."

Grabbing his umbrella off the table by the front door, Toby gave a slight start as he was hit with a blast of unexpectedly cold air that pierced right down to his bones, stepping into the freezing downpour with a shiver and wondering if he should step back inside and try to find his gloves. Nah... it'll probably take me longer to find them than to just get back, he thought with a wry chuckle, making his way carefully up the slippery series of steps leading to the Choral Clinic and letting his mind float about in the puddles dotting the ground.

For a moment, his curious eyes flicked upwards to linger on Wizard's house—a surprisingly warm glow visible in the often-darkened windows—and he hummed thoughtfully. Whatever was going on with the bell situation recently, he'd forgotten to get back into the loop, though he had a feeling Wizard would certainly know if Toby ventured to ask. And, if not Wizard, then certainly—

"Oh!"

Standing there like a fool, with the door half-open and his umbrella popped out behind him to pointlessly catch more rain, Toby found himself startled back into the present when he stepped into the clinic.

Hair once again in his recently-acquired ponytail, Kasey whipped his head around and gave his own surprised jolt at the sight of Toby—though, Toby noticed with a bit of curiosity, the lower half of his face was covered by a white mask. "T-Toby! Umm, h-hey!" Kasey stammered as he waved meekly and coughed, his voice muffled and a little hoarse. Seeming torn between wanting to make and avoid eye contact, he jammed his hands into the pockets of his own jacket and scuffed his shoe on the floor, ultimately focusing on the still-open door just behind Toby. "W... what's up?"

"Oh, uhh... nothing," Toby answered with an awkward wave, Sunday's conversation with Chase abruptly surfacing in his mind at Kasey's usual shyness. Usual, he repeated inwardly, chiding himself for yet again giving it a second thought. Let's not go over-thinking things, nowHe's under a lot of stress lately.

Suddenly aware of the chill creeping in behind him from the cracked doorway, Toby grinned ruefully and shut his umbrella, shaking it off and letting the door swing shut behind him. "Heh, whoops... umm... just picking up some cold medicine for Paolo. Sounds like you've got it, too," he went on sympathetically, causing Kasey to rub the back of his neck and give a sheepish nod.

"Y-yeah... I, uhh... I stopped by the general store on Monday to pick up some stuff, a-and... I think Mrs. Ke—err... I think Babs passed it to me," he corrected with a self-conscious chuckle, sniffling. "Guess that's what I get for not bundling up more." He rolled his eyes good-naturedly, looking like he was smiling under the mask as the door behind the counter swung open. "So... yeah. Here I am."

"At least it's for something minor this time," Irene cut in brusquely, carrying a small box filled with medicine and setting it on the counter. Her normally-severe face was somewhat-relaxed this time, and she even gave the boys a small smile. "Mr. Nishimura," she added, exchanging a polite bow with Toby. "Paolo's doing better, I hope?"

"It looks like it," Toby responded with a slight laugh, feeling a bit more at ease now with his train of thought rerouted. "He's got enough energy back to complain about the food he has to eat, at least!"

Smile widening a bit more as she withdrew two bottles of cold medicine from the box, Irene gave a rare, mirthful chuckle, with Kasey joining in after his brief surprise faded. "Yes, it sounds like you're on the right track, then! Just be careful you don't go catching it too, now," she added sternly, pausing in the middle of counting out Kasey's change and shaking her head. "Especially with this recent turn of events, as welcome as it was initially. Even Jin's got it. He's hardly happy about that, but I'm afraid he'll just have to suck it up and deal. What on Earth could have brought this on all of a sudden, anyway?" she went on, abruptly leveling a pointed gaze on Kasey as he pocketed his medicine and jumped a bit at her stare. "Does this have anything to do about those bells that you were going on about a little while back?"

"Ah, right—Chase and I were wondering about that the other day, too," Toby chimed in, noticing Kasey's apologetic glance darting between the two of them. "Well... not exactly this," he clarified, motioning towards the window with his free hand, "but..."

Kasey nodded, hands in his pockets again. "R-right, I get what you mean. Err... I, uhh.. I kinda got Chase up to speed when I ran into him Sunday night. Sorry," he added in a mutter, nodding to both of them. "I-I guess I've just had other stuff on my mind..."

With an impatient wave, Irene folded her arms and inclined her head imperiously. "Well, then?"

Shrinking back a bit, Kasey uttered a nervous laugh, before slipping into another cough. "W-well! Umm... three of them, uhh... they're k-kinda AWOL right now. But—Gill and I, w-we, well... we checked out that bell in that mine behind here last week... th-the blue one. A-and, uhh.. well..." Not quite sure how to word it, he cringed. "...We tried ringing the bell, a-and... ummm..."

"What do you mean you tried?" Irene demanded, eyebrows raising in disbelief. "Ringing a bell hardly seems like a complex action..."

Feeling a pang of sympathy as he watched Kasey scratch the back of his head and scrabble around feebly for an explanation, Toby's face lit up, remembering something the farmer had told them before. "Oh! Wait—Kasey, didn't you say that one bell started ringing itself when you put it back?"

"Y-yeah!" Nodding gratefully, Kasey looked over to Toby, feeling his confidence boosted a little by the help. Taking a deep breath, he folded his arms and closed his eyes, before opening them and looking back at Irene, continuing in a slightly more assured and steady tone: "Yeah, so it's... not really easy to explain. Just, something was... wrong with the song it was supposed to play. Not even out-of-tune, just... well, jumbled. And..." He shot a guilty glance out the window, watching the relentless downpour, heaving a hoarse sigh. Irene and Toby followed his gaze quietly, realization dawning on their faces. "...Yeah. This... is kind of my fault."

Narrowing her eyes in confusion, Irene glanced at Kasey from her peripheral vision, drumming her fingers on the counter and huffing. "You? I don't follow, I'm afraid." Now, her finger jabbed towards the window. "How could you have caused that?"

Toby nodded in agreement. "Maybe nature's just making up for lost time? I mean, we went for quite a while without rain, Kasey..."

Shaking his head and coughing, Kasey slumped against the wall by the counter and looked up at the ceiling, taking another deep breath as the ramifications suddenly became clearer to him, leading to a tightening in his chest. "No, it's... I woke up the blue bell, but... it's... it's unstable right now. He didn't—he didn't remember how his song was supposed to sound, or... or much of anything, and I asked him to try anyway, and... he couldn't do it. And—" He nodded towards the window once more, "—I think... this is the result. I—I don't know how long it might even keep up, at this rate..."

Toby and Irene shot baffled stares at each other, and then at Kasey, as he fell silent. Uncertain of where exactly to continue from that thread, Toby made his way over to the counter and cleared his throat politely. At Kasey's acknowledging glance, he scratched the back of his head and pressed on: "Kasey... who is it that you're talking about, exactly?"

Letting his arms drop down resignedly, Kasey uttered a humorless chuckle. "Right... Gill knows since he was there, and I sort of told Chase last time, and... well... the bells are—they're possessed. Haunted. I... really don't know, I know it sounds stupid and crazy—but they've got those sages living in them, you know?" he added, sighing in tacit agreement at the two startled faces watching him. "Or, I guess their—their ghosts or something, and... and this one, Ben, he just—his memory was all screwed up. And—and I-I pushed him to try ringing anyway, a-and now... I dunno."

He let out another deep breath as his nerves started to get the better of him once more, turning his gaze straight ahead to once again look outside. "I mean, apparently the songs are, like... church hymns and stuff—and Perry's got copies of those on the way from that Chester guy," he added quickly, seeing Toby's face twist in an apologetic grimace—Toby remembered Paolo proudly waving the drawing in his face. "So... yeah, we're—we're gonna fix this. He said they should be here soon. Which is good," he added with a self-deprecating laugh, "because half the seeds I planted Sunday afternoon got washed away. So... that... that sucked."

Shock ebbing away slowly, Irene rubbed her temples and grunted, deciding to get her mind back on track and ringing up two more bottles of cold medicine for Toby. "This whole mess is giving me a damn headache," she admitted crossly, shaking her head and counting out Toby's change for him. His focus was solely on Kasey, and when he didn't respond to her pressing the money into his hand, she gave him a sharp smack on the wrist, causing him to jolt and smile contritely.

Rolling her eyes, Irene continued on, putting the remaining bottles of medicine on the shelf behind her while she spoke: "You mean to say these bells can talk to us? This whole time, we could've just walked up to them and told them to get their act together?"

"I... don't know," Kasey responded slowly, trying to keep his speech steady and avoiding Toby's quizzical stare. "Alan—the one in the red bell—seemed, well... really surprised that I heard him. I guess he'd been sending out his song to try and alert someone nearby, and Mira picked up on it subconsciously, but... he made it sound like he couldn't reach her any other way." He paused, rubbing his chin and sniffling. "And Gill... well... he didn't seem to be—" A sharp cough cut off his words, and he groaned. "Ugh, this stupid cold sucks... a-anyway, uhh—yeah, Gill didn't seem to be able to hear Ben, either..."

Eyeing Kasey oddly, Irene huffed. "And to think, this is the least ridiculous thing I've heard about this entire mess. If I didn't know better, I'd say one of us was losing our minds! Admittedly," she went on with a frown, "I can't say I recall any hymns of that nature, either. As long as I've lived here, I think we've had a few people express interest in those things—but I've never really bothered with it much, myself."

"Wow," Toby murmured, tapping his umbrella idly against his leg and looking utterly floored. "All those times I hid in that cave, and there was a ghost right next to me? Cool... I hope I wasn't bothering him, though," he added as a concerned afterthought. "I'd hate to learn that I'd actually been imposing."

"I'm sure he's dealt with worse," Irene replied dryly, before returning her attention to Kasey. "Well, I suppose if any more of those... those possessed bells show up, we'd better make sure they've got their minds right before we try anything else with them. Or, I guess, before you do," she amended with a resigned mutter, causing Kasey to flinch in shame. "Since they don't seem to be in a very chatty mood with the rest of us."

"Right," Kasey agreed quietly, clearing his throat again and nodding. "Well... well, we've got that sheet music on the way, at least. So... we're... we're getting somewhere. Yeah," he finished with another small nod, seeming as though he was trying to reassure himself moreso than Toby and Irene. "It'll all be fine..."

"I'm counting on it," Irene stated brusquely, drawing her thick, olive-green shawl about her thin shoulders with a slight shiver. "Hmph... well, if you boys will excuse me, I need to prepare some tea for Jin and myself. Not that I don't appreciate the weather cooling down, but I think these old bones grew too accustomed to all that damn heat. Probably why we've been getting all these colds lately... well, you two take care, now," she finished with a polite bow, before disappearing into the back of the clinic once again amid their quiet thanks.

As if Irene's retreat had flipped a switch in their minds, an awkward silence immediately fell between Toby and Kasey with the force of a sandbag, the two boys suddenly very aware of each others' presence, and neither of them entirely sure of what exactly that fact meant to the other at the moment.

Face burning under his white mask, Kasey regathered his frazzled nerves and took the initiative to break the silence as coolly as he could manage, rubbing his arm and looking up at the ceiling as he spoke: "S-so, err... hope you don't catch this crap. It seriously sucks... but, plus side is, the medicine knocks me right out," he mused, cocking his head to the side. "At least there's that."

Nodding thoughtfully, Toby leaned against the counter, folding his arms and casting his gaze upwards as well. "Mmm. Yeah, I hope I don't catch it, either... although, I'd get to wear that cool mask," he added, his tone suddenly a bit lighter, and the tension slightly diminished as he heard Kasey snicker. "You kind of look like a ninja with that thing on."

With a short burst of hoarse laughter, Kasey suddenly slipped into another hacking, wet cough, thumping his chest and groaning. "Owww, God... n-no, you're cool—" Waving off Toby's hasty apology, he chuckled again. "No, seriously, though, I do." His eyes twinkled, and he turned to partly meet Toby's gaze. "I had to stop by Renee's the other day for some stuff, and she saw me wearing this thing and just yelled 'Mortaaaaaal Kombaaaaaat!' at me."

Toby snorted loudly into his fist at this remark, shoulders shaking and face reddening slightly as he tried to suppress his own laughter at the mental image. "Oh, no... so, did you yell 'Get over here!' back at her?"

"Heh, nah..." Kasey grinned under his mask. "I just said it wouldn't be fair fighting a sick guy, but she told me she'd rather see me take on Chase. Apparently he's my 'rival,' according to someone. Someone named Renee." His grin widened, and he rolled his eyes with a click of his tongue. "Aaaand so I told her that'd kinda be a little awkward, since..." He rubbed the back of his neck and cleared his throat once more, his trailing off not unnoticed by Toby. "A-actually, he and I kiiiinda agreed to let bygones be bygones and all, so... y'know."

"Oh, really?" Face now lit up at the news, Toby shot him a pleased smile. "Well, that's good! He's really not such a bad guy, just..." Here, he paused and scratched his chin, unsure of how to put it—while Chase himself generally seemed fairly indifferent about it all, Toby couldn't help but feel uncomfortable with the idea of just casually disclosing the details of Chase's life to someone else, even if it was Kasey. "...He kind of has trouble letting people in," Toby finally finished, choosing his words carefully.

The statement prompted an understanding nod from Kasey, who was quiet for a moment as he worked out what to say next, his anxiety starting to grab hold of him once more. Before his mind could catch up with his mouth, he found himself blurting out: "Yeah, he... uhh, he told me what, uhh... w-what you s-said about me, too. Umm... th-thank you..." At the sound of his stutter returning, he cringed and cursed himself inwardly, stopping himself from saying anything else and not daring to look over at Toby for his reaction.

...Yet, none came—at least, not for a few moments, while Toby almost blankly combed through his mind and tried to remember what exactly he'd told Chase about Kasey recently that might've come back up in conversation. Stumbling upon the most likely possibility with a soft "Oh!", he felt the unease return and chuckled awkwardly, feeling his face warm slightly and wondering what was going on with him all of a sudden. Not that his mind hadn't been periodically and unceremoniously reeled back into the subject since at least Sunday night, causing him no end of confusion and unrest. Still, why was he even dwelling on it? This is what I get for taking Chase's jokes too seriously.

"Of course, but... it's... not that big of a deal, Kasey," he replied quietly, his spine and the back of his neck tingling as he looked over at the far wall, while Kasey—feeling like a complete idiot at this point—let out a deep breath and nodded.

"Y-yeah, it... y-you're right. I, uhh... just... I-I was just babbling, and... stuff. S-sorry..."

"No, it's just—" Toby paused and shook his head, stomach wrenching at the sight of how embarrassed Kasey looked—dark brown eyes downcast, the visible parts of his face flushed, and hands jammed into his jean pockets. Toby stopped before he could begin to explain himself any further, finding that at that moment—whether he was just over-analyzing things, or whether he'd just been oblivious before now—he wasn't quite sure what he thought he wanted to say or feel anymore. Catching Kasey's pained glance, Toby's heart contracted a bit, before he tore his gaze away from Kasey and over to the clock on the far wall, doing a double-take.

"Oh! I... I'm sorry—I should... I need to go," Toby explained feebly, his discomfort intensifying at Kasey's listless nod. "I mean... I... I told my uncle I'd be right back with the medicine, so... I need to... umm... be back with it, and... I... feel better, alright?" he finished lamely, heading towards the door and giving a half-hearted wave. When it was silently returned, he popped his umbrella open and spared another conflicted glance over his shoulder at Kasey—who looked like he wanted to say something else—before heading out into the freezing rain without another word, wanting to get home and sort out his muddled thoughts as quickly as possible.

Letting his hand drop hopelessly and his repeated apology to Toby dying on his lips, Kasey closed his eyes and took another long, deep breath, trying to stop beating himself up before he even started. You knew this was going to happen eventually, he reminded himself, the admonishment unsurprisingly bringing him little comfort—he felt completely nauseous, and he knew it wasn't because he was sick. Shit, Chase probably knows, everyone probably knows. Just... deal with whatever happens now.

Hand now on the doorknob of the clinic, he swallowed hard and stepped into the morning downpour with a shiver, eyes wandering over the lit windows dotting the soaked town—probably occupying more ill people like himself—and set his jaw with a firm nod, turning to head back home. He still had the sheet music coming in soon. He could still at least fix one of the messes he'd suddenly made.

------------------------

"...However, as no written records exist of its last eruption, it has been classified as dormant. Research spearheaded in 1897 by Professor Elias Bram suggests early settlers regarded Mt. Garmon as a holy site marking the "birthplace" of Ignis, with legends saying he was formed in a geyser of lava during the final eruption. Ruins and resting sites scattered about Castanet show evidence of shrines built in his and Sephia's honor. However, remains excavated in the early 20th century show none of the signs of ritualistic sacrifice present in other regional sites in worship of similar deities. In light of this evidence, Professor Bram theorized that perhaps the earliest settlers of Castanet may, in fact, have been composed of members of a more peaceful subsect..."

Much like he had earlier in the morning, even with the rainfall continuing to try its best to assuage him, Toby found himself staring blankly at the same paragraph of Composing Castanet, unable to form any coherent thought from it with his focus constantly being jostled elsewhere. Uttering a quiet whine, he planted his face between the pages, lying prone on his bed and screwing his eyes shut.

"I still think you're pretty cool..."

Rolling onto his back and staring up at the ceiling, Toby clasped his hands behind his head and tried to press out all of his stress into a long, exasperated sigh. Why me, thoughWatching the wide, palm-frond blades of his ceiling fan rotate lazily, he wracked his brain for any kind of answer—what exactly did he have to offer? Coming up with nothing, he rolled back onto his stomach and brushed the book aside gently, burying his face in his pillow and grumbling. At most, he could only wonder if he'd just blown the whole thing out of proportion, made himself look like less of a jerk than he actually had. If he hadn't really been such a jackass and possibly—unintentionally—torpedoed a promising friendship with someone who was funny, charming, and kind-hearted.

"Y-yeah, it... y-you're right. I, uhh... just... I-I was just babbling, and... stuff. S-sorry..."

Somehow—trying to ignore the strange sensation the thought elicited in his chest—Toby highly doubted that he'd misinterpreted anything at all. And all it was doing was mixing up his thoughts more and more, sending another question weighing on his mind, followed by yet another, and...

And... what now? Feeling miserable, a bit stupid, and far more torn than he was comfortable admitting to himself, Toby once again flopped over onto his back and ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. Apologizing was first and foremost on his mind, but then what? This wasn't his usual territory at all. Sure, he'd somehow captured someone else's attentions before, albeit some years back—they'd parted on good terms and stayed friends, she'd moved on to someone else, and all remained well; and sure, he had moments where he found himself brooding, dwelling on things that stirred up a series of emotions in him. Long-past memories; the recent, fleeting dreams that slipped through his fingers the moment his eyes opened; insecurities and anxieties...

But this should've been open and shut. If not much else, he had tact. He was, for the most part, generally a pretty composed person. And he's a really good guy... he would've understood, I hope. I could've just... told him that I...

...Told him... that I... I...?

He froze for a moment, breath catching as he lay there with slightly-widened eyes, utterly stunned at his inability to find an answer that seemed to work, before squeezing his eyes shut again and groaning. Still lost in his thoughts and trying to untangle his jumbled feelings, he was subsequently only vaguely aware of another presence making itself known in the form of his concerned uncle, poking his head into Toby's bedroom and looking rather tired.

"Toby? You okay, bud?"

With a start, Toby's mind snapped back into the here and now, propping himself up on his elbows to face Ozzie with an apologetic, wry grin. "Sorry, Uncle Ozzie... I was just kind of spacing out a little."

Ozzie gave a thoughtful nod, resting his lined, tanned face against the door frame and yawning. "Long as you ain't gettin' sick, too, Tozone," he managed, causing Toby's grin to widen a little at the nickname. "Welpers, Lolo's feelin' better, but he's all tuckered out. Think I am, too, as a matter of fact. Mind if we just pick up somethin' from Hayden's for supper tonight?" At Toby's nod, Ozzie gave a weary smile. "Thanks, bud. Lemme know what you wanna get, and I'll call it in. Thanks for helpin' out with Paolo, too," he added gratefully.

Toby nodded again. "Of course. Oh," he called, as Ozzie turned to head back to the living room, "you know, if you want to take a nap or something, I can call them and get the door when Chase stops by. You look kind of beat."

Humming in agreement, Ozzie let out another loud yawn that rocked his tall, wiry frame. "Sounds good to me, thanks! Wallet's on the counter; I'll just have some stir-fry, and if I'm still conked out when it gets here, just put it in the fridge. Oh! And tell Hayden I'm in for poker next Sunday!"

"Well, goodbye, house," Toby quipped lightly, heading over to his phone while Ozzie cackled and waved off his remark with an inaudible retort.

A little over half an hour later, Toby opened the door to find Chase, standing in the rain and shivering a bit, a water-spattered paper bag under his arm. "Oh, wow," Toby muttered, feeling the chill blast into the entryway.

Without waiting for a proper invitation, Chase barreled his way in, teeth chattering together as he handed Toby the bag and slipped off his soaked jacket. "Sh-sh-shit! Is w-w-winter just c-coming in late or s-s-s-something?" he stammered, rubbing his arms and scowling as Toby set the bag down on the shop counter and withdrew a small, styrofoam container—leaving Ozzie's in the bag for now, since he was still fast asleep.

Looking only briefly concerned, Toby cocked his head thoughtfully, regarding his container of étouffée with a wry smirk. "You know, I was actually thinking the same thing earlier—oh, look at this. She's calling me 'Tobalicious' now, apparently," he continued, letting out an amused chuckle as he read Kathy's handwriting. "What's with you guys always nicknaming me, anyway?"

"Name's fun to play with, Fishimura," Chase explained pointedly, sitting down at the counter with a relieved sigh and relishing the warm air blowing through the vent above him. Pocketing the money Toby handed him, he rubbed his forehead and wiped a few wet strands of peach-colored hair from his forehead. "So... I'm gonna sound like a huge pussy, but you mind if I just take a quick break in here before I get back out there? Because, seriously—freezing my ass off. Plus, it's slow over there anyway, so..."

"You know you don't have to ask," Toby reminded him kindly, sitting down next to him with a slightly wistful expression. "It's kind of slow everywhere recently. I know we're in a state of emergency right now and all, but I kind of miss the tourists..."

"I kinda do, too," Chase agreed with a smirk, "but on the other hand, it's been a nice break from having to smile at them all the damn time. 'Hi, can I get you folks anything else? How is everything? Haha, no, ma'am, I'm not on the menu, and your husband looks as annoyed as I feel right now, so stop pinching my butt.'" As he imitated himself, he put on the same eerie grin and mockingly sincere tone he'd used with Colleen a few weeks back, before lapsing into a sour-faced eye-roll.

Toby snickered and popped his carton open, starting to poke at the food with his little plastic spork. "Ah, yes. Whereas the locals know better than to expect too much enthusiasm from you when they pinch your butt. Want some?" he added, holding a scoop of étouffée out to Chase.

"Ahh..." Chase waved off the offer. "I'm good—I brought dinner with me to work. Oh!" he went on, snapping his fingers as the light bulb popped on in his head. "By the way, I ran into Manatos after I left here Sunday."

Stiffening a bit, Toby nodded, eyeing Chase warily and hoping he wasn't primed and ready to pick up where he'd left off on Sunday evening—especially not at the worst possible time for it. "Right... he mentioned that when I saw him earlier today. At the clinic," he elaborated off of Chase's curious look, deciding to gloss over the topic as nonchalantly as he could. "He's been sick, too. I just had to pick up Paolo's medicine earlier, and he kind of brought me and Irene up to speed on everything..."

Chase slouched back in his chair, looking relieved. "Okay, awesome. Saves me the ramble, then." Craning his neck towards the door leading to the living area, he added: "How's the little rugrat doing, anyway?"

Finding his thoughts once again distracted and thinking the term directed at Kasey, Toby frowned. "Rugrat?" he muttered vaguely, before shaking his head back into the present. "Oh! Right... he's doing fine, thank you."

"Good to hear," Chase muttered, giving Toby a confused look. "You okay, man? I dunno, you seem kinda... moody or something." Pushing his chair back almost as if on instinct, he jabbed a finger at Toby. "You're not catching the crud too, are you?"

"Me? No—" Toby shook his head defensively, "—I don't get sick that easily... well, neither does Candace, though," he mumbled in an afterthought, rubbing his chin. While he'd known the others in Castanet for far longer—having moved there when he was five, whereas Chase had popped up in town shortly after turning sixteen—Chase was easily his closest friend, someone who maybe didn't know everything about his life, but whom Toby could tell just about anything and expect an honest response. Even if that honesty erred on the side of brutal the vast majority of the time.

Still, while he didn't want to lie to Chase, Toby found himself quickly casting away the idea of telling him the primary reason for his troubles. As it was, he was still trying to sort out exactly what was going on, himself, and he had the sense that a visual representation of his thoughts and feelings would just wind up resembling a hopelessly snarled tangle of Christmas lights.

"...I've just been having a bit of trouble sleeping lately," Toby finally said, not untruthfully. "I mean, not staying up late or anything. Just... trouble staying asleep."

Chase nodded in understanding, his face softening a bit. He folded his arms over his stomach, wet sneakers kicking together. "Right... about your parents?" he asked quietly, trading out his typical casual sarcasm for genuine concern. He knew that, even though the exact contents had never been shared, and he still didn't know the circumstances surrounding their deaths, Toby occasionally had nightmares about losing them. He couldn't help but feel—with a small twinge of guilt—almost lucky sometimes, in a morbid sort of way, that he'd lost his own parents before he could even remember them. However, Toby's next words caused his brow to wrinkle in confusion:

"No—I mean... maybe? I don't think so, but..." Toby shook his head helplessly, pushing his half-finished meal aside and resting his face on his hands, shooting Chase a sideways glance—the befuddlement Chase's face easily mirrored his own. "I don't know, to tell you the truth. It's weird—I feel like it's something I really, really need to remember. Something very important. But whenever I wake up, it's like... my mind is almost completely blank. Like someone reached in and stole my dream before I could comprehend it. And I can wrack my brain however long I like afterward, to try and recall any details... and nothing comes from it." Scrunching up his nose a bit, he cocked his head to the side. "And I always wake up feeling really, really cold for a moment, too..."

Chase hummed in response, tutting as he scowled out at the darkening sky. His brow furrowed even more in brief confusion before he turned back to Toby, shrugging. "Yeah, I think that last thing's a given right now, but... how long has this been going on?"

"Mmm..." Toby tapped his hands on the countertop a few times. "...Maybe a week or so? I'm not too sure... that's when I noticed it, anyway. It's not a nightly occurrence or anything, but..." He pulled his food back, once again poking at it and taking smaller bites now. "...I don't know."

Silence settled between the two of them for a short while after, with the constant rain and the gentle, intermittent rumbles of thunder providing the only sounds. Listening to the rain begin to strike the windows even harder, Chase whistled. "Damn... I don't mean to sound like an ungrateful asshole, but... uhh... I wonder if Mother Nature out there could tone it down a bit?"

"Maybe eventually," Toby responded, though his tone was doubtful. Trying to keep his voice neutral as the subject came back up, he added: "Kasey thinks, well... he thinks maybe the bell's causing this, because he tried to ring it, and it just can't remember its song... he seems to think it's his fault, too," he finished with a heavy sigh, stirring his fork around in the remains of his dinner.

Chase scoffed. "Guy's way too hard on himself, and yes, I realize I'm saying this," he stated defensively, though Toby only nodded in silent agreement. "I mean, if that stupid bell-person... thing can't remember its own song... oh, that reminds me, actually! Uhh, just how sick was Kasey, anyway? Like, are we talking Death's door, or did it not seem that bad?"

"...Kind of in the middle, I guess," Toby answered slowly, looking baffled—which didn't go unnoticed by Chase.

"Nah, just—" He shook his head and waved. "I'm guessing he told you about that sheet music, right?" Toby nodded again. "Yeah, I ran into Perry on my way to work earlier, and he said it should be in by Friday, and it'll probably be delivered to the church. So... I was gonna go tell Kasey, but—y'know..." He mimed an exaggerated cough, causing Toby to roll his eyes and chuckle. "Yeah, yeah, yuk it up, Nishimura. I don't think people would be too happy with a sick guy preparing their food, though."

"I think the Sullivans could cover for you if you got sick," Toby pointed out fairly. "They managed to cook before you moved here, remember? I even saw it happen myself. I wouldn't lie to you."

Now it was Chase's turn to roll his eyes. "Well, shit! I may as well let everyone line up to sneeze on me, in that case."

"That's disgusting, but I could wake Paolo up, if you're really serious..."

Chase simply reached over and gave Toby a good-natured shove. "That is gross. Let the little ankle-biter sleep and snot on his pillows—I think I've about used up my break time, anyway. Probably better head back to work before Kathy bursts through the ceiling and has me airlifted back there."

Sharing a laugh with Chase at the mental image, Toby watched as he got up, heading over to the door and grabbing his coat from the rack screwed to the wall. "Well, she'll have to do it quietly, since everyone else is asleep."

"I'll be sure to pass the memo along," Chase responded dryly, giving a short wave and zipping his coat up. Pulling a sour face as he slipped the hood over his pinned-back curls, he grunted. "Well, here goes nothing. See ya later, man."

"Later, Chase," Toby responded, waving back. He watched Chase swing the door open, ready to head back out into the downpour, when...

"...What in the fuck?! ...Uh, Toby, you... you better come see this. Now."

Violet eyes wide, Chase had frozen in place, mouth dropping open in a perplexed frown and breath clouding up in front of his face as he hesitantly held out his uncovered hand. He didn't hear his friend come up beside him over the sound of the icy pattering, shivering against the sudden rush of cold air. The noise drowned out Toby's sharp intake of breath as he reached the doorway, and the two stood in shock at the sight before them, turning to stare at each other for only a moment before they resumed gaping outside.

------------------------

Blinking in confusion against the darkness, and the strangely familiar weight against his face, Kasey let out a scratchy grunt and plucked The Life of Castanet from its resting place on his head, clumsily plopping it on his bedside table and squinting against the dull, gray light filtering in through his windows. He couldn't quite remember when he'd fallen asleep, trying to push the troubled thoughts and uncomfortable memories from his mind, to just focus. Apparently, it had worked, to some degree. He couldn't even remember what he'd dreamed about.

Sitting up straight and rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he pressed the heels of his hands to his forehead and shivered, immediately pulling up his blanket to wrap around himself. Swallowing hard in his dry throat, he felt the memories of yesterday instantly crash down on him.

In spite of being completely mortified and feeling like someone had socked him right in the stomach after yesterday's events at the clinic, Kasey took whatever small satisfaction he could in the fact that he otherwise felt better—his throat wasn't as sore as it had been, his fever had gone down, and he felt less congested. At the very least, his cold was on its way out.

And Toby... probably doesn't want to speak to me again, he thought bleakly, forcing back the wave of bitterness that threatened to rise up and ruin his day before it had even started. Oh, and Danny thought it was so fucking adorable that I'm so easy to read.

His scoff sounded a lot louder in the darkened house than he'd have thought it would, given the recent downpour—and, with a slight shrug as his ears picked up the muffled sound of the rain still drumming outside, he figured it was just easing up for a little bit again.

He stretched and stood up, emitting a long, shuddering yawn and keeping the blanket around him and trudging over to his dresser. Ready to cast aside his negative thoughts and get ready for the day, he halted when an odd sight outside caught his attention. Face twisted in bewilderment, he blinked hard, rubbed his eyes again, and refocused his gaze on the window by his front door.

That... is that...?!

Each breath now coming out quicker and shakier, he threw the door open roughly, disbelieving eyes drinking in the sight before him, the cold being the only thing that shocked his senses enough to let him know he wasn't dreaming. The icy little bullets of speedy sleet mixed oddly with the gently-drifting snowflakes floating down in a casual waltz, both shed from an iron-gray expanse of clouds that stretched out endlessly over the freezing land, whiting yesterday's encounter with Toby out of Kasey's stunned mind.

Chapter Text

It didn't take terribly long for another wave of astonishment—now tinged with alarm, and a bit of resignation—to sweep across Castanet since the environment had swapped seasonal extremes far faster than almost anyone in the area was used to, while the surrounding towns and cities experienced perfectly normal springtime weather. Thursday evening's newscast had featured Gill calmly advising the residents to bundle up and stay warm, not to panic, and that it was likely just a perfectly-explainable freak storm—though a muscle beneath his right eye had periodically twitched throughout his speech, and his folded hands didn't fully conceal his chewed-up fingernails.

Lillie's face had just displayed complete, helpless confusion throughout yesterday's forecast, looking as though someone had kindly sat her down right before they went live and broke it to her that she was actually an octopus.

"Kasey Alexander Manatos, how in the world did you catch a cold?" Deena Manatos admonished lightly on Friday morning, sounding like she was stuck halfway between exasperation and amusement. "And in April, too?"

With a nervous chuckle at his mother's questions, Kasey switched the phone to his other ear, gaze flicking out the window at the still-drifting snowflakes. Maybe the situation in Castanet wasn't being that widely reported after all. It didn't seem to have made state news, at the very least. Just regional. Kasey gulped, and tried to keep his own tone casual as well. "H-hey, I'm better now! Everyone else caught it, so... I-I dunno, just... lucky, I guess?"

"Sweetheart, when you told us you were fitting in well over there, we didn't expect you to take it quite that far," Deena responded dryly, though she and Kasey shared a laugh at this. "So, how are you and your friends doing, anyway? Did you guys do anything fun recently?"

Kasey felt his stomach drop slightly at the question. While the recent events affecting Castanet had spread through his mind like kudzu yesterday, choking almost everything else out as he'd helplessly inspected his frosted-over crops and pictured the Sellers' horrified faces at the sight of their own snow-covered fields, Wednesday morning's incident at the clinic hadn't been completely overshadowed.

And, as much as he'd tried to convince himself that it was inevitable, that it had just been a dumb crush on someone he'd only known for a few weeks anyway, that he had more important things to worry about, that at least it was over with already and to just give it a rest with the pity party...

"Uhh, y-yeah," he answered, trying his best to keep his voice neutral. "We—we did a movie night thing here last week, a-and..."

His mind flashed back to Renee's boundless enthusiasm throughout the night; Anissa calming him down, being so kind and gracious; sitting alone with Toby, joking around with him, and...

You still have everyone else, he reminded himself firmly, despite the sudden deflating sensation in his chest. Moping won't get you anywhere. Finally, he finished: "It... it went pretty well."

On the other end, his mother nodded with a small smile, though she could easily pick up the oddly wistful note in Kasey's voice, and the unsteadiness. "Well, that's wonderful!" she replied sincerely, before continuing in a careful tone: "So... everything's going okay, then?"

Chewing at his lower lip, Kasey ran through the possible responses in his mind. You're going to be fine. Just... move on already. "Yeah," he said after a few quiet seconds, shrugging, and hoping against his better judgement that she wouldn't pry too much. Still, he reasoned, she had to have heard his stuttering, too. It still was nowhere near as bad as when he and Danny had broken up, but he had so few problems speaking to his family now that he knew they would take any trouble speaking as a clear sign that something was going on with him. I need to figure out what to do about all that... never thought I'd miss taking Xanax. Before Kasey could say anything else, however, a knock at his door burst through his thoughts, making him start slightly with a little yelp.

"Kasey?" Deena asked, sounding worried. "Are you alright over there?!"

Giving his head a quick shake to calm himself down, Kasey hummed in affirmation. "S-sorry, Mom—someone's at my door. Who is it?" he called, raising his voice slightly and covering the mouthpiece of his phone. His heart pumped frantically—a number of possibilities reeled through his head, none of them pleasant and all of them containing disappointed, angry faces—

"It's Chase!"

Not quite sure if he should feel relieved or even more anxious, Kasey sighed, wishing Chase would've at least announced just what he was doing there, too. "Sorry, Chase, just—just a second! Err, sorry, Mom," he repeated into the phone. "One of my friends just stopped by—call you guys later?"

"Oh, sweetheart, that's fine!" his mother responded, sounding pleased. "Your father and I are going out to dinner after he gets off work tonight, but we can catch up more tomorrow! Don't let me keep you from your friends—you keep up the good work, okay?"

His anxiety lessening a little, Kasey grinned and nodded. "Will do. You guys have fun tonight, and tell Dad I said hi. Love you, Mom. Take care!"

"You too, sweetheart. I love you, too!"

Kasey hung up the phone and hopped off his bed, sucking in a deep breath as he made to let Chase in. Steeling himself for a verbal smackdown, he gulped and swung the door open, finding Chase standing there with his arms folded tightly over his puffy red parka and looking overall rumpled and messy. They exchanged nods, Kasey ushering him inside. "Uhh, h-hey, Chase! S-sorry, I—" He hooked a thumb over his shoulder, "—uhh... j-just on the phone with my mom, and all..."

Chase waved it off, and—to Kasey's surprise—shot him an easygoing smile, leaning against the wall and brushing something off his parka, while Kasey shut the door. "That's fine. She know about this crazy shit going on?" he added with an amused scoff, rapping his gloved knuckles on the window beside him.

Grimacing, Kasey shook his head. "Ahhh... no. Somehow, I've... err... I've managed to keep th—" And, in mid-sentence, he found himself pausing and frowning at Chase's jacket, cocking his head to the side. At first he'd thought it was just snow being brushed off, but on further inspection, Chase looked as though he'd been suicide-bombed by a bird. "Umm. S-sorry, but what exactly... happened to you?"

With a shrug, Chase picked another bit of down off of his parka, not bothering to spare it a second glance. "What, this stuff? Renee's chickens just really like me, for some reason."

Nodding slowly, Kasey raised his eyebrows before he turned to head to the fridge, his curiosity overriding his stress. "...Alright... I-I'm not really sure what to make of that statement, but... alright. Err, can I get you anything, by the way?" he added, looking over his shoulder and seeing Chase roll his eyes.

"I'm good, thanks, and I'm not sure I even want to know what idea you got from my statement. I just went to the ranch to pick up some eggs before I came over," he clarified with a huff, staying glued to his post against the wall as he watched Kasey turn and lean back against the kitchen counter, mimicking Chase's posture somewhat. "Renee was still gathering them in the coop and offered to give me some freshly-laid ones, and those damn... egg factories swarmed me like I was Elvis or something. Apparently, my biggest fan is Malon," he continued dryly, though he couldn't help but crack a small grin. Renee was actually sort of fun to chat with, and the chickens were pretty cute. Maybe even a little amusing.

Lightening up a little and deciding to run with it, Kasey snorted at the mental image of Chase, stone-faced and sitting amid an adoring flock of hens. "So... would you kick my ass if I called you a chick magnet?"

Chase groaned and slapped a palm to his forehead. "Dude, really? You had to? I mean, not that it's not true, because look at me," he continued earnestly, without even a passing stab at any sort of modesty, "but come the fuck on..."

Kasey just snickered, hopping up a bit to sit on the counter. "I have to be corny. I'm a farme—okay, I'll stop!" He laughed and held his hands up in a placating manner when Chase simply stuck a gloved middle finger up at him. Now a bit more relaxed with the increased certainty that Chase hadn't stopped by to chew him out for kicking off an ill-timed winter, Kasey let out a breath, his cheeks puffing up with the action. "So... umm, is this, like... uh... a social call or—or something? Everything okay?"

"Eh." Chase shrugged, finally pushing himself off the wall and jamming his hands in the pockets of his heavy white jeans. "Not so much a social call, nah. I mean, if you wanna hang out later, that's cool—err, you're over your cold, right? Couple people told me," he explained, off of Kasey's curious glance and nod. "Okay, good. Because I think Perry's supposed to have that sheet music in today, so I was gonna head into town and check on that, since I've gotta head to the tailor's afterward, anyway. That's why I stopped by."

Kasey's eyes widened almost simultaneously with his posture slumping in relief, and his face lit up. "Seriously? It—it's here already? Awesome! Yeah, let me just get my jacket on, and we can go!"

As he hopped off the counter eagerly and made for his closet, he suddenly stopped, catching Chase giving him a strange look. Feeling his typical self-consciousness amplify under the weight of the bemused stare, he hunched his shoulders a bit. "Umm... w-what is it?"

"Just your jacket?" Chase repeated flatly, raising an eyebrow. Confusion wrinkled Kasey's brow for a second, before he looked down, face reddening with the realization. While the weather and his cold had prompted him to cover up more at home than he usually did, he'd nonetheless just thrown on a gray T-shirt and thin tartan pajama pants, figuring his heater would handle the rest of the warmth for him. He didn't even have socks on.

Chuckling wryly, Kasey scratched the back of his neck and snatched a thick, tan jacket out of his closet, as well as a sweater, pants, socks, and gloves. "Ahh... heh, r-right. Duh... w-well, just gimme a sec, then."

Smirking, Chase watched as Kasey scurried into his bathroom to change, zipping up his jacket when he emerged moments later. He tossed his pajamas onto his bed before following Chase out into the strange mid-April morning.

The sleet hadn't taken too long to taper off, though the thick, woolen sky over Castanet retained its chilly shade of industrial gray as the eerily quiet snowfall continued to blanket the ground in dully-glittering white. Anxious gaze darting about the landscape, noting the glossy sheen of the distant, iced-over pond past his farm, Kasey hunched in closer on himself and shivered a bit. He worried at his lower lip before sending a cloudy sigh billowing up into the air at the memories of his dreams—the people of Castanet drying up and blowing away in the severe heat, Sephia's dead and withered tree coated in a thick shell of ice...

Shit. I should've seen this coming.

Another sigh, and his eyes slid shut in a pained frown. Part of him wanted to ask Chase how everyone else was handling the development, to hear that they were freaking out and blaming him, to validate the roiling feeling of guilt festering in his gut; yet, another part of him wanted to persist in trying to adopt a more positive attitude, to keep his eyes on the goal ahead. Remember? Moping won't get you anywhere? So... cut it out.

Nonetheless, Chase picked up on Kasey's tension fairly easily, cutting him a sideways stare and raising his eyebrows. While he'd heard enough panicking from Ruth and Craig the other day—and he could hardly blame them, with the bizarre and frankly unprecedented inversion of the weather at great risk of jeopardizing their livelihood even further than the drought and heatwave had—he couldn't help but sympathize with Kasey's position. Can't prevent what you can't predict, and the kid's busting his ass trying...

"So," he started lightly, prompting Kasey to spare him a curious glance, "I don't mind taking this one on if I've gotta, but you know how to read sheet music?"

Kasey nodded, looking a little pleased at the turn of conversation. "Y-yeah! Yeah, I... I actually can play piano, at least a little... my sister Vanessa's, like, really good at it, so she started teaching me a bit. So, you can play, too?" he finished, cocking his head to the side.

"Ehhh..." Chase waggled his hand. "A little, yeah. I've actually been playing the flute since I was a kid, though, so I'm pretty good at that. I got a lot of shit for it in school, but surprisingly, girls find it pretty hot." He snickered at this statement. "I think that just pissed people off even more."

Grinning, Kasey shook his head at Chase's shameless lack of modesty as they crossed the bridge into Harmonica Town. Beneath the continuing snowfall, the hastily-salted streets were empty, making the sleepy little seaside town seem colder—and rather lonely. He chanced a quick sideways glance at the lit-up fishery across town, feeling a wrenching sensation in his chest, and pushing the ensuing wave of heartache aside with some difficulty. "W-well, that... that's cool! And," he continued with another small smile, "it beats my idea—I was thinking we'd have to drag someone's piano into Ben's cave or something dumb like that. But we can just have you play your flute for him instead, and charge admission if Renee's chickens show up to watch."

Chase guffawed at the mental image, turning by Town Hall and heading up the slightly-slippery incline to Celesta Plaza. "I'm not even gonna ask how they're going to pay. Whatever, they can just give me all the eggs they've got."

Keeping himself from jogging up the sloping path like he wanted to, Kasey carefully kept in step beside Chase, the familiar feeling of hope once more burgeoning in his chest as the church's steeple bobbed into view with painful slowness. "So, ummm... speaking of, Mr. Talbot told me a while back that a few of the nearby towns have music festivals. Short local concerts and stuff. Do you guys do anything like that here?"

Face twisting into a pensive frown, Chase gradually crunched to a halt just inside the plaza, hands jammed in the pockets of his heavy white jeans. "Actually... now that you mention it, we... don't. Huh." He shook his head. "Go figure, right? I dunno if they just don't feel like it, they suck at it, or it never was a thing to begin with..." He scoffed at the irony of it, rocking back on his boots with a thoughtful expression. "They probably could, though, if they felt like it. It'd be kinda nice, actually. Little annual concert in the musical town." He raised his eyebrows and began counting off on his fingers now, genuinely intrigued:

"Mira and Hayden play piano, Renee's voice actually isn't half-bad... Toby and Luke can play air guitar," he went on with a snicker, not noticing Kasey wince at the mention. "Actually, Luke's got a pretty awesome voice, I'll give him that. Maybe you can do a duet with him or Renee, she says you sound pretty good. Hell, maybe you can just sing at that bell."

Stomach flipping at the memory of when he'd joked around with Toby about the same subject only a week ago, Kasey once again barely managed to shove aside the depression that was threatening to rise back up, hunching his shoulders and grinning weakly. "Ahh... m-maybe. No flute?" he prodded in return, causing Chase to suck his teeth in contemplation, fingertips drumming on his elbows.

"...Eh." Brushing the snow from where it had started to pile up on his parka, Chase resumed walking towards the church, Kasey falling into step beside him. "Provided this hypothetical Music Festival actually does become a thing here—and it's kind of weirding me out now that it hasn't, what with the whole theme naming thing they've got going on—I... guess it couldn't kill me."

Kasey laughed, clapping the snow from his own gloves before bracing his hand on the church door. "What, you'd rather the rest of us just performed for your amusement or something?"

"Pretty much, " Chase affirmed offhandedly, following Kasey inside the warm building.

For the second time in only a few weeks, Kasey found the creaking of the church door putting a stop to another laid-back conversation, though a few of the voices were different this time. He caught Perry and Phoebe waving cheerfully to him and Chase, beckoning them over with pleasant greetings.

Sitting next to Phoebe was a fit, slightly-older man, whom Kasey could only surmise was Calvin. His lively, sky-blue eyes, messy waves of dirty-blond hair, and square, stubbly jawline contributed to his rugged good looks, and he shot the newcomers a charming smile and a nonchalant wave. "Morning, Chase! And Kasey, I presume," he added politely, reaching his hand over the back of the pew for a firm shake. "Name's Calvin Hawke. Good to finally meet you, mate. There's been a lot of talk about you around these parts!"

Kasey laughed awkwardly at this, averting his eyes and rubbing the back of his neck with a modest shrug. In the back of his mind, he couldn't help but wonder if Calvin could also see the forest path in the Garmon District. How the hell do I even bring that one up, anyway?! "Ahhh... w-well... I-I've heard a bit about you, too, actually. Phoebe, uhh... she said you're... you're studying around the region?"

"Just started a while back," Calvin confirmed, leaning back and crossing his legs as Chase and Kasey took the pew across from him and Phoebe. "Wanted to start poking around and couldn't figure out where to start, since the region's just bursting with history! Wound up working with an old teacher of mine out in Forget-me-not on a dig site, heard a couple crazy rumours about something happening over in Echo Town...

"Almost wanted to bolt off right then and there to check it out," he confessed with an embarrassed chuckle, "but I'd always read and heard so much about Castanet, and Miss Pheebs here—" He and Phoebe exchanged loving grins at this, causing Chase to smirk and roll his eyes, "—just had me hooked from the get-go. The deities, remnants of their worship sites, their rumoured dwellings, the bells, the ancient rituals, the—the theories about it all... just... man. You lot are living in... in the bosom of history!"

Chase snickered into his fist at this, causing Kasey to roll his eyes and give his boot a kick.

"But 'bosom,' though," Chase said under his breath, still laughing.

Calvin, for his part, heaved an amazed sigh at the end of his ramble, eyes darting around and drinking in the stained glass and warm stone walls of the old church. Perry and Phoebe nodded in fervent agreement with his enthusiasm, while Kasey and Chase exchanged amused looks at the man's earnest hamminess.

"And that was before I even brought up everything else going on around here," Phoebe added dryly, causing Calvin to click his tongue at her and swat her on the arm. "Oh, please, you know you were practically bouncing out of the Valley to get here!" she chided in a playful tone, swatting him back. "Poor Professor Carter thought you didn't like him anymore!"

"Ahhh..." Calvin waved a hand to brush the thought away. "Carter knows how I get—we go way back. Doubt he took offense to any of it. Probably would've loved to come along, I reckon," he mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Don't think he's been, yet. Hmm. Wish I'd thought to ask him..."

"Well, we'd always love to see more new faces around here!" a starry-eyed Perry chimed in sincerely, leaning on the altar and propping his cheek on his palm. "And I'd love to hear the stories about what everyone found over there in the Valley! I've heard such fascinating legends about it..."

"Oooh, absolutely! Flora told us about some really good ones," Phoebe agreed, bunching her fists excitedly in the lap of her tan corduroys while Calvin gave an enthusiastic nod. "Maybe we should all grab dinner or something later on, trade some stories?"

Seeing his chance to finally cut in, Chase cleared his throat and drew the attention of the others, arms folded over his torso. "Yeah, you guys can head over to the bar or something sometime, and I'll cook something up—you know you don't have to drink, right?" he added dryly, seeing Perry pull a face at the mention of the bar. "As much as it would entertain me to see you get hammered, anyway..."

"Ah..." Perry chuckled weakly. "True, true... oh! And listen to us, going on and on about ourselves," he sighed, looking apologetic. "And you boys were here on business, weren't you?"

"Err, right," Kasey confirmed, swinging his legs a little and cutting his gaze between Perry, and the pair on the pew across from him. He couldn't help but find it strange, yet funny, how Perry referred to him and Chase as "boys" despite being younger than both of them. "But! Uhh, it—it was fun listening to you guys talk, though, don't worry! But, umm... yeah, we—w-we kinda... err... Chase said you had the music in?" he finished as his mind finally got on the same page as his mouth, wanting to smack himself for his babbling.

Perry's eyes lit up, and he nodded, ducking beneath the altar and rooting around in it. "Yes, absolutely! Ahhh, here we are—" And up he popped again, wielding a manila envelope and beaming. "It just came in a few hours ago! I believe they just had to repair their photocopier at the Valley, that's why the delay... ahhh, some hymnals," he explained, off of Calvin and Phoebe's rapt gazes. "These gentlemen here need them to help out Castanet!"

Eyes widening slightly, Calvin rubbed his chin and gave a slow nod, watching as Chase reached out and took the envelope from Perry with a relieved grin. "Right, I read about those bells you lot have around here... date back to the founding of this place, don't they?"

"That's what we've gathered," Phoebe confirmed, eyes glued to Chase as he withdrew the papers from the envelope, shuffling them around and frowning. Though she was used to seeing that look on his face, she leaned forward when she saw Kasey peek over Chase's shoulder and let out a loud groan, his own face falling in dismay. "...Uh-oh. What is it?"

Rolling his eyes, Chase simply flipped the papers around and fanned them out, showing a number of gray pages streaked with dark smears and smudges—while parts of the hymnals were fairly easy to make out, others were nigh-impossible, the black of the notes almost lost against the murky patches. "...You should know I'm trying very hard not to cuss right now," he said evenly, giving Perry a sideways glance.

Perry buried his face in his palm and muttered "Thank you, Chase" under his breath, while Calvin reached forward and indicated for Chase to hand over the papers, wearing a completely baffled look. Taking them gently, he and Phoebe clustered closer together, screwing up their faces in concentration.

Phoebe removed her glasses and wiped the lenses off on her red turtleneck, before slipping them back on and squinting one eye. "What on Earth did they use to copy these?! A potato?!"

"Isn't that something," Calvin mumbled, chuckling in quiet amusement. "Takes me back, really—half our assignments back in school copied like this! Benefit of growing up in the nineties, see," he added with a wry click of his tongue, shaking his head and handing the papers back to Chase. "Cruddy technology. Real shame, though—would've loved to have been able to hear those hymns. What'd you fellas need them for, anyhow?"

Eyes scanning dejectedly over the barely-legible copies, Kasey slumped in his pew, legs starting their usual anxious swinging. "I—I was supposed to use these to ring the blue bell... a-and the others, too, maybe. We're... w-we're not really sure how the blue bell's song is supposed to sound, and—and..." He settled the papers in his lap with a sigh, drumming his fingers and trying to boot his depressed mind back up into a positive setting.

"Kasey, I'm so sorry," Perry said quietly, chewing at his lower lip. "I can certainly ask Father Chester to mail us some better copies. I know things here have gotten a bit crazier now—" He gestured to the windows, the stained glass dancing with tiny little shadows from the snowfall outside, "—but it shouldn't take too long..."

Kasey hummed and nodded, mumbling a soft thanks to Perry as his eyes narrowed in concentration, reading the sheet music over and over again. "...Actually, though... maybe we can use this," he murmured, tilting his head and holding the papers right up to his face. Barely paying heed to Calvin's warning that he could hurt his eyes doing that, he squinted harder, until he almost looked as though his eyes were completely shut. It was an admittedly poor plan, but with how it had gotten so cold so quickly, he really wasn't sure he could afford to not be trying. "I-I think I... can... kind of see it...?"

"How can you see anything on there?" Chase wondered, brows knit as he watched Kasey mouthing something to himself. "Whoever 'fixed'—" Here, he curled his fingers sarcastically, "—that stupid photocopier needs to be shot."

"Well, accidents do happen, you know," Perry piped up defensively, a rare glower marring his face at Chase's words.

Setting the papers back down in his lap, Kasey gave a decisive nod. "Okay... well, I... I-I think I can work with this," he said slowly, face still screwed up in concentration. "Some of those dark patches are... well.. they're not too bad, and... maybe we can—I dunno... fill in the blanks here?"

Chase looked baffled. "Fill in the blanks?" he echoed, snatching the papers back from Kasey and trying to make sense of the plan, violet eyes darting all over the first sheet. Benjamin -From th... ...s- was all that was visible at the top if he strained his eyes; a large, dark blotch shot straight down the paper and blocked out the measures in the middle. "What, like... ad-lib it or something?" He turned his puzzled glare to Kasey now, shaking his head. "Dude, how are we gonna know whether we're on the right track, here? Just play musical Hot-and-Cold with the bell? Do you know how long that could take?"

"Chase, he's at least trying to figure something out," Phoebe cut in, a warning tone in her voice.

"W-well..." Kasey shrunk back a bit, before clearing his throat and sitting up straight once again, looking thoroughly exasperated at this point in spite of Phoebe's defense and letting his stress get the best of him. He was done having any of it. "W... well, y-yeah! Yeah, Chase—something like that, I don't know! Look, Perry said he can get more copies made, okay? Just... it—it's something to try in the meantime! Okay?!" he repeated, his voice rising and wavering as he snatched the sheet music back from a stunned Chase, returning it to the envelope with a frustrated growl. "Do you have a better plan?! Or—or do you even have a plan, period?! Because I haven't heard any helpful suggestions from you! So if you've got the perfect solution to pull out of your ass, or—or any kind of positive contribution to this, by all means, that would be great! And if you don't... then... at least shut the hell up with the snippy attitude for once and humor me here, or just fuck off and take your smartass remarks with you! Because I am really not in the mood for your shit right now!"

Silence slammed down throughout the church in the wake of Kasey's echoing rant, four stunned expressions fixed on him. Feeling his heart rate increase and his face grow hot, he looked down at the ground, immediately feeling like an absolute asshole, and unwilling to look over at Chase's guilty expression. His ears began to burn as well, and he found his mouth extremely dry—it felt like he was back in the clinic with Toby all over again, with how tense he'd suddenly made things. "...S-s... sorry, guys... I, uhh... I-I... I k-kinda just... umm, I-I... uhh..."

"Y-youre, ahh, you're—perfectly fine, Kasey," Perry stammered, nonetheless looking a bit aghast at the outburst.

Calvin just whistled lowly, shooting Phoebe a questioning glance, and getting an exasperated shake of the head in return.

Feeling a gentle prod on his shoulder, Kasey looked up to see Chase regarding him with softened eyes. Chase exhaled quietly, and nodded. "...You're right, man. It's worth a shot. I can get my flute, or Perry can let us try it on the organ, or we can use the bar's piano, or something... or I can just handle this one solo, since I was such a douche," he suggested with a self-deprecating grin, nudging Kasey with his elbow. He seemed surprisingly calm, in Kasey's opinion, for someone who had just been thoroughly cussed out in front of a small group of people. Was Chase patronizing him? No, he seemed sincere. "How about it? Give you a break for once?"

Pushing the usual loose strands of hair behind his ears and scratching at the back of his neck, Kasey shook his head and chuckled wryly, the shakiness from his previous anger persisting in his body. You meet someone new in town and they see you blow up at someone else. And you cuss someone out in a church in front of the pastor. Great job. "N-nah, I—I made this happen, so... I'll... I'll help fix it. Ummm... thanks for the offer, though," he added quietly, looking back down and watching his legs continue to swing back and forth. Still mortified at losing his temper in front of everyone, he was suddenly overcome with an urge to get out of the church as fast as he could, and slid off the pew. He stood unsteadily with the envelope clutched by his side, nodding around at Calvin, Phoebe, and Perry without meeting their eyes. "I-I'll see you guys around," he uttered jerkily, throwing out another hasty apology as he waved and turned to quickly stride out of the church.

The others stared at the now-closed church doors for a few quiet moments, then at each other.

"Well, that got awkward pretty fast, eh?" Calvin remarked, eyebrows disappearing beneath his messy bangs.

Pursing her lips, Phoebe scowled at Chase. "Well, it didn't really have to..."

Chase groaned and slapped a hand over his eyes. "Yeah, I know that... well, if you guys will excuse me, I need to go apologize for being a total di—err." He stopped and eyed Perry carefully, getting an unreadable look in return. "A... jerk. Again." Getting up from the pew, he gave each of them a short nod, feeling their eyes follow him as he, too, left the church. "Catch you guys later."

The quiet replies and murmured remarks were lost behind the church door as it shut, Chase's eyes scanning the snowy plaza for only a few short moments before he spotted Kasey's tan jacket.

He was leaning on the railing overlooking Harmonica Town, seemingly heedless of the snow settling in his hair and on his shoulders, and looking lost in his thoughts. Quietly coming up beside Kasey and mimicking his posture, Chase looked over at him, unable to help but notice that his gaze seemed fixated on the distant fishery.

Kasey surprised him by taking a deep, slow breath and exhaling before speaking first. His voice was quiet, and Chase could tell that Kasey was putting in a great deal of effort to keep his stammering and stuttering at bay: "Sorry I freaked out at you and acted like a baby back there. You kinda had a good point, it's... it's not the greatest plan. Shouldn't have lost my temper over that..."

Chase shrugged. "Doesn't excuse me being an asshole about it, though. Especially after I promised to work on that." He followed Kasey's gaze, scratching the back of his neck and nodding as he went on: "Besides, you and Phoebe were right—at least you've got an idea to try as a backup, and it's not like we can't get better copies sent to us if that doesn't work out... you're trying harder than any of us to handle this. I shouldn't be so cynical and discouraging. Makes me seem like an ungrateful dick. Not a good look for someone who works for tips."

Allowing himself a small smile, Kasey spared him a sideways glance. "Well, it's not like you haven't been doing anything else. I mean, you've been asking around and looking, doing what you can; all of you have, I know." He turned his gaze back to watch Harmonica Town being gently blanketed in an ill-timed snow, finding it pointless to bother pretending at this point. Sunday night's conversation played back through his mind—the stuttering, the blushing, the completely obvious reactions to any mention of Toby. He knew Chase could be a jerk, but he certainly wasn't stupid. Though, Kasey was quietly thankful that if Chase knew, he hadn't made any sort of smart remarks about it yet. "I've just... I have a lot on my mind right now. You probably already picked that up, though," he added in a bitter mutter, seeing Chase's hesitant nod in his peripheral vision. Of course. "God knows I can't get a hold of myself and be fucking subtle about it..."

For his part, Chase felt a small bit of surprise at how freely Kasey was suddenly prodding at the subject—out in the plaza, where someone could possibly overhear them—almost as if daring him to harp on that, too. Thinking back to the last time he'd spoken to Toby, Chase felt something click on in his mind. "...Well, I get that," he responded evenly, looking back out to the fishery and shaking his head. "He seemed pretty out of it Wednesday night... he said he ran into you at the clinic, too, but he just said you've been blaming yourself over all of this." With those words, he motioned up to the iron-gray clouds stretched out over Castanet. "I figured that's what he was so bummed out about, but... did something else happen between you guys?" he pressed on, watching for Kasey's reaction—a dull nod, though there was a slight look of surprise in his eyes.

"Yeah. I—I think you can guess what he—he figured out, and..." Kasey let another icy sigh dissipate into the late morning air, his throat tightening up a bit. Well, he'd gone a little while without tripping over his words. "He—he kind of... freaked out and bolted. Which—you know, I-I get that, I... I understand. I... just... it—it sucks." He shook his head derisively. "Geez, th-this is stupid... I haven't even... I haven't even known him that long, anyway..."

The air went quiet and somber for a moment, the snowflakes seeming to drift down even slower than they had been moments before. Chase continued eyeing the fishery thoughtfully. "Freaked out?" he finally echoed, cocking his head. "...Geez, man... look—" He turned to Kasey, "—I dunno what to say, but maybe you just... caught him off-guard or something? I... kind of joked a few days ago that maybe you... uhhh... well, I didn't actually know at the time! Like, any of it," he threw in defensively, upon seeing the look on Kasey's face—which quickly relaxed with Chase's insistence. Deciding to leave out the part about Kathy even broaching the subject to begin with—never mind that he still hadn't even told her she'd been right about Kasey—he went on: "Seriously! I mean, hey—look, he's a pretty cool guy, even if he doesn't seem to realize that. I can definitely understand why you fell for him and all, but I just didn't actually think that you, y'know... hell, neither did he," he mumbled, turning his back to the town and leaning against the railing.

"I mean, from what he's told me, he's only ever gone out with one girl—" And he nodded in the direction of the church, Kasey turning to look at the building with a bit of surprise on his face, "—but... well, that was when he was, like... sixteen or something, I think. Couple years before I even moved here. Said it wasn't really serious, though. I mean, I'm not saying this to get your hopes up, say that he bats for any team, or whatever. He doesn't bring up the subject much, and I really don't give a shit either way, long as he's happy. But..." Chase shrugged, drumming his fingers on the railing now, and shaking his head. "I dunno, he gets kind of down on himself sometimes. Probably wasn't expecting it, is all I'm saying." Turning his gaze back to Kasey to see him staring out at the town again, Chase kicked his boot against the farmer's sneaker to make sure he still had his attention. "Maybe you two should just talk it out or something. Clear the air. I mean... you guys were getting on pretty well up until now, right? It'd suck if something like this came between you."

Kasey nodded slowly, tapping the toe of his sneaker on the ground a few times as he mulled over the idea. A small sense of relief settled in his stomach at how Chase was handling the subject. "...I—i-it's just... I just made things so weird," he finally mumbled, scratching the back of his neck. "I don't know what to even—to say to him. 'Sorry I have feelings for you' or something?" He scoffed at the idea, before lapsing into an agitated groan. "I-I will, just... I... I just wanna get my mind off of this for a bit. Too much at once, you know..." He indicated the envelope resting under his folded arms, and the snowfall covering Castanet, prompting an understanding nod from Chase.

"I usually hate getting in the middle of this kind of shit, but he is my best friend, and he usually respects my opinion, for some damn reason... you want me to talk to him?" Chase offered, causing Kasey to whip his head around and stare at him with wide, alarmed eyes.

"No, no, no no no nonono no no... no. Umm, th-thank you, though," he capped off his petrified babbling with an apologetic tone, head shaking about wildly. Noticing that Chase looked a little taken aback, but otherwise unsurprised, Kasey sighed and stood up straight, sliding the envelope off the frost-crusted railing and tucking it back under his arm as he took another deep breath to calm himself down. "Just... I-I've got to get out of this self-pity crap first, you know? Wanna get my mind in order, know what to say without... without sounding like a mess..." He nodded to the envelope. "Focus on this, I... I guess."

"We can do that," Chase agreed, finally pushing himself from the railing as well and turning to follow Kasey back down into Harmonica Town proper, pointlessly dusting the accumulated snow from his parka. "Whenever you wanna start, I'm sure the Sullivans won't mind if we use the piano at the bar to try this out."

Kasey nodded and glanced down at the envelope, frowning. He was already growing more and more dubious of the plan before they'd even started on it—if making Ben ring without even a clue about how his song went had caused such a drastic change, what exactly would a half-finished form of it do? As it was, the idea of having to wait even longer to get things sorted out while Castanet's temperature continued falling made him nervous. His stomach sank as he gradually realized he had almost nothing to go on but withering hope, at this point. Maybe I'm just being too negative, though... what could it really hurt? "S-sure, thanks... you know, though, you were right earlier—how will we know we're on the right track, anyway? Just go with whatever doesn't sound off?"

Shrugging, Chase stuffed his hands in the pockets of his pants, his boots crunching to a stop by the bridge leading to the Clarinet District. "Well, we've got kind of an idea of how parts of it sound now, so... playing it by ear might not actually be such a bad idea. Best we've got while we're waiting, I'd say. Besides," he continued with another shrug, "who knows how long it might take them to fix the photocopier back up in the Valley and mail new sheets out to us? Ghost Elsa up there might ice Castanet before they ever arrive."

With a shaky, wry chuckle at Chase's quip, Kasey shivered, hunching in further upon himself. "Y-yeah, let's—don't even... I... I-I hope not."

"Well, the sooner we get started on this, the better, then," Chase muttered, rocking back on his boots and looking around, as if unsure of where to proceed from there. "You wanna stop by the bar later and get started? Hell, maybe even Hayden or one of the regulars might be able to help us figure those things out, there. You know, 'Hey, I think I know this one, this is my jam.' Maybe old man Ramsey sock-hopped to them in the fifties or whatever." He grinned and nodded to the envelope, the gesture returned by an amused Kasey. "Alright, then—anytime after four'll work."

"S-sure! Okay, well... I'll see you then," Kasey agreed, turning and giving Chase a short wave. Feeling like he had more to say, he cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck, adding: "And, uhh... err... th-thanks for, umm... y'know, for—uhh, being cool about... err... well, you know..."

With the confusion only stealing across his face for a split-second, Chase shook his head and glanced over towards the fishery once more. "Dude, it's fine. Don't worry about it—things'll work out." Possibly for me, too, he thought, nonchalantly plucking another bit of fluffy down from his snow-covered parka and smirking to himself as he observed it, thinking back to earlier that morning. Might need to work on my attitude first before she'd give me a chance, though...

Kasey watched Chase for a few seconds, looking completely puzzled by his actions, before shoving the thought aside. "I-I hope so... well, see you later, man." Exchanging a final wave with Chase for the time being, the two parted ways, Kasey sparing one last look over his shoulder at the fishery and wishing—if only for a moment—that he could reach into peoples' minds like Wizard could.

------------------------

"I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine. If I am to change this image, I must first change myself. Fish are friends, not food."

Clearing his sore throat and sighing, Toby blew his nose loudly and crumpled up the dirty tissue, dropping it into the trash can by his bed and laying back. A dull ache was shooting across his head in slow, pulsing waves, and—maybe because of the cold, or the headache, the storm swirling through his mind, or some mixture of all three—he found he couldn't even let himself enjoy the movie he'd been trying to watch.

Guess I spoke too soon when I told Chase I don't get sick easily, he mused to himself, sniffling and draining more of the soup Paolo had brought him earlier. Though it did its job warming his insides, and warding off the sharp chill constantly threatening to seep in from outside the drafty fishery, he still felt gooseflesh sweep across his skin whenever one troublesome thought or another surfaced. Two subjects in particular had staked their claims on him, and he rolled over onto his side with a sigh, coughing and staring out the window at the ongoing snowfall that had been forming little white piles on the framework.

Castanet had seemed to gradually spiral into a state of nearly-suspended animation over the course of its overall decay, and with the sudden onsets of rain, illness, and now snow keeping the residents mostly stuck indoors, it seemed to be slowly trying to freeze everyone and everything in place—figuratively as well as literally. While the sight would have been welcome back in January, or February, or even in the beginning of March, now—with things finally starting to show a few signs of returning to normal—it was more alarming than relieving. Snow in April wasn't unheard of, but temperature shifts like this were absolutely alien to the region. Plus, there was the little matter of how only Castanet was being affected in such a way, as though its climate existed completely independent of the surrounding area. Even Paolo had been put off by the sudden appearance of the increasingly-heavy snow, when he normally would have taken the sight as his cue to drag Toby and Ozzie out at the crack of dawn so they could build snowmen. Or try to bury Toby in the snow.

And while Toby liked to consider himself a fairly easygoing person overall, he had to admit: Between everything currently going on and having to be stuck inside most of the time, unable to even take a thermos of hot tea outside and go fishing to ease his mind, the isolation was starting to get to him a little.

And now, I can't even go see Mr. Wizard about those weird dreams until I'm better, he thought with a morose groan, sniffling and coughing again. While he'd woken up once more in the early hours of the morning—lost in yet another groggy cloud of confusion, the details of his dreams still a freezing, foggy blank—he figured he could, at least, finally explain the icy shocks that tended to jolt him awake.

If only he could figure out who—or what—was trying to reach out to him, and why...

Through the snowfall, he spotted the distant form of the lighthouse, his heart seeming to skip a beat as his thoughts shifted over to the other issue that had been weighing almost as heavily on his mind over the past few days—turning it over and over in his head, examining it from too many angles to count, approaching answers that made him uneasy. He found himself thinking back over all of the times they had been around each other, so at ease, smiling and laughing—chatting, joking around, reassuring each other when one of them was feeling blue about something—and wondering when this had even started, or how he could have missed it... or why it had happened. Why someone like Kasey—who perhaps didn't realize how amazing he was, and who could do much better—had fallen for him, of all people.

Toby found himself wondering why he had spent so much time repeatedly mulling over the possibility since Chase had even joked about it, and wondering what exactly that borderline-obsession meant—the anxiety in the pit of his stomach, constantly asking himself why he was taking the idea so close to heart, why his face grew warm whenever he thought about it. Why he kept experiencing a strange sensation at the idea, one he was scared to admit may have been hope that Chase had been right.

And above all else, he wondered why he couldn't help but feel that—in the wake of the incident at the clinic—he may have...

...Really missed out?

He froze, every muscle in his body tensing up. Was that it, then? Why he'd found himself unable to speak that day? Why he hadn't let himself finish his muddled thoughts later on? Why he'd been fixated for nearly a week on the mere suggestion of Kasey having feelings for him, not wanting to admit to himself why the idea really wouldn't leave his head?

Had he actually been hoping that Chase was on to something with his jokes?

He swallowed hard, feeling his already-sore throat grow drier. His stomach wrenched at the revelation. He'd certainly enjoyed being around Kasey before—even in the short time they'd known each other, they'd clicked fairly fast, and Toby found himself often looking forward to the next time they'd run into each other so they could talk or even just hang around each other a little more. He found himself wondering what they'd talk about each time, watching the normally-tense Kasey let his guard down and relax, his face lighting up as he spoke, maybe saying something that drew a laugh or a smile from Toby. Perhaps he hadn't even been fully aware of how much fun Toby had talking to him, being with him...

I... may have really missed out with him. Maybe it was worth a shot. I might've really... actually liked it, if we'd...

Letting out a shaky breath as the implications made themselves plainly and swiftly known to him, Toby rolled over onto his back again and folded his arms behind his head, the movie a distant bit of muffled noise in his ears at this point. His gaze at the ceiling was blank, and his breathing became slightly shallow as he gulped once more. The realization troubled, and—to his surprise—excited him a little, though he couldn't say which feeling was more prominent at the moment. He hadn't really given this aspect of his life much serious thought in a couple of years. He hadn't expected to. He didn't really know anything about actual relationships whatsoever, even if the storybook depictions made him feel warm and fuzzy inside. And sex was fun, and he kind of missed it sometimes, but he wasn't exactly climbing the walls or hitting up the tourists for a little fling or anything of the sort to relieve the occasional bouts of frustration that cropped up. If it happened, it happened, and if it didn't, he'd live. He wasn't sure if it was that he wasn't averse to a solitary lifestyle, or resigned to the possibility.

Nonetheless, a more primitive part of his mind couldn't help but quickly slip off into more forbidden territory now that the idea had presented itself—reluctant curiosity over what, exactly, Kasey thought about him. What sorts of things did he imagine them saying and doing to each other? How did it make him feel? Had Kasey ever been with someone else before? If so, had it been a girl, or maybe another boy? Had it been serious? If he did fantasize about Toby, how far did he imagine them going? How far did Kasey go when he was fantasizing? Did he ever...

With another shuddering exhale as he let the question trail off, Toby screwed his eyes shut, trying to regain control of his racing thoughts. It wasn't right—he couldn't let himself think about Kasey like this, no matter how much he found himself wanting to know the answers. Not when he had more important questions to answer first. Not when he wasn't even completely sure of what he felt towards Kasey anymore. Not when the possibility of what the answer might be still made him nervous. Not when he'd been such an idiot about handling the whole situation, leaving their friendship currently stuck in an awkward state of purgatory. Not when he still was clinging to the unpleasant possibility that maybe he was returning Kasey's feelings out of pity, or for some ridiculously shallow reason—like mere curiosity, or flattery at the thought of someone wanting him, or because he hadn't been with anyone else since Phoebe.

Not when he wasn't sure whether or not he was still overthinking things despite feeling like he'd completely blown a great chance—one he hadn't even realized he'd had, and maybe even wanted, until it was too late.

Nonetheless, despite his valiant attempts to redirect his train of thought, a number of scenarios and memories continued to run wild through Toby's mind. His stomach fluttered as he clearly pictured Kasey—his charming smile and wide, expressive eyes; his somewhat-deep, slightly-scratchy voice; the feel of his arm around Toby's shoulders, or a warm hand rubbing Toby's arm reassuringly—and he let himself sink into the possibilities with a mixture of hesitance, guilt, and anticipation. Perhaps it was something innocent and sweet. Maybe Kasey thought about them watching another sunset by the lighthouse, or watching another movie or two on his couch, before redirecting their attentions—closing the distance between them, eyes sliding shut and hands roaming over and under their clothes, getting lost deeper and deeper in their passion, and—

Toby snapped back to reality with slightly-widened eyes, his heartbeat speeding up at the surprisingly intimate turn his thoughts had been taking all of a sudden, drowning him in the imagined sensations. How had he let his mind just go there all of a sudden? While he could easily ignore his flushed cheeks due to being sick, he found he couldn't quite blame his cold for the other, more damning way his body was reacting to the scenes he'd just pictured. Scenes he'd found himself enjoying far more than he would've imagined, and finding that—in the moment—he'd briefly wanted to bring them into reality and act them out with Kasey, see how it really felt.

...Did I really just...?!

Biting at his lip, he quickly shut the TV off and rolled over onto his other side, facing away from the window. He pulled the blankets tighter around himself in shock and embarrassment at how far gone he'd let himself get, eagerly visualizing himself doing somewhat similar things with Kasey that he'd done with Phoebe back when they were naive teenagers just fooling around, testing their curiosity. He let out another slow breath, willing his heart and his body to calm down and ignoring the temptation to just give in to the new, scary, and exciting fantasies and release his tension, however temporarily.

It was too intense, too much to be hit with all at once with everything else that was going on, and it was all throwing his mind completely off-course. He was already dealing with whatever kept happening while he was asleep, and he'd barely even started to come to terms with the idea of being attracted to Kasey, as much as he'd tried to dance around the possibility over the past few days—he didn't need this, too, making it even more difficult to sort out.

I need to talk to him, Toby decided wearily, with a blank stare at the wall. His heart did a somersault at the mere thought of seeing Kasey again in the wake of his recent onslaught of confusing emotions. He certainly couldn't leave things where they were right now. I at least owe him an apology for how I acted... some sort of explanation. What do I even tell him, though? He's got enough on his mind, as it is... I guess both of us do, though.

Another shiver ran through his body at the reminder, and he clutched his blankets closer, hoping he could just fall asleep for a bit—without once again experiencing the strange, quickly-forgotten dreams that were just stressing him out even more—and get back to sorting everything out when he was awake and not as sick. When he was a little less scared about it all, and could answer even a few of the seemingly endless questions swirling around in his head—and come to terms with the new feelings making themselves known to him. Maybe I should tell Chase, too, when I'm feeling better. Tell him what's going on, get it off my chest... and then I can go see Mr. Wizard about the other stuff. I can just stop worrying about everything for a little while...

Trying to clear his thoughts and keep his mind a soothing blank, he gradually drifted off into a troubled slumber—and, eventually, towards another strange and unsettling vision. The soft humming of an oddly-familiar tune filled the small, cluttered bedroom as he slept, and when he jolted awake to chilly silence a short time later—staring blankly at the darkened wall and still feeling congested and hoarse—he uttered a frustrated groan and clicked the TV back on in hopes of focusing his thoughts elsewhere, the details of his dreams still eluding him.

Chapter Text

"Alright, then, here we go..."

Slowly, carefully, the rich, deep notes rang out from the piano, making a halting climb upward before dipping back down and trailing off awkwardly, note by halting note. A few pairs of eyes watched, one face screwed up into a confused cringe.

Lips pressing into a thin line, Kasey let a breath out through his nostrils and shook his head, taking a sip of his water. "...I-I don't know. It... maybe it was that second note? The first one sounded like it might've fit, but..."

Chase shrugged from his spot beside Kasey on the bench, nodding. "Yeah, now that I hear it out loud, it kinda stinks. Hey, lemme try this one—" And, nudging Kasey's hand aside, he went back to the spot where the sheet music blacked out, playing another chord progression with a thoughtful frown on his face. "...Shit. I don't think that's it, either... too perky. Maybe there's three in there, and not two?"

Kasey joined in the squinting for a moment, before shaking his head and sighing. "I hope not..."

Saturday night found the Brass Bar far emptier than it usually was, with only Luke, Dale, and Cain occupying three of the many empty chairs and stools dotting the room. Ramsey and Owen were out for the second night in a row, Ramsey being the latest to catch the cold traveling around, and Owen staying home to look after him and Chloe; in a similar vein, Ozzie was at home, looking after Toby and Paolo; Calvin, Perry, and Phoebe had opted to take dinner at the Ocarina Inn; and Craig hadn't visited the bar since the day it had started raining again.

Consequently, there was far less chatter and bustle than usual, and the voice of Patsy Cline rang clearly throughout the warm, toasty bar when Chase and Kasey weren't taking turns playing a fruitless game of musical mad-libs on the piano. Chase had barely even had to get up to fix anything for anyone, or fill any take-out orders five hours into his shift, instead mulling over the sheet music with Kasey and trying to figure out where to go, or how they would know when they were getting somewhere.

"Well... it seems kinda... I dunno. Deep and soothing, maybe?" Kasey noted the previous night, testing out the first few visible notes and then jumping ahead to the next discernible measure, trying to figure out how to fill in the blanks. "Alan's sounded like... hmm... some kind of carousel music or something. Real high-pitched."

"Deep and soothing, huh?" Chase scowled thoughtfully, pinning a few loose locks of hair back into place and squinting hard at the sheet music—as if the proper notes would suddenly show up under his intense scrutiny, like invisible ink. "Who is this guy, Enya?"

"Heh. Enya," Kasey repeated, snickering and preparing himself for the inevitable shove. He didn't fight the smirk that was forming. "...Benya."

Chase just groaned and nearly shoved him off the bench, Kathy shaking her head and sighing behind them.

"Hey, duuuudes!" Luke called, snapping them back into the present and waving his half-empty bottle of beer at them with a wide grin on his flushed, scarred-up face. His gold eyes sparkled, floating hazily between the two of them. "You guys, uhh... takin' requests or whatevs? Like... like some, ehhh, I'unno... Bree Fird or somethin'?"

Rolling his eyes, Dale gently pushed his son's arm back down. "Let 'em work, son. They'll play some, uhh, Skynyrd Lynyrd later." He looked to Kasey and Chase—the later of whom had snorted into his hand—and shook his head haplessly, groaning. "Sorry about that, fellas."

Chase waved it off, stretching his arms high above his head and arching his back with a satisfying pop. "No sweat, Dale. I know what'll sober Luke right up." With a devious grin, and several confused stares, he turned to where Kathy was perched behind the bar with her father, filing her nails. "Hey, Elsa." Kathy looked up from examining her fingers, a similarly mischievous expression on her face. "Think they're sick of this shit yet?"

Chase started playing the all-too-familiar opening notes and Kathy cackled, springing to her feet and getting ready to sing—just as Kasey, Luke, and Cain all shouted "NO!" in unison, Kasey trying to shove a now-laughing Chase off the piano bench. Or, at the very least, off-course.

Kasey was a bit taken aback at the bizarre sight of Chase actually laughing out loud—in front of people, at that—but shook his head nonetheless and smiled wryly. "C'mon, man, that's just cruel! You know how much my sisters drilled that... that stupid song into my head when that damn movie came out?!"

"And Renee," Cain piped up from his spot at the bar, shuddering, while Hayden refilled his beer and chuckled.

His icy blue gaze flicked between his daughter and Chase. "You two, stop traumatizing our customers."

"Sorry, Pop," Kathy responded flippantly, grinning when Hayden reached over and ruffled her hair.

"Just being a good host, Mr. Sullivan," Chase called nonchalantly, deciding not to let Cain know that Renee had given him and Kathy the idea in the first place.

Kathy scoffed. "Pfff, since when do you care about your hosting skills?"

"When your dad signs my paychecks, Dolly."

"In what world am I remotely similar to Dolly Parton?" Kathy challenged, looking utterly confused. "I mean, I wish, but really?"

"Careful, Chase," Hayden called, though the corners of his eyes crinkled up nonetheless.

"Well... Dolly's actually really nice and crazy talented, so... that's out," Chase muttered, hoping he could skirt around the question he didn't have an answer for. He cracked a grin when Kathy shot back with a "Fuck you" and flipped him off, while Hayden tried to stifle a laugh. "Oh, yeah, that's gonna make me believe you're nice?"

"You're the one who brought her up in the first place!" Kathy pointed out, rolling her eyes and throwing her hands up. "Ugh. You're such a butthole."

"Ugh... and Chloe... just keeps singing it," Luke chimed in, suddenly looking very sick and traumatized, pushing his green, flame-patterned toboggan back as he gripped at his skunk-striped hair. "Like, since it got all... like... woooooo out there. Right, ol' man?" he went on, looking to his exasperated father for confirmation.

"Uh huh."

"She does that, dun'she?" Luke continued, snapping his fingers and nodding, as though he were unraveling a great mystery. "'Cause Owen said she does that and Owen's, like... he knows shit, dude. Cause it's... like, woooooo..." He wiggled his fingers in a spooky manner. "...And that's... that's why she's been singin' it." And, to punctuate his statement, he made finger guns at Dale, winking and clicking his tongue. His toboggan was halfway off his head now, causing his long hair to stick up all over from the static, completing the effect. "Y'see?"

"Sure," Dale grumbled resignedly, face obscured by his large hand. "Why the hell not. It's very woo out there."

"I ain't getting him no more beers, honey, don't worry," Kathy assured the burly man, coming out from behind the bar and patting him on the shoulder. "Hear that, Lil' Boy Blue?" she went on, raising her voice and leaning down to speak right into Luke's ear, imitating his loud slurring: "Noooo boooore meeeeers, duuuude! Woooooo~" She punctuated her statement by imitating his finger-wiggling and pulling his toboggan back over his face, causing Dale to snort and crack a tiny grin.

Luke blew a raspberry at her and swatted her away like a curvy blonde gnat, pulling the cap back up and not bothering to readjust it to sit properly on his head. "Bahhhhh! Fiiiiine, you beer... Nazi. Can I ge'some hot wings, then?"

Kathy crossed her arms and frowned dubiously, as the front door creaked open behind her and brought in a small flurry with the newest customer. "I dunno, Luke. How 'bout we just get you some mushroom rice or something? And some water, too." She nodded to Chase, who shrugged and headed to the small stove behind the counter to fix up the order, after asking Kasey if he wanted anything. "Hot wings would just burn like hell when you're puking your lungs up later, let's be real..."

"Shoot, sounds like I stopped by one hell of a party tonight!"

Kasey stiffened at the sound of the familiar, raspy cackle, while everyone else turned to greet Ozzie.

"How's it going, Ozzilla?" Hayden called, waving him over to take a seat next to Cain. "Warming up a bit?"

"May as well," Ozzie agreed, rapping his knuckles on the counter. "Tobers and Lolo are feelin' better and they're watchin' a movie right now, so I figured I'd hop by and catch up with you folks before I go on and catch it next! Got me a beer ready, Hayden?" he added, face lighting up when Hayden plopped the freshly-poured mug in front of him. "Sweet! I knew you missed me, ya big lug!"

Hayden just chuckled and shook his head. "Don't worry, Luke's been loud enough for the both of you."

"Yeah, Ozz—don't overdo it," Cain warned, nodding over to Luke. "Behold, Exhibit A."

"Ayyyyy!" Luke repeated by way of greeting, waving and laughing hysterically at his own little joke.

Dale shot Ozzie an exasperated, almost-desperate look as Luke leaned over and tried to pull away his father's plate of potato skins. He got his hand smacked for his troubles. "Cut it out. You don't even like cheese. You want another kid, Ozz?" Dale went on to Ozzie, who chuckled and took another pull of his beer, exchanging a greeting with Chase as he prepared Luke's food. "He eats his vegetables, and I think he's still pretty much potty-trained."

"Ahhh, two's plenty for me, thanks," Ozzie responded breezily, grinning and clucking his tongue.

Dale sighed and folded his arms on the tabletop, shaking his head. "Damn. Guess I'll keep him."

Kathy looked up from where she was setting a glass of water and a pitcher in front of Luke, rolling her eyes as he grabbed the pitcher and took a deep swig from it. "Speaking of, you said our little fish head's feeling better?"

Ozzie nodded. "Yep! I swear, that boy... he don't get sick that much at all, and when he does, he don't stay sick real long, either! Probably gets it from his mama. I was always sick as a dog growin' up, but Sonia maybe sneezed once, and—" he snapped his fingers, a nostalgic smile on his face, "—all better! Buncha lucky ducks."

"Didn't you say your parents always got on you for playing in the rain, though?" Cain added with a smirk and a nudge at Ozzie, who waved it off and finished his beer.

"Ahhh... I dunno what you're talkin' about, crazy man!"

"Getting forgetful at your age, eh?" Kathy teased, taking the steaming bowl of mushroom rice from Chase and plonking it down in front of Luke. "But, seriously, I think everyone's getting over this cold real quick... been annoying the hell outta us, but at least it ain't staying long. I know Kase and Luke just got over it."

"Yeah! Fuck that cold! I... am the CHAMPION... baby!" Luke declared unsteadily, waving his fork around in the air before diving into his bowl of rice and emitting a series of revolting noises as he ate.

Chase cringed as he headed back to the piano bench, drying his hands off on his apron and plopping back down next to an equally-disturbed Kasey.

"Ah, yeah! Yo, Kase!" Ozzie called loudly, waving and making Kasey jump and squeak a bit. "Didn't mean to ignore ya—you're just bein' so quiet over there! How's it hangin', buddy?" He raised his refilled beer mug in a little salute as Kasey scratched the back of his neck and returned the wave.

"H-hey, Mr. Takomoto! I'm doing... alright, I guess." Kasey cleared his throat, and drummed his hands on the knees of his cargo pants, hoping his legs wouldn't swing again. Though he supposed it was better than sounding like he was freezing his ass off whenever he spoke. Resisting the almost-overwhelming urge to ask how Toby was doing, he finished slowly: "So... how about you?"

Ozzie shrugged. "Can't complain. The boys are alright, and the heater's workin', so I ain't too bad off. Fish sure as hell ain't comin' back for the moment. Your farm alright in all this mess, though?"

With a little knot in the pit of his stomach, Kasey grimaced. "Err... w-well, uhh..." He shrugged helplessly and shook his head. "It—it's all iced over right now, so..."

A few sympathetic cringes all around. "Ahh, well, you'll get through it okay," Cain told him, though he couldn't help but think back to the other day, when he'd heard Craig throwing a massive fit at the sight of his own fields. Not that Kasey really needed to know about that. Freak storms happened. "Don't worry. That song of yours sounds like it's coming along all right."

Chase and Kasey exchanged baffled glances, before looking back at Cain. "It does?" Chase repeated skeptically, folding his arms and cocking his head. "Where and how?"

"What's this song ya'll are talkin' about all of a sudden?" Ozzie queried, looking around the bar in confusion. "You boys enterin' a contest or somethin'?"

"Noooo, no no, my good bro. It's some... like, magic vooooooodooooooo shit that's s'posed to make this alllll go away," Luke explained, sweeping his arms out and nearly knocking the pitcher off the table—Kathy dove for it in a panic, shooting a scowl at him. "And you know what? You know what?!" he repeated loudly, slamming his palms down flat on the tabletop and looking all around at the mixture of amused and exasperated faces. "bet... it summons a DRAGON!"

The silence that fell across the bar following that statement was broken only by Randy Travis's voice.

"If it does, I'm asking it to eat you first," Chase finally retorted flatly, palm to his face. Kasey, for his part, just silently wondered if it'd be easier or harder to question Luke about his experience in Fugue Forest while he was completely shitfaced. He seemed like a happy drunk. Maybe that would help.

"A dragon," Cain repeated, his face expressionless. He sighed and turned back to his own beer, shaking his head. "Sorry, Dale. You're stuck with him."

"Yay."

"Sounds neat," Ozzie chipped in, nodding back to Kasey and Chase. "That dragon thing, too, but I'm mostly talkin' about that song. What's it sound like? I wanna know what to listen for so I know when to stop shovelin' the docks!" He cackled again, shaking his head as Chase rolled his eyes and groaned. "Hell, maybe it'll bring the fish back! That'd be super!"

"Ahh, it's... uhh..." Kasey tucked his hair back, turning around nonetheless and starting to play the visible notes slowly—Ozzie pursed his lips as the song trickled out across the bar. "I-it's kind of a work in progress. The sheet music's kind of messed up, but..." He tried the notes he and Chase had been working on earlier that night, in the first missing spot, and continued on with a little shrug. Behind them, the door creaked open once again, bringing in another little cloud of snowflakes and an irritable Craig Sellers. Hayden, Dale, Kathy, and Cain all stared at him in surprise.

"Craig," Hayden muttered simply, putting away the glass he'd been polishing and giving the man a curt nod as he slung the rag over his shoulder.

Craig's response was short and tired, as though he'd barely slept recently: "Hayden." Frowning, he scanned the bar, arms folded over the front of his heavy black coat. "Evenin', folks."

"Yo, Craig!" Ozzie called, waving his friend over as Kasey's playing trailed off rather awkwardly. "Pop a squat, man! Y'know," he went on, turning his attention back to Kasey as Craig's eyes widened and his folded arms suddenly dropped to his sides, "I dunno why, but that song sounds real familiar... come to think of it, I think I been hearin' Tob—"

Craig's voice cut off the rest of his words, rising sharply as he stomped over to the piano with his index finger jabbed right at Kasey's startled face: "YOU! You little son of a bitch! You got a lot of balls showin' your face around here!"

Once again, silence fell over the bar, far thicker than the previous instances as everyone watched the confrontation—even Luke looked a little unnerved.

"Craig, don't," Cain sighed, looking like he was getting ready to get out of his chair. Ozzie just watched in quiet disbelief, jaw dropped as his confused eyes darted back and forth between Craig and Cain.

"Shut the hell up," Craig snapped, not looking away as his livid eyes—ringed with dark circles that stood out sharply against his wan skin—bored into Kasey's. The younger of the two farmers looked to be paralyzed, trying to find something to say. "You!" Craig repeated, his voice shaking. "Get up! NOW!"

Kasey remained glued to the seat, finding that in his shock, he couldn't quite will his legs to move—they weren't even swinging like they normally would have been. Chase got to his feet instead, holding an arm out to block Kasey off, and leaning in towards Craig. He remembered overhearing the man's ranting all too well over the past few days. "Seriously, dude, lay off. We're working on it, okay?!"

Snorting, Craig grabbed Chase's arm and shoved it down roughly, getting a venomous glare sent his way. "And you stay out of this, too! You know what this little bastard did to my farm?! Do you?!" he asked again, balling up his fists. He kept his eyes firmly on Kasey, who swallowed hard and took a deep breath.

"Mr. Sellers, I—"

"—You what, huh?" Craig interrupted, scoffing. Though he hadn't been drinking, his eyes glimmered, and his face was mottled red by now from his yelling. "What, you're sorry? That it, boy?! You know how many of my crops you froze over with that little stunt you pulled?! You know much you might've fucked up our business?! I got bills to pay, I got kids to raise—I got a family to look after, you little shit! And you're fuckin' with my livelihood like you think you got some right to it, like we ain't havin' enough trouble with everything already! AND I TOLD YOU TO GET UP!" he screamed, flecks of spittle flying from his mouth.

"Craig," Hayden warned, getting ready to step out from behind the counter.

"Man... how d'you even know it was him?" Luke questioned, shaking his head in disgust. "Shit was crazy 'fore he got here, c'mon..."

Craig huffed and rolled his eyes. "Well, who the hell asked you, you obnoxious little dumbass?"

Dale slammed his fist down on the table, a few of the others jumping a bit at the sound while he stood and cracked his knuckles. "I don't care if you're my friend, Craig," he said, his voice dangerously low. "And I don't care how angry you are about all of this. You do not talk to my son like that, am I clear?"

"Dad, it's cool, chill out," Luke whispered, shaking his head again, and rolling his eyes at Craig. "He's just bein' a dick, don't start nothin' with him..."

"And if you keep on harassing everyone in here, you can just march your skinny little ass right back home," Kathy chimed in, eyes narrowing as she watched Craig's fists tighten even further. Was he testing her? "Don't even think of it, Craig. I'm serious."

Kasey finally shook his head and sucked in another deep breath, pushing the piano bench back with a loud scrape and getting to his feet. He felt light-headed, almost shaking with the effort it was taking to maintain his composure and not fly off the handle and yell back—while he'd been expecting something like this for the past few days, the suddenness of it actually happening had caught him off-guard at first. "No, Kathy—" He held out his hands toward her in a placating manner, using every ounce of his willpower to keep his voice as steady as possible, to keep his gaze fixed on Craig's. "It's... he's got every right to be pissed at me. He's right—I set that off." He swallowed again, jamming his hands in the pockets of his pants and nodding at Craig. He felt one of his feet start tapping slowly. "And I... I screwed up, I know. It was... it was really stupid of me."

"Oh, well, isn't that just good for you," Craig spat, trembling with fury now. His voice wavered a little as he went on: "The retarded little brat learned a fucking LESSON! He knows he screwed up! Oh, that just makes it all better, doesn't it?!" Eyes darting around, he looked for something he could hit to keep from decking Kasey right then and there, his nails only biting further into his palms and breaking the skin as he found nothing. A thin trickle of blood ran down his fingers.

"No," Kasey admitted quietly. He wondered if it was just the adrenaline making it so easy to speak now. The whole moment was surreal to him. "No, it doesn't, and I know that. Look... if you wanna... if you wanna punch me or something, fine. If it'll solve anything for you, do it." He spread his arms out now, giving Craig a clear shot. "Go ahead. I won't even hit back."

"Kase, don't encourage him—" Cain started, only to sigh and run his fingers through his hair in exasperation when Kasey shook his head.

"I'll be alright, Cain..." He kept his eyes on Craig as he continued, feeling his heart constrict despite his best efforts to keep his composure. "Seriously, go for it. If... if it makes you feel better, just go right ahead. Or... yell at me some more, just get it out of your system, whatever. Take it out on me, not—not everyone else. They didn't do anything to you." He exhaled shakily."But... look, we're going to make this right, okay? And—and, look, if anything is damaged, I don't care how much it is—I promise I'll pay you whatever I've gotta pay you to cover the cost. Hell, I'll even replant them all, if you want. I promise," he repeated emphatically, watching Craig's eyes narrow further in his skepticism. "I don't care if it takes me till I'm... forty or whatever. Just..." He licked his lips—which had suddenly gone dry—and sighed, finally breaking eye contact and staring down at the floor. His hands dropped to his sides. "...I'm sorry. I... I don't know what else to say."

"So just shut the fuck up, then," Craig muttered, making Kasey clench his teeth and tighten his own fists in his pockets. Craig ignored this, trying to control his own breathing, even as rage continued to bubble in his chest and cloud his sleep-deprived judgement despite Kasey's words. "Actin' like you're a goddamn martyr or somethin', tellin' me what to do..."

"That's enough, already!" Ozzie groaned in disgust, pulling Craig away from Kasey and spinning him around roughly. Ignoring Craig's glare and Hayden's warning, he shook his head and stared his friend down. "Look, man, he said he was sorry, he offered to go way out of his way to pay you back! I know you're upset, but what the fuck else do you want outta him?!" He nodded to Kasey, who let out a trembling breath and looked away, shaking his head." I know you're goin' through some tough shit like all of us are, but what the hell are you thinkin', comin' in here like this and just... losin' it with everyone? Huh?! The hell went and crawled up your ass? You want Taylor to come home to see his dad actin' like some damn idiot? You like Anissa bein' ashamed of you all the time? You used to be better than that! You stopped givin' a shit about your kids or somethin'?!"

Craig pushed Ozzie's hands off of him and stepped back. He looked like he wanted to throttle Ozzie. "Oh, right! Like you know what my family's goin' through! And don't you dare bring my kids into this!"

"Why don't you stop actin' like a kid?!" Ozzie shot back fiercely. "You know what, at least you could still grow your crops in that heatwave! We can barely catch shit out in the sea right now, and it's been like that for months! Ramsey couldn't get the materials to forge a damn thing when the mines were all loopy, and nobody's goin' into Fugue after what happened to Luke, so him and Dale and Bo can't even go collect wood so they can do their work! You had somethin' of your own to sell, at least! Shit, I know it's all outta whack, but even if it ain't, not like we never had a bad year before! You've had your fields all messed up by hurricanes and blizzards and shit like that, and you didn't fly off the handle this bad—at least Kase is doin' somethin' to help instead of throwin' a little bitch fit! Figured maybe you'd have gotten your act together by now, but nope! You're just bein' pathetic!"

"Ozzie, that's enough," Hayden called firmly, causing the two men to look up in shock at the sound of him raising his voice—sometime right after Ozzie's last words, he'd stepped between them and pushed them apart, Craig baring his teeth and getting ready to throw a punch. Behind him, Cain, Kathy, and Dale looked as though they'd been about to intervene as well. "Both of you, that's enough! I won't have violence in my bar, and I do not appreciate you coming in here and instigating things," he went on, turning his cold glare onto Craig. "I know you're upset, but you're only going to make everything harder on yourself the way you're going." Out of the corner of his eye, he glanced at Ozzie as well, and growled, "And I know you were just trying to stand up for Kasey, but you do not need to make it worse, and you can keep your hands to yourself. I don't want to have to ban you two from this place, but you know I absolutely will if need be."

Ozzie and Craig held their glare for a moment before Craig finally wrenched his arm free and shook his head. "Fine. I'm gettin' outta here, then. And you'd better pray your ass off that I can salvage my crops," he added in a thick voice, turning to address a guilty-looking Kasey one last time. Chase's hand was laying protectively on his shoulder. "Or I will make goddamn certain you can keep that promise of yours. I don't care if you gotta sell that shithole you live in and fuck right back off to Mommy and Daddy, but you damn well better fix this."

"Sir," Kasey responded in a strained whisper, giving a small nod. Chase looked like he wanted to chime in, but a look and a shake of the head from Kasey deterred him, and he simply fixed Craig with a hard stare instead.

"And you can just go fuck yourself," Craig added fiercely, spitting at a stunned Ozzie's feet and deliberately bumping him as he stormed out. "Can't even get a goddamn drink anymore..." The door slammed behind him a moment later, and the heavy silence returned.

Cain was the one to break it, shaking his head in sorrow and disgust. "What a mess... I know he's been pretty pissed about the whole... everything going on here, but I've never seen him overreact that badly. I think I need to go talk to him in a sec, after he's cooled off a little." He slipped his coat off of the back of his chair and threw it over his shoulder, throwing some money on the counter to pay for his drinks. "God knows I don't want his family having to put up with him while he's like that..."

Now back behind the counter, Hayden swiped a hand down his face and slipped the money into the register with a groan. "Hate to ask you to do this for me, but could you tell him that if he has one more outburst like that, he won't be welcome back here anymore? I just about feel like banning him anyway, after he almost slugged Ozz..."

"I'll try to work that in somewhere, yeah," Cain responded, grimacing. He nodded to everyone else and nudged Ozzie, who was back on his stool and looking morose. "You gonna be okay, Ozz?"

"Mmm." Ozzie waved him off and took a large pull of his beer, propping his cheek on his fist and staring glumly into the rich, dark brew. "I'll be fine, yeah. Think I better cool off, too... finish this and get back home before I get too buzzed to read to Lolo."

With a soft chuckle, Cain clapped him on the shoulder and nodded. "I hear ya. Take care, man. Folks," he added, once again nodding to the others. He fixed his eyes on Kasey for a moment. "And Kase, I know you wanna keep the peace, but... you can't let Craig walk all over you, alright? You're better than that. I dunno what got into him to make him flip out like that, but you're doing great. And we'll kick his ass if he tries anything on you," he added in a somewhat-feeble attempt at lightening the atmosphere.

His words seemed to at least have some positive effect on Kasey, whose tight, bitter smile relaxed a little as he laughed quietly and shoved his hands into the pockets of his winter coat. "R-right... umm... thanks, Cain. Err, I... hope you don't have to kick his ass, though."

Cain cracked a wry grin, pausing at the door with his hand on the knob. "Yeah, you're telling me. Later, everyone."

"Pfff." Luke rested his head on his folded arms as Cain left, looking completely bored now that the standoff was over. "Nahhh, he totally needs it. Get the fuckin' stick kicked riiiiiight outta his butthole. Pow, biyatch!" As Chase snorted at his words, Luke threw his fist off to the side for emphasis, narrowly missing Kathy.

"Alright, hon, we've had enough of that here already," she chided warily, sharing an amused look with Dale. "Really, though... he knows full well he woulda rung that bell first if he'd had the chance, and everything probably woulda wound up just the same, too—Kase ain't a psychic. Who the fuck thought we were gonna get Elsa'd?"

"Who wouldn't have rung it?" Dale agreed, nodding at Kasey and holding up a hand as Luke started to speak. "Rhetorical question, son. Finish your rice."

"You're a retro-cycle question," Luke grumbled back, poking at his food as Dale chuckled and sighed.

The conversation mostly died off for the next few minutes after that, with Kathy slumped in a chair near the piano, eyeing the front door like Craig was going to burst back through it at any moment, and shooting the occasional sympathetic glance Kasey's way. Kasey, for his part, just stared listlessly at the sheet music with memories racing through his mind at a million miles a minute, and Chase wracked his brain for more progressions to try out, plunking idly at the piano and shaking his head. He hoped that Cain had dragged Craig off to stay at Horn Ranch overnight to cool off, so he wouldn't have to listen to Craig and Ruth bitching and sniping all through the night while he tried to sleep—he sometimes wondered if they used megaphones when they argued.

With a grunt, Ozzie finished off his beer and slid the mug back over to Hayden, along with his money. He let out a small burp and shook his head. "Welp... think I've calmed myself down enough for now. Guess I'd better get back and check on the boys. Sorry I got myself all riled up," he added contritely, with Hayden shrugging it off.

"Don't worry about it. I know how you feel." He heaved a deep sigh, giving Kasey an aside glance. "Hell, I even understand where Craig was coming from a little bit, even if he handled it poorly—just don't let it happen again, alright?" he finished, looking back at Ozzie.

Ozzie nodded. "Scout's honor, buddy. Thanks. Catch you tomorrow for poker still?" he added hopefully, getting a nod immediately. "Awesome! How 'bout you, man?" he went on, turning to Dale.

"I'm in," Dale agreed, waving to him as Luke giggled into his fist. His face darkened. "...Do I want to know?"

"Heheheheh." Luke snorted and shook his head. "Poker. Liquor in the front, po—" He was cut off as Dale clapped a hand over his mouth, grumbling under his breath.

"Why do I even ask...?"

After saying his goodbyes to Kathy as well, Ozzie waved to Chase and Kasey. "Alrighty, boys, you keep at it! And Kase, know it sounds kinda silly of me after how I acted, but... I'm proud of ya. You handled that whole fiasco like a man." He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and nodded firmly, though he suddenly looked older and much more tired than he had when he'd entered the bar just a short time ago. "I mean, aside from telling him to go on and slug ya, but, eh. Much more grown-up about it than either of us were, really..."

Kasey felt his throat tighten a bit, and his chest grew warm. "Th-thank you, Mr. Takomoto," he said quietly, a small smile forming. "I just... I-I hope everything works out. Sorry you... that you guys were arguing about it."

With a little sigh, Ozzie shrugged and shook his head. "Hey, bud, it happens—Craig and I go way back, so this ain't the first time we've butted heads real bad over somethin'. I mean, never like this, but... we've definitely had our rows. It'll all work out, though, don't you worry." With that, he gave Kasey a reassuring grin, and turned to wave to Chase. "And Chase, I'll catch ya later, man!"

"Take care, Ozz." Turning back to the piano after Ozzie left, Chase shook his head. "Damn, that was crazy... I think my mind got knocked off-course."

"Think we're all a little out of it after that," Kathy grumbled in agreement—she'd let down her ponytail and was now braiding it over her shoulder to give herself something to do in the awkward silence. She looked around to Kasey, Dale, and Luke as she worked. "Y'know... this's really Pop's call, but would y'all be upset if we closed shop early tonight? That sound good?" she added, looking to her father. "I don't see anyone else coming in this late, anyway..."

Hayden nodded as well. "Good idea... hmm." He scratched his chin, caught in thought for a moment as Dale got up behind him, easily hoisting a giggling Luke over his shoulder like a sack of flour. "Well... it's about twenty till ten now, so... Kasey, you're free to keep using the piano 'till then, if you'd like."

"Ahh..." Kasey scratched the back of his neck, giving Luke a quick nod as he waved at them upside-down from by the door. Kasey couldn't help but feel as though he'd forgotten something important, but brushed it off in the wake of the night's events. "Thanks, Mr. Sullivan, but I'm... I'm good. I... I think I need to give my brain a break for now, you know?"

"Makes sense," Hayden agreed, getting out his rag and polish to once more begin wiping down the counter. "Can't say I blame you. See ya tomorrow, Dale," he called to the burly man, hovering by the door. "Hope Luke's hangover isn't too bad!"

"I'm bein' a hangover riiiight now!" Luke slurred, drawing a small smile from his father.

"Little smartass... he'll be fine. Later, everyone. Kasey, you take care," he added, heading out into the snowy night with a wave over his unoccupied shoulder.

Moments later, Kasey slid the fallboard down and latched it, leaving the sheet music where it was and sliding the bench back into place as Chase stood and stretched with a shuddering yawn. Rubbing the back of his neck, Kasey nodded to Kathy and Hayden. "Well... thanks again for letting us work on this here. Is... is it alright if I come back Monday night?"

"'Course it is, hon!" Kathy gave him a quick hug—which he returned after a moment—and patted his back. "And if you wanna bring your appetite along with you next time, that'd be alright, too! Put Mr. Peachy over there to work!" She grinned and winked at Chase, who simply rolled his eyes and mimicked her in a high-pitched mumble as she handed him his coat, then turned to gather Dale and Luke's dishes from the table. "Don't worry about these dishes, by the way—there ain't a lot to do, so Pop and I'll take care of 'em." She chuckled as Kasey put a stack of dishes back down with a sheepish smile.

"Sounds cool. And for your information, I did work," Chase griped good-naturedly, reaching forward and yanking the elastic band off the end of Kathy's braid, causing it to come undone. "I was on official bell business, Blondie." He snickered as Kathy uttered an annoyed groan, turned around, and smacked him on the chest. "Whoops. Anyway, catch you guys Monday. Don't be surprised if I've stabbed out my eardrums by then, though."

"Not like you ever listened when you had 'em," Kathy shot back, waving to Chase as he followed Kasey out into the streets of Harmonica Town.

The crunchy footfalls echoed in the silence for a few moments, the street lamps casting pale glows on their faces and casting the bags under their eyes into heavy shadow every so often. Chase spared Kasey the occasional sideways glance, noting that he seemed to be staring off into the distance, as if his body was moving automatically while his mind was set elsewhere.

"Oh, what, now—now that I actually know what I want to do with my life, you want me to go back to unloading trucks and stocking shelves? Because you'd rather I stayed miserable than pull you out of your stupid comfort zone?"

Danny groaned and buried his face in his hands, running his fingers back through his shaggy blond hair and muttering something under his breath. Shaking his head, he dragged his hands down to clasp behind his neck and looked up at Kasey with an expression of utter disbelief. "Are you serious right now?! I want you to be happy, believe it or not! But I thought you were gonna just back out of the whole farm deal, too. Like you did with college. I mean... you tell me, no, you don't want to go to school after all—even after I helped you apply for financial aid, you suddenly realize out of the damn blue that working and going to school full-time will really wear you down mentally, like I haven't been trying to warn you about that. Because your stubborn ass won't listen to anyone except yourself. But, wait! It's okay, because see—this town in the brochure looks really cool and sounds way better than school and, hey, we can be our own bosses out there and... and you don't stop to think that—"

"—Yeah, y-you know what?" Kasey cut in, waving a hand to stop Danny—who shot him a wide-eyed glare. He knew he wasn't going to be able to keep his words steady now. "I-I get it. You —you  think I'm too stupid to figure anything out."

"I don't think you're stupid, Kasey," Danny protested, looking offended. "I think you're being foolish. It's not the same thing. You keep jumping headfirst into all this crap without really thinking it through, how it'll affect you, or me, or anyone else you drag in—all because it sounds good before you really stop and think about itand you're running me ragged trying to keep up with you. And... now you're making it interfere with my life, too! And you know, you're a huge part of my life, but..."

Kasey drummed his fingers on the tabletop, looking away and feeling his legs swing. "...B-but what?" he finally asked, his voice quiet. He picked anxiously at a loose thread on his place mat.

Sighing in exasperation, Danny slumped back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling of his kitchen. "I... you can't pull me out of school to help you full-time on this! I know you miss me, and I really miss you a lot, too, but... I've already put two years into this, and I've still got another two left, and that's just my Bachelor's! And now you want me to commute farther than I already am on top of that, what, to help you out when I'm not swamped in homework? Is that it?!"

"Not full-time, Danny! Just on the weekends," Kasey blurted out, before cringing—he knew all too well the second he said it that it didn't sound that much better. And, sure enough, Danny's gray eyes flashed dangerously. "Shit, n-no, I—"

"Oh, well if I'm using my free time to keep propping you up, that makes it better!" Danny interrupted venomously, uttering a humorless laugh. "Because it's not like I won't have enough work to do at school as it is, and I'm sure I'll just have tons of energy to help you after making the trip to that crappy little farm! But I'm pretty sure that didn't even cross your mind before now, either, did it?" Clenching his jaw for a moment, he shook his head and looked away. His voice was tight as he continued: "And on top of all that, I can't even be your boyfriend over there. Because either that didn't cross your mind until I brought it up, or you thought it would be a great idea to move to a place where you'll still be terrified of people finding out that we're gay. Sounds like the perfect place for a couple. Especially a couple that might want kids someday."

Kasey's mouth worked soundlessly for a few moments at this statement, and in the tense silence, he thought he could hear his heart beating loudly enough that Danny might pick up on it. Finally, his mouth dry, he murmured, "Th-that's not it, Danny... I... I love you, you know that, I-I just don't—"

"—Want anyone to try and hurt us, yeah," Danny interrupted impatiently, hands in his hair again. "Or you, anyway. You don't seem to really have my well-being in mind anymore... if you ever actually did."

Hands slamming down flat on the tabletop and making his dishes rattle slightly, Kasey leaned forward, face twisted with rage. "Th-that's bullshit! Y-you... you know what I went through, Danny, h-how the hell can you —can you  act like I don't—"

"—Because we always do what you want to do!" Danny started counting off on his fingers: "We go where you want to on dates, on our holidays together, I put in all this extra work to help you out even when you keep leaping before you fucking look, and you just want me to put up with and give more and moreall I'm seeing through all this is you thinking about YOUR FUCKING SELF!" Danny finally shouted, mimicking Kasey's actions and making his own dishes rattle. He swallowed hard and sat back down, cutting him another glare across the table and folding his arms. Kasey sank back into his own chair, dark brown eyes wide and shining faintly as Danny went on in a trembling voice: "You know, I love you too, Kasey. Or... I still want to."

Kasey could have sworn he felt the blood freeze in his veins at those words—it was the first he was hearing about a lot of this. Why hadn't any of this ever been a problem for them before now? He wasn't psychic. And now he was being yelled at for that? "Danny, what... w-what are you trying to say?" he whispered, throat going tight. "Why—why didn't you ever s-say anything to me before now...?"

Clasping his hands in front of himself on the tabletop and keeping his gaze focused on his still-full plate, Danny shook his head, taking a deep breath in a futile effort to calm himself. "I thought... I guess I figured maybe you'd actually not be so damn dense that you wouldn't realize how you're acting, and I'm just... saying that you're... you're making it... really difficult for me to keep loving you now." He swallowed the lump in his throat, finally turning his gaze back up to look Kasey in the eye once more. "You know that, Kasey? ...Kasey?" he repeated, his voice shifting, and his face melting away. "Kaaaaaaseeeeey?"

"Kasey."

A hard poke to the back of his head snapped Kasey out of his thoughts, and he stumbled over his own feet with a slight yelp. Somehow, while he'd been pulled back into his own unpleasant memories, he and Chase had reached the forked path just downhill from Dobro Ridge, and Chase was eyeing him strangely.

"Dude, I know you're really shaken up, but... is everything actually alright?" Chase said, eyebrows raised. He shrugged as Kasey cut him a confused look. "You were totally zoned out for a while there."

Kasey sighed and looked down at the ground, hands jammed in his coat pockets. "Sorry. Just... that whole incident actually got me thinking about my... m-my ex." He smiled sadly, rocking back and forth on his sneakers as they hung by the faded, snow-covered signpost pointing the way around Castanet. All of a sudden, his eyes tingled slightly, and his chest felt tight. "I just—things... things went pretty bad with him. I-I messed up, and i-it just... I dunno. It just really hit me earlier... I didn't think a lot of things through with him, either, and—you think I'd learn..." He trailed off and sent a visible sigh into the frigid night air. As upset as he still was over how Danny had handled things, Kasey knew he had to take responsibility for his own screw-ups in the relationship, too.

"Mmm." Chase folded his arms and nodded. While Kasey almost looked like he really needed a hug, he was out of luck at the moment—Chase was by no means the hugging sort. "Well, I won't press you for the details if you don't want to give them, but hey—" He clapped Kasey on the shoulder, "—Least you know you screwed up with that guy. Most people are too retarded to admit that."

Snorting, Kasey shook his head again, eyebrows raised with his amused smirk—his mood was starting to lighten at least a little bit now, even with everything currently thrashing around in his mind. "Thanks a lot. I hope that wasn't supposed to make me feel better, Eric."

"Heyyyy, hey, hey—no," Chase protested, holding his hands up. "Just because I call you by your first name now doesn't mean we're in 'Eric' territory, man. I just got tired of saying 'Manatos' all the time." Now, he began ticking off on his fingers: "Only people who can call me by my first name are Yolanda, Toby, and Ren—errr. Yeah." He suddenly cut himself off and cleared his throat, looking away and frowning up at the night sky. He felt his cheeks burn. "Yeah. Those two. And not that often." The jig was up, but maybe Kasey wouldn't push him on it.

Eyes going wide for a moment as the realization struck him, Kasey snorted again. "Oh, wow. Yeah, you mean those three, right?" he pressed, getting a shove on the shoulder from Chase as they started to head up the path to the farmhouse. "Hey! No, I get it—she's pretty cute, and really nice, and funny, so—"

Chase scoffed and rolled his eyes, face still blazing as he jammed his hands into the pockets of his own parka and humphed. "What are you even talking about? You make it sound like you want to date her."

A few quiet moments passed while Kasey snickered, but otherwise said nothing further, only getting annoyed glances from Chase in return. Finally, he mused aloud: "...You know that you're almost as shitty a liar as I am?"

"God damn it..." Chase slumped in defeat as they finally approached Kasey's front door, and he thumped his head lightly on the siding a few times with an annoyed groan. "Fine, you nosy... ugh. We're not actually dating, alright? I just, well... might... want to..."

Smiling, Kasey leaned against his door and looked over at Chase, bemused. He was just full of surprises tonight. "So, uhh... you're gonna ask her out, then?" When Chase appeared to mull it over for a moment, Kasey scoffed. Was the actual Chase at home, laughing his ass off, while this long-lost twin of his was hanging out with Kasey? "Chase, seriously—please don't try to tell me you're actually shy."

"No," Chase responded almost automatically, his tone insistent. "No, not that. Ask the tourists when they come back. Just... you know, you're right about her. She is funny. And cool, and pretty, and really nice, yeah. And I'm, well... you know. I mean, I know I've got my upsides, but I'm kind of a..." He shrugged, hands still in his pockets, looking rather irritated at how he'd suddenly started pouring his heart out. The lights by Kasey's front door cast a soft spotlight on his flushed face. "Well, I know I'm kind of a dick."

Kasey folded his arms and leaned his head back with a sympathetic sigh, watching the snowflakes continue to drift down silently. "So... you think she'll turn you down, huh? You know, you're actually alright, though," he went on, when Chase gave no answer, instead scratching at the back of his neck uncomfortably. Kasey reached over and gave Chase's shoulder a reassuring pat. "Hey, man, I-I mean—you stood up to Craig earlier when he was getting in my face. And... and thanks for that, by the way."

"Mmm." Chase just shrugged again, though he looked a little less gloomy. "I mean, Craig was way out of line anyway, going after you like that. And he was yelling right in my ear. Pissed me off."

Rolling his eyes in good humor at this, Kasey tutted. "Okay, then, fine. And," continued, cheeks coloring again as he cleared his throat, "uhh... m-maybe I'm biased because... w-well... you know. But you're... you're T-Toby's best friend, and if... well, i-if he thinks you're a good person..."

At this, Chase hung his head and laughed in earnest, the sight once more unnerving Kasey just a bit. Either he'd been drinking while Kasey was at the piano, or Renee's influence was rubbing off on him. Kasey wasn't sure.

"Dude, that... that is some sappy shit to say, holy crap you've got it bad. But thanks," Chase added sincerely after he'd stopped laughing, shooting Kasey a grateful smile. Kasey, for his part, turned red and scratched his cheek with a feeble grin, and Chase hummed. "You know, you're okay too. I know you're gonna keep kicking yourself over all this—" He nodded to Kasey's iced-over fields, gleaming a dull white under the overcast night sky, "—no matter what we all say—whatever. And I dunno what you screwed up with that one guy, but... now that I've gotten to know you, you seem like you could be a lot worse."

Shaking his head and laughing, Kasey pushed himself off the door, nonetheless finding himself somewhat touched by Chase's words—such as they were. Well, considering who's saying them, he reasoned with himself. Still... "Please don't tell me you're planning to say something like that to Renee."

"Yeah," Chase uttered flatly. "I'm practicing all my pick-up lines on you first, you big stud. Because I'm that romantically inept. C'mon, dude, I've had girlfriends before. You think I'm wasting these good looks on celibacy?"

Finding his mood lifted a fair deal for the time being, with thoughts of Craig, Danny and Toby only nagging softly at the back of his mind for the moment, Kasey brushed the snow from his jacket and shook it from his hair, messing up his ponytail in the process and re-tying it as he looked back up at Chase. "I almost wanna spy on you two when you ask her out. I can only imagine what you'll wind up saying to her." Watching Chase pinch the bridge of his nose and groan, he grinned. "Well... look, man, I'd better go try and get some sleep, but thanks again. I'm... I'm actually feeling a lot better right now. I guess I'll catch you Monday, yeah?"

"Sounds good," Chase agreed, holding his gloved fist out for Kasey to bump. "If you figure out anything else beforehand, though, lemme know."

"Definitely." Pausing halfway through unlocking his door, Kasey spared Chase a glance over his shoulder. "And... good luck with Renee, too."

Chase scratched the side of his nose and looked away in embarrassment—a sight Kasey still couldn't quite wrap his mind around—and nodded. "Mmm. Thanks, yeah. Well—later."

"Later," Kasey echoed, watching him go only for a moment before slipping into the dark farmhouse and striding over to his bed. Pausing only to slide off his shoes, jacket, and gloves, he then flopped face-down onto the mattress, rolling over sluggishly and finding himself suddenly feeling far too exhausted by the events of the past week to even bother undressing for bed. Despite the brief spike in his mood provided by talking to Chase, Kasey quickly found his mind starting to race through much more unpleasant memories, and the subsequent anxious hours spent trying to fall asleep slipped through his grasp as fluidly as water through a sieve. Finally, feeling faintly sick, his brain wore itself out enough for him to slip into a restless slumber.

------------------------

"Kasey, I... don't really know how to say this. I don't know how to explain it at all. I just... I have to tell you, because it's starting to drive me crazy. I wasn't sure I could wait any longer."

Silence. The anticipation hung thick in the air.

"But—actually, no. I do know how to explain it. I just... don't know how to explain it right. I just... think I might have feelings for you."

He gulped.

"Well, no, that's not quite it... I know I do, but what I mean is, well... oh, no. That won't work, either..."

Hands gripping the edge of the bathroom sink, Toby looked away from the mirror, where the lingering steam was once again beginning to cloud over his towel-clad reflection. He slicked back his damp silver hair in agitation and let out a soft whine. Seconds later, he rumpled it and shook his head, slightly-flushed cheeks puffing out with his heavy exhale. How did people actually pull off this sort of thing? Did they even do this in real life? Maybe he was going about it all wrong, but what was the right way to go about it? Was Kasey even actually still thinking about it, or had he gotten over it already?

It had all seemed so simple moments ago, mulling over it in the shower when the hot water was melting his stress away for a little while. Purposefully striding up to Dobro Ridge in his mind's eye, finding just the right words to say to make everything alright. Making his feelings known, accepted, and returned with overwhelming joy, his imagination going overboard and occasionally crafting a far more intimate response than the scenario really warranted. His excited body was carried along for the ride—hesitantly at first, until Kasey's name started ghosting past his lips more and more—ultimately leaving him stunned, conflicted, and panting under the steaming water after it was over.

Face burning with shame now at the thought, Toby cleared his throat for nobody and wiped away the fresh layer of mist, catching sight of his anxious green eyes once more, and now wondering how he could even think of facing Kasey after... after that. Would he know, somehow? The mere idea was mortifying.

Stop being dumb, Toby chided himself gently, unable to figure out a better approach to practice and wracking his brain for something. Anything. Something that, as ironic as it seemed to him, didn't sound rehearsed. Something from the heart, albeit formed carefully and perfected before being presented. But still from the heart. It's got to be possible somehow, right?

Another deep breath. "Kasey, I'm... I'm sorr—"

"—talking to in there, Toby? Helloooooo?"

Toby jumped and yelped, hitching up his slipping towel and re-tying it at the sound of Paolo pounding on the bathroom door and rattling the knob. "H-hey, Paolo! Sorry, I'll be out in a second!"

He could hear the exasperated groan on the other side of the door, slightly muffled. "Okay, I was just wondering, because you were in there a real long time! What are you even doing in there, anyway?"

Cringing, Toby cleared his throat again and scratched at a tattoo on his right bicep—a souvenir from his recent trip to the Sunshine Islands, courtesy of a horribly lost drinking contest. He sometimes missed being as innocent as Paolo was. "Just... shaving," he lied carefully, hoping Paolo wouldn't ask any more questions. Toby couldn't grow facial hair to save his life—not that he really minded, figuring he'd look extremely odd with it, and it would probably itch pretty badly on top of that—but hopefully his cousin hadn't really noticed that. How obvious would silver stubble even be?

"Okay, whatever," Paolo finally grumbled, sounding convinced, but inexplicably annoyed by this answer. "But can you hurry up? I have to pee!"

With a little smile and a chuckle easing some of his tension, Toby gathered up his dirty clothes and emerged from the bathroom, giving Paolo a slight bow in apology. "Sorry, Paolo. Go ahead, before you pop."

"Thanks, Fish Breath!" Paolo darted past him gratefully, slamming the door as Toby ruefully shook his head.

"Yo, Toto! There you are! We thought you'd drowned or somethin'!"

Toby jumped a little at the sound of his uncle's voice as he passed through the hallway. Looking over, he saw Ozzie sitting in his recliner out in the living room, newspaper resting on the arm of the chair as he waved.

"Err—morning, Uncle Ozzie," Toby responded sheepishly, returning the wave and readjusting his grip on his laundry as he leaned against the entryway to the hall. "I figured you'd be sleeping in still, since it's Sunday and all..."

"Mmmm..." Ozzie shook his head, a shadow falling across his normally-cheerful face as he picked the paper back up and slipped the comics section out. "That was the plan, yeah, but... eh. I just turned in early last night. Was kinda out of it, tell you the truth..." He trailed off with a disgruntled sigh, shaking his head and piquing Toby's curiosity in the process. Paolo had fallen asleep midway through the movie they'd been watching the other night, and after carrying him off to bed, Toby himself had also turned in a short time later—before Ozzie had returned home. However, just as Toby was about to ask what happened, Paolo popped out of the bathroom, wiping his hands dry on his t-shirt.

"Hey there, Lolo," Ozzie greeted, giving his son a tight smile. "Use a towel next time, alright? And I saw ya got your clothes outta the dryer yesterday, but d'ya wanna go actually put 'em away?"

Scratching the back of his neck and smiling sheepishly, Paolo avoided his father's gaze. "I, uhhh... I did put them away, Dad—"

"I meant put 'em away right, not all over your furniture," Ozzie interrupted, chuckling as his son's shoulders slumped. "C'mon, kiddo, I checked in on you when I got home last night—you gotta get creative! Toby here used to stuff his laundry under the bed, at least!"

Toby shook his head haplessly, watching as his grumbling cousin shuffled off down the hall to his room. "I sure don't miss crawling under there to get them out, though..."

"Good thing we never had a problem with spiders," Ozzie mused with a slight laugh. When he heard Paolo's bedroom door click shut, his smile hitched once more, and he cleared his throat. Catching Toby's puzzled gaze, he exhaled through his nostrils. "So, yeah, see..."

Toby listened with a mixture of emotions as Ozzie told him what had happened at the bar the other night—Craig's rampage, his argument with Ozzie, and how he'd been "just a wrong word away from sluggin' Kase—and that boy really was somethin', way he handled it..."

Chewing anxiously on his lower lip, Toby ran his free hand through his drying hair once more and felt his heart sink. He wasn't sure what was stronger—his horror at what had happened, his sympathy for his uncle, his worry for Kasey, or his anger at Craig—as uncomfortable as he generally was with the idea being of mad at anyone. He wasn't alien to the feeling, but he hated it all the same. In his head, he couldn't help but picture Kasey at home, all alone, mired in guilt and anxiety, and feeling completely lost and helpless at the recent turn of events. His stomach wrenched at the image, and it took him a few moments to snap back to reality.

"—okay there, buddy?"

"Huh?" Toby mumbled, shaking his head rapidly and looking back over at his uncle. "Oh! Right, sorry. I'm... fine, I guess," he muttered unconvincingly, lips pressed into a tight line. "It's just... I can't believe it. I know Mr. Sellers can be kind of hot-headed, but..."

"You're tellin' me," Ozzie grunted, though he sounded depressed beneath it. "I've known him since I was nineteen, and I ain't never seen him go off so bad."

"Yeah..."

Silence fell over the house for a few moments, Toby tapping his foot idly on the floorboards as his heart hammered in his chest. He still didn't know what he wanted to say to Kasey, to make everything okay. And maybe it wasn't even something he had to be worried about. Maybe he was putting more weight on this than there really was. And maybe it wouldn't make anything better—he might even make things worse.

But... I can't make excuses like this, he reasoned, blowing out another long sigh. The longer I pretend it isn't a problem, the worse it'll get... he at least deserves to get this off of his mind, after what he went through last night. And after what did to him.

And... maybe I just... want to see him again...

Ignoring the heat rushing to his face at that last thought, Toby once more hitched his towel up and tightened his hold on his clothes. "Umm... Uncle Ozzie? Are you... going to be alright?"

"Hmm?" Ozzie looked up, from where he'd once again been trying to peruse the comics. He waved off his nephew's concerns with a small, reassuring grin, though he was nonetheless touched. "Yeah, bud, thanks. But don't worry 'bout me—it'll all turn out okay. Been through worse and I'm still kickin'. Kinda bummed about it, but you gotta keep positive, right?"

"Right," Toby agreed quietly, standing up straight once more and rolling his shoulders. "Well... alright, then. I need to go get dressed. I... I'm kind of worried about Kasey, after all this. Is it okay if I go check on him real quick?"

"'Course it is!" Ozzie nodded enthusiastically. "You're a good friend, Tobes—go on ahead, just get back before suppertime so those dishes can get washed up! Tell 'im I said hi, yeah?"

"Of course." Toby smiled and gave Ozzie a slight bow as well—and stopped halfway as he turned to head to his room. "Oh, and... if you need to talk later..."

Ozzie's eyes were on the comics now, but he smiled warmly nonetheless. "Thanks bud. I'll keep it in mind. And, hey—I'm proud of you, too, y'know that? You're a good kid," he added after a moment, though Toby's bedroom door had already clicked shut by then. He shrugged, and returned to his paper.

A short time later, Toby crunched through the falling snow towards Dobro Ridge, willing himself to keep moving forward, to not wimp out and turn back for the safety and security of the fishery. Even with part of his mind trying to convince him he would just screw it up, and another part chastising him for letting himself get carried away thinking of Kasey earlier that morning—trying to inject just enough self-doubt to justify putting off the whole confrontation a little longer—he shook the absurd thoughts aside and trudged onward. Yet another part of his mind congratulated him for facing the problem like a man... provided he didn't turn tail and bolt at the last second. There was still time.

The drifts started to pile higher and higher as Toby headed out of Harmonica Town, and he could feel the chill pierce him, even through his thick pants, boots, sweater, and fleece-lined hoodie. No wonder everyone's getting sick... He felt a pang in his heart as the saw the distant, frost-covered forms of some of Kasey's crops, the white roof of the warmly-lit farmhouse bobbing into view. It almost would have looked quaint and cozy—And drafty, I hope he's not too cold in there—had it not been for the unsettling turn of events. He almost wanted to have Luke, Paolo, and Chloe come over and build a giant snowman out front to make it look a little more welcoming. Some semblance of mirth in such a bleak atmosphere, at any rate... everything looked so dead and foreboding right now, in an environment that was normally so homey.

The distractions quickly melted away even in the freezing air as he approached Kasey's door, not daring to look into the windows to make sure he was even home. I'm already a pervert, Toby thought darkly. The last thing I need is to come off like a stalker...

Nonetheless, as he reached the frozen welcome mat, he found that—for a few blank, uncertain minutes, he could only... stand there, almost as if he too had become as frozen as the world around him. Only the sound of his trembling breathing, his anxiously-darting eyes, and his breath blossoming up in front of him betrayed any sense of life, and he found he could faintly hear the sound of Kasey's TV from inside.

Licking his lips and swallowing hard, he brought his fist up to the door and knocked, willing himself not to bolt for the hills when he heard Kasey ask who was there.

It's... me, Toby thought, unable to get his mouth to cooperate as Kasey repeated his question a tense, quiet moment later. Toby then found that his own mind seemed to be following suit in being uncooperative. I, uhh... I...

The door creaked open after a moment, spilling a cone of light across Toby and locking their little world into place as they stared at each other—Kasey in quiet shock, Toby in shame and contrition. Kasey had one hand on the doorknob, the other clutching the frame so tightly that it might splinter beneath his fingers, and he probably wouldn't notice. The TV had been muted behind him when he'd gone to answer the door, and now—with himself and Toby immobile save for their blinking, and their shallow breathing—the snowfall was the only thing continuing to move as normal, creating a little diorama that would have fit neatly into a globe if miniaturized.

With another quick breath, Kasey took it upon himself to break the silence, his voice soft: "H-hey."

"Hey," Toby echoed, just as quietly. He let out a shaky exhale, finally tearing his gaze away from Kasey and focusing on the distant sight of the kitchen counter—from the looks of things, he'd interrupted Kasey in the middle of doing dishes. He looked like he kept a neat house. Rubbing the back of his neck and brushing some of the snow from his hair, Toby bit at his lip. "How... how have you been?" What a stupid question, he immediately scolded himself right afterwards, seeing Kasey's mouth work quietly to form an answer.

"I... I-I've been... okay," Kasey finally uttered, his voice far scratchier than normal—and, Toby realized, he looked a bit more disheveled than usual. His ponytail was fairly messy, and there seemed to be bags under his eyes once more. He almost found himself wanting to pull Kasey into a hug, but kept himself from doing so. Looking away for a moment, Kasey glanced back at Toby, and gave a small sideways jerk of his head. "D-do you, umm...?"

"Hmm? Oh!" Giving a start, Toby nodded, stepping past as Kasey opened the door a bit wider and motioned again for him to come inside. "Sure, thanks..."

"Y-yeah..."

The house was comfortably warm, Toby noticed, and he found that he was looking around helplessly, unsure of where to sit—he ultimately settled for leaning against the door in a sad attempt at looking casual, gloved hands laced behind his back. Kasey, meanwhile, was perched back against his kitchen counter as he'd been yesterday, looking all around the house, as if being caught making eye contact with Toby would get him in some sort of trouble.

A few more uneasily quiet moments, and Kasey finally spoke up again, after a deep breath: "S-so... umm... w... w-what's up?"

Worrying a bit at his lower lip again, Toby looked down at the floor and drummed his fingers unsteadily against the door. "Oh, well—I... I wanted to see how you were doing. Uncle Ozzie told me about what happened last night," he managed, his voice trailing off as Kasey slumped and looked away once more.

"I-it's fine, Toby. It... I'm... I'm okay. But, th-thank you," he added, cheeks going crisp. "You... y-you didn't have to d-do that..."

Shaking his head, Toby looked up and watched Kasey scuff his foot against the floor anxiously. "I know. I was... well, I was going to come down here anyway," he explained, his voice wavering a little bit. "After... what happened last week."

Kasey paled, snapping his gaze up to meet Toby's. "Oh... y-yeah... that, umm... I-I..."

Fidgeting with his gloves now, Toby found himself struggling to work up the courage to go on. Finally, right as Kasey began to speak, so did he, their words intersecting: "Kasey, please don't think I'm—"

"—so sorry, I didn't want to let it—"

They both fumbled to a stop, chuckling awkwardly and finding a sliver of relief in how they'd inadvertently eased at least some of the tension for a second. "S-sorry," Kasey mumbled, cheeks heating up even further. "I-I just wanted to say—"

"—No," Toby interrupted, holding up his hands to cut Kasey off. "Sorry... but... well, Kasey, you don't need to apologize for a thing," he went on sincerely, leaning back against the door and tapping his foot nervously. "Especially not after how I acted... I'm the one who should be apologizing."

Taking a step forward, Kasey held out a hand in protest. "Toby, y—"

"—Just hear me out, okay?" Toby pleaded quickly, feeling relief flood his body as Kasey slumped back against the counter and nodded. "Sorry... I just... I don't mean to keep cutting you off. It's just..." Feeling another knot in his throat, he swallowed it and looked up at the ceiling. "I... I've just been thinking a lot lately... about you. Even before what happened at the clinic, I just... Chase made this joke about you—" And, from the corner of his eye, he saw Kasey nod slowly, "—and... he wasn't serious. It was just... just a joke. That you were nervous that one night because I was there, and..."

He uttered a rueful laugh. "See, I just tried to brush it off, but... I kept thinking about it, wondering if he was right. Just thinking about that night, and... and how happy I was that you were inviting me over. Even with how nervous you were, I figured... that was just how you are. Just... really sweet." A little smile formed on his lips at this, and he missed Kasey's face growing even redder as he continued—the words seemed to be coming much easier to him now, without his own reflection staring back at him:

"I don't know, I just... thought about it a lot, what Chase said. I thought about you, about... a lot of things. And then I realized it was true, and—I don't know." He shrugged, though a guilty look darkened his face. "I was just... scared. Not that you felt that way," he clarified, still not daring to make eye contact with Kasey. "Just... I... I thought I knew myself, see? But then it seemed to... just... click, or spark, maybe, and then I just started asking myself all these questions, having all these... feelings. I don't know..." Another shuddering exhale, and he was looking at the ground now—Kasey was watching him with wide eyes, hands frozen to the edge of the counter in shock.

"T-Toby, what... w-w-what are you... t-trying t-to say...?"

Mouth dry, Toby felt his breathing pick up again. "Kasey, what I'm trying to say... I... I think you're wonderful." His own face blazed to match Kasey's now, and he let the words keep spilling: "You're funny, you're... so compassionate, you work really hard, you're sweet, you're... you're actually... pretty handsome..." As he said this, his voice dipped into a mumble for a moment. "You just..." Eyes closing, he inhaled deeply, willing his heart to slow down at least a little bit. "I panicked and ran off because I... I think it was just starting to hit me, but I wasn't sure, and that... it scared me. And it still does, but... I want to... if you'll still give me a chance, I... I just really like you a lot, you know?" he finished quietly, giving another small shrug, as if trying to downplay the whole confession. His blood pumped loudly in his ears, he found he remained unable to bring himself to look up and meet Kasey's gaze, and his face was so warm he figured his cheeks looked cherry-red at this point.

When he finally looked up, a bit unnerved by the silence, he saw Kasey still staring at him, completely floored. Finally uttering a wordless squeak at the sight of Toby making eye contact with him, Kasey closed his gaping mouth and pointed at himself dumbly, a questioning look on his flushed face as the words finally came up.

"Y-you... you r-r-really...?"

"I... yeah," Toby responded shyly, nonetheless shooting him a small grin. He almost wanted to chuckle at Kasey's reaction, and Toby saw him break into a disbelieving smile that lit up his whole face. Clapping a hand over his mouth, Kasey let out a quiet, happy laugh, slumping down further against the counter.

"...I... I... y-you're sure?" he asked again, as if waiting for the other shoe to drop, a camera crew to burst out of his bathroom and reveal that it was all a cruel prank. His voice was far higher than normal, and a little choked. "Oh, god... Toby... wow. Wow," he repeated, hand dropping to his side, the grin still stretching from ear to ear.

Finally allowing himself a little chuckle at the sight, Toby kept his position by the door, unsure of what to do now—once again, he wanted to draw Kasey into a tight hug, but now figured he was excited enough without risking a somewhat-embarrassing reaction to ruin the moment. His actions from earlier that morning flashed through his mind for a second, and he forced them out just as quickly. "Are you okay?" he asked, feeling his own smile widen as his stomach somersaulted happily.

"You... y-you have no idea, man," Kasey said, running his hands through his hair and grasping at it. He felt like if he jumped, he could rocket straight through the roof of his house and into space with how excited he was. "Holy shit. Holy shit. I... I am so totally okay right now, Toby. I definitely want to—I... I just... really?"

Flattery and amusement played at the edges of Toby's mind as he watched Kasey's reaction, and he cleared his throat, scratching sheepishly at the back of his neck. "I know how you feel," he admitted, feeling only a tiny pang of regret in his stomach as it growled softly—he hadn't eaten much yet today. Deciding maybe it was best for them to leave each other to their own excitement for a little while, he sighed. "I really wish I could stay here with you a little longer and talk some more, but I... I need to get back home right now," he murmured apologetically, cringing a little and hoping Kasey wouldn't take it the wrong way. "I'm sorry..."

Kasey shook his head, still unable to move from the counter—despite the elation coursing through their hearts and minds at the moment, he seemed almost as nervous about approaching Toby as Toby was towards him. "N-no, it's—it's fine. I—I kind of need a little while to calm down, myself," he confessed, still blushing profusely and letting out an exhilarated breath. His eyes shone faintly. "Y-you... you take care, okay?"

"You too, Kasey," Toby responded, unable to stop beaming like an idiot. "And... do you maybe want to, well... get together sometime? Just the two of us?" he clarified, clearing his throat and looking away as Kasey nodded enthusiastically. He was glowing, a complete 180 from how he'd been moments ago.

"Y-yeah, definitely! I... yeah! I'd love to. M-maybe, umm... we could... take a walk or something? By the shore?" He cringed a little at how lame it sounded—For god's sake, Kase, it's snowing outside—but found his heart swelling again at Toby's pleased nod. "Y-you're sure?"

"It sounds really nice," Toby agreed readily, returning Kasey's shy smile for a brief moment, before turning his gaze upward once more—this time, in brief thought. "Maybe Tuesday night? I can meet you here after dinner."

A deep breath, and Kasey finally found himself able to speak a little more steadily, in spite of his excitement. "That... that sounds great... I'll see you then, Toby?"

Toby flashed him another full-on grin—he wasn't used to doing it so frequently, and so easily. "Yeah... I can't wait. Take care, Kasey!" He seemed to linger in the doorway for a moment, before waving and pulling the hood of his jacket back up.

And, with their goodbyes exchanged, Toby slipped out into the snowy afternoon, leaning against the door for a moment as it closed and letting out a giddy sigh. He felt almost silly, like a teenager, at how anxious and happy he was. His nerves were still thrumming, and he felt a pleasant warmth washing over him in slow waves. With the same goofy smile still plastered on his face, he began the trek back to the fishery, finding that, somehow—in the moment—the out-of-season winter scenery looked much more beautiful to him right now, and far less ominous.

Inside the farmhouse, as Toby left, Kasey slid off the counter and to the floor, hugging his knees to his chest and clapping his hand over his mouth to catch another disbelieving laugh. It came out short at first, before another one followed—and another. Soon, he was back on his feet, socks sliding across the floor as he danced around, fists pumping victoriously with his chanting.

"Yes! Yes! Yes, yes, yes, holy shit, YES! Ye—GAHHH!"

In his manic celebration, he'd slid into and tumbled roughly over the arm of his couch, landing face-down in the cushions with a surprised grunt. The house was once again quiet for a few brief moments as Kasey rolled over onto his back, staring blankly at the ceiling. He idly wondered if there was something important he'd forgotten to ask Toby in his happiness, but brushed it aside—he could ask later. Maybe when...

...When we're on our date...

After a short time laying there quietly and mulling over the events that had just taken place, his laughter began anew at his misstep. It continued on from there, morphing into an outright gleeful cackle as he pumped his fists once again and whooped loudly in the warm, cozy farmhouse. In that happy little moment, he found he didn't care if anyone overheard him, and he let his other problems slip off of his shoulders for just a little while.

Chapter Text

While most of the rest of Sunday and the better part of Monday found Kasey floating in a blissful haze of daydreams as he read through The Life of Castanet, he found anxiety gnawing periodically at his stomach whenever he was reminded of just why he was so giddy—not to mention the matter of Castanet's ongoing slow freeze, and what exactly was at stake if that kept up for much longer. Part of him wanted to put off the date with Toby until the current crisis was resolved, while another part of him couldn't help but feel like maybe it would do him some good—clear his head a little, help him focus better afterward.

And he still couldn't help but retain that odd, nagging feeling that there was something very important that he needed to ask Toby, anyway...

Maybe I'll remember it once all these surprises have run their course, he thought to himself Monday evening while he prepared to head down to the bar again, zipping up his jacket and slipping on the black toboggan and gloves that still bore a few small tears from the night he'd met Sephia. Swallowing hard as he crunched his way down the path into town, he thought back to Wizard noting that one of the bells was located deep within Fugue—presumably guarded by something horrific—and grimaced. With what had happened to Luke—whatever that had even been—Kasey hoped somewhere in the back of his mind that someone in Castanet owned a shotgun. Or a flamethrower. Hell, maybe even a rocket launcher or a bazooka, just to be on the safe side.

Lost as he was in his little flurry of thoughts, Kasey didn't hear himself grunt or notice that he'd fallen flat on his ass in the snow until he realized he was blinking up at the sky in confusion, long limbs sprawled out like a crooked gingerbread man.

"What the hell?" he mumbled, wincing and ruffling the snow out of his hair as he sat up and crammed his toboggan back on sloppily, rubbing his aching tailbone with his other hand. Hearing a soft groan from next to him, he looked over and saw Anissa clambering to her feet slowly, grimacing and dusting snow off her puffy pink coat. Eyes widening, Kasey sprang to his feet, brushing off the back of his jeans and blushing furiously. "Sh-shit, Anissa, are—are you okay? I'm so sorry! I-I didn't look where I was going, and I was kind of distracted, and—"

Holding up her hands to placate him, Anissa shook her head, the fluffy hood of her coat askew and her bun in disarray. "Don't worry, Kasey, I'm fine. How about you? Are you alright?"

"Y-yeah, I'm—I'm cool," he muttered as his embarrassment died down slightly, cringing and shivering a bit at the chill of the damp denim now rubbing against his legs. Why had he worn jeans out in the snow again? "Uhh... no pun intended or anything..."

With a little chuckle at this, Anissa gave him a wry, apologetic smile and slipped her hands into the pockets of her coat. "Hmm. Well, now I'll feel silly for saying it was a good thing I ran into you."

Kasey returned the smile and snickered, easing up a little more. "Oh, real cute, Anissa. So," he continued, rocking back on his sneakers and eyeing her curiously, "umm... what's up?"

"Well—oh, were you heading for town?" At Kasey's nod, Anissa motioned for him to follow her. "I am too, actually, but I was going to stop by your place on my way... I heard about what happened Saturday night," she clarified, her face darkening as they walked through the snow. Missing Kasey's guilty, uncomfortable look, she sighed out a large cloud of fog and watched it trail up into the darkening sky.

Swallowing hard, Kasey nodded again. "Oh... r-right, that..."

"I just..." Anissa shook her head in disbelief. "I can't apologize enough for what my father did, Kasey. I just—I want to say I can't believe he'd do that, and I think at one point, I actually would've been able to. But, these days..."

"Hey, n-no—" Patting her on the shoulder and getting her to look over at him, Kasey cleared his throat. "Look, I—I'm alright, really. And you weren't the one who did it, so you don't need to apologize for him. A-and... well..." Hands now in his coat pockets, he shrugged. "I kinda understand where he's coming from, too, why... w-well, why he's upset and all. Err, well—at me, anyway, not everyone else," he amended sheepishly. "I'm really, really sorry about what happened to your family's farm, though..."

"Don't be," Anissa returned almost immediately, casting a thoughtful frown at the frozen path leading to Harmonica Town's bridge. "I'm not blaming you, my mother isn't blaming you... it was just an..." She paused and screwed up her face, before murmuring: "...Well... maybe 'accident' isn't exactly the right word to use to describe it, given the circumstances, but it's still... nothing you could've controlled."

Kasey stopped by Town Hall, eyes scanning over the rest of the town now and taking in the lit-up windows. Though the streets were still cold and empty, darkening in the evening with the snow still falling heavily, there was something almost cozy about the sight at the moment. His heart swelled and warmed as he caught sight of the fishery, a small smile tugging at his lips. He found he couldn't quite agree that this had been completely beyond his control, but her words soothed his guilt a little bit, all the same. "Maybe, but it's still something we can fix, though," he mused, more to himself than to Anissa. "Hopefully soon, too."

"Right..." Anissa watched him observe the fishery for a moment with a curious expression on her face, before looking over to the bar. "And you've been working on that with Chase, haven't you? Hanna mentioned something like that."

"Past few nights, yeah. I dunno..." Kasey shook his head. "Nothing yet, and I can't even tell if we're getting anywhere on it, but it's only been a couple days so far." A deep frown creased his brow as he looked over in the direction of Ben's cave. "It's weird, though. I've been thinking recently that... that there's something really important and obvious I'm missing about all of this. Like—like maybe I should already know the answer, where to look, but... but my damn brain just doesn't want to give it up for whatever reason. I swear," he went on with a rueful laugh, "Ben's stupid amnesia must be contagious or something."

"Hmm. I think I'd rather have that cold that's been going around," Anissa agreed lightly, drawing another small smile from Kasey. "But, speaking of which—I'd better get going. Jin and I are having dinner at the inn with Calvin and Phoebe. Good luck figuring out that song—let me know if you need anything, alright?"

"Sure! Thanks—catch you later!" Waving as Anissa made her way to the inn, Kasey turned to head for the bar, letting out a small squeak and righting himself as he started to slip on the iced-over cobblestones. "Fuck!" he hissed, taking small, slow steps through the deceptively slippery drifts and hoping he wouldn't suffer a concussion before he reached the bar. Looking down and wondering if the streets hadn't been salted recently, he addressed the ground in a muttered plea: "Please, please, please don't kill me before my date. That'd seriously suck ass."

Some time, a few mugs of hot tea, and a few burgers later—after making it to the bar without further incident, looking as though someone had run a snow-blower right past him about ten times—a much warmer and less snow-encrusted Kasey plunked his fingers listlessly over the keys of the piano, finding himself unable to pick out another series of notes to test and wondering if his brain was still trying to thaw out. "Crap... I should've written down what we've already tried," he muttered with a frustrated groan. "I can't remember if we already did this one... did we try this one?" he asked, turning to Chase and getting a helpless shrug in response.

"Sounds kinda hinky to me," Kathy offered from her spot at the bar, poking at her bowl of chili with a bored expression on her face. Nobody else had stopped by the bar yet in the three hours it had been open, and the directionless prodding at the piano—not to mention the lack of other patrons to distract her from the directionless prodding—was starting to drive her crazy. "Why don't you just go play all of your ideas for that thing? Gotta be easier than going in circles, yeah? Hold a concert for that sonofabitch!"

"Hinky?" Chase repeated incredulously, frowning at her and ignoring her actual suggestion. "Really?" Kathy simply stuck her tongue out at him in response. "Great argument."

"You, too," Kathy retorted sweetly, raising her spoon at him in a mocking salute.

Kasey sighed and plopped his elbows on the keyboard, sending a jarring shock of sound throughout the bar that made all of them jump, and elicited a startled yelp from him as well. Face blazing as he muttered out an apology, he slid the fallboard down and repeated the elbow-propping without further incident, resting his face on his hands and staring thoughtfully at the messed-up sheet music. "Yeah, w-well... after what happened before, I don't wanna risk anything even worse happening if I don't have the song just right. The way this has been going, I'll probably make a horde of yetis appear or something."

Hayden snorted at this, while Chase merely scowled at him. "Kathy actually has a point, though—we're spinning our wheels here, being all cautious about... what, offending Ben's delicate sensibilities or something? I mean, hey—maybe it's just me, but that snow doesn't look like it's planning to stop anytime soon."

"I know, I know," Kasey mumbled, sliding his hands over his face and back through his hair. "Just... not being careful hasn't really gotten me anywhere all that great so far, and I don't want this place to get screwed over even worse any more than you do, believe me." Grunting in exasperation, he rubbed his temples with the heels of his hands. "I just wish I knew what it was—something's just been... nagging at me."

"That'd be Chase," Hayden chimed in with a gruff chuckle, eyes not leaving his magazine when Chase flipped him off. "I saw that," he added, though his tone remained nonchalant.

"Good."

Now smirking a little at the exchange, Kasey shook his head. "Well... I mean, aside from Chase, it... I don't know. Like, I was telling Anissa earlier—I can't help but feel like the solution's right under my nose, and something in me knows that, but just... it just doesn't get it, for whatever reason. I'm just trying to remember why, and when I even started thinking that..."

Face settling into a thoughtful frown as Kasey spoke, Hayden hummed low in his throat and looked over at the two boys after a few quiet moments. "You know, now that you mention it... didn't Ozzie say something about that song a couple nights ago? Could've sworn..."

Kasey's eyes widened slightly even as his brow furrowed, gaze still fixed on the sheet music. "...He... he did, didn't he?" he muttered in shocked agreement, a twinge of disbelief in his voice as he spoke. Wracking his brain, he tried to remember what they'd all been talking about before Craig had started yelling. "He—y-yeah! Yeah, it was... he said it... it sounded familiar. Right before Mr. Sellers spotted me, and..."

Chase gave a start, and smacked himself on the forehead as the realization struck him, too. "Toby!" he groaned, wondering how he'd missed it, even with how eventful that night had gotten. "That's right! Ozz was starting to say something about Toby after that, and Craig cut him off!"

"Toby?" Kathy echoed, raising an eyebrow and looking around at the others in surprise. "Y'all don't think he's got something to do with this, do ya? I mean, he'd have told us if he knew something, yeah? I don't see him holding this kinda thing back from us, especially not from you two."

Kasey flushed slightly at this, but cleared his throat and reminded himself to focus on the matter at hand. "W-well... if he does know something, then maybe—maybe he doesn't even know he does," he reasoned hesitantly, "and... Mira, she didn't even realize it, either. She had that bell stuck by her house, and she kept playing its song and singing it, and—and I don't think she even knew..."

Pursing her lips thoughtfully, Kathy clinked her spoon on the rim of the bowl a few times. "...Man, that ghost-bell stuff still gives me the heebie-jeebies. But... he did used to spend a lot of time playing around in that cave, hiding out by that damn thing," she mused, shaking her head and grinning a bit. "Guess his mind musta sucked up that thing's music like a sponge, huh?"

"I always knew he was really a sea creature," Chase uttered flatly, only succeeding in getting Kathy to stick her tongue out at him again. "Yeah, keep it up. I'm going to cut that thing out and cook it."

Crossing her legs, Kathy tapped the heel of one boot against her calf as she thought things over. "Uh huh. Try it and I'll rip your dick off and beat you with it, ya little twerp."

Chase scoffed at this. "Uhh, no—I'll rip your dick off and beat you with it."

"Better men than you have tried, honey. But, I tell ya," Kathy went on, abruptly veering back on-topic as Kasey snorted into his fist and Hayden buried his face in his hand with a sigh, "you'd think Toby woulda realized something was up by this point, huh? He's always been kinda forgetful, but damn—y'think he'd remember something like that!"

"He was a kid back then, though," Hayden pointed out fairly, lowering his hand to look over at his daughter. "It was quite a while back. Probably just slipped his mind, if he noticed anything odd in the first place—and if Mira didn't notice anything odd, like Kasey said, then Toby most likely wouldn't have, either."

With a firm nod, Chase was already up and off the bench, going over to the coat rack to get his parka and gloves so he could bundle up. "I think maybe he's been trying to remember, actually—at least subconsciously... or Ben's been trying to remind him, or something. I'm not really sure, but... whatever. I'll explain on the way over," he added when Kasey shot a confused gaze his way. "You coming with, or what?"

Admonishing himself to stop blushing at the thought of seeing Toby again, Kasey nodded dumbly, getting up as well and sliding his coat and gloves off the top of the piano to pull them on. Nonetheless, his heart was starting to hammer rapidly with the anticipation of finally—hopefully—making further progress on the blue bell. And seeing Toby again, he admitted to himself. Because it's not like you just saw him yesterday or anything. "Y-yeah! Yeah, that—let's go! Maybe it's not too late to stop by and get the key to the cave again, too, just in case..."

"One thing at a time, dude," Chase advised him—though he couldn't quite keep the hopeful expression off of his own face when he turned to Hayden and Kathy. "Guess I'll be stepping out for a sec, then, guys."

Kathy rolled her eyes and waved him off with a snort. "We'll find some way to handle this awful crowd without ya, hon, don't worry."

"Please, you people know this place would fall into ruin without me!" Chase shot back as he wrenched the door open and slipped out into the snowy night, beckoning for Kasey to follow him as Kathy wished them luck. Chuckling to himself, he jammed his hands in his parka pockets and crunched through the snow casually, cutting a sideways glance to Kasey. "Hmm. Come to think of it, are you okay with coming along for this? I mean, I know you guys are kind of... whatever right now, right?"

"Huh? Oh!" Shaking his head rapidly, Kasey found he couldn't quite figure out how to explain the situation to Chase, exactly—while he knew Chase most likely wouldn't really mind, he nonetheless found himself less than comfortable with the idea of saying anything about what had happened the other day without Toby's input. I mean, he'll probably figure it out anyway, he reasoned with himself, clearing his throat as he felt his face burn. But, still... "W-we, well... talked things over yesterday," he finally answered, trying to keep his voice as casual as he could, while wondering to himself why he even bothered at all.

"Huh." Sure enough, there was a fair deal of skepticism in Chase's voice. "So... you guys are cool, then?"

Kasey nodded, gripping the railing tight to keep from slipping down the steps as he followed Chase to the lowest level of Harmonica Town. "Y-yeah, we're... we're alright now, yeah."

With a small hum as he raised his eyebrows, Chase shrugged. "Alright, then, long as you guys worked things out." His expression and tone were still dubious, but he thankfully let the subject drop as they approached the fishery. "So... he tell you about the weird dreams he's been having lately? Okay, apparently not," he went on, seeing Kasey's confused glance. "So, yeah, this is like... last week or so. I stop by, and he tells me just that—some weird dreams. Been having them periodically, but here's the thing—" They stopped in front of the door, Chase gesturing as he spoke: "He says he always wakes up really cold for a moment, he feels like whatever it is that he's dreaming about has gotta be really important... but he can't remember a single thing about those dreams. Nada. Sound like someone else you know?"

Once again, Kasey's eyes widened, and he nodded rapidly, turning to rap on the door a few times. "That... yeah, that definitely sounds familiar," he agreed shakily, still not quite sure if he should feel hopeful or steel himself for disappointment again. At this point, as coincidental as a lot of it was, it was still just conjecture—on the other hand, it was certainly better than nothing. "And I had to wake Ben up, and he went back to sleep after I tried ringing him, but... I told him about Toby hiding there, I asked if he remembered. He said he didn't, but maybe... maybe part of him does, somehow. And... and if he's been trying to reach out to Toby when he's asleep..."

"Then it's a good thing Ben's not some Freddy Kreuger kind of motherfucker," Chase remarked wryly, making Kasey chuckle as they listened to someone fumbling with the doorknob. The door squeaked as it swung open, and Ozzie's face lit up when he saw the two boys at his doorstep. "Yo, Ozz."

"Hey, it's Simon and Garfunkel!" Ozzie greeted, waving them into the store where it was warmer, and laughing when Chase rolled his eyes good-naturedly at the remark. "What's up, boys? How's the songwritin' deal goin'?"

"It's not, really," Chase responded, shaking the snow off of his coat and hair like a wet dog and instinctively moving to re-pin his now-wild curls afterward. "Actually, that's why we came here, since we figured maybe you could help us out on that front."

At Ozzie's puzzled look, Kasey cleared his throat and took the helm: "Right, umm... it—it's about something you said a couple nights ago. When I played that song for you, remember?" With a deep breath, he went on, "You said that... it sounded familiar, and, umm... started to say something about Toby before... well, before Craig..."

Understanding dawning on his face, Ozzie nodded slowly and rubbed his chin, mulling it over. "Yeah, I getcha now... I dunno for sure, and maybe I've been hearin' wrong—but I swear I been hearin' somethin' like that song comin' outta Toby's room sometimes, lately." Raising his eyebrows in surprise, he went on thoughtfully: "Figured at first, maybe it was just some new song he really liked, though, since I heard him hummin' it sometimes. But from what y'all are sayin'..."

Feeling his breath catch, Kasey nodded dumbly, eyes flicking over to the door behind the counter. "Y-yeah, it... we're hoping he might know something about all that. Err—is he here?" he asked hopefully, not even caring at the moment that his cheeks were still blazing. The cold outside could explain that easily enough. When Ozzie nodded, his shoulders slumped with a relieved sigh.

"Definitely! Think he's still sprucin' up a few of our old lures," Ozzie explained, heading towards the back. "I'll go get him for y'all, just a sec!"

The door swung closed on Kasey's thanks, and he looked around the store as they waited. He'd really only actually been inside once, when he'd first met Paolo and Ozzie, and a small pang struck his heart as he noticed that it seemed like all the lures and rods that had been there before were still there, untouched, over a month later. The freezers that would normally hold bait and fish were fairly empty, and though the display shelves and sales counter were all polished free of dust, the store overall looked like it hadn't seen much activity in quite some time.

"Yeah," Chase piped up at the look on Kasey's face, catching his attention. "Usually at this time of year, it starts picking up a little bit. We actually get a decent amount of tourists throughout the year, normally." He frowned and looked out the window at the falling snow, heavy and stark against the dark sky, and his expression softened a bit. "Just right now, you and Calvin are the first new faces we've had for a good while. Thank god the other towns nearby have been helping keep us on our feet here," he went on quietly. "Hurts our pride like a bitch to depend on them for so long, and the debt's gonna be a pain in the ass to repay when it's all over and we're trying to get back on our feet, but we would've been screwed without them."

Kasey could only hum in response, perking up when the door behind the counter creaked open again, Toby emerging from the back. Toby waved to Chase and exchanged a quick greeting with him, eyes then flicking over briefly to Kasey with a small nod. Kasey wasn't sure if Toby's eyes really had lit up and his cheeks had colored a little, or if his smile had widened just a bit. All he knew was that his own stomach somersaulted and his face was still hot when he waved back, trying to keep his grin casual—and most likely failing.

"Sorry it took so long," Toby apologized as he walked up to the other two, hands jammed in the pockets of his black sweatpants. "Uncle Ozzie was helping me untangle a few lures, and then he cut himself on one of the hooks." Seeing Kasey cringe a little at this, he shook his head and shrugged. "No, don't worry—he's okay. He's used to it. It's an occupational hazard. But... he was telling me you guys wanted to see me? Something about that bell you've been working on?"

"More than something, Tobes," Chase clarified, perching himself on one of the display counters by the door and pointing at his best friend. "See, we were wanting to ask you about that, actually. Ozz tell you what's going on?"

Face twisted into a perplexed frown, Toby shrugged again. "Yeah. Well... kind of. He mentioned that song you guys were working on, and said he thought he'd heard me humming it in my room a few times before." His confusion only deepened as he spoke, and his eyebrows went up as he looked from Kasey to Chase, and back again. As he locked eyes with Kasey for a moment, he looked away and rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, a shy smile on his face. "And that's really weird, because... I don't think I have been..."

Rocking back on his shoes, Kasey worried at his lower lip for a moment, wondering how to best put it and feeling silently thankful that his nerves had something much more important to focus on at the moment. "Well... that's... see, the—the thing is," he finally went on, carefully, "we think that maybe you don't even know you're doing it. Like, maybe you're—well, Chase said you've been having weird dreams lately, and now... now with all this happening..."

As Kasey spoke, Toby's eyes widened, and his hand slipped off the back of his neck to hang loosely by his side. Little details ran through his mind in a loop—his days spent playing in the cave, napping by the large blue bell—even though nearly every detail of his recurring dream continued to elude him. Everything aside from the cold shocks, and the way he kept forgetting the contents of his dreams right as he woke up. "...How does that song go?" he finally asked quietly, looking between the other two boys once more with something unreadable in his eyes. "I know you don't have the whole thing, but..."

"No, it's—it's fine." Nodding and closing his eyes, Kasey cleared his throat again, licking his lips and starting to slowly hum the notes he and Chase had drilled diligently into their own memories over the past few nights. When he opened his eyes again, he saw Toby looking down at the floor, arms folded over his chest and his expression troubled.

Chase glanced over at Kasey, before turning to look again at Toby with concern in his eyes. "You okay, dude?" he asked, getting an offhanded grunt in response. "Alright, so...?"

"I... I don't know," Toby admitted after a moment's pause, not looking back up at them. "I mean... as far as I'm aware, I don't think I know that song. But it just... I don't want to say it sounds familiar, but it's... just... I don't know if I can really explain it too well. It's like I'm sure I do know it somehow. But at the same time," he went on, looking completely baffled by his own words, "I'm also sure I know I don't know it... like I shouldn't know it, and I'm pretty sure I've never heard it in my life, but... I don't know. I'm just rambling in circles, I think. Sorry." He grimaced and shook his head, running a hand through his hair in frustration.

Heartbeat picking up again, Kasey eyed Toby hopefully. "Well, we—we think maybe Ben's been trying to communicate with you during those dreams, then... that maybe the same thing's going on with him, and... he's trying to reach out to you or—or something like that."

"And if he's trying to reach out to me in my dreams," Toby went on softly, looking so pensive that the other two could almost hear the gears turning in his head, "and if Uncle Ozzie might've heard me humming that song while I was asleep..."

"...Then you'd better go grab your coat, Dorothy," Chase finished with a smirk, which only grew wider when Toby let out a resigned sigh. "Because we're off to see the Wizard."

A pause followed this statement, as Kasey and Toby both slapped their hands over their faces and groaned, Toby peeking through his fingers and shaking his head in disbelief. "...I really should hurt you for that one," he responded after a moment, eyebrows raised. "But I think I'll let Kasey do it instead, so I can go get ready."

"Awesome! Can we leave him with Wizard?" Kasey called after him, getting a muffled "Okay!" as Toby disappeared into the back. Finding himself feeling a bit more at ease now, he grinned over at an indifferent-looking Chase afterward. "Sorry, but you brought that one on yourself. But hey, at least you'll live closer to work."

Waving dismissively, Chase scoffed. "Haters gonna hate, dude. Besides, no way in hell I'm becoming roomies with the crazy druid up there. He'll probably snip off bits of my hair while I'm asleep so he can brew some kind of 'Kill Chase' potion or something. Or worse, a 'Make Chase's Cooking Suck' potion."

"Oh, God forbid," Kasey returned dryly, highly doubting that Chase would ever actually drink anything Wizard offered him in the first place. His face then lit up when Toby returned a moment later, bundled up in his dark green hoodie. "Hey! So, uhh... you ready to go?" He jabbed his thumb towards the front door, where Chase was already resting his hand on the knob.

Scrunching up his nose a bit, Toby gave a little shrug and an awkward grin in response. "As I'll ever be, I guess," he agreed, letting out a nervous laugh and joining Chase and Kasey as they turned to head outside into the heavy snowfall. "I'm just... after what happened to you that one time, I guess I'm just kind of... worried."

"Hey, don't sweat it," Chase assured him, patting him on the shoulder. "That creepy asshole tries to knock you out, we'll knock him out."

"And it was probably just because of the heat that one time, anyway," Kasey added, shrugging as well, and giving Toby a disarming smile. Neither noticed as Chase watched curiously from his spot behind them. "So unless he's set his house on fire to keep warm, you should hopefully be okay. Buuuut... you like to take naps anyway, right?" he went on, eyes twinkling. "So, if you pass out... free nap!"

Despite his face going slightly pink at Kasey addressing him, Toby chuckled quietly as they carefully made their way up the steps to the Ocarina Inn, the warm light from within casting soft, yellow glows over the trio. "Ah, good point. Well, then, merry Christmas to me. I've always wanted a free nap."

"Yeah, that shit gets expensive," Chase deadpanned, casting a sideways glance to the distant, shadowed entrance to Ben's cave. Thick icicles hung over the frosted mouth like long, jagged teeth, stretching low to the ground, and the snow already looked like it would reach nearly up to their knees. "Crap. We're probably gonna need a shovel to get to that damn thing if we have to go back in there, especially with how bad it's gotten now."

Biting at his lower lip for a moment, Toby's hopeful gaze flicked up to Wizard's house, gradually bobbing closer and closer to them as they gingerly trekked up the stairs by the clinic. "Well... hopefully we won't have to wait too much longer to-whoops!" He cut himself off in mid-sentence as Kasey slipped on the step ahead of him, left hand clutching at the railing while Toby grabbed the right one to help steady him. "Are you alright?"

"Y-yeah," Kasey replied, smiling gratefully at him after he'd regained his balance. "Just slipped, don't wor—err... heh." He cleared his throat as he realized exactly what was going on, and chuckled weakly, his face hot enough to make him momentarily forget how cold it was outside. For a second, he found himself wishing their gloves weren't in the way. "Uhh, th-thank you."

A moment passed before it dawned on Toby as well, and he jerked his tingling hand away as though Kasey had crushed it, instead stuffing both hands into the pockets of his hoodie and clearing his throat. "Yeah, sure thing... no problem..." They both averted their gazes, and Toby found his own face blazing to match Kasey's. Calm down, he chided himself, feeling his heartbeat pick up a little bit. You're acting like a teenager. You've got more important things to worry about. Silently, he hoped Chase would wait until later to start grilling them—he could practically feel his friend's gaze boring into the back of his head as they finally reached Wizard's door, Kasey quickly striding forward to rap on it. Exchanging a quick, awkward grin with Kasey as they waited, Toby let out a nervous cloud of breath that curled around and snaked through the thick sheet of snowflakes, looking at the gentle amber glow in the windows with mild interest while the lock rasped from the other side.

Kasey was almost surprised to notice that when the door swung open and Wizard greeted them with the usual cool stare, his heart didn't try to jump out of his throat at the sight of the yellow eye. Hands in his jeans pockets, he bowed his head politely at Wizard as they were ushered inside without a word, as usual. The house was surprisingly warm and cozy, a cheerful fire crackling in a stone fireplace at the back of the house, and candles flickering dimly in ornate sconces on the walls. The pleasant heat once again wafted the tantalizing scent of dried spices, roots, and meats around the house from their hooks on the ceiling, leaving the three boys thankful that they'd already eaten dinner earlier.

Settling down on the same worn couch as before, with Toby right in the middle and drumming his hands on the knees of his sweatpants, Kasey cleared his throat and waved meekly at Wizard. "Err... hey. Thanks for, uhh... for seeing us so late. Hope we didn't interrupt anything."

Wizard gave a small nod in return. "Of course not... circumstances being what they are." As he spoke, his cryptic gaze fixed on Toby, who let out a deep breath and smiled at him. "On the verge... of great discovery..."

"Right," Chase muttered, eyeing the fortune teller shrewdly, arms folded over his chest. "So we're all already on the same page, then? Got the gist of why we're here?"

"Of course," Wizard responded, a slight trace of what might have been amusement in his voice. "Forgotten dreams... haunting your friend... haunting Benjamin..." Much like the first time they'd visited, a strange energy began to emanate from him, thrumming about the room. "Therefore... we will need to—"

"Err, wait," Toby interrupted, an uncomfortable expression on his face as he rubbed at one temple with the heel of his hand. "Sorry for interrupting, Mr. Wizard, but... ahhh..." His eyes briefly flicked over to Kasey—who gave him a reassuring nod—and he chuckled sheepishly. "...Well... am I going to pass out when you do this? I'd just like to be prepared, is all..."

"Seriously, you might wanna warn people before you pull that kinda stuff again," Chase agreed, laying his hand protectively on Toby's shoulder.

With a weary sigh, Wizard shook his head. "It shall be fine. The process... normally does not cause... complete loss of consciousness. Generally... one enters a trance. Kasey's collapse... he correctly attributes... to the severe heat." Letting his eyes slide shut, he took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and folded his hands in his lap. "Put yourself at ease. I shall simply comb through your subconscious... for answers..."

Cringing a bit at this and hoping Wizard wouldn't run across anything particularly personal—or, at least, that he wouldn't say anything about it—Toby let himself relax, eased a little by Chase and Kasey's support. The world around him seemed to strip and melt away into darkness, though he could still hear the soothing crackling from the fireplace, feel the weight and warmth of the other two boys on the couch next to him, and take in the pleasant aromas wafting about the room.

Soon, shapes and colors began to blur and focus before him, emerging from the darkness as surreal, extremely vivid scenes playing for short snippets at a time. Memories both real and imagined, an amalgamation of different sounds and emotions rolling over him—pain, grief, peace, lust, happiness, helplessness, confusion, curiosity, brief flashes of intense anger. Each one jarred his mind and made him slightly nauseous with how sharply they veered into the next. A few familiar dreams in particular stood out to him—some causing his face to flame in sheer embarrassment, some causing his throat to tighten and his heart to hurt—until he found himself floating high above the sparkling, indigo sea.

"...I believe we have found him," Wizard spoke, his voice coming clear, steady, and strong into a startled Toby's mind. "Where Benjamin has tried to reach out to you..."

Looking around and seeing a strangely familiar sky he couldn't quite recall—blazing vermilion and streaked with gray stripes of cloud—Toby swallowed hard. "He's here, then? But, I don't see anyo—oh!" With a start, he looked down—he'd been slowly descending as he spoke, and when his boot-clad feet touched down on a rough rock set out in the middle of the water, Toby blinked in surprise at... Toby. Cocking his head to the side at the sight, he noticed his double was reclining happily, and seemed completely unaware of the real Toby's presence. Or whatever I am here, he mused, sitting down next to the dream Toby and following his gaze skyward. "...It's really pretty here," he uttered aloud, wondering what exactly he was supposed to be waiting for. Next to him, the other Toby hugged his knees to his chest and shivered a bit, his hair blowing slightly in a chilly gust that seemed to ignore the impossibly glassy surface of the water. "And cold, too. So... is Ben supposed to be here soon...?"

"We will see," Wizard's voice responded patiently. "We must take note of how he calls out to you. I believe his arrival is impending... very soon..."

"Toby..."

His breath catching in his throat, Toby sat up, hearing his double hum in confusion next to him. From the corner of his eye, he spotted the other Toby leaning over the edge of the rock. The sight made him a little nervous, though he soon mimicked the position when he heard his name again.

"Toby... it's been such a long time, hasn't it? You've grown so much..."

His heart began hammering wildly at the sound of the man's voice—one he could barely even remember, yet he knew somewhere deep inside him that there was nobody else it could be. The woman's voice that followed only strengthened his suspicions:

"We're so, so sorry, sweetheart. We never wanted to leave you without saying goodbye..."

Feeling his throat grow tight as the wind whipped past him harder, Toby observed his distraught reflection on the smooth layer of ice freezing over the sea and swallowed hard. "I-I know... you don't need to apologize. I know what happened... I'm so sorry. I could never, ever blame you for that. I just miss you guys," he finished, his voice breaking slightly as he reached out to press a hand against the ice. He was only faintly aware of everything else around him at this point—the other Toby asking who was there, the sounds of a melody, Wizard speaking to him—but he ignored it all, only wanting to keep talking to his parents, despite how high his voice was getting as he started rambling: "And... and I love you, and I'll do my best to look after Uncle Ozzie, Mom. I know he misses you, too, and Dad, and Aunt Mia—and I wish you guys could've met Paolo... he's such a good kid. Tell Aunt Mia, alright? I know she'd be really proud of him."

"Toby," Wizard's voice cut in calmly, only for Toby to shake his head and wipe at his eyes with his sleeve.

"No, please—I just... a little longer," he begged, running his hand through his hair. He knew now that he hasn't trembling from the cold anymore, and the Toby beside him had vanished, leaving him kneeling alone on the rock. The sea was now quiet around him, even as previously-unnoticed snowflakes fell heavily from a sky smothered with thick clouds. Still, he kept on, trying to pull himself together: "Please watch over us. Please watch over Castanet, because things are just really crazy here right now. And there's someone really cool here who's helping us out, but things are just... such a mess, and... I—"

"Toby," Wizard repeated, more insistent now, and causing Toby to fall silent—only then did he realize that his parents' voices had gone quiet as well, leaving only his desperate voice echoing across the snow-flecked water. "I am sorry... but they are no longer here. Their presence faded away when the dream ended... we must go now."

Blinking away the sting in his eyes, Toby cleared his throat and sat back, shaking his head. A small, sad smile tugged at his lips. "No... it's fine. I should've figured... sorry I wasn't listening," he added softly, face pulling into a frown. He thought he could hear Kasey and Chase's voices calling to him now, though they were muffled and distant. "I hope I didn't mess this up for you."

There was a slight pause, before Wizard's voice responded: "It is fine. I believe I have acquired what we need... now, let us leave this place."

"Wait—before we go," Toby called, getting to his feet and looking out to the sea once more, "I just... I want to ask you something. Can..." He bit at his lower lip and felt the tightness in his throat relax a little. "Did... do you think that was... really them? That maybe... they really heard me?"

There was another pause as the dreamscape began to slip away into darkness once more, and Wizard's voice was apologetic when he finally answered: "I'm afraid I cannot say for certain. I felt a presence... but whether or not it was truly them, or simply part of your dream, is hard to tell. Please do not despair..."

Toby shook his head, about to assure Wizard that he was alright, when the man's house suddenly blurred back into view before his very eyes—he jolted upright with a startled gasp, causing Kasey and Chase to jump next to him. Vaguely aware of Kasey's hand laying atop his, but too distracted to really pay it much attention, he looked to both of them and smiled ruefully as he calmed down. "Sorry if I scared you guys—we just got back from... errr, wherever it was we went." He shrugged. "In my head, I suppose."

Eyebrows knitting together, Chase eyed him keenly, arms still folded over his chest. His gaze flicked over to Wizard for a moment, eyes narrowing distrustfully, before turning back to Toby and softening. "Shit... must've been crazy, huh? What the hell'd he do to you in there?"

"Are you alright?" Kasey chimed in, trying to discreetly unlace his gloved fingers from Toby's, and going slightly pink when Toby looked at him in confusion. "Y-you're not... you're not hurt or anything?"

Even more puzzled, Toby shook his head, trying to figure out if he'd said or done anything odd, or if perhaps he somehow looked any different than usual. "I'm fine, thank you... I didn't mean to worry you guys. It's—" He paused, suddenly very aware of the feeling of slight moisture around his eyes, and he uttered a quiet, awkward laugh as he wiped at them again. Or perhaps for the first time—he wasn't quite sure what to make of what had just happened in his head. "I'm fine now," he finished lamely, shaking his head, and seeing the skeptical looks on their faces. "Really, you don't have to worry about me," he insisted, before turning to the man sitting across from them in an attempt to redirect their attentions and get things moving again. "So... you said you got what you were looking for, right, Mr. Wizard?"

With three pairs of eyes now observing him, Wizard nodded slowly, raising his right hand—none of them had noticed until now that his fingertips were glowing with a gently-pulsing blue light. "It would seem so. I believe we may have... retrieved the final key..."

Eyes lighting up hopefully, Kasey leaned forward slightly, as if taking a closer look would tell him anything further. "R-really?! Okay, so... so you're absolutely sure, right?"

Instead of answering directly, Wizard just closed his eyes and furrowed his brow, raising his hand higher into the air. The room seemed to start pulsing weakly, and faint music began to sound from all around them—a deep, rich, hauntingly familiar melody that seemed to swell up from the depths of the sea outside, washing over them in calming waves that gradually lowered the temperature in the house until it was pleasantly cool. In his peripheral vision, Kasey noticed that Chase's eyes were so wide they almost looked like they were about to pop out of their sockets. When the music ebbed away into silence, leaving only the crackling from the fireplace to fill the room, Wizard lowered his hand and looked over at the trio with what appeared to be the barest hint of a triumphant smirk. "...I am absolutely sure, yes," he finally answered, the glow still pulsing on his fingertips.

It took Kasey a moment to work his gaping jaw in an attempt to form words, before giving up and letting out an elated cackle instead. "YES!" he crowed after finding his voice again, pumping his fist in the air and—forgetting himself in his excitement—pulling Toby into an absurdly tight hug, rattling him like a maraca. "That—that's it! We've got it! We've got it! YES! We—ah..." Suddenly realizing what he was doing, he quickly let go and turned away, face red and hoping nobody would ask any questions. Wizard, at least, seemed to be completely impassive to it all. "S-sorry, err... I-I, uhh, I didn't mean—"

"I'm... fine," Toby assured him, looking away and scratching at the side of his flushed nose. His hair was slightly messier than usual now, following his impromptu shakedown. "Don't worry about it."

Still coming down from his shock at what he'd just witnessed Wizard doing, Chase blinked and gave his head a hard shake to jar it back to earth—he hadn't even noticed what was going on with the two boys next to him. "Holy fuck, okay—you know what, actually?" He held his hands up in surrender. "Not even gonna question it anymore. Nope. I mean, you just went into Toby's head to pull that thing out, for fuck's sake. I think I should be getting used to weird shit like this by now. So," he went on, eyebrows raised at Wizard, "is that it? Is that bell back on track, or what? Because I didn't bring my flute, but if I need to, I can go snag it and play this song in the cave..."

"Not quite..." The light finally began to move away from Wizard's fingertips, coalescing into a small ball in his palm that hummed and swirled around. "We have recovered his song... but he still does not possess it. His spirit... while able to reach out to those nearby... resides within the bell. This essential part of his being... must be returned directly to him..." With these words, he casually flicked the ball of light in Kasey's direction like he was just tossing a set of car keys to someone—causing Kasey to let out a startled yelp and fumble to catch it, cupping it gingerly in his hands as though he were afraid of crushing or dropping it. A bright, blue-white flash flared out from between his palms, illuminating the worn leather for a brief moment, and then the light was gone.

"Buh—?!" Kasey sputtered eloquently, opening his now-empty hands and looking at them in confusion. Turning his gaze back up to Wizard, his eyebrows knit wordlessly. Inside his head, he could hear the faint strains of the melody repeating, and see flashes of a surreal, colorful ocean.

"You must... return it to him," Wizard repeated, his expression calm and patient. "While Toby held the song in his subconscious... and Ben tried to reach him in his dreams... only you may communicate directly with the sages... in the waking world..."

Feeling Toby and Chase's curious stares on him, Kasey gulped. "O-okay, but... how—how do I...?"

"You simply return to the bell..." Raising his hand, Wizard held his palm out in demonstration, a ghostly image of the blue bell shimmering against it, "...and press your hand to it. The music... shall then reach his spirit..."

"So, what're we waiting on, then?" Chase spoke up, watching Kasey nod and observe his own hand thoughtfully. "Let's go get the key and shut off that damn snow, already! C'mon, Kasey!"

"Huh? Oh!" Shaking his head roughly, Kasey stood up from the couch and nodded, looking like he was suddenly unsure of what to do with his hands. "R-right... thanks, Wizard! Well, I hope Mayor Hamilton doesn't mind us disturbing him this late..."

"Don't worry—he should understand, given the circumstances," Toby mused, stretching as he and Chase also rose from the couch and thanked Wizard, turning to leave as the fortune teller murmured his goodbyes to them.

Back out in the snow, Chase frowned up at the darkened sky and shivered. Around them, the drifts seemed to have piled up far higher than they should have, and even with almost no wind to blow them about, the flurries gusted and swirled around rapidly. If not for the glowing of the streetlights and windows, and Harmonica Town's generally compact layout, they would have only barely been able to make out the Hamiltons' house just across the street, with as heavily as it was snowing. "Okay, is it just me, or does it seem like it's gotten a lot worse since we went in there?" he asked darkly, turning around and crouching to get a better look at the cave entrance one level down from Wizard's house—as expected, the drifts there were now much higher as well, spilling over onto the frozen water below. "Geez... we're gonna need to get the key and a shovel, at this rate..."

"...Or..." Toby piped up, rubbing his chin in thought and drawing the attention of the other two, "if it's getting this bad this fast... why don't we just save ourselves a little time?" As he spoke, he crouched down next to Chase and eyed the path below as well with a little smile—it wasn't that far below them normally, and the drifts had piled up enough to give them a softened landing. "After all, with how slippery the streets are, we'll be slowed down going to their house, and Town Hall, and back here. So..."

Cutting Toby a glance from the corner of his eye, Chase's eyebrow rose in confusion. "Uhh, Toby, what are y—hey!" A startled yelp escaped his mouth in a heavy cloud as Toby hopped over the side of the wall, landing with a muffled flump and a soft grunt on the drift below. With Kasey now peering down at him in surprise as well, Chase shook his head at the sight of Toby facedown in the snow. "Jesus, dude, what the fuck?! You almost gave me a heart attack!"

With a bit of effort due to the deep drift, Toby groaned and rolled over onto his back, sitting up slowly. He spat out a mouthful of snow and brushed some more off of his frostbitten face. "I'm... f-f-fine," he assured them, though his teeth were chattering slightly. "C-c'mon, we can g-get around the g-g-gate this w-way!"

"The hell's gotten into you?" Chase muttered, rolling his eyes and letting out a disgusted sigh. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you just wanted to do that for the hell of it. In case you forgot, we actually do need to still unlock the door to the cave..."

"Yes, and I've already thought about that," Toby responded evenly. "I'll tell you when you get down here."

"Tch... pain in the ass."

Next to Chase, Kasey let out a relieved breath and shrugged, dropping down to sit on the edge of the wall before sliding off and landing on his feet near where Toby was. Holding out a hand to help Toby up, he grinned and shook his head in disbelief. "Man, you are nuts... so, what's the plan, then?" Kasey asked, quickly pulling his hand back once Toby got to his feet and steadied himself.

Looking pleased by the remark, Toby glanced up and gestured impatiently for Chase to join them. "Well, when Chase hurries up and gets down here, too—"

"—Yeah, yeah," Chase cut in, dropping down next to them much in the same way Kasey had. Being taller than them, he didn't have as far to fall. "Go on, you brat."

Toby's smile widened, and he reached out to casually pluck a bobby pin from Chase's hair, ignoring the annoyed "Hey!" that followed. "...We're going to just use one of these to pick the lock," he finished, before shrugging awkwardly. "Well... provided it hasn't frozen up, anyway."

Tucking the freed locks of hair back with an exasperated sigh, Chase shook his head and started trudging through the snow after Toby. "Well, we're already down here—might as well."

"Sounds like a good plan to me," Kasey agreed readily as he followed them, before giving a defensive shrug when Chase shot a knowing look his way. "Sh-shut up! It does."

Chase smirked at this. "Yeah, see—I didn't say anything, now did I?"

"Anything about what?" Toby called from in front of them, ducking under a few of the shorter icicles hanging from the mouth of the cave and smacking his head hard on one. "Ow, shit!" he hissed, clenching his teeth and grimacing. "Son of a bitch, that hurt..."

Eyes wide with shock at Toby's language, Kasey lost his footing in his distraction and slipped on the ice, grabbing onto one of the icicles to stop himself from skidding face-first into them. Blinking disbelievingly while he righted himself, he shook his head and tried to hold back a surprised snort. "Wow. Ummm... are—are you... alright?"

"I am, thanks," Toby responded with a little bit of shame in his voice, still rubbing the side of his head and wincing as he made his way over to the cave door. The snow and ice hadn't gotten in far beyond the icicles yet, making the rocky ground much safer for them to walk on. Testing the padlock with his free hand, he cocked his head to the side. "Well... it feels pretty cold, but hopefully..."

"Yeah," Chase explained to Kasey, snickering as he watched Toby bend the bobby pin and get to work, "Toby's kind of a pottymouth when he gets hurt. Kathy tells me he used to cuss even worse than Ozzie, too. Probably where he got it from. Wish I could've moved here sooner and seen that."

"I was never that bad," Toby protested, continuing to work the pin around in the keyhole. "Besides, I pretty much cut it out after Paolo started learning how to talk... I didn't want him picking up that stuff from me. Though I'm amazed you haven't been a worse influence on me..."

"Me?!" Chase's voice held a tone of mock-indignation. "C'mon, dude, I'm not that ba—okay, fine, am that bad," he conceded, holding up his hands in surrender when Kasey and Toby both turned to shoot him incredulous looks. "Yeah, yeah—but Kasey's just as bad as me, you know!"

"I am not!" Kasey protested, giving Chase a light shove on the shoulder. And then, immediately proving Chase's point: "Sheesh, you dick!"

"Not really helping yourself out there, dude," Chase pointed out blandly, shoving Kasey back.

"He hasn't had five years to corrupt me yet," Toby added almost at the same time, laughing quietly at the exchange as he went back to work. "Besides, Miss Irene says swearing actually helps relieve pain when you injure yourself, thank you very much... boy, this lock really doesn't like me," he went on, starting to sound somewhat impatient. "Come on already..."

Chase didn't look convinced by Toby's bit of medical trivia. "Uh huh. And hey, while we're on the subject of you two... oh, come on!" he groaned when Toby suddenly stopped working at the lock again, and a wide-eyed Kasey looked to him in alarm and made cutting motions across his throat. "That's really not helping things look less suspicious, you know. Indulge my nosiness, huh? You—" he jabbed a finger at Kasey, who groaned and smacked himself on the forehead, "—suck at hiding anything, and you—" Now, it was Toby's turn, "—well... you don't suck at hiding things, but considering this definitely involves him—" And back to Kasey, "—that's kind of a moot point. I'm not gonna go around skywriting it or anything, but seriously. What exactly is going on with you guys all of a sudden?"

Uttering an exasperated sigh, Toby looked over to a red-cheeked Kasey with questioning eyes, getting a resigned shrug in response. Returning the shrug, he cleared his throat and went back to work on the lock. "Boy, you are nosy... fine. Kasey and I are kind of... ummm... I mean, we haven't actually... well, it's sort of what it kind of looks like, is all," he finished lamely, face burning.

"Real eloquent," Chase responded dryly after a moment of silence, giving a dismissive wave at the news—though there was a bit of surprise still evident on his face at actually having his suspicions confirmed. "Relax, Toby, I'm cool with it. Just wondering if you guys were gonna expect me to pussyfoot around it, is all."

"W-well... now you know," Kasey mumbled in embarrassment, palm over his face. He almost wanted to retort by asking Chase if he'd even asked Renee out yet while he was being so damn straightforward, but thought better of it. "Congratulations."

"Yeah, likewise."

"Sorry I didn't say anything before," Toby added over his shoulder as he continued fiddling with the padlock, though his previously-tensed shoulders were now slumped in relief. "I was going to say something to you, but I just—ah, here we go!" A loud click echoed through the mouth of the cave as he finally managed to work it open, tugging at the padlock a few times with a strained grunt before it finally loosened enough to allow him to slip it off. "Ah, I got it! Yes! Wow, this thing was really stuck fast..."

"Awesome job," Kasey said happily, running over to Toby's side when the other boy beckoned him and Chase to help shove the door open. To Kasey, it seemed to take a lot longer to do than when he and Gill had come by a few weeks earlier, perhaps owing to the cold. That, or Gill was a hell of a lot stronger than Kasey had given him credit for.

When the groaning and scraping sounds of the door opening were interrupted by a loud clang and the sound of something falling and shattering, the three boys stopped and exchanged puzzled looks, Kasey deciding to take a deep breath and slip into the cave first. He stopped short just as Chase and Toby followed him, letting their eyes adjust—though it was dark outside, there was an eerie blue light pulsing gently throughout the cave similar to the color of the magic Wizard had generated earlier, though there was no apparent source visible. Jagged icicles hung from the ceiling and thick piles of snow had settled around the foggy cave, all cast in the dim glow. The small pond behind the bell post was frozen solid, and in the center, Ben's bell lay covered in a thick, heavy coat of ice.

"Fuck," Chase breathed, rubbing his hands together rapidly and hunching in on himself—it was far, far colder in the cave than it was outside. "What the hell happened here?"

"Are we... too late?" Toby added, his voice sounding slightly choked through his shivering. "I-is... is Ben...?"

Staring blankly at the bell as if in a trance, Kasey made his way over to it and shook his head, mouth working soundlessly to form words. He couldn't hear Ben at all—couldn't even sense him. Placing his hand gingerly on the bell, he ran it over the rough layer of ice, feeling his throat tighten. "We can't be," he finally whispered, his voice hoarse. "No, he... Wizard would have sensed it... he wouldn't have..."

Unsure of what to do, Chase swallowed and let out a disappointed sigh. "Kasey... c'mon, man..."

"No," Kasey snapped insistently, not turning around. He continued running his hands over the ice, as if trying to search out some weak point, some way to break it off. Bracing himself he gave the bell a push—gentle, at first, experimental. It remained locked firmly in place. Then another push, and another, and more still—eventually, he was pushing and straining against it like it was a large boulder, or a massive truck, pressing his back against it and trying to find some momentum with his feet. He didn't notice when Toby rushed over and joined him in pushing, their joint effort nonetheless finding no more success.

"Ben!" Kasey pleaded desperately, continuing to try despite how sore his limbs were getting. He felt his left glove slip off a little, and a shock rippled through his body as the heel of his hand pressed against the ice. "W-wake up or... or thaw out or something, please! You can't leave Castanet like this, Ben! We... we just got your song back—damn it, you can't mess with us like this!"

"You wanted us to help you," Toby added in a strained voice, grunting as he threw his weight against the bell once more. "I'm sorry it took so long for us to figure it out, Ben, but please let us help you... please don't go..."

Rooted to his vantage point and feeling helpless as he watched Toby and Kasey struggle fruitlessly, Chase's foot tapped anxiously, and he gnawed at his lower lip. Just as he was about to do something—go to try and help them or tell them to give it up, he wasn't even certain—a strange sight over by the bottom of the bell caught his eye.

"Kasey," he called, getting an impatient shake of the head in response.

"Chase, I'm not going to leave—"

"No—your hand, dumbass!" Chase snapped irritably, holding up his own left hand and pointing at it in demonstration. "Look at it!"

Eyes popping open in confusion, Kasey slackened in his pushing and held up the aforementioned hand, surprise overcoming his features as he noticed the pale blue glow shining from beneath where the glove had ridden up. Toby took notice as well and stopped what he was doing, turning back to look at the bell, and then again to Kasey's hand. He could see the light cast against Kasey's back.

"Kasey," he urged quietly, touching his shoulder. "Look—the bell..."

From beneath the icy shell, the blue glow of the bell bounced dimly off of the walls of the cavern, refracted further by the icicles and reflecting in Kasey's wide eyes. Peeling his left glove off fully, he pressed his now-bare palm against the ice once more, wincing at how incredibly cold it was and wanting to jerk his hand back instantly.

The sound of faint, weak breathing stopped him from doing so, and he remained fixed in place as the familiar voice resonated within his mind:

"...Don't leave me, Kasey... I haven't given up..."

"B-Ben?!" Kasey gasped, the glow beginning to grow stronger between the bell and his hand. The distant notes started to ring far in the mists of his memory, and the same blue light as before suffused his body. "Ben, I—I'm sorry I made you do this, I—"

"Neither of us knew this would happen," Ben interrupted warmly, the ringing becoming clearer as he spoke. Rivulets of water began dripping down the frozen bell, and off of the icicles on the ceiling. "And you... working so hard to save Sephia's home... our home, the land we all created and love, a land you barely know... you have no need to apologize..."

Even as Ben spoke, as the ice began to chip and drip away with tiny chunks cracking off and sliding down to the floor, Kasey felt an incredibly sharp chill began to creep through his veins. It was as if each blood cell was individually freezing up, coursing throughout his body to spread the sensation further. He grunted and squeezed his eyes shut against the pain, causing Toby to call his name in alarm and grab his shoulder.

"N-no," he managed roughly, gasping as the chill spread to his lungs. The music in his head grew louder and louder, and the glow was illuminating the cavern so brightly now, it was as though the full moon was shining directly over them. He found now that even if he wanted to pull his hand away, he couldn't—and Toby was trying to do exactly that, with no luck. The bell was still completely immobile, and Kasey's palm seemed almost fused to it. "I-I c-c-can't let g-go, Toby... I... i-it's... it's alm-m-most d-d-d-done..."

Shaking his head hopelessly, Toby looked over to Chase in fright—Kasey's skin was beyond pale and starting to take on a faint blue hue now, and though the ice had almost entirely melted away from the bell and the cavern walls by this point, he looked as though he was absorbing all of the cold into his body somehow. "God... he's freezing! Go find Jin," Toby ordered shakily, his voice wavering as his eyes briefly flicked back to Kasey. When Chase didn't move, he felt his nerves and his patience fray, trying to keep himself from outright losing it. "CHASE!" he shouted, his echoing voice cracking with the unfamiliar force and shocking Chase out of his stupor. "GET JIN! NOW!"

"R-right!" Chase stammered, beginning to stumble back towards the entrance of the cave, before Kasey's voice stopped him:

"I-I... d-d-don't n-need... J-J-Jin... AHH!" Whimpering at the sensation of what felt like ice forming around his heart, Kasey cried out and slumped against the bell, clutching at his chest with his other hand. Panting heavily at the pain, he was only vaguely aware of the perspiration that coated his skin beginning to freeze over as well, and each labored breath produced large clouds that never completely went away before the next one came. He didn't even notice as Chase bolted out of the cavern despite his words, or when Toby peeled off his hoodie to drape around Kasey in a futile effort to warm him up, arm around his shoulder and voice babbling shaky reassurances into his ear in the absence of any other possible ways to help:

"I'm—I'm right here, Kasey, it's okay... just don't stop listening to me, okay? Can you hear me?"

Gritting his teeth and biting back the urge to cry out again, Kasey found he could barely nod in response, his eyes squeezed shut. "Y-yeah..."

"Good... I know it hurts but—but just keep listening to me, alright? Don't think about it—just... just listen to my voice. I'm right here, you're going to be fine... and we're—we're going to go on our date tomorrow after this is all over, and have a great time, and get to know each other better, and—and—and you'll be just fine, okay? Please, if—if you can't let go, just... just... just keep pushing through it, okay? Just hold on..."

"Don't give up—we're nearly finished, Kasey!" Ben urged him, the music beginning to echo around the cavern now in a steady crescendo. "You'll be okay—I won't let anything happen! I won't let him hurt you!"

With a final, blinding flare of light, Ben's song reverberated forcefully off of the walls, spilling out across Castanet with an icy shockwave that knocked all the icicles from the ceiling in a deafening crash, sending tiny shards and slivers everywhere. The notes continued to sound over and over again, a deep, rich melody swelling up from the depths of the still, black, frozen sea to shatter its surface.

As Chase came scrambling back into the cave with a frantic Jin and Anissa in tow, the glow finally faded from the bell and Kasey sagged heavily against Toby, uttering a weak groan and shivering uncontrollably. He felt a strange heat spreading through his body as Toby pulled him away from the now-swinging bell, the sensation seemingly wrestling against the unbearable cold and putting him in a state of near-shock for a few agonizing moments.

"Kasey, stay with us," Toby whispered desperately, laying him down on the floor and feeling Kasey's frost-crusted hand reach up to stroke his cheek—the sheer frigidity of it almost left his skin numb, and he drew in a sharp breath as Jin crouched down beside them, his words almost completely lost to Toby's ringing ears. Looking down, his heart jumped as he noticed the small crystals of ice beading on Kasey's skin. "Oh, God. Thank you so much, Jin—Kasey, we're getting you out of here, now, alright? So just stay with us..."

"'m r-right here, m-m-man," Kasey assured him, his voice ragged as he licked his blue-tinted lips and mustered up a feeble grin with what little energy he had left. His hand dropped limply to the ground, and his eyes slid shut. "N-n-not g-going... anyw-w-where..."

Now only vaguely aware of the sensation of being once again lifted and carried out of a cave while he mumbled deliriously to himself amidst his friends' panicked voices, Kasey thought he could feel Toby's hand reaching up to clasp his shaking, uncovered one. Something warm sparked in his weakened heart, and he squeezed Toby's hand back as tight as he could, using every bit of his willpower to hang on.

Chapter Text

Everything was a chaotic blur of colors, sensations, and sounds—all whirring by him and through him, hurtling past in every which direction. Excruciating cold and searing heat exploded back and forth throughout his body in unbearable shockwaves, freezing and burning his nerves amid panicked shouts and terse commands.

"—Must begin right away, before—"

Another shock of burning pain drew a faint scream from somewhere far away, and he felt a vague piercing sensation in his chest.

"—Happening, is he hurt?!"

Nausea and roiling heat, bitter chills and sharp spikes tearing him apart from within, intense surges of heart-rending fear, confusion, exhaustion, bright flashes of searing light and deafening roars, a pressing sensation suffocating him from all sides—

"—Breathing! What did you do to him?!"

Vaguely aware of his name being shouted through a howling tempest, he tried to yell back, only for no sound to escape. He couldn't move, couldn't speak, no matter how badly he wanted to—all he could do was feel what seemed to be waves of fire flaring throughout his body over and over again, searing away the cold... and the odd sense that he was simultaneously drifting and being crushed by a strange sort of pressure.

"—Understand, but we can't have—"

Despite all of this, he couldn't bring himself to want to die. He just wanted to be able to do something about it all.

------------------------

Another strained yell sounded from behind the closed door, causing Anissa to jump and involuntarily tug on her thumbnail with her teeth, wincing as it tore. Stopping her pacing as she picked at the now-ragged nail, she looked around the otherwise-quiet front room of the clinic. Chase, looking almost as white as the snow outside, was hunched over in a chair by the entrance to the clinic, fingers laced between his knees and anxious eyes fixed on the door to the infirmary, behind which Kasey was being treated by Jin and Wizard. Toby, meanwhile, leaned in a corner by the infirmary door, eyes closed, arms folded over his chest, and his breathing slow and measured. He swallowed hard and clenched his jaw when Kasey cried out again, though he didn't open his eyes.

As much as it killed them inside to hear Kasey screaming in pain as Wizard worked to undo the damage caused by the internal freezing, they all couldn't help but admit to themselves that it was better than silence—it at least meant for certain that he was back with them.

The sound of a door creaking open caused them all to look up abruptly—and slump in mild disappointment when they realized it had been the door behind the counter. Irene emerged, carrying a few mugs and a steaming kettle on a tray, and looking extremely tired. "I made plenty of tea, if anyone's thirsty," she offered quietly, setting the tray down on the counter and pouring herself a mug with shaking hands. "And there's some milk and honey here, too. It's chamomi—"

Irene's words were cut off by yet another yell from the infirmary and the sound of something shattering, causing her to swear and stumble backwards. The kettle swung about wildly and splashed more tea on the floor. "Damn it!" she hissed again, slamming the kettle down and running her hands through her hair in frustration as Chase sprang up from his chair, heading over with Anissa to help clean up the mess. "Thank you, both of you."

"It's fine," Chase muttered, pouring her another mug—though his hands were hardly any steadier than Irene's. She took the proffered mug with another "Thank you," and Chase looked down to where Anissa was sweeping up the shattered ceramic into a dustpan. "You want some?"

Anissa nodded tiredly, taking the dish towel Irene had brought out and waving off the protests. She began to mop up the spilled tea. "Sure, thanks."

"Yep, no prob." Setting Anissa's mug on the counter, Chase then directed his gaze across the room, sighing heavily at the sight of Toby staring blankly ahead. "How about you, Toby? ...Toby?" he repeated after a moment of silence, finally getting a slight shake of the head in response. "You sure?" A nod. Chase sipped at his tea and sighed again. "...You gonna talk to us, man?"

More silence, until Toby finally cleared his throat and shrugged, looking back down at the floor and closing his eyes again. "...I'm fine," he responded after a moment, his tone calm and genial, despite his body language and the tension of the situation. Still, the others could detect a faint edge to his voice that would've given him away even without the obvious signs to help them out. Biting at his lower lip, he spared a brief glance at the door. "...It's gotten really quiet in there..."

The other three turned their gazes over to the door now, troubled thoughts whirling in each of their own minds as they mulled over the implications of this. Toby shook his head and looked back at the floor as he went on:

"I mean—don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I like hearing him screaming in pain like he's been doing. But now I don't hear anything in there, not even them talking, and hearing something from him would be better than nothing, right? I mean, after what happened earlier—"

It took Toby a few moments after his distressed babbling had suddenly cut off for him to realize just why it had, finding that Anissa had come over to hug him, and was now rubbing soothing circles on his back. He let out a soft exhale against her shoulder, returning the hug. "Thanks, Anissa. Sorry for freaking out, but—"

"No need for that, now," Irene assured him, bustling over with a second mug of tea and pressing it firmly into his hands when he pulled away from Anissa. Turning her eyes back to the door, Irene pressed her lips into a thin line. "They're doing all they can in there, of course... I'm afraid all we can do is just wait, and pray that—"

Once again, however, she found her words cut off—the door to the infirmary creaked open slightly, exposing Jin's face. Though he looked overall rattled by the events of the past hour and a half, he wore a slight, tired smile and sighed, adjusting his glasses. "He's resting right now, but... his vital signs are improving already. His heartbeat is still weak, but I'll keep a close eye on that; his body temperature is returning to normal; and his breathing is a little on the wheezy side, but it looks like he's going to be alright."

Uttering a relieved laugh as the others let out the breath they'd been holding, Toby pushed his hair back with a shaky hand, only now realizing how clammy his skin felt. "Thank you, Jin. I know you said he's resting, but... can we see him?" he added hopefully, giving a little smile when Jin nodded.

"I think he should be alright with a few visitors—but I had to administer some painkillers, so he'll be a bit out of it when he wakes up. While he's overall fine, whatever happened to him still caused some manner of internal damage," Jin continued, opening the door wider to let the others file past into the room, "and while Wizard was thankfully able to mend those injuries with his, ahhh... his magic—" The word fumbled clumsily off of his still-baffled tongue, as though it was actively trying to reject the concept, "—he's still quite likely to be pretty sore from them for a bit."

On the counter to the left of the door, Kasey's folded, damp clothes sat in a neat pile, along with his sneakers and Toby's hoodie. Slouched in a chair by the window, a rather sickly and disheveled-looking Wizard looked up as the others entered the room, watching them all wordlessly and giving a slight nod in greeting when Toby and Anissa looked his way.

"Umm, are you... alright?" Anissa asked Wizard slowly, gaze darting back-and-forth between Wizard and Kasey—the latter of whom had been stripped down to his A-shirt and boxers and was stirring in his bed under a pile of blankets, as if unable to decide whether or not he wanted to sleep. His ponytail was half-undone and messy, his skin was somewhat-wan now—but overall back to its usual light, olive-hued tone—and an IV drip ran into his left arm.

Rolling his shoulders and grunting, Wizard nodded slowly, blinking his baggy eyes with a great deal of effort. "It is merely... exhaustion... due to excessive use... of my magic," he explained, his speech a little more labored than usual. "Extensive healing... is a very intense... practice. Still a very new... field... for me. I required a... great deal of energy... to undo the freezing... before the damage... could get worse. I shall be fine... with a little rest..."

"Well, we can't thank you enough for what you did for Kasey," Toby told him, catching himself as he was about to give the wary-looking man a tight hug, and simply dipping into a bow instead. "And you too, Jin," he went on, turning to Jin and deciding to go for the hug this time.

"It... was pretty much all Wizard's work," Jin admitted, giving Toby a brief pat on the back and shrugging, before looking at Wizard, brows knit in concern. "Speaking of, are you absolutely sure you don't need anything? It looks like my grandmother's made tea, if you'd like. I don't... quite know the ins and outs of your powers, of course," he added, scratching at his jaw and squinting, "but I feel like you should at least eat or drink something."

Sitting in silence for a few moments, Wizard finally gave a half-hearted shrug. "True... coffee, then, please. Black. The caffeine usually... helps rejuvenate me... after I've exerted myself. I... have food... at home..."

Irene gave a short nod. "Absolutely. I'll go start a pot right now," she said, making for the door as Wizard thanked her. "You're sure that's all, then? ...Alright, it'll be just a moment."

From the bed, Kasey stirred and let out a groggy groan, squinting and rubbing his forehead as he looked around with bleary eyes. "Heyyyy there, homies," he mumbled hoarsely, pushing himself into a sitting position with his shaky arms. Jin strode over to him and set a few pillows under his back, pushing him back down gently and instructing him not to move around too much. "Aww... lame, dude. Don't be lame... did you stab my arm?" he added, scratching at the tape holding the needle in place. His voice was slow and slurred as he went on: "Shit, man... that's mean. I have to write with this arm, and now you just like... cut it like a onion. Assbutt... hole. Assbutthole."

"Well, I feel badly about that," Jin deadpanned, though the corners of his lips twitched a little. "And I'm going to need you to stop picking at that tape, alright?"

"No. Doctor... Assbutt."

Chase and Anissa snorted and exchanged amused glances with Toby at this, while Jin moved Kasey's hand away from the needle again, admonishing him not to mess with it. Shaking her head and raising an eyebrow, Anissa looked back over at Jin, feeling relieved enough to chuckle at the situation. "Well, you certainly weren't kidding when you said he'd be a bit out of it."

"Well, everything's relative, of course," Jin muttered wryly, cracking a sheepish grin at Anissa and scratching the back of his neck. "I mean, in my career as a doctor, it's a fairly typical reaction, compa—"

"Hey. Hey," Kasey interrupted with a frown, tapping Jin on the shoulder as Toby sat down on the other side of the bed, shaking his head and scooting the chair closer. "Did, uhh... Eileen just go get some food? Cause I totally want some hamburgers. Is there, like, a Wendy's here? I dunno where they'd put one," he added, looking saddened by the thought. "Like... I guess by my house? I bet there's room there. Oh my God, Dale should build one for me. Cause he's... a builder and that's his job. I bet he builds all sorts of shit. Like the Statue of Liberty, you know, and then a Wendy's next door to me."

With a decisive nod, he flopped back down against the pillows and smiled at the ceiling. "That'd... kick ass. Except if I got cows." Now, he was frowning, letting his medically-altered stream of consciousness continue to flood the room, blissfully oblivious to the sounds of Chase and Anissa starting to crack up: "They'd be like... so, soooo super pissed at me, right? 'Cause I'm eating their friends. Well, fuck them. I'm the one who's people. I'll sell them to Wendy's, too. That'll teach them." Looking over at Chase and Anissa with a pained expression, he barreled on: "But don't tell Renee, since because she might get mad since she has some of her friends that are cows. So I don't want her mad at me. Like, I think cows are cool, but if they judge me, then they're going to Cow Hell and that's their fault. And I'm going to eat them, also in Cow Hell."

Just as he opened his mouth to say something, Toby found himself making a weird choking noise instead, laughing soundlessly into his fist—while Chase didn't bother with trying to quiet himself down, plunking down into a nearby chair in hysterics. Next to him, Anissa's usual composure broke completely as she hid her red face in her hand, shoulders shaking violently.

"I'm—I'm sorry, Kasey," she managed in a squeaky voice. "We're not making fun of you, just—"

"am. Oh my God, I wish I had a camcorder right now," Chase choked out between intense giggles. "I'm—I'm seriously happy he's okay, but holy shit! What in the fuck did you give him, Jin?! Some of Luke's blood?!"

"I'm pretty sure Luke is never this calm," Toby pointed out. "Didn't Owen ever tell you about the time they tried pot? Mr. Potter had to get Luke out of a tree. And he was naked."

Chase's eyes lit up at this, and he let out another loud guffaw as Irene came in with Wizard's coffee. "No way! When was this?! Totally asking them what all happened next time I see them. I thought that stuff mellowed people out," he added, looking up at the ceiling thoughtfully and scratching his chin. "I mean, it did for me..."

"Not for me," Irene muttered darkly, drawing surprised stares from the others in the room. "...What? I grew up in the sixties. Even I've done my share of stupid things, believe it or not."

While Jin rolled his eyes and shook his head, Kasey scrunched up his face in disgust. "Whoa, did you give me pot blood? That's gross. I just really... really want some hamburgers." Turning to face Toby—who was struggling to keep a straight face and biting hard at his lower lip—Kasey clumsily stroked his cheek, before letting his arm flop back down onto the bed. "Heyyyy there, sir. Missed your big, happy face. You have such a nice face." Lifting his hand back up, he looked for a moment as though he wanted to touch Toby's face again—but instead thought better of it, letting his hand flump back onto the blankets. "It's really happy. Like, yeahhhhh, Mr. Fucking... Happy Smiles. Happy... nese. Hapanese."

"H-hey, Kasey," Toby managed, clearing his throat after another little chuckle squeaked out at that last remark. He reached out to pat Kasey's wrist, finding himself extremely thankful for the drastically lightened mood—even if it was due to Kasey being doped to the gills to help treat his injuries. With some satisfaction, he noted to himself that Kasey's skin felt a lot warmer now, as well. "Well, good thing I brought my face with me, huh? How're you feeling?"

"Well... you all look real happy, so... I'm going to look happy too," Kasey mumbled, wriggling his back against the pillows to make himself more comfortable. "Except her. And him," he added, looking over at Irene and the utterly-baffled Wizard, who accepted the coffee wordlessly. Kasey's face fell as he observed Irene's empty hands for a moment, before looking up at her confused face and pouting.

"...Can I... help you with something, young man?" Irene asked slowly, cocking her head to the side.

Kasey looked down at his hands dejectedly, then back up at Irene. "You... you didn't get my hamburger. And I was dreaming about dancing with it, and now it's gone, and... did you eat it? Did anyone tell you about it? Why?"

Irene pinched the bridge of her nose, muttering to herself: "Jesus. You just had to ask him, didn't you, Irene?"

"Chill out, Wimpy," Chase chimed in from his chair, rolling his eyes. "You put away like... eight thousand hamburgers at the bar earlier, remember?"

"Did you really need to call him a wimp, Chase?" Anissa snapped as she calmed down from her laughing fit and wiped at her eyes, cutting Chase as sharp a glare as she could—though she saw Toby shake his head and hold up his hands in a placating manner:

"Umm, I'm pretty sure Chase was talking about that one guy from Popeye."

"...Oh." Anissa's face flushed once again, and she let out an embarrassed giggle as the realization sank in. "Ohhh, right. I... forgot about him. Sorry."

"Meh." Chase waved it off. "Water, bridge."

"Eight thousand?" Kasey murmured, a few steps behind the conversation now. He slowly blinked his wide eyes. "Wow. That's too many. Did I die?"

An unpleasant silence once again fell over the room at this question, and Chase cleared his throat, chuckling awkwardly. "Uhh, weeeeell, funny you should ask that, actually... you kinda did?" He cringed and felt a chill sweep over him as he recalled the uncharacteristic panic in Jin and Wizard's voices not even an hour ago. "I mean... not permanently, and not from the hamburgers, no..."

Frowning, Kasey, looked back over at him. "Huh? So, I'm really dead then? For reals?" He groaned and pushed his hair back. "Man, that sucks. My family's gonna hate that."

"No, you're okay," Toby assured him quickly, getting a suspicious glance from Kasey in response. "You just, uhhh... well, you got hurt pretty badly, and Dr. Jin and Mr. Wizard helped fix you up—but you kind of... ummm..." He trailed off uncomfortably, glancing desperately between Jin and Irene for some help. His throat closed up at the recent memory.

Deciding to take the helm, Jin stuffed his hands in the pockets of his black slacks and looked down at Kasey with a solemn expression. "Well, it was thankfully very brief, and we were able to revive you quickly, but you... did go into cardiac arrest and succumb to your injuries for a moment, yes. And considering it has a very high mortality rate, if it weren't for Wizard, we may have lost you permanently. And rest assured," he addressed Wizard, "you have our eternal gratitude for all you've done for us tonight. If there's ever anything we can do to repay you, please don't hesitate to let us know."

Wizard sipped at his steaming coffee, savoring the taste and humming in satisfaction. He was already starting to look a little less peaky. "Of course..."

Sinking back against his pillows, Kasey let his hazy, drugged-up mind absorb this new information and pursed his lips, picking at his undershirt and grunting. "Well... that really sucks that I died and then I didn't. Because, so does that mean I'm a zombie? Because I don't wanna eat you guys' brains, cause I love you all. And that'd make me a bad friend. Like Ben." He scowled and stuck his tongue out at the mention of Ben's name. "'Cause, like, he said he won't let him hurt me, but noooo, he hurt me anyway, and I don't even know who he is. And Ben's a kid, so I bet I can ground his lying ass sooooo bad for lying to me. Like, forever, cause... I think he's dead. Don't ground me if I become a zombie, okay?" he added in a pleading tone, looking around at the bemused and baffled expressions on his friends' faces.

"We won't, don't worry," Toby said quickly, though Kasey's remarks about Ben continued to nag at his mind. Looking over to his right, he saw that Wizard seemed to be on a similar wavelength, observing Kasey pensively. "Umm, Mr. Wizard? Do you know what he might be talking about?"

"Dude, he's higher than Mt. Everest," Chase reminded him from the other side of the bed, arms folded on the back of his chair as he watched Kasey scratching at his left arm, prompting Jin to once again pull his hand away and patiently tell him to stop. "Kasey doesn't even know what the hell he's talking about, most likely."

"No," Anissa said softly, brow furrowed, "what he's saying right now makes... well, some of what he's saying makes some sense, in a way," she amended, looking over at Chase and shaking her head at his incredulous stare. "I mean, think about it—you know he almost died when he went into the mines to return that first bell, right? And now," she went on, after Chase nodded slowly, eyes widening, "he goes to ring this bell, and he... gets frozen from the inside out. It's almost like... it's some sort of attack against him."

"Bet it's 'cause I'm gayyyy," Kasey slurred sourly, prompting Chase to roll his eyes and mutter "Seriously? Just like that?" under his breath. Nonetheless, nobody else present seemed particularly fazed by the impromptu outing.

Shaking her head, Anissa raised her eyebrows. "I... highly doubt that that's the reason, Kasey. Not that I can really think of any, myself," she admitted with a disappointed noise. "Never mind what could be attacking..."

"Anger," Wizard piped up, looking down into the remnants of his coffee and narrowing his eyes slightly when everyone else's gazes turned his way. "...And fear... I have sensed it... but have been unable to discern... the meaning. The energy patterns... familiar, yet unrecognizable. Very similar to Sephia's... but very raw power. Untamed, fueled by... protective rage... and fear. The consciousness... too complex to access. Castanet's anger... but something beyond, as well."

"We've... invoked the wrath of Castanet itself?" Jin queried, looking perplexed by this new information. "How, exactly? And why?"

"The energy waves of Sephia... are still very weak," Wizard murmured, having a deep sigh and taking another sip of his coffee. "...She has sustained... a great wound... at the hands of her children. She regains strength... with each bell rung... but still she weakens... at the same time. Spreading her power thin... to try and protect our land... from its own wrath. Yet, she cannot do so alone..."

"Sephia, yeah. She's real nice," Kasey opined brightly, closing his eyes and smiling. "I met her ghost once, and she said I can see her cause I'm new here, and Castanet is like... mad at everyone else, cause she got hurt and made a ghost so now she's hiding in a tree that got hurt too. So she's like... a ghost tree, like that asshole Pokémon that kills children. Or like Exdeath, except cool." His face fell as he kept talking: "But I'm not going back to her house anyway, okay, 'cause she's got all these pets and they're... like, real pissed and they wanna eat me. She should control her pets better. They're assholes, but she's cool, so she needs cool pets. Like a big ol'... fox."

"What in the hell is he babbling about now?" Irene wondered aloud, getting no response from anyone else in the room—with the exception of Wizard, they were all too busy staring at Kasey in shocked confusion. "Meeting the Harvest Goddess? And apparently, she's hurt... why are we even questioning him about any of this when he's not even all that lucid, anyway?"

"Or you—" Chase was pointing at Wizard now, the man in question simply blinking impassively at him with mismatched eyes, silver brow arched. "Anything else you might know about all this?"

"At the moment, I am afraid... I have disclosed all that I know," Wizard responded, his tone almost apologetic, causing Chase to let out a soft whine and plop his chin down atop his folded arms. "I will, however... look into this as best I can."

"Yeah, alright. You do that."

"Miss Irene's right," Toby agreed, though his worried gaze remained fixed on Kasey. "We really should at least wait until the drugs wear off to talk to him about it... and maybe even give him a little time to rest before we go pulling him back into things right off the bat. He's been through a lot with all of this, already."

Jin crossed his arms over his white button-down and nodded thoughtfully. "I'm inclined to agree, yes—we should let him get some rest..."

"...But?" Toby prompted after a pause, picking up on the doubtful tone in Jin's voice.

"But, we probably shouldn't wait too long to follow up on the matter," Irene finished sternly. "If there's some sort of malevolent... factor to this, it would be best to learn all we can about it before making any further moves on it. Especially considering what's been going on recently. And to think, I told him not to try and keep anything from us," she added in an exasperated voice. "Damn kids, they never listen... we should've loaded him up with painkillers weeks ago, if they always make him this chatty."

"Well, hey... I didn't want you guys getting hurt, 'cause I love you guys, okay?" Kasey protested, pointing at Irene. "Lady? Okay, lady? All of you. You guys are awesome, saving me from... like, being a zombie and shit. I seriously... love all of you people so hard."

Tutting fondly, Anissa patted Kasey on the shoulder, gently easing his arm back down onto the bed. "We love you too, Kasey. That's why we want you to let us help you, alright?"

"Ehhh... okey-dokey, yeah. While I'm stuck here... with a stabbed-off arm. Jeeeeesus."

Chase snorted, eyeing Kasey curiously. "Considering how abysmal he is at lying, if he's not just babbling a bunch of crap right now, I'd... actually be kind of impressed that he managed to keep all that from us. Three cheers for lies by omission, I guess."

"I kind of hate that I agree with that," Toby muttered, cringing apologetically at Kasey. "Umm, no offense..."

Kasey waved it off listlessly. "It is aaaall good, my happy... buddy. Man, my arm is really, really floppy. Did someone steal my bones?"

"We'll... go look for them," Anissa reassured him, looking around at the others in the room and exchanging a small, hapless smile with Jin. "You just try and rest up, alright? We'll let you know when we, umm, find your bones."

"'Kay... that's nice of you."

"We should probably give Kasey a little breathing room," Jin agreed, nodding briskly at the others. "I don't mind you all staying here overnight, if you'd like, given how bad the snow still is out there... but we'll just need to keep it down here so he can get some sleep."

"I'll stay here and keep an eye on him, if you'd like," Toby volunteered, raising his hand like he was in school. "That way, I can get you or Miss Irene if he needs anything."

Jin shrugged. "That sounds perfectly fine. Thank you very much, Toby. Let us know if you want to switch out or anything. I'll be back down in a little while to see how he's doing with that IV, and check his vitals. And then, I'll run some tests in the morning to make sure he didn't suffer any permanent damage from the cardiac arrest." He looked back down at Kasey and exhaled through his nostrils. "We'll probably keep him on it at least through the night, depending on how his pain levels are... "

"Yes, thank you," Irene echoed, yawning and stretching. "There's still tea and coffee, if anyone's still thirsty, and there's some soup and some cold cuts, if anyone wants something to eat... if you're still hungry?" She eyed Kasey for a moment, only for him to frown and shake his head.

"I ate all of those... cow burgers. Mmmhmm."

"Yes, yes, of course you did." She sighed and looked over at Wizard. "And how about you?"

Drumming his fingers on his now-empty mug, Wizard also shook his head slowly. "I am fine... thank you. I must return home... for the evening. Your hospitality... is much appreciated. Though... perhaps some more coffee... for the road?"

"Absolutely. Come with me, then. I'll get you a thermos. No rush to return it."

With Kasey slurring his goodbyes, thanks, and "I love you"s to Anissa, Jin, Wizard, and Irene as they each bid him goodnight and left the room, Chase continued watching him as though he were a particularly entertaining TV show, standing up as well. "So, I'm gonna go stop by the kitchen for something—you're good?"

"I'm good, thanks," Toby confirmed, nodding.

"Cool—anyway, I can call Ozz while I'm out there and let him know you're staying here for the night, if you want," Chase finished, turning halfway out the door to see Toby give him another grateful nod. "No problem. And..." He tapped his chin thoughtfully, "maybe I should give Renee a call, too, and let her know what's going on..."

"Yeah, I like her," Kasey mumbled, laying back in his bed with his eyes closed and hands clasped over his stomach. "What's she been up to lately? She's nice..."

Blinking, Toby cocked his head curiously at Chase. "Not that she shouldn't know what's going on, but isn't it kind of late? It's..." He looked at the clock on the wall across from Kasey's bed. "...Almost nine."

Hunching his shoulders defensively, Chase cleared his throat and gave a little shrug. "Well, yeah, but she's in town anyway—she's sleeping over at Candace and Luna's tonight." He tapped his boot twice on the floor of the infirmary, which was built atop the tailor's.

"Huh." Scratching his chin, Toby cringed slightly. "Err, how do you even know all of this?"

"I implanted a tracking chip in her head when she was asleep," was the flat response. "Or, you might wanna sit down for this one, I ran into her on my way into work today." Chase rolled his eyes. "Sheesh, Toby. I do talk to people, you know?"

Snickering, Toby laced his fingers and stretched his arms with a little grunt, eyes twinkling. "Is it bad that I was kind of hoping you followed her into town undetected, disguised as a snowman?"

"Yes. Too cold for that. Also—really creepy. Aaaanyway, so... yeeeeeah." Thumbing over his shoulder, Chase turned to leave. "Gonna call your uncle now, and—"

"—Then breathe heavily at Renee over the phone?"

"—Shut up, and leave you two lovebirds alone for a bit, in case you wanna play 'Doctor' or something," Chase finished, smirking triumphantly as he got the upper hand—Toby coughed and went pink, scowling at him. "Maybe check his temperature? I bet they have the butt thermometers in here somewhere."

Kasey chuckled lazily at this, while Toby finally went full-on red and hid his face in his hands. "Please leave before I beat you."

"Heheheh," Kasey muttered, his voice still hoarse. "Butt... tyrannosauruses."

The remark had Chase gripping the door frame tightly, wheezing with laughter. "Hooooly shit, we have got to keep him like this! Okay, okay, I'm really going, now..."

"Chase, you're such a—you just—phone?" Toby sputtered from behind his hands, not seeing a broadly-grinning Chase turn to leave without a word. "I think I'm asking Jin if we can drug you ne—ahhh... boo." The door swung closed before he could finish his retort, though he could hear Chase's muffled cackling on the other side. "Oh, put a sock in it out there," he called, raising his voice a little so his friend could hear him. Flopping back into his chair with a groan, Toby looked over at Kasey with a tired, rueful smile and shook his head. "Do you see what I put up with, Kasey? What do you think, should we have Jin do him next?"

Blinking drowsily, Kasey looked over at him. "Do... wuzzat now?" He frowned. "Why would Jin... do him? He's got, uhh... Alicia...?"

"...Okay, poor phrasing," Toby muttered to himself, ignoring Kasey's mangling of Anissa's name as his face heated up in embarrassment once again. "Ummm... well, don't worry about it. Just get some rest, huh? You've had a pretty rough night. I'll be right here if you need anything."

"Sure... that's good." With an exhausted groan, Kasey flopped his head back down onto the pillows, wriggling a bit to make himself more comfortable. With a satisfied sigh, he smiled and closed his eyes. "Alrighty, then... 'night. I'll be back later..."

With another bemused chuckle, Toby watched Kasey drift off, breathing evening out and goofy smile relaxing until his face looked perfectly content—not twisted with pain or worry as it had been earlier in the cave, or slackened and vague, like when he'd—

Forcing the image out of his mind as a wave of nausea and panic hit him, Toby swallowed hard, taking in a deep breath to calm himself. Don't. He's back with us now. They got him back. He's going to be fine, he chided himself. He reached out to brush the hair off of Kasey's forehead, hand hovering uncertainly for a moment before drawing back and resting in his lap. Despite feeling for himself how much warmer Kasey felt earlier, Toby found his stomach wrenching at the memory of how horribly, unnaturally cold Kasey had been not much earlier in the evening.

"Glad to have you back, Kasey," Toby murmured, finally reaching forward to pull Kasey's blankets up to cover him a little more. "You really are something else, you know? What in the world are we going to do with you?"

"I'unno," came the drowsy response, prompting Toby to utter a quiet laugh.

"Well, we've got time to figure that out... oh!" At the sound of the door creaking open, he looked up, waving Chase and a relieved-looking Renee into the room. "Hey, guys," he called in a loud whisper, standing up when Renee made her way over to hug him, and returning the embrace briefly. "He just went to sleep."

Biting at her lip and eyeing Kasey—who did indeed seem to have drifted off, not even reacting to the presence of more people in the room—Renee nodded, slipping her poofy orange parka off and draping it over the back of a chair. "He's been doing okay, then?"

Plopping back down into the chair he'd previously occupied, Chase watched Kasey uncertainly, turning to Renee when she sat down next to him. "Better than he was when we brought him in... Jin doped him up with some pretty strong painkillers, going by how loopy he was acting. I mean, he was saying some pretty hilarious stuff," he admitted with a guilty, awkward grin, "but now that just makes me wonder how bad he must've been hurting earlier..."

Eyes going wide, Renee's hand flew over her mouth. "Oh, God, we were wondering what we kept hearing earlier! We just thought it was something on Shelly's TV! Was—was that Kasey?"

"That was Kasey," Toby confirmed quietly, wincing as they all looked back down at him. "Did you—well, what all did Chase tell you?"

"I just told her that he was back here, and that he got hurt ringing that bell," Chase said, swallowing when Renee sent a puzzled, worried glance his way. "It's just—it... would've been really awkward to explain over the phone. When he was ringing that bell, Kasey just got... frozen up. Really badly—his skin was all icy and blue, and was getting all... frosted over. I mean, he's alright now, obviously—Jin says he should be just fine, but..."

When Chase trailed off and looked away, Renee felt her chest constrict, wordlessly looking over to Toby for answers.

"Well, the thing is... Jin and Wizard were able to bring him back," Toby explained, his voice wavering a little, "but... his heart stopped at one point, and—uhh, they—they lost him for a moment. Jin's not sure Kasey would've made it without Wizard's help."

Trying to process this news, Renee turned back to Kasey, staring at him in a mixture of horror and pity. His chest rose and fell slowly, and his breathing was deep and even—and Renee found herself silently grateful that she just couldn't picture it. She pushed her hair back behind her ear, feeling like the room was spinning around her now. "Oh, Kasey... God, if you all hadn't gotten him here in time..."

Chase cleared his throat, wondering how best to present the next bit of news: "And, uhh... we're not sure, but Anissa thinks maybe... something's been attacking Kasey whenever he goes to ring those bells. First, that whole thing with the mines, and now this... and that Wizard guy says we pissed off Castanet somehow, from what he can tell."

Brow knitting in confusion, Renee looked back over at Chase. "He says we what?"

"I dunno, he was talking about how he sensed Castanet's anger and fear... how the Harvest Goddess got wounded by us, and I guess that's why all of this is going on right now." He swept his arm about the room vaguely, and shrugged. "But, it's like... apparently, it's not her going after him or doing any of this stuff. She's trying to protect us, and... something's trying to..."

"...Take revenge, it sounds like," Toby finished solemnly, wringing his hands in his lap. "And it almost sounded like Castanet was the one trying to get us back. He didn't really have a whole lot of information past that, though, and Kasey was saying some stuff about it all, too... but he was so incoherent, we're not even sure what to believe from him. Or if he's going to remember even half of the stuff he was talking about."

Chase snorted at this. "If I were him, I'd hope not—hey!" At this, Renee had swatted his arm—though her face brightened a little, a playful twinkle in her eyes. "C'mon, if you'd heard half the shit he was yammering on about...!"

"Okay, I hate to admit, but I'm a little sad that I at least missed out on that part," Renee confessed lightly, shrugging. Looking back over at Kasey, her face softened again, falling deep into thought. "Still, though... this is really, really creeping me out. I mean, everything was already weird enough—and then that whole thing with the snow happened... when I heard about what went on in the mines, I just figured it was from gases and stuff, and the heat was because of the whole dormant volcano thing. But now, there's this." She set her jaw and bunched her fists in her lap, letting the gears turn in her mind as she kept on speaking: "I don't—what if similar stuff happens with those other bells? If something doesn't want them rung..."

"...Then... what?" Chase prodded, watching her curiously. "Appeal to... I dunno, Castanet? Ask it not to hurt us? Wizard says this Harvest Goddess is stretching herself really thin trying to protect us from whatever's going on..."

Renee grimaced. Wracking her mind, she found she could only pick out one idea that wasn't entirely terrible. Only mostly. "I don't know. All I can think right now is, 'I wish I could do something more about this,' and then it's just a matter of what. I mean—I haven't been able to be of all that much help, and then here's Kasey, getting himself hurt over and over and literally dying to help us out, and there's just got to be more we can do, too. It's not fair to him that he has to go through all of this." She gulped and blew a loose strand of hair out of her face, rubbing at her arm. "So right now, I just feel like... if I stumble across any of those bells myself, I'm... not too sure I'd want to tell him about it, because then what if the same thing happens again, or even worse? I'd rather just try and handle it myself, to be honest, if it'll keep anything like that from happening to him again. I'm not even sure I'd tell anyone else, really."

Letting her words sink in, Chase blanched. "Renee, you know you could get—"

"—I do know that, Chase," she interrupted softly, though her gaze was fiery when she looked over at him. "Hey, if it's to protect the people I care about—"

"—It's not that," he insisted, hands up in protest. "You've got it wrong—I'd absolutely do the same for you guys, too—and yes, I'm a hundred percent serious here, and I'm well aware that I'm actually saying all this out loud, too. Blackmail me later." His face grew hot at the admission—as well as how touched Toby and Renee looked now—and he turned his gaze down to his hands, hanging loosely between his long legs. Starting to bounce his foot now, he went on, hoping to get his awkward moment of vulnerability over and done with: "Just... it's just kinda weird to hear it being said out loud like that, I guess. Talking about risking our lives like this, what could happen to us all... I don't want anyone else to get hurt either. And it's easy to say that, you know, but then thinking about actually having to maybe follow through on it, and what it might mean..." He winced. "It seriously kind of makes me wanna throw up."

Renee reached over and gently squeezed his knee, only causing him to redden further. "Trust me, Chase, I know how you feel—I mean, part of my brain is just all yelling at me, 'Are you nuts?' and telling me the same thing you were about to, that I could get hurt. And maybe it's right, but I don't care. And I'm not trying to ask you guys to be on-board with this whole idea. Just... that's pretty much where I am on all this right now."

"I know, I know... count me on-board anyway, though. Man," he added, smirking wryly at her, "if it comes down to that, though... hope he's not too pissed at us over it."

"Yeah, that—" Renee cringed slightly as the truth behind Chase's words sank in, and she uttered a nervous laugh. "Well—yeah, but... if that means he's still around to be pissed at us, then... I'm... I'm okay with that. We'll cross that bridge if we get to it, right?"

Toby watched Kasey sleep, uncertainty gnawing at his stomach and twisting his face. Half of his conscience was admonishing him severely for even considering it regardless of how good the intentions were, yelling at him that lying to Kasey—especially in light of where things were starting to go for them—would come back to bite him hard, and for not even pointing out to his friends how disrespectful it was to be discussing such things as though Kasey weren't right there in front of them.

The other half pushed back, reminding him of why Renee had even proposed the idea in the first place. Memories both vague and fresh flashed across his mind: He was five again, his grief-stricken babysitters holding him tight while the police informed them that his parents had been killed; sixteen, and watching his aunt slowly waste away with each passing day; only weeks ago, spotting Kasey's limp form being carried into the clinic by Jin and Owen; and the painfully fresh memories of him a few short hours before, blue and ice-cold, completely unresponsive as Jin and Wizard worked to get his heart beating again.

Every time, so scared and helpless. So, don't you want to stop it from happening again? You can finally prevent someone you care about from getting hurt, for once. You can do something to try and protect him, at least.

"...I won't tell him, either," Toby finally said, voice almost too quiet to hear. He closed his eyes and patted Kasey's hand. "I'm sorry, Kasey. I hope you can forgive us."

"Toby, are you sure you want to do this, too?" Chase asked, gaze darting anxiously between Toby and Kasey—the possible ramifications weren't lost on him. "I mean... dude, we won't hold it against you if you—"

"I know you won't," Toby cut in, running his hand through his hair and trying to calm his frazzled nerves. "But... I... Renee's right. Even if it means putting myself in danger, I'd... rather be able to help take the heat off of him for a change, and just... just hope for the best." That he doesn't hate us.

Chase nodded, though the concern didn't fade from his face. "Alright... so, I feel like we should shake on this or something," he added in an attempt to lighten the once-again solemn mood, scratching the back of his neck awkwardly.

Shaking her head haplessly, Renee took the cue and stuck her hand out for him to shake, snorting when he actually did so. "Wow, you have a stronger grip than I'd figured you would, to be honest."

Scrunching up his nose, Chase cocked his head to the side. "So, uhh... is that—should I take that as a compliment, or...?"

"...It's a remark," Renee responded with an evasive little grin, deciding to show Chase just how strong her own grip was and making him squeak out an "Owwww." He winced and hissed, shaking his fingers out when Renee let go and giggled victoriously. "Yeah," she said, still giggling. "I get it from my dad. Farm strong, buddy! Though, still not strong enough to beat Kathy at arm-wrestling," she added as an afterthought.

Chase knew all too well how true that statement was—Kathy could beat Luke at arm-wrestling, while he was sober and she was smashed, though both of them had yet to best Owen. "Ow... Jesus, Renee, you've got goddamn... Truckasaurus hands," he breathed, half-admiring and half-pained, rubbing his fingers tenderly as Renee snickered at him—at the very least, he noted with some relief, she didn't look in the least bit pissed off by the remark. He gave his fingers a tentative, experimental wiggle, finding to his quiet gratitude that they still functioned independently. "Christ almighty... I have to use these when I'm cooking, you know."

"Well, Truckasaurus apologizes for destroying your livelihood, Mr. Ramsay," Renee said with a mock-bow, giving her hands an exaggerated flourish. "Your delicacy has been noted for future reference, up to and including my own amusement."

Chase clicked his tongue sardonically. "Awww. Well, aren't you just goddamn adorable. So, I'm just going to get out of here and take my ruined, delicate hand to bed with me before you can do any more damage to it. 'Night, people."

Chuckling as Chase left, Renee hummed and turned back around, folding her arms over her baggy yellow sweater and trying to suppress a yawn. "Sheesh... somebody mentions bed, and my brain starts trying to conk me out, too. Think it's a good thing I'm skipping out on that sleepover tonight..."

Toby could only nod slowly in response and give a noncommittal hum, his mind a thousand miles away at the moment.

Seeming to sense this, Renee leaned forward a bit, a worried frown on her face. "...Toby?" she called gently, waving her hand to catch his attention. "Are you okay over there?"

"Huh?! Oh!" Shaking himself out of his stupor, he looked up and gave Renee a small, apologetic smile. "Sorry. Guess I just kind of spaced out again—it's been a really long night..."

Renee nodded sympathetically, turning to look out the window across from Kasey's bed—while it was still snowing outside, it was coming down far lighter than it had been earlier, looking like it was starting to finally taper off. "Yeah, I bet... I'll be so glad when all this craziness is done with. You want to go get some sleep or something, and I'll stay and keep an eye on Kasey?"

Toby shook his head. "Mmm-mmm. I'm good, thank you. I know he was really out of it, but I told him I'd be right here if he needed anything. It'd be just my luck if he actually remembered I said that, and I wasn't there to back it up, you know?" With that, he stretched and let out a long yawn, cracking his joints and groaning. "But the sleep part sounds nice... hopefully, I'll actually be able to do that tonight, after everything that's happened."

"No kidding," Renee agreed with a wry smile. "And this is you we're talking about! Anyway... Chase said Jin was fine with it, but I'm gonna go check with him anyway and make sure it's alright for me to stay the night. Or maybe I should ask Irene, if Jin and Ani are up in his room alone," she added, chortling and gathering her parka when she stood up, while Toby simply rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "Or maybe I should drop in, just to bug 'em. Heh."

"Are you and Chase the same person or something?" Toby asked her, though he couldn't help but laugh along with her.

"Nah—" Her hands were up now, and she wiggled her fingers, "—GD Truckasaurus hands versus delicate chef hands, remember?" Winking, she waved both hands in farewell, though a flash of remorse sparked through her eyes when looked back down at Kasey. "Alrighty, my fine, fishy friend—g'night! Just give one of us a holler if you wanna change the guard, okay?"

Rubbing his throat—which was still a little sore from yelling at Chase in the cave earlier—he used his free hand to give her a little salute, which was returned. "I think I'll be fine, but thank you. Goodnight, Renee—oh, you can turn that off, it's fine. Thank you."

Watching the door close behind her as she gave one last wave, Toby shifted about in his chair a bit in the now-darkened room, working to make himself comfortable—something which usually came much more naturally to him the vast majority of the time. Finally settling on drawing his legs up onto the chair and hugging them, he rested his chin on his knees and exhaled quietly, giving Kasey another apologetic glance—aside from all the stress of the bell fiasco, he couldn't help but feel queasy about what he'd agreed to with Chase and Renee, no matter how much he tried to convince himself it was for a good cause.

"See you tomorrow, Kasey," he murmured, his stomach doing another somersault. And I'll make this up to you, I promise. Just let us look out for you for a little while...

With their soft breathing now the only thing filling the darkened room, Toby let himself slip away into an ultimately fitful, restless sleep.

Chapter Text

As Monday night melted into the dark, early hours of Tuesday morning, the snowfall continued to slow in the bitterly cold air, the last flakes finally coming to rest on large drifts and floating chunks of ice while most of Castanet continued sleeping. Faint hints of color began to lighten the edge of the distant horizon for the first time in days, glowing faintly off the piles of snow, and the still-heavy clouds that had finally begun to drift westward. A few of Castanet's early risers observed the sight through their scuffed, worn windowpanes with surprise and relief, and a bit of trepidation as they wondered what exactly would go wrong next.

In the warmth of the Choral Clinic, almost everyone was still dozing peacefully—the only sounds throughout the darkened rooms were faint breathing, gentle snores, the pleasant sound of heated air blowing through the vents, and the ticking of a wall clock here and there.

In the dimly-lit infirmary on the first floor, Toby snuffled softly, jolted from his troubled slumber by the sound of sheets rustling and a quiet sigh. Opening one eye slightly with a confused frown, it took him a moment to recognize Kasey's shadowed form sitting up on the hospital cot, one leg drawn up and arms sitting loosely atop it—Toby noticed that the IV drip seemed to have been removed, as well. Kasey's face was troubled as he stared out the window across from his bed, jaw set, and he seemed to be unconsciously bouncing his foot.

Not sure what to say, Toby instead opened both eyes and cleared his throat gently, causing Kasey to jolt out of his pensive state with a little jump. "Sorry, Kasey," Toby said quickly, holding his hands up in a placating manner as Kasey immediately calmed down and gave him a rueful smile. His voice was a hushed whisper as he went on: "I didn't mean to scare you; how're you feeling?"

Brushing his now-loose hair back over his bare shoulders, Kasey shrugged and hummed, waggling one hand ambivalently. "You're fine, man. I'm... okay," he answered, though his smile widened a bit. "Still kind of sore, but... I'll be alright. Jin came down and ran a few tests earlier—to make sure what..." A shadow fell over his face, and he cleared his throat as well. "...To make sure what happened didn't—you know, mess me up permanently or anything... he said all you guys stayed here with me, too. That, uhhh—" His voice grew a bit hoarse now, prompting him to look away and scratch the back of his neck uncomfortably. "...That you... uhh... stayed..."

Though Kasey's face was turned away now, Toby could easily pick up the gratitude in his voice, and tried to shrug it off nonchalantly despite how warm his chest felt. "Of course. I'm just glad you're okay," he responded sincerely, watching as Kasey turned to look back at him with another smile. Eyeing Kasey curiously, Toby went on: "So... you said something about some tests...?"

"Oh! Right..." Worrying at his bottom lip now, Kasey ran a hand through his rumpled hair and gazed back out the window, the pensive look back in his eyes. "Just—just stuff like... you know, motor skills, checked my heart and lungs... cognitive functions, made sure I was all there. What's my name and his name, your name since you were already there—" They shared a little grin at this, "—what year is it, do I know where I am, what's the last thing I remember... all that stuff. He said Wizard worked really hard to heal me, but after—after... stuff like that happens, sometimes it can... fuck you up pretty badly. But I was all good. Really... really lucky," he finished, voice going soft and brows knitting together. "It's just—it's... so crazy. I'm not sure it's even sunk in all the way yet, to be honest with you. Just been a hell of a week...Chuckling ruefully, he shook his head. "Good thing it happened last night, and not today."

Confused, Toby was about to ask why exactly that mattered, before his groggy mind woke up with the reminder, and he shared a shy grin with Kasey. "Yeah," he agreed with a little laugh, face warming, "you're not getting out of it that easily, Kasey. Sorry. So, you're still feeling up for it, huh?"

Kasey nodded enthusiastically, his face lighting up completely. "Yeah! Yeah, I—I mean I'm kinda nervous about it, but—I couldn't even begin to tell you... definitely. You?"

Toby returned the nod, feeling his heart begin to beat a little faster now. His stomach flipped briefly as last night's conversation with Chase and Renee came back to him, though he pushed the discomfort aside swiftly. "I'm... pretty nervous, too, to tell you the truth, but... I can't wait, either. Just, uhh... I was wondering something...?" At Kasey's questioning glance and hum, he went on: "Well, after what happened last night, I'm a little... done with the snow and the cold for a while. Perhaps... maybe we could move it somewhere... warmer?"

Still chewing at his lip, Kasey mulled it over for a few seconds, and he nodded shyly after a moment. "Y-yeah, I was thinking the same, too... like... like, at the inn or—or something, or...?" He wasn't even sure why that idea had popped out. He wasn't exactly ready to put it out in the open like that just yet.

"Or," Toby suggested, scratching the back of his neck and hunching his shoulders, "or, maybe, ah... we can just hang out at, well... yourplaceormyplace?" The last words came out in a hurried mumble, and he swallowed hard as Kasey chuckled awkwardly. "Well—I mean, it's up to you, I'm... really fine with wherever."

"O-okay, yeah! Yeah, that..." Kasey thought it over—he wasn't sure if Ozzie knew about any of it yet, but as much as he liked Toby's family, he had a feeling the thought of them being nearby in this case would make him even more anxious than being alone with Toby would. "I-if, uhh... my place is fine... we can, I... dunno, watch something, or... or talk, or..." He trailed off as he caught himself, his face growing hot with the implications of what else he'd been thinking. Not daring to look over at Toby quite yet, he shrugged his shoulders, foot bouncing on the bed once again while he worked his mind for any sort of half-decent save. "Or y-you know... go all rom-com and slow dance to some sappy music." When Toby shared a laugh with him at this, Kasey felt his nerves ease up some, and went on: "Or, ah, put on some EDM and rave. Like, really horribly."

Toby snorted. "Sure, I'll just ask Chase if we can borrow his stash of Ecstasy. Or we can do that... what's it called?" Off of Kasey's puzzled look, Toby scratched at the side of his head, frowning. "That one dance... tweaking?"

A moment of silence passed between them before Kasey threw his head back and clapped a hand over his mouth to muffle his almost-hysterical laughter, shoulders shaking as he pounded his other fist on the bed and shook his head. "Tweaking?" he repeated in an incredulous squeak, a few giggles slipping out—and Toby suddenly buried his burning face into his palm with an embarrassed grin, realizing how horribly off-course he'd been. "T-Toby, did... did you mean 'twerking'? Because—because 'tweaking' is—"

"Right," Toby cut in, starting to laugh as well when he looked back up at Kasey. "I misspoke. I meant the, umm, butt dance. Not meth."

Snickering as he began to calm down, Kasey pushed his hair back over his shoulders again, idly searching around for his hair tie before giving it up as a lost cause. "The butt dance, huh?" he repeated, still chortling. "Yeah, I—I like you and all, but I don't think I'm ready to do meth with you yet," he teased, eyes twinkling as they met Toby's.

"Oh, good. I can leave the meth lab at home tonight, then. I hate carrying that thing around. Did you need me to actually bring anything, though?" Toby added, the thought striking him suddenly. "I can bring my Wii over, if you want. I don't have a lot for it, but I've at least got Smash and Mario Kartif that'll work."

Raising his eyebrows, Kasey shrugged once again. "Yeah, sure! That sounds great—and I've still got popcorn left over from last time, if anything good is on... but I kinda like the idea of Smash. I totally suck at Mario Kart," he admitted sheepishly, "but Angie and my dad actually got me into Smash, since they play each other a lot. I've gotten pretty good at whooping their asses with Donkey Kong," he added with a proud, wistful grin. "Haven't played them in a while..."

Toby gave him a small, playful smirk. "Well, we can always see how he handles Pit."

Eyes flashing, Kasey turned and swung his legs over the side of the bed, sticking his hand out for Toby to shake and accepting the challenge. "Bring it on, man. I can take him down, no problem."

"That's what Chase always says before I mop the floor with him," Toby returned confidently, not letting go of the comfortable warmth of Kasey's hand—and, he noticed, Kasey wasn't exactly making any movements to do so, either. The light, teasing atmosphere seemed to tangibly fade away the longer their hands remained clasped. "So... I'm pretty sure I can take you," he went on, his voice getting softer.

Kasey licked his lips and nodded, his smile making Toby's heart pound even faster. Was he still talking about the game, or...? His thumb stroked the heel of Toby's hand, and his voice was just as quiet when he responded: "Guess we'll just have to see who comes out on top, huh?"

Am even talking about the game anymore...?

"Yeah," Toby murmured throatily, laying his other hand atop Kasey's without even realizing it. Their eyes held for a moment, and both of them were by now very aware of the fact that they were still alone together in the infirmary, and that it was still quite early. Not to mention the fact that one of them was currently wearing very little clothing.

Overcome with curiosity, Toby found his gaze wandering away from Kasey's dark, intense stare, down to the toned arms exposed by the thin, tight white undershirt, and the sparse patch of hair barely visible on his chest, just above the low collar; over where the bottom of the shirt had ridden up slightly, exposing more hair in a thin trail leading down from under his navel and dipping tantalizingly below the waistband of his underwear; the way his already-short gray boxers had rolled up a little more from sitting on the edge of the bed, revealing his thighs; and, just a bit further up, outlined against the fabric...

Whoa, hello.

With an audible gulp, Toby's gaze darted back up to Kasey's chest before he took his ogling too far, already feeling his sweatpants grow a great deal tighter. He let out a shuddering breath, followed by a shaky, embarrassed laugh. "Wow. Ahh, sor—err, sorry," he mumbled, quickly pulling his hand back and running it through his messy hair, looking away in mortification as his cheeks flamed. He pulled his legs back up onto his chair and rested his arms on them—from the corner of his eye, he could see Kasey was looking the other way as well, though he seemed to have a somewhat-pleased expression. "I didn't mean to... you know. Do... that. Sorry," he repeated quietly, biting at his lip and wondering if Kasey was going to think he was some kind of brazen, horny idiot now.

"Y-you're—you're cool," Kasey murmured, his voice carrying a husky tinge to it now. "I-I, well... I mean, it's not like I've never, uhh, y-y'know... I mean, I've—I've checked you out before..."

If anything, this admission only made Toby's face even hotter, and he found himself wondering where exactly Kasey had looked—especially with his own penchant for wearing loose or baggy clothes. Then again, Julius did compliment my legs that one time. "Oh. Err... w-well, still, you see—it's just... now I'm, well... kind of... ahh, heh." His voice cracked awkwardly, and he found himself unable to say it out loud, simply trailing off with another sheepish chuckle and causing Kasey to echo the sound in realization.

"Oh. Oh... y-yeah, me too," Kasey admitted ruefully, turning back to look out the window and drawing his legs up much like Toby had, arms wrapped around his knees now. "Just... heh, gotta ... gotta love these guy problems, right?" He and Toby shared embarrassed smiles at this, and he went on: "I... I mean, i-if it makes you feel any better, it—it's... I'm... actually pretty flattered."

"...Same here," Toby agreed after a moment's pause, lowering his legs and leaning forward with his arms crossed atop his thighs in what felt to him like a stupid attempt to try and hide his arousal. "Guess it's just... a lot of excitement lately. I'm all wound up. There's been a lot going on..."

Snorting, Kasey drummed his fingers on his knees. "No kidding. Tonight can't get here soon enough. ...You know," he continued cautiously, only daring to look at Toby from the corner of his eye as his face once again reddened, "being... being in here right now w-with you... i-it, uhhh... I-I... I mean, y-you don't have to, but it-it's really—I-I'm having a really hard time not... you have no idea how... how much I..." He took a deep breath to try and steady his voice, and just get the words out before he drove himself crazy: "God, Toby, I—I just wanna kiss you so bad right now..."

The words made Toby's head grow light and his stomach do somersaults, and without realizing it, he'd scooted his chair closer to Kasey's bed, slowly stroking the top of his hand. When Kasey turned to look at him again, breathing getting faster, Toby gulped and licked his lips, his palms suddenly sweating. Was this about to happen? It felt so familiar, yet so different at the same time. Anticipation and anxiety were fighting for dominance in his stomach. "Well," he whispered hesitantly, "nobody's saying we can't... right, Kasey...?"

"R-right..." Turning back towards Toby, Kasey grinned nervously at him, fingers running through thick, silver hair, and down to stroke Toby's cheek, his hot breath washing over the tingling skin. Feeling Toby's hand skim up his arm and around to the back of his neck, Kasey leaned in, tilted his head, closed his eyes...

...And froze in place with a choked gasp before their slightly-parted lips could touch, eyes snapping wide open as his ears picked up the creaking of the infirmary door. Kasey heard Toby's breath hitch in his throat as well, and could see he looked as much like a deer in headlights as Kasey felt.

"Shit," Kasey squeaked, feeling his throat tighten at the sound of the mystery cock-blocker coughing.

"I apologize for the intrusion; if you two would like some privacy, I can come back later," Jin suggested politely—to Kasey's relief, if Jin was surprised or disgusted by the scene he'd just walked in on, he certainly didn't sound it. His tone was as professional and pleasant as ever, as though he was just asking Kasey to sign some paperwork.

Nonetheless, Kasey felt his anxiety quickly ebb away at his arousal—though he noted with some dismay that he was still incredibly, noticeably hard—and he pulled back from a now-chagrined Toby with a disappointed sigh. Sitting back on the bed, he snatched a pillow to unceremoniously press tightly into his lap, not caring how completely obvious he was making his current state with his face still burning. "Y-you're good, Jin. Umm, s-sorry you, uhh, had to see—"

"No worries," Jin interrupted, striding into the room and giving Toby a small nod and a quick "Good morning," which was rather meekly returned. His long, black hair was down and looked as though it hadn't yet been combed out, his white doctor's coat had been thrown on atop his blue plaid pajamas and tan moccasin slippers, and he seemed to be squinting slightly behind his glasses as he adjusted them. "I've been in your position before, trust me. Granted, it's none of my business, though I suppose I can take it as a sign that you're feeling much better?" There was a faint hint of amusement in his voice now.

"Ahh, pr-pretty much," Kasey agreed with a nervous, squeaky giggle, looking at the wall and scratching the back of his neck. "J-just my, uhh, m-my chest is kinda sore, still, but—but that's it."

Jin gave him a small smile. "Of course—that's to be expected, all things considered. Since the worst of the damage seems to have been mended, I'd just suggest acetaminophen for the remaining soreness. We've got some here, but if you have some Tylenol at home, it's the same thing. And I know you're probably sick of hearing this by now," he went on, expression growing grave once more, "but especially in the wake of last night's events, I just want to remind you to be extremely careful. I know what happened was in no way your fault," he added, seeing Kasey's face fall, "and nobody could've foreseen what would happen in that cave, but..."

Jin paused, pinching the bridge of his nose and sighing, not noticing as Toby squirmed uncomfortably in his chair. "...It was just very, very close, and we'd hate to have to make that call to your family," he finished soberly, caching Kasey's solemn nod. The professional air seemed to leave Jin's voice and appearance as he slipped his hands into the pockets of his pajama bottoms and slumped against the counter near Kasey's bed, shaking his head wearily and slouching a bit.

In that moment, even with his coat thrown on, Jin looked much more tired and worn-down than Kasey had ever seen him before—as if the cool, composed doctor's mask had slipped away to reveal the otherwise-normal twenty-nine-year-old man underneath who was just as baffled and scared for their fates as the rest of them. "Though I know it does seem very futile and... well, ridiculous to ask you to be wary of forces beyond our control or comprehension, I'm not just saying this to you as your doctor, Kasey. I'm saying this as your friend, too. None of us want to lose you."

Though still wrestling with the tornado of mixed emotions ripping through his chest, Kasey felt his heart swell at Jin's words, and he nodded again with a little smile. "R-right... I understand. I'll do what I can. Thank you, Jin."

"Of course. Sorry to start your morning on such a dour note, but... err, Toby, is everything alright?" Jin added suddenly, looking over at the boy in question—who seemed to be staring off at nothing.

When he realized both Jin and Kasey were watching him with concerned looks, Toby snapped back to Earth and gave a little jolt. "Oh! Sorry, I'm... here," he answered lamely, picking at the bed of his thumbnail. "Guess I'm still just a bit rattled by what happened, is all..."

Kasey rubbed his shoulder reassuringly, while Jin gave an understanding hum. "I can't say I blame you... but Chase told me last night how quickly you reacted when you saw Kasey was in trouble. I want you to remember that—you did a great job. He might not have made it to the clinic in time otherwise. He's very lucky you two were there with him."

Looking a bit overwhelmed by the praise, Toby hunched in on himself and gave a little bow. "...Thank you, Jin. It... anyone would've done the same, I'm sure. You and Mr. Wizard are really the ones who saved his life..."

"The point still stands," Jin insisted—though, noticing how uncomfortable the line of conversation seemed to be for Toby, he quickly shrugged it off and turned back to Kasey. "Regardless... I'm not sure if anyone else is awake yet, but everything seems to be in order, so I'll go get you prepared to head home once you're ready. Everyone's free to stay for breakfast, though—and I'd really like someone to walk you home today," he added, holding up a hand just as Kasey opened his mouth to protest. "Just this once, to keep an eye on you. Better safe than sorry. If you'd like to do it—" He nodded at Toby, who cleared his throat and shared a quick, sheepish grin with Kasey, "—that would be fine, though it is already on the way home for Chase, Renee, and Anissa."

Though the prospect of some more time alone with Toby sounded immensely appealing to Kasey, he quickly quashed it—they'd be seeing each other later that night, either way, and he certainly wanted to see the others once they were all awake. "I-I'll wait for them, yeah," he agreed, relaxing a bit at Toby's understanding nod. "I wanna thank all of them, too."

"That sounds fine, then. I'll go start getting things ready. Come get me if you need anything." Once Jin left them to begin working on Kasey's discharge papers and get breakfast started, the two boys found an awkward silence coming in behind him, though they shared embarrassed smiles.

"That—that was... something," Kasey finally mumbled, running a hand through his hair and groaning. "I-I mean, it could've gone a lot worse, but... God. Glad he was cool about it, though... I-I'm still kind of—kind of jumpy over it."

Toby hummed in agreement, shaking his head in sympathy—he'd accidentally stumbled upon Jin and Anissa having a similarly intimate moment down by the water mill last year. So maybe this is karma. "He's a pretty understanding person, though... heh." When his quiet snicker drew Kasey's attention, Toby shrugged. "It's funny, we haven't even actually gone on our date yet, and people are already finding out about us. What a weird timeline..."

"You're telling me..." Unconsciously playing with the ends of the pillow he was still pressing against his groin, Kasey grimaced a bit. His nerves were still thrumming, and driving him crazy. He'd have to take care of that when he got home. "A-and... as much as I still want to right now, I—I guess maybe after that, w-we should just... leave, uhh, the—" He cleared his throat, "—w-well, save all that for... t-tonight."

"Yeah," Toby agreed with a wistful, almost-forlorn sigh, though an anxious smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he looked down at the floor and wrung his hands in his lap. "So... seven's good, right?"

"Uh, sev—seven's good, yeah," Kasey confirmed, taking a deep breath and looking over at the counter where his clothes were folded, and then down at the pillow. Still? Seriously? he thought, biting back an annoyed groan. His face flushed again, and he was somewhat surprised that he still had enough blood left up there to even blush any more. He tried thinking of horrible, unappealing things to no avail. "I... should probably, uhh... get dressed now..."

Taking the hint, Toby thumbed at the door. "Sure—do you want me to—?"

"N-no, you're fine." Kasey exhaled loudly and moved the pillow aside, hopping onto his feet and quickly striding over to where his clothes were folded up. It wasn't like Toby hadn't seen what he was working with by now. "I mean, not like I'm undressing or anything," Kasey went on with a rueful laugh as he grabbed his shirt and jeans. "I-I'm just being dumb. These... these damn nerves..." Trying to relax himself, he took in another deep breath, and out again, finding that it at least helped a little. "Alright, there we go."

Trying not to stare as Kasey bent down to slip his jeans on, Toby perched one foot back up on the edge of his chair, arms wrapped around it, and stared pointedly at the door across from him. "Uhh, well, if it's any consolation," he said, unable to help but watch in his peripheral vision anyway as Kasey bent over again to put on his sneakers, "you... ahhh... well... uhh—oh, wow..."

Confused, Kasey straightened his socks and looked over his shoulder just in time to catch Toby looking away and scratching behind his ear. With a wry laugh, Kasey pulled his jacket on next, zipping it up, and finding that his hair tie had inexplicably wound up in the pocket. Feeling his self-esteem boosted by Toby's rather blatant ogling, Kasey pulled his hair back, winding the tie around it, and supplied teasingly as he straightened his hair out: "If... if it's any consolation, you, uhh... you think... I have a nice butt?"

"...I actually forgot what I was going to say, but that sounds about right," Toby conceded, smirking despite his embarrassment at being caught staring at Kasey once again. "Sheesh, you must think I'm some kind of pervert."

Laughing out loud at this, Kasey finished tying his shoes and shook his head. "Dude, did you not see where I was holding that pillow earlier? I don't really have any room to point fingers here, y'know... besides, I don't think you're a pervert," he added, zipping up his jacket and scuffing at the floor with his sneaker. "I... actually think you're... really... cute."

"So, a really cute pervert, then?" Toby amended with a chortle, though the compliment made him break out into a wide grin—which Kasey returned, rolling his eyes good-naturedly as he tossed Toby's hoodie over. "Oh, thank you—they're not mutually exclusive qualities, you know."

Kasey snickered. "God, Toby. You're really gunning for that pervert title, aren't you?"

"Well, it's good to have goals, isn't it?" Toby quipped as he stood and slipped the hoodie on, straightening out the sleeves and holding his arms out to illustrate his words: "Just imagine it on... hmm... a fancy plaque, or something. 'Toby Michael Nishimura—Some Kind of Really Cute, Esteemed Pervert.' It sounds really distinguished, right?"

Though Kasey let out another burst