Stan Culcart was in love with Raina, that much he was certain about. Well… mostly certain. He scratched his beard awkwardly, trying to keep her in sight, so the organizers wouldn’t be mad at him, but trying not to watch too closely while she limbered up by stretching. They were in the small preparation tent behind the performance area, with just them remaining to go out in front of the crowd.
“Are you nervous?” Stan asked the air about 2 meters to Raina’s left. The woman straightened, shrugged, and flashed him a sunny smile.
“Nope. Just… a little rusty. It will work itself out.”
But Stan knew she was lying. Of all the strange Skills, the one that Stan had received in the wake of the System’s arrival was Emotional Sensitivity. He could basically intuit what most people were feeling, at most times. Of course, around someone like Raina, who was effectively broadcasting her emotions…
Sometimes Stan felt he wasn’t even himself any longer, he was just swimming in the emotions Raina had 5 minutes ago. So now, when she smiled at him, he could feel the nervousness, bubbling right beneath the surface.
At first, upon his arrival to Donnyton, the emotions that Raina was throwing off had driven him crazy. It was a constant drone in the background. He almost left. But Stan was a man who had had mental problems his entire life. His anxiety and depression were more familiar to him than most people. So he decided to try some advice that his old therapist used to give him.
Stop fighting this, and just accept it.
So he did.
Now, 5 months later, Stan was buzzing with her energy, acting as Raina’s manager. Which, of course, made his feelings for her completely inappropriate. And also made Stan very aware of Raina’s own confused attraction towards Tykes, one of the golden boys of Donnyton, although it had only involved posturing and sharp comments up to this point. Everything was just so-
“No really.” Raina said, her expression softening. “You are giving me that look again. It will be fine, Stan. I’ve got this.”
The warm flood of her emotions washed over him, and once again, the anxiety was pushed backwards. Sighing, he shook his head and said. “I don’t even understand why you agreed to this. Didn’t you want to start only performing in front of small audiences…? Basically all of Donnyton is gonna be here, and word got out to Franksburg. Tentatively, another 800 fans are convoying up.”
“Ha, really, it wasn’t you that told them? I figured you were just trying to promote me.” Raina teased.
Giving her an exasperated look, Stan ran his hands through his hair. No, he had not spilled the beans. Fitting all of Donnyton in the quarry amphitheatre was a squeeze. But now with people coming up from Franksburg…
“No, it’s just… it was a favor for Randidly, so…” Raina trailed off, looking at the ground, her emotions swirling around wildly. Stan did his best to study the same spot on the ground, and studiously kept himself from examining the emotions she felt now too closely. “And… I agree with what he’s trying to do. We’ve sorta been coasting along, not really thinking too deeply about what has happened to our lives, what the System means. I guess we are going to have this one last hurrah… and then make everyone address the elephant in the room.”
The extremely close voice caused Stan to jump. He spun around, shocked to find an athletic man with black hair standing their, dressed in an apron. He offered them both the plate he was holding, which was covered in sliders, scones, and a thick helping of macaroni and cheese. “Figured you could use some fuel before you went on stage. I’m Randidly by the way.”
The man who founded the town, Randidly Ghosthound, the most powerful man in the world, extended his hand towards Stan. After breathing loudly for several seconds, Stan took it, feeling very… overshadowed.
“I’ve… heard of you.” He said meekly, tuning into the man’s emotions. This was actually hard. Impossible, in fact. There was something about the Ghosthound that just… muted the emotions. From him, Stan could only feel a strange even coolness. It wasn’t just for himself, either. His very presence muted the constant flow of emotions of Raina, turning it to a trickle. For the first time in months, Stan was alone in his heart, feeling only what he wanted to feel.
There was a deep sickness there, and a melancholy. Stan shivered.
“You want me to eat fucking mac and cheese before performing? I guess it’s good to know that even you can be a total guy sometimes.” Raina said playfully, taking a scone and ripping off a small corner to eat.
Shrugging, the Ghosthound offered it to Stan, who waved it away. Then the Ghosthound, feeling no compunctions, sat down and began to eat. “Your loss.”
In his core, Stan felt extremely strange. After the sick feeling and melancholy passed… there was just a strange, shivering sensation, almost as if his arm had fallen asleep, and now it was slowly reviving. His chest tingled, feeling rushing back into it after so long of it being numb. It was… a joyous occasion…? Stan couldn’t tell.
“How long am I performing?” Raina asked, folding her legs underneath her carefully to sit next to the Ghosthound without damaging her dress.
‘You know the answer to that,’ Stan wanted to say, but instead he said nothing, because he knew there was no point. The vibrations had shifted from prickles to tremors, his chest twitching, his heart thumping painfully.
“Not a big deal. Just finish with the song that you sang the first time I saw you,” The Ghosthound said. “That will be a signal that I recognize. Then we will come up for the press release. Afterwards, if the audience isn’t bored to tears, feel free to sing some more.”
In a very indelicate way, Raina snorted and rolled her eyes. Then her expression became serious. “But… thank you. This is nice, to have this opportunity.”
‘She’s lying,’ Stan wanted to say, his chest cracking and erupting, strange, deep things moving there. But there was no point in him saying it, was there. His mouth twisted bitterly. She would look at guys like this, at guys like Tykes, and he… well, he would always be the simple manager. That was his role. It was a role that he was satisfied in. His connection, his understanding of her-
“Easy, you don’t have to fake it. This is hard for you. But thanks for doing it anyway.” The Ghosthound said, setting the plate down.
Both Raina and Stan froze. Stan began to panic as he couldn’t tell why she froze. The dampening from the Ghosthound… The rumbling was growing worse, and more painful…
“I-” Raina began, but the Ghosthound waved her off.
“I should be thanking you. I didn’t build this, even though everyone thinks I did… The people that were here, living, built Donnyton. Like you. Celebrate that. The peace here… you accomplished that.”
Then the Ghosthound stood and left, taking the numbness with him. Towards the end, Stan was about to explode, unable to truly understand what to feel about the fact that his connection with Raina wasn’t one of a kind. That this man could look at her and understand her too. This great man-
But then Raina’s emotions rushed back in, cool and cloying at first, but then sweet and warm. Happiness, surprise, a low longing, a begrudging admiration, relief…
Stan sighed with relief.
“Thank you for your time and attention everyone!” Raina shouted, smiling brightly, even though she was clearly covered in sweat.
Randidly rolled his eyes. He shouldn’t have said sing as long as she wanted. The girl had gone for almost an hour and a half. At this point, due to the dancing and singing components, even a System enhanced individual would have a hard time keeping their breath. But the crowd didn’t see that. They only saw the sparkle.
“And now… we have something special. Donnyton’s leaders want to announce a few things for you all. But first… what we’ve all been waiting for… the most adorable person in Donnyton… what is her name! Let’s hear it for Annie and Dozer!”
The cheers were loud, but much more low and masculine, as it seemed Dozer’s Squad had come in force. Again, Randidly could only roll his eyes. Annie and Dozer walked out onto the stage, Dozer fully 3 times the size of Raina, a hulking mass of meat and muscle.
Very perfunctorily, Annie walked up and took the mic from Raina, and then tapped it three times to make sure it was on. Then, she said, “I do not approve of this being such a big deal. But she is the first baby in Donnyton, so… well, her name is Delilah. Please stay away from my child.”
Then she handed the mic back while the crowd laughed, and began whispering excitedly, the name Delilah on their lips. Again, Randidly rolled his eyes. They took it as a joke, but Randidly knew that Annie was actually threatening these people. Hopefully no one got too excited to see the first baby of the Village.
“And now, let’s bring to the stage the Counsel of Donnyton!”