Log Title: A Toe Dipped in Virtual Water
Summary: Winter tries to ease Royal's anxieties about VR. The Duke lets his guard down a little.
IC Date: Thu Mar 14 19:44, 2381
OOC Date: Thu Mar 14 19:44, 2019
Related Logs: None
winterroyal

 

 

It starts with a message:

Winter > Tell me somewhere you'd like to visit but have never been. Doesn't have to exist.

* * *

Royal > Is this a trap?

* * *

Winter > Maybe, but you'll still enjoy it.

* * *

Royal > Kinky.

* * *

Winter > Most likely. I am asking you.

* * *

Royal > I'm feeling so attacked right now.

* * *

Winter > I'm feeling so deflected right now.

* * *

Royal > Too clever for you. All right. What about a place in time?

* * *

Winter > Sure.

* * *

Royal > Rome at its height, then.

* * *

Royal > I am a history professor, after all.

* * *

Winter > Oh, dear god, you're going to make me research.

* * *

Winter > Very well. Rome at its height. I'll talk to you the day after tomorrow. Keep that evening free.

* * *

Royal > Are you going to build a time machine, doctor?

* * *

Winter > I can't give away all my secrets.

* * *

Royal > You're made of secrets.

* * *

Winter > Why, Royal. You noticed.

* * *

Royal > It's my job to notice things. Very well. My schedule is cleared as best it can be.

* * *

Winter > Excellent. We'll talk soon.

Winter is as good as their word. Two days later, in the early evening, Royal's ONI flickers. This time with a voice call.

* * *

It takes a moment for Royal's ONI to pick up. There's background noise. Sounds like a crowd. "Are you summoning me, doctor?"

* * *

"If you can be spared," Winter replies, their tone a little bemused. "You'll need to go home for this one. Or come to mine. I'm not picky."

* * *

"I'm guessing this is a VR adventure. In which case, best for me to go to mine. My family would be quite perturbed if they knew I was using anything else. Not to worry. I'm not far." Royal sounds cheerful, and perhaps a wee bit inebriated.

* * *

"Good guess," Winter replies. "I'll get everything ready on my end. Give me a call when you're ready to jack in, and I'll send you address."

* * *

"I've been working up some liquid courage, though that's all going to evaporate once I jack in, won't it?" There's hesitation in Royal's voice. "All right then. Cheers. Chat soon."

It's about 45 minutes before he sends another message indicating he's set.

* * *

A server address is sent over in response. When Royal musters up the fortitude to settle himself into his chair and send his consciousness into VR he'll find himself…

Still in his own apartment, though now with Dr. Wisteria Tau sitting crosslegged on the out-of-place sofa in a pair of cargo pants, a black tank top and bare feet.

* * *

At first, Royal thinks he's done something wrong. He spins around, then settles back again, eyebrows arching. "How do you know what my flat looks like?" He extends his arms.

He's wearing a rather subdued suit for him. It's gray with a subtle black houndstooth pattern, black accents and a black shirt beneath. Unlike nearly everyone else in VR who are minus a few pounds and plus a few inches, his mental image is nearly perfectly accurate to his actual self. There is also no fuzziness or flutter of those who have a more fluid self-image or have resleeved a lot tend to have.

* * *

Winter smiles faintly, lifting a finger to tap just under their right eye. The eye in which most people had their ONI installed. "I like the suit," they say, uncrossing their legs and easing to their feet. There's a faint softness or blurriness to their own edges that becomes more obvious when they start to move. As they stand, colors trail behind them for a moment, the blonde of their hair, the black of their shirt. "How do you feel?"

* * *

"What does that mean?" asks Royal, confused by the ONI eye tap. "Did you…hack into my visual records of my flat?" He straightens, slides his hands down the edges of his jacket. "Disconcerted. Off-kilter. Vulnerable. If I'm being honest." And apparently his reaction to that is to have impeccable posture. "Disappointingly sober."

* * *

"Yes," Winter answers plainly enough. They walk over to Royal, their edges sharpening as they move so they look almost entirely normal by the time they're standing next to the GPPI. "Okay. That's why we started in here. Small steps. Everything we do here is your choice. And, you can exit anytime you want."

* * *

"You said you didn't want to be my doctor, but this feels rather like you're my psychosurgeon taking me through VR phobia." Royal grins, but it's one of those ones that doesn't quite reach his eyes, and instead tightens his face. "I'd actually rather not be in a near-duplicate of my flat. It's unnerving."

* * *

"If I know how to do this well, you want me to pretend otherwise to spare your ego?" Winter asks, brows lifting. "If you're going to pull this off in a crowd of wealthy gossip piranhas, you're going to have to be able to genuinely enjoy yourself, at least a little bit." For Royal's protest about his flat, they nod. "Fair enough. Then, let's go somewhere else." They lift one arm, gesturing towards the door.

* * *

"No, it's just…" Royal sucks in a steadying breath. He's clearly uncomfortable, but he's not going to run away. Instead, he looks at the door, looks at Winter. Then he moves for the door. "Very well." And he strides up to the door and pulls it aside. He's expecting to move into his office-slash-entryway, naturally. Or that would be where he'd end up if they were in the real.

* * *

But, being not in the real means the door opens onto somewhere else. An ancient city, vibrant in the sunlight, with a colosseum in the background, and a street with people bustling to and fro in the foreground, wearing the clothes of the ancient romans. Now and again a horse and chariot trot past. Someone did their homework indeed. (Or fake it pretty well.)

* * *

The heat is what gets Royal at first. His flat was perfectly temperature controlled, and the ambient temperature in Bay City is 'swampy armpit.' The heat of Rome with its concrete structures is intense. He lifts a hand to shade his eyes from the sun. For all this wonder, all he manages to mumble is, "Fascinating."

* * *

"Would you like to look around?" Winter asks. "There will be points where the scenario has to shift to accommodate travel, though that can be avoided if we mostly keep to the market." They nod towards the open air bazaar on the other side of the narrow street.

* * *

Royal has, in fact, already started to look around. He walks forward, anachronistic in his neat suit, peering at small details, as if trying to find the seams. "There's some creative license here, but that's to be expected considering there are gaps in our knowledge. But quite convincing nonetheless." In fact, he has to use his pocket square for purposes other than decoration, to mop his brow. "I suppose I should have specified the time of year, hmm?"

* * *

"I thought warm would be preferable to cold, but perhaps I miscalculated," Winter muses, apparently comfortable enough in their tank top and bare feet. "They sell clothes over there if you'd prefer to better look the part. Or, well, not roast."

* * *

"I have to buy clothes? With what? I doubt they had ONIs. Also, can't we just…?" Royal motions to himself. And then, "I am fascinated by this era for its popular entertainment and the colonial ambitions of Rome, but not so much the fashion…" he watches someone walk by. "I've donned a toga before, but not for such elevated purposes." He motions to one of the people. "Can you truly interact or are they just moving scenery?"

* * *

"Certainly you can," Winter says, repeating Royal's gesture. "I thought actually changing clothes might be less unnerving than just…" their finger snap. "Really, you can change into anything you like. Including modern styles more appropriate for the heat." As for the people, Winter watches as another pedestrian walks by. "You can interact, though the bystanders are pretty rudimentary AIs, so their responses will be fairly limited. Their main job is to look pretty."

* * *

"So it's fairly easy to tell who is real and who is part of the construct?" Royal asks. He watches someone else walk by. He leans in, within their space, checking for seams, checking for reactions, flaring his nostrils to pick up scent. "I admit this is one of the issues I've had with Virtual. I've heard that you can just…will certain things into being when the construct allows it, but my mind is so grounded, so locked by reality that I find it difficult. Some might say I lack for imagination."

* * *

"With the bystanders it is. There are a few personalities here that are more complicated," Winter says. The person Royal leans in towards, takes a step back and away, blinking perplexedly at him as any person might if a stranger suddenly moved into their personal space. They smell of linen, dust and sweat and something a little like incense. They shift their walking path to step around Royal and hurry off.

"VR does allow for that sort of thing, many find it enjoyable. I doubt you lack for creativity, though. I think you're just… inhibited by your mistrust of the medium."

* * *

It's true. No one can have a wardrobe like Royal does and lack for creativity. "My problem has never been my fascination with the medium and its potentials. It is, as you say, my mistrust of it. I don't like not knowing what's real." He looks back to Winter. "Is this the kind of construct that you would visit on your own? Or do you prefer something a little less…like walking through the pages of a history book?"

* * *

"No, I don't think I'd come to this place just for me," Winter replies, their hands clasping lightly behind their back as they watch the hustle and bustle of their imagined Rome. "My inclinations toward self indulgence are more… whimsical, I suppose. Or simple. But to me, it's all real."

* * *

Royal watches the simulation around him. The resolution in the simulation is good enough to pick up the little microexpressions as his brow tics and furrows. He's starting to look a bit tense. Without even realizing he's doing it, his mind is trying to figure out the math behind the algorithms that control the peoples' movements, much like he did the holographic fish. He's not brilliant enough to manage it, but he's picking up enough of a ghost of a pattern that it's clearly distracting him. He zones out and goes quiet for a long few moments.

* * *

"Mmm…" Winter murmurs, watching Royal watch the movement of the Romans moving along the street. "Too many people." And then in a voice that seems a bit more intended to be heard, "Would you like to try somewhere else? Or, has this been enough of an adventure for our first foray?"

* * *

"Mhmmm?" Royal turns, flashes a smile (which is his go-to when he's realized he wasn't present) and then arches his brows. "Why don't you show me somewhere you like, hmm? If it's not too private." His eyes start to drift off again as a cluster of people pass, but he forces attention back to Winter.

* * *

"Sure," Winter says, the word spoken a little slowly as they continue to watch Royal. "Is it all right if I change things rather abruptly?"

* * *

Royal makes a gesture with his hand and tips a little at the waist, which is his invitation for Winter to go ahead. "I promise not to scream. Too loudly."

* * *

"Then here we go." Winter lifts their arm and and brings it down again, a little like a conductor minus the orchestra. As their hand drops, the two of them are no longer in Rome, but instead in a field of heather overlooking a landscape with snow-touched mountain peaks and a bright blue sky. This time the temperature is more late spring than sweltering summer. It's only them, the wind moving across the field and the occasional black dot of a distant bird.

* * *

Even though he tried to prepare himself for it, Royal still startles when the transition happens. Somewhere in that transition, he managed to re-materialize his pocket square in its original place, but not consciously. That's probably just a subconscious desire to appear put-together. He glances around, a grin appearing. "Looks like the Swiss Alps, perhaps. Lovely."

* * *

"Something like," Winter agrees with a faint smile, "though it's not based on any one place in particular. More the idea of a wild field overlooking mountains than an attempt to recreate any area in particular." They ease down to sit amid the heather and peer up at the sky. "I would spend ages here as a kid."

* * *

"The Platonic ideal of a meadow in spring?" asks Royal. He bends down and plucks a blade of grass. He twirls it between his fingers. "How…many sleeves have you had, doctor? You don't have to answer if that's too personal."

* * *

"A historian and a philosopher," Winter muses with a faint smile. For Royal's question, they laugh softly, though it's more self-deprecating than anything else. "You know, Royal, I'm not sure you'd believe me if I told you."

* * *

"Philosophy 101. Nothing too in-depth," Royal demures. He really does downplay how much of a nerd he is. The playboy persona fits him better than the academic. For a moment, he looks down at his suit and then the grass, then he realizes he doesn't actually have to worry about staining it. He sits a bit awkwardly. The last time he sat on the actual ground, he was probably in short pants. "We live in a very strange world. For instance, none of this is real. Please do tell if you feel comfortable doing so."

* * *

Winter glances over at Royal, their expression one of the 'well, you asked for it' variety. "A little more than two hundred and fifty."

* * *

Royal blinks. Blinks again. He looks a bit like he did when he was trying to work out a complex algorithm by looking at the constructs. "How…is that possible?" He doesn't look like he disbelieves, just that he's perplexed.

* * *

Winter smiles a touch wryly, touching a finger to their temple for a brief moment. "Atypical."

* * *

"I should say so. I've never met anyone who has resleeved long-term more than twice and still remained a fully functional person. Was this…a great number of short-term resleeves, or?" This is particularly difficult for Royal to wrap his head around, given his own total lack of experience with resleeving.

* * *

"Technically, I suppose it was. Prior to this sleeve, I've never kept one longer than a month," Winter replies. "I was… well. I have a sort of neuro hyperplasticity. The layman's term is reverse fragmentation. It probably saved my life. For all intents and purposes, I didn't really have a birth sleeve."

* * *

Royal looks like he's struggling to wrap his head around all this. His brow furrows. But he clearly wants to be sensitive, and to not ask stupid questions. He takes his time rolling words around in his head before he speaks. "That's remarkable. And…must have been incredibly difficult." He doesn't have to ask why one might not have a birth sleeve. He can imagine a few scenarios.

* * *

"It was and it wasn't," Winter replies. "I mean, it seemed perfectly normal at the time. I thought everyone spent their childhood in VR." They glance over at Royal, "Didn't you have a period where you just assumed everybody grew up as nobility?"

* * *

"Yes, and it lasted until I was seventeen." Royal keeps a straight face for a few seconds, then cracks a smile. "I do get your point. Until you realize how large the world is, it's easy to imagine your experience as universal." Something occurs to him and he straightens. Even sitting on grass, he has good posture. "So…you come into VR to escape the static nature of your sleeve."

* * *

Winter's gaze dips downwards towards the grass, and their chin tips in a small nod.

* * *

"So my fear of this place, and my reluctance to resleeve must seem…" Royal exhales a laughing breath, "…preposterous and difficult to fathom for you."

* * *

"I mean, no more preposterous and difficult to fathom than someone who's never managed to stay in one sleeve more than a couple months must seem to you," Winter returns.

* * *

"It's just…" Royal looks out across the landscape, "…outside my realm of experience. But I've always tried to be open to understanding different modes of being. To varying degrees of success. Human beings are fascinatingly varied, and stack technology has only made us moreso. I find that beautiful."

* * *

Winter smiles softly, watching as the sky begins to get hints of pink and orange. The start of sunset. "So do I, as it happens."

* * *

"What I appreciate in others is different from what I want for myself," says Royal in a way that suggests he's only just articulating that for the first time. "So I hope you didn't think I would judge you, just because my experience has been the opposite of yours."

* * *

Winter considers this for a moment, brows furrowing and head canting. "You know… if I truly believed you'd think less of me, I don't think I would have told you. It's not really the sort of information I routinely share around." A corner of their mouth quirks. "Huh."

* * *

"Well, that's certainly interesting. People have called me lots of things, but trustworthy is not particularly high on the list. Or confidante." Very slowly, Royal leans back until he's lying on the grass. He stares up at the sky for a moment, then closes his eyes. And in that moment, he seems to relax. His clothing flickers and shifts, from the suit he's wearing in the real to and light gray linen one, cut quite a bit more relaxed than his usual style, with a white t-shirt beneath. He opens his eyes and sucks in a startled breath, then looks down at himself. "That's…well, would you call that a breakthrough, doctor?"

* * *

"Huh," Winter says again, draping their arms on their knees. Still apparently a bit thrown at the realization that they trust Royal of all people. "I guess you'd better step up, then." They glance over in time to see the GPPI lie back and his clothing shift to something more fitting for the scenery. They smile a bit more widely, shifting again, this time to rest in a nearly lying down position, weight on their elbows. Tilting their head sideways and a bit upside down, they look over at their VR companion. "Well done, you." Beat. "I told you I was good."

* * *

"Don't get too excited. It was still very disconcerting. But I did manage to relax enough to allow my mind to access whatever part of the program allows me to change my appearance in the construct." Although Royal gives the impression of a carefree playboy, he does actually overintellectualize some things.

He sits up slowly and examines his suit. "Nothing I'd…buy myself, I don't think. Not quite clean enough in the lines, but certainly more appropriate for lounging about in the grass." He grins over at Winter, then tilts his head. There's a light in his eyes as a question occurs to him. "You've…been trying to stay in one sleeve, haven't you? How long has it been?"

* * *

Winter groans softly, flopping onto the grass and making it shush softly beneath their weight. "I suppose I have," they allow. "It's been… a bit over three months now." A corner of their mouth quirks, wry for the next word. "Ages."

* * *

"Sounds like you're trying to do something against your nature. We had this conversation the other day, but in reverse." Royal is slowly starting to relax. Either that or his bravado mask is going back up. "No wonder you use gender neutral pronouns. You being in one sleeve for that long would be like me trying to spend that long in a sleeve not my own. Sounds like misery."

* * *

"I'm trying something new," Winter replies, "and viewing it as a challenge rather than a sentence. I use gender neutral pronouns because I don't identify with any in particular. If gender is a spectrum, I sort've… slosh along the whole of, I suppose."

* * *

"Makes perfect sense to me," says Royal of pronouns. "In my case, I'm pretty sure were in a female sleeve, I'd still be a man, at least in here," he taps his forehead. "It's really rather surprising that we have any concept of a binary at all after all humanity has been through. But I suppose it does help people articulate themselves." He sits up and says, "If it's a matter of money, I do know a few reputable sleeve rental places."

* * *

Winter give a small nod for how Royal identifies. "That makes sense, you're so integrally linked to your sleeve. Of course your sense of you is male. Your sleeve is male. I mean, that's how it is for most people." They blink up at Royal and give a small shake of their head. "It's not a matter of money. It's a choice I've made."

* * *

"If it's a choice, I support it wholly. But I just wanted to make sure it wasn't out of necessity." Royal runs his hands over the blades of faux grass, even plucking a few blades to test how real they feel. He's not looking for fractals in the greenery just yet. Give it time.

* * *

Fractals are probably more likely to be found in the sway of the heather and the way the light changes as the sun sinks and the undersides of the clouds become pink and violet. As for the blades of grass under Royal's fingertips, they feel smooth when rubbed one way and a little rough when rubbed the other, just like certain types of grass found in the physical world. "Looking out for me?" the doctor asks, their tone warm, if rather bemused. "How very Duke Charming."

* * *

Royal chuckles. "Oh, I see what you did there." He flicks his fingers and lets the blades of grass skip off into the wind. "We're very different, you and I. But oddly that seems to have given us the capacity to understand each other. On either end of a spectrum when the rest of humanity is somewhere in between."

* * *

"Mmm," Winter agrees softly, watching as the breeze carries away the pieces of broken grass. "Bit lonely out on the edge, sometimes, isn't it."

* * *

"Quite," says Royal. "Though I daresay you have it tougher than I do. Most people have some anxiety with resleeving that they get over a bit easier than me. And I'd imagine there are people who feel quite cheated by the fact that they can't practically, and without risking psychological damage, change sleeves like they'd change clothes. But there's more on my end of the spectrum than yours."

* * *

"I'm not so sure about that, when you factor in the whole 'in line for the crown of England' bit," Winter muses. "The only others who can really identify with that obligation are your family whom I gather… do not always see eye to eye with you."

* * *

"The monarchy has, paradoxically, managed to stay relevant by miring itself in the past." Royal finds himself wishing he had a drink, and when he lifts his hand, he's holding a tumbler of whiskey. He arches an eyebrow, looks to Winter, and salutes with it before sipping. He looks at the liquid, surprised at the taste, but doesn't comment.

"The meths keep us around because it ties their rule to ours. But we have to not move outside our lane, nor can we develop new traditions lest we lose the coveted lapdog status. My family, shall we say, likes the status quo."

* * *

Winter lifts their fingers in a small salute, looking a touch smug at Royal's surprise. They know they code good whiskey. "And you?"

* * *

"Well, I'm not in London, am I?" says Royal with a grin that borders on mischevious as he sips his magic drink again. "There was an…understanding that if I was going to be unconventional, to do it somewhere away from the lens of the press who actually care about my family."

* * *

"So, you came to Bay City for their benefit as well as your own," Winter says thoughtfully. "Do you miss London?"

* * *

"Sometimes. I do miss my family as well. We're all rather close. We live under this veil of secrecy and the same expectations, so it knits us together. And we all feel a similar sense of obligation to keep the great wheel of the monarchy turning. No one wants to be responsible for the death of the institution that built our country." Royal then upnods towards Winter. "And your family?"

* * *

"Not very close with them," Winter replies. "Both my parents are in storage now, actually. By choice. I think there's some cousins out there, but we've never met."

* * *

"I'm pretty sure I've met every last one of my cousins. And I'm required to know all their names and their titles. For the first and second cousins. Protocol gets a bit more lax beyond that." Royal downs the rest of the whiskey, then, squints at it. He smiles at Winter, motions to the glass, then waggles his fingers. The glass refills itself.

* * *

"Look at that, you're a natural," Winter laughs. "My family doesn't carry the weight of the monarchy on their sleeves' shoulders. Which is probably a good thing in my case. I know one can only be disinherited once, but I feel as if they'd try a few extra times just for good measure."

* * *

"Not a good relationship with your parents, then?" And then Royal holds up a hand. "Please tell me to buzz off if I'm cutting a little too close to the bone. I don't want to pry. But I do feel like the conversation always seems to list back towards me. And although I do enjoy talking about myself, I try not to do so obnoxiously."

* * *

"I more meant if I'd been a member of your family," Winter clarifies. "My parents and I were… fine. I mean, they did their best. But, they kept hoping I'd, I don't know, become normal, eventually? And, I didn't. So, we weren't very close. They'd probably be pretty pleased to hear I was trying to keep to one sleeve."

* * *

"I've come to realize that a parent's wish for their child to be more…'normal' is a wish for them to have an easier life, not a condemnation of who they are. Some are very poor at communicating that difference. And some never reach the point where they just have to except their child for who they are." Royal lifts a shoulder. "Certainly not an excuse, but a bit of understanding I've come to."

* * *

"Pretty insightful," Winter allows, tucking their hands behind their head. The sky has started to tip towards violet and indigo with a few pale stars winking to life. "I don't blame them. I wasn't as easy kid to raise, I'm sure. But, it made it hard to connect, you know?"

* * *

"Mhmmmm," intones Royal. Then he sits up more fully as something occurs to him. "Hang on. Are you holding that sleeve shape in here on my account? If so, please don't." He sounds like he's genuinely troubled by this possibility.

* * *

"Oh. Well…" For the first time, Winter looks briefly uncomfortable. "If I freak you out, I can't exactly undo it. And, I'd hate to spoil what's been a lovely time."

* * *

"As I said earlier, what I appreciate is different from what I want. Other people being in other sleeves or appearing differently doesn't bother me. It's the idea of changing myself that causes the anxiety." Royal folds his legs under him, lotus style. It's a posture that wouldn't really be possible in the perfectly tailored trousers he tends to wear. The looser linen pants do just fine, however.

* * *

"Also feels a bit like undressing in front of someone," Winter admits. "When I'm in VR with another person, it's almost always a client."

* * *

"I, personally, love undressing in front of people. But if you're not comfortable, say no more," says Royal with a toss of his hand. He does seem to mean it, too.

* * *

Winter laughs, resting a hand over their eyes. "Wow, I really walked right into that one, didn't I." When their hand drops, they're in the shape of a slender man in his early or mid thirties with curly black hair, vibrant blue eyes and still the same tank top and cargo pants, if slightly adjusted in size to accommodate the longer frame. They let out the soft, relieved sigh of someone who has finally removed shoes that have pinched all night. "Okay, that does feel better," they allow, voice deeper, eyes closing.

* * *

Royal watches the change with fascination in his eyes, but not to a voyeuristic degree. It's more with the attention of someone who considers themselves a student of human nature meeting someone new and interesting. He just smiles that up-to-no-good little smile of his, then finishes his drink. He sets the glass aside, not magically refilling it this time. "Well hello. I feel like we're really starting to get to know each other now. What made you choose this particular form? I've always wondered, when your choice is literally 'everything.'"

* * *

"This…" Winter replies, plucking idly at the tank top though more likely referencing their entire form, "is an extrapolation of what I might have looked like, if my birth sleeve had survived past stack implantation. It's sort've like…" they squint, "…a favorite pair of sweatpants?"

* * *

"Fascinating. Even with your interesting and unusual neuroplasticity, you still feel drawn to an approximation of your birth sleeve." Royal examines this new shape in front of him. True to his word, he doesn't look like he's uncomfortable with the shift. "Quite handsome. I too am a member of the curly hair club, though it's never quite suited me so I straighten it. Can't quite go as so far to get it treated chemically though. Seems like too much of a permanent change. Might get my wrist slapped by the Queen." Those last words are drawled, which suggests he's not serious.

* * *

"I'm not sure if it's curiosity, some residual compulsion or some suppressed desire to please my parents after all?" One brow quirks. "I'm very complicated. But hang on." Winter pushes up onto one elbow, considering Royal. "You have curly hair. Might not work as tidily with your usual crisp lines, but what about watching the stars come out in a linen suit?"

* * *

Royal grins. "Well, I suppose. But I warn you, it really doesn't suit me." Rather than just make it happen, he opts instead to run his hands over his rather high and quite straight hair. As he does, it ends up in a mass of dark curls that are slightly frizzy. He's right though, it doesn't quite suit him. It's too soft, and the angles of his face are too sharp. But he does look more casual, and definitely the least put-together Winter has ever seen him.

* * *

"Oh, I don't know," Winter replies, considering Royal's altered aesthetic. "I think I like it."

* * *

Royal points at his head. "It does this when I'm fresh out of the shower. I have a brush that takes the curls away quite effectively. It's actually a minor miracle that the humidity doesn't undo it more often." He brushes a few locks back from his face. "You've succeeded in getting me out of a couple of my comfort zones tonight, and changing a few small things about myself. So, well done."

* * *

Winter's fingers twitch, as if they might want to reach up to touch a few of those unwanted curls. But, said fingers settle in the grass instead. They smile faintly. "I enjoyed it. Thank you for trusting me. And for listening."

* * *

"I know I can come off as self-obsessed. I think that's mostly because of the way I dress. But I do try not to be." Royal grins. He does look like himself from another time when he had a different sense of style. It's easy to imagine the curly hair and looser clothes on his younger self in his undergrad at Oxford. "It must be difficult as your job is talking to people about their problems. Who do you get to talk to?"

* * *

Winter considers and shrugs a little. "I guess… another psychosurgeon if I really felt the need?" they suppose. "Or, I mean, most people have friends they confide in. I understand that's common, at any rate." Their tone becomes slightly teasing, perhaps they're aware they sound like the weirdo they are.

* * *

Royal scoots over on the grass so that he's sitting beside Winter. He stays still for a moment, looks up at the sky, then shoulder-jostles. "Well. You've got a friend now. Whether you like it or not. And I am steadfastly not going to become your patient, so there aren't any of those issues to deal with." There's conviction in his voice, but he follows it up with a smile.

* * *

"Hmm," Winter muses as their shoulders bump. "Well then, here's to new friends and no conflicts of interest." They lift their hand up, with a glass of wine in it. Above them, the stars are scattered across the inky blackness in a twinkling display, with one or two shooting across the sky every few minutes.

* * *

Royal makes his glass of whiskey reappear in his hand, then tap gently against the glass of wine. "And as we continue down this exploration of making me less afraid of my own VR shadow, I want you to take whatever form you feel most comfortable in. Now that I hope that I've proved that it's not going to freak me out." Those words don't sound quite right in his mouth, but he chose them for that reason.

* * *

"Okay," Winter says, the tone suggesting they may have just heard a challenge. They have a sip of wine and consider. "So. Where to next time? No more crowds, I don't think. I have a coral reef, but I have a feeling that won't work well, either."

* * *

"Mmhmmm no, I'm not really a water person. I like to look at water, not touch it. But that's probably a whole other…" Royal rolls his wrist, "…area." He sips his drink. "You noticed that about the crowds, didn't you? I had to drop out of a chaos theory class in my undergrad. In fact, I stayed away from mathematics entirely after a few toe-dips. It gave me way too much ammunition to start seeing patterns everywhere. I didn't want to turn into some kind of recluse, trying to untangle string theory and unable to interact properly with the outside world. The patterns of human history felt far safer."

* * *

"It's my job to notice, too," Winter replies. They listen to Royal's forays into science and mathematics, having another sip of wine. "No deep, dark secrets of the cosmos, but a much more promising social life?"

* * *

"Something like that. And I've always been a social animal." Royal's eye contact lingers a bit longer, as if he's trying to see what he saw in the real in the eyes of the construct in VR. "I recognize my potential for obsessive tendencies and do my best to avoid them. I have no doubt that I would have given in to those impulses if I didn't like other people so much."

* * *

Winter is willing enough to hold eye contact, giving Royal plenty of time determine if there's still a soul behind them, even in VR. "And history is all about people and patterns. As is GPPI work, at its core. Is that what drew you to it?"

* * *

"Indeed it is. As chaotic as humans can be, we also follow certain cycles that tend to repeat. We're also not always the best about learning from our mistakes. Sometimes that's because of missing the continuity of history, but sometimes it's willful ignorance." Royal is the kind of person who can hold quite comfortable eye contact for longer stretches, and right now it's Winter who gets his full attention - not the VR landscape around them. "I also like puzzles, and a case is a puzzle wrapped up in the patterns of human nature."

* * *

"Why only a fifty percent close rate?" Winter asks, blinking slowly. "Are some puzzles that incomplete, or were they just not able to hold your interest?"

* * *

"Ah, that's…my own lack of connections on the ground, I'm afraid. I bit off more than I could chew when I first started. I was a bit arrogant, and thought I could handle more than I could. It blew my close rate, and I'm still trying to recover from it." Royal chuckles and shakes his head. He touches his temple and is momentarily surprised to find the curls. He forgot about that. "You can't solve cases on the ground without knowing the right people and understanding how things work. I stepped in it quite badly, and ended up with a bad reputation in the GPPI. They understandably thought I was just some rich twat playing Tracker."

* * *

"Mmm," Winter murmurs with a small nod. "So, you took some time? Made some contacts? Learned the game?"

* * *

"I did. But it will take some time to recover from that initial hit to my percentages. But I am willing to work for it." Royal leans in conspiratorially. "But here's a little secret about the GPPI. You have to be suspicious of the ones with the highest close rates. Because they're only taking cases they know they can solve. The easy ones. And sometimes they're doing it at cut rates so they can charge higher fees. A solid Tracker who is going to do their job but also take risks should have a close rate in the seventies."

* * *

"Good but not perfect. Honest. Ish," Winter replies, finger tapping thoughtfully at their chin. "You do make it sound fun."

* * *

"Oh, it can also be a pain in the arse. Fully half the cases that come across my desk are cheating spouse cases. And for reasons you can well imagine, I'm not interested in those." Seeing as Royal has made it clear his own feelings about fidelity. "Which means I don't take on a very heavy case load. Which suits me, between my academic duties and my duties with the embassy. I can afford, both literally and figuratively, to only take the cases that interest me."

* * *

"Or cases assigned to you by a methuselah," Winter reminds a touch wryly. "Cheating spouses don't sound very exciting, though I'd argue there's certainly a difference between a cheater and someone in an open relationship, or a polyamorous one."

* * *

"True enough on both counts," says Royal. "I suppose I didn't think I could do a very good job on the cheating spouse fronts because I don't get jealous easily. I do, as we all do, but some people seem to get there on a hair trigger. For me, a partner has to transgress a boundary that we both agreed on, and not simply an assumption."

* * *

"In this culture, like it or no, that assumption is implied unless specifically stated otherwise," Winter counters. "I'm not trying to talk you into hunting down cheating spouses. But I think the majority of affairs are done with full knowledge that someone else is being hurt by it." They cant their head thoughtfully. "But never mind that. Who's made you jealous?"

* * *

"Yes, and that's why before I enter into anything physical, I like the terms to be clear and stated outright. As unromatic as that might seem." Royal exhales. "And that's why I'm not great in these cheating spouse cases. I nearly had a poor woman in tears who came to me. I was trying to get her to articulate just what rule of their relationship her girlfriend had broken, and she couldn't say specifically. And I'm not very good at those unspoken rules, so I had a hard time empathizing. And empathy is key in PI work."

The question of jealousy makes him tense up for the first time since he laid down on the grass. "Oh, you know, in the times before I learned that outright stating intentions was the best way to avoid heartache."

* * *

Winter's head cants in the other direction and they idly tug on one of their own dark curls. Imagining, perhaps, the tableau of Royal and a tearful woman debating unspoken rules of relationships around said tears. But, their attention snaps back to the GPPI as he continues to speak. "Sounds like a difficult lesson to learn."

* * *

"We do learn hard lessions when we're young," says Royal. He hesitates, unsure if he wants to divulge this particular tale. After a moment of looking at Winter in their approximation of their birthsleeve, he inhales, then exhales. "The one time I can say I was…in love. I was in my twenties. She was…a little over two decades my senior. A professor at school, though in Biology, so I wasn't in any of her classes. We met on campus. I was smitten. It lasted almost four years."

* * *

Winter's brows lift. "That's an impressive amount of time, for any relationship," they say. "What happened?"

* * *

"Well, the terms of our relationship were never…set. I slept with other people, as did she. I was full playboy at the time, and the tabloids loved following me about. And we managed to keep our relationship quiet, mostly because I don't think the press could quite picture me with a woman so much my senior." ROyal rolls the glass that held his whiskey between his hands. "But there were all these unspoken rules. Like calling before coming over. I broke it once, unthinkingly, and she was with someone else." His jaw tightens. "So I know I am capable of jealousy, but I know I can avoid it if the terms are clear."

He pauses a moment and looks off across the landscape before contining. "What happened was she resleeved, into a body of a young man. Younger than me. At first, it was delightful. It was like discovering each other all over again. But…as she explored her new sleeve, our dynamic began to shift. And after the initial thrill wore off, we realized things had changed. It wasn't a lack of attraction, but something…I can't quite articulate shifted in our dynamic. Maybe it was her new hormones. But after a time, we grew apart."

* * *

"You said 'her new hormones'," Winter points out, finishing their wine and setting the glass aside. "Did your lover still consider themself a woman, or was that just how you continued to think of her?"

* * *

"You know, I don't actually know? I just know she never objected to me calling her by female pronouns. Perhaps now, that's changed. But we only lasted for about six months after resleeving before…" Royal's lips twitch into an awkward little smile. "The explanation I was given is that she now enjoyed sex with women more than with men. And that as much as she cared for me, the relationship felt limiting in a way it hadn't before. I said I had never asked for exclusivity and still didn't want that. But it still ended." That was a long time ago, but there's still a tinge of heartbreak in his voice.

* * *

Winter winces a little in sympathy for that ending, or maybe just for the tone Royal's voice takes in the telling of it. "And since then, you've made sure your wants and expectations were always clear and up front."

* * *

"Indeed. And perhaps added to my anxiety of not being sure I'd be the same person were I in another sleeve. It's entirely possible we would have still grown apart had she not resleeved. But I'll never know that for sure." Royal clears his throat. The simulation is real enough that it tightens enough to need clearing. "For most people, it's exciting to get a new lease on life and change, especially if one gets sick or grows old. But…"

* * *

"…not for you," Winter finishes gently, "because, what if new life is still really some sort of death? Above and beyond the title and standing you'd lose without your birth sleeve."

* * *

"This is also the reason I never studied philosophy in-depth, either," says Royal with a self-effacing grin. "I've already had an existential crisis or three. I didn't really need more knowledge to articulate my anxieties."

* * *

Winter laughs softly, ducking their head. "Sorry," they murmur. "And for the loss of your lover as well, for all it was years ago. Some things just leave a mark."

* * *

"Well, most of us have that one lover who left a mark. I do hope she, or he, or they, are happy. Part of me wonders if, paradoxically, our age differences became more acute after resleeving. I've heard stories of people on their second sleeves after living a significant portion of their lives in one sleeve finding themselves with an interesting combination of wisdom and youthful vigor which made relating to actual young people difficult. I'm sure you'd know more than I would about whether that's true, though."

At some point, Royal disappeared his shoes.

* * *

"It depends on the individual and the sleeve," Winter replies, easing back down into the grass, though keeping their head turned as they continue the conversation. "I've certainly known individuals whose personalities have changed once they resleeved. Not due to fragmentation. Just, due to new experiences, sensations, moments lived. And that's often difficult for those who knew them before. I guess to me, I see it less as proof of something lost in the transition. More just proof of life. Our experiences shape up, and you don't have to change sleeves to change as a person. I don't think changing sleeves guarantees you'll become someone else. But, it does guarantee new experiences, and likely ones that will continue to shape us."

* * *

"In retrospect, I've come to understand that. Just as…getting a new job or having a child, or moving to the colonies would change someone, so would changing sleeves. Especially if it's a sleeve quite different thant he one you were in before." Royal stays sitting up, still lotus pose. "Intellectually, I know this is the case. There have been studies to confirm that although residual sensations can sometimes linger in a sleeve, it's a change of circumstance that prompts personality changes rather than the sleeve itself."

He's quiet a moment, staring up at the artificial sky. Then he unfolds long legs and stands. "It's been lovely to chat with you, Winter. But I'm realizing that even if you put time dialation on, it must be getting late. And I don't imagine being in VR counts as sleep."

* * *

"Only if you sleep in VR," Winter allows. They stretch and then push to their feet. "I didn't mean to end things on such a melancholy note. Sometimes, I just ask too many questions." They quirk a faint smile. "Goodnight, Royal."

* * *

"I'd call it a thoughtful note," says Royal. He speaks in softer tones, and has been for the past while, rather than the brash and peacocky personality he tends to walk around in daily life with. "Thank you very much for your patience, and for your wisdom." He reaches for the other's hand, and if there's not an objection, presses a gentlemanly kiss to the back of it.

* * *

Winter allows it, laughing softly for the gesture. This time they do indulge themselves, taking advantage of the moment Royal's bent over their hand to press fingers briefly through those soft, frizzy, usually-tamed curls. "And thank you, for letting me see some bits that you don't think suit you."

* * *

Royal's hair is surprisingly thick, which is why he has so much volume even when he irons the curls into submission. "Well, if you want to see it in the real, call on me when I'm just out of the shower." There's that familiar sex-joke-deflection tone re-entering his voice. Then, "And you are quite handsome like this. Suits you. Not that your current sleeve doesn't. I'd imagine you'd have a talent for making any sleeve you'd wear suit you." With a chuckle, he rocks back. "Until next time." And then, he fades out, as he winks from the simulation back into his flat - back into his still slightly-drunk body.

* * *

Winter watches Royal vanish and lets a soft breath out. "Oh dear," they murmur once they're alone, "he really is charming." They give a brisk slap-slap to their cheeks before vanishing back into their sleeve. The starlit field of heather winks back into nothing as the program is closed.