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Although they don't really address it as such, Feitan and Shalnark have been in a relationship for almost a year now. They often have their little power struggles, but they get along great and are always willing to compromise for each other. It's a good relationship... but there's one glaring issue.

Nobody believes them.

At first, Shalnark had thought the teasing was because they were together, that it was obvious yet unexpected and teasing is just how the Troupe shows their support regarding pretty much anything. But then, hitting Shalnark completely out of left field, Uvogin had suggested someone for him. He said he found a beautiful, timid young man who would be just Shalnark's type. Shalnark had blinked in surprise and said "I'm with Feitan, remember?" The whole room seemed to think it was a hilarious joke. Shalnark remembers sweating in that moment, his predicament dawning on him.

It's true that Feitan doesn't seem the type to get into a relationship at all, and Shalnark seems the type to prefer someone who's submissive from the getgo rather than someone who has to go against their nature to bend to him. Those assumptions make it practically impossible to see the mere idea of them being together as anything but an inside joke. Most of the Troupe members are stubborn as hell to boot, so the only progress Shalnark makes is convincing Machi and Kortopi. The boss would probably believe him too, but he's not about to bother him about it.

Feitan is the one to convince Pakunoda, which surprises Shalnark since he'd been refusing to bother clarifying anything thus far. He mentions it casually and Pakunoda must just figure that Feitan wouldn't put in as much effort to keep a joke going as Shalnark might, which really makes Shalnark rethink how the Troupe must see him. Then again, Shalnark only has himself to blame, being one of the youngest members and by far the most lighthearted and positive. He knows how to make people take him seriously, but it's hard to apply that sort of approach to something like this.

The two of them have been on "dates" before... sort of. Mainly, they just refer to any heists they carry out as a pair as dates, and Shalnark occasionally refers to any battles the two of them get caught up in as dates after the fact, as a little joke. They've only been on one proper date, where Shalnark dragged Feitan out to a restaurant at night, but it didn't feel romantic or anything. None of their so-called dates have felt romantic. It actually makes Shalnark realize that the Troupe has a point in that case: the two of them are essentially just friends with complicated benefits right now, even if they probably wouldn't believe that, either.

So Shalnark thinks about it. He tries to think of something that would be romantic, that the two of them could do without it feeling unnatural or too cheesy. Then, on a day where he's not even trying to come up with anything, the idea hits him. He doesn't tell Feitan about it, just invites him to go up north with him. Feitan only agrees because his schedule happens to be clear, but he tells Shalnark that whatever he needs him for better be worth exposing him to the cold he hates so much.

Feitan is actually so miserable in the snow that Shalnark starts to nervously rethink his idea once they arrive at their destination. But it keeps Feitan close to him, if for no other reason than to sap his body heat, and Shalnark can't help relaxing, can't help smiling warmly even as Feitan openly complains. They turn in early, but Shalnark warns Feitan that it's only to warm up for a bit, that he wants to show him something that night. Feitan seems like he's about to decline, especially with how he glares at Shalnark, but he reluctantly agrees before finding the thermostat in the room they've rented and turning the heat up.

In a few hours, Feitan is still awake, but Shalnark finds it almost impossible to drag him out of bed. He claims that there's already a chill in the air before they even open the door, despite the fact that Shalnark has been sweating since the heat kicked in with how high Feitan had it. He actually had to sneak over and turn it down a few notches about an hour in because he just couldn't take it anymore.

Feitan walks quickly once Shalnark gets him outside, though, eager to get whatever it is over with. Feitan keeps his eyes ahead of him and pays attention to his surroundings, as always, but he's not looking up. Perfect.

Shalnark takes him somewhere secluded, finding an excellent spot by a short cliff that looks over a lake with huge chunks of ice covered in snow littering the surface. He has extra layers on, including gloves, but the cold still seeps further in when he sits down and ends up digging his hands into the snow behind him. He sweeps some of it to the side so he can touch solid ground and he looks expectantly at Feitan, who only stands next to him, looking more annoyed by the minute. Shalnark lifts a hand to point at the sky.

"Look up," he says.

Feitan actually seems surprised by the sight of the aurora. His eyes soften as he stares at the lights, and Shalnark can tell he's forgiven him for making him put up with the cold. Feitan removes a hand from his pocket, stubbornly uncovered by any glove, and reaches for the sky as if he's curious to see what the aurora might feel like. He keeps his hand in the air until the biting cold proves too much for him, and Shalnark grabs Feitan's other arm. He lets Shalnark pull him down half onto his lap, and he takes Feitan's hand that had been exposed to the cold air between his own, pressing it to his cheek.

It's a nice moment, but something within Shalnark is begging him to say something, convinced that something is missing from this scene. It feels like the whole world is waiting for Shalnark to speak, like the aurora is a sentient creature staring down at him expectantly, encouragingly. And he says something that he doesn't even realize he means.

"I love you."

Simultaneously, a weight both lifts from and falls onto him, certain anxieties satisfied and others agitated. Shalnark keeps his eyes on the aurora, unwilling to see Feitan's reaction and uninterested in his answer. He's scared, but he realizes it's not Feitan failing to reciprocate that intimidates him; it's the thought that he might not feel the same way tomorrow, or in a week, or in a year. Shalnark isn't one to regret much of anything, but what he just said feels distinctly like a mistake, and they both know that he can't say it was a joke this time.

Feitan doesn't reply, as one should expect, and Shalnark actually feels better for it. They head home the very next day, and the atmosphere between them is significantly different. It makes the journey home awkward at first, but then Feitan clicks his tongue and yanks on Shalnark's hand as if he's sick of being distant, keeping it in his grasp as they walk together. Finally, Shalnark smiles again.

The next time they see their fellow Troupe members, it's as if the aurora told on them. Everyone seems to acknowledge now that they're serious, and Feitan actually starts putting in an effort to confirm just that whenever the subject comes up. Shalnark doesn't pay enough attention to realize who says it, but someone quietly comments that his eyes seem warmer now when he looks at Feitan, that that's what love looks like. He sort of snaps out of it enough to recognize that it's Phinks who speaks next, and he's acknowledging what Chrollo just said.

Then, Shalnark recoils with that realization and quickly turns to face Chrollo, who only offers him a smile when their eyes meet.

The Phantom Troupe has always taken Chrollo's word as law, without exception. With his affirmation, Shalnark's concerns that he might be wrong, that he might change his mind, are instantly washed away. There are only five of them present at the moment, but Shalnark knows everyone is aware of it now. They must have just been waiting for Shalnark himself to realize it.