Vye looked down at the certificate on the table. It glimmered dully in the warm glow from the fireplace. It had sat between them for almost a full minute before she could bring herself to address it. With great reluctance, Vye straightened and shook her head. “Thank you so much, but… I cannot accept this.”
I came here for freedom, Vye thought as she struggled to calm the rabbit quick beating of her heart. But… did Randidly accept charity to earn himself his capability?
Wilbur smiled expansively. Just as Vye remembered, Wilbur had one of the most charming smiles she had ever seen. His exposed teeth were uniform and pearly white even with just the illumination from the fire. Plus, he possessed this sort of beaming positivity that was extremely difficult to resist. “It seems like a lot, but believe me, it’s not so much. For an old friend, this is nothing.”
Twisting her lips, Vye didn’t respond to that. The real reason that she had come to the Orchard had been because she wanted to achieve so many things but had no realistic concept of how to go about it. Strength, freedom, independence… these were the words that seemed to keep sleep from coming easily to her. But they weren’t just beasts she could encounter in the wild. They had to be cultivated.
And Vye knew very little beyond the fact that she wanted them.
After all, Vye had spent most of her 6 months since being released into the post-System world protected by Erickson Steel. She had heard reports about how the world was developing, but it was another thing entirely to see it for herself. It was another thing entirely to suddenly find that her choices had proliferated to the point that she couldn’t pin any of them down long enough to choose them.
It felt like she was clawing at mist with her bare hands. She could find no purchase. Nothing was real and there was no one around. Randidly’s lantern bright emerald eyes had been left behind, a whole Zone away.
Truthfully, Vye and Wilbur hadn’t been particularly close to one another before the advent of the System. They had both attended the Western State, but never moved in the same circles or gone to the same parties. It was only when they were both hired for a large tech conglomerate that they became anything more substantial than acquaintances.
Perhaps even more damning for their ‘relationship’, the Wilbur in Vye’s memory might have possessed an exceedingly charming smile but that was ruined by healthy doses of sexism and entitlement. To the point that she avoided extended interaction. Although he had sometimes made a pass at her at work happy hours, Vye had been exceedingly careful to brush off his every advance.
And yet here I am, calling him an old friend and coming to visit. Vye thought in wonder. It was strangely easy to forget who he had been and accept that he was an easy excuse to get out of the smoky cage that had been Erickson Steel. Vye looked down at the ticket to the Orchard’s Lottery on the table between them. Another path to escape the mire of their insubstantial relationship. Just as strangely, he welcomed me with open arms and provided this invaluable ticket.
As if sensing the train of Vye’s thoughts, Wilbur chuckled. “I also want to say that you are overvaluing these lottery tickets. Sure, in the beginning, they were extremely valuable and people would fight over them with tooth and nail. We were all refugees, after all, moved here from different collapsing communities. An escape… a dream… that’s what we were all craving.
“But now it’s been almost a year. Everyone who really wanted to leave the Orchard has already left. And those that stayed…” Wilbur had a sardonic smile as he patted his belly. He had gained perhaps fifty pounds since Vye had seen him last. “We have grown comfortable. We own businesses, we have lives that are starting to take root here. Would we casually leave, even if offered a job in Donnyton?”
Vye nodded; it certainly made sense. “But still… there are probably people who would pay for this. In fact, I bet you paid to acquire this for me. I don’t-”
The words ‘I don’t want to owe you anything’ caught in Vye’s throat. She already owed Tatiana more than enough. That was why she had stayed to the point of drowning in Erickson Steel. Even the memory made her long to pop a chocolate into her mouth. Now, as she scrambled around her mind to find a more polite way to explain that sentiment, Wilbur chuckled again.
But both looked toward the door as Wilbur’s wife Marry walked through into the warm light of the fire. Marry’s smile was as wide and perfect as Wilbur’s as she beamed at them both. “Can I get either of you anything? I was just thinking of making myself a snack and thought I’d offer.”
Wilbur rolled his eyes. “Marry…”
But Vye’s reaction was much more violent. She almost leapt to her feet and hurried over to Marry. “Marry, please! Let me help. You are eight and a half months pregnant, there’s no need to be on your feet so much.”
“Ah, shoo~!” Marry said with irritation on her face, but she let Vye take her hand and guide her into a wooden chair by the table. “I’m not afflicted with consumption. Besides, with the System’s help, a lot of the pangs of pregnancy are severely diminished. I honestly find it rather disturbing that you would take Wilbur’s side in this abhorrent babying.”
Vye’s smile was sly as she recognized the jab was aimed more at Marry’s husband than her. “Even so. You’ve taken such great care of me with every meal these past two days, let me help today. What sort of snack would you like?”
As the topic of food came up, Marry’s eyes began to sparkle. She leaned back in her chair and tapped her chin. “I was thinking of a deep dish pepperoni pizza!”
Shaking his head helplessly, Wilbur asked. “With what ingredients? We haven’t had time to go grocery shopping recently.”
“Bah, it’s like you don’t even notice when I leave! I went to the grocery store yesterday.” Marry sniffed.
Wilbur’s face twisted as he did his best to suppress a chuckle. “Marry… that was a week ago. You went to the grocery store a weak ago.”
Determined, Vye stepped forward while Marry blinked and tried to decide how she should respond to that. “I can handle that too. I’ll go to the grocery store and the start cooking when I get back.”
Even if it’s just a small thing, this is something I can do.
With clear gratitude in his expression, Wilbur passed Vye some cash to pay for the groceries. Vye had half a mind to reject it, but also acknowledged the fact that she didn’t have very much cash on her. Most of her money she had already traded for armor and camping gear for her journey that she hadn’t yet made the first decision about.
However, a phrase from Marry stopped Vye just as she was about to walk out the door. “Oh, Vye… what Level is your Cooking Skill?”
Vye blinked. “I don’t have the cooking Skill. But I grew up cooking a lot, so it shouldn’t be much of a problem.
Marry and Wilbur exchanged a long glance. Marry’s eyes were heavy with meaning as she gazed soulfully at him. Wilbur winced. Marry’s eyes remained cold.
Coughing lightly, Wilbur turned back to Vye. “Uh… actually, why don’t we just order take-out? It will be so much simpler.”
Hours and a dozen pizzas later, Vye and Wilbur were once more alone after Marry wandered off to recover from the veritable feast that she had just inhaled. Wilbur was bubbling like a shaken sprite. “Did you see her face when you said you didn’t have the Cooking Skill? Who knew marrying a chef would have made her so entitled.”
Vye pressed her lips tightly together. They didn’t even trust me to make a pizza! I handled Tatiana’s entire schedule at Erickson Steel. When needed, I was trusted to fill in every step in the forging process. People begged me to be more involved. And yet now…
Casually, Wilbur pulled the ticket for the lottery out of his pants pocket and put it on the table between them.
“I want… to earn this. I don’t deserve this gift.” Vye said through gritted teeth. Immediately afterward, she was mortified.
She hated the sleazy way the phrase had sounded, especially after spending so much time with the couple. There was not a chance in hell that Vye was willing to sleep with this man. It was just the least insulting version of the fact she didn’t want to owe him anything and her mouth moved faster than her filter. She also hated that she had to say it to Wilbur, who had been such a vicious flirt in her memories. She hated saying it after having such a fun time with Marry.
But Wilbur just released his charming smile and didn’t comment on the phrasing. Instead, he simply said. “I admire your spirit. I felt the same when I started my first restaurant in the Orchard. We should all start out with such a bold ambition. But it was only after I had really gotten my feet under me that I realized how many people had helped me without me realizing it.
“Whether it was acquiring funding, speaking with the patient architects and builders who were willing to listen to my constant demands for the layout, or negotiating with the administration of Orchard allowing for a unique method of tax collection, I couldn’t have gotten here alone. The people with power I met looked at me and gave me the chance to prove myself. Without that support, my small restaurant would have failed. And that’s, I think, why I fell in love with the Orchard. Everyone here is working together to build something worth having.
“Now I have four locations, and one of them is in the running for best restaurant in the Orchard. I achieved that honor because I gave a kid without the Cooking Skill a chance when he was fresh out of the time freeze. At the time I had more pull than I knew what to do with. But I still remembered how close I had been to failing. To such a determined kid... could I refuse the same chance I received?
“But I didn’t do it alone. The workers in this district, back when it was just scaffolding and a sketch in the dirt, had to walk a half mile back to the closest restaurant at which they could afford to eat. But because of the distance, they often had to skip lunch or let someone off early and carry it back.
“I didn’t have any money for a building when I came here. The next best thing I could buy was tables. I just came out to the place where people were working all day and set my tables up in the muddy paths they called a street.”
Then, Wilbur winced. “And man, if you could taste what I served then as food… I had to make such large batches that the process really lowered the quality of the taste. But I was the one who came to give them what they needed. So they were loyal when I finally could set up shop in an actual building. For the longest time, they were my only customers. No matter how low my Cooking Skill was, they still ate it.
“Now… it’s hard to say which of us needed the other more.” Wilbur slapped his cheeks. “But we both needed each other. There is no shame in that.”
Vye just looked at Wilbur as she slowly digested what he said.
His smile lessened somewhat. “I get the desire for independence. More than any other time, the System has made it so that there are threats that will end our lives as quick as breathing. But even the Ghosthound received help to become what he is today.”
“...I thought the Ghosthound was the one who helped everyone else?” Vye asked quietly. She remembered Randidly’s burning emerald eyes, surveying the entirety of Erickson Steel.
“Maybe, but he also worked closely with Senator Firefly for quite a while. He made the big push for the Orchard. The two are really close.” Wilbur shrugged. “With monsters surrounding us… humanity needs to band together. That’s the only way we can win over this fucked up System.”
Very slowly, Vye chewed her lip. “But… why me? Why help me? Let’s be honest; we weren’t that close. I don’t even know why I came to visit. It’s just-”
“-it’s just that we, to each other, are the only people that we knew from before,” Wilbur said quietly. “I wasn’t in the original batch of people, but I was one of the first rescued. There will people waiting to assist our escape. And still, everyone else who was there with me… died.”
With a sigh, Wilbur pushed the ticket across the table toward Vye. “Nostalgia is a strange thing. Even though we weren’t close, you are the only living link to my previous life. Vye, I’m about to have a son in this fucked up world. He’s going to need to live here, and I’m going to pray every day that he doesn’t piss off the wrong Level 50 Barbarian or wander into a Raid Boss nest.”
Wilbur’s hand clenched into fists. “If I help you now, someday you might be able to help him. And then he will save someone else and humanity…”
Shaking his head, Wilbur seemed abruptly exhausted by his previous emotions. “Well, I don’t know much about humanity. But you remind me that things were once better, and that can happen again. So think of it as an investment in the world, for my son’s sake. You always had too many ideas to just be buried on the project team of some corporate schmuck. We need people like you, Vye. Out there, given wings to make the world a better place. So… this is just me... with paste and feathers.”
After ten seconds, Vye nodded and took the certificate. Her hands were trembling. “What… ah… have you picked out a name for your son?”
Wilbur’s wide smile made a sudden comeback. “Heh. Marry isn’t such a fan, but… I really want to name him Wilbur Jr. To preserve the noodle shop legacy…!”
Vye eyes tightened as she resisted an urge to groan audibly. You are still such a douche.