"That guy is a drug dealer." Anesh said, pointing at one of the other patrons of their local somehow-twenty-five-hour diner with his finger close to the table and out of sight of his target.
James looked up from putting ketchup on his victory burger, and took great care to not look too suspicious as he stretched his arms and scanned around the establishment. "Really? That guy? How do you figure?" He asked his friend.
Anesh drove his fork into his salad. "Pattern recognition skill. It's... honestly kind of weirdly useful. It's not like I'm a detective-serial-level savant, but I'm seeing all these little connections in everything." He munched on a tomato slice. "That guy over there is here every time we come in at this time of night, he's got three different people that he eats with on rotation, and all of them treat him like he's their boss. He always gives them small gift wrapped boxes like he's some uncle handing out presents, so it's probably a high-impact low-volume drug. He also tips too well, I assume so the staff think he's friendly and don't make the connection on the drug thing. And the weird bit is, I can't be sure about any of those base facts, but my brain just sort of spins them all together and creates a reasonable estimation of a truth from them. Big picture."
"What if he is just friendly?" James asked, looking with distrust at Anesh's salad.
"He just threatened to cut that guy's ear off. See how he kind of flinches and touches his ear a second later? This skill is insane, I need to get a job with the force." Anesh said, gesturing with his fork.
James glanced over again with a shocked expression on his face. "Fuck, man, are you sure?"
"About joining the police? I don't think I actually can, since I'm not a citizen."
"No, about the drug dealer thing!" James hissed out.
Anesh just shrugged. "Sure as I can be. I mean, I don't have magic answers, I just sort of notice things now. Like, to a frightening degree. Did you know this city has less street lights in lower class neighborhoods? I can't tell you if that's cause or effect, but I can tell you it's accurate information, just from the drive over here." He looked around the diner. "I don't feel like I'm a different person or like my mind is working different, just that I suddenly remember all these little things, and see a thousand connections between stuff in the world." He looked up at James, his eyes drooping from exhaustion, but still meeting his friend's interrogative stare. "It's kind of cool."
He and James ate in silence for a couple minutes, with Anesh just making the mechanical motions of putting food inside him, while James ravenously tore into the burger that he'd ordered. Though he felt like some of the flavor was drained away as he kept throwing glances at the person Anesh had pointed out.
After the third look, Anesh threw his hands up in the air, before shout-whispering at James "Oh, fine, I'll call the police when we leave!"
James gave him a level look. "You were going to do that anyway, weren't you?"
"Yes, but you seemed so upset, I figured I should tell you now just so you'd stop fidgeting. Though it has been making it easy to steal your fries." James looked down at Anesh's words to see a plate about half-empty of its previous fried potato bounty.
"Hey!" He reached over to steal some of Anesh's food in response, and then just stopped. If there was one benefit to ordering a salad at 4 AM, it was that it pretty much gave his friend immunity to having food pilfered.
Really, James thought, it felt weird. His friend looked normal - well, as normal as a half asleep zombie with a few too many obvious burns could look - but he was essentially making logical leaps that didn't seem quite human to James.
"What about the orbs?" He asked. "Any insight into those?"
Anesh swallowed a mouthful of spinach before answering. "Nah. Like I said, this is all just stuff that, *if* we thought about it, we'd notice. We have... put significant thought into the orbs. We know they all give skills, we know the general sources for all five of them now, and we sorta know what the dungeon is using them for. I'm not a mind wizard, man, it's just one skill point."
"Yeah," James said, "but you're not using it on purpose." There was a break in the conversation as their waiter came over to ask if they needed anything else, and clear their plates away, and Anesh didn't respond while the other guy was there. As soon as he was out of earshot, though, James leaned in again. "You're not, are you? It's a passive. Like me walking like Bruce Lee. You can't turn it off, because it's just part of you now."
Anesh nodded, silently. He'd noticed it. Of course he'd noticed it, that was sort of the whole problem. A lot of their skills were active; things that they only really got when they brought them to the forefront of their mind and took action. But some, like this one, weren't. They were passives, like James said, and he was right when he noticed that they were always on. He didn't mind picking up Shakespearean dialogue as a skill, because even when he'd never use it, that was fine, since he could just never use it. But he did mind this, because his tired brain didn't have a defense against this level of insight into the world.
He didn't like knowing that their waiter was struggling to make rent for the month, and also that the easiest way to disable him would be to strike for the ankle that he'd sprained last week. He especially didn't like that he couldn't turn that off.
James just leant back and shook his head. "Well, this sucks. I don't want to have to worry about getting a skill that makes me, I dunno, a complete asshole all the time, without my knowledge."
"I have bad news for you, mate." Anesh said the words before his brain caught up, the joke slipping out a little more hostile than he'd intended with the stress on his mind. He saw James' eyes go wide, and felt his own mirror them. "No, wait, hang on..." He started, but James interrupted him by bursting out laughing.
It wasn't actually very hard to offend James. Between a childhood growing up being bullied, and a general amount of anxiety for his own failures, he had settled on a policy of taking as little shit as possible from the people around him. More than once, James had simply exiled someone from their apartment, and friend group, for crossing a line that they hadn't known they were creeping up on. He had a bit of a temper when it came to cruelty. But here, with Anesh defensively holding up his hands, looking for all the world like a deer in the headlights, James could only find it in him to laugh.
Of course he knew his friend didn't mean him any harm. They'd thrown around worse banter with each other before. Anesh was tired, and not thinking straight, and they were both on edge with the knowledge that they might not have full control over their skills, and he didn't blame him for thinking he'd gone too far.
But getting angry over a good dig like that? Nah. James pulled out the orb he'd secured from the trap; a small, fingertip-sized dot of red. He stared at it for a few seconds before looking back at Anesh. How could he be angry when the two of them had done so much tonight? They'd faced death together, looted treasure together. It was a form of companionship that was immediately understandable to the D&D playing part of James' brain. And it meant, among other things, that Anesh got to call him an asshole whenever he wanted to.
"So," He said when he'd finished laughing, and Anesh had calmed down a bit, "you want to see what these things can do?"
James didn't wait for Anesh to answer him. The allure of something new was pretty strong. He'd seen a term recently when going through some game discussion on Reddit; someone had mentioned that new games often had trouble getting feedback, especially RPGs, because of what they called 'beta tester syndrome'. Players just wanted to try out new things, and so, they failed to fully delve, explore, and exploit any given mechanic. He felt like that was pretty solidly where he and Anesh were. The skill he'd picked up a while ago really pushed him to categorize things like the orbs as 'game mechanics', and he understood them pretty well through that lens. He knew that there were probably a lot of little things that they could do that they didn't understand yet; Rufus being able to reform a skill orb was a huge indicator of that. But while James was certainly interested in filling in the gaps in his understanding over time, he wasn't in the same hurry Anesh was. He didn't feel the need to test green orbs in a variety of locations, and he didn't have any particular desire to scan the small orbs before use, like Anesh wanted to. Well, maybe the blues.
Really, James just liked the rush. Feeling himself getting... better. All that knowledge and improvement packed into a few seconds; he should ask Anesh how he felt about it, because to James, it was a wild ride that he didn't want to ever get off.
So, he didn't hesitate to pop the small red ball between his fingers. A ring of dusty smoke drifted out of it, and James smelled the barest hint of cherries.
[+1 Emotional Resonance Rank : Melancholy]
He waited for the drifting alien thought to continue, but that was it. "That's it?" He said out loud and Anesh waved his hand expectantly, motioning for him to spill it. "One rank of melancholy!" He announced.
"Melancholy is a skill?" Anesh sat up a little straighter.
James shook his head. "Melancholy is an 'emotional resonance'. Got one rank of it. I don't... know what that means at all. Well, no, I do know what that means, I just don't want to. I already cry at the endings of half the anime I watch, I don't think I need this, too." He muttered.
"To be fair, you mostly just watch sad anime." Anesh said. "Now..." He pulled out the orange orb that was his winnings from the day and set it on the table. "Thoughts on this?"
"It's gonna give you a motorcycle." James said without hesitation.
Anesh, in his reply, had *plenty* of hesitation. "...whhhhhy?" He asked, suspicious.
"Because I want it to, mostly. The last one gave you a driver's license. Seems like the logical progression."
"Your version of logic is a bit buggered, isn't it? Anesh asked as he picked up and popped the orb.
[Certification Added : Citizenship - Canada]
[+5 Skill Ranks : Appraisal - Furniture - Antique]
"Okay, the orange ones give legal status, it would seem. Also, I'm moving North." He said.
"What, now?" James asked as they stood up. They'd opted to test the greens some other time, being pretty much exhausted right now. These two orbs were their own special treat to themselves.
Anesh shook his head. "Nah, I need to learn new slang first. Start saying 'eh' after every sentence to go with my new Canadian citizenship."
"This feels unfair again for some reason." James griped.
"The world is unfair sometimes, my friend." Anesh told him as he pulled out his newly stuffed wallet. He looked over at their waiter, the guy rushing between eight tables who'd been on shift for well over twelve hours. He'd overheard a few comments between him and the line cook, and from the tone of his voice, Anesh was pretty sure the dude was on the cusp of being evicted. "The world is unfair." He muttered, and James watched out of the corner of his eye as he dropped six hundred dollars on the table tucked under their bill. "But maybe sometimes it doesn't have to be." He looked back up, and James avoided looking at his friend for a second, a tight feeling in his chest. "Ready to go?" Anesh asked like nothing had happened.
"Yeah. Let's go home." James said.
And the two of them walked out into the cool night air. Injured, hurting, one of them almost falling asleep on his feet, and above all else...
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Bio: I write stuff, and have a lot of thoughts about narrative structure and tropes. Some of the stuff I write is here, the rest can be found over on Reddit on my r/hfy author page. Feel free to message me if you want to talk about ideas, or just have questions about anything I made!