"Frank!" James said with a cheerful smile as he threw open the double doors at the base of his office building. The glass doors and brass fittings were intentionally just a bit too heavy or spring-loaded, so that furious employees couldn't slam them against the walls when they stormed into their monotonous jobs. But, they weren't so weighed down that James couldn't make a semi-dramatic entrance when he was in a good mood.
Frank looked up from his paper. The older man, with his short and rough beard, and his greying hair, did a perfect impression of someone who'd just popped in from twenty years ago for a visit. He had an old, chipped ceramic mug of black coffee and a big cake doughnut on the security desk in front of him, he was doing a crossword on a hard-copy newspaper, and even his shirt looked like it was just a little bit different from the modern style.
James was pretty sure that Frank did this on purpose, to throw people off. Because James was absolutely sure that Frank had a laptop under the desk, and snuck in games of Hearthstone when no one was around. It was a long term disguise; the cultivated image of an Old Man, someone who was just sort of a fixture, and not to be worried about.
And now, he was an impromptu ally in sneaking stuff in and out of the building.
"Jim." The old man spoke in a deep, throaty voice, thick from a lifetime smoking. "Is it Monday already?" He asked with a huff that James had come to associate with his version of laughter.
The fact that Frank had caught on to the pattern of James' happiness enough to realize that Monday nights were the special times was kind of worrying. Then again, he'd so far helped them move several jugs of fictional soda and at least one unconscious and injured person into a car. So maybe it would have been stranger if he hadn't noticed.
In response to his question, James just nodded. "Yup. Say, I wanted to thank you for your help over the last month."
"Don't mention it." Frank said, in a tone that indicated that he was more interested in discretion than avoiding praise. "Don't mention it to anyone, really. I don't."
"Well, I appreciate it. And I know my friend appreciates it." James cleared his throat, leaning on the desk. "Speaking of, I have a couple other friends coming through tonight, if that's okay?" Frank folded his paper, deliberately, and sat in on the desk in front of him, raising a single eyebrow at James. That technique was impressive, James thought; he tried, but the most he could ever get was one eyebrow slightly above the other. Frank had the full on Leonard Nimoy thing going on. "Ahem. Anyway, I just wanted to make sure you knew." James casually set the stack of folded bills he'd been holding in his pocket onto the desk, under the small overhang where the sign in sheet was.
"A'ight." Frank muttered through his mustache. "Thanks for the warning. Good talk." He looked back down at his crossword; the money already having vanished into a pocket somewhere. James hadn't even seen him reach for it.
Walking toward the stairs, James mumbled to himself quietly. "I'm putting 'vampire street magician' on the list of potential backstories for that guy."
"No, I'm sorry ma'am, but we can't send a technician out to find your remote." James had his head on the desk, his back folded at a sharp angle to let him more fully attempt to merge his forehead with the treated wood. "Yes, I understand how annoying it would be to have your TV stuck on the same loop of the intro menu to The Sound Of Music. That sounds awful. But it's not a problem that a technician can really solve." James thumped his head into the desk. Hard. "Have you tried unplugging your television? That would at least be a temporary fix until... why not? ...Ma'am, the contract with the cable company is not dependant on leaving the device plugged in. You have my personal promise on that. ...Yes. ...Yes, you're welcome. Have a good night."
James hung up the call, making the case notes without bothering to look at the screen. He'd done this so many times, he knew exactly how many times he had to hit the tab button to get to the bits where he had to find a way to explain that someone just wasted a half hour of the company's time because they lost their remote.
"Is it always like this?" A quiet voice caught James off guard.
He yelped, a bit louder than he was comfortable with, and twisted sideways to try to see who was talking. In doing so, his chair rolled a bit on the hard carpet floor; a floor that his ass hit a second later as he fell, sprawling on his back.
Turning his head slightly to the side, he saw a row of people standing at him over the low wall of the cubicle that surrounded the desk segment James sat at. Anesh was shaking his head in mock pity, JP was just watching and trying not to laugh. Alanna, James couldn't see over the wall, but turning a bit more at a noise made it clear that she wasn't holding back at all, and was instead visible through the gap in the cubicle wall, doubled over and roaring with laughter.
"I'm afraid so." Anesh said, answering the earlier question. "Every time we come here, this is happening. At this point, I'm willing to believe his job is secretly some form of torture."
"Hey guys." James grumbled. "How's it going." He rolled himself over, dragging his chair back to its normal position and hauling his slightly-bruised form up into it.
He got a "good" from Anesh, and a "I'm alright, you?" from JP. Alanna was a little bit more energetic. "It is *monday*!" She excitedly let out.
"It is Monday." James agreed. "Where's Dave? Did he decide not to come?"
Anesh shrugged. "Wanker grumbled about it a lot, but I think he was mostly just mad we didn't invite him first. He said he'd be here."
"I'm here!" The weasley voice of their friend hit them as he ran around the corner, panting and out of breath. "The old coot gave me bad directions."
"That's weird. He gave me very efficient directions. Did you take a wrong turn somewhere?" JP asked in a pointedly neutral voice. Then, in a more concerned tone, "Why do you smell like a wet dog?"
"I had to wash a dog." Dave said. "Okay, okay, I didn't have to. But I was bored and nervous, so I washed my dog while I was waiting." He looked around at them as they all stared at him. "What? Don't you guys do things to calm down before stressful situations?"
JP shook his head. "I took a nap, I'm also not feeling that nervous. Although I'm also not sure this isn't a big old practical joke yet."
"We hear that a lot. Also, I mostly just read the news while I wait." Anesh said. "Alanna? Any pre-game rituals you want to share?"
"I'm more concerned with the fact that Dave apparently thinks that giving a dog a bath is a way to calm down. That's not normal." Alanna quipped
James raised a hand. "I do my job?" He asked with a mix of confusion and coyness.
"Not as far as I can see." A deeper female voice sounded from the other side of the crowd of people around James' cubicle. James' own enjoyment of seeing his friends jump a bit as they were snuck up on fled quickly as boss moved through the crowd and walked up to his desk. "James. I'm glad you're making friends, but why are they here?"
"Emotional support?" He ventured, feeling quite small in front of the short, dark skinned woman in front of him. "Actually, I don't know why they're all here. Can you do that thing where you scare people away?" He asked, in a quieter voice.
"You lot! Go wait in the break room! I assume you know where it is!" Theo commanded, not bothering to turn around. James watched, hiding a grin, as his friends scampered away to wait for him in uncomfortable chairs. "Now, James, my favorite employee! How have you been!" She leaned on the back of his chair, a little too close for comfort.
James leaned away, trying to put some distance between his grinning supervisor and his vulnerable neck. "Oh, alright. You know. Spent a week pretending to be you. Got good at forging your signature. Forgot you were coming back tonight. The usual."
"Right." She said. "And all your friends there?"
"Mostly just here to harass me before I clock off."
"Oh reeeeeally?" She drawled out, leaning in toward James' a bit more. The proximity made him quite uncomfortable, and he was having trouble coming up with convincing lies while under pressure.
James was pretty convinced Theo was a delver. Ever since Anesh had brought it up, James had been unable to believe his own explanations for her odd behavior. Sure, his boss played sports, but showing up with weird injuries was the sort of thing that *he* did. And yeah, she'd just taken an under-the-table week long vacation, which was exactly the sort of thing James would pull if he could get away with it. But it was also the sort of thing that James would pull if he was taking a week-long excursion into the dungeon. All that, mixed with her pointed questions that she asked him sometimes, made James feel like she was absolutely mixed up in all of this nonsense.
Which was what made it a really hard decision to outright lie to her.
See, they'd had a group discussion over the course of the week, in a private chat room that Anesh had set up for them. And at some point, JP and Alanna had both asked James exactly what it was his company *did*. Several Google searches later, it turned out that they did a whole hell of a lot. And they were diversified enough that it didn't take much imagination to think that they could absolutely be exploiting a dungeon, should it be discovered. So, they'd taken a vote, and collectively agreed that it was too much of a risk to outright invite Theodora to join them. Or even let on that they knew.
She would have been a great asset. James knew she had the sense of humor to get along with himself and Anesh, at least; that kind of snarky banter that they both loved. She would absolutely love the dungeon; James had no doubt of that. But, she was management. Even if it was only low level, she was too much of a risk to their operation. And none of them were willing to give up what they had just yet. Maybe if she ever got fired or quit, James would extend an invitation.
That was quite likely. This office had a turnover rate that rivaled the trenches of World War I.
For now, though, he just had to lie, and keep lying. He hated it. He was fundamentally an honest person. But in the pursuit of wealth and power? He'd do it.
"Really, boss-lady. Mostly just getting away with hanging out while on the clock, since no one was around to tell me otherwise." James said, rolling his chair back and causing Theo to take a half step forward before gracefully catching her balance. "Which I assumed was fine, since we're just ignoring company policy now."
Theo nodded sagely. She took a small hop, and planted her short frame up on the edge of James' desk, kicking her legs out while she talked. "Hoo boy, yeah, it's a mess. I'm still waiting on info from the higher ups on whether or not I'm promoted, or fired."
"How long have you been waiting?" James asked, concerned.
"Since the last floor supervisor quit one night and I stole this position." Theo responded.
He thought for a second. "Wait, do you actually... does the company *know* you're doing this job? Or is it just total anarchy around here?"
"Yes!" She responded with too much energy, hopping off the desk. "Now, get back to work! As your elder and superior, I command it!"
"You're three years older than me..." James muttered as he hit the button to rejoin the call queue. "Good evening sir, can I get your account for..." James cut off under a torrent of profanity. Muting his mic, he called out after his retreating boss, "I'm taking your job forever! You probably can't stop me!"
"Alright, so, here's the deal tonight." James addressed the group as they filed through the breach, and into Fort Door. "This is kind of short notice, so we didn't have time to get you guys any useful gear. I note with some trepidation that JP has shown up with a sword." Anesh and Alanna both winced at that comment. "So, we drew straws, and Anesh has the unfortunate duty of showing you guys the ropes. Make sure you know the basics without dying."
Anesh tapped James on the shoulder. "They're not listening, mate."
They were not listening. Both JP and Dave had taken a few steps in, and frozen. They were transfixed, JP by the expanse of grey and beige that he could see through the main door, and Dave by the fact that Rufus and Ganesh had both come out to greet their companions.
Rufus hesitated. There were new people; and while Ganesh had made him aware that Alanna was generally okay, he wasn't sure about the two new people. Ganesh, though, didn't hesitate. He just launched into the air with alacrity, homing in on Anesh's shoulder and his rightful perch. Unfortunately, this sudden burst of motion startled the hell out of Dave, who let out a high pitched screech and tried to hammer Ganesh out of the air, his shoulder bag falling to the floor as he lashed out with a half formed fist.
James pivoted, ducking under Ganesh's flight path, and casually catching Dave's strike on his forearm. Casually lowering his guard back down, taking the other man's fist down with it. "Alright, ow. Calm down there, punchy." He said, mimicking Alanna's own nickname for himself. "I refuse to believe that no one told you about Ganesh. Relax."
"It tried to kill me!" Dave said.
"No, you wanker," Anesh said, giving Ganesh a small pet as the drone landed on his open palm, "if he wanted to kill you, he could probably take you. Relax."
James cleared his throat. Loudly. "JP, you alive?" He friend turned away from the door, where he was gaping out at the landscape. "Okay, you and Dave, over here with me." He waited for the two to assemble. "Alright, here's the plan. Anesh is going to show you guys some of the low-risk areas. Alanna and I are going to go scout out what we think are the bathrooms."
He gestured around, at a loss for words to sum up their survival and loot strategy. "I... don't really know how to teach you guys this stuff. Um... any questions?" James asked the two newbies of the team.
Dave raised a hand. "You never really said how big the monsters get."
Before James could answer, JP cut in with his own question. "What's wrong with my sword? A sledgehammer isn't even a real weapon."
The two kept trading questions. "Why is there a paper airplane out there that doesn't seem to come down?"
"Is that pencil hovering?"
"Can I try one of the orbs if you have any here?"
"Are there respawns?"
"Do you have skateboards in here?"
"Do you have a map or something?"
James crossed his arms in an X in front of him, mimicking something he'd seen Rufus do. "Okay, okay, stop! In order, 'pretty big', though most of them are small. Your sword isn't going to cut it in here, pun intended. Don't ask about the blackhawk. Yes. No. Probably not. That's a good idea, but no. And yeah, we actually do have maps now. Anesh is putting them up over there." He gestured to the walls where Anesh was pinning up a bunch of posters they'd brought in.
He and his roommate had taken a lot of time and some meticulous notes, and turned them into some fairly accurate maps of the areas they had knowledge of. The FedEx employee who'd helped them get poster-sized versions printed out hadn't even asked about it, which was convenient, and had left James wondering how soul-destroying that job must be. Now, the work paid off, and they had large maps they could study, use to plan routes, and mark off looted or dangerous areas on. It felt satisfying, and also like they were putting more effort into their strategy, which James was happy with. He was reckless sometimes, but he knew the value of planning ahead.
Those maps were now tacked up on the wall next to a ton of color swatches in various tones of yellow, and a poster that Alanna had brought back from somewhere in the dungeon that proudly encouraged the viewer to "BE SEIZED BY OPPORTUNITY".
James agreed with Alanna. He loved that poster. Anesh hated it; he said it felt too real.
"Oh," He finished up, "and the bathrooms are some kind of hundred-meter spire of tile, buried in an overgrown region of the dungeon. We think they're the bathrooms, anyway. This place is weird sometimes."
"You don't say." JP said casually, buffing his fingernails. "Well, I admit, we probably need to get our feet beneath us here. So, we'll watch you guys, and try to learn all the stupid things not to do. It's... we're interns, aren't we? James, did you make us interns?"
"No, you get paid." James said, as he started buckling the hard plastic shells of his armor on.
"Do we get armor?" JP asked with a smile.
"No, you're interns." James responded, getting a boisterous laugh from his friend. There was a reason that James liked JP. In addition to him just being a nice guy, with a soothing tone of voice and a habit for disarming awkward social situations, he was also really good at lobbing jokes low and over the plate.
Dave cut in abruptly, ending their joke spree. "Hey, what's that thing doing?"
"Rufus?" James asked, looking over at the stapler. "Oh, he's got a garden going on. We're... not sure what he planted, but he's got a little garden over there. Don't disturb it, it's the part of the desk marked out by pencils and filled with staples; kind of hard to miss."
"This place is weird, James." Dave said. James stared at him, wide eyes mocking, before slowly nodding. "No, I mean, really weird." He said in a rather miserable tone.
"Well, you volunteered for this, and you're our intern now." James flippantly told him as he finished securing his armor, turning himself into a black-shelled extra from a sci-fi dystopia. "But really," he followed up more sincerely, "if it makes you nervous, it's totally okay to just hang back here. We won't force you in, obviously. Just... take it at your own pace, okay?"
Dave nodded, grateful for the lifeline. He'd feel a lot more comfortable going exploring in this spooky place if he knew that he didn't actually have to. "Thanks, man." He said, letting out a breath he hadn't known he was holding.
"Alright." James said. "If that's all the easy questions that we forgot to answer over the last couple days, I'm gonna get geared up and head out. Talk to Anesh about our general battle plans for the wildlife we tend to see around here, okay?" They both nodded, and James stretched his arms, loosening up. "Alright. Have fun, try not to get hurt. I'll see you both later, okay?"
JP saluted him. "Aye aye, mon capitan." He said with cheer. "Anesh! Tell me your secrets!" He said, jaunting off and dragging Dave along behind him.
James shook his head, making a grumbling noise in his throat. He didn't want to feel like the grumpy adult in this situation, but somehow, he was drifting into it. Even after a couple months of doing this, the sense of wonder and excitement was nowhere near fading. But it was now tempered by a healthy dose of caution, from having almost died more than once. He didn't want his friends making the same mistakes, but he sort of instinctively knew that they were going to anyway, no matter what advice they got.
"Oh god dammit." He said aloud. "This is how my dad feels, all the fucking time."
"Feels how?" Alanna said, catching him off guard as she walked up, already armored and holding her hammer.
James clipped his hand axe to his belt, eyeing the spear on the wall, but ultimately decided to leave it for Anesh today. "Oh, constantly disappointed." He told her.
"That's... kinda sad. You, um, feeling okay, Punchy?" Alanna asked with a bit of trepidation.
He shrugged in response. "I dunno. I'm having an off day. An off week. Everything feels like shit, even though I know I should be loving this. Like, I almost just yelled at JP for asking questions that I totally asked myself when I first got here. I'm just... trying not to take out my own shitty mood on everyone else."
"I get ya." Alanna said, resting a hand on his plated shoulder. "I can't do much to help, but, do you want to go kill some stuff and level up a bit? Would that help?"
James took a deep breath. "It probably won't hurt. I'll try not to drag my feet."
Alanna squeezed his shoulder. There was a moment there when both of them considered giving the other a hug, but a mix of their own awkwardness with physical contact, and the bulky padding of the armor, killed that idea. They shared a smile, amused at the situation. "Alright," Alanna said, "let's get out of here before Anesh goes full professor mode on those two."
"Why, what's he doing now?" James asked, still feeling a bit of that personal comfort in his chest.
Alanna pointed one of her long arms over to where Anesh was lecturing the two. "If you see a stapler," Anesh was saying, "do not pick it up. It might be a monster and will try to kill you. Do not touch any coffee cups, they are a trap and will kill you. Do not approach desk lamps unprotected, they are a trap and will kill you. Do not step on the joining lines of carpet sections, they are a trap and will kill you. Do not make too much noise, it will attract..."
"Yeah, okay." James said, tuning out his friend. "Let's go find the bathroom. I don't need a reminder of how many things in here are trying to murder me."
He and Alanna slipped out quietly, not wanting to disturb Anesh's teaching plan.
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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!