"So, have you considered getting a pet bird?" James asked Alanna as they drove out to the diner. She'd hopped in his car, leaving Dave to ride with Anesh while JP headed home.
Now, they rolled at a comfortable speed down the highway; the sky still dark, though not for much longer. The June sun would start pushing away the stars in not too long, and the air, while still cool now, would begin to warm up to that thick heat that marked the days.
Alanna wasn't worried about any of that right now, though, or about how it would be impossible to sleep beyond noon tomorrow if it got too hot; she was spacing out, and if thinking about anything, it was just simple relief that James was the kind of person who treated speed limits like guidelines, as opposed to Anesh's rigid adherence to the law.
But now, James asked a question, and she turned to answer. "Nope." Was the easy first half of the answer. "I know, I know, I got a second rank in falconry. That's cool and all. But I just... don't like birds? Also, where the hell would I keep a falcon? I live with my mom."
"Oh, really? I thought you lived on my couch now." James said without thinking, almost immediately regretting it.
But Alanna didn't take offense. "Maybe? It's not a bad couch. Anesh actually told me I could sleep in Sarah's room, but..."
James finished for her as she trailed off. "But that's suuuuper uncomfortable."
"Exactly! I mean, it's not like sleeping in a dead person's bed. But, well, it actually might be?" Alanna looked over James to see him staring forward, jaw clenched and hands tight on the wheel.
"I'd be pretty angry if it was." He spoke quietly. "I know I didn't press it today, but I'm actually really, what's the term, eager? No. Anxious, I guess. I'm anxious to go hunting after her." James sighed. A tense air filled the car while he gathered his thoughts. "The dungeon probably killed someone." His voice was tight in his throat. "It took her away from us, in practically every way. And maybe I wouldn't be this upset if she didn't seem like a cool person, or maybe I shouldn't care so much about someone who's probably already gone, but I do... hang on."
He took a minute to maneuver around a slow moving truck, passing it on the outside bend of a curve in the road. Headlights painting the concrete divider bright white against the dark night.
"I care too." Alanna muttered. "And it sucks to feel like Anesh and JP don't."
"What about Dave?" James asked quizzically.
"Dave was never going to care. He doesn't even care about the dungeon, really. You weren't there when we used our loot, but he really did just casually make life, because he was kind of bored." Alanna put on an expression halfway to a sneer. "And that's not even bad, I guess? But for fucks sake, it seems wasteful."
James nodded. "I get that. I mean, hell, we're not even using the yellows for 'fuel', right? They're just too valuable."
"Exactly. But my point is, I care. I want to follow where she went, and I'm still pretty pissed that you guys didn't signpost properly and don't know how to get back to the bathrooms. But even then, it feels like we're just wasting time, and it's annoying." She folded her arms across her chest and watched the road fly by past them for a second. "We've been offered the chance to be the good guys, and we're acting like mercenaries instead. It's offensive."
James more or less agreed with her. As he hit the off ramp to where they were meeting up for food, he spun the wheel into the turn lane, and replied; "I don't want to be the guy that drags everyone else into some stupid good-guy-quest they don't want, though."
"Fuck 'em." Alanna said with a little bit more vitriol than she really meant. "I mean, they can do what they want, I guess. I don't mind sharing the dungeon with them. But I'm with you here; it *hurts* that they don't care. Anesh, at least, I think will come with us if we just head off next week. He's invested in keeping you alive. And that means we'd have Ganesh too, and we could do some real mapping." She sighed. "You know, now that I know how to actually make maps? I realize that I have made some shit maps. It's like looking back on work I did in elementary school and thinking that child-me was an idiot."
"So, what, we just dive in ourselves?" James asked. He'd stopped the car in the parking lot of the diner, and the two of them were sitting illuminated by a single orange streetlamp. "Let them do their thing, just go hunting, hope we get lucky?"
She shrugged in response. "More than hope; I did want to borrow Ganesh. After we can spot the place, and if we skip looting, and move quickly, we can just rush it. Take the gear we most need, don't bother with anything we can spare."
"That sounds... super risky? Like, I know I'm supposed to be the token dumb guy in the group, but come on."
Another shrug. "It's important. To us, at least. So, I say again; if the others don't want to help, it falls to us to act."
That got a grin out of James. Alanna's life ethos was pretty straightforward, really. Sometimes, in her eyes, the world had to be reminded of certain things. Courses corrected, wrongs righted. Not just big ones; although the fact that this *was* a big one certainly helped. It was a policy Alanna lived, more than she talked about it. But when she did bring it up, it was for things she found important.
James had really only ever heard her discuss it in something more than the abstract once. And afterward, he'd had to think pretty hard about the kind of person he wanted to be, personally. He'd always wanted to be the hero; what kid didn't, after all. But he had realized the difference between himself and Alanna back then; that he had to think about being heroic, while for her, it was as easy as breathing.
So now, he thought about it for a few seconds, and promptly decided to follow her instincts. "Yeah, okay." James said. "Next week, we go for it."
"Great!" Alanna was a little too cheerful about their possible doom. "Now, I note that Anesh's car isn't here yet, because he drives like a grandma..."
"You've never been in a car with my grandmother." James interjected.
"...So *anyway*, do you want to go across the street and get something to drink from the gas station? I feel like a walk, and chocolate milk, and neither of those are gonna happen sitting in the diner." Alanna finished, glaring at him.
James popped his door open, letting the warm night air in. "Sure, I could walk."
The two of them stretched their legs in the parking lot, before climbing a small dirt embankment to a well lit sidewalk. Deep breaths of fresh air, thick with the scent of pine needles and pollen, filled their lungs.
"You know," James said as they jaywalked across the street, "we should really remember to do warm up stretches before going in. My legs are killing me from all that walking."
Alanna pushed open the door of the convenience store attached to the gas station, the crisp white light painting boxes on the dark pavement. "You fucking forgot? How? You've been going to the gym regularly for months now, this should be a routine for you, man."
James rolled his eyes back at her, even though she wouldn't see. The gesture could still be heard in his voice, though, as he told her "There's a difference between a gym routine and preparing to..." He stopped abruptly, and Alanna smacked into his back. "Um..."
"Why did you..." She started to say, a bit annoyed, but then she took the time to look past him.
Just inside the doors, a man in a balaclava stood shoving food off the racks into a backpack. On the other side of the counter, the clerk was standing with his hands in the air as another masked person held the kid at knife point while stripping fistfulls of bills out of the register. As the door dutifully chimed out to introduce new customers to the store, both of the thieves froze and snapped their heads toward the door.
There was a moment of perfect silence. Which James quickly broke, by tilting his head toward Alanna, and stage whispering in a voice clearly meant to be overheard. "Is this actually happening to us?" He asked.
"I think it is!" She responded in kind.
James grinned. "You never expect it to happen to you, right?"
"Should we call the police? I don't want to ruin it."
"This is kind of a magical moment, yeah." James said back, a spike of adrenaline starting to flood his bloodstream.
Alanna was having a similar reaction, but even as she felt her body getting ready to fight, she couldn't help but find herself making jokes with James. "This looks weirdly familiar, doesn't it?" She gestured to the guy with the backpack.
They'd been in life or death situations for the last eight hours. And that experience had been repeated every week for months now, for James at least. But there was something about the threat of other, living, breathing humans, that made both of them feel their blood run cold.
As Alanna finished talking, the thief who was failing to cram bags of chips into his pack snapped out of his stunned silence, and dropped the bag. Pulling a switchblade out of his pocket, and flicking it open, he yelled over at the two of them, "Don't fucking move!"
His friend behind the counter also shouted something, but James wasn't listening. He shuffled to the right a bit, allowing Alanna to step up next to him, and made eye contact with the thug approaching him. "Why?" He asked, his heart beating hard in his chest.
"Because I told you to, you bitch! And give me your wallet!" The guy yelled at James, waving the knife in his face far too close for comfort.
James raised his eyebrows. "Oh, a compelling argument." He said, resisting the urge to take a half-step back and away from the jackass threatening to stab him. Without looking back, he spoke in a calm, projecting voice; "Alanna, get the other one." The guy in front of him didn't make the connection fast enough, and by the time he realized his target wasn't in any way prepared to stop moving, James had already lashed out and punched him in the eye.
The strike was fast, and connected with a satisfying squish as James' fist slammed into the thief's face. The man in the mask let out a howl of pain, and started flailing with his knife even as he brought his other hand up to grasp at the point where he'd been hit. The knife met only air, though, as James pivoted around a wire rack of greeting cards, and cleared space for Alanna to get by.
The other thief was in the process of vaulting the counter, the panicked clerk roughly thrown to the side by the larger figure. He slid over the glass case of lottery tickets, knocking a few dozen packs of gum and the 'leave a penny' cup onto the floor. He looked *pissed*, even through the mask; but that was understandable. James had just sucker punched his friend.
Unfortunately, he didn't get too far. As he tried to land and rush to help his buddy shank James, Alanna slid forward, caught him cleanly with a hand around his throat, and just slammed him downward, cracking his head against the counter.
The noise made even James wince, as he kept up his footwork against his partner in this scuffle. He wasn't being nearly as brutal as Alanna, instead trying to minimize his chances of getting stabbed. Every time the guy would rush him or get too close, James would use open-handed strikes to hammer his arm away, constantly aiming for the wrist and elbow. His assailant was, if nothing else, going to be about 50% bruise tomorrow. James also was kiting him down the aisle, and when the other guy tried to surprise him with a right hook instead of another stab, James twisted under the hit, grabbed a can of soda off the shelf next to his head, and flung it underhand into the guy's forehead as he righted himself.
Alanna wasn't as martially skilled as James, which was fair. He'd already gotten some supernatural help on the subject. But she made up for it with a fighting style that would have been right at home in a bar brawl. The guy she'd just slammed to the ground rolled away, staggering to his feet while coughing like a lifelong smoker. He held his knife up in front of him in a stance that actually looked practiced, and the kicks that Alanna threw into his torso while he was trying to get up didn't seem to slow him down that much.
"Last chance to drop it and leave." She told him, trying to keep her voice steady.
It didn't surprise her that the only response was a "fuck you!"
Alanna rolled her eyes. Unlike James, her fear reaction was entirely instinctual, and not at all personal. She knew she could take this guy; and she knew that compared to him, her dungeon augments made her practically superhuman.
Last week, Alanna had tested out the limits of her first purple orb with a kitchen knife. She'd found herself unable to casually draw blood from her palm. Or formally draw blood from her palm. Or actually cut herself without a very real effort. It was actually partly frightening, because if she ever needed to go to a hospital for a blood draw, there were going to be problems.
But right now? Against a guy with a knife? Well, she didn't know if the protection extended to her eyeballs, but Alanna still felt practically invincible.
So, when he came at her and tried to stab the knife into her throat, instead of dodging like James, who she could still see moving between the shelves down by the beer cooler, she just grabbed the blade with her hand.
Wrenching it out of the guy's hand did sting a bit, and she felt a drop of blood start dripping a trail down her wrist as she flung the switchblade behind her on the tile floor. "I fucking warned you, you asshole." She snarled, balling up a fist and slamming it into the startled thug's belly.
He doubled over, retching, and Alanna kicked up into his stomach again, sending him sprawling back on his ass. She almost felt sorry for the guy moaning on the ground, though if he hadn't literally just been trying to stab her, he might have gotten more pity points. "Hey. You want to call the police?" She shot over to the clerk while she stood over the unfortunate robber, making sure he didn't get up.
The clerk jumped a bit at being addressed. "Oh, I hit the button a while back."
"Then why do you have your phone... are you fucking filming this?" Alanna asked. She wasn't angry, though, more just... resigned. Of *course* the guy was filming this.
Behind her, there was a crash as James shoved his dance partner into a metal shelf. Then James himself emerged from the aisle, shifting on the balls of his feet as the guy roared at him and kept trying in vain to stab him. Alanna took a deep, frustrated breath as she saw the massive grin on James' face.
"James, stop fucking around and deal with him. The police are on their way, I don't want them shooting me by accident." She said, perhaps a little too theatrically. The still-standing masked bandit caught her out of the corner of his eye, and half turned to see his own partner pinned to the floor by Alanna's boot. Without hesitating, the robber turned away from both of them and bolted for the door.
Of course, that was the universal signal for the door to swing open, as a pair of cops stepped in. One of them looked like he was trying really hard not to laugh at the guy in an actual black ski mask tried to bolt between the two mountains of men in uniform. It was almost with casual strength that they grabbed his arms and bore him to the ground, the thief swearing furiously.
"So, Anesh just texted me." James said to Alanna, casually walking up to her with his phone out. "They're waiting for us over at the diner."
She cracked the bones in her neck, staring at him the whole time. "You picked a really awkward time for that." She said, raising her hands in the air as one of the cops came up to them, hand casually hovering over his taser.
It didn't take them too long to explain that they weren't actually trying to knock over the convenience store. Though they did have to sit for a while, show their IDs, and repeat everything twice after the initial explaining. The clerk helped out, providing confirmation of their story, and trying to show the one officer the video he took of the fight. The cop wasn't that interested, though, and was more focused on chastising James and Alanna.
"It was good that you wanted to help." He said in a deep, hard voice. "But you really shouldn't try to pick fights with people with knives."
James opened his mouth to say something, but Alanna casually put him in a headlock and interrupted. "Yeah, we're sorry. It just sort of happened." She said, stopping James from snarking at the police. "Do you mind if we go? Our friends are waiting for us."
The officer was almost certainly suspicious of them, but, for whatever reason, decided to let it slide. "Alright, go ahead. Are you sure you don't want to go to the ER for that?" He asked Alanna, motioning to her hand.
"It'll be fine." She said. "He barely got me at all." Alanna told the officer with what she assumed was a charming smile. "Let's go, James!" And with that, Alanna dragged him out the door.
"What took you guys so long?" Anesh asked as Alanna and James slid into the booth opposite himself and Dave.
James took a second to adjust how he was sitting on the torn green leather booth seat. "Oh, we got held up."
Alanna snorted next to him. "We were robbed. Well, we walked into a robbery, and then the robbery became directed at us."
"Holy shit, are you guys okay?!" Anesh asked, concern painted on his face.
"Oh, yeah, we're fine. It was weird to actually fight other humans, though."
"You got in a fight?!" Anesh half-yelled. Fortunately, the diner was mostly empty at this time of night, and no one looked over at them. "Ahem. Sorry. You got in a fight?" He asked in a much quieter tone.
James shrugged. "I mean, what else were we supposed to do? Give them our wallets? I have, like, two thousand dollars in mine."
"Wait, you actually put your money in your wallet?" Alanna asked him incredulously. "I thought you just wanted to have a scrap."
He looked over at her, leaning on the table to turn sideways. "Why the hell would I just casually want to punch out a mugger?" James waited for Dave and Anesh to think it over and both start to answer before he carried on with his sentence. "Yeah, I'm just kidding. I totally wanted to punch out a mugger. I'm now one step closer to being Batman."
"Also it's probably gonna be on Youtube." Alanna told him.
"Yeah," James replied a bit tentatively. "I saw the clerk recorded it on his phone. I'm kinda up in the air about that. On the one hand, it's probably not good for security. But I mean, it was pretty cool to get to turn three months of weight training and dungeon diving into a solid win over someone with a knife."
They talked for a bit longer over their food. Joking and laughing, looking for all the world like just a group of normal friends out for a late dinner or an early breakfast. No one passing by would guess that the four people in the corner booth had been in multiple combats that night, that one of them could do literal magic, one of them had fabricated life less than an hour ago, and one of them was a fledgling Superman. It was just comfortable for them to set it aside the weird stuff for a while, and banter about video games, complain about work, and be... normal friends.
As their meal ended, and everyone started getting ready to go, James had one last thing to say, on a more serious note. "Hey, Dave." His friend perked up from where he was trying to calculate the tip on his bill. "It was kind of an accident that we told you about the dungeon at all. Originally, we weren't going to, because I wasn't sure if you'd be a good party member." James said, and he watched Dave's face shift from confusion to anger and back again in a fast pattern. "But you did good tonight. Really. So, thanks for coming along, man."
Dave shifted in his seat a bit. "Yeah, well, it's... not as bad as I first thought. And, well, it is really cool, isn't it? So, thanks for inviting me. And for telling me." Dave stood, closing his bill and setting it on the table. "I'm gonna walk home, since I live just down the street. See you guys later, okay?" He threw back over his shoulder as he gathered his coat and headed out, plucking a handful of mints out of the jar by the door on his way.
"Why'd you tell him that?" Alanna asked James, a bit confused at her friend's actions.
"Because of what we said. He doesn't care about the dungeon. Not really. It's just something kind of cool for him; I think Dave might be somewhere on the spectrum. And I mean that in the least hostile way possible. But yeah, he doesn't care about the dungeon, but he does care about being a good teammate. So I'm gonna make sure to let him know when he's helpful." James shrugged. "Just seems to make sense to keep everyone happy. Besides. It's a nice thing to do."
"Bah. You and your 'friendship' nonsense." Anesh said sarcastically. "Kindness and compassion getting in the way of my cold, efficient, mercenary actions. So inconvenient."
Alanna rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I'm sure that's a problem for you. So, are we done here?"
"Yeah, I'm ready to go. Let me just leave a tip." James said.
Anesh looked up. "I already tipped." He said, a bit guiltily.
"Yeah, I know you did that thing you do where you pay the kitchen staff's rent for a month." James replied snarkily. "But I want to actually tip like a normal human."
"Normal American." Anesh corrected.
"Whatever. I'm leaving five bucks and you can't stop me, goddammit."
Alanna snickered at the two of them, shooting verbal jabs back and forth before sadly cutting them short. "Alright, do either of you want to give me a ride home, or can I just sleep on your couch?"
"The fact that you asked for the couch makes me think you don't *want* a ride home." Anesh told her, a bit of sadness in his voice. "So, you get the couch, because it's more convenient for everyone. Now, let's go. I've got stuff to do tomorrow, and I want a short nap before I have to wake up for class."
"Doing anything aside from class?" James asked him.
Anesh nodded as the trio walked out the door. "Yeah, I want to see about getting a silencer for your pistol. I heard that thing all the way from the fort, and I want to maybe deal with that."
"Well, I mean, good fucking luck. Also, I think you mean a 'suppressor'. But whatever word you want to use, you're not getting one." James told Anesh.
His friend looked back at him. "What? Why not? I know you're not comfortable with guns, but..."
"No, no, it's nothing to do with the social or cultural aspects of gun ownership. You just can't get one. Legally, anyway. You need to go through a lot of legal work, like getting signed permission from... I think it's the FBI? No, the ATF. Yeah. And also the local police chief." James rolled his shoulders a bit. "It's just a giant hassle. I'm also pretty sure that you couldn't be the one to fill out the paperwork, since you're not a US citizen. And I don't know if there's any fees associated with it; though that's less of an issue now."
"What about just taping a bottle to the end of it?" Anesh asked. "I'm given to understand that does something."
"Sure, once." Alanna said. "And then there's just a bottle taped to the end of your gun. Also it can throw off the aim on lower caliber weapons. Like, you know, yours."
"My caliber is perfectly fine, thank you very much!" James said indignantly.
Anesh groaned. "Please don't confuse me by making dick jokes. Your country has so many euphemisms for it, I'm not sure I can keep up when I'm tired."
The next twenty minutes home in Anesh's car involved Alanna just making increasingly convoluted double entendres.
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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!