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A note from argusthecat

Two things:

First, this took too long.  I'll try to do better.

Second, thanks for reading, and commenting.  Everyone in the Discord really kept me going during this process.  And anyone who's ever written knows how hard motivation can be to keep up.  So thanks, everyone.

Have some words.

James woke up before his sister did, which was both difficult, and rewarding. It meant he got to avoid the kid for a little bit longer, and honestly, he was not looking forward to playing verbal defense in his own apartment. But hell, she was his sister; what was he supposed to do? Kick her out? Nah, that wasn't him. But still, he'd have to make sure Lily was locked up before he left.

 

Fortunately, Anesh had swept up the orbs in the living room, and while the gear was harder to hide, it also wasn't as needed. They just told Kayle that it was for some kind of LARP, and she'd instantly tuned them all out.

 

Unfortunately, the actual *reason* that James was up early was that Alanna was some kind of inhuman monster who woke up, and instantly was ready to get out of bed. She didn't spend any time lazing around or dozing back off. She just... got up, and started moving. Which was a problem, because she'd slept in James' bed last night, and while *that* was enjoyable, the part where Alanna woke him up and expected him to be a functional human was less so.

 

James would cope, he thought to himself with a smile as he sat in bed, watching her get dressed.

 

It also didn't help his credibility on the fact that sleeping for twelve hours was a good idea that Anesh had *also* gotten up early. Before either of them, in fact.

 

It had come as something of a shock to his roommate, when James had gotten to the confession part of the explanation of what the fuck had happened last night during the confrontation with Frank. But by that point, James was too tired, both physically and emotionally, to care about leaving anything out. Also, literally everything else in the conversation had come as a shock to Anesh anyway, from Secret's manifestation to the presence of other infomorphs of Secret's strength, to the fact that Frank was literally selling people to the dungeon. So, a little romantic infatuation hadn't really been the biggest surprise on his plate.

 

He'd still hemmed and hawed about it, though. Until Alanna had cracked an eye open from where she was sprawled on James' bed, and straight up asked him, "do you like James?"

 

"Well... yeah." Anesh had said with a flush to his cheeks, not meeting James' eyes.

 

Before James could really appreciate the sense of awkward glee that was sinking into his chest, Alanna asked her follow up question. "What about me?"

 

Anesh blinked a couple times, before saying, "Well, I mean, sure. Yes."

 

"Great." Alanna had said. And then, like some kind of trapdoor spider, she'd rolled out of the blankets, and dragged Anesh back down into something between a hug and a death grasp.

 

Anesh hadn't just accepted that, obviously. Once Alanna had fallen back asleep, he'd detangled himself, and he and James had talked, more seriously, about what the future was going to look like for them. But, by the time that both of them were feeling their eyes getting heavy, the future was looking pretty good. And Anesh had, in the end, stayed with them in James' bed.

 

That bed was the first thing that was getting upgraded, next time they had an influx of cash.

 

But now, none of them were exhausted, falling asleep on their feet. They'd woken up together, and found that, while it was a little different, there wasn't any regret or awkward feelings of uncertainty. If the dungeon had changed anything about himself, James realized, it was that he was getting better and better about grabbing opportunities. There was no time for waffling in the greater office region, where hesitation might get them killed, and it seemed like that mentality was starting to bleed over into his personal life too.

 

He was snapped out of his mental wanderings by Alanna, kicking the foot of the bed, and asking him with a friendly scowl on her face, "what're you lookin' at?"

 

"You. You're cute." James replied with his own grin, without missing a beat. Again, something he didn't think he ever would have had the strength to say, if he hadn't been through the experiences of the last few months.

 

Alanna turned her head away. "Fuck off with that. I know you like me and everything, but I'm also self aware enough to know that I look less 'cute' and more 'orc barbarian' than anything else."

 

"A cute orc barbarian." James shot back without missing a beat, using the blankets of his bed to deflect the pillow Alanna hurled at his head. "Alright, alright, I'm awake." He told her defensively.

 

It was maybe fifteen minutes later when James exited his room, covering his gaping yawn. He got out to the living room and sort of stood dumbly next to the kitchen counter, before Alanna pressed a cup of coffee into his hands and he jolted back into wakefulness.

 

Sipping at the brew he'd been given, James made a note to his friend, "Ah, we're gonna have to disconnect that coffee maker. I don't know if Kayle drinks coffee, but we can't take the risk that she ends up thinking she's a superhero now."

 

"Good point." Alanna replied. "Actually, can we take this thing with us? It'd be nice to have a support item when we go in."

 

"It weighs..."

 

"I know, I'm just kidding. But seriously, we should bottle some of this up, at least."

 

James sighed. "I don't wanna. The control panel on this thing is a mess. Tell you what," he offered, "you do it, and I'll make you waffles."

 

That got her attention. "Bought and sold!" Alanna pivoted around him, neatly maneuvering James to the entrance of the kitchen area and giving him a light push forward. "Waffles!" She enthusiastically repeated, as she continued nudging him onward.

 

He smiled, and was still smiling as he started pulling out pans and mixing bowls and ingredients. Of all the skills that James had picked up from the trips into the dungeon, cooking was probably at the top of his list of ones that he enjoyed. Above the combat relevant skills like knowing how to slide into a shooting stance with a handgun or break an incoming punch with a well timed counterstrike. Above the mildly useful abilities of being able to do solidly complex math in his head or speak Spanish. And certainly higher ranked than fringe knowledge like knowing the best way to get a case before the supreme court, or perform oral sex; though that last one may come in handy in the future, James thought with a self-conscious blush. The point was, cooking was where his passion had settled.

 

Sure, it was cool that the origami skill had once literally saved his life, but that was nothing compared to the feeling of fabricating something delicious out of random stuff from his kitchen. And as that knowledge settled in and was reinforced with practical experience and classes, he came to understand that it wasn't just 'random stuff', but that it all fit together into webs of flavor profiles and deliberate ingredient choices. James was probably never going to find a use for his ability to raise a tegu, but he sure as hell could take joy every day in this act of creation that he was now coming to fully understand.

 

Half an hour later, JP and Dave came through the front door, with JP cracking a wide smile and exclaiming, "Hey, you made us breakfast!"

 

"I made Alanna and Anesh breakfast. You two are on your own." James told them. Though, as he saw JP's face legitimately turn into a vision of disappointment, he relented. "Alright, no, not really. You can have a waffle and some bacon. Don't eat all the bacon, though. I want some."

 

JP wasted no time grabbing a plate of food, and so, by the time Anesh came out to the living room, everyone was halfway done with breakfast and already midway into a discussion. "Yes," James was saying as his roommate finally graced them with his presence, "I'm ready. We're all ready. JP, I know you're trying to do a sanity check, and I appreciate it, but we've got a plan, we're sticking to it, and we probably won't die." James waved his fork at his friend, a bit of waffle still attached. He ignored Anesh's glare as he dripped syrup onto the table, and continued. "If we'd wanted to do this in a safer way, we should have done a million things different starting, I dunno, three months ago." His words punctuated by jabs of the fork. "There's people in trouble, we've got the experience and tools to help, we're doing this."

 

JP didn't say anything verbally in response, simply looking over at the haphazard pile of hockey padding and improvised harpoon gun.

 

"Okay," James conceded, "we have the experience to help."

 

"All I'm saying is, it seems even more dangerous since you and Alanna got in a boss fight last night." JP carefully folded his napkin and set it on the table as he finished his food. "I don't want to see you dead."

 

"Technically, you wouldn't ever *see*..." Alanna started quipping.

 

JP cut her off. "No. Stop that. I know that you and James think this is worth the risk. That's fine, I can accept that. But you could die. This isn't something you should joke about right now. Especially since you got shot last night." He lectured her with a hard voice and stern expression on his face.

 

Coming over to the table with his plate, Anesh looked down at where James was sitting comfortably in Anesh's personal armchair. James looked up at him with a goofy, open mouthed smile, and patted the chair next to him. Anesh was more of a morning person than James was, but he still wasn't ready for this right now. "Get out of my chair." He poked James with his socked foot until his friend conceded the point and folded himself over the arm of the chair like he was made more out of jelly than human. "Also, hang on, Alanna, you got shot. Didn't you guys go to the hospital? They tell the police about shooting victims."

 

"Ah, not to worry." Alanna said, raising her bandaged hand; thick gauze containing the flesh crater in her palm. "This looks enough like not-a-bullet-wound that I got away with it. The nurse did *ask* if I'd been shot, but I told them I'd fallen and hit an exposed pipe or something. I don't really remember; I was hurtin' at that point. Oh! Fun fact if you ever need to kill me, though!"

 

James popped up from off the floor. "Why would we..."

 

"That surface fracture *thing* doesn't work if I'm already cut open. And I don't know, man, maybe I go rogue and start taking over the world or something." Alanna answered James' unfinished question.

 

"Taking over the world is literally one of our long term goals. Like, not even a joke; that was something we actually talked about doing."

 

"Taking over the world *badly* then."

 

"Fine."

 

Anesh cut in, interrupting them. "As cute as this is, are you all ready for today?"

 

James, Alanna, and Dave all let out a collective groan. They'd just gone over this with JP, no one was interested in a replay. This time, though, it was JP who came to their rescue. "They're ready, no matter what I say." He told Anesh. "And we've got the ladder, buncha rope, everything all stacked up. So there's..." JP trailed off, looking over Anesh's shoulder.

 

"I smelled bacon." James' sister, Kayle, stood in the hallway. Like James, she kept her hair long. Unlike James, her hair was both blonde, and seemingly critically weak to mornings, because while her brother had his ponytail coherently done up, her hair looked like she'd just stuck her tongue in an power socket that produced both electricity and also knots.

 

Transitioning smoothly from dungeon talk, James announced, "And you can have some bacon!" He told her from his spot on the floor.

 

Pausing before getting her food, Kayle looked around the room, narrowing her eyes at the collection of friends, all of whom were discreetly keeping an eye on her. "Why are all your friends here this early? You sleep until it's dark out."

 

"Okay, first of all, that's kinda mean." James actually was a little bit hurt by the way she phrased it. His sister was pretty good at saying things that were technically true, in surprisingly hostile ways.

 

"To be fair, you also work really late most days." Anesh said. "Seems fair to wake up at night when you'll be at the office until 4AM, mate."

 

James gave a quick smile back, speaking quietly. "Yeah, I know. She's just needling me. But that doesn't mean I have to like it." Raising his voice back to a speaking tone, he informed his sister, "They're here because we're doing a thing today. Dave and Alanna and I are going on a weekend trip thing, so don't give Anesh a hard time, if you're gonna be here all week."

 

"Fine, whatever." She said, and James got the impression she was secretly thrilled that he wouldn't be around. "Have fun, I guess."

 

"You could be less belligerent while you're *eating my food*." James scowled at her.

 

Kayle made a rude gesture at him. "You said I could! Also, I ate one of your candy bars. Why do you have so much candy in this apartment?"

 

"It's from England." Anesh said, unflinchingly.

 

"That's not what she asked." Dave muttered to him, but Anesh and James both just held up fingers to their lips and shushed their friend. "Fine, I'll be quiet. Later. When are we leaving, anyway?" He asked the assembled group, collecting plates off the table.

 

Anesh and James looked at each other, and James gave a shrug. "Twenty minutes? Time enough to load the car, right?"

 

"Yeah, I'll get the ladder in the back." Dave pushed past Kayle on the way out of the kitchen where he'd dropped off everything he'd cleared from the table. It was, James realized, kinda nice to have that one friend who actually helped with keeping his apartment as a liveable space, and not... well, it could get bad, sometimes. Between Anesh's devotion to school - lessened during summer, but still bordering on fanatical - and James' depression and general malaise, sometimes stuff just went uncleaned. For a while.

 

It seemed like so long ago that Anesh had been cleaning off this very table for the first time in weeks, interrogating James on where the damn candy came from.

 

Kayle, in between scarfing down bites of waffle while leaning on the back of the couch, made a confused noise. "Where are you going that you need a ladder?"

 

"It's a nerd thing." James informed her bluntly, the unspoken subtext being the phrase 'you know, one of those things you really do not care about'. There may have been some animosity in the past between the siblings over things like this, though these days James just could not care about his sister's opinion on his personal life. "But yeah, get the stuff loaded up, then we'll roll out." He checked his phone's clock. It was almost 10 AM, and the general plan here was to get to his work early, so they could have time to prepare. But before that, there was one last thing to do. "Hey, Dave. Hand me that bag on the ladder before you take it out. Thanks."

 

That bag was probably the most important thing in the apartment right now. It was where they'd thrown all the orbs, when Kayle came in. And currently, it contained what was potentially a powerful addition to their arsenal. And also potentially just an amusing diversion.

 

Five greens, six yellows, one giant yellow that happened to be the shadow of a person, and three blues.

 

Options. Solutions. Flexibility. Power. All the things that a delver needed to keep their edge and their life.

 

Also, the part that actually engaged James' imagination, modifying their apartment to be some kind of magical paradise detached from the rules of reality. That was just fun.

 

Really, for James, it was the fun of the orbs that was really what had captured his fancy. Alanna wanted power, Anesh wanted knowledge, JP wanted... something. Actually, James didn't know what the hell JP wanted. And Dave, well, it seemed like Dave just wanted to make friends, in the comically literal sense of the term. But James? James appreciated all of those things, but what he was coming to love was just the feeling of excitement at the unwrapping. They were loot boxes, except somehow less exploitative, despite having to kill things to get them.

 

James, Dave, and Alanna had retreated back to his room, leaving Anesh to load up their car, and JP to distract Kayle for a while. James wasn't sure how he felt about leaving the most charming person in their friend group with his sister; but then again, JP had a girlfriend, and also if he ended up flirting with Kayle, James couldn't bring himself to feel bad about it. JP was, legitimately, a decent guy. Not exactly Good, but good enough. And James really wasn't protective enough of his sibling to worry about it.

 

"Okay, so, how are we splitting these?" James asked. "Do we save the blues? I know I'm taking the big yellow, but what about the rest?"

 

Alanna looked down at the pile. "We're using the greens here, which I feel is fair. Maybe just split the greens and yellows down the middle, save the blues, yeah."

 

Dave did have a thought, though. "Hey, James, you said that blues can be absorbed, right?"

 

"Yes but they hurt? Also I had to have Secret help, so I'm not sure if you could." James told him.

 

"Maybe. Hm." Dave looked thoughtful. "But Secret could help me too, maybe. Also, I think I understand the blue ones a bit better. Do you mind if I try?"

 

Alanna looked over at him with raised eyebrows. "What's your thought on them? I wanna know."

 

He thought for a second on how to explain himself. Expressing ideas had never been Dave's strong suit, and it always seemed to annoy people when he tried. But he'd been thinking about this ever since he'd looked over Anesh's notes on the blues. "I think that... how to say it... I think they like being tools?" Dave gestured at the blue orbs. "When Anesh tried to put one into his spear, he wasn't thinking about turning the spear into something more useful, he was just trying to 'improve it'. And it didn't work. But when we use them, it solves problems. And James, when you absorbed one, it gave you a function. A tool. That's the theme that connects the blues; they're tools. They make tools. But you cheated when you absorbed it; you weren't trying to be a tool, you were trying to... well, improve yourself. And Secret helped you get around that, and it fucked it up. So, I think I can do it right. Um... no offense."

 

Alanna looked like she wanted to say something reflexively, but stopped, trying to work through what Dave had said before responding. James, though, nodded excitedly. "Yeah, okay," James said, "I think I get it. Yeah! We never really thought about connecting themes in the orbs before, though we should have with the blues at least."

 

"They solve problems, yeah." Alanna said. "In every form. Though we still have no fucking clue what all the uses are. Should we start a betting pool on when we find the next use case?"

 

"No. Because I'll lose." James reminded her. "So, Dave, you think you're enough of a tool to absorb one of these?" He asked handing over one of the blues.

 

Despite the snicker from Alanna, Dave nodded solemnly, and took it. "Being useful is the only thing I've ever been good at." He said softly. "This is nothing." And with that, the orb slipped inside his palm, leaving only the smallest speck of blue left exposed.

 

[+6 Activations : Nullify Gravity]

 

There was a moment of silence, which James had considered breaking by yelling about how unfair that was. But he kept quiet, just for the sake of keeping up the pretense of not letting his sister know anything weird was going on. Alanna, though, was much more moderate in response. "Well, that's just not fair. We should have been making magic items out of ourselves this whole time."

 

"Xenotech." James muttered, sullenly.

 

Alanna barked out a quick laugh. "Alright, well, we've not got time to waste. Let's crack into the rest of these, and Dave, you can have the other blue orbs if you like."

 

"I don't... feel like I could take more than one more." Dave said, mildly confused, but firming up his self-understanding as he spoke. "I think two is my limit. At least for now. So, I'll take one, and you save the other for later." He plucked up another blue, and slid it into his other palm, easy as breathing.

 

[+4 Activations : Remove One Half Of]

 

"Actually, on that note, if understanding the orb made absorbing it easy... we should seriously be looking for connecting themes or ideas in the other ones." James said, having a moment of clear inspiration. "We haven't seen a lot of the oranges, but yellows and greens? We've had a ton of experience there, we should pool the notes and really go over it when we get back."

 

"Or make JP and Anesh do it." Alanna said.

 

Dave and James nodded in unison. "Yes, that. Pawn off the work. I like it." James said. "But for now..." He reached for the orbs.

 

After that, it was a simple matter of splitting them up, and cracking them without preamble. The results were... mixed.

 

For Alanna, using two greens and three of the smaller yellows:


[+1 Skill Rank : Gymnastics - Rolling]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Carpentry - Furniture - Desks]
[+1 Skill Rank : Etiquette - Aristocracy - Eating]
[Local Area Shift : +.8 Hours Allocated to Sleep / Day]
[+3 Skill Ranks : Templating - Shipping Manifests - Grocery]
[Local Area Shift : +1 Closet]
[+3 Skill Ranks : Survival - Hurricane]

 

For Dave, using two of the greens, and the three other yellows:

 

[+1 Skill Rank : Sprinting]
[+1 Skill Rank : Pilot - Single Prop Aircraft]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Public Speaking - News Broadcasting]
[Local Area Shift : +2 Kilowatts Generated]
[+3 Skill Ranks : Geography - Roads - Northwest US]
[Local Area Shift : +1.4 Comfort]
[+3 Skill Ranks : Music - Violin]

 

And finally, as the two of them started trying to figure out where the hell the new closet was, James looked down into swirling yellow depths of the massive orb that was the copy of a ghost of a former co-worker, sitting next to the remaining green orb. Through his head ran every concern, every fear, about how he might be permanently killing someone, or warping his own persona by doing this, or generally just making a mistake. And then, like a hawk among pigeons, one ideal flared up. Someone needed him. And needed him at his best; better than that, they needed him to be more than human.

 

The ends, eternally, justified the means.

 

James plunged his hands into the two orbs in front of him, and felt himself grow.

 

[Local Area Shift : -10% Entropy]
[+3 Skill Ranks : Etiquette - Japanese - Formal]
[+5 Skill Ranks : Games - Gears of War 3 - Multiplayer]
[+4 Skill Ranks : Mechanics - Car - Jetta]
[+3 Skill Ranks : Drive - Car]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Language - French]
[+1 Skill Rank : Communication - Family]
[+2 Emotional Resonance Ranks : Devotion]
[+1 Emotional Resonance Rank : Accomplishment]
[Shell Upgraded : +.4 Meter Jump Height]
[Certification Added : OLCC Permit]

 

James looked up at the expectant faces of his friends. "I need to buy a car."

 

_____

 

When they came out into the living room, it was to the sounds of Anesh and JP loudly arguing outside in the parking lot on how to fit a ladder into a hatchback. And to Kayle sitting on the couch, petting some kind of pit bull/labrador mix.

 

"Hey, I let your dog back in." She said, cuddling with the pooch that was currently drooling on their seat.

 

James' first thought was that, while that couch may have been scuffed, spilled on, beaten up, knocked over, and at one point battle damaged, that it was still his goddamn couch, and he didn't appreciate the dog drooling on it. His second thought was, "I don't have a dog?" His third thought was sort of ancillary, and was mostly that it was telling that he was so inured to the weirdness in his life that his first thought was about his couch. "Yeah, I don't own a dog. Did you steal a dog?"

 

Kayle flipped him off, while still holding her hand on the dog's fur. "He was on your doorstep! What was I supposed to think?"

 

"That I don't own a dog!" James replied, pretending not to notice Alanna and Dave trading looks behind his back, and casually edging for the door. "You know what? It's fine. I know how to fix this." James walked over to the couch, leaned down, and rubbed at the dog's ears. "Who's a good boy? Who's a good boy? It's you!" His voice spiked up in pitch, and the mutt's tail started slapping against the couch with a vicious thwacking sound. After a good round of licks onto James' hands, the pupper jumped off the couch, and casually loped out the door that Alanna had just passed through, brushing past the tall woman on the way out.

 

The teenager on the couch looked down at her hands, now devoid of dog, then back up at her brother. "Did that really just happen?"

 

"Yeah? It's not that weird."

 

"Yes it is! That was really weird, James!" She snapped back, and James noticed a level of frantic worry under the anger.

 

He shrugged, and walked over to grab a drink out of the fridge before he left to join his friends. "It's all relative. And speaking of relatives, you have a good weekend here! Feel free to play any of the game consoles or whatever, and Anesh'll be back later after he drops us off, so bother him if you need anything."

 

"I can't believe you're abandoning me here with him." She pouted, fear replaced by an opportunity to needle her brother.

 

"Yeah, well, I can't believe you didn't tell me you were coming, so we're even. Also, don't fuck with Anesh. He's important to me." James scowled at the thought of Anesh being harassed. "Really."

 

"Fine," his sister said, "I won't bother your boyfriend."

 

"See that you don't." James fired off his parting words as he walked out.

 

_____

 

It was weird, James thought, driving to work before noon. Sun overhead, the hot light filtering through the sharp greenery of the trees. It was a beautiful day, all things considered, and it made James want to wake up earlier more often. Not go to *bed* earlier, mind you, or get less sleep. Just... see this a bit more frequently.

 

Alanna was sitting beside him in the passenger seat, ignoring the glorious feeling of summer in full swing, and instead staring in confusion at his radio. Her hair, getting longer now and still left unbound, unlike how James chose to wear his, flapped wildly in the warm breeze coming through the open windows. But despite that cover, it was pretty easy for James to spot the look of consternation on her face.

 

"What's up?" He asked her during one of those quiet stretches of driving when you still can't look away from the road, but there isn't anything directly trying to murder you.

 

"James..." Alanna started out. "The hell are we listening to?" She gestured at the radio in open frustration. "This is... not your normal music, is it?"

 

"This is Blue October." James said, a little put out. "I like this band."

 

"Blue October is, if I remember correctly, an emo band that mostly writes songs about drowning?" Alanna said it with a question mark, but any question was entirely rhetorical. "This is... James this song is about hate-fucking someone. Am I wrong on that?"

 

He looked down at the track title. "No, no, you're right. Also, they're *mostly* a band that writes sad songs for sad people. Sometimes they write songs about how great life is, or murdering your ex's or something."

 

Alanna hit the 'next song' button. "So, hey." She started to say to James in a more serious tone, before stopping again. "No, wait, who the fuck is *this*. James, what even is this playlist?"

 

"This is Cambodian rock music. I don't know who they are, because no one knows who they are, because this is one of the few surviving songs from the era when the Khmer Rouge killed everyone who did anything useful, like make music." James said, way too cheerfully. "So, this is off an album that someone brought out of the country shortly before they closed their borders, but it was unlabeled, and..."

 

Alanna hit the 'next song' button. "Is this just a cover of All Star?"

 

"Kinda, it's..."

 

"No, don't care. Good enough. Look, before we get to the office, I just wanted to actually check that you're okay with this."

 

James scowled at the road. "Everyone keeps fucking asking me that like it wasn't my idea in the first place. Why is no one asking Dave? Why is no one asking *you*?!" He briefly paused for dramatic effect, and then half turned in his seat to glance at Alanna. "Hey, real question; are you okay with this? I don't think I ever asked."

 

"You asked a million times. I'm good. Dave's also good; I talked to him about it earlier. You know how he said he's always trying to be useful? He's not kidding. He measures the value of his own life by how much he's doing for others. But not in an altruism way, more in a 'recovering from an abusive childhood' way." Alanna growled out that last bit. "I don't really know how to help him, honestly."

 

James shrugged. "Hell, I feel that way sometimes. And I can understand it. I want to be the Good Guy, you know? I think that's why I'm okay with it."

 

"Yes, you have a paladin complex larger than mine." Alanna said jokingly. "But seriously, we might die. Do you really want to risk that? Life is finally going good for us, for *all* of us." That last bit, she mentally emphasised whatever the hell was developing between James, Anesh and herself. "And we're maybe gonna throw it away? We might... actually die."

 

Pulling off the highway and stopping at the off ramp light, James looked at Alanna until she met his eyes. "Are you telling me to convince you that I really want this, or are you telling me to convince you that you do?" He said. She didn't answer, and the quiet told James a lot, in addition to telling his anxiety to flare up. "We might die." He said in a quiet voice, barely audible over the music and traffic. "But we might *win*."

 

A hand clapped onto his shoulder, and James felt Alanna give him a comforting squeeze. "That's what I wanted to hear." She said. "Now, turn up whatever 90's power metal we're listening to now, and let's get ready to go fight to something else's death."

 

_____

 

"Gabe, my old friend!" James both greeted and distracted the new guy behind the security desk. "Settled in?"

 

The young man looked at James through narrowed eyes. "No, I'm here covering for Frank, without gettin' trained, and on my weekend. Also, what was your name again? I'm still trying to remember everyone."

 

James tried very hard not to laugh, holding his amusement in the back of his throat. Sure, he was trying to make sure that this kid didn't question the people coming in carrying a ladder and boxes of stuff, but he felt a surge of both laughter and guilt that he was now bothering someone who wasn't supposed to be here today. "Ah, that sucks, friend. Didn't you just get hired? There's at least one other guy who should... be... available..." James trailed off.

 

"You okay, man?" The kid behind the desk asked him, looking at the dawning horror on James' face. "Um... sir...?"

 

Snapping back to reality, James shook his head in a few quick jerks, and looked back down at Gabe. "Yeah, sorry! Just thought of something. Oh, it's James, by the way." He offered a hand, and Gabe gave him a firm handshake. "But yeah, sorry about the nonsense around here. I know I'm not actually in charge of anything, but I always feel like I should be warning new hires about stuff."

 

"Like all the construction?" Gabe motioned to Alanna and Dave, who were walking by with the ladder under their arms.

 

"Um... yes. Like that." James said. "Well, that, and the constant manager changes. And the weird-ass benefits. And the endless nightmare dimension in the back stairwell." He shot that out as a joking probe.

 

"The what?" A miss then. That was almost a shame; he seemed friendly enough. James would let Anesh know to put him on the list for possible recruitment, assuming he didn't kill the dungeon over the next week.

 

Instead, he covered it with a boisterous laugh, and just said, "Ah, don't worry about it! Anyway, I should go do my job. You have a good one!"

 

A surprisingly enthusiastic "you too!" followed James to the elevator, which Alanna discreetly held for him.

 

"We good?" She asked him.

 

"Yeah, he's only been here a week and already he's too bitter to care if people are doing shady shit. I'm so proud." James mimed wiping a tear away from his eye. "But yeah. Anesh took the box up already?"

 

"Yup. We're all set." Dave said, as the elevator dinged them out to the proper floor.

 

James nodded, and led his friends down the looped path to his work area. "Okay. So. We're just gonna set the thing up, you guys pretend to be doing work until the breach opens, and then we go. No hesitation, or we're fucked. I don't care if my boss is watching, we can't wait."

 

"Got it." Alanna and Dave said with determined nods.

 

They came out through the main double doors onto the call center floor, and James realized that this was eventually going to be some kind of PTSD trigger as he looked over the clusters of cubicle walls and computers. The employees, at least, were actual humans, and it was really hard to mistake those for dungeon fauna. But it still made him shiver, to think that one day, he might drop by an office building, and forget the boundary between reality and adventure.

 

His desk area had two other people in it, today. As well as Anesh, who was pretending to belong there pretty well. He'd set the cardboard box containing two duffle bags full of what gear they could scrape up on short notice on the floor under the X of tape that James had marked the ceiling with weeks ago. Clearly a little uncomfortable, Anesh perked up when his friends arrived.

 

Alanna and Dave started talking to him, but James, not wanting to draw attention just yet, instead settled in to his own desk, and waited. And waited. And waited.

 

It felt like an hour. An eternity. But in reality, it had been about ten minutes, and he'd been stealing glances over at the now-set-up ladder where Alanna was standing half-inside the ceiling, watching the HVAC unit that would eventually turn into a gap in reality. James stared at his monitor, which was currently displaying a half-filled login screen, and nothing else. This was... impossibly frustrating. He felt like he was under too much pressure to bear, and playing it cool was starting to slip through his fingers.

 

So, to get away from that, he stood up, stretched, and went over to talk to Anesh. "Hey." James casually greeted his friend, currently in disguise with that most powerful of tools: the clipboard.

 

"Ah, hello sir! May I interest you in a job in the construction industry?" Anesh asked without a trace of irony.

 

"Too far." James said quickly with a wide smile. "So, how's it going?"

 

"Well, it's been twenty five minutes, so it should be any second now, and then..." Anesh started to say.

 

But James cut him off. That wasn't what he'd meant; the plan would work, or it wouldn't, but what he really wanted to know was, "No, how are *you* doing." He asked. "You've been quiet all day."

 

"I..." Anesh looked away, and pretended to fiddle with his clipboard for a minute. "I should be going with you." He said, a little too forcefully.

 

"What? No! You've got stuff to do." James told him, shocked. "Also, three seems like the best number for actual delves, you know?"

 

Anesh glared at him, and for the first time, James noticed that it looked like his friend was legitimately angry. But not at James, at himself. "No! I'm just leaving you to maybe die, for what, school? You and Dave are taking time off work, why shouldn't I? It's not because of my calendar, it's because I'm afraid. I'm afraid, and I'm... I'm..." He trailed off, and James worried for a minute that someone had overheard what he'd been saying. But a quick look around showed nothing but employees trapped in headsets and not paying attention.

 

That meant one problem wasn't an issue, but James had no idea what to say to Anesh. So, instead, he half panicked, grabbed his friend, and kissed him. Anesh made a small *mmph!* noise, but James felt his shoulders relax as he leaned into the smooch. The physical contact was warm, and comforting, and for just a moment, for both of them, the world dropped away.

 

And then, because James apparently wasn't allowed to have nice things, there was a *thunk* from overhead, and Alanna stuck her head down to inform them, "Eyes up nerds, let's do this!"

 

James and Anesh broke away, and James patted his friend -boyfriend, now, he supposed- on the head. "Okay. Everything's gonna be okay. We've got this. I'll see you in a few days; take care of my sister." He thought about that for a second as, behind him, Dave tromped up the ladder that Alanna had just climbed off the top of. "I take that back; don't let my sister burn the apartment down." James mounted the bottom step of the ladder as Dave hauled himself into the ceiling tiles, and his feet vanished. "Oh! And try to find the new closet!"

 

"The what?" Anesh asked on reflex, before his brain processed what James had just said. "Wait! The what?!"

 

But James didn't bother with an answer beyond a peaceful smile shot downward. His feet carefully hit the steps of the ladder as he clambered upward. And in too little time at all, according to his pounding heart, he was at the top. Dave and Alanna had put the ladder in a great spot; the breach was just... right there in front of him. Dave and Alanna had already gone through, a coil of rope tied off to the HVAC unit to let them get down, dropping down into whatever danger awaited. There was no time for James to waste.

 

With a heave of muscles that he was still getting used to having, he pulled himself up, and toward the opening. The last thing he noticed before dropping through was the dessicated husk of a small pink stapler, sitting a few ceiling tiles away.

 

'Poor guy.' James thought. He would have considered how that could have been Rufus, if circumstances were different. But there was no time. His hands gripped the rope, and his feet slipped into another world.

 

And the rest of him followed.

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About the author

argusthecat

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!

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