It was a cold night. No stars overhead; the layer of dark clouds saw to that. Not much wind, but the low temperature and the smattering of rain made sure that everyone knew that winter had arrived. There hadn’t been much warning of it this year; to James it felt like they’d gone straight from a late summer to the middle of winter almost overnight, and he’d been caught off guard stepping outside without a coat to find that he was actually chilled.
“We should consider storing changes of clothing in the dungeon.” James said as he held the door to the diner open for Alanna. The two of them were catching up to the rest of the group who’d either not soaked their pants in their own blood, or who had already had the same thought James did and brought backup outfits.
Alanna nodded and clicked her tongue in agreement. “I’ll make Anesh add it to the list.” She said, as they stepped out of the cold and dark, and into the warm lighting of the diner. The smell of grilling meat and surgery deserts drifted through the air under the orange tinted hanging lamps, and the whole place was filled with the sounds of raucous conversation. Not from their group, though; no, it was what looked like a collection of high school students, inexplicably out at four in the morning, that occupied half the diner.
“Oh good.” James deadpanned. “Teenagers.”
“I don’t see everyone else. Did they get run out of the building by yelling children?” Alanna looked around, taking a step past the people who were waiting for a table in front of them to check around the corner. “Also, why are there so many kids here? Is it prom night?”
“It’s *wednesday*.” James said in disbelief, as if the concept of a prom in the middle of the week was totally alien to him.
“Excuse me.” A server behind the cash register and pie display motioned them forward, giving a polite smile to the other couple as he told them that he’d be right back. “Your group is this way.” The waiter said, leading James and Alanna around to the half the restaurant normally closed off this late at night.
James and Alanna raised eyebrows at each other as they walked back to the cluster of tables and chairs that had been arranged for their group. “Hey, you made it!” JP called them over as they walked in. He was seated next to Dave, and the only representative from Karen’s team that anyone had invited, Deb. Actually, he was seated quite closely to Deb, and James arched an eyebrow at his friend that no one noticed in the seconds before they were seated.
Also occupying the table were a singular Anesh, Sarah, and Alex. Upon asking, James was told that Momo was still in the hospital being looked at for a concussion. “Like *you should be too*.” Sarah chastised him, which James promptly ignored. Simon was also absent, which didn’t surprise James at all; that kid was skittish. He was mildly bummed that Tyrone had chosen to resume his actual work shift after the whole ordeal of the night. The dude seemed cool, which was a real commodity that James wanted in his delvers.
As their small exchange died down and James and Alanna found seats, the waiter politely handed them menus. “Is there anything I can get for you?” He asked, and James found himself suddenly realizing that this was the same person that Anesh had tipped a rent check to all those months, when the dungeon had been fresh in their lives.
“Can I get an absurdly large amount of onion rings, and a milkshake?” Alanna asked.
“Of course. What kind?”
Alanna grinned, the kind of toothy smile that meant she was testing someone. “Surprise me.” She told him.
“Yeah, that sounds good. One surprise milkshake for me.” James agreed. The waiter neither hesitated, nor wrote anything down, he simply nodded at them and swiftly vanished. “Is this what preferential treatment feels like?” James asked. “I like it.”
“This is mostly JP’s fault.” Anesh said, shrugging and then wincing as the motion pulled at the bandage on his shoulder. “I’m not quite sure how it happened. Anyway, good to see you again. Have some fries.”
“Technically you just saw us.” James informed his friend.
Anesh frowned. “Did you wake me up? That’s really rude, that me is leaving in the morning.”
“Your conversations are so screwed up.” Deb interjected, leaning over JP in a way that was absolutely intentional to grab a fry out of the basket in the middle of the table. “How do you even keep track of all this weird?” The other girl asked Alanna, coy.
“We don’t.” Alanna mentioned. “We forget stuff all the time. James once forgot that Secret existed for a day.”
“That was a tactical forgetting.” James pointed out. “Have you guys ordered yet?” He asked the rest of the table, looking over the menu and getting a negative from his friends. “I think I want fish. Does anyone wanna get this giant-ass fish platter to split with me?”
There was, within their group, and now spreading to the new people, an interesting window of time when it came to sitting here in their diner at this hour. They had, all of them, just defied death. Some of them more than once. They’d kicked in the door, fought the monsters, and walked out both injured and empowered. And now, after cleaning up, checking their stitches, and actually scoring a really nice side room seat at the restaurant, they were *exhausted*. So after that opening salvo of banter, most of them were content to simply sit, read stuff on their phones, and not really put any more stress on themselves until they could have hot food in front of them.
And even though James had to restore a backup on a rather outdated smartphone he'd had in the bottom of his desk drawers after he’d gotten his actual one smashed in the dungeon, it was still a comfortable tradition to him.
They were tired. Conquering, yes, but still more or less human. They all needed downtime eventually.
So James leaned back in his chair, coat draped over the back of it while Anesh leaned against his arm and everyone just kind of got quietly comfortable with each other without having to speak.
When their food did arrive, somehow showing up earlier than the orders from the groups in the main dining area, it was like a signal for everyone to take a deep breath, and jump back into socialization.
“So!” James said around a mouthful of salmon. “Anyone… I’m sorry, hang on. What the hell is happening over there?”
JP looked up from where he’d balanced, precariously, on the end of his fork, a single yellow orb drenched in maple syrup. “What? No idea.”
“You can’t eat the orbs.” James informed his friend, angling a fork in JP’s direction.
Responding in the most mature way possible, JP gave a toothy smile and clamped his mouth around the fork, making a show of chewing dramatically before swallowing, and letting out a small puff of yellow dust. “Delicious.” He nodded to himself. “Tastes exactly like how I imagined fungal classifications to taste.”
“How… and I hesitate to ask… did…”
“Not great.” JP answered preemptively. “That’s why I slathered it in syrup.”
“They taste better with soy sauce.” Sarah informed him, adroitly.
Alanna snickered, and most of the table joined in. Rolling his eyes, James conceded the point. “Alright, I guess there’s no wrong way to eat your orbs. Except for everything both of you just said. But whatevs. So! How’d everyone feel about tonight?”
Six people tried to answer James at once, all of them chorusing off positive or negative things. All of them also talking over the waiter who silently ghosted past their table, refilling water glasses. Eventually, voices evened out until one person took the spotlight.
“We need better armor.” Alanna loudly insisted. “And not just because mine has holes in it now, though that is very much a reason.” She spread her arm on the table between the plates of food and rolled back the long sleeve of her sweatshirt to reveal a series of bandages, many dyed red already. “I have been stabbed, *so many* times tonight. We need something more resilient than moulded plastic.”
Anesh nodded at her as he drove a fork into his salad. “We should take advantage of the one green that James used at our real world base space to try to bang something together that suits our needs.” He looked around at the blank looks from a few of the others at the table. “You know, the one that makes it faster to construct... “ he checked his phone, “...clothing? Yeah. Clothing. We can test out if that works on armor as well.”
“Sorry, hang on.” JP cut in. “We’ve been using green orbs at *our* office?”
“We’re not calling it an office.” Sarah, Alex, Deb, and Alanna chorused in unison. Even JP joined in for the last few words, rolling his eyes.
Anesh waved them into silence. “Yes, well, James did anyway. There’s a list on our server.”
“Sorry, hang on.” James interrupted. “Do we, or do we not, have a chat group? I feel like we change our minds constantly on whether or not the government is listening in.” He gave an exaggerated frown around the table as three people pulled out their phones to look up the list Anesh had posted.
It was Alanna who got their first. “Okay, first off, you two fuckers should be actually telling me this stuff. Second off, why does this say plus one basement *twice*?”
“We have two basements.” James told her, laughing and flailing defensively as she punched him in the arm for insolence. “Okay, okay! So, I got the extra basement prompt twice, but it’s not what you think. We don’t have two *levels* of basement, we have two separate sets of access points to two different basements, which are both the same distance under the building, and should in theory occupy the same space. But they don’t.”
“More aspirin?” Deb asked JP quietly, holding out the bottle she’d just pulled from her pocket. “Cause this is giving me a headache.”
“Okay, this is funny and all, but none of it answers my question.” James said. “Any other thoughts on the delve itself?”
This time, Dave spoke up. “We really need better organization and coordination. Like, actual assigned teams and objectives.”
JP nodded next to his friend. “I don’t know if we really have enough actual objectives to make that second part work, but tonight was a bit of a mess. I would really, really like it if we could set it up so that someone else could be assigned to pull your ass out of the fire,” he pointed over at James, giving a relaxed smile to show he wasn’t actually too angry, “especially when it means I’ll have to stab a weird invisible cat thing.” JP adjusted the collar of his buttoned shirt. “All that ichor ruined my jacket.”
“Okay, so, that’s *your* fault for wearing actual nice clothes into the dungeon..” James chastized him.
Patting JP on the arm, Deb stage whispered to him, “Also it’s aqueous humor, not ichor, since you stabbed it in the eye.”
“Euuugh.” James bit his tongue and winced as the words reminded him of the scene. “Anyway, all humor aside, how do you figure we set up teams then?”
“I dunno, that’s kinda your job.” Dave shrugged. “But maybe go back to the three-person groups that work best for exploration, and then pair them together for longer or more dangerous parts of the dungeon? Then we, and by we I mean James, can decide when we get in there where we’ll be scouting, or how we divide up hunting grounds.”
Anesh cleared his throat. “I take mild offense to that.” He said.
“Dividing up hunting grounds?” Dave asked.
“Yup.” Anesh responded, instantly.
James nodded. “Personally I’m against it because I feel like it turns this into a game or something. Also it does that thing I hate where it diminishes the value of life in the Office.”
JP rolled his knuckles on the table “The value of stapler-spider-crab life?” He asked, coy.
“The value of any life.” James replied, without sarcasm.
“I feel like I should also point out that I am called by my blood to resist any attempt to divide up conquered territory with lines on a map.” The group at the table turned as one to look at Anesh.
There was a long pause, before Dave raised a hand. “I know I don’t get a lot of social things, so this might be stupid, but why?”
James raised an eyebrow at Dave , before theatrically turning to Anesh, and looking up and down at his boyfriend. “Okay.” He said, poking at Anesh’s face and getting smacked away repeatedly. “Really pronounced jawline, expressive nose, kind of a shorter face, black hair, fairly dark bronze skin… yeah. Yeah. The prognosis is ‘Indian’.” James concluded, nodding to himself with a lopsided grin.
JP snorted a laugh, but Dave just opened his mouth in confusion. “No, I don’t actually get it.”
“Did you miss every world history class in high school?” Alanna asked, maybe a little more mean than she meant to.
“I actually never got any.” Dave said. “Is this a history thing? Wait, wait. Hang on. Is this about how Britain did basically everything for a few hundred years?”
“Yes, Dave.” Anesh informed him with a frown. “This is a colonialism thing.”
Dave nodded. “Okay. I’ll just believe you. If we don’t want to farm the dungeon, that’s okay.” It was weird, sometimes, to other people, how quickly Dave could just abandon his own ideas. He had an ability unique in their group to simply drop something that he saw as not quite working out, and pivot seamlessly into something else. “What about the rest of it?” He asked.
“Anesh and I will work out a team roster once he finishes being furious at the Empire.” James agreed, rubbing Anesh’s head. “Shouldn’t be too hard. Anyone who wants to join up with us kind of already has a team, you know? We may need to mix it up to fill experience gaps, though. Ah, I’ll sort it out.” He concluded, noticing everyone looking at him like he was some kind of leader and instantly self conscious. “Let’s go back to talking about how JP finally gets to rub it in my face that his dumb sword finally came in handy.”
JP groaned as everyone laughed. “Please no! God, the sound that made was just the *worst*! Also, at this point, it’s not like you haven’t been bringing spears in anyway, right?”
“The spears actually vanished.” James told him with a shake of his head. “Turns out, the dungeon cleaning up when we’re not there is actually a huge pain in the ass. And the spears were one of the things we left by the door as fallback weapons, so, they got poofed away.”
They cut their conversation as their server came by again, with a pair of drinks on a tray. “Sorry about the wait.” He told them with what seemed like weirdly sincere concern. “Here’s the milkshakes you ordered.”
“You don’t need to...” James started, but the server was already gone, having deposited the tall glasses on the table. “Okay, what the heck is this?” He looked down at the desert in front of him. It looked like an actual masterpiece of a beverage; the whole thing was layered like a parfait into colored sections. On top, a spire rosette of whipped cream held a pair of cherries pinned together with a plastic umbrella, and a slice of strawberry and lemon wedged over the side. “This looks like something absurdly alcoholic that I’d get on vacation in the tropics.” Next to him, Alanna had a similar concoction, though with far more chocolate than fruit, which she’d already started devouring with aplomb. “I think they might be trying to bribe us.” James said.
“Nooooo.” Sarah let out a surprised gasp. “But yoiks, how much have you been tipping them?”
“Some.” Anesh guiltily looked out the window.
They turned then, after a bit of friendly ribbing directed at James and Anesh for their habit of financial uplifting, to stories from the evening. Most of them here had been with James as they’d aimed for the bathrooms, but that didn't account for the whole table, for the whole dungeon experience.
Sarah talked about testing the limits of the time dilation, and was hopeful that she could get some more exact numbers for them next week. Anesh, drawn to the scent of math, was instantly interested in her experiments with Secret, and the prospect of getting to find more reliable ways to exploit the time zone shift.
From JP and Dave, there was the brief explanation of their own side of that fight with the cat. Initially, there had been some confusion as to why Ganesh hadn't just alerted Anesh in the first place to the line of backup waiting for them, and it was with a sheepish look that Anesh explained that his partner in the sky was actually tethered to a specific phone. His phone, technically. But Anesh was a creature of habit, and so when there were suddenly two of him, and they needed another phone, well… he'd bought the same one. So the interface with Ganesh, by complete accident, ended up with the Anesh who was currently sleeping cozy in bed, and not the one who actually needed it.
“We’re putting stickers on your personal electronics from now on.” James had threatened him.
Aside from that brief diversion, JP talked about their experience skirting the outsides of the office in the time between major events. He and Dave hadn't really gotten any huge hits, but he was just overall very proud of himself for getting through a whole day of this without spraining anything.
The duo had also noticed a tower, only a few miles away along the wall, which instantly interested Anesh.
“That's only a couple minutes by bike. And I'll bet you it'll have coffee.” Anesh pointed out. Then there was another round of catching people up as to why coffee was suddenly a commodity.
“Hey, I only just thought of this…” Alanna started cautiously, but picked up a smug energy as she saw the same realization hit Sarah’s face, “...but couldn't we just bring in our own coffee? Like, I'm not the mathamagician here, but thirty bucks at the grocery store seems like a fine investment if it lets us duplicate, like, another thousand dollars.”
“Oh, on that note, we were talking earlier.” James addressed the group. “Does anyone have any magic items or other suggestions that would make good candidates for duplication?” Sarah and Anesh both raised their hands.
“Anesh, you're already duplicated, we aren't copying you when you can do it yourself.” JP shot across the table, casually chewing on his straw while he listened to the discussion of broader group strategies.
“Anesh, go ahead, then Sarah.” James said with a tired tone. It had been a long day; snark was his lifeblood but he was kinda running on empty at this point.
Clearing his throat with a sip of water, Anesh reached into his pocket and dropped a balled up set of earbud headphones on the table.
“Are these the ones that can't tangle?” Deb asked, having heard rumors. “Because i would trade you something for that”
“No, and those probably wouldn't be worth copying.” Anesh told her. “I don't know if these are magic, sorry, I'm actually clearing my pockets looking for *this*.” The this in question was a yellow legal pad, fairly thin. It only had maybe five or ten sheets left. “This one is actually really dangerous, and I got lucky testing it. And this is why we should be copying it.” Anesh said, writing something on the top sheet.
James looked over to see the phrase ‘behind JP’s chair’ written down, before the page was gone. Just gone, not ripped away or anything, but like it never was. Anesh, too, was gone, which was slightly more concerning. It was especially concerning for JP, who just had Anesh lean in behind him and whisper something creepy.
“There's only six pages here and you wasted an actual teleport on a cheap joke?” Alanna demanded.
James intercepted her frustration. “No, no. It's important to make the point. And also show us all how it works first hand. And also that was hilarious.” He smirked while Anesh sat back down and JP panted, grabbing at his own chest. “Okay, that's on the short list. Sarah, what about your thing?”
“Oh I was just going to suggest we duplicate the red formations. You know, figure out some that project exploitable information, like stock market tips!”
“It cannot be that easy to farm the stock market.” James protested. “Besides, aside from Lily, no one can make the red totems, and she makes really weird ones anyway. Also, having more doesn’t help, unless it’s… another corner case.” He sighed. “Why is everything so specific? It frustrates me.” James declared, stabbing his fork into a helpless shrimp as if doing so would right some cosmic wrong.
“I've actually been trying to make some myself.” Sarah said. “If anyone has some free time this week, and wants to help…?” She angled the question mostly toward Alanna, who instantly became occupied staring out the window. “Alright, fine. Deb?”
“I've got some time before classes start up again, sure.” The nursing student replied with a shrug.
“Yay!” Sarah clapped. “New friend!”
“Okay, so, the paper seems like the obvious test run for the duper, yeah?” James asked the table.
Dave shrugged and pointed out what everyone was thinking. “You're the one in charge now.” He told James.
“Ow, my organ that's in charge of personal responsibility.” James mined being shot.
While everyone rolled their eyes, JP took them back a couple steps. “Okay, quick tangent, that’s actually something we were just talking about. We’re talking about things to copy, right?” Nods from the table. “So, I’m curious, why aren’t you making more Aneshes?” He asked the singular Anesh eating with them. “It just seems like it could be so useful. If nothing else, it would be a way to test dangerous items without risk.”
“Okay, no.” Anesh’s voice was hard as he answered. “Every me is still me. I don’t even know if I’m the original or not, but I still fear death, and pain. I’m not expendable.”
“That’s literally the opposite…” James started before Anesh set a hand over his mouth to stop him.
Carrying on like James’ muffled words were normal, Anesh continued. “It’s also mostly a logistical problem. I need to eat food, have something to do during the day, sleep somewhere, that sort of thing. Each me consumes resources, and still needs to have a purpose. Also, James’ bed is only so big, and it’s already kind of cramped.”
Alex raised her hand timidly. “I’m sorry if this is rude, but what are you guys, anyway?”
“Partners.” James, Anesh, and Alanna all said at once, before grinning at each other.
“More specifically, we’re one single romantic relationship. We also live together, since Alanna apparently has occupied our extra closet now.” James clarified.
“Doesn’t that get confusing?” Alex asked. “Or, like, weird?”
“That might be rude.” Dave told her, but James waved him off.
Honest questions never bothered him. And actually defining this to someone who wasn’t just Anesh or Alanna was kind of refreshing. “I admit, it can be awkward sometimes. Especially when I have to not tell my parents who or how many I’m dating.” Anesh patted him on the shoulder reassuringly as James said that. “But weird? I mean…” He waved his hands to indicate the table in general. “Eh? Like, we just came out of a hole in reality that has mobile and hostile staplers in it.” James reached into his pocket and pulled out a mid sized yellow orb, which he thunked onto the table. “I got this for murdering a potted plant, that was trying to murder me, it’s probably going to teach someone how to swim or something, and I’m seriously considering leaving it as a tip. We are so far beyond weird these days.”
Alex nodded. “That’s fair. I guess as long as everything else is weirder, it’s not a big problem then, huh?”
“Okay, now *that’s* rude.” Dave said. “Am I right this time? Is that rude? Someone help me.” Dave cast his gaze around the table to everyone who was now quietly staring at him, seeing how long this would go for. “Alright, nevermind.” He said, breaking the stalemate.
“So anyway!” JP picked up the conversation as if that had never happened. “I kind of wanted to…” he cut himself off with a massive yawn. “...augh. Okay, well, I had wanted to talk about dungeon etiquette, jumping back to what Dave was saying earlier. But I think I might actually be a bit too tired.”
“You gonna head out? I could use a ride.” Dave asked.
“Yeah. How are we splitting the check?” JP asked them.
Before anyone could answer, Alanna half-threw a handful of yellow orbs onto the table. “Best skill pays the whole thing!” She announced, dramatically.
“How long have you been waiting with those?” James asked her, playing up his mild concern.
“Also, why best skill? Why not worst?” Sarah asked, raising eyebrows at Alanna.
Alanna shrugged. “It's just what i had in mind. Are you guys in?” She asked, cracking one of the small orbs without waiting for the answer.
[+1 Skill Rank : Cleaning - Sweeping]
“Bah.” Alanna said as she relayed the skill. “But at least I’m not paying for my food.”
“This seems like a way more fun way to use these, sure.” Sarah commented as she rolled one onto her finger, before snapping and making it disappear like a stage magician.
[+1 Skill Rank : Geography - United States - Eastern]
“Five out of ten!” Sarah exclaimed, ranking her own skill before telling anyone what it actually was. Not even exhaustion, it seemed, could fully suppress her bubby nature. “I’ll probably never be in Boston, but if I ever am, watch out! Still, puts me in the lead, probably pretty hard to beat.”
“Oh, well, in that case, I’m totally in.” JP said, smushing the orb that had rolled closest to him between two fingers.
[+1 Skill Rank : Driving - Rally Racing]
“I give that a six out of ten.” James said as JP described the skill. “Which puts you in the lead! Congratulations!” He and JP traded grins, both knowing full well that the money they’d gotten from the dungeon just tonight would more than cover their tab either way. “My turn.” James selected carefully, to a chorus of jeers as he took his sweet time selecting the perfect orb. “This,” he said, “this shall be my magnum opus.”
“Not what that means.” Alanna chided him.
[+1 Skill Rank : Fabrication - Costumes - Pirate]
“Yarr.” James flatly frowned at the remaining dust of the orb. “Welp. That’s me safe, I guess. Alex?”
The teenager looked at him curiously. “Am I allowed to? I mean, I don’t know the rules on these things.”
“You don’t… what?” James was perplexed, and from the expression on Anesh’s face and the quiet words Alanna was mouthing next to him, it seemed he wasn’t the only one. “Of course you’re allowed to. You’ve been cracking them anyway, right?” The sheepish look on her face was almost, *almost* worth the exasperation James suddenly felt. “Fuck’s sake, of course you’re allowed to.” He repeated. “Just pick one, they’re harmless, and sometimes useful, and I am now giving you explicit permission to use any orb you find, in any way you can manage, and Alanna’s glaring at me oh god what did I forget?” James stuttered out the end.
“Not the greens.” Alanna reminded him.
“Right. Right! Any *non-green* orb.” He looked back at Alex, who seemed torn between embarrassment, amusement, and horror. “Just try one.” James said, trying not to think of how much he sounded like a peer pressure PSA gone awry.
[+1 Skill Rank : Music - Flute]
“Damn, now I feel bad.” Anesh said as Alex told them what it was with a growing smile. “You might have to pay for our dinner.” He selected his own orb.
[+1 Skill Rank : Animals - Birds - Hawks - Northern Goshawk]
James blinked slowly at his boyfriend as the information was revealed. “I think that is singularly the least useful skill we’ve ever gotten, and also the first four-tier skill. Neat! Congratulations!” He cheered Anesh on with a pat on the back. “Alright, Deb or Dave?”
“Oh, I’m out of this.” Deb held up a flat hand, deflecting responsibility. “I only got a drink, and JP said he’d pay for it anyway.”
“You ate half my fries!” JP protested.
Deb nodded. “*Your* fries.” She pointed over at Dave. “You go. I believe in you!” She told him.
“I like her.” Sarah muttered out of the corner of her mouth to James, leaning across the table to talk to him. “They’re cute.”
“You always say that about people.” He replied.
“Only cute people.” Sarah corrected him. “Also how could you possibly know that?”
James winked at her. “Instinct?” He tested, and was rewarded by Sarah grudgingly nodding.
Meanwhile, Dave had broken down under the constant barrage of encouragement, and picked up an orb to use.
[+1 Skill Rank : Medical - Surgery - Lung]
“Really?” Deb demanded when she heard the skill. “Really. Just a flagrant disregard for how hard medical school is, huh?”
“Hey.” JP reminded her with a reassuring voice. “At least he’s paying for dinner.”
The night wound down after that. JP headed out, taking Dave and Deb with him. Anesh gave Alex a ride home when she brought up taking the bus, and promised to meet the rest of them at their place later. Collectively, they left a tip that totalled somewhere in the realm of two thousand dollars, with a good chunk of it in two dollar bills. And before leaving, Dave cracked a green orb he’d picked up at some point, in what he called a ‘bonus tip’, and what James called ‘probably unethical’.
[+2 Skill Ranks : Forgery - Signatures]
[Local Area Shift : Food nutritional quality, +820mg trace vitamins/serving]
And then there were just the three of them.
James picked idly at cold fries on an abandoned plate, watching Alanna as she threw her coat on. “You coming?” She asked him. “It’s time to go.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m just a bit tired.” He said, voice flat. Almost angry, even.
Sarah and Alanna glanced at each other, then back at him. “Are you doing alright?” Sarah asked him. “I mean, aside from all the holes in your human bits.” She clarified.
“Fine.” James said shortly, ignoring the joke. He stood abruptly, and looked around for his coat before realizing that he’d lost yet another thing to sharp parts of the dungeon. Without any indication of this thought process, he palmed his keys out of his pocket and strode toward the front door of the diner.
“He’s not alright, is he?” Alanna asked Sarah, in a way that made it clear she already knew the answer.
Sarah grimaced. “He’s tired. You’ve known him more or less for a while now. Heck, you’re dating him. Have you seen James when he’s tired?”
“Not really?” Alanna half-questioned herself.
“I think it’s something about how he holds himself together. When he gets tired, he stops focusing, and everything that’s bothering him comes to the surface. But then he’s too tired to talk about it.” Sarah ran a hand through her hair, fiddling nervously with her braid. “Ask him about it when you’re in bed - and isn’t that just an awkward sentence. If it’s actually important, he’ll probably tell you. Otherwise he’ll fall asleep and forget that he was kind of an ass right now.”
“He *has* been up since seven AM.” Alanna told the other girl as they followed James out to the car, at a safe speaking distance for privacy.
“Why the floop was he up that early?” Sarah asked, incredulous. “Wait, we were also in the dungeon for seven extra hours. He’s been awake for thirty-something hours straight?!”
“Ah. My fault there, I think.” Alanna’s turn now to look sheepish. “We went on a morning jog.”
“Is that a euphemism?”
Alanna just rolled her eyes as the two of them got into the car, and drove home with only the radio for company. They were either too tired, or a little too concerned to talk now, so the only noises in the car were the music, and the occasional hum from Ganesh’s rotors.
When they made it home - and they did make it alive despite all of them practically dozing off, including their driver - the post-dungeon ritual felt almost abrupt. At least, to Sarah. They stumbled in, let loose their two small companions, unceremoniously dumped a sleeping Secret onto the couch to be harassed by a very excited Auberdeen, and just sort of plodded to bed. Even the least tired among them was eager to just lay down, and untense from the trials of the day.
“Oh hey, Anesh is already back.” Alanna noted in a whisper as she and James stepped into their shared room, and quietly began peeling clothes off before dropping onto the blankets.
“We’re both awake, kinda.” An Anesh on the bed muttered. He rolled over as James climbed under his comforter, and wrapped an arm around his partner.
Alanna joined them shortly, and there was a moment of just warm comfort, before she rubbed a hand down James’ back, and asked him what had been on her mind for the car ride home. “Hey, are you okay? You seemed really upset back there.”
“It’s… nothing.” James blatantly lied.
“Woah, even I caught that.” Anesh pulled back a bit. “Hey.” He looked James in the eye as his double stacked up on top of him and did the same. “Talk to us. What’s up?”
“It’s stupid.” James lied to himself this time.
“No it isn’t. Stop it. What’s going on?” Alanna said, more forcefully.
There was a moment where James considered just saying nothing until they left him alone. Or where he tried to come up with some kind of witty remark to ease their worries. But then, something in him just crumbled apart. Maybe he was too tired to form a mental defense, or maybe he really did just trust them enough, but either way, he started talking.
“So I was at Subway the other day - don’t look at me like that, it’s cheap and adequate - and I’m standing there in line, and the guy in front of me is just going *off* at the artisan sandwich master about how he doesn’t like the quality of the meatballs. Like, he was swearing his fucking ass off over this. And I’m standing there, waiting for my turn to complicate the employee’s life with my weird order, watching this grown man throw a tantrum, and that was sort of when it hit me, you know? That I almost died.”
Alanna opened her mouth to say something, but one of the Anesh’s caught her eye and gave a slight shake of his head. James didn’t notice any of this, he’d pressed his face down into the pillow and was staring off at the wall, so he kept talking.
“When we were at the door, when the dungeon woke up pissed from whatever monster-Karen did to keep it down, and it threw everything it had at us, remember… yeah, of course you remember.” They did. Alanna especially. “But, like, I made the choice to buy time for everyone to get out. And at the time, I was terrified and my heart felt like it was on fire and I don’t even remember half of it. I think Secret bit a guy in half?” James felt like he was rambling, his words becoming more frantic. “Like, I *feel* like that happened, but I can’t get at the memory. But what I do remember is, by the time everyone was out, we got overwhelmed. And I went from fighting, to pinned, to dead, in less than a second. I was on the ground, and I was inches away from death. But all I remember is seeing Alanna go down too and being afraid for her.”
Her hand traced small motions across his back as he spoke, and Alanna felt a surge of something in her chest as James talked about this. But still, she didn’t interrupt.
“I didn’t get that thing where my ‘life flashed before my eyes’, or I had some kind of moment of revelation or inner calm, or where I saw God or whatever. I didn’t have time to be anything other than ready to fight, and angry. And then I was down, and then I was going to die, and then, all of a sudden, *you* were there, and I wasn’t anymore. I was dead, and then alive, all before I got to think about either of those things or what it meant or if I *cared*.”
James turned to look at Alanna, and she saw his eyes were wet even in the dark of their room.
“I think so *much*. I don’t know if I ever say it, or express it, but it doesn’t *stop*. I can’t make it stop. Every day, I do this long form analysis of conversations, of books or games, of ideas and tactics. And every single night I go to bed afraid to die. And then, instead of having time to think about how I felt, this thing just *happens*, and then you stop it, and that’s just it?
And then we got up, got out, and the day was saved.
And apparently, I’ve been walking around having a near-death experience for the last four months, because it was only right *then*, while Meatball McMuffin was yelling about red sauce, that it occurred to me that I would have been *gone*. Wiped away, into oblivion, forever, no take backs. Probably. Things are weird now.”
James didn’t find what he was saying funny, but he still got a snort of surprised laughter from Anesh.
“Part of me felt like taking it out on yelling dude, you know? It would have been so easy, it’s not like he was a stuffed shirt in the non-metaphorical way. Throat strike, grab the neck and one wrist, slam his face into the glass, done. And I had a lot of those thoughts, too. Different things I could break, how fragile the world seemed around me, how many ways I could hit something with my car…
But I thought that, and I felt just disgusted with myself, on top of the existential dread of almost death. And then I just thought about if I should, you know… die. Like, maybe if I just slump down on the floor, everyone will forget about me and I can disappear and not feel this way anymore. Or maybe a mix of the two, also involving hitting things with my car, but at higher speeds.
I don’t know how someone is supposed to feel when they dodge death. It’s not a thing they ever taught us in school. Anesh, I dunno how schools are in London, but for reference, ‘feelings’ aren’t something anyone explains here in the states. But I don’t like this. I just keep… jumping around. I’m furious, or I’m hollow, and there’s no in between, except for right now, where I can’t stop talking and I feel like I’m going to start crying any second now. I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel, but this *can’t* be right.
And I wish all of this was just a roundabout way of telling you that I had to pay for some angry asshole’s sandwich after I pitched it into the street. But the truth is, I’m scared, and cold, and I don’t know what to do.”
Anesh and Alanna both moved in, and wrapped their arms around James in a silent show of love, burying him in their embrace. He let out a short series of sobs before composing himself a bit and gasping in breath, letting the last of his thoughts trail out in his words.
“There's this part of my brain, the part that wants to be a hero all the time, that tells me that trading my life for fifty others was the right call. That it was a steal at half the cost. That even one life is worth the trade. And that's great and all. But there's the rest of me that screams that no matter how dearly I sell my life, that some things simply do not have a price. Ever.
And I want to be heroic, but I don't know if I can ever do something like that again now. I'm not even really sure I want to go back into the dungeon at all. But we are going back. We just did it, and it was great, and I'm still having fun, and it's great. Really, really great. New friends, new adventures. It’s everything I wanted, I thought. It's just that afterward, now, all I think about in the quiet while I wait to fall asleep is how close to the edge I feel all the time.”
He opened his eyes as he sat up, rotating to look at the two of them as they lay in their shared bed. “And now I feel even worse about this, because I know that you must have gone through the same thing, Alanna. And Anesh, you literally saved my life. And I’m just falling apart over it for some reason.”
“Hey.” Alanna said, reaching out to him.
“What?” James didn’t move, sitting there and starting to feel his hands shaking.
“Hey.” Anesh echoed her, each of him reaching one hand out to James.
“I don’t…” James started to say. But then they reached him, and he felt their hands on his shoulders and arms; comforting and warm and loving. And together, they pulled him back to his pillow.
“We’re here for you.” Anesh said. “That’s the point.” The other one picked up.
“I know this is going to sound cliche.” Alanna told him, holding him as tightly as she could without reopening either of their injuries. “But everything is going to be okay.”
Anesh nodded, unseen but still there. “Now.” He said. “Go to sleep before the birds start screaming. Some of me needs to be up in two hours.”
And just like that, the tension broke. And James laughed, and things were back to normal. But even though the hurt was still there, some of the poison was missing from it. The fear in his heart withering when it was out in the open, and dying wholesale in front of his partners’ love. And tonight, exhausted and drained both emotionally and physically, when his head finally hit the pillow, he was asleep in an instant.
No fear or dread, only dreams.
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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!