“Oh my god it's good to see you again!” James greeted Anesh as he came through the door. He threw his arms wide for a hug, waiting politely in a frozen pose for Anesh to set down his bag, slough off his coat and shoes, and toss his keys into the bowl on the counter. After making a bit of a production of it, and also letting Secret roll off his shoulders to be greeted by the affectionate ball of fur that was their dog, Anesh finally let out a sigh of releasing tension, and started to open his arms to let James in for the hug.
He got maybe two inches up before his grinning boyfriend enveloped him in a warm embrace, pinning his arms back at his side as James planted a long kiss on his lips. Sputtering in amusement, Anesh laughed and pushed him away. “What the hell! I’m glad to see you too, but what’s with the grand welcome?”
“I missed you.” James stated. “Am I not allowed to miss my dearest companion and lover?”
“Oh no.” Anesh deadpanned. “I took Secret away for too long, and you forgot how silly it sounds when you talk like you dropped out of a Robert Jordan novel.”
James grinned. “Thanks.” He ruffled a hand through Anesh’s hair. “Anyway, I just wanted to greet you when you got here. You’ve been gone for a week, basically.”
That comment bounced around Anesh’s mind for a few seconds while he tried to figure out what was wrong with it. Fundamentally, it seemed fine, but there was just something off about how James had said it. Perhaps James was having an affair. Perhaps he was under duress. *Perhaps* it was the perfect duplicate of Anesh who also lived in this apartment and who regularly merged his thoughts and memories with this Anesh.
It was probably that last one.
Anesh declined to comment on that, though. Instead, knowing that shortly he would go back to being one person with two bodies and sets of memories, as opposed to two bodies with divergent sets, he opted to try for an extra perspective.
“So, how’d the delve go?” He asked James, absolutely derailing his boyfriend’s joke.
The two of them flopped down on the couch while they talked, while James regaled Anesh with stories of adventure and bravery and mostly a lot of sitting around, all things considered.
“It’s honestly just really been an exhausting week.” James confided in his friend. “That hike Alanna and I took kinda wiped me out, so we took backup duty while everyone else went off exploring.”
“Did anyone get any good skills?” Anesh asked almost out of reflex.
“That’s the weird thing. There were way fewer creatures than I’m used to. No swarms or anything. I’ve been assuming it’s a migration pattern or something, since there’s no *way* it’s overhunting on our part. But the short story is that we didn’t get the deluge of orbs that I was hoping for.” James draped himself backward over the arm of the couch, and sighed dramatically. “It’s not all bad, though. Neil got a skill for the taxonomy of European urban pigeons.”
“How is that a good thing?”
“Everyone’s first skill should be stupid.” James asserted, nodding to himself. “It’s a rite of passage.”
Anesh wanted to say something about how silly that was, but James was currently running his fingers through Anesh’s hair, and actually forming that thought was challenging at the moment. After a week going cold turkey from the affection he'd gotten used to, it did feel good to get back. Even though he'd be back to his full self shortly anyway, and feel like he didn't miss anything, that didn't make this less nice.
Instead, he broke the comfortable silence a different way. “So, any major revelations while I've been gone?” Anesh asked. “I know I've got one, but I wanna hear yours first.” He cast a short glance down at Secret, who was pointedly hiding under a dog. “My own messages mentioned something about orb theory.”
“Oh, yeah!” James perked up, eager to not have the awkward conversation right now. “Wait, you message yourself?
Anesh nodded as best he could while his head was at an awkward angle pushed into the couch cushions. “I maintain a series of documents on our file server. Both iterations of me update it with notes on points of interest, and the general moods of the people we interact with. I’m calling it emotional triangulation.”
It took James a few long seconds to parse that, as he tried to blink the confusion out of his eyes. “Creepy.” He settled on. “Anyway. Should I not repeat the orb thing?”
“No no, go ahead. It’s actually really interesting to have the same conversation multiple times with fresh perspectives.” Anesh assured him.
“Ooookay.” James cleared his throat, a little uncomfortable about repeating things. It was that feeling you got when someone missed a word in conversation; you knew that saying it again was important, but if you said it again, it wasn’t conversation anymore, it was performance, and that was awkward. But he tried anyway. “So, the general thought that we’ve got is that each orb color can make life, in the same way yellows do. That was something we never really experimented with, because of the ethics of it, but we know it works. Thing is, we’ve seen dungeon life that clearly uses orange orbs, and most of the boss-types are greens. I suspect that Lily and the iLipedes are reds. Secret and his ilk are absolutely purple.”
“Okay, makes sense.” Anesh nodded. “What’s it mean for us?”
“Well, that’s the thing. It explains a lot of holes in our theories up to this point.” James ran a hand through his hair, trying to get it out from where the long strands were trapped under him and against the cushions. “We’ve been assuming that blues make items, but I think that it’s the same way. *Any* orb can make an item, it’s just what comes out that changes based on the color. The blue ones are… varied and weird. The red ones are the traps. I doubt we’ve seen any purples or greens, but..”
Anesh cut him off. “The briefcases.” He said.
“The briefcases. Bet you a Baby Things those are the green items.”
James stuck his tongue through his lips in consideration. “I’m mad you’ve been hoarding the good candy. I will forgive you, and admit you’re probably right, if you give me one.”
Their deal concluded swiftly.
“So, this really spreads out what each orb can do to a staggering level, doesn’t it?” Anesh asked. “What’s the list now?”
James rattled off the concepts off the top of his head. “Crack, absorb, life, item, totem. Not that many.”
“Totem covers a lot, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, but I think it’s a reasonable spread of ideas. See, this place acts *way* too much like what we think of a ‘dungeon’ as, in the game sense. It’s almost pathologically dungeony.” James pushed Anesh off and sat up, stretching his stiff arms out. “I think the fact that we can crack orbs is the dungeon’s mandatory required ‘reward’. Or maybe it feeds off of rewarding us, which makes more sense. The absorb thing is what we see Rufus and Ganesh do with the yellows, so that’s clearly how it’s pushing power to its minions. And then it can make minions. And traps, and also other ‘rewards’. Totems round out its ability to create unique environments.”
“That’s well thought out.” Anesh admitted. “What about the items that are useless? Does it get points for giving us those?”
“Good question.” James said, with a nod.
Some time passed with him nodding to himself.
“And?” Anesh asked.
“It was a good question.” James reaffirmed. “That doesn’t mean I have a good answer.”
Anesh barked out a laugh. “Alright mate.” He said. “Well, it’s a cool theory. I hope it pays dividends. But yeah, how’ve you been while I was gone?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I mean, I read the draft for the guild charter you published for us. You clearly put some thought into it, but it’s also the kind of thing I know you’re gonna be worried about. Also you look tired. Have you been sleeping?”
James lay in bed, staring at the ceiling.
His room had become more bed than anything else, lately. Furniture had been transferred to closets or the other free room, and two mattresses, a king and a queen, occupied the lion’s share of his floor. This was because there were sometimes four people sleeping in here, and none of them shared blankets well.
Right now, James lay between a fast asleep Alanna, heavy breaths steady and quiet, and Anesh, who was snoring lightly and curled into a small ball around the stuffed dragon James kept on his bed.
Other Anesh was still on the road. That wasn’t why James couldn’t sleep, though.
The world was so big, he thought to himself as he eyed the blank plane of his ceiling. There were too many people, too many problems. How could he hope to make a dent in them?
Guilt. That was the feeling eating away at him. Guilt over not doing enough, guilt over misuse of his power, guilt over not being able to see the way forward.
And he did feel like he had power, for a change. All those times he’d sworn to himself that if he could, he’d change the world. And now he was in a position to do so, and he didn’t even know where to start. There was just so *much*. So many interlinked systems and issues. To tamper with one thing would have ripples on the other side of the world, and he couldn’t even begin to predict a lot of them.
Alanna called it the Utopia Fallacy. The idea that if you couldn’t fix everything, it was hard to feel like it was meaningful to fix anything. James’ had always thought the solution to that was simply starting with one person, and going from there. But now that he could do that, it didn’t feel like enough. Like it would ever be enough.
He needed to build systems. New ones. Better ones. The dungeon enabled rapid education, an end to scarcity, an end to *death*. He just had to figure out how to crack it open to share with everyone.
His mind raced, feverishly. And then, without realizing it, he found himself looped back around. The world was too big for him to know where to start.
How could anyone ever expect him to be the leader, the ethical heart, of an organization, if he couldn’t even keep himself on track while lying awake and insomniac at 9 in the morning on a Sunday?
James considered abdicating his position, fleeing to the mountains, and living in a snow cave.
Shortly after that, his thoughts drifted again.
He didn’t fall asleep for a long time.
“I’ve been sleeping fine.” James told Anesh. “Don’t worry about me.” He flapped a hand. “Tell me about your trip.”
“No, hang on. That’s not an answer. You look exhausted. How have you even been getting stuff done if you’re so tired?” Anesh asked him, pointedly.
James glowered. “I put Eminem’s Lose Yourself on loop and listen to that while I write ethical manifestos on how to use superpowers. Please, don’t worry about me. Just… I wanna know about your trip. It’s more important to me. We can talk about the other thing later, okay?”
It wasn’t okay, not really. But Anesh didn’t want to pressure James, especially since his counterpart had made a few notes to the point that he’d already been doing so, and the last thing James probably needed was *two* boyfriends nagging him.
“Oh, it was interesting.” Anesh said instead. “Didn’t find a single dungeon, but I did get to spend some time with a bunch of drunk old bikers who were convinced they knew the lair of the Sasquatch.” The comment got a snort of laughter from James. “Aside from that, not much to talk about, really. Ate some terrible diner food, ate some decent diner food, drove a lot. Saw some *art*.” Anesh emphasized the last word, looking down at the table. Or, more specifically, the guilty party under it.
“I apologized.” Secret muttered, uncharacteristically subdued.
“Look, there’s really no un-awkward way to do this. Just tell me what’s up.” James said with a sigh.
“Secret’s not been doing a great job keeping secrets.” Anesh cryptically failed to explain anything. He followed up, trying to clarify, “Apparently, when he’s embodied like this for a long time, he needs to sleep. And when he sleeps, he dreams. But for him, ‘dreams’ pull him into the shared subconscious with people who’ve got some idea of him.”
“Like he did with me, originally.” James half-asked.
“Right. Except these are just random people who caught glimpses of him in our back seat. Or, in one case… who saw him as a whole, somehow.” Anesh grimaced.
“As a whole?” James asked.
Anesh nodded. “It’s how he described it. He doesn’t know her name, only things about her. She’s a traveller, a driver, an artist…” Anesh winced again. “She’s a long way from home. She’s scared. Of him, and of *us*. Like, us specifically.” He shook his head. “I think she’s someone like we are. Someone who found a dungeon, and then mistook us for the wizard police when we were out scouting locations after the Exodus. And now she’s trying to find us.”
“The painting, of Secret…” James prompted.
“A breadcrumb. Maybe intentional, maybe just cool art she wanted to make. But the guy she was staying with, who she traded it to, said she left a few days ago. Said she was headed to Oregon.”
“And that was before you turned back.” James mused. “So.. she’s here. Somewhere in the state.”
“Unless she’s moved on. But yeah.” Anesh nodded. “Probably still here.”
“And she found us…”
“Through Secret. Through his dreams, and him trying to make friends.”
James sighed. Secret had tensed up through the conversation, and Auberdeen had moved off of him, as if sensing that the serpent form needed space. She was a good dog. Looking down, James patted the couch cushion next to him. “Get up here.” He said, voice tired, but not angry.
Secret sheepishly glided into place. “I…” He started to say, but couldn’t finish the sentence. For once, at a loss for words.
“I know you can’t actually read my mind.” James said. “Which is probably why you didn’t want to tell me about this earlier. And it’s almost certainly why you’re afraid now.” He reached out and laid a hand on Secret’s snout, a human hand on an azure-scaled maw with enough teeth in it to terrify the most adamant dentist. “But I’m not mad at you.”
Secret seemed to ripple at the words. “Why?” He asked. “I’ve caused you another problem. When you least need it.”
“You’ve been making friends. Exploring, in your own way. Meeting people, which isn’t gonna be common for you otherwise, I’m afraid.” James shrugged. “You tried to do good. We try things.” He told the snake. “Sometimes, those things don’t work. Doesn’t mean we don’t try.”
Anesh let out a small cough. “I, ah, I should apologize.” He said. “I was kinda hard on you, Secret. I didn’t really think. Sorry.” The words felt awkward, but real. “Also, James, who died and made you a mature adult?”
“A few dozen tumblefeeds.” James admitted. “Now. With that resolved, Secret, go take a shower. You have a body, you get to *bathe*. Auberdeen smells better than you!” His words caught both of them off guard, and Anesh let out a long string of barking laughs. “And Anesh! Kick back, and let me tell you of our own adventure in an *attic*, and how our state has too many dungeons in it.”
The apartment was mostly dark when JP walked through the front door.
“Sup, nerds!” He exclaimed to the warmly lit living room, and the single person and dog residing in it.
Sarah looked up from her book on information theory, peering over the lineup of colored orbs sitting on their table. “Hush!” She stage whispered at JP. “It’s the first time in a week James is actually sleeping, don’t shout.”
“Oof, sorry!” JP’s reply might have read as sarcasm to anyone who didn’t know him. To Sarah, though, it was… well, maybe not genuine, but at least polite.
“Why are you here, anyway?” She asked. Sarah loved people, Sarah was friends with everyone, Sarah always had her smile on, but Sarah would maybe not mind if JP didn’t show up announced at her residence, which was only just becoming a safe space for her again.
“I wanted to touch base with everyone.” JP said. “When we went over skill lists last week, James caught one of mine, and set me to work building an investment portfolio for the guild. We’re up 3% right now, and it’s going well. Oh, also, there’s some notes on the server about the charter, a couple spellcheck things. And I also had the minutes for a meeting from the Hideout about recruiting strategies. Just business stuff.” He told her.
“Dungeon business.” He nodded. “The recruiting ideas especially. I know James likes to be involved in that, but this was mostly a brainstorming thing. Momo thinks we should make a Reddit thread with the specific language the dungeon uses for skills, and see who bites, but that seems way too obvious. I honestly just like the idea of finding… well, people like us. Disillusioned twenty-to-thirty-somethings who want to fight the world’s problems. We’ve got a big pool to draw from.” He rambled on, mostly ignoring Sarah rubbing at her temple. “We need more engineers, though. More people to… hm?” He trailed off as he finally noticed Sarah’s constant sighs.
“JP.” Sarah didn’t hide her annoyance as well as she maybe wanted to. “We have a ‘secret’ base. We have a guild Slack. We also have a file server with enough encryption on it that I think it actually is illegal. There are so many ways to share this information. Why are you at my apartment?”
“I… wanted to hang out.” JP admitted. He withered a bit under Sarah’s disciplined gaze. “We don’t hang out anymore!” He fought back. “We promised! James fuckin’ *promised us* that the dungeon wasn’t going to change our friendship!” JP jabbed an accusatory finger at the floor. “But we don’t do D&D anymore, we don’t do anime nights, we aren’t even doing that thing where we hang out here and talk shop while James gets irrationally good at cooking!” He puffed out a shaky breath of air. “I miss everyone.”
“Even me?” She asked, surprised.
“Well, no.” JP bluntly told her. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. You fit into our group perfectly; of course you do. But I don’t have that connection to you yet.”
He was, Sarah realized, oblivious to the fact that the two of them had never had that connection. But then, a thought struck her. JP wasn’t bound by the past. He didn’t know that they’d gotten off on the wrong foot so many years ago. So, maybe…
“Hey, you wanna go for a walk?” She asked him. “There’s a coffee place that’s open way too late around here. We can go caffeinate ourselves, and you can tell me why 3% is a big deal.”
“It’s because of how much money James gave me to put into it.” JP instantly explained. “But… yeah. Yeah! Sure, that sounds good.” He looked down the hall to the closed bedroom doors. “Want to see if they want to come along? Actually, I’m okay hanging out here, too. I can be quiet.”
“Oh, I’m sure you can.” Sarah told him with a toothy grin. “But they can’t. And at some point, they’re gonna go back to having really loud sex, and I’m being magnanimous and sparing you that experience.”
JP flushed beet red, color traveling up his neck to his cheeks rapidly. “Ah. Well. Ahem.” He was suddenly glad he’d kept his shoes on as he stepped back to the front door. “Yes, let’s go.” He agreed. “Wait, if you know that… doesn’t it bother you when they… you know…?”
“Oh, sweetie!” Sarah giggled. “If you had any idea how long I’ve been shipping James and Anesh for, you wouldn’t ask that at *all*.” She quickly threw a coat on, glad she hadn't changed out of street clothes for the night when she’d gotten home. “So! Recruiting?”
“Yes. Recruiting. God, yes, let’s talk about that instead.” JP agreed, the two potentially new friends descending the steps of the apartment together. Both of them hopeful they could fix something that never was into something new and whole.
Support "The Daily Grind"
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!