“You wanted to see me, boss?” Harvey asked, sticking his head through James’ office door.
“Yeah, two things.” James said, digging through his outbox - another new invention that had been recently brought to his attention - and coming out with a padden tan envelope in hand. “First of all, here’s your paycheck.” He said, leaning forward to try not to elbow Rufus off the desk.
Harvey didn’t so much raise his eyebrows physically, as he did in the ethereal space of the room make it known that eyebrows would very much *like to be raised*. “We get paid?” He said out loud.
“Yes?” James questioned. “You’ve gotten paid before.”
Harvey grunted. “Eh. I’ve had my expenses covered, but I kinda figured that this was a non-profit thing.”
“Non-profit employees *get paid*. Do you want the money or not?” James asked.
Harvery took the envelope. He also didn’t hesitate to crack it open and peek inside. “Huh.” He said flatly, reaching in and digging out a blue orb with his index finger. “This…”
“There’s also nine grand in there.” James pointed out. “Not just the orbs.”
“Why are there orbs?” Harvey asked, curiously holding it up to the light.
“Because we have a spreadsheet of people’s different wants in terms of dungeon weirdness, and we have some kind of frustratingly complex accounting system that we’re using to get as many people as much of what they want.” James said. “You asked for blues, I assume for problem solving, since that’s what they do. There’s a green in there too.”
Harvey nodded. “I guess that explains all the questions Sarah had the other day.” He concluded. “What’s the second thing?”
“You said two things. When I came in.”
James blinked, trying to remember what the hell he’d been meaning to say. “Oh!” He exclaimed, snapping his fingers and startling the strider trying to nap in his inbox. “Don’t call me boss!” He said. “It was that. Being called ‘boss’ makes me feel like a manager, and I am not down with that.”
“We’re in your office.” Harvey pointed out. “While you’re behind your desk, handing me a paycheck. You’re the boss, like it or no.”
“No.” James chose. “Anyway. Third thing…”
“You said two.”
“*Third thing*.” James insisted. “Why are you here on Christmas? Go home.”
Harvey shrugged. “Got nowhere to be really. Why’re you here?” He looked at James for a long moment, before shaking his head. “Nah, nevermind. It makes sense.” Harvey concluded, leaving James unsure if he should be offended or not. From his perspective, though, it wasn’t meant in a hostile way. It was just that, well, James was always here. He was their leader; and he seemed like he’d given up a lot to be that. He’d quit his job to spend more time helping the people he’d rescued; it made perfect sense that he’d give up Christmas, too. “Anyway.” Harvey continued. “There’s a few people here, we were thinking of ordering pizza or something? You want in?”
Looking up from where he’d already turned back to checking off another name on his list labeled 'people to bribe’, James bit the tip of his tongue in annoyance. “Ordering pizza? It’s *Christmas*, and we have a commercial kitchen!” He complained. Harvey just shrugged, and James rolled his shoulders in response, tapping the stack of papers into a pile and tossing them on his desk. “Alright, no. We *have* a kitchen. If ya’ll want pizza, you get pizza, but you’re getting the good stuff. Come on, let’s go find some prep cooks.”
Which was how it came to be that James ended up in the Lair’s kitchen on Christmas eve. Along with a handful of stragglers who didn’t have any family or social circles left that remembered them, a shared sense of restlessness that led them all to gravitate to this new community that had formed here. Anywhere else, it would have been weird to have a therapist mixing dough alongside a vagrant wizard, while James instructed their resident totem witch on how to properly chop garlic, and a sleepy Secret, who someone had tied an apron to, attempted to maneuver oven racks into the proper places.
That was where Alanna and the Anesh that was still stateside found him when they came looking.
“You’re not answering your phone.” Alanna sighed, relieved that James wasn’t dead or on fire or something.
James felt an instant pang of guilt, which was shortly buried under a puff of flour from the pizza he was tossing in the air, spinning out a disc of dough that would soon be covered in a variety of stuff salvaged from around the pantry. He made a mental note to thank Nate for actually keeping the kitchen so well stocked, and then promptly forgot it. “You’re here!” He called to his partners as they stood near the doorway to the food-court-and-gym area of the building. “Merry Christmas! Come on in! I need someone to spread meat across these things!”
“Did you have to say it that way?” Anesh asked, rolling up his sleeves and stepping forward first to make his way over to the sink and wash his hands. “Nevermind.” He self-corrected. “I already know the answer.”
“I thought we weren’t doing anything for Christmas?” Alanna asked, suspicious.
“Anesh is doing something for Christmas.” James pointed out.
Anesh nodded, folding his arms across his chest. “Yeah, hey! I *am* doing something!” He protested. “I’m in London right now!” He reminded everyone.
“You…” Momo started to comment from her position at the cutting board, before she shook her head with a grin. “You guys are so weird.” She finished.
And the kitchen was full of laughter, and warmth, and soon the smell of cooking pizza. The people within it more than just allies or dungeon teammates. Even if some of them weren’t the closest, and maybe they’d go back to that after dinner, right now, they felt like a family.
A family that had some weird conversations, granted.
“I’m frankly annoyed that you’re still so much better at this than I am.” Anesh declared after fumbling a pizza toss for the third time. He was standing next to James, hands coated in flour, trying to spin the dough into a disc in the same way that James was doing with almost flawless precision. “I got a rank in cooking! I should be catching up to you! And instead, I’m flinging bread at El! Apologies El.” He bit his lip as the girl on the other side of the stainless steel prep counter flicked a glob of sticky dough off her sleeve.
“No worries.” She muttered, the one person still not quite sure of her place here.
James smiled as he gave the pizza one last twirl, and then deftly flicked his wrist to send it across the counter to where the people with the chopped veggies and pepperoni were waiting like wolves. This was the third pizza they’d done, and James had insisted they all go in the oven around the same time. People were starting to get hungry, but the process of creation was still fun, even if it did involve some bickering over how many olives were supposed to go on pizza. “Well,” he said, “I’ve got a lot of practice, you know? Like, I have worked in a pizza parlor before. And I cook almost every day now, so I’m getting better outside of the orbs themselves.”
Anesh grumbled. “That’s fair, I guess.” He admitted. “Still, makes me feel like the skorbs are just in general kind of a lie?”
“Also I’ve gotten two more ranks in cooking.”
“You wanker!” Anesh burst out laughing, fumbling his pizza again, and partly marveling as James caught it and flipped it back into the air, dough expanding out in an even circle.
“Yeah, the orbs are kind of a huge cheat. It also helps that I can aim where I throw the pizza now. Turns out ‘accuracy’ is kind of a vague blanket that improves a lot of things. And throwing is one of them, even if what I’m throwing is food, in a non-combat context.” James shrugged, eying the last of the batch of dough and admitting in his head that there wasn’t another pie left in there of any reasonable size. He’d have it for lunch tomorrow.
One of their extra helpers who had volunteered for dishwashing duty stuck his head over the low dividing wall between the kitchen and dish pit areas. “Sorry, you can get orbs for stats?” He asked. “I’ve only had a few yellows, but they didn’t do that.” James glanced over, feeling bad for having kind of forgotten his name. Nathan? Ethan? No, neither of those were right. James suspected he was only here because he was trying to impress Momo, which might be hard if he wasn’t himself an anthropomorphic red orb totem.
“Ah, that one comes from something else.” He admitted, unsure how much he should share. Then he shrugged, and realized that doubling down on honesty was always going to be his game plan. “There’s another dungeon out there, in the basement of a school. It gives distinctly different prizes. Also kills people. A lot.” James cut himself off; this wasn’t a conversation for this moment. “Anyway.” He flipped his hand, trying to come up with a segue out of this.
“Wait, Lua was just talking about this.” Momo said, pointing out the door where the middle aged woman had taken her leave to have a seat in the cafeteria-esque area. “Are you talking about the school that you just got her a job at?”
“*Wait*, hang on!” Harvey cut in. “Are you talking about the school that had all the missing students a couple days ago?” He set down the heavy mixer he was carting over to the sink to clean out, and made eye contact with James. “That school?”
“Yes.” James admitted. “In my defense, I did talk to the police.”
But not, the unspoken line went, anybody else. Not everybody else. They had a serious problem with information not making its way through their ranks beyond rumors and occasional briefings that still never came fast enough. They needed, James decided, to dedicate someone to ‘being the news’.
“I actually wanted to ask about that.” Alanna spoke up, starting to slide trays of pizza into the now-scorching oven. “You… ah, dammit.” She shook the tray she was holding slightly, trying to center the food on it. “You talked to that detective, right?”
“Madden, yeah.” James confirmed.
The kid - Edward, that was his name, James snapped his fingers as he remembered - chimed in. “Madden like the football games?”
“No, like… well, yes, like those.” Alanna pulled a face as she tried to recover from the conversational nosedive, much to the amusement of Momo who was handing her trays. “But he’s a police detective. Or sergeant now.” She nodded at James before he could correct her. “The *point* I’m desperately trying to reach is that he was being super erratic, for an officer.” Alanna sounded worried. “From what you told me, James, he was suspicious, hostile, and jumped back and forth between thinking you had all the answers and acting like you were yourself a murderer. That’s *weird*.”
“That’s actually largely been my experience with the police.” El said quietly.
Alanna almost missed that. Some people surely did, but she caught the words that weren’t really meant for anyone. “I… don’t know why. Are the police different where you’re from?”
“I feel like I can cut this off before it gets even more awkward.” James stepped in. “Alanna, the police here are more or less better than the police in a lot of the rest of the country. They’ve still got problems, though, but I know you kinda have blinders on because…” Because of your dad, he didn’t say out loud. Because your heroes have always been cops. Because you worship the structure of society, and see the police as a force that helps that, instead of undermines it.
She didn’t read the subtext. “Okay, that’s weird. We’ll have to fix that.” She said, and for the first time, James felt like her enthusiastic idealism might put them at odds. We’ll fix that, she said, like it would be easy to root out the structural flaw of a group with a monopoly on violence.
Well… the thought bounced around James’ head. Maybe it would? Maybe that was exactly the sort of thing that was the endgame for them. They were always headed toward building a better world. Was ‘the entire nature of the police’ their boss fight?
That was both worrying, and also kind of hard to wrap his head around.
For now, though, he just responded to Alanna. “Sure. We’ll put that on the list.” He said. “Anyway, erratic behavior?”
“Oh. I mean, even if that’s… I guess that’s people’s experiences…” She started again, unsure now, “the way you described it was still beyond weird. Like, he deduced that Secret was there, but still didn’t believe you, right? He *knew* something was up, but didn’t seem to be able to actually start doing anything about it until you gave him a cryptic path to follow.” Alanna tapped Secret on the nose as he drifted by to punctuate her point. “That speaks to the presence of a much more complicated meme than we’re used to. Something more like Secret now, than Secret at his creation.”
“Wait, does Secret dictate what you can and can’t do?” Harvey asked, coming back into the room and clipping the cleaned mixer back into place, the evidence of their use of the kitchen hidden away where Nate wouldn’t be able to harass them about it.
“No.” James said, while at the same time, slithering along the floor next to him, Secret said, “Yes.” James looked down at his friend with pursed lips. “It’s ambiguous.” He settled on telling Harvey.
“Guys, this is kind of important.” Alanna redirected them back on track. “If there’s an infomorph afflicting this guy, it might explain why the police don’t ever seem to be able to track down anyone who goes missing in a dungeon. Like, think about it from an evolutionary perspective.”
“Oh, I get it.” Anesh said. “It’s easier for the dungeons to stay hidden if no one can look for them, but it’s a *lot* easier if they just make it impossible for the people whose job is to look, instead of the entire population.”
James leaned forward on the counter, tapping his spatula on it idly. “That kind of implies mass cooperation between the dungeons, to create something like that. And we *know* they don’t, because we have evidence they keep trying to kill delvers of their rivals.”
“We have one piece of evidence for that. Sort of.”
“We have *some evidence of that*.” James reiterated. “I think it’s kind of more likely that detective Dave himself has just sort of been worn down by the whole thing, and may be going a little bit crazy.” He waved a hand at the four or five people who started to protest. “Yes thank you I know that ‘crazy’ is not a medically accurate term, I love you all and you’re all appreciated but shut up.” That got a couple laughs. “I mean, he’s tired. He’s seeing things he thinks shouldn’t be real, or starting to understand that something is bizarre and wrong. He can’t trust his senses, he can’t trust his team mates… he certainly can’t trust one possibly-a-wizard handsome rogue that he’s linked to a series of disappearances. I’m not saying he’s got space dementia or anything, it’s just that he’s starting to fray around the edges.”
Lua, their actual professional therapist, nodded. “There’s a lot of signs that point to that being an ongoing problem with anyone who spends time in Relevant Spaces.” She said, stealing the term she’d heard Secret say a few times, and absolutely refusing to call them ‘dungeons’. “We can already see it happening to your circle.”
“Really?” James asked, both surprised to have an actual adult back up his weird theory, but also suddenly incredibly worried about the nature of that backup.
“Oh, boy, yes.” Lua let out a low whistle. “How often do you forget small things? How many special days have you missed? How…”
“Okay, okay, yes, thank you, I feel personally attacked right now.” James interjected, clearing his throat. “Okay, so, he’s had a bad day. Week. *Year*. And then he meets me, and it feels like he can finally make progress, but he’s still stuck, and his brain can’t figure out why. So, erratic.”
Alanna shrugged and nodded in agreement. “Makes sense to me, though it still sucks. It would have been nice to have an in with the local PD. We need to start making allies outside the Relevant.” James wanted to say something about how they needed to come up with a better term for being behind the veil, but honestly, Secret had hit it pretty well with ‘relevant spaces’, and it was cool to see their group starting to pick that up. “So, pizza now?” She asked, excited.
“No.” James and Anesh echoed together, before sharing a look of cocked eyebrows. Anesh motioned for James to continue, and he did so. “We bake it until the crust is kind of a golden color, about nine or ten minutes with this dough. Slightly more for the ones that have more meat on them. Everyone can go grab a seat, though. I’ll slice ‘em and bring them out in a bit.” James offered.
Roughly one hundred percent of their newly formed kitchen staff took the offer to bail, leaving James with a much more vacant and quiet kitchen, with only the hum of the commercial oven to occupy his thoughts for a couple minutes. Until, of course, Alanna and Anesh kicked the double doors back open and strolled in again.
“James, settle an argument for us.” Alanna opened with.
“Yes, we require a tie breaker vote.” Anesh told him.
James eyed them both, then looked down at the timer on the over. “Alright, you have… two minutes thirty seconds to explain, and thirty seconds each to make your case. Go.”
They looked at him like deer in the headlights, both of them clearly unprepared for the burden of a time limit. “Uh… um…” Anesh started off strong, before shaking it off and getting his conversational bearings, bringing James up to speed as fast as possible. “Okay, so, Alanna has a shell upgrade that gives her minus one organ rejection per year. There’s disagreement about what this means, we each think there’s a different line for what she can get away with, and we have an even number of people out there, so you have to be tiebreaker.”
Alanna cut in, opting to present her case first. Like Anesh, she tried to rattle off words in rapid fire mode. “I think that I should be able to install whatever the hell I want. I googled what an ‘organ’ is, and it makes sense that I should be able to stick in, like, a USB drive or something if I want. Or a venom sac, from a snake!” She said the last bit like she’d just thought of it.
“And I think that you can’t argue with the GM.” Anesh countered. “The dungeon isn’t a person that’s running this; you have an ability, and it *means something*. Maybe it didn’t communicate it…” He stopped, realizing he was expositing too much. “It means something by organs. You can’t just stick things in you and assume it’ll work. ‘Not rejecting’ isn’t the same thing as ‘integrating’.”
“Counter-counterpoint.” Alanna made a finger gun in Anesh’s direction, “Dungeon magic is bullshit.”
“Counter-counter-counterpoint!” Anesh retorted, “Even if you *could* stick, I don’t know, a layer of photosynthetic cell material from a tree or something just under your skin, and have your body ‘not reject it’, there’s still no easy way to learn what ‘a year’ means! *Also*...!”
James threw open the oven doors. “Aaaaand time!” He declared in tune with the sharp beeping of the kitchen timer. “Argument’s closed! Pizza is now!” He announced, loudly enough that he heard people clamoring outside the kitchen for the awaited food. “Anyway, um… Alanna, please don’t load yourself with like, a maimframe’s RAM launcher, or something.” He concluded. “I feel like it’s a bad idea.”
“Oh my god I didn’t even think of that!” Alanna clapped her hands to her cheeks, a delighted gasp on her face. “I could *be a gun*, Anesh!” She turned, grabbing her boyfriend by the shoulders and shaking him slightly.
“N..n..n..n..o..o..o..o..ooooo.” Anesh let out a long denial, made slightly shaky by the fact that he was literally being tossed back and forth. It was pretty easy for Alanna to forget, sometimes, that she was both stronger than them *anyway*, and also stronger than she usually remembered thanks to dungeon nonsense. “Ahem.” Anesh cleared his throat. “No. Please don’t be a gun. Also, if you want to be a gun, why not just install a gun? I’m sure it would be more sterile.”
James slid another pizza onto the counter, steaming hot and filling the air with the smell of food. “Guns aren’t organs.” He informed them cleanly, as if he had all the answers. “Look, guys, I feel like you’re asking me to be the GM for a D&D game that I really don’t have a hand on the dice for. The purple orbs are, so far, *absurdly* broken when they get out of hand, so it’s probably safe to assume that you can get away with it if you can convince a doctor to wire the nerves in. But isn’t it safer to just bank that organ transplant for if you get your heart ripped out?”
“I don’t think you guys’re gonna break up with me.” Alanna coyly snipped out the words, leaning over and sniffing at the pizza.
James swatted at her with an oven mitt. “Get away from that, you goon. It’ll be out in a minute. Go sit down! It’s already more than nuts enough that you can selectively dial down *the friction of your feet*” He informed her. “I decline to vote! Deal with the tie!”
The two of them left the room, bemoaning the lack of resolution, and from outside James heard more than a few shouts his way as the group, which had gotten weirdly invested in Alanna’s bodily autonomy, demanded an answer from him. He just shook his head, and kept quiet. If they wanted pizza, he figured, they’d know what’s good for ‘em and stop threatening the chef.
Halfway through James rolling the alarmingly large pizza cutter that Nate had hidden in the wrong drawer - with the ice cream scoops, for some reason? - across the finished pies, James was interrupted yet again. This time, he was ready for it, and as the kitchen door swung open, he was already yelling, putting a hint of comical notion into his voice right alongside the hint of ‘get out of my kitchen’. “Get out of my kitchen!” He let out. “Pizza’ll be done when it’s done!”
“There’s pizza?” Dave asked, poking his head over JP’s shoulder as the shorter man took point and strode into the kitchen like he owned the place. “Nice.”
James gave them a once over, doing a double take at how they were dressed. JP was in a dark suit of some elegantly thin material, studded in silver buttons, and behind him, Dave wore a smokey grey suit coat that made him look like a lost librarian. “Dude. You look like a discount hitman and a politician flaunting the bribes he’s been taking, respectively. What’s up?”
“Which one of us is the hitman?” JP smirked as he leaned against the sink, taking in the view of the whole kitchen from his place on the wall.
“It’s me.” Dave told him, resigned to his fate, going over to try to snag a slice.
James slapped his hand with the flat of the pizza cutter. “No! Go sit with everyone else and wait!” He ordered.
“Yeah, why’s everyone here?” JP asked, mildly curious.
“Why are *you* here?!” James demanded. “It’s literally Christmas! Why is everyone here!? Did you only show up because I made food?”
Dave shrugged. “I kind of want to say yes to that, but JP just needed to print off some stuff, Harvy won’t let him log into the financial account emails outside this building, and he was giving me a ride back from the dinner party. Our families did a joint thing this year.” He explained. “Food was pretty good, but that was a couple hours ago. Can I have some pizza too?” Dave put on what he probably thought was an excellent rendition of puppy dog eyes.
With a sigh, James motioned him out of the kitchen. “It’s literally almost done, go sit down. Wait, what printing stuff?” His brain caught up to the words.
“Oh, something about the investment portfolios.” Dave shrugged as he left.
James’ head swiveled around to face JP, and the other man gulped audibly. “I… ah… should..”
“I actually had a really interesting thought the other day about using Anesh corpses as organic storage for mind backups, so we could all be immortal.” JP unleashed his secret distraction weapon; an appeal to James’ rampant fear of mortality.
And it didn’t do a damn thing. James plowed through it like the conversational obstacle wasn’t even there. “JP.” He rubbed a hand against his forehead, leaving a dusting of flour across his skin. “JP, we *talked* about this. We need to ease off! You can’t just ram through a stranglehold on the stock market, the FTC will have *words* for us! Words like ‘stop’ and ‘doing’ and ‘that’. Also ‘go to prison’.” James tried to explain.
“Okay, okay.” JP raised his hands, placatingly. “I have a defense prepared.”
“Oh?” The word was so dry it could dessicate a marsh.
“We are officially a fiduciary at this point; paperwork came back yesterday. Our client list includes the entire guild…”
“The entire order.” JP didn’t miss a single beat. “That alone gives us more cover. We’ll be screened by the fact that we’re no longer an individual person making bizarre choices, but an organization operating among other organizations that make equally bizarre choices. Also, I’ve created a system to make certain high risk business investments that will almost always ‘fail’, but can be used to filter money out of our accounts in a way that will be seen as loss.”
“So you’re going to lose us money.”
“We keep the money, you dork, you know that.” JP gave a small sneer. “It’s very illegal. Of course, it’s masked with other, real, losses. But we can, and will, stabilize our profits at roughly 20% ROI without problems from the government.” He tapped at the counter. “And I can more or less prove that if I can make it to a printer without you stabbing me with a pizza cutter.”
James put on a shocked face. “I wouldn’t do that!” He exclaimed.
“Oh. Thanks, I…”
“Pizza cutters are for *slicing*.”
“I should go print those files.” JP’s voice spiked up an octave as he booked it out the door.
James let him go. He wasn’t really that mad; his friend was doing a bit of a crime - okay, a *big fat chunk* of a crime - but at this point, who wasn’t around here. Besides, he had one last thing to do before he relaxed, and took the night off.
One, two, three, four metallic clatters, as the precariously balanced platters of pizza hit the tables of their cafeteria. The food was still scorching hot, the smells of meat and onions filling the air.
“Okay, I know it’s not a great place to sit.” James started, sheepishly addressing the dozen-ish people in the room. “I need to get us some beanbags. Or those padded lounge chairs. And I know we didn’t put up decorations or anything. And I kinda didn’t plan this at all. But…” He gestured to the group, and had to take a second to hide the fact that his voice caught in his throat. “There’s food, and some cool people around. Thanks for being here. Merry Christmas.” He finished.
Alanna stood up, and glanced back at everyone as they nodded at her as a group, different styles of smiles plastered on a host of faces. “Merry Christmas to you too. I know you don’t celebrate it, but… we got you something.”
She held out to James a small wrapped box. White paper, red ribbon in a bow. Almost archetypically perfect. He took it with a nervous smile, and undid the ribbon. “Open it now?” He asked, a second after doing so. Alanna nodded at him, and he sighed, suddenly nervous in front of all these people. Slicing through the paper with a fingernail, he popped the top off, and was treated to the sight of a single glowing emerald ball, sitting perfectly snug in the box.
“Go ahead. We all wanna see if we can get a *third* basement.” Anesh spoke softly from the side.
With a warm grin, James plucked it out, and snapped his hand shut around the orb.
[+3 Skill Ranks : History - Government]
[Local Area Shift : Value - Produced Goods, +$14.08/unit]
“Merry Christmas.” He whispered, blinking away happy tears, before finding his voice and saying louder, “No basement. Maybe for New Years?”
And then, for the rest of the night, there was just warm pizza and warm families, and something worth fighting any number of tumblefeeds for.
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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!