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“I’ll come visit you again in a couple of days, okay?” Violet gave Willow a tight hug. It was early in the morning and Violet had to get to her own place and then get to work. Unlike Willow’s job, they expected Violet to actually show up at an office and stuff like that. It was much more involved, which fit who Violet was and her job, but Willow knew that she probably couldn’t do something like that herself.

“See you soon. And don’t forget that we’ve got another meet up with the guild tonight, for the next clue.” She held Violet’s hand, not wanting to let her go just yet.

“Yes. I remember. Maybe we’ll figure it out tonight.” Violet grinned, squeezing Willow’s hand a little. “Finally.”

“Finally.” They hadn’t had much luck since they completed the first dungeon a couple of days ago. “Good luck at work.”

“You too.” Violet smiled. “And please tell Soleil that I also expect her to be there tonight.” Her grin turned almost evil and Willow wondered what those two had been up to this time. They could be so childish, but they seemed pretty evenly matched when it came to pranks and other silly things that they pulled on each other, so it wasn’t too bad. She’d been nervous at first, but then eased up when she realised that they both enjoyed the joking.

“Will do.” She had a meeting with Soleil in a few hours, talking about some BASE related job stuff, and Soleil checking in on her. After all the stuff with HF had gone down, Willow had slowly started to realise how much Soleil had actually been keeping an eye on her, how much she knew about Willow’s life. And these days, they’d just sit down and talk about things together, instead of Soleil having to go out of her way to find out. It was one of the highlights of her week when they met up, it just felt good, to talk to someone who understood her at a level that she hadn’t found anyone else was able to. They were both autistic, and while Soleil’s parents had been able to keep it out of her medical files, Willow’s parents hadn’t been able to, or hadn’t wanted to, which was how she ended up here.

They quickly hugged and then Violet walked off, down the stairs and out of view. Willow stepped onto the landing and looked after Violet as she crossed the lawn in front of the building, past the fountain, which was now turned on, and then walked out of the gate.

And she was alone again. Although, alone wasn’t the right word. She was physically alone, but her friends were right there, in the digital space. Although, no digital space could make up for the safety she felt from getting hugs in the real world. She always thought that it could, mostly because she didn’t know any better, but these days… she knew that it couldn’t. In no way was it the same.

Willow went back inside and then went to her bedroom. She made herself comfortable on her bed and put on the VR headset, logging on.

*You are now logged into Helheim Fallen Online.*

She spawned in her room in the guild building. The cosy bed, which she couldn’t sleep in, the shelves with books she couldn’t read, the dressers and closets filled with items, but mostly just to keep her inventory as empty as possible. It looked warm and homey, even though nothing here was used the way it would be used in the real world.

Now that she’d started to think about maybe not living in the building anymore, the ‘low sensory’ building which had been her house for the last years, she’d also started to think about the people she wanted to live together with. That maybe it would be coom not to just live with Violet, but also have the rest of the guild all living in the same house. Sure, apart from her, she was pretty sure that all the others all lived by themselves, and moving all of them into a single house from wherever they lived now in the world would be really complicated, but it also made her happy to think about. And she wasn’t sure that the idea would make all of them so happy, as she had no idea how much the others would enjoy sharing a life together 24/7. But that didn’t take away the fuzzy feeling Willow got from just thinking about being able to do it. A guild house in real life. That would be pretty cool, and with the new VR/AR upgrade, even Mira, their digital pet, could live with them. But she knew that those were just dreams, because no matter if they’d be able to pull off the whole thing logistically, there was still the matter of her not being able to move out from where she lived now.

Dawn: Morning!

Willow almost jumped as she saw the message appear, a little lost in her own thoughts.

Meadow: Morning. Anything going on?

Dawn: Pretty sure Opal is trying to get his ass kicked by some other guild this morning. No idea why. Also no idea where he is. And Juniper and Sage just went offline, I think they’re off to bed.

That would make sense, though she was a bit sad that she’d missed Sage, she loved hanging out with them in the early morning. But with Violet leaving this morning, she’d spent time with Violet instead of logging on to HF like she usually did.

Meadow: What are you up to?

Dawn: Come look outside, out back.

She frowned a little, but then looked out the window and saw Dawn standing in the middle of their garden. Okay…

She quickly went to the garden, passing through the house, which was much more comfortable than the real place she lived in. Outside, she walked over to Dawn, though she had no idea what he was doing or why he was grinning so much at her.

Meadow: And?

Dawn pointed back at the house and Willow saw that the back of the house had been painted a sky-blue, though it was strangely streaky and blotchy.

Meadow: Ehh…

Then Mira, Willow and Violet’s AI pet, and Aya, Dawn’s fylgja, came over. They were both the same blue colour as the house. Well, that was obviously part of the source of it…

Meadow: What did you do?

Dawn: We painted?

He shrugged, looking almost boy-ish. Then he looked a little more serious.

Dawn: I crafted some blue paint and then I gave it to Mira, who somehow got the idea to fly up and just drop it against the house… I have no idea how or why.

Mira was AI, so she had to have learned it somewhere, she shouldn’t be able to come up with things like this on her own. Especially if she hadn’t seen anyone else do it before.

Meadow: You’re sure that you didn’t teach her?

Dawn levelled a look at her, raising his eyebrow, it didn’t look very convincing…

Dawn: What do you take me for?

Dawn: It wasn’t me. I promise.

He held up his hands, his sky-blue hands.

Meadow: Fine. What now?

Dawn shrugged, looking back to the house.

Dawn: I kind of like it? It looks fun?

Meadow: You’re going to have to do the rest of the wall too, it’s not looking very nicely right now. And you’re not allowed to get Mira involved again.

She’d have to clean Mira to get the paint off, though she hoped it was just a debuff and that it would clear up by itself soon enough. For good measure, she glared at Dawn and he grinned back.

Dawn: Fine. I’ll do it after I get back from work later today.

Then he turned to the lake, looking out over it, his face softening.

Dawn: Did Violet leave yet?

Meadow: Yeah, she’s on her way home now.

Dawn: Okay.

Then they both sat down and Mira made herself comfortable behind them, letting Willow lean back against her. She hoped that it wouldn’t make her clothes blue too, but she didn’t care too much, she’d deal with that if it happened.

Dawn: Anything interesting at work today?

Meadow: Not much, same as always. You?

Dawn: We’re testing some new guidelines, walking through the steps and such. Boring, I tell you.

But he was still smiling, so it couldn’t be too bad. She knew that he loved his job.

Meadow: Where do you live? As in, living situation, I’m not trying to get behind your location.

Giving out living locations wasn’t very common, especially not these days, when stuff like that was all basically hidden from view. But she knew where Violet lived, and even before she knew the actual location, she’d known that Violet didn’t live in the best neighbourhood. Opal lived fairly simply, on his own and in a decent neighbourhood, just like Juniper, pretty standard, especially for people in their late teens who weren’t students. Sage lived a bit more curiously, in a communal building with a lot of other people. But that had been their own choice and they apparently loved it. Soleil lived in a nice house, not too far from where Willow was and also lived on her own. A lot of people lived on their own these days, or maybe that was just more common among Willow’s friends…

Dawn smiled at her, closing his eyes for a moment as he leaned back.

Dawn: I live pretty close to my parents’ place. They’re also deaf, most of the people in our community are. I do have my own place to live, though.

He looked at her like she’d doubt that, but there was no reason for her to think something else. She’d heard that autistics weren’t the only ones that people tried to sort of ‘push out’ of society, but it made sense if Dawn lived in a neighbourhood where he wouldn’t be the only deaf person, especially since she knew that he’d been born deaf and that his parents were also deaf. Having a close community made sense.

Dawn: My apartment is a living room, bedroom, bathroom, balcony.

Meadow: Balcony?

It was almost like he blushed as he looked down at his hands, why did he get that response, just from the balcony?

Dawn: I have plants on my balcony, I love growing them. I know it’s not common, but I love growing real life plants.

Meadow: Hence the elf?

Dawn let out a laugh, grinning at her.

Dawn: Maybe. I guess.

Then he looked her over, more relaxed now.

Dawn: What about you?

Meadow: Living room, bedroom, bathroom. No balcony, but there is a communal garden. No potential for my own plants though.

Dawn: Communal living or apartment building?

Meadow: Apartment building.

Both options weren’t uncommon in this day and age, loads of places for people who weren’t in relationships were like that. Houses for single people often either came in communal living, where people had their own bed and bathroom but would share kitchens and things like that, or apartments like Willow had. But unlike most apartment buildings, Willow’s place was a lot more locked down and closed off…

Since Dawn didn’t seem surprised by any of her answers, and he looked like he may be interested in chatting more, she became more bold.

Meadow: What would you think of communal living, but like… with the whole guild?

She watched as his eyes sparked, before he frowned and then shrugged, his shoulders sagging a little.

Meadow: What’s wrong?

Dawn: The idea is nice, but I’m deaf and you guys aren’t. That means that we’re going to have to communicate differently and I don’t know how easy that’s going to be for everyone.

Dawn: At home, I sign. I don’t type or speak, I sign. And I don’t know how easy it would be for all of us to find ways that will work for everyone.

Willow had to think that over for a while. Dawn was right, while Willow could speak, though she regularly didn’t want to, Dawn was deaf. And even though there were options in BASE that could let him hear, it probably wasn’t how he normally lived and it would create a communication barrier between some of them.

They were all different, and while typing came naturally to Willow, she knew that it wasn’t the same for everyone. Even for her to be living with for example Opal and Juniper, it would be very different, as they preferred to speak and not type. Although, Violet and Soleil didn’t seem to care too much, they’d just speak even when Willow typed. Communication problems could always be an issue…

Right.

***

The weather was really nice, not too hot, but lovely sunny, so Willow and Soleil sat outside in the garden, enjoying their time together. There were some others from the building outside too, including staff, but everyone kept away from them, as was usual.

“I heard back from the people in charge of testing the BASE update, we may be part of the update in the next few weeks.” Soleil grinned at her.

“Really?” Because that would be so cool. Sage, Opal and Juniper also seemed interested in the idea of doing some tests with the new BASE system. So they were going to do this as a group, as a guild.

“You will have to do a big update, which means restarting the BASE unit, which can be a little scary.” Soleil now looked at her, her eyes serious.

“Okay…” Willow shrugged. She could deal with that, right? Small BASE updates just happened while they were asleep, but for big updates, the BASE unit had to be reset, which could freak some people out. Though it wasn’t that scary, it was just peculiar because there was no way to connect to other people while it was happening. It meant total disconnect from everyone she knew. At the same time, they would be back online as soon as the system had rebooted, so it wasn’t exactly that bad…

“You want someone to be with you while it happens? I know some people prefer that.” Soleil reached out and Willow took her hand, holding it comfortably.

“Well, if we’re all in the test… We could all update at the same time. You, me and Violet, all at the same time. We could, you know, talk during the reboot. Hang out?” Willow started smiling and Soleil grinned her way, then her smile got even bigger, her eyes sparkling.

“I’m thinking… ice cream and maybe some music from that old computer of yours? We could build a fort in your living room and just hang out together. I heard the update could take a couple of hours. Not just the reboot, but the whole thing added up.” Soleil’s smile was almost juvenile, which reminded her that Soleil wasn’t that much older than she was, even though Soleil was very far ahead of the rest of them when it came to jobs and stuff. Soleil had just started working at a much younger age, she’d been a ‘child prodigy’ when it came to coding and had started working for BASE quite early, which is how Soleil had first met Willow, since Soleil had worked in the same department as Willow’s father.

“Sounds like a plan. If we get in, that is.” Willow nodded.

“I’m fairly sure that we are, if simply because everyone at BASE knows who you guys are and what you did. I think they want you in.”

“Soleil…” Willow glared her way. “You did not… Did you?” She hadn’t leveraged their past to get them spots in the testing, had she?

Soleil quickly shook her head. “I didn’t, it’s just in your files. I didn’t have anything to do with that. I promise.”

“Really?”

“Really.” Soleil nodded, a slow grin on her lips. “Impressing them, that was all you.”

“Fine.” Willow sighed. It made sense that those things would be in their files, though she didn’t know if that made her happy or not. Taking down the creator of HF would follow her forever, it would follow them forever, with all the consequences that would bring.

Great… Like she didn’t have enough ‘interesting’ notes on her file…

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