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    Nightlit
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Virtualization - 6. Into the Storm’s Wake

Ardine watches her younger proteges talk from the door before she leaves. Brandon is paying rapt attention to Asa as he explains the menu. It amuses her how their social relationship is the opposite of what you’d expect. Purely based on their features, you’d think Asa was one or two years younger than Brandon, but their countenance betrays their real ages. Asa carries himself with the maturity of a young adult, while Brandon is an excitable youth. She can’t help but appreciate both.

She’s too far away to really make out what they are saying, but watching them brings a smile to her face anyway. She turns and walks out of Asa’s room into the hallway before sending Collin a message.

[ Bonehead Throkdar: Are you too busy?

GoldenrodBoy: Helping Ben and Theo with their Artisan builds. Can you come to my room?

Bonehead Throkdar: Of course. ]

It’s only a moment later that she opens the door to his room.

Collin turns to her, “I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”

Ardine chuckles, “I was in Asa’s room. So it was literally exit to the hallway, send an invite, then enter the door again.”

Collin shakes his head, “The metaness of the lodge is going to take some getting used to.”

Ardine smiles, “On that note, I think it would be good for both of us to be top friends. Don’t you think?”

Collin nods, “That does seem like a good idea.”

Ardine walks over to a table in the kitchenette where Ben and Theo are sitting, “So, how are things going for you?”

“Fine.” Ben says.

Theo shoves Ben playfully, “Stop being such a scardy cat.”

Ardine pulls a chair out of her inventory and sits down at the table, “Now now, be nice.” She turns to Ben, “Though there’s nothing wrong with being afraid, I do think you are being a bit overly dramatic. Be confident in your decision!” She leans back in her chair, “Speaking of which, how’s that going?”

“I’m specing in smithing and engineering.” Ben says.

“He thought that having the demolitionist skills would give him some ability to use his roulette skill. Which I approve of. We’re hoping that, since the stats of the creator rather than the user determines the effects of a consumable, that his roulette skill would affect the bonus damage, not the user’s.” Collin says.

Theo grins, “I’m doing other consumables. Alchemy, brewing, cooking. I tried the mini games, and they’re pretty fun.”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourselves.” Ardine says, then turns to Collin, “About why I came. My guild is in need of a healer. We were wondering if you knew someone?”

Collin thinks for a moment then fiddles with his menu, “I might know someone.”

Ardine raises an eyebrow, “Might know?”

Collin nods, “There is a player who I have partied with who I know is in the game and typically plays healers, but I haven’t seen them since the event. They are on my friend list, so I know they are on the server still at least.”

“But you have no idea who they are or even what they look like.” Ardine reasons.

Collin nods again, “That’s right. They seemed nice enough when I spoke with them on forums, but they were very careful with their personal information.”

“Hmm… well, I see no reason not to reach out to them. They are trapped in here just like the rest of us. At the very least we should find out what their roulette skill is, in case there might be a better build for them.”

Collin nods, “What is your roulette skill?”

Ardine shrugs, “A fifteen percent boost to all my stats.”

“Ah. Boring, but at least it works with any build.” Collin says.

Ardine sighs, “That was my thought as well. So, can you contact this mystery player for me? And then I’ll leave you to continue what you were doing.”

“In a hurry?” Collin asks.

Ardine shrugs, “Not especially, but I figure you’d like to get back to what you were doing at some point.”

Collin nods, “That’s true.” He messes with his menu. “They say they’ll meet you in their room. I sent you their info.”

Ardine nods, “Thank you.” She turns to Ben and Theo, “Have a good day.”

Ben nods, “Thank you.”

Theo grins, “You too!”

Ardine smiles at them one last time before standing up, putting her chair back in her inventory and leaving the room.

When she enters Asa’s room again, he raises an eyebrow, “That didn’t take very long.”

“Collin was in his room.” Ardine responds. Asa nods in response.

Brandon walks up to her, “So, we have a healer?”

“Perhaps. At the very least we have a willing candidate.” Ardine responds.

Asa walks over, “Meaning?”

“He’s in his room and Collin gave me his player information. I can’t imagine he’d do that if the player didn’t say yes.” Ardine thinks for a moment, “I say he, because statistically speaking its most likely male, but the person could be a woman.”

Brandon raises his eyebrow, “Okay. Does that really matter?”

Ardine shrugs, “Probably not. I suppose I’m just being overly facetious.”

“Better to be conscientious than not.” Asa says, “After all, it’s very possible there’s a transgender person here, and I can’t imagine they’re at all happy with what’s happened.”

Ardine nods, “That’s a good point. I suppose that’s why Collin kept referring to the person as ‘they.’”

“That bothers you?” Brandon asks.

Ardine shrugs, “Only my academic sensibilities.”

“Shall we go?” Asa asks.

Ardine nods, “Yes, we should.”

Ardine looks up ForTheThes and sends them a message.

[ Bonehead Throkdar: I am a member of he A team, the guild Collin mentioned who’s looking for a healer. My guildmates and I are hoping to meet you.

ForTheThes: I’ll invite you to my room.

Bonehead Throkdar: I’ll invite my friends if that’s okay.

ForTheThes: Okay. ]

Ardine isn’t sure what to think of that. Given Collin’s choice of friends, he doesn’t seem to be the best judge of character. Or maybe that’s wrong. Perhaps he’s just a bad judge of emotional maturity. Regardless of her worries, she sends invites to Asa and Brandon.

Something else occurs to her, “So, I added Collin to my top friends, and I’d suggest you do the same. We should also add each other. Having access to each other’s rooms without having to use the friend list seems convenient, and there must be other benefits as well.”

Asa nods, “That’s a good idea.” He then adds them both.

“Yeah.” Brandon says, and then accepts both top friend requests.

When Ardine exits the room, she finds herself standing in front of the door immediately to the left of the stairs. Brandon ends up standing in the doorway to her left. Asa, however, ends up standing in front of the guest room. “Hmm… that’s interesting.”

“Maybe, since we’re top friends now, if we’re in each other’s rooms exiting that room always leads to the door in the hallway leading to that room?” Brandon suggests.

Asa walks over to them, “That makes sense.”

Ardine nods, “Yes. I hadn’t considered that we’d just top friended each other.”

Brandon shakes his head, “This hallway is a constant reminder that we’re in a game.”

“It really is, isn’t it?” Asa says.

Ardine laughs, “And yet, it’s quite cool. So much more convenient than an actual hallway with physical limitations.”

Brandon nods, “Yeah, it is.”

Asa shrugs, “It’s definitely interesting, but we keep getting distracted.”

Brandon laughs, “Then, for the like hundredth time, shall we go?”

Ardine nods, “I think we shall.” The three of them then open the main door and enter ForTheThes’ room.

When Brandon sees the man standing by the stove in the kitchenette, he freezes. The man is extremely tall, muscular and broad shouldered.

When the man turns to them Brandon’s gaze is immediately drawn to the man’s face. His eyes and eyebrows are dark and angular, giving him a look of great ferocity. His nose is small and slightly upturned, giving him a slightly aristocratic look that only adds to said ferocity. His lips are thin but his mouth is long, making it frame his face in a fashion that makes his ferocity very intimidating.

His lips twist into a scowl, “I’m sorry. I was trying to make something nice for you all, but I can’t get the cooking mini game right.” The man’s tone doesn’t match his features at all. He sounds genuinely sorry he can’t be a good host, and Brandon isn’t sure what to trust.

“It’s okay ForTheThes, we aren’t here for snacks anyway.” Ardine says.

ForTheThes scowl deepens, “I know that. But I hate being a bad host.”

Brandon looks to Asa for some guidance, but finds Asa’s expression perplexing. Or maybe Asa is himself perplexed. Neither case helps Brandon figure out what to do. Fortunately, Ardine seems unfazed “We’ll just have to postpone the pleasantries until a later date. My name is Ardine, though you might know me as Bonehead Throkdar.” She turns to Brandon and Asa, “This is Brandon and Asa. Once again, you might know Asa as BunnyAce.”

ForTheThes lets out something between a growl and a sigh, “Bonehead Throkdar and BunnyAce. I never thought you’d come to me for help.”

Ardine shakes her head, “Well, I’m sure you’re a better healer than either of us. And given the situation, we all felt it was prudent for the top players to team up with others.”

“GoldenrodBoy told me you needed a healer.” ForTheThes says.

Ardine nods, “That’s correct.”

Brandon and Asa freeze when ForTheThes looks down at them. His gaze is piercing, his expression still an angry scowl. He growl sighs again and turns to Ardine, “Are you sure you want me?”

Ardine raises an eyebrow, “Why wouldn’t we want you?”

“If I join you, you might not get other people.” ForTheThes responds.

Ardine shakes her head, “Perhaps, but as you complete our team, that’s not a huge issue.”

Asa shakes himself out of his trance, “I’m curious. Collin said he hasn’t seen you around since the event?”

ForTheThes nods, “Things were going crazy. People tend to be scared of me and I didn’t want to make the situation worse.”

Asa nods, “Ah.”

Ardine steps in, “That’s completely understandable, but you can’t stay up here forever. Not only would that be a waste of a perfectly good healer, but it’s not fair to you.”

ForTheThes lips flatten making his scowl slightly less menacing, “Have things calmed down?”

Ardine nods, “For the most part.”

“What does that mean?” ForTheThes asks.

“Most of the instigators banded together and raided the Temple. However, due to a combination of being disorganized and under powered, they were less than successful. That’s one of the reasons we are looking to form well balanced guilds.” Ardine responds.

“I’m sorry for interrupting, but…” Asa hesitates for a moment, “Can we know your name?”

ForTheThes nods. “I’m Wake.” He sneers at Asa and offers a handshake, “A pleasure to meet your acquaintance.”

Asa takes the offered hand hesitantly, “The pleasure’s... all... mine.” He hates his awkward response. Wake can’t help what he looks like.

Ardine pulls Brandon forward, “So, Brandon here is going to be our tank. His build will be a lightning build, but he is going the full tank route.” She turns to Asa, “Asa and I are DPS. Asa is spike DPS with some off support while I’m more continuous DPS and an off tank.”

“My build is a round healer build. My aim is to get healing from every element.” Wake says.

Ardine nods, “So, before we speak anymore of builds. Do you know what skill you got from the skill roulette?”

Wake raises an eyebrow at her, “I rolled a 25% boost to elemental damage. It doesn’t enhance my healing at all, unfortunately.”

Asa thinks for a moment, “Hmm… but I think that’s actually a good skill for your build.”

Wake looks down at him with wide eyes, “It is?”

Asa nods, “Yes. You can easily off DPS with only a few ranks in basic spells. As long as you are hitting weaknesses, your elemental damage boost skill should make up the difference. You’ll be doing loads more damage than someone else with a similar number of ranks.”

Ardine smiles, “It’s true.”

Wake’s face scrunches up, “There’s one more thing I have to add if we’re going to be guildmates.”

Ardine nods, “Go on.”

Wake growl sighs, “I’m gay.”

Strangely enough, that snaps Brandon out of his fear, “Oh, that’s odd.”

Wake glares at him, “I don’t want to make anyone nervous. I can look for another party if that bothers you.”

Brandon shakes his head, “What? No. That’s not what I meant. It’s an odd coincidence. Asa’s gay too.”

Wake’s eyes widen, “You are?”

Asa nods, “Yeah. So you have no worries there.”

Wake grimaces, “I’m happy to offer my services then.”

“So, what should we do now?” Brandon asks.

“I want to check out the gatcha in town square.” Asa responds.

Ardine nods, “That seems like a good plan.” She turns to Wake, “What do you think?”

Wake shrugs, “I think that’s fine.”

Ardine raises an eyebrow at him, “You don’t seem very enthusiastic.”

Wake growl sighs, “I’ve never been a huge fan of luck based game play.”

“And yet you play MMOs.” Ardine asks curiously.

“I mostly play socially.” Wake responds.

“RP servers?” Asa asks.

Wake nods, “Yes.”

“Does that mean you aren’t that skilled?” Brandon asks.

Wake scowls, “I’m not as skilled as I’d like. That’s part of why I play a healer.”

“I suppose healing mostly utilizes the menus.” Ardine ponders.

Wake nods, “I do like healing. It feels good to help people. But I started because our group needed a healer.”

Asa turns towards the door, “I actually agree with you. I am not a fan of random game mechanics either, but there are undoubtedly some items only available from the gatcha and we get a free pull every day, so as long as we’re stuck in here, we might as well see what we can get. Especially since we’re early enough that even random junk is potentially useful.”

Wake thinks for a moment, “That’s a good point.”

Brandon looks up at Wake, “Um… I… I’m sorry.”

Wake glowers down at him with a raised eyebrow, “You have nothing to be sorry about.”

Brandon sighs, “I think I do. I… you are very intimidating.”

Wake shakes his head, “I know. That’s why...”

Ardine shakes her head, “Wake, I think you should accept his apology. It may not be his fault that you have intimidating features, but it’s not your fault either. Let him be responsible for the part that is his to own. You can consider it an olive branch if that will make you feel better.” She turns to Brandon, “While I applaud your apology, I think it would be more prudent to learn from this experience than lament it.”

Wake looks at Brandon, “Then I accept your apology.”

Brandon glances away from Wake a few times, “Thank you. And I… I...” He sighs, “I… I guess I should just...”

Ardine steps forward, “Hug!”

Wake and Brandon stare at her. “What?” Brandon asks.

Ardine smiles, “What do you have to lose?”

Asa walks over to Wake, “Do you mind?”

Wake shakes his head and sneers, “Not at all.”

Asa can’t reach Wake’s shoulders so he leans forward and wraps his arms around his waist. Wake’s arms almost completely surround Asa’s head and any fear of the man he might have had dissipates. Wake’s countenance might be fierce, but he has the gentlest touch Asa has ever felt.

Asa turns to look at Brandon, “It’s your turn.”

Brandon edges forward and cautiously wraps his arms around Asa and Wake. Ardine wraps her arms around them shortly afterwards. “How do you feel?” She asks.

Wake sneers at her, “Thank you.”

Ardine smiles, “Think nothing of it.”

“Let’s go.” Asa says as he pulls himself out of the hug. He feels a bit guilty, but he can’t help but smile a little when he notices Wake slump as he leaves. He’ll have to have a more private talk with him later.

As they enter the more public part of the lodge, Asa can’t help but notice people giving them a wider birth than usual, and he frowns. Wake seems to be unaffected. Asa surmises that he’s used to it, but that really just makes it worse.

When they leave the lodge, they find the street almost entirely deserted. Asa turns to Ardine, “The street gets more and more empty all the time.” He shakes his head, “It’s not right. Even with the server count lowered, there still shouldn’t be this few people.”

Ardine nods, “You’re right. There are probably a fairly large number of people holing up in their rooms. They are, after all, the one place that is completely safe, since no one can access it without your consent. Others are probably hanging out in groups indoors.” She thinks for a moment, “There must be a good number of people grinding as well. Being overpowered, after all, is another way to be safe. Mostly anyway.”

Asa thinks for a moment, “I wonder if we’ll start to see more people around as time goes on? There are more than seven hundred people on the server still. While that’s not a huge number by MMO standards, it’s enough that there should be more people than this.”

Ardine shakes her head, “It’s hard to say. I don’t think we can really know what people will do. Especially if we do more content and reach other segments of the world ring.” Asa nods in response and they continue to the square.

The gatcha machine is next to the fountain facing the entrance to town. In fact, it’s the thing in town closest to the main entrance. The machine itself is strangely out of place. It’s a white square pole with an angled touch control panel mounted on top of it.

Asa activates it and does a roll, “Oh, huh. I got a Feather Bow. Pretty good for this point in the game. I should give it to Ben. Someone has gotta be able to use it.”

Brandon steps forward next, “I got… a knife.”

Asa raises his eyebrow, “What kind of knife?”

“Just a standard knife. Like, the weakest weapon in the game.” Brandon deadpans.

“Oh.” Asa responds.

“Well, we can’t expect to always get something great.” Ardine steps forward, “But a Mythril Sword is quite good.”

Asa smiles, “You got a Mythril Sword?”

Ardine nods, “Yes.” She then nudges Wake forward, “You miss every spin you don’t take.”

Wake looks down at the gatcha machine as if it might hurt him, and Asa can’t tell if he’s actually irritated or if it’s just his facial expression again. “I got… a long sword.” He shrugs, “I suppose it could be worse.”

Ardine looks at him, “Well, what weapon do you use?”

“I was using a staff, but I could use a sword.” Wake responds.

Ardine thinks for a moment, “You know, our group has a slight lightning sub theme. The flash step spells are in lightning. The tanking spells are also in lightning.” She turns to Asa, “You do have at least one rank in Bolt correct?”

Asa nods, “I have Fireball and Icedarts too. I got enough universal to get Mend.”

Ardine nods, “But you have more ranks in lightning?”

Asa nods again, “That’s correct.”

“And I can’t imagine a lightning tank build wouldn’t learn Chain Lightning, and probably Bolt as well.” Ardine continues.

Wake raises an eyebrow at her, “What are you thinking?”

Ardine turns to him, “That it might be good for you to use a Javelin. It’s a relatively safe weapon to use if you aren’t as good at hand to hand combat, both because you can throw it and because its length. Beyond this, if we get you a Javelin with high levels of Lightning Rod, you’re weapon will be more than just a placeholder. It will support not only your damage but the damage of the rest of the group as well.”

Wake blinks and then sneers, “That sounds like a wonderful idea!”

Brandon nods, “Yeah!” He turns to Ardine, “I have to thank you.”

Ardine smiles at him, “You’re welcome, though I’m not quite sure what you are thanking me for.”

Brandon looks down nervously, “You guys aren’t trying to build a team around yourselves. I mean, it might look like that. I guess I’m not making much sense am I?”

Asa laughs a little, “I think I understand. It’s true, we’re keeping our general builds, but we aren’t trying to steal the spot light. We want to build a team where we all support each other. Part of that is making sure to take advantage of our skills. Ardine and I are quite skilled in our specialized areas. To not utilize those skills would be wasteful, but I know I’ll adjust my build to the needs of the group. And I’m sure Ardine will too.”

Brandon nods, “That’s exactly it. You aren’t taking over the party. You even let me decide whether to be a healer or not. I’m glad.”

Wake grimaces at Brandon, “I should thank you as well.”

Brandon looks up at him and blinks, “What?”

“Had you decided to become a healer, I’d still be alone in my room.” Wake glances at Asa, “Now instead, I’m out here with you guys.”

Brandon smiles, “Ardine said she thinks we’re all lucky. I didn’t really get what she meant. Now, I think I do.”

Ardine opens her arms, “Okay! This is definitely another group hug moment.”

Brandon looks up at her in alarm, “But we’re in public!” Asa and Wake laugh.

“You have nothing to worry about. No one who matters is going to judge you.” Asa says.

Wake smirks, “And there’s no one around anyway.”

Brandon moves towards Ardine who grabs him and pulls him into a hug. Asa shoves himself between them while Wake wraps his large frame around all of them. “I should invite Collin next time.” Ardine muses, “I get the feeling he loves this sort of thing.”

The group separates. “What should we do now?” Brandon asks.

Asa thinks for a moment, “Well, we do need to get some practice in. Maybe we should go out and fight some mobs?”

Ardine nods, “I think that’s a good idea, but we shouldn’t just fight them. We should practice our teamwork in a safe environment. Eventually, we’ll tackle instances. Collin is definitely going to be relying on us to have a key position in a Temple run. It’s best if we are over prepared for that.”

Wake nods, “I’d like to help anyway I can.”

Asa nods, “That sounds like a good plan.”

Brandon smiles, “So we go out and practice. And maybe even hit the crystal cave.” The A team nods.

“So, I think we should venture just outside of town entrance. That way, if we run into any problems, we can easily retreat to safety.” Asa says.

Ardine nods, “That is a very sound idea.”

“Where should I be?” Wake asks.

Ardine thinks for a moment, “That is a good question. I think we should speak of formation before we go out there. Brandon and I should clearly take point.” She turns to Asa, “I believe you should take the rear.” She turns to Wake, “You should try to keep one of us between you and the enemies as much as possible. What do you think?”

Asa thinks for a moment, “Hmm… I agree Wake should be in the center, but I think Brandon should be closer to Wake. I don’t know if you’ve seen the lightning tank in action, but I have, and one of the greatest benefits it has is that its shields affect an area. If Wake stands next to Brandon, he’ll be far safer than if he’s standing anywhere else, and you can retreat to his position if you need it, or he can draw your aggro with his spells.”

Ardine nods, “So you’re saying that Brandon should be in the middle of our formation?”

Asa shakes his head, “I think you are imagining a wider formation than I am. Lightning magic tanking lets us keep a tighter formation, since the shields can protect us from AOEs.”

“And what of Brandon running out of MP?” Ardine asks.

“Once we build the shadow MP draining spells into his build, he should be able to manage himself so that he won’t. I’ve seen versions of the build that, with the proper management and timing, can remain active virtually indefinitely.” Asa says.

Brandon thinks for a moment, “What if the enemies run out of MP?”

Asa smiles, “I use MP sparingly and Ardine doesn’t use much either. Draining MP from us is an unideal, but workable strategy. Especially for an aspiring spiral master.”

Ardine shakes her head, “I see now why you are a top player. It’s not just your skill with the menus.”

Asa turns to her, “I’m surprised this strategy never occurred to you.”

Ardine thinks for a moment, “I suppose it might have, but I never put a lot of thought into magic. My builds require very little and it’s never interested me personally.”

Asa nods, “Ah. That makes sense.”

“I’m going to buy some potions, just in case. Does anyone else need them?” Wake asks.

Ardine shakes her head, “I have a large stock currently. Thank you though.”

“I could, but I used all my spiritual energy respecing.” Brandon says.

Asa sighs, “I could use some too, but I also used all my spiritual energy respecing Brandon.”

Wake smirks, “Don’t worry about it. We’re a team aren’t we?”

Asa smiles, “I could go with you?”

Wake’s smirk widens into a sneer, “I’d like that.”

As they walk off, Brandon turns to Ardine, “They’re getting along pretty well, aren’t they?”

Ardine looks down at him, “Does that bother you?”

Brandon sighs, “Not for the reason you’re thinking.”

Ardine shakes her head, “Don’t assume you know what I’m thinking.” She watches them chat as they walk off, “It’s not wrong for you to feel envious of the attention.”

“Isn’t it though?” Brandon asks.

“You are looking to Asa for guidance and support. It’s only natural that you feel a bit irked when his attention moves elsewhere. Especially when said attention seems to affect him more deeply than you do.” Ardine meets Brandon’s gaze, “But I don’t think it is affecting him more deeply. I think he trusts his feelings for you and your feelings for him. His feelings for Wake, on the other hand, are new and exciting.”

Brandon laughs a little, “So I should feel happy for him?”

Ardine shakes his shoulder, “You should feel what you feel. I think you’ll end up happy for him in the end. But if you are jealous? It’s fine to let yourself feel that. Don’t bottle it up. It won’t go away, and it might even turn to resentment. That would be something worth feeling bad about.”

Blissfully unaware of Ardine and Brandon’s conversation, Wake and Asa are having a conversation of their own.

“So, I’m confused,” Wake says.

“About what?” Asa asks.

“Just… shouldn’t Tall&Zxy be in this guild?” Wake surmises.

Asa sighs, “I don’t know anymore.”

Wake shakes his head, “Are you sure you’re okay with that? From what I’ve heard, you two were inseparable.”

“No, I’m not, but I don’t think there’s anything I can do about that. He’s gotta work through this on his own.” Asa takes a deep breath, “And I think I do too.”

Wake raises an eyebrow at him, “Are you sure about that? It’d be a shame to let pride get between you.”

Asa shakes his head, “I think pride was what kept us together. And it wasn’t all good. I realize that now.”

“But if it bothers you. Maybe it bothers him too? You’ve both had some time to think about it. Maybe you should try talking to him one more time?” Wake suggests.

“It’s… I guess.” Asa sighs again, “I don’t know what I want.”

Wake growl sighs, “That’s another reason to talk to him. It might not end with him in the guild, but maybe you’ll find out where you stand. Isn’t that enough?”

“I guess it is.” Asa looks up at Wake, “You’re pretty smart.”

Wake grimaces, “Thank you.”

Asa thinks for a moment, “I’m gonna go do that now. Before I chicken out.”

“Do you need some support?” Wake asks.

Asa shakes his head, “I think this is something I have to do alone.”

Wake nods, “I’ll be with everyone else when you get back.”

Wake watches Asa walk off and then starts walking back towards the square where Brandon and Ardine were waiting for him. He hopes they are still there.

His feelings about today are mixed. On the one hand, he really likes Asa and Ardine. He isn’t sure about Brandon. He doesn’t like the fact that he seems to scare the kid, but he can tell Brandon is trying. And then there’s his own insecurities. But, he’s decided to give this guild a whirl.

Despite the eeriness of the town being deserted, he actually finds it somewhat comforting. People are so often intimidated or scared by him that he usually prefers to be alone. Of course, the truth is he’d rather people not be scared of him, but he’s resigned to that.

When he enters the square, Brandon and Ardine walk over to him.

“Where’s Asa?” Brandon asks.

“He’s going to talk to Tall&Zxy.” Wake says.

Brandon looks at Ardine, “Is that okay?”

Ardine shrugs, “Perhaps, perhaps not. I have a feeling Asa and Luke have been growing apart for a while now, but have been too attached to their old friendship to admit that. This situation has forced them to face that their relationship has changed. Whether it’s over or become something else, however, is anyone’s guess.”

“I wonder if they even know?” Wake ponders.

Ardine shrugs, “I doubt it, but we’ll see.” She turns towards the lodge, “We should go find a place to wait. I have a feeling we won’t be going out until tomorrow.”

Brandon turns up to Wake, “So… you’re good with spells right?”

Wake raises an eyebrow, “I’m okay. Did you want help?”

Brandon nods, “Asa was helping me, but he’s not here so...” He looks down as he trails off.

Wake smirks, “I’d be glad to help.”

Brandon looks up at him, “Thank you.”

“Before I forget.” Wake hands Brandon the potions he bought him. Brandon just smiles up at him in response.

Meanwhile

The first thing Asa notices when he sees Luke in the park is how tall he is. The strange thing is, he’s not actually that tall. He’s almost the same height as Ardine and Wake is more than half a head taller than him. But neither of them seem tall to him the way Luke does.

“Hi.” Luke says, “I was a little surprised when you asked to meet me here.”

Asa meets Luke’s gaze, “It isn’t like me is it?”

Luke thinks for a moment, “It was like you when you were younger.”

“I guess it was.” Asa shakes his head, “So… I met someone.”

Luke raises an eyebrow, “Not the kid right?”

Asa shakes his head, “No. Brandon’s a bit young for me. He’s more like a brother.” Asa shuts his eyes and takes a breath, before opening them and continuing, “His name is Wake. He’s a bit intimidating at first glance, but he’s turning out to be the most considerate person I’ve ever met.”

Luke looks down, “You mean that scary guy you were with earlier?”

Asa nods, “Yeah. I dunno if this is gonna go anywhere, but he’s the first person I know is gay who’s definitely interested. He’s the one who told me to talk to you.”

Luke smiles, “Then I’ll have to thank him.”

The silence between them is palpable. Neither one of them knows what to say to the other. It takes a moment, but Luke talks first, “I can’t join your guild.”

Asa nods, “I know. Wake thought I should throw you an olive branch, or something like that, but I already knew you wouldn’t.”

Luke frowns, “You should be more honest with him.”

“What do you mean?” Asa asks.

“You have a tendency to not volunteer information. You don’t think of it as lying, but it’s not really that different.” Luke answers.

Asa looks down, “You always jump to conclusions.” He hesitates for a moment before looking at him again, “If you thought I was really in trouble, you’d blow a gasket.”

The two of them stand there in silence for a moment, “You don’t need my protection.” Luke eventually says, “You haven’t for a while, but this situation really drove it home for me.”

“I never needed it,” Asa says. “Not that I don’t appreciate what you did for me, but...”

Luke nods, “I understand.”

Asa thinks for a moment, “I think we have to go our separate ways. I hope we remain friends, but if we don’t, I don’t want any hard feelings. You’re always welcome in our guild. In fact, whenever you sort out your feelings, I implore you join a guild if not ours. You aren’t a loner Luke. It doesn’t suit you.”

Luke smiles a little, “Maybe that’s why I want to try it, because I’ve never been self sufficient before. I always had someone, be it my brother, my parents or you. And it wasn’t just that they were around, I always knew where I stood. Now I don’t know where I stand with anybody.”

Asa sighs, “Then this is goodbye?”

Luke shakes his head, “We’ll still see each other around.”

Asa nods, “I guess we will. This is gonna be strange.”

“It is.” Luke’s face darkens, “I want you to take care of this Wake guy.”

“What do you mean?” Asa asks.

Luke’s gaze is adamant, “If you’re gonna be with him you’ve gotta protect him. That’s what the stronger person in a relationship does.”

“I don’t know if I’m stronger than him though.” Asa says.

Luke shakes his head, “I’m sure you are.”

Asa Luke in the eyes, “Luke, you don’t need to protect everyone.”

Luke looks at his feet, “What if I want to?”

Asa shakes his head, “I don’t think that’s what you’ve ever wanted.”

Luke looks at Asa, “I wish I knew what I wanted.”

“Well, I don’t think you can find that while I’m around. You put so much focus on me you forget about yourself. Can I give you some advice?” Asa asks.

Luke nods, “Of course.”

Asa meets his gaze evenly, “Don’t look for another me. Don’t look for someone weaker than you to protect. Focus on yourself a bit for once.”

Luke shakes his head, “But, I’m one of the best players here. I can’t just abandon everyone else.”

Asa shakes his head, “You’d never do that. It’s just not you. You’ll always be a protector Luke, of that I have no doubt. But you can’t just be that. You have to find a reason to live that isn’t for someone else.”

Luke looks at him, “You know Asa, you need to find that too. And I know you won’t find it alone, but… don’t let that be an excuse to not find it at all.”

The two of them look at each other for a while longer. Asa eventually speaks, “We’ve needed to do this for a while haven’t we?”

Luke nods, “I think so.” He looks down sheepishly, “Do you think we’ll ever be friends again?”

Asa sighs, “Not the same way we were, but hopefully.” Luke nods silently in response.

As Asa walks away, he thinks about what Collin was saying that first day, and he almost steels himself, but he realizes that’s not what Collin meant. He didn’t mean that they need to accept that this might be their new lives, or that they should be resigned to their situation. He was saying they need to embrace it. To become one with their new world.

He turns back to Luke one more time, “Luke. Just remember one thing. This can still be a game. It may be this is our lives now. There’s no reason it can’t be fun.” Luke’s eyes widen slightly.

A moment later, Asa turns away and walks out of the park. He smiles as he thinks of Wake. Why is he waiting?

[ BunnyAce: Can we talk alone?

ForTheThes: Where would you like to meet? ]

Asa’s smile widens into a grin.

[ BunnyAce: How about my room? ]

He gets an invite to his room as a response, which he immediately accepts. Despite everything, Asa can’t help but have a skip to his step as he turns into the lodge.

Meanwhile

Wake frowns, “I don’t want to be rude, but your spiral menu is quite disorganized.”

Brandon sighs, “Is it? Asa was helping me put it together, but we didn’t get a chance to finish it.”

Wake raises an eyebrow, “He is a spiral master, but did he explain to you why he had it set up this way?”

“He told me the menu layout isn’t about what it looks like, but what it feels like.” Brandon points towards his shield spells. “Like here, I generally want to have these active at the same time, so they are near each other. And they are my most important spells, so they are at the default position in my menu. He was also talking about counting ticks and how I should set the menu click at about fifty percent.”

Wake looks at it, “What do you think? Does this make sense to you?”

Brandon sighs, “I guess. I want to be a spiral master! So I want to understand this.”

Wake sneers at him, “You don’t need to be a spiral master to use this build. It’s designed to work the way it does.”

“I know, but Asa said he thinks I have potential for it. He thinks I could be a spiral master.” Brandon says.

Wake sits down on the couch in Ardine’s room and pats the seat next to him, “Do you want to be a spiral master?”

Brandon sits down, “I do! But it’s intimidating. What if I’m not good enough?”

Wake shakes his head, “Don’t worry about that. Look at us. An hour ago you were terrified of me, now we’re working together.” Brandon looks up at him and nods. Wake continues, “The spiral menu isn’t your enemy, it’s your friend. It’s a tool meant to make the game easy and fun. I don’t think every spiral master is the same. I bet Asa would say the same thing. Spiral mastery isn’t about copying other spiral masters, it’s about finding your own love for the spiral menus. Finding your own way of mastering them.”

Ardine sits down, “Well, it’s not quite that simple. There are certain things that set Spiral masters apart from other people. Menu distribution, for example.”

Brandon looks at her, “What do you mean?”

“I mean most people only populate their menu with any given option once. That gives them the most possible options available. Spiral masters, on the other hand, will often have the same thing in their menu in multiple places, because they activate them at different points during a fight. This is particularly true for spiral masters that have a rotation, like ice chainers, rather than a more versatile plan.” Ardine answers.

Wake is about to respond when he notices a message, “I just got a message from Asa.”

Brandon looks at him, “What’s it say?”

Wake sneers, “Asa wants to talk to me. Alone.”

Ardine smirks, “I think you should have a talk. Unless you aren’t interested?”

Wake looks down, “I’m definitely interested.”

Brandon pulls Wake to his feet, “Then go! We can always go grind tomorrow.”

“We’re meeting in his room!” Wake announces.

“I wish you luck.” Ardine says.

Brandon nods, “Yeah. Good luck.”

Wake’s sneer extends to a grimace, “Thank you!”

Brandon watches as Wake leaves with a skip in his step, “He really is a big softy.”

Ardine grins, “Still jealous of him?”

Brandon laughs, “Yes, but for an entirely different reason. I wish I had a girl like that.”

Ardine starts guffawing like a maniac, “Now that is a feeling to be proud of.”

Brandon elbows her in response, then sighs, “He still scares me though.”

Ardine puts a hand on Brandon’s shoulder, “We all know. It’s okay Brandon. I’m sure he’s used to it.”

Brandon looks down, “That doesn’t make it right.”

Ardine nods, “And it’s that attitude that makes it okay. Wake is a large scary looking man. That is a fact. As you get older, you’ll realize that there is much more to a person than how they look. You’ll stop having the knee jerk reaction you’re having now, but until then, just be glad that he doesn’t take offense. You’ll get to know him, and that feeling will probably go away.”

Brandon sighs dejectedly, “Probably?”

Ardine shakes his shoulder, “There are no promises in life. But you can be friends with a person who scares you. The important thing is that you trust him.”

“How can I trust someone that I’m scared of?” Brandon asks.

“Fear is a tricky thing. There are various shades of it. Some might call them entirely different feelings. Irrational fear tends to be the most problematic. For example, a person might be afraid of spiders, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they think they are going to hurt them. Some of them even like spiders, they just can’t stand looking at them.” Ardine grins, “I can tell you like Wake. If you are always afraid of him, then just be courageous.”

Brandon looks down, clearly embarrassed, “But I’m afraid of a perfectly nice guy. How can that be courageous?”

Ardine shakes her head, “You can’t have courage without fear. Courage is the act of and feelings that result from facing the things you fear. Let no one tell you otherwise.”

Brandon ponders, “I… never thought of it that way.”

Ardine nods, “I didn’t think so. Very few people of any age realize this simple truth.”

“We’re all really courageous then aren’t we?” Brandon says.

“Who do you mean?” Ardine asks.

“Everyone here who is trying to make the best of the situation.” Brandon responds.

Ardine smiles, “I agree. You should tell people that. Coming from me, it would sound pretentious or philosophical. Coming from you, however, it could seem profound.”

Brandon laughs, “I guess that’s because you don’t seem afraid.”

Ardine nods, “Yes.”

Brandon shakes his head, “But you are afraid. Maybe more than everyone else.”

Ardine nods again, “Yes. Collin is. Luke is. Asa is. I’m sure all the adults are.”

Brandon grins, “Then we’ll just have to all be brave together.” Ardine ruffles Brandon’s hair in response, earning a, “Hey!” From him and then they both fall into a fit of laughter.

Meanwhile

Wake is feeling giddy as he enters the whiteness leading to Asa’s room. He finds Asa sitting on a chair in the kitchen area with a plate of french fries on his table. Wake can’t help but grin at him, and to his delight, Asa grins back. “What did you want to talk to me about?” He asks, instantly nervous.

“I like you. Like, like like. I know we can’t have sex or anything, so maybe this is pointless, but I wanted to tell you anyway.” Wake can’t help but snicker. He’s only known him for a day and yet that confession is so him; so Asa.

“I like you too,” Wake says. He sits down on the chair opposite him, “I don’t care that we can’t have sex. I just… don’t.”

Asa laughs, “You know, if we weren’t trapped in this game I definitely wouldn’t have told you so fast. Even knowing you’re gay. Even knowing how great a guy you are. But, something about our situation compels me to tell you. To live the day.” He thinks for a moment, “And it’s not some grim dark motive like today might be our last. I guess I just realized. Why live any moment any way other than good?”

Wake nods, “It makes me think we can. You saying it like that.”

Asa laughs, “You’ve known me for a day.”

“You seem to be the thinking type. A person who ponders and ponders over every little detail.” Wake raises his eyebrow, “Am I right?”

Asa nods, “More or less.”

“Then shouldn’t I trust your realization? You came to a conclusion. What better thing to trust is there than that?” Wake concludes.

Asa laughs, “I can’t tell if that’s an underhanded compliment or one of the most eloquent barbs I’ve ever heard.”

Wake shakes his head, “Maybe a little of both? I don’t want to offend you though.”

Asa waves him off, “I know you’d never offend me on purpose. It’s one of the things I like about you.”

Wake sighs, “I… I don’t want to be negative but… what about my looks?”

Asa raises an eyebrow, “What about them?”

Wake looks down, “I know my face is unpleasant to look at.”

Asa smiles, “At first, I admit it was startling. And your expressions definitely took some getting used to. But there’s something attractive about it too. Something intriguing and mysterious. Or there was. Now I just see you. A man who I find quite attractive. Sure, he has a cartoonishly evil face and he’s overly worried about people having negative reactions to him. But he’s also patient, compassionate and caring.”

Wake feels extremely embarrassed, “I don’t know what to say.”

Asa stands up, “Isn’t it weird that we can’t blush?”

Wake raises an eyebrow, “What?”

Asa grab’s Wake’s arm and pulls him towards the porch, “I mean that exactly.” He turns to him, “I’m not gonna suddenly stop being me and become this perfect gentleman. In a way, I wish I could, but it just… you’re the gentleman here.”

“I don’t want you to stop being you.” Wake says.

Asa grins, “Maybe I want to be sure of that? Luke told me to tell you the truth, so I will. I knew Luke wasn’t going to join our guild. I needed to talk to him, that’s true, but I didn’t want to disappoint you, make you think I was being pessimistic by acting like I knew what was going to happen.”

Wake nods, “This is hard for you, isn’t it?”

Asa looks up at him, “It’s… easier than I thought. I was just, used to not volunteering information that might make waves. I’m sorry.”

Wake grins, “You have nothing to be sorry for. I’m happy.”

Asa thinks for a moment, “So, in case we ever get out of here and meet in the real world...” He looks down sheepishly, “...would you want to have sex with me?”

This time Wake looks sheepish, “Yeah, but...”

Asa looks up at him, “But…?”

“You’re pretty small. And um… I’m pretty big.” Wake says.

Asa raises an eyebrow, “I can’t imagine many guys are larger than you. And you’re gentle right?”

Wake looks down, “I mean… I’m big… down there.”

Asa thinks for a moment, “I take it you don’t just mean slightly above average.”

Wake nods, “I… I used to get a lot of people hitting on me because they had this fantasy that I was gonna be super rough with them, cause I look mean. Other times people would act like they liked me in spite of my features just because they wanted to experience being with a large guy. I...”

Asa reaches up and laces his fingers together behind Wake’s neck. Wake stops talking and lowers himself so Asa can hug him. “None of that matters now. And if we meet in the real world? You know I’m not a size queen after you for some kink.” He grins, “But it does make me curious. You see, I have always wondered what it would be like to be with someone well endowed, but I’d need to trust them to be gentle with me.”

Wake smiles at the small man in front of him, “Always.”

Asa then lets out a guffaw, “Look at us getting ahead of ourselves! We met less than a day ago and we’re discussing your giant dick! Could we get anymore stereotypical?”

Wake frowns, “What do you mean?”

Asa can’t stop himself from laughing, “I mean come on! How stereotypically gay is this? Meet, have sex, then maybe date if the sex works out.”

Wake lets out a small smile, “I guess you’re right. But I wasn’t just going to have sex with you.” He thinks for a moment, “But I do want to date. And we can date here.”

Asa nods, “I’d like that.”

Wake looks down sheepishly, “And maybe, maybe we could remove all our equipment and sleep together.”

Asa raises an eyebrow, “That surprises me.”

Wake looks at him, “Why?”

“You just seem a bit down on how you look.” Asa says.

“But you like how I look. It’s not that I never want to get naked with someone, it’s just… I rarely find someone who is so casual about how I look.” Wake smiles, “It makes me want to try things while I have the chance.”

Asa grins, “You have the chance. And you’ll keep having chances if I have anything to say about it.”

Wake grins, “I like this side of you. The confident forward side. The one who is willing to speak his mind.”

Asa looks down, “I do too. But, that side of me has gotten me into trouble more times than I’d like. So… can you just be that guy I can be like this with? And let me return to my flighty ways elsewhere?”

Wake grins, “I’ll be whatever you need me to be.”

“I only need you to be yourself.” Asa responds.

Wake nods, “And that’s why.”

Asa stands up, “I think we should go to the others. I don’t want to jump into anything too fast.”

Wake laughs, “Things did escalate pretty fast.”

Asa nods, “Not that I want to slow down, but maybe I’d like to get to know you a little better. I like what I’ve seen, but I’ve only known you for a day.”

Wake nods in response, “I like what I’ve seen. And sure. Let’s do this right.” He thinks for a moment, “And I don’t mean proper. I mean… I want whatever this is to work out.”

Asa shakes his head, “I get it. Man, is it that annoying when I’m overly meticulous?”

Wake laughs, “I guess? I find it endearing.”

Asa laughs, “So yes.”

Wake turns towards the room, “I think you’re fine. Sometimes we need that kind of meticulousness. And sometimes we need someone who is just going to be blunt, without caring who’s feelings might be hurt in the process.”

Asa sighs, “And you think that’s me?”

Wake shrugs, “What I think about you isn’t that important.”

“It’s what I think right?” Asa asks.

Wake shakes his head, “Not really. It’s what you do that matters.”

Asa laughs, “Well, one thing we have in common is spouting cliches.”

Wake snickers, “I wasn’t going to say anything.”

Once they enter the hallway they invite themselves into Ardine’s room. Wake turns to Asa, “Before we go in. I just… I… wanted to see what it would feel like… to kiss you.”

“I must admit I am curious what a kiss in this virtual reality would feel like.” Asa responds.

Wake frowns, “Oh… so you don’t want to kiss me?”

Asa rolls his eyes, “No silly! But like I said, I’m not gonna stop being me. Can’t I be efficient and find out how a kiss feels and feel good kissing you at the same time?”

Wake grins widely and leans down. Their lips meet and… it’s anti climactic. “That was…”

Asa frowns, “Very little. It felt like lips touching lips… but that’s it.”

Wake sighs in contentment, “Still, I’m glad I did it with you.”

Asa smiles up at him, “I am too.”

They look at the whiteness in front of them. “The others await.” Asa announces. Wake nods and they both walk through the entryway.

Some of you might have noticed Wake has different expression descriptions than other people. That's to express how cartoonishly evil his face looks when he's not the point of view character. Just to eliminate any confusion: a smirk is the equivalent of a small smile, a sneer of a smile and a grimace of a grin.

Stuff You Might Want to Know

Setting – The World Ring: The world in Ring Spiral Online is a series of plates floating in a large open sky. While the plates have standard overworld topography, the central plate where the characters currently are is a circle, while around it are concentric rings each made of more and more plates. Each plate has at least one town, one dungeon (though most have more than one) and is connected to the “outer” plates by teleporters at Temples.

Mechanics – Temple: Temples are way points that connect the parts of the world ring together. Each Temple contains a dungeon and a raid boss, but unlike most instances, Temple raids are intended to be completed by a large number of people, if not a whole server. Each Temple only needs to be completed once in order to unlock the teleporter leading to the next plate, but Temple raids can be repeated an unlimited number of times. The only limitation is, unlike most instances, each server can only have one active Temple raid at a time.

Copyright © 2020 Nightlit; All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Comments

I'm kind of confused with everything that was implied. Why wouldn't Asa and Luke still be friends? Were Asa and Luke in a relationship? If they were, what happened?

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Nightlit

Posted (edited)

1 hour ago, Geoffrey257 said:

I'm kind of confused with everything that was implied. Why wouldn't Asa and Luke still be friends? Were Asa and Luke in a relationship? If they were, what happened?

There's no specific event in or before the story that is precipitating this (except, perhaps, being trapped in the game itself). It's more just... they were best friends. Inseparable for a long time. And now they are changing as people and naturally drifting apart (really, they've been doing that for some time, but they didn't notice/refused to acknowledge this). And since they've spent so much of their lives until now together, and they are just starting to realize how much they were reliant on each other, they both know there is a good chance that they'll become very different people and that when all is said and done, they might just... have drifted too far apart to rekindle their friendship.

Edited by Nightlit
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I love the lodge and how the rooms seem to shift depending on the person in residence and the invite. (Hilton would pay dearly for the technology. 😂)

Hmmm. A top friend. I'm not even going there! 🤣

Ardine, Asa, Brandon, and Wake have an excellent team dynamic. Wake's being gay is a non-issue. No one is trying to be a star. (And they hug. 😊)

So Asa and Luke have outgrown their dependency, and it's time for them to go their separate ways. They still care for each other, and it's nice to see that their decision is mutual and amicable.

And as for Asa and Wake?  Why not? (Carpe diem.)

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1 hour ago, travlbug said:

I love the lodge and how the rooms seem to shift depending on the person in residence and the invite. (Hilton would pay dearly for the technology. 😂)

Hmmm. A top friend. I'm not even going there! 🤣

Ardine, Asa, Brandon, and Wake have an excellent team dynamic. Wake's being gay is a non-issue. No one is trying to be a star. (And they hug. 😊)

So Asa and Luke have outgrown their dependency, and it's time for them to go their separate ways. They still care for each other, and it's nice to see that their decision is mutual and amicable.

And as for Asa and Wake?  Why not? (Carpe diem.)

LOL The lodge is specifically designed so that, regardless of what's going on? Neither the characters; nor that reader; will EVER forget that they are in a game!

LOL Top player, top friend. What can I say? LOTS AND LOTS OF SPINNING IN THIS STORY! https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SpectacularSpinning?from=Main.EverythingsBetterWithSpinning😛

Yeah. I love writing The A Team's dynamic. None of them are perfect, but they are just such cool people, and they really make up for each other's flaws.

One could even say Asa and Luke completed their first arc. 😉

What can I say? One of the points of this was to just be a story that depicts gay without making it a big deal. To depict gay characters whose sexuality isn't irrelevant, but doesn't wholly define them either.

I'm glad you're enjoying this!

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