Chapter 7: Spice and Cat
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Healing potions taste bitter, grassy, and honeyed. Rather than huge flasks, we carry them in tiny vials, each with a shot or maybe a jigger. Small enough to gulp in the space of a second, what was on the Support cooldown when this was a game.

I put the empty vial back on my belt, behind my sash. I'm exhausted and still a little hurt, but it's worth it as we all walk and talk back to a suitable campground.

Sekhmet had been hiding out as soon as she realized what was happening. 

(They. I kick myself. As soon as they, Jules, knew what was happening.) 

They slipped between mobs they couldn't pick off one by one with backstabs, gathering anything she could remember as being valuable crafting ingredients or vendor trash along Peppercorn Lane in the hub city, Viacruz.

Hikaru nods at the tale, at one point reaching up to his face to run a finger along his upper lip - and then he swears.

"What's up?" Sekh asked, ears perking.

"My mustache," he says, frowning. "It's gone. I paid ten real world dollars for it. Well, 60, for a 5000 Diamond pack, but -"

He blinks, stops, and roots through his pack. Alesha, who's ahead of you, stops and turns her head at the delay.

"...not all of my cosmetics are gone, but most of them are," he says. "Damn it, that's the stuff that makes me look like an adult. I knew my gear was gone, but I didn't expect my glam to go with them, especially since Ace's armor isn't standard."

"Her Cosmic Battle Bikini?" I say, jerking a thumb at her.

Ace looks at you, one eyebrow raised. Hikaru also turns to look up at you, hand over his mouth, chin resting on his thumb, stroking his missing mustache.

"What?" I say.

"'ve misremembered," Hikaru says, hefting his pack back up and onto his shoulders. "The Cosmic Battle Bikini is from the last game the Bureau released, a skin for Ruby in Orbital Knights."

"I don't remember what this is called," Ace mutters. "I just know it pinches."

"It's the Valkyrie of Delvar set," Hikaru answers without hesitation.

"Just our luck that I'm partying up with someone who's memorized the wiki," Ace said.

"I'm the main admin for it," Hikaru said to her. "It's... significant, but I can't remember why."

"Nothing but useful and relevant facts," Ace replied, rolling her eyes. "Are we there yet?"

"Sure are," Sekhmet says, grinning fangs as they gesture ahead.

On a bright white beach of sparkling sand, abutted by steeper rocks and green, we spy a little lagoon - protected from the elements by the shade of coconut and palm. Hikaru licks his finger and holds it to the air as you march closer, then he nods.

"This should be a safe zone," he says, nodding. "Good eye. We'll set up camp here."

Sekhmet stretches. "And then we can take off these stupid packs and catch up. Like, really catch up. We need to figure out what the hell is going on."

I set up the tents, at first, because I have the most experience camping IRL, back when my dad insisted it built character (and before I came to agree with him, too late to let him know). That turned into four relatively large, sturdy tents and one smaller one, which Hikaru was predictably displeased to find - even if he did admit he didn't need more space, as he was.

I finish the job earlier than the others, and find myself itching for more to do. Part of it is not wanting to seem - feel - useless, a desire now to make up for lost time spent sitting on my ass at home even while I did my dronelivery rigging work, learning nothing useful except how to transfer those skills into doing extremely dirty things with an Icarus Assault Walker in Orbital Knights. 

But there's more to it than that; there was a time when I took joy in physical exertion, before everything fell apart in high school, and it's like I only just remembered: 'Hey. You have a body, and there are ways to enjoy using it.'

...okay, not like that. Focus, Jake.

There are a lot more jobs to do, big ones that the others need help with. As much as I want to spend more time with Hikaru gathering firewood and tending the fire - to ask him more about his life since he dropped that bomb on me, and because I'm apparently 15 with butterflies in your stomach again - the plain fact is that I've been neglecting both my best friend and my roommate. And while Ace still needs a friend and still needs help, and I seriously consider spending more time to help her get adjusted, wanting to check in with the friends I've had for longer takes priority.

I'm very tired.

Not enough to stop yet, but enough that if I do stop, I'll crash.

I sigh and look for Sekhmet.

Sehkmet has gathered everyone's possessions - with permission; they suggested taking inventory and everyone, in Ace's case begrudgingly, agreed - and is trying to array them in front of themselves on a blanket, frowning. Their large, triangular sonar dishes track me before they turn their head and eyes around, and then wave me over.

"I can hand things to you," I offer, "while you sort."

"Works for me," they say, frowning. "Good to see you in... good to see you vertical."

I sigh. "Look, Jules, I'm sorry it took me so long to call you after things got weird, it's just -"

"- things got weird," they say. "Honestly I'm impressed you got it together enough to remember at all. Anyone would panic, and hate to say it, but you kind of have an exaggerated freeze response."

"Fuck you," I say cheerfully as I hand her a heavy bag, but they're right.

"And there's my fight response rubbing off on you," they say. "Uh, side note."

I nod.

"I think it might be a good idea to just... call me Sekhmet here. To get used to calling each other by avatar name," they say, quite seriously. They loosen the bag; inside is some kind of dried beans, which she reseals and adds to the pile. "I'm not sure I want my IRL name in circulation here any more than it already is."

I freeze.

After a second of thought about that response, I loosen up a bit, and remind myself to take Sekhmet's reads of people seriously as I reach into my pack again.

I hand them what I think of as a dicebag, with my massage oils, perfumes and incense in it.

"...Why, do you suspect anything in particular? Sekhmet?" I ask.

"Just a hunch, Deedee." They nod, taking the bag, visually scanning it, another nod, put it down. "We're trapped here, and I gotta wonder who wants us trapped here, and why."

"Well," I say. "I'll be sleeping soundly tonight."

"Probably snore less, though," they say altogether too cheerfully.

"That's a bright side to being a six-foot foxgirl that hadn't yet occurred to me," I say, ears flattening as if my dry tone desiccated them.

Sekh snort-purred, an extremely odd sound that it took me a second to realize was an Ubastim laugh. "Honestly, I'm not surprised you're taking to this like a duck to water. Holy shit, I know I said it, but you have no idea how glad I am to see you're okay."

I take a deep breath. "Yeah. Same. Damn, we just paid rent and bills back home too."

"And now we're gonna have to here," they say, frowning. "We're gonna have to do some grinding and gathering and foraging, hook up with the fishing village on this rock, deal with the pirate quest and get to Viacruz and the good jobs in less than a week at this rate. Less than, so we have some wiggle room."

I look at them. They look back.

"There's a reason I got started on potion gathering," they say. "Potions sell well. Or they did."

"And I can already tell we need to sleep here," I say, rolling my sore shoulders.

I realize, in that moment, that I'm ravenous. "And eat," I say.

"Yeah," Sekhmet says. "On the plus side, our job kicks the ass out of working for Tote-Em-Snax now, though I know we're gonna be missing Buffalo wings and Froz-N-Cola slush, hard as that is to imagine."

I manage a chuckle. "You know, 16 years ago, my guidance counselor never suggested 'mercenary for the Yberian crown' as a career path."

They roll their own neck and do that laugh-purr again. "Okay. Let's finish this up and join the others. And pass on the advice to use handles over real names. Shame Alesha straight up used her own name, but that's on her."

"I doubt her last name is Herezhade, at least," I say.

It doesn't take me more than 15 minutes to confirm that Sekh is right right. We'll wake up to 6 days rations and consumables. 

We're on a clock.

I wonder how many others are here, and if they'll run out that clock or deal with monsters they can't handle.

Then I shudder.

Special thanks to CatOnTheWeb for editing work after the fact, whoops.