Chapter 9: The Ace of Clubs
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Our rations had rice and peas; onions and small purple carrots, which Ace was looking over - along with -

I grab my glaive and prod the great shell of the beast that nearly cut Ace in half with it.  It doesn't move.

"Yeah," Ace says.  "Yeah, it's weird, I know, it's weird as hell, but turnabout is fair play. The Dire Crab wanted to eat us?  Fuck you.  Now you're on our menu."

"Speak for yourself," I say, hoping I'm not turning green.  "I've never, uh, done my own butchery before."

Ace looks at me.  "What, not even disjointing a chicken?"

"I wish you wouldn't call it that," I said.

"Bitch, that's what Gordon Ramsey calls it," she says, grinning fangs.  "And you have the can opener - help me crack this."

"Uh."  I look at my spear, then back at the crab.

And sigh.

At least it's friendly swearing, I guess.  Like Jules.

"Sure," I say, levelling the glaive. "Just tell me where to sti- what to do," I correct.

Ace smirks at me as she takes a relatively small chef's knife and starts chopping onions.  "Right between that seam, where the leg has a ball-and-socket joint," she says, pointing.  "Crowbar that son of a bitch open."

I lean on the bar, and the shell splits - revealing soft meat underneath, along with a pool of neon orange gunk.

"Bonus," Ace says.  "Lucky for us, it's a girl.  That's roe, and it's delicious."

"You're the expert," I sigh, as I start gathering the roe into a large bowl.  "Where'd you learn to cook, anyway?"

"Parents," she says, stiffening up as she laid out the carrots.  "Ah, I wanted to cook for them, once in a while."

I started slicing up large chunks of meat for her.  "You still live with your folks?" I say.

I didn't mean to judge her for it; times were hard all over.  But she grit her teeth.  "Hard for me to find work that isn't being a bouncy anime girl for an audience," she says, patting her right knee.

Ah.  "Yeah, I know how that is," you mutter.  "Dronelivery is less glamorous, but it is something where I don't need to stand up.  And they don't ask if you can lift 50 pounds."

"Makes sense," Ace says, raising an eyebrow.  "That's what the drone's for.  Lifting fifty pound packages, I mean."

"So you were playing AWO for a crowd, for the first time.  Must be weird to be walking around again, to be strong and fast."

"And curvy.  Can't forget that.  The only good thing about this whole disaster is being a busty-ass foxgirl." She grins and flicks her tail for emphasis.

I avert my eyes from where her tail-flick drew it and steadfastly refuse to agree with her, just getting more meat from the crab.  

"Even as a teenager I was never this fit. Just brings varsity basketball and soccer back to mind," I allow.

"You played soccer?" Ace asks, genuine interest in her voice.  "What position?"

"Sweeper," you say, and laugh.  "God, I really have been playing supports forever.  Did you play, what position?"

The stare that's levelled at me by someone whose stage name is Ace Striker is about as eloquent as my facepalm.

"Goalie," she says, utterly deadpan.

"Center forward, right," I say, sighing.

"I liked it.  Bit better than streaming, too, not a fan of merging with my chair," she adds.

"I can drop it," I say.

Ace sighs.  "Please.  And thanks," she says.

From there, we work mostly in silence, sparing only a word or two for directions.  And she transforms our rations and our kill into stir-fried rice with abundant crab, seasoned with foraged chili and coconut. 

We two aren't the only ones in the party who are a bit squeamish to think we're eating our own kills, but everyone is too tired and hungry for that to get in the way of eating Ace's cooking.  

Which makes it a good thing that it was amazingly good stuff, exactly what all of us needed. I have four bowls of the stuff, and the others were keeping pace.  Even Hikaru, who's currently small enough that you wonder where he puts it all.

"I'd joke about hollow legs," he says, "but mine are too short."

"Old recipe from my grandma," Ace says, too tired to grin from ear to ear.  

That raises more questions that we're all frankly too exhausted to ask. I spent a good chunk of the day panicking and fighting, and it was later in the day than I thought when we all "arrived" on the Shores of Awakening.

Everyone trades what notes and banter they can around the fire, but it's getting dark, with a large moon and some very close colorful stars rising in the night even with the fire roaring. I can't keep it up, and retire to my tent with compliments to the chef and wishes for sweet dreams.

I unroll my bedroll and take off my robe and debate, for a second, keeping on my lower layers.  But I have no pajamas and was never comfortable in a shirt and shorts, so I bite the bullet and strip naked, burrowing under my blanket.

It's weirdly comfortable, feeling the cool sheet on my skin. More comfortable than I could have imagined.

More comfortable than I ever was at home.

"The only good thing about this whole disaster is being a busty-ass foxgirl," Ace said, and I echo, shaking my head.  I can't even say she's wrong.

It's the last coherent thought I have before sinking into the mat and into the warm embrace of my dreams.

The last two weeks were hell, and this - an original chapter, not a mere edit to previous writing - took too long.  Expect another two updates this week to make up for it.

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