“Your dragon is also a big ass fuckin’ mace,” Taylor said in disbelief, shaking her head. “Of course it is.”
“Yes she is, and she’s the best big ass fucking mace you’ll ever see, aren’t you, little Ryana?” I cooed at my dragon holding her up and kissing her dusty snout.
Taylor just laughed and rolled her eyes, motioning for everyone to follow her. “Come on, let’s go find a dark corner to put the house down and we’ll all go get cleaned up. Assuming that Rusti has all our loot in hand.”
“Already done, boss!” they winked cheerily.
“I also assume that none of it will go mysteriously missing during the time between now and when we divvy it up?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
Recoiling from Taylor like they’d been physically struck by her words, they shook their head furiously. “I would never deprive my own party of their hard earned loot! It’s the sacred institution of gaming that everyone gets their share of the loot! This is not the dark ages of DKP systems and rolling dice for gear!”
“Good to hear,” Taylor said, amusement written across her face. “Alright, come on everyone.”
“Wasn’t DKP a thing like more than a hundred years ago?” Dawn asked curiously.
“Yes, but I studied it closely,” Rusti sniffed. Clearly they had some very strong opinions about loot.
The group trailed behind Taylor as she took us off to the side where a nook was carved into the wall, hidden from view by a massive pillar of carved stone. We all watched as she navigated through hidden menus and I had to constantly keep the wriggling dragon in my arms from leaping out of my hands to go and play in all the dust again. Damn, she was a spirited little girl.
“Grrwaaaa,” she eventually groused, stopping her struggling to do the feathered dragon equivalent of a pout up at me.
“I’m not letting you get even more dirty,” I chastised her. “I’m already going to have to dunk you in the bath as it is.”
She of course, had no idea what a bath was and brushed the treat off with a dismissive flick of her tail, but I was sure she’d learn to hate them soon enough.
“There we go,” Taylor said at last, and the house phased into existence before us.
The cheery little cottage was out of place sitting in the dreary dungeon that I couldn’t help an amused shake of my head. That was just slightly immersion breaking there.
Heading inside, we found the place to be exactly as we’d left it, and almost immediately people were throwing off outer layers and dumping themselves in couches. Even Civette looked less than put-together right now, her hair a mess and covered in dust.
I took my armour off as soon as I could and dumped myself down into the couch next to Dawn, releasing Ryana to roam the room freely. The little girl was almost immediately sniffing at the closed pantry door, which reminded me that I probably needed to feed her.
I’d had the idea to store some little scraps of meat for her in my inventory, so when I summoned them, she was rushing back to my lap in a little-dragon hurry. I began to feed her with the meat as Rusti started to dump all the loot onto the low coffee table that sat between the couches.
My eyebrows began to ride as more and more came flowing out of the rogue’s inventory, until they began to run out of space to place things. Their solution to the problem was to simply begin dumping everything on the floor.
“How did you even find this much loot?” Dawn asked incredulously, her eyes wide as she looked around at the growing mess.
“I have a looting passive,” Rusti shrugged and rubbed their hip absently.
“A looting passive? What tree gives the components for that?” Millie asked, leaning forward excitedly.
Rusti avoided the little poisoner’s curious gaze as they answered, placing still more crap onto the floor. “It’s not one you can start with, as far as I’m aware. I got it from… a quest.”
“You need to tell me about that some time,” Millie murmured with pleading eyes.
“Maybe,” they nodded, then with a flourish, they placed the last item of loot on the top of the pile.
“That one,” they said, pointing to it. “Should go to Taylor.”
The item was a necklace, the pendant of which was a clear yellow crystal clasped in an orange metal that had been made to look like flames lapping at the crystal. The whole thing was hung on a golden chain that sparkled in the light from the mage-lamps. I clicked over to my inspect function to have a look at the stats.
[Star of Lumina]
This necklace once belonged to a queen in distant ages past, but had since fallen into the hands of an officer in the Vassadian Imperial Army.
Grants access to a starlight based skill tree that focuses on granting buffs to allies and damage mitigation.
The rest of it was a bunch of stat increases that I didn’t read. The interesting part was that skill tree that would allow her to add to her build even more.
“That is pretty nice,” Taylor murmured, reaching over to pluck it from the pile. “I’ve never heard of starlight stuff before, I wonder what element it falls under?”
“Void, maybe?” Millie mused, leaning back into her girlfriend’s shoulder. “Because stars are in space?”
“As good a guess as any,” Taylor shrugged, putting the necklace on.
The rest of the loot was fairly mediocre, mostly just a bunch of old, busted up weapons and armour, plus a shitload of ancient coinage that must have weighed a ton. I was starting to wonder just how heavily Rusti had invested in their inventory that they could lug around that much crap through all the fighting.
I managed to fill out a few accessory slots with some of the random enchanted stuff we got, and even tried to put a few more rings on my fingers, because like, it might work right? It didn’t though, only counting the first item in whatever slot I was doubling up on. I could wear the rings just fine, but didn’t get any bonuses.
We decided we’d be selling the lot of it once we got back to town, then dividing up the money among the party. Which led to us piling all the crap in the corner, before I was made to go through the bath first. Something about needing the cook to make everyone food or something.
Much to my disappointment, Dawn stayed out of the bath with me. I guessed she was hungrier than she was horny, I guess we’d save the bath sex for another day. Of course, that didn’t stop a certain little dragon from joining me in the bath.
Ryana, contrary to what I’d been expecting, loved the bath. Like, she absolutely loved it, and I had to stop her from both gently electrifying the water and splashing it all out of the tub.
“Stop making a mess, you little pest,” I grumbled, frowning down at her as she bobbed around in the water looking extremely pleased with herself. The little minx could float, and had discovered this very quickly. Combined with her long neck allowing her to safely keep her head above water, she was having a riot of a time.
“Squaaaa,” she chirped back up at me with a smug little flick of her tail that splashed water over the side.
In retaliation, I dunked her under the water for a second and then laughed as she flopped around, hopping up onto the rim of the tub as a bedraggled and sopping wet little bundle of indignation. She was clean anyway, she could get out if she wanted to.
With glares being shot at me from the rim of the bath the whole time, I finished washing myself off, then got out, dried myself and put on a set of much more comfortable clothing than the battle stuff I’d been wearing. I gave a slight moan of relief as that was all done, feeling good and clean again after all that grime.
When I left the room, dragon in hand, I passed Civette on her way in. I guess the others had taken pity on her, given how annoyed she’d been by getting all dirty and shit. I went back to my room and found Dawn laid out across the floor. She seemed tired, but offered to babysit the pest while I cooked, and I took her up on that offer.
That left me alone in the main room to cook dinner while everyone had retreated to their rooms for a rest before their turn in the bath. I got to work cooking, happily humming along to myself as I prepared a stir fry. I was having to improvise with a few ingredients, but whatever, some things didn’t change. Salt was still salt after all.
Civette came out of the bath a while later and knocked on Millie and Taylor’s door before coming to sit down on the couch. She seemed a bit odd with the way she liked to watch me cook.
“You had fun today,” she stated after a few minutes, her tone neutral.
“I did?” I asked, confused as to what her point was.
“Yeah,” she nodded, pulling her legs up so she could hug them. “I had fun too, once I got past the grossness of it all.”
“That must have been a shock,” I said, leaning back against the countertop with a grin.
I was happy for her though, it seemed like she didn’t have nearly enough fun in her life right now.
A smile flickered across her face for a moment and she gave a slight nod. “It was, actually. I never expected to find myself in this… situation.”
“Expected to jump in, do whatever it was your mother asked you to do, then get out?” I asked wryly. I couldn’t find it in me to get upset at her about the whole assassination thing. It was a game after all.
“Yes…” she hesitated, and I thought I saw just the hint of sadness in her eyes. Or was it guilt? I couldn’t tell.
She was silent for long minutes after that, and I got back to cooking, although my thoughts were behind with her. What was up with Civette right now? She seemed to be almost mellow. Of course, no sooner had I asked that question, than she spoke again.
“Can I ask you a… personal question?” she asked hesitantly, her tone bringing me back around to stare at her.
“Sure,” I said with a shrug. There wasn’t really much about my life that I’d refuse talk about.
“There’s a… rumour, that you used to be a man, but you… aren’t anymore?” she asked cautiously, almost cringing away from me as she said it.
Oh dear, here we go.
“Used to be a man… that’s a strong phrase. I was born with a male body, yes,” I told her, inwardly rolling my eyes at her bungling of the question.
“But you like the one you have now better?” she asked, her gaze intense and curious.
I laughed, I couldn’t help it. “Civ, I didn’t like the old one at all. I tolerated it with the sheer magnitude of my ignorance, but I didn’t like it. This one though? I love it. I love it from the way my hips sway as I walk, to the softness of my skin on fresh bedsheets, to the feeling of my girlfriend’s fingers deep inside me as she brings me to climax. The whole package, I’m here for it.”
“Right,” she said as her cheeks coloured. Glancing down at her knees, her voice was quiet as she asked. “When did you know? That you wanted… that?”
Damn, the questions just kept coming.
“It wasn’t a clear cut thing. I didn’t wake up one day and think, I need a new body,” I told her, then sighed as I got my thoughts together, trying to figure out how to put everything into words. “It started slow, right from my first memories. I hated that I got teased for wanting to wear girly clothes when I was a kid, I hated that my sister got to learn makeup when I was moving into my teens. Fast forward and I started to hate everything about using my dick during sex. I hated it so much I still have trauma over it. I feel sick when I remember it.”
“You did?” she asked sharply, colour draining from her face.
I struggled to keep my face light and impassive as the weight of awful memory settled on my mind. “I did. It was…” my voice went raw and I had to stop, taking a deep breath. Shit, shit, shit. “I used to uh, to hold my emotions in about it. Hold them… hold them in until I was alone. There was this whole psychological thing to it. If I couldn’t use it, if I hated it, there was the implication that I was less of a man for it, and therefore worthless.”
I was holding back with the full magnitude of how shit I had felt about that, as well as the depth of my trauma on the matter. She didn’t need to know that part.
“But you’re not worthless,” she murmured, her face bone white, her knuckles clenched to match. I had to stop for a moment as I really watched her, the way she was reacting. Had she been victim to something like this?
“No,” I said quietly. “Neither of us is worthless.”
“I feel pretty worthless,” she said, her voice choked with emotion.
That was it, I left my knife on the bench, washed and dried my hands quickly and then went to sit down on the couch next to her. I tentatively placed an arm around her shoulders and pulled her into me.
I gave a sigh and spoke, “Look, Civette. I can see a great person underneath everything within you, but… well, you have a lot of shit going on. You’ve obviously had a lot of… strange and shitty ideas pushed into your skull, but you don’t have to listen to them.”
“How?” she asked in the slightest of whispers. “Everything I believe seems to hurt people, to make everyone suffer, but… it’s everything I know. It’s all I know.”
“You’ve been told that it’s the right way of thinking, that to shun those ideas is to become just as evil as the enemy that those ideas focus on. I’m assuming of course, that you’re with the Patriot Church here…” I said, trailing off because I realised that I might not be on the right path.
“I am,” she said quietly, settling her head down gently on my shoulder.
I took a long breath before letting it out in another explosive sigh. “That church is rotten, from the very core it’s rotten. I’m sorry for being blunt, but any religion that preaches hate against fellow humans is evil.”
“It doesn’t just preach hate!” she protested weakly.
“It doesn’t matter what else it preaches, if part of the focus is on hating others for just living their lives without hurting anyone, then the whole thing is rotten,” I told her seriously. It was strange having a conversation like this while I held and comforted her, but I felt like she needed to have this debate.
“But, some people are hurting others with the way they live… the Patriot Bible says that gay people corrupt society on a spiritual level, and that eventually they will bring the world to ruin if they aren’t stopped,” she told me, but she didn’t sound all that convinced by her own argument. A few days ago she might have been able to have me thinking she believed that drivel, but not now.
“Sure, according that book, but you realise how stupid that sounds right?” I shrugged. “I have a bunch of books that say the opposite. I’d rather follow my senses of sympathy and empathy though, you know? Like, just don’t be a dick, no matter what side of a conflict you’re on or whatever… just don’t be a dick and maybe things might not be so bad. Obviously it’s more complicated than that, and different people have different versions of what a dick is, but I think that your version might be similar to my version.”
Civette lifted her head off my shoulder to give me a disbelieving laugh. “I’m sorry, it’s hard to take that all seriously when I’m imagining everyone walking around with the ideal version of what a penis looks like sitting in their head.”
I gave a little chuckle at that image and shrugged. “I mean, that’s a good way of thinking about it right? Maybe the president of america has the idea that a dick is like big ol’ long sausage, you know? But we think that a dick should be more on the girthy side, or hell, maybe we think it should be made of plastic and have some ribs to it. It highlights just how fucking stupid being a dick is.”
“I do like a girthy dick,” she giggled, her smile turning large and genuine. “Gosh, I can’t believe I’m joking about girthy dicks… what on Earth is happening?”
“It’s more fun that being one, right?” I asked with a grin, raising an amused eyebrow.
“Some people seem to really like it,” she sighed, her smile dropping off her face like a rock off a cliff. “Even me.”
“I don’t believe that for a second. You’re already making steps to not be a dick,” I told her gently, patting her knee. “But I need to get this dinner sorted. Just think on all this okay? You’re not a bad person, so don’t try to be one because a fuckin’ book tells you to. I mean, you shouldn’t be a good person because a book tells you to be one either. I personally think that if someone needs a big dick in the sky to tell them to be a good person, then I sure as shit don’t trust them.”
“Huh,” she murmured, like I’d just hit her with some wild piece of insight.
I raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“That describes both of my parents,” she replied thoughtfully. “That’s… a terrifying thought, what they would do if they realised god wasn’t going to punish them for doing evil.”
“Exactly my point,” I replied sadly, moving back to continue preparing dinner.
I actually managed to get like ten minutes more of prep before another interruption wandered into the room. Or rather, two interruptions.
“Squaaa!” Ryana trilled, hopping up onto the counter and immediately trying to thieve some of the food I was preparing.
“Oi! You little shit, that’s big people food, not small dragon food,” I chastised her, rescuing a carrot from her tiny claws.
I got an irritated flick of a tail in return before Dawn arrived too, grabbing Ryana from the countertop. “Sorry, she got away from me.”
“That’s okay, she’s cute,” I laughed, leaning over to kiss my girlfriend. She looked worried, and I said so, “What’s wrong?”
“I found some shit online that’s… worrying,” she sighed, leaning against the counter.
“Worrying how?” Civette asked from the couch. I turned to look at the girl, finding her expression just openly curious, with a hint of… worry? For us? She really was growing a little.
“Some people are stalking Tami online, trying to figure out who she is, where she lives, that kind of thing,” Dawn replied angrily, although the fire in her eyes wasn’t directed at Civ, or anyone else in the room. “Why the fuck are people so obsessed with Tami anyway?”
That did not sound good. In Cora I was a badass lightning phoenix chick, but out in the real world… I was just some random girl on basic. A very weak one too. Worry flickered to life in my gut, and I stopped what I was doing to step a little closer to Dawn.
“I don’t… why? Why do people want to find me?” I asked, looking up into my girlfriend’s eyes.
“Um… it varies… some are saying some pretty awful shit though,” she told me, her brows creased with distress.
“How do you stop them? What can you do?” Civette asked, looking actually, genuinely worried for me. “Sorry, I’m new to all this VR, online stuff. I have no idea how these situations go. Can you find them back? Sue them for harassment or whatever?”
“I’m already working on that,” a new voice in the room said, and we all looked down to find…
“May! What the hell, you’re just appearing in the game now?” I blurted, walking over to her.
She was spread out like a star on the ground, her hair loose and splayed out wildly across the rough wooden floor. Her glasses were held in her little fist as she rubbed at her eyes with the other one.
“This is technically outside the normal play area,” she said tiredly. “If I’m careful, I can like, pop in and say hi.”
“How are you working on the thing with Tami’s stalkers?” Dawn asked, cutting right to the chase.
“Hunting them down,” she shrugged, although the action looked funny while she was laying on the floor. “Tempted to drop a crate on this lot too, but with the bastards inside the car this time. Why are some human men on the FTLN so gosh darn creepy? I found this one guy who was looking up porn about—“
“Alright, let’s not get into that,” I interrupted quickly. I really didn’t want to know about the porn habits of creepy guys on the net.
“Right, sorry,” she grinned. “I’m kinda babbling aren’t I? I’ve been working really hard recently though, there’s immense government fuck ups to fix, people to help, new Cora psych AI to train, a revolution to take part in…”
She did look tired, even her virtual form looked a little wrung out.
“And a cute Amazon SAI to hang out with?” I teased.
Her face went red almost instantly, and she covered her face with both hands, “Shut uuuup—” she complained, before she gave a pained squeak as her glasses poked her in the eye. “Ow!”
I laughed, watching her dorky little antics. “So you do like that Amazon girl huh?”
“No! She’s just my friend!” May pouted up at me from the floor, still rubbing at her eye. “Damn, pain is dumb. Why do you humans all still do this pain thing anyway?”
“Because it helps us realise when we’re breaking ourselves,” I chuckled sitting down next to her on the floor and placing a hand gently on her head. “Otherwise we’d walk into things all the time, hit our heads on walls without learning not to do so. It teaches us how to look after our bodies.”
Despite her ability to work with us well, I had a lot to teach her about actually being human.
“So I can’t edit that part out?” she asked with a sigh and another pout.
“No, I don’t recommend it,” I grinned, looking up at Dawn and rolling my eyes. May was a handful.
“Sorry, but… who is this?” Civette asked, her eyes displaying a mixture of concern, confusion and something else I couldn’t identify.
“That’s a long story,” I told her, trying to figure out where to start. “She’s one of the AI in charge of this game, sorta…”