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“Why does she look different than when we left her with you?” Ed asked, glancing suspiciously between Cerri and I. “Did you swap her out for a different little nerd?”

“Hey!” I complained, frowning up at him. “I am still me.”

“Who is me?” Ed asked suspiciously, bending down to my eye height. I kicked him in the shin.

“Ow! Fuck,” he blurted, wobbling back into an upright position. “Yup, it’s her.”

“I could have told you that,” David remarked without a shred of sympathy for his partner’s pain. “Turn on your hud and you can see her character name.”

“That ruins the immersion,” Ed grumbled, but he gave me a secret little wink. Okay he was playing silly buggers again.

David rolled his eyes, then very deliberately turned to me with a smile. “So what’s up with the new look? I thought that cost a whole bunch?”

There was a slight pause as I tried to figure out how to tell them, and during that pause, Cerri stepped in. “She found a coupon in the terms and conditions. Crazy girl actually read the whole thing.”

“Yeah, but why?” David continued, staring at me with a sort of perplexed expression. Wait… right… he knew me as someone else. Geez, had I really forgotten that for a few hours?

I didn’t like how childish I looked, and I wanted to make myself even smaller to fit into places. Plus, I can’t have the fluffy tail without the fluffy ears, I explained via the group chat.

Roger gave a snort and a nod of almost impressed agreement. “Amen. How did the rest of the shopping trip go?”

“Very well,” Cerri said with an evil grin. “We fleeced the science guy, poor dude didn’t know what hit him. Alia also ran amok through the parts bins, so we’re good on that front. I do think we might need to get a leash for her thou— ouch!“ She stopped because I bunched all the fur up in my tail until it was a solid mass, then whacked her tail with mine. She gave me a surprised glare. I tossed my head.

“Brat,” she muttered, curling her tail around to hold it in her hand.

“Adorable,” Gloria corrected her, doing something funny with her eyes that was like… like she wanted to literally eat me up or something. Scary…

Anyway,” Roger said quickly, giving both girls a stern and meaningful look. “We got our objectives done too, so once we have the ship itself, we can get all of our stuff sent there.”

“When will our ship arrive in dock?” Warren asked curiously. “You said it was waiting in a yard on one of the nearby moons?”

“Tomorrow morning, according to the receipt I got,” our captain said, waving his phone slightly for emphasis. “Feels very strange to get a receipt for something like a massive spaceship, but whatever.”

“That is a bit wild, like… wait, how do we tell the days and nights apart on a space station?” Ed asked, staring up at the gentle lights in the ceiling above us.

They’ll dim down a bit and the colour will change, I told them via the group channel.

Cerri nodded along with me, “Yeah, that makes sense. Mimicking the earth’s light at those times to tell everyone’s dumb monkey brains to go do bed.”

“Yes, the dumb monkey brains,” Gloria groaned, rolling her eyes and giving Cerri a look that I couldn’t compute.

“Jesus,” Roger sighed, putting himself between the two women. “I can’t believe I agreed to get on a ship with the two of you.”

“You love us,” Cerri laughed, jutting a hip out and placing a hand on it all sassy-like.

“Overstatement of the century,” he laughed, shaking his head in exasperation. “We should find a hotel, stay the night there.”

“Lead the way, Cap!” Ed said, giving him a snappy salute. “I’m ready for the slumber party!”

 

****

 

We found a reasonably cheap hotel near the docks that our ship would be arriving at in the morning, and boy was it… spacey. Battered steel panels lined the walls, with a few sad looking plants every so often in the foyer.

Cheap couches sat in squares, each with a coffee table in the middle and a few beat up looking tablets for people to use if they hated themselves. All in all, it screamed cheap motel with every fiber of its steel and composite being.

I wasn’t paying all that much attention to the decor though, I had bigger problems. Namely, we were just getting two rooms, one for the guys and one for the girls. I counted under the girl category, and I was all sorts of anxious.

What if they found out? What if they realised that I wasn’t really one of them?

My fear mounted as I followed them back towards the room we’d be sleeping in. Three single beds, thank goodness. At least I wasn’t going to be subjected to any tropes. Still, they’d be sleeping and I would be sleeping and we all looked like girls but I wasn’t actually a true girl and… I had seen enough media to know where this ended. With them laughing at me as they threw me out the door. Just another gross pervy guy.

Gloria was the first one through the door, pushing it open and pulling up to a stop with a low whistle. “Wow, I am so looking forward to our ship now. This is… like a post apocalyptic hospital ward. What the fuck?”

She was right, it was utilitarian in the extreme, simple steel bed frames, boring white sheets and a white painted steel panel walls. It had more in common with a morgue than a bedroom.

“It’s cold too,” Cerri commented quietly, stepping into the room behind us. “Is there a thermostat?

“Nope, guess we’ll have to cuddle up for warmth,” Gloria said, turning to step in close to Cerri, her hand running lightly down Cerri’s arms.

Wait. Wait… what was happening here? Did I need to leave? Were they together?

Cerri brushed her arm off and rolled her eyes, “Leave it, Gloria. We both know that didn’t work.”

“Fine, I guess I’ll just have to—“ Gloria began to say, turning to me with an evil grin on her face. Only problem for her was, I had rushed to put a bed between her and myself.

I just shook my head, pointing to my tail.

“What?” she asked, frowning at me in confusion. “What about your tail?”

“She’s saying that she has her tail, she doesn’t need to cuddle for warmth,” Cerri laughed as she translated for me.

I nodded to confirm it, which had Gloria glancing back and forth between the two of us. “Damn, you two really bonded, huh?”

Both Cerri and I shrugged in unison, which had us grinning. Then of course, I was blushing and staring down at my feet while she spoke, “Not so much, but I don’t know… I can sort of just figure out what she’s trying to say?”

“That’s whack,” Gloria commented, raising an eyebrow at me. “Let me try, tell me something simple without talking.”

I frowned, a little irritation with her. What the hell was she on about, I had no idea how Cerri was picking up my intentions, let alone how I was sending it all to her.

Cerri stifled a snort of delighted amusement, biting her lip and turning her head away and up at the ceiling where Gloria couldn’t see her face. Her eyes found mine and gosh I just… I really liked seeing that look, unabashed laughter prancing behind her glittering blue eyes.

Gloria continued to stare expectantly at me, and I found myself hiding a smile of my own behind my tail. This was actually kinda funny. How the hell Cerri was all but reading my mind I had no idea, but it was great and also just… yeah. Watching Gloria struggle to figure out what was very fun.

“Fine, whatever,” Gloria grumbled, turning for the small connected bathroom. “I’m going in first.”

“Have fun,” I told her quietly, struggling with a shit eating grin. I was such a little shit.

Gloria closed the door hard, almost but not quite slamming it. In the silence that resulted, Cerri wandered over and lay herself down on the center bed, eyeing me up with an open grin. Her look was so warm, the corners of her eyes crinkled all up.

“You are so much fun,” she told me slowly, finishing with another little lip bite that had my breath hitching. She was so beautiful, and while I was sorta getting used to it, sometimes she’d do something that had all the air rushing from my lungs. Literally breathtaking.

I had no choice but to crawl onto a bed next to her, but I didn’t want to lay down yet so I crossed my legs and went back to hugging my tail. My tail was perfect for occupying my hands. Normally they always needed to be doing something, messing with pens or my phone or literally any loose object they could find. With my tail though, I could just run my fingers the fur absently and it was enough to keep them happy and occupied.

“I’m excited for your tiny mech too, I am definitely going to see if I can pack as many little instruments into it as you’ll let me,” she said, flopping onto her side to stare up at the ceiling.

I nodded, my throat loosening as we entered territory I was comfortable with. “I’ve been reading stuff about how to build it and how to fix the ship in my ocula while we’ve been walking around and stuff. It’s really interesting! I can’t believe how much detail they’ve put into this game. Like, it may as well be an alternate reality with all the stuff they’ve put into it.”

Her expression turned surprised as I spoke and she propped herself up to get a better look at me. “This might be a rude question… but are you an SAI? You’re just… well…”

I shook my head, but I found myself sort of wishing it were true. Not having to deal with the world outside the FTLN would be amazing. I knew there were some who’d made that transition, digital humans they were calling them. They were probably the idea behind how spacers worked in this game.

“Ah, alright,” she said, giving me a sheepish grin. “You seemed quirky and stuff. SAI are always a little… quirky, a little strange by human standards so… well, nevermind.”

“I’m organic-brand quirky,” I said, giggling at my own wit. I was pretty funny. What, don’t look at me like that.

She laughed with me, and my mind sort of jumped on the sound. It started off low and melodic, but as it went on, it got higher until she cut it off and cleared her throat. Wait… she was blushing now too. She wasn’t looking away or anything like I did though.

The bathroom door slid open and Gloria stepped abruptly out, snapping the moment in two. “Bathroom is ready for whoever is next.”

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