by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
Jai let his overnight bag bounce on the bed with a careless jingle of souvenir charms as he darted across the room to the wall of windows. “Will you just look at that. Isn’t it spectacular?”
Alyxi closed and locked the door and waved a hand over the light holo. Illumination bloomed along the edges of the ceiling, pooled above the table and the easy chairs and the two extravagant heaps of pillows on the bed. The one bed–Brobdingnagian, as everything dirtside was, but still, just one. Alyxi looked at it with resignation. Always ask to see the room.
But of course community responsibility had left them no reasonable choice. There would be many rooms more crowded than this one tonight–probably even the two singles, booked months ago, that they’d been prevailed upon to give up in exchange for it.
“Come over here, Alyxi, have you seen a blizzard like this before? Turn the lights off, the reflection gets in the way.”
Alyxi put their bag and coat on the luggage stand, waved the room to dimness again, toed off damp shoes, and went to join Jai.
A maelstrom of white and grey swirled beyond the glass, ever-changing and featureless, more like liquid than a mixture of solids and air. Ice pellets ticked and scraped against the windows, and the wind was a hushed roar. Between gusts, Alyxi fancied they could see the hovering lights of the spaceport, a famous view that was the reason Jai had insisted on this hotel for their last night dirtside. Probably that was just imagination; little was moving out there, let alone taking off.
“It’s mesmerizing,” Jai said, palms flat against the cold glass.
Alyxi shivered, feeling something akin to vertigo. Jai turned to them. “I’m sorry, is it spooking you out?”
“It’s been a long day.” What should have been a scant two hours on a bullet train had turned into a crawl of seven, followed by a standing wait in a cold station for a pod to the hotel. “How long do you think it will last?”
“Oh, a day, day and a half at least.”
“I assume we’re not leaving tomorrow.” Alyxi felt a sudden raw longing to be back starside, where things were their proper sizes and precious water was not profligately flinging itself around the sky.
“You’re probably right. It’ll take time to dig out.” Jai crossed the room and waved the lights back up. He kicked off his shoes and then wriggled out of his coat, casting it over one of the chairs in a welter of patchwork and scarves. “An evening off. What are we going to do with ourselves?”
He must have heard Alyxi’s suppressed sigh, because he paused in the middle of a stretch, willowy arms above his head, and made an inquisitive sound.
“Declan will be waiting for details.”
“Oh, I beamed him this morning.” At Alyxi’s wary look, Jai grinned. “I mean I beamed him WE GOT IT in all-caps flashing glitter type. I thought I’d leave the details up to you.”
Penning a sedate version of You now have a great deal of money with a side of But it’s all spoken for already, don’t get any ideas had been on Alyxi’s to-do list for this afternoon. They’d started and abandoned several incomplete drafts during the crammed train trip; they were too worn out to finesse such an impossible request. Getting ideas was what Jai and Declan did. Hiring Alyxi for the investor-wooing, contract-signing phase of their new game development had been an almost unimaginably sensible one. Alyxi winced to imagine what negotiations might have been like without them along as a measured counterbalance to Jai’s all-caps flashing glitter type.
Jai let himself fall backwards onto the bed, only just missing his bag, which toppled onto its side and ejected a rattle of wasabi rice sticks onto the bedspread. “It feels like a snow day off school, doesn’t it? A surprise gift of time. Nothing to do and nowhere to be.”
In point of fact, Alyxi had plenty they could do. It was past time they started the hustle to line up their next job, the current contract having been fulfilled around about the time Loe Obeidat had signed the contract offering Jai and Declan a sizeable heap of cash. Usually they would have had several prospects by this time.
Jai scooped up the rice sticks and dropped them into his mouth. “Ugh, I’m starving. Just a sec–” He waved on his holo and made a pleading face at the midair display, then sighed and tossed the holo onto one of the pillows. “I was hoping to take you to Les Saules for a celebration dinner, but they’re booked solid. I got on the waiting list when we hit dirtside, but as of right now we’re number two hundred and thirty-nine.”
“You tried to book before we even met with Obeidat? That’s optimistic.” Optimistic, and Jai all over.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I knew we’d get it. You were amazing. What I wouldn’t give to take you on permanently.”
Alyxi thanked a decade of facing well-heeled businesspeople over a negotiating table for being able to keep a neutral face, while their traitorous heart turned over. But Alyxi was good at imagining what things might need when they were still fresh and unformed, at supporting potential and opening possibility. Waiting around as things settled into the shape they were going to be from now on was not what Alyxi did. Especially when the reasons they might consider it this time weren’t exactly high-minded.
“You were the one who convinced her,” Alyxi said. “You know how to describe your dreams and make people want to be a part of them.” The two of them, in fact, made a formidable team. Jai, at the same time artistically unkempt and gorgeously stylish, lighting up like a supernova when he talked about his ideas, words tumbling over one another and soaringly beautiful holos at hand for what words couldn’t describe. And Alyxi, soberly suited, with the How and When and How Much and What If, in a tidy package of numbers and charts that made businesspeople feel they were safe on solid ground.
“I’m not going to argue, we’re both fantastic, and you know what we deserve? Dinner.” Jai rolled onto his stomach and regarded the window. “Dinner that we don’t have to go out into that to get.”
Alyxi shuddered. “Stars, no. Let’s just use the pneumo.”
“There’s no pneumo network here.” Jai grinned at Alyxi’s expression. “It’s an old city, Alyxi.”
“What do you do when you need things?”
“You go to the store. Or you have things sent by pod, and then you pick your order up from the delivery station. Or you pay for people to bring it to your door.”
It sounded appallingly inefficient. Imagine having to go somewhere special every time you ran out of toothpaste or needed a button sewn on. “But we can order over the net, yes? Or does everything shut down in weather like this?”
“I’m sure a lot has. But the hotel’s got a food hall attached, it’s one of the attractions. What do you feel like?”
Alone, Alyxi would have indulged in something bland and comforting, soup, say, or congee, something to take the chill off. “What would you have ordered at Les Saules?”
“Oh, I don’t know, something I’d never heard of before.”
Alyxi rubbed their arms. “I have no objection to you ordering for both of us, but please get me something hot to drink. Do you mind if I take a shower?”
“No, go ahead.” Jai groped for his holo. “Oh, amazing…”
The bathroom was all dark grey tiles and subdued gleam. There was a deep tub that probably held Alyxi’s usual weekly water allotment, and a shower stall they could have lain down in. Alyxi shed their suit and travel-clammy shirt and stepped into the stall. At least the controls were universal. Alyxi swept a finger through the holo for a station-standard shower, with a pause for lathering up and a rinse as brief as over three decades of station life could make it. Three minutes later they felt less grimy, but goose-pimpled and still tense with cold.
Oh, what the hell. When would they ever get another chance? Guiltily, they turned the shower back on.
The steaming water hit their chest and runnelled onto their arms. Alyxi closed their eyes and took a step into the spray. It cascaded over their head, slicking their tidy haircut down. It was like a sensory opposite of the blizzard, hot and wet but just as overwhelming. The sound and sensation seeped into Alyxi’s mind too, loud enough to blot out the buzz left from travel, loud enough even to quell the weird, enervating restlessness that tended to strike after the victory high of getting the promise they wanted. Alyxi stood in freefall, insulated and detached, and let the water soak them warm all the way through.
Utter debauchery, they decided, turning the water off and stepping into the embrace of a massive plush towel. It made Alyxi understand dirtsiders a little better, though, that they had this kind of luxury at their fingertips daily. It made them expect a lot, but be a little less tough at getting it.
They hesitated over their bag, which they’d brought into the bathroom with them. Tomorrow’s shirt was in there, along with pyjamas, and no other choices. Alyxi hadn’t anticipated an evening alone with Jai in a hotel room, and all their casual clothing–not suits, but as precise as suits–was in their checked bag, which had been sent ahead and was presumably sitting in some frigid warehouse waiting out the storm.
Alyxi wasn’t sure that they wanted one of Jai’s last memories of them to involve green and purple plaid pyjamas and fleece socks. There was nothing for it, though, unless Alyxi wanted to start off tomorrow’s long day of travel in a stale, wrinkled shirt. They put on the pyjamas. On the back of the bathroom door hung two robes, as sumptuous as the towels. Alyxi pulled one on–it must have been one-size-fits-all, which meant, again, extremely generous on Alyxi’s narrow frame–overlapped the two front panels as far as they would go, and tied the belt firmly.
“Okay, lavish expense account dinner ordered and paid for,” Jai announced, as Alyxi hung their suit in the closet. “My turn for a shower, now. I should be out by the time the food gets here.”
He had already claimed the window side of the bed, judging by the disarrangement of the pillows. Alyxi leaned back against the remaining pile and brought up their holo feed. The local stories were all about the storm, which was apparently an extraordinary manifestation of a common occurrence; there was breathless coverage of people bedding down in hotel lobbies and coffee shops, as well as complaints about high taxes and physical infrastructure that was not designed to cope with everything that might possibly ever happen. Alyxi couldn’t help rolling their eyes at that. The inconvenience of sharing a room was one thing; try living with the daily knowledge that an infrastructure failure might cause your death and the deaths of everyone you knew, and see how important low taxes became then.
There was nothing startling in the starside news, so they turned to the industry feed. An interview Jai had had with a popular channel host had just been released and was gathering constellations of stars and rewires. Alyxi recognized the occasion; Jai had just played a walkthrough of their prototype at one of the most popular game fairs, and he was riding the high of the applause. Because games, like any art form, he said to the host, incandescent with enthusiasm, let us experience and feel things we can’t in our everyday lives. They let us do things we wouldn’t normally have the opportunity or ability or courage to do…
A soft ding came from the door, though it turned out to be not a person bringing the food, but an alert on the hotel’s public information holo, warning that guests might be asked to conserve power due to some outages along the network. They strung wires through the air here, Alyxi gathered, having had to reread a paragraph of a news story to make sure they’d understood it correctly. They turned off the lights over the bed, and dimmed the others, which gave the room an even more boudoir-ish air but at least was a plausible excuse to not be wasting all that power.
“Now that was a shower,” Jai declared, raking damp hair back from his forehead as he padded barefoot out of the bathroom. White terrycloth slid over golden-brown skin, revealing a glimpse of clavicle and smooth shoulder. Alyxi averted their eyes and stared hard at the hotel’s holo notice.
The door chimed, making Alyxi jump. “Food!” Jai said, and opened the door as if he were not wearing a loosely wrapped robe over…nothing, apparently.
The delivery was in a tall box with a handle, which Jai carried to the table. He pulled out a tab on either side of the top, and the sides of the box fell outwards, revealing a number of modular containers stacked together. At the top were two circles of flimsy and some cutlery and paper napkins, which he set at two places opposite one another on the table.
“Sit, sit.” He lifted the lid of one of the containers with an expression of bliss on his face. “Food of the gods. If I’d known there was a branch of Isla’s here I wouldn’t have even bothered with Les Saules.”
The scent of curry made Alyxi’s mouth fill with water. “What did you order?”
“Hakka chicken noodles, Manchurian spinach paneer, and Schez beef. And rice, of course. And your tea. And some date and honey pancakes in case we get peckish later. Don’t worry, the meat’s all vat-grown, I asked.”
“Of course it’s all–” Alyxi paused. “Was there a chance it wouldn’t be?”
“Yeah, they advertise it. Some people swear they can taste the difference. I never could.”
Alyxi put the thought of meat having come from actual animals firmly aside, and picked up their chopsticks.
“Wait, you have to unfold your bowl first.” Jai retrieved the round in front of Alyxi and made a quick movement; the flimsy emitted a loud pop and burst into three dimensions. Alyxi blinked; Jai made a magician’s flourish and set the bowl on its flat bottom in front of them.
“That’s incredible. Why don’t we have those starside?”
“Beats me. Though they only last for one meal, and then they turn into compost.” That would be why, then; the space to dispose of garbage just outside a station may have been infinite, but the amount of resources that could be brought on board was not, and food containers were all standardized and reusable.
They loaded up their bowls. Jai put piece of chicken in his mouth and closed his eyes, making a sound of carnal pleasure. Alyxi swallowed with an effort.
“So, let’s talk about next steps,” they said, bringing up the list on their holo, where it hovered incongruously in the steam rising from the Schez beef. “The first transfer of funds should be in your account by the time we get–”
“Alyxi.” Jai waved the holo off. “We’re off the clock, for a miracle. No more talking about business.”
But business was a safe topic, supported by a scaffolding of professionalism that Alyxi, sitting with Jai at a takeout picnic in comfy pyjamas, was sorely clutching at. “Very well. What would you like to talk about?”
“Did you see that Casa Loma Chroma is coming out with an expansion to On the Planet of Red and Blue?” Jai asked, completely contradictorily. “Damn, that was a good game. A little dated now though, I think. They haven’t been cutting edge since Shari Lemon left. Tristao’s really a project manager at heart–”
Jai engrossed in talking about something he was interested in–which was many things–might as well have been wearing diamond bangles under a spotlight, the way he sparkled. Alyxi ate, and wished they’d been energy-greedy enough to have kept more lights on, though it went hard against the grain. The sleeves of Jai’s robe fell back as he gestured, revealing graceful forearms and supple wrists. His fingers were long and agile. Alyxi had watched them tapping out code on keyboards, manipulating holos, bringing a small clump of spilled rice to his lips–
A gust of wind slammed into the building, abrupt enough to be noticeable over the background blowing of the storm. The door to the small balcony rattled under the impact. Alyxi was on their feet, panic thrumming through them and their gaze sweeping the room for an emergency alert holo panel, even as the more rational part of their brain remembered that they were dirtside, and sudden wind wasn’t a sign of a life-threatening breach. Their face going hot, they sat down again and mopped up a trail of spilled sauce from the table with a napkin.
“Okay?” Jai glanced up casually, helping himself to more beef.
“Do you mind if I put some music on?”
He waved on his holo and brought up some slowly swirling instrumental music, ambient enough not to demand too much attention but complex enough to mask the noise of the storm. “You seem a little on edge.”
Alyxi surveyed their bowl, dipping chopsticks in here and there to collect all the scattered shreds of carrot. “I confess, being dirtside is a little disconcerting. Things are different in unexpected ways.”
“Yeah, you said you were raised starside. Is it always weird when you’re on planet?”
“I don’t know. This is my first time.”
“What? Are you serious? Alyxi! You should have said.” Jai tapped Alyxi’s arm in playful reproach, sending a tingle along their skin even through the flannelette of their pyjamas. “We could have planned for it! What did you want to see? Is there anything we missed? Damn, if we’d had a few more days I could have taken you to the coast. And hiking! And to a farm!”
“I’ve seen plants growing,” Alyxi said, amused.
“But a farm. Or, fine, a forest. Or a rain forest.”
“Maybe next time.” Alyxi shrugged off a pang of regret that there would be no next time.
“We’ll have to make a next time happen,” Jai said, as if Alyxi had spoken. “A Grand Central Imagination commemorative alumni vacation, somewhere warm and gorgeous. When we’re fabulously rich and not working eighteen hours a day trying to get this whale off the ground.”
The lights dimmed for a few seconds, and the holo by the door turned red. Alyxi went to look at the update. “They’ve started rationing power.”
Jai yawned. “I suppose we could just go to–is it seriously only nineteen-hundred-thirty? We can’t go to bed yet.”
Alyxi stacked the empty food containers. “If there’s no pneumo, what do we do with these?”
“Put them all back in the box and leave them outside the door. One of the staff will collect them they next time they come by.”
Alyxi did. When they returned, Jai was rummaging in his bag. “I know what we can do!” He pulled a wrinkled neuro hood out and tossed it on the table.
“I don’t have my hood with me.” Immersive gaming was a distraction that Alyxi couldn’t indulge in in the middle of a job.
“It’s fine, I brought a spare.” Jai pulled another hood out of the bag.
The thought of reclining beside Jai on the bed as the two of them shared a fantasy world was acutely tempting. Alyxi gestured vaguely towards the door holo. “I don’t know whether we have enough power.” The holo had shown their room’s energy account as still almost full, but they had an evening and possibly another full day to get through.
“I have a booster cube.” Alyxi’s lips twitched; of course Jai had brought two neuro hoods and a power booster in his carry-on bag, but forgotten to pack pyjamas. “Let’s play, Alyxi. We’ve been working together for almost a year and we’ve never met in thoughtspace outside of meetings. I don’t even know what games you like. It’ll be fun! Please?”
Alyxi’s self-mastery was finely honed but not infinite. Lately it had been costing more for them to say no to Jai–another reason they were well past due to move on from this job. But what harm could come from this–aside from an increase in the soreness somewhere behind Alyxi’s solar plexus, that that been growing ever since Alyxi had realized that the lightness they felt when they were with Jai was more than admiration for his creativity?
“Very well.” The hood Jai tossed them was creased; Alyxi smoothed the fine metal mesh over their head like a helmet, tweaking the nodes so they lay in symmetrical pairs from temples to crown to base of their skull. Jai, all competence now, was doing the same. Alyxi lay on their side of the bed, pulling a small pillow to fit under the small of their back, reaching back to push another into the right shape to support their neck. Jai put the power cube on the beside table and slouched onto the other side, wriggling into the nest of pillows. They shut their eyes and dropped into thoughtspace.
“Come over when you’re ready,” Jai said, as Alyxi was still walking around their home–a glassy dome that looked out onto an imaginary galaxy–running the checklist of colour and depth perception and weight and movement that settled them into thoughtspace. A arched door of wooden planks appeared in the glass. Alyxi turned the knob–an actual knob, like a globe of wood, grained like a topographic map–and stepped into Jai’s home.
It was a round room of milled wood and branches, glassless windows looking out over vistas of green. “Your home is a treehouse,” Alyxi said, charmed.
“I’ve always liked them. I had a small one when I was a kid.”
Alyxi leaned out of a window. The ground was lost beyond billows of leaves fading into mist. “In an actual tree?”
“In an actual tree. About two metres off the ground, and basically a platform knocked together from pressed-fibre packing crates my friends and I stole from the recycling bins, but yeah. So what’s yours like?”
“You can take a look.” Alyxi made a glass door appear behind the wooden one–redundant, but intent was what made thoughtspace. Jai disappeared through it. Alyxi ran a hand over the wood of the windowsill, imagining it into solidity. A faint, repetitive melody wove into the birdsong coming from above–the music from Jai’s holo. Alyxi concentrated, dropping further into thoughtspace, and the music faded.
“Wow.” Jai stepped back through the door. “It’s beautiful.”
“So is yours.” Unfamiliar and welcoming at the same time. “What would you like to play?”
“Let’s see…” Jai pulled a list up to hover against the honey-coloured walls. “What have you been into lately?” Alyxi sent their list to hang beside Jai’s. “Matching games, jigsaw puzzles….” A smile crept over his face. “Alyxi, are you telling me you organize things to relax?”
“It’s soothing,” Alyxi said with dignity.
“Castle Trading, Cook the Book. Looks like we’ve both been doing our research. Oh, wow, Spice Roads and Paper Ships? I played that for years. You’ve really kept up with it, though. What do you like about it?”
“The exploration. The invention. The landscapes–it’s a stunning game. Every new culture being a puzzle.” Fighting got a player nowhere in Spice and Paper‘s ever-expanding world. Singing, offering gifts, dancing, pointing out the stars, mime, even seduction–the ways to make friends and build wealth and knowledge were as varied as the flora and fauna, which were exquisite and diverse and more often than not sentient.
That was the answer Alyxi always gave when asked why they continued to play an outdated game with a dwindling community. That was only half the truth, though. Alyxi worked and travelled in one- and two-year increments, lived lightly, and regularly pared their possessions with each move. They had no regrets; they liked the unfetteredness of doing something well and then leaving it behind. But in Spice and Paper they had a permanent home, full of things they’d found and chosen and brought back from distant and beautiful lands; they had a well-broken-in chair in a pleasant study that looked out on a fertile landscape that had only grown more familiar as it aged. The game was a reminder that there was more than one good way to live, that there were possibilities beyond one lifetime’s grasp, and Alyxi found that a lesson and a comfort.
“It’s a classic, for sure.” Jai banished his list. “Let’s go.”
Alyxi couldn’t keep the fizz of anticipation down, and it must have shown in their voice, because Jai gave them a wide grin. “Where are you?” Alyxi asked.
“I have no idea.”
“Do you know Lindenwood?” It was one of the beginner areas; everyone passed through it fairly early. “There’s an inn on the east side of town, the Red Lizard. I’ll meet you there.”
One of the things people liked to complain about in Spice and Paper was the amount of travelling, but in Alyxi’s opinion that was missing the point. The game was about travel, encountering new cultures and ecosystems, and there were so many ways to get around and things to look at while en route that sometimes Alyxi would spend a spare hour doing nothing but that. Not to mention that they when they felt like it, they could ride an iridescent mechanical dragon.
They touched down on the top of the inn’s tower and dismounted. There was a poetry battle drifting up from the main street, and something to do with animated origami on the roof of the town hall, which made it business as usual in Lindenwood–a slow day, even.
The Red Lizard was a standard stone-and-wood tavern, lit by improbably bright torches and smelling improbably fresh. Alyxi scanned the main room. It was busier here than outside; the bartender was a key contact in a long-term, repeatable quest involving sauerkraut.
“I’m here. Are you? What’s your name?” Alyxi asked Jai through the out-game link.
“I’m sitting at a table by the stairs. My name’s Jale.” Alyxi edged by a group at the bar and saw the dwarf waving at them.
“I’m Ailill,” Alyxi said, and switched to the in-game link as they headed for the table.
It was ridiculous to say that an imaginary person of a completely different size, shape, gender and species reminded them of Jai, and yet Jale did. Something about the way she leaned forward, eager and grinning. Something about the many ornaments in her complicated copper braids, her rows of gold and amber bracelets. Something about the way she banged her fist on the table and said, “Holy shit, Alyxi, I knew you’d be an elf!”
Ailill fitted his long legs under the table–he was tall even for an elf, elegant and long-limbed–and shrugged. “I could have been a cat.”
“You could have been a cat. I like your hair.”
Ailill shook long, silver locks back from his face. “I like your Ruby Collar of Holiday Cheer.” It had been a rare seasonal drop fifteen years ago, and glowed during every cultural, religious and in-game festival, which for all practical purposes meant it was lit up scarlet and gold a good half of the time. It was glowing now.
“The elf knows his loot.” Jale waved at the barmaid, who slithered over to take their order. “What can I get you?”
“Tea, thanks.” In-game alcohol did nothing but make Ailill’s vision swim.
“Buttercup mead,” Jale said to the barmaid, and then to Ailill, “It makes my ears tingle.”
“Is that a good feeling?”
Ailill brought up his journal, which was in silver script on platter-sized green leaves. “Do you mind if I look at your stats?”
“Go ahead.” Jale’s journal was engraved on slabs of stone. Ailill set them side by side in the air. While Jale’s achievements were respectable, she had clearly missed most of the last five years of expansions. Given the difference in their levels–her fifty-two to his hundred–there weren’t too many standard quests they could share, but–
“How do you feel about visiting the Volcano Islands?” The only way to earn the trust of the inhabitants was to be introduced by someone who had already been there, and Ailill had the traditional embroidered waistcoat to prove his connection.
The barmaid brought the glass stein of buttercup mead, which glittered in the torchlight, and a translucent cup of pale green tea. Jale took a sip of mead, and closed her eyes in brief pleasure.
“What are your professions? They like textiles up there, and they’ll buy spices and extracts…”
Ailill pulled up the map, and they compared professions and did a bit of trading and rearranged their bags as they drank. Then Jale slammed her empty stein down onto the table. “All right! Let’s go!”
They headed to the staircase that led up to the tower. “Oh, hey, there’s a quest here I haven’t gotten yet,” Jale said, “do you mind if we just–” She stepped through an open doorway at the bottom of the stairs.
Ailill followed, and remembered what the quest was the moment before the pink-bordered scroll popped up in his vision. He should have asked before they started whether Jale’s quest settings had the Passion filter turned on. At least this one was pink and not, say, scarlet.
“Oh,” Jale said, and laughed. “Maybe we should skip this one.”
“You can do it if you like. I’ll wait.”
“Only if you–”
“I don’t mind if–”
Jale flung him a half-teasing, half-challenging look. “You should come too. It’s only a beginner one.”
Generally speaking, Ailill was long past the age of doing something stupid just to see what it felt like. But plausible deniability combined with the opportunity to do something he’d been clandestinely dreaming about for months added another strain to his already compromised self-control. “I will if you will.”
They turned together to the room, where players and NPCs alike sat in a circle on the flagstone floor, a green glass bottle spinning in the centre. There were several cushions free; Ailill took one, and Jale sat beside him.
The bottle slowed and stopped, its neck pointing towards a cat-man in large boots and a striped satin tunic. A human NPC with a lute case slung over her shoulder stood, crossed the circle, and leaned in to give him what turned out to be an emphatically warm kiss.
One of the other humans wolf-whistled, and the couple broke apart. The cat-man stood, quest completed, and left the room. The gnome to his right set the bottle spinning again.
“I’ve never kissed a gnome before,” Jale whispered.
“We can leave if you want.”
“And chicken out? No way.”
Gnome kissed dryad kissed werewolf kissed human kissed a sharply cute demon wearing a neon halo and a pink tutu. When she left, the human man to her right spun. He was enormous, bristling with weapons and spiked armour, as though he’d gotten lost on a shortcut through to a different game. Ailill was willing to put money on him being sixteen and a virgin in real life.
When the bottle stopped, it was pointing at Ailill.
The man, clumsy in his carapace and with his closed helm still concealing his face, lumbered up and across the circle. Ailill rose before he had to try lowering himself to the floor again.
“I can’t kiss you with your faceplate down,” Ailill said gently. The man fumbled it up. He was blushing so deeply that Ailill could see it even beneath his dark skin. “You just want to complete the quest, am I right?” He nodded.
Ailill slipped a hand into his helmet to cup his cheek, and leaned forward to press closed lips to the man’s mouth.
He heard the chime of the quest being completed, and pulled back. The man’s face broke into a dazzled smile. He bowed to Ailill before he left the circle.
“Lifelong elf fetish: acquired,” murmured Jale as Ailill sat back down. Ailill swept his hair back and gave the bottle a spin.
It came to a rest with its green glass neck pointing squarely at Jale.
Ailill wasn’t at all surprised. They’d come in together, and there were algorithms and focus groups all over this sort of thing; apparently there were couples who made Passion quests a regular part of their intimate lives. He turned to Jale.
Jale titled her head, a little wrinkle appearing between her eyebrows. “You don’t have to. That wasn’t what–I’m not trying to make you–”
Ailill touched Jale’s chin, ran his thumb lightly over her mouth. Eyes wide, she inhaled shortly and parted her lips.
Ailill bent forward and pressed a kiss to her mouth. His lips opened just a fraction on hers, then softened; he breathed into her mouth, which tasted of floral honey from the mead, and touched the tip of his tongue to hers. Everything in him urged more, deeper, harder, and he forced the need away, knowing that there would only be this one kiss, one taste of what he’d yearned for, and he would not ruin it with demanding more than Jale had agreed to.
He wasn’t expecting the groan that vibrated deep in her throat. He wasn’t expecting her arms going around him, her hand fisting in his hair. When the quest chime sounded it sent spangles of pleasure glittering through his body, shivering up and down his spine and settling in his groin.
Jale drew back, looking as dazed as Ailill felt. There was applause around them, and some hooting.
“Wow,” Jale said, and some of her usual spark returned. “Are you good at everything you do?”
Ailill’s blush was so intense it made him feel light-headed. Jale squeezed his hand. “Let’s go get some air.”
The next scroll in the quest chain materialized as they left the room. Ailill ignored it and let it hang there as Jale preceded him out the back door of the inn and into the yard. The sunlight was dazzling. Rainbow crickets popped about the grass, chirping the tune of a current hit song; someone must be trying to level up their animal husbandry.
Ailill leaned against the sun-heated stone of the inn wall. Jale stood in the sun, collar glowing, bracelets throwing tiny stars of light into the shadows. Ailill looked down and saw a fragment of light on his mist-grey robes, and lifted a hand to it as though it were something he could capture and keep.
Jale covered his hand with her small, square one. Her fingertips stroked over his palm. She took another step forward and rested her forehead against his solar plexus, sighing out a laugh. “Let’s hear it for bad weather,” she murmured, there in the perpetual summer of a world that didn’t exist. Ailill cradled the back of her head in his hand, feeling all the knots and paths of her complex braids against the skin of his palm.
She lifted her head. “Do you want to keep following the chain? I do. But if you don’t, I understand. We can go volcano hunting, or whatever it is. Or maybe something more arctic. Ice fishing. Snow-angel-making. Is there a quest for that?”
“There’s a whole ice continent that opens up when you get to level eighty,” Ailill said, and then recollected, as Jale stepped away from him, that that hadn’t been the real question. “Yes. I’d like to continue it too. I–” He had to clear his throat. “I really would.”
Her smile lit up and turned wicked. “Have you done this quest with anyone else before?”
“Only the first part.” Ailill had been many years younger when he’d first come through Lindenwood, and much less sure of himself and what he enjoyed.
“Awesome.” She studied the quest scroll, which had a raspberry border, darker than the first had been. “I don’t want to do this one in the tavern. Maybe we could sit under the trees?”
Beyond the inn’s yard was a stretch of green lawn, and a row of trees casting dappled shade. Ailill took a blanket out of his bag and spread it on the grass. He sat, and Jale threw herself down to lie full-length on her stomach.
“Ready?” he asked, and they both accepted the quest.
A glossy black evening hat with a black ribbon around its base appeared between them on the blanket, upside-down. “Three questions, huh?” Jale said under her breath. She put her hand into the hat and drew out a slip of paper.
“Who was the first person you had a serious crush on? Hmm. Basically all my friends’ older sisters. Oh, but Tenzin, she’d have to be the one. She worked at this bubble tea place on the main street. I spent most of my wages there the summer I was fifteen. I never got up the nerve to ask her out, so she never had to turn me down, and every time she comped me a free drink I knew I was in love.”
Ailill couldn’t help returning her nostalgic smile. He was preparing his own answer as he stirred the slips of paper with his hand and pulled one out, but it was a different question.
“Who did you have your first kiss with?” Technically, he’d been grabbed by surprise and kissed at a party by someone he’d had no interest in, but he’d never thought it fair to count that. “A boy in the Baking Club. We did a project together for extra credit, and one day while a cake was cooling we ended up–well, it proceeded from a kiss.”
“Oh, come on, there’s got to be more to that story,” Jale said, when Ailill stopped. “Baking Club? As in actual cakes? Was that a school thing? What, did you just looked at each other and decide, hey, we’ve got some time to kill, let’s snog? Seriously, you bake? I have so many questions about this.”
“It wasn’t for school. My education was mostly independent study, because my father and I moved around a fair amount. And, all right, there may have been a certain number of longing looks that preceded the actual kissing.”
“I’ll bet. We’re coming back to the cake thing later,” Jale said, and reached for another question. “Ooh, upping the stakes already. What was the first time you jerked off? Seriously, game?”
“I think you get three passes before you fail the quest. You can choose another one.”
“No, no, it’s fine. I was, I don’t know, thirteen, something like that? I woke up in the middle of the night, shall we say interested, lying on my stomach, and I propped myself up to turn the pillow over to the cool side, and there was friction, so I forgot about the pillow and did some more propping up, and voilà, eight seconds later, I fell back asleep with a brand new hobby.”
“I’m amazed you remember it that specifically.”
“It was a formative experience.” Jale grinned. “I hasten to add that eight seconds is not my current average.”
Ailill reached into the hat with some trepidation. “What did you search for the first time you searched for porn?”
“Better than asking you about the last time you searched for porn,” Jale offered.
Ailill winced. “This is embarrassing. You’re going to laugh.”
“All right. Oral sex.”
“Just that? That’s not embarrassing. That’s kind of bog standard.”
“I know, but…a credit course I was taking had a unit to complete on customs of sex and romance, and I…didn’t believe that part. I thought it was a joke. So I went looking for corroborating evidence.”
Jale laughed. “Okay, that’s funny, but that’s not exactly looking for porn.”
“Well, I certainly got it. I learned a lot more than that unit intended, I will tell you that.”
“I hope it didn’t scar you too badly. How old were you?”
“Fourteen, I think? I already knew all the biology, but I hadn’t advanced to practical application. This was before the cake boy.”
“I hope you changed your mind about the concept in the intervening years,” Jale said, making him blush again. “All right, last question. Oh, dear. Describe a fantasy you’d like to try.”
She was quiet for several moments, and at last Ailill said, “A fantasy. Nothing you don’t wish to tell me.” Which wasn’t to say that he wasn’t wildly curious about what Jale didn’t wish to tell him.
She rested her head on her upper arm. “Here’s the thing. I don’t really have fantasies. I mean, I have thoughts, but, seriously, I am a vanilla cliché. Fireplace, big warm bed, maybe a storm going on outside. If someone scattered rose petals on the bed I wouldn’t even laugh.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re a romantic.”
She turned her head into the blanket. “Ugh, yes, the cutting-edge game designer is a secret romantic. I’m so old-fashioned.”
“You like what you like. That’s all there is to it.”
“I know, I know.” Jale lifted herself up on her elbows. “Your turn.”
Ailill retrieved his last question. “What–” He had to wet his lips. “What is the kinkiest thing you’ve ever done in bed?”
“You can skip,” Jale reminded him.
It would have felt like cheating. “No, I’ll tell you…”
“I won’t be shocked. You like what you like, right?”
“I didn’t, that was the problem.”
Her hand rested on his ankle, warm and feather-light. “You don’t have to relive something traumatic for a game, Alyxi.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Ailill said hastily. “I–I wanted to try being…tied up. Down. It’s…alluring, to think about.” He put his hands over his face, the memory of frustration churning up. “But when it was happening, I had an anxiety attack and had to stop.”
“Did the other person know what they were doing?”
“Oh, yes, she was very experienced and understanding. It was just disappointing.”
“I suppose some things are only meant to be fantasy,” Ailill said.
Jale’s hand stilled. The silence between them was broken by the quest chime. The hat disappeared, and a final scroll, crimson-edged, appeared in the air.
Jale sat up. “We can wait,” she said. “We don’t have to go that far right now if you’re not ready.”
Ailill had been ready for weeks now, probably longer if he admitted it to himself. And when would they ever have the time again, when it had taken a snowstorm grinding half of a continent to a halt to bring them here tonight?
“Let’s,” he said.
They went where the quest directed them, into the inn and up the stairs. There was a new corridor where there had before been only a wall. Several doors lined it, a few closed, most open. Ailill chose one with empty rooms on either side, and stepped away from the door to let Jale see inside.
She clapped a hand to her mouth. “Oh my goodness, do you think someone was listening?”
Ailill quickly popped a head into the room across the corridor to check it. “No, I think that’s just the theme.” He ushered her in and closed the door behind them.
The room was panelled in warm wood the colour of buckwheat honey. There were clumps of ivory candles on the sideboard, the bedside table, the broad stone mantel over the crackling fire. The bed was wide and plump and covered in rose petals.
“Well, that’s doing it for me already,” Jale said.
Ailill put a hand on the back of her neck, and she shivered. He bent and kissed her there, and pulled her back against him.
“Are you sure–” Jale began.
“You don’t have to keep saying that.” He traced a finger along the edge of her necklace, his skin turning ruby in the light. “I promise, if I would like you to stop, I’ll tell you.”
With them both standing, she was only the height of his breastbone. He pulled her over to the bed and sat on the edge of it. This way, she was slightly taller than he was. He spread his thighs, and she came in close between them and leaned down to kiss him.
They took it gently, now that there would be more time, opening to one another. Her hands tangled in his hair, and he wrapped one of her long braids around his wrist. Her breasts brushed his chest, softness under leather. He smoothed his hands down her back, cupped her rump and pulled her closer.
She tugged at the first layer of his robes, and he eased her out of her many-coloured coat, then further, their kisses becoming intermittent as they discovered new areas of skin. He licked the tattoos that spiralled on her upper arms; she ran callused fingers over his clavicle and the pointed tips of his ears.
“Can’t do this standing up,” Jale panted, and they kicked off their boots and rolled into the rose petals. He was down to a light shift, she wearing only a delectable sleeveless shirt and briefs, the necklace and the vambraces of her bracelets. She wriggled until she was underneath him. He cupped her breasts, rubbing the cloth against hard nipples, and she rocked her hips against his.
Alyxi let their awareness drop out of thoughtspace a little, into their physical body, which felt hot and prickling with arousal. Jai was breathing heavily, hips rocking like Jale’s, his hands working in the coverlet.
Alyxi ran a finger down Jai’s tender inner arm, and Jai jumped as if he’d been electrified. “What?” Jale asked.
“Touch me?” Alyxi asked–Ailill begged–and Jai breathed out a groan and turned towards them. Jale rubbed Ailill’s cock through his shift, a touch that shot lightning through Alyxi. Jai tugged at the sleeve of Alyxi’s robe, and Alyxi followed the movement until they were straddling him, looking down at Jai as Ailill looked down at Jale.
Jale pulled her shirt over her head. Ailill bent to take a nipple into his mouth, and Jai arched his back with a moan. Alyxi could feel Jai’s hardness against them, and slid a hand into the moist folds between Jale’s legs. She murmured and gasped. Jai’s hands were parting Alyxi’s robe, slipping past the waistband of their pyjamas. Ailill pushed Jale’s briefs off as Alyxi’s hands bared Jai’s skin.
“How?” Ailill asked, that one word all he could form in all the sensation.
“Oh, stars.” Jale flung her legs wide. “I want you to fuck me. I want to feel your cock inside me.”
Alyxi caught their breath against a wave of need. Jale pushed Ailill’s shift up, and they struggled him out of it together. Jale wrapped her hand around his cock, and Alyxi thrust against Jai’s hand.
“That feels so good.” Jale moved with the rhythm of Ailill’s thumb circling on her clit. “I want it now. Do it to me. Fuck me.”
Ailill spread her open, slowly slid inside her. She pushed herself up on her elbows to watch. “Oh, fuck, that’s hot.”
“Is this good?” Alyxi asked, trembling hand on Jai’s cock.
“Better than good. This?”
“Wonderful,” Alyxi said, rocking into Jai’s touch.
“Hold my hips,” Jale said, curving her legs around Ailill. “Give it to me hard. Make me feel it.”
It was an intoxicating double vision, an even more complex sensation, as Ailill watched his cock thrust in and out of Jale and felt her wet heat around him, as Alyxi felt Jai’s hand stroke them and watched Jai’s cock drive into the circle of Alyxi’s fingers. The scent of crushed rose petals, the giving softness of the bed under their knees, Jale’s rhythmic cries, the slap of flesh on flesh, the necklace casting jewelled light on them both. Jai made a desperate sound, and Jale cried out, clenching around Ailill, and Ailill fucked her hard and deep as she came, and Aylxi’s nerves caught fire and sent Alyxi shuddering apart with the sound of Ailill’s shout in their ears.
Alyxi slumped against Jai, concentration dissolved. The room smelled of sex and spices. Jai’s hand trailed down Alyxi’s back and circled lazily above their tailbone. His chest was hot under Alyxi’s cheek.
It took several minutes for them to gradually come back to themselves. Jai unbent his knees, Alyxi scratched a tickle of hair on their forehead. Jai cleared his throat. Alyxi pushed up to a sitting position and reached for the tissues on the bedside table. They cleaned up, and Alyxi settled back into their nest of pillows.
“Hey.” Jai turned on his side and rubbed the arch of his foot against Alyxi’s shin. Alyxi looked at him, and felt a smile they couldn’t control spread over their face.
Jai tried to kiss them, which was a challenge, because he was smiling too. He squirmed across the bed and tucked his head, still in its hood, under Alyxi’s chin. His arm went around Alyxi’s waist. Alyxi pushed their upper leg between Jai’s knees.
“Alyxi,” Jai said.
“Just saying it.” Jai’s robe was still open, his skin warm through the fabric of Alyxi’s pyjamas. His fingers traced patterns on Alyxi’s back. Alyxi waited.
“The reason I kept asking whether you really wanted to,” Jai said, his face still hidden, and stopped.
“Because you’re a good and decent person?”
Jai’s breath was warm and humid against Alyxi’s collarbone. “Because I wanted you so much,” he said, “I could hardly believe I could have you.”
Alyxi’s mind stuttered and went blank.
“Too much, huh,” Jai said ruefully, and pulled himself away. “Ah, don’t worry, I understand.”
“You don’t,” Alyxi said, and caught the shoulder of Jai’s bathrobe. “Jai–Jai–”
He sighed and hung his feet over the side of the bed to sit up. “What happens in the game stays in the game. It’s fine. I can be professional about it.”
Holding their feelings close was as much a part of Alyxi’s tidy life as personal possessions that could be packed into three bags with room to spare. But that defeated hunch in Jai’s shoulders rattled their control like hail against a window. “I’ve been struggling to be professional with you for months.”
He turned his head. “What?”
Negotiation was about knowing what you truly wanted and what you were willing to give for it, and concealing as much of that as you could from the person on the other side of the table. With the thing they wanted most in front of them, Alyxi flung everything they’d ever learned away in a half-second of instinctual choice, and spilled all the longing of the last months like their own hoard of secret gold.
“I can’t be in the same room with you without wanting to touch you. If a day goes by that I don’t spend time with you, I feel cheated. I watch all your interviews and tell myself it’s so I know as much as I can about the company, but I’m not being honest. It’s because I want to see you.”
Jai stared. “What are you–is this–Alyxi–”
Alyxi stopped Jai’s words with their mouth.
Jai made a sound in the back of his throat. His arms went around Alyxi. Alyxi leaned back, and they sank down together into the pillows.
When they parted, Jai tucked a strand of Alyxi’s hair back under the game hood. “I never would have guessed. You never let a thing slip.”
“We work well together. I didn’t want to jeopardize that.”
“Neither did I. I didn’t want make you uncomfortable.”
“If you’d done anything I didn’t welcome, I would have made it clear.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Jai ran his fingers down Alyxi’s cheek, the angle of their jaw, the curve of their lips, as if he couldn’t bear to break the touch. “What do we do now?”
“Live happily ever after?” Alyxi’s smile moved Jai’s fingers. “But right this minute? Do you mind if we drop back into the game? I don’t like to leave things unfinished.”
“I’m not surprised,” Jai said, smile taking away any sting, and kissed them again as they dissolved back into the inn.
Ailill lay half-on Jale, feeling replete and lax. He rolled over onto his back. She stretched, her bangles tinkling.
A chime rang. Passion quests earned charms, not gold; a silver heart with a cloisonné rose on it hung for a moment in the air, and then slid onto the chain Ailill kept in his bag.
“That’s pretty,” Jale said, holding up her arm to admire the charm bracelet that hung among the others on her forearm.
A fanfare sounded, and a small starburst of fireworks cascaded over their heads. “Oh, look, we unlocked an achievement too.” She snuggled in next to him and pulled the edge of the coverlet over them both. “I know you probably want to get dressed and go trade with the volcano people, and sometime soon I want to talk about how this is going to be and how we can keep it going tomorrow and the day after and what happens if you find work somewhere far away, but you know what I’d really like to do right now?”
The blizzard still held everything they should be doing in suspension, and adventure would wait as long as they wished it to. Ailill put his arm around Jale’s shoulder. “Let’s do that.”
Jai tucked his face against Alyxi’s neck. Alyxi pulled him closer and slid into sleep in his arms, listening to his even breathing, the crackle of the fire in the hearth, and the fading force of the storm against the windows.