Hard Lessons: Part 2

2.

To This, We Drink

Dropping off the merchandise meant a night out. One of the rare times where meeting a Middler in public was as much for safety as payment. Titus wanted full deniability, witnesses. Curie agreed. Everyone in the Fox-Hound knew the game. Even Triads weren’t bold enough to cause such a public scene over one job.

Especially not at a shadow-hangout loaded with patrons armed to the teeth.

Add to that the general public in full-swing on cooler nights and there was no chance of anything popping off. No-one wanted that publicity. Summer was gone. Everyone left behind was getting their last nights of debauchery in before hibernating through the winter’s rains and snow

Pacific-Coast imagery notwithstanding, West Coast ideas fell short of Jackstaff’s latitude. Too northern to be tits and ass all year, too Southern to be Canadian wilderness. An urban no-man’s land, however paradoxical it seemed.

But that was part of its appeal. Despite grotesque helpings of poverty and homelessness, Jackstaff was always growing. The wealthy were always moving in. With them, came clientele. Best of all, Marks. There’d been no better time to be a thief since the days of the open-air bazaars.

Provided one was good enough, smart enough– smart about it– they could take everything not nailed down. No-one would be any the wiser ’til they were long returned to obscurity.

Presently, that obscurity was a bar on Jackstaff’s outskirts. The Fox-Hound was one of those places of juxtapositions managing to define itself with negative space, what it was not. The once-kempt exterior, its wood and mulch-colored scenery had faded until satirized it as “rustic.” The inside’s poorly-aged woods and half-rusted brass gleamed beneath lost polish of a decade’s to-do lists.

Yet more-selective patrons, clad in the finest silks and leathers, mingled freely with the denim and cotton marking even the drunken bar-hoppers. Always those types stumbled in before falling out again, oblivious to their mistake and gouged wallets.

Between extremities of both life and style were the interlopers. Few as they were, people like that didn’t need to fit in. Neither fixer nor civilian, tooler but not tooler, too smart to need to front for contacts nor oblivious drunks. They were people playing a different game just so happening to interact with others’ and using the same board and rules. One was pleasure, the other business.

Crystal followed Angela in; clad in tight, riding leathers that would’ve diverted all eyes toward them were they not so utterly average for the place. They’d come on separate bikes, but in pro-gear, handguns more defensive than fashionable like the other patrons’. They didn’t need to be pretty. They needed to be functional.

Crystal’s shoulder-length cut softened the announcement of Angela’s swept-back blue-mohawk to the crowd, allowing them to enter as if another pair of lean-muscled predators in a room filled with ’em. Undoubtedly, anyone looking closer saw the apex predators for what they were.

They entered the bar from the rear, as custom for regulars. The bar itself hid its parking lot from the main street. With it were hidden the high-end cars and bikes of the regulars and occasioners. Driving home the rustic veneer kept the place place discrete. Besides, everything was a shit hole now, why’d it matter if you went to a different one to drink? To Fox-Hound’s credit, it worked….

For the most part.

Angela readjusted the Jian on her back, concealed in a vinyl covert tube. Crystal unzipped her leather-jacket. Gold flashed above a chocolate hand, prompting them toward a back-booth. The man attached to it pivoted in his purple cashmere and khaki slacks to shake a hand before him. A small, gold-chain glinted beneath his collar, disappeared as the second man stepped between it and Crystal.

The man passed, once more revealing Titus. He smiled toward her, teeth and eyes glinting like the Five-carat Asscher-cut in his left lobe. Angela allowed Crystal into the booth first, unslung the tube, then set it in the center of the table beside a fresh pilsner.

“Angela,” he said with a practiced, silken tongue.

“Titus.”

She unzipped her jacket, revealing hints of color beneath her high neck-line. Her figure was vaguely outlined in curved hips, small breasts. Were she not so intimidating to strangers she’d have had her choice of fling. Were she straight or bisexual, she’d have been even more sought after than Crystal.

Titus cracked the blueprint tube and peered in. The sheathed Jian glinted in low-light. He tamped the lid back on, propped it in a corner of the booth. He slid a USB key from beneath a pile of miscellanea.

“It’s all there.”

“I believe you.”

Titus had never lied. He wouldn’t start now.

He motioned a waitress over with a finger, the swiftness said he’d palmed her a G or more to serve him for the night. Angela ordered a scotch-rocks. Crystal a Mojito before the mint was gone for the season. Small-talk subsided into the fatigued silence of old friends before Titus broached a subtext he’d reserved for now.

He eyed Crystal. “Curie’s got an assignment. For me. I’ll need you along.”

She cocked a brow. “Me?”

Angela intoned, “I assume she has something else for me.”

He nodded to both of them, order a pint. A bygone instruction told her to slide an envelope from her apron onto the table. She whirled back toward the shadows near the bar. He offered Angela the envelope.

She took it without looking. Inside would be an SD-card, encrypted with the specific key Curie’d recently delivered via courier. Only after combining the two would she receive full details. Such contracts were only ever issued if the involved parties were expecting a knock-off– or attempts anyhow.

That alone told of risk. Knowledge of her profession said the key’s use meant the Mark or John was well-connected, powerful. Were it not for her own professionalism, she might’ve been immediately curious of the job’s details.

Fortunately, she’d long ago learned the knock-off was irrelevant. Planning for improv meant being prepared if things went wrong.

She pocketed the envelope and excused herself for the bar, knowing Titus needed Crystal alone. She pushed through the bodies outside the occupied stools, leaned to order and drain a pint.

Titus intentionally relaxed, obvious in the slight discomfort in the movement. He wasn’t the type to overplay a hand. It was clear he needed to appear as nonchalant as possible, meaning there was already more to what he was about to say.

“I need help. Angie’s busy. Next job’s too big for me alone.”

“I can do the other if you’d rather.”

He sipped his pint. “No. I trust you. Curie doesn’t trust you alone yet, but I trust you with me. Nothing personal, Cee. You’re good at what you do, but your strength’s teamwork. Angie’s more than capable alone. Besides, mine’s a two-man gig. Her isn’t. Pays good too.”

Crystal chuckled at the in-joke; all jobs paid well when you’d lived on the street a decade.

She sipped her mojito, both agreeing and scorned by the Fixer’s assessment. It wasn’t from malice, rather assessment. If it were, Titus wouldn’t have pinged her for the job.

She focused on that, hoping to play to her strengths, and spoke levelly, “Wasn’t aware you were a fielder anymore.”

“Usually not,” he admitted, setting his pint down with a half-twist. He straightened slightly, “Used to be. Not for a while now. But an old acquaintance owes me.”

Her brow cocked slightly. No-one owed anyone in this game. If they did, they paid with their lives or were being collected on. But Titus was far from a collector, and so far as Crystal knew, no-one had outstanding debts. In a game as small as theirs, she’d have heard a whisper at least.

She recalled the last “acquaintance” she’d met. Angela’s had kidnapped and tortured her nearly to death. She’d only been saved by the skin of Crystal’s teeth and Arthur’s impeccable timing.

Titus read her thoughts. “Nothing sinister, Cee. Just a job need’s doing. But there’s a time issue. Stake out. Couple days or so. Interested?”

“May I ask what’s the Madame’s interest is in your old friend?”

He grinned, “The Madame feels any strength of mine is strength of hers. She also feels this is best handled as professionally as possible.”

Crystal considered it. That Curie felt her strengths weren’t in solo work wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. A surgeon didn’t use a mallet to open a vein– ‘least not a good one. Curie was being tactical, precise, allowing Titus the job while Angela worked solo in the meantime.

It took a moment for her to realize the offer itself was a compliment, an honor even.

Titus wasn’t a fielder anymore, but he was incapable of incompetence. He’d never stand for it either. Curie knew that. Knew, undoubtedly, Titus would ping her for the job, allowed him to.

The opportunity was too good. Prove she could do jobs with others. Prove her worth and training. She glanced over at Angela, engaged by a tall, gaunt, man at the bar. Crystal recalled the last time she’d chosen such an opportunity.

Her eyes flitted back, gaze returned to Titus, “Alright, I’m in.”

His half-smile gleamed, “Get the details to you tomorrow.”

He waved the waitress back, a folded stack of hundreds in his hand, then slid it to her as he stood. He whispered something as she pocketed the cash and she turned away. He grabbed up Curie’s merchandise with a last smile and parting, then disappeared through the crowded bar.

Crystal nursed her mojito watching Angela converse with the man. It was quiet, awkward, hinting intimacy despite the distance between its speakers. For a moment Crystal thought him an old lover, but even in her youth Angela only sought women. Crystal’s gut churned.

She slug back the remnants of her drink to mosey within ear-shot.

“I don’t know,” Angela said with an uncharacteristic uncertainty. “… Not the best idea.”

“Angie. It’s not a big deal,” the man said, curiously ambivalent. “I’ve never even seen your place. Probably living with a couple roommates anyhow. Wouldn’t want to bother you.”

Crystal ordered another drink and listened carefully. His casual use of a nickname reserved for only those closest confirmed intimacy, but something beyond distrust coursed through Crystal. It took a moment to understand why. Angela huffed with something akin to being shaken, and it doubled itself into recognition.

“… Outside in an hour. There’s no reason not to. I’ll give you a lift.”

He smiled a predatory smile and Crystal suddenly sourced the doubt; Angela’s confidence was gone.

No creature capable of stealing confidence from Angela was to be taken lightly. Crystal caught only an edge, but was on-guard. Some mysterious person wanted to know where Angela lived. It made her uncomfortable.

In the time Crystal’d known Angela, few things had shaken her. That rather small list now had another addition.

The predatory smile disappeared with a hug, “I missed ya’, Angie. Meet you outside. Go. Mingle.”

Angela said nothing, shaken to one well-versed in her silences. The man moved away through the crowd and disappeared into the crowd.

Crystal finally butted-in, her own predator’s instincts riled, “Friend?”

Angela returned to reality slowly. “No… My brother.”

Short Story: Cheap Rounds

She sat atop a bar-stool, dressed and hunched over like a man might. She’d learned to emulate them, though mostly to defy conventions. She was a rebel through and through, but rebellion wasn’t the cause of the day’s slump. It wasn’t spite, nor angst, either. Not even the usual mix of downers and booze that could take down a twice-laid, pro-player.

No. Today, it was loss.

Cameron had seen and done about everything one could, short of all-out world-war. Street wars, she’d seen. Even taken part of. She’d run guns, drugs, used more. She’d laundered money, skimmed from guys about to get capped. She’d even capped a few would-be hustlers.

She’d hustled her fair share too, met others in the game, traded tricks for camaraderie over drinks and drugs– even dinner, depending on the company. She’d loved, fucked, burned, and chased her chunk of women, but nothing compared to Cassie.

Cass’d started– damn near ended– that way. Cameron would’ve been the notch rather than the other way ’round. Things turned before long. They ended up inseparable. Two sides of a coin. Two halves of a whole. Both of them knew it.

Fact was, however unwilling to admit it, they’d been in love. The kind that made people insane; drove them to write poetical epics, mutilate themselves, or pump out double-platinum albums of veiled love-songs.

Now she was gone.

The semi-auto .44 pressed Cameron’s back from her waistband, loaded with two-surplus rounds; one for Cass, one for her. They’d used surplus everything since starting to save creds for a trip. Three weeks in paradise and a reprieve from the shit-hole of their lives.

At least, that was the plan. Not so much anymore…

She tossed back rotgut from a copper-plated still, regretting the rounds couldn’t have been higher grade. They’d come from Cass’ stash though. That much felt fitting at least.

The bleached faux-hawk, soaked red in her hands, stabbed Cameron’s chest.

She took another drink, hoping to pinpoint where things had gone wrong.

They’d met in the alley after the job. Smash ‘n grab at a jewelry store. The kind of knock-off a friend of a friend did for insurance. No shortage of scams these days. They were supposed to meet, divvy the loot, then head to the fences.

You went alone to a fence, or only with people that already knew them, okayed them. Otherwise, you were as good as snitching. Even if through third-parties. Didn’t matter, jackboots were jackboots. Every Tooler knew that. None took advantage.

Especially not like this.

Cameron was a few paces from Cass; just in ear-shot but not enough to hear clearly.

They were arguing. Probably a rip off, she guess. Every other dickhead Tooler tried one way or another. Mad ’cause “she ate pussy”, wouldn’t “eat” cock too. Or, ’cause she looked small enough to outfight– too small to be a well-respected black-belt in Shotokan Karate.

If she’d been given a chance…

There was no warning. Thunder cracked and the bastards fled. Cameron was too concerned with Cass, her body. It hit the dirty alley-floor and shattered Cameron’s mind. Her body still worked, but it was a long time before she knew or returned to it.

Sheremembered only abyssal despair; surfacing from depths so fathomless they’d permanently erased themselves; hot, blood-drenched fabric chilled in wind. Nothing else.

It was senseless. Capping a fellow Tooler for no reason? Beyond monstrous. Disliking someone wasn’t an excuse. Sure, there’d been tension after Tiny brought them on. Even more when he had to pull out, but Creeps aside, they’d all been hired as professionals.

Only after the creeps knew they weren’t getting more than the deal specified from the couple– did things start souring.

Cameron partially blamed herself for things. Assured to drink herself into oblivion because of it. ‘Least ’til what needed to be done was done.She’d felt those first hints of resentment, spite. Tasted and smelled them on the air. Mostly, coming from the pair they were set to work with.

By then, Tiny knew he was off the job but kept the group together and helped them plan and prepare. To Tiny’s credit, he’d done what he could ’til the job was on, ensuring it went as smooth as possible.

Indeed, it did. Despite being forced to attend other, unavoidable matters, he found a way to make due, did so expertly. Cameron could never have thought to blame him.Not in a million years. Nothing he’d had control over, or a hand in, was even far from perfect. Even the creeps had come highly recommended, with more-or-less ample skill.

Honor was Tiny’s way. His paradoxical name came from the stereotype he so thoroughly defied. Nothing about Tiny was small. Neither act nor intent, nor size and stature. He held to his word as a blood-pact, nothing more or less. No-one that knew him, believed otherwise.

Betrayal, or hints of it, weren’t a thing to him. Such fundamental wrongness didn’t exist in the world until he heard of them. Then, as its antithesis,he helped correct them.That was it. Betrayal existed only as long as was needed to ensure it did not, so it would not.

Personally, Cameron knew blaming Tiny helped nothing. No-one could predict the suddenly unpredictable regardless of the bystanders in its vicinity.

Besides, Tiny was already doing his part to right the wrong. He’d gotten the trigger-man to come in. The onethat took the life outta’ Cass. Cameron wantedhim. The other guy’d let it happen, but hating a person for intent made her worse than the murder. Too many people with hellish intentions but amicable actions to go that route.

She settled for the lesser evil; an eye for an eye. Taking out the one responsible most directly. Whether on hate or instinct, he’d shown he could not be trusted to control himself. If it had been premeditated, Tiny would’ve been involved, wasn’t.

His was crime of passion. Hers would be one of calm erasure from the collective populi.

The bartender stepped past, brushing her hand; the signal. Subtle. Indecipherable. That momentary pass still told of cold skin. The creature it belonged to as lifeless as its mate, now interred beneath a makeshift-marker outside town.

Less so even: the Earth was warming Cass now, keeping her ground temp. Cameron was less, might as well’ve been on ice. She threw back the last of her vile poison. The taste of a prison’s piss-filled casks followed her to the back door.

It’d take a few minutes before Tiny could work the guy into the alley. The places eternally reeked of equal parts piss and stale-vomit. A fitting place for the disposal of refuse.

Cameron added to the former at a squat in a corner, pissing as she hocked mucus and spat at a wall. She recomposed herself, then leaned against the wall near the door to smoke. It would open on her, giving Tiny the right entrance.

She took as much enjoyment as possible in the last smoke of her life, then flicked it away to check the .44’s chamber. Cass’ surplus round might as well’ve had Riven’s name etched in it– as if the very act of taking her life etched it there through will alone.

Instead, a brass jacket gleamed up beneath the industrial-bulb caged overhead. Five-pound moths fluttered and smacked the cage with the same of dullard indifference of the bullet beneath them.

Tiny’s deep voice reverberated the bar’s back-hall, leaked through its.

Cameron snapped the slide back; he’d talked Riven into stepping out for a line and a smoke. Riven’s mistake was thinking he’d gotten away with what he’d done– with thinking Cass was just another dead Tooler, nothing to no-one anyhow.

She planned to show just how wrong he was.

The door opened then shut. Riven whirled expecting to see Tiny’s Six-Eight figure shelling out smokes and coke.

Cameron’s five-five figure was draped in ragged clothing, reeking of liquor, and ending in the raised .44. Riven’s eyes widened. His mouth opened to protest.

Sound was swallowed in a crack. The .44 splattered his head’s contents out its exit-wound.Refuse sprayed the wall. The pistol sank, upturned. The barrel against chin.

She closed her eyes; Cass’ smiling face. She breathe, squeezed.

Nothing.

Memories flooded. Desperation. Anger. Betrayal. Worst and deepest, despair, grief.

They broke through her ’til she wound up cowering, utterly wracked by sopping-wet sobs. Tiny’d given her five minutes, expected to emerge and find two bodies, both with skull wounds. Instead, he found one; the other bleeding much deeper than senses allowed for.

The only thing he could say of the intervention later, was God, providence, Cass even.

That was how Tiny was. Cameron didn’t believe a word of it. It was cheap rounds. Cass had bought cheap rounds ’cause they were saving for their trip. Three weeks in paradise, fucking, drinking, loving. That was their plan. In that roundabout way, Tiny was right it was Cass, but divinity was a mile-stretch.

She explained as much, offered him Cass’ ticket. He replied simply, “You wan’ me to go?”

She shrugged. “Could use a friend right now. I think Cass’d be grateful.”

He finished his beer then nodded and rose to leave with her. After all, they had to pack, and boozing in paradise in a friend’s name wasn’t the worst way to memorialize them.

Short story: How typical

Sean O’Leery was a typical middle-school-aged middle-child. Nothing in his appearance nor manners put him out of place in a crowd. All the same, he attracted the ire of his peers as if a quasi-magnetic force drew it toward him from them– what he’d come to refer to as “Jerks.” In fact, if middle-school taught him anything, everyone was a jerk most of the time. The only break was the times he hid away during lunch or after class-work and punching the buttons on his game-pad.

Other times, the taunts of “O’Leery the Queery” were too prevalent to focus on much. Even the few jerks he might’ve called friends on good days, preferred to call him “Queery” rather than Sean. However unable to put it into words, he sensed it was to keep him at arm’s length. Lots of people did that for lots of reasons; his “friends,” random other jerks (people), his parents. For a while he wondered if he smelled bad. Nope, he was just that unremarkable.

Middle-child syndrome meant being too young for independence, but responsibilities; too old to be coddled but free of most childhood oversight. He occupied a curious middle ground in a quasi-bizzaro-land of raging hormones, rabid ignorance, and ineffable urges. In other words; a typical middle-schooler.

And while all things considered, life was going well, something was different.

Like most kids, Sean hated life some days– hated it with the enraged passion of a billion charging wildebeests– but he knew it could be worse. For the most part, he was healthy, clothed, fed, sheltered when needed, maybe even loved (if his parents’ distant words were in earnest.) Moreover, television and internet ads with sickly-looking African kids said there were parts of the world where even that stuff wasn’t guaranteed. So, if he felt things were getting too bad, he tilted his head down, and immerse himself in the mindless repetition of a game.

To say things were going well though, would miss the profound, emotional, nose-dive of modern life amid the teenage years. The roller-coaster of puberty had only just begun for Sean. Soon enough, he’d be screaming his head off through its dips, hoping and praying to any deities that might exist or not, that the restraints held. Such was life. He might’ve known that, but he wasn’t sure enough of anything enough to be sure of it.

That attitude was probably for the best. Especially when in walked Jacob Cartwright and all that came with him.

Jacob was another, scrawny middle-child. Completely unremarkable in the most literal interpretation of the word, he had a face that would blend in any crowd and the shaky mannerisms often accompanying such obscurity. Both boys would come to remember their meeting well:

Just outside the lunchroom’s back-door, lunch-recess; that glorious time of freedom between periods four and five that split the day between, pre-lunch (nap time) and post-lunch, (almost-home nap-time.)

Sean ambled from the door, face down-turned and hands rhythmically button-mashing to a tempo audible only to his ear-bud headphones. The three-headed dragon hydra needed slaying, and he was just the controller warrior to do it.

Until he smacked straight into a group of jerks of the jock-variety– in other words, half the 7th grade football team. His headphones were yanked from his ears with all the scolding pain typical of that action. The running back, or some such nonsense, gave a stiff one-handed shove.

“Watch where you’re going, Queery!”

Sean’s ass hit the ground, his ears burning in and out and his face red over the distant screams of a slain warrior and a triumphant tri-headed dragon. The jerks laughed and hollared, the offender gesturing his group to follow him from the door.

Jacob watched– had watched– from the doorway, blocking it until a line formed behind him. He was fixated on the exchange, headphones and gamepad intact where they were meant to be. He’d watched from the angle of one precisely capable of making the same mistake, but fortunate enough to be stopped short by Sean’s enactment of his own, possible future.

The line shoved him forward and time and the world began to move again. Still, Sean stared up, ass-to-ground, stunned. Jacob stooped beside him, picked up Sean’s handheld, its earbuds dangling like a death-dungeon’s swinging pendulum axe.

He helped Sean up, examining the handheld. The boy allowed it, slow to recover. “Looks alright. No scratches or cracks.” He handed it back, “Why’d they call you that? You ask a lot of questions or something?”

Sean took the game. “Thanks… Wait, huh?”

“They called you “Query,” like a question, right?” He asked, oblivious to his mental misspelling.

Sean’s face was a portrait of confusion. He blinked to make his mind work, but it stayed stuck. Jacob motioned him away from the door as a pair of girls stepped out and almost smacked into them.

A curious magnetism drew Sean along as he took a few, large steps away. “Anyway, I’m Jacob.”

They angled around the outer, rear wall of the lunchroom for a bench there and Sean’s wits finally returned. “Sean O’Leery. And they call me that ’cause it rhymes with my name… and they think I’m queer or something.”

Jake’s eyes bulged, “Oh, that kind of Queery.” Sean nodded. “So are you?”

“Huh?”

“Queer or whatever?”

Sean’s eyes bulged, “What!? No.” He hesitated, then scowled, “I mean, I don’t know. Probably not. People are just jerks.”

Jake shrugged, “Well, sorry. I’m not really in on people’s sayings. I’m new. And I read the dictionary a lot. Guess that’s why I was confused.”

Sean wasn’t sure what to address first, settled on the greatest of the three atrocities. “You read the dictionary!?” Jake nodded smartly. Sean gave him a deranged eye, “Uh… why?”

He shrugged, “It’s fun. There’s always new words to learn! Anyway, query means question. So, maybe next time they make fun of you, try to hear that word instead, it’s not so mean that way.”

“I’ll do my best,” he mumbled. He stiffened up a little, “So, you’re new?”

“Mhmm.”

“Got any friends yet?” He shook his head. “I guess we could be friends then.”

Jake’s eyes lit up, “Okay.”

That was all either of them would come to remember. One conversation drifted into another, then another. It was a typical meeting between two typical kids amid a typical day at a typical school. So much was typical that the word sort of lost its meaning.

Something changed though, and O’Leery the Queery suddenly wasn’t so strange anymore. He was one-half of a crime-fighting duo, sans the crime-fighting. When later it turned out both boys were, in fact, queerier than most, they became two halves of something greater than friendship. Their “tying the knot” was an even more typical affair.

All of that from a simple, mental misspelling; how utterly unremarkable and typical.

Short Story: Immortalized

She didn’t know how to say it. Writing it was easier, but speaking it was difficult. A few days ago, she couldn’t have even done that. Thinking of it was still painful, but before– in the first moments following it– even thoughts had failed her. Now, here she sat, staring at the log-in screen of her own computer, in her own gaming chair. Beside her, his empty chair and blank screen inflected a terrible grief on her heart. It choked her up, what needed to be done, but she had to do it.

It was like that old adage of “the show must go on.” Only it wasn’t a show. For her, it was life. Life had to go on. Most people found comfort in that, solace in the idea that it’d one day end. They held vain hopes of reunions. She didn’t. She had only the grim reality of the lonely present. They’d met through a screen, just like the one she watched now. The character had been different then; blue-gray skin in place of the pasty white. Black hair where it was now bright red. The bright palettes of high-level armor had adorned the elf-body though, as it did now. She remembered the first time she ever saw him, in-game. Love at first sight didn’t exist for her. It wasn’t going to either. Through avatars of druid bulls, archer-orks, or anything else the game manifested, it simply couldn’t.

His words, those were real. His actions, by proxy at first, were real too. The twelve years of love, happiness, and marriage since were even more real.

All of it had come from a raid night. she’d been invited to join his guild for the chance of epic loot and hordes of XP, in exchange for healing magic. No-one had any idea what they’d started. Before long, she was up all night with him, playing after the rest of the Guild had retired. She’d always been his support, his crutch. Even after things had gone from game-life to real-life. His upbringing had left him with more emotional baggage, but he managed it with a rogue-like agility that defied the tank-builds he played.

She understood that paradox better than anyone: He’d always thrown himself into the thick of things to save others. The scars on his face and back said so. They were small, subtle, but there. She remembered them as well as the earthen hair and eyes she’d caress and stare into. Most of all, she remembered how he’d gotten them, a story he’d only told once. It was all the times she’d needed.

He’d been quiet, voice softer than a mouse’s. He’d come home from work one night as a teen, later than usual. His father had decided to take out his pink-slip on his sister. He fought back for the first time that night. His sister cowered, bloody and bruised in a corner, as he was beaten almost to death that night. His parents told the paramedics he’d fallen down the stairs. They’d hid the little sister in her room. Everyone knew the lie, but Martin kept quiet for his mother’s sake. The belt marks were too distinct. The scars from the buckle obvious. It had gouged skin like a garden rake to chaff.

A friend of his informed the police soon after. They raced over and caught Martin’s father in the act. As far as she knew, he still hadn’t shown his face. More than two decades had passed. But Martin held no grudges, especially at the end. That he was gone now was unbearable.

She took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and keyed in her password. A prompt flashed for a secondary authentication, and she typed in a pass-code sent to her phone via text. The loading screen with its mini-game about cute elves went untouched. It dissolved to the field where she’d last logged out beside him. They’d played for hours and hours together, expecting an end. Yet somehow, they both knew when it was the last time. They’d returned to the field where they’d first met, where she’d first joined the guild to raid, and stood beside one another to watch the animated landscape.

There was a resignation in Martin then. He just held her hand, in game and out, and stared into the distance. It was as if things had come full circle. Only Martin could say what or how. Even now, her eyes leaked to think of that sad despair in his ailing grip.

She wiped an eye, keyed in a command to pull up the guild-chat menu. All but a couple of the regulars were on. It didn’t surprise her. It was prime farming time. After-work hours were guaranteed to find the full-Guild in voice chat. The couple that weren’t there were still friends. She had to wait. It was only a few minutes before they appeared, almost in tandem. She cleared her throat, wiped away a few more tears, and slipped on her headset. She sent invites to join a party, at her location, to everyone. Another few minutes passed before the twenty-odd people had assembled before her in-game.

Like Martin before, she felt something had come full-circle. She stood in the same field where she and Martin had first met. Where she and everyone had first met. The assembly armored creatures stood in two lines before her, sensing what was to be said. They felt no need to rush her, nor could have for anything in the world.

Her breath shook. Her voice warbled and wobbled. “You are mine and Martin’s best friends. He loved you. As I do. Like f-family.” She involuntarily sucked air through her teeth. It rip the hearts from every guild member. “That is why, I feel it my duty to…”

She sucked air again. No one moved. The avatars merely watched, awaiting the inevitable words. Not even they wished to sully the moment with idly animated movement. It was obvious the group was as heart-sick and grieving as she was.

“I feel it my duty to… tell you Martin’s battle with cancer ended this week.” A near-imperceptible slump of shoulders appeared from the assembled creatures– or the players’ grief was so thick in the air, it felt that way. “He w-wanted me to th-thank you for everything you’ve done. If it were not for your kindness, the last few months would’ve been unbearable. I f-feel the same. You’re the family neither of us has had but wished for. I can only thank you for that, for me and for Martin.”

The field sank once more into silence. It lasted a long moment before a character suddenly materialized from thin air. Judging by the rare, exclusive armor, and the lone markings of “GM” and a single name, it was one of the game’s admins– the big wigs that worked on it, and whose power in this place exceeded a God’s.

He looked to the assembled characters. “Forgive my interruption. I understand this is a time of great pain, but my presence was requested by Mr.Fluffers.” He said as a random guild-member bowed amid the assembly. “You’ve lost a member of your guild. I understand the depth of that bond. So in your friend’s honor, I give you this.”

With a flashing spell-cast, a statue in the place where Martin would have stood beside her– where he had stood, time and time again. Cast in bronze, and identical to his character, his name was inscribed on its base– the ultimate honor any player could ever hope for. The GM turned to eye Martin’s wife and friends.

“I didn’t know him, but seeing his friends– his family– here today, I know he was a good man that kept good company. I am truly sorry for your loss. I dedicate this field in his honor, to be known as Martin’s field. It cannot remove your loss, but it can assure you he will be forever remembered.”

With that, the GM knelt, and placed a glowing, golden flower at the base of Martin’s statue. The rest shuffled over to do the same. She cried openly on the voice chat, more from gratitude than grief. She knew some bonds could not be broken. Death only made them stronger. But so too, it seemed, some people transcended death itself. Their spirit was so powerful a force as to become immortalized in ways man could never have imagined. For her part, she was just glad to have known him. To have loved him. Even if their time together was shorter than she’d have liked.