“That is why we were helping you during the battle, Great Lord Darwin.” Valerie finished her story, stepping back to join ranks with her two friends.
“So you were one of them, but then you were betrayed, and now you’re angry because they killed an NPC?” Darwin asked for clarification as he continued to pet Fuzzy Wuzzy. Halfway through her story Fuzzy Wuzzy had nudged his head under Darwin’s hand and growled at him whenever he tried to stop petting the giant bear.
“Yes, I guess you could sum it up like that,” the male White-Wing, Daniel, said. “I mean, it feels a wee bit more complicated when it’s happening to you, but I don’t see any reason that it summarized like that.” He was clearly finished talking until Valerie elbowed him. “Great Lord Darwin,” he quickly added to the end of his statement.
Darwin wanted to say something, but Kass’s face had turned absolutely red from them saying ‘Great Lord Darwin’ after everything. Darwin could tell from her bursting eyes and puffed cheeks that she was doing everything in her power not to laugh at the ridiculousness of the whole affair.
“Lady Kass, is something wrong?” Justin asked, noticing her face. “Perhaps you are suffering from an after effect from a poison or spell you suffered during battle?”
“No, no. I’m quite alright. I didn’t really take any damage at all during the fight,” Kass said, her face growing more flushed by the minute as she struggled to contain the laughter.
“Well, what do you think of these three? Do we trust them?” Darwin asked Kass. His inclination was to give them the benefit of the doubt, but he knew better than to not take advantage of a woman’s intuition. “Do we believe their story and let them join our alliance?”
“Wait, um . . . Great Lord Darwin, we didn’t ask to join your alliance. We just were explaining why we aren’t the bad guy.” The third White-Wing, Mclean, quickly corrected Darwin.
“Wait, is that not what you were about to ask us?” Darwin said, raising an eyebrow.
“Well . . .” Mclean started to respond, but Darwin immediately stopped her before she could get more than one word out.
“Don’t think about telling me different. You lack funds, you have no connections in these lands, and lastly, your group of three couldn’t operate a craft if it wanted to,” Darwin said, squinting at Mclean. “So are you going to start off our soon-to-be-fabulous relationship with lies?”
“No. I just was saying we weren’t going to ask to join your alliance–only for a ride,” Mclean stated, finally failing to add Darwin’s title.
“Ah, that’s what you meant. Well, good. You’re not a liar at least. The problem is that you’re not going to get a ride without joining up too. It’s going to cost resources to ferry you across that ocean to the mainland–resources and time that could be spent elsewhere,” Darwin said, noticing that Kass’s face had lost its color. Did I say something wrong? he thought, not sure why her face was souring. “So, you either join up, or go find someone on this island that will be sympathetic to three runaway White-Wings. I’m sure plenty of people will be willing to give you a ride.”
“Well, we might get one on our good looks alone.” Daniel made a ridiculously big smile while looking at his two friends but then frowned. “But given the recent invasion, probably not . . . I say we throw in our lot with the Great Lord Darwin.”
Mclean nodded at Daniel, frowning as well. “I can’t really argue with that logic. I guess I’ll throw my lot in with the Great Lord Darwin too.”
Well, you don’t have to be so sad about it, Darwin thought as he watched the two vote for joining him. It’s not like joining me is the end of the world.
“I’ll join, Great Lord Darwin, but only under one condition,” Valerie said confidently, stepping forward again while maintaining hard eye contact with him. The sincerity on her face reminded Darwin of Alex.
I haven’t even decided if I want to actually accept them, and they’re already issuing demands if I do? Darwin watched the arrogant White-Wing step forward. “Well, let’s hear what it is at least,” he said, resisting the urge to shake his head.
“Your Lordship, I request that if we encounter the Sun God Empire again, you assist me with my vengeance,” she said, bowing her head one more time. “
Does she really think we’re going to run into more of them on the mainland, or is this just her way of saving face? Darwin considered the idea a minute, not sure why Valerie would make that request. Darwin looked over at Kass, who just shrugged from where she stood on her Hydra before him giving a half-hearted nod. Well, I guess half the faction officers are in agreement, and it’s just me left to make the call.
He looked Valerie up and down, and then glanced over at her two friends. His gut told him that he could trust them. Out of all the stories that she could have made up, the one she’d given him wasn’t likely one of them. All in all, he was left with the idea that they were good people: the type of people who were upset if an NPC was killed for the wrong reasons. They were worthy of being in the StormGuard Alliance. “I won’t give you terms that risk my people, but you’re welcome to pursue vengeance on your own terms if you join the alliance,” he decided, sending out the Tipqa faction requests.
“Thank you, Great Lord Darwin,” Valerie said as she and the other two accepted the invitation.
“You’re welcome. Now that I’ve got three extra hands, I’ll need to make use of you to save on the time we spent talking. Alex, what do we still need done for preparations?” Darwin said, turning to Alex, whom he knew he could count on to be behind him again in his usual shady fashion.
“All the preparations are complete, Lord Darwin. While Valerie was regaling us with the plight of her group, I had the men prepare the ships for sail,” he answered, pointing to a series of glass ships prepped and manned. “You may give the order when ready, and we can begin departure immediately.”
“Great job as always, Alex. If all the preparations are made, have everyone begin looting the spoils of war. Don’t forget to sure and save me the items dropped from the commander. These three will be happy to help out,” Darwin said, waving his hand at his three new faction members.
When everyone but Kass had left, the two locked eyes, Kass staring down at him from on top of the black Hydra. “When were you going to tell me?” she said. Darwin knew immediately what she was talking about, but Kass explained further. “When were you going to tell me that you weren’t one of us?”
“You mean a player?” he asked, buying time more than asking for clarification.
“Yes, I mean a player, you idiot!”
“I assumed you already knew, to be honest.” Darwin resisted the urge to shrug. He knew that even though he had grown incredibly comfortable with the situation, she hadn’t. If he just tried to brush off her reaction, he’d only come across as a jerk. “I saw you read my notes, and since then, the clues have piled up. I just thought, ‘Welp, she’s figured it out by now and just isn’t saying anything.’”
“I didn’t. I mean, I did and I didn’t.” Kass broke eye contact and turned her head away from Darwin so he couldn’t make out her facial expression. “I pretty much figured it out, but it wasn’t exactly information I wanted to believe.”
“Not something I’d like to believe either,” Darwin said while hopping up on top of the Hydra next to Kass in one swift movement. “Wasn’t exactly my idea of a dream come true when it happened.”
“How did it even happen? Why did it even make you like that with the red eyes and all?” she turned back around to face him, and Darwin could see from the wrinkles rippling across her face. This was more than just confusing to her: it was frustrating. “How could it trap you here?”
“I don’t know,” Darwin answered, his face flat. He didn’t have the answers she wanted.
“You don’t know? After all the time we spent together, you’re just going to tell me you don’t know?” Kass’s voice kept getting louder and louder.
“I don’t know.” Darwin stayed stoic.
“Don’t give me that! Don’t tell me you don’t know! This is your life! You have to know!” Kass balled up her fist as if she was going to strike Darwin’s chest with it, but she finally opened her hand and sighed. “Just . . . Just tell me what happened from the beginning. Can you at least do that?”
“Well, for starters, it didn’t make me like this. It didn’t change anything about me. This is who I am. This is how I look,” Darwin said as he pointed to his own eye.
“You . . . look like that in real life?” Kass’s eyes managed to grow even wider before poking one of his biceps. “Even the muscles?”
“Even the muscles.” He flexed the best he could without trying to look like it was intentional.
“Well, I look like this in real life too,” she twirled for a moment.
“That’s kind of funny,” Darwin noted, causing Kass’s blush to return.
“What? Are you saying I look funny?” She crossed her arms over her chest in an attempt to cover what little cleavage was showing, backing up slowly.
“No, no, no! I just meant that we’re probably the only two people on the entire server who didn’t alter their avatar at all, and we ended up meeting in a pretty weird way,” he explained, throwing both hands up like a robber trying to prove to a police officer he didn’t have a gun.
“Oh, yeah,” she lowered her arms and relaxed. “That is kind of odd. Then again, I figure with me actually being a girl, it’s already odd.”
“Well, you could still be a trap. You say it’s what you look like, but you still might be a forty-year-old man behind that pretty face,” Darwin laughed. The Internet was known for having more gender benders than a drag race without cars. This wasn’t the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but there was always a good chance one of the girls was a guy.
“So you think I’m pretty?” Kass ignored the rest of his trap accusation.
“I’ve already said it, haven’t I?” Darwin bit his lower lip. “You’re just messing with me, aren’t you?”
“Maybe? You seem pretty sure about that,” Kass chuckled. “Anyways, you were telling me about your predicament.”
“I was, but you’re going to be disappointed with how few details I actually have. You see, like I was saying, this is what I looked like even before I got here–right down to the bathrobe I was wearing at the time.” Darwin began his story, telling her everything from the moment the burglar broke into his home to the moment they met. The only thing he left out was the fact he had killed the man who had broken into his home. By the time he had finished, her face was flatter than untouched pancakes fresh off the frying pan. “What?” He asked in response to her look.
“Just, aren’t you freaking out? How are you so calm right now?” Kass asked, her expressionless face melting into a weak frown. “Why are you not doing everything in your power to figure out how to get back?”
“I don’t know,” Darwin scratched the back of his head. “To be honest, at first, as soon as I was safe and out of the Minotaur land, figuring out what happened was all I could think about. Then the feeling faded. I found myself acting without thinking, doing everything I could for people who followed without hesitation. Before I knew it, I had gone from investigating my situation to just embracing it and rolling with the punches.”
“So you are just going to stop trying to find out?” She pressed on, her frown growing sterner by the minute. “You’re just going to give up?”
“It’s not giving up, Kass.” Darwin started rubbing his forehead with the hand that was scratching the back of his head. “There aren’t any leads to chase. This isn’t some hour long TV crime drama where clues are magically going to appear when I need them the most. I reached a dead end long ago, and I was left with a choice: mope around about something that won’t change or do the right thing by the people who need you.”
“So you did the right thing . . .” Kass lowered her head and cast her face away from Darwin.
“Yeah . . . As far as I can tell, I’ve done everything to the best of my ability.” Darwin reached out and put one hand on each of Kass’s shoulders. “Kass, look at me.” She did. “This isn’t a punishment. Being stuck here isn’t a curse. That message was right. This is a home to me, regardless of how I got here. I have the chance to embrace who I am and be something more than just a pencil pusher in an office who waits for a day off to spend by myself.”
“But . . . What if you die here? What if something kills you?” she mumbled, her voice as shaky as her eyes. “What if I lose you . . .”
“I’ll be fine. This is me you’re talking about.” He forced out the best smile he could muster up. “Nothing is going to happen, okay?”
Darwin did his best to maintain eye contact, but he found himself confused by the feelings welling up inside of him. Does she really care about me this much? He had no experience with anything like this, and he was failing to process her reaction. This isn’t Sassy Kassy; this isn’t the joking girl that always teases me. Her quivering lip, her shaking eyes, her stiff body–this isn’t the same confident Kass that I’ve spent so much time with.
An awkward silence persisted for a minute, and Darwin found himself even more baffled by what to do. Finally, he gave up on thinking about it and went with his gut: he hugged her. He brought her in and wrapped both arms around her, patting her head as it lay against his chest. “I’m sorry I’ve worried you so much,” he said in the gentlest voice he could muster. “I’ll be fine. Trust me.”
“Okay,” Kass said into his shoulder after a minute, pushing herself free and rubbing her eyes. “Just don’t think this changes anything.”
“I wouldn’t dare.” Darwin smiled as he watched her become collected and composed again. “But maybe you should take a moment. Do what you need to, and I’ll see you on the boat Alex picks for us. I have something to take care of first.”
“Are you always going to be this mysterious?” she said, grinning. “Will you ever leave us a note or something explaining what you’re up to before it’s actually happened?”
“Probably not, no,” Darwin mused. “It would take away all the fun.”
“You’re so weird.” Kass hopped off the Hydra and headed into the battlefield. No matter what she may have been feeling, Darwin knew that Kass would never pass up the opportunity to pick up as much loot as possible.
“Well, that was, like, cool beans and all. Totes expected waterworks,” Stephanie said, appearing almost instantly where Kass had been.
“I probably shouldn’t agree with you, but I kind of did too.” Darwin’s hand found itself scratching the top of his head this time.
“Like, totes expected you two to kiss too,” she said, stepping right into the space where Kass had just been standing. “That woulda been, like, totes unfair, ya’know? Girl needs’ta learn I, like, already have dibs.”
Darwin looked her up and down for a quick second as she edged her way closer. She was stunning–Michelangelo couldn’t imagine a better figure–but it was a dangerous game he was playing with her, and he knew it. She wasn’t just a little stronger than him: her power was worlds above his current abilities, and she knew it. She may have saved his life, but at any point in time she might get angry and lay to waste everything he had worked so hard for.
“What’cha thinkin’ about? You’re, like, looking at me, all, like, intense and stuff,” she said, tilting her head from one side to another. The missing bubblegum smacking was immediately noticeable to Darwin.
“Hmm . . . I suppose I was thinking about doing this,” he said, grabbing both sides of her head and pulling her in for his best attempt at a French kiss. It didn’t last long, a few seconds at best, but for Darwin it left a conflicting taste in his mouth. It felt great because her lips were twice as soft and four times as sweet as he remembered, but also a little bad because he knew that he was kissing her to kill her jealousy over Kass–a girl he liked just as much as her–in order to keep Stephanie at his side.
“That was . . . That was a surprise,” Stephanie said, her accent completely gone as she touched her lips lightly with one finger. “That was a rather pleasant surprise.”
“I figured, after earlier today, my luck’s been pretty good with things involving you.” Darwin slid his hands from the sides of her head down until he was able to hold her hands. “Didn’t see any point in not taking a risk. Wouldn’t you agree?”
The guilt Darwin had over the possibly of just using Stephanie and how Kass might react faded rather quickly as she pulled him in for a second round. By the time they had finished and come up for air, they were completely gone all together.
“I have to tell you something: I’ve never kissed a girl before you, so I’m not sure how much of a compliment it is to tell you that that was the best kiss I’ve ever had.” Darwin’s breath was a little short from not realizing he could breathe through his nose during the kiss until the very end.
“Don’t worry. You’re the best by default too,” she smirked, gripping his hands tightly as she leaned back a little.
“I hate asking this, but can we be seen in public without getting stone cold stares?” Darwin snickered a little at his own joke.
“Well, like, at least you totes won’t have to worry about, like, other guys looking at me,” she said, her original cheerleader-like speech pattern returning.
“No, and I can say with confidence that you’re so gorgeous you’d leave a room full of men hard with just one look.” Darwin winked.
“Okay, like, that’s enough out of you,” she giggled. “I, like, have to book it anyways for, like, just that reason. Your crew is about to, like, show up, and I’m def thinking you don’t want a new art collection.”
“No, I don’t think I do, but when will I see you again?” Darwin asked, squeezing her hand one more time before letting it go.
“I’ll, like, sneak on your boat for that, like, boring trip to the mainland. When you’re, like, done with all that, like, boring bossing lordy-lord stuff, just head to your Captain’s quarters. I’ll, like, be waiting there,” she said, biting her bottom lip and raising both her eyebrows twice, “so we can, like, pick up where we left off, ya know?”
“Sounds great,” he said, leaning in and sneaking one final kiss before she disappeared. He was just about to feel pleased with himself when it hit him: what he had forgotten to ask her. Darwin’s face paled for a moment. Between the drama that Kass had stirred up and the excitement of his first real romance, the thoughts about why his sister didn’t want him to be saved by her had completely skipped his mind. He wanted to kick himself, but he wasn’t entirely sure how to accomplish that task, so he just ended up sighing. It doesn’t matter, I’ll have several hours to bring the subject up with her on the ride to the mainland. He reassured himself before focusing on yet another realization: I’ll have several hours alone with her . . .