As Kass walked back up to the glass galleon, a look of terror crept over her face as her body came to a complete hault. Why . . . are they all . . . in bathrobes? she mouthed, stunned silent by the sight before her. Where she had expected to see them all in their usual gear, the gear they had worn since they left Valcrest, she found everyone in the same odd black bathrobe with a red sword and spoon symbol. Staring at the bathrobes, she couldn’t figure out exactly how she was supposed to respond.
“Umm . . . Darwin, before you left the ship earlier, did you order something?” she asked, doing her best to control her surprise. “Did you, you know, tell them they needed to change their uniforms?”
“No, but don’t they just look . . . AWESOME!” Darwin shouted happily, uncharacteristically so. “Holy crap, I kind of want my own with that design. Look at it, the flap and the cord. It’s like mine but black.”
“Hey, yours is supposed to be white to match mine, remember? We’re supposed to look like a team,” Kass said, slightly upset he seemed interested in changing that fact.
“Yeah, I know, and we look awesome, but come on, Kass. Even you have to admit that these bathrobes are really great. Hey, look! Even Valerie, Daniel and Mclean are wearing them!” Darwin was beside himself, actually laughing out loud at the myriad of bathrobe-wearing people in front of him.
Has he secretly been wanting this for a while? He’s been stuck in that bathrobe since he came to Tiqpa. I guess he was feeling alone or unfashionable, she thought as she watched his face light up like a Christmas tree.
“I must admit that the dress code of your faction is very interesting,” Kitchens said, scratching his chin in thought as the four of them walked up the board onto the galleon.
“Minx wants one too! Kitchens! Kitchens! Can I get one of the cool bathrobes too?” Minx was literally jumping up and down as they walked up the boarding ramp.
“You’ll have to ask Darwin about that.”
“Nuh uh! You get me one! You get one too! Then we can have matching ones! Just like them! Darwin’s is white; theirs are cool. Women look best in black. I need a black one! You need a black one!” Minx pulled on Kitchens’ tank top.
Kitchens looked at Darwin, who just shrugged and sort of nodded, and then the two said something to each other quietly. Kitchens just nodded to Minx and said, “Sure, I’ll get one for you,” and he put his hand back on her head and gave her the little affectionate noogie he always seemed to give her whenever they were walking side by side.
“You’re not going to try and make me wear one of those, are you?” Kass asked, looking at Darwin.
“Don’t worry, you look good in the dress you’ve got on. I wouldn’t try to change that,” he said, looking her up and down as he did. Kass found herself unsure how to take that compliment. “Alex!” Darwin then shouted, not giving Kass time for a witty reply. “Fill me in. What’s up with these new outfits?”
“Ah, Great Lord Darwin,” Alex said, bowing his head momentarily. “Forgive me for spending faction resources to manufacture these outfits without your permission. The people in the town wanted a tangible change other than the red eyes to show that we are one people, of one belief and one purpose. I hope that they are to your liking and that you will forgive our reckless expenditures.”
“To my liking? I love them! They’re incredible. Was this your idea?” Darwin asked, walking up and patting Alex on the back as he spoke. “Tell me whose idea this was. They deserve a medal or something. Do we have medals? Well, if we do, the first one needs to go to whoever came up with the idea for this uniform. This is . . . This is just great,” Darwin finished, his kid in a candy shop expression not fading one bit.
Alex, his face going from tensed up like a child expecting to be punished by his parents to relieved in an instant, beamed proudly. “Yes, this was my idea. I designed it myself. The two swords represent the weapons of our leader, and the spoon is the symbol that he himself wears.”
“Alex, if you ever quit being a General, you should consider taking up a job as a fashion designer. Your taste is impeccable,” Darwin complimented Alex even further, causing him to push his chest out even more than it was before.
“Right? They even made some for us too,” Daniel said, joining the conversation with his chest popped out and both hands holding on to his bathrobe’s collar. He was sporting a black one too. The only difference from the others was that it had space for him to fit his wings through. “I’m still pumped up about it. I thought leather armor was the way to go, but these have stat boosts with no stat penalties at all. It’s got +15 to all three physical attack stats, zero penalties to Speed, great flexibility, perfect style–Darwin, your man Alex is a genius.”
“Yep. Work of art it is,” Mclean came up, also holding her own bathrobe’s collar with both hands proudly just like Daniel. “I just need one for real life. Do you think we can get Alex to open up a store and sell them on that kick-something site?”
“Kick site?” Alex asked, scrunching his forehead up like he had just been given a calculus problem in the middle of a geometry class.
“You know, the website where people come together to give good projects a good kick in the right direction. It’s where–” Mclean stopped, then closed both her eyes like she was about to facepalm. Yep, Mclean, you’re talking to an NPC, Kass thought, noting that she had likely just realized an NPC wouldn’t know anything about websites.
“People gather around and kick good stuff? That doesn’t sound good at all. I’d rather not be kicked, Mclean,” Alex said, his brow still scrunched.
“Don’t worry about it. But she’s not wrong about there being a demand for this incredible outfit. You see, just today, I got two new members, and they already each want one. Isn’t that right?” Darwin asked.
Kass, still incredibly unsure of whether or not this was some elaborate prank where everyone was in on a joke that she didn’t get, found herself looking around at the outfits. How do people find this so great? she thought as Darwin queued up orders for Minx and Kitchens.
“Yeah! Yeah! There is one for Minx, right?!”
“Well, we didn’t actually know you would have two new members so soon,” Alex said, scratching his head. “But! Not to worry, Great Lord Darwin! We made extras just in case. We knew that, given your charismatic attitude and magnanimous nature, you would undoubtedly return with refugees or others needing help. It is just the way of such a great man, always seeking to take care of those less fortunate.”
“He really lays the compliments on thick, doesn’t he?” Kitchens whispered to Darwin just loud enough for Kass to overhear.
No, he’s actually just stating the truth. Darwin really is like that.
Darwin shrugged at Kitchen’s comment and then turned back to Alex. “You’re not wrong. We’re going to likely have a good number of extra people in the faction soon, but we’ll be picking them up outside the city, and I’m not entirely sure how many extra bathrobes we will need to outfit them all properly. How many extras do you have?”
“Around fifteen hundred, Great Lord Darwin. We were able to buy the material in bulk so the total bill, weapons included, was less than one thousand Gold,” Alex said. Kass was sure from the look of him that he was about to break out into a salute at any moment.
“Over fifteen hundred? And it only cost less than a thousand Gold?” Darwin spat out. Kass assumed it must have been from the shock of the price. His own bathrobe hadn’t been cheap at all; but, then again, it hadn’t been mass produced at cost, and the goods probably cost a lot more in a small city where merchants don’t often venture out than in a big city where every commodity is oversupplied. “Alex, you’re not just a design genius–you’re also a great merchant! That price per outfit is just as marvelous as the uniform itself.”
“Thank you, Great Lord Darwin. I am deeply honored by your praise,” Alex bowed his head again.
“No need to thank me. Just go get one for each of these two characters. The little one has been begging us since the moment she saw it,” Darwin said, still checking out the bathrobes.
“I have not been begging! I don’t beg!” Minx stamped her foot and insisted.
“You haven’t? Did you not want one? Alex. It’s okay. She doesn’t actually want one,” Darwin said, drawing obvious panic to Minx’s face.
“Oh, well, if the Great Lord Darwin says she doesn’t need one . . .” Alex looked a bit rejected, not realizing that Darwin was pulling a joke on Minx.
“What? No, no I want one! I want one!” Minx hurriedly clarified.
“Oh, so I was right. She did beg for one,” Darwin began, Minx quickly finding herself with her mouth agape, unsure of whether or not she should try to argue.
“Bu-bu-but–” she stammered.
“Did you or did you not want a cool, awesome bathrobe?” Darwin teased her further.
“I do,” she answered, head sunk. “But that’s not fair.”
“Great, then let’s get you the coolest, cutest one we can find. I trust you on this, Alex,” he said, patting Minx on the head just like Kitchens always did.
Kitchens, who had been watching the little exchange to much amusement, finally walked up to Minx and offered her words of comfort after her lost battle of wits. “Even Kings must beg their people for understanding, Minx. There is no harm in you asking for free stuff.”
“I didn’t beg,” Minx muttered, making sure that Darwin didn’t notice.
Kass, still beside herself at the ridiculousness of the bathrobes, just rolled her eyes at Minx’s plea to get a one. How can someone be that excited about a bathrobe? It’s like people getting worked up over a t-shirt with a meme on it. It just doesn’t make sense, she thought.
“There’s no need to fret, little one. I’ve already got your bathrobe right here. Go ahead and try it on,” Justin said, appearing out of thin air like Alex often did.
“I could really do with them not sneaking up on us all the time,” Kass said under her breath.
“What do you mean? Who snuck up on who?” Kitchens asked her as Minx was going through the bathrobes Justin was holding.
“He did. The one giving bathrobes to Minx,” Kass said as she looked at Kitchens with a lopsided frown. Did you not even notice him appear?
“No, he didn’t. He just matched his footsteps with others and swayed while he moved with the light,” Kitchens said back, arms crossed as he spoke. “One could see him coming from very far away.”
“That sounds like a fancy way to say he snuck up on us.” Kass’s frown grew worse. “You’re just describing what he did to prove you noticed it even though he was trying so hard.”
“So you understand,” Kitchens’ smug look broke into a grin and he went up to Justin, “So, may I have one as well, sir?”
“Of course! I have the perfect one for you!” Justin was just as happy as Alex and Darwin.
Wait, Darwin . . . Where did he go? Kass looked around, realizing all of the sudden that Darwin had disappeared somewhere while she was talking with Kitchens. The good thing for her though was that the ship was glass, and he was now the only person not wearing black. Spotting him was almost exactly like looking for a white dot on a black background. There you are. What are you doing over there? she thought, seeing him standing against one of the ship’s rails.
“Hey! Didn’t you want to wait and see what Kitchens and Minx looked like with new bathrobes?” Kass called out to Darwin as she walked up next to where he was standing on the side of the ship.
“No, I needed a break,” he said, his voice flatter than she had remembered it.
“A break?” Kass asked. “You mean from Minx and Kitchens? I thought you guys were getting along.”
“Not from them. From this. From all of this. I just wanted a moment to relax and not worry about the game,” he said.
That’s right. He doesn’t have an off-switch, a logout option. We’re all here out of choice, but he’s a prisoner of this world. Her face sunk as she remembered the context of their meeting. “You know, you can always talk to me if you want. I’m kind of still here for you whenever you need me, Darwin,” she offered, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Even if your wardrobe is questionable.”
“Kass, earlier . . .” he started, stopping only after two words. Kass wanted to interrupt him, ask him what was earlier, but the empty look on his face told her to wait, so she did. After a minute he finally started talking again. “Kass, earlier, I died.”
“Huh?” she found herself befuddled. What does that even mean?
“While you were all knocked out, I had to fight a group of the ninjas. There were eleven of them. During the fight, I took out a few, but they ended up killing me.”
“But you’re still here. Isn’t that good news? That means if you die, you’ll just revive like a player, right?” Kass said, confused as to why Darwin seemed upset about this.
“No. I’m here because of a passive ability. It eats charges to revive me, but it only works once an hour and only when certain conditions are met,” he explained, his eyes still holding the same hollow look.
“Oh . . .” Kass found herself at a loss for words. What up side is there to that now?
“Kass, when I died, it was horrifying. It was cold, empty, terrifying. I always thought in real life that when you die, you just kind of close your eyes and that’s that. I had imagined it as peaceful. This . . . This wasn’t peaceful or nearly as simple as closing your eyes. I don’t know if you’ve died in this game yet, but it was an experience I never want to feel again. It felt like all the warmth, love and joys of my life were being pulled out of me one at a time, and a cold, sharp, biting pain was filling their place. Then, the revival process . . . It wasn’t much better. It was even more painful.”
Even after he had finished his description, Kass just stayed quiet. She didn’t know what to say. People had died plenty of times in the game, but none of them had gone through what he had. It was always just a forced logout screen, and that was that. What he was describing sounded horrible. If people had to go through that, no one would ever buy the game. That empty look in his eyes, the hollow face, the cold and ruthless barbarism he had shown the leader–it was all starting to click in Kass’s head, and she found herself even more lost. Lacking any words to fill the air, she just moved her hand from one shoulder to another as she did her best to pull him into an awkward half hug as they stood by the railing. It took a moment, but he also reciprocated and pulled himself all the way into her arms.
After what felt like forever to Kass, he broke the hug, pushing her from him while holding onto both her shoulders. “Thanks,” he said. “Thanks for everything.”
“No problem. If you ever need to talk again just tell me. You don’t have to be all macho and bottle it up. No one will ever judge you for this type of stuff,” Kass assured him, patting his shoulder again.
No one will ever judge the true you because no one will ever understand you, she thought, feeling like the distance between the two had not only just shrunk, but, in a way, had also grown. The hug, the fact that he had opened up, the fact that she was able to comfort him, it was all good at closing the gap between them as friends, but the fact that she couldn’t even begin to empathize made her feel like a little wall had sprouted up between them. No matter how long they hung out, he was fighting for his life, and she was just playing a game.
“Thanks again,” he said, looking back towards the sea. “Now there’s only one problem.”
“I’m scared of dying again, and if I don’t level fast–and I mean real fast–the next time I fight ninja cats or karate turtles or whatever Tiqpa throws at me, I might die,” he said, watching another ship come in. “This is a nice step back from the fighting and grinding, but I need to be doing both of those things. I have to stay above everyone else. My life depends on it.”
“Well, there is an easy enough solution there. How about we just check in with Alex, wrap up on the boat stuff and then go clear that dungeon like there’s no tomorrow. We can go from dungeon to dungeon, just the four of us until we’re so high in Levels people will think we’re cheating.”
“You really think it’s that easy?” he looked at her, his face twisted sideways.
“I don’t see why not. Seems easy enough,” she said, purposefully smiling more than was natural. Smile with your eyes, Kass, or they won’t believe you.
“And the Panda King? Your new friend, Robin, I mean?” Darwin poked at the fact she had originally been so clueless as to his nefarious schemes.
I was the one who lead him on the quest that caused him to die. It clicked like a knife through the chest. I got him killed.
“Um, do we have to finish his quest just because we take it?” she asked, trying to offer him the only solution she knew. It was like when a creepy guy asked her on a date, and she wanted to say no, but he was too insistent. All she had to do was agree to it and then flake out when the promised time showed up.
“That’s . . . That’s not a bad idea. It’d buy us plenty of time to get Alex and them out of the town while we go clear the dungeon. We could meet back up where we left the so-called bandits, and then the whole faction can move into and fortify the new home together.
“Yeah, that’s the spirit! Let’s do it!” she almost shouted with the best enthusiasm she could muster and patted his back as hard as she could, but it only left her hand stinging and Darwin unmoved. What in Hades is he made of?
“Alright, let’s tell the others the plan and get a move on,” Darwin said, turning around, but then pausing for a moment. “Oh, and Kass, one more thing.”
“Yeah?” she asked as she looked up at him. Has he always been this tall?
“Thanks again,” he said, smiling, and the two of them walked back to the rest of the group.