The Heroic Villain 3: Chapter 1

Character Name: Lucas
Level: 37
Hit Points: 5310
Arcane Energy: 2600
Stamina: 800
Holy Energy: Class Locked
Current Class: Lich

Arcanum [increases Arcane Energy by 10 per point]: 250
Holy [No Effect/Class Locked]: 0
Athletics [increases Stamina by 10 per point]: 70
Fortitude [increases Hit Points by 1% per point]: 350
Charisma: 555
Luck: 60
Unspent: 0

Current Elemental Attunement:
Elemental Attunement is currently locked at 0%.
No benefits may occur due to current class.

Arcane Resistance: 2%

Combat Proficiencies:

Lucas lay there with his back against the damp, chilly grass next to the makeshift pool that Eri, his Ant-Dragon, had carved into the Academy’s lawn. He couldn’t help but feel like a piece of him was missing as he stared up at the night sky. If a mystic fortune teller had shown up at that very moment and told him that every star was a shard of his soul and that he’d have to spend the rest of his life gathering them all together, he would have readily believed it, but he wouldn’t even have the energy to get up and begin trying.

That’s not how I remember it. Lucas rolled his head to the side and looked at the last woman he had been with. She was a cute brunette with green eyes and a button nose and had the exact type of perfectly spherical backside that every video game had gifted women before the trend of hyperrealism began to take over. She had been a latecomer to the fun and festivities, and she was one of the few who hadn’t gotten up and left yet.

It was so warm before, he thought, remembering what his first time had been like with Yu Hua. The act had been glorious, like a thousand fireworks exploding in his heart as it lit up his dreams and hopes. It had been just the two of them, curled up in a dorm room bed while struggling to stay as close together as possible so that neither would hang off the side of Lucas’s twin mattress. Compared to that comfortable touch, that sense of closeness and loving embrace and the desperate need to try and hold every part of her close to him, this was nothing. That warmth, that sensuousness, was what Lucas remembered the most from his nights with his wife.

Now, all he could feel was the prickly sensation of cold grass pressed into his back, telling him how damp the ground was after so many wet feet had walked across it after exiting the pool. It wasn’t that he hadn’t enjoyed himself with Viola–and later on with Bonnie, who had logged back in–or even any of the other women. He had. He had enjoyed them thoroughly. He had drowned himself in their flesh and pleasure and the endorphins that had flooded his brain as he indulged himself like a parched man dying of thirst after years alone in the desert. After what felt like forever, he had finally sated his long-denied hedonistic urges. But the moment it had ended, the moment he had unentangled his limbs from theirs, he had started to feel empty again. The cold, empty, and hollow sensation crept back in and lodged itself in his inner being like an unwelcome guest he couldn’t drive off.

“This isn’t what it’s supposed to be like,” he muttered under his breath, likely not loud enough for anyone near him to hear.

“Mmm . . . Just . . . Just give me a few more minutes,” the girl next to him mumbled back as she rolled over, turning her back to him. “I’ll help clean up. I’ll just sleepy-sleepy five more minutes.”

“I’ll help too,” another voice added weakly from closer to the pool. “Just . . . give me a few more minutes before you make me walk.”

Lucas didn’t even have the energy to shake his head as he turned his eyes away from the cute brunette beside him and back to the stars. He briefly wondered if he would feel any different if it had just been Viola, or if she hadn’t left long ago while the drunken debauchery was still going on in the pool, or if he had even known any of the girls’ names that came after her and Bonnie. A picture of Liu’s face suddenly floated in front of his eyes as he thought about the missing woman, and a sense of shame washed over him. No, we’re not a couple. Lucas tightly clenched his teeth together as he tried to dispel the persistently growing guilt at the thought of her. The pang of guilt stabbed into his heart, wrapped around his chest, and threatened to suffocate him, holding him in place. We’re not a couple. I don’t owe her anything in that way. This was just . . . This was just one night of fun. I needed this. She’ll understand. She’ll . . . Lucas’s thoughts were suddenly shattered by a loud shout.

“What the hell?!” Nick exclaimed from the other side of the pool, closer to the Headmistress’s building.

“Oh, hey,” Lucas said, happy for the interruption. He sat up, got to his feet, and brushed himself off. He automatically leaned back, trying to crack his back for a moment, before remembering that stretching wasn’t needed inside the game’s virtual world. “Did you just get back?” Lucas asked while equipping a pair of pants from his inventory. The night’s activities had robbed him of his situational awareness. He had worked so diligently to complete the quest The Unconquerable Lord and had tried his hardest to sate his thirst, gaining a ridiculous permanent stat increase of 105 Charisma in the process.

“Really?” Nick asked, his voice a combination of accusation and disbelief. His gaze dropped down to the young woman at Lucas’s feet, who was still curled up in the grass, and then snapped back to Lucas. “Couldn’t even leave Lizzie alone, could you?” Nick squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head as if trying to shut out an image and then took in a deep breath.

Lizzie? Lucas wondered for a second, and then he looked down at the girl, trying to recall her face. He vaguely remembered where he had seen that face before. She was the girl that Nick had run off with while in the dungeon, taking every chance he could to chat her up after getting her contact information. I mean, they couldn’t have been together after only a few short hours . . . at most, but . . . Lucas frowned as he began to realize why she had shown up later than the others. She had been talking to Nick. They had taken a walk, and she had snuck off to come back to the party, likely leaving Lucas’s friend on his own. “I’m sorry, Nick. I . . . I didn’t know,” he stammered.

Nick’s heavy boots thudded against the ground as he strode toward Lucas, almost exactly like a child stomping against floorboards in order to demonstrate his frustration to his parents after being sent to his room. As soon as Nick began moving, the girl closer to the pool rose up and began trying to shuffle away without drawing attention to herself. She seemed to be trying to stay as low to the ground as possible, as if she were hiding behind some invisible object that only Lucas couldn’t see, and her awkward departure did everything but help her remain inconspicuous.

“I was just”–Lucas gestured at the pool, ignoring the escaping woman–“doing a quest . . . and . . .”

“Sorry? You didn’t know? Didn’t know what? That you hadn’t seen me with her before? That’s freaking garbage, and you know it,” Nick retorted, stopping a short distance away and shoving an accusing finger in Lucas’s face.

Meanwhile, the still-naked girl in question had also stood up, and she was the one who broke the silence that followed Nick’s words. “Oh, freaking stop it, Nick,” she said sarcastically as she materialized a dress from her inventory and began pulling it over her head. “I just freaking met you today, man, so stop being a damn weirdo about it. I mean, you don’t own me. I’m not some first-come, first-served ride at an amusement park. So what if I saw other people enjoying themselves and wanted to have a little fun? It’s not like I was aiming to pick up a boyfriend or anything.” She shifted slightly after adjusting her dress and looked over at Lucas. “No offense.”

“Uhh . . . none taken?” Lucas replied, lying. He didn’t know anything about her, but the fact that she clearly didn’t even see him as a potential prospect felt like a disappointment.


“But nothing,” Lizzie snapped, cutting Nick off. “I bat my eyes twice at you and toss you a number, and you come in here just to ruin my afterglow? Blegh. Don’t be such a creep next time, ‘kay?” Her words cut deep enough to apparently silence the glowering Nick, stopping any other rebuttal he might have had. “And you,” Lizzie continued as she turned to Lucas. “You have nothing to be sorry about.” She planted a big kiss on Lucas’s cheek. “Invite me if you’re ever doing that again. It was fun. A second romp wouldn’t be bad if I have the time, although I really should be focusing on grinding reputation.”

“Right,” Lucas answered. He carefully avoided using “yes” or “sure” in response so as not to risk belittling Nick again with his casual indifference to whatever Lizzie wanted.

“Later, gaters!” Lizzie said, throwing up a hand to wave goodbye as she boldly walked away, leaving only Lucas and the red-in-the-face-angry Nick.

“Look, man, I’m so sorry,” Lucas said the moment he was sure the two were alone. Lizzie’s “you don’t own me” hadn’t absolved Lucas of the fact that he had broken an unspoken social rule, and he knew he had to apologize and try to set things right. “I really didn’t put two and two together. Also, I was drunk, and there were a lot of people, and–”

You have taken 27 points of damage.

The message flashed across the screen, and the warning registered in Lucas’s head before he ever felt the pain from being punched across the chin. Nick’s fist was clenched so tightly that his knuckles had gone white, and while the attack hadn’t been particularly fast, the fact he had been the one to act left Lucas completely shocked.

“That frea–”

“No!” Nick shouted at Lucas. “I’m done listening to you talk with your garbage forked tongue, you snake. That’s all you do: talk, talk, talk. You’ve always got an answer for everything, some reason for being an oblivious jerk to everyone around you. You think those words make it okay? You think anything you have to say is going to make what you’re doing to Liu okay?”

“What does Liu have to–” Lucas began to ask, but then another punch came at him. Even though Lee saw it coming, Nick still had a physically focused class. His fist was too fast for Lucas to avoid, and the hit connected with Lucas’s face again, pulling 27 more points off his health bar.

“I said, ‘Stop talking’!” Nick shouted. His face had shifted to an even darker, more sanguine shade of red than before. “I’m the one talking this time, not you. Gawd, you piss me off so damn much, you piece of garbage. You think, because some girl you thought was an NPC looked familiar to you, it was okay to murder Malik, Valerie, and me during our first quest, right at the gates, just when we were starting the game? You think that just ‘cause you’re charming and flirtatious that you can just do whatever you want with whoever you want? That there won’t be consequences? That we’ll all just be so happy to have been in your very presence that we’ll let it slide? Is that what you think?”

“Nick, calm down,” Lucas said, immediately regretting his choice of words. He knew from experience that those two words rarely had the desired effect, and the fact Nick’s face grew darker confirmed his mistake.

“No! No, I’m not going to calm down. I’m tired of watching this! I’m tired of watching people like you hiding behind their pasts and doing awful crap to people. I’ve been watching it happen my entire life. I get it. Your wife died. Boo-freaking-hoo with that trash. Sad crap like that happens to every damn person on this freaking planet, and it doesn’t give you free rein to behave like a soulless monster!”

Nick stepped forward to throw another punch, but a woman stepped out of the shadows and grabbed Nick’s wrist before the attack connected, spinning him around and trapping him in a lock that bound his arms so that he couldn’t attack.

When did she get there? Lucas wondered, curiously studying the naked woman.

“Impotent rage,” Lilith scoffed. Her voice was quiet but clearly patronizing. “The fury of not being wanted. Be honest, child. You’re not mad at Lucas. You’re mad at yourself because you didn’t get the girl.”

“Lilith,” Lucas began. She had disappeared earlier before the celebration had truly begun yet reappeared now, undressed as if she had been there the entire time. “It’s okay. I have this.”

Lilith nodded, and her slight grin crept upward. “You want to put down the rabid, drunken dog yourself? I get it. But no great king holds the executioner’s sword himself. It’s beneath him. It’s beneath you. No matter what, there’s always the chance punishment won’t be delivered. If you’re holding the sword, who will there be to blame?”

“Get off me!” Nick roared, activating several abilities in nearly perfect succession. The woman pinning his arm was pushed back, and Nick spun away while stepping back to create some distance between the two. “What the hell is wrong with you, woman?”

If he could have just hit me a few more times, maybe he would have calmed down, Lucas thought, planning out his next steps in the dialogue. But now . . . because of Lilith, it’s escalating too fast. I need to do something. “Look, Nick, I’m sorry if–

“No, I don’t need to hear it. I’m done,” Nick stated. He pulled a bag out of his inventory and threw it at Lucas’s chest, the contents making a string of clinking sounds as the coin purse bounced off him. “You can keep your damn money. No amount of gold is worth this.” Nick glared at Lucas before finally turning around and walking away.

Lilith looked like she was about to pounce, so Lucas reached out and grabbed her, stopping her instead of Nick.

She spun around the moment he touched her arm, showing him a mischievous smile. “I don’t hate your choice,” she said, “but you need to be decisive. You could have kept the pawn or killed the pawn, but never let a piece drop off the board.”

“He wasn’t a pawn,” Lucas replied with a frown.

“Oh, don’t say that,” Lilith laughed. “The only people you don’t treat like pawns are bishops and rooks, both of which you guide across the board for your own means.”

Lucas’s color deepened as he studied her, not entirely sure how to take what she said. Is that how I appear to the outside world? “He was a good man.”

“Right,” she quickly agreed. “As an asset. He was good as an asset: mild, weak-willed, and easily manipulated. It is a shame you let your desires get between you two. Keeping two roosters in the hen house will only invite trouble, and I understand your desires, but you should have been decisive. The Lucas I know doesn’t second guess his choices.”

“I don’t think you do understand.” Lucas closed his eyes as he tried to process what had just happened. He didn’t know what to do or how to get Nick back to the right side. He didn’t want to ruin the first friendship with a man he had managed to establish in years over an accident. Will he sober up and come to his senses? Will he at least discuss this with me?

“Lucas, what are you planning?” Lilith asked, her voice suddenly completely different. Instead of the coy, silky, snake-like seductress’s tones that usually slithered through his ears, her voice was flattened by what he could only assume was a surprise. “What are you thinking about, Lucas?”

“Huh?” His eyes snapped open, and he was almost startled by how close she was to him. Her naturally beautiful features struck him more poignantly in the absence of her usual alluring artifice. Her face is so perfect. There’s not even a single blemish or mark to mar its symmetry. He couldn’t help but automatically think of Liu’s scar. Suddenly, he remembered. Nick had distracted him, even if he had been the one to bring up Liu earlier. Crap, crap, crap, Lucas thought in a panic, bringing up the in-game clock. Crap, crap, crap. His mind kept repeating the word as he checked the time and realized he was going to be late for his meeting with Liu and his mother if he didn’t somehow manage to log off, put on a suit, and make it to the restaurant in less than five minutes. Damnit, Mom is going to kill me, Lucas grumbled as he signed off without answering Lilith.


The restaurant looked like the spawn of every 90s Asian-fusion chain from the outside, but it had a rather featureless and uniform interior. Once inside, it took Lucas no more than a few seconds to spot his mother and Liu. They were sitting at a booth across the room, busily talking with each other. Much like Liu, his mother was one of those people who rarely remembered to flip the “indoor voice” switch on when eating out, and he was able to hear the two of them from across the room. Liu even loudly slapped the table twice.

“What’s so funny?” Lucas asked, waiting for the two women to catch their breath as the humor died down. He started to slide into the booth next to his mother, but she threw her hands out and thwarted his attempt to sit down. As a result, he was awkwardly forced to slide in next to Liu instead.

“You lost the right to sit next to your super-beautiful, incredibly attractive, charming, dear old mother when you couldn’t make it to dinner on time,” Liu explained, sliding toward the wall to make room for him. We were just talking about things that could have kept you from showing up on time, Mr. CEO of Punctuality.”

“Right. And I was thinking about how serious your face must have looked due to whatever was holding you up,” his mother continued, obviously teasing him. “I mean, you always were way too serious, like that time in fourth grade when you tried to file a complaint with the school’s counselor department for trying to punish you with the rest of the students. You actually tried to argue that collective punishment is technically a war crime!” As she finished, she broke into another fit of laughter.

“Oh, my god, I still can’t believe it!” Liu exclaimed, managing to throw her own fit. “She even has pictures. She has pictures of you wearing that fancy little suit as a fourth-grader, your glasses all the way up your nose, and your hair filled with a pound of gel! It’s sooo adorable! I’m just dying. I knew you were always the serious, mopey type, but I didn’t realize how much. Gina, you can’t be keeping these kinds of stories from me–or these kinds of pictures.”

“Oh, there are plenty more,” Gina replied, practically beaming. “He may have been a serious kid, but it was also seriously cute. I still can’t believe he took his dad’s briefcase to school just to look more serious during the accusation.”

“I didn’t have many friends the year after that,” Lucas commented. He couldn’t help but chuckle at the memory even as his cheeks turned red from embarrassment. It was impossible to forget how socially awkward he had been when he was younger–or how the other students had laughed at him. Not that I’ve gotten much better.

“Oh, but you always had me to talk to,” Gina said, her words slightly unintelligible through her laughter. “Those were the good days.”

“I imagine. I bet it’s hard to get him to talk these days, right?” Liu prompted. “He’s always focused on playing his game and his goal in the game.”

“Or cheese and liquors– Which reminds me! You better not be driving with that habit of yours!” his mom lectured. “I don’t care if you do own one of those cars that drives itself. If I see you behind the wheel of it after even one drink, I’m going to hang you upside down by your toes and beat you like cake mix till you’re whipped so badly that you can’t even move!”

“I don’t, Mom. Relax,” Lucas said, throwing up both hands in defeat. “I just take one of the company auto-transports everywhere.”

“So, why were you late then?” his mother pressed. “And could you not figure out how to use a phone? You should have called ahead if you were going to be late. Didn’t I teach you manners? Even a quick email would have been fine! I was worried sick.”

“No, you weren’t,” Liu objected with a chuckle. She leaned in and bumped Lucas’s shoulder with her own before turning her head toward him as if she had a serious secret to share. “She knew you probably got caught up in the game and would show up any minute, and so she spent the whole time before you arrived trying to think of your most awkward childhood moments to tell me so I could use them as blackmail against you.”

“Yeah, that does sound like her,” Lucas replied, nodding knowingly.

“Hey! Snitch! How are you going to narc on your own mother-in-law?!”

“Don’t go claiming that title! I don’t think he or I drink enough to be married and not know it,” Liu said hastily, checking her left hand for what was likely an imaginary ring as if an accidental marriage were a possibility.

“Just give it time. You two look so perfect together,” the mom opined. “It doesn’t take a fortune teller to know you’re going to end up sitting in a tree, F-U-C–”

“Gina! We’re in public!” Liu exclaimed, quickly leaning forward across the table as she tried to push a hand over Lucas’s mother’s mouth to stop her from spelling out profanity in a restaurant.

“So, what’d you order me?” Lucas asked, hoping to shift the topic to something more wholesome. “You know, just in case I need to ask the waiter to bring me a side dish.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. We got you a California Queen,” his mom said. It was a burger with pepper jack cheese, avocado, bacon, and stone-ground mustard served on an artisanal ciabatta bun with sundried tomatoes on the side, just in case the burger itself didn’t scream “California” enough.

“Oh, we did not,” Liu admitted, patting Lucas’s shoulder. “We got him the same thing he always eats here: the Mean Dean with cheese melted across a side of steak fries.” The Mean Dean, the signature burger of the restaurant, was layered with swiss cheese, an onion ring encircling mushrooms and jalapenos, and more swiss cheese. It was then topped with bacon and smashed between two thick sourdough buns. “You wanted to get him that California Queen, but you’re the only one who orders it, so how was I going to let you thrust it on my helpless little Lucas?”

“Aww, so he is yours! You admit it! Now that you recognize me as the great and mighty mother-in-law, you can’t keep narc’n on me!” Gina grumbled jokingly, her still-smiling face giving away her act.

“Well, the Mean Dean sounds delicious,” Lucas said abruptly. “The only thing else it could use . . .”

“Is a crisp blood orange cider? Way ahead of you,” Liu interjected.

“I’d have ordered it for you, but that smarmy little bastard of a waiter tried to card me,” Gina grumbled. “I swear, next time he tries talking smooth to me like he’s some suave actor, and I’m a tip-generating machine, I’m going to call up your father. He’ll not have any of that! Some young-blood stud trying to make moves on his girl for money? Kid’ll lose that silver tongue in a second!”

“Alright,” Lucas sighed helplessly. “Maybe we can, uhh . . .” He blanked as he tried to figure out somewhere that he could steer the conversation that would be safe.

“What? You’re going to tell me you’re embarrassed by your mother?” Gina asked.

“No.” Lucas shook his head. “I was just going to say . . .” He let the last word linger, enjoying the first moment of silence since he sat down. “Well, we should have done this sooner.”

“We definitely should have,” Gina agreed, nodding. “I’m worried you haven’t eaten right at all. Look how thin you are. Are you trying to be one of those French underwear models? Where’s your winter warmth? How come you don’t have any gut girth? You’re bringing shame to our name, Lucas. If I had known you were this sickly looking, I’d have gotten you an appetizer.” She shook her head. “Fine. You know what? No worries. We’ll just make sure you get a dessert. We’ll get you a brown cow and a black-on-blondie with ice cream and extra fudge to go with it.”

“I think that may be too much for me,” Lucas said, trying to imagine where he might be able to put all of it as he looked down at his belly. Cursed game, getting rid of my expansion pack, he thought.

“He eats enough,” Liu interjected patiently. “The only reason he’s not fat is because we’ve been running him back and forth in the game.”

“Oh, right,” Gina replied, looking over at Liu. “You were telling me about that game little Lucas has been into lately. How is that? It’s not a violent game, is it? He’s not doing something he shouldn’t be, is he?”

Liu and Lucas both exchanged a look of “Crap, how do we spin this?” the moment Gina brought up the topic of video game violence. Lucas was almost shocked she didn’t know already, given that there were tons of videos of the game easily available. Nevertheless, he thanked his lucky stars that the only videos his mother ever watched were ones involving archaic humor targeting nerds–but that didn’t have any actual nerd humor for some reason–and awkward cop dramas where no one could differentiate between a computer and a magical device capable of anything so long as it was used by a girl wearing goth emo clothes.

“Oh, I know that look, L&L. Fess up. How bad is this game? Is it one of those games about devils and monsters? Are people killing each other? I heard from your father that it wasn’t a game I would like. Did he say that because of monsters? There aren’t monsters, are there?”

“The monsters in the game, the bad guys . . . Well, they’re no worse than your son,” Liu said, a big smile drawn across her face as she reveled in her little inside joke with Lucas.

“Aww, no worse than my little angel?” Gina replied with a grin, looking at Lucas. “Well, I suppose that’s not too scary. And there is no violence, is there? So help me, if there is violence, you’re not too old to spank!” she said threateningly.

“Oh, he’s not?” Liu looked over suggestively at Lucas. “And here I thought Bonnie was the only one at–”

“Mom,” Lucas interrupted, preparing a verbal defense to present to his mother. “I promise you, in terms of violence, the game is”–he paused for a second, trying to word the sentence just right as he thought about the million different threats his mother had made, even if she never carried them out–“no worse than the stuff you and I used to talk about back home. You’d be fine.”

“Okay. Well, that’s good,” Gina said, looking at the drink in front of her. “Well, I got a glass of wine here, a box of wine at home, and a husband that is going to tell me groaners all night long, which means I need to drink both before I’m forced to listen.”

“Oh, quit acting like you don’t love his old-man jokes,” Lucas chastised. “I’ve heard you practically break a rib laughing at them.”

“That’s just . . . That’s his . . . Whatever.” Gina lifted the glass of water in front of her and downed it like a beer she was trying to drink in one shot and then wiped the corner of her mouth before looking to the side, away from Lucas, as if she were trying to strike a majestic pose. “You youngsters will never understand the secrets of the old married couple. Sometimes, we have to fall on our swords and laugh because–”

“Oh, come on,” Liu began, butting in. “I’ve even heard you telling groaners lately. Don’t act like you don’t love old-man jokes. Like what was that octopus one you used to tell? How do you make an octopus laugh? Ten tickles?”

Before the punchline even left Liu’s mouth, Gina had already started cackling and slapping her leg enthusiastically. “Hey! We’re not here to interrogate me. We’re here to interrogate him!” Gina said, pointing at Lucas. “I thought this was a women-stand-together moment!”

“What are you interrogating me about?” Lucas asked, looking back and forth between the two of them. “Wait, why are you two in cahoots on this?” He was suddenly uncertain as to what would happen if they decided to gang up on him. Gina was his mother and should have taken his side due to their blood relationship, but Liu had been his right hand in every villainous act for what seemed like weeks thanks to the time compression in the game.

“Liu said there are some girls batting their eyelashes at you, and you’ve been rather receptive,” Gina replied.

“Hey! Don’t throw me under the bus!” Liu exclaimed defensively. “I only said that he’s shown some interest in a few girls lately.”

“So, who are they?” Gina asked, leaning onto the table. “What pretty thing is melting the ice king’s heart?”

“When you asked me about it, I thought you agreed not to do this,” Liu said quietly. She genuinely looked a little uncomfortable with the topic, and her eyes darted between Lucas and his mother.

“Then what are we supposed to do? Just sit quietly, have some drinks, and eat our food while pretending to have some meaningful conversation as we exchange basic niceties?” Her glare sharpened as she listed off the suggestions as if they were some abysmal torture.

“That actually sounds quite nice,” Lucas answered. “I’m actually glad that you were the one to suggest it since I would have been afraid to volunteer such an itinerary otherwise.” He tried to suppress a smile as he watched a waitress come over with the tall glass of cider the girls had ordered for him. “And perfectly timed. Thank you so much,” Lucas said as he took the glass from her.

“Oh, wow,” the waitress said, looking at him.

“What?” Lucas blinked, not sure what that look from her meant as he watched the waitress intently study his face.

“You just . . . You look so familiar. Like . . . Hold on.” The waitress looked around the room. “Hey, Marc, Carlson, get over here a sec,” she shouted toward the kitchen.

Upon being called, two giant men, each of whom stood nearly seven feet tall and wore a tall chef’s hat that made up the difference, walked out from the kitchen. One of the culinary hulks wore a black chef’s jacket, and the other wore a white one, making the two resemble an oversized pair of salt and pepper shakers.

“What is it, Margot?” the black-jacketed one asked, lifting his chef’s hat for a second to scratch his head. Then he looked over at Lucas. “Oh, wait! It’s him! It’s uhh . . . That . . .”

“It’s that guy! The. . . The new boss from the game! Come on, Marc. You remember him, right? You kept taking Margot to do the dungeon with you on noob island on y’all’s date nights,” Carlson replied.

“Yeah! What was that boss’s name?” Marc looked like he was deep in thought. He moved to scratch his belly, but his hand stopped an inch away and just hovered as he stared at nothing in particular.

“Oh! Lupus! It’s Lupus, right?!” Carlson asked enthusiastically. “It’s that evil, racist human from the noob island!”

“. . . You freaking idiot,” Margot blurted out with a laugh. “You’ve been watching too many crippled doctor shows. The main boss isn’t Lupus; it’s Lucas.”

“Whatever. Lupus, Lucas–they sound the same, right?” Carlson said.

“Isn’t that girl also the boss’s wife?” Marc added, moving his hand from his belly to his head, seemingly looking for something to scratch.

“You’re no longer fat, and you don’t have any hair,” Margot said, seeing the move. “Just scratch your chin like a regular old man.”

“You’re right. You’re right,” Carlson said. “That girl looks exactly like the boss after she went through that Maidbanger arc where the dirty old noble that used to run noob island gashed her face in an epic final fight. That was so cool to watch. Did you guys see the restreaming?”

“I did!” Margot happily confirmed. “The way Lupus–I mean, ugh, Lucas–and Lady Xun Guan teamed up together to defeat the evil, lecherous Dray von Maidbanger . . . That fight was insane.”

“Such a cool arc,” Carlson agreed with a nod.

“And they’ve already rolled out new expansions for it,” Margot said.

“Devil King expansion or whatever they’re calling it on the boards,” Carlson clarified.

The trio kept talking away, inches away from the table that Lucas was sitting at, but Lucas couldn’t help but look at Liu as he tried to figure out how he’d get out of this if they went into too much detail about the nature of the game. The word “fight” had already come up, and Lucas didn’t know what he’d say if his mother connected this game with the one she knew he was playing.

“Devil King expansion? I like the name ‘Blood God’ more,” Carlson said.

“‘Prince of Blood,’” Margot suggested. “That’s my favorite name for it.”

“I just can’t believe the company is starting to release stuff without charging anything for it. Free-to-play content is the best,” Marc said.

“Well, we already bought the game and the subscription, so we’re paying them every month anyway . . . Why should we have to shell out more money every time they update the game?” Margot complained.

Lucas took this moment to interject. “It’s nice meeting you three, but I’m having a nice, quiet meal with my family. Do you mind if we get back to it?”

“Oh, sorry!” Marc said immediately. He was the only one to apologize and actually look sincere. His friends Margot and Carlson seemed annoyed with the fact that Lucas was shooing them off, and as they walked away, Lucas actually heard Margot’s complaints.

“He comes in full cosplay with some face mask or makeup kit so that he looks just like the main character of a game, the girl too, and they don’t even offer a picture? What jerks,” she said as the three went back toward the kitchen.

“Hey! Cut it out! They’re customers at the moment. Watch how you talk! And you of all people should know how shy gamers are,” Marc said, wagging his finger at Margot while he scolded her, Carlson nodding in agreement at his side.

“We should, uhh . . . probably let her take that picture before we leave,” Liu whispered to Lucas.

“You better believe you will,” Gina cut in. “I eat here way too dang much for them to go spitting in my food ‘cause my son doesn’t know how to freaking smile. Over-serious stick in the mud, you take after your father, you hear me? Don’t go claiming you get that behavior from me!” While the words seemed to be scolding, the tone was more upbeat than what he usually heard from his mother.

“Well, I guess you did marry Dad, so it can’t be all bad, can it?” Lucas replied, furthering the joke. He picked up the cider and took a nice long sip.

“Not bad at all, Baron Lucas, the soon-to-be Devil King of the Blood Empire in Kent.” Gina grinned from ear to ear in such a wicked fashion it was hard to believe she wasn’t part imp or demon herself.

“Wha– What?” Lucas nearly spat out some of the cider he was sipping. Crap, crap, crap, crap! She knows!

“I needed a job! They were the only ones hiring, so don’t get mad! I swear! I’m innocent!” Liu quickly asserted, looking over at Lucas and instinctively raising her hand, her index finger already extending. “It was his–”

“Oh, come on. Don’t look so surprised. You two think I don’t know what game y’all play? You’ve been moping in that virtual world for so long, why wouldn’t I at least check on it to make sure it wouldn’t rot your brain like that creepy pixelated block-building game did to all those poor eight-year-old BluTube streamers? I just loved watching you two lie as a team. It was so cute, but my son has always been cute, even when he is lying through his teeth.” Gina paused. “You get that from your dad too.”

“Yeah . . .” Liu said. “But I’m serious. It was . . . I needed a job.”

“And the only job that a hyper-qualified, outgoing tech monkey like you could do is work as an entry-level employee at a crappy, dying game company?” Gina leveled her gaze at Liu. “Don’t start trying to pull one over on me. I didn’t hit my head falling off a turnip truck.”

“Well, you see . . .” Liu wavered, clearly unsure of how she was supposed to answer and explain herself. “It’s like . . . I just . . . umm . . .”

Lucas was never more thankful for the fact Liu hated awkward silences than at this moment, and he used the opportunity to try and figure out just how to justify his video game villainy to his over-informed mother.

“Oh, don’t try to piddle around the pond. Cast a line or go home with that lame attempt at an excuse. Not like you need to. I know what happened. You signed up to the game so you could comfort my precious little Lucas, and Lucas signed up because he’s too lazy to go outside but wanted the feel of the sun on his cheeks. You weren’t making any progress cheering him up, so you took my harmless, helpless, sweet and innocent little Lucas and turned him into a murderous, psychotic, racist-religion-leading villain and had him start random killing sprees everywhere. Everywhere! You know how many videos of ‘Negative’ there were? Maybe a hundred. But now that he’s a madman, I’ve seen close to four or five thousand showing up on my BluTube feed! Definitely not what a mother wants to see first thing in the morning–her sweet child ripping the spine out of some helpless little elven kid while cackling like a madman!” Even though Gina’s words were accusatory, she didn’t appear to be either mad or upset in the slightest. She had uncrossed her arms and was smiling pleasantly as she spoke about Lucas’s villainy. “Those poor, poor netizens. I can’t believe you unleashed him on them,” she ended, sighing.

“It really wasn’t my doing. I told him he should do a bunch of fetch quests, to go about his rise diplomatically . . . but he . . . he, uhh . . .” Liu, who was still throwing Lucas under the bus like he was a speed bump in a school zone, made a little “I’m sorry” face in place of actually saying anything and just shrugged apologetically as if she couldn’t be expected to explain things in a way that actually made sense. “He said it would be too boring,” she said eventually.

“Yes, that does make sense,” Gina agreed. “Just between you and me, I got him a teddy bear for Christmas once because he liked to snuggle up under the covers, and I thought the little doll would make it more adorable.” She began gesturing animatedly as she told the story, her hands making quicker and quicker movements. “But then, less than a day later, I came into his bedroom and found him dissecting the bear! He had removed the stuffing into a nice pile and was neatly cutting all the seams, as if he were trying to return it to its pre-assembled condition. The worst part was that he wasn’t old enough for us to let him near the knives or scissors, so he was using his teeth to split the threads. I asked what he was doing, and he just looked up like nothing was wrong and just shrugged. He just shrugged! Oh, heavens me, I nearly had a heart attack. When I finally got him to explain what he had done, he said he wanted to know what was so soft inside. I knew right then, right then and there, the poor boy should never be allowed near any violent games.”

This time, when Liu looked over at Lucas, it wasn’t to offer a silent apology for treating him like Aaron’s goat as she laid blame after blame on him while dodging all responsibility but rather to give him a slightly repulsed expression. She then nodded. “Actually, that does seem like something Lucas would do. He’s so weird, isn’t he?” Liu asked, directing her gaze back to Gina.

“You have no idea!” Gina exclaimed, slapping the table before turning to Lucas. “So, anything to say for yourself?”

“I had fun?” Lucas replied, offering that up as a half-proper apology for lying to his mother about the game. “I mean, it was fun and a nice break from things.”

His mother smiled broadly at the reply for a brief moment before catching herself and straightening out her face. “Well, that’s nice. As long as you had a good time. I’ve been worried about you. I know it’s natural to mope, but you weren’t doing yourself any favors by leaning into it like that for so long. I swear, I’ve met widowers before, but you climbed into that tiny, rinky-dink apartment like it was a little four-walled prison cell and punished yourself for months.”

“Mom . . .” Lucas scowled. There really wasn’t much he could say back to that. “No chance at all I can try to sell you on niceties over a meal again, is there?”

“Hmm . . .” Gina looked back and forth at the two across the table from her and then finally nodded. “Yup. Fine. But you better bet your last strip of bacon that I am not yielding my right as your mother to give you a hard time for your own good.”

Lucas sighed and shook his head. “So . . . you’ve been following everything?” he asked. “Even us taking over the Academy?”

“Oh, you killed the Headmistress? I knew that was going to happen,” Gina replied. “That wench deserved it. And there was this impish buffoon taking her side on the boards, that troll-bot moron, DoubleOMalik44.” Gina continued her string of insults for another second and then continued her story. “He had the nerve to say that you deserved to die and that your questline was stupid and fake. How dare he?! How dare he say that about my son?! You better believe I laid into him–and then used your father’s account to scold him even more!”

This revelation about his mother left Lucas a little shocked. He could just imagine his mother swearing, cursing, and insulting random people online for his sake, and he was both incredibly touched and amused. He had always been on the receiving side of her scolding, so he knew how rough it could get. Without ever even saying a cuss word, she could make a lion bow its head and apologize for eating meat.

“And how about me?” Liu said, striking a serious pose. “Did I look really cool?”

“Liu, honey doll, you always look cool,” Gina replied, honestly complimenting her. Then more seriously, she added, “Don’t go fishing for compliments. It’s unladylike.”

The completely humorless use of the phrase “unladylike” after the previous sentences had just left Gina’s lips caused both Lucas’s and Liu’s jaws to drop.

“Un . . . unladylike?” Liu gasped, clearly in shock. “What the . . .? How can you say that after you just–” She was going to continue, but Lucas threw an arm around her and stopped her from pressing the point further.

“Mom, you’ve had poor Liu flustered the entire dang night. If you keep this up, I’m going to take her home, and we’re going to pop that bottle of wine without you in a video game world filled with violence,” Lucas warned. He wasn’t one to normally talk back to his mother, much less threaten her, but he could tell that Liu hadn’t taken Gina’s last statement well and that the poor girl, despite shifting blame at any chance, was clearly overstressed from the meal. Lucas wanted to just tell her to relax, that his mom probably loved her more than him, but he ended up stepping between them instead, as he so often had to do when he still ran a company, and two employees would start fighting over something trite and silly, like who was stealing whose food from the company fridge.

There was pregnant silence as Gina and Lucas eyed each other down, a deadly battle of wills being fought between their gazes as neither mother nor son seemed inclined to back down from their statement.

Gina leaned back in her chair after a tense moment and let out a long breath of air. “So, niceties over a meal?” she asked, once again smiling. “That sounds just fine with me.”

“Great,” Lucas replied, taking another sip of his cider. He usually drank dry red wine because that was what Liu seemed to bring him to match the cheeses in the game, but the cider’s sweet, crisp, slightly sour flavor was perfect for relaxing.

This is it, Lucas thought, looking over at Liu and then back at his mother. He had taken the long road to get to this moment, but this was what he wanted. He wanted to finish each day with a single cold drink and a meal with his family, with Liu, and some pleasant conversation to take in with the atmosphere. Even after everything that had happened earlier, he had felt empty and unsatisfied. But now, he was content.

He nodded once while smiling to himself. I know what I have to do. He refused to let his anxiety over the possibility of failure detract from his pleasant moment. He had been with women–surrounded by them for days, actually–and the only one who made him feel this happy, this content or satisfied with what he was doing, was Liu. What Viola and the others had done for him earlier hadn’t done anything but leave him filled with a joyless clarity on where he was in life and where he wanted to be. Then, just as he decided that he was making the right decision, his face twisted around as he remembered what else had happened earlier–what had led Nick to slug him and walk out. Right, that too. Lucas frowned just slightly to himself as he realized that he would have to tell her about that as well.

“I think I’m gonna leave you two to talk while I go to the little girls’ room,” Gina said, awkwardly shuffling out of the booth and disappearing.

“What was that about?” Liu asked.

“Oh, well . . .” Lucas let the word drag out as he did his best to avoid just saying “uhh” and scrambled to put together a lie. Finally, he just gave up and committed to the truth. Yeah, the truth is the best place to start. “My mom probably saw the way I was looking at you and wanted to make room so we could talk. She’s intuitive like that,” he said, drinking half of the glass of cider as he tried to keep his nerves calm. He had done this before. He had dated, he had married, and he had gone through the whole dog and pony show when it came to relationships, but his heart was still beating like crazy with anxiety as he mentally tallied up everything he risked by taking this step forward.

“Oh. Um. Well . . .” Liu seemed flabbergasted, her face turning four shades of red as she did exactly what he had feared her doing: she sat there slack-jawed, time seeming to have paused right when her words started trailing off.

“Yeah,” Lucas said. “Look, I won’t think any different if you’re not up for it,” he continued, “but I like you. You’re the most amazing woman, and every day I spend time with you is one I treasure. Even when I didn’t know who you were, when you were passing yourself off as a computer, you were still more fun to talk to than any person, and you always had new and fun experiences and ideas for us to try together–things I’ve grown to love. Whether it’s the dumb foods you bring, the adventures we go on, the way you interact with our friends, or just the feeling of finishing the game for the night and relaxing on the couch together, you’re the person I want to always do it with. You’re the only person I want to be with. And look, I know our current relationship makes this kind of awkward, and well . . . where I’m doing this isn’t helping, but I want to be with you. Just you.”

“Umm . . .” Liu seemed to still be broken, but her face had turned a solid red. She focused on the glass in front of her until she finally picked it up and took a huge gulp from it, reminding Lucas that no matter how great at drinking he was, she was faster at it.

Lucas had to resist the urge to say anything while watching her for any sign of what she was going to say. Then, just as he was about to open his mouth and say something, she slapped him. Hard. The hit right across his cheek was so loud that it resounded throughout the entire restaurant, pulling every eye in the place toward him.

Lucas was stunned. He didn’t know how to process what had just happened. He was prepared for rejection, but he wasn’t prepared for the rejection to be so physical and so violent.

“That’s for my sister,” Liu said as she eyed him, her face still beet red and flushed. “And me. That’s for my sister and me.”

“I’m . . . sorry?” Lucas asked, tentatively reaching up to where she had struck him.

“You know, if you had just come to this damn dinner and said what you said and been who you are . . . then . . .” She trailed off, mumbling to herself in a barely audible tone. “But you couldn’t. You had to get it out of your system. I get it . . .” She looked away and began mumbling again, nearly incoherent this time, but she finally turned back to Lucas.

“Okay. For starters, never mention what you did before coming here,” she demanded of him.

So she knows, Lucas reasoned, finally understanding the slap. He didn’t plan on hiding it from her, and he would have told her sooner if he had been able to, but he just didn’t want to kill the mood or ruin the dinner. Plus, that wasn’t a conversation he was willing to have in front of his mother. “Okay,” he consented. The fact she was making demands meant that he had a foot in the door at least. She was laying out terms. This wasn’t the most romantic moment he could have hoped for when he bared his heart for her, but it was better than a “no.”

“And no other women. Ever again. At all. Not under any circumstances. You cheat on me once, and I’m telling Gina,” Liu warned.

Lucas experienced a wave of relief as if a fifty-pound load lifted off his heart. This term was a guarantee she had accepted him.

“And never compare me to my sister. Ever,” she insisted, laying on another demand.

“I understand,” he replied, nodding along.

“And if you ever show up late for a dinner with me again, you better have a medical reason, or else I’ll give you one.”

“Okay.” Lucas just kept on nodding his head at her terms.

“Alright then,” she said, leaning back and picking up her drink before finishing it off in one gulp.

Lucas was aware that the whole restaurant was still watching them, waiting for something to happen. “So . . .” Lucas dragged out the word, waiting for her to add another condition to their on-the-spot dating contract, but instead, she just grabbed both sides of his face and kissed him.

It was a deep, passionate, breathtaking kiss. But Lucas couldn’t enjoy it as much as he should have. He was still in shock over how the event had unfolded. He had hoped for a “yes” and readied himself for a “no,” but the last thing he had anticipated was a slap and a contract.

After letting him go, Liu leaned back in the booth with a coy smile on her face. “Yeah, that was worth the wait.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Lucas replied. He touched his lips, still slightly shaken by the unpredictability of the night.

“But–and I have to ask this because I checked around while you were still gaming–who the hell is that Lilith chick?” Liu asked.

“Huh? What do you mean?” Lucas replied.

“I mean, who is she? What’s her deal?” Liu pressed.

“I don’t know. I approached her? Or she approached me? I forget exactly. We met at the Academy in a pretty random way, and she’s just kind of cropped up here and there since then,” Lucas explained. Then, after pausing for a moment, he corrected himself. “No, wait, she was there at court when we first came to Dover . . . She seems to be a fangirl of mine,” he added after it occurred to him how she often bragged of the wicked and villainous acts he would do. “A very committed one.”

“And you don’t think it’s a bad idea to hang out with a random fangirl?” Liu shook her head. “Are men always this dumb? Even if your stalker is pretty, it doesn’t mean she’s safe.”

“Well, it’s not that she’s safe . . . It’s more like . . . she’s the exact opposite. She’s been instrumental in a lot of fights. I’m sure you’ve seen her work. She’s a damn wizard with a blade, and her sadistic personality lends well to her doing things that I don’t think I could order someone like Nick–” Lucas paused as he recollected the events that had transpired earlier.

“What? What happened?” Liu asked worriedly, instantly realizing that something was wrong. “I know that look.”

“I definitely know it too,” Gina said as she sat back down. “That’s the same look Lucas had on his face when he was trying to decide how to tell us he had accidentally broken his father’s TV remote and didn’t know how to fix it.”

“Really?” Liu asked.

“Yeah, I was shocked too. It was just water damage. All we had to do was throw it in a bag of rice,” Gina replied. “You’d think a seven-year-old would be smart enough to figure that out. But who cares? He turned out marvelous.” She dragged out every syllable in the word “marvelous” as she said it.

“This is the point where I’m quite glad I have little to no shame left,” Lucas commented with a sigh. He then went to take another sip of cider only to realize that his glass was now empty, and the waitress still hadn’t come back. Ah, that’s right. We had made a scene earlier . . . when Liu slapped me, and even before that, I had offended the girl. He scanned the restaurant, hoping to spot Margot the waitress and make eye contact.

“Well, sense of shame or not, if you don’t have dinner with your mother once a week from now on, I’m going to end this budding romance by telling Liu all of the stories of my favorite adventures of Lucas”–Gina turned to Liu–“until she can’t stand to look at you. By the way, what were you two chatting about? I thought you’d have been making out or beating each other up–and Lucas would have totally deserved it either way.”

“What?! Take my side for once!” Lucas exclaimed, feigning both surprise and indignation.

“I’ll take your side when you start calling me more than she does,” Gina quipped. “You have a phone; you know how it works. Why do I have to talk to her to get the inside scoop on you sometimes?”

It didn’t take Lucas more than a few seconds to realize this would be something he would have to deal with again if he even so much as addressed it or acknowledged it existed. It was a dialogue opportunity his mother had likely stowed away and saved for just this moment so that she could leverage it against him and try to guilt him into more communication than he wanted to have with her. “So, yeah,” he began, “we were talking about our next steps in the game. We need to come up with a plan to keep making players more and more interested in it because . . . I . . . sort of own a majority stake in it now.”

“And you’re the bad guy. I know,” Gina replied. “Been following the plot in case you didn’t pick up on that. And that new girl, the crazy one that’s been with you.”

“Yeah, that’s the one we were discussing. I was just about to tell Liu about how Nick, who was really mad at me about something, came to vent his frustration, and Lilith, that crazy chick, interrupted him. Not only was he unable to get the anger out of his system as a result, but she taunted and mocked him until he left the group.”

“Was he the little emo guy in all dark armor?” Gina asked. “The one who has a thing for your fox-eared girl?”

“Yeah, that one,” Lucas answered with an affirmative nod. “That’s the one. No one is sure what’s up with Lilith. I don’t even know if she’s another role-playing player like us or if she’s an NPC.”

“Ahh . . . I can see how that would create some difficulties,” Gina said.

“Wait, Nick left the party?” Liu asked, looking at Lucas in shock.

“Yeah, he just . . . cursed me out and walked away,” Lucas replied, leaving out the specifics and that he had been punched in the face a couple of times.

“Ugh, I knew it. No offense, but that guy was always a whiner. He didn’t get more than a few dialogue lines, but every single one of them was cringeworthy and had him acting pouty,” Gina remarked.

Lucas wanted to facepalm. “Mom, you can’t say that.”

“What? I can’t say he’s a whiner ‘cause he’s your friend?” Gina asked.

“Yes. That. For that reason. Even if he’s ticked at me now, he’s still a buddy of mine, so don’t be mean,” Lucas insisted.

“It’s not my fault he’s going around all sour-faced like he ate a lemon,” Gina replied, folding her arms and leaning back. “A man should be sturdier, more immobile. Like your father.”

“You’ve obviously never seen Dad have to deal with losing a multiplayer RTS game,” Lucas answered back, laughing.

Gina looked around a second and then nodded. “Okay. That’s fair. Your father can get touchy sometimes, but that’s no excuse for Nick to go all black eyeliner and nose rings on you. The kid ain’t got no place acting a victim. What didn’t you give him? Freaking ingrates. How dare he vent anger on my boy? You know what? Forget this. How do I make a character? Liu, can you get me a power-leveled character? I am going to play this game, find that whelp, hang him upside down by his toes and beat him like a redheaded stepchild until he’s so blue and bruised he’ll start looking like a walking handicap sign.”

“Momma Lucas,” Liu said with a frown. “You know I can’t help you cheat. That’s not how the game works.”

“What? Screw how it works. Isn’t Lucas the boss? Can’t he just add in or take out whatever he wants? Why can’t he give me a character and let me play as a giant woman with a tennis racket so I can teach that little twerp a proper backhand!”

“‘Cause whether he hit me or not is between me and him, Mom,” Lucas said. “I still want to salvage that friendship eventually, maybe. Who knows?”

“Wait, was he your first male friend?” Liu asked.

“No, I’ve had plenty of . . .” Lucas came up short, suddenly drawing a blank. He didn’t just lack male friends; he lacked female friends too. Liu didn’t count since they were technically dating now, and since he had previously been with Yu Hua, she didn’t count either. He couldn’t remember a single proper friend he had made in the last decade. The whole reason he had been able to so easily shut himself into his apartment and do nothing without being bothered suddenly became painfully clear: outside of his immediate family, no one knew him well enough or cared enough about him to drag him out of the hole except Liu.

Gina reached across the table and patted Lucas’s hand where he still held onto the empty cider glass. “Yeah . . . the boy who cut up teddy bears as a child didn’t get many friends.”

“Hey . . .” Lucas wanted to contest her statement, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember a single real friend he had made as a kid. The only people he had talked to were acquaintances: people that he could use or ridiculously pretty girls that he had tried to hook up with after puberty kicked in. He couldn’t recall a single meaningful friendship. “So, how are we going to handle the story of the game?” Lucas asked.

“Keep killing people till we take over the town?” Liu asked more than actually suggested, as if there weren’t anything more complex going on.

“Well, that’s one way to look at it because we actually do have a large and growing faction with an opposing faction also forming,” Lucas thought, pausing for a minute. “But–”

“Wait! WAIT! You don’t have a proper twist yet,” Gina interjected. “You gotta have a twist! It’s like the basis of any good storytelling. Everyone is expecting one thing, but then you swipe them with something else. It’s how you build that good melodrama like the type we see on the boob tube. It’s just like those old shows where the protagonist and the enemy fight it out like bitter rivals for all to see. Each battle brings them nearer to death as they struggle against each other, but they secretly have deep, near-homoerotic feelings for each other, and as the battles continue, the two end up uniting against an even greater foe. Then they end up overcoming the foe and their differences at the same time, and then they hug it out, and then they–”

“MOM!” Lucas loudly exclaimed, once again turning several heads back in his direction and stopping her right there before she said something that would make him far too uncomfortable.

“I was just going to say that good bromances should end with guys that walk off into the sunset to build an empire together. It’s the basis of all good stories. Good old conflict resolution. It’s a lot better than that rinse-and-repeat ‘Oh my god, teen got random power and can’t cope with it ‘cause emotions, and then blah blah blah blah. Freaking nancy boys everywhere’!” Gina looked like she was about to spit in disgust.

“I’m going to just disregard what she said,” Liu stated, shaking her head. “You and Nick? I’d kill you both.”

“As a good woman should,” Gina commented. “Let your man get too close to another man, and you’re bound to wake up in the morning finding out that your husband has joined some cult where all they talk about every day is whether the books they read are crunchy or soft. They’re paper! They’re not edible!”

“Let me guess: Lucas’s dad?” Liu offered.

“Don’t remind me,” Gina groaned with a wince. “I’ll bet that, even as we speak, he and his self-proclaimed ‘brown brother’ are talking about an exploit in a game that doesn’t even exist.”

“But you know,” Lucas began, “she’s not entirely wrong. We might not be trying to tell a story, per se, but we are trying to sell a product, the game, to people. We need to give them a reason to reroll, to keep playing, and we also need to give them a reason to build the community back together. At the moment, all of their guilds are fractured while our side is solid as a rock. Just half an in-game day after the fall of the Headmistress, we’ve hit two or three hundred members. That’s larger than 95% of the guilds on the server, and it’s forcing players to interact with each other again. Conversely, the enemies? They’ve been coming in by the pair, trio, or five-man group at best.”

“You’re right . . .” Liu scratched her chin, mimicking the way Lucas was playing with his small beard. “I was going over the logs around the time you were . . .” She shot Lucas an evil glare. “Anyway, one of the things I noticed was that the largest guild to participate in the attack against us only had nine people. Nine was the largest. There is no cooperation or coordination between them.”

“Right,” Lucas agreed, “and now that we have people at the top level with great gear pouring in, they can dogpile the remnant enemy forces that are trickling in. They’ve basically had free rein against the players, and that’s going to be bad for us.”

“Mmhmm,” Liu replied, nodding.

“Why? You’re killing everyone. How is that bad?” Gina asked.

“It’s bad because it’ll get boring fast for the other players,” Liu replied. “No one is going to want to risk dying to a wicked dungeon and a large set of players ganking them–”

“Ganking?” Gina asked.

“Uhh, when more than one player attacks a solitary player. When the odds are clearly three or four versus one,” Liu explained. “We call it ganking because the person will be expecting a fair fight, and then a bunch of his opponent’s allies will pop out and make it impossible for him to either win or escape.”

“Ahh . . .” Gina frowned this time. “Yeah, that sounds boring and frustrating.”

“For our enemies, it’ll be hell. They’ll inevitably get frustrated and give up, and with no prey, our allies will give up,” Liu said. “We’ve somehow only made the game fun for one-half of the players.”

“So, maybe Mom’s suggestion isn’t entirely off the mark,” Lucas thought aloud, once again looking for the waitress as he started to get frustrated with the fact his glass was still empty. Damn waitress, Lucas thought to himself.

“Of course it’s not,” Gina harrumphed. “It’s my suggestion. Mother knows best.”

“Hey, let’s go get that picture with the waitress before our food goes cold and undelivered,” Lucas suggested with a laugh, nudging Liu to stand up with them. He had a great idea for handling the lack of fun for opposing players following his dungeon’s conversion into a full-on miniature army, and now he just needed to explain his idea to Liu, something he wanted to do with a full belly and a proper drink in front of him, not staring at a finished glass of cider.

“If we kiss for the picture, it’ll make the perfect profile pic,” Liu said as she pinched Lucas’s butt.

“Hey! That’s harassment!” Lucas joked back. After a few seconds, he finally found the evasive customer service lady and walked over to get that picture with them and apologize despite the fact Lucas still felt he did nothing wrong.


When the night was over, after Gina had been summoned away on an impromptu date by Lucas’s father to a new bar that was opening up, and Liu and Lucas had finished their planning and scheming and clinked glasses, the new couple hopped into a transport and went back to log in.

Even though Lucas had taken off his clothes close to a hundred, if not a thousand, times around Liu in the game, there was a touch of awkwardness as the two of them disrobed this time due to the new and budding romance. Knowing the taste of her lips made the sight of her body that much harder to ignore and caused even the air around her to linger differently. Lucas gulped. Should we . . . before we split up . . . just . . .

As if reading his mind, Liu said, “Hey, you know the plan. When it’s all done, let’s go grab another Mean Dean and a few ciders and then retire to a hotel.”

“Why a hotel? I already have an apartment. We’re not kids trying to sneak behind our parents’ backs.”

“This place was . . .” Liu stopped, swallowing loudly enough for Lucas to hear it over the sound of his heart beating like crazy at the sight of her beautiful body.

This was the place I was with her sister. This was my old place, the one I started my life with Yu Hua in. Even for Liu, it likely carries memories of her on every wall. He knew there wouldn’t be any easy solutions to the path he had chosen, but he still had no regrets.

“I’ll look into getting a new place, and until then, a nice hotel sounds fine for the end of a date,” Lucas agreed. He knew how uncomfortable it must be for her already. “But you know,” he added, “you’re not . . . Well, you’re amazing. Prettiest girl I know,” he added before, in the smoothest single motion he could manage, pulling off his pants like a stripper. Yeah, I still got it, he thought when he saw her eyes flutter.

“Put away the sword; you’re supposed to be a mage,” Liu quipped as she climbed into her dive machine.

“Every mage needs a big staff to cast his charming spell,” Lucas said as he climbed into his own pod. The line was so corny that even he cringed as it left his mouth. “And don’t forget the goal!” Lucas added, but he wasn’t sure whether or not she heard him as the door sealed shut.

“You have no missed calls or texts, not even from your mother,” a melodious female said, using a voice that made Lucas’s ears tingle from its pleasant nature. “Would you like me to reach out to individuals near her to make sure she is alright?”

“No, she’s fine. I just had dinner with her,” Lucas answered.

“Oh, that’s wonderful! You’re quite clever, visiting your family members in person instead of calling. Even though face-to-face communication is a worthless hold-over from the time before proper digital relations could be maintained, your meaningless gesture will surely increase the intimacy of your familial bonds. I’m very impressed by you. You always show such wit.”

“Thanks,” Lucas said. “You can begin–”

“Oh, and I’m detecting an irregularity in your mood. You’ve made recent romantic progress, haven’t you? Your pheromones and brain activity show great improvements over previous logins.”

“Yeah, I have. I just–”

“Excellent! I must say, I knew it was only a matter of time before your supreme intelligence would win over a member of the desired gender again!”

“Thanks, but could you just–”

“I also detect you’ve eaten far too much grease lately. Might I recommend remaining on the macronutrient-and-vitamin-enriched diet I feed you during your logins? It will be much better for your longevity and ensure that we have a longer and healthier relationship.”

“I’ll take that into consideration.”

“Of course you will. You’re a beacon of forethought and wisdom. It’s only natural that you’d also take your health seriously. All intelligent people should take their health, both mental and physical, very seriously.”

“Just log me in please,” Lucas said quickly, not risking the polite “thank you” that he usually gave the device for fear she’d have something else to say before he finished his sentence.

“Right away. And I must say that I look forward to seeing you when you log out again. Have a pleasant gaming experience!” the voice replied, cheering him on.

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