Real-life Robin kept his hair buzzed short. He was his own barber, after all. Virtual Robin had no hair—Lizardmen didn’t come with that option. As he watched his virtual self race across the plains of Hattar, the main continent of the world of Wyrmkind, he wondered what the warm air would feel like against his skin. How it would feel to stretch his legs and run.
The machine upstairs had a setting for that, but Robin had only used it once before becoming completely disenfranchised. Running in place wasn’t running, and the screen mounted near the complicated arrangement of handlebars did not, in any way, simulate the great outdoors.
This was better.
His headset blooped as Barrett joined him.
“Hey,” Barrett said. “What’s on the ticket for today?”
“I was going to try out some of the finished campaigns on the west coast.”
The west coast of the main continent was going to be the game starting area, with the story developing as players moved inland, crossing the continent, and eventually discovering the islands ringing the other side. Nedisoba and the Court of the Laughing Dragon were slated as downloadable content and would be made available in the first game update, about eight weeks after release—meaning he and Barrett were ahead of schedule and could afford to waste a day playing.
“Sign. Me. Up,” Barrett said.
They’d completed the landing quest and moved on to a later episode involving a set of side tasks that would send them into an array of situations, each designed to tutor a new player in how to sneak, steal, assassinate, or use diplomacy.
Robin opted for the diplomatic option—or tried to. “I think this conversation tree is broken,” he complained to Barrett when the nonplayer character he’d been speaking to disappeared in a puff of smoke, effectively halting his progression.
“You always say that. You’re not patient enough. You have to schmooze the NPCs for longer. Listen to their life story and then feed them the most sympathetic responses.”
“I know that,” Robin snapped because Barrett was right. He did tend to race through dialogue sequences with the simple aim of advancing the quest. He blew out a breath. “I guess we’re down to a sneak attack.”
“Speak for yourself.” Barrett’s Legolas-lookalike spun away from the empty space, executing a jig.
When his shirt disappeared, Robin groaned. “No undressing. What is wrong with you? Come help me steal the tablet.”
“Your wish is my command.” A naked wizard zipped past Robin and disappeared into the shadows. “Shouldn’t be too hard. I don’t think they’ve finished balancing the zone. Last I heard, the mob count was still pretty light.”
Robin directed his lizardman into the shadows behind Barrett and snuck around the side of the building they needed to access (illegally) and rob. His cursor highlighted a broken window leading into the basement area, and he clicked on it, transporting his lizardman into the murky depths. Rats scurried through the darkness, hiding behind stacked crates and random baskets.
“Another boring basement,” Barrett drawled. “Seriously, there are not enough devious minds writing this game.”
A bright light began to swirl in the center—a portal opening. Robin scanned the perimeter of the large space, searching for an adequate hiding place. He hadn’t quite made it there when an army of imps exploded out of the nether plane and fell on him. Equipped with nothing but a starting dagger and exactly one skill with which to wield it, Robin tapped his mouse button repeatedly, directing his lizardman to slash, slash, slash.
He was killing things, but things were also killing him.
“Don’t let them touch you!” Barrett yelled.
“It’s a bit freaking hard when all I have is this puny dagger.”
“Dance, Robin, dance!”
Robin’s lizardman was dancing, back and around. He was also on fire. And dying. Two second later, he was dead and watching Barrett continue to spin and twirl around the basement through the haze of a dialogue box asking Robin whether he wanted to resurrect here (and lose experience) or at the graveyard (leaving all of his gear behind).
Barrett was screaming into the channel. “Take that, you little freakazoids. Oh, Jesus, what the fuck is that?”
Another portal had opened, and a mama imp was stepping through. “I’d run,” Robin advised.
Barrett directed Legolas back toward the window, and Robin watched, horrified and amused, as the willowy humanoid batted its hands against the window casing, caught fire, and was dragged (still burning) back to the center of the room and through mama imp’s portal.
“Dude,” Barrett panted. “That was brutal.”
“Are we still in the starting area?”
“I thought it was?”
“Also,” Robin said, “what’s the rating on this game supposed to be? Because, I don’t know about you, but that was kind of terrifying. Watching you get dragged into the nether plane was… Actually, that part was fun. I wonder if they’re going to use you as a human torch.”
Barrett was laughing. “No idea. I hope Lenora burns well.”
“Lenora? You named your wizard after your mother-in-law?”
“Therapy wasn’t cutting it.”
Laughing, Robin leaned away from the game to check the various open windows on the monitor next-door. His mirth died as he saw a new email waiting in his inbox, a reminder that passes to the East Coast’s largest gaming convention were selling out fast.
“Hey!” Barrett said, and Robin could tell by his tone that he’d seen the email too. “What’s your excuse going to be for not coming to PAX this year?”
“How do you know I won’t be there?”
“When was the last time you came to a con? Besides, you haven’t left your house in, what, three years?”
The bottom fell out of Robin’s stomach, and he looked down to make sure his chair was still underneath him. That his basement still had a floor. “I… I was outside yesterday. We had a storm and the power was out. The whole street was out there, talking. You know how it is.”
Barrett said nothing, Robin said nothing, and the silence rolled on, as ominous as it was endless.
Eventually, Barrett spoke. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Attacked you like that. It comes from a place of… support? I worry about you. Kim and I both do. We talk about you. We miss seeing you. And last time I was in the office, I overheard a conversation about whether or not the elusive Robin Argall would make an appearance at any events this year. Some of the new hires think you’re a ghost.”
The executive headquarters were situated in Delaware. The company had started remotely, though, and had always worked that way, with attendance in the actual offices usually limited to celebratory-type affairs. Their founder and CEO now lived on the West Coast and only visited once a year.
Robin, of course, hadn’t been to the offices for a while. Probably more than three years.
“I was outside yesterday,” he said.
“That’s good,” Barrett said. Then, “Is that good?”
Sighing, Robin leaned back in his chair. He tugged his headset off, rubbed his hands over his head and scrubbed his fingers through his beard. Fiddled with his glasses. Then, repositioning his headset, he sighed again. “What makes you think… Ah, fuck it.”
Absurdly, or perhaps not, tears pricked the corners of Robin’s eyes.
“Do… you… want to talk about it?” Barrett asked.
“Are you still seeing that therapist, what was her name?”
“Dr. Delaney? No. I wasn’t making any progress. I…” If he sighed any harder, or any more, his lungs would stick together and refuse to reinflate. “For a long time, I didn’t want to go anywhere.”
“Was it because John left?”
“No. Maybe? I mean… No. I was basically a hermit before then.”
“Only kind of. You still lived among the people. You do still live among the people, don’t you? You haven’t moved to far North Dakota since the last time we visited?”
“Heh, no. John not being here meant I didn’t have to go out at all. And I guess I got used to it.”
Of course, it was more than that, but also just as simple. Losing Gimli at the same time he’d let John go had compounded matters.
“So.” Barrett breathed noisily. “The question is, what are we going to do about it?”
“I’m working on it.”
“This being-outside thing is for real?”
“Was it… because you have somewhere to go now?”
“Next door? Tell me it’s next door. If it’s to see Dan the Ham, I’m gonna be pissed.”
Robin snorted, his lips curling into a smirk. “What happened with Dan wasn’t all his fault. I was never going to get out and meet him in person.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yeah, I do. But him finding his own happiness? That was sort of a turning point. I think.” Robin rolled his shoulders and swiveled his chair enough to ease the ache in his lower back. “You know how failing a quest makes you approach it from a different angle? Online dating isn’t going to work for me because I have to be willing to go out. I thought making a connection would be enough. That… Anyway, it wasn’t.”
“Now that it didn’t work out, you want to go out?” Barrett asked.
Robin thought about Sean and sighed again. Thankfully, his lungs didn’t fail on the subsequent inhale. “For a long time, I didn’t want to go anywhere. Now, I do.”
“Fair enough. Does Dan know about you?”
“But Sean does, right?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I think you can figure that one out.”
“Why do you always mention Sean?”
“Because that one Thanksgiving we spent with you, what, two years ago when Sean’s kid was all, ‘I don’t wanna eat turkey because the pilgrims suck—’”
Robin laughed. “He has a point.”
“Fine! Anyway, I was watching you. Trying to find the dirt on your shoes.”
“‘Dirt on my shoes’?”
“To see if you’d been going out or were still lying to me about it.”
“And Sean wasn’t. He was just talking to you. Or trying to get you to talk when Kaleb wasn’t monologuing. He’s into you. I could see it, and I’m not the world’s most observant guy.”
“Is this conversation as uncomfortable for you as it is for me?” Robin asked.
Barrett’s snort reverberated. “Hey, I might be a straight white dude and whatever else you want to call me. But I’m in touch with my emotional side. I care about you, and I’m comfortable with that. I love you, Robin. You’ve always been there for me, and I’ll always be here for you. Heck, I let you lie to me for three years about getting out of that basement of yours, and in retrospect that probably wasn’t the best thing. But I always let it go because I figure you’re a smart guy. That you won’t stay in forever.”
A sigh fuzzed the channel, and Barrett picked up where he’d left off. “Truth is, the PAX email sort of gave me an opportunity to have a conversation with you that’s long overdue. I’m sorry if I came on too strong, but know that it is from a place of care and love, and I’m totally sending you flowers when we finish talking.”
Robin cleared his throat.
“You getting all emotional over there?” Barrett asked.
“No,” Robin croaked.
“Good. Because you need to get your lizard-ass into the nether plane and rescue Lenora. They’re getting ready to put him into a cauldron.”