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Magic Missile On the Darkness

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It is, of course, Gary’s idea. Alanna’s friend group tends to be fairly jocky, aside from Alex, who doesn’t care enough to try to get everyone else involved in his nerdier hobbies, and Gary, who is largely right that everyone else would enjoy whatever he’s obsessed with at any given moment, if they just tried it.

It’s not hard for him to sell everyone on Dungeons and Dragons. After all, even before Game of Thrones came along, nerdy things were legitimately fun. Alanna loves dragons and stabbing things with swords. If Gary has something that lets her do that, she’ll go along with it, and so will the rest of the group.

So, when, the summer after sophomore year, when they’re all sticking around campus because they have jobs/internships/no desire to go home and see their families that they hate, Gary says, “Excellent. I think it’s time for a D&D quest, then,” Alanna is more than down.

“That’s Dungeons and Dragons?” Raoul asks, more curious than wary. “The role-playing one?”

“Yes. It’s essentially an analog video game, with me playing the part of the game.”

“Can I try to sleep with everyone like in Dragon Age?” Jon asks.

“If you’d like.”

“Then I’m in.”

“Alanna, Raoul, you can stab things.”

“It has dragons in the name, I’m in,” says Raoul.

“Same,” says Alanna, and they high-five.

“Is your brother on campus this summer, Alanna?” Gary asks. “With you and Alex that’s four, I wouldn’t mind a couple more.”

“Thom isn’t,” she says, glancing at Jon. “But I could ask Thayet and Buri.”

“And George,” Jon shoots back.

It’s a suggestion that makes all the sense in the world. George is one of her best friends, and he’s around for the summer because he’s always around for the summer. He’s a local whom Alanna met her freshman year, when she found his out-of-the-way restaurant looking for a good place to study. Everyone likes him, and she’s sure he’d have fun.

Just–well, it’s been a little awkward with George. Since she broke up with Liam. Or, honestly, since before that. Alanna doesn’t do very well with relationships, she knows that. And it’s always been easier to avoid them entirely. When she thought Jon might be interested, back in high school, she snubbed him for a month, in hopes that he’d abandon the idea. And he had, and she’s glad. She is.

But she sometimes wonders what would have happened if she’d tried dating him. Maybe it would have worked.

Dating Liam was borne of that curiosity, and from her panic at the idea that George might be interested. Because she loves George. Of course she does. But–she doesn’t know how to be anyone’s girlfriend.

So Liam had seemed like a good compromise, because then she could try out the boyfriend thing without all the risk of dating a friend. It had been a good idea in theory, killing two birds with one stone, but the better Liam got to know her, the less they had in common, and George didn’t seem put off in the way Alanna wanted. He kept on being her friend, which she wanted, of course, but without the prideful haughtiness she remembers from Jon’s heartbreak.

She’s sure that if George Cooper was ever interested in her, he still is, and it makes her itchy and excited all at once. Surely George would never want her to change to suit his tastes.

Still, it was easy to get rid of Liam, when the relationship didn’t work. Getting rid of George would be like tearing off a limb.

But if she doesn’t talk to George, she might lose him anyway.

“All three of them,” she tells Jon, and her voice comes out steady and light. “It’ll be fun.”

*

“I’m not sure about this,” says George. He’s poking his character sheet with the eraser of his pencil, like he thinks it might do something untoward if he doesn’t keep an eye on it.

“What’s not to be sure about?” Alanna asks. “It’s just a game.”

“I’m not very good at games,” he says. And then amends to, “Not this kind of game. You remember how well I do on the X-Box.”

George isn’t wrong about that; his lack of skill with video games, of all kinds, is legendary among her friends. But it’s matched with an equally great skill at poker, and most other card games.

Well, none of them but Gary and Alex are any good at Magic: The Gathering. But that’s a different skill set.

“This is different,” says Gary. “You don’t lose Dungeons and Dragons. Think of it as collaborative storytelling. Everyone has their own characters, and it’s about working together to achieve common goals.”

“I would like to kill absolutely everything I can kill,” says Buri, prim. “And set things on fire. I’ve distributed my skill points accordingly.”

Gary doesn’t look even a little worried by this statement. “Perfect,” he says, and turns his attention back to George. “See? It’s easy. Just put all your skill points into whatever way you’d like to kill and/or destroy things and call it a day.”

“You make it sound so simple,” George says, but he returns to his character sheet with new enthusiasm.

“What are you going to be?” she asks, glancing over. She can’t help it; she’s curious. It’s nice to see him excited.

If she’s honest, it’s just nice to see him.

“Thief,” he says, grinning. “Sounded like fun. Might as well steal everything I can and get rich in the game, even if I can’t in real life, right?”

“You can steal plenty of things in real life,” says Jon. “You just need to start rich and manipulate the system. Then it’s not stealing, it’s business.”

“Always a pleasure to talk to you, Jon,” George says, with a touch of his pencil to his temple, like a salute. “A chilling reminder of American aristocracy.”

“I hope to someday be killed in the communist revolution, yes.”

“What’s your character?” George asks.

“Handsome prince, obviously.”

“Obviously.”

“Alanna’s going to be my noble squire.”

“Oh really?”

“I’ve got it all figured out. You’re a girl who runs away to become a knight, disguises herself as a boy to be trained–”

“If you say we fall in love, I’m going to throttle you.”

“It never would have worked.”

“Of course not.”

“You wanted to be a warrior anyway, didn’t you?”

“Raoul and I were going to be best friends with swords,” she protests.

“Even better. Two noble knights, defending their prince.”

“We can shove him under a carriage,” Raoul suggests.

“In the game or real life?”

“The first carriage we see in either.”

It does sound fun. “Deal,” she agrees.

*

It takes a few sessions before she notices what George is doing. She went with the female knight story, although they made it backstory instead of ongoing; by now, Alanna’s character has been revealed as a woman and is respected as a warrior in her own right. Gary’s got them on a fun adventure, guiding their renegade prince through dangerous territory with the help of twos mage (Buri and Alex), an archer (Thayet), and a thief (George).

And the thief is hitting on Alanna.

Or, rather, he’s hitting on Alanna’s character. He’s being charming and funny and helpful, and it’s all in-character. His character, by all appearances, has a crush on hers.

And it’s–odd. Not even bad. Just–unexpected. Because of course she thought he was interested in real life, thought he was flirting even. But it’s strange to see it from something like the outside. With something like distance.

It would be easy to say it’s their characters, but none of their characters have much character. Everyone is just playing a variation on themselves, and George isn’t even the only one using it to his advantage. Jon’s been hitting on Thayet too, much less subtly, so what George is doing isn’t even that noticeable.

In a way, the oddest thing is how certain she is. She shouldn’t be. She shouldn’t know this is what he’s doing. She’s never been good at feeling sure about these things.

But it’s not feeling certain that George is interested in her that’s new. She’s been certain of that for a while. It’s just–she thinks this is what it would be like. If they were together. And it feels–easy. It doesn’t feel terrifying at all.

It’s the last thing she expected.

“Everything all right with you and George?” asks Raoul, after their fourth session. George spent the whole time teasing her about loyalty, clearly to distract her from the fact that they’d been separated from Jon, Thayet, and Buri, and her character should be concerned. She isn’t, not really, but–it’s fun, joking around with him, acting like it all really is life and death.

Plausible deniability. It’s the kind of test run Liam should have been, except that being with Liam wasn’t like being with George.

No one else is like George.

“Yeah,” she tells Raoul. “I think everything’s great.”

*

“I think Gary’s getting a little too into this,” says George. At this point, so far as Alanna knows, Thayet, Buri, and Jon are still together, wherever they are, but now she and George have been separated from Alex and Raoul, and Gary has them all in separate rooms, to preserve the mystery. It’s fun, and he never leaves them for too long, but it really is a bit much.

Gary doesn’t know how to not be dramatic. It’s one of his strengths, as a dungeon master. But it’s also a little bit funny.

“A little,” she says. “So, we’re stuck. What are we going to do?”

“I assume we’ll search the room for any way to get out. There probably is one. Gary’s not really the kind who’d stick us in a room with nothing to do. But we don’t even know what it looks like yet, so not a lot of planning we can do right now.”

She smiles. “No. I assume we’ll roll perception checks.”

“And if we fail them?”

“We look harder.”

“Ah, yes,” he says, with a smile of his own. “I’m sure Gary won’t mind letting us roll until we get it.”

“Like you said, he’s not going to leave us in a room with nothing to do. It’s not his style.”

“No.” He pauses. “If we really didn’t have anything to do, this would probably be when I made a move.”

Her heart stops, and then starts again, erratic. “Oh?”

“Well, it’s the moment, isn’t it? Trapped alone, possibly about to die. That’s the ultimate pickup line.”

“So, we’re about to die sex? That’s your big move?”

“It depends on my audience.” His pause is deliberate. “Some people are skittish, you know. Don’t want to scare anyone off too soon. Not when I think it could be–not when it matters.”

“So, you wouldn’t be making a move, but since we might die–”

“Well, it seems like around time. Just to check how I’m doing.”

This is George. He’s her best friend. He understands her. And he’s giving her an out, if she wants one. He’ll push, but not too hard.

And he wants her.

“Well enough you don’t need to be on the verge of death to say something,” she says.

His smile is sudden and bright, like he really wasn’t sure. And maybe she shouldn’t be surprised he wasn’t. She’s never been good at these things. It’s just that–he’s made it easy for her.

“No?” he asks.

“No.” She returns his smile, not as wide, but–certain. “All you have to do is ask.”

*

When Gary gets to them, she’s in his lap, his hand under her shirt, his mouth warm against hers, and she’s decided that not dating George Cooper sooner was a huge mistake. Luckily, it’s one they’re correcting. They have plenty of time to make up for it.

“You weren’t even trying to find an exit, were you?” Gary asks, apparently unfazed.

“We don’t even know where we are,” George shoots back. “Seemed silly to come up with a plan without you. Can’t run perception checks without our DM, can we?”

“Oh, I think Alanna passed her perception check,” he says, dry. “I’ll give her this one.”