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Their third night in fantasy land, when things are still miraculous and also terrifying, because they’re there, really there, like the whole thing was real all along, Sol catches Matt where they’re sitting around the fire, third watch, with the rustling sounds of everyone else’s sleep a reassuring reminder that they’re not actually alone out here, on the roadless plane, under the empty sky.

Sol catches Matt where he’s leaning forward to warm his hands at the fire, and he looks as young as he is; as young as they all are. He looks sheepish and young and sorry, and he says, ridiculous and too understated to be real: “I’m sorry, I know this wasn’t what you had in mind when I asked if you wanted to come for a game for Ash’s birthday.

“Not what I had in mind,” Matt repeats, feeding another twig into the fire. “Getting literally dragged out of reality and into another plane of existence, maybe ending up in actual peril, no it’s not quite what I had in mind.”

Sol laughs and plays along with the sarcastic line. “Yeah, I suppose it’s gotten a bit intense.”

But the thing is, “Playing with you and Ash is always a little too intense.” And that, it’s true. Where they are now is entirely different of course, strange and impossible, but Ash and Sol have never been, well, casual players.

It’s that night he thinks of, Matt does, as they go on through the world, and as so many of the things -- the people -- in it are so drawn to, so entirely charmed by Ash. Sol made this game, and while he is there, in it right beside them, it’s also clear, occasionally, in stolen moments, that he’s in every syllable of the monstrous, out-of-control world that has grown up around them. Sol’s favorite books make up the stitched-together patchwork of tropes they’re wading through, and Sol’s interests and fixations and lusts populate the landscape.

This is even, or maybe especially, true of them -- of the party. Just like in a tabletop game that’s confined to an actual table, in the way this one hasn’t been since the first toss of the die, their characters are amalgams, both themselves and not; their interests and neuroses woven in both deliberately and by accident, until they’re perfect and terrible second skins. For most of them, though, their bodies are their own, and it’s just the armor and the art of this place wrapping around them and warping what they expect to see when they look in the mirror that’s different.

Ash, though -- Ash is who he must have been picturing when he designed the character, or maybe the figure Sol was picturing when Ash first described her. A diplomat with teeth, Ash had said. Like a cross between Cleopatra and Machiavelli.

Hot and dangerous is what he appears to have meant, or what Sol appears to have heard. And the thing is, Matthew has known Ash for years, and he’d never once in all of that time have described him as especially seductive, or sultry, or a girl, but Ash the Dictator is all of that and more, and Matt finds himself forgetting more and more that he was ever anything else.

Ash-the-boy was a dishwater blond with uneven skin, constantly hiding behind a curtain of equally-uneven, grown-out hair. Ash the Dictator is slender and pale and untouchable, all lithe curves and hard stares, and just like Ash-the-boy, she may take in the entire landscape, may evaluate every new person who crosses their path with a sharp-edged, speculative look, but she always has eyes for Sol, and Sol, in his turn, has made them a whole world that seems to fold around her like a secret.

Ash and Izzy are fighting, five months and a third failed attempt to escape into their game. Ash and Izzy are always fighting, and most nights, it’s almost reassuring, like the familiar snoring of a sibling on the bottom bunk, or your father’s favorite game show on in the other room. Tonight, it’s sharp, though, and Izzy draws first blood with, “It’s not like you wanted it to work, Ash. Why the fuck do we keep listening to your plans when half of you doesn’t even want to get home?”

“Of course I--” Matthew knows Ash better than Izzy does, he thinks, so he knows that Izzy manages to rattle Ash a lot more often than her tone and face will ever give away, but even Izzy must see that that one was below the belt as Ash’s eyes dart to Angela.

Angela is -- well. She’s magnificent, they’d be dead ten times over without her, but none of them feel entirely comfortable about her habit, and Matthew can only imagine that seeing that kind of remote almost-bloodlust in one’s kid sister is a thousand times worse.

Still, Izzy doesn’t back down. She never does, it’s a part of why Matthew thinks she’s the only one of them who ever could have been the Godbinder. She says, “You like it, you like playing dress-up,” and she gestures dismissively at Ash’s entire everything, “And you like flirting with Knights, and you like that Sol and Chuck try to catch a look at you when you’re changing like massive fucking perverts,” and this bit is clearly aimed straight at Sol, even if she doesn’t so much as look his way, “And you like that if you say shit in exactly the right voice you can make people do whatever you want, you asshole control freak.”

Ash doesn’t back down either, though, not in art class when the substitute tries to get him to work on a “proper” piece, instead of the beautifully detailed recreation of his last character’s death scene, and not here and now, in this vast plane of fantasy desert when her best friend’s girlfriend is accusing her of self-sabotage.

“So what if I do like some of it,” she hisses back. “We’re here, aren’t we? We’re here and it’s not like anything else has ever been, or will ever be again,” and actually, it’s like a hundred thousand different things, it’s a fairly sophisticated pastiche of every successful fantasy property of the last hundred and fifty years, but it’s a pastiche nonetheless. But Matthew stays silent rather than point that out -- only a fool would get between Ash and Izzy when they're like this, and besides, it would only hurt Sol’s feelings.

And of course, Ash, who’s better at weaving even her most casual words like a spell every day, is still talking, “But that doesn’t mean that I won’t do everything in my power -- do anything -- to get us all home safe.” Then she lets Izzy go, walks away from the argument in the most deft and non-confrontational way to guarantee that she’ll win it, and turns to Angela.

“I’m going to get us home safe. I promise.”

Sol and Ash have always been intense about their games, right back to the first time Matt played D&D with them, thirteen years old and hiding out in the basement so Ash’s mom wouldn’t try to chase them outside to get some fresh air. By fifth form, Matthew can say that he’s basically used to them.

No touching is and always has been one of the baseline rules for the RPGs Matthew has encountered, and Sol and Ash’s games aren’t any different, but those two tend to push that rule to its limit, and Isabelle, who isn’t exactly an enthusiastic gamer to begin with, doesn’t seem to be especially enjoying their liberal interpretation of their own rules.

“No medieval world has ever had a dance like that,” Izzy cuts in verbally to where Ash’s spy-assassin has infiltrated a ball and is now passing slow circles through the center of the room with Sol’s secretly-crooked-diplomat-NPC, palms held just an inch apart from each other.

“Ambassador,” Ash-as-Azreal says, “perhaps we could discuss the matter in a more secure location,” and Matt can see Sol’s crooked politician’s lip curl in a smug, snarling smile that surely means he’s about to agee.

Izzy must see it, too, because she’s on her feet in an instant, muttering, “Okay, that’s it.”

It feels important, like a defining moment. Izzy gets up, she makes her way to the door, but she’d going slowly, there’s something in her stride that’s begging Sol to prove her wrong by stopping her. Sol looks between her and Ash, and the silence stretches. For a moment, Ash is still Azreal The Fair, and Matt doesn’t think Sol is going to move, he’s going to stay and finish out the scene, because Ash-as-Azreal is all power and poise, and Sol always lets the game run long when he gets like that, Matt has almost missed dinner over it a dozen times.

The silence holds too long, though, and after a breath, Ash blinks, and some of Azreal falls away, leaving Ash there, ordinary and Friday-tired and rubbing his eyes.

Sol jumps back and follows Izzy to the door, and Matt can hear her saying, “Never again, okay?” and Sol at his most cajoling, following her down the hall asking, “But you’ll come back next week, right? For my new game, for our birthday, you promised.”

Twenty five years later, everything about their two years in hell feels a bit like a dream, which is probably why Matthew can’t even find it in him to be surprised when the bloody, glowing D20 floats into the air, and suddenly, they’re there again. Nothing is a surprise in a dream, each unrelated step feels logical, inevitable. Matthew has a whole life waiting for him back in reality, but the sword at his hip feels both terrible and right, and a few paces ahead of him, Ash is standing tall and straight-backed in a way he hasn’t looked since they were last here.

Twenty seven years earlier, huddled around a fire, keeping watch against dangers they didn’t even understand well enough to really fear, yet, Matthew had said to Solomon, “Playing with you and Ash is always a little too intense,” and he’d meant it then, but when Sol appears before them now, face shadowed and eyes bleeding, Matthew understands that he hadn’t even comprehended the smallest part of what that could mean yet. And now he’s about to find out.