Fenina Lavellan sighed heavily as she finally managed to throw open the door to her apartment. She was running late. She tossed her messenger bag haphazardly on her sofa and followed it with her coat and her official College of Enchanters robes. She ran through the apartment, hitting the button to awaken her console from sleep mode, and as it booted up, she quickly threw off her jeans and sweater and hopped into pajamas. "Come on, come on, the others will kill me," she cajoled the machine, grabbing her headset and selecting the icon for Dragon Age using her controller.
Update downloading. The words flashed across the screen of her tv and the world's slowest percentage bar popped up. "Fen'Harel shal em," she grumbled. Well, at least she could heat up dinner while she waited. After a day of being told her privilege caused her to be out of touch with others and insensitive, the last thing Fenina could handle emotionally was actually cooking. She understood where her classmates were coming from, and in general, she actually agreed with them. Being Elvhen (even though she was Dalish) did make navigating society easier, but it certainly didn't help her be better at magic. Not really. People thought it did, but she had to work just as hard as the next mage. Race didn't automatically equate to talent or skill, and she was exhausted from having to defend herself; it was like every time a teacher complimented her, they expected her to decline the compliment.
Thankfully, the oven heated quicker than the download completed, and she was able to put the frozen pizza in while her system began the install. A few minutes later, she started the game and quickly entered the guild chat. "Gods, guys, sorry I'm so late, my class ran over, and my train was late and then there was a stupid game update…"
"Don't worry about it, Fenina, many of us seem to have had late trains. We are still waiting on Solas and Sera to join us," Cassandra's Nevarran accent came from her headset. Cassandra, who played a shield and single-handed human warrior, was often a voice of reason among the group.
"And I'm still waiting on all of these items to stop crafting," Dagna spoke up cheerfully. "They dropped an update with new enchantments, and boy these weapons. Bull, your new dragon-slaying axe is almost finished cooking!" Dagna wasn't much when it came to skill playing the game and had made it known early on her interest was only in crafting. After the guild agreed they could use a good crafter, she had quickly maxed out both her arcane knowledge and smithing skills. She tagged along for the XP but handed over the best weapons to everyone else. Her armor, though, was phenomenal; she couldn't benefit from shared XP if her avatar died.
"Alright! We gonna go dragon-slaying, Boss?" Bull's low voice rumbled. Fenina sighed softly. She'd been telling Bull for three years to not call her that, but he wouldn't stop. She was the first one to post in the bulletin boards looking for a guild and the others had all come to her, so Bull figured that automatically made her the leader. They really ran on a mostly democratic system, but when a final decision was needed on a split vote, they always deferred to her - even though she'd turned over much of the business of running a guild years ago.
"Doubtful," Josephine's Antivan accent came. She spoke delicately, as Fenina heard her flip pages in a notebook. Josephine was another player who wasn't really interested in the mechanics of it all. Fenina assumed she held a governmental position, something boring, but which soothed her soul, and Dragon Age was her way of both escaping it and yet, doing the things she actually enjoyed about the job. Josephine was great at guild relations, helping them forge temporary alliances for larger quests, managing the guild bank, and keeping actual, honest-to-Fen'Harel notes in a notebook on guild decisions. Fenina imagined she'd been through several high-quality notebooks with expensive paper and several drams of fountain pen ink in the three years since they'd been playing.
"At the end of our last session, we decided to split into two groups and focus on the special events. It's Thursday, so that means there's a Blight-themed mission - of course, we should send Blackwall with that group - and we still have that month-long campaign about the Orlesian Civil War. The rewards, particularly if we manage a perfect ending, would significantly increase the guild bank. That won't leave time for dragon-hunting."
The Iron Bull let out a low grunt of disapproval and sent her a private message.
OneEyedUnicorn: You free to dragon-hunt tomorrow morning?
InnerWolf: I've got a class, but I'm free at 3 pm.
OneEyedUnicorn: 3 pm it is. You're on Central Thedas Time, right?
OneEyedUnicorn: Good. Me too.
She'd asked him about his handle once in the group chat and immediately regretted it. "It's cause I'm horny, get it? Cause I like sex… and also I'm Qunari," he'd said, earning him a disgusted groan from everyone, except Varric who chuckled and pronounced it a "good one".
Sera (NeedzBeez) has signed in.
"Arsetits! I made it! You guys didn't start without me, did you? I wanna punch things. Hard." Sera's cackle echoed in her headset.
"Uh… is this a bad time to point out you're a ranger and therefore don't punch things?" Dorian asked, his highborn Tevene accent sounding almost out of place.
"Is this a bad time to point out," Sera mimicked. "Yes, you posh wanker! Cause I do punch things. In the face. With arrows. Which is more than you do with your fancy staff waving flashbang 'I'm gonna turn into a demon soon' nikkonamcy."
"Necromancy," Cassandra corrected.
"S'wut I said."
The all too familiar disgusted noise Cassandra couldn't seem to stop herself from making came right at the same time the timer for her pizza went off. She eagerly jumped off the sofa and made it for the kitchen, waving her hand to silence the timer. She threw open the oven and basked in the heat that hit her in the face.
"Exactly how are we splitting the team again?" Cullen asked.
"We haven't decided, Curly. You'll be the first one to get the memo - in triplicate - once we decide. That way you can keep a copy for your records and provide one copy to Ruffles and one copy to the Chantry."
Cullen sighed. "For the last time, Varric, I'm a retired Templar."
"Mmm… you Chantry boys never fully retire, dear," Vivienne spoke up. "Just like no one ever officially retires from The Game." Fenina was not fond of their Orlesian politician, and she was pretty certain that the woman was the Grand Enchanter of the Orlesian Circle. She was a skilled mage, very popular, but she still believed all mages were a threat - after centuries of an extremely low rate of magic accidents and abominations. Fenina avoided talking about mages with her, but she and Dorian often escalated.
"We may need to get started without Solas," Leliana said firmly. Fenina frowned, temporarily distracted from retrieving her pizza.
"Why?" she asked.
"We're on a timeline. We need to finish these quests in three hours and make sure we get our guild bank into the vaults and our best equipment on because in four hours TheScarletPaladins are planning on starting an auto-guild war to attempt to take our bank," Leliana answered. Fenina had learned not to question how Leliana got her information. She'd hinted that it was a combination of bots mining for data and several alt accounts she used to infiltrate various high-ranking guilds, as well as a few admirers who helped her by spying on other groups. But what Fenina couldn't figure out was exactly how the woman had the time to do all that and make as much money as she apparently made. She was known for lavishing them with in game gifts, some of which were not cheap at all.
"So, let's talk strategy," Cullen said. He always wanted to talk strategy, and although he did play a warrior, Cullen seemed to relish the strategic parts of the game. Fenina suspected that since he had left the Templar Order, after recovering from lyrium withdrawal (and surviving which was a miracle in and of itself), the man found he missed parts of his service.
Fenina finally snapped out of her fugue, reaching in to get the pizza from the oven. Thankfully, she remembered to grab an oven mitt first (it wouldn't be the first time her Guild had so thoroughly distracted her from the real world she forgot an oven mitt) and managed to get the pizza out and the oven closed without burning herself.
"Obviously, as Josephine said, Blackwall should take the Blight-themed quest since he plays a Grey Warden. You and Josie should go with him; it's not likely to drop anything crafting related so you won't need Dagna's skill boost for epic loot."
"Good thinking. Anyone have an interest in the mission?"
"I'm going with Widdles," Sera piped up instantly, using her pet name for Dagna. Fenina smiled to herself. Sera's crush was more than obvious to everyone but Sera herself. Even Dagna gave her a hard time about it, although Fenina suspected she did plenty to encourage it.
"I'll go with them," Krem spoke up. He was easily the quietest member of the guild - or the quietest human member, anyway. He'd joined a little later than everyone else - just a few months - and was recruited by Bull, who he knew in real life. The two seemed to be best friends, nearly inseparable, and she sometimes wondered if they were more than co-workers; roommates or even lovers, maybe. Krem worked hard to catch up, though, completing solo missions to gather XP for weeks.
She nodded, not thinking about the fact that no one could see her. She fished in the drawer for her pizza cutter as she mentally went through the list of Guild members. She needed to make an actual physical list, it was the only way she'd keep it straight. "So, that's Josie, Cullen, Blackwall, and Krem. Dorian, they'll need a mage, and I think Vivienne is more suited to the Civil War campaign."
"I agree," Dorian stated. "As much as I can charm the pants off anyone in real life, my cunning in-game is abysmal. I really should start boosting that stat."
"Varric, you still have that belt that allows you to carry extra grenades, right?" Cullen asked.
"Of course, Curly."
"Well, we'll take you, as well. Let Fenina and Solas - if he shows - head for the Civil War campaign. If you equip upgraded healing mist potions and Antivan fire, it's almost as good as having a second mage."
Fenina nodded again, finally starting to cut the pizza. She knew the pizza and its accompanying pan was hot, knew it, but for some reason, it didn't sink in as she put her hand on the pan to hold it steady. "Ahhh fen-fuuuuck," she hissed as her headset beeped to let her know that someone else was joining the chat. Solas.
"Well, hello to you, too, da'fen," Solas said softly. She winced - at more than the pain running through her hand. She'd tried hard to keep her Elvhen heritage hidden to the Guild. Even her name wasn't a giveaway. In the last few decades, humans and dwarves and even Tal-Vashoth Qunari had begun adopting Elvhen names to hide their heritage. It increased their acceptance rates into various universities and their likelihood of being hired.
But Solas had managed to get it out of her after one late night raiding with just the two of them. Ever since then, he'd dropped more and more Elvish into conversations, perhaps hoping to draw her out. Other than her near slip just then when she'd nearly sworn in Elvish, she'd never fallen for it. She thrust her hand under the cold water, soothing the burn. Once the initial heat was cooled, she cast a low-level healing spell.
"Skin burning hot. Frustration. Pain. Desire. Does he know?"
"Cole," Solas said after clearing his throat. "Focus." It still unnerved her to realize they had a Spirit in their Guild. She knew plenty of Spirits, had been friends with many of them - particularly Knowledge and Wisdom. But Cole was… different. A Spirit of Compassion, sure, but he was also more. Somewhat human. At least more human than any other Spirit she had met. How many of them actually took advantage of their citizenship status and held jobs or had bank accounts or… like Cole… played games? Not many.
"Not sure where he got that from," Fenina grumbled. "I just burned my hand on a pizza pan." The laughter that filled her ears was both welcoming and also embarrassing, and in spite of the fact no one was actually there with her, a pink heat filled her cheeks.
"Oh dear, please tell me you aren't actually eating frozen pizza for dinner?" Vivienne said as the laughter died down.
"Well, yeah," Fenina replied. She had finished cutting her pizza and transferring it to a plate. She planted herself on her sofa, reconnecting her controller, which had gone to sleep automatically. "Class ran late, and the Goldline was backed up, so I didn't get a chance to cook a proper dinner. Pizza and gaming are a classic right?"
"Mmm," Vivienne hummed noncommittally, but in such a way that Fenina knew it was not a classic to this particular woman. "I'll be sure to request pizza from my personal chef for our next raid."
"Right," Solas said breaking the uncomfortable silence that had fallen as Vivienne reminded them all how rich she was. "What did I miss?"
"Not so fast, Chuckles. Why were you so late?" Varric spoke up.
"Yes, I think we are owed an explanation for such tardiness," Josie added. Her tone was light, letting everyone know she was just teasing the other mage.
"Did you have a date?" Varric prompted. "Or do you not want to tell us because it will be added to Ruffles' official records?"
Solas sighed heavily. "No date. As Fenina said, the Goldline was late. Very late. That backed up the Eluvian network, and I had to stop for takeout."
"Huh. He stops for takeout, but Fenina risks life and limb to cook pizza at home," Varric teased.
Solas sighed, resignation clear in his voice. "It's update night. We always start late on update night. We wait for Dagna to craft the newest epic gear from the update, we spend an hour arguing over who is doing what, and then… we finally play. Even with the delay, I knew I'd make it in time."
Fenina took a bite of the pizza as she listened to Solas talk. She could listen to him all day, even if the topic wasn’t the most exciting. He had mentioned once before he did some freelance lecturing at various universities and Circles across Thedas, and Fenina had been looking for him to show up at the College of Enchanters: New Haven ever since.
"Wait," Fenina said after a moment when his words had finally sunk in. "Did you say you took the Goldline?"
"Oy! Me too," Sera exclaimed as if the idea just hit her. "Must be we're all in New Haven!"
"Krem and me, too," Bull spoke up.
"I live in New Haven," Varric explained, "but I use the Eluvian network to commute to Kirkwall for work."
"I do happen to be in New Haven for the next two weeks, but I live in Val Royeaux," Vivienne added.
"We should all meet up!" Josephine declared, and Fenina nearly choked on her pizza. That was absolutely the last thing they should do.
"I don't know," she started reluctantly, but everyone was clamoring together in excitement, or nearly everyone was.
"Yaaaaas," Sera exclaimed excitedly. "Of course you know, Wolfbutt. I wanna meet Widdles and you and Varric."
"I'm not sure that's the greatest idea," Solas stated, the only other voice of reason in a world gone suddenly mad. Meeting them in public? Where they'd all realize who, no what, she was? "After all, someone could be… not wholesome."
"Come on, Solas, we've known each other for three years," Cullen began. "I doubt anyone is masquerading as a blood mage or cultist or anything unsavory. And even if they were, I was actually a Templar, and Cassandra was actually a Seeker, and we could certainly keep everyone safe from this crazed maniac you think has been playing an online game with us for three years."
"Everyone's clean, anyway," Leliana spoke up. "I've already run background checks."
"Excuse me?" Blackwall asked. "How did you even…"
"A woman has her ways," Leliana replied.
"Hacking, she means hacking," Iron Bull explained as if anyone didn't know. Honestly, if there were anyone in the group to be worried about, it was probably Leliana; Fenina decided, not for the first time, it was probably a good thing they were all on Leliana's good side.
"Is everyone free Saturday morning?" Cassandra asked.
"No," Fenina stated between bites of pizza. "I work a shift at the book store 9-1."
"Then lunch?" she asked.
"We can meet at my place," Bull said. "I own a bar and grill downtown - Bull's Chargers. We normally only do dinner service, but Krem and I can cook something up for us all, and there will be drinks."
"It would be nice to meet everyone in person, to put a face with the name," Blackwall said a bit reluctantly.
"Exciting. Nerves tingling. What does she look like? Will they recognize-"
"Cole," they all cautioned in unison.
"Saturday afternoon at the Bull's Chargers at 1 pm," Dagna stated. "Sounds good to me."
"Great," Solas delivered acerbically, his tone making it clear he expected it to be anything but great. "Now that that's settled, what are we actually accomplishing today?"
"We're doing two campaigns: group one is hitting up the Thursday Only Blight-Themed campaign. That consists of me, Blackwall, Cullen, Krem, Varric, Dorian… we need one or two more," Josephine began.
"I'll do it," Cole spoke up.
"And Cole," the Antivan finished. "Everyone else will start the Orlesian Civil War campaign."
"Everyone should have just received all the new equipment," Dagna said. "Make sure you swap it out."
"Let's get this show on the road," Varric stated. Fenina exhaled slowly as she picked up her controller, ready for a few hours of relaxation and fun with her best friends. Best friends who she'd never met.
Best friends who might not be best friends after Saturday.