Preparations always took longer than expected. Tessa knew that. She also knew that past a certain point, plans existed just to trips themselves up.
“A lot of this is really about helping people settle down,” Lisa said on their private channel.
They were observing the hustle and bustle in [The Lair]. Tessa wasn’t sure when the wide cavern they’d picked had become [The Lair] but when she turned the title over in her mind she found that no other name fit it as well. It wasn’t New Sky’s Edge or The Stone Fortress or even The Refuge. None of those had the right resonance to them. Somehow [the Lair] had become the accepted name for their base of operations by more than just the people holed up in it. The world itself seemed to recognize the name on some level.
“I guess they’ve been through a lot,” Tessa said, watching a family of five trying to setup a little stand to hold the tools they’d brought from their house. She wasn’t sure how much call there would be a silversmith’s expertise in a cave, but applying existing skills to new challenges and/or developing new skills seemed to the order of the day.
“We’ve all been through a lot,” Lisa said. “I can’t believe everyone’s holding it together as well as they seem to be. I thought it was going to be a lot worse than this.”
“I know,” Tessa said. “I feel like we’re seeing a filtered list.”
“How so?” Lisa asked. She was leaning against Pillowcase’s shoulder on the rocky ledge they were using as a bench.
To the outside world, it probably looked like two people silently resting together after a long day Tessa imagined. Thanks to the wonders of the telepathy network all adventurers shared in though, each of them had been busy chatting and coordinating people both inside their group of refugees and across the world where they had contacts available. There was a limit to that as well though. People needed a chance to execute plans, news needed time to develop, and unless they were intent on micromanaging the work people were doing, they needed to sit back and take a moment for themselves once in a while.
“I don’t mean to knock anyone’s bravery, but I was talking with Cammie just now and she’s terrified of what’s going to happen next,” Tessa said. “And I completely understand that. We’ve been fighting things. I never fought anyone before, much less anything.”
“You’ve been doing pretty damn good for a newbie,” Lisa said. “I know we were losing the fight against the horde down in the [Sunless Deeps], but frankly you were amazing.”
“I was terrified there too,” Tessa said.
“You kept it together though,” Lisa said. “I’ve seen high level tanks who would have lost their cool and buckled in a situation like that, and that’s was when it was all a game. Seriously, you saved us down there.”
“I didn’t do it alone though,” Tessa said.
“Neither of us did,” Lisa said. “I don’t think we’re anywhere close to soloing spawns like that.”
“I mean, I didn’t hold it together alone. Any fighting skill I have is thanks to Pillowcase. Who…I mean she’s me too, but not a part of me I’m too familiar with yet? If that makes any sense?”
“I think I understand it a little better now,” Lisa said, her voice quiet and distant.
“You’ve been more Lost Alice than Lisa a few times, haven’t you?” Tessa asked. It wasn’t an accusation, though Tessa worried it might be taken as one.
“Yeah,” Lisa said, staring straight ahead at an empty spot on the floor as recollections swirled her away into the recent past.
“What’s she like? From the inside I mean,” Tessa asked.
Lisa took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.
“Cold. Heartless. Quiet,” Lisa said. “We talked about this before right? Just this morning? God that was like twelve hours ago? Less? This is all so unreal.”
Tessa reached her arm around Lisa’s shoulder for a supportive hug. She did it without thinking and felt immensely guilty a moment later when she remember she was stepping over a boundary. Lisa leaned into the hug before Tessa could pull away though so Tessa left her arm where it was.
“You told me about how Pillowcase was almost a separate person from you,” Lisa said. “It sounded so weird at the time, but I should have seen the same thing was happening with me.”
“It’s ok, I think we’re all adapting differently,” Tessa said, her feelings more tender than her words. “That’s what I meant about there being a filter.”
“Like we’re only seeing part of these other people inside us?” Lisa asked.
“More like we’re all processing the new data that’s been dumped on us, or into us, in different ways,” Tessa said. “For me, Pillowcase was really close to the surface and present almost right away. Maybe that was because I’d invented a backstory for her, or maybe it was because she was closer to someone I wanted to be. Whatever the reason though, I got to hear her ‘voice’ early. And now she just sounds like a more collected version of me.”
Switching to Pillowcase’s voice wasn’t hard. Tessa didn’t have to mimic anything. She just let Pillowcase talk. That part of her, the focused, driven part, the one which only emerged rarely in her Earthly life, was so much easier to fade into while she was living within Pillowcase’s skin, but it had always been just that…a part of her. One which was easily drowned in fear and uncertainty, but still a true element of who she was. Still a facet of who she could be.
“That’s not…” Whatever Lisa had intended to say, she stopped herself, breathing for half a heartbeat before continuing. “That’s not what it’s been like for me.”
“Maybe it will be? In time? Or maybe not,” Tessa said. “Lost Alice may be fundamentally different from what Pillowcase is to me. It sounds like she’s more the things you’re not rather than the things you’d like to be.”
Lisa leaned in a little closer.
“She’s dangerous,” Lisa said.
“Under the circumstances, that’s not a bad thing necessarily,” Tessa said.
“I don’t mean how she ate that guy,” Lisa said. “Or maybe I do. But it’s more than that. She’s…I’m…I could hurt you. In fact I probably will.”
“Same,” Tessa said.
“I’ll probably hurt you too. I mean I’m not planning too, but what’s the chance I’m not going to mess up and get you killed at least one more time? I almost managed it in the [Sunless Deeps].”
“I don’t mean like that,” Lisa said. “That was just a mistake. You were trying to keep the rest of us safe. I get that.”
“So you’d be hurting me on purpose?” Tessa asked, knowing it wasn’t going to happen.
“No. It’s just…what if I lose it? I can feel Alice waiting. She’s a predator. And she’s so damn selfish.”
Tessa wanted to kiss away the uncertainty and doubt from Lisa’s voice, but that wasn’t what Lisa needed.
“Does it feel like she’s fighting you for control?” Tessa asked. “Or is she just waiting for you to give it to her?”
“I don’t know?” Lisa said. “She’s just there. Like this other person who can hear everything I think and who’s not scared of anything. I don’t think she’s controlling my mind at all, except, when we’re in a fight. Things feel different then. My awareness is sharper and everything seems clearer. It’s only when I’m able to calm down and chat with you that all my old thoughts seem to roll back in like the tide.”
“Can you talk to her now?” Tessa asked.
“That feels weird,” Lisa said. “I think I like talking to you better.”
“Ok,” Tessa said and swallowed silently.
It was far too easy to read more encouragement into that than she should. She knew that. But she so wanted to anyways.
“But I know I shouldn’t be wasting time like this,” Lisa said, pulling away a little.
Tessa fought the urge to hold her tighter. They were acquaintances. Maybe friends. Friends did not cling to their friends. Even if they wanted to be more than friends. Especially if they wanted to be more than friends.
“It’s not a waste of time,” she said, giving Lisa her space. “If talking through this stuff helps at all, then its worth it. Our bodies can be healed with magic, but I think the only way we keep our minds healthy is talking with each other. And it’s nice getting to know you better.”
Lisa gave a mirthless little laugh.
“I can give you a long list of people who would tell you what a bad idea that is.”
“You literally jumped into hell after me,” Tessa said. “I think I get to decide for myself how cool you are.”
Lisa was quiet for a long moment after that, a succession of private thoughts flickering across her eyes before she finally spoke.
“I wonder if that was Alice?” she asked. “I wanted to be there for you, but regular old Lisa? Would she have been able to do that? I never did anything like in the real world.”
Tessa turned and tried to peer into the depths of Lisa’s turmoil.
“If it was Alice, then I’d say Alice isn’t all bad,” Tessa said. “But if Alice is like Pillowcase, then yes, regular old Lisa would definitely have done that. Because you did it. I think we’re still who we were, and we’re something more too.”
“What if that more isn’t good though?” Lisa asked.
“I don’t know, can slivers of who we are be good or bad? Alice can be violent, but you haven’t done violence to anyone who didn’t deserve it. You said Alice can be cold, and selfish, but you’ve been giving a lot of yourself, supporting all of us emotionally as much as healing us physically. Is being able to get some distance and taking what you need to have to keep going a bad thing?”
“Maybe not,” Lisa said, offering Tessa the smile she’d been hoping to see.
“It’s scary too though, right?” Tessa asked. “Even with Pillowcase, it felt weird at first, thinking of her as another part of me. I knew right away it was true, but knowing something is true comes a lot faster than feeling that it’s true.”
Lisa laughed again, but with more honest good humor this time.
“Ugh, feelings are awful,” she said. “Alice is horrifying, but I need her, and I think I’m as scared that I’m like you and she really is a part of me as I am that she’s some completely separate being. It’s like either I’m bonded to some hideous vampire spirit or I’m the one who’s really hideous after all.”
“You’re not hideous,” Tessa said with absolute conviction.
If ever there was a moment for a spontaneous kiss, Tessa felt like that was the one.
But Lisa was already in a relationship.
And there wasn’t any consent involved.
And Pillowcase’s lips were silk and thread, not warm flesh and blood.
The perfect moment…wasn’t.
And so it passed.
“I think we’re ready to head out,” Rip called over their party chat. “Aie and Zimmy are going to escort some of the lowbies into the safer spots and wait for the respawns.”
“It looks [The Lair] has at least a few days worth of supplies gathered up too,” Matt said. “A few of the [Hunters] are going to keep watch at the entrance for the Consortium coming back and to see if they can pick up any game so we can have more than [Cash Shop] food to work with.”
“Sounds good,” Tessa said, standing and helping Lisa get to her feet too. “If we’re all set to go, let’s meet at the [Heart Fire]. It’s time to fulfill the dream of philosophers across the centuries and have a talk with god, and maybe punch ‘em in the face too.”