Edible Despair

The time: the previous morning.
The Who: A band who's music is best known to a younger generation as something you do as segue after a dreadful pun.

In any event, Jazz is half heartedly singing 'won't get fooled again' under her breath as she peers at her terrible, crackers tasting sandwich. She knows that she should eat it, has no choice but to eat it, but does she really WANT to eat it? It looks tasty, but...

"Won't get fooled agaiiin, noooo."
Of course, her voice, being the twee-est of anime voice actors voices, just makes her stop and look down at herself, aghast. Almost a month in and she still can't get used to sounding like... like that. She takes her witch's hat off and sets it down beside her with a sigh. She's seated on a stoop in front of one of Aine's many established eateries and she looks incredibly, understandably disheartened.

    "It just doesn't quite taste the same, does it?" Comes a voice from the doorway.
    Amalthea had just exited the food joint, not exactly looking sated, herself, for probably obvious reasons.
    When all the food tastes like Actual Depression it's hard to be satisfied by any meal.
    Still, the older Adventurer can't help but smile as she braces her arms against the stoop's bannister rail, drumming her fingers against the wood in an idle tick. "Nothing quite tastes like home, eh?"

"Maybe I should have paid more attention to eating when I was home," she adds, thoughtfully. "A month in and I think I'm making up flavors in my brain, or maybe I'm just scared I am forgetting what things taste like so quickly." She lets out a breath and then takes a bite from her sandwich, quickly swallowing it so as not to savor that not-delicious crackers taste.

"You know, I used to /like/ crackers."

    Crackers aren't so bad." Amalthea says matter of factly. "It's the texture that kills me." She muses, briefly making a face. But she pushes past the terrible thought after a moment and puts on a warm smile.
    "It has been a month now, hasn't it?" She muses. "Makes me really miss a few things though." The old Paladin mutters.
    "From what I hear, though, more than a few people are working on trying to 'fix' that problem. Can't happen fast enough if you ask me."

Uta leaves from the eatery behind, proudly holding a wooden bowl in one hand, and stirring whatever is in it using the wooden spoon she's holding the other. "Oh man oh man oh man, finally! It was simple, it was SO SIMPLE! Why didn't I think of this before!", she exclaims, finally smiling. She scoops up one spoonful of whatever is in her bowl, and mumbles with delight. "Mmmm... mmm.... MMMMM! Way to go!" She notices the other two people, blinks, and goes, "Oh, hi!", before stuffing another spoonful in her mouth.

"Yeah, getting close to it, anyway," says Jazz of the time, turning now so she can face Amalthea. She stands up, putting her hat back on her head. "They aren't but I don't think I can eat one ever again. What I wouldn't give for, like, a strawberry milkshake or something." She lets out a breath and the she sighs. She's about to continue when she hears Uta. Slooooowly, she begins to turn toward her. Stare. Staaaaaaare.

    Ah, there's a familiar face. At least Amalthea has seen Uta once before, and the old Paladin dips her head in a nod of greeting. "Hello." She says politely before arching a brow. "And what have you got there?"
    A genuinely curious question before she snorts faintly. "I miss sushi." She asides to Jazuhanzu. "My son in law took me to an all-you-can-eat sushi bar once, and I've never been able to have enough, ever since."
    Oh, she's staring, too.

    Uta mumbles with delight once again while savouring the last spoonful. "Mmmmmmmmmmm. MH." And swallows. When she finally seems to notice the duo is staring at her, she blinks once and replies to Amalthea, "See, I've finally found out what was bugging me. The problem with food is how the taste clashes horribly with the texture. Soooooo..." She proudly extends her bowl. "...I've ordered one portion of /actual soggy crackers/!" Beam.

    "...you know," she adds immediately after, casually pointing at the contents of the bowl with the spoon as she leans on the railing as well. "...this taste is kind of growing on me."

".... you have got to be kidding me," says Jazz, starting at Uta. Just staring. Then she slowly raises her hand and slaps into her face.

Then, to Amalthea, she offers, gently, "I heard someone prepared tea... that tastes like /tea/. Monumentous, if true." It is the little things, after all. She's just going to pretend that Uta being Uta isn't happening right this moment. There is a sigh. "I'm Jazz," she offers.

    "Now that's just cheating." Amalthea says as Uta reveals her secret. She has truly surpassed the culinary boundaries with her bowl of soggy cracker soup-mush. But her attention shifts back, a slight smile forming on her lips as the other girl introduces herself.
    "That would be something, if it's true. Tea can be very good. Another thing I never realized I'd miss." She says wistfully before giving her own name.
    "Amelia. Amelia Theodore. But most have taken to calling me Amalthea."

    "...If it isn't /soggy cracker tea/-", Uta begins correcting Jazz, but quickly adds a mumbled "...which what I am holding technically is..." while a glance is cast sideways and down to her bowl, "...then yes," she resumes. "'momentous' is a proper way to describe it. Buuuuut I'm not sure I'd rejoice that soon. Situations like these breed the most ridiculous amount of enticing yet mendacious hearsay. Don't trust too much into what people tell you that other people said or did." Uta nods at Jazz's introduction, and adds, "She's Jazz," as if that was somehow helping.

    "Just call me Uta," she says, since this seems like a time for introductions. "Hey, if it works and it's not illegal, it's not cheating."

"That one seems largely confirmed even if I haven't personally confirmed it yet," replies Jazz, quietly, to Uta.

Amalthea's introduction has head on a swivel as she turns back to face her. "Jay is my real name," she tells her. "Amelia, huh? Cool. I guess most of us go by the name on the character account a lot but it's nice to hear something so... " There's a pause. "So normal. That?" She points over her shoulder at Uta, the tips of the tendrils attaches to her head twisting slightly to mirror the gesture, "definitely not normal. Especially when she wants to try to get me to earn her free food somehow." Ah yes. SOMEONE ratted Uta our!

    "It's completely and totally cheating." Amalthea says mirthfully, resting a hand at her hip, still smiling. She's just teasing now, as as she lets a slow breath filter through her teeth. "I'd think in this case, hearsay that brings a little hope will do a little good." She muses. "Everyone is looking forward to eating something better than... Edible Despair." She mutters, rubbing at her jaw.
    Then she chuckles. "A little normalcy can go a long way to keeping people grounded when they need it." She points out. Before chuckling again at the accusations of food mooching.

    "What do you mean my name is not normal?", asks Uta, honestly confused by (and almost certainly misunderstanding) the question. "That's always been my nickname. Utamaro 'Uta' Kawashima. Been called that since I was a kid. That's why I've picked it as my account name," she says, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. "Isn't it normal to pick your nickname as an account name? Did I mess up gaming etiquette there?", she asks, suddenly very self-conscious. Someone here, apparently, knows zilch about MMORPGs.Uta blinks when Jazz reveals 'her' true name. "Oh. So I'm not the only one in the whole game who messed up at character selection and kept pushing the random button without listening to the game's questions." She cocks her head at Jaz and a snicker escapes her attempt at not making things awkward(er) for Jazz, but she recovers soon. "Well, phew. This proves I could have gotten worse."

    Suddenly remembering the original discussion, she resumes, "Oh, so someone told you about my plans to look into Lander psychosociology?" She frowns for a moment. "No, no, you said 'somehow', they must not have told you the whole story. That might give you the wrong impression. See, I've recently discovered that character appearance and behaviour seem to affect the way landers act towards you, compatibly with lore and expectations based on stereotypical character appearance and behaviour. I mean, I certainly get a lot of hostility for being a Spriggan, so there /is/ something to it. Anyway: based on some certainly solid and legitimate hearsay, I was planning to run a little experiment to see how much cuteness will affect item price reduction at an inn, and I was thinking that you'd make the perfect experimental apparatus for this kind of research."

    Uta hurries to add, "...and don't get me wrong, I'm /not/ trying to mooch! To prove that, I'm willing to pay you the equivalent of the full meal for the both of us in advance. I honestly want to look into this, it sounds really fascinating!"

    Turnign to Amalthea, she protests, "No it isn't. It's more of a loophole, if you will. And I /like/ crackers." Sadface.

    "Normalcy is overrated," she concludes. "I prefer to go insane myself. Far more therapeutic."

"Edible Despair? I like that," muses Jazz, her expression going a little distant for a moment, as if some memory had been called upon.

Uta's response(s) snap her out of it and she just winds up staring at her for a long moment (again) before concluding, "Naw, you just wanted free food." A solemn nod follows before she adds, "Not really a mess up. Plenty of people used the random generator function to look different. You're hardly alone." Jazz doesn't seem to see the need to keep it secret. She just isn't bothered by it the way some people are.

"For what it's worth, I agree. Slices of home are a good thing. We don't want people going stir crazy and turning to mischief or mayhem out of boredom," she agrees, thoughtfully.

    "Many people choose all manners of different things for their character name." Amalthea points out. "A nickname, a long used internet handle, the name of their first pet. It could be anything." She says with a light chuckle. "I didn't hit randomize." She adds after a beat. "I just used the body scan feature."
    Which means she's likely as old as she looks.
    "Cheating." She prods in a light tease once more though before running a hand through her hair with a slow sigh. "Some of us like normalcy though. And remaining sane. I have people waiting for me back there and I'm pretty sure theyd be more than a little concerned if I came home one fry short a happy meal."

    Uta replies to Amalthea, "...I think Edible Despair is a bit unfair. I kinda like 'em. And it is not cheating!" She scoops up another spoonful of actual soggy crackers from her bowl and stuffs it into her mouth.

    Pleased Spriggan noises.

    Once she's swallowed, she adds, more serious, "Yeah, I also have people home. I hope they get us out soon."

    "No, seriously, Jazz!" She exclaims abruptly, turning to the Undine. "What part of 'I'm willing to pay the price of the meal anyway' didn't you get? This is really about research and learning. We have some preliminary data from Mizuki. Ask her. If we crack this, the possibilities are endless! We could discover the mechanics of in-game social engineering! And don't think it's about egoistical means -- think if Lander social engineering was well within the reach of players..." she leans into Jazz, and in a slightly ominously concerned tone, she adds, "...and the knowledge were to be independently discovered by the wrong people /first/." Pointing her thumb to reference Amalthea, "Wrong because of something /worse/ than boredom."

"I got what you meant the first time," says Jazz to Uta, gently, and nothing more on that front. "Whether or not social engineering is possible is an open question, but there's also moral considerations involved, NPCs or no." She considers a moment, swiping her menu and sending Amalthea a friends request. Likes the way that the older lady thinks, perhaps.

"I should get going. Gotta go find some people. It was nice meeting you, Amalthea." She pauses, gives a look at Uta, and the proceed to slink off, her face all scrunched up in thought. It is kind of adorable.

    Sensitive ears perk up as Mizuki approaches in the distance. She frowns a bit at Uta's words, and walks a bit faster.

    She finally reaches the door. "Insanity's not a GOOD thing, you know!" She also nods in greeting and offers a brief wave to the group. "Hi guys."

    Then she turns to Uta. "You didn't sell it as social engineering before, you said 'flirting'. And Jazz is right, if Landers are people now there are moral issues with social engineering."

    She scratches her head. "I guess we could view it as red teaming, or a psychology experiment... but if so, you should be paying the Landers after for their participation, rather than us."

    "I'm not going to just sit and wait for people out there to figure things out." Amalthea muses. "Though that would be great if they did, I'm going to work hard to find a way back on my own if I can." Though she does cock a curious eyebrow at Uta's concern.
    Nevertheless, she accepts the friend request, easily enough. "I should be off, myself." She does admit. "Work to be done and all that. Be well, all of you~."

    Uta rolls her eyes. "I was /kidding/ about the flirting. Told you already. Nothing more than just acting cute, that's all. And sure, I'm willing to take all precautions necessary to make sure no injustice takes place."

    She thinks for a moment, then abruptly points at Mizuki. "Charisma bonus." She says, almost-but-not-quite out of context.

    After a brief pause, she continues, "It has a name already, apparently. That's what that Adventurer I've met called it. Acting cute can possibly give you a /charisma bonus/."

    "Bye, Amalthea! Bye J!", she says to, well, Amalthea (who also gets a friend request from Uta) and Jazz respectively. Wait, did she say 'J' or 'Jay?'

    Suddenly almost everyone else has to leave! "Uh, bye..." Mizuki waves again, caught off-guard and left with Uta.

    "A charisma bonus, huh..."

    I'm Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite store on the Citadel!

    "I've never had much charisma, in real life or in the game." She sits at the bar or table Uta's at and rests her head in her hands. "I didn't think it mattered with NPCs in here, but I guess it would now. I suppose it could be pretty nice, to be treated like I have charisma. On the other hand, if I do it through cuteness, mightn't people get a little... patronizing?"

"That's exactly what we're trying to find out, isn't it? We don't get a user's manual here," says Uta. Maybe the word she should have used is Player's Handbook, but it has been established that her player is not into gaming. "And if people get patronizing, well, at least you'd /know/ it is. Instead of sticking to authority, you can play your cards and choose whether to go for authority or charisma. Even in the worst case scenario, you win." She leans back. "And don't even get me started about the advantages of people /underestimating/ you... sure, that's playing the game in... 'hard mode' is how Gwen put it last time, right? But think of how many wives of powerful people have been secretly pulling the strings in the background while appearing nothing more than a harmless cute figure in the shadow of a powerful man..." She straightens and turns immediately to face Mizuki. "Given how many misunderstandings there have been, NO, I am not suggesting /literally/ that. Just... you know, if someone is /dang skilled/ at playing a role and strategizing, they can let people underestimate 'em, and still secretly OWN the situation." She sighs, fingers intertwined with each other, head hanging low. "Oh, goodness. Look at me. Got so excited about the mechanics of the world I went all mastermind Machiavellian schemer..." She turns to Mizuki with a hint of concern. "Is... is this normal when people play this kind of videogame or should I worry about my sanity?"

    Mizuki does give Uta a bit of a look at the example of power behind the throne she gives, but wasn't taking it as a literal suggestion. "...I couldn't live like that all the time. Some of us are better at wearing masks than others, I suppose... we all wear them, but doing all that work to maintain a really fancy and detailed one deliberately decieving people is... not only is it potentially immoral, but it sounds like exhausting work. I know it's fun for some folks but not for me."

    Mizuki shrugs at the question. "You approach it from a somewhat different angle than most, but there is certainly a subset of gamers who, presented with a system, immediately look for ways to break it -- sometimes their minds even do it reflexively without intention."

    She looks out over the railing. "Normally I am too, though I wouldn't say I look very /hard/ for such exploits unless I have a specific goal in mind. And while I do want to... to not be stuck in here, I guess I've been a bit off my game from..." she gestures vaguely. "Y'know, /everything/."

    Uta stays silent.

    Uta stays very silent, looking down, hands still intertwined, limp, elbows resting on the railing.

    Finally she turns to Mizuki. "That's my problem. I keep tricking myself into believing that this is all a game, and sending myself on a wild goose chase to 'win' it, because I canot accept the simple fact that all this is real now." She shakes her head. "No, that's not correct. I /do not want/ to accept that all this is real now."

    Uta turns and makes eye contact with Mizuki, and the look in Uta's own eyes hold witness to what she's going to say next.

    "I'm scared, Mizuki. I'm worried and scared."

    Mizuki looks at Uta with growing concern as her rant continues.

    She just cannot help trying to give Uta a hug and pat her on the back, if she'll allow.

    "...I think everyone's scared. Even the people who love being in here and want to spend the rest of their life here are probably scared that it will /end/ when people outside finally fix whatever's stopping them from just disconnecting the NerveGear. Or when the Scale Alliance finds a way out."

    She moves back so she can look Uta in the eyes. "I'm scared I'll never see my family and friends again. Or that I won't be able to do anything about all this in the end-- even if we find a way out, I might never be able to do anything to the people who did this to us. I'm scared I might have to spend the rest of my life as a catgirl."

    "But that's all more low-key and distant. I mean, I worried about it a lot the first few days, sure, but now I'm more worried that /being/ part cat is gonna... change me, somehow. Will I lose something? Part of myself? Will it get harder to understand other people?"

    She turns around to lean with her back against the railing and stare up at the sky. "You went on about metaphysics the other day... and philosophy has its place, but perhaps a nugget of wisdom from science can help:"

    "Only by accepting reality, even if you don't like it, can you ever hope to change it. If you build an airplane and it doesn't work, all the denial in the world, all the pleading, all the excuses, will never make it fly. Only by accepting the reality that your plane doesn't fly, can you begin to figure out why and learn what you have to change to make it work. Denial or acceptance... Only one of these two paths lets you fly through the air, or go to space, or make computers, or make life-saving medicine."

Uta does allow the hug and the pat, and does maintain eye contact while Mizuki does, but returns to look down when Mizuki breaks said eye contact.

    "...I'm scared and worried that I've been hatching plans without considering people's feelings." She finally says, after some silence, turning to Mizuki again.

    "This world, being stuck as a mosquito girl, the politics, the threat of death, slipping into your character, yes, they're all real concerns. But, you know, the monster within yourself. The hero discovering he's got far more in common with the villain than the saviour he thought he was. Or, even worse, 'Are we the bad guys?' All that."

    She sighs, and pulls her mouth into a smile. "But, as you say, at least we're aware of it. That's part of the difference between the hero and the villain. The villain often doesn't think he's being evil. He's certain he's doing the right thing. The hero, conversely, sees both sides, and at least has doubts. I guess that'll do for now." She returns to stare ahead. "We save the whole journey and character arc for later, that's too much to cram into the next five minutes," she smirks

    "Thanks for listening and... cheering me up." She finally says, after a short pause, turning to geive her back and rest her elbows the other way, looking up at the sky herself. "...if you end up slipping into the catgirl persona, I'll reciprocate by making sure you're constantly supplied with yarn."

    Mizuki rubs the back of her head. "Sometimes, I'm not good at considering people's feelings either." She looks at Uta. "...I hadn't really thought about that, but I guess if you worry that you're becoming the villain... then you have to decide what's more important to you: Doing the heroic things, or doing... whatever it is that turned out to be villainous that also really matters to you."

    She stares out into space. "Obviously doing the right thing is the right thing, by definition, but I guess if something else is more important to you you can at least acknowledge it."

    She looks at Uta again. "Does the hero see both sides? Most of these quests the game has us doing... when we raid a monster den, the quest doesn't ask us to worry about how the /monsters/ feel. And if someone hesitated because they DID wonder, in the middle of a battle, they could get their whole team killed, and possibly some Landers or other players if the monsters escape. I'm not saying being Captain Hammer is right, but I wonder if empathy for the other side is indeed a quality most would ascribe to 'heroes'."

    She blinks "I cheered you up? Uhh, thanks. I mean you're welcome." She actually laughs at Uta's joke about the yarn, and smiles. "Thanks."