Bitter 185

Without having to discuss it, or beg, Britta had come to an agreement to extend her time in New World.

Well, not really an agreement, more of a shifting of the goal posts she hoped would go unnoticed.

Initially, Mum had said she could only play the game on weekends, but Britta had quietly started doing an hour after school without asking. She had expected to be told no if she had asked, and she also expected to be told to stop at any moment.

Her plan had been to investigate the town’s layout and important areas, and she did her best to keep to a quick in-and-out policy, hoping to get some useful surveillance done. Even if the parents intervened, it would be worth it to get some of it out of the way without using up her weekend time.

But Mum hadn’t said anything. Britta knew they were both watching her. Mum, in particular, was looking for signs of Britta becoming obsessed or her schoolwork suffering, ready to step in.

In order to stay one step ahead of her, Britta had become hyper-aware of her own behaviour. She went out of her way to stop Mum having something she could use to prove Britta was turning into an addict. Britta stayed on top of her homework and made sure to shower often. She ate with her parents and joined in conversations, even when she had no interest in what they were talking about—which was pretty much all the time.

If anything, all aspects of her life outside the game were improved by her trips into the virtual world, at least from a parental point of view.

It was also quite enjoyable to set herself a time limit of one hour each night. She would do whatever she had to do for school, go downstairs and fake interest in her parents’ drab lives, and then put the helmet on with a specific goal in mind. Talk to a particular NPC, visit a certain store, check out a part of the town she hadn’t explored yet—one hour to do as much as she could, and then get out.

She had started a file on the game, making notes and jotting down anything she thought might come in useful at some point. The Garbolum family was just one avenue she had marked down to look into. It could have led nowhere, and still could. But right now, it was the most promising lead she had, and there was a definite connection to the dwarf in the mine.

It might even provide a way to deal with the dwarf. Perhaps this was the route the game had planned for her all along. Or one it had added once she decided to back out of that narrative. Whatever it was she’d stumbled on, Britta made sure not to get carried away.

It would be easy to extend her time in-game, use her raised expectations as an excuse for going full tilt. She didn’t. She stayed disciplined. And Mum didn’t say anything.

Dad, on the other hand, was full of questions.

“You really stopped trying to beat the dwarf?”

“Yep. I’ll come back to it later.” The three of them were sitting around the kitchen table having dinner.

Dad nodded like he thought this was wise. “I’d never be able to leave it alone.”

“That’s why Britta’s a better player than you,” said Mum.

Dad put his fork down and looked at Mum aghast, like she’d just told him he wasn’t really Britta’s father.

“Oh dear,” said Mum. “I’ve gone too far. Did I hurt your feelings?”

“I’m going to speak to my lawyer,” said Dad. He picked up his fork again. “Cruel and inhuman treatment is grounds for divorce.”

“You’re willing to give up half of everything you own?”

Dad smiled. “I think you’re the one who’ll be paying the alimony.”

Mum shuddered. “Divorce refused.”

Britta wanted to bolt her food and rush upstairs, but she forced herself to stay seated, eat slowly and listen to her parents’ inane flirting.

“Are you still playing the vigilante?” she asked Dad.

“I’m a marked man. Hyperbowl have put a bounty on my head.” He sounded inordinately pleased with himself. “This whole ignoring the game and making your own amusement is quite addictive. I’ve been stacking speed and movement buffs so I can make a quick escape when they track me down. Wait till you see what I’ve got planned for them next.”

Britta finished eating and went up to her room. She felt like running, but she didn’t. She checked over her notes to see what she planned to do with her sixty minutes and then lay down on her bed.

She entered New Town and made her way to the cafe where she’d arranged to meet the other two. They were waiting for her, both dressed very differently to their normal garb.

Freddy had swapped his worn-out leathers for a more casual cotton look. Stan had gone in the opposite direction, with the most elaborate outfit she had ever seen. It was red and gold with tassels and braids and buckles on his pointy shoes, and a giant feather sticking out of a wide-brimmed hat.

“It was a costume from a festival event,” said Stan before she could comment.

“It’s very nice,” said Britta, unable to stop herself smirking. “I’m sure she’ll like it.”

“Don’t let your expectations get too high, this is my first time playing a gigolo.”

“I don’t want any funny business,” said Freddy. “She’s still my aunt.”

“I won’t lay a hand on her,” said Stan, and then muttered, “It’s the reverse I’m worried about.”

They left the cafe and made their way to the posh part of town.

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