"Congratulations to Maple and Sally!"

Maple couldn't help but flinch at the loud and exuberant cheer, even though she knew it couldn't hurt her because the game's volume was capped at a safe level. And it's not like anything in the game could get through her amazing defenses anyway.

Then she smiled back at all her guildmates, the dear friends she had made inside the amazing VRMMO called New World Online. "Thanks everyone! It's hard to believe that Sally and I are actually done with high school."

"Almost done," Sally corrected with a grin. "We've still got the graduation ceremony tomorrow, remember?"

"Right! I'll have to get up early to run home and get ready."

"Huh?" Mai tilted her head, sending her black hair swaying.

Yui mirrored her twin sister's stance, their silhouettes forming a half-black, half-white heart shape. "Are you not at home right now?"

Maple shook her head. "Nah, there's construction near my house that's been making my internet connection all flaky. I logged in from Sally's house to make sure nothing could interrupt this party!"

"Good thinking, Maple," Chrome said from across the room at the buffet table. He had a plate piled high with virtual foods, and most of them were weird and exotic.

Iz elbowed Chrome in the ribs. "Save some for the rest of us, you bottomless pit."

He glared back at her. "Hey, it's not every day I get to eat a zero-calorie feast."

"That's because you're too cheap to buy in-game food," Iz said.

Chrome started to respond, but Sally cut in, "Stop bickering you two. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were IRL siblings."

Iz waved a hand dismissively. "I consider it 'playful banter', not bickering."

Kasumi squeezed past them with a towering plate of her own, "Playful banter? Is that what they're calling flirting these days?"

A shadow settled over Chrome's features and Iz's brow furrowed deeply. She firmly said, "We are not flirting."

Kasumi giggled and gracefully strode away. "If you say so."

In the adjacent room, Maple was already seated on some comfy cushions and chatting with the guild's younger and quieter members.

"Congrats, Maple," Kanade said softly. "It's nice to see people taking academia seriously."

"Thank you, Kanade," Maple said with a vibrant smile. "With how smart you are, I bet you can graduate early if you want."

Kanade averted his gaze, then nodded, "Yeah, that's looking to be the case."

"Really?" Mai and Yui said in unison. "That's so cool!"

"Is the boy genius stealing our thunder?" Sally asked as she approached with two plates stacked with digital snacks. She offered one toward Maple. "Here you go."

"Aw, thanks, Sally!" Maple said as she took the plate. Then she shrugged. "I don't mind sharing the limelight. It's not like we're the only people who are graduating tomorrow."

"But you're the only members of Maple Tree who are," Chrome boomed as he approached with the rest of the guild following just behind. He lifted a glass of some sort of impossibly vibrant green juice into the air. "So let's celebrate!"

After a bit over an hour of socializing and more 'grats' than General Chat after a world-first, the party came to an end. Iz had been keeping the party on a tight schedule by repeating, "Remember that Maple and Sally need to get up early for their big day."

Then she nudged the two girls toward the door and whispered, "You're clear for your date, ladies!"

"How'd you know about that?" Sally whispered back. "But thanks for the assist."

Maple blinked her wide grey eyes. "Date?"


"I hope you've still got some room for food, Maple."

Sally was flying across the landscape with Maple on her back. This method of travel was probably over a hundred times faster than Maple's zero-AGI walking speed.

Maple held on tight and thought back to the time she'd eaten an entire hydra boss. "Um, I don't think you can actually get full in this game. Oh, are we going to fight some mobs with rare skills?"

Eating her enemies was how Maple had earned some of her best skills, and she figured there were lots of monsters she hadn't tried yet.

"Wha? No, we're going to a special place, the one with the gorgeous view and Pieces of Sky to eat."

"Ooh, I love that place. And didn't you say we can get rare drops there?"

Sally nodded and continued running at blazing speed. "You know it. I looked up its loot table online, and I'd be happy with any of the rare items on it."

Just a few minutes later, Maple and Sally were seated at an intimate candlelit table, with a plate of soft neon-colored orbs called Pieces of Sky and a glass of liquid Starry Sky before them. Sally was staring across the table at Maple with a baffled expression on her face.

"That item wasn't even on the list! The community compiled over a thousand visits, and no one reported a locket drop."

"Yay! We got something special!" Maple cheered.

"So what's it do, anyway?" Sally asked, peering at the silver locket that had arrived with Maple's serving of edible sky. It looked pretty simple, just a round locket on a slender chain, but in this game, looks could be very deceiving.

"Let's see…" Maple scanned the item description, then said, "It says it can take a snapshot of my appearance and apply it again for five minutes. It has an hour cooldown."

Sally took a sip of her beautifully sparkling starlight drink, the one that turned her hair rainbow colors for a limited time. Then she said, "Oh, you can use that to show off these rainbow eye and hair effects in town, since they don't last long enough naturally."

"Great idea!" Maple quickly devoured an entire Piece of Sky and downed her glass of Starry Sky, then held the locket out in front of herself with the clasp open.

PING!

"Oh, there's a picture of me in the locket now!"

Sally shook her head. "Of course you'd be the one to get a new drop. I have to expect the unexpected when I'm around you," she said with a giggle.

Maple blinked her big, sparkly eyes. "Is that a bad thing?"

Sally reached across the little table and took Maple's hand. "Not at all. I wouldn't have it any other way."

Maple felt her face growing hot, and it only got worse when Sally put a hand on her cheek.

"Can I… kiss you?"

Maple tried to slow her breathing. "Yes, but…"

"But?"

"I want our first kiss to be in real life. I want it to be really real. Is that a weird thing for me to ask?"

"That just might be the least weird thing you've ever done in this game. And I agree. Let's pause here for the night. It's getting late anyway."

"We should get to town to log out. Is the Sally Express still running this late?"

"It sure is! Hop on."

Sally's Super Speed skill made quick work of the return trip. They reached the empty guild hall, then Maple climbed down from Sally's back and said, "Seeya tomorrow at the graduation ceremony. I hope I'm not too nervous to sleep."

Sally winced. "Oof, don't remind me. Seeya, Maple!"


"Uh oh," said one of the New World Online developers as he scrolled through a log of notable events from that day. "Maple got another rare drop, a weird new item to abuse."

"What? Again!?" another dev cried out. "How does she keep doing this?"

A third developer piped in, "Calm down, calm down. That locket she got is completely cosmetic. It only affects her appearance, so she can't use it to become any more powerful than she already is."

"Oh, good point. But knowing Maple…"


Kaede pulled the VR headset off and blinked a few times while her eyes acclimated to the real world. Here she was just a regular 18 year old girl, not Maple the indestructible Great Shielder with sky-high Vitality, a terrifying set of skills, and cool black and red armor.

Huh, this isn't my bedroom, she thought. Then she saw who else was in the room with her, sitting just a few feet away on the same bed.

"Sally- er, Risa! I forgot I was staying over here."

Risa blushed from ear to ear. "Yeah… I forgot too."

Kaede stared down at her hands, even though her eyes wanted to look at Risa in her cute blue pajamas. "Um, about what you said earlier, during the romantic dinner…"

"Yeah?"

"We're in real life now."

Risa slid closer on the bed, until their legs nearly touched. "That's true."

Kaede put a hand on Risa's bare thigh. "Thanks for always carrying me around in the game." Then she gave a squeeze and said, "Your legs are really great out here too."

"Are you trying to flatter me, ma'am?"

Kaede burst into giggles. "Maybe."

Risa put her hand on Kaede's cheek, like she had done in the game, then she pulled her close. "Can I kiss you now?"

A shiver ran down Kaede's entire body and she said, "Yes, but…"

Risa stiffened. "But?!"

"I want to kiss you, too. I want it to be together, as partners."

Risa raised an eyebrow. "Not sure how that's different from what I was planning, but you've got a deal."

Risa leaned forward and Kaede met her halfway. When Risa kissed her, she kissed back and she put some serious energy into it. She had wanted this for a long time, even if she'd only understood the feeling recently. Risa was her best friend, her closest ally, and something more. Something special and dear to her heart.

Soft lips pressed against hers, hot and wet and alive. She could smell Risa's shampoo in her hair, the fabric softener on her pajama top, and her sweat on her skin.

"So much better IRL," Kaede whispered.

"When you're right, you're right," Risa said, nuzzling into Kaede's neck.

There was a small pop as the top button of Kaede's pink pajama top gave way to Risa's tugging. Two more quickly followed, then both girls worked together to get the rest. Kaede wiggled free of the cloth, which suddenly felt stuffy and constricting, then started on Risa's.

Beneath Risa's pale blue PJs was a vivid blue bra, the color of a tropical sea. A sliver of the same color was peeking out above her pajama bottoms. Kaede's breath briefly caught in her throat and she thought, Matching panties!

Kaede kissed Risa again, then said, "Did you know that you look amazing in blue?"

"Yep, that's why I bought these. I was out shopping and the color jumped out at me. I had to have them, even if nobody but you would ever see them."

"Oh, so you were planning for me to see them?" Kaede asked, peppering Risa's neck with kisses. Kaede was much more agile in the real world, and Risa's speed was no longer superhuman.

"Well, eventually. I didn't expect this to happen tonight."

Kaede grinned. "Whaddaya think? Should I get some black and red panties to match my avatar?"

Risa suddenly went still and her face flushed pink.

"Oh? I bet you're imagining me in racy black and red lingerie now."

Risa squirmed. "How'd you know?!"

"What can I say, I guess I just know you well, Risa." Then Kaede hugged her girlfriend close. There was no denying that they were girlfriends now. "To be honest, I was just thinking of some cute cotton panties, black with red hearts maybe. But after seeing your reaction, maybe real lingerie is in order."

"How about this… After the graduation ceremony, and after we finally escape from family obligations and everything else, let's go to the mall together. It'll be our first IRL date."

Kaede kissed Risa again, and again and again, like she was making up for lost time. Then she finally whispered, "You've got a deal."


New World Online Forums:

Anonymous Great Shielder: "Sorry guys… Maple's gone and done it again…"

Anonymous Archer: "Oh no. What now?"

Anonymous Spear Master: "You mean you haven't heard?! Maple's got a crazy new form."

Anonymous Archer: "Explain! I need to know what new nightmare is going to keep me up at night."

Anonymous Mage: "Her new form looks totally tame, just her normal appearance with rainbow hair…"

Anonymous Sword User: "And eyes!"

Anonymous Mage: "And rainbow eyes, yeah. But this form moves super fast and is monstrously strong. I saw her rip a monster in half with her bare hands. And she let out a huge roar, too!"

Anonymous Greatsworder: "What in the—"

Anonymous Great Shielder: "Oh yeah… that's gotta be her Atrocity form. And now it's got a portable/stealth mode…"

Anonymous Greatsworder: "Just another day in the wild tale of Maple! The rest of us are just along for the ride."