"Do you realize something?" Cassie looked over at Ellie as she handed her a plate to go in the dishwasher. "Eric's made sure that we've both gotten every one of our wishes from Thanksgiving."

"I know," Ellie arranged a handful of silverware into the baskets in the dishwasher. "Christmas is still a couple weeks away and he's already found a way to give us everything we wanted."

Eric had retreated to the den after dinner to log into his gaming system for the first time in days. He had gotten a message from Lisa asking if he was doing okay and letting him know she had sent him game invites the last few times she had played, but he hadn't been on to accept. He had agreed to meet up with her in the game that evening. He was a few minutes early, and had barely logged in, when an invite appeared and he accepted.

In the huge open world platform of the game, there were a variety of regions that you could play in and travel between. Eric had been in most of them at some point, but tended to spend most of his time in an area of mountain forest where his gear was best matched for concealment and where he was most familiar with the terrain. Exploring new areas was fun and exciting, but dangerous, as it forced you to move around much more carefully to avoid roving bands of players who worked together, concealed players lying in wait, ambushes and elaborate traps that could be engineered within the game with the right materials and expertise. In such a large open world, most players tended to stick to the key areas they knew and where they had built up an advantage in defending themselves or gained the upper hand in hunting other players.

Lisa sent him a map location for a trading village not far from where he was in the game and he used a quick travel function to take him to the market square where he they had planned to meet. He had no problem finding Lisa in the crowded market. The bright colors she had chosen, and the wide berth that most players gave her character, made her very easy to find. Eric hit a request to open a voice link and it went green almost immediately.

"There you are! Hi!" Lisa's voice came through the headset linked to his controller.

"I've been looking for you for days! I can't believe we finally hooked up!" She sounded very glad to see him. "How did you get here?"

"I quick traveled," Eric could see other players turning to watch them. No one would be able to hear them, but it was pretty obvious that their characters knew and were talking to each other. "Yeah, sorry I've been pretty busy the last couple of days with stuff here at the house. What did you want to do?"

"I've got horses. Follow me." Lisa started walking across the market to a stable where players could buy, equip, heal and safely board horses within the game. Eric followed her to a stall where she unlocked an armored warhorse and said, "This one's you." The horse was a dark brown and his armor and accessories were colored to blend into the wooded areas of this region of the game. Eric mounted the horse and waited while Lisa unlocked the horse in the next stall.

Lisa mounted up a pure white warhorse with bright armor that matched her own. The bright red accent pieces, tack and saddle were matched to her cloak and hair. She took the lead in guiding them out of the stables and through the market. They chatted as Lisa took them through the small walled town and past the guarded gates that led out onto the road and open country.

Eric, like a lot of players, didn't own a horse in the game. They were very handy for traveling quickly through the open world, particularly between new areas you had never visited or quick travel portals you had unlocked in the places you had. They also gave the rider an advantage in battle, both in speed and maneuverability. But they were extremely expensive, both to buy and heal. They took damage and could die if you couldn't afford to heal them, equip them and maintain their health. The fact that Lisa apparently owned two of the most expensive type of horse available in the game was extremely impressive.

Once in the open, Lisa led them off the road, not far from the village, and up into the mountain forest. Winding her way through a series of canyons and along ridges where the horses could climb the steep grades, Lisa clearly knew this part of the world extremely well. One of the difficult aspects of this region was that the terrain frequently led into canyons and sheer cliff faces that were difficult to climb out of without specialized gear and very slow going. Eric himself used several dead end canyons in the game to ambush new players who wandered into the area for the first time.

"Hang back here a second," Lisa dismounted at the crest of a rocky pass as they prepared to enter a river filled gorge. He watched her character move into the tree line to their left and several minutes passed. Eric heard the sound of weapons clanging against armor and a short time later Lisa's character emerged from up the trail below where they had stopped, but now wearing an outfit that allowed her to blend into the forest more easily. She mounted her horse and Eric watched it too transform its body color and accessories piece by piece to better blend into the forest. Lisa must have carried a full second set of armor in her inventory in equip her horse for the change. Eric wondered if he currently had enough gold to purchase even one of the sets of armor and accessories for a horse like hers.

'There's only one really good ambush spot for this gorge and it's not easy to find," Lisa explained. "Every once in a while someone finds it and sets up there and thinks they own the place." She giggled. "They never see you drop in on them from above because you can't see the ledge unless you scout back up around from the top of the gorge." Lisa led him into a spot in the trees on the opposite side of the trail and pushed a rock to reveal a cave entrance. "We can leave the horses here," she led him in and it was small room with a chest. Leading the way back out, Lisa shifted the rock and the cave entrance disappeared. Eric would have walked by it a hundred times and never know it was there.

"C'mon," Lisa led him back to the trail and showed him the way down to the ledge above the ambush site, and then down into the gorge to the river. She stopped for a moment to scan the area with a detection ability her character had and then told Eric what they were about to do. Lisa dove into the river and swam down to the bottom, going into the deepest part to enter an underwater cave that led back up into a dry tunnel. Lisa lit a torch and led him carefully through a series of traps to a locked door which she disarmed. Once inside, Eric found that it was an elaborately fashioned and decorated fortress, built into the cliff face along the wall of the gorge.

"Wow, this is amazing," Eric was genuinely impressed. His own home in the game was a simple hollowed out part of a hill that he concealed behind foliage that had to be replaced each time he entered or left. Some players built elaborate castles or fortresses to defend their possessions and minimize the threat of attack from other players, but Lisa had engineered an elaborate dwelling that was almost impossible to find accidentally and was incredibly well-protected if you did. She had shown him the way in, how to disarm its traps and unlock it's door.

"Thanks, I made this place over Christmas last year. You wouldn't believe how many pick axes I went through to hollow out all the rooms." She walked him through the various rooms and revealed the secret vault in one wall where she had another room filled with chests full of loot, weapons, armor and supplies. Eric was stunned at everything she had acquired in the chests. "You can take some stuff if you need it. This is all stuff I've taken off guys who I take out at the ambush point. I usually take the best stuff back to my main place, so this stuff just keeps building up here. I don't really use any of it. Help yourself any time you want."

Eric was a little stunned at the offer, even more so by the fact that she had shown him the hidden vault that would have otherwise required him to destroy every wall in the fortress in order to find it. A chest was a valuable asset in the game as it allowed you to store additional treasure and objects so that you wouldn't lose them, even if your character died, and lost whatever they were carrying at the time. It meant that you could retrieve them when you respawned defenseless in the game so you didn't have to start from scratch in order to acquire armor, weapons and tools. It allowed you to conceal wealth, enchantments, food and devices that made everything in the game easier for an experienced and better equipped player. Ordinarily you never showed another player where you hid your wealth and supplies. At this point Eric would have been embarrassed to show Lisa how his own possessions were dwarfed by the leftovers she had accumulated in the vault of what sounded like wasn't even her main fortress in the game.

"Thank you Lisa. That's unbelievable. If I ever got into trouble, this place would be perfect to re-equip. That's so generous," Eric was blown away.

"No problem," Lisa sounded happy at his reaction. "So do you have time to go do some stuff?"

"I've got time. What did you have in mind?" Eric was excited.

"Well there's a fortress these guys are building in the next valley over and they've started tunneling into this mountain. It's still pretty far away, but I've been wanting to take them out and loot the place for a while." She waited for a second. "You wanna take them out together?"

"Sure," Eric sat up in his chair in the den. "Lead the way."

"Yay!" Lisa's started moving around the vault. "First we have to upgrade you a little and find the right equipment." She started explaining her plan for attacking the castle while passing armor and weapons to Eric.

"But the only thing he had left on his list was a strip club," Ellie sipped her drink on the couch beside Cassie. "They're all closed and even if we pretended to make one for him here, he's already seen our tits, especially after today. If we were gonna do that for him, we should've done it before we started running around topless."

"So that's all they do there?" Cassie genuinely didn't know. "Take their tops off and let guys see their tits?"

"Well, they dance around and give lap dances and stuff, but yeah...that's pretty much all they show." Ellie shrugged.

"You're right," Cassie nodded. "Guess we've already spoiled that surprise. So what's a lap dance?"

The more Lisa described her plan, and led him over the mountain to scout out the location of the fortress the other players were building, the more Eric realized that she had been working out the details of the attack for quite some time. The fortress being built wasn't just some minor outpost, or hastily constructed fortification. It was a major undertaking that had already required a large amount of material, even from what they could visibly see from the outside, and was being worked on by at least three players that Lisa had observed. The players were clearly setting up a large fortified compound which would allow them to hold off a small army of attackers and give them dominance over the valley that it straddled.

From what Lisa described and Eric could observe, the outer fortifications were already completed and the players were now adding structures behind them, along with a series of defensive measures and mounted weapons that would give them the ability to deliver damage over a fairly long-range out into the valley below from their elevated position. It was already a tough position to attack and the more they improved upon it, the tougher it would become.

So Eric actually laughed out loud when Lisa revealed how they would take the fortress and kill the players inside. Lisa would launch an assault on the fortress from the valley below, using her weapons and abilities to create enough of a threat that the players inside would need to respond, while Eric would enter the fortress from the entrance Lisa had secretly built underneath them, even as they'd constructed it. She had engineered a trap door that looked identical to the stones in one of the hallways at the back of their mountain compound and Eric would be able to open it and attack the occupants from behind while she distracted them from the front.

With the weapons and armor that Lisa had loaned him, killing both of the players in the fortress had been fairly straightforward. Creeping up through the tunnel and emerging from the trap door when Lisa launched her attack had been simple, but creeping through the unfamiliar layout of the fortress had been tense as Lisa could only see two players defending the fortress and Eric had to move carefully to make sure that the third wasn't waiting in concealment to ambush anyone who made it past the other players. Once Eric had cleared every room in the fortress, he gave the all clear to Lisa and let her through the main gate.

The first thing he and Lisa did was loot the vault the builders had used to store all of their most valuable loot, weapons and armor. Eric felt a little bad that he had received all the life energy from the two players, and leveled up substantially as they were both fairly advanced players, but Lisa didn't seem very concerned that he had gotten the benefit. Her main concern was laying an ambush for the third player, thinking that the other two players were probably warning them even now about the attack. They were likely to spawn at any moment inside the castle where they had last exited the game and try to take them out in order to regain control of the fortress. Lisa suggested that she hunker down in the vault and they quickly created a hidden cavity in the wall across from the vault entrance to allow Eric to mine his way out to come up on the player from behind while they were occupied with battling Lisa in the entrance to the vault. They settled down to wait.

"But what if it wasn't us?" Ellie suggested. "Maybe seeing us topless isn't quite the same thrill as it was a few days ago, but there might be a way to spice it up so it fulfills some other fantasy of his."

"Like wear costumes or something?" Cassie didn't hate the idea.

"Like exactly," Ellie nodded at once. She got up to grab her laptop from the kitchen and they started looking at Halloween costumes online. Luckily, most of the bars and parties across the country had been shut down for Halloween and they found a lot of great deals as retailers were trying to liquidate unsold inventory rather than sit on it until next year.

"At these prices, we could probably get two or three costumes each," Cassie was getting excited.

"So what would you guess our Eric fantasizes about?" Ellie asked naughtily. Cassie laughed and took another sip from her drink. The two of them scrolled through the available costumes, laughing, teasing each other and speculating about whether it would turn Eric on to see one of them strip for him wearing each outfit.

When the third character spawned just a few minutes after they'd settled in, they did exactly what Lisa predicted they would. The player swept through the fortress looking for whoever had killed his friends and then went straight to the vault to see if they had been looted. Lisa let Eric know that she had engaged the player and was laying down fire that was causing him, or her, to take cover just outside the vault. Eric mined his way out of the wall and attacked the player from behind, doing a massive amount of damage before they could even turn around and engage him. At the moment the player turned to counter-attack, Lisa shot them with an arrow from the vault and their avatar despawned instantly, leaving their possessions floating over the ground and their life force flowing into Eric, leveling him up even further. Taking out the three advanced players was easily the greatest single day he'd ever had in the game and it was all due to Lisa.

By the time Eric logged out it was nearly three AM. He went quietly up the stairs but both Ellie and Cassie had long since gone to bed. Eric listened at Ellie's door to their bathroom, but he could tell the light was out from the gap under the door and he couldn't hear any sound indicating she was still awake. Eric had only meant to play online for an hour or so after dinner, but the time in the game with Lisa had flown by as they had taken out the fortress and spent the next few hours changing its defenses and looking for secret entrances that the other players might have concealed when they built it. Eric was disappointed that he had missed a chance to see Ellie before bed, but he had already jacked off when he took a shower after the beach and felt pretty drained after playing online for hours.

Eric drifted off to sleep thinking Lisa was much more interesting than he had initially thought. She was smart, resourceful, liked risk and had both a keen insight into human nature as well as a gift for sarcastic observational humor that he found hilarious. He'd enjoyed the time they'd spent in the game and he was looking forward to meeting up again the next day, as he had promised her, when they talked through what they'd still like to do in the fortress. He figured he could get a few hours of gaming in after dinner and still log off in time to see Ellie before he went to sleep.

Cassie couldn't believe how late Eric slept in the next day. Usually they were up around the same time and her growing disappointment at his absence in the kitchen that morning, as the minutes, and then hours, ticked by, surprised her. The truth was she had come to look at that time together as something special every day. She had his attention in a quiet way that didn't require her to compete with Ellie. Everything was slower, softer and more thoughtful when it was just the two of them at the kitchen table. After he hadn't shown up in the first hour after she'd made her tea, she resigned herself to getting some work done. But she still looked up and listened for his steps on the stairs whenever she heard a noise come from somewhere in the house.

Working through the large datasets that the university had made available online, she experimented with graphing different results that she might use to illustrate her thesis. The more she worked through the possibilities, the more frustrated she became. As much as she had found data she could use to support her work, it wasn't particularly conclusive and she began to question whether even making the case with a better looking set of data would make it any more compelling. The more she worked through the data, the more she wished she had taken another approach from the outset. She played with graphing different data series against different parameters, metrics and scales to see if there was a better way to make her case, when suddenly, out of nowhere, she saw it.

Sure she might have done something wrong in setting up the graph, she ran it again, checking each step and entry in her model and filter before generating the plot. It was identical to the first result, and more importantly, defined a relationship between the two data series that looked almost perfectly aligned. Cassie saved the work and immediately started going through the other data sets to see if it also showed up in the other rounds of testing. It lined up perfectly each time.

Cassie got up and walked around the kitchen several times before looking out across the thick blanket of snow across their property. On one hand, she knew she shouldn't approach her advisor about changing her thesis this late in her senior year. Given how much work she had already done and how many revisions her advisor had worked through with her, it would be crazy to start from scratch again.