Chapter 36: Cat's Cradle The leatherworker finished our armor the morning of the second day, sending an apprentice to get us from the Lucky Star while we were eating breakfast. Beyond my dumb hat, this was the first time we were getting an upgrade in armor, and I had to admit I was excited. I’d always been a sucker for appearance and cosmetic upgrades in games; it’s where a lot of my extra cash flowed after bills. At least this upgrade will do something more than look nice on my phone. I held the vest up to my chest and looked at the girls. “So, can I just equip this right here?” Ravyn smirked. “Sure, if you want to strip here in the street.” “T-that would certainly draw a lot of attention,” Cannoli stammered, staring down at the freshly crafted garment in her hands. “I won’t protest,” Keke said. “Alright! I get it! Jesus,” I laughed. “Let’s go back to the inn, then.” “No fun,” Keke teased. “Take it off! Take it off! Squaaaawk!” Ball screamed. The gazes of two girls passing by lingered on me, sliding the length of my body as if undressing me. They giggled behind their hands once they caught the dark looks from Ravyn and Keke, then hurried away. My ears burned, and I scratched the back of my neck. “Yeah. Alright. Inn,” I repeated, leading the way back to the Lucky Star. Back in my room, I switched to [Combat Mode] and stripped away the [Warrior] beginning leathers and skins. I’d washed them a dozen times, and the wear and tear was beginning to show, but replacing them felt strange. Like I was ditching a friend. Not the time to be sentimental, dude. You need to be sturdier than a wet paper bag. The tiger armor fit like a glove. Ravyn wasn’t kidding; the artisan was at the top of her Class. I’d never sewn anything in my life, but I’d had plenty of hand-me-downs that were two sizes too big or small, so wearing something tailored to my size was a nice change of pace. Though this bare stomach thing is… something. The orange and black-striped tiger skins had been turned into a thick cropped top with short sleeves and lined with white fur. There was a tight black shirt underneath it with a thick material that reminded me of a bulletproof vest, but that cut just as high, leaving my abdomen exposed. Is this my punishment for all the chain-mail bikinis my characters wore? The pants were jet black, made of a material that felt like denim but didn’t have the ridges like a pair of jeans would. There was a belt with more of the orange tiger skin hanging in a kind of ass-cape. Really leaning into the flair, I see. Fresh leather boots and leather gauntlets completed the ensemble. “Wait, where’s the headgear?” I pushed aside my previous armor and shoved the bedding aside. Nothing. Just my old hat and my old gear. “Is there really no hat?” I’m stuck with this stupid hat? I sighed. Note to self. Get a new damn hat. “Well, let’s see what this upgrade does.” I snatched the iPaw and thumbed through the screens. New Notifications! Matt has gained: Tiger Chest! Matt has gained: Tiger Pants! Matt has gained: Leather Gauntlets! Matt has gained: Leather Boots! New Equipment Bonus: Tiger Chest: +1 Strength, +2 Defense, +1 Resistance Tiger Pants: +2 Defense, +1 Resistance Tiger Leather Gauntlets: +1 Strength, +2 Defense Tiger Leather Boots: +1 Agility, +2 Defense Set Bonus Complete! +4 Defense, +1 Strength, +1 Agility, +1 Resistance Even I had to admit the Stats were a huge increase over the starting gear. The Agility was a massive boon in terms of dodging roaches, and I already felt lighter on my feet. I could only imagine that Keke felt the same way. I swapped back to [Civilian Mode] and went to look for the girls. All three met me in the hallway, Keke wearing her new [Combat Gear] while posing for a clapping and awing Cannoli. Ravyn leaned against the wall with her arms over her chest, granting Keke a nod of approval. Keke’s armor was sexy. They’d reinforced her previous top with thicker, higher-quality leather by adding a layered, burnt umber corset that cradled her breasts like a lover. Her skin-tight pants were made of the same colored leather, with diamond-shaped openings cut into the thighs, accentuating her shapely legs. A short cape clung to the collar of her top, made of tiger skin similarly patterned to mine. Her belt also included an ass-cape like mine, though it looked a lot better on her. Tall leather boots and archer’s gauntlets decked her hands and feet. She’d pulled her dark hair free of its tight ponytail, allowing it to flow loosely around her shoulders and obscure one golden eye. She held one hand against her head and the other against her hip, half-turning for the others to see her capes. “I like the pose,” I said. Keke whipped around to face me, eyes wide and mouth gaping. “M-Matt!” Her cheeks burned, and she ran a hand through her hair. “I, um. I really like the armor,” she murmured. “What do you think?” I wonder how fast I could get that corset off? “It looks great. You look great.” Keke smiled, her pearly teeth just visible between her soft lips. “Thanks.” I could see every rise and fall of her chest very clearly. I cleared my throat and turned to Cannoli. “Let’s see yours.” Cannoli’s smile faltered. “O-oh. Right. Um…” she rubbed her hands together, then brushed them against her biceps. “Is there enough room in this hallway for your magical transformation?” Ravyn teased. Cannoli’s eyes dropped to the floor. “It’s not that.” She sighed. Without flourish, glitter, or posing, she muttered, “[Combat Mode].” Much like my armor, Cannoli’s dress was entirely new. Flowing white fabric billowed from her hips, held tight by a leather waist cincher the same rich brown color as Keke’s. Her chest and arms were covered with a continuation of the skirt fabric in a turtleneck-style collar and sleeves. Each sleeve was pulled taut by a ring of fabric circling her middle finger. Draped around her shoulders was a fluffy shawl of brilliant white tiger fur. “It’s, um,” Cannoli’s voice trailed as she stroked the fur, her gaze wandering off into the distance. “Oh,” Keke whispered. She approached Cannoli and lay one hand on top of hers. “We can find a different cape if you like.” The image of Cannoli huddled over the tiger kitten’s body when we first arrived to San Island returned. Oh. “No. I asked for the white fur on purpose,” Cannoli replied, shaking her head. “I don’t want to forget what happened here. Ever.” She rubbed her cheek against the fur. “Maybe it’s silly but, this is— Well, this is my way of honoring all of them. Every last tiger that had to die.” “They’re just roaches—” Ravyn began. Now is not the time, Ravyn. “That’s not silly. Not at all,” I said. Cannoli lifted her chin and blinked as if I’d broken her from a trance. “You don’t think so?” “No. I think you’re better at remembering how important life is than any of us. It’ll help keep us in check, you know?” I was struggling to find the words to say. I did think it was important. From what we’d seen on San, Encroachers included more than just monsters and enemies in this world—to forget that could really bite us in the ass later. I looked to Keke for assistance. Keke nodded and brushed a length of hair away from Cannoli’s eyes. “Matt’s right. You have the best heart of all of us.” Buttons crawled out from beneath the tiger fur and shoved his head beneath Cannoli’s fingers. She smiled sheepishly, stroking the back of Buttons’ neck. “I don’t know if I’d say that.” “Hai, now we’re pushing it.” Ravyn rolled her eyes. “Alright, enough with the touchy-feely talk. Let’s see your new get-up, Matt.” “Yes! I want to see!” Cannoli’s mood perked up. Keke nodded, turning back to me. Oh. Right. “Can we wait until a battle?” “No,” all three girls said in unison. I grimaced. “Alright. [Combat Mode].” As soon as I changed, there was a stunned silence. “Keh. Kehehehehehehe.” Ravyn clamped one hand over her mouth and the other over her stomach, bending forward in a torrent of giggles. “You still have—kehehehe—the dumb hat!” Keke slid the hat from my head, then let her eyes wander down. She walked her fingers down my chest to my abdomen, a prurient smile playing at her lips. “I like it, actually.” Don’t shiver. Keep your hands to yourself. Don’t fucking implode. “Thanks,” I managed. “You look really cool, Matt!” Cannoli moved to my side and toyed with the cape at the waist. “You and Keke match. That’s kind of cute, actually.” “Mou ii, you people are gross.” Ravyn righted herself and brushed her fingers through her hair. “Squaawk! Get a room! Get a room!” Ball cried from the rafters. “Okay, show and tell over.” I took my hat from Keke, shoved it awkwardly over my head, and changed back into my civilian clothing. “You didn’t get anything new, right Ravyn?” I asked, desperately searching for a change of subject. “No. Everything I have is better than what we could make from those skins. An upgrade to my gear is gonna cost a lot more Bells than that.” Ravyn shrugged. “Maybe when we get to Nyarlothep.” Maybe I’ll get there before I have one foot in the grave after all. “Got it. So, then, what do we do with our old gear?” Cannoli and Keke exchanged confused looks, then shook their heads. “We’ve never bought new combat gear before. But, I really like that dress,” Cannoli admitted, chewing on her thumbnail. “I’ll probably keep it at home. You know, just in case.” ‘Just in case’ of what, exactly? I was afraid to ask. “No one will buy the beginner combat gear. You can save it or scrap it,” Ravyn said. “Your new pieces you’ll be able to sell for a good price if it stays in decent condition. But you’re better off ditching the old stuff.” “I’ll probably keep what’s leftover then, too,” Keke said, also swapping back to her Ni Island garb. “I’ve had it for so long. It doesn’t feel right to just throw it out.” “Great. Can we go drink now?” Ravyn pushed herself clear from the wall. “We’re leaving tomorrow, yeah? Frida can’t make dragon’s breath cocktails like they do here. I want my fill.” “It’s still early afternoon!” Cannoli cried. “And?” Ravyn was already halfway down the hallway. Ball descended from the ceiling and landed on her shoulder. Ravyn’s generous hips and fluffy tail swayed in a hypnotic rhythm that caught and held my eye. “Join me if you want.” Keke shrugged. “We’ve been pretty busy the whole time we’ve been here. I think we deserve a day off, don’t you?” I shook my head, yanking my focus back to Keke and Cannoli. “Yeah. That can’t hurt.” We descended to the restaurant and took a corner booth. Buttons and Ball bickered on the table while Ravyn ordered us drinks and food. “Don’t worry, I’ll pay for tonight,” she said as I eyed my [Cat Pack]. “Thanks.” I wanted money for my axe and shield. The last thing I wanted was to see our Bells go to booze. Again. Just don’t challenge Ravyn to another drinking contest, jackass. It was my first time trying the dragon’s breath cocktail, and Ravyn wasn’t kidding. That shit burned like the fires of hell going down and kicked like a mule. “Woah,” I coughed. “Is this how Buttons feels when he spits fire?” Ravyn cackled and snorted. “Man up, my boy!” Cannoli tried a sip of hers. Her lips, eyes, and nose scrunched together in a wrinkled mass at the center of her face. “Oh my goodness,” she squeaked. Keke enjoyed it like a fine wine, draining half the glass before setting it down with a sigh of content. I stared. “Damn. I bet you could beat Ravyn in a drinking contest.” Keke eyed Ravyn over her glass. “Is that so?” “Bring it, bitch.” Ravyn sneered, then emptied her glass and slammed it to the table. Keke grinned, a mischievous glint in her eye. “Let’s dance.” “Waitress! Two more!” Ravyn waved and called. It was a fearsome battle. Cannoli and I picked at appetizers and watched in a mixture of shock and awe while their faces reddened and words slurred. To be honest, I didn’t know what the real rules of a drinking contest were. Drink until someone passes out? Until they throw up? I mean, I’d assume it would end when someone gives up. But knowing these two, this was a veritable fight to the last woman standing. “Excuse me, Matt?” a newcomer approached the table and lay a hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see a girl with tied-back blonde hair and brilliant green eyes set in an ivory face. She wore a forest green cloak over combat leathers, and a longsword was sheathed across her back. “I’m sorry, have we met?” I asked. Her straw-colored ears flicked forward, and she smiled. “No, but everyone around here knows you. I’m Myrun.” She offered a short bow and clasped her hands behind her back. “Oh, uh, right.” Not like it’s hard to find information on the only other dude in a city, I guess. “How can I help you, Myrun?” “Hurryitup! Yer belaying our contest!” Ravyn slurred behind me. Myrun’s eyes flickered to the inebriated party behind me, and she laughed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.” “It’s alright. What’s up?” “Well—” she paused, chewing her lower lip and swaying side to side. She glanced at the floor, then looked at me with a heavy-lidded gaze. “I need your help.” Uh-oh. “Okay. With what?” “You see, I want a kitten of my own.” I drained my drink, cleared my throat, then looked back at Myrun. “Isn’t this Cailu’s area to, uh, take care of?” Myrun wrinkled her nose. “I hate Cailu.” “Join the club!” Ravyn chortled. “Cailu the cunt! Cailu the cunt!” Ball screamed. It seemed Ravyn had been sneaking him drinks again. “Smart bird,” Myrun remarked. “But, no. It can’t be Cailu. Not now, not ever.” She bent to one knee and lowered her voice. “Look, I can make it worth your while.” “Uh, I’m sure, but you don’t have to—” She unsheathed the sword from her back and presented it before me. “This sword has been in my family for generations—” Oh no. “—passed down from mother to daughter for time immemorial.” Is this really going to be a thing? “I’m certain it can help you or one of your companions in your many battles to come. Please, you can have it if you’ll have me.” Okay. This is happening. I looked at the girls. “Thoughts?” To my surprise, Cannoli was staring at Myrun with her hands clasped and pained empathy on her face. “Matt, you’re the only person that can help her.” Unexpected reaction. “Well, yeah, but, I mean—” “Jus’ go. Dontcha have thad fuggin’ quest to compete?” Ravyn asked in broken words. “We’ll be here.” So, she knew about the quest. Interesting. “Keke?” Keke’s head lulled to the side. She batted her hand and flashed a wide smile. “Get used to it. Get better at it. Have fun.” Wow. How do you really feel? I looked at Myrun. “Are you sure this is what you want?” “More than anything in this world, sir.” Myrun nodded enthusiastically. “Please, anything you want—” “Alright. Let’s go.” I stood, and my heart pounded against my chest. I didn’t want to look as nervous as I felt. I was entirely sober and very aware of Myrun’s presence next to me. “You don’t have to give me your family’s sword.” “I insist, sir.” “Just Matt is fine. Really.” I didn’t know what to do with my hands. Hold hers? Put an arm around her shoulder? Lead the way like I was headed into battle? Myrun solved my quandary, wrapping her arms around my arm. Her supple chest pressed against my skin, and my breath caught. “I can’t thank you enough.” “Yeah, don’t say that just yet,” I chuckled beneath my breath. Myrun paused. “Why? Is there something the matter? Can you not mate?” Just keep digging your own grave, Kelmer. “N-no, that’s not it. Just, ah, new at this.” “Oh! That’s alright. Me, too,” Myrun laughed, then murmured, “though, I do know my way around swords…” A familiar heat stormed my veins and rushed to my limbs. I closed the door to my room as Myrun tugged the tie from her hair, letting it fall in waves around her shoulders. I’d received express permission from my girls, and Ravyn was right. That quest wasn’t going to finish itself. No Enchantments, very little alcohol—this is about as pure as it was gonna get. So why the hell were my hands trembling? My heart hammered in my ears while she untied the knot of her cloak at her throat. “Am I going to have to do this all by myself?” she mused. I crossed the room and reached around her thin waist, finding the strings of her corset. Her hair smelled heavenly, and her warm body leaned into mine, her hands wandering beneath my shirt. She traced the line of my spine with her fingertips, and I shivered. When I finally had the corset off, I was relieved that her remaining clothing would be much easier. Myrun’s tongue mapped the line of my collar bone and traveled up my throat. She stood on her tiptoes to nibble gently on my ear. “Just relax,” she hummed. “I promised I’d make it worth your while, didn’t I?” [Memory stored and saved for Catgirls...] New Notifications! [A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good] Updated! 2/5 Catgirls Successful! Myrun stayed the night with me, and I realized it was the first time anyone had fallen asleep in my arms. She left when the sun rose, set on me accepting her sword as payment. “Thank you again, Matt. Really.” Myrun kissed me on the cheek, then retied her cloak around her throat. “You’re welcome. Take care of yourself and—” our kid is what I wanted to say, but that sounded strange considering the circumstances. “Be safe, alright?” Myrun smiled. “I’ll protect her with my life. I promise.” Cannoli was waiting in the restaurant when I dressed and came down shortly after seeing Myrun off. “I thought you might be up early,” Cannoli smiled and passed me a teacup. “I ordered a pot.” She carefully poured a cup of steaming liquid into my cup, then set the pot aside. “Thanks.” I circled the cup in my hands, enjoying the warmth against my palms. “How are you feeling?” Cannoli asked, leaning her cheek against one propped-up arm. “Weird,” I admitted. “I’m still getting used to this part, I guess.” Cannoli nodded. “What you did for her was really kind.” She cradled her teacup in her free hand, her eyes searching its depths for targets unseen. “I-I know that I’ve been a little selfish with you. I’m sorry.” “Keke apologized, too. You don’t have to be sorry.” “But I do, Matt. We can’t be selfish. This is what you’re supposed to do, and we can’t be upset about it.” Cannoli hastily wiped her eyes and shook her head. “No. I can’t be upset about it.” Cannoli’s inner turmoil showed all over her face. “Hey. I think it’s okay to be upset sometimes.” She sniffled. “You don’t hate me?” I shook my head. “No. I could never hate you.” I laughed beneath my breath. “You were pretty tipsy, but I did tell you that I like you very much.” Cannoli blushed and dabbed her face with the back of her hand. “I thought that was a dream,” she muttered. “Nope. And I still like you. I’ll be here as long as you want to put up with me, okay?” She nodded, a smile finally returning to her lips. “I feel like such a crybaby.” “Nah. I don’t think so.” I reached for her hand and massaged the back with my thumb. “I just feel bad for making such a beautiful girl cry.” Worst. Pickup line. Ever. To my relief, Cannoli chuckled. “It’s not you. Really.” She gave our entwined hands a single, resolute nod. “I’ll get better at this. I promise.” “We’ll adjust together,” I laughed. “You can always talk to me, remember?” “Yes. Thank you.” Ravyn’s hangover lamentations echoed through the dining hall as she and Keke descended the stairs. Looked like we’d be renting a carriage back to Port of Meow for sure. Matt has gained: 3 points of Energy! Matt has gained: 1 point of Kindness! Matt has gained: Myrun’s Family Sword!