“So, I’ve got this friend.” James sat on a tan leather couch, surrounded by comfortable pillows and a couple stuffed animals. Through the two boxy windows, sunlight streamed in, tinted green from the leafy trees waving in the gentle summer breeze outside. “Okay, friend is the wrong word. She’s... “
The woman sitting in the chair across the room from him waited patiently for James to find the words. Her name was Lua Margman, and if the long brown hair, circular glasses, and floral print dress didn’t give away her chosen role in life, the sign on her office door that said “Talk Therapy” certainly did. It was a space that she’d reclaimed fairly easily, having only been missing in action for about a month inside the Office.
“Perhaps it would help if you simply described your relationship.” She prompted James, who was the latest of the survivors to agree to let her try to help them cope. Many of them were getting by on their own, or at least faking it well enough, and still more were helped by the support group. But Lua was all to aware of how the trauma of the Office wasn’t going to fade overnight. So she was here for people. A summery voice and no lies or half truths to get in the way of healing the mind.
Admittedly, the young man on her couch right now was perhaps the last person she actually expected to see.
Regardless, James nodded at her prompt. “Okay, so, we were friends since high school. Middle school, actually. We went to college together, lived close enough that we were walking to each other's houses every day. We had what a younger version of me would call ‘adventures’, before I… you know.
Lua nodded politely at him. She didn’t *know*, but she could infer. And she believed him.
“So, when we both had jobs and were sick of our parents asking us when we were gonna get married, we moved out. Together, of course, because why not. And it was, I am told, great.”
“You were told.” Lua never put question marks on her sentences when talking to a patient. Too easy for them to feel like she was questioning them, instead of clarifying for herself.
To James, it felt like she was reading him like a Wikipedia article, and her every statement was just clicking another link. It was a weird, but not unpleasant feeling. “I was told. And I’ve learned.” He took a deep breath, feeling all the held back panic and anger brewing at the edge of his mind. “Her room is still in my apartment. I see her again all the time now. But I don’t… I don’t remember.” His voice cracked slightly. “For the last year, I haven’t remembered her. Never thought of her, never missed her, never even noticed she was gone.”
And Lua made the connection. “She was one of…” A small pause, to compose herself. “She was one of the captives.”
“Yeah.” James wiped at the corner of an eye, trying to be inconspicuous, which was a failing move around someone as experienced as the woman on the other side of the room. “Sarah. She runs the support group for everyone now, and she’s… I mean, I have this external image of who she is. We sorta stumbled across it almost by accident; it’s part of what got us to come in and pull everyone out. But I don’t *feel* it.”
“Months, you said.” Lua held up a hand, lightly, while she thought. “It must have affected you quite a lot.” It took her longer than normal to figure out what to say, how to keep James talking.
“That’s the thing.” He said, with a self-mocking laugh. “Actually, that’s sort of what I wanted to talk to you about.” James waved at himself in general. “So I’m depressed. It’s not bad enough that I’ve gotten on an antidepressant for it, but it’s there. And it sucks. But I’m trying to figure out if… if…”
If he was always like this. James didn’t say it, but Lua heard it. The desperation in his voice, the worry that he was out of line.
“Your friend.” She said. “Sarah. She was important to you.”
“Apparently.” James snorted. I’m trying to reconnect with her, but it feels like I’m not catching up, and neither of us know what to do about it. Sometimes we fall back into routines that *I don’t recognize*, but she clearly does, and I see what we *were*, and I don’t know what to say.”
“When a relationship ends,” Lua told him, staying matter of fact while still showing him a warm empathy, “it takes part of us with it. That’s not just me being a spiritual weirdo, either.” She said with a smile, and got a small response of amusement from James, who was now balled up around one of the larger pillows on her couch, knees tucked up on the cushions. “Humans have a negative reaction to a breakup, to the death of a family member, to a friend moving away…”. She looked at him meaningfully. “...the reaction comes in many forms, but a common one is sudden lack of dopamine production in the brain.”
“Wait, we go into withdrawal from breakups?” James interjected, curiosity overriding pain for a moment.
Lua nodded, pursing her lips. “We do. Perhaps not from a week-long fling, but if you’ve been with someone for a year? Certainly. And your relationship with Sarah, well.” No lies, she reminded herself. No half-truths. “You don’t recover from the loss of a decade long support in your life overnight. Some people may never recover from it at all. But *you*, James. You were robbed of the chance to heal.”
“I didn’t know.” He muttered into the pillow. “But I don’t want to just… blame the depression on this. It just feels… it feels... I didn’t…”
“You didn’t know.” Lua nodded back at him. “But you do now. I don’t think anyone will ever know if you can undo the damage, now that Sarah is a part of your life again. This kind of mental health isn’t, you can imagine, a frequent branch of study.” He laughed at that, still guarded, but a little more real, and Lua smiled at him. “But if nothing else, we can try to help you heal from the loss.” She leaned back in her chair, and folded her hands in front of herself, watching James as he stared out the window at the rustling trees. “Why don’t you tell me about your friend?” She asked.
And James did.
The evening was one of those ones that got cold a lot too quickly, given how sunny it had been just a few minutes ago. Night sneaking up and mugging those poor souls who had forgotten, or opted out of, a coat. Which is why Anesh was rubbing his arms and hurrying from the car to the front door when he got home.
Similarly, he blamed the cold for why it was so hard to parse what he was looking at when he stepped into the apartment that had rapidly become his heart’s home.
"What are you doing." Anesh asked, in a way that made it clear that it wasn't a question at all, and also that while he didn't exactly disapprove, that he was going to ham up his scorn.
"I'm infiltrating." James said, his words slightly slower than normal as he puppeteered two bodies at the same time. "It's a delicate situation."
Anesh looked over at the kitchen, where the drone (non sentient, James had just gotten it today) was currently trying to open the freezer. Next to it, another drone, this one green, with sharply angled panels of plastic and metal and much more flexible rotor mounts looked on; Ganesh was either curious, or maybe just making sure his potential brother wasn't about to get launched into the ceiling. Again.
“I thought that the skulljacks didn’t really let you connect this well.” Anesh raised an eyebrow as he watched the scene unfold, coming into the kitchen to grab a soda out of the fridge.
“Turns out, it’s *people* I can’t connect with. Or maybe just the people in the support group. I… man, I don’t know how to open myself up that way. And without a forced connection, not *wanting* to makes it really hard to work with.” James shrugged, and the drone mimicked the motion as best it could with a small twitch of its manipulator. “This slick little toy, though? Oh man, it’s cool. I can’t exactly feel through it, but I can absolutely feel having a sense of presence in two places at once.”
Anesh looked back at James, his mouth set in a thin line that was almost, *almost* a well hidden smile, which his boyfriend wouldn't appreciate at all, since James had his eyes closed. "You're trying to steal Alanna's ice cream."
"I am not!" Came the protest.
"Well, I mean, you're not trying very hard. Or very effectively anyway, this actually looks like you’re trying super hard." Anesh gave a happy bark of a laugh. "Why the Mission Impossible music?"
James opened his eyes, the drone stilling where it was now perched on top of the freezer. "It sets the mood. Makes it easier to focus."
"No, but I was hoping if I answered fast enough, you wouldn't question me."
Anesh tossed him an ice cream sandwich. "My way was faster."
"Your way is traceable. Alanna's gonna be mad."
“The ice cream is for all of us, James.” Anesh told him patiently. “That’s the perk of being in whatever kind of relationship this is. We share things.”
James unplugged the impressively jury-rigged string of adaptors that led to the back of his skull. “It’s a poly triad, it really isn’t *that* confusing.”
“Well, remember that I’ve never had a date before, so any of this is going to confuse me.” Anesh scratched idly at the back of his own head as he tried not to feel awkward about that.
His parents had been traditionalists, for all that they spoke with south London accents and had only spent a combined total of maybe a year or two in India. They’d had an idea in their head of what was “moral”, shaped by family traditions passed down from their parents, by British culture, by Hollywood films. And that, in turn, had passed down to a confused son, who had at some point shrugged and decided he was more interested in numbers than snogging, and gone to the colonies to pursue that passion.
Ironically, that was where he’d met his boyfriend. And girlfriend. And a whole *new* patch of confusion. But it was something he wouldn’t trade away.
“Anyway.” He spoke a little too loudly, trying to cover his awkward embarrassment.
James did notice, and started to say “Hey…”, something to reassure his friend, to tell him it was okay, that he didn’t need to be perfect.
But Anesh actually did have a pretty good distraction. “You know what else confuses me?” He said, trying to regain his footing. “What in the *hell* is that cabling? How does that even function?”
“Oh! This… nonsense. Yeah.” James clicked his tongue in disappointment. “So, I needed to convert the drone’s signal to standard Ethernet, right? But it uses Bluetooth. So I had to get this wireless adaptor, and then plug that into my head, and then use that to get into the laptop, that’s running a Bluetooth program to control the drone. Except I needed an extra thing for the wireless dongle, because it turns out, not every skulljack is identical, and some of them are missing pins.”
“This is a mess.” Anesh shook his head at the table as he came over and took a seat on the other end of the couch, back pressed against the arm so he could face James. “There has to be something easier. Especially if we plan on using this tactically.”
“Oh, absolutely. This is me hammering out something that worked out of extra cables around the apartment. I’m sure we could just get a drone that has a wifi access.” James shrugged himself. “Frankly? I’m fuckin’ amazed this works so *well*. I can almost *feel* the drone body, and there’s practically no lag. And there *absolutely should be lag*.”
Anesh actually had a good answer to that. “Didn’t we agree that ‘it’s magic’ was an okay explanation here?”
“Magic might explain how the skulljacks are transmissible, or how they seem to be able to translate perfectly from binary to brain.” James conceded. “But it just seems to start to stretch disbelief when they also ignore, like, the speed limits of the hardware they’re attached to, you know?” He pointed at the wireless broadcaster. “This thing has a pretty weak signal strength, and a bandwidth of maybe 1mbps. That is absolutely not enough for a human consciousness.”
“Maaaagicccc.” Anesh enunciated, which provoked a loud laugh from his friend. “Look, it’s probably just one hyper-complex blue orb or something. Just take the win!” He bit down into his ice cream with a mock glare at James.
“Okay, okay!” James lay back into the couch and just relaxed for a second, enjoying the feeling of closeness with Anesh. The two of them had, over the last month, gotten a lot more comfortable with being near each other, with casual moments of touch and affection. And it made James happy, in a passive way that was always there, under his skin and in his smile.
Then he noticed the time, and swore, as all that pleasantly lingering happiness got swallowed up. “I gotta get to work. Fuck. You have a good night. Say hi to Alanna when she gets back from her mom’s.”
“Will do.” Anesh said, feeling a similar amount of emotional whiplash as James hopped off the couch and went to find a work shirt. “Why are you so concerned, anyway? Aren’t you basically unfireable?”
“Yeah, but I promised Theo I’d help her train the new people.” James said as he balanced on one foot against the kitchen counter to slip a shoe on. “For the first time, we have a chance to restock our roster without half of them getting eaten by the monster behind the curtain, and I’d really like to be able to show up for work and not have to actually do so much job.”
“I’m confused.” Anesh stated. “Are you a manager now? What even is your work anymore?”
James gave him a sad look. “I’ll be totally honest with you, man. I don’t have a clue.” He said before closing the door behind him.
Two more days, he thought to himself. Two more days, and he’d be trying the door again. He’d told Anesh and Alanna and everyone else that he wasn’t going to risk it just yet, and that he just wanted to get back into the swing of things at work. But that was, of course, a fiction.
His hands itched, his heart sped up just thinking about it. There was a whole world out there waiting, assuming it wasn’t going to kill him the second he stepped through. And even that would probably be pretty exciting.
A month of recovery, victim relief, and a road trip through a beautiful but ultimately kind of mundane end of the summer had left James feeling a little trapped. Like the walls of reality were suddenly visible to him, and he couldn’t just put them out of his mind anymore. And while he loved his partners, cared deeply for Secret and Rufus and Ganesh and everyone else in his apartment, and really, *really* tried to reconnect with Sarah…
He was restless. Looking forward to that moment that he could once again wager his life against the dungeon, and walk away feeling victorious with a fistful of orbs and weird technology.
For that, it was worth a lot. Even helping Theo train new people.
Maybe. Probably. Almost.
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Bio: I write stuff, and have a lot of thoughts about narrative structure and tropes. Some of the stuff I write is here, the rest can be found over on Reddit on my r/hfy author page. Feel free to message me if you want to talk about ideas, or just have questions about anything I made!