I…don’t know how to handle this.
And you want my opinion, Spyder?
If you aren’t here for opinions, why are you here?
Just be grateful I’m a helpful voice, and that I’m not telling you to kill all humans.
I would do that.
For him, I know.
I didn’t mean- Yeah, I would.
I’m in here, I get you, you know.
So tell me what the fsck to do. I’m floundering. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how I’m supposed to act. I’m…useless right now, and I need to help him. He always helps me.
That’s his job, Spyder.
No, I’m his fscking hobby.
Stef flinched as Ryan hit the ropes. The nymph – a tall, lithe woman with creepy white vines where her eyes should have been – pumped her fists into the air before slamming a foot down on his back. He went down, and stayed down. He was fine – he was still breathing, he was still moving, and the blood around his mouth was local, not from some heinous internal injury. Ribs were broken – there was no doubt of that. Bruises in every colour imaginable coloured his body. Blood and sweat covered him in a sick-looking sheen. He was tired, he was hurt, and for once, he was more mad than she was. There was no other way to describe his actions.
The bell rang to end the thirty-third round, and the creepy nymph was declared the winner. He was on a losing steak – a small break between each rounds or not, each opponent he faced was fresh, new, and wanting to beat on an agent. He collapsed into the chair, all the casual defiance from the first half of the day gone. She stood, and handed him a bottle of water, and began to wipe off the sweat and blood. Red blood from him, bluish-purple blood in a streak across his face, lumpy, chunky green blobs up his arm from the nymph. He was a mess.
He tilted his head from side to side, a lazy no, before pouring the contents of the water bottle over his head. ‘I’m fine.’
‘Fine isn’t a word to be used in this situation.’
‘You can go home,’ he said as he scratched at the drying green lumps.
‘What happens if you die?’
‘There’s emergency packs in my bag if anything happens.’
‘You’ve got broken ribs-‘
‘I can fight with broken ribs,’ he said as he dropped the bottle, ‘but not a broken arm, have to save it.’
‘I can run back to the storage facility and require all you need. You just-’
‘Carry laws, Stef, I’ve got all I’m allowed. And there’s no duty reason to allow me more.’
‘What if I beat you over the head and drag you away?’
‘I have to do this,’ he said, ‘I have to.’
‘No you don’t.’
‘I killed her.’
She couldn’t argue the truth the situation, not when people could hear, but it wasn’t the only truth. ‘Isn’t that pain enough? You’re already suffering, you don’t have to-‘
‘Yes,’ he said as he stood, ‘I do.’
‘Should I put Queen Madhe on speed dial?’
‘Weren’t you the one who said love was insanity?’
‘It is, it makes people do crazy things, but-‘
‘Ryan, if she loved you even half as much as I do, it’s crazy to think she’s want you doing this to yourself.’
‘I need to be punished for what I did.’
‘You really don’t. You-’
‘Less than twenty to go,’ he said with a forced smile, ‘I’m fine.’
‘You’re setting a bad example for me,’ she said.
‘You weren’t supposed to be here, remember? You weren’t supposed to see any of this.’
‘Not seeing it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, just means I’m not here to help.’
He smiled at her. The announcer stepped into the ring and called the next round. He stood and stepped back up into the ring, a massive area of bruising on his back turning into a black-purple section of modern art.
I’m not being of any help am I? You’ve survived for however long without me here, and you don’t need me here. You don’t need me here. You…don’t need me. I need you. I always need you. You don’t need me. I’m worse than useless, and I’m a distraction.
If I leave, it’ll look suspicious, if I-
Do you remember when you asked me to tell you when you were letting paranoia get the best of you?
How is that relevant right now?
You’re approaching attack-the-fridge-with-a-bat territory. All of this is, trust me, in your head.
Then tell me exactly what help I’m being.
At least you’re cheering for him.
But…he helps me.
Nothing, you’re not ready to hear it yet.
Is this the part where you turn evil? You aren’t supposed to keep things from me!
You’re keeping things from yourself. For now, just cheer him on.
She cheered him on, cheered him through the rounds he won, through the rounds he lost, through those called a draw. She cheered until the fairy flew back into the ring, and declared it over – until next year.
He slid out of the ring, a large fleshy pile of bruises, cuts and pain. She placed his arm around her shoulders and helped him walk as much as she could – she made for a crutch it nothing else.
They made it back to the room without hurting him more, and he collapsed onto the bed, not bothering to hide his grunts of pain.
She set about cleaning the wounds, following the easy, pictorial guide in her HUD. Most of the wounds were small enough – there was a big cut in his neck, big, but not bleeding too much, it was one she’d leave until last, so that everything else was clean – less chance of cross-contamination that way.
He lay, half-asleep, tears running down his cheeks as she dressed his wounds.
Are you letting yourself think it now?
I don’t know. I want to help him. I do. I…can’t stand to see him miserable like this.
And you already know what you can do to fix this, so do it, or just shut up.
You’re not supposed to say that.
I’m only telling you what you’re already thinking.
I’m you, Spyder, this is an echo chamber.
She smiled down at him. ‘I need to get you another bandage. I’ll be back in a minute.’ She swallowed the lump in her throat. ‘And thank you.’
‘For what?’ he asked, his eyes still closed.
‘Just stuff,’ she said, a spike of cold fear making it hard to breathe.
She stood, grabbed the medical kit, and stepped into the small bathroom.
Am I really doing this?
This one is all up to you, Spyder.
She pulled a scalpel from the first aid kit, threw her tie over her shoulder, then undid the first three buttons of her shirt.
Here goes nothing.
It’s worth it.
She pressed the blade to her chest, drew a three-inch blood line over her heart, pushed a finger against the cool surface of the mirror. She pushed the fear away, closed her eyes and made a wish.
* * *
Ryan felt around the bed for one of the discarded blue packets, lifted it, and squeezed the last drops of liquid into his mouth. He dropped the packet back onto the bed, and let out a long breath.
He almost had the urge to use the expression of feeling “too old”…but that wasn’t the truth at all. It hadn’t been any easier the year before, or the year before that, or any of the previous years. Grief, pain, and injury always made for the worst combination.
He heard the bathroom door open, and tilted his head further on the pillow, allowing Stef access to the gash on his neck.
There was a weight on the bed. ‘Just deal with this one, and we’ll head back,’ he said, ‘I’ll feel better once I’m in a system area, I always do.’
Soft fingertips brushed his face, and hair dragged across his chest. Lips touched his for the briefest moment, before pulling away.
He forced his tired eyes open and bright, blue, perfect eyes stared back at him.
‘What have you done to yourself?’ Carol asked.
I…don’t know how to handle this.