Wheatley hit the smeary mirror with his full weight, the hand on his chest knocking him straight off balance. The edge of the sink smacked into his spine, sending a jag of pain nearly all the way up to his shoulders. Worse, Imri, zipping behind him in her panic, was caught between his back and the glass. She actually squeaked when the impact flattened her, like someone sitting sharply on a rubber toy. The shock winded both of them, left him unable to do anything other than wheeze.
“Go home,” repeated the young woman. In the horrible bathroom lighting, her grey eyes looked darker than they usually did- steely, deadly serious. “Right now.”
His neck was still aching from the whiplash. He’d been walking down a hallway with his arms full of forms, minding his own business- and then in the space of the next moment he’d been grabbed by the shirt-front and dragged violently sideways into the men’s room. He’d gone with a squawk, leaving papers and forms drifting gently down through the air, as if the leaf-shedding autumn world far above had reached down for a moment and touched this small dim-lit section of Aperture Research Station.
“They’re looking for you.” The second they were inside, she’d grabbed the carved wooden wedge the cleaners used, kicking it into the jamb and jamming the door tight-shut. This small detail bothered Wheatley a lot more than it should have done. Weeks of not-quite-managing to speak to her in his little window of opportunity, weeks of thinking about her in a vague, daydreamy way whenever his mind wandered off his boring, brain-squelchingly dull everyday routine, and his fertile imagination had still never managed to come up with a scenario like this- trapped in this small space, her startlingly strong hand pinning him to the wall. He felt very much off the script, floundering for any grip at all, any hint as to what he was supposed to do now.
Behind him, Imri finally managed to peck and batter her way out from behind the flattened arch of his spine, and flutter-blundered up his sleeve to his shoulder. She was too dazed to show his agitation- yet- thank God- but it was only a matter of time. Twitchy and transparently emotive, she was at rubbish at keeping his feelings a secret- always had been.
“Um- you do know this is the men’s-”
“You’ve got to get out of here,” said the young woman. “I heard them talking about you.”
Wheatley was finding it increasingly hard to hang on to reality. This was definitely the single weirdest thing that had ever happened to him in a men’s room, even including the time dilation incident last month.
“That’s normal,” said Imri, crossly, fluffing out her rumpled feathers. “People do that all the time. It’s probably ‘cause of what he did to the printing press.”
“Look, nobody’s going to notice that, alright, purple is a perfectly acceptable colour- it’ll probably wear off after a few hundred copies, anyway-”
“The doctors,” said the young woman, and Wheatley felt the first cold touch of- what? Dread? Fear? “They’ve got your name.”
By the door, her cat-dæmon arched its spine, ears flattening, fur rising. What was it? Lynx? Serval? Improbably classy-looking housecat? Not for the first time, he found himself wishing his biology- zoology- was a bit better.
“Oh, what?” said Imri- to him, now. “Not again. It’s not fair, why don’t they pick on someone else?”
“It’s just random, they said it’s a random selection, roll of the dice-”
“That’s bollocks and you know it. You are not pulling any more of my tailfeathers out, I’m telling you that right now.”
“Look, I said I was sorry, how many times-”
“They’re coming,” said the cat, in a low, flat voice. Wheatley flinched, Imri pressing her tiny fluffball weight into his neck. It was the first time he’d ever heard her daemon say a word.
“Er, look, I really, really appreciate the warning,” said Wheatley, carefully, because the absolute last thing he wanted to do was offend her, or her scary-intense dæmon, “but seriously, we can handle ourselves, we’re not new to this whole ‘testing’ business, ha, practically a honorary doctor by now, all the tests we’ve done, right, Imri?”
Imri bristled, or rather fluffled. She wasn’t really all that good at bristling.
“-so, um, we have nothing to worry about, it’s nothing we can’t deal with. Although, as I said, thanks, very much, for the-”
“No.” She shook her head, vehement denial and- as hard as it was to tell, with her- a touch of fear? At her feet her dæmon growled, once, a low, distressed warning. “Listen to me. You don’t know what they’re going to do-”
Someone started knocking on the door- a sharp, peremptory sound, a doctor’s knock if there ever was one. Imri, infected by the cat’s dread, burrowed under Wheatley’s collar, pressing against his pulse, tiny claws scrabbling against his skin.
The girl went still. He could see her thinking, frozen there in perfect silence. It was as if it was what she’d been built for, as if everything else in the world had just shut off, just for her, to let her puzzle out this problem and find an answer uninterrupted-
Wheatley, despite the banging on the door and his own rising sense of foreboding, couldn’t help but stare. It really wasn’t fair at all. Only that morning Imri had made him promise he’d get real and stop moping moonstruck over her, this nameless lady he didn’t stand a chance with, and he’d been doing really, really well right up until now, but this was not helping.
“The window,” she said, at last. “Come on- now.”