A ridiculously long time ago, I put up this short post-Blue Sky piece and promised I would finish it. I didn’t, but I still mean to, and here’s a bit more.
I’d like to poke a little further into their continuing relationship with each other, mostly because of After the No, In the Know- Uppers’ lovely & thoughtful story set after the first part, some other generally beautiful pieces like Harvest Festival by ninelifed and this story/drawing by broodybluebird, and a great chat with Rubit on the subject, all gave me some pretty serious Chelley feels.
“It’s- it’s the jumper, isn’t it?”
Chell stopped, breathing a long, slow, settling breath out through her nose. She didn’t feel much like turning around- what she felt like doing, actually, was going home, and putting a batch of her special slow-rise loaves in the cold store to prove, and then lying down with a towel over her head until her brain turned back into something that actually felt fit to be used.
She turned around, instead. He was already trooping after her, tugging at the collared shirt that was fighting with the baggy neck of his sweater.
“Knew the jumper was a mistake. You’re- you’re right, hardly formalwear, is it? Rrrgh, kicking myself now. Thing is, I did gather that you’re supposed to make an effort, and I did try! Honestly, honestly, I did try, but I’ll tell you what happened, what threw a spanner in the works- it’s bloody freezing out here, you might have noticed, downright arctic today, and it was either this or the other one, you know, the one where the- the knitting lady got a bit carried away in the sleeve department…”
Chell could see that he’d tried. It wasn’t just the shirt (she didn’t even know where he’d got a collared shirt from, let alone how he’d done up all the buttons without bringing the world to a standstill in the process.) It wasn’t just the evidence of his ironing adventure, stretching down the front of both long legs to his sandals (the idea that socks and proper footwear might alleviate his temperature regulation problem had proved very difficult to get through to him.)
It was the way his hair was carefully combed, with only a few haywire bits poking up at the back where, despite his best efforts, he still wasn’t quite coordinated enough to reach. It was the treasured frog clip, his scorched and blackened good-luck talisman, clipped to the inside of his cuff where he could easily squeeze it in a curled palm. He’d even shaved on his own, and had only taken a few pieces out of his chin and the very undersides of his nostrils in the process.
“I mean,” he said, fiddling with his cuff, “while it is dangerously chilly at the moment, if it’s that important, if it really is a vital part of the proceedings that can’t be passed up even in the name of not catching triple pneumonia, I’m more than happy to, umm, whip it off and try a do-over. Would not have a problem with that at all- although, wouldn’t mind nipping back and getting a scarf, if you don’t mind, if you could just hang in there for a minute-”
She shook her head. She couldn’t think of anything else to do. Her mind was still full of the pressing, terribly tempting possibility of walking away, of walking home and quietly shutting the front door in his face until the dangerous fizzing-fuse feeling went away. Until she felt as if she fit in her own skin again, instead of jammed into somebody else’s, crushed tighter than a heartbeat against something that she couldn’t escape. Until she stopped feeling as if the best thing in the world would be just pick a direction, start walking, and never stop.
In the space of her first four years in Eaden, she’d slowly grown accustomed to human contact- to having people there, real live people all around her with thoughts and needs of their own. She’d thrived in their friendly company, but she’d also been able to turn it off whenever she’d wanted, whenever she’d needed space for her own thoughts. She’d grown used to having the choice- being able to retreat whenever it became too much. She still remembered how much of a stunning luxury it had seemed at first- to not be harassed and goaded here and there, to not have her cooperation forced from her, or her lack of privacy treated as if it were a simple fact of existence.
Now, there was him. Her constant shadow, the voice in her ear, pathologically unable to be unobtrusive even if his life, god forbid, depended on it. She couldn’t leave him alone without remembering that he was her responsibility, that he needed her, that she was one side of a shaky, overwritten equation with another human life hanging on the other end.
For Chell, with her deep hatred of feeling trapped, the thought was suddenly hard to bear.
She could go home, and set the bread to rise- and he’d be there, asking endless questions, poking things, viewing her work like an anthropologist studying some fascinating arcane ritual. She could lie down- and he’d hover by the mattress or just outside the door, his battered forehead screwed up into an entire ploughed field of worry-lines, asking again and again with a thousand different wordings whether she was absolutely sure he shouldn’t go and get Dr. Dillon, because you never knew, did you, and it was better to be safe than sorry.
She could shut him out of the house- after three months, he’d just about grasped Doorhandles For Beginners, but Breaking and Entering 101 was still a closed book to him. She could do that, certainly, and she could also enjoy trying to sleep with the thought of him circling endlessly out there, wearing the grass in a wandering track around the house.
All this time, and being separated from her for any length still caused him disproportionate, irrational misery. Deprived of an outlet for his anxiety, he tended to react by grabbing hold of some inane routine and repeating it over and over. He’d circle, mindlessly, talking for all the world as if she was there, while his panic grew and his grip on reality dwindled, until the worry and terror finally drove him to do something so mind-bogglingly illogical that not even she could predict what it would be.
“Why- now, Wheatley?”
“Oh, don’t make it sound so weird,” he said, scuffing the ground with the back of his sandal. “It’s not weird, patently, demonstrably not weird, you lot do it all the time. There’s evidence, actual, tangible photographic- I mean, those two did it only the other day-”
“Mr. and Mrs. Kovacs-”
“-right! Them! You didn’t act like it was weird then.”
“You did,” she pointed out. “You thought they were in fancy dress.”
“Well, they looked like they were in fancy dress,” said Wheatley, sulkily. “’Especially her. She looked like a cake. A massive, purple cake.”
“Do you want to look like a cake?” The word itched in her mouth, a bitter little chunk of wire wool, but she pressed on regardless. “Do you want me to look like a cake?”
“That’s not the point! That’s not the point-”
“What is the point?”
He looked at her, his expression wobbling somewhere between frustration and hurt. “Well- well, since you ask-”
She waited. His eyes slid off her own and started to dart about everywhere that wasn’t near her. He opened his mouth a few times, fidgeted, edged from foot to foot, poking patterns in the dust with his big sandals. He no longer burned the moment he set foot out of the house, but his nose was a perpetual peeling pink and the ghosts of freckles crowded under his forearms, fighting closer to the surface with each long sunny day.
“…I, I, I… don’t know. Suppose I was hoping, maybe, if I got it this far, to this, um, stage of proceedings, gave it the old metaphorical leg-up in that direction, you’d… be able to fill in the gaps. Of course, huh, I can see now that strategy is fairly dependent on you actually agreeing with me, having similar feelings… reciprocal… that is a definite flaw in it, plan-wise. Hindsight being 20-20 and all that.”
He swallowed, miserably.
“So… that said, still a no, is it? Just- checking-”
“I’m going home,” said Chell at last, and- without waiting for his reaction- she went.