“Do we fight now?” said Jenny. She laid my head gently on the ground and stood up to face me. Orient yourself for two of me or this will get confusing. “I don’t have a weapon. Can I borrow one of yours?”
“I’m not going to fight you,” I said. What I meant was I wasn’t going to fight her when she was ready for me. Attack when they least expect it. From behind. When they’re asleep. Such is the noble art of not getting your arse handed to you on a plate by a girl.
“You’re a boy,” she stated for the record. “You should give yourself a handicap.”
“I have,” I said. “Every day of my life.”
“Shouldn’t you frisk me first?” She raised her arms to help, sticking out her chest. She wasn’t going to follow Marquis of Queensbury rules, clearly. “In case I have illegal items on me. Brass knuckles or maybe a truncheon. Where do you think I’d hide something like that?”
She was smiling and teasing. She’d always been a big flirt but she always saved it for when we were alone. And I’d never been more alone than right now.
She liked to warn me I’d better stop her before she went too far. Stop her with force and treat her rough so she knew who was boss, and I would. And it would feel deeply uncomfortable because it goes against how I think two people should treat each other, and also because I enjoyed it so much.
Harmless, really. As long as it stayed as play. As long as we didn’t make it the only way we could communicate. As long as.
“You don’t look like you’re ready to take me down,” said Jenny lowering her arms, looking mildly disappointed.
“You’re not really the final boss,” I said. “Maurice was joking. Well, not exactly joking. Using an analogy.”
The final boss in a game is the one you need several tries to beat. There are several phases. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but hope to get lucky. Or go back to an earlier save and try to conserve your ammo better. Generally speaking, outside of a few Japanese visual novels, there is no stage of the boss fight where you start thinking about having sex with the boss monster. Not unless you play Minecraft on a modded server, of course.
“I’m not the most frightening monster you have to face?” she asked innocently, with her mouth a little open, her lips a little wet.
“Oh, you are. But it’s got nothing to do with fighting or winning. There is no winning, only capitulation. I think you would try to change me.”
“You don’t think change is good?”
“I don’t think change is always an improvement.”
Her smile drooped to a frown. “You’re afraid of me. And you’re right to be afraid. I make a lot of mistakes and I don’t seem to be able to learn from them. I try, I think really hard about what I’m going to do, but it ends up the same — I should have done nothing, but I couldn’t help myself.” She looked at me, no joking around. “It doesn’t help that I mean well, does it?”
“No,” I said. “That kind of makes it worse.”
She let out a long sigh. “Anyone else would feel sympathetic towards me. I wanted it so bad I broke it. I tried to fix it, and I made it worse. All I want is to be with you and it’s so hard. Sooo hard. If we had met in some other place, some other world…”
“We probably wouldn’t have noticed each other.”
“It’s not my fault,” said Jenny, plaintive and whiney. “That doesn’t help either.”
She sank to her knees.
“If you think giving me a blow job is going to change anything,” I said, “you’re wrong. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying.”
She looked up at me with a lopsided grin. “Nice try. Whatever decision we come to today, in here, we will be sealing it with sex, you understand that, right?”
Sealing sex. You couldn’t fault her approach to negotiating — nobody walks away empty-handed.
“I made some bad choices,” she said, almost like she was talking to herself, “and they cost me your trust. If I try to convince you I won’t let you down again, it will only come off as clingy, and it isn’t even a promise I can keep, or anyone can keep, so it will also seem disingenuous. I could do my best to impress you by solving your problems for you, but that’s how I got into this mess in the first place, and I’d probably screw it up anyway, making you even less likely to forgive me. Or I could force you to take me back whether you wanted to or not, but you’d only end up hating me for it.”
“Force me? You make it sound like there’d be nothing I could do to stop you,” I said.
“Oh, there isn’t,” said Jenny. “If I wanted you as my slave, you would serve me and serve me well.” She grinned at me, showing she was playing, or maybe not, or maybe double-bluff, or maybe no bluff at all. “Or maybe I would serve you,” she said quietly. “I could, you know? If that was the only option you gave me.”
“I can’t change you, Jen, you’ll always get it into your head you have to do something. Sadly, you just have very, very poor judgement when it comes to these things. Like, really terrible.”
She sat back on her heels and gave me a long stare. “It’s not like anyone died. The opposite, in fact. I saved you. You would have saved me, and I wouldn’t have minded. The difference is that I saved you for my own selfish reasons. I wanted something from you and didn’t want to let you go before I got it.”
“And what was that?” I asked.
Now she was looking at me like she couldn’t believe I had to ask. “I wanted a home and kids and I wanted to play footsie under the kitchen table while we had dinner. I wanted to get interrupted Saturday mornings when we’re trying to get a quick one in before the kids woke up. We never do, you’re always fumbling too much and can’t work which hole is which. I tell you it doesn’t matter but you insist it does. And sometimes I want to cry, but only because I’m happy. I wanted it so much I was willing to destroy you to get it, and that somehow ended up offending you.” Her smile was still there for me, but smaller and sadder.
I wasn’t really sure what to say to her. She was right, sort of, but not in a way that made things any clearer. So what if she’d done all that and couldn’t help it? Not like I expected perfection.
“I think you’re blowing it out of proportion.”
“You do?” There was a gentle, hopeful rise in her voice.
“Little bit. I just want you to stop acting like a twat behind my back. Do it in front of me all you like. If it’s where I can’t be taken by surprise, it’s not that big a deal. Plus, if I let you go completely, I’ll die won’t I?”
“Yes,” said Jenny, eyes widening happily. “If I really freed you, you’d drop dead the moment you left this place.” A little too happily, come to think of it.
“Doesn’t that mean I can’t get rid of you? Sly.”
“It may seem like that, but wouldn’t you let yourself die just to teach me a lesson?”
I had to admit, she understood my way of thinking better than anyone. And she was still here, which said something. Probably something dreadful.
“So,” said Jenny, “next time I have to make a life and death decision with no obvious way to save you other than to hide the truth from you, I should…?”
“It’s a good question,” I said. “Maybe let Flossie decide.”
Jenny stood up and gave me a cold look, hands on hips. “Are you seriously suggesting things would have worked out better if we’d done what Flossie wanted to do?”
“Yes. Why, what did she want to do?”
“She wanted to bury you.”
“No,” said Jenny. “That isn’t sensible. You wouldn’t be here if we did that. I did everything I could, even if it wasn’t what you condoned. I even let you go to sort yourself out. If you love someone set them free. I set you free, and you didn’t come back, you sod. So I had to come after you.”
“I’m not sure you fully understand the point of setting someone free.”
“I understand perfectly. It’s so they can realise they miss you and come running back. Not run away.”
“You aren’t sorry about what you did at all, are you?” I said.
“I am. Sort of. It’s not like I had much choice. I mean, apart from asking Flossie.” She added an unnecessary eye-roll. Girls are so mean to each other no wonder you idiots can’t get anything done with your 52% majority.
“So, if it happens again, you’ll do the same?”
“No,” said Jenny. “I’ll cover my tracks much better. It’s what you would expect and I won’t let you down.”
It was hard to know if we’d solved anything. There was definitely something that needed sorting between us, but isn’t that just how it is? We danced around each other with jokes and insults and threats we had no way of carrying out.
“I’m forgiven?” she asked.
“Probation?” It was hard to refuse her.
“You’ll still have to be punished,” I said.
“Oh, yes please. I mean, whatever it takes. Can you get back in your body now and roger me senseless?”
It’s hard to resist a woman who talks so sweetly.
“Can you show me how to manipulate this place. You seem to be much better at it than me. Manipulating things.”
“I have no idea how it works. I just wanted it to happen, and you made it happen.” She looked down at me. “I mean, you did.” She returned her gaze to me. “ Your problem is you don’t want things enough. Wanting is powerful. It may be distasteful to you, but you have to want things more to make them do what you want. Your powers of meh are weak. You’ll have to stop playing the disaffected teenager if you want to rule the world.”
“I don’t want to—”
“Eh-eh-eh.” She put a finger to my lips. “First take control, then give it up if you don’t want it. But first, try it out. No assuming. You don’t know what you want.”
“Are you telling me what to do?” It’s amazing how quickly people fall back into bad habits.
“No,” said Jenny. “I’ve learned my lesson.”
“Which is what?” I asked.
She stared at me. Probably choosing from a list in her head and hoping she might get lucky. “I should only act like a twat if you’re there to watch me.”
Not exactly the wisdom of Solomon, I know, but you have to start somewhere with the whole providing guidance to the mere mortals thing.
“Yes,” I said. “Close enough.”
“And you’re right here.” She had me there. “So, it’s fine. Just ignore me. I don’t mind being overruled, if it’s in person.”
We seemed to have come to an understanding. What that understanding entailed, I couldn’t begin to tell you. I assume all relationships are like that.
I crouched down next to my body, my real body, and reached out my hand. I could feel my skin. I felt cold.
“You want me to go back in here? I mean, in here while I’m in here?”
“Yes. It’s your body, Colin.”
“And it won’t fall apart?”
“Not while you’re stuck inside this place.”
“And what happens when I leave?”
“Then I’ll keep you going,” said Jenny.
“And what happens if you die?”
“Then you’re fucked.” She didn’t seem that upset about it. If she wasn’t around, there would be no moving on and finding someone else. She would pull the plug on her way out. I could see the appeal.
I still had the back-up body Maurice had made for me, but if I could freely move through the void with my own original creation, the Mark I. Which meant I would be able to go anywhere in Flatland, maybe even beyond that. A world where transportation was free, instantaneous and without delays. As a British person, this truly was a fantasy.
I pushed my hand into my body and sank in. Before I knew it, I was in an even darker place.
“Decided to come back, did you?” said a small miserable voice.
Little-Me stood there, hair flopped over his face.
“You’ve been here all the time have you?” I said, like he could go anywhere else. “On your own?”
“I wasn’t on my own. She was with me.”
I got the feeling if it came to taking sides, he wouldn’t be on mine. “What do you think I should do about her?”
“You’re asking me?” He sounded surprised yet mocking at the same time. Chip off the old block. “She wants to change us, make us better, make us stronger, into what we want, into what she wants… it isn’t really feasible.”
“No,” I said, “it isn’t.”
“You should just change her, instead.”
“And how would I do that?”
“Make her happy,” he said. “She’ll never expect it.”
I felt like slapping myself.
It took a moment for me to refamiliarise myself with the old model, the knobs and levers. When I opened my eyes, I was lying on the ground, staring up into darkness. My limbs were heavy and my head was hard to move. It was basically how I felt every morning of my life since I was fourteen.
Jenny was sitting on her knees next to my head. She bent down and kissed me on the mouth, which brought things back into focus. I sat up, pushing her face with mine. When she finally moved out of the way, Wesley was standing there. She had Arthur and Shroom with her.
“He really does have a girlfriend,” said Arthur. “I would have put money on that being a lie…”
“I like him even less now,” said Shroom.
“Jenny,” I said by way of introduction, “this is my fan club. You should all get along like a house on fire. Mind you don’t burn to death.”
I got to my feet and tested out my fingers and toes. Seemed to be in working order.
“Right,” I said. “Time to leave.” I looked around for a way out, and saw doors in every direction, clear as day. Shame none of them had signs saying where they led to.
“Who do you want to take care of first,” said Jenny, a little less cocky and sure of herself now. “Joshaya? Peter?”
“You. I thought I’d take care of you first.”
Jenny smiled, and then looked over my shoulder. I turned to face the fan club.
“I’d like some privacy,” I said, like that ever worked. “Could you all leave?” I waved them away to encourage them to depart, or at least back up a bit. Instead, they vanished. “Where’d they go?”
“I don’t know,” said Jenny. “Where did you send them?”
Apparently, I wasn’t back to the same old me. I seemed to have gotten myself an upgrade.
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