n3m3sis43: (Default)
My palms sweat and my thoughts race as I walk down the hall. While I've run numerous groups in my two years working at the Rainey Institute, this one is going to be something else entirely.

They're going to eat me alive, I think. This isn't like running Grief Group or Anger Management. Any group leader can identify with those issues. How am I supposed to find common ground with these patients, though?

I enter the room to find my participants already there, awaiting my arrival. There are eleven of them - ten people and one robot - spread across four rows of mostly-empty seats. Here goes nothing, I think, taking a deep breath.

"Hi, everyone. My name is Sarah and I'll be facilitating this group today. It's my first time leading this particular group, so please bear with me and hopefully we can all learn together."

A dark-haired woman in the back row snorts. "What could I possibly learn from you? You're scared to death right now."

"This group will give you the opportunity to talk with others who have been in the same situation as you." I do my best to appear confident in the face of her scrutiny.

"Somehow, I doubt that." The woman shoots me a haughty glare, crossing her arms.

"Okay, then," I continue. "This is a support group for people suffering from Uncooperative Fictional Character Disorder. As I've never been a fictional character myself, I can't say I identify with what you all go through. But that's why we're here. In this session, you'll have the chance to talk about your feelings with other people who've experienced the same things you have."

Nine pairs of human eyes and one pair of electronic ones stare at me in stony silence. In one corner of the room, a man with shaggy white hair sits on the floor and picks at the torn knee of his jeans.

This is going swimmingly so far, I think.

"Um, let's all introduce ourselves. First names will suffice. Please also tell the group how you're feeling today and a little bit about why you're here."

More blank stares.

"Okay, I'll go first," I say, trying not to sound intimidated. "My name is Sarah and I'm feeling nervous right now. I'm not a fictional character, but we don't have any of those working here at the Rainey Institute. They picked me to run this group because sometimes I'm a writer."

With what I hope is an encouraging nod, I address the petite blonde girl sitting in the front row.

"Hi, my name is Sam?" It sounds like a question rather than a statement. She fidgets in her chair and falls silent. A young man of Asian descent with a long ponytail is seated beside her. He grabs her hand and gives it a supportive squeeze, and she speaks again. "Um, I'm feeling depressed and I'm here because I stared at my best friend's butt during an important plot point."

Sam's friend twitches and almost falls out of his chair.

"You what?"

"It... it was an accident," Sam mumbles. "I didn't know it was you." Her friend looks disappointed.

"Um, I'm Daisuke," Sam's friend jumps in before I can ask any more questions. "Right now, I'm feeling, well... kind of shocked. I'm here because I lived in a fantastical world for a year and a half and refuse to talk to anyone about what happened while I was there."

Sam keeps shooting Daisuke nervous looks when she thinks he isn't looking. Daisuke examines his fingernails.

Thanking him, I glance at the two young men seated in the second row. Both are well-dressed, one young and blonde and the other slightly older with dark hair and glasses. They are engaged in a furious make-out session and oblivious to anyone else in the room. I clear my throat, but they don't appear to notice. I'm about to move on to the next participant when a condescending female voice speaks up from the back of the room.

"The pretty yellow-haired one is Jazz and the perverted one is Savin. They're a couple of idiots." It's the dark-haired woman who called me out at the beginning of the session.

Jerking away from his partner, Jazz looks at the woman with alarm. Savin gives her a cursory glance, then resumes kissing Jazz with impressive fervor. Jazz continues to eye the woman for a moment, then shrugs and returns his attention to Savin.

Sighing, I move on. In the third row of seats, a group of four men in their teens or early twenties sit with a feminine-looking robot. I catch the eye of an olive-skinned boy with shocking blue eyes and blonde hair. He offers me a shy smile.

"I'm Kalen, and I am feeling... overwhelmed? I'm here because I committed an act of terrorism by sneezing, thereby turning what was supposed to be a serious story into a new genre called 'goofy dystopia'." Kalen nudges the robot, who is sitting to his left.

"I'm CallaBot. I have no idea why I'm here. Robots don't need therapy." She glares at me, eyes glowing as if lasers are about to emanate from them. Feeling a trickle of sweat roll down the small of my back, I do my best not to flinch. CallaBot turns to the large muscular young man to her left, who appears to be sleeping, and punches him hard in the arm.

"Wake up, numbnuts!"

"OW!" The brawny young man jerks awake with a shout. "Why'd you do that?"

"It's your turn, Shit-For-Brains." At least the fembot is glaring at him instead of me now.

"Um... hi? I'm Brendan."

"Name. How you're feeling. Why you're here. It's not rocket science, seriously." A young man with Mediterranean features and long dark hair stares at Brendan with a disdainful expression that rivals CallaBot's laser eyes.

"Shut up, Devin!"

"Whatever, you troglodyte."

"What?" Brendan looks puzzled.

"Exactly." Devin smirks.

"Can we get to the point already? This is getting boring." The dark-haired woman in the back row stands up. "I'm Jordine. I do what I want. Period."

Jordine points at Brendan. "This one doesn't follow orders."

Gesturing at Devin, she continues.

"This one cracks jokes at inappropriate times and loses his sense of humor at crucial moments. And the one next to him, Wes, thinks that real life is exactly like an episode of NebulaQuest, a fictional 'neurovision' show." She punctuates the word "neurovision" with sarcastic air quotes.

"How did you know all that? Are you some kind of mind-reader?" Wes is staring at Jordine with rapt adoration.

"Yes." Jordine doesn't even spare Wes a glance. She directs her piercing gaze to the white-haired man in the corner, who is still paying no attention to anyone else in the room.

"And this one." Her words drip with disgust. "I don't even know where to begin. He has a perfectly good proper name, but insists on being called The Straw Man instead, making all references to him awkward and ungainly. When his Author wants to write him, he's nowhere to be found. At times when the Author has a million other projects, he begs to be written, promising to behave, only to run away at inopportune moments. Besides all of that, he has no concept of time and his thought processes look like something Salvador Dali vomited up once."

Jordine glares at the Straw Man, who looks up, startled. He stares at her for a moment, whimpers like a kicked dog, and shrinks away. Sam jumps out of her seat and runs over to comfort him as Daisuke eyes him with open hatred.

"This is ridiculous." Jordine snorts, rising and making for the door. "I'm leaving. Have fun exploring your feeeeeeeeeelings."

Sighing, I look at the clock. Only twenty minutes have passed. What am I supposed to do with the rest of the hour?




Author's Note: Thank you so much to [livejournal.com profile] theun4givables, who allowed me to borrow her characters (Jordine, Jazz and Savin) for this story.

Gobsmacked

Sep. 10th, 2012 01:43 pm
n3m3sis43: ((FMAB) Huuuughes and Winryyyy)
I've been walking for over an hour when I reach the village with the wooden sign labeled "Cliffton". My climb down the ravine and back up again has left me filthy and drenched in sweat. The people on the other side offered nothing but jeers and sneers - no news of Daisuke.

Passing the signpost, I enter the village. It's made up of small thatched huts and rutted dirt roads. One of these houses must belong to the traveler who helped me the last time I was here. My gut clenches with nervousness at the thought of knocking on random doors to look for him.

The people here can't be any meaner than the ones on the other side, I think. Besides, there's really no other choice.

Dust is whipping through the air. It settles for a moment and I notice two men standing not far from me. Only one is facing me, but I recognize him in an instant. It's the traveler! He's talking to another man, tall and well-built with long dark hair. His back is to me and I can't help staring at his rear.

"Really, Sam?" I mutter. I'm supposed to be finding Daisuke, not checking out strange men.

At the sound of my voice, the traveler's companion turns and looks my way. Our eyes meet and my stomach does an odd flip. And then I'm too busy screeching with joy and launching myself at him to be embarrassed, because it's Daisuke.

I throw my arms around his neck and he squeezes me so hard I can't breathe. It doesn't matter. Everything about him feels different, but I don't care about that either. He wasn't this muscly before, and he smells wrong, too - I guess they don't have his aftershave in Cliffton. Still, it's him and I don't want to let go.

He breaks the embrace and steps away. I feel self-conscious in his presence for the first time I can remember. No wonder I didn't recognize him at first. When I left him here, he was thin and his hair was short and spiky. Now it's past his shoulders, he's tanned, and he's put on at least 20 pounds of muscle. This place has apparently been good for him - he looks great.

"Um, Daisuke? How long has it been since I left?"

* * * * *

I'm crouching behind some trees in front of a small house. In the distance, I can hear the rush of a river. Apart from Cliffton, this is the first world I've visited more than once. Until today, I didn't know why.

The man with the bright white hair is sitting on the front step, head in his hands. He calls himself the Straw Man, and I've been watching him for weeks. Most days, his step is light and carefree. Today, he looks like the world is on his shoulders.

I'm at his side before he looks up. He's really off his game today. I lay a hand on his shoulder and he jumps. He isn't used to people coming here. Gray eyes wide, he looks at me.

"You're... like me?" he says.

"Not exactly. But I'm sure as hell not normal."

He winces as if he's got a headache. "It doesn't work on you."

"It doesn't have to. I'm just here to talk. You look like you need a friend."

"I just..." He trails off, then tries again. "I don't feel right anymore. Ever since I touched his mind. The broken man." There's no distrust in his gaze. Though he's got to be at least a few years older than I am, his eyes are clear and childlike.

"I haven't felt right in ages," I say, sitting down next to him on the bricks, "You get used to it after a while."

* * * * *

The sun is setting and a late spring breeze is blowing. Daisuke and I are sitting in his backyard the way we have so many times before. It's not the same, though - nothing is anymore. He's barely here even though he's sitting right beside me. I'm pretty sure I know what he's going through but I don't know how to help.

"I think I made a new friend today," I say.

"Really?" he says. He's staring off into space, a million miles away. I don't know why I bother.

"Yeah, in one of my stories. Isn't that weird?" That gets his attention. His dark eyes flash with anger I wasn't expecting.

"Great, another reason for you to be gone all the time."

"It's not like you notice when I am here anyway," I point out.

"I always notice, Sam. I'm just not ready to talk, okay? How long did I wait for you to tell me about your power?"

"That's completely different. You wouldn't have believed me." I look away, and my voice is barely a whisper. "You didn't believe me, Daisuke."

"Am I supposed to apologize for that again?"

"No!" I practically yell. This is not how I wanted this conversation to go at all. "I just... I just want my best friend back, okay?"

Daisuke looks at the ground and says nothing. He hasn't cut his hair since he came home. It falls in front of his face now, a black curtain hiding his eyes. Just one more thing between us.

* * * * *

He calls himself the Straw Man, and we've become friends. Sometimes we sit by the river, and other times we feed ducks at the park. He doesn't talk much, but I don't mind.

It's raining as I knock on his door. He steps back and waves me inside. Something's different - a second overstuffed chair in the living room. He's made a place for me. It's a thing I haven't had in what feels like forever. The simple gesture brings tears to my eyes.

"You didn't have to do that," I say.

"I wanted you to feel welcome. It's been so long since I've had a friend."

Just like that, I'm crying. Friends are a touchy subject for me these days.

"Daisuke?" he asks. I nod.

"He won't talk to me anymore. It's like he's mad and I don't know why."

The Straw Man says nothing for a long time. The silence stretches out before us but it doesn't hurt. He doesn't have to say a word.

"If I could touch your mind, I could help you find an answer," he finally says.

"It's okay," I tell him. "Just talking is enough."

* * * * *

It's almost fall, and the evening is cool and breezy. Daisuke and I are sitting on lawn chairs behind his house like always. The air is clean and crisp. It would be a lovely night, if we weren't having the same tired conversation for the millionth time.

"You haven't been around much lately," he says. I sigh, knowing this isn't going anywhere good.

"Yeah, I've been traveling a lot."

"Traveling?" he snorts. "Is that what you're calling it now? Like it's your job?"

I don't have anything to say to that. It seems he's always angry at me these days.

He breaks the silence. "You're going to see him, aren't you?"

"Why, are you jealous?" I shoot back.

"I just don't get why you're always visiting some guy who barely even talks."

"Like you ever talk to me anymore either," I mumble under my breath.

"What?"

"What's the point in sticking around here anyway? You never talk to me. I hate it here."

"I'm here, Sam."

"Yeah," I can feel the bitterness creeping into my voice. "Only you're not anymore. Not really."

Daisuke doesn't respond. He studies his fingernails intently.

"Come on, Daisuke. How long are you going to punish me for... for whatever I did wrong?"

"You never even considered what I wanted, Sam." He's glaring at me, eyes hard just like the rest of him now. "It's always about you and your power."

"What are you talking about?" I'm genuinely shocked.

"When you came rushing in to 'save' me..." He looks away.

"What was I supposed to do - leave you there?"

"It's just..." His voice trails off and he won't look at me. "Maybe I was happy."

"You're not like me, Daisuke. You have a life here."

"I had a life here, but that was a year and a half ago. I had a best friend, but even before I left, I was losing her," he says quietly. "Why do you think I wanted to go with you so badly?"

"Daisuke, I'll always be your friend." I get up and wrap my arms around him. His body stiffens but I don't let go.

* * * * *

It's a stormy night, and I'm sitting in the Straw Man's living room. Raindrops beat against the roof; it's a soothing sound.

"Daisuke finally talked to me," I say. "But it only made things worse. I don't know what to do."

"Be his friend, Sam."

"I'm trying! He won't let me." For the millionth time, I dissolve into tears. I hate this.

He looks at me with a gentle smile. "Keep trying."

Suddenly, he flinches and goes pale. He looks like he's going to be sick.

"Are you okay?" I ask.

The Straw Man takes a deep breath, nods slowly and holds up one finger. Wait.

He watches me for a while, head cocked, listening to words I can't hear. Emotions flicker across his face, as if he's having an inner debate. It seems like hours before he finally speaks.

"He loves you too - he's just not ready to admit it. Give it time."

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