Note: A huge thank you to everyone for the massive support! I can't tell you how grateful I am for all the reviews, favorites, and follows!
This time, it really is the last chapter. And yeah, I guess I got a little fancy with the chapter titles. But they say what I want to say, so I don't care. ;)
Fear actually slept through most of Sunday, and that told him that the others' concern about him was justified. But thankfully, his sleep had been mostly dreamless - exhaustion seemed to have won out over anxiety for once - so when he got back to work in the evening, he felt more rested and alive than he had in weeks.
And sure enough, Disgust gave him one of her rare, albeit lopsided smiles when he joined them at the console. "You look better," she observed, nodding in her peculiar brand of approval that he had never quite understood.
"I feel better," he admitted, and he practically drank in the smiles the comment elicited all around him. "How're we doing?"
"We've been playing board games all day!" Joy announced brightly, fully turning away from the console and raising her arms over her head in jubilation. "I think Mom wanted to cheer Riley up, and Dad played along, and we won a lot, and then we went to get cake, and then the sun was shining and creating sparkles in the snow, and everything was glittering! Shame you couldn't see that."
He chuckled at her enthusiasm. "Maybe it'll happen again tomorrow. Well, but, looks like you didn't need me, huh?"
"Just this once," Sadness muttered.
His smile widened at the affirmation, and he did his best not to think about what could've happened when Riley had gone outside. But now she was sitting on the couch and watching an animated movie with Mom and Dad, so she was safe for the moment.
"Oh, and the pants thing was fine," Joy added. "Mom saw the damage when she was doing the laundry, but Riley told her she didn't know what happened and I don't think Mom noticed anything." Her halo faded a bit at that point, and sure enough, Fear saw his own sudden dejection mirrored in the others' faces. They all missed Honesty Island. Not mentioning stuff was one thing, but outright lying…
"Well, but she said the truth about scraping her hand on the first fall and it wasn't too bad," Joy reported, perking up again. "Anyway, we're probably gonna go to bed after the movie." She gave a shrug. "So maybe you should just go back to sleep, too?"
"Nah, there's no way I can sleep now," Fear muttered, then cleared his throat. "Uh, shall I take over Dream Duty?"
The others all fell silent.
"As if," Anger then grumbled.
"Okay, you're not better," Disgust deadpanned.
And a moment later, Fear realized what they had probably been thinking - it had been really odd for him to volunteer for Dream Duty not so long ago. "Ah, no, I mean… I'm not planning to keep her awake, or make her ruminate or something. I really just, you know… want to be useful."
"You are useful," Joy stressed and bounced over to playfully punch his shoulder. "But, yeah, just means more sleep for us, so who are we to argue?"
"Are you sure you can handle this?" Disgust drawled, looking him up and down.
He chuckled again as he went to get a chair and a cup of tea. "Come on, guys, I just wanna contribute something." But he wasn't the only one who hadn't done much today, he noted; as he passed the short term memories, a quick look told him that the majority of them were yellow or blue - or both, which still kinda weirded him out.
He got back to the console just in time to see the breathtaking view of the stars on their ceiling vanishing behind Riley's eyelids, and he felt kinda relaxed as he sat down, propped his feet up on the console, and wished the others a good night. And before he knew what was happening, they had all returned the sentiment and retreated up the ramp. It was just Riley and him now.
Just Riley and him.
With a frown, he placed his feet back on the ground. Better not take any chances here. He knew it was irrational, but he was still just so uncomfortable about touching the console.
The crack was gone, though, he noted; it seemed as if the others had called the Mind Workers up here to repair the console. Which meant that there was nothing left to indicate that there had been a problem at all - the physical damage was gone, he wasn't feeling half-dead anymore, and something told him that he and the others had managed to find some sort of balance again.
But it wasn't okay, he knew. Riley was still lonely, and he was still…
He had to admit it to himself. He was afraid of her.
One of the few things in his life that he had never really questioned was his place here in Headquarters. He'd always believed that he'd materialized here for a purpose, and that that purpose was to protect this sweet, little girl from any harm that might befall her. And while that was often quite difficult, and constantly freaked him out, he'd always known that this was where he belonged.
A high-pitched shriek had him nearly spill the contents of his cup over himself. But it was just the dream - it had started while he had been busy fretting over existential questions, and by the looks of it, it had apparently been playing for a while. He saw Riley running through a thick forest full of fir trees, slipping on the ground that was completely frozen solid, and most decidedly panicking over something that he had thankfully missed; even if he hadn't been able to see her face, there was no mistaking the fact that the console had turned a deep purple.
With a frown, he dragged his chair a few inches further away from it.
He knew he shouldn't be doing this. But he didn't know how to move on. He had no idea how to act around Riley.
Her dreams pretty much seemed to match what he'd been imagining last night, though, and he wasn't quite sure whether to be happy about that small connection between them, sad that she had to go through this, or confused that those dreams seemed to have come a night too late. Or had it been like this last night, too? He should've asked the others what Riley had been dreaming last night.
For a lack of anything meaningful to do, he started actually, you know, drinking the tea, as the stuff would have great difficulty with calming his nerves if he just left it in the cup.
And predictably, now the dream took a turn for the worse. The frozen ground opened up beneath Riley, and the only reason she didn't fall was because she managed to grab onto a branch that had appeared out of nowhere, and then she was hanging on for dear life…
And Fear marveled at how calm he was through it all.
He couldn't understand it. This should have him screaming, running away to cower behind one of the sofas. Had this been playing a few days ago, he would most definitely have woken them all up by now. But instead he was just sitting there, as if nothing interesting was happening.
Maybe it was that he was way more relaxed than he could remember ever being? Or maybe that he'd already gotten Riley through this exact thing? It certainly wasn't the tea; it had never helped that much before.
Whatever it was, he wasn't complaining. But he could see the controls slightly shifting in a way that he knew made Riley tremble. Oh, he knew. He'd done that to her countless times.
It had been for her own good, he told himself. He'd been protecting her. He'd been looking out for her. But she didn't want that anymore. Or maybe she did? She had been listening to him up in the tree. But if she was this capricious about the whole thing, then how could he ever guide her again without being terrified that the very intervention that was supposed to keep her safe might lead to even worse disasters?
With a sigh, he drank the last of his tea and then got up to get himself another cup. This was going to be one long night.
When Riley was woken up on Monday morning, she knew the day was going to be terrible. Her dreams had been nonsensical and horrific, and she was aching all over, as if she hadn't slept at all.
"Good morning, little monkey," Dad was whispering to her, then leaned over to press a small kiss to her cheek. "Time to get up."
She blinked at him through sleepy eyes. Part of her just wanted to stay in bed all day, in the hopes of dreaming about something a little more pleasant, but she couldn't think of anything that would make her parents let her. "Morning Dad," she mumbled. "Sure, I'll be downstairs in a moment."
He kissed her again, then left the room with a smile, and Riley started rubbing the sleep from her tired eyes. Ugh. She didn't want to get up. But she knew she had to, so better not waste any more time and make it more difficult for herself.
Getting ready for the day didn't take her all that long, and when she went downstairs, Mom and Dad were already waiting for her with breakfast. She wasn't really hungry, though, so she just kept sipping on a glass of orange juice and nibbling on a piece of toast as she listened to Dad talk about some difficult meeting that he would be having in the morning.
But of course, it didn't take long until Mom picked up on her unusually dejected state. "Riley, sweetie, did you sleep well?"
Riley gave a sigh. "Not really," she admitted. Better to get this out of the way. Plus, she didn't want to snap at her parents again at such questions like she had done a while back. "But that happens. I'll be fine." Or at least she hoped she would. She sure wasn't fine right now.
For the moment, Sadness was in charge.
Fear was still a little surprised that Joy just let that happen - before the two had gotten lost, he could've counted the mornings on which Joy had not been in charge on one hand. But so it was, and they all just watched from one of the sofas and let Sadness do her thing as she guided Riley through breakfast and then out the door on their way to school.
Riley wasn't all that fast, and she certainly wasn't enjoying the walk today. Their view kept getting obscured as she kept rubbing her eyes, and then they could see the tips of her fingers as she covered a huge yawn.
Fear furrowed his brows, but there had to be these mornings, too, right?
"Hm, we're off to a rough start," Joy mused. "But hey, that means the day can only get better, right? I mean, what else could happen now?"
"We do not need that question answered," Disgust quipped and nudged Fear's shoulder, but she was smirking as she said it.
"Thanks, I feel significant," he snarked back, and then almost got a little misty-eyed when they all started laughing - even Sadness was giggling a little.
And maybe he was imagining that, but Riley seemed to speed up a little. The fact that they were all in a good mood couldn't have been lost on her.
When Riley reached the school gates, she kinda felt as if she had just accepted her situation. The day wouldn't be all that good, but she was determined to find enjoyment in the small moments whenever she could.
And indeed, when she reached her classroom, laughter was drifting out of the open door and made her smile a little, too, but upon entering the room, she saw that it was because a few of the boys were playing catch with a half-eaten apple, which was kind of gross, now that she thought about it.
Watching them had made her halt in the door frame for a moment, but now she registered the cool girls staring at her because of it, and she felt a bit of cold sweat forming on her temple. She was probably looking like an idiot right now. Should she say something?
Ha! If Alex hadn't enjoyed her company, what made her think anyone else would?
"G-good morning," she stammered before she could change her mind, but then started approaching her desk without waiting for an answer.
Speaking of Alex, there she was, talking to a boy at the back of the class, and Riley could feel her gaze hardening as she stared over at her former friend. But before Alex could register the look full of venom, Riley turned away to sit down at her desk, and not a moment too soon, for the teacher entered the room at that exact moment.
Rather satisfied with her timing, Riley fished her books out of her bag. At least Alex wouldn't be in her line of sight all day. That would probably make paying attention to the teacher a little easier.
A sigh escaped her. In all honesty, she would rather have thought about having fun with Alex than to pay attention to the teacher.
For now, Fear was quite content with letting the others drive, as much as he hated to admit that to himself. But he couldn't have found an opening, anyway, not without rudely pushing away at least one of the girls. And he wasn't the only one with that problem.
"Why is this console so small, anyway?!" Anger complained. "It's like we're not supposed to use it all at the same time!"
"Maybe we're not," Sadness mumbled dejectedly.
But Joy shook her head. "Sure we are, or we wouldn't be able to mix feelings! I'll call the Mind Workers later, see if they can't give us a little more room. It might take a while, but hey, we can still do an awesome job in the meantime, right?"
Fear felt himself perk up a little at the thought. A bigger console would be pretty sweet, actually. They wouldn't have to fight for access to the controls any longer. On the other hand, that way, the others would notice immediately when he was avoiding doing his job…
But there wasn't much they needed to do throughout the morning, anyway; they had learned a while ago that Riley's concentration worked best when they didn't interfere with it, so they mostly retreated to one of the sofas, with Joy occasionally bouncing over to the console to have Riley react to something funny, and Disgust almost vomited all over the controls as the half-eaten apple sailed over their head again. But at least they all had a good laugh at the ensuing dressing-down for the culprit.
Fear couldn't quite share their amusement, though. It would've been his job to make sure the apple didn't hit them in the head. Yeah, it hadn't, but he couldn't have known that beforehand.
Right. He needed to make an effort, here. If Riley didn't want him, she would have to let him know.
So when at lunchtime, after getting their tray, Joy seemed determined to just chat someone up and force them to eat lunch together, he interfered by firmly placing himself between her and the console. Without touching it, of course.
"We'll be judged!" he pointed out. "And then they'll all be laughing at us!"
"Not if we're smooth about it," Disgust argued light-heartedly, but there was a certain sparkle in her eyes. He couldn't quite figure out why, but something made him sure that she approved of his resistance. For whatever reason.
"And Riley wouldn't have to be all alone," Sadness whispered, but she was smiling a little.
"Great, I'll find someone, then!" Joy exclaimed and had Riley look around the room at her classmates.
"Pick a girl," Disgust instructed, crossing her arms. "The boys are immature. But not one of the cool girls, you should've left them alone."
"That one!" Joy decided and grabbed the main levers to compel Riley to approach whomever she had decided on.
With a yelp, Fear jumped in and closed his fingers around the levers, too. "Joy, we are not just gonna…"
Then it registered with him what he had just done.
A small scream escaped him as he scrambled backwards, away from the console, tripping over his own two feet until he was sitting on the ground in something of a daze. His ragged breaths were making him a little dizzy, but he couldn't bring himself to tear his gaze from the console.
A moment later, he noticed that the others were all staring at him.
"You're not still jumpy around Riley!" Anger burst out incredulously.
But Sadness shook her head. "Of course he is. They haven't really made up yet."
"I…" Fear stammered, trying to breathe a little more slowly. "I, I can't help it. I'm sorry. I just…"
"If randomly talking to someone is bad for Riley, wouldn't she want you to keep her from doing it?" Joy pointed out with a frown.
"I don't know if she wants it!" he wailed. He didn't really know a thing about what she wanted. Right now, he wished so badly he knew what Riley was thinking.
"Yeah, well, you're doing this wrong," Disgust deadpanned. "You're supposed to be afraid for her, not of her."
"Give him time," Sadness mumbled, and then came over and extended a hand to help him up from the ground.
"Thanks," he muttered and allowed her to drag him back into a standing position and over to the console again.
"I'm gonna talk to that girl now!" Joy announced.
But then a voice reached them from behind. "R-Riley?"
Joy's hands froze on the console.
"No way!" Disgust burst out in alarm.
But Fear had recognized it, too. Alex's voice. This couldn't be!
"Let me at her!" Anger roared, and before Fear knew what was happening, their friend had forcefully pushed them all out of the way in his rush to reach the controls.
"Anger, don't!" Sadness called out frantically, but too late.
"What do you want?" they could hear Riley snap as she whirled around. "I don't need friends who don't accept me the way I am!"
But when Alex's face came into view, her furrowed brows and quivering lips made it quite clear that she was about to apologize.
"Anger, don't," Joy repeated a little softer and gently pulled him away from the console. "Fear, can you take over? If Riley isn't careful, she could lose Alex for good."
Fear thought he could feel himself go numb. Could he take over? He had no idea if he could.
"Do we want this?" Disgust challenged, crossing her arms.
"I'm sure Riley would want to try and make this work," Sadness muttered.
"As long as Alex stays well within her rights…" Anger growled.
Joy turned her head to all sides, but there were no more arguments, so she nodded at Fear. "Yeah, we want this."
Taking a deep breath, Fear stepped a little closer to the console.
"Riley…" Alex started again, and Fear could hear everyone in Headquarters collectively holding their breaths. But then she trailed off and looked away, her eyes darting around as if searching for a way out.
As it was, Fear also wasn't sure what to do. What should he make Riley do? What would be the best way to ensure that Riley and Alex would go back to being friends?
"Well, do something!" Disgust urged impatiently, but Joy shushed her.
Fear felt a shiver running through him as he stared at the controls. He'd cost Riley her friend once. How could he be sure he wouldn't do it again?
"If I wasn't afraid from time to time," he suddenly heard Riley say, "I'd be dead right now."
Slowly, Fear tore his gaze from the console to look up at the screen with wide eyes.
Had she actually just said…?
"Did something happen?" Alex blurted out, and that was clearly her Fear speaking. They couldn't always be sure with other people, but at least this once, it was glaringly obvious.
Fear had yet to guide Riley's reaction in some way. He still had trouble processing what had just happened. But before he'd made up his mind, he felt Joy's hands on his shoulders, slightly squeezing as if to reassure him. "I think you two should be fine now," she pointed out, and he could hear the smile in her voice as she said it.
She swiftly pushed a few buttons over his shoulder, and he saw Riley pull Alex into a quick hug right before Joy gently turned him around and embraced him, too.
"Do you want to eat lunch with me?" Riley asked as they pulled apart, and she could see Alex's face light up immediately, so she quickly put her statement into perspective. "I mean, we can talk then."
"Oh, yeah…" Alex muttered. "Uh, wait, I'll just get my tray."
Riley watched her go. She wasn't sure what to feel right now. Alex had ended their friendship for a silly reason - but they had been friends, or at least about to become friends, and Riley didn't just want to lose that. And the momentary relief really couldn't distract her from the fact that they needed to talk this out. She was not going to let Alex force her into dangerous things anymore, and if that didn't work, then she wanted no part in this.
But it did feel right to be side by side with Alex as they walked over to that bench Riley always sat on during lunchtime. Back in Minnesota, it had mostly been her and Meg all the time, and she had never really paid much attention about how to approach others because friendships had all just kind of happened.
But that hadn't worked here in San Francisco. She'd missed the togetherness. She'd missed it so badly to have someone to talk to.
As soon as they had sat down, Alex placed her tray on the bench and folded her hands in her lap. "I'm sorry," she blurted out. "I don't know what… I mentioned to Dad what happened, and got totally told off for it. He said he wished I was as responsible as you are, and that I shouldn't have pressured you, and I've never seen him so angry in my life, and, and I just don't know, I'm so sorry. Can you forgive me?"
Riley frowned a little. She wasn't quite sure if Alex had actually had a change of heart or if she was apologizing because her father had made her. Or if, maybe, she was just as lonely as Riley was. "If you don't force me into things again…" she started cautiously, but Alex was already shaking her head.
"I won't!" she insisted. "I promise!"
"I…" Riley muttered. "Um, yeah, sure. It's okay." Part of her didn't want to just let it go like that, but… talking to someone felt so nice…
And Alex, too, seemed decidedly more cheerful all of a sudden as she grabbed her tray and started to eat. "So what happened?" she asked around a mouthful of food. "You weren't actually in danger, were you?"
"Yeah, I was actually in danger!" Riley bit back, ignoring her own tray for the moment. "I…" She sighed. "I guess I was being a little reckless. I got this crazy idea to climb up one of the trees at the cove, and I… I was pretty high up when the branch I was standing on broke under me, and…"
"Oh, my gosh…" Alex whispered with wide eyes, and that felt better to Riley than the entire apology had done.
"I'd grabbed on to the branch above me beforehand," she tried to calm her friend - her friend! - even as her mind went back to that moment when she had been hanging in mid-air, terrified that this was it, the end of her life, and all due to her own fault. "If I hadn't, I would've fallen. And I… I don't think I would've survived that."
"Then I'm really glad you were careful," Alex said quietly.
Riley furrowed her brows in thought. "Yeah," she acknowledged. "Me, too."
Fear felt his lips pulling into the slightest of smiles as he laid a gentle hand onto the console and lovingly gazed up at the screen. "Me, too," he whispered.
Note: And that's it! Hope you enjoyed the ride! Would love to hear your thoughts! :)
About future stuff: I'm tinkering with a humorous one shot, a short Sadness POV, something Bing Bong-related, and a massive Inside Out multi-chapter thingy. That last one will be my Camp NaNoWriMo project for July, but expect to see the other three soon-ish. And I bet that's not the end of it. So yeah, looks like you'll be stuck with me for a while. ;)