At any turn, p.17
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       At Any Turn, p.17

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey
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  “Just—think about what I said, okay? And…”

  I waited. It took her a minute.

  “And take good care of yourself, okay?”

  I took a deep breath and expelled it. I wanted to go over there right now and I wanted to pull her into my arms and kiss her senseless. This feeling of emptiness was almost overpowering. “Okay,” I said in a dead voice.

  “Thank you. I’ll see you around. ”

  Yeah…around. My stomach knotted. We said good-bye.

  In my soul, the temperature was absolute zero, the temperature of space. And I was empty, like the huge distance between the stars, out on the edge of existence. When I’d spent a week and a half on the International Space Station, one of my favorite activities was to go up into the cupola once we’d crossed the terminator—the line between day and night in orbit. From that observation dome, I could see the stars—marvel at the blackness of empty space between them. Wallow in my insignificance as a tiny spec of a being in awe of it all.

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  My worries, my life had felt so inconsequential in the middle of the vacuum of space. It reminded me that if I really needed some perspective, I could attempt another flight, as I’d vowed to do the minute I’d touched down in the landing capsule from the previous trip.

  Another grand adventure for Adam. All alone. Because my last “grand adventure,” my Emilia, was turning out to be an epic failure.

  Chapter Fourteen

  DracoCon was in less than two short weeks and after the weekend, I found myself putting in long hours at work, despite Emilia’s requests that I restrain myself. I was well into my twelfth hour on Monday, running to keep ahead of another headache that had been hovering over my brain for the previous twenty-four hours. It was haunting me. Sometimes they came on that way…a distant inevitability that I knew I couldn’t avoid. Sometimes they struck suddenly, like mind-searing lightning.

  This one ended up doing both. And it happened when the complex was mostly dark, at around 7 p. m. Several staffers had stayed late to get extra work done and I was on my way back to my office from development when the fucking thing slammed into me like a brick in the face. There were no visual distortions this time, just pure pain. I hadn’t had a violent one like this in a long, long time.

  Thank God no one was around to witness it. I might have dropped to my knees and whimpered if I hadn’t been standing near the wall. I slumped against it, closing my eyes, hoping for this wave of cranium-crushing agony to pass. With it came nausea. My stomach turned. And if I didn’t will it otherwise, I’d probably soon be puking up my guts.

  I crawled back to my office, threw open the door to the lighted hall, but kept the room in darkness. Going over to the couch, I slumped down and closed my eyes.

  I lay there for almost half an hour, willing the pain to pass. I tried to decide whether I should give in now and take some kind of medication or if I should just tough it out.

  I heard someone approach from the outside. I half-wondered, through the haze of pain, if Maggie hadn’t gone home yet, when the overhead lights came on, stabbing at my eyes and right through my head.

  “Turn it off,” I moaned, throwing an arm over my eyes.

  The lights flicked off immediately. I listened to the footsteps, hesitating in the doorway. Likely it wasn’t Maggie, but it might have been Jordan or one of my close associates who knew about the headaches. Otherwise I could just claim that I was sick from bad sushi at lunch or something.

  Then the steps inched into the room, hesitating. “Adam? Are you okay?” came a small, quiet voice. I was in a full-on sweat now, but the headache wasn’t so horrible that I didn’t recognize the voice when I heard it. Emilia.

  “I’m fine,” I said, my eyes still firmly shut. Even the dim light from the doorway would just aggravate the situation more. Right now that was the last thing I needed.

  “You’re not fine. ” Her voice came from right beside me. “You’re sweating. ”

  “I’m hot. ”

  “Bullshit. What’s going on?”

  I breathed through another wave of pain. I put my hand to my forehead, pressed down in the center—the pain crackled, out of control. I let out a long breath.

  “It’s just a headache. Go away, please. ”

  She set something down—presumably whatever it was she’d brought with her. “I was just leaving Mac’s display board for you to go over. When I saw the light off, I figured you weren’t here. You seem to be in a lot of pain. ”

  You seem to be in a lot of pain. Thank you, Queen of the Obvious, I wanted to reply. And it wasn’t just the wretched agony that made me wish I could decapitate myself, either. It was a deeper, soul-ache of a pain. The one in my heart. The hole she’d torn in it when she went away.

  I turned my head away from her, facing the back of the couch.

  “Adam, let me help you. Can I get you some water, anything?”

  I blew out a long, tight breath. “It’ll pass soon,” I said. It had better fucking pass soon.

  Emilia got up and shut the door to the office, leaving us in almost complete darkness. How she made it back across without tripping was a mystery to me. But in seconds she was beside me again, sitting on the edge of the couch, her hip nudging against my ribcage.

  “You’ve had something like this before?”

  She didn’t know about the migraines, because I’d never told her about the really bad ones I used to get. The few that I’d had while we were together had been easy to shrug off.

  I turned my head back toward her and opened my eyes. I studied her silhouette in the darkness—the white blond hair stood out, even in the dim light. The pressure vise that held my temples eased up just slightly. At least the nausea was starting to fade.

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  “Why’d you change your hair?” I said, startling myself. Had I said that out loud?

  She shifted. I couldn’t see her facial expression. She turned her head away. “I wanted a change. ”

  I let my heavy lids drop over my eyes again, weary. I didn’t want to fight anymore. I didn’t want to be angry. She’d murdered my heart, but I didn’t want vengeance. I didn’t want this pain weighing down every thought and action. “You’ve made a lot of changes lately. ”

  “Adam, you’re starting to worry me. Your speech is slurring. ” She fumbled in her pocket and pulled out her key chain. “Can I look in your eyes?”

  Was that a joke? I turned my head. “What?”

  “You could be having a stroke. ”

  “I’m not having a stroke. It’s actually feeling a little better. ”

  She bent over me. “Will it hurt if I shine this key light in your eyes? Just for a second?”

  “Why not just jab some chopsticks in there while you’re at it?”

  She sighed.

  I didn’t say anything for a long moment. The majority of the pain was easing up, slowly.

  “Okay, you can look, but no more than two seconds. ”

  “Two seconds per eye?”

  She bent over me and pushed on a tiny light—what I thought was her key light. Asked me to open my eyes as she leaned in close. I could smell her skin, her hair, the laundry soap she used on her clothing. The familiar scents of Emilia. My gut tightened. My hand twitched at my side. I wanted more than anything to reach up and touch her. To smooth my hand across her cheek. I let it fall before it was an inch off the surface of the couch.

  She straightened, turning off the light. Thank God, because it’d felt like she was sticking pins in my eyes as she used it.

  “Anisocoria,” she said, her voice heavy with concern.

  “Do what?”

  “Your pupils are not dilated to the same size. Has anyone mentioned that to you before? I’d never noticed because your eyes are so dark. ”

  “My pupils aren’t the same size? Huh. I’m lopsided?”

  “It’s common enoug
h if they’ve always been like that—one fifth of the population has anisocoria, but if they haven’t been…well, you should get a CAT scan or an MRI to check. ”

  “Had both done, many times. ”

  She paused. “Really? How long have you been having these headaches?”

  “Since I was twelve. ”

  “Shit. How come I never knew?”

  I was silent for a moment. “There’s a lot you don’t know, isn’t there?” A lot she’d never bothered to stick around long enough to learn.

  She paused. “You do love your secrets. ”

  Yes. That was true. We both did.

  “Are you sure I can’t get you some water?”

  “Just stay here and talk to me for a minute. I’ll be okay. ”

  She shifted beside me, sliding on the floor but resting her arm on the couch beside me. “Okay. But I’d really like to do something. I feel helpless. ”

  “I’ve known that feeling all too often lately. ”

  She sighed. “What therapies have you tried? For your migraines?”

  I blew out a breath. “I don’t want to talk about my migraines. ”

  “What about acupuncture, or acupressure?”

  “No one is sticking needles in me. ”

  “I know some pressure points for migraines. My mom had them when she was…when she was going through chemo. Medication didn’t work, so I studied up on pressure points. ”

  “A codeine and Vicodin cocktail can barely put a dent in a good migraine. I doubt poking me is going to do anything. ”

  “Can I try?”

  “You’re going to make the world’s weirdest doctor. Western MDs usually don’t go in for that stuff. ”

  “Give me your hand,” she said.

  I held out my hand and she turned it over, resting it atop hers so that my palm was facing up. Then she placed a finger at the center of my wrist, measured about an inch up and applied pressure. A weird, almost electric jolt shot up my arm.

  “Does that help at all?”

  “No. ”

  She increased the pressure for a long moment. “How about now?”

  “Nope. ”

  “Hmm. Well, this is the spot. There are others on the feet. ”

  “Why not just use your Jedi powers to heal me?”

  She laughed. “Damn it, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a Sith lord!”

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  I laughed and then moaned when a fresh shot of pain lanced my skull.

  “This sucks,” I muttered.

  “I can’t even imagine. ”

  “You’ve never had a migraine?”

  I flipped my hand atop hers so that our palms were together and I wrapped my fingers around her hand. “Wait…I’m starting to feel something now. ”

  I could think of two possibilities that might arise from this action. She might try to slip her fingers out of my hand with a light reprimand or she might lean in and kiss me, press her face to mine, open her mouth to me. I closed my eyes, indulging the fantasy.

  Instead, she tightened her fingers around mine.

  We sat together in the dark, long moments, holding hands. I turned my hand so that our fingers laced together. She let me.

  “Is your head any better?”

  “A little. ”

  I ran my thumb across hers, tracing every contour from the delicate bone at her wrist all the way to her thumbnail. Even there, her skin was soft. She inhaled sharply and I felt a little resistance from her, like she wanted to withdraw her hand but didn’t quite succeed in doing it.

  I loosened my hold on her, giving her the out, but she didn’t pull away. Our hands played against each other, as we each applied a light pressure, shifting our weight, almost as if we were dancing with just one hand each, pressed against the other. This moment, sitting together with her in the dark, felt so comforting and yet so painful. So close and yet so distant. Need was a giant cavity inside my chest. And it wasn’t just physical desire. I needed her presence, her spirit, her soul. I missed her so fucking much.

  I let my head loll backward. If I hadn’t been feeling like such complete shit both physically and emotionally, I might have made an advance. Not a sexual one, but some sort of tentative approach. But the breakup had battered me bloody. Somehow, again, I was as defeated as that powerless, bullied kid I’d once been.

  Our hands continued that strange, comforting rubbing against each other. Like my hand was making love to her hand. Maybe it was, in a way. Maybe this was all the love for each other that we still had left.

  “Adam,” she said. “I’m sorry—”

  “Shh,” I said. “Let’s just be in each other’s presence. Let’s be at peace. ”

  “I want to be your friend. ”

  Friend. That word reverberated in my brain, rolling around like a tin can in an empty, echoing room. “I can’t just be your friend. ”

  “But…you’re dating. You’ve moved on. That’s—that’s good. ”

  “Oh really. You think so? That it’s good?”

  She paused. “No,” she whispered. “But that’s what a friend would say. ”

  “You broke up with me. Why do you care?”

  I glanced at her bowed head, still holding her hand. I never wanted to let it go.

  “I never said I didn’t care. But I never said I wanted to have your love life shoved in my face either…”

  I sighed wearily. “I’m sorry. Jordan was being an asshole. I don’t know why he said that. ”

  “I’m sure he’s ecstatic that we broke up. I bet he’s the one who set up the date. Probably with one of his perfect supermodel friends. ”

  Stunning how she was correct on every single one of those points.

  “I don’t want to talk about the fucking date. ”

  “What do you want to talk about?”

  “I want to talk about us. ”

  She hesitated, her hand stilling. “We’re having a moment, here. We’re being present. We probably shouldn’t go there. ”

  My hand released hers and the backs of her fingers stroked the backs of mine. I’d rarely felt a touch more erotic, enticing. Now that my headache was easing up, her presence was having another effect on me. I wanted her. I went hard at the thought of her spread out on this couch, open for me. I sucked in a deep breath and figured I’d better start thinking about baseball—or programming—or anything but the memory of her long, curvy legs wrapped around my hips as I pushed inside of her.

  My hand clamped around hers and I pulled it to my lips, kissing the back of her hand. She froze and I released her. Our moment was over, already fading into the past, along with the rest of those glowing moments we’d shared and now buried. Slowly she stood and turned to leave, but I stopped her, putting my hand on her arm.

  “Thank you. ”

  She hesitated, then she bent. I didn’t turn toward her, but I held my breath, hoping she meant to kiss me. Her warm mouth landed on my temple.

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  “I miss you,” she breathed. And then she was gone.

  I miss you. What the fuck was that? Why on earth had she left me with that to chew on? She missed me. What a load of crap. She missed me while she was flying out to Baltimore to plan her new life without me? Yeah, I’m sure she cried for hours because of that.

  She was lucky that that was the last thing she said to me instead of the first or that whole conversation in my office would have gone a lot differently than it had.

  What the hell was I supposed to do with that? She would have been more merciful just jabbing needles in my eyeballs or slapping me upside the head with a cartoon-like anvil to bring my headache back. Because, thank God, it had faded shortly after she had left, leaving me with only an empty, vague phantom ache.


  Over the next week, as I continued to put in long hours, I rarely saw her again in person, but her presence seemed to be all over the place online. Some of the bigger blogs
were making comments about the lawsuit and feeding the rumors of a congressional hearing on the addictive properties of online video games. They were getting some blowback from Girl Geek in the comments. And despite her admission that she cared more about chainmail bikinis than lawsuits, she was rebutting their arguments on her blog.

  When she’d first started her temp job at Draco, we’d unofficially agreed that she would not blog about the game, as it went against the nondisclosure policy that all employees were required to adhere to. But how could I call her on this? She was sticking herself out there, getting no small amount of heat for it, and doing it to defend me.

  And I’d bet she did it without ever realizing that I’d notice. But I did. I noticed everything. She’d even cut out her fun and snarky commentary on Dragon Epoch. Instead her blog posts emphasized how almost every standard fantasy roleplaying game was misogynistic. She was getting crap for it and I took note to keep my eye on that because I knew that women tended to be susceptible to cyberbullying in the online gaming world.

  It was kind of her to stick her neck out for me and it forced me to reconsider my stance on the quest. Maybe she was right. Maybe I should give up a few of my secrets. But even the thought of it was painful. Those secrets were like my armor, were what separated me from the bumps and miseries of the world. How could I surrender them so easily? In The Art of War, the Master never discussed terms for surrender. And I lived by his code now.

  The latter half of November approached and finally, it was the weekend before we were scheduled to ship out for DracoCon. As the ultimate team-building exercise—and as a little treat for my employees, given their hard work on convention preparation—we took the day off to fight our epic rematch war against the Blizzard employees. That horde had barely beaten us last year and they had payback coming. They’d been training, too, so it wasn’t going to be an easy fight.

  But Heath, Jordan and several of my other squad leaders were pros and knew their shit. We’d been working out strategy for months, and they’d be leading the regular employees in their maneuvers. And we knew the twenty-acre partially wooded course we’d be fighting on.

  The teams would be participating in three different scenarios. Two shorter ones and then a long one that had been intricately designed. We had approximately three hours for each setup with short breaks and meals in between.

  It was an extremely hot, dry day. So in the parking lot, before we got started, we passed around the bottles of water, sunscreen and geared up.

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