Fucking hell, I'm exhausted.
In-game, 36 hours of intense activity just passed, but in real life, my brain and body were essentially asleep for 12 hours. I maybe could feel a little out of it, and that would be normal, but for the most part, I should feel well-rested and ready to take on the day.
I should not feel like I haven't slept in a month.
As I swing my legs out of my V-Haven pod, I feel as bone-weary as an liver-spotted octogenarian with osteoporosis, and my groans fill my empty apartment.
Alopix had perked up the second he heard the hiss of the V-Haven opening, but now he whimpers in sympathy at the pathetic noises I'm making, big furry head tilted in concern.
"It's fine, buddy. I'm fine. Just need a minute to adjust," I murmur reassuringly, before I break into a wide-mouthed yawn.
I reach up to cover my mouth, but freeze when I touch something wet.
Red blood covers my fingers, and continues to drip from my nose, streaking down over my lips.
Pix whines louder, even more worried, so I wipe my hand on my pants and push myself standing to show him I'm fine. "Shh, Pixy, s'all good. Just a little nosebleed. Nothing to worry about."
He barks, and I frown because that's his Warning: Danger! bark, and that doesn't make any sense, so I bend over to scratch his head and calm him down.
"Huh, wha—" I gasp, as my vision spins, and my hand misses Pix completely, and I'm falling, falling...
The barking gets louder and deeper, more urgent, but it sounds far away.
Then the barks turn into high-pitched keening, and Pix gently licks my hand.
"Good boy," I mumble. Then everything goes dark.
A deep voice rumbles like summer thunder in my sensitive ears.
"Eric, can you hear me?"
'Yes,' I want to say. 'I can hear you. Everyone must be able to hear you. You're so loud.'
"Keep talking to him," another voice says. It's higher, female, and also loud. So very loud.
Tears squeeze from my closed eyes. It hurts. I want to cover my ears and hide, but my body won't—can't move.
"Eric, c'mon. Lieu, buddy, it's me. Wake up, man. It's time to wake up."
Was I asleep?
Was it quiet there?
If so, I want to sleep again.
A door opens, and I hear a gruff snuffle I recognize.
"You can't bring that here," the loud lady says. "How'd you even get it to this floor?"
The click of nails on tile is loud as gunshots in my head, and the tears flow faster.
"He's not an It," a small, angry voice snaps. "He's the one who saved Eric, and I just know he'll make Eric feel better again."
Something heavy depresses part of the bed, and then a warm, fluffy muzzle is lying on my chest.
"Woof," the fluff says, and somehow this isn't so loud. Warm breath huffs across my face, and a tongue licks my face.
"Seriously, you must take that creature out of here! This is a hospital!"
Her strident voice pierces my ears like ice picks, and my entire body shakes. Terror lances through me, and my heart starts to race. Not a hospital.
"Woof," the fluff says again, and this time I follow Pix's directions.
I open my eyes.
"Hey buddy," I whisper, voice hoarse and dry.
"Eric! You're alive!" Robbie's tear-streaked face swims into view, before he whirls to face the doctor. "I told you, see! I told you Pix would help him."
The poor woman looks flustered for a moment, but then she gets over it and moves into action.
"Mr. Lieu, welcome back. I'm Dr. Singh. Can you hear me?"
"Loud," I whisper.
"Excuse me? What was that?" she asks, eyebrows knitted in concern.
I lick my lips, trying to wet my dry mouth. "It's loud. Everything. So loud," I manage to say.
Someone sobs behind the doctor, so my gaze flickers past her. Deion's eyes are red, and he's slumped against his husband. Theo's supporting them both, which might be funny if it weren't so concerning.
Theo's even slimmer than me, a math teacher with light brown skin and shoulder-length dreadlocks. Deion's 6'4 (193cm) and super athletic, ex-basketball player. Now he works private security and might be in even better shape than he was when he played college ball.
But this giant, highly-trained bodyguard is a total mess in my sterile white hospital room, face haggard under the harsh fluorescent lights that sting my eyes. Theo's the only reason he's still standing.
"You look like shit, dude," I say.
He laugh-sobs and his grips Theo's hand tighter. "Is that our new standard greeting? We're just going to remind each other we look like shit, forever, until we're old and gray and even my Black ass wrinkles?"
My brain's functioning enough now for me to tell Deion's actually talking quietly, his deep bass voice barely above a murmur.
But I still wince as the sound assaults my ears.
Dr. Singh notices, and her eyes tighten in alarm.
"Mr. Lieu, you're experiencing a sensory overload," she explains in as quiet a voice as she can, as she moves to turn off the lights, close the blinds, and silence the heart monitor.
It's better, but I still don't understand what's going on. I bury my face into Pix's fur and focus on my breathing.
"This should pass soon, so I want you tell me as soon as you feel you're returning to normal, is that all right?"
I nod, relieved that whatever this is, it doesn't appear permanent.
Dr. Singh clicks her teeth, then turns for the door. "I'm going to head off the nurse bringing the lab results I asked for. Keep this door closed so no one sees the dog."
"I take it back," Robbie says, once she's gone. "Dr. Singh's a real bro."
Deion and I both huff a laugh at that, though I immediately regret it because it makes my head pound.
"Fuck, Lieu, sorry," he apologizes.
I lightly shake my head. "Nah, it's okay. Can you just tell me what happened? Why am I here?"
It's all I wanted a few minutes ago, but now...
With one last pat for Alopix, I lift my head and stare at my three neighbors. My friends.
Robbie cracks first.
"At first I thought Pix was just excited to see you again," he says quietly. It's unnerving to see his normally bright face so solemn. "I knew it was about time for the big Day One to end, so I wasn't worried. But then the barking kept going. And got louder, like Pix had come to the door to bark with all his might."
Pix whines a little, like he can understand Robbie and remembers how worried he'd been. I give up all semblance of hospital propriety and pat the bed. He jumps up immediately and curls into me. All 60 lbs (27kg) of him. It's a little harder to breathe, but totally worth it.
"Good boy," I whisper again.
He licks my face.
"School's out for the holiday, so I was home. Robbie told me he was worried, so we both went to check on you," Theo continues the story.
He has one of the calmest, smoothest voices I've ever heard. I've always told him he was wasted as a math teacher, since no one listens to math teachers. Dude should be a voice actor. I'd listen to the man read a dictionary.
(Actually, pretty sure I once got drunk and made him record me an ASMR vid that was literally him reading a refrigerator repair manual.)
"I was still with a client, wrapping up post-New Year's celebrations." Deion sounds furious with himself, like it was somehow his fault he was at work when I spontaneously collapsed.
"I used my key to come in, and Pix was lying on the floor next to you, worried, and he didn't even come over when I came inside, he just stayed right by you. And you were facedown, but there was blood on your face and the floor, and I didn't know where the blood came from, and you were so pale, and sweaty, and shaking. Shaking all over."
Robbie's shaking himself, talking about it, so Theo brings Deion closer and they both hug their son.
"Shh, it's all right now. Eric's all good, thanks to you and Pix," Theo soothes him quietly, lightly rubbing his back.
"You're doing a good job telling Lieu what happened," Deion says, ruffling Robbie's hair. "I think you should finish it, but remember, Uncle Lieu's not feeling so great right now, so we have keep our voices quiet, okay?"
"Mhmm," Robbie replies, sniffling and nodding. He turns back to me, but stays wrapped in his family's arms.
My heart breaks, a little, to see how well they all fit together.
"I think the good doctor was telling the truth," I tell them. "Your voices aren't hurting me anymore." It's a partial lie, but my ears do seem less sensitive. I know longer feel like clawing my own head off, so this is progress. "You're doing great, Robbie. Go ahead."
Robbie takes a deep breath and barrels ahead. "I wanted to run over to check on you, but Pops stopped me, said we shouldn't move you, and we called an ambulance, and they brought you here. Alopix didn't want you out of his sight for a second, but Pops and I held him back because they said no dogs in the ambulance, and Pix was crying, and it was sad.
Then we called Dad, and he was closer, so he came right over, and me and Pops took your car, so we could bring Pix, because I knew you'd want to see him. And he definitely wanted to see you.
And so that's what happened."
Overwhelmed, I look over to Theo and Deion. Theo nods, expression tight. "That's pretty much it," he agrees.
I thank them both, for everything, but they'll hear none of it.
Finally, I give up and ask if any of them have heard why I collapsed in the first place.
"They haven't told us anything," Deion answers, angry again. "Won't tell us. They only let me in because Dr. Singh thought hearing someone you recognized might help you wake up, keep you from getting disoriented."
"Well it worked. Your annoying voice could wake the dead. I never stood a chance."
I smile weakly at Deion, and he grins back, though his smile is a fragile thing. He still manages to flip me off above Robbie's head, so I know he'll be okay.
The door opening draws our attention, and we all breathe a sigh of relief as Dr. Singh walks back in, file in hand.
"So what's the verdict, doc?" I ask, trying for light-hearteded (but honestly failing pretty hard.)
She levels me with a serious look that I can only assume is not good.
"What do you know about Nutri-Peak solutions?" she asks.