"It's a panic attack."
The words drift down to my ears, slow and muddled as if they travel underwater, but I hear them all the same. And I know what they mean.
They know they know they know they know.
They know I'm hopeless, good-for-nothing, dead weight.
Shaking uncontrollably, I hunch over, sink deeper into the icy water, make myself as small as possible, try to grip my right arm but all my limbs are numb and useless—
dead weight, it's dead weight, dead, they're all dead
Screams and thunderous explosions and the night on fire, the world on fire—
Xiuying on fire.
Xiuying bleeding, crumpled, broken—
I should be dead
Should be me
I scream with everything I have, but still, I cannot undo the past, cannot drown out memory.
The sickening crunch of bone on metal, a final gasp of pain, my name on blue lips. I don't know if it's real or imagined but it doesn't matter,
it's all too real in my mind, and she's hurt, they're hurt,
"Erebus, listen to my voice."
and I'm not.
Everything hurts, breathing hurts, living hurts,
but I'm not REALLY hurt; They saved me, She saved me—
NO! Save yourself!
"Baby, you gotta breathe for me. Listen to my voice. Listen to my breathing."
You should have saved yourself, but you didn't, so I'd feel no pain—
—I feel nothing,
"Breathe in, good job, just like that."
—I am nothing.
"NO! Don't you let go! Don't you give up!"
Warm arms around me, warm breath against my ear, urgent words whispered into my soul.
"Listen to me, you're so strong, you're so brave."
"You're wrong," I croak, and it hurts to speak, but I have to, I have to let the voice know they have it all wrong, I'm not strong, I'm weak and useless.
Xiuying's the brave one.
"Don't you tell me I'm wrong. I know what I'm talking about, you hear me? And I say you're stronger than anything those asshole devs can put you through. Stronger than whatever your own mind can put you through."
The shaking gets worse, until I'm trembling so hard, I worry my bones will shatter, will rattle right out of my skin. The warm, strong arms hold tighter, hold me together, keep me from falling into tiny pieces of stardust and floating away.
"Shh, Erebus, baby, it's okay, you're okay."
"I can't move," I whisper.
"You can, you're moving. It's just very slow." Gentle hands card through my hair, move loose strands out of my eyes.
"I'm drowning." A sob bubbles out of my throat, and it sounds like drowning.
"No, you're not totally underwater. The water is just dragging you back. You're letting yourself sink."
"Let me sink, then."
The voice catches, swallows back a sob of its own, but when it speaks again, it's firm, fierce.
And so warm.
"Erebus, you need to stand up, you need to hold yourself up, you can't give into this."
I'm pressed more tightly against a chest, rising and falling in slow, careful breaths. My clouded mind focuses on those breaths, on that rise and fall, and my own lungs try to follow that careful rhythm.
"Don't let yourself sink. Don't let yourself drown," the voice whispers, and suddenly, I recognize the low timbre.
"Kara." The name is hardly more than a breath escaping my lungs.
"Rise up," she urges. "Rise above this."
I want to.
I want to rise to where I stood once before.
But then I think of the faces of my old teammates, my old friends. The pity, the irritation, the resignation. I was an inconvenience, an obstacle holding them back, a waste.
"You don't need me. I'm useless like this. I'm going to screw up your run."
They're going to leave me behind. They're going to go on without me, they don't need me, they're better off without me.
She's better off without me.
Striking violet eyes stare me down, and I can't deny the truth blazing in them. "We wouldn't even be here, running this Nightmare if it weren't for you. You may not be at your A-game right now, but even your B-game is worlds above what average players can hope to achieve. And this is temporary. You'll be back to 100% in no time; we want to be there when you are. Got to see this through."
I want to believe her so badly it's a physical ache deep in my chest.
She repositions herself, and her arms release their viselike grip. "Retract your wings," she instructs, so I do.
"You've carried us all this time," she murmurs. "Let us carry you for a bit."
Then her arms tighten once again, and I'm lifted out of the cold, gray water.
"WHAT?!" Shock pulls me more into the present than any whispered admonishments had.
"What what?" she teases and takes off at a brisk run. "You expecting Nightfury to carry you like the pretty pretty princess you are?"
"Um," I say eloquently.
Kara snorts, and it reminds me so much of Xiuying, my heart hurts and I want to hold Kara even tighter.
"I'm the only one with a +40 Strength stat, sweetie. And though you're hardly an inconvenience, if we want to beat those Horseman bastards, we have to hustle a bit more than you're capable of in your current condition."
She smiles and leans her beautiful face so close to mine, I almost have a second panic attack right there and then.
"Besides," she continues in a conspiratorial whisper, "we've cut off our poor viewers' sound. Least we could do is give them a show." Her violet eyes sparkle with mischief, and I can't help but grin back, though my smile feels like a small, trembly thing.
It must be enough for Kara, though, because her own smile deepens, and her face leans in even closer, and my breath catches in my throat but this time it has nothing to do with fear or anxiety; it's pure anticipation.
A bright flashing notification box flashes in between our faces, scaring the shit out of both of us.
'YOU COCKBLOCKING SONUVA—No. No no no! I invoke my Chaos Incarnate Title and ask for an alternative!'
'I don't give a rat's ass! I need to get back to what I was doing literally two seconds ago! And I need to finish this fucking dungeon.'
'What I NEED is the privacy to kiss the goddamn girl of my dreams. What I NEED is to clear this raid and stick it to the Horsemen. What I NEED is time. Time to clear the Dungeon and get somewhere safe for the forced log-out. If you pull me now, it's going to look like I died, and for all intents and purposes, that will be true. I won't get my survival rewards, I won't get the EXP I deserve, and thousands of viewers are going to think I'm weak.'
'Hey, I resent that implication. We're going to survive this dick of a Dungeon.'