Surprisingly, it was Sadness who had left them first.
Fear had puzzled about that for days. He’d always assumed that people were sad to die, so it hadn’t made any sense to him to lose her this early on. But so it was.
The remaining four had banded together and searched all the rooms they could access, every nook and cranny. And then he had searched them all another three times, just to be sure. But Sadness was gone.
Joy had never been the same again. She had tried to keep up the morale, oh, she had tried, both inside and outside of Riley’s head. But the children hadn’t taken her efforts at face value, and she’d kept wailing at them in vain to save their pity, to just accept it and move on… until, one day, she had fallen silent in mid-word, and when the other three had turned around to the console, there had been no sign of her.
Anger, though, had held out for quite a while, raging at the screen on and off as if nothing had ever changed. Cancer! he would bellow. What a way to go! Couldn’t it have been old age, for crying out loud?
It would have been old age eventually, of course, and soon. Since Riley’s husband had passed on before her, and since Riley preferred not to raise her voice to her children, there had been no one to direct her rants at, yet grumbling to herself had entertained neither her nor Anger. Both he and Riley had quieted down gradually, and Fear couldn’t quite remember when he had last seen the flame on his companion’s head.
It was when Anger had become too hollowed out by the situation that he had disappeared. Winked out of existence, right in front of their eyes. One moment, he had been there, and the other… gone.
Three of them lost, the equilibrium out of balance. And now it was just the two of them, just him and Disgust, struggling to keep Riley afloat in their darkest hour.
“You shouldn’t make her shiver like that!” Disgust scolded him, as if he hadn’t heard her the previous four times. “You know it hurts her even more that way!”
“I want her to be prepared,” he argued softly as he kept operating the console. “It could happen any moment now.” Part of him wished he could take it in stride the way Disgust did… but he was scared. What would happen to them when Riley died? They never had met anyone else’s Emotions – did other people even have them or was Riley a special case? But it didn’t matter one way or the other, because the bottom line was, he had no idea what to expect.
Would it be painful? Would it be quick? Would they even realize that it was happening? Or would they maybe not feel anything at all? And what if Riley died but he and Disgust survived, somehow? But… no. No, no, no, he would never be able to bear the guilt. He’d been supposed to watch out for her. He’d stay with her. Right up until the end. He was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to look death in the eye when it came, but at the same time, he refused to run away.
Besides, if they really could live independently of Riley, then why were the others…
“Fear, I’m talking to you! You’re not gonna disappear on me, are you?”
“Of course not,” he sighed, tuning back into reality. “Riley needs me. Now more than ever.”
In his peripheral vision, he saw Disgust hesitate, but then she also sighed and came closer to stand next to him. She raised one hand to her lips as if in thought, then tapped a few buttons on the console.
They both heard Riley groan and then felt her shift around in the hospital bed.
“Don’t do that,” he pleaded quietly. “Please. She doesn’t have the strength to be sarcastic.”
“Well, there has to be some reason I’m stuck here with you!” she snapped and stalked away.
He knew she didn’t mean it. He knew she was glad to still be here, and he knew she was glad not to be alone. She had to be, right? And sure enough, it only took her a few steps before she turned on her heel and approached the console again.
“I hate this,” she mumbled, more to herself than anything, then made him jump by putting one hand onto his shoulder. “Listen, Fear, I…”
“I know,” he cut in gently, without turning his head to look at her. “And I’m glad you’re here.”
Inwardly, he was silently cursing to himself for the single jerky movement he’d caused Riley in his surprise, since it had effectively held her from falling asleep. Then again… if she fell asleep now, she might not…
“Couldn’t we have been killed in a car crash?” Disgust complained. “You know, quick, easy, painless, fast…”
“Do you have any idea what could go wrong with that?” he burst out incredulously, abandoning the console for the moment so as to not aggravate Riley’s condition even more. “Would you rather be half-dead by a few millimeters, or paralyzed, or…”
“I’d rather be alive, thank you very much!” she cut him off, then stalked away again to sit down on the sofa. After a moment’s hesitation, she lightly patted the space next to her without meeting his gaze.
But he turned around again. “Riley needs me,” he insisted.
Disgust didn’t understand. She couldn’t possibly understand.
It was quiet for a moment. Fear kept pushing the buttons, sometimes in vain as more and more blackened out under his fingers, and Disgust… He wasn’t sure what she was doing, but she wasn’t talking.
It had gotten darker in the meantime. He hadn’t noticed that at first, but with the light slowly fading around him, there was no mistaking the memory orbs appearing brighter and brighter by comparison.
If only Riley could see how beautiful they were. But the light level outside was low enough to blur all outlines into each other. Was it actually that dark or had Riley stopped being able to see? How unsettling a thought that was, and how unfair to have to apply it to her.
“I’m sorry,” he breathed. He wasn’t sure what made him tell Disgust that, but it was true. And he needed to say it, difficult as it was.
The sofa creaked as if he’d startled her. “Why are you apolo-…”
“Because I haven’t done my job!” he bellowed, whirling around to her on an impulse, and he could see her eyes widen at the sudden outburst.
Was he angry? Well, someone had to.
“It wasn’t your fault!” she claimed immediately, her voice a little too alarmed to pass for her usual contempt, a little too shrill as it echoed in the empty space around them.
And somehow, that set him off even more. “I was supposed to keep us safe!” he wailed, closing his eyes to shield himself from the consequences of his failure. “And now look where we are!”
She sprang to her feet then, her voice also rising to meet the intensity in the room. “Cancer comes from the inside, Fear, you couldn’t have made…”
“But there are things that aggravate it!” he insisted hotly, tears collecting in his eyes. “Radiation! Mothballs! Certain foods! I should have… I s-should have…”
He should have kept Riley away from all that. He’d failed her.
“We are old, Fear!” Disgust kept telling him, still with that wide-eyed look. “Something would have killed Riley sooner or later!”
That didn’t relieve him of the responsibility. “I was supposed to make sure it was later!” he exploded at her.
“Don’t shout!” she screamed, startling him into silence with the statement’s inherent paradox.
For a moment, they just stood there, breathing heavily, staring at each other.
“Don’t shout,” she then repeated, a lot softer than before, her gaze faltering, a slight quiver in her voice. “Please don’t shout. The others all left when they changed… and I can’t…”
He let out a long, shuddering breath, and in a few strides, he had crossed the distance between them and pulled her into a hug. Screw her germs. They were dying anyway.
And for once, she didn’t shy away from another’s contact. “You’re not leaving before me, are you?” she whispered into his chest.
“I’m not gonna leave Riley alone,” he repeated to her what he kept telling himself and rested his cheek on the top of her head.
Neither of them moved. Would they die like this? United in their helplessness?
“I wish Joy was here…” she muttered weakly.
He held her a little closer. “I miss them, too.”
She also tightened the embrace, and the darkness had become so pervasive that the colorful reflections of the memories’ glow shimmering in her hair almost hurt his eyes. But he could feel Riley shifting, and he knew Disgust could feel it, too.
“Riley needs me,” he repeated hollowly. “At least I should do something right in the end.”
Now she pulled away from him, so that she could properly stare at him. “You’ve always done things right!” she snarled. “I mean, you went overboard most of the time, but you have kept her safe! Remember that!”
He slightly shook his head as he turned and went back the way he had come. There was no point in arguing with Disgust when she had decided on something. He felt as if there was some contrary reply at the tip of his tongue… but froze when he reached the console.
Or rather, the spot where the console was supposed to be.
Disgust had caught on as well. “It’s happening,” she whispered, and it sent him into instant panic mode.
It was happening. Right now. They were dying.
“Will you stay with me?” she asked quietly, and when he turned, he could see her sitting on the sofa again, with her hands clasped in her lap like a nervous schoolgirl.
Biting his lip, he slowly turned back to regard the spot where he had so often guided Riley’s actions. He was a little surprised that the console’s absence terrified him as much as it did. Part of him kept insisting that it was just too dark for him to see it, but he knew better. While he’d failed to pay attention, his last chance at supporting her had slipped from his grasp. Riley was on her own now, and there was nothing he could do for her anymore.
And maybe he shouldn’t. She had never really enjoyed his interventions, and now that there was nothing to keep her safe from any longer, maybe he should just leave her be. Well, nothing except death, of course, but that was imminent, whether he could reach her or not. He’d have been powerless either way.
A moment passed, and another one, and then he slowly raised his gaze to send a long, defeated look up at the screen.
“I’m sorry, Riley,” he muttered. “Goodbye. I love you.”
He kept staring up a little longer than necessary; it was no brighter outside than it was in here, and the kids had left for the night to come back in the morning – part of him worried about how they would react if they learned that Riley had passed on in their absence. But he kept looking anyway, because he felt he had to give Disgust behind him a moment to bid Riley farewell, too. He couldn’t quite tell how long would be appropriate, but…
“Come on!” she suddenly called out to him again, a slight trembling in her voice. “You’re not gonna die just standing around like an idiot, are you?”
He gave a low chuckle at the absurdity of it all. “Of course not,” he agreed, and then, finally, went and sat down beside her.
For a moment, there was silence. Was the ground actually shaking or was that just his nerves letting him know about everything that could possibly happen now?
“I’m glad they didn’t have to see this,” Disgust muttered, her hands twitching nervously as if trying to hold on to something.
But he disagreed. He longed for Joy’s optimism. He longed for Anger’s straightforwardness. He longed for Sadness’s empathy. Was that selfish? He wasn’t sure.
But at least he still had Disgust’s company. And that was the single most precious gift she could give; not keeping away from him, actually calling out for him, was saying a lot for the embodiment of distaste. Now that he couldn’t reach Riley anymore, he would have been terrified to face this alone – but together, maybe, just maybe, he and Disgust could pull through this.
They’d find out one way or the other.
The ground was definitely shaking now, the screen blank, the windows clouding over to deny them the view of the collapsing Personality Islands. The plush they were sitting on seemed pitch black by now, and had it not been for the glow of the memory orbs, he wouldn’t have been able to see a thing.
Looked as if this really was the end.
“Fear,” he heard Disgust mutter beside him, little more than a breath of air, and he turned his head, acknowledging but not quite looking at her.
“I’m afraid,” she whispered, and the sob in her voice betrayed the tears on her face.
Fear closed his eyes and quietly reached out to take her hand, slightly rubbing the back of it with his thumb as if it would transfer what little comfort he had into the touch.
And then, he was grasping at thin air, as one after the other, the memory orbs winked out around him.