The muffled roar of the engines filled the plane with a droning hum. It drifted heavily through the air, pulling Nelson into the gentle clutches of sleep. He jerked himself straight in his seat to keep himself awake.
He didn’t know how he could be tired at a time like this. Well, no... he did. It was because of all the toss-and-turn sleep he’d been dealing with back home. Each attempt had only become more frustrating and desperate. Come to think of it, he hadn’t slept properly in almost a week. If not for the circumstances, he would have drifted off to the plane’s siren song in a heartbeat. But he had to be more professional than that. After all, this was something of a job interview.
Nelson straightened his tie and smoothed out his suit. He peered over to the front of the plane, but its pilot- the sole other member aboard- was not paying attention to him. His eyes wandered over the rest of the cabin. Everything screamed of style and modernity. He had never ridden first class before, but he had to assume that it looked something like this. The seats were placed spaciously apart, and there was plenty of room to move about the cabin. He couldn’t find a single hard edge throughout the interior of the plane. It all swooped and curled in decorative, circular shapes. The chairs floated lazily in the air like bubbles. He glanced back to the front, at the holographic screens that hovered at the pilot’s fingertips. It was all so futuristic. And hard to believe.
Taking in the scope of his circumstances was making it easier to wake up. He fished the memo book from his pocket and flipped back to the pages he’d started a few days prior.
- Who followed me?
- Enemies of the government?
- Am I?
- Brain Dream
- Astronauts dead?
- Telekinesis X
- Mental Firepower X
- Reverse hypnosis X?
- Can’t do it
- ASK THEM!
He closed the book and rubbed at his eyes. He’d had no luck in trying to practice his own psychic abilities at home. And he was very, very grateful that nobody had been around to see it. However, he did make sure to tell the Psychonauts about it over the phone.
He told them how nothing had felt different from before; how he hadn’t noticed the gap between not having powers, suddenly having powers, and then not having them again. They didn’t seem concerned, but it didn’t stop him from worrying. Was this normal? Well, normal by psychic standards?
Nelson picked up the folder laying on his lap and opened up to the registration papers. The signatures and print were all where they were meant to be, but he still wasn't sure about how he’d filled out the list of abilities. He’d checked off the ones they’d suggested, but had marked his control over them as “very poor”. “Practically nonexistent” wasn't an option.
Despite his apparent lack of skills, he had also checked off another ability: Premonitions. Maybe it was a stretch, but he had no other explanation for the strange dreams he'd had before and during his time in Scoggins. And after that dream with the brain in his bedroom... He wanted to chalk it up to coincidence, he really did. Coincidences didn't keep him up at night. Coincidences were safe.
But he couldn't bring himself to disregard things just because they seemed impossible. Even if it scared him, even if he didn't want to know, he had to be careful. Being caught off guard could mean being dead.
“Are you alright, darling?”
The pilot was staring at him.
He swallowed and offered a weak smile. “I'm fine?”
“You don't sound sure,” she said kindly.
Her gloved hands tapped at the controls and the plane made a soft chime as it settled into unmanned autopilot. She rose from her chair and floated toward him. Nelson tried not to stare, but all he could think to do was look at his shoes.
She settled into the seat opposite him, leaning forward with interest.
“You can tell me,” she said in a conspiratory half-whisper. “I won't bite.”
He looked up to meet her gaze. Her eyes were warm and inviting. Her hair fell in long, swooping tresses down her back. Silver earrings jingled about her neck and bracelets hung loosely around her gloved wrists. Her clothing was as stylish and upbeat as the decor around them. She seemed perfectly at ease and in her element. Nelson looked down at the file folded in his lap and cleared his throat.
“It's just this new job. I'm a little nervous, that's all.”
“Well, don't be,” she said. “I know you'll do fine.”
He ran his thumb along the edge of the folder, not quite meeting her eyes again.
“I’m, uh, guessing you read the report then?” he asked.
“Even better,” she said.
She gestured for Nelson to lean forward and he did, cautiously. She placed her hand beside her mouth and whispered again. “I wrote it!”
Nelson sat back, eyes wide. “You?”
She grinned. “I thought you knew!”
“Well... I did think it was strange when you hugged me at the airstrip, but I didn't want to say anything.”
She laughed joyously. He couldn't stop himself from laughing with her, swept up in absurdity of the whole thing. This wasn’t how he pictured the agents in the paperwork.
“I... I guess I should properly introduce myself, then,” he said with a suppressed laugh.
“Hmm. Yes, I think so,” She said, recomposing herself.
He straightened and held out his hand with a smile. “Hi. My name is Nelson Tethers. And you are?”
She took his hand, giving it a firm, professional shake. “Special Agent Milla Vodello. But please, call me Milla. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Agent Tethers.”
“Ah... former agent,” he corrected.
“I didn’t mean FBI,” she said. “What did I tell you? You’ll have no trouble getting this position. Sasha and I have already put in a good word.”
His smile fell fast. He should’ve been glad to hear it, but-
“You don’t believe me?” she said with a sly grin.
“No, I...” he said, frowning. “Well... It's just a little hard to believe. N-not that you've spoken well of me, just the... ‘me being psychic’ part. I haven’t been able to do any of the things you reported in Scoggins since then. I’m basically a dud.”
Her eyes widened. “What?”
“Milla, I didn’t even know I was psychic until I read this report.”
He opened to his registration forms and handed the file over. She read it in silence and he wished that he could sink through the floor.
No, wait. That would just drop him out of the sky.
“Oh, darling. No wonder you were nervous!” she said. “But you know, this isn't an uncommon thing. We've recruited plenty of agents with little- even no control. You're in good hands.”
He blinked. “Really?”
She nodded and handed the file back.
“If it helps... I didn't know how to control my abilities when I was first recruited, either! It can be... jarring to find out all of these things at once, but it will get easier. I promise.”
Nelson made a small hum of agreement, nodding.
“How did you find out?” he asked.
“How to control it?”
“No, I mean... How did you find out you were psychic?”
Milla's playful attitude vanished.
She looked pale.
“Sorry-” he blurted. “You don't have to answer that.”
She smiled weakly. “It's alright, dear.”
The plane’s controls chimed.
“Maybe some other time,” she said, her voice soft. She stood and walked back to the pilot’s seat.
Nelson wanted to smack himself. He made a mental note to not ask any questions like that again. It wasn't like he would have had an easy time answering it, either.
He could hear her speaking into the headset up front, relaying their position to the ground control at headquarters, "The Motherlobe". He glanced out the window and sighed. The world below them was distant and blue.
There were more trees outside than he was expecting. The technology they flaunted made him think that the organization would be stationed in some affluent city, but apparently not.
The longer he looked out at it, the more uncomfortable he felt. He wondered if he was having second thoughts about the Psychonauts, but that didn’t seem to be right.
His balance tilted out from under him, as though the plane had suddenly tipped onto its side. Staring down at the trees below, Nelson was struck by a chord of fear that he'd never felt before. The forest reached up at him like an angry ocean and his thoughts were consumed by terror. It crescendoed into a bolt of pain that struck deep into the back of his skull like an axe.
He pulled away from the glass, and the feeling was gone. The world was stable again.
He stared into the middle distance of the plane in a breathless stupor, trying to recollect himself without catching Milla's attention. She hadn't seemed to notice any of it. From what he could see through the windows (without looking directly, just in case), the plane hadn't tipped. It had been nothing but his own vertigo.
But what had caused it? Motion sickness? Jet lag? Sleep deprivation? ...A previously unknown fear of heights?
He placed one hand over his pounding heart and felt it thrum its way back into a steady rhythm. He took slow, even breaths through his nose and tried to force himself to relax. His throat burned. The initial stab of pain may have faded, but now he was left with an unpleasant dull headache in its wake. He was having trouble shaking them lately. It might take a whole day for this one to go away, but if he was lucky it might pass before his interview.
He needed to calm down. He would feel better once they landed. It was probably just his nerves.
“Still nervous?” Milla called from the front, pulling her headset off.
“I’m fine, I think,” Nelson answered numbly as he sank down in his chair.
Mind reading... He didn't think he would ever get used to it, or at least not comfortable with it. There was no sense of privacy.
“Sorry, dear. I didn't mean to intrude,” she said, clearly intruding again but at least sounding apologetic about it. “You're giving off a bit of an energy. I couldn't help but notice.”
“I didn't catch much of it, if that helps,” she said hurriedly. “But I thought you should know. This sort of thing is common with inexperienced psychics, especially when they're not feeling well...?”
Her words took an upward tilt, mirroring his own confusion. He didn't have a clear answer, but he didn't want to come across as a jumbled mess either.
He could picture his thoughts like a cloud that had been drifting away from him, but now he tried to imagine it coming back to his body. He corralled his nerves like he had learned to do with his breath and with his pulse. He strangled it down with gentle concentration and sighed.
His headache refused to budge, but the lingering panic was gone.
“Just... motion sickness and stress,” he said, sounding more sure with each word. “It might've been something I ate this morning.”
The explanation seemed to be enough. Milla looked back and smiled sympathetically.
“Well, the good news is that we're almost home. Hold on tight, we're going to be dropping altitude soon, ok?”
He nodded, wiping sweat from his brow as she returned to the controls. “Thank you, Milla. “
The plane began its descent and Nelson noted that it felt nothing like the earlier drop.
The Psychonauts were different from the FBI. Very, very different.
The lobby bustled with agents coming and going. Some talked amongst themselves in small groups while others strode onward to their next task. Maybe he was imagining it because of the supposed psychic powers, but he could almost feel electricity in the air around him. It was difficult to not become completely engrossed in people-watching.
He tore his eyes away from an agent levitating over a small set of stairs and turned to look at Milla. She was a few feet away, still deep in conversation with two younger agents. He had missed most of their discussion, but it sounded like they were working on a long intelligence mission and they wanted her opinion on what they should do next.
He couldn't help but be mesmerized by her effortless social skills. She was more than a mentor or a coworker, she was an honest friend to these women. It seemed like she had known them both for a long time. The three of them smiled the whole way through their conversation despite the somewhat serious subject at hand.
The front door to the lobby opened up behind them, and Nelson was temporarily blinded by the rays of sunlight bouncing off the quarry and straight into his eyes. He winced and turned away, gritting his eyelids shut until the worst of the sting had faded. He opened them cautiously and groaned. Why couldn't it just go away already?
He stepped away from the others and made his way further into the lobby, paperwork in hand. He couldn't really go anywhere while Milla was busy, and he didn't want to rush her. He moved to a darker edge of the room and hoped that he looked like he belonged there.
That didn't seem to be very difficult, as there was no singular ‘look’ for any of the Psychonauts that he could see. Not only did the agents dress in a wide range of clothing styles, but he was honestly shocked by the diversity of the people themselves.
They were all adults, aged from their early twenties and well into seniority. They seemed to come from a variety of different national backgrounds. He could even hear scattered conversations in other languages around the room.
He had never had anything to compare it to before, but the vibrancy of the Psychonauts made the FBI headquarters feel incredibly lacking. He had largely kept to himself during his time there. There was never this much intermingling between the different departments, and certainly no casual joking in the lobby or clothing that spoke of each individual’s personality.
The Psychonauts were not tied to any singular way of life, it seemed. They weren't just agents of the world, they were participants in it. Their lives informed their ability to help people. And if they were all as kind and engaged as Milla had been, then he was certainly in good hands.
Nelson exhaled, releasing the air that had caught in his throat.
Maybe he was getting ahead of himself, but he hadn't felt this passionate about working since he had first joined the FBI. He just hoped that he could be what they were looking for.
Something hard clapped him on the shoulder and spun him around until he was eye-to-eye with a blonde haired man.
“Quick, pretend like you’re talking to me!”
Nelson gaped. “I- What?”
“Perfect, just like that!”
The man released his grip on Nelson's shoulders and shifted into a relaxed, conversational posture. He rested his right hand on his hip while the other gesticulated loosely in the air as he began talking about -
“And it really made me realize, yknow, how underappreciated it is as a genre. An art form, even! Sure, it’s cheesy sometimes, but any movie genre can be. It’s just, for some reason rom-coms get this low-brow reputation-”
Nelson didn't say anything, but the words were clearly written across his face.
What the hell?
It took him a moment to process what was happening, and he was still left with no idea of what to do about it. All he could do was stand there dumbfounded while the strange man held a one-sided conversation in his direction.
“-And that ending? What a tearjerker. But, a happy tearjerker! It’s in my top 5, easy-”
He was a younger guy. Bright eyed, with a clean smile and long wavy hair pulled back into a ponytail. He looked like he’d seen a lot of sun. His suit was bright blue with red trimmings down the front, the edges of the lapels, and the lining of his cuffs.
He was doing a very convincing job of seeming like he knew him, to the point that Nelson briefly wondered if they actually had met before. But that thought was quickly dashed as he watched the man peer over his shoulder. There was no break in the flow of conversation, no falter in the friendly facade; but it clued Nelson in to the fact that the guy thought they were being watched.
As if he hadn’t had enough worries about that lately.
He tried to remain calm, but the whole situation was getting more bizarre by the second. It was probably best to stay where he was and wait for the man to leave. Maybe Milla could come bail him out of this.
“-I personally prefer the sequel to Hearts in Twain, but most people think the first one’s better. I dunno, what do you think?” the man said, looking expectantly at Nelson.
He had never seen either of those movies. Why did this guy need his participation? What was this about?! The longer he waited, the longer the pause stretched out. He bit the bullet and went for it.
“I, uh, I like the first one best. It’s the one that makes you care about the characters in the first place, so... It’s harder for the next one to compete with that.” he said.
The other man grinned. There was a pleased glint in his eyes that made Nelson feel nervous.
“Yeah, that’s a good point! But-”
A high voice yelled out across the din of the lobby, cutting his point short. “GUYBRUSH!”
Nelson, along with half of the other agents in the room, turned to see a very frustrated teenage boy storming in their direction.
Nelson turned to the stranger at his side. The guy... ‘Guybrush’ looked guilty as sin for flash second.
Even as the boy beelined in their direction, Guybrush had jumped right back into his romcom spiel where he’d left off. He was pretending to be too engrossed in their conversation to notice the younger agent.
It was a hopeless plan, and it was falling apart right in front of Nelson’s eyes. The only thing that was halfway selling his lie was the acting. Within moments the teen was standing right beside Guybrush, fuming silently with his fists on his hips.
He was no older than 18, red-haired, bespectacled, and obviously fed up with this harebrained bullshit. Nelson grimaced in guilt.
“-it’s really cute! Elaine thinks it’s hokey, but-”
The boy cleared his throat loudly, glaring daggers at the back of Guybrush’s head.
“Hm?” He turned around to face him, smiling in fake-innocent surprise. “Oh, hey Wally!”
“Threepwood. I need your files on the Bayview mission. And your status report on the Thornburton case! They’ve been due for weeks!”
Guybrush’s smile twisted askew at the oncoming tirade, and Nelson took a half-step away from them.
“You can’t keep going off and coming back with no updates. We need to know what you’re doing out there! ‘Cause what we’ve been hearing isn’t good- collateral damages, unaccounted costs- What did you need a trampoline and a wooden nesting doll for, anyway?!” he said.
Guybrush nodded in agreement.
“Yeah, I hear what you’re saying. But it's under control! I’ve got it all written up in my dream journal. Can't you just give me a minute?”
He side-stepped and tossed an arm around Nelson’s stiff shoulders.
“I’m clearly busy catching up with my good pal-” They stared at each other blankly, “...Ned.”
Wally glowered, clenching his teeth. “Guybrush...”
“Look, I’ll get it to you before the end of the day, OK? Promise! You should go take a coffee break in the meantime. I think you’ve earned it!”
The boy ran a hand under his glasses, trying to wipe away the dark circles. He grimaced.
“Fine. But you’re not leaving this base without those reports done, you hear me? ”
Guybrush grinned and gave an OK with his fingers. “Read ya loud and clear.”
Wally shuffled off toward an exit, defeated. As he turned a corner and vanished from sight, Guybrush let Nelson go and dusted off his shoulder.
“Phew! That was close. Thanks for the help, uh... not-Ned. ” He shrugged and smiled a newer, honest grin. “I can tell I got it wrong.”
He stared back at him in surprise. “You were close. It’s Nelson.”
"Nelson, huh? Why does that ring a bell...? Hey, you’re not the new agent they’re hiring, are you?”
Had word about him really spread? He shuffled the paperwork nervously in his hands.
“It’s nothing official yet, but... Yeah,” he nodded. “I think so.”
“No kidding! I heard about you! You’re the puzzle guy!”
“That’s me. Uh, shouldn’t you...?” he trailed off, pointing in the direction that Wally had gone.
"Oh, don’t worry about it. I really do have it handled! He’s just a bit of a worry wart, poor kid.”
Nelson could relate.
“Anyway, it’s great to finally meet you!” Guybrush said, beaming. “I’m Guybrush Threepwood, mightyyy... uh, Psychonaut!”
A fittingly bizarre introduction for such a bizarre name. Nelson thought he’d been mishearing it the whole time. Guybrush held out a hand for him to shake, but offered the left hand instead of the right. Nelson faltered for a moment and reached out.
“It’s nice to meet you too, Gu-”
He missed. Nelson looked down at their hands in confusion.
“Uh, sorry...,” he mumbled and tried for it again.
His hand whiffed past Guybrush’s without making contact. He tried once more, slower, and watched his hand pass through flesh and bone like air.
“Augh!” Nelson flinched back with a yell. His papers landed in a flurry across the floor and Guybrush laughed loudly.
Milla excused herself from the other agents and began walking in their direction. “Guybrush! Don't do that to people!” she called from across the room.
He was getting in trouble with everyone today, apparently. Milla started to pick up the scattered documents with telekinesis, and Guybrush stooped to pick some up with his right hand. Nelson watched in horror as the left hand faded away like a mirage that had finally been witnessed head-on.
“Sorry, do you know how often I get to do that?” Guybrush laughed. He gave the loose papers to Milla and reached into the breast of his jacket. He pulled out a small white sock and a large silver pirate hook with a golden cupped base. He slipped the sock over the empty wrist, and adjusted the latched base until it had found its proper fit.
“Too often. One of these days somebody is going to faint!” she said.
“Yeah, but not Nelson here,” he said, gesturing with his hook. It turned on a ball joint at its base, rotating fluidly. “He’s an FBI man! I’m sure he can handle plenty. Right, buddy?”
Nelson struggled to find his voice. “H-how did you…?”
“Hallucinations! Or illusions, if you wanna make it sound less creepy.”
“Guybrush is very talented,” Milla began, sounding slyly unimpressed. “He is good at influencing people's perceptions. But he should know better than to use it for things like this!”
She punctuated the remark with a light bat against his shoulder with the papers. Guybrush cowered as though he had been struck.
“OK, I get it! Sheesh!”
“Can... everyone here do that?” Nelson asked, still a bit shaken.
She shook her head. “Not quite to that level. At best, some of us can sort of.. suggest an idea to people. And even then, only if they're open to it. But that's not an issue for Guybrush. His suggestions are nearly always accepted.”
Guybrush shrugged. “Oh, shucks.”
“Is it just visual hallucinations, or more than that? I thought I felt it earlier.” Nelson asked, touching his shoulder.
He was having an easier time keeping himself together by asking questions. It made him feel more grounded. He rubbed the back of his head and discreetly searched for the most sensitive point of his headache. His skull felt tender.
“Hey, I’m surprised you noticed that!” Guybrush said. “Yeah, just about all of my illusions feel real. It’s kind of the same thing as moving stuff around with telekinesis. It’s not that complicated.”
To showcase, Guybrush put his fingers to his temple and concentrated on the open air between them. A golden light appeared and shifted into the rough shape of a human hand. This one lacked the realistic appearance of his earlier prank. It was translucent and warm like a soft, incandescent light bulb. It reminded Nelson of the sickly green claw that Oleander had summoned at his doorstep.
It hovered in Nelson’s direction and poked him square in the chest. He looked down only to be flicked in the nose as it shot up and Guybrush made a ‘boop!’ sound.
“Oookay, that's enough of that.” Milla said, stepping between them and gently shooing Guybrush away. He stepped back with a chuckle.
“Alright, alright, I'll get out of your hair. Don't you two have somewhere to be, anyway?”
“Yes, about that…” Milla said, looking sidelong in Nelson's direction. “It seems there's been a bit of a delay.”
“What's wrong?” Nelson asked.
“We're still waiting for a few more agents to arrive for your interview. It seems that some of them are having a hard time getting back.”
Probably because of all the trees, Nelson thought. He frowned, surprised by his own reaction. It was sudden and didn’t really make any sense. Thankfully the others hadn't seemed to ‘hear’ it.
“Uh, how much longer will it be?”
“A few more hours,” she said with a sigh. “I’m sorry for the wait, Nelson. I should have checked with one of our more forward-thinking agents before I brought you all this way.”
Nelson stopped her, shaking his head. “No, no, that’s ok! I’m fine with waiting.”
Maybe he could find somewhere to close his eyes and get rid of the headache… Being sedentary for a few hours sounded like a great idea. Milla seemed to brighten a bit.
“Yes, maybe we can make the best of it… I’ve heard there are a few agents who were hoping to see me today, I could catch up with them while we’re waiting. If we have enough time, I might even be able to show you around the Motherlobe!”
“Orrrr I could give him the tour while you're doing that?” Guybrush offered with a wave. “Two birds, one stone?”
“Oh, I-” Nelson’s response died in his throat as he spotted the pleasantly surprised look in Milla’s eyes.
“Why Guybrush, that’s a great idea!” she said. She sounded like a teacher congratulating a clever student.
Nelson withered internally. He did not want to go wandering around an unknown facility with a pirate man who could make him see things. But he couldn't think of a polite way to turn him down now, not without revealing his true desire for rest, and the inexplicably shaken state that he’d been in for the past hour. He didn't want to give off a nervous first impression. He remembered Milla’s psychic reading in the plane, and made sure to keep his thoughts (and his pain) close to himself.
“Sure.” he managed. “It would be good for me to get a better idea of this place…”
Milla nodded, seemingly satisfied with how this had all turned out. Nelson felt a silent pang of betrayal. He had hoped that she would guide him away from this sort of situation, and now he’d been fully handed over to it.
“Wonderful! I will have someone come and get you when the other agents have arrived. And Guybrush?” she asked, turning to him.
“Yes?” he asked, smiling innocently.
“Behave.” she said with a laugh. Before she left, she stepped forward and gave Guybrush a tight, affectionate hug.
There was a short moment of eye contact between them before they parted. Nelson watched the quick, subtle changes of facial expressions they shared. Two times for Milla, three times for Guybrush. And just as he noticed it, it was gone, and she departed with a smile.
Something worried and sick was coiling in his gut. It was prodding at his headache. A reminder.
Calm. He needed to be calm.
This was his only shot.
“Ready Neddy?” Guybrush asked with a grin.
He nodded, feeling a slight beading of sweat down the back of his collar.
“Lead the way.”
After what felt like an hour of wandering and incessant one-sided chatter, Nelson was beginning to truly appreciate what a bad idea this had been. His headache was getting worse.
Any changes in light or sound were creating a rising tension in his brain. If he turned his head too suddenly, or was jostled into a different direction by his not-so-helpful tour guide; a sharp, blinding stab would strike deeply into his skull, like a knife into a butcher’s block.
But Guybrush had been right about one thing: He had been an FBI agent, and he could handle quite a bit.
He was resolved to make it through today without falling apart, and he had plenty of experience in keeping his composure. Even among the FBI, he had been told that he had an unnaturally quiet disposition. It was unlikely that Guybrush would be able to notice his discomfort, especially since they'd just met.
He was also mindful of the “energy” he had given off on the plane earlier. As he had done before, he used the mental visual of a cloud circled around his head to help keep himself grounded and (hopefully) unreadable.
He didn’t slump or wince as they walked through winding building. He simply watched as Guybrush explained every minute detail of each room to him, offering small “mhmm”s and “I see”s where appropriate. At times he would close his eyes for a few seconds longer, take in a slow breath, or allow himself to zone out when the tour discussion drifted off into a tangent.
It was happening more frequently as they went on. In fact, he felt like he was learning more about Guybrush than the headquarters.
He gathered that Guybrush had worked here for a long time, or at least had a lot of psychic experience. He liked anything pirate-related, obviously, but he didn’t bring any further attention to his pirate hook or how he got it. He had a strange eye for details and had memorized things in the building that were either bothersome or useful. (“Avoid this water fountain, it’ll get you in the eye!” or “If you get the chips out of the E4 slot on this machine, it gives you two bags! But don’t tell anybody else, ok? Don’t ruin this for me.”)
The strangest thing that Nelson was picking up on were Guybrush’s social skills... if they could be called that. It reminded him of Milla, but it was as if the friendliness only went one way. He knew everyone’s names; but most agents didn’t greet him back, and the ones that did had misremembered his name. Some people even gave Guybrush a sour look before they ducked into their offices. The negative reactions were worrying, and even made Nelson feel a bit embarrassed.
Considering how they’d met, he could understand why other people might not tolerate him. Maybe he’d made a joke that had gone too far, or his personality was too abrasive. But Guybrush didn’t seem to notice... Was he ignoring it, or was he genuinely not catching on?
Guybrush came to a halt in the middle of the hallway, his stream-of-consciousness chatter ending abruptly mid-sentence. He stayed like that for a moment before raising his fingers up to his temple.
Nelson froze behind him. Had he heard all of that?
No... Thankfully not, judging by the wide grin that spread on Guybrush’s face. He suddenly bolted down the hall ahead of them, leaving Nelson in his tracks.
“Hey, wait!” Nelson didn’t have enough time to catch up, and only managed to jog a few steps before stumbling back into a walk. Running was a no-go in this condition.
Nelson groaned and rubbed his forehead. He was grateful that Guybrush had already turned the corner and couldn’t see the unrepentant pain in his body language. It was becoming more difficult to cover up. He was tempted by the idea of cutting his losses and asking for help, or even delaying the scheduled interview further.
But it felt so unprofessional. And these were psychic agents, what would they think of him if he couldn’t handle a headache? It’s not like he was going to be running around or doing anything extraneous, he’d probably just have to sit there and answer some questions.
He took a deep breath and relaxed his posture from his head to his toes. “Come on, Nelson,” he muttered to himself, taking one step at a time.
There was an excited commotion going on in the direction Guybrush had run off to. His overly loud voice was intermingled with another man’s, a relaxed baritone. Aside from Milla, this was the first time he’d heard someone respond to Guybrush in a way that wasn’t perfunctory. His tone even sounded positive.
Nelson slowed his walk and let his fingers trace the walls of the hallway. He listened ahead as the conversation grew clearer.
“So where’s the big guy?”
“Ah, he won’t be here til tomorrow,” the other man answered cooly. “You know how he is. Always busy.”
He had an unmistakably spanish accent.
Guybrush laughed. “He’d better be careful! One of these days he’s going to work himself to bone!”
“Yeah yeah, har har.”
It must’ve been a private joke. Nelson could smell the faint burnt-sweet smell of cigarette smoke nearby.
“So, they find somebody to deal with you, yet?”
“Actually, yeah?” Guybrush said, his voice sounding surprisingly candid. Quieter.
Nelson stopped mere inches from the edge of the next corridor.
“There’s a new guy they’re evaluating later today. Sasha thinks he might be worth a shot.”
Evaluated? ‘Worth a shot’? ‘Deal with you’?!
Nelson got the swooping sensation that he’d missed something big.
Guybrush’s tone took an uptick again. “I was actually showing him around a second ago!” he chuckled, “But I, uh, kinda left him back there. Hang on, I’ll go-”
He needed to find out what exactly was going on before this got out of hand. As if it hadn’t already! Nelson quickly turned the corner and stepped into the next room. It was a slightly wider space leading off into more rooms and hallways, a bit like a lobby. The decor was made up of the usual sparse office fare, a few large potted plants and bland paintings. But the room wasn’t important.
What really caught Nelson’s attention was the skeleton standing next to Guybrush. It turned its skull to look at him, blowing a plume of smoke out between its teeth.
“Hey, speak of the devil!” Guybrush cheered.
Nelson froze. Whatever he was going to ask had completely vanished from his memory.
Guybrush gave a sweep of his hook between the two of them. “Manny, this is Nelson; Nelson, this is Manny!”
Manny regarded Nelson.
Nelson regarded Manny. He was dressed in a white dress suit and black bow tie, a striking complement to the gaping darkness between the creases of bone.
Manny gave an acknowledging tip of his head. “¿Cómo estás?”
Nelson should have said he was fine. He should have stepped forward to shake his hand. He should have held it together a little while longer.
Instead, he swayed and fell backwards like a plank of wood. He was unconscious before he’d even hit the floor.
It was cold. His whole body ached.
“Easy, easy.” Manny said softly. He helped Nelson up into a sitting position and guided his back to rest against the wall. “You hit your head.”
Nelson struggled against the light in his eyes and the horrible pounding in his brain. His eyesight had gone completely fuzzy. He could barely make out the soft impression of Guybrush standing behind the skeleton next to him. The dark, gaping holes of Manny’s facial features were nightmarish in his altered vision. Nelson shut his eyes and groaned.
“You alright? How many fingers am I holding up?” he asked.
Nelson grimaced and looked again. It was hard to make out the white bones against the white suit. Reality took another grip into him and he shuddered.
“You- You’re a-” he mumbled weakly.
“Yeah, dead. How many am I holding up?” he asked again.
Nelson squinted, unsure. “It's not a trick?”
“No, I'm not an ass.” Manny said dryly, sending a quick look over his shoulder at Guybrush.
Nelson wanted to laugh, but the huff he made was more of a sob. The pain was all-encompassing. It was as if the injury to his head was seeping down into his heart and out to his heavy limbs. He took a deep, wavering breath and tried to look once more. His vision softened and sharpened alternately as he tried to focus on Manny’s bony hand.
“Three.” he mumbled, shutting his eyes in exhaustion.
This was worse than any headache he’d ever known. He reached a hand up to wipe the sweat off his forehead. The slight darkness that passed over his eyelids was such a relief that he brought both hands up to darken his sight entirely. He used the last of his strength to sit up and curl in on himself, and rested his head against his knees. He could feel Manny stand up and step aside to huddle with Guybrush.
Nelson’s perception of his surroundings was dwindling. When he tried to focus on anything other than the pain, everything was blotchy and abstract, like a thermal scope that had gone out of focus. His point of consciousness was a bright red burst of writhing agony, but the other two were like soft gold and blue lights in the dark. They sounded like they were far away.
“He’s not doing good. This might be something serious.” Manny said in a hushed voice.
“What, like a concussion?” Guybrush said nervously.
Manny nodded no, dim light trailing in the motion. He reached forward and took Gubrush’s hand. With his other, he reached toward Nelson’s curled body.
The bolts of pain that hovered over Nelson’s mind shot toward Manny’s outstretched palm like lightning to a conductor. The jolt burst through him and into Guybrush, and they both let go of the connection quickly.
“Oh, ow!” Guybrush gasped, sounding both shocked and relieved. “It’s just a migraine!”
“Just? This might be a migraine, but it sure as hell isn’t anything normal. Where’d they find this guy?”
“Same as usual, a ditch in the woods.”
Lights surged as Manny punched Guybrush hard in the thigh.
“Ow, hey!” he whined. “I wasn’t kidding!”
Manny sighed, and the blue light dimmed. It took him a moment to respond, voice quieter than before. “They sure know how to pick ‘em, huh?”
Silence stretched between them.
“What are we going to do?” Guybrush asked.
“Do either of you,” Nelson muttered suddenly, “have painkillers?"
He wasn’t used to the sound of his own voice under that level of pain. It sounded strangled.
“Yeah?” Guybrush said, immediately kneeling to his side. “Yeah, we can probably get you some of those. Manny?”
Manny took in a breath before answering. “We can. I’m just not sure how much good it’ll do him.”
He gestured loosely as he spoke, and walked over to a nearby ashtray to snuff out his cigarette.
“This feels like one of those... ‘sleep for a day' kind of things. And if we want to get him the strong stuff that will kick in faster, we’ll have to sneak em out of the infirmary.”
“No,” Nelson coughed, waving a hand dismissively. “No, we’re not doing... that.”
He was hoping they wouldn’t have to get anyone else’s help, but it disturbed him that Manny had immediately jumped to taking the painkillers. Asking was out of the question, but stealing was completely unthinkable to him. Manny sighed.
There was another pause as the three considered their options.
“You know, we could...” Guybrush looked up to Manny, tapped the side of his own temple and whistled two quick notes. “Pop in?”
Manny snorted, and Nelson distantly wondered how he was able to do that. In fact, how was he able to talk at all?
“That’s a stupid idea. If he’s got an evaluation later, they’re going to notice-”
“Yeah, and they’re gonna notice that he’s got a super migraine, too. Lesser of two evils, Manny! Besides, if I don’t touch anything, nobody’s gonna-”
“Hold-” Nelson started, raising a hand weakly. “Hold on... What are you talking about?”
He chanced a quick glance up at them between his pain-tightened eyelids. They looked at each other, then back at him.
“They’re going to enter your mind.” Manny said, failing to sound casual. “Just to take a look around, that’s all. Make sure you’re not a serial killer or anything like that.”
“They’re- Wait, like mind reading?” Nelson asked helplessly.
“No, no, it’s a bit more than that,” Guybrush cut in. “Imagine your brain is a place, they’re going to look around to see you’re not hiding anything. It’s like a really in-depth background check!”
Nelson’s mental pain flared and zapped the other two again. They jumped, and Manny even took a surprised step back.
“Jesus,” he muttered.
“Sorry,” Nelson said, covering his face again. “Ok, we... Ughh.”
He felt sick to his stomach.
He had underestimated what a job interview would be like with these people. He had underestimated his headache. He’d even underestimated himself... and everything he was apparently capable of.
He couldn’t leave now. He couldn’t fix this alone.
But by the sounds of Guybrush’s suggestion, and Manny’s reaction, their help might just make everything worse.
“It’ll be quick.” Guybrush said immediately. “I’ve done this plenty of times before, honest.”
He doubted it.
“I won’t mess with anything. I’ll just find the source of the problem and clear it out! You’re new to this whole thing, so it might just be something in your mindscape that isn’t settled right. They won’t even know I was there!”
Nelson scrubbed a hand over his eyes with a grimace.
He didn’t like this at all. But he was running out of options.
“Ok.” he muttered.
He reached a hand out blindly, and Guybrush helped him to his feet.
“But we have to be quick, I- I don’t think we have a lot of time left.”
“Oof, yeah, that’s right. Somebody’s gonna come looking for us any minute now.”
Guybrush looped Nelson’s arm over his shoulder and shifted so he could rest some of his weight against his side.
“Oh, Manny?” Guybrush asked sweetly.
Manny groaned. “What?”
“Think you could keep an eye out while I’m in there? Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes!”
There was a considerable pause before Manny finally answered, “Fine. But you owe me.”
“Duh! Always.” Guybrush said cheerily.
Nelson could barely stand as Guybrush dragged him into a nearby room. The lights were off, and the darkness was so soothing that he sighed audibly. He slumped into an office chair like jello.
Guybrush wheeled a chair opposite him and sat down, while Manny kept watch through by crack in the door. For something that was supposed to be so straightforward, they sure were acting shifty about it. Nelson looked around the small room blearily, surprised to find that his eyes were having an easier time adjusting here.
Guybrush reached into his jacket and fished out a small block of wood. It looked like a door that had been knicked off of a doll house. He set his fingers to his temple and began to levitate the door into the air. He glanced at Nelson and frowned.
“You haven’t seen one of these yet, huh?”
Nelson didn’t want to shake his head. He hoped the blank stare was an answer enough.
“Well, don’t worry about it,” he said, floating it through the air. It landed softly on Nelson’s forehead and stuck there, like a magnet to a fridge door. It felt cold.
“Just relaaax, close your eyes, and it’ll be over before you even know it. You might not even be there yet.”
The door opened.
Something was dragging. He could hear it scraping against the ground.
He was freezing, his feet worst of all. Icy needles were cutting against the back of his heels, getting caught under the leg of his pants and soaking through his shoes. He was being pulled. Arms were hooked under his shoulders.
Nelson tried to struggle, but his movements felt sluggish and heavy. The dragging stopped and he slumped forward.
He was released and started to slip to the ground, landing softly on his knees. The ground was covered in drifts of hard, tightly packed snow that bit through his clothes.
Something warm and heavy was draped over his shoulders and he was lifted again. The dragging continued, but he couldn't fight against it. His body fell limp again, consciousness slipping back into the ether.
"Psst! Hey, time to wake up!"
Guybrush smacked the round end of his hook against Nelson's cheek, startling him out of his apparent sleep.
"Did it work?" he gasped.
Guybrush's smile was wry. "I, uh, think I should be asking you that. How's your head?"
It was completely clear. The pain was so distant that he could almost cry.
"It's gone!" he said, bringing a hand to his forehead. "How did y-"
Manny shushed them both. "Sasha's coming."
"I'll tell you about it later," Guybrush whispered. "Nothing exciting."
Guybrush reached over and flicked the lights on. Nelson was relieved to find that the light didn't bring any new pain with it.
"Alright, lets just act natural," he said. "We were just giving you a tour, like before!"
The oncoming footsteps were right outside the door by the time they realized.
Why on earth would they be showing off a room with nothing in it? All it had was a table, a few chairs, and a white board.
The agent stood in the doorway and stared for a moment. Nelson couldn't see it through the reflection of the agent's glasses, but he could feel a scrutinizing look pass over each of them.
"Ah, there you are," he said flatly. "Nelson. Manny. Guybrush."
“Oh, hey, Sasha!" he said. "Finally taking him to the interview huh?"
"What are you up to?"
"What? We were just showing him one of the conference rooms!”
In a poorly executed attempt to act natural, Nelson picked up a whiteboard eraser and nodded at it thoughtfully.
He got the feeling that Manny wanted to smack it out of his hand.
Sasha didn't leave them to stew in the awkward tension, thankfully. He gestured for Nelson to follow him. "Let's go. They're ready to see you now."
"Y-yes, sir," Nelson fumbled. He handed Guybrush the eraser on his way out. They shared a quick side glance before Nelson was already out the door and following Sasha's brisk footsteps.
Guybrush and Manny lingered behind in the hallway.
Manny lit a fresh cigarette with a flick of pyrokinesis and sighed. “Seems kind of skittish.”
"You'd think, right? I dunno, though. He's quicker on the draw than I thought."
"Where'd you say he was from, again?"
Guybrush grinned. "Used to be an FBI agent. But I hear he went rogue."
"Really?" Manny said. He looked down the hall, feeling a newfound appreciation.
And there was still that bizarre jolt from before...
"Well. Who knows," he hummed. "Maybe this will work out."