You'd think he'd be better at that by now, given how often it happened, but as he fumbled with the socket of his right prosthetic, Eric held his breath against the gasps and uneven sobs. He couldn't stop the tears or the snot coating his upper lip, but at least this way no one would hear him.
He finally loosened the outer socket enough to disconnect the rest of the leg, and he was so busy trying to peel away the rubbery inner socket that he didn't notice that he'd dropped the leg until it clattered to the floor.
The noise made him flinch, and for a few seconds, all he could do was stare at it. The Doc and the green Google with the quiet computery voice had made these legs for him special, and they'd even put extra parts in the knees to make it easier to walk up stairs.
And he'd just dropped it on the floor, like some kind of—
His stump twinged painfully, and Eric sucked in a breath. Or, he would have, if his nose wasn't completely stopped up with the snot and the tears. His head felt funny, which could have been from the tears or the fact that he couldn't catch his breath or from something else entirely. It would be just like him to get sick right now, when the Doc wasn't feeling well and everyone else was so worried over more important things.
The inner socket and then the cotton sleeve came off, and a high pitched whine started somewhere in his throat. He wasn't sure if it was a problem with the sleeve or the socket, but his prosthetic hadn't fit right all day, no matter how he adjusted the tightness, and now there were welts and blisters running up the outside of his leg. There were a few spots where the skin had been rubbed off, and even just the regular pain at the base of his stump, where all his weight pressed into the stalk of the prosthetic, seemed so much worse.
Eric knew he shouldn't complain. It was such a little thing, and everyone was so worried about Dark and the Author, and the Doc had been so sick and Mr. Host was always working himself so hard, and this was all Eric's fault anyway, he'd probably messed up when he'd put his prosthetic on this morning. If his dad was here, he would have told him to stop being such a useless baby and get back to work.
But it really hurt.
Eric buried his face in the crook of his elbow. He wasn't really crying anymore. Now he was gasping, trying to suck air through clenched teeth, but barely filling his lungs before his stomach spasmed and forced it all back out. Over it all was a ragged keening that was being pulled from somewhere deep in his throat. He couldn't make it stop.
"Eric? Are you okay?"
He flinched. Someone was at his door. He hadn't shut it properly. They'd heard him, he'd made too much noise, they were going to be mad.
The flinch jostled his leg, and Eric remember that he still had his pant leg rolled up and his stump exposed. People didn't like looking at his stumps.
Eric tried to roll his pant leg back down, but his hands were shaking and he couldn't seem to find the end of it, only succeeding in bunching it up more and scratching the blisters in his haste.
Two hands appeared in front of him and touched his wrists. Eric froze, waiting for them to squeeze, to yank, to bruise, but after a few seconds of stillness he realized they hadn't grabbed him. They weren't wrapped around his wrists. They were holding them, thumbs in his palms and fingers gently cupping the backs of his hands.
Eric looked up into the dark eyes of the yellow Google. Oliver. The one who'd rescued him from the back of his dad's truck. The one who was always so friendly. Oliver was smiling, like always. It wasn't like his dad's smile, all teeth and gums. It was more like his mom's smile, small and lopsided and like you were a second away from getting wrapped up in a hug.
"Eric, it's okay," Oliver said, voice just loud enough to hear over Eric's sniffs. "What would you like me to do to help?"
Eric's mind blanked. His eyes skittered from Oliver’s eyes to his hands to his collar to his hair to his eyebrows to his smile to his core to his leg Eric’s leg my leg my stump to. He didn’t know what Oliver wanted him to say. No one had ever asked him that before. The Doc always knew what was best without Eric having to tell him anything. Eric had never had to figure out how to calm down by himself. Not in a way that actually worked.
Oliver shifted, and then one of the robot’s hands was placed against Eric’s chest and the other was holding Eric’s hand against the Oliver’s core. “Try to breathe in as deep as you can without moving my hand. Match my breathing—in...hold...out...in....”
Eric’s breath was shaky, and he could feel his heart pounding against the sturdy pressure of Oliver’s palm. Sometimes he couldn’t get a full breath, or he’d start to feel chilly or lightheaded, but before he could start gasping or panicking, Oliver always tapped Eric’s chest and gave him another smile, and the feeling went away after a little bit.
His heartbeat evened out. His breath didn’t feel as wet or shaky. He still couldn’t breathe through his nose, but it didn’t feel like there was as much pressure there anymore.
“I-I’m sorry for—for bothering you. I didn’t—I mean, I wasn’t try—mng—trying to be so l-loud.”
Oliver squeezed Eric’s hand, a nice even pressure that didn’t feel anything like the last time someone had grabbed his hand. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I’ll always be here if you need anything. I hope I was able to help.”
There was a crackly sound, and Oliver looked over his shoulder. Eric jumped a bit when he noticed Anti standing there with a handful of wadded toilet paper. “Looked like ya might need this.”
Eric didn’t know what he was supposed to do. He hadn’t even realized anyone else was in the room. Anti had never really spoken to him outside of meetings, and when they’d met in the duplex, Eric had been pretty sure the glitch didn’t like him. Not that that was very rare—Eric was pretty sure there were only like, three people who liked him anymore.
When Eric didn’t move, Oliver took the toilet paper and started cleaning off the young man’s arm. He hadn’t even noticed how badly he’d slimed it when he buried his face in his elbow. He flushed and ducked his head, trying to avoid Oliver and Anti’s eyes. He must look so stupid.
“Eric? I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable. Here, you can do your face if that would make you feel better.”
Eric glanced up to see Oliver holding out the clean section of toilet paper. This time, he made himself move and quickly buried his face in the tissues. He scrubbed away at the tears and the snot, trying to blow his nose without being too loud or gross.
When he looked up, Oliver was looking at his stump.
Eric’s breath caught deep in the back of his throat, and he was about to try and roll his pant leg down again when he saw the robot’s eyes change color. They pulsed a few times, glowing the same yellow as Oliver’s shirt—the same yellow as Eric’s handkerchief—and they flicked back and forth between Eric’s stump and his prosthetic on the floor.
Oliver’s eyebrows were doing that thing that the Doc’s did whenever Mr. Host wasn’t feeling well, where they got all scrunchy in the middle. “Did something happen to your prosthetic? These look like abrasions from an improper fit.”
“I didn’t—I don’t know what happened, I wasn’t trying to b-break them, I promise, I must have—uhm—I must’ve p-put them on wrong, it’s m-my f-fault, ‘m sorry—“
Eric squeezed his eyes shut, not wanting to see the moment where Oliver’s eyes went from looking like the Doc’s to looking like his dad’s. He was going to be so mad, after the other Google had spent so long designing the legs.
The crackle and pop of old stereo speakers got a little louder. “D’ya need help getting to the clinic? Might wanna get some of those looked at.”
"No!" They were both looking at him. He could feel them looking at him. "The Doc—I don't want to—He's sick, and he's always looking after Mr. Host. I'm not—uhm—my—this isn't important enough."
"Well, then how about we visit Green? Mare and Red have been helping Blue, so Green should have plenty of time to take a look at your leg and your prosthetics."
Eric mumbled something, still not looking at either of them. Oliver squeezed his hand, still gentle, still nice. "Could you say that again?"
"I don't—" Eric swallowed. It was a little easier, now that he could breathe through his nose, but his chest was starting to tighten up. He was probably going to start crying again. "I don't want the Goog—Green, I don't want him to be m-mad at m-me. I can fix it myself, promise—Dad always had me fix m-my old ones."
“Your dad doesn’t get a say anymore.”
Eric looked up. “What?”
“Whatever your dad did or did not have you do when you lived with him,” Oliver said, voice low and steady, “he no longer gets a say in what you choose to do. And it is your choice—if you don’t want to go see Green, you don’t have to. But he won’t be mad at you, promise. I break down all the time—sometimes this just happens. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
There were a million different strings tied to Eric’s heart, all made up of a dozen different voices each. His father’s drawl that carved his bones, the Doc’s deep TV voice that always knew exactly what to do, the monotone crackle of Darkiplier, every person who ever met him that took one look at him and decided what he needed to do. And sometimes that was good, sometimes he needed someone else to do the thinking and the deciding because sometimes his brain locked up on the simplest things and left him standing on the tracks watching the train get closer and closer and he couldn’t do anything about it because if he took a step he’d have to take another and another and he didn’t know where he was going and how could he take a step without knowing where he was going to be?
But sometimes he just wanted—
Sometimes it really hurt.
And he wanted it to stop.
The pressure in his head throbbed in time as he nodded.
“You want to go visit Green in the lab?”
“Okay then. Let’s get you fixed up!” Oliver’s core lit up, and whenever Eric looked right at it it looked like there was a great big lens flare. His breath was still pretty shaky, but it started to even out as Oliver helped him to his feet—foot? The robot offered to let him ride on his back instead of having to put the leg back on, and Eric was able to make a decision in only a little bit longer than a minute. He didn’t even have to hold on very tight—Oliver was really good at piggyback rides.
With Anti walking a little ways behind carrying the different parts to Eric’s leg, they made their way down to the lab in no time. And Green—maybe Eric wasn’t so good with telling how robots were feeling, but he didn’t seem mad. Not like Derek, anyway. And even if he was, Oliver was right there with his quiet voice and his steady smile.