Prologue: Stalemate

The cross hung from the thin gold chain around her neck, and every time her mouth opened, her hand flickered up to the cross, fingers brushing over it. Her eyes remained locked on him, bent over the keyboard, back hunched over.

He knew the only reason she wore it was to piss him off.

She had had it since she was thirteen, her communion present from an aunt. Or, as he liked to call it, just another part of the indoctrination process.

His eyes flickered over the screen, finger tapping on the mouse whenever he saw a link that caught his eye. When her mouth opened, when her fingers brushed over that gold cross – a symbol of how far they had drawn her in – he glanced over his shoulder at her, muttering something in reply, though in reality he was barely listening.

He liked to think she didn't realise.

But if he had listened, he would know that she was all too aware that her words were going in one ear and out the other. They were simply sounds to him, something that for a brief moment interrupted his constant search. The search for something, she liked to think, she had already found.

"My parents want us over for Sunday dinner," she said, waiting for him to snap about how he wasn't going to go to church, no matter how many times they were asked.

She could just about remember the flutter in her chest, every time she saw him. She could remember the blush heating her cheeks, the way her eyes would widen whenever he told her how wrong her parents were, how wrong the people were she spent her Sundays with. Without a doubt, she had been enthralled and fascinated to find someone who was so different to them, who, she believed, really did think for himself.

But he was just as foolish as the rest of them.

"Why do you wear that?" He threw the question over his shoulder, before his attention returned to the screen.

She had to catch herself, surprised she had crossed his mind for even a second.

"Because I..."

Because it's a symbol of my faith.

Because it brings me hope.

Because it reminds me I am loved, by someone.

They had come to a stalemate.

It had crept up on them both from the beginning, really. It wasn't supposed to last, not really. A fling, an experiment for her. She was still finding herself when he found her, still trying to realise who she was. She had only ever had one boyfriend, and he had cried the few times they had done the act that was supposed to bring people closer together.

Her parents had loved him.

They had not loved the boy – the man – in front of her.

Their determination that he was not going to be a part of their lives had pushed her into moving out, but when they started relenting, starting inviting them over for Sunday dinner or to family parties and meals, the attraction had waned.

Not that she would ever admit it to them.

She took a deep breath.

Neither of them were happy, and she wished he could see it. He crawled into bed at three, four in the morning, turned his back on her and fell asleep. She lay on her back, staring at the ceiling, her fingers brushing the cold cross, still searching, still looking.

I am loved.

By a man she couldn't see? Couldn't touch or feel or have a conversation with?

It wasn't enough. Of course it wasn't; she had tried so hard to convince herself it was, to tell herself that what she had with him was enough, but she would always have Him.

But as she stared at the slope of his neck, stared at the mark just under his ear and the ruffled, dark hair, she knew one of them would have to break it, for both their sake's. She wanted excitement, and fun, and she wanted to be loved. More than anything, she wanted to say I love you and hear someone say it back, and not just as an automatic response.

Walking away would throw her into the unknown. As things were – not perfect, not right and nowhere near happy – it was easy. She had someone to come home to, had someone she could tell about her day even if he wasn't listening.

And if she walked away, she would just be proving her parents right.

Her back stiffened, as he pushed away from the computer and spun around, a big smile on his face. His eyes were framed by lashes longer than hers, his eyes a beautiful shade of brown. She had loved him. The face that looked at her was the face of the man she had fallen for, hard.

The feelings were gone, but how was she supposed to turn her back on them completely? On him?

"Film's finished downloading," he announced, and she was struck by how different he seemed, now his face wasn't reflecting the light of the screen. "Want me to hook it up to the Blu-Ray?"

The smile came easily, for the first time in God knew how long. He was safe. And despite everything, she liked safe.

"Sure."

Two Months Later

Everything crumpled around him. For a second, he thought the walls were actually falling, actually wrenching themselves apart. But when the image disappeared, the walls were still there. She wasn't.

His heart thumped in his chest as he moved to the kitchen. The flat had seemed huge when they first brought it, with a spare room they had turned into a study and a giant living room. It had seemed to shrink over the last couple of years, but now it seemed too big. He yanked open the fridge, eyes roaming over the food there.

There was a take away box with soup in it. A post-it stuck on the top read more in the freezer. He looked in other appliance, hands shaking as he surveyed the boxes there.

How long had she been planning it?

Slowly, he drew in a breath. In through his mouth, out his nose. Once, twice, three...

He stumbled back, falling into a chair at the kitchen table. His hand went to his head, and as it moved he suddenly had the image of her hand, her delicate, long fingers brushing against her cross.

There was someone else.

There had to be!

He was shaking as he stared around, wondering what to do. His friends, the people he could spend hours talking to, lived too far away. The US, Australia, various places in Asia.

His fingers tingled as he brought his hand down, itching to move swiftly across his keyboard, to click his mouse. A game. Maybe that was what he needed; he needed to play a game, to log on, to lose himself.

Scrambling from the chair he lumbered through the hallway, before finding himself stumbling towards the chair. He wrenched it out from the desk, sinking into it before turning to the computer. Moments later, he was watching the bar load up as the game connected.

The moments ticked by.

I'm leaving, Brandon. I can't do it anymore.

I don't love you, and you don't love me.

She had been wrong, he was sure of it. Love wasn't something you could define easily, he knew that much. But surely what they had – the ease, the comfortableness – was love? What else was there supposed to be?

Maybe she just needed time, he thought. Maybe, after a few days with her parents and being made to traipse back and forth to that building where they spoke to their invisible man, she would realise how much she really needed him.

As they always did, his fingers moved quickly. They knew without his eyes looking where everything was, knew with the magic of muscle memory exactly what to do.

The chat box popped up.

Wondered where u were.

C'mon man! We need you!

His eyes flickered from the box to the middle of the screen, before he typed a response.

She's left me.

Who?

My girlfriend.

Oh, that sucks. Got a new mission coming up if you fancy it.

He stared at the screen, his mouth feeling strangely dry.

Sometimes, just sometimes, he grew bored of the game. When that happened, he would watch a film with her, or talk to her, or they would just sit in their bed and read together.

When had they last done any of that, though?

He had downloaded the new game just a couple of weeks ago (or was it months?) and it had taken up all of his time. But she understood that, she always did. She had been there when every new game had come out, had got on with her own life while he lost himself in discovering a new world and new characters with old friends.

Friends whose response to his girlfriend leaving was just Got a new mission.

The next words that popped up surprised him and, what struck him even more, it was a private message.

For his eyes only.

How long were you two going out?

He didn't recognise the name, but responded any way, grasping at any chance to pour out his heart.

A few years. He struggled to remember the exact time. She had always been good at that. In his mind, he reached for something – a number – that would stand out to him, that would make him remember. But he couldn't.

That sucks. Sorry. You not got any mates you could hang out with?

He glanced at the name. Messenger632. With a shrug, he replied.

Not here.

You away from home or something?

I guess. Home. That small town where his parents lived. No, the city he had moved to when he was eighteen. Scrap that – the flat he was in now?

Brandon frowned. Home.

Yeah, I'm away from home.

When did she go?

An hour ago. He thought. It could have been longer. He really had no idea. Closing his eyes, he leant back. The strong smell of her perfume filled the room, like it usually did when she walked in during a game. His eyes snapped open, but she wasn't there.

Of course she wasn't.

It seemed pretty final, he typed. He watched the words across the bottom; messenger632 is currently typing.

You really love her?

Yes. The answer required no thought; of course he did. He frowned at the screen. It seemed an odd question to ask, anyway. Coming from a stranger.

Plenty more fish in the sea. Chin up – maybe it's for the best.

Messenger632 logged off, leaving Brandon staring at the screen. He shook his head, before focusing on the game at hand.

His friends were waiting for him; they needed him.

And they needed him to focus. He pushed thoughts of her out of his head, before plunging into the world at his fingertips.

A/N: Due to the nature of NaNoWriMo, this is unedited. I've decided to post it up while I'm writing this year, rather than waiting until it's over like previous years. So far, I'm doing okay; managed to go over the word count after work Thursday and Friday, and have done loads this weekend. Except more chapters soon. Just as a warning, a lot of this will come across as quite random; just let me know what you think as we go along, all feedback will be taken into account for editing and for future chapters. Thanks.