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After that first afternoon of coming back to the Smiling Goat empty-handed, Tommy relinquished the idea of ever finding Kei. Inevitably she’d seen him loitering around the Tea Party yesterday. If she wanted to talk, she would find him.

As expected, it didn’t take long. Kei had always been like that; she only ever wanted things on her own terms. Occasionally, Tommy wondered if something had happened that had made her like that, something before they’d met. Or maybe there had always been something just a little wrong with her. Regardless of the reason, he’d decided every time that it wasn’t worth it to ask. She’d probably never tell him anyway.

Yet here she was, leaning against a streetlamp just off of the Soul Market, waiting for him. He had figured he’d just take a walk around the city today, since Cindy was busy learning things from Gil, Muirne—whom they’d finally met up with—was sulking back at the pub, and Niko was still recovering from the previous day’s excursion. Might as well make himself the most present possible, you know, just in case anyone decided to finally get over themselves and say hello.

“Hello,” he said, nodding a little, as he made his way past her lamp post. He didn’t really know how he knew it was her. It was probably the look of recognition on her face.

She rolled her eyes and grabbed his arm, pulling him off the main thoroughfare and into an oddly moist back alley. When she finally stopped walking, it was only to simply stare at him for a few seconds, as if she was having trouble believing it was really him.

He was having some trouble himself. Kei really did look entirely different. She was taller than he remembered, her facial features sharper, more angular. But it was her, it had to be. It was in the way she moved, how her eyes darted around to avoid looking into his, that way she always bit her lip when she was embarrassed about something.

“You know,” he broke the silence. “This is usually the part where you acknowledge me back. I mean, what with a whole new body and all, how can I know you’re even—”

“So you already guessed that part, huh?” she interrupted. “That’s good. Then I don’t need to explain it.”

“I think you must be a daemon, right?”

“Okay, I guess I’m explaining it anyway,” she sighed. “How long has it been for you, since Remus died?”

“Uh, eight months, give or take.”

That seemed to surprise her, as she glanced back down at the cracked street again. “Eight months, okay… So you must remember the night he died, how I… took off.”

“You went to the rift, didn’t you?”

She finally looked into his eyes again, and upon seeing his expression, shook her head. “Tommy, it wasn’t your fault. This is all on me.”

“What did you wish for?” he asked, trying to ignore the tightness of his own chest. “Please don’t tell me it was something stupid.”

“I didn’t wish for Remus to be alive or anything like that,” she said. “I… I just wanted you to be happy.”

Stop that, Tommy. You’re not a kid anymore. Don’t fucking cry. Yet he almost couldn’t help it. Once again, Kei’s wish had come true. After that, Mathilda had taken him back to Ede Valley, back to his family. It could just be a coincidence, but what if it had been her sacrifice that had gotten him where he was?

No, that was just silly. A rift was just a hole, plain and simple. And that was entirely beside the point. Even if it could grant wishes, there was no reason for Kei to give hers for him. He had never asked for this.

“You… you didn’t need to do that,” he clenched his fists to keep them from shaking. “What good are wishes? I could’ve… we could’ve made our own happiness. Kei, if you hadn’t disappeared that night, I… I was going to ask you to come with me.”

At those words, a look of genuine surprise crossed her face. But if was strangely muted compared to the expressions he was used to from her. “I…” yet she still stuttered a little. “I had no idea.”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because you’d been to so many places, met so many people. You must’ve had a million friends to ask over me. Why would you give a shit about a fucking tattoo artist from the ass-end of the cosmos?”

“I didn’t,” he blurted, then looked down as he had trouble meeting her surprised gaze. “We never stayed in one place for long enough to make any. H’thalee was kind of the exception. I think one of the reasons we might have kept coming back was because Remus knew that… that you were there.”

Kei’s expression had become too complicated to be readable.

“We can still do it, Kei,” he extended his hand. “You can still come with me.”

But she didn’t take it, just crossed her arms over her chest and took a step backwards. “No. No we can’t,” was all she said for a long time.

Tommy didn’t say a word, just waited in silence for her to explain.

“Eight months is all it’s been for you, right?” she asked, and he nodded. “Well… for me it’s been thirty years.”

He went quiet again, but this time the silence was a stunned one. This was the exact reason why Mathilda tried her best to keep jumps linear. When Kei had gone through that rift and made her way to wherever she had ended up, she had arrived at the time far before either of them had even been born, at least relatively speaking. Regardless, while he’d been fucking around in Ede Valley, she’d lived an entire lifetime without him.

“Well, my count may be a little off,” she admitted. “It’s been a while since I just gave up and stopped keeping track.”

“But w-why?” he stuttered out. “Why didn’t you try to find me in all that time? You must have figured out how to get to whenever you wanted within the first five years.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“At least tell me what happened to you, what you’re been doing for the last thirty years.”

“I don’t like telling stories, Tommy. You know that,” she scowled, before looking back up at him and sighing, her expression softening. “But if you must know, I can at least tell you how I got here.”

“You mean to Discord.”

“Well, yeah, that’s where I first ended up.”

Tommy almost had to laugh. She was doing it again, that thing she did where she danced around the point, giving little tiny answers as you asked her question after question, until finally you’d forgotten what you were even trying to ask her in the first place. But he was far too used to that to fall for it.

“Start from the beginning.”

The trick was not to ask any questions at all.

Kei frowned. He had never figured out if her little word dance was something she did consciously or not, but she always hated when it was interrupted.

“Alright. Fine. But if you insist, then I’m not going to sugarcoat it.”

“That’s fine with me.”

“Okay, then here goes nothing.” She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath, before beginning to speak. “The first thing I felt when I stepped through the rift was pain. But it wasn’t, like, a physical pain. It was as if someone was taking a knife to my, I don’t know, my soul? Fuck, I’m not explaining this well.”

“I’ve never met someone who could. So keep going.”

She looked annoyed. Maybe she’d been hoping he’d let her stop. But she had dragged him into this thing with her wish, so forgive him for feeling entitled to an explanation.

“I couldn’t really see anything either. There were greens and purples, but it all blurred together, like I was underwater. Of course I panicked. I tried to get back to the rift, but it was already drifting away from me. And there was only so much I could struggle before the pain got so strong that I couldn’t even move anymore.

“It was like being a piece of paper, folded and folded and folded again until you feel like a completely different shape than you were before. And then suddenly, like a deranged accordion or something, you’re stretched out again. Pulled so taut that you think you’re going to be stretched apart completely. And that’s the moment that you have to decide.”

“Decide?” Tommy tilted his head, confused.

“Whether you’re going to let it happen or not. Whether you’re going to let the cosmos tear you apart until there’s nothing left, or if you’re going to refuse.”

“I had no idea becoming a daemon was a choice.” Tommy’s mouth twisted upward a little, just on the one side.

“It absolutely is. All those mortals who didn’t, they weren’t willing to just take it. They’d rather just give up and stop existing than be changed. But as for me, what’s the point in making a wish for someone else if you’re not around to gloat about it?

“So I refused. I heard that tempting whisper of the void and gave it a big old fuck you. And I kept saying it. Over and over and over again. I don’t know how long it lasted, the nauseating colors and the ripping and tearing and the pain. Could’ve been years, could’ve been minutes. I’m pretty sure it was longer than that, though.

“Have you ever been in so much pain that your mind just sort of… drifts away from your body, until all of a sudden you come back to yourself however long later only to realize that you stopped hurting somewhere in the middle?”

Tommy shook his head.

Kei shrugged. “Maybe that’s a girl thing. Just.. try to imagine you’ve experienced that before. The only problem was that when I came back to my body, it… well, my body was gone.”

“Because you’d become a daemon,” Tommy nodded. “Deamons don’t have bodies.”

“I eventually figured that out, yes,” she continued. “But at the time, I didn’t know what was going on. I’d only ever heard of daemons from you and Remus. I had no idea how they… well, happened.

“I couldn’t move, couldn’t even cry, let alone scream. I could still see and hear, but I couldn’t feel anything. For a really long time, I had almost convinced myself that I was dead. I mean, come on, floating through an endless void with only your thoughts for company? That sounds like hell to me.”

“What made you think you deserved to be in hell?” Tommy asked.

“Well, now there’s plenty of reasons, but back then, just the one.”

Tommy wanted to keep talking about that, but as he thought about it, he realized that he might very well know the answer. It wasn’t something that she necessarily liked being brought up.

“Eventually I calmed down, and got a hold of myself enough to come to terms with my situation. I put two and two together with all the stuff I’d heard from you and Remus over the years. This was the Other, and if I was alive and in it, then that could only mean one thing. I was no longer human.

“Yet even if I knew the ‘where’ and the ‘why,’ that didn’t really change my situation. Traversing through the Other is… like swimming. If you know the techniques it’s pretty easy, but trying to doggy paddle won’t get you very far. And it’s not like you’re in a fucking hotel pool or something. The Other is a goddamn ocean, and I had just been dropped in the very middle of it. Even if I had no shot at drowning anymore, I had no idea where to go.

“So for a long time I just… drifted. Every once in a while I’d see a bubble of reality in the distance, but I was too scared of what I’d find inside to approach any. At first I was anxious, then bored, then lonely. Eventually I started questioning if I even existed at all, since I, you know, no longer had any proof of it beyond my own thoughts. And after that I just… slept, and drifted. Didn’t really have any thoughts at all. I think that might be… the closest to death I’ve ever come.”

That made Tommy wonder: just how many daemons had never found bodies, or souls. How many even now were just floating somewhere out there, losing themselves until they didn’t even exist at all? It was an unsettling thought, but one he couldn’t grasp onto for long before Kei continued.

“But of course, just at the moment when I might have been gone for good, I just happened to stumble upon it. Discord, the great green beacon for all daemons everywhere. Unlike every other reality I’d come across, this one had no sky to hide its contents. Beyond the translucent barrier, the entire city was just… right there.

“Maybe that’s why, ultimately, I took the chance on it. Maybe. Something about it dragged me out of my stupor. I don’t even remember actively deciding to go there. I think it just kind of… sucked me in. Discord’s, well… weird like that.

“Passing through that bubble, back into a reality after such a long time of disconnection… it was like a hard slap in the face. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even feel the air, but I felt… something, some sort of change. And if I could feel then that was proof that I was alive.”

“I’m surprised that whole ordeal didn’t fuck you up more,” Tommy frowned.

“Oh, it did. I’m just paraphrasing.”

Kei had never liked dwelling on the unpleasant, especially not when it came to herself.

“In fact,” she continued upon hearing no further interjections. “I couldn’t even work up the courage to get closer to the city for a very long time. I was kind of stunned for a while, I just kept thinking about how close I’d been to dying and that I had been cool with letting it happen. If I could have shaken, I would’ve.

“But eventually I had to do something. I hated not having a body, I felt somehow itchy all over, but of course had no arms to scratch at it. If I had to stay like this for very long I thought I might just go absolutely apeshit. So, I figured my best shot was to get to the city below.”

“To ask for help,” Tommy finished for her.

But Kei shrugged. “If I really had to. For a while I couldn’t even do that though. Remember, Tommy, back then I’d never been to a city before. I’d never seen so many people in one place. It was so overwhelming that for a very long time it distracted me. There was just… so much to take in I could barely move. Luckily I didn’t need to eat or sleep, so I had all the time in the world to observe. And the more I did, the more I wasn’t even sure I wanted a body.

“At one point I did try to speak to someone, but even though I could hear me, they certainly could not. I know that the other daemons knew I was there, at least some of them. One afternoon I got a little too close to a soul broker to try to figure out how the whole deal thing worked, and he just nonchalantly flicked me off his counter, like I was a fucking fly! Absolutely pathetic, right?

“And I know that look. You’re wondering why, if I couldn’t stand being so pathetic, I still hadn’t snatched a body, right?”

“I don’t suppose it was because of any moral quandary?”

She laughed. “Oh, Tommy. Still trying to believe the best in people. That was always what I liked most about you.”

He ran a hand through his hair, embarrassed.

“But no,” Kei continued, “if I was worried about the perceived villainy of tricking a mortal into handing over their body, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now in the first place. Truth is, like I said, I didn’t even know if I wanted to join this world properly. I saw a lot of nasty things go down. Do you know the terrible things people do when they think they’re not being watched?

“Swindling, torture, rape, oh I saw it all. Discord was made for the daemons, after all. And most of them are assholes. You kinda have to be, in our position, you know? But I stuck around because I learned a lot. Not just about being a daemon, but… about everything.”

Tommy didn’t say anything, but if he thought about it, learning a majority of your worldly knowledge from Discord might fuck you up a bit. He wished bitterly, again, that he’d been there with her.

“But, ironically enough, it was the worst of it that made me finally decide…” she paused, remembering something, and gazed off into the middle distance.

Tommy just waited. Eventually, she shook herself and continued.

“It was in an alley, all the way at the bottom of the city. I don’t remember why I was even there, but I heard just the most pathetic, quiet sobbing imaginable. I turned the corner, and there she was: a little girl, sat against the black brick wall, just shaking. At first I just watched. She wasn’t a daemon, so I was pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to even hear me, after all. Except that, a minute later, she whispered in the saddest voice you’ve ever heard: ‘Is someone there?’

“I figured I’d shoot my shot, so I asked: ‘Can you… hear me?’

“She nodded. ‘Me mum always said I was fey-touched. Are you a fairy, miss?’

“‘No. I’m not.’

“It was clear that the girl was dying. Her eyes wandered, her head bobbed, her lips were dry and cracked. Though whether the cause was illness or starvation, I couldn’t be sure. I asked her how she had ended up in Discord, just to try to keep her conscious, hoping that maybe someone would come along and help her. Even as she ducked in and out of it, she explained that she and her mother had once lived in a place very far from here. A pleasant place, with rolling green fields and blue skies.

“But then, out of those very same skies, one day there appeared a bunch of scary men who grabbed her and her mother and brought them here. Of course, outright slavery is frowned upon in the city, but you know as well as I do how little is truly illegal here.

“They worked the two of them near to death in a sweatshop, but once the mother died, I guess they thought the girl was pretty useless to them, because they sort of just… forgot about her. She slipped right through the cracks.

“Discord is a harsh place for someone so small, and she didn’t have a bone to her name. After that, however, I didn’t get much more out of her. She started to fade. And I… I couldn’t do anything…”

She stared past him, towards the end of the alley.

Tommy followed that gaze, and nearly saw that little girl there himself. He could only imagine how frustrating, how utterly devastating it would be, only able to watch as this strange new world that you’d been thrust into tore a child apart, right before your eyes, and you, only able to watch it happen.

“But just before she went,” Tommy jumped a little as Kei suddenly started speaking again, “she said one last thing: ‘If you’re not a fairy, then you must be a daemon, right miss?’

“I told her that I was.

“‘I don’t have much to give you, but you can have my body once I’m gone. Please, I just want to see my mother again. One last time.’

“By that point I’d seen many deals, but I wasn’t sure I could pull one off myself. It was a dying kid’s last request, though; I had to try, right? So I did my best. To be honest, I’m not really even sure it worked, but—”

“Wait a minute, Kei…” Tommy interjected. A thought had been slowly planting roots in his brain for a minute now. “You could’ve… you could have saved that girl’s life, made a deal to keep her alive. But you didn’t. Why?”

Kei stared at him, her eyebrows knitted together in what seemed like genuine confusion. “That isn’t what she asked for.”

“But you didn’t even think to bring it up?” Tommy was getting a little agitated. The Kei he knew may be a little callous at times, but not like this.

“I didn’t need to. That girl didn’t want to live anymore. She just wanted her mother to be there with her at the end.”

“Everyone wants to live, Kei.”

“Then you’ve seen less of the cosmos than you think you have.” The hint of accusation in her words sent shivers down his spine. “That kid just wanted it all to be over, so I did what I could to make her death a pleasant one. And after she was gone, I decided it would be a waste to not take the gift she’d given me.

“As small and fragile as that body was, it was less so than having no body at all.

“That was the day I finally rejoined the living again. And right then and there, I promised myself that I would never be that vulnerable, that powerless, ever again. Not like that girl, and not like me. I was going to do whatever it took to climb out of that pit, to have enough power that nobody could touch me ever again.

“And I’m so close, Tommy. I almost have something. Just a little, small piece of the cosmos that’s mine.”

Tommy took one, small step backwards, caught in the gaze of her hard, steely eyes. His heart fell lower and lower in his chest as the guilt started to weigh it down. He was too late, he realized then. Thirty years too late.

He didn’t know her at all anymore.

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