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Sometimes it Hurts to Remember

Sometimes it Hurts to Remember

Tommy’s new tattoos were still bugging him, Kei could see it in the pained expression on his face, the way he avoided turning his neck too much. But finally, the last of them were done, the ones that she’d spent years working on. The ones he was using to cover up his scars.

He hated it when she called it that. “I’m not ‘covering them up,’” he insisted. “I’m turning them into art.”

“You’re just sick of people asking about them.”

“I’d much rather they ask about my sick tattoos, yes.”

Despite the pain, he was trying to put on a brave face. He and Remus had come back to H’Thalee to help the people there with a plague that seemed to have stemmed from the swampy environment not too far away from one of the villages. But in the process of curing and treating it, Remus had gotten sick as well.

The way the two of them went cavorting about, it was bound to happen sometime. Remus wasn’t young anymore. Even his glorious carpet of chest hair was speckled with flecks of white. Kei wasn’t sure what his actual age was, however. The way he held himself, you’d still think he was no more than thirty. At first, Kei thought it might be a good lesson for him to slow down a little. But as the days went on, Remus didn’t get better. On the contrary, Tommy emerged from the makeshift hospital every day looking more tired and upset.

Kei should have moved on a while ago. She had a job to do, after all, much to her chagrin. But she couldn’t just leave Tommy. Especially not when it was looking more and more likely that he would very shortly be without much else in the way of company.

Till the last Remus helped Tommy treat the rest of the villagers. Maybe in the end, it was the overwork that got him more than the plague. For though a good half of the victims recovered, Remus was not one of them.

Kei didn’t see him at the last, for obviously the field hospital was quarantined, and for that she was thankful. She got to remember him as he always was. Tommy, on the other hand, barely left his side the last few days. It must have been terrible.

She knew the day it was over before Tommy could even say anything. He emerged into the fresh air and violently ripped the bandanna he’d been using as a mask from around his neck. Pulling out a lighter, he then set it on fire, before letting it fall to the ground and stomping on it. Then he just stared upwards for a very long time, through the overwhelming canopy above.

“Tommy…” Kei finally managed after finding her voice.

He jumped, but relaxed slightly as he saw her sitting warily on the edge of a stump.

“He… he wanted me to tell you that he thought your tattoos are beautiful.” Absently he put a hand to his neck, even though it made him wince a little.

Despite herself, Kei almost started crying. Even if she’d never known him all that well, nowhere near as well as Tommy, she’d liked him, dammit. And the old man should have had a couple more good years in him. But she held it back for Tommy’s sake.

“...Is… is he…?” she couldn’t get the rest out.

Tommy opened his mouth, but didn’t say anything, just looked away.

“Fuck.” Kei exhaled. “Fuck, I—”

Before she could react further, Tommy wrapped his arms around her. He gripped her so tightly that she thought he might break something. He didn’t cry, though he was shaking so badly that for a moment she thought he might be. Normally she would have squirmed her way out of his grasp ages ago, but now she resigned herself to let him for as long as he needed.

“He…” after a solid several minutes, Tommy spoke. “He left me Matilda.”

Kei pulled away, just a little, to look at his face. He seemed in that moment like an entirely different person. His face was pale, his features sallow. She’d never seen him like this before, but she couldn’t help but wonder: was this expression one she might have seen if she’d known him before he’d met Remus?

“Well, of course he did,” she said. “You’re his son. He certainly wasn’t going to leave it to me.”

“I know that.”

Kei had been worried that the joke had been in poor taste, but she didn’t know what else to do.

“I know that,” Tommy repeated. “But that’s the thing that did it. That just… made me realize that he really was going.”

Kei put a hand on his shoulder, a little awkwardly.

“He’s… he’s always been there. I mean, shit, he… saved me, Kei. And now if he’s gone what… what do I do?”

It was a selfish, ugly thought, but Kei found that in a way, she was jealous. When her master died, Kei’s path was already laid out for her: continue the trade. Those tattoos weren’t going to ink themselves. She was a traveler, yes, but not like Tommy. He could go anywhere, do anything.

But she shoved those feelings deep down somewhere she couldn’t see them anymore. This was about Tommy.

“He was a good man,” she said. “He did a lot of good for a lot of people, especially you. I think what you want to do with that legacy is up to you. Remus wouldn’t have given you Matilda if he didn’t think you were up to the task.”

“I just… don’t know if I can go on alone.”

Kei laughed. “I don’t think anyone ever does, Tommy.”

He hugged her again, and this time her shoulder did get a little wet. Kei patted him on the head, not quite sure if she was doing it right. Damn, she was bad at this. How come that bastard had to kick it and leave all this up to her?

“I…” Tommy muttered after pulling himself together. “I feel like such a kid asking this, but… will you stay with me tonight? In the wagon? I’ve never really been… alone there.”

Sleeping on a hard floor sounded entirely unappealing to Kei, but she had to be a good person for once, so she nodded. “Of course. Whatever you need.”

Tommy was like a brother to her. So she promised herself that she would not be her. For Tommy. Just for tonight.

Yet as the day went on, and then the night, Kei couldn’t help that her mind started working. She felt so helpless. Just sitting there watching Tommy fall apart. Of course, eventually he would get better, she knew this. The enormous hole that Remus had left behind would first scab and then scar. But it was a huge hole. It would take such a long time. It would cause him so much pain.

And Kei was not the most patient person, even at the best of times.

As she lay on Matilda’s floor—which had proven to be even harder than she’d imagined—Kei wracked her brain desperately for something she could do, something that would make him better.

Even if she hadn’t genuinely cared for him like she did, the fact was that he’d done more that he could have possibly imagined for her. Now she owed him a debt, so there must be something. Even the very first time they’d met, he’d given her the one thing that she was going to wish to that rift: a friend.

For a second, Kei paused. Both Tommy and Remus had told her that the rift didn’t grant wishes. And yet it had, hadn’t it? She’d asked it for a friend and Tommy had been there. It was probably a total coincidence.

But this very village was the one where they’d first met. The rift—what remained of it at least—was a short hike away through the trees. She could go right now if she wanted.

And besides, even if it didn’t work, what was the point of living on anyway?

What did Kei have going for her? A job she hated and a hopelessly backwater reality to live and die in? Now that she knew there was more out there, she longed to see it. Tommy’s many realities. He could go anywhere he wanted, do anything. He had seen things that she could only imagine.

In the end, even if something happened to her, then it should be fine, right? Tommy was the only friend she had. It’s not like there was anyone else to miss her.

So quietly, as quickly as she dared, Kei threw off the blankets and crept along the floor on her hands and knees. She almost made it to the door, when Tommy rolled over, still half-asleep. “Where’re you goin’?” he mumbled.

She couldn’t tell him. If she did, he would try to stop her. So Kei did was she did best.

“The moon people need me,” she lied. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Okay, warrior princess,” he rolled over and went back to sleep.

Kei sighed with relief as she opened the door and slipped outside.

It was much cooler out there, and the air was filled with the sounds of the various nocturnal creatures that called H’Thalee home. Kei shivered in the chill, and grabbed a shawl from her pack before setting off into the woods.

The darkness inhibited her somewhat, usually you didn’t travel through the woods at night. But with her lantern stretched out in front of her, Kei made due. She hadn’t been to the rift since she and Tommy had gone searching for it all those years ago. Despite that, she still knew the way. Though it had been closed for years now, everyone nearby knew exactly where it was, mostly so it could be avoided at all cost.

Her mind remained surprisingly clear throughout her trek. She’d already made it up, after all. Yet, she almost wished that it would wander, as her walk was so eerily quiet and slow without it.

Finally, her foot fell onto a patch of bare earth, and Kei knew she had made it. In the years since it had first formed, the rift had killed most of the plant-life surrounding it. To say that it was “closed” was a bit of a misnomer. Once a rift formed, it was a very rare occurrence for it to truly vanish, that was how Remus had explained it, at least. The most anyone could do was keep it small and maintained. “Closed” just meant that it wasn’t actively expanding.

It was still leaking unreality into H’Thalee, even if it was small. Rifts were trouble, she’d been told that since she was a child. But rifts were also powerful. She knew that for a fact. So she might as well try.

Kei stood in front of it, staring into that hole into some Other place. Tendrils of green and purple tangled in her hair and pulled at her clothes. It almost seemed to be beckoning to her. Make your wish, it seemed to be saying. Let me grant it for you.

Something inside her recoiled, begged her to back away, run all the way back to the wagon and Tommy. But it was small, and insignificant compared to the majesty of that Other roaring in her ears. Yes, she remembered having this feeling once, so very long ago. The Otherness of the cosmos should have scared her as it scared everyone else, but it only served to fascinate her.

This was going to work. She could feel it. Kei was going to grant Tommy’s wish, and maybe one of her own too.

“Please,” she whispered under her breath. She wouldn’t wish for Remus to be alive. That was silly. Once you were dead, you were dead. But there was one thing she could wish for him. “Please,” she repeated, as if the repetition would help. “Let him be happy.”

And the cosmos told her what she had to do. She’d been prepared for this. Of course she had. Wishes didn’t just come true in a vacuum. In order to receive something she would have to give something. She only regretted not being able to see her wish come true a little.

But, with only a second’s hesitation holding her back, Kei straightened, and one foot in front of the other, she stepped into the rift.

~~ o ~~

Tommy had never been a morning person. It didn’t help that he’d had very weird dreams last night. He stood in front of the somewhat yellowed sink in the public restroom of the Smiling Goat, hoping that splashing some water on his face would clear his head.

As the world came back into focus, he stared at the tattoos on his neck, swirling in overlapping patterns of black and red. If he really squinted, he could see a singular, ragged line that cut through the pattern. He could feel it too if he rubbed his hand along it. The scar would never truly be gone, but Kei had done such a good job at covering it that unless you were looking, you’d never even know it was there.

She had been the most talented tattoo artist he’d ever known, and he knew a surprisingly diverse array of them. A shame she’d hated her talent with such a passion that she often said she’d be happiest if her tools one day just broke in her hands.

It had been a long time since he’d found himself thinking about her. So much had been going on, after all. For a second, he wondered what had even brought the thought on in the first place, but then he remembered. Hadn’t her name come up not once, but twice, just the other day? At the syrup factory?

Of course, Tommy hadn’t really known what had happened to her. The last time he’d seen her had been the night after Remus died. Of course, he’d known she’d been lying when she snuck out of the wagon, for the simple reason that Kei was always lying. And when he’d woken the next morning she was still gone. He would have worried more, but Kei sometimes just… did things like that. She’d always been a weird girl. Tommy did wish that he’d given her at least a little more thought. He regretted it a little, especially later when he thought about it, and realized that she was probably dead.

He had a sneaking suspicion of where she’d gone, and the thought did not make him feel very good. He sincerely hoped that she’d thought better of it and decided to just take off, as shitty as that would have been. But somehow, he doubted it.

The saddest part was that if she’d just stayed, he was going to ask her to go with him.

But wait a second, that’s right. She wasn’t dead. Hadn’t Hodge said as much to him just the other day? She could have just been talking out of her ass, and he hadn’t gotten a chance to ask her considering that just that moment was the one Cindy happened to pick to break him out of there. At least it gave him a little bit of hope.

But thinking about Kei made him think about Remus. It had gotten better with time, remembering him, but there were still moments when he was alone that it caught him off guard. Tommy sometimes really missed his old life with him. And he still didn’t know if he was ready to continue on without the old man.

Shit, this was not the mood he’d wanted to wake up to. What time was it? Tommy still hadn’t quite figured out how to use it, but Cindy had finally convinced him to buy a cell phone. He fumbled with the small buttons on its side but eventually succeeded in unlocking it. Although somewhat silly, he did have to admit that it was convenient to see the time whenever he wanted.

10:45. The pub wouldn’t open for several more hours and Cowell would handle any meetings that Niko had. The great thing about him finally being back was that Tommy didn’t have to wake up early anymore. Come to think of it, did Cowell even sleep? Tommy wasn’t sure. He’d certainly never seen it.

Regardless of certain enigmatic bastards, it was just the right time to take a walk. That would hopefully clear his head. With any luck it was still early enough that the sticky, midwestern heat hadn’t set in yet.

It had. Of course it had. Tommy’s jacket was wrapped around his waist within five minutes of existing under the glaring sun. But still, he persevered. At least the heat of the morning was giving him something else to think about.

Unfortunately, Ede Valley wasn’t necessarily known for its sight-seeing. On top of that, one would think that after everything Tommy had seen, he would find the strip malls and docile neighborhoods to be a major snoozefest. Yet the… normality of it all nearly… fascinated him. How all these people could just live out their whole lives in this one small suburbia, this one small reality, when there were so many strange things out there to see. He almost admired it.

Plus, for him, this was novel.

He didn’t really think about where he was going until he passed a Starbucks, and recalled that it was the one right near his old elementary school. It’s not like there was anything in particular in this direction at the moment, but since he was already seemingly taking a trip down memory lane this morning, he might as well finish it off with the grand showstopper.

The first thing he saw, of course, was the ever-fading sign of the Dollar Tree on the one side, and the slightly more maintained one for the Chico’s on the other. From this angle, it looked as if there was nearly no space in between them at all. But there was one. A very important space.

Tommy stood in between that Dollar Tree and that Chico’s, and gazed into the abandoned lot, just as he had from across the street, all those years ago. What grass there was was yellow, and dried out by the relentless sun, and with little to keep it together, most of the dirt was more like dust at this point.

But as Tommy kept staring at it, his eyes slowly widened. He hadn’t noticed at first because it just seemed like it had belonged there, but something was very different. The lot wasn’t abandoned at all. For sitting smack dab in the middle of it, as if waiting for him, was a faded gypsy wagon.

Matilda was back.

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