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The Cold, Hard Truth

The Cold, Hard Truth

“Why are you here, Tommy? To call me the bad guy?”

The crowd was still rioting outside, but Kei had largely left its containment to her muscle. It seemed like they were failing, as the putrid smell of smoke had started to burn Tommy’s nostrils. But the general pandemonium had allowed Kei to skulk off to the throne room of the clock tower. Her clock tower now, it seemed. Which led Tommy to sneak in after her.

And here she was, slouched on the throne in the empty, darkened room. From all the way over by the door, she was little more than a dark shape, rendering her expression unreadable.

“I guess so,” Tommy said finally, letting out a long sigh that echoed around the room. “I didn’t want to,” he added, after she continued to stare at him in silence. “I had been hoping to apologize, the next time we met. But… Kei, what have you done?”

She sat up abruptly. “What have I done? Only accomplished a goal years in the planning. You should be proud of me. I’ve finally blessed this city with a monarch worth a damn.”

“But what did it take to get there?” he demanded. “You messed around with an already fucked-up kid and now you’re going to kill him. For what? To wrap up loose ends?”

“Hey,” she pointed a finger at him, after the mention made her flinch. “Doug Bailey was an adult fully capable of making his own choices. It is not my fault he was so easy to manipulate.”

“He’s a sick, mourning kid, and you knew that from the very beginning. Are you listening to yourself? And-and,” he found himself still talking long after he’d wanted to stop, “how many others, huh? How many people did you fuck over to get here?” He took a few steps forward to see her face better, and in that moment, he noticed something for the first time. Something about her eyes.

“How many people did you kill?”

“To make this plan work or just in general? It doesn’t matter, it’d be way too many to count anyway.”

“What… what happened to you?” Tommy was beginning to doubt she was even the same person he’d grown up with. She probably wasn’t. Thirty years was a long time.

“You gonna call me a stranger again?” she sneered.

He looked away from her. “I can’t help it,” he admitted. “I felt bad about what I said the other day, you know? I… thought that I’d overreacted. That you hadn’t really gotten as… cold as you wanted me to think.”

“And now?” Her gaze was hard, almost too hard, like she was bracing for his answer.

Tommy opened his mouth, but he couldn’t force anything out.

“I think you’re looking for someone who hasn’t existed for a long time.”

“Bullshit!” He glared at her. That couldn’t be true. Absolutely no way. “I can see it on your face right now! Even if the face itself is different, even after everything, that warrior princess from the moon is in there somewhere, I know she is! You’re doing this now for the same reason that she was trying to find that rift all those years ago.”

“Don’t you pull your fucking phony-ass fortune-telling bullshit on me,” she warned.

But he plowed ahead anyway. “Because you are terrified of being alone. Except for some reason, you seem to think you deserve it or something, so you try to do everything by yourself and push everyone else away. You don’t have to be alone, Kei!”

His last words echoed hollowly for a moment, before Kei stood and took a few steps off of the dais towards him. “Last time we talked, you asked me why I’d never tried to find you.”

Tommy went quiet, not quite sure where she was suddenly going with this.

“Well, actually, I did. About a year after I’d finally… adjusted to being a daemon. I had no idea where you’d be, of course, but on a hunch, I figured I’d try the reality where you were born.”

“You went to Ede Valley?”

“Yes, and I went right to that spot you described, right between the Dollar Tree and the Chico’s. And there you were, sitting on the wagon’s back step… right next to a girl. I know she’s your sister now, of course, not that it would have made any difference.”

“If you were there, why didn’t you…?”

“Come over and say hello?” her face stretched into a wide, mocking smile. “Because my wish had come true. You were happy. And that proved to me that I didn’t belong in that happiness. I’ve never belonged anywhere, so excuse me for trying to build that place instead.”

“It doesn’t have to be like that,” he pleaded. “There’s still time to stop this. Let Doug out of the labyrinth, leave this fucking city to its own devices, and come with me.”

For a moment, her eyes widened in disbelief. And then she started laughing.

“What?” Tommy’s eyes narrowed.

“Un-fucking-believable,” she shook her head. “You really haven’t changed at all, have you?” When he looked confused, she rolled her eyes. “You really think it’s so easy. You always have. You just show up in that little wagon of yours, fix all the problems, save the day, and then ride off into the sunset. Have you ever thought about what happens after you’re gone? About the people who have to pick up the pieces, clean up the mess you’ve left behind and carry on? But nope, off you go on your next adventure. Congratulations, you’ve fixed everything, the plot of the week is resolved in a nice, little bow.

“Some things can’t be fixed, Tommy. Not by you, not by anyone. Maybe it’s just too late. Or maybe they never could be in the first place. Hopping into your little adventure machine and trying to forget everything that’s happened in the last thirty years is not going to ‘fix’ me.”

“I…” he stuttered out. “I’ve never wanted to ‘fix’ you, Kei.”

“Really? Then what was it you wanted, huh?”

To that, he didn’t have an answer. So he just didn’t say anything at all. As they stood in silence, Tommy developed a sinking feeling in his gut. A sinking feeling that told him she might have been right.

He and Remus had helped a lot of people over the years, she was certainly undervaluing that. But it was true that they never had to deal with the aftermath. They just moved on to the next adventure. And so that had become his solution for everything. Just move on and take whatever he cared about with him. And that wasn’t even mentioning the times where there was nothing that they could do, where they just had to cut their losses and move on. But that was the reality of the life they lived. Sometimes there were just people that you couldn’t save.

Kei looked disappointed by his silence. Maybe she’d been looking for a better fight. “And now that the air’s been cleared, I think it’s time for you to get the hell out of my clock tower.”

“Kei, I—”

“I won’t be upset if you never want to see me again,” she added. “Maybe it’s just for the best if you consider me dead. That warrior princess that you knew has been gone for a very long time, anyway.”

That wasn’t true, he knew it wasn’t. Because even now, he could still see that lonely little girl buried deep in her eyes.

~~ o ~~

The pub had been gripped with a horrible, frigid silence until Tommy came back. But Cindy perked up as he opened the door, relief spreading across her face. She had probably been pacing, judging by her awkward place in the middle of the room.

The others took up most of the pub. Flora sat at the bar, while Cowell hovered behind it, his expression surprisingly subdued. Kuro sat backwards in a chair by the far window, his wings drooping slightly. Gil and Muirne were slightly closer to the door, the former with a book on his lap and the latter sharpening her sword with a whetstone. Niko sat towards the middle of the room. His suit coat was off, his sleeves rolled up, just like they always were when he was strategizing. But there was something a little different about him, something almost melancholic in his gaze.

Hesitantly, Tommy sat too. He almost wanted to tell them about his confrontation with Kei. But he wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. Not until he sorted out his own feelings. And besides, what had been exchanged between them was ultimately a private matter anyway.

For a minute, no one said anything, the looks on all of their faces told Tommy that most of them were still trying to get over the shock of what happened. Even Gil, who on the surface appeared calm, hadn’t flipped a page of the book he’d been staring at since Tommy entered.

Finally, it was Muirne who cleared her throat and spoke. “I’ve never known any of you to be the types to sit around and feel sorry for yourselves, so we might as well get started.”

“Right,” Cindy shook herself. “I’m assuming we’re all in agreement that Kei’s a bitch and we should try to help Doug.”

Tommy didn’t say anything, because he wasn’t sure it was so straightforward. It seemed some of the others shared the sentiment, for most were slow to respond.

“I agree with the idea,” Flora offered. “Doug’s a good kid, but I’m… I’m not sure if there’s anything we can do.”

“What are you talking about?” Cindy crossed her arms over her chest.

Gil snapped his book shut. “This isn’t a boarding school occupied by a coterie of mentally-ill children, Cynthia. It’s an entire city of very angry daemons.”

“Well, we can’t just abandon him.”

Tommy had no idea how she was staying so optimistic. Cindy had never been someone to give in easily, but this was almost becoming self-destructive.

“Alright, then let’s break it down, shall we?” Cowell interjected. “There are two times we could potentially perform a rescue attempt. Right now, while he’s still puttering around the labyrinth, doing fate knows what down there, and later, when he’s been removed from that location.”

“There’s no way that’s happening,” Tommy finally opened his mouth. “We won’t know where he’ll be until they’ve got him to the Tea Party, and there’s no way in hell we’ll be able to convince them that a bunch of nobody travelers have the real story, let alone fight our way through a whole crowd of daemons.”

It was Muirne’s turn to frown. “What do you mean we ‘won’t know where he’ll be’?”

“Exactly that,” Flora sighed. “Besides the trap door in the Tea Party, no one knows where the exit to the labyrinth is. Well, nobody except the Tea Party themselves.”

“Which means that also leaves the other option out,” Kuro said. “We can’t rescue him from the labyrinth if we don’t know where it is.”

“We could always use the entrance we do know about,” Cindy suggested.

But Flora sighed. “I don’t think you really get it. Almost nobody’s ever made it out of there alive. Like everything in this city, it was made by Bacchae.”

“Specifically,” Cowell chimed in. “It was made to imprison a rare sort of specimen. That is, people that he hated.”

“So it’s designed to kill.”

“It’s designed to drive you mad.”

“So what… what are you all saying?” Cindy glared at everyone in the room. “That we should just give up?”

Her eyes met Tommy’s, hoping that at the very least, he would be on her side. The truth was, he wasn’t on anybody’s side.

“I really wish I didn’t have to say so,” he sighed. “But if we try to help him now, the effort’s gonna get all of us killed.”

“How did you know that? You can’t! If we don’t do something, then Doug will be killed for sure.”

“Cindy, you don’t even know him all that well!” Why wouldn’t she just back down? It was callous maybe, but this wasn’t a show or an anime. Things didn’t always work out the way you wanted them too.

“Maybe not, but… Gil did, and… and Mike.”

“Mike couldn’t even answer his damn phone to be here right now. He made his own decisions, and so did Doug. You’re not responsible for every person around you, Cindy!”

“But we can’t just let him die! We have to try, don’t we? Why can’t any of you see that?”

“Because sometimes there’s nothing you can do!”

That came out louder than he meant it to. The room fell silent. Cindy stared at him, speechless.

“You’re just a kid, Cindy,” he continued, a little quieter. “You might think that the world is ultimately a just place, where everything ends up exactly how it should, but it’s not. I think what happened to Doug is absolutely reprehensible, but if you try to go against the daemons, against Kei, they will kill you… without a second thought. And none of us wanna see you dead.”

By this point, she was crying. At first she tried to hide it, but she pretty quickly gave up the ghost. After a minute she was sobbing, and Tommy pressed her head against his chest, her tears soaking into his flannel shirt.

“It’s not fair,” she muttered. “It’s just not.”

“I know,” he patted her head and hugged her close. “You care about people so much, Cindy. And I wouldn’t want to change that for a minute. The rest of us might be too jaded to show it, but we’re just as broken up about it as you are.” There wasn’t a response, just more tears. “I’m sorry for yelling,” he added, feeling like a bit of an ass.

This sucked. More than anything, it sucked. Even now Tommy was dreaming of a world that was different, where Kei was still the same and everyone was friends. It wasn’t wrong to wish or even hope for a world like that. But sometimes, things just didn’t work out the way you hoped. Sometimes you had to cut your loses and run. Funny, now that he was thinking about it, he remembered having an identical conversation with Remus, a very long time ago. He knew they were making the right choice.

That still didn’t make it suck any less that Doug had to pay the price for it.

Across the room, Niko sat deep in thought. For once, he hadn’t said a single word this whole time, and for good reason. He’d been fighting with himself since before Tommy had walked in, fighting about something Valki had told him at the end of her little tale. But something Tommy had said had finally resolved his internal conflict.

There wasn’t anything Cindy could do. There wasn’t anything all of them put together could do. But there was something that Niko could do. It wasn’t a smart play, or even a logical one, yet he agreed with Cindy how unfair the whole thing was. And if he was the only person who could rectify it, then what other choice did he have?

As soon as he could slip out unnoticed, Niko had to go meet with Valki.

One last time.

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