A Reason to Smile
Rain began to pour and thunder roared in the sky as Gerald sat down in his usual stool at the bar. In a matter of second, there was a mug of his ‘favourite’ drink placed in front of him, and his hands instinctively reached out to cradled the large schooner of beer. Like most nights, he wanted to himself; his shoulders hunched, his back to everyone, watching mindlessly as the bubbles rose and dissipated in his drink.
He always sat in the far corner of the bar, the furthest away from that dreaded Wall of Fame Cass had created. He couldn’t bear to look at it. He hadn’t looked at that photo in what had to be going on seven years now. He couldn’t bring himself to. The memories that were constantly floating around in his head, there to torture him at every second of his life, were bad enough.
He didn’t want to be reminded of a time where he was happy. He didn’t want to see that younger version of himself smiling, looking carefree and so goddamn happy.
…He didn’t have much to smile about anymore.
Others who visit the bar had, thankfully for the most part, left him alone. He has had a couple of drunkards try to heckle him, recognising him from the photo on the wall and blubbering about how he was a fallen, has been explorer now. Cass would immediately throw those fuckwits out of his bar, cussing them out and threatening them with permanent banishment if they tried to heckle him again.
He would tell Cass that it was fine, he had grown use to it, but Cass would then rant and rave about how it wasn’t fine, that those bastards hadn’t a clue who Guild Nova was, so should shut their goddamn mouths.
After a while, Gerald stopped arguing with him, barely reacting when someone tried to goad him in a confrontation and barely even glancing at them when they were promptly ejected from the pub. Sometimes Cass would be the one to manhandle them, other times he would bark at one of the stronger members of the guardians to kick them out. Axel was usually the one he asked, and more often than not the ones he wanted to expel promptly removed themselves, not wanting to deal with the notoriously strong landsknecht.
Gerald gritted his teeth as his grip around his mug of ale tightened. Hah, landsknecht. Whenever he heard the title mentioned, his mind would immediately, torturously so, remind him of another certain landsknecht.
Fuck, not a day goes by, not a second goes by when he doesn’t think about his two best friends.
Gerald dropped his chin to his chest and sighed as a crack of thunder was heard above his head. Perhaps he should refer to them as former best friends now. One was missing and the other was…no longer within this plain.
He squeezed his eyes shut tightly before he all but violently grasped his drink in his hand. He threw his head back and took a large gulp of the bitter liquid. He could feel the strong alcohol burning the back of his throat, but he ignored it. He had felt that pain many times before and for that fleeting moment, he could forget.
But it wasn’t enough. His mind betrayed him, as it usually did, and flashed memories he wished so desperately to forget.
Christ, he really wished he hadn’t found her. Found Sandra like that. He wished so badly that someone else did and he learnt of what happened to her second hand. But he wasn’t that fortunate.
There was so much blood. So much. It was amazing how much blood a person could hold. It was everywhere. All over the place. Everything was covered in the red stuff. Everything was broken. She put up one hell of a fight. Hah, like she usually did. Fought everything she could, she did. Nothing could best her.
Nothing was supposed to, at least.
There was…there was no way he could help Sandra. No one could. One look and he knew she was gone.
The second that thought passed through his mind, his attention immediately turned to Simmons. Sandra’s son.
Gerald dropped his empty mug to the counter as he stared at it with unfocused eyes. He could still remember that panic he felt when he couldn’t see Simmons anywhere. That kind of panic was all encompassing, it made his heart thunder in his ears, his eyes dart around to search every single nook and cranny, made time slow to a crawl while at the same time everything seemed to be whizzing past him, around him at break neck speed. He barely heard his own voice as he desperately bellowed Simmons’ name over and over again.
For the briefest of seconds, he felt a sense of relief when he heard Simmons’ voice call out to him. He found him under his bed. Hiding from the atrocity that happened to his mother. He was alive, but…he was injured. He didn’t get away from the perpetrator unharmed. There was a wound to his forehead. It wasn’t a gash, but a tear. Meaty flesh hanging down over his eye.
Simmons was oblivious to it, thankfully. “My head hurts a little,” he said when Gerald managed to coax him out of hiding spot. Gerald told him that he was going to be fine. But as soon as those words left his lips, Simmons’ eyes rolled to the back of his head and he fainted.
Covered in blood, Gerald whisked him to the hospital. Dr Stiles was a young, fledging doctor then. He was the first person he saw. He immediately took Simmons and cared for him.
What happened after that was a blur of doctors, medics, and guardsmen asking him over and over again what happened. He couldn’t answer them because he didn’t fucking know himself. Sandra was dead, murdered, and her son was fighting for his life. If he knew who or what was responsible, he would tell as many people as he could so he could have that bastard hunted down and destroyed.
He had wanted to do just that himself, but he couldn’t leave Simmons. So he stayed. And waited. He wasn’t going to sleep until he knew Simmons’ fate. He couldn’t do anything until he knew he was going to be ok.
Gradually, and unfortunately, he learnt of Sandra’s fate little by little during his vigil of Simmons. She had been brutalised, her right hand, the one with the birthmark the shape of a frog of all things, was missing. Taken as a trophy, probably. Sick bastard.
It was while at the hospital, sitting by Simmons’ hospital bed as he waited for him to wake up, that a horrifying realisation dawned on him. The day Sandra was murdered was the one year anniversary of Shiki’s disappearance.
Exactly one year.
It was at that moment he knew that fate hated him. Mocking him. It had to be. It was no coincidence.
He laughed mockingly at first, but that soon turned into angry ranting, and that…soon faded into gut-wrenching sobs. He sat himself back in his chair next to Simmons’ seemingly lifeless body and cried into his hands.
Simmons was all he had left now. And he was all Simmons had left.
Uncle Gerry, he used to call him. Still did on occasion. How the hell could he leave the kid alone? Leave him to be raised by someone else? Losing Shiki and Sandra, there was no way he could lose his ‘nephew’ as well.
Gerald gave Cass a small nod of his head when the barkeep reluctantly placed another frosty schooner in front of him. Cass didn’t like him drinking too much, though he preferred that he drank in front of him, in his bar so he could keep an eye on him. He would even let him linger well beyond closing time, either trying to engage in conversation with him, or leaving him be and simply tidied up around him.
Truth be told, Gerald hadn’t had a decent conversation with anyone since Shiki disappeared. The thought of sitting at the bar and having a roaring and rowdy conversation with someone hurt too much. Those were the times were he and Shiki could bond, to be as loud and obnoxious as they wanted.
Shiki even used to sneak Simmons into the bar, letting him stay up late. He would bounce the kid on his knee and tell him bullshit stories about exploration and adventuring. Simmons always looked so enthralled with his dad’s exaggerated tales. He remember Sandra used to storm into the bar whenever Shiki had him, smack him upside the head before attempting to take Simmons home with her. But the kid would cry and pout, throw a temper tantrum of apocalyptic proportions, forcing her to whine and cry before giving in. After Sandra sulkily stalked away, Simmons would brighten and give his dad a high five. Bastard taught the kid well.
Hah, he missed those times so much.
Simmons…The kid was reminding him more and more of Sandra each day. And not only in appearance. His cheeky smile, his energetic and seeming endless energy, his utter recklessness. Hell, the way he would swing his axe or sword reminded him of the times Sandra attempted to get Shiki out of a tree he was perched in by chopping it down.
The woman couldn’t climb trees to save her life, and Shiki would constantly use that to his advantage.
But the kid had his father’s eyes. Sharp red, distinctly filled with mischievousness. Every time he looked into the kids eyes, he saw Shiki staring back at him.
Fuck, he missed Shiki so much. Shiki…was his best friend growing up. They got into so much shit together. Growing up with an absent family, Shiki was his only support. Unabashedly the light of his life.
But that light was gone now.
He…loved that stupid bastard. Why the fuck did he have to fucking disappear on him?
Gerald took another violent swig of his drink.
He loved Sandra, too. Gerald was honestly taken aback when Shiki developed an attraction for someone. Maybe even a little annoyed, fearful that their friendship would be strained. But that crazy woman was his perfect match, really, and not once did she try to force her way between the two of them. Never did she meddle in their friendship. She knew how important they were to each other, and instead of getting jealous and trying to limit their interactions, she encouraged it. She didn’t try to replace him, didn’t try to take his place. She knew and understood.
She was a good girl. Fucking crazy with that axe, though. God, she was a character.
Downing a large gulp of his beer, Gerald felt his mind wander further.
Oddly enough, that Rahas kid that Simmons was so fond of reminded him a little of Shiki as well. His dark hunter skills were so similar that it was honestly suspicious and surprising. But it was his mannerisms that really got to him. It was the little things. The way he would bristle, the way he would perch himself in high trees, the way his eyes would observe everyone and everything.
Gerald found himself finishing his drink as Cass began to empty the bar and lock up for the night. He stayed in his seat, though, and just gazed at the air in front of him with a glassy gaze. He wasn’t as drunk as he normally was at this time of night. Must have been too lost in his own thoughts to drink.
Ah, he had better remedied that.
Thinking about that kid, though, Gerald couldn’t help but notice that Rahas seemed a little…cautious around him. Not frightened, just…uneasy. Almost as if he wanted to actually talk to him about something. Something important. He never said as much, though, and wouldn’t hold his gaze for longer than a second before abruptly looking away, looking guilty.
A loud crack of thunder from outside pulled Gerald from his thoughts, but didn’t make him jump. He simply lifted his head up and turned his bleary eyes in Cass’ direction, wanting to request another beer from him.
But as he opened his mouth to speak, there was the sound of another sharp crack of thunder. A split second after the thunderous settle faded, there was the sound of a door of the bar opening. He didn’t turn to look, however, even as he heard the sound of feet walking over the hardwood flooring, accompanied by the sound of scraping. Someone with a canine companion must have wandered it. Ah, probably saw the lights on and thought the bar was still open. It happened on the occasion.
“Hey, the bar is closed!” Cass was heard shouting from his position at the sink. “But if yer buy a drink, I’ll let yer shelter from the rain! Haw haw haw!”
During the sudden lull in the pouring rain outside, Gerald heard a sound that was akin to someone drawing in a deep, sharp breath.
“Fuck, Cass,” an almost too familiar voice uttered, husky and surprisingly shaky. “You’ve gotten fat, haven’t you?”
Gerald stiffened in his seat, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling. That voice…got that voice was so much like that of Shiki’s. But…no, it couldn’t be. It was the booze, wasn’t it? Christ, how many times had he heard Shiki’s voice in his head, in his dreams?
“The hell?” Cass bristled as he spun around, no doubt ready to give the intruder a piece of his mind. But…he froze, his eyes wide and his face draining of colour. His mouth promptly dropped out, speechless, as the glass he was cleaning tumbled from his trembling hands and crashed to the floor.
Concerned, Gerald turned around on his stool and finally looked at the late night intruder.
And he found himself staring into a pair of familiar red eyes.
Gerald felt his heart leap into his throat, his chest tightening as he stumbled from his stool. He stayed on his feet and stared at the man who stood in the centre of the bar, a few feet away from him. Dressed in the clothing and gauntlets of a ronin, a man with dark grey hair and scrappy facial hair stared at him. Around his shoulders was a torn cape like clothing, used to keep out the rain and other elements. It didn’t hide the numerous scars on his arms and bare chest, his left arm layered in thick bandages. At his feet sat a silvery-blue coloured woof.
But it was his eyes. His eyes…
N-no, it couldn’t be. He was hallucinating. Again.
“You’re alive?” the man muttered as he took a step forward.
Gerald stared at the man. Just…stared at him. His heart was leaping in his chest, his mind was reeling, telling him over and over again that he was just seeing things. It was the alcohol. It was his imagination. It was fate fucking with him again. It couldn’t be real.
Shakily, Gerald took a step forward. “…Shiki?”
The man, the man with the red eyes…smiled at him. That smile. The slight curvature of his lips, the hint of white teeth, the small dimple of his right cheek…
Gerald was suddenly right in front of him with his hands out in front of him, shaking and mere inches away from the man’s face. But the man didn’t even flinch; he just looked at him with those eyes.
Slowly, Gerald touched his face with his hands. Bristly from the facial hair, but warm…solid. Real. He wasn’t a hallucination. He was…
“You’re real…” Gerald breathed.
He was suddenly enveloped in a bone crushing hug that was so familiar and he felt himself to limp, his knees buckling beneath him. He fell to the floor, and the man, no Shiki, kept his hold around him and fell down with him.
“You’re real…” Gerald breathed again as hot, sticky tears blurred his vision. “You’re actually real…”
“Yes,” that voice he had heard so many times in his dreams whispered into his ear. “Yes, I’m real. God, Gerald, gods…You’re alive. I thought…they told me…”
“Shiki…” Gerald murmured before he quickly wrapped his arms around him in return, uncaring that he was crying, that the tears were flowing heavily down his cheeks, making it hard to see and breath. “Shiki, god, you’re alive! W-where have you been all these years, y-you bastard? I’ve been waiting for you for ten fucking years! W-where were you…?”
“Hah…” Shiki half laughed, half sobbed into his ear. “It’s a long story. I’ll…tell it some other time,” he said simply as he continued to hold him. “…that obnoxious blue-haired dark hunter was right…”
Gerald didn’t have a clue what any of his mumblings mean, but at that very moment, he didn’t care. Shiki was alive. He was alive. He was real. Not a hallucination, not a dream, not an illusion, he was real.
He was home.
Shiki suddenly pulled back slightly, to look into Gerald’s eyes once more. “Simmons?” he suddenly questioned. “Where’s my son? And Rahas and Lynus? They’re here too, right? Where are they? My kids ok?”
What? How did he know-? H-he wasn’t going to ask about Sandra? Did he already know?
“I’ll explain later, I promise,” Shiki said as he tightened his arms around Gerald and hauled him to his feet. “I just…need to see if my kids are ok.”
There were so many questions running through Gerald’s head, but he didn’t attempt to verbalise any of them. “Simmons is…at my place, w-where we used to hang out,” he said as he subconsciously kept a hold on Shiki. “Let’s… head there first. It’s late…”
Shiki looked at him for a silent moment before he slowly nodded his head and removed his arms from around Gerald, much to his disappointment. But he soon snared a hold of Gerald’s wrist and made the motion to tug him toward the exit, and Gerald allowed him, without question, without hesitation.
“Come, Farley,” Shiki said as he motioned toward the wolf that had entered with him, the beast companion immediately heeding to his command. “You’re just going to love my boy. He’s a good kid. I’m sure he has lots to tell us both.”
The wolf, Farley, simply tilted its head to the side before wagging its tail, seemingly understanding what Shiki was saying.
“H-hey!” Cass abruptly called out. “What about me? No love for dear ol’ Cass, h-huh?”
Shiki quickly turned around and looked at Cass. With a glint of familiar mischief in his eye, he dropped his hold on Gerald’s arm and bounded across the floor to reach Cass, immediately pulling the other man into his once notorious bone-crushing hugs.
Gods, he really was Shiki.
Gerald felt tears spring to his eyes again and felt the corner of his mouth twitch ever so slightly. It was something he hadn’t felt himself do for so long.