Another weird oneshot by Otte, because she can't let any of her favourite characters be happy.
There were no photos of the times he remembered the most. Every photo in the album was, invariably, of him, hand outstretched, huge cheesy grin flashing a peace sign at the camera. It was a sign he believed in, a light-heartedness that he invested his whole personality into, and eventually this image of a brave, smiling boy with peace in his heart became everything about him.
So he decided he was making it up. It wasn't real. He was making it up and begging for it to be real , because he wanted something, something to excuse the miserable little shit he was, the two-faced cheerless liar. The thought was like a punch to the stomach, and Ness pulled the covers over his head, squeezing his eyes shut at the endless parade of hate spouting from his own mind at himself, and trying to sleep. He wanted to sleep so he could stop having to listen to himself, but it could be waiting back there as well.
The dull crack and thud of a baseball bat against a skull shouldn't ring in his ears so clearly after all these years. He shouldn't remember the way a human, ahuman, could fold, the way a person's face could be crushed. At twelve, he had smelled burning flesh for the first time, and at sixteen it weighed heavily on his mind still.
It wasn't real though, it was too fragmented, too stupid to be real. He was stupid and shitty for begging something like this to have happened to him, when real people were out there, suffering in a very real way. The thought burned through him, and still he couldn't sleep. His eyes sprang back open every time, staring at the dark folds of his sheets.
He would finally fall asleep after turning all his hate and rage inwards, and he would pray for there to be no nightmares.
Regardless of whether he relived it, he still woke up with a smile, chuckle with embarrassment at his own ridiculous anger the night before, and then left the house having convinced himself it never happened.
"Yo, Ness, you working overtime tonight, buddy?"
Ness smiled at Frank Fly, once notorious gang leader, now notorious burger-flipper. The oversized man was leaning against the wall, watching Ness clean mop the toilet floor.
"Yeah," he said, "Me and Paula are saving up to go visit Saturn Valley in spring break."
People couldn't teleport. It didn't happen, and besides, even if he could, even if he had a million years ago, he couldn't remember how.
Frank whistled appreciatively, brushing back his slick blonde hair.
"Just you and that little chick of yours, huh? Maybe Frank should get himself a cute little doll like her. Yanno what I'm saying?" he said with a devious smirk. Ness couldn't help but roll his eyes at Frank's way of speaking – the guy was a totally anomaly in time, trapped in some weird limbo between the decades. Despite that, he smiled.
"I'll ask Paula if she has any nice friends you might like," he offered, hesitating only briefly. He didn't really know what kind of girl Frank'd be into, or what kind of girl would be into Frank, but he would do anything for friend.
"Really? You're the man, Ness!" Frank said enthusiastically, "Ask if she knows any cute little brunettes! Ones who ol' Frank can cuddle up with with a cold one and his favourite movie on a night."
"Heh. I'll ask," he said.
"I'll hold you to it, bro! Anyway, I'm gonna split. My shift finished like half an hour ago. See you tomorrow, man!"
"Yeah, see ya, Frankystein," Ness said without thinking. Frank snorted at the nickname, casting Ness a weird glance as he left the bathroom. Ness sighed, rubbing his eyes as he took to the unpleasent job of cleaning the toilets. Some kids had shovelled toilet paper in there, clogging the whole thing up. He wondered if they knew that a kid like them had to clean it up, and if they did if that would stop them.
"Frankystein," he repeated with a low chuckle to himself.
Steam. He couldn't see until it was too late, a huge metal fist making contact with his face and then -
He bit it back, fought it back. Yes, Frank had one had a robot, and he had fought it. Then he'd won, and that was that. There was no reason to mull on it any further, there was nothing useful about thinking about it.
He was bleeding, and he was alone. Totally alone against this huge guy. And he had a goddamn knife and why was he so mad he just wanted them to stop hurting people, why was nobody listening, why did they all hate him, why did people want to hurt him, he hadn't done anything to make people want to hurt him.
The swish of a baseball bat through the air.
Pain as strong hands pushed him down, his mouth all coppery from blood, knife into his chest, then a big booming voice:
"Looks like you got your head handed to you."
He dropped back against the side of a cubicle because damnit that wasn't real, he was right there, he was flushing the chain and glaring at a clogged up toilet. He hadn't died. His friend had never stabbed him.
He had to open the door to the cubicle and step back out, careful not to slip on the foul-smelling water. The shop was empty and the silence scared him.
"Ever think about it?"
"It? Y'gotta give me more to work with here, Jeff."
"You know. Everything. That summer. The sanctuaries."
"Huh. Nah...not really. You?"
"Giygas. Do you...do you think about it?"
Ness paused, considered his answer. He decided for the truth:
"Not really. Not as much as you'd think."
"Heh. Wish I had your carefree attitude."
He didn't think about Giygas. He couldn't remember Giygas that well. Sure, it had scared him. It had scared the crap out of him. "Absolute terror". That was the word for it, what Pokey said had been perfectly eloquent. He'd never told his old friend that even though he acted like a dumbass, he had always been able to come out with very clever, very unexpected things, that lay paradoxically next to his miserable grades.
It had scared him, but the fear hadn't lingered any longer than he thought it would. There would be a dream now and then, of red and black and a looping, haunted voice. Ness found himself focusing on things he never thought he would – things he had barely even thought of at that time.
Maybe then he'd been innocent, maybe his innocence had been a shield. He'd gotten older and wiser, and lost some of that naivete that had curled so protectively around him beforehand. Everything that the bubble had kept out came flooding in all at once, suddenly crashing against him like a tidal wave, dashing away at his memory and perception and leaving great dents in his courage.
"Ness? You still on the line, cos I gotta go soon."
"D'you think we ever really hurt people?"
"We were attacked by like...cars and streetsigns and crazy stuff like that all the time...but what about when living things...? When people attacked us?"
"...we never killed anybody Ness."
"Were we ever..."
"Are you okay? You sound kinda..."
"Hahaha, oh forget it. I'm being dumb!"
"Well...okay. If you think it's not important."
"Alright buddy, I'll let you go now. Talk to you later!"
"O-okay. See you, Ness."
He hung up.
Walking to Twoson had never been something Ness had fully gotten used to. There was a sense of danger amongst the peaceful trees, hidden in the petals of the flowers, of the fungi growing in bark, poppy red and creamy white.
The days when he was aware of everything were as disorienting as the days when he was aware of nothing. As he walked the familiar path to Paula's home, every stranger strolling to the store became an enemy prowling towards him, ready to turn vicious and chase him, while he had no weapon, to chase him in droves and gangs. He couldn't run forever and there were so many of them. He'd pause for breath and they would leap and attack all at once when they caught him. He didn't want to fight them, he was tired and so tired from fighting others, his chest hurt and nobody was helping nobody was here why was he alone? He would run in almost tears as they jeered and came to catch up, strange men and women he didn't know, full of insults. The worst was knowing that the hatred came from within them, that Giygas only made the soil fertile, didn't plant the seeds.
He remembered flecks of blood on the pavement when he grew angry. When he'd screamed and swung the bat and get away get away why won't you
He almost screamed when he walked into an old man, who offered sincere apologies (Ness couldn't hear him, it was like he was underwater, he could still hear the bat making contact. Was that smell real? Oh god) and only blinked as Ness jumped back, frantically trying to assess if this man would ever try to kill him.
He hated that question; for almost every person and every thing, to him, the answer was yes.
He loved and trusted people, and believed that they were good inside.
He knew they would try to kill him if pushed far enough.
He met Paula at the door of the preschool, and swung her around in the way she claimed to hate that made her laugh every time, and kissed her face, and offered no explanation for why he was pale and why he pulled her closer to her than usual. She asked no questions. They tumbled into bed, as though they'd been bound in netting and then released, tumbling together into a flurry of tenderness and kisses, disappearing beneath the sheets together since this was the only time he felt safe.
They would fall out the sheets later, creep to the sofa before anybody came home. One of Paula's videos went in and they would laugh together at a movie they'd seen a million times before, and say all the lines before the actors, giggle in anticipation for a gag they'd know was coming, and the predictability soothed both of them. Paula had university applications, she had jobs, she had her work at the preschool, her time spent volunteering in psychiatric work. Between juggling all of that, he didn't know if she even had time to remember what was persistently haunting him, and maybe that was how she wanted it. So the questions burning at his throat went unasked.
They washed the dishes together, and she laughed at him humming to himself.
"That's the soundstone's melody, isn't it?" she said, smiling. He smiled back, and realised that was the first time that summer had came up in their conversations for years. He didn't know he remembered that tune – he had never fully understood where it had come from or why it had been so important to recover.
"Yeah. Guess I can't let things go, huh," he replied, pulling the rubber gloves of his hand and wiping his wrists on a tea-towel. Paula did the same, then pulled out the string of beads in her hair, releasing the ponytail and letting her blonde hair bounce down, sweeping around her waist. She'd let it grow longer, and at the roots he could see some blonde-brown coming it. It was normal for blonde hair to go darker with age, but for some reason the thought disturbed him.
"Didn't know you were still thinking about it," she said simply, taking the washed dishes in her arms and stacking them into the cupboards. His tongue felt suddenly thick and dry, and he swallowed. More than you'd ever expect. Do you? Am I stupid for caring? Do you even remember at all? Am I going crazy?
His throat was closed up, the words wouldn't come out. He smiled his smile, so picture-perfect and well-practised, and watched the water drain out of the sink.
"Sometimes. It was weird, y'know," he said shortly. She chuckled and kissed him on the cheek, saying something about it being normal to think about, healthy to still remember and not deny what happened, and at this Ness' mind closed off and he suddenly wondered when they had started needing to talk in sound, and he was sure they used to be able to communicate in thought.
He asked this and she laughed harder than what was natural, she said something indistinct.
He didn't remember and she was denying it and it wasn't healthy.
"It looks like you got your head handed to you."
Whose was that voice? Was it his Dad? Why did nobody else seem to remember the time he was run over by a taxi, or a time when a giant mole's claws drove through his body and left a mangled mess on the floor for the crows to feed on? Ness was sure it had happened, so sure the memories weren't fabricated, yet they made no sense. If they were real, why did they fade in and out all the time.
Sometimes he could only remember the voice, the feeling of uncomfortable, rocky ground beneath his back, or smell burning. There was a lingering fear and horror that linked them all together, and sometimes he could use this fear, string them together like daisies and make a chain of events he thought were real, that couldn't be real.
Other times the links were broken and the memories faded from fragments to oblivion, and he could remember nothing at all.
He kept his mouth shut, smiled, went through the arbitrary motions of a job, school, a girlfriend, his normal life, and tried not to think of the dozens of times he had been killed (knife to the chest, head beaten open, run over, burned, frozen, shocked, drove through with metal spikes, mangled by a dog...).
He was very aware of his fragile he was, of how fragile everybody he knew was. He could no longer think of the human body as something solid. He'd seen it break and fold and bend and stretch and he knew all this could happen to everybody around him, and could be caused by everybody around him. In films and TV shows, people were hurt but they were never hurt, because it was scary to see the way somebody's very physical being could be twisted and mangled. They'd never seen the way a face could be torn and stretched, or the way your friend could be burned and broken and killed. Ness knew, sometimes, and saw, sometimes, the way this had happened, when they were children, smaller than Tracy was now.
The thought lingered that he wouldn't live to be an adult, and refused to be silenced.
"Ness, Ness. Yo, Ness! Wake up, buddy!"
Frank shook him by the shoulder, and Ness snapped back to reality. Frank's cologne was pungent and overpowering, unchanged from the first time Ness had met him. Ness jerked up with a fright, and Frank's hand snapped back to his side. Ness breathed in and smiled (smile smile).
"Sorry, I'm really spacey today," he said shortly, breathing in the smell of cooking burgers and bubbling chip fat, strong and musty and blocking out the crackle of sound that persisted in his head, of Paula screaming Ness Ness Ness help me help me because he couldn't heal, he couldn't heal fast enough and she was dying again and he didn't want to look away because Jeff was nearly in two and there was foam all around his mouth and Poo was trying to defend but it was too much and he was being pushed up and Paula had a hold on his shirt, begging him to do something, something, since he was the leader but he couldn't keep her from -
"You ain't lying, man! C'mon, look sharp. You've been working way too much. You go home, get some sleep, and your buddy Frankie'll cover for you."
Frank's voice cut through the wall of images and noise, and Ness leaned against the wall. He was trying to think but he didn't know where the hell he was. Somebody was yelling at him, he could see Paula's face distorted with burns and blood, her hair singed and leaving gory, bloodied patches in scalp. The fingers on his shirt were so small and in retrospect he didn't know how he'd kept it together, how he'd managed to stay sane when his friends suffered and died all around him over and over and...
He swayed and looked at Frank with pleading eyes, trying to remember how to speak and how to see. He still didn't know where the hell he was. Frank was snapping fingers in his face, but the noise echoed around his ears and the shape of the hand was an indistinct pink blur.
He became aware of the hands going to keep him standing, then of being dragged out of the kitchen and Frank's voice rising and falling over the memory, the nightmare, the daydream, whatever the hell it was. The word "hospital" got thrown around and the hospital was out of the question he didn't have the money, but Jeff was getting so hurt so much but what could he do he didn't have the money why was he the one in charge of it.
His fingers tightened around an arm, whose arm, never mind, didn't matter. He was being pulled and he tried to focus on the faces around him, of people staring at him from their plastic seats eating their pizza – hello mach pizza I would like to order something, they were so slow but they delivered in weird places and damn they needed something to heal and oh god how were they supposed to fight that it was so huge, one foot and Paula was crushed and they were running and where the hell was he?
"Ness! Man, snap out of it! C'mon, you're embarrassin' me here."
He took a sudden intake of breath and released Frank's arm, the image of a quiet Onett night settling around him. They were outside the shop, and Ness was suddenly aware his chest hurt a hell of a lot and his eyes felt all damp.
"I'm back," he said stupidly. Frank scratched his head, looking lost.
"Y-you need to go home. I'll drive you back, man, I think you're going cuckoo."
"I'm back now, it's okay," Ness said, suddenly smiling and moving to go back inside. Frank caught him and glared, looking furious and worried all at once and Ness wanted to make fun of him, say he was going soft, but he didn't have the energy. He just wanted to go back to work. If he was working, it was normal and he wanted normal.
"No way! You were clinging to me and babblin' like some sorta kook. You can't go back in there, man! Most people think you have a screw loose already, but...man."
"Huh, I was?" Ness said, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans and leaning back against the wall. He didn't remember saying anything, and he wasn't aware anybody thought he had a screw loose. He supposed people must think he's a bit weird, but it still shook him. He didn't want to be the local nutcase.
"Yes! Jeez, man, is this some kinda joke of yours? Y'always had a funny sense of humour," Frank said, gesturing and looking exasperated. Ness shrugged, wishing he could lie and say it was all a prank without feeling bad. He wasn't sure what he had done anyway, the lie would fall apart if Frank wanted him to explain anything he'd done or said in more detail.
Crap, what if he'd done something really embarrassing, or made himself look so crazy the boss would fire him? He scratched his head, and suddenly wished he had a cap.
Just as he thought that, the door opened and a broad, curly haired woman emerged.
"Yo, Boss. I think Ness wants some sick time," Frank said before Ness could even get a word out. Ness shot him an icy glare, and suddenly felt the violent wish that Frank would get his nose the hell out of Ness' business. He thought about punching him, and with a shudder pushed the thought away. He didn't understand why he was thinking about hurting his friend, especially when he was the one trying to do some good for him.
The boss fixed him with a tired stare. Ness opened his mouth to protest.
"Take some time off, Ness. Come back in a week or two, when y'feel better," she said, too slowly and kindly and Ness realised she was scared of him, she was scared of him because he was crazy and suddenly had mental breakdowns in public spaces and needed to be carted around by his coworkers. She was scared of him, and the thought swept through his body like a sickening tide, churning his stomach and making him feel shaky and disgusted with himself.
He swallowed and nodded.
"Drive him home, Fly," she said over her shoulder, as she returned through the door. Frank nodded mechanically. Ness wondered what his mother would think, when he was driven home, and way too early for his shift to be over.
"C'mon, man, you're shaking. You must be pretty sick," Frank said, herding him into his car. Ness settled into the passenger's seat, sinking into the plush seat and rubbing his arms to try and get rid of the goosebumps. "Pretty sick" was becoming another word for "a complete raving lunatic" and Ness knew it.
They drove in tense silence, and when Frank insisted on walking him into the house, Ness didn't protest, or take the chance to poke fun at him. He was suddenly exhausted, and wanted a bed, and realised as Frank explained what had happened to his confused mother, that he probably did need help.
"So are you happy at home?"
The therapist was a nice enough lady, but Ness was quickly tired of answering simple questions in the plainest terms he could manage. He'd so far made out that he was just stressed with school and work, but she didn't seem pleased and seemed to prying to try and find a cause for symptoms that didn't match up. He'd never been that good of a liar, and he wondered what she thought might be happening with him behind closed doors. He was willing to bet that she was nowhere near the truth.
He nodded and smiled.
She nodded and smiled back. They could go back and forth like this forever, trading fake smiles and understanding nods that were supposed to make it all better. He didn't know why his mother thought this would work – he'd told her everything about that summer. Maybe she'd never entirely believed it, or maybe she didn't realise that other people would think he was making it up.
Maybe she was hoping for a magic pill that would bring her son back when he got scary, he didn't know and sometimes he didn't want to know.
The session continued, the real heart of the matter never touched on. He shook her hand and thanked her for her time when left, and wandered out the building, fiddling with some loose change in his pocket.
He stepped into a phone booth, put in the money and pressed the familiar buttons.
"Hey, Dad, it's me. Yeah, I'm okay. C-can you tell me everything that happened again? Yeah, from my save files. Please."
He tangled the wire between his fingers.
"Just want to check I remember it right."