Finding Remmy proved more difficult than I thought. Even with Cresta's sense of smell leading the way, we had been running across the city for almost half an hour now. It was getting well into noon, and the only signs we found of her was the faint, quickly drying slime trail. That girl was a lot faster than any of us gave her credit for.
Thick clouds crept across the sky, looking like it was going to rain. I heard from native Californians that thunderstorms weren't uncommon between now and fall. Aside from Remmy, there was one other I had to worry about if thunder were to occur.
Cresta glanced up at the sky with worry written on her face. I suspected she must know what those clouds were bringing.
"I'm fast. I could run ahead to catch up to her," she suggested, swallowing her hesitation.
"Definitely not." I shook my head. "There's no guarantee Remmy will stay put."
"What about me? A bird's eye view will help us find her much sooner," Ange said.
I took another look at the sky. Clouds were all around us now, casting a gloomy shade of grey across the already bleary cement cityscape of Vandice. No signs of thunder yet, but it could come at any second and would put Ange at risk of getting struck.
"Also rejected. I want to find Remmy fast, but not if you two are going to get hurt." I pulled both of them into a small cafe having a slow day. The only two employees were lounging around when we came in, and they welcomed us like we were their first customers of the day. One was in the middle of making himself a coffee.
The minimalist design of the cafe built with mahogany wood and illuminated by dim light exuded comfy. I ushered Cresta and Ange to a table just as the pitter patter of rain began.
"Are we waiting here until the rain lets up? It might wash away the smell by the time it ends," Cresta said.
"You two are staying here. I'll go look for Remmy. I'm pretty sure it's going to storm, and that's not something we're putting you through." I put a hand on her head, but she brushed it away and pouted.
"I'm still wearing the earmuffs. We can find her real quick if we look together!" she declared, but did a poor job of hiding the hesitation in her voice.
It was one thing to be at home within the comforts of insulated walls that also dulled outdoor noises. Earmuffs weren't going to cut it, especially not from the deafening booms of thunder.
Cresta opened her mouth to protest. Then it happened. The streets outside flashed bright first. Then the crack of lightning and rumble that followed, so loud that it made everyone in the cafe flinch.
The normally fearless assassin shrieked, then hid underneath the table. She clutched the earmuffs, pressing it harder to her head in hopes to drown out the sound.
"Nnnnghh… This is nothing." She gritted her teeth and forced herself to come out of her hiding place. "See, I'm fine. I can—"
Another tore through the sky. Cresta dropped to the fetal position, and Ange knelt down to hold her.
"Alright, we get it. I'll watch Cresta here. Are you sure you can find her?" Ange asked.
"She left a trail. I should be able to follow it to her," I answered.
Seeing Cresta in such mental anguish hurt me deeply. I wished so much that there was more I could do.
Tarcosa, how did you take care of her in Weyera? I asked the high-king in my mind, hoping my voice would reach him from the other side.
Obviously, he didn't answer. This was my job after all.
I went to the counter and ordered hot chocolate for Ange and Cresta to drink.
"I don't want to overstep my boundaries, so tell me off if I am— Do you guys have a place, maybe a private room for my companions to stay in?" I asked the baristas.
The man and woman who looked like college students glanced at each other. They appeared to catch onto the issue after Cresta's terrified show.
"They can chill in the break room. It's further inside the cafe, so it might drown out more of the storm," the woman said.
"Thank you so much!" I left both of them a fat tip in the jar and returned to the others with the news.
"I'm sorry…" Cresta sulked in Ange's arms. They almost looked like a mother and daughter pair if it weren't for the obvious physical difference. That neither of them were antagonistic with each other was a miracle in and of itself.
Too bad we had to be in a situation like this.
I pinched and tugged on Cresta's cheeks until she looked like a chipmunk. "You have nothing to be sorry for. Just let me do my job and find Remmy. You sit tight with some hot chocolate, okay?"
Cresta nodded, then followed the employee into the break room while the other made their drinks.
"You're absolutely sure you don't want me to come with?" Ange put a hand to her own cheek and frowned.
"If you go, Cresta will definitely come. I need you to stay here to watch after her for me." As I turned to leave, Ange grabbed my hand, spun me around, and planted a kiss on my lips. I staggered back in surprise, clamping a hand over my mouth. "What was that for?"
"A little encouragement." She licked her fingers and grinned.
"In my world, there's something called death flags and this certainly feels like one!" I sighed.
I set out of the cafe with a jug of whole milk, feeling much more confident in finding Remmy than before. Whether it was a psychological effect of Ange's kiss, or she put some sort of spell on me, I didn't know. The boost was welcome nonetheless.
The slime's trail continued much further. It almost seemed like she left it one on purpose, but to go as far as she has definitely looked like someone running away.
Remmy, what do I need to do to get through to you? I wondered. Think, Akira. Think!
Remmy was Remmy. No last name of her own, just a first name she had given herself. A slime from the other world, Weyera. She was one of many among her kind, slimes that developed a core and were able to take form. Before arriving here, alchemists conducted experiments using her slime as an ingredient. An act punishable by death in Tarcosa's empire, because taking from a slime's body was akin to carving someone's flesh.
I was inclined to believe that she suffered severe mental trauma from her ordeal. Yet I'd been told the previous caretaker helped resolve that. Maybe we were mistaken. Did anyone just get over their anguish of that calibre playing video games? If anything, she had merely pushed it to the back of her mind.
My chest seized as realization hit, and I paused to catch my breath under the awning of a closed thrift store.
Shut-in, played video games day in and day out, hid from social interactions, ate away from sight, and her room was a disheveled mess— weren't these signs of depression? Of course, depression took many forms. Different people expressed it differently.
Forcing her to come out here, raising my voice at her… I did every textbook example of what not to do and pushed her away instead.
"I'm so stupid." I clicked my tongue, and as if on cue to impede my progress, the rain began to strengthen into a downpour.
If visibility wasn't shot enough, the trail of slime was quickly washing away from the sidewalk before my eyes. If I didn't hurry, I'd lose her tracks completely. I kicked myself into high gear and ran through the crosswalk on the pedestrian light.
I have to find Remmy before—
The rain slowed. I saw the individual droplets against blinding headlights. Even the blaring car horn dulled as it raced ever closer.
At that moment, I didn't care about my own safety. I thought of Ange and Cresta, waiting at the cafe. Then I thought of Remmy alone out here somewhere, scared, drenched, and in pain.
Something tackled me, but it wasn't the car. I'd found myself on the other side of the street, feet planted firmly on the crosswalk, and the pedestrian light just now turning red. The car that was about to hit me barreled through the intersection with it's horn still blasting. It ran over the jug of milk that I'd lost my grip on, briefly splattering a puddle of white before being washed away.
Cresta had her face buried in my chest and arms wrapped around my waist. She glanced up, sighing with relief.
"Whew. Just in time," she said, then put a wagging finger in my face. "Look left, then right, then left again before crossing the street!"
My legs gave out. I was almost hit by a car.
This felt familiar. The first time I took Cresta into the city, I narrowly avoided being hit crossing the street. But that time…
"You didn't flinch to the car horn this time," I told her.
"Aha… I guess I didn't. When I saw that car, nothing else registered except that I needed to save you." She scratched her nose in embarrassment.
Thunder rumbled across the clouds. Cresta flinched, squeezing her eyes shut but shook it off.
"It's going to take some time getting used to…" she said.
Ange landed and stormed up to me with a fury, then slapped me across the face.
"Don't scare me like that. What would have happened if Cresta was still at the cafe?" The succubus glared.
"Now, hold on. That kiss you gave me earlier set the precedence for a death flag! It's not entirely… my… Okay, my bad…" I lost the battle the moment both of them started glaring.
"Remmy's not too far ahead." Cresta tugged on my hand to follow her.
The slime we had been looking for sat in a filthy alleyway between two apartment buildings, head buried in her knees. Before confronting her, I went to buy another gallon of milk from a nearby convenience store. Ange and Cresta waited at the sidewalk.
I put the gallon of milk by Remmy's side and sat down across from her, pressing my back to the other building. Rain bounced off her body, thickened as a form of protection against being washed away by water.
"You'll catch a cold if you stay out here like this," I said.
"Slimes don't catch colds," she answered without looking up.
"You know, I told the others to give you space when you first arrived. Then I was the dumb one who went against my own words by invading your space. I'm sorry. I'm still new to being a caretaker. This shit is hard. Work and life is hard. I get it if you want to look for a new dorm and caretaker, I'll talk to Professor Markel to get that to happen."
The reality was, I hadn't been a good caretaker to Remmy. If I had given more thought to what I was doing instead of acting reflexively, we might not have come to this point.
"I won't pretend to understand what you're going through," I continued. "Everyone's got baggage. If you'll give me another chance, I'll be as patient as you need me. I won't come to you unless you come to me."
Remmy wasn't all bad. Deep down there was a good slime in her. When she cleaned the bathroom spotless and ate the food clean off the plates, it made taking care of those stuff easier. She put in effort, and some was better than none.
Without a word, Remmy chugged the entire gallon of milk and stood up to her feet. Fists clenched, lips quivering, she turned to me with saddened eyes as though a crack had formed in the walls around her heart, but was hesitant to reach out.
"I don't like it… I don't like how I feel, and I don't know how to explain it…" she said, on the verge of tears.
Depression was never simple. It couldn't be explained. Sometimes, those dark feelings came and went without so much as a warning. One day, they would be perfectly fine and the next, feel like the absolutely worst.
"Yeah. It sucks. But you know what?" I stood up to face her. "That's okay, too."
Then the walls crumbled. Remmy dropped the jug of milk, fell to her hands and knees, and cried. I offered no hand nor words of comfort. She didn't need either of those.
Just someone to listen to her pain.