“So, after we take care of the Lost, Louis says, ‘Let’s keep moving.’ And I’m like ‘Louis, man, I love you, but do you even know where we are?’”
Marleu grinned as she sipped her tea, listening to Yakumo relate another story of a mishap he and Louis got into a few years ago. It was becoming a regular thing for them in their off-time, and while Marleu wasn't convinced all the stories were true, they were entertaining. “Then he goes ‘of course I do, the blood spring’s supposed to be here on the map.’ So I take the damn thing, give it a quick glance, then tell him…” He trailed off and looked over Louis desk, partially hidden by a huge stack of books. “Hey Louis! Louis!”
A groan came from behind the stack. “What?”
“I know your listening. Why don’t you come over here and tell Mar the punchline of this little story?”
“Tell her yourself.”
“Because it’s funnier when you say it.” Marleu heard Louis groan, then snap his book shut, followed by a loud thud as he dropped it on his desk. He got up and joined them.
“I don’t understand why you need to tell her every misadventure we’ve had over the last few years.”
“I’m not telling her all of them, only the funny ones.” Yakumo said, taking a swig of his brandy. The smell made Louis’ nose crinkle in disgust. “She needs to know that our calm and composed leader is just as quirky as the rest of us.”
“By sharing horrible stories at my expense?” Louis raised an eyebrow as he looked at the glass. “How many of those have you had?”
“Not important. Tell her the punchline.”
“Right…” Louis sighed and sat next to next to Marleu. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with his finger. “So, after Yakumo gets his hands on the map, he looks it over, then gives me this look that… I’m still not sure how to describe and says-”
“Louis, the map is upside down!” Yakumo blurted out. Louis hid his hair behind his face as it turned a distinct shade of pink. Marleu frowned, processing the story.
“You didn’t know how to read a map?” She asked, looking at Louis.
“Yes, that’s the punchline. I, at the time, did not know how to read a map.” Louis sounded more tired than annoyed, like he resigned himself to the reality that Yakumo would tell every new person this story at least once. “Now if you’re finished Yakumo, please put the brandy away.”
“All right. All right.” Yakumo grumbled but closed the bottle and put it back in the small fridge behind the bar. Marleu sipped her tea, a small frown on her face.
“So is it you didn’t know how to read a map? Or you forgot how to read one?” She asked. Louis looked up at her, and she noticed a little surprise on his face. He needed to think for a second before giving her a solid answer.
“I didn’t know how.” He finally said, “Revenants lose parts of their memories when they die, but those are conscious memories. Memories from when we were human. Our families, friends, the name of the bookstore I liked to go to before the collapse. But we can’t lose the memories that come from repeated habits.”
Marleu tilted her head and her confusion must have been clear on her face, because Yakumo spoke up. “Let me put it like this. When I woke up, I couldn’t remember everything. When I saw I had a gun strapped to my waist, I wasn’t sure why, but when a Lost came at me, I still knew how to aim and pull the trigger to shoot it in the head.”
“And your combat skills are not something a person just knows. You’ve had training, possibly military. That kind of muscle memory is ingrained in you. It won’t be easily forgotten.” Louis added. Marleu nodded, letting the information sit. She took a sip of her tea watching as Louis brought his hand to his lips, a thought crossing his mind. “There’s actually an interesting study I remember reading, though I wouldn’t be able to tell you when I did. A man, because of an illness, ended up with two forms of amnesia, one that made him forget his past, and another that made it impossible for him to make new memories. But when taught how to play a song on the piano, with repeated practice he could play it on instinct, but if asked how he learned it, wouldn’t be able to answer.”
“Interesting.” Marleu said, her eyes wide as she listened. Louis gave her a small smile.
“Memories are fascinating. They help remind us of what it means to be ourselves and yet are fleeting. Then just when you think you might have lost them, you find something that triggers that sense of familiarity that makes you yearn for them again.”
Marleu nodded, and the door to the church opened. A grin crossed Yakumo’s face when he saw it was Coco. “Well, look who’s back. How was your morning route Coco?”
“Trade’s been a little more active since you guys started reviving the blood springs. I have human and revenant customers coming out of the woodwork.” Coco said. “Got a few things I need to go through, but I figure with all the work you’ve been putting in the past few weeks you deserve a first look. I’ll even throw in a discount.”
“Oh?” Yakumo raised an eyebrow, a grin forming on his face. “Coco, what melted your icy heart? Find yourself a nice man?”
Coco glared at him. “Okay, everyone except Yakumo gets a discount. And Marleu, she can pick one thing for free.”
Yakumo groaned and Marleu looked at Coco confused, before feeling Louis tap her shoulder getting her attention. He asked her to wake Io up while he got Rin out of her workshop. While they did that, Yakumo helped Coco get her things into the church and set up around her usual spot. The rest of the group came over just as the two were finishing setting everything up. “What you got today, Coco?” The excitement in Rin’s voice made Coco smile.
Coco’s hauls were always a combination of materials for their gear and valuables that brought entertainment to their base. Marleu had learned right away that the woman had the ability to find almost anything they asked for. So far, she had not had a personal request, unlike Rin who liked games or Louis who was interested in books or information about mistle and blood springs. She was still trying to get a feel of her own interests. Music and books were nice, but puzzles made her heart skip a beat. Putting small pieces together on the coffee table made her feel like she was more at home. So when she saw a small box showing a lake and a forest on the skyline, she did not hesitate to pick it up.
“Thought you’d like that.” Coco said. Marleu felt her face become warm, but ignored it as she watched the others. Louis skimmed through the few books, Yakumo and Rin looked over the board games. The strange novelty items had Io’s attention. “Such curious things…” She muttered as she picked up a small lamp and studied it in her hands. Her eyes then fell on a large case that was lying a few feet away. She leaned over and looked it over.
“What’s this?” Io muttered. Marleu got closer and looked it over, a frown on her face. She looked at Coco.
“Hey Coco?” She asked, getting the woman’s attention.
“That’s a guitar case.” She explained. Louis looked up from the book he was skimming through. “That one was a surprise. One of the humans at the nearby shelter traded it for some tools. Gotta say it’s in pretty good condition.”
Io looked back at the case, and Marleu studied its appearance. She noticed the silver latches on the black case and one by one unhooked them. She pulled up the top of the case, her eyes widening as she gazed at the guitar inside it. It wasn’t the guitar itself that had her amazed, but more the condition it was in. The wood was untouched by dust and the strings in place. It looked like it was in mint condition. “It’s beautiful.” She said. Yakumo let out a low whistle.
“That is one lucky guitar.”
Marleu looked at it for a moment longer, then after some hesitation reached out and pulled it out of the case. She sat herself on the hood of Coco’s car and after looking it over, strummed one string with her fingers. The sour sound reverberated, making her wince. It sounded like she was trying to play with a wet noodle. “I guess I wasn’t a guitarist in my past life.” She commented, getting a few chuckles from the others.
Except Louis, who took a seat next to her, eyes falling on the instrument.
“May I?” he asked. Marleu nodded and held the instrument out for him. He took it and tested it in his hands, settling into a comfortable position. “There should be a pick in the case…”
Marleu looked back in the case and noticed a small piece of plastic in the corner. “This?“
“Yes, thank you.” He took it took it, ran his fingers over it, then turned his attention back to the guitar. He made sure the strings were not too loose, but not too tight, and placed his fingers in along the neck. He then strummed the strings. The sound that came out was the opposite of the flat, out of tune, cord Marleu had played only a moment ago. Instead, it was pleasant and light on the ears. He played a few notes; the tune carrying through the church like it was dancing on the air. “Whoever this belonged to, took great care of it. It sounds beautiful.”
He continued to play. Marleu slowly realized he was not just playing notes at random. Instead, he was playing a small song. She watched as he moved from one note to the next, strumming with an ease that only came from regular practice. His shoulders had relaxed and Marleu noticed his eyes light up in a way they only did when he was reading a book he really liked.
No, it was different. A genuine smile crossed his face, one that touched his eyes. He looked more alive playing on that guitar than he did on an average day. He finished playing his small song and let out a breath as he whispered something that like the word ‘beautiful.’ Rin started clapping, Yakumo followed with a light one himself. “That was amazing Louis! Why didn’t you ever tell us you could play a guitar?” She asked.
Louis smile faded as he looked at the instrument. “I didn’t know I could.” The words hung in the air, his eyes looking duller. Marleu cleared her throat.
“That song sounded fantastic Louis.” She said, getting his attention. Yakumo nodded in agreement.
“Yeah. Now that I think about it, you kinda look like a music guy.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Louis asked, but he was smiling. Not quite the same as he had been when playing, but it was there. He pondered the guitar in his hands, then looked at Coco. “How much?”
“You really like it.” Coco’s eyebrows shot up in amusement as she looked the instrument over. “It’s in good condition, plays well in the right hands. Unfortunately for you, anything musical is in high demand among revenants. So it’s gonna cost you quite a bit.”
“’Quite a bit’ as in?” Louis asked. Coco brought her hand to her chin. Marleu looked at the guitar, an idea crossing her mind.
“Hey, Coco, you said-”
“You aren’t using your free present to get Louis the guitar.” Coco’s blunt answer made Marleu pout. Louis looked at her.
“I appreciate the gesture.” He said. He waited as Coco wrote what she would trade the guitar for and handed it to him. His eyes widened and his face became a shade lighter. “Oh…”
“That bad?” Yakumo leaned over. “Geez, Coco, that’s practically extortion.” He thought for a moment, “Tell you what. I’ll pitch in a little.”
“You sure, Yakumo?” Louis asked. He nodded.
“It’s not often I see you that happy about anything. And honestly, this haul here’s a bit of a dud on my end.” Yakumo said, putting a hand on Rin’s head. “Short stuff here stole the only good board game.”
Louis put the instrument away and followed Yakumo to get the haze and items Coco wanted to trade for the guitar. Marleu looked down at the instrument now resting in its case, then at Io, who was staring at it with wonder.
“Maybe if you ask nicely, Louis can teach you how to play it.” She said. Io looked up at her confused, her eyes wide as though Marleu’s voice had snapped her out of some of her thoughts.
“It produces a lovely sound, but I doubt I’d be able to replicate it.” The young girl said. Marleu gave her a weak smile and watched as Louis handed Coco the haze she requested and asked multiple times about one book on her list for trade before, with great reluctance, handing it over to her. She heard Yakumo tease the shorter man about the book, saw Louis face turn a slight shade of pink, and smiled.
It was nice when Home Base was lively.
The evening was quiet. Most of the group was soaking in the hot spring. Louis was sitting on the couch. Marleu looked over she noticed he was writing in a journal. She and Io were working on the puzzle she had gotten from Coco. The white-haired girl looked almost mesmerized by the small pieces and how putting them together caused a picture to form.
“Such an interesting creation.” She said. “I have found myself drawn to looking at the photos scattered about this place, but piecing one together by oneself…”
Marleu gave her a weary smile. “You’ve never done a puzzle before?”
“I don’t have any memories of doing so. Do you?” Io asked. Marleu made a face, then shrugged.
“Not really, but it’s weird. When I found my first puzzle box, I got this warm, familiar feeling in my chest. And when I put it together, I felt happy and nostalgic. Now whenever I see a new one, I get excited about putting it together.” She explained. Io hummed a little.
“You’re remembering things while not remembering them?”
Marleu made a face as she tried to come up with an answer to Io’s question. She stopped short when she heard Louis plucking at the strings of the guitar again. Saved by the sound of music. She looked over at him, then turned back to Io.
“Let’s take a break.” She said getting to her feet and walked over to the couches. Louis continued to test the strings as she took a seat next to him. “Having fun?” He looked up at her, then nodded.
“I am.” He said. Marleu looked down at the notebook. There were words written in neat cursive, but it took her a moment to realize they were lyrics. And he had a hand drawn several stanzas, scribbled a note on some, then crossed out and replaced them with others. “It’s strange. But I’ve been feeling something stirring inside me. This song, it’s been at the back of my mind for a while. I’ve never been able to find where I’ve heard it, but I think I might be able to play it.”
Marleu’s eyes scanned the notebook. She couldn’t read a single note on the sheet, but was curious how it would sound. “Is it all right if I listen?”
Her question was simple enough, but she saw Louis pause. Maybe it was just her imagination, but she noticed his jaw clench, and hesitation cross his face. She wondered why, and almost said he could say no if he didn’t feel comfortable, but he nodded.
“Yeah, it’s fine.” He said, then looked past her. Marleu turned around to see Io had joined them. “Do you want to listen too, Io?”
Io nodded and sat across from Louis, who moved over a little so Marleu could sit next to him. He pulled the notebook a little closer to himself, but whether it was so he could see what he had put or to keep her from seeing it, she wasn’t sure. Louis was always rather private. He looked down at the notebook and strummed a few strings.
The first few sounded pleasant, but one note made them all wince.
“That’s not right.” He said, a meek smile as he spoke more to himself than them, and picked up his pen. He crossed out the note he played, “Maybe this?” He drew another one on the makeshift sheet music and tested it. “Yes, that’s better.”
He started playing again. Marleu stared at his fingers as they worked their magic, then turned her attention to his face. He looked content as he moved from note to note, the guitars sound having a gentle and almost sad sound. Marleu’s eyes dropped as she listened to the melody. Beautiful, yet so sad. She heard him hum quietly as he played. A little off key, but passionate, and filled with love.
She wondered what he would sound like if tried to sing whatever lyrics he had written. Then Io leaned forward to look at the notebook. Louis stopped playing.
“Is something wrong Io?” he asked, his voice tight. Io looked up at Louis, then back at the notebook. Then back at him.
“Could I take a closer look?”
Louis was quiet, Marleu noticed right away the muscles in his neck tighten, his eyes moving down to the book. Hesitation crossed his face for a split second before he forced a more neutral expression. “Y-Yeah. Go ahead.”
Io rotated the book so she could get a better look. Marleu watched them, not sure if she should say anything. “These lyrics…” Io muttered, as she looked back at Louis “Can you play this again?”
Louis nodded and took a deep breath, trying to relax the tension that had been growing in his shoulders. He began playing again. Again, that soft sadness came from each note. Marleu watched him play, then looked at Io, who closed her eyes as she listened.
Then she started singing.
“In these walls, lies many stories…
Frozen in time, they long to be free… “
Marleu’s eyes widened as Io sang. The lyrics were haunting yet she sang them so beautifully, matching with Louis as he played. She looked between the two, leaning forward in her seat as she listened. She watched Louis’ play, listened as Io sang with a voice she didn’t think the girl was capable of. She focused on the lyrics.
“Crystalline Fragments of all I see…
Shining brightly, glimmering…
Oh, if I could only reach…
Then, I might be complete…”
The lyrics were strange. Stories frozen in time. Crystalline fragments. It almost sounded like the author was lamenting a time lost. Or something they had forgotten that was important. Marleu looked up at Louis as he played. His eyes were dark and half lidded, like he had lost himself to the music and lyrics.
“Fleeting memory; turning to ash…
I cannot escape.
My persistence is futility.
One more step, I go…”
Io’s last note trailed, and Marleu watched as the girl folded her hands in her lap, her shoulders moving up and down as she breathed. Louis played the last few notes of the song, coming to a slow stop. Marleu looked between them, the silence becoming overbearing, so she clapped her hands together. “That was…” she started, trailing off as she had trouble finding the words. It was beautiful. A performance she did not want to forget and hoped she never did, but she found any praise she wanted to give melting on her lips. “That-”
Louis harsh breathing cut her off, and the two looked at him. There were tears running down his cheek. He lowered his head, hiding his face against the frame of the guitar. Marleu leaned over, reaching out a hand. “Louis?”
Her voice made him look up, but then away. He let the instrument rest against the unoccupied spot on the couch and wiped away the tears with his sleeve. “Sorry, I-” He got up and Marleu was sure she heard him mutter something about water, and watched him walk over to the bar. She looked at Io, the young girl’s eyes wide. She then looked at Marleu, worried.
“I-” She started, then stopped, her hands folded over her chest. Marleu looked at her. “I’m sorry. Did I upset him?”
“N-no, of course not!” Marleu said, but she looked at Louis, then looked back at Io. She could tell from the young girl’s face she did not believe her. She shook her head. “I-I’m sure he’s fine. He probably just got emotional because you sing so well.”
She wanted to say more to assure Io everything was fine, but Louis’ footsteps made her stop. She looked at him as he rejoined them. His face was red, his eyes a little bloodshot from the sudden outburst of emotion, but he looked more composed. He looked between the two of them and sat down. “I… I’m sorry about that.” He said, not looking at either of them as he hunched over and folded his hands into his lap. The air in the church became still until Io spoke up.
“Louis, did I do something to upset you?” Io asked, getting his attention. He looked like he was not completely there, half lost in his thoughts.
“No, you’re fine, just…” He trailed off and looked back down. His shoulders shook for a moment, and Marleu saw his jaw clench as he tried to say something.
“Are you okay?” Marleu asked. Louis brought his hand up to his head, pushing some of his bangs out of his face.
“Sometimes when it’s quiet, I hum that song. I didn’t know where I heard it, and I know I didn’t write it. Hearing Io sing - no - hearing Io sing while I played triggered some memories.” He managed a hollow chuckle that somehow did the opposite of easing any of Marleu’s concerns. “I think I need a break from music tonight.”
“You don’t have to apologize for anything Io.” Louis cut her off before the white-haired girl continued. “I’m sorry I gave you the wrong idea. I enjoyed playing, and you have a beautiful singing voice. We should do this again, but… I need some time to process everything. Does that make sense?”
Io said nothing, just kept her head to the floor as she nodded. Louis grabbed his guitar and put it back in the case, then got to his feet. Marleu looked down at the coffee table and grabbed it as he left. “Louis.” She said getting his attention. She held it out to him. “Here.”
He looked at the notebook and took it. “Thank you.” His voice was flat and his smile forced and faint. He started to leave again, but before she could stop herself Marleu was talking.
“Uh, Louis,” she started, and he stopped and looked back at her. “I know you probably don’t want to talk now, but if you need an ear later, I’m here okay?“
He looked down at the ground, then back at her. “I appreciate hearing that, Marleu.” He excused himself and left for the bedrooms. Marleu watched him leave, then sighed, and turned back to Io.
“Hey, let’s try to finish up that puzzle.” She said, trying to perk up. She led Io back to the bar where they had been working before. As they did, Marleu noticed Io still looked sad.
“So that’s why he was so quiet last night.” Marleu nodded as she drank down the tea Yakumo had made her. It was morning. Some of them were still sleeping. Coco had already gone out to do her trades. Louis had not left his room since the evening. Yakumo however, did not seem as concerned as she did.
“Was I wrong to let him leave like that?”
“Nah, you did the right thing.” Yakumo said then chuckled as he looked around the corner. “Sometimes when Louis gets stuck in his head, it’s best to leave him alone. I mean, one time when I didn’t know that, I almost-”
“Yakumo, please stop telling Marleu stories at my expense.” Marleu turned around to see Louis, his hair disheveled like he had just crawled out of bed, and looking more than a little annoyed. Yakumo gave him a quick look over and nodded.
“Okay. You look like you need a day off.”
It was tricky to tell since they were hiding behind his hair, but Marleu was certain she saw Louis roll his eyes. He took a seat next to her and poured himself some tea. Marleu fiddled with her cup, watching as he took a long sip and let out a tired sigh. His face was pale. She wondered if he got any sleep. “Are you feeling any better, Louis?” She asked. He looked at her and after some thought nodded.
“I’m getting there.” He said, leaning over to see Io still asleep. “Io’s still upset, isn’t she.”
Marleu nodded and Louis folded his hands and let them rest on the table. The three were quiet for a while, Louis glancing at his tea, not touching it as he tried to get his thoughts together. “That song. Cruz wrote it. I think.” He started. Marleu frowned.
“Cruz?” She remembered him mentioning that name when he regained his memories of Kevin. Louis took a deep breath and let it out.
“I didn’t remember until after I played it with Io. Cruz loved music, she liked to write song lyrics. Sometimes I’d help her figure out the melodies. We’d have our own small shows for each other.” He explained, “Hearing Io sing... no playing that song while she sang, made me remember that.”
“Can I ask? Who was Cruz?” Marleu’s question was met with a long silence that took time for Louis to answer.
“Someone I cared about but can barely remember.” Louis’ voice had taken on a lower tone that told her he either did not want to elaborate further, or he couldn’t. He forced himself to drink his morning tea and shook his head to wake himself up. He looked over to see Io sitting up in bed. He took a deep breath and let it out. “Please excuse me.”
He got up and Yakumo and Marleu watched as he walked over to Io, who moved a little so he could sit next to her. Yakumo then changed the subject, looking back at Marleu. “So, that puzzle you two were working on, how’d it come out?”
Marleu reached over to the finished work and showed it to Yakumo. The young man grinned and nodded in approval at the sight of the forest overlooking a lake.
The two were on their own only for a little while longer. Louis and Io came back over a few minutes later, and from the small smile on Io’s face and Louis’ lighter expression the two appeared to be back on good terms. Louis then brought a hand to his chin. “So, since Yakumo’s been enthralling you with stories at my expense why don’t I return the favor? I seem to recall a few months ago at this derelict art center-”
Yakumo’s face paled. “Louis, no.” The girls looked right at Louis, who had a rare smirk on his face. “Come on man.”
“What happened?” Marleu asked. Louis chuckled.
“Well, Coco got word that some humans might have been hiding from some revenants there, so...”
As Louis told the story, Yakumo groaned and resigned himself to his fate.