Tad was not coming out of his room. Amelia was getting very worried.
Every morning she knocked on Tad’s door and called his name, but there was no response. When Amelia got back from work she repeated the process, and the results were again the same. Amelia considered using her master key and just barging in, but the thought felt unnerving. They had agreed upon using the master key in emergencies only. It wasn’t like Tad could die in there. Or get in trouble. Right? Or… well, this was Tad, so he could probably get in trouble anywhere. But he could get out of them too, Amelia was sure.
She sighed and leaned to Tad’s door. This was the third evening after Tad had met Emily. Amelia had no idea if Tad was depressed or just needed time to sort out his thoughts. Maybe both, or maybe something else.
“Tad?” Amelia raised her voice, “Look, I know this all must be confusing and depressing, and maybe even… not understandable. I mean… okay, I don’t know what you’re feeling right now and I don’t pretend I do. But I want to help. Could we talk? It’s been three days and I’m worried about you!”
Still no response.
“Tad? Anybody home?”
She froze, her hand hovering in the air, ready for one more knock.
“You are still in there, right?”
Could he actually have left? With his reality-bending space-time-jumpy-powers or whatever they were called, he could literally be anywhere.
After that thought sunk in, Amelia didn’t hesitate anymore. She ran back to a box where she kept her keys and snatched the master key. When she returned, she knocked one more time.
“Tad? I’m coming in. If you’re in there, then answer me!”
He didn’t answer. Amelia took a deep breath and unlocked the door.
The room at least was in its usual order. Amelia let her gaze slowly travel around the room, first at the mostly unused kitchen space and then to the part Tad had furnished himself. The acoustic guitar stood lonely in the middle, standing out amidst the black and white, non-textured furniture. And then Amelia noticed Tad.
He was lying on his bed, looking so lifeless that Amelia gasped and might have even screamed. She backed against the door before she got her breathing to even back out.
“Tad?” she said cautiously, “Tad? Can you hear me?”
He wasn’t breathing. Okay, so that might not have been necessary for him, but it was still very, very frightening. Slowly, Amelia stepped towards the bed. Tad didn’t move. Had he been here like this all this time? For three days? What was wrong with him?
“Tad? Please answer me!”
Amelia felt panic slowly creeping in. She had to do something! But what? Why wasn’t he answering? Had meeting Emily hit him so hard that he had stopped functioning? Could anthropomorphic personifications break? What was going on?
Tad was, however, completely unaware of Amelia’s panic and worry. He was not responding because he wasn’t even there. Or well, he was, but only with a very small fraction of his being. Most of him was far away, yet also very near.
He was home, in his own garden.
He had needed to clear his thoughts, so he had retreated home and found the first calm spot he could think of. He had sometimes seen people make relaxing sand gardens, raking the grains into swirly shapes and perhaps reaching some sort of enlightenment or just achieving pretty pictures in sand. And he had also heard that beaches were good for calming the nerves and for meditation. So long ago he had made a beach, and a sand garden. Then he had combined them because two calming things were better than one, right? He had meant it to be a possible mediation spot for lost souls, but right now he felt quite lost too.
Too bad the place didn’t seem to work for him.
He had messed up. He was getting too attached to human things. To whims and wishes. To humans. His universal compassion was flaking, cracking into smaller pieces that clung to people he had met. To Amelia. To Miss Sato. Even to Mr. Dean. And to Emily.
I should not have asked Emily to stay.
I could not possibly take care of her.
And I should not.
The words had come out before he had managed to stop them. That had never happened before. Not when it mattered, at least. But now the uncontrollable words had been brought out by trust and attachment. Fortunately the social workers had been adamant.
Was he going too far? Was he starting to truly influence the living in ways he shouldn’t? He had known that he would be taking risks by taking a human form. But he had also known that it could be a way to alleviate his endless loneliness. And that perhaps it would give his slowly fragmenting self something to hold onto. And now it was doing just that, and he was afraid.
Could he keep doing this and still stay professional?
He stood up and started wandering. His Zen-beach-garden really wasn’t working for him now.
He focused his attention on a whole exploding solar system for a while. That kept him abstract enough to maybe believe he just needed some distance from the smaller things and everything would be fine.
There is no harm in talking, being a part of someone’s life. As much as Fate and the others might object, they cannot deny that most of them have done similar things. Much more than I have. Why should I be the only one to keep their distance?
Because I am an end.
I am too powerful to mess up.
So are many of the others. And they forget their place far more often.
I should probably stop talking to myself. I am just going in circles. Kind of like that very curious comet that is about to crash into a very unfortunate planet.
“I know I can make this work. Or so I thought. But now… Emily made me realise how absorbed into the human world I had got. But it… it gives me a new purpose. Nothing to overwrite my duty, but something… else besides that. Does that make sense?”
“So what do you think? Should I just stop and ask Fate or someone else to help me find the gemstone? That would perhaps be faster and without all these… doubts.”
The face in the mirror Tad had finally stopped to talk with sighed.
“I still don’t understand why you’re asking me, Master,” the mirror said, “I am but an extension of your will. Your creation.”
“I know that,” Tad said, “But you learn things. You hear things. I am simply looking for a more outside perspective.”
“Outside of yours? Riiiiight… well then. May I be direct?”
The mirror cleared its non-existent throat.
“Well, to me it kind of sounds like you’re actually happy out there.”
“Happy?” Tad repeated, “I… I suppose. Happiness is a difficult emotion. What does true happiness feel like?”
“Hell if I know. I’m just a face in a mirror. Look, all I know is that before that theft happened, you were spiralling towards depression again, and nobody likes you when you’re depressed.”
“Hardly anyone likes me anyway,” Tad pointed out.
“Yeah, but when you’re feeling down it’s all, oh no, I am meaningful only as a concept and yet I have been given a personality that needs to be validated by something.”
“I doubt my voice is really that high-pitched.”
“Nobody could imitate your real voice. My point is, that you turn into a weird, existential angst-ridden douchebag when you’re in one of your funks.”
“Goodness, Styx, who has been teaching you such foul language?”
“It was one of those teenagers,” said another mirror in the corner.
“Shut up, Lethe!” Styx snapped.
“No, you shut up! If you don’t show some respect, Master might just end you!”
“Like I care. Would be something new at least. Now the only ones I get to talk to most of the time are you and that bitch Annabelle…”
“Styx, you know you are not allowed to be disrespectful towards the lost souls,” said Tad, “Miss Annabelle is demanding, but she is slowly finding her way. And you also know that I can give you another existence if you just asked.”
“Oh, he’s not really being unhappy with this,” said Lethe, “It’s just his usual whining.”
“Shut up, Lethe!”
“Well, I see you are being busy. Just… go on with your… business.”
“Will do, Master,” said Lethe, “And at least I personally think that everyone deserves happiness. You too.”
“I will keep that in mind. Thank you.”
When Tad didn’t wake up the next day either, Amelia finally got worried enough to call someone. The only one she could think of was Vanja, since she at least seemed to know who and what Tad really was and obviously had a lot of expertise on the subject of magical things. She arrived very quickly, and Amelia couldn’t help trying to get a glimpse of a flying broom or some other magical means of transportation. But there didn’t seem to be any around. There was just Vanja being her usual groomed self and looking at Amelia expectantly.
“Well? What is it?” she asked, “You said something was wrong?”
“Um… yes,” Amelia said, “It’s about Tad… he’s not waking up.”
Vanja raised a brow.
“And… I was hoping that you could take a look at him and see what’s wrong.”
“Take a look at him?” Vanja repeated, “You called me here for that? Ugh… and here I was hoping I could actually get that interview. Oh, well. Maybe next time. And at least now’s maybe a good time to snatch a sample or two…”
Amelia cleared her throat nervously. She wasn’t sure if Vanja was serious or not.
“Uuuuh… just maybe take a look at him? I’m worried.”
“About him?” there was clear disbelief in Vanja’s tone, “He’s going to be fine, I’m sure! Oh, fine! If you insist. Where is he?”
Amelia took Vanja into Tad’s room. Vanja cast a distasteful look at the furniture and then focused on the unmoving form of Tad. She leaned forward, stroking her chin as if deep in thought.
“Well, interesting. He doesn’t seem to be all there. Did something happen?”
“Nothing,” Amelia said, but then hesitated, “Well, he was a bit affected by an incident a few days ago. He saved a little girl and was obviously disappointed when the social workers took her away from here.”
“He… saved someone?” she asked in a quiet, dangerous voice, “Death? Saved someone?”
“Well, apparently she wouldn’t have died,” Amelia said quickly. Something about Vanja’s sudden shift in mood frightened her.
“Right,” Vanja said dubiously, “Well, he’s probably brooding somewhere else, then. I can do a magical check to make sure… to be honest I don’t have much hands-on experience with these kinds of things, but I’m sure I’ll manage.”
She pulled out her wand, and Amelia stepped back when she started waving it.
Her movements were deliberate and elegant, and Amelia was both unnerved and mesmerised by the neon green sparkles that filled the air.
“As I thought,” Vanja said almost smugly, “He is only barely here. This is just his human shell. Probably an anchor so that he can come back once he’s done being… wherever he is. I’d hazard a guess that he is in his home dimension, or whatever he calls it. These kinds of beings usually have their own kingdoms somewhere out of this world.”
Amelia clapped her hands.
“Oh, that’s amazing! So he’s okay?”
“He should be. Since he left the body here, I’d guess he will come back once he feels like it.”
Vanja crossed her arms, clearly proud of herself.
“Now, will there be anything else?”
“Well, I don’t want to have my guests leave without a tea break. Or do you prefer coffee?”
Vanja thought about it for a moment, as if considering if she should grace Amelia’s house with her presence any further. Finally a hint of a smile quirked her lips.
“Coffee. With two teaspoons of cream and half a cube of sugar.”
Amelia hadn’t needed to brew much coffee lately, and the only coffee she had in the house was an organic dark roast her mother loved. It was probably still good, so Amelia brewed a cup of it and added the very specific amounts of extras Vanja had wanted. For herself Amelia made some minty green tea, and they both sat down into the kitchen. It wasn’t the most comfortable of shared moments. Amelia didn’t seem to get a proper connection to Vanja Leifsdóttir. It was a bit surprising. Usually Amelia could get along with pretty much anyone.
“So… you obviously know a lot about this supernatural world,” Amelia said tentatively, “Or… is this all just common knowledge? Grim Reapers and metaphors coming to life?”
Vanja leaned back in her chair and laced her fingers together.
“It is common knowledge for those who pursue it,” she said, “Like me. I am a researcher. A scientist, if you will.”
“I thought you were a sorceress.”
“Yes. That is another name for it. Some less educated ones call themselves witches, but that doesn’t have the proper ring to it. Sorceresses and sorcerers are in the academic field. So like scientists. It’s like… how did that old saying go? Ah… Any technology that is sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. Like lightning. It used to be magic, or the wrath of the gods, but then they analysed it a bit, and boom! Science. Or different universes created through choice. Something out of our wildest fantasies. And then some analysis and boom! It… well, it still doesn’t make much sense, but it’s closer to it. And yeah, science! You have to ask Tad about that; I’d guess he’s better at quantum physics. In my case, I study alchemy and the kind of advanced science of drawing energy from the spirit, the Earth, and the mechanics of the universe.”
“How do you do that?”
“Well, through magic of course.”
“That… I don’t think I follow.”
“It’s science and magic!” Vanja said impatiently.
Amelia still didn’t get it. But she supposed Vanja was not the kind of person who liked layman’s terms.
“Okay… so you do magic science study… stuff?”
“If you want to put it so crudely, yes. I am also doing a new thesis on anthropomorphic personifications. That’s why I want to interview Mr. Dustpine.”
She said Tad’s name with slight distaste again. Amelia took a sip of her tea to mask her frown. Vanja obviously had something against Tad, and Amelia could guess by now that it was probably a sore subject for her. Basic logic indicated that it involved someone close to her dying. Amelia knew it wasn’t her place to pry. Vanja drank her coffee after tasting it very cautiously first. She nodded almost approvingly after she set the cup down.
“It was okay,” she said, “A bit too dark, but I suppose I’ll just bring my own coffee next time. A good amount of sugar and cream, though. Thank you.”
“I must go back to work. And I think you should stop driving yourself crazy by babysitting Death. He’ll be fine. I’m not so sure about the people around him.”
Vanja turned around and was about to leave, but Amelia blocked her way before she herself even realised what she was doing.
“He’s not really that bad, you know,” she said.
“Of course not. Anthropomorphic personifications rarely are. They are too… limited for that sort of thing. My point is that bad or not, they tend to mess things up.”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“But I can’t deny my interest towards them either. Maybe next time I’ll get that interview. For now I’ll just make do with this hair sample.”
“What hair sample? When did you have time to get that?”
But Vanja had already made her way past Amelia. Then she was gone, leaving a trail of clip-clopping footsteps behind her.
Amelia was left alone in a house that seemed to echo with… something. Maybe it was her worry. Or loneliness. Outside, Tad’s garden was slowly slumping and becoming forlorn without him there to take care of it.
After talking to his creations some more without getting any further help with his thoughts, Tad tried to turn to the lost souls that inhabited his garden. Usually they shied away from him. This time it took them a while to realise it was him.
Usually Tad visited his home either formless or in his more classic, robed form. But by keeping his human form it would be easier for him to find his way back to the more physical body he had left behind. Though as soon as he opened his mouth and spoke, everyone knew who he was, and usually excused themselves very quickly.
Tad sighed. The pattern was always the same: The new arrivals crowded around him, trying to find their way forward and hoping he would help them. But once they realised they had to find their own way and that his help was only going to be cryptic – mostly because he couldn’t find the way for anyone – they usually went back to either fear or anger.
And him asking their advice? Most of them started thinking that the world was going to end. Or something like that.
But perhaps it wasn’t all for nothing, after all. For when Tad walked through his kingdom, he gradually found his peace again. He still knew who he was. No attachment had taken that away. He felt the pull that came from his physical body, but he realised that the pull was there because he wanted to return. He looked at the faces that turned away from him and then thought of the smiles from Amelia and Emily and others. It made him feel… happy? Perhaps not quite, if he was really being honest with himself. Happiness was a difficult emotion for him, after all. But he was the closest he had perhaps ever been to understanding what true happiness actually felt like.
It was funny. Before he had only dared to long for it in his “funks”, as Styx had tactfully put it. But now some of the ants in the anthill had reached out to him. And he had managed to make contact back in a whole new context. He had been needed, and not just as Death, but as Tad Dustpine.
It was definitely refreshing.
Tad stopped to stand at the balcony of his house. The garden spread around him, familiar, labyrinthine and comforting. It was perhaps even more comforting now than it normally was.
Tad smiled gently at it.
Yes. He would certainly go back. If Fate or the others had a problem with that, they could all officially state it instead of sending someone to harass him.
First, though, he would try that meditating thing again. Perhaps he could use his fountain room. That was always rather calming.
After a moment of thinking Amelia decided that she needed a walk. She gently laid her kitty tea set into the sink and went outside. The walk was an aimless one, taking her through the calmingly groomed and pretty neighbourhoods and past familiar faces.
Before she knew it, Amelia realised that she had gone all the way to Ley Line Nexus. It was slowly getting dark, but it wasn’t too late yet. Amelia thought about it for a moment and decided she could pay Brigitte a visit again. The lights were on, so at least someone was home.
They probably wouldn’t mind the surprise. And the last time Amelia had been there, the visit had cleared her head a lot. Maybe it would help her with her worries this time too.
It certainly wouldn’t hurt, at least.
Author’s Note: Well, at least I got an excuse to show Tad’s garden again. I’m pretty happy with it considering I made it by just really randomly dividing it into sections and slapping all sorts of plants in there. So yay? Also that random floating window in one of the pics was an accident but I didn’t want to fix it because hey, if Tad wants a floating window in his house then he shall have a floating window. Also when I was taking some of the mirror pics in Death’s house, Tad delayed the photoshoot by doing this autonomously:
Got to spare a moment for those poor lost souls. He’s such a sweetheart!
I promise that things will eventually happen in this. Very soon in fact.
I hope you enjoy!