Tad was nervous. Amelia saw it in the slightly rigid way he walked across the Grisbys’ huge front yard and the way his eyes stayed unfocused. Amelia assumed he was somewhere else mostly to not let his shyness take over and make him back away from this now. Not that he would, Amelia was sure. He had been very determined to see Emily again and to make sure she had a good family now. Amelia was sure that Tad had nothing to worry about, but she was also glad to get him to socialise without her specifically asking him to. So when three weeks had passed after the funeral and the Grisbys had finally deemed things ready enough for visitors, Amelia had been ecstatic.
The Grisbys lived in the wealthier part of Riverview, in a very impressive mansion-like house. Amelia had met the Grisbys several times, and she could count herself as a friendly acquaintance of them. She knew that the Grisbys’ wealth was a bit newer and less tied to the land than the money of the old farmer families. That also meant that it was a bit more stable and less likely to die along with the town. Amelia also knew that Walter Grisby worked in politics and was trying his best to keep the town alive and well and to do good in general. It was certainly an admirable goal. Yvette Grisby worked as a chef at a cosy restaurant that served mostly local, nicely rustic food. The family had one biological child and two other foster children, as far as Amelia knew. So all in all, the Grisbys seemed like an ideal family for a little orphan girl. Amelia smiled confidently.
“See, isn’t this nice?” she said and spread her arms to encompass the yard and the house, “I’m sure this a great place for Emily.”
Tad finally returned to the present time and place. He didn’t smile, but he nodded cautiously.
“And I’m so glad you want to meet them! It’ll be good for you!”
“So you have told me,” Tad paused and then managed one of his faint smiles, “I am quite looking forward to this.”
Amelia clapped her hands in excitement.
As they were taking their last steps to reach the front porch, the door opened and the sunny face of Yvette Grisby peeked out. She stepped to the porch and waved. Behind her stood Emily, who clung to Yvette’s leg until she noticed who was coming.
Her little face scrunched up into a smile, and she let out a small, birdlike chirp.
“That’s right!” Yvette laughed, “I told you they’d be here! Go on, say hello!”
Emily hesitated only for a moment, and then she let go of Yvette’s leg and stumbled towards Tad, whose face was again frozen into perplexed delight.
“Careful, now!” Yvette said, “Watch out for the stairs, Emily!”
Emily was still in that awkward phase when walking was mostly just a constant state of falling occasionally stopped by a step. To be fair, many adults were still in that state too. She reached the first step of the stairs and didn’t slow down enough.
Her fall was stopped this time by a pair of spidery, gloved hands that lifted her up into the air. Emily chirped again. Tad had forgotten to breathe, but at least he had enough incentive to say a quiet:
“She really likes you, Mr. Dustpine! When I told her you’d be coming to visit, she was so excited.”
Amelia beamed at the sight.
“Aaww, she’s so precious!”
“That she is,” Yvette said, “Now, do come in. We can show you the house and Emily’s new room. Our daughter Laurel has been our head interior designer, and she’s been so excited to have a little sister. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Come on in!”
The Grisbys’ home was decorated with very good taste and harmonious colours. The harmony was only occasionally spiced up by a stray, colourful children’s toy. Yvette introduced Tad to her husband Walter and their teenage daughter Laurel, and then asked them to sit in the living room for a while. Tad reluctantly put Emily down, and she hesitated for a moment again before she scrambled towards a toy chest in the corner of the living room.
“Now then,” said Walter, whose smile mirrored his wife’s, “It’s really nice to talk to you two without any social workers taking our time.”
“Not that they don’t do an excellent job,” Yvette added, “But it’s all very official with them. They were also rather apprehensive of you, though I can’t imagine why. They told you that you were, after all, the ones who found Emily after the tragic event of… well, what happened to poor Miss Sato.”
Amelia glanced at Tad, who after a couple of courteous comments about the house had mostly just been silently surveying his surroundings. His lime green jeans made him stand out like a lava lamp in an art nouveau house.
“Yeah, Tad found her, actually,” Amelia said, “He brought her to our place. Emily was quite attached to Tad right away.”
“I can imagine,” Yvette smiled, “She’s starting to like us too quite a lot. Now that things are settling down again, she’s slowly coming out of her shell.”
She looked fondly at Emily, who had settled closer to them after finding a stuffed yeti she was now quietly playing with. A boy around the age of seven had snuck in to play with her. When Amelia turned to look at them, the boy immediately looked away. Yvette noticed it.
“Don’t worry about Mihael. He’s usually a bit wary around strangers. He’s very good at sneaking around too. And he’s been getting along with Emily pretty well. Isn’t that right, Miha?”
The boy named Mihael nodded and smiled at the rocket ship in his hands. Yvette beamed at the children.
“We’re so pleased to see that Emily’s finding her place in our family.”
“So she really has been… adjusting well?” Tad dared to ask after clearly searching for the right words for a moment.
“Mostly, yes,” Walter said, “Some doctors and therapists have taken a look at her, and given us some instructions for properly raising her. Now she’s getting used to this slowly but steadily. It’s nothing new to us, really.”
“Right, you have been doing this foster parenting before, right?” Amelia said.
“Yes, though after we decided to adopt Miha and Harper – she’s in her room now. She isn’t always up to meeting strangers – we had to stop that because the house was getting full,” Yvette explained, “We’re in the process of getting the paperwork for adopting Emily in order too, though. There’s no need to keep her without a steady home.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear there’ve been no problems.”
Laurel, who had been quiet so far, spoke up:
“You should know, though, that she doesn’t talk yet.”
“Really?” Amelia asked. Now that she thought about it, she had never heard Emily talk. But she had just thought it was because of the trauma and confusion.
“Oh, she can speak quite a few words,” Walter said, “And we’re working on that with the help of a speech therapist. It’s selective mutism combined with delayed vocabulary development. Just so you know so you won’t make her too anxious or get too worried if she doesn’t answer you.”
“We have taught her some gestures and very simple keyword signing already,” Laurel explained excitedly, “We can teach you too so she can communicate with you until she can get to the whole talking business!”
“SimNation’s standard signs?” Tad asked quietly.
“Yup!” Laurel said, “Do you know some?”
“Yes,” Tad said, and then he raised his hands and moved them in a few deliberate movements. It was graceful and careful, and Laurel clapped her hands in delight.
“So cool! You can do grammar and everything! I only know some basics. What other languages do you know?”
“Um…” Tad looked rather uncomfortable at the attention he was suddenly getting, “Several?”
“I think you’re getting another fan,” Yvette smiled at Tad, “And if Harper ever wants to meet you, I’m sure she’ll like you too.”
“Um… thank… you?”
“Now, let’s not make our guests uncomfortable. What do you say we show you Emily’s room? She really likes it.”
The upstairs of the house was much less elegant, but it was no less cosy. An easel with paint-sprinkled surroundings was the first thing Amelia saw. The wooden panelling was warm and reminded Amelia of home. Walter carried Emily upstairs and led his guests towards what was presumably Emily’s room, but before he had time to open its door, another door opened and a girl with long, black and blue hair peeked through.
“Are they gone yet… oh,” the girl trailed off when she saw that no, the guests were still right there. She froze into an uncertain silence. Despite the girl’s large glasses, Amelia noticed some rather prominent scars on her face. Walter smiled at her.
“Hey, Harper. You sure you don’t want to say hello to Amelia and Tad? They’ll no doubt visit again.”
The girl named Harper fidgeted in the doorway, and then accidentally made eye contact with Tad. She immediately smiled.
“Man, your eyes are so cool!”
Tad looked at Amelia helplessly.
“What is happening?” he whispered.
“I’d say the Grisbys were right about you having fans,” Amelia whispered back.
“I… I do not know how to deal with this.”
“Just play along. You wanted positive attention, right?”
Walter was smiling.
“Oh, don’t let the girls make you too uncomfortable, Tad. I used to be pretty shy back when I was younger too. But I got better. A good sense of humour helps with getting over anything.”
“Well, then there might be a problem,” Tad mused, “For I do not have a sense of humour.”
“Good one! Now, Harper, do you want the honours of showing them Emily’s room?”
Harper pursed her lips.
“Um… it’s right there, isn’t it? Can’t Laurel gush about it instead of me?”
“Laurel’s helping Yvette get our guests something to eat.”
“Uh, yeah, sorry, but no, I’ve got some photos I need to edit,” Harper said and then glanced at Tad again, “But yeah, really cool eyes. It’s like I can’t even look at them for long.”
“Most people cannot.”
Harper smiled uncertainly, and then disappeared back into her room. Walter adjusted Emily on his hip.
“She can be a bit blunt,” he said, “But she’s an amazing young person. A great photographer, with great insight into things. Now, shall we go? Laurel’s really proud of the room. She’s our artist. Though Harper helped too. The girls do almost everything together.”
The room was very pretty, in Amelia’s cute and colourful -oriented opinion at least. The dominant colours were peach and light blue. An assortment of toys was arranged around a lovely vintage bed, and a bunch of cute animals smiled from the walls. Walter put Emily down, and she immediately grabbed Tad’s hand and led him further into the room, where she proceeded to silently present some of her stuffed animals to him.
Amelia leaned to the doorframe and crossed her arms. Behind her, Walter chuckled good-naturedly.
“I guess we’ll have to be prepared to start calling him Uncle Tad soon,” he said only half-jokingly.
Tad’s eyes widened in shock, and he didn’t seem to be able to decide which emotion to put on his face. If Amelia hadn’t been able to identify so well with the feeling of too many new experiences at once in an unfamiliar world, she would have found it hilariously adorable.
Okay, so maybe it was still a bit adorable.
And after that meeting, the small and adorable moments became rather frequent in Amelia’s life and Tad’s existence. In fact, this whole story could easily be turned into sweet anecdotes about the most of the time smooth and loving family life of the Grisbys, and of Tad and Amelia’s visits there.
This story could also detail how Emily loved to play in Tad’s garden whenever the Grisbys visited the Spriggs’ house. And maybe this story could be about how Death discovered true happiness through being the cool, eccentric uncle to one lost and now almost found little girl.
But life didn’t quite work like that. It had its ups and downs, and even though the family life of the Grisbys and the visits to the Sprigg house were indeed very pleasant, it wasn’t all that the road to happiness or self-discovery contained.
And while things went smoothly in one place, all hell was breaking loose in hundreds of others. Such was how things went. And for the purposes of this story, one specific place where hell was about to break loose, or at least rattle its cage, should be focused on again.
That place was Novak Sanguine’s small apartment in Bridgeport.
Novak Sanguine had got used to living ready to bolt at any second. He kept his most distinguishable physical features something he could easily change or hide, and he didn’t bother owning or unpacking lots of things. All he really needed was his freedom, some work, clothes, a place to sleep, and his electronics. And maybe a pinch of magic every now and then. Over the years he had created a nice, smoothly functioning system out of his lifestyle and work. And really, having a small rented apartment he didn’t bother furnishing aside from some wall-coverings was way better than living on the streets and dumpster diving all of his food instead of just some of it.
He was sure that with enough planning and organisation he could survive pretty much anything, and he had indeed survived plenty in his life already. Really, it was no big deal.
That was why it was also easy for him to convince himself that constant stress and having to sleep with his shoes on again wasn’t a big deal either.
One could have thought that the deal he had been forced to make with the Grim Reaper a couple of months ago had something to do with his stress. But truth to be told, he quite liked digging up dirt and weaknesses about the Landgraabs. It was a nice challenge, one he could do from the relative safety of his apartment. And deadlines from morally complicated godlike beings were easier to deal with when said being was polite about it. No, his stress had much more to do with the threatening phone calls and messages he had begun receiving a couple of weeks ago.
To Novak it wasn’t anything especially new, but it was still never pleasant. This time it was even less so, because it meant that he really was running out of time and the people he owed money to had finally found him. They shouldn’t have even known any of his phone numbers. His only consolation was that it wasn’t his main number, but it was still a sign that they were getting closer to him. And they weren’t the kind of people who took being owed money to very kindly.
Novak had cursed his abysmal luck many times after getting his first call. The burglary to Death’s realm and the money paid for it should have helped him make great progress in getting his massive debts paid, but then his mysterious employer had decided to betray him and leave him penniless and almost riddled with bullets. So now he was hiding from criminals and his old employers. Though again, nothing new there.
The only silver lining in his life was currently that he had actually managed to dig up something useful about the Landgraabs. Nothing to help Death – or Tad – in his search, but still something he could use. And he had been using that to devise a last resort plan for getting out of this mess. It was a risky one, desperate even. And it required asking for Death’s help. It was something Novak would rather not do. He had his pride, and turning to absurdly powerful beings for protection was usually out of the question in his book. He was a survivor, and also very much in charge of his own fate, thank you very much. Sometimes life and other people just tended to butt into his business and start making invasive suggestions about said fate.
With those disgruntled thoughts, Novak fell into restless sleep, still dressed and with his shoes on.
He woke up to one of his phones ringing.
Very reluctantly, he dragged himself up from the bed and pressed the green icon on the screen.
“What?” he asked and looked out of the window. It was still too early to be considered morning. The summer night of Bridgeport was deceptively bright, but the sun wouldn’t be properly up for a couple of hours at least.
“You didn’t think you could run from us forever, did you, Brent?” spoke a gratingly familiar voice that was at least still using one of Novak’s old aliases. Novak took some comfort in knowing that they weren’t that well onto him yet.
Still, just staying on the phone was dangerous enough. But hanging up would do no good either.
“What do you want?” Novak asked and started scanning the room for necessary items just in case. If he had to leave quickly, he couldn’t afford looking for stuff.
“You know, we’ve been pretty patient with you so far,” the voice said, “And that’s because you did a very good job at the previous gigs. You know, before you managed to somehow get that loot and that car submerged one hundred leagues under the bay.”
Novak cringed at the mention of it. It had been the start of his problems, after all.
“Yeah, yeah, I know, and I’m sorry,” he said and actually tried to sound sincere.
“In fact,” the voice went on as if Novak hadn’t said anything, “We were so impressed by your work that we’re willing to give you one more chance.”
A chance sounded good. Any lifeline sounded good, really. Still, generosity from a criminal organisation was extremely suspicious.
“And?” Novak asked.
“Here’s the deal: you’d work for us again until you’ve paid your debts. And after that… well, we can put this all behind us.”
“That’s why you’ve been harassing me?”
“Well, we had to make sure you knew what refusing might lead to. You know, just in case. And hey, don’t you think some catching up is in order after you’ve been missing for such a long time?”
Novak actually laughed against the advice his survival instincts were giving him.
“Right. As tempting as getting into a slavery contract with you sounds, I have to say that I’ll pass. I’ll get you the money, and that-“
“That won’t work anymore. You’ve pissed us off way too much. It’s either this or the consequences.”
From the corridor outside his apartment, a very faint sound sneaked in. Footsteps. Confident. Swift. Most likely professional. Novak bit his lip.
“Yeah, sorry. But I’m still gonna say no,” he said, and then hung up. He crushed the phone under his foot and cursed under his breath.
He had to work quickly.
As the footsteps came closer, Novak grabbed his lightly packed backpack and shoved his laptop and remaining cell phones in it. He put on a beanie to hide his hair – he liked to live with the hope that he could keep his blue dreads a little longer; he’d just recently got them dyed – and tossed the backpack over his shoulder.
He shoved a tiny bag of spells, another pouch filled with herbs, a couple of small shiny marbles, and a jar of something shimmery into his pockets, and then opened the glass door to his balcony.
The front door to his apartment crashed open behind him. He quickly pulled out the shimmery jar and turned the lid open very carefully. He measured a small amount of pixie dust on his palm and sprinkled it on himself.
It would be enough to slow his fall, but not enough to make him sparkle. Many people tended to think that pixie dust was too unmanly for serious magic business, but they obviously didn’t know better. One just needed a bit restraint and creativity. Novak vaulted over the balcony’s railing, and let himself fall.
Despite the slightly slowed fall, the impact still rattled his joints. He fell to his knees, and felt the backpack slide from his shoulder. Before he could grab it again, someone grabbed him.
He was dragged to his feet, and a pair of strong arms wrapped around his neck, forming a very professional stranglehold. Novak barely had time to pry some breathing room for himself in order to keep his circulation from stopping. He struggled, but the man holding him was obviously strong and skilled at this.
Novak was just about to aim a vicious elbow at the man’s solar plexus, but then he noticed a pair of eyes glowing in the dark. Another man was approaching him from the front door of his apartment complex. The man was obviously a vampire, and Novak quickly concluded that the slippery bastard was probably the one who had just broken into his home. Using the stairs instead of jumping after him had probably just been to gloat how awesome super speed was.
Novak wasn’t very impressed, but he was surprised. He hadn’t known that the non-supernatural criminal organisations employed vampires too now. Well, he supposed they were more accepted here in Bridgeport. And handy to boot.
Not that it mattered. What mattered was that a man-shaped collection of mind screw, super speed, and venomous fangs was running towards him. And that said super being was relatively easy to take out with the arsenal he had with him at the moment.
Novak reluctantly let go of the man strangling him with his other hand, and inched his now free hand towards his pocket. He waited until the vampire was far too close for his liking, and then pulled out one of the marbles and broke its shell.
A violent burst of pure sunlight broke free from the miniature flashbang, making the vampire scream in mid-jump and temporarily blinding everyone in the vicinity. Everyone except Novak, who had screwed his eyes shut just in time. He heard the vampire’s skin sizzling, and then to his dismay felt a too-strong hand grabbing his arm. He quickly yanked himself free and pushed the flailing vampire off him, but felt the long, sharpened nails breaking the skin in his arm. The other man’s stranglehold had weakened when the sunlight hit, and Novak broke free of him too and spun around, delivering a hasty knee kick to the man’s face.
Normally he would have been embarrassed by the lack of finesse, but right now he was in kind of a hurry. He grabbed his backpack, ignoring the sting in his arm, and started running as fast as he could.
Well, there goes that life.
He had another backup plan before his desperate ask-Death-for-help-one. He could flee the town and lay low for a while until the gang had given up on looking for him. Or maybe he could fake his death. He’d only done that a couple of times before, and never in a very flashy way. Maybe this time some fireworks were in order. But before that he needed a way out of town, and he knew just where to find it.
He kept going until he almost ran into a vacant taxi. The outraged driver’s expression mellowed out considerably when Novak jumped in and waved a wad of cash at her. He told her to keep driving for a while. Where to, it didn’t matter.
Anywhere was better than where he was at the moment.
Author’s Note: Look who’s back? That’s right, I definitely didn’t forget about Novak! The alternative name for this chapter is: MOOD WHIPLASH! Now all we’d have needed is some random philosophical-ish discussions and this chapter would have been this story’s main themes and tones in a confused nutshell. Also my personal goals for this chapter were 1) trying to resist using too many of the tons of cute screenshots I have of Emily and the people around her and 2) NOT mentioning a certain warm beverage I really like during this chapter. Seriously, this story makes it look like I have an obsession with tea (I mean, I kind of do, but that’s besides the point somehow :P).
The Grisbys (Yvette, Walter and Laurel) are premades, and they were chosen as Emily’s foster/adoptive family because they were both nice and rich enough to accommodate some troubled children. 🙂 I like them. I confess that I did some minor tweaking to Walter and Laurel’s faces, though, mostly because at least in my game, even some of the more simple facial expressions made their faces get those lines that indicate to me that the game can’t quite handle their faces. But I tried to make the changes in the spirit of their original looks.
I know that using grammar in his sign language indicates that Tad didn’t actually do keyword signing, but he can totally do just the keywords if he wishes.
Also the reason I started getting into making some poses was because I couldn’t find enough decent hand-to-hand poses. Sure, I found some, and some were used in this chapter, but I wanted MORE! So the pic where Novak is getting strangled by the other dude is made with my own poses, and I’m pretty pleased with how they turned out, especially since I used to think pose-making was really hard. And yeah, it kind of is. Also holy smokes that random thug looks similar to the random thug in my other story! I didn’t even think about it before now.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy! Have a nice Midsummer!