In recent months, Amelia had faced so many strange things that it was difficult to imagine that something as ordinary as her mother surprisingly returning from her grieving/escapism trip could rattle her. But it did.
She found herself staring at her mother’s styled, stubbornly dyed hair and huge pink suitcase, her vocal cords locked for a very long moment. Her stare wandered to the elderly gentleman who had to be the Philippe she’d heard a lot about from her mum. The man gave her a relaxed, friendly smile that seemed as natural to him as breathing. Julia Sprigg was also smiling, and she was quick to envelope her still baffled daughter into an enthusiastic hug.
“Oh, I’ve missed you, ma chérie!” she said, “We were planning to surprise you by arriving so early, but it seems you beat us to it! What are you doing up this hour? Isn’t it work day? Shouldn’t you be still sleeping? Oh, the house looks magnifique! You’ve certainly been taking care of it. How lovely! And who… oh, but Amelia, qu’est-ce qu’il y a? What’s wrong?”
Amelia exhaled, and wondered how long ago she had stopped breathing.
“Mum?” she repeated, “What… what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be… you know, in France?”
“I was! But I couldn’t possibly miss two of your birthdays in a row! Missing just one felt like such a betrayal!”
“My… birthday?” Amelia repeated. She did some thinking to remember what day it was. Things like birthdays had slipped her mind in the tornado of recent weirdness, “Oh, right. It’s just a couple of days away.”
“Exactly!” Julia smiled, “Now, don’t be so shocked, ma chérie! Can’t a woman visit her home every once in a while?”
Amelia finally managed to shake off her surprise and even mustered a smile of her own.
“Of course you can, mum. I’m glad to see you.”
She quickly hugged her mum again.
“I missed you.”
“Aww, I missed you too.”
Suddenly she stepped back and then spread her arms as if to embrace the whole house next. Amelia heard footsteps when Novak and Tad instinctively stepped back.
“Oh, but where are my manners?” Julia said, “Amelia, meet Philippe! He’s the sweetest person you’ll ever come across! Or at least the second sweetest, after your dad. Philippe, voici ma fille, Amelia!”
Philippe nodded and then spoke in very uncertain Simlish:
“Hello, Amelia. I’ve ‘ea… heard lots about you.”
Amelia nodded and managed a short, one-word greeting in return before Julia directed her attention to Novak and Tad and started speaking again in her over-excited tone:
“Oh, and one of you must be the new tenant. Mr… Mr. Dustpine, oui? I’m going to guess it’s you”, she pointed at Tad, who fidgeted uncomfortably, “You seem to fit the description of the ‘pale, tiny young man who looks like the wind could tip him over.’”
Amelia almost choked on her next breath.
“Mum! I never said that!”
“Something along those lines,” Julia waved her hand, “Well, was I right?”
“Uh… yes,” Tad said shyly, “And I am not offended. It is nice to meet you, Mrs. Sprigg.”
Julia clapped her hands.
“How lovely! And I heard you’ve even started gardening here! I have to see that! I used to garden a lot before I left, you know? Though I always wanted to be a painter too. Nothing is more inspiring than being surrounded by plants you’ve grown all by yourself, n’est-ce pas?”
“Oui… I mean, yes, it is very inspiring,” Tad said, apparently slightly confused about which language to use around Julia Sprigg.
Julia’s eyes found her next victim before Tad had finished speaking. She looked at Novak – and more specifically, his torso – long enough for Amelia to start blushing out of embarrassment and for Novak to cross his arms a bit self-consciously.
“And who’s this?” Julia asked.
“A friend of Tad’s,” Amelia said a bit too quickly. The thought of her mother finding out there was a criminal hiding in her house was too much for Amelia to bear, “From the university. His name is Novak.”
Novak glared at Amelia in a way that suggested he didn’t like people casually revealing his name to just anyone. But what was done was done. Amelia wasn’t in the right state of mind to start thinking up creative or believable fake names. After a tense moment, Novak sighed and started playing along, lying so smoothly that it just proved he was very used to doing it:
“Yeah, sure. I’m bunking here for a couple of nights because of a plumbing accident in my flat. The whole place’s flooded.”
“Oh, you poor thing!” Julia gasped, “I read about those problems going around in Riverview a while ago. Apparently someone even died because of them! You stay for as long as you like!”
She clapped her hands again.
“Oh, but I’m just dying for a cup of coffee after hours in that plane! Philippe, chéri! Let’s take our bags upstairs, and then we can all get better acquainted! This is going to be so much fun!”
“Mum,” Amelia started, “I don’t know if…”
But Julia and Philippe had already climbed upstairs, their heavy suitcases bumping against the steps.
Amelia rubbed her head.
“Oh, what am I going to do with this… guys, I’m so sorry.”
“It is fine,” Tad said at once, “You didn’t know.”
“She’s not trying to make you uncomfortable,” Amelia said, “My mum’s just… excitable. Even more so than I am.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Novak said dryly, “This is going to complicate things, isn’t it?”
“Not necessarily,” Tad shrugged, “We just have to be more careful.”
He thought about it for a second, a look of worry forming on his face.
“I do have to remember my cover story, do I not? That could be problematic. It was Moonlight Falls, twenty-two years, and agriculture, was it not?”
“Yeah, it was.”
“Oh, good, I have not had to think about it for some time.”
Amelia checked the clock. She let out an annoyed huff.
“Oh, dear, I have to start getting ready for work,” she glanced at her two guests and could only imagine the kind of chaos and awkwardness that might be caused by leaving them alone with her mother and the French gentleman, “Maybe, uh… you two can pretend you have to be at the university or something right now?”
Tad nodded slowly.
“I can go sit in the park and try to weave the soul pieces I got from the swamp back together. I have seen some elderly people knitting on the benches. I would fit right in.”
“I can see nothing going wrong with that,” Novak said and rolled his eyes.
“Thank you!” Tad said.
“Well, getting out of here for the day does sound like a plan. I need to get some more clothes that don’t smell like blood and corpses anyway. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go put on a shirt. If I don’t get back, that means I’ve used the window to get out.”
He didn’t get back.
It was a long day at work. Amelia had slept for barely three hours, and she couldn’t stop thinking about what her mum returning so suddenly could cause. Then she chastised herself for thinking so negatively when she should have just been happy that her mum had apparently recovered from her grief enough to actually come back. For how long, Amelia didn’t know yet, but just the fact that she was here meant she could at least face the house again. And this was Amelia’s opportunity to catch up with her and to meet her new man… well, that last part was probably going to be a bit uncomfortable. Even though she knew it was perhaps a bit childish, the thought of mum finding someone else after the death of dad felt wrong. And what would this mean for their quest? Tad hadn’t been too worried about it, at least not openly, but…
Amelia’s forehead almost hit her computer screen when her sleep-deprived eyes misjudged the distance.
Gah! This isn’t the right time to worry about things!
She vigorously rubbed her eyes and forced herself to focus on work again. The numbers and letters on the screen blurred. Amelia sighed. She needed more tea. And sleep.
She hoped mum was doing alright with settling back into her home. And she definitely hoped Tad and Novak would get used to the new situation.
At least for now, Amelia had no reason to worry. Both Novak and Tad had taken her advice and left the house for the day. Novak had gone to the town’s library and stayed there for hours. Tad knew that because he would occasionally divert some of his being to check if the man was making some progress on locating the… what were their names? The Deacons, yes. That bothersome gemstone made even remembering them difficult. Tad had almost forgotten how well it actually worked. It had been in his possession for so long, and nobody had used it during that time. And it seemed to work well even in pieces. That was rather annoying. Keeping track of just one piece of a stone was tricky when he couldn’t see it or often even remember it. Now he’d have to keep track of four pieces. He’d so have to get a box for them. A locked one, preferably. Maybe he’d even write Gemstone pieces – remember them? or something on the box. That would make it easier for him to take care of them.
Yes, that sounded like a plan. But first he’d have to locate them. Novak and Amelia seemed to worry that the return of Mrs. Sprigg would make things difficult. But really, all it did was slow them down. And Tad was in no hurry. He could definitely enjoy Riverview a bit longer.
Like today, when the weather was quite lovely, and Tad could sit in the park and patch the poor fractured souls back together. The others had sounded worried when he had stated that he would be at the park, but he could be subtle. As fun as it might have been to sit next to some knitting ladies and start weaving strands of soul, Tad wasn’t stupid. He knew that it would attract far too much attention and be a quick way to possibly ruin a perfectly good cover. So he sat on the bench, enjoyed the fresh air, and retreated into his garden.
And here it should be noted that a young man sitting on the park bench, staring into space completely unresponsive was also a rather disconcerting sight.
There wasn’t much recorded science or any technique books about fixing souls. When a soul was broken inside a living being, it was usually up to them, their loved ones and sometimes therapists to put it back together. Then it was a bit more metaphorical, as souls usually were before death.
But the souls in Tad’s possession now were different. They had literally been torn apart, and when they had been forced into the corpses, some of the pieces had got tangled together. First he’d have to sort them and then start connecting the pieces. He frowned at the ball of light in his hand. It took quite powerful magic to forcefully tear apart the souls of the dead. But more than that, it took a lot of callousness and disregard for anything people called humane.
Tad carefully eased apart a shred of an old man and a piece of a small dog and guided the pieces to their real owners. The ghosts would never fully recover, he knew. The most likely way for them to find peace would be to cross over to the beyond. But with such scars finding the way would be even more difficult than it had been for them before.
Tad felt a wave of anger again. Here in his home it was easier to be more like himself, to control his emotions and look at things more rationally. He knew that many humans – and other living ones as well – were capable of unimaginable acts of cruelty. He had seen most of them. Sometimes they made him sad or angry, but never really shocked. What Mr. Deacon had done was definitely not the worst thing ever. But there was still something very inconsiderate about messing with the ones who were already dead. The afterlife was supposed to be the final rest for everyone. A state of peace. And as much as Tad wasn’t a fan of many other things the living ones did either, the afterlife matters were one of the few things he actually had a say in.
He was its gatekeeper, after all.
When Amelia returned home, it was to the aroma of her favourite drink. Green tea with jasmine. Her sleepy mind latched onto it and was instantly granted an illusion of energy. Amelia walked into the dining room and found her mother there, with tea and coffee at the ready. She gave Amelia a radiant smile.
“Welcome back! How was your day? I made some coffee and tea! The green jasmine stuff is still your favourite, right? The boys aren’t back yet, and Philippe is resting. So I was thinking this would be a perfect opportunity for a family talk!”
Amelia yawned, but still slumped into a chair that had a teacup in front of it.
“Thanks,” she said at the tea, “It would be nice to catch up properly. How was the flight here?”
“Oh, late, like they usually are,” Julia said, “But ooh! I’ve got some vacation photos!”
Before Amelia could react, a tablet full of photographs was shoved in front of her face, and her mum was flipping through the pictures.
“Philippe’s been taking most of them,” she said excitedly, “So there’s me at the centre of Champs Les Sims… and there’s me at a vignoble. Here’s me again. And me again… Ooh, there’s Philippe – he’s so handsome! There’s just something about the Mid-European men… Oh, and there’s me… that’s me… The scenery was lovely; you can see it behind me there. It was all so romantique!”
“It does look nice,” Amelia said, trying to see the scenery that was in almost every picture left behind the smiling face of her mother. Philippe had sure known what he had wanted to photograph, “And you seem really happy.”
“I am!” Julia said in a voice that wasn’t perfectly naturally happy, “It’s been just what I needed!”
Her smile wavered a bit.
“Of course, I’ve missed home sometimes.”
“Really? You haven’t said much about that.”
“I know, I know. And I know I didn’t do a very nice thing to you by just leaving. It’s just… after Alex… well, you know.”
“But I know it wasn’t fair,” Julia spun her coffee cup around and around like a carousel, “Just leaving you here, I mean. You’ve been insisting that you’re fine, but I know us Spriggs. We’re positive to a fault. Well, except when we’re not. Like your great uncle Joe, bless his grouchy soul.”
She leaned forward at the table.
“So, you seem tired. Are you sure everything’s fine?”
Amelia thought about the somersaults her life had done lately. Then she thought about the new friends she had made. And most importantly, she thought about secrets.
“I’m fine,” she said, “Really. Sure, it’s been a bit stressful at times. But I manage.”
“Even with this old house?”
Amelia raised a brow.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean… it’s expensive, and despite our best efforts, it’s going to take a lot to keep it up. I was just thinking… well…”
“Mother,” Amelia said slowly and deliberately, “We’re not selling our family house!”
“I don’t like the idea either,” Julia raised her hands defensively, “But I’ve just been thinking that it would be easier for all of us. You wouldn’t have to take in random kids – no matter how nice and friendly they are – and I wouldn’t have to worry about you having to take care of this house all on your own!”
“Well then maybe you shouldn’t run away to France at the first sign of problems,” Amelia snapped, and clapped her hands over her mouth after she realised how mean she’d sounded, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean…”
Julia sighed wearily. Even through the makeup and the auburn hair dye Amelia could see that her mother looked older than before. Staying happy through grief without properly processing it was taxing. Amelia knew it first-hand, though she didn’t want to think about that. Or maybe she did. Sometimes. She did still have her millions of questions, at least. And wishes that things could be different.
“Amelia, honey,” Julia said, “I know I wasn’t dealing with things the best way I could, but I’m here now. I just want us to be happy.”
“Me too,” Amelia said, “And you know, I think I’m getting there.”
Julia beamed at her.
“That’s great to hear,” she spread her arms excitedly, “You know what we should do now? Plan a magnifique birthday party for you!”
It was Amelia’s turn to sigh. Well, at least she had reached her mum from beneath the layers of suppressed grief for a moment.
After the souls were more or less intact again, it was still a bit too early to return. Amelia was probably still at work, and Tad wasn’t sure if being in the same house with Mrs. Sprigg and Monsieur Bouchard right now was a good idea. They would no doubt want to get to know him better, and Tad still wasn’t quite comfortable talking to people, especially if it involved lots of lying. He was a terrible liar.
So he decided to make a quick visit to the local hospital for work purposes – if he focused enough on remaining unseen and walked determinedly enough, it was easy to just walk through the sterile hallways without being noticed and get to the section where the people in their last moments were. Some of the patients there were already in so much pain that they were actually quite happy to see him. It wasn’t the most uplifting reason to be welcome. So after escorting the couple of souls that were due to leave and listening to the alarms of the hospital machines for a while, Tad decided to go somewhere where he knew he would be welcome even without pain.
The happy look on Emily’s face still made Tad rather incredulous, but it was definitely a welcome sight.
“Look who it is, Emily!” Yvette Grisby said excitedly, “Say hello to Uncle Tad.”
Emily let out a chirp. Yvette smiled at Tad.
“Aaww, she’s being a bit shy; I swear she said your name a couple of times just this week.”
“Really?” Tad said, a feeling he couldn’t properly place but that felt a bit like a like a stream of dancing water in a peaceful forest passing through him. Real happiness, possibly? “I am very honoured.”
Emily reached out with her arms, and Tad picked her up. Her heartbeat settled against his shoulder. It was an odd feeling. Usually the heartbeats this close to him weren’t this strong.
“She’s been doing great,” Yvette told him, “We just got this pictograph program for her so she can use the images to communicate when the words and signs aren’t enough. Walter and I’ve been taking turns staying here, but right now Walter’s really busy with campaigning. Tomorrow we’re going to go for an introductory tour at the nearby kindergarten so Emily can slowly get used to that idea. It should do her some good now that her life’s settling down. Meeting new friends, learning new things… all that.”
Tad nodded slowly. It all sounded very good. Very normal and balanced. Happy, although Tad couldn’t claim to be an expert in that. Emily leaned against his shoulder. She whispered something that might have been “Tad”, and Tad smiled without even thinking about it.
In that moment of relaxed maybe-happiness Tad didn’t feel like he needed to worry about delays or mistakes. There was no harm in experiencing humanity within reason, and all of the anthropomorphic personifications knew it. So where was the harm in continuing for a bit longer still?
Fate was furious. Well, that was a bit of an overstatement and hardly appropriate for someone like her. She was simply mildly disgruntled by the recent events. And by the fact that everyone else just shrugged their shoulders – metaphorically for those who didn’t have shoulders – and let things take their course. They kept reminding her that others – Fate herself included – also had their quite frequent excursions in the mortal world too, and nothing bad had happened so far. Well, except for those times when someone had gone overboard and the others had had to clean up the mess. Sure, some of them had voiced some concerns, but it seemed that as long as Death kept doing his job right, no one complained and everyone was mostly happy that Death had something else to do other than be aloof and occasionally remind the others about rules.
It was easy for them to say. They weren’t having constant feelings that things were going wrong. They weren’t compelled to control the flow of everything even when everything didn’t want to be controlled. Sure, they had their own problems, and if one asked mortals, the anthropomorphic personifications could all be diagnosed with a myriad of mental anomalies – and possibly new anomalies should be invented for them too. But at least the world seemed to listen to them every once in a while. Yes, Fate was perhaps being a bit dramatic about it, and also rather self-centred, but she also knew that it was how she had been born to be. Her Purpose was to guide life. The mortals had needed her for that once. But then why didn’t it work? A lot of the time Fate was quite convinced that something had gone a bit wrong with her creation. Why else would she have a Purpose she couldn’t properly fulfil? The world was supposed to listen to her, but it just didn’t.
It was maddening even without the recent events.
Well, if Death was going to keep messing with her domain – and she insisted on it being her domain despite things not always going her way – she had the right to do something about it. Nothing too bad – even Fate wasn’t reckless enough to really anger Death. But at least she could do something to end this farce quickly.
She could start by finding that damned gemstone by herself.
She had been keeping an eye on Death and his little entourage for a good while now, so she knew who they were looking for. And that stupid gemstone was designed to simply hide from Death; no one said anything about Fate. Now that Fate knew whom she had to find, it wouldn’t take long to actually locate them.
Fate wasn’t quite everywhere, but she was a very quick traveller. In just a moment, she could be in several places at once. And she heard things. And if there was something positive she could say about her faulty Purpose, it was that at least she wasn’t nearly as busy as most of the other personifications were. In general, she was free to do as she pleased as long as she didn’t break the rules of the universe.
So she listened and looked. She found out that the Deacon siblings she was looking for had several places where they allegedly lived, and very few people were aware of where they were most of the time. It was oddly secretive, but Fate had to admit that if she had stolen from a fact of life, she would be rather secretive as well.
But in the end, she found them. And then took a moment to silently scoff at Death for asking mortals for help when he had to know that Fate or the others could have helped him find the gemstone in a heartbeat. Or at least much quicker than the mortals could.
And yes, she knew Death didn’t seem to think that was the point.
According to her findings, the Deacons were in Moonlight Falls. Fate scrunched up her nose in distaste. She didn’t like that town. Sure, it was full of the supernatural and open about it – as open as one could be in this sceptical world – but it also meant that anthropomorphic personifications like her could more easily be recognised for what they really were. And that usually caused some degree of unease among the population, because the supernaturals had learned to attribute the presence of a personification to something bad happening in the immediate future. It was rather insulting, really. Usually accurate, but still insulting. It also meant that no one would be likely to defend her if she ended up being hated for what she was.
Hadn’t Death claimed the home of his human form was this town? Well, that at least warranted a chuckle. Sometimes life threw jokes people’s way. That made Fate think that perhaps she did have some more power over it after all. She was known for her rather twisted sense of humour.
Fate stood in front of what the Deacons apparently called one of their summer homes. It was a bit too fancy to be a summer home in Fate’s opinion. Then again, her own domain was quite majestic as well. She took a moment to adjust her hair and then started walking along the stones that led to the house, which reminded her a bit of a large, old bread oven. Maybe it was the plastered, cream-coloured walls. The door was locked, but Fate didn’t need to concern herself with such things.
She faded out of view, partly out of that state of reality, and simply walked through the door. Something tried to keep her out, but it wasn’t strong enough. She stopped when she got into the rather spacy hall, let her senses spread throughout the house, and listened. The whole house sang with hidden magic. Some of it felt quite powerful. She would have to be careful.
There were people at her left. She supposed she should start from there.
“I’m telling you…” said a rather meek voice, “dad sounded really freaked out. It had to be pretty bad.”
“Must you go on and on about this, Gaius?” a more confident – and at the moment annoyed – female voice, replied, “Father is old and paranoid. And if you ask me, he got what was coming to him.”
“B-but the zombies!” the other voice whined, “They’re just corpses now!”
“That’s father’s problem. Not ours. You can raise your own group, as long as you can do it more discreetly than father.”
Fate smiled. At least her powers made her extremely lucky when she wanted. Like now when she had wanted to hear something that could take her forward. Still invisible, she stepped into the room the voices were coming from. The two Deacon siblings were probably in their thirties. Well, the brother was maybe a bit younger than that. The sister was dressed sharply, and the brother was much more casual. Their styles of clothing seemed to match their personalities as well. Fate stopped in mid-step when she noticed something shimmering around the woman’s – Lydia’s – neck.
It was a simple necklace, with a jewel coloured like a faded daffodil embedded in it. Fate raised a brow and looked at the brother more closely as well. With a little bit of searching she noticed another jewel in an earring in the boy’s ear.
So that was how they had used the gemstone after it had been cut. Fate had to applaud them for pulling it off. Cutting up a magical artefact without breaking the magic in it was quite a feat.
So, now the question was: why had these two gone through all this trouble?
Well, immortality, of course, was the most likely answer. If combined with some magic and used wisely, the gemstone could indeed quite effectively make its wielder immortal. And for humans, immortality in itself was usually a very coveted prize. But Fate had a feeling that these two had some other reasons behind it as well.
She had to admit that she was quite curious.
She watched when Lydia stood up from the couch she had been sitting on and wiped some invisible dust from her sleeve.
“Well, since you started worrying again, then I suppose it’s time for some more research.”
The young man named Gaius stood up as well.
“Okay,” he said, “That does usually calm me down.”
“Good. There’s always plenty of work to do.”
Fate knew that she shouldn’t show herself. She had planned to just swipe the stone and then return to Death and prepare her smuggest smile. But her curiosity was getting the better of her. She couldn’t really help it.
So she spoke, let herself be seen and heard again.
“Interesting,” she said, “And what is it you are working on, you thieves?”
Lydia and Gaius spun around, Lydia with a silvery handgun smoothly appearing from a hidden holster, and Gaius with a sorcerer’s wand in hand.
Fate theatrically raised her hands and smiled. Oh, how she loved drama.
Author’s Note: I’VE BEEN WRITING SO MUCH IT’S INSANE! I wrote THREE chapters in just a few days. Mostly because I’ve had this quite persistent flu that has made me unwilling to leave the house for too much. I mean, I’ve done other things besides writing (like watching my aunt’s cats while she was on a trip, and visiting my parents… I also read a detective novel in around a day), but most of the time I’ve just spent taken by this crazy writing spree. So now I have three chapters AND the screenshots for all of them. And I have my doubts about them… mostly about if some of the things here are even necessary or if they might ruin future scenes, but the more I’ve thought about these, the more I’ve liked them. So yeah, I guess I’ve been productive. And you’ll hopefully get at least three Tango-chapters in very short intervals. Then I might need a little break so I don’t get stuck again.
Anyway, I’m sure Fate will just take the gemstone pieces now and this story can be over. Yeah, right. 😀 Things can’t be that easy, now can they?
Sorry, Tad: now you have to be socially awkward AND have your super language skills confused because of people mixing languages. It probably sucks to be him because so many people with foreign language skills tend to do that in real life. A lot. Okay, so that’s definitely not the ONLY reason why it sucks to be Tad. And it also sucks to be Fate, what with her broken purpose and all.
I hope you guys enjoyed, and I see you probably quite soon with another update.