In one reality-shifting second the warmth of Sunset Valley was gone, replaced by the familiar breeze of Riverview. They had appeared in front of Vanja’s shop, and Vanja quickly ushered them into her living room and left them alone so she could – as she put it – quickly shower the germs of public restrooms and overused sheets off of her. Amelia and Tad sat down on one of Vanja’s rather cute couches while Novak paced agitatedly in front of them.
“There is no reason to worry so much,” Tad said, “Your pursuers are still in Sunset Valley, which is quite far away from here.”
“Sure,” Novak muttered, “But I’m still not too keen on waiting. Especially here where I’m not exactly welcome either.”
He ran a hand through his hair, frowning when some of his dreadlocks got knotted together.
“I just want to get my payment and… you know, be on my way for a while. If that’s fine with you. I mean, we’re cool for now, right?”
“If you mean to ask whether we are on good terms, then yes,” Tad said, “You have been very helpful.”
“You do know he helped just to save his own skin, right?” said Vanja, who stepped out of her bathroom, still stylishly groomed and with a new woollen dress on. Novak made a face that was something between amusement and disgust.
“Nobody asked you,” he said, “I think we all know why we’re here.”
Vanja walked across the room and sat down on a vacant sofa.
“I sure hope so. And not to sound rude, but I also hope you won’t be here for long. Right now I just want this whole mess debriefed so I can forget about it and move on.”
“Whaaaat?” Novak said in mock surprise, “I thought you wanted the adventure and the opportunity to prove yourself and all of that other self-entitled crap.”
“I… I think we should move on to… something else before this gets too toxic,” Tad said nervously, “I assure you; you all did great.”
“I still think it was all a giant failure,” Vanja argued, “What did we accomplish, really?”
“Well, we got to take down two dangerous criminals,” Amelia pointed out, feeling like she should do her part in keeping things civil, “And now we know who exactly we’re… uh… dealing with.”
“It’s cute when you guys try to sound like you know what you’re doing,” Novak smirked and started pacing again, “But there was more going on in that party than what we saw. There was no way all that mess could have been caused by mere coincidence. They anticipated us, and they probably managed to somehow dig up info on my debts to Beagle.”
“I know,” Tad said, and everyone glanced at him in surprise, “The Deacons summoned Fate. Or then she came to them, I am not sure which. She does not like what I am doing here, and she thought it was best I was taught a lesson. By making our quest fail, and by getting us in trouble.”
“And you were planning to tell us about this… when?” Vanja asked with a frown.
Tad shrugged his shoulders.
“I did tell you to be on your guard. It hardly matters anyway. Fate and I have our disagreements, but we usually manage to sort them out without too many disasters.”
“’Hardly matters?’” Novak repeated, clenching his hands into fists, “This… whatever the hell you beings are doing just landed me in even more trouble than I was before! This is exactly why I hate cosmic forces interfering with the world! We can screw up our own lives without your help, thank you very much.”
“I’m sure you know all about that,” Vanja muttered.
Tad rose from his seat, along with Amelia, who was alerted by the possibly upcoming argument. Tad raised his hands defensively.
“No one really got hurt, and that is what matters…” he paused for one thoughtful moment, “Well… except for those two criminals, but they should be okay too. And I appreciate your help, accept this as your atonement and am willing to pay you – all of you – to compensate for all this aggravation I have caused.”
“I don’t need payment,” Amelia said at once.
“I know. We can talk about that later. As for you two…” Tad looked at Novak and Vanja, “What would you wish from me? I cannot actually pay with money, because Amelia has forbidden me from changing reality for that. And I am not going to grant just any wishes , but I do accept suggestions.”
He looked at Vanja meaningfully.
“I also of course cannot directly do anything to resurrect anyone.”
“You’re seriously going to give us what we want?” Vanja asked.
“Within reason, yes.”
Vanja stared at Tad dubiously for several moments. Amelia could almost hear the unspoken past disappointments and pleas that had perhaps been the basis for Vanja’s sour relationship with Death. She could try to guess what exactly had happened, but in the end it remained a mystery to her, something between Vanja and Tad.
Finally Vanja said in a barely audible, reluctant voice:
“Well, I of course want to interview you for my studies, but I also want a clue. A hint. On the… well, project I’m working on. Nothing too detailed, of course. I can work on it on my own, thank you very much.”
It was very vague, but Tad didn’t seem to need any further clarification. He leaned in towards Vanja and whispered something to her. Vanja listened intently, and then her eyes widened.
“Really? So I’m on the right track after all?”
“I just recommend adding more pomegranate,” Tad said in a slightly louder voice.
Vanja clapped her hands.
“Ha! I knew it! I’ll show you yet, Death!”
“I am looking forward to it. And as for the interview, I will get back to you later.”
Novak glanced at Amelia as if making sure he wasn’t the only one who had got totally lost at some point of the conversation.
“Uh, yeah. This is weird,” he said, rolling his eyes at Vanja, “But whatever gets you excited… I’m not gonna judge. As for me, I’m not too picky. I just want something that would get me out of my situation with Beagle.”
Tad frowned, actually looking like he was struggling with something in his mind for a long while. Then he nodded slowly.
“I… I think I have just the thing. Or at least a thing. Hold on, I need to get it from my home.”
He closed his eyes, and then – to Amelia’s horror – collapsed on the floor.
“Tad?” Amelia gasped, “What’s going on?!”
He wasn’t responding. It was as if he wasn’t even there anymore, and it reminded Amelia all too much of last night, when he had been shot in the head. Vanja walked up to Amelia, a fascinated look on her face.
“Calm down, he probably just left this form again. Just prop him up against a wall or something.”
They did just that, and Amelia sat down next to Tad’s unmoving body, hoping he had made it home safely and would come back soon.
After what felt like an eternity, Tad woke up. Amelia moved quickly, her hand hovering near Tad’s shoulder as his pale eyes blinked open. He frowned slightly when he noticed he was on the floor.
“I… did I get this detached?” he mumbled.
“I guess so,” Amelia said, “Are you feeling okay?”
Tad slowly stood up.
“Yes… yes, I am. I just… no worries.”
He brushed off all attempts to help and turned to Novak. He handed Novak something, and Novak stared at his hands for a moment before he sunk to the couch behind him.
“You gave me… a flower,” his voice was laced with disbelief, “This is a… please tell me this isn’t just a random plant!”
Tad nodded sombrely. His eye twitched. Odd. Amelia had never seen that kind of a reaction in him. She looked more closely at what was in Novak’s hands.
It was indeed a flower. A scrawny yet oddly beautiful one. It had an eerie, skull-shaped centre and delicate, purple and scarlet petals. Amelia had never seen anything like it.
Somewhere in the background, Vanja gasped.
“That’s not… that is a Death Flower, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Tad said quietly, “It may seem worthless to many, but I am sure people in the right circles will pay well for it, if you wish to sell it. Or if you do not… well, it is a way to stay my hand once, should you end up in mortal peril.”
Novak raised a brow.
“Oh yeah, now that I think about it, I have heard of these. I thought they were extinct, though. That… yeah, that does make things better. I… wow.”
“Oh, they really are almost extinct,” Tad said, “Hardly anyone knows where they grow any longer. I used to have a lot of them, of course, but I have thrown them away. That one is the last I have. Do not worry; it will not wilt or otherwise get damaged. It has spent quite a lot of time in my realm, after all.”
Vanja gasped again, this time more angrily.
“And you’re giving it to him?!” she snapped, “He’s just going to waste it for something stupid! Do you realise how valuable that really is for people like us?”
Tad’s expression hardened suddenly.
“I can do what I wish with my property. And if you are being bitter about you not getting the flower… why? Would you really be happy with me just handing it over to you? I thought you wanted to discover these things by yourself, as you so tastefully pointed out back when you summoned me all those years ago.”
He glanced almost hatefully at the flower in Novak’s hands.
“Besides, it is not nearly as valuable as you make it out to be. It is just… an old bribe.”
Vanja had clenched her hands into fists, and Amelia had a feeling some sort of intervention was in order. Besides, everything had turned way too confusing again, and Amelia was missing several puzzle pieces she needed to really take part in the conversation. She spoke up:
“Um… what exactly is a Death Flower? What does it do?”
Vanja immediately snapped into some kind of lecturer mode. She turned to Amelia and cleared her throat.
“The Death Flower -myth is an old one, but it’s still very much researched in some circles of the magical science community. Documented cases of successful uses of the Death Flower are quite numerous. Though those records are old, as the Death Flower is – as we already established – almost extinct nowadays. They’re – as you can see – usually easily recognised by their peculiar, skull shaped stigma, and they have interested scientists, mages and the common folk for a long time because of their very unusual value.”
She kept a dramatic pause, during which Tad fidgeted a bit nervously. Then Vanja put her hands to her hips and declared:
“The Death Flower is used to stop someone from dying. After it has already happened.”
“There’s an old tale about it. The whos and wheres have changed throughout the years, so I’ll tell the version I like the most. This one is about familial love and about not giving up in the face of tragedy.”
She took a deep breath.
“Long ago, there was a family. A happy family with a new-born baby. I’m sure you can see where this is going so I’ll be brief. Not long after the birth of the baby, a harsh winter struck, bringing in sickness and, of course, Death.”
“Death swept across the land and took many people, including the baby of the family. The mother and father pleaded for Death to spare their child, but Death would not be moved. He took the child, leaving the mother and father devastated. Grieving. Feeling unimaginable pain from the loss of their dear-”
“I think everyone already understands how terrible it was, Miss Leifsdóttir. Just… go on with the story.”
“Okay, fine. So the mother and father made a promise in their time of grief, a promise that they would devote their lives to finding a way to stop Death from taking anyone else again. A common goal for people, I admit, but this was quite unusual during a time when Death was a constant visitor. The mother and father started researching, finding books, doing experiments, asking magicians and saints for answers. Eventually, their quest consumed their lives and they forgot to live altogether and it was all ironic and has a moral people can learn from and all that. And all along, Death walked among their loved ones, ferrying them away one by one, not caring that they were doing everything they could to fight him. All of their attempts to save their loved ones failed. Every plea fell on deaf ears. Until finally, Death took away the father as well, and only the mother remained.”
“By that time, she was old and tired. She knew that her time would soon be up too. She sought answers more frantically, tried forcing Death away from her like she had done for so many years already. But she knew that it would all be in vain. She spent days and nights thinking about the solution, and finally a desperate idea came to her. She knew it would be her last chance, and she put all her faith in it. So when Death came for her, she was waiting.”
“She had realised that force and tricks wouldn’t work, so she thought that perhaps Death could be defeated with kindness instead. When the dark shape of Death loomed above her, she picked a flower – a morbid-looking flower that usually grew around graves – and offered it to Death. And it’s said that Death was overjoyed by such a gift. He took the flower with withered hands and promised to let the mother live in return.
“And the mother did. She got her second chance, and it’s said that she used that second chance to live the life she had missed during her quest, and to tell others about her discovery.”
“So after that people started looking for more Death Flowers, and whoever could present Death with one would be granted a second chance. Needless to say, people started picking way too many of them, and they quickly became rare. Soon, they were almost completely gone.”
Amelia looked at Tad. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all. Tad was looking rather pensively at the Death Flower, but his eyes had narrowed, and he didn’t seem to enjoy hearing the story at all. In a way, Amelia understood. It did paint quite a bleak picture of Death. But Amelia figured there was more to it than that. Tad seemed to be rather used to being misunderstood, after all.
“Tad?” she said, “Is that story true?”
Tad shrugged stiffly.
“What matters is that the Death Flowers do work just as in the story. You give me one at the moment you should die, and I will take the flower instead of your soul. Or you can give me one at the time of someone else’s death, and you can ask me to spare them. A second chance, so to speak.”
“Awesome,” Novak said, “I’ll keep that in mind if Beagle’s men catch me and start removing my internal organs with a screwdriver or something.”
He stood up and carefully put the flower into the pocket of his jeans. Then he crossed his arms.
“But yeah, seriously speaking, thanks. I’m sure someone will pay something for it…”
“And that’s going to be such a waste…” Vanja lamented under her breath.
“Hey, I can let you get a sample of it right now, if you want to study it.”
“Really?” Vanja’s eyes lit up.
“Sure,” Novak said, “Let’s say for… a few thousand simos.”
“Well, if you don’t want this incredible opportunity…” Novak started inching his way towards the door.
“Wait! How about a hundred?”
“Now that’s just insulting.”
“You serious about that?”
“Please, I can get that much in one good day of pickpocketing.”
“Oh, you are such a leech on society… fine! Three thousand and five hundred!”
“Where the hell do you get that kind of money?”
“Research funds. Now will you let me study it for a while or not?”
Novak laughed almost disbelievingly.
“Sure. I mean, I guess I can check the authenticity of this thing that way too.”
Vanja extended her hand, but Novak took a step back.
Vanja grumbled for a moment, but then actually procured a wad of cash from… somewhere. Amelia really wasn’t sure where Vanja could keep that much money. She didn’t even have pockets! Novak smirked.
“Hey, this thing is starting to pay off already!”
“I am… glad you like it,” Tad muttered, “Do with it what you wish.”
He shrunk away from the Death Flower, but his eyes were still fixed on it. He lingered awkwardly in the living room until they finally left to return home.
Julia was ecstatic to see Amelia. She rushed to hug her as soon as Amelia, Novak and Tad stepped into the hall.
“I’m so glad you’re okay!” Julia gushed.
“Of course I’m okay,” Amelia said, “I mean… why wouldn’t I be?”
Julia’s forehead creased in worry.
“Because I read on the news that there was an incident in Sunset Valley! With criminals and police and shooting and everything! And I didn’t know where you were and you didn’t answer your phone so… I know I shouldn’t to worry so much, but I still kept thinking… what if you were there? What if something… oh, I’m so glad that I was just being silly!”
Amelia cleared her throat. Trying her best not to sound nervous or guilty.
“Yeah… silly. Don’t worry, mum. I was in good company.”
She looked at Tad, who smiled a bit sadly back at her. The smile was even farther from real than it usually was.
She really needed to talk to him.
To her pleasant surprise, she didn’t have to actually force Tad to talk like she had planned. Because as soon as they had settled back home, Tad asked if Amelia had a moment and led her to the backyard. He leaned against the wooden railing Amelia had painstakingly varnished in the beginning of summer. Amelia stood next to him, looking out to the garden Tad had tended so carefully for all these months. Apple and lime trees were bearing delicious-looking fruit, and Amelia could almost smell the herbs, spices and garlic that were growing in the bushes among the other vegetables. It looked amazing. Amelia heard Tad sigh, and turned to him again.
“It is time for harvest,” he said quietly, “In the garden, I mean. I can finally pay my debts to you. I hope, at least.”
Amelia frowned. She had almost forgotten that Tad hadn’t yet paid rent for his room. That all of this had started because of her money-making Plan.
“That’s nice,” she said, “But you don’t have to worry about it…”
“Yes, I do,” Tad argued, “I want to put things in order here too. In my… well, not life, but existence.”
He straightened and looked Amelia in the eyes for a brief moment before he turned away.
“I told you that Fate has been bothering me about this. In many ways, she has no reason to worry… but in others… she was right. I have let this take too much of me. I have got too invested, and I… I need to find a way to take care of myself while still caring about others.”
Amelia felt something well up in her chest. It took her a while, but she recognised it as sadness. She wasn’t sure why she was feeling it. Maybe she already had a hunch about what Tad was going to say.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
Tad looked at the garden again. The branches of the trees swayed in the late summer breeze, heavy with fruit.
“I need to take distance again,” he said, “To leave.”
That was it. The reason for the sadness.
“For… for good?” Amelia dared to ask. She knew she couldn’t stop Tad if he really had to go, even though she wanted to make him stay. It would be selfish.
“No,” Tad said, much to Amelia’s joy, “But I need to take more breaks from this form. From humanity lessons. From… all this.”
He took a step back, his gaze shifting somewhere beyond the yard. Maybe beyond all of Riverview, even beyond the world.
“I want to experience so many things,” he said, “I want to know what it feels like to be alive, and I want to understand the living ones better. But I cannot forget that I am not – and never will be – alive or human.”
He closed his eyes, but Amelia had a feeling he still saw perfectly well.
“I am just as much human as the reflections on the water are real trees. I am hazy and muddled, and if I try to become more than that… I become less myself, even though I cannot change into anything else either. It makes me hurt… and in the end, it would make me fall to pieces. That cannot happen.”
He was quiet for a long moment. Amelia wanted to hug him, but then decided not to. Maybe because Tad looked ready to turn into mist at any moment. Like he wanted to stay while something was pulling him away. He looked at Amelia, his eyes blank one moment, and then filled with sadness.
“I am sure I will feel better once I really focus on just my job and not on… all this. I will leave for a few weeks, and then come back. Then I can leave again when I need to, but I will not need to stay away entirely. Does that sound like… it would work?”
“You can do what you want,” Amelia said, “I’ve told you that you’re always welcome here.”
Tad smiled weakly.
“You asked me if that Death Flower story was true or not. It was very accurate. I did accept that flower back then. And that was the moment it gained power. People started believing that it worked, so it did. We had created a tradition. It is a very persistent force.”
“So you didn’t have to take it in the beginning?”
“Of course not,” Tad said, “But I… it was the first time anyone gave me a gift out of kindness. Or so I thought. I realised later that even that wasn’t a real gift. It was just a bribe like all the other sacrifices and exchanges that had taken place before that. And yet… I kept accepting them until the others put a stop to it by hiding the few flowers that were still left. Because it ‘caused problems’. Cheating Death was never meant to be easy, after all.”
He laughed bitterly.
“I did not mind the others stopping it. I had grown to hate those flowers anyway. The pretend-kindness they represented.”
“But you kept one,” Amelia said, “Why?”
Now Tad was almost embarrassed. But in the end, his sadness won over and he looked like he wanted to cry. But Amelia wasn’t sure he could cry to begin with.
“Because pretend-kindness was better than nothing, I think,” he said in a barely audible voice, “What I mean to say is… very few people have ever showed me true kindness. Truly cared. And I understand; I am not someone a living one can usually care about. But I… thank you, Amelia. For being my friend. I just wanted to say that now… before I go. I want you to know that I do want to come back. And that I do not want to pay my debts simply because I wish to be free of you.”
“Oh, Tad…” Amelia shook her head sadly, “I never thought that.”
“I… I guess you do not. That’s one of the reasons why you are so wonderful.”
The sadness seemed to leave Tad, or at least as much as it ever could. His smile looked more real again. Amelia smiled back.
“I think I should leave right away,” Tad said, “So I can come back sooner.”
There were thousands of words Amelia wanted to say, but they all got muddled together, as did her emotions. Sadness, compassion, happiness… even pity, even though she wasn’t fond of that feeling.
“I’ll see you later, then,” she said, “I’m looking forward to more humanity lessons. After you feel better, of course.”
“Good bye, Amelia.”
Then, as if he had never been there, he was gone.
Just a few months ago, Amelia would have never guessed that she would ever be so sad about the absence of Death.
Author’s Note: Putting in lots of sappy feels to distract you from the fact that this is just setting up a time skip chapter that comes next… I should probably stop pointing out my weak tricks because that makes them even weaker.
Anyway, this chapter did have some other points to it. I mean, Death Flowers and friendshippy bonding, yay! The Death Flower backstory is one of those things that came to me in a sauna, a.k.a my best place for random thoughts. Nothing like an 80-100oC (176-212oF) temperature and stuffy air to get that creativeness flowing! 😀 I drew those Death Flower –story pics during class (again), and they were fun to do… though the end result was kinda meh. Also for some reason I find the idea of Tad storing something so valuable in a random cardboard box really funny. I wasn’t planning on doing it that way and I tried some ideas and wanted to make it more dramatic or sombre but in the end my brain decided that nope, cardboard box it is.
Also the reason I started thinking that Tad doesn’t like Death Flowers was actually because raerei made Tad react in a kind of displeased way to Julia Pigglewiggle mentioning Death Flowers during Tad’s cameo in the awesome Ghost of a Chance, so thanks for that, rae! 🙂 It inspired a lot of drama in my head so that’s awesome!
NaNo’s still going on, and I’m on schedule so yay! I managed to squeeze in some Tango-writing too, as you can see. I’ll see you later, and I hope you all enjoy this and have a good time in general!