Here’s a dead flower for your dreadful smile.
“I like this spot, it’s so calm and colorful.” Hales eased into a leaning sit, legs extended and arms behind her back propping her up. She was careful not to crush any of the yellow and orange flowers that swarmed the little glade.
“How did you find it?” Hales asked, her eyes still taking in the whole scene. Even though the city surrounded the natural garden it still felt more like nature than industrialization.
“One of the benefits of walking everyday, randomly exploring. You stumble into beautiful enclaves seldom found inside the thick of the cities.” Deo had a habit of unconsciously checking every flower in his vicinity, how healthy, what shape the bloom was in, depth of color…
It was his job, but something still seemed too unnatural in the way he reacted when he found a flower wilting, like its death was emotionally taxing on him, a personal loss.
The summer heat was nice and it was hard to remember that this was the last day of ‘vacation’ before her first assignment, her first war. Not too hard to remember, but still the sun’s warmth felt divine, the kind of heat where tiny trickles of sweat beads roll down your body and cause shivers of electricity to spread pleasurably all over. In short, the sun melted the anxiety away.
Hales enjoyed the day for what it was.
I’ve gotten better at living in the moment, thought Hales.
“What are you thinking about? Deo asked suddenly.
“How I’m getting better at not spacing out!” Hales laughed and the sound was rich with life and humor. Deo chuckled at the contradiction and kept smiling from the music of her laughter.
“I still don’t know your power!” She remarked with narrow, suspicious eyes. Not accusing eyes, her pursed lips stretching to one side said that she was okay with not knowing. Her expression was affectionate.
Deo spread his hands apologetically and quoted, “Well they say mystery is the spice of life.”
“I think that’s variety.” Hales corrected.
“I’m spicing up the adage.”
Hales rolled her eyes. “You’re good with words, Deo. I heard a riddle the other day from one of my squadmates-”
Deo cut in, “The alcoholic?”
“Yeah, everyone else is a little more serious than Saccha. But anyways he asked us what the strongest metal in the world is. I was thinking along the lines of tempered steel as a metaphor for the strength we get from being forged through life and wars, or something like that. I was just wondering if you had any takes on it.”
Deo rubbed his chin, “It’s not one of those riddles where the solution is really just a normal answer, where it makes you overthink it? For example titanium or tungsten.”
“Nah, someone already tried that. Someone also tried the metal inside you, like will or determination.”
“I’m the only one who hasn’t given an answer yet. I was originally going to ignore it but I can’t get it out of my head.”
“Hmm.” Deo started to check a flower as he thought it over. Hales pulled a handful of raspberries out of their wicker picnic basket and laid them on her lap. She took a single fruit and began picking at each droplet one at a time. It was a delicate process as pulling off the flesh around each individual seed posed the risk of crushing the entire fruit. She ate the raspberries one droplet at a time until it was too small to pull apart anymore, at which point she would just finish it in a single bite. Sometimes they would already be mushy and these she threw out onto the grass, allowing some other critter to enjoy it where Hales could not. She only ate raspberries in this methodical way and only the ripe and firm ones. It’s just how she did it and there was hardly a rhyme or reason as to why.
“This one is dead.” Deo declared after a few such fruits were consumed in that slow dissection habit. Hales smiled and nodded, then closed her eyes with a hand covering. That was Deo’s policy, if Hales wanted to be around him when he used his Aspect then she couldn’t look. Normally with anyone else Hales would have no issues with peeking, but for Deo she respected his wish for anonymity and privacy.
That didn’t mean she wouldn’t try to gather clues with her other senses! What she deduced from sound was that he was advanced enough to not need any vocal triggers for his Aspect. No changes in temperature or atmosphere. No tremors, electric discharges or vibrations. No kind of scent to smell. So everything that happened was visual, no oversights on Deo’s part, as expected. He’s clever, but so am I, schemed Hales.
She only had closed her eyes for a few seconds before Deo tapped her shoulder. He held the grey flower out.
Hales took it and studied the marigold. The death of the plant was obvious. The lack of its original color was odd and the unnatural stiffness suggested that it was preserved in some way. The flower retained its beauty, the greyness gave it a more ephemeral estetic, as if a filter of twilight surrounded the marigold rather than offering a true chromatic change. So strange.
“It’s like looking into a different world.” Hales observed, both reverent and haunting.
“What do you mean?” Deo asked a little too curiously. Hales tapped a finger on her leg.
“You know how pictures on computers can be adjusted, moods, saturation and color play? Yeah so that’s how your flowers appear to me. When you use your Aspect I don’t think the color really changes, maybe it’s like being painted over, only this coat is more… metaphysical yet still just as real and permanent. I don’t know, I’ve never seen anything like it before, even among other powers.”
“That’s interesting actually.”
Hales continued before Deo had a chance to elaborate.
“It’s bewitching to look at because it’s beautiful in an impossible way. When compared to one of these living marigolds the tone is so much heavier and deeper. Maybe I’d go so far as to say it’s astral or spectral, but not really because it’s physical, I can touch and hold it.”
“You had a classmate that used astral weapons, right?”
“Yeah, his power gave him oversized spears and swords and he could use both astral and spectral. The spectral pierced through everything physical but still affected the target object in some way. Astral would shatter if used with enough force against something physical and cause real damage.”
Deo looked around for something. “There! You see that bee? It kind of blends in with the marigolds here, at least to our perspective. But what does the bee see? Its visual perception is in ultraviolet light, a spectrum outside of human optical capabilities. The marigolds are yellow, gold and orange to us, but to the bees they are neon greens, deep shades of purples and saturated blues. There are lines pointing to the nectar at the center of the flower and a wide range of dynamic color play in each individual plant. They all are infinitely more unique than we are physically able to notice. I think my flowers are like that to me. I see something grotesque and unnatural but I am still drawn to them, compelled into converting more by a pleasant infatuation I don’t fully understand.”
“That’s crazy, I did not know that about bees! It’s all about perception and perspective.” Hales paraphrased for herself while holding the flower up under fresh scrutiny. “You know Deo, I think your Aspect changes the light of an object and preserves it too. You’re not so much a healer but an artist!” Hales thought his power was odd. It didn’t seem to have any real uses outside of purely decorative. Every other power she came across so far could be used for fighting. She couldn’t think of an example where Deo’s Aspect had that function. But neither did she know its name or if he could change other objects…
Hales watched his reaction. Watched his own self doubt fight a war in his consciousness.
“I wonder…” He kept his composure and Hales could only pick up on his subtle physical cues because of the amount of time she spent with him. It was easy to see when the shadow crossed over him. Hales just didn’t know what that shadow was.
“Do you suppose Aspects are manifested by us? Or is it random? Or are we defined by it, maybe not so extreme as fate or destiny but our sense of self, our psyche? Like maybe its related to our archetype if you believe in that sort of thing.” Hales could discern from his tone that the third option was the one he catered to the most.
“I’ve asked that too, I guess most people have anyway. I think when we awaken our Aspects we unlock something deeply subconscious or genetically dormant within us. Maybe it’s a lot like hair, it shapes our overall look even while we shape our hair. Aspects can be honed and developed how we want but we don’t necessarily choose our starting power. I guess I didn’t really explain anything, just my thoughts on it, but-” Hales cut herself off with a shrug, losing her train of thought.
“No that’s good, we shape our Aspects, I think that’s true.” Deo paused for a second, debating something internally. Whatever he decided he spoke aloud, “What if you are born with an Aspect, what then?”
Hales took a second long to register his words. Born with an Aspect already activated?
“Is it really possible?” Hales asked in consternation.
“Yes.” Deo said simply. Hales recalled the first time they met, the words he spoke then, that particular choice of phrasing, the haunt in his voice, ‘I’ve had my Aspect my whole life’. She suspected he could have been born with an Aspect but it wasn’t exactly widely believed as a possibility as the alleged cases were extremely rare and undocumented. Few and far between. It was more of a folk myth, for even superpowers have their legends. Born enlightened? Perhaps his Aspect activated without any sort of enlightenment, if such a thing is even possible. Either way, an anomaly.
“I don’t know,” Hales answered with apprehension. She didn’t know, truthfully. Something must have happened to him as a kid or before, something that had to do with his power. It left a pit in her stomach just thinking about it. Her heart reached out to him.
“Neither do I.” Deo said distantly.
Hales held him and pressed her lips to his.
They lay together on a blanket long enough for the stars to come out. Deo was watching those stars when the riddle about the strongest metal returned to his thoughts. He didn’t know why the night sky should make him think about it, but a new thought entered his mind so he explored the concept.
“Hales, I think I found the answer to that riddle,” He said, sharing his epiphany.
Hales sat up eager, “Oh, let’s hear it!”
“I’m not sure why I got the answer from star-gazing, but I suppose the logic follows once you hear it.”
Tell me,” She urged.
“What is night?”
“When the stars are out.”
“What is day?”
“When the sun is out.”
“Only the sun?”
“Only the sun is visible.”
“But day is merely all the stars together. It just so happens that one of those stars is brighter and closer, but all of them are shining together.”
“Hm, never thought of it daytime like that.”
“So the question is, what is the strongest metal in the world? Well how about an alloy of all the metals together.”
“Together… If all the metals are combined then there is no other metal that can beat it.”
“I think that is your answer, Hales.”
“I knew you’d think of the answer, Deo.”
“We’ll see if it’s right.”
“Saccha will probably say the answer is a flask.”
“If he gets you killed because he is drunk, I will end him.”
“Nonsense, they check for that kind of stuff prior to deployment. No alcohol allowed on missions.”
“He’ll find a way I’m sure.”
“I’ll be okay Deo, the assignment shouldn’t be more than a month long, and most of that is just travelling to the area of operation.”
“Don’t die Hales.”
“That’s the plan!”
“Are your siblings going to be okay?”
“Yeah they will be, and when I get back I should be able to get a small apartment and move them away from my father.”
“That’s good. It has to be near the base I assume?”
“Yeah Tytuhn is where I will be working in between missions.”
“What kind of work is that?”
“Post mission status reports and briefings, new potential assignments I can accept with my team, fitness and Aspect training. For a captain and a Specter it’s pretty flexible what I can do and which missions I go on. It sounds quite autonomous actually, more so than I thought.”
“Since we aren’t going into a full scale war they probably don’t need you on the frontlines all the time.”
“Yeah. As far as I know Garghent doesn’t want a war right now, just reclaiming old territory here and there, ancestral lands, border disputes business ventures, something of the sort. Nothing too serious.”
“It’s still dangerous, but it does sound better than war.”
“You shouldn’t worry, Deo. I’m strong.”
The conversation ended abruptly, but not in an awkward way. The silence was comfortable as each enjoyed the companionship of the other.
Hales stuck the grey marigold in her hair.
“How do I look?”
“Perfect. Like the queen of space!” The stars behind and above her, the fact that her Aspect was literally the galaxy, and the dim light of midnight along with that ghoulish flower in her hair all were so aesthetically captivating that his pulse quickened like never before.
“Solar.” Each of Hales’ eyes became swirling galaxies.
The galaxy eyes of Hales held Deo’s own violet eyes, both supernaturally luminescent under the starlight.
“You should keep the flower. It suits you.” Deo said at last, breaking the stare.
“But don’t you need to sell marigolds? Besides, I already have so many of your flowers!”
“You don’t have marigolds, though.” Deo pointed out.
“Okay.” Hales smiled and shook her hair, letting it fall messily over her eyes.
“You’re prettier than you give yourself credit for.”
“To me, you are.”
“I love you Deo.”
“I love you, Hales.”
They declared their love to each other for the first time, there in the marigold field under a starry, moonless sky, there it was the first time either had been loved by another. And who knows it could be the last, for war does not discriminate, even among lovers.
So it was there in that flower glade paradise field that they passionately consummated that love.
The end of arc 3.