Elijah politely left the room so I could change into fresh clothing and returned only when I verbally gave permission. I felt slightly insane talking to empty air, but there were worse things. He took us to a quaint diner for breakfast and I didn't know for sure if we were still in Kentucky or not, but it didn't matter because the food was good. The hot chocolate was sweet, the omelet was warm and filling, and the hash browns were just the right amount of crunchy. I never dreamed a place like this could exist and it was devastating to know that I would probably never be able to go back. Part of me rationalized that Elijah had probably influenced a few things about my meal to make it tastier and healthier; it seemed like the kind of sneaky fatherly thing he would do.
There were other small details I chose to ignore: like why no one had questioned our abrupt appearance on the sidewalk outside the diner and the legitimacy of the credit card Elijah produced to pay for my meal.
None of that mattered in the long run.
"So," I said, through a mouthful of hash. I swallowed thickly and chased it down with a gulp of hot chocolate. Elijah waited patiently. "So," I repeated, "Did you talk to Mihr last night?"
I asked because it was bothering me. The question was a niggling ache at the back of my head, small and relentless and I had to ask. Because as a teenager, I hated feeling like someone I trusted had talked dirt about me behind my back - not that I suspected an angel of doing so, but the principle still remained. I had been the subject of a conversation in which I had not been involved and I felt like I deserved to know the content.
Elijah chuckled. "Yes, I did. Mihr only wanted to know how you are faring."
"Oh," I said, fingering my fork, but leaving my food on the plate. "What'd you tell him?"
"The truth," Elijah said simply. "That you had an encounter with Matchitehew and thus far have said nothing of your situation with Aubrey."
I frowned. "Am I supposed to have?"
"It would be nice if you did. Mihr is very concerned."
"I don't want to," I grumbled petulantly, not caring that I sounded more like an eight-year-old than an eighteen-year-old.
"And that is perfectly fine," Elijah assured me, nonplussed as ever.
I sectioned off a bite of omelet, dipped my fork in ketchup, and then speared the bite. I chewed slowly and kept my eyes on my plate. Elijah sat across from me, pleasant and patient and completely nonjudgemental. He made no indication that he wanted to press the matter or that he thought any less of me for being so serious about avoiding my problems. It was nice.
"Anything else…?" I asked at length, because the itch was still there in my mind.
"I told Mihr that you did not sleep well and stayed awake for quite some time. You were so intent on keeping your mind occupied, you did not question that your cellular phone had full service and extended battery life."
I gawped at Elijah, because wow, he was sneaky! I was certain that he had been off in la-la land while talking to his siblings upstairs and completely checked-out from anything I was doing. I was pretty impressed.
"Dude," I squeaked, because it was all I could manage.
Elijah gave a small grin and preened slightly under the weight of my unspoken awe.
"Technology is not my strong suit, but I am not entirely without hope."
I shook my head. "So what else?"
The angel laughed quietly. "Your sense of curiosity is quite persistent."
Elijah gave me a look like he wasn't entirely sure what to make of that response and then went on to answer my question regardless.
"The only other subject of our discussion that directly concerns you is that Isda is now watching over Aubrey Mohan."
"He is the Angel of Nourishment," Elijah replied easily. "He looks after physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing."
Elijah hesitated and then spoke carefully, "Aubrey is struggling. She is very conflicted emotionally and she, too, is losing sleep to stress and anxiety."
Before now, it had never really occurred to me that Aubrey could be anything other than okay. Somehow, I never thought that maybe she was just as torn up inside as I was, because all I could ever focus on was how stupid and horrible I was to her. I never truly considered the fact that Aubrey didn't know much about my ex or my bitterness or of anything that would drive me to do what I did. She had no reason to suspect me of being insincere, only of being a bitch (which was nevertheless true). And even though she was a friend before the Star Trees, I'd only known her for a handful of weeks and there was still so much that neither of us knew about the other. There was no possible way for Aubrey to see me as anything other than the friend who kissed-and-ditched her and, god, how awful must that be for her?
I felt appalled and disgusted with myself all over again.
Elijah reached across the table and took my hand in his. When I met his eye, he was smiling gently, reassuringly.
"Do not fret," he said. "Isda is watching over her. She will be all right. In the meantime, you must find peace with yourself before you can find peace with her."
More throw-pillow wisdom, except this time I welcomed it without a trace of skepticism, because it somewhat relieved the ache that was building in my chest. While I still felt awful about my actions, that was ultimately nothing new, I'd felt awful since the instant it happened, but at least now I could reconcile with avoidance. I needed to search myself and I would never be able to do that on campus with Aubrey's presence lingering all around me. I needed space to clear my head and that was Elijah had fundamentally offered me in presenting his adventure as a distraction.
"Nevertheless," Elijah said, "I intend to have you returned to school by tomorrow night at the latest. I assume you have homework that needs to be done." The expression on his face - the quirked eyebrow and upturned corners of his lips - implied that homework came second to confronting Aubrey, but he knew better than to say so outright. My appreciation for the angel grew significantly.
I smiled a little bit and finished my breakfast in silence.
Instead of flying away immediately after the meal, Elijah and I walked down the street for a while. Our shoulders bumped companionably every now and then and sometimes the differing sways in our strides caused our fingers to brush. There was nothing romantic about it, nothing more than friendly comfort, and I wanted to point and laugh at all the cliched stories that used this as a sort of indicator for impending non-platonic relationships.
"There is a flower a few miles south of here," Elijah said without preamble, glancing sideways at me. "When you're, we will go there. This one feels stronger. It is more recent."
"I thought you said the last one was recent?"
"It was," agreed Elijah. "But this one is more so." He glanced at me with a quirked eyebrow. "I did tell you that Fjola likes to move around a lot?"
"Oh, yeah," I said, because I couldn't think of anything else.
Elijah looked a bit amused.
"Shall we then?" I said holding out my bent elbow for him to link his arm with, trying to cover up how silly I felt for my sillier question. Elijah laughed kindly and wrapped his hand around my upper arm. "Close enough," I said teasingly.
If Elijah was confused, he didn't say anything of it and simply went on to whisk us away to the next point on the proverbial (literal?) map. A Few Miles South in Random County, Kentucky, looked a lot like the land surrounding the farmhouse, but with the stark absence of farmhouse and the half dozen horses. The land rolled like bright green ocean waves and stretched to the horizon on all sides, with clusters of trees sliding between the waves like weeds through the cracks in a sidewalk. And somehow, amidst all the green and in the dim light emanating from the overcast skies, I could see a pinprick of bright blue that could only be a particular mystical daisy.
Elijah took my wrist as we approached, but the action wasn't as friendly or fatherly as it usually was. There was a tension in his hand that sent a jolt of anxiety through me. I strained my eyes looking all around at the expanse of long grass and smattered trees and the point of electric blue, but I couldn't see anything that stood out as wrong.
"What is it?" I asked, quietly, because I felt as though anything above a whisper would shatter the comfortable peace of this field. Elijah shook his head.
"Something feels…different," he murmured.
The little blue daisy sunk from view, hidden by the natural rolls of the landscape.
"Good different or bad different?"
A tiny crease appeared between the angel's eyebrows in thought.
"I cannot properly tell," he admitted. "It feels both like something large and evil, which would indicate Matchitehew, but it also feels like something divine. I wonder if the interference stems from Apollo and Artemis's affinity for this place."
"Okay, um, quick off-topic question," I said. "Why Kentucky?"
Elijah smirked a little bit, but his expression primarily remained one of consternation. "You mean, why did members of the Greek pantheon come to settle in a seemingly random American state?"
I scoffed jokingly. "Yeah, Mr. Literal, pretty much."
"I am not entirely sure," Elijah admitted. "However, I believe it was due to a desire to explore the rest of the world. Perhaps I shall inquire one of these days."
"All right, well, tell me when you do. I want to know."
"Of course, child."
The little blue flower rose into our line of vision once more, but it was not alone. I stopped dead in my tracks, frozen by a dreadful combination of fear and shock.
Matchitehew was approaching the flower from the opposite direction, rising into view seconds after the daisy. His hulking frame was just as terrifying, if not more so, than the last time I saw him. He was just as grizzled and matted with blood and dirt and his tapering jaw was parted to reveal those long rows of yellowed teeth. His lips were pulled back in the jack-o-lantern grin that curled past his sunken eyes and his whip-like tongue hung like a snake as he trotted closer, panting as though he'd run for miles to get here.
Elijah let out an angry hiss beside me. Perhaps that was the sound of him swearing in some inhuman language or a glimpse at him in his natural angelic state, but for a moment that hiss frightened me more than Matchitehew. The angel released my wrist and surged forward to meet the creature head on, to stop him from reaching the flower before we did.
They met with the flower as a perfect midpoint between them and stood facing each other like sculptures of ice. I shook myself from my frozen state and staggered forward, driven by insatiable curiosity, and brought myself once more to Elijah's side.
"You know very well that I need this flower," the angel said sternly, to which Matchitehew curled his lips and snarled in return. "I cannot have you adding this one to your collection, not now that I have so little time to spare."
Matchitehew towered over the angel, glowering down at him with gleaming eyes and jowls dripping with saliva. His steely eyes flickered from the angel to me and then back again. It was almost as though he was debating which of us to lunge for first and the mere thought sent trills of icy fear through my veins. It suddenly seemed altogether useless to even try to stop Matchitehew from taking the little blue flower, because he was so huge and so powerful that I couldn't fathom how we would even be able to compete with him. There was no doubt in my mind that this creature could pick up me up and fling me like a rag doll. Elijah definitely stood more of a chance, what with his angel powers and all that jazz, but really, the guy was tiny in comparison to the behemoth that was Matchitehew.
The creature stared insolently at Elijah and deliberately began to lower his head, jaw opening and tongue uncurling, to the flower. Elijah clenched his fist and something long and sharp shimmered into existence: a sort of tapering, silver rod that almost looked like an old rapier, but without the ornate guard about the handle (or any sort of handle at all). Matchitehew blinked, but did not pause in his motion.
A string of saliva dripped from one curved canine and fell on the delicate petals of the daisy. I frowned. This daisy somehow looked different from the last one…
"I may not have the ability to cause you lasting harm," Elijah said darkly, warning, "but I will cause you great discomfort if you do not desist right now."
I kept my eyes on the daisy, trying to decide why it seemed so off, and reached blindly with one hand to grab at the sleeve of Elijah's polo. If he gave any reaction, I missed it, but what I could see of his stance didn't falter.
"Elijah…" I said softly. "This flower…"
It was growing fainter by the second.
Matchitehew plainly did not care for the flower's brightness, because in one abrupt motion he snatched it up in his teeth and leapt away from the angel. Elijah hefted the silver rod and prepared to throw it at Matchitehew's retreating form, racing for the safety of the shadows among the trees.
An arrow whistled by my ear, slicing through the air between me and Elijah, and struck Matchitehew's broad shoulder. The creature, scarcely a few yards ahead, staggered and fell with a loud yelp. A second arrow followed moments later and embedded itself in the creature's hindquarters. Matchitehew was still for a few, lasting minutes while I held my breath and Elijah dropped his arm uselessly and then the creature was dragging himself to his feet and hauling himself away with his tail tucked.
A smaller, leaner hound bolted past me, legs stretching and belly brushing the ground. The hound made a wide circuit to where Matchitehew had fallen and then back to where she had started. I spun around, following the hound as best I could and watched as she returned to the heels of her master with the stem of a little blue flower held in her mouth. I gaped.
The hound's master was an olive-skinned woman with a full figure and a stern expression. Her hair fell in unrelenting waves of dark bronze down her back and her eyes were the color of the earth and hard as stone. Dim sunlight glinted off the golden circlet round her head and illuminated the crescent moon centered on her brow. She wore an ivory-colored tunic dress with pale leggings and leather sandals that laced up to her knees and bore a quiver of yellow-feathered arrows strapped to her back. In her right hand she held a bow that was nearly as tall she was and the other hand was akimbo on her hip.
She stood at the crest of a wave in the field, uphill from me and the angel, and the murky sunlight lent her an impressive aura. She looked down at the hound and held her free hand out expectantly. The hound placed the flower delicately on her palm. Daisy in hand, she descended, casually using the foot of her bow as a walking stick though she clearly did not need its support, it was more of an action borne from convenience.
The woman still hadn't spoken when she came to stand before Elijah, hound hovering obediently at her heels. The angel and the woman regarded each other for a moment, expressions bland and unreadable, before abruptly breaking into a illuminating grins and embracing like old friends.
"It's wonderful to see you again, Angelface!" crowed the woman, holding Elijah at arms length with ease despite the flower and bow still in her hands. Her voice was loud and jubilant, it held a certain wisdom and warmth that simultaneously demanded respect and cultured amity. "You haven't changed a bit, though that's expected, eh?"
"I could say as much to you, my dear," said Elijah, grinning so broadly that his normally perfect enunciation was somewhat skewed.
"And who's this?" the woman asked, releasing Elijah and turning her attention to me. I felt dwarfed under her stare and suddenly very timid; this woman had an air of power similar to Elijah's, but she had a far more conspicuous way of shouldering it.
"This young lady is Emily Jensen," said Elijah, placing a calm hand on my shoulder. "She is accompanying me on my latest venture to retrieve Fjola."
"I guessed as much," said the woman, indicating the flower in her hand and needing no further explanation than that.
"Emily," said Elijah, continuing the introduction, "I am pleased to present to you the Goddess of the Hunt and the Moon, Artemis."
Artemis laughed roughly and flapped a hand at Elijah. "Don't let him make it sound more important than it actually is," she exclaimed, grinning widely at the angel and then at me. "I'm a member of an old pantheon that lost its core following ages ago. I'm just Artemis, nothing more and nothing less. It's a pleasure to meet you, Emily Jensen."
She stuck her hand out as if to shake mine, but the flower was still nestled in her grasp. I hesitated, unsure of what to do, but Artemis remained stolid. I smiled awkwardly and reached out to take the flower. The goddess pressed the tiny thing into my palm and laughed again.
"Don't be so nervous!" she teased. "I won't bite and neither will Cassia. Isn't that right, old girl?"
She reached down to pat the hound obediently at her heel, a slender wisp of a dog with a sharp face and wide, warm eyes.
"So," Artemis said eagerly. "How'd you get in with Elijah?"
Her eyes were alight with curiosity and somehow I knew that I wouldn't be able to get away with an unsatisfactory answer.
"Um, well," I said and my voice came out quiet and timid. I cleared my throat and tried again, managing to speak a little stronger this time. "It was a coincidence, I guess. I was trying to get away from a problem and he was trying to find Fjola. We sort of crossed paths and he let me tag along while I figure myself out."
"Uh-huh," said Artemis, sounding distinctly unimpressed. "That's quite the summary. I'll get the more exciting version from you later, but right now, Angelface, I think you better take a look at that flower."
"Yes, I agree," Elijah said quickly and I realized he'd been waiting for me to hand it over, but was much too polite to interrupt me to say so. I handed it over immediately, feeling my cheeks turn pink as I did so.
The angel handled the daisy with utmost care, cupping it in his pale hand and stroking one slim finger over its silken petals. The flower was now an opaque white, all the color seemed to have drained from it while our attentions were distracted, and it was browning at the edges. Even under Elijah's impossibly gentle touch, the petals crumpled and fell like moths burned by a flame. In a manner of seconds, the flower was little more than a withering stem.
"Fjola created this in haste," Elijah reported quietly. His eyes never left the pitiful remains that curled to nonexistence in his palm. "Something has happened to her. She was running. She was frightened."
"Is she still here?" asked Artemis.
Elijah closed his eyes, concentrating, and then shook his head. "No. I will need some time to trace her. It can be done, but without her trail-markers it will take added effort on my part."
"Is there something I can do?" I asked. "Can I help?"
Elijah smiled. "I appreciate the offer, child, but no. You can only wait. Perhaps you should take advantage of Artemis's curiosity, unless you would prefer to take this opportunity to reflect upon yourself…?"
I grimaced slightly, but nonetheless I understood what he was implying. Once again, he was offering me an out, a distraction, another avenue with which to avoid the things I was still too scared to face.
We stood in the grass under the molten grey sky and shallow sunlight. Elijah closed his eyes and angled his head backwards as he had in the farmhouse, hands clasped before his chest in a loosely prayer-like position. Artemis tugged at my elbow and when I looked at her, she jerked her head away, silently telling me to walk with her and leave Elijah in peace.