Larch felt the dawn sun begin to warm his aching limbs. He opened his eyes and squinted around him. Lily was lying next to him, her hand in his, and the other Roses were
scattered around the forest, all apparently beginning to stir from unconsciousness. Reed rubbed the side of his head and stretched, before rushing to Holly who was feebly trying to patch up her wounds with strips of her clothes. Oak was combing soot out of his beard, under which Cherry had been carefully sheltered, and Moss groped habitually for his now non-existent glasses as he awoke.
“Larch?” Lily sat up and put her hand on Larch’s shoulder. “What happened? What’s going on?”
“It’s over,” he said. “We won.” And so, it seemed, they had. The rose bush and council circle had all but evaporated in that final burst of fire, and around it lay the remains of the attackers. The vampire, that most notoriously flammable of creatures, was nothing more than a heap of ash. The alien was lying stretched out on the grass, still quivering from the pain of being burned and blinded. In the light of the morning sun, rather than a werewolf, they found the charred body of an ordinary flesh-being. Thinking of their daughter, Larch and Lily couldn’t help feeling a tiny bit sorry for him, whoever he had been. As they thought of her, Cherry began to cry from the other end of the forest. Larch and Lily smiled. She was safe, which meant that all their efforts had been worth it. But then something else caught their eye.
“Willow!” cried Lily, putting a hand to her mouth. Willow was lying crumpled in a heap on the floor, breathing heavily, in the spot where the rose bush had stood before the
blast. It was a marvel that she had been strong enough to withstand it herself, but the alien’s beam was no match even for her, and as they drew closer they could see that it had burned almost all the way through her stomach. Oak let out a kind of soft moan and rushed to her side. He knelt down and lay her head in his lap. Soon the others came to join him, all of them gathered in the circle once more. Moss was inconsolable, this was almost exactly the situation he had been dreading. He seemed incapable of doing anything more than burying his face in Reed’s shirt, at least until something stirred behind them. The alien started to pick himself up, slowly, the scowl returning to his face.
“Oh n-no. N-no more.” Picking up the weapon, which lay just to the side of them, Moss shot the beam firmly through his head. He slumped back down to rejoin his fellow predators.
“Wow, Moss,” nodded Holly, the surprise enough to make her forget the wounds. “I can’t believe you figured out how to work that thing. But…” She eyed his distressed face with suspicion. “I do think it might be a good idea to put it down now…” Moss did as he was told. He was certainly in no hurry for anyone else to get hurt. Willow smiled and squeezed his hand.
“W-willow? M-mother?” His eyes welling up. “Y-you c-can’t d-die now!”
“I think it’s too late, my little pumpkin. The damage is done.” Willow turned her head slowly towards him and gently stroked his cheek. Tears streamed down Moss’ face and he clasped her hand in his trembling fist. “I hope you can forgive me for the pain I’ve caused you, and the mess I dragged you all into.”
“You didn’t drag us into anything,” Larch burst out angrily. “Stop taking responsibility for everyone’s mistakes. We a’ll do stupid things, and I won’t let you die blaming yourself.” Willow chuckled weakly to herself. Lily, between sobs, picked up her daughter and laid her in Willow’s lap. Cherry lay quietly and listened to the slowing beats of her heart, almost as if she understood.
“Maybe you’re right, Larch, maybe you’re right. But you’re going to have stop being stupid, and start being a parent, because believe me, being both will not work out. Oak…” Willow looked up at her brother. He nodded and handed Larch a small bottle. “I think it’s fair to say now that we love this little bud, and you, enough to do anything for her. But we can’t do that, Larch. She needs to be with her own kind. So I’m giving you what you always wished for. This antidote will transform you into a flesh-being. I need you to leave, and take her somewhere she can grow strong and safe.”
“No!” he exclaimed. “I won’t do it! I can’t leave, not now. Not after everything that everyone’s done.”
“But it’s what you’ve literally always wanted,” said Holly. “Ever since you matured.”
“I don’t care! I don’t want it anymore. If anything else comes I’ll fight it off all over again, but I won’t abandon my family after I’ve only just got to know them.” Lily and Reed pulled him back down. Willow closed her eyes and folded her hands in her lap. She was silent for a few moments. The family all held their breath.
“Such a beautiful morning,” she said at last, her voice but a whisper. “In the most wonderful garden in all the world. I’m so happy that you’re all here. Larch, as always I can’t force you to anything, I can only beg you to go, as I will, in peace. And now it seems,” A wry smile crept onto her face as she spoke those familiar words. “That dusk is upon me. Goodnight my garden of Roses. Live well.”
“Larch?” Lily found him in the orchard, staring out through the trees and twirling the bottle of antidote in his hands. The men had just finished burying Willow. She lay in the middle of the council circle, with a brand new rose bush planted over her. They had even found compassion for the three creatures. They were buried at the foot of an old yew tree, each with a small rock to mark their place. It was exactly as she would have wanted. But Larch was still having trouble deciding what he wanted.
“Hey Lily,” he sighed. His face, usually so expressive, was uncharacteristically closed. “Where’s Cherry?”
“With Oak,” she replied. “I think having someone to cuddle is helping him cope.”
“That’s sweet. He’ll want her to stay then?”
“No, Larch, we all know it’s not safe for her here. Who knows what will come to get her next? I’m afraid the forest just isn’t the place for flesh-beings.” Larch put his hand to his forehead.
“I know, I know. But I just don’t know how I’ll manage it all on my own.” Lily pulled him round to face her. Arms folded and face set, she looked a lot like Willow.
“Larch, hasn’t any of this taught you anything? You’ve never been alone.” she said,
putting a hand to Larch’s face. “Anywhere you’re going, anywhere Cherry’s going, I’m coming too, because she’s our ‘little mistake’, remember? We’re in this together. And eventually you’re going to have stop fighting everything everyone says and do what’s right.”
“You’re right,” Larch sighed, looking down at the floor. “Lily, that’s not the only thing that’s bothering me. I want you to know I, er, I love y- ouch!” Lily clipped him sharply around the ear.
“Do you think I don’t know that already? Of course you do. But now’s not the time to be getting soppy about that. You need to make your decision Larch, and you need to face it. Just like Willow.”
He looked at her stern, beautiful face, then down at the bottle in his hand. He nodded. Putting his arm around her shoulders, he started to walk back to the centre of the forest. Even without saying it, he knew he and Lily were in the same mind about what must be done. When they got there, everyone was waiting for them, wounds patched up and eyes dried.
“All right, I – we’ve decided. We’ll go. We’ll take Cherry to the other side of the mountains and find the land of the flesh beings. But,” he held out the bottle. “You can keep this. We won’t be needing it.”
“But how will you fit in? What if there’s nobody else like us there, what if they come to find us?”
“Oak, when has ‘fitting in’ ever bothered me? If they ask about where we’re from, I’ll spin them a story.” He winked. “Let’s face it, lying’s never been much of an issue either. I know I haven’t been the perfect PlantSim, but I’m a Rose, and I’m staying one. Lily?” Lily nodded. Oak conceded, and took back the bottle, handing Cherry over to her parents. He nodded back and gave them a sad smile. They turned to the other three. Reed was starting to weep again. He held them both fiercely in his thin, strong arms.
“My little girl,” he sniffed. “You make sure you look after her. Actually, maybe you’d better look after him, Lily.” Moss came up shyly, as well as somewhat blindly, and gave them a squeeze.
“B-bye son,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Larch whispered. Moss just laughed.
“F-for what?” he winked. “Y-you were th-the most exciting s-son ever!” Larch shook his
head, smiling. Last came Holly. She kissed her sister, and hugged Larch fiercely. Then there was an awkward silence, as both parties looked at each other and waited for the next move. Larch felt guilty for not realising how much he loved his family, and they for not telling him sooner. But now was not the time for dwelling on past mistakes. Larch and Lily looked at each other, vowing silently not to make the same mistakes with their new family. They gave the other Roses one final wave, bowed their heads over Willow’s resting place and set off for the edge of the forest. As they passed the familiar sights, Larch reminisced about all the events since his maturing, all the fights over his duties, the furious nights in the trees, the council meeting, the night in the spring, Cherry’s birth, sneaking out to look after her, the battle against the creatures… it was hard to believe that in hardly over a year of existence so much emotional turmoil was even possible. Every moment of his short life had seemed to be some kind of struggle.
“But not today, Willow,” he said to himself. “Today, I’ll go in peace.”
The garden was bathed in the setting sun. All around it soft clouds of ash shifted with the breeze, but the more tenacious leaves still hung on the trees, the fish swam as ever in the clear blue waters of the lake and deep underground the beginnings of the year’s harvest were stirring. Willow had been right. It was the most wonderful garden of Roses you could ever hope to see.