The mirror tumbled overhead.
The mirror rippled as the bullet slammed into it, a deep hole forming in one side, a long, sharp point on the other side, where bullet was trying to escape. She kept her gun pointed at it and counted down from ten – if it didn’t break, she’d fire again, mirrors might need a double-tap. The ripples in the silvery goop intensified, and at the end of the long, sharp point, cracks started to appear.
The cracks ran along the mirror, spider-webbing out across the whole surface, strange light pouring out from between the cracks.
She heard footsteps behind her.
There was a high-pitched sound and the mirror exploded.
Oh thank god, you’re here too. Where’s here? Is there a here? What- What is this?
What’s the last thing you remember?
Spyder, you might be-
Don’t even say it! Besides, if I was, shouldn’t I be able to see Death? Or something? The afterlife isn’t being trapped in your own brain.
Dying once doesn’t make you an expert.
Everything was nothing. Thoughts distended and became as hard to catch as vapour. Time was completely meaningless. Counting didn’t work.
Everything started to hurt.
There was pain in her chest. Chest. She had a chest. She focussed on the pain, and tried to feel past it, waiting for breath to fill her lungs – if she had a chest that could hurt, then she had lungs. Cold air filled her lungs, and she tried to feel the throat and mouth that had carried the air. It was like trying to concentrate on the after-image of a camera flash – something that was there, something you knew was there, but that kept slipping away.
Someone was grabbing at her – she could feel her shoulders under their hands, and her hands. Fingers, she had fingers! She fought against them with a body she couldn’t really feel – whatever was in the nothing with her couldn’t be friendly. Stef fought to try and see – feeling was coming back, sight had to return, and that would making fighting easier, or at least, she’d know what was going to-
The word cut through the nothingness, the first sound she’d heard since the mirror. The voice came like an impeccably-timed save, it was Ryan. She let her mind calm, and stopped trying to fight. Maybe she wasn’t dead, maybe she’d just been hurt, maybe she was just unconscious. Maybe it was wishful thinking.
Sensation seemed to slip into her body, and she just felt as though she’d been asleep for a day. She shook her head and forced herself to blink – her eyes were dry and the feeling was horrible, but as she blinked, sight returned, and she saw the magic-agent-man that was holding her. ‘Ry- Ryan?’ She grabbed for his closest arm and clung to it, needing him to tie her to reality, and keep her away from whatever the nothing had been. He was safe. He was warm, and warm was so good – everything else felt so cold, her hands were cold, her chest was cold, even the air was cold. He could get rid of her later, say he never wanted to see her again, lambast her for being an idiot, whatever price he wanted, so long as he let her hold him now.
She didn’t try to fight as tears started.
No. Please. Don’t make me let go yet.
Ryan moved beneath her, and for a moment, she thought he was going to fling her off, but he simply stood, lifting her at the same time.
No. No. No. Please, I need you. You said- You said you’d be- And there’s supposed to be hugs.
She felt something cold beneath her, and his hands worked to pull hers away from him.
Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. I didn’t mean- I-
She stared at his chest, and saw blood on his uniform. His hands came to rest down on her shoulders. He was going to shake her until her brain rattled. He was going to-
‘I need you to stay here. I will be back.’ There was no hate in his voice. Nothing to indicate he wanted to shake her, or yell at her, or hate her for needing hugs. She reached up and grabbed one of his hands. ‘This is important. I need you to trust me.’
His chest twisted as he turned away. ‘Watch her. Keep her in here, and do not let anyone else see her.’
There were other people there. Wherever there was. Cold. Air conditioning. Colder than air conditioning. Fridge. There was no reason for her to be- She pressed her hands to the cold surface she was sitting on, and swung her head a little to the right, and saw a dark, open, space. Morgue. She was in the morgue.
Something warm wrapped around her shoulders, and she turned back to see Ryan wrapping his jacket around her shoulders. ‘I will be back.’
Back. He was going away. He was going to leave her. She lifted her heavy head. ‘Stay?’ It was a childish request. It was a childish need, like being comforted after a nightmare – at least, what it was like to be comforted after a nightmare for the people in books.
He shifted away, and more tears came.
She heard movement, and she looked up to see the doctors. The crazy-and-possibly-evil one stood in the doorway boggling at her, but his twin was crossing the small space between them. ‘Recruit?’
‘Can I take a look, please?’
‘At what the hell do you think?’ the taller twin said, moving to come stand beside her doctor.
‘I don’t know what happened.’
‘Can you feel your heart beating?’
She sat still. She could feel blood pounding in her ears, and breath wheezing in and out of her nose, but her chest was oddly still, heavy and cold. She didn’t fight as the taller Parker pushed Ryan’s jacket from her shoulders and moved her arms to her sides. ‘There’s no wound.’
‘I can see that,’ her doctor said.
The taller Parker grabbed her hand, and she felt a sharp pain, she looked down and saw a thin cut from a scalpel across the back of her hand. She tried to muster indignation, to scream an expletive, but those were actions for people with energy, who weren’t crying and wanting to wake up from a bad dream.
She looked back at her hand and saw the wound close, Wolverine-style, leaving nothing but a hair-thin pale scar.
There was noise, and people’s voices. ‘My patient,’ the taller Parker said, then left the morgue, slamming the door behind him.
‘You’ll have to forgive him,’ her doctor said. ‘But you are a curiosity.’
No. I’m a nerd.
She looked away from him, and down to the scar on the back of her hand. Words just didn’t seem to be working. There were no platitudes to use one’s self when you’d died, no falsely calming “it’ll be okay”, no “just walk it off”. Words just weren’t enough.
Stef grabbed for the edges of Ryan’s coat and pulled it around herself. The large jacket swam on her – it was big enough to hide in, big enough to be a shelter against the world.
‘Let’s see if we can make you a little more comfortable,’ Parker said. Immediately, the cold feeling beneath her disappeared, and she dropped her heavy head to look down – there was a thin mattress beneath her. ‘Do you want anything, Recruit? Water, or-?’
She shook her head.
Please just leave me alone.
She worked her hands along the edge of the coat and did up the buttons. It wasn’t as good as a hug, but it still felt safe.
‘I’ll be in the infirmary then,’ Parker said, ‘knock if you need anything.’
She gave him a vague nod, then brought her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. The doctor turned and left, and she pressed her face into the black fabric of the coat.
What the hell happened? What the hell is going on?
I’m not sure why I have to keep reminding you of this, but you’re a genius, work it out?
Do you have to be a bitch?
Resource management – the more you’re thinking, the less processing power you’ll have to feel.
The words were strange to say out loud. Death was a very strange thing – up until a few days ago it had been a concept understood almost entirely in abstract – her mother had died, but she’d gleaned no great understanding of death that way. There were the textbook definitions and the generalised understanding. There was the DEATH who enjoyed curry and kittens, the Death who was perky, the Death who hung out with the Wyld Stallions – each a valid interpretation, each meaning nothing in the grand scheme.
There was the dream of drowning – which, with the new context, had to be the half-remembered scrap of dying the first time. There was the blackness that she’d seen when there’d been no other option. Death was dark – that concept was so mundane it wasn’t worth thinking about.
She’d died. She’d died and come back. It was still insane to think about. She’d died once…and now she’d done it again.
I’m going to wait for Ryan to tell me for sure. But- But it’s the only thing that-
She pushed her hand free of the coat and looked at the thin scar.
Death didn’t give me superpowers the first time around.
She pulled her hand back inside the coat, and hugged her arms around herself. She began to count in binary, ones and zeros spinning into real numbers, trying to help her make sense of everything, and helping her to count away the seconds until the angel came back.
Time slipped away again. There was no sound except her breathing and the rustle of the coat as she tried not to fidget.
‘Stef?’ Her head snapped up at word, and she saw Ryan standing there. ‘Stef, I have to ask you something.’
His tone made her shrink back, but there were answers she needed. ‘What happened?’
‘You’ve got a piece of mirror in you. Where your heart should be. I’m afraid of wishing it away in case-‘
That explained the lack of movement in her chest, but it didn’t absolutely-and-one-hundred-percent confirm the biggest question. ‘You’ve got a piece of mirror in you. Where your heart should be. I’m afraid of wishing it away in case-‘
‘I died, didn’t I? But- But there was nothing. I didn’t see-‘
Unless no one gets to see their life flashing before their eyes. Unless you only get to see stuff if you’ve lived a life worth living.
‘You stopped breathing for a few minutes,’ he said. She took a breath, just to feel her lungs expanding. He sat beside her, and didn’t push her away as she leaned against him. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly, the word reverberating through his chest. ‘You died. But you’re here now.’
She had mirror in her. Mirror was bad. Wishes were bad. She’d fucked up. More tears built up, but she did the best to dam them behind her eyes. ‘And that’s a problem, isn’t it? If there’s mirror- Then- Then don’t you have to wish me away?’ She whimpered and clung to his arm. ‘I’ll close my eyes, just please make it fast.’
It was it was him, it would be ok. If he had to kill her, that was ok. The tears started to stream down her cheeks, and she pressed her face into his shoulder – he still had room if he wanted to shoot her in the head. He’d saved her, she’d owed him a life in return. It wouldn’t be scary if he did it.
Just make it quick, please.
She counted to ten, and waited to die.
‘I just wished you back, Stef, I’m not going to wish you away.’
For a moment, the words didn’t make any sense. She squeezed her eyes closed and ran them through her mind again – they still didn’t make any sense. She pushed herself away from the safety of his shoulder – wondering if he just needed the distance so he could shoot her in the chest. ‘What?’ she asked, giving him a moment to shoot, if he wanted to.
‘I said, I’m not going to-‘
For a magic-MiB-man, that was a stupid response. ‘Not that part, the other part.’
‘I made a wish, because you needed me to.’
She gripped the coat wrapped around her. Magic mirror was bad, that was the whole point, that was the reason why they had to get it, so they could wish it away. They needed to wish it away, so that meant she had to be wished away. ‘But you’re going to get in trouble. Just wish me away so-‘
His tone was very I’m-the-dad-I-know-best, but without the threat that always seemed to be in James’s voice. ‘Yessir.’
‘I didn’t expect there to be mirror left, I thought it would have repaired the damage. I could try and wish away the extra, but I don’t know what that will do to you. Jones has offered me another possibility, but there is also the option of sanctuary with one of the Courts, the Lost and the Mad always have room for more, and you’d be out of the Agency’s jurisdiction then.’
She sat still for a moment, then pushed off his coat, and for the first time, pressed a hand to her chest. ‘It- It doesn’t hurt. But- But I’m- If you tried to fix it, you might wish me away?’
‘I don’t know, but-‘
Wish me away if it’s going to cause problems for you, please!
‘What’s Jonesy’s option?’ she asked, trying to fill the silence.
‘You’d be an agent.’
The words hit her like he’s punched her, but a happy punch, not a painful one.
‘You’d be an experiment,’ he said quickly. ‘I don’t know the details of it, Jones hasn’t had time to explain it, and I cannot promise that it will be pleasant, or something that you’d want. I also imagine that what you’d have to give up-‘
Am I hallucinating? Or is he actually saying this?
‘I haven’t even been here a week, I don’t know how to be a recruit, why would you make me an agent?’
‘Because recruits are expendable. So if the experiment fails, it’s seen as no great loss. As you are, under Agency policy, your life is forfeit, so in this case, it’s the more pleasant of the options, should you want to remain at the Agency.’
There was a chance she could stay. Happy, still an unusual feeling, rose up and the morgue suddenly didn’t seem so cold. ‘Where else would I want to be?’
He gave her the strange look he’d given her a few times – the one that might have indicated surprise, or gas. The look disappeared, replaced with a very serious narc face. ‘You won’t have any rights, Stef, you’ll be a test subject.’
I don’t care, I want to stay. I didn’t get anything flashing before my eyes, and if I leave, I never will!
‘What do you want me to do?’ She stared down at her knees for a moment. ‘I don’t want to be a burden. If you want me to go be a bell-ringer and get sanctuary somewhere else, then-‘
If you want me to go, just ask, I’ll go.
‘I just want you to be informed. It’s your life, Stef.’
She looked up at him. ‘I want to be here. Please, if I can. I want to be here.’
He smiled like he’d done at Southbank after the first time he’d hugged her, and everything seemed okay. He reached a hand up, and ruffled her hair, increasing the relative levels of happy and okay-ness by twenty percent. ‘You can’t stay here,’ he said, ‘and I have to leave you alone while I do the paperwork.’
She bit back on the immediate fear that came with the words “you can’t stay here” until they parsed as “you can’t stay in the morgue”. ‘I understand.’
He reached for her hand, and the world blurred.
She expected his office. Or Jonesy’s office. Or-
Or anywhere that wasn’t out of a horror/survival game.
It was still the Agency, it had the same smell, the same taste of recycled air. It wasn’t a clean narcy office, or some command centre full of geeks. It was-
Where the fuck are we?
The ceiling was high above them – taller than the gym, about as tall as the huge testing room that had contained the warehouse. Bright strips of fluorescent lights shone down, but somehow the area seemed dark anyway. Huge tanks – each at least ten feet long, stood in an orderly grid – thick glass bounded by riveted steel. The majority were empty – some were filled with blue goop. Some had small, dark shapes moving inside.
She tightened her grip on his hand, not wanting to get left behind.
They turned and walked between two empty tanks, and at the far edge of the room, she saw a larger glass enclosure, but from the angle, she couldn’t tell if there was anything inside.
They stopped in front of an empty tank near one of the corners of the room, and the front slid open. It didn’t take a genius to work out the course of action. She stepped inside and turned to look at him. ‘You- You’re totally going to explain all of this when you get a chance, right?’
He looked past her, and she twisted to see a several things pop into existence – a low single bed, a tiny fridge and a neat pile of clean clothes. He was being too nice, too understanding. He should have been mad at her. He should hate her. Physics worked in predictable ways, and she’d failed to realise that exploding glass would be bad. She deserved to be locked down here forever.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, and flung her arms around him. ‘I’m so sorry. I- I didn’t mean to! I’m sorry!’
He let her hold him for a moment, then slipped from her arms and crouched down to look at her. ‘Young lady. Everything is going to be all right, I promise you.’
The feeling of being loved came back. ‘O- Okies.’
He stepped back, and the door slid closed, sealing her in. She pressed her hand against the glass.
The needs of the Ryan outweigh the needs of the Stef. Don’t save me if it’s going to get you in trouble.
Tell him what you’re really feeling.
‘Don’t-‘ She stared at the nice, safe floor. ‘Don’t forget about me, ok?’
‘Hold out your hands.’
She cupped her hands, and squeed as a bag of cookies appeared there.
He smiled, and shifted away.
The mirror tumbled overhead.