Ryan stood staring at his recruit for a few moments, hoping that – despite the bloody wound in her chest – that she would simply look up, smile, and demand a cookie.
There was no moment in her body, nor was their any life in her veins – as his one hundred and thirty-seventh scan revealed. No pulse. No heartbeat, well, there couldn’t be – there was no heart left to beat. No air in her lungs.
She was dead.
At the least, she seemed to be dead.
Despite the empirical evidence, he wasn’t going to stop now. He had done what he had done, and until he was given a reason to do so, he wasn’t going to give up hope. He knelt beside the body, gently wrapped his arms around it, and lifted the limp body from its hiding place in the cupboard, and carried to the bed.
He placed her down, hearing the sheets rip as the sharp hunk of mirror protruding from her back easily tore through them. He held her head as a parent would do with a newborn, and eased her back onto the pillows – dirt and dust smeared the pale pillowcases, but he ignored it, that was a problem easily fixed, and he needed more of those. More problems that were fixed with a single thought, or a snap of fingers. Problems that weren’t lying on official paperwork, or contravening more Agency rules than he could count.
He stared at his recruit – taking the time to really look for the first time since he had found her on the roof. Her uniform was dirty and bloody – tiny rips and tears were evident in the shirt sleeves, and tiny splinters were stuck in the fabric of the vest. There was a bloody ring on the shirt around the mirror, through the mirror itself was as clean and pristine as when it had spun through the sky – he wasn’t even sure if mirrors could be dirtied, or if their innate magic kept them clean.
The mirror had slid into her chest easily – neither skin nor bone had posed any problem – as evidenced by the fact that it had easily punched out her back – and would have likely gone straight through if the piece had been smaller.
It was a large piece, by no means the majority of the mirror, but certainly enough to start a small war over. It was a piece large enough to create a country, but what he’d wished for was so much smaller, so much simpler. It had been so-
There was a cold breeze behind him.
‘You have the audacity to think it was a simple wish?’
He kept his eyes fixed on his pale recruit for another moment, then rose, and turned to face Death. ‘I’m sorry, my Lady, I meant no offense.’
‘Every thought offends someone, but there is no need to apologise.’
‘I just thought-’
‘How can you think this is a simple wish?’
He stole a glance back at the body. ‘My lady…why hasn’t it worked?’
A human-seeming mouth frowned at him from beneath a black cowl. ‘You ask that as though you expect it to work.’
‘The mirror-’
‘You chanced a fate worse than death for her, perhaps it was just delayed. It is arrogance on your part to assume that this is any different to any other mortal death.’
He drove his hands into his pockets and balled his fists for a little borrowed strength. ‘It is different, the mirror is involved.’
‘As the killing the method.’
‘I made a wish,’ he said, hating himself for how weak he sounded. It was mortal to fight the inevitable, but this wasn’t inevitable – a mirror had been involved, and that changed everything. It changed everything. It was the reason he wasn’t grieving. It was the reason he wasn’t allowing himself to feel like a failure yet. It was the reason he wasn’t second guessing his decisions.
‘Ask the question you want to ask,’ Death said, her fingers curling, as if to beckon the question from his lips.
He dredged up buried thoughts. Thoughts he hadn’t allowed himself to have since cutting his palms on the mirror and wishing her back. ‘Has she passed?’
A small eternity passed as he waited for her to answer.
‘No.’
He exhaled a long breath.
‘The, is she with one of your sisters?’
‘No.’
He furrowed his brow in confusion. ‘Then…where is she?’
‘That’s not for me to say.’
He looked back at the body again. ‘I need to know.’
‘You’re acting out of guilt again. Twice out of guilt, once out of love – your rationalizations are always quite transparent.’
‘The mirror was there, I-’
Her voice took on a sharp edge. ‘Whether or not a piece of my father was there, you would have tried something, wouldn’t you?’
He looked away. ‘I don’t know.’
‘I do. You acted above your place, Ryan, you always act above your place.’
‘I did as any mortal would have done. You cannot blame me for that, my Lady.’
‘Yes I can, you’ve clearly forgotten what you are. The gods did not create you to act as mortal.’
‘Because of what I am, I can never forget that,’ he said, trying to keep the emotion from his voice.
‘Angels often forget what they are, and when they do, it leads to nothing but trouble.’
‘It’s just one life,’ he said in an attempt to rationalise the situation.
‘Every life,’ Death said, ‘is just one life. Every refugee you’ve murdered is just one life, every Solstice you’ve helped rehabilitate, every-’
‘I understand what you’re trying to say, my Lady, I do.’
‘Are you sure? You truly understand the implications?’
‘Yes.’
She stood silently for a moment, then crossed the room and stroked Alexandria’s face with pale fingers, ignoring the body beside the doll. ‘If you understand, then take hold of the mirror.’
‘I already made the wish,’ he said before catching himself as his hand began to lift toward the mirror.
‘Take hold of the mirror,’ she said again, and this time he knew it wasn’t just a suggestion.
He did, and immediately his mind went blank – he kept all stray thoughts away, any thought or wish out of place could rob her of the chance to come back. He gripped it tighter, and he felt the jagged edges dig into his palm. The power of the mirror was overwhelming – he could feel all the potential biting at his skin, begging to be used. Leaked memories of Dajulveed flashed in his mind – it remembered where it had come from, but it desired to become something new.
‘Now what?’
Her voice went cold. ‘Pull it out.’
One of his fears came to the fore – the fear that the mirror itself was stopping her from coming back – that if he removed it, it could then be used to repair the damage to her chest in the precious few seconds that she would live.
‘Pull it out,’ she repeated.
He kept his grip tight, but he didn’t dare begin to slide the mirror out. ‘Why?’
‘You said you understood.’
‘What will happen if I pull it out?’
‘Are you questioning me?’
His shoulders dropped, and he relaxed his grip on the piece of mirror. ‘I just want to know, my Lady, mortals were not the only ones blessed with curiosity.’
She stooped a little, and placed a cold hand on his face. ‘If you are very, very lucky, she will die.’
‘My Lady-’
‘Shh…’ She stood and removed her hood. It was strange to look at her without her hood – in the same moment that you saw a beautiful young woman with the oldest eyes, an ageless skeleton would grin at you with the knowledge that it was very much beyond the tiny, transitory existence that you had. Her gray eyes swept over the room, taking in his recruit’s small, humble room.
‘You had to bring the doll, didn’t you?’ she asked quietly as she lifted Alexandria. ‘The first time, when you went to my sister’s world, you just had to bring the doll.’
‘It was-’
‘-so very mortal of you, Ryan. It was a bribe, it was unfair.’
‘I needed some leverage,’ he admitted, ashamed.
‘You brought the doll, you fixed the doll, you gave it back to her. It gave her a connection to that memory, something to store her memory and dream in, something outside of herself. Something private, something safe, a memory no one else could touch. Her connection to that time on the precipice.’
The doll hadn’t been the only toy in Limbo. ‘Should I have brought a ball instead?’
For a moment, Death smiled, then her sad expression returned and she replaced her hood. ‘Please, Ryan, pull out the mirror, it’s the kindest thing you can do for her.’
‘But that will kill her?’
‘Yes.’
‘And I don’t?’
‘If – yes, “if” – she wakes up, what do you think will happen? Angel you might be, but considering the consequences has never been your strong suit. Part of you once rallied an army against a king, but the past is past, in this life you’ve allowed yourself to trust too many traitors, granted too many second chances and acted out of guilt too many times. The other girl, Ryan, you locked her away from everything, and sometimes, she knows that it was your fault. Sometimes, she can remember everything. Sometimes, she misses you, sometimes she just wishes I could take her away. I can’t, and that’s because of you.’
‘Stef isn’t Carol. It’s not the same. Nothing is the same.’ He looked at his reflection in the mirror. ‘Nothing.’
Death nodded. ‘I know this – none of the feelings you harbor are the same…but the mistake you make could be.’
‘I have considered the consequences, my Lady, I don’t know the outcome of each, but I don’t want to kill her. I can’t do that. I won’t do that, not even for you, my Lady.’
‘Even if its the kindest choice?’
The kindest choice would have been assigning her to the tech department. The right choice would have been shifting her back as soon as he had seen in her the field. The smart choice would have been not leaving her alone on a night were so many died.
There was nothing kind about killing her.
‘If by some chance…if she does wake up, I know it will be hard. I have no misconceptions about this, I do not expect that it will be easy, or even that it would last-’
‘That’s…the problem,’ she said slowly.
‘My Lady?’
‘If you do not entrust her to me this time, and you proceed as you want to, I may not get to take her at all.’
Confusion overtook him. ‘Like one of Fortitude’s souls?’
‘No, not an embargo, an ending. If she wakes, you cannot think of her but anything but mortal. Once…that existence ends, she may just end, her soul may fade into nothing, not come to the void with me. It’s not just this life you’re gambling with, it’s also whatever comes next.’
This stilled him – it was one thing for it not to work, or for it to work for a limited amount of time. To have time to make peace and say goodbye was one thing – though as he looked around the room, he knew that the “goodbye” portion would probably be replaced with “require copious amount of sugar in various forms”. To render her existence null, and deny her the chance to go into the void and whatever lay beyond it…he wasn’t sure that he could do that. He wasn’t strong enough to do that. He-
‘Ryan?’
‘I’m not sure she would forgive me if I denied her the chance of life.’
Death put a hand on his shoulder. ‘If you let her go, I will try and take her to my youngest sister’s realm so that you can say your goodbyes.’
‘My Lady, I thought you did not bargain.’
A small smile graced her lips. ‘You are a special case, Ryan.’ She gave a soft sigh. ‘I’m having the same conversation with you in a hundred different realities. The same words, the same look in your eyes, the same indecision shaking your hands.’
He looked at his hands for a moment, then slid them into the pockets of his jacket again – it would make no difference to her, but it allowed him a little more false bravado to hide behind.
‘Pull out the mirror, let her go.’
‘What…what am I deciding in those other worlds?’
Teasing him with other knowledge of other worlds was something she had done, ever since the first time he had tried to contravene the laws of life and death. She had thought it a way to help him make an informed decision, and it was – though it made it hate many of his multiverse selves. The ones who made the rash decisions, the ones who acted without thought, or the ones who acted wrongly.
‘Angels are not supposed to care what happens in other worlds.’
‘We do not take notice of that which we cannot change. In this case…it’s prevalent, I-’
‘Perhaps, Ryan, you should view your curiosity as a curse, rather than a blessing.’ She turned away from him, and as she did he saw the glint of a scythe – she rarely carried it, but it was never far from her side…just like his gun.
‘People’s weapons define them,’ she said as she picked his thought out of the miasma. She walked over to Stef and brushed some hair back from her face. ‘If you bring her back, she may decide to fight with her mind, rather than the gun you gave her.’
‘That’s up to her. Jones would be happy to have her in the tech department.’
‘Would she?’ She tapped Stef’s nose. ‘Instead of contemplating the weight of your weapon, contemplate what it is in your recruit’s chest.’ She stared at him with gray eyes and waited for the thought to hit him. ‘It’s not only a way to bring her back from this…suspension…it’s a piece of mirror. I credit you with being smart enough to realise that you will not be able to keep it a secret…however, what if you cannot keep the secret from those who would weaponise it?’
‘We can only try.’
‘Thirty-seven of your other selves have pulled the mirror from the body and let her go. Eighteen are seriously considering it. Twelve have decided against it and asked me to accept that decision. Five wish to let her go and use the mirror to retrieve Carol.’
‘And the others?’
‘Twenty-seven are indecisive, one is blaming her – telling her that she brought it on herself, that she deserves to die, that mistakes in the field aren’t to be rewarded with second chances, he’s going to-’
‘Please,’ he said, ‘stop. I don’t want to know.’ He looked down at his hands, wondering how monstrous he could be in some of those dimensions, and hoped that he never found himself on that path.
A skeletal face grinned at him. ‘As you wish. Just remember, no matter what your decision, the outcome you desire may not eventuate.’ She brushed her fingers over the mirror. ‘The mirrors are…chaotic, as is everything they do.’
He looked at his inert recruit again, and he just wished she would sit up and say something that he barely understood, or an out of context sentence, continuing a conversation she had started in her head. A problematic pet indeed.
‘I’m not going to let her go,’ he said, finally content with the decision. He stood and looked up at Death. ‘For better or worse, I have to give her this chance.’
‘Just so you know, angel, in the end, it was never your decision.’ She pressed a finger to his lips as the question formed in his mind, he deflated – knowing better than to ask for information that wasn’t his to know. ‘Now do it.’
‘But, if it didn’t work the last time…’
She smiled, leaned down and kissed him on the cheek with her cold lips. ‘Trust me.’
He stood and bent over his recruit, wrapping both of his hands around the piece of mirror, careful not to move it too much, and cause further damage to her heart. Closing his eyes, he stilled his mind and wished for her to come back.
Death’s hand touched his shoulder and he opened his eyes, he felt the mirror shudder in his hands and he released it. Backing away from the bed, he watched as it shook – making his inert recruit’s body twitch. He reached for it, but a quiet warning from Death stopped him.
Small pieces of sunlight hit the mirror and broke off, shattering into sparkles on the floor. All of the sounds in the room were sucked away until the only thing he could hear was the heart beating in his chest. It rose up a little and he panicked – not knowing what would happen if it left her chest.
‘Trust it,’ Death said, her voice strong despite the sound vacuum.
The ragged edges of the mirror rippled and became smooth, it slowly turned in her chest and he tried not to think of the further damage it was doing. A sharp point rose out of it, and then it slowly melted down into her chest.
The world seemed to breathe again, and all the sounds of the city began to filter back in – traffic noises floated back in, as did the sounds of a loud argument on the street below.
He forced himself to look at his recruit – aside from the mirror no longer being visible, there was no apparent change – her skin was just as pale, her body still without movement or breath.
‘Now what?’ he asked to fill to silence.
‘Now,’ she said, ‘you wait. Think of this as a beacon being lit, she may find her way back, she may not. Remember, it’s not a simple wish.’
‘Yes, my Lady.’
She afforded him one more smile, then faded away.
He stared at the mirror in her chest – it was visible through the hole in her chest – a hole that would hopefully repair itself once she awoke. After a moment, he scanned it – his vision blurring for a moment before it allowed him to see below the surface. The mirror had taken on a new shape – one that surprised him, one he had not expected.
It was a heart.
Not a normal human heart – an efficient, if not altogether attractive organ, but rather the romanticised version of one. The kind that adorned Valentine’s cards, the kind that children drew.
It was nestled deep in her chest – the bloody and ragged remnants of her old one were gone, either destroyed by the process, or absorbed into the mirror.
He rounded the bed, lifted Alexandria and placed it on the bed next to her. After a moment’s thought he lifted her limp arm and wrapped it around the doll. After saying a silent prayer to Chaos, he sat at her desk and required a dozen of the reports he needed to finish by the end of the day. He lifted his pen, and after one final look at his recruit he turned to the paperwork, hoping he could lose himself in routine and normality.