Magnolia froze before him, her mouth half-open with another demand for what he was going to do, her black eyes glaring.
Curt stepped back, automatically shifting his body slightly, feeling for-
‘You won’t need a weapon, and nothing you can procure can hurt me.’
She was behind him. It was impossible not to know who it was. Even without looking, there was something weighing heavily on his brain, letting him know who was there.
Death.
He’d needed to talk to her, but she-
‘I saw no reason in waiting for a perfect moment to appear. As people wiser than yourself will tell you, perfect moments and perfect entrances rarely come along.’
There were surprisingly soft footfalls as she walked closer to him. He let his arms hang, and slowly turned towards her.
‘You’re thinking of Medusa,’ she said, ‘you won’t turn to stone if you look at me.’
‘Could you say out of my head?’ he asked, his breath coming quickly. ‘I don’t like-‘
‘This is how I am,’ she said. ‘I can stop myself from voicing your thoughts, but it doesn’t stop me from knowing them. You can read faces, body language, intent from a brief glance, it’s really no different.’
‘It’s different,’ he said as he finally raised his gaze to her. ‘It’s different because I don’t get to control what you see. I- I get to manipulate what people see. The right uniform. The right hair. The right look. It doesn’t work if you can see right into my mind.’
She was beautiful. He’d heard stories, but he hadn’t expected her to be so…genuinely beautiful. There was a classic look to her face – her features were soft, her eyes so kind it made it almost hard to be angry.
‘You have me here,’ she said after a moment, ‘which question do you want me to answer first?’
‘Stef,’ he said, letting the word go like it was his last breath. ‘Gods, tell me if Stef-’
‘Agents don’t come to me, Recruit.’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ he said, ‘it’s Stef. You’d know. It’s Stef and Ryan. You know. They’re not just agents, not to me, and not to you.’
He was pleased that she didn’t argue the point. There was no fluster, no bluster, no denial.
‘You’re perceptive, and you’re right.’
‘I don’t know any more than they’ve told me. But- But you don’t do- You don’t do what you’ve done for them for just anyone-‘ Old grief was welling up, old pain was hurting like it was fresh. ‘Just tell me if they’re dead!’
‘No, they’re not,’ she said. ‘If you want guarantees about what will happen, speak with my sister, but for the moment, they aren’t.’
‘Oh, thank you,’ he said, his voice thick. ‘All the agents, all the ones that are supposedly dead. What- What about them?’
‘That isn’t the question you want answered.’
He turned away, a pointless movement, considering he was just as exposed, whether or not she could see his face. ‘I don’t even know-’ He punched the wall. ‘How could you take her? She was just a kid, how could you take her?!’
He slumped against the wall, trying not to think, trying not to breathe.
The breeze moved and she was in front of him. ‘You know I didn’t.’
‘If you didn’t take her,’ he said, tears sliding down his cheeks. ‘Then the blame’s all on me.’
‘You know that also isn’t true.’
He pressed his forehead against the wall. ‘Knowing and feeling are two different things. I know Petersen is dead, doesn’t stop me looking in shadows for him. I know I was- Doesn’t stop me from feeling like it was my fault. I know Stef loves me…no, no, that’s a know as well. I know I don’t deserve her. Tara…it was my one damn job to look after her! I turned my back for one fucking minute and she was gone!’
‘You were just a child yourself.’
‘That’s no fucking excuse! Age isn’t a factor here! I knew she shouldn’t be near the road! I never let her near the road!’ His chest tightened. ‘It was my fault!’
The wall under his hands dissolved with no ceremony, becoming an expanse of blackness. He stumbled for a moment, then turned to look around – all traces of the Agency had disappeared. There was a tug sideways, and a door of light appeared in the darkness across the expanse from him.
‘I don’t have time for this,’ he said, the sound of his voice going dead in the darkness. ‘If Stef’s alive, I need to-’
Tara fell to the floor of he expanse in front of him.
No. He refused to believe his eyes. It wasn’t happening.
He ran to her, slid to his knees and wrapped her up in a tight hug. He could save her. His heart could beat enough for two. He would give anything. Everything.
The tears came relentlessly.
Tara gave no sign that she could see him, or feel him, but he took in every detail. The shoes he’d tied. The pink cardigan with the strawberries embroidered on it. The pocket in her skirt that held five plastic counters – an emergency way of calming her down. Everything. All the details.
She disappeared from his arms and walked towards the door of light.
‘I’ll give you anything,’ he said, falling back onto his butt, his fingers slipping into the floor of the darkness. ‘Gods, my Lady, I’ll give you anything, just let me save her. She didn’t deserve to die.’
‘Most people don’t, young man.’
‘Most?’
She made no attempt to hide her words. ‘It’s a judgement, but I do not influence the results.’
‘But you could.’
She sighed. ‘And one day I will. I always do. And it is never good.’
‘You could have-’
She held up a hand, and he fell silent. ‘Children are always hard. I have had every life in every universe, but children are still hard. You know something of death,’ she said, and he almost felt her picking through his brain. ‘I take on the form of what people expect to see. The grim reaper, the forest, the ferryman. The form they need to see in order to know that things are over, that they have come to a close.’
He kept silent.
‘With children, they often have no frame of reference. They don’t know what to expect, they don’t know what it means. Obviously, that’s not true of all children. But still…’
They walked closer to the door, the light shining into the darkness and hiding the room inside.
‘I have one quirk,’ she said, ‘that I allow myself as a consistency…when I take a form of a person, that is. The forest has no need. The ocean has no need. I am three inches taller than any adult I encounter; and to children, I am the height of a parent.’
‘How tall are you to Stef?’
‘Ryan’s height, of course.’
He managed a smile to this.
She stepped through the doorway, and he followed.
It was less than he’d feared, but more than he’d hoped.
It was Tara’s bedroom.
Deliberately-coloured pictures adorned the walls in orderly lines. Groups of three. Lines of six. Blocks of four. Each was neatly labelled with a date that he’d done – it was the one way she allowed him to touch her artwork.
Their parents had always put them on the fridge – it was what parents were supposed to do. It was mindless. It was asinine. It bothered her. The fridge wasn’t tidy, and they were never hung straight. He had switched each out without either of their parents noticing – replacing carefully done pictures by a careful little girl to ones he had hastily coloured in his spare time. There were still pictures on the fridge, and Tara was happy, that was all that mattered.
It had been the only thing that mattered.
It had been the only thing that had mattered when he’d hit classmates for calling her a retard. Or stealing her stuff. Or being loud in the ways she didn’t like. It had been armour against being friendless, having to give up every lunch time to play with her.
She sat, real as life, at the play table in front of him, lining up her colours.
‘This was a case,’ Death said, and he jumped a little as he broke from his reverie. ‘Where a parent would be of no use.’
‘Oh gods please no,’ the words slipped out like a prayer.
Himself, nine years old, and in the middle of a premature growth spurt, walked through them, and into the room with Tara.
‘You…didn’t…’ he sputtered.
He watched as the younger version of himself – Death in a guise – sat at the table with his sister. Death let Tara finish colouring the picture – some off-brand My Little Pony rip-off, then took her hand.
Tara went through her ritual – brushing her hair three times on each side with a brush inherited from their grandmother, then climbed into the white wooden bed. Death pulled the blankets up – and he held his breath, ensuring that she did in just the right order.
Tara, for her part, didn’t seem to notice the brother tucking her in was an imposter.
Blankets in place, Death turned the bedroom light out, then climbed onto the bed with his gangly little-kid body and sat on the bed with Tara as she counted the glow-in-the-dark stars.
The Death of the present put a hand on his shoulder, and he was too numb to push it away.
Stars counted, he heard his voice telling Tara to sleep. ‘I love you, Tara, go to sleep.’
Curt collapsed to his knees as the scene faded. ‘You made me kill her! I- I- I- You made me kill her!’
‘You were the only comfort she had,’ Death said. ‘This was the easiest passing I could give her. She was happy. She loved you. She could never say, but she did.’
There was a crinkle of paper, and Death pushed the last colouring-in page into his hand. ‘You deserve this.’
He held it away from himself, so that tears didn’t drip onto it. ‘You have no idea what this means to me-’
Death knelt, and put a hand to his face. ‘Of course I do.’
He hugged his arms around himself. ‘Thank you, gods, thank you.’
He slowly stood and wiped. ‘I need to save Stef,’he said after a minute.
‘Follow your instincts,’ Death said, ‘go to the Lost.’
He held the picture gently, and looked out into the darkness. ‘Do we get a happy ending? Can you tell me that?’
‘Endings, by their nature, are never truly happy.’
‘My Lady, you know what I mean.’
‘And no answer I could give you would be satisfying. I have no guarantees, that’s my sister’s duty. I can tell you that yes, there are some futures where you both die, old, in your beds, and happy.’
He nodded, and tried to force his carefree mask back into place. ‘I’ll take it, even if it’s just a chance, I’ll take it.’ He straightened. ‘May…May I go?’
‘You’ve already gone,’ Death said, and she faded away. Everything was grey for a moment, then reality seemed to speed back up.
‘O’Connor!’ Magnolia snapped.
He put the picture down, grinned, then lifted Magnolia and spun her. There was a knife at his throat as he put her down, but he kept the grin in place. ‘They’re not dead, Mags.’
‘You’ve had an attitude adjustment in the…last three seconds?’ she said carefully.
‘I spoke with a higher authority.’
Realisation dawned in the magpie’s eyes. ‘How do we progress?’ she said without wasting a moment.
‘I’m going to the Lost and you’re going to keep every one of our Agents under this roof, and stab anyone who tries to take them away.’
‘Yeah,’ she said casually, ‘I can do that.’
He pushed past her, pulling his phone from his pocket.
‘O’Connor.’
He turned back. ‘Sorry for spinning you,’ he said. ‘But I didn’t feel like twirling-’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m glad they’re not dead.’
He nodded, and gave her a smile.
‘Get going, Recruit.’
He snapped a salute. ‘Yes ma’am.’