Ryan blinked, and found himself back in the world again, unless retrieving a small child, the trip back from Death’s realm was always a lot quicker than the trip there. He focused on the body, which was still silent, still unmoving. She wasn’t back yet…if she made it back.
If she made it back.
He’d faltered, he’d given into emotion, again. It was no wonder that the agents that considered themselves the best looked down at those that let themselves be ruled by emotion, those that made the right choice, not the logical choice.
It wasn’t the logical choice to let her come back – not that it was really his decision, but he could have done more to dissuade her, more to-
Something caught the light – the mirror – and he watched as the shattered pieces flowed back into the pristine, simple heart shape. As he watched it, he hoped that the shard hidden in his pocket didn’t contain anything important.
She blinked.
‘This is going to hurt,’ he said as he watched Stef’s eyelids flutter – the eyes were always the first thing to move when life came back into a body. It wasn’t some extraneous twitch of finger, it wasn’t lips parting to take a first new breath, it was always the eyes. He sat beside her on the bed and grabbed her hands. ‘It’s going to hurt a lot.’
She screamed again – a scream of pain, not the inhuman scream of a body without a soul in it. She spasmed, every part of her body acting out on its own, nearly twitching her off the bed. A strong tug had her in a sitting position, holding her as the spasms continued. Holding her life this made it easier for him to remind himself that she’d made it back, that she wasn’t a ghost, that she wasn’t some half-life trapped in a human body.
The screaming stopped as suddenly as it had started, and she fell away from him, hands tightly gripping handfuls of the sheet. One hand ripped itself away and pressed itself to her bleeding chest. An even greater level of horror seemed to wash across her face as she managed to look up at him.
‘My heart isn’t beating,’ she whispered. She pounded weakly on her chest, her fist covering itself in her blood. ‘Make it beat! Make it beat! I don’t want to die!’
Forcing his emotions to take a backseat for a moment, he scanned her. Her heart was indeed still, just the unmoving hunk of mirror that it had been for the duration of her suspension…however, blood was flowing where it needed to go, oxygen was reaching her lungs, and colour was returning to her face…what little colour she had anyway.
‘It doesn’t have to,’ he managed to say as he pulled her fist away from her bloody chest. ‘You’re fine.’
She focused on him for a moment, then looked to her hand. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I’m not.’
‘Fine,’ he conceded, ‘but you will be. Just relax.’ She took a deep breath, gave him a small nod, but her hands remained balled into fists. With a couple of small requirements, he was wiping the blood away from the flesh wound – in time to watch the hole in her chest slowly close, leaving only a faint scar.
He nodded toward her chest, and she slowly ran her bloody hand over the new scar, then looked up at him, the fear still frozen on her face. ‘Something’s wrong,’ she managed as she swooned. ‘I don’t-’
She threw up on him.
He recoiled from the stench and thanked the rational part of his mind, the one part of him with the presence to shut off his olfactory senses. She coughed, then heaved again. He stared down at the rotting ooze on his lap, then up at his coughing recruit.
‘Water,’ she begged as she wiped her mouth with her hand. ‘Water.’
He handed her a glass, and supported her with a hand as she gargled the water and spat it off the side of the bed. She dropped the glass, spilling the rest of the water and fell against him. ‘I feel terrible,’ she moaned. She coughed wetly again, then grabbed a handful of his shirt. ‘Please don’t sell Frankie.’
He required a towel and wiped her face. ‘I- What?’
‘Please don’t sell Frankie,’ she whispered again. ‘Or Alexandria. Or-’
He stood and pushed her back against the pillows, requiring new sheets and new clothes. ‘Why would I?’ he asked as he handed her another glass of water. She took a sip and spat it onto the towel. He then required a wet washcloth and began to wipe the blood from her hands.
She ran a newly-clean hand through her hair and let it fall over her face. ‘I threw up on my dad once, so he sold my pony.’
‘Well, I’m not your father.’ He said looked down at himself and required a new uniform, and after a moment, new carpet. The smell of rotting food mostly disappeared, and another thought opened the windows – there was no longer any reason to fear the howlers – they rarely attacked living targets.
She took a small sip of water, then placed the glass on the bedside table with a shaky hand before looking up at him. ‘Hi.’
‘Welcome back.’
‘Thank you,’ she whispered, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’
‘You did the hard work yourself,’ he said. ‘Trust me, there’s no need to thank me.’
‘But you-’
‘You walked through death yourself. You made the decision on your own. There’s no need to thank me.’
‘But you wanted me to-’ She balled her hands into fists and rested them on her legs. ‘It’s all right that I came back, right?’
‘You don’t know what you’ve given up by doing so.’
‘Yeah, I do. Nothing.’
‘Stef, you-’
‘You didn’t want me to come back, did you?’ she asked in a small voice. ‘You could have said that, I would have accepted that.’
‘No, it wasn’t that.’
‘Then what is it?’
He retreated to his chair, and looked across at her. ‘This isn’t the first time I’ve done this.’ The memories were hard to think about, and speaking about it was even harder. ‘The woman I loved was killed, but when she tried to come back, it didn’t work, and I lost her again. I convinced her to make the journey, it was my fault. With you…it had to be your decision, I didn’t want to be responsible for another ghost.’
‘I didn’t know.’
‘I never told you.’
She seemed to consider this for a moment, then looked back up at him. ‘I don’t really know what happened, it was kind of like…boom, then brain-in-a-jarness.’
‘You shot the mirror.’
‘That was the boom part.’
He allowed himself a small smile. ‘It returned the favour, it-’
She winced, so he stopped. She and looked around for a moment. He lifted Alexandria from the floor and silently handed it to her. She wrapped her arms around the doll, then stared at him through the doll’s red curls.
‘I found you on the roof. I told the mirror what to do, then brought you back here.’
‘And I’ve just been…lying here since then?’ She let go of Alexandria, and brushed her fingers over her heart. ‘What are these?’ she asked as she brushed her hand over the scars from the howler’s attack.
‘A fae tried to steal your heart.’
She gave vague nod. ‘Did I talk in my sleep?’ He shook his head – this wasn’t the time to talk about the aspects, that he’d been privy to her memories. ‘Wow, easiest babysitting job ever.’
‘We managed to recover and destroy a large portion of the mirror. The leech’s body was recovered. Enid though-’
Stef weakly waved a hand. ‘Shot her in the chest.’
‘Next time,’ he chided, ‘aim for the head.’
She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then opened them and stared at him. ‘Huh?’
‘When you left her, she wasn’t dead. There was enough of a spark left to let a goblin save her.’
‘Oh, fscking wonderful. Don’t worry, I’ll get her next time. I’m gonna need like a week off. Full pay, of course.’
‘There won’t be a next time,’ he said without thinking.
‘Huh?’
He looked at her for a moment, the unrevealed facts about the current situation on the tip of his tongue. ‘She has sanctuary with Madchester,’ he said to cover himself. ‘Agency rules dictate that no one is allowed to touch her while she is within their territories.’
He called up the time – only a few minutes of real time had passed since Emma had left, but he wanted to deal with her as soon as he could, just so build a buffer of time before he had to act. Enough time to explain everything. Enough time to find her sanctuary. Enough time to say a real goodbye.
Enough time to hide the evidence that she had come back.
‘Wonderful,’ Stef muttered. She yawned. ‘I shouldn’t be tired. I shouldn’t be tired, I’ve been sleeping all this time.’
‘Your body has been in suspension. You’d rightfully be as tired as the night you-’
‘I know it’s childish,’ she interrupted, ‘but could we avoid the d-word when possible?’
‘The use of it doesn’t change what has happened.’
She folded her arms across her chest. ‘I know that, I’m not a child.’
‘Says the girl holding the doll.’
She made a face. ‘You’re um,’ she said pointing a shaking finger. ‘You’re bleeding.’
He reached a hand to his face and felt the open cut. ‘It’s nothing. Just a little fallout from everything that’s happened.’
‘Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to run with scissors?’
‘Didn’t yours teach you not to shoot a mirror?’
She managed a smile. ‘I wish.’ She looked away for a moment. ‘What now?’
Now was the time to get rid of her. Now was the time for her to beg sanctuary with a court. Now was the time to disappear, start a new life – one that hopefully wouldn’t end prematurely as her first had. She yawned, and logic returned to its backseat.
‘You should get some sleep.’
She shook her head.
‘Stef, you’ve just been through something…traumatic, and you’re exhausted. The sleep will do you good.’ She shook her head and seemed to shrink in on herself even more. ‘You need to rest,’ he said. ‘Please, trust the opinion of someone far older than yourself.’
Her shoulders drooped. ‘Well, I’m sorry I’m not a thousand years old, like you.’
‘Only a few parts of me are that old,’ he said.
‘Which parts?’
‘That’s a conversation for another time.’
‘I’m not going to sleep,’ she said with a shaking voice.
He watched her run her fingers through the doll’s hair. ‘You’re afraid of not waking up, aren’t you?’
She was completely still for a few moments, then gave a small nod.
‘You’ve got nothing to worry about. You’re here, and so far as I can tell, you’re fine-’
‘I’m not fine.’
She said it, and he knew it was true. It was impossible to to adjust to life again this quickly – especially after having been gone for so long – there were very few he knew of that had suffered through such a long suspension, most of the time it was quick – there wasn’t so much time for reflections or…Or aspects.
He rose from the chair and left the room.
She called after him, but only once. He quickly retrieved the book her youngest aspect had been reading, and walked back into the bedroom. In the few seconds he’d been gone, she’d risen and was halfway to her wardrobe. He placed the book on the bed and gave her the sternest look he could muster. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I was gonna go buy some coffee, fresh air and caffeine can keep me awake for amazing long periods of time.’
‘You’ve got five seconds to get back into bed or I will drug you where you stand.’
She raised tiny fists, the too-large sleeves of the pajama top making them seem even smaller. ‘Won’t let you.’
‘It’s for your own good.’
She made no move toward the bed. ‘Heard that before. Not from you, but heard that before.’
‘I thought you trusted me.’
Wordlessly, she begrudgingly crawled back into her bed, her doll cradled in the crook of her arm. She watched him warily as he sat beside her, the book in his hands.‘This is the alternate to drugging me?’
‘It works remarkably well on small children.’
‘I’m not-’
He opened the book. ‘Are you really going to argue that point?’
She pouted, and pulled the blanket up, trying to bury herself in the soft fabric. ‘I’ve been…gone for a month, I’m here for five minutes and you want me gone again. Asleep again, whatever. It’s too close, I’m too close, I can’t go back there.’
‘You can, because I’m here.’
‘Why do you want me to sleep?’
‘It’s the easiest way to deal with what you’ve been through, case after case has shown this, there have been too many times where people have…made themselves a denizen of Madchester by thinking about it too much. Everything will be easier if you just get some rest. There’s no reason to lose yourself so soon after coming back.’
She relented a little, some of the harsher emotions slipping from her face, leaving her looking more and more like what she was – a fragile little girl. He opened the book and began to read. By the end of the first paragraph, her eyes were drooping, by the end of the second, she was asleep.
The much-needed rest kicked in, and the tension fled her body, leaving her slumped awkwardly on the pillow. He made a move to adjust her, so that she didn’t wake up in pain, but only managed to make her slide on the pillows more, until she was resting up against him. Even asleep, she sensed the warm body and cuddled up against him – evidently he made a better pillow than the ones on her bed. Another moment passed, and then she began to drool on him.
He smiled, smoothed the hair back from her face and said a silent prayer of thanks. For once, something had gone right, and there was no better feeling than that.