Ryan stared at the tiny, soaking wet girl and wondered how he should phrase his answer. The look on her face didn’t leave a lot of room for a lie, or an obfuscation. A conniving part of him knew he could easily drug her back to sleep, and give him a few more hours to decide how to make her world come crashing down, or he could-
She licked her lips and curled her hands into fists. ‘There’s a reason we’re not at the Agency, isn’t there? A reason I’m not in the infirmary getting a hundred scans done on me.’
He simply nodded.
‘I could understand it when I just woke up…but with… This isn’t, rather, I’m not exactly approved am I?’
‘I’ve lost count of the rules I’ve broken, but it doesn’t matter.’
‘Highlights being?’
‘Using mirror magic, lying about you, reporting you dead, and,’ he looked down at her, ‘not destroying you when ordered.’
‘Someone found out?’
‘An agent named Emma. This was before you woke up though…I think it’s why you woke up.’
Stef screwed up her face for a moment, then nodded. ‘She shot me, didn’t she?’
‘How do you know that?’
‘The place I was…before it was the place I wasn’t, last thing I saw in there was a bullet smashing it all apart.’ She looked away. ‘I thought it might have been you.’
‘Why would I-’
‘No, not you, you…but maybe like…’She rolled her shoulders, then kept them up at an odd angle. ‘Like maybe I’d imagined everything and that you really did cap me at the mansion, that I’d just hallucinated everything while the bullet was smashing my brain.’ She dropped her shoulders and sighed. ‘What’s she got against me?’ She lifted a hand and stared at it. ‘I’m mean, I’m-’ she giggled. ‘Pruney! Really really pruney!’ She turned her hand to him, and he smiled at the puckered skin on her hand, and fought the urge to offer her finger paints. She took a breath and seemed to sober a little. ‘What does she have against me?’
‘Other than the fact that you’re-’ he paused for a moment, ‘that you were my recruit, she likely has nothing against you as a person, her problem is with what’s in your chest.’
She looked at her chest again, then back up him. ‘I don’t think I can have this conversation while soaking wet.’ He nodded, stood, and helped her to her feet. After a moment, the tub disappeared, and a second thought had them both dried. She retreated to the couch, sitting on one arm, her legs on the cushion. ‘You said it’s wishes, right? Wishes are…I mean, not that powerful, right?’
‘No, you’re wrong, they are very powerful, likely an order of magnitude beyond what you’re imagining. That piece in your chest, it would be enough to raise a small continent or create a weapon that could destroy the world.’
‘So…I am a risk, then?’
‘In so many words, but there wasn’t another choice.’
She slid down onto the couch, bringing her knees up to her chest. ‘Sure there was, you coulda just yanked it out and buried my stupid corpse.’
‘I couldn’t do that.’
‘Wouldn’t is more like it. It would have been a lot easier. Ok, so…what exactly is the situation?’
‘Legally, and according to the Agency, you’re dead. I didn’t know if you were going to wake up, I couldn’t know. There isn’t, to the best of my knowledge, a precedent for this – it would be arrogant to think you’re the only one, but there are no files I can reference on the subject. The only other person who knows is Emma, but I think I’ve thrown her off for the moment, I’d like to keep it that way.’
‘If I’m…’ she said after a moment. ‘Legally dead…why hasn’t stuff been given to Lifeline?’
‘The lease is in my name now. The spirit that owns this building was quite understanding once I explained that Solstice was involved.’
‘The what? Oh, well…guess that explains why he charges about half what this place is actually worth.’ She looked around the apartment. ‘So what the hell am I supposed to do? Go back to being a hacker?’
‘In fairness, you were a good hacker.’
‘I can’t live a little life anymore. Don’t make me go back to it, I mean, I’m almost used to talking out loud and expecting a response.’
‘You can’t come back to the Agency, not like this.’
She shrugged. ‘Tell them I was skiing?’
‘I don’t think it would take long for someone to realise that you don’t have a heartbeat. I hadn’t expected it to be so literal. I had…it wasn’t what I expected.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I expected one of two things: for it to be used up in the process of bringing you back to life, to restore you, then fade away.’
‘And number two?’
‘Strangely enough, my second guess was that you would turn out something rather like an agent.’
She looked down at herself. ‘Sorry, can’t require myself into a suit for comic timing.’ She sighed. ‘And what’s so special about you?’
‘It’s what we are, how we function. We’re…potential surrounding ash is probably easiest way to explain it. We’re skin deep, our internal functions are barely more than masquerades – at least normally – we can regenerate it all so long as our potential is intact. It doesn’t make sense unless…unless the simple act of bringing you back wasn’t enough to use it all up.’
‘So it’s just going to whither away every time I get shot, or just hurt myself?’
He nodded slowly. ‘That is a possibility.’
‘That would technically make me mortal.’ She chewed on a knuckle. ‘How technical is the definition of mortal?’
‘It varies, by stretching it, agents can be called mortals, gods could be called mortals. I assumed that you would have fallen under the traditional definition.’
‘Well, the bullet that went through my skull says otherwise, and I need to know.’
This caught him off-guard. ‘I’d rather not know, the only way we could test is-’
She bit her lip for a moment. ‘Shoot me.’
‘No.’
‘Why not?’
‘How could that thought even occur to you?’ He stood, and began to pace the room. ‘Do you comprehend what you just asked me to do? Miss Mimosa, you were correct when you declared you had a distinct lack of mental health.’
‘Oh, interesting. I say something you’re uncomfortable with, and I lose my first name. It’s not like it’s a right you can take away, or something.’
‘Stef, you don’t realise what you’re asking me to do.’
She looked away. ‘I was so afraid of him, I thought I was going to piss my pants. I…begged him. I don’t want to have to feel that again.’
‘And if it doesn’t work?’
‘You said something about permission to haunt you, right? If your pen rolls across your desk, it’s me.’
‘We don’t shoot humans to see if they’re mortal. We simply accept that they are and try not to get them killed.’ He walked back across the room and sat on the couch beside her.
‘Unless they’re Solstice.’
‘Yes, that.’
She shook her head. ‘It’s different though, most humans don’t have a giant blob of mirr-’ Her voice became muffled, due to the fact that his hand was covering her mouth.
‘Never say that out loud,’ he said quietly. ‘Never.’ He removed his hand. ‘Above all, that has to be a secret. You don’t know how many people will kill to get their hands on it.’
‘I trust you, and I need to know.’
He stood, pulled his gun from his holster and aimed it at her. ‘Do you really think I could pull the trigger?’
‘You were going to at the mansion.’
‘No. Not after I found out who you were. Every day for the past month I have been blaming myself for not shifting you back. Keeping an untrained recruit in the field was the height of irresponsibility. What happened to you was my fault. Both times. All three times. I’m not going to make it a fourth.’
‘So why is your gun’s safety off?’
‘Because I want you to realise what you’re asking me to do. I want to give you the time to contemplate on what will happen when I pull the trigger, and I want you to be frightened.’
‘I’m not frightened of you.’
‘You should be.’
‘I trust you.’
He pulled the trigger.
She shrieked as the bullet impacted the back of the couch.
‘I’m not going to hurt you Stef, we’ll figure this out another way.’
She stared at him for a moment before her face crumpled. ‘There was nothing!’ she cried. ‘I just stopped, and there was nothing. And I knew there was nothing. It was worse than Death’s place. There was just nothing. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t scream, but part of me was feeling it. She bit her lip, but he stayed frozen, not wanting to interrupt her. He let his gun disappear – it had served its purpose.
Slowly, she reached out for him. He extended his hand, and she pulled him toward the couch. ‘Is that where I’m gonna go when I really die?’ she asked him as he sat beside her. She held his left hand with both of her small, trembling ones – seemingly content with this much contact.
‘It’s why I didn’t want you to come back. If you’d gone with Death, you would have been able to pass, not…not whatever that is.’
She released his hand. ‘Fuck, what are the five stages of dealing with your own death?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘I could give you a dozen platitudes, but I have the feeling that none of them would mean a thing.’
‘Well, come on, you’ve got to know something that will help.’
‘Perhaps,’ he said as he reached for her. She tensed for a moment, then relaxed into the hug. A thought had a cookie in his hand, which she grabbed eagerly, then began to chew on, dropping crumbs all over his sleeve.
‘Cookies don’t fix everything,’ she mumbled through a mouthful.
‘I know, but they can’t hurt.’
[Sir?]
He looked away from Stef, and fixed his gaze on the roof. [Yes Jones?]
[Emma’s moved the audit up, she wants us to do it now.]
[She can’t wait an hour?]
Jones rolled his eyes. [This is Emma, she says jump, she expects us to-]
He pinched the bridge of his nose. [That woman is infuriating.]
[At least it’s only three-hundred pages this round. Shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours, and we can always pray for Solstice attacks.]
This brought a slight smile to his face and he nodded. [I’ll meet you in the conference room in a minute.] He dropped from communication mode and tapped the hacker on the shoulder. ‘I’m needed at the Agency.’ She turned her head up to look at him and nodded, then swallowed the large mouthful of cookie. ‘I’ve put some food in the fridge in case you’re still hungry, and I’ll be back in a couple of hours. The hardest part is over, you made it back, everything else will work itself out.’
‘Okies’ she whispered.
He required her another cookie, ruffled her hair, then shifted away.