Ryan blinked, and took in the buildings outside his office again, the lights in them small defenses against the dark. The moon above, plainly visible despite the clouds covering the rest of the sky. Something tugged on what he had that resembled a soul, and he looked up, watching all of the clouds disappear as the coda began. The song always came after the last ghost had danced its way through a living world. There were no more echoes to come, only more death.
He shifted to the infirmary, and found the shorter of the two Parkers in his small office, his lab coat still covered in splatters of what he could only assume was his recruit’s blood. ‘How is she?’ he asked, announcing his presence to the unaware doctor.
The Parker paused his pen, then looked up from his recruit. ‘Stable,’ he said, ‘as I reported to Jones.’ The doctor stood and handed him the unfinished report. ‘We removed the knife, stopped the bleeding, and stitched her up. We also took a skin swatch. She lost a lot of blood, good thing you got out of there when you did, otherwise you might-’
‘-have actually made things interesting for us,’ the taller Parker said as he walked into the office. ‘She’ll be fine. Mother Goose here still wants to give out band-aids to combat recruits, ignore him, hell, if he wasn’t so good with his hands, I’d probably ignore him too.’
‘You don’t mean that,’ the shorter Parker said.
‘Any permanent damage?’ he asked, before the doctors could break out into another argument.
‘We got things done quick,’ the taller Parker said, ‘so there might be a scar, though that won’t mean much to her. Seriously, boss, can you get her stabbed in some of the existing scar tissue next time? Not exactly a small target we’re talking about. You can-’
‘I don’t plan on my recruits getting injured…this was an unusual situation.’
The shorter Parker reached for his twin’s hand. ‘The Lady’s singing, can we go listen?’
The taller Parker growled, then looked up. ‘Last bag of blood’s being administered now. You can unhook her in three, and so long as you’re not planning on any vigorous activities later, she’ll be ok.’ The tall Parker gave him a serious look. ‘No vigorous activities. If you’re feeling the need, find a workaround, or be real gentle.’
‘Like you know anything about gentle,’ the shorter Parker remarked. ‘If we may sir?’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I plan on doing the same in a moment.’
‘I hope not,’ the taller doctor said, ‘because I meant what I just said, no vigorous activities.’
‘I think,’ the shorter said, ‘he meant he was going to listen to the coda.’
‘Exactly,’ he said, then nodded – giving them permission to leave.
He stood still for a moment, and stared at his recruit through the Parkers’ office window. The infirmary was dark, the only illumination coming from a low-wattage lamp above her bed. Bathed in the pale light, she looked like a corpse.
He shifted to the foot of her bed, and looked up at the machines hooked to her – one monitored her vitals, one pumped a nearly-empty blood bag into her veins, and one stood silent, on duty in case her heart gave out.
‘By their traditions, you’ll be responsible for her.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, truly unsure if was apolosing to Death, or to the girl in front of him. He rounded the bed, switched off the IV, and gently removed the needle. He stared at her unconscious form for another moment, then quickly moved forward and gently shook her good shoulder – unwilling to see her in a state so close to death for another minute. Her breath caught, and she snorted, then her eyelids fluttered, fighting to stay closed as she began to wake up. Her eyes opened a little, and she screamed. Her lids still half-closed, she thrashed at him, attacking him with weak fists.
‘Re- Stef!’ He moved forward, and restrained her arms, not wanting for her to pull open her barely-sealed wounds. She continued to scream, kicking her legs at a target she refused to look at. ‘Stef.’
He pulled her up, hoping that a more vertical position would help her come to her senses. She opened her eyes all the way, and her screams turned into ragged breaths. She caught a glimpse of him through messy hair and fell forward. He caught her lightly, then sat on the bed, allowing her to rest against his shoulder.
For a moment, she was the child again – burying her cold, sweaty forehead against his shoulder, small hands resting against his chest. Her breath slowed, and she pushed herself away. ‘Sorry, dizzy…I think I lost some blood…are you ok?’
He stared at her for a moment, shocked silent that her first question was about his condition.
‘Are you ok?’ she demanded again. She pulled her knees to her chest. ‘Say something! I’m not dead am I? Is this that thing that happens when you die? I don’t think that happened last time, but I don’t remember much of last time, and I don’t think I’d had enough of a life for it to flash before my eyes.’ She looked around the infirmary. ‘Why is it so dark? Require: lights.’ The fact that the lights came on at her request seemed to calm her somewhat. A cookie appeared in her hand, and she shoved it into her mouth without hesitation. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered. ‘I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. I guess that means I’m useless and fired , right?’
‘You nearly died,’ he said, finally finding his voice.
She tugged on the thin sheet, and he shifted his weight a little. She pulled up over her knees and crumbs fell onto it from the half-eaten cookie. ‘I kinda thought I wasn’t gonna wake up.’ She looked away after saying this, and swallowed the rest of her cookie. She finally brushed the hair away from her face and looked at him. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Don’t you want to know how you are?’
‘You’re the liar who got shot in the lung.’
‘I’ll be fine, I got the attention I needed. You-’
She held up a hand, then looked at the machines on either side of the bed. ‘I’m fine.’ She crinkled her nose. ‘My butt kinda hurts though…oops, sorry for the TMI. I’m more worried about the fact that you lied to me.’
‘And when exactly did I lie to you?’ he asked, handing her the glass of water that she was hopelessly grasping for.
She took a moment to drink the water. ‘When you were claiming to be Superman. Immortal, no weaknesses. That was a lie. You lied to me, Ryan. But…’ she said as she shook the glass. ‘Turn this into coffee and I’ll forgive you.’ He tapped the edge of the glass, and it turned into coffee. ‘Thanks.’
She stared at the glass. ‘This should be hot,’ she said, biting the top of the glass. She shrank back, and curled up further, as if wanting to disappear inside of herself. ‘It’s hot coffee, the heat should be transferring through the glass and burning my fingers.’ She took a sip. ‘Nice and hot, but my fingers are fine. Why is that? That doesn’t make sense. But nothing makes sense anymore. He didn’t recognise me, why didn’t he recognise me? It’s hot coffee, but the glass isn’t hot. It’s magic isn’t it? I never expected magic, I always wanted it, but it’s not real, right? Magic can’t be real. But of course it’s real, I’ve seen it. Can’t disbelive my own eyes, unless they’re lying to me.’ She shook her head. ‘Jesus. Sorry. I think my brain got a bit scrambled. Ignore me.’
He stared at her for a moment, and she seemed to calm down a little, resigning herself to sipping on the glass of coffee.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘I hate to put more on you tonight…’
She brushed some hair behind her ear, looking at him with a sober and resolved face. ‘Anything.’
He extended a hand. ‘Come with me.’
She reached for his hand, but withdrew it and looked down at herself.
‘Not wearing this.’ He nodded, and required her into a loose pair of pants, and a loose shirt – not wanting to put any pressure on the bandage. He extended his hand again, and this time, she took it. ‘Is there a price to pay?’
She leaned back against the pillows and indicated to her injured shoulder. ‘I may as well have been put back together by an EMH. This is Star Trek-fast. Real people in real hospitals don’t get better this quick. It’s the same night isn’t it, it’s still the same night, and I’m awake, and the only reason I know I’m in any pain is because my shoulder’s numb, and it wouldn’t be numbed if it didn’t hurt. Hell, people on TV on those shows where their only purpose is to sticky-icky with the “hot” surgeon don’t get better this quickly. I know these things, I’ve read the entirety of wikipedia.’
‘Is there a price? I can get better quick, but the price is that it eats away at my lifespan or something equally M-wordedly ridiculous?’
He hesitated for a moment. ‘There’s only…the cost that you choose to pay.’
She set her glass of coffee aside. ‘What?’
He looked her up and down. ‘On the whole, you feel fine now, don’t you?’
‘Less than half an hour ago, you were lying beside me, dying.’ He softened his look as the fear crept into her eyes. ‘It’s true, I’m sorry but it’s true. You can’t concentrate on slowing the flow of blood like an agent can, you can’t heal yourself like a fae, or even a halfbreed, can – you’re only human.’
‘I take offense at that, I’ve never self-identified as human.’
‘You’re here, you’re fine. What would you do, would you do it again?’
‘I don’t like getting hurt.’
‘Would you do it again?’ She looked up at him, then gave a small nod. ‘Even if there was no guarantee that the medical resources would be available?’
‘Why wouldn’t-’ His recruit promptly shut her mouth, and looked away.
‘See?’ he said. ‘You’re already paying the price. You’re already relying on the safety net. It can make you reckless, knowing that you can receive medical treatment so far beyond what mortals can offer…it makes some take chances that they would otherwise not take. To put themselves in more danger, because it can be wiped away if they get out of the situation. Some recruits die, because they expect that we can pull them back once they’ve gone over the edge and into Death’s realm. We can’t. We can’t, Stef. Once you’re gone, you’re gone.’
‘I came back,’ she said in a small voice, ‘you brought me back.’
‘That was…an unusual situation. We don’t do that when recruits die. We don’t stand up to the Lady, we don’t travel through death and carry them home. What happened…you were a child, and you needed a second chance, what happened to you was my fault, and I was simply rectifying that mistake. You…could have easily died tonight. I need you to understand that I can’t go back in and pull you out again, I doubt she would let me retrieve you a second time.’
‘I don’t want you making a big deal out of it. I did what I had to do. Consider it repaying the favour, and just try and not get shot in the lung again.’
He extended his hand again. ‘Come with me.’ This time, she took his hand, and as she did, he shifted them too the roof. There were recruits up there from every division, and there were a few pure humans among them, but mostly it was those with a little bit of fey in their family histories.
Stef’s hand tensed before she pulled it away. ‘Too crowded,’ she whispered, and he immediately shifted them again.
‘Is this better?’ he asked as they appeared on an empty roof.
‘Yeah,’ she said as she walked to the edge, ‘yanno, people, bad.’ She looked around. ‘But…I’m an idiot, was what you wanted to show me back there?’
‘No it’s everywhere.’
She gave him a quizzical look. ‘If this is-’
He cut her off. ‘You’ll understand in a moment. Listen, what do you hear?’
‘If it’s the 1812 Overture, I’m out of here.’
He stared at her for a moment, failing to see how a piece of classical music could be bad. Music was never inherently good or bad, there was only ever the intent bound to it, it was the listeners who decided on the meaning. ‘Just listen, please.’ She straightened herself, closed her eyes and tilted her head up.
He handed her a wine glass and pulled a small hip flask from his jacket pocket and poured the tinted liquid into the glass.
‘You’ve already had me in bed tonight,’ Carol said, ‘there’s no need to get me tipsy.’
‘You never knew magic before me, and I want you to hear what’s happening.’
‘There’s blood in it, don’t ask me what kind, I don’t want to tell you, it will help to hear…to understand.’
He placed the empty hip flask back in his pocket and took her spare hand. ‘Do you trust me?’
‘I love you, and that’s your answer,’ she said as she nervously put the glass to her full lips and drank down the fae wine.
The coda was so loud that it was like an experience in stereo for anyone who would hear it. Concentration creased his recruit’s forehead, them suddenly her eyes snapped open. She stared for a moment, then looked around for the source. ‘Singing, who the hell is singing? Why- What? Why couldn’t I hear that before?’
‘You weren’t listening for it.’
‘Who is singing?’
‘Death. This is Dajulveed’s coda. She’s singing for the end of the world. The dirge. She sings every time a world dies. The parade of ghosts has passed, all that remains is for Death to do her duty.’
‘Am I…’ she asked hesitantly, ‘hearing this with my ears?’
‘No,’ he answered, ‘and yes. It’s not just sound.’ He leaned on the railing next to her and watched as she experimentally covered her ears with her hands, then covered her eyes, her mouth moving as if speaking some equation to work everything out.
He kissed her, tasting the remains of the wine on her lips – it was a strange, old taste, only natural as the wine had spent several centuries aging in the depths of an oak tree. Almost immediately, her expression changed.
‘That song…’ Carol whispered, ‘it’s so terrible. All the death, all the hopelessness, all the-’
He pressed a finger to her lips. ‘Listen, beneath that, to the beauty, to the memory, to the endurance. There is no world whose story is only death and pain.’ She closed her perfect blue eyes, as if that could block out the reality from around her. ‘Make it go away, please. I don’t want to hear it anymore.’
‘It will be over soon,’ he said as he wrapped his arms around her.
‘Is it just over the city?’ Stef asked him as she rubbed at her injured shoulder. ‘I mean, shouldn’t every rooftop be covered with funeral-goers?’
‘No, like I said, it’s everywhere. All across the world, anyone who can listen, whoever knows what to listen for will be able to experience this. It’s a mark of respect, it’s a small prayer against the same thing happening to this world. Voices in the dark, being spoken to ears that cannot hear.’
‘You’re really cheerful, you know that right?’
He ignored the comment, and looked to the sky. ‘Everything is coming to an end, look up,’ he said as he pointed to the bleeding moon.