The purple bubble almost seemed to breathe – it expanded slightly, only to contract again. Over and over, breathing more steadily than she was.
Please don’t kill me.
Taylor growled.
Stef blinked, and looked up. ‘Ready?’
He growled again.
The tunnel was empty. If it all went wrong, there was no sense in letting their loved ones die. She flicked her eyes at Taylor. He had someone he loved. The concept was still so strange. So-
You’re stalling.
She raised her hands and straightened her tie, savouring the feel of the uniform in case it was the last time. It wouldn’t be the last time. She wasn’t going to die. She wasn’t going to die.
Please don’t let me die.
‘Do it.’
Taylor lifted her, took three running steps towards the purple barrier, and threw her like a slightly lumpy spear.
The barrier would kill her. That much was true. The mirror, however, would make it through. Hopefully. Probably. It was the only thing that made sense.
She felt the static of hitting the barrier-
Breathing. She was breathing.
She sat up, her bare skin scraping on the rough concrete.
She heard growling.
I’m fine, thanks for asking.
She stood, too tired and shaky to be concerned about being naked.
The blue phoenix egg lay on its side on a cheap-looking table, the shell cracked and looking much, much worse for the wear.
A box sat beside it, the size of Ryan’s in tray, with purple light streaming towards the ceiling. She closed the thin lid, and watched as the edges sealed, pieces of wood sliding into place like a puzzle box.
She heard footsteps behind her, and a jacket was dropped over her shoulders.
She slid her arms into the sleeve of the big jacket, did up the first few buttons, then lifted the phoenix egg. Even if the sleeping baby inside decided to be pissed off, it couldn’t hurt them. She pressed a hand to the crack, and rocked with an afterimage of pain, of terror, of the need to hide.
I feel like this should have been harder.
She wrapped her arms tightly around the blue egg, cooed at it, and turned to follow Taylor.
She blinked. He held the death-bubble-puzzle-box. ‘Is- Is that a good idea?’ she asked.
‘Should I leave it here?’
‘You’re not gonna use it, right?’
His expression was unreadable. ‘Only on my enemies.’
She clutched the egg a little tighter. ‘Am I still on that list. I mean- You- You saved me, or did you just want an excuse to kill Clarke?’
His mouth twitched into something like a smile for a brief second. ‘He deserved to die.’
‘That didn’t answer my question.’
He turned, tucking the puzzle-box under his arm. ‘You’re wasting time, Agent.’
She twitched at the use of the title, halfway between a squee and a heart attack, and followed him as they walked away from the table. She stepped over what remained of her old body, then followed him back down the melted tunnel. She stopped to look at the place she’d touched as a ghost, then ran to catch up with him, the blue egg bouncing in her arms. They came to the spot where they had shifted in, marked with a spray-painted blue X, and she clung tightly to the egg as he shifted them away.
The conference room of the Agency appeared. Magnolia was the first to notice, immediately standing from her chair to come over to Taylor, her hands touching his chest, his arms, his face.
Jones, at the table with his laptop, had noticed them, but remained seated.
Ryan was standing at the window, his face full of worry, but made no attempt to come closer.
Curt sat in his usual chair, stroking the red phoenix egg, looking almost shell shocked. Seemed to notice the movement, then looked up and smiled, and for a moment, the world seemed a little brighter. She slid into her chair beside him, and placed the blue egg next to its sibling.
‘He popped his head out a couple of times,’ Curt said, the fear returning to his face. ‘And I don’t think I’m the only one who nearly shit their pants.’ He made a face. ‘Faecal matters aside though,’ he said, then leaned close and kissed her cheek. ‘You ok?’
‘I’m naked except for Taylor’s jacket, and there’s half a dead me lying on the floor somewhere, but- Yeah. Yeah.’
He put a hand on her arm, and a fresh uniform covered her body.
‘How do we get them home?’ Ryan asked, taking the seat at the head of the table.
She held up her hand, and despite the change of bodies, Death’s single hair was still tied there. ‘It’s gonna take a wish,’ she said. ‘I just have to figure out how literal Death was being.’
‘What was the instruction?’ Jones asked.
‘Knock on the moon.’
‘it’s the moon in the sky,’ Ryan said, ‘not the moon in orbit.’
She tilted her head. ‘Dad, parts of my brain may still be regrowing-‘
‘The moon for the phoenixes is not-’ Ryan said. ‘It’s not the cold rock in space. The moon that is important to them is the one viewed from the point of view of the world it shines on.’
‘That sounds frippier than usual magic.’
‘It is.’ He attempted a smile. ‘But it also means we don’t have to try and shift you to the moon.’
The eggs cracked open, and everyone in the room jumped.
The phoenixes rolled around on the table, playfully biting at each other, making cute little squeaky squawky sounds. Afterimages hit again, but this time, they were happy, safe, impressions of home, of family.
She looked around the room. Ryan. Curt. Family. Jones. Family. Volcano and Magpie. Family. Scary family. Scary family with mutual distrust and hate and scary and growling, but…but irreplaceable all the same. She smirked as it became it morphed into a crayon drawing in her mind.
My family, by Stef, age twenty-three-and-a-half.
You’ll have to require Ryan a fridge so there’s somewhere to display it.
‘I have to pee,’ she said quietly, as everyone watched the phoenixes play.
‘Is there something I should know?’ she asked Curt without looking back as he followed her from the room. ‘Do you want to watch me pee?’
‘You don’t have to go to the bathroom,’ he said fell into step beside her.
‘You don’t know that.’
‘Sure I do. You do this weird little twitch thing when you need to pee,’ he said, ‘because it always take you a minute to remember what that feeling it.’
‘That’s just weird,’ she said as the pushed open the door to their room.
He closed the door. ‘Weird’s normal for us.’
She collapsed onto the bed, and waited for him to lie beside her.
‘Anyone will take your place,’ he said. ‘All you have to do is ask. You’ve already done too much.’
She tugged at the hair tied around her wrist. ‘But this won’t even cost a bit of my heart, so- So I can do it. Besides, little red knows me, and so we don’t want take the chance of everything going wrong cause I chickened out at the last minute.’
‘Think about everything you’ve done,’ he said as he wrapped his arms around her. ‘No one could call you chicken.’
She pressed her face against his chest. ‘Lie to me?’
‘You’re sooo tall,’ he said.
‘No, ‘ she said, pressing herself closer. ‘Lie to me. Tell me everything is going to be ok. Please. I- I want everything to be ok.’
‘All I can promise,’ he said as his hands slid into her hair and cradled her head. ‘Is that things are going to be the same combination of suck and wonderful that they always are. There’s gonna be the good bits and the sad bits, the lols and the fails.’
‘You’re supposed to be reassuring me, Padawan.’
‘I believe in you. I can’t say any more or less. I believe in you.’
She hugged him tightly, and lay quietly, trying not to breathe, trying not to feel the empty space in her chest where her heart should have been.
Sleep tugged at her, but she sat up, not wanting to waste time being unconscious. She wiped at her eyes, at the barely formed tears.
I’m not ready for this.
She pushed herself off the bed. ‘Ok. Ok. Let me go do this before I lose my nerve.’