Stef waited until she was sure that she was alone before she turned to the back of the couch, pressed her face into it and screamed until her lungs burned. Balling her hands into fists and digging her short nails into her palms, she stood and walked toward her bathroom.
The bathroom was unchanged, unlike her organised wardrobe and now-alphabetised DVD collection. She rested both hands on the vanity and leaned heavily on them, staring at herself in the small, rectangular mirror.
There was no scar from the bullet wound. There was nothing, nothing that proved that she’d been shot in the head.
Her reflection was the the same – same pale skin, same lank, messy hair – she looked as though she’d woken up after a long hack, not after having been dead for a month. She ran her hand across the mirror, the cold smooth surface making her shudder.
Until then, she’d never known what it was like to not be aware of something until it was gone – she’d always been able to replace her technology and sundry household items, and what few precious possessions she’d had were locked away tight.
A heartbeat was irreplaceable.
The cold chunk of dormant mirror weighed heavily in her chest, feeling more like something to be coughed out than the thing keeping her alive and upright. She pressed a hand to her chest and prayed for it to beat.
Unable to act against the one in her chest, she lashed out and attacked its proxy – her bathroom mirror. It was old, and shattered easily under the force of her punch. The sound permeated the tiny, empty apartment, and for once, she wished she wasn’t alone. Maybe she shouldn’t have-
A footstep made her realise that she wasn’t alone.
She turned away from the broken mirror to look at the beautiful woman behind her. The woman was tall, lithe and wearing a suit that screamed “agent”. There was only one person this could be. ‘You’re Emma, aren’t you?’
‘I am,’ the woman said, ‘and you aren’t supposed to be here.’
She wanted to deny who she was, to claim to be her twin sister, to claim to be just an identical stranger. Thoughts of running crossed her mind, but there was nowhere she could go to that an Agent couldn’t chase, catch up so quickly and-
Emma raised a hand, a gun – something a lot more substantial-looking than Ryan’s “girly-gun” appearing there, and without even blinking, wrapped a finger around the trigger.
She had time to slam her eyes shut before there was a loud-
There was a rush of thoughts, a scream in her throat that she didn’t remember starting, and the taste of blood in her mouth. She opened her eyes, desperate to see the world again, and found herself looking up at Emma, and the disappointed look on the woman’s face.
‘This is,’ Emma said, ‘going to be a lot more complicated than I wanted.’
Go away, go away, go away!
To her surprise, the Agent stooped, then sat on the ground beside her. The gun, however, was only tucked into her jacket. ‘What did the mirror do to you?’
‘Still,’ she choked, ‘trying to work that out.’
‘You won’t have the time,’ the Agent said, ‘you know you can’t stay like this. He may have indulged his guilt and brought you back, but that isn’t the sort of thing that reads well on a report.’
‘It was an accident, it’s not something anyone can blame him for.’
‘He should have torn it from your chest. Now that you’re…up and about, it’s going to be nothing but trouble for him.’
She pushed herself away from the agent and looked up at her. ‘What’s going to happen to him?’
‘That really depends on what happens with you. Your obituary was in the paper, so you’re accepted as dead. But it’s more than needing new ID and a new flat. If your face was caught on a security camera there’s a chance that one of the Agencies could see you, and then they’d go searching for you – and that would open up a whole new can of worms for him – he’d be questioned, if not interrogated, as to why you were alive. They could decide that he’s a liability since he’s lying on reports and all, and then decide to recycle him.’
‘In the bottom of every Agency is a chamber, it’s where we go when our current form no longer serves us. We enter that chamber, are restrained, gassed to death and torn apart into our constituent parts – our memories, our knowledge, our abilities, our prime functions and duties. Those parts are then left in the collective unconscious until a new agent is needed.’
‘So it’s like death, isn’t?’
‘If you’re defining death as no longer being the person you were, then yes.’
‘He could die because of me?’
‘Yes,’ the agent said. ‘Do you know how powerful that heart of yours is?’
‘I’ve got some idea…’
‘Obviously not enough – do you have any idea what the Solstice would do with it?’ She let that hang in the air for a moment. ‘And who do you think would get the blame for it? Or…if having that inside of you drives you mad and you use it to blow up a city block, the same thing would happen.’
‘I wouldn’t do that.’
‘You don’t know what you’d do. We don’t know what you’ll do. We have no information on this, we have no frame of reference, we have no…clue if this will even last. What you did on the roof was brave, yes, but stupid. You stopped the Solstice and the opportunists from getting their hands on a large portion of the mirror, but at the cost of your life.’
‘But…I’m alive now,’ she choked. ‘I got a second chance.’
‘Your second chance may cost another’s life. It’s not worth it. What’s more is this isn’t even something you did for yourself. You didn’t crawl out of Death’s realm by yourself and, you didn’t have Life beg you to pass into the void rather than chance becoming a ghost. This is just something artificial, a stolen chance. It’s not something that should have happened.’
‘What do you want me to do? What do you expect me to do?’
‘What were you doing in here before I came?’
‘Washing my hands,’ she hissed.
‘Do you always break your mirror when you wash your hands?’
‘I’ve currently stocked up about three-and-a-half thousand years of bad luck. Thereabouts.’
‘The world lost a genius when you died,’ Emma mused. ‘But it did lose you. Whoever was going to mourn you has done so and the world has moved on without you. You’re no longer a part of it, that’s why it’ll be so easy for you to slip away.’
‘What do you mean?
‘What were you doing in here?’
‘Washing my hands.’
‘Life is so precious…can I assume that if you take your own, you don’t get another chance?’
‘How would I know?’
‘It’s a reasonable assumption. So do it.’
‘I just came back to fucking life, I’m allowed to have an emo moment. I wouldn’t seriously-’
‘Yes you would.’
‘I read your profile. You have all the markers needed for suicide.’
‘It’s the truth.’
‘If you want me out of the picture so badly, then you do it.’
‘I just tried. I apparently can’t. You’ll just keep coming back, like a bad penny.’ A faraway look came into her eyes. ‘I think we got all of those. I sincerely hope we got all of those.’
‘I’m not going to kill myself,’ she said, hating the shake in her voice.
‘Why did you come back? What…did you come back for?’ the agent looked around the small bathroom. ‘There are no flowers here, no grieving family, you have no lover, no pet, nothing. What did you come back for?’
‘I would love to let you have this chance, to let you run free and live your life, but the world isn’t this kind.’
‘Then let me,’ she choked. ‘Just let me.’
‘Even if you can control your heart, even if it does keep on sustaining you, you’re still a danger to him. He brought you back, so he’s directly responsible for everything you do. Not that he’d ever tell you himself, of course…’
She sucked at a bleeding knuckle, then spat the blood on the floor. ‘I won’t kill myself.’
‘You’ve been there. You know what happens after. The welcoming dark. The nothingness wrapping around you like a blanket swaddling a babe.’
‘I can’t,’ she said – unsure of who she was trying to convince.
‘It can’t be pills,’ Emma said. ‘They’re too slow, and there’s a chance you’d be discovered. Cutting…messy, painful, and terrible to clean up.’
‘You want me to jump off the Story Bridge?’
Emma snorted. ‘If too many people do that, people will begin to notice.’
She closed her eyes and thought of the dark – the sense of home in Death’s realm that she’d never felt anywhere else. She felt a cold metal object being pushed into her hand and didn’t need to open her eyes to see what it was. She knew what it was – it was her way out of the mess her life had become.
‘There’s no fighting fate, Stef,’ Emma said. ‘Look at your life, you’ve been cheating death for far too long. Ryan really should have shot you when he discovered you in that hacker’s den. It’s…kismet, you’ve just managed to avoid it so far.’
The gun was so heavy – a lot heavier than she remembered, or maybe that was the exhaustion. She hefted it and rested it against the side of her head, her tired arm threatening to drop away at any time. She just wanted to sleep. Her head dropped forward and the gun clattered on the ground beside her. ‘I’m so tired. I just…want to sleep…’
The gun was pushed back into her hand. ‘Just pull the trigger and you can sleep forever. You can be away from all of this pain and confusion. Away from the bullshit. Away from that cold lump in your chest making you wonder if you’re even human anymore.’
She felt Emma touch her hand and curl her fingers around the gun. It was all the answer she needed. She lifted the gun again – this time, it wasn’t so heavy.
Emma smoothed the hair back from her face and let her fingers linger on her temple as she tucked it behind her ear. ‘Right here would be quickest, one flash and it’s all over.’
She managed a nod, it was all she could do, all of her words were caught in a sharp jumble in her throat. The agent stood in one fluid motion and smiled down at her. ‘Slip away.’
She nodded again, choking down her unsaid words. She watched the agent fade away and lifted the gun to her head.