The voice again. The Stef-that-wasn’t-Stef. The voice of the voice in her head. The other person in the room trying to save her life.
Curt stiffened, his muscles heavy and straining with all the pain of a flight-or-fight response, except there was nothing to fight, nothing that he could put down with a shot, a knife, or a well-placed insult.
He held her as tightly as he could, trying to hold her, tether her the the world, like in the morgue, like in the infirmary. Pulling her back one was thing, holding her here was another.
He could hear her breathing, far louder than it should have been.
Let her die, or hurt her till she stopped trying.
He put a hand to her face, and kissed her cheek.
His heart skipped, his hand, however, suffered no such hesitation. His grip tightened, and he slammed her head against the glass wall of the shower.
The second half of the word never made it out.
Blood steamed through the wall, and down the side of her face as he pulled her free of the broken shards. A piece had pierced her cheek, and her temple was a red, bloody spider’s web. Shaking fingers went to her throat, and felt her pulse.
‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’
He pulled her back into his lap, and held her for a moment, feeling her breathing, feeling her alive.
‘Cancel,’ he said. ‘Cancel, cancel, cancel.’ He couldn’t use the shatter sequence, but he could cancel it – one tiny advantage afforded to him by his probation-free Aide clearance. It had been a little advantage, a little way of protecting her in case someone had wanted to use it against her. It wasn’t supposed to protect her from herself. He kissed her forehead. She shouldn’t have needed protecting from herself.
He let out a shuddering breath, then stood, lifting her with tired muscles. His feet crunched on glass as he stumbled, and he was glad he’d kept his shoes on.
He carried her back to the much-abused, much-stained bed, blood easily mixing with the dried stains of puke and spilled drinks. He wiped his hands on the sheet, and pulled his phone from his pocket.
Tears and sweat covered his face, and he wiped his forearm across his head to clear it. He tapped an icon, and placed the phone to his ear.
Three rings, then an answer. ‘Shouldn’t you still be in bed with the guest of honour?’ Carmichael asked.
There was a slight pause, then Carmichael turned all-business. ‘Situation? Needs? Location?’
‘Help me, please.’
Breath wouldn’t come.
Stef stirred beneath his hand, smearing blood across the pillow.
Gods forgive me, I’m so sorry.
‘You’re in fairyland,’ Carmichael said, shaking him from his reprieve. ‘That’s why you’re calling me. Kid, tell me where you are.’
‘The- The apartment.’
Carmichael barked a short laugh. ‘I’m literally downstairs. Open your chute for me. Can you do that for me?’
There was static for a moment. ‘Ok, I’m flying up. Come on, get the chute.’
He kissed Stef’s forehead again, then stumbled, stiff-legged into the living room, and leaned against the green button on the wall, opening the dumb-waiter-sized door. Four seconds later, Carmichael zipped into the room, already growing back towards human-size.
Carmichael gripped his shoulders. ‘Are you ok?’
No. Not ok. Nothing about this was ok.
‘Yes,’ he managed. ‘But Stef-‘ he jerked his head towards the bedroom.
Carmichael pushed past him, and was checking over Stef by the time he stumbled to the doorway.
He’d failed her. He’d failed her and only stopped it by hurting her. He was always hurting her. Always hurting her. Always-
‘Did she lose consciousness?’
‘I-‘ he shook his head. ‘I don’t know!’
Carmichael stood, crossed the room, and held him for a moment. ‘Look at me, kid.’
He looked up.
‘Get me your first aid kit, ok?’
‘In the kitchen, under the sink, ok?’
He nodded, the fairy let him go, and he stumbled out to the kitchen.
He found the green kit, held it tightly, and came back in to the bedroom.
A tornado of blue was already spinning above Stef’s hand.
‘I assumed,’ Carmichael said, ‘that you’re out of blue, but she’s near enough to a full tank, so let’s let her heal herself, ok?’ Carmichael took the first aid kit, found wipes, and cleared the blood from the area. He took a bandage and held it in the spinning blue until it was soaked, then wiped it over the cut. Tiny pieces of glass that the fairy hadn’t found forced themselves from her skin and fell onto the bloody pillowcase. The fairy soaked the bandage again, and the gashes in her cheek closed over.
‘Open her mouth for me,’ Carmichael said.
He rounded the bed and knelt beside her, pressing on her cheeks to get her mouth to open, just as he’d done a dozen times during the night to let her throw up.
The fairy wrung the blue-and-bloody bandage over her mouth, drops of murky blue falling against her tongue. When he was done, he wrapped her head in the still blue-wet bandage, and closed the first-aid kit.
‘She’ll be fine, let’s give her some space.’
He let the fairy drag him from the bedroom, and didn’t argue as he shoved him to the couch. Carmichael disappeared into the kitchen, barked some orders into the phone and returned with a tall glass of cold water.
‘Drink this,’ Carmichael said. ‘And tell me what happened.’
He drank the water, tears coming before the glass was half-empty.
‘This wasn’t rough sex gone wrong,’ Carmichael said, ‘she looks like hell, and you look worse.’
He wiped his tears on the backs of his hands, and gave Carmichael the short version of the gala’s events.
‘Gods,’ Carmichael said. ‘But that doesn’t-‘
The words stuck in his throat like caltrops. He opened his mouth and they tumbled out. ‘Shatter sequence.’
‘So that’s why you called me.’
He gave a slight nod.
‘How far did she get?’
‘Six and a half words. Then I- Stopped her. Had to stop her. I couldn’t let her-‘
‘You know she’ll feel better as soon as she gets back into system territory. I’ll organise- Hells. I’ll drive you back to the Marches myself. Get cleaned up.’ The fairy paused. ‘At least, I’m assuming that you want to go back to the Agency. You want out, I’ll help you.’
The idea was far too tempting – to keep her away from the stress, from the expectations, to keep her safe from the world. He shook his head. ‘I’m not making a decision for her, and right now she needs the system to fuck with her head. Let me just grab my stuff.’
Carmichael nodded, and he walked back into the bedroom. He closed the door, and opened the wardrobe, looking for the few clean clothes that he kept in the apartment. The new suits she’d be excited to see wouldn’t do, leaving him only a jogging outfit and a t-shirt. He slipped on the red pants and white shirt, and leant heavily against the wardrobe wall as he left his dirty, sweaty clothes on the floor.
He spun, and saw Stef staring at him, her head on a strained angle.
He was at her side in a second, kneeling beside the bed. ‘Hey,’ he said gently.
‘I-‘ her eyes rolled a little, unfocused, in pain. Colour flooded her cheeks. ‘Sorry.’
‘Don’t be sorry,’ he said as he laid the back of his hand against her cheek. ‘It wasn’t your fault, just- Just don’t hate me for keeping you here.’
‘I do,’ she said, leaning against his hand, ‘but a bigger bit of me is grateful. Then I hate you a bit more, than I’m a bit more grateful, then I hate you a bit more-‘ She chewed on her lip. ‘You get the idea.’
‘I’m going to take you home, if home’s where you want to go.’
‘Home’s where we belong,’ she said.
‘I don’t give a shit where we belong, I only care what you want.’
‘We belong at home,’ she said. ‘But-‘
She was quiet for a long moment. ‘You want me to try, don’t you? To try, even though I might fail, might get worse, or might end up completely non-functional.’
He slipped into bed with her and held her. ‘I want you to be happy.’
‘But you think that’s what’s going to make me happy.’
‘I don’t care,’ he said gently, ‘what it is that makes you happy, you can do whatever you want to do. I can help you get better, or- Or if this is as much as you can be, then I’ll help you be happy with that. It’s all up to you.’
‘I meant what I said,’ she said, slowly sitting up. ‘All of what I said. About dinner and flowers and sex and pride. But-‘
He held her tightly. ‘I just-‘
‘Me talky,’ she said, and he shut his mouth. ‘I- I’m more scared of it than usual cause I don’t know if I’m just going to burn up. And- And I can’t hope for things, or want things, if I’m just gonna be- I can’t even try and think of the future if I don’t have one.’ She pulled the bandage from her head and sucked on the blue-soaked fabric. ‘I just want it all to be over, and then- Then maybe I can think about anything else. Maybe I can just- I need all this phoenix stuff to be over first.’ She dropped the bandage on the bed. ‘Do you have any more?’
‘Only what’s in you.’
She sighed, and shrugged, the loose gown falling open, giving him a view of her scarred chest. ‘I don’t know what I want,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what I want. I don’t know if I can be what you want, or who Ryan thinks I am, I don’t know who I am, or if I’m worth anything. But- But I’m tired of waiting. Tired of wondering if the little firebird is gonna finish eating me before we find its sibling, tired of wondering if the Agency is just gonna take me out of the equation. I want it to be over. Today. Right now.’ She looked at the window. ‘Mid afternoon, crappy and undramatic time, I don’t care. I’m finishing it.’
‘How- You can’t-‘
‘I scared them the first time I look for them, I get that, that’s why I got Hardoukened through half a dozen walls. But, but it knows me now. At least as much as I know my fridge, and I like my fridge. And it should like me enough to let me help, cause that’s all I’m trying to do, help. And even if it burns me all up, then at least it’s an ending. A good one or a bad one, that depends on exactly what second it is my brain right now, but an ending all the same. If it works, then, hey, I get another notch on my saving the world post, and I get to spend the rest of my life freaking out that there are fairy tumblrs dedicated to me. And then I get to figure out everything else. And, and I don’t know if I want there to be an anything else, an everything else, but it’ll be my choice if there is.’ She squeezed his hand. ‘And I’ll crowdsource a couple of opinions too.’
‘But if it doesn’t work-‘
‘Then you’ll scream and you’ll rage and you’ll cry. And you’ll get over me. And life will go on. And I’ll get to stop like half my brain wants to do.’
‘Is it worth the chance?’
She hugged her arms around herself. ‘It at least has the appearance of being more noble than a bathroom suicide.’
‘I’m choosing this,’ she said, her voice tiny, ‘please let me choose this. I always have to live out other people’s choices, but this is me, and I want this. Even if I don’t. If you know what I mean. I don’t know if I want to be here, I don’t know if it’ll even do anything, but I want to try. Please.’
There was only one answer that wouldn’t make her hate him, wouldn’t make her think that he was rejecting her. He held back tears and twined his fingers with hers. ‘Tell me what you need, newbie.’