The memory glass in the windows showed a story on alien window, rain seeming to hit the glass while lightning arced over an unfamiliar city. The glass misted for a moment, then changed to a view of a pebbly beach, smooth purple stones leading out to a quiet sea. No image stayed for more than a few moments – the stimulation couldn’t hurt, and it kept the room from being static and dead and quiet. Curt checked the time on his phone again, and looked down at the hospital bed. Nine hours again, nine hours of being somewhere they couldn’t reach. She wasn’t dead, she wasn’t hurt, but she wouldn’t wake up.
The phoenix hadn’t left marks this time, but she was still so pale that she nearly blended with the white sheets. The pale girl in the pale bed. The girl that had- That was the question – no one was sure what she had done this time. The fae were declaring her the girl that had saved the world again, and running the image of her in the melting desert. The response had been different this time, probably because someone competent was running the PR, but it was the Agency taking far more of the focus than just the girl that refused to wake up. They’d pulled her out of the desert, and she’d blacked out immediately, and magic and science were refusing to wake her up, so they scanned and they waited.
Dehydrated, malnourished and exhausted – nothing that should be keeping her asleep.
He kissed her hand again, and rested his forehead against the edge of the mattress. His hands on his girl, little pieces of control regained. Her hands twitched against his sometimes, maybe she could feel him, maybe it was just dreams.
He looked up to Ryan, and the Agent’s expression made him grip Stef’s hand a little tighter. Ryan, desperate to keep things running, to keep things smooth, had been dealing with the lost, and only visiting when he had results, or a spare five minutes to sit by the bed and wish for her to wake up. One set of results had eluded them so far, one set that the Parkers and techs refused to release until they’d made further confirmations. Run the results again and again.
‘Sir?’ His shoulders tensed. ‘How much of her heart is left?’
Ryan didn’t say anything, instead standing statue-still, hands in his pockets.
Ryan moved across the room and sat in the spare chair on the other side of the bed. ‘They’ve completed their fourth scan, and they’re sure this time. It’s the same result as the last three, but they couldn’t justify running the results again.’
‘Sir, how much?’
‘What’s left is about the same size as a thumb nail and not much thicker.’
‘Is- Is that enough to keep her alive?’
Ryan lifted her other hand, his fingers lying against her wrist, feeling her pulse. ‘She’s still here.’
* * *
There was the reverberating, ringing sound of bouncing plastic.
Stef opened her eyes and saw grey silt.
She sat up, her head spinning at the sudden movement. She pushed herself to her feet and saw the grey expanse of Limbo – the storm clouds, the identical dead trees, the little monk girl with the red ball.
‘Oh, please no.’
No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.
Limbo bounced the red ball again, then jumped at her, crawling up her shaking body to sit on her shoulders. ‘Play?’
‘Why- Why am I here?’
‘Same as always,’ Limbo said, pulling on her hair to make reins, ‘you’re waiting for sissy. You never come just to visit me.’
‘But I didn’t- I didn’t- I didn’t die!’
‘Nope,’ Limbo said, shaking the handfuls of hair. ‘And you’re a bad horsey.’
‘I’m right here,’ Death said.
She spun towards the sound of the woman’s voice.
‘I’m not dead!’
Death slowly pulled Limbo away, then smoothed down the hair that the monk had mussed. ‘No one said you were.’
She leaned against Death’s hand for a second, taking comfort in the motherly act. ‘I’m not dead, right?’ she asked, tears slipping free.
‘No, dear one, you’re not.’
‘So why am I here?’
‘Your father wants me to interfere. I cannot.’ Her face slipped to showing nothing but a skull for a moment. ‘I cannot. It is my duty not to interfere, but I still feel as though I owe you an apology for my inaction.’
She stared down at the grey silt. ‘You don’t have to apologise to me.’
‘Still,’ Death said. ‘Telling you what you’ve done is not interfering.’
She looked back up. ‘Huh?’
Death took her hand and the grey world of Limbo disappeared. The world swirled and blurred, until she could see nothing but charred concrete. ‘This is where they were holding the blue egg,’ Death said as they walked through dark corridors, their feet not quite touching the ground, not quite crunching on the remnants of exploded fluorescent lights. ‘All those that were holding it, all those that knew where it was, they’re all ash against the wall.’
‘And little Red did that?’
‘With the help of your heart.’
She reached out to touch a charred section of wall, her fingers slipping through it, but she could still feel the roughness of the concrete against her fingers. ‘Are we here, or are we not here?’
‘That sounds philosophical,’ Death said. ‘We are just slightly apart, this is how I walk the world, part of it, yet not.’
The description was all-too-familiar: there, but not, just how she’d been before the Agency, before she’d had a family and strings to tie her to the world. No one knew she was there, no one would notice if she was gone. She ran her hand through the concrete, feeling a dull shock as she touched a still-live electrical wire, and blushed. ‘Sorry, but it’s kind of cool.’
‘Not many would say that.’
She nodded, pulled her hand from the wall, and followed Death down the hall.
‘Ghosts,’ Death said.
‘The question on your mind. I know many opinions on this place, on this state of being apart, because this is where ghosts reside. The stronger ones are able to break through in varying degrees, but most of them are reduced to watching the world go by, unable to remember who they are, or why it was so very important to try and return.’
She looked around, expecting to suddenly see ghosts, but they remained alone.
‘How- How many mes became ghosts?’
‘Many,’ Death said. ‘Sometimes your father dropped you on the way home, and sometimes you didn’t find your way back by yourself.’
It was the answer she expected, but her shoulders still drooped.
‘This way,’ Death said as they turned a corner.
There was a shimmering red bubble at the end of the hall. A blotchy, bad special effect. ‘This is the only barrier that remains, the last trial, if you wish to think of it that way.’
‘I’m not exactly Hercules.’
‘No,’ Death said, almost sounding amused, ‘you’re not.’
They stepped through the red bubble, and found the blue egg on a stone table.
‘I’m not even going to bother thinking that it was easy. What’s the catch?’
‘Only someone like you can walk through it. ’
‘Well that’s very bloody convenient,’ she said as she stared at her feet.
‘It’s a kill barrier, human, fae, agent, any of them try to step through it, they’ll die.’
‘Can’t I just wish it out of there?’
‘Only if you want to waste what is left of your heart.’ Death shook her head. ‘It will not let you shift it away, it can refuse the wish.’
‘But if I do this- There can’t be that much of me left.’
‘There isn’t, dear one, the choice is-’
‘I’m an agent, this is my duty.’ She bit her lip. ‘And how do I send them back to you?’
‘Knock on the moon.’
She tilted her head. ‘I don’t mean to sound like an idiot, but, um, what?’
Death tied a single strand of silver hair around her wrist. ‘Just knock, and the aviary will open.’
She ran she fingers across the strand of Death’s hair, then stared down at her feet. ‘Am I going to live?’
‘If you want certainties, speak with my sister.’
She felt herself slip into petulant-child mode. ‘I’m talking to you.’
‘Is it interfering?’
‘Your heart makes you a little more of a wild card than most,’ Death said. ‘What you need to do is simple,’ she said, brushing fingers over the blue egg, not quite touching it. ‘What happens after is not so simple, and not entirely up to you.’
The bunker melted away and Limbo came back into view. A long, gentle breeze blew, swirling the sand at their feet. ‘Do you know why you can’t make a wish without touching the mirror?’
‘Because the world isn’t full of frippy magic?’
‘Because they’re not your wishes.’ Death pressed a hand to her chest for a moment. ‘Every iota of this mirror is dedicated to keeping you alive. It’s Ryan’s wish, and it’s one that will keep on going so long as any of this mirror exists.’
She bit the inside of her cheek. ‘…how much do I need to live?’
‘The wishes you need to make won’t be enough to waste you away.’
She stared into the forest, memories flooding her mind. ‘Do I need to do it right now? Can I have the night off before I save the world again?’
‘Nothing will happen if you don’t do this straight away.’
She gave a nod. ‘Good, cause I think I need to be a coward for a bit first.’ She looked at the forest again, old memories swirling with new.
‘Do you want me to answer your question?’ Death said, taking her hand as thunder rolled over head.
‘I do,’ she said, pulling her hand away, ‘but I’m also scared of the answer, and you can probably see that too.’
‘The answer is no.’
‘No?’ she looked up. ‘Promise?’
Death smoothed her hair from her face. ‘It’s not interfering to tell you. You’ll never try again, I promise you that. You will feel as bad as you did, you’ll feel worse, you will question the value of your life, and the love of those around you, but you will never try again.’
‘That means I’m going to live long enough to do that. You just told me I’m going to live.’
‘That doesn’t mean that it won’t be complicated. That- That it may not be what you expect.’
‘But- You mean it, you really mean it? I’ll- I’ll never try again?’
She threw her arms around the anthropomorphic personification and hugged her. ‘Thank you.’
Death hugged her back, and wiped her tears away. ‘You should go home now.’
‘How do I get back?’
Death smiled. ‘You’re already there.’
She blinked, then opened her eyes.
Curt was snoring against the edge of the bed she was in, and Ryan was asleep on the other side of the bed, his body angled uncomfortably in the chair.
The door to the room opened, and the mean Parker took a step in. She gave a frantic wave, and pressed a finger to her lips.
Parker sighed, shook his head and walked in, waking both men.
Ryan was cognizant first. ‘Stef?’
Parker pushed past him and stared at some of the equipment she was hooked to. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘That’s a significant improvement over unconscious, Mimsy.’
Ryan rounded the bed, out of Parker’s way, shook Curt’s shoulder, and bent down to kiss her forehead. ‘Are you all right?’
‘You remember that thing where we’re worried about the world?’
‘Yeah, well, we don’t have to be worried any more.’
‘Hey.’ She finally registered Curt holding her hand, and she squeezed him back. ‘Water, please, food, also please.’
‘We’ve been feeding and watering you,’ Pareker said, ‘but you still look like crap, so you’re not going on solids yet.’
She looked at the doctor. ‘Isn’t the nice one supposed to be my doctor?’
‘Well, after I whipped out my dick, the fae consultants didn’t want to talk to me.’
‘Do you really want the answer to that, newbie?’
‘…how can you even whip- Indiana Jones- I-’
Curt squeezed her hand tighter. ‘Stop thinking about it.’
She pulled her hand away from Curt, and lifted her arms to Ryan in the universal child-to-parent request to be lifted up.
‘Mimsy-’ Parker started as Ryan lifted her.
‘I was just with Death,’ she said as she settled against Ryan, legs wrapped around him, head resting against his shoulder. ‘I feel safe enough acting against medical advice.’