Ryan signed a form, and placed it in the pile of “Done” paperwork, one that was growing far more slowly than he would have liked. Even with Curt assisting, doing the low-level work, the “dog” work of chasing down recruits for reports; of adjusting the tedious schedules; of looking for Academy speakers willing to come give lectures, the work was piling up.
He had learned with Alexander that a child was distracting – having a child that was sick was worse; having a child on the edge of death became the first thought on your mind, blocking and distracting you from operating at anywhere near peak efficiency.
He looked away from the paperwork, to the completely still form of Stef. It was easy enough to imagine that she was sleeping. That she was in a coma. That she wasn’t lost…somewhere.
A pale hand reached down to him, and he looked up to see Death.
He immediately went to his feet, a dozen worst-case scenarios in his mind.
‘Stop, little angel,’ she said, her grey eyes staring at him.
He let out the breath that had caught in his chest. ‘Sorry, Lady.’ He let his muscles relax. ‘I- How can I help-‘ he stopped himself, knowing the platitude was pointless – she couldn’t possibly need help from him.
‘I am here to help you,’ she said. ‘You may not handle what you are about to see very well.’
He began to ask a question, but saw movement behind her. Ryan took a step to the left and saw an aspect – indigo this time – sitting on the floor of the oubliette. She wasn’t moving, or dancing, she just sat, Alexandria in her arms and tears in her eyes.
Of all the aspects so far, she was the one closest in age to the Stef that lay dead on the bed – that had to be a good sign; he’d surmised that the “framework” was leading up to her memories closest to the point where she had died.
A fear he wished he hadn’t had was once the memories grew close in age to where she had died, the cycle would start again, and it would take longer and longer before she was ready – or able – to come back.
‘My lady,’ Ryan said, ‘I don’t understand.’
‘The last time I was came,’ she said as she put a hand to his arm, ‘it wasn’t you who called me here.’
‘She’s-‘ he started. ‘She’s going to-‘ Die again. She was going to die again – Death had called herself to the memory. He felt the pinpricks of tears in his eyes. It wasn’t fair – all the pain in her life wasn’t even in the same region as “fair”. A life this young shouldn’t have had this much pain.
‘You don’t have to be here,’ Death said. ‘You never had to view any of her memories.’
‘I didn’t expect- I have seen six of her ghosts, and half of them are things I would purge if I had the power!’ he said, trying to keep himself under control. Their first meeting. The sad girl playing hide and seek. The bleeding girl in the ballerina outfit. And now a suicide attempt. A life of pain. ‘I-’
‘Our most powerful memories,’ Death said, ‘are not always our best.’
He looked to the aspect again.
The indigo Stef beside him now looked…tired beyond all comprehension, devastated, resigned. Her knees were to her chest, and she had the doll resting there.
The doll, the bribe. It was, in some ways, both the best and worst thing he’d ever done.
She lifted the hand that wasn’t brushing the curls of the doll’s hair and stared at the packet of pills she held. She popped the foil and took two.
She was sick – it explained the look. It wasn’t something he was used to looking for anymore – colds and flus didn’t ail his recruits.
Stef was sick and going to die – if that was it, then she should have been in the hospital, not-
Death squeezed his arm, and shook her head as he looked up at her.
When she took another two, he wondered if he should reassess his assumption. He got to his knees so that he could try and see the name on the packet.
The dark colouration of the indigo aspect made it hard, but when she moved her hand again, he was able to read enough of it to run a search – a result pinged a moment later: sleeping pills.
He sat back beside her and reached out to the aspect, idly trying to brush some of the hair back from her face, without really trying to make contact. There was nothing to worry about – this was just an insomniac hacker trying to get some sleep – the location didn’t bother him, so far he’d seen her fall asleep on a stool, on the edge of a building and in a crude pillow-fort, abnormal was normal for her.
She took another two, and his heart dropped.
Ryan pinched the bridge of his nose, and wiped forming tears away. He turned to look at the aspect, and reached for the pills, putting every bit of concentration into the act. ‘Stop it, Stef. Please gods, stop it.’
He felt her hand, but she pulled away, her face contorting.
‘It’s not like you’re helping!’ she screamed. ‘You’re a fucking voice in my head! I’m crazy! I’m fucking crazy! I have no right to live!’
Ryan shied back, throwing his hands behind him to stop himself from falling completely to the floor. He stared at the scared, angry hacker, worried that she was talking to him, that somehow-
In front of them, Stef slipped sideways.
‘Stop it, please, my lady, please.’
‘It is a memory, angel, I cannot undo it.’
Something hardened in his chest. Resolve. The need not to sit idly by. The need for her to know that someone cared. That she didn’t have to go through with this by herself. Not again – going through it once must have been hell enough.
Suicide had always been an abstract to him – something that had never touched his life. It was something, that by virtue of their programming that agents had trouble contemplating.
Jones had made an attempt years before, but it was something they never spoke about. Jones had asked for it to be kept under wraps, and had stated it was an event he did not need commentary on. Considering the circumstances, it had been the least he could do.
Finding out about such a thing, after the event was one thing.
Sitting by helplessly was another.
He hadn’t been able to help Jones.
He was going to help Stef.
Want and need and desperation coalesced; and he reached for the aspect. He felt himself make contact, felt the fabric of her shirt under his hand, and her small shaking shoulder a moment later.
He grabbed her, and tried to pull her into a hug.
His shoulder threatened to pull itself out of its socket, but he managed to pull her up off the ground, and into his lap.
Indigo lids were half-closed; the indigo eyes beneath staring into nothingness as she lay dying in his arms.
‘Stef,’ he said. ‘I’m here.’
She gave no reaction.
He lifted one hand away, and stared at it for a moment.
Being able to enter the mind of another was the worst thing he was capable of as an agent. It hurt agent and…victim alike. It was a necessary evil when required – sometimes, it was the only way to get information out of a suspect, sometimes it saved lives.
And it still felt like a violation, each and every time.
But it was a way of forcing a connection where no other means of communication was possible.
‘Gods forgive me,’ he whispered, and pressed a hand to her forehead.
It was likely a safe bet that no one had ever tried to get into the mind of an aspect. There was no mind to get into, they were a projection of a memory – so it wasn’t going to work. It couldn’t work. He was going to-
He concentrated on his hand, prompting menus and overriding the errors that said there was nothing to connect with – the overrides were possible, as some fae minds were nearly impossible to connect with.
His fingers tingled as more and more blue rushed out, touching and scanning the aspect beneath his fingers, trying to burrow in, to find something to connect to.
He stared into his HUD, at the connection matrix – which appeared as a square of a hundred tiny dots – grey for no connection, red for an unstable connection, and blue for a connection.
The first blue dot appeared just as a headache rammed into his head like an axe blade.
The second blue dot appeared, and he felt Stef’s breathing slow.
There was the chance he’s lose himself. There was the chance he would die. There was a chance he would be booted out, as there was nothing that the connection could parse.
He closed his eyes, reached out for the weak connection, and forced himself to rush across it.
He let out a breath, and opened his eyes again.
The mind space that manifested when reading a person’s mind was never the same twice – though there were similar motifs that tended to appear: round rooms with doors leading to every connection, a series of connected rooms, inconsistent spacing and a complete disregard for physics.
He had never been in a mind space like that of the aspect.
Everything was dark, except for a lightning flash every few moments, which would light up the “sky” above him, with a view of what the aspect was surely seeing – an incomplete vision of the roof of Stef’s apartment.
The “floor” beneath him was just blackness – just like when he tumbled through Death’s realm, and found the “ground” before being able to walk into Limbo.
He ran – direction couldn’t have meaning, not in such an incomplete space. He ran, and hoped it would bring him closer to her.
There was another lightning flash, but much dimmer this time – she was closer to death.
He forced himself to run faster.
There was colour in the darkness, finally – Stef, standing on a clearly-defined “edge”.
He stopped a few feet short of the figure. ‘Stef?’
She gave no reaction.
He walked towards her, and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Stef?’ He gently turned her, but she gave no sign of recognising him. ‘Stef, you don’t have to- I’m- I’m here.’
She turned away, back towards the edge, passing through his fingers.
‘Stef, please.’ He reached out, and gently shook her shoulders, like he was trying to wake a sleepwalker. ‘Stef. Young lady. Stop it.’
He turned her away from the edge again, but her eyes still looked past him. ‘Stef. Please. The whole world is waiting for you to wake up. You’ve got everything ahead of you.’ He hugged her, cradling her head to his chest. ‘Please come back.’
Lightning flashed in the sky again, and then she jerked her head, trying to pull away from him.
She snapped her head up, her eyes wide and staring. ‘Ryan!’
He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but the world shattered before his eyes, and Stef disappeared in a shower of star dust.
Ryan’s eyes rolled back in his head, and when he finally forced them back, he found himself staring up at the roof of the oubliette. He rolled to his side, and vomited, the taste of vinegar in his mouth.
He forced himself to his feet, and tried to take in everything at once. Death was sitting on his chair, the aspect was gone, and Stef was standing.
Ryan looked again, fighting down the excitement – she wasn’t standing, she was floating; her head and arms were slumped and hanging loosely – there was no thought of agency behind her movements.
Her body shook, and a violet aspect stepped out of her body – a Stef in a slightly bloodied and dusty uniform, gun in hand.
The aspect lifted her hand, and held the pose for a moment.
She fired a shot; and the sound echoed around the oubliette.
A shard of mirror – violet, like the rest of the aspect – slammed into her chest, and Ryan flinched as it did; he hadn’t seen her die the first time, the first time, he’d had his eyes covered, and been too overwhelmed by the mirror’s release of magic to see her moment of death.
This time, however, it played out with agonising slowness.
The aspect collapsed to the ground, leaving her real body floating upright, drifting slightly from side to side.
The aspect bled for a moment, then disappeared.
Her body opened its mouth, and began to scream.
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