01 – Everything Lost, Everything to Lose

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3702

There was an innate stillness to corpses that always set Ryan at unease. All the small motions of life extinguished, the spark gone, nothing but the husk remaining.

Stef’s dead eyes stared out into the night, and he blinked back tears.

He closed his eyes, holding the image of Stef alive, happy, questioning everything and exploring magic – tried to hold onto the precious few things he knew about her – then took another breath.

With a shaking hand, he touched the jagged, misshapen piece of mirror that jutted out from her chest, and made a wish.

He could feel the magic flowing in the mirror, static and overwhelming, so vibrant compared to the unmoving body of his recruit. He let go of the mirror and waited for something to happen, looking around for signs of other people – of fae to avoid, of Solstice to fight, of other Agency staff to–

He forced his thoughts away from the Agency.

Making a wish was a violation of his Duty.

If it had been a wish in service to the Agency or for some noble, world-saving act, then there was the chance it could be swept under the rug.

Here and now, there was no such nobility to hide behind. Saving a recruit was not an act that bowed to the tenets of Duty. Recruits were expendable. Recruits could be replaced. Recruits existed to supplement agents, to take risks so that agents didn’t have to.

Recruitment as a concept had become corrupted. Recruitment as a concept was a truly wonderful thing – to bring in people with new perspectives, to give agents a chance to show some the wonder of the world.

To watch their faces light up as they learned new things. To see their wonder at something as simple as encountering fae. To be reminded to be grateful that magic existed.

Stef’s body stayed limp in his arms.

He shook her a little, hoping to wake her.

Dead blue eyes stared at him.

It was just like it had been the first time. He’d been so close, and she’d slipped away due to his inaction. ‘Wake up,’ he whispered. ‘Stef, wake up.’ Tears ran down his cheek. ‘Dammit, please, you- Please-’

She gave no response.

He rubbed her back, like he had done for Alexander when his son had been crying, or unable to sleep. He could avoid the sharp point of the mirror that had torn through her back, but he couldn’t avoid the blood that had soaked into her uniform.

She was bleeding again, and it was his fault again.

Eight-point-six in technical aptitude. A score high enough to indicate she had a chance at becoming Jones’ aide. A score for a recruit with a long, successful, vital career.

And a long, happy life.

Instead, she lay still, and he couldn’t hold back his tears.

The wish was going to work. It had to work. She was going to live; he hadn’t failed her. He couldn’t have broken a promise to protect her so soon after making it.

He looked down at her – at the sharp shard of mirror that had sunk into her chest. The wound was still open, though no more blood poured from it. There was no heart to pump more of her life away.

He touched a fingertip to the mirror again, trying not to move it, trying not to make its sharp edges cut her more. There was still magic there, but his wish hadn’t come true.

It didn’t make any sense.

He had made a wish, and mirror magic was, so far as anyone knew, the highest order of magic in the universe. The mirrors were, after all, all that was left of Chaos whilst he was dead.

There was nothing that could block the magic, no reason the wish wouldn’t be granted.

He refused to acknowledge the possibility that he had been a second too late, that her soul had sunk out of sight before he had recovered from the explosion’s overload. Refused to consider that this was the one wish that a mirror couldn’t grant.

A life. One tiny life. It was such a simple wish.

‘You have the audacity to think it’s that simple?’

He squeezed Stef’s hand for a moment, then stood and turned to face Death. She hated those who genuflected before her, but he nodded nonetheless – he needed to show respect.

She was angry with him. She had never been angry with him before. With Carol, there had been sadness, disappointment, and warnings, but not anger. Ryan flicked his gaze to the ground. ‘I’m sorry, my Lady. I meant no offence.’

‘How can you think this is a simple wish?’

He stole a glance back at Stef’s body. ‘My Lady…why hasn’t it worked?’

The skull within Death’s hood stared for a moment more, then her human-seeming face took over, a frown drawing her mouth tight. ‘You ask that as though you expect it to work.’

He recognised a stillness in his HUD – his clock had stopped. Death had pulled them to the side, into a moment that never happened in the real world, to talk. It was a kindness – it was delaying the seconds until their system connection came back, delaying the time until–

‘I am not here for your sake, Ryan. I am here for hers.’

He swallowed. ‘My lady, the mirror–’

‘This is the second time you’ve chanced a fate worse than death for her. It is arrogance on your part to assume that this is any different to any other mortal death.’

He drove his hands into his pockets and balled his fists for a little borrowed strength. ‘It is different. The mirror is involved.’ He gave her an imploring look. ‘I made a wish,’ he said, hating himself for how weak he sounded.

It was human to fight the inevitable, but this wasn’t inevitable – a mirror had been involved, and that changed everything. It had to change everything, else he was a failure.

‘Ask the question you want to ask,’ Death said, her fingers curling as if to beckon the question from his lips.

He dredged up thoughts he hadn’t allowed himself to have since cutting his palms on the mirror and wishing her back. ‘Has she passed?’

A small eternity went by as he waited for Death to answer.

‘No.’

He exhaled a long breath. ‘Then is she with one of your sisters?’

‘No.’

He frowned in confusion. ‘Then…where is she?’

‘That’s not for me to say.’

He looked back at the body again. ‘I need to know.’

‘You’re acting out of guilt again.’

‘The mirror was there. I–’

Her voice took on a sharp edge. ‘Whether or not a piece of my father was there, you would have tried something, wouldn’t you?’

‘I don’t know.’ He looked away. ‘I – I like to think I would have–’

‘You would have. I know. I’ve seen it. You lost her in a lot of worlds, tonight. Not all of them had mirror at their disposal.’ She paused. ‘You acted above your place, Ryan. You always act above your place.’

‘I did as any father,’ he choked on the word. Surely a failure this extreme disqualified him from that role. ‘Would have done. You cannot blame me for that, my Lady.’

‘You’re going against your duty, angel.’

‘It’s just one life,’ he said in an attempt to rationalise the situation.

‘Every life,’ Death said, ‘is just one life. Every person you’ve sent to me is just one life. Every person you’ve saved, every–’

‘I understand what you’re trying to say, my Lady. I do.’

‘Are you sure? You truly understand the implications?’

‘Yes.’

She stood silently for a moment. ‘If you understand, then take hold of the mirror.’

‘I already made the wish,’ he said before catching himself as his hand began to drift towards the mirror.

‘Take hold of the mirror,’ she said again, and this time, he knew it wasn’t just a suggestion.

He knelt, grabbed the mirror, and forced his mind to blank. He kept all stray thoughts away – any thought or wish out of place could rob her of the chance to come back. He gripped the shard tighter, the jagged edges digging into his palm.

The power of the mirror was overwhelming. The potential bit at his skin, begging to be used. Leaked memories of the dead world flashed in his mind – the mirror remembered where it had come from, but it desired to become something new.

‘Now what?’ he asked.

Her voice went cold. ‘Pull it out.’

One of his fears came to fore. The fear that the mirror itself was stopping her from coming back – that if he removed it, it could then be used to repair the damage to her chest in the precious few seconds that she would live.

‘Pull it out,’ she repeated.

He kept his grip tight, but he didn’t dare begin to move the shard. ‘Why?’

‘You said you understood.’

‘What will happen if I pull it out?’

‘Are you questioning me?’ she asked, her voice the coldest he had ever heard it.

His shoulders dropped, and he relaxed his grip on the piece of mirror. ‘I just want to know, my Lady. Agents aren’t without curiosity.’

She knelt beside him and placed a cold hand on his face. ‘If you are very, very lucky, she will die.’

‘My Lady–’

‘Shh…’ She removed her hood. ‘You had to bring the doll, didn’t you? The first time, when you went to my sister’s realm, you just had to bring the doll.’

‘It was–’

‘–so very unfair of you, Ryan. It was a bribe. It was a trick.’

‘I needed some leverage,’ he admitted, ashamed.

‘You brought the doll; you gave it back to her. It gave her a connection to that memory, something to store memory and dream in, something outside herself. Something private. Something safe. A memory no one else could touch.’

The doll hadn’t been the only toy in Limbo. ‘Should I have brought a ball instead?’

For a moment, Death smiled, then her sad expression returned, and she replaced her hood. ‘Please, Ryan, pull out the mirror. It’s the kindest thing you can do for her.’

‘But that will kill her?’

‘Yes.’

‘And if I don’t?’

‘If – yes, “if” – she wakes up, what do you think will happen? Angel you might be, but considering the consequences has never been your strong suit. Part of you once rallied an army against a king, but the past is past. In this life, you’ve allowed yourself to trust too many traitors, granted too many second chances, and acted out of guilt too many times.’

‘My Lady–’

‘I cautioned you against this last time, angel, how many times will you take chances with her life? With her peace?’

‘I have considered the consequences, my Lady–’

‘No you haven’t,’ she snapped.

He took a step back and bowed his head. ‘No, I guess I haven’t. All I know is that I don’t want her to die. I will not let her–’

‘What you will or won’t allow means nothing, Agent. She is dead.’

He balled his hands again. ‘And I can change that. I have to change that.’

‘There were worlds where you never met her. Worlds where you never followed her into Limbo. Worlds where you shot through the wardrobe. So many of you, without her. I want so much to add you to their number. You cannot even– There is so much you are not considering.’

‘I will not kill her. I know I can save her. I will not let her go – not even for you, my Lady.’

Her voice turned sad. ‘Even if it’s the kindest choice?’

The kindest choice would have been assigning her to the tech department. The right choice would have been not bringing her on this mission. The smart choice would have been not letting her out of his sight on a night where so many died.

There was nothing kind about killing her.

A life – any life, any chance – was better than nothing.

‘If by some chance… If she does wake up, I know it will be hard. I have no misconceptions about this. I do not expect that it will be easy, or even that it would last–’

‘That’s the problem,’ Death said.

‘My Lady?’

‘If you do not entrust her to me this time, and you proceed as you want to, I may not get to take her at all.’

Confusion overtook him. ‘Like one of Fortitude’s souls?’

‘No, not an embargo. If she wakes, you cannot think of her as but anything but mortal. Once…that existence ends, she may just end. Her soul may fade into nothing, not come to the void with me. It’s not just this life you’re gambling with. It’s also whatever comes next.’

That revelation stilled him. It was one thing for his wish not to work or for it to work for a limited amount of time. To have time to make peace and say goodbye was one thing. If he’d picked up anything about his recruit in the last few days, he knew that “goodbye” would probably include “require copious amount of sugar in various forms”.

Goodbye was one thing. To render her existence null and deny her the chance to go into the void and whatever lay beyond it… He wasn’t sure that he could do that. He wasn’t strong enough to do that. He–

‘Ryan?’

He thought of the way she’d lit up when looking at new magic. The dozens of questions she’d asked whilst he’d read her fairy tales while knowing she had dozens more, held back by the simple want to see how the story ended.

He wanted to see her smile again.

His answer came haltingly but strong. ‘I’m not sure she would forgive me if I denied her the chance at life.’

Death put a hand on his shoulder. ‘If you let her go, I will try and bring her to my youngest sister’s realm so that you can say your goodbyes.’

‘My lady, I thought you did not bargain.’

A small smile graced her lips. ‘You are a special case, Ryan.’ She sighed softly. ‘I’m having the same conversation with you in a hundred different realities. The same words, the same look in your eyes, the same indecision shaking your hands.’

He looked at his hands for a moment, then slid them into the pockets of his jacket again – it would make no difference to her. Still, it allowed him a little more false bravado to hide behind.

‘Pull out the mirror. Let her go. Please.’

‘What…what am I deciding in those other worlds?’ Teasing him with other knowledge of other worlds was something she had always done, ever since the first time he had tried to contravene the laws of life and death.

She had thought it a way to help him make an informed decision, and it was – though it made him hate many of his multiverse selves. The ones who made the rash decisions, the ones who acted without thought, or the ones who acted wrongly.

And as many of them probably hated him.

‘Perhaps, Ryan, you should view your curiosity as a curse, rather than a blessing.’ She turned away from him, and as she did, he saw the glint of a scythe – it was rarely visible, but it was never far from her side, just like his gun — the accoutrements of their duties.

‘People’s weapons define them,’ she said, having picked his thought from his mind. She walked over to Stef and brushed some hair back from her face. ‘If you bring her back, she may decide to fight with her mind, rather than with the gun you gave her.’

‘That’s up to her. Jones would be happy to have her.’

‘Would she go willingly to your scholar, angel? Instead of contemplating the weight of your weapon, contemplate what it is in your recruit’s chest.’ She stared at him with grey eyes and waited for the thought to hit him. ‘It’s not only a way to bring her back from this…suspension; it’s a piece of mirror. I credit you with being smart enough to realise that you will not be able to keep it a secret… However, what if you cannot keep the secret from those who would weaponise it?’

‘We can only try.’

‘Thirty-seven of your other selves have pulled the mirror from the body and let her go. Eighteen are seriously considering it. Twelve have decided against it and asked me to accept that decision.’

‘And the others?’ he asked.

‘Twenty-seven are indecisive, one is blaming her – telling her that she brought it on herself, that she deserves to die, that–’

‘Please,’ he said, ‘stop. I don’t want to know.’ He looked down at his hands, wondering how monstrous he could be in some of those worlds.

A skeletal face grinned at him. ‘As you wish. Just remember, no matter what your decision, the outcome you desire may not eventuate. The mirrors are…chaotic, as is everything they do.’

He looked at his inert recruit again, and he just wished she would sit up. Wished she’d say something that he barely understood or an out-of-context sentence, continuing a conversation she had started in her head.

‘I’m not going to let her go,’ he said, finally content with the decision. He stood and looked up at Death. ‘For better or worse, I have to give her this chance.’

‘Just so you know, angel: in the end, it was never your decision.’ She pressed a finger to his lips as the question formed in his mind. He deflated, knowing better than to ask for information that wasn’t his to know. ‘Now do it.’

‘But, if it didn’t work the last time–’

She smiled, leaned down, and kissed his cheek with her cold lips. ‘Trust me.’

He bent over his recruit, wrapping both of his hands around the piece of mirror, careful not to move it too much and cause further damage to her heart. Closing his eyes, he stilled his mind and wished for her to come back.

Death touched his shoulder, and he opened his eyes. The mirror shuddered in his hands, and he released it. Backing away from the body, he watched as the mirror shook, making his inert recruit’s body twitch. He reached for it, but a quiet warning from Death stopped him.

Small pieces of moonlight hit the mirror and broke off, shattering into sparkles on the roof. All the small sounds were sucked away until the only thing he could hear was the heart beating in his chest. The mirror rose up a little, and he panicked, not knowing what would happen if it left her chest.

‘Trust it,’ Death said, her voice strong despite the sound vacuum.

The ragged edges of the mirror rippled and became smooth. It slowly turned in her chest, and he tried not to think of the further damage it was doing. A sharp point rose out of it, and then it slowly melted down into her chest.

He allowed himself to breathe again.

Ryan forced himself to look at his recruit – aside from the mirror no longer being visible, there was no apparent change. Her skin was just as pale, her body still without movement or breath.

‘Now what?’ he asked.

‘Now,’ she said, ‘you wait. Think of this as a beacon being lit. She may find her way back; she may not. There’s nothing simple about this.’

‘Yes, my lady.’

He stared at the mirror in her chest, through a hole that would hopefully repair itself once she awoke. Inside, he could see the silver of the mirror, sitting in the place where her heart should be – it hadn’t repaired her heart, it had-

If he was in System territory, he’d be able to scan her, to see exactly what was going on, but here-

He looked to Death, knowing she knew every thought and question in his mind. Without a word, she touched his shoulder, and for the briefest time possible, he saw a sliver of what it must have been like to perceive things as she did. A world wrapped in shadow and light, echoes and possibilities, thoughts made real, chances and options as real things, impossible to describe, but tangible all the same.

Before his mind collapsed, everything dropped away. The only thing that remained was his perception of Stef – the world was dark, holding nothing but his sleeping daughter, and the heart-shaped piece of mirror in her chest. The mirror glowed rainbow at its edges, pulsing and rippling with impossible-to-discern magic.

It wasn’t an anatomical heart, a machine designed for pumping blood; it was the simple depiction on cards and children’s drawings.

He stared at it and wondered if, in a hundred years, someone would write a fairy tale about it; not the farmer and the flower, but the angel and wish-made-heart.

His vision became normal again, and when he looked for Death, she had disappeared.

The sounds of the world came back – whatever time and grace Death had given him was gone, and now he had to deal with the fallout of-

There was a buzzing sound, and he looked around. A drone – one with traditional rotors, rather than a program that appeared as a bird, zoomed in to head-height, and he cursed Jones’ diligence.

Their normal drones couldn’t function in blackout zones. Without a System connection, they simply went into incognito mode, acting like real birds as until their connection came back.

Rotor drones were sent in when someone important – someone like a Director, someone like him – was lost in a blackout. They could be controlled through standard infrastructure until a System connection came back. Within seconds of real time, Jones had deployed a rotor drone to locate him and assess his condition.

Jones had done the right thing but had exposed everything at the same time. Stef lay in a circle of mirror shards, her chest torn open, all for the high-definition cameras to see.

He had seconds to decide what to do – he could face the Agency and beg for their leniency. Or he could fall, grab Stef’s body, run for the nearest entrance to Faerie and chance that he’d live through withdrawal, all while trying to keep a comatose girl safe.

Duty and love were in conflict, and there was no right choice.

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Ryan. Jones will help you cover it up. For his own reasons, to be sure, but he will.