46 – Joy and Sorrow

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Ryan stared at himself, at his double, and knew what the grief meant.

Even as his Stef gently hugged him, smearing his blood onto her uniform, the man standing across from him had only loneliness and a burial in his future.

‘Take her home,’ his double said, the words evident, even without sound. ‘You-’ he took a step forward, fading as the dimensional cracks continued to heal themselves.

It had been…too much. An indulgence that he should have ignored. This type of operation was too far outside of her current skills as a recruit. But she had asked, and-

He put a hand on her head, and brushed away some of the dust.

She had asked, and he’d been afraid to say no – just as maybe she’d been afraid not to ask, for fear of disappointing him. They both wanted family, both knew what happened when expectations didn’t align.

There were going to be a lot of false steps — lots of running up against memories of her parents and his son. Lesser problems, like reexamining all the lessons Reynolds had taught him, would be a joy, learning and relearning how to be a father. Looking for the good advice on how to be a father amongst the missteps of his Director. A second chance he never thought he’d have.

He looked to the empty space where his double had stood. In at least one world, and probably countless others, a tiny difference in how Stef had been standing, how she’d fallen, what debris had crashed down… In dozens of worlds, he’d had squandered that second chance.

Had…been responsible for her dying, again. Had cut short the life he’d tried to give her by carrying a child out of Limbo.

‘Stef?’

She looked up, dust and blood on her cheeks. ‘Hm?’

‘We need to regroup. The stairs look relatively intact, can you go to the roof and see if there’s a System connection?’

She nodded, stood, then pulled her gun from her holster, and started up the warped-but-intact metal stairs.

He stood and drew his own weapon. He looked through the gloom for any movement – the proximity triggers wouldn’t have been the first plan for the blackout bombs, and as such, there would likely be a squad of Solstice on their way to check for any remaining supplies.

To look for supplies, and to gather what bodies they could, both of their fallen comrades, and trophy pieces of their enemies.

And he wasn’t going to let those trophies include an agent and a recruit.

There was a scraping sound as Stef opened the door at the top of the staircase.

Carefully, as to not aggravate the wound in his side, he started up the stairs, taking them one at a time, pausing with each step to fully sweep the warehouse.

There was movement, and he levelled his gun – only to see that it was nothing but settling debris.

A single shot sounded, and he turned to run up the stairs, but stopped as the doorframe – previously showing nothing but the darkness of the night beyond, now seemed to be showing daylight.

No – the texture was wrong for daylight, but-

A ribbon of coloured light streaked past him, running across the wall like headlights in the night.

Magic suffused the air in a way he couldn’t describe. Energising and drowning, choking and uplifting, power such that he felt like an insect, like-

A shockwave slammed into him, and he tumbled to the bottom of the staircase.

He lay dazed for a moment as the choking, overwhelming amount of magic in the air drained away.

The mirror, someone had-

He pulled himself to his feet and took the stairs two and three at a time, ignoring the pain in his side, focussed on nothing but the doorway, which was again, nothing but a rectangle of night.

He wanted to shout her name, to call out, to see if she was all right, but even that would slow him down, would-

There seemed to be a hundred times as many stars, as twinkling specs of shattered mirror drifted like dust motes in the air.

And Stef lay on the ground, unmoving, in a puddle of blood.

‘No.’

The word was a refutation. A wish. A prayer. A denial of the reality he saw. A reality that couldn’t-

He covered the space between them, his legs unsteady and numb as he knelt beside her.

A blood-covered point poked out of the back of her vest, dripping blood onto the ground.

‘No.’

He gently rolled her, lifting her so that she rested on his knees so that he could assess the damage, so that he could-

He was already crying. Already knew the truth. Already knew he’d failed her.

Moonlight reflected off a shard of mirror that had torn through her chest.

‘Stef?’

Little dead blue eyes stared.

His tears dripped onto her dust-covered cheek.

He looked around, hoping to see the edge of the blackout zone, hoping to see a way back into System territory. The doctors could– The Parkers–

‘Stef?’

He shook her, like perhaps she was just asleep, a useless gesture, and her head lolled to the side, taking her unseeing eyes off him.

She was-

‘Please.’

She was dead.

The Parkers could work miracles, but not miracles like this. It would take time to get to the edge of the blackout, and by then her brain would have been starved of oxygen for long enough to-

And that was if-

He blinked back his tears and looked for her soul, for the tiny spark, for the little light that had taken him from grief to hope when he’d held a dead child.

There was no sign of her soul – meaning it had already slipped away, while he’d been immobile due to the explosion of the mirror, or when he’d been too slow getting back up the stairs. There was no movement, except for the tiny reflections in the mirror that protruded from her chest.

Mirror that reflected the blue of his vest.

‘And I saw this colour.’

He brushed her hair back from her face.

‘Because this has always made me feel safe. Because- Cause it made me not want to go. And you’ve always been there. Always helped me.’

He had thought her remembering him was the most precious thing possible. A memory that should not have survived. A day that shouldn’t have been remembered. A connection remade, separated by a lifetime.

‘All I ever needed to do was look at Agency blue and- And whatever was wrong was a little bit better. And you’ve been doing that all my life.’

And it had been just as precious to her. Maybe even more so.

He reached forward and touched the mirror.

It was the directive to destroy all pieces of mirror. It was his duty to follow his directives.

It was his duty to destroy it, no matter the cost.

He had his duty. Duty to his directives. Duty to his recruit. Duty to his new child.

He cleared his mind as he wrapped his hand around the piece of mirror. The magic flowed beneath his fingertips, a tangible sort of static, far more powerful than blue, far more powerful than any fae magic he’d been exposed to. Potential yearning to be used. Wishes waiting to be made.

This was the furthest thing from his Duty to the Agency, and yet there was no question in his mind that it was the right thing to do.

Wishes had consequences, and as he had said to Death so long ago, the consequence would be a life.

‘I love you,’ he whispered, and hoped that it wouldn’t be both the first and last time he said it.

He closed his eyes and made a wish.

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45 - Incremental Changes
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lightdefender

Typo report: “In dozens of worlds, he’d had squandered that second chance.”

He’d had?

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