There were a lot of questions that an agent had to ask over the course of their life that a human didn’t have to.
Most of those questions had answers in protocol or precedent.
All of that aside, Ryan wasn’t sure what level of celebration was appropriate for a birthday when the guest of honour could best be described as “dead”.
It apparently didn’t give Merlin the same level of quandary as he had spent most of the morning decorating the lab. A hand-drawn birthday card sat on the rolling drawers beside Stef’s bed, and a banner along the wall had joined it.
Whatever he did, he knew he was going to wish he’d done differently – if he went all-out, it would likely seem tasteless in hindsight, but he’d regret a more low-key acknowledgement if she opened her eyes.
And he so hoped that he was right.
Everything was in place, so much as something like this could be predicted.
All that was left was the violet memory, and that had to be the night of the mirrorfall.
It was understated, but a small packet of chocolate-covered coffee beans sat behind Merlin’s card – something he’d picked up from the cafe Jane had taken him to. Simple, but hopefully, well-received.
What he could give her was time.
For the most part, the lab was empty – Jones did a few manual checks and tests each day, but largely, the data monitored itself.
So it bothered no one if he sat with his comatose daughter and read stories from the leatherbound tome he’d gifted to her the day before she’d died.
He held her hand loosely. Retelling – more from memory than reading the words on the page – the story of the star farmer, occasionally looking at Merlin as he lay on the floor, colouring in a large, poster-sized image.
Everything was as it had been for weeks.
And then the world tilted.
Her hand squeezed his.
It was a tiny movement, but it stopped the world. Stopped his breathing. Something that was half a scream and half tears of grief and relief stuck in his throat as he shot up from his chair, trying to leave his hand precisely as it was.
The pressure against his hand relaxed, her hand going slack against.
His heart thundering in his chest, he pulled his hand from hers, leaned over her, and clasped her shoulders. ‘Stef? Stef? Can you hear me? Please, can you-’
He turned away, desperate, unsure of what to do, feeling as though some moment, some opportunity was slipping away.
A lifetime ago, he’d held her soul with sheer force of will, and now, it seemed like he’d let her slip.
Merlin came into his view. ‘Get your mother, please,’ he said thickly, then turned back to Stef. ‘Please.’
He gently cupped the side of her face, and looked for anything, feeling for the slightest breath, pulse, movement of sleeping eyes.
One momentary twitch of her hand, and-
He slumped back into his chair.
There was a weight on his left arm, and he moved to accommodate it, his elbow adjusting to better bear the weight of-
Of what he had assumed was Merlin.
A scared toddler, clutching a doll, trusting him to protect her against the endless emptiness of Death’s realm.
‘Shh, shh,’ he said, immediately moving to soothe the scared child, standing so that he could better-
The weight disappeared, and a young girl in a bloody ballet outfit stood before him.
Memory morphed from one to the next. A teen girl in a beautiful dress spun. Snippets from each of the aspects, flowing from one to the next, this time, in full colour, rather than a fraction of the rainbow.
And finally, Stef – his Stef – stood before him, her uniform bloody.
She held her hands up, and the shard of mirror that had taken her life laid across them. She held it gently, like a priceless artifact.
‘Your wish,’ she said, and the shard became a heart. ‘Her life.’
It sounded like Stef, but it wasn’t her.
And this what he’d been warned of, or close enough to it. The moment where-
The moment where he had to trust her, to give her the choice, no matter what might come.
‘It is a gift,’ he said, ‘given freely.’ He swallowed. ‘Given with love.’
The not-Stef nodded and faded away as her head rose back up.
Her uniform was bloody and torn.
Her chest ached like she’d been punched.
The mirror had exploded. And-
‘You’ll be disorientated,’ a kind voice said. ‘Take a moment.’
Stef looked down at herself. Bloody, but not bleeding, a mess but one easily fixed. She held her head and required a clean uniform.
The pain didn’t go away, but at least she looked halfway presentable.
A hundred thoughts, a hundred memories – the rest of her memories – all of her memories – every thought, every pain, joy, sorrow, sadness and hope of her life. Every-
Shattered pieces of mirror twinkles overhead like stars.
This wasn’t the living rainbow world. This was-
Below her, nothing, above her, nothing.
In front of her, Death.
And her presence was immediately comforting. Whatever was going to happen wouldn’t hurt, wouldn’t-
‘Hi,’ she managed. ‘Um-’ She hung her head. ‘I don’t- I think I should- You have a title or something, or-’
‘You don’t need to genuflect as Ryan does.’ Death stepped forward, touched her cheek and- And the touch was familiar.
‘I-’ She hadn’t been alone in the wreck of the car. Someone had been-
‘You were alone,’ Death said like she was reading her mind. ‘And I am allowed to be kind.’
She looked up and smiled. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘For whatever that is worth, thank you.’
‘Gratitude never goes astray. You’re a little more centred now, if I may address the current circumstances?’
Stef looked up at the twinkling shards. ‘I monumentally fucked up, didn’t I?’
‘That isn’t how I would put it, but you may.’
She touched her chest. Shards of mirror in the air, a bloody uniform. One plus one was easy to calculate.
‘What- What now?’
‘A wish was made for you, but it is up to you whether you accept it or not.’
Death indicated to her sore chest, and following the cue, Stef laid a hand over her heart – or what was left of it, or-
‘It is a gift. Given freely. Given with love.’
Ryan’s voice, clear as if he was in the room with them.
‘I accept,’ she said, cutting Death off. ‘I’ll take it. Yes. Sign the terms and conditions. Whatever. I’m in.’
So many endless moments and memories of a small life. Of years without anyone giving a shit about her. Of emotions so rusty she couldn’t human anymore.
All washed away by one suit-wearing magic secret agent.
A man who wanted to call her family. Who wanted to encourage her. Mutual puzzles missing pieces. A storybook-perfect father with a century of wisdom and dad-isms with no one to impart them to.
A couple of days of not feeling completely worthless.
A couple of days of feeling like hope was a possibility, even for someone like her.
And whatever it cost, it would be worth it.
Death nodded. ‘Then close your eyes, little one.’
Stef nodded. ‘Okay.’
She felt a soft kiss on her forehead and gentle static as her body dissolved.
Nothing became something, became the beep of hospital machines.
The lingering impression of Death’s soft kiss faded, replaced with a warm hand cupping her cheek.
It was hard, but she opened her eyes.
Bright glare faded as Ryan form blocked harsh fluorescents, and she was sure her tears mirrored his own.
First words were so much more important than last words. And right now, there was only one thing she wanted to say, one thing that would hopefully cover everything her dry and scratchy throat wouldn’t let her express.