The hug was the only thing in the world.
One arm cradled her head, one wrapped around her back, and both held her to a warm, strong chest.
‘Are you all right?’
There was the stock answer you were supposed to give to that question. The “yeah yeah, I’m fine, nothing to see here, you don’t want the real answer” polite deflection that most people expected.
If a cashier asked that, you weren’t supposed to give a real answer. They weren’t paid enough to deal with the emotional dump from a stranger.
If a magic secret agent man asked that after you’d just been resurrected, you were probably supposed to give an honest answer.
An honest answer was probably key in continuing to live.
But the hug was so nice.
She buried her head against his shoulder, eyes focussed on the blue of his vest and tie. The blue that had always kept her safe. The blue of the half-remembered dream that she’d used to pull herself away from nothingness.
He’d always been there, protecting her from one tiny scrap of memory. So much more than her own family had ever done, infinitely more than her own father had ever done.
Hell, compared to James, Ryan would probably use a fire extinguisher if she was on fire. Or some magic, fire-eliminating blue goop.
A prompt to answer. A gentle inquiry in case she wasn’t okay.
‘Stop squishing me, and I’ll try to figure it out,’ she said.
One more moment of hug, then a gentle ruffle of her hair before he retreated to an arm’s length distance.
Slowly, she took stock of herself. Toes wiggled like they were supposed to. There was pressure on her legs from the sheet and blanket covering her lower half.
Lines ran into her arm, slightly squished and kinked from where Ryan had squeezed her like a stress ball.
‘Parker’s not gonna be happy with that,’ she said, reaching to smooth out the first line.
Halfway to the tubing, her arm froze.
There was a weird, disconcerting void when an omnipresent background noise disappeared. When you finally turned off your computer, and the fan noise died, leaving you feeling that something was missing.
And now that weird, sucking, missingness was inside her.
Something was really weird and wrong and-
She was so- Quiet. Still.
She could hear the ambient sounds of the hospital room. The sound of taking in breath and-
Her heart wasn’t beating.
She pressed both hands to her chest, felt the square pads of wireless monitors and-
And no heartbeat.
She threw her hands forward and clutched Ryan by the forearm.
‘I think I need- I’m having a heart attack or- Oh fuck this is weird-’ Hot, panicky prickles ran shot out of her spine and neck. ‘Make it stop- Start. Make it-’ Her hands shook as she held onto the fabric of his suit. ‘Please.’
‘Sir-’ Ryan looked at the voice behind him. ‘Sir- We need-’
‘All due respect, Director-’ an arm in a lab coat wrapped around his chest and yanked him away. ‘Out of our fucking way, unless you want to go back to the corpse edition of your recruit.’
The blond twin doctors replaced Ryan. The blunt on one her left, where Ryan had been, the normal one – her assigned doctor – on her right, accompanied by Jonesy.
The mean Parker placed a hand on her forehead and shoved her back down into a lying position. ‘If you like living, don’t move.’
‘Be kind, dear,’ the other twin responded.
‘Stef.’ Jonesy this time. ‘Do you know Wardenclyffe Tower?’
‘What the fuck-’ she started, her head lifting up a little to try and look at Jones, only to receive another medically-prescribed shove from Mean Parker. ‘Ye-yeah?’
‘You know how it was destroyed?’
‘Not so much,’ Jones said. ‘A facsimile was destroyed, but techs at the time didn’t want to see this piece of history destroyed, so we have the original in storage. If you like, when you get discharged, I can put you on the waitlist to go see it.’
‘Was it a death laser?’
‘No. But if that’s your area of interest, then-’
‘Thank you,’ Nice Parker said.
‘Yeah, I suppose that works,’ Mean Parker agreed. He poked her forehead. ‘So you’re not having a heart attack, so relax.’
He waggled a finger in her face. ‘Not done yet.’ He sighed, required a clipboard, then turned to show her the image on it.
It looked like an ordinary heart, with all of the associated veins and whatnot flowing in and out of it.
He tore the page off, and the page below showed a love-and-junk heart shape, still connected to the surrounding veins and arteries and other blood tubes.
‘This is what you’ve got now,’ he said, tapping the love heart. ‘Blood goes in. Blood goes out. It’s not-’
His kinder twin jumped in. ‘The new heart seems to filter and circulate the blood without pumping.’
She sat up, slapping away Mean Parker’s hand as he attempted to poke her forehead again. ‘So oxygenation levels and-’
‘All normal,’ Nice Parker said. ‘Everything is happening normally, just without a biological metronome.’
That’s the weirdest fucking way I’ve heard someone describe an organ.
The Parkers retreated halfway across the room to talk, and Jones stepped up, a thin pillow in his hands. ‘Here, use this,’ he said as he set it into her hands.
The pillow beat with some soft internal mechanism, feeling enough like a heartbeat in her hands. She leaned forward, placed it behind her back, and leaned heavily against it.
It helped a tiny bit.
‘Can I-’ She looked up at him. ‘Another one, please?’
Jones obliged, and this one, she shoved up her shirt, pressing it against her cool skin.
It wasn’t really the same as having a heartbeat, but it was enough external stimulus to distract her. If she didn’t think about it. If she could stop thinking about it.
‘Thank god for your big brain,’ she said to Jones as she finished adjusting the second pillow. ‘To think of these-’
‘They’re for kittens,’ he said. ‘To simulate a mother cat.’
‘Oh. Then. Meow.’
‘Anything else you need to flag?’ Jones asked. ‘The twins and I will be running you through approximately ten billion tests, but right now, anything wrong?’
She closed her eyes and concentrated.
All of her limbs seemed to be in the right place. Fingers and toes wiggled without issue. She’d been carrying on a conversation, so that took care of hearing, seeing and speaking.
Her brain was…everything seemed normal for her.
All of the rainbow guideposts memories had done their job, and even those memories that hadn’t quite reformed or she hadn’t thought to remember seemed to be in place.
Childhood. School. Travelling every year to have a white Christmas with the rest of the family. Buttercup. Ballet.
Hospital. Her first kiss, her only kiss, given by Peter while they hid from their horrible nurse.
School. Being alone. Drinking to keep her brain under control. Escaping her family. Starting her own life, a small life on her own terms.
And then the Agency.
Everything was there. All the good. All the bad.
‘Need to test my taste buds,’ she said. ‘But nothing else is throwing up a red flag.’ She paused. ‘Huh. Shouldn’t I be throwing up? Like, I didn’t die on an empty stomach.’
‘We pumped your stomach,’ Jones said. ‘Otherwise, things would have been pretty nasty.’
Ryan approached slowly, leaned down, and picked up something from the bedside table. A little crinkly silver packet tied with a pink ribbon.
‘Here,’ he said, offering the packet. ‘Try these.’
Jones excused himself and joined the Parkers – then all three of them moved to sit around a large bench in the middle room.
Probably designing and drawing up the ten billion tests that she’d be subjected to.
It didn’t matter. She was alive. If that meant getting her knees slammed with doctory hammers and giving pints of blood, it was a small price to pay.
It’s still weird to be happy to be alive.
You can get used to it.
‘Can you forgive me?’ Ryan asked as she opened the packet and spilled chocolate-covered coffee beans into her lap.
‘For- Huh?’ She picked up a small handful and threw them into her mouth. ‘I don’t- Oooooh.’ She picked up another, larger handful and held them to her nose, taking in the deep, rich smell. ‘Oh, fuck, these are good.’
She popped a single bean into her mouth and sucked the chocolate off it. ‘Forgive you for what?’
‘Your heart- If I’d been more careful in-’
‘Are you apologising for bringing me back to life? Cause if you regret-’
‘Not for a single second,’ he said. ‘But-’
‘If I can get used to-’
Scars all over my body. A voice in my head. Magic being real.
‘I know it doesn’t look like it, but I’m pretty good at adapting. This is just something new to get used to. I’d rather this than, you know, the alternative.’
‘I’m supposed to be the wibbly mess. You’re the big strong narc who knows everything. I’m the idiot who breaks down when she can’t put on socks properly. If you’re glad I’m here, then that’s all that matters.’
‘I wouldn’t have made the wish if I-’
Two facts clicked together, and another jolt of panic ran through her. ‘But you said- You’re not supposed to make wishes. It’s-’
Ryan took her hand. ‘Shh. It’s all right. All of this is sanctioned and above board. It was largely seeking forgiveness and not permission, but- Rank and long service allows for some wiggle room in how rules are applied. You’re not in danger, neither am I.’ He squeezed her hand, then took his hand back, looked at the chocolate stain on his palm, and wiped it away with a handkerchief.
‘I don’t know precisely what comes next,’ he said. He indicated to the Parkers and Jonesy. ‘There’ll be a lot of input from your treatment team before you are even able to leave the building. After we’re sure you’re all right, there’ll be discussions to be had and decisions to be made, but for right now… For right now, I’m just so happy to see you awake.’
She reached for him, and he pulled her into another hug.
‘Thank you,’ she said, tears falling against his suit. ‘For everything. For this. For more than you know. For all the times- For so much.’
‘How long?’ she asked after the tears finally stopped.
‘A few weeks. It’s October. Specifically-’ he drew back a little and indicated to the coffee beans. ‘Well, those are part of your birthday present. Today’s the thirteenth. It’s a little after one in the afternoon.’
She did her best brain version of napkin math. Birthdays weren’t exactly something she had made a habit of celebrating.
‘So I’m twenty-two. Okay, that’s-’
‘Oh. Ah. Oops.’ She tried to hide her embarrassment behind a grin. ‘Close enough.’ She picked up the beans and poured some more into her hand. ‘These are amazing, by the way.’
‘They’re from Fairyland. When you’re discharged, I’ll take you to the cafe.’
She nearly choked. ‘This is magic coffee?’
‘Well, fae. I’m not sure it has any intrinsically-’ He stopped. ‘Yes, it’s magic coffee.’
She scooped up the beans she’d spilled onto the bed and put them back in the silver packet. ‘Gonna ration the rest of these,’ she said and put them on the bedside table.
A card was there.
She picked up the card, smiled at the almost-in-the-lines crayon colouring, then read the sweet message inside.
‘Jones’ son Merlin,’ Ryan clarified. ‘I’m not sure if you’ve met him yet.’
Next: 43 – Cake