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28 - Breath
The door cracked open. Light invaded the dark room, hurt his eyes, made him focus. Curt looked up, unable to muster the strength to shield himself from the brightness. A man stood silhouetted in the doorway – Ryan. The agent stared down at him for a moment, then entered the room, and joined him on the floor.
He lifted his hands and wiped at his eyes, feeling the dried tears on his cheeks. He knew he looked like shit, but there was nothing he could do, even if he’d cared.
‘I didn’t know where you were, Curt,’ Ryan said. He had the voice of an agent. The uncaring, even tone of some…thing without feelings, without emotions, without- He crashed his train of thought. It was dangerous, it was wrong. It wasn’t a lack of care, it was self-preservation, it was “slash-serious”.
Stef danced through his mind and he felt a stab of despair pierce the numbness. He blinked and tried to look at the agent. ‘Sorry sir,’ he said, his throat raw, dry, hurting. ‘I-’
‘Don’t apologise to me, Curt. Are- Are you all right?’
‘No.’ The answer came out as a whisper, as an admission of defeat.
‘I tried the mirror,’ Ryan said as he came to sit on the floor beside him. ‘I tried and it didn’t work.’ He laid a land on his shoulder. ‘She’s been taken up to the morgue.’
‘Why wouldn’t it work?’
‘I don’t- The mirror can’t bring back the dead.’
‘But she’s-,’ he said. Tears fell again. So many tears. An inexhaustible supply. ‘She’s right there, and she won’t wake up. It’s Stef, she always- She always- Why isn’t she getting up? Why didn’t the wish work? Why- Why-’
The agent hugged him.
He was too tired to scream again, to flail, to ball his hands into fists and curse the heavens. He slumped against the agent, folding in on himself, defeated, grieving. Ryan held on to him, and for a moment, he felt the paternal comfort Stef had ascribed to the agent since practically her first day.
‘Don’t think for a second that I’m not upset. But right now there are a hundred people in this building who need me not to be a grieving father. I have to do my duty, I have to, Curt, I don’t have a choice.’
‘She didn’t die for duty.’
‘As soon as we can, we will deal with him. First we need to keep everyone else safe. We need to hold until this blackout drops. If we don’t, so many more will lose their loved ones.’
‘I don’t care about them,’ he said. ‘What’s the point in-’
‘I would welcome your help,’ Ryan said. ‘And it’s better than staying in here alone.’
‘I need your help, Curt,’ Ryan said after a moment. ‘I can’t do this by myself.’
He nodded against Ryan’s coat and slowly pulled away, straightened and tried to muster some of his professional demeanour.
He felt himself shaking again as they stood. ‘I can’t,’ he said, ‘sir, I can’t.’ He couldn’t move. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t concentrate. There was no way he could help anyone else like this.
Ryan squeezed his shoulder. ‘I’m not leaving you here alone.’ The agent put a hand around his shoulder and gently guided him from the dark room.
He tried to force himself to concentrate, to think about something else. To not think about the hole in her forehead, about the blood, about the look of horror that had been in her eyes, eye that she was never going to-
He looked up when he heard the elevator ping – they’d crossed the lobby, and he hadn’t even noticed.
Ryan pressed the button for level two.
‘The situation seems stable for now,’ Ryan said, filling the vacuum. ‘But we’re still keeping everyone downstairs for now. Clarke found a way in, so we have to decide to hold here or move somewhere else until the blackout drops.’
He gave a nod.
He would stay, even if everyone else left. Someone needed to protect her. Someone needed to stay with her. Someone needed to be waiting for when she woke up. She was going to wake up. She was going to wake up. She was going to wake up. She was going to wake up. She was going to wake up. She was going to wake up. She was going to wake up. She was going to wake up.
Ryan gave him a small nudge, and they stepped off the elevator.
It was Stef. She was going to wake up. She wasn’t going to stay dead. She wasn’t dead. She wasn’t dead. She wasn’t dead.
Her lifeless eyes drifted into his mind again, and he held back more tears.
Somehow he made it down the hall to the small conference room without running back to the elevator, back to the eighteenth floor, back to the morgue, back to her.
Clarke and Jones were already there, as were June and Greg. Applebaum stood in the corner smoking a cigarette. He slid into a chair and stared at the silver water jug, at his reflection, at how similar to the mirror it was. He reached out to touch it, and made a wish. The wish didn’t work, but it still contained water, so he poured himself a glass.
Clarke started talking as soon as Mags and Taylor entered, about their numbers, of the capacities of the outpost Agencies, and the willingness of the agents to help. Jones spoke up, and posed the possibility of relocating the techs to a safe house – so long as they were out of the blackout zone, their work wouldn’t be impeded.
He sucked down glass after glass of water, as if it were wine, as if it could give him an answer, or give him peace, or at least the need to piss and an excuse to leave the room.
‘So start thinking,’ Clarke said. ‘In the meantime, we’ll start moving recruits out of here. Like I said, if anyone has fade-capable fae friends, call in your favours.’ There was a pause. ‘I know this is going to make me unpopular. But what are we doing with the mirror?’
He looked up from his empty glass.
‘Clarke-’ Ryan said, his voice strained. ‘Her body isn’t even cold yet.’
‘Sure it is, it’s in the morgue.’
His breath caught, grief-fatigued limbs the only thing stopping him from jumping over the table and tearing out Clarke’s eyes.
‘Not yet,’ Ryan snapped.
‘Terms of experiment 5323 state that-’
‘I think everyone here,’ Jones said, ‘knows what it says.’
‘I don’t,’ he said, surprised at the sound of his own voice. It was something he should have known, something that surely had to be a part of the inches-thick report that constituted the Agency’s view on Stef’s life.
‘To summarise,’ Jones said, his voice soothing. ‘It’s a lot easier to use it for other things now, the paperwork is streamlined, since- Since Stef isn’t in the way anymore, so to speak.’
‘We’re up shit creek,’ Clarke said. ‘This could be our paddle.’
‘We-’ Ryan stared.
Clarke turned on Ryan. ‘She’s dead. I’m sorry, but she’s dead. No pulse, no brain activity and our reader can’t get a read off her. She is dead, and there can’t be anyone at this table stupid enough to be holding out hope that she’s not.’
‘What I was going to say, Clarke,’ Ryan said as he rose from his chair. ‘Is that we can’t just wish our way out of here, we need to consider what we’re wishing for, and if there’s enough power to do so.’
Clarke looked away. ‘Yeah, well, so long as you know that it is going to be used.’
He stood and left the room without a word. No one tried to stop him. No one spoke. No one called after him. No one pulled him back into the room.
He rode the elevator back up in silence, walked down the hall in silence, passed through the infirmary without comment from the cuddling Parkers, and closed the heavy door of the morgue behind him, sealing him in the silent room.
He sat on the floor, opposite the wall of drawers and stared up at where she was – it was the only one with the little occupant card flipped to “in use”. ‘Come on newbie, wake up.’
There was no response from the drawer.
After an hour, the morgue door opened, and the taller of the Parker twins walked in, a blanket and a thermos in hand. He handed both down, and left without a word.
He stood, stretched his legs, and moved across to the wall of drawers, sat beneath them, wrapped the blanket around himself and closed his eyes.
Sleep and dreams came easily. Dreams of Russia. Dreams of hurting her. Dreams of killing her. He woke up, still alone, still in the cold room, still waiting.
He closed his eyes again, determined not to sleep again. If he slept, then she had no way of knowing he was waiting, of knowing people wanted her back, of-
He felt a presence in the room and he opened his eyes.
‘You can’t stay in here,’ Ryan said.
‘I can do whatever I want.’ He said, surprised at the bitterness of his voice.
‘Curt, it’s not-’
‘I can’t leave her alone.’
‘What will you do when they take her heart?’
‘I’m not- I won’t- I won’t let them take it.’
‘I have to do my duty.’
‘Do you think I’d let anyone else do this, Curt?
‘How could you?’
The agent looked hurt for a moment. ‘How could I what? Follow her wishes?’
‘How could she wish-’
Ryan sat beside him. ‘She didn’t expect to live forever, Curt. She knew the cost of coming back, but she still wanted to come back, and live. She knew though, that because of what she was, of how precarious her situation was, of how many unknowns there were, that it might not last forever.’
‘This wasn’t even a year.’
‘It’s longer than what she would have lived if she hadn’t come back at all. She told me, over and over, that she never regretted coming back. That every day she had here was worth whatever cost came with it.’
‘It’s not fair.’
‘Of course it’s not.’
‘She wants to be buried somewhere pretty, in her uniform with Alexandria and Frankie. She wants the heart to be used for Agency purposes, and if there’s anything left over, for that to be given to the Lost.’
‘You’ve seen her will?’
‘I helped her write it.’
‘She- She can’t be dead. She can’t really be dead. It’s Stef. It’s Stef,’ he stressed.
‘Are you going to stay in here?’
He gave a little nod.
‘As you wish,’ Ryan said as he stood. ‘I’ll come get you in the morning.’
* * * * *
The cell block was quiet, darkened, dead. Dull emergency lights were brought up to full illumination as he walked down the hall.
Magnolia, Taylor, whomever had dragged the murderer from the lobby had done the smart thing – placing him in the cell furthest from the lift. It meant that he had more time to calm down, more time to realise it was neither the time nor place to take things into his own hands.
His hands still clenched and unclenched at the thought of squeezing the murderer’s neck, watching the life drain from him, taking revenge.
Revenge was such an ugly word, such an ugly, base concept. It was like justice, but the guilt often outweighed the glorious feeling of righteousness that never seemed to last long enough.
He walked to the end of the cellblock and looked through the unbendable bars that kept him from reaching the murderer. James Mimosa lay on the slab-like bed, his expensive jacket folded beneath his head, hands folded across his stomach.
‘There’s a reason that “bastard” is the worst of insults among agents.’
James sat up and glared at him.
‘We’re bastards, the lot of us, of course we are, we’re artificial beings, we have no parent, but the word is something more. To an agent, “bastard” means that you’re unworthy of being claimed, that no one wants you. It means that no one would ever want to claim kinship. To you, she was a bastard.’
James seemed to relax a little at this. ‘Finally, someone who understands. You’re here to let me out, then?’
‘You murdered my daughter, you bastard.’ His hands shook. Rage. The need to bend the steel bars of the cell and rip the man apart. ‘You aren’t leaving my Agency in one piece. You aren’t leaving my Agency at all.’
‘Sorry, I did what?’
He moved forward and rested one hand against the cool wall. ‘You murdered-’
James got to his feet and stood opposite him. ‘I only destroyed a piece of property I own. If you want to make a counter-claim of-‘
‘You aren’t fae,’ he snapped, ‘you don’t-‘
‘I’m recognised among the Kings, I have free and clear Fairyland citizenship and more than one Court owes me favours. Legally, I get all of the benefits of adhering to Kings’ law. A benefit that I chose to exercise because the stupid cunt put a gun in front of me and was too stupid to realise that I would use it on her. I’m her father- I was her father, I gave her life, and I had the right to take it away.’
‘I am her father!’ he screamed at the lawyer.
‘If that’s what you want to call yourself, agent, go ahead. Carry her ash around, send it to school, and watch as even her remains manage to disappoint you.’
He reached through the bars, wrapped a hand around the lawyer’s throat and squeezed.
‘The only reason I am not going to kill you,’ he said as James struggled for air. ‘Is that my Aide was a Solstice interrogator of exceptional skill. Skill he will rejoice in using on you.’ He let the man go and shoved him to the floor before withdrawing his arm from the cell.
‘‘You can’t touch me, agent.’
‘Do you really think I care about the legal ramifications?’
‘I suggest,’ he said as he straightened his tie, ‘that you make your peace. Whatever comes tomorrow for you, it will not be peaceful and it will not be quick.’
* * * * *
Curt started awake, pulling himself from a shallow, dreamless sleep. He was lying on the cold floor, the blanket failing to provide enough warmth. His neck ached, his back ached, his heart ached.
He rummaged in his pocket for the phone he’d been issued as soon as the emergency situation had become official. Fairy network – a smartphone of course, but not a very advanced one by fairy standards. It only needed to be enough – a way to contact agents and other recruits if there was a blackout, or something else to interfere with the system.
He stared blearily at the digits – shortly past one in the morning.
Two choice became clear as the screen blinked out. The first was the easiest, to give up, to stay in the cold room until he was dragged from there. To no longer care about duty, about the uniform, about the word. Cowardice, she had made a point of telling him, was always the easiest option.
The second was the one he knew he’d take. The one to get up, to move, to keep going. To be an Aide and continue to prove his worthiness, to be useful, but alone.
He wiped his eyes again.
It would have been easier if she’d killed him in Russia. It would have been easier if she’d demanded he was transferred, so she didn’t have to look at the his face – the face of someone who had hurt her and laughed – every day. It would have been easier if she hadn’t forgiven him. It would have been easier if she hadn’t been the only thing to make him feel human.
He stood on stiff legs, nearly slipping on the cold floor.
He looked to the drawer, and knew as surely that he was going to be by Ryan’s side in the morning that he wasn’t going to leave the room without saying goodbye.
He clapped his hands together and blew on them, trying to get some feeling back, then grasped the cold handle, pulled open the door, and slowly wheeled out the drawer.
There’d been no reason for an autopsy, no reason to remove her uniform, but they hadn’t even bothered with a sheet. The only little dignity afforded to her was a small strip of cloth across her forehead, covering the wound, some pretence that she was just sleeping, just lying in the infirmary with a head wound.
Stiff. Cold. Unmoving.
‘Stef. Newbie, please. Please.’
The corpse gave no response.
He put a hand to her face, and whispered a goodbye, then pulled it away.
He looked at her one more time.
There was something wrong.
He closed his eyes, cleared his mind, then opened them again, trying to see what was wrong.
Her eyes were open.
His heart jumped into his throat.
He put a hand in front of her mouth and nose.
He felt something.
The tiniest bit of warmth tickled his fingers.
His hand and his heart, went still. After the longest moment ever, he felt curls of heat against his skin.