The Story Needed Mending
by Mad Maudlin
Once upon a time...
No, that's not right. There were two kinds of fairy tales in what passed for Kate's childhood, and the ones in Hindi didn't start that way. Those were boring anyway, and so far removed from Chicago's south side that she wouldn't have even looked at them if her mother hadn't pushed. The other kind of fairy tales came courtesy of the Walt Disney corporation, and those were a little better, even though it still seemed like only the princes ever got to do anything. At least the other kids in her class had heard of those, and when they played pretend at recess Kate could be Prince Charming and Prince Eric and Aladdin—
("Wouldn't you like to play the princess sometimes?" one of her teachers once asked her in a worried tone.
Kate had shrugged. Yes, she would've—Princess Jasmine especially, who actually looked a little like her—but whenever she did, the other girls would screech at her for not waiting for the prince, for not following the plot, for doing it all wrong. If she couldn't fight her own monsters, she'd settle for the next best thing.)
But then her dad was killed, and Kate gave up on fairy tales. At least cynicism never let you down, right? Of course, she ended up in a line of work where dragons and curses and magical potions weren't totally out of the question—but she knew better than to expect white knights and fairy godmothers to go with them. Real life didn't work that way, and she wasn't wasting her time waiting on a happy ending.
Once upon a time, there was a princess in a castle in the west, and she was beautiful and brave and strong and kind. But her mother the queen had many enemies, and one day an evil witch stole the princess away to her lair. The queen and her knights searched far and wide for the princess, but when they found her they made a horrible discovery: the witch had transformed the princess into a terrible dragon, and she sent the dragon forth to burn and savage the queen and all her people.
The queen fought bravely, and many of her knights fell, but the dragon could not be stopped. But a certain wild girl of the forest had escaped the witch, and came to the castle in the west seeking its shelter; and when the dragon seemed ready to devour the queen, the girl took up a sword and smote it through the heart. Thus the dragon was slain, and there was weeping throughout all the kingdom, and the queen grieved her daughter ever after.
If the Sanctuary wasn't haunted, it should have been: there were too many empty spaces, too many dark places, and Kate wondered why Magnus didn't keep a bigger staff just to fill up all the silence. Then again, her hiring practices did seem a little off the wall.
Kate went exploring a lot, because she liked to know where her escapes routes were, and only got in trouble twice. "What are you snooping around for this time?" Henry asked, still half-suspicious when he caught her setting off alarms.
"Not your business," the Big Guy snuffled, after she couldn't quite jimmy the lock on a dusty vault.
She wanted to remind them that she was one of them now, here with the boss's blessing, not a guest or a child. Instead she grumbled or flirted with them (as appropriate) and held her chin high, and tried to come back at a time when she wouldn't get caught.
Kate went exploring, and Kate knew when she was being watched. Sometimes she thought it was one of the others, Henry or Big Guy or Will or maybe even Magnus, spying on her and trying to decide if they'd made a mistake. Sometimes it was probably just one of the residents (because Magnus won't "pathologize their existence" by calling them all patients, and they're not inmates if they can leave)—some of them were taking a while to warm up to her, some of them were still looking for someone else and had settled on Kate as the next best thing.
Kate knew she was being watched in the high airy chapel, where pointed arches flung themselves to heaven and clear glass stood in for iconography. There weren't any surveillance cameras here—that would be creepy, in this reverent silence—but Kate knew by now that just because she couldn't see anyone around, it didn't mean she was alone.
She tried to ignore the feeling, exploring the benches and niches, the pale stonework. A breeze ghosted across the back of her neck, and not a fan or a vent in sight. Kate ignored it until she heard a metallic crash, somewhere behind her—she spun around and found a stand of flowers laying on its side, a good ten feet away from her.
Kate folded her arms and raised her chin. "I'm not dumb, you know," she announced.
The breeze went still, but the feeling of being watched remained. She turned in a complete circle, not certain where to address her words. "My name's Kate Freelander, and you can come the hell out any time."
Nothing happened. The breeze had stopped, but she still wasn't alone.
"You can't scare me," she added, matter of fact. "I've dated weirder shit than I see around here."
"Fine, whatever," Kate said, and headed back to the stairs. She snagged one of the flowers off the floor and twirled it in her fingers, called over her shoulder. "But listen, in the future? Back the fuck off. This is my territory now, too."
(Maybe if she said it often enough, it would be true.)
Once upon a time there was a queen in a distant land who was good and clever and beautiful and kind. She was betrothed a handsome prince, and they had a beautiful baby daughter, and the queen thought they would live happily ever after.
But the prince had a terrible secret: when the moon rose, he transformed into a monster and devoured the young women of the kingdom. When the queen discovered this secret, she tried to help her prince, but the monster was too great and overcame her. So the queen fled to a land across the sea, where the monster would not find her; and she put her daughter the princess in an enchanted sleep for one hundred years, because the monster was so dangerous, and because the queen was so heavy with grief.
Kate had never met Ashley Magnus; she hadn't even laid eyes on her before the day she fired a rocket-propelled grenade into her torso. So everything she knew about the woman came in hindsight, second-hand, from stories and sighs and the pictures in Magnus' study.
"Where'd you learn to shoot like that?" she asked Will.
"What idiot set up you guys' armory?" she grumbled to Henry.
"Why do you have a metric shit-ton of Lucky Charms in the kitchen?" she asked the Big Guy.
"Who's the kid in the picture?" she asked Magnus.
Almost always, the answer was Ashley.
She knew people were comparing them—hell, she was comparing them herself. Henry complained about Kate's computer skills and Will joked about her attitude and the Big Guy kept trying to serve her Lucky Charms. And sometimes, when she should've been alone in a room, she felt those eyes on the back of her head, weighting and judging without ever revealing the score.
It wasn't exactly survivor's guilt, because she hadn't ever known the woman. It was more like Kate had fallen into someone else's life, and even if she could've fit in Ashley's size-nines she didn't really want to wear them. So she was loud and reckless and occasionally inappropriate, holding her chin up and daring them all to find her lacking. And when she reorganized the armory, nobody had an aneurysm, but the eyes on the back of her head didn't go away.
Once upon a time there was a girl who lived in the forest. She had no father and no mother and only a little bit of a brother, so she had gone into the wilderness to live by herself. She took only three things that she thought were precious: a mirror, a cloak, and a beautiful book.
The forest was dark and deep and frightening, and at first the girl was afraid. The first creature she met in the wilderness was a raven. "Give me the mirror," the raven said. "What do you need to look behind you for? I can teach you how to see like a raven, and I can spot a gnat in the dark from a mile away." So the girl gave away her mirror, and the raven taught her how to see, and the girl went deeper into the forest.
The second creature she met was a wolf. "Give me your cloak," the wolf said. "What do you need to hide for? I can teach you how to fight like a wolf, and I have teeth and claws and a tough hide to protect me." So the girl gave away her cloak, and the wolf taught her how to fight, and the girl went deeper into the forest.
The third creature she met was a serpent. "Give me your book," the serpent said. "What do you need other people's words for? I can teach you how to lie like a serpent, and I have two tongues and no one has ever caught me." So the girl gave away her book, and the serpent taught her how to lie; and the girl dwelled in the depths of the wilderness, and lived like a raven and a serpent and a wolf, and was alone.
Kate didn't like labels, really. She slept with men, but the kind of men she hung out with could go pretty fast from fucking to fucking you over. She slept with women, too, who weren't any less dangerous, but at least they usually understood that no means no. Either way, she tried to keep most of her clothes on and was careful about who she kissed on the mouth.
So it wasn't a big deal to dream about a woman, and that's all it was, a dream—images and feelings, disconnected and distorted, patternless. Not as memorable as the one where she was Princess Jasmine, or the one about the rats, or the one where she showed up to a Hindu wedding in a fluffy white gown, which she had a lot. (Will had tried to psychoanalyze that one for her; she'd said "Well, duh.")
She dreamed about women, or maybe one particular woman, disassembled into component parts—a hard bicep here, a stubbled knee there, hands that twine with Kate's like coffee with cream. She couldn't put all the pieces together but sometimes, when she woke up, she could still feel a warm presence, could still feel eyes on her in the dark of her room..
Sometimes she woke up and she was kind of surprised that her fingers were tangled in blankets, with no sign of long blonde hair.
Once upon a time there was a girl with no mother and no father and hardly any brother, and so she went to live in a castle in the west with her stepmother the queen. And the queen would summon her before the throne, and give her a task, such as, "I want you to bring me the sea at midnight and the sky at noon, and do not return until then."
So the girl went out into the town, and came back with a beautiful cloak of deep blue-black velvet lined with shining cloth-of-gold. The girl said, "I have brought what you asked."
"I suppose," the queen said, "you have done well."
The next morning the queen summoned the girl before the throne and said to her, "I want you to bring me the blue of the sky and the gold of the sun and the red of the heart's blood, and do not return until then."
So the girl went into the forest, and she came back with a bouquet of daffodils and morning glories and amaranth, which is called love-lies-bleeding. "I have brought what you asked," she said.
"I suppose," the queen said, "you have done well."
The next day the queen summoned the girl before the throne and said to her, "I want you to bring me love without loss, joy without grief, pleasure without pain and hope without despair, and do not return until then."
The girl went out into the wide world. She was never seen again.
Magnus was...hard. Magnus seemed to like Kate, hadn't pressed her about any Abnormal-aided assassinations, had made a space for her in her Sanctuary. But Magnus also kept Kate on a leash and didn't trust her with serious jobs or pointy objects. Magnus sometimes scolded Kate like she might've scolded a child. Other times she looked right through her.
And seeing as Kate's job interview had been shooting her daughter, Kate really didn't know how to complain.
When Magnus and Will went hunting for squid and Henry took the Big Guy surfing, Kate was alone in the Sanctuary, and she took that chance to explore all the places the rest of them told her not to. She found supply rooms and locked safes and Henry's porn collection (ugh), and a vault of peculiar machines gathering dust. Some of them looked old, like really old, with copper pipes and rotting leather bellows; a lot of them were damaged, not just by time, but with scorch marks and claw marks and melted wiring. They all seemed to have the same design, tanks and tubes and temperature gauges, but Kate couldn't quite figure out what they were for, or why Magnus would want to keep them all around. She locked the vault behind her and figured that she'd ask somebody, some time, once she came up with a good story for how she'd found them in the first place—or at least better than "I was bored and the door was there."
(There were always eyes on her now, always a little breeze tickling the fine hairs at the base of her neck, but Kate had learned to ignore it. Take that, you goddamn voyeur.)
When Magnus and Will sent out a distress call, Kate was the one who organized the search and rescue, all by herself, thank you. They were freezing and hungry when she pulled them out of the oil rig, their skin blistered and bloated from sun and salt water, but whereas Will curled up in the back of the plane and conked out almost immediately, Magnus limped over to sit by Kate. "Impressive work," she said, clutching a bottle of water in her bandaged hands. "I was afraid we'd have a much longer wait ahead of us."
"Hey, it's all in a day's work," Kate said. "Plus, this way you totally can't complain about the wild party I had while you were gone."
Magnus laughed a little, eyes cast down. "I've afraid I've been underestimating you, Kate," she said. "It's not a mistake I intend to make in the future."
"Thanks?" Kate said. "I think?"
"Sorry." She shook her head, stiff salty hair flying in clumps. "I've had...other things on my mind lately."
"Hey, no prob. I can—" She hooked a thumb at the cockpit. "If you wanna catch some shut eye. Wake you up when we're ready to land."
"Oh, that won't be necessary," Magnus said, but then she yawned hugely, hardly even able to cover her mouth. She blinked, frowning a little, as if the yawn had offended her by escaping without consent.
It was such a funny look that Kate had to laugh, not even bothering to hide it as she headed for the cockpit. "Okay. I'll be distracting the pilot and playing with the radio. Nighty night."
"Kate." Magnus held her eyes when she turned. "Thank you. You've been a huge help to me these past few months and...and I think Ashley would be grateful to you."
Kate hid in the cockpit for the rest of the flight.
Once upon a time there was a man, and he wasn't a very good man, though he was good at what he did. When he came before the fairy queen, she went through his bag and found in it a man's red blood, a woman's tears, and a child's heart. "Where did you get these things?" the queen asked.
"I stole them," the man admitted.
The queen said, "Then you must give them back."
First she sent the man to fight in a war, where he was injured; so he gave back the blood to the land. Then she sent him on a long journey alone, during which he wept; so he gave back the tears to the sea. Finally she sent him to save a young girl from a fire, a girl with no mother and no father and only occasionally a brother. The girl was injured, but the wound didn't pain her. "Why don't you bleed?" the man asked. "Why don't you cry?"
"I have no heart," the girl replied.
And the man understood. So he threw himself into the fire, and was burnt all to ashes, and gave the heart to the sky. The girl reached out to take it back, but the smoke slipped through her fingers and was gone.
Kate didn't want to talk to Will. Kate didn't want to talk to Magnus. Kate didn't want to fucking talk about it, any of it, so she took her painkillers and got as comfortable as she could with a bullet hole in her shoulder. If she didn't sleep she could blame the pain, not the explosions on the back of her eyes.
After all, Jimmy was dead. She was supposed to be happy about that.
She took her pills and lay down, and eventually she did sleep, and did dream. A smooth shoulder, a small breast, a forearm downed with translucent blond hair. She dreamed these things, and this time they joined up for her, sketching a place where Kate could weep.
Go on. I'm not judging you. The words fell into her, more felt than heard, the first thing in the dream to make sense.
Who are you? Kate asked in her dream, nosing along the elegant arch of a collarbone.
Hands, lips; there were still pieces that don't come together. I'm not here.
Once upon a time there was a princess in the distant west, who was strong and brave and beautiful and kind, and many people loved her, and those who didn't love her could not overcome her to do her harm. Except one day someone did, someone who burned her and beat her and bound her like a beast. But the princess had a secret, a magic that no one else knew, and she bided her time and waited for her chance to be free.
She tried to slip her chains and turn on her captors, but they had broken her strong arms. She tried to get the attention of the knights who once loved her, but her captors had scarred her beautiful face. She tried to plead for her freedom, but her captors did not listen, and she wore out her gentle voice. Finally, when she had the chance—when a girl with no mother and no father and a poor excuse for a brother cut her chains—the princess took the only route left to her: she summoned all her courage and leapt into the sea, and by her secret magic she changed herself to foam. She dissolved into water, and though her friends could not catch her, neither could her captors; she disappeared, and was finally free.
"So what's the protocol for ghosts?" Kate asked Will. She'd rather ask Henry, because Henry was way easier to lie to, but he'd gone with Magnus to see a thing about a guy. Will was still getting over the whole being-tortured-by-mobsters thing, and the floating-in-the-ocean-for-a-day thing before that, so he was spending a lot of time in the library and Kate would just have to spin up a good story.
"Ghosts?" he asked, like he didn't know what she was talking about.
"Y'know, vapor cases. Smokestacks." She rolled her eyes when he stared at her like she had lost her mind. "Abnormals without a solid body. We've got to have some place to stash them."
"There's a couple of holding tanks on the third floor," Will said, a little frown line between his eyebrows. "Why the sudden interest?"
"Old girlfriend of mine mentioned a rumor about somebody moving an ignifatus colony through town," she said casually, stealing his coffee cup instead of watching to see if he was buying it. "Wanted to make sure we had a place for 'em before I started trying to bring any home, you know?"
Will kind of coughed, and she wondered if she'd blown it; but then he said "Girlfriend?" in a funny voice. She looked up at him; the line between his eyebrows was gone, but he was still staring at her with big baby blues.
"Seriously?" she asked. "You're the one who's gonna freak out about that?"
"Oh, this isn't me freaking out," he said quickly. "Just wondering how I missed it. Profiler, remember?"
Well, either way she'd take the distraction. "Hey, I don't exactly bring 'em home to meet Magnus, you know?" she asked casually. "Hard enough to get laid with this job without the boss breathing down our necks."
"You make her sound like some kind of wicked stepmother," Will said, rolling his eyes. "What are you afraid she'll do?"
"How the hell should I know?" Kate asked. "She was around when people still went to prison for this kind of stuff."
Will shook his head. "I'm pretty sure Magnus is more open-minded than that."
"What, 'cause she adopts all the stray Abnormals who follow her home?" Kate asked.
He hesitated for a minute, then leaned over the table. "Let me put it this way: either Magnus is more open-minded than that, or Ashley was really good at keeping secrets."
Kate blinked at him for a minute, and all she could say was, "Oh."
(She checked out all the tanks on the third floor, beautiful equipment with double-sealed hatches and their own miniature EM fields; checked to see when any of them had last been in use. The answered turned out to be 2005.)
Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to learn how to shiver. She went to haunted houses and hung around in cemeteries and wandered the dark forest, but she was never afraid, and never shivered. She played with mad dogs and walked on high wires and leapt from tall trees, but she was never afraid and never shivered. She read tales of horror and tended the sick and had a witch foretell her death, but she was never afraid and she never shivered.
So she dove to the deep sea, and climbed the high mountains, and walked the wide desert alone; she lay down in tombs and fought ogres and dragons and chased after treasures; she became famous in all the wide world. But she never did shiver, and she lamented this one night as she lay down with her lover.
And that night she finally shivered, but she was never afraid.
She ended up back in the chapel, after nothing else panned out: the airy space of glass and arches, open to the passive heavens. She ended up in the chapel because that's where it had begun and because she didn't want anyone else overhearing this conversation. She shut the door behind her and, because she couldn't find the light switch, lit a couple of the candles that were scattered around the room. Someone had put out fresh flowers up here, but other than that there was no sign that this room was ever used. Perfect.
"Okay," she announced, moving to the middle of the room, looking for the eyes on the back of her neck. "This whole Freddy Krueger of Girl Porn thing is not okay with me."
The barest breeze traced across her cheek.
"Seriously." Kate folded her arms and turned the direction the breeze had gone, for lack of anywhere else to focus. "Not that it wasn't good for me and all, but I kind of like to know when I'm in a relationship with a non-corporeal life-form."
Across the room, a candle guttered.
"No, you get over here and listen to me." Kate was pretty much resigned to sounding crazy here; had been feeling a little crazy since she figured it out. What she should've felt was threatened, or angry, or violated—this thing had been inside her mind, had played her body—except nothing very threatening had actually occurred. She was pretty sure her free will hadn't been compromised and nothing had broken skin; it was hard to even think of it as taking advantage, when the alleged perpetrator was so hard to define. The only real sin had been omission. "I want to know what you are," Kate declared. "I want to know why me. I want to know if Magnus knows you're here. And...yeah, actually, that's it. No particular order."
For a few minutes nothing happened. Kate held her breath and looked around, searching for proof that she wasn't hallucinating. Maybe this was all just funky dreams. Maybe she was thinking a little wishfully.
Then something moved, over near the—well, she wasn't sure what to call it, bier or altar or plinth. The candles were dimmer over there, the shadows deeper, except where they were pierced by starlight; something moved there, or seemed to move, and Kate slowly closed on it, carefully, like it might spook and flee.
It was the barest distortion, like coagulated air: and at first that was all, amorphous and indistinct, but as Kate watched the smoke and starlight shifted, taking on contours and dimension. She made out head, shoulders, hips; arms and legs sketched with blunt charcoal, just massy shapes without detail. It could've been anyone. It could've been anything. "Are you—?" Kate started to ask, but she didn't even know what the question was: are you really here, maybe, or are you copying me, or even, are you trying to show me something?
The figure shivered, and then shifted again; eyes and fingers and a fall of hair separated themselves from the whole. Kate took another step forward, trying to see more, and the thing reached out to her. She held very, very still, as it reached out and put a finger to her lips—
It felt like the zap of static electricity, and the shape dissolved into air.
Kate stood there for a long time, wondering just what the hell that was; after a minute she realized she'd pressed a hand to her tingling lips. There wasn't even a feeling of eyes on her anymore, as if her—her what, friend? Lover? Non-corporeal stalker chic?—as if she was really alone.
She waited in the chapel for over an hour, waited for something to happen, but nothing did; eventually she had to blow out the stubs of the candles and go back to her room. She even took another Percocet, but the only dreams that night were the glowing-purple-badger-with-a-gun kind, and she woke up feeling lonelier than she had in a long time.
Once upon a time there was a princess, who was brave and beautiful and clever and strong, and her father the king had given to her a magic potion that granted her great powers, and also to those princes who were her friends. But terrible things befell her and her beloved friends, and the princess's heart became so heavy with grief that she could hardly stand. So, because she was clever and gifted in magic, she contrived to remove her heart entirely, and put it away in a glass casket for a hundred years, and in its place she fashioned a heart out of iron that would not pain her.
She raised a castle in the distant west where she reigned as queen, and had many knights who served her and many lords that bent the knee; but she kept her iron heart, so she would remain strong. But after a hundred years, the queen was realized that her iron heart was beginning to rust; and she perceived that one day it would rust away, and she would become like the terrible witches of the north, uncaring and unkind. She decided that, because it had been one hundred years, she could replace her true heart, which would no longer be too heavy.
Twenty-three years later, she had to take it out again.
"You've been quite the busy bee lately," Magnus said, and Kate nearly jumped out of her skin. Possibly she'd had too much coffee. It was only...uh, midnight? Oh. So maybe she hadn't had enough coffee.
Maybe she was a little distracted.
Magnus was still looking at her.
"Yeah," she said, conscious that it was a beat too late, that a little vertical line was forming between Magnus' eyebrows. "I just, um...Ignifatus?"
"Will mentioned to me that you'd heard a rumor," Magnus said. "Did anything come of it?"
Kate shook her head, preferring to look at the book instead of Magnus' pale eyes. "Nah, looks like the job fell through before anything got to the Old City. But since I was doing the research anyway..." She gestured at the books she'd piled around her, hoping it would totally look like light background reading and not obsessive research.
Because she wasn't getting obsessive. Just...worried.
One side of Magnus' mouth quirked up in a wry smirk. "Henry will make a geek out of you yet," she said lightly.
"Ha, no." Kate prodded the book in front of her—the size of a phone directory, and almost as yellow, thanks to its age. "Half these books are me trying to figure out what the other half mean."
"Everyone has to start somewhere," Magnus said generously, but when Kate snuck a glance up that little line between her eyebrows still hadn't smoothed away.
It left Kate feeling absurdly exposed, like the first time her mom caught her smoking, except she wasn't doing anything. She was just reading. Figuring things out. She hadn't dreamed anything worth dreaming about in days, had no inkling of anyone watching her except the people and cameras she could see; and it wasn't like she missed it or anything, that constant presence just over her shoulder, the nights spent in some kind hazy mental cuddle with a person-thing-being she couldn't even properly see...
But she was worried. It was okay to be worried. Normal, even. Because whatever had happened in the chapel—well—could a ghost even get hurt?
Hence, the research.
Magnus had asked her another question.
"Sorry?" she said, looking up and trying to pretend it was the book that had distracted her, not the possibility that she'd accidentally zapped her imaginary friend out of existence.
"I said you missed our appointment," Magnus said, and the line was deeper than ever. "In the clinic. Your shoulder?"
Oh, shit, yeah. Kate grimaced. "Sorry. Kinda got, uh..."
"Lost?" Magnus suggested.
"Lost," Kate admitted.
"A situation I'm quite familiar with," Magnus said with a small smile. She picked up a book at random and flipped through it, and Kate had the paranoid thought that she could somehow extrapolate the whole story from a couple of marked pages, like how Will could study somebody's body language and predict whether they were lying and how they felt about their mother. Definitely too much coffee, and it wasn't even keeping her awake anymore.
"I'm just gonna go to bed," she declared, as if saying it would teleport her there. "Can I get a do-over on the checkup in the morning?"
"I'll hold you to it this time," Magnus said, only half teasing.
Kate should've made her escape then and there, while she had the opening, but she didn't have the energy to drag herself out of the chair and her eyes kept falling back on the books, on the stupid goddamn books that didn't explain anything and didn't make sense and didn't tell her why she'd been alone for three damn days. Surrounded by the Sanctuary, but still lonely.
(Maybe she didn't need the library. Maybe she needed Will. Or a prescription.)
"Kate," Magnus said, and she was staring now, eyes boring in X-rays, with a downward twist to her mouth. "I know you haven't take a sudden interest in the typology of non-corporeal Abnormals for no reason. You've been...distracted, lately, and I know someone has been using the cloister."
Cloister? Oh, the chapel. With a clarity that only came from caffeine intoxication and sleep deprivation, Kate pictured herself explaining everything to Magnus, laying out the evidence, talking around the sexy parts, asking for the answers she knew she needed. Magnus would give them to her. Magnus would figure it out. That was kind of her job description.
Instead she found herself saying, "I just need a place to, uh, think. About stuff."
Magnus nodded. "If you ever feel the need to talk—" She paused, appearing to weigh her words. "I know that I may not always be the most approachable person, but I hope you would feel comfortable coming to me if you needed a friendly ear."
Kate almost laughed at that. Not approachable, right. There were a couple of ghosts laying between them that they'd have to exorcise before they could talk about the one in Kate's bedroom, and as much as she liked Magnus, as much as she respected her, that was a conversation she still really didn't want to have.
"If I had known the details James' past," Magnus continued, and Kate started, "I would never have asked you to be involved in the drop."
"Would you have told me?" Kate asked, wondering how they'd changed the subject. "If you'd known he was the one?"
Magnus hesitated. "Knowing then what I know now? No, I would not have. Not when it's done nothing but cause you pain."
That hurt, kind of, but as least it was honest. At least it was well-intentioned. "Thanks, I guess," Kate said, and this time she really did drag herself to her feet. "See you in the morning, Doc."
"Good night, Kate," Magnus said. "Sweet dreams."
Once upon a time there appeared in the kingdom a knight of curious appearance: he carried no sword, wore no armor and rode no horse, but he dressed richly and wore a belt with the words SEVEN AT ONCE embroidered on it. Many men believed that this meant he had killed seven men with a single stroke, and they cowered in fear before him; but the queen invited him up to her chamber for an audience.
"It is said in the town that you a stronger than a giant, yet you carry no sword," she said.
"I am as strong as I seem," the knight said. "When that giant challenged me to feat of strength, I took a piece of new cheese and squeezed out the whey. He thought I had wrung water from a stone and conceded the contest."
"It is said that you are faster than a unicorn, yet you ride no horse," she said.
"I am as fast as I seem," the knight said. "When the unicorn challenged me to a race, I built a manniken out of sticks and grass and threw my coat over it. I hid this at the end of the path, and when the race began I ran only a little ways down the trail and then went back. The unicorn has very weak eyes, you see, and so when it saw my coat at the end of the path it thought I had beaten it there, and immediately challenged me to another length; yet when it returned to the beginning, there I was, not even out of breath; and so it went until the beast was exhausted and collapsed."
"It is said that you are more valiant than a dragon, yet you wear no armor," she said.
"I am as savage as I seem," the knight said. "I took the dragon sleeping, curled up with its nose at its great tail, and so I threw a stone from above onto its head; and when it woke up, stupid from sleep, it began to bite and scratch its own tail, and I could have my fill of its gold."
The queen studied the knight. "It seems that you are not strong, nor quick, nor valiant," she said, "but you are clever and wise, and well worthy to be a knight in my household. But tell me, sir, what is the meaning of your sash, that says SEVEN AT ONCE like a warning?"
"Ah," he said. "I did once kill seven with one stroke, and this was given to me as a little joke. It has been a cause for great misunderstanding ever since."
"Killed seven what?" asked the queen.
The knight smiled. "Flies."
Her shoulder healed, and she did her research, and she noticed that the guys were treating her funny: Henry wasn't teasing as much has he used to, the Big Guy started offering her Lucky Charms again, and Will was watching her when he thought she wasn't looking, doing psychological algebra without showing his work.
They thought she was still hung up about Jimmy, she realized. And sure, that was still pissing her off, but it was small and slow-burning, like a cigarette butt. It was something she could ignore. The ghost, on the other hand...she still couldn't find any record of a matching Abnormal in the archives, and she couldn't figure out where it had gone. None of her questions were answered and she was starting to get annoyed.
She was starting to get a little desperate, and she knew what that called for.
Will caught her again on her way out the door, and for a split second she was convinced he knew exactly what she meant to do, via some kind of scary nerd telepathy. But of course he couldn't, because he was good but not that good; instead he asked, "Finally coming up for air?"
"Yeah," she said. For some reason he was easier to lie to than Magnus, even if it was harder to get away with it. She felt a little guilty thinking that maybe he didn't matter in quite the same way. "Got a clean bill of health, an interesting scar, and a paycheck looking for a new home. Wanna come with?"
"No thanks," he said, laughing softly. "Not much of a clubber, really."
"C'mon, we can pick up girls together," Kate suggested, then paused. "Actually, we could also pick up guys together, with the way you dress."
Will put a hand to his chest like a Victorian maiden. "Ow. Seriously, ow. You expect me to take that lying down?"
"It's none of my business what position you take it in," she said with a smirk.
He kept smiling back, but something in his eyes shifted, and Kate was excruciatingly aware that she'd been transformed from a person to a patient without her moving a muscle. "You must be feeling better," he said speculatively.
"Already told you Magnus cleared the shoulder," she shot back, and realized immediately that was the wrong things to say. Denial might be a great coping strategy, but it seemed to affect shrinks and social workers like catnip. Time for evasive maneuvers. "Anyway, I'm gonna miss the opening act if I don't—"
"Kate." Will says it sharply, almost commandingly, and she would've bristled out like a cat if it were anyone else but him. Actually, she was just going to go ahead and bristle anyway—offense was the best defense. "You know you can talk to me about things, right? Just because I'm not a practicing clinician doesn't mean I don't believe in confidentiality."
"What I know," Kate told him sharply, "is that I got this lecture from Magnus a couple days ago, and I am not a troubled teenager, okay? I appreciate the sentiment, but you guys can keep the after-school special crap to yourselves."
Will bit his lip and stared at her for a moment, not really scowling. He looked...puzzled. "Sometimes I feel like I don't really know you," he confessed, apropos of nothing. "You've worked here for months and you're still holding us all at arm's length."
"What, you want me to throw a sleepover where we watch Disney movies and braid each others' hair?" she asked.
"I want to know that you trust us," Will said. "I want you to be comfortable here."
I am, Kate thought, I'm not afraid of anything here, but she was pissed off now, and Will had lost any heart-to-heart privileges he might once have had. Instead she went for the jugular, stupid and aggressive. "You want Ashley back."
It worked—she can tell he wasn't expecting that, and that it hurt. "Is that what you think?"
"Be honest, Will," she says. "If you had the choice? It'd only ever be her. I'm just the next best thing."
She'd had worse exit lines and she took this one, turning her back and letting Will draw whatever conclusions he wanted. Maybe that Kate had inadequacy issues, or that she wasn't whoever he'd thought she was—well, fine. Let him think whatever he wanted. At least she still had—
She stopped halfway down the driveway, turning over that thought in her head. She'd alienated everyone else in the Sanctuary, but at least she still had her ghost, except not anymore. And she was about to do something so very very dumb that if the others found out—
Goddamnit, when had her life gotten this complicated?
Once upon a time a woman was sent away to live in a high castle all alone; and she had heard that the owner of that castle was a terrible monster who devoured people. But when she got there she found the castle was full of invisible servants who made her delicious food and brought her beautiful clothes to wear, and led her to a bedroom with an enormous goosedown mattress. The woman decided this wasn't so bad, and put out her candle and fell asleep.
However, she had not lain in the dark long before someone else came into the room and lay down with her in the bed. The woman reached out to light her candle, but a hand on her arm stopped her. "Don't," said the other, "for if you see my face I will leave you here alone forever."
"Are you the owner of this house?" the woman asked.
"I am, and all within it."
"And are you a terrible monster?" the woman asked.
"Do you really want to know?"
The woman thought about the hand on her arm and the warm body beside her. The candle remained unlit.
She'd ruled out anything she'd have to smoke, because either Henry or the Big Guy would smell it on her; rules out injections, too, because Magnus would notice the marks. Kate had never been much of a user even the stupider parts of her youth, but she knew enough to be selective, and knew the right people to get it on the cheap.
She had to wait until the next night, had to wait through a day of Will eying her from across the conference table while they talked about the logistics of transferring a bunch of readers from Kenya to Canada, had to kill time on the shooting range. She told everyone she was having an early night, locked the door to her room, and pulled out the baggie with the two little pills that were definitely a lot stronger than Percocet.
She took the pills, switched off the lights, lay down on the bed. She concentrated on her breathing. Slowly everything began to spin and spiral, down into darkness...
...long blond hair that brushed over her knuckles, across her breasts. Short, blunt nails tracing the curve of her hip. Relief swept through her as crisp as water and she pawed at the air, seeking out contact where there was nothing to touch What are you? Kate asked, and she wasn't sure if she was speaking out loud, if she was dreaming or not.
Not real. The words floated out at her, through her, rippling against her like silk. Not here. Just pieces.
Pieces, right; lips or fingers or a stubbled knee that touch and nudge, but nothing comes together, not all at once. Does Magnus know? she asked, groping for some trace of skin or hair, something she could hang on to.
No! It vibrated in her like a guitar string, like a flashing caution. She can't know. Don't tell her.
It was like a dream and it wasn't, because a part of Kate could think very clearly, but another part was at the mercy of the drugs and she couldn't peel herself off the bed, couldn't open her eyes. She reached for what wasn't there and it felt like static, like little electric prickles on her skin, like a finger on her lips except this time it didn't stop or fade.
She can't know, the ghost said again, warm and soft and ephemeral. She has to let go.
Kate finally relaxed into that warmth, spiraled down into it, like falling. Why me? she remembered to ask.
The light that bubbles up through her makes her think of champagne and meteors. You were lonely. You're pretty. I like you.
What's your name?
There was no answer; just disjointed touches, light and heat, stars bubbling up all around her, and when the drugs wore off in the morning she remembered nothing but a pair of sad blue eyes.
Once upon a time a man was went walking in the woods, and he stumbled on a wonderful pair of boots sitting under a tree, as if someone had taken them off and left them there. The boots were tall and made of soft leather, but with iron caps over the toes that looked like horse-shoes. Words were engraved in the sole of each boot: one said I RUN, the other said YOU RIDE.
While the man was admiring the boots, a strange old woman in a green coat appeared to him with eyes like lightening. "Tell me, do you like my horse-shoes?" she asked.
"They're very strange shoes, for a man or a horse," the man said.
"I will tell you a secret," the woman said. "These are magic shoes. If you put them on, you can travel seven leagues in a step and fly around the wide world in an hour."
The man admitted that that would be a marvelous thing if it were true; and the woman assured him that it was, and told him to try the boots on if he was curious. The man was indeed very curious, for it was in his nature to love learning and adventure, and so he put the boots on; and the moment he did, the old woman said, "Now I will make you a deal: do not ever take these boots off. Do not wash your face or cut your hair. Never sleep in the same bed twice and tell no one your true name. If you can live like this for seven years and seven days, I will give you your heart's desire. Otherwise you will be mine forever." Then she vanished from sight.
The boots were as magical as she claimed, and at first the man enjoyed rushing about to different places and having great adventures. But soon he took on a fearsome appearance, and he grew weary of traveling, and his adventures held no more pleasure for him. He grew angry that the old woman had tricked him, but he did not see her again, and he wondered how she might ever find out if he took the boots off. Finally, when he had traveled for many years and he was very sore and tired and looked more like a beast than a man, he tried to take the boots off.
Instantly the old woman in the green coat appeared, and threw a bit into his mouth, and climbed up on his shoulders. "Now I have a horse to ride!" the hag cried, and rode the man in all directions, beating him with a whip when he moved too slowly and shrieking with laughter when he stumbled and fell. And though the man tried mightily, he could never free himself from the hag or stop her terrible deeds; and all who saw him thought, this hag has a strange-looking horse, and did not know him for a man.
And so one day when the hag urged him to fly over the crashing sea, the man did not; he instead went running into the waves, seven leagues from land and help, and his heavy boots made him sink into the ocean; and he clung to the hag with all his strength and dragged her shrieking down.
It all came together on a Tuesday afternoon, in the middle of a meeting, and Kate had physically press a hand to her mouth to stop her lips from forming a name.
They were discussing Electro the Ripper and teleportation and how large an area John Druitt's molecules were now distributed across—Henry was babbling on about the EM shield and Magnus' eyes were shuttered and sad—and it fit. Fuck it, it fit, it made perfect sense and yet it was gloriously insane and Kate didn't know for a minute whether to be angry or horrified or just laugh, and laugh, and laugh.
Instead she ducked out of the meeting—let them follow her, let them try some more condescending bullshit, why not—and raced up to the chapel. Cloister. Whatever. The doors didn't lock, but she could prop a flower stand under the knob and at least jam it a while. The sun streamed in through the towering windows and caught a million specks of dust, each of which had a million molecules, and each molecule was held together by a bunch of forces that Kate couldn't name, and one she could, because Druitt could teleport but Magnus could live a hundred sixty-some years—
"I know who you are," she said, and stopped, wondering if it mattered if she spoke the name. If it would conjure her, banish her, set her free.
She felt that lick of air moving across her cheeks, not even a kiss, a ghost of a touch. Except there was no such thing as ghosts.
She swallowed hard and said, "Ashley."
For a moment, the air in the chapel went still, every mote of dust suspended in position. Kate found herself holding her breath. Then a breeze went through, a little whirlwind, pulling at Kate's hair and the edge of her scarf, sweeping all those motes of dust into a column. Not even a shape, really, a collocation, the barest outline of head and hands and hips, picked out by a golden shaft of light.
"I'm right. Oh, god, I'm right." Kate swallowed, and moved closer, but this time she didn't try to touch. "You're still here. All your molecules got fried by the EM shield, but you're still here."
The sketchbook figure shook its head.
"Okay, not here here," Kate corrected herself. "But you still exist. Your body...you can't put it back together, can you?"
A shrug. Maybe this was some value of togetherness.
"You can't. You bounced off the shield and got scattered all over the Sanctuary. But you inherited something Abnormal from both sides, so you're still conscious, still..." For a moment Kate sought a word and couldn't find one; her brain locked up at the very idea, and she felt a little sick. "Jesus fucking Christ."
Ashley's outline quivered, and a few specks of dust floated free; Kate didn't know it if was an emotional reaction or just a sign of the effort it took just to hold a shape together, any shape at all.
"Why don't you want to tell Mag—I mean, you mom, though?" Kate asked. "There's got to be something she can do to help you, right? Or at least...I dunno...there's got to be something."
But Ashley only shook her head, and now she really was flying apart, drifting away into outlines. Kate could still sense her presence, but there wasn't anything to look at, nothing to focus on because nothing was there. Ashley was nowhere because she was literally everywhere and Kate had shot her and they'd been sleeping together for months and—
Someone rattled the door, sending the flower stand screeching across the tiles. "Kate?" Will called. "You okay?"
Kate swallowed and pushed herself to focus. "Yeah, sure—here, quit pushing—" She pulled the stand free, scattering cuttings of amaranth and daffodils on the floor, and on the other side Will was frowning at her, not quite like he was about to call for the straightjacket and the diazepam, but maybe like he was considering it.
"You ran out of the conference room awfully fast," he said, leaning against the door—it was a nice trick, blocking her way but not crowding her, either. "Is something wrong?"
Something is hella wrong, but not with me, Kate thought. "Not really," she said. "I just, uh, needed to think about some stuff."
He glanced up at the arching windows. "Anything we can help you with?"
Kate actually thought about that for a minute. "Not yet," she said. "But I'll keep you posted."
Once upon a time on the high lonely moors a wolf came upon a basket sitting all lone. She thought it must be full of delicious food, and so she tipped it over, but inside was something small and warm that shrieked and cried. "What a curious creature!" the wolf thought. "I do not know if it's a man-child or a wolf-pup." But she felt sorry for how alone it was, and decided not to eat it; instead she took it home to her den and raised it with her own pups, and taught him how to run and fight and hunt.
Many years later the queen was walking on the moors when she came upon a creature hiding in the bushes. "What a curious creature!" she thought. "I cannot tell if he is a boy or a wolf." She coaxed him out of hiding with sweets and soft words and took him back to her castle in the west, where she taught him words and numbers and the names of the stars.
Many years later a wild girl came out of the woods to dwell in the castle, and she came upon the foundry where the royal blacksmith was as work: he was very strange to look on, but he made all sorts of wonderful things, like magical swords and invisible shields and mirrors that could talk to one another. "What a curious creature!" she thought, and asked him: "Are you a man or a wolf?"
The blacksmith shrugged. "I cannot tell."
She came to a decision, or actually she realized that there wasn't any decision to make. Because she could carry on like this—they could—for a long time; midnight moments and secrets kept and letting everybody else think Kate was losing it, that Ashley was lost. Kate would have the Sanctuary and Ashley wouldn't be alone and nobody else had to know.
Except Kate still had a conscience, had a damn heart, and there had to be something she could do—some way to help—or if there wasn't, she at least had to try something. Anything. She got the feeling Ashley didn't approve, from the silence in her dreams and the way things kept falling off tables when her back was turned, but Ashley was clearly willing to settle for the next best thing.
She had already read enough about ghosts for a lifetime, and even thought she understood some of it, so she cornered Henry right before he left for Comic-Con. "Biggie said you're working on a weapon," she said, leaning in the doorway.
He looked at her oddly while folding up something that looked an awful lot like a Han Solo costume. "I'm always working on weapons," he said. "It's this thing I do."
"I mean a weapon for The Ripper," Kate clarified. "You figured out how to shoot electricity yet?"
"Oh." He very carefully folded his costume into the suitcase and then shoved a bunch of t-shirts on top. "You wouldn't really shoot it, you'd have to figure out how to disrupt it. You know, the pattern."
"You mean the formant-frequency structure?" Kate hazarded.
Henry's head snapped up, and he narrowed his eyes at her, looking very slightly predatory. "Who are you, and what have you done with Freelander?"
"Oh, very funny," she said. "I can read, you know."
"You read Jane's and People," Henry said.
"And other stuff!" She pressed a hand to her chest, going for a full-blown pout. "Seriously, Hank, you're wounding me. I just asked a question."
He sighed, and started zipping the suitcase, round and round the edge. "And I'm still figuring it out, okay? It's not exactly top priority anymore, and I've been arguing with the Big Guy over our room reservation for the past two days."
"Does it involve magnets?" she guessed.
"No." He picked up the suitcase in one hand and slung a backpack over his shoulder.
"Really big magnets?"
Kate stuck an arm out, filling the doorway and cutting him off. "What if there was more than one?"
That was the expression she was look for: he looked confused and annoyed but just a little curious, the urge to jump in and geeksplain the intricate details trying to override his common sense. "No magnets," he said, like he was stifling a laugh. "And no tachyons, and no...no reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, okay? You're thinking about it like—like a teleporter, like the EM shield, and it's totally different."
"How?" she demanded.
Henry looked at his watch and grimaced. Oh, yeah, she had him. "Look, I'll explain it later, okay? He's gonna kill me if we miss our flight just because you want to find new and exciting things to shoot."
She let him through the doorway but followed him down the hallway. "Why won't the Ripper fry in an EM shield? Wasn't the whole point that it's the same kind of thing as zap-jump?"
He stopped, looked around, and then lowered his voice. "A teleporter in transit is an unstable pattern, okay? That's why Druitt is probably spread across four time zones right now. Our buddy Electro is a stable pattern, which means I have to figure out what the pattern is before I figure out how to break it down. If I do it wrong, the best-case scenario is that nothing happens."
"Worst case?" Kate asked, and held her breath.
Henry grimaced. "We make him bigger."
She fought the urge to kiss him them, but only just. "Okay, cool, thanks! Have fun in Nerdtopia!"
"Wait, what?" Henry called after her, but she was already on her way somewhere else.
Once upon a time there was queen who lost her only child and grieved for her greatly. "I would have her back at any price," she said, "even the cost of my own life." And one day the princess returned, and the queen so rejoiced that she did not see how quiet and strange the girl had become, or that she would not eat the delicious meals set before her, but only individual peas balanced on the end of a knife.
The next morning, one of the queen's horses was found dead, with its heart cut out. The queen was annoyed, and set a guard to watch for whatever beast had done this. The next morning, the guard was found dead, with his heart cut out, and the queen became afraid: so she asked her truest knight to stand watch for the murderer. The next morning, he was found dead, with his heart cut out, and the queen became furious.
She determined to set the watch herself that night, and walked the battlements alone with a naked sword in one hand and a philtre in the other, which gave off light that only she could see. At midnight, when the moon was high, she found her daughter in the kitchens, and she rejoiced, for she thought the girl was finally eating proper food.
But when she raised the philtre higher, she was horrified by what she saw: for one her servants lay dead, and her daughter was devouring his heart. "What have you done?" the queen cried in horror.
But her daughter had no reason in her eyes. "O mother, sit at table with me," she said, "for if I eat but one more heart I shall be truly human again." And the queen raised her sword, and the monster with her daughter's face smiled.
Stop it, Ashley asked her, a voice in the darkness: this had nothing to do with touching or sex and Kate hadn't even taken anything. Let me be.
I can't, Kate told her. You can't live like this.
I can't die like this either.
Kate reached for her, for anything she could hold onto. I think there's a way to bring you back. There's got to be a way to bring you back.
This is better for everyone, Ashley said. This is safe.
Kate thought of bloody claws and scarlet eyes and woke up gasping, and uncertain, and alone.
Once upon a time, in the distant east, a queen and her warriors were fighting a battle that they could not win. In her desperate fear, the queen called upon the goddess Kali, who appeared out of the darkness with flaming eyes and sword in every hand. Kali was very beautiful but very fierce, and she destroyed the queen's enemies and won the battle.
But Kali became drunk on the blood of her foes, and began to dance a terrible dance, and the stomping of her feet shook the universe to its foundations. The queen called out to Kali to have mercy, but Kali did not hear her; the other gods called out and were ignored. Even great Shiva could not stop her dancing, so he did the next best thing, which was to lay down on the ground and let her dance on his body; and instead of shaking the pillars of the world, she danced upon Lord Shiva, beating him down with every step.
Was he hurt? Of course not, don't be stupid. He was a god.
Mumbai was hot, and Mumbai was home, and in Mumbai Kate was too busy to think about ghosts. She was busy searching slums and fighting bad guys and sitting by Will's shoulder while he spoke Hindi to a giant spider in his head. She was busy holding on tight while the world shook itself to pieces around her, unable to do anything but hold on and understanding, a little bit, why people would think that Bertha was a god.
They were all exhausted by the time they got back to the Mumbai Sanctuary, but for a while they just sat around Will's bedside, waiting to see if his bloodwork was going to level out. Magnus had to come and go to shout at Wexford and Declan and a few other people; Henry was in and out doing geekomancy on Bertha's new containment system; Ravi had a whole city's worth of agitated Abnormals to comfort. Kate had nowhere else to be, so she kept an eye on Will's vital signs and waited for him to wake up.
I'm sorry I yelled at you, she thought, but couldn't bring herself to say it, even when they were alone. I'm sorry I've been all bitchy and secret-keepy. I'm sorry I made you think I'm not your friend. I'm sorry I wouldn't let you be mine.
He turned his head towards her and murmured something that almost sounded like, "S'allright."
"Is he reading your mind?" Magnus asked mildly from the doorway.
She sat down just as calmly as you please, and Kate was torn for a moment as to which of them she was going to stare at. "Is he supposed to be?" she eventually croaked.
"Mmm, it was always a possibility." She crossed her legs and reclined against the back of her chair—Magnus did things like that, reclining where Kate was simply slumped. "The Maakri caused dramatic changes to his brain structure that allowed him to communicate with Bertha; there's a possibility that some of them may become permanent."
"So you're saying he's got actual spidey sense now?" It wasn't so much the pun that made her break out in giggles as the look on Magnus' face as she tried to navigate it. Laughing felt good, after all the end of days crap they'd been through, because if she couldn't laugh at shit like this what else was there to do?
Magnus fiddled with Will's IV bag and then poked and prodded him a little bit. He actually twitched away from a gentle prod at his ribs, and Magnus nodded like this was good news. "We won't be able to tell for certain until the toxins finally clear his system. It might be a transient phenomenon."
"But it's definitely 'until'?" Kate prompted. "Not 'if'?"
Magnus looked at his pinched, sunburnt face for a few minutes, then said quietly, "At the moment, I cannot bear to think otherwise."
Not out of the woods yet. Okay. Kate reached out and squeezed Will's wrist. You don't get to go yet, she thought, but this time he didn't respond.
They sat in silence for a while, on opposite sides of Will's bed; Kate gave up on appearances and pulled her knees to her chest. "I ought to be used to this by now," Magnus suddenly said, very quietly. "Lord knows this would not be the first time a fine man has died too soon while I live on. There are times I wish I could put you all under glass, freeze you in time...but of course, that worked so well for Ashley..."
It was the first time in a long time that Kate had heard Magnus say the name without flinching; she had to bite her tongue, literally bite down, to keep from blurting something out. That gave her time to actually think about what she'd just heard. "What do you mean, freeze in time?"
Magnus smiled sadly, eyes distant. "I became pregnant long before I was ready to become a mother. I kept Ashley in stasis for years, even convinced myself it was for her own protection—from her father, from my work—until one day I ran out of excuses." Her smiled slipped. "I have never regretted bringing her into the world, and I cherish every day we had together, but I do not think I will ever quite forgive her for leaving me."
Stasis. Kate's memory cast back to the hidden vault full of tanks and machines, decades worth of them, because duh, Druitt couldn't be her father and Jack the Ripper except in that order. It made her think of something she'd read in all those thick old books, something weird, but though she could almost picture the page in her head the details wouldn't resolve. Not like it mattered at the moment, though. She'd file it away for later.
On the bed Will's eyelids twitched in his sleep.
Once upon a time, a girl went searching for her lost love. She searched far and wide for a long time, and traveled east of the sun and west of the moon, to the depths of the sea and the tops of the highest mountains. Finally she came upon a wise old man who lived alone deep in the forest, and he told her: "Your love labors under a grave enchantment and there is but one thing to break it. You must find a certain flower, which is red like the heart's blood, which has leaves like open hands and white thorns like the fangs of the beast; and you must wait until dawn on All Hallow's Eve, when all the world is bedewed and witches go abroad; and only then must you pluck this flower. The one drop of dew in the center of the flower will become a powerful tonic that will cure any ill, break any curse and turn base iron into gold."
"And where do I find this flower?" the girl asked.
The sage smiled. "If I knew that, d'you think I'd still be living in the forest?"
Ashley welcomed her back with a steady presence and butterfly breezes on the back of her neck, light and fleeting and almost reluctant. Kate couldn't hide a smile, couldn't help but think, Missed you, too.
Will frowned and looked up as they wheeled him through the main gates. "Is something the matter?" Magnus asked.
"No," he said, looking around. Shook his head. "Maybe. I dunno."
He'd been saying things like that a lot, and looking at people funny, but he hadn't showed any more signs of reading minds, so Kate ignored it. She helped maneuver his wheelchair over the doorjamb, and then took off on her own, fully intent on taking advantage of fourteen hours of jetlag and a nap on the plane.
She found herself in the library, sorting through books again—old ones but also newer ones, stuff Magnus had had printed out and bound because she was a million years old and didn't believe in e-readers. Kate kept Wikipedia open on her laptop and tried to teach herself physics, or at least enough physics to know what the hell the books were talking about. Ashley retaliated by turning pages when she wasn't looking, and occasionally knocking things over just out of her reach.
"Oh, real mature," Kate muttered the tenth time she lost her place. "What are you so afraid of?"
A burst of moving air fluttered the pages in her hand.
"Well, okay, besides that," Kate said. "Because it's not like I've never dated a psychotic monster before. The claws would be new, though."
A whole pile of books collapsed into a heap of crumpled pages and broken spines.
Kate winced. "Sorry. Not funny. I know."
She picked up the mess and settled back at her chair, where a few random parts of the Greek alphabet were currently making fun of her. She rubbed her eyes, but no, the symbols didn't make any more sense. "I'm not giving up on this," she muttered, as much for Ashley as herself.
"Are you talking to yourself in here?"
It was damn good that Kate hadn't brought a gun to the library, or Henry might've got shot. As it was she jumped halfway out of her chair and turned to him, freezing him in his tracks while he juggled a laptop, coffee and a bagel. "Hi," Kate said, after a moment.
"Have you been to sleep yet?" he asked warily.
"I slept on the plane."
Henry craned his neck. "And your laptop's still on Mumbai time. Is that the Heisenburg principle?"
Kate resisted the urge to slam the lid down, but she did reset the system clock and...oh. Maybe it was time to call it a day. (Night?) "I'm teaching myself algebra," she told Henry, to explain the books.
"That's calculus," he said, looking over her shoulder.
"Damn, I'm gonna fail that GED."
He looked alarmed for a minute, like he honestly didn't know if she was kidding or not, and Kate decided on a strategic retreat. But then Henry had to go and say, "You still interested in the Electro gun?"
"Yeah, sure." She watched him settle halfway down the table with his stuff, and she would totally call him on this later when he complained about the crumbs in her keyboard. "You get it figured out over the Atlantic or something?"
"More like I figured out how to figure it out," he said. "I was banging my head into walls trying to get an accurate pattern measurement from Ripper's Day Out, but then I remembered we got all those tissue samples from Druitt during the Lazarus thing."
"What's Druitt's bloodwork got to do with Electro, though?" Kate asked.
"I can use those to extrapolate a complete base pattern for him, then compare that to the intermediate measurements I got from Electro—" He noticed her eyes glazing over and waved one hand vaguely. "Then, you know, Science happens, and I've got my target pattern."
"And then you can either amplify it or scramble it," Kate said.
Henry gave her a thumbs-up. "Well done, Padawan. I'm gonna get you into a pocket protector yet."
"I'll stick with the holster, thanks," Kate assured him. She thought over what he was saying. "Hey, Hank."
He looked up with the bagel clenched between his teeth.
"If you know what Druitt's base pattern is supposed to look like, can't you bring him back?" she asked carefully, projecting perfect innocent curiosity (or so she hoped.)
He took the bagel out of his mouth and made a face at her. "If this was the Starship Enterprise? Sure. But the pattern's no good unless you have the stuff to fill it in with."
"Like what?" Kate asked.
He shrugged. "Well, his actual body, if it wasn't in a couple trillion pieces right now. Next best thing would be any human body of the same mass, because you've got to have the fight pieces to go in the right slots of the pattern...but the further you get from the original, the harder it would be to force it into the pattern." He took another bite out of his bagel. "Plus, you know, even if I could do it, it might be evil, what with how we'd be raising the dead or possibly cloning him, depending on how you look at it."
"Gotcha," Kate said, thinking hard.
Henry smirked at her. "Sure you do," he said. "Now get some sleep."
She gave him the finger on her way out.
Once upon a time a wild girl lived in a beautiful castle in the west, among the lords and ladies, and she told them all, "I have a horse so fleet that the eye cannot track him, and a bow with a string so thin a spider could not walk upon it, and a cloak of cloth so rich and fine that only people of quality and intelligence can even see it." And the lords and ladies marveled over these things, and even the queen was impressed; and only one knight, who was very very wise, doubted her.
But when he said, "Can you ride into the forest on your horse? Can you shoot an arrow with your bow? Can you carry grain in your cloak?" all the people said he must be quite simple, not to appreciate these beautiful things. But the wild girl kept her eye on him, and he on her.
Kate went back down into the vaults, back to where the stasis chambers lived. She counted fourteen of them, from a brass-and-bellows monster as large as she was to something the size of a fish tank with buttons that looked like they came from Star Trek. They were obviously old, and mostly non-functional, gathering dust where the dropcloths had slipped. They weren't real clean inside, either, but not from dust.
This was the very definition of a long shot, but it wasn't like she could go asking where Magnus had any old blood samples laying around. She had to start with something. She just hoped it wasn't too old.
Kate had just smuggled the most likely candidate into an empty office when she ran into Will. He was walking around under his own power again, which was good, but he was walking around looking at the ceiling, which was not. "Careful," she yelped, steering him out of her path (and away from the door).
He looked down and blinked at her. "Oh. Sorry. Um."
She knew he was still recovering from whatever whammy Bertha had done to his brain, and at least he wasn't speaking Hindi or breaking into interpretive dance in public, but still. "What's up, Doc?" she asked, hoping he'd tease back, or make a face, or something normal.
He just looked up again, and frowned, and made her blood run cold. "Do you ever get the feeling you're being watched?
Once upon a time, there was a princess who was strong and brave and clever and kind, but she was trapped at the top of a tall tower with no means to climb out. The best and bravest in the land tried to climb the tower and come to her, and finally one succeeded, and the princess was elated. "Now take me away from this place, and we will be married, and my mother the queen will reward you richly!"
But her rescuer looked down the side of the tower, and saw all the fallen knights and heroes who had failed to make the climb, and all those who were on their way or preparing to come up, and said, "Maybe we should wait a little while."
Are you cheating on me? she asked Ashley, somewhere in exhausted sleep, and she didn't mean it except she kind of did.
The hands on her shoulders went still and slow. Are you thinking of Will?
He knows you're here.
He could help you.
Kate reached again for her, for something that wasn't even there. I don't want his help.
Lips brushed her ear, and arms came together to hold her. For a minute, Kate could pretend that she could hold them in return. What are you afraid of?
That you won't be mine.
Once upon a time a man went walking in the forest when he was stopped by a wild-looking girl. "Turn back," she said. "There is a horrible witch in these woods who eats up children."
"I'm not a child," the man said, and kept going, for he had something he was searching for.
A little while later the same girl stopped him again. "Go back while you still can," she said. "There is a horrible wolf in these woods that devours men whole."
"I am a horrible wolf that devours men whole," the man replied, and kept going, for he was a skinchanger.
A little while later the same girl came stopped him a third time. "Leave the woods," she said. "There is a fairy princess here, and any man who looks on her while she bathes will be punished."
"These woods are large and I am alone," the man said. "I am hardly going to stumble upon your fairy princess."
The wild girl sighed, and hit the man over the head with a large branch. The last thing he heard was, "I did give you a chance to turn back."
Kate was actually afraid of several things: that they'd condemn her for keeping a secret, withdraw the trust she hadn't asked for and didn't know how to hold onto. That they'd be insulted or angry that she'd stepped in from the outside and presumed to save the day, when she'd never met Ashley, only knew her in the dark. That they wouldn't help, or worse, would try to stop her, would tell her that it was wrong, would make her let go.
She was woefully under-qualified for the plan that was taking shape in her head, but she wanted it, more than she could ever remember wanting anything else all the way back to when her father died. That had to be worth something.
Henry had gotten around to doodling plans for the Electro gun, and Kate copied them onto a flash drive while annoying him in his lab. "So how do you even do the sciencey parts?" she asked, fiddling with the stations on his radio while the files transferred. "The pattern extrapolation gizmo?"
"I'm working on the program," he said, but he was also building a shock collar big enough for a liopleuridon, so she guessed he wasn't working real hard. "Still got to process the inputs. Something funky turned up when I was going over the data."
"Funky how?" she asked, alarmed. "Like start over funky or—?"
He shook his head. "Just weird stuff. Like interference from a second signal." He prodded something inside the shock collar, which went beep. "I'll futz around with it some more when I've got time."
He didn't even notice when Kate turned back to his computer and searched his whole home directory.
Once upon a time there was a girl who went to live in a castle in the west with her stepmother the queen. And the queen would summon her before the throne, and give her different tasks, and she said, "If you are diligent and steadfast, it will go well for you here."
At first the girl resented the chores she was given, such as cleaning out the hearths and washing the laundry and shaking out the queen's feather bed until the feathers flew like snow. When the queen called her to the throne every morning to give her the same simple tasks, she instead thought about leaving, going back into the forest with the ravens and the wolves. But every night, when she came to dinner, she reported to the queen that she had done all that was asked of her, and the queen replied, "You have done very well indeed."
This went on for a long time. Finally, one day, the girl asked the queen, "What would you do if I asked to leave the castle?"
"I would fill your pockets with silver and gold and wish you well on your way and a speedy return," the queen replied.
"How do you know I'd return, though?" the girl asked. "I have lived in the woods with the ravens and the wolves. I'm very wild."
"Yes," the queen said, "you are a wild thing, but you also clean the hearths and wash the laundry and shake out my feather bed. You are not so wild that you cannot also choose to be tame."
"I do these things because you tell me to!" she replied.
The queen smiled. "I have not asked you to do these things in many weeks, child. You still do them because you have learned to be dutiful, and that is worth all the coin in the world, and that is how I know you will be back."
She was super underqualified on the sciency parts, but she knew how to build stuff: at least, there wasn't much of a difference between machining car parts and weapons parts, and even if she didn't know what all the pieces of the stasis tank did, she could figure out how they were wired together.
Everything after that was just uneducated guessing, but she suddenly had a feeling she was working to a deadline.
She still had a day job, and when Magnus asked her to come along on a run Kate was actually very genuinely conflicted. It was a fancy dress-up thing with a bunch of quetzies ("Quetzalcohuatli," Magnus corrected, but she sounded amused when she did it) so Kate had to wear ugly shoes and shave her legs and find a shoulder holster that didn't make her blouse bunch up all weird; had to pretend to like chili chocolate and eight other dishes she couldn't even name; had to look interested when the conversation lapsed into Nahuatl.
On the other hand, Ashley wasn't exactly going anywhere.
"You seem quiet," Magnus said, on the ride back home.
"I have no idea what we just accomplished," Kate admitted.
She smiled. "Absolutely nothing. Then again, neither did they."
"See, this," Kate told her, "is why I usually just drive the car."
But then she made the mistake of taking off her blazer and rolling up her sleeves—it was sunny out, and Magnus had this thing about air conditioning—there was no hiding the bigass band-aid on her wrist. "What happened there?" Magnus asked, in that voice that made Kate think of every doctor she'd ever gone to and also her mom.
"Soldering iron," Kate said, because the best lies came from truth. "I was working on the van and I did a dumb thing."
Magnus looked away from the road long enough to eyeball it. "You should let me have a look at it, just in case."
"It's a soldering iron," Kate repeated. "I've had worse."
"It could scar."
"I've got plenty of those."
"So why acquire another?"
Kate didn't have an answer for that.
Magnus merged off the highway before she asked, in the doctor-and-mom voice, "What were you doing to the poor van, anyway? Or should I ask, what had it done to you?"
"Ignition switch," Kate said, first thing that came to mind.
"I don't recall any trouble with the ignition recently."
Of course Magnus knew the complete maintenance record of the Sanctuary van, just like she knew Nahuatl, just like she knew how to make Kate feel like a teenager again. Kate had hated her teens. "I thought it was starting kind of rough," she muttered, looking out the window.
Magnus waited a few miles more before saying, quietly, "How did you actually burn yourself, Kate?"
Kate took a deep breath, and shut her eyes, and told herself that she wasn't a teenager anymore. She told herself that the deadline was nearly here. "I'll explain later," she said. "By which I mean, uh, Tuesday. Promise."
And Magnus, after a moment, nodded.
Once upon a time a girl went searching for her lost lover, and found herself standing at the gates of Hell. It was guarded by a great beast with three heads, but the girl was not afraid of it. "I have come to save my love," she told it. "Stand aside."
The beast was so shocked by the girl's bravery that it stopped in its tracks. "How dare you trespass in the land of the dead?" its left-hand head asked.
"I have a cloak," the girl said, "that will protect me from all the shades except my one true love."
"How shall you find her?" asked the right-hand head.
"I have a flute," she said, "that will draw her to me, for she will know its sound, even in death."
"And how shall you come out again?" asked the center head.
The girl blinked. "I have a lamp," she said. "I will light our way."
But the beast shook all three heads. "Listen. This is what you must do to save your love. Go down into Hell and play your flute, but you must walk backwards and keep your eyes shut. When you have circled all of Hell three times, you may walk out again, and if your lover is as you say, she will follow. But you must not look behind to see if she is coming; for if you look on her before she sets foot in sunlight, she will vanish, and you will never find her again."
"I can do that," the girl said firmly. "For my love, I can do anything."
"Are you certain?" it asked her. "Is your love stronger than your doubt?"
Be careful, Ashley whispered to her, when she fell asleep on the floor of the office-slash-worksshop.
I don't have the hard part, Kate reminded her.
She could feel Ashley touching her, or maybe just looking at her, because maybe it was all the same thing for a ghost: nothing sexual, just strong hands with little calluses in her hair, on her face, across her back and stomach. Like she was memorizing something she might lose. That doesn't mean you're safe.
Once upon a time...
No, of course not.
There's no such thing a fairy tales.
Monday night, Kate waited until well after dinner to shut off the security cameras. Well, not all of them; just the ones that would take her from the office-workshop-disaster area to the holding tanks on the third floor. She loaded the stasis tank and the gun—which came out looking like a Ghost Busters prop and was partly assembled with duct tape—and the car battery and the radio and the fire extinguisher and the water onto a dolly; she ran.
She had figured out exactly how much time it would take Henry to get the cameras back up once somebody noticed they were out, but not so much on how the dolly didn't really corner well, or at all; the seconds ticked away. The biggest of the three holding tanks was big, more of a small room, and she had to haul everything in by hand because the dolly wouldn't go over the lip of the hatch.
By the time she'd got the battery connected to the stasis chamber, she could hear someone running. "Kate!" Magnus shouted. "Kate, what the hell are you doing?"
She shut the hatch, and jammed a screwdriver into the emergency release.
Because the tank wasn't supposed to lock from the inside, or do much of anything else, really; after all, it was made to hold things that didn't have bodies to do things with, and at the same time that didn't mean they were things you really wanted to hang out with. Kate had had to come in beforehand with some old blueprints and a hunting knife and cut holes in the insulation just so she could reach the parts she needed. She spliced a couple of wires into the stasis chamber, and another couple of wires into the base pack of the gun, quick and dirty with too much tape.
The intercom came on. "Kate, whatever it is you think you're doing, you need to stop right now and come out of there," Magnus said urgently.
"What the hell are you doing, anyway?" Henry asked.
Kate clamped the cables onto the battery, and the stasis chamber rattled to life. "Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow," she said, because if she didn't say something they were going to start to think she was possessed or something.
"You did not just say that," Henry said, as though all geekdom had just betrayed him.
"Kate, this chamber is hermetically sealed," Magnus pointed out. "If you ignite anything in there, it will consume all your oxygen. You'll asphyxiate."
"I brought a fire extinguisher," she pointed out. Once the chamber was plugged into the gun, she reached around under a loose flap of insulation and found the manual switch for the tank's EM field. She tied a string around it.
"I can shut down the electricity to this entire wing," Magnus said direly, but there was a note of panic in her voice she couldn't quite hide. "That battery can't possibly sustain all your equipment."
"Kate," Will said, "You can't bring her back. She's too far gone."
She glanced back at the door, at the tiny glass porthole into the outside world: Will's eyes were big and blue and he was looking right at her, and he knew, and Kate's plan was all halfassed and crazy and involved the use of duct tape.
But it was her plan, her duct tape, her Sanctuary too. She flipped the safety off the gun. "Somebody's got to try."
She kicked the radio, which wasn't strictly speaking a radio anymore, and imagined that she could feel something in the air charge and change. She could definitely feel it move, though—not a breeze, not a brush, a whip of wind that pulled at her hair and tossed scraps of insulation. It knocked the radio over. I'm sorry, she thought, just in case Ashley could hear, just in case this hurt—for whatever that meant to a ghost. But she'd figured out the first step was getting as many pieces as possible into one place, and it had kind of amused her to turn the radio into a kind of molecular duck call.
When the rush of wind seemed like it couldn't get any stronger, Kate pulled the string on the tank's EM shield. That really did make a palpable hum, and it sent something in the stasis chamber grinding, which she hadn't expected. She had Ashley in one space now, or as much of her as she could; she just needed to get her all in one place. And the gun could be loaded with the info from the day she fell apart, the same day Kate had shot her, but to make sure Ashley was herself, was whole, it also needed something going back to before she was born. The original pattern, not the thing the Cabal had made her.
The grinding of the chamber was severe enough to rattle Kate's teeth, to drown out anything else Will or Henry or Magnus might've said. She had to charge up the gun next, but the buttons (repurposed from the radio) were too hot to handle; she'd fucked up the wiring somewhere, hadn't bothered with a cooling fan. Her eyes fell on the bottle of water, which was supposed to be if the stasis chamber started to overheat—she twisted the top off with her teeth and doused the base pack of the gun, splashing water everywhere. It sizzled a little, but it let her mash down the buttons, and the lights on the business end of the gun came on. She stepped over the cable that linked it to the base and aimed into the center of the whirlwind.
Since it was basically a ray gun, it didn't have any recoil: of course, it also didn't make a ray. It didn't do much of anything for a moment, and Kate was really worried that all this drama was for nothing, that she'd be going out with one hell of a whimper: but then she saw little distortions in the air, little purple sparks like flares of lightening, and her heart soared even if her hands stayed steady.
"Come on," she said, even if no one could hear it; "come on, baby, you can do this—" Head and hands and hips, she could make out the shape, if only she could keep the gun level and steady, keep reinforcing the pattern for Ashley to build herself from; "come on, come on, I got you, just a little more—"
She couldn't hear the popping and snapping over the other noise, but she smelled smoke, and felt a tingle of electric shock through her fingers that had nothing to do with Ashley. There wasn't enough duct tape in the world for this. "Come on!" she shouted at the flickering outline, all purple sparks and moving air and the faintest hint of shadow and dimension. "You can do this! You can make it back!"
Someone pounded on the hatch, and the tank boomed like a drum; Kate honestly didn't know what would happen if they breached the seals at this point. There was smoke leaking out of the cracks in the duct tape, out of the gun in her hands and the machines on the floor and even the walls, where she'd been playing with the wires—but she could see eyelashes now, lips, fingernails, all the little details that she'd been missing, translucent and electric and close enough to touch. Kate tightened her grip on hot metal and plastic.
The door boomed again. Kate felt another power surge bit into her palms.
"Ashley, get your ass back here!"
She saw the moment when Ashley's eyes opened, and they were a cloud of purple light, like something out of a goddamn Disney movie.
Then something went off with a crack like fireworks, and the last thing Kate remembered seeing was fire..
Once upon a time there was a princess in the distant west, who was beautiful and brave and kind and strong; and there was also a wild girl who lived in the forest with the ravens and the wolves. And it came to pass that the princess was captured by a terrible witch, and put under a heavy curse; while the girl of the forest came to dwell in that fantastic castle of the west. And when the queen and all her knights had failed to save the princess, it was the wild girl who smote her in the heart, and when she did the princess disappeared into the air.
Now all the castle was given to mourning and weeping, except the wild girl, who wandered the castle; and one day she heard a voice cry out, "Who are you to dwell in this castle without my leave?"
"The castle is my home as well, and all its grounds are my right," the wild girl replied. "Who are you?"
"I was once a princess and lady of this castle," said the voice, "but I was taken by a terrible witch, and I am under her curse still."
"How can this curse be broken?" the wild girl asked.
"It will be difficult," the princess said, but the girl was not afraid.
From the chief of all the knights she took a book of wisdom, and from the royal blacksmith she took a magic weapon, and from the queen herself she took a philtre of light for dark places. Then she went into the depths of the castle, in the deep parts of the night, and called forth the princess using all her strength and courage.
But the curse on the princess was powerful magic: first she appeared as a savage beast, but the wild girl had lived among beasts and was not afraid. Then the princess appeared as a great whirlwind, but the wild girl had weathered storms before. Then the princess became a pillar of blinding fire, but the wild girl was accustomed to pain.
Finally the princess appeared as one dead, laying cold upon the ground; but the wild girl covered the princess with her own rough cloak and kissed her, and the curse was finally broken.
It came full circle in the end: she woke up in the clinic with one hell of a pain in her leg and an analgesic drip. Will was sitting by the side of her bed, not looking at her, but the first thing he said when she started moving was, "It's my professional opinion that you're completely crazy."
Kate's stomach did a funny little flip that may or may not have been painkiller-related. She tried to push herself up, and found her left leg was a mass of burn dressings. Explained what happened to the gun. "Takes one to know one," she said weakly. "Is this the part where you dump me at a hospital in the New City and delete my passwords?"
He reached out and grabbed her forearm. "You did it, Kate. She's back."
Stupidly, she looked around, like Ashley was going to appear on the open ward in a shower of purple sparks. Magnus had probably carted her off to pack in bubble wrap. Or maybe... "Is she, you know?" She mimed clawing at the air, a little snarl. "Is she?"
Will shook his head. "She seems okay. Hasn't regained consciousness yet, but Magnus says she's stable."
He winced, and she admitted she maybe hit an inadvisable note there. "And stable," he repeated. "Whatever you did—and Henry is not going to sleep or eat a balanced diet until he figures it out, you realize—you put her back together again, but she still spent almost a year...whatever she was. Magnus is with her now."
Well, of course, Magnus was with her. And Kate was...not. She pushed herself up and looked at the burn dressings on her leg, the cuts on her arm and stomach. They felt like shrapnel wounds. No way in hell those weren't going to scar at least a little, and she thought back to the conversation in the car. Because some things are worth it, she thought, too late to answer the question.
It was Tuesday, though. And she had promised.
"Can I go see her?" Kate asked. "Them? You know what I mean?"
Will frowned. "You're not really supposed to move—"
"Dude, Will, I just blew up half the third floor for this," she said, as sternly as she could. "And if I'm gonna get fired for it I want to get it over with."
He sighed. "Technically you only really set fire to the one holding tank," he said. "Henry and the Big Guy are the ones who ripped the hatch off its hinges, and nothing else got damaged. Given the tradeoff, I don't think you have anything to worry about."
She just raised her chin at him. "Are you gonna get me a wheelchair or not?"
He got one, and also one of the fuzzy light-colored robes that they kept on hand for patients, and when he helped her out of bed he averted his eyes and was very careful about what he did with his hands. Bending her knee turned out to hurt like hell, even with whatever happy juice was in her IV, but Will got the stirrups on the chair set and Kate figured she could stand the discomfort for a little while. Say, a couple of hours. Or whenever Ashley woke up. Or till Magnus kicked her out of the room. Whatever came first.
"Can I ask one question?" Will asked while he pushed he through the warren of white hallways in the clinic wing. He didn't wait for her to answer. "How did you even know Ashley was still here?"
"Why'd you think she was too far gone?" Kate shot back.
He sighed somewhere behind her, and her neck was too stiff to bother turning around and looking at him. "I could sense something here, but it wasn't...I thought it was just a trace, like some kind of memory trace. I couldn't tell she was real." He paused. "Of course, I couldn't say that about a lot of things..."
"Don't take this the wrong way, but you're pleasantly coherent right now," she pointed out.
"Sertraline," Will explained. "Lots of it. If I'd been this together a couple weeks ago..."
Kate sighed. "If you'd been this together you would've stopped me."
He didn't answer that, and she took it as agreement.
Ashley was in a private exam room, and Kate had to repeat in her head stable, stable, stable when she saw her: had to stop and catalogue the wires and tubes as just a heart monitor, just an oxygen cannula, just an IV. Ashley looked downright translucent, all blue veins and bruises under her eyes, hair limp and bunched up against the pillow, her smock and her blankets all the same shade of white.
She was breathing on her own, though. Her heart was steady. She was solid and real and all in one piece and something in Kate finally unwound.
Magnus was hunched up in a chair on the other side of the bed, clutching a teacup; she had dark bags under her eyes too, and Kate wondered how she'd been out, how long Magnus had been sitting here waiting for Ashley. Magnus had to hear them coming in, but it took her a minute to lift her eyes and acknowledge them.
Will parked Kate by the bed and slipped out without saying a word. Smart man.
"You really shouldn't be out of bed," Magnus said after a moment.
"Yeah," Kate said, "but you know how I am with following instructions."
Magnus snorted softly, and went back to looking at Ashley. "She's very weak, but stable," she said distantly, before Kate had to ask. "The process of reintegrating her molecules left her body chemistry extremely unbalanced, but I've managed to normalize her heart rate and her kidney and liver functions are already improving. Her muscle tone and bone density are both good, though lower than her last physical, and a PET shows normal brain activity thus far. If she doesn't wake up in a few hours I may have to insert a feeding tube, but I'm hoping it won't be necessary."
"And she's not," Kate said, "you know, scary anymore?"
"No trace of the Cabal's butchery, no," Magnus said. She sipped her tea, then glanced down at it, as if she was surprised it had gone cold.
Kate looked at Ashley's face, and realized she was really seeing her, really seeing her, for the first time: not a photograph, not a monstrous parody of herself, not a fragmented ghost. She seemed...short. Can't ever say I only want you for your body, she thought to herself, and had to smother a hysterical little laugh. That was too inappropriate even for her.
Magnus set her teacup aside and rolled her shoulders. "To think she was here all this time."
Kate swallowed, not sure how to say this or even if she should. "She didn't want me to tell you."
"Instructions you followed to the letter," Magnus said, eyes flicking up just a moment.
"That's not why I didn't say anything," Kate said.
She looked at Ashley's pale face, not Magnus's. "Because it wouldn't have done anything but hurt you."
Magnus exhaled noisily, and spread her hands flat over her thighs, like she was trying to keep them still. "You're a marvel," she said. "Without a background in the sciences, without giving anything away, you built that ridiculous machine..."
"I basically copied Henry's homework," she hastened to point out.
"You succeeded where I failed," Magnus said, and she looked at Kate with wounded eyes. It might've been anger in her voice, or admiration, or regret, or a hundred other things. "If I'd known, if I'd had any inkling..."
Kate held her breath.
"...I don't suppose I would have changed a thing." She reached out and pushed some minute strand of hair out of Ashley's eyes. "Not unless I knew it would still lead us here."
"With Ashley back?"
Magnus raised an eyebrow. "And you sitting at her bedside, being infuriating as ever."
Kate felt her face go hot, and didn't have a clue what to say to that.
Magnus rolled her shoulders, stood and stretched. "I need to step out for a moment," she said. "Will you stay with her, in case she wakes up?"
"You have to ask?" Kate croaked.
"No," Magnus said, warmly, and there it was: a tiny ghost of a smile sneaking up one side of her mouth. "I suppose not."
The door closed, and it was just Kate and Ashley and the murmuring machines. It was...awkward, a little. Kate had never really believed in talking to people who were unconscious—that was kind of the definition of unconscious, wasn't it?—but she'd gotten kind of used to the knowledge that wherever she was, whatever she said, somebody was listening. "Hey," she said softly. "We kicked ass back there, didn't we?"
There was no response—not a twitch of eyelids, not a mysterious breeze.
So no talking, then. She'd never been real good at that anyway. She looked at Ashley's hand, bloodless pale on the white blanket, and very carefully traced the arch of each knuckle, the paths of the veins. Warm and solid and alive. She ran her fingers up Ashley's forearm, against the grain of the downy blonde hair, well wide of the sticker that covered her IV and just inside the sleeve of her smock. Alive and well and present. The blanket was pulled up nearly to her neck, but Kate could trace the edge of it, the faint contours of ribs and collarbone, one tendon of her neck—
She shifted, trying to reach more, and her knee raised one hell of a protest. She shifted again and the wheelchair stirrup knocked loudly into the bed rail.
With a bit of cursing and some trial and error, she got the chair rotated and backed it into the notch between the bed and the IV stand. That got her more or less level with Ashley's face. She could cup her chin, stroke her hair and trace the curve of her lower lip; she could feel soft breath and a fluttering pulse, not just see the blips on a screen; and it took a little painful squirming, but she managed to lean up over the rail, to turn Ashley's face and press a careful little kiss to her lips.
Kate held the kiss as long as she could, which wasn't long, seeing as she was holding more of her weight on her arms rather than her leg. When she slumped back into the wheelchair, she found herself looking into half-opened, bright blue eyes.
"Hey," she blurted, breaking out in a grin despite herself.
"Hey yourself," Ashley whispered, barely audible, and she caught Kate's hand in a firm squeeze.
Once upon a time, there was a girl, and another girl, and they lived happily ever after.