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"For the record, Laszlo, the only reason why I've agreed to help you with this insanity is because I know if I didn't, you'd find some way to do it on your own."

Laszlo looked up from arranging items on the silver tray that he had, for some Laszlo Kreizler reason, chosen to bear the implements of his own demise. "And I thank you for it, John. You too, Sara."

John glanced back to see Sara incline her head in a slight acknowledging nod. Her face was grim and set.

They were in Laszlo's study, but it had been transformed. There were lit candles everywhere, on almost every surface, filling the room with a light nearly as bright as daylight—but flickering and atavistic, taking John straight back to his childhood, when candles were as ordinary as gas lamps and much more so than the brand new electric lights that had become so common now.

The couch had a blanket draped over it, and John couldn't help thinking of it as a bier.

Laszlo laid out a steel syringe on the white cloth draped on the tray. "I know you both fear that this is ..."

"Impossible?" John said. "Dangerous? Potentially lethal? Yes, it's crossed my mind."

Laszlo gave them both a brief smile, and picked up one of the bottles sitting beside the syringes on the tray. Another sliver of a smile, very tight, didn't reach his eyes.

"Do not mix these two up. This one contains a tincture of purified potassium. It will stop the heart." He set it carefully down and picked up the other. "An extract of the adrenal glands. Epinephrine. Very new. In laboratory experiments it has been used to restart the hearts of experimental animals."

"Animals?!" John burst out. "Laszlo, we can't. This is insane. At the very least, if we could just—"

"Do what? Talk about it?" Laszlo shook his head. He set the tray carefully on a table by the end of the couch. "My mind is made up." He began to draw up a syringe from the first bottle, but looked over his shoulder at both of them. "I will find her and bring her back. I appreciate your help in this matter."

John had to laugh; it was just so utterly beyond anything he'd ever imagined that he would find himself involved with. Let alone Laszlo, with his sharp fixation on observable and natural reality, his dismissiveness of anything he considered sentimental. "Laszlo, you can't just go into the—into the afterlife and get Mary, the world doesn't work like that."

"There is more to the world, John, than any of us know. There are mysteries beyond the ordinary." He began to draw up the second syringe. "I have researched this in detail. Trust me, I believe that it would be the height of superstitious foolishness to take any single religious belief as the objective nature of the world, and—" A slight smile tugged at his mouth. "I say this as one who grew up Catholic. But—John. Sara. The commonalities, the points of similarity between many cultures' beliefs in ghosts and the afterlife hint at an objective truth of the world. There is more to reality than what we can observe with our own five senses." He turned around with the large silver syringe glinting in his hand. "And I intend to observe more of it."

"Laszlo, you're stopping your own heart because you can't let her go and—"

"John," Sara said softly. She touched his arm and moved past him. She had remained quiet for the most part, though she was watching it all, taking it in with that quick, bright intelligence that John so admired in her. Now she stepped forward and reached out to lay a light hand on Laszlo's arm. "Laszlo—are you absolutely sure about this?"

"I am," he said just as quietly.

"And you believe that you can do this safely."

"Relatively safely, yes. It's all based on science." He looked past her at John, with almost a pleading look. "I have calculated every aspect."

"I just bet you have," John murmured, but he moved in on Sara's heels as Laszlo sat on the couch.

Laszlo held the syringe in his good hand, and made an abortive move to pull up the sleeve with his other hand, then desisted in obvious frustration. Sara knelt beside him, gathering her skirts, and gave him a look, waiting for his slight nod before she rolled up his sleeve.

"Above the elbow," Laszlo said. "Yes, like that. John, the ligature, please?"

John heaved a sigh of mingled annoyance and worry, and picked up the strap from the tray. He bent down to pass it first to Laszlo, then to Sara when she intercepted his hand.

"Have either of you administered an intravenous injection before?" Laszlo asked. When they both shook their heads, he held out his arm in Sara's direction. "Please tie off the ligature tightly above the elbow. It will make the vein stand out. Which of you is to do it?"

John opened his mouth and then closed it. Sara said, "I will." Her voice was calm.

Laszlo placed the syringe in her hand. His hands were steady, but John couldn't help noticing that he was very pale. There was a certain look to Laszlo when he was scared out of his mind, and this was it. John wondered if Sara knew Laszlo well enough yet to recognize that.

"The potassium will enter my bloodstream and stop the heart in a matter of moments. The second injection should ideally be administered directly to the muscle of the heart, between the upper ribs. That's how it was done in the animal experiments."

Sara said, "Please show me."

Laszlo hesitated only briefly, then unbuttoned his shirt one-handed, exposing a slice of his chest with a light dusting of dark hair. Sara flushed faintly but didn't look away.

"Here," Laszlo said, touching with his fingertips. His other, withered hand rested beside him, twitching a little as the rest of him moved with the casual animation that took him when in the grip of a mood like this. "Please go ahead, feel the ribs. It will not embarrass me."

He looked as if this was very much not the case, but Sara, pink-cheeked, ran her fingertips over his chest and nodded.

"You will need to slide the syringe between these ribs. Here ... feel the space? If you insert it directly here—see the angle—" He demonstrated with his fingers. "The needle will enter the heart and restart it."

"I can't believe we're basing this off experiments on animals," John muttered, to distract Sara from her obvious embarrassment (that Laszlo in typical Laszlo fashion was indifferent to) if nothing else. "How do you know it'll work?"

"A human heart is not that different from a dog or a pig," Laszlo said. His gaze flicked up to John, and actually looked amused, although how he could manage that, John had no idea. "As you would know if you'd ever attended an autopsy with me."

"Don't make me attend yours," John said.

Laszlo's gaze slid away from his.

"From my research on this topic, it should be perfectly safe to leave me in this state for two to three minutes with no ill effects. Please give me the epinephrine injection at the three-minute mark." He lay down, arranging himself carefully on his back on the couch, and flexed his hand. "I believe the vein should be accessible now. Sara, you will be ready with the needle. John, do you have a timepiece?"

John curled his fingers around the silver stopwatch in his palm. "I do," he said tightly.

"Please pay close attention to the time. Three minutes, no more or less."

John still couldn't believe they were doing this. That they had allowed Laszlo to talk them into this.

"Are you ready?" Sara asked. Her voice was soft yet intense, her hand lightly cupped under his elbow while her other hand held the syringe above his arm. There was an intense tenderness in the way she held him, and in what John could see of her face, that should—perhaps—have hurt. But it didn't; it only flooded him with a tender desperate hurt, a love for both of them that left him barely able to breathe.

He held the stopwatch and carefully picked up the loaded epinephrine syringe with the other hand.

"I am," Laszlo said quietly. His eyes were locked onto Sara's. "John, do you have the time?"

"Yes," John said. He had to force himself to wrench his gaze off the two of them and look down at the watch, fixing the time in his mind.

"Three minutes," Laszlo said, his gaze still fixed on Sara.

"I'm not an idiot, Laszlo," John said impatiently.

He regretted it an instant later, and regretted it sharply, when Laszlo gave Sara a slight nod and she plunged the needle into his arm, and the horrible thought occurred to John that those might be the last words they ever said to each other.

Laszlo's head arched back, his whole body jerking in a spasm. Sara wrenched the syringe back with a sharp gasp. Blood welled bright on Laszlo's arm.

"John," she said, sounding choked. She untied the binding around Laszlo's arm in a single swift motion and then held up a hand, palm open.

John was staring at Laszlo, who jerked once more and then subsided into a slow slide into limp stillness that was a shocking antithesis of everything Laszlo was.

"John!"

He snapped back to himself and handed her the epinephrine syringe.

"Please give me the time, John. How long has it been?"

"Only about fifteen seconds." It seemed much longer. He could barely breathe himself, as if his own lungs were paralyzed in sympathy with Laszlo's.

Laszlo, who was unmoving, utterly and completely. John moved forward—he knew what he would find, but he laid his hand on Laszlo's throat anyway. There was nothing, no flutter of pulse, no breathing.

He had felt this before, the sense-memory imprinted on his hands of his brother's cold and damp skin on the lakeshore as John had fought desperately to rub life into cold limbs.

"The time, John," Sara said, her voice soft and implacable.

John swallowed. "A minute and a half."

They both stared at Laszlo, at his utter stillness, his failure to move or breathe. John's hand was shaking on the watch, and he noticed the minute trembling of Sara's as she held the syringe poised above Laszlo's chest.

"Time," she said. Her voice was small.

"Two minutes." John sucked in a breath, then snapped into movement. Nothing had changed in the room, not a single stray flicker of a candle flame. And Laszlo was unmoving, still, dead. "Forget three minutes. We're ending this now."

"John, no," Sara protested. She jerked her hand out of his way as he reached for the syringe. "We promised."

"Two minute, three minutes, what does it matter? He's not showing up hand in hand with Mary's shade. This entire venture is ridiculous. We can both see that. The sooner we start trying to bring him back, the more time we have to—" He had to stop, swallowing, but Sara looked up at him with her heart in her eyes, and then she relinquished the syringe into his hand.

John crouched and tore Laszlo's shirtfront open wider, exposing more of his chest. He hesitated only briefly and then, with shaking hands, tried to push the needle in.

"Down a little, John," Sara murmured. Her hand touched his. "I think it's getting caught on bone."

He pulled it out, pushed it in and tried again. Sara's hand was still covering his. They pushed the plunger together.

There was no immediate reaction.

"It should be doing something, shouldn't it?" Laszlo was loose and limp when John pressed his fingers to Laszlo's throat, terror winding through his very bones. "He should be waking up. What if—"

"Help me, John." Sara rubbed her hand up Laszlo's arm and placed her other hand firmly on his chest. "Do you know how to give breathing assistance to someone who has drowned?"

There was a brief, horrible moment when he was back there, on the lakeshore with his brother's still, cold body in his arms.

"Yes," he said, his voice little more than an agonized whisper—and leaned over, lowered his mouth over Laszlo's.

Sara was in motion, rubbing Laszlo's arms and his chest, trying to stimulate the body while John breathed for him, inexpert and clumsy and desperate, trying to force his own breath into Laszlo's still lungs.

The way that hadn't worked for his brother.

"John," Sara gasped, just as Laszlo gave a sudden sharp jerk. It was so unexpected that John jerked back and then he just gripped Laszlo's shirt in both fists while Laszlo shuddered through a few hoarse, barking breaths.

Then Laszlo opened his eyes. He looked horrible, chalk-white and shaking. His gaze was blank and lost until it found them, settling on them like a searchlight. Shaky comprehension washed back in, the vacant expression giving way to a muddled echo of Laszlo's usual sharp focus.

"Send me back," he croaked out. "Give me another injection."

"What? No! Laszlo!" Sara was holding his hands now. "Laszlo, we just got you back. What are you saying?"

"You don't understand," he said, staring at her from blown-wide eyes under a curtain of sweat-damp hair. His words were clipped out, bitten off between gasps. "It worked, don't you understand? Sara, John— I found her."

 

*

 

Laszlo had a blanket wrapped around him, huddled on the couch. Sara moved around the room, extinguishing candles, while John poured a glass of bourbon and brought it over to press it into Laszlo's shaking hand.

They had repeated refused to help Laszlo go under again, even going so far as to move the tray away from him when he kept reaching for it. He was too weak to get it himself; sitting on the couch in a shivering huddle seemed to be all he was capable of.

"Did you truly see her?" John asked. Right now he desperately wanted a drink himself. To avoid pouring a second glass for himself, he lit a cigarette instead.

Laszlo nodded wordlessly, staring at nothing. After a moment, he looked up and his gaze sought John's face.

"I know you both think that I am—obsessed would be a kind word for it. Delusional, perhaps."

"We don't think that, Laszlo." Sara snuffed the last of the candles and came over to sit beside him on the couch. After a moment, she touched his hand lightly. "You are grieving and deeply wounded. You seek redress for that. Anyone in your place would do the same."

Most people in his place wouldn't poison themselves to stop their own heart, but John managed to refrain from saying so. He lit another cigarette off the first.

"But I did see her. No, it was more than that." Laszlo's gaze had gone distant again. "I touched her. Held her. Spoke to her. It was her. As real as the two of you are now."

John and Sara traded a glance, and Sara said, "Forgive me for saying this, but can't the mind, in a state between waking and sleep, produce incredibly vivid dreams that are all but indistinguishable from the real thing? I do not say that you're wrong in what you saw, but Laszlo, you must consider—"

"I have considered, and you are not wrong." He even smiled a little, but his gaze was elsewhere. It was, John thought with a chill, as if he looked into another world even now. As if he still had one foot in the place where he'd been. "It is true that the mind can create powerful deceptions. But this was not that. I believe it to my core. I have never experienced delusions of that sort and I do not think it likely that I would suddenly have one now. No, it was real, it was her, and that is why I must go back."

"And do what?" John asked abruptly, as something in him snapped a little. He sank down on Laszlo's other side. His legs were still shaky. Laszlo had died, and even Laszlo himself didn't seem fully aware of that. "I know you believe that you can somehow bring her back with you, but Laszlo, I don't think it works that way. Dead is dead."

"I don't know if I can either," Laszlo said softly. He seemed to abruptly remember that he was holding the glass and took a sip. It clinked against his teeth; his hand was still trembling badly. "But I shall never forgive myself if I do not try. Give me a moment to recover my strength and then I will draw up another injection."

"Not tonight," Sara said. Her voice was sharp. "Laszlo, I can see we're not going to be able to stop you unless we tie you up in the cellar—"

"I'm willing to try that," John said.

"—but at the very least, please meet us halfway on this. You will never survive another injection in the shape you're in now." Sara still had her hand on his; it was the one on the wounded side, and now she curled her fingers around his. John felt a small jolt of—not jealousy exactly, more like a sort of aching fondness for both of them. "Rest, Laszlo, and eat, and recover your strength. And then ..." She looked up, past Laszlo, to meet John's eyes. "And then we will help you, one more time."

 

*

 

By the following evening Laszlo still looked bad, but at least he no longer seemed likely to collapse at any moment. He moved carefully, hunched over a little, favoring his chest as he lit candles around the room.

"So why the candles, anyway?" John asked. He was in restless motion himself, picking up books and putting them down unread. Sara had sent word that she was detained and would arrive soon. "It seems a little ritualistic for your tastes."

"To tell the truth, John, I am not entirely sure." A lot of yesterday's cocky sureness had gone out of Laszlo, but it had been replaced by something else, a fierce intensity of purpose that seemed as if it was capable of singlemindedly animating him even while pushing his body past its limits. "I went into my research seeking common threads between different cultures' traditions of death, and this use of candles, of firelight, to bring this world closer to the next, was a feature that it made sense to me to adopt. I don't know if I can give you a proper answer other than that." He gave John a slight smile. "In science, one must be willing to embrace a few unknown variables in the hopes of obtaining answers about the whole."

"There's not a lot that's scientific about what's going on here." John watched him sit carefully on the edge of the couch, moving like his bones hurt. "Are you sure we shouldn't wait longer? You don't look like you're up for this."

Laszlo shook his head sharply. "If she is here, if she had managed to linger or if my own near death called her back, we cannot take the risk that she'll slip further away, perhaps become lost to us forever."

"It's you being lost to us forever that I'm worried about. Her death is awful and tragic, Laszlo, but dying yourself won't fix it. It'll only cause more grief."

Laszlo looked up at him with one of those incredibly sweet smiles that he was occasionally capable of. "I have no intention to die, John."

"You don't have to plan on it for it to work out that way, Laszlo—"

The door burst open and Sara swept in, a whirlwind of skirts and petticoats that nearly extinguished the candles in her vicinity. "I am very sorry I'm late." She took off her hat, looked around for a place to put it that wasn't covered with candles, and ended up setting it on the seat of a chair. "I was concerned that you would have started without me."

"We were in the process of an argument over whether to start at all," John said.

"It was not an argument, merely a slight disagreement between friends," Laszlo demurred. "I appreciate the concern, but I am going to do this. If you choose to leave, I understand, and I will do it alone."

"It's not too late to tie him up in the cellar," Sara said to John. The words were light, but the pain in her eyes made John's heart ache.

He could have strangled Laszlo for doing this to them. But at the same time, he understood it. If he had believed, truly believed, that he could have gotten his brother back this way, he might have done it himself.

And given your parents two children to grieve instead of one.

"Shall we start, then?" Laszlo asked with a brittle brightness. He reached for the syringe with a grimace as the movement tugged at his sore chest. "This time, please try to insert the epinephrine needle gently. Your technique requires some work."

"We were trying to save your life," John snapped.

"And I do appreciate it," Laszlo said with another of those disarmingly sweet smiles. "Sara, the ligature, please?"

John stubbed out his cigarette—he had been chain-smoking ever since arriving at Laszlo's, and it was making him jittery even apart from his nervous anticipation—and watched Sara tie off Laszlo's arm and take the syringe as if she had been giving injections for years.

"I can't believe we're doing this again. I honestly can't believe it." John knelt on the floor beside Sara, next to the couch and Laszlo. He had a wild urge to knock the syringe out of Sara's hands, but knew it would only delay the inevitable. "We barely got you back the last time, don't you understand that? We might end up with nothing at the end of this, no Mary and ..."

And no you.

"I do not fear death, John," Laszlo said, very quietly. "What I fear is allowing my own cowardice to stop me from doing what I know is right."

"You have nothing to prove, for God's sake, Laszlo—!"

Sara looked up from fiddling with the syringe. "I think after what we have both seen, only a fool would accuse you of being a coward." She took a breath. "I would hope to convince you once more that you need not do this. Mary would not want you to do this."

That, at least, seemed to hit home, and John had a moment to hope that they had actually come up with an argument that would convince him, but then his face firmed into resolve. "Then she may tell me herself. The injection, Sara."

John took Laszlo's hand; he couldn't help it. With the binding around the upper arm, Laszlo's fingers felt cold and tense, but he turned his hand slightly to give John's a light squeeze back. His fingers tensed when Sara slid the needle into his arm, and she hesitated slightly before depressing the plunger.

Laszlo's hand jerked and tightened convulsively on John's, grinding the bones together. John sucked in a breath of pain. Then Laszlo's fingers went limp in his.

"Mark the time, John," Sara said. Her voice sounded strangled. She untied Laszlo's arm, then rose to reach for the second syringe.

John glanced at the stopwatch, but as the seconds ticked by it was Laszlo where his attention was drawn: the utter stillness, the vulnerability. Laszo's life was quite literally in their hands.

"Do you think ..." Sara murmured. She, too, was raptly watching Laszlo's slack face. "Do you think he's talking to her right now? With her now?"

"I don't know what to think." Worry and anger tangled into a hot ball in his stomach. There was some part of him that felt distantly that he might never forgive Laszlo for this.

He looked down at the stopwatch again, watched it tick past a minute.

"I don't think we should give him the full three minutes," he said, staring at the watch rather than looking at Laszlo, watching it measure off the dwindling seconds of Laszlo's life. "I don't even think we should give him two."

"Last time he seemed to think we had pulled him back too early."

"I don't care! You saw the shape he was in. It's going to be even harder on him this time. How much difference is an extra minute going to make? He's either done what he needed to do, or ..."

Or it was all a delusion, a grieving man's desperate mind latching onto memory. There were times when John could swear he was back at the lake watching his brother drown, complete in every sensory detail.

"You're right, I suppose." Sara was still fixedly staring at Laszlo. "I only feel that if we don't give him a proper chance, there's no point in doing it in the first—"

She stopped.

"What?" John said, and then he saw it too. From under Laszlo's closed lids, a tear threaded its way down his cheek into his hair.

John pressed two fingers to the pulse point in Laszlo's throat. Nothing—not a flutter.

"We're pulling him out, Sara."

Sara nodded. John pulled Laszlo's shirt open, and sucked in a breath at the sight of a fist-sized bruise where they had injected him before. Sara hesitated only slightly before she slid the needle into the bruised skin, a single sure thrust, and depressed the plunger.

No reaction. John cursed; this was all too hideously familiar. He sealed his lips over Laszlo's, while Sara rubbed his chest.

"Anything?" John asked after a few breaths, stopping to gasp as he grew lightheaded.

Sara shook her head. Her eyes were wide and bright, with unshed tears gathering at the corners. "There is no heartbeat. It's not working this time."

"It's damn well got to work! We haven't got anything else!"

"Don't shout at me," Sara shot back. "I don't know what else to try. Do you think we could give him a second injection of epinephrine, or would it only make it worse?"

"I don't know! I have no idea! He's the one who'd know, and he's ..."

Damn the man, he thought, staring at Laszlo. Somehow in his half-frantic attempts to breathe for him, John had left marks on Laszlo's throat, faint bruised marks that were probably from yesterday.

Dead bodies didn't bruise.

Sara was rubbing Laszlo's arm vigorously; she made a sound close to a sob. "John, I don't know what else to try."

"I do," John said. He tore his gaze away from Laszlo and reached for the silver tray and one of the syringes. He began to draw up a shot as he had seen Laszlo do.

"John—John, that's not the right one. That's the potassium."

"I know it is." He had watched them do this enough times to be able to follow along, he was reasonably sure. He reached for the strap that they had been using to tie off Laszlo's arm to raise the veins.

Sara was on her feet now, eyes huge. "What are you doing?"

"He seems to think there's a place where he can find Mary. He thinks he went there." John spoke indistinctly around the syringe as he bound his arm. "So I'm going to go there too, and find him."

"That's madness! This isn't going to do anything except give me two of you in the same state! John—"

"He's dying, Sara." He held the needle poised over the skin of his inner elbow. And there he balked. Courage: maybe he was the one who didn't have it, after all.

"You really think you can go in there and ... and find him somehow." Sara was staring at him. Then she took a breath and reached for the syringe. "Let me be the one to go."

John shook his head vigorously and stepped back. "You have to be here to bring me back. I trust you to do it for me more than I trust me to do it for you."

Her face twisted in an expression of desperation bordering on grief, but all she said was, "At least lie down so you don't fall."

She helped lower him to the floor. "I've got it," she said, taking the syringe with steady hands, when he still hesitated. "Please ... take a deep breath or something."

"I don't think it'll matter." But he did, and he kept his eyes on Sara and her sure, strong hands as she gripped his arm firmly and slid the needle in.

He hadn't expected it to hurt, beyond the needle's sting. Somehow he'd thought it would be like going to sleep.

It wasn't.

It was a fire that tore through his arm, and then there were brief seconds of reprieve before the worst pain he'd ever experienced in his life. It felt like being kicked in the chest by a horse's iron-shod hooves. This was no gentle slide into darkness; it was horrible squeezing pressure, and the panic of suffocation, and the worst part was that he couldn't react to it—couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't do anything.

His last thought was that he couldn't believe Laszlo had found the strength to do this twice.

 

*

 

He was expecting either darkness or light, if there was anything at all. He wasn't expecting both.

It was as if the candles with their fierce, flickering light had grown massive, into stone columns that each bore a flame at their top. Like signal fires, they lit up an impossibly vast, shadowed hall. Where it was, or even what it was, he couldn't tell. It seemed to go on forever in every direction, until the flames and the pillars were lost to a sort of ever-present shadow that even fire couldn't illuminate. There was a dim sense of other people around him, but whenever he tried to look at them straight on, there was no one there.

"John?"

It was Laszlo's voice, startled and incredulous. John whirled around. He would have sworn there was no one there a moment ago, but now there was a stone bench and Laszlo was just rising from it. On the bench beside him—

Mary.

He could see why Laszlo had been so convinced it was her. Because it was her. Or at least, there was absolutely nothing to betray her if it was not. She looked like a real woman, and as she got up along with Laszlo, she moved like a real woman. She wore the dress she had been wearing when she went with John to see Edison's Kinetoscope, and her face had all the expressiveness of the real Mary's face. Right now she was looking at John with surprise and visible distress.

Laszlo, for his part, looked angry. Furious, even. He grabbed John's arm, and John flinched; on some level he hadn't expected Laszlo to be able to touch him.

"What are you doing here?" Laszlo snapped. "No, no, no. What did you do, John?"

"What do you think I did?" John returned, pulling away. "I did what you did. Two can play, Laszlo. You're not the only one who gets to make reckless and stupid decisions." He turned to give Mary a polite nod. "Miss Mary."

Laszlo interposed himself between them. "Out," he snapped, just as if John was a stray cat who had wandered into the house.

"Certainly, Laszlo. It's time to go. Mary—?"

He turned to her and held out a hand, but Mary stepped back, shaking her head. John didn't need to be able to read her signs to understand her body language as she gestured. She couldn't return.

And Laszlo stepped away too, his face almost forcibly composed. He lifted his chin in a little nod. "It was ... exceptional of you to come here, John, but I'm not coming back."

"You're what," John said.

Mary was now vigorously shaking her head. She gave Laszlo a little push toward John. He tried to take her hand but she yanked it away, glaring at him.

"Here is death, Laszlo," John said, as calmly as he could.

He was increasingly starting to panic, in part because he felt deeply strange. His chest ached, and it seemed as if he couldn't get enough air. Laszlo looked bad too, as bad as yesterday if not worse; there was no color to his skin, and it was lightly beaded with sweat despite the place being fairly cool, bordering on cold.

Mary was the only one of the three of them who seemed fine. There was no sign of the wound that had killed her. Her color was good—heightened, in fact, because she was clearly furious with Laszlo.

"See, she doesn't want you to either," John said as Mary tried to detach Laszlo's hands again. "You told me, you flat-out told me you didn't come here to die, Laszlo. What were you doing, lying to us?"

"I didn't lie," Laszlo said. His look was pleading; it swept from Mary to John and back again. Mary was now emphatically signing something. "I know. I only ..." He paused to breathe. Like John, he seemed to be having trouble catching his breath. "I do not intend to leave you twice," he told Mary, with utter disarming sincerity.

Mary gave John a pleading look, touched Laszlo's arm and pointed to John again.

"No, my dear. John ... I'm sorry," Laszlo said simply. "I didn't mean to put you in danger as well. Go back, please. I will make my way from here."

"So what am I supposed to tell Sara, that you've chosen to die?"

Sara should have been the one to come, John thought. By now she would probably have thrown Laszlo over her shoulder to drag him back to the real world by main force. For his own part, he had absolutely no idea what to do. He had thought there might be some problem, but he hadn't expected that the problem would be Laszlo refusing to leave.

"There's no need for you to be difficult about this, John," Laszlo said, irritation starting to rise through his studied composure.

"Me? I'm the one being difficult? Laszlo—"

He was caught off guard by a sharp pain under his ribs, like a knife suddenly twisting. The inability to breathe, the suffocating feeling, became abruptly almost too much to bear. He lost his balance and nearly fell.

Sara, he thought. Sara, and the epinephrine.

He became aware, dazedly, that Laszlo had caught him.

"John," Laszlo snapped, shaking him. "John, you can't stay here."

"Neither can you," John managed. Laszlo looked even paler now, if that was possible. Maybe this wasn't how you were supposed to die, John thought; maybe Laszlo wouldn't actually outlast his body, he'd just fade out entirely, or end up stuck in this bleak nothing of a place. This couldn't be all there was to the afterlife, surely? "Laszlo, I don't think we're going to get another chance. This is it."

"All the more reason for you to go, then."

Laszlo was still supporting him—carefully, lightly, looking at him with a desperately fond expression. That was what steadied John, helped him get his balance, and settled into a resolve of a kind he'd rarely felt before. With a nonchalance he didn't feel, he clapped Laszlo on the shoulder.

"If we're staying, then, what sort of night life does this place have? Tell me there's at least a dining establishment of some kind."

He didn't often get to see Laszlo caught completely wrongfooted. "We," Laszlo repeated numbly.

Sara, John thought, was going to murder him, if he wasn't already dead. "Yes, we. I came to get you, and—"

And he got it, now, about Laszlo and Mary. He got it, because going back without Laszlo was intolerable. Whatever happened next—if they had to remain here, or if they faded out between one stifled heartbeat and the next—neither of them would be doing it alone.

"And I'm staying, if you stay," he finished.

There was a dawning look of absolute distress on Laszlo's face. "You cannot."

"Yes, well, I am."

Mary scowled at him and signed something emphatically, pointing between him and Laszlo, and stamped her foot to emphasize it.

"She's right, you can't stay," Laszlo said sharply. "You can't, what are you thinking? John, go, now! You're running out of time."

He could tell. It was like there were anchor hooks set into him, trying to drag him back. It was agonizing, and it made him realize how much it was costing Laszlo to stay here with her. Or had the pain already began to fade for him, the lure of the mortal world already losing its grip on him?

"We go back together or we stay," John said. He coughed a little, the pain clawing its way through his chest.

Laszlo was inscrutable most of the time, but there were times—rare times—when he wore his heart in his eyes. And this was one of them. He looked as if he was being torn apart.

"John," he said quietly, and laid his hand on John's wrist. "You can't. Think of Sara. Her heart will break."

"Her heart will break for you, Laszlo, you utter buffoon."

Laszlo shook his head, as if rejecting both the sentiment and the argument. "Why?" he asked, and there was a whole world of unspoken questions wrapped up in that one word. Laszlo always wanted to know the why of things.

It was easier, somehow to be honest here, at the end of everything.

"I'm not like you and Sara, and I know that," John said. "I'm not brave like you, smart like you. But I have one thing that's worth a little, and that's my life, and if I can use that to bring you back, then I will. And if I can't, then I guess we'll just stay down here and enjoy the local attractions."

Laszlo's stricken look faded slowly into something else, some emotion that ran deep and was absolutely indescribable.

Mary laid her hand on Laszlo's shoulder, drawing his attention. She kissed the corner of his mouth and then turned to John and touched her lips: a silent thank-you, he knew, one of the only signs he had learned in his short acquaintance with her. Turning back to Laszlo, she made an emphatic sign that was the other one he knew, a circle around her heart. It meant "please." The next needed little explanation: she stabbed her hand forward, finger pointing behind them.

Go.

And then her hand raised, slow but decisive, in a little wave.

Goodbye.

The pain, John found, was starting to fade. Everything was.

"Laszlo," he said hoarsely. "If we're going, we have to go. Or else show me if this place has any sort of place to get a drink." If he had to be dead, at the very least he didn't see any particular reason to do it sober.

Laszlo took a slow breath and looked at John and smiled, just a little. He leaned forward and kissed Mary, slow and light, and impossibly sweet.

Mary was the one who broke it and stepped back. She bowed her head and reached behind the nape of her neck to undo a dark silk ribbon tying back her hair. This, she pressed into Laszlo's hand, and curled her fingers briefly around his.

Laszlo squeezed her hands with his—both of his, John dazedly noted.

Then Laszlo stepped away, firm, decisive, and turned to grasp John's sleeve firmly.

"You said it was time to go, John." He gave John a little shake, although he seemed to be using his grasp on John's arm to keep himself upright—and perhaps it went both ways, the two of them wobbling, supporting each other. "John, pay attention. You need to listen for Sara, all right? She's going to call you home. That's what you two did for me before."

John got a solid grip on Laszlo's sleeve. He still wouldn't quite put it past Laszlo to stay here, voluntarily or just because it had been too long and a return was impossible. If it was possible to drag someone out of here physically, he was going to try.

"It was very nice to see you again, Miss Mary," John said, and she looked directly at him—she hadn't before, he realized, not quite—and touched her lips again, with a sweet smile that was only for him.

Listen for Sara? He couldn't hear Sara; he couldn't really hear much of anything.

But it seemed as if somewhere, someone was crying.

He had no idea what to do now, so he did the only thing he could think of to do, and—not losing his grip on Laszlo—leaned into the pain, tried to feel it fully instead of losing it under the cold, smothered feeling, and unexpectedly it washed over him and took him with it.

 

*

 

John woke gasping and shivering, teeth chattering, horribly aching and cold and so dazed he hardly knew whether he was lying down or sitting up.

"John!" Sara's voice was hardly recognizable. She sounded ragged, and as his vision began to clear he became aware that he was lying on his back, his shirt torn open, and Sara was kneeling beside him with her hair askew.

"Both of you," she said, pressing the back of her hand to her mouth. "Both of you. John Moore, I am going to kill you, in just a moment." She took a shuddering breath. "John, can you hear me? Can you speak?"

He managed to get enough breath to whisper, "Laszlo."

"He's gone, John." She swallowed, tears glimmering in her eyes.

"Check, Sara. Please."

She vanished from John's field of view, and he heard her soft gasp. He struggled and after a moment managed to prop himself shakily up on his elbows.

Sara reappeared suddenly, bending down to wrap an arm behind his shoulders. "John, please lie down." Her eyes still glistened with tears, and he had a horrible premonition: it hadn't worked, it had been too long ...

"Laszlo?" he whispered, thrashing weakly as he tried to see.

"He's breathing," she said, and John shuddered a little. "I don't know what you did exactly, but—oh, now what are you doing?" He was trying to get up.

"I want to see him." He barely recognized his own voice; it was little more than a hoarse rasp.

"You are a fool," Sara declared, but she helped him to the couch and deposited him on the floor. She vanished momentarily and came back with a blanket that she draped over him.

She was right, Laszlo was breathing shallowly, his chest rising and falling, slow and rhythmic.

There was a glistening sheen of tears under his closed eyelids.

John reached out shakily, just wanting to touch him—and Sara too; his other hand grasped for her, and found her hand clutching his in return.

He put a hand over Laszlo's fisted one, and was surprised to find that Laszlo was holding something.

"John, what is it?" Sara asked, seeing his face.

"I just need to see something." He pried Laszlo's fingers open a little. Just enough to see that Laszlo was holding what John had thought it was: a dark silk ribbon.

 

*

 

Laszlo slept for two days without waking. John spent most of that time dragging around feeling as if he was recovering from some sort of serious chest ailment. He was cold, shaky, and utterly exhausted, and his chest hurt abominably; there was also a worrying tendency he had decided not to mention to Sara for his heart to occasionally feel as if it skipped a beat. He had no idea how Laszlo had managed to hide feeling like this the day of their second experiment, but John planned to have words with him about that, when (not if) he woke up.

And he did wake up, finally, when John was the only one with him, Sara having stepped out for some unavoidable work business. John was at his bedside flipping through one of Laszlo's books when Laszlo gave a convulsive all-over jerk and a hoarse, dry cough.

"Water?" John asked, and Laszlo nodded.

John poured him a glass and held it for him, also supporting him with a hand under his back. Laszlo reached to assist, then found the ribbon tangled around his fingers. They had left it with him, not knowing what to do. It slipped from his grasp, and he watched it fall with a shocked look.

John caught it and held it, while he helped Laszlo drink. Laszlo's hand cupped the glass under John's hand, his fingers ice cold with little strength in them.

John eased him back down to the pillows and gave him the ribbon back. Laszlo stroked it across his fingers, turned it over, and finally, with a tenderness that made John want to look away, raised it to his face and inhaled deeply. When he lowered his hand, his face was bleak.

"She's really gone now," he whispered.

John had absolutely no idea what to say to that. He wished Sara was there.

But thinking back to that dark place, he suddenly did know what to say.

"By choice, Laszlo," he said, leaning forward. "Your choice and hers, this time. Laszlo, think. You saw her, touched her, spoke to her. And she's fine ... isn't she?"

"She's dead, not fine," Laszlo said icily. He turned his head slightly, averting his gaze from John's.

"More so than us, wasn't she? Whatever that place was, it's different for her than for us. Perhaps she wasn't even there except to see us. She wasn't desperate to come back with you. And you—you know now that you will see her again someday."

Laszlo had settled slightly during John's speech, but he still looked pensive and wounded as the door opened and Sara came in. She swept her gaze across them, took in Laszlo's condition, and drew up a chair beside the bed.

"How are you, Laszlo?"

"Alive, it seems," Laszlo said after a moment.

"So I see." Her fond look turned scathing, and took in John as well. "You are both idiots."

"What, me?" John said, startled, while Laszlo brightened a little more and looked weakly smug.

Sara turned an eloquent look on John. "Did you or did you not do the exact same thing he did, John? Thus forcing me to revive your unresponsive body as well."

"Yes, well ..." He wanted to say it was different, but in point of fact he actually could not come up with a difference beyond the fact that it had been Laszlo's idea in the first place, which hardly seemed likely to curry favor.

"You are both intolerable," Sara said, and John was horrified to notice tears swimming in her eyes.

Laszlo seemed to feel the same. Wincing, he pushed himself up on his elbow.

"It was never my intent to cause distress to you, either of you, or—" His gaze flicked briefly to John. "To put you in danger."

John started to speak, but Sara beat him to it. "John, could Laszlo and I speak alone for a few minutes, please?"

He hesitated. Laszlo gave him a little nod, although he looked slightly anxious given Sara's thundercloud expression.

"I'll just go see if there's anything for lunch," John said, and beat a strategic retreat.

 

*

 

He wandered down to the kitchen to see the cook. Mary's replacement, at least in terms of general household duties, was a calm woman of middle years with a visible burn scar across the side of her face. John had little doubt that she was another of Laszlo's projects, especially since, like everyone who worked for Laszlo, she seemed to be utterly devoted to him.

She was delighted to hear that her employer had come around and insisted on putting together an elaborate lunch.

"I was thinking more toast and tea," John said, leaning a hip on a stool while she made small sandwiches and trimmed them with brisk chops of a knife. "He's only just woke up, Alva."

"You let me do my job now," she said with a thick Irish brogue. "Will it be yourself and Miss Howard as well?"

John allowed that it would, and soon found himself the recipient of not just one but two trays loaded with everything from sandwiches and cold chicken to stewed fruit and pastries, to the point where the teapot could barely be seen.

"I can carry that up for you, sir," the cook protested when John took both laden trays, trying not to wince at the strain on his chest.

"I've got this, Alva, thanks." He was entirely unsure what sort of emotional scene she was likely to walk in on.

Or what he was likely to walk in on, for that matter. He hoped he'd been gone long enough for the two of them to work out whatever they needed to work out. It was utterly quiet when he paused outside the door of Laszlo's room. There was no yelling; that was a good sign, surely?

John set down a tray to free up a hand and tapped on the door, then cautiously pushed it open.

It was difficult to tell exactly what had happened between them, but something clearly had. Sara was holding Laszlo's hand, and looked like she'd been crying. Laszlo looked more relaxed and ... happier, maybe, than John had seen him since he had become obsessed with this ghost chase.

"Lunch," John reported, setting the tray by the bed. "If you think you could eat something, Laszlo."

"I can definitely eat something," Sara said. She sniffled a little, rubbed a hand across her face, and reached for a sandwich. "Do you think you brought enough food, John, or were you planning to feed the entire Institute?"

"Well, if that's not enough, there's another tray outside."

John brought it in and found Sara pouring tea. "Do you think you can sit up for a while?" she asked Laszlo.

They propped him up with pillows. Laszlo seemed to be recovered enough to look annoyed at being fussed over. That was his problem, John thought; he could maybe try not dying next time. Sara surreptitiously added a dash of brandy to her and Laszlo's tea.

"No coffee, then?" she asked.

"Alva didn't think it was appropriate for invalids. If you want to go back down and argue with her, be my guest."

"I am not an invalid," Laszlo said in a testy voice.

Sara and John both looked at him pointedly.

"I prefer to consider myself temporarily indisposed," Laszlo said, tilting his chin up. "Please hand me one of those tea cakes, the lemon ones?"

Sara settled by the window with a sandwich and her doctored tea. "You know, John, since I'm here anyway, I was hoping you could leverage your newspaper connections to help me look into the death of a washerwoman whose body was dredged up in the harbor just recently. There is, obviously, little interest on the part of the police to look into it, and owing to the condition of the body—"

"Must we talk about this while we're eating?"

"Please do continue, Sara," Laszlo said. He nibbled the edge of a tea cake and laid it down, but despite his pallor and the exhausted smudges under his eyes, he looked fascinated.

The conversation continued on topics of crab damage to bodies (that John could very much have done without) and Sara's bright-eyed report of the Isaacsons' observations on time of death and defensive wounds. John pressed a crustless salmon sandwich on Laszlo. "Here, it contains seafood and is therefore relevant to the discussion, and you need to eat something with more substance than half a tea cake."

Laszlo took it with a smile—warm, lighting up his eyes, and as John turned to deal with Sara's latest description of horrifying decomposition, he noticed where Mary's ribbon had gotten off to. It was tied to Sara's sleeve, and somehow it looked very appropriate there, neither a hair ribbon nor a memento of a dead lover, but a quiet, understated memorial.

"John, are you listening?" Sara asked brightly, and John wrenched his gaze from her sleeve up to her face, and the intensely focused expression that he found there. Her lashes were still clumped together from earlier tears, but her face was all business now, focused on the case she was describing with diamond clarity.

He admired them both beyond measure, in different ways. He knew that he could never hope to measure up to Sara's fierce heart or Laszlo's brilliance. But it was more than enough for him, just now, to warm himself in their light.

"I'm listening," he said, and foisted another salmon sandwich onto Laszlo, who had eaten most of the other one. And Sara leaned forward, smiling, and poured him a cup of tea.