“Careful,” a voice said, and Allison closed her mouth, startled. Everything had gone very still and quiet. The Murder Magician had a double-electric Derringer pointed at her heart, point blank range, but he wasn’t moving. A troll in daylight, his vicious smile twisted into stone. Allison turned, confused, and when she moved she dislodged a murky beam of streetlight. The particles of light scattered off her hand and flew across the alley, lodging in the trash cans and garbage, sparkling in the Assistant’s hair.
Time had stopped, somehow. It couldn’t be the Boy, the Boy had been lost for years. And anyway, the voice had been unmistakably female, low and amused. But…
A figure melted out of the shadows, and the first distinct thing Allison saw was her smile. Then kohl-rimmed eyes, and pale bare arms, and long slim legs in black jeans.
“Do I know you?” Allison asked as she backed up a step, half-questioning, half-sure. She should say it now, before the gunman pulled the trigger and she lost the ability to speak. A rumor took time, and she didn’t have much left. Someone had led the Murder Magician and his assistant here and they’d taken her by surprise. She was going to have to be quick to get out the words that would let her survive.
“You sure do,” the woman said, lifting a perfect eyebrow, and she was close enough now that Allison could make out the gleam of a gold necklace. An ankh. “Hi, sugar.”
Her voice was kind and familiar, a scoop of rocky road on a hot summer day. Allison shuddered and backed up another step, hit a wall and had to watch the woman walk forward, hips swaying and boots clicking on the dirty pavement.
“I came to do you a favor,” the woman said, eyes bright. “I can’t do much, but I can tell you this. Don’t tell that rumor. Come with me, instead.”
“I’m not ready,” Allison insisted, lifting her chin, but the woman kept walking inexorably closer, and her smile never dimmed.
“You are,” she assured Allison, and held out a hand, her nose wrinkling a bit as she grinned. Cute. She was cute, effortlessly so with her black hair flying every which way and the strap of her tank top slipping down over her shoulder. It made the depth of her eyes all the more alarming. “Oh, honey, you are. C’mon, I’ll even take you to out first. We’ll go see a movie. You like Disney?”
“How can I die if I was never born?” Allison insisted, her voice trembling. It was dark in the shadows, but Death was easy to see, bright and charming, slouching in the fractured streetlight and looking at Allison the way she’d always imagined a real sister would. Amused, fond, loving. Allison didn’t have any sisters now, not even pretend ones. “I’m not even a real person.”
“You’re real,” the woman told her, and brushed a tear off her cheek. She’d gotten close without Allison noticing. “Real as I am. Birth isn’t just something wet and squishy, you know. I take home gods and children and ideas and stars. I can take home a rumor, too. Allison, come with me. You don’t want to be here anymore.”
“I thought,” Allison said, and somehow her face was buried in Death’s shoulder and she was breathing in huge, shuddering gasps, wet and ragged. “I thought, I remember, I thought this way, at least a part of me would be happy. But… it’s not the same. I’m not the same. And she never—I never went looking for me. I didn’t know where to go.”
“I know,” Death said, and stroked her hair. “And the rest of them don’t even know to miss you. Families are hard.”
“They’re not my family,” Allison mumbled into the pale skin. “But I don’t want to leave. I wanted to do so much.” She could have had a life, a normal one. A white picket fence, a husband, a son and daughter that she’d love and take to basketball games and museums. A life without numbers and masks. “I could just tell the Murder Magician—”
But it hadn’t gone well, had it, the last rumor she’d told before she’d split in two. She’d suddenly been in the library in front of a book of polygraph studies, shaken and hollow inside, and she’d realized that there must be more than one of herself in the world now. And the Allison in the library wasn’t the original copy. She was the reflection in the mirror. Wavering and warped. Lonely. What would happen this time if she told a rumor to save herself? What would she do to reality with her words?
“I know,” Death said again, and put a finger under Allison’s chin, tilting her face up. “But think about what it means not to die. Do you really want to live forever?” Allison bit her lip, and Death smiled encouragingly at her. “Come on, how about that movie? You never answered. A girl could get her feelings hurt.” And Allison thought, wonderingly, that maybe the wry self-deprecating quirk to Death’s mouth was genuine.
“Who led them here?” she asked finally, after the gunshot had stopped echoing through the alley and the murderous duo had leapt away, cackling. “How did they find me?”
“Does it matter?” Death led her out into the bright, well-lit street, tucking Allison’s arm into hers. Allison laughed, startled by the tickling sensation of feathers, and Death shot her a sideways smile. “C’mon, we don’t want to miss the previews, do we? If we hurry, we’ve got time to pick up a bucket of popcorn. You like popcorn?”
“I like ice cream,” Allison said, distracted. Klaus and Luther and Allison herself were hustling past them into the alley, trailed by a curious photographer. They looked hunted, and worried, and painfully, wonderfully familiar.
“Goodbye,” Allison whispered, watching them go, and Klaus paused, looking back and frowning in vague recognition. He shook himself and continued onward when Luther called for him, strident and concerned. Then they were gone.
Death kissed her cheek. Her lips were warm. “I think ice cream can be arranged,” she said. As they left the alley, the photographer’s camera began to flash behind them, bright and stark in the shadows.