She was watching me expectantly, waiting for me to finish the joke. I dropped her hands and pulled her into a tight embrace, trapping her to my chest. She let me, her body going soft as her spine relaxed. She buried her face in my shoulder and I felt her heaving breaths, riding out the tremors. I gripped her firmly, lending her my strength. Her presence made me feel like I had a lot of it to give.
I could barely comprehend the last few moments. Just the idea that the room was empty was hard to believe; that it was actually Alli’s room now wasn’t something that penetrated at all. I was still grappling with the wonder that she was here in the first place, here in my arms. The rest could wait. I breathed her in, engaging all of my senses to assure myself that it was true. She was soft, the ugly wound on her back replaced by wings that chilled my fingers. Her hair still smelled like her home, but just barely, as if she’d been showering at someone else’s house for a week. I was aware, vaguely, that it wasn’t the same as it had been. The warmth had left her and the buzzing of her heart had stilled. Still, it didn’t matter. Alli was here and leaning on me, and I felt whole probably for the first time in my memory. At last, I let myself breathe too.
I held Alli until her body started to regain some rigidity. We stood facing each other silently, and I realized that I was just as lost now as I had been the night after we’d kissed. Just last night. I’d imagined us in this place together so many times. Except that now it wasn’t the same place at all. Now, Alli’s clothes were gray, and instead of my explaining all about Markers to her, I felt like she had the upper-hand when it came to a wealth of information. My mind had been spun around so drastically in the last hour that the best it could do was settle on the fact that we were both here to deal with it together. After trying for so long to come up with the right answer, I just couldn’t try anymore.
Alli seemed just as overwhelmed, and with a far better reason than I had. True to form, she spoke first, pushing through the difficulty to something simpler.
She reached a hand towards my face like she intended to cup it in her palm.
“Your eyes are different,” she said, her voice rough and low. It was the direct opposite of the voice she’d been using just minutes before, but it felt to me like an accusation.
“Alli,” I said, flinching. I touched the skin under my eyes cautiously, remembering what they’d been, imagining what she must be seeing now. “I’m so sorry.” This was the conversation I’d been dreading, the one I’d always feared would make her separate from me forever. She had every right to take that path. “I didn’t have a choice.” More excuses lined up to get out, but the truth pushed its way forward, bold and obvious: “I should have told you.” She’d deserved the truth from the moment she’d trusted me with the details of her disturbing dreams.
Alli was already shaking her head. I realized that she had never once looked surprised to see me here and began to hope. “No. You couldn’t have.” And she laughed, a beautiful, ringing sound that I never thought I’d hear again. “Are you kidding? All of this?” She spread her arms wide, then used one hand to gesture first at me, and then herself. “I would have thought you were crazy too.”
I smiled, my lips stretching open the dismay that had been frozen on my face. It was, as usual, more from her than I deserved. I wondered how she’d found out. It probably hadn’t taken long. I wondered just how much she’d found out about my intentions. It made my thoughts sober. “I didn’t know it all,” I admitted.
“All,” she sighed, and seemed suddenly tired enough to fall to the floor. She looked around the room, eyes pained.
The Elder had been in this room, explaining certainly not all, but most of the truth. He’d stood in front of me and admitted to murder. He’d been ready to send me away. I had felt that terrifying rush as it took him. It would only have needed a word to take me too. I had come very close to disappearing. Alli hadn’t looked, but I’d seen which way he’d gone. I knew that he deserved it. I’d watched it happen with all of the fulfillment of revenge that Alli hadn’t been willing to take.
When Ali looked back at me, her eyes were heavy. “Did you…” she stuttered. “Did you see my parents?” her voice crumpled on the last word.
Guiltily, I shook my head. I hadn’t been thinking about anyone else. It was a forgivable lapse, but just barely. I should have thought of them. I’d now been present for the deaths of both of those parents’ daughters. I should have been able to stop it. But I hadn’t been allowed and now they were alone.
“After he--” I began, but Alli stopped me immediately.
“Don’t,” she said sharply, and my mouth snapped shut. I knew better than to disobey that tone of command. Alli realized what she’d done and put her hand over her mouth conscientiously. “I’m sorry,” she said, that short sentence showcasing how much different this was going to be. A sigh shuddered through her. “I know, Jadin. I know what happened. Somehow…” she placed a hand on her chest, as if she could reach in to extricate her intuition and examine it with her eyes. “But I can’t talk about it.”
“Okay,” I agreed, admiration breaking like a wave over me. She’d known and she still hadn’t watched.
“After it happened,” I amended, finishing my story. “I came looking for you.”
“I’m glad you did,” she said with a watery smile, and wormed her fingers through mine, gripping hard.
I saw it then, how scared she was. My mind was beginning to open up to ideas outside of our reunion and now I could read her properly. She hadn’t only been leaning on me because of what had happened in this room. She was exhausted, and upset, and beyond overwhelmed. I’d had it easy. I’d merely come home to discover that the locks had been changed in an attempt to keep me out. It had been an easy enough matter for me to break in, even if everything inside had been rearranged. I’d gotten used to the idea of my wings quickly, the longing to return muted as my body settled back into familiar rhythms. Yet even I still felt it, and Alli had only just died. She’d left her life violently and had become the leader of a place with ill-defined rules before she’d even let herself admit how it had happened. She was trapped. My happiness in seeing her was her nightmares come true. Alli was strong, but she’d reached her breaking point and I didn’t know how to help.
“Maybe,” I began, thinking hard. “Maybe we could send someone down to them.” I was thinking about the bare information I had about my new title. Sometimes we couldn’t do more than offer comfort, the Elder had said. It had sounded so paltry in his mouth, but the way Alli was gripping my hands told me not to write off the idea of comfort.
Alli shook her head, sadly, and with far more understanding than someone who’d only been here a short time should have possessed.
I sighed quietly, knowing that she was right. The only thing that could help the Moores was Alli.
“Where’s Emily?” I tried instead, because the past was too hard.
The future was a gaping mess too. Where to go from here, how to live with so many mistakes, how to use the fragmented information we had seemed like tasks that would take several lifetimes to resolve. I could feel the weight of the truth beginning to crush me, as if I’d been bench-pressing and was slowly losing a fight with gravity. I’d managed to stave it off because the trauma of losing Alli had outweighed the rest. Not to mention that I hadn’t really believed I’d leave this room again, not through the door. Now that I was becoming used to the idea that Alli was here for me to keep, that I was still here, I was crushed by the impossibility of dealing with all of this. Already my mind was probing past the memory of Katie to others, people I’d thought about before I’d stopped thinking entirely. And I was just one angel. I kept waiting for Alli to help me solve the problem with a touch of her easy witticism, but she just looked so sad.
I focused on Emily, remembering that she was the reason Alli had made it to me on time. She’d helped save me and I’d never hear the end of it.
Alli jerked her chin over her shoulder, towards the door. “I made her stay outside, Eli too.” Her expression grew thoughtful, her brow relaxing slightly. A decision ran across her face like a shiver. It was an expression that reminded me of the color she was wearing. “Actually, I need to talk to him.”
“Me too,” I agreed. Eli was a close second after Alli on the list of people I owed explanations to.
I watched Alli straighten, her face composing itself into something that resembled calm. I hated to see it. I imagined her wearing that mask for eternity and felt unspeakably helpless.
“Maybe later we can talk about…the rest,” Alli said, a quiet request in a room that had only ever heard demands. “When I’ve had some time.”
“Of course,” I agreed. “I’ll be here for you.”
She nodded as if she’d never expected anything else, as if there had never been a time in my life when such words would have been abhorrent. I could feel the newfound softness inside of me, vulnerable and frightening, but right. As a Guardian, I would need it.
Alli--mask intact but hand still in mine--led us across the tiled floor. We went through the door together.