Emily and Eli were waiting where I’d left them, which made me smile. They were both braver than they wanted to admit. They looked me over cautiously, registering what had happened, taking in my new clothes, and straightening subtly. The color of the cloth made me feel ostentatious, even more vivid than the wings on my back rendered me. Their faces changed in a different way when they saw Jadin at my side, relief brightening them without the apprehension that seeing me produced.
Jadin gave my fingers a squeeze and then let go to join them. His expression was complicated, part relief that matched theirs, and the rest the distress of a child who’d broken a lamp and now had to reap the consequences. I’d seen that expression on him before, while he’d sat uncomfortably perched in my living room, waiting, maybe, to be found out. Or maybe just struggling with whatever plan he’d once had to hurt me. The difference between then and now was that, then, there had been bitterness, dark and powerful, driving him forward with what had almost been a sense of entitlement. Now there was only acceptance, like he’d been faced with a homework problem far more difficult than he’d expected, but was going to try to solve it anyway. I’d seen that look too, after he’d kissed me, the resentment stripped away to reveal vulnerability and earnestness.
Now he stood in front of Emily and gave her a brief, but sincere hug; her arms hung loose in shock, but her face lit up, awed and pleasantly surprised. I continued to watch fondly as he repeated the action with Eli, who was quick to grasp his friend in return. They spoke to each other in low tones, rumbling sounds that I was careful not to let register as words. Eventually, reverently, Eli handed Jadin the second pouch I’d noticed strapped to his belt. Jadin gripped it until his fingers disappeared into the leather, his face grim.
I didn’t have a pouch anymore; it wasn’t part of my new uniform. I watched the scene in front of me and tried to smile again, to express the warmth that I was witnessing. It wouldn’t come. Not even to appreciate Jadin’s new mood, the one I’d been trying to dig out of him since we’d met. All I could feel was the physical gap between us as I watched and they took their turn reuniting. I couldn’t even count myself as one of them--the newest friend in the group, but accepted and welcomed. I was above them. I was the Elder.
I could feel the bitterness that had lived inside Jadin sinking into me, muting other sensations. The trouble wasn’t that I had the title, one that was, after all, meant for me. Or would have been, eventually. If I’d had more time. If I hadn’t been murdered.
I hadn’t really known, not really, until I’d let myself admit it to Jadin. But knowing now, really understanding, made me wish I’d watched. The bitterness was a short step away from righteous anger, except that I didn’t want to let the full force of it out. It wasn’t the title; it was his fault I had it before I was ready. I could feel a boiling inside of me, the same reckless sensation that had made me slash Tyler’s tires all those nights ago. Except now there was no one left to direct it towards. Without an outlet, it just grew denser, more dangerous. The logical, compassionate person that made up most of me was being suffocated; it would die without relief, and I wasn’t sure that even the people in front of me were strong enough to pull it back from the brink.
It was that, apart from all of the other complications I’d stumbled into, that told me I shouldn’t do this job. I could do it. I was good at problem solving and knew in a detached way that people liked and listened to me. I could be helpful. I was allowed in this position for a good reason.
But that was before the anger. I was not a murderer, but I understood John far too clearly for my own comfort. I could envision the exhaustion of doing a job that had been forced on me, of starting from a dark place and continuing onward with a rigid smile plastered on my mouth. And it was such a huge job: me, a single person, a stranger, damaged and in pain, was supposed to convince a whole race that they were living a lie, that they could do good, that it wasn’t their fault. I already knew why John had snapped, and I hadn’t been wearing gray for half an hour.
And so I interrupted the scene in front of me, stepping forward in spite of the strangled voice inside calling me to push hard, to keep going, to find a way to make it work.
“Eli,” I said, and every eye turned immediately on me. It was a heady sensation, wielding that much control. Every decision I made was law. “I’d like to talk to you.” It couldn’t wait. It had to be now, in front of the people I trusted.
Eli pulled himself away from the group. “Sure,” he said, promptly, but casually. There was still stress on his face, but I realized that it wasn’t directed at me. In fact, he was looking at me with pride, a mentor sharing the success of their student. He trusted me and that helped me to keep talking.
I took a few steps forward, bridging the last of the gap between us. I glanced habitually at Jadin, who had seamlessly become my right hand. Without asking, he came to stand near us, creating a small horseshoe that needed only Emily to make a circle. His fingers stayed within easy grabbing distance should I need them.
“Well,” I quipped, surprised that I could make my voice sound light, even teasing. “I did what you wanted. You were right.”
“I’ll return the favor,” Eli replied instantly. “Anything you need. Anything I can do to help.”
“It won’t be easy,” I said heavily. The emotions roiling within me weren’t likely to let anything be easy ever again.
“You can do it,” Eli said encouragingly. He’d put his faith in me when we were locked in that room and it hadn’t faded.
Jadin looked between us, not joining in Eli’s sentiment. He read me carefully, and I could see understanding beginning to dawn on his face. Understanding, and approval.
“No,” I admitted guiltily. I’d meant it to come out in a strong declaration, but it was only a soft sound, futile and small. “I can’t.”
Eli opened his mouth, forcing me to cut him off before he could continue to spout encouragements. Eli would keep spinning things positively because Eli didn’t know that I’d slashed tires and he would never understand why I’d nearly turned the knife on an adult’s car too. Which was why I knew that the one decision I would make as Elder was the right one.
“I can’t,” I repeated. “But you can.”
It was a tremendous relief to say the words, to give in not as an act of surrender, but as a winning strategy. My insides swirled with desires that kept me far from stable. I was a mess, the kind of mess that could only get worse before it got better, if it ever did. I needed to heal in private, not while sitting on a throne.
It took Eli a minute to register my meaning. Emily and Jadin got there first, Emily gasping quietly and then smothering the sound with a hand over her mouth, Jadin standing unsurprised and unmoved other than a tightening around his lips.
“Me?” Eli asked, his voice and face without expression. Then he began to be alarmed. He shook his head back and forth hard enough to jostle his short hair. “I couldn’t. It’s not my turn. It’s your turn. That’s the only reason any of this worked. I can’t, I’m not…” he twitched his fingers, like the right word was a bubble he could pluck out of the air.
“You are. You are good enough.” I’d been thinking it, but it was Jadin who said it, firmly and with conviction.
Eli stopped babbling to stare at his friend, but could only hold his gaze for a moment before turning his eyes to his feet in embarrassment. When Eli looked back at me, he was calm. More proof. It was Jadin who’d helped him, not me. I was too much of a stranger to help any of the angels the way they needed it.
“It is my turn,” I confirmed. “But I’m asking, not ordering. Think about it, Eli, please.” I didn’t have to beg hard. He was listening now, paying attention to the logic. “I’m not the reason this worked. You did this. You figured it out, and instead of going to pieces, you made sure it got fixed. I nearly abandoned you,” I hung my head briefly, remembering. “I would have, but I’m not doing it now. They need you, Eli, not me, not some strange girl telling them what to do.”
“That’s the way it’s supposed to work,” Eli mumbled, as if he knew how fruitless an argument about abandoned rules would be.
“You’re right,” I agreed. “Of course you are. You’re the only one who knows what they’re talking about.”
A smile was forced out of him, pleased by the praise.
“Maybe next time, Eli, when things are settled. Right now, you’re our best chance.”
Jadin nodded, and Emily too, her expression thoroughly calm now. They looked at Eli, waiting patiently, lending silent support.
At last, Eli mimicked their nods with a shallow, jerky motion. “Okay,” he said.
He closed his eyes, breathing deep breaths that made his chest bellow. He was gathering composure, enclosing it around himself until the power of it straightened his spine, but he was also thinking. I could see the furrow between his eyes as he wrapped together all of the facts, all of the impossibilities I was asking him to take on, and molded them together into the shape of a solvable puzzle.
He opened his eyes, shoulders squared, expression kind.
“Okay, Alli,” he said, tone soft, but far from weak. “I accept your offer.”
The tension in the air crackled between us, and I summoned my authority one last time. “Eli,” I pronounced. “You are the Elder now.”
For a terrifying moment there was only silence, without even the sound of my own heartbeat to break it. My throat began to swell as I realized that it hadn’t worked, that it couldn’t because it wasn’t Eli’s turn, that I was stuck, a dangerous person with a corrupting responsibility. How long would it take before someone came along to relieve me? Too long.
Then the color washed out of Eli’s clothes like someone had poured bleach over him. It dripped down in wet-paint rivulets, slicking away the black until it pooled like a shadow at his feet.
A soft weight appeared at my hip and I squeezed the pouch like a security blanket.
Eli looked down at himself in awe, allowing that emotion to be dominant for a while before nodding acceptance.
He smiled at each one of us in turn, radiating reassurance until we were all forced to smile back, comforted in spite of ourselves.
Jadin, introspective as he watched it all, wound an arm around my waist. He didn’t say anything, because this wasn’t our moment, but I felt the press of his mouth against my hair.
“It suits you,” I told Eli. He wasn’t the terrifying angel of my dreams anymore, and the color matched my new perception of him.
He grinned boyishly. “Thank you.” Then he clasped his hands together, eyes serious, but mouth still soft with warmth. “Now. Let’s get to work.”
Later, I found myself sitting on the bed of a standard-looking room that could have been found in any cheap motel. It was part of a dormitory, in a quiet wing because I was a girl and that was strange; girls didn't wear black. It was my new personal space, except that it wasn’t personalized at all. I missed my yellow curtains and my desk, my books and my backpack hanging haphazardly from my chair, my pillows which always smelled of my tropical conditioner.
I wondered how much later it really was. Long enough to be missed; I’d told my mom I would be back soon. Long enough to be found? I doubted it. I’d picked our spot for its seclusion. I’d have plenty of time to be considered missing before I was found dead. What a horror that was going to be for my parents, for Eve, who was probably texting me with impatient emoticons by now.
That boiling started up inside of me again, and I was glad that I was alone. They had all sensed that I needed space, and it had only taken a small suggestion for Eli to ask Jadin to find me a room. He had, leaving me with the promise that he’d be back soon while the hardness of his eyes told me that he needed his own space too. I didn’t know how he’d handled it all that time on earth with me. The pressure of my own ordeal had caused a fissure down my middle, creating a permanent ache. I felt like a brand new person, reborn instead of killed, and I didn’t think I liked her.
Giving Eli my short-worn title hadn’t gotten rid of my anger or sadness. I was still dead, a state of permanence I simply couldn’t comprehend. Everything had gone so fast, but was now stagnant, a sprinter who had crashed into a wall. Maybe eventually it would feel like things were moving again, as my friends and I tried to heave this new world forward and I took on a job that was meant to help. It might even keep my anger in check. Sitting here, in this standard room, it was a hard prospect to imagine.
A knock sounded on my door, and Jadin poked his head tentatively around the frame. His hesitation told me that he must see how badly I felt—he’d never given me that much consideration in my own room. The closest he’d come was having the civility to look awkward as he stood on my carpet and I’d kissed him on the cheek and told him that we had plenty of time to figure things out. It struck me that I’d completely forgiven him for not telling me where he'd come from, and even for thinking of hurting me. I was glad. If I’d conjured up a grudge against him in my current state, it would have been devastating to our relationship. That wouldn’t work, because I needed my friend, the one who had listened to me and shared what he could and probably more if I’d been listening closer.
“You can come in,” I told him, since all he seemed to want to do was stare.
He did, leaving the door open behind him.
I missed his gray eyes. These dark eyes fit him and, ironically, made him seem less other-worldly, but they were harder to interpret. I couldn’t get a good read on how he felt about any of this, other than that he agreed with me about Eli. But that didn’t count because Eli was the obvious choice. I couldn’t imagine how the rest of what we'd learned today must be affecting him. We were too much alike for me to believe that the relief of knowing the truth smoothed over the guilt of the 'what ifs.'
I patted the space next to me. “Here. I think we’ve already decided that I don’t bite.” It was a strangely flippant thing to say, drawn out of me by a focus on him instead of on me, but it served its purpose. He finally broke that voracious stare and smiled. It was a small, sad smile, but I knew I’d always be glad to see it, to be the one who’d caused it. He made me feel better, and the beauty of it was that I knew he’d say the same of me.
Jadin shook his head, declining the seat. Instead, he made me a counter-offer by reaching out his hand. His sleeve pulled up and I realized that the marking that had decorated his wrist was gone, wiped clean in the transition.
“Okay…” I said, looking suspiciously at his offered hand. “As long as it’s a nice surprise.” I said it playfully because his intensity was starting to scare me.
“I promise,” he said, in a tone I knew well. It was the one he used when he was upset but was trying to keep me happy.
I took his hand, despite my suspicion, and he pulled me to my feet.
“Come on, Alli,” Jadin said. “Let’s get you home.”