I saw the solution easily. Big and bold as it was, it would have been difficult to miss.
The idea had hit me early on, when we’d come to the conclusion that only the presence of Alli could ever make Alli’s parents happy. But Alli had been the Elder then, and no matter how much I wanted her to feel better, I knew that she couldn’t leave. Now she wasn’t the Elder. She was one of us. A Guardian with the power to go to earth for hands-on support when necessary. This would only be an extended stay, a long job helping two parents deal with the death of their daughter. Sometimes the best we could do was offer comfort.
In spite of the undeniable logic, Eli didn’t like it.
I found him where I’d left him after I’d found some privacy for Alli: in a room I’d long ago deemed the waiting-room, since it looked like one from a hospital, all chairs and false cheer. It was next to the Elder’s office, but not inside it. No one had gone back inside. Staying close by was essential though. As far as we could tell, no one knew what had happened yet, and there was only one big thing they’d care about immediately. Eli’s presence was glaring in his new gray clothes. He seemed to bend light towards him, and eyes would surely follow. When we were ready—when Eli was ready—we’d tell. Until then, it was easier not to let an already outrageous story grow grotesque through gossip. Personally, I was crystal-clear on one point of the retelling. No one needed to know that those clothes had been worn three times instead of two.
I hadn’t said that to Eli. I’d presented him with the job logic, and then stood back to watch as he considered. I stared at him, different because there was authority behind his eyes and because he’d been lucky enough to find out the truth before I’d managed to help him lose faith. The same because, next to the authority, was that spirit that had always been capable of wrenching a grin out of me. He was my friend, and it embarrassed me to know that it had taken all of this for me to admit it. I hoped that the new gap in our positions wouldn’t change that. I thought that if our positions were reversed, it probably would. Which was why Alli had, wisely, chosen Eli.
He hadn’t answered yet, so I pushed a little, leaving the politics behind to make room for the important part.
“Alli deserves to go home,” I said, and I didn’t need to doctor my voice at all for sincerity to shine through. I had seen how she looked. The happy, strong, complicated girl I knew was drawing into herself, recoiling against the outside stimuli. Soon, she wouldn’t let me in behind the mask anymore. Soon I would lose her, but not before she lost herself.
It struck me that I didn’t actually need to ask Eli. I could simply have done it and explained later, relying on forgiveness over permission. But that would have been a devastating early blow to his position, a position I firmly believed he deserved. And it would have ruined any chance I had at preserving our friendship.
“Jadin, I can’t,” he finally said. Not ‘I don’t want to.’ “It makes sense, what you’re saying, and of course she deserves it. She sacrificed a lot to help us.” He stopped and rubbed a hand over his face. I think it was the moment that he began to understand the kinds of dilemmas he was going to be faced with in this role. “I just can’t start out by breaking rules.”
“Whose rules?” I’d asked gently, reminding him.
He had no answer. Maybe because he didn’t know.
“Maybe next time, Eli,” I said, stealing Alli’s reasoning because she was better at it than I was. “When things are settled we can follow all the rules. Alli isn’t even part of the rules. She’s always been different.” Disturbingly different. Different enough to set off this whole mess in the first place. “And…” I made the circle from politics to the important part again. “We wronged her.” The Elder had, and I had, if only by intent. I could stand by her side for all eternity, but this was the only true way I could make recompense for such damage. Even though it meant cutting myself out, that Alli wouldn’t be standing by my side either.
Eli’s troubled gaze was introspective. He hadn’t been with me to see the murder or to know that I had saved her like I was supposed to only to have it turned against me, but he’d seen plenty on his own. He’d been here, searching for answers, and he knew exactly what it was that Alli had sacrificed. He was the other side of the story, one that I could claim I’d been cast out of, though really my emotional fog would never have let me see things like Eli had. My emotions were still keeping me fogged now. My path was paved with good intentions, but it was still one-track with no peripheral vision. Eli would know better. I knew I could trust him. That was the real reason I hadn’t gone behind his back.
This time I waited, letting him consider with no more pushing.
After a long few minutes, Eli sighed, deep and shaky. “I can’t let everyone who dies go back. I don’t know everything, but I do know that’s too close to the reason things went bad in the first place.”
I nodded. I couldn’t argue with that. All I had were the details the Elder had seen fit to tell me, all for his own benefit.
I opened my mouth to tell Eli that I understood even if I was disappointed, but then I noticed the way he was standing. He looked like a man who was afraid of heights who was about to jump from a plane: terrified, but determined to throw caution to the wind and believe in the parachute.
When he spoke next, he spoke fast. “But Alli is different. Maybe even different enough to be a complication. And she deserves more from us.” He looked at me straight on, using eye contact to emphasize his first decision as Elder. “Take her home, Jadin. Call it an extended job if you need to.”
“Thank you,” I said. My voice confused me. I meant what I said, but the tone I heard was disappointment.
“But this is the last time.” Eli was still staring straight at me, but now the color of his clothes was distracting me from his face. “After this, we go straight. No more. Do you understand?”
I nodded. I understood. I understood the veiled prohibition in his words just as clearly as I’d known to snap my mouth shut when Alli the Elder had told me to, friends or not.
The words hit me low in the stomach, crushing a hope I hadn’t realized I’d been harboring.
I turned to leave. I had a lot to do and I didn’t trust my face anymore.
I looked back at Eli, standing not in front of one chair, but several. He invited me back into his gaze as an equal, someone he trusted.
“Thank you,” he said with all of the sincerity that could ever accompany such words. He said them as earnestly as he ever had when I’d succeeded in helping him to feel better about Marking a little girl. As if he couldn’t have gone on without my clumsy reassurance. “For believing in me.”
I thought of him in the tree in Alli’s backyard, horror-struck because I’d told him I planned to kill her. And then running off to help me anyway.
“You too.” This time I got the tone right.
I walked quietly to Alli’s room, in no hurry. In some ways, it felt like my would-be murder all over again. My nerves had been building to this moment and now it was time to go through with it, no more hesitating. Except that this was harder. This time there would be no backing down. This time I had to go through with it. I could feel that old protective shell trying to rise up and drown out the knowledge. But that would also mean drowning out this moment with her, and that was unacceptable. Some things you just had to let yourself feel.
I took a breath, a habit now more than a necessity, knocked on her door, and looked in from the threshold. Alli was sitting on the bed, wings relaxed to their full length behind her, face startled out of thought into a calm, even comforted expression I didn’t think she was aware of. Comforted just because I was here. I wanted to fall into that and allow myself to relish the way I reciprocated that feeling. I knew who I could be around Alli; she’d accepted my softness long before I’d known it wasn’t supposed to be a source of shame. I settled for the simple pleasure of watching her, noting that her core of determination had only been muffled, not eclipsed, by the despair she felt. She was planning to fight even if she couldn’t see a way to win a victory. Her hair hung over her shoulder, splashing the black of her shirt with a shock of color. She had, I realized, very pretty hands, long fingers and trim, neat nails.
“You can come in,” she said pointedly.
I moved forward, but not too close. It was far too tempting to think of sitting next to her, starting a conversation, then another, and another.
Reading my mind, Alli patted the bed in invitation. “Here. I think we’ve already decided that I don’t bite.”
I smiled because she was making the best of it, trying for a positive spin. And because I knew for sure now that I was doing the right thing, not just for my conscious but for her. Eternity was one thing, but I knew about an eternity of making the best of it. I didn’t want that to be her path. Not when I could save her after all.
So I shook my head with surprisingly little hesitation and held out my hand to her.
“Okay…” she said, thrown off by what was no doubt my strange expression. “As long as it’s a nice surprise.”
“I promise,” I said. It felt like an echo to know more than she did once again, but I wouldn’t let it last long.
Still eyeing me cautiously, Alli took my hand with her pretty fingers. I gripped them as I pulled her up and then said, gently because she seemed so fragile, “Come on, Alli. Let’s get you home.”
“Home?” she tried to sound skeptical, as if she didn’t know what I meant, but all I heard was the painful thrum of hope.
I pulled her out of the room by way of an answer.
“But…” she began, then stopped arguing. She could have argued, could have demanded to stay, but she kept quiet. She was drained enough to want to be led and was trusting me of all people to do it. I took her down a hallway and back out to another discreet place that dropped off like the edge of the world.
She stayed quiet, suppressing any possible conversation that might change my path. Of course she did; she didn’t want to stay. I supposed that no one did, though I couldn’t personally remember my first time. I felt the unfairness of that. I thought of all of the other lives that Eli wouldn’t give this privilege to, and guilt found a permanent lodging in my brain. But I couldn’t fix things for those I’d already failed, and I had time to do better for all of those names in my future. Right now I was helping Alli and that had to be enough.
We found Emily where I’d asked her to meet me. Asked, not told.
When Alli saw her she stopped short, pulling me to a halt with her.
“You’re serious,” she whispered incredulously. I tried to project earnestness as she stared at me with wide eyes.
“Would I ever lie to you?” I asked with mock sincerity.
“Yes,” she immediately replied, and then her face broke into a grin that actually looked painful. Relief made her eyes shine as she slowly began to understand that forever was going to wait.
“But,” she hated to say it, but I wasn’t surprised to see her finishing whatever thought she’d had earlier. She wasn’t going to let herself have a good thing without discussing whether or not she deserved it. “What about…you know…the job? And the rules? Eli said—”
“Eli said you could go.”
She looked at me with full blown skepticism.
“Think of it as a gift, for helping us,” she winced a bit, probably remembering what she’d had to do in order to help. I wanted to wince too, because one thing I couldn’t fix were the bad memories. “Besides. You gave your job away, remember?”
Her mouth lifted in an automatic response, but her eyes were distant. I saw the hope in them warring with the sadness she’d been cloaked in since she came here. She let them battle inconclusively, and then looked to me.
“Really?” she asked timidly.
“Really,” I answered, and the hope won.
This time, Alli pulled me, heading eagerly toward Emily. At last she looked like herself, happy and unbowed.
Emily greeted us warmly as we neared her. I suspected that I’d see the old Emily back soon enough, but for now she was still on my side. I knew we’d both remember that even when things changed back.
“Ready?” Emily asked in her best soothing tones.
Alli paused. Her free hand went to that spot on her chest, a gesture that was becoming familiar, like someone flicking hair out of their eyes. Then she nodded, impressing me all over again because she did it slowly.
She reached for Emily’s hand.
And that was when I pulled mine away.
Alli froze, both arms awkwardly in the air as if she were trying to keep her balance. She lowered them slowly.
“Jadin?” she asked. She no longer looked excited. Now there was confusion and the beginnings of anxiety radiating from her.
I didn’t move and I didn’t take her hand again when she pushed it out, insistently, between us. In fact, I curled my hands into fists, remembering why apathy was easier.
“Come on, Jadin.” She said it like you might address a child throwing a tantrum over a tiny thing. “Let’s go home.”
“It’s not my home, Alli.” Regret. That was what I heard from my mouth, the timbre only and not the words. Behind Alli, Emily turned away and took several prudent steps, putting distance between us.
“Sure it is,” Alli said, like it should be obvious. Or like it would be easy enough to convince the both of us that it was true. “You can stay with us. It won’t be for long. You could get a job. I could help.”
The images of such a plan leapt out at me. I thought about it. I imagined myself holding her hand and Emily’s, letting myself fall back to Earth, feeling the solid ground, feeling the heart heavy in my chest, beating. Beating wildly, because I’d be with Alli. I could don a cheesy uniform and work in some greasy fast-food joint, jostled by people and sensations. Even from here it was an overwhelming prospect. I believed Alli when she said she would help me, even if such help was too much to ever ask for. It wouldn’t be easy. But we’d have each other. We would live a normal life and I would think about the people I’d failed every day of it. She would get her chance to heal where she needed it, but I would be left wondering, until it made us unequal, one relying on the other until the idea was resentful instead of romantic.
“I want to,” I said sincerely, wistfully; the yearning made my voice thin and strange. I let her hear it.
“But you won’t,” she finished for me, as if I’d worn out her patience when it came to my stubbornness. Her voice trembled. She was starting to realize that this would be our last argument. Maybe she was even annoyed that she was going to lose it. She lowered her head and I watched her shoulders shake. She wouldn’t look at me. “I want to be with you,” she admitted quietly, the words like the knife all over again. “We were supposed to have time. Even after we came here, we were going to have time. Please come with me.” Her plea ended in a whimper.
I clenched my fists to keep from drawing her to me. I wouldn’t let go if I did. She was saying everything I wanted to hear, a vocalization of the all the ways she felt just because she saw me. I thought of the last day we’d shared together, starting with the kiss in Danni’s kitchen and followed by small things, little touches, frequent glances. Everything hesitant because we were both raw and didn’t want to ruin it. It might not have lasted forever. It wasn’t all good, and we weren’t always good to each other. But if I could have given the world for a wish, I would have wished for the chance to find out together.
“I can’t.” The words croaked out through my swollen throat. I could have told her that I wasn’t allowed, that Eli wouldn’t let me because I was part of the system and the system was already tottering. Alli had barely had time to be a cog in the machine, which was the only reason she got a pass. I nearly said as much, except that it wasn’t all of the truth. “I have too much to do here,” I said, hating how crass that sounded, how it made it seem like I was putting strangers in front of her. I couldn’t articulate the scope of it, so I summed it up with a helpless shrug. “I want to be with you, Alli, right next to you, every day until you got sick of me. But I know what I am now.”
“A Guardian,” Alli sighed. She lifted her head and wiped futilely at her eyes, another unnecessary habit. “I know. Really I do.” I heard the Elder in my head, sneering about her attempts to make amends for her sister, and knew that she did.
It was the defeated look on her face, like she had failed at something, that made me unclench my hands and grab on to her shoulders.
“Not just a Guardian,” I clarified, and when she wouldn’t look at me I cradled her face so that she could see my eyes. “A person. A real person, who’s part of something. Alli, before I met you….” I breathed in, as if a large enough breath might give me the power to explain those years. It came out in a quick gasp of empty air. “I’d forgotten what was important. You reminded me.” What she’d given me was priceless and inexpressible. I couldn’t sum up our relationship. I didn’t even try. I held her face and tried to memorize the shape of it.
She was listening. Better, she was letting it sink in, accepting the good that she’d done. She smiled, lips twitching open near my thumbs. It was the best expression I’d ever seen. It was warm and wide and made her hazel eyes soft. It was acceptance and adoration expressed in a way that didn’t need words.
I didn’t need them either. I bypassed those three particular words that had floated through my head and landed in my heart. I pushed the sadness away, leaving thoughts of missing her for the future. I bent and kissed her, a meeting of bodies to match a union of minds. She responded under me, lingering in the caresses, meeting my mouth as if the tenderness of the act could slow the moment. I trailed my hands down her face, following the curve of her neck to her shoulders, and then her arms, taking in as much as I could. Another new noise escaped my throat, a wild longing that passed from my mouth to Alli’s. She swallowed it down and gripped me tighter.
When we parted, our positions had switched and Alli was the one holding my face. I leaned into the touch, watching her eyes. They filled my vision, shimmering with gratitude.
“I’ll miss you,” she breathed. Her fingers stroked once from my eyebrow to my hairline.
“I’ll always be here.”
“Yes,” she said, her voice laced with a grin. “My Guardian.”
Then she stepped back, fingers drawing away until they slipped off of my chin.
Emily was coming back. I saw that and ached.
“Here,” Alli’s voice. While I’d been staring, she’d untied the pouch from her waist. “Keep this safe for me. I’ll need it later.”
I took it reverently and with renewed determination. I knew, deep down where it counted, that all of the good I could ever do had been dragged out of me by Alli. It would be my job, more important and more difficult than the official one, to make it count. “I will.”
I tied the pouch at my hip. It would rest next to mine until she needed it.
It wasn’t goodbye, not forever. So we didn’t say it.
Alli simply smiled, took Emily’s hand, and let herself be led to the edge of the world.