EPISODE 43: WISH GRANTED

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Cyphira Quinn. Marday, Aries 19th, 2348 AA. 5:35 PM. Westridge (Mediclave – Private Ward).

An elegant voice with an un-placeable accent worked its way into Cyphira’s ears, as a hand gently shook her.

“Wake up, Cyphira.”

Oh look. It’s Dandy Boy. Forsythe stood over her, as she reclined on a bed in the campus mediclave. He wore a crisply laundered Keeper’s uniform, but looked significantly worse than when he had knocked her out three hours ago. Cuts on his brow were cinched closed with adhesive strips, and his hands were bandaged. Something else is wrong with him though. It’s like he’s sick. Or old. Normally, he looked like he was in his late twenties, and while his skin was still smooth and tight against his face, his cheeks and eyes had a vague, sunken quality that aged him by a decade.

“Do you get off on knocking chicks out without warning, or am I special?” Cyphira muttered.

He turned away from her and sank into a guest chair against the wall with a sigh.

“I have a very serious problem. Care to guess what it is?”

“I mean, that bow is a very ‘bold’ fashion statement, but I don’t think it’s doing you any favors.”

Again, he stared at her, unamused. Cyphira gestured ‘tough crowd,’ wiped her eyes, and stretched herself awake. She considered his question more seriously, and a guess came to her mid-yawn:

“I broke your little memory spell?”

He nodded.

“You’re half-way there. It seems you have some sort of… natural resistance or etheric allergy against memory tampering. I look forward to hearing the details of how you managed it later… But what’s done is done. Your actions likely saved Alinore Valmont and Pensey Hayes.”

Cyphira was genuinely glad to hear it, but she gestured a sarcastic ‘yay’ in answer.

“The problem is what we do now,” Forsythe said.

“I mean. I assume the crisis has been averted, seeing how you’re sitting here talking to me.”

“The immediate threats have been dealt with. The djinn is sealed and Averael has been vanquished. But now we have to work on damage control. The CIC can’t have the general public knowing that an angel infiltrated a school, possessed a student, and destroyed part of the campus.”

“Yeah, it’s a bad look. Even if you leave out the parts where you used the student body as bait and your people failed to notice him for like a week. Not sure how you’re going to cover it up though.”

“The damage can conveniently be attributed to the terror attack. And for the most part, we will use the same methods we used to address Averael’s arrival. Forensic memory cleaning. A few creative press conferences. Expedited reconstruction teams. But one loose thread is all it takes to unravel unpleasant truths.”

Cyphira caught his meaning immediately, and a chill crept across her shoulders.

“If you were going to kill me, you would have done it by now,” she said. “So, what’s the plan?”

Forsythe tapped his sword-staff on the ground twice and pursed his lips.

“That’s up to you,” he said. “We can fake your death and put you in witness protection. Most likely in some remote, third-world backwater. You will have to live under surveillance and a truly oppressive number of strictures to ensure your story never comes to light.”

Super hard pass.

“Option two?”

Forsythe eyed her for a long moment.

“How would you feel about a career in the CIC?”

Cyphira’s lips parted slightly, and then she shook her head, flummoxed.

“I thought CIC recruits are selected during assessments.”

“Some are. But there is no… uniform path for our recruitment. Every agent is nominated by another agent, who is then approved by the higher ups. The problem… is that CIC members cannot be drummed out. If they wash out, we must stitch them.”

“Stitch?”

“Stitches are the most common spell we employ to alter individuals’ memories. Essentially, you ‘fold’ the subject’s recollections of a specific event, person, or topic into their subconscious and then tie it closed with a symbiotic spell. To deal with the gap created, we implant a plausible memory called a ‘patch’ to cover your missing time. Over time, the stitch encourages the mind to treat the stitched memory as a dream. Most of the time people discard the information before they can realize it’s missing.”

“But you just said my memories can’t be altered.”

Forsythe nodded slowly.

“If you wash out… you will be executed.”

Cyphira’s brows jumped. Well. That’s direct.

“I saw your fight in the finals. Your resistance to memory tampering is a tremendous potential asset, especially paired with your half-fae heritage and akrasia. You would have to deliberately sabotage yourself to reach that eventuality. I believe it is why my superiors gave me permission to extend you an offer, sight unseen.”

“Beats hiding out until I’m dead,” Cyphira said. “Sign me up.”

“It isn’t that simple, I’m afraid. Part of the initiation for becoming a member of the CIC is to foreswear your past identity. Entirely. You will undergo a ritual that will erase your presence to the general public.”

“What?”

“Everything you’ve ever said will be forgotten. Those aspects of your life that cannot be forgotten—your impact on the world to date—will be reattributed to the actions of other people. Physical, sympathetic, and digitized records of your life will be altered or entirely destroyed.”

Cyphira knit her brows, trying to parse how that magic could even work. You’d need the consent of the subject. I can kind of guess how the metaphysics of making a person forget would work. But reattributing one’s actions to other people is way harder. I suppose you could leverage the collective unconscious and pair it with the brain’s intrinsic desire for continuity… but physically altering records? At range? That would require a truly insane amount of juice.

“How is that possible?”

Forsythe shook his head.

“Even I am not allowed to know. But the presence erasure ritual is very old magic. Dating back to Chaucer’s time at least. Personally, I suspect it is a piece of pre-Homeric knowledge that survived the Athenian Purge.”

“I’d have to leave everyone behind,” Cyphira realized.

Hace. Hace would forget me entirely. Everything we shared together would belong to somebody else. Tears started swelling in her eyes. And not just him. Fitz. Sen. Glem. Drav. Sera. Sivia.

“Do I have another option?” Cyphira asked. “Is there any way I can stay here?”

Forsythe shook his head sadly.

“I’m sorry.”

“Oh, come on. I get to run and hide or become a fucking ghost? Those are my only options? Couldn’t you put a binding compulsion on me? Prevent me from talking about all of this? Why not just fake my death and recruit me? Let my friends keep their memories at least!”

“Compulsions can be broken or circumvented. And faking your death is insufficient if you want to continue practicing magic. The CIC works all over the world, and while we try to stay out of the spotlight… it’s still a remarkably small pond. If you are discovered by members of your former cohort, we have another situation like this to deal with.”

“How is faking my death insufficient—”

“Even if we fashion a convincing corpse and have your loved ones bury it, they may still try to seek you out with scrying, or sympathetic rituals. People love to chase ghosts, Cyphira. If you go into hiding, forsake magic… we can mitigate those risks to an acceptable level. But as an amagia, your wyrd will be more than powerful enough to be detected.”

Cyphira’s heart stumbled. It took her two seconds of manual effort to correct her breathing, and even then, the air felt insubstantial in her lungs. She shook her head.

“There has to be another way. Witness protection or conscription and erasure? Jesus Christ, my life is over already!” Her voice sounded shrill. “You might as well just kill me now.”

This can’t be real. This can’t be happening. I finally… I have a family now. People care about me. And I care about them. And what? I just have to give that away? Like hell. I won’t accept this. Not for a second. There has to be a way—

“It’s a gross injustice,” Forsythe said sadly. “‘Life is not fair’ should not extend to sins like this. But those are the options my superiors gave me. And I am afraid I cannot leave this room without your answer.”

“Are you insane? I have to decide tonight?”

“No. You need to decide by six. Otherwise, we will move forward with witness protection.”

“You’re a fucking automaton!” Cyphira shouted, voice shrill again. “I need some time to think about this!”

And now I’m crying. I can’t pretend like I’m not. I need more time. This isn’t unfair, it’s beyond fucked. I am dying tonight. One way or another, my life is over. Cyphira felt like a rabbit cornered in her own mind. I can’t run. They’ll find me. And I can’t fight either.

“Can’t we just… Why do you even need to cover this up?”

“Because it’s what we do. The CIC controls the narrative. Without it…” Forsythe snickered and shook his head. “Without our little secrets, the Amagium would collapse within a week.”

“Then maybe it should!” Cyphira shouted.

Forsythe bowed his head. After a long moment, he spoke:

“I joined the CIC under similar circumstances. It was a choice between a life sentence in a magicarcerum or joining the program. Admittedly… I had much less to lose than you do. And there have been… many dark days indeed. But I had a gift, and I believe choosing to use it was the right answer. For what it’s worth, I think your gifts may eclipse mine.”

Cyphira looked at the clock again. Twenty minutes. My life will only last twenty more minutes. It finally means something. I’ve always fought. I’ve always been a fighter, and now I finally have something to make it worthwhile and…  She shook her head. I don’t care where they ship me off to—witness protection won’t work. I’d rather kill myself than live a life in hiding, without magic.

“I will join the CIC on one condition,” Cyphira said.

She expected Forsythe to balk. She knew she had no leverage. But he inclined his head:

“If your condition is reasonable and within my power to grant, you shall have it.”

Cyphira’s face cleared slightly, like the sun peeking briefly through the clouds.

“I want to spend the rest of the night with Hace Matthews. Alone. Without interruption.”

Forsythe gave her a quizzical look.

“You’d stake your entire life on one night with a boy?”

He snickered. That kinda pisses me off. Cyphira stepped out of bed, heedless of the IV, electrodes, and urdo stabilizers attached to her skin. Forsythe rolled his eyes and gestured ‘utter histrionics.’

That was the only opening Cyphira needed. She snatched Forsythe’s cross-hilted sword-cane-staff thing from him with sorcery, drew the blade, and closed the distance between them. She pressed the blade against his neck. All it would take was a flick and he’d be dead. The sword seemed to quiver in her palm. Power flooded her wyrd, and left her dizzy.

“Nice toy you’ve got here.”

Forsythe blinked once, slowly.

“Choose your words with greater care, Cyphira. My patience is waning.”

“If I do this…If any good comes from my ‘gifts,’ it’s because of him. If it wasn’t for ‘that boy?’ You would have had to come to Arroyo long before now,” she said with menace. “Because he’s the only speck of…”

She trailed off, searching for the right words. Or any words. Where am I going with this? How can I make him understand? Cyphira shook her head in disgust—at him or herself she wasn’t sure—and sheathed his weapon. She pushed it back in his hands.

“I love him. I love him with everything I am. And this is… probably for the best. Because I can’t… I want to be with him. More than anything. But if we are together, I will ruin him.”

“Why?” Forsythe asked.

“What does it matter?” Cyphira scoffed. “That’s already off the table, isn’t it?”

“Indulge me,” Forsythe said, “And I will indulge you.”

Cyphira swallowed.

“Hace’s Summer Court. And my mother…. will either destroy him to spite me, or find a way to use him against me. Or she will try to make me hate him. Or kill our children, if we ever have any—”

“Who is your mother, Cyphira?” Forsythe interrupted, albeit gently.

Cyphira hesitated. Will he even believe me? And if he does, will he still honor the deal?

“Mab.”

Queen of the Winter Court. Former wife and consort of Oberon, King of Summer, later spurned. Current wife and consort of Great Horned Cernunnos. And the Archetype for every evil bitch in every bedtime story throughout the course of human fucking history. Yes, asshole. That Mab.

“You’re serious?”

She gave him a savagely exasperated expression and gestured ‘I cannot lie,’ slow and deliberate. Forsythe gestured an earnest apology, and took a deep breath.

“Who else knows this, Cyphira? I hate to say it but that may change things—”

“Nobody,” Cyphira said.

“I’m sorry. But I need you to think carefully and swear, three times, that you have not told anybody about your lineage.”

“I sw—” Cyphira’s voice caught in her throat. She thought for a moment, and realized that she had no way of being sure she had not told her first set of foster parents. Apart from its resilience against being tampered with, her memory was average at best. Thirteen years in the rearview mirror? I don’t know if I even knew how to remember anything back then. Forsythe’s expression was darkening at her hesitation. Cyphira gestured peace and explained:

“Sorry. I may have told my first foster family. I can’t remember. But he had pretty serious cancer, so odds are he’s gone now, and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t all there to begin with. Actually, if they believed me, they probably would have tried to cash in on it somehow. But I haven’t told anybody at the Athenaeum. I swear it three times.”

“Forgive me for asking, but…how? Or rather, why not?” Forsythe asked, astonished.

“I don’t know,” Cyphira said, and surprised herself with the defensiveness in her voice. “I guess… If I ignored it hard enough and got strong enough without her in my life, I… she wouldn’t matter. I could reject her entirely. Maybe this will help with that too.”

Forsythe nodded and tapped his sword-cane against his shoulder. After a moment—Cyphira’s heart was in her throat, but she was just glad that he had stopped asking questions—he finally nodded and said:

“I will get you prepped for your conversation.”

“What conversation?”

“The ritualist—an individual whose identity even I do not know—will conduct an interview with you. It will be held in a mental construct where time has an hour to day ratio. The conversation… ‘takes as long as it takes,’ but I’ve only heard of it lasting five hours in real time. I must imagine it’s an excruciating experience in the dream. You won’t feel hunger or thirst through the duration, and once you wake up, you won’t remember a thing. You will, however, have a considerable hangover.”

I don’t know what it’s like to be drunk; thanks for the awful metaphor. Cyphira briefly considered asking for more that night. Some wine. Good food. Flattering clothes. A nice bedroom. Weed, or dust, or… something. I don’t know. But all those things seemed so petty in comparison to what she really wanted. Forsythe realized his mistake and corrected:

“You’ll have a considerable headache. The longer the interview takes, the worse the severity. But you are young, with less time to cover and a more resilient brain.”

“And Hace?” Cyphira asked.

Forsythe pursed his lips.

“I will make sure he is undisturbed until eleven PM this evening.”

“What the fuck? Aren’t I supposed to get until midnight?”

“This is not a storybook, Cyphira. The erasure requires a centralized ritual, and subsequent, similar rituals with those people closest to you. And I assume he numbers among them.”

“But if my conversation takes five hours, that will leave me with less than—”

“Less than an hour, yes. So be cooperative and thorough. Volunteer more information than you think is necessary. Respond to every question without snideness or equivocation. If you pull the sort of flippant bullshit you seem so fond of, or try to rush the proceedings, they will only take longer. And believe me. You do not want to hope for a world where your loved ones remember you. The conflicting memories could tear their minds apart.”

“I will cooperate. I promise.”

“And you are sure this is what you want?”

“This is my ‘happy ending,’ Forsythe. I figure a cheery guy like you can understand that.”

“If your lover doesn’t feel the same, or gets cold feet, I will make no effort to stop him if he decides he wants to leave or send you away.”

A few hours ago, that threat might have reached Cyphira. It may have cut her to the core, even. She might worry that Hace would back down, lack for courage, or not seize their only opportunity. But now she knew. Or rather, she had known all along, and their duel just helped her see.

He was smiling before she hit him with his own attack. He loved it. He loved her. Even when she was being awful, being cruel, hurting him… he still loved her. And the dumb thing was, he had already shown her that love should be different. That it should be more faithful, gentle, and uncompromising. But he was willing to love her on her terms. And now she wanted to love him on his. If only for a night. If only for an hour. However long we can have together.

“I accept your conditions,” she said.

“Then you shall have yours,” Forsythe said. “For what it’s worth, I hope he’s worth it. This isn’t an easy life, if such a thing exists.”

“Pretty sure it doesn’t,” Cyphira said. “But I’ll be right at home.”

Forsythe gave her a strange smile. Amused? Skeptical? Tormented? Before she could parse his expression, he extracted a phial of purple liquid from his pocket and handed it to her.

“Get back in bed and drink this. It will prepare your mind for the interview.”

Cyphira climbed back into bed and raised the concoction to Forsythe as if it were a toast.

“Cheers.”

She knocked back the phial with one swallow. It tasted a little like that blue raspberry flavoring people put on shaved ice at carnivals, but effervescent, and tempered by the harsh bite of alcohol. It burned her throat going down and affected her immediately. Her head spun as her eyelids drooped, and she was out before she hit the pillow.

—  9:33 PM. Westridge (Mediclave – Private Ward). —

Cyphira had no memory of the grueling interrogation she had endured in her dreams, save for a splitting headache, and an emotional soreness. Her interviewer had stripped her bare and left her heart raw. They had access to every last regret, secret, and private insight that defined her life. What was my life. I’ll be gone tomorrow.

After wiping the crust from her eyes, she looked to the clock on the wall and immediately swore. Shit! I only have an hour and a half!

There was a tray next to her bed with prescription-strength painkillers, a tall glass of water, and a note written in elegant script:

Your paramour is in Room 707. I’ve told the staff that he is not be disturbed for the rest of the evening under any circumstances. Find me in the lobby at 11PM. – Forsythe”

Cyphira popped the pain pills, washed them down with the full glass of water, then stripped off her paper hospital gown and hastily put her aspirant uniform back on. She took stock of herself in the mirror and frowned.

I’m a fucking nightmare. Bruises to shame a boxer, broken nose, split lip…And I’m in the same outfit I wear every damn day. I wish I had the clothes I wore when we were at the pier. He couldn’t keep his eyes off me then. Cyphira used a simple sorcerous glamour to hide the worst of her injuries. Her hair was still a disaster, and she smelled like bloody spit and sweat. Nothing to help it. I’ve wasted enough time already.

She stepped outside her room, labeled 713, and It only took her a minute of wandering to find 707. She knocked three times, waited a second, then opened the door just a crack. Hace looked like he had just woken up, wearing a dazed and confused expression.

“Cy?” He asked. “What are you doing here?”

“Hey,” Cyphira said. “I wanted to check on you. How are you feeling?”

“Beat to shit. You really did a number on me.” Hace chuckled. “How’s your arm?”

“I’m fine. Glem popped it back in after the match,” she said, and rotated her arm. It was still sore as hell, but perfectly functional.

“Can you tell me what’s been going on? The medisoph told me there was a gas leak in the stadium, and apparently the central quad was destroyed? People are saying it was the Unbranded, or egregores, but nobody seems to have any real information.”

Cyphira shrugged.

“Yeah, they said it was a gas leak and evacuated everybody from the stadium, but…” Cyphira let her voice trail off and shrugged.

Hace raised an eyebrow. He knew a lie of omission when he heard one. But then the clock caught his eyes.

“Holy shit, it is way after curfew. Did you sneak out?”

“I actually got permission to visit,” Cyphira said quickly, again, not technically lying.

Hace pulled his head back, surprised.

“How did you swing that? Not that I’m complaining.”

“If you aren’t complaining, I’m not going to waste time explaining.”

Hace peered at her with a puzzled grin, but she pressed on before he could ask any more questions:

“If you had one night… and you could do anything you wanted… What would you do?”

Hace’s confusion deepened, and then his wyrd twitched with irritation. It was just a flash, but she understood. The answer should be readily apparent and it was rude of her to call him out on it. Her heart melted when he blushed. It exploded when he spoke:

“I’d want to spend it with you.”

Good answer. Cyphira nodded and breathed deep. She swept toward the bed, took a seat on its edge, and kissed him. This was not that cheap-shot peck-on-the-lips bullshit she pulled in the hallway to their fight. No. This is my “I love you” Kiss. This is my “you are my everything,” Kiss

“Mrf!” Hace said.

What? No. Oh god no. I fucked up. Cyphira’s heart turned to lead. She bolted off the bed.

“No! Cy, wait!” Hace said and caught her by her wrist.

She turned to face him, stricken pale, terrified that she had torpedoed everything. He pulled her back to the edge of the bed, and gently enveloped the small of her back with his wyrd.

“You surprised me,” he said, smiling. “I mean. I’ve dreamt about this. For a long time. I just don’t want to miss it.”

“Oh,” she said. “Sorry. I… I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“I don’t either,” he assured her.

Cyphira sat back on the bed, and leaned toward him slowly. He mirrored her movement, tilting his head, and drawing closer. Just before he closed his eyes, he swept her bangs aside and stroked her cheek. She smiled. Almost laughed. You fucking dweeb.

She was gentler this time, and he was more aggressive. He slid his tongue to meet hers, and they tumbled awkwardly, exploring each other. She slid her hand behind his head and pressed him against her. He took her in his arms and hugged her tight. Then they pulled away breathless and red.

“I love you,” Cyphira said. “You’re the first person I’ve ever loved. The first person who has ever loved me. I’ve just been afraid to say it out loud because… too many reasons. But none of them are good enough, and… I want to make up for lost time.”

“I’m yours,” Hace said. “We have all the time in the world.”

Her heart collapsed and she couldn’t keep the pain out of her expression. No, Hace. Tonight’s all we’ve got.

“Cy, what’s wrong?”

“I want tonight to last forever.”

Before he could ask more questions she unclipped her collar, unzipped her uniform jacket, and tossed it on the floor. Hace’s eyes bugged. He was awed, confused, and more than a little nervous.

“Are you okay?” he insisted.

“No,” she said. “I’m fucked up. I’ve always been fucked up. And I’m gonna keep getting more fucked up. But when I am with you… that doesn’t matter. I feel like I have the right to be happy. And that’s what I want. That’s all I want. To be happy with you tonight.”

She grabbed the hem of her white undershirt and pulled it off. She was horribly self-conscious about her drab, gray sports bra. But he marveled at her like she was some profound natural wonder. Meeting his gaze was like staring into the sun. You’re going to burn me up just by looking at me.

“If the soph comes back—”

“The sophs won’t come back until tomorrow. Nobody is going to bother us,” she said in the tone that she used to remind people she was incapable of lying.

“You… uh… you didn’t knock them out or something did you?” Hace asked.

She swatted him. Hace chuckled, but she knew he wanted ask more questions. He knew something was wrong. But you also know that I don’t want to talk about it. Before the dilemma could paralyze him, she leaned forward, put her right hand on his chest, and started to slide her left beneath his shirt, feeling the contours of his abs. He put his arm around her back, and drew her in for another deep kiss.

When she pulled away for breath, he pulled off his shirt. She drank in the sight of him. Bruised everywhere—mostly my fault—but still beautiful. Muscular. Heroic. She wanted to devour him. She bit her lip instead. He put one hand on her bare waist, and another hand on her cheek, caressing her. She leaned into his palm, put her hand over his, and slowly guided him down her neck and shoulders to her breasts. His hand tightened around her bra and she gasped.

More. I want more.

She moved her free hand back to his stomach, then slid it beneath the waistband of his uniform trousers, questing deeper. She felt his boxers’ fabric twist at her touch, and her eyes widened as she felt him. Oh my god. He’s big. I mean. I don’t know, but I think this is big? This seems big to me. He moaned and quivered. She giggled despite her nerves. I don’t know what I’m doing.

He slid his other hand from her waist and started to pull off her sports bra. She helped him. Again, that awed stare. She had to look away again, embarrassed. They’re just boobs, Hace. But she was happy. He tugged at the golden chord she used to secure her hair into a pony tail, and pulled it off. It caught a couple of her hairs, and she winced. He whispered an apology. She waved it off. Again, Cyphira felt strange. She wasn’t used to wearing her hair down. She wondered if he liked her better this way. I should have asked earlier, or paid more attention.

“Am I dreaming?” Hace asked.

She shook her head, eyes suddenly glistening with tears.

“I promise this is real.” 

This is as real as I will ever be.

“Cy, please tell me what’s wrong,” Hace begged.

Cyphira had never wanted to lie more in her life. Nothing’s wrong. I’ll tell you in the morning, before I slip back to the dorm. The world is ending and this is our last night on earth. She parted her lips, trying to think of a way to explain with half-truths, but ultimately shook her head. There’s no time. And no matter what I tell you, no good will come from it. You’ll want to fight for me. You’ll want us to run away. You’ll throw away everything you’ve been working for, and they will hunt us down like dogs. Instead, she told what truths she could.

“I’m sad I waited so long. I’m sorry I made you wait. I’m embarrassed, and scared, and… none of that matters right now, because everything is perfect. This is what I want.” She hesitated, searching for the right words, and finally settled on: “Love me.”

He continued to stare at her, stubborn. His cerulean eyes quested for answers. But in the end, he nodded his acquiescence. She kissed him again, stood, and pulled off the rest of her clothes.  Hace followed suit in the small hospital bed and scooted to the far edge, making room for her. Cyphira slid in next to him, shocked by the warmth of his skin and the scent of his hair. Citrus, spices, and summer sunshine.

She kept telling herself she was happy. She focused on the ecstasy she brought him. And she felt rapturous joy at the gentle, yet ravenous way he kneaded, kissed, and massaged her body. The stimulation was so intense that it was hard to differentiate pleasure from pain.

When they finished, he drifted to sleep holding her head against his chest. If I could only die right now, in your arms. If only this really was the end. Because I don’t know how I am supposed to keep living without you.

— 10:50 PM —

Cy spent their last ten minutes together staring at the clock, wondering whether she should leave early, trying to find a way for them to run after all, and torturing herself for not enjoying Hace’s firm embrace. She massaged his wyrd with emanations of slumber and channeled a slight amount of sedative energy into him. Then she kissed him one more time, and slid out of his arms.

Part of her was terrified he would wake up and catch her. Then she would have to tell the truth. But a spark in her heart hoped that it would come to that. Maybe he would see a solution she had overlooked. But in the end, he slept like the dead, with a serene smile on his face.

She watched him as she put her uniform back on, then stepped out of the room before her resolve could fail. On her way to meet Forsythe, she stopped at a bathroom, partially undressed again, and cleaned herself up. Then she hastily made her way to the elevator and hit the button for the lobby.

Just after she passed the third floor, the sorrow caught up to her. She broke down, sobbing. She hit the button for the second floor, and stepped out. There was a clock on the wall outside, and she saw that she had only three minutes to get herself under control and walk downstairs. There will be plenty of time to cry later. This grief isn’t going anywhere.

Steeling herself, she made her way to the stairwell and wiped her eyes dry as she descended.

Forsythe waited in the lobby as he had promised, weapon crooked over his shoulder as he read a paperback book. He closed it as she approached, his face solemn and strangely uncertain. He’s trying to be polite, but he has no idea how to manage it.

“I’ve taken the liberty of cleaning out your room while we addressed Senice’s memories. Do you have belongings anywhere else?”

Cyphira shook her head, her heart now hard as frozen granite.

“No. I’m ready.”

Forsythe appraised her briefly, nodded, and stood. Then the two of them stepped into the dry, cruel night.

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