She was more than I remembered.
More vibrant. More expressive. More alive. More silvered, which was a difference I should have expected, but hadn't. Her eyes were wide and grey like I knew mine must be. They were still hers but served as a chilling reminder of what she was. Her hair was braided over her shoulder, her arms exposed in a neutral-colored tank top, her fingers sticking through a pair of long gloves that might have seemed decorative if you didn't know better.
Relief eclipsed my conscious thought like a tide as I absorbed the sight of her. I was, pure and simple, glad to see her.
"Hi, Alli," I said. My voice came out rough and grated against my ears even as it echoed through my skull. I couldn't contain a wince at the unfamiliar vibration.
"Jadin. I…" Alli tried, but she seemed shell-shocked.
She was still standing in her doorway, one hand gripped as if to steady herself on the doorknob while I stood awkwardly in the blessedly empty hallway. I didn't like it there. It reminded me too much of the temporary places we kept frustrated angels. I didn't push, though. She could stand there for another hour gaping, and I'd be happy just to stand with her, aching feet or not.
And I did ache. Not in the same way, not as if the weight of the sky had fallen on me instead of me falling out of the sky. Not with the constant, inhibiting, backbreaking sensation of shame and loss and anger. Still, it had been a long couple of days, and this body was new all over again. My legs clenched with muscles that flight hardly required, each flex like the motion of a tiny, un-oiled machine. Even my breath felt heavy, like trying to inhale water instead of oxygen. I'd thought at least I'd gotten used to the sound of my heartbeat, that constant, betraying drum. That was before I'd found Alli, though. I may have been content just to stare at her, but the sound of my heart in my ears punctuated the anxiety of this moment.
Someone else called her name, and the voice was followed by a protective hand on her shoulder. Then came the appearance of another young woman, Alli's roommate, I assumed.
"Everything okay?" she asked Alli.
She was about a head shorter than Alli, which made her nearly two heads shorter than me, but that didn't change the fact that she was capable of beating me up and looked like she was gearing up to do just that.
Alli looked at her and back at me. She gave herself a little shake.
"Everything's fine, Gabi," she assured the young woman. "Jadin's a friend."
There was my heart again, responding violently to the lack of hesitation as she labeled me.
"Okay," Gabi said, but took another, closer look at me. Her eyes raked over me like tiny scratches, but I knew better than to wince this time. Whatever she saw caused understanding to flash over her face in what was very nearly a mischievous smile. "In that case, I'll leave you two alone," And then a thought occurred to her and she amended her tone. "Or should I stay?" She looked to Alli for an answer.
"Go ahead, Gabi. Thanks."
"Call me if you need me," she commanded.
I turned my body to avoid her as she left the room and let her eyes linger on my face once more before turning into the hallway.
Alli waited until she was out of sight, and then turned her own body perpendicular to the doorframe in a silent invitation.
I braced myself and entered her room and what could only be nostalgia washed through me. The half of the room that was Gabi's was riotous, but Alli might as well have transported the bedroom from her house to this space. It was her style, simple and understated, with a desk and school things scattered around. On the desk was the picture of her and her sister, which I couldn't look at for long. It made me think that if I left the room and went back down the hall, I'd find an office with an air mattress on the floor, waiting for me.
Then Alli clicked the door shut and the illusion was over.
We turned to each other, and I knew the truth of exactly why I'd fought against ever having this moment. In short: it was terrifying.
Alli cleared the gap between us slowly, less, I thought, to defer to what she remembered to be my sensibilities than for herself. My hunch was confirmed when she reached out and grabbed my wrist, the heat of her hand shocking. With her other hand, she pushed up the sleeve of my transplanted Guardian's uniform to reveal the black marks that encircled the flesh there. She traced the pattern with an impossibly soft finger, around and around until a shudder ran from the spot to shake my whole frame.
"You really are here. Really here," she said, and if I couldn't read her tone, I hadn't forgotten how to read her face.
I opened my arms to her a breath before she curled herself inside them. She spread her own arms around my back and pressed her head against my chest. I set my cheek against her hair and breathed her in. It took until that moment for me to convince myself that she really was okay, that I wasn't too late.
After a long time, she gave me a tight squeeze and pulled back. She was wiping at her eyes, but her face lit up with a chuckle.
"I can't believe you finally came," she said in wonder. "I'd just about given up on you."
It wasn't as much of a joke as her smile made it seem.
"Alli, I," I started, but didn't have the courage to follow through. "It is really good to see you."
"You too," she agreed, but it hadn't been the right thing to say. She darkened for a moment; it was different with her new eyes. Fiercer.
I failed to stop a grimace.
Alli pulled herself further away and looked closer at my face. She wasn't checking to validate my existence this time but looking more carefully at my expression.
"I'm sorry," she said. "You must be tired. Come here. Sit down."
She guided me to her bed and sat me down by her pillow. The space was soft—too soft for my newly born sensations. It creased under my thigh and the smell of her wafted up with every shifting movement. I wondered whether she'd put me in such an intimate spot on purpose and then decided I needed to pull my head out of fantasy and back on track. Even if I could still feel the burn of her body against me, I thought I could do a better of job of pretending this was strictly business.
"Here," Alli said as she joined me, pulling her feet up under her on the mattress. "Eat."
She put a foil bag of potato chips under my nose and held it there until I took it. I popped it open and a rush of salty air made me cough. I didn't relish the idea of putting something that could change the very air on my sensitive tongue.
"Eat," Alli repeated at my hesitation.
There was no getting around it; she was watching me like I might faint, which I'd done in front of her before. I obligingly placed a chip in my mouth and chewed until a shard hit my gums at the wrong angle. I swallowed a few more mouthfuls anyway and then set the bag aside. Alli's watchful eye or not, I could barely hear my own thoughts, let alone her.
"I wish you didn't remember my passing out like that," I told her, referring to the fainting incident. "Not my finest moment. Besides, I didn't forget this time." I tried for a smile, but my lips were dry and felt like they might crack.
"I remember everything, Jadin," she assured me.
She tugged off one of the gloves that decorated her hand. She did not shove her wrist in my face, but she might as well have. And there it sat, her own replica of my tattoos, a reminder of what she was, of where she belonged and all that she'd been through that was somehow more invasive than her eye color.
"I lived through it."
I'd known that. I'd helped make it true. But I wasn't prepared for the rush of sadness that hit me when I imagined Alli navigating her new body, her restored life. Of course she hadn't forgotten. Of course she hadn't moved on without a backward glance.
"How are you, Alli? Really?"
She gave me a flippant shrug and a far from flippant answer.
"I'm alive," she said, and that was it.
And that—her refusal to give me more details about the most important fact that existed between us—made me look at her, really look. I looked past the lense of nostalgia, past what I saw because my memory expected to see it. She'd started out with her hands on me, but she wasn't touching me now. She was sitting stiff and controlled several inches away with a tilt to her that suggested she'd pull away if I reached out. Her new eyes were familiar, but distant. Careful. She looked like she'd had a long day—or a long year. There was a tension in her that was very much like the last time I'd seen her and she'd worn my own uniform: like a water balloon forced to hold its own skin together.
I said none of this out loud. She looked the way I'd felt last time, and if that was true, she already knew it all.
"What I want to know," she continued, tapping pointedly at the abandoned chip bag, "is why you're currently alive."
"I came to see you."
She laughed. It was not a pleasant sound.
"Now that I had forgotten."
The sound she'd made still rankled in my ear, and I blamed that for the snarky way my reply came out. "And what might that be?"
"How absolutely infuriating it is when you dance around the whole truth."
I clicked my teeth shut and held my newly necessary breath to stop from escalating the situation further. Something I'd apparently forgotten in turn was the way argument had often been our default setting.
Alli seemed to be working towards calm as well. Her chest heaved in and out and her lips moved as if she were silently chanting, or maybe counting.
Eventually, she said, "If you'd just wanted to see me, you would have come months ago. Tell me why Eli sent you back."
The mention of Eli let me conveniently ignore the first half of her statement.
"Eli doesn't know I'm here," I said. My voice wasn't as moderate as she'd made hers.
"Wait," Alli protested. "What? Ae you…. you're not breaking rules already? Jadin, that's a really bad idea."
"Stop," I said, putting out my hands and letting my volume rise a little because she was edging towards shrill. "Stop. That's not what I meant."
She raised her eyebrows, inviting me with more than a little sarcasm to tell the whole truth.
I didn't because I wanted the chance to sit here with her and not explain that it was Tess who'd brought me here, quietly. Probably too quietly to last. I actually thought Eli did know where I was by now, because Tess would tell him eventually, even if he didn't ask. I didn't want to admit that it had taken me time to find Alli, because I'd started at her house, where I always imagined her to be. I wanted to pretend that putting on this mortal costume had loosened the chains I'd found myself strapped under as a Guardian instead of making me feel even more mentally exhausted. And I didn't want to tell her that the only thing that drove me here after all of that was my fear that whoever John was sending was coming for her.
So, I gave the simple answer, the one that Eli had actually approved:
"We need your help, Alli."
She nodded like she'd expected this, but she looked disappointed anyway.
"I'm ready," she said. "What do you need?"
What did I need? That was another answer I couldn't give, not out of stubbornness, but because I hardly knew. I was too consumed by that invasion of unwanted knowledge at the back of my brain and the sincerity of her question and the texture of her pillowcase under my hand. I concentrated on her words, one by one, to bring myself back to focus.
"When we met," I started, "it was because we'd never seen a female Marker before, and—"
"And because John was tired of you and you knew too much," she finished for me, except I'd never have finished it like that.
I physically flinched at her use of his name. There was enough venom in the word that it would have made a cobra flinch.
"Is that what he told you?"
"It's what I surmised. I don't want to talk about him," she commanded, and then, more gently, she added, "Please. Go on."
I held her eyes, on the verge of voicing my concern. Then she said, "Please," again. She was rubbing around and around her exposed wrist.
"It's pretty simple, Alli," I said, down to business because the other angle was more confusing. "You aren't the only one."
She took this in, her body still as thoughts flitted quick and plentiful behind her eyes.
"How do you know?" she inquired.
"We found two other women." So far. "Guardians."
"But how do you know who they are?"
I pointed at her eyes, her wrists. "It's only subtle if you don't know what it is. That's the point."
I expected her to recoil or cover up her wrist with the hand that was still tracing it. Instead she let go and sat up straighter.
"Fine," she said. "So why do you need me?"
Eli's reason was easiest, though it galled me to give it.
"We wanted to know if you could tell us anything about them. You know, if maybe the Elder told you anything when…after…"
Her eyes flared up again, sparks off an anvil.
"He didn't tell me anything," she declared, but she wasn't here in this moment with me and I didn't know if it was entirely true.
"Okay," I said anyway.
She wouldn't look at me.
"They were dead," I blurted.
She gave me her full attention.
"That's how we found them," I continued. "They were already dead, and the Leaders only found their bodies. We never even guessed that there were more like you on earth, and there they were, dead on the ground."
Now it was my energy that was hedging toward hysterical. I paused to stop from getting there. I had my answer. What I needed was for her to be safe.
"We're worried," I finished.
Alli nodded, which seemed to me a mild reaction to a world-shattering problem. Still, I was glad I'd told her. It felt good. It was almost dangerously easy to talk to her. Fears that I wanted to keep inside, even from myself if I could help it, were floating out because they were safe with her. I had missed her so much I could still feel the pain of it. For the first time, I knew I had been right to come here.
"Jadin," Alli said, still mild but with a greater effort to keep it that way. "Would you be willing to take a drive with me? There's someone I think you should meet."