No one had to tell her that everything was about to change. She had seen the doors slam open, the same as the rest of them. She had heard the shouting, when no one in that room should have lacked the grace or tact it took to keep their voices down. She had watched the negotiations fall apart from the hallway, the knowledge of it crawling up inside her marrow when she should have been blind behind the walls, unaware and quietly anxious over everything until the official statements were made.
No one had to tell her anything, and she didn’t have the time to wait anyway.
She reached for Alcide’s hand and pulled time to a stuttering stop.
He stared at her instantly, but she had to shut her eyes, focusing on smoothing the repeating moment. It was always so hard, yanking them back a fraction of a second and letting it play, them yanking them through the same fraction again. Too long a fragment, and she would make herself sick, watching the people around her shudder in the same motion, over and over. Sounds repeated, hitched, and stuck in tones that didn’t belong to anything or anyone. If she could shorten the repeating moment enough, it would be hard to hold, but people would just freeze and the air would just hum in uncertain harmonies.
“Mirelle,” her partner murmured. “What are you doing?”
She could hear in Alcide’s voice that he didn’t understand, didn’t approve, couldn’t say why she was breaking rules to hold this moment still. But his voice was also the only sound here that flowed, and it helped her bring the stagger and hitch around them down into something she could stand.
She opened her eyes slowly. “Take me forward,” she whispered.
He looked away from her, slowly, as if he were halfway to deciding to let go of her hand.
“Take me forward in time, Alcide,” she said, a little louder, as if volume had ever forced him to do anything. “So we can see what comes next.”
“We don’t have orders,” he asked. She tried not to feel slapped by the composure in his tone.
“Then someone in the main office is sleeping,” Mirelle told him. She glanced at the Andresi President’s back again. She was tipping forward onto the toes, over and over, every line of her screaming that she was insulted. One of her aides was glancing back over her shoulder, stride too long to be moving at a polite speed. The other was hunched over his satchel, still trying to stuff papers back inside. Mirelle started to hear the President’s voice clipping sharply again. Shutting her eyes, she bore down to smooth the frozen moment again.
“We have to see if she’s going to invade,” Mirelle said before she opened her eyes.
Alcide didn’t answer. When she looked, he was eyeing the foreign president’s back as well. Mirelle still swore that he saw a different hallway. His jaw was too relaxed, his breathing too steady. Slowly, that sank into her bones as well.
“You know,” Mirelle said, almost too quietly to be heard. In the hum, it was just another false harmony.
He didn’t nod, just turned to look at her slowly.
She swore under her breath. He had been so calm in the last few days. She had taken it for comfort, and now it was crawling on her skin. She would have dropped his hand if she could have. In her mind, she thought she would stumble back to the wall, if she wasn’t pinned here, holding onto time, replaying this fragment too small to breathe in.
For the thousandth time, she hated the questions she wasn’t allowed to ask him. She hated that she couldn’t say when he was born, only that it was after her. She spun on the feeling, locked in this too, and pushed another question she shouldn’t have asked off her tongue:
“How long have you known?”
“All my life,” he said, in the same measured syllables he might have used to tell her that it was raining. And then he looked at her. His expression was so flat, it ached.
She almost smiled in relief to see the grief so poorly hidden. “Take me forward,” she said. “Let me see what happens.”
“So that you can drag us back and we can fix it?” he asked, still unbearably slow.
“Yes,” Mirelle said. “We’re capable.”
“We don’t have orders,” he repeated.
And then his hand was bunched in the cloth at her shoulder, too tight, and he was pinching the skin underneath. She winced, but he was already running the two steps it took to slam her into the wall. Her head rocked back to the meet the wall a moment after her back, and the whole of her ached instantly. She held onto the hand at her shoulder, to hold him in time, and to pry away the pain.
“Yes,” he hissed. “She is going to invade. Her army and our army will do what armies do. Things are going to break.” He shook her, as if the word wasn’t complete without the motion. She winced again and held on tighter. “Things – things we’ve loved – are going to tear, and you don’t know what that means until you see just how dirty this becomes. It will take us something that feels like forever to recover.”
Mirelle focused on taking a deep breath, on smoothing the shudder that had begun to echo around them as she lost her focus and he lost his control. The hum felt wrong now too, but she held onto it with an iron grip.
“And you don’t get to do this,” Alcide told her. He shook his head, slow and sharp at the same time. “You don’t get to look at what’s coming for the space of a second and decide you can’t bear it. You have to grow a spine, or stomach, or a heart, and figure out how. Because I’ve been carrying it just fine for thirty-four years.”
Pleadingly, she squeezed his wrist. “But we can fix it,” she whispered.
He didn’t let her go. He stood, hand pressed into her shoulder, and haltingly slumped forward until she realized that they had switched, and she was holding him up.
“Everything changes, Mirelle,” he told her.