Most of the kids Ein had grown up around had imaginary friends, so it was normal. At least he thought so at the time. He never really wondered; he just accepted. That was the privilege of youth.
Even if the others’ imaginary friends tended to be things like fantastical colored animals and the spirits of stuffed toys or storybook heroes.
Even if there was something other about the one who was always with him.
- - -
He used to spend a lot of time in front of the mirror, whenever no one would play with him. That way, they could always talk.
“I don’t like needles,” he would say, rubbing the bandaged spot on his arm where Hector had drawn blood for a series of tests. “And I don’t like the labs.”
The other boy nodded where he was pressed to the far side of the glass, the same pose Ein held. Ein could almost feel the warmth of that white skin through the mirror; even if they couldn’t touch, it was a sensation that comforted him rather than frightening him.
“I never liked them either,” he would reply, and there was a kind of deepness in his whispery voice that Ein wouldn’t understand as sadness and pain for years.
- - -
“What are you called, anyway?” Ein asked. It was probably the second or third time they’d spoken, or the fourth or fifth. Perhaps a later conversation. This was something they often played out, between the months.
The other boy smiled and looked away. “Who knows.”
“But you have to have a name,” Ein pressed, like he always did.
“Do I? I don’t know. I’ve had many, many, many names.” And the boy stepped back from the glass, standing and turning a slow pirouette, turning his face up and spreading his arms. “More than the leaves in fall, more than the petals falling from cherry orchards. Many, many, many names. And mostly, I forgot them when I used them up.”
“What was your first name, then?”
“My first name and my last name and the one in the middle all got scratched off the records,” the boy answered him, collapsing back to his knees and scooting forward. He put his finger to the glass and rubbed it back and forth as if he were scribbling something out. “And it was gone. It was the one I never forgot, because it was who I was, even if they threw it away. It was the first one I wore as me, and the last one I wore as me. After that I was Nobody. And I helped someone else wear his name, then someone else.”
“I don’t get it,” Ein told him.
The boy laughed. “That’s okay.”
“Well, what should I call you now?” Ein pressed, laughing with him.
The boy smiled and crossed his lips with his finger, like he had a secret.
“Guess,” he challenged, with mischief in his eyes.
- - -
It really was like looking into a mirror. Only not. Because sometimes Ein just saw his reflection, and the boy who came to him sometimes from the other side of the glass looked like someone had taken an eraser to that reflection. Like the boy was an Ein that had been worn down, battered and washed one time too many, a pale shadow of the original. The hair that should have been thick and brown was soft and thin and dull blond; the skin that should have been healthy peach was fresh-paper white. The shoulders that should have been small but sturdy were thin and sloping; the frame that should have been durable was breakable as porcelain; the wings that should have been pale green were broader and thinner, one white and one black.
The eyes were the other way around, though, as if Ein’s were the washed-out bleached dulled-down version of the boy’s. Ein’s were grayish brownish blue; the boy’s were deep azure, and sometimes pure green.
He told Ein stories sometimes, stories that were better than the ones Ledah read him out of books. Stories of war and peace; stories of dragons and queens; stories of knights and souls. And Ein would go to bed at night and dream of faces from those stories in perfect detail.
He never questioned this. He never had reason to.
- - -
Most of the kids Ein knew no longer played with their imaginary friends once they got to a certain age.
“You’re different from them in more ways than you know,” the boy told him.
Most of the kids Ein knew—their imaginary friends never changed. The boy he saw grew bigger as he did, and those bright compelling eyes grew older and more haunted, too.
“I’m different from them in ways you can’t understand yet,” the boy said softly.
- - -
Ein stored up once upon a times so that they could trade stories. But the boy seemed to know all the ones from a long time ago, so he told the new stories.
Most of the time, they weren’t as good as the stories the boy told.
“I don’t mind,” the boy told him. “I want to hear.” And he listened with a smile.
“Why do you like stories like these?” Ein had to ask, after he’d spent ten minutes or so talking about a game he’d played with Ledah and the other children.
“They give me hope,” the boy said. Ein didn’t understand what he meant then.
- - -
Ein didn’t really understand that there was something unusual about his pale reflection until a day when he was thirteen and Ledah found him against the studio glass, holding a conversation with nothing Ledah could see.
And Ledah asked him what he was doing, with concern in his voice. And when Ein couldn’t explain, the worry on his face deepened and deepened until it was a thorn in the young angel’s chest, sinking deeper and deeper.
That night, he pulled a chair into the bathroom and sat staring into the mirror.
“Who are you, really?” he asked.
“You’ll find out on your own one day,” the boy told him softly, gravely.
“So are you real? Or are you just in my mind? Ledah looked like he thought I’m crazy.”
“I was real once. Imaginary, well, there’s a reason only you can see me and that’s something you’ll understand on your own one day. Like I’ve said before. Minds are funny, funny things. And really, Ein, shouldn’t I be asking you how you can see me? Who are you, really?”
Ein didn’t know how to answer, and the boy stood up and began his twirling dance again.
“After a while, I couldn’t tell where I ended and the king began; we were one and the same so that I could almost see how it was to love a woman like that after losing a wife, how to care and worry for a son and a country and want to bleed for them. And he could almost see how it was to not want to fall in love but do it anyway, how it was to fail once and for all.” He stopped spinning and spread his arms wide, wide, encompassing entire worlds. “But we knew where the line was and we both traced it. You and I, though, that’s a hard line to find. Maybe I’ve just been sleeping for too long.”
Ein didn’t understand, but he almost did and that was as scary as anything.
Ein realized too that he was holding a conversation with a mind and soul like broken clockwork.
“It’s a nice simile, isn’t it?” the boy remarked, answering Ein’s thoughts—and doing so with a terrible kind of smile. “And ironic in ways you still don’t know.”
Ein couldn’t sleep easily or face a mirror for a long time after that.
- - -
The last time he saw the boy was while he was on his way to the citadel for his trial, for the transformation that would make him into the weapon he was born to be, the Grim Angel to save Asgard.
He glanced to his left, and caught sight of his reflection in a windowpane. Smaller, paler than ever, the boy raised a hand to offer a weak wave and trembling smile. Then Ein blinked and the reflection was gone.
- - -
He stored away the once upon a time out of habit, not conscious choice. Because it would have made a wonderful story, one ranking among the best he’d been told.
A story about a deceitful master and a place to love and protect. About a girl with rigid ideals and innocent faith; about a girl with a soul as bright as the sun; a boyish girlish girl and a wise foolish woman. About the boy who maybe just misplaced the heart he professed to have lost, about the angry girl whose life had been tied in a series of cruel knots. The two he hadn’t been able to save.
A story about justice being done. A story about finding freedom.
He probably didn’t have to keep it in his heart; it had painful edges and he felt like his chest was bleeding from it sometimes. Rose was writing it all down anyway, and she would do a much better job. But he felt like he should keep it, anyway.
- - -
He’d almost forgotten by that day.
Put yourself to some use for once and go file these, Rose had told him sternly, but she’d been smiling and he’d had to smile back, and as he’d accepted the stack of books she’d pulled him in for a brief kiss. And he’d went, supporting her in her work like she’d supported him in his, because it was important to her and even though it was boring sometimes, they were finding out the truth. And she was here, so he wasn’t lonely.
He’d put the books back and, on his way back, happened to glance towards the mirrored wall. And let himself trail to a stop as he saw a familiar face reflected to him from it.
Hesitantly, Ein made his way to the glass; the young man he hadn’t seen for so long just stood patiently still, wearing a more peaceable smile than Ein had ever seen him with.
“…It’s… you,” Ein said a little uneasily, not sure whether or not to follow that up with I thought I would never see you again and couldn’t make up my mind about what that made me feel.
“It’s me,” the young man on the other side of the glass agreed, and tilted his head to the side. “I… suppose one of us should be saying ‘long time, no see’?”
Ein cracked a smile, pulled up a chair, and sat down; the reflection that wasn’t his reflection leaned to the glass. “So much has happened. I thought, since I’d grown up…”
“But you know and always have that I’m as real—or used to be—as you are,” the young man pointed out. Ein realized that the figure he looked at was now smaller and frailer than his own, although those vibrant eyes still seemed decades older. “You were busy, that’s all. I just didn’t want to distract you.”
“Then you… already know all of it?” Ein was momentarily taken aback; he looked up at his longtime companion, wide-eyed.
“I do,” came the easy agreement. “I wouldn’t mind hearing it from you again, though.”
So Ein told the story of being sent to Riviera, of what he had discovered there and what he had lost. The man in the mirror closed his eyes and listened; when Ein finished recounting the battle against Hector, he was smiling.
“I always believed you would be the one to do it,” he murmured. “It wasn’t easy for me to believe, but somewhere deep down I always knew. I’ve waited so – very – long for this, Ein, you really couldn’t know.”
Ein was silent for a moment, scrutinizing that expression of release. “Then… when you mean you were real, you…” He hesitated. “How many ‘greats’ should I be calling you with?”
The reflection laughed. “You’re close, but that’s not quite it. I’m ‘you’, in a way. I was the imperfect version of you, the failure, the one who tried to accomplish what you have and couldn’t.”
He didn’t have to say that he didn’t understand; the blond shadow was already shaking his head.
“More simply put… I was used and thrown away by that man, like you. I tried to fight him, in the wrong ways. I wasn’t strong enough; I made my moves too late. I couldn’t wash away the stains of my ‘sin’. I couldn’t protect the person I loved. I couldn’t destroy Hector, although I tried. Gods and demons know, I tried.
“So. Your ‘prototype’, in a way—if you understand.”
Ein drank this in, and nodded. “So… are you some kind of ghost?”
“That’s not quite it, either. I never died—not really. It’s a complicated and convoluted story that you don’t need to understand all the details of. All you need to know is that I’ve been with you since you were born. A part of you, as it were.”
“So what is your name?” Ein asked, a question out of the past.
“I’m not going to tell you.” The angel in the mirror nodded to the door Ein had been heading for. “She will, sooner or later. She’s something else, really. I haven’t seen one with her skill for gleaning information for a very long time. She’ll find me, and then I can rest.”
But I still don’t know who you are or why you’re here. And even in records and papers, I may never know. Ein didn’t voice the question. He probably didn’t need to.
“You really love her, don’t you?” The spirit sat cross-legged on the floor, looking up at Ein with something between mischief and goodwill on his face.
“I don’t know what I would do without her,” Ein replied, smiling.
“Instead of the gods… instead of people like that man… instead of people like me… it’s good that a place like Asgard can be entrusted to people like you two. You’ll find the truth, and you’ll know what to do with it when you do.”
“I still hope that I’ll be able to head back to Riviera when we’re done here…” Ein leaned back in his chair, looking up at the ceiling and sighing wistfully. “I miss the girls, and I want to spend more time in the place that’s become my real home. Rose and I have work to do here, but…”
“I don’t doubt you’ll get the chance to return,” the young man told him self-assuredly. “You can do anything you set your mind to, Ein. Anything. Truly. That’s what a Grim Angel is, and that’s what you are—the successor to our will, all of us who suffered under the injustice of Hector’s regime. There is nothing outside your realm of power; nothing you can’t achieve.”
The words were warm in Ein’s chest.
“I won’t ever see you again, will I?” He didn’t know how he knew it but it felt true.
“Not like this, no. I’ve been alive for a long time; I’ve been asleep for a longer time. I’m quite ready for something different… and to see if the faces of the ones I care for will be there to greet me when I cross.”
Ein could feel a sharp sense of loss at this matter-of-fact statement; he stood as his shadow did, and one last time, they matched their poses perfectly, layering their hands against the glass as if to intertwine their fingers.
“You won’t be lonely.” The light shifted on blue so that it reflected emerald; pale pink lips curved in kindness, a gentler expression than Ein had ever seen them wear. “Rose will be with you.”
He pushed back from the glass, turned and walked away. Ein watched him, meaning to keep watching until that strange pale form disappeared, but when he blinked he was staring at his own bewildered face in the mirror.
- - -
It was a week after that when Rose burst out of the records room with her face pale and her black hair in disarray, her hands fisted on a thick file.
“Ein, you’ve got to see this,” she said breathlessly, waving it. “This was supposed to have been scrapped millennia ago. It’s the proof I’ve been looking for—the beginning of everything that led up to this.”
Ein took the folder from her. It was old manila and musty, crammed with paper clipped together, a vicious trap for careless fingers, more than happy to cut them to ribbons. He balanced it carefully in one hand, and flipped it open.
The top paper was a form of registration as an experimental subject, similar to the one he’d had as a Grim Angel. The identification number was #00. His eyes quickly skimmed the page, picking out a name in heavy black print.
Nessiah Aries Artwaltz.
In the top right corner, there was a somewhat faded photograph. Ein wasn’t at all surprised that he recognized the face he saw in it.