“Take a deep breath, honey, you’re gonna be just fine.”
Angus barely has time to register the words before he doubles over and gasps. His chest is heaving with something that feels not quite like air, but that still fills his burning lungs. His eyes are watering, and he has to blink hard to clear his vision enough to make out the woman in front of him.
“There you go, keep breathing,” she says. She’s crouching a few feet away from him, in what Angus realizes quickly isn’t the forest that he was in a few seconds ago. In fact, it doesn’t look like they’re anywhere at all.
“Where,” Angus tries to say, but it comes out as a wheeze, and his vision clouds over again.
He’s dimly aware of the woman shuffling closer to him. “No, no, just focus on getting your breath back. I can explain in a minute.”
Angus breathes until the world stops wavering around him. He blinks a few more times, and the two hovering visions of the woman in front of him coalesce into one face. She’s beautiful, he realizes quickly. She has a soft, round face, and her hands are hovering worriedly near his shoulders, not quite touching him but close enough that he can almost feel her warmth. Or, well, she’s not all that warm, but her presence there is comfort enough for him.
He takes one last shuddering breath. “You don’t have body heat,” he says, or mostly croaks. His chest is still aching, but he can breathe again, and his voice is stronger when he speaks. “Are you dead?”
“Yeah,” the woman says. Her lips quirk up in a smile, one of the saddest smiles Angus has ever seen. “You don’t seem too surprised to hear that.”
“I’ve seen-” Angus coughs to clear his throat. “I’ve seen some weird things, miss.”
“You’re ten years old, kiddo.”
“Almost eleven,” Angus says automatically before he frowns. “How did you know that?”
The woman sits back on her heels, pulling her hands back to rest on her knees. “Do you know where you are?”
He doesn’t, but he can guess. He’s heard Taako mention it enough times to know. “Is this the astral plane?”
“No, but that’s a good guess.”
“Am…” he swallows. “Am I dead?”
“Not quite, and we’re going to keep it that way.”
“You’ve got a lot of people pulling for you, kid.” She pauses. “Okay, there’s just two of us and we’re breaking some rules, but we’re gonna get you out of here.”
Angus nods. “Okay,” he says, and then more firmly, “Okay. What can I do?”
The woman chuckles. “Not much right now, I’m afraid, but neither can I. We have to wait on a couple of other things before we can do much.”
“But what about-”
“They’ll be fine, Angus.”
Angus stares. He never said his name. “Miss, if you don’t mind me asking, who exactly are you?”
“A friend of a friend.” She fidgets with her hands, twisting something - a ring on her finger. A wedding ring. “I don’t know how much I can tell you, I’m going to be far enough up shit creek as it is, but I promise you can trust me.”
“Can you tell me your name?”
“Sure. I’m Julia.” She holds a hand out. “It’s nice to meet you in person, Angus.”
Angus shakes her hand, more automatically than because he means to, and looks down at her other hand, resting in her lap. He’s seen that ring before - not the same ring, but one that looks like it. One that matches it. He knows what that means. “It’s nice to meet you too, Mrs. Burnsides.”
Julia takes a sharp breath, and Angus realizes that he’s really not sure what etiquette is with the dead. Maybe it’s rude to refer to them in relation to the living? “I mean - I was just guessing, really, it’s kind of what I do, but I don’t-”
“No, no, you’re fine.” Julia shakes her head and smiles, that same sad smile, but she doesn’t avert her eyes fast enough. Angus can still see the tears welling up. “Nobody’s called me that in a long time, that’s all.”
“I’m very sorry, ma’am, I won’t-”
“How’d you figure it out?”
“Your ring.” Angus swallows. “He- Magnus keeps his in a pouch on his belt, I don’t think he knows that I noticed it, but I did, I’m very good at noticing things-”
Julia laughs softly, and Angus clamps his mouth shut. “You’re as smart as I’ve heard you are,” she murmurs. “The boy detective, huh?”
“I like mysteries,” Angus mumbles.
“You’re a smart kid, Angus McDonald.” Julia glances over his shoulder. “And we’re going to get you home.”
There’s a noise off to one side. He turns, watching the void spin around him, and looks at the long, slender tear in the fabric of reality.
Angus has met Kravitz once, and it was sort of an accident. Taako had complained relentlessly about Angus snooping, and Angus hadn’t had the heart to tell him that it was Taako’s fault that he forgot about their magic lesson and scheduled a date instead. He’d just shaken Kravitz’s cold hand and said it was nice to meet him and did his best to suppress all the questions he had about what it was like being a grim reaper.
Kravitz looks different now, as he comes through the rift. He looks like his body isn’t quite attached all the way, and his face is gaunt underneath his skin. But he meets Angus’s eyes and raises an eyebrow, and Angus feels better with him there. “Bad day?”
“I’ve had better, sir,” Angus admits.
“Figured out what’s going on yet?”
Angus glances to Julia and back at Kravitz. “I’m not dead,” he says slowly. “But I’m also not alive, if both of you are here, and I’m not on the astral plane. This must be some kind of intermediate dimension, then. I don’t feel anything right now, so I’m not physically here, just my soul. And my body…”
Julia’s lips thin. “Is going to be healed, once your soul’s back in it.”
Angus doesn’t look down at his chest. He’s not sure if the crossbow bolt will be there or not, or if that’s how these things work. He remembers the goblins, now. He remembers people shouting, and the trees fading, and how he couldn’t keep his eyes open. “You’re going to bring me back?”
“That’s the plan, kiddo.”
“Are you supposed to stop people from dying?”
“That’s actually quite the opposite of our job,” Kravitz admits. “But I don’t think Taako would be too happy if I didn’t intervene, and I’d feel rather guilty besides.”
“And I made him,” Julia adds.
Kravitz doesn’t quite roll his eyes, but Angus can feel the sentiment there all the same. “And Julia suggested it. If you’re ready to go back, Angus, we need to move quickly.”
Angus pauses. He doesn’t want to die, but… “It’s going to hurt?”
“Quite a bit, I’m afraid.”
“Are they still fighting?”
“I can’t say, but it’s only been about thirty seconds for them.”
“Time moves differently here?” Angus pauses despite himself. “Is that how you’re able to capture all the souls you need?”
Julia snorts. “Yeah, because he’s definitely the only one who does this job.” Angus looks back at her, and she takes one of his hands and presses something into his palm. “Here. Take this.”
Angus looks down. There’s a small charm in his hand, shaped like a shield. It looks like it’s wooden. “Are you sure?”
“I don’t really need it anymore.” Julia pushes Angus’s fingers down until he curls them around the charm. “You can only use it once a day, so be careful, okay? It’ll keep you safe. It kept me safe.”
Angus nods. “It was very nice meeting you, Mrs… Julia.”
Julia smiles softly. “Yeah, you too, Ango. And if it ever comes up…” her breath hitches. “Tell Mags I love him.”
“I will,” Angus promises. His throat suddenly feels very thick. “I’ll tell him.”
Julia nods jerkily and glances at Kravitz. “Now would be the time, I think.”
Kravitz stretches out a hand. “Are you ready?”
“I don’t really think so,” Angus admits, but he takes Kravitz’s hand anyways, and the nothingness around them dissolves into being all at once.
The first thing he notices is that his chest hurts - gods, it hurts more than he’s ever hurt before, but the second thing he notices is that everything feels real again. There’s air in his lungs. There’s still a charm shaped like a shield in the palm of his hand.
“He’s alive!” someone shouts. Through the haze, Angus forces himself to open his eyes and he sees Merle leaning over him, one hand pressing against Angus’s chest near the where the crossbow bolt is sticking out. “Pan’s sake, kid, this is the last time we ever take you planetside with us.”
Angus wants to say something to that, maybe something about how this was actually not his idea, but he can’t find the strength to say it. Instead he focuses on Merle’s hands, the wooden one still on Angus’s chest, the dwarven one wrapping its fingers around the bolt.
“This is going to hurt,” Merle warns him, and wrenches the bolt out of his chest. Angus doesn’t even have time to scream before Merle’s other hand is covering the wound, and there’s a healing spell flowing through it. The ache in his chest starts to fade. Merle sighs. “There we go. That’s better.”
Angus takes a deep breath, and thankfully, some of the pain seeps out with it. “Th- thank-”
“Don’t thank me,” Merle snaps. “Thank me by not getting shot again.”
“I won’t,” Angus promises. Merle lifts his hand up, and when Angus looks, the hole in his chest is closed. “But thank you, sir.”
Merle sighs heavily. “You’re too young to get shot, kid. You know that?”
“I don’t think anyone’s ever the right age to be shot by a crossbow, sir,” Angus says truthfully. “Are Magnus and Taako okay?”
“I’m sure they’re fine, we’ve fought goblins before. They just got the jump on us this time.” Merle shakes his head. “You’d think that goblins wouldn’t be able-”
“Merle!” Taako’s voice shouts, from a distance. Angus lifts his head just far enough to see two goblins charging towards them, one with a crossbow and one with a sword. Merle curses, but Angus barely hears it through the sudden roaring in his ears. They’re coming, they’re coming and he’s going to get shot again and Julia and Kravitz won't be there to save him this time -
- Julia’s shield charm -
The bubble that pops up around them is green and translucent, so thick that it’s hard to see through. Both of the goblins run straight into it, and the bubble reverberates with a hollow thud.
“What in the hell,” Merle says.
Angus sits up slowly and curls his knees up to his chest. There’s some more shouting from outside the bubble, and some more noises that he doesn’t want to hear, but he keeps a tight hold on the charm on his hand. He doesn’t say anything.
It takes another handful of seconds, but from outside the bubble, Taako shouts, “Angus!”
Away, Angus thinks, and the bubble disappears as quickly as it appeared.
Taako swoops down without hesitation to fold Angus into an embrace. There’s blood on one arm, oozing slowly, but Angus’s shirt is still wet with blood, too, so he burrows himself into Taako’s arms, quickly and easily.
“No more missions with us,” Taako announces, muffled by the way his face is pressed into Angus’s hair. “You’re staying on the moon, where nothing bad has ever happened to anyone, especially not shitty kid detectives.”
“Okay,” Angus whispers without really meaning to. Taako clutches at him even tighter, and Angus props one chin on Taako’s shoulder.
Magnus is staring like he’s seen a ghost.
Taako makes a quiet, upset noise when Angus tries to wriggle out of his grasp. “Nope, not that easy, bubbeleh. We thought you were dead, you're stuck in the hug for a while now.”
“I think he really was dead,” Magnus says. He’s still staring straight at Angus.
Taako turns sharply to glare at Magnus. “Maggie, you can’t just say that shit in front of the kid, he was just-”
“No, he’s right, sir,” Angus says. He pulls himself the rest of the way out of Taako’s arms to look up at Magnus. “I mean, sort of. I don’t think I was completely dead, but I wasn’t alive either.”
Magnus nods slowly. “You saw Julia,” he says. It’s not a question.
Angus holds out the charm, hand open. “She said it kept her safe.”
“She said-” Magnus takes a shuddering breath. When he speaks again Angus can hear the tears he’s not shedding yet, all the times he’s already cried. “You got to talk to her?”
“She was waiting for me. She…” Angus trails off. What can he say that Magnus doesn’t already know? She was beautiful, she was kind, she reminds him of Magnus. “She asked me to tell you that she misses you, sir. And that she loves you.”
Magnus sways on the spot. Taako is on his feet in a flash, hands at Magnus’s shoulders to steady him, to help him as he sinks to his knees on the forest floor.
“She’s okay,” Magnus breathes. “She’s okay. Somewhere, she’s okay, she’s-”
Taako murmurs something to Magnus, who shakes his head. Behind Angus, Merle stands up and makes his way to Magnus’s other side.
Angus holds out the charm again. “You made this for her, it should be yours.”
“She got it enchanted herself,” Magnus answers faintly. “It’s hers, it was always hers. If she gave it to you, then it’s yours now.”
“Are you sure?”
Magnus nods and stretches out his arms. “C’mere, Ango.”
Angus pushes himself to his feet and carefully deposits himself in Magnus’s lap. Magnus’s arms close tight around Angus, and Angus leans into Magnus’s chest. He can feel one of Taako’s arms draping itself around his shoulders, and one of Merle’s hands resting on his back.
“You’re never leaving the moon again,” Magnus murmurs, and he squeezes Angus tighter, and Angus doesn’t mind. “Never again.”
“But we can talk about that later,” Taako says, and then goes quiet. And it’s strange, having Taako quiet, having all of them be quiet, but Angus doesn't think he minds the strangeness so much. Not when he still has the edge of the shield charm digging into his hand, and three sets of arms around him.