“I remember frantically packing up. We were working against the clock. Reyal’s tip-off had no evidential backing, but it would inform the other members of the Flight – who had wormed their way into various influential positions. None influential enough to properly take over, but that was not our mission – we were to guide, not usurp. Still, they held enough power that they would be able to mobilise significant manpower, and they would show no mercy to a Fallen. Even if the Flight didn’t move, the humans certainly would. The government had been waiting for an excuse to seize Liliana’s research for months – it was the perfect opportunity.

We didn’t know when someone would knock on our door with an arrest warrant. We didn’t bring much. A few sets of clothing, some food, money. Most of Liliana’s research was stored in her laboratory, and it was far too risky to go there. The government would probably already have had it under watch. Thankfully, any research and notes Liliana had about the creation of Iris’ core existed only in physical form – Liliana had possessed the foresight not to put that dangerous research on digital media.

We quickly found all the notes about Iris and her core, and burned the information. We took no chances. We did not delude ourselves into thinking we might be able to escape unscathed – both sides were going to be pursuing us. The only thing we could perhaps accomplish was a short extension of the time we had left, before getting captured. Liliana gave Iris a command, ordering her to completely wipe her memory banks if she were captured with us. I was against the decision – it would be like killing off our daughter. But Liliana insisted. She said she didn’t want Iris to have to live with the memory of having her parents arrested and tried for treason, by either side. She said it would be better for Iris to forget that we existed, if the worst came to pass. I hated the idea, but I eventually agreed. She was right. She was always right.

We went on the run. The government was unrelenting in its pursuit. It had suspected Liliana of withholding research from them for quite some time, but had no justification for forcibly searching her home and laboratory, given that she was a well-respected figure in the academic community. Reyal’s stupid move had given them the excuse they needed to do exactly what they had intended to do for years – put Liliana in her place.

We lived like fugitives for some time. Hotels were too dangerous, so we slept in alleys. Staying in one place was too dangerous, so we moved around constantly. Eating in proper establishments was too exposed, so we limited ourselves to open-air food stands, if we ate at all. Our funds lasted for quite a while – after all, Liliana was the only one who actually needed food. She was always apologising to us for needing to eat. The silly girl. As if we held it against her. She was human. It was natural for her to need to eat.”

Sarah bit her lip and choked back a sob.

“That was the problem. She was human. Humans need to eat. Humans need to sleep. Humans can fall ill.

After some time on the run, it began to take a toll on her body. She was tired, hungry, cold. She took ill, came down with some unknown disease. I had no knowledge of it, despite my intellect – it was a rare illness, and my knowledge was specialised for magic engineering, not medicine. I never did find out what it was. It was possible that it might have been healed with magic, but I was not a healer. My brand of magic was not suited for healing. I tried to bring her to a doctor, insisted that she get treatment, consequences be damned. But she refused. I argued with her for a long time. It was one of our few arguments. But she refused to get treatment. I considered turning us in – Liliana was a crucial source of information for the government, they wouldn’t let her die. But I knew. Perhaps they would treat her and cure her. But what about after that? What about when she recovered, and they found they could get no more information from her? What would they do then? The outcome would be the same, if not worse.

Caught in such a hopeless situation, I could only stay by her side. As time passed, her condition deteriorated. Her temperature stayed constantly high, her skin became paler. She lost a lot of weight, we could see her bones through her skin. It became hard for her to speak. Eventually she couldn’t even move. Every breath she took was weak, shallow. I tried to leave her side to fetch a doctor multiple times, but each time she held me, asked me not to leave. And so it was that I could do nothing but watch her waste away.

The thought of begging one of the Hidden Flight for help crossed my mind, but it would have been futile. They would not come to the aid of a traitor. I could only stay with Liliana, and await the inevitable. I left getting food and water to Iris, and stayed by her side all day and all night. Because of her illness, we were unable to change locations, so I knew it was only a matter of time before we were found. And I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything except being with her as long as I could.

When she became unable to eat anything, I knew her end was coming. I cried more in those few days than in the rest of my life. I watched the disease eat away at her, just as it ate away at my heart. Throughout it all, even though she must have been in immense pain, she was always smiling. She kept apologising for forcing me to stay with her – she knew that my staying by her side was increasing the chance of getting captured. She apologised for her selfishness, for her desperation. I scolded her for that. I lived for her, after all. That was the decision I had made when I Fell.

All her apologies, all my reassurances, meant nothing in the face of her illness. Finally, after battling the illness in vain, she quietly passed away early in the morning. I held her hand to the end, she was smiling until the end. That was the first time I saw Iris properly cry.”

Tears overflowed, unhindered, unregulated, from Sarah’s eye. They ran down her cheek and flowed along the contours of the restraints that bound her, splashing on the floor. She sobbed and sobbed, with no hands to wipe away her tears. Next to Lily echoed the light splashing of droplets of water falling to the ground. Turning, Lily saw that Iris was crying. The girl’s eyes were wide open and moist, with water collecting at the edges of her lids and falling to the floor. She touched a hand to her face, her expression rapidly alternating between surprise, confusion and grief.

“…Eh? That’s odd… I’m… crying? This feeling… it’s strange. It’s uncomfortable. It’s painful. It hurts…? That’s not right, I don’t have pain processing capabilities… Maybe there’s something wrong with me? I should run self-diagnostics. I should do… I should… should…”

Iris’ voice broke as she descended into incoherent sobbing. Lily, feeling a twinge somewhere in her heart at seeing Iris like this, moved to hug the smaller girl close to herself, clutching Iris’ head to her chest.

“It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m here. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re perfectly fine. This is perfectly normal. There’s nothing wrong with you. I’m here, it’s okay.”

Iris clutched Lily closely, sobbing into her chest. Moved by some unknown, irrational urge, she screamed a muffled cry of grief as Lily held her. Was this… sadness? Perhaps. It hurt. It hurt so much.