AUTHOR'S NOTE: Firstly, all characters etc are owned by Tanya Huff…no infringement intended, promise!
Another thing – this story was not originally my idea, but was in fact the brainchild of a brilliant, collaborative virtual season 2 project that eventually was disbanded . Just to make it clear, kudos for the idea lies with the likes of WiliQueen, MarieWynn, Magess et al, all of which have awesomely amazing stories which you DEFINITELY need to check out!
Last thing (promise!): The situation for this fic is as follows – Vicki has decided that Coreen can't work with her anymore for fear of putting her in further danger, but Coreen obviously ignores that and is trying to get back in at the agency because she cares about Vicki's safety. Mike is still suspended from duty, pending his formal hearing, and hasn't been able to summon the courage to speak to her for weeks; Henry is in Toronto (and Coreen knows this) but making arrangements with another vampire to take over his hunting ground so he can leave. This fic is not linked at all with my other story 'Winner Takes All' Enjoy!
The sharp, orange glow of a streetlamp outside pierced the dimly lit air of Vicki's office as she sat restlessly at her desk, poring over cell phone records for her latest client – a good old regular Joe checking up on his wife's fidelity. It had seemed like a lifetime since a truly normal case had come her way, particularly thanks to Coreen's helpful advertisements in the paper, though she knew she really ought to have been grateful for the publicity. It was an escape to everyone else's reality, back to the normal world and the time before all this madness had taken over her life. Yet, oddly enough, she found herself almost waiting for the next 'strange' case to cross her desk. The most worrying thing was that Father Cascioli had not been heard of since the night he had been possessed; despite her best efforts to find him, she had come to a dead end. Astaroth's silence was most disconcerting and, at a time where she simply wanted to come face to face and fight him, maddening. Random scraps of paper and candy coloured post-it notes littered her desk and walls in the desperate search to find him, but her resources had run dry. There was nothing she could now do but wait.
At least she had something to occupy her time, a case that should be child's play after the others and a source of income if nothing else. She stared blankly at the printed page before her, not really registering what she was reading as her eyes skimmed down the long list of numbers, her mind occupied with anything but the task in hand. She wondered if Coreen was okay – but thought better of it. She wouldn't be okay if she were here, getting involved in things that she shouldn't and could never understand.
She had done the right thing, hadn't she? Of course she had, she reasoned. They should all stay away from her; she knew that the only way of getting to Astaroth was by going it alone. Why, then, did she miss them still? Surely she couldn't allow herself such a luxury, with the entire world at stake…she had to sever ties; for the future.
She poured herself a measure of whisky from her favourite crystal decanter, a family heirloom, and raised her glass in a mock toast.
"To the future – whatever that may be," she sighed, and downed the drink in one, albeit with a slight grimace as fire ran down her throat.
She let the whisky soak slowly into her, feeling a slight numbness spread through her limbs as she reluctantly turned back to her long list of numbers, hoping for something to jump out at her as it normally did – though for this to happen she needed to actually pay attention this time. She focussed on the list, taking note of numbers that had been called a few times and underlining them. What she had been staring at for ages had, in actual fact, taken only a few short minutes to make sense of; now, she could continue with her real work. She lifted herself up from her chair and wandered over to the file cabinet with the records, rubbing her aching head impatiently – just as she was filing these away in her increasingly disorganised cabinet, there was a brief knock at the door, followed immediately by the swooping entrance of a cloaked figure Vicki knew all too well.
"You're working late," the figure said, seating herself comfortably behind her desk.
"Hello to you too, Coreen," Vicki replied without having to look behind her. "And yeah, I've had quite a lot to get done today. I've just been working on your regular old suspected adultery case, looking over phone records and the like." Her voice seemed bored, dispassionate and weary as she shut the drawer, even to her own ears. She remembered a time when she had not been so tired of the world – working in Homicide had never really dampened her spirits, but being a target for all the world's monsters? That was not really how she had envisioned her future.
"Oooh, a case! Want me to help you with the phone records, check the numbers out?"
"No, thanks. I'm fine, really."
"Come on Vicki, it'll leave you more time to do the hard-nosed PI stuff," Coreen replied earnestly, eager to maintain a consistent presence at the agency.
"We talked about this last time, I can't have you here when you might be in danger," Vicki warned, slumping into the chair behind her desk and pouring another glass of whisky.
"It's not like I'd be looking at anything kooky, I promise."
"Kooky? Is that what you call it now?" Coreen returned a distinctly unimpressed look. "I'm sorry, but I don't know if it's safe to even be around me right now. I can't run the risk of anything happening to you again – you nearly died."
"But I didn't – you saved me. You never gave up on me, none of you did. If you hadn't have been there – "
"Then you wouldn't have ever got into that mess in the first place," Vicki replied sternly. Coreen looked back, all innocence and hope, silently beseeching her for some part in her life. She sipped from her glass, allowing the rich, earthy liquid to flow into her before exhaling a long sigh. She couldn't just completely exclude her from this, and maybe keeping more of a close eye on her would mean she was more protected; and besides, the way Coreen was being at the moment made her feel as if she were the world's worst person, as if she were kicking a puppy at Christmas in the middle of a blizzard…
"Alright," she conceded. "You can help me out with this one case, but the arrangements are the same as last time – you're not getting paid for this, and you're only to look at case-related stuff, nothing else. Okay?"
Coreen tried to repress a wide grin, albeit slightly unsuccessfully. "Sure, thanks. So, I'll come by tomorrow morning and get started on the paperwork."
"Great," Vicki forced. Whilst it was great to have her around, she couldn't help but feel as though she would be something of a liability – someone else to protect beside herself, when she wasn't exactly sure that she could protect herself. "Well, I'm gonna hit the sack."
"Sure. Um…Vicki, have you heard anything from Henry?" she asked, hoping that her tone of voice came across as casual rather than nervous as a shadow moved swiftly across the frosted glass of the front door.
She stopped dead, halfway between her desk and the sitting room, and turned to face her colleague. "No. Not since he left."
"Right. I was just wondering – "
"Yeah, me too, believe me. Look, we shouldn't expect him to come back – I single-handedly ruined his nice little set-up here, though I can't deny he'd be useful to have around right now."
"Still no luck finding Astaroth then?"
"A whole world of no. But that's none of your business, Coreen," she replied tersely. "I've lost count of how many times I've told you that you don't ask about that, or look at anything to do with that side of things. I don't want you getting involved, and I'm not sure how much clearer I can make that to you."
"What if you can't do this alone?" Coreen blurted out suddenly. "Have you ever thought that you might need me, or Mike, or Henry? Even with all these little notes and pins on the wall, it doesn't seem like you've had much luck finding him. I could help, you know."
"I'll find him," Vicki replied, stung by her friend's abruptness. "And I don't need any of you getting in my way – or Astaroth's, for that matter. This fight is between me and him, no-one else. You should head for the hills."
"I'm not running away like Henry did."
"I've already told you, he did the right thing."
"You know, he does care about you Vicki," Coreen persisted. "He wants you to be safe."
"Yeah, that's easy to see. I guess that's why he left Toronto, despite knowing that my arch-nemesis is running around town like a kid on caffeine. Wait, did I just actually describe someone as my 'arch-nemesis'?"
"If he was running around causing mayhem, you would have found him."
"Right, and without anyone else's help. The bottom line is that I screwed up, big time – and because of that, it's not safe for him here anymore."
"It's not safe for you either."
"Or you," Vicki added sharply. "And I mean that. You've already been privy to some pretty horrific things; I don't want that to happen again. Death by association shouldn't be part of your life-plan."
"This isn't about me, Vicki. How can you let him just go like that? It's not like he's helpless or anything – he's pretty much a superhero or something! Surely he can look after himself?"
'Superhero Henry' – an image flitted through her mind of Henry in a tight lycra costume, complete with plastic six-pack, cape blowing in the wind and underpants worn on the outside. She repressed the urge to laugh, albeit with some difficulty.
"That's beside the point," she said, resuming her serious tone. "He built a life here which I wasn't a part of, something he wants to do elsewhere. He doesn't care about what happens to me anymore, he's made that perfectly clear."
"How can you say that?" Coreen replied incredulously. "He's done so much to look out for you and keep you safe but you keep making it difficult for him. You can't keep going on like this, jumping into fights with no idea about what you're getting into. He can't protect you from yourself."
Vicki paused for a moment as a faint glimmer of recognition flickered in her mind; she had never heard Coreen talking about 'protecting her from herself' before, and somehow it didn't sound natural. In fact, the one person who used to continually use that sort of language was the person she missed talking to the most.
"When did he tell you that?" she questioned, cautiously.
"Wha – what do you mean?" Slight panic began to flutter in Coreen's chest as she saw Vicki look up at the frosted glass of the door behind her, hoping she hadn't caught a glimpse of what was waiting beyond.
"I'm not stupid, you've never said things like that to me. Only one person talks like that, and the person in question is supposed to be elsewhere."
Coreen's hands fumbled on her lap. What the hell was she supposed to say now? She managed, somehow, to summon a strong resilience as she looked into the PI's cold, searching eyes. With a sharp pang of guilt, she did what she knew had to be done.
"Those are my words. I haven't seen him, or spoken to him," she lied. "You're forgetting that I have first hand experience of jumping into fights without knowing what I'm fighting, as well as being too careless about my own safety."
Vicki thought about this carefully, all the while watching Coreen closely for the signs she had been trained to notice in liars, but her friend sat calmly and patiently, her expression uniquely impassive. Henry wouldn't tell her something like that anyway, she reasoned; plus, it was unlikely that he would go to anyone but herself if he ever did come back. The answer would do, for now at least.
"You know, you didn't exactly encourage him to stick around. There's only so much rejection a guy can take," Coreen added quietly.
"I didn't ask him to leave. He had already made arrangements before he asked me to go with him – I was an afterthought, I obviously didn't factor in his initial decision. That much I know."
A moment of silence filled the room once again as Vicki paused, half-expecting Coreen to jump in with some hollow, reassuring words, but none came. The truth of what she had said was undeniable; they both knew that. Before she could control it, words crept out of a deep, painful crack in her soul.
"I need him more than he needs me. That's pretty obvious."
She swallowed as the words escaped her lips and looked down towards the floor, staring blankly as her friend looked on with sympathy. She felt completely stupid – nobody was supposed to know that, not Coreen, not anybody, and yet it simply had to be said.
"If you'd have told him that, maybe he could have stayed," Coreen replied softly. "I'll bet there's still time, maybe he hasn't left yet – "
"Look, it's not going to happen," Vicki interrupted brusquely. "I'm sorry, Coreen. I can't talk about this anymore – I have work to do. Thanks for stopping by and all…"
"Fine," she sighed. "I'm just trying to help."
"I know, I know, but…it's difficult – "
"You keep saying that; it's not. You messed things up with Henry, it's up to you to set things right," she retorted, as she stood and began to walk out of the office. "And don't wait around forever."
"Why not?" Vicki called after her, feeling distinctly rattled. "He could!"
The resounding slam of the office door was her only response.
* * *
Two glasses of whisky later Vicki was still sitting in her comfortable, familiar office chair, staring at her now closed aluminium blinds and willing the inevitable numbness to set in. Her huge map of the city loomed ominously behind her, filled with brightly coloured post-its and pins that shone fluorescent in the burgeoning gloom. She stood and turned to face it as she often did, contemplating the many notes she had posted and trying not to feel defeated – "Informant 1 – Kane, shapeshifter." one note read. "May have info in future, nothing yet."
"Informant 2 – Boris, bartender at 'Satan's Retreat', demon hotspot. Mindreader. May have info in future, nothing yet."
Another note was pinned on a street in the less privileged side of town – "Body found. Male, Caucasian, deep wound to chest – broken glass found on scene." As promising as it had sounded, this particular case had transpired to be one of human vehemence, not demonic destruction as she had automatically assumed.
They all read the same – no information here, no information there, mostly red herrings and vague hunches that never worked out. Add to that the fact that some of her informants, which were hard enough to find in any case, seemed to mysteriously cancel on her before she'd even had the chance to meet them, and it didn't quite add up to a winning formula; obviously something was at work here, whether it was Astaroth or not was a different matter entirely.
One little note always drew her attention away from the others, and this one seemed to be the most damning of all:
"Father Cascioli – no word amongst clergy/shelters on whereabouts. No body found."
Too often she found herself lost in her map these days, staring at each little back alley and side street and wishing for something to jump out at her – a little thumb-tack from the big man himself wouldn't go amiss, she thought ruefully, rubbing her forehead to relieve the tension that had taken root there since she had started this fruitless search.
Well, he's not exactly leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, but he can't hide forever, was the reasoning that kept looping through her mind, but even this seemed to become weaker and weaker as her resolve began to crumble. Vicki Nelson, human PI with appalling eyesight and limited knowledge vs. Astaroth, centuries-old demon lord released from hell. Talk about fight of the underdog…
"If Rocky can do it, so can I," she muttered to herself.
"That's the spirit," a small, childlike voice sounded behind her.
Vicki jumped, taken completely by surprise, and spun around to face the mysterious voice; she was greeted by a young boy, who couldn't have been more than maybe eight or nine years old, standing at the door, dressed all in white. His face wore a calm, gentle smile, exacerbating the angelic features underneath his neat blonde hair. Her eyes flicked back to the glittering decanter accusingly as confusion set in.
"Uh…can I help you?"
"It would appear that I am in a position to help you," came the perplexing reply.
"Great – would you mind being a little more vague? I just love it when people skimp on the details."
The boy smirked. "Funny. You've always been funny."
"Funny 'ha-ha' or funny peculiar?"
"I'd advise you to take this seriously, Vicki. As I mentioned, I'm here to help."
She sat down impatiently as the creature looked on, strangely placid despite his rebuke. "Well excuse my confusion here, but seeing a little, creepy-looking kid appear in my office who talks like an adult has kinda thrown me. What could I possibly need your help with?"
"You're going to have to make a lot of decisions in the future – difficult decisions that you've been putting off for some time now," he added. "I can show you what will happen depending on what choices you make."
"Your recent endeavours have not gone unnoticed, despite the mistake you made by bargaining with a demon."
Vicki swallowed nervously, reminded of her moment of sentimentality.
"Nevertheless," he continued, "I have been sent to give you this gift from a higher power to provide you with the knowledge you need to make the right decisions."
"Who is this 'higher power' that sent you?"
"You wouldn't know the name even if I told you. Let us not get preoccupied with…technicalities."
"Then who are you?"
"My name is Nathaniel. I am an agent of the higher powers."
"I see. What I don't get is how you expect me to trust you."
The boy's laughter echoed eerily around the dimly lit office, sending a foreboding chill down Vicki's spine. "Of course – Victoria Nelson trusts no-one. I expected nothing less; after your dealings with those who are less than trustworthy, you would be right to suspect. However, I can assure you that I have not come to harm you. Let me ask you something – do I seem untrustworthy?"
"I trust no-one," she replied sternly.
"You trust Henry Fitzroy. Surely he, a creature of the night with a rather bloody track record, is more prone to violence than I could ever be."
"I know Henry. He would never hurt me."
"Except he has hurt you, Vicki. He's gone, and left you all alone to face the demon lord; that isn't exactly what I would call reliable, so how could you trust someone – or something, rather – that could do that to you?" His expression changed to one of deep, sympathetic concern.
An awkward silence fell between them as Vicki felt the boy's blue eyes boring through her, probing for a response. Despite how much she wanted to disbelieve him, he was right – he'd left her here, alone in the dark, without a care in the world. She felt a strange warmth overcome her as Nathaniel came a little closer and, somehow, she felt she could trust him; after all, how could he, a child, possibly harm her? The boy smiled again, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking.
"What can you show me?"
"Whatever you want to see – my time here is limited though, so allow me to make a suggestion. Perhaps you'd like to know what will happen to the lovely young girl you recently – how shall I say – kicked to the curb. You realise that isn't something she's going to let go."
"It's for her own good."
"You couldn't be more correct. I imagine you would like to see the future she has in store as a result of your influence?"
"Will she leave or won't she?"
"That depends on you, Vicki."
The PI leaned forward behind her desk, surveying the angelic creature as he once again waited for her response. It was a pretty good offer – to have foresight into the consequences of her decisions was likely to be a useful asset, and to have her doubts and worries taken care of would be even better. It was all about the future now; she'd already messed things up once, maybe this would be the best way to know how to fix everything.
"Do you know where Astaroth is?" she asked tentatively.
"No. I am but a vessel of information," he replied. "And I'm afraid that my masters have not granted you that gift. We have faith in your ability, and I am almost certain that you will find him."
"As certain as one can be. What I can show is based purely on the choices you might make. Nothing is set in stone – I can't predict what you will choose to do and I cannot predict the future as such." The boy clasped his hands together in a strangely mature stance. "I can answer the questions you have about what decisions you will be forced to make – and you will be forced to make them in the very near future – and what will come of whichever path you take."
Vicki contemplated this carefully; Nathaniel had mentioned that he had limited time here, and she wanted to make the most of this opportunity. What should she ask? Thousands of questions fluttered through her mind, each one more specific and more important than the last, until a solid uncertainty appeared from her torrent of thoughts.
"Can you show me what would happen if Coreen came back to work for me?"
"Certainly," Nathaniel replied, smiling kindly at her. "If you could just take my hand, I'll take you there."
She stood up behind her desk, surveying the boy once again as he awaited her with his little outstretched hand, a promise exposed in his palm; she had to take it. She couldn't let the opportunity pass, not with so much at stake. So, it was decided then – she walked over to him, self-confidence spreading warmly through her body, and took his small, cold hand. Nathaniel clasped his child's fingers tightly around hers as an enormous wind gushed around them, and the boy began to glow brighter and brighter with a pure, white light that was almost blinding, forcing her to shut her eyes. Benevolent warmth flowed from the being, protecting her from the foul, whipping wind as the room melted around them, leaving them temporarily in a black void that seemed to draw the very light from Nathaniel's body.
Unbeknownst to Vicki, his light wasn't the only thing shining in the darkness; the marks on her wrists began to glow ominously, burning hot against her wind-kissed skin as she grasped his hand, eyes closed, and awaited the journey's end.