Disclaimer: I don't own the Cal Leandros books, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Grinch, David Tenant, Batman comic books, Santa, Christmas, or anything otherwise owned by Charles Dickens.
A/N: Hello, you lovely… Reavers, you're called? And if so, can I call myself one, now that I've written fanfiction for Rob Thurman? Anyway, I had this idea a while ago, thought I'd put it into writing. Do hope you all like it.
Promise might be a tad bit OOC. Just a warning.
Timeline: Set in between Moonshine and Madhouse. If I'm getting mixed up and there isn't actually time for that, pretend there is, or just consider it completely un-continuous.
The three beings walked around the bare white room, getting used to their new forms.
One of them, the youngest, admired his shirt. "I like this guy already," he said, lips drawing back from white teeth in a sharp smile.
The next-youngest shrugged his shoulders, feeling the muscles bunch and pull. "You would," he said, practicing the necessary scorn.
The third being, the oldest of them, gave them both exasperated looks. "Would you two knock it off?" she said imperiously, tucking her hair behind her ears. "Let's focus here."
"Right," said the youngest. "Vampire, right? Needs the Dickens treatment. That's a new one."
"Wait 'till you see the rest," said the being wearing the older male's body, reading from a file.
The woman smiled. "We're back in business, boys." She moved forward to join the other two in the center of the room.
"He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake" chanted the youngest, softly. The middle being reached out and slapped the back of his head. As he did so, a clock chime sounded from somewhere in the nether.
It struck one.
Promise Nottinger was not having a good Christmas Eve.
She stalked through the lobby of her apartment building, ignoring the odd looks she was receiving from the doormen, as well as the cheerful Christmas decorations adorning every available surface. Scowling, she stomped into the elevator and jammed her finger on the button, conscious of her exasperated shadow. She'd told Niko not to bother walking her up, but she'd known as she said it that he was far too much a gentleman to not see her to her door, however discreetly. No matter if he was angry with her.
No matter that tonight she actually deserved to be mugged by whoever was lurking in the hallways.
She stepped off the elevator and into her penthouse apartment. Niko would've followed her up, she knew, having taken the stairs, and would be listening for some sign of her presence inside the apartment. Normally, she might've tried to tease him by being as quiet as possible, but she wasn't in the mood tonight, so she purposely aimed a kick at the door as she passed it. With her unwanted escort taken care of, she allowed herself to sink onto the couch.
Why had she said that? She knew better. She hadn't even meant it! Well, not much anyway.
Niko had taken her out to dinner that evening, and everything had been wonderful, right up until she opened her big mouth.
They'd been talking over Christmas plans, she thought. She and Robin Goodfellow were invited over for the next day. And then they'd been talking about Cal. How had they gotten to Cal? Oh yes, Niko had mentioned that Cal was excited about Christmas, and she'd chuckled, saying that Cal didn't seem the type. Niko had laughed as well, but insisted that Cal indeed loved the holiday. And she, without thinking it through properly, had said, "Your world revolves around Cal, doesn't it?"
He looked at her calmly and implacably and said, "Yes. I suppose it does, in a manner of speaking."
She should've stopped there, but for some reason, couldn't prevent the next words from coming out of her mouth.
"Don't you ever wish for something more? That maybe Cal had never –" Thankfully, she managed to stop there, just in time, but it was too late. Niko easily filled in what she hadn't said and answered, face closing off just the tiniest bit.
She'd finally been able to shut up, and Niko drove her home soon afterwards without another word about it. But he had been disappointed in her, she knew. She could tell by the way his emotions were clearly displayed for her to read on his face. He was upset, and he wanted her to know it.
"Promise," she said aloud, "what is wrong with you?" Standing, with a sigh, she made her way to her bedroom.
It wasn't that Promise didn't like Cal, because she did, she really did. Niko's little brother had charmed her nearly as thoroughly as Niko himself, and the devotion Niko had for Cal had been a part of what drew her to him in the first place. She thought of Caliban as her own little brother –with Niko's blessing, she'd assumed. So why did she keep saying those sorts of things? What kind of horrible person asks someone if they wished their little brother had never been born? How could she claim to love them if she couldn't accept what Niko had told her from the beginning? She knew how much they meant to each other. She knew that Cal would always be first with Niko and she was okay with that. Or, at least, she'd thought she was.
Sighing, Promise slid into bed. Tomorrow, she'd call and apologize, since she wasn't sure if her Christmas invitation still stood. Turning over, she closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Down in the lobby, the big grandfather clock, which had never kept the correct time and was merely a decorator's attempt to add a touch of dignity to the room, struck one.
She was rudely awakened by someone's heavily booted foot slamming into the side of her bed. Instantly alert, though slightly groggy, she mentally ran through all the people who had access to her apartment, concluded –correctly– that none of them would be kicking her bed, and reached for the knife she kept behind the mattress, next to the headboard.
Sitting up straight in bed, arm shooting out to turn on the light, Promise flung the knife towards the foot of her bed. She whipped her head around to follow its flight. It passed right through the intruder and thudded into the door frame solidly.
Promise gasped in horror, taking in the sight of her thankfully non-corporeal visitor. Black hair pulled back into a ponytail, knock-off of a leather jacket over a red t-shirt proclaiming the wearer to be "The Original Grinch," dark jeans hanging on slim hips belted 'round with holsters housing a Glock handgun and three different knives. Black combat boots completed the look, as did the grimace worn by the pale face.
"Nice, sister dear, real nice," Cal Leandros said.
Promise blinked. Hadn't the knife… but he was… "Caliban?" she asked, uncertainly.
He grinned at her and said, "Close, but not quite."
Dubiously, she eyed him. He certainly looked like Cal. Hadn't he been wearing that shirt earlier when she'd arrived at their apartment?
"If you aren't Cal," Promise said, "then who are you, and why do you look like him?"
Not-Cal smirked Cal's smirk at her. "Who am I? That's sort of complicated. For the sake of time and the desire not to end up sounding like David Tenant, you can call me…" he paused for a moment, then grinned again. "The Ghost of Christmas Past."
For a moment, Promise just stared at him. "What?" she finally said. "Are you kidding me?"
Not-Cal shook his head. "Nope. Think of this as your own personal Christmas Carol. And you, sister," he pointed at Promise, "get to play the starring role. Congratulations, Ms. Nottinger, you've earned official Scrooge status."
"But –but, you're Cal!" Promise protested. Again, the apparition shook its head.
"Nuh-uh. Just look like him. And talk like him and –" he grinned, breaking off. "You get the idea. But, if you want, you can think of me as Cal. Heck, it might even help some."
Bewildered, she stared up into those familiar gray eyes. "I –you… Why are you here?"
Cal gave her a real smile this time. "I'm here to take you on a little trip, sister mine. Don't worry, you'll be back before morning." He held out a hand to her.
"I –I need shoes," she muttered. They appeared in her hands a moment later, and then Cal once more reached for her hand. This time, she let him have it. To her surprise, he was as solid as he had been the day before in his own kitchen, when she'd playfully ruffled his hair.
"Where are we going?" she asked, wrapping her shorter fingers around his warm, calloused palm.
"Well, Scrooge," her guide said with his customary smirk. "I am the Ghost of Christmas Past…"
And then they were gone.
Promise looked around. "Cal? Where are we?"
He cocked his head, thoughtfully. "Wey-alll…" he drawled, "it appears to be a bed room." Ignoring the way she ignored his sarcasm, he continued, "I can understand the confusion though. That wasn't much of a bed."
She glanced sideways at him. "When are we?" He grinned.
"December 24th, 1996."
"'Cause. Now, shush. Watch."
She shushed, and watched closely, but was still startled when the small boy bounded past her and into the room.
Her companion smiled at her. "Who," he corrected. "Can't you guess?"
She looked over to where the small boy was now sitting on the bed. His black hair was tousled, and shorter than she was used to, but she'd know those eyes anywhere.
"It's you," she breathed. "Or, I mean, him. Oh, you know what I mean!"
Cal nodded. "Yeah." He watched the younger Cal for a minute. "Scrawny li'l thing wasn't I?"
"Yes," Promise said softly, watching the gray eyes watch the door. "He can't see us?"
Cal shook his head. "Can't see us, can't hear us, can't feel us. We're ghosts."
"What is he waiting for?"
He looked at her. "It's Christmas Eve," he said, just as softly. "Who else would he be waiting for?"
She tilted her head. "It's hard to imagine you believing in Santa," she said. "It's just… not a Cal thing."
"No," he agreed. "But I did, once. That's not who I meant though." He gestured, and Promise gave a little gasp of surprise and pleasure.
Niko had come in, carrying a thin package wrapped in brown paper.
"She's asleep," he told his younger brother.
"Sophia?" Promise asked softly. Her guide nodded once. She eagerly drank in the sight of her two favorite boys as children. Niko's blond hair was shorter than usual, and his face was slightly softer. But those gray eyes were the same ones she had stared into that night.
The younger Cal beamed up at his older brother as Niko sat next to him on the bed. "So we can have Christmas now?"
Niko smiled back at him. "Yeah, kiddo. We can have Christmas now." He held out the package. "Merry Christmas, little brother."
The kid grinned and tore the paper off. "Wow, Nik! Where'd you find this?" He held up an early Batman comic book.
Niko shrugged, somehow, even at this young age, making the action as smooth and graceful as the man she knew and loved. "The guy at the store said he had a few in stock, in the back. He brought them out and let me take my pick."
Cal reverently set the book down. "Thanks, Niko," he said, lunging forward suddenly to hug his brother.
Niko had already looked pleased with Cal's reaction to the gift, but the hug was obviously unexpected, and his face split into a delighted grin as his brother's arms wrapped around his neck.
"What's this?" he asked, teasingly. "You're hugging me, willingly?"
Cal pulled away, shrugging, looking a little bit uncomfortable. "It's… it's your Christmas present. I don't –I don't have anything to give you, and I don't have any way to get something for you so… hugs." He glanced up at his big brother. "It's sort of stupid, I know, but –"
"No, Cal," Niko interrupted, voice soft with emotion Promise knew he only rarely showed. "It's… thank you. It's perfect." He held out his arms. "Do I get another one?"
Cal let him have another hug, then pulled back to stare into eyes that matched his own. Promise smiled at the serious expression on his young face.
"Nik," he began.
"Cal," his brother returned, mirroring the serious countenance.
"There's no such thing as Santa. Is there." It wasn't a question.
Niko gave him an odd look, but answered truthfully. "No, there isn't."
Cal gave him the nod of one who is satisfied with their own detective work. "I knew there couldn't be."
Promise's eyebrows furrowed in confusion, even as Niko asked, "And why is that?"
"Because," Cal said, delighted to know something big brother did not. "My teacher said that Santa brings presents to all the good kids."
"Ye-es…" Niko said slowly.
"So," Cal said, sounding triumphant, if a little disgusted with the jolly old fellow. "Santa can't be real. If he was real, then he'd bring you presents. But he doesn't. So he's not real."
"Oh, Cal," Niko's voice was fondly amused.
"He would, Nik," Cal insisted. "You're the best person I know. If anybody deserves presents, it's you."
"Awww," Promise couldn't help but say. Not-Cal smirked at her.
"Adorable, ain't I?"
She swatted at him, half-heartedly. "Shhh…"
Niko was saying, "I don't need Santa to bring me presents. I've got you, don't I?"
"But, Nik, this isn't a real present."
Niko reached out again, and got yet another hug. "It's real enough for me," he said. "And it's the only one I need."
Promise was so caught up in the scene, she started when the Cal at her side touched her shoulder. "C'mon," he said. "There's more to see, you know."
She glanced back once more to the boys on the bed, then took Cal's proffered hand and watched the room fade away.
"How old were they?" Promise asked.
"Seven and twelve, respectively."
She looked at him. "Why did you show me that?"
He shrugged. "I'm not really picking what I show you. I know what it is when I get there, of course, but I don't know before what we're going to see. I'm not running this show, you know."
"Actually, that's news to me," she muttered, taking a look at her surroundings. "Where are we this time?"
Cal sighed. "This is a kitchen. Really, Ms. Scrooge, we've been over this. It's not the where that's important here."
She gave him a look. "Alright then. When are we?"
He nodded approvingly. "Christmas Eve, again. And apparently…" he squinted. "It's '94."
"You'll be… five years old then," she said.
"Yeah and –"
A blur of black hair and pale skin burst through into the kitchen from inside the house, and lunged for the back door. He almost made it, but before he could get the screen door open, he was jerked back into the room by a tall man with large hands and dark hair.
"You sneaky little –" he didn't finish, but instead threw Cal on the floor, next to the sink. Behind the man, Promise saw Sophia quietly enter the room, wrapped in a silky robe and holding a bottle of whiskey by its neck.
"I didn't –" Cal started, only to be cut off by the man.
"You didn't what? Mean to? You ungrateful little freak, you don't think your mother deserves some time to herself after putting up with you all the time?"
And this was when Promise learned that Cal had always had a smart mouth.
"Don't you gotta be alone to have time to yourself?" he asked, glaring up at the man fiercely. The man's eyes blazed.
"How dare you, you disgusting little freak!" Without warning, he backhanded Cal across the face.
Promise cried out, and started forward, only to have her companion grab her arm. "Ghosts," he reminded her softly. She stared at him, horrified, then turned back to the scene, where the man had apparently decided to teach Cal a lesson, and Sophia was simply watching it happen.
The little boy gasped, whimpering a little as the man struck him again. He was hauled to his feet by a grip on his wrist, jerking it painfully. It was only when he was once again dropped to the floor and the man drew back a foot to kick him in the stomach that Sophia spoke up.
"You don't wanna do that," she said, crossing her arms over her own torso and leaning on the wall.
The man paused. "Yeah?" he said. "Why not? It ain't like you care."
She shrugged. "You don't," she repeated, taking a sip from her bottle. The man looked down at Cal.
"No," he said, "I think I do." He drew back his foot.
"Where in the Underground is Niko?" Promise whispered frantically to the Cal standing beside her. He smiled slightly.
"I was wondering when you'd notice that…"
As the foot began to swing, three things happened at once.
Cal started crying in earnest, tears flooding gray eyes and spilling down pale cheeks…
Promise covered her mouth with a hand, afraid to keep watching but unable to look away…
And then Niko was there, slamming into the man with all the force a furious nine year old could muster. Promise felt herself begin to breathe again as Niko shoved the man away from his little brother.
"The heck?" the guy slurred, taken off guard. Niko glared at him.
"Get away from my brother!" The man stared at him, then looked over at Sophia. She just shrugged.
"I told you, you don't wanna do that."
The man turned back to face Niko, only to find him kneeling next to the sobbing five year old on the floor.
"There's two of 'em," he muttered. Niko glared at him over his shoulder.
"Just go back to the bedroom," he snarled. "Leave us alone."
The man stared at him for another second, then turned and lumbered towards the door leading deeper into the house.
Niko tenderly gathered Cal into his arms. The little boy buried his face in his brother's shoulder and hiccoughed. Niko looked up at Sophia. She was watching him with an odd look of vindication on her face.
"I told him he didn't want to do that," she informed the bottle of whiskey. Niko looked at her coolly.
"But you weren't the reason," he said. She shook her head slowly, then suddenly met his eyes.
"He'll be gone by morning," she told him, jerking her head to indicate her guest. Promise watched Niko's eyes narrow, calculating what this sudden kindness from Sophia might mean. The gypsy woman looked down at Cal, burrowed in his big brother's arms.
"He may be a monster," she said, unusually soft in her inebriated state. "But he's only a baby monster. And…" she hesitated. Niko raised an eyebrow.
"And it's Christmas," she finished finally. She waved the bottle at them. "So just keep out of sight until he leaves, okay?" She turned slowly and left the kitchen.
Promise felt tears streaming down her face as the blond haired little boy lifted the even littler child and carried him down the hallway and into another room. She looked at Cal beside her and sniffed, voice cracking as she said, "Let's go. Now, please."
He took her hand. The dingy kitchen faded.
"Please tell me we're almost done," Promise said wearily. It was amazing, really, how exhausting simply watching someone else's memories could be.
"Almost," he promised, slipping a strand of rebellious black hair behind his left ear and squeezing her hand. "One more stop."
She felt the world melt into reality.
"'Twas the night before Christmas, in 2002," Cal began as soon as the room stopped spinning. "Cal is thirteen, and Niko is eighteen, for all ye who are unable to do math."
"There's only the two of us here, Caliban," Promise said absently, studying her surroundings. He shrugged.
"Fine, be that way. Now watch."
A teenaged Cal, looking closer in appearance to the one she knew, darted into the room, looking around frantically and breathing hard. It took her a moment to realize what was happening, as it was something she'd never really witnessed before. Cal was panicking.
"No, nonononono," he was saying, over and over again. "She can't, she can't make me. I won't go, she can't make me go."
Promise looked at her guide in confusion. He held up a hand, signaling her to watch and see.
The younger Cal wrapped his arms around his chest and tried visibly to calm down, without success. "She can't make me," he repeated, not very convincingly. "She can't."
The door started to open. Cal started breathing even harder, and obvious fear flashed across his face. "No –" he started to say, backing away from the door.
Niko walked in.
Cal froze for a second and he and Niko just stared at each other. Cal in shocked relief and Niko in narrow-eyed concern.
"Cal?" he said softly.
Cal flew forwards, forehead impacting with his older brother's sternum and arms wrapping around Niko's waist. Immediately, Niko hugged him back, but pulled away almost instantly to look Cal in the face. "Hey, little brother, what's wrong? You're shaking."
He was, trembling so hard he was practically vibrating, and breathing fast and heavily.
"Cal, calm down," Niko ordered. "Seriously, Cal, breathe! Slowly, there you go, easy, in and out, good boy, that's good. You're okay, little brother, you're okay."
Slowly, Cal calmed. When he finally was breathing to Niko's satisfaction, his brother pulled him over to the bed and sat them both down on the edge.
"What's going on?" he asked, watching Cal's face. "Was it something Sophia did?"
Cal nodded, a jerky bob of his head that set black hair swinging in his eyes. "She –she said she was going to leave. To take me with her and just go. Before –before you –" he stopped. Niko finished.
"Before I came back from college?" he asked. Cal nodded.
"Yeah. I –she can't do that, can she, Nik?" His brother looked at him solemnly.
"She won't," he promised. "I'll take care of it."
"Trust me, Cal," Niko said. Cal almost looked surprised.
"I do," he said, as if it were obvious. "I trust you."
"Good," his brother nodded again. "C'mon. Let's go have Christmas dinner out tonight." He pulled Cal to his feet.
"But, Nik –" Cal started. Niko put one hand on the back of Cal's neck and squeezed softly.
"Trust me," he said. They left the room together.
Promise turned to ask Cal if that was it, only to find herself alone. Startled, she opened her mouth to call for him, only to realize that the room was falling away before her eyes, and blackness was rushing in far more quickly than she was comfortable with. She shut her eyes, and almost immediately, felt herself lose consciousness.
In the lobby of Promise's apartment building, the big malfunctioning grandfather clock struck one.
Promise started awake. She wasn't exactly surprised to find herself back in her bedroom, but she was slightly annoyed to have been knocked out. She sat up on the edge of the bed, certain that her night wasn't yet over.
"You're awake, good."
She looked at the door, sharply. "Niko?" she breathed.
He cocked his head, arms crossed comfortably over his chest, blond hair swinging freely by his chin, long dark coat emphasizing rather than hiding his dangerous stature. "Not exactly. I thought this was explained to you already."
She gave him a weak smile. "I'm a bit slow tonight," she admitted, standing and reaching for her shoes, which had been placed on the chair next to her nightstand.
"Never," he said graciously, so like her Niko that she nearly ran to him. Restraining herself, she wrapped a long purple cloak around her shoulders.
"So when are we going?" she asked, starting towards him where he stood, leaning in the doorframe.
He gave her Niko's smile. She shivered. "I'm to show you what might have been," he said softly, reaching for her hand. She pulled back.
"What? 'The Ghost of Christmas that Might Have Been?' Seriously? What happened to 'The Ghost of Christmas Present'?"
He gave her a strange look. "Who said anything about ghosts?"
"Well," she said, uncertainly, "Cal –I mean, the first… person who was here, called this was my own personal Christmas Carol. I know this story, you know. There are three ghosts –well, four if you count Marley… I didn't get a Marley," she muttered. Niko chuckled.
"Ms. Nottinger," he said, far too formally to be her Niko, "that's not… Your first guest, he looked like Cal Leandros, yes? As I appear as his brother, Niko."
"Yes," she said slowly. He continued, "And he explained to you how this works? Though he was not Cal, not truly, he talked like him and acted like him, yes?"
She nodded, starting to understand. He smirked a little.
"He called himself the 'Ghost of Christmas Past'? That, I'm afraid, was simply Cal being… well, Cal." He smiled at her. "I will be showing you not the present, not the past, but what could have been. This trip," he added, as he once more held out his hand and accepted hers delicately, "will most likely be much shorter than your first." The room began to fade out. "And," he said, with a touch of amusement. "It really doesn't have anything to do with Christmas, you know."
And then her bedroom was gone, and they were sliding through reality.
"When are we?" Promise asked, an old pro by now at this time traveling gig. Niko glanced over at her under his eyelashes.
"Christmas, 1989," he said solemnly, becoming Niko in study-mode, cool and deliberate. She blinked at him.
"I thought you said it didn't have anything to do with Christmas."
He rolled his eyes. "It doesn't. But Cal established a precedent, and he so rarely takes any initiative of his own, it almost seems a shame not to reward him by letting it continue. And Christmas… Christmas is as good a time of year as any." She raised an eyebrow at him.
"You know, for someone who isn't really Niko, you sure sound an awful lot like Niko."
"I am very good at my job," he told her, completely serious. She nodded, distractedly, suddenly catching on to what he had said a moment ago.
"Wait, 1989? That's the year Cal was born," she said, nodding. He looked down at her and shook his head, suddenly very solemn.
"No," he said softly. "Not this time."
She turned her head to meet his gray eyes. "What?"
He met her gaze squarely. "What might have been, remember? Now watch."
A younger Sophia had just wandered into the scene. Trailing behind her, looking tired and hungry, was a young boy with darkly tanned skin and blond hair.
"Niko," she breathed. The man beside her inclined his head, and she settled in to watch.
The next few hours felt like years. Promise's only consolation was that she wasn't witnessing actual violence. What she was seeing was bad enough.
Sophia Leandros ignored her son for the most part. Promise watched them go about their day and never once did the black-haired woman so much as hint at the existence of a maternal bone in her body. There was no Christmas family gathering here. The toddler Niko got his own meals. He kept himself entertained and out of his mother's way as much as possible. She didn't hug him, didn't hold him, wouldn't even look at him until evening when a knock sounded on the door of the little trailer and she hustled him out of sight as quickly as possible. Through it all, Niko endured with a face much too solemn for such a young boy. If she hadn't been informed as to the date, she never would have guessed. Christmas cheer had obviously never visited this place.
The four year old abruptly became eight, and before a startled Promise could ask her companion what was happening, he was ten, and then he was twelve. And then a teenaged Niko with a familiar blond braid and an impassive face was standing in the center of a tiny bedroom in Sophia's current hovel of choice. A dark t-shirt hung off his too-thin frame. His gray eyes, usually bright and alert, were almost completely dark. There was no hint of happiness or hope in his face at all.
Promise felt her eyes fill with tears. Her guide put a comforting hand on her shoulder and she nearly turned to hide her face in his chest. Taking a deep breath, she wiped at her face.
"Why is he –" she couldn't finish the question. Niko answered it anyway.
"She doesn't love him," he explained softly. "She never has and she never will, not really." He looked at his younger counterpart sadly. "Children need love," he said to her. "And he's never had anyone to love him."
"Cal would have," she said fiercely, as if it were this Niko's fault that Cal was not there to love the hurting boy who was now lying on the makeshift bed in the corner, quietly humming a Christmas song under his breath. "Cal would have loved him. Cal does love him. More than anything!"
Niko smiled at her. "Yes," he agreed, in Niko's customary manner. "Yes, he does." He squeezed her shoulder.
The room shimmered suddenly, briefly, and when it was focused once more, they were all alone inside a small tent. A short table surrounded by cushions and covered by a purple cloth held a suspiciously-familiar orb-shaped object. Mistletoe hung from the roof. Promise eyed Niko.
"Welcome, Ms. Nottinger," he said, with a wave of his hand, "to the fortune-telling tent of Clan Vayash."
"What year is this?"
"2006," he said, watching her reaction. She raised an eyebrow. The year she had met Niko…
"Niko is… twenty-two then?" He inclined his head. She looked around the tent again. "Why is he here?"
Niko shrugged, that graceful shrug he had. "Sophia's dead by now. I imagine the Vayash sought him out and offered him a place."
"And he accepted?" she asked, incredulous. (Niko's distaste for his mother's gypsy clan was no secret amongst their little family. Cal had laughed it off when she had asked, but explained that Niko was not fond of people who offered to drown his little brother in a water barrel for him. Niko had looked grimly triumphant as Cal narrated his reaction to the suggestion, repeating every curse word with undisguised relish.)
Niko gave her a look. "No Cal, remember? He doesn't have a reason not to accept." Moving past her, he held up a tent flap. "After you," he said, gesturing. She walked past him, not particularly eager to see the latest damage done to the man she loved.
Outside the tent, she stopped, ignoring what seemed to be preparations for a Christmas feast with the clan going on about them, and turned back to talk to Niko. "He needs Cal," she began. Niko raised an eyebrow in response.
"Yes?" I know that, were the unspoken words in that tone.
Tiredly, she continued. "He needs Cal. But he didn't need all the running and hiding and fighting for his life that came with Cal's heritage."
Niko tilted his head. "But, if it weren't for that heritage, if it weren't for all of that running, hiding, and fighting, you would never have even met Niko. Think of that?" He crooked a finger for her to come.
Promise frowned thoughtfully, and followed.
Nearby, a tall man who looked to be about forty-five, with shoulder-length blond hair and tan skin, was speaking with Niko. The younger man's head was bowed. When the man finished with whatever he was saying, Niko nodded once, then turned away to face Promise and her guide. She gasped at the bleak look one his face. The dark leather jacket and jeans he was wearing was oddly reminiscent of the little brother this Niko never had. His eyes were dull, full of lifelong hurt and frustration and fear.
Promise felt the tears begin again, trickling down her face no matter how hard she tried to blink them away. Turning away from the awful sight, she finally buried her face in the shoulder beside her. The Spirit Niko's hand fell on her shoulder softly.
"Now, Scrooge," he said gently. She glanced up at him through her tears, surprised to hear the other Cal's nickname for her from his lips. He pointed at the other Niko with his chin. "Is that your Niko?" he asked her simply.
She stared at him for a second, nonplussed, then turned to take one last long, hard look at the miserable young man standing by the tent.
"No," she said finally, unmistakable relief flooding her voice. "No, he's not my Niko. He never could be."
The man at her side quirked his mouth a little at the corner, and then the campsite swirled away and they were standing next to her bed, in her bedroom, in her apartment.
Gratefully, Promise sank down onto the mattress. She looked up at Niko. "Thank you," she said, wiping away her tears, a wry smile lighting her features for the first time since that awful blunder while on her date. He cocked his head.
"For what are you thanking me?"
She smiled wider. "For actually bringing me back. I'm afraid last time I was… unconscious."
He shook his head in mock disapproval. "Well, that's Cal for you. I swear, I don't know where I went wrong." He raised an eyebrow teasingly. She shook her head back, still smiling.
"You didn't. Or rather," and now it was her turn to raise an eyebrow, "Niko didn't. Aren't you boys the ones who keep saying you aren't who you appear to be?"
He bowed to her playfully. "Touché." He straightened and stepped backwards.
"One more?" she asked lightly, sorry to see him go, even if he wasn't truly her Niko. He nodded once, like Niko always did.
"One more," he promised. He faded away and Promise felt herself slide down in her bed yet again, suddenly exhausted.
In the lobby, the tired old grandfather clock, with a rather annoyed and befuddled air, struck one once more.
Promise allowed her eyes to drift open and for a moment, just lay in her bed before pushing herself into a sitting position. Musingly, she wondered whose form her next visitor would take. Please don't let it be Robin, she thought. She didn't know if she could deal with Robin at this point.
Swinging her feet off the bed, she sat on the edge and reached for her cloak and shoes again. Slipping both on, she waited, a bit nervous now. Cal and Niko had been there as soon as she woke up. What was taking so long?
A sudden uncomfortable feeling swept up her spine. She hadn't felt that since… since the first time she saw an Auphe. Something old was behind her. Something ancient and powerful. Evil… maybe not. But it was definitely familiar. She frowned. Almost… too familiar. Like looking into a mirror… She whirled around.
Her own face stared back at her.
Promise took a deep breath. "Oh," she said, slumping a little.
The other Promise smiled at her warmly. "Yes," she said simply.
Promise stood silently, letting her cloak fall around her in comforting purple folds. "I'm ready," she said, as steadily as she could. Other Promise moved forward, reaching for her hand.
Steeling herself for more pain and sadness, she shook off the oddness of taking her own hand and allowed the cool fingers to slide into her own and whisk her away.
Promise glanced at the number on the small apartment's door and frowned. "This looks… really familiar." She glanced at her doppelganger. "This is the Leandros' old apartment. The one they got when they first came to the city."
"Yes," replied her double calmly. "It is very, very early, Christmas morning of 2004." Promise eyed her.
"Who are you supposed to be then?" she asked. "I've already had 'Christmas Past.'"
"In keeping with Caliban's theme," the other Promise said, "I am the Ghost of Christmas Present."
Promise threw up her hands. "But this isn't the present! This is two years ago!"
Not-Promise gave her an amused look. "Yes. Well. As our favorite Grinch informed me, 'The Ghost of Christmases That Happened Recently, Including This Year' is a bit of a mouthful. Not to mention sort of lame."
Promise nodded, wistfully fond. "Yes, that sounds like Cal." Not-Promise smiled at her kindly. "Shall we?" she suggested, gesturing towards the door.
Promise looked at it skeptically. "Erm. How exactly are we doing this?"
The Other Promise grinned a sharp grin and took her hand, leading her through the door and into the middle of Christmas, Leandros style.
Cal was sprawled on the couch, staring at the TV. She could tell though, by the way his head was tilted towards the hallway, that he wasn't really paying attention to the Christmas special playing. He was listening.
"What is he listening for?" she asked softly, then answered her own question before her doppelganger could. "Niko. It's Christmas. Who else would he be waiting for?"
Other Promise gave her a proud smile. "You have learned." Promise gave her a wry smile.
And then Niko pounced.
Cal yelped as he was flipped off of the couch and onto the floor, landing hard enough to cut the air out of his voice and change the yelp to a grunt. Instantly, Niko was on him, straddling his waist and pinning his hands on either side of his shoulders. Bending his head to knock foreheads with Cal, Niko whispered, "Gotcha, little brother."
Groaning, Cal shoved at Niko's hands. "Merry Christmas to you too, Cyrano," he said sardonically.
Niko stood gracefully, releasing his brother's hands and offering one of his own to help Cal to his feet. "Now, now," he said cheerfully. "Let's not have that attitude. Santa doesn't bring presents to little boys who talk like that to their big brothers."
Promise grinned at Cal's snort, remembering that night –Joss, only a few hours ago, for her– when Cal had declared Santa to be a myth because he never brought presents to Niko –and thus couldn't possibly be real.
Niko, possibly recalling that night as well, simply smiled at Cal's disdain. "C'mon, little brother," he said softly. "Let's have Christmas."
And then Cal was grinning, and heading towards the kitchen to put together pancakes and eggs. Niko was rooting through the refrigerator for milk and butter. Maple syrup appeared on the table, one extravagance Niko allowed himself. Stacks of hot pancakes were slid onto plates, surrounded by fluffy yellow eggs.
Promise glanced to the Promise at her side as the brothers began consuming their Christmas breakfast. "This is a happy memory," she said softly, carefully. Other Promise looked at her strangely.
"Yes. You didn't think their entire lives were so awful, did you?" she asked, half teasing, half serious.
Promise scowled at her. "Your… colleagues weren't exactly all about the pleasant recollections," she pointed out.
"Well, no, they wouldn't be," her guide said implacably. "Those two always did enjoy unsettling people."
Promise gave her a look. "How many times have you done this?"
"Oh, several," her companion said vaguely. "Come, we've more to see." She beckoned with one perfectly-manicured finger, and Promise once more experienced the odd feeling of grasping her own hand before the room faded away.
"Christmas Eve, 2006," Other Promise announced softly. Promise whipped her head around sharply to stare at the ghost, only to be distracted by movement in her peripheral vision.
And then she was watching herself sweep into the Leandros brother's new apartment building, dressed for an evening out. She saw herself tug playfully at Cal's ponytail, and pull it loose to ruffle the silky black hair. Saw Niko's pleasure, for once displayed opening in a smile as he watched her play with his little brother from his position in the doorway.
The scene skipped abruptly, and the new Promise was standing outside of the apartment on Christmas Day, biting her lip. She raised a fist to knock, none of the previous confidence in her acceptance visible now. Obviously, she didn't know what her reception would be. Not after…
Promise felt tears spilling over her cheeks as she watched herself. Surprised, she tried to stop, only to discover that she couldn't. The entire night had been awful, and the hours of visiting memories and possible lives and now the wish-she-hadn't-wish-she-could of the scene before her were taking their toll.
"I –" she began. Her guide cut her off with a gentle finger against her lips.
"It's okay," she soothed. "Shhh, it's okay…"
And then she was crying softly, folding into the arms of a being who wore her face but, she realized, had none of her vices, felt none of her feelings, and was not now, and never would be, Promise Nottinger.
"Take me home," she whispered. "Please, please, just take me home."
Her twin nodded slowly, gently stroking her back, and took a step back. The Leandros apartment faded away and reality reorganized itself into her bedroom.
Promise was barely aware of the Other Promise leading her to her bed, sliding her cloak from her shoulders and taking off her shoes. She was asleep, tear tracks still streaking her face, almost as soon as her head touched the pillow.
In the lobby of Promise's building, in the corner of the room, the old grandfather clock, with a puzzled and mildly resentful manner, finally, finally struck two.
She woke up slowly, disjointedly, in segments, always drifting back to oblivion before she gained full alertness. When she at last awoke for the final time, she simply lay on her back for a minute staring at the ceiling. Her internal timekeeper told her that it was nearly ten o'clock in the morning.
That's not unusual, she told herself. So, what is it that's got me feeling so –she sat up abruptly, the night before came rushing back to her.
"How could I have said that?" she asked the wall incredulously. "To his face!" She swung her feet out of bed and stood, only to sit down again immediately as she remembered her three visitors.
"Oh," she whimpered. Dazedly, she began getting dressed, muttering to herself.
The doormen of the building looked up warily as Promise Nottinger swept through the lobby, wrapped in a hooded cape that covered her face. She didn't seem to be quite as upset as she was last night… no, scratch that. She was still upset, but now it was a different kind of upset. She called for her car, quietly, politely, as always. When it arrived, she slid inside and gave the address of the Leandros brother's apartment.
She knocked. Quickly, before she lost her nerve.
Cal opened the door, face lighting up when he saw who was on the other side.
"Promise! We were just about to call you, you're late!"
She looked into those familiar grey eyes, bright with uncharacteristic cheer –he was happy to see her– and burst into tears.
Good cheer immediately became horror as he reached out and pulled her inside. She fell against him, hugging him and sobbing into his shoulder.
"Cal!" she wailed. His hands slowly patted her back, sending her into near hysterics.
"Promise? Promise, what's wrong?" his voice was frantic.
"Oh, Cal, I'm so sorry," she cried.
"Sorry? For what?" he sounded completely baffled. She heard Niko and Robin come in behind her and couldn't even bring herself to care that the puck was seeing her in this state.
"I didn't do it," Cal said, holding his hands away from both of them. "She's… jeez, Nik, I don't know what's wrong! She took one look at me and started bawling!"
At this, she managed to pull away from Cal to face his older brother, though how she managed it, she had no idea. Dragging her violet eyes up to meet her lover's gray ones, she struggled to see through her tears, fearful of what she would find.
She wasn't expecting the utter concern and worry that she saw in his face. Glancing past him, she could see it Robin's face too, and she knew that if she looked over her shoulder, she'd see the same thing in Cal's expression.
"Niko," she said, voice cracking unattractively. "I –I'm so, so sorry." She couldn't continue, and the tears overwhelmed her vision as sobs took over her voice.
She didn't see comprehension dawn on Niko, didn't see his glance at his brother and friend. She missed the change in expression from concern to fond amusement. She missed all of that but she couldn't miss Niko's arms wrapping around her and Niko's nose burying itself in her hair and Niko's voice rumbling softly in her ear, "Shhh, love. It's fine. Really. It's really okay. I understand. It's okay."
Slowly, her cries quieted and she calmed down, head resting against Niko's chest, completely drained. It wasn't until Cal's voice broke tentatively through the haze that she came back to herself fully.
"Promise? You okay now?"
She straightened up sharply. Whipping her head around, she met Cal's eyes with her own. He was staring at her like he was afraid she was going to lose it any second. Which, she realized, was what she had just done.
Absolutely mortified, she groaned. "I can't believe I just –" she broke off, shaking her head.
It wasn't exuberant, or even very loud. But it was a laugh, and it instantly relieved Cal's tense posture and Robin's shocked silence and Promise knew then that everything really was okay.
Robin and Cal broke away from them then, heading into the kitchen to collect the food, arguing over whether or not it should be called brunch. ("It's eleven o'clock in the morning, Caliban. This is the meal betwixt breakfast and lunch. Hence, brunch." "Loman, I don't give a snap. I am not eating anything called brunch.")
She looked up at Niko. "I am sorry," she said again, softer this time.
He tilted his head, just like Cal, and said, perfectly casual, "For what?"
Relieved, she gave him a serene smile. "You know for what. But I thank you for your easy forgiveness."
He studied her. "What happened after I dropped you off last night?"
She shook her head ruefully. Nothing got past Niko. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you," she said.
He kissed her, hard enough that she felt her pointed teeth press against their joined lips. Breathing in, she could smell him, the scent of leather and blade oil and pure humanity that Cal swore meant nothing but home.
Breaking away, leaving her breathless, completely in control himself, he said, quietly, "Try me."
Shaking her head to clear it, she stepped away from him just in time to prevent Cal from witnessing their little moment as he reentered the room. "Later," she promised, gracing him with a smile. He nodded, conceding.
"Hey, c'mon, you two! Food's getting cold!" Cal appeared at her elbow. Niko smirked at Cal and tossed her a wink at the same time. Lunging for his little brother, he caught Cal around the waist and tossed him over his shoulder, carrying the younger man over to the table and dropping him unceremoniously into one of the chairs. Promise followed, grinning.
"Ni-i-ik," Cal whined good-naturedly, scraping his hair into a ponytail with a grin. Robin poked at him with a fork, stealing his attention once more.
Niko held out Promise's chair for her, across from Cal, before settling serenely in between them, at the head of the table. Looking around at them all, she decided that the moment was perfect.
"So, Cal," she said, nonchalantly cutting into her stack of pancakes and swirling them in the maple syrup. "What did you get Niko for Christmas this year?"
He paused, glancing up at her suspiciously. "Why?" Robin and Niko also stopped, watching the two of them.
She smiled benignly at Niko's little brother. "Oh, I was just wondering. I know you haven't had much time to go shopping. Oh well. I suppose the old standby still works just fine." She turned to Niko, grin becoming delightfully wicked. "You still like hugs, right, Niko?"
Amidst Robin's confusion, Cal's indignantly embarrassed sputtering, and Niko's amused suspicions, Promise sat back and took a big bite of her pancakes.
How's that for Scrooge? She thought smugly.
Not bad at all, sister dear, he thought, just before the form of Cal Leandros dissipated and he was once more merely a ghost of a thought whispering through the nether. Not bad at all.
A/N: Merry Christmas, guys.
More or less inspired by a sudden vision of Cal in all his knock-off-leathered glory, standing at the foot of Promise's bed and calling her "sister dear."
Just to be clear: I love Promise. Adore her. Think she's absolutely fabulous. But plot puppies are plot puppies are lost sleep for authors who ignore them. And the whole thing is like redemption, anyway. Dickens kenned what he was aboot. (Also, I'm re-reading Moonshine right now, and I'm nearly to the RV scene. So.)
I hope you all enjoy, and don't hate me for taking Promise too OOC. Cheers.