A/N: This was an experiment and, hopefully, the start of another story. It takes place in the same "universe" as the Family Lies series, but in a different region of the Network. Sadly, Duke and Viola won't be making an appearance. Thanks for giving it a shot (and, if it does suck, there'll be a chapter of TCC out tomorrow to take the taste out of your mouth)
Before I even knew her name, I fell impossibly and irrevocably in love with a grinning, golden-haired angel.
It started the way most of my evenings usually ended: in an alley or secluded area with a dead demon at my feet and some of the bitter anger that eats at me every damned minute of every damned day temporarily appeased. Except this time, the demon wasn't dead. I'd feigned right when I should have ducked left, and I'd misjudged how little traction I had. I lashed out with my foot, hoping to catch the demon in its fleshy stomach, but it anticipated my move and countered with a punch that left me seeing stars.
Pinned to the wall by a Fwar claw crushing my windpipe, my life did not flash before my eyes. As fifteen out of my twenty-eight years had been downright hellish, I was grateful. There was no white light beckoning me into the great beyond, either. As I made peace with the end, a harsh, shrill scream and something heavy slamming into the Fwar caused the demon to drop me to the ground. My head cracked the edge of a protruding brick on the way down. The world spun and went gray.
"Well, this blows," was my last thought as I sucked dirty rainwater into my nose and lungs. It was an undignified, but oddly fitting, way to die.
Rather than fluffy clouds and harps or burning flames and brimstone, the toes of scuffed running shoes were the first thing I saw when I reluctantly opened my eyes. I followed the curve of the shoes to the daintiest pair of ankles I'd ever seen. The shadows over my head shifted and the ankles were replaced by a pair of denim-covered knees.
As my skull throbbed in pain, I rolled over onto my back and spat when more filthy water tried to trickle down my throat. The knees dropped and splashed into the puddle near my head. Small, pink-polished fingers fluttered at my temples. As even the dim light in the alley hurt my concussion-sensitive eyes, I kept them half-lidded and could not see my angel's face.
"Oh," she muttered. Even with my senses dulled, I picked up on the self-recrimination oozing out of her. "Oops."
Oops? What kind of angel says oops? Soft fingers brushed wet hair off my forehead before lightly pressing against the pulse throbbing in my throat. Seemingly satisfied with my heart rate, the angel breathed out a relieved sigh.
"Who're you?" I managed through swollen lips and a tongue that felt like a stone.
"I am so, so sorry," my angel apologized, sincerity and guilt flooding my senses. I watched as she tugged off a short denim jacket, balled it up, and gently placed it under my head. "I swear I didn't see you with the Fwar. I mean, from his position I knew he had a victim, but I didn't know he'd drop you!"
"S'okay," I responded partially to reassure her and mostly to stop her from rambling at a thousand miles an hour. My aching brain couldn't keep up with the stream of hastily uttered words.
She moved, bent so that I could see her face. A riot of unruly blonde curls and sorrow-rimmed green eyes filled my vision. The tip of a pink tongue poked out from between a pair of perfect lips. "Are you all right?"
I lifted a leaden arm and massaged my right temple. A bump had already formed. Fortunately, there was no blood trail so I hadn't broken the skin. "I've had worse."
Those perfect lips thinned. A crease formed between her fair eyebrows, and her left eye twitched. After a long moment, she cocked her head to the side and frowned. "You have, haven't you?"
An unfamiliar, but enticing, scent wafted across me. Beneath the musk of jasmine and bitterness of dust, I caught the sharp tang of magic. Had she peeked into my mind and seen one of my memories? I growled at the thought of the intrusion. I hated telepaths who had no sense of personal boundaries.
"I'm no telepath," she held her hands up and leaned backwards. "I see things."
"Chronos cursed," she corrected with an apologetic smile.
I was familiar with the term. My angel did not see flashes of future or past events, she saw all future possibilities. Timelines, split off at key decisions, appeared to her. Skilled possibility-viewers, the Network-approved term for people like my angel, could see the past as well as the future.
I was not aware that there was a viewer in the region. Was she not associated with the Network? Before I could ask her if she was in the Network and which region she was with, she ran those smooth, cool fingertips along my jaw. I winced at the certainty that the coarse stubble I'd neglected to shave that morning had abraded her soft skin.
"I am so, so sorry," she repeated, misreading my wince. Her compassion was a soothing balm to the anger that constantly burned in my chest. I wanted to bottle her emotions, so clear, cool, and honest, and carry them with me. When tears sparkled in her eyes, I gathered my wits and sent a warm wave of reassurance crashing over her.
She rocked back, eyes wide. One of her hands went to her throat. Her mouth gaped open. "Oh! Oh! You're a projector! Well," she gasped, "that's so not fair."
"You peeked at my timeline," I reminded her, not the least bit apologetic for having used my gift on her. I had a feeling that if I allowed it, she would keep on apologizing until the sun came up. As an empathic-telepathic projector, I could not only sense others' emotions but could project any emotion I chose so strongly that it could actually make a person cry from sorrow or faint from fear. Unlike regular empaths, I could narrow my focus to a single person or cover a crowd of twenty people and I did not need to be feeling the emotion myself in order to project it. It was an ability that had served me well.
"True," she conceded with a nod of her head. Seemingly not minding her wet capris, she rose to a crouch and linked her fingers with mine. "Ready to sit up?"
I wasn't, but I wasn't going to tell my angel that, either. With surprising strength, she helped me sit upright. I swallowed down a swell of bile. I'd be damned before I threw up in front of her. Craning my neck, I glanced down at her jacket. It was utterly ruined.
"Don't worry about it." She lightly hopped over my outstretched legs and gracefully dropped to the ground beside me. Though we were hip-to-hip, the tips of her toes didn't even reach my ankles. "I was looking for an excuse to buy a new jacket."
Beneath the lingering guilt, it was obvious that cheerfulness was her natural state of mind. Glancing at her with all my shields down, the brightness of her aura nearly blinded me. Rarely did I see anyone over the age of ten with such light. How had she managed to maintain such a positive disposition, especially if she was at least peripherally involved in the Network?
"I should call you a cab or an ambulance."
"My car's around the corner." At least I thought it was. Chasing down the Fwar, I'd lost track of what street we were on. For all I knew, my SUV was four blocks back.
"You've got a head wound. I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to drive."
She did, unfortunately, have a point. My head was killing me and spots danced before my eyes. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I harmed anyone in a car accident. "You've seen one of my memories. Knowing my address at this point is nothing compared to that."
"I can't drive." At my confused stare, her cheeks flushed and small, white teeth bit down on her lower lip. I'd never been so jealous of a pair of incisors before. "I mean, I can. I passed my test ages ago, but I don't have my license. Not anymore. It's dangerous." She tapped the side of her head for emphasis.
It made sense. I knew many Seers who refused to drive. As I tried to remember where my car was and if I still had my keys, I felt the warmth I'd been sending her double back and hit me. The gentleness of it eased the ache in my head. "Are you doing that?"
My angel shrugged a slim shoulder, her cheeks still pink. "I figured you needed it more than I did."
She smiled at me, her hand slipped under mine, and a few of the ice bricks I'd used to wall up my heart melted. She wrinkled her nose cutely as the scent of garbage and dead Fwar was picked up by a cold northern wind. "What do you say we get out of this alley?"
To my dismay, I had to rely on my angel to both stand and stagger out of the alley. My car, thankfully, was at the end of the block. Small hand darting into the pocket of my jeans, she retrieved my keys, helped me into the backseat, and slid behind the wheel. She smiled at me in the rear view mirror. "One more quick peek and then I should be good for a while."
Before I could ask for clarification, her lips thinned and her eye twitched. Was that what happened every time she got a vision? With a shake of the head, she turned the key in the ignition. "Fourth Street, right? Big green house third from the left?"
"Only a few blocks from where I live. I can jog to the bus stop at the corner after dropping you off. Perfect."
While she carefully navigated the rain-slick Baltimore streets, I used my cell phone to have two of the Trackers on rotation take care of the Fwar corpse. I also informed my second-in-command that I was done for the night. A bit of reassurance sent through the line kept him from worrying too much. I'd only been head of the region for six months and he feared I was only one bad night from cracking under the pressure. I hadn't had the heart to tell him that I'd broken long before my return.
"You live here?" I asked when she pulled into my driveway.
SUV parked, she whipped off her seatbelt and spun in the seat. Her eyes were dark with concern. "No," she stretched the word into three syllables, "you live here."
"I meant in the city."
"Oh," she giggled, rolling her eyes at herself, "yes, I do."
"I don't have any viewers on the roster."
Her eyes dropped to the leather headrest. Her fingers plucked at a loose threat in the stitching. "No, I'm not part of the Network. Not anymore."
The regret, anxiety, and guilt that poured off of her hit me like a sledgehammer. She obviously wanted to be part of the Network. People who turned in their membership cards yet tracked down Fwars were not people who had left voluntarily. Had something happened in her old region? Focusing my energy on her, I caught a flash of annoyance, familial annoyance. Had someone forced her to quit?
I fished a wrinkled, damp business card out of my wallet. All of my contact information, along with my title, was printed on the plain white card. With the way things were, I could use a viewer's help. "You can call me anytime."
The smile and bubbling affection she sent me were blisteringly warm. I wanted to bask in her warmth until the long-neglected corners of my soul were as clean as her spirit. Did she have a century or two to spare? She practically slithered out of the car and skipped around to open my door. Her fingers automatically wrapped around mine as she helped me out of the car. Like an old-fashioned gentleman escorting his date home, we walked arm-in-arm up the short walkway.
"See you again, Mr. 'J. Whittier?'"
"You're the one with the pipeline into the future," I teased, pleased when a fresh flush darkened her cheeks. I regretted the decision to put only my first initial on the cards. I wanted to hear her say my name.
Her eyes glazed over for a second and she swayed against me. The previous times she'd had a vision, I hadn't realized just how vulnerable she appeared when she zoned out. All my protective instincts rose to the forefront in response. After a second, she grinned beautifully. "We will. Under better, nicer, circumstances, too."
She pressed my keys into my hand and popped up on the toes of her sneakers. Warm lips brushed across my cheek. "Bye for now."
I reached out to stop her, but she was already out of reach. Her curls bounced and shimmered in the light as she jogged down the street. I hadn't gotten her name. I'd given my card, and quite possibly my heart, to a complete stranger.
I hadn't felt happier in years.