I watched, with a kind of growing horror and fascination, as Nancy continued speaking. The thief had the panicked look of an animal being tracked, hunted, cornered, her nails digging into the chair. Her eyes kept darting back to me.
“God, don’t think about Tzedekiel, don’t think about how cute that face is even with the weird gray skin, don’t think about that time you masturbated while fantasizing about him, don’t look at his crotch, does he even have a dick? Do angels not get to fuck? And don’t think about what else went on after he caught me, just make up a lie, say that I hit on him, say-”
“What did happen that night, after Tzedekiel caught you?” asked Sofia, a wide, openly sadistic grin on her face.
“Don’t tell her about the plan, don’t tell her about the plan, can’t give it away yet, he’s not convinced yet-!”
And my mind returned to that night, even as the words started spilling out of Nancy.
She stared up at me, and her eyes twinkled. “Is it wrong if I say that I kind of like this?”
I simply stared down, my eyes glowing, hands pinning her to the ground. Her skin was soft, yielding. She was fragile. If I pushed down just a fraction of an inch, she could die. She was so damned fragile, and she didn’t even seem to realize it. When she had stepped off the roof, it was as though I’d pushed her off myself. The sudden spike of despair, the moment of realizing I had lost her, the realization of what love is. I would have sooner let her go, sooner fallen myself, than see her fall. And she had used that to humiliate me. To embarrass me. “You use love like a weapon.”
“I didn’t fall in love with you. You fell in love with me. You have no right to me.” I looked aside, the words cutting deep.
“You are right. I should take you in. It is the right thing to do. The just thing.”
“Do you really believe that?”
I looked down at her, as she met my eyes unflinchingly.
“Yes,” I said, without the certainty I should have felt.
“You said you can see people’s souls. You can see the way they’re hurting.”
“They hurt because they are sinners. They live small lives, committing small cruelties, being guilty-”
“Because someone else is hurting them,” she whispered. “You’ve seen that, haven’t you? The more people are stepped on, the more they’re hurt, the more they hurt each other. Because they can’t do a damn thing to the people who are really hurting them, so they have to hurt each other, because that’s the only way they can function.”
“It’s not their fault!” She said, her eyes flashing, as she glared up at him. “They can’t do anything to the people that hurt them! But I can! I’m able to hurt the people who hurt everyone else! The ones whose greed and pride and sloth make everyone suffer just so they can have a little more!” She gritted her teeth. “You’re not a sinner, either, for wanting me!”
That brought me up short. “Of course I am,” I said, softly, lifting my talons off of her throat. “That is what love means for an angel. It is a punishment. I have fallen; I am damned, cursed already, and this is the proof of it.” I released her, standing up, my expression empty. “Go. You are right. I have no claim to you, and no claim to being jus-”
She had the flask out, and splashed it in my face. I stood, dripping, slightly stunned, and stared down at her as she got to her feet, a confident grin on her face. “Hah! Knew you weren’t a devil.”
“That was holy water. I blessed it myself. And you aren’t hurt by it. Holy water hurts devils, right?”
“I don’t think-”
“So, you’re a good guy. You’re not fallen, you’re not damned, you’re just in love, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” She smiled. “You’re allowed to fall in love. At least, as far as I’m concerned.”
I stared at her. “You don’t love me.”
“Nah. I’m not really a love at first sight kind of person. But I think I could get to like you.” She winked.
“I mean, that’s what I said to him, but he’s hot. You know? I mean, I never thought of myself as the kind of person who was into weird shit like that, but he’s got this whole sweet farm-boy kind of feel- at least, what I’d imagine a sweet farm-boy to act like. He’s innocent and kind of scary but also kind of safe to be around, and how long does this fucking thing last?!”
“Holy water,” snorted Sofia. “Yeah, you look like a candidate for true and lasting faith to me. What plan? What were you planning, you loon?”
“You can go,” I said softly, shaking my head, droplets of water falling from the crystalline amethyst hair hanging around my shoulders. “Run. Just stay ahead of them, or… whatever it is you have to do.”
“You’re going to let me go?”
“Yes. I’ll tell them I failed. It’ll be true enough.”
“You don’t want to know why I did it?”
I shook my head. “You don’t love me. And I am not so foolish as to believe you will ever love me more than your mission. What does it matter?” I stood up straight, and turned away. “You have your reasons. They are your own. No one else’s. Just run.”
“I can’t,” she admitted. “I need you.”
My head spun, and I braced myself. “Not in the way that I need you.”
“No,” she admitted, and it broke my heart. “But it could save my life. There’s someone after me; someone with a lot of money and power. I need to find out more about them. And for that… I need you to take me in.”
“Why?” I asked, softly. “Why would you do this? Why not just hand yourself in?”
“Because I need you to protect me,” she said. “I need you to be there, to watch my back. I need you there, when I make my move.”
“And why should I do that?” I asked, staring at her.
“Because if you help me, I’ll tell you why I do this. I’ll tell you what the money goes for.”
“How do you expect me to trust you?” I asked, fighting every urge to just trust, to just take her word for it, to believe in her.
“My name. It’s Nancy. Nancy Drew”
I paused for a moment, and stared at her. It wasn’t a lie. I smiled a bit. “Nancy Drew? Really?”
“Yeah, that’s why I never give it to anyone.”
Sofia shot me a suspicious look. “So. You were going to betray us, huh?” She tsked softly. “It’s too late, anyway. Our employer is already on her way, and I’m not going to let you rescue this dumbshit human.”
“You know,” said the thief, smiling. “I was trying to bait you into giving more information, but all along, I’ve really been fighting some serious urges.”
She flung the flask across the room, and the water splashed across the vampire. She stared down at it for a moment, incredulous, and glared at the young woman.
Then she caught fire.
The constable rushed at Nancy, while the detective went for his gun. My tail struck his wrist, shattering it as the vampire woman writhed and screamed on the ground, flames licking across her body. I drew off the detective’s jacket, and threw it over her, smothering the flames. Much as I disliked her, much as I wanted Nancy to escape, I couldn’t let the vampiric woman die.
“Idiot!” Sofia yelled, as the flames were smothered, gritting her teeth, her skin seared black in places, the smell of cooking meat filling the room. “You fucking moron! She’s never going to let you actually catch her, do you realize that?! She’s going to shake her ass at you, tease you, and keep leading you right along! You fucking moron!”
I looked up, and true to Sofia’s words, Nancy was gone, the door closing behind her. I looked back down at her, and smiled. “Yes. But that’s okay.” I stood up. “Someone clearly needs to watch her back.”
The gift she’d given me. Watching her faith burn the vampire had reminded me that I was not lost yet. Not fallen into dissolution yet. I was going to chase her. And if she never felt for me as I did for her, that did not matter.
Tzedek, the word, means justice- but not in the sense it may often be used nowadays. It is a word often devoid of connotations of punishment. It might be translated as easily to mean mercy, or charity. To do what is right, rather than what makes us feel good. I was an angel of justice, and now, at last, I was beginning to believe. But I could not let her get away. Not without getting her answer.
I lunged through the door, and pursued, as I knew I always would.
The thief ran through the building. She ran without thought, following her impulses. And so, it was not very long before she was cornered. Her heart pounding, she stared at the dead end, the locked door. Very solidly locked, with a name etched above it in Greek symbols. Of course, it was all Greek to her. She’d never learned that particular language. She turned, as Tzedekiel stood before her, his shoulders broad, his eyes fixed on her, his face as expressionless as always.
“I’m sorry I ran,” she said.
“Don’t be. It’s part of why I love you.” He smiled. “You have come up against a dead end.”
“Yes. So, what now? You’ve got me cornered. You want to hear the truth behind it? The reason why I do it all? The reason behind the crimes?”
There was a soft click, and the door opened into a large, exquisite office. The morning sun shone through the broad glass windows, and a woman sat at the desk, a folder in her hands. The room was richly decorated, dozens of books lining the walls, spines cracked, pages worn- the sign of books that were read, truly read, not simply used as props to create an image of intelligence. The genuine article. The woman looked up slowly, a pair of reading glasses perched on her nose, her bright silver eyes shining. A shield hung on one wall, its back visible, the leather strap there. Something serpentine hung down from the shield’s polished front. She looked up, and smiled. “I don’t think that’s necessary, Nancy Drew.”
Nancy spun, and stared, as Tzedekiel took a step closer, his hackles raised. The woman smiled at the two of them.
“Please. Come in. Nancy Drew, daughter of the Drew family. Father was an architect, mother was an interior designer. Comfortable, middle-class life in Chicago, until you disappeared at the age of 25, just after graduating with your masters in…” She opened the folder. “Accounting? Goodness. No siblings. No brushes with the law. No particular hardships. Not so wealthy as to be exposed to the greatest excesses. Not so bereft as to be hungry for stimulation, for something exciting to do with your life. No legendary ancestors. No divine blood, not even the thinnest coating- and trust me when I say that is a rare feat. Indicative of your kind.”
“And what is that kind?” asked Nancy, her voice hard-edged.
“Freaks.” The woman looked up slowly. “I can’t stand freaks. They disrupt the world badly. Heroes- that’s what I respect. Those who are born to greatness, who are destined, who are meant to be amazing. Do you know why? Because they are easier to help. Because you can find them, and help them to use their abilities for good. You can teach them what they owe to the world. Noblesse oblige only works if you can teach people their place. Freaks… They have no place. And they disrupt things.”
“Disruption.” Nancy laughed. “That’s what you’re most afraid of, isn’t it? Hell, it’s what almost everyone is afraid of. Chaos, crime, disruption, those sorts of nightmares… People are scared stiff that the world will change. Because most of the time, when the world changes, it crushes them. The people with the most, the most money, the most power- They have the most to fear, but so often, they fool themselves into thinking they can insulate themselves. They shake the world, break down people’s lives more and more, and they never think that it’ll rebound on them.”
“Careful,” said the woman, her tone even, level.
“Oh, don’t give me that shit. If you didn’t want to hear this, you shouldn’t have set your bitch on me. Money, godhood- it’s all the same. I read my Greek myths. The gods are just like the rich. They’re humanity without any filters on. They don’t earn their power. They’re born that way, and they’re always right. And you know what’s the worst part about them?” Nancy grinned, the feral wildness of the vampire’s madness keeping her good and angry, and willing to say things she’d held in her entire life. “They’re no better than anyone else. Hell, a lot of the time, they’re worse, because they never had to challenge themselves. I’m better than you, Pallas Athena.”
“Oh, really? Then what do you do with that money you steal?”
“I give it away. Every last cent, I give away. A few hundred there, a few thousand there. Business loans that never get called in. I don’t ask for any interest. Gifts in hats out on streets to men with cardboard signs. Mailed to lucky people. Mostly random, occasionally given to friends. I don’t keep a single dime of what I take from the rich.”
“A rather foolish waste,” said the woman, leaning her head to the side, an eyebrow raised. “A few hundred or a few thousand- a nice gift, a lucky surprise, but that’s not enough to change a life.”
“No amount of money’s enough to change a life, sometimes. Not by that point. It’s like the lottery; the people fritter away the money. Spend it. On themselves. On those around them. They live extravagantly for a little bit, and then go back to being poor. Because that’s who they are. And that is not a sin!”
“It doesn’t bother you, to see them acting foolish?”
“Of course not! They are who they are! If they were otherwise, they’d be the rich bastards! They’d be the ones who greedily gather everything to themselves! The money winds up getting accumulated back to those rich bastards again. They spend it on paintings that I steal. I give it back to the poor. I know it won’t change the world. But it makes it just a little bit more just, for just a little bit longer.”
“Why?” asked the woman, and now, she looked downright amused.
“Because I’m better than you. I am better than anyone in the world. Seven billion human beings, and I am the single best thief who exists. And that’s something you can’t buy.”
“Your employers might say otherwise.”
“A contract is not power. It’s an illusion. At any moment, I could snatch it away from them. I don’t, because it amuses me to see the rich, the powerful, needing to bend and scrape and offer their hoard to get what they want. That money doesn’t matter much to them, because they have so much of it. But to the people I give it to… That money’s worth more than words can say.” Nancy glared. “There are some people whose lives are changed forever by a few thousand dollars. It may not seem like much to you, but to them, it’s food. Medicine. Life. A better life. In the right place, it can change the world. I’m better than you, goddess.”
“You know,” said the woman, her eyes drifting over towards the shield on the wall, “there are many terribly, awfully proud people who have regretted, with all their hearts and beings, the words you have just spoken.”
Tzedekiel took a step forward, and there was something incredibly lethal in the way he stood. “Do not threaten her.”
Nancy frowned, looking over her shoulder at Tzedekiel as he loomed behind her. The sense of safety was one that was entirely unfamiliar, like a warm cloak on a cold winter day. Then she looked back, and to her surprise, the woman had her hands raised in a placating gesture. “Just a point. All of this is… just a point, Tzedekiel.” She smiled. “We both know that I have absolutely no interest in getting into a fight with you.” This seemed to be as mysterious a comment to Tzedekiel as to Nancy, and the angel blinked twice. “Nancy… I agree with you.”
“I-” She paused, and frowned. “What?”
“You are better than me. You are capable of doing things that I am not, for many reasons. I need a thief. That is why I have been pursuing you. That is why I set all of this up, to see what you would do. Why I set my little owl upon you, to hear what really dwells in your heart. I have a job for you.”
“What makes you think I’m interested in it?”
“Several things. It would not be the first job for a god you’ve been doing. The Raft of the Medusa… My uncle has a certain sense of humor about such things.” Athena smiled. “Hades has been quite busy. Gathering all the works of art, all of the precious things, that he can possibly get his hands on. He admires your style greatly. He was, in fact, the one who persuaded me that you were the one who I should entrust this mission to.”
“Pluto.” Nancy frowned. “You’re not really into the whole subtlety thing, are you? It’s like you want to be caught.”
“To be caught, people would have to believe that we exist, and have any interest in trying to hold us liable for our actions. Both are… rare. And besides, it is good to remind humans that we exist, in small ways.” She smiled. “It is daring of you. And never let it be said that I am one to turn away from daring mortals.” She stood up. “The second is the things I would have you steal. A knife, three swords, and a small lacquered wooden box. They will be defended by guardians of… Shall we say, mythic potency.” She smiled. “You are surprisingly capable, but I am rather glad you have snared Tzedekiel. His protection will prove… serendipitous.”
“I’m not going to force him to come along,” said Nancy. “I told him I don’t feel the same way-”
“Your feelings towards me, or lack thereof, aren’t really what matters to me. Your safety is,” said Tzedekiel. “I need no protection. You do. I will accompany you.”
Nancy flashed him an annoyed look. “Fine, fine. But I do the sneaking on my own. You’re not very subtle, you know.”
“Yes, whereas getting an entire building full of police officers stoned on one of the world’s most potent and unpleasant deliriants was the height of inconspicuous heists,” said Tzedekiel.
“Nobody was able to give an accurate ID of me, were they?” She turned towards Athena. “I’ll take the job. And as for my payment, I’ll take everything.”
“Everything?” asked Athena, an eyebrow raised.
“Everything you own. Everything you can liquidate. Every favor you can call in, every last erg of your wealth. Property, patents, information that can be sold, I want it all.”
“You are asking… quite a lot.”
“I’m asking everything,” said Nancy, and she smiled. “You want the greatest thief in the world to retrieve these things for you? It’ll cost you. And don’t give me your ‘good cause’ bullshit. If you have a good cause, then it only makes sense for you to pay everything you can for it.”
Athena was silent for a moment, her hands folded in front of her mouth, leaning forward, elbows on the desk. Finally, she nodded. “On successful completion of this job, and their use, I shall transfer all, save those five artifacts, over to you.”
Nancy raised an eyebrow. “Well, now. I was expecting you to haggle a lot more over this. What, exactly, are you intending to do with these artifacts?”
“I cannot share the specifics. But…” Athena turned, and stared out at the Paris skyline. “There is a war being planned, even now. A war between humanity, and their gods. A group of powerful beings has been encouraging this war. Preparing it. A civil war that will weaken both sides to the point where a final blow will end life on this world, and destroy it all. A terrible war.” She rested her fingers together. “Do you know what the best war is, Nancy?”
“It’s the war that never is fought in the first place. I have a plan in place. A plan to end this war before it ever begins. To allow humanity, and the gods, to assume their rightful place. For us to work together against the true foe.” She turned back towards Nancy. “And for that sake, your aid is cheap at twice the price.”
Nancy nodded. “I’ll do it. For the money.”
“I’d expect nothing less.” She waved a hand, and the door to the office opened again, out onto the streets. Nancy studied them for a moment, and realized, to her great shock, that they led home. “Go to ground. I will send you the appropriate information when the time is right.”
Nancy stood on the threshold for a moment, staring at the streets of Chicago. Then she looked over her shoulder.
“That is all,” said Athena.
“No,” said Nancy. “Not quite. I want you to remember something. Something that a lot of people should remember. The power you have, the contract we’ve made? It doesn’t mean you control me. And if you forget that for even a moment, I will remind you. Harshly.” She met Athena’s gaze, and held it for several long seconds.
“You’re the best thief,” murmured Athena. “Be satisfied with that.”
“In the great card game that is life, it’s important that all the Kings and Queens and Jacks, all the nobility, remember something.” Nancy grinned. “The Ace outranks them.” She turned, and walked through the portal, Tzedekiel following them. The door closed behind the two of them, just another in a hundred doors leading nowhere in the sketchy neighborhood. It was midnight in Chicago, and a sweltering summer day was falling across the room.
“You have a thing for antagonizing the powerful,” said Tzedekiel, rather redundantly. Nancy sighed, and crossed her arms.
“They need to be antagonized regularly. They need to be reminded that their power is not absolute. Otherwise, they start doing some really stupid things, and it hurts everyone.” She looked over her shoulder at him. “Tzedekiel, no matter how much you protect me, no matter how much you cover my back, no matter how long you spend by my side, it’s not going to make me fall in love with you. You can’t buy my love through service or anything like that. You cannot be so good that I’ll ever be yours.”
“So if you want to jump ship, keep serving justice however you might do it… I’m not going to hold it against you. I don’t need you.”
He took a slow breath, and then nodded, his expression unreadable. “I know. You are deeply capable. If anyone could survive this hornet’s nest that you have entered unscathed, it is you. And I don’t expect you to ever love me. The idea is unsettling, at best.” He went silent, and she turned away, and looked up.
The cold night sky above them was probably full of thousands of stars, and it would have been a beautiful and celestial sight if not for the thick cloud cover hanging over the city, reflecting the lights of all of the buildings beneath. Office towers rose high into the sky, glass windows showing people working their lives away, all in the hope of something that they would never achieve. Running till they dropped, in the hopes that they would someday be allowed to stop. The city was grinding them down, wearing them away, as they struggled to provide the necessities, a happier life, for the few people they could afford to care about- sometimes even no one but themselves.
It had been when her father had died that she’d seen the reality of the world. No matter how hard they worked, they’d never be allowed to win. They’d be given just enough to keep stringing them along, keep them productive. Just enough to keep giving them hope. But that hope was an illusion. There was no one who was watching out for them, no one who was protecting them. She had watched her father drain his life away to provide a comfortable middle-class life for her mother and her. And when he had died, it had all died with him. All that work, and there had been no momentum to it. The money had dried up.
She had realized, accounting it all, how it was set up. The way that life was set up to be unwinnable like that. People were encouraged to live beyond their means, beyond what they had, and she had to do something about the bastards who took that advantage, she had to make them pay, she had to hurt them, the way they hurt everyone else, she’d see them fucking hang themselves-
A hand descended on her shoulder, gently. “But I am still going to follow you. Into the jaws of hell and back, if need be,” said Tzedekiel, his voice warm, and soft.
“That seems unwise. Isn’t that how angels fall?” she asked, and smiled over her shoulder at him. “I don’t think I want to be responsible for your falling.”
“It is a very simple belief. The world is a better place with you in it. A richer, more beautiful, more vibrant, and more just place. I believe that. I believe in you. And perhaps sin and guilt and suffering are inherent to the human race. It doesn’t matter. Because humans are still a cause worth fighting for. Perhaps we will die, but until we do, we make the world a better place.” He smiled at her. “It doesn’t matter whether you love me. Because I love you, and I will keep you a part of this world for as long as I have strength left in me.”
She turned away from, and shook her head. “You’re an idiot.” He made a sound of protest, but as she kept walking, he kept following her. She wiped her cheek, brushing away the damp spot there, and fought down the grin on her lips as they took a turn down one of the side-streets. Heading for the small apartment that she’d kept paid off there with the proceeds from her brief work as an accountant.
It would be strange not to be alone.
But she might be able to get used to it.