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Annotations Nicole: Acts of Justification
Fiction by Eric Alfred Burns
In Nomine - The Burning Feather


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Some Days in the Life

Official In Nomine Site

Painting References:

Detail of Galahad Parts From His Bride: Blanchefleur

The Story of Abbey's The Quest and Achievement of the Holy Grail.

December was not Nicole's favorite month. Especially not in Boston, which at the best of times had a problem with dust. But in December, when storms came through and the narrow streets and tall buildings became wind tunnels, the grime and slush formed a layer that at best could make a stylish Mercurian quail.

"Look," she said, as patiently as she could, spreading the dress out on the counter in front of her. "This is not white. This is barely off-white. This is tending dangerously towards gray. That would be fine, if the dress weren't white to begin with."

The counter girl didn't look sympathetic. "We do everything the machines can do, miss," she answered.

Nicole took a deep breath, and smiled a winning smile. No matter how irritated she might be, Nicole always had a winning smile. And she knew that the counter girl hated her boss, who thought she was lazy, had a boyfriend who was cheating on her but she didn't feel up to dumping, had a mother who tried to control her life (said mother just wanted her to grow up, already, and take care of her own life), a father she barely thought about and who never thought about her at all and an older sister whose self-absorption was rivaled only by the counter girl's own. Humanity could be glorious and wonderful and beautiful, but they could also be petty. This girl was petty.

"I don't mean to yell at you," she said smoothly. "I know how much of a drag this can be. Let me ask you something -- can I pay more and maybe get some additional things done? Y'know..." she winked. "Just between us?"

The counter girl paused, and half-smiled. "Well," she said. "I could run it through again, and I could also steam it. This fabric does well with steam."

There was an electronic thunk, and a version of "What if God Was One of Us" that always made Nicole think it was being played on an old kid-sized Casio keyboard began to warble from her T-Mobile picture phone. Nicole smiled sheepishly, dropping forty dollars next to the dress and pulling the phone out, turning away. "I need to grab this -- give me a second?"

"Sure," the counter girl said, a lot more cheerfully than before. Nicole figured white would come soon enough, and the forty dollars would never be seen again.

Ah well, all for a good cause. She flipped the phone open. "He-llo!" she almost chirped.

"Don't you sound perky," she heard in answer.

Nicole dropped the act. "Hey Burton. To what do I owe the unvarnished pleasure?"

The Malakite of Fire chuckled into his own phone. "You sound even snippier than normal, Nikki-pix. What's up your butt today?"

"The usual. Today it's dry cleaning. I had a mild disagreement as to the color white."

"Why Nicole. Are you telling me you're actually picking up your own dry cleaning? Don't you always say that's time you can better spend fighting the good fight, smiting evil and wiping cruelty from the Earth?"

"It is. But since Tanya decided she was going to blow a gasket and catch Amtrak back to Albany, I guess it's me or no one, isn't it?"

Burton burst into laughter. "Another one? Damn, Nicole, how many servants are you going to burn through a year?"

Nicole scowled. "I don't need this today, Burton."

"So what was Tanya's excuse?"

"The same as it always is," she muttered. "I need a life. I need my space. I need to feel in control. Honestly, Burton. Don't any of these people understand we're trying to save their world here? Don't any of them care?"

"Probably not, Picnic. But isn't that my line? You're supposed to talk about how wonderful they are."

"Is it, then," Nicole asked, but she knew the answer. All too well, she knew the answer. It had been harder and harder to feel friendly towards man, no matter what the Mercurians were meant to be. "So what's this call about?"

"That depends. How much do you love me?"

"What?"

"How much do you love me?"

"Burton, I honestly, seriously have better ways to spend my--"

"I think I have a line on where Marcus is."

Nicole stopped speaking, mouth open.

"So tell me, Picci-Nicci... how much do you love me now?"

Nicole closed her mouth, and worked it for a moment. "Burton, I love you so much right now. I mean it. I'm totally crushing on you. If you were here, I'd be kissing you in ways angels aren't supposed to know about."

Burton chuckled. "You're interested, then?"

"I'm interested. More that I can say, I'm interested."

"You know, the scuttlebutt is he's gotten a Word."

"I heard. Off of my painting, the bastard."

"Are you sure you want to be doing this? I'm deep cover right now, and under strict orders not to break role. Which means I'm deep in the 'not my choice' clause of the whole 'Suffer Not Evil to Live' thing. He's got friends, and he's got a Word, Nicole."

"Maybe so." Nicole sounded hunger. "But I have Fire, and he's not getting away this time. What're the details?"

"The scuttlebutt is he'll be flying here to Baltimore about sixteen hours from now. I've got a couple of soldiers doing some research -- trying to figure out where he's going, what he's doing... what he wants, really. And how long he'll be here. He's got no fast escape route except back to his heart -- no Samingan Tether, nearby. I'll have something definite within an hour or two."

"Excellent good coolness, Burton. I'll make plane reservations now."

"I won't be able to meet you. Absolutely no--"

"Breaking role. I know, I know." Nicole half-smiled. "Hm. You chose to call me and tell me this, didn't you?"

"That seems like a safe bet, since we're both on the phone."

"Suffer not an evil to live, Burton?"

There was a light chuckle. "I never said I was doing this just for your sake, Picnic."

Nicole laughed. "No you didn't. Talk to you soon."

"Right."

Nicole folded her phone, turning. The counter girl was already working on the dress. "Excuse me?"

The girl looked back. "Yes?"

"I've had something come up. I'll be back to pick that up next week, if that's okay?"

"No problem! You get thirty days, and I'll date it from today."

Nicole grinned. "You're a dear!"

"Glad to be of service!"

Nicole waved and walked out into Kenmore Square. She was whistling as she heading up towards Beacon Street, where she was parked. Things were looking up. Maybe this was the break she needed. Get that bastard once and for all.

Once and for all....

"What're you thinking?"

Nicole had looked up at him, lying nestling in the crook of Deorwine's arm. She felt safe there. She felt loved there. In all her existence, she had never felt like the way she did when she looked at the Mercurian's crooked, wry smile.

"I'm thinking about you," she answered truthfully. "I'm thinking about how nice you make Corporeal duty. I'm thinking about how you smell. I'm thinking about how you kiss."

"So many things on your mind, little Nikki." He smiled, kissing her forehead.

She had smiled too. Even after all that time, Nicole could remember smiling up at him, even as she wrinkled her nose. "Don't call me Nikki," she said. "Call me Nick, or something else, but not Nikki."

"Why not?" he asked, cocking his head.

"What, you haven't resonated me?"

"Would that be polite?" He rolled her over, settling atop her and looking into her eyes. "C'mon. Tell me."

"They call Dominic Nikki," she answered after a bit. "For Dominique. She manifests as Dominique sometimes."

"Yeah, I've heard. Why should that bother you."

"You don't understand," Nicole had said. "Dominic hates us. He hates the Lady. We don't ever forgive him for what he's done to her. I don't want to be called by his nickname."

"You really love her, don't you," he asked, softly. And she had nodded, looking up into his caring eyes.

"Okay," he said, his smile returning. "No Nikki. I dub thee Frau Nickerhoffer." And he kissed her nose.

"Oh, you want to be hurt, don't you," she had laughed, pushing at him. And they tickled and wrestled and loved until the sun went down, and the bedroom grew dark.

Lying against him in the dark, she had heard him whisper once more. "You really love her?"

"We all do," she whispered back. "Fire burns through us. The fire of passion. The fire of conviction. The fire of loyalty." And she grew silent for a time. Nicole remembered being silent, and even now prayed and wished with all her being that she had just stayed that way. But she knew she hadn't been. She knew that after a few moments of that safe, secure silence, she believed the Mercurian who was not yet called Marcus.

"It scares me, sometimes," she whispered.

"Scares you?" He shifted to face her in the darkness, concern in his voice. "What do you mean?"

"Fire... burns," she had answered him. She had felt almost distant then. It was the first time she had felt that way, though it was far from the last. "Fire consumes. I don't just want to serve -- I want to strike out for Gabriel. I want to clear my path of demons and smite the unworthy. I hunger to burn the cruelty out of the cruel. I want to be a crucible."

He had been silent after that. She was too. She didn't know what to say.

"Dangerous talk for a Mercurian," he said finally.

"I know. And Gabriel doesn't expect us to be on the front line against Hell. To her Mercurians she has given the duty and gift of recognizing self-cruelty. We soothe and relieve, instead of smiting and destroying."

"But you want to get in on the smiting?"

"Don't you? Don't you ever want to just throttle Calabim or Djinn or Shedim? They're so horrid. So violent. So destructive. I hate them. Hate them with the same passion I love Gabriel. Hate them with fire. And sometimes, when I see how much worse some humans can be...." She took a breath, shuddering slightly. "I hold to my love, to my concern for humanity... I whisper it in the night, like a candle you shelter against the wind. It is my mantra. It is my salvation."

He hugged her then, whispering soft words in the night. She didn't remember what they were. She just remembered some time later, as they lay taking comfort from each other in the sleepless night that was an angel's birthright, he had answered her. "I don't want to fight, no. I don't... I can't ever imagine wanting to be violent."

Back in the present, Nicole snorted derisively. She stepped off the curb, around to the driver's door of her red sportscar.

As she walked past, her skirt brushed against the SMITE vanity license plate.

Nicole could never figure out how two Mercurians survived where Tariel, another Cherub and two Ofanim were vessel killed. They'd had no Malakim with them, so they'd gone into full retreat until they could get reinforcements. Or that was the plan. Burnt and wasted, they'd been limping back towards the Tether, when Nicole felt Deorwine freeze.

"What--" she'd started, but his expression threw her. The rage on his face. She couldn't speak in the face of it.

"He set us up," he breathed. "The bastard set us up. We saved his life. We saved his child. And the bastard still set us up!"

"What?" She asked, wide-eyed. "You mean Carlton? Why would he--"

"He's the one who gave us the key to the warehouse, Nicole! He's the one who told us the guard's schedule! No one else knew where we were going! No one else knew anything about our mission. Carlton sold us out to God Damned Hell!" He was storming away now, not towards the Tether but southeast. Towards Carlton's apartment.

"No," she half-shouted. "Don't do this. We don't know that. We need reinforcements and then we can--"

"Spare me," he snapped. "He screwed us over. He's going to learn you don't do that. You don't get to do that!"

"What?" Nicole was shocked. "You can't... you can't hurt him--"

"What? You think I'm worried about dissonance right now? You think I give a damn?" He kept storming forward.

"Don't!" She grabbed his arm. "Stop for a moment. Calm down!"

"Let go of me!" He pulled his arm free and sang. Right out in the open, he sang, Essence blending into sweeping white feathered wings. Stretching them out, he took to the sky, sweeping away above the street.

"No," she whispered, and began to run. Fifteen or twenty blocks she ran, with the inexhaustable endurance of an Angelic soul in a corporeal vessel. She had no Essence herself, or she'd have taken Celestial Form to try and get there faster. She would have done something...

Up four flights of stairs. The door was still closed and locked when she arrived. He'd gone in through the window she expected. She threw herself into a blow, breaking the door inward and half-falling into the apartment.

Deorwine was there, standing in front of a shattered double window, wings spread wide as he held Carlton with one hand. His other hand was bloody.

"No!" she screamed.

"He did it," Deorwine snapped. "He did it! The bastard! He made a deal with the damn Lilim. He sold us out for sex!"

"D-Darwin," Carlton was saying, terrified and hurting. "Darwin, I... I didn't think they'd catch you. I didn't--"

Deorwine snapped his hand across Carlton's face. "Shut your damn mouth," he hissed. His face twisted with the pain of dissonance.

"Deorwine, please," Nicole begged, holding her hands out to him. "Let him go. Just--"

"Are you saying he doesn't deserve this?" Deorwine's anger turned on Nicole, like a harsh wind blowing. "Are you saying this little snot should get away with putting four angels into Trauma? Sometimes angels don't come out of trauma, remember?"

"Of course he deserves it," Nicole said, beginning to cry. "But we're not the ones who--"

"Who what? Who dish it out?" He hit Carlton again. "Who give in? You know better. You told me yourself. You want to punish the cruel. You want to be a God--" he backhanded Carlton "--damn--" another punch, gashing open Carlton's face "--crucible!"

Nicole began to sob, sinking to her knees.

"Look at you," Deorwine howled, rounding on Nicole entirely. "This is just like you. You're so damn dramatic! 'Oh, I have to rein in my dark side! Oh, I need my mantra to keep from hurting anyone! Oh, fire burns -- it burns and burns!' Well, welcome to the real world, Nikki!" He threw Carlton down to the floor. "This is your chance! This is your chance to decide just what you are! This is your chance to decide who you are!"

"Deorwine..." Nicole begged, tears streaming down her face. She couldn't move. She could barely think. But she couldn't look away. No matter how much she wanted to, she couldn't look away.

"I'm going to kill this little slimeball," Deorwine said, as cold and cruel as a serrated knife. "I'm going to kill him, Nicole. Unless you stop me -- and I don't mean by sitting there and crying like a damn Reliever -- I'm going to kill him."

Nicole didn't answer, her body racked with sobs.

Deorwine pulled Carlton to his knees, facing Nicole, and wrapped his arms around his head, bracing to twist his neck. "What's it going to be," Deorwine seethed. "Are you going to stop me? Or are you going to help me? But do something, you worthless bitch."

Nicole stared into Carlton's terrified eyes. But she didn't move. She cried, but didn't even speak.

"Do something, you worthless, useless cow," Deorwine snarled. "Anything! I'm begging you! Take a stand! Have a god. Damned. Backbone."

Nicole didn't move. May God and Gabriel forgive her, she didn't move. Carlton begged her with his eyes. Begged her without speaking for his life, but she didn't move.

Deorwine twisted his arms. There was a terrible cracking sound, and the disturbance of a human life being taken by a Celestial washed over Nicole's perceptions like an indictment from Heaven.

Deorwine held on until Carlton stopped twitching and began to cool. He let the body slump to the floor, and stood up, looking down at Nicole. His face was twisted and transformed, his anger grounded but not spent, the dissonance causing him pain but not remorse.

Nicole looked up at him, trembling. On her knees. "I love you," she whispered.

Deorwine sneered. "You're worthless," he snapped. "You're not even a very good lay."

And then he was out the window, flying away.

Nicole curled up into a ball next to the dead human, and sobbed.

Nicole sat in her car, but didn't drive. Not yet. Memory was like a curse. You couldn't walk away from it. That was why Marcus had to die. He had to die so she could forget. So she could wash away his betrayal and her failure.

She closed her eyes, leaning back, and let herself remember.

"Had Darwin ever shown signs of violent or dissonant behavior before?" the Seraph asked, coldly.

"Deorwine," Nicole murmured, her voice distant. She sat in the wooden chair, and felt numb.

"It is the practice of Mercurians to adapt their names to current conventions and acceptable mores," the Elohite said, her voice dispassionate as always. "The Mercurian had been calling himself Darwin for some time, had he not? Even as you yourself call yourself Nicole and not Nikkola any longer."

"He asked me to call him Deorwine," Nicole answered, looking at the Elohite. Behind her interrogators, Soldekai stood, his vessel tense.

"Irrelevant to the testimony or question," the Seraph said, an edge to his voice. "Had Darwin ever shown signs of violent or dissonant behavior before?"

"No," she said. "He... he didn't like violence. He didn't even like it against demons."

"You were present when he killed the human?"

"Yes."

The Cherub glanced at his clipboard. "To confirm, this was Carlton Morse, a Soldier of God nominally in service to Stone?"

"Yes."

"Why did he kill Carlton Morse?" The Seraph leaned closer.

"Because Carlton sold us out to Hell. He gave us information that he shared with the Death Servitors. We investigated a warehouse on Carlton's word, and were caught in an explosion that put the rest of the angels into Trauma. Deorw-- Darwin was upset. He wasn't thinking rationally."

"How did he know this?"

"He resonated Carlton. He saw the relationship there."

"Did your resonance confirm his findings?"

Nicole looked away. Her voice sounded so distant to her, like someone else was speaking. "I didn't resonate him."

"Why not?"

"I didn't think to."

"When he said he resonated Carlton, why didn't that immediately remind you that you should resonate him as well?" The Seraph sounded skeptical.

"I don't know."

"You don't know? You don't know why you didn't use the resonance that is a core element of who and what you are?"

"Yes. I don't know."

The Cherub looked at the Seraph. The Seraph frowned slightly, and turned to the Cherub. "She's telling the truth."

The Elohite glanced at her partners. "When highly emotional, sometimes mistakes can be made."

"That does not excuse those mistakes."

"No, Most Holy. But it might justify them, at least in hindsight."

The Seraph considered, then turned back to Nicole. "You saw him acting dissonantly when you first broke into the apartment?"

"Yes."

"Why did you not stop him?"

Nicole didn't pause to consider. Her mind was disconnected from her body, it seemed. She just spoke, quietly. "I asked him to put Carlton down. I asked him to stop and think about what he was doing."

"But that was clearly insufficient. Why did you not intercede, before he compounded his dissonance?"

Nicole looked back at the Seraph. "Would you have killed Carlton, if you learned he had betrayed us to Hell?"

"Irrelevant. I am not a Mercurian. You are, Intercessionist. The rightness or not of the death of Carlton Morse does not bear on why you did not work to prevent a fellow Mercurian from acting in a dissonant manner."

Something began to burn in Nicole... she felt herself coming into focus, something buried in her coming to life. "I need to know, Most Holy. If you had learned Carlton had betrayed us, and had led us into a trap... if you knew it to be true... would you have killed him? Would it have been right to kill him?"

"You did not know it was true -- you did not--"

"Most Holy," the Elohite said. "She is rather... impassioned about this answer. Perhaps it would be best to answer the question, so that it does not become the emotional focus of her answers."

The Seraph paused, looking at his partner, then considered. "Yes," he said, finally. "It would be a just death, if I knew the betrayal to be truth. The knowing and willing nature of his consorting with Hell -- rather literally -- would necessitate both punishing his betrayal and eliminating the security threat of a turncoat Soldier."

Nicole nodded.

"Why did you not intercede when he was acting dissonantly, Intercessionist."

"I was unsure. I was uncertain. Between the trauma of the explosion and the vessel death of so many friends, and Deorwine's irrationality... I didn't know what to do, so I did nothing. Which was worse. It won't happen again."

The Seraph considered Nicole's words. "You believe you are speaking the truth, but still...."

"Does she know," Soldekai asked, softly. He hadn't spoken since bringing Nicole to the Triad -- a task he normally delegated to the Shield.

"Not yet," the Elohite answered.

"Shouldn't she?"

The Seraph nodded. "Of course, Chamberlain. Nicole... the reason we are investigating this so seriously is... not long after Darwin left you, there was a second explosion. We believe he had gone to confront the Lilim of Death and her confederates. At about the same time the explosion took place, Darwin's heart shattered."

"Oh," Nicole said quietly.

The Elohite frowned. "We do not believe he was soul-killed," he said. "He would have no reason to engage his enemies Celestially. I'm sorry... but given his reported dissonance before he left your presence...."

"He Fell," Nicole said, her voice flat.

"He Fell," the Seraph confirmed. "We are assessing whether your actions contributed to that Fall. Do you think you helped him to Fall?"

Nicole leaned back in her chair, the fire she felt inside growing. "He did the right thing. You said so yourself. He killed a traitor who caused the failure of a mission and the vessel death of four angels. He eliminated a security risk."

"He was a Mercurian. Mercurians cannot respond violently to humans, Intercessionist. You should know that better than I."

"I know. He Fell because of it. He did the right thing, but he Fell because he was the wrong person to do it. And you want to know if I caused him to Fall? No, I didn't cause him to Fall. I tried to stop him. To appeal to him. But sometimes, the right thing is more important than who you are. He thought it was one of those times."

"Are you claiming it was right that he Fell?"

"There's nothing right about him any more," Nicole said quietly, and began to feel her fire curl. She hated Deorwine, she realized. She hated him for doing what she had feared she would do. She hated him for being decisive when she was frozen. She hated him for Falling and leaving him to clean up his mess. She hated him for hurting her so badly, then escaping. "But I understand why he did what he did. We know it was wrong, because he Fell. But it was justified."

"And were your actions justified, in this matter?" The Seraph's voice was soft.

"No," Nicole said quietly. "But next time, they will be."

"So when's your flight out?"

Nicole drummed her fingers on her steering wheel, waiting for the congestion to clear. Driving in Boston was never fun, but ever since the Big Dig was started, unimaginable snarls had become a fact of life. All you could do was make the best of the time. "Tonight," she said into her phone. "I'm heading out at 11:14, and I'll hit BWI at 2:44, following a connector in Newark. So what have you got for me, Burton?"

"A friend of mine worked it out. One of his known roles is coming in at 7:12 tomorrow morning, flying out of Chicago. He and his bodyguard are supposed to come in, then be on the 9:12 AM flight out tomorrow morning, back to Chicago and I assume the Samingan Tether."

"What's Marcus want in Baltimore?"

"Tomorrow night four of the local Kennel Clubs are holding a pretty big deal Dog Show. It's not Westminster or anything, but it'll still have some of the top competitors. I'd say some beagles are about to get whacked. Especially the ones who double as companions as well as standing at stud."

"Makes sense. I'm going to have two Ofanim and three soldiers meet me there tonight. With a little luck, we'll get a chance to take them out early. If not, we'll catch up to them at the Dog Show."

"Good luck. And be careful. Marcus is a survivor. It may be his one great talent."

"It's a good thing I've learned how to be a killer, then. I'll keep you posted."

Nicole folded her phone, and took a deep breath, waiting for the congestion to clear up. Duck down, take care of business, fly back and go back to work. It was intense... it was like a child on Christmas Eve, so excited for what was sure to come the next day. She could hardly stand the waiting now that it was so close. She leaned back, looking at the neighborhood tenements and storefronts.

There. The cars were beginning to move again. Time to go. She leaned back forward, reaching to put the car back in drive, and paused as she caught sight of a man who was walking down the block. He was in his forties, it looked like, with dark hair streaked with grey. He walked like he had a great burden on his back, though he didn't even wear a coat -- just a grey sweatshirt too light for the weather. The look of a man who had stopped caring.

In Nicole's heart, the spark of Divine Fire stirred, twisted and unfolded... it reached out, invisibly reaching and surrounding this man, highlighting the depths of self-cruelty, of pain and guilt inflicted on himself, of loss and horror he could not let go. He was her target, the one she must seek. The self-cruel man a Mercurian of Fire had to set free from his pain....

Nicole jumped with the sound of a car horn behind her. She blinked twice, and realized what had happened. She had a target -- an assignment. Someone she had to....

"No..." she whispered. "Not now. Not now!" She looked up, fists balling as she slammed them into her door and armrest. "Not now! Don't do this to me! Damn it, Gabriel, not now! I'm so close! Not...." Screaming incoherently, she threw herself forward onto the steering wheel, hot tears coming to her eyes. It couldn't be. She couldn't. She had to focus on Marcus. She had him. She had a lead for the first time since the Painting. Not now!

The target. The Target was getting away.

With a moan, ignoring the angry drivers blowing horns at her from behind, Nicole grabbed her phone and opened it. She got the picture mode up and pointed it at the man. She snapped -- two pictures, three pictures, four... five... then one of him going down into a T Station. Unless she abandoned her car, she'd never catch up with him....

"Get out of the damn way!" someone shouted from the car behind her. With a choked sob, Nicole put the car into drive.

Nicole walked through the twisting passages of the Volcano, her wings mantled neatly behind her. Even here, she had taken to wearing the white dresses and clothes she had recently become known for on the Corporeal, even as she followed the Cherub who was leading her.

"I heard the War guys talking about you. They said you did a good job with those Greedies."

"Greed leads to cruelty," Nicole said smoothly. "And what do we do to the cruel again?" She smiled. "But thank them for me, will you? You're such a dear."

"I will. Um... Nicole?"

"Yes, Coronil?"

"They also said... well... suggested... that you were exceptionally... efficient, in completing an assignment during the mission."

"Well, I could hardly jeopardize the mission. The poor dear was hurting herself because she was taught to associate pain with love by an abusive mother. I simply found ways to keep her occupied for the twenty-four hours I needed to."

"But... won't she go on hurting herself now?"

"Perhaps. But if she does, don't you think Lady Gabriel will find a way to let me or another Mercurian know? Have some faith." She affectionately ruffled Coronil's wingridge.

"I suppose. Anyhow. Soldekai said you were to report to the Quartermaster -- the reports from Michael's forces were good enough that you deserve a reward, he said."

"Well, I'd better not keep them waiting." She dimpled. "Thank you so much, Cor."

The Cherub watched her leave, mixed emotions on its feline face, but Nicole didn't turn to look at him. Instead, she went the rest of the way into the warm cavern of the Quartermaster. Racks of weapons and necklaces, clothes and jewels and talismans abounded within.

"Ah. Intercessionist," the Kyriotate who was Quartermaster this cycle said gruffly. "We trust you had no difficulty finding the place?"

"I had an excellent guide," Nicole said cheerfully. She was always cheerful these days, at least around strangers. The picture perfect bright Mercurian. "Thank you for asking."

"Mm. Well, if you'll come this way, you'll see a number of good artifacts for the Friends of Man. Most choose some sort of reliquary, of course -- particularly of a sort they can accessorize. Tie tacks, bracelets, that kind of thing. Do you prefer metal or a stone--"

The Kyriotate trailed off, when it realized Nicole hadn't followed him. Opening six eyes on its anterior, it saw Nicole had wandered over to the Holy Bullets and projectile weapons rack. It flowed there swiftly. "We're sorry. We thought you knew to follow. We expect you'll be more interested in--"

"This is so cute," Nicole said, lifting a small gun. It was silver and compact -- its size belying its potential. "Do you have holy ammunition for it? And are lessons available?"

The Boston Public Library smelled old. Nicole didn't care how many renovations it went through, how many displays it put on, and how many times the books were dusted and cleaned. It smelled of books and age, like it had been there half of forever. And, of course, it had been.

Soldiers of God were sometimes surprised when they learned what famous landmarks had become Tethers to what Words, whether Angelic or Infernal. But, learning that the Boston Public Library was a Tether to Destiny surprised no one. If it had been anything else, that might have been surprising, but the first public library in the United States should belong to Yves.

Alden, one of the assistants to the Seneschal, met her in the Abbey Room, where she had been looking at the wall murals. "Nicole," the older looking man said with a slight smile. "You look lovelier every time I see you."

"Flatterer," she murmured, looking up at one of the panels. On it, a handsome young man in red robes was stepping away from a bride, garlanded in white and flowers. His face was averted from her, and one hand was raised as if to ward her off. "This one speaks to me."

"I like this room too," he said. "Edwin Austin Abbey painted the murals, you know. That's what the Abbey room is named for. They commemorate the quest for and achievement of the Holy Grail -- the Tennyson version." He pointed up to the painting in question. "This one is called Galahad Parts From His Bride: Blanchefleur. Sir Galahad has conquered the seven knights who stand for the seven deadly sins and saved the castle of virtuous maidens, who naturally are grateful. As a virtuous man himself, he has saved himself for marriage, but now, having become wedded to Blanchefleur, he learns he must sacrifice his earthly love. The wounded and sin-stricken Fisher King can be healed only by a Virgin Knight, and only a Virgin Knight may achieve the Quest. So though he loves her dearly, and would be married to her in holy matrimony, he must accept his higher quest."

"I just thought her dress was pretty," Nicole murmured. "I want one like it."

"You would. I thought the rule was no white after labor day."

"Not for a long time. That's what people who think they understand fashion think. Are you sure you're a Mercurian?"

"Well, perhaps I focus less on the external than most." He chuckles a bit. "Now. Shall we step back to the offices. I believe I have some information on those photos you e-mailed over to us."

Nicole nodded, glancing back at the Knight stepping away from his greatest desire. She shivered slightly, then followed Alden through the tight corridors. The pair stepped through a door Alden unlocked, then closed behind them. Carefully, they stepped into a series of small offices not on any floor plan that mortal man would see.

"So," she said as soon as they were out of the public accessways. "How long do you think it would take to find out my assigned target?"

Alden glanced back, eyebrow arched. "You sound anxious."

"Quite the opposite," she said. "I have a flight out tonight -- mission down in Baltimore. I'm hoping it'll take you thirty hours, so I can work on this when I get back with a clear conscience."

Alden hmphed. "Nice to hear your priorities are straight."

"I know what my priorities are, Alden. And my duty. So how long?"

"Well, not to disappoint you, but I already know who he is." He stepped into his office.

Nicole followed, startled. "You found him that quickly?"

"I didn't need to. I knew who he was already." He looked grave. "You're not the first angel to have him as an assignment."

"I'm not?" Nicole looked interested despite herself, sitting in a visitor's chair across from Alden's desk.

Alden angled the screen so she could see her target's face. "He's Thomas Porter. He's a poet. Mausil is attuned to him -- do you know Mausil?"

Nicole shook her head, looking at the older human on the screen.

"He's a Cherub of Destiny -- a good one, but currently badly shaken. He was vessel killed defending Mister Porter from Demons of Fate about two and a half weeks ago. He's just come out of trauma and returned to the Corporeal, but he's... not quite recovered yet. It was his first vessel death."

Nicole shivered. "I remember mine. You don't get used to them."

"No you don't. Particularly in this case."

"He failed? Porter didn't achieve his Destiny?"

Alden half-smiled. "It's not as simple as that, I'm afraid."

Nicole groaned. It never was.

By the time Nicole had seen the intruder standing in her kitchen, the Calabite had hold of her shoulders and was throwing her back into the entryway. She slammed against the wall, cracking the plastic mount of her Matisse print and crushing the end table she kept her telephone answering machine on. The machine didn't do any better.

The intruder himself was grinning with a crooked smile, sipping a cup of coffee out of her 'Nicole' mug and finishing off a slab of the pie she'd had her servant pick up for that evening's special treat. He walked smoothly into the living room while the big Calabite kicked her in the stomach and ribs. The intruder was wearing a dark blue suit coat and pants, and a white dress shirt, open at the collar. It looked expensive, and all the moreso because he was cavalier enough to let it get a bit rumpled.

He turned finally as the Calabite's boot drove onto Nicole's face. "Enough, Charlie. Yeesh. Don't break her yet, pal. Give her some time. I want to talk to her."

"Oh, so you're in charge now." the Calabite said. He sounded amused. Affectionate, almost.

"For the minute -- sure, why not. This is my little side trip, after all." He looked around. "Oh, this is a nice setup, Nikki. Really nice. You've come up in the world. And I like the all-white ensemble you're wearing. Some might say it's a little too 1982 Bay Area, but you know, I think you pull it off."

Nicole sucked on her lip for a moment. Blood and sputum mixed. "Deorwine," she spat.

The Impudite raised his hand dismissively at her. "Ah ah ah," he said. "Technical foul, hon. We of the Nether Regions of the Symphony prefer to break away from our unsordid little pasts. Or at least, I do. I'm going by Marcus these days."

Nicole was still breathing hard. "All right. Marcus. Works for me. What do you want?"

"Can't a guy drop in on his ex just to say hi? Say 'I happened to be in the neighborhood, and thought I'd drop in?' I mean, come on. We had something, you and me. That deserves at least a cup of coffee and a slice of pie, don't you think."

"You destroyed anything we had, you bastard," Nicole snarled.

Marcus rolled his eyes, turning his back and looking out her bay windows. "You see, Charlie? It's just like I said. I couldn't ever make a point with her. She'd just talk talk talk and never listen."

"You must have been a saint," the Calabite -- Charlie, apparently -- said.

"Oh, I was. I was. Nikki, I dropped in to let you know I was going to be in town. Call it a courtesy call." He walked over to the bay windows. "I feel kind of bad about how we parted, you know. I mean, that was just low. If it makes you feel any better, you were a good lay. You know, sometimes."

"You go to Hell," Nicole seethed.

"Did that already," Marcus said, picking up a book that was sitting on one of the bay window cushions. "Oh, don't tell me you're reading Harlequin Romance novels now."

Nicole rubbed her face, getting up into a crouch. "It's my servant's."

"Oh, right. Her. I'm afraid Charlie surprised her earlier. I'm kind of surprised you didn't hear the Disturbance. But then, that was a couple of hours ago. You may have been a long way away." He looked back over his shoulder at her. "It's not nice to keep old friends waiting that long. You could have at least had a cat to keep us company. Or at least, occupied."

"You killed her. Why?"

"To make a point, Nikki dear." Marcus turned back to the bay window. "To make a little point. See, I know you. You're weak. You're all talk. Little miss happy candle, in the big wide world. So I'm giving you a chance. I don't care if you stick around or not, but Charlie and I have business in this burb, and you're going to let us take care of it. Nice, clean, and neat. And we won't hurt any more of your Servants. Or you. Got me? Call it a little present, for all we used to mean to each other."

"You expect me to take that deal?" Nicole seethed. "Fuck you."

"Oh, tch. Potty mouth. All right. I offered. Charlie, she's all yours. Remind her how nice her Heart is, would you?"

There were sounds of violence behind Marcus then. Shouts as they fought. Marcus smiled slightly -- she sounded like a little Hellcat when she got all scrappy. He remembered that Hellcat fondly. A pity--

There was a gunshot, and Marcus turned around, angry. "Jesus Christ, Charlie. What the Hell did you shoot her for? That makes noise, you assho--"

Marcus froze. Charlie lay on the ground, bleeding from a hole in his face where his eye used to be. He was still twitching, but not able to move much.

Nicole, blood spattered, was standing. She aimed the smallest gun Marcus had ever seen at Charlie and fired again. Marcus could feel the holiness of the bullet from where he was standing and shivered, watching Charlie's head explode.

Nicole slowly looked up, smoke curling from her gun.

"Marcus, dear," she said, a sweet tone to her voice. "I've asked you not to call me Nikki." She began to raise her gun.

Marcus swore, and threw himself backwards, through the bay window. By the time Nicole reached the windows, he was four stories down, and catching wind on his wide, leather wings.

"You go ahead and you run, Marcus," Nicole said to the hole in her window. "You're only going to get so far."

Mausil was in the vessel of a pug terrier, which made Nicole feel slightly ridiculous. Still, the sense of terror she could feel from him... the sheer pain he was in... was enough to sober her immediately.

"You're going to help Tom?" he asked, trembling in his chair slightly.

Nicole glanced at Alden, then smiled warmly to the dissonant Cherub. She didn't feel the warmth, but she could fake it, and that'd be good enough for right now. "That's my assignment," she said. "Why don't you tell me everything you can."

Mausil lay down on his forepaws, eyes closed, back shaking. "It was horrid," he said. "I fought -- oh God I fought... and the police had come... I found out later they took him to the hospital before the bleeding was too bad...."

"Back up," Nicole said, soothingly. "What was your assignment?"

Mausil took a deep breath, trying to get under control. "Thomas Porter... had a Destiny to publish a book of poetry... beautiful stuff. Oh God, you've never read such beautiful poems. The impact they could have... I had to keep him safe from Fate. They... it was the kind of thing they hate -- things that make people think, that might get them interested in poetry again, you know? So I protected him while he wrote."

"So what happened?"

"He published. The Demons of Fate attacked us, but it was too late. He'd already sent the signed contract. The book's a done deal. He'd done what he had to..." the Cherub looked up at Nicole with pathetic, terrified eyes. "Do you understand? He did it. He earned his way into Heaven. He won. He won."

"Then what's the problem?" Nicole asked quietly.

"He..." Mausil closed his eyes. "He saw the demons kill the woman he loved. Kill her horribly. He didn't know they were demons, of course. He didn't know anything about the War. He just saw these people who'd been showing up kill her, right in front of him, and shoot him too...."

Nicole took a deep breath. "But he signed the contract and sent it in first. They can't take his Destiny away from him, Mausil. What's the problem?"

Mausil's eyes snapped open. "They killed the woman he loved! Don't you understand? Don't you... he'll do it. He can't bear it. He can't bear it!"

Alden put a hand on Nicole's shoulder, and she looked up at him. "Thomas Porter achieved his Destiny, yes. However... his Fate is to commit suicide, in a way that destroys another completely. Seeing his girlfriend murdered in front of him has plunged Porter into a deep depression. He blames himself. He hurts himself. And he is weakening."

"Self-cruelty," Nicole murmured. "Naturally."

Mausil's eyes snapped open. "I didn't mean for this to happen," he said, insistently. "I never thought they'd kill me. Not where he could see. Not where... not where he could...."

"What? You mean his girlfriend. You mean...." Nicole trailed off. "Oh, you weren't. Tell me you weren't."

"He was so kind... and I loved him so much... I still do, but... what am I supposed to tell him now?"

Nicole rubbed her eyes. "You know, this is the kind of bullshit I get yelled at by Soldekai for. Why's he getting a bye?"

"Yves isn't Soldekai," Alden said quietly. "And you'll notice he doesn't have a human vessel at the moment."

"Please, Nicole!" Mausil said, trembling. "Don't let them win. If he kills himself... if he takes his own life, he'll lose Heaven. He'll lose everything...."

"I know," Nicole said, sighing. "If he meets both his Destiny and his Fate, he may go to either place, but more likely he'll be reincarnated for another try. Or...." She let her voice trail off. She didn't think Mausil could take the thought of Thomas Porter's forces disintergating back into the Symphony, too burdened by portent.

"Save him. Please save him," Mausil said.

"I'll... I'll do my best, Mausil," Nicole said. "But... remember. I'm not here to ensure his Destiny. I'm here to stop his self-cruelty -- to resolve the issues he hurts himself over."

"You can't let him lose Heaven," Mausil wailed. "You can't!"

Nicole rubbed her eyes. "I'll see what I can do," she said. "I'll see what I can do."

Gabriel's hair was red this time, and she hadn't gone naked which was a bit surprising. She leaned up against the tombstone, wearing a torn tank top and jeans. Her arms were fully 'sleeved' in tattoos of dragons, and she had a lip stud, nose ring and eyebrow ring. She looked haggard, but dynamic, like she were resting but ready to throw herself into a mosh pit.

Nicole's face and arm still bore red marks from Adam's hellfire breath. She'd been mudpit-healed in Austin, but it wasn't a hundred percent yet. She wore a white jersey and slacks, and had her hair bound up in a white kerchief.

"You made a deal with him," Gabriel said, dully.

Nicole took a breath, and nodded. "Yes, Bright Lady."

"You. Made a deal. With him."

"Yes. Yes I did."

"Why?"

Nicole took a deep breath. "Tariel Fell. He was a friend. He saved me more than once. I... needed to make sure he'd be okay. Down there, I mean. In--"

"In HELL!!!!" Gabriel shouted, springing to her feet. "He Fell to Hell! Fell! Hell! FellHell! He F-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks! Right!?"

Nicole shivered. "Yes, Bright Lady. He Fell. But--"

"When they Fall, they aren't our friends any more. They aren't our lovers." Gabriel suddenly looked surprised. "Oh, did no one tell you? Did you not get informed? Should I punish Soldekai for not telling the Servitors about what happens when an Angel Falls? Should I?"

Nicole closed her eyes, wrapping her arms around herself. "I had to do something," she said, miserably.

Gabriel cocked her head. "Then perhaps you should have helped him redeem. If he came to you, do you know he couldn't have come back?"

"I... no. He didn't care about anything. He said--"

"Including you?"

Nicole took a deep breath, looking down. "I don't know. He came to me. But I didn't resonate him. I guess. Maybe. No. No, he didn't care about me."

"That's why, then. Friends don't go to Hell and leave you behind. Friends don't leave friends in Hell. That's why you can't be friends anymore, not friends the same way friends are." She leaned back against the tombstone. "Did you get the painting back?"

"No. It was a truce."

"Did you kill Marcus?"

"No. It was a truce."

"Did you let Adam kill Marcus?"

"No. I needed Marcus for Tariel."

"Is that why you saved him?"

"Why else would I save him?"

Gabriel leaned forward. She suddenly looked very young, her head cocked to one side again. "Didn't you? With the moaning and the pushing and the humpypumpy?"

Nicole's breath caught. Unbidden, she remembered leaning against the tree. Remembered Marcus telling her that if she said she loved him, it might make a difference. That it might help. She remembered it so clearly... and knew with all certainty that he was mocking her. That he wanted her to say she loved him, like she did the day he Fell. That he wanted to twist it like a knife in her. She had felt the distant voice come back then, for the first time in so long, and it told him she would kill him. And she would. She knew it.

"I needed Marcus for Tariel," she said quietly.

Gabriel rose, fluidly, and stepped close. She wrapped hot arms around Nicole, and pressed hot hands to the Mercurian's face. She pressed her own forehead to Nicole's. "You're justifying," she crooned. "Who do you justify yourself to? Do you justify yourself to God? Do you justify yourself to me? Do you justify yourself to Marcus? Do you justify yourself to yourself?"

Nicole felt her Archangel hold her, and realized how distant her mind felt right now. How little she felt. Once, to be held by Gabriel was the alpha and omega of her existence. Now....

"I worry so much," Gabriel whispered. "I worry I worry I worry. You're one of my very favorites, no matter how often you fail. I don't know who you justify yourself to any more. But I still love you. I do love you. Do you love me?"

Nicole remembered years back, lying with Marcus -- with Deorwine -- in the darkness. 'You really love her,' he had asked. 'We all do," she had answered. 'Fire burns through us. The fire of passion. The fire of conviction. The fire of loyalty.'

"Of course I love you," she said, and her voice sounded so hollow. "We all do."

Nicole leaned back in the seat of her car, and closed her eyes for a moment. She felt like ashes. She didn't understand how this could be happening. She had him. She was one step ahead of him at last. They'd be able to put it all to rest. Every bit of it. And now....

Alden was right. She couldn't delay her assignment. Porter might commit suicide tonight, and no matter how desperately she wanted Marcus, she couldn't justify letting someone -- anyone -- lose his right to Heaven for it.

Maybe take him along? No -- no, he'd never go. He'd have no reason to go. And besides, she'd need to stay with him, and he might get caught in the crossfire. Heh, not that that would be a bad thing -- talk about a Go Directly to Heaven card. But he was traumatized now because of seeing his lover killed. Bringing him into a violent situation would compound the cruelty, not alleviate it.

No, she had to deal with this now. Tonight. And even if dissonance just demanded a night with him, she knew this would be weeks of talking and psychoanalysis and resonances and sex for all she knew. It was what she was supposed to do. And every minute of it, she would hate him, but he'd never know. Hate him for taking Marcus away from her when she finally had him where she wanted him. Hate him for keeping her from closing the ledger, for giving her a chance to redeem her failures with the painting, with Tariel, with her Servants, with her assignments. hate him for keeping her from forgetting and putting the past behind her. Hate him for being there when she had something she needed to do for herself.

Was it so wrong to do just one thing for herself?

Nicole put the car into drive. It didn't matter. She would do as she was told like a good little Mercurian. She would--

Nicole blinked, and pushed it back into Park. She checked the time. Five-oh-eight. Five hours to get to the airport.

There was plenty of time. There was plenty of time to make sure Thomas Porter went to Heaven, and still make it to her flight. After all, the problem was suicide, not death. She could have Tanya--

No, damn it. Tanya went back to Albany. That was the real problem with her labor relations. She pushed them so hard to get useless crap done, they weren't around when something important came up. Something like death.

Thomas Porter had to die. Quickly. Not by his own hand. It was perfect. He would go to Heaven, his Destiny met. He signed the contract. Only there was no one to do it. Would Alden-- no. Yvesians weren't much for this kind of thing, and Alden was also a Mercurian. The puppy was dissonance ridden and irrational -- couldn't be trusted in a clutch, and besides, he was attuned to Porter.

That left her. But killing Porter, even for his own good, was innately dissonant.

Nicole took a breath, and put the car back into drive. Well, what the Hell. Did anyone honestly think she cared about a note of dissonance at a time like this? This was win-win. Porter would go to Heaven....

And Marcus wouldn't even go to Hell, this time. He wouldn't go anywhere ever again.

Marcus lay back on the Motel 6 bed. They didn't need sleep, of course, but there were times you just wanted to get off the road. He and Charlie had been chasing after his and Nicole's ex-servants, not so much for the two of them (though admittedly he wouldn't mind getting his hands on that Goth bitch) but for the Sanguine Painting in the trunk of Marcus's car, which they'd stolen. Charlie had hooked back up with him at a carnival, and now they were using an artifact tee-shirt of Charlie's to track the thieves. Fortunately, Gothette had left behind her book of crappy poetry, which was enough for Charlie's I'm With Stupid Tee-Shirt to home in on. And truth be told, it was never so appropriate as now.

Marcus poked at Cat, who was really beginning to look bad. He was a good zombi cat, but he'd already lasted way beyond the warranty. Ah well. It was still nice to play with him.

He realized the date almost with a shock. Jesus. Twenty years. Where did the goddamn time go?

His cell phone rang. He blinked. His cell phone never rang.

He picked it up and pushed talk. "Yeah?"

"Do you ever wonder what our lives would have been like if I'd just fledged Malakite instead of Mercurian?"

Marcus didn't ask Nicole how she got his cell phone number. He just thought for a moment. "Well," he said. "I think you'd probably have sent me to my Heart long before I could do more than muss Carlton Morse's hair."

"Yeah, I think so too."

"Happy anniversary."

"Fuck you."

"From this far away? Hey, I'm well endowed, babe, but still...."

"Was it Falling that did this to you, or were you always a dick but just better at hiding it?"

Marcus chuckled. "A little from column A, a little from column B. So. Should I expect you to come in with an axe?"

"Not tonight. I have a headache. Be seeing you, Marcus."

"Yeah." She hung up, and so did he. "Be seeing you, Frau Nickerhoffer," he said to the dead phone.

Charlie came out of the bathroom, toweling his hair off. It wasn't working that well, since the towel was becoming a rag as fast as he used it, but he was giving it a good hearty try. "I heard the phone."

"Nah. I turned the TV on for a minute," Marcus said. "Nothing on, so I turned it off."

Charlie nodded. "Shower's free. If you're interested."

"Hell, yeah. Play with Cat, willya? I don't like his color."

"So you liked his earlier color, then."

"Hell if I know."

Nicole walked up the four flights of stairs, slowly and deliberately. Angels didn't get tired. Fatigue was not an issue. And she wanted to make this as neat and concise as she possibly could. She had skirted the edges of dissonance before, and gone over once or twice -- or more -- but had never decided to commit a premeditated dissonant act before. She couldn't quite remember if anyone ever had, in her experience.

Still, there was no reason to delay, now that she had decided on this course. The sooner she put Porter out of his considerable misery, the sooner they could all get on with their respective lives (or afterlife, in his case). And that would be for the best. Truly.

She made it to four. Apartment C, she'd been told. 4C. She looked at each of the doors. Plain wood doors in old white painted frames. Ratty carpet on the floor. The depressing thing was, a four floor walkup with some warped flooring and bad paint probably went for a thousand a month, minimum. Money was depressing.

4C. Written right there in fake brass.

Nicole took a breath and got out her itty-bitty gun. She checked the action -- a misfire would just prolong things, and that wouldn't be fair to poor Porter, and got ready. She didn't want to give him a chance to react or do anything stupid, so she drew upon her reserves of Essence, looking at the door in the frame. She wanted it kicked in with one blow. She took a deep breath....

'Your name will be Nikkola,' the Bright Lady of Fire said to the Reliever. 'And you will be a Mercurian. You will be a Friend to all Man, and ease their pains and help them let go of the ways they hurt themselves. Would you like that?' Oh yes, Bright Lady of Fire! Yes please! 'All right then. Take my hands....'

Nicole kicked, Essence flowing into her Leg, disturbance thrumming around her into the Symphony as the door shattered. She stormed into the room. There -- he was standing in the living room, turning in shock. The room was a mess. The kind of mess that a neat freak let his place get into when he was depressed.

"Don't struggle," she said in a sharp voice. "This will be over quickly. Please believe me, this is for the best."

"Who the Hell--"

"Wrong guess," she said, walking up to him. She lifted her arm, and pressed the itty-bitty gun to his forehead. And then she squeezed the trigger, just like the Malakim of Fire taught her, and there was a muffled thunk as the shot tore his head open.

The disturbance of a human life being taken by a Celestial washed over Nicole's perceptions like an indictment from Heaven.

The terrible, searing dissonance rippled through Nicole's Angelic soul and into her distant, divine Heart....

And there was a high pitched scream.

Nicole whirled. What did--

A little girl. Maybe eight. She stared. Stared at a man who was clearly once her father and now was cooling meat. Stared at the woman who just killed him in cold blood.

Nicole stared back, the world seeming to slow. No one said he had a daughter! No one said he had dependents! This wasn't her fault! She did everything to... to....

She had never resonated him. She had never learned his relationships. Who he might leave behind.

The Seraph spoke coldly. 'You don't know why you didn't use the resonance that is a core element of who and what you are?'

The hideous, horrible cruelty of omission, of convenience, of selfishness tore through Nicole's soul and into her heart. Dissonance compounding dissonance.

Mausil... Mausil was attuned to Porter. She had just killed his attuned. He was already dissonant, and barely sane. She hadn't thought--

The cruelty of self-deception ripped through Nicole's soul... her heart strained and cracked with the pain of what she had inflicted on it... inflicted on so many... and then....

"I'll... I'll do my best, Mausil," Nicole said. "But... remember. I'm not here to ensure his Destiny. I'm here to stop his self-cruelty -- to resolve the issues he hurts himself over."

Nicole screamed... she screamed as the dissonance of abandoning her mission, her assignment tore through her... Thomas Porter's self-cruelty would never be abated now. Even if he found peace in Heaven, he would never--

The dissonance tore through her... channeled... built and grew... she felt lightheaded and weak, turning towards the window, reaching out... she had to fight it... push it -- make it Discord or she... she....

The drapes around the window burst into flame and brimstone. The little girl screamed again, and Nicole felt her entire body sear with pain, her very soul inverting, twisting, perverting... her Heart, the one thing that always loved her... the one thing that always accepted her... it twisted and cracked and shattered and she felt herself slipping, felt herself going. She couldn't stop it, it hurt so bad and the drapes were burning and in the flames were eyes, but not Gabriel's eyes or Belial's eyes... no, she couldn't look away from them, and now she was on her knees, her hands stretched out it hurt oh it hurt and she was staring into Lucifer's eyes through the flames....

And Lucifer's eyes told her what she already knew. She had justified her act to herself. It was all she had cared about, in the end. And with that, she knew she was a Demon. The Demon of Self-Justification.

And then it was over. Even the burning drapes were just scorched now. Soot on the walls, but no fire.

No fire in her soul.

No Symphony. No -- that wasn't true. There was her own Symphony... thrumming over and over again with Self-Justification.

She slowly pushed back to her knees, and reached for her gun. A sharp pain convinced her to leave it on the floor. Right -- holy bullets. There wasn't much she could do with those now anyhow.

She heard a terrified whimper, and she turned to look at the little girl.

"Hey," she said.

The girl stared, and didn't answer.

Nicole began to shuffle closer, still on her knees. "Hey, it's all right. He didn't kill himself. He gets to go to Heaven. And you -- I bet it was you they were worried about -- you won't be destroyed. Uh-uh." She reached out, poking the girl, and half-smiling. "They'll be here in a few minutes, and they're going to take good, good care of you. It's what they do. What they always do with little girls who get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time."

The girl's tears began shaking her whole body.

Nicole stood up, and wiped her hands on her shirt. "Oh, don't worry about me," she said. "I'll get along. But I have to go. They'll be here almost any time, you see. They're very fast, and if they find me now... well, they're not known for being very understanding when you screw up. Trust me, I know."

The girl sank to the floor, wrapping her arms around her legs and crying.

"That's it. That's it. You just cry. I'll just slip out. And don't worry. These things -- they have a way of working out." Nicole began backing away, then turned to walk. And then run. She had to be away from here.

She made it down to the street, then out. And then she began walking. Away from the T Station, in case that's how they came. They'd want to know why she was leaving, and she didn't know if she could face them. Face them as this....

As what?

A demon?

Well, what did they expect?

She had told them she had something to do, but Gabriel never cut her any slack. Besides, she'd been unhappy for years, hadn't she?

Maybe... this wasn't a curse, but a blessing. Maybe this is what she wanted to do all along. Sure -- of course it was. She was unconsciously reaching to break away from Gabriel -- and no one gave her any help when she clearly needed it.

Salem. Danvers, really -- that's where the Game Tether was. The site of the Salem Witch Trials. She quickened her pace, walking over to a Lexus waiting for a light to change and knocking on the window.

The man inside blinked, and rolled down his window. "Yes?" he asked. He blinked again. "You've got something on your shirt."

Nicole smiled a sunny smile. "Someone, actually." And she pushed... pushed her inner Symphony out... she smothered him in it... and smiled as his eyes grew wide and his lips twisted into a smile. "Look, I don't know where you're going, but I need a lift to Danvers. Can you take some time and help a girl out?"

The man chuckled. "I don't see why not. Get in."

Nicole moved around the car and slid into the passenger's seat. "Thanks so much."

"No problem at all," the charmed driver said with a grin. He looked over at Nicole's old parked car and laughed. "What kind of person has a 'SMITE' vanity plate?"

Nicole giggled. "Some kind of Jesus Freak. I hate people like that." She squeezed his arm, pushing... and felt a sudden rush as his sweet Essence flowed into her... "Oh... God yes... mmm... you're strong."

Alden looked over the apartment sadly. "I just... I had no sign. If I had any idea she'd do something like this..."

"It's not your fault." Soldekai's face and demeanor were grim. "Have you had any luck tracking Mausil down?"

"Some. Not enough." Alden shook his head again, true grief in his eyes. "It was just too much for him. He was already so fragile. He Fell like a stone, and he's out there, alone and Discordant."

"He'll have to be destroyed," Soldekai said quietly. "Whoever he was before, he'll have to be destroyed now."

"It's not fair. He didn't... he didn't choose this."

"No, it's not fair. He didn't Fall. He was Pushed." Soldekai touched the soot on the wall. "This was not natural fire."

"You're sure?"

Soldekai looked back, his eyebrow raised. "I know a thing or two about fire." He looked down at the small pistol, still on the floor. "I am sorry, Alden."

"How did this happen?"

Soldekai knelt, picking the gun up. He slipped it into his overcoat pocket. "She made a choice. It was a bad one. She'll have to be destroyed too. How is the little girl?"

"Shattered. We're getting her the best of care, but...."

"Yes. Yes, I know."

"I don't understand... how could she justify walking into the apartment and just... shooting him like that?"

Soldekai looked at Alden, and looked old. "You're right. You don't understand. And neither do I. Because we try to justify our acts to our Superiors, to the Seraphim Council... to the Lord."

He turned to look at the bloodstain on the floor. "But a demon only has to justify what she does to herself. And the moment that happens, we'll never understand."

Alden looked down. "Where is she now."

"I don't know." He looked back up. "But I will. And then...."

Alden looked back up at him. "And then?"

Something began to smolder in Soldekai's eye. "We know how to handle traitors."

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