No matter how far you run, your past will always catch up with you...
With many thanks to Ganeris, Angel and Nessa for editing, feedback and patient hand holding.
It hadn't taken much for Vanessa to slip away from the former Sunset Motel. The four MASK agents present were far too concerned about their injured colleague to worry about her, and the moment their backs were turned, she made her escape.
She needed to find somewhere she could lie low and think things through. Mayhem had given the order to blow the hotel, despite knowing she was still inside. Rax had gone along with it, despite knowing she was likely to be trapped and possibly killed. The MASK agent she'd been supposed to trap there had saved her life.
It didn't make sense.
It still wasn't making any sense later that night as Vanessa lay in bed in the cheap motel room she'd rented, trying to sleep. When morning came, she'd leave San Diego, though exactly where she was going was another matter. That was a decision probably better made on the back of a good night of sleep, unfortunately, the puzzle of what had happened that afternoon refused to let up.
Rax and Mayhem had blown up the Sunset Motel and blown away ten years of comradeship. The MASK agent she'd been trying to kill off and on in those same ten years had rescued her, had saved her.
It didn't make sense.
Why would Mayhem not care?
Why would the MASK agent put his own life on the line to save hers?
She stared up at the darkened motel room ceiling, a small, mocking smile on her face. He'd said, "My job is to protect people from VENOM. Last time I checked, you're a person." It was almost a clichÃ©: the good guy putting the bad girl's life ahead of his own just because it was the right thing to do.
But, even if it was just a hero reflex, at least he'd cared. That was more than either Rax or Mayhem had.
Vanessa rolled over and tried burying her head in the pillows, but it did nothing to stop the thoughts chasing each other round and round her mind.
It just flat out made no sense.
She tried to stop the treacherous little voice from continuing that thought, but it wouldn't be silenced. The only way Rax's behaviour made any sense was if the plan had been for her to be trapped, too.
Was he that grasping and determined to rise in the VENOM ranks?
But Vanessa knew the answer to that question. Of course he was. Rax was ambitious and she was standing in his way.
Buddy'd been right.
Vanessa rolled over again and sat up, frowning. Why had she just thought that? She hadn't thought about Buddy in months; she hadn't thought about his warnings in far, far longer. On reflection, though, she knew why Buddy came to mind. It was talking with the MASK agent about being a kid.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time; find a neutral topic, distract him and keep him talking. What she hadn't expected was for him to turn it back on her. She'd spent so long actively trying not to think about the home and growing up and Buddy that she'd almost convinced herself it had all been bad. And then the MASK agent had been sympathetic.
And she'd realised she'd been kidding herself.
Sure, it hadn't been great, but it hadn't mattered. She and Buddy'd been a team.
Vanessa put her head in her hands and groaned. Sleep was what she needed, not reminiscences for a life that was long since over. Except that it looked very much as if her present life was finished too. If she was right, and Rax had tried to get rid of her, going back to VENOM was a bad idea. But if she left VENOM, where did she go?
"I could go to MASK," she murmured, but the thought carried no weight.
How could she go to an organisation that didn't, to all intents and purposes, exist? At various times in the last ten years, she'd tried to root out just who they were and where they were based, but it seemed like the only person who knew that, aside from the MASK agents themselves, was Duane Kennedy - and he wasn't telling. She could tour San Diego's hospitals, looking for a man with bad concussion and a broken shoulder, but Vanessa was almost positive that whoever he was, MASK wouldn't leave him where she could find him.
No; turning herself over to MASK wasn't likely to happen, unless she staged something spectacular - and something spectacular enough to attract their attention was just as likely to drag VENOM onto her tail.
"What am I going to do?" she wondered.
Vanessa glanced at the motel room clock. The glowing red digits mockingly proclaimed it was barely midnight. Considering the day's events, she should have been exhausted, but it looked as if sleep wasn't going to be an option tonight. With another groan, she flung the blankets back and climbed out of bed. If she couldn't sleep, she might as well get ready to leave. She couldn't hide here for the rest of her life. Even if it was a tempting idea.
Padding into the bathroom, she paused in front of the mirror. Buddy would probably tell her she looked like shit. He'd be right too. Her hair hung in limp rats tails; her face was pale; there were deep bruise-like shadows beneath her bloodshot eyes. Definitely no glamour puss right now.
"I can't leave if I don't know where to go," she murmured. "Where would you go?" she added, asking her reflection. Her reflection just stared back, haggard and worn. "Right."
She sighed. The answer to the question was obvious. It was time to stop running. Time to stop kidding herself.
Time to go home.
Going home, going back to Boulder, seemed like a terrifying prospect, but the more she thought about it, the more sure she was it was her only option. She hadn't been back in ten years, but something about going home seemed right. Of course, going home meant going to see Buddy, and that might just be the hardest thing she'd ever considered doing. She knew that when she'd gone with Rax, she'd hurt him badly. Maybe he'd react now like he did then and just toss her out; except that didn't seem like the Buddy she'd grown up with. His anger always blew over fast.
But this had been different.
He'd told her to stay away; that they'd had nothing more to say to each other.
Vanessa sighed and shook her head. She had nowhere else to go. And maybe he would just toss her out, but maybe he'd be able to help her.
And she couldn't stay here, hiding in a cheap motel bathroom.
"Guess I'm goin' home," she murmured.
Decision made, Vanessa frowned for a moment. First things first: She needed to call and find out what time the first flight to Denver was and regardless of when that was, there were preparations she needed to make.
Padding back out of the bathroom, she headed for the room's telephone and dialled San Diego's airport information line. While she waited for the call to connect, she started rummaging through her bag, looking for her Colorado driver's licence. Without that, she wasn't going to be flying anywhere. She finally found it as her call connected to the automated information system.
God but she hated automated phone systems.
Impatiently Vanessa listened to the menu and pushed the button for the morning's flight schedule. To her annoyance, instead of it being listed by time, the flights were all listed by airline, which meant she had to suffer through hearing the entire schedule for Aeromexico, Air Canada and several other airlines that were highly unlikely to fly anywhere near Denver.
While she listened, she pulled out a bottle of brush-in hair dye and a make-up kit from the bag and started to select what clothing she was going to wear. The date of birth on the license said she was twenty-three, so whatever she wore it was going to have to back that up, but that was OK. Vanessa the VENOM agent was supposed to be glamorous and sexy. Vanessa, Buddy's sister, had never been that. It would be nice to go back to that much simpler life.
Assuming she could get a flight to Denver in the first place, and she was beginning to suspect she'd have to fly via someplace else rather than travel direct as the mechanical voice announced Sun County Airlines. There surely couldn't be many more airlines after this. Then came the listing for United Airlines and finally came not one but two pieces of luck. Not only did United fly direct to Denver, their first flight to Colorado was at half past six.
A smile now on her face Vanessa dropped the receiver back onto its cradle and glanced at the motel room clock. Half past midnight. Given security and the like, she needed to be at the airport by half past four and that meant being ready to leave by three o'clock at the latest. Easy.
She returned to the bathroom and spread out the make-up and hair dye on the counter.
Time to become someone else, at least until she got back to Boulder.
Vanessa showered quickly then, wrapping a towel around herself, she started to apply the hair-dye. Little by little, her hair turned from flaming red to auburn to a muted chestnut colour that matched the photo on the license. The black streak still stood out, but there was little she could do for now; she didn't have the supplies to bleach and re-dye it, and she wasn't sure she wanted to take that step just yet. Just in case she did end up going back to VENOM. Besides, the bandanna she'd picked out would cover it temporarily.
Next she applied the make-up, working carefully but quickly to make herself look younger. It wouldn't fool Buddy, but it would work for everyone else. A couple of final touches with the eyeliner gave her a more wide-eyed look and she nodded.
Back in the room, she pulled on the jeans and t-shirt she'd selected from her bag, then tied the blue-and-white bandanna in place, hiding that black streak and completing the transformation. Gone was the cynical terrorist/thief and in her place was an ingÃ©nue grad-student on her way home.
Now that she was dressed, the next task was to repack her bag. The make-up kit went into the bottom, then the few personal items she had and her few items of other clothing. When she reached her VENOM uniform, she hesitated. Did she take it with her, or did she abandon it? It was tempting to just cast it off and leave it, but pragmatically, that made no sense. It was always good to have a fallback, even if she was positive she never wanted to use it. It went into the bag with everything else.
She took one last look around the room. All that was left behind was the empty hair-dye bottle.
Time to go.
Time to see if she had anything left outside of VENOM.
The flight from San Diego to Denver was actually remarkably painless, all things considered. Vanessa had no trouble getting a seat on it, and it was so quiet that she even managed to catch a little sleep. Unfortunately, as she now climbed aboard the bus to go from Denver to Boulder, she realised that her luck was definitely out. The bus was packed.
"Move your butt," demanded a woman who seemed to have marinated in a musk-based perfume.
Vanessa was tempted to turn and glare at the woman, who wouldn't have dared say 'boo' to her if she'd been dressed as the notorious Vanessa Warfield. In this guise, though, that glare wouldn't have the same weight.
"Sorry," she mumbled instead and squeezed into one of the few seats available, next to a mom and a wriggling small boy.
The boy offered a winning smile...
...and promptly kicked Vanessa in the shin.
It's only thirty-five miles, she reminded herself as the bus pulled out of the depot in Denver.
They proved to be thirty-five very long miles.
By the time they came to an end, Vanessa had bruises up and down her shin and she was almost ready to shed the grad-student persona and rip the boy's mother a new one. Except that was probably a really fast way to land up in jail. So she bore the abuse until the bus pulled into the Boulder bus depot. Then she made sure to be amongst the first people off the bus.
Here, fortune was once more on her side and hers was one of the first bags out of the baggage hold and no more than five minutes after the bus' arrival, Vanessa was making her way out into the sunlight of mid-morning in Boulder.
The weird thing was it felt as if she'd never left. Nothing looked that different as she walked through downtown Boulder. A few shops had changed hands; a few buildings had been given a lick of paint. That was it. Just minor cosmetics. Did the same hold true for Buddy? Was he still the same?
Vanessa sighed. She'd know the answer to that question soon enough.
Trying to dismiss the question from her mind, at least for now, she set off for her first destination in Boulder: Her mother's old house.
She hadn't been to the house since being taken into State care when her mother died, but it had been kept for her by the terms of her mother's will, looked after by the lawyers in charge of the estate. She suspected that the monthly allowance she'd been paid from the time she was ten onwards had come from the proceeds made on renting it, but she'd never asked. When she'd turned eighteen she'd been given control over the house, but since she knew, by then, that working for VENOM meant being a nomad, she'd opted to keep that arrangement, modifying it only so that the basement apartment of the house became private, rather than being rented with the rest of the house. It meant she had somewhere she could come home to.
If she ever came home.
Vanessa smiled faintly as she finally reached the leafy residential streets she'd known as a very young kid. Guess I'm coming home now. Not that this trip was purely rooted in sentiment; there was a practical reason to come here before going to the gas station: When she'd made the arrangements about the apartment, she'd also arranged for the same lawyers to look after her car. It was all part of her life strategy: Live now but keep a fallback plan ready for when the now screwed up.
She reached the house now; glad to see her current tenants weren't at home. From a side pocket in her bag, she extracted the keys and let herself in to the basement apartment.
It was cluttered and cramped with the remnants of her mother's furniture and belongings. It smelt musty from disuse. And yet something about it felt like home all the same. Unsentimental or not, Vanessa paused. She couldn't be here for long; for one thing, she didn't want anyone thinking she was a burglar and calling the cops on her, for another, she did want to see where she stood with Buddy, so the less time she spent here the better. But still she paused. For just a moment, she wondered what her life would have been like if her mother hadn't died. Would she have gone to college? Would she have a nine-to-five job now? Would she be married and have a family of her own?
Pragmatism set in. She'd never know the answers to those questions. Her mother had died when she was six. No amount of tears and wishing had changed it then; no amount of wild imagining would change it now. She was what she was.
Setting her bag down just inside the door, Vanessa made a beeline for the desk, the only truly accessible piece of furniture in the apartment, and rifled through the drawers until she found the keys to her car. She smiled faintly. Buddy'd called it the museum piece when she'd first got it; if it had been old back then, what would he think of it now?
The lawyers had promised to leave the keys in the desk. And there they were, tucked in the bottom drawer, well away from any drawers that a casual thief might ransack, complete with a tag naming the location of the garage where the car was being stored.
Vanessa smiled. It was less than a block away.
Leaving her bag where she'd dropped it, Vanessa left the apartment and headed for the garage and the car and the last leg of her journey.
It was only as she neared Boulder Hill Gas Station that doubts began to cross Vanessa's mind. What if Buddy'd moved on? What if the gas station wasn't there any more? What if the people there had never heard of Buddy?
She'd always meant to keep tabs on what Buddy was doing, but life had gotten hectic and busy. VENOM had swallowed her whole and all she had to show from the last ten years was a collection of scars and a bunch of bad memories.
"Gotta start somewhere," Vanessa murmured, rounding the last bend and finding that the gas station, like the rest of Boulder, didn't seem to have changed much in her absence. "And starting here sure beats screwing up the courage to go bug a guy like Matt Trakker."
Refusing to let her doubts put her off, Vanessa pulled onto the service forecourt and stopped. She half expected to see Buddy shambling out of the garage to see who needed service, but no-one moved. Of course, it couldn't be that easy. She sighed and climbed out of the car. It seemed as if there really was no-one about; which was odd, since the sign said the station was open.
"Can I help you?"
The voice wasn't Buddy's. It belonged to a woman, who had appeared in the shop doorway, a faint smirk on her face. "Uh, I hope so," Vanessa answered, offering a nervous smile. "I'm looking for someone."
The woman's eyebrows shot up. "Ain't we all?"
Vanessa smiled again and rubbed suddenly sweaty palms against her thighs. "Guess we are. It's, uh." She stopped and swallowed. What if Buddy didn't work here any more? "Does Buddy Hawks still work here?"
Vanessa was prepared for most responses the woman could have come out with. If she'd said she'd never heard of Buddy, or if she'd answered no, Vanessa knew she could have handled it. But the woman came out with neither. Instead, she frowned. "Who wants to know?"
And before Vanessa had considered her answer, she said, "Emma Hawks; I'm his sister."
"Sister?" The woman's eyes narrowed.
Vanessa ducked her head, avoiding the woman's piercing gaze. "I haven't seen him in a while. We--- We argued. And I did stuff, said stuff, I shouldn't have done."
"I see." There was something in the woman's tone that Vanessa couldn't read. "You'd better come inside."
Now Vanessa recognised it. It was sympathy. Why was this strange woman offering her sympathy? It couldn't be for anything good.
"Well c'mon," drawled the woman, impatience overlaying the sympathy. "I ain't got all day, and I don't guess you do neither."
Vanessa gave herself a mental shake and forced herself to walk the few yards from her car to the shop door and then in to the cool, dim shop interior. The woman disappeared into the shop back room, only to reappear a moment later with a glass of water.
"Here," she said gruffly, offering it to Vanessa. "You'll need it."
Vanessa shook her head, refusing the glass. "What happened?" she asked, trying to quell the sudden burst of fear.
"There was an accident," said the woman abruptly.
"Accident?" Vanessa echoed, fear turning to full blown panic. "What happened?"
"He was working on a Chevy yesterday morning when one of the jacks gave way."
Vanessa stared in fast mounting horror and disbelief. "Is he OK? Where is he?"
The woman guided her down into one of the waiting area seats. "He's going to be fine," she said gently. "He's banged up good, and we ain't expecting to see him around here any time soon, but he's gonna be fine."
For a couple of minutes, Vanessa said nothing. How close had she come to losing Buddy altogether? But on the heels of that thought came another: Buddy was one of the most careful mechanics she'd met. As plausible as the story was, it didn't sit right.
"Here," said the woman presently. "Drink this; you've had a shock." And she pressed the glass of water into Vanessa's cold, clammy hands.
Vanessa took a sip or two and found it did help. He was going to be OK. Whatever had actually happened, the woman was telling the truth about that. "Where is he?" she finally managed to ask.
"He's in hospital right now," the woman answered. "Though he's not up to seeing visitors just yet; the doc says he's suffering bad concussion and seein' double."
Vanessa winced. She'd suffered concussion before. It was never fun, and she'd never had it that badly! From what the woman was saying, and what she wasn't, Buddy sounded almost as badly off as the MASK agent who'd saved her life the day before.
The simplicity of that comparison made Vanessa freeze. The MASK agent had been badly concussed. He hadn't said it in so many words, but she thought he'd been seeing double, by the time they were rescued. Now she discovered that Buddy was that badly concussed and from an accident she didn't quite believe.
The water glass slipped from Vanessa's nerveless fingers and shattered on the floor. It couldn't be. It shouldn't be. It had to just be coincidence. Didn't it?
"You OK, hon?" the woman asked.
"I---" Vanessa swallowed. "Did Buddy get hurt any place else?" It had to just be coincidence. She had to be leaping to conclusions.
The woman gave her a long, assessing look before saying, "Yeah. His shoulder took the worst of it. He's got a busted collarbone."
Vanessa wrapped her arms around her stomach, as if that might somehow stop the bile that was now threatening to escape. All along, it was Buddy. Buddy'd been the guy to save her life. Buddy was the one she was supposed to trap. Buddy she'd been trying to kill.
"Hon, are you OK?" the woman asked, a real concern in her voice now.
"I--- I don't know." Vanessa swallowed. "I'm sorry. Excuse me."
Blindly, Vanessa started towards the door, only to find herself being most effectively restrained by the woman. "Hon, listen to me," she said. "You've just had a shock. You're not in any kinda state to drive and what good's it gonna do you if you go slam yourself into a canyon wall or something on the way back into town?"
"But you don't understand," Vanessa gasped.
"Oh, I think I understand better than you'd guess," said the woman, knowingly. "And Buddy'd kill me if I let you go off like this. Now sit your butt back down on that seat."
And given no choice, Vanessa sat once more. To her surprise, the woman bustled back into the back room, to return, this time, with a steaming mug of coffee and a box of tissues. It was only then that Vanessa realised she was crying.
"Here," said the woman, holding out both tissues and coffee. "Figure you could use both."
Vanessa took a tissue from the box and used it to try and dry her eyes. "Why are you doing this?"
"Because I figure you're gonna beat yourself up about it all far better'n I can," said the woman matter-of-factly. "Besides. Like I said. Buddy'd kill me if I didn't."
"But I--- He---"
The woman put a hand on Vanessa's shoulder. "Listen, hon; as much as you've hurt him with all this bullshit, he still cares about you." She squeezed gently. "Trust me about that."
"You know," Vanessa croaked.
"Sure I do," said the woman. "Ain't much around here I don't know." She shrugged. "Drink the coffee 'fore it gets cold. You'll feel better."
Vanessa doubted that, but something about this woman suggested that argument wouldn't be permitted. So she drank the coffee and watched as the woman bustled about behind the shop counter, obviously looking for something.
With a cry of triumph and a mutter of, "Guess Earl's right, I do need to tidy up in here some," the woman came back out from behind the counter brandishing a piece of paper. "You'll be needing this."
Vanessa just stared in confusion. "What?"
The woman smiled. "The doc says Buddy won't be back home much inside of two weeks. Not with the shape his head and shoulder're in." Vanessa winced. "But this is where you can find him, when he does go home." She handed over the slip of paper.
Vanessa looked at it. It was an address in an apartment complex on this side of town. "I---" She swallowed. "You, you're giving me his address?"
The woman shrugged. "Figured I'd save you the trouble. 'Sides. Buddy always reckoned, if you ever showed up here, things would've changed, and you know what? He's right. Now, you think you can manage to drive back into town without wiping out?"
Mechanically, Vanessa nodded. "I, thank you."
The woman smiled. "You take care o' yourself."
Vanessa drove slowly back into Boulder, the slip of paper with Buddy's address on tucked into a pocket for safekeeping. Everything seemed to have gotten more complicated, but the woman seemed pretty convinced Buddy would want to see her, even allowing for everything she'd done.
Maybe everything would work out.