Duke came home, fed the cat, sat in his favorite chair. He took a deep breath and tried not to act like a lovesick fool.
Because that's really what he was, wasn't he? He didn't want to be, he felt guilty about it, but the world keeps spinning and God be damned his heart keeps beating.
They were very similar, weren't they? These two women who'd captured his affections. That was such a weird way to put it. It made it sound like his schoolboy crushes were their faults.
Maybe he just had a type. Red hair, 80s aficionado, sweet smile, kind heart. Maybe he was imagining that they looked and acted similar — he found it hard to recall things about Holloway, despite all the time he had spent with her. Almost as if she were a waking dream, rather than a person, a friend. He couldn't help but wonder if he knew her at all.
Yet, this new woman reminded him of Holloway so strongly. Their names even sounded similar. Holloway. Holliday. Holloway, Holliday, Holloway, Holliday…
Duke sighed. There it was again. That familiar, fuzzy feeling. He had loved Holloway greatly — who hadn't? — and it had only been a few months since her death. Was he really the type to move on so quickly?
Or maybe it was a sign. A message from the great beyond. That she was okay now, that he was allowed to move on. It felt odd to think of a woman, a person, as if she were an omen, but it did make him feel a little better. Southern to the core, he supposed, if the religious view was the one that soothed him.
At the end of the day, his feelings remained. He still had an affection for the now-deceased Miss Holloway, maybe because her death was so sudden, so unexpected, so much so that he couldn't quite recall how it happened. But he also now harbored a blossoming affection for the mysterious Miss Holliday.
The next time he met her was at Hatchetfield High again. Naturally, she was there because she worked there. Duke had been concerned about the Foster girls disappearances, especially since they were a case Holloway had helped him with, but it was being looked into by police and officials, and there was nothing more he could do.
Instead, he was assigned to a new case, of a junior named Sophia Brandt. She had gone through some kind of head trauma that she and her father had refused to explain. She stopped attending school for a couple weeks with no warning, and then returned just as suddenly, but students and staff alike had reported that something was different about her. Once a feisty, fiery spirit, something seemed to have doused her flame.
It eventually made its way to Duke's desk, and as focused on work as he was, his heart skipped a beat when he saw that Miss Holliday was counseling the girl.
"It'll be nice to work with you," Holliday smiled and shook his hand. "It's been a while."
Figuring she meant "a while since we met," Duke nodded and had to fight back a blush. Had she thought about him, too? "Y-Yeah! I've heard great things. About you, and about Sophia. I hope I'll be able to help her."
"I'm sure you will," her smile grew soft, reassuring. Familiar. "You're great at what you do, and she's a sweet girl."
"Nice of you to have such confidence in me when you haven't even seen me at work."
Holliday laughed quickly and looked away. "Well, your reputation precedes you! Now come on, she's waiting."
Sophia had long, dark hair in dreads. Parts were dyed in streaks; mostly red and orange, but there were spots of blue. She looked exhausted. Her eyes were bloodshot, but the veins that were visible were not red, but a bright and brilliant blue, a stark contrast to her deep, brown eyes. She sat still, not fidgeting, not seeming nervous, but she shivered. Duke was one to wear heavy jackets, and it was almost December, but Holliday kept her office warm, and Sophia was wearing long sleeves. She didn't look cold.
"Heya, Sophia?" He kneeled in front of her, offering a hand and a kind smile. "My name's Duke. I work with families, mostly, and help where I can. I'd like to help you, if you'll let me."
The girl did not respond, or even show any sign of having heard him. He gently tapped her hand, and she flinched violently, sucking in a breath before nearly hyperventilating. Duke tried to help ground her, but she swatted him away.
"I'm fine!" She shouted. "It-It's fine! It's over! Leave me alone. I'm retired. I don't care how much money you give me. I won't do it." She blinked, hard, and caught her breath. The blue in her eyes seemed to have faded slightly. "...Hiya, Duke." She seemed to process what he had said, and shook her head. "...There's nothing you can help with."
"Well there's certainly something wrong," he argued.
"I didn't say there wasn't." Her voice was hoarse. "I said you couldn't help. Everyone's been trying, but there's nothing anyone can do…"
Her eyes started to glaze over again, and Duke snapped just outside her sphere of vision, causing her attention to flick over there before he started talking again. "Well, from what I hear, you haven't told anyone what happened in the first place. And in order to help you, I need to know. I promise you won't get in trouble, Sophia. I just have to know what happened, in as much detail as you can handle, alright?"
There were tear tracks on her cheeks, and something blue up her nose, and in the corners of her mouth. He can almost make out handprints on the sides of her face, as if ghostly hands were holding her there. She had begun to fiddle with her long sleeves, clearly tempted to roll them up because of the room's warm temperature, but was hesitant to do so. She was hiding something with them, and furthermore, she was fading again, her eyes glazing over and her movements halting.
Duke snapped outside her peripheral again. "Sophia, it'll be alright. Can you tell me what happened that week you went missing from school?"
She took a shaky breath. "We— I. I was… I got in a fight. And we won…? I lost. I lost. I never lose, I can't lose, we'll lose the house…"
Duke again offered his hand, moving to sit next to her. "If you need to collect your thoughts, it's okay. Take your time."
Sophia took his hand, holding it tight. Duke's gaze flicked up to Miss Holliday, sitting on her desk, watching intently, worriedly. She looked to a locked trunk set against the wall, then back to Sophia. She caught his eyes, and he broke away, trying to ignore that she looked like she'd been caught red-handed.
What was in the trunk? Would it help?
No, he reasoned. If it would, she'd have used it already.
"I got in a fight and I lost," Sophia croaked. "And then I don't remember. And then I came back to school."
His attention returned to her. "You don't remember?" She shook her head. "Alright. Then how about you tell me about the fight. Do you think you went to the hospital? Who was it with, where? Did your dad know about it?"
At mention of her father, Sophia took a sudden, sharp breath. "He loves me," she assured. "He loves me. He didn't want to say yes. I-I wanted to do it too. I wanted the money. I wanted the-the glory. Wanted to take down the champ…"
"So your dad did know about the fight?" She nodded. "He made you do it?"
"Sort of. Maybe. I don't… I don't remember."
"It's alright. Can you tell me about the fight itself? What kind of fight was it?"
Sophia thought for a moment, taking slow breaths. She seemed calmer here, and her hand grew warm, almost hot to the touch. "I did martial arts. And… firebending."
"Like in Avatar," her hand grew hotter. "I was the best, besides… him…" her head dropped, and Duke shook her hand a bit.
"Sophia? Are you alright?" She muttered something, but he couldn't hear. "Sophia?"
"Spitfire," she repeated, louder, more forceful. Her hand was so hot, Duke thought he was going to be burned. He reached with his other hand to feel her forehead, but she moved away, and let go of his hand.
"Surprised you haven't heard of me," she laughed, head swaying, eyes cloudy. "I'm the champ around here. Best of the best, cream of the crop. Didja see me beat that time bastard? Stopwatch? Tiny little guy. I could kick his ass without powers."
This more boisterous, confident personality seemed like a persona, but any thought Duke had about it was washed away at the mention of powers. He knew someone with powers, didn't he? He could've sworn he did. It was on the tip of his tongue.
Duke cleared his throat. "Powers?" He decided to go with it. Sophia didn't seem to be here right now, but Spitfire seemed a bit more willing to talk. "Is that the firebending you mentioned?"
"Yeah! It's pretty sick, but I can't do much out here." She cupped her hands, moving closer to Duke. He looked, and saw a small spark burn in the center. He could feel the heat, smell the smoke, and on instinct he jumped up. Sophia laughed, and clapped her hands, the fire disappearing. He took her hands to assess the damage, but found none. Her palms were unscarred.
He wanted to ask how, but somehow, he didn't feel afraid. He couldn't say he expected this, but it wasn't a surprise, not in the typical sense. Somehow, he felt like he knew this kind of thing was possible.
Who was it he knew that had powers? Was it the missing Foster girl, Hannah? She had strange nightmares a year or so ago, while her sister and Ethan were wrongfully imprisoned, and he and Miss Holloway had helped her. Something strange had happened, he knew it. He just couldn't remember. Pamela Foster had suddenly admitted to getting Lex to sell the drugs, the two teens were released and given legal custody of Hannah and moved into an apartment. Why the sudden change of heart?
Why couldn't he remember?
Miss Holliday cleared her throat, and put a hand on Duke's shoulder, ushering him to stand and back up. "Maybe this was a mistake."
It took a second to process. "What?"
"I asked for someone to be sent because I couldn't get through to her," she sighed. "You could, and I'm thankful, but I think that now we're getting into… something that you shouldn't get involved with."
Duke shook his head. "Miss Holliday, I appreciate that you decided to bring me in. But you can't send me away as easily. This is my case now, and I'm getting somewhere. I'd be glad for any assistance you may have, but I can't just leave. Nor do I want too."
"Duke," she sighed, voice firm. "This could be more serious than I thought. I don't want you getting involved." She met his eyes. "Don't make me force you out."
He was a solid half a foot taller than her, but if she was counting on him not fighting back, she was right. Something in his heart ached at her threat. "We should be on the same side here," he argued. "We both want to help Sophia. We both have our areas of expertise. We'll help her more together than we would on our own."
His plea caught her attention, and she stood still, staring, mouth a firm line. He stared back for a moment, mind too focused on the seriousness of the moment to get lost in her eyes, and then turned back to Sophia. She was blank again, like when he had first arrived.
He reached to touch her, like before, hoping that she wouldn't react too violently again, when Holliday caught his hand. "I can do it," she told him, "but you have to promise not to ask questions." She looked hesitant, conflicted. He wanted to know what she was thinking, but wasn't familiar enough with her to ask.
If only Holloway were here, he thought. She could help. He wasn't sure how, but he knew she was good with this stuff.
He gave her a nod and moved back, letting her do whatever it was she was going to do.
Holliday took a few deep breaths, keeping her eyes closed. Duke wanted to ask questions, but he bit his tongue, and watched closely. He didn't want either of them to get hurt.
After a few moments, Holliday hovered her hands over the sides of Sophia's face, perfectly aligned with the ghostly handprints he could almost see. She kept her eyes closed, whispering something, and when she opened them suddenly, so did Sophia's. When the girl took a deep breath, so did Holliday. It was like a funhouse mirror; they did the same actions, but had different appearances.
Holliday yanked her arms back and blinked, shaking her head. Sophia held her head in her hands, but seemed to be staying in the moment. Duke had no idea what happened, and wanted to ask, but he remembered his promise. Instead, he swallowed his nerves and looked between the two of them. "Are you alright? Both of you?"
Both of them nodded absentmindedly, thankfully out of sync. Sophia looked to Holliday, eyes the clearest they had been since Duke had come in. "What did you do? Is he gone?" Her voice was hopeful, but he could hear the tremble of fear.
"Well," Holliday moved her hair out of her face, subtly wiping sweat from her brow. "I've pushed him back. I don't know how long it will last, but I'll keep looking for a more permanent solution."
Sophia sat still for a moment before lunging forward and hugging Miss Holliday. The older woman gave a hesitant smile and reciprocated. Her eyes drifted up to Duke, still kneeling near them, watching with confusion but keeping his promise not to ask.
Was it just his imagination, or was there a sadness in her eyes when she looked at him? A distant familiarity? A yearning?
He held his hands in his lap and looked away, face reddening, lips twitching into a nervous smirk. Now was not the time for the speculation of a hopeless romantic.
After a minute, Sophia broke out of the hug and looked at Duke. She hugged him too, for a shorter period of time, and then stood. The adults stood with her, and she looked excitedly between them. There was that spark everyone told him about. There was still blue in her hair, her nose, the sides of her mouth, but the blue veins in her eyes had faded. The handprints had also faded, from nearly-nothing to just nothing.
"So, can I go now?" she asked.
Duke spared a glance at Holliday before clearing his throat. "I'm glad you're feeling better, but we still have some things to discuss. Especially now that you seem more, ah, present."
"We'll do it another day," Miss Holliday decided. "Go ahead back to class, Sophia."
The girl didn't wait to be told twice and slipped out of the room before Duke could stop her. He headed for the door to follow her, when he heard a melodic voice echoing in his ears.
"Duke," said Miss Holliday, tapping rhythmically, hypnotically on her desk. It froze him to the spot. "You do so much work as it is. Chasing down an athletic teenager sounds just exhausting."
Without thinking, he muttered, "Yeah, it does…"
"Why don't you come sit back here with me? Relax, destress. You can worry about it later."
He turned around, taking a step or two toward her desk, toward the chairs he and Sophia had just been in. His brow furrowed. "But—"
"She's alright," Holliday assured. "She's okay now. That's what matters, isn't it?"
"...Yeah," he sat down. "I s'pose so."
Holliday ceased her tapping and sat across from him. His eyes felt heavy, his body relaxed, his heart and mind not racing. Something in the back of his head screamed that this was strange, but Holliday's soothing, echoing voice was louder.
He blinked once, twice, three times, his head sinking lower each time. With a deep breath, he was asleep, and Miss Holliday held her head in her hands, watching him breathe peacefully for a moment. It was not the first time she had done this to him, though most of the other times were far more justified than this.
Part of her wanted to just tell him. Say that she had magic, that she would help him with kids if he ever needed, that she would go to lunch with him and pretend not to notice how head-over-heels he was, pretend that she didn't feel the same.
But she didn't know if he would remember if she told him. Her magic had been such a prominent part of Miss Holloway, and that life was erased now. Nothing about it could be recalled. Another log on the fire, burning to ash.
"Will we ever be as close as we were?" she asked the sleeping Duke. He didn't respond, of course. Holliday sighed, and reached across her desk to fix a strand of hair that had fallen out of place. "I miss you."
Part of her expected him to wake up then, to say he missed her too, to suddenly break the rules of her deal and remember everything, to confess his feelings and she'd confess hers and they'd live happily ever after.
But to hope was human, and Holliday really couldn't consider herself such anymore. Humans only died once, and they didn't come back.
How close had she been to losing Duke to the Killer Track that night? She didn't want to think about it. She just remembered his proud face as he told her about how he saved the day for once, instead of her.
Duke's breath hitched for a second, but he still didn't wake up. She wasn't letting him. She didn't want to deal with it all yet. She just wanted to relish being near him again for a little while longer.
"I love you," she whispered, not that it mattered. "I love your freckles, I love your scars. I love the way your mouth twitches when you're embarrassed. I love how much you care about everyone and everything. I love that you're a better person than I am, that you're more of a hero than I'll ever be. I love everything about you, Duke, and I miss you."
She felt the sting of tears in her eyes and blinked them away, not wanting him to notice anything was wrong when he woke up. Taking another moment to collect herself, she stopped her focus on the spell and let him rouse himself.
He looked up with bleary eyes and smiled softly. She couldn't help but return the look, for just a moment. Then, something must've made him realize he wasn't dreaming anymore, and he blinked awake, jumping up. Holliday laughed.
"It's alright, Mr. Keane. Sophia's back in class. We settled it, remember?" she baited him, hoping he'd take it and go along.
But she really should've known Duke better than that. He looked around the room before turning back to her, confused as always. "She didn't say what happened. She was going to, but then we lost her, and you brought her back, and she ran off." He looked to her, and the softness from moments earlier was replaced with a hard betrayal. "You're the one who called me here. Why would you try and stop me from helping her?"
"I did no such thing."
"You sent her off when I specifically said we weren't done," he argued, Southern drawl becoming more apparent. "Miss Holliday, you're a counselor, I'd trust you t'know that solvin' one problem doesn't mean solvin' 'em all. She was sayin' somethin' about fights, about her dad, about powers. There is clearly somethin' else here, and you sent her off."
Holliday bit her tongue. She hadn't been apart from him that long. She should've known better. Maybe she underestimated him because she'd never been on the receiving end of one of his lectures. It made her feel guilty, which was probably the point.
"I didn't want her getting overwhelmed."
Duke crossed his arms. "When she left, she was in the best condition she'd been in since I got here. And I mean no offense, but I am a professional, Miss Holliday. I know where the line is, and that was not it."
When she didn't come up with another excuse quick enough, he unfolded his arms, and his hard expression softened. "Were you tryin' to protect her?"
She raised an eyebrow. "How do you mean, Mr. Keane?"
"Whatever you did to her," he leaned his arms against the back of the chair, "that was somethin' magical, wasn't it? She had that little fire, and you had… whatever that was. Were you trying to protect her? Keep her powers secret?"
"If I was, I was a little late, don't you think?" She collected some papers from her desk, just to do something with her hands. "And I mean you no offense, but I think it's a bit of a stretch to say either me or Sophia have powers."
"How would you explain it then?"
"Hallucinations," she said. Her go-to. She looked up at Duke, a hundred-year-old lie on her tongue. "You seem a bit stressed, and hallucinations aren't uncommon for those going through stressful situations, however brief. And I didn't want to say it earlier, but I didn't see any fire."
Duke's gaze fell from her to her desk, face darkening. He rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. "Maybe. Maybe. God, I'm sorry, Miss Holliday, I… I don't know. It's been a strange couple months."
Her heart ached. She wanted to hold him, to reassure him, to tell him the damn truth. She kept her mouth shut.
He put his hands in his pockets, looking away from her. "I know it's strange to say, but you remind me of a friend of mine, I think I said as much when we first met."
"The one who died?" She wanted to throw up.
He nodded. "Yeah. It was just this past summer. I know it's not right to compare people, but sometimes you just… see a similarity, you know?"
She knew very well.
"And then the Foster girls went missing," he sighed, "and now this. So, uh. Heh. I guess you're right, about stress."
She blinked. He was looking at her again. She quickly smiled and hoped it wasn't too awkward. "You should get some rest, then. Take some time off."
"I don't know if I could do that."
"I'm sure the kids will be alright without you for a day," she assured, but her word choice made her envision a family. Her, Duke, a child or two. A cat. She knew he had one. Holly was a sweetheart. She yearned for the family that didn't, couldn't exist.
"I don't even know what I'd do with a day off," he joked, unaware of her internal battle.
He paused, glancing at her for a moment before he turned pink, his lips twitching in that way she loved. She knew what he would say next, and it just made her more nauseous. Her head spun because she knew that she wouldn't say no. As much as she should, she wouldn't say no.
"You're new to Hatchetfield, right?" he asked.
She could give him a different answer. She had told everyone she worked with now as much, hell she might've told him and forgotten, but she could break her backstory and lie. She could tell him the real truth and say she'd been in Hatchetfield longer than he could dream of.
"Yes," she said, heart pounding despite herself.
His sweet, shy smile grew, but he still avoided looking at her. Eye contact didn't make him nervous, but she knew that he'd psyche himself out if he looked at her too long. He overthought things easily.
"Maybe I could show you around town," he offered, just as she knew he would. "Day off or no, I've lived here for a good while. I'd be glad to be your tour guide," he chuckled at his own joke, finally looking at her again, expression nervous, but hopeful.
If he hadn't looked at her, maybe she could've said no. Said that she had already explored herself, or that she was busy, or that she just wasn't interested.
Instead, she gave him a genuine smile, his hope reflecting in her eyes. "It's a date."
Her head and stomach spun. What was she thinking? She couldn't do this again. She could barely do it last time. Duke was just so good, he didn't deserve to be wrapped up in all this. She could try and keep him and her magic separate, but she knew it was a fruitless endeavor. This was Hatchetfield, and Duke not only worked with strange kids, but he liked true crime. There was no way that he wouldn't eventually find out. Just like last time. She should just stop it while they were ahead.
But then she looked at Duke's flustered expression of hope and joy, his so-familiar smile, his soft freckles dancing on reddened cheeks, the smile lines by his eyes and the corners of his mouth, the sparkle of life and passion in his dark eyes, and she knew that there was no fighting. She would do it again, and again. She'd stay with him as long as she possibly could, through as many lives as it took her. And maybe one of them would even have a happy ending someday. She still wasn't convinced that he didn't have powers of his own, with how magnetic he was.
The lunch bell rang and snapped them out of their heart-eyed staring. Duke checked his watch and whistled at the time. "I've gotta get going. But I'll be back soon to talk with Sophia more. And," he grinned, "I'll reach out about that tour."
She grinned right back, resting her chin on the backs of her hands. "I'll be looking forward to it."
He headed out the door, and when he turned around to close it and give a last goodbye, Holliday waved. "Bye-a, Duke."
He looked at her with surprise for a moment, blush creeping up his neck, before returning her wave with an ever-sweet smile. "Bye-a, darlin'."
He shut the door, and Holliday held her face in her hands. Darlin'. Oh, how she'd missed the term.
Outside her office, Duke hurried back out through the front office, saying goodbyes along the way, and returned to his car. Only then, when he was sure no one was around, did he do just the same, holding his red-hot face in his hands, cursing himself for pulling the darlin' card so soon. He didn't even think about it — it was instinctual. It just felt right.
It's a date, she had said. He smiled dumbly to himself and hoped it wasn't just a turn of phrase.