"To Love That Well"
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
"It was a hoax, Nat."
"It was a hoax. The world isn't going to end."
Impossible to assimilate the thought at first. The room, which had been whirling about us, teetered to a stop. I blinked up at Nick, stupidly, through an alcohol-and-adrenaline haze. "No?"
"No." He smiled, fleetingly, then pinned me against him. His arms were immovable, his body a solid block of stone. I could barely breathe. My name thundered through his chest as he sighed, deeply. "Natalie..."
It was one of the few times, in all the years I've known him, that he's ever been anything less than restrained about touching me. He treats me as though I'm made of glass, and so I forget, sometimes, how powerful he really is. Not that I needed to be reminded of it just then. All I had to do was look at the remains of my bedroom--and those of my would-be vampire master.
Nick came to himself and loosened his hold somewhat, but I clung to him. The world seemed to dip and spin as I gulped shallow breaths of air, but he remained stable, and I held on for all I was worth. He kissed the top of my head, one hand stroking my hair, the other caressing my neck--never touching the same spot twice, almost probing. It was an odd gesture, and it took me a moment to realize what he was doing: checking to see whether I'd been bitten.
I was pretty sure I hadn't been... although it had all happened so quickly--
"You're safe now," he whispered finally, and I could feel him relax ever so slightly. Guess he'd determined I was okay. "I've got you, Nat. You're safe with me."
God, how I wanted to believe that.
I buried my face in the lapel of his coat, breathing deeply now. Amid the varied scents of cologne and cigarette smoke, I detected just a hint of expensive perfume. Her perfume. Not only had I acted like an idiot with Nick, begging him to bring me across, but I'd humiliated myself on Janette's home turf. Brilliant.
He led me into the living room, closing the bedroom door behind us. I was too numb at this point to be very upset about the fact that my room now qualified for federal disaster aid. The world wasn't going to end. I was going to have to live, to face the choices I had made. As we walked, he delineated what had happened: the asteroid was nothing but a scam, so that Marybeth Ellis and her husband could make a fortune when the markets all collapsed. I didn't respond. I don't think either of us expected me to; he kept talking, softly, reassuringly.
"Here we are," he said, guiding me to the couch. "You sit here..." He shrugged out of his coat, and draped it over a nearby chair--letting me know he was here to stay, at least for the moment. Then he knelt in front of me, and for one crazy second I thought of asking him if he was about to propose. He placed both hands on my knees, gazing intently up at me. I couldn't really read his expression. He didn't seem angry with me. Which was fine, since I was angry enough with myself to make up the deficiency. "How are you feeling?"
I was shivering, and my teeth chattered when I tried to talk. I closed my eyes a moment, trying to ease the pounding behind them. "My head hurts," I confessed. "And I'm cold."
He took the afghan from the corner of the couch, shook it out, and laid it over my lap, tucking the ends around me. "You just sit here, Nat. I'll make you some tea. It'll warm you up." He clasped my chilled hands in his own--not that his were any warmer, but the gesture was a comforting one.
Sidney, mewling plaintively, leapt up beside me on the couch. I can only imagine what he thought of all the ruckus in the bedroom. He sniffed my hand delicately, then began rubbing anxiously against my hip. I stroked him absently.
"I'm going to pack you a bag," Nick continued, "and I'm taking you to my place."
"No?" he echoed.
"Nick, I want to be here. I can sleep on the couch, it's fine. Besides, Sid needs me. I think this whole thing really upset him. You can leave if you want, though," I added, even though that was the last thing in the world I wanted at this moment.
"I thought you might want some company, after everything that's happened. But if you'd rather I didn't stay..."
"Sidney's here," I iterated. Hearing his name, the cat oozed his way onto my lap. "See? He'll protect me."
Nick smiled. "Well. It looks like you don't need me, then." He took a step away from me. "Listen, about the bedroom... I'll pay for any damages. And I'll take care of the mess." Whether he meant the mess from the fight, or the dead vampire in the other room, wasn't made clear. Presumably both. He reached for his coat.
"So--so you're leaving?" I couldn't quite keep my voice from trembling.
He was back beside me instantly. "Not if you don't want me to."
"I...." I looked up at him, feeling the tears fill my eyes. I blinked them away before they could escape. "I don't even know what I want anymore."
"Well... why don't we start with the tea, and go from there?"
He went into the kitchen and plugged in the kettle, then slid into my bathroom, emerging with the wastebasket. He placed it at my feet. Great. So he knew I'd had a lot to drink--hell, he could probably smell it on me from across the room. "Let me know if you need anything."
"Is it all right if I make a few phone calls?" he asked.
I nodded dumbly. He touched my cheek, just for a moment, then took the cordless phone and went away again.
While he talked to Schanke, he wandered around in the kitchen, getting things out of cupboards and drawers. I was surprised Nick knew where to find everything, but I guess he'd seen me do it enough times. My occasional glimpses of him were oddly reassuring: back and forth, cup or spoon in hand, phone tucked in the crook of his shoulder. Domestic, almost. The tame household vampire. His end of the conversation consisted entirely of banter and small talk about the case, but I could hear the affection in his voice. Astounding, when you consider that a couple of years ago they couldn't stand the sight of each other. Their problem is that they're more alike in some ways than either of them want to admit: intuitive, stubbornly protective, occasionally self-absorbed...
"I talked to Nat," he was telling his partner. "Yeah. She's going to be fine, don't worry. Of course I'm sure."
Well, at least one of us was sure.
"No, she was just tense. We all were. Yeah, I'm going to. Mm. Right." Schanke must have gotten home to quite a reception, because I heard Nick say, "Hi, Myra... you're what? Hiding his cell phone? Okay, take care. Good night."
He called Janette next. He didn't address her by name--just a simple, "It's me"--but I knew. He confirmed it a moment later with, "I found her. She's all right." Of course. Janette had told him what I was up to, as though I were a child in his care--which I suppose, comparatively, I was.
I shocked him, I think. Sometimes I get the impression that Nick has cast me, in his own private melodrama, as the vestal virgin, all innocence and light. His saviour, his conscience. His key to mortality. Every time I turn out to be human and fallible it just screws up his whole system of values... but that assessment isn't exactly fair to him. I think he expected me to be the one person who didn't want his dark gift; before tonight, I would have agreed wholeheartedly. If anything, I scared myself even more than I scared Nick.
When I'd gone to the Raven, my original plan had been to have a drink (or several) to fortify myself, and wait for Nick to turn up, as he undoubtedly would. He would take me home, and I would shamelessly seduce him into giving me what I wanted. It wasn't the most brilliant scheme in the world, but I wasn't exactly feeling rational. And it ended up backfiring in ways I hadn't even considered. Somewhere around the third drink, I decided, hey, to hell with Nick. I was sitting in a room full of vampires who would be more than willing to drain me dry, why was I waiting around for him so I could beg and plead and suffer the humiliation of being turned down again? If he didn't want me, there were surely lots of others who did.
Then a pale man with dark hair had approached me, asked if I'd like a drink. "Not as much as you would, I'm sure," I replied, and smiled. He offered me a cigarette, and then a light. He never told me his name.
I quit smoking when I first started working with Nick--out of sympathy, I suppose. He was trying to kick his nasty habit, the least I could do was kick mine. But when you believe it's your last night on earth as a mortal, and you're three sheets to the wind anyhow, your willpower tends to slip a little.
I could still smell the smoke on my clothes, in my hair. Just another reminder of how badly I'd almost screwed up.
"He's gone," Nick was saying into the phone. "I'll take care of it." He laughed, softly. "Thank you." He murmured something, in a language I didn't recognize and a tone he'd never used with me, and hung up.
"Who was that?" I asked.
"Janette," he replied, more candidly than I'd expected. "She called me earlier." He exited to attend to the boiling kettle, and I tucked my feet up under me and tried not to think about what lay in the other room. On my bed. Nick was so incredibly, incongruously calm--but then again, why shouldn't he be? He was a mythical, immortal being. An asteroid scare and a cage match with another vampire, all in the same evening, probably barely even registered as a blip on his radar.
Nick returned, placing a steaming mug into my hands. I savoured its warmth a moment before noting the clear brown colour of the liquid.
"I made it with lemon instead of milk," he explained, anticipating my question. "That's how I learned."
"Oh." I took a tentative sip. It was too hot to taste anything, but it certainly smelled good.
"There's cinnamon in there too. Just a little."
I took another sip. It was different, but not necessarily bad. "Who taught you that?"
"I learned when I was in India. On a samovar, actually."
As usual, he didn't answer the question.
"When were you in India?"
"A hundred years ago, give or take. I was visiting friends. I can make chai, too."
"I've never had it." About ten percent of my attention was concentrated on what he was telling me now. Another five percent idly wondered if Janette had been with him in India.
"I'll make it for you some other time. I hear it's very good."
"Okay." I felt the muscles in my face tighten up, and steeled myself against tears. I was not going to start crying. Maybe after he left, but not yet. Ordinarily, so much solicitude from him would have been everything in the world I needed. But not just then.
"Is there anything else I can do, Nat?"
"Nick, it's just--I can't..." I placed the mug on the table. "I can't handle this."
"I can make it with milk if you like." He leaned down to take the mug away, and I snatched it back up. He was being deliberately thick, damn him. "I just thought this might be--"
"I don't care about the tea, Nick! Fuck the tea, okay?"
I don't think I'd ever spoken so forcefully to him--not even when he turned me down. He watched me, silently, his expression curiously blank.
"Sorry," I muttered sullenly, slamming the mug down on the end table.
"Natalie," he said, carefully, "tell me what you need from me."
"Why? So you can not give it to me?"
I could see the hurt on his face now, in a way I hadn't in the morgue. A second later, it was gone, the implacable mask firmly in place once more. "Do you want me to admit that I would have relented?" he asked. "That I would have changed my mind eventually? I wouldn't have, Natalie. I'm sorry."
"But you would have done it for Janette," I replied, almost conversationally, with just a bare hint of accusation to my tone. "Are you going to her tonight? Is that what you told her on the phone, in whatever the hell language that was--'I'll be over as soon as I can ditch the mortal'?" I was being needlessly, wantonly hurtful now, and to my surprise, it actually felt good. It was a release. It was like I was watching myself from above, with no control over anything I said or did. I was filled with guilt and terror at the thought of what I had almost done, and yet I was behaving like a child for no other reason than because I was angry at myself, and found it easier, and more satisfying, to be angry at Nick. And the more rudely I behaved, the angrier I got. It was completely irrational and self-perpetuating. And I couldn't stop.
Nick looked at me as though I were someone he'd never seen before, an entirely new person who showed up looking and sounding exactly like Natalie Lambert, but saying some very strange things. "What is wrong with you?" he demanded, in the dangerously soft voice that was almost worse than a shout.
"What's wrong with me?!" I yelled. I stood up, dumping Sidney onto the floor--not that it gave me much of an advantage, since I still had to look up at Nick to yell. "You thought the world was going to end and you decided to let me die--even though it wasn't my choice! Who the hell gave you the right to make that decision for me? What about what I wanted, huh? I asked you--as a friend, my best friend--to help me, to save my life, and you turned me away. Do you have any idea how much that hurt me?"
"You think that was easy for me?! Natalie--"
He took my hand, but I jerked it away.
"Don't touch me." Less coherently, I added, "You--you always do that." I swiped at my face with my sleeve, wiping away tears; what was left of my makeup was probably all over my cheeks. Not that it mattered now, of course.
Nick reached out to hold me, then, apparently not sure whether to follow instinct or obey my previous injunction, hung back.
"You wouldn't have wanted it," he said, softly.
"How do you know what I wanted? I wanted to live!" I shouted, my voice hoarse from smoke and crying. "Goddammit, Nick... I wanted to live."
For the first time, he let his disappointment in me show on his face. "Nat, this..." he gestured to himself, not quite looking me in the eye, "this isn't living. And as much--"
"How is it worse than being incinerated--or freezing to death--or--or--"
"As much as I would hate it," he continued steadily, as though I hadn't spoken, "and as much as it would pain me, I've reconciled myself to the fact that I would rather see your body die, and you go on to... whatever follows... than condemn your soul to this darkness for eternity." Suddenly vehement, he exclaimed, "I care about you too much to allow that to happen, Nat! Can't you understand that?"
I gaped at him, trying to assimilate his admission. Not that he cared about me--I knew that--but that he had considered this. Considered bringing me across. He'd thought about it long enough to have a definite stance on the matter--to reconcile himself to losing me--before I'd ever brought it up. I had no idea how to take that.
"Whatever follows?" I echoed. My head was swimming, and it wasn't just the wine I'd drunk earlier.
"I don't presume to know what God's plan is, Natalie. For you, or for anyone else. But I won't interfere." Jaw set, expression grim, he declared, "I won't drag you down with me."
In one of those random-synapse-firing moments, I flashed on a quote from Shakespeare: I would not kill thy unprepared spirit; no, heaven forfend! I would not kill thy soul.*
"But, Nick, I thought... I th-I thought--" I thought you'd want us to be together, I wanted to say, but the words wouldn't come out. I thought you'd want us to be together, no matter what the cost. Because that's what I thought I wanted, too. "I guess I just thought... things... with us... would be different."
I dropped my gaze. "I'm really tired," I told one of his shirt buttons. I wanted him to somehow make things between us go back to the way they had been before I wrecked everything--not that that was perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it had to be better than the way I was feeling now. "I've been through a lot tonight, and I'd really--I'd just like to get some sleep, if that's okay."
"Okay." He pulled me close for a hug, kissed me on the top of the head, then released me. I sank down onto the couch, and Nick went into my bedroom. He was in and out for a while--I didn't bother to look over my shoulder, since I had a pretty good idea of what he was doing. At one point, I saw him get a garbage bag from the kitchen, and I'm certain I heard him leave by the window at least once. When I heard him run the vacuum, I thought I might lose it completely. Just crack up, lose touch with reality, and spend the rest of my days on some psych ward, rambling about vampires and asteroids and the end of the world.
Eventually, he came out into the living room with two pillows under his arm, and handed them to me wordlessly. He shook out the afghan, and draped it across me once I'd settled into the couch. He closed all the curtains tightly, meticulously. Then he sat down in the armchair--half-way across the room--and, without even saying good night, flicked off the lamp.
In the sudden silence, I could hear faraway sirens, as the city tried desperately to pull itself back together in the wake of disaster. Fat chance, I thought. There are some things that just can't be repaired. As my eyes began to adjust, I could make out Nick's still form: feet on the coffee table, hands crossed over his chest, head thrown back. Immovable. Untouchable. Farther away than he'd ever been.
Without warning, I burst into tears. Not just burst--exploded, crying so hard it physically hurt. I sat up and sobbed, wrapping both arms around myself to still the shudders working their way through my body.
Nick was beside me in a second, his arms enveloping me. For the second time in less than an hour. Under any other circumstances, I'd have been pinching myself. He managed to warm me with his embrace, even though he hadn't any warmth to spare. It was wonderful to be held and comforted by him, to not have to worry about the end of the world, to cry until I was all cried out.
"It's okay," he whispered into my hair. "It's okay." Nothing could have been further from the truth, and I think we both knew it, but I wanted to believe him so badly that it seemed possible, if only for an instant.
"Shh, now." I felt him shift, and pull me closer, until I was cradled in his lap, my head against his shoulder. "I'm here." This was a new closeness, the kind I'd craved for so long. He was there, really there, his sleeve still damp with my tears, his body solid under my questing hands. The immense strength that had always formed a barrier between us became my comfort, my refuge.
"Nick, I l--"
If I'd had the courage to speak the words, it was a moment that could have changed everything. But I'd had enough of those for one night. I fell silent.
He surprised me again: "I know."
Impulsively, I kissed his mouth, finding it only slightly colder than my own. He returned the kiss, unexpectedly gentle, but broke away before it had a chance to deepen.
"Sleep, Nat," he told me softly.
He was gone when I woke. Slipped away in the night, without even saying goodbye. And so I lay there on the couch, in the soft grey light of dawn, alone. Pondering.
After I'd been assaulted by Roger Jamison, Nick had spent the day with me, more than once. We'd curl up on my couch, sitting close--not too close, I was still skittish at that point--and watch hokey old black-and-white movies on my little TV. Screwball comedies, nothing jarring. He'd make me microwave popcorn, and go out for anything I needed. If I cried occasionally, neither of us made any overt acknowledgement of the fact. Tucked under a comforter, I'd drift off to sleep. Usually with my feet in his lap. I knew that when I woke up, he'd be there.
Now, he couldn't even stay until the sun came up. Things had already changed that much. He would be different now, formal, distant; I'd be needy, awkward, ashamed. The easy cameraderie between us, gone. I know, he'd said. That isn't the same thing as saying it back. Not even close.
At the lab, I could have coerced him to bring me across--I'd done it with Richard. I could have used all the tools of emotional blackmail at my disposal, all those things that had since lay unspoken, that I'd sworn never to throw in Nick's face again. But I backed off, for the same reason I tried to get out of it later, with the other one. The truth is, Nick was right. I don't want to be a vampire. Under any circumstances. Seeing Nick's daily struggle to win out over what is, essentially, his nature, has long since cured me of what few aspirations to immortality that I might have had when we started.
I wasn't terrified of death that night; just of losing Nick before we'd had a chance to be together. When he turned me down, it was the ultimate rejection. I was willing to give my life, maybe even my soul, for the chance to stay with him a little longer, and he was basically saying, no thanks. But in the end--especially the way things turned out--I would have resented him for it. Hated him. And I would have hated myself for letting him do that to me.
He was right not to bring me across, I realized. He was right.
The world wasn't going to end. But for me, in some ways, it already had.
*Othello, Act V, sc. i.