Nicole couldn't deny that she had something of an erratic career history.
At one end of the spectrum, she'd been a porn star. Of course, she'd been a teenager and her father had drugged her and forced her— but everyone she knew treated that part of Nicole's past as easy evidence of the depravity of her character, and Nicole had long since decided that she might as well do so herself.
At the other end of the spectrum, she'd done secretarial work in a church. Of course, she'd fallen in love with the priest, which she was pretty sure was worse than porn in some circles of the world.
Somewhere in the middle, she'd been a waitress and a model and a businesswoman and a political operative and, most contentedly, a television journalist— although her position as a journalist didn't mean she always knew the news first. Sometimes Frowny Face's little boy Shawn-Douglas came running up to her with messages that she was going to ignore.
For all the things she'd done, though, at least she'd never run away and joined the circus.
She glared at the stage in front of her. She couldn't believe that circuses were even allowed in Salem after the infamous incident with Horton the Tiger. Since circuses were going to be allowed in Salem, though, she didn't see why she was the one who had to cover them. Most of all, she didn't understand why she had to sit through a performance in order to do the story. The story needed some video footage (not her job) and some interviews (her job, but something she could do without watching the mess herself). There was no need for her personal review, and if there was she knew ahead of time that her personal review would go something like it sucked.
The clowns ran up and down the aisles as the audience filed in. She watched them cover a man with a blanket and tug a sleeping cap over his head. The audience laughed. The man had no choice about becoming a part of the performance.
Clowns weren't funny. Clowns were bullies. Her father had probably liked clowns.
She yawned her way through the ringmaster's exhortations and the clowns' antics. She was tired. She was always tired anymore, but she rarely sat still long enough to rest. Sitting still led to thinking, and thinking never led to anything positive.
Meanwhile, two nearly identical men wrapped in one shirt strode onto the stage. Conjoined twins? Nicole wondered. If we're going to have a good old fashioned freak show, they'll probably call me up on the stage. It suddenly made sense that her boss had insisted that she actually watch the performance.
The men divested themselves of their shirt and jumped to opposite ends of the stage. Not conjoined, then, but probably twins and certainly brothers. Circuses were often a family affair, after all. They were handsome, both of them, with light eyes and golden skin and muscular bodies. There was finally something interesting to look at.
Nicole's romantic history was as eclectic as her employment history. She had been with men she liked and with men she hated. She had married for money and she had married for love. She had had men who were of no use to her beyond their warm bodies; she had had men to whom she had offered her soul on a silver platter. She had been with some very, very bad men and some very, very good ones.
She had even been in love with a pair of brothers. But not at the same time. Even she wasn't quite that much of a tacky cliche.
Her stomach turned uncomfortably as the men on the stage reached for the silken cords that had descended from the top of the tent and pulled themselves up, hand over hand, just high enough that they would surely break their necks if they fell.
Her chest tightened and she dropped all pretense of half-hearted ogling.
God, she screamed inside her head, because she often spoke to the god she didn't believe in, let them get through this and I won't think anything nasty about clowns for the rest of the day.
The brothers flipped themselves upside down. They whipped themselves in circles with such speed that Nicole could no longer tell who was who. They twisted themselves into pretzels, a mid-air contortionist act. They grabbed each other's hands, then pushed each other away.
They jumped, each with full faith that his brother would catch him.
Eric would never have let Brady fall.
Not that Nicole ever thought about Eric anymore. As far as she was concerned, her best friend Brady didn't have a brother.
The more daring aerialist was Brady, she was sure of that. His moves were more powerful, his swings higher, his risks greater, his face less detached. That was Brady, her friend who threw his heart at everything and everyone without letting his brain catch up. That was Brady, her friend with his fleeting impulses and his addictions and his stubbornness.
The other aerialist was sleeker. It was harder to see what he was thinking and feeling. He was the one who was keeping them both safe. He wanted to take care of everyone else. When he climbed higher, higher, wrapping the cord around himself, she didn't worry that—
The cord unraveled.
The aerialist plummeted to the floor.
Nicole heard the scream before she realized that it had come from her own throat, and certainly before she realized that it was Eric's name that she'd called.
Her cry was lost amidst the thunderous roar of applause. It was a trick. He'd caught himself with inches to spare as the last bit of cord unraveled.
He and his brother took their bows.
The audience cheered.
Nicole cheered, too, to hide the tears that were falling down her cheeks.
Two hours later, Nicole banged on Brady's door. She slapped a souvenir gift bag emblazoned with the circus logo against his chest and shoved past him into the hallway.
"I had to go to the circus for work," she explained. "I thought Tate might like that." The bag contained an egregiously overpriced t-shirt that was, she had to admit, quite cute.
"Where is he?" demanded Nicole, her voice raw and shaky.
"Tate? He's with his grandparents."
"Eric. Where is Eric?" She didn't scream, this time, but his name still hurt her throat.
Brady pinched his lips together rather than answer right away, but to Nicole, that was an answer. "He's here, isn't he?" she whispered. Eric had breathed this air. Eric had stared at these walls. Eric might have drunk from the glass of water that sat abandoned on a bookshelf. Eric might be able to hear her right now.
"He's my brother, Nicole," said Brady.
"Believe me, I'm well aware of that. Excruciatingly well aware of that." She almost told Brady right then and there about the aerialists. Brady understood how her mind worked and he probably wouldn't laugh.
But Brady wasn't the one she had come to see.
"I know Shawn told you, but I should have talked to you myself," Brady apologized. "Things got crazy, but that's no excuse. You deserved to hear it from me."
She waved him off. "I could have called you when Shawn told me. I didn't." She hadn't wanted to think about the news of Eric's release any more than she had wanted to think about anything else involving Eric. Then, Eric had been an idea. Now, Eric was present and heartbeats away. "It hasn't even been six months," she blurted out.
"He hasn't technically been released," said Brady. "House arrest, then probation."
"That's why you bought this place." Nicole looked around the living room with fresh eyes. Brady had never been the type to crave privacy or assert his independence with his own space. He'd always been perfectly happy to live with his parents or his grandfather. His official reason for his sudden interest in home ownership had been Tate, but Tate had wanted for nothing at the Kiriakis Mansion. No, Brady had bought this house because Victor wouldn't have allowed Eric under his roof.
"Yeah," said Brady. "But if Eric asks, it's all about Tate."
"I can see him, then?"
"That's up to him," said Brady firmly. "Wait here."
Nicole was about to follow on Brady's heels anyway, but Brady whirled around and pointed at her to stop before she could begin. She rocked back on her toes in frustration and listened to Brady's retreating footsteps.
It took an eternity for Brady to return even though the digital clock on the DVR didn't so much change from 6:00 to 6:01.
"Go ahead," said Brady. "Up the stairs, second door on the left."
A wave of numbness enveloped Nicole when she saw him sitting at his desk. She didn't want to slap him or hug him or shout at him or burst into tears. Or perhaps she wanted to do all of those things.
"Hello, Eric," she said.
His voice made him viciously real, alive where others were dead, a streak of warmth in a cold, colorless room. The only decoration on the wall was a cross.
At least it wasn't a fucking elephant.
"Is that actually a cross made out of matchsticks?" she asked. She'd been to prison herself thanks to some circumstances involving well-intentioned baby-switching, but she had gone to prison in the twenty-first century. Eric apparently had not.
"It was a gift. It was made for me by one of the other inmates. I helped with his counseling."
"You counseled the other inmates in prison," she said flatly.
"Well, I do have some training. A lot of training, and most of the staff at the prison is so well-meaning but of course they never have enough people to do everything they want, and I helped where I could. It's all I can do. I can't bring Daniel back. But I can be kind to the people who are still here."
"It was good behavior, then? You were warden's little helper and they let you go?"
"Good behavior, good attorney, overcrowded prison, admission of guilt and demonstration of contrition. They don't think I'm a threat to society." Suddenly his eyes flashed liquid and vulnerable. "I'm not a threat to society, Nicole."
She felt herself go weak in the knees, but there was nowhere to sit other than the bed and she just wasn't going to sit on Eric Brady's bed.
He noticed, of course. Eric had a photographer's eye and he noticed things. He hastily pushed back his chair and guided her to it.
Her shoulders burned where his hands had touched them. The chair was warm with the heat from his body.
"I know that," she said, when he'd sat on the bed himself, almost eye to eye with her. "I know you're not a threat to society."
"You also want to see me punished."
She shrugged. "Punishment and prison aren't the same thing."
"No," he agreed quietly, "they aren't."
"Did they hurt you there?" she couldn't help asking. "Like, beatings or— I just never thought of you as the kind of person who would do well in prison."
"Neither did I," he said even more quietly. "When they put me on the bus and chained me to the floor, I was afraid. But I was raised by a cop, and I do know how to fight if I have to. The prison wasn't a maximum security place, and you'd be surprised how much deference a former priest gets. Even a disgraced, defrocked former priest."
"And that's my fault, right?" she snapped, anger unexpectedly starting to overtake numbness. "I'm the reason you couldn't go back to the priesthood. You couldn't forgive me for panicking and shredding those documents, and so you couldn't be a priest."
"No! No, Nicole. I told you— when Xander locked us in the furnace room, I told you— it was about my feelings for you, but not the bad feelings. I'm sorry, Nicole. I'm sorry I wasn't more understanding when you shredded those papers. I'm sorry I blamed you when it was my own decision not to go back to the priesthood. I'm sorry I didn't tell you every day that I loved you and that you didn't ever have to feel insecure. But none of that even comes close to how sorry I am that because of me, you don't have the man who did appreciate you and who did make you feel the way you deserve to feel."
He'd said it all before. It wasn't as if she'd forgotten the horrible day in the furnace room or the even worse day in the hospital after Daniel's death.
He'd said it before and she'd told him that he was beyond forgiveness, the way he had told her that she could never be forgiven.
"How did you get here from there?" she asked. It was strange to ask Eric how she should go about forgiving Eric, and whether she should forgive Eric at all, but Eric was the only one with whom she had ever had this kind of discussion. Both Brady and Daniel trafficked more in conclusions and platitudes than the depths of how to get to right when you felt wrong. "How did you go from not being able to stand the sight of me to telling me that you loved me and you were sorry that you hurt me?"
The kindness on his face made her remember what a very good priest he had been. She didn't doubt that he had been a fine unofficial counselor in prison, too.
"I had to accept responsibility. Not just that I was the one who didn't want to be a priest anymore and I couldn't blame you, but for the way I had you on a pedestal," said Eric.
Nicole almost laughed. No human being had ever put her on a pedestal.
"I did," Eric insisted. "You were my first love. You were my first love when I was a teenager and then you were the one who made me doubt my commitment to the Church. You always changed the way I saw the world. I wanted to be the person you saw when you looked at me. If anyone else hurt me— even someone I loved, like my brother— I could accept it and forgive him. But you had a power over me that no one else ever had. I used to talk about love to a whole congregation, but it scared me when I felt a… certain kind of love myself."
"I am not the only person you ever loved," said Nicole firmly.
"For comparison, how many weddings has my twin sister had?"
Nicole opened her mouth to explain that no one should ever feel inferior for not changing spouses like socks the way Sami did.
"Nicole," said Eric, and she shut her mouth, just like old times. Even sitting here, wearing an ankle monitor and begging for her forgiveness, he didn't take criticism of his twin.
"I didn't say anything," she said.
He didn't smile. Once, he would have smiled.
She didn't want him to smile.
She wasn't sure whether she wanted him to smile.
"I admire you, Nicole," he continued. "I always have, for so many reasons, but one of the things I admire most is the way you reinvent yourself. The last I heard, you were starting your own business, but now it's back to TV journalism?"
Nicole decided that it wasn't the time to explain the latest drama that had led to that particular change. She just nodded.
"I never felt right doing that. I didn't have the courage to do that. If we're talking vocation, it was photography, then priesthood. If we're talking personal life, it was you and no one else ever came close."
A small part of her wanted to ask about Serena, but she decided that this wasn't the time for that discussion, either.
"When my life started changing faster than I could handle it, I didn't blame myself for not being able to handle it. I blamed you. It took me time to accept that, and when I did… well, it was too late for us and I'll always regret that. But you asked how I got around to forgiving you. That's how. It was accepting that I was never that angry at you. I was angry at me. That probably doesn't help much, not if you're talking about how you feel about me, now. I really did do something. I killed the man you loved."
"I did shred those papers," Nicole said.
"But you were able to make amends. That's not something I can do. At least, not in the way that you did."
"No," she said. She let herself sink deeper into the desk chair. She must have been silent for a long time, because Eric slipped off the bed and knelt before her.
"Nicole?" he asked. "Can I get you anything? Want Brady to take you home? Is this too much for you?"
She shook her head, suddenly unable to find her voice.
"Do you want to hit me?" he offered.
She laughed humorlessly. She could throw a good punch, but punched wasn't the same as dead.
She didn't want to hit Eric.
"You're more right than you think you are," she said after another moment. She traced her hand down his face. He shivered but he didn't move. "I am angry at myself."
"Why? You didn't do anything wrong."
"I went to Daniel in the first place because I couldn't have you. When you started apologizing, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed having you be the one who wanted me and couldn't have me because it was always the other way around. I was worried when you started problem drinking, but I even enjoyed that a little bit too. Don't get me wrong, I loved him. I wanted to marry him. But there was something poisonous about it all along. It's not why he died, not directly, but I loved that you loved me and I loved that you were jealous right up until the end. And I hate myself for that."
Eric started to object, but Nicole ignored him.
"I hate how much I care for you. Is it a betrayal of Daniel that I want to say 'yes, Eric, I forgive you?' That I want to tell you that I know how many stupid things I've done in my life that could have gotten someone killed and didn't because of dumb luck? That I know how much pain I've caused on purpose and I have no business sitting in judgment of you for something you did by accident that you're going to regret for the rest of your life? Am I being unfair to Daniel's memory because I'm glad to see you in one piece? I was his fiancee. Is it all right for me to say that I want you to have another chance to live when he doesn't get one? I'm not looking for an answer from you. I know you can't answer. I know that if you were talking to anyone else, you'd start quoting about seventy times seven and forgive and you will be forgiven. Conveniently leaving out the eye for an eye part. And God confused me enough today with the circus, so I really don't want to hear anything else from that department at the moment."
For the first time, Eric almost looked as if he might smile. "God confused you with a circus?"
"Yes," said Nicole. "I ended up promising not to think bad thoughts about clowns for the rest of the day if this aerialist who reminded me of you lived through his act."
"Maybe you'd better start at the beginning," Eric said, and so Nicole did.
"… Ever since Daniel died and you went to prison, I've been avoiding you," she concluded. "Not just that I didn't visit you in prison or forgive you before you left or show up at your hearing. I didn't talk about you. I tried not to think your name. Then I was trapped at that circus, and I couldn't go anywhere or do anything to keep my mind off of you, so there you were."
"Maybe that's where God came in," said Eric wryly. "He sent you to the circus so that you'd have to deal with the things you need to deal with instead of running away from them."
"So you agree that God is punishing me with a circus!"
"He's not punishing you. He loves you. He wants you to feel peace."
"God believes in forgiveness. Daniel believed in forgiveness. I believe in forgiveness." Nicole stood up shakily, carefully not touching Eric, who was still inches away from her. "If I tried it, and it went wrong, what's the worst that could happen?"
"I would appreciate you trying," said Eric. "And not to say he's on my side or anything, but I think God likes it when all of us try our best."
Eric stood up, too, and they faced each other. Nicole stared into Eric's eyes for a long moment. "I forgive you, Eric. I know that you never meant to hurt Daniel or anyone else. I know that you want to make up for what you did, and I want you to have every chance to do that. I know that you've always been a good man and that you still are. A lot of men I know— a couple of the men I've married— wouldn't have gone to prison at all for killing people on purpose. You are still good and decent and wonderful. Even with this. I forgive you for everything."
She felt dizzy again, but she straightened up against the dizziness. She couldn't grab at Eric for support, not now. "That wasn't practice, or trying," she told him. "That was real. I forgive you and I care about you. I can't help it."
"Thank you, Nicole." He was trying to put on his wise priest face again, but he wasn't quite succeeding. He looked raw and broken instead of enlightened and confident.
She tried to resolve the man in front of her with the innocent teenager who had sat at her table one day when she'd been waitressing at the Java Cafe almost twenty years before. She couldn't do it.
"Is it all right if I hug you?" she asked.
Wordlessly, he swept her into a hard, tight hug. It felt the same way it had always felt when he'd hugged her at the church during her social pariah days. It seemed strange that some things felt the same, and some things did not.
"That's life, I guess," she whispered, and Eric answered by clinging more tightly to her.
They didn't let go of each other until Brady knocked loudly on the open door. "I'm ordering dinner," he told them. "Are you staying, Nicole?"
She looked between Eric's grief-stricken face and Brady's carefully neutral one. "Yes," she said.
"Okay," agreed Brady. "We're getting those hamburgers with fried eggs and onion rings on top. I'm guessing that's not what you want."
"You guess right." She grabbed Brady's phone from his hand and added a comparatively sane chicken sandwich to the order. "Are you just getting delivery here every night since you don't have a live-in chef anymore?"
"Yes," said Brady innocently as he pushed the "order" button on the phone.
"Maybe I'll learn to cook while I'm under house arrest," Eric mused.
"It might be a start on reinventing yourself," said Nicole quietly, and Eric smiled silently at her while Brady launched into a mock-diatribe about how the next time he saw Nicole cook would be the first time, and she lived in a hotel with room service for crying out loud.
A hotel was transient, though; someone who lived in a hotel wasn't expected to cook. So much of Nicole's life had been transient: her address, her career, her relationships. It had taken her a long time to accept that no matter what happened, her friend Brady was always going to be somewhere in her life. She was always going to love him. No matter what she'd done. No matter what he'd done.
It was both harder and easier to admit, to herself if to no one else, that she was always going to love Eric, too. No matter what she'd done. No matter what he'd done.
Author's Note: Last month I had a dream that I was posting soap opera fanfic online. I saw the ff.n interface very clearly. As if this wasn't weird enough, the fic I was dream posting was for a couple I had never written (Eric/Nicole) from a show I hadn't watched for almost a year (Days).
So to make a weird situation weirder, I decided that if I was going to write myself a ficlet for Days, I should write one for OLTL, the show I actually miss. Then the Todd/Blair ficlet spawned the Brody/Jessica ficlet, and I decided that it would only be fair to have two Days ficlets if I was going to have two OLTL ficlets, so I checked in on Nick and Chelsea.
Thus, four ficlets which are basically variations on a theme, so much so that I suspect they're rather annoying if all read together. But I don't think that will be an issue unless someone has precisely the same taste in long-defunct soap opera couples as I do.
Hope you enjoyed reading!