by Amy L. Hull AmilynH at comcast dot net
This story is set after "Night in Question" and covers the time from then to the end of "Sons of Belial"
"What the hell are you doing?"
Natalie's voice chipped at the silence surrounding Nick in the loft. He was sprawled on the floor by the sofa amidst strewn books, clothing, and souvenirs from various centuries. The box for Joan's cross lay open, tipped on its side, but the cross itself was nowhere to be seen. He tipped his head slightly to look at her over one shoulder, then turned away. She picked up the remote and pointed it at the blinds, allowing enough glow from the streetlights to reveal several spent bottles scattered near him and another, half empty, clutched protectively in his lap.
"So this is why you called in sick. I guessed as much." She reached for his bottle and he pulled it away, looking at her blearily.
"Go away, Nat," he muttered.
"So you can drink yourself farther away from everything you want? I don't think so." She turned on a light and set the remote down.
"You don't have to worry about that," he growled. "This is my last bottle." He tipped it up and glared at her defiantly as he drank.
"Nick, I know we had a setback." If only it was just a setback. If only I had told him the truth. If only he hadn't found out the truth. If only something I do would make a difference.
"Is that what you call it?"
She looked away, her guilt magnified by his glare. She had grasped at his amnesia as a way to accomplish what she'd failed at for five years, and it had backfired, apparently even worse than she'd thought. She couldn't decide if she was more ashamed of the deception she had perpetrated, endangering him in the process, or of her pathetic breakdown at the collapse of that deception, or of sending him to LaCroix, who was the source of Nick's greatest anxieties, the one best able to play on his vulnerabilities. He had been so angry with her for keeping the truth from him--not that she could blame him--and now he had descended into this bitterness. What have I done? If only... "What did he say to you?" she asked, reaching for him.
He shrugged away from her and snarled, "He reminded me of my true nature. That I'm a killer. He helped me recover the memories of nearly 800 years of deaths on my head. He tried to convince me, show me, that I liked it."
"Oh, Nick, I am so sorry..." Her words came out barely above a whisper, but he could still hear her, she knew. What have I done? She had been worried about what secrets or thoughts he'd been keeping from her these past months. Now she was afraid of the direction those secrets--and LaCroix's influence--were taking him and his soul. She was afraid of Nick. "Nick, put the bottle down. You don't need it." And maybe he did need the blood, but she needed him to take a step back from the vampire.
"Oh, but I do. It's what we vampires do, remember? And anyway, I want it." He took another drink.
She reached for one of the bottles near him on the floor. "Oh, just like you wanted this? And this? And this? And this?" she demanded, punctuating each query by picking up an empty bottle until her arms were almost full.
"And this," he sneered, handing her another from just out of her reach. "And those." He gestured to the three empty bottles in his sink.
The sharp edge she had been holding onto threatened to falter as she shuddered, holding the bottles silently and looking at him. Nine bottles...my God, Nick. The clinical portion of her mind wondered idly at his maximum capacity for blood and whether the effects, like alcohol, varied when it was consumed over a long or short span of time. Richard had been proof that Nick was nowhere near the limit; Nat still sometimes saw the faces of the seven people she had autopsied after her little brother had drained them to satisfy the same bloodlust Nick faced every day. Seven people whose death reports she had falsified in the string of sacrifices of her integrity that accompanied her growing complicity in the elaborate cover-up that was Nick's life.
For the first time it occurred to her to question whether Richard's rampage had been a normal level of consumption rather than the excess she had encouraged herself to believe.
She forced herself to relax slightly, deliberately reining in her temper. "So you're going to drown 800 years of regrets in blood?" Nick glowered silently at the floor, so human in his grief and guilt. She wondered if she had a chance of helping him even dent the ongoing affair with self-hatred which had been a constant for the five years she'd known him, and probably for centuries before that. "Nick," she said softly, crouching next to him, "there's been enough blood. Destroying yourself and everything you've worked for won't bring them back. But helping, like you've been doing, that helps balance things, one person at a time."
He turned to face her, his eyes cold pools of sorrow and disgust. "Do you have any idea how many thousands of people I have murdered? It would take centuries to help just one person--to save just one life--per victim. And that would never be enough..." his voice trailed off into mental second-guessing as he spun unsteadily to his feet and took another drink.
"You're right. You can't make the past right," she agreed, standing to follow him. "You can only do everything you can and do the best you can here and now. It's all any of us can do."
"That's not enough!" he snapped, and she took a tiny step backward as he whirled to face her with all his fury. "I have advantages no one else has and still there are criminals I can't catch, people I can't find in time. I roll the boulder to the top of the hill and it rolls right over me as it comes back down."
"Sometimes that's all there is!" she rejoined, her anger rising to meet his. Jaw clenched, she deliberately moderated her pitch and volume. "None of us can fix everything, no matter how we want to. Sometimes our best isn't good enough and we fail. Nick, it doesn't mean the effort isn't worth--"
"Come on, Nat. You know better than that. 'Our best' isn't worth a damn if you're any of the victims, or their families or friends," he turned toward her, danger pooling in his eyes in a way that would have sent anyone reasonable running for safety, "or the godmother of a little girl who was raped and murdered and dumped in a park."
She flinched but continued to look steadily at him, allowing the hurt to be visible in her eyes. She drew a measured breath and stood taller as her anger returned, forcing her heart rate up. He returned her gaze for a moment then staggered toward the kitchen.
"You're right," she returned after a moment, the edge in her voice back and sharpening as she spoke. "It matters. And it hurts. A lot. It's a part of being alive--of being human. I'd rather tilt at windmills and have a chance and some hope than give up. And this," she indicated the bottles, "is giving up." She threw them down, and the glass shards spun crazily across the floor, tinkling out a discordant tune.
"Get out, Nat." There was almost no inflection in his voice.
"No. This will not get you anywhere. You're only hurting yourself..." She could hear the lie in her words, but it was the closest she could come to vocalizing her own hurt, which she didn't dare do tonight; neither of them could afford an addition to his already overwhelming store of guilt. "Nick, please. Let me help you."
He was behind her in one of her heartbeats. "Haven't you done enough?"
"Apparently not if you're--" She gasped as he leaned over one shoulder, tickling her ear with his cool breath.
"I can think of one way you can help," he said as he nuzzled her neck.
She barely controlled a shudder as he rested his hands on her shoulders briefly before tracing his hand softly up her neck and into her hair. There was something inherently menacing and prickly about this touch--something foreign that she didn't want to put a name to, but even so she instinctively leaned her head toward his hand. He twined his fingers through her hair then suddenly grasped it so that she gasped in pain. He stroked the hair on the other side for a long moment, smoothing it along her neck and down her back. It should have felt nice, comfortable, to have him close, to have him touching her as he used to do to comfort or reassure her. But it didn't, and she was scared. His intent this time was to frighten and harm, and a tremor shot through her, putting a catch in her voice as she began to protest, "Nick--"
"Shh," he whispered and leaned close until his lips nearly brushed her bare neck.
Her knees buckled slightly as vertigo seized her for a flickering second. She tried to shake off the dizziness, only to realize that she could not even straighten her head, let alone pull away; he had her effectively trapped. She felt glass crunch under her thin-soled work shoes as she stood taller, causing his grip to tear painfully at her hair. "Settle down and sober up, Nick," she said sharply, grasping again onto the anger that kept her fear at bay.
He held her shoulder against him with his forearm and placed a finger gently on her lips. "Shh. Why would I want to do that, Nat?" he whispered, tracing the fingertip along her jawline and the taut muscles of her neck. A shudder skittered through her chest and lodged in the pit of her stomach, fear vying with her anger for control. He took one more drink from his bottle and she flinched as the bottle crashed onto the floor directly in front of her. "Too bad. I'm all out now," he said with mock dismay. "What do you think I should do about that?" he murmured softly into her ear, kissing her neck lightly. "No need to stop drinking. It's what I've done for centuries, after all."
Knowing that any attempt to pull away would both seem feeble and be utterly futile, she forced herself to stand still and schooled her tone into near-perfect mimic of bored casualness. It would have been much more effective without the quaver in her voice. "You know, if you're trying to scare me off, you've tried it before and I'm still here. You're not going to convince me you're not worth the effort, so forget it. It won't work."
He brushed his hand along the side of her face and down to her shoulder. "Get out, Nat," he warned in a low voice, then kissed her neck lightly, and added in a whisper next to her ear, "or I might just prove it." He dropped his hands away from her, shoving her roughly away.
She staggered then regained her balance and turned to face him. She stared at him calmly. "You're not going to do anything."
"Oh, really. And who's going to stop me?"
"You are." Nat softened her tone since her habitual sternness wasn't penetrating. "Nick, if you feel guilt like this now...you don't want to add to that. I know you don't. Let me help you. You don't have to face this on your own." He moved toward her slowly, deliberately, his expression entirely predatory, and she forced herself not to take a step back.
"Why not?" he demanded bitterly, again centimeters from her face. He grabbed her arms tightly and began to shake her slightly to punctuate his points. "That's what I've been doing for months--for centuries--now. My life, my problems, my job...I've faced them all on my own every day. And, all on my own, I keep screwing them up. Why fight it?"
She blinked away disorientation and whispered, "That's not fair. You're not alone, except by your own choice. All you have to do is ask and Tracy's there for you. I'm here for you."
"Oh, yeah. You." He breathed a dismissive laugh. "You're always here, just waiting for me to slip up so you can tell me again how I'm failing to live up to your standards. What do you want from me anyway?"
His fingers were digging into her arms and she could hear blood pounding in her ears. "Oh, now wait a minute. Those are your standards. I only want what you want. I want to help you become human again." She felt a sharp pain as she bit her tongue. It was becoming difficult to focus or get words out.
His voice deepened to a near growl. "Well, you know what? I don't think I want to have anything to do with humanity tonight." He shook her harder.
She bit her lip, forcing back the tears that threatened. "Nick, stop. You're hurting me." She looked at his eyes, hoping to find confirmation that he didn't believe his own words, but there was only blue ice.
His lip curled in disgust. "You shouldn't have come tonight; there's no reason for you to be here. I don't want your lectures any more than I want you or your pitiful humanity."
He shoved her aside and headed for the door. She slipped between him and his escape just as he approached it; they were not nearly finished and she'd be damned if she'd let him walk away from this conversation and the issues it presented, or out into an unsuspecting city. If the vampire had reclaimed this much hold over Nick, if he was close enough to the edge to treat her as prey, neither of them could afford the potential consequences of him leaving the loft. "Nick, no. You can't--"
He grabbed her again and swept her roughly to one side and her world vanished into blackness as the back of her head contacted the edge of the doorframe.
Nick started at the sickening thud of flesh and metal colliding and Nat suddenly became dead weight in his hands. He stared blankly for a moment as the expression washed off Natalie's face and her body wilted, held only by his grip on her arms.
"Nat?" he growled, shaking her slightly again, and tightening his grip on her. "Nat?" His voice became less harsh as his anger was swallowed up by his fear for her. "Natalie?" Oh, my God, I've killed her, he thought desperately, pulling her closer to listen for life. Within a second he heard her heartbeat, her breathing; she was not dead, but she was weak; he had hurt her. He had hurt her. And he would have to wait until she regained consciousness to know how badly, and what kind of damage he had caused to her, to them. She'll never speak to me again...if she ever speaks again... He shifted his grip and began to move her to the couch, as the litany in his head began to tick through all possible nasty consequences of such an injury--paralysis, epilepsy, blindness, death.
A thrill of excitement shot through him at the scent. What have I done? He looked down at her, suddenly even more afraid. He had done this much. What if he did more or worse, like what he'd threatened and attempted so shortly before? Like what he'd done to so many others? He laid her unceremoniously on the floor, barely avoiding dropping her in his panic. A second later there were several yards between him and the aroma that taunted him to forego controlling his hunger just as he had his temper.
He didn't take his eyes off her until a voice shook him out of his preoccupation. He looked at the phone in his hand in puzzlement. When did I dial 911? Still not shifting his gaze, he responded, "This is Nick Knight, Metro Homicide. There's been an injury in my home. Please send paramedics--." He finished the conversation through a haze. It seemed to take forever, but could not have been even a minute. Please let her be all right.
He waited, a heartbreaking but, he hoped, safe distance from Natalie. Let her be all right, please. I can't live with it if I've really hurt her. Nat, please wake up. It seemed another small eternity, filled with only his desperate thoughts, the vivid reality of Nat lying motionless, and the beckoning scent of her blood, before she began to stir.
The sound of the world drifted to Nat through darkness, its volume and tone varying as though the sine curve along which it traveled was being twisted from either end, warping the sound in and out of her dimension. Maybe it's the weird sound that's making my head split apart. The first clear snatch seemed to be Nick, but it was distorted too; it sounded far away, and Nick wouldn't be far away if she were hurt. ...Would he?
"Please, God, let her be all right."
Nick's words echoed through her head but she couldn't find him. Why is it so dark?
"Nat, lie still."
Nick again...but so far away. "Whaaa--?" she began, bringing a hand to her face and attempting to sit up. My eyes are closed. That's why it's dark. She raised weighted lids slightly, wincing as the dim lights shot laser-sharp pains through her head.
"Nat, please don't move. Are you okay?" he asked.
So far away... "Nick?" Her voice wasn't very loud, and part of her mind remarked--not very reassuringly--that volume wouldn't help since her speech was slurred nearly beyond recognition.
"I'm here, Nat. Stay there. Don't try to get up."
She sat up, closing her eyes again as the room spun before them. Slowly she opened her eyes and the room conceded partial stability. She spent a long moment looking around for Nick, but after locating him could not resolve him into focus. Giving up on obtaining a clearer image, she blinked experimentally a couple of times. "What are you doing over there?" Her voice was still fuzzy and she shook her head slightly, hoping to clear the cobwebs. She stopped instantly at the pain the movement caused, pressing both hands to her head as though holding it tightly could keep it from exploding. At least this time I can move my head. Last time I tried Nick stopped me... Her fingers probed the growing knot on the back of her head and began to reconstruct the last events she remembered. Nick drunk, arguing. Shattered bottles. Nick behind her. Trapped. Lips brushing her neck. Nick caressing, pinning her hair, holding her arms, a terrible, twisted look on his face. A sharp pain in the back of her head. She touched a tickly spot on the back of her neck and frowned at the blood she saw on her fingers. "Nick?" she began.
He remained resolutely across the room from her. "Help is on the way. Nat, I'm--" He was interrupted by the door buzzer and moved to answer it.
"Who's 'at?" She blinked again as his words pulled her concentration apart.
"The paramedics," he said shortly.
"Why did you call them?" she demanded, her anger at him rising again and making her voice clear for the first time since she'd awakened. How dare he call someone when they weren't already involved? Involving someone else meant lying. It always meant lying now, and she wasn't sure she was clear-headed enough to do so effectively. She certainly couldn't explain what had really happened. Not to an outsider. It had been bad enough when he'd been shot and she'd had time to plan. How dare he put her in this position again?
Nick blinked at her, confusion of his own rising quickly. "You were unconscious...I didn't think--"
"That's right. You didn't think. You never think." Nat said, her voice clear but flat as she leveled a coolly furious gaze at the fuzzy, bouncing spot that was Nick. "I don't want them here."
"At least let them check you over, Nat. They're already here, after all." Desperation and panic filled his voice.
"Tell them to go away. That it's the wrong--" The elevator door opened and the pair of EMTs hurried in, carrying gear and pulling a stretcher behind them. She glared at them and then at Nick again.
"She hit her head," Nick explained quietly. "It's bleeding. She was unconscious for three minutes...maybe five..." She regarded him darkly for a moment more before looking away to a neutral spot on the floor, feeling her jaw set as she counted five measured breaths that seemed to keep a four-four time with the pounding of her blood in her head.
She looked up to see the paramedics surveying the loft carefully, their eyes settling on Nick across the room, her face, and the broken glass that littered the floor. She saw them exchange a knowing glance and then look back accusingly at Nick.
One EMT knelt by her, pulling gloves on, as the other arranged papers and equipment. "Hi, I'm Lauren. I'm going to look at your head. Where did you hit it?"
For a moment Nat looked at the woman, blinking. The woman had clearly spoken, but the echoes from the distant sounds overlapped and it took several moments to reassemble them into comprehensible language. "L-left occipital region," she finally stammered as she heard Nick draw a breath to respond for her, cursing the unsteadiness of her voice. She was certainly not going to let him talk for her or for the situation. He'd only screw it up, maybe even tell the truth out of some misguided sense of guilt. That's certainly the one constant with Nick--misguided guilt. Even if he lied...well, he couldn't lie effectively even to save her life, she'd wager. Not a chance she was trusting him with this.
"What's your name?" Lauren parted Nat's hair in the back to get a better look at the injury.
"Dr. Natalie Lambert," she said curtly, taking a quick breath to curb the touch of nausea that struck as her head was tilted forward
Lauren pressed a gauze pad to the still-oozing wound. She picked up one of Nat's hands and placed it over the gauze. Nat noticed that her fingertips were numb. "Why don't you apply pressure to this for me, Natalie." She moved into Nat's field of vision as she gathered supplies to clean the cut, "Can you tell me where you are?"
"101 Gateway Lane, Toronto, Ontario, M5T 8R2, Canada." May as well be precise.
"Good. What day is it?"
She heard herself pause slightly. "Thursday." Why can't I remember the date? I should know that; I sign it often enough every day...
Lauren picked up her other hand, "And what happened here?"
Natalie looked down, surprised to see the paramedic wiping smeared blood away from the back of her hand. "I...don't know," she admitted slowly.
"Hmm. It looks like just a little cut. Probably from some of the broken glass." Lauren placed a band-aid over the spot and nodded. "So, how did you get hurt?"
Nick hurt me, her mind screamed, as she said calmly, "It was an accident. I hit my head on the doorframe. I'm fine." Nat kept her voice flat and glared at a spot between Lauren's chin and right shoulder.
"Which doorframe?" Lauren scrubbed at the blood on Nat's neck and the areas around the gauze while she talked, all the while keeping a hand lightly over Nat's shaky one.
Nat's fingers, which had been merely unsteady, were now trembling uncontrollably, and her arm felt weak, like it might slip back to her lap at any moment. She knew she was barely being trusted to keep pressure on the wound; Lauren had clearly involved her to keep her occupied and alert. She had to respect the woman's tactics.
"The one by the elevator." Nat pointed shakily in its general direction, taking care not to move her head too fast lest the room spin, or the nausea return, when she did. She paused and frowned, suddenly noticing her distance from the door she remembered as her most recent location.
"What made you fall?" The paramedic moved to face Nat and began to gather other supplies from her bag.
Nat said evenly, "The elevator didn't come up even with the floor. I tripped."
Nick started at her claim and he stared at her, brows knit tightly, shaking his head slightly.
Lauren silently looked from Nat to Nick and back again. Nat looked steadily at the woman.
"Pretty impressive fall, there, to hit the back of your head that way."
"Calamity Lambert strikes again," Nat said wryly. To Lauren's questioning look she elaborated, "My nickname in college. The klutziness is not new."
"So, how did you get over here?"
Natalie glanced nervously at Nick. "I, uh, I...I don't remember." She looked down, touching the corner of her mouth with the tip of her tongue.
"Sir, did you see exactly what happened?" Lauren turned to Nick, eyebrows raised.
Nick did not shift his gaze from Natalie as she glared up at him wearily, defying him to tell a story different than her own. "Uh, no. I wasn't watching at the time. I only heard her hit the floor." He looked almost immediately away and at his hands.
Nat looked sideways at Lauren, who sported a dubious frown and glared challengingly at Nick, then turned the look on her. Over the droning of pain, her mind chanted, She knows. She knows. Nat held her gaze for a moment, trying to achieve a dispassionate, believable mien, knowing that boat had already sailed. She was shaking, terrified that the EMTs would report her. Report Nick. Lauren's face softened slightly, and at the sympathy creeping in, Nat felt her chin starting to quiver and looked quickly away. I will not cry. I will not cry.
Lauren took the gauze from Nat's hand, which was shaking uncontrollably. "This seems to have stopped bleeding. It's clean and I'm going to leave it be. You're already developing an impressive bump, and you'll have to be careful of the cut, but it's not bad enough to need sutures." Lauren swabbed at the cut with antiseptic then leaned back and nodded at the results.
The other EMT knelt to join them. "Natalie, I'm Paul. I need to ask you a few questions." Nat nodded impatiently, then put a hand quickly to her head as the room jumped.
"What is your name and current address?"
"Dr. Natalie Lambert," she repeated, then gave the man her address.
Lauren slipped a blood pressure cuff over Nat's arm and began to inflate the cuff. As the pressure increased, sudden, sharp pains shot through Natalie's arm, and the world was reduced momentarily to greyscale. She winced and a slight hiss of pain escaped before she could stop it.
Lauren frowned at the sound and removed one of the earpieces of her stethoscope. "Did that hurt?"
"No. I told you. I'm fine," Natalie said tightly, angry with herself for not having been prepared to hide the pain, terrified that they would have evidence that Nick had hurt her, that he would be in trouble, that he would have to move on, that he would leave her.
The EMTs exchanged a quick look without pausing in their work. "We're just going to make sure of that, Natalie," Lauren reassured. She touched Nat's face and frowned. "Natalie, you're perspiring and looking a bit pale. Why don't you lie down?"
"No," Nat said quickly. I'll fall asleep. I have to get out of here.
"We don't want you getting shocky," Lauren said gently as she eased Natalie, who was too weak to resist effectively, onto her back. Paul placed a thin, disposable pillow under Natalie's head and covered her. Lauren touched her face again, then continued checking vitals.
Paul scribbled on his form then looked at her again. "How were you injured?"
"I told you already," she snapped, her temper beginning to flare. They're going to know. They're going to know. How could Nick do this? How could I have let this happen? Stupid, stupid, stupid... She set her jaw, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath to calm herself. "I tripped coming out of the elevator, lost my balance, and hit my head when I fell."
"So you fell by the door?" Paul asked.
"I don't know." I will not cry. I have to get out of here.
The EMTs exchanged another look. Lauren declared Nat's vitals within acceptable boundaries, then shone a penlight into Nat's eyes, nearly doubling the pain splitting her head as her pupils contracted. After a quick test, Lauren flicked the light off and commented, "Well, you're only tracking about fifty percent of this movement, even though your pupils are even. I'd advise you to come with us and let the hospital observe you for the night."
Natalie could feel her anger shaping her expression into the stubborn immovability that always made Nick back down almost instantly. "I don't want--"
"Nat," Nick began, "listen to them--"
"No. I'm not going to the hospital. I'm fine," she protested to Lauren, pushing aside the thin blanket and moving to sit up.
"Natalie, you're not fine," Lauren rejoined firmly, holding Natalie's shoulders down. "You have a pretty serious concussion and you're still shocky. You could easily pass out again and fall, or go to sleep and slip into a coma."
"Let me up. I'm fine and I'm not going with you. You can't take me against my will." Nat continued to try to sit up, panic rising as she could not move freely. Her anger overcame the panic but not the rapid heartbeat. They will not decide this for me as well.
"Nat, please--" Nick pleaded
"I have the right to refuse treatment. Let me up!" Natalie mentally chastised herself for the edge of panic she heard creeping into her voice, but felt Lauren helping her sit. She blinked, trying to bring the room back to steadiness.
"You're right of course," Lauren said smoothly. She glanced at Nick, then looked at Nat, who had only become more determined. "I really think it would be best if you came with us, though."
"I said no." Nat forced her tone to remain quiet but bitingly resolute.
"All right. Paul, could you get a release form? At least take care of yourself. Take two Tylenol every four to six hours for your headache. If your symptoms aren't better in twenty-four hours, go to your doctor. If you get double vision or nausea, call a doctor. You won't--"
"I know," Nat interrupted. "I am a doctor."
Lauren pursed her lips. "All right."
Nat scrawled her name mostly on the line of the release. Lauren scribbled something on the form and handed a copy to Natalie. Once the elevator shuddered downward with the EMTs, she got slowly to her knees, edged a bit nearer to the couch, then stood up very carefully, holding the back of the couch for leverage and then for support as the room faded out to dark grey for a long moment. Only then did she dare look at Nick, who looked back sadly.
"Nat, why did you lie?" he asked at length.
"Why did you?" she demanded bitterly, no longer certain if she was trembling from shock or anger.
"I couldn't call you a liar, and I knew you must have a reason." It sounded weak to her and, it seemed from his sheepish expression, to him as well. "You did have a reason, right, Nat?"
"It would have brought up too many awkward questions." As he shook his head, she pressed, "What? You wanted me to tell them, 'This vampire I know--in fact, he's right over there--pushed me too hard because he was drunk on blood'?" she looked expectantly at him.
"I know. Nat, I am so sorry." He did look thoroughly miserable.
Serves him right, she thought before she could stop herself. "This is what it's always like, covering for you. How did I get over here?" she asked shortly.
"I carried you."
"And put me down on the floor a few feet away?" she pressed. Whatever he had done had jeopardized her story and credibility and thereby her ability to keep the secrets she'd been entrusted with. I have to get out of here. How...
"I was afraid. I smelled your blood and I didn't trust myself not to hurt you." He focused his gaze studiously on his fingertips.
"A little too late for that, isn't it?" She immediately looked away, regretting her bluntness as he flinched, Serves him right, that little voice said again. "Anyway, wasn't that your plan?"
"I think I'd better leave."
"Nat, you shouldn't go home alone."
"Oh, I should stay here alone?"
"You shouldn't drive; it's not safe. Let me drive you."
"Let me at least call you a cab."
"It's all right. I'm fine." I want to go.
"It's not all right," he insisted, moving toward her but pulling himself up short as she edged closer to the door. "And you're not fine. Please. Stay here. It's not safe for you to go alone." He trailed off as she glared at him. "Nat, you're seriously hurt. You need to--"
"And whose fault is that?" She demanded, then stopped. She took a deep breath. "Stop making such a big deal out of this! It's fine. I'm going to go home now."
"I don't think you'd better drive," he said softly, reaching out and taking hold of her elbow and her dangling keys.
She started and jerked the keys and herself out of range, almost toppling over in the process. "Don't. Don't touch me." He shrank back, looking hurt and terribly sad and she looked away, unable to face his puppy-dog expression and still walk out. "I'll see you tomorrow," she said briefly as she hurried as best she could toward the elevator
He edged closer, impeding her exit but keeping an arm's distance from her. "Nat, please--"
"You said you didn't trust yourself," she snapped. "Can you promise me something worse won't happen if I stay? Can you even promise I'll survive the night?" Nick was silent. "That's what I thought," she said, her face hardening. She picked up her coat and stepped into the elevator.
"At least call me when you get there so I know you made it okay?"
"It's only a ten minute drive, Nick!" She heard him place a hand on the door. "All right. Fine. Just let me go." She didn't turn to look at him and waited until the door closed completely before sagging against the wall and closing her eyes while her head throbbed at a different tempo than the elevator's motor.
The drive home was a psychedelic nightmare. Nat would look back on it later as one of the most stupid things her stubbornness had ever led her to do. Her eyes were still choosing not to focus fully. The lines were not staying flat on the road, but tended to rise up to her eye level and then divide into two or four lines. Other cars weren't staying on the pavement or in their lanes. Several buildings decided to take up residence in the middle of the road and jumped back to safety behind the sidewalk only at the last instant.
She lost count of the number of times she pulled over, waiting for the insanity of her perceptions to abate, or for her car to cease its impressive impersonation of a hovercraft. Once she was awakened by the horn of a car toward which she was careening. The last time she stopped was to determine which of the driveways to her building was in fact real.
She dropped everything she was carrying just inside her apartment door, locked it behind her automatically, and stumbled to the living room. She hit play on the answering machine, closed her eyes, and stepped out of her shoes, then leaned against the wall through a sales pitch and a message from work. Those were the only real messages, and she stopped counting hang-ups after five. She left the machine running through the click-beep-click sequence and headed for the bedroom with the portable phone, punching Nick's number on auto-dial as she fell onto her bed.
He snatched the phone up before the first ring finished, "Nat?"
"Yeah, it's me. Home safe. Happy?" She knew she sounded dreadful; she was again barely producing clear speech, and was too exhausted and distracted by the escalating squeal in her head to control the wobble in her voice.
"What took you so long?" he demanded. "You left over half an hour ago."
"Traffic was crazy." Well, it was the truth from the way she'd seen it, at least. Leave me alone. Just leave me alone.
"Nat, are you sure you're okay? Could I call someone to have them stay with you?"
"Don't you dare. I'm going to go to bed. See you tomorrow." She hung up the phone and set it on her nightstand before he could say another word. She stared dumbly as it fell onto the floor and then shrugged. She peeled off the most restrictive of her clothes...and the bits that did not require her to stand to remove. "Best not sleep too long," she murmured to herself, reaching over to set her alarm to an hour and a half, and pretending not to notice that it took her a full minute to calculate when that would be.
Natalie had been pulled from dreams unpleasant, though unspecific to her waking mind, when the alarm had gone off. She had flipped the nightstand lamp on, cringed at the glare, and hauled herself upright in bed. Holding her head with both hands, hoping it would not fly apart, she had waited almost two minutes before the four floors near where her feet dangled resolved themselves into a single surface, then stood up cautiously.
She had forced herself to walk around the perimeter of her apartment--with considerable help in remaining vertical from the blessedly stable walls and furniture. It seemed like quite some while, or perhaps a mere second, had passed when she suddenly opened her eyes to a close-up view of her bedroom doorframe. I wonder how long I've been here. Closing the eyes so I wouldn't see everything spinning was a bad idea. She had been up for twelve minutes and reset the alarm for another hour and a half. Before she had even managed to completely gather her covers around her, she was asleep.
The next time she heard the alarm she got the distinct sense that it had been going off for a while. She blinked at the haze of bright, swirling numbers, and closed her eyes against the pain.
"Natalie Lambert. Up." She swung her legs over the side of the bed. "People with concussions shouldn't sleep too soundly." Her eyes drooped closed and she forced them open again and stood up. The room, already dim, faded out of sight and she found herself seated on the edge of the bed again. "Okay. That was up," she mumbled as she laid down again and slipped back to sleep.
She couldn't move. An unyielding bar across her chest and shoulders prevented that. Her hair was caught so that her head was immobilized. Then something sharp--two somethings sharp--cut into her neck. There was pain and she heard herself cry out, then vertigo spun the world out of control and her vision began to fade. Nick's face appeared with his eyes glowing and her blood at the corners of his mouth. As even this went black, she heard Nick say, "Mine," and she began to fall.
Nat jerked awake. Her heart was pounding and it took her a moment to catch her breath although she was still lying down. What woke me up? she wondered a second before there was a muffled ring from her right. Did that ring before? Oh...head hurts... Nat groped clumsily for the phone, which was still on the floor. Just as she reached it, it rang again, and she slipped off the bed, tangling herself in the comforter. Nat punched the phone on. "Hello?"
The line clicked dead. "Hello? That had better have been a wrong number," she mumbled to no one in particular.
Her eyes drifted closed and she winced at the combination drum squad and electronic whine clashing for predominance in her head. Slowly she disentangled herself from the comforter and tried to flip it onto the bed. The movement took too much strength, however, and it ended up in a crumpled heap. She started to pull herself up, using the bed as a lever much as she had used Nick's couch the night before, until her upper arms protested. Obviously some muscle tissue involved in the bruising, she thought clinically as she settled on the edge of the bed, taking stock.
The back of her head hurt and the skin that wasn't broken was stretched taut around a large, warm goose-egg. The room no longer spun, but she still had a sense of unbalance dominating her perceptions. She was almost afraid to look, but pulled up the sleeve of a nightshirt she had no memory of putting on. Her neck protested, too stiff to bend easily as she looked at the mass bruises that were her upper arms. They were warm to the touch and just a shade pinker than fresh organ meat with vein-blue edges and a few darker purplish spots the shape and size of fingers. Nat tugged the sleeves back down and began spreading the comforter neatly across the bed. As she shoved it toward the other side, her cheek touched the fabric for a moment. That feels so nice...maybe I'll just rest a second or two more.
It seemed only a second or so later that something began pulling her hair and bumping her head. As she opened her eyes slightly, Sydney, who was standing on her shoulder, nosed her hair then licked it, as though he hoped the display of affection would get him food sooner. He trilled a hopeful meow at her and rubbed against her hair.
Nat sat up slowly. The clock, which thankfully had only one set of numbers this morning, showed that she could still get to work on time if she hurried. "Good thing you woke me up, Syd," she said as she rubbed his head, "C'mon. Let's get you some food." She trailed after the cat to the kitchen. "Moving. Gotta keep moving. If I stop, I won't be able to get started again." It crossed her mind that she should probably stay home from work, but if she did, Nick would worry, would think she wasn't okay, might even come to check on her. Better to get through the day than to answer more questions.
Grace appeared suddenly and set a brown bag and a file on Nat's desk. "I know you didn't leave for lunch, and I thought soup would do you good."
"Thanks, Grace. That sounds good." Nat started to open the bag.
"How're you doing?"
"Well, I'm getting closer to the bottom. Lots of the paperwork is--"
"No, I mean how are you doing?"
"I'm fine. And, Grace, I'm really sorry. I didn't mean... I shouldn't have said... Earlier, I was..."
She had been fighting sleep all day. Her resolve to keep moving had dissolved by the time she arrived at the office too exhausted even to stand. Much of the day had thus been devoted to paperwork. Unfortunately, sitting too long was as sleep-inducing as the exhaustion of standing up and her attempt to substitute extra food--mostly junk and candy--for the sleep she needed was not working. The paperwork had only made her headache worse, and she knew that she had only really processed about ten percent of what she'd signed.
The entire staff was avoiding her; no one had been spared the fallout of her foul mood today. She had yelled at one new tech for dropping an instrument--not because it broke, but because it had been painfully loud. She had chewed out two other techs for making morbid and silly jokes. Grace had expressed concern and when she didn't drop the matter instantly, Nat had told her to mind her own business and made a less-than-coherent remark about "busybody gossip". The look of hurt on Grace's face had been haunting Nat's already over-taxed concentration ever since.
"Honey, I'm not worried about that. I know you didn't really mean what you said even though I know the gossip does get to you sometimes. I'm worried about you." Grace watched her steadily and the gentle kindness in her warm eyes made Nat want to cry. She looked back at her pile of papers. Grace just continued, "Because no matter what you say, you're not fine. So 'fess up: What'd he do?"
"What?" She looked up sharply, wondering exactly what that office gossip had consisted of today, and how heavily she and Nick had figured on the subject docket.
"This has all the telltale signs of man trouble. You obviously had no sleep last night. You're miserable. You've snapped at everyone over anything today; I kept at them to work hard so maybe you'd run out of work to do and have to go home--an outside chance at best, but worth a try." Grace paused. "And...he hasn't been here, or called yet. That must be some kind of record. And it means trouble. Either that or you're sick, and since you're never sick: man trouble."
Natalie smiled slightly. Grace's logic, while purely her own, did make sense. "Grace, I don't want to talk about it, okay? Thanks for...thanks, but... I just don't want to talk about it."
"Well, if you change your mind, you know where I am," Grace said softly, patting Natalie's shoulder.
Nat watched her leave, then stood up to fend off the droop of her eyelids, leaving the soup forgotten on her desk.
Tracy unfastened her seat belt as Nick eased the Caddy alongside the curb in front of the Coroners' Building and reached for the door handle.
Nick put the car in park, and, looking at the one palm, said, "Trace, why don't you go in and get the Collins report? I'll just wait here."
Tracy looked at her partner dubiously. That carefully cultivated, overly casual, pleasant indifference just didn't wash. Pass up a chance to drop in on Natalie Lambert? Not this detective, unless, "What's up? You two have a fight?" She smiled teasingly and raised her eyebrows at him.
"You could say that," he replied distractedly, looking abruptly away and fingering the steering wheel.
"What happened?" Her enjoyment of ribbing her partner vanished. Something was very wrong.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"That bad, huh?"
He shook his head. "Don't worry about it. Why don't you just get the report and we'll get back."
"You're really going to stay here?"
She frowned as he said, "I can't go in."
"Nick, you can't just avoid her." She paused, then perked up. "Anyway, Natalie can't ever stay mad at you."
"She should." He glanced at Tracy grimly, then looked away.
"Have it your way." She shrugged and climbed from the car.
Tracy had learned quickly to expect perpetual activity upon entering Natalie Lambert's domain. She had seen Nat pull three-day shifts--the most notable having been her insistence on personally overseeing and cataloguing each victim in the plane crash that had killed Nick's previous partner Schanke and ushered Tracy into a world where vampires not only existed, but where she counted one as her friend. She had seen Nat deal with unspeakably horrible cases, shift after shift, day after day, often pushing herself until someone--usually Nick--cajoled her into calling it a night. Even so, nothing could have prepared Tracy for the sight of Natalie slumped over her desk, asleep. What the hell is going on?
She walked quietly to the other woman's side. "Nat?" Touching her shoulder she repeated more loudly, "Natalie?"
Natalie started awake, not quite suppressing a small gasp, and looked all around, wide eyes darting around the room quickly, full of near-panic. After a long moment, she smiled weakly. "Hi, Trace."
Tracy frowned. There were dark circles around Nat's eyes and the pallor of the rest of her face only accentuated the token attempt she'd made to conceal them. She looked pinched and thoroughly exhausted, her clothes were more casual than usual, and her hair was sliding out of its clip. "Natalie, are you all right?"
"I'm fine." Nat only looked at her briefly, then returned her attention to her hands, spread flat on her blotter as if to dissipate her tension as widely as possible.
"Are you sure? You look awfully beat." First Nick, now Nat. Had everyone been replaced by pod people? Or was all this stemming from the fight they'd had that he wouldn't talk about?
"I'm fine. Really." Nat reached up to massage one shoulder then rested her hands on the desk with her fingers twined together. "What can I do for you?"
Tracy hesitated, then tried again, "Nat, you really ought to take better care of yourself. I've never known you to fall asleep at work."
"It's really not the first time." Nat pushed herself to her feet. "You probably need the...Collins report, right?"
"Yeah." Tracy watched as Nat slowly made her way across the lab, watched the way her shoulders sagged, watched the way she never let go of the counters.
"Almost everything's ready. Everyone worked so hard today that we're actually caught up for once." Nat attempted to laugh as she began to look for the police copy of the report.
Tracy stepped over to her. "Then why are you still here?" she asked gently, laying a hand on Nat's arm. She had never seen Natalie like this--not after the marathon work sessions, not when she was burned out, not after she recently was very nearly a murder victim.
Nat winced and paused slightly, then continued to flip shakily through the pile of papers. "Oh, you know," she hedged in a nervously bright tone, "tidying up administrative stuff."
Tracy tightened her grip on Nat's arm, turning the woman to face her, then berated herself as a pained gasp squeaked past Natalie's flagging control and a fearful shadow skittered across her face then lingered in her eyes. Unpleasant suspicions were beginning to gel in Tracy's mind about the cause of Natalie's exhaustion, but she tried to push away the instinctive belief that Nick's behavior was directly related to Natalie's. "You look like you feel awful," she offered inadequately.
"It's nothing. Maybe I'm getting sick." Nat blinked, clearly disoriented again, and resolutely not meeting Tracy's eyes.
Several puzzle pieces were fitting together in ways that formed a picture Tracy didn't want to look at.
"Natalie can't ever stay mad at you."
"You two have a fight?" "You could say that."
"I feel like I'm all used up." Natalie avoiding Nick for two weeks following making that comment to Tracy.
Natalie's current nervous, secretive behavior and disorientation.
Nick pushing a perp against a building with enough force to stun the man.
That hiss of pain Natalie let slip.
The fear in Natalie's eyes.
"Natalie, what happened to your arm?" Tracy asked, touching it again. "It's burning up." On a hunch, she checked the other arm. "They both are."
"It's nothing, Trace, okay?" Natalie looked Tracy square in the eyes, determination resolute in her eyes but undermined by her general appearance.
She was clearly lying and Tracy was taken aback by it. Natalie was usually the most forthright person she knew, and the sudden deceptiveness just fanned the flames of Tracy's suspicions. "It's not nothing; you're obviously hurting--"
"Just let me just find that file," Nat argued, turning toward her chosen distraction.
Tracy pulled Natalie around to face her. "Forget the damned file!"
Nat flinched again, the same fear settling back on her face as she glanced, seemingly unconsciously, at the door. Tracy felt like ten kinds of heel. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry." She looked at Natalie again, but was unable catch her eye.
"Don't worry about it," Natalie said from the pile of files she had turned back to. She turned with a file in her hand, looked Tracy in the eye, stared her down. "Here it is."
Tracy took the file, not sure what to say next. "Take care of yourself, okay?" she said, inadequately.
Nat paused slightly. "Yeah. And, Trace? Thanks for your concern, but don't worry about me."
"Sure." Tracy headed back to the car. Nick started it up as she reached the top step of the building and Tracy made a decision. When she got to the car, she leaned on the window, not opening the door. "You know, I think I'm going to let you go back alone." He frowned and worry clouded his eyes, but he said nothing. "Here's the report. I'm going to take Natalie home." She noted his deepening frown and concern. "I got in there and she was asleep on her desk. You know," she went on with calculated blitheness, "she said she was getting sick, but she seemed disoriented--almost like she'd hit her head." Nick actually jumped. Tracy stood back up. "Nick? Are you going to be okay?"
She turned to leave.
"Tracy?" he said. "Let me know later how she's doing?"
She hesitated, then took a deep breath. "I'll do that," she said evenly, without turning around.
Tracy paused at the door of Nat's office, weighing her options. She took a deep breath and pushed the door open, stopping again as Natalie met her gaze for a moment. It was when Nat paused, eyes closed as she leaned against the counter she had been "cleaning", that Tracy crossed the room.
"Natalie," she said decisively. Large, tired eyes looked up at her, full of undisguised resentment at Tracy's reappearance. "I'm taking you home." Nat opened her mouth, but Tracy cut her off. "You said there's nothing left to do here, and you need to rest."
"Tracy, I'm fine. You have your report, and I'm going to finish up a couple of things."
"You're not fine."
"Natalie," Tracy paused, then plunged determinedly ahead. "You're ...you need to take care of yourself, okay?"
"I don't know what you're talking about." Nat said flatly, arranging and rearranging the things on her desk with shaky hands.
"Don't you? You're disoriented. You're in pain. I'm afraid you won't make it home. Let me help you. Please." She held her breath.
Natalie closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. "Let me just get my things," she said finally.
Tracy smiled slightly, collecting the paper bag on the desk, Nat's briefcase, and the car keys from the side pocket of the other woman's purse.
"You really didn't have to do this," Nat said as she unlocked the door.
"Yes, I did." Tracy set the things she had taken and insisted on carrying for Nat by the door. "Why don't you get comfortable and I'll warm up your soup from lunch?"
Nat smiled and nodded cautiously.
Tracy leaned against the door and watched her go. She hoped she was doing the right thing, for Nat, for Nick. There was so much history she didn't know; she had known them for only months of the years they had known each other. Maybe she was wrong. She knew her partner had a temper, but what cop didn't? Sometimes she wondered why she'd entered this profession that so often ate up its members--her father's distance, her mother's alcoholism, divorce rates through the roof, men who arrested child abusers then went home and beat their own kids or wives; she'd seen it all growing up. Maybe she was deluded to think that she could help her colleagues, her partner, or even herself. But maybe she had just enough more information from a lifetime of observation and insight to make a difference. She sighed and headed for the kitchen, putting the soup in the microwave and getting out the phone book.
It had been over ten minutes when Nat finally emerged in a fuzzy pink robe with her hair askew.
"Do you have any tea?" Tracy called, over the whistle of the kettle.
"It's in the cupboard next to the stove. On the...left," she replied after a second.
"I'll be right out. Just take it easy."
Natalie was settling herself onto the sofa as Tracy carried in a crock of soup and a cup of tea on a tray she'd found.
"Voilà." Tracy settled next to Nat and handed her the tray.
"No, Sydney, not while there's food here," she scolded, gently shooing the eager cat off the sofa, then looked at Tracy, "Aren't you going to eat?"
"Already did." Tracy watched Nat sip at the soup for a moment in silence. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Natalie froze. "Talk about what?" she asked, setting the tea very carefully on the tray without removing her eyes from the cup's rim.
"About whatever happened between you and Nick."
Tracy took Nat's tacit acknowledgement that something had happened as a positive sign. Really a negative one, but at least the discourse had been opened. "Okay. I won't bring it up again, at least for now." Maybe if she gave Natalie some space she'd talk about it on her own.
Natalie resumed eating.
"So, when was the last time the office was this caught up, huh?"
Natalie looked sharply at Tracy, then back at the soup. "Not for a long time."
"Must be a good feeling."
She actually smiled slightly. "It is."
There was a long, uncomfortable pause, then Tracy spoke again. "Natalie, do you have any medication you can take? I know your head's killing you."
"I already took something." She looked up at Tracy then demanded, "What did he tell you?"
"Nothing. It was pretty obvious you'd had a fight when Nick wouldn't come in at your office. I thought you'd just argued until I saw you. Then I guessed..." Tracy paused, looked at her hands, then plunged miserably ahead, "Does he hurt you often?"
Nat's eyes were flashing anger, although Tracy could not tell at whom it was directed. "Of course not! And what makes you think--"
"But this has happened before?" Tracy pressed gently.
Natalie paused for a moment. "No."
"You don't sound very convincing. Nat, you know things like this don't just happen. There are warning signs and precipitating factors.--"
"Look, it was an accident." Natalie's eyes were dark and flashing angrily. "We argued, I got in his way as he was leaving, and he accidentally knocked me into the wall. End of story. It was an accident, and he feels terrible, but he never meant to hurt me."
Tracy's jaw tightened. "That must be a comfortable story to believe. But how many other times has he 'not meant to', Natalie?" Natalie's expression turned guilty, and Tracy continued, "Because, from your reactions today, I'd be willing to bet you can't truthfully say never." Natalie glared at her, but she did not stop, and Natalie looked away. "How many times are you going to explain it away, make excuses, or say that 'this isn't really a problem' or 'this time it doesn't really count'? How long before you're too afraid of him to work with him? How long before someone in your department ends up with you as one of their cases--just like you had to cut up Maggie Dwyer and God only knows how many others like her?"
"That is enough!" Natalie interjected, her voice sharp. "That was very different. This...this was an accident. He did not mean to hurt me. I know that, and he knows that."
"Oh, really?" Tracy caught Natalie's eyes. "Then why is he scared silly he's going to do it again?" Tracy paused, looking for a long moment at Nat, then added carefully, "And why are you?" She placed a hand on the other woman's shoulder, "Natalie, please--"
Natalie shrugged Tracy's hand away, set the tray on the coffee table with a clatter, and stood. "You're wrong," she shot back with sharp, instinctive defensiveness, pausing momentarily as she swayed, then recaptured her balance. "I appreciate your concern, but I think it would really be best if you left." Natalie moved toward the door. "Thank you for bringing me home, Tracy."
Tracy stood slowly. "I guess this wouldn't be at all related to whatever was going on between the two of you last fall, then. Or any of the other times things seemed tense between you two. Natalie, you're going to have to face this." She placed a slip of paper on the coffee table. "That's the number for the local crisis hotline. I'd suggest you call. Because, even if you're telling the truth, you're headed straight down a very dangerous path...and the way you're going, you're headed there with no brakes and no road signs." Tracy paused at the door Natalie was holding open. "Nat, I'm really, really sorry," she said, her forehead aching from frowning. "Please take care of yourself, and call me if you need anything."
"Good night, Tracy," Natalie said, her voice betraying her exhaustion as she closed the door.
Nick had driven aimlessly around Toronto for over an hour, hoping for a sighting of a random crime to occupy his time and mind. Finally he found himself circling Natalie's block like a vulture, much as self-recriminations were circling in his mind. He made his circuit shorter by a block with each pass, craning his neck each time to watch her lit windows each time. At least Tracy got her home, he thought bitterly, More than I managed to do last night. For the umpteenth time he reached for the car phone, then drew his hand back, and hit the steering wheel. I don't deserve even to speak to her, he chastised himself. She may never speak to me again--probably shouldn't--and I can't call her. There is no adequate apology. He pulled the car over and stopped, staring up at Natalie's windows. He could fly up there--or walk--and apologize, beg forgiveness, but why should he? She would only forgive him, then they would bury themselves in unspoken grievances, unvoiced fears, and unexpressed mutual guilt. She deserved better than that.
He sighed, then flicked on the radio.
"--always hurt the ones they love. They believe they are driven by this love, when truly, all they are concerned about is themselves. They say they have the 'best interests' of the beloved at heart, but they are deceiving themselves and the unfortunate beloved. These 'best interests' are all too often merely synonymous with the base instinct to protect themselves from harm and pain, from the knowledge that, too often, love is betrayed, that, sooner or later, the 'beloved' will find them out for a fraud, and leave. They know that their time is borrowed, that every second brings the end nearer. They lash out against that end, but at the same time lash out against the 'beloved' to hasten that end. They will make the other leave first, so they can maintain their status as the wounded--"
This time he would leave. He would go before Natalie was destroyed. Ever since LaCroix had returned, he had feared that Natalie would become the next victim in LaCroix's campaign to destroy any tie he created to humanity. But now he saw things clearly. LaCroix was not the danger. He was. Natalie was, and had always been, in the greatest danger from him.
He had proven last night that Natalie wasn't safe near him. No, had proven it again. He looked up at her window again, wondering just how badly hurt she was, if she was doing any better, if she would ever be completely fine. He knew now that he could not see her; he needed to go before she inevitably changed her mind and came back to him, as she always seemed to do. He knew himself at least well enough to know that he could not say goodbye and walk away, that if he were going to leave, it would have to be from a distance, when he could slip away into the night--the aspect of vampirism he'd best mastered. He would have to think of a good cover to leave behind. It was too bad, he thought, that she had covered for his 'death' in the shooting; he'd already have been long gone. If he left now, there would be too many questions, and this, this one time, should not be Natalie's job to cover up; she had lied enough for him.
"Do you have any idea what you've done?"
He started. He had been so absorbed in his plans that he hadn't heard Tracy's approach. He quickly flipped off the radio as she climbed into the car, slamming the door harder than necessary, even for the Caddy.
"Wha--?" he stammered.
She turned in the seat to face him, her jaw set and her eyes flashing. "And what are you doing here anyway? First you beat her, then you stalk her? Is that what's going on?"
He started, somewhat taken aback. So Nat wouldn't tell people who could help her--total strangers they'd never see again--but would tell Tracy. Maybe Tracy had blindsided her by guessing. Either way, he realized he was somewhat relieved. Maybe Tracy could help Natalie, make sure she was okay after he was gone.
Tracy was talking again, and Nick wondered how much he'd missed. "Nick, I spend every night in this car with you tracking down creeps who treat women like this--and worse. What are you thinking?"
"I don't... I wasn't. There's more to it than...there's no excuse," he said miserably, staring at his hands on the steering wheel. It was exactly what he'd been thinking, but it was startling to hear it said aloud. He was going to have to leave. Maybe that would protect Nat.
"Damn right there isn't. Do you have any idea what is going on up there?"
He looked back at her hopefully only to see her lip curl. He could not tell if it was a conscious or unconscious denunciation.
"No, I'm not going to tell you much." Her face was flushed with anger and frustration. "I will tell you she's in bad shape. Looks like hell, too. You really hurt her, Nick."
"Tracy, please. Is she okay?"
She glared at him for a long moment. "What do you think? No, she's not okay! She wouldn't tell me anything specific, but I think she's got a concussion, and her arms were such a mess that it hurt her just to pick up her purse or open a car door. What the hell happened?"
"I lost control." The ragged edge to his voice caused him to say it louder than he'd intended. "I'd been drinking, and we argued, and... Do you think she'll be all right?"
"I think so--physically, at least," she said ruefully. "Frankly, I'm more worried about the fact that she's barricaded herself up in denial thick enough to drown a horse. She's all but insisting that nothing happened at all."
He frowned, feeling the furrows that he was sure hadn't left his brow since the previous night deepening. "What?"
"I think she's trying to protect you. That's not all of it, but it's a part."
"Do you understand that you could have killed her?" she asked, the accusation and anger rising in her voice again, "That you might next time?"
"Better than you know," he said coldly.
"Good. One of you has to be clear on that."
"It's not going to be a concern."
"Isn't it?" she asked icily. "The frame of mind she's in now, she'd let you kill her before she'd admit that anything wrong happened."
His head snapped up, eyes wide with horror. "She would never... I wouldn't... She's smarter than that."
"I thought so too. But then, I thought I knew you. Maybe I was wrong."
"You were," he replied darkly.
"Nick, I left her with a number for a local hotline," Tracy said slowly.
"For domestic violence." This time she looked away.
"Do you think she'll call?"
"Do you think she needs to?"
He opened his mouth, closed it, and looked down to where he was rubbing his hands. After a long pause he said, hesitantly, "I don't know." A moment later, still staring at his hands, he asked quietly, "Could they help her?"
"I don't know. I hope so." Her expression softened somewhat, her anger fading to concern. She touched his arm lightly. "Should I give you the number as well?"
"They couldn't help. They certainly couldn't understand."
"Give them a try," she encouraged softly, setting a piece of paper on the car seat. "Or maybe look into a Twelve Step program."
He laughed a short, ironic laugh. "Yeah. Twelve Steps."
"She's an addicted co-dependent. She lost control." "She betrayed my trust!"
"I ate french fries. With lots of ketchup."
Natalie looking away, wincing as he gripped her wrist.
Natalie brushing off his apology. "Hey, no one ever said this was going to be easy."
Nick shook off the memories and looked back at Tracy.
"You're going to take me back to my car, and then you're going to go home for the night and think about what you're going to do to prevent this from happening again," she announced, fastening her seatbelt.
"I know exactly what to do," he growled. He put the car into gear and pulled into the street, resolutely watching the road so he would not see the expression on Tracy's face.
"Hello, Safe Hou--"
Natalie hung the phone up for the third time in the past 10 minutes and pushed it away, looking from the receiver to the phone number written in round numbers on a sheet of her own kitchen notepaper. She had stood with her back to the door for several minutes after closing it behind Tracy before the vertigo had sent her back to the couch. She'd been tempted to tear up the number since calling was an exercise in futility. It wasn't like she could explain the situation; it was...different. Nick was a vampire. It was different. He couldn't be anything other than what he was unless she was able to find a cure. Still, the concern that the EMTs would have made a report nagged at her. She had to know if her cover story would be adequate to avoid investigation. She didn't need the hotline services, she told herself--not that they could help her if she did--but they could provide information.
Slowly she picked up the phone again and pressed the redial button, her free hand stroking Sydney's grey head gently.
The phone rang only once before a the line was answered, "Hello, Safe House Crisis Hotline. This is Susan."
Natalie didn't answer.
"Ma'am, is it safe for you to talk?"
"Um, yes. I--." She forced herself to take a slow breath and deliberately loosened her grip on the receiver, one finger at a time. "I'm sorry. My name is Dr. Lambert, and I should have called your non-emergency line, but this was the only number I had. I'm needing to ask a few questions regarding a patient." Her words spilled out in a tumble, and even she heard the inadequately disguised anxiousness in her tone.
"Certainly, Dr. Lambert. How can I help you?" Susan asked.
She was silent for a moment again. The woman seemed neutral enough, and pleasant. "Let's, call the patient...Natasha," she said, hearing her voice catch slightly. "Early 30s, white female. She came through my E.R. with a concussion and contusions on her upper arms. I suspected that the...man who brought her in might have, somehow, caused, or contributed to, her...injury, and, well, I wanted to see what response you recommend..."
"And she wasn't a minor?"
"No." Natalie licked her lips and loosened her grip on the phone receiver again.
"Did you ask her if this man had abused her?"
She felt a twitch in her eyelids at the word 'abused'. It was far too harsh a word--always had been--and not really applicable to her or Nick. "Yes. She said no."
"Hmm. What reason do you have to suspect that she was abused?"
That word again. "Well, she was...jumpy. She seemed very angry at the man who was there, and kept a very close eye on him. She said she fell, but her story didn't quite, um, track with her injuries." It felt as though the words would be crowded out by the tightness across her chest. This was her greatest fear, that her own inadequacy in constructing a cover would bring questioning police to her door and to Nick's. After five years of secrets and lies, of effective doublespeak and skilled misdirection, she might have blown it all in an instant of inconsistency. She was sure Nick would move on before facing another probe like last year's murder investigation--also her fault, she reflected. She was lucky he hadn't left then.
"Hmm. That could be just the head injury confusion, as you know, but it does follow a great deal of classic behavior from women in abusive situations."
"I know," Natalie said wryly. She paused, then asked, a bit hesitantly, "I need to know if I'm obligated to file a police report."
"Well, since the woman in question has reached her majority, and she refused to file a complaint, you are under no obligation to file a report. Also, you've really only got suspicions, so..."
"What would happen if I did?" She held her breath, wondering if she'd hear Susan's answer over the pulse in her ears, wondering if Susan could hear the drumbeat of her heart.
"The police wouldn't be able to do anything, really."
Natalie breathed a sigh of relief.
"I know. It's infuriating. About all you can do, unfortunately, is to note in your charting that you believe the injuries may have been abuse-related so that if she comes through again and you're not there the doctor on duty can keep a close eye out for further indications."
"Do you really think that's necessary?"
"I think, if your suspicions are correct, that it's almost inevitable that she'll be abused and hurt again. Odds are she'll be back, or, more likely, she'll go to a different E.R. to avoid leaving a paper trail."
Nat paused, then plunged ahead. "What do you advise in situations like this?"
"Well, there's not much you can do if the victim is refusing to acknowledge there is a problem. We typically suggest trying to separate the victim from the abuser to get a better sense of the real story, and we recommend giving pamphlets or phone numbers so that the women can, if they choose, call us later when they feel safer. If you'd like, we can send you a few cards and a copy of our 'Ending the Cycle' pamphlet."
"What do you do with situations where the woman is contributing to the problem?" Natalie asked, her voice unsteady.
Susan's voice sounded tight, the first sign of emotion in her even tones. "We typically are trying to convince women that the behavior of their abusers is not their fault; no matter what they did or did not do, it does not justify someone hitting them or hurting them."
"Dr. Lambert, we counsel women to help them break out of thinking exactly how you're describing. One of the main focuses of our program is on helping women accept that no matter the legitimate struggles and problems of the abuser--who often has himself been abused in the past--his behavior is his choice and unacceptable."
Natalie felt herself shaking and forced herself to lower, one at a time, the shoulders that seemed to be trying to cover her ears and block Susan out. "Do you primarily recommend that the women leave the situation?" She tilted her head to stretch her neck, and grabbed her head when pain shot through it again.
"Well, that's actually a case-by-case judgement call. We offer counseling for both parties and try to work with people where they are; often the women who call don't believe or don't believe entirely they even fit into an 'abused' category. Often what's being said in the relationship is at least as damaging as any physical violence and helps reinforce the ideas that 'it's not so bad' or 'others have it worse' or 'it doesn't happen often enough to count' or 'he didn't mean to' or any number of other rationalizations for why their situation isn't 'really' abusive. Statistics show that most women try to leave an abusive situation an average of seven times before they actually leave."
She closed her eyes and forced her shoulders lower. Not so bad. It really isn't so bad. He didn't mean to. This Susan seems very nice, but she bandies that word 'abuse' around far too freely. Other people really do have it worse. I pushed him and he didn't mean to hurt me. ...He never means to. "I also wanted to know what kind of options an organization like yours might offer, especially for the women who choose to stay," Natalie added quickly, her breath catching a bit again, "In case I see her again."
"We provide referrals to therapists who specialize in abuse and codependency, and advice and options and support for leaving the abusive situation. We also have a series of public-service presentations especially for high schools." Susan paused for a moment. "Dr. Lambert, are you okay? This seems to be really getting to you. Was this Natasha your first likely abuse case?"
She paused. "Um, yes. She was in a way. And I'm fine." Natalie smiled. This smile is unlikely to fool anyone, she thought ruefully. It's probably best she can't see it.
"Well, abuse affects more than just those directly involved, and can open old wounds for some people. We offer help to those people as well." Susan suddenly paused then continued, speaking rapidly, "You know, I'm really sorry. I'd be glad to talk to you more, but we've got hotline calls coming in. I'm Susan Chan, and I'm one of the assistant directors of Safe House. I'll be glad to give you my extension send you the pamphlet I was mentioning and some of our other literature."
"That would be nice," she said absently.
"Where could we send that, Dr. Lambert?"
She froze for a second, realizing that anywhere she had it sent would look suspicious, would betray her lies. "My mail service is all mixed up currently. Could I get your information and then send for the literature?" Natalie mechanically took Susan's number and address, then hung the phone into its cradle without looking away from her notepaper.
By the time she no longer felt her heart pounding, she found that Sydney had left the room.
"It's good to see you've finally come to your senses, Nicholas."
Nick stopped at the cold and mocking voice behind him but did not look up from his packing. He'd long since stopped wondering how LaCroix managed to enter his loft.
"It is rather like you, though. Running again. Where shall we go this time, hmm?"
"LaCroix, there is no we," he said flatly.
"Of course." LaCroix replied with the solemn tones of one humoring a small child.
Nick whirled on him, "This is your doing!"
"Oh, no, my dear Nicholas, you've always destroyed things entirely on your own. I've never needed to lift a finger to help you there." He ran his finger along the piano, picking up the glass Nick had left there the night before and sniffing in disgust. "You really must clean up more often, Nicholas."
Nick stalked across the room where he gathered a handful of books, refusing to look at LaCroix or acknowledge his presence. Centuries had passed and it was always like this, LaCroix taunting, nudging, following, destroying the bits he had not damaged on his own. And to what end? All to torment him and control him, to take away enough things, punish enough others in his stead that he would do and be and act exactly as LaCroix wanted.
LaCroix set the glass down and walked slowly around the room, spiraling closer to Nick with each turn. "I must admit a certain pride, however," he said, fingering the half-finished painting on the easel. "Last night I felt you and you reveled in what we are, in the bloodlust and power. You remembered for a moment that mortals are to be used for our pleasure--"
Nick spun around in a fury stabbing a finger toward his master as he growled, "LaCroix, you disgust me. I disgust myself when I am at all like you, when this beast you unleashed in me gets the upper hand."
"This 'beast', as you call it, is you. You are made to devour those around you, to drink them up and glory in the domination. Their pain, their blood, they are our nourishment."
Nick closed his eyes to block out the smug look on LaCroix's face. "I will not let that happen," he said softly. He bent over against the travel case, gripping the edge tightly in both fists.
"You mean you won't let it happen again, don't you?" LaCroix set down the antique bronze incense burner he'd been turning over in his hand. "Pity. Well, you had better leave then, hadn't you? You'll not be able to prevent it otherwise. Ironic, isn't it? You spend so much energy protecting them from me or themselves, purport to care so much for these mortals, and yet it is you who destroys them, then leaves the wreck to start again somewhere else, drawing someone else into your impossible and inevitably deadly quest. Ever the Crusader--"
Nick's voice rose to a roar. "LaCroix, leave me! You have controlled me for too long. Get out!" Nick threw the travel case across the room, sending its contents flying through the air and books and trinkets crashing to the floor.
LaCroix plucked a sock from his shoulder and fingered it. "It's too bad it's nearly dawn. I suppose," he added, sarcasm and disdain dripping from his words, "you could drive just outside of the city and spend the day in your car boot, ignominious though that is. But anything to protect your precious Natalie, I presume."
Nick looked up, his fury turning to icy fear.
"Yes. She'll be safer when you're far away, I'm certain." Nick looked up. Was LaCroix being serious or making a threat? So many years, he should be able to tell, but LaCroix was capricious enough that Nick often was unsure which way he would turn. "Anyway," LaCroix continued, "isn't it about time you gave up this fantasy of becoming mortal once and for all?"
"LaCroix..." Nick began.
"I'll be going now, as you...requested." His voice was cold, his face full of contempt, as he set the sock, folded in half, on a table. "Let me know if you reconsider."
Nick watched the door close behind him then sank onto the sofa. Now the question was whether it was more dangerous to Natalie for him to stay or to go.
Natalie started awake, heart and head pounding. She dimly noticed that although her headache was not as sharp as it had been, the stiffness in her neck protested the sudden jarring of waking. The dim shadows of her darkened bedroom taunted her and she closed her eyes, only to see again the image from her dreams
Her arms were pinned while Nick menaced her, fangs out, her Nana, looking at her predicament archly, shaking her head and saying, "He's such a nice young man, Natasha. And look what you bring out in him."
The Dream-Nick released her, showed her his burned hands and face, and said accusingly, "You knew this would happen, didn't you?" Then he shook his head in disgust and walked away.
Nana scowling disapprovingly, asked, "How have you gotten yourself into this, Natasha? If you would keep your promises, this would not be a problem. Good girls keep their promises." Then she, too, faded from sight, leaving Natalie alone in darkness.
A tear slipped from under her eyelids. She took a deep breath, blew it out, and bit her lip. She hadn't dreamt of Nana in years. Hadn't thought of the old nickname until it sprang unbidden to her lips on the phone earlier.
She turned her pillow over and lay back down, the cool fabric of the pillowcase feeling soothing against her flushed cheeks and neck. This is silly, she thought before slipping back into a troubled sleep.
"You're looking better."
Natalie started at Grace's warm voice next to her. She hadn't even heard the woman approach. This edginess was getting aggravating, and, she was sure, making her look ridiculous. It was certainly making it difficult to maintain normal appearances, and she worried that if she didn't get hold of herself that questions would start to crop up. "I got some sleep," she said, smiling and hoping the smile didn't look as hollow as it felt.
"He still in the doghouse? He's been scarce around here for over a week now."
Grace lowered her voice into the gentle, mothering tones that Natalie had come to recognize as a concession to her preference for privacy. "I know. It's none of my business. I just worry about you and you haven't seemed happy for a while."
"It's not what you think--" Nat began, looking at the pencil she twisted in both hands. He had been keeping his distance, and she had let him, but she had been quietly keeping tabs on him. The fact that he'd continued to come to work every day gave her a bit of confidence that he wasn't quite yet ready to leave Toronto, to leave her. She was becoming more certain, though, that she was going to have to go to him. She wasn't sure if he was avoiding her out of guilt--which seemed likely--or anger at her for causing the whole mess. He had asked her to leave and she had pushed him into a corner. She had no idea what kind of hard time Tracy was giving him, though she was holding her tongue with Nat.
"Oh, I think I'm hitting pretty close, but that's all right. I just wish you'd take better care of yourself--and that he'd take better care of you--because he's going to be in my doghouse till he comes around regularly and leaves you smiling." Grace's chin tilted down, eyebrows rising in punctuation of her opinions.
Natalie did smile then; her coworker's warmth was always sincere and lavished on those near to her. She leaned her head to the side onto one hand. "How do you know he's not mad at me? That I'm not the one who screwed up?"
"Because you're my friend so my loyalties lie here," Grace replied promptly. "And he's the man, and you know how they are."
Nat's smile broadened. Grace was indeed loyalty itself. "That's very sweet, but we've both got things to work on; it's a two-way street, you know."
"Uh-huh." Dubious didn't begin to cover that look, Nat thought.
"I do appreciate your concern," she offered.
Grace opened her mouth, closed it again, and shrugged. "You want to join us for lunch today? We're going to the deli for sandwiches."
"No. I think I need to finish up some work here. It's been so nice being caught up, or nearly so, that I want to keep it that way as long as possible. Thanks, though."
Grace smiled, clearly completely unsurprised and, Nat noted gratefully, unoffended at this answer. "You just make sure you eat a good lunch. Remember, I'm watching you." She patted Nat's shoulder and smiled before returning to her work.
Nat watched her go, leaning her chin on her intertwined hands. If only things could be as simple as she thinks they are. It's gotten so complicated, and everything I do is wrong. I shouldn't have talked to Tracy, should never have lied to him, should have left when he told me.
Natalie paused outside Nick's building, standing for a long moment before she denounced her hesitance as silly and purposefully keyed in the alarm code. She got the elevator moving before she could change her mind again; she had thought about coming, half-intended to come, for nearly a week now. She'd worried that she would wait too long and would arrive to find his things packed and shrouded and him gone with no farewell save her lingering headache. She missed him--not this frightening Nick, but the Nick she had spent time with, had watched movies with--the Nick she had to admit she hadn't seen in a very long time.
The elevator stopped and Natalie opened the door, pausing to look ruefully at the offending doorframe and then around the loft. It was thick with gloom as palpable as the canvas furniture covers she kept envisioning. It was so silent she feared that he might have abandoned her after all. Gingerly, she stepped farther into the room.
"Nick?" she asked softly, trying to use the gentle tone she usually reserved for soothing and consoling, but hearing the edge of desperation creep in despite her intentions. She looked around the loft for signs of movement and took another step in. "Nick? Are you here?" She grimaced at the nearly plaintive tone.
Nick sat up, disheveled head, shoulders, and wrinkled pajamas appearing slowly over the couch. "I'm here," he said quietly.
She looked away, trying to hide the unexpected tears she felt pricking her eyes.
He was immediately on his feet. "Nat, I'm--"
She held up a hand to stop him. "No. Let me." She stopped, pursed her lips, and took a measured breath as he looked away. His shoulders were slumped in the defeated posture of a little boy who hit a baseball through a cranky neighbor's window. When did I become the scolding parent? she wondered. When have I been anything but that? She raised her chin and began, "I came to apologize. I'm sorry."
His head jerked up, a deep frown creasing his forehead.
"I," she started, pausing to gulp a quick breath, "am so sorry for what happened. I should have told you the truth, should have stayed with you the whole time so you didn't go out." She took another deep breath, swallowing hard past the lump in her throat.
"Let me finish. I didn't know what else to do. I thought, maybe, if you didn't know, it wouldn't be real. I was wrong." Her neck, still stiff, felt like the cords of muscle had turned to twisted wrought iron, and although the anger and frustration were holding back her embarrassing tears, she could feel a bright flush heating her cheeks.
"Nat," Nick's voice was soft and pained, "none of this is even about that. Anyway, it's not your fault. What you did saved my life here."
Natalie laughed. It sounded short and bitter even to her ears. "I didn't do that entirely for you, you know. I didn't want you to have to go." She glanced at him as she made this first admission aloud of motives other than altruism or scientific curiosity. There was no reaction. She laughed again, more of a sniff this time. "It was selfish; I didn't want to be the one left behind, knowing you were somewhere starting over while everyone here grieved for your 'death' except me."
He kept looking like he wanted to do or say something, lifting a hand toward her, opening his mouth, but kept stopping himself. He shook his head, still frowning, pursed his lips for a moment, then looked as if he'd decided to speak.
She drew a shuddering breath and rushed ahead. "That's why I'm sorry. I was so caught up in my own disappointment that I didn't think. This was so much worse for you and then I sent you to LaCroix. I should have known better." She almost trailed off as the mental refrain of "if only" began yet again. "And, when I was here, I should have left when you told me to. I shouldn't have pushed you so hard; you were in no state to respond to that."
As she stopped to breathe and quell her trembling, he said incredulously, "Natalie, you're joking, right? After what I did to you you're trying to say it was your fault instead of mine?"
She hadn't expected that. She should have; Nick was always tripping over himself to claim guilt. That was where this had started, after all. As she tried to think of a response he walked slowly toward her, still frowning, looking intently at her, his blue eyes sad with not a hint of the chill of the last time.
She felt her eyes dart around, looking everywhere but at him as she trembled from resisting her urge to shrink away or step back. She could not meet his steady gaze and the voice she mustered was barely above a whisper. "Nick, what are you doing?"
He reached out and started to move the lapels of her jacket.
She did take a quick step backwards then, and crossed her arms tightly, "What are you doing?"
"Nat, let me show you something." His voice was almost husky, but so soft she could barely hear him over the pounding of her pulse in her ears.
Her eyes filled with tears and she shook her head, angry at her show of weakness.
He reached again for her jacket. "You need to look at this. Please."
She dropped her arms slowly to her sides and bit her lip while she let him slip the jacket off her shoulders revealing the yellow and green finger-shaped marks on her arms, still flecked with deep purple. She looked at the floor, gripping the sleeves of her bunched-up jacket tightly as blood rose in her face along with the shame that was tightening her chest.
"Natalie, look. I did this to you. And more. I hurt you." He sounded as stricken as he looked. "Why..." his voice caught, almost broke. "Why would you apologize to me? I'm the one who's wrong, who's terribly sorry." He stared at her arms, touching one lightly with his fingertips. "God, Natalie, it's been almost two weeks and they're still like this..."
"It's not a big thing, Nick. I'm all right. What matters is--"
"What matters to me is you. And it is a very big thing; you deserve so much better." Sadness seemed to hang from him.
"Well, if I would judge better what to do and say, and would just..." she began, attempting a light tone. She trailed off as he shook his head and tried another tack. "Anyway, I know you never mean to hurt me."
"Never mean?" she heard her error too late and, shaking, heart pounding, watched his sadness grow into horror. "You say that like...how often have...my God, Natalie, how many times have you hidden something I've done from me?"
She looked away, biting her lip again.
He reached for her, caught himself as she flinched away, and jumped back as if burned, hands held up in surrender. "How many?" His voice rose although he clearly did not notice its volume or her pronounced startle. She kept silent, afraid that if she said even a single word her tenuous control would erode. "How long have you been pretending like this? Pretending that things are fine? Brushing it off or pretending it's your fault when," he paused, wiping a hand over his face, "when I hurt you?"
"I should have," she started, drawing a ragged breath, "I should have..."
"You should have run away," Nick interjected harshly. "You should have run away when you first met me."
She exhaled steadily to calm herself. "I made promises that I want to keep. For you and for me. I don't want to run. I want--" She just shook her head as her chin began to pucker and tremble again. After a long moment of him staring, as she watched damp splashes start to hit her blouse, she felt him gather her into his arms. She gasped as her jacket, still half off, bound her arms and she struggled, pushing at him, first weakly, then with greater strength. "I'm sorry...my jacket...I can't move...Nick..." She staggered back from him and stared, heart pounding and hands shaking, at his confused and hurt expression, then fled to the elevator. She leaned against the wall, trying to gulp back wrenching sobs while Nick calling to her from above.
Natalie opened her door, eyebrows raised in a wry smirk. "That was quick. Sunset was eight minutes ago."
He looked stricken, as if she had slapped him and stammered to say, "Are you all right, Nat? I'm so sorry."
"I know you are. I am too." She looked down, shame over her behavior weighing on her chest. He gestured to the apartment, his face reflecting his question. She sighed and stepped to the side, allowing him inside and closing her door behind him, leaning against the door for a moment before she said, "I'm sorry I ran, sorry I was afraid, sorry I haven't--"
"You should be afraid."
She looked steadily at the dark flashing of his eyes. "Nick, I don't want to be afraid of you." Did he still not get that?
"But you are. Why else come to the loft in the daytime when you could leave and I couldn't follow?"
She looked away, struggling yet again against the tears she hated. Her view of Nick blurred but she saw him reach for her again, tentatively this time, cautiously. She paused for a moment before she took a step toward him and allowed him to embrace her. They touched so rarely now, either because of the tensions that had built between them or Nick's sense of tenuous control or...something, and as he held her and stroked her hair, tears escaped to roll down her cheeks in spite of her best efforts.
She took forced her breathing into a more even pattern and released a hold on him she had not realized was so tight. She sniffed as she stepped back. "I'm sorry."
He frowned again, clearly wanting to hold her longer. "You don't have to apologize. I told you: I'm the one who's sorry."
"Should we flip for it?" she quipped.
Another long, uncomfortable silence. They were far too frequent of an occurrence.
Nick fingered a trinket and an envelope on a nearby table. "Natalie, have I hurt you often? I've been going out of my mind since you left, wondering, not knowing. I can't stand you to be hurt. I can't stand that I've been doing it and didn't even know. Please. Tell me."
She felt her shoulders slump. "It's not often." He raised his eyebrows. "It's not often. Usually...when it's happened, you've been drunk. It's when you're not really in control, when it's not really your fault, not really you." She felt inexplicably guilty, like this was supposed to remain the secret she had kept it, like she was betraying him, or maybe herself.
Finally, quietly, he asked, "Why didn't you say something?"
"I thought... You work so hard, try so hard, to control your demons, and when you don't manage it perfectly, you have this guilt...I didn't want to add to that when it wasn't really your fault, when you were doing your best." Clearly neither of them knew what to say and the silence stretched long again. "Maybe," she started tentatively, "maybe we should have some ground rules. Maybe I should promise to leave if you order me to get out--especially if you're drunk."
"Maybe I shouldn't get drunk," he rejoined bitterly. "When I do, though, you're right; you've got to keep away. But you have to promise to tell me if I hurt you."
She looked at the floor, then the ceiling, then the wall. "You have to promise me..."
He stood in silence, finally saying gently, "Promise you what?"
"Promise me you'll talk to me. I don't know what's going on in your head anymore. I don't know what's bothering you. I want to help, and I can't. Please?"
"Of course," he replied quickly. "I just don't want to worry you. You already do so much, and it doesn't seem fair to add my troubles and frustrations to yours."
"I know. I'm sorry. I thought we'd have been successful by now too." She berated herself that she couldn't seem to look him in the eye consistently; it was something she usually prided herself on.
"Nat, I'm not disappointed with you. Do you know how many times I've been down this path?" He tilted her chin up with one finger and looked straight at her. "I've been disappointed before, but I've never been able to spend a day in the sun or do half the things you've made possible. And it's never been you before." He touched her face gently and this time she didn't shrink away.
"And..." she took a deep breath then plowed ahead, "I know I can't stop you from moving on at some point but please, promise me you'll say goodbye even though I know you hate that. I don't want to lose you. But the longer you're here without me succeeding, the more I wonder what use I am, how much longer you'll stick around, and when I'll come over one day and find you gone without a trace." Nick looked away. He had considered it then, just as she'd suspected. She noticed that he didn't answer. "I miss you," she said softly. "Tell me what I need to do, and I'll do it."
He hugged her again then said quietly, still holding her tightly, "Natalie, be afraid. Remember to be afraid. It can help keep you safe."
"Hey, Natalie." Tracy stepped quietly into the calming blue tones of morgue.
"Hey." Natalie looked up from paperwork and gave her what looked like a genuine smile.
"How have you been doing?"
"I've been fine.
Tracy raised her eyebrows, unable to prevent "oh, really?" she was biting back from showing in her face.
"I'm fine," Nat insisted, calmly fingering her pencil.
"Fine, fine." Natalie tapped her pencil on her blotter and glanced to one side as if to check where her co-workers were. "My headache's been mostly gone for a couple of days."
"I'm glad. And how are things with--" She turned as the door opened again. "Nick. I didn't expect to see you here."
He looked almost shy and smiled that bright smile that always made Tracy think of leprechauns. "Captain called me to let me know we'd need a report, so I thought I'd drop by and pick it up on the way to work."
Tracy looked from one to the other and back. They were both smiling, almost silly. Tracy didn't know whether to be more worried or delighted. "You two are terrible. You're talking again and no one fills me in?"
They both shrugged, bemused expressions on their faces as Nat handed him the report.
"So everything's worked out?" She looked back and forth between them expectantly.
The smiles faded into more serious expressions, and after a long pause Nat said slowly, "We talked. We're okay." They both nodded and Natalie smiled again, although Tracy thought this smile looked less vibrant. Her concern resurged.
"Trace, we've got to get to work." Nick swatted her shoulder with the file then raised it in Nat's direction. "See you later, Nat."
"Have a good night, you two."
"Bye, Nat," Tracy waved.
As the door closed behind them, Tracy heard Grace call from around the corner, "Now that's what I'm talking about."
She caught up with Nick in a couple of steps. "Hey, are things really okay with you two?"
"Yeah." He nodded and shrugged slightly.
"I mean, I'm just worried; this is pretty heavy duty and you both seem...well, I just want everything to be okay. And I've seen first-hand how often do-it-yourself recovery programs backfire." Her mother had to have tried upwards of a dozen times and ways and nothing had ever changed. Yes, she'd keep an eye on them; they needed backup.
"Trace, it's fine."
"All right." Tracy held up her hands. "Just, please, do this right. And ask for help if you need it, okay?"
Natalie approached Nick's door hesitantly for the second time in as many weeks, then keyed in the code and got on the elevator. The days when things went smoothly seemed so rare now. They'd had a few comfortable days where she saw Nick smile, and smiled herself, more than she had in months combined. He had been supportive and his normal self as she'd autopsied another terrible burn case, and then suddenly she was hearing reports of Nick's strange behavior and talk about demons. In spite of his promise, Nick hadn't talked to her or come to her, but had gone to LaCroix and she'd had to track them both down, terrified of another meltdown like his last encounter with LaCroix had created.
She'd been too late.
Based on Tracy's sketchy information, she'd looked for Nick at the priest's, and walked in on a nightmare: Nick, face contorted, fully consumed by his beast. She'd evaluated the situation and almost immediately turned to flee, but he had been too fast for her, had grabbed her, had almost bitten her in his frenzy. She was sore from him aggravating her previous injuries, caught between angry, shaky, and scared, both of Nick and for him.
She was more afraid than she'd been before, had no idea where they stood, but had to make sure he was all right. She pushed open the elevator door.
"Nick? I was just on my way in to the office. You booked off, right?" At his slight nod, she continued hopefully, "Listen, I could stay here with you if you want."
His response was abrupt and definite like all his rejections had been lately, but she pressed on. "It's no trouble, really, I could just, um--"
Trying to reassure, Natalie said gently, "It's over, Nick. Hey, you beat the devil. Not bad for a day's work." She just hoped that she was right, that he'd won and was in control again.
"You can't imagine what it's like."
There was such bitterness in his voice and she was torn between sympathy for him and irritation at his assumption that he was the only one haunted or tempted. "Maybe not, but we all have our demons," she said, a bit archly.
"Not like this." He turned to face her for the first time since she'd arrived, and his eyes were glowing, his fangs visible.
Natalie gasped and jumped back, hating herself for it. "Don't. Don't do that!" She hated even more the little-girl panic in her voice and the immediate jump in her heart rate.
He reached out, twining his fingers into the hair at the side of her head and pulling her closer, then leaned to put his forehead to hers and fear compressed her chest as she tried futilely to pull away. "It's all right. Don't be afraid."
Disclaimer: These characters were created by James Parriott. They belong, lock, stock, and barrel, to Tri-Star Entertainment. I'm just playing with them, and will return them in the (same sorry) condition in which I found them. No infringement is intended, and no one's getting rich, or even making money; please don't sue me. Some plot points, as well as some dialogue, have been taken from "My Boyfriend is a Vampire" and "Sons of Belial" by Phil Bedard & Larry LaLonde and "Night in Question" by Gary Stephen Rieck. They have complete ownership of the lines and storylines they created. The nickname "Calamity Lambert" is borrowed with permission from Valerie Meachum, who created it in 1992 for her story "Further to Fall". The remainder of the story is entirely mine and should not be reproduced or archived without my permission.
Archiving: Yes to . Any reposting should include the story and intro notes in their entirety. Please inform me of any archive locations as a courtesy.Author's Notes
Blessings heaped on the heads of those who did beta-reads on the final version(s) of the story to: Abby, Lori, Valerie, Yahtzee, Missy, Tara, Jill, and Cyndi. Many thanks also for in-progress feedback, encouragement, and other random input to: Valerie, Jennie, Tina, Lizbet, Abby, Celli, Abbie, Perri, Lynn, Elaine, Sandy, Dawn, Cyndi, A.J, Karen, and Dana. Special thanks to Abby, who twice made exactly the right comment or asked exactly the right question to help push the story to work.
This story was started in the summer of 1995 after a very late night conversation with Valerie, where we brainstormed a large chunk of dialogue, most of which has since been sadly excised from the story due to rewrites. The story originally featured Schanke and Janette, then underwent a massive rewrite and restructuring as third season progressed and it became clear that third season would far better support things going this far wrong. I wish the series' canon and the characters allowed for a more positive outcome.
Story begun: Spring 1995. Story finished: Summer 2003