Maura liked when Nick came to the bar early. He usually picked her up just at closing, but some nights when things had gone well, or occasionally when they hadn't, he came in time to lose himself in the music and fog.
On good nights he'd hang out and "mortal-watch" with Janette until closing. Maura had no clue what they found to talk about, but it came from centuries of a connection she could barely imagine. He'd wait for a lull in Maura's late-night activities and always found the perfect moment to appear behind her, hands creeping around her waist, to hug her back against him always with the same greeting, "What's shakin', Sweet?" If there was time he'd mention in short form, to be detailed later, whatever it was that had him in a high mood, and after she gave up a kiss or two – he wouldn't leave her to her work until she did – he'd return to Janette's side. Sometimes she wondered why she didn't wonder more about his smoothness in moving from one of them to the other, physically affectionate and easily intimate. Smiles, laughter, if she didn't have business to attend to she could watch him for hours as he became as she saw him: open, as at peace with himself as he ever got except when they were quietly alone at home.
On the nights he came early, the good ones, Nick possessed a playful demeanor, at ease and able to forget the double edge of his life. And, Maura had to admit, on those nights in particular he was impossibly attractive, sexy in a way that he couldn't possibly be on the "outside" because here much of his usual caution could be left behind. In the company of his kind he was himself, entirely, and the difference showed. When he was in a very good mood, Nick would pull Maura from whatever she was doing when a particular song sparked his interest. Often they were the dark and edgy ones, and he'd hold her so close she had to move with him as if she were his conjoined twin. The golden pulse would flicker in his eyes then, and he'd brush his face against her cheek and neck as if teasing her with promises he couldn't keep in public. He'd laugh in her ear as if their life together were a secret kept only to themselves, with everyone left to wonder. Nobody did, actually. The depth of their connection was palpable at times like that, as Nick's with Janette when Maura saw them together.
There were the occasions, any at all were too frequent for Maura, when Nick came in after a particularly wretched day or case or an interview with the family member of a victim. When a case was going nowhere it ate at him, giving him another reason to curse himself for a failure. Those nights he'd find Maura first, with the shadow in his eyes that tore at her whenever she saw it because she knew she'd never convince him he couldn't control the tragedy of others. At times like that his weariness was as evident as his belief that he only needed to see her to feel some comfort. He'd step close to her without saying a word, she'd put down what she was doing and touch him with both hands so he could feel her understanding before she even knew what had happened. She understood his rage for control, his need to make everything all right, and had long since stopped trying to talk him out of it. "I'm not simple minded," he'd told her once, "I've had 800 years to recognize my limits. We just don't coexist happily." So without saying much besides "Hey," she'd pull his face to hers and kiss his cheek as she whispered, "It's okay now, you're among friends," then after he managed a smile that was more trust than confidence he'd go to Janette to be soothed by their ageless companionship. At times like that it was all that helped, really, because no logic could touch him then. A secure place to rest and recover was what he needed most when the heart he didn't believe he had was near breaking.
On very bad nights after Maura had kissed and welcomed him she'd finish her work and find him sitting with Janette, staring into the candle flame or the reflection of light in Janette's glass. He'd look up at her and rise without a word, touching Janette's hand before they left, sometimes draping an arm around Maura's shoulders as if he needed support to make it to the car. They'd ride home in silence and often as not Maura would reach out and take Nick's right hand from the wheel and pull it to her lap where she could cradle it in both of hers. When her work went bad it could be annoying or even dangerous, but when Nick's went bad it was the stuff of nightmares.
"This isn't the best line of work for someone who is always reaching for the weight of the world," she'd told him one night as he lay on the sofa, head in her lap, as she tried to soothe his latest self-inflicted emotional beating. He'd been taken in by a suspect, had worked overtime to find her alibi witnesses, only to find they were her next targets. Three more dead, including the suspect, and Nick was punishing himself for having trusted, rather than questioned, because questions were the logical middle ground between blind trust and cold cynicism. It could have happened to anyone really, but of course it had happened to him. His eyes were closed as she gently stroked his forehead and ran light fingers through his hair.
"You're gonna screw up sometimes, no matter what you do. In your job, the stakes are so high that screwing up is always gonna be ugly. You can't change that unless some day you wake up perfect." He was holding her other hand in both of his and gave it a squeeze as she finished her thought. "I'm sorry, Bats, I don't have any magic answers. I just babble until I hit some combo of words that might make it hurt less. I'm not much of a shrink, I guess." He smiled reassuringly, opened his eyes to look up into hers. His always seemed bluer when he was sad. "Don't change a thing, Sweet. When my head's too full what I need most is your lap to lay it in."
Tonight was kind of break-even. Nick and Schanke had been working the case of a teenager killed by a gang member. Not much cooperation on any side, and things were going slowly. Maura was standing at a dark side table away from the frenzy, going over the following week's schedule, when she felt Nick behind her. This time it was a warm squeeze and kiss on the side of the head. "Mmm, sweet," he told her, the adjective rather than the nickname. She leaned back into him. "Not bad yourself. Any progress?"
He was swaying her back and forth with him. "Yeah, Schanke actually managed to sweet-talk one of the neighborhood little-old-ladies into telling us what she saw that night. Got some good descriptions, could be solid leads." Maura rotated in Nick's grasp, facing him with an incredulous "Schanke, sweet-talked? First time for everything."
"You know it." He cocked his head as he leaned down a little. "How's the tourists tonight?" It was Wednesday, newcomer's Night, when cover was free to first-timers. Those repeaters who tried to weasel in were always stunned at the staff's powers of recollection. If they only knew.
"See for yourself," she nodded toward the dance floor, teeming with virgin dungeon bunnies. "Not bad for mid-week. Janette doesn't waste time on bad ideas, does she?"
When she turned back Nick was staring intently at her.
He replied with a kiss. "Nice to see you."
He laughed and gave her a shake. "Do your thing, I'll go bother Janette."
Now Maura laughed. "Yeah go ruin her night, goofball."
When Maura had scheduled and counted up and closed out for the night she went in search of Nick and Janette, finding them in a back banquette. They were seated predictably close together, Janette leaning on Nick's shoulder, his other hand toying with hers. If she felt any jealousy at all it was more a form of impatience, that she couldn't experience with Nick the kind of link so obvious between himself and Janette. Foolish, of course, as foolish as traditional jealousy. But she didn't have 800 years, or even 80 to be patient. She was joined to Nick deeper and more quickly than she ever would have imagined possible with anyone, but seeing him with Janette gave her what he called that twinge of "wanna" she got when something was beyond her reach. At times like this she felt very in sync with Natalie, but without the unrequited longing.
"Ah, cherie, all tied up neatly as usual?" Janette inquired with a smile. They really had developed quite an affection for one another.
"Bien sûr. Tout sont finis." The sometimes communicated entirely in French for amusement. It could be handy when discussing troublesome customers. She sat down rather more suddenly than she'd intended.
"Whoa, burnout alert," Nick announced as he turned to her, disengaging from Janette as casually as he might change his jacket. With a gentle smile, he brushed some hair back from Maura's face. "I think it's quitting time."
She nodded. It hadn't been a particularly exhausting night, but it was just before the new moon and for some reason that time in particular seemed to find her easily tired, and often emotionally unbalanced, as if her body were fully engaged in working itself into a dangerous state. "Everything's counted and locked up tight, Janette. See you Friday." She was taking the next night off for no particular reason.
"A bientôt, cherie," Janette kissed Maura's cheek as she saw her and Nick to the door. As always, Nick got a more robust goodnight.
"Y'know sometimes I wonder about us," Maura mused as she belted into the Caddy. "Jules and Jim in reverse. I mean you turn from one of us to the other without batting an eye. In some polite circles you'd be known as a cad."
"Don't think I haven't."
Maura fell sound asleep on the drive home. She woke up as Nick was laying her down on the sofa.
"Yikes!" she squeaked and bolted upright, almost whacking Nick on the chin with her head, then asked suspiciously, "Did we fly here?"
"No we didn't," he assured her, knowing how much she wanted him to take her flying. "We did it the old fashioned way, don't you remember?"
"Oh. Okay, then." Nick headed to the kitchen for a bottle. "Pick a flick," he suggested. Maura went to peruse the collection, but when Nick returned he found her standing motionless in front of the shelves, looking disconcerted and a little confused.
"Uh-oh," he observed, standing next to her, "a little PNMS, huh?"
She'd come up with the witticism, a take-off on PMS that meant "Pre Newl Moon Syndrome", to characterize her mood swings in the runup to the moon change. Since she'd never had PMS, in fact she'd never had a period, it was what passed for her "time of the month". She was convinced he was more supportive than any mortal guy would be if she had the real thing.
"I guess," she shrugged. "You know how I get. I feel all bummed and messy tonight, no idea why." She'd been getting that way for some time, but had managed to keep it to herself.
"You're just tired. C'mon, we'll put on some music instead." He loaded some Debussy, soothing, and led her back to the sofa. "C'mere, stretch out and unwind." She complied with a yawn and smiled as he spread the afghan over her and gave her a kiss before going to refill his glass.
"You spoil me rotten." She hastened to add, "Not that there's anything wrong with that."
He tipped her a wink and laid a finger alongside his nose like a seasoned con artist. "Don't tell anyone, I have a dark reputation to uphold."
"At Raven maybe, but what about work?"
"Oh them, you can tell them anything you want. But mix it up. Keep em confused."
She shut her eyes as he lowered the lights and returned to the kitchen, then went to his computer. Why did she feel so empty, so sad? She felt cold inside, desolate, and couldn't begin to imagine why. Fucked up hormones, Nick was right. A bigass case of PNMS.
When Nick came to join her some time later he heard a not-quite sound from beneath the afghan where Maura lay buried in the pillow. Sleep noises, he figured, and sat in the leather armchair nearby. He heard it again. Like a whimper, struggling to be silent. Puzzled, he focused. There it was again, clear now, wet and sorrowful. He knelt on the floor near her head.
"Hey," he whispered, "what's this?" He pulled at the afghan but she clung tighter.
"I dunno," came the miserable reply. "Really, I dunno." The last word was painful in its confusion.
"C'mere," he coaxed, getting her to relinquish her grip as he sat on the edge of the sofa and helped sit her up against the cushions. He peered into her face as if for hidden clues. "What's up?" He cupped a hand to her cheek and she leaned into it. She shook her head, no answers apparent.
"PNMS?" she asked uncertainly, and gave a shuddery sigh. "I have no fucking idea, I just feel so lousy inside." Her eyes were wide and locked on Nick's as if he could help find an answer.
"C'mere," he repeated and took her into his arms. She rested on his shoulder, eyes closed, trying to stop the hitching in her gut, but she couldn't. No hysterical crying jag, just irregular gulps of breath that made her feel like some stupid child. He stroked her hair, kissed her cheek, rocked her a little.
"Y'know," he mused as if to thin air, "remember how you used to have those terrible dreams the night before new? Maybe the dreams went away but left something else. Maybe this is something inside wishing it wouldn't happen." She sighed again.
"I guess. Maybe." Another sigh. Nick's embrace tightened. She liked how he felt, warm because he'd just fed. She really wanted to know what was causing this mood, a despair that had crept up on her gradually over recent weeks and just got worse and worse.
"Are you having dreams?" he asked.
"Not that I remember." Well, not exactly. "There are flashes, like. Little bits of things but nothing clear to grab onto."
He pushed her back to look at her. "Flashes? Of what?"
She shifted uneasily. "LaCroix. Not when he attacked me, though. New stuff. There's just one thing I keep remembering, the same quick image over and over."
He waited, then prompted. "Yeah?"
After looking everywhere but at Nick she finally faced him. "LaCroix and you. Here. And me gone. Don't ask me to describe it, it doesn't make sense. But I'm not here, and he is, and you're happy. Not just satisfied, but grateful something bad is over, that you have your right life back. All in one little flash of image. I know it doesn't make sense."
He touched his forehead briefly to Maura's. "No, it doesn't." He meant something entirely different.
A thought occurred to her, and she sat back and wiped her eyes. "Look, is it possible, maybe..." she trailed off, trying to pull it together. "Okay, we know LaCroix can't control me, or post-suggest me, none of you can if I don't want you to. But he's a breed apart, right, even for you. What if he can... play me, you know? Mess with my head from a million miles away? To freak me out, to make me miserable."
"Or to make you doubt things."
"Yeah! Everybody knows that dreams aren't reflections of reality," Nick smiled at this, because "everybody" knew nothing of the sort, "but they can bring up what's in your mind you're not paying attention to when you're awake." Maura hated the word "subconscious", anything psycho-babbly annoyed her. "So in dreamspeak, if I just went along and kept paying attention to these things, I'd figure I was believing you have doubts about us. And because we connect so well, those doubts must be real. Or something." She was losing the thread of logic, and shook her head in frustration. She hadn't been sleeping well. By now she and Nick were seated side by side. She'd been talking to the air, figuring things out, and suddenly turned to face him. "Does all this sound stupid? Am I reading too much into things?" She was never quite sure of her mind at "her time of the month"
Nick shrugged. "Maybe not. I've thought it strange that LaCroix simply disappeared after our confrontation. That just isn't like him, to abandon a game so quickly. Maybe you're right, maybe he's playing' you."
Her expression hardened. "Bastard," she spat, and Nick laughed out loud.
"You have a talent for understatement."
"So what, is he trying to get me to leave, or get so messed up I drive you nuts?"
Nick nudged her sideways. "You already drive me nuts." She huffed impatiently, glaring at him.
"Okay," he told her, wiping off his smile, "it might be a good idea to find out a little more about these dreams."
"Okay by me." She thought she knew what he meant. It had been quite a while since he'd taken from her, just once since LaCroix's attack. Despite her reassurances the rape analogy still disturbed him. But Maura knew the quickest way to her mind was through her blood, and since he wanted to help her figure this out maybe it could be win/win. She missed the other-worldly closeness when they came together "that way" and since they never made love in the conventional sense it was the only physical connection she had with him. Now, she slid closer and moved her hair aside, hoping she didn't seem like some desperate nymphomaniac. She realized she'd taken him wrong when Nick looked at her rather like a schoolteacher might regard a seductive student. He knew too well how she missed that kind of connection; so did he, and not just for the rush. He missed knowing her absolutely and fully, every thought and experience she'd had since last time. And equally impossible to deny, he missed the physical pleasure of touching and tasting and absorbing her sweetness. Unfortunately for Maura, it wasn't what he had in mind.
"That would be nice," he admitted, giving her neck a quick kiss, "but distracting. How about you just let me help you relax enough to remember, how's that?" Of course he could hypnotize her as completely as any unwilling target he'd ever known, as long as she willingly submitted.
Maura managed to stifle a frown. "Okay. You're a lot less fun since LaCroix showed up, you know that?" He ignored the comment as he slid to the corner of the sofa and indicated she should stretch out. She did as he wanted, head settled on the pillow in his lap. She looked up at him looking down at her.
"Close your eyes," he prompted patiently. She did so, and immediately felt his hand resting on her head, thumb brushing lightly between her eyes. "Now relax, Sweet, just like you do before we fall asleep, but you won't sleep right now.
Just listen to my voice," as if he had to remind her to, she loved his voice, "Remember sleeping, remember the flashes, the images. But as they come to you, let them come together. Let them show you everything, and learn what they want to teach you." She couldn't stifle the urge to giggle.
"Jesus Nick what are you, some new age guru?" She tried to sit up but with little effort Nick held her down with just that one hand on her head. "Ssh." He rested his other hand on her stomach, and her breathing immediately evened and slowed. Shit, she loved when he did that. No matter how upset or worn out she was, when he put that hand on her belly she blissed right out. One thumb, making a tiny motion back and forth, like the one on her forehead. The images started to come. First it was the only one she could remember right off, seeing Nick and LaCroix through the window, sitting and talking, casual, Nick smiling and at ease. LaCroix was where she usually sat. She knew he was talking about her, saying what a wise thing it was Nick had come to his senses, and Nick was nodding in agreement. LaCroix turned to the window, and saw her standing there, out in the cold dark. He laughed. Nick followed his gaze, and began to laugh as well. He said something, something hurtful she knew even though she couldn't hear it, and still laughing they turned away and went back to their conversation. Her face contracted under Nick's hand.
"Tell me." She tried to shake her head from side to side, her mouth cinching into a frown, lower lip trembling. "It's all right, Maura, you're just remembering a dream. Tell me," and his gentle coaxing and his hands on her reassured her. "Where are you?"
"Outside here, outside the window. I'm looking in, you and ... him. He's here."
"Yes," her voice was acid, but lapsed into utter sadness. "You're laughing at me, both of you. He saw me and you saw me and you're laughing. Then you turn away. He said something about it being good that I'm gone, that your life is better now. And you agree. Why are you laughing at me?" Then her voice became childlike, "It's so cold out here, why am I so cold?" Nick resisted the urge to cover her with the afghan. Better to keep her in the place she was.
Why was she alone in the dark? Now she heard LaCroix's voice, from all around her and nowhere at all, and she knew it was no memory but coming to her here and now.
"You will destroy him, you know that. He cannot live in two worlds forever. His only life can be the one that was, the one I gave him. The one he lived with me. Your life together is a lie." Suddenly he was there in front of her.
"You are the lie," she hissed, whirling to try to face him down. "He isn't who he was, he won't be fooled by you again."
Then LaCroix stopped still, his voice cold as winter. "He doesn't love you. He pities you, he cares for you as he would a pet." Before she could protest he went on, "And you are," his voice circled again, closer this time, "a source of unique pleasure. But Nicholas has known every pleasure, has tasted every blood, and tired of them all. As he will tire of you. He will cast you out, as have all the others, and you will never expect it because you think he loves you."
His last words struck deep. "Liar," she spat but weakly. "You can't stand the peace he's coming to because it's beyond you. It's without you."
LaCroix laughed, a bitter ringing sound. "Peace." More laughter. "Peace will bore Nicholas," he snarled at her. "As you will bore him. He has been part of me for eight centuries, I made him." Suddenly his voice dropped, quiet and matter-of-fact. "Do you really think you know him better?"
"Leave me alone. You can't harm me, you can only kill me. And then you'll never have him."
"Never is a long time. Sooner or later, Nicholas will return to me. You are mere detour. It is his nature, it is his blood. You think I've been away for a long time; you do not know what time' is." A long arm reached out, a hand seized her throat. "But you will. I may have all the time' in the world, but I am out running of patience. And Nicholas cannot protect you here."
Nick heard the exchange, sensed it as he touched Maura. LaCroix sought every doubt she had and worked to increase them. And no matter how strong she was, he was right. Nick couldn't protect her from her dreams and the despair they might drive her to. They may not be reality, but they were powerful. Tears were streaming from her closed eyes.
"Why," she was begging abjectly now, which pleased LaCroix beyond imagining. "He's known others, he's lived other lives. Why?"
"Because, you are not mortal. You are not the others." For the briefest moment she sensed the incredible: fear. He was afraid of her. "And you will never have what you want. You will always be the special prey of every one of our kind, you will never have the normal' life you crave, and the sanctuary you think you have achieved will reveal itself as farce when Nicholas returns to his nature."
"You don't know that."
"But I do. And soon enough, so will you." He released her. "Peace." He repeated the word with even more disdain. "I may not control him, but I can control that. You will never have peace from me." He was gone then, and she was looking in the window again, a sort of deranged "yet to come" scene before her. It was worse than having left. It was as if she had never been. She called him a liar in words and in her head, but everything LaCroix said spoke to the part of her that
had never really learned to accept that things were different for her now. That deepest most experienced part of her, the one she managed to ignore most of the time, wouldn't relinquish the certainty that it was all temporary. Even her best "arrangement" had lasted only three years or so. And she'd been with Nick for less than a year. Even if he couldn't know what Nick would do, LaCroix certainly knew what he had done. He'd had 800 years to observe, and nothing he'd told her was much at odds with what Nick had shared with her about his past. She knew LaCroix counted on that, but somehow she couldn't fight him. Not where he had her now, maybe every night without revealing himself to her as he did now. Maura had stopped talking; Nick no longer heard or felt her dreaming or LaCroix's presence. All that was left was the quiet sound of her crying.
"Come back, Sweet, it's all right. Just a dream, just remembering. Come back, I'm here, it's all right," but she wouldn't look at him as she woke, only turned and pressed her face into his stomach, ashamed for every doubt she'd shared with him just now. "Don't make me leave, okay?" she whispered, hating herself for finally saying it, hating herself even more for whimpering as she just did, like some weak child, "please."
"Oh, no," Nick pulled her up closer into his arms, tried to make her look at him but she resisted. "No, no, never, you know that, LaCroix will say anything to hurt you, to get to me." She clung to him with a desperation he hadn't seen since her first night with him. "Maura, please, don't, it's all right, you're safe, I'm here." He pried her from his shoulder and kissed the tears on her face. "I love you, Sweet, don't cry, not because of him." She was looking at him as if she barely knew him. Why not, LaCroix had made sure to push that button, and hard. He kissed her again, her cheek and lips and neck.
Her neck. She smelled warm and sweet, it was nearly new moon. Honeysuckle and amber. Suddenly it was too clear to him, the only way he could comfort and reassure her. Make her believe.
When his lips slipped over her neck Maura felt cheap and manipulative. But he was close, and warm, and drove her doubts far away in spite of herself. Soft mouth, warm, wet, and his hands traveled over her, soothing. "Nick, I," she began, and his "Sssh, Sweet," against her skin made her shiver. When he bit her – how could a bite be so gentle? – she gasped once, and relaxed in his arms, filled with light and color and the delicious low fire that she'd nearly forgotten.
Words she felt then, words against her neck, around the blood he drank, "Love you, I love you," he was moaning into her. She wound closer around him in spite of the growing lethargy, whimpering with pleasure as he caressed her and suckled at the most sensitive part of her neck, his favorite place, her favorite place to have him. LaCroix ceased to exist, Raven, Janette, uncertainty, even desire, all of it driven away as Maura's senses closed in around herself and Nick, the only two creatures in the universe.
Nick's eyes were shut tight as if he could store the sparks and explosions in his head that way. The simultaneous surge of excitement and calm Maura's blood always brought him drove the rocking movement that was equally familiar; he held Maura tight against him, moving them rhythmically as if mimicking the lovemaking he knew she longed for. Her blood told him everything, filled in every space between the imperfect words and second-hand visions he'd coaxed from her. All of
it flowed into him at once and in perfect understanding, and even as he loved Maura he hated LaCroix beyond anything he could ever have imagined. The currency most vampires dealt in was fear; LaCroix specialized in doubt. He found it much more powerful.
He pulled away slowly, knowing when enough was enough. Maura's head lolled against his shoulder. In place of the hurt was a dreamy smile, though traces of tears still stained her face. He brushed one of them away with a fingertip. "Mmm," she murmured. "LaCroix sucks."
Nick laughed softly, wrapped in his own fog of pleasure, a buzz he knew would last for some time even as his mind cleared. "So do I," he whispered confidentially, giving the fading bite marks a light lick. "But I love you, so it's okay." Now he reached down and covered Maura with the afghan.
"Better?" he asked, pressing the word into a kiss on her forehead.
Maura nodded, unable or unwilling to expend the effort to speak. She curled up closer in his arms. "He can't hurt me, and he won't kill me," she rambled. "I wish I knew why he hates me so much. I can't be the first you've been with."
"But you are the first mortal I haven't killed, or brought across. He sees that one step closer to losing his creation. He hates you for what he sees as keeping me where I don't belong; he hates the idea that I could exist outside the Community, even partly. At least the others were vampires, and the mortals he managed to scare away or kill. Now it's different and he knows it, that if he killed you our link would be destroyed."
"I've told him that. He won't listen."
Nick laughed softly. "The day he listens to a mortal... but he didn't count on your attitude."
"Jaded," she elaborated, "I'm just through being scared by you lot."
"I'll tell you a secret: that's what worries LaCroix. That you just don't seem to care. It's forcing him to be creative, and that's what worries me. You're not afraid of him, and that makes him twice as dangerous."
Maura stretched lazily in his arms, arching against him. "Well he's wrong about that. I care a lot. Just not about what he wants."
"And it worries him that you love me." Nick looked deep into her eyes. "Because no other mortal has. There were always the secrets and lies to be revealed that would drive them away."
"Ha, ha. Like I care you're sun shy and are allergic to pointy wooden things. I so don't care." She felt him shudder.
"Well that makes one of us. I suppose we'll just have to pay attention, and not give LaCroix the opening he wants. You're brave, Sweet, but don't be foolish. We really do have to be careful. LaCroix is not to be disregarded."
"Well I choose to disregard him. I refuse to pay attention to that pompous antique."
Nick smiled patiently and kissed Maura's forehead. "Then I'll be extra careful, for both of us."
Circumstances would prove those words ironic before the year was out.