By Janice Cox
Author's Note: This story stands alone, but follows after my last FK story, "In the Blood," also published here. It's set in the second season immediately after "Be My Valentine."
It's rough being in love with your best friend's girl.
I took a deep (and completely unnecessary) breath and stood up straighter, too aware of my none-too-broad shoulders beneath the clean t-shirt I'd pulled on before heading out the door at her call. As I waited for Natalie Lambert to answer the door I wondered for the hundredth time what had possessed me to volunteer my services as her personal computer repair guy. I'd managed to go more than a year without running out of excuses as to why we couldn't meet in person, after all. It hadn't even been that hard; my reputation as a social recluse made my half-hearted excuses believable enough, even to Nat. Staying away was for the smart thing to do and I knew it. Sooner or later I was bound to do or say something to give myself away, and then I'd lose not one but two friendships that meant a hell of a lot to me.
So what was I doing here, anyway?
Since we'd met a little more than a year ago hardly a week went by that Natalie and I didn't talk, with the computer's email and chat programs acting as both chaperon and intermediary. But phone calls were an infrequent thing between us, and from the second I picked up the phone I had known something was wrong.
"Jack? Is that you?" It was Natalie, but her usual warmth and good humor were nowhere to be heard.
"None other. What's up, Nat?" I tried to sound cool, like it was an everyday occurrence for the lady I was hopelessly, pointlessly, in love with to give me a call at three in the morning. Belatedly I heard the strain in her voice, the catch in her breath that's the precursor to tears.
"Oh, nothing. Everything. It's this damned computer. It won't work right. It pretty much won't work at all, Jack, and this I just do not need right now." She laughed uncertainly, as if suddenly aware of how tight and ragged her voice sounded. "Sorry. It's just that I really wanted to get some work done, you know? There's not a whole heck of a lot else to do at three in the morning. Though I guess I don't have to tell you that, do I? I mean, there's the TV, but an hour on Ginsu knives is really my limit, and after that I start to get just a little bit annoyed with their bright, smiling… and don't even get me started on the dating services." She took a deep breath that sounded suspiciously like a sob. "Oh, hell. I'm babbling, aren't I?"
"I like listening to you babble." It came out without conscious thought and I winced. Wouldn't do to let Nat know how much I enjoyed hearing her voice, even when it did sound like she'd been mainlining caffeine. "So why aren't you asleep? You and Nick on some new case?" That would explain a lot, I thought. Nat on a case was like a rabid terrier, and if she and Nick were working in close contact on one that would just add to the tension.
"Nope. I am taking some well-deserved time off." Now she was putting effort into sounding bright and cheery, but I could hear the strain underlying her words. "But of course my brain still thinks I'm working the night shift, which leaves me with waaay too much night time on my hands. I'm sorry. I probably caught you in the middle of something, didn't I? I know you said you had a big contract in the works. I didn't think. I just…called. Guess I needed to hear a friendly voice."
A friendly voice. Ah, pretty lady, if only you knew. Fleetingly I wondered why she hadn't called Nick. As the Designated Boyfriend, it was really his job to soothe the lady's spirits, wasn't it? I was just the Designated Boyfriend's Buddy, good for a few laughs and a safe, neutral (neuter?) sounding board when the relationship hit a snag…a frequent enough occurrence with Nick and Nat. I looked at the monitor in front of me, and the stack of notes beside it. It was a big contract, all right. One that I'd fought hard to get, with a deadline that was just this side of impossible and looming closer all the time.
"I'm sorry. I'll let you go." She sounded so forlorn. As usual, I'd shut up when I should have said something.
"Wait! I'm, um, sorry. Guess I was just woolgathering there for a sec. Look, why don't I come take a look at your computer? I mean, I did install it. That means you get the full, patented, Jack Cohen Eternal Customer Support. And, unlike you docs, I still make house calls." I listened to the words coming out of my mouth like they belonged to someone else. The truth was, I didn't make house calls. Hell, there were weeks when I didn't leave the house at all. And I had a business deadline coming up that not even a vampire "whammy" could get me out of. All perfectly good reasons for why I should just say good night and wish the lady well.
Who was I kidding? I reached out and flicked off the monitor even before Nat could accept in a voice that was one step away from grateful tears. Moments later I was out the door before second thoughts could catch me.
I knocked again, softly in deference to the hour. The second thoughts had caught up with me on my way over, and had been joined by the uneasies that made an appearance whenever I ventured out into public, making me wonder if I hadn't made a big mistake. Maybe Nat had finally fallen asleep, I thought. It was almost four in the morning. I'd knock once more, then head home, I decided. My hand was an inch from the door when I caught the sound of movement inside, and a moment later the door swung open.
The Natalie Lambert who greeted me was miles away from the one who lived inside my head. This Natalie's wavy, golden brown hair was a rat's nest of tangles pulled haphazardly into a ponytail. Thick strands had escaped to either side, sticking out like dull pieces of straw. She was wearing baggy sweat pants and a t-shirt that looked older than I did, with mismatched socks scruffed down around her ankles. Nat's face had a pale, pinched look I didn't like at all, with dark circles around brown eyes that looked, well, haunted. I wanted nothing more than to sweep her into my arms and hold her until whatever demons pursued her set her free.
But I couldn't do that, of course. Instead all systems locked up and I stared at her helplessly as the moment passed from surprise into awkwardness. After a moment that seemed much longer than it probably was Nat raised one hand and patted ineffectually at her hair.
"Sorry. Guess I fell asleep on the couch. I was having the strangest dream…" She trailed off, as if still half in whatever dream I'd pulled her from.
"It's late," I agreed. It would be easier to make my excuses and walk away, I thought. Easier than getting involved with whatever was troubling Natalie so. Computers I'm good with. People, not so much. But, oh, Natalie… "So. You going to invite me in, or what?"
"Well, what do you think, Doctor? Is the patient going to survive?"
I pulled my attention away from Natalie's computer and grinned up at her. Nat had gone to wash up and change her clothes while I looked at her computer, and was now sitting on the arm of her sofa, a steaming cup of coffee in one hand. The other hand was absently stroking her cat's fur, and I saw with relief that some of the animation had returned to her face. I made a show of ponderously examining the exposed motherboard and then shook my head wisely.
"It's too early to tell, Doctor. Still, the patient is young and healthy, and comes from good stock. Perhaps your learned colleague would like to come over here and perform a cat-scan?" I dropped the act and continued in a more normal tone of voice as I replaced the computer's cover. "The problem doesn't seem to be in the hardware. That leaves software. The diagnostics all check out, so I don't think it's any of your store-bought programs."
"Which leaves…your software," Nat asked with wide-eyed innocence. She was doing better at hiding whatever was bothering her, I noticed. "Jack," she purred teasingly, "did you break my computer?"
"Not me, lady," I protested weakly, then bit my lip in thought. The program was designed to stop any intruder in his tracks without any help from the user and had been written with Natalie's computer specifications in mind. It went easy on the RAM and shouldn't have anything to do with her current computer woes. Still, when you eliminate the impossible… "Wouldn't hurt to check it out," I conceded. Double-clicking the iron gate icon opened my firewall program and then I opened the report function. Most of my attention was on the program, and for a moment I wasn't sure I'd heard right when Natalie spoke again. "I'm sorry, Nat. What did you say?"
She jumped, blinking as if pulled from an unpleasant daydream. "Not me. I didn't say a thing." She'd seemed distracted ever since I arrived, from time to time murmuring something under her breath that I couldn't quite catch. She hadn't wanted to talk about it, that much was clear. I decided to push the issue a little.
"You did, unless Sydney's more talented than you've let on. Something about trading flowers? No, trading Fleur, I think. Somebody from work?" The name sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn't quite place it. I turned back to the computer as it beeped at me. "Here we go. Yep, you've been hit."
"No, he never hit me," Natalie replied absently. "No! I mean, of course not. Nick would never…" She trailed off uncertainly. The sudden vulnerability I saw in her face moved me to her side in an instant, her computer forgotten. "I'm sorry. What were we talking about," she asked with a shaky smile.
I touched her shoulder gently. "Nat, what's wrong? Did you and Nick have some kind of fight?" She didn't reply, and I plowed ahead gamely. "All relationships go through rough patches. You don't have to be a centuries old vampire to know that." And you know how much he loves you, Nat, even if he can't say it. Come on, Jack. Say the words, damn it. I opened my mouth to try, then snapped it shut as Natalie laughed raggedly.
"Relationship? That's a pretty…loaded…word for what Nick and I have." There was something in her tone that I couldn't quite identify. Was it…hostility?
"Too eighties, huh? How about 'high romance'?" I nodded toward the vase of white roses, sitting in slightly faded splendor on the coffee table. "What did you and Nick end up doing on Valentine's Day? You never said." Nick had been dancing around the idea of commitment for weeks. When I'd talked to him about a week ago it had sounded like he'd finally been ready to take the big step. And what better day than Valentine's to profess your literally undying love for your lady?
Apparently things hadn't worked out the way Nick had hoped. If anything, Natalie's discomfort grew under my curious look. "We had a perfectly nice time. Or so I'm told. Apparently I really tied one on that night, something I haven't done since college. Embarrassing, but a little beside the point. There's nothing between Nick and I, Jack. We're just friends. Colleagues, even. I know what he is, and my scientific background lets me help him in his search for a cure. End of story," she concluded firmly.
I stood there, slack jawed, not sure of what to say. This was no lover's spat. Nat was completely serious.
And completely out of her mind.
"Nat, I've seen the two of you together, remember? You two are so much more than friends." Even if Nick found it hard to say the words, it was written all over his face whenever he spoke of Natalie. And Natalie's feelings for Nick had been painfully obvious to yours truly since the first time I'd laid eyes on her.
"Oh, I'll admit there is a certain…attraction. Opposites attract, as they say. Like two sides of the same coin." A shadow crossed her face and was gone. "But that's all it is. An attraction. Infatuation, at best." She rubbed at her temples. "Sometimes I think… No. Forget it."
It's probably nothing. I haven't been sleeping very well. And I'm having the strangest dreams." Natalie shifted uncomfortably on the couch, her gaze averted.
"But…?" I prompted.
"Lately I've been thinking that, well, I know it's crazy, but I keep getting the feeling that Nick is using me. Being just nice enough to me to keep me interested in finding a cure, but not so interested that I become a nuisance. One week he's all roses and charm, and the next I'm not even sure he takes me seriously as a scientist." She frowned, looking less like a wounded lover and more like an exterminator considering a particularly nasty species of bug.
A chill went down my spine. Something was wrong here. Seriously wrong, and way over my head. The computer was beeping insistently behind me, and after a moment I turned to see what was going on with something like relief.
"So what's the verdict?" Nat was her old self, perched on the edge of the computer desk and looking at me inquisitively. I blinked and pulled myself free from the computer mystery with effort. Several minutes had passed, and now Nat looked perfectly normal.
"Somebody's been trying to break into your system. The firewall should have shut him down, but whoever it is is trying to hack through. He's gotten through the first layer without triggering the alarms, and getting tangled in the second line of defense. That's what's eating up your processor speed. Weird."
"So, it was your software." Nat leaned over and nudged me with her shoulder, her eyes sparkling. It was hard to reconcile this smiling minx with the woman who'd stared at me through narrowed eyes just a few minutes before. But then again, when she smiled like that at me it was pretty much hard to think at all.
"Yeah, okay. Sort of. But the point is, somebody's been trying to break into your computer." I was here to fix her computer, I reminded myself. Nothing more.
"I didn't think that was possible," Nat replied, absently pulling her hair back into a neatened ponytail while she spoke. Raising her arms that way did things to her figure that made me look away before the drooling could become too apparent.
"Shouldn't be. I wrote that program to deter your average hacker and most of the pros out there today. I can't figure out why somebody would use this kind of high powered weaponry against a system like yours," I explained, moving safely back in the realm of computers. Be still, my (non-) beating heart.
"Well, it's not much, but I'm rather fond of it," Nat said dryly.
"Hey, no, it's a good system. I should know, right?" I smiled wryly. "That's me. Open mouth, insert foot. What I meant was, this guy's using techniques that you'd need to break into the CCRA, or maybe the Pentagon. It's overkill for your average home computer, and you just don't have anything that anyone that high-tech would want. Like I said, weird."
"So, can you fix it?"
"Sure. This guy is good, but he ain't me. " She rolled her eyes in response. "We'll leave your modem connected, and I'll set up a trap. The next time he tries to get in, I'll have his number. And his name. And his favorite color." It was good to see Nat smile, but I couldn't shake the feeling that something was seriously off kilter. "In the mean time, watch your back, okay? Lock your door, don't take any candy from strangers. Someone's paying you more attention than I'd like." Greatly daring, I reached out and touched her cheek. "And get some sleep. You look like hell, kiddo."
"I will." For a moment Nat's hand rested on mine and I had the feeling she was seeing me, Jack Cohen, not just Nick's Friend The Computer Guy. I had to forcibly remind myself that she was taken, even if the lady in question didn't seem to agree at the moment. A lot of us refer to our vampire aspect as The Beast, but I've got to tell you that he's nothing compared to the one that growled to life at Natalie's touch. Tired and under stress, she was still the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. And we talked together so easily. Laughed at the same things. Loved learning, and loved a challenge even more. It would be so easy to make a move right now, I thought. To breach the gulf between friend and—
No. I pulled away before the thought could even be completed. The effort left me shaking. I wanted her that badly.
"I should go." I should never have come.
"It's getting late," Natalie agreed slowly, a strange look on her face. "Or early, I suppose. I really appreciate your coming over, Jack." A ghost of a smile touched her lips. "I'm sorry I wasn't better company. These dreams…" She shook her head as if to clear it. "Anyway, I owe you one." She reached out and touched my arm. I could feel the slow, steady beat of her pulse through the thin material of my shirt. Suddenly I could smell her perfume, faint but sweet, and the warm, musky scent of her skin. And the scent of her blood, even sweeter, rushing just beneath that pale, creamy surface. "Thanks for being there," she said softly.
"Anytime." A one-word reply was all I could manage, and even that came from a mouth that felt like it was stuffed with cotton and dangerously close to sprouting fangs. I met her gaze for just a second, then turned and left before I could make an even bigger fool of myself.
As I headed for the safety and security of home my thoughts were filled with equal parts guilt and desire. Nick was one of the best friends I had, and I had been seriously considering making a move on his mortal lady love. Or was she? Natalie had been so adamant that there was nothing between them. And she liked me, I knew she did. Maybe Nick had cooled things, I reasoned. That would explain Nat's weird behavior. Maybe I had a chance, after all. Maybe I could…
Shit. I stopped in my tracks, my fists clenched in sudden frustration. Away from Natalie I could think clearly, and I knew it wasn't right. Nothing about tonight was right. Nat was in love with Nick, had been since I'd met her more than a year ago. Oh, she tried to play it cool, but if it was obvious to a social idiot like me, then there wasn't any doubt about it. And she hadn't been saying that something had changed, that they'd had a falling out of some kind. No, Nat had said that there had never been anything between them. And you couldn't rewrite history, as much as a small, craven part of me would like to.
But you could make someone think you had.
A surge of unaccustomed anger made me see red, and brought out the fangs I'd so carefully hidden from Natalie. Someone had been playing with Natalie's memories. Fundamentally altering the one thing that made her precious and unique. It shouldn't have even been possible. Natalie was a resistor, making her immune to most of the mental whammy we could inflict on a mortal. It would take a powerful vampire and just the right set of circumstances to get past that. I couldn't have, even if I had wanted to.
Nick could, maybe. I tasted that thought, wondering if it fit. Nick loved Natalie, even if he was too afraid to act on that love. He would have died the final death to protect her, I knew. How many times had he talked about how much he cared for her, about how he longed to be mortal so he could be with her? But there had always been some hesitation in his words, some reluctance to take the next step. He was deathly afraid of bringing her across, and I always figured that his reluctance to get closer to Nat was a part of that. It drove Natalie crazy sometimes, but most of the time she seemed to understand. I would have bet my unlife that Nick would never do anything to hurt her.
But. But Nick also had more than his share of the elder vampire's "I know what's best for you" syndrome. He tried to protect Nat from what he thought she shouldn't know, not giving her credit for being able to make her own decisions. Of all the mortals in his life, Nat was the one he should have been able to trust with his secrets. She already knew enough to get her killed, should the Enforcers get wind of it. Knowing everything, sharing everything, couldn't make her any more dead, could it? Sometimes he treated her like a child, I thought with growing resentment, and you can't be in love with a child. You can only love an equal, and I was beginning to wonder if Nick had ever seen Natalie that way. If Nick thought that Natalie's feelings for him were putting her in danger, would he have…? Could he have? I was afraid I knew the answer to that. With the barest of looks around I took to the air, not caring who saw me.
Nick had changed Natalie's memories. The thought was galling, infuriating. It was one thing to change a stranger's memories to protect your secret. It was something else entirely to enter the mind of the woman you claimed to love, to violate her by changing such an elemental part of her self. I found myself headed for Nick's loft, shaking with fury. But the sky was already pink with the first strains of dawn, and the rational part of me knew that I was out of time. Reluctantly I veered off, heading instead for home. Nick was my friend, I reminded myself. And a good guy. One of the best. There had to be an another explanation.
And God help Nick if there wasn't.