Natalie walked into a wall of chaos as she opened the door at her office. People who had not shown up since the first day the Asteroid scare became public were obviously trying to save their jobs. On the bright side, that meant that the gurneys were no longer stacked two and three deep lining the halls.
On the other hand it meant there were people everywhere. And she really just did not want to deal with people.
Seeing that the backlog of bodies was being handled, she hoped she had addressed all who had needed it. DAMN IT. How many reports now had she fixed? How many God damn vampires had she covered for? Why? Her stomach churned and her head pounded.
She sank into her battered government issue chair and stared at the twin stacks of folders in front of her, reports she had to finish or sign off on. Closing her eyes, she reflected that if she hadn't covered up the suspicious deaths, there really was no way to explain them without getting sent for a psych eval. "Exsanguination, appearing to have occurred through a bite mark indicating overdeveloped canine teeth... " She sighed. Of course she had lost her mind. She'd lost her mind the second Nick had sat up on her table and she chose to believe, rather than let herself be convinced to forget.
Her eyes burned with the need to weep. Gritting her teeth, she blinked once, and decided she'd better get some work done. Shedding her trenchcoat, she headed for the locker room. She grabbed standard issue scrubs, and realizing she had to cover her arms, brought in a scrub smock too. She could claim she was cold, it wouldn't be the first time... She changed quickly and returned to her desk. Her own 'office' table was blessedly empty. Let the others deal with the backup of bodies. They deserved it for giving up on their job.
Guilt stabbed at her. She had given up too, hadn't she? Oh, she'd shown up for work when no one else had. But she'd given up hope. She'd given up on her life... she'd given up on Nick. Elbows resting on the desk, she dropped her head into her hands. Her heart hurt, a truly physical ache.
Just once she wished she was enough. Pretty enough, strong enough... enough for someone to love enough. It had seemed so clear to her, so crystal clear in her panic. She and Nick could finally be together. Even if they died when the Asteroid hit, they would have the brief time leading up to it together... but he didn't want her enough.
And why should he? She hardly compared to Jeanette of the sculpted jaw and legs for days. She was humiliated at the way she had thought he would give in, admit his need for her as a woman when there was nothing to lose. There had been everything to lose. Her pride, her heart...
She had come to terms with Valentine's Day. Oh, she never acknowledged that she remembered, but she did. Not perfectly, the details were sort of in soft focus. But she remembered enough. And as many times as she replayed the hurtful, hateful words that he did not love her, that he was just using her, she also remembered the desperation with which he had held her after LaCroix left. His lips on her forehead, hands cradling her... The argument between Nick & LaCroix was hazy, but she understood, remembered, enough of it to know that if Nick had admitted love for her, LaCroix would have killed her.
She remembered the day before that dinner as a hazy dream. "What are we going to do about this... about us... the way we feel about each other." Words Nick had said, then he had kissed her... He'd tried to take that from her too, and she had let herself believe it was because he was afraid of LaCroix's revenge. He had stepped back after that. Refraining from the casual touches, the brief kiss of her brow and even her hand... But now... now she wondered if he had just come to his senses... Perhaps it was just a hazy dream.
She pinched the bridge of her nose to try to stop the tears. She had cried enough this afternoon when she woke on her couch, alone. To be fair, Nick HAD come for her. A shudder ran through her as the images from the previous night flashed like stills from a movie. The haze of alcohol and panic and the need for something she couldn't even identify holding her in place when she should've run from Spark outside the Raven; His hands on her, pushing her down... the deepest fear she'd ever felt when she realized there was no going back, and that he had no plans to bring her across... She had accepted death at that moment, and her one thought was for Nick, her one regret that her love had not been enough.
And then he was there, as if materialized from her desperation. Spark was dead, staked in the middle of her bed, where he had pushed her down just moments before. Nick was pulling her into his arms from where she huddled in the corner. Her brain barely processing his words, "It's a hoax, Nat... "
He had swung her into his arms and swept her out of the bedroom. When he set her on her feet in her livingroom, the adrenaline crashed against the alcohol, and on shaky legs she had rushed for the bathroom. She barely made it in time for her body to reject everything she had ingested in the past few hours, the bitter bile bringing her back to reality as she knelt and dry heaved once her stomach was empty. Nick was at her side, holding her hair, gently stroking her back, wiping her face with a cool washcloth when she finally could sit back.
Her hair stunk of cigarette smoke. She realized she still wore the skimpy dress she had never put on before tonight. Nick brushed a strand of hair off her cheek. "What can I do for you?"
Love me, she thought with a panicked sob that threatened to bubble over. "Shower." She said. Nick reached in and started the water to warm it up. He pulled towels off the rack, then gently lifted her to her feet.
"Can you stand?" She nodded the affirmative, now avoiding his eyes in shame. Shame for what she had done, what she had wanted. He unzipped the back of the dress, and she thought she felt a whisper of a kiss on the back of her neck before he lowered her hair then stepped out of the bathroom. She shrugged out of the dress and threw it in the trash. She washed the smoke out of her hair, and scrubbed at her body. The hot water beat down on her. She lost track of time as she stood, just letting it pound against her skin, until she heard a knock on the door, a soft inquiry, "Nat? Are you ok?"
The sheer absurdity of the question snapped her out of her trance. She swallowed the lump in her throat that wanted to block her voice... "I'm ok." Liar. "I"ll be out in a minute." When she turned the water off and finally stepped out of the shower, she found Nick had laid pajamas and her fuzzy pink robe on top of the toilet. Somehow the thoughtfulness made his rejection sting all the more.
Oh, she knew he cared for her. Perhaps even loved her. But not the kind of love she felt for him. He protected her, perhaps even cherished her, but only in the way Richie had. A big brother...
She glanced quickly at her bedroom when she came out. The door was closed. She looked away. She knew, without asking, that Spark would be gone. She didn't know if she would ever be able to erase the feel of him trapping her under him on her bed... the sight and smell of his blood spilled there. She shuddered.
Nick came to her from the kitchen, a glass of water in one hand, a packet of alka seltzer in the other. She took them without comment, refusing to meet his gaze. She sat on the couch, trying to keep a hold of her sanity. She was rudely sober now, half-wishing she wasn't. Nick settled next to her, pulling the afghan off the back of the couch and wrapping it around her shoulders, then pulling her against him.
She resisted at first, mainly on principle. But exhaustion, fear, regret and need won the battle with pride, and she let herself be pulled against his side. She didn't expect to be able to sleep for weeks, but the wash of adrenaline was gone now. She thought she would rest for just a minute, then pull herself together...
When she woke up, he was gone. To be honest, it was partly relief. She didn't know what to say to him. He was right, of course. He didn't love her that way and if they had survived, forever was a long time to be shackled with someone you didn't love. The hollowness inside her threatened to consume her, she felt like she would just collapse into the nothing.
Natalie snapped back to the present when her boss walked up to her desk. He had been one of the deserters. "Natalie, you don't have to be here today. You more than earned some time off..." He broke off, a flush of guilt rising from his throat. "I heard about the hours you put in this past little while."
"I, um..." Her voice broke a little. She cleared her throat, hoping it sounded more like fatigue than the tears it was. "I have all this paperwork." She vaguely waved in the direction of the twin towers of folders.
"Paperwork can wait. And the people who should've been here are cleaning up the backlog... "
"It's ok, John," She interrupted softly. "But maybe I'll take you up on it and leave early, once I've gotten some of this under control."
An hour and a half later, she wasn't sure she could do it. Her head was throbbing, and her stomach roiling. Turning off the overhead fluorescent lights hadn't helped, the glare of her desk lamp was enough to irritate. She had completed ten case folders, and was on the last vampire victim's report. Maybe she'd kick off after all. But the thoughts of going home to her apartment pushed panic up into her throat, threatening to suffocate her.
Oh, the mess was cleaned up. Nick had been efficient. The body gone, the splintered bookcase gone, just piles of books neatly stacked against the walls. Her bed had been stripped and remade with clean sheets, and the comforter and bedclothes that had been on it, gone. There was nothing to remind her of what had happened there... except herself.
She didn't hear Nick come in to her office. He found her with her forehead resting on her hand, elbow propped, staring down sightlessly at the report in front of her. She had dark shadows under her eyes, a smudge of a bruise on her jaw from Spark's thumb where he had turned her head... shaking the image from his head before he could sink into the rage that was simmering in him, he cleared his throat.
Nat looked up, slowly. Her beautiful blue eyes were dull in the wan light of her ancient desk lamp. Their eyes met for a moment, and he saw anguish flash in hers before she carefully schooled her features and the shutters came down. He should have stayed the day with her, he thought with regret. He hadn't thought she would want him to, but her words back at the station belied that. "I thought you might have pulled the curtains..." He couldn't begin to count the ways he had screwed up with her in the past twenty four hours, what was yet another another misstep?
"Nick." Her voice was soft. "What do you want?" She didn't mean it to come out so abruptly. But she wasn't sure she could face him yet. Not yet. The nothing inside was too big still.
"The Captain gave all of us who worked through this a couple of days leave. I... ah... I wanted to see if you were OK."
"I told you I was." Even to herself Natalie sounded waspish. She closed her eyes. Why was she always apologizing lately. "I'm sorry... I..."
"Don't." Nick interrupted her. "Don't apologize. I'm the one who needs to apologize..." Natalie looked up at him. "Not here. We need to talk... " He broke off, seemingly at a loss for words... "Nat... " Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but she thought she heard need in his voice.
She sighed, as if the anguish could escape along with the air in her lungs. Pinching the bridge of her nose again against the damn headache, she sucked it up. She wasn't normally a coward. If yesterday had been an aberration, it had to be dealt with. She might as well get it ALL over with. Her heart hurt so much already, she wasn't sure it could hurt more.
"OK," was all she said. She scribbled her signature at the bottom of the last report that had to be done-the last vampire victim-with only a minor pang of regret for the life that was ended unfairly, and her part in covering that up being the last injustice. She would deal with that too, she knew, later. Right now it was all she could do to put one foot in front of the other.
She stood and began to take off the scrub gown out of habit. She heard Nick's gasp of indrawn breath when her arms became visible. He was beside her in a heartbeat. "Where else."
Barely suppressing a flinch at the fury unmistakable in his voice, Natalie blinked at him in confusion. "What?"
"Where else did he hurt you?" Now Nick's voice was soft. Dangerously soft. His hands skimmed her arms where the bruises from Spark's hands marked her. They were vivid today, purple, red... Matching sets around her wrists, and just above her elbows, matching Spark's handprints. Nat nodded in the negative... but Nick saw again the smudge on her jaw. His hand gently-so gently-cupped around it, his thumb feathering her mouth where her lip was slightly swollen.
Gold flecked in Nick's eyes. For a moment, Natalie hoped... but no, this was the protectiveness innate in a Crusader. This was the big brother. Best not to forget that. If her hand on her face sent tingles right through her, down deep below her belly, it was her reaction. She must not mistake her longing for his.
"It's OK." She broke his gaze.
"It's not." Nick stepped back. "It's not OK. But not here." Nat shrugged back into the gown. She nodded, once, as if accepting a direct order, and went to the locker room to change.
When she returned, dressed in her black turtleneck & slacks, Nick felt a jolt of recognition. She was pale from lack of sleep and stress... and he had a glimpse of what she might look like as part of his world. But she was made for the light. Somehow, he needed to explain to her why he could not let her into his darkness...
Natalie picked up her purse from her desk. Nick held her coat for her. After helping her on with it, he indulged himself and lifted her long fiery curls from under the collar. Reluctant to release the contact, he rested his hands for a moment on her shoulders. He couldn't see the longing and torment that crossed Nat's face at the welcome weight.
She let him guide her out of the crowded Coroner's building and when he opened the door to the Caddy, she slipped in without question. She leaned her head back against the seat, closing her eyes. She knew she didn't want to go home anyway. She wasn't sure she'd ever be able to face her bed again, and was too tired and sore to deal with her couch again. She could hope that they could clear the air and she could crash on Nick's couch.
Another sigh escaped her. The Doctor in her recognized the repetitive sound of depression and grief. Physician heal thyself... She wanted nothing more than to heal the aching emptiness inside her.
She fell asleep on the short ride to the loft, waking as the garage door came down. "Sorry." She said sheepishly.
"Nat, you have NOTHING to be sorry for. NOTHING." Nick said. He sat behind the wheel, waiting for her to look at him before moving. She was out of the car before he could make it around to her door. They moved in silence to the lift.
If things felt awkward at the precinct for Natalie, now she just wished she could crawl into a hole. She was not sure how she was going to make it out of this with her dignity intact. She did know she needed Nick too much-even if only as a friend-to not work this out. As for her other needs... yet another deep sigh involuntarily escaped.
Nick steered her to the couch after taking her coat from her. He lit the fire first, then puttered in the kitchen. She heart the subtle pop of a cork coming out of a wine bottle as she watched the flames in the hearth. He came back with a glass of ginger-ale for her, and a plate of crackers, cheese and sliced apple. Somehow that made her feel like crying again. She clenched her jaw against it. Nick placed his offerings on the coffee table.
The silence, which had always seemed comfortable between them before, now pressed in on her. Time to fish or cut bait, she supposed. Then Nick sat down next to her. Close-next to her. And reached for her hand. She watched as he took her hand between both of his own. When his thumb traced an absent pattern on her palm, it send a shaft of longing deep into her belly. Why did it have to hurt so much? Why couldn't she be enough?
She had gathered her courage to speak, when Nick spoke first. "I would have." He stopped, she looked up from their hands to his face. He too was looking at their hands. "I would have brought you across before the end."
Nat's breath caught. He went on before she could formulate an argument in her head. "I know it sounds like Monday morning quarterbacking... like an excuse... but I wasn't ready to lose hope. I wasn't ready to give in yet. I WOULD have, if the end was coming and we hadn't found another way... "
"But..." Horrified, Nat felt a big, fat tear escape. Nick looked up at her face, released one hand to brush the tear away.
"After eight hundred years, you'd think I'd have learned the right words to say." Nick frowned. "You're my light. You mean too much to me, Natalie Lambert, to drag you into this darkness if there is any other hope. I thought there was still hope."
"You were right." Nat murmured. Not quite allowing his words to penetrate the misery, perhaps deliberately. "There was hope. I should have trusted you." She looked down, shame flushing her cheeks.
"I WOULD have brought you across..." He was repeating himself, somehow he had to make her understand. "But only if there was no other way. "
"I know. I know, Nick. It's ok. You don't want me that way... I appreciate that you would've tried anything if it were truly going to be the end."
There it was, out in the open now. She hadn't meant to let it slip. She DID believe him. She did believe that he would have granted her wish as a sort of 'last request' in the worst case scenario.
"Is that it? THAT'S it Nat?" Nick shook his head, astonishment clear on his features. "You think it was because I don't want you?"
She ducked her head, letting her hair curtain her face. "I know... Nick, it's ok. I mean, Jeanette..."
His hands were on her face, cradling her jaw, his thumbs caressing. "I want you so much it terrifies me. I want to be inside you so badly I'm afraid I won't be able to stop. I want you in every way, body and soul, and that could kill you"
He kissed her then. It was better than her hazy memories. His cool lips warmed as they gently explored hers. He toyed with her lower lip. His hand slid from her jaw down her throat, fingers wrapping behind her neck, thumb toying, then resting in the notch of her collarbone. Her hands raised to his chest, palms flat against the solid breadth of him, almost itching to wander and explore... His lips moved to brush the bruise on her jaw, and it felt like a blessing. Then they were finding the softness just below her ear and the desire inside her curled to life so violently she thought she might burst just from his kisses...
With a groan, he pulled his mouth away from her. His hands lingering, one pushing a curl behind her ear, the other lazily resting in the nook of her shoulder where it met her throat...
Natalie looked in his eyes. They had had this conversation, or, more accurately, had talked around the subject. He'd never made it so blunt before. "You are more beautiful than Jeanette could ever dream of being." She tried to nod in denial, he held her face, "You are Nat, because you aren't just pretty on the outside, you are extraordinary on the inside too. The whole package is potent enough to scare me to death."
Another fat tear escaped. "But I thought... at Azure... " she broke off, needing to get it all out in the open.
"Oh, God, Nat... you remember." Guilt filled his features. He shut his eyes for a moment, yet one more hurt he had caused. "How much do you remember?"
She wouldn't look at him. "Enough. I think. I know that LaCroix was threatening my life, and I think... thought... you lied to him. I know... it's hazy, but we had, um, talked the day before." A blush lit her cheeks. "I remember when he left, and you held me, and I kept telling myself THAT was the real emotion, but the things you said... I want to believe they were lies, but... " She ran out of breath, and just stopped, uncertainty and anguish vying for precedence.
"I'm so sorry Nat." Nick stood. "This is why... this is exactly why I CAN'T want you. Why I can't... " He ran a frustrated hand through his hair as he paced. "I made a bargain with LaCroix, almost eight hundred years ago. He wanted my sister, Fleur, and I wouldn't let him bring her across. I agreed that if I should ever love a mortal, he would have her as his revenge... " He sat on the coffee table, facing her, grabbing both her hands in his. "Don't you see, even if I don't kill you with my love, LaCroix will kill you because of it."
Her heartbeats echoed in her brain in the silence between them. The fire crackled and popped. Thoughts tumbled in her head, chasing each other. He did love her, but he couldn't. He wanted her, but it might kill her. It was just impossible. All of it, so impossible...
She was tired. Weary to her bones. "So where does that leave us, Nick?"
He nodded, just looking into her beautiful storm-blue eyes. "I don't know. I just know I can't lose you."
"OK." She said. Then, again, "OK. Nothing's really changed all that much I guess then. You know I love you... and we'll just keep working at it. One foot in front of the other. And try to keep things below LaCroix's radar."
And there it was, finally, for now anyway, enough. Enough.
"Could I just..." Nat started, then stopped, suddenly shy in her new discoveries.
"What Nat? Anything... " She saw the guilt on his face, the pain in his eyes, and knew it was because he'd hurt her. She knew he would never deliberately hurt her.
"Would it be OK if I crashed on your couch today? I'm not quite ready to face my apartment again." Bright colour suffused her cheeks at the suggestion.
"Nat, you don't even have to ask. You are always welcome here." Nick settled beside her, pulling the black blanket off the backrest and settling it around her, before settling her against him. She felt his lips brush her temple.
For now, it had to be enough.
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