MORTAL FLESH
by R.J. Anderson 2011

Helen Magnus stood alone in the library, leafing through a treatise on Abnormal parasitology. There had to be some explanation for the rash that had broken out all over Kate and Will's arms after they'd unpacked that shipment of Mayan artifacts two days ago - so far it appeared to be merely annoying rather than life-threatening, but she was determined to see that it didn't develop any further. And besides, it would distract her from thinking about John Druitt - her former lover once again mysteriously vanished, possibly dead. For a little while she'd dared to believe there was hope for him, that his better nature had finally tamed the beast within, but...

No, she was not going to weep. She was not. Magnus closed her eyes a moment, then opened them again and kept reading.

"Ah, here you are," said a familiar voice as Nikola Tesla strolled into the room, his shirt-sleeves rolled up and his collar casually unbuttoned - he'd obviously just come from the lab. "No wonder you weren't answering your calls. We're out of-" He stopped, his eyes narrowing. "You've been crying."

"I have not," said Helen, and then cursed herself for sounding like a petulant child.

"It's Johnny, isn't it? When are you going to get over him?"

Even if she suspected Nikola was baiting her deliberately, in one of his twisted kindnesses, it was still irritating enough to hold the grief at bay. She snapped the book closed and put it down. "If you were hoping I'd order you another case of wine, that was not the right place to start."

"Actually, I was going to ask for another order of polymeric memristors. But a few bottles of Pinot Grigio wouldn't go to waste either." He leaned across the table, appraising her narrowly. "Have you talked to anyone?"

"About what?"

"Oh, come on, Helen. I'd be the last to deny that you and Johnny have a history, but how many times does he have to betray you before you give up and move on?" She didn't answer, and he breathed a humourless laugh. "Your loyalty is admirable, but I can't say as much for your common sense. What does Druitt have to offer you? Even now you can't turn your back on him for fear he'll stick a knife in it."

"I can't turn my back on you either," she replied crisply. "Every time I do, you try to raise a vampire army and take over the world."

"Of course! But it's nothing personal. And besides, you relish the challenge." His grin was feral. "Since I came back into your life, you've had more fun than you've had in years. Don't deny it."

She was not going to concede him that point. Especially not as it would only encourage him. "You think that having you and your drones nearly kill me back in Rome was fun?"

"You're still fixated on that little incident? I acted in haste, I admit it. I was a little wounded by your rejection… and I don't accept defeat well. But why dwell on the past, Helen? Look at me now!" He spread his arms wide, his look at once wicked and innocent. "An integral part of your happy little Sanctuary family."

"And you expect me to believe that's going to last? You're hardly a team player, Nikola."

"And you're far too cynical." He raised his dark brows in reproach. "Consider this: for the first time in well over a century, I'm mortal. Vulnerable. I can't bounce back from a stake to the heart or a fist through the diaphragm any more. One wrong move, and my life's work, my genius-" He turned his hand over, letting imaginary sand sift through his fingers. "Gone."

"So we're your protection?"

His lip curled in distaste. "Hardly. I'm no coward, as you of all people should know. Say rather… my legacy."

She drew in her breath. "Henry. That's why you've been spending all that time in-"

"He's not me, of course." Nikola contemplated his fingertips. "But I do have a small hope of hammering something useful into that thick lupine skull of his. And he does seem to appreciate the favor." He looked up with one of his sudden, dazzling smiles. "See? I can play nicely, when you give me the chance."

Helen kept her expression detached, but her heart gave a treacherous flutter. There was no denying Nikola was an attractive man, for all that she did her best to ignore it. "Indeed," she said, willing her voice to stay level. "But I should warn you that if you try to involve Henry in one of your schemes without my knowledge, you will have to answer to me."

"Oh, I know." He walked slowly toward her, a smirk playing about one corner of his mouth, and stopped just inside her personal space - so close that their toes were nearly touching. "I'm counting on it."

She kept her head up, her eyes locked on his, not flinching even when he raised a finger and stroked the last trace of wetness from her cheekbone. "Helen," he said in a lower voice. "You loved Johnny once, and part of you always will. He may even, somewhere in the black pit of his soul, have some vestiges of love left for you. But no matter how hard you try to help him, he will never be the man we knew at Oxford again. He's done too much killing for that."

"We've all killed, Nikola. And if anyone knows about blood lust-"

"It should be me, yes. But as soon as you gave me that medicine you'd designed to control my vampire instincts, I took it. And I went on taking it, every day of my life, even when we were apart. Whatever you might say about my schemes for restoring the vampire race, it was never about blood."

"No. With you, it was power." She backed up a step, away from his touch. "And whether you enjoyed killing or not, you still didn't hesitate to do it when anyone got in your way."

"On occasion. But if we're going to tally up lives lost to the cause, you ought to know that most of the people I've killed weren't in my own interest at all." His gaze held hers a moment, then dropped to her mouth and lingered there. "They were for you."

She recoiled. "For God's sake, Nikola-"

"Why do you think I teamed up with Johnny and went after the Cabal, after Ashley died? Yes, they posed a threat to all of us, one that had to be eliminated before the Sanctuary Network could continue. But more than anything it was your grief, your emptiness, that neither of us could bear."

She would not let him see how much those words shook her. To think of John and Nikola tearing a hole through the very heart of her enemies, destroying their organization and scattering it to the wind, for her and Ashley's sake… it had saved the Sanctuary Network and she was grateful for that, but still the image haunted her. "I thought you were trying to prove yourself better than John."

He gave an insouciant shrug. "I never claimed to be an angel. But there's a difference between killing out of necessity, or to protect the ones you love... and killing for the sheer pleasure of it. And if you think back over the last couple of years, you may recall a few other differences, as well."

He didn't elaborate, but he didn't need to. When Nikola had still been a vampire he could take physical punishment far better than she could, and so it had not been entirely surprising when he put himself between her and danger. But even now that he had become mortal again, he had gone on taking deadly risks for her. In the caves when the source blood-crazed insects came after her, then again in this very library when the particle accelerator threatened to explode, he had been ready to sacrifice his own life just to give her a chance to get away.

And what was she to make of that? A death wish perhaps, but while Nikola occasionally gave in to fits of theatrical melancholy over the loss of his powers, suicide wasn't his style. The other possibility was that he genuinely valued her life more than he did his own - but that would mean that Nikola Tesla was capable of selflessness, and she found that difficult to believe.

"We've all changed over the years, Helen." He stepped closer again, but she didn't move. "For better or for worse. The question is, who's going in which direction? And if you and I should happen to be headed in the same one…" His fingertips traced a lock of her hair. "Why not go together?"

"I don't need a lover, Nikola." Her voice sounded harsh and brittle in her ears. "And besides, weren't you the one who always said your only passion was science?"

He dismissed this with a quirk of his mouth, unruffled. "That was just to put off all those annoying women who kept trying to seduce me from my work. Once I'd met you, once I'd taken the source blood into my veins and become your equal, no one and nothing else could compare." He took her hand. "I meant what I said to you in Rome, however foolishly I may have behaved afterward. I love you, Helen Magnus. I always have, I always will. For all our bantering, I respect you as I respect no one else. And the thing I regret most deeply about losing my immortality... is that it means not being able to spend eternity working side by side with you."

She'd held her ground until now, but his sincerity was too much for her. She pulled free of his grasp and turned away, shutting her eyes against the sudden burn of tears.

Nikola came up behind her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, drawing her back against him. It was a little shock to feel his breath warm the top of her ear, and be reminded that he was taller than she was; Nikola's slimness had always made him seem little compared to John or James, and with his arrogant posturing there'd always been a touch of the bantam about him. "Enough," she said unevenly. "Just-"

"Do you want me to leave you alone?"

He asked it levelly, for once without a hint of mockery. Relief washed over her, and she turned in the loosening circle of his arm and leaned her forehead against his clavicle. "I'm sorry," she said, not even sure what she meant by it, knowing that to his ears it could mean any number of things. I'm sorry I doubted you. I'm sorry I can't deal with this right now. I'm sorry I can never love you the way you love me.

"Helen." His hands framed her face, tilting it upward. "Believe it or not, I can be patient. I've actually had a fair amount of practice at it, where you're concerned. Just..." He paused so long that she drew back to look at him, then went on smoothly, "One kiss, before I go. Trust me, you'll feel better for it."

Once again, the sheer effrontery of the man startled a smile out of her. How did he do that? She ought to box his ears for intruding on her grief, needling her into defensiveness and then piercing her heart with his own vulnerability, but somehow she couldn't - it was so Nikola of him. A rare, reckless impulse came over her, and she took hold of his collar. "You may have lost the Serbian accent," she said, "but you're still mixing up your personal pronouns," and then she stretched up a little on her toes and kissed him.

She'd meant it to be a light brush of her lips against his, a kindness rather than a promise. But as his long fingers slipped around the back of her neck and his mouth responded to hers - so warm, so alive - she had to brace her heels against the floor to keep her knees from buckling. She'd forgotten how long it had been since a man kissed her; forgotten also that the last man she'd kissed had also been, though not quite intentionally, Nikola Tesla. But then his lips had tasted cool and not quite human, and it hadn't been a proper kiss because she'd been aiming for his cheek and he - sneaky devil - had turned his head at the last minute.

This was nothing like that kiss had been. Not a quick greeting in a hotel corridor before the two of them were forced to flee, but a deliberate meeting of mouths in the quietness of a private space, breaths and pulses quickening, bodies drawn together like magnets, electricity charging the scant millimetres of air between them. And as Nikola's hands caressed her hair and hers slid apart to grip his shoulders - just to brace herself for pushing away, or so she told herself, any second now - she felt a curious lightness come over her, as though a ripple of laughter were building up inside. Not because there was anything laughable about the way he was kissing her; in fact the way his mouth explored every angle and surface of hers took her breath away. No, it was just that it felt so strangely, unexpectedly... good.

And that, she realized as her traitorous fingers traced the shape of Nikola's back muscles through the silken fabric of his waistcoat and his teeth grazed her lower lip, was why it had to stop right now, before she betrayed herself - or gave him the chance to betray her. She gathered her wits and her will, stiffened her body for resistance -

But he broke the kiss before she did, slipping out of her embrace with a cat's grace and a lightning flash of a smile. "Why, Helen Magnus," he said, "it seems you have some feelings for me after all."

Helen resisted the urge to lick her swollen lips, and pressed them firmly together to stop their tingling. "Or maybe I'm just a good actress, and a terrible tease."

"Maybe," he agreed. "But it hardly seems in character. And you do feel better, don't you?" He picked up her book from the table and handed it back to her. "Polymeric memristors. Case of ten. And if you succeed in curing Itchy and Scratchy of their little plague, you can bring the Pinot to my room and we'll… celebrate."

"Don't push your luck, Nikola," she said tartly, but he only smiled and bowed out, looking pleased with himself. As well he might, Helen had to admit; that had not been an inconsequential kiss. And despite the John-shaped emptiness that still ached inside her, and her determination not to make herself so vulnerable again...

Curse the man, he'd been right. She did feel better.

THE END