Continued from Door
GIRLS' NIGHT IN
by Amy Hull and Valerie Meachum
(Dedicated to Susan, Jude, Mary, Monica, and fond memories of the dead mouse sketch on no sleep at Toronto Trek '94...)
"Why do I let you talk me into these things?" Natalie eyed the formidable spread of junk food on her coffee table while Grace rewound the "surprise" video she had brought over.
"Because, somewhere deep down, you know that coming home and being a couch potato once in a while is a good thing," Grace replied without missing a beat. "Anyway, it's the best place to be annoyed with men."
"I know, I know, none of my business. But you'd think they'd have to have a little more sense than that before they're allowed to be detectives..."
"Okay. Fine." Grace handed her hostess a pint container of fudge ripple ice cream complete with spoon with one hand while hitting "play" on the remote control with the other. "Eat. Watch. Be merry. I won't bring it up again."
The TV began emitting bouncy piano jazz, and an equally bouncy woman with a pixie haircut launched into an eccentric dance with animated squiggles of color. "Hey! That's Emma Thompson, isn't it?" At least, that was what Grace presumed Nat said through the ice cream, spoon waving in the direction of the screen. The following collection of muffled mrrpphs seemed to translate to "What is she doing?"
"Just watch," came the reply. "I can't believe you missed this. It's required viewing for any modern woman. Especially when they need to get together and be annoyed with men."
"I know, I promised. Sorry. Just watch."
By the time the first sketch, in which Emma Thompson and Imelda Staunton demonstrated self-defence in the kitchen and made an omelette all in one, was close to finished there was no doubt as to the quality of the choice in evening's viewing. Nick would have even approved--as frantic as he'd been about her in the week since the world hadn't ended, he'd certainly be in favor of the self-defence--that is, if he weren't so caught up in being her defence system. On the screen, Emma was solidly outfitted in jury-rigged pot-and-pan armor and busily cooking away when the attack came. Without warning. Very noisily. From directly overhead.
And while Imelda proudly explained that one should never let one's guard down and must always be prepared for the airborne attack, Natalie narrowly avoided aspirating fudge ripple, much to Grace's amusement. Good thing she didn't ask why the airborne thing in particular was so funny, Nat told herself once the danger of choking was past and the ice cream was safely relegated to the table. That could have been tricky. Immediately annoyed with herself for relating the image back to a certain vampire who was currently in the doghouse, she turned her attention back to the show.
The snack of choice had become sour cream and onion Pringles by the time a slightly bittersweet sketch of Thompson and Kenneth Branagh divvying up their record collection gave way to the pair of them tap-dancing on a giant phonograph, and Nat and Grace both jumped when a knock sounded on the door of the apartment.
"Tell him to go away."
"Grace!" Still clutching the Pringles can, Natalie disentangled herself from the pretzelesque position she had managed to get herself into in the corner of the couch and went to answer the door.
"Bonsoir, Natalie." The slight lift of a single eyebrow spoke volumes as Janette took in the three-in-the-morning-during-finals-week look of the woman before her, complete with undisciplined mane, stocking feet, and voluminous T-shirt proclaiming the gratitude of the Canadian Red Cross for regular donations.
"Hi." Natalie refrained from adding what are you doing here?, though it was probably pretty obvious she was thinking it. She also noted to herself with some satisfaction that it was Janette's nightclub chic that looked distinctly out of place this time. Nat hoped the blush she felt wasn't visible; the last time they'd seen each other she'd been the one dressed to kill. Or be killed, a vicious portion of her mind whispered accusingly.
"Nicky came by to pour out his sorrows," Janette explained brightly, tipping Nat off that she was in particularly good...spirits this evening.
"As long as he wasn't drowning them," Nat replied reflexively.
"Goodness, no. He was on duty." The vampiress actually giggled. "Isn't it just touching how concerned he is with your safety? You're absolutely right, you know. He can be an overprotective, condescending schmuck. He can't really escape it."
"I did say that, didn't I?"
"And I was very proud of you," Grace piped up behind her, moving to join them and meet this stranger who displayed such a promising attitude toward the object of their displeasure.
"Though personally I would have been more creative," Janette noted, "but for the spur of the moment, not bad at all."
A broad grin crossed Grace's face. "I like this woman. Come in, sit down, grab munchies. I bought 'em, I can give 'em out. I'm Grace."
"Janette," the newcomer returned somewhat warily. As Grace drew her into the room, she caught sight of the television, which had shifted into a sketch bearing a remarkable resemblance to a BBC costume drama. "What on earth are you watching, and why is the young girl wearing things forty years off from the others?"
"Oh, it's the mouse sketch! Natalie, close the door, come in here, sit down! The mouse sketch!"
Mouse sketch? Nat was feeling vaguely ill. She sat down again, this time on the floor in front of the couch. She began to giggle as she picked up the gist of the dialogue--this time Emma was a Victorian woman without even knowledge of basic anatomical facts asking her mother questions about marriage...and men...and their rather...strange habits. As the mother was looking particularly uncomfortable with the conversation, Natalie heard a muffled squeak to her left. She turned and was surprised to find that Janette had taken a seat on the couch and was watching the comedy show. And having a hard time suppressing her laughter. Nat stared for a moment then grinned. Janette enjoying something so very mortal had simply never occurred to her. For that matter, she realized, Janette truly enjoying much of anything was something that had never occurred to her.
Only when the sketch gave way to one about horror movies did Janette breathe again, even for effect. "That is so much the way it was," she said, her voice still touched by the laughter she had actually allowed to erupt briefly. "I used to love to say outrageous things to old women such as her, just to see the shock on their faces." Janette smiled, eyes glinting wickedly at the memory. "My grandmother's friends, you know," she added as she noticed Grace's raised eyebrows.
Natalie took refuge in having a large drink of her red Hawaiian Punch, avoiding both Grace's curiosity and the now innate desire to bolster Janette's cover, help which she instinctively knew would not be appreciated.
Soon the sketch was over and the credits rolled. "Don't worry," Grace said, poking her head back in from the kitchen, into which she had disappeared just a bit earlier, "there are five more episodes. Plenty of fun left." She vanished for a moment again and returned with both hands protected from the pan she was carrying by brightly colored oven mitts. "You. ...Um..."
"Janette," Natalie supplied before hiding in her glass again; being referred to as "you" was something Janette was clearly not accustomed to.
"Janette." Grace nodded. "Help yourself to the snacks; that's what they're all here for." She offered the hot food for Janette's inspection. "Pizza roll? Or mozzarella stick?"
Janette cringed and shuddered slightly. "No, thank you," she managed, waving the pan away. "I'm...uh...dieting."
Natalie had abruptly returned her glass to the table--spilling a bit of the red liquid on her t-shirt in the process--and was attempting to swallow and not laugh, in that order. She was not having good luck with the timing of eating and laughing tonight.
"Always the skinny ones, too," Grace shook her head and set the pan in Natalie's reach. "As long was we eat the same thing, it has no calories, you know." She grinned broadly. "Hell, if we split it three ways, I'll bet it has negative calories." She looked at Janette expectantly, but the vampiress shook her head slightly, placing a shaky hand on her stomach. "Well, have it your way. The stuff's still here if you change your mind. And the chocolate chocolate chip brownies will be done in twenty minutes."
"I'll remember that," Janette said, maintaining what Natalie thought was an impressive degree of steadiness under the circumstances.
Grace returned to the kitchen and reemerged moments later with a bag of microwave popcorn and bowls of ranch dressing and marinara sauce for the mozzarella. By this time the next episode had begun and the three women grew relatively silent.
"Ow ow ow! Hot. Hot!" Natalie suddenly gasped, her words slurred by the half-chewed pizza roll. "Hot hot hot." She fanned a hand in front of her face, swallowed quickly, and took another huge gulp of punch. "Hot!" she exclaimed one more time, pointing an accusing finger at the pan, then falling silent as she noted that it appeared to be Janette's turn to look amused.
"They did just come out of the oven, Nat," Grace admonished lightly. "I'm sorry, though. I should have warned you."
"That's okay," Nat said, refilling her glass from the jug beneath the table. "But I think I'll switch to something safer." She reached for the bag of Hershey's Kisses with Almonds, peeled off the candy's foil wrapper, and dropped the wrapper on the table. She contemplated the chocolate for a moment, then set it in her mouth. "Mmmm, these are good." She smiled appreciatively then glanced back at the TV. "...What are they doing?"
Thompson was now dressed in disproportionately lumpy clothes and Staunton was proudly explaining the failsafe weight loss program of auto-cannibalism. Natalie began giggling and popped another chocolate into her mouth.
Janette stared at the television, then looked at the two laughing women, then back again. "That is disgusting," she declared as she turned to Natalie and Grace with a slightly blank but horrified expression. "How can you laugh at that?"
Natalie shrugged. "Level of absurdity?" she suggested lightly, munching another kiss and adding its wrapper to her growing pile.
Janette returned her gaze to the TV and Grace swatted Natalie's shoulder lightly. Nat looked up questioningly and her eyes followed Grace's pointing finger to where Sydney stood on the back of the opposite end of the couch from Janette. Natalie watched in bemusement as Sydney crept slowly onto the seat of the couch and toward Janette. The vampiress was too caught up in the morbidity of the skit to notice she was being stalked until Sydney's entire front half suddenly plopped into her black dry-clean-only clad lap.
Natalie laughed out loud as Janette started then stared dumbly at the furry lump sprawled across her legs. "The sneak attack!" Nat grinned. "Works every time."
"So that's where you got it," Grace said, looking knowingly at Sydney and his mommy.
"How do I ...get rid of it?" Janette asked, poking the cat's side gently with one gloved finger.
"Sydney? Oh, he's certifiable lap fungus. You're pretty much stuck with him for a while; he seems to like you. He'll probably purr his little heart out for hours."
"Yeah, especially since you're being used to get back at us," Grace added, "he wants to make us jealous by paying attention to you because we aren't feeding him."
"Ah," Janette said, clearly not a bit mollified.
A few minutes later, there was another knock at the door. "You just stay right there and watch; I'll get it," Grace said, quickly jumping to her feet and going to the door. Natalie heard a none-too-cordial, "Good evening, detective" and then Grace called, "Should I let him in?"
"Is he waving a white flag?" Nat asked, only partially joking and half hoping Nick would take the hint.
"All but, it seems," Grace responded, still physically blocking the door.
Nat and Janette exchanged glances then both shrugged. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt since he's already here," Nat conceded, motioning Grace to let him pass.
"Wimp," Grace mouthed from over Nick's shoulder, shaking her head in disgust.
Nick stopped short as he caught sight of Janette, who looked up with an impish grin and waved her now ungloved fingers at him. Natalie made a point of not directly acknowledging his presence but from the corner of her eye was pleased to see him looking perplexed at the spectacle of her, Grace, and Janette surrounding a coffee table laden with junk food, and seeming to be not only getting along just fine, but even enjoying themselves. She frowned as he looked nervously from Janette to her and back again. Natalie's frown turned guilty as he spied her stack of Hershey's wrappers and she quickly crumpled them and pushed them aside, opening the sour cream and onion dip and ripple chips. She was pleased to note Nick's slight shudder as she scooped a large glop of dip onto her first chip and began to munch.
Nick moved to lean against the back of the couch behind Janette. "I see you passed the Sydney Test," he commented, gesturing at the cat Janette was absently petting on her lap.
"So it would appear," Janette replied evenly.
"What are you doing here, Janette?" Nick whispered.
"Watching a film."
She pointed at the screen which was now occupied by two nuns, one played by Thompson and the other, it seemed, by a man. The timing was such that exactly as Janette pointed, the male nun said solemnly to the other, "Biting policemen is wrong, Jeanette."
Natalie found herself fighting to keep from spitting or breathing food for the third time that night, and as soon as she had swallowed, fell sideways, convulsing with laughter.
Nick leaned closer to Janette's ear. "Remember that, Janette," he said quietly, smiling.
"I am not a nun, Nicholas," Janette replied softly, glancing briefly over her shoulder at him.
A minute later the bitten policeman in question entered the scene, only to have a wooden chair shattered against him by the male nun.
"Just what he deserved!" Grace exulted, casting a satisfied look at Nick.
"Uh huh," Natalie agreed through laughter, unobtrusively taking in Nick's confused expression and finding it quite fitting. He had been avoiding talking to her about much of anything meaningful--except that one brief night just before Valentine's Day--for ages now. He'd left her out of his plans, out of his life...she hadn't realized how important the all night talk sessions, movie marathons, the little smiles, exchanges of in-jokes, and so many other little things they shared were to her until they'd become so scarce. It served him right if tonight he felt left out for once. She deliberately kept her attention full on the TV, where another skit had began. Imelda's character was an office worker so paranoid about the very idea of sexual harassment that she was reading wildly inaccurate connotations into every statement that was made.
Nick looked at the three women in utter confusion, then back at the screen. "What are you watching??"
"Shhh!" Natalie and Grace chorused.
"Be quiet, Nicholas," Janette admonished. "You are interrupting the program."
As Imelda's behavior became more and more extreme, Grace gasped, "I've worked with people like that, too. In fact, Natalie, there was a lady just before you started to work with us who was almost that paranoid."
"Um, doesn't this seem a little twisted?" Nick asked, sounding a bit nervous.
At that moment Imelda ripped open the front of her blouse, crowing about her "Cross your heart, fully wired, seven-day, tom-proof bust protector" and all three women laughed, ignoring Nick's question entirely. Their attention remained focused on the television and, after a moment, Nick stood up from leaning over the back of the couch.
"Well, I guess I'd better get going." The only response were the women's giggles at the current skit. "Schanke will be wondering what happened to me," he added. Grace flipped a hand dismissively at Nick, obviously gesturing him to be quiet. Somewhat nonplussed, he headed slowly for the door. "I'll see you two tomorrow." He looked back in Nat and Grace's direction, but they didn't react. Frowning and confused, he turned and left.
"He is just an overprotective, condescending schmuck," Natalie burst out as soon as the door closed behind Nick. She was well aware that, in all likelihood, he could still hear every word and not only did not mind, but rather hoped he did. "How dare he check up on me again?!" She grabbed a handful of the popcorn and threw it at the door as hard as she could.
"It's just his way, cherie," Janette said, her voice taking on a soft and somewhat sentimental tone as she glanced toward the door. "He has always been overzealous in the protection of what he loves. And right now that is you."
"I knew it," Grace said, pouncing on the potential information Janette had. "I knew you must have known him a long time. And you say he's always had this little sense?"
Natalie didn't even bother to chastise Grace for the comment this time; she was too furious with Nick and close to either agreeing or elaborating on the woman's assessment.
"Where it comes to women? Yes." Janette paused thoughtfully. "Actually, where it comes to relationships and people just in general. You know, once he ran away and asked me to come with him. He can never understand that since he wants it that does not necessarily mean that everyone else does too."
"You can say that again! Just like when he tried to drag you out of bed and outside a couple of months ago, just because he thought it was a nice day," Natalie was careful to couch her words so that Grace would hear nothing that would hint of the true nature of the exchange. "Of course, the worst of it is when he assumes he knows best and tries to arrange things that way without even checking to see what you want."
"Exactly. He did that to me over and over again. He was always acting in what he thought were my best interests, or to protect me, and if I wanted something different, he would usually try and convince me that his way was better. So presumptuous!" Janette's lip curled slightly on the last word.
"No kidding. Half the time he won't tell me what's wrong because he doesn't want to scare or worry me. And if he would just talk to me, I could help. Like when...oh, never mind. You know."
"Yeah, like when he tried to be such a perfect gentleman about Roger and 'not doubt your judgement' and 'not get in the way of you and your happiness.'" The mocking tone to Grace's voice when she quoted Nick would have been enough to make Natalie laugh out loud had she not been so horrified.
"You heard that?" Nat had always been somewhat comforted by knowing that only she and Nick knew of their conversation. She had been so frustrated with him at the time that she hadn't realized that he was trying very hard to do what he thought was the best thing--and that it had nearly broken his heart to say what he did. Later, when she looked back, she had felt dreadful for having blown up at him just for not saying what she wanted to hear.
"Of course. And I thought it was perfect that you threw him out after he made that ridiculous speech. The man needs to learn to say what he feels--and to be honest--rather than just trying to "do the right thing". It's a real no-brainer to see that he's already all tied up in your happiness!"
"Ah, but that is what Nicky does best," Janette's amused smile had grown somewhat mocking as well. "He always does the 'right thing'...or at least, what he perceives at that moment to be the right thing. He never thinks that those might be two very different things."
"Like today when he put out an APB on my car. They pulled me out of a damned drive-thru line!
"If I'd answered the phone, I would have told him you were running errands," Grace said. "I don't know why they said they didn't know where you were."
"I just about killed him. He shouldn't have to know where I am every second of the day and night to not worry. We all had a bad scare with the whole "the sky is falling" routine. He needs to get over it though!! Of course, I know I'll let him off the hook sooner or later. Probably sooner."
"Well, yes, it is Nick," Janette concurred.
"You ought to at least make him sweat a little first," Grace insisted. "Tonight was a good start. Now, tomorrow you should keep up the silent treatment, maybe think of something else good to call him. Oh, and most important: he has to do something as penance for this one."
Natalie looked dubiously at Grace.
Janette shook her head. She knew better than to think Nat's annoyance with Nick would last much after tonight. "Nicky will come to see Natalie soon, probably tomorrow night, and act very apologetic. In fact, he probably came by here to apologize but Natalie was not alone. He'll look like his world will end if she doesn't forgive him," Janette was beginning to sound rather bored, as though she were reciting something tediously familiar, "and Natalie will have no choice but to do so. I wouldn't have either."
"Why do we always fall for this? He asks for something ludicrous and, because he's Nick, we do it, even against our better judgement."
"I stopped asking that question long ago. It is simply because he is Nicholas. Even when he is being unreasonable, he is still irresistible." Janette shook her head, obviously not certain of the reason either, but not concerned enough to search for it as Natalie seemed to be doing.
"But it's...he's just so..." Natalie looked around as though scanning about the room would provide her with an appropriate adjective. Her gaze happened past the TV where the tape was still running. A second later her gaze jerked back to the image she had almost missed. "What did they do to her hair?!" she demanded, staring in horror at Imelda's hairdo. It looked like someone had run electricity through the poor woman's body while she was upside down, then hairsprayed the mop to within an inch of its life, then topped the horror with an even more unfortunate large bow--so large that even the size of the hairdo did not obscure clear view of it. Natalie shuddered, "You'd never catch me dead with hair like that!"
"Not anymore, at least," Grace said, swatting at the mop of hair that, left to its own devices, quite closely approximated the style Nat was so vehemently opposed to.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Nat demanded, exaggerating a frown at Grace as she twisted her hair around itself, leaving none for the other woman to play with.
"I've seen you looking a lot like that--especially when you first started working here."
"I did not!" Nat protested. At Grace's dubiously raised eyebrows she amended, "Well, I never did it that big. Or with the bow."
"I do seem to recall a certain few occasions when--"
"Okay. Fine. Maybe it was similar," Nat retorted. "Once or twice. But that was six years ago. I'd never be caught dead with hair like that now." Natalie risked a look at Janette, only to observe the woman's attempt at not giggling dissolving slightly. "Janette, lose the shoes. Stay awhile."
Janette began to respond, shifting her weight as if considering the possibility and Sydney, who had been awakened by the loud, if good-natured, argument, jumped down. He glanced reproachfully at those who had so rudely interrupted his comfortable nap, then trotted off toward the quiet bedroom.
"Ah, well," Janette began, rising with a regal air that always made Natalie call her own gracefulness further into question, "I think that, as fascinating as this has been, I really should be returning to my club. We wouldn't want Miklos to have to close up by himself.
"Aw, you can't run off. We've still got cheesecake and more videos!" Grace protested, moving to block Janette's exit.
"No. Thank you, but I really must be going." Nat was surprised to not a tone of warmth in the woman's tone. "Another time, perhaps," she conceded, looking pointedly at Natalie, "To trade stories about Nicholas."
Nat smiled conspiratorily in return. "That would be nice."
"And you two have to let me listen in on those." Grace sighed. "Well, if you've gotta go. ...But you had a good time, right?" she demanded, placing her hands on Janette's shoulders and looking carefully into her eyes.
"Y-yes," Janette said, with only the slightest of hesitation. She glanced at Natalie. "It was quite...illuminating."
"Good." Grace quickly wrapped Janette in a farewell hug, causing Janette to emit a slight squeak--from surprise or actually getting the air pressed out of her lungs, Natalie could not tell. "It was nice to meet you," Grace continued, appearing completely oblivious to Janette's shock. "And remember," she added, raising a finger, "when that man is being stupid, cutting him slack just makes it worse."
"You are right about that," Janette concurred. "Good night, Grace. Good night, Natalie."
Natalie waved and smiled around the large bite of brownie she had just taken.
Grace closed the door behind Janette and turned back to Natalie. "So. What's next?"
"Bed, I think. I'm exhausted and we both have to be at work..." Nat stood slowly as she checked the clock, "later this morning."
"You're right," Grace said warmly. "But do you feel better."
"Yes. Thank you so much." Nat hugged Grace, who was always there, always had a ready smile, was always mothering her, bringing in food, doing sweet little things like birthday parties and tonight's impromptu party. "You do so much for me."
Grace tsked and waved a hand dismissively then pointed at the coffee table. "Do you need help with this?"
Natalie looked at the remains of various snacks laying in half conquered piles. "What am I going to do with all this?" she moaned, too tired to contemplate the work it would take to even get it out of Sydney's reach for the night. "And the cheesecake...we didn't eat a bit of it."
"Don't worry about it," Grace said reassuringly. "We'll put it all in little zip-lock baggies and take it into work. It'll be gone long before lunchtime, I guarantee. The cheesecake maybe even earlier."
Nat nodded, beginning to stack as much of the food as she could carry in one trip on top of itself. She froze for a moment as an idea struck her and a smile spread slowly across her face. "Perfect. And I can save a couple of pieces for snacks for later."
"Good idea. You never do get enough to eat."
"Is it safe to come in?"
Nat looked up from her paperwork to see Nick peering cautiously around the doorframe. Her face hardened at the sight of him. "If you're here to check up on me..." she threatened, watching with satisfaction as his expression grew even more concerned.
"No. Oh, no. I don't want another tongue lashing like the one you gave me at the loft," Nick said quickly.
Natalie maintained the glare for a moment then said grudgingly, "Well, come in then," as she lost the battle against the grin that had been threatening.
Nick whistled softly in relief, then entered the lab. He perched on the corner of her desk and looked at her for a long moment. "I'm really sorry, Nat. I know you can take care of yourself. It's just that if anyone still had ideas...and with my kind..." He shook his head, "I don't know what I thought I was doing."
"I do. I know you only worry because you care," Natalie replied. "So I suppose you're forgiven." Nick smiled broadly at this and Nat smiled back a bit devilishly and added, "Under one condition."
Nick looked a bit worried. "What is that?"
Nat stood up and walked to the evidence fridge, where she produced two plates with healthy pieces of the leftover bakery cheesecake from the previous night's affair. She removed the plastic wrap that Grace had brought and held up a piece near his face.
"Nat, you're not serious--"
"One condition: one bite. Come on. It's just cheesecake!"
"But, Nat! It's...it's..." His voice trailed off.
Nat scooped a bit onto a fork and held it up. "One bite. I'm even being nice and making it a relatively small bite. Now eat."
Nick grimaced expressively at the cheesecake inches from his face. Nat wiggled the fork up and down then lowered it. Nick breathed a sigh of relief until she shoved the fork handle first at him. "Here. Take this and feed yourself. That way I can join you."
"But, Nat!" Nick's tones were fast approaching what could only be defined as a whine.
"No buts. One bite." She took one herself and gave the cheesecake an approving nod. "Mmm. See how easy that is?"
He raised the fork and looked suspiciously at its contents, then turned a mournful expression on her.
"Yes, just like that. And, no, the puppy dog look is not going to get you out of this."
Nick shuddered as he closed his lips around the cheesecake and Natalie laughed and took another bite herself.