To Love the Sun
Author's notes: This is an older piece, which began as a sort of companion piece to "Getting Physical" (and then languished on my hard drive for over a year due to lack of a title), but it really does stand rather well (and perhaps better) on its own. Archive? Yes, please! Oh, and none of these characters are mine, except the girl behind the counter, and you can use her. I won't mind. ;)
I stand in the aisle, hands firmly implanted in my pockets, and wait while my partner contemplates this most momentous of decisions.
"Um..." he says.
I glance around impatiently. It is a store like any other in the mall: prefab, sterile. The overhead lights are strong, the linoleum slickly reflective. I shouldn't have left my sunglasses in the car. This place has the added bonus of being a candy store: acrid scents accost me at every turn.
Worse still, the mall is teeming with tired, irritable shoppers. It's their monthly 'midnight madness' night, and the stores are open all night long, offering all kinds of discounts. If I were after buying jellybeans at half-price, we'd be in business.
Schanke hems and haws. "Oh, jeez..."
The girl behind the register exhales pointedly, fingers drumming an impatient rhythm on plastic. She is very young--they all are, I suppose, relatively speaking, but this one seems little more than a child. She is fake-blonde and painted-on pretty. I shoot her a friendly smile. She blushes and suddenly becomes very interested in the display of lottery tickets under glass on the counter.
"I can't believe you never bought a box of chocolates before," Schanke is saying. "And I really can't believe I let you talk me into waking up Myra just to ask her about her favourite--"
"Hey, I just said ask her. At no point did I suggest calling her at four in the morning when she has to be up at six to take Jenny to soccer practice." Maliciously, I add, "I may not know as much about women as you do, Schank, but even I know better than that."
My partner likes to believe that he is an authority on women, and rarely hesitates to share the benefit of his vast experience. Some of his advice leaves me wondering how his marriage has lasted this long.
A few feet away, the child cracks her gum, the sound ripping through my head like the report of a gunshot. My partner picks up a box, turns it over, then puts it back.
"Schanke," I prompt.
He tugs at his tie for a moment before throwing up his hands in exasperation. "Nope. Nada. Zip. Zero. Shoulda written it down when she told me on the phone... Myra is gonna kill me. You are looking at a dead man walking, Knight. Dead. Man. Walking."
I can't quite resist an ironic smile.
"Yeah, go ahead and laugh it up, buddy. You're not the one in the doghouse--unless that's why you needed the, ah..." He gestures to the row of neatly-stacked boxes before us. At times Schanke can be so ingenuous that it's astounding, considering what we do for a living.
I effect a calculated shrug, and contemplate the bright colours and overwhelming odours that surround us. Even taking shallow breaths, I can clearly discern sugar, wax, molasses, gelatin, and various chemical additives. Fortunately I don't have to breathe often. The very thought of putting any one of these bizarre concoctions in my mouth is enough to make my stomach do impromptu gymnastics.
Schanke, meanwhile, is determined to have it out of me. "Come on, partner, ya gotta give me something... all I have to do is mention your name in the morgue these days and she's practically walking on air. And when you two are talking, it's like you forget I even exist. And, AND, I haven't seen you kissing any of your other co-workers recently."
"Oh, you crack me up, Knight. Look, you can't expect me to believe there's nothing going on."
I'm tempted to administer a mental 'push', just enough to make him drop it... and then that little voice in the back of my mind, the conscience LaCroix and Janette both insist I don't actually have, warns me against it. Lately, that little voice is starting to sound suspiciously like Natalie Lambert. Let's just not consider what the eminent Dr. Jung would have to say about that.
"Wish I knew what to tell you, Schank." There. Neatly done, and I didn't even have to lie.
I glance at the girl again. Her head is bowed in studied indifference, but her heart rate increases just a touch as she realizes she's being noticed. After a moment she looks up at me, and beams. So very young... and fresh, beneath the mask of makeup she wears to disguise her youth. I can smell her from here--the scent of summer rain. Refreshing, exhilarating. Sweet, but not cloying. A pang of hunger slices through me. I jam my fists deeper into my pockets and nudge Schanke with my elbow.
"Pick one," I growl.
Schanke closes his eyes and stabs at the air with his index finger. At length his hand alights on a box, and he grabs one. I grab one too, and we head up to the counter. Schanke goes first; I am surprised to find myself strangely self-conscious when my turn comes, even though we're the only ones in the store. After all, as Schanke so kindly pointed out, I've never done this before. Oh, I've bought little tokens for special women in my life: I spent almost a century plying Janette with flowers, clothing, jewelry, perfume... all the usual suspects. Almost without exception, the gifts were extremely well-received. But chocolates, no. I doubt very much that Janette would have appreciated them the way Natalie will.
Or rather, the way I hope she will.
The fragrant blonde child carefully counts out my change, making sure our hands touch more than once. Her fingers are warm and petal-soft. She is obviously surprised to find mine so chill. I distribute the coins among the jars on the counter representing various charities, which earns me an admiring smile and a quiet, cinnamon-scented, "Bye now."
Schanke waits until we're both back in the car before launching his second attack. "I'm not the only one who's noticed, ya know."
I play innocent, which I know infuriates him more than anything else. "Noticed what?"
"What else? You." He pokes me in the shoulder for emphasis. "Natalie." Poke. "You and Natalie." Poke poke.
I gun the engine pointedly, and the car rolls out of the parking lot into the deserted street.
I do not want to be having this conversation anymore, but I suppose it's too much to hope that I'm actually dreaming. "Okay, Schanke." I've found that if I can sound like I'm agreeing with him, he'll often let it go at that.
"Okay, let's drop it. Okay?"
"No. Not okay."
If either of us says 'okay' once more, someone will be exiting this car riddled with bullet holes.
"C'mon, Nick," he coaxes.
"Have you ever considered the fact that this may be none of your business?" I regret that the second it's out of my mouth, but it's too late.
Schanke crosses his arms and glares out the passenger's side window.
Only through a Herculean feat of will power do I manage to refrain from banging my head against the steering wheel--repeatedly. I take a deep breath, then another, until the repetition of the action calms me somewhat. I am the more mature individual by more than seven centuries. It probably won't kill me to be the bigger person here.
"Look. Schank. Um..."
A burst of static saves me from possible death by humility: "81-Kilo, 81-Kilo..."
Schanke catches the call, and we are directed to proceed to an apartment block less than five minutes away from our current location.
I maneuver the Caddy into the nearest metered spot. Schanke mock-punches my shoulder and jumps out of the car. This is the closest to an apology either of us usually comes when we have an argument. He was perfectly within his rights to be angry: after all, I really don't talk to him about personal matters, and more often than not I doctor the truth about myself. He would be disgusted with me if he knew who and what I really was, but there's so much I'd like to tell him, about my past, my previous experience in police work.
I trust Don Schanke. I'd trust him with my life if it ever came to that. He's a great partner, and an even better friend. It bothers me that people generally don't seem to realize what a rarity he is. It bothers me even more that I almost overlooked it myself.
Schanke suffers from a tragic and deplorable excess of personality, and because of that everyone assumes he's not an intelligent man and a capable detective. I've noticed that he uses this to his advantage; people are less guarded with him because they don't take him seriously. Every now and again, he does something which makes me wonder if he hasn't already figured me out. He ribs me about my "condition" with the same underlying strategy he uses in interrogations, waxing obnoxious as if he's trying to get a rise out of me. Hoping I'll slip.
"Hey, Knight, you gonna sit in the car all night pouting, or what?" Schanke's voice quite neatly derails my train of thought.
"Pouting?" echoes another, equally familiar voice.
I give the driver's side door a shove and get out of the car. Just beyond Schanke's bulky form a mass of hastily upswept auburn curls becomes visible, then a pair of clear, sagacious eyes.
And suddenly all can't help but be right with the world, for here is Natalie.
"Now that doesn't sound like Nick... oh, no, no, he's pure sweetness and light."
She knows perfectly well I was able to hear that. Schanke, who doesn't, stifles a chuckle as I step soundlessly over to join them.
Perched on a stone planter in front of the building, Nat is bundled up in a long coat and gloves; it's cold enough outside that wisps of steam emerge from her mouth and nose with each escaping breath.
I'm surprised to see Natalie here tonight; she's had a rough week. I don't need enhanced senses to notice how tired she is: the too-straight line of her body, the careful and correct rigidity of posture with which she sits, clipboard in her lap, betrays her weariness. There are dark shadows under her eyes, and her face is drawn and pale. I've seen Natalie like this before; she'll make it through the shift--just barely--but the moment it's over, total shutdown, physical and mental.
A part of me just wants to scoop her up from the cold stone and take off into the night sky, witnesses be damned.
In spite of her exhaustion, she grins up at me. "Speak of the devil. Good morning, sunshine."
"Hi." I grin back.
"Hi," she echoes, as if I've just given her a compliment she wishes to savour. Something intangible passes between us.
When did this happen? When did we cease to be professionals and metamorphose into moony-eyed teenagers? It's utterly ridiculous, and yet... I can't help it. I guess you could say she rejuvenates me.
"Hate to get you out of that nice, warm car," she adds teasingly. I offer my hand, helping her gain her feet.
"Nice warm car, my ass," Schanke grumbles. "I bet if you licked me right now your tongue would stick."
Nat makes a particularly gruesome face. I can't say I find Schanke all that appetizing myself. Too much garlic, for one thing.
We examine the body, making shop talk and puffs of cold air. The murder victim is a child, a little girl; she is naked, anonymous. We will have to find out who she is before anything more can be done. The phosphate test is a positive. The more upset Natalie is, the more clinically she tries to approach the case, but I can tell it's really bothering her. Schanke is rattled, too: in every murder like this one, he faces the possibility of harm to his own daughter. It's a relief to all of us when the necessary rituals are complete, and the tiny body is loaded into the back of a van and conducted back to the Coroners Building. I can tell Nat is reluctant to follow it, that this is one examination she would just as soon put off.
Schanke's teeth are chattering. "Look at this!" he announces, delivering a backhanded smack to my shoulder. "We've got a windchill of fifteen hundred and he didn't even bring any gloves! I swear, Nat, this guy must be part polar bear."
"Nah. He's just cheap."
I meet her gaze with the quirk of an inquiring eyebrow. I've been accused of many things in my time, but frugality has never been one of them.
"Yeah, well, if he can afford to drop--" Schanke's retort is truncated by a swiftly-applied elbow to the midsection--mine, naturally. The guilty look that flits across his face confirms my suspicion that he was about to blurt out how much I just spent on the box of chocolates now reposing quietly in the back of my car.
Fortunately, the timely sound of Natalie's pager saves either of us from having to explain. She pulls it out and checks it, then snorts in disgust. "Damn it... not another one."
Schanke has used the opportunity afforded by the distraction to make a speedy exit, stage left.
"Wrong number?" I inquire.
"This has been going on all week. It just so happens that my beeper number is one digit off from the number of a very attractive young woman who apparently earns a lot more than I do for providing..."
I can't quite manage not to smile. "A more involved sort of examination?"
"Much more involved."
"I hope you get commission for referrals."
A wan smile. She sighs, and glances around to make sure we aren't being observed before leaning into my shoulder.
Despite the bitter cold, Natalie is very warm, and also fragrant. Along with her own scent, and the familiar coffee-and-wintergreen-gel combination that trails after her on work nights, there is just a touch of jasmine--one of the aromatherapy bath oils I bought her for Christmas.
She adds, "Someone's supposed to take it off my hands and get me a new number, but you know what it's like..."
I enfold her in a brief hug before stepping back. "Walk you to your car?"
"It's not here, I tagged along with--" She half-turns, pointing, then stops short. "Damn it. They must have seen me talking to you and just--just assumed that you..." Her gaze is riveted on the blank patch of asphalt where there should be a van. I move to put a consolatory arm around her shoulders, but she sidesteps my embrace without a word or even a look in my direction.
"I can drop you off, Nat, it's not a problem."
"Maybe I'm just tired of people assuming things about me."
Schanke, master of bad timing, chooses this moment to stroll over to us. "What say we hustle, Knight?"
I nod. "Sure."
"I take it the lovely doctor will be accompanying us?"
I nod again.
My partner makes a merry little bow. "My lady, your chariot awaits."
"I'm really not in the mood, Schanke."
Schanke's mouth falls open in a silent O of puzzlement. For possibly the first time in his life, he decides that discretion is the better part of valour, and closes it without further comment. As for me, I have the distinct impression of having walked onto a minefield, and am trusting blindly in instinct to lead me to safety. She turns her back on us both and walks over to the stone planter to pick up her clipboard and bag.
"Hoo boy. Someone's on the rag," Schanke mutters.
"No." My absent-minded reply draws raised eyebrows from my partner. I hurriedly add, "I wouldn't go around making those kinds of comments about any woman with access to a lot of very sharp surgical equipment and knowledge of all the best places to hide a body." I toss him the keys to the Cadillac. "Go warm up the car, I'll be there in a minute."
"Your funeral, compadre." He walks off, shaking his head.
I approach Nat, who scowls up at me, drained and defiant. I open my mouth to speak, even though I have absolutely no idea what's going to emerge. Before I get a chance to dig myself in deeper, however, her pager goes off again. Nat whips it out of her coat pocket and glances at it, then erupts into a fluid and surprisingly pungent string of curse words. Then, still cursing, she drops the pager on the ground and mashes it into the hard soil with one tiny, booted foot.
Schanke watches through the windshield, his expression one of carefully schooled nonchalance. He and I exchange looks--who is this stamping, swearing woman, and what has she done with the calm and pragmatic Doctor Lambert?
Finally, once the fit of choler subsides, she looks up at me--and laughs. No doubt my current deer-in-the-headlights (or minefield) expression is profoundly amusing in ways I can only imagine. "Sorry," she whispers. "I, uh, I really just needed to get that out of my system."
Nat approaches, and I hold up the ribbon of yellow for her to duck underneath. My gallantry is rewarded with a smile.
Suddenly, miraculously, the mines have been defused, and I can walk freely through the field once more.
I throw open the passenger door, ignoring Schanke's anguished cries as what little warm air had built up inside escapes. "Get in the back."
I stare pointedly over his shoulder at the white plastic bag on the back seat. "Now, Schank." I know Nat well enough to know that she wouldn't be able to resist peeking in the bag, and I didn't plan on presenting her with the chocolates in front of an audience, even an audience of one.
The ersatz audience of one moans and groans, but does as I ask. Natalie looks a bit surprised at my insistence, and also somewhat flattered. She installs herself neatly in the front seat, dwarfed by the Caddy's spacious interior. I turn up the heat as high as it will go, then remove my coat and drape it across her lap. It's not much of a gesture since I don't exactly need it anyhow, but she smiles and thanks me.
Schanke does most of the talking, with me contributing the occasional remark. Nat stares blankly at the dash, completely zoned out.
"So you think I should get flowers?" asks Schanke.
"For Myra. For waking her up. Flowers oughta do it, don't ya think?"
I sneak a peek at Natalie. "Usually works for me," I say. Her lack of response confirms what I had already sensed.
"Nat, you're a woman, what do you--"
"Shh," I interrupt.
Schanke chuckles and peers over the seat. "She asleep? Oh, yeah. Out like a light. Natalie has left the building."
Making slow, steady movements so as not to disturb my passenger, I reach into my coat pocket and retrieve my cellular phone. I dial the number of the morgue, and Grace answers.
"Hi, Grace, it's Nick Knight."
"Oh, Detective Knight, Natalie's not here right now--"
"I know, she's here. I'm en route to the precinct. She's really tapped out... she's gone to sleep on me."
A rich chuckle on the line, as Grace apparently envisions the most literal interpretation of that last comment.
"I figured I'd just take her home--to her apartment," I add, forestalling whatever crude insinuation Schanke and his upraised index finger are about to make. "Will you guys be okay over there?"
"Sure. I can handle things here if you can do me a favour, make sure that girl gets some rest."
"Great. I will. Thanks, Grace." I close the phone and toss it over my shoulder into the back seat.
We pull up outside the precinct and I let Schanke out on my side of the car. "Don't forget--" I gesture to the back seat, irrationally concerned that Nat might somehow overhear even in sleep.
My partner grins and reaches across for one of the boxes. "Want me to sign you off?"
"No problemo. After all, you've got places to go, M.E.'s to deliver... I'm gonna get the flowers," he announces meditatively. "What kind, you think?"
"I don't know... something that reminds you of her. Something that shows how important she is to you."
He gives me a blank look.
"Or just roses. Can't go wrong with those."
"See ya, partner."
I close the door, as quietly as possible, and drive. Not much traffic, aside from the occasional early riser. Nat's breathing and heartbeat are slow, regular, peaceful. She nods for a bit, her head falling forward and then jerking up. At length she drifts sideways, coming to rest on my shoulder. Her proximity is distracting, especially the hot flutter of her breath just beneath my ear. Her chin is tilted upwards and her scarf has come loose, exposing a snowy expanse of throat. My jaw tenses, and I feel that tell-tale tingle in my gums, just above the canines. Each muscle in my body tightens, my senses becoming incredibly acute. For one horrifyingly seductive moment, the blood in her veins whispers my name with every beat of her tranquil heart.
I should really wake her up before this becomes too much for me to handle.
"Come on, Nat."
Still sleeping, she shifts positions and settles more decidedly against me. So unaware.
I focus on the road. Gradually--very gradually--the sharpened points in my mouth retract. The flood of scent and sound subsides somewhat, and I feel comfortable enough to reach around and wrap my arm around her, pulling her closer. I can still hear the blood, feel it thrumming through her body, but it no longer calls to me as often or as loudly.
And Natalie sleeps on.
She should be terrified of me, but she isn't. A fact which hasn't ceased to amaze me in all the time we've known each other. I've shown her myself--my true self, "nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice," as Shakespeare would have noted--and she is able to see beyond what I am, to care for who I am. More than that; she takes it entirely in stride. She accepts my imperfections and my eccentricities, and yet still loves me.
She loves me, this woman. This mortal. A fragile creature, subject to muscle strains, headaches, colds, paper cuts, and all the little vagaries of humanity. As well as the larger ones... including death.
Absently I draw her nearer, as if by physical contact alone I can protect her from these things. Immortality by osmosis. And that's another thing; unlike so many I've known in my life, Natalie isn't cultivating my friendship in order to gain what I have. She wants to help me. Not me and all of vampire-kind, not even me and a few select friends. Me. And my love is the only reward she has ever sought--a false reward, because it is a gift I would freely give her whether she cured me or not.
A sound, soft at first but steadily growing, brings my mind back into the here and now with a jolt. I try to ignore it, try to concentrate on something else, but I can't. I reach the point where it's all I can do not to laugh out loud.
Natalie is snoring. And not those tiny, ladylike snorts she sometimes makes when she falls asleep on my couch, either. She sounds like a cross between a buzz-saw and an irate Doberman. It's enough to make me wonder, fleetingly, if her tape recorder is within reach.
My beautiful Natalie... forbidden to me by a promise I made centuries before her birth. But I can't regret saving my sister's life, any more than I can regret saving that of the woman sleeping beside me now. Not that I honestly believe LaCroix fell for my desperate ruse. I can't be sure of his intentions; either he is biding his time, waiting for me to slip up, or my callous words finally convinced him of the wisdom of the decision he made so long ago. Or perhaps he really does believe that his love for my sister was purer than mine for Natalie... and he could very well be right. For he was able to leave Fleur, to let her live a life in the sunshine, free from the taint which stains both his soul and my own. I, on the other hand, was not able to do that for Natalie. And by letting LaCroix take from her the memory of my declaration of love, and keeping her at arm's length, I've hurt her far more than my sister was ever hurt.
The car rolls gently to a stop outside Nat's building, and, through feats of flexibility even I would have thought impossible, I manage to disentangle myself without waking her. The sky is lightening, almost imperceptibly--it's not enough yet to harm, but my skin feels uncomfortably warm as I exit the car and walk around to the passenger side to open the door.
Natalie, apparently roused to some level of consciousness by the cool air, tries to get out of the car and all but falls into my arms. She makes vague and indecipherable noises of protest as I gather her up, but by the time we reach her apartment her arms are firmly clasped around my neck, her face buried in my shoulder.
Sidney is insistently underfoot the second we're through the door. I shove him aside with the business end of my shoe at least twice on the way to the bedroom, but he persists, yowling plaintively. I deposit his mistress on the unmade bed, peeking out the window as I draw the curtains closed. I don't have much time.
"Okay, Nat, I need to get going."
I bend down, kiss her cheek, whisper my good-nights, and make for the door... only, there's that conscience again. The one that still sounds like Natalie, even when she's the topic of discussion. I turn and see her propped up on the bed, rumpled and disoriented, making a half-hearted attempt to bring foot and hands together. She almost topples right over onto the floor in the process. It's obvious--even to Sidney, who moves away from the edge of the bed to avoid any and all falling coroners--that this isn't going to work.
I sit beside her and place both hands on her shoulders, easing her back.
"Here, I'll do that."
"Nick--I have to--"
"You don't have to do anything right now but rest." I guide her foot to my lap and work at the clasp on her shoe. "I'll take care of you." I meant to say I'll take care of it, but it didn't exactly come out that way.
After slipping off her shoes, I unbutton her coat and help her to shrug out of it. Nat murmurs worriedly, trying to blink herself awake; the only intelligible word, "autopsy", makes her intention clear enough.
"Not tonight," I tell her.
"They need me."
"I called Grace. She said they'll survive."
Natalie offers up a watery smile. "Thanks, Nick," she whispers.
I lean in and apply a gentle kiss to her forehead. "Any time."
She submits wordlessly to my attentions after that, holding out each arm in turn as I divest her of her jacket. As I reach around to let down her hair, she grinds one fist in her eye, like a sleepy child. My hand hovers momentarily over the top button of her blouse; to go further would be to take liberties. Nat nods her consent, and I proceed to undress her down to her slip. This could easily become a very intimate act, but I am mindful to keep my movements steady, mechanical, benign. She is my friend, and she needs my help, and so I will help her. The stockings are the most difficult; perhaps my hands do linger over her warm, bare skin rather longer and more tenderly than those of a mere friend. But apart from that, I conduct myself in the fashion becoming a gentleman.
My deliberate detachment does not go unnoticed by Natalie, as fatigued as she is; her heart rate increases with each article I remove, then slowly stabilizes as she seems to realize my intentions. The monster inside me stirs, briefly, at the sight of so much of her, so vulnerable and quickening to my every touch, but settles as I fold the down comforter around her pale and trembling body.
It doesn't take long for her to drift off. Again I go through the litany of parting: a kiss on the cheek, another on the temple for good measure, a whispered goodbye, and away I go... only the tiny rivulet of light trickling across the carpet tells me what I already suspected: I'm not going anywhere.
I glance over my shoulder at Natalie, in the bed. She's so sound asleep that she probably wouldn't even notice if I just...
The thought of getting into bed beside her evokes a pang of hunger, and reminds me precisely why her insensibility to the situation probably wouldn't be for the best.
So I feed the cat, raid the crisper for the couple of bags of donated blood Nat usually keeps there for me "just in case", and settle into a comfortable spot on the sofa. Sidney, who has obviously staked it out as his territory, is not impressed with my intrusion. As a rule it's hard for me to fall asleep, let alone in an unfamiliar setting with a cat mewling and batting at my leg. Finally we compromise and share.
And as I hover on the very edge of sleep, I recall the box of chocolates. A few fragmentary thoughts randomly brush against the back of my mind in rapid succession: it's been a long time since I've let anyone need me this much... I hope the chocolates are the right ones... I'm grateful to Schanke for his friendship and his advice, even if it's hard for me admit it... the last image and the clearest, the one that carries me into sleep, is a vision of what Natalie's expression will be when I present her with the box. Her smile reminds me what it was like to love the sun, and gives me hope that I may see it once again.