COLOR OF THE NIGHT
song by Lauren Christy
story by Valerie Meachum
To mangle a phrase, I wrote songfic when songfic wasn't uncool. More precisely, I wrote it in response to the Song Challenge susanmgarrett issued on FKFIC-L in 1995, long before songfic became the hackneyed and sorely abused convention everyone now mocks mercilessly. *g* The challenge came, serendipitously enough, right after I had just managed to find out what this song was that I kept hearing the last 30 or 40 seconds of on the radio and thinking immediately of Nick and Nat. I think I had literally bought the CD the week before.
You and I, moving in the dark
Bodies close but souls apart
Shadowed smiles, secrets unrevealed
I need to know the way you feel...
"Nick?" The loft was dark; that wasn't a good sign. He'd said he'd be here, he wasn't going anywhere. But he only sat in the dark when he was depressed, only remained within the imprisoning walls of his fortress in the middle of the night when he felt the outside world was better off without his unholy presence. Or some variation on that
Frighteningly enough, this story actually represents me being less aggravated with a certain Blond Brick With Fangs than the average NatPacker by late second season. He wasn't off the hook by any means, but I was still very much in a mode of figuring out why he persisted in doing these things I wanted to THWAP him for, over and over and over again. I had already lost count of the number of sentences I had started with "I love Nick dearly, but..." in the course of this fandom.
I did and do believe they still had a chance at this point, although I was starting to admit that they, and especially Nat, probably had a better chance of being happy separately. The warning signs had been there even longer than any overt shippiness, but the Shipwreck To End All Shipwrecks wasn't quite happening yet. (And yes, no one who lived through this fandom with me has to wonder why I really don't invest in ships any more. :: glances at finabair, recalling with gratitude a certain wee-hours phone call after "Last Knight" :: )
theme. Steeling herself for an all-night bout with his self-hatred, Natalie headed for the kitchen light switch with the confidence of habit, calling again, "Nick? Are you here?"
"Don't turn the lights on, Nat."
His voice came from between her and the windows--he was at either the piano or the table, and she turned in that direction. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"Nothing's really wrong." A match flared, blinding her for a second. "It's just that I had these grand plans for a surprise party...and forgot to invite anyone else." As her eyes adjusted to the light level of half a dozen candles, the bright blur hovering by the table resolved itself into Nick's face, wearing a distinctly mischievous grin. "Happy birthday, Nat."
I was sure that this whole sequence was just burying the needle on the Schmaltz-O-Meter and that everyone was going to groan and mock. It's a common fear for me to have when writing anything at all romantic. Which is odd, because I love watching or reading the straight-out gooby stuff. I'm just never comfortable writing it -- never want to be the one actually having the characters say/do this stuff. Even Nick, who was so prone to random attacks of incredibly sweet goobiness. (Y'know, in between bouts of channeling Edward Rochester.) I'm very schizo about it -- I'm simultaneously going "awww" and "Oh, PLEASE!" at my own mental images.
She must have looked like a complete idiot--and perfectly clear to his night eyes, too--gaping at the table's carefully-arranged contents. The tall candles; a bottle of champagne; one of those ought-to-be-illegal things some expensive bakery had passed off as a cake when it was really more like mainlining chocolate; a large gift box topped with a scrambled rainbow of curly ribbons.
"It is a good surprise, isn't it?" he asked nervously when she still hadn't said anything after several seconds.
"The best," she assured him with a broad smile, crossing the floor to the pool of light cast by the candles. "So what brought this on?"
He shrugged, walking around the table to her. "You deserve it." He pointed one of his multiple remotes into the darkness at the other end of the room, and a lovely waltz--Strauss, maybe?--began to play. "May I have this dance?"
"I seem to have a free moment," she chuckled. "If you don't mind me stepping on your feet. Not a lot of guys know how to lead any more, so I'm not very good at following."
Did she imagine a flicker of sorrow in his eyes? "So who says you have to follow? Take your coat off," he added, reaching to help her out of the damp raincoat and draping it over the back of a chair. "Stay awhile."
Though she knew she had learned somewhere along the line, Natalie couldn't remember when she last actually waltzed. But Nick certainly did know how to lead, guiding her around the fringes of the candlelight so expertly that she only faltered a step here and there. It didn't take long for her feet to fall into the rhythm of the dance without her having to concentrate too hard on it...at which point she found herself acutely aware that he was holding her rather closer than was strictly proper for a waltz, that she could feel the coolness of his hand at the small of her back through her light silk blouse. And she was glad she hadn't turned on the lights; her cheeks were burning, they had to be telltale red. Of course, he could probably see that just fine, couldn't he?
After eight years, I'm still not sure if the waltz was over the top. Hence Natalie's running self-deprecating commentary. Not that I don't think it's what she would say/think -- again, plenty of canon evidence -- but she was also very much voicing my schizoness noted above.
"See? You're doing great. You would have been the belle of the ball a hundred years ago."
"Oh, sure," she scoffed lightly. "I would have killed myself before I got halfway down the stairs in the stuff they were wearing then! I'm not cut out to be the belle of anything."
"But you are," he insisted, drawing her even closer, the waltz forgotten. "Dressed up for incredibly dull conventions...hanging out in those 'college-kid grubbies' of yours..." He brought the back of her hand up to his cheek, his face lit by that smile he got, usually when he thought she wasn't looking--the one she sometimes thought she must be imagining. "In scrubs, shocked out of your wits by a vampire waking up in your lab. You are always beautiful, Nat. Don't you know that?"
How the hell was she supposed to answer that? He never failed to blindside her with this stuff, like he was afraid she'd run for the hills if he actually gave her a little
I wasn't exactly sure where I was going with this when it started, just wound it around the lyrics to see where it would go. This was the point at which I realized what it was going to be saying about what had happened to their communication by this point in the show. All the stuff they didn't say in an attempt to keep things the same as where they were when we met them. And then every time they broke down and said it -- admitted feelings beyond friendship, admitted fears -- Murphy's Law (or LaCroix, grrrrrr) would strike, and just reinforce their tendency not to say it.
This story ended up being very much my way of getting at least some of that stuff said, and as a result there are bits I'm still not sure ring quite right. That seem a little out of character to me precisely because they're being said, when they never, ever were in canon.
It's kind of sad to realize just how long I was looking for a way they could get onto a different track from the one that was leading to the Very Bad Place the show ended up. *sigh*
warning...there it was again. A shadow crossing his face, dimming his smile for just a second before vanishing again.
"Nick, what's going on? You're not telling me something. What's wrong?"
"I told you, nothing's wrong." He began waltzing her around the table again. "It's your birthday. You're supposed to have fun, and stop worrying."
....And I'll give you everything I am
And everything I want to be
I'll put it in your hands
If you could open up to me
Can't we ever get beyond this wall?
'Cause all I want is just once
To see you in the light
But you hide behind the color of the night...
He was right, she supposed; thought that was easier said than done. He just presented so damn much to worry about.
The dance ended, as all good things must; and Nick let go of her--reluctantly?--to pull out a chair for her at the table. "You already had dinner, right? I wasn't quite up to that challenge."
"That's okay." She grinned, eyeing the chocolate monstrosity he had bought. "I ate. I'm just glad I saved a little room for this."
"And this?" Natalie jumped involuntarily at the pop of the cork, feeling a little silly for doing so. "Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
I didn't know I was going to be addressing "Be My Valentine" aftermath issues until this moment, although in retrospect it's a big "duh," since it was so much of what was hinky between them at that point.
Holding out her champagne glass, she answered, "It's okay. I just can't see much past the edge of the table."
"Oh. Oops." Nick walked to the piano and the fireplace, returning with three additional candelabra. "Why didn't you say something?"
"It didn't really bother me," she assured him. "I don't know why I jumped, honestly. It's no big thing." Holding up her glass, she sent him a challenging look over the edge of it.
"So, are you going to join me in a birthday toast?" When he started sputtering some excuse, she pressed, "Hey, it's gonna go to waste otherwise, because I'd rather not wind up with you carrying me home."
Nick's hands went up in surrender. "All right, all right."
She filled his glass about a third of the way. "So what do we drink to?"
"I don't know," she chuckled. "You're throwing the party. Even if you did forget to invite anyone else."
"Well, then I guess I'm the only one available to make the toast." Nick had pulled a second chair next to the corner of the table nearest her and settled himself in it. "To five years of laughter and light and hope, and the crazy woman who brought them back into my life."
Clinking her glass against his, she teased, "Aw, you're just saying that to put off drinking this stuff." She took a sip from her own glass--someone had given him good advice, and it had cost him a pretty penny, too. "But you make it sound like the end of something."
"Do I? I didn't mean to." With a last childish grimace of distaste, he gulped most of his champagne at one go, immediately half-dropping the glass on the table and--she was sure--exaggerating the resulting choking fit.
"Hey, hey, take it easy! It's champagne, Nick, not scotch!" She wrinkled her nose, adding, "Thank goodness."
Nick had recovered enough to manage, "Not on your list of favorites?"
"Hardly." She would have sworn he looked relieved at that; but that only meant there
cybertardis caught this slipup after the story was posted, pointing out that we actually had seen Scotch in her real apartment, and not just being slammed down by Bizarro!Nat in "Curiouser and Curiouser". I've thought about fixing it, but never got around to it.
was hope he'd have some taste when he finally got back on a normal diet. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I think I'll survive."
"Good." Leaning on her elbow on the table, she pointed at the cake. "Now let's attack that."
"Nat, please!" His horror was put on, or at least mostly. "Anything but that!"
"Anything?" she repeated, quirking an eyebrow at him.
To his credit, he realized he'd doomed himself. "Nat..."
"Back on the garlic pills?"
"Take me to a matinee?"
"Go out to lunch with Schanke, and eat what he orders?"
"The cake! The cake! I'll eat the cake!" He leaned over and kissed the tip of her nose. "You drive a hard bargain."
I probably indulged in more torment-Nick-with-food moments in various stories than I really should have. But it was just so much fun. ;-)
"You'll survive." And he did, somehow, after briefly bemoaning the omission of birthday candles, which would have afforded him a little delay--especially, Nat noted, by the time she actually managed to blow out thirty-three candles.
"Good." Nick had given up on the look-what-a-CHORE-this-is approach and was actually concentrating on chewing and swallowing his bit of cake as normally as possible. "So you're pleased, and I'm not in any danger of you getting any ideas about enough candles for my birthday." He looked more like he was swallowing a rock, but he got it down. "Is it good?" he asked doubtfully.
"Ohhh, yes." Natalie stabbed her fork into another bit. "Nick, you have got to get at least some idea of this. It's incredible."
Wow, was I in love with italics at this stage of my life. *wince* I still have to exercise discipline over my impulse to overindicate line readings. I want to get across as clearly as I can the way I'm hearing it in my head, but I know my fellow fans know how the characters talk. It's not necessary.
This time she wasn't surprised by the sadness in his eyes, nor by his failure to hide it. "I'll guess I'll have to take your word for it."
"Not always," she encouraged, reaching for his hand. "One of these days I'm going to see you get to enjoy chocolate."
"Yeah," he agreed with a halfhearted smile. "One of these days."
Natalie squeezed his hand before releasing it. "Oof. Good stuff, but really rich. I'm going to have to finish that later, I think."
"Nat, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to put a damper on things. This is supposed to be fun..."
"Nick." She shook her head. "It's okay. Nothing is perfect. Not even birthday parties. Not even the best surprises."
"I know, Nat, but I wanted..." He looked troubled a moment longer, never finishing the sentence; then his eyes lit up and he plunked the gift box in her lap. "Okay. I can't wait any longer. Open your present."
She reached for the ribbons, then paused, tilting a sideways look at him. "Are you sure you're eight hundred and not eight?"
"Almost eight hundred," he corrected. "But I will be by the time you open that, at this rate."
Just to devil him, she began meticulously removing the many ribbons one at a time; but his excitement was contagious, and soon she was ripping the whole confection off the box and tossing it to the floor. It wasn't very heavy; what on Earth... "Nick, it's adorable!" she laughed, pulling out a teddy bear about twenty inches tall. He was beige and fluffy, decked out in a snappy little red silk shirt and black trenchcoat. "But I'm not eight either, you know."
This was inspired by NickyBear, a Christmas present from quasievil_bunny one year. Although he has the classic little black cape and fangs. But I swear you couldn't make a plush teddy bear look more like Ger if you tried.
"I know. Look closer."
She did, and gasped at what she saw. "Oh, Nick." Around the bear's neck was a delicate gold chain, and hanging from it was a small open heart outlined by about fifteen tiny diamonds. She didn't bother to ask whether they were the real article; she knew better. "Oh, wow."
"I did good?"
Draping the chain over her fingers, she held the dazzling little thing up to catch the candlelight. "Ah, yeah. You did good. As long as you don't ever tell me what it cost. Oh, wow."
She opened the clasp to put it on, and he took it from her hands. "Let me." Natalie held her hair up out of the way, shivering a little as his knuckles brushed the sensitive skin on the back of her neck. "It's...a birthday kind of thing," he said just next to her ear. "Not strictly platonic."
Turning to find him inches away, she just had time to think at least he sort of warned me this time before his lips were on hers, his fingers twined in her hair.
One of the things I miss most about this show was how much got said in physical contact. Nick was such a gregarious person by nature, and the tension between that and the isolation of the vampire always came out clearest in how/when he touched others. Which of course happened most with Nat, long before the shippy complications ensued -- not only because she was his closest friend, but also because she already knew he didn't have a normal body temp and why, and was perfectly comfortable with it. Always one of my favorite elements to explore.
It wasn't until Farscape that I got a dose of that kind of close, casual physical contact underlying everything again, with John and Aeryn. There, of course, it came largely out of breaking through the isolation and emotional repression of her Peacekeeper upbringing (and was thus a similar situation in that way), but they were also almost immediately shippy as all get-out, so it was a different dynamic.
....I can't go on running from the past
Love has torn away this mask
And now like clouds, like rain
I'm drowning and I blame it all on you
And I'm lost - God save me...
It was Natalie who finally pulled back--he might not especially need to breathe, but she was starting to get lightheaded. "So what's with the bear?" she asked, opening her eyes to find him still almost too close to focus on. "Is he non-platonic too?"
Nick smiled, but it never reached his eyes--that shadow was a whole lot more than a flicker now. "He's to take care of you when I can't be there."
I wrestled with whether I was having her read too much in too-subtle nonverbal cues, but in the end didn't know how else to get them across, since she was the pov character. And again, the nonverbal was so absolutely critical to why the show worked -- if you just write fic with these characters talking, and don't give enough clues for the reader to see the cues that say what they're really saying -- which their words so often aren't -- they're just not these characters.
She didn't like the way he said that; it sounded too much like a permanent arrangement. "Okay, out with it," she ordered, sitting up straight and crossing her arms. "What's going on? I know something is up."
"Don't tell me nothing's wrong, Nick. This is not just a gee-I-think-I'll-do-something-nice-for-N
"Nat, please don't do this."
He looked so stricken that she was tempted to relent, but she had done too much of that already. "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth? Sorry, Nick. You of all people know how much trouble that policy can get a person into."
That was going too far, and she instantly regretted it; but it couldn't be unsaid. "That's not fair. I would never deceive you like that."
"No. Just keep me in the dark to protect me." She tried to take some of the sting out of her words, but they were too true and had been held back too long. "I keep telling you, I'm a big girl. So for God's sake let me decide what I can handle! Don't you think we've played this game enough?"
This was definitely the number one reason Nick was in the doghouse with me at that point in second season, and I worked a lot of the whys of it out for myself in this scene.
This was hurting him, a lot, and just at the moment it didn't seem like such a bad idea. "You just don't get it, do you? It doesn't wash, Nick. It's like Valentine's--you stand there and blithely tell me everything's fine, Nat, everything's great, and pat yourself on the back because you figure I'm blissfully ignorant of whatever went screwy when you're the one who can't handle it!" When he just stared at her, she went on, "Oh, come on, you didn't think I knew you were lying? I had a hell of a headache, but I wasn't blind. Since when do you take cabs, for one thing? I figured you'd own up sooner or later. I should have known better."
He shook his head. "You have to trust me on this one, Nat. I didn't have a choice."
"Easy enough for you to say. You haven't gone through the last four months feeling like you have a hole in your head!"
And yes, this is all part and parcel of making BMV work for me too. I have such a love-hate relationship with that ep -- everyone's performance is frelling brilliant, but the script is so clunky in so many ways. And the controversy over whether LaCroix cheated, etc., will never be resolved in the fandom, and makes me nuts. I was quite firmly in the camp that hated the thought of LaCroix being able to whammy her when Nick couldn't, just because he was LaCroix. That "too old and powerful" thing was used as an excuse for too many things, and always sounded to me way too much like "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." But the ep was too important to just ignore, so there was a lot of thinking through how to make it fit into my understanding of how their world worked.
"I'm sorry." His tone said he knew it was hopelessly inadequate. It didn't help. "I didn't put it there."
She couldn't stop a bitter laugh at that one. "Well, isn't that good to know. Who did?" All he could seem to manage was than damn wounded-puppy look, and she got up to pace around the table in sheer frustration. "Oh, never mind. You don't even know you're doing it, do you?"
"You're not protecting me. You're protecting you." She'd never really thought that before--that's why she'd let it all slide, because he had the best of intentions, really he had. Why hadn't she seen what rot that was? "Where did it go, Nick? I don't even know where the hell to look!" Suddenly she was chilly, and instinctively she wrapped her arms around herself, though she knew it wasn't the air. "Don't you understand, that scares me--scares me ten times more than anything you could possibly tell me actually happened." All this was leading her far from the still-unanswered question of tonight, but the words kept coming. She wasn't sure she could have stopped them if she wanted to. "Sometimes I think I've got hold of something, and I know it's an ugly something but I don't care because it's real, and then it disappears again and all I'm left with is a sour taste in my mouth and another damn headache! If this is protecting me, hell, I'll take the danger!"
This? Sheer unadulterated wish-fulfillment on my part. The number one thing I desperately wanted her to say and stick to. The couple feeble attempts they made at it third season were all the more useless because she went back on them by the end of the ep (notably MBIaV). Nick desperately needed to have his chivalrous medieval nose thwapped soundly and repeatedly with a newspaper on this point until he bloody well figured it out!
"You don't know what you're talking about, Nat," he insisted softly. He didn't even sound convinced any more. "And you don't want to."
That did it, that really did it. "Don't you dare stand there and try to tell me what I want! This has nothing to do with what I want. This is because you're afraid of what I'll think."
Nick had been approaching her, about to say something, try to head off the torrent of angry words; but that stopped him in his tracks. "What do you mean? What you'll think of what?"
"I don't know." The headache was starting again, right between her eyes and shooting through her skull with an echo of shattering glass and a dash of vertigo just for seasoning. Words--words had failed her then, something had held them back, but now they rushed right over the stabbing pain in her head, carrying puzzle pieces and snapping them into place before she even knew exactly what she was saying. "Talking over my head, mocking me...but it was all a lie, I know when you're lying!" She stared at him, as stunned as he was by the litany. "Were you afraid I'd think you meant it? Or afraid you could have gone past bluffing? Or afraid of what you don't know? What happened before you got there... I was careless, I should have known better, I just kept getting distracted. I got cornered. I had to hide, Nick, I figured he'd stop pushing if he thought I'd given in and I was so tired, I couldn't keep it up forever! I had to hide--I let him trap me, let him..." She was more than chilled now, she was freezing; and instinctively her hand came up to her neck, shielding it from an uninvited touch four months gone. "Oh, my God."
I had been working this conversation out in my head for a while before this challenge happened, but didn't have a story to put it in. Definitely the only way I could possibly accept BMV was to have the memory block be temporary. Even though she never confronted Nick about it in canon, I remain convinced that it was. She sure as hell remembered by "Night in Question," and LaCroix knew it.
"Nat?" Nick's voice was a million miles away, lost in the flood of unlocked memory.
"Oh, my God." Remembering inertia and false comfort, she ran--to prove to herself that her body was her own to command, to get away from tables and chairs and corners and Nick's baffled concern. The elevator would take too long--he'd try to stop her, corner her without meaning to--and she bolted for the stairs as fast as she could take them without falling.
It was raining harder than when she'd arrived, soaking her blouse in seconds. Wonderful thing, washable silk, though this was probably pushing it. She shouldn't be out here, not alone in this part of town well after midnight; and she couldn't help but laugh at the thought. Normal human dangers just seemed so beside the point, weirdly unreal next to the nightmare that now stood out clear and orderly in her mind as if it had never been hidden.
Nick had told the truth tonight, at least--he'd had no part in blocking it out. It had already spun out of reach by the time he'd bundled her into the cab and half-carried her to her apartment. No, she'd largely done it to herself, hiding too effectively when she'd found herself with no avenue of escape and running on empty, shifting her defenses to keep up as he sat there calmly pushing psychological buttons she hadn't even known she had. She'd gotten so damn tired so fast--too fast, she'd thought even then, something about Persephone and pomegranate seeds wandering across her mind about the time
I couldn't resist this allusion, even though it's probably a little off for her.
she had given up on auxiliary verbs and keeping her eyes open. "Cheating son of a bitch," she muttered, leaning on the top of her car for a moment and willing the headache off to wherever the memories had been hiding.
It didn't work; she'd just have to live with it. Reaching into her pocket for her keys, she came up with nothing but a little lint.
"Looking for these?" She looked up at the flat jingle that accompanied the question to find Nick with her keys in one hand and her raincoat in the other. Putting the latter around her shoulders, he explained, "They were in your coat pocket."
"You're soaked. Come back inside before you get sick."
For a second she couldn't decide whether to apologize or to hit him as hard as she could. She took the second option, fetching him a frustrated blow square in the middle of his chest on about every other word. "Maybe I don't want to go back inside! Maybe I feel like standing here in the rain and don't give a damn if I wind up with pneumonia! Has that occurred to you? Oh, of course it has, you know everything, you always know what's good for me!"
God, she needed to do this. I needed her to do this. Even if the shipwreck had still happened (which it probably would have, because letting Nick have it like this wouldn't have solved everything by any stretch) I would have been so much less frustrated with where the show went if she had.
He just stood there, patiently accepting the pounding she knew couldn't hurt him a bit, until her coat started slipping from her shoulders and he pulled it back up, holding it there until she had to stop hitting him because her hands were starting to ache. "Do you feel better now?" he asked, moving to help her put the raincoat on properly.
"Yeah, as a matter of fact I do. I can get it, thank you."
He backed off a step. "I didn't make you forget," he offered lamely.
Nodding acknowledgment of this, she challenged, "And if I hadn't already been too out of it for you to try?"
Nick started to answer twice before actually producing sound. "I don't know. Probably. You're right; I was afraid of what you'd remember." He looked away from her. "I still am."
"Well, don't be." He looked up in surprise at this. "You were trapped too. You did your best, and I can't fault you for that. But I can and do fault you for hiding it from me and hoping it would just go away."
....And I'll give you everything I am
And everything I want to be
I'll put it in your hands
If you could open up to me
Can't we ever get beyond this wall?
'Cause all I want is just once
To see you in the light
But you hide behind the color of the night...
Once upon a time I wanted to vid this song for them, but I don't think I could now. "Once Upon a Dream" was hard enough.
"I would give anything for that night to have never happened, Nat."
"I know. But it did, and I won't deny it scares me to pieces. Now I know what I'm afraid of, and that's the first step to not being afraid."
"Fear is based on ignorance," he quoted, almost managing a smile. "But with some things you should be afraid."
"Let me be the judge of that." There was a small river following the lock of hair that had plastered itself down her nose, and impatiently she yanked it back. "I tried to buy the lie, Nick, for a while. I tried to tell myself I was being paranoid. But I knew I wasn't. I still felt violated. And the worst part was, without knowing what happened...I had nothing to connect it to but you." She let this sink in a moment, then asked levelly, "Do you still think I was better off?"
"No. Of course not." He was clearly trying to make sense of all this; and it struck her that he was still in the dark about the quiet war that had been waged prior to his arrival, about exactly what snares had been laid for her by the master he regarded as no less than the devil incarnate. Did he want to know? "Why didn't you say something? I can't read your mind, Nat. I didn't know it was hurting you."
And this was the acknowledgment we never got, of what was so wrong with Nick's complicity in what was done to her in BMV. Which he genuinely did not understand the wrongness of.
He was right, but she couldn't quite bring herself to say it. "Well, I'm saying something now. It did hurt. Just like it always hurts when you pretend nothing's bothering you and I know better. Just like it hurts tonight. So tell me."
"I'm sorry. It was supposed to keep you from getting hurt." He looked about to say something other than what came out. "Please come back inside. You're shivering."
Now there was a revelation. "No. I'm going to stand right here and shiver until you tell me."
"Come on, Nick, just say it! It should be easy; you've been chattering away all night, just keep going. Happy birthday, Nat, dance with me, have some champagne, have some cake, have a necklace, have a teddy bear, I love you and by the way you might never see me again--" The look on his face at this stopped her cold. "That's it, isn't it?" Her voice was suddenly very small. "You're leaving."
Why couldn't she have been wrong this time? "When were you going to tell me? Were you going to tell me?"
"I knew I had to. I just didn't know how."
She gulped. "Were you going to say good-bye?"
Another strand of hair had worked its way downstream onto her face, and he tucked it behind her ear. "I have been. From the minute you walked in the door tonight. I just...I didn't know how to do that either. I was too busy trying to find an excuse to take you with me."
If her momentum hadn't been totally stopped before, it was now. That concept hadn't even occurred to her.
Or to me, until I wrote it. Our brains are curious things...
Misreading her silence, Nick went on, "Be angry with me if you have to, but if we stay out here much longer I'm going to catch cold."
...God save me
Everything I am and everything I want to be
Can't we ever get beyond this wall
'Cause all I want is just once
Forever and again...
Natalie finally convinced her teeth to stop chattering as she stepped out of the elevator, still chilled to the bone by cold rain and the night's revelations. With the chattering went her excuse for silence; but Nick didn't break it either, just dropped a fleeting kiss on her cheek on his way to the stairs, leaving her to drip a small lake on his floor. He returned in what seemed like barely enough time to get up the stairs and down again. Still saying nothing, he handed her a commendable attempt at dry clothes--paintstained sweats, a shirt, two pairs of socks--and draped a towel over her head. A twinkle of mischief peeped through as he rubbed at her hair with it for a second and kissed her forehead before stepping aside and gesturing to the bathroom.
She changed quickly, wondering as she draped her sodden clothes over the shower curtain rod how she could feel this much better and still be this cold. Nick's concern for her health was more than the knee-jerk overprotectiveness she had taken it for; she had just been too angry and too damn stubborn to notice. Now...well, she wasn't going to win any best-dressed awards, but at least she was dry. Apart from her hair, anyway; that would take a while. Good thing the shirt Nick had grabbed for her was of soft brushed cotton; she had ruined quite enough silk for one night. But then, what did it matter when he would probably be leaving his clothes behind?
He had moved the couch near the fireplace, and smiled at her over the back of it. "Well, your lips aren't blue any more."
Rubbing her arms to encourage her rather miffed circulatory system, she asked, "Were they?"
"Yeah. I was getting pretty worried."
"You're good at that." She returned the smile. "But I guess I've gotten pretty good at landing in trouble, haven't I?"
"Or trouble has gotten good at landing on you. Does this mean I'm forgiven?"
It was tempting to let him stay anxious about that one a little longer, but there was no justification for that. "Yes, you're forgiven. And I'm sorry I yelled at you."
"It's all right." Nick walked over to her with a blanket. "Still cold?"
"A little," she admitted, accepting the blanket and following him to sit on the couch. "But not for long."
"Not if I can help it." He pulled the blanket higher on her shoulders and combed his fingers through her wet hair.
"Give it up," Natalie advised him. "This mop of mine can hold about a gallon of water."
"That's okay. I like your mop."
"Thanks. I think." He had spoken sometimes of how selfish he was to touch her, to share her human warmth when he had none to give in return. He was so wrong.
I'm still very proud of this line. :-)
"Nick...what would you say if I asked you to take me with you?"
He kissed her forehead, then turned away to watch the fire for a long moment. "I can't."
"Just like that? Come on, Nick, we should talk about this. Maybe we can work out--"
"Nat." He took hold of her shoulders, looked her in the eye. "We do need to talk about it. And you need time to think--more time than we have."
"You're not leaving tonight?"
He nodded. "As late as I can, but I have to give myself a couple hours before dawn. And I have to give you more than a couple hours to consider what you're saying. Think about what you've said tonight, how I've taken choices away from you. Are you really ready to throw away your life here to follow me? Because if you came with me now, that's what you'd have to do."
"And if that's my choice?" she challenged.
"I don't want to leave you behind, Nat, even temporarily. You wouldn't have to do much to convince me. And then you'd leave Grace, and Sydney, and Sarah and Amy and everyone else you know and care about. Your job, your reputation. Your home. Your name. You'd follow me to a place you've never been, become someone you don't know, and never be able to look back. You've never done this before; you'd have to let me make those choices for you. And, sooner or later, you'd hate me for it."
Natalie shook her head. "No. I couldn't hate you."
"Maybe not. But it would be wrong."
She couldn't argue with that. "Why now?" she asked instead. "What's happened?"
"Nothing big or catastrophic, nothing you would have heard about." He turned back to the fire again. "Nothing you can stop."
"I don't understand."
"The writing's on the wall. I've been putting it off, really, trying not to think about it. Schanke's evidence has been close to critical mass for quite a while. Cohen's been paying very close attention to my arrest reports, and to what the perps say about me. The other day she was reviewing my records from the 27th. She's making connections, and she's not Stonetree. She's not going to cut me any slack."
The odd thing was, all this was true at this point, and if not for his needing to stay there because the show was about him, he really could have made this decision for this reason at this time. I don't think "Close Call" had happened yet, so the threat of Schanke figuring it out was still hanging out there. As was my frustration with Nick for not just letting him in on it, already! Keeping both partners in the dark was one of the things I'll never be able to forgive him for, especially since it got Tracy killed. (And of course he had so much less excuse with her anyway, since she frelling KNEW vampires existed!)
"Has she said anything to you?"
"Not directly. But after so many lifetimes... I know when it's over. I've pushed it too far before; I can't do that here. If Cohen pursues this, pretty soon they'll be calling your reports into question. You've lied for me too many times. And they'll want to know more about Janette, why I so often go to her first for information, what the Raven might be besides a nightclub."
Natalie considered the implications of this. "Like Vampire Central. Which places more in jeopardy than the individuals close to you, doesn't it?"
"Exactly. Something the Community could never allow me to do...and they'd be right."
Natalie wanted to argue, to tell him he didn't have to run away, they could figure something out; but what solution could she offer? Lies could only be stretched so far. Nick knew that more intimately that she did, and this was his decision to make. "So what's the plan? Where will you go?"
"It's safest if I don't tell you. I'm not telling anyone, including Janette. So if she asks you, you can honestly say you don't know."
"Does she know you're going?"
"She's been expecting it."
Which meant he hadn't told her. It didn't seem fair; but that was between Nick and Janette, no doubt familiar territory to them but none of Natalie's business. With a shiver, she realized it would be familiar territory to another as well. "What about LaCroix?"
He must have caught the tiny tremor in her voice, for he wrapped her in a secure hug before answering, "I don't think he knows. I can never be sure. If he does, he might follow me, and that might delay my contacting you."
"Which you are going to do."
"Which I am going to do," Nick agreed. "But LaCroix shouldn't have any reason to bother you. He'll go to Janette. She can tell him you don't know where I've gone."
"Will her word be good enough for him?" she pressed. "Will mine?"
"If you don't know, you don't know. There's nothing he can do about that."
Which wouldn't necessarily prevent him from trying; but what point was there in worrying about it now? She'd just have to be as prepared as she could. And she was damned if she'd let his shadow chill any more of this night. Leaning her head on Nick's shoulder, she asked, "So what now?"
"Now I'm going to hold you as long as I can," he answered, sliding his fingers through her hair. "Tonight will have to keep me warm for a while."
"Mmm. That's awfully distracting, you know."
"Is it?" He really did that innocent routine much too well. "I hope that's a good thing."
"It's a good thing."
"Not cold any more?"
"No." She turned to smile at him. "How could I be?"
This surprised me by ending in as positive a place as it did, but I was glad. It felt right to me that this would be where they'd go after airing the stuff that needed said. I wish it hadn't only been in fic.
Somehow she succeeded in ignoring the reality that the next two hours would be their last together for weeks, perhaps months. Nick outlined for her how his disappearance would look, preparing her to deal with the inevitable questions. Once that was out of the way, though, they just talked, neatly skirting the subject until the appointed time arrived.
He brushed his fingers over her cheek as he got up from the couch. "I shouldn't have kept you up so long. You're exhausted."
"You think I'd have traded this for sleep? I don't even think I'll be able to sleep now."
Smiling at this, he replied, "Well, you certainly don't look like you should be driving. Maybe you'd better stay here."
"Probably wise." Covering a yawn, she stood up next to him. "So...I guess this is it."
She wasn't going to cry, dammit, wasn't going to let him leave with that image freshest in his mind. Nick never failed to freak when she cried.
I had forgotten that I had actually articulated this observation. They spent so much time trying to hide things that would upset the other, when there was no way to effectively hide them because they knew each other too well. Another lesson I desperately wanted them to learn.
"I guess so." He hugged her so tight her lungs protested. "But not good-bye. I'll be in touch as soon as possible."
"I will. I can't lie to you, remember?" Leaning down to kiss her, he added, "I won't leave my hope behind."
There was always more to say, but all that would be said tonight had been. She just had time to wonder what had qualified for a place in the small bag he carried, and then the elevator door slid shut between them.
* * *
The first few seconds of wakefulness were disoriented, establishing where she was before why. On Nick's couch, in the wrong part of the room, wearing borrowed clothes and awakening to bright sunshine pouring in the windows. That last fragment of information gave her heart a nervous jump-start, and then she remembered: it was no danger to him. He wasn't here, because he didn't live here any more. These were no longer his clothes, or his couch, or his big concrete box of an apartment that had always seemed so open and spacious. Now it was just empty.
She walked over to a window, looking out on the bright summer morning where only a puddle or two remained as evidence of last night's downpour. She had fallen asleep to the muted roar of the rain no more than ten minutes after Nick's departure, fatigue overtaking her with no trouble at all in spite of what she'd said to the contrary.
And now she stood drenched in sunshine, alone. They'd find her here soon enough, next likely place on the list after the lab and her own apartment. Maybe even before her own apartment; Schanke knew them well enough for that. They'd tell her Nick's car had been found abandoned in an alley somewhere, door ajar, blood on the seat and the ground that matched the type she had arbitrarily assigned him nearly five years before. Her first official lie on his behalf--and how nervous it had made her, wondering what on earth she would do when he came back across and had an identifiable type again, and that wasn't it.
"When" he came back across! Lately, the worry had been more about whether she would live long enough to get in trouble for screwing up a blood type. Such a long road she'd travelled with him in these few years. She could never turn back, and she wouldn't want to, in spite of all it had cost her. For wasn't that the hardest lesson that he had to
And that was always the key to it for me, why I couldn't quite throw my lot in with those who said she would be better off untangling her life from him entirely. And it was so easy from the outside to see what they needed to do.
learn, that she had tried to teach him? Life hurt sometimes, hurt a lot, and you just had to have faith that it would all be worth it. Otherwise, what had they been fighting for?
In the process she had learned at least as much a that particular truth as he had. It had cost her dearly--what knowledge didn't?--but she liked to think she was stronger for it.
God knew, if she meant to continue down this road, she would need to be strong.
....I'm waiting for you
I'm standing in the light
But you hide behind the color of the night
Please come out from the color of the night
*sigh* What a weird, wild ride that fandom was. Of all my fic for it, I think that comes out most clearly in this story.