category: post “Ashes to Ashes”
author’s note: written for the Fic Drought NNFic challenge at the NNFic Yahoo! Group
word count: 3056
disclaimer: they don’t belong to me, no money is being made. I’m only borrowing them. Forever Knight was created by Jim Parriott & Barney Cohen.
story began and finished: March 2009
summary: Change had been playing catch up with Nick and Natalie for some time now. Perhaps it was about to overtake them.
Natalie's phone had rung three times before she made her way to the living room, soap suds clinging to her hands and wrists. Upon hearing the voice on the line she sent a quiet prayer in thanks to whoever it was that heard the wishes of pathologists, be it God, or St. Luke or even Nick's maiden warrior, St. Joan.
To an impartial observer Natalie's voice wouldn't have betrayed any inner apprehension, but to Nick, the minute hitch in his name was detected by his heightened hearing. His familiarity with her, borne of years of friendship, also played a keen role in its detection. The sound of relief was also present.
"I'd like to see you. Can I come by?"
As Nick walked, he left the entrance to the junkyard, LaCroix and the fire which destroyed Divia's remains, behind him. Out of habit he tightened his coat to protect himself from the physical chill that he could not feel. The emotional chill was an entirely different matter.
"It's almost sunrise," Natalie replied, stating the obvious.
Nick's internal clock shouted the same information and it urged him to find shelter.
"I know. Is that OK with you?" For a second Nick wondered whether he was imposing. She'd had a long night as well.
"Nick, of course, it's OK. Where are you?"
Her question caused Nick to momentarily stop in his tracks. Below him the earthen ground of the junkyard had quickly given way to pavement and then asphalt. The empty street, with its lone street light, on the outskirts of Toronto, was a good hour away from Natalie's apartment, even with the hour's light traffic, and his car was currently tucked away in his garage.
The lie wasn't effortless. They never were when he told them to Natalie but he was tired and he didn't want to risk Natalie's disapproval. Nick needed a friendly face.
"Alright then, I'll see you in a bit...be careful."
The dial tone told him that Natalie had hung up and Nick followed suit with his cell phone. With one last look back towards the junkyard, the fire still slightly visible over the tops of the stacked wrecked cars, Nick took to the air.
Barely five minutes had passed since Natalie hung up with Nick and he was already at her door step. His knock was quick and staccato, in deference to her still sleeping neighbors but loud enough to alert her inside.
Eyes unfocused and clearly exhausted, Nick straightened up when she opened the door.
Rather than answer, Natalie silently stepped aside to allow him entrance. To her surprise she crinkled her nose as Nick slipped past her. Natalie could swear she smelled heavy smoke on him and the lingering stench of charred flesh made her stomach queasy.
"That was quick," she noted absently and still somewhat distracted by her unsettling observation.
Beneath her hands the door made a closing thud in the frame. Natalie turned back in time to see Nick avoid eye contact with her.
"Yeah, about that..."
Nick shoved his hands into his pockets, as if unsure what to do with them. For the next twelve hours of so Nick would be confined to the four outer walls that made up her apartment. Even after six years Natalie could count the number of times on one hand that Nick had spent the day with her. With him at his place, sure there had been more, even if they’d diminished considerably as of late. Natalie followed his gaze to her windows. He said he was close so she'd drawn the curtains in anticipation of his arrival. But what did that have to do with...oh.
She hadn’t noticed it earlier but his hair was sporting the latest Nick Knight airborne special.
"Hey, don't worry about it," Natalie shrugged. There wasn't much she could say. The last thing she wanted was Nick stuck outside in daylight because he was afraid of making her angry. "Let me take your coat."
It saddened her to see the relief that flashed on Nick's face. He was worried that she'd be angry. It hadn't always been like this between them. When did her well-meaning light jabs to follow her treatments and avoid using his vampiric skills turn shrewish and overbearing? The dynamic between them had changed so much that it was hard to keep up. Some days were good. Some were bad and some were really bad.
Right now, Natalie couldn't decide if it was an OK day or a bad one, even as the loss of two young-old lives settled in for the ones they left behind. It sounded heartless but Nick was standing before her whole and injury free and that's all she could ever hope for. Nick's a survivor, despite the odds stacked against him.
With Nick's coat safe in a hallway closet, Natalie returned to her guest, now staring into the dying flames in her fireplace. That was when she saw it.
"Nick, what happened to your arm?" She motioned to the half burned right sleeve and its remnants of dangling red fabric. His skin underneath was the same shade of pale it had always been, except for a slight dusting of pink tinged flesh.
Nick eyed his arm with detachment. "Compliments of my run-in with Divia. Thankfully it's the only permanent damage done. To me anyway." He offered her a weak half smile but it failed to reach his eyes. "I'll be fine," he answered the unasked question he must have seen in Natalie‘s eyes.
“She’s dead. LaCroix burned her remains. That’s where I came from.”
Natalie wanted him to continue but he didn’t. It wasn’t the entire story, but that’s all Nick would tell her. With the vampire community it was always on a need to know basis and Natalie had learned to pick her battles. If Nick said Divia was dead then it was good enough for her. It would have to be.
"And now what?"
"I don't know, Nat.” His voice was low and intimate, like he was sharing a secret. Perhaps he was. “Things are changing. I can feel it."
A heavy weight settled on top of Natalie’s chest. She never liked it when Nick talked about change. To be fair, change could mean a number of things, but the most obvious was also the most painful--moving on. Change had been playing catch up with them for some time now. Perhaps it was about to overtake them.
“Change can be good,” Natalie mused out loud, preferring to weigh the pros and the cons, or as best as one could for an abstract thought. She placed a light hand on Nick’s elbow and turned to sit on the sofa. Nick moved to follow suit but settled himself on the floor with his back to the couch and his head by her knees. She saw it as an invitation to run her fingers through his hair.
Natalie watched as Nick’s eyes fluttered shut at her caress. He leaned his head back and together they sat in silence. Outside, a city trash collection truck rumbled noisily around the block.
"I think,” Nick began quietly. “The general consensus is that many in the community feel very exposed. We’re in a position that collectively we haven’t seen in several hundred years. Not to mention that there’s plenty of young ones running around. They’re the majority here, so to listen to them, is to listen to the pulse of the community.
“Some are the same ones who killed without impunity during the asteroid scare. They ran scared and abandoned the city during the fever, infecting unsuspecting vampires in three continents and now the murdering rampage of a Roman girl… and that’s just scraping the surface. There’s a void in the community, Nat, and no one has managed to fill it. No one’s even come close.”
Natalie watched Nick carefully from her vantage point. Despite his guardedness regarding Divia, Nick was being uncharacteristically open. He rarely discussed the comings and goings of Toronto’s vampire residents. In the beginning there was no need, since by his own admission Nick didn’t socialize with them. Then LaCroix came looking for him, the first time, and Nick slowly moved in from the periphery. He talked to Janette and then LaCroix, that she knew of, about such matters. Now Janette was…hell, Natalie didn’t know Janette’s condition, whether it was dead, human, or vampire and LaCroix was unavailable. It appeared that without his usual contacts Nick was rudderless and alone.
“Things are changing,” Nick had said earlier. How prophetic are you Nick Knight?
“So what does a community do in instances like this, with potential exposure?” Natalie asked, tearing herself away from her thought tangent.
“Disperse. Tie up as many loose ends and then leave. There’s no rule that says we all have to go but it’s strongly encouraged. For a generation at least, so that there’s time for the suspecting mortals to die off.”
Nick let that revelation sink in before he turned sideways, laying one of his arms across Natalie’s lap. With the other, he ran his fingers over her knee, her miraculous knee, which had healed beautifully without surgical intervention. “Body part hall of fame,” her memory whispered, from an evening where he brought her flowers and they flirted like a couple of teenagers. A small smile tugged at Natalie’s lips and when she looked to see if Nick remembered as well, she was met with his unflinching gaze, like he was committing her to memory. Natalie quickly shook off that unpleasant thought, but it refused to let her go.
Would Nick go if the Toronto community left? Two years ago she would have guessed no. It bothered her that now she wasn’t as confident in her guess, as confident in Nick‘s state of mind. Natalie should ask but she didn’t really want to know the answer. It wasn’t like her to hide in uncertainty but then again nothing was as she expected it to be. Life had a way of throwing curve balls and she had the aftermath of the latest one not two feet away.
Natalie fingered the tattered sleeve of Nick’s shirt. The edges blackened and fragile.
"This couldn’t have been pretty."
She watched as sooty ashes lightly sprinkled onto her slacks, disappearing into the dark fabric.
"After you left, I didn’t know if I’d ever see you again. I know that you can take care of yourself. It's just that I worry."
Images of the mutilated Hamid Kharam and the vampire Urs taunted her. The idea of Nick experiencing such viciousness made her sick. It was something Nick quickly picked up on.
“Nat,” he began, squeezing her hand. “I'm alright. Divia was in too much of a hurry to get to her final revenge, so I got off easy. I’m still here. You’re not alone.”
Natalie nodded to herself, taking comfort in his presence.
"And what about Tracy?” Natalie asked suddenly. “She’s all alone Nick.”
“I’ll look after her. No one's going to harm her.”
“That’s not what I mean. She’s gone through this incredibly traumatic experience, she’s grieving and like you said at the office, there’s no one she can talk to about Vachon.”
Natalie couldn’t help but sympathize with Tracy Vetter. She had lost someone close to her during Divia’s attacks. For a second Natalie entertained the thought of reaching out to her, to let Tracy know that she wasn’t alone but there was no telling how she would be received. It might also have shed unwanted light on Nick, so she abandoned the idea to consider other options.
“Tracy’s carrying around this secret about an entire society that lives underneath our very noses. That’s a lot of pressure for someone without an outlet. It could become a burden.”
Nick’s brow furrowed in concern and he pulled back slightly to look at her better.
“Are you speaking from experience?” He questioned softly.
“It can be hard,” Natalie admitted after a while. “But I chose to call your bluff that night in the parking lot. I don’t think anyone is ever fully prepared for something like this, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I’d take all the pain and all the joy because I believe in what we're doing, in what you're capable of. But Tracy doesn’t have that luxury.”
It felt like a lifetime before Nick responded. Outside, Natalie's neighborhood began to welcome the morning as the noise of street traffic filtered into her apartment.
“Tracy’s going to fine. I'm sure of it,” he said with assurance.
“Just…promise me that Tracy will know you’re a friendly ear if she wants it.”
It was desperately important that Nick know how much it meant to her and when he agreed Natalie was surprised at how much lighter she felt. The fear of losing Nick still weighed heavily on her but at least for now they had each other and Tracy wouldn’t be left alone.
“So what now?” She asked. Natalie held Nick’s hands tightly in hers, knuckles white from the pressure. “You said change was coming. What do we do to weather the storm?”
“There’s not much we can do. We either fight it or grow. And just maybe, change is what we need and we shouldn’t fear it. So, tomorrow we wake up, get dressed, go to work and continue to put one foot in front of the other. That’s really all we can do.”
The haunted look in Nick’s eyes hadn’t disappear but his smile was more relaxed.
"Ah and speaking of tomorrow, or rather today, let me get you a pillow and a blanket. I’m sorry Nick. I’m a rotten hostess. You must be exhausted. How about I bring you something to help finish off the healing on that arm."
Rising from her seat Natalie headed towards the kitchen. She kept a bottle of steers' blood in the back of her refrigerator. It went against everything Natalie advocated and so it remained hidden, behind a box of baking soda and condiments. Out of sight but never quite out of mind and she felt like she was letting Nick down with her inability to practice what she preached. The original intention of being prepared for any scenario did little to allay her guilt, nor did its well meaning source.
The bottle was cold in her hands. Natalie briefly considered warming the contents even though she’d never seen Nick do the same. The blood would help him. Up close Natalie saw the puckering of the skin on his arm and the faint scars of a deep facial scratch. They were almost healed but she guessed that it would be another few hours before they were non-existent. He looked tired. The features that were forever frozen in their mid thirties were worn. Nick would welcome steers' blood far more than he would the iron supplement shake he could barely keep down. The blood would help, Natalie silently repeated to herself like a mantra. The blood would help.
Natalie handed him a glass tumbler filled with blood and placed the bottle on the living room table. He quickly quirked a questioning eyebrow at her. Nick had expected the iron supplement concoction she'd been messing around with lately, not what he currently held in his hand.
“I think you’ve been through enough tonight, don’t you? And I doubt Reese will let you book off your shift.”
She was right on that. Nick's Captain wouldn't appreciate his missing another day of work, even if he would have preferred the extra time to heal. He also would have liked to have asked Natalie about what was surely a temporary change of M.O., but he never got to. She had disappeared into her bedroom, presumably to look for a blanket and pillow.
Sipping the cold blood, Nick wondered idly about the bottle Natalie had in her possession. How long had she had it? How did she acquire it? He was grateful for it but it was odd.
Nick would also need to have another talk with LaCroix about Tracy. Just to be sure of a few things.
"This should do it," Natalie said upon her return, an afghan and pillow in her arms. "The couch isn't so bad and Syd's locked away in my room. He won't bother you."
It should have been awkward there, standing in the middle of Natalie's living room with the early morning outside. With several vampires either dead or missing, two of which he knew, and his face and arm slowly healing from his own near death encounter. It wasn't. Change was coming. He could feel it. He'd felt it numerous times before. Sometimes he was ready and sometimes he wasn't. Looking at Natalie before him, mascara slightly smudged, blouse tucked out and bare feet, he wanted to be ready. It had been a tough year. More so when he outlined the events in his head, but for every event he charted, he reminded himself that Natalie had had her own counterpart. Nick had centuries of practice in dealing with the setbacks in his life, but Natalie...despite it all she stood firmly beside him, sometimes bending slightly but never breaking.
“I’d like it if you stayed.”
The invitation was out of his mouth before he realized it. Nick stepped forward and laced his fingers with hers, taking comfort in the contact. He could smell the crisp, cleanness of laundry detergent coming off the pillow that still remained in Natalie's arms.
"Sure," Natalie accepted. "But don't even think about hogging the entire blanket."
"No promises, but I'll try my best," Nick conceded, with a smile he was sure mirrored hers.
Natalie gamely handed him the pillow, which he placed at one end of the couch, while she extended the afghan. His shoes off, Nick reclined on the couch, leaving enough room for Natalie as she joined him and covered them both with the afghan. She was nestled comfortably in front of his chest as he spooned around her.
"Sleep well," Nick whispered and placed a kiss on top of Natalie's head.
"You to," she responded in a half yawn.
And with that, Nick reached over to turn off the single lamp by the couch and the room was launched into artificial darkness.