In the end, it always comes back to Julia.
Years later, he still doesn't know how to define her. In life, she'd been his best friend and greatest challenge. In death, she's come to embody all his greatest mistakes. The opportunity he'd never been able to chase. He's had his time to make peace with it, mostly he has. Knowing her had been a gift. Love, sex, romance, any of it and none of it couldn't have made it any better. Or, maybe it could, but Nick's okay with what it was.
He isn't, and never will be, okay with how it ended. He fucked up, and she died. It always, always, always comes back to that. He fucked up, and she died. She died because of his failure. That day that, still, is etched into his mind with the kind of crystal clarity that lets him forget nothing. The kind of clarity that haunts his dreams and fuels his nightmares, hiding behind every laugh and smile, tucked away into the shadows of every corner and around every bend.
Doesn't take much to remember. Sometimes, just the rain will do it. Just one drop against his skin, and he can feel the rain pouring down, driving against his skin like tiny knives, so cold it was nearly ice. His arms always grow heavy with the weight of her body limp and lifeless, soaked as much with blood as rain, and cold in another way that had nothing to do with the rain.
He feels it nearly constantly lingering in his arms like muscle memory, now more than ever. Now with her sitting there in front of him, skin flawless, eyes heavy with amusement, lush red lips curved into a smile that's just on the wrong side of wicked.
She shouldn't be real, but she is. He doesn't know what she is, or how it's possible, but he does know that much. He bites the inside of his cheek to be sure. The sharp bite of pain too immediate to be fake and disspells any illusions. He slumps against the wall, refusing to appear anything but relaxed, and ever so slightly tightens his grip on his gun.
He's lost track of how long they've been trapped. He knows that he's been staring at her for what feels like hours, but that doesn't mean a damn thing.
Her smirk never wavering, she matches his posture, resting her hands on her thighs in exact mirror to him. They're not holding a gun, but she doesn't need one. She can cut him to the core with one quick, lopsided smile which she busts out as if on command.
"You look older, Nick. Sad." The voice is so aching familiar that he flinches. Julia's voice is something that he'll never forget. The soft, husky sound that rasped over his skin like a physical touch (God, he never used to be this melancholy. Another one of the scars the Legacy's left on him) and pushed every button just the way it does now.
It's not her, it isn't, but it is. She speaks and it's Julia. He'd think it was if not for the way she looks at him, lingering, wandering, as if she's cataloguing every strength and weakness. Testing. He wonders if that's what they're doing here. If maybe all of this is a test. Kicking his tires.
Fuck. He doesn't know and he doesn't care.
"What's the matter, baby?" she asks. The words sound wrong to his ears, Julia would never have called him 'baby', but the concern in her voice is touch perfect. Just right. It's almost flawless, but like most illusions, it doesn't last. The warmth that enters her smile doesn't – can't – hold and soon slithers into a leer that's not Julia.
Fuck, yeah, they'd teased and flirted. Nothing but good fun with something precious underneath. Something that surfaced only in the rarest of moments that he keeps tucked away safe in his memory. Buried down where nothing and no one, not even every goddamn demon in hell, can rip them free.
Those are his. They're the only thing he has left. The one thing that the Legacy hasn't analyzed, boxed up, and locked away.
None of those moments ever made him feel like this. No smile from Julia ever twisted his gut and ripped holes in his soul.
He starts to snap at her. Instinctively lashing out at the way her gaze crawls over his skin, something sordid, twisted, and so very wrong, but he doesn't. He shuts it down. He won't react. He's not going to give them the satisfaction.
Of one thing he's sure. She - it - didn't come here alone and that's the killer. No miracles. No second chances. Nothing but darkness and design. He scowls and wishes for one more bullet. It wouldn't do a damn thing, except maybe make him feel better, but it would be something. Feel better and like shit all at once. He'd emptied the fucking clip without making a single hit. He's never been that damn bad a shot in his life.
Whether she had made him miss, or he just couldn't shoot the thing wearing Julia's face, is a mystery. One that he doesn't ever want to see solved.
"Come on," she says, leaning forward. "You know you can tell me anything." She shrugs, the gesture easy and carefree, the teasing glint creeping back into her eyes. "I'll be good. I promise."
"Shut up," he mutters. It comes out weary, old, and he shuts his eyes against the satisfaction in her smile. He's so tired he thinks he could fall asleep without even trying. It's, she's, not going to hurt him. Could've done that hours ago if she wanted. Still could. There's nothing he can do to stop her and no one to help him if he tried.
He knows the others are looking for him, knows the odds. Abandoned warehouse. Run down part of town. If he's lucky, and he's not, then maybe.
She laughs, sounding more like Julia than ever. "I can't do that, Nick." The sing-song edge on her voice is another familiar echo. It's the kind of playful that always came out when she was saving his ass from something scaly and really, really grouchy. The kind of thing she could lord over him for weeks. Months if she worked it right.
But there was a thread of menace snaking through every word and he thinks might be sick.
"Why not?" he asks, not opening his eyes.
He'd spent the last however many hours staring at a twisted approximation of Julia's smile. He doesn't want to see it again. Not for another second. He'd thought he'd made peace with losing Julia the way he had. Finally put to rest the personal demons that'd dogged him every step since that day in an Irish field.
Now he knows better. He can feel them roiling underneath the surface. His own personal riptide ready to yank him under for the last time.
His finger traces the trigger of his gun, slowly following the curve of the metal. He was responsible. For every scrape, bruise, cut, burn, and, yes, every death. The safety of his house, Derek's house, fell on him. Julia's death fell on him. That he'd been halfway in love with her since go didn't matter a damn then or now.
Just meant it hurt that much fucking more to sit across from something that had stolen her face, her voice, the smell of her favorite perfume.
He used to love making Julia laugh. Now it fills the air, rich and thick. Nick's hand goes tight around the gun as her laughter wraps around him, barbed wire digging into his skin.
"Because I couldn't answer your questions, if I did, of course," she says, letting her laughter trail off.
Nick snorts. Like he hasn't done this a thousand times before. "You mean you planned to?"
"No," she laughs out, "but it's fun pretending." Her booted feet shift against the floor, brushing his, and Nick doesn't try to stop himself from flinching away. "You want to know why I'm here, don't you?" Her voice softens, gentle, and, again, almost sounds like the real Julia. Just enough that, if he wanted to, he could let himself believe. All he's got to do is want it. The temptation is stronger than it should be, but he doesn't give in. "You want to know if she's here with me. If I'm just a mockery of the Julia you remember or the real thing."
He hears her move and opens his eyes to watch her rise up onto stolen knees. Forcing himself to hold firm, not to give quarter to the shadows in her eyes, he watches her lean closer.
"No," he says, voice even. "I don't. That's the thing with -- whatever the hell you are. You want to play this game with me? Well I've done it before, sweetheart, and I'm not in the mood to do it again. You're not Julia. You might have hijacked her body, but she's not in there, and I'm not going to pretend that she is."
He knows she's going to kiss him. He tells himself that he doesn't care. Takes himself through the litany of reminders. They've all faced their own personal demons before. It's practically a ritual of initiation in the Legacy's ranks. He's done it before. Knows he'll do it again. Knows that just because it's his turn now doesn't mean tomorrow won't bring more of the same.
Hell, for all he knows, tomorrow will be right here and so will every tomorrow thereafter.
He tries not to let his soul go cold at the thought. It's not easy when lips come down on his, hard and demanding, and he feels like he's going to die. The cold chill crawls its way over his skin, pushing beneath into his veins and down deeper into his very bones and the shudder that overtakes him is a violent thing.
Nick rides it out, letting it flow free like lightning seeking ground, pushing her, it off him with a hard shove. She falls backward, laughing, into the wall. The whole thing creeks ominously, rattling around them, but he doesn't notice much.
"Don't do that again," he warns. The words come out with more composure than he expected, but he can still hear the shaking of his own voice. His fingers burn to wipe his mouth, erase the mockery of a kiss, but he doesn't move. Doesn't let them twitch. He knows better than to give her the satisfaction.
"Oh come on, Nick," she purrs. "You didn't like that?" Rising up again, she tips her head to one side, pouting in a way that Julia never would. "I know you always wanted to. I know what you dreamed at night." Fragments of images, memories, slip through his thoughts. A parade, one after another, of dreams and fantasies.
Nick feels his skin heat. He looks away then drags his gaze back, refusing to give her the satisfaction.
"Maybe," he says, "and maybe you don't."
"I know you," she reminds. "We've known each other for years."
"No," he says. "I knew Julia. I don't know you."
"You know enough," she says. This time there's a darker edge on the words. Distortion. Like whatever's hiding inside broke free for just a second, letting itself out to play. Nick's stomach rebels again, tightening ominously, but he doesn't give in.
He's been in this moment before. He knows the feeling of evil. Knows what it is to sit/stand/lie in its presence. He's felt it at a distance, cool malevolence turned toward him with indifference, and he's felt it close. Felt it choking off the air, curling in around him, smothering and pushing him down deep.
Like it does now.
Yeah, he knows enough. He knows more than enough.
"Fine," she shrugs, sitting down. "I'm not." She looks at him. "I could be. She and I -- we could work something out."
Nick snorts again. "What, timeshare her body? Julia died. She's gone. You high jacked a shell."
"Not that far," she promises. "Not beyond my reach."
He takes in the new tactic with interest. It's as if she, it, is trying to please him. Huh. Coaxing him into what she, or whoever is behind her, wants and the idea gives Nick some hope. She wants something.
"Right," he says, dragging the word out. "So, that's how this works? I give you whatever it is you want, and we both know you want something, and you give me Julia?"
Laughing, she stretches her legs out then gets up and takes a slow circuit around the elevator. Her fingernails tap a rhythm out on the wall as she does, skipping over the smooth walls in an oh-so-familiar pattern. Nick has to stop himself from knocking her on her ass. God, he hates when she --
He stops cold. Wondering, for a moment, when the line blurred. If it actually has. If she's not messing with his head. Maybe. Possibly. He doesn't know. He closes his eyes, smacks his gun against his thigh, and says nothing. Let her play the game.
"The question you're asking yourself," she comments, stopping at his side, "is obvious."
She hums a noncommittal reply. Another circuit of the elevator and she's sitting across from him once more. "Kind of like one of those stupid action movies, isn't it? Tension filled standoff. Does he sell his soul and save the girl or -- " she laughs. "Does he play the hero and lose it all?"
"You don't want my soul," Nick says, sarcasm heavy on his words, "it's pretty much shot to hell at this point."
"Not yet it isn't," she says and, for a second, he can hear the menace underlying the words. Menace and the 'yet' still hanging in the air. Nick's not surprised. He's not stupid. Whatever they want, whoever's holding her leash, whether he gives in or not, he's a dead man. "But that's not the bargain anyway."
"No," he says, "why bother when there's much shinier possibilities out there?" He's got access. Not just to the San Francisco House, but the others. Derek's connections, his own, the House overall. Anything they want, if only he'll give it to them.
He can guess how it will go. Give her back, but only in part. Julia's life ransomed back by degrees. Days and weeks of freedom bought by a few pieces of silver.
Eyes still closed, Nick can imagine what Phillip would say. Knows what Julia would.
She laughs again. Julia's laughter. Warm, friendly, and so full of life that it's all he can do not to take it back. She's right there. Julia. Within his reach. He can save her. Put it right. Thoughts run rampant in his mind, whispering of what he can do, how he can fix this and, maybe, he can stop them before the deal's final. Maybe, somehow, he can get them both out of this after the fact.
If only –
Nick snorts. There's no if only. No last minute saves. No heroic battles to banish the demons at the last second. If he does this. If he gives in, he's in. They'll have him, Julia will hate him, and the Legacy will call him traitor.
A part of him doesn't care. A part of him thinks it's worth it.
"It wouldn't be so bad," she says, cajoling. "You'd get used to it eventually." Her head tips to one side as she appraises him, dark curls spilling down in waves. She's so beautiful, vibrant, so alive that it's hard to remember it isn't Julia. Even harder to realize why he needs to remember. "You might even come to like it."
He might. Nick knows that. He's seen too many people fall to believe it's impossible. Too many of them have been friends. He knows only too well he could. He also knows that, if he did, this is the way it would happen.
Julia, alive. Alive and sitting in front of him with a smile that's almost, almost her.
Somewhere below them he hears Alex call his name. Footsteps crossing the old wooden floors. Derek's voice, then Rachel's, join her.
Silent, he looks at the woman in front of him.
She leans forward. "Well?"
He doesn't answer. Her fingertips brush his, and Nick closes his eyes.