Such thoughts were not meant to be spoken, not even conceived of, not about one’s friend, not on his anniversary of all days, but right now, with the yells and cheers of this repulsive audience and Taymor’s shit-eating grin rending through his nerves, he can’t remember what day it is, can’t spare the brain cells or the time to think of anything other than Monroe lying a few yards away in the middle of a pit with a vicious foot pressing down on his chest, a mace hovering over his head, waiting only for Taymor’s word to swing down and smash through bone and sinew, and Monroe’s carefree comment about what it would feel like to have one of those things swing at you is suddenly so horrifyingly real that Nick’s hand clenched on his gun, nausea roiling in his stomach. He wanted to beat this son of a bitch for daring to go near Monroe, for throwing him into a fight he couldn’t possibly win and laugh while Monroe struggled for his life, so close to losing it, so horrifyingly close. If Nick had driven just one mile slower on the road or taken just a second longer to press his gun to Taymor’s neck, Monroe would already be dead, his face a mess of sinew and blood. The image made bile rise in Nick’s throat.
Monroe stared at him, exhausted, pained, desperate, expression screaming “please get me out of here, please.” Nick met his eyes, a decision made in the flash of a second.
“I’ll fight in the Blutbad’s place.”
He didn’t know he would win, didn’t know if he could, but he would get Monroe out of there alive. That was all he cared about. Nothing else mattered.
It didn’t crash down on him until now, little whispers of affection and fear and “why now, why him?” swelling in his chest since he calmed down long enough give Hank an abridged explanation of how the hell he’d ended up fighting in the pit. He looked in the direction Monroe had disappeared into, wondering how Monroe was going to get home with no car to get him there. Nick searched for him afterward among the mass of the arrested and the injured, but as he feared, he couldn’t find anywhere. It ate at him as he drove back, watching the road for any hint of a person walking on the side, cursing the darkness preventing him from seeing anything off the gravel. He slowed down when he saw a canine figure near an intersection, but it was a mutt, not a wolf, and he sagged in his seat, unclenching his fingers from the steering wheel. Pressing the accelerator, he continued on his way home to Juliette, to the ruins of an anniversary dinner quickly excused by the life and death scenario he’d just come from, his “I love you” automatic, a reflex, his eyes on the windows as if at any moment, Monroe would pop his head up.
He didn’t sleep, not for a second, his thoughts far away from the woman at his side and on an injured Monroe somewhere out there in the cold, in the rain, such phrases not empty clichés when water clattered down outside and his own body ached from lesser blows.
The next morning, he knocked on Monroe’s door at 6:15, praying, begging for Monroe to be there. Monroe answered, a hunched over shell of yesterday’s self, the cuts and jabs he’d suffered making him stiff and sore, bruises shining purple and yellow on his face, left cheek swollen, eyes glassy, a mirror image of when the reapers had attacked him. Guilt stabbed through Nick, an invisible blade twisting in his gut, for he had put Monroe in danger. If he hadn’t asked Monroe for that tip or let him go to that meeting alone, this would never have happened. He had risked Monroe’s life so many times. How could he had done that? How could he ever?
“I’m fine, Nick. Really. I’ll be well again in no time.”
“You’re not. Look at you. You can barely stand up straight. It’s my fault.”
“It’s not your fault, Nick.”
“Of course it is. I sent you there. You almost died.”
“But I didn’t. You saved me. Thank you for that, by the way. You have the best timing in the whole damn universe.”
Nick didn’t. He really, really didn’t. For it had been his anniversary last night. Three long, happy years with Juliette, his girlfriend, whom he loved and had been this close to proposing to until such joyful plans were dashed by his inheritance and the Wesen world and needing to keep Juliette safe and not thinking he was a lunatic. Dashed by a handsome Blutbad who wore too much corduroy and offered him coffee and bagels after Nick barged into his home at 6:30 in the morning a week after accusing him of kidnapping, who helped him out even when he didn’t have to, who did anything Nick asked just because Nick said he trusted him and because Monroe was such a nice guy and who knew why, really. And Nick had taken advantage because people were missing and his aunt was lying in a hospital bed dying of cancer while reapers were hunting her down. And he liked hanging out with Monroe, hearing the excited tone in his voice when he explained a new element of the Wesen world, sharing a beer, drinking his delicious coffee, and all the million little details that all coalesced in a warm feeling in his chest, so contented, so at home. He’d never noticed when he’d started looking forward to coming here more than his own home until now, while sitting next to Monroe on the couch, watching him grimace as he rubbed his lower back, pain etched in his beautiful face, and Nick realized how close he’d come to losing him. Suddenly, he was reaching forward, grabbing Monroe by the back of the neck and…
He kissed Monroe.
He’d just kissed Monroe.
They stared at each other, the air silent, even their breaths held still. Monroe’s startled eyes looked wider still due to the proximity of their faces, his skin blushing hot under Nick’s hands, mouth open in shock.
Nick let go and jumped off the couch, running for the door, mumbling, “I’m sorry. I didn’t meant to. I don’t know why I… I’m really sorry. Please forgive me” before running out, ignoring Monroe’s calls, pretending he didn’t hear, a knot wrenching in his throat when Juliette flashed in his mind and he imagined her finding out, the betrayal, the tears, the pain, he was always causing people pain now, but as he slammed his car door shut and twisted the key in the ignition, jerking into the street, the only thing he could see was Monroe standing on his front steps watching Nick leave.
That is what hurt most of all.
He didn’t go home. He had the day off, to recover, to think, but he couldn’t recover, he couldn’t think. Yet he couldn’t do anything but think and the thoughts were eating him alive, for he couldn’t, wouldn’t be the kind of man that cheated on his girlfriend with his best friend, the kind who stepped out and betrayed the people he loved. He would not. And yet…
And yet. He had feelings, more than friendly feelings about someone who wasn’t the woman he lived with. The woman for whom he still preserved an engagement ring in the sticky drawer hoping that maybe one day he might find a loop hole in his mad situation. Maybe he could explain the messy, lethal insanity that had become his life and maybe (the slimmest of chances) she might believe what she couldn’t see and not leave him out of fear.
But this had not been the only shift in his life rattling in his mind, it turned out. Funny how he could be so perceptive when it came to observing others and yet be such a thick headed dunce when it came to himself.
He wouldn’t have surrendered to impulse had he only liked Monroe. That weak bellied word did not apply to the scorching blast of emotion keening in his chest when he had feared that Monroe might die. He knew that now. He cared for Monroe. Very, very deeply.
But it couldn’t be…
If he loved Juliette…
Did he love Juliette? To take and to hold, as long as you both shall live? Why would he have kissed another if he did? Why would there be any doubt in his mind?
He was going in circles, a broken record, dizzying, labyrinthine circles, each more damning than the last.
Plan A: Ignore Monroe and make it work with Juliette, except that this was bullshit, for he had already kissed Monroe and not just thought about it (as if that weren’t bad enough), except that he hadn’t even had time to think about it before doing it and what the hell did that say that it felt so natural, so necessary, that he would simply do it without considering anything else? Monroe probably didn’t even like it. He might feel betrayed or disgusted that Nick had breached his trust in such an intrusive manner without having the courtesy of considering how he might feel about this. But how could Nick have done so if he didn’t even know himself?
And since when did he have to “make it work” with Juliette? Weren’t they happy? But a gulf had been growing between them since he became a Grimm, since he stopped being able to confide in her and started lying about going to the gym when in fact he was visiting Monroe or doing research at the trailer. When he had to fudge the truth about why Stark had been so strong or why those clinic doctors were taking peoples’ organs and all the other little untruths he shouldn’t find so easy to tell.
Their postponed anniversary dinner went well on the surface. Not brilliant, just well. Nick put on the happiest face possible, determined not to mess this up again, acting the part of the perfect boyfriend, but that was critical term right there. He was acting. And he felt it in his twisting stomach and his suppressed urge to run to the bathroom and throw up her lovingly prepared dinner. Before the events of last night, he would have been happy to wine and dine his beautiful girlfriend before taking her up to bed and making love to her, but now even that phrasing sounded hollow. He felt like a filthy, cheating asshole when he touched her. This mouth he kissed her with had touched another’s only this morning. If she knew, she would throw him on the street and be right in doing so. She didn’t deserve this.
But it was just one kiss. He could get over it.
He’d just never talk to Monroe again.
Bullshit. How could he never talk to Monroe again? Never mind that he depended on him to make sense of his Wesen cases. He needed to see him. To talk to him. To just be near him. It didn’t even matter why anymore.
Monroe kept calling. Nick let the calls go to voicemail every time, but he listened to the messages. He couldn’t do Monroe the extra disrespect of not listening to them. It was bad enough that he was too cowardly to speak to him. The messages made him feel worse. If they had been filled with offended protests that Monroe didn’t have any feelings for Nick, that he was straight, that he would never like a man like that, Nick could have coped better with his determination to stick it out with Juliette and forget about Monroe. But they weren’t. Not in the least.
Nick? Pick up, buddy. I’m not mad at you. Nick, it’s okay. I don’t know what you were thinking or even if you were thinking, but that’s why I want to talk to you. We need to clear the air.
Hey, Nick. It’s been four days now. I’m not pressuring or anything. I just want to know if you’re alright. And again, to tell you that I’m not angry. I’m surprised, of course, but… To tell you the truth, I’m a little… Um… It would be better if we talked this out rather than me leaving voicemails. Call me. Please.
Okay, I’m starting to think that your voicemail is broken or you lost your password or you just kissed me out of nowhere and then stood me up. *sigh* I didn’t mean that to come out like that. But you really did leave me hanging there without an explanation. I mean, we’re friends, right? We should talk things over instead of letting them stew, especially with something like this. Please, call me or come over or text me. Anything.
Nick, goddammit it. Quit giving me the cold shoulder. I know you’re alive. I called the station to verify. Look, if you feel so awful about this that you never want to see again, at least have the decency to tell me. And don’t think about texting me a breakup note, either.
That last message did it. Nick couldn’t continue being such an asshole, not to Monroe. It took him 30 minutes of sitting at a park bench getting soaked with rainwater to finally press Call with Monroe’s contact information on his phone screen, then, when it started ringing, his thumb jerked, reaching for the End tab, but it landed on the wrong part of the screen, for within two seconds, Monroe’s voice sounded in his ear.
“Nick? Don’t hang up. I know you’re thinking about it. Don’t.”
“I—“ Nick’s throat squeezed shut. “I’m sorry.”
“You better be. It’s been over a week. What the hell, man?”
“I know. I’m so sorry. I can’t say that enough. I should never have kissed you, shouldn’t have put you in this position. And I shouldn’t have dodged your calls. I just… I don’t know.”
“Nick, calm down. Breathe. Are you breathing?”
Nick gulped air deep into his lungs, shoving his left hand under his thigh to try to get it to stop shaking.
“Good. Now. I’m not mad at you. Scratch that. I am mad at you, but because you took so damn long to talk to me, not because you kissed me.”
“Really? Why? I mean, thank you for not… Um…”
“Okay. Clearly, you don’t know what’s going on with you, either. Great. That should help clarify things.”
“I don’t know what you want me to tell you, Monroe.”
“How about why you kissed me?”
“I don’t—I didn’t think about it. It just happened. I… You almost died. If I’d gotten there a second later, you would be dead. I couldn’t bear that.”
“So you like me. Like me like me.”
“I guess. I’m sorry. I know that ruins our friendship—“
“No. Nick, it doesn’t. I—I like you, too.”
The phone almost slipped from Nick’s fingers in shock.
“I never wanted you to know. You have a girlfriend. And I thought you were straight. I never dreamed that I had a chance. But we hang out and share coffee in the mornings and I help you with whatever Grimm crisis you have and now I even make you dinner sometimes. It’s nice. It’s enough. It is. I wasn’t going to risk wrecking what I had with you by bringing it up.”
Nick’s shaking intensified. He clutched the phone, afraid to drop it, and hugged himself with his free arm, bending forward on the bench, his face nearly buried in his knees.
“But you don’t have to take that into account,” Monroe said. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine no matter what you decide. I’m really not pressuring you. I know you… Nick? Are you still there?”
“Yeah,” Nick gasped, pushing himself back upright so passersby would stop looking at him as if he were about to be sick, which he well might be. “I’m sorry. I never realized. I honestly don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything right now. It’s obvious you don’t know which is the sky and which is the ground right now. Just… Think about it. That came out lame. Of course you’re thinking about it. But now you have all the relevant info. Not that I’m asking you to leave Juliette. I’m not that kind of guy. I just… I don’t know what I’m saying.”
The reedy hope in Monroe’s voice ate at Nick’s heart.
“Thank you for telling me. Truly. I’m… I’m glad.”
Neither of them spoke for a moment that stretched too far to be anything but awkward.
“I’ll still be your friend,” Monroe said, “no matter what you decide.”
“You wouldn’t resent me?”
Because Nick certainly resented himself.
“No. Of course not. I meant it when I said that you don’t have to worry about me. I know I’m the one intruding here. Whenever you’re ready, just call me or drop by or whatever.”
“Yes. Of course. I’m really sorry I left you hanging for so long. I feel terrible about this. I really can’t express how much.”
“It’s okay. These things happen.”
Did they? Not to Nick. His whole life, he’d always been very certain about who he wanted to be with, who he loved. He’d never cheated on any of his partners, would never have even considered doing so. Not until this kiss had he ever betrayed anyone like this. Now he was betraying two people at the same time, because no matter how many times Monroe said that he was okay with whoever Nick wanted to be with, he would not be if Nick chose Juliette, and Juliette would obviously not be okay if he chose Monroe, but she would already not be okay, wouldn’t she, what with his being a Grimm who could see people who weren’t human and being in danger all the time, thus putting her in danger. And he didn’t even have the courtesy to tell her because he was a coward and Monroe said that seeing Wesen made most people’s brains go kablooie and he didn’t want to drive her crazy, but he couldn’t keep disrespecting her by not telling her, either, not if he stayed with her.
And she suspected. She wasn’t obvious about it, but ever since the botched anniversary dinner, there were moments when she was withdrawn around him. Not all the time, not in ways that would be obvious to anyone if they watched the two of them, but there were little things: less understanding in her tone when he called to say that he would be late from work (as if she somehow knew that he sometimes used it as an excuse to do Grimm work), drawing away when he returned from such work and tried to make it up to her with an extra eager cuddle, asking for more details about his cases than she ever had before, phrasing her questions in ways that made Nick scramble to concoct an answer. Then other times, she felt like she always had. Calm, loving Juliette. So why did their relationship still feel forced?
As soon as his aunt had told him that he had to break up with Juliette, he had pushed her words away, refusing to believe that he had to cut Juliette out of his life just because he could see new beings now. But he had never been able to completely eliminate their insidious presence in his mind. They lingered in the dusty back corner of his skull where he was afraid to look, terrified that this would make the monster real.
There’s no good outcome to that, Monroe had said about explaining the Grimm/Wesen world to a regular person. Had he said so out of self-interest? Why wouldn’t he want Nick to break up with Juliette? But if he thought that Nick was straight, he didn’t gain anything. Unless he had been lying about not knowing. No. Monroe would have to be a brilliant actor for his declaration to have been anything but sincere, and Nick knew he was not.
Two days later, Nick discovered that his aunt had been engaged to a Steinadler, and he wondered if she would have approved of Monroe. She left said Steinadler when she became a Grimm, but maybe that was only because she had to raise Nick. Perhaps she didn’t trust Holt with a child. Or perhaps the coins had already sunk their claws in him. Holt must have left out loads of crucial details in his abridged version of events.
At least, Aunt Marie would have enjoyed Monroe’s company. She would certainly have liked his model train collecting and his dogged discipline. And there was no need to explain anything to him. Plus, Monroe had already stood by Nick after the Reapers attacked him, which should have been Nick’s clarion call to leave Monroe out of it, to stop putting him in peril, like Aunt Marie had warned him that Juliette would be in.
Maybe Grimms weren’t meant to be with anyone. Maybe it was better not to try, not to set yourself or them up for failure. Yet Nick’s parents had made it work, as had the parents of uncounted generations of Grimms, so that couldn’t be the case. Not everyone chose the lonely road his aunt did.
But Grimm protocol couldn’t be a factor in his reasoning. He couldn’t allow despair to take over his thought processes and choke him from the inside out, would not let this accident of his genealogy get in the middle of what he wanted or who he wanted. He was not going to give up on both Juliette and Monroe, nor was he going to let risk force him to run away from everyone he loved, as much as he yearned to do so half the time before he took that one last turn into his street or Monroe’s street, when his hand tightened on the car wheel, his fingers hesitant on the lever that would announce the tuning signal, unsure whether to press it, thinking that he should just keep driving straight, pass up the house, carry on to the highway, drive all the way out of the state, out of the country, settle somewhere else, somewhere where no one he cared about would be hurt by associating with a Grimm, especially when he couldn’t tell them why he had to leave, why he had to lie, why a boy could control rats, why Stark had been so strong, why he suddenly had so many late nights at work from one month to the next when it had never been this bad in the three years that they had been together, why he always covered up his guilt with a smile and a kiss to stall any further questions, why he kept saying “I love you” when he didn’t know if he meant it anymore. Why he flew in and out of Monroe’s life only when Nick needed him and never inquired further than necessary, why he never struck up a regular conversation or allowed himself to linger in Monroe’s warm presence any longer than he absolutely had to. Because he could not handle being with Monroe yet not being with him or being with Juliette while doing the same. He was see-sawing between the two, leaning away from Juliette and into Monroe, yet he was terrified to shift his feet from the ground, his body tilted sharply to the side, center of gravity skewed close to its limit, every single day tugging it further and further to the side and his legs were beginning to falter, his knees wobbling, his toes losing their grasp on the floor, and any second now his ankles would give and he would crash to the floor, body shattering, and he would have no one.
Because no matter how many times Monroe reassured him that he would still be there for Nick, he would not hang on forever. Monroe could not stay “just friends” with this ache scorching him from the inside out, with every utterance between them awkward and crater-filled, land mines scattered about, blowing up when they chanced upon that little twig sticking out of the ground right above it, so innocuous, a phantom of a warning, too fragile to keep them from breaking through the ice and drowning.
When Eberhart kidnapped Juliette, it occurred to Nick that the universe might have gotten tired of his prevarications and decided that, just like it had slapped how much he cared for Monroe in his face, it would do the same for Juliette. Except not quite so simply and in somewhat of the opposite direction, except not really, for Nick was no less panicked about the extremely high chance that Juliette might die. This was all his fault. Juliette should have never been involved. If he had only warned her and let her make her own choice about whether she wanted to be involved with this madness or not so she could be on the alert, this wouldn’t have happened. If only he hadn’t been so damn selfish and had made a decision already.
It wasn’t that he was any less desperate to save Juliette than he had been to save Monroe. Not at all. Not even a little. He honestly wasn’t even thinking about his conundrum, too caught up in “must find Juliette, now!” until he pressed ‘3’ on his phone, the speed dial number for Monroe (after Juliette and Hank) and the phone started to ring, the loud reverberations smacking his eardrum, and he thought, “what the hell am I doing?”. But he couldn’t go up against two Daemonfeuers on his own, and this was Juliette. He had to pull all the stops. Monroe wasn’t going to let an innocent woman get hurt just because of her relationship with Nick, or how awkward it might be, though it still felt so wrong. Yet before he could think about going after her on his own, Monroe answered the phone.
He sounded so odd, his voice buoyed up by frail hope he tried so hard to mask with cheer. Nick hadn’t contacted him since that one awkward phone call when Monroe and he had muddied the air further two weeks ago. It had been too long. Far too long. Monroe must be worried out of his mind, probably thinking that he didn’t stand a chance anymore, that Nick had already chosen Juliette.
Nick didn’t consider any of this for more than a fraction of a second, but that small instant still kicked him low in the gut.
“The Daemonfeuer took Juliette.”
“Right now. She’s taking Juliette to their lair. I think I know where it is, but I need your help. Please.”
“Of course. You don’t even need to ask, man.”
“Thank you. You have no idea how much. I’m eight minutes away from your house.”
“Nick? We’re going to get her back. Don’t even doubt that. Just keep breathing.”
Nick, calm down. Breathe. Are you breathing?
Just like when he had started panicking when Monroe forced him to explain why he’s kissed him. Nick collapsed in hysterical laughter, his head hunched over the wheel for the longest time before he snapped back to attention, taking a sharp left turn before he missed it.
“Nick? Don’t panic on me now, buddy.”
“I’m fine,” Nick said, stepping on the accelerator a little harder. “I’m not going to lose it. I can’t afford to.”
“Okay. Good. Great. Just please don’t crash into anyone on your way over. I’ll be waiting outside.”
Monroe reviewed the map as Nick drove to the railway tracks. They pinpointed the most likely location of the lair and headed straight for it as fast as they could without getting pulled over for speeding, which would be embarrassing and time consuming, but Nick still gunned it just a bit at spots he knew officers didn’t stake out. Monroe was jittery, but helpful, reassuring when Nick almost murdered a sign a few yards before arriving at the tracks, and not resentful or awkward at all about the girlfriend situation, which Nick appreciated to no end. The sound of Monroe’s chatter was something to cling to, at least, a familiar presence (if not quite soothing in this situation), something to smooth over the grating squeal of the train car’s (or whatever it was) wheels on the track, to break the cold wind smacking his face, slithering into his bone marrow.
Monroe was scared, though, as much as he struggled to hide it with quips and trivia about trains that Nick didn’t care about right now, for these were Daemonfeuers, after all. Oh, great. Hadn’t Nick just said that he was going to stop dragging Monroe into dangerous situations? He could lose both Monroe and Juliette in one night.
Nick wanted to grab his hand and pull him close, to tell him that he didn’t need to go into the Daemonfeuer’s cave, but just then they reached its copper encrusted entrance. Mouth of hell, all right. Standing there on the muddy tracks, he gawked at the ominous metal rods gleaming in the yellow light that emanated from inside, leading toward two creatures who could burn them into roast turkey in seconds with Juliette trapped inside. Nick’s back felt like it was clutched in a giant’s icy fist. He didn’t want to let Monroe go. Not by himself. Not at all. This wasn’t his fight. He shouldn’t have to risk his life for a woman he didn’t even know. Nick should go alone.
“Listen,” Monroe said, not noticing Nick’s turmoil. “I’ll look for Juliette while you seek out the Daemonfeuers. Okay?”
Oh, Monroe. Nick grabbed Monroe’s right shoulder when Monroe started stepping forward, and Monroe turned toward him, a question in his eyes, concern wrinkling his brow, and Nick wanted to kiss him so very much.
I’m sorry, Juliette.
“Okay,” Nick said, then rushed off to the right side of the tunnel while Monroe took the left, his heart choking his throat.
Nick killed Eberhart. He hadn’t meant to, but it was either kill or be roasted and it turned out that this was precisely the outcome Ariel had been hoping for. She really had been playing the fairy tale to the letter. But he was no knight in shiny armor. Nick was just the one who did the dirty work while his... while Monroe got Juliette out. He had no time to feel sorry or ashamed or even shocked as he ran out of the tunnel after seeing Ariel spray herself with her own lipids, adrenaline and survival instinct propelling his feet forward. He hugged Juliette as soon as he saw her, grasping her with the full weight of his guilt, murmuring an “I’m sorry” in her ear while Monroe turned away, rubbing the back of his neck, and Nick’s insides began to tremble, the adrenaline starting to trickle out of his bloodstream.
Heat exploded behind him as Ariel lit herself and her father on fire, orange flames singeing his skin as they all jerked back and he sucked in a gasp, his arm lingering on Juliette’s back, her hand grasping his right sleeve. He watched the flames roll out and up, walling up the entrance of the tunnel in a vicious burst before withering into tiny clumps blazing here and there. Pulling out his phone, he disentangled himself from Juliette, suddenly feeling cold despite the fire burning mere yards away, his jacket insufficient to block the unforgiving winter air freezing his bones. He distracted himself by calling the station, bringing this disaster back into the work sphere, where it should have stayed.
But while he did so, he forgot one little thing. Juliette and Monroe. Monroe, polite fellow that he was, introduced himself, not like he had any other choice, and here was the detail Nick had been eschewing since he called Monroe forty minutes ago. Juliette couldn’t know. There was no way for her to know that Monroe meant anything to him, but he was a friend whom Nick had never mentioned to her and Nick had brought him to rescue her instead of Hank or anyone else. There was no getting away clean now, not that they would ever have been able to do so, but he had hoped so much to avoid this, to keep both Juliette and Monroe safe from each other. A cruelly ironic line from a movie sing songed in his mind.
To wives and sweethearts. May they never meet.
God, how was he going to do this? How could he do this? He barely maintained his composure as he drove both Juliette and Monroe back into the city, leaving Monroe at the opposite side of the park from his house, feeling the need to be secretive even though Juliette was hardly going to turn into a bitter stalker and hunt down Monroe. But this… She was already too close. Everything, everyone was already too close.
And the time bomb had ticked its last breath.
Juliette was quiet in the car, yet her silence felt more deafening than the explosion in the tunnel. All the little noises of the drive rose in sharp relief: the rumble of the engine, the soft plish of the wheels as they rolled over the wet gravel, the clicking in the stem of the wheel he could never find a cause for, the squeaking of the passenger seat as Juliette shifted in it, turning away from him and toward the window, probably not even observing the world zooming by. Nick barely focused on it himself, only aware of the crucial details: the cars, the road, where he needed to turn. A red light lost meaning for a second and he had to break abruptly, not too much so, but enough to make Juliette look at him. He relaxed his breathing, forcing each breath in and out as slowly as he could, loosening his fingers the slightest bit on the wheel. Juliette was frowning at him. He did not need to see her to know and he dared not look at her, aware of her only from the corner of his eye, a fuzzy figure in his field of vision. If she asked him now, he would have no answer to give. When they got home, their home, their shared subterfuge, he would still not have one. But she didn’t ask now. She didn’t say anything at all.
Not until they went into the house, the door shutting behind them, metal lock sliding into place with a loud click.
“I’m so sorry about this,” he said, feeling that he must say something, the arrested instability between them eating at his bones.
“She was crazy,” Juliette said. “You never know what someone like that is going to do.”
That’s not… No, that is what he meant, but not… How was he going to do this? How did you break the heart of the woman you’ve loved for three years? Nick could tell himself that he hadn’t made a decision yet, lie, but deep inside the marrow of his bones, he knew he had.
“Juliette, I… I haven’t been fair to you and I’m truly sorry about that. Not just about this, but about so many things.”
“Does this mean that you’re finally going to tell me what’s going on?”
He couldn’t. He never knew how, never knew when or if it was even possible, and now if he wasn’t even going to stay with her… But what could he say? He had to tell her something, offer up some reason for this even if it was nothing more than a hollow excuse, but she would know that it was a hollow excuse. He would not be able to fool her, not for a second. He never had. He knew that now, saw it in her face, in the disappointment clouding her eyes, the tired vexation pinching her lips, the tension gripping her whole body, not just the consequence of being kidnapped from her home and not even being given the courtesy of knowing why. Because Nick could tell her. Not the full explanation, that one had died with Eberhart, but the gist, the background. Just because Juliette had brushed the kidnapping aside didn’t mean she didn’t suspect that it might be tied into the million other things Nick was hiding from her.
“I can’t,” he said.
“You can’t?” Her voice rose at the last word, her inflection shifting from impatient to angry.
“That’s not what I… I don’t know how. I really don’t know how to tell you this.”
“How about you just tell me the truth. It shouldn’t be that hard, Nick.”
“I know. But in this case, I’m afraid it is.”
How do you tell the woman you once hoped to marry that you no longer want to be with her? As it turns out, just like that.
“We can’t be together anymore.”
Time slowed down as Juliette absorbed this statement, her face freezing in disbelief, as solid as a marble statue, except that a statue couldn’t feel.
The air thundered tick tick tick from the clock in the kitchen, the rumble of a car outside tearing through Nick’s nerves, the chill of the winter air still shivering in his flesh and aching in his joints as he stood stock still, afraid to move, as if hoping that if he did not, he might disappear into the ether and not have to face this.
“You won’t tell me what’s going on and therefore we can’t be together?” Juliette asked, indignation inflaming every justified syllable.
“That’s not what—Juliette, I’m sorry--”
“Don’t.” She raised a stiff hand to stave off any further entreaties. “Don’t say you’re sorry. If you apologize one more time, I swear I’ll—“
She paused, reigning in her anger for a few turbulent seconds that still made Nick flinch. But a part of Nick didn’t want her to hold back. She had every right to scream at him if she wanted to. He deserved it for putting her through this and delaying the inevitable for so long when he should have known better than to believe that he could have it both ways. So he stood silent, submissive, so very repentant as Juliette censured and disparaged him, but he couldn’t comply with her demands. He couldn’t tell her why he’d been acting so strange the last couple of months, what deep, dark secret he kept hidden from her, not even why he couldn’t tell her. “It’s too dangerous” and “you wouldn’t understand” were not reasonable answers, not from her perspective, he knew that, but it was all he could offer, only scraps of repentance that didn’t deserve forgiveness.
“Is it him?” Juliette asked, startling Nick, making his breath shorten with protective instinct, for he knew that Juliette was referring to Monroe even as he asked,
“The guy you brought along to rescue me. The supposed private investigator. Is that part even true? It felt like he was making it up to me.”
Nick squeezed his eyes shut, fully aware that this action was an obvious tell, but how much more could he hide from her when she had already inferred it herself?
“He’s not a private investigator,” he said. “But he has nothing to do with this.”
“I know that’s a lie. When you told me that you would never cheat on me, was that a lie, too?”
“No. I’ve never cheated you.”
Except for that one kiss.
“But you are still leaving me for him? Or is that information classified, too? Am I allowed to know anything about why the man I thought was going to marry me is leaving me?”
Nick’s eyes widened, caught in the crossroads with car lights streaming down toward him, brakes squealing, applied too late.
“Yes, Nick,” Juliette said. “I found your engagement ring. Take it with you on your way out. I’m sure it would look lovely on Monroe’s finger.”
No words could fix this. And after this last exchange, Juliette was no longer in the mood for any.
Nick left with no more than the clothes on his back, his car keys, his wallet, and his phone, just like when he came in. He wondered if he would find his belongings strewn on the front lawn in the morning. Juliette wasn’t the type for such displays, but Nick deserved no less humiliation.
He drove to Monroe’s house, having meant to go to a hotel, but his limbs decided otherwise. He parked on the street just in front of Monroe’s mailbox, that little wooden construction that had proved so fateful to their lives. If Monroe hadn’t come out to check it at the precise moment that Nick emerged from the park after tracking the Blutbad kidnapper there, Nick would never have met him. He would never have betrayed Juliette’s affections by falling in love with someone else. How different his life would be, not knowing that this wonderful man lived only ten minutes away from his own home.
But he couldn’t think anymore. He did not want to peruse a single more thought this night. He just wanted to sleep and forget the world for a few hours, yet here he stood knocking on Monroe’s door, knowing he should leave, that the house was dark, that Monroe was probably asleep. He should get back in the car and stay somewhere else for the night, but as he turned his feet to pace on the narrow porch, the stained glass window lit up, the Blutbad at the center bright and comforting. The door opened and there stood Monroe, worry wrinkling his brow, hair disheveled, wearing no more than a worn, white t-shirt and plaid boxers, clearly his sleeping gear and Nick’s lips lifted at how happy this sight made him.
“What’s wrong?” Monroe asked. “Did something happen? Come in.”
“Yeah,” Nick said, crossing the threshold into the warmth of Monroe’s home. “Juliette and I broke up.”
Monroe stared at him, eyes widening, expression stuck between what he should feel and the joy these news probably gave him.
“I’m sorry,” Monroe said.
Nick shook his head, squeezing his lips together, laughing at how screwed up his life was.
“Can I stay here tonight?” he asked.
“Of course. Stay for as long as you need.”
“Monroe, I… I’m going to need a little time.”
“Sure. I know. Of course you do.”
“But you don’t need to worry.”
Monroe’s face froze again.
“I choose you. I can’t be with you yet, but I need you to know that.”
Monroe’s smile was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.