"Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die." – G.K. Chesterton
Like many of her colleagues in the medical profession, Natalie Lambert hated going to the doctor. Unless it was something she couldn't reach, like her bad knee, she preferred to treat her own physical problems, and to ignore her mental ones.
So when she told Nick that her director wanted her to see a counselor, he wasn't surprised to hear she had refused. "It might do you some good," he said seriously, sitting atop her dissecting table. "Y'know, just to have someone to talk to."
Natalie lifted her arms, encompassing the whole autopsy room. "I've got plenty of company."
"Someone who can talk back, Nat," Schanke chimed in. "Someone who isn't dead—does anyone else know you talk to the corpses?"
"Runs in the family," she retorted. "I've got a great-uncle who's an ME down in the States, and he does the same thing." Natalie folded her arms and stared down the two homicide detectives. "I'm fine. It takes more than a murderous psycho to keep me down! Although," she continued, "it's not fair. Why is it that every man I meet is either gay or a serial killer?"
Schanke looked at his partner.
Nick held up his hands. "Hey, I just dress nicely."
Privately, he worried. Much as he expected a certain dark humor from Natalie, her response to the Roger Jamieson affair was... bothersome. He was sure there was more to her current refusal to seek help than she was admitting.
He had come to care for Natalie Lambert deeply over the years. At first, there had been merely the work, and her determination to help him. But there had also been a fascination, since the night they had bumped into one another on the street and she had proclaimed herself unafraid.
He had met other mortals over the centuries who had claimed the same thing. Many. Nearly all had died violently, either at his hands or simply through knowing him. And perhaps one of them had intrigued and captivated him the way Natalie had, but it had clearly been too long.
They all looked like Natalie now, in his memories, everyone who had stood up to him and sworn they were not afraid with the same calm conviction that Nick always saw in her.
"We-ell," Schanke huffed, "I did my best. C'mon, Nick. Time to get back to the ol' protect and serve."
"I'll be out in a minute," Nick called after his partner's disappearing back.
Natalie picked up her clipboard and was studied it intently. "Something else?"
Grinding his palms together while he thought, Nick tried to work up to what he wanted to say. "You know, Nat... there's nothing wrong with admitting you need help." She looked up at him with a hint of something dark—resentment?—flashing in her eyes. "I think you should take your director's advice."
"At least go for a session. Schanke's right, you need to talk to someone."
"I'm talking to you right now."
"I mean someone who—well..." Someone who understands mortal problems, was what he was thinking. "Someone who's more qualified."
"The doctor at the ER gave me a prescription for some sedatives," she said shortly. That the attending doctor was an old college friend of hers, she did not mention. "I'll manage."
"That's not going to help you."
"I can't see a psychiatrist."
"Nick!" She slammed her clipboard down on the desk. "What am I supposed to say to a shrink? That I've got no friends, barely any living family, and've buried myself in my work to the point where I can't tell one serial killer from another?"
Nick was too aghast to speak.
"I can't go to a shrink because I'm afraid I might say too much about you. I can't have a love life because it would take too much time away from looking for a cure—do you have any idea of how much I've sacrificed for you?"
"And now I can't even be angry about you being over-protective of your doctor because you were right. Roger was a scumball, you tried to warn me, I didn't listen and almost got myself killed. And then you swooped in and saved my sorry ass, so I can't even have the satisfaction of telling you to butt out of my personal life—oh wait, that's right. I don't have a personal life." Natalie grabbed her coat and purse. "I'm going home," she said, pushing her way past Nick.
Nick slumped against the filing cabinet, feeling despicable.
The Raven was a dangerous place for a man in his position to go. Nick went anyway. Janette would not understand—then again, maybe she would; stranger things had happened—but at the very least, she would be someone to talk to.
Janette took one look at him, sighed to herself, and pulled him over to a private table. She composed her features into what she hoped was a sympathetic expression while Nick poured out his troubles to her. "So once again, you're being punished for having done a good deed." She pursed her lips and shrugged. "Ainsi en va-t-il. So it goes."
"What else could I have done?" Nick asked, becoming belligerent.
"No, I mean, I wouldn't have expected you to do anything else. Oh, Nicolas, how many times over the centuries have I seen you cast yourself in the role of savior to some young fool or other?"
"Natalie's hardly a fool."
"She is either very brave or very stupid—and we both know they're the same thing." She blew a languorous stream of smoke into the thick air. "You've marked her for your own, you just don't realize it yet. What's taking you so long? Is it this life? Bah. One life is very much like the next."
"Getting bored, Janette?"
Janette stubbed out her cigarette. "Tell me the truth, Nicolas: what is it about Dr. Lambert that so fascinates you?"
Nick's blue eyes met Janette's, only a shade or two darker than his own. "She's not afraid of me."
"Then she is a fool—and clearly wishes to die, so why do you not oblige her?"
He frowned. "Look around you, Janette. How many of these mortals do you think actually want to die?"
"None of them, probably. That's why they come here. Some humans are just drawn to vampires. Not because they know what we are, but because they can sense it. And even without knowing its name, they are drawn to it. They come here to drink and to dance, and to bask, hoping to acquire even a little of what we have."
"So we have something they don't. Isn't that enough reason for me to be drawn to humans? Because they have something I don't?"
Her expression was cool as she lit a fresh cigarette. "What could Dr. Lambert possibly have that you lack, except an eventual death?"
Nick watched the flame of her match flicker bravely, and smiled. "Courage," he said.
There was a brown paper bag staring Natalie in the face when she opened the door. "You left your prescription on your desk," said Nick, offering his most disarming smile, "so I stopped by the drug store and got it filled for you."
Natalie took the bag. "Thanks." Nick shut the door behind him and unzipped his jacket, but waited until Natalie had put the medication away before he sat down. "Thanks," she said again.
"Wow, that sounded sincere."
"I don't need sedatives, Nick."
He pursed his lips. "And your nightmares?"
Natalie twitched her shoulders. "They'll pass. I'm used to nightmares."
"Nat, about earlier... I'm sorry."
She shook her head. "No. I shouldn't have said those things to you."
"You had every right—"
"No. I chose this work with my eyes open. I wasn't naïve enough to think your condition could be cured in a few hours. It's just... been a hell of a week, I guess." But she had to smile at his obvious worry. Protective like a brother, indeed... No, she thought immediately, don't think about Richie. "You can't help me with this, Nick. But I'll be okay, really. I've always had to deal with this kind of thing on my own."
"Always? You mean serial killers spring out of the woodwork and follow you around on a regular basis?"
She snorted. "Oh, you should have seen some of the weirdos who tried to date me back in college and med school. Then there was a friend of Richie's from law school—oh, and everyone Myra's ever tried to set me up with."
And the vampire who woke up on your dissecting table, Nick thought, but managed to keep it to himself.
Natalie wrinkled her nose. "I only ever seem to attract guys who want to drag me into dark alleys."
Nick turned his head slowly and looked at her across his shoulder.
Ever since Richard Lambert had died, Nick had been more protective towards Natalie than ever, and he knew it was because of the guilt. Richard had died because of him, because he had failed in his duties as the master of a new vampire. He had failed, and now he had to atone for that failure. He owed it to Natalie.
Guilt and atonement.
Was there anything left in his life except the centuries of guilt he had accumulated, and the relentless need to seek forgiveness for his crimes before his immortal life was cut short?
"What are you most afraid of in this world?" he heard himself ask.
Being alone, Natalie nearly blurted out. "Dying without having accomplished anything," she said instead. "What about you?"
"Dying," said Nick quietly.
Of all the things Natalie had expected, that hadn't been one of them. "When you become mortal, you're going to die eventually."
"I know. And maybe by then, when I'm old and gray instead of just old, I'll have learned to look forward to it." Nick leaned forward, resting his chin on his folded hands and contemplating Sidney as the cat lay on his cushion. "But until then... death is what a vampire fears most. Humans... mortals... at least you have some reassurance. The religious have their faith, the atheists have their conviction, and everyone else has ignorance, supposition and terror. But I know what lies beyond for me, Nat, and it's not reassuring.
"I envy you your uncertainty."
Natalie pulled her fleece-covered knees to her bare chest. "I've, um... I've never thought of it that way before."
"Why should you? Most people don't think about dying until they're in danger of it." His eyes drifted away for a minute or two. "But I've had a lot of time to think about it. See it, hear it, smell it—taste it. Every day, for the last eight hundred years. A homicide detective doesn't know death. Not the way I do. Not even you know death the way I do, Natalie. Even the people who die violently are already at peace by the time they get to you." He smiled a little. "I envy you that as well."
Sensing that they were on very shaky ground, Natalie groped for something, anything to lighten the mood. "Do you know, I didn't once think about dying when... when Roger... I was too terrified. Didn't think about anything, really. I just ran."
The ten or so minutes between the start of the attack and Nick's arrival had been the longest of Natalie's life. She had not felt so terrified—or so helpless—since she had first misbehaved in Nana Tash's house. "The prosecution might have some problems making my testimony hold up in court," she told Nick. "I was so scared I can barely remember what happened. If you'd shown up a minute later, I'd've dissolved into a pile of mush."
"You'd've been dead." Nick's flat voice shattered her fragile good humor, and Natalie felt suddenly cold. "You didn't do anything wrong, Nat. You did what you were supposed to: you ran."
"I should have known better. I should've known something was wrong from the start." She pounded her fist into the arm of the sofa. "It's been so long since any man even..." No, better not to go down that road. Her throat closed up. "I should've known he was too good to be true."
"But you couldn't have known. No," Nick cut her off before she could protest further, "it doesn't matter how many times you replay it in your head, you could never have done or said anything differently to protect yourself. You would never have known there was danger until it was too late. He's a predator, Nat. You're supposed to trust us."
Us. "I can just see it on my tombstone: 'Here lies Dr. Natalie Lambert, victim of evolution.'"
This time, Nick did laugh. "You're a lot of things, but prey is not one of them.
"Well, that's flattering... I think. Maybe I should—"
Natalie was cut off in mid-sentence by an enormous yawn. Nick looked at the window and was shocked to see sunlight trickling through the drawn blinds. "I lost track of time," he said, feeling sheepish.
"That's okay," said Natalie. She covered his hand briefly with her own, then got up to fetch an extra blanket and pillow.
"You don't have to bother. I've slept on worse."
"I know, but—well, I'd just feel better if you were here today."
"To keep the nightmares away?" Nick chuckled. "One bogeyman to keep away another?" He grinned to forestall her reflexive scolding. "Go to sleep, Nat. I'll keep you safe this time."
Natalie had to force herself not to lock her bedroom door. There was no point; Nick would never enter her room without permission (and maybe not even then), and if he wanted in, no lock would keep him out. It wasn't logical... but it would have made her feel better.
"I'll keep you safe this time."
She might have suspected Nick would blame himself. "I shouldn't be surprised at this point," she muttered, climbing into bed. And really, it wasn't his fault—it was nobody's fault, expect perhaps her own ("Blaming the victim, Lambert? You ought to know better."), and there was no reason for him to be doing penance by sleeping on her couch, aside from the obvious that the sun was up and he couldn't go home.
And the fact that she hadn't wanted him to go.
"I'll keep you safe..."
Natalie stared at the bottle of sedatives on her nightstand, but fell asleep contemplating how strange it was to feel so secure in the company of a vampire.
He was out of her apartment before she woke, driven by the need for a shower and a change of clothes.
And a meal.
When he stepped downstairs after his shower, Janette was waiting, eying the contents of his refrigerator with distaste. "Where were you yesterday?"
He reached past her for a bottle. "At Natalie's."
Janette raised a well-maintained eyebrow. "Well?"
"And then she went to bed and I slept on the couch." Nick pulled the cork from the bottle with his teeth and took a long swig. "What were you expecting?"
Janette shut the refrigerator door with a thump, glaring at his oh-so-innocent smile. "One of these nights," she said, her voice very soft and serious, "it's not going to turn out that well."
Nick suddenly felt vaguely embarrassed. "It's not some sordid love affair, Janette," he muttered.
"No. It's worse."
"Don't misunderstand me; I'm not unsympathetic, Nicolas. We all want things we can't have. But someday, your Natalie—"
"She's not mine."
"But she is. She is your possession, at your beck and call. You are the center of her world."
"She's my friend."
"She is a means to an end. And someday she is going to disappoint you, just like all the other doctors and shamans and medicine men and quacks—"
"She offered to help me!"
"And when she can't? Your quest for mortality has destroyed so many people. Will you be able to walk away from her without anger, without hate? Will she be able to let you go?"
"She's stronger than you think."
"Maybe. But you? I don't know anymore."
Natalie looked up from her paperwork. "Hey," she said, sounding surprised. "You're here early."
Nick walked in and leaned comfortably against a cabinet. "I heard you're taking some time off."
"Yeah. Just a week. I'm going to stay with Sarah and Amy." Natalie laid down her pen and looked at Nick thoughtfully. He returned her gaze without flinching and for the first time in day, she noted, without worry. "You were gone before I woke up."
"I needed a change of clothes." Nick rolled his shoulders. "When you're born in the Middle Ages, hygiene's just one of those things you pick up."
"You could've at least stayed for breakfast."
"Hey, I was not touching any of those sugary things in your kitchen cupboards. You're a doctor, you should know better." Nick paused. "What exactly is a Pop-Tart?"
Natalie stared at him in disbelief. Then she laughed, and Nick was glad he had diverted her attention away from the subject of food.
He went over to her desk and took her hands in his. "Thank you."
"For what?" she asked with a bemused smile.
"For being my strength. Every night I wake up thinking that this could be the night we succeed, and it's because of you. You've kept fighting when I've lost heart, and I've never... You're the bravest person I know, and if I have anything to be thankful for, it's you." There was a moment or two of solemn silence, and then Nick grinned. "There, did I embarrass you enough?"
She snorted and punched his shoulder affectionately. "Still, I must make a pretty poor showing against everyone else you've known."
"No, I'd say you're right up there with the best of them."
"Even Joan of Arc? I doubt I could lead an army into battle or handle talking to God."
"Maybe not, but you and she have at least one thing in common." Natalie waited. "You're both brave enough to believe that a vampire can be saved." Nick leaned over and kissed her cheek, startling her out of any reply. "I'll see you when you get back from Sarah's. Take care of yourself, okay?"
"Yeah—Nick!" He paused in the doorway. "You, too."
A different sort of smile, embarrassed but pleased, flickered over his face. "I will."