There was still dust in the air. Belle had slayed three vampires, and he’d used the sharpened tip of his cane to get a fourth that was too close to her back for comfort. His wool coat seemed to be a magnet for the charred remains of the undead, and it was starting to settle on his sleeves when the sound of clapping sent him whirling in a half circle.
“That was reasonably impressive.” A woman sat on top of a gravestone, dressed in what looked like black, but in places where the moonlight was strongest had a hint of blood red. Her mouth, painted a brighter scarlet, was twisted into a smile. In an instant Belle stood before him, stake clenched in her right hand; as often as he tried to convince her that a Watcher was far more expendable than a Slayer she argued back about being sworn to protect all lives, including his. The raven haired woman took one look at the girl and laughed. “She’s a fierce one, Nicodemus. You certainly have a type, don’t you?”
“Nick?” Belle didn’t take her eyes off the stranger until Gold pushed his way in front of her. He could feel her gaze on him but couldn’t afford to acknowledge her.
“Regina. I heard a lovely tale about you, Italy, and a very sunny day. Pity it was an exaggeration.” He should have known that it was too good to be true.
“Is that any way to speak to an old friend who’s come all this way just to visit?” She slid off the gravestone and looked at him, intensely enough that he found himself taking two halting steps forward. Damn her.
“I thought you found the States too ‘provincial’ for you, dearie.” His left hand was balled up tight, nails digging into the flesh of his palm. The slight pain helped to counteract her hypnotism games. He could hear Belle take another step forward, but hoped she’d stay behind him this time.
“And I thought the Council would think twice before giving you another Slayer. They’re usually so cautious.” The well aimed barb found its mark; it was impossible not to wince. Discomfort turned to rage when Regina was suddenly in front of him, peering over his shoulder. Looking at Belle. “She doesn’t know. That hardly seems fair to the poor little thing, Nicodemus. Someone should fill her in.”
“Come near her and I’ll kill you,” he growled. “Slowly, with holy water and magic. How many splinters of wood could I cast into your shriveled little heart until your body exploded, do you think?”
“Still the same cocky bastard as always. It’s nice to know that some things don’t change.” She touched her ice cold lips to his cheek in the mockery of a kiss, but was three gravestones away before he had his cane raised high enough to hit her.
“I’m glad you didn’t kill yourself, dear. Things are so much more interesting when you’re around. We’ll be seeing a lot most of each other soon.” She licked her lip as she looked at him. A moment later she was gone.
“Fuck.” He swung his cane down, but accomplished nothing more than breaking off a chip from the wood.
Arms slid around his waist, a touch he might have tried to pull away from if her Slayer’s strength hadn’t held him still enough to forget the idea, and to appreciate the feels of her pressing against his back. He let himself borrow her quiet strength for just a minute. “You should go home, Belle. It’s late, and I don’t think anyone else is going to show up here.”
“Only if you let me walk you home first, Watcher mine. You don’t really think I’m going to leave you out here alone with that vamp-tart on the loose, do you?”
“Belle...” He sighed, knowing it was pointless. She could be just as stubborn as he could, and the sooner he agreed the sooner he could be home, alone. “Fine.”
The walk home was silent, except for two sets of footsteps, hers almost silent and his with the extra staccato tap of his cane. The cemetery, fortunately, wasn’t far from his house. He didn’t bother to wonder if Regina was watching; if she wanted to learn which house was his she’d find out. She was a resourceful bint. He never invited anyone into his house, though, so even if she found him there was little she could do. The same thing couldn’t be said of his Slayer, who didn’t need a verbal invitation before following him into the house.
“You saw me home, dearie. You can go now.” The library, fortunately, was the first door to the right. He didn’t bother turning on a light as he headed for the door. He was hoping Belle would take the hint that he wasn’t fit company tonight.
“You don’t have to tell me who she was, not yet, but I don’t think you should be alone. You’re upset.”
“I’m fine,” he said dryly as he poured himself three fingers of Johnnie Walker in a cut crystal glass.
“Nick...” Whatever she was going to say was thwarted by the crashing of glass as his scotch flew across the room and hit the wall opposite.
“God damn it.” He couldn’t take her kindness and sympathy right now, but when he looked at her and the shock on her face he was flooded with guilt on top of everything else.
“I... fuck.” He couldn’t even find the words to apologize properly. It would be better for both of them if they got some distance; he grabbed the scotch bottle by the neck and limped from the room to the stairs that would take him up to his bedroom. He knew from experience that there were only two ways to keep the nightmares at bay on nights like this, and he was too exhausted to simply not sleep. It was a good thing the bottle was more than half full.
He fell asleep sometime in the wee hours of the morning, the scotch bottle empty enough that it didn’t spill despite being uncapped and sideways on the bedside table. He was still dressed, mostly, though he’d managed at some point to take off his shoes and tie. There was a photograph on the bed beside him, one he’d removed from a photo album that had been closed for the year since he’d moved to Storybrooke.
It was the marching band in his head that woke him up, and his first thought was to wonder when they’d added jackhammers to bands. His second thought was a painfully vivid recall of the night before, from the confusion in Belle’s eyes when Regina showed up to the hurt when he’d thrown the glass and stormed off. Saints, did he owe her an apology.
Aspirin was the first priority, and getting rid of the taste of whatever had died in his mouth with mouthwash and toothpaste. Next came a very hot shower and fresh clothes, leaving him feeling halfway homan at least. Food was more than he could think about, but he had some glass in the library to clean up and that seemed a logical next step. He was halfway across the room, eyes squinted against the light, when he realized that he wasn’t alone.
“Belle?” He whispered her name as he looked down at her, curled up on the sofa with a knitted blanket half on her and half on the floor. Her face, even in sleep, wasn’t relaxed completely. Maybe it was being on the couch, barely long enough for her despite her short stature. Maybe it was nightmares, or a feeling that she needed to guard him, or a dozen other reasons that were his fault. There was nothing he could do now except cover her better and hope that her sleep wasn’t too troubled. As he tucked the blanket around her arm, though, she stirred and blinked her eyes.
“Morning?” She looked at the window as if to confirm that it was, in fact, daylight that filled the room.
“It would appear to be, yes.” He leaned heavily on his cane and frowned down at her. “You didn’t have to stay.”
“Yeah, I did. I was worried, and if I’d gone home I would have just come back this morning to check on you. At least this way I got more sleep. And don’t tell me I don’t have to worry about you, Nick. It’s all part and parcel of the Watcher-Slayer package.” She silenced him when he’d been about to speak, guessing with a great deal of accuracy what he’d been about to say. “If you feel the need to apologize you could make me coffee.”
“I’ll make breakfast. You need more than caffeine to start the day.” It was, at least, something to do.
“Breakfast for two. You need more than tea.” She followed him to the kitchen, working out tangles in her hair with her fingers. She had a tendency to counter his concerns for her lack of breakfast eating with concerns of his own habit of just tea. He’d tried to explain with logic that she trained and fought while he read books and sat behind the counter of his shop, but she only scoffed. They both ended up eating breakfast most days.
“Omelette?” It was a Saturday, and even if her sleeping on the couch and his hangover set it apart from other Saturdays, sharing a meal in his kitchen was normal enough. Often it was the quietest time of the week, an hour when they didn’t have training or strategizing or worry about the world coming to an end. Saturday morning breakfast was for talking about whatever book Belle was reading, or whatever quaint little festival the town had planned, or the history of some interesting artifact that Nick had gotten for the shop.
“Why don’t you get the coffee and tea and I’ll do the cooking? You look like crap, Nick. You didn’t drink that whole bottle, did you?” She took eggs and peppers from the fridge, and sausage from the freezer. He winced when the door slammed shut, but didn’t say anything about being quieter.
“It’s not empty.” There was still a drink of two left in it. If it weren’t for the stairs he’d have to climb and the disapproving look he’d earn he might finish it off now; hair of the dog and all that. Instead he settled for starting the kettle and getting out the teapot and french press he kept in the kitchen just for Belle; he never drank coffee.
“Are you ready to tell me about her yet?” Belle waited until they were at the table, omelette split between them and their respective hot drinks steaming in front of them. His head snapped up, the jackhammers making everything pound and ache again. It took him a moment to realize she meant Regina.
“I mean, obviously she’s a vampire, and a bitchy one at that, but there’s history between you two. She said she’d see you again.” Belle’s nose wrinkled, like it did when she said something she didn’t like. Her blue eyes were looking at him in concern. It was hard to remember, sometimes, that she was still only seventeen, not even out of high school. “Is she old?”
“Not terribly old, no. She was born in 1939, and died in 1967.” Forty-five years wasn’t terribly long lived, as a vampire. “She was closer to two decades, though, when I first learned of her.”
“In London, when you were a Watcher?” she asked, eating slowly as she listened to him. It reminded him to take a bite of his food as well.
“Technically a Watcher-in-training, still. I’d finished at uni and was studying at the Academy, but most of my time was spent with Thaddeus, the current Watcher, and his Slayer. Her name was Victoria.” And only after all these years could he say the name without weighing it down with guilt and sorrow.
“That’s what she meant, by another Slayer.” Belle ducked her head down, but not before Gold had seen the look in her eyes. There was confusion and jealousy and sadness and something indescribable. Knowing how he’d feel if the Council assigned her a new Watcher, he understood. It only made his story more difficult to tell.
“We were trying to take her down, Victoria, Thaddeus and I. She had barely been around twenty years, but was making a name for herself in certain circles. She liked power and control, and she was ruthless. She killed, not just to feed but for the fun of it, and encouraged her minions to do the same.” He remembered those bodies, so many bodies left in her wake. Even the local cops had caught on; there’d been whispers of a serial killer. “Once she knew we were after her she stared leaving the corpses in poses, creating scenes. The first time it was a tea party, with four women left at a table, cups filled with coagulating blood.”
“Oh God.” For all that she’d seen, Belle blanched and dropped her fork.
“I’m sorry, this isn’t really breakfast conversation.” It wasn’t really an anytime conversation, except that she deserved to know, and needed to understand Regina’s capabilities.
“I hate them, Nick. The things they do, the lives they ruin; it’s all terrible but when they enjoy it? I just don’t understand that.”
“And you never will, dearie, because you’re a good person.” Too good, for this weight that had been thrust on her shoulders, but there was nothing either of them could do about it. The Slayer was the Slayer; the only other option was to be dead.
“So are you, Watcher mine.” She reached across the table to touch his arm; his Slayer was such a tactile person. It had taken some getting used to, the touched and hugs and arm looped through his when they walked, but now it was a comfort just to feel her warm fingers.
“I certainly don’t see the pleasure in the kill.” He was less sure of his innate goodness than she was, but he didn’t think he was a bad person either. He fought on the side of angels, even if he wasn’t one.
“How close to catching Regina did you get, the three of you?” Belle’s hand remained where it was, any interest in her breakfast gone except for the occasional sip of her coffee.
“Too close.” His gut twisted and his hand moved unconsciously to his knee. This was the part of the story he’d been dreading since last night, the part he’d tried to anesthetize himself against with half a bottle of Johnnie Walker. “We found a nest of her minions, and Victoria destroyed them all.”
“Regina didn’t like that,” Belle guessed astutely.
“Regina didn’t care about them as individuals, only that they were hers, and since we’d taken something of hers she’d return the favor. We went to see Thaddeus, the next night. Found him in his favorite chair, a book open on his lap and his throat ripped out. She’d drawn a cross in his own blood on his forehead.” His fierce and strong Victoria had crumpled on the carpet at her Watcher’s feet. It was the only time he’d ever seen her cry.
When he looked up he found that Belle was crying as well.
“I would have hunted her down. Nothing would have mattered except finding her and staking her.” Even through the tears there was a forcefulness to her voice that was rare. It scared him a little, to hear it. Losing her was his worst nightmare, and that didn’t become any less true if he was already dead.
It was a haunting echo of another time and place. His eyes closed briefly, not in an effort to remember the past any more clearly, but to block out visions of a future he didn’t want to see. “Victoria felt the same way.”
“What happened?” She spoke softly as she slipped from her seat, moving to kneel at his side, a hand reaching out to hold his.
“She went out every night for a week, talking to informants, following leads, searching. Hunting if the best word for it. She and I... we lived together.” He wasn’t sure if Belle had worked out that part of the story, and couldn’t bear to look at her reaction. She knew he had secrets, but this part of his life was the biggest.
“It was a Tuesday night, a week after Thaddeus’s killing, when I heard noises out in the hall. I opened the door and Victoria was there, pacing, looking even worse than she had when she’d left. I thought it was the lack of sleeping and food catching up with her. I told her to come in to bed, that we’d figure out a new plan in the morning.” He drew in a breath before looking down at his Slayer, his body almost bending under the weight of the guilt he carried. “I told her to come in.”
“No.” Belle’s voice trembled in horror. Her hand holding him was almost tight enough to break bones. She understood now why he never invited anyone into his house with words, not even her. “God no, Nick.”
He barely heard her, in steeling himself for the hardest part, the wound that had never healed but continued to weep poison. “Everything had been wrong for a week, so I didn’t realize at first that this was a different kind of wrong. Ever since Thaddeus she’d come home at dawn, exhausted. I knew better than to try to talk her into eating something. The only stop, before bed, was to check on Bay. That night was no different.”
“Our son, Bailey. He was two.” Gold bolted out of the chair, not able to stay still any longer. He staggered awkwardly down the hallway to the library; the scotch was upstairs but there were still other choices. He was still staring at the bottles when Belle came in. He poured a glass of rum, and gulped it down.
“I knew in my gut that something was wrong. I followed her into the room less than a minute later, but it was too late. She’d snapped his neck.” The casket had been so tiny, when they’d buried him. He’d seen hundreds of caskets, but that was the first that he’d been able to pick up and hold on his own.
“I’m so sorry, Nick.” She tucked herself against his side, her slight body so warm against his. He felt so cold. He wondered if he’d still be standing, if not for the support of her and his cane.
“It was foolish, to have a child considering everything, but from the moment we learned that Victoria was pregnant we wanted him so much. We were so careful during her pregnancy, and after.” Then two little words had changed everything. ‘Come in,’ his father had said to the demon in his mother’s body, and Bailey had paid the price.
“It wasn’t your fault.” She was always so quick to defend him, even against himself. He’d been responsible for that one precious life, though, and hadn’t been able to keep it safe.
“There’s nothing I could do to change what happened. In the time it took me to react she was gone, and I was alone in the flat.” It had killed him, to call the Council instead of an ambulance, but there would have been too many questions. Medics would have been followed quickly by cops, and he hadn’t had the time for their questions and accusations. He’d needed to move fast, to stop the thing that was no longer his lover; if more people died they would be his fault as well.
“You went after her?” It was hardly a question.
“In the end she found me. She was stronger than a newborn vamp, but I’d brought weapons and didn’t give a damn what happened as long as I took her down first.” He could feel Belle’s muscles tense, and read the dismay on her face. At the moment he didn’t have the words to comfort her.
“She’d lured me into a warehouse, a place with only one exit and she guarded that well. She toyed with me, like cat playing with a rat. I managed to get an arrow through her shoulder. She paid me back with a mace to the knee.” The same knee that he couldn’t stay on much longer. He poured himself a second drink and gently disentangled himself from Belle, limping over to the sofa. He hadn’t even been out of bed more than a couple of hours, but sleep sounded real good. Sleep, drunkenness, oblivion; they were old friends. Another old friend was here in Storybrooke, though, and he couldn’t indulge himself or give in to his pain. He’d be damned if Regina came anywhere near his Slayer.
“She did this to you?” Belle, he wasn’t surprised to find, was at the sofa within moments, holding his abandoned cane in one hand.
“Not her. Not Victoria. But yes, the thing that had taken her body. She shattered my knee and shredded the skin. I was sure I was dead then, and a failure. I thought she’d kill me.” He could see that shift, still, when a vampire’s countenance took over her face, eyes glowing and delight twisting her mouth into an obscene smile. He’d seen her fangs a moment before she leaned down to lap at his blood. He’d felt them, as she’d sunk into his flesh and started to drain him. “It wasn’t until I watched her use one of the spikes of the mace to slice open her arm that I realized her intention.”
Belle, his wonderful, clumsy, horrified Belle was at such a loss for what to say that she’d forgotten about the cane completely and managed to trip over it. He caught her awkwardly. He wasn’t surprised to find himself with a strong pair of arms wrapped around him; Belle was a tactile person, and hugs weren’t uncommon between them though he was never the one to initiate them. The hot tears on his neck were a different matter; she almost never cried, let alone twice in one day. The last time he’d seen her tears had been months ago, when they’d found a little girl of six or seven, killed by a Tskina demon. “Dearie?”
“I could have lost you. Before we’d even met you might have died, and if you’d become... I might have had to stake you, Nick.” When she pulled back her cheeks were wet. She was studying him with an intensity rare even for her, and he was glad of the excuse of looking for his handkerchief to look away. “I don’t know if I could look in your eyes and do that.”
“You could.” It was the nightmare that had haunted him for more than twenty-five years, that he could become the thing he fought. it had happened, to a few Watchers over the years. More often there were accounts of Watchers that went to extreme measures to make sure it didn’t happen, in those last moment.
“If that were to happen it’s what I would want, Belle. I don’t want a demon stealing everything that I am. I want peace.” Rather than hand her the kerchief he dabbed at the tears himself. “It’s what Victoria wanted as well.”
“Did she... was she at peace?” Belle pressed her lips together; he could almost see her willing any more tears to stay at bay.
“She was. I buried her ashes with Bay’s body in a single grave. She would have wanted that.” She had been such a good, fiercely protective and loving mother. He was glad that she’d never known what had happened after the demon had killed her.
“I wish I could have known them.”
“I wish you could have as well.” It was a strange truth of being a Slayer, that for all the shared power, the memories that came as dreams, and the history one never got to meet another. One was called as another died, and one waited in the winges. There’d been eleven Slayers, between between the one he’d lost and the one who held his hand now. He swore, once again, that it would be years before another Slayer was called. He’d do anything to make sure nothing happened to Belle; he’d fight for her, and if need be he’d die for her.
His resolve was only stronger now that Regina was in town.
“We’ll stop her this time.” Belle settled onto the couch next to him, resting her head on his shoulder. She looked exhausted, and he wondered just how late she’d been up the night before, worrying about him. Guarding him.
“That we will,” he agreed. Regina was not getting away from him, not this time. She wasn’t taking anything away, either.
“We.” Belle’s eyes were almost closed but she still had an uncanny ability to read his mind. “Together.”
“Together, dearie.” He shifted a little, just enough to get the blanket from the back of the sofa to lay over her, and sighed. For twenty-five years he’d done his best to keep people at an arm’s length, but she’d managed to blunder and smile and charm her way past all of his defenses, to make him care about her in a way he hadn’t cared about anyone since Victoria and Bailey. This was a fight he’d keep her away from if he could, but she was the Slayer and it was already her fight. All he could do was make sure they were both as prepared as they could be for what was to come, and to pray to a god he’d long since stopped believing in that they would both live to see many more sunrises.