"I don't know why! I just know that I have to move on." Natalie tapped her fingernails in a drumroll on the credenza behind Nick's couch. Nick watched her become aware of the restless gesture and cross her arms to silence it. She straightened her spine. "How many times did you almost leave, when you were the vampire and I was one-hundred-percent human? Maybe I get it now. Maybe it's instinct."
Nick sat backward on his piano bench, his elbows on his knees, watching his world fall apart yet again. He had been home from work just long enough to hang up his coat, unbuckle his holster and pour himself a glass of one of Natalie's less-noxious protein shakes, when she had stepped out of the elevator and tried to return his keys. "You're not a vampire, Nat."
"Oh, believe me, I know." Natalie tossed back her brown curls and began to pace, the beat of her high heels on his concrete floor replacing the rhythm of her nails. She wore the maroon suit that Nick knew she usually saved for budget meetings, even though that responsibility had been reassigned during her recent medical leave. She said, "Thanks to you, I'm not anything anymore, am I? My pulse is all screwed up. I can tolerate daylight only a little better than you can. Garlic will put me into anaphylactic shock! And in return, what, you still don't dare get close to me?"
Nick opened his mouth, but Natalie waved him quiet before he discovered whether the apology or the protest was closest to the tip of his tongue this time.
"I don't need to hear another Act of Contrition," she grimaced. "And I admit that it's partly my fault, too. It's not that I'm not grateful to be alive. But Nick, can you honestly say that you and I have progressed in any way — professionally or personally — since the night I decided I wanted my best friend to bite me?"
"Hey." Nick sought her eyes as he walked to her, just beyond his couch. She met his gaze as boldly as... as before. "That's not fair, Nat." He took both her hands in his, raised them to his lips, and smelled the sweet, high scent that was all Natalie, and the tainted underlayer that would never be Natalie alone again. Nick always had been better at meaning things than at saying them, he knew; the words that had seemed so dangerous before, steeped in Lacroix's retribution, were now revealed as only too late. His senses full of Natalie, Nick thrust his whole rusted soul into those words, anyway. "I love you."
Natalie stared. Her lips parted. Then she laughed — a round, plush, shining sound that Nick had heard too rarely in recent years. "That is some progress," she admitted. She stretched up on her toes to kiss him, a supple, honeyed reward for his overdue declaration. Nick matched her, coaxing, inviting, trying to make this action speak louder than any words. But he could not convince either of them that she was not still saying goodbye. "I know you love me," she breathed at his ear, finally, holding on a little longer. "It's not that I don't love you, too. And it's not that I'm giving up on your quest for humanity. You know that, right?"
"We can move on together, Nat." Nick's sense of responsibility to her, being the one who almost brought her across, conspired with his dual cravings to keep her — the man's and the vampire's. He struggled to see the right. "You don't have to do this alone."
Natalie cupped his face with one hand as she trailed more gentle, farewell kisses down his other cheek. When she settled back on her heels, her eyes were damp. "We're still on opposite sides of the wall, Nick. Human," she pointed at herself. "Vampire," she tapped his chest. "Still want you, still can't have you, just not willing to go certifiable over it again. Whatever I am now — part-vampire, vampire virus vector... what did you call O'Neal?"
"Right. Hunter. Well, whatever I am now, that's where I have to reengage with the puzzle." She reached into her pocket and drew out Nick's keys again.
The plastic keychain fob showed a sun wearing sunglasses; he remembered picking it out, when he still called her 'Doctor Lambert' and had just begun to hope anew. Had it been only five years ago? Six? It felt like a hundred, eight hundred, a lifetime. After a moment, Nick accepted the keys. "So you're heading to Ireland, you said?"
"To start. As far as I know, O'Neal is the only other person to survive being bitten and drained by a vampire."
"There've been others. A few, anyway." Nick sat on the arm of the couch and tucked a curl behind Natalie's ear, saving up an image that might never come again. He could admit, now, that he had been expecting this almost from the moment she woke up in the hospital, her blood in his veins, a human donor's in hers. He could not help thinking of this separation as his penance. "There's a... tradition, of sorts. As long as you don't betray our secret or actually start hunting us like O'Neal, then other vampires, even the Enforcers, should leave you alone. You, um," Nick coughed lightly, searching for a way to confess yet another symptom of this state he had never meant to inflict on her. The word 'thrall' from popular culture was not quite right — poor ensnared Amalia flashed across his memory — and would likely earn him a punch in the nose from Natalie, anyway. Nick managed a smile. "You smell like family now. My family."
Natalie grinned. "Forget them for a moment. Just me and you? There's no family I'd rather be."
— End —