The Raven's blaring music pounded in her ears, and the sherry burned a firepath down her throat. Natalie brooded alone in a darkened corner booth, not even certain why she'd come here tonight. Maybe some small part of her had been hoping that Nick would show up. She knew he had the night off, and she'd taken it off, pleading a migraine. She'd had one, too. After last night...
_"I know how she felt, Nat. All of it. Not just the loneliness, but the urges to fill the void. The perverse logic of it."_
_"Those are needs you don't have anymore. That's all in the past. Isn't it?"_
She couldn't believe she'd actually spoken those words; had iced his attempted confession with such cold indifference. She remembered the look on his face before she'd walked away, and wished for the nth time that she could take the words back, find something _understanding_ to say instead.
_And women say that men deny *their* feelings. God, Nat, you are such an idiot!_
No reason to be surprised, then, was there, that he hadn't gone home last night; hadn't spent the day at his loft at all. Nor did she need to ask where he _had_ spent it, or with whom.
_Did you really come here tonight hoping he'd walk in the front door? For all you know, he's somewhere upstairs right now, still sleeping it off._
_And who can we blame for that, Dr. Natalie Lambert? You spend six years working toward something -- at least you thought you were -- and then with one brain-dead, smart-ass crack you drive him away -- and straight into her waiting arms. Idiot._
She pushed the unfinished sherry away, leaned back in the shadowed booth to look out at the crowded dance floor. Colored strobe lights flashed to the throbbing beat of the music, momentarily freezing the dancers in a sequence of bizarre poses. Nat wondered how many were mortal, how many not. That tall young man with the shaved head and bangle earrings? The blonde woman blatantly French-kissing her leather-clad dance partner? Or maybe those two costume-jewelry-laden females at the bar, whose romantic interests, judging by their caresses, were clearly focused on each other...
Nat jumped when a shadow fell suddenly across her table. She looked up into clear blue eyes that were set in a face from a Da Vinci portrait, embodying all the Old World's ideals of perfection, of beauty. A face that would never change, never age, never see a wrinkle or a gray hair.
_How the hell do you compete with that?_ Scowling, she drained the sherry. _Want the easy answer, Dr. Lambert? You don't._
Aloud, she said, "Hello, Janette."
The Raven's owner slipped into the booth opposite her and placed a stemmed glass of something too red to be wine on the table. "Natalie," she responded, giving the name a distinctly French inflection. Waiting then, as though Natalie should intuit that the next move in this verbal dance would be hers, Janette lifted the glass and sipped at it, every movement of hand, lips, eyes, a testament to long-practiced sensuality. To seduction.
After so many centuries, Natalie supposed they did it without conscious thought anymore. A vampiric survival instinct. Seduce the enemy, the lover, the prey, and then just move on to the next one -- no regrets, no looking back. This beautiful, so-very-sensual creature seated across from her represented everything that she -- and Nick (or so she'd hoped) -- had been working so hard and so long to deny. Until last night, anyway.
Nat cursed herself the moment she blurted the question. Stupid thing to ask, really. And she hardly had any right to come off sounding like the wronged wife confronting the 'other woman,' now did she?
Something in Janette's eyes hinted at amusement tinged with pity, and there was a touch of something else Nat couldn't quite identify. "I think you know," the vampire said, and put her glass down again. "You are a doctor, after all. You know well enough that mortals are not designed for..." She seemed to grope for a word. "...for denial. Nor are we." Painted nails traced the rim of the wine glass. "For us, denial can produce... unpleasant... consequences."
"Oh?" Nat couldn't keep the anger from her voice. "But _you,_ of course, can deal with that."
She'd expected anger in return, but Janette's gaze held only sadness. "For more years than your lifetime, Doctor, Nicolas has denied himself more than the blood. I should not speak of things he will not even admit to himself, but..." Her slender fingers closed around the glass stem. "You should know that whatever else Nicolas may be, he is still a man, with a man's needs. And no matter how much he may wish to control, to suppress the vampire, he cannot meet those needs with a mortal woman."
Surprised to feel embarrassment coloring her cheeks, Natalie looked away. "Not without killing her or bringing her across," she said. "I know." A female vampire, on the other hand, was another matter. She wanted to loathe Janette for that, and yet somehow found that she could not. "I know," she repeated, leaning back in the booth. "But if that's supposed to make me feel better, it's not working."
Janette smiled tightly. "No. I suppose not."
Natalie met the pale eyes square-on, and because she had to know, asked a question she'd never dare ask of Nick. "You're still in love with him, aren't you? And he with you?"
Janette's gaze lowered, and her hand froze in mid-circle on the glass rim. When she looked up again, her eyes glistened in the shifting light. "We are both of us the fool, Natalie," she said. "You are in love with what he cannot be; I with what he _will_ not be. And so in the end, neither of us shall have him. No woman ever will."
Nat tried to smile. "Yeah, well, you'll forgive me if I have to dispute the 'cannot be' part. Though I guess the question now is whether he still _wants_ to be..."
"Mortal?" Janette queried softly. "Do you really believe you can change him... turn him back into... one of you?" The contempt she obviously felt for such a prospect permeated her words.
"Maybe," Nat answered, a little resentful of the tone. "If he _wants_ to change. But then, I guess I should be asking _him_ that, shouldn't I?"
She started to edge across the bench to leave, but Janette's hand closed suddenly over hers and drew quickly away again. "Natalie..."
Nat paused, waited. Whatever Janette wanted to say was not coming easily. She finished her drink, stared sullenly into the empty glass. "There have been many women, mortal and not, in Nicolas' life. And in his fashion, he has 'loved' them all. But in all those years, I have never known a time when any woman so dominated his thoughts, his desires, his _blood_..." A bitter laugh nearly choked her next words. "Oh, yes, Nicolas is 'in love.' But not with me. With you."
Natalie could only stare at her, dumbfounded. "But he never said..."
"No. And he will not. He will never allow himself to say it, or to admit it, even to himself. _That_ is Nicolas' curse. And now it is yours, as well."
She fell silent, her gaze fixed on some memory far away and long ago. Natalie stood, squinting into the glare of the dance lights, and paused as she walked past Janette to place a hand on the other woman's shoulder.
"Thank you," she said, and then hurried on her way.
She took the stairs up to Nick's loft rather than the elevator, and from the moment she'd entered the stairwell, the minor strains of Beethoven's _Pathetique_ had echoed down to greet her. She'd assumed it was the stereo at first, but when she reached the door and paused there, her hand poised on the latch, she realized that the impassioned chords were not coming from a recording, but from Nick's grand piano.
The music was so hauntingly beautiful that she closed her eyes and simply listened from there in the stairwell, resting her head against the door until the last, flawlessly performed passage had ended and the final note had faded away. Then, quietly, she opened the door.
Eyes shut, Nick sat with his hands still positioned on the keyboard, burning candles to either side casting sallow firelight on the planes of his face. When he looked up, his eyes glowed yellow-gold.
Startled, she hesitated at the door, debating whether she ought to turn around, go back right now and just forget about this. _Better forget about *all* of it, Nat -- the research, the cure, those romantic pipedreams you've wallowed in for six years..._
But not for the last time, reason failed her and she didn't go. Instead, she waited while he turned away, fled to the window, and after several long moments, finally looked at her with eyes that were blue again.
"I..." Nat took a deep breath, started over again. "I thought we should talk," she said, proud of the fact that she'd kept her voice level despite feeling like a fool for starting off so awkwardly -- and for being here at all.
She saw the pretense drop like a mask across his face; another long-practiced survival instinct. "About what?" he asked.
Biting back a heated response to that (_You can drop the coy act, Nick!_), she walked slowly toward him. "About us," she answered. "About whether you really want what you say you do."
Instantly, the mask dissolved, replaced by the guilt he more often wore. "You think I don't?"
"You tell me."
His gaze darted from her to the kitchen -- to the door of the refrigerator. But when he started to turn that way, she put out a hand, exerted the gentlest of touches to his arm. "Just once," she said, "don't you think we could do this without a bottle in between?"
Now the look was guilty _and_ hurt. He twisted back toward the window, the back of one hand to his mouth. "You came to say you've had enough, is that it?"
_Don't you dare accuse *me* of giving up, Nicholas Knight!_
"No... No, I came because I thought it was time for a little honesty about where we stand. And because I... I owe you an apology for last night." When he started to object, she hurried on. "You were trying to be honest, and all I could do was snap at you for it. I'm sorry."
He wouldn't look at her. Both of his hands were pressed flat to the window now, the fingers tightening with a strength that could all too easily have shattered the glass. She was sure he'd rather have been anywhere but here, discussing anything else but this. For all that he was different, Nick was in _so_ many ways like every man she'd ever known. Give them eight centuries or eighty, never mind a mere mortal lifetime, and they'd still never learn to pronounce that dreaded little word with the L at the beginning.
"You don't owe me anything," he told the window.
"Maybe not." She addressed his reflection in the glass. "But I'm going to say this anyway." _Because I have to._ "I know you warned me, right from the beginning, and I'm six kinds of an idiot for not running the other way. But I'm only human. I can't help how I feel."
"Nat, please... Don't..."
But she wasn't going to be dissuaded. Not this time. Maybe, she decided, she was just one of those women who insisted on going after the unattainable. The safest lover was the one you could never have -- wasn't that what all the pop-psych books said? Well, what the hell did they know, anyway?
"I'm in love with you, Nick."
_There, damn it. If he can't say it, at least I can._
"I tried not to be." She gave up all effort to stop the tears; she couldn't hold them back anymore. "I told myself it was pointless, stupid, never going anywhere, that if I wanted to be 'happy,' I needed to forget about you, find some normal, mundane mortal to fall in love with..."
She didn't know when he'd moved, finally abandoning the sanctuary of the window. She only knew that suddenly his arms were around her, cradling her against him, his hands gently stroking her hair while her tears kept coming.
"I'm sorry," he murmured, though she wasn't sure which transgression he was apologizing for. For making her love him? For going to Janette when he'd lost control? "I never meant to hurt you."
_But you have. And you will again, won't you, no matter what we do?_
"I know I've got to be the world's worst masochist, encouraging this," she admitted. "But I love you, and I won't pretend I don't. I won't live a lie anymore."
"But we _have_ to, Nat." She wondered for a moment why his voice sounded strange, until she realized that he was fighting back his own tears. "We _have_ to lie. It's the only way to keep you safe."
_Safe from what?_ she thought inanely, and then out of nowhere came the memory of something she couldn't quite place: Nick's voice, deep and threatening, saying, "I do not love this woman." And another voice, hushed and far more sinister, growling, "Then prove it. Bring her over!"
"Lacroix..." She felt him tense at the name, but she raised her head to look at him, remembering something else. "Lacroix swore that he'd kill any mortal you loved..."
His hands cupped her face, one thumb caressing a tear from her cheek. "It isn't just Lacroix. I'm as much a danger to you as he is. More."
"No," she started to say, but before the denial could escape her lips, he had covered them with his own, a kiss that spoke of both desire and desperation, and of a yearning for other things that could never be. He hadn't kissed her like that since... since Valentine's Day, when he'd said such beautiful things... and then Lacroix had ruined it all, forced Nick to deny their love, and they had both made her forget...
More than anything, she wanted the kiss to go on forever: in that moment, she knew without any question why other mortal women throughout all those centuries had willingly died in his arms. But he broke it off before their passion could build any higher, held her to him instead in an embrace as full of longing as the kiss had been.
"I'm sorry," he repeated, the words choked with unshed tears. "I can't..." He kissed her forehead, her hair, her ear, finally rested his cheek against her head and with all the accumulated anguish of his eight-hundred years, whispered, "I _can't_ love you, Nat. I can't... but God help me, I do."
The last of it had been so faint that she almost doubted her ears. But she hadn't imagined those words. Reveling in them, Natalie gave herself completely over to his embrace, exulting in the closeness as well as in the knowledge that Janette had been wrong about one thing.
He _could_ bring himself to say it.
Now, as to no woman ever having him...
Natalie lifted her head, let her hands stray upward to Nick's face and into the tight curls of his hair. She kissed _him_ this time; a kiss that, without need of words, said, _I trust you. I love you. And oh by the way, Nick Knight, I *do* remember all those beautiful things you said._
They'd find some way to deal with the threats, the secrecy, the impossibility of any deeper intimacy. For now, loving and being loved would be enough. And when they _did_ find the way back across, a woman -- this particular, mortal woman -- _would_ have him.
She was counting on it.