Beta-Reader: amilyn and havocthecat
Prompt: Natalie, Nick, Janette. The tag to Cherry Blossoms.
Length: 1,994 words
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Natalie. Nick has spoken of you. Often. We'll have to get together and... talk."
Nat's uncomfortable fidgeting -- what had he been thinking, calling her back, why hadn't he just let her leave and explained later? -- lasted only a few seconds. Then she pulled her hand firmly away from her hair, dropping it to her side as casually as could be managed.
"Has he?" she asked, pasting on a polite smile with just a whiff of challenge as the other woman crossed the room. "Well, I guess I should feel special. I'm afraid I can't say the same."
"I'm not surprised," Janette replied smoothly. She had paused a few feet short of Natalie, a precisely appropriate conversational distance for someone she'd just met, and now took one more tiny step, with the slightest conspiratorial lean. "You know how it can be with... old friends."
Natalie's smile didn't change. "I have some idea, yeah."
"I'm sure you have." Janette seemed to be having a delightful time. Sometimes that made Nick more than happy to go along with her; this was not one of those times.
"Oh, I'm sorry." Natalie stepped aside from the door. "I'm right in your way, aren't I?"
"Not at all." Janette turned slightly, just enough to make it clear that the door itself had never been her destination. "Now that I've finally made it over to visit, I couldn't possibly rush off so soon."
Or safely, even with a carefully outfitted car on call. There was no way Natalie hadn't guessed that already, but Nick stopped short of confirming it aloud. That was Janette's prerogative.
"So, Nat, what brings you by?" he asked instead, straining for a casual tone and falling decidedly short.
"I was hoping I'd hear how your drive went." There was the tiniest pause before drive, and a slight emphasis on the word itself.
Nick shifted his weight back and forth. Caught between the urge to flee and the feeling that he should go over to them, he ended up rooted to his spot by the couch. "Oh. I, uh, didn't..."
Didn't what? Didn't drive anywhere? Didn't flee the city? Didn't get staked by an old man whose hostility turned out to be not so inexplicable after all? He tracked back through the firecracker string of early-morning events. What was the last information she had? She'd left the scene right after... Oh.
Natalie waited a long moment for him to finish the sentence, and when he didn't, strode over and punched the playback button on his answering machine. As it played, Janette drifted back over to stand behind the couch, fingering the glass she had left on the end table.
"Hey, it's Nat. Thought I'd catch you back home by now, but I guess not. How'd it go? I'll try back later."
"Hey, it's me again. Are you screening? Nick?" There was a pause, then a sigh. "Guess not. Cutting it a little close again, aren't you?"
"Nick? Are you there? If you're there, pick up. I'm getting a little nervous here."
He would have sworn he heard Janette chuckle aloud at that, but when he glanced in her direction, she was perfectly composed, only a barely-perceptible smirk betraying her amusement.
"Okay, I'm going to feel a little silly if you just crashed and forgot to check your messages, but under the circumstances... Yeah. I'll be there in about twenty minutes."
The machine clicked itself off, and Nat continued to watch him from under raised eyebrows, her arms crossed.
"I think someone is waiting for an apology, Nicolas." Janette's comment was barely voiced -- he doubted it was even audible to the mortal ears a few yards away -- but he heard the teasing in it nonetheless.
"Of course," Nat said at last, her tone relenting slightly even if her expression didn't, "it didn't occur to me that you might have company."
"He was in... a bit of a bind," Janette explained. "I was happy to help. Really."
"Help?" Nat repeated. "Nick? What happened?"
"Nat, it's okay. I'm fine."
"I can see that. That's not what I asked."
This time Janette's little laugh was audible -- even Nat glanced over at her -- and Nick sighed, taking a few steps forward. "Dr. Chung didn't just see what I was. He already knew. He recognized me."
"From where? When?"
"He must have been five or six. His mother tried to help me."
"And it didn't work out well," Nick admitted.
"It never does." Janette punctuated the remark by picking up the glass and taking a sip, to all appearances relishing the cow blood that had so revolted her a few minutes before. Well, that took care of the confirmation. "But I'm sure you've told her all those tragic tales, non?"
A dozen questions flashed across Nat's face, but she wasn't to be diverted. "So. The ride was an excuse to get you alone. What did he say?"
Say. It hadn't occurred to her that Chung might have chosen action over words, and why should it? It had certainly been the last thing Nick expected.
"Things didn't happen exactly the way he remembered them. It took some explaining, but he's satisfied that I'm not to blame. Not for that."
Natalie's questioning gaze went from Nick to Janette and back. "Translation: It's a long story, Nat, can we talk about it later?" She uncrossed her arms and dropped them to her sides again, quirking a patient smile. "Okay. Well, I'm glad it worked out. I guess it's lucky you had someone who could back you up, huh?"
"Luck had nothing to do with it." Janette drained the last swallow of blood in the glass.
When she didn't elaborate, Nat shook her head, muttering, "Two cagey vampires. Lucky me."
"Nat -- "
"Never mind. Look, obviously you two have some catching up to do, and it has been an obscenely long week, so..." She paused, looking thoughtfully back at Janette, and shifted direction in midsentence. "I think I'll just grab a cup of tea and then head home."
When exactly had he lost any handle whatsoever on what was going on in his own house?
"Nicolas, what has happened to your manners?" Janette chided. "Surely you don't expect your guests to serve themselves?"
Natalie waved off this purported concern, scooping up the bottle and empty glass on her way to the kitchen. Nick turned to watch her deposit them in the fridge and sink respectively. "Guest, schmest. Life's too short to stand on ceremony. For some of us, anyway."
If it was too bright, too brittle, there was no way for Janette to know. Even Nat's heartbeat was less accelerated than in the startled rush of her arrival, the nervous twist less prominent in her scent. When she went unerringly to the right cabinets, though, there was no mistaking the implication that she knew her way around Nick's kitchen better than he did.
After less than two years, she was more of a constant in his life than Janette had been in decades. He'd never really considered how she might react to meeting another of his kind -- when the possibility had crossed his mind, it had been in terms of how to avoid it -- but if he had, he wouldn't have predicted the performance he was witnessing now.
That they were witnessing now. Janette might not know this particular woman, but she knew people. He wouldn't put it past her to have guessed everything going through Natalie's mind, or at least to be well on her way there. Certainly she hadn't lost any of the air that she was enjoying a particularly entertaining game.
Which was all right with Nick, as long as it was at nobody's expense but his.
"I am so glad this is still here." Nat said, filling the kettle. "You know how I was dumping my budget woes on you and Schanke? I completely forgot to mention the new coffee service. It's atrocious. I'm not sure I ever want to even smell coffee again."
With her attention on mug and spoon and teabag and sugar, Nick couldn't tell whether she noticed that Janette had made her silent way to lean on the counter, watching the process curiously. He thought he had been sufficiently noisy about following her, but evidently Nat hadn't noticed either of them, because she spun around wide-eyed when Janette spoke.
"On that, we are in complete agreement." Janette raised her hands in mock dismay. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
"Of course you did."
"But you don't mind?"
"I didn't say that." She shot Nick an indecipherable look. "Still, it's not like I'm not used to it."
"I don't usually mean to." It was less than convincing, even to his own ears, but it earned him an indulgent chuckle anyway.
Janette nodded, apparently to herself, as if some internal question had been answered. "You're not entirely without fear. You're not that foolish."
Nat blinked at the left-field declaration. "Well, that's a matter of opinion. But thanks. I think."
"Still, not quite all the risk is mine." She picked up the wineglass from the sink, tilting it in Janette's direction before turning on the tap to rinse it out. "You didn't have to be that old a friend."
Nick had been wondering about that himself, but Janette merely smiled. "No, I suppose I didn't."
"Some people earn our trust." She met Nick's eyes, then turned back to Janette. "Some we have to take on faith."
"Faith," Janette repeated, curling it up in a smile as if it were a delicious joke. "I was certain Nick mentioned you were a scientist."
"You say that like you think it's a contradiction."
"We all believe in something."
The kettle whistled over the last word, and Natalie turned to attend to it.
"Janette, what are you doing?" Nick asked under his breath.
"Getting to know your friend, of course." Her smile was brilliant and terrifying. "What's wrong with that?"
He was tired and hungry and decidedly uncomfortable with the whole vaguely surreal conversation, but he couldn't come up with any other answer. "Nothing."
With the mug steaming beside her on the counter, Natalie turned around and leaned back against the sink. She studied Janette for a long moment, then, instead of picking up the serious threads of faith and fear, simply said, "Nice dress."
By the sparkle in Janette's eyes, that was terribly amusing too, though he had given up trying to fathom why. "Thank you."
"Sure." Nat picked up the mug and blew on the surface. "You know, I should really get going. Nick, I promise to wash this and bring it back, okay?"
"Of course. Yeah." Not that he wasn't just as glad she had changed her mind about staying -- just because he was as confident as he could be that Janette wouldn't harm her didn't mean he liked this -- but he was still missing something. Whatever had just passed between them, it was the puzzle piece Nat had sought, and now she was satisfied. For the moment, at least.
"Janette, good to meet you. Really. It was...interesting." She raised the mug in a sort of salute. Nick walked her to the door, and she clasped his hand for a second. "We'll talk later."
Later. Yeah. That would be interesting. "Okay."
Glancing over his shoulder, she added, "Have a nice day."
He had just a glimpse of a what-just-happened? headshake -- or maybe he was the only one wondering that -- then the door slid shut and the elevator started down.
When he turned back, Janette stood close by, watching him with that same oh-so-amused smile. "You didn't do her justice, Nicolas. I had no idea she was so... cute." Taking his hand, she drew him back toward the couch. "Now. Where were we?"