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A Cup of Tears

My soul is a cup of tears
That flows with every aching thought.
And all around is loneliness,
And all around is pain,
And all around is silence …
-- c. 1982 C. Loffreda

Chapter Two

He nodded, forcing himself away from the crumbling bricks at his back. "You gonna make it, Nick?" Natalie questioned, reaching out to help him.

I’ll make it because I must, Nat." He gritted his teeth together, bearing the agony walking awakened in him. Natalie supported him without making it too obvious that he was having trouble remaining upright on his own.

"Just take it easy, Nick. You had a nasty bump on the head," Natalie announced in a voice meant to carry. "You’d better ride in with me."

"Good idea, Doctor," the Captain agreed. "He looks none too steady. I’ll have one of the uniforms drive Knight’s car over to the morgue." Joe Reese turned his attention on the pallid detective with a judicial eye. "Let Doctor Lambert look you over, and then you book off. Got it?" His tone brooked no refusal. Nick conceded with good grace, a smile of thanks on his lips.

The medic had finished with Tracy; afterwards she had given a succinct account of the action in the alley to her captain. Amazingly, her story corroborated Nick’s version. Dealing with a vampire on a daily basis had made Tracy very creative and able to improvise on the fly. Seeing Nick and Nat heading to the coroner’s car, Tracy started towards them in a determined manner. She was intent upon following her partner, watching over him until he was well.

Nick caught her approach out of the corner of his eye. He leaned down to speak urgent words meant for Natalie’s ears alone. "Nat, she can’t see this."

"Making decisions for her again, Nick?" Nat asked somewhat acerbically. "She’s a big girl now, too."

"Don’t I know," he returned in the same tone. Natalie wondered what else had gone on in this alley tonight. "I shouldn’t be going with you, either."

"Oh, don’t go there, Nick," she warned him, her voice tinged with sarcasm.

"I’m too hungry to spar with you, Natalie," he spit out sharply, though still pitched for her ears alone.

Her eyes widened in shock at the tone, the raw hunger evident in his rough voice. It seemed the vampire floated closer and closer to the surface with each injury or set-back. Each back-slide was steeper; each recovery was slower. She was losing him - losing the battle. Their eyes locked together, cool icy blue warring with warm liquid brown. Natalie blinked first, cleared her throat, breaking the spell. She stepped to the car to open the passenger side door for her friend, who now wore the face of a stranger.

"Nick - Nat, wait up!" Tracy called.

"Hey, miss. You should be heading home to bed, resting that arm," Natalie advised in a light tone.

Tracy shrugged off Natalie’s words. "I’d like to come."

"I’ll be fine, Trace," Nick firmly assured his partner, after lowering the window. "Go home."

Tracy flicked a glance between Nick and Natalie, her gaze lingering on Nat’s face. She’s afraid Tracy thought to herself with a quick burst of insight. "Nat…" Tracy stopped herself from giving the warning, unwilling to compromise the trust she had shown her partner this night. Natalie’s relationship with Nick was complicated, long-standing, almost legendary at the station; they shared a history. If Natalie couldn’t handle her own emotions and Nick’s mercurial moods by now, Tracy’s own feeble counsel would lend little support. She forced herself to stand back and wave. "…have a good night. Thanks for the advice."

"Good night, Trace." Nat gave a brisk nod and drew her brows together in understanding of what had passed between them. She held a hand up, returning Tracy’s wave. Then Natalie climbed behind the wheel, started the engine and drove away.

Nick was silent, face turned towards the window, a hand propping up his chin. The exhaust from passing motorists masked most of Natalie’s sweet scent, yet still a fragile wisp of ripe berries wafted occasionally across his senses. His eyes were drawn to her angelic face. Her rich brown tresses were blown by the wind, a lazy tendril escaping her barrette to lie across a cheek. A soft hand flipped it behind an ear in an impatient gesture. He longed to reach out and run his fingers through the thick halo framing her face. Her heartbeat was loud and steady within the confined space of the sedan; like the sound of distant thunder on a hot summer’s night, it impinged on his awareness. It was all he could do to remain calm; he tore his gaze away. He had attacked one friend tonight; there the madness would end.

Natalie respected his silence, suspecting the cause. In truth, she wanted to reawaken the vampire even less than the blond ancient seated next to her. Traffic was light at that hour of the morning, only the final approach to Grenville bringing them into contact with more motorists. Natalie pulled into her reserved spot, noting to herself that Nick’s Caddie was already in its customary place near the building’s entrance.

"Hey, you alive over there?" she gibed with some little trepidation. Though she subscribed to the Reader’s Digest advice that ‘laughter is the best medicine,’ she never knew how the vampire would react.

"Barely," was the soft reply.

"Ah, well, let’s see what we can do about that." Natalie slid out from behind the wheel and went around to open the passenger side door. He hadn’t moved. "Help me out here, Nick." The detective roused himself and carefully debarked. Strong, warm hands assisted him.

By the time they had completed the walk to the lab, Nick was gasping for breath. Each lungful was a moment of torment. Natalie patted the metal slab and he gingerly hefted up his much-abused body. He sat slumped over, a hand pressed to the wound and tried to ease the pain. His heart was running away and Nick concentrated on slowing the rate down to its normal steady four beats per minute. Natalie moved to the fridge and grabbed a bag of outdated blood she stored against just such an emergency situation. It was human, of course, but she knew from past experience that he needed whatever metaphysical benefit was provided by the rich, natural protein. In any treatment, she reminded herself, the patient’s needs were paramount. Human blood was just the prescription for this ailment.

She crossed back to Nick and offered him the plastic pouch. He took it from her hand after the briefest hesitation, but once raised to his lips the blood was gone in short order. Natalie remembered, from the night they first met, the expression of satisfaction, of satiation, the complete fulfillment of a suckling infant, safe in loving arms. Human blood was mother’s milk.

"Ready?" she queried, her voice jarringly loud in the silence of the lab.

Blue eyes highlighted by yellow flecks lifted to regard her steadily. He nodded, once. Understanding dawned, darkening his expression. The sarcastic humor, the flip comments, even the offered blood, served to mask her fears. Natalie swallowed her anxiety, the doctor’s instincts taking over, buffering the sense of dread. The zipper was pulled down the length of the wind-breaker, shirt buttons were opened and the silky fabric spread aside. A ragged hole gaped in the center of the otherwise smooth porcelain chest. The wound was ringed by powder burns; congealed blood sealed some maroon fibers to the torn edges of flesh. Natalie’s eyes widened, a small ‘oh’ of surprise escaping her lips at the ravaged sight. Her hands gently probed the wound, stiffening at his anguished gasp. She would have pulled away but for his frigid grasp.

Her heart rate increased until it fairly thrummed, echoing off the glazed tiles, bouncing off the polished metal. The vampire’s eyes flared golden but he held on to the humanity that she insisted resided within him. Her scent wrapped him in a cocoon of desire; her warmth, like the memory of an old friend, invited him to embrace; her heartbeat, a siren’s song of life, played a seductive melody of promised health. She tugged at her hands once, half-heartedly, then was still, lost in the golden haze of his eyes.

"Don’t be afraid, Nat," Nick told her in a husky voice. He swallowed, tasting the human blood still lingering at the back of his throat. "Do what must be done." He released her wrists abruptly and dropped his eyes, freeing her gaze as well. "I won’t hurt you," he promised in earnest. "You’ve fed the beast and he is reined in; now heal the man."

Though spoken softly, those words carried great impact. The doctor was jarred into action. Practiced hands set aside the necessary implements. She cleansed the wound with a sterile swab (though infection would not take hold of his vampire flesh, old habits died hard), then removed as many of the shirt fibers as she could with a long, slender pair of tweezers. Picking up a pair of forceps from the instrument tray, Natalie probed the wound once again. Metal contacted metal as the tip of the forceps grazed the bullet casing. Natalie twisted the surgical steel pliers, pinching the bullet in the process, and extracted the piece of metal in a practiced grip. She flourished it before his eyes, hers lit with triumph. A long sigh of relief was pulled from her patient.

"Natalie, my undying gratitude," he gasped out, the humor coming through the persistent pain. "But now, I must take my leave of you." He glanced meaningfully over at the refrigerator. The coroner nodded grudgingly, but dressed the wound before moving out of his way. Nick stepped down from the examining table and went to fetch himself more ‘elixir of life.’ The contents of another pouch was consumed before he turned back to face her. Disappointment etched lines into Natalie’s fair countenance. "No lectures, Nat," he requested tiredly, as he stuffed more of the packages into his pockets.

"No lectures, Nick," she agreed.

"Good night, Nat."

Their eyes locked and held. He would have said something more, but Natalie made a negligent gesture, hand pointed up and flicked back over her shoulder in dismissal.

"See ya," she nonchalantly tossed his way.

Nick turned to go, at last, though reluctance was written in every muscle.

Natalie watched him leave, thinking perhaps that this was the beginning of the end, that she would never see her Nick quite the same way again. She stood looking at the lab door, long and long, hoping upon hope he would return to her. Minutes stretched out and the door remained closed, a mute testament to her aloneness.

The phone jangled, interrupting her revery. Natalie shuffled across to the desk and snagged the receiver. "Lambert."

"Hi, Nat," a too-perky voice greeted her.

"Trace, haven’t those pain killers kicked in yet?"

"Haven’t taken them. Listen, I just called to see how you are - how Nick is."

Nat leaned a hip against the desk and absently twirled a loose strand of hair around her finger before answering. "He’s fine. In fact, you just missed him."

"You sure?" Tracy asked doubtfully.

"Yep. He’s fine and I’m fine." Dead air was loud in Natalie’s ear. "He wouldn’t hurt me, Tracy," she assured the young woman after a moment. "He’s come close on a few occasions ..." Natalie drifted off, reviewing those incidents: Nick rejecting the beast in twelve steps; Nick expelling the demon through faith; Nick denying the first feeding frenzy brought on by fever; Nick coming down off a drug-induced high. "... but he’s never lost himself completely," Natalie finished in a resolute tone. "Thank you for your concern. You’re a good friend to worry so. Now, go to sleep." Tracy mumbled something agreeable and bid her doctor friend goodnight. "Sleep tight, Trace."

Natalie returned the receiver to its cradle, her hand remaining as she once again slipped briefly into her memories. Shaking off the fugue, she grabbed a key from a desk drawer. Unlocking a private cabinet, Natalie extracted a care-worn card. The inside revealed flowing script, written in a sure hand. It was strange that such a sensational tabloid show could inspire such beautiful words from Nick when all her efforts proved fruitless. She read the card again, as she had done countless times. At her darkest moments, it was a beacon of hope. She remembered when it had arrived, attached to a bouquet of roses and wildflowers she had found leaning against her apartment door. Natalie ran her eyes down the written lines, the words flowing over her like a soft rain.

"Dearest Natalie--
Since I cannot adequately express my feelings in my own words, allow me to borrow some that speak well to how deeply I care for you and how very much I need you in my life.
Perhaps everything terrible in me is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from you. Our closeness must endure, for the only friendship that can cease has never been real.
We come from different worlds; we are of opposite polarity. Yet, once the realization is accepted that even between the closest beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up. We must succeed In loving the distance between us, which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky. True loves consists in this: that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.
When the difficult moments arise and our duality is drawn into sharp focus, we may find it wonderful to reflect that every creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.
‘Solving a puzzle is its own reward.’ Yet, I cannot solve the puzzle that is you.
I do not know what it is about you that closes and opens. Only something in me understands the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses. The scent of your touch is beyond the sea.
Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.
With deepest affection, Nick"

Natalie folded the card and slipped it into her bag. She wiped at the sudden wetness in her eyes, the pain in her heart inexpressible. Taking a last look around to be sure all was in its rightful place, she turned out the lights and pulled the door shut behind her. It felt like a chamber of her heart had been sealed off. Her soul had become a cup of tears.

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