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A Delicate Balance
written for the inaugural "Oldschoolfic" ficathon
Last modified July 27, 2008
by Amy R.
PG. Please see the endnote for disclaimers, credits, and all that good stuff. This fanfiction is a tribute to the television series Forever Knight.
Natalie patted the body bag. The victim had clearly fought to the end of her strength, right here in the empty lot behind the grocery store where she had worked. It hadn't been enough. And no one had come to help her in time.
Eddie, who was driving the coroner's wagon that night, cleared his throat from where he leaned on the van behind Natalie.
"Sorry, Eddie." She straightened the papers on her clipboard and shot him a grin. "All ready to go."
He put up his hands. "Not trying to rush you, Doctor Lambert."
"No, you're right," she stepped out of the way as he steered the wheeled gurney into the van. "We've bagged, tagged and photographed down to the molecular level. I'll see you back at the morgue, right?"
Eddie saluted cheekily. Natalie waved back, grateful for the lightened atmosphere. Not that crime scenes should be casual, but she had been struggling lately to find those cracks in the grim seriousness of her job. It hadn't used to be so hard.
She walked slowly across the floodlit field to the row of dumpsters at the edge of the store's loading area. An ash can and butts marked where employees usually took their smoke breaks, where uniformed officers were now taking contact information and initial statements under the occasional direction of the day shift's Detective Don Schanke. His presence meant better than even odds that his night shift partner, Nick Knight, was somewhere around. On her way, Natalie tugged at the ivory blouse she wore under her linen blazer. This heat wave lingered even at night, and the material stuck to her skin. Ick. She would bet Nick didn't have this problem -- which reminded her of the question of thermoregulation in his condition. Maybe she should move that up on their experiment schedule. Could vasodilation lead to a cure for his vampirism?
Nick shot Natalie a quick smile as he stepped out the store's back door, not missing a beat with the man who followed at his elbow, still talking. In a nod to the weather, Nick wore a blue cotton sportcoat instead of his beloved leather jacket (with its increasingly ostentatious bullet holes). And he'd let his thick, blond hair dry without combing it, so it looked almost as if he'd been sweating like everyone else. "Okay," Nick cut in. "So there's no chance that Ms. Brandt's death is related to robbery, internal theft, anything like that?"
"No, no." The manager shook his head. He looked shocked. "Like I told you, she's been our area admin for years. She's trained as a deposit clerk, but no, no, she doesn't -- I mean, didn't -- carry keys or know the safe codes. And we haven't had any unusual shortages in a long time." He took a deep breath. "Mallory used up all her time off early last year, and started taking unpaid leave days. Her son, Keith, has been in some sort of trouble. She never said, but I think he's what caused her divorce. You should find the kid."
"Thank you." Nick handed the shaken man a business card and grasped his shoulder reassuringly. "We'll be in touch." When the manager had reluctantly stepped away, Nick turned. "So what have you got for us, Nat?"
"Vic is Mallory Brandt, age thirty-nine, Caucasian, brunette, intended organ donor." They had found the victim's purse intact, including her driver's license. "She was manually strangled to death -- that is, by human hands, not with a rope or other tool. Big, gloved hands, given the marks."
"Strangled?" Nick blinked. "But all that blood--"
"I'll be able to tell you more after the autopsy and standard screens, but as bad as those stab wounds look, she was still on her feet and moving when he finally got his hands around her neck. Nick, whoever did this really meant it."
"Time of death?"
"Anywhere from two to ten hours. Sorry, but the heat isn't helping me narrow things down. Maximum lividity is probably at least three hours away, and I'll need to cut to be sure which contusions are postmortem staining and which are perimortem bruises."
Nick nodded, his eyes distant as he plummeted down whatever hole his long memory pulled him at times like these. He shook it off more quickly than Natalie expected, asking, "How's your bruise?"
"On your right forearm, where I grabbed you at the Raven during the Twelve Steps case." Nick managed to keep his expression just curious and helpful, but remorse and regret leaked into his voice. He'd done more than just 'grab,' with his vampiric strength unrestrained. She was lucky no bones had snapped. "It's, what, yellow now?"
"How do you --?" Natalie took a step backward and looked around for Schanke, who was now on the radio from the passenger seat of Nick's car. For a change, the white ragtop on the teal '62 Caddy was down. And -- was that a seersucker suit on the balding, sideburned detective? Natalie boggled. "Look, Nick, don't worry about it. I told you not to expect an easy cure, and I promise I don't either."
"There's no excuse for hurting you, Nat. Not my problems, not anyone's."
"Bruises heal, Nick." Natalie didn't roll her eyes, but she considered it. She couldn't believe he thought she needed that lecture. When she was an intern, she used to give that lecture, for crying out loud. "All right?"
He plunged his hands into the pockets of his slacks. His posture said he wasn't done with this, but she sure was. Natalie crossed to the caddy and waited for Schanke to sign off the radio. Suddenly, sirens sounded from multiple directions, and most of the uniformed officers on scene headed out.
"Saddle up, Knight! You will not believe this, but the guy driving the wagon, Freddy, Teddy, Neddy --"
"Eddie," Natalie and Nick said in unison, as Nick came up on the driver's side.
"Right. Anyway, he stopped at an intersection not four blocks from here and spotted a guy curled up under a hedge. Shined a light on him from the van, saw blood, and zoom! The guy bolted. Probably no connection, but we have got a runner on our crime scene, lady and gent! So get us on the road, already, Knight!"
"Buckle up, Schank."
"What? Oh, right." Schanke fastened his seatbelt. "You should get seat covers for this oven, Knight. I'm sticking to the elephant hide like a burned egg to a pan. Hope it's cooler on Sunday, huh, Nat?"
"I'll take cooler any day!" Natalie called after the Caddy as it rolled around the corner of the store. She asked one of the remaining uniformed officers to tell her as soon as the person-of-interest had been apprehended. She wasn't going to be able to drive out without disrupting the search until then, so she sat on the edge of the loading dock with the forms on her clipboard, and began working her side of the case.
There wasn't much Natalie could do for Mallory Brandt. The one thing she could do was find the truth.
Twenty-one Years Before
Natalie had almost fallen asleep behind the big box of mufflers, mittens and hats. With her head pillowed on her grandmother's snow boots, the hall closet was the best hiding place in the house in summer. Outdoors was less boring, of course. But from here, she could hear, just in case.
The door cracked open and a shaft of late afternoon light glinted off the old vacuum cleaner. Natalie froze.
"She's asleep," Richie whispered.
"Oh, good," Natalie whispered back. Nana had been awake for days. After she slept, things usually got better. Sometimes, she wouldn't remember what she'd said and done. Natalie did, though. "In or out."
Her little brother stepped in and pulled the door shut behind him. "I brought crackers."
Natalie's stomach woke up and growled. She stuck out her hand and found the package Richie was holding. "Mind the crumbs."
The crackers vanished quickly. After a while, Richie asked, "Did you hear Nana say that Mom will come home for my birthday?"
"Yeah." Natalie folded the cracker package until it could fit in her pocket. Nana said that every holiday. "If she can't, Aunt Thea and Uncle Sean will take us to the hospital to see her, like always."
"I hate hospitals." Richie suddenly sounded tearful.
Natalie handed him a soft scarf. She was too big to cry anymore. "Me, too."
Natalie clicked off her hand-held recorder as Nick entered her lab. "Who was the guy Eddie saw?"
"Keith Alden." Nick set a large plastic envelope on her desk. Then he leaned back against the counter, bracing his hands on the edge. He kept his voice soft as he nodded respectfully toward the body on the autopsy table between them. "Seventeen-year-old son of Mallory Brandt. She remarried after his father died. The samples on your desk are Keith's. We'll want you to tell us whether the blood on his clothes is all hers."
"Me and the tech team," Natalie corrected. She stepped to her desk, opened the envelope and looked over the labels on each evidence bag. Clothes, shoes, fingernail scrapings, a swab for DNA, oh my! -- a smorgasbord beyond their budget to analyze, really. She checked her watch and began signing the chain-of-custody forms for each item. Nick really should take things like this straight to the evidence clerk, but Natalie admitted that his confidence in her was flattering. "In case I take another vacation someday, I must point out that there are other scientists in this building."
The corners of Nick's lips twitched. "I worked with Doctor Benson while you were off at your 'desert funspot.'"
Natalie raised her eyebrows.
Nick actually laughed; Natalie thought he might be blushing, too, but his condition hid that even better than a tan would. "Okay, okay. One night -- once -- I said maybe the Wiltshire case could, you know, possibly wait until you got back. I didn't mean he wasn't capable of it!"
"Derek Bensen has twenty years of seniority on me in this profession. He teaches a university pathology seminar every winter -- and I took that seminar!" Natalie replaced the evidence bags in the big envelope and secured it in her evidence locker. "You're just lucky he has the sense of humor that ate Tokyo. He's told that story every time I've seen him since I got back, and I swear it's getting funnier. That is not normal, Nick. As good a coroner as he is, I'm beginning to think he missed his calling."
"As a comedian? Well, he doesn't think you missed yours."
"Calling. Before he made me the butt of public-employee humor province-wide, he said you were the rising star of this department -- as well as a charming young woman -- and he completely understood why I prefer working with you."
"That's not in his story!" Natalie enjoyed the compliments for just a moment before stuffing them away in the back of her mind. "Which again makes my point about his comic instincts, because that part's not funny at all." She returned to the opposite side of the autopsy table, where she could see Nick across her work. "Did your initial interview with the son give you any idea of what I should be looking for here?"
"Keith says he witnessed the murder." Nick stuck his hands in his pockets and started to pace slowly along the counter. "He went to pick up his mother from her work; he'd borrowed the car for band practice. Her coworker told him she'd gone to have a cigarette after clocking out, and he went to find her. That far, his story checks out."
"That far?" Natalie repeated. "So what was he doing between the murder and when you found him?"
"The cut-off 9-1-1 call that tipped us to the body was him. He hung up and ran again because he saw the perp. He says he had run to a phone booth blocks away because it just didn't occur to him to go into the store. Shock?"
"Maybe." Natalie began measuring contusions with calipers and entering the numbers on a form. "Can he identify the killer?"
"His stepfather, Cory Brandt. We put out an APB." Nick frowned. "Almost ex-stepfather. The divorce would have become final next week."
"So we're in like Flynn with an eyewitness and a positive ID?" Natalie made a note on her clipboard. "Rotten for the poor kid, though."
Nick stood still. "Does lithium plus amfebutamone mean anything to you?"
"Bipolar disorder." Natalie blinked. "Commonly called manic-depression. It's highly treatable now, though of course still chronic. Affects two or three percent of the population, both sexes, every ethnicity. Winston Churchill had it. Over a third of cases emerge in late adolescence. There's a convincing genetic correlation, but correlation isn't causation, as they say in epidemiology. So whose prescription is that?"
"Oh." Natalie met Nick's eyes. Lawyers ate witnesses with mental illnesses for lunch. Not even lunch: a vending machine snack. One of the cheap ones on the bottom row with the gum. And they threw the wrappers on the floor. "But if he's been consistent in taking his meds--"
"He's a seventeen-year-old boy, Nat." Nick shook his head. He leaned against the counter again. "It gets worse. Before Keith was diagnosed last year, he was self-medicating with street drugs. And the manic episode that got him diagnosed -- what started as a good mood ended in hijacking a saxophone solo at a school concert and shoving his music teacher off the stage. The defense won't have to twitch a finger to discredit him with a jury."
Natalie sighed. Euphoria, impetuosity, grandiosity, aggression and a reduced grasp of social boundaries in pursuit of a goal: the kid had displayed classic mania symptoms to an auditorium of potential defense witnesses. "Is he with child services now?"
"Still in holding. Schanke and Norma are working on it." Nick took a deep breath that Natalie knew he didn't physically need. Then he smiled at her and the whole world brightened. "So I'll see you Sunday?"
"After sunset, of course," Nick amended. "It's probably just as well that everyone will be too stuffed by then to press any food on me."
Natalie thought of the small green envelope on top of her sprawling pile of mail at home. For weeks, she had repeatedly moved it to the top. But she had never opened it. "You don't have to go, Nick."
Guilt crashed over his face, quickly replaced by sympathy. Natalie wondered when she had learned to read Nick's expressions that clearly.
He walked around the autopsy table and gave her a careful hug from behind; she still had her pen in one hand and calipers in the other. "I do have to go. Sara asked me." He kissed Natalie's temple and released her. "Whatever closure or continuity she gets from going on with your brother's annual birthday barbecue now that it's a memorial, I more than owe it to her."
"Oh." Natalie measured the same abrasion on Mallory Brandt's sternum three times before she realized what she was doing. Nick's words pushed Richie's twin deaths across her mind's eye against her will. The gunman's bullet. The wooden stake.
Natalie had begged Nick to make her brother a vampire, to save his life. But in vampiric exhilaration, Richie had flamboyantly indulged every impulse in an obsessive attack on criminals, slaughtering his way across the city. And then he had turned on his wife and sister.
When she realized her hands were shaking, Natalie set aside her tools and crossed her arms. "Well, it's definitely good for you to get out in normal, human, social situations, so that's great, Nick." She looked past him to the green-tiled wall. "And if you can try some solid food, that'll be even better. You know it's the blood that keeps you from coming back across."
"I try, Nat."
Natalie snapped her eyes to Nick's face, and found he was now looking past her in his turn, his hands clenched at his sides.
He continued, "I really try. I drink protein shakes until I spend half my time in the washroom, but the hunger never recedes without the blood. I was clean for three days during the Twelve Steps case -- and you saw how that ended."
A vampiric episode that had concerned even Janette, that's what Natalie had seen. Her usually circumspect friend had been flashing his fangs and snarling like a jungle cat, fixated on a suspect without evidence. He had insulted Natalie's friendship and crushed her forearm to the bone. And she wasn't kidding herself that it had been an accident; no, in that moment, he had meant it all.
She waited until he met her eyes. "Janette said you had too much to drink."
"I had." He didn't blink. "But that came later. First I saw . . . Well, trust me, I was frenzied before I hit the Raven and started chugging Janette's best vintage. I got hold of myself after, when I apprehended Monica instead of . . . Nat, I know this sounds odd, but I've been wondering about it ever since. Do you think it could be the blood getting all the way through my system -- metabolizing, right? -- that calmed me down enough to handle Monica by the book?"
Before Natalie could answer, Grace opened the lab's door. "Hey, Natalie -- oh, and hi, Nick --" The large woman stepped lightly into the room, a yellow sundress swirling around her ankles. The color looked terrific against her warm brown complexion, an effect unfortunately diluted by her white lab coat. "I hear there're ice cream sandwiches in the break room. I'm heading down. Want to come?"
"Is it someone's birthday?" Nick asked.
"The heat wave's." Grace grinned. "Departments have been switching off this week to supply cold treats. We," she pointed from herself to Natalie, but meant the whole ME team, "did fruit-juice popsicles yesterday. This is the Forensic group's attempt to show us up, and I think we should go thank them. You're welcome to join us! Heck, you have it a lot harder than we do, driving around out there while we're air conditioned down here."
"Thanks, Grace, but Nat and I were just--"
"Were just about ready for a break." Natalie secured her 'patient' and went to wash her hands. "I'm in, Grace. Dibs on anything with chocolate chips!"
Going to the sink let Natalie turn her back to Nick, so she didn't have to see how he took her jumping ship on their conversation. She needed a chance to think about what he'd said. Surely he hadn't meant to imply that her entire course of research into his vampirism was off-track.
He probably didn't even realize that's what he'd done.
"It's later than I thought," Nick said finally as Natalie dried her hands. The three of them stepped down the hallway together. "I need to swing by the precinct on my way home. Will I see you both at Sara's on Sunday -- tomorrow?"
"Not me," Grace answered cheerfully. "Someone has to be here to send smoke signals to your pagers in an emergency. But you'll pick up my potato salad on your way, won't you, Natalie?"
"Oh, I'll probably be working. I haven't even finished Mallory Brandt, and now we have all that evidence from her son."
Grace put a hand on Natalie's shoulder and stopped them both. "Delivering my potato salad is optional. Attending that barbecue is not."
A few paces ahead, Nick nodded. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to, Nat, but--"
"Hush, Detective," Grace interrupted. "Honey, you have to go. Period. Your family needs you. And you need them."
Eleven years before
"Medical school might have been a nice mechtat, Natasha," Nana said from her blue wingchair in the window, using a Russian word for 'daydream.' She set her tea cup on its saucer on the end table. The sunlight made it hard for Natalie to see her grandmother's expression from where she sat on the couch. "But you know it would never have happened. All that money and time? Much better you should find a nice boy before you finish university. You aren't going to have so many chances, you know."
"I've already submitted my application to transfer to the pre-med program, Nana." Natalie sat on her hands to avoid twisting them in her lap. "I have the grades and the recommendations. I'm up for another scholarship."
"The professors are so kind to you." Nana sighed. "You shouldn't have bothered them again. Why do you do these things?"
Natalie looked at her shoes. The black pumps were her interview/presentation/church shoes, just like this collared green tie-neck was her best dress. That's what it took to nerve herself back into this house. She hadn't been here since her mother's funeral.
It was all Richie's idea that they should tell Nana in person that they would both be staying at school through the summer, and that Natalie would be switching departments. But then Sara Olsen, the current girl of his dreams, had asked him to attend her choir recital this afternoon. If he had asked to be let off the hook, Natalie would have insisted he come. He hadn't. He understood. So she let him go.
Natalie swallowed. "I think I can help people."
"But you're so bad with people, Natasha! Did you mean to try for research in a laboratory, when they are so many men to hire? Maybe if there is another war, but -- ach. Until you get married, you should do some work that will pay, so you can help Richard through law school."
"He's up for a scholarship, too, Nana."
"Ah! It took so long to discipline him to his studies, but now?" Nana looked out the window. "I'm waiting for more tea, Natasha."
Natalie refilled her grandmother's cup from the teapot on the low table between them. Milk, no sugar. Cookies. Just so.
Far in the back of Natalie's brain, the most successful way to slit one's own wrists popped up. She shushed it with all the ways it could go horribly wrong. She had looked those up, too.
"Poor Natasha. I believe you try, but you know it never works out for you. Don't worry; I'll fix it." Nana sipped her tea and scrutinized Natalie. "Come over here in the light. Oh, gracious, Tashka, what have you done to your hair?"
"It's Princess Diana's style." Natalie put her hand up to the feathered bob. "It was Sharon's idea; we both got it."
"Oh, I'm sure it looks beautiful on your Lambert cousin. Blonde, like your brother -- so pretty. But you, with all that bushy, brown mess! Never mind; it will grow out eventually."
Natalie stared at her shoes again. "I have to catch the bus, Nana. My shift at the dining hall starts in two hours."
"On Sunday evening? You shouldn't let them walk all over you like that, Natasha. You should insist on a better schedule."
When Natalie reached her dorm, she found Richie waiting on the front steps, applying a highlighter to one of his textbooks. She sat next to him. Apparently, there were fewer than ten words on the page that he didn't want to memorize. "We could dunk that in yellow paint and get about the same effect."
Richie laughed. He snaked an arm around her shoulders and squeezed tightly, touching his forehead to hers.
Natalie patted his hand and closed her eyes.
"Fridge!" Natalie gestured with Grace's potato salad when Sara opened the front door of the two-story detached home Richie and she had purchased after their daughter was born. Natalie held the big bowl in both hands, balancing her own bag of hamburger buns on top. "I'm parked down the block, and every minute in this heat brings us that much closer to a mass salmonella outbreak."
"Food poisoning?" Sara repeated with concern. She wore a pink blouse tucked into blue jeans, and had woven her blonde hair into a high braid. She looked improbably crisp for someone who had probably been running around since dawn on the hottest day of the year.
"Joking, honest!" Natalie sighed and kissed her bemused sister-in-law on the cheek on her way to the kitchen. "Where tradition refuses to surrender uncooked ingredients, just keep 'em cold, and don't feed them to children or people with compromised immune systems."
"Or pregnant women." Natalie's cousin Sharon made a face from where she sat at the kitchen table, leaning over a white-frosted sheet cake with a bag of blue icing. She wore a loose, plum summer dress of the same style as Natalie's black lizard-print one, but where Natalie wore her lightest cardigan, Sharon went sleeveless.
"That was strawberries, not eggs," Sara said, following Natalie into the room. Sara took the hamburger buns while Natalie rearranged the crammed refrigerator to accommodate Grace's bowl. "We should have washed them. The man at that roadside stand did tell us to."
"I was too hungry to wait," Sharon laughed. The incident had not been at all funny at the time, when vomiting-induced dehydration could have triggered premature labor in the middle of nowhere years before any of them had mobile phones. Luckily, Natalie had been there, with her shiny new MD status.
Natalie closed the refrigerator and stepped to the screened back door. In the yard, Sara's Amy and Sharon's Cynthia shrieked happily as they ran through a sprinkler, along with a few other kids Natalie didn't recognize. The barely older Jenny Schanke wandered with a badminton racket in each hand, clearly seeking an opponent among the few adolescents who had been dragged along. Assorted adults milled around, with the main clusters at the grill on the deck and the beverage-filled ice chest tucked just under the steps to the yard. The pasty legs sticking out of many a pair of shorts could give Nick a run for his money on inhuman translucency.
"It looks like it does every year," Natalie murmured. Sara came up and looked over her shoulder.
"Almost," Sara allowed, just as quietly. "But that's what this is about, after all. The funeral was lovely, truly, Natalie. I hope you know I appreciate everything you did last fall, but--"
"But the service was so quick, and so small, immediate family only." The mesmerism-enforced lie that had covered Richie's vampirism curdled on Natalie's tongue. "His friends didn't get a real chance to say goodbye to him, or to comfort each other. I do understand, Sara. And I'm sorry I, uh, reacted poorly when you told me you planned to hold his birthday barbecue again this year."
Sara laughed. "You freaked out, didn't you? I'm sorry, too. Richard always said that you love puzzles but hate surprises. I should have realized he didn't mean just for birthdays and Christmas."
"He said that?" Natalie had never thought of it quite that way.
"He spoke about you a lot, you know, all the years I knew him." Sara stared into the yard again.
Too few years, Natalie knew her brother's widow was thinking. They had gotten married so young, still in college. Now even that seemed too late. Natalie started to reach out, but dropped her hand. Instead, she said, "This was a very good idea, Sara, for everyone. You were absolutely right." Natalie pitched her voice a little louder, and a few familiar faces turned from the grill toward the screen door. "What can I do to help?"
"Just mingle, if you don't mind. Let me introduce you to anyone you don't know; there are a lot of people from his office, and some of his political contacts." Sara had her hand on the door handle. "Oh, wait, I haven't even offered to take your sweater. You must be boiling!"
Natalie instinctively pressed her right arm against her side. "Thanks, but I'm fine."
"I have three kinds of sunscreen," Sara offered. "We slathered the kids before turning the sprinkler on."
"Really, I'm comfortable." Natalie knew it shouldn't matter if anyone saw the bruise. And yet it did. Because it always had. "You've got diet soda out there, right?"
From the table, Sharon laughed. "The first time I saw Nat sleeveless, she was my bridesmaid. Come to think of it, I never saw her or Richie in shorts until college. They just don't feel heat like the rest of us."
"Oh." Sara looked from one cousin to the other. Natalie saw comprehension bloom in Sara's eyes, where it never had in Sharon's. Natalie felt suddenly angry, and she didn't know at whom. Sharon could never have told, because she just didn't know. Richie had had every right to tell his wife. Sara didn't have to try so obviously hard to understand, though, rot her. "Of course. Yes, let's get you a cold soda."
Natalie stepped outside. It was, admittedly, too hot for the sweater. She raised her chin high at the sight and sounds of her swimsuit-clad niece and goddaughter enjoying the summer sun as casually as her cousin ever had.
Seventeen Years Before
"You're going to embarrass me, Nat!" Sharon wailed, tossing her feathered hair dramatically as she stomped down the hall toward her parents' room. "It's a swimming party. You can't come if you're not going to get in the water!"
"I don't remember how to swim," Natalie offered, trailing her cousin. Natalie was confident she could figure out swimming if she got the opportunity. But she knew better than to wear a swimsuit in public, no matter how much she wanted to go to the party.
"You do so know how to swim!" Sharon whirled on her and poked her in the chest with her forefinger. "Your dad taught us when we were practically babies!"
"I haven't been swimming since he died, Sharon."
"Well, just stay in the shallow end, then!" The older girl flounced through the open door at the end of the hall. "Mooooom! Nat says she won't swiiiiim!"
"I'm sorry." Natalie sighed and looked at her feet. Stupid Sharon, always running to her parents. Stupid, lucky, stupid Sharon. "I can stay here and look after Richie until it's time for us to go home, instead."
"But I told Janice you were coming!" Sharon pouted, flinging herself into the chair at her mother's vanity table. "She thinks you're so smart. She wants to talk to you about that library book you told her to read, The Silver Chair--"
"The Silver Crown," Natalie corrected under her breath.
"Whatever. Why can't you just be like everyone else for once?"
"Do you need a swimming suit, Nat?" Aunt Thea asked. She was folding laundry on the big bed. "I'm sure we can find one of Sharon's old ones in a jiffy. You're about the same size she was two summers ago. Or," Aunt Thea's eyes skimmed over the turtleneck Natalie wore before dropping again to the neat piles of clothes, "I can quickly take in one of mine. There's one that's very, um, modest. It's got a high neck, a skirt and a matching cover-up."
"What's a cover-up?" That sounded promising.
"Nat! Nat!" Richie pelted down the hall. "Uncle Sean is going to take me to a baseball game while Sharon's at the party! He says you can come with us instead of going swimming, if you want!"
"Oh." Natalie looked at her feet again. "Good."
"So this is, what, his law school graduation?" Schanke asked from the living room as Natalie passed through on her way from the washroom back to the yard.
"Probably," Natalie turned, but perched on the arm of the couch instead of joining Schanke at the wall. Sara was one of those people who tiled with framed photos, like an extra layer of insulation.
"And this is your niece's first birthday?" Schanke pointed.
"If it's the one with chocolate on the lens, yep." The back of Schanke's grey t-shirt had a screen-printed Toronto PD crest. The front said 'Cops do it with Evidence,' and she so wasn't going to ask. "Great job on those burgers, by the way."
"Well, thank you kindly, little lady," Schanke drawled his imitation of John Wayne. They both laughed. "How are you holding up?"
Natalie shrugged. "Whatever makes Sara happy."
"So not so well, huh?"
Natalie shook her head. There was no simple way to explain the waves of anger, abandonment and appreciation that washed unpredictably over her as different people made exactly the same remarks about Richie. She wondered if it would have been worse or better if they had done this last fall.
Or if Richie had died the way they all thought he had. Heroically. Instead of in the second chance she had begged for him. Deranged out of all recognition.
Nick made it look almost easy, stabilizing the vampire, controlling his urges and remembering society's limits. Until she saw Richie overwhelmed by it, Natalie had not realized the strength of the undertow Nick fought. And until she saw Nick himself overwhelmed by it, in the back room of the Raven . . . could he be right, about the blood? Could his periodic overindulgence in the cow blood even be a half-conscious attempt to self-medicate, to trigger one of his bouts of depression in his desperation to avert the mayhem of a euphoric vampire? Just because she had never witnessed him in that state before didn't mean it wasn't a recurring cycle, swinging from his familiar melancholy to that frightening vampiric abandon.
Natalie poked her arm through her sweater. Yep, it was still a little tender. She'd treated the soft-tissue compression immediately, knowing the hematoma was coming. But bone-bruises lingered, regardless. She'd had her share.
Schanke settled into the recliner across from her, his elbows on his knees. He didn't say anything.
Natalie quirked her lips at being treated like a fragile witness. "Richie would have turned twenty-eight today, Schank. Just -- twenty-eight."
"He accomplished a lot, for such a young guy. Assistant Crown Attorney, his family, this house."
"Yeah, well, my little brother had a plan. He was going to be a Member of Parliament before he turned forty, and the Cabinet member with the social development portfolio -- didn't I hear that they're about to change the name of that ministry again? -- before he was fifty."
"Not Minister of Justice?"
"Nope." Natalie smirked at the thought of the folded and re-folded list Richie had kept in his wallet since junior high, summarizing new laws needed to protect people beforehand, not just punish criminals after. Her smile faded when she remembered the list had vaporized with all Richie's other dreams.
"Did you hear about the Brandt case?" Schanke asked when it became clear Natalie wasn't going to expand on Richie's political ambitions. "Man oh man is that guy a stripped screw! Cory Brandt has been through the system before -- involuntary manslaughter by drunken driving; also assault by, get this, strangulation -- and he's just waiting us out with his jaw clamped shut. He knows that any half-wit defense lawyer can turn his stepson's testimony into salted snow in front of a jury. Have you got anything yet?"
"The perp wore gloves, so no fingerprints, and unless you guys find the gloves or knife, no fiber or tool-mark comparisons." Natalie relaxed and slid off the arm of the couch into a nest of Sara's decorative pillows. "The vic's tox screens came back, though. Mallory Brandt was on nothing but nicotine and a mild anti-depressant, which could easily line up with a genetic component in her son's illness, or the stress of her divorce, or neither, or both."
"With this guy, the stress had to be the marriage, not the divorce," Schanke snorted. "Everybody says the vic was a sweet lady. How she hooked up with this scum wad . . ." He shook his head. "An eyewitness and no alibi, but no dice! It's just not fair. Boy, do we need something the Crown can thump down on the judge's bench."
Natalie hesitated. "It's not our job to make the case airtight, you know. Richie's office -- the prosecution -- they'll do everything possible with what we give them. We just have to give them the truth."
"The whole truth and nothing but the truth?" Schanke's lips twitched up. "You sound like Knight."
"I'll keep looking. You will, too."
"Yeah, yeah. We're lining up one witness at a time to place the creep nearer and nearer the scene. People who happen to work and live in the area; you know the drill." Schanke huffed and leaned back in the recliner. "The kid keeps saying it was all his fault. If he hadn't been, you know, ill--"
"That's ridiculous. You can't pick whether you have bipolar disorder any more than you can pick your family."
"Sure, but that's not how he feels. He overheard his mother say that his stepfather's attitude about his condition was the final straw in her filing for divorce. He thinks that's why the guy killed her -- the age-old 'if I can't have you, no one can' mustache-twirling melodrama. And the kid is just seventeen, so it's all or nothing to him. Alive or dead, well or sick, innocent or guilty."
"Absolutes," Natalie mused. Nick would add 'human or vampire' to that litany. She glanced at some of the photos on the wall. "Health is a continuum. Life is a continuum."
"Hey, Natalie? Where are the photos of you and Richard as kids?"
"There's one on the mantel of me holding him the week he was born." Natalie pointed. She loved that photo, the pigtailed little girl sitting all hedged around with pillows, so she couldn't possibly drop the much littler boy in her lap. The girl's serious eyes seemed almost too big for her face. Natalie had always imagined there was a story behind that photo, but no one had ever told it to her.
Very gently, Schanke asked, "Is that the only one?"
"Oh, no, of course not," Natalie stood. "Did you meet our Aunt Thea? She's got, uh, plenty. Look, I'd better get back outside, Schank."
Almost blinded by the sunset, Natalie bumped into Joe Stonetree on the deck. "Excuse me, Doctor Lambert."
"My fault, Captain," Natalie apologized, checking to be sure she hadn't jostled his left arm, in a sling from the hostage incident in the precinct. "I didn't see you."
"Now that's something I don't hear very often." The big man snorted amiably as a grin lifted his face. Then he gestured with a glass of iced tea toward the man with whom he'd been speaking. "May I present Commissioner Richard Vetter? He's just arrived. Commissioner, this is Doctor Natalie Lambert, the ME with my precinct in her jurisdiction."
"I'm very sorry about your brother, Doctor Lambert. The whole city noticed his loss last fall." Vetter was not as tall or wide as Stonetree, but he was an imposing presence, nevertheless. As she shook his hand, Natalie tried to remember what she'd heard about the man, but came up empty. He clearly did not have that problem with her. "I understand you were instrumental in solving the Barbara Norton case in time for the election."
"I prefer to think of that as the Laura Neal case." Natalie named the actual murderer, instead of the unwitting candidate for whom Neal had worked -- and whom Natalie had supported.
"Well, excellent work," Vetter said. Natalie had an impression that he filed away every nuance for later use. He laid a hand on the shoulder of a blonde young woman, who had been describing something called 'iced coffee' to one of Richie's friends. "Let me introduce you to my daughter, Tracy. She's a patroller at the thirty-second right now, but moving up fast."
The young woman didn't seem to react to her father's phrasing, but her practiced smile didn't reach her eyes. She extended her hand and lifted her brows enquiringly.
"I'm Natalie Lambert."
"Oh, you're Counselor Lambert's sister!" Suddenly Tracy's eyes and expression matched. "I met him just once, last year. He was so encouraging. I'll always remember that conversation. I'm really sorry for your loss."
"Thank you," Natalie said, as she had so often that day. Sometimes she meant 'thank you,' sometimes 'please leave me alone,' and sometimes both, but she made sure the words were always the same. This time, she clasped Tracy's hands and repeated herself before fleeing down the steps into the yard. "Really, thank you."
The sprinkler had long since been turned off, and the kids had changed back into t-shirts and shorts. Natalie sat down on the grass next to Amy and Cynthia at the nearer end of the badminton net. "How are my favorite girls?"
"We're fine, Aunt Nat."
"Kinda bored, though," Cynthia admitted. "Jenny has the others searching for four-leaf clovers. There aren't any."
"How do you know?"
"We picked them all this morning, before she got here." Amy flopped back in the grass and pointed up. "I can see a star already."
Cynthia craned her neck. "I see three."
Natalie relaxed and listened to the girls count. The muggy dusk felt like the coziest blanket, and the thickest armor.
Too soon, Sara called, "Time for cake and ice cream!" The girls grabbed Natalie by both hands and dragged her to her feet, apparently deciding it was their duty to deliver her. Natalie laughed and ran with them, until she saw that Sara had lit candles on the cake.
Natalie had expected the 'Happy Birthday, Richard' in Sharon's impeccable handwriting, better in icing than most people's in ink. She had not expected the twenty-eight candles, flickering in the fading light.
She wanted to throttle Sara.
Suddenly, everyone but Natalie was singing. If others were suffering three of the five most common symptoms of a panic attack, they weren't showing it. Sara was smiling with that gracious bashfulness Natalie knew Richie had found so endearing, and then all the kids were called up to blow out the candles together, and everyone was applauding.
Natalie slipped indoors and upstairs. She found herself first at Richie and Sara's room, now Sara's alone, and then at Amy's. Natalie sat on the rainbow-unicorn bedspread and hugged her niece's teddy bear as if it could keep her afloat.
When the bedside lamp turned on, Natalie looked up, startled. Nick stood in the doorway with his finger on the switch. He wore what she thought of as his white Miami Vice suit with a navy t-shirt. "I didn't notice that it had gotten dark."
"I see that." Nick sat next to her. "Sara sent me up. She said she's sorry for not warning you about the singing."
"It wasn't the singing." Natalie tried a tentative smile. "I'm so lame today! It was the wishing."
"Yeah, you know, blow out all the candles and your wish will come true, as long as you don't tell anyone? We didn't always get -- candles -- so Richie made up other ways to use your birthday wish. You could wish on a star instead, if you did it the same day. Or you could wish by blowing a dandelion, and for that you got up to a week. If you wanted to try for wishing on a rainbow, you got a whole month."
Nick patted the head of the stuffed bear in her arms. "Richard and I mostly talked about work and baseball. I wish I'd asked him about you when I had the chance, Nat."
"He knew you before I did. He understood things about you that I'll never discover. And no one will ever fill his place, Nat. Not in eight centuries."
Natalie started crying, then. She couldn't stop. Nick put his arm around her shoulder and held her as she sobbed, as she had not when Richie was newly dead, or when her car had been run off the road and exploded, or she had been assaulted by a date who turned out to be a serial killer, or grabbed by a vampire doctor whose treatment deranged her patients, or held hostage in the precinct just last week.
What had happened to her life?
Why hadn't she been able to trade her life for Richie's?
Nick rocked her against his chest until she got her breathing straightened out again. When she finally let go of the bear, Nick tenderly picked up her right arm and brushed his lips just over the bruised part, through her sweater. His eyes were huge and sad.
Natalie cried again. Much more quietly, not for as long. Just leaking at the broken levee. She peeled off her sweater and stared at the bruise with Nick. It still wrapped most of the way around her arm, though it shrunk every day. Yellow edges hemmed an ugly undertone of putrefied green at the center. It had healed a lot. It had a long way to go.
Very, very gently, Nick kissed the contusion. And then he held her hand.
"Old habits die hard," Natalie sniffed. "It isn't even about this bruise, you know."
"I meant it when I told you not to worry about it. It's no big deal."
"You once told me that you didn't want to hurt me, but you might anyway. Was what happened at the Raven what you were afraid of?"
"Something like that." Nick looked even more grave. "And I know what I said then hurt even worse than what I did. At the time, it all made sense. Now, it's as ridiculous as my conviction that Monica was the murderer. Turns like that are . . . like being in a different world." He released her hand. "I know I'm not the first person ever to hurt you, Nat. I'm more sorry than I can say. But you have to understand, I can't promise it won't happen again."
"I do understand." Natalie took his hand back. She thought of the undiagnosed boy who had pushed his teacher when he had lost touch with reality, and of Richie 's rampage when he had lost his human constraints. Keith Alden had received medication and could lead a normal life; Richie had been killed and left to death's redemption. Nick struggled on somewhere between. "I'm sorry, too, Nick."
"Don't be." He cocked his head and smiled slightly. "But I think your niece may need her room back soon. Want to go get some cake?"
"Will you eat some, too?"
He made a familiar face. "Do I have to?"
"No." She laughed, though it came out as a hiccough. "But it will make me happy if you do."
Nick stood and helped her to her feet, muttering about swatting mosquitoes with cannons. Natalie hesitated, then tied her sweater around her waist.
Nineteen Years Before
"It was our bike money, Richie!" Natalie stormed back and forth in front of the swings. They were at the school playground on a summer afternoon, so she could be almost as loud as she liked. "How could you tell her about the bike money?"
"I didn't tell her!" Richie yelled, pumping his legs on the swing. "She just saw me putting my weeding money in. I wouldn't tell her! I'm not stupid."
"You are! You are stupid! How else could she know?" Nana had marched Natalie down the street and made her give all the money back to Mrs. Kalonymos, a year's worth of weeds and shoveling and trash and even, lately, baby-sitting. Nana had made her apologize for accepting the money, and promise to do chores for free in the future, lest anyone think Nana couldn't take care of them. Natalie had been so humiliated she could hardly breathe.
And then Nana had taken her home.
"I said I'm sorry, Nat." Richie's lip trembled. "I'm really sorry."
"It's all your fault!" Natalie hissed. When the swing brought him in range, she hit him. On the chest. Just like Nana hit them. Where the bruises didn't show.
The swing went back and forth twice, creaking into the silence. They stared at each other in horror.
On the third backswing, Richie jumped off. Tears ran down his face. "I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!" He ran off the playground and down the street.
That was the first time Natalie looked up how people could kill themselves. It was right there in the encyclopedia at the library's front desk.
"Just the gentlemen I wanted to see!" Natalie greeted Nick and Schanke from her desk as they entered her lab. She fanned out an assortment of manila folders. "I've got shoe impressions, penetration depths, fiber breakdown, grip examination. Pick a card, any card."
"I'll see your analysis and raise you a murder weapon!" Schanke crowed. "Knight had one of his sporadic good ideas, and you will never guess where we found both the gloves and the knife."
"No, c'mon, guess!"
"Nick's inspiration, huh?" Natalie looked from one detective to the other. Schanke almost bounced in his glee. Nick's expression was downright smug, if a little subdued and even paler than usual. "Brandt's car?"
"How did you know?" Schanke's face fell.
"Was your second guess his refrigerator?" Nick winked. He leaned heavily on the counter. "Brandt stuffed them into his gas tank. I remembered a, um, similar case. Anyway, they're with Forensics now."
"And the bonus," added Schanke, "is that the gloves are cloth, not leather, just like you thought."
"The fibers I found!" Natalie exclaimed, pulling a specific folder from the assortment in front of her and standing up. "Immersion in gasoline isn't going to streamline things, but we've got a shot. I've got to get this up to Forensics."
"Let me take it," Schanke offered. "I want to tuck this case in and turn off the light, so we can tell Keith Alden that his stepfather is up a creek for the long haul." Natalie handed over the file. "Besides, Knight needs a rest, don't you think?" Chuckling, Schanke headed out.
Natalie looked at Nick with concern. She had never seen circles under his eyes before. "How are you feeling?"
"Not as bad as last night."
"I didn't even know vampires could vomit."
"Neither did I!"
"Ouch!" Natalie wavered between wincing and laughing. She took his arm and guided him to take her chair. When Nick had thrown up his piece of birthday cake on Sara's deck, Natalie had told everyone it was mild heatstroke. Sara had been ready to blame Grace's innocent potato salad, and Natalie could just imagine the panic that would have followed. Luckily, no one doubted hyperthermia. "Well, at least I got a sample. Your digestive chemistry is fascinating!"
"You are -- and I say this as someone who saw the Marquis de Sade -- a cruel woman."
"I'm a scientist." She had driven him home to his loft in his Caddy, and taken a cab back to her own car after he finally fell asleep for the day. He had been so miserable that she had made him drink a protein shake only in addition to his cow blood, not instead of it. "Nick, I've been thinking about what you said, about what happened in the back room at the Raven when you'd been completely off the blood for three days, and then suddenly had a lot."
"And I've also been thinking about Keith Alden. And Richie. Bipolar disorder is always diagnosed during manic episodes, you see. Until someone recognizes the mania for what it is, the condition looks like depression. And the wrong diagnosis gets the wrong therapy."
Nick was listening hard, as he usually did when she tried to explain her research into his condition.
"All my models still suggest that it's the blood that keeps you from coming back across. But -- there is a 'but'! -- I think you were onto something, anyway." There wasn't a spare chair. It didn't seem fair to tower over him for this, so Natalie knelt and put a hand on his knee, grateful she had worn slacks. "You asked me to find a cure, Nick, and that's where all my experiments have aimed. But you know, people with ordinary chronic illnesses aren't asked to just suffer untreated until someday a cure may or may not be discovered. That would be indefensible malpractice! Immoral, illegal."
"Vampirism is a physical condition, you insisted, not a metaphysical one." Nick touched her cheek with the tips of his fingers, then dropped his hand. "You want to stop?"
"No! No, not at all." Natalie swallowed. "I want to change directions. Just in case I'm not the one to find your cure, Nick, I want to look for mitigating treatments regardless of their potential as ultimate remedies. You deserve a better quality of life today, tomorrow, as soon as possible. You shouldn't have to live on hope alone."
"I don't." His wan smile traced the glued-up cracks in her heart. "I live on hope with you."
One Week After
Natalie would not have picked the Raven for this conversation. It wasn't that the club was too loud, or too crowded, or too risqué, although Natalie was sure it could be all those things at need. No, it was just that it was Janette's territory. Natalie would have given a lot for neutral ground. Too bad you couldn't ask Toronto's leading vampire bar owner to grab a coffee.
Or maybe you could, Natalie thought. Too late now.
"To what do I owe the pleasure, Doctor Lambert?" Janette asked as Natalie reached the bar. The vampire wore an elegant black evening gown, and took in Natalie's fuchsia suit with an amused flicker of her long lashes. "Work, not play, I take it?"
"No, this is a social call." Natalie took a deep breath. "You once said we should get together and talk."
"Oh, my, I did!" Janette's wide smile gave Natalie a sudden impression of just how those gleaming teeth would fit onto a human neck. "That first time we met at Nicolas's last fall. But why now? Why -- ever? Did it not occur to you that perhaps I was just teasing Nicolas?"
"I think we all knew how you were teasing Nick." Natalie grinned. "This is really more about what happened here in your back room."
"Ah." Janette tilted her head. "And what did I say to you then?"
Natalie remembered Janette's gloved fingers tapping her throat, right before she braved an out-of-control Nick. "You said that it was my neck."
"Oui. You walked in warned. I wash my hands of whatever happened to you behind that curtain, Doctor Lambert." Janette paused. "Besides, I phoned Detective Schanke, not you."
"That was on purpose?" Natalie blinked. "I assumed you just didn't have my number."
Janette closed her eyes briefly. "I called Detective Schanke because he was best suited to deal with Nicolas in that state."
"What state?" Natalie pounced. That was precisely the kind of thing she had come to learn.
Janette tilted her head another direction. "If you're here about that bruise on your arm, Doctor -- yes, I can smell the pooled dead blood from here; I apologize, but it's vile -- I'm not interested."
"I'm not here about me."
"You know I've been trying to cure Nick?"
Janette nodded, pursing her lips in disapproval.
"There's a serious possibility I've been operating under what some people call 'the clinician's fallacy,' where an inaccurate view of a condition comes from studying just those select cases that reach clinical treatment."
"You wish to study Nicolas's 'condition' in the wild? I am not your gorilla in the mist."
Natalie held up her hands. "I promise not to observe you scientifically without your permission. I just want you to tell me about Nick. What was he like when he drank only human blood? What was he like when he stopped? If you won't tell me what's normal for all vampires, just tell me what's normal for him." Natalie dropped her hands and her voice. "I don't want to make him ill, Janette. My ignorance is dangerous to him."
"On that, we agree." Janette crossed her arms.
"You knew him before I did. You understand things about him that I could never discover, not even in eight centuries."
Janette watched Natalie for what felt like minutes. "Does he know you're here?"
"Interesting." Janette signaled to the bartender; he nodded. Janette looked back to Natalie and gestured toward a sturdy door beyond the chains. "My office is soundproofed. So, Natalie, shall we go talk about our . . . common interest?"
Mr. Parriot and Mr. Cohen created Forever Knight. The Sony Corporation owns it. I intend no infringement. Please support all authorized Forever Knight endeavors! (Buy what they sell.)
Characters and situations in this fantasy fan story are entirely fictional. Any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental. (Vampires don't exist. Heat waves do, though.)
Episodes. The dominant episode references are to "I Will Repay" (where we meet Richard, Sara and Amy Lambert), "Feeding the Beast" (where Nick suffers the vampiric fit in which he grabs Natalie's arm), "Dead of Night" (which, late in the series, inserts Nana and her abuse), and "Undue Process" (which introduces Natalie's goddaughter, Cynthia Lambert Luce; Sharon is the mother's name on the gravestone).
Works Consulted. As I worked on this story, I read Depression and Bipolar Disorders: Everything You Need to Know by Virginia Edwards (New York: Firefly Books, 2002) and The Physician's Guide to Domestic Violence: How to Ask the Right Questions and Recognize Abuse by Patricia R. Salber and Ellen Taliaferro (Volcano, CA: Volcano Press, 1995). God bless public libraries! I also surfed Wikipedia, WebMD and the Mayo Clinic websites in an effort not to embarrass Natalie too much on the medical side.
Inspiration. It's all about the Natpackers this time. Shelley and Valerie together inspired the present-day of this story, while Amy H.'s "Oldschoolfic" ficathon prompt on LiveJournal inspired the flashbacks. Valerie pointed out Nick grasping Natalie's arm in FtB, and that he probably did it with vampiric strength. In response, Shelley observed that the manner of Nick's loss of control in FtB, as described by Valerie, could be seen as sharing certain elements with a manic episode experienced by a person with bipolar disorder. Amy H.'s prompt observed that we know almost nothing of Natalie's past, except that it is full of loss, and that Natalie copes through "compartmentalization, humor, perfectionism, self-blame and avoidance."
Beta-Readers. I'm blessed with a bounty of beta-readers! Abby replied to the draft with great alacrity and focus, Shelley with acute perspicacity and support, Valerie with bouncy cheer and insight, and Elisabeth and Jo together with inspiring challenges and precision. Each had very important things to say, and I tried to learn from all their advice. Where errors remain, I doubtless failed to heed them.
Timestamps & No Archiving. I wrote "A Delicate Balance" between late May and early July 2008. I posted it to the first "Oldschoolfic" ficathon on the deadline: July 6, 2008. I began sending it to fkfic-l on July 20, and archived it on my own website, where you're welcome to link to it. Please do not archive or otherwise re-post it.
Thank you! Thank you for reading! Your comment would be valued, truly. Please email me or write me on LiveJournal or Dreamwidth. Again, thanks for reading!
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