The NatPack was out in fullforce, sitting quietly and grimly on the few chairs and tables the Ravenettes had left out. Most of the Raven had been cleared to allow room for the confrontation -- and the legions of Ravenettes who wanted to watch from the cover of the bar.
As Susan studied the NatPack, Natalie sitting, well-shielded, in their midst (except for Amy, who sat at the bar, humming to herself and downing a mixed drink that Susan had concocted for her as a substitute for the <shudder> straight gin or vodka which she had apparently been imbibing thus far), she couldn't help but think of countless old Westerns, where someone said, "Send for the sheriff -- there's gonna be trouble." [Ed. God what a sentence!] The NatPack was not in a happy-bouncy mood -- Susan wished for something more sustantial between herself and the rest of the Raven. Like a concrete wall.
There was a brief disturbance at the front door and the rattle of chains; Susan looked up, expecting Knighties, but instead saw a herd of Vaqueros, surrounding none other than...Vachon. So, he really was still alive, or alive again, or undead again, or something like that. The question was, what was he doing at the Raven at this particular time?
Vachon walked into the Raven, looking around him curiously. It seemed a lot bigger with overhead lights and only a few people -- if fifty people could be counted as a few. Emptier, too, since he knew so few of those people. The cluster of very fashionably dressed women behind the bar were staring at him curiously; another, very small group, eyed him nervously from the shadows over to the side. With a pang, he recognized the Perkulators, but tried not to think about them. The group in the middle of the room, who he assumed was the NatPack, watched him with wariness and a touch of surprise, given the reports about his absence
"Vachon?" Torrey whispered beside him. "Are you sure you want to do this? I mean, isn't this between the Knighties and the NatPack?"
"I owe Dr. Lambert," Vachon replied, not bothering to lower his voice. "I have no idea was going to happen tonight, but I have the feeling she might need some muscle. Or a referee."
With that, he walked directly over to Natalie's table. He waded through the sea of NatPackers, and Natalie indicated to them with a wave of the hand to make room for him. "Vachon," she said calmly, with a trace of a smile.
"Dr. Lambert," he replied just as calmly, a sardonic smile tugging at his lips. "It's good to see you again."
"And you. Especially considering the things that I'd heard."
Vachon winced. "Reports of my death...well, you know the drill."
"Yes, I do." She smiled with genuine warmth. "I'm glad you're all right, Vachon. But what are you doing here?"
He shrugged. "Whatever I need to. I'm in your debt, remember?"
She blinked, then smiled again. "Oookay. Pull up a chair."
As he turned away from Natalie, however, he paused and looked at her quizzically for a moment, then smiled as though he knew a secret. He continued to his chosen place beside the NatPack, but near the door. The Vaqueros, after a brief discussion, followed him, trying to stay as close to the center of the room as possible. They were, after all, friends with the Knighties. Almost all of the time.
Susan watched Vachon and the Vaqueros get settled and mentally changed her estimate of the number of drinks they were going to be pouring tonight. Better get Urs awake and moving....
The chains rattled again and she braced herself for Knighties -- and got Nick&NatPackers instead, the entire group of them. They stood in the entrance for a long moment, exclaiming happily over Natalie's presence, then made a bee-line for the NatPack, Soulseek in the lead. "Thank God you're okay, we've been so worried!" was the first thing out of her mouth, followed closely by, "You could have trusted us," to the NatPack.
Several of the Natpackers looked rather sheepish at this and Jennie chewed on a bright orange lock of hair for a moment before answering, "Sorry. Panicked," She added a helpless shrug.
"Word spread fast," Susan muttered to Tara.
Tara shook her head. "I get the feeling this evening is going to be damn interesting."
After they finished greeting Nat, most of the N&NPackers settled themselves around the center of the room, almost blocking the view from the bar, but leaving the middle of the floor clear.
When Susan noticed the Mercs and the Die-Hards clustering in various corners for no discernable reason, she just sighed and upped the number of drinks again.
One more rattle of the chains -- Susan looked up expecting Cousins, at the very least. But a very familiar tall, naturally blond vampire led the way, instead, followed by an entire crusade of Knighties. Perri and Cath flanked him on either side, their faces supernaturally calm. Dottie, Sandra, Marcia, Allie and a few others Susan recognized tagged as close as they could get to Nick without tripping him.
Nick's eyes were searching the room even before he cleared the doorway--he froze when his gaze locked on Natalie. She had come to her feet, the entire 'Pack looking ready to join her if Nick made one false move. When Nick looked as if he was going to rush forward to Nat, there ws a kind of joint growl from the 'Pack. Cath and Perri grabbed Nick's arms as the Knighties tensed, moving between the 'Pack and their friend.
"Stay cool, Nick," Cath said forcefully. "Stay cool or this going to turn into a mess."
Nick was caught between joy and anger; he tightened his jaw, but nodded, letting the Knighties lead him to the table across from NatPack. He stopped only long enough to trade nods with Vachon.
Janette appeared out of nowhere, on the far side of Natalie from Nick, the point where the NatPack guard was weakest. None of them were even looking her way. She put a hand on the nearest one's shoulder. The NatPacker turned and stared, moving aside as she stepped forward, as much out of pure surprise as anything else. The next had a similar reaction, and the next, until Janette was standing directly behind Natalie.
Then she put a hand on her shoulder. Natalie turned, and Janette softly broke the silence, "May I sit with you?"
Natalie, much like her followers, merely stared for a moment. Then something in her gaze softened. She gestured to the chair nearest her. "Please."
Janette slid smoothly into the seat, not even glancing in Nick's direction. But her act, and the clear statement behind it, by no means went unnoticed. Nick winced visibly. The Knighties closed ranks even further. And the silence reigned supreme once again.
Something had to break. Something did.
"Dammit!" Tara frowned furiously at the broken glass behind the bar, then noticed the entire room's eyes on her. She colored. "Sorry."
While everyone's attention was diverted, Natalie caught Nick's eye through the crowd of people between them. She raised her eyebrows. Nick paused, then reluctantly nodded. The two rose, their mutual buffer zones rising with them. Janette, however, remained precisely where she was. They got as close as they could... Nick could only see the top of Natalie's head in all those people. Finally her voice could be heard, "Guys, do you mind?" A few NatPackers looked reluctant, but Jennie was already moving away slowly, her eyes firmly planted on Nick, just waiting for a sudden move. They started to trickle after her.
Nick, in turn, pleaded with his own, "Yeah, we could use a little privacy, here." Perri immediately put up her hands to forestall the inevitable protests, and she and Cath started herding them in the direction of the NatPack. If they couldn't protect him directly, they were sure as hell going to protect him indirectly.
Nick sized up Natalie, using both natural and supernatural senses. "How are you feeling?" he asked, his hands behind his back, staring intensely at her chin.
She was very calm in her reply, gazing directly into his eyes, her arms crossed in front of her. "I'm fine."
His eyes rose to meet hers, but his face remained blank, and his arms crossed his chest as well, as if of their own will. "That's nice to know," he replied, a little pointedly.
"Really?" An unpleasant smile began to creep into her expression. "I didn't know you cared."
Robbi couldn't remain silent any longer. "Oh, that was low," she stage-whispered.
Amy Hull glared at her. "I think trying to murder your best friend kind of redefines low, don't you?"
Remarkably, Nick was keeping his cool. For the most part. "I did what you asked me to."
"Remember that part?" Dotti pointed out to Kelly, the closest NatPacker.
"Would you like me to get a dictionary and define 'forever' for you?" Natalie was starting to enunciate very clearly.
"Yeah, you'll find it right under 'foreplay.'" That was said just a touch louder than was intended, and prompted sharp glares from both of them in the general vicinity of the NatPack, which caused both sides to inspect the ceiling, the floor, the walls, their nails, anything at all, as long as it wasn't those two.
Nick was really fraying at this point. "Natalie, I believe I told you what would happen. Several times, if memory serves."
Natalie was simply incredulous at this point, and didn't bother to keep her volume low anymore. "Exactly! And you agreed to bring me across if it came to that!"
"Well, what was I supposed to do? I told you no, you came back. I told you no again, and you came back again. What did you expect?" Nick shouted back.
"You should have said no again, dammit! As many times as it took! I can't believe you'd just accidentally 'slip' and KILL ME! 'Oops, sorry Nat, didn't mean to drain you to the point of death, it just kind of happened...' That is not going to fly with me, Nick. I know you better than that."
"Oh, please. Whatever happened to 'I knew the risks when I signed on'?" Perri wasn't even hiding her annoyance anymore.
"And that excuses Nick's total irresponsibility?" Jennie shot back to her, incredulous.
Perri's jaw just dropped, and she turned to face her directly. "And what about Natalie's irresponsibility? The woman had a death wish, no two ways about it!"
"Well, obviously you don't know me as well as you thought! I've warned you from the beginning how this might turn out! What, did you just not believe me?" Nick responded hotly to Natalie.
But the NatPackers and Knighties were starting to lose interest, jumping instead into a battle they themselves could fight.
"You have got to be kidding me! Nick knew he was about to kill his best friend, would have, if we hadn't gotten there, and this is Natalie's fault? I'm sorry, we're talking premeditated murder, here!"
"No, we're talking suicide, and manipulating Nick into doing her dirty work for her!" was Sandra's hot reply.
Instant pandemonium. Knighties were shouting at NatPackers, who were starting to get red-faced in the effort to simply out-volume them. (Amy had, actually, been pretty redfaced for days, and on Jennie the red of her face clashed strangely with all of the orange.) The topics ranged from Nick's and Natalie's personal habits, to work relationship, to physical appearance...no touchy subject was left unhammered, no sore spot left unprodded. They let it all hang out. At about fifty decibels.
Nick and Nat had fallen silent somewhere along the line. Now they watched their factions going at it like a couple of tennis spectators, their heads moving back and forth as one side, then the other, escalated.
Vachon watched the entire proceedings with the air of a sociologist confronting a bizarre, but entertaining, native ritual. When Nick and Nat started trying (unsuccessfully) to get the attention of their respective factions, he finally gave up and let loose with a New York taxi cab whistle.
Most of the eardrums in the room shattered, the shouting died down quickly, leaving only Cath talking, nodding understandingly and making agreeing noises as a NatPacker ranted. Even that stopped as the silence sank in -- Cath met an assortment of furious Knightie eyes, winced, and slunk over to hide behind Perri, who looked disgusted at the world in general and her co-leader in particular.
"Thank you," Nick told Vachon.
"Anytime," Vachon answered cheerfully, leaning back against a table.
"While both of us appreciate the...support...we're being offered," Nick started, "this really is between the two of us. So, let us work it out, please?"
The NatPack looked ready to object; Natalie gave them a pleading look. Perri turned a dull red and Jennie studiously examined the ceiling. Everyone else found somewhere else to look besides Nick and Natalie.
Susan had slipped from behind the bar and opened the door to the Raven's office. "Here you go."
Nick and Natalie thanked her, walked in, and let the door close behind them.
Jennie and Perri watched them go, then, without saying another word, they turned and walked back to their tables, ignoring the existence of the other faction.
The Vaqueros and the N&NPack, who had been afraid they were going to have to break up a riot, relaxed slightly, leaning against walls or dropping to the floor as clothing and dignity allowed. Susan took her cue and motioned to Tara, who quickly mobilized Miklos and the other Ravenettes. They started circling the room, delivering booze to the ones they knew needed it -- Perri, Jennie, Cath and Tara herself topped that list -- and getting orders from the others.
Gradually, the tension in the room started to decrease. The members of the non-warring factions started to mingle with each other and the two silent factions in the middle, and something resembling peace began to be restored.
Susan opened the car door and headed for the hose and bucket. Flipping the spray cap on the hose to 'death-ray,' she turned, took aim . . . .
And then dropped the hose, sighed, and went back and raised the ragtop of the car. Okay, so maybe she was getting soft in her old age. But Nick wasn't any too stable now. Doing damage to a car beloved by a not-too-stable vampire was just NOT smart.
But she didn't turn the hose from the 'death-ray' setting. And she didn't close the windows all the way . . . .
"AAARRGGGHHHHH!" The Banshee Squeak of Rage wasn't quite comperable to Valerie's howl, but it was enugh to make Susan blink in pain, without letting go of the hose.
Perri stood in the back door to the Raven, shaking with anger. "Susan, what the hell are you doing? The damn windows are open!"
Susan blinked again. "Washing the car. I told you I was going to."
"Susan." Perri was enunciating now. "The. Windows. Are. Open."
"Oh, yeah. Right." Susan started to let go of the hose, but was distracted by echoes of the Squeal of Rage, as Knighties and members of almost every other faction appeared behind Perri. Before anyone could move, there was sort of a mass Knightie rush towards Susan.
She did the only thing possible to defend herself. She turned the hose on them.
They stopped as the death-ray stream of water hit them. A few even had the reflexes to get out of the way, which, unfortunately, left the field of fire behind them wide-open.
As the stream of water soaked part of the NatPack, a Die-Hard, one or two Ravenettes, a few Mercs and damn near every Knightie, Susan had just enough time to realize this might have been a mistake.
Perri sucked in her breath as the stream of ice cold water hit her, soaking instantly through her black jeans and v-neck T-shirt. Her bangs were plastered to her forehead, her hair dripping down her back.
"I really hate being wet," she muttered in shock, trying to formulate a better response.
Next to her, an equally-soaked Jennie pushed orange hair away from her face. "Well, at least the Caddie is clean."
Yes," Amy Hull echoed, just as wet, but taking it better thanks to the cushion of straight gin and vodka. She grinned only slightly maliciously. "Inside and out."
Perri turned, slowly, to the two NatPackers, then looked at her co-leader. Shared Brain Syndrome kicked in -- there was only one appropriate response to such sacrelidge. Walking as one, they reached Susan's bucket, picked it up, turned - and threw half the contents at the NatPackers.
Jennie and Amy tried to get out of the way, but were deluged by a gallon of soapy water, which fogged their glasses and left bubbles on their shirts. The Knighties started laughing as they tried to wipe their faces.
"Ewww, you got soap in my drink!" Amy complained.
Then the NatPack gestalt kicked in. "You realize, of course," Jennie said slowly, orange eye makeup running down her face, "this means war."
That, apparently, was the signal for all hell to break loose.
Which it promptly did. Two Natpackers lunged for the hose, wresting it away from Susan, who gave it up willingly and got out of the line of fire fast. A moment of fumbling, then three Knighties were soaked as they went for sponges, which did not stop them from throwing said sponges at the closest NatPackers. One went flying past its target and impacted directly on Dianne DeSha's chest, as she stood placing side-bets with Dawn Steele.
Dianne gasped, then looked down at her now-soapy T-shirt. Wih a resigned look, she then recovered the sponge, worked her way through the fire (water?) zone, and dunked the sponge in a bucket. Then she calmly squeezed it out over Catherine's head.
Perri, holding a sponge of her own, considered retaliating on her co-leader's behalf, but decided it wouldn't be much fun. Emptying her own sponge over Abby's head looked much more entertaining.
"Excuse me, mind if I borrow this?" Jennie asked Amy, taking the glass full of ice cubes, gin and soap from her. Working her way up behind Dianne she dumped the entire mess down the back of the merc's shirt. Dianne whipped around, murder in her eyes, as Jennie ducked and ran for cover behind some other Natpackers.
Maryann grabbed a sponge and bucket with soapy water that had been forgotten on the ground. By now everyone was well on the way to being totally water logged. She took careful aim (well, as careful as you can be after a few beers) and let loose the water-drenched sponge. It flew in the general direction of the a group of NatPackers that were busy regrouping. She didn't see who it hit, but she did hear a splat as the sponge made connect with NatPacker flesh.
The group of NatPackers turned to see where the assault had come from. What they saw was Maryann standing over by a bucket of water waving happily at them with soap covered hands. They advanced on her with a howl. In pure self-defense Maryann grabbed the bucket of soapy water and hurled it in the path of the on coming NatPack. She then beat a retreat towards the Knighties. There was, after all, safety in numbers.
In minutes, the entire area around the Raven was soaked, as were the occupants. Screams of glee echoed over the walls as Knighties and NatPackers, with various other participants dragged, pulled or otherwise involved, soaked each other with delight and abandon, working off months of frustration and worry in one glorious water fight. Jennie and Perri grappled over the hose, getting completely drenched in the process, before both started giggling so hard they couldn't stand. A team of four Knighties jumped a group of three NatPackers, both sides throwing sponges in a wild storm of soap and water. Not horribly effectively, however, since aim was being complicated by lack of vision, alcohol and laughter.
All in all, it was a helluva way to fight a war.
Vachon leaned against the open door, watching the fight in high entertainment. Thigns had been more interesting since he'd been revived since... well, since the last time he'd met up with this particular bunch of lunatics. He was strongly tempted to let the fight carry on -- all participants looked as if they were enjoying themselves hugely, and he was certainly enjoying the impromptu wet T-shirt contest -- but he was on a mission.
A stream of water and five sponges intersected on him immediately, apparently out of sheer reflex. He watched with amusement as all of them missed. "In case any of you are interested," he pitched his voice to carry over the brouhaha, "Nick and Natalie have emerged. They're in the Raven."
A moment of total silence. Dripping NatPackers caught in mid-wrestle with soapy Knighties stopped and stared. In a moment of foresight, Vachon got the hell out of the way, before the wet mob could make it to their feet and trample him on their way in.
Amazingly, no one slipped on the wet floor during the stampede.
Nick and Natalie were sitting, more or less calmly, at the back of the Raven when their factions re-appeared. Nick started to say something, then the condition of the clothes and hair sank in.
Perri self-conciously shoved her hair away from her face, all too aware of the water puddling on the floor around her feet. "Um, you two didn't kill each other. That's cool."
"Apparently all of you tried to," Natalie observed, smothering a smile.
Jennie smiled happily. "You can't drown anyone on dry land. We tried."
"What's the verdict?" Kelly asked.
Nick and Natalie exchanged glances. "A truce," Natalie answered carefully. "The details of which are private."
"We're friends," Nick inserted before anyone could do more than get their mouths open to protest. "And you don't have to try to kill each other anymore. that's all there is to it."
A few people might have tried to object, but both Nick and Natalie looked very firm about the whole thing. After a thirty-second stare down, Perri sighed and reached for the nearest drink. "To friendship," she toasted the room in general, before downing the shot in one gulp.
Jennie looked at her, then echoed the sigh, and the toast. "To friendship."
Amy Hull just stared in disgust at her wet clothing. "I hate wet shoes."
Catherine handed her a new drink. "So get too drunk to feel them. I'm going to."
Amy thought about it, then shrugged. "Might as well."
Nick and Natalie sat, not touching but with a smaller distance betweeen them then there had been a half-an-hour ago, and watched as the Ravenettes started passing out towels and cries of rage when any wet body approached a piece of furniture, as the factions, disgruntled at missing the good part, tried to drown their sorrows with something other than water.
All in all, Nick reflected, it was a helluva way to fight a war. Looking at Natalie, he saw the same thought reflected on her face as she called for a drink.
Then a hand decended on his shoulder and he looked up to see Janette standing next to them. He gulped and reached for his own drink. Something told him he was going to need it.