It was not long after sunset when a man's bellow of pain somewhere up the street interrupted the Knighties' conversation. Nick was at the window in a blink, trailed at top mortal speed by the War-jumpy group. What was going on now?
"YooooOOOOOwwWW!" Even if it hadn't spiraled into an alarmingly stratospheric soprano, the second cry clearly did not belong to a man.
The improbable pitch was, however, familiar to a few of the assembled Knighties. "It's Valerie," Perri declared positively. "I'd know that scream anywhere. Not quite the Patented Banshee Special, but close enough."
Nick nodded, having experienced said Banshee Special under his own roof a few Wars before, and threw the window open as confirmation appeared in the form of a tall, reed-thin figure limping around the corner supported by a tall woman with long, curly brown hair. With a quick glance around to be sure no one else would observe him, he flew to the sidewalk next to the injured NatPacker and her companion. The Knightie assemblage was too far away to hear what was said below, but a few seconds later Nick picked Valerie up and headed for the door downstairs, followed closely by the other woman, who they could now see was Linda Rose.
Cath shut the window, and a few moments later the elevator door swung open. "...same damn ankle I racked up three times in ballet, twice in cheerleading, and once in soccer. Stepped in a blankety-blank hole in soccer, too. Walking. Ow," she added as Nick set her on the couch. "Ow ow ow ow ow ow."
"I thought you did the suffer-in-silence dance-through-it thing," Allie said lightly.
"Only when I'm performing. Besides, I've gotten a lot better about it. Ow ow ow ow ow owowowowOW." The last burst of ow's was rather oddly accompanied by laughter, and she clutched Linda Rose's hand for dear life, effectively preventing the EMT from taking over the first aid duties. "Calamity Val strikes again."
"Doesn't seem to be broken." The Knighties had returned to their loose protective formation around Nick, some more protective than others and regarding the NatPackers with some suspicion. They were all friends here, but this War and the events leading up to it were certainly fraying nerves. "Could somebody get an icepack, please?"
"I'm on it," Cath piped up, heading for the kitchen.
Nick looked up at Valerie, and whatever he had been about to say was replaced by "What happened to your hair? Again?"
Confused for a second, she reached up to the very short bob she currently sported. "Oh, yeah. Last War I still looked like a low-rent version of Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, didn't I?" She shrugged. "The black never washed out. Had to chop it off. Ow ow ow. Ow. Good distraction attempt, Nick. Ow. 'A' for effort."
"I tried. Thanks, Cath." He took the icepack the Knightie co-leader held out and centered it on the worst of the swelling. "There's an--" Nick cut himself off with a flash of a grin as Cath handed him the Ace bandage she had found in a kitchen drawer. "Thanks. So what happened, Valerie?"
"Third bozo today tried to take my purse," she grumbled with a shudder. "This one had a knife. I left some nice teethmarks in his arm. Then I stepped in a pothole running away."
"After I convinced you to run away," Linda Rose put in. "Even NatPackers are supposed to know the better part of valour at that point!"
"I know, but it's so annoying. And after that psycho who hijacked the subway yesterday..."
Nick looked up at her in alarm. "You were on that subway train?"
"Yep. And in the bank that got held up Thursday. What's happened to Toronto, anyway? I've spent half the War giving statements to cops. Ow."
"Not Toronto," Linda Rose corrected. "Just you."
Sitting next to Valerie, Perri quipped, "You've been hanging around Natalie too much. I think you've caught her luck."
"Hopeless trouble magnet," Valerie muttered in an odd voice. Then she blinked and turned her attention back to Nick, whose reaction to the mention of Natalie hadn't gone unnoticed.
"Nick, I'm sorry--" Perri began.
He half-smiled, with an effort. "It's all right, Perri."
"That's why we're here, actually," Valerie said. Finished wrapping the ice to her ankle, Nick carefully lifted her foot into Perri's lap to elevate it. "Ow. We thought it was about time you knew she's okay, Nick."
"Past time," Sandra commented, frowning slightly.
"Maybe," Valerie allowed. "But we've been a little busy making sure she was okay."
"And that she stayed that way," Linda Rose added. "Besides, we just found out from Kira that Nick was around to tell."
"So, she is with you," Perri said with an air of triumph. The two NatPackers just nodded.
"And she's okay?" Nick asked urgently. "She's not...?"
"She's alive, and she isn't a vampire," Linda Rose confirmed. "And pretty close to up-and-about. GT's making her go easy on that, though."
"Close?" Nick repeated in a whisper. "After three months?"
"We won't sugar-coat it for you, Nick," Valerie told him solemnly. "It was a close call. Too close."
He nodded, swallowed. "You said Mary GT is taking care of her?"
"We all are," Linda Rose answered.
"Ever since...ever since you both came up short on marbles at the same time," Valerie added.
Grimacing slightly at the flippant reference to that terrible night, Nick asked softly, "Can I see her?"
"That's for her to say," Valerie told him. "And she hasn't decided yet. I gotta tell you, Nick...I don't know what I would do in her place."
Nick looked from one NatPacker to the other and back again. "Perri said you guys were...upset."
"That's one way to put it," Linda Rose confirmed. "Some of us more than others."
"And then there's Sharon," Valerie mumbled.
Linda Rose shook her head. "One thing at a time. Sharon is a little much for him right now. Sharon is a little much for us right now. She's been acting very odd--almost like she had been whammied."
"And Jennie and the orange..."
"He definitely doesn't need to hear about that."
"All right, all right," Valerie conceded. "Point is, Nick, we came because we're not quite as...upset as some. But we agreed that you should know."
"Thank you. And...thanks for understanding."
"Oh, we understand all right," Valerie confirmed, her voice taking on a warning tone. "You're not off the hook, buster, not by a long shot. You can't run away from this one."
About ten Knighties started to respond loudly, but Nick waved them to silence. They stayed quiet, but glared at the NatPackers with heat that should have left them in little piles of ashes.
"I know." Nick answered them.
"Do you?" Linda Rose asked, honestly curious. "When we found Natalie lying there in your loft, nearly lifeless in hypovolemic shock...." Linda Rose trailed off--it was too much for her to endure.
It was almost too much for Nick, as he flashed back to that night. "You frightened me to death, taking her like that," he told them in return, remembering those horrible hours searching for Natalie...or her body. "I almost tore Toronto apart. I was so afraid..."
The NatPackers were caught between guilt and justified anger. "We were busy saving her life, Nick," Valerie pointed out. "There wasn't really time to leave a message."
"Wasn't there?" Marcia asked icily, pointedly. "There's been two months to drop any of us a message to get to Nick, somehow. 'Hi Nick, Natalie's alive, so you don't have to kill yourself with worrying.' Your basic self-respecting five-year-old could have managed that much."
Valerie just looked at her stubbornly, and Linda said hotly, "We found her in the loft nearly dead from a huge vampire bite. Would you have left a note? Saying what?--'Hi Nick, we noticed that you left some blood in Nat. Here's where we are taking her if you want to finish dinner?'" She sighed. "We didn't know what to think, until she came around a couple of days later, and Nick was nowhere to be found anyway."
"Look, I don't want to get into this," Nick interrupted before the room temperature could drop any farther. "I'm more than willing to admit what happened was my fault --"
"Like hell it was!" Robbie stated. There was a general murmer of agreement, which Nick stopped with another look.
" -- I just want to see Natalie," he finished.
"It's easy to say 'Oh, it's all my fault' and go hide in the corner," Valerie said softly. "Taking blame is not the same as taking responsibility. And your way of taking blame keeps you from taking responsibility."
"And your way of laying responsibility keeps Natalie from sharing any of that blame or responsibility," Perri observed just as softly. "Or isn't Natalie capable of making any of her own choices?" She shrugged slightly. "It takes two to tango, Val."
Another general murmur of agreement from the Knighties, who'd been growing steadily more hostile. Only Nick's obvious desire to keep the peace was keeping them from NatPack throats at the moment.
"Nobody is denying that, Perri. It does take two." Valerie's jaw tightened as she tried to ignore all of the Knighties. "Bottom line is, Nick, you gotta do better than lip service or we are all going to be as 'upset' as Sharon before you're done. And however hopeless your self-image may be, you don't want that. I guarantee the NatPack on a righteous rampage can do a lot worse to you than even you think you deserve."
Nick chuckled. "I don't doubt it."
He might have been amused, but the Knighties moved forward, their faces set and entirely un-amused. "They'd have to go through us," Dottie said grimly, "And I guarantee none of you would enjoy it."
Valerie looked from face to face, and believed them. Even Perri was looking bloody-minded. She held out her hands in a gesture of peace towards Nick. "I don't believe you're half as rotten as you spend all your energy trying to convince everyone you are," she said, refusing to be intimidated by the Knightie ranks. "But if you keep 'proving' it the way you have been, especially to Nat, you just might manage to convince me. And then I'd have to hurt you. It'd break my heart, but I'll do it if I have to." Valerie was deadly serious now, any hint of teasing drained from her tone so there would be no mistake. "I don't want it to come to that, Nick. Nobody does. It's up to you."
"You're right, Val," Perri said calmly, her grey eyes cool and unreadable, for once. "We don't want it to come to that. But I wouldn't count on being able to hurt him, whatever the circumstances. NatPack reputation notwithstanding, I think you'll find we are just as capable of... over-protectiveness...where Nick is concerned as you are with Natalie." She smiled, just a little. "Please don't go there, my friend."
Valerie gave her an understanding nod, and the Knighties who had been tensed relaxed somewhat. "We came to open the lines of communication," she said. "And we've done that. We'd better get going." She grimaced at her new injury. "GT's going to be all over my case for this." She moved to unwrap the Ace and remove the ice, then rewrapped the swollen ankle.
"Maybe I should give you a lift," Nick said. "You shouldn't be walking to the subway on that."
"Thanks. But I think we'd better call a cab, all things considered." Valerie snapped her fingers. "Oh! I almost forgot! If we come home without the Natmares, we're dead meat."
Nick blinked. "Natmares?"
"Our department," Cath informed him, crossing to where the two identical stuffed orange dragons were stashed. "Safe and sound. We'll be in touch about the meeting."
"Ditto for Jennie. Just as soon as we have a decision from Nat."
"I'll get the cab," Perri volunteered, picking up the phone.
"Tell her I..." Nick looked completely lost at that moment, and impulsively Valerie grasped his hand. "Never mind. Tell her that I want to see her."
"There's a solution," Linda Rose told him positively. "There has to be. Just don't expect everything to be the same."
"Nothing can ever be the same," he agreed.
"The cab'll be here in a minute," Perri informed them.
"And ask Jennie to contact us," Catherine said, still sitting next to Nick. He was quiet, his eyes full of some emotion Valerie didn't really want to interpret.
"We will," Linda answered, then suddenly put her arms around Nick in a fierce hug before she moved to help Valerie to the door. "Take care of yourself, Nick."
He smiled, as Perri said to Valerie, "I hope that Nat will be okay, too." She shut the door gently behind them.