2.10. Slow Burn
Life returns to quiet domesticity. Before “That Batshit Vampire Thing”--as Lark likes to call it--Nikolas had hired a contractor to build a small addition to the house. Construction is quick, and soon the loft is expanded to include two small rooms: an alcove bedroom for Bjorn and a small bedroom for Lark and Nikolas.
The newfound privacy is welcome, though it’s used for nothing more than sleep. Ever since That Batshit Vampire Thing, their conversations have been short and erratic. And Nikolas--perhaps as to be expected--has been cold and distant, abandoning his normal affection in lieu of brooding silence. Lark is trying to be understanding. It is, after all, an enormous change he’s facing. But it’s beginning to take a toll, and a sense of isolation creeps in, bringing with it the paradox of being both tied to and completely severed from someone.
So she’s surprised one morning when Nikolas grabs her tight, buries his face in her neck, and takes a deep breath.
“What are you doing?” She laughs nervously.
He doesn’t answer, instead continuing to breathe in deeply and theatrically.
Lark smells both floral and musky, a hypnotic scent that he’s surprised he has never noticed before. The smell transports him momentarily back in time, to a hunting trip with his father. They had gone to Hidden Springs on vacation, what his father called “father-son bonding” but what felt more like punishment to Nikolas. Their trip culminated in a somber hunt, several grueling hours of combing through the woods, rifles in hand. And in the waning moments of their hunt, they finally happened on a stag.
Nikolas made the killing shot, though his father had guided him. Despite his hand in the slaughter, Nikolas refused to help his father cut the stag’s corpse, and faked being sick so he wouldn’t have to eat the venison his mother made. He was ten at the time.
Despite his best attempts to forget, Nikolas can still remember the smell of it all: the forest--a mix of freshwater, wildflowers, and pine trees--then the gunpowder. The blood that followed, metallic and heavy. The sizzling smell of meat as his mother cooked it, both enticing and repulsive.
His mouth begins to water.
“Nikolas?” Lark’s voice snaps him out of it, “what’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing,” he gives her a quick kiss on the lips.
A silent breakfast follows. Just a few days earlier it would have been a lively scene as the two traded stories and jokes. But every question is followed with a monosyllabic answer. Lark can’t stand it anymore.
“So when are you going to change?” Lark blurts out.
Nikolas blinks at her, “I’m already dressed.”
“When are you going to change into a werewolf, I mean.”
“I knew what you meant.”
“I’m sorry,” she shrugs, “it’s just--it seems like a big deal, and you haven’t talked about it, like, at all.”
Nikolas sighs, “Karl says the virus takes a couple of days to incubate, so it’s probably almost time. When it’s done and I’m fully infected or whatever, I’ll change with every full moon, or any time I, uh, ‘lose control.’ That’s how he put it.”
Lark chews her food thoughtfully. “Are you scared?”
“No,” Nikolas lies, “I mean, it’s...weird, I guess. Just a couple days ago I didn’t know werewolves existed. And now I’m going to change into one.” It is frightening, of course, but there’s also something exhilarating about it. The other night, Karl was unstoppable. He was strong, fast, physically superior to just about anyone in that room. And that’s what awaits Nikolas.
Lark nods, “it’s a lot to take in.”
Nikolas stares at her for a moment, his head tilted. “Did you know they exist?”
“Werewolves? Did you know they exist? Because you didn’t seem that surprised.”
“Oh. Um, no. I didn’t. I mean I always thought Karl was weird but mostly I figured he was like a secret pervert or something. He still could be, I guess. He’s strange, right? Always looks at me all creepy.”
Nikolas ignores her obvious attempt to change the conversation. “How about those two wizards?”
“Mages,” Lark corrects him, “and, um, yeah. I knew about them. I’ve known Dom and Bastian almost as long as I’ve known you, actually.”
“It’s complicated,” she shifts uncomfortably in her chair.
“More complicated than this?”
“It’s just something I don’t like to talk about,” Lark says. It’s both far too absurd and strikingly intimate to describe the origin of their friendship: the mages came to her for help finding Bastian’s lost daughter, who had been kidnapped by a fairy who also tried to take Lark. Besides, Bastian and Dominic are so secretive she feels like she would be betraying her confidence by telling Nikolas.
“I see,” Nikolas wrinkles his nose, “how close are you to--them?”
“I’m closer to you,” Lark smiles.
“Hmm,” Nikolas grins back, “good answer.”
“Right? I feel so smooth right now.”
“And your brother? Is he…?”
“Magical? No. He’s just blue. Or green. That’s a huge debate in my family actually--”
“Why are you ears pointed?” Nikolas interrupts.
“I don’t know,” she shrugs, “why is your hair blond?”
“So your family--there’s nothing weird about you?”
“Nothing more than normal I suppose,” she wriggles in her seat. She knows why her ears are pointed and why Luke is blue, but she just can’t bring herself to tell Nikolas. Or, more accurately, she doesn’t want to tell him. There are some secrets she prefers to keep.
“So how do you know them then?”
“I just do, okay? Bastian is, uh, a friend of my mom’s, and so I met him and Dom when they were visiting a few years ago. My mom knows a bunch of weird people.”
“Have you talked to him recently?”
“Who, Bastian?” This conversation is giving Lark whiplash.
“Um, yeah. He texted me the day after the--well, you know.”
“Do you talk to him often?”
She pauses, “we talk sometimes. Not much.”
“Keep it that way? Or less, even?”
Lark furrows her brow. “Are you asking me to cut him out of my life? I don’t think I’m comfortable with that.”
“He almost got you fucking killed, Lark,” Nikolas snaps.
“And he tried to fix it!” She retorts, “he came here to cast that ritual or whatever. And him and his dad helped with Gay-us or whatever his name was. And then he healed me. I would have been dead for sure if he hadn’t come to the island to help.”
“I don’t understand how you can be so forgiving,” he snorts, “it’s…” He trails off.
“It makes you seem dumb.”
“You’re calling me dumb now?”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying--it just makes you seem dumb.”
“Was I dumb when I forgave you?” She stands up, “like, a lot, too. When you stole my phone, plus all those times you lied to me--lie to me, I should say. Because once a liar, always a liar.” She turns on her heel and storms out of the room.
“I didn’t almost kill you,” Nikolas raises his voice as he follows her.
“That I know of,” she replies, “who knows what kind of shit you get up to with you ‘job.’” She mimes air quotes, overemphasizing the gesture.
“I do everything for you,” he growls, “everything. And this is how you act--like I’m nothing. Worthless. I’m asking you to do one thing, Lark. Why can’t you just do it for me?”
“That’s really what you think of me? That I’m dumb and selfish?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“Hold on--you just said it was dumb of me to forgive Dominic, and then you accused me of taking you for granted.”
“But you know what you are? Duplicitous,” she stumbles over the word, “that’s how Luke described you once, and it’s perfect. Maybe it’s fate you’re going to be a werewolf--this way you’ll literally have two faces.” She puffs out her chest, proud of her clumsy insult.
Nikolas snorts and rolls his eyes.
“And what about Karl? You forgave him! If you can forgive him for what he did to you, why is it so bizarre that I forgive Dom?”
“It was an accident, Lark.”
“It was an accident with Dom, too!”
“No it wasn’t. I mean, call me ‘duplicitous’ or whatever, but Dominic knew what he was doing and he knew he was endangering you.”
Lark shakes her head, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know that I’m right. And I don’t understand why you won’t just listen to me. I’m not asking for much.”
“You’re asking me to cut someone out of my life. Which, you know, you’ve kind of done before.”
“Yeah right,” he scoffs, “When?”
“With Luke. You give me shit whenever I talk to him.”
“He’s dangerous, Lark. He’s a cop!”
“No, he’s my brother.”
“I’m just trying to protect you,” he seethes, “and our family. And you’re being such a bitch right now.”
She looks at him haughtily, “wow, you are really proving how good you are to me right now.” She turns and bounds up the stairs, ignoring Nikolas as he calls after her.
Lark is scheduled to work at Bartleby’s that evening. There are still a few hours before her shift begins, but she decides to get ready anyway. She pulls on a tight shirt, her leather jacket, and applies a fresh coat of lipgloss. She runs her hands through her dreads, framing her face in the process. Lark knows she isn’t exceptional in many areas, but she does know she’s exceptionally pretty. Sometimes it feels like her only strength.
Lark grabs her phone off the vanity and opens her most recent conversation with Dominic. It’s just a series of short messages, most of which are Dominic apologizing and inquiring about her well-being and Lark reassuring him. The last one, though remains unanswered despite having been sent several hours earlier: “Can we hang out sometime? I really want to talk to you in person.”
She hesitates before typing her response: “sorry, been busy with the spawn. I’ll be @ Bartleby’s tonight if you wanna come by.”
His reply (“great, I’ll be there.”) comes almost too quickly. She smiles.
Nikolas, meanwhile, is in Bjorn’s new room, the closest he feels he can get to Lark without being in the same room as her.
He can tell caring for their son exhausts Lark, but he truly enjoys it. Nikolas always wanted a big family--perhaps to counteract his lonely childhood as an only child--but he never thought that parenting would come so naturally to him. He also never thought he would want another child so soon, and so desperately.
Like that’ll happen after today.
“I really fucked up,” he tells his son, “didn’t I?”
The pianist--a newcomer to the island named Amara--is talented. But there’s no way she’s going to buy any drinks, and it seems her performance isn’t drawing in any customers. Lark sighs. Looks like she won’t be making any money tonight.
So she’s overjoyed when she spots Dominic walking into the bar.
“Hey,” she throws her arms around him, “thanks for coming.” She’s surprised at how tightly he returns the hug, and for how long. His hand slides down to her hip where it remains for a couple of seconds before he jerks it away.
“How are you feeling?”
“Pretty good, actually. It looks like I’ll have a couple of scars on my neck, but honestly I haven’t felt this good since before I got pregnant with Bjorn. I mean, healthwise of course.”
“That’s good,” Dom smiles
“How are you? And how’s your dad?”
“My father returned to Bridgeport, but I decided to stay here for awhile.”
“Ew, why?” Lark wrinkles her nose, “I mean, Aurora Skies is nice and everything but there’s like nothing to do here.”
“It’s pretty here,” Dominic smiles, “untouched, in a way. Bridgeport is so polluted and loud. And living with my dad is...it drives me crazy, to say the least.”
“So where are you staying?”
“Just around the block. I’m subletting an apartment for a couple of months.”
“And then what?”
“Don’t know,” Dominic shrugs.
“So from all your texts it seems like you really wanted to talk. What’s up?”
Dominic looks around the room, his eyes falling on the only other occupant. “Can we talk outside?”
The nights are becoming cooler and cooler as winter approaches. Lark, a native to the frigid climate, is fine but she can see Dominic shivering.
“You okay? Do you want to go back inside?”
“I’m fine,” Dominic sits up straight, “and I’d prefer the privacy, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh?” Lark leans in, “what’s going on?” As far as she can tell, Dominic is always on a quest. She’s excited to see what comes next.
“I’m worried about you,” the words rush out of Dominic’s mouth, slurring together.
Lark knits her brow. “Why? Wait, do you think those vampires will come back? I thought your dad cast a protection spell or something?”
“No,” Dominic shakes his head, “I’m worried about you and Nikolas.”
“Ever since that night, and since we realized he’s going to change, I’ve been, um, concerned about your safety.”
“So what are you trying to convince me of?”
“I’m not trying to convince you of anything. Like I said, I’m just worried about you.”
A jolt of anger strikes her. “Oh right,” Lark snorts, “like you were worried about my when you stole Nikolas’ face to go on an adventure.” And here it comes again--she’s pathological, apparently unable to have a conversation without arguing.
“I wasn’t thinking,” he hangs his head, “I’m sorry.”
“Really? Because you strike me as the broody type. Also, didn’t you give me a whole lecture once about being more thoughtful or whatever?”
“Okay,” Dominic frowns, “maybe I was thinking, but it was subconscious.”
Dominic shakes his head. “Nothing. I’m not making any sense. How has Nikolas been?”
“Fine,” Lark sits up unnaturally straight, “just fine.”
“He hasn’t been, um, losing his temper or anything?”
“I don’t think this is any of your business."
“So that’s a yes.”
“So what if he has, Dominic? He’s going through a lot. No thanks to you.”
“I know. And I’m sorry. Really, truly I am. If I could take it all back, I would in a heartbeat.”
“You’re not supposed to apologize so much,” she deflates, “it makes it hard to stay mad at you.”
“I know I’m sticking my nose in something that’s none of my business,” Dominic sighs, “and you’re strong enough to make your own choices. It’s just--your life was complicated before. Or I imagine it was with his, um, ‘career.’ But lycanthropy could exacerbate things. I’ve been reading about it, and his self control is going to be tested. Karl told us he’d been a werewolf his whole life, and he still completely lost it that night. Imagine what it’s like for a new lycanthrope, much less one who had no inkling of magic before his transformation.”
“So you’re his partner. Even if you’re staying the same, he’s not. That’s bound to pose some challenges. And it’s understandable if it’s been difficult on you. I, um, don’t want you to feel alone during this. Especially since it’s my fault.”
Lark’s face softens, her sudden raged ebbed out. “Nikolas has been angry lately,” she says, “but I also felt it’s like he’s been more…”
“Truthful?” Dominic finishes her thought for her.
Her eyes widen in surprise, and then she nods. “He’s always been hard to read. He’s good at hiding stuff, which makes sense I guess. But since that...that night, it’s like I don’t know him, but he’s also not a good liar anymore. It sounds dumb, right?”
“I’m not sure I follow you.”
Lark sighs in frustration. “The only Nikolas I’ve ever known has been really smooth and persuasive and calm. But that’s gone like this,” she snaps her fingers, “So we had a spat this morning, for example. We’ve argued before, right? But today he was rough. It’s not like him. I guess it’s like, Lying Nikolas felt more genuine than he is now, when he’s telling me exactly what he wants.” She can tell from Dominic’s face that she still isn’t making sense.
“And what does he want?”
“Nothing important,” Lark scoffs, “he’s just being a baby.”
“But you feel safe with him? He’s not, um,” Dominic searches for a diplomatic word, “pressuring you, or making you uncomfortable or anything?”
“Is that what you want to hear?” She looks at him haughtily, “because yes, I feel perfectly safe with him. We’re fine, Dominic.”
“I’m glad,” he smiles weakly, “I don’t know what I would do if I had ruined your relationship on top of everything else.”
Lark searches his face. He seems both genuinely distressed and relieved. But she can also tell there’s so much more he wants to say. But he can’t. She won’t let him.
“You’re so dramatic,” she laughs and slaps at the air, “everything’s good, Dominic. And you’ll see--Nikolas and I will bounce back from this.” She says it with enough confidence to convince even herself.
“I don’t mean to be dramatic,” Dominic mutters.
“How about a game of horseshoes?” she suggests, “It’ll warm you up. ‘cause I can see you’re still shivering.” And truth be told, she doesn’t want to go home quite yet.
Dominic demurely acquiesces, patiently watching as Lark demonstrates how to play. And it turns out he’s a natural. He wins the game, with no forfeiture on Lark’s part. Of course, she’s never been exceptionally lucky at these sorts of games.
“It’s getting late,” Lark glances at her phone, “I should probably head home.” It’s past midnight, and she has five unread text messages, all from Nikolas.
“Sorry for keeping you out so late,” Dominic smiles, “but I’m glad you decided to see me.” He holds his arms open, gesturing for a hug.
Lark’s heart skips a beat. She can’t do this.
“High five,” Lark declares, holding her hand up. Dominic awkwardly slaps her hand. “I’ll see you soon, okay?”
He nods, and the friends part way. Lark walks briskly the couple of blocks home, forgetting to open any of the unread messages from Nikolas.
Perhaps if she had, she would be so shocked.
Shocked, that is, to come home and find a newly transformed werewolf scratching up her sofa.
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