He was sick.
It was something of a unique experience for him. With the exception of that first cure Natalie had tried, he had never been truly sick. Wounded, certainly, hungry...but not sick.
At least he knew who to blame. Natalie again, trying yet another cure, this one a potion resembling one of her protein shakes. She wouldn't tell him what was in it, and he hadn't really wanted to know. Occasionally, he almost regretted asking her to help him.
Most of the time, he blessed the day they had met.
"Earth to Knight. Hey, partner, have you heard a word I said?"
Nick realized Schanke had been talking for some time, and no, he hadn't heard a word of it. "Sorry, Schank," he said, trying to shake off the sickness. "I was...thinking about something else."
"So what else is new? You know, Knight, it's a good thing I'm a tolerant kind of guy. I mean, you never listen, you constantly drift off into your own little dream world..." Don Schanke leaned across Nick's neat desk to reach the box of doughnuts on his own, narrowly avoiding knocking over the stack of paperwork he was supposed to finish the week before, but wouldn't until Cohen nailed him to his desk. He pulled back his prize -- chocolate with sprinkles -- and took a huge bite, without stopping his monologue. "Some guys would've put in for a new partner by now, but not me."
Nick watched Schanke eat with a growing nausea. Not that watching Schanke eat was ever a treat, but it was even worse today. "Yeah, Schank, you're a prince," he managed to force out in something resembling a normal tone of voice.
"I know it." Schanke finished the donut and started to reach for another. Nick stood abruptly, cutting off his access.
"Look, Schanke, I need to go talk to Nat about something. Meet you back here in a little while, okay?"
"Natalie, huh?" Schanke's eyes took on a knowing gleam. "Oh, sure, you run along. Have fun."
Nick shook his head and regretted it as his stomach turned over. "You never give up, do you?"
His partner did his best to look innocent, failing miserably. "Give up what?"
He reached for another doughnut and Nick beat a hasty retreat.
Interlude -- These, Our Actors...
"Where is he?"
Janette didn't look up from her drink. "I would assume he is at the police station. That is where he...works, after all."
"Do you know what is happening?" He was close now, hissing in her ear, though she could hear him perfectly well over the music.
"I know," she answered, still not looking at him. "I have felt it. Felt him slipping away."
"I will not tolerate it."
"Perhaps it is like the last time...another silly 'cure' that will last no longer than a night. Another of his hopeless whims..." She didn't believe it. There was no reason to expect LaCroix would.
"No. This is... something different. Do you know anything about it?"
She only shrugged -- then felt him take her arms in a ruthless grip, pulling her up from the bar stool. Rage creased his features. "He tells you everything, Janette, comes rushing to you with every discovery. What has he done?"
From the corner of her eye, she saw Miklos tense as if to defend her. She shook him away, facing LaCroix, careful not to let her fear show, or he would be on her.
"I have no idea what Nicholas has done this time...nor do I wish to know." She broke away, finishing her glass in one defiant swallow. "I suggest you take it up with him."
For a moment, she didn't think he would let her get away with it. Then, he seemed to relax, to draw a mask over his features. She would rather he had stayed on a rampage.
"I think I will do precisely that." He trailed a finger down her cheek in a parody of gentleness. "Rest assured, my dear, if he has found the way to leave us, he will not keep it for long."
He turned and stalked out.
Janette watched him go, the dancers parting for him instinctively. Then, she motioned for Miklos to bring her another drink. This one she finished in one gulp, before motioning for another.
"What is happening?" Miklos asked gently.
She shook her head, staring into the blood-laced wine. "i will lose one of them tonight," she said quietly. "Nicholas is already going -- and he will not come back." She almost smiled. "I will lose one of them tonight."
"Can you stop it?"
The smile faded. "Non. I started it. But I cannot stop it."
Nick made it to the coroner's office, but not without stopping several times along the way to rest. Grace took one look at him and went instantly into Mother Hen mode.
"Detective, what have you done to yourself?" she scolded, getting up to lend an arm. He was pale as death... not unusual for Nick, but the undertone of green was.
"I'm fine, Grace," he tried to reassure her. It would have worked better if his smile wasn't so weak. "I just need to see Natalie."
"She's finishing up an autopsy -- do you want to go in anyway?"
Normally, he would have. This time....he sent a firm command down to his stomach. "No, Grace, I'll come back later..."
He started to leave and almost fell over. Grace caught him.
"You're not going anywhere, Detective. I'll bring Natalie out here."
She lowered him into a chair before pushing her way into Nat's office. Nick laid his head back against the wall, unable to argue.
Natalie came out a minute later. She had taken the time to remove her bloody scrubs, out of deference to Nick's instincts. "Nick, Grace said you're...sick." Her voice trailed off as she took in his almost unconcious form, slumped in the chair. "Oh my God, you really are sick." She knelt next to him, checking his temperature for Grace's benefit, and almost snatching her hand back. "You're ...warm."
He tried to answer, but didn't quite have the energy. Her doctor's instincts kicked in. "Help me get him into the office," she told Grace.
Between the two of them, they managed to wrestle him in to lie on the table. Natalie started taking vital signs, then remembered Grace's presence.
"I'm sure he'll be okay," she told her nurse. "It looks like the flu. You can go on home, your shift is over."
"You might need some help," Grace protested.
"I'll call Schanke to take him home," Nat said firmly.
Grace had a few more protests, which Nat ignored, all but shoving her out the door before returning to Nick.
His blood pressure was up -- still not normal for a human, but closer. So was his temperature. And there was color in his skin, even if it was green.
He opened one eye and smiled, a sick parody of his usual charming grin. "So, what's the verdict?"
She bit her lips, started to answer, then stopped, and started again. "The medicine I gave you yesterday -- it had an experimental anti-biotic...with a holy water base. Not enough to hurt you, I thought..."
"Is that what's making me so sick? Holy water?"
She was checking his vitals again, barely able to hope. "I won't know for sure, not until I do some blood work. Don't move."
"As if I'm going anywhere..." he groaned. She patted his hand, then reached for her medical bag. She would have to call Cohen, get her to give Nick a sick day...
Nick watched her begin to work through a fog of pain and weariness. Finally, he let his eyes close and sank into sleep.
Interlude -- Spirits
He was searching. Endlessly searching. *What was I looking for?*
He had forgotten. That upset him, because it was important that he find it -- he remembered that much.
A figure suddenly appeared in front of him. She was beautiful, familiar, reaching for him with love and desire. He eagerly reached back -- this, then, was what he had looked for. He remembered.
"We have an endless parade of nights ahead of us," she whispered in his ear, in a voice of infinite promise, before claiming his lips.
Another voice, from behind her. "We are each other. You will always be mine. Eternally." He recognized this one as well, knew him. The man reached out a hand; still holding the woman, he started to go to him, hearing the voice echo in his head.
"You cannot deny what you are. I will never let you go...never let you go...never let you go...."
The hand touched his, cold as ice. He could hear a heart beating, had no idea who it belonged to. He heard the voice over them. "I will never let you go."
He panicked suddenly, hearing the possession in that voice. Was he never to be free again? he turned to run, shoved the woman away. She caught him; he looked down into her face.
"You want to hurt me? Kill me?"
It was a different woman, though no less familiar; more vulnerable, compassionate -- more beautiful, if possible. He heard his own voice, not recognizing it as such. "No. But I might anyway."
She reached up for his face; he caught her hand. "I'm dead." He realized it even as he said it, fought the truth of the words.
"You're not dead." He could almost believe her, until the tall, pale man reappeared, tearing the woman from his arms, baring his fangs.
"Mortals die. Does it really matter how or when?" He lowered the fangs to her neck. He watched in fascination, licking his own lips. "You cannot deny what you are."
He could not deny it. "I can hear her heart." He saw the fangs begin to close, but he was restrained. He couldn't move, didn't want to.
"It beats for you."
*Beats for you...beats for you...beats for you.* "No! LaCroix!"
He leaped forward to rescue the woman, pulled her away. Suddenly he was engulfed in flames, surrounding him and LaCroix. His master.
"You really think you can beat me as a mortal?"
"Go to hell."
"Not before you."
"I'm already there. But no more!" On a cry he lunged forward. There was a stake in his hand. He didn't know where it had come from, but he used it. LaCroix stumbled back, into the flames, becoming part of them. He felt the bonds around him breaking, falling away into ashes.
"No more." He fell to his knees, let the darkness overtake him.
Natalie shook him hard, trying to snap him out of the dreams. Nightmares, judging from the way he was thrashing around, moaning and muttering in what sounded like French.
He didn't respond to her voice and she was beginning to consider slapping him when he suddenly went still. Too still.
She groped frantically for his wrist, searching for a pulse -- and found it almost immediately, beating strong and regularly. His skin was warm to the touch and healthy color has replaced the pale green pallor. She was almost afraid to hope.
"Nick?" she whispered.
He heard. His eyes opened, but it was a moment before he was able to focus, to remember where he was.
His body seemed strangely heavy, but his head was light, empty. Something was missing....He sat up slowly. Strong arms immediately steadied him.
"I'm here. How do you feel?"
It was a hard question to answer. "Different," he said, after thinking about it. "Strange." He looked at her for the first time, saw the suppressed excitement in her eyes. "What's happened to me?"
She forced down the bubbling emotions, choosing her words carefully. "Your vital signs are stronger than I've ever seen them -- human. I took some blood samples while you were asleep." She had to stop, to breathe. "Nick, they're changing. Becoming normal. The virus is disappearing."
"Then...I'm cured?" He could hardly bear to hope. Then he remembered the dream...and knew it was true.
Her growing smile matched his. "I won't know for sure until I run some tests, but...it looks good. No real side effects have shown up--" He lifted an eyebrow, remembering the nausea of the last day. She read his face like a book. "Nick, that was completely expected. Your body is trying to change to something it hasn't been for 800 years. It needs time to adjust."
"But when it finishes adjusting -- I'll be cured. For real this time."
"Don't get ahead of yourself," Nat tried to calm him down. She remembered the last time all to well. "It could be. You're still tired, there's none of the euphoria that hit you and it took much longer to work -- those are all good signs."
"Feeling as if I've got lead weights on my back is good?" he grinned slightly. He could almost begin to believe...
Nat returned his grin. "Well, you can't go around lifting safes anymore, that's for sure." She tried to be serious, to prepare him, in case. "Nick, I can't guarantee anything."
His grin had faded, replaced by something else. She didn't understand the acceptance, but saw her own tears reflected there. After all these years... She reached out, wiped his cheek with a gentle touch. He caught her hand to look at it -- only water there. No blood. He smiled again, kissed her hand, no longer sure if he was laughing or crying.
"Am I interrupting something?"
Natalie started to jump away at the sound of Schanke's voice. Nick held her hand firmly, refusing to let her leave. "Not much, Schank. Just a miracle."
Schanke looked confused. "The only miracle I know about is Cohen letting me go early to take you home. I think she's developing a soft spot for you, Knight."
Nick laughed. "Somehow I doubt that. And I can get home on my own, thanks."
"No you can't," Nat said sternly. "You're still sick and I'm not leaving you alone for a while. Not after last time. Schank, could you help me get him to the Caddie?"
"Sure." Schanke wandered further into the room to lever a shoulder under his partner, while Natalie came in from the other side. Nick tried to fight them, but quickly realized he did need the help, when the room started spinning around him. He finally let them half-carry him to the Caddie.
"Let me get my car and I'll help you unload him at the loft," he told Nat. "Then I'm heading for home and dinner...and Myra."
"Thanks, Schank." Nick said, his eyes closed. He was asleep before they made it out of the parking garage.
Interlude -- Vision
Janette was not crying. Not really.
The Raven had closed an hour before, earlier than usual, but Janette had insisted. The owner's dark mood had been casting such a pall over the club that not even Alma had argued with her too much.
Now, Alma hovered at the other end of the bar, huddled around Miklos with the other fledglings who haunted the Raven. None of them really knew what was happening, but they understood enough to feel the foundations of their world shake beneath them.
Janette was too far gone in her misery to care. She kept searching for Nicholas, for the bond that had joined them for centuries, But it was gone.
All the times Nicholas had stormed away from LaCroix, leaving her behind as well, he had never been able to break away entirely; part of him had always been hers. Occasionally, she had even claimed it.
She reached blindly for the bottle on the bar next to her...how many was that tonight? She'd lost count.
A gentle hand kept her from lifting the bottle. Her head jerked up and she snarled automatically. Miklos flinched, but didn't let go.
"It's happened, then." It wasn't a question.
The snarl faded in the face of Miklos' concern. It was too much effort to maintain anyway. "Yes. He has found his cure. The fool."
"What will you do?"
She shook her head slowly. "Je ne sais pas."
"What will LaCroix do?"
She half-laughed, a cold, humorless sound. "You know very well what he will do."
"If Nick has found his way across, he will not allow himself to be brought back. Nor will his doctor friend allow it. LaCroix must know that."
"He knows. He does not care. He will do as he pleases." She ran her fingers along the rim of her glass, her lips tightening. "And God help them both."
Miklos started to say something else, but she stopped him with a glare. "Non! I will *not* be caught between them again. Nicholas made his own choices. Let him live with them."
"Or die with them?"
She had no answer. But the stem of her glass snapped in her fingers.
"You need a ride back to the station, Nat?" Schanke asked, heading for the door.
"No thanks, Schanke," Natalie answered from where she was sitting by Nick, who was sprawled on the couch under a blanket. "I'm going to stay here and keep an eye on him."
"Good luck. Myra swears by chicken soup for the flu, give it a try." He stopped in the doorway to look back at Nick. "Take care, partner. And I can't wait for you to start the day shift. At last, I can keep some decent hours."
"Sounds good to me too, Schank. Thanks." Nick watched him go, listening for his footsteps down the hall. He couldn't hear them.
"Anyone home?" Nat teased gently. "I asked if you needed anything."
He thought about it, taking in his physical condition. He did feel hungry. He looked over at the refrigerator, but for the first time in too long, the blood inside held no interest for him. What did sound interesting was... "Chicken soup. That sounds good."
Nat blinked in shock. "Chicken soup? Really?"
"Yeah. Myra swears by it."
"Oookay." This was going to take getting used to, she realized. "Well, since I know you don't have any food in the house, I'm going to run to that store down the block..."
"There's a grocery store down the block?"
"Yes, Nick, that's where other people buy food. That's where you're going to buy food." She got up, reaching for the jacket she had just taken off. "I'll be right back."
He caught her hand. "Don't be long."
She squeezed it gently, marveling at the feel of his warm skin, the tenderness in his eyes. "I won't be," she promised, before extracting her hand and leaving.
He didn't try listening this time, just sank into the comfort of the blanket, savoring its warmth against the cool air of the warehouse. He let his eyes close, dozed....
It was still deep night when he woke again, after what could have been minutes, or hours. Not yet morning, for all that it felt as if a lifetime had passed. He stretched lazily, luxuriating in the silence and the feel of blood pounding through his veins.
The sickness had faded, replaced by hunger, but he enjoyed even that. I t was the kind of hunger he had not felt in 800 years -- simple desire for chicken soup and popcorn and chocolate, all the things Natalie so loved.
Natalie. The thought sent other hungers through him, long repressed. she would be back soon, full of advice and caution, fear for him...and of him. And he had given her reason, he admitted to himself. But no more. He was cured. He felt it deep inside, with a calm certainty. He was cured.
Now he could make it up to her, replace her tears with smiles, her worries with laughter. He would fix everything now.
He heard the steps at the door, sat up eagerly. "Nat?"
When the door opened, he realized how wrong he'd been. The nightmare wasn't over. It was just beginning.
Interlude -- All Which It Inherit
She flew above the streets of Toronto, gliding silently through the night.
It was an indulgence she rarely allowed herself -- somehow, it seemed less than dignified. But tonight, she needed the freedom of the wind and skies.
She tried to empty her mind, but she couldn't. The feeling of emptiness where Nicholas had been was too strong. She gave into the memories....
Nicholas, a young knight, drinking in a corner, nursing wounds that were more than physical. Looking at her as if she were a princess. Treating her as if she were a goddess. The accusation in his eyes the next morning, when he discovered what she had made him.....
LaCroix, jumping out of the darkness to free her from her attacker. Offering her the gift of freedom to decide who would touch her, and who would die for trying. The gift of revenge and eternal life....
Nicholas, racing into the Raven after the first 'cure,' so smugly certain she would wish to follow him, as she had so many other times. That she would give in to his desires instead of her own...
LaCroix, dancing attendance on Nicholas' sister, in love, tender, gentle, as he had sometimes been with his children...
Nicholas, strapped to a table in a laboratory, so desperate to be free that he would place his life in the hands of a madman, the Resurrection Doctor. His helplessness, until she had rescued him....
LaCroix, in dress uniform, offering her his arm at the theater, escorting her with the grace of a gentleman and a lady.
Nicholas, his face full of determination, and misery. "Don't you see, I have to try. I can't be this anymore. I can't...."
LaCroix, enraged, striking out at Nicholas, destroying everything he loved, for no reason but his own jealousy....
She didn't feel the tears running down her face, leaving their bloody tracks against her pale skin. She struggled silently with her heart, torn between two masters.
In the end, she understood -- there was no choice at all.
Nick stumbled off of the couch, briefly fighting the blanket. He was too weak to stand, couldn't get his balance. He started to fall.
Strong arms caught him, held him effortlessly. "What have you done this time, Nicholas?"
"Become free of you," Nick answered, suiting words to action as he tore away, standing on his own. "At last, I'm free of your accursed 'gift'."
"Accursed?" Mock tenderness turned to rage in LaCroix's cold eyes. "I made you immortal!"
"Yes, immortal, never dying but eternally dead, swimming in blood and murder. No more." He repeated the words from his dream, feeling them calm him. He stood straight and strong, with all of the pride of a once-knight. "No more. Never again."
LaCroix looked at him. The rage faded, drowned in a sneer. "Do you really think it is that easy to escape me?" he asked, his voice low, threatening. Nick had heard it many times over the years. For the first time, it frightened him.
He felt the force of LaCroix's malice, and realized suddenly how vulnerable he was. Mortal, with all the weaknesses that implied. But all the strengths as well...He blocked that thought off fast, and looked LaCroix in the eye, ready to accept whatever came. But he would not go back across.
LaCroix saw the defiance in his son's eyes, and knew that he had lost this war, lost his son. It was not to be tolerated! His hand flew on its own, striking Nick across the face.
Nick flew halfway across the room, crashing into his entertainment center. It collapsed under him in a shower of splinters and glass.
Pain pounded through his body -- agonizing and astonishing. Had it hurt this much before? He'd forgotten...something ran down his face, warm and wet, trickling across his lips. He recognized it, but he had never tasted his own blood before.
The room spun around him, black on the fringes. Colored lights danced crazily before him. Behind them LaCroix loomed in unfocused fury.
"You deny my gifts, Nicholas, yet I gave them freely, and out of kindness, I will give them again." His eyes glowed, his fangs bared as he leaned over.
Nick summoned the strength for one last piece of defiance. "I have the cure, LaCroix," he bit out. "You can bring me across as many times as it delights you, I will always find my way back!"
LaCroix paused, as if just struck by the thought. "Yes, there is that, isn't there; your oh-so-clever doctor friend, so eager to help you." He smiled, and Nick felt his blood run cold. "Perhaps she would be less willing were she one of us."
"No," Nick breathed. "You wouldn't."
The smile turned sardonic. "Wouldn't I? You believe I am capable of anything else, why not this? It would certainly solve the problem." He leaned closer; Nick could feel his breath on his face. "And it is a problem. My solution is certainly more...merciful than what the Enforcers would use...or have you forgotten them?" His mouth twisted into a sneer. "No, your Natalie will not be allowed to interfere, if it means making her a vampire...or a corpse."
"No!" For a moment it seemed Nick was what he had been, so quickly and fiercely did he attack, catching LaCroix in a flying tackle. Caught by surprise, LaCroix actually fell back. Weakened, Nick stumbled and LaCroix recovered, throwing him off and to the floor again with humiliating ease.
"Enough of these games, LaCroix," Nick gasped out. "Your business is with me! Finish it!"
But LaCroix was barely paying attention, his head cocked as if to listen. "No, mon cher Nicholas. I think the game is just beginning."
Then Nick heard the key in the lock. Only one other person had that key... "Natalie! Get away from here! Get away!" he shouted.
The door opened anyway, as he had known it would. She would not leave him in danger. But she came in ready.
LaCroix lunged for her -- she met him with flying grocery bags. They knocked him off-balance long enough for her to get past him and across the room to where Nick knelt, unable to pull himself up any farther.
"Nick? What has he done to you?"
"Get out, Natalie...he'll kill you."
She ignored him, turning to face LaCroix. "Why can't you just let him go? Does it give you pleasure to torture him?"
"He. Is. Mine," LaCroix answered. He started for them. Natalie reached into the wreckage that had been shelves, and pulled out a piece of wood, splintered into sharpness. She held it in front of her, remembering everything Nick had told her about how to kill a vampire. Nick tried to shove her behind him, offering the dubious protection of his own body. She wouldn't shove.
LaCroix only laughed at them both. "Mine. As you shall be."
"Non. They shall not." A new voice, this time. It seemed to be a vampire convention, Nat thought crazily, clutching her weapon against the new threat.
Janette strolled through the still-open warehouse, looking for all the world as if she were strolling into a fashion show. Only Nick saw the faintest traces of tears on her cheeks, the tremor in her hands she could not hide. But LaCroix certainly felt them.
"This does not involve you, Janette," he hissed.
"If it involves you and Nicholas, it does, mon cher. I cannot let you kill him." She laid a hand on LaCroix's shoulder, tried to reach him. "He has found his heart's desire, and it is to leave us. I care for him as you do... but there comes a time for letting go." Her eyes met his, straining to make him understand. "I know you care for him -- I have seen you stand against Enforcers, brave fire for him. But we have held him for so long, mon vieux...if you ever truly loved him, give him this gift, and let him live with it as he chooses."
She seemed to have cast a spell over him, Natalie thought, barely registering Nick's movements behind her. For a moment, she almost thought Janette had gotten through to him. The eyes almost softened, almost lost the glow of death.
Then LaCroix shook Janette's hand away with a violent gesture, thrusting her away and advancing on the humans who were still threatening him with their feeble weapon. Natalie lunged at him with the stake; he batted her aside with barely a thought, reaching for Nick...
And looking down in amazement when he saw the wooden stake, almost identical to Natalie's, protruding from his chest, saw what Nick had been hiding behind the shield of Natalie's body, what he had done with the time Janette had bought him. A clever son, he thought. Always a clever son....
Natalie hit him from behind. He fell forward on his chest, driving the stake through his body. He felt the pain as if from a distance, saw Nick standing over his, holding his human friend, her face buried in his chest.
Janette stood next them -- he reached out a hand to her for help. She took it, knelt next to him, tears running down her face, but offered nothing else. He could understand that...it was already too late.
He tried to speak, couldn't, coughing on his own blood. Janette leaned closer, trying to hear, in this last duty to her father. His lips barely moved.
"La meillure revanche...."
It was his last breath. Softly, suddenly, he melted away into ash. Janette's tears dripped into them as she mourned.
"Where will you go?" Janette asked, not really caring about the answer, her emotions burned out.
"I don't know," Nick answered anyway. "Away from here. He," no one needed a name "was right about one thing. The Enforcers will never let this pass. What we know, what we can do, is too much of a threat to them. We'll have to disappear." He felt a stab of regret for what he would have to leave. Schanke, the warehouse, the Caddie...the job and the life he had worked so hard to build. Natalie's arm slipped around him, her head leaned against his chest. She would have to leave her life as well -- Grace, Diane, Amy.
But they would have each other. And they would have the sunlight. Maybe it would be enough.
He reached for Janette, impulsively. "Come with us."
She evaded his hands. "You know better than that, Nicholah. Leave my club, my own life...non." She smiled, sadly. "The time has come for you to let go as well, mon cher. Our lives must part ways now."
Nick knew she was right. He had made his choice. He had never before thought about the price, never realized that in regaining his humanity he would lose her, his Janette -- lover, sister, friend. She had given everything for this dream of his -- lost everything.
In that moment, seeing the grief hidden behind her dark eyes, he almost changed his mind. Almost begged to be allowed back.
But the moment passed. She leaned over to him, brushed a hand over the bandage on his head before kissing him softly on the lips. "The dawn is coming, Nicholah. May it be all you have dreamed."
She looked at Natalie, who had finally won. No words were needed between them. A promise was exchanged with only a glance.
Then she rose into the air, dress billowing around her like wings. They watched her go, silhouetted against the sky, racing to beat the sun.
Nick swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. Janette had been right, it was almost dawn. He had no idea what it would bring.
He pressed Natalie against his side, kissed her gently. She smiled up at him, through tears of her own. There would be farewells to make, hard partings ahead. But as the first rays of sunlight broke over the city, they faced the dawn together.