"I wear the chain I forged in life,'' replied the Ghost. ``I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?"
-- Charles Dickens
Chapter 1: Christmas Eve
He was trying to sleep.
It was dark outside, and he wasn't accustomed to that -- his body told him he should be out flying, working...feeding. But it was Christmas Eve, and Reese had forced him to take the night off. 'Get a life, Nick,' he had said. 'Spend some time with your friends, outside of work. Enjoy the holiday for once. And don't show your face at the station until the day after Christmas.
In vain he had protested that he didn't have any friends or family to spend the holiday with, that he should work and let another officer be with his or her family, but Reese had refused to listen to his protests. 'You haven't taken a holiday off in five years; you're long overdue.' And with no further arguments, he had been kicked out of the station.
But what he had told the Captain was true; he had no family to celebrate with. Tracy had been summoned home to her family and had gone (albeit reluctantly). He had considered visiting Myra and Jenny, but couldn't face them, face the memory of the countless holidays he had refused to spend with Schanke's family, refusals he bitterly regretted now.
And Janette was gone.
Natalie had offered to stay in town, but he had refused, telling her to accept Diane and Amy's offer to visit them. She never saw her sister-in-law or her little niece. She had protested but given in, in the end. And, truth be known, Nick didn't feel much like celebrating. Didn't feel much like people.
So many Christmases, come and gone. There had been years he hadn't even noticed, swept up in the darkness of his life with LaCroix, living each night only for the thrill, for the hunt. There had been years he had spent the day alone, trying to remember the words to long-forgotten prayers, to remember his mother's face, his sister's smile. But they were invariably eclipsed by the faces of his victims, swept away in a tide of blood-tinted grief.
And there had been years he had spent the day in an alcohol-induced stupor, wanting only to forget. To forget the years alone, the losses incurred over centuries of life. The growing certainty that he would always be alone, would never be free of his curse. That this Christmas, and all Christmases to follow, would be spent wishing for what had been, and what could never be.
How could he celebrate the birth of a savior, when he had no soul left to save?
He threw back the covers and pulled on his robe, resisting the temptation to fly downstairs. Instead he walked, slowly and deliberately to the refrigerator, and pulled out a bottle. He started to tear the cork out with his teeth, then remembered a Christmas gift from years before. Slowly, carefully, he located one of Natalie's corkscrews, and pried the cork out, carrying the bottle with him to the couch. He seated himself, and poured the first glass, held it up to the twinkling lights of the tiny Christmas tree Natalie had given him before he left. The lights sparkled through, rotating through their bright colors, first red, then green, then yellow, then silver.
And the blood lent its tinge of red to them all.
He lashed out with a fist, knocking the tree off the coffee table to the floor. Then, with no further ceremony, he proceded to drink himself into oblivion. Wishing all the time that this time, the oblivion would last forever.
Chapter 2: Christmas Past
The light was hurting his eyes. He threw a hand up in front of his face, trying to block out the glow, but it did no good. The silver light seemed to ignore his eyelids, to filter directly into his mind. He finally opened them to see what was calling him.
A silver mist seemed to float in front of him, suspended over the fallen tree like morning fog. He blinked, certain he was dreaming. He became even more certain when a face appeared in the mist, a face so familiar and so beloved, he closed his eyes again, unable to look at it.
"Open your eyes," a soft voice, ringing with the clarity of bells, urged him. "Open your eyes, my brother, and see me."
His lips moved in what could have been a name, or a prayer. "Fleur?"
"Of course." The voice sounded amused now, gentle. "Who else would I be, my brother?"
His eyes opened slowly, willing her to be there, for this to be something other than a dream. And she was there, still encased in a silver mist. But it was her -- he knew her golden hair, her wide smile, the graceful motions of her young body. Yes, this was his tiny sister as he remembered her, before he had lost her to his own foolishness.
"Not foolish, brother, but thoughtless," she corrected gently.
"Are you...are you reading my mind?" he asked in confusion.
"Of course," she said again. "I am a ghost, it is within my powers if you chose to let me in."
"I could never shut you out," he vowed.
She shook her head. "But you ever have, Nicholas. Always have you shut out those who loved you best. You mourn for what could never have been, but it was your own actions which prevented it."
"I don't know what you are talking about!" he denied vehemently.
She smiled, sadly this time. "You do know, Nicholas, but have chosen to forget, to rewrite the past to suit your own beliefs. So I will show you."
She reached forward and took his hand. He was surprised to feel her skin, warm and soft as it had been eight hundred years before. She pulled him forward off the couch effortlessly; he found himself hovering beside her in the cloud. He looked down, to see his own body, sleeping peacefully.
"It will be there ready for you when we return," Fleur assured him.
"Return from where?"
"You know from where, Nicholas." Her eyes took on what could have been a spark of mischief as she recited, "'You will be haunted by three spirits...' I am the first."
Nick shook his head in disbelief. "That's only a story."
"Sometimes stories are the truth -- wearing a disguise that make it more acceptable. We all disguise the truth in our own ways, do we not, brother?" With no more words, she pulled him towards the tree, towards the silver star blinking at the top. And through it.
He blinked, and they were there. The stone walls and tapestries, the great staircase. He knew every step, had played on them every day of his childhood. "My God," he breathed. "I'm home."
"*We're* home, brother," Fleur corrected. The sound of laughter and music drifted out from the great room beside the staircase. He almost ran through the doorway -- at stopped dead at the sight before his eyes.
There was his family, dining sumputously on a Christmas feast. Candles and torches glowed in every corner, making the room as bright as day for this one night. There were musicians in the corner, strumming and singing with all of their considerable spirit. Occasionally, the family joined in with them.
The man at the head of the table lifted his cup in a toast, echoed loudly by all who ate with him. He was a strong man, with lines of laughter and pain around his eyes, eyes that shone when they looked upon his home and his family. Nick had forgotten those eyes, they had died when he was so very young. "Father," he murmured under his breath. "My father."
The woman sitting beside him at the table was an even more precious sight, for she had been with him through all of the tears and tribulations of childhood, and all of the soul-searching and growth of manhood. She had run to his arms that first and only time he had returned, after the fateful choice had been made.
Nick looked away from his mother, forcing back the lump in his throat. There were only two children there, a tiny little girl whose spirit radiated from her with the force of a fire. The other was a towheaded boy, older than the girl by several years, but with no less life shining from him
"That's me," he realized with amazement. Had he ever been that young, that innocent? "That's all of us, that last Christmas before Father..."
"Yes," Fleur answered. "We were happy then, together. Christmas was never the same after Father left us."
"No." Nick remembered. "Nothing was ever the same after that. Christmas was never really good again."
"Wasn't it?" Fleur raised her eyebrows at him, and gestured before her. The scene changed; the man disappeared, to be replaced with a younger one, who slouched in his chair and played idly with a cup of wine, paying no attention to the revelers around him. Even when the girl, now grown to the early years of womanhood, ran to his side to urge him into the circle of dancers, he shook her off with a movement that was no less abrupt for his forced smile. The girl bowed her head, then whirled back into the dance, leaving the young man to his own devices.
"Look at us, Nicholas, happy and rejoicing, save for you. Was it a lack in Christmas, then?"
"No," Nick said after what felt like a long pause. "No. It was a lack in me."
Fleur looked at him with sober eyes as the realization sunk in. Carefully, she laid a hand along his cheek. "We were always there, brother. Even when you chose to leave us, there were others there."
Another wave of her hand and the revelers disappeared. The stone walls were gone, replaced by the luxury of a townhome in Regency England. He knew this place, too.
A huge Christmas tree stood in the corner, put there by the servants for appearances sake more than anything. They were fashionable, just now, and Janette must always be one with fashion. But it was Nick who would creep quietly downstairs to watch the candles glow and flicker, their light dancing along the tiny glass ornaments.
Nick turned to the corner where his armchair had been, the one he always sat in to drink and look. He was unsurprised to find himself there now, a glass of something wine-red clutched in one hand.
"Yes," he said to himself more than anything. "I remember this night. The tree was destroyed in one of LaCroix's rampages."
"Was it?" Fleur asked neutrally.
The door flew open suddenly, passing through Nick and Fleur's bodies; both Nicks jumped in surprise. "Ah, Nicholas, you missed a wonderful night," Janette purred, sweeping through the doorway. "The music was wonderful, and the hunt....ah, the hunt!"
"And this is indeed the season for the hunt, is it not?" the young Nick replied sardonically, not looking up from his drink.
"What have mortal seasons to do with us?" LaCroix asked, with what could have been genuine puzzlement. "Except to make it the easier to catch our prey, as they stagger home from their revelries."
Nick didn't answer, but stared into the fireplace. The other two exchanged significant looks, then continued to talk about the evening, and their plans for the next night. They tried several times to draw Nick into the conversation, but he ignored their every attempt.
Janette finally gave up on being subtle. "Nicholas, do you intend to sulk until the New Year? If so, please tell us what you are sulking about, so we might try to make it better."
"And what do you intend to do, Janette?" he asked bitterly. "To restore what I lost so many years before? Shall you wrap my soul in pretty paper, fill my shoe with it? I doubt it would take up more than the toe."
LaCroix was losing patience fast, but he made the effort of keeping his voice reasonable. "Is that what this is about, Nicholas? Another year of mourning for receiving the greatest gift that can be given? You've seen hundreds of Yuletides and New Years, more then those mortals outside your window, the mortals you envy so much, could ever dream of. What right have you to bemoan eternal life?"
"What right had you to give it!" Nick exploded. His glass flew into the fireplace, shattering against the stone, as he shot to his feet.
"It was a gift freely offered and freely accepted, Nicholas," LaCroix hissed. "How much longer will you blame us for the choice *you* made?"
Nick growled incoherently, lunging for LaCroix. The older vampire batted him aside like a moth, sending him crashing against the Christmas tree. The candles, knocked from their branches, guttered against the carpet. One caught fire; Janette hastened to step on it before it threatened Nick, who still lay on the floor.
She knelt beside him, ignoring LaCroix's glare. "Mon cher," she crooned, stroking his hair back from his face. "Do not be angry with us for wanting to have you by us. You are part of us, for now and forever."
"What part?" Nick hissed. "I want no part of this!" With that, he was off the floor out the window, flying into the night air. Janette started after him, but LaCroix restrained her.
"He will come back," he assured his child. "Sooner or later, he will always return. And we will be waiting for him. Toujours."
"Toujours," Janette echoed sadly.
The room faded to darkness, but the scene kept replaying before Nick's eyes. From this new angle, it was possible to see many things that had escaped him that night. The genuine love in Janette's eyes, the fierce attempt LaCroix had made to hold his temper against a child who was acting, as he had obviously felt, unreasonably towards him. They had tried; it had been he who had run that night.
"What else will you show me, Fleur?" he asked heavily. "Some other part of me I wished to hide? something else better left buried?"
"I show you only what was." His sister studied him. "If you have truly seen what I have shown, it is enough."
With that, he found himself back in his living room, kneeling next to the overturned tree. Fleur's hand touched his shoulder once and she offered an encouraging smile, than began to fade back into the silver mist.
"Fleur, no! Don't leave me again!"
She shook her head. "I must, Nicholas; this parting was made long ago. And another comes to keep you company this night." Her face shimmered and became part of the mist, then vanished.
Chapter 3: Christmas Present
His eyes shot open; he had fallen off the couch somehow and wound up on the floor next to the tree. He blinked, trying to clear his head, but could only remember the scenes from his incredibly vivid dream. It almost seemed Fleur had truly been there, showing him....
He shook his head again, and reached for the glass he had left there. Strange; it was empty, yet he remembered refilling it right before drifting off.
"You gotta lay off that stuff, partner," Schanke said behind him. "It's not doing you any good, according to Natalie, and who'd know better, you know?"
"Lay off, Schank, I'm not in the...." It suddenly sank in; he turned around so fast he almost fell over. "Schank?"
"You were expecting maybe the guy in the green robes?" Schanke joked, gesturing with the piece of pizza he held in one hand. The smell hit Nick and he winced. Schanke looked puzzled, then the lights dawned. "Oh, right, the garlic thing. Sorry." He stuck the pizza into the pocket of his ill-fitting suit jacket and the smell disappeared. Nick didn't think he wanted to know where the food had gone; there were more essential questions which needed answering.
"Schank? You're dead. What are you doing here?"
Schanke looked puzzled again. "Didn't your sister explain it to you? Cute kid, by the way, they don't make them like that anymore. Wish Jenny was half as into reading as Flower.."
"Fleur," Nick corrected automatically.
"Yeah, right, Fleur," Schanke said. "So, someone decided you were going to need some help getting through this Christmas, keep you from flambeeing yourself or someone else - does that really work? The sunlight thing, I mean." He didn't wait for an answer. "Anyway, here we are. You got one more visitor after me, but I'm supposed to take you around for a while."
Nick shook his head, trying to wake himself up. It didn't work. Schanke was still standing in his living room, bad tie, cheesy grin and all. "Take me where?"
Schanke smiled widely. "Thought you'd never ask, partner. Come on." He grabbed Nick by the collar of his pajamas and pulled him through the closed elevator door. Nick had just enough time to look back at his body, still sleeping peacefully, before they were out in the street, and flying.
"Where are we going?" Nick asked again, trying to get used to the sensation of being towed through the air -- his own powers of flight seemed to be back with his body on the couch.
"You'll see; we're almost there. Here we go -- hey, she painted it! Why'd she do that?" 'It' was obviously the house they were landing on; 'in,' Nick corrected himself as they sank through the roof. It was Schanke's house, now Myra and Jenny's.
"Ah, home sweet home," Schanke sighed in satisfaction. "Let's go see what Myra made for dinner."
"Um, Schanke, I get the feeling that's not what we're supposed to be here for."
"Look who knows so much about ghosts," Schanke pointed out snidely. "If you're so hot to get this over with, then let's go into the living room."
He suited word to action, gliding them quickly through the walls into the television room. Myra was ensconsed in Schanke's old arm chair, while Jenny sat under the tree, rattling presents for all she was worth.
"Come on, Mom, can't we open just one?" the twelve-year-old begged.
"No, Jenny," Myra answered with the voice of someone who has been asked and has answered the same question a hundred times in as many minutes. "Wait until morning, you can open them all then."
"Jenny!" Myra said sharply when the girl started actively whining.
Jenny's face fell. "Dad would have let me," she muttered, looking down at her chest.
Myra didn't answer, but her eyes closed and her head leaned back against the chair, her face creasing with lines of pain. With shock, and a certain guilt, Nick realized many of those lines had formed in the three months since he'd last visited his partner's family.
Jenny looked up in time to see the single tear run down her mother's face. She looked stricken and jumped up to hug her mother. "I'm sorry, Mom, I didn't mean...I'm sorry."
Myra opened her eyes, and embraced her child, who had started sobbing. "I know, Jenny, honey," she said quietly. "I know. I miss him, too."
The sight was too much; Nick turned away, to see his partner staring with unabashed grief at his family, his arms moving as if to lunge forward and comfort them.
"Schank?" he asked softly.
"I didn't know it was going to be so hard," Schanke said, more or less to himself. Nick couldn't think of an answer, so said nothing.
The two in front of them moved apart after a long moment, Jenny wiping her eyes on her shirtsleeve and sniffing loudly. "Is Uncle Nick coming over tomorrow?" she asked quietly.
"No, honey," Myra answered, drying her eyes. "He has to work, you remember."
Jenny nodded, her face still turned down. "It's just...it'd be easier if he were here. Almost like having Dad back."
Myra sighed heavily. "I know, honey. But Nick has his own way of celebrating; if he works, he can help people all day."
"He just doesn't care about us," Jenny stated flatly, the tears starting to fall again. "He never even comes over anymore, he just doesn't care!"
"Jenny, you know that's not true," Myra told her, her face anything but convinced. "Nick is hurting, just like we are. He just needs some time."
"It would hurt less if he'd come over." Jenny leaned aginst her mother again. "We could take care of him, just like Daddy used to."
Myra smiled sadly. "I know, honey. We just have to make sure we're here when he does come to us."
"Great. Too bad he's not there when *we* need him."
The girl's words hit Nick like a blow, almost doubling him over. By the time he recovered, they had left the house and were wandering down the streets of Toronto.
"Great job you're doing, partner, taking care of my family." Schanke's voice was carefully non-commental.
"I didn't...I thought...seeing me, might hurt them more...." Nick stumbled.
"No, you thought seeing them might hurt *you* more."
Nick flinched. "What do you want me to say, Schanke? I did the best I could."
"Yeah." Schanke didn't comment further, just took to the sky, taking Nick with him. This time, instead of landing, they kept flying.
"What do you have to show me way up here?" Nick finally broke the silence.
"Huh?" Schanke looked at him like he'd forgotten his existance. then his eyes clicked back into focus. "Oh right. Sorry, I was just thinking..."
"About Myra and Jenny," Nick finished. "I know. They miss you."
"Yeah," Schanke sighed. "I miss them, too." He shook himself out of his depression with a physical effort. "Let's pick up the pace, partner, we got a plane to catch."
"You're the one flying, Schank," Nick pointed out.
"Yeah, now there's a switch, huh? By the way, when *were* you going to get around to telling me about the blood-sucking creature of the night thing?" Nick groped for an answer, but was saved by the jet that abruptly loomed out of the darkness before them.
"Ooo, lucky break, Knight." Schanke took them up to the jet and proceeded to sink through the metal. Nick noticed he was begining to get used to being intangible; it was a disquieting realization.
The plane was barely half-full. The bulk of the Christmas travelers were already at their destinations; only the last-minute business trips or true desperation forced anyone into the air on Christmas Eve.
"See anyone familiar?" Schanke asked with raised eyebrows and that familar 'I know something you don't know' expression on his face.
Nick flashed him a glare out of sheer habit, and turned to scan the faces of the passengers. "Who am I supposed to be looking for, Sca--?" he broke off as the question was answered.
Natalie Lambert sat in a window seat, staring out into the darkness. One hand played absently with the chain around her neck - he recognized it as a gift from himself two Christmases before. Her face was filled with worry and not a little pain; it was a look he had often surprised there before, almost always concerning him.
"Natalie. She's supposed to be with her sister-in-law and her niece."
"Yeah, she is," Schanke confirmed. "And she was, until her sister-in-law popped the news that she was getting married again and her fiance was going to be joining them for the holidays. Had her all bright and happy, especially after you stopped answering the phone and that new captain they saddled you with, whatshisname, like the candy..."
"Right, after that new captain told her he'd sent you home, she jumped on the next plane out." He laughed, the laugh that meant he didn't expect anyone else to think the joke was funny. "Hell of a trip, just to make sure a friend's not alone at Christmas. Especially a friend who told her very seriously to get out of town."
"You didn't learn much about tact in the Afterlife, did you, Schank?" Schanke looked mildly offended, but Nick waved him to silence before the ghost could say anything.
A flight attendant had come over to check on Natalie. "Are you all right, ma'am?" She asked solicitously.
Natalie looked up. "I'm fine, thanks," she answered automatically. "I'm fine."
The attendent wasn't buying. "You looked worried about something. I hate to see anyone be worried at Christmas. Would you like to talk about it?"
Nick could almost read Natalie's mind from her face. *Well, the thing is, I'm involved with a vampire...* "There's nothing to talk about," Natalie said out loud. "Just...men problems."
"The worst kind," the attendent nodded understandingly. "Let me guess, he's one of the ones whose afraid to committ."
"He can't say the word without stuttering," Natalie replied with an unexpected flash of humor. "I understand why," she rushed to cover the slip, "He's had some really bad experiences. And he's alone and I'm...worried."
"It's hard to be alone at the holidays,' the attendent agreed. "But why did you leave in the first place if you were worried?"
Natalie smiled wryly. "He told me to. Said he would be fine, that...that he didn't need me."
"Ouch." The attendent and Schanke winced in unison. "And you say *I* have no tact," Schanke muttered.
"That's *not* how I said it," Nick said, wounded.
"Yeah, right," Schanke said. "Pipe down and listen. You're supposed to be learning something here."
"That's not exactly how he said it," Natalie unconciously echoed Nick. "But that's what it felt as if he was saying. He does that all the time and...I'm getting really tired of not mattering." The last was said quietly, as Natalie rested her head against the window in defeat.
"Let him have it, Natalie," Schanke cheered through a full mouth. Nick looked over and glared in the general direction of the doughnut that had materialized in front of Schanke's face. "Hey, all this ghost stuff makes a guy hungry, and she does have a point, you know," Schanke said defensively, taking another bite of the doughnut.
"Yeah, I know," Nick answered quietly. He reached out to touch Natalie's hair, saw his hand pass right through her, and pulled back. "When will she land?"
"Couple hours, why? You going to meet her at the airport?"
"I don't think you'll have time." Schanke waved the doughnut and they were abruptly back in the warehouse, Nick standing, once again, next to the fallen Christmas tree. "We've got a little more business, then, according to my program," he took a sheet of paper out of his pocket and waved it at Nick, "you got one more visitor coming tonight and I think he'll be keeping you pretty busy."
"What business do you have left?" Nick asked in spite of himself.
"Just this." Schanke wandered over to the stereo next to the wall, and turned the radio on. LaCroix's voice floated out of the speakers.
"And so, gentle listeners, we face another Christmas Eve. Another holiday full of sweetness and light. But what of those of us who dwell in the shadows of this dismal little world? Who see past the mirrored bubbles and peppermint canes to the shallow shell the Yuletide has become? Weeks of shopping and preperations, or snapping at family as you oh-so-loving adorn your house, of cursing at fellow shoppers who get in your way, all in the name of peace on earth. What of those of us who see just how little of this world is actually deserving of a savior?"
Schanke shook his head. "Talk about the Christmas spirit. Will you listen to this guy? At least I finally got to figure out *why* you listen to this guy."
"Maybe he's right," Nick said. "Maybe he sees things clearly and the rest of us are blinded by what we want to be true."
"You *have* been paying attention," Schanke said, with an admiration that would have meant more if he wasn't smirking. "But aren't you forgetting one little thing?"
"What?" Schanke just put on what he apparently thought was a mysterious smile and motioned towards the radio again.
"But do not dispair, for, regardless of how many carols we sing, or buckets we fill with small coin, or how loudly we proclaim the joys of the season, we are all of us, in the end, alone. Friends come and go, families fight and grow apart...in the end, we are alone. And only we, gentle listeners, realize that, and only we are prepared to deal with the reality of the 'Christmas Spirit.' And of course, *I* will always be here. The Nightcrawler is listening. Joy to the world."
"Turn it off," Nick said. When Schanke didn't move, he strode across the room to do it himself, not even surprised when his hand didn't go through it the stereo. He hit the button, and LaCroix was silenced.
"Helluva show, huh?" Schanke commented, leaning back against the elevator door. "That guy needs a visit from a lot more than three ghosts."
"He's wrong." Nick's voice sounded like it belonged to someone else. "Not everyone is alone. Myra and Jenny have each other, Tracy has her family...even LaCroix had Janette...and me." He finally started lsitening to himself. "He's only alone because he forced us to leave. LaCroix doesn't have to be alone. And I don't have to be him."
"An interesting theory," Schanke said in a dead-on impersonation of Cohen. "But you need proof, don't you?"
Nick nodded, then shook his head, then stopped, confused. "I don't know...I don't know what I need."
Schanke shrugged. "Well, at least you're finally admitting you need something. The next guy'll help you figure out what, if you're lucky."
"Who's he?" Nick asked, more or less resigned to his fate, "Or do I not want to know."
"Well, he might not be exactly the right word," Schanke said reflectively, tucking the paper back into his pocket, the odor of garlic floating out before he could finish. "Anyway, he gets to finish this up. I want to go tuck Jenny in before I gotta take off again."
He turned to go; Nick's voice stopped him. "Schank..."
"I'll take better care of them from now on. I promise."
Schanke nodded. "You'd better, for your own sake. Hasta la bye-bye, Knight." He walked through the elevator door, and was gone.
Chapter 4: Christmas Yet To Come
Nick stared after Schanke a moment, then looked down at the tree. Carefully, he lifted it, righting it one the table, and stood staring at it, waiting. No point in trying to convince himself that had been a dream -- the scent of garlic still lingered in the air, and there were doughnut crumbs on the carpet.
So, there was one more. He didn't know if he'd be able to deal with another one -- his head was already spinning as the truths he had clung to for so long were turned on their ear and shaken. He didn't know what to believe any more. And there was still one more.
Even as the thought came to him, he sansed another presence in the room. It announced itself more subtly than Schanke had - the scent was more elusive, like burning leaves and salt water. He turned, almost afraid to look.
Where Fleur had been misty, and Schanke had simply been, well, Schanke, this figure seemed solid yet somehow. . . unreal, set apart from the world around it. It was of medium height, medium weight, medium build, swathed in a long dark garment. The shock of hair was as pale as the skin, the face was strangely unformed -- it could have been male or female, young or old.
"I don't know you," Nick said curiously. The figure didn't answer, just stood in the center of the room, looking at him calmly through clear, colorless eyes. "You *are* the third spirit, aren't you?"
No answer. Nick kept talking nervously, trying to fill the silence -- and, if he were honest, trying to delay the inevitable. "You're here to show me my future, from what Schanke and Fleur said."
The figure nodded slowly, deliberately, and held out a hand. Nick swallowed whatever it was he had been preparing to babble and steeled himself. "Time to go." He took a deep breath, then took the spirit's hand. It was as cold as his own.
The world melted away around him, then reformed, slowly. He was at the station, standing behind his desk, which was mysteriously clear of paperwork. Tracy was sitting in her chair, opposite him, but she wasn't working. Her head was bent, chin against her chest, staring sightlessly down at her computer keyboard.
"Trace?" he asked, before realizing she wouldn't be able to hear him. He turned to the spirit. "What's wrong with her?"
The spirit only pointed past his partner to Reese, who was coming up behind the young detective. "Tracy?" he asked, laying a hand on her shoulder.
"Captain." Tracy looked up, startled out of whatever she'd been thinking. "I'm sorry, I was trying to think of where he might have gotten to. We've checked everywhere we can think of -- someone even called--"
"Tracy," Reese said again. "I know what you're trying to do, but it's been two weeks. If he hasn't been found by now, either he doesn't want to be....or there's nothing to find."
"No, Captain, we're just not looking in the right places," Tracy said vehemently. "He used to hang out at a club, I've been down there talking to the regulars, one of them *must* know something."
The captain started to say something, then closed his mouth, shaking his head sadly. "All right, Tracy, you do what you think is right, I trust your judgement."
"Thank you, sir." Tracy stood up, taking her jacket off the back of her chair. Her clothes were wrinkled; Nick wondered how long it had been since she'd slept. She headed for the door and Nick and his spirit trailed along behind.
"Who's missing?" Nick asked, not really expecting an answer. "She looks pretty upset. I wonder..." It occured to him that he was wandering down a hall talking to a spirit out of a book and he shut up.
Tracy got into her car and started driving; Nick and the spirit hitched a ride in her backseat. It was night and the Toronto streetlights streaked past, reflecting on the windows and, once, on a tear tracking down Tracy's cheek.
They pulled up outside the old abandoned church that was Vachon's home. Tracy did't bother to knock or announce herself, just barreled right in. "Vachon?"
The vampire appeared from the shadows. "I'm here, already. Keep it down, Trace."
"Have you found anything?" she demanded immediately.
"I told you I'd get in touch if I heard anything," Vachon told her, taking a bottle out of the refrigerator and pouring a glass. He handed it to her; she gave him a startled look. "Just wine," he sair, slightly digusted. "You need something stronger, but.."
"I'm on duty," she finished, downing half the glass in one gulp. "Are you sure no one has seen or heard anything?" she asked again.
"Tracy...." Vachon said patiently. "You know, it's not exactly unusual for someone to take off, especially someone who isn't leaving anyone behind. Ever since his old partner was killed and Dr. Lambert left town, you said yourself he was--"
"Not him!" Tracy clutched the half-filled glass in one hand, forgotten. "And not like this, not just leaving his wallet sitting out on a park bench like that. I'm sure something's happened to him, and I'm going to find out what!"
Nick's attention had been completely caught by the mention of Natalie's name. "Nat? Left? They must be talking about... a park bench?" He knew, suddenly, exactly what had happened, as if someone were showing it on a screen inside his mind. He blocked the vision, not wanting to see.
"Tracy, try and be logical," Vachon said, visibly uncomfortable with the tears running down her face.
She ignored him. "He shouldn't have been out alone at night anyway; that's probably when it happened. But he thought he was Supercop, didn't need anyone's help for anything. I think that's why Natalie left. She said before she took that new job that she just didn't feel needed here, and she and Nick had been fighting."
"Maybe that gave *him* enough reason to leave," Vachon pointed out gently.
Tracy shook her head. "No, I'm sure he wouldn't."
Vachon sighed and rubbed his hand over his face. "Tracy, I need to ask you... was there anything unusual about the crime... the place where his badge and the pillbox was found?"
She shook her head, finally tossing back the rest of the wine. "No, they was just a bench. Although...it was funny, there was a pile of ashes there. Like someone dumped out an ashtray on the bench."
Nick's stomach contracted suddenly; he stopped being able to breathe. A pile of ashes... Natalie leaving... he couldn't shut the picture out any longer. It made too much terrible sense.
Vachon closed his eyes, then opened them again, getting ready to tell Tracy something she didn't want to hear. "Trace... Nick's dead. The ashes...that was what was left of him. He walked in the sun, Trace."
Tracy's face was a study in confusion. "Vachon, that can't be right. Nick wasn't a ..." She heard herself use the part tense and stopped.
"Yes, Tracy, he was," Vachon said gently. "An old one, eight hundred years old."
"No," she denied, shaking her head jerkily. "He would have told me, he knew about you, he would have told his partner."
Vachon started to speak, then stopped. Instead, he wordlessly reached over, laying a hand on her shoulder. "Trace...I don't think he'd told anyone except Dr. Lambert. He never trusted *anyone* with the secret. I don't think he ever really had anyone *to* trust."
"Great, psychoanalysis from Javier Vachon," Nick muttered, hoping it would do some good. It didn't; he still felt cold, from the inside out.
Tracy was still shaking her head, still denying something - the vampire or the death? Nick wondered absently. She was still crying as she collapsed against Vachon. He looked startled, then closed his arms around her in an awkward embrace. "I'm sorry, Trace," he said quietly. "I'm sorry."
"Why didn't he trust me?" Tracy cried quietly. "Why didn't he tell me, let me help? Why?" Vachon rocked her gently, with no answers to give.
Nick tried to speak, found a lump in his throat. He cleared it, tried again. "I've seen enough," he said hoarsely. The spirit nodded, and the church melted away, reforming to a world of trees and silence. For a moment, Nick was confused; then he saw the first headstone.
"Oh, no," he said instantly, desperately. "I don't want to see this, please." The spirit walked away, to two stones standing close together. 'Donald Schanke', one read; he had traced the letters a hundred times. The other was new, with writing he couldn't see through the blur in his eyes.
The spirit stood there, silently, waiting, its face wiped clear of all expression. As if drawn by invisible strings, Nick walked towards it, towards the stone, kneeling jerkily in front of it. The moon was bright enough to read the words, even without his vampiric vision.
'Nicholas Knight. R.I.P.'
There was nothing else; no dates, no words. No 'loving husband', 'caring father', 'dear friend.' Only his name, and a nameless, impersonal wish for peace.
"No," he whispered. "I'm not reay to give up yet. There's still a chance, I cans till find a way back,a way to make amends. I know I can! I can make it up to them, to Myra and Jenny and Tracy and Nat! Spirit, please!"
The spirit looked down at him; warm, blood-red tears trailed down his face as the snow sent cold shudders up his legs and into his soul. It nodded again and the world melted away one more time, to become another familiar site. A red light gleamed over the door to LaCroix's broadcast booth, a distant, coldly controlled voice floating out from inside.
"And so, gentle listeners, we see proof at last. When the night ends and the day begins, we are all of us left alone. Those we pretend to care for leave, are taken, or are driven away. And when we find there is no one else to hurt, we turn inwards, to drive ourselves away into the sunlight, where all of our delusions, our petty lies, our foolish dreams, are revealed as...nothing, and drift away from us like so many ashes in the wind. And in the end, there is nothing left except the ghost of what was."
LaCroix's voice faded away and the microphone went silent. Nick walked forward, drawn by something he could not name, and saw his master, slumped in the broadcast chair, fingering...a watch. His face was perfectly expressionless, his eyes utterly empty.
"He will have nothing," Nick said, so quietly he almost couldn't hear himself. "And neither will I. But it would be by choice, just as it was eight hundred years ago. This *doesn't* have to be; this choice, I can still make." He looked up at the spirit, hovering over him. "Thank you, Spirit, for reminding me."
He thought he saw a glimmer in the spirit's pale eyes, saw them change color, darken; saw the pale hair turn to a deeper gold, and the mouth take on a curve, like a child's mischievious smile. Then the world dissolved,leaving only an image of the pale man, dressed in black, sitting alone in an empty building. The lights from the console blinked on his face, illuminating him in shades of red and green...
Chapter 5: Christmas Day
... and Nick sat up on the couch, staring into the lights of his Christmas tree. The doorbell was buzzing; he ignored it, staring into the lights, waiting for something to appear. And maybe, just barely, he could hear voices, laughing together in a symphony of soprano, baritone and treble.
Or maybe not.
He got up, and went to the door, letting Natalie in - somehow, he had never doubted it would be her.
"Nick?" she started as the elevator door opened, "I've been trying to get in touch it you for..."
Her voice was cut off abruptly by Nick's kiss. Her body stiffened in surprise, but being an intelligent woman, she adjusted rapidly.
"Merry Christmas, Natalie," he said when he finally released her.
She blinked up at him breathlessly, bearing more than a passing resemblence to Vachon. "I, ah...probably would have settled for a card."
"No more settling," he told her, wrapping her in another embrace. When this one ended, he still held her close. "Thank you for coming, Nat. I...needed you here."
"You've never said that before." Natalie's voice was partialy muffled against his shirt.
"That aas my mistake," Nick said sadly. "I've made it too many times, and it's cost me too much. My family, my partner, Janette...I won't let it cost me you."
She smiled up at him, widely, joyously. "Now *that* is the best Christmas present I've ever gotten," she said.
He laughed and hugged her one more time before letting her go. "Do you think any stores are open?" he asked.
Nat blinked again. "I doubt it, it's five o'clock in the morning. Isn't that a bit last minute for Christmas shopping?"
"I need to get something for Myra and Jenny. We're going over to their house for Christmas morning. Do you think they'll be up?"
"Jenny's twelve, she'll be up at dawn. Nick, what brought all of this on? Not that I'm objecting, but..."
Nick finished unplugging the Christamas tree and picked it up, walking towards the door. "Let's just say...I was shown the error of my ways. Come on, we need to make one stop before we go to Myra and Jenny's." Before she could ask any more questions, he took her by the elbow and pulled her out of the loft. She laughed as she followed him, echoed by his own chuckles of pure joy, ringing like bells through the air of Christmas morning.
LaCroix finished his broadcast and stepped out the station, closing the door before almost tripping over something sitting on the steps.
In the grey of pre-dawn, the lights on the little tree still glowed cheerily, flashing off of the piece of paper tied to the top. It read, simply, 'To replace the one I destroyed. Merry Christmas. Nicholas.'
LaCroix looked at the note, then looked down at the tree and snorted in disgust.
"Christmas. Bah, humbug."
This was written in yet another mad rush, over the course of about five days, since I was trying to get it done before Christmas Day -- I owe the fact that I succeeded to sheer bloody-minded determination and a coworker who didn't rat on me. It was also a response to the news that Forever Knight had once again been cancelled, halfway through the third season -- call it my way of living up to "We'll stop campaigning when you pry our cold, dead hand off our keyboards!" Thank you, Jamie Randall. < g >
Inspired by 'Coin of the Realm,' by Susan Garrett and, or course, 'A Christmas Carol,' by Charles Dickens. Does it make me less cool if I got more inspiration from the Muppet verion than the George C. Scott version?